This story features the young cowboy "Tiger Eye," the chief protagonist of the eponymous novel (Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1929), which is also available at RGL. See:
THE KID yawned and eased himself into a more comfortable position on the rock, where he had perched scanning the valley through his field glasses since an hour after sunrise. He had seen the first up-flung ribbon of gray smoke rise over the low ridge that hid Nellie Murray's house and he had caught himself wondering just what would happen if he rode down there. If he should get off his horse in the door-yard and walk right up and knock on the screen door—No, he'd be dawgoned if he would! He wouldn't give any girl the satisfaction of shutting her door in his face, and that's what she'd do, he reckoned. The kid hoped he wasn't that big a fool.
But for all that, he saw when the smoke died down and he knew that breakfast was over and the dishes washed. What he did not know was that his eyes had a lonesome look when he took down the glasses. His mouth was too stern for a boy of twenty or so, and there was a bitterness which aged his face ten years. But the kid was not concerned about his looks or his age. He wanted to know what the nesters were up to; and if there was anything doing that day in the way of fighting he meant to have a hand in it. And it didn't matter so much which side he fought on, either. Nesters or Poole, the kid hated them all.
Air shore was clear this morning. The valley was like a picture painted in vivid greens and browns. Even without the glasses the kid could have counted the posts in a pasture fence a mile away. Men began to drive out into the fields. Most places they were putting up hay, and the kid could almost hear the strident song of a mower which he watched as it went round and round a long strip of meadow beside a creek. Then his gaze followed somewhat wistfully a boy raking hay over in another fenced meadow. For long minutes he watched the curved steel teeth gather the hay into a big loose roll, and waited expectantly for the boy to yank the lever and dump the load on to the stubble. Lazy cuss. His pappy shore would cuff his ears for him if he came along and caught him wasting good hay thataway. Yo'-all could feed a critter all winter on what hay that shiftless little cuss was wasting with the rake.
Shore looked peaceful down there, with everybody working and minding their own business. Didn't look much like a place where men rode with loaded rifles laid across their laps ready to shoot the first stranger they met in the trail. They didn't look it, but yo'-all shore couldn't go by the looks. The kid wore a bullet hole through the crown of his hat right now as a reminder of his first meeting with a harmless looking nester who had lived down there in the valley. And if anybody thought those farmers down there wouldn't take a day off to kill cowboys, they oughta go take a look at the bullet holes in Cold Spring cabin, where the kid had fought nesters all through one day, with Babe Garner wounded and blabbing secrets he'd have cut his tongue out before he'd speak in his sober senses.
Nothing doing in the range war business today, though. The kid swept his glasses slowly from ranch to ranch and shoved them disgustedly into their case. No use lying here all day like a lizard on a rock. He'd be goggling at the Murray ranch like a darned fool if he stayed; so he got up and walked over to where his horse Pecos stood dozing in the sun, mounted and wheeled the horse in his tracks. But he couldn't keep his eyes from sending one last look at that line of cottonwoods growing along the far side of the ridge a mile away. He hated himself for looking, but still the kid's gaze clung there until he jerked his hat down savagely over his eyes and touched Pecos with the spurs. Nothing down there to look at. Nobody he'd give two whoops in hell for. Long as the nesters stuck to their haying and didn't go gunning after him or after Poole riders, he didn't care a dawgoned what they did.
Might be something doing over at the Poole. Might as well ride over to the ranch and see what he could find out. See if Babe Garner was well enough to fight it out with the kid for the lowdown lies he told to Nellie Murray—making the kid out a dirty killer that had shot her old pappy in the back, when it was Babe that done it. If Babe wasn't dead he'd have to pay for that, and pay a plenty. The kid wasn't the son of old Killer Reeves down on the Brazos for nothing. Pap had taught him that a man must always pay for what he does. Babe would find that out, 'lessen that nester bullet had killed him. Most a month ago, that fight at the cabin took place. Shore time the kid found out where Babe was and what kinda shape he was in. Shore time Babe paid his debt.
The kid did not hurry, for it was still early and he wanted to show up about noon when the riders would be sifting in off the range. Four or five hours to kill. Might as well prowl around and see what was going on. So when he struck the road to Badger he turned into it and rode down off Big Bench toward town, until he came to a rocky draw leading toward Wolf Buttes. He went up this draw for a mile or more, chiefly because his tracks would not show on the flat rocks and he wanted no curious or vengeful rider on his trail.
What he would find up the draw, how he would make his way to the Poole ranch from the wild cañons of Wolf Buttes without retracing his steps, the kid did not know. He had a feeling that he might run across something up in this rough country and, since he had never ridden this way before, the way appealed to him. The kid did not like beaten paths.
For that reason he turned from the broadening gulch into another thickly grown with willows. It made rough going, but Pecos was an old hand at bucking brush and the kid was following a hunch. It was pretty hot in that willow thicket. Buffalo gnats swarmed in before his face and he had to fight them away from his eyes, but he kept on and came out finally against a wire fence built straight across through the thicket. The kid stared at the stout posts and the four wires strung so tight they twanged when he struck them with his quirt. No fooling with that fence. Cattle and storm proof, like the fences along the railroads that stretched through the range country.
THE KID reined Pecos to the right, and they followed the fence for fifteen minutes of steady plodding along the narrow lane cut by the fence builders. That showed the gulch had widened out into a coulee. He came up against a sandstone ledge where the last post stood in a hole drilled into solid rock, set there with cement. No nester fence, the kid decided shrewdly. Nesters would cut brush and pile around the end and let it go at that. Might be the Poole, only this was miles away from the Poole ranch, and they wouldn't go to all this expense just fencing off a willow choked coulee when the range lay plumb open in all directions except the valley where the nesters had come in and settled. It looked plumb strange to the kid; kinda like his hunch was working.
Once more the kid turned his horse and rode back the way he had come, along the fence. He crossed a creek bed covered with hot, bleached stones where stagnant pools lay in the hollows. There the fence became a brush and wire barrier higher than the kid's head. A half mile or so farther on, he came to the other end of the fence and found it anchored to rock as the first had been.
There was nothing more to see. The kid reckoned the fence had a right to be there, but it shore did look plumb useless in that willow bottom, with hills all around and no road running in or out. Shore wasn't built for fun, but it did look like a waste of good wire and posts. He went back and found the place where he had first struck the fence, and once more Pecos fought his way cannily through the jungle and out into the open, rocky gulch. An hour or so later he scrambled to the crest of a long ridge and sat down with his knees hunched up to brace his elbows, while through his glasses he very carefully examined this strange, wild country into which he had wandered. With that mysterious fence nagging at his curiosity, he wanted to know who lived over here. But all he saw was solitude, through which little detached groups of cattle grazed in the cañon bottoms.
After some minutes of gazing, he noticed a herd of horses loafing beside a marshy pool a mile or so away. Suddenly they took alarm at something farther along up the cañon, and went stampeding off down toward the willow bottom. But they whirled and went racing off up a narrow ravine, the mares driving their colts before them. The kid moved his glasses a little and caught a glimpse of a horseman riding out of sight behind a chokecherry thicket.
This was the first sign of human life the kid had seen since he left the valley that morning. He lowered the glasses and watched with his own keen eyes until the rider came into view again, coming straight on down the cañon and passing the ravine where the horse herd had disappeared. The kid waited until he was sure of the man's direction, then picked up Pecos' reins and led the horse back down the long ridge he had so lately climbed. As he went, he was careful to keep well to the north slope out of sight of the rider below. Friend or foe, the kid was taking no chances.
THE KID rode slowly up the cañon, playing his mouth harp as he went and letting his long legs sway to the rhythm of the tune. To look at him you would swear that he hadn't a thing on his mind but the trills and warbles he was putting into the chorus of "The Mocking Bird," but his gun hung loose in its holster and his eyes kept glancing from under his wide hatbrim toward a narrow pass in the rock walls that raised a barrier ahead of him.
He was in the full swing of the third repetition of the chorus when Pecos tilted his ears forward and put an eager, expectant springiness into his gait. The kid's free hand dropped to the reins and held the horse back, but the mocking bird never missed a note of his warble.
Some one was riding down through the pass with a rattle of stones and a creak of saddle leather as he came. The kid's eyes lightened with a peculiar gleam, but he kept on playing until a black horse and rider came into view. The kid gave one startled look and the music stopped with a squeak.
It was Nellie Murray, dressed in overalls and blue gingham shirt, with her thick braid of yellow hair sweeping the cantle of her saddle as she rode. She carried her dad's rifle in the crook of her arm as if she meant to meet trouble considerably more than halfway. As the two horses stopped of their own accord she lifted the rifle midway to her shoulder, then let it down again while her cheeks reddened under their tan.
The kid looked at her with a curious, steady stare in his yellow right eye, and his face had the expressionless look of a trained gambler. Cold and hostile and ready for war he seemed on the surface, but his heart was thumping so hard he thought she must hear it. Hot crimples went chasing up his spine, and the back of his neck had a queer, tightened feeling as he stared at her. His sight blurred. He would have wheeled Pecos and gone galloping back down the cañon, only he couldn't give her the right to think he was scared of her.
What was she doing, away off over here by herself? If she guessed he'd be over here and so came gunning for him, she shore must be a mind reader. She carried his quirt dangling from its loop on her saddle horn—the quirt he had braided in the bunkhouse last winter, down home on the Brazos. Last time he had seen her she had quirted him over the head with it, but she never made a motion toward it now. Aimed to make use of the rifle, he reckoned.
"Well! I've found one of you, anyway!" she exclaimed in a tone that was worse than another cut of the quirt. "I guess you didn't think I'd trail you so close. Where are the cattle?"
"What cattle?" The kid was conscious of a faint pride that his voice sounded calm, when his heart was pounding like a trip- hammer in his chest.
"Our cattle that you Poole men stole out of our pasture last night. Every hoof we own! I'm going to get them back, if I have to fight every Texas killer in the country."
"Shoah wish yo'-all luck, Miss Murray."
The kid drew his mouth harp across his lips to stop their quivering. Couldn't let her see how it made him feel to meet her like this and hear her talk once more. He wished she'd take a different tone, though, and not look at him like that.
"Texas killahs is mean_ hombres _to fight," he told her in his soft drawling voice. "This kind up heah wouldn't give yo'-all much chance to fight. They most generally don't meet folks if they can help it."
"Well, I've met you," she pointed out grimly.
"I'm a Texas man, all right, but I'm no killah. Told yo'-all that befo'."
"Well, that remains to be seen. You're a Poole man, anyway. You must know where our cattle are."
"Shoah wish I did. The Poole's fighting nestahs, I know that. But they don't steal cattle, Miss Murray."
"Oh, don't they? Walter Bell ought to raise your wages for saying that!"
"He cain't. I'm not working for the Poole."
"No? How long since?"
"Since that night we got Babe outa Cold Spring cabin." The kid could not keep a tenseness out of his voice, but his eyes did not waver before her disbelieving stare.
"I suppose the Poole fired you for poor shooting."
Her short, scornful laugh made the kid's ears turn red as if she had slapped them, but he made no answer to the taunt. What was the use? She knew well enough why he had been so careful not to kill any one that day when they were trapped at Cold Spring. The kid remembered how they talked about that all through that long afternoon when they sat in the shade behind the cabin, with Babe Garner lying in a stupor on the bunk inside and the nesters firing at the place from a rocky little ridge over across the small basin.
She remembered it too, he bet. Shore, she did. Just talking now to keep her mad up. Talking thataway because she wouldn't own up she was sorry she quirted him and called him a killer when Babe went crazy and began shooting off his face about him killing her old pappy, and about Tiger Eye killing her brother Ed. She knew it was a lie. Shore, she did! She was mad because he wouldn't let her apologize that night, but hit her horse a lick and started him off home at a high lope. Wanted to make him say something about it now, but she shore could take it out in wanting. Any saying on that subject would have to come from her. There was plenty she needed to say, if she ever wanted to square herself.
SO the kid wrapped the bridle reins around the saddle horn and began to roll a cigaret, taking plenty of time and being mighty particular to have the tobacco lie smooth in its little white trough. A man could do a heap of thinking over a cigaret without giving himself away. He could wait till the right words came before he spoke. He could make the other fellow tip his hand—'lessen the other fellow was a smoker too and reached for his makings. Then it was liable to be a tie. But Nellie Murray didn't smoke, and the kid felt that he had all the best of it.
"You must know the Poole ran off all our cattle!"
The kid painstakingly moistened the loose edge of his cigarette with the tip of his tongue.
"No, cain't say I do."
"Well, they did."
"Yo'-all right shoah it was the Poole?"
"I wouldn't say it if I wasn't sure," she retorted sharply. "None of our neighbors would do it, and besides, I trailed them up on the bench and over this way. The Poole wants to run us out of the country. You know why, don't you?"
"Cain't say I do, 'lessen it's because yo'ah a nestah."
"Oh, of course, all the nesters are being made the goats for Walt Bell. He's got to lay the blame somewhere for his stealings. But he's scared to death of us Murrays and he means to drive us out. He's not satisfied with putting Ed and father out of the way. He's afraid of mother and me, too."
The kid was holding a match flame to his cigaret, and his lips puckered suddenly, wanting to smile.
"Cain't blame 'em foah that," he said dryly.
Nellie Murray flushed and looked guiltily down at the rifle sagging in her grasp.
"Walter Bell is afraid mother and I know what it was that Ed found out about him and his crooked work; that's why he's scared. Ed caught some of the Poole cowboys stealing Poole cattle. Joe Hale and some others that stand in with the boss. Ed found them running a wildcat brand on Poole calves, over this way somewhere. He found out all he could about it, and then he wrote to the Eastern owners in New York and told them how Walter Bell and his bunch were stealing the Poole blind. He told them the brands they were using and all he could about it." She chewed her lip thoughtfully for a moment. "That was away last March, and they haven't done a thing about it yet."
"Don't you reckon they might think it was all spite work?"'
"I don't see how they could. Mother showed me a copy of Ed's letter that he kept. He drew the brands and how they were run over the Poole brands—he told enough to start things."
"Shoah had nerve, that boy!"
The cigaret which the kid had taken such pains to light was going out, while his mind went shuttling back and forth, weaving Nellie's story into certain puzzling fragments of information he himself had gleamed.
"Shoah did have nerve," he repeated under his breath.
"Of course he had nerve! Too much. He wanted to get the goods on that bunch without dragging the neighbors into it. He never told them what he was doing, but he told father."
"Plumb strange yo'-all nevah mentioned it when we talked these things ovah at the cabin. 'Peahs like I wasn't trusted at no time."
The kid pulled Pecos away from a friendly nose rubbing with Nellie's horse.
"I didn't know it then. Mother knew, but they were afraid to talk about it much. She only told me early this morning when we found out our cattle were gone. I rode down to the pasture to bring up the cows and there wasn't a hoof in sight. I saw where they'd been driven off, and then when I went to tell mother she told me the whole story."
The kid's eyes had the wary look of a half broken horse that is ready to bolt at the first alarm. She needn't think he was going to forget what she had done to him—not 'lessen she came right out and said she was sorry and asked his forgiveness. Even then he was not right certain he would forgive her for that quirting. Didn't know as he could ever forgive a thing like that.
But this cattle stealing—no man that was even half a man would ride off and let two women lose every hoof of stock they owned. 'Peared like he was plumb obliged to turn in and help her find those cattle. He'd do that much for her mother. Right nice little woman, all alone in the world now except for Nellie—and it shore wasn't the mother's fault if she had a daughter with a mean temper. He'd get those cattle for Nellie's mother, and he'd make Nellie so dawgoned ashamed of herself she never would be able to face him again without blushing.
The kid let Pecos edge closer to Nellie's horse again and pretended to be studying the problem and not to notice what his horse was up to. Had a funny thumping in the side of his neck, kinda like he was scared. Nothing to do with Nellie Murray though, 'lessen it was just because it made him so mad to see her go on like she hadn't done a darn' thing to be ashamed of. Reckon she thought he'd say something about it, but she shore had another thing coming. He wouldn't even be speaking to her if it wasn't for her mother and the fix she was in about the stock.
"SHOAH would like to know what your mothah said," he observed, in what would have been a cold and formal tone except that the kid's soft Texas voice made a pleasing melody whenever he spoke.
"Mother told me Ed was always trying to figure out why the Poole had it in for the nesters, after letting them settle in the valley without making a fuss. Ed did a lot of riding outside the valley. The Poole claimed he was rustling calves, but that's a lie. I know how we got every hoof we owned. We only had forty-two head. Now we haven't got any."
"If your brothah got proof—"
"He got enough to put the fear of the Lord into Walter Bell," she declared bitterly. "We don't know whether they saw Ed watching them, or whether the Eastern owners wrote back and told Walt what Ed said about him and his outfit. The Poole certainly must have found out somehow, and it wasn't from any of the valley folks, for they don't know it. The Poole started in—dry gulching, if you know what that means, and I suppose you do, all right." She sent him a quick glance and looked away again when the kid failed to meet her eyes. "Before, it was just mean range tricks—hogging the range and accusing the nesters of rustling calves and killing beef and all that. But all at once they started killing. Ed was one of the first—"
"If yo'd give me the brands so I'd know yoah mothah's cattle when I find 'em—"
"I'm not asking you to find them. I'm going to get them myself." She said it haughtily, stung to resentment by the coldness of his eyes.
"'Peahs like you bettah go on home. You got a right nice mothah. Reckon she needs yo'-all mighty bad. If I knew the brands I'd find her cattle foah her."
"Well, it's Reverse E, if you must know. But I couldn't think of troubling you, Mr. Reeves. I intend to get those cattle myself."
"Well, how would you?"
"Ride till I found 'em. Might take a week in heah."
"Don't you suppose I know all that? I came prepared." She slapped a bulky package behind her cantle. "Mother knows I may be out a couple of days. She knows I won't come back without the cattle."
"It's a man's job," the kid said gruffly.
"Well, I'm the man of the family now, so it's my job. So long, Mr. Reeves!"
She gathered up the reins and tapped her horse lightly with the quirt, just as if it never had been put to a more sinister use, and rode on past the kid with her chin tilted upward and her gaze bent ostentatiously upon a straggling small herd of cattle feeding over on the farther slope.
"Adios, Miss Murray."
The kid kicked Pecos into a trot and rode on into the rocky pass, playing his mouth harp so loudly he cracked a reed so that the note buzzed like a bee in a bottle.
Dawgone that girl! Meanest temper he ever saw in a human. Still headed as a mule! Shore didn't get much satisfaction outa him, going off like that with her nose in the air. Thought he'd foller and say perty-please. He'd show her how much he cared for her darned old cattle. Thought she was smart, showing off with that pack on her saddle, trying to make out she was game to stay out till she found her stock. Let her. She'd go lose herself so bad she wouldn't know which way was straight up.
Serve her dawgone right if she did. Just because she had the nerve to wear her brother's pants she thought she could take the place of a man on the range. Toting a rifle like a shore-enough go-getter. She'd go get herself bushwhacked over here if any of the Poole bunch happened to spot her and didn't get close enough to see she was a girl. If she'd left that yellow braid hanging down her back— A physical pain gripped the kid's chest when he thought how that yellow braid had looked, brushing the cantle of her saddle when she moved her head.
Pecos went with his ears laid flat against his head in his anger at the way the kid yanked him around in the trail.
SHE had ridden nearly a quarter of a mile down the cañon and she did not look back when the kid came pounding up behind and set Pecos on his haunches alongside her. Her rifle was balanced across the saddle in front of her. She had hung her hat on the saddle horn and was rebraiding her hair as a preliminary to coiling it on top of her head, and she had fished a lot of hairpins from a pocket and was holding them endwise in her mouth, the crimped legs bristling out from between her soft, red lips. She gave the kid a sidelong glance and her fingers never faltered in their weaving the thick strands of long hair in and out. The finished part of the braid was looped over her shoulder and it shone like gold in the sun.
The kid had a sudden and almost uncontrollable desire to lean over and pull those pins from her mouth with his teeth. The plumb craziness of the idea almost made him spur Pecos on down the trail as tight as he could go—only that would be almost as crazy a thing to do as the other. He ground his teeth together until the muscles stood out upon his jaw. His eyes glowered straight ahead. And without any intention of saying a word, he found himself saying a good many.
"I nevah did see a mule as still headed as yo'-all! Go on home wheah you belong and I'll go aftah yoah mothah's cattle myse'f. And you bettah unbraid that haiah and let it fly loose so any Poole killah that sees yo'-all will know what he's aimin' to shoot. Bullets go wheah they're sent, and they don't stop to ask if yo'ah a man or a woman befo' they hit. You go on home."
From the corner of his eye he watched to see the effect of that speech. Nellie continued to braid her hair and she kept those fool hairpins in her mouth. Just an excuse so she couldn't talk, the kid thought savagely. She knew better than to try and put up an argument against him. And he had the satisfaction of calling her a mule, anyway.
He rode on ahead of her. Nellie had to hold her horse down to a walk or quit fussing with her hair, and she went right on doing it up on top of her head so she could get her hat over it. Didn't act like she was going home. Didn't try to catch up with him, either. The kid got to worrying about what she meant to do, and finally he pulled in behind a ledge and waited for her to come along so he could give her another piece of his mind. Yet when she rode up she didn't give him a chance.
"If you're bound to hunt our cattle, I guess we better work together," she said cheerfully. "This is awful rough country."
"Go on home like I told yo'-all."
"Oh, forget it!" she snapped. "I'm not going, and that settles it. If you want to get rid of me so bad, hurry up and find our cattle."
"If it wasn't foah yoah mothah, I wouldn't tu'n my hand ovah foah yo'-all!" the kid blurted fiercely.
"Well, nobody asked you to!" Nellie retorted. "You can suit yourself, you know."
"Shoah aim to, Miss Murray," the kid grimly assured her, and loped off down the cañon without once looking back.
He kept telling himself she ought to go back home, and that he couldn't do a thing with her along. But he listened for the hoofbeats of the black horse, and when he failed to hear them he slowed to a trot.
What he meant to do was go back and investigate that fence, and he wanted to do it alone. Plumb foolish of her to buck all that brush when he didn't even know that there was anything to find out. No law against some rancher building a pasture fence across a willow flat. Reckon it didn't mean a thing, but he'd go take a look to make sure. Shore didn't want Nellie Murray along, either—snagging her hair on the brush and giving him back- talk all the time. Nothing she could do but get in the way.
But his ears were strained, listening for the _cluppety- cluppety _sound of a galloping horse, and when he didn't hear it he became suddenly aware of an uncomfortable aching heaviness in his chest. Hungry, he reckoned. By the sun it was close to noon and he had swallowed a hurried breakfast at dawn. Shore felt empty now—nothing whatever to do with Nellie Murray. He looked back up the cañon and rode into the willows.
Pecos went at the task savagely, wanting to get it over. At the fence the kid turned and rode toward the dry creek bed where the ground was rough and humpy, gouged with spring freshets and undermined by burrowing small animals. When he found a spot where the fence went up over a small ridge he dismounted and kicked the wires loose from three posts, forced them to the ground and anchored them there with a couple of rocks and led his horse across.
From there on he followed the simplest plan that occurred to him. He kept going straight ahead until the willow growth ceased on higher ground and he could see what sort of place it was that had need of a fence like that. And as he emerged from the willows he saw that he was in a deep, wide coulee such as every ranch in the country seemed to seek because of the shelter and water and the richer soil to be found within the high encircling walls.
Some one was running cattle in here, all right. The edge of the thicket was broken and trampled where stock had pushed in for shelter, and there was cattle sign everywhere. Nothing outa the way in that, he reckoned. Some old mossback farmer stuck away in the hills trying to make a living. Doing all right at it, too, if that fence was any sign. Good grass, when you got beyond the willows. Boggy ground with black soil and a little pond of water in the middle. That's why there were so many willows down below. Nice place, all right, if it wasn't so far from everything. Good place for a hide-out, too, if you had stolen cattle on your hands. Couldn't ask for a better place to work over the brands and let them grow hair.
The kid's nerves began to tingle a little. Pecos was walking with his head up and his ears tilted forward as if he saw or heard something. Cattle bawling. When the kid turned his head and listened he could hear it too. Cows, it sounded like. And as he got nearer he could distinguish the spasmodic, jerky bellow of a calf when the hot iron seared its side.
Shore would be plumb strange if he rode straight to where the rustlers had Nellie's cattle. Might not be the Poole at all. Might be somebody else hanging out in there, stealing from nesters and Poole both, letting them blame each other for it. Let 'em kill each other off while the real thief got rich off his stealings. It could be done easy enough, with a place like this.
Shore would be funny if he was to run right on to her bunch of cattle. She'd think he had a hand in it, maybe. She might say that was why he tried to send her home. Shore looked like it, the way he rode off and left her and then ducked into the willows. Be better if he'd let her come along, he reckoned. And somehow his spirits rose a little at the perfectly logical reason he had just discovered for wanting her with him.
The kid lifted his hat and swept the reddish waves of hair back off his forehead, settled his bullet scarred hat at a careless tilt, pulled his holstered gun into position on his thigh and rode forward with an eager gleam in his eyes. Thoughts of Nellie Murray crept into the back of his mind as the hunting spirit pushed forward and claimed him. Once more the range tiger was on the prowl.
FROM the pole corral set back in a thin grove of cottonwood and box alder, a gray dust cloud rose into the hot sunshine of noon. Within the corral fence a small herd of cattle tramped uneasily round and round, swerving and ducking aside when a cowboy's loop swished out like the vicious flat head of a striking rattler.
A man on guard outside unhooked the chain and swung open the gate to let out a rider dragging a husky bull calf with a white curly haired face and a fat pmk tongue waving out from his slavering mouth. The calf bawled and fought the rope, his sturdy front legs braced and half sliding through the trampled sand.
But he came out, nevertheless, and the gate slammed shut behind him. Fighting every inch, he made reluctant progress over toward the branding fire where two calf wrestlers grabbed and threw him on his side with a thump.
A man lifted a branding iron deliberately out of the blaze, looked at it, waved it to and fro in the air, looked at it again and decided that it was about the right heat. Then he walked over to the calf lying there with two sweating cowboys braced and holding him motionless, one-half sprawled across his head, the other hanging for dear life to a leg. The man with the branding iron set a foot on the calf's ribs and began to draw a pattern with the heated iron on the heaving paunch. When the iron limned its range symbol a thin ribbon of greenish blue smoke rose and wavered into a little cloud. The outstretched legs of the calf kicked spasmodically.
The sweat streamed down the wrestler's brown cheeks and ran salty as tears into his grimacing mouth as he braced himself against the struggle. From under the shirt sleeved arm of the other cowboy burst a plaintive bawling. The man with the iron paused, tilted his head sidewise to survey his artistry, spat a brown stream into the sand and touched a line here and there with the cooling iron.
"Awrigh'," he signaled carelessly, and turned to thrust the iron again into the fire.
It was at that moment that the three of them and the gate tender discovered that they had a new arrival in their midst. The kid stood there carelessly, twisting the end of a fresh rolled cigaret and watching the branding incuriously, as if it were the most commonplace thing in the world.
"Well I'm damned!" jarred from the slackened mouth of the man with the branding iron—Joe Hale, range foreman for the Poole.
"Howdy, Joe," said the kid, and felt for a match.
He nodded to the calf wrestlers who were on their feet and mopping their perspiring faces with soiled bandannas. As the man at the gate came toward him the kid's yellow eye changed to the steady stare of a tiger.
Babe Garner. Babe with hollowed eyes and a sallow, indoor tinge to his swarthy face. Babe, walking a bit slowly, inclined to pick his way instead of coming along with the swinging masterful stride the kid knew so well. Babe with a question in his cold gray eyes and a smile on his face, coming over to shake hands. The lighted match in the kid's fingers flickered and threatened to go out, though there was scarcely a breeze blowing across the flat. The kid turned away his head; his two hands cupped before his face.
"Hell's brass buttons!" cried Babe, swearing his very choicest oath kept for special occasions. "Where the hell did you drop from, Tiger Eye?"
The calf roper, welcoming any diversion, let himself out of the corral and came trotting over, and the moment for handshaking passed. The kid was glad of that. He felt mighty still inside and mighty cool and calm, but he didn't believe he could have gone through with any handshaking. Not with Babe, anyhow.
"Rain washed me down the cañon, Babe."
"Old Man send you over?" Joe Hale tried to make his voice sound casual, but there was an undertone of constraint which he failed to control.
The kid took three slow pulls at his cigaret. Down on the Brazos men spoke unhurriedly and he had the ways of his people.
"Nevah did see Waltah Bell since that night I toted Babe into the ranch."
"Oh." Joe studied on that. "Thought likely you come from the Poole."
"On my way to the Poole, but I done changed my mind."
"Oh. Kinda outa the way, this calf pasture, and I just kinda wondered. Want to see me for anything? Wanta go to work again?"
"Much obliged to yo'-all. I taken a job of riding, Joe."
"Yeah? Sorry to see you quit the Poole."
Polite. Too dawgoned polite to be natural. 'Peared like Joe was getting kinda suspicious. Babe, too. Babe was edging around uneasy-like, as if he wanted to get in back of the bunch of them. Had that cold look in his eyes. The kid knew that look now for the killer look. Get around behind and send a bullet into a man's back—that was Babe's stripe. The kid shifted his position a little and looked at Babe.
"Shoah did think that bullet would keep yo'-all down all summer, Babe," he drawled. "Feelin' right sma't again, 'peahs like."
"Shore played hell with me for awhile, but I'm feelin' purty good now," Babe said, too cheerfully. "Shore owe a lot to you, Tiger Eye."
"Shucks, Babe! You don't owe me nothing to what I owe yo'- all."
"What outfit you ridin' for now, kid?" Joe looked up from kicking a half burnt ember back into the fire.
"Ridin' foah Missus Murray, down in the valley. Widow woman. Old man that was killed and put the nestahs on the fight the time they shot Babe, that was her husband. The one Babe got the bounty on."
Eyes turned sidewise to meet other guarded glances. Babe's shoulders jerked backward as if from a blow on the chest, but no one spoke.
THE atmosphere of the Poole men froze for a second. Only Babe, knowing the kid of old, went for his gun and dropped it as the kid's pitiless bullet went crashing through the knuckles of his hand. The hands of the two calf wrestlers went up as if they had been jerked with pulley and rope. The man on horseback clapped spurs to his horse and galloped like mad away from there. Joe Hale knew better than to try a shot. He remembered too vividly how Jess Markel had fared with the kid over at the Poole.
Babe remembered, too, and a horror grew in his face as he stared at his numbed and bleeding hand. He'd rather be dead than crippled—he always had said so—and now his knuckles would be stiff and useless to pull a trigger. But when he glanced up and saw the kid looking after the fleeing horseman he chanced a shot with his left gun. But the kid didn't seem to need his eyes to tell what was going on. He caught Babe's movement and fired almost without looking.
"Line up with yoah backs this way," said the kid softly to Joe and the two calf wrestlers.
They did so in haste—all but Babe who had crumpled down limply in the sand with his bleeding hands crossed above his head and his face hidden in his arms. The kid pulled their guns from the sagging holsters, emptied them of cartridges and tossed them into the bushes behind him. He went over them carefully for knives and collected four big jack-knives and a treacherous looking dagger which he took from Joe Hale's boot.
This much was simple, and though the kid never had held up a bunch of men before in his life and taken their guns away from them, he had heard plenty of gun fighters' talk during the fifteen years of eager listening and he knew how it was best accomplished. The rest was something more complicated, but he followed the simplest plan he could think of at the moment.
The meekest looking calf wrestler worked with trembling haste under the cold stare of Tiger Eye Reeves. When he had tied Joe Hale and the other wrestler securely to posts ten feet apart and had helped Babe Garner into a shady spot where he would be perfectly safe with his feet tied together, the kid was going calmly about the business of tying his assistant to a third post when Nellie arrived.
Her face was streaked with dust and what looked suspiciously like tears, and her hair had been clawed by the willows until it lay on her shoulders like a streak of sunshine. She sat on her black horse and watched the kid, and under her direct gaze he felt his ears and his face burn like fire. The kid did not look up, but he knew the exact instant when she turned her head to look at the newly branded calf which now wore a blackened and smarting window sash brand where yesterday had been a tan colored Reverse E. She reined her horse over to the corral and stood in the stirrups to look over the fence and inspect the milling herd.
"Well, they're all here, I guess," she remarked to the kid who, ten feet away, was kneeling beside the calf wrestler and was yanking the last knot tight. "You made quite a haul, didn't you, Bob?"
"Might be bettah," the kid owned with a covert glance from under his hatbrim. "One got plumb away."
"Well, I told you we ought to work together. But you kept on trying to pick a fight with me, you know. Looks like you got all you wanted of fighting up here." She glanced around at the sullen captives. "I hope you're ready to admit now that the Poole outfit are a bunch of cow thieves."
"Shoah am," said the kid, his lips ready to smile the instant he forgot himself and let them go.
"What you going to do now?"
"Reckon I'll go aftah my hoss."
She followed him, riding in silence while the kid went mincing along on his high heels, his spurs gouging up the loose soil at every step.
"I heard you shooting up here, and I ran my horse, and the willows just about scalped me," she said when they were halfway to where Pecos stood under a cottonwood with his reins dragging and his head up, watching them anxiously.
"I was afraid you might be in trouble or something," she said shyly, looking down at the kid's left cheek and biting her lips. "I hurried as fast as I could—in case you needed any help."
"Shoah am obliged to yo'-all."
"There's something I've been wanting to say," she went on hurriedly, "only you just won't give me a chance."
"'Peahs like I never do act the way I feel," said the kid. "Always did want to show yo'-all I was a friend."
"I know that."
"I just want to say that I made an awful fool of myself that night when Babe began to shoot off his mouth about the both of you being Poole killers," she confessed with a kind of shy defiance. "But it seems to me I had some excuse, with father killed just the day before. And I hadn't any sleep, remember, trying to get to Cold Spring and warn you the neighbors were sending men over to kill you and Babe. And getting trapped that way—and then Babe said you shot my own brother for five hundred dollars, why—I just simply blew up for a minute."
"Shucks! I nevah did think a word moah about it," the kid declared earnestly, looking her straight in the eyes. "Nevah paid it no mind at all. Don't just recollect what yo'-all said, anyway. I was feeling right mean myse'f about what Babe was talking—saying right out that he killed yoah pappy. Shoah did make me mighty mad to heah that, Nellie."
"Well, I guess I hit you a time or two—I was so excited!"
"Shoah have to hit harder than that to make a man feel it!" The kid's grin made him look about sixteen."
"Well, I just want you to know I'm sorry."
"Yo'-all needn't to be."
"I am, just the same. You ought to know I never did class you with the Poole. It's just this ornery temper of mine."
"Shucks! If you call that a tempah, yo'-all oughta see mine!" The kid gathered up the reins, mounted and swung alongside her.
"You? Why, Bob Reeves! You know very well I'm the meanest thing on earth. After all you've done, to—to do what I did and—and talk the way I've talked to you, it makes me so ashamed—"
"Aw, hush! When yo'-all talk thataway, it makes me feel like batting my haid against a rock! Yo'-all don't know how I felt this last month, thinking I had nothing but hate from yo'- all—"
"Hate!" cried Nellie Murray, as one who stands aghast before so harsh a word. "Why, if you only knew—"
And then she stopped and began to blush furiously, so that the crimson flood rushed up to the band of yellow hair on her temples.
The kid turned and looked at her. Looked until the blush faded and left her pale and trembling, staring hard at her horse's tangled mane.
"If I knew it was love, I—I shoah would be mighty happy and proud," he said under his breath.
Pecos jumped as if a bee had stung him when the kid reached out and gathered Nellie Murray into his arms.Murray into his arms.
THE KID sat on the ground with his back against a tree and drew his mouth harp across his smiling lips while he tapped the time with his foot. He played the song:
Come, love, come, the boat lies low,
The moon shines bright on the old bayou.
Come, love, come, oh, come along with me—
I'll take you down-n-n to Tennessee!
His prisoners sat and listened and wondered what kind of man was Tiger Eye Reeves, who could shoot a man in cold blood, capture three others who had thought they were well able to take care of themselves, and then sit all the afternoon playing that darned mouth harp like he hadn't a care in the world.
The kid didn't know or care what they thought about him. The kid was living in a world of his own, where a girl with yellow hair loved him enough to marry him and settle down. Gone into Badger now after help and the sheriff, to come and take this bunch with the evidence of the cattle right there behind them in the corral. Gone to bring a doctor out to fix up Babe's hands. But she'd be back, all right. And when she got there the kid would take her over to the ranch and they'd tell her mother there was going to be a man in the family that shore would be right on the job.
He played "Listen To The Mocking Bird," with more warbles and thrills and low happy notes than he ever dreamed of putting into the song. The rather bare and desolate ranch where Nellie lived he made a paradise in his dreams. Honeysuckle oughta grow up here, all right. He'd send down to his mother and have her get him a pair of mocking birds. Take her and her mother back down to Texas, only pap's old enemies would want to go on with the feud and he'd have to kill somebody. Reckon the killing was about over, up here. Shore was a nice country, if folks would just settle down and quit their shooting and stealing.
The afternoon waned. The shadow of the hills lay upon the coulee and a chill breeze crept out of the west. The Poole men squirmed in their bonds, swearing at the cramp in their legs and arms, but the kid never heard them; he was busy making plans for the future.
Darkness pushed away the hills and drew close about him. The kid sat so still he might have been asleep, but his shining eyes stared up at the stars and he was trying to realize that Nellie Murray was going to marry him. Plumb miracle, but he reckoned it was going to happen, all right. She shore wouldn't make a promise like that 'lessen she meant to keep it.
The night was so cold that even the kid was beginning to think of bestirring himself to make a fire, when Nellie came riding up with the doctor and the sheriff and half a dozen men who came along to take charge of the cattle and help with the prisoners. They badgered the kid with questions and talk until he came mighty close to being sorry he hadn't left before they got there. He would have, only for Nellie.
The questions ended at last and the kid felt as if he had built himself a dream more real than anything he had ever known and was bringing it to life there under the stars. And yet it was a simple dream that had in it nothing strange or heroic. Simply a long ride across the dark and whispery grassland with Nellie's hand held fast in his own as her black horse trudged wearily along beside Pecos. Stars shining overhead, the Big Dipper tilting more and more as it swung around the North Star. Nellie's voice coming to him out of the dark, her slim figure vague against the purple sky.
Shore never dreamed that morning he'd be hitting straight for the valley again tonight, not out gunning for nesters, but going to be one of them. Plumb strange, the way things happened. Yo'- all never would dass* to dream thataway—because yo'-all shore would rather die than wake up and find the dream was gone.
"Tiger Eye Reeves, are you dead certain sure you won't be breaking out of the corral and hitting for the hills again?" Nellie's voice rose out of a long silence.
"Yo'-all can taken that corral down a rail at a time, and I'll be camped plumb in the middle of wheah it was at," said the kid gravely.