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Title: The ranch of the tombstones

Author: W. C. Tuttle

Release date: May 5, 2024 [eBook #73545]

Language: English

Original publication: New York: The Ridgway Company, 1922

Credits: Roger Frank and Sue Clark

decorative title text

The Ranch of the Tombstones

A Complete Novelette by W. C. Tuttle
Author of “The Range Boomer,” “Flames of the Storm,” etc.

Two men swung their horses through the tumble-down gateway of the Half-Moon Ranch and rode slowly toward the old, rambling ranch-house.

The man in the lead was a tall, thin, unshaven cowboy, with a long, sad countenance and a pair of bright, grin-wrinkled eyes. He rode standing straight in his saddle, with the brim of his sombrero pulled down over his eyes.

The other man was shorter, heavier, with a heavy-lined face and half-shut eyes. A few strands of roan-colored hair straggled from under the brim of his hat, which rested on the back of his head.

They drew rein and looked the place over. The tall one nodded toward the side of the house, and they both rode around to the rear, from whence came the sound of a voice raised in anger.

“Cook!” exclaimed the voice scornfully. “You? Huh! Do yuh think the Half-Moon outfit wear steel bills and digests their food through a gizzard? Why, dang yore hide, yuh can’t even burn stuff decently. Set yoreself up to cook fer an outfit, do yuh? Where’d you learn to cook? Cook, ——! Yo’re fired! No, I don’t want to hear yuh explain how yuh got drunk on one li’l drink and forgot which way home was. No sir! Pack yore war-bag and drift. I’ve got enough troubles without annexin’ a lot of bad stummicks around here. Yo’re fired; sabe? If you can’t understand English, I’ll write it out in Swedish and mail it to yuh.”

The tall cowboy’s face wrinkled into a grin, and he started to say something to his companion, but just at that moment a woman opened the kitchen-door and looked out at them.

She was a tiny wisp of a woman, dressed in faded calico. About fifty years of age, with a mild, sweet face and soft, blue eyes. She stared at the two cowboys for a moment, and a flush crept into her tanned face.

“Ma’am,” said the tall cowboy taking off his hat, “I plumb betcha that cook knows where to head in at about now.”

“Did—did you hear—me?” she faltered.

“Yes’m. I’m ‘Hashknife’ Hartley and my pardner’s name is ‘Sleepy’ Stevens. Nod to the lady, Sleepy.”

“I am Mrs. Snow,” said the lady. “‘Frosty’ Snow is my husband. He owns this Half-Moon Ranch.”

“T’ meetcha,” bowed Hashknife, and then seriously, “Ma’am, if that cook ain’t took the hint yet, I’d admire to repeat yore words to him.”

“The—there ain’t no cook here now,” confessed Mrs. Snow.

“Ain’t? Why——”

“He won’t quit, don’tcha see? His name’s ‘Swede Sam,’ and if —— ever made a more ignorant person than Swede Sam he sure kept him under cover for loco-seed.”

“Didja ever try firin’ him?” asked Hashknife.

“Sure. But he won’t quit. Every day I practise on a new style of firin’ him. And what you just heard was what I’m framing up to tell him when he shows up again. We’ve done everythin’ except kill him outright, but he just grins and says:

“‘Das goot yoke. Ay am de cook, you bet.’”

Hashknife laughed joyfully. He liked Mrs. Snow because she could see the humor of life.

“Where is he now?” asked Sleepy.

Mrs. Snow shook her head slowly.

“I dunno. A few weeks ago he cooked up a big mess of prunes and forgot where he put ’em. Yesterday he drank the result, and lit out for Caldwell; singin’ somethin’ that didn’t sound like a Swedish church-hymn. I reckon he’s asleep in Casey McGill’s saloon now. He thinks Casey’s a Swede.”

“Much stock runnin’ in this Lodge-Pole country, ma’am?” asked the practical Sleepy.

“Ye-e-es—I reckon you’d say there was.”

“We’re lookin’ for jobs, ma’am,” explained Hashknife. “Me and Sleepy are what you’d call top-hands.”

“Never seen a puncher that wasn’t,” declared Mrs. Snow. “Frosty says there’s been a epidemic in the cow-country, which has made top-hands out of every danged buckaroo what has two legs to wear chaps.”

“They do get graduated fast, I reckon,” agreed Hashknife grinning. “Me and Sleepy earned ours. Do we get the job?”

Mrs. Snow smiled and shook her head. She liked the looks of these two bronzed, practical-looking men, but the Half-Moon was full handed.

“We’re runnin’ full of help, boys. Frosty said he’d likely have to cut down pretty soon.”

“Well, that’s too danged bad,” observed Hashknife. “I’d sure like to work for you, ma’am. Know any ranch that might be honin’ for two more to feed?”

Mrs. Snow smiled and shook her head, but sobered as she squinted at them.

“Might try the Tombstone Ranch.”

“Sounds right cheerful, ma’am,” observed Hashknife. “Do they raise ’em already carved?”

“Kinda,” admitted Mrs. Snow seriously. “Place belongs to old Amos Skelton, the meanest old son-of-a-gun that ever pulled on a boot. Everybody hates him.”

“Must amount to somethin’ then,” observed Sleepy.

“What does his iron look like—his brand?” asked Hashknife, reaching for the cigaret makings.

“It’s the old 33 outfit. Folks named it the Tombstone about a year ago. Bill Wheeler owned the old 33 and he let Caldwell put their graveyard on his ranch. It was a kinda nice spot, where the grass stays green most of the time. Then old Amos comes along and buys Bill out. Amos is a danged old blow-hard and most everybody starts in hatin’ him at the drop of a hat.

“Long comes Halloween Eve and some brainless cowpunchers goes down to the graveyard, swipes the tombstones, and when old Amos wakes up the next mornin’ his front yard is set full of them epi-tafts.

“It was a good joke on Amos, don’t you think?”

“Did he laugh?” queried Hashknife.

“Not so’s you could notice it,” smiled Mrs. Snow. “He took a plow and harrer up to the graveyard, and when he got through cultivatin’ it would take a higher power than exists in the Lodge-Pole country to tell where all them tombstones belonged. Yessir, he sure did remove all the brands. Them tombstones are all in his front yard yet, and I reckon they’ll stay.”

Hashknife and Sleepy laughed immoderately. Mrs. Snow looked severe for a moment, but joined in the laugh.

“Any punchers workin’ for that outfit?” asked Hashknife, still laughing.

“One—‘Quinin’ Quinn.”

“Why for the medicine cognomen?” asked Hashknife.

“Bitter. Quinn ain’t smiled since he was born. Fact. Ain’t got no grin-wrinkles on his face—not one. Nobody plays poker with him, ’cause of his face. Him and old Amos makes a good pair—to let alone.”

“Well, we’re sure much obliged to you, Mrs. Snow,” said Hashknife. “We’ll mosey along to Caldwell, I reckon. If you can’t make your cook understand anythin’, send for me. I sure sabe one word he’ll jump for.”

“Tell it to me, will you?”


“Shucks!” Mrs. Snow laughed shortly. “I sabe that one. It’s like sayin’, ‘Here’s my regards.’”

“Yeah, that’s true,” admitted Hashknife solemnly. “But yuh might yelp it just before you hit him with the ax.”

They turned their horses and rode back around the house, heading toward Caldwell.

Ahead of them the dusty road circled through the hills, as though following the lines of least resistance.

There was little flat land in the Lodge-Pole range, but it was ideal for cattle; the breaks giving protection for feed in Summer and for stock in Winter. Cottonwood grew in abundance along the streams, and every cañon seemed heavily stocked with willow. The hills were scored with stock-trails, leading from water to the higher ground.

“Don’t like this country,” declared Sleepy after they had ridden away from the Half-Moon, “too many places to shoot from cover.”

“Sleepy, you ought to have been an undertaker,” said Hashknife. “Death sure does have a attraction for you, cowboy. To me this looks like a land of milk and honey.”

“Milk and honey, like ——! More like strong liquor and hornets.”

Hashknife laughed. He and Sleepy argued continually, swore affectionately at each other and shared the blanket of a cowboy’s joys and woes.

“Look at the doughnut,” grinned Hashknife. “Consider the rim of brown dough instead of lookin’ through the hole all the time. Nothin’ ever looks right to you, Sleepy.”

“I said ‘strong liquor’,” declared Sleepy, leaning forward in his saddle, “and here comes the proof.”

A horse and rider had topped a rise just beyond them, and there was no doubt but what the rider was sitting drunkenly in his saddle. The horse was going slowly, and in anything but a straight line, as if trying to balance its rider.

“Drunker ’n seven hundred dollars,” declared Sleepy. “Ho-old fast!” he grunted, as the rider almost toppled from the saddle.

The horse stopped as they rode up, standing at right angles to the road, snuffing at the dust. The rider swayed sidewise and Hashknife grabbed him by the arm.

“Drunk ——!” snorted Hashknife. “This man’s been shot!”

“My Gawd, yes!” gasped Sleepy, dismounting and going around to the other side.

“More ’n once, too,” declared Hashknife, “or he’s smeared himself with the blood.”

They took the man off his horse and laid him beside the road. His flannel shirt was soaked with blood, and an examination showed that the man had been shot twice. One bullet had struck him high up in the left shoulder, while the other had torn its way through his body on the right side, about midway between shoulder and waist.

He was unconscious from loss of blood and his breath came jerkily.

“There ain’t a danged thing we can do for him,” said Hashknife, getting to his feet. “Looks to me like he’d been hit with a thirty-thirty.”

Sleepy nodded as he looked up from an examination of the man’s face.

“Betcha forty dollars that this here is Quinin Quinn. Didja ever see such a sour face in your life?”

“’F you got two thirty-thirties through your carcass, I reckon you’d kinda sour, too,” retorted Hashknife. “’F we knowed where the Tombstone Ranch was, we’d take him there.”

“Must be between here and Caldwell. This feller likely headed f’r home and missed the gate. If we don’t find the ranch, I reckon we can find the town.”

“And that,” said Sleepy, as they draped the man over his saddle, “is the first danged thing I ever suggested that you didn’t argue about, Hashknife.”

“First time you ever spoke sense, Sleepy.”

“Glad you give me credit for this once.”

“I’ll give you credit, when you got it comin’. Get your lariat, Sleepy. We’ve got to tie this jigger kinda tight.”

Sleepy got his rope and proceeded to tie his end of the man to the saddle.

“Lots’a times I never get no credit,” grunted Sleepy. “Lots’a times you takes all the credit.”

“Givin’ you credit now, ain’t I, Sleepy?”

“Yeah—this time—I could tell you a lot of times——”

“Shall we set down and argue and let this man die, or would you rather shut your face and give him a chance?”

“Who’s arguin’?” demanded Sleepy, swinging into his saddle.

“’F I ever open my mouth——”

“You expose your ignorance,” finished Hashknife. “Ride on the other side and see that he don’t slip loose.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that, too,” agreed Sleepy, suiting his action to the word. “But,” he added, looking across the body of the wounded man, “don’t think you’ve got all the brains, Hashknife—nor a big part of ’em. I never did see a tall man what had any too much sabe. Caesar was a short man, and Napoleon was small and——”

“And look what happened to Napoleon,” grinned Hashknife. “They pastured him on an island all alone.”

“How about Caesar, eh?”

“I dunno a —— thing about him,” admitted Hashknife. “What happened to him, Sleepy?”

“I dunno f’r sure, but—betcha forty dollars that’s the Tombstone Ranch.”

They rode around the point of a hill and below them was a ranchhouse, sprawled in a clump of cottonwoods. A long feed-shed, its roof twisted out of a straight line, stretched from a series of pole corrals along the bank of a willow-grown stream.

A thin streamer of smoke was drifting from the crooked stove-pipe. Between the gate and the ranch-house the ground was dotted with white slabs, seemingly laid out in orderly rows.

“That’s her,” agreed Hashknife. “Graveyard and all.”

They rode down to the gate and up past the graveyard to the front door. There was no sign of an inhabitant, until Hashknife dismounted and started for the door, when the door was suddenly flung open and Hashknife faced the muzzle of a double-barreled shotgun. The man behind the gun was as gray as a rabbit, slightly stooped and with a face as hard as chiseled granite.

“Hook your feet to the dirt and keep your hands above your waist!” he growled.

Then he saw Sleepy.

He peered closer and the muzzle of the shotgun came down.

“Your name Stevens?” he asked.

“Hey!” gasped Sleepy. “You’re ‘Bliz’ Skelton! Well, you danged pelican! Whatcha know about that?”

Sleepy fairly fell off his horse and bow-legged his way up to the door, where he and Skelton shook hands.

“This is Hashknife Hartley, my pardner, Bliz.”

“Ex-cuse m’ scatter-gun,” said Skelton, as he shook hands with Hashknife.

“Danged old dodo!” Sleepy grinned widely. “Ain’t seen you since you owned the O-Bar-O in Eagle River. You ain’t changed much, ’cept to get homelier ’n ——. Mrs. Snow said that Amos Skelton owned this ranch. Never heard nobody call yuh anythin’ but Blizzard.”

“Christened Amos,” grunted Skelton, squinting out at the horses.

“Plumb forgot the wounded man!” grunted Hashknife, leading the way out.

“——!” gaped Skelton. “That’s Quinin! He’s my hired man. What happened to him, anyway?”

Sleepy and Hashknife unfastened the ropes, while they told Skelton of how they had found Quinin. The old man’s face grew tense and he spat viciously, but said nothing. They carried Quinin into the house and placed him on a bed. Hashknife took hold of a limp wrist and squinted down at the man. Then he took a tiny mirror from his vest pocket and held it to the man’s lips. The surface remained unclouded.

Hashknife slowly replaced the mirror and looked at Skelton.

“He was your hired man—not is, Skelton.”


Hashknife nodded and reached for the “makings.”

“Got any idea who threw the lead?” he asked.

Skelton shook his head.

“Trouble hunter, Bliz?” asked Sleepy.

“No!” Emphatically. “Quinin minded his own business.”

Hashknife lighted his cigaret and looked around the room. It contained a box-stove, a table, littered with cigaret papers, two bunks and a few chairs.

“Me and Quinin lived in here,” said Skelton. “Built our bunks in here so there’d only be one room to clean.”

“What’s the trouble around here?” asked Hashknife suddenly.

Skelton stared at him.

“What trouble?”

“Folks don’t like you, Skelton. Feller don’t get disliked for nothin’. Either you’re wrong, or folks see things wrong. Me and Sleepy are danged good listeners.”

“That’s a fact, Bliz,” nodded Sleepy.

“I’m —— if I know,” admitted Skelton. “I’ve had this ranch about a year and a half and I ain’t made a cent—nor a friend.”

“Mebbe they’re sore about the graveyard,” said Sleepy.

“I don’t blame ’em,” agreed Skelton. “It was a dirty trick, but I didn’t have a thing to do with it.”

“You plowed out the grave-mounds,” reminded Hashknife.

“I did, like ——!” snapped Skelton. “I tell you I’m gittin’ tired of denyin’ that charge.”

“Oh!” grunted Hashknife softly.

“I left them tombstones where somebody planted ’em; but I sure didn’t smooth out them mounds, y’betcha. I’m wonderin’ that somebody ain’t killed me over it, ’cause it’s sure a killin’ matter to obliterate ancestors thataway.”

“’S a wonder yuh never sold out,” grunted Sleepy.

“Been asked to.” Skelton grinned for the first time. “Yes sir, it has been hinted at considerable.”

“You’re bull-headed, Bliz,” grinned Sleepy. “I’d sure as —— sell out if I was you.”

“Yeah? Mebbe you would, Sleepy—I dunno. They laid that tombstone job on to me, and everybody hates me fer it; and m’ cattle disappears reg’lar-like, and once in a while somebody takes a whang at me with a rifle. But outside of that——”

Skelton spat and shook his head.

“What price do you hold on the ranch?” asked Hashknife.

“One hundred thousand dollars.”

“Oh ——!” gasped Hashknife weakly. “You’re old enough to know better than that, Skelton.”

Skelton nodded seriously and scratched the palms of his hands on his hips.

“Age don’t cut no ice, Hartley. This danged ranch ain’t worth more ’n eight, nine thousand, with them tombstones throwed in to boot; but I’m —— if anybody’s goin’ to run Bliz Skelton off the place! I ain’t the runnin’ kind, y’betcha. And as long as I’ve got a shell left for that old sawed-off shotgun, I ain’t goin’ t’ run; sabe?”

“Tha’s all right,” mumbled Hashknife. “You know your own capacity. What’ll we do with the dead man?”

“Take him to Caldwell, I reckon. I’ll hitch up to the wagon. I suppose Jake Blue and Doc. Clevis’ll have a —— of a lot of questions to ask now.”

“Who’re they?” asked Sleepy.

“Sheriff and coroner.”

Skelton stopped in the doorway and looked back.

“I’m —— glad yuh came along when you did. ’F I had to take him in alone I’d sure be stackin’ m’self agin’ a lot of misery.”

“I betcha,” nodded Hashknife. “As it is, we’ll split the misery three ways.”

“Takes somethin’ powerful to stir me in this —— heat; but right now I grows excited.”

“Pinch” Johnson leaned back against the doorway of Barney Stout’s blacksmith-shop and spat explosively. Barney lifted a perspiring face and ceased rasping on the hoof of a piebald bronco. His rasp fell to the floor with a clatter, and he came to the doorway, rubbing his horny hands on his leather apron.

“Ol’ Amos bringin’ comp’ny to town,” grunted Pinch.

“One’s that Half-Moon Swede,” observed Barney, “and he’s drunker ’n —— yet. Started out to walk to the ranch, and he was takin’ up both sides and the middle of the road.”

“And them ain’t all!” grunted Pinch, getting to his feet.

“They’s a pair of boots stickin’ out the end of that wagon, Barney!”

Skelton drove up in front of Shipman’s general store and tied his team to a porch-post. Several men crossed from the War-Bonnet saloon, and one of them was Jake Blue, the sheriff—a skinny, blear-eyed personage, of much self-importance and undoubted ability with a gun.

“Looks t’me like somebody done got hurt,” observed Pinch wisely.

He crossed the street with Barney hurrying along behind him.

The sheriff and the other men looked over the sides of the wagon-box curiously.

“What’samatter?” asked Blue. “Drunk?”

“Dead,” said Hashknife.

“Zasso?” Mr. Blue had a habit of speaking a whole sentence as if it were only a single word.

He moved to the end-gate of the wagon and looked at the body from that angle.


“Quiet-like,” said Hashknife, manufacturing a cigaret.


Mr. Blue seemed to discover Hashknife for the first time. He masticated his tobacco rapidly and glanced at Skelton.


Skelton told in a few words, while more folks came and looked at the dead man.

“Where’d you come from?” asked the sheriff, looking at Hashknife.



“Tombstone ranch.”

“I mean—before that.”

Hashknife snapped his cigaret away and leaned back in his saddle.

“I was borned in Pecos, Texas, about thirty-two years ago——”

“What in —— do I care about that?” snapped Blue.

Hashknife looked surprized at the interruption.

“Pardner, you asked where I came from, didn’t you? I’m tryin’ to tell you.”

“Zasso? Well, we’ll let that slide fer now while we talks about other things. Will somebody find Doc Clevis?”

A man from the War-Bonnet signified his willingness to find the doctor, while the crowd waited and grew to greater proportions.

Doc Clevis was easy to find, and a few minutes later he arrived on the scene, bustling with importance. He was over six feet tall, dressed in a loose-fitting, rusty-black suit and short boots. A thin fringe of hair circled his otherwise bald head and surmounted a face which was a mixture of unutterable sadness and no little evil.

He climbed into the wagon and sat humped on the edge of the wagon-box, while he examined the body. Finally he nodded sadly and looked at the circle of onlookers.

“He’s dead,” he announced solemnly.

“My ——!” marveled Hashknife. “You’re a wonder, Doc.”

“Been dead quite a while,” said the doctor.

“Wonders’ll never cease,” grinned Hashknife.

Doc Clevis squinted at him, as if wondering if this tall cowboy was in earnest or not.

“Where does the Swede figure into this?” asked Pinch.

“We found him settin’ beside the road,” explained Skelton. “He’s too drunk to know anythin’.”

“Lemme look at that rifle,” ordered the sheriff.

Sleepy handed down the rifle, and the crowd moved in to look at it. The sheriff levered out three cartridges and slipped a white cigaret-paper into the breech.

“Been shot lately,” he announced, peering down the barrel.

“It was beside the road,” said Skelton.


The sheriff looked quizzically at Skelton. “You found the Swede beside the road, too? ’Pears to me that you found a lot of things beside the road. Was the rifle near the Swede?”

“’Bout six feet from him.”

“How far from the Swede did yuh find Quinin Quinn?”

“’Bout two miles.”

“That don’t mean nothin’,” said Barney Stout. “Quinin was still pluggin’ along when they found him. Anyway, that Swede never shot him.”


Mr. Blue fastened his watery eyes upon Barney and lifted his sparse eyebrows.

“Mebbe you know who shot him,” he said.

“Well,” faltered Barney, “I dunno who shot him, but that —— Half-Moon cook was so drunk——”

“Yo’re excused!” snapped Blue, and then to Skelton:

“This here is goin’ t’ need investigatin’, Skelton. I dunno anythin’ about these two strangers who horns in on this deal—do you?”

“This’n,” nodded Skelton, indicating Sleepy. “I’ve knowed Sleepy Stevens f’r a long time; and when he takes a pardner, I kinda backs this here pardner. Know what I mean, Blue?”

“Gotcha. What do you make of it, Doc?”

“He was shot twice, and he’s dead,” replied Doc. “I ain’t advancin’ any theory who done it, sheriff.”

“It’s a —— good thing we called yuh, Doc,” said Hashknife seriously. “I used to live in a place where we didn’t have no doctor, and it sure was ——. Why, I’ve knowed times when we kept dead men propped up around town for weeks—waitin’ to be sure they were dead. Lookin’ back at them days, I’m wonderin’ what killed ’em. Mebbe they was shot—I dunno.”

“Are you plumb ignorant, or jist actin’ smart?” asked the sheriff.

“That,” said Hashknife seriously, “that is the secret of my success. Nobody ever found out, and I couldn’t tell ’em, ’cause I didn’t know m’self.”


The sheriff’s jaw muscles bulged, like twin walnuts, and he hooked his thumbs into the waist-band of his overalls, as he squinted at Hashknife’s serious face.

“You came to a —— good place for to be found out.”

“Well, that’s right nice of you, sheriff. What do you reckon I ought to do for the information—kiss you?”

“Haw! Haw! Haw!” roared Pinch Johnson. “I’d admire to see you do it, stranger.”

Mr. Blue’s face did not belie his name, except that it went purple from the added flood of red. He opened his mouth, as though a ready retort burned his tongue, then he shut his jaws tightly and turned to the doctor—

“When’ll you hold a inquest, Doc?”

“T’morrow, I reckon,” said the doctor, rubbing his bald head with a rotary motion, as if polishing it. “Take that long to git evidence, won’t it?”

Blue nodded and turned to Hashknife—

“You two fellers ain’t aimin’ to pull out soon, are you?”

Hashknife shook his head.

“No-o-o. We’re plumb stuck on your town.”

Blue grunted his unbelief. He might be ignorant, but not a fool.

“You ain’t got no puncher now, have you, Skelton?”

Skelton shook his head.

“Ain’t a lot of extra hands around this country,” observed Blue. “Well, Doc, I reckon we better have Quinin moved into your place. Mind haulin’ him down there, Skelton?”

Skelton did not mind. He turned his team around and headed for the doctor’s office, with several men following. Hashknife and Sleepy rode across to a hitch-rack, tied their horses, and went into the War-Bonnet.

The War-Bonnet was a large place for a town the size of Caldwell, but it looked prosperous. There was not much activity during the day, so the place was nearly deserted when Hashknife and Sleepy came in.

A couple of girls were on the small stage-like platform at the end of the room, practising a few dance steps, while with one hand a pallid young man thumped out a melody on the piano.

A bartender humped his white-clad elbows on the bar, while he deeply perused a paper-backed novel. A “swamper” was scrubbing back of the bar. His activities seemed to irritate the bartender, who knew that sooner or later he would have to move and break the thread of his story.

Hashknife and Sleepy walked up to the bar and looked around the place. The bartender sighed, folded over a leaf of his book to mark his place, and came down to them.

“’Smatter over there?” he indicated the street with a jerk of his sleek-combed head.

“Feller got leaded up,” said Hashknife. “Feller named Quinn.”

“Quinin Quinn, eh? Dead? The son-of-a-gun! Whatcha drinkin’? Seen Swede Sam over there, too. He ain’t mixed up in it, is he? Whatcha drinkin’? Know Quinn? Never smiled. No sir, that hombre didn’t know how. Ain’t no reason for killin’ him off. Feller’s got a right to look sour, ain’t he? I’d sure have to have a good reason before I’d kill any man. Son-of-a-gun’s dead, eh? Well, well! Whatcha drinkin’?”

“See-gars,” said Hashknife grinning.

The bartender produced a well-worn cigar-box and disclosed a few dried-out perfectos.

“Ain’t many cigar smokers around here,” he volunteered. “Don’t pay to keep a big stock. Them’s real good Key Wests, y’betcha. I smoked one oncet. Got drunk and careless. ’F you lick them outside leaves, like you do a cigaret-paper, they’ll stick. Them Key Wests allus kinda unravels thataway. I stuck ’em oncet, but they——”

Two very bad cigars went into a cuspidor, and the bartender looked sad.

“I didn’t lick ’em,” he explained. “I used glue.”

“Tha’s all right,” grunted Hashknife. “A cigar ain’t never good after the first drag or two.”

The bartender turned and threw the two-bits into the till.

“Have a drink on the house?” he asked.

Hashknife shook his head.

“Feller that’d use glue on cigars is liable to put cyanid in his hooch. Who owns this ornate parlor?”

“‘Spot’ Easton. Didja ever hear of Spot?”

Hashknife leaned against the bar and admitted that he did not know the gentleman. Just at this moment a man came in the door, a frowsy looking man, with drink-bleared eyes and uncertain step. He slouched up to the bar and leered at the bartender; a leer which was intended to be an ingratiating smile, but which missed by a wide margin.

“Nossir!” The bartender shook his head violently. “Spot said to lay off givin’ you liquor, ‘Lonesome’.”

“Spot did?” The old man seemed surprized to hear it.

He wiped the back of his hand across his lips and stared at the mirror on the back-bar. There was no question but what he needed a bracer; his whole nervous system cried out for assistance.

“You get the drink, grampaw,” said Hashknife, tossing a two-bit piece on the bar.

“Spot don’t want him—” began the bartender.

“Hooch!” snapped Hashknife. “What in —— do I care what Spot wants?”

“He’ll get sore about it,” argued the bartender.

“Do I have to wait on him m’self?” asked Hashknife.

The bartender slid out the bottle and a glass. The old man seemed undecided whether to take it or not, but Hashknife settled the question by pouring the drink for him. The old man drank nervously and upset the glass as he put it back. He steadied himself on the bar uatil the liquor began to percolate and then sighed with relief.

A man came from the rear of the place and halted near the end of the bar. He was rather flashily dressed for the range country. His black hair was slightly tinged with gray. His features were narrow and he wore a small mustache, which was waxed to needle-like points. He scowled at the bartender, who got very busy wiping glasses.

The old man considered Hashknife and Sleepy for a moment, and began to search his pockets. He drew out a crumpled envelop and held it close for inspection.

“M’ name’s James B. Lee,” he announced thickly, “but ev’ybody calls me Lonesome Lee. Now, what in —— do you reckon anybody’d write a letter to me for? This’n jist come on the stage.”

He handed the letter to Hashknife, or rather he started to; but the flashily-dressed person had moved nearer and secured it. For a moment nobody spoke. Lonesome swallowed with great difficulty and tried to clear his throat.

“Right sudden, ain’t you?” said Sleepy.

The man ignored his question and spoke directly to Lonesome Lee.

“Nobody ever wrote to you, Lonesome.”

“Yeah, they did, Spot. I—I—” whined Lonesome.

“The envelop will show who it’s for,” said Hashknife easily.

Spot Easton turned to the bartender.

“‘Windy,’ how many times do I have to tell you not to let Lonesome have any more whisky?”

“Lay off the bartender,” advised Hashknife. “I paid for the old man’s drink, if you care to know.”

Spot Easton seemed to see Hashknife for the first time, and the discovery did not please him.

“Who in —— are you?” he growled.

“Me?” Hashknife grinned. “I’m the li’l jasper that’s goin’ to make you give the letter back to Lonesome Lee.”


Easton’s brows lifted in surprize, as he looked Hashknife over appraisingly.

“How are you goin’ to do it, if I may ask?”

Hashknife turned his body toward the bar. It was a disarming move. Easton stepped in closer to Hashknife; stepped in just in time to be in reach of the right swing that Hashknife pivoted to accomplish.

It caught Mr. Easton flush on the left ear and the force of the smash knocked the gentleman’s feet loose from the floor. The thud of his fall had barely sounded, when Hashknife leaned over him and took away the letter.

Easton did not move. The piano crashed a discord and stopped. One of the girls gave a throaty little squeak and stopped dancing. Hashknife turned to hand the letter to Lonesome Lee, but that worthy was going out of the front door as fast as his unsteady legs would carry him.

“Well, that kinda beats ——!” grunted Hashknife.

The bartender had dropped the glass he was polishing, but continued the action on the bunched fingers of his left hand. He breathed on the fingers and polished harder.

Spot Easton sat up, holding his left ear. He looked around as if wondering what had happened. His eyes strayed to the ceiling, as if wondering that it was still intact. Then he got slowly to his feet and brushed the dust off his broadcloth raiment.

“You asked a question,” reminded Hashknife seriously, “but I don’t reckon you need an answer—not now.”

Spot Easton did not express any opinion. He wadded a silk handkerchief against his bruised ear, turned, and went to the back of the room.

“I’ve got the letter and nobody to give it to,” chuckled Hashknife, and then to the bartender—

“Whatcha polishin’ your fingers for, pardner?”

The bartender, suddenly realizing that he did not have a glass in his hand, recovered the one from the floor.

“What’sa matter with everybody around here?” asked Sleepy. “The old man hummed out of here like a spike, and you got absent-minded. Ain’t the War-Bonnet used to seein’ trouble, or is all this honkatonk only a blind for a Sunday school?”

“That—that was Spot Easton,” stammered the bartender.

“Who’s he—the king?” asked Hashknife.

The bartender glanced keenly toward the rear of the place, where Easton had entered one of the built-in rooms. He leaned across the bar and whispered:

“You better look out for him, gents. Spot Easton’s a ——winder, y’betcha. He’s quicker’n a flash with a gun, and he used to be a middle-weight prize-fighter. Glad it ain’t me he’s sore at.”

“You don’t reckon he’s sore at me, do you?” Hashknife seemed penitent.

“Huh?” Such a foolish question amazed the bartender.

“Gee cripes! He must be touchy if he is,” observed Sleepy. “Some folks wears their feelin’ on their sleeves.”

“Well, for ——’s sake!” wailed the bartender. “I dunno whatcha mean by that. If you got hit in the ear——”

“Aw, come on, Sleepy,” said Hashknife. “Never seen a bartender or a sheepherder yet that had any sense.”

As they started to cross the street, a rider on a mouse-colored horse passed in front of them, going down toward the sheriff’s office. The man was almost as tall as Hashknife; his features were hidden by the shadow of his low-pulled Stetson.

Bliz Skelton and the sheriff were coming away from the office, and the sheriff hailed this rider, who swung over to the board sidewalk beside them.

“Wears bat-wing chaps, beaded vest and a polky-dot shirt,” observed Hashknife aloud, “rides with his stirrups a notch too short; all of which makes me feel that I know that hombre, Sleepy.”

“Let’s look him over,” suggested Sleepy. “Looks a li’l gaudy to me, but mebbe he’s all right.”

The stranger was talking earnestly to the sheriff, as they walked up, and the conversation seemed to interest Skelton. The stranger turned and looked at Hashknife, but continued to talk.

“I dunno,” said Skelton, shaking his head. “I’m much obliged to you, but I ain’t made up my mind yet jist what ’m goin’ t’ do. ’F I sell out I won’t need no hired help.”

“And if you don’t, you do.”

The sheriff was a trifle ungrammatical, but sincere.

“Yeah,” admitted Skelton.

“It don’t make me no never mind,” stated the stranger. “I’m just open f’r engagement. Jake’ll tell you that I’m a top-hand, y’betcha.”

“All of which makes it so,” stated Hashknife.

Jake Blue squinted at Hashknife and up at the cowboy. The latter seemed surprized that any one might doubt his ability.

“Who ’re you?” asked the cowboy.

“Names don’t mean nothin’,” replied Hashknife. “I don’t know your name, but I ain’t inquisitive. ’Pears to me that I’ve knowed you some’ers.”


The cowboy’s eyebrows lifted slightly, but no sign of recognition crossed his features. He was not at all handsome—due partly to a crooked nose, a split lip and a week’s growth of downy, blond whiskers.

“What are you cuttin’ in here fer?” asked Blue angrily. “Mister Hagen’s goin’ t’ work for Skelton.”

“Zasso?” Skelton seemed surprized. “I ain’t hired nobody yet, Blue.”

“You ain’t goin’ to have work for three men, are you?” asked Hashknife, turning to Skelton.

“Three men?” queried Blue quickly.

“T-h-r-e-e,” spelled Hashknife. “Me and Sleepy’s done hired out to him.”

The sheriff spat explosively and looked at Skelton.

“Zasso, Skelton?”

“Well, yuh—uh—might say it was,” faltered Skelton.

“I’m goin’ to be the foreman,” stated Hashknife, “and if you got any top-hands, you might send ’em to me, sheriff.”


Mr. Hagen spoke very peevishly, turned his horse and rode back to the War-Bonnet hitch-rack. There he dismounted, kicked his horse in the belly, and went into the saloon.

“There ain’t no question but what he’s a top-hand,” agreed Hashknife. “All top-hands kick their broncs in the belly thataway. Kinda makes the bronc respect you.”

“Where’s the Swede?” asked Sleepy.

Jake Blue had been staring toward the War-Bonnet, deep in thought, and Sleepy’s question seemed to jar him awake.

“The Swede? He’s in jail. Where’d you think he was?”

“In jail,” said Sleepy.

“Then what in —— did you ask fer?” Mr. Blue growled.

“You can’t hook that killin’ onto the Swede.” This from Hashknife.

“Can’t I?” The sheriff grew very indignant. “Well, mebbe I ain’t goin’ t’ try very hard.”

He stepped off the sidewalk as if to leave, but turned and added—

“’F I was you I’d be hopin’ that it was hooked onto the Swede.”

With this parting shot, the sheriff crossed the street and went into the Paris restaurant, banging the door behind him.

“You made him mad,” observed Skelton seriously. “He was only tryin’ to git a job for this Hagen feller.”

“Who’s this Hagen?” asked Hashknife.

“I dunno him. He’s been with the 88 f’r a while, but he quit, or got fired or somethin’.”

“Who owns the 88?”

“Lonesome Lee used t’ own it, but he drank it mostly all up, I reckon. Mebbe Spot Easton owns it by now. Lonesome got t’ drinkin’ and playin’ poker, and I reckon he’s lost all the money he ever had. He stays at the ranch—when he ain’t drunk—which ain’t often.”

“Big outfit?” asked Hashknife.

“Bigger’n mine,” answered Skelton.

“With two top-hands your ranch ought to grow,” stated Hashknife seriously. “You don’t mind us hirin’ out to you?”

“I dunno where your pay’s comin’ from, but I don’t mind, if you don’t. Want to go back to the ranch now?”

Hashknife shook his head.

“No-o-o. You see I knocked Spot Easton loose from the floor a while ago, and if we left now it would look like I was runnin’ away.”

“You did!” gasped Skelton. “Spot Easton? Well——”

Skelton scratched his head and squinted at Hashknife’s serious face.

“Well, I—I reckon yo’re a top-hand, Hartley. Come out to the ranch any ol’ time you git ready. Whoo-ee!”

The old man slapped his hat back on his head and bow-legged his way back to the sheriff’s office.

Hashknife took the letter from his pocket and looked at it.

“She sure belongs to Lonesome Lee, Sleepy. The epitaph proclaims it to be for James B. Lee, Caldwell, Montana, and the little doohicky in a circle says that she was sent from Boston.”

“Now, whatcha reckon Mister Easton wanted this here letter for, Sleepy?”

“Don’t glare at me!” complained Sleepy. “You act like it was my letter. How’d I know what Easton wants?”

“Where did the old man go?” asked Hashknife, paying no heed to Sleepy’s question.

“There you go ag’in! Think I’m a fortune-teller? You saw him the last time I did.”

“Well, I reckon the only way to find him is to look for him. Come on.”

They went up the sidewalk, past the Hole-in-the-Wall feed-corral, and almost bumped into Lonesome Lee, who was coming out from the narrow alley between the feed-corral and general store. The old man’s cheeks were streaked with tears and dust, and he was half-sobbing—drunkenly. He gawped at Hashknife and Sleepy and tried to avoid them, but Hashknife took him by the arm and drew him back.

“What’s the matter with you?” growled Hashknife. “Ain’t nobody goin’ to hurt you, old-timer. Here’s your letter.”

Lonesome Lee stared at the letter, but made no effort to take it. In fact he seemed afraid of it.

“You ain’t scared of Spot Easton, are you?” asked Sleepy.

Lonesome did not say, but his actions spoke volumes.

“Has that tin-horn got you buffaloed, old-timer? Snap yourself together! You’ve blotted up so much hooch that your nerves are dancin’, but you’re a —— good man yet.” Hashknife’s voice was encouraging.

“Th-think so?”

Lonesome wiped his lips with shaking fingers and moved his feet uncertainly.

“Better read the letter,” urged Sleepy. “It might be good news; you never can tell.”

“Wh-where’s it from?” he stammered. “My eyes ain’t worth a —— no more.”

“She’s from Boston.”

Lonesome licked his lips and stared into space.

“Bub-Boston! ——!”

He staggered off the sidewalk, almost fell in the dust, and weaved a crooked trail straight for the doorway of the War-Bonnet.

“’F that don’t beat ——, I’m a pigeon-toed fool!” grunted Hashknife foolishly.

“His ear-drums kinda shrink from Boston,” observed Sleepy, as Lonesome seemed to carom from one side of the door to the other.

“Scared plumb to death,” declared Hashknife. “It’s a danged shame for a man to get in that shape. Somethin’ has sure put the Injun sign on the old gent, Sleepy. This Easton’s a bass-drummer among these canary-birds, ’cordin’ to what I can get in my loop; so he must be somethin’ besides a card shark.”

“Let’s go over and talk to the blacksmith,” suggested Sleepy. “I’ve got to have some shoes put on my bronc’ pretty soon, and maybe I can save about four-bits by gettin’ real friendly. I have done it, by cripes.”

Barney Stout was inserting a new felly into a wagon-wheel, and swearing mournfully over the fitting. He rubbed his nose with the back of a very dirty hand and nodded to Hashknife and Sleepy. They had squatted down against the wall and were rolling cigarets.

“How’s tricks?” asked Sleepy.


Barney squinted at the rim of the wheel, as he felt of the joint with a thumb.

“There ain’t no tricks in this trade; it’s all —— hard work and disappointment. Hear they put the Swede in jail.”

Barney rubbed his hands on his hips and, reaching for Sleepy’s sack of tobacco, squatted down beside them.

“I dunno who killed Quinin Quinn, but it’s a dead immortal cinch that Swede Sam never did.”

“Where’d that .30-30 rifle come from, do you figure?” asked Hashknife.

Barney shook his head and puffed violently.

“I never seen the gun,” he said. “Quinn tol’ me that he’d been shot at three or four times in the last year. ’S far as that’s concerned, so has old Skelton.”

“Any idea why?” asked Sleepy.

“Nope. I heard Jake Blue say that it was likely that folks hadn’t forgot what happened to their graveyard—but Quinin didn’t have nothin’ to do with that. He came here quite a while after that.”

“Folks got kinda sore about it, eh?” queried Hashknife.

“Yeap. Can you blame ’em? They sure as —— lost track of their ancestors. Ev’body tried to relocate their dead, but it was no use. M’ wife had one of them Kodiak things that you take pictures with, and she photygraphed the graveyard one day; but it’s kinda blurred-like. They took that along to try and figure out things, but it didn’t help ’em a danged bit.”

“Lots of folks buried there, eh?” queried Hashknife.

Barney nodded.

“All them markers in Skelton’s yard indicates a body. The first corpse was old Billy Meek, who was some sanctimonious old whippoorwill; and the last one was a gambler by the name of ‘Faro’. I never did know his name.

“Spot Easton shot him over a poker-table. Folks kicked about him bein’ buried in the cemetery, and old ‘Peg-leg’ Smith refused to dig the grave; but Spot and Doc Clevis dug the grave, and I reckon Jake Blue performed the funeral oration—I dunno. Anyway, Faro never got a headstone, ’cause his grave-mound was lost with the rest.”

“Did they bury this here Faro person right in with the rest?” asked Hashknife.

“Danged if I know for sure. Seems to me that somebody said they planted him off to one side; kinda between the others and the creek. I never seen the grave.”

Came the sound of a boot on gravel, and they turned to see Doctor Clevis coming in the front door. He peered at Hashknife and Sleepy.

“Wanted to tell you that the inquest’ll be held t’morrow afternoon ’bout two o’clock,” he announced. “Likely need your testimony.”

“We’ll be here,” nodded Hashknife.

The doctor walked out, and Barney got to his feet.

“Gotta git that —— felly fixed up, I suppose,” he groaned. “Hope I never git sick and have to call Doc Clevis. Him and Jake Blue are thicker’n two drunks in one bunk. Besides, I never like to have any truck with a doctor who is the undertaker, too.”

“Gets ’em goin’ and comin’, eh?”

“Gotta cinch,” agreed Barney. “And Jake Blue ain’t as particular as he might be, especially when the reward notice don’t specify ‘dead or alive.’”

“We’ll see you again, pardner,” said Hashknife, as he and Sleepy walked out the front door.

“Come in any ol’ time,” yelled Barney. “Mostly always I’ve got time to talk.”

Hashknife led the way past the War-Bonnet and up to the hitch-rack where they got on their horses and rode back toward the Tombstone Ranch. Hashknife looked back and saw Hagen standing in the doorway, looking in their direction; but there was no sign of Lonesome Lee nor of Spot Easton.

“Do you reckon they’ll hang the killin’ onto Swede Sam?” asked Sleepy, as they poked off down the dusty road.

Hashknife eased himself in the saddle and reached for his cigaret material.

“I’ll do everythin’ I can to hook it onto him,” he said.

“You will?” Sleepy’s surprize was genuine.

“Sure will. Me and you and Skelton have got to lie like —— to keep out of jail ourselves.”

“But the Swede never killed him.”

“Neither did we, Sleepy. I reckon Mrs. Frosty Snow can get along without Swede Sam for a while—and Swede Sam ain’t got brains enough to mind bein’ locked up.”

“But they couldn’t put me and you in jail,” protested Sleepy.

“Thasso? They put Swede Sam in.”

Which left Sleepy without an argument worth while.

Hashknife locked a long forefinger around his spoon and fended it away from his right eye, while he sipped thoughtfully at his cup of coffee. Finally he nodded slowly.

“Yeah, that’s true, Skelton. Whisky does pe-culiar things to a man’s nerves; but why does ol’ Lonesome go hippety-hoppin’ like a scared rabbit when he sees that danged letter?”

Skelton helped himself to more coffee from the old battered pot and reached for Sleepy’s cup.

“Not any more, Bliz,” said Sleepy. “You ought to grind that coffee before and after makin’, ’cause she’s sure hard to chew.”

“Lonesome Lee’s sure in tough shape,” admitted Skelton, ignoring Sleepy’s insult to his ability as a coffee maker.

Hashknife took the letter from his pocket and studied it closely.

“Steam,” said Sleepy slowly. “Steam’ll cut the stickum on an envelop.”

Hashknife squinted hard at Sleepy.

“That’s a crooked thought, Mister Stevens. Sometimes you surprize me.”

“You say that Spot Easton wanted the letter?” asked Skelton.

Hashknife yawned widely and glanced around the room.

“Skelton, you ain’t got anythin’ like mucilage, have you?”

“Y’betcha, I have. Li’l bottle, with a brush attached. I dunno what it was used fer, and she’s been here since before Heck’s father went wooin’. Whatcha want it fer?”

“To make this danged letter look like it never was opened.”

Sleepy grinned joyously.

“Gimme credit——”

“Fer nothin’,” finished Hashknife. “That was a common thing before your great, great-grandfather was lynched for tryin’ to tell folks what to do.”

Hashknife held the envelop over the steam from the tea-kettle, until the flap was softened, and removed the letter. He spread out the single sheet on the table, and the three of them read it together.

Dear Dad:

I will arrive nearly as soon as this letter, but am sending it anyway. I hope that your injured arm is better now. It was very kind of your foreman, Mr. Easton, to write in your stead, and I shall thank him personally for his offer to meet me at Gunsight.

I can hardly wait to see you. Just to think that I have never seen you since I was old enough to remember, but we will make that all up, daddy. I have just money enough to take me to Caldwell, and I am coming as fast as I can travel.

Since mother passed out I have felt entirely alone in the world, and even if you and mother could not be happy together, I am sure we can. Loads of love and a big hug very soon.

Your loving daughter,


P. S.—I will be with you in time to celebrate my eighteenth birthday.

Along the margin of the paper was written—

I am glad you liked the picture of myself, which I sent you, daddy.

Hashknife lifted his eyes from the paper and looked at Skelton, who was moving his lips slowly over the written words. Skelton straightened up and shook his head.

“I don’t sabe that foreman stuff. Spot Easton never was foreman of the 88.”

“Has Lonesome Lee been nursin’ a sore arm?” asked Sleepy.

Skelton laughed shortly.

“’F he has, I never knowed it. That letter’s sure got me pawin’ m’ head. I never knowed that Lonesome Lee had a wife or daughter.”

“And,” added Hashknife meaningly, “Spot Easton was kind enough to want to meet her in Gunsight. He was also doin’ the writin’ for Lonesome, ’cause Lonesome had a sore arm.”

“Whatcha make of it, Hashknife?” asked Sleepy.

Hashknife pondered over the manufacture of a cigaret, and read the letter again before he spoke.

“’Pears to me that the lady done sent her picture, previous. Mebbe she’s pretty, which would attract Mister Easton. It also appears that Mister Easton has got old Lonesome Lee where the hair’s short and tender, and he’s kinda runnin’ Lonesome’s business.

“Accordin’ to signs, Mister Easton has lied to said lady, who thinks her paw is somebody. Paw ain’t got no nerve left to object, and Mister Easton has likely told him that he has invited this here daughter to live at the 88. Paw ain’t got the guts to howl against such things, and when he finds that the letter is from Boston he’s plumb shaky that it tells about daughter’s de-parture. Mister Easton naturally is wishful to know how his invite has worked out; which is the reason he grabbed at the letter. That’s how she looks to me.”

“’F that’s a fact, I sure as —— feel sorry fer her,” stated Skelton sadly.

“Yuh might feel sorry for Lonesome, too,” said Hashknife. “He’s all shot to pieces with hooch, and he likely knows that she’s comin’ to find him.”

“Figurin’ she’s goin’ to be happy with him,” added Sleepy mournfully. “Comin’ to celebrate her eighteenth birthday. ——!”

Hashknife got to his feet and walked over to the open door, where he leaned against the casing and contemplated deeply. The sun had already dropped behind the hills, which looked like blue silhouettes, with silver trimmings. Far away on the skyline drifted a herd of cattle; their outlines blurred from the back-light of the sunset.

From below the long sheds came a string of cattle, heading for the water-hole opening on the brushy stream; bawling softly, as they followed the deeply-worn trail. Magpies chattered sleepily in the cottonwoods.

“Makes a feller wonder how a man can live in a land like this and hate anybody,” muttered Hashknife.

He turned to come back to the table, when—


Skelton fell backward out of his chair, clawing at the coffee, which sprayed all over him. Sleepy threw himself sidewise out of line with the door, and from somewhere came the thin, whip-like report of a high-powered rifle.

Hashknife kicked the door shut and gawped at Skelton, who got to his feet, shook the coffee out of his eyes, and picked up the coffee-pot—or what remained of it.

The soft-nose bullet had hit it near the bottom and there was nothing much left to identify it as a coffee-pot, except the color and odor. Even the ceiling was dotted with coffee-grounds.

“Anybody hurt?” asked Hashknife.

Skelton gazed ruefully at the remains of the pot, and dug inside his collar after more grounds.

“——!” he snapped. “They didn’t miss us very far that time.”

“Common occurrence?” asked Hashknife.

“Periodical. Last week I was shakin’ some stuff out of a fry-pan outside, and they nailed the ol’ pan, dead-center. Wrenched —— out of m’ wrist, too. Never even saw where the bullet came from. I dunno whether they’re hintin’ fer me to move, or missin’ their target.”

“Got —— good eyes, if they shot at that pot,” grunted Hashknife, “’cause that rifle wasn’t closer than five hundred yards.”

“Cat-eyes,” added Sleepy. “Nobody could see into a house at this time of the day. That hombre wasn’t aimin’ to spill our coffee, y’ betcha.”

“Got a rifle, Skelton?” This from Hashknife.

“Dang right I have.”

He walked over to one of the bunks and threw back the blankets. He ran his hand over them, dug under the straw-tick, and stepped back, looking curiously around.

“What do you know about that?” he grunted. “It ain’t there!”

“Are you sure?” asked Hashknife.

“Lemme think. It was there yeste’day, ’cause I took it out when I made the bed. I know danged well—no, I ’member leanin’ it agin’ the wall.”

He glanced around the room and shook his head.

“Don’t make a —— bit of difference; it’s gone.”

“What kind was she?” asked Sleepy.


“That wasn’t it we found near the Swede, was it?”

“No-o-o—I’m —— ’f I know whether it was or not. I never looked at it. Fact is, I never used it. I’m not worth a —— with a rifle, but I sure do sabe the old shotgun and buckshot, or a six-gun. Never liked that idea of shootin’ a man with a mushroom bullet.”

“Does kinda unravel a man,” Hashknife agreed. “When did you buy that .30-30?”

“I acquired it with this —— ranch, along with the rest of the misery.”

Hashknife nodded slowly and considered the ceiling. A question had suddenly popped into his head and he wanted to consider it before speaking. The coffee-grounds were beginning to loosen from the ceiling, and some of them drifted into his eye. He dug them out thoughtfully and turning to Skelton said—

“You got any relations, Skelton?”

“Not a danged kin,” grinned Skelton. “One of my kind is e-nough, ain’t it?”

“’F you got killed,” suggested Hashkinfe, “who’d get this ranch?”

Skelton scratched his head violently.

“Never thought of that, Hartley. Why, I reckon the sheriff would sell it to the highest bidder. But who would bid on it—I dunno.

“Shucks!” Skelton added. “It must be somethin’ pers’nal. Nobody’d kill me to get a chance to buy this —— ranch. That ain’t reasonable.”

“Human nature is a queer thing,” said Hashknife. “I knowed a feller who was sent to the penitentiary for stealin’ Christmas presents, which were goin’ to be given to him.”

“Why didn’t you add the fact that he knowed it?”

“I know when to quit lyin’,” said Hashknife gravely.

He got to his feet, went to the door, and peered out.

“Gets dark quick around here,” he said. “I reckon it’s plumb safe to saddle up now. That bushwhacker likely went away as soon as he fired that one shot.”

“Saddle up? What for, f’r gosh sake?”

Sleepy settled back comfortably in his chair.

“Me and you are goin’ to Caldwell.”

“What fer?”

“That inquest is tomorrow afternoon, Sleepy.”

“Oh, I see,” said Sleepy sarcastically. “’Fraid you’ll be late if you don’t start now?”

“You might put it thataway,” admitted Hashknife. “We’ll be back kinda late, Skelton, I reckon; so I’ll call m’ name when we come home.”

Skelton nodded dubiously and said:

“’S your own business, Hartley, and I reckon you can take care of yourself. I dunno what you got on your mind, but I wish you well.”

Hashknife grinned at Sleepy’s disgruntled way of pulling on his chaps, and went out of the door. Sleepy swore softly as he followed him.

Spot Easton was not in a happy frame of mind at all. His ear had swollen to twice its normal size and had assumed the shade of a pickled beet. It not only pained him, but it hurt his pride; he was not in the habit of getting the worst of a personal encounter.

The evening business of the War-Bonnet was beginning to be audible to Spot, who was sequestered in his little private room in the rear. A half-empty whisky bottle decorated the table beside him, and his jaws were clamped tightly over a badly frayed cigar, which smoked much from the wrong end. He jerked it out of his mouth, cursed and hurled it across the room where it continued to throw up a streamer of smoke.

Just then, without any warning, the door swung open and Lonesome Lee staggered in. The old man was gloriously drunk, but tried to brace up when he faced Easton.

“Sus-somebody said you wanted to shee me,” he muttered thickly.

“Yes; you lousy old bum!” snapped Easton, kicking a chair away from the table.

Lonesome eased himself shakily into the chair and sprawled weakly.

“Where’s that letter?” demanded Easton.

“Tha’ letter?” Lonesome grinned foolishly. “Wha’ letter?”

“The one you got today. The letter—oh, ——!”

Lonesome had emitted a long-drawn snore and his head sank slowly until his chin was buried in his collar.

Spot Easton shoved away from the table and, going over to Lonesome, proceeded to go through the old man’s pockets. He shook Lonesome, but the old man continued to snore loudly.

Spot caressed his aching ear, while he reviled Lonesome with every foul epithet his tongue could command. Tiring of that, he drank half of the remaining liquor, threw the bottle across the room, and sat down again.

Then came Jack Blue. He too was a privileged character and did not wait to knock on the door. He squinted at Lonesome and sat on the edge of the table.

“Why don’t you have Doc Clevis fix up yore ear?” he asked, noticing that Easton was fingering the sore organ.

“That —— veterinary!” exploded Easton.

“Doc could take out the soreness.”

“I’m —— if he could!” rasped Easton. “Only one thing’d take the soreness out of that ear, and that’s to notch a sight on that long-geared misfit that hit me.”

“He’s a fresh whippoorwill, all right,” admitted Blue. “Never seen anybody with the gall he’s got. Somebody’s due to make jerky out of his tongue.”

“Y’betcha,” agreed Easton, “and I’m him.”

Blue jerked his head toward the sleeping Lonesome——

“Did he have that letter, Spot?”


“That puncher still got it?”

Spot looked very disconsolate, but did not answer.

“What was in it, do you reckon?”

“How’d I know?”

Blue gnawed off an enormous chew of tobacco and moved to a chair.

“’F he’s still got the letter I’ll git it for you tomorrow, Spot.”


“Law requires that I search all prisoners, tha’s why.”

“Thasso?” Spot Easton grew interested. “You goin’ to put him in jail?”

“I sure as —— am. More’n that, I’m goin’ to put the both of ’em in jail, along with old man Skelton.”

“How you goin’ to make it look right?”

Blue spat copiously and grinned at the ceiling.

“That was old Skelton’s rifle which they found beside the drunk Swede.”

“Skelton’s rifle? And he brought it to you?”

“Nope. I went past there yesterday and I dropped in to call on Skelton—knowin’ he was in town.”

“And swiped his rifle?”

“Uh-huh. Belonged to old Bill Wheeler, and she’s got a li’l 33 cut into the forearm. She’s a cinch to hang it onto Skelton, and I can hold them other two—easy.”

Easton laughed and got to his feet.

“You’re clever, Jake. Let’s go and get a drink.”

“I sure am.”

Blue was not adverse to applauding himself. Being a sheriff in Lodge-Pole county entailed too much danger for the remuneration; so nobody cared much about a sheriff’s morals—or methods.

Easton gazed approvingly upon the amount of activity within the four walls of the War-Bonnet, as he led the sheriff to the bar. The click of dice, the rattle of poker chips and the droning voices of dealers was sweet music to Easton’s ears.

A number of men were standing at the bar, but Easton and Blue ignored them. Two cowboys were shaking dice on the bar-top at Easton’s right hand.

“’At’s horse ’n horse,” declared one of them. “One flop, Sleepy.”

Easton shot a sidewise look at the speaker. It was the tall cowboy, who had hit him on the ear, standing elbow to elbow with him; intent on his dice shaking.

Easton slowly turned his head and looked at Blue, who was toying with his glass of liquor. The dice rattled.

“You’re stuck!” exclaimed Hashknife.

Easton jerked his head around and looked square into Hashknife’s face.

“How’s the ear?” asked Hashknife.

The question placed Easton in an embarrassing position. He could not see Hashknife’s right hand, and his own hands were on the bar. Blue squinted past Easton’s shoulder at Hashknife, and Hashknife grinned at him.

Sleepy leaned forward on the bar and craned his neck around Hashknife.

“I hope to die, if I ain’t terror-stricken!” he gasped. “We’ve been told that it’s fash’nable to be plumb scared of Mister Easton; so we turns pale, politely.”

Easton tore his eyes away from Hashknife’s grinning face and looked straight into the back-bar. His mind worked swiftly, but got nowhere. He was being insulted in his own house. Jake Blue leaned away from the bar, as if to move into the crowd, but Sleepy stepped around behind Hashknife and Blue leaned back against the bar.

“Where’s the old man—old Lonesome Lee?” asked Hashknife.

Easton turned quickly.

“What do you want of him?”

“Want to give him that letter,” explained Hashknife.

“Oh!” Easton’s grunt seemed to relieve him.

“’F he ain’t around here, mebbe you could take care of it for him, eh?”

“Sheriff’s nervous,” interrupted Sleepy. “’Pears to have a itch on his hip. Likely comes from a callous caused by packin’ such a heavy gun.”

Jake Blue scowled, but said nothing.

“I’ll give him the letter,” nodded Easton, trying to not appear too eager to be of service.

Hashknife’s concealed right hand flipped the letter to the bar in front of Easton and dropped back. Easton picked up the letter and started to put it in his vest-pocket, but Hashknife stopped him.

“Whoa, Blaze!”

Easton stared at him wonderingly, as Hashknife motioned for him to stop.

“Not in a vest-pocket, pardner. Put it in your side pants-pocket, if you don’t mind. That’s the only pocket where a tin-horn gambler don’t pack a derringer.”

Easton scowled and shoved the letter into the designated pocket. He wondered if this tall cowpuncher was a mind reader, and knew that he was going to use the letter as an excuse to get at the two-barreled derringer in his vest-pocket.

“’F you don’t stop hankerin’ t’ scratch—” Sleepy’s voice held a note of menace—“’f you don’t, I’m goin’ to get a piece of sandpaper and give you one good curryin’, Mister Sheriff. Ain’tcha ashamed to scratch thataway in comp’ny?”

“By ——, I’m tired of this!” wailed the exasperated Mr. Blue. “Who’re you, anyway, I’d like to know? What right you got to tell me when I can scratch and when I can’t?”

“I’m just teachin’ you how to act polite, ain’t I?” complained Sleepy. “Gee cripes, you sure do act peevish over learnin’ things. ’F I was you——”

“Don’t tease the li’l gent, Sleepy,” Hashknife said, chuckling. “His chilblains has likely extended up to his hips. You know how cold feet makes you itch.”

Hashknife kept his eyes on Easton, while talking direct to Sleepy, and he saw a flash of relief come over Easton’s face. A man had stepped in behind him, brushing against Hashknife’s right elbow, and Easton’s eyes had followed this man.

The conversation had been even lower than ordinary and had attracted no attention.

It all happened in a few seconds. As the man brushed Hashknife’s arm, Hashknife stepped quickly away from the bar; stepped away just in time to let Hagen, the ex-88 cowboy, crash into Easton.

Hagen had intended to bump Hashknife hard enough to knock him off his balance, but he had not expected Hashknife to move so quickly.

Easton whirled half-around and jammed his heels on to Jake Blue’s toes, while Hagen half-fell to his knees. Like a flash, Easton struck at Hashknife, and his bare knuckles came in contact with Hashknife’s heavy six-shooter.

Sleepy sprang in to prevent Blue from drawing a gun, and his knee caught Hagen just under the chin, knocking his head against the solid bar with a dull tunk! Easton’s right hand went out of commission and he stumbled awkwardly over Hagen’s legs, falling flat on the floor, while Sleepy pinned Blue’s arms in a bear-like hug, swung him up bodily and backed to the door. Hashknife backed swiftly out with him, covering the surprized crowd, which had no idea of what had been going on.

Once outside they went swiftly to the hitch-rack, with Sleepy still carrying the cursing sheriff.

“What’ll I do with him?” panted Sleepy. “I don’t want him.”

“Got his gun?” asked Hashknife.

“It’s back in the War-Bonnet.”

“Let him loose,” laughed Hashknife. “We ain’t collectin’ knick-knacks.”

Sheriff Blue sat down so heavily in the hard street that his tongue, for once, refused to function. Hashknife and Sleepy mounted swiftly and whirled back past the War-Bonnet, where men were crowding the doorway.

Spot Easton cursed bitterly as he saw them flash past the beams of yellow light, then he turned back to “Blondy” Hagen, who was still sitting in front of the bar, holding his head in his hands.

Easton’s right hand was deeply cut and swelling rapidly. He cursed it fluently and turned to see Jake Blue coming in, covered with dust, his face badly scratched.

Blue had nothing to say. Men crowded around them, wondering what had been the reason for the fight, but none of the three victims seemed inclined to explain things. Hagen got to his feet and started for the door.

“You!” gritted Easton bitterly.

Hagen scowled blackly and shouldered his way out of the door, where he turned and glared back at Easton.

“Aw! You be ——!” he snorted, and went away.

“It’s a large night,” said Blue inanely.

The coroner’s inquest over the remains of Quinin Quinn caused little excitement in Caldwell. The fact that Quinin was dead was enough in itself; who killed him, was merely conjectured and Lodge-Pole county felt that it would remain so, according to precedent.

The jury listened patiently to Hashknife, Sleepy and Skelton, while Doc Clevis, puffing with his own importance, crossquestioned them. Swede Sam was there, blank-faced over the whole thing, and all that Doc Clevis could get from him was:

“Ay dunno. Ay am de cook.”

Neither Easton nor Blondy Hagen was at the inquest, which was held at the doctor’s home. Sheriff Blue glared silently at the floor during the proceedings, looking at no one.

“Sheriff,” said Doc Clevis, turning away from Swede Sam, “you’ve got a little evidence to show the jury, ain’t you?”

Jake Blue looked straight at Hashknife for a moment and then he answered—


“Why, I—I thought——”

Doc Clevis seemed surprized.

Blue shook his head.

“We-e-ll, I reckon that’s all—then,” said the doctor slowly, looking at Blue.

He turned to the jury and added—

“You can think this over now, and——”

“It ain’t goin’ to require much thinkin’,” said a raw-boned cattleman. “These two strangers tell a straight story, and Skelton sure never shot Quinn.”

“What about the Swede?” asked the doctor.

“I reckon the sheriff ought to apologize to him for puttin’ him in jail at all.”

Blue scowled, but said nothing.

“It’ll be the reg’lar verdict, Doc,” nodded one of the jury. “We finds that Quinin Quinn demises at the hands of a party, or parties, unknown. And,” he added, “that sure as —— ain’t settin’ no new example around here.”

The jury nodded and got to their feet.

“You’re free, Swede,” grunted Blue savagely.

“Das goot,” nodded Swede Sam, getting to his feet. “Now Ay buy drink—for me.”

Blue hurriedly left the room ahead of the rest, and went straight to the War-Bonnet. Spot Easton was near the door evidently waiting for news, but Blue silently headed straight for the private room, and Easton followed him.

Blue flopped down in a chair and bit savagely into a plug of tobacco. His jaws fairly quivered as he spat out the twisted piece of metal—the trademark on the plug.

“Hook it on to ’em, Jake?” asked Easton, easing himself into a chair.

“Hook ——!” Blue’s vocal cords seemed to unhook with a bang.

“What do you mean, Jake? Didn’t the jury——?”

“To —— with the jury! They turned the Swede loose and said that Quinn was killed by parties unknown; that’s what happened!”

“——!” grunted Easton. “I thought you was so —— clever.”


Blue masticated rapidly as if trying to control his temper.

“How about that rifle?” asked Easton.

Blue spat explosively.

“You want to know, do you? So do I! I had that rifle in a rack in my office. I had three more rifles in that same rack. I went to git that rifle this mornin’ and——”

“It wasn’t there, eh?” interrupted Easton.

“You’re —— right it wasn’t! Neither was the other three.”

“You’re clever,” admitted Easton. “Clever as ——! What did you leave——”

“Lemme alone!” snarled Blue. “Don’tcha ride me, Spot! If you thought of that, why didn’t you say so? You’re so danged smart that you always see mistakes after they happen.”

Easton made no reply to this, and a deep gloom seemed to pervade the little room: Blue chewed mechanically, his eyes closed, a picture of abject despair; while Easton considered his bandaged right hand, which ached badly. His knuckles still tingled from contact with that heavy gun.

“Hagen knows that tall jasper,” he volunteered.


Blue spat and leaned back.

“Name’s Hashknife. Hagen says he’s a fightin’ hound.”

“My ——!” exploded Blue. “D’ you need to be told?”

After another long period of silence Easton said—

“I’m goin’ to make a trip to Gunsight, Jake.”

“Thasso? Whatfer?”

“Business. Leavin’ pretty soon.”

Jake Blue got to his feet and walked to the door, where he turned and squinted at Easton.

“What in —— do I care where you go? I’m gittin’ sick of havin’ eve’thing goin’ wrong all the time. If we’re goin’ to let that long-geared coyote run this country, let’s both go and give him room. We ain’t a —— bit better off ’n we was.”

“Takes time, Jake.” Easton’s tone was conciliatory.

Blue masticated viciously.

“Where’s Doc goin’ to bury Quinn?”

“I dunno, but I think Doc’s goin’ to start a new graveyard with Quinn. Said he’d picked out a spot back of town. Is that Hashknife person still here?”

“—— him; I suppose so. If I was you I’d sneak out the back way, Spot—if you want to git away safe-like.”

Jake Blue slammed the door behind him and went down the big room, half-grinning to himself. At least it was some satisfaction to goad Spot Easton, who was losing prestige about as fast as possible. Easton’s reputation had been earned, but he seemed to be running into a series of hard-luck and mistakes. Jake Blue also felt that the god of luck had deserted him, but he blamed everybody except himself. He went out of the front door and ran into Doc Clevis.

“I’ve been lookin’ for you,” stated Clevis. “What happened to you, Jake? Was you afraid to produce that rifle?”

Blue cursed solemnly and told the doctor what he had told Spot Easton. Doc Clevis removed his hat and polished his bald head with his palm.

“Somebody,” declared the doctor, “stole them guns.”

“Didja think they walked away?” Blue said sarcastically, and added—

“Where’d Skelton and them two longhorns go to?”

Doc Clevis did not know. He was dry, and he offered to buy a drink, but Jake Blue refused.

“You better let me look you over,” said the doctor. “Any time you refuses a drink, you’re sick.”

Jake Blue turned wearily away from the doctor and went toward the office. Spot Easton went to the livery-stable and in a few minutes he came out driving a tall, bay horse hitched to a top-buggy. He drove to the sheriff’s doorway, where Blue leaned dejectedly.

“I’m goin’ to Gunsight,” said Easton.

“You’ve got my consent,” grunted Blue, and as Easton drove out of town he added, “I hope t’ —— you run off a grade and never hit bottom.”

Hashknife, Sleepy and Skelton had left town immediately following the inquest. Hashknife was standing in the ranch-house doorway when Easton drove past, headed for Gunsight—the terminus of a branch railroad.

Easton did not look toward the house, but Hashknife recognized him.

“There goes the foreman of the 88, Skelton,” he said.

“Th’ son-of-a-rooster!” grunted Skelton. “He’s done read that letter and he’s goin’ to meet her in Gunsight.”

Easton disappeared around a curve in a cloud of dust, and Hashknife rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“How far’s it to Gunsight?”

“Thirty miles—about.”

“Huh!” Hashknife cogitated deeply. “If she comes in tonight, he’ll likely make the return trip with her.”

“Danged lonesome ride at night,” observed Skelton.

Sleepy came up from the corral and sat down on the steps.

“What’s the matter, long feller?” he asked as he noticed Hashknife’s thoughtful expression.

“That’s what Easton likely wants,” mused Hashknife, ignoring Sleepy’s question. “A feller don’t lie in a letter without havin’ some kind of an ax to grind.”

“Lemme in on it, will you?” asked Sleepy.

“Spot Easton just went past in a top-buggy, and he’s headin’ for Gunsight.”

“That’s good. I reckon we can get along without him.”

“But,” said Hashknife slowly, “you gotta figure that the girl’s only eighteen years old. She won’t sabe Spot Easton.”

“I dunno much about human nature,” said Sleepy, “but I do know danged well that I’m hungry. Don’t we ever eat on this new job, Bliz?”

“Y’betcha,” grinned Skelton. “I’m goin’ t’ rustle some bull-beef and bakin’-powder biscuits right now. I was just wonderin’ why that rifle never showed up at the inquest.”

“Did your rifle have any mark on it, Skelton?”

“I dunno. I sure as —— couldn’t identify it.”

“Thassall right then,” grinned Hashknife. “Me and Sleepy examined ’em all before we sunk ’em in the crick—they all looked alike to us.”

Skelton scratched his head violently and squinted at Hashknife.

“You—uh—oh ——, yes! I know what you mean now. Top-hands, y’betcha—yes sir.”

Skelton went into the house and in a few moments he was busy with biscuit-dough, while Sleepy and Hashknife humped up on the steps and manufactured cigarets.

“Thirty miles to Gunsight,” observed Hashknife. “Right pretty little ride.”

“Yeah, it is,” admitted Sleepy.

“She sure is, Sleepy; nice li’l ride. We’ll saddle up as soon as we folds the stummick around a little provender.”

“Saddle up?” queried Sleepy. “You ain’t——”

“We are,” corrected Hashknife.

“Aw-w!” Sleepy protested softly. “You’re the dangdest person t’ hop into——”

“What’d you do, Sleepy?”

“Well, it ain’t our business noways, Hashknife.”

“Supposin’ Spot Easton was goin’ to meet your sister?”

“But she ain’t my sister.”

“’F you was Lonesome Lee’s son, she would be. Suppose you was, Sleepy.”

“I ain’t—not even supposin’, Hashknife.”

“Gosh a’mighty! Thirty miles! I suppose you’d go if it was sixty. Sixty miles ain’t much.”

“I never been able to figure you out, Hashknife.” Sleepy shook his head disconsolately. “You do the dangdest things I ever seen. Some day you’re goin’ to horn into things what don’t concern you, and you’ll meet a hunk of lead—face to face.

“You always kind of go out of your way to bother into other folks’ troubles. Every danged place we go you gets into some dang kind of a mixup, and she’s always because you feel sorry fer somebody. If it was only you I’d say for you to go to it and grab a tombstone but, blast it all, you always drags me into it.”

Sleepy stopped for lack of breath and glared at Hashknife.

“Yes sir,” nodded Hashknife slowly, “just suppose you was a brother to that girl. It’s thirty miles; which is some ride in the dark.”

“Hey!” yelled Skelton from the kitchen. “You jaspers like gravy with your spuds?”

“You spoke my daily prayer,” yelled Hashknife.

Sleepy got to his feet and stretched his arms.

“I hope that train don’t get in so early that we’ll have to hold up Spot Easton on the road. I had a sister, Hashknife, and I know what you mean.”

It was nine o’clock when Hashknife and Sleepy rode into Gunsight, and the night was as dusky as the proverbial black cat. Gunsight was quite a bit larger than Caldwell and a trifle more modern, owing to the railroad which made it a shipping point for the surrounding country.

They dismounted at a hitch-rack and tied their horses.

“Mister Easton will likely put his horse in a stable,” stated Hashknife. “Especially if he aims to drive back tonight. We better kinda examine the livery-stable.”

They jingled their spurs down the sidewalk to where a lantern swung over a wide doorway, from within which came the unmistakable odor of a stable. Two more lighted lanterns were hung at the sides of the room to light up the rows of stalls.

A stable-man came out of the grain-room carrying another lantern which he placed on a backless chair near the door, and squinted at Hashknife and Sleepy.

“Evenin’,” he grunted. Cowboys usually made the stable their headquarters.

“Evenin’,” greeted Hashknife. “How’s business?”

“’S’all right, I reckon. The day man got drunk and I’m doin’ two shifts. Got any Durham?”

Hashknife passed him part of a sack and he rolled a cigaret.

“Ain’t much night business, is there?” asked Hashknife.

“Naw—not much; but just enough to make me miss a date with m’ girl. Figured to close up early, but a feller drove in a while ago, and he’s goin’ out agin’ tonight. Naturally I’ve got to linger around here ’till he starts travelin’ agin’. I ain’t no drinkin’ person, but whisky sure does cause me a lot of misery.”

“Can’t he hitch his own horse?” asked Hashknife.

“Well, I reckon he could; but it ain’t hardly good business to ask a feller to pay fer service and not git it.”

“That’s a fact,” agreed Hashknife solemnly. “We was just wonderin’ if we could bunk in the hay t’night. I don’t admire to pay a hotel four-bits for a chance to read my shirt the next mornin’.”

“Sure, sure. The loft’s got plenty of room, or you can sleep in the grain-room. They’s a bunk in there and some blankets.”

“That’s right kind of you,” said Hashknife. “If we can help you— Say, if it ain’t too late to keep that date with your girl——”

“Whatcha mean?”

“Well, is there any reason why I can’t tend to that feller’s horse? Ain’t no trouble to cinch a hull on a bronc. Course I wouldn’t take his money——”

“Thassall right, I got his money in advance. It ain’t no saddle-horse, though. If you don’t mind hitchin’ a horse to a buggy ——”

“Cinch,” grunted Hashknife. “Show me the horse and buggy, pardner.”

It took the man about a minute to point out the horse, harness and buggy. It was the tall, bay horse which Easton had driven from Caldwell. The stable-man was voluble in his thanks, and hurried away to keep his date. Hashknife and Sleepy grinned at each other as they sat down to wait for Easton’s return.

Blondy Hagen, following his run-in with Hashknife and Sleepy, had come to Gunsight. His head was still sore from its crash against the War-Bonnet bar, and he proceeded to embalm his wounded feelings in very bad whisky.

And when Blondy got drunk, he got bad. Like an Indian warrior he sang his own praises—until he saw Spot Easton drive in and stable his horse. Blondy was not afraid of Spot—not in the least, but he knew that Spot would have something to say about what happened in the War-Bonnet.

Blondy was one of those peculiar characters whose gun was always ready for hire, and he could still feel the weight of Spot Easton’s cash. He really wanted to see Spot and, if possible, get more money; but he felt that he really should do something to earn what he had already been paid.

He weaved out of the Ten-Spot saloon and balanced himself against a porch-post. Just to his left was a hitch-rack, partly lighted from the Ten-Spot window. He clung to the post and puzzled over the two horses, which looked familiar. Suddenly he remembered; and the memory caused him to straighten up and grunt softly to himself—

“Tha’s their broncs! Whatcha know?”

Blondy gawped foolishly and grew inspired. It might be worth his while to find Spot Easton and tell him that those two gall-laden punchers were in Gunsight. He lurched away from the post and proceeded to cut himself a wide trail down the sidewalk. He hadn’t the slightest idea where Spot Easton might be found; but Blondy hadn’t the slightest idea where he was going; so it made no difference.

He almost fell into the doorway of a restaurant as a man was coming out—and the man was Easton. He grabbed Blondy by the shoulder to keep him from falling, and shut the door behind him. Blondy got a glimpse of a very pretty girl sitting at a table; and then Spot Easton shoved him past the restaurant and into the darkness of an alley.

“What are you doin’ here, Hagen?” demanded Easton.

“Me? Leggo that arm! Whatcha think you are?”

“You know who I am,” growled Easton meaningly. “When did you come to Gunsight?”

“Thassall right,” said Blondy drunkenly.

“Don’t paw me ’round, Spot. I was looking fer you. Mebbe you’d like to know that them two Tombstone punchers are here.”


“You know; them two that kinda jiggered our play.”

“Oh!” Easton grunted softly. “What are they doin’ here?”

“I never seen ’em,” admitted Blondy, “but their broncs are tied to the rack at the Ten-Spot, y’betcha.”

“Are you sure, Hagen?”

“Betcha I am. I know that tall roan and the blue-gray.”

Spot Easton thought rapidly. If Hashknife and Sleepy were in Gunsight, they had a reason for coming—and he might be the reason. He suddenly realized that they had opened and read that letter, and he swore softly for not having thought of that before.

“Are they in the Ten-Spot?” he asked.

“Wasn’t,” Hagen replied. “I come out of there and found the horses.”

“The Ten-Spot is almost straight across the street from the livery-stable,” mused Easton aloud. “I wonder if they—Hagen, is there another livery-stable here?”

“Uh-huh. ‘Soapy’ Evans owns kind of a stable.”

“You want to earn your money, Hagen?”

“Tha’s me.”

“Go up to the livery-stable and find out if them two snake-hunters are there. Don’t let ’em see you; do you understand?”

“Prob’ly git killed, if I don’t,” grunted Hagen. “Where’ll I find you?”

“I’ll be right here waitin’ for you.”

It was about two blocks to the stable, and the average was about six saloons to a block. Hagen knew that he had won back the good graces of his employer; so he went in and partook of good cheer. Easton fretted in the dark and waited for a report, while Hagen weaved in and out of the saloons; getting closer to the stable at each entrance and exit, but also getting more cocksure of himself.

The last saloon took away every vestige of cowardice in Blondy Hagen’s make-up. He came out, balanced on the edge of the sidewalk, while he filled his lungs to capacity and then emitted a war-whoop that would have shamed any Indian on earth.

He stumbled off the sidewalk, gripped his six-shooter tightly, took his bearings from the lantern over the doorway of the stable and set sail.

He stumbled up the plank drive-way and into the dim light of the stable, telling himself hoarsely how very great he was and how Spot Easton depended upon him for everything. As he halted to inhale enough breath for another declaration, a rope seemed to descend from nowhere, tightened around his arms and body, and something threw him upside down with a great crash.

Strong hands picked him up and carried him away, and a moment later he felt himself hurled into space. He landed on something fairly soft, while above him came the crash of a closing door and the rasp of a padlock-hasp.

Hagen staggered to his feet and his head came in violent contact with the roof, and he sat down again. After much painful effort he secured a match and inspected his position. He peered all around, felt of his empty holster, and cursed wickedly when the match burnt his finger.

“I’m in the oat-bin,” he told himself, “an’ I ain’t got no gun. Tha’s pe-culiar, but ’s a fac’.”

And Blondy Hagen settled down in the oats and went to sleep, while Spot Easton cursed savagely and wondered if Hagen had run foul of those two unmentionable cowboys.

He had told Jane Lee that he was going to the livery-stable to get the horse and buggy. Peeking into the restaurant window he saw that she was nervously waiting his return. He prided himself on the fact that he had made an impression on her already and he knew that—well, he owned Lonesome Lee, and the girl did not know any one in Lodge-Pole county.

Hagen had had time to make several trips to the stable by this time. Easton began to worry. Finally he decided to take a chance. He hurried back into the restaurant.

“Just run into a feller who talked business, and it delayed me,” he explained. “I reckon you might as well come along with me as to stay here.”

He picked up her valise and led the way out to the street.

“It’s only a little ways,” he assured her, as he switched the valise to his left hand and slid his gun loose. “She’s a nice night.”

A cowboy came out of a saloon, braced his legs wide apart, whooped loudly and emptied his gun in the air. The girl drew back in affright, but Easton laughed and assured her that the shots meant nothing.

“You’re goin’ to like this country after you get used to it, Jane.”

“I—I suppose so,” she faltered. “It is all so new to me, and the houses seem so small.”

Easton said nothing. They walked up the sloping sidewalk to the door of the stable and stopped. There was not a sound from the interior, except horses munching hay.

Easton looked up and down the street. He could see the hitch-rack in front of the Ten-Spot, but was unable to distinguish the color of the horses.

“Hey!” he called. There was no response. “I suppose I’ll have to harness my own horse,” he said to the girl.

He placed the valise on the floor and walked slowly inside. The door of the grain room was partly open, and he peered in.

Came the dull chuck! of a muffled blow and Easton disappeared inside. The girl was watching him, and wondered how he had managed to get inside by dragging both feet.

From inside the room came a creaking noise and a crash, as if a bin-cover had been slammed down. Then the door opened and Hashknife and Sleepy stepped out.

“Howdy, ma’am,” said Hashknife politely. “Are you Miss Lee?”

“Why, yes. I—I—where is Mr. Easton?”

“Easton? O-o-o-oh, yeah. He’s in the oat-bin, ma’am.”

“I do not understand you.” The girl seemed puzzled.

“Harness the horse, Sleep,” commanded Hashknife. “This lady’s got to find a place to sleep.”

Sleepy gleefully brought out the horse and backed it into the buggy-shafts. Jane Lee stared at the tall cowboy beside her, and wondered at the mystery of it all.

“You drive the rig, Sleep,” ordered Hashknife. “I’ll bring your bronc along with me.”

“But,” objected the girl, “I—I—Mr. Easton is going to take me to my father’s ranch.”

“Was,” corrected Hashknife. “He’s goin’ to sleep with one of his hired men tonight, so we made him let us take you home.”

Hashknife shoved the valise into the rear of the buggy and helped her into the seat. She started to protest, but Sleepy chirped to the tall, bay horse and they rolled hollowly out of the doorway and headed homeward.

As Hashknife crossed to the horses, the stable-man came from down the street and went into the stable. He had seen the top-buggy going up the street, and he surmized that its owner had returned.

As he turned to go toward the rear he heard a muffled voice calling. He listened closely and decided that it came from the grain-room. He sneaked in and lighted a match. Some one was hammering on the inside of the oat-bin. The stable-man was taking no chances. He went outside, got a lantern, which he hung over the top of the bin, took an old shot-gun from behind the door and flipped the fastener loose from the lid of the bin.

A moment later the lid lifted and Spot Easton, very much disheveled, stood up and blinked foolishly.

“Wh-whatcha doin’ in my oats?” grunted the stable-man hoarsely.

“Aw! —— you and your oats!” groaned Spot, as he crawled painfully over the edge and rubbed his sore head.

He looked back inside and motioned to the stable-man to look. Cautiously the man looked down at the sleeping form of Blondy Hagen.

“This,” said the stable-man seriously, “this here is my-steer-i-us, by——”

“Where did they go?” asked Easton, rubbing his head, on which appeared to be a bump about the size and shape of an egg. “Did you see the lady?”

“Was there a lady?”

“You —— fool!” exploded Easton. “I brought a lady here with me; sabe? I came to get that horse and buggy I left here.”

The stable-man stepped outside and glanced across at the empty stall.

“The horse and buggy is gone,” he announced. “If you know where you left the lady, you might look and see if she’s still there or not.”

But Easton exploded a number of vile epithets and staggered away down the street. The stable-man went back, looked at Blondy Hagen, blew out the lantern and went outside and shoved the sliding-doors together.

“Too —— much hocus-pocus to suit me!” he grunted, and went home.

It was in the small hours of the morning when Mrs. Frosty Snow awoke from a troubled sleep—wherein she had fired Swede Sam in three languages—and sat up in bed. Frosty was on a cattle-buying trip, and Mrs. Snow was all alone in the ranch-house.

Some one was knocking urgently on the front door. She crawled out of bed, picked up a heavy Colt six-shooter, and padded her way to the front door.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

“This is Hashknife Hartley, Mrs. Snow.”

“Kinda early, ain’t you?”

“Yes’m,” admitted Hashknife, “it is early. Can I talk to you?”

“If you don’t mind strainin’ your voice through the door.”

“I don’t mind,” Hashknife laughed softly. “But this has got to be confidential, Mrs. Snow. It’s about a girl.”

“Thasso?” Mrs. Snow’s voice was a trifle sarcastic. “I ain’t in the habit of bein’ woke up at four o’clock to pass out advice to the love-lorn, Mr. Hartley.”

“Listen, ma’am,” begged Hashknife. “This ain’t nothin’ matrimonial—honest to gosh. You know Spot Easton?”

“By sight and smell,” she replied. Spot Easton’s perfumery was not at all popular with the range folk.

“He lied to a girl,” stated Hashknife softly. “I done stole the girl from him, and I’ve gotta have somebody to take care of her for a while.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” demanded Mrs. Snow, opening the door about four inches. “Where is she? Tell me about her.”

Hashknife swiftly recounted what he knew about the girl, and about the situation at the 88 ranch.

“Bring her in,” ordered Mrs. Snow. “I’ll sure take care of her and nobody’s goin’ to know where she is. Prob’ly end up in a killin’, but that ain’t my affair. Say you’re livin’ at the Tombstone ranch? Yeah, that danged Swede came back.”

Hashknife went back to the dim outlines of a horse and buggy and returned in a moment with Jane Lee and Sleepy. After thirty miles in a top-buggy, with a companion who only talked in monosyllables, Jane Lee was more than willing to stay any place. She did not have the slightest idea of what it was all about. It was not like the reception she had expected. In fact, it was like a nightmare.

“Just edge to one side, while she comes in,” ordered Mrs. Snow. “Frosty Snow’s old woman is kind of in the rough at this time o’ day.”

Jane Lee walked in and Mrs. Snow closed the door to a few inches.

“Come agin, cowboys.”

“Yes’m, y’betcha,” laughed Hashknife, and the two men clumped down the steps and back to their horses and buggy, while Mrs. Snow put her arms around Jane Lee.

“Whatcha cryin’ for?” demanded Mrs. Snow. “My gosh, you’re all right, honey.”

“I—I don’t know what it is all about,” sobbed Jane. “I don’t know what became of Mr. Easton, and——”

“Don’tcha worry about that sidewinder,” Mrs. Snow said soothingly. “You brace up and quit worryin’. Mebbe it was danged lucky them two punchers kidnaped you, honey.”

“But why did they?” demanded Jane with some heat.

“Didn’t you ask ’em?”

“Dozens of times. The one who drove the horse wouldn’t tell me anything. He kept singing something about being buried on the lone prairie.”

Mrs. Snow laughed and patted Jane on the shoulder.

“You brace up, honey. You’re danged lucky to ride all the way from Gunsight with a mournful cowpuncher, if you only knowed it. You snap into a nightgown and pile into my bed, and I’ll bet you’ll feel better. We’re common folks here at the Half-Moon, and, outside of havin’ an imported cook, we don’t put on much dog.”

“I suppose,” said Jane softly, “I should be thankful that I am here with you.”

“Yes, and you don’t know half of it, little lady.”

Hashknife and Sleepy took the horse and buggy back to Caldwell, and tied the horse to the rack beside the livery-stable. No one saw them come, and no one saw them leave, except one or two dogs, which barked sleepily.

They rode back to the Tombstone ranch, and stabled their horses just as the first light of dawn showed over the eastern hills.

They stopped in the porch of the ranchhouse as the sound of galloping horses came to their ears, and saw two riders swing around the bend, riding swiftly toward Caldwell. One rider was a little in the rear, and in the dim light he seemed to be a trifle unsteady in his saddle.

“Somebody unlocked the oat-bin,” laughed Hashknife softly, “and the bloodhounds are on the trail of a top-buggy.”

“They’re welcome to it,” yawned Sleepy. “Hope I never have to ride that far in one again. I sung all the time to kinda keep things cheerful.”

“My ——!” gasped Hashknife. “The poor girl!”

Spot Easton rode all the way from Gunsight with a blind, unreasoning rage in his heart. It had taken him quite a while to arouse the other stable-man in order to hire a saddle-horse, and then he had gone back to the oat-bin and made Blondy Hagen ride with him.

He did not have the slightest idea which way the horse and buggy had gone, until he rode into Caldwell and found it hitched outside the livery-stable. Hagen was still too drunk and sleepy to care how Easton felt, and listened indifferently while Easton polluted the morning air with profanity.

“’F I stole a horsh ’n buggy, I’d git hung,” stated Blondy knowingly.

“And that’s no —— lie, either!” snapped Easton. “Come on.”

Blondy followed him down to Jake Blue’s office. Easton hammered on the door with the toe of his boot. In a few moments Jake’s tousled head appeared and he demanded to know what in the adjective did anybody mean by waking him up in the middle of the night.

Rapidly, and with many oaths, Easton explained that Hashknife and Sleepy had stolen his horse and buggy at Gunsight.

“Thasso?” Blue shivered slightly. “Got any idea where they went with it?”

“Brought it here!” snapped Easton. “It’s tied to the livery-stable hitch-rack.”

“Then it ain’t stole a-tall.” Blue seemed relieved over this statement.

“They stole it from me!” yowled Easton. “I tell you they hit me on the head and threw me into a —— oat-bin!”

“Thasso,” nodded Blondy seriously. “I know, because I was in there, too.”

Blue started to laugh, but managed to choke it back. It was no place to laugh, and yet he howled inwardly at the thought of Easton and Hagen being thrown into an oat-bin.

“I want you to arrest the both of ’em on a charge of horse stealin’,” demanded Easton angrily, “and if you think there’s anything funny about it—go ahead and laugh.”

Blue grew serious. He did not relish the idea of going out to arrest those two men on such a serious charge.

“Are you sure they was the ones?” he asked. “Can you git up in court and swear that they stole your horse and buggy?”

“I’m —— ’f I can,” said Hagen. “All I knows——”

“Of course I can swear to it!” snapped Easton. “Do you think I’d get up there and admit that I didn’t know who done it?”

“If I had a good deputy-sheriff—” Blue expressed his thoughts in words.

“Take Hagen with you, Jake.”

“Like ——!” exploded Hagen. “No sir! I ain’t——”

“Since when did you break away from us?” queried Spot meaningly.

“Oh, awright. I ain’t breakin’ away from nobody, Spot; but when you monkey with them two jaspers there’s a hoo-doo on the job, I tell you. If you lemme try agin’ with the long-range stuff——”

“And miss again,” sneered Easton. “All the good that’s done is to make old Skelton more careful.”

“We ain’t had much luck, tha’s a fact,” said Jake Blue sadly. “Mebbe we went at it all wrong.”

“You can’t expect a fortune to come along and roost in your lap, can you?” asked Easton sneeringly. “We’ll get these two punchers into jail and then we’ll settle with old man Skelton.”

“If we’d only tried to buy the —— place at first,” argued Blue.

“Well, we didn’t!”

“It was your idea to make old Skelton sick of his place, so’s he’d be willin’ to sell cheap.”

“Yeah? How did I know that he was going to hang on in spite of everything? I done the best I could.”

“I reckon so, Spot. Doc Clevis tried to buy it agin’ from Skelton and the old son-of-a-gun made him a price this time.”

“How much, Jake?”

“Hundred thousand dollars.”

“That,” said Hagen seriously, “is more’n it’s worth.”

“Aw, ——!” exploded Easton. “If you’re tryin’ to be funny, Hagen——”

“Well, ain’t it?” wailed Hagen.

Easton turned back to Blue.

“You slam them two jaspers into jail right away,” he said. “If you need more help I can send in some of the boys from the 88.”

“All right,” Blue said dubiously. “You go and sleep f’r an hour or so, Hagen. This ain’t no blear-eyed job, y’betcha.”

“Make it longer’n that if you feel like it,” agreed Hagen. “Make it a week, and see if I git impatient.”

Easton and Hagen went back up the street toward the War-Bonnet. It was too early for Caldwell to be awake, and Easton wondered what old Lonesome Lee was doing out so early in the morning.

The old man was standing in front of the Paris restaurant, and for the first time in months he seemed to be sober.

“What in —— are you doing around so early?” questioned Easton as they came up to the old man.

“Just lookin’ around, thassall,” Lonesome Lee’s voice was very husky, but there was no trace of drunkeness left.

“Lookin’ around, eh? What for?”

“Just for instance.” The old man was a trifle belligerent.

This attitude did not please Spot Easton. He much preferred to have the old man whining for liquor.

“What’s biting you?” he snapped.

“Not a danged thing, Spot. I’m sober today, if you take notice, and I’m lookin’ for a letter I lost.”

“Letter?” echoed Easton. “What letter?”

“I was drunk,” continued the old man, “but I wasn’t so drunk that I didn’t know about that letter. Somehow I remember you tellin’ me about other letters, Spot— letters that you wrote. I’ve been a —— old drunken bum, but I’m sober right now and I want to know a few things.”

“That must ’a’ been the letter that the long cowboy had,” said Blondy unthinkingly.

Easton shot Blondy a withering glance and turned back to Lonesome.

“I dunno what you’re talking about, Lee.”

“I remember the tall cowboy,” muttered Lonesome. “He was a stranger. But you got the letter, Spot.”

Spot Easton’s hand went mechanically to his ear as he shook his head.

“No, I’m —— if I did! You ask Windy who got that letter. Come on and let’s have a drink, Lonesome.”

Lonesome shook his head slowly, licked his lips and walked away. Easton glared after him and turned to Hagen:

“Will you ever learn to keep your danged tongue out of my affairs? Ain’t you got sense enough to let me do the talkin’? Now, that —— old fool will likely talk to everybody and—aw, ——! I hope you and Jake Blue will get your men today. I don’t want Lonesome Lee to talk to Hashknife. It may take a killin’ to prevent it.”

“You don’t let me in on anythin’,” complained Blondy bitterly. “You talk about letters and cattle-brands and the Tombstone ranch, and you never let me know the why of anythin’. All I’m good fer is to bush-whack, somebody.”

“You get paid for it, don’t you?” demanded Easton.

“Yeah, I get paid for it.”

“Then keep your mouth shut, Hagen. The less you know the safer you are—sabe? It’ll pay you to keep still.”

It was about noon when Hashknife and Sleepy woke up. Bliz Skelton was cooking breakfast for them and, though evidently curious, he asked no questions of what happened the night before.

“I went up to Caldwell last night,” he volunteered. “Ain’t been up there at night for a dog’s age, ’cause it wasn’t noways safe for me to be on the road after dark.”

“Any excitement?” yawned Hashknife, as he tugged at a tight boot.

“No-o-o,” Skelton twisted his face away from the spattering bacon. “Doc Clevis offered to buy this ranch again. A few weeks ago he offered me eight thousand, but last night he made it nine. Got kinda ruffed ’cause I wouldn’t take his offer.”

“You’ve had other offers, ain’t you?” asked Sleepy.

“Yeah. Spot Easton offered me seventy-five hundred.”

“That don’t noways include the stock, does it?” queried Hashknife.

“No. Just the ranch-house and what fenced ground goes with it. When Spot made that offer I reckon I had about seven hundred head of 33 cows on this range, but right now a 33 critter is as scarce as vi’lets in Jan’wary.”

“Well, gee cripes!” exploded Hashknife, stamping his feet on the floor. “You mean to stand there and tell me that you let somebody run off all your stock?”

“Well, I—I didn’t ‘let’ ’em, Hashknife. ’Pears that you don’t have to let folks rustle your cows.”

“Ain’t you complained none?”

“Who’d I complain to?”

“That’s a question,” admitted Hashknife. “I reckon you’ll just about have to sell out, Bliz.”

“—— if I will! No gosh danged bunch of——”

Bliz let loose of his skillet and grabbed his short shot-gun from its rack beside the door. Some one had ridden up to the porch, and now was coming up the steps to the door.

Bliz stepped back out of line with the door and motioned to Sleepy to open it. Some one knocked loudly. Sleepy grasped the knob and drew the door open, keeping himself behind it, while Jake Blue and Blondy Hagen stood there and blinked into the muzzle of Skelton’s riot-gun and wished they had postponed their visit.

“Put dud-down that gun,” stuttered Blue, trying to force himself to be brave. “You—you——”

Blondy Hagen’s hands went up above his head, and he squinted dismally. His heart was not in this job at all.

“Whatcha want here, Blue?” asked Skelton.

Jake Blue tore his eyes away from the menacing gun barrels and squinted at Hashknife and Sleepy.

“I want them two,” he replied. “I’ve got warrants for their arrest for horsestealin’.”

He started to reach for his pocket, but changed his mind. Such a move might be suicide. Hashknife walked over to the door and looked at Blue.

“Who swore out that warrant, sheriff?”

“Spot Easton.”

“Yeah?” Hashknife seemed greatly amused. “You go back and tell Spot Easton to come and get us, will you?”

“I’m the sheriff!” snapped Blue.

“That’s sure a deplorable fact,” agreed Hashknife, “and one of the main reasons why we refuse to get ourselves arrested. We’d have a sweet time ever gettin’ out of jail, whether we were innocent or guilty.”

“If you could prove—” began Blue, but Hashknife interrupted him.

“Prove it? Why, we’d have a fine chance. I suppose we’d have to stay in jail until the first term of court, eh?”

“Unless the judge would turn you loose.”

“Judge Pelley’d jist about do that,” grunted Skelton. “He knows about as much law as my old pinto horse, and he’d send his mother to jail for a quart of booze. Him and Spot Easton are thicker’n thieves.”

“I’ve got to do m’ duty,” wailed Blue. “I ain’t noways responsible for what Judge Pelley would do, am I? You’re resistin’ an officer of the law, if you only know it.”

“Ain’t nobody resisted you—yet,” Hashknife reminded him softly, “but if you don’t crawl to your horses and rattle your hocks out of here, I’ll nail your pants to the floor and leave you there to starve.”

“Come on,” urged Hagen. “There’s a difference in bein’ brave and bein’ a —— fool, Jake. I never knowed a two-barrel gun yet what wasn’t easy on the trigger. Come on.”

Hagen turned and went down the steps to his horse, flexing his tired arms as he went. Jake Blue swallowed his pride, along with a lump in his throat, and followed him down the steps.

“This ain’t the last of it, y’betcha,” he called back to the open doorway. “There’s more’n one count agin’ you now.”

Skelton stepped out on the porch and pointed to where the road wound around the point of a hill.

“Speakin’ of counts, Jake; there’s just twenty goin’ to be said by me. If you ain’t around that corner——”

Twenty counts is a short time; but Jake Blue and Blondy Hagen beat it by four. It was an ignominious retreat, especially for Jake Blue, who had a reputation to sustain, but he was wise enough to go while the going was good.

Skelton turned to go into the door, but stopped and stared at the man who was standing at the corner of the house.

“Lonesome Lee!” he grunted. “Whatcha doin’ there?”

“Waitin’ for Jake Blue and Hagen to pull out,” replied Lonesome, and came up to Skelton.

“How’d you come, Lonesome?”

“Walked. I side-tracked for Jake and Blondy.”

“Well,” Skelton scratched his head and looked up at Sleepy and Hashknife, who were standing in the doorway. “Well, this seems kinda queer t’ me.”

Lonesome looked up at Hashknife.

“I reckon you’re the man I wanted to see. ’Member me havin’ a letter the other day?”

Hashknife nodded.

“I—I kinda wanted to know what was in it,” said Lonesome slowly. “I sobered up ’specially for——”

Came the whining pluk! of a bullet and Lonesome Lee jerked back a half-step, threw one hand to his face and buckled forward at the knees.

Hashknife dove forward, grasped the old man in his arms and fairly fell through the doorway with him. Another bullet bit into the door-casing, and Skelton and Sleepy dove in behind Hashknife. Another bullet pinged in through the door and ricocheted off the cook-stove before Skelton kicked the door shut.

Hashknife picked Lonesome Lee off the floor and laid him on the bed. The old man’s face was a mass of gore and he was cursing wickedly, deliriously; fighting to get back to his feet.

“Like a chicken with its head cut plumb off!” gasped Sleepy.

“Lay still!” snapped Hashknife, dodging Lonesome’s kicking legs. “That bullet knocked, but didn’t come in.”

“Creased?” queried Sleepy anxiously, as he grasped Lonesome by the legs.

Lonesome ceased kicking, but his flow of profanity was undiminished. Skelton brought the water-bucket and a towel and washed the blood off the old man’s face. The bullet had cut a furrow from just above his right eye to a spot over his ear and, in the passing, it had flicked a notch in the top of the ear. The wound was superficial, but the shock was considerable.

He sat up and looked foolishly around, while Skelton mopped off the gore.

“Wh-what happened?” he croaked.

Hashknife examined the wound and turned quickly to Skelton.

“You patch him up, Bliz,” he said. “He’ll likely have a sore head, but that won’t hurt him. Me and Sleepy are goin’ to Caldwell.”

Hashknife was half-way out of the door at the finish of his statement and heading for the stable. Sleepy gawped for a moment and trotted after him. They saddled swiftly and galloped out to the Caldwell road.

“Whatcha goin’ to Caldwell for?” asked Sleepy, as they hit a level stretch and shook up their mounts.

“They’ll arrest us sure as ——, Hashknife.”


Hashknife spat out a half-burned cigaret and pulled his hat lower over his eyes.

“I’m plumb tired of bein’ shot at, Sleepy.”

It was about three miles to Caldwell, and they covered the distance in record speed. At the War-Bonnet hitch-rack they dismounted and went into the big saloon. There was no sign of Jake Blue or Blondy Hagen.

Windy, the bartender, gaped at ths sight of them and upset some glasses on the back-bar with his elbows.

“Seen Jake Blue lately?” asked Hashknife.


“Where’s Spot Easton?”


Hashknife leaned on the bar and studied Windy closely.

“You don’t know very much, do you?”

“If I did,” said Windy slowly, “I wouldn’t be a bartender. I didn’t lie about not knowin’ where Spot Easton is, but Jake Blue and Blondy Hagen went through here a short time ago, headin’ for the 88.”

“Goin’ after help, eh?”


Hashknife considered this. It was going to be very awkward if the sheriff brought the gang from the 88 outfit to help him serve the warrants.

“How many punchers on the 88?” he asked.

“Seven, I reckon.”

“That makes nine, countin’ Blue and Hagen. Odd number, ain’t it? Wish it was ten.”

“For gosh sake, why?” grunted Windy.

“I hate to fight odd numbers,” said Hashknife seriously. “Kinda hoodoos me.”

“Tryin’ to kid me?” asked Windy.

“If you think so, come with ’em. Didja hear about Lonesome Lee gettin’ killed?”

“Lonesome Lee! Whatcha mean?”

“Somebody shot him on Skelton’s porch a while ago.”

“Kill him dead?”

“Didja ever know a feller to get hit with a .30-30 and fail to grab a harp?”

“Whatcha know?” grunted Windy. “Who’d kill him?”

“Come on, Sleepy.”

Hashknife strode back to the door and headed for their horses. They rode swiftly back toward the Tombstone ranch, with Sleepy demanding to know what in —— they ever made the trip to Caldwell for, and what good it was going to do?

“Elimination and instruction, Sleepy,” replied Hashknife, as they dismounted at the Tombstone corral.

“I had an idea that Hagen and Blue might ’a’ stopped and took a shot at Lonesome Lee; but they wouldn’t ’a’ had time to circle back and still go through Caldwell much ahead of us. I was also kinda anxious to find out how many men Blue was goin’ to bring back with him.”

“—— of a lot of good that’ll do us,” complained Sleepy, “except to know that we died fightin’. I’m sure ready and willin’ to pull out of Lodge-Pole county.”

They found Lonesome and Skelton discussing cattle over their pipes. Lonesome was not much the worse for his wound. Skelton had used up every available rag on the ranch to check the bleeding, and Lonesome’s head looked like a turban.

“What kind of a bunch are workin’ on the 88?” asked Hashknife abruptly.

“What kind?” Lonesome cogitated deeply.

“Not much good, I reckon. None of my old gang are there.”

“Easton fired ’em, eh?”

Lonesome nodded slowly and wearily.

“I reckon so. He got a bunch from Arizona. I dunno anythin’ wrong about any of ’em, but I know I wouldn’t want that kind of punchers working for me. A feller by the name of Dell Blackwood is his foreman and he——”

“That’s a plenty,” interrupted Hashknife. “I know that horse-thief. Me and him worked on the Hashknife outfit and I know him from the belt both ways. Betcha he’s got ‘Holy Moses’ Herman workin’ for him.”

“There is a Herman,” nodded Lonesome. “Short feller, with a big nose.”

“That’s him!” exclaimed Hashknife. “Ought to ’a’ been hung fifteen years before he got old enough to wear long pants. Say, how much of the 88 does Easton own?”

“I dunno. He kinda took charge, and—and——”

“You mean he’s kept you drunk for a year or two and jist kinda nudged you out of everythin’. Shot your nerve all to —— with hooch, and hoodled you out of every thing you own.”

Lonesome stared down at the floor, but said nothing.

“Has he got a bill of sale from you?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Lonesome. “If he did, he got it from me when I was drunk.”

“And he could ’a’ got it from you any old time durin’ the last year or so,” declared Hashknife, “’cause you ain’t been sober in all that time.”

“What business is it of yours?” demanded Lonesome angrily. “It’s my ranch?”

“What about Jane Lee?”

Lonesome jerked upright and stared open-mouthed at Hashknife.

“Jane?” he croaked. “What—who——”

Lonesome Lee spluttered over his own words, his hand trembled wildly as he tried to grasp Hashknife.

“Set down!” snapped Hashknife. “She ain’t far from here, but I’m danged ’f she’s goin’ to see you in the shape you are now, old timer. She thinks you’re a dandy old dad, instead of a broken old wreck. She thinks you own the 88. You’re a —— of a nice specimen for a young lady to pick out for a dad, ain’tcha?”

Lonesome bowed his sore old head on his hands and wept, while he swore feelingly at himself.

“You ought t’ have a gizzard,” said Hashknife, “and then you could eat with the chickens.”

“I betcha,” sobbed Lonesome. “I got it all comin’ to me, young feller. Don’t talk soft on my account.”

“All right,” grinned Hashknife. “I’ll try and say somethin’ mean to yuh. Can’t remember givin’ Easton a bill of sale, eh?”


Sleepy got up, and going over to a rear window, peered out, then drew back quickly.

“Here they come!” he said softly. “The whole —— works!”

Hashknife looked around quickly.

“Got a cellar, Skelton?”

“—— right I have!”

Skelton hopped across the floor and lifted his table away from a trap-door. This he raised.

“Git down in there, Lonesome,” ordered Hashknife, “and don’t make a noise; sabe? Don’t ask questions!”

Lonesome went down the short ladder, and the trap was closed and covered with the table, just as a crowd of men, led by Jake Blue, rode up to the front door.

Hashknife and Sleepy had closed the door as they came in, and now Skelton slipped the bar into place and picked up his shotgun.

“Come on,” whispered Hashknife. “We’ll go out the back window, Sleepy. Don’t make any resistance, Skelton. Put down the shotgun and act natural.”

He and Sleepy slid out the back window, and shut it behind them, just as some one knocked loudly on the front door.

They went cautiously around the house, walking sidewise, with their backs against the wall.

“’Bout a dozen of ’em,” warned Sleepy, but Hashknife gave his warning no heed.

They could hear Jake Blue questioning Skelton, and the murmur of other voices.

“Where’s the dead man?” It was Doc Clevis’ voice.

“I dunno what you’re talkin’ about,” replied Skelton.

Hashknife peered around the corner and stepped out, with Sleepy beside him. Jake Blue and Doc Clevis were on the porch arguing through the open door with Skelton, while the rest of the men were still mounted. The nearest man to them was a grim-faced person, with a heavy red mustache. Just beyond him was a heavy-set cowboy, with an enormous nose.

“Horse-thieves from the Hashknife!” snorted Hashknife loudly.

Every one turned quickly, and just as quickly they realized their disadvantage. Hashknife was standing with his legs far apart, his right hand resting on his hip just over the top of his holstered gun, while Sleepy stood with one elbow braced against the house and his hand swaying over the butt of his Colt.

“Don’t move, Blue,” cautioned Hashknife. “You and Doc just hold that pose or the picture is spoiled.”

Hashknife did not seem to look at them as he spoke, but watched the two mounted men nearest him.

“Blackwood and Holy Moses,” grinned Hashknife.

Blackwood moistened his lips.

“You!” he grunted with a great effort. “I didn’t know it was you.”

“Danged right you didn’t,” agreed Hashknife. “If you did, you and that elephantnosed horse-thief over there would ’a’ fogged for Canada.”

“Thasso?” retorted the big-nosed cowboy, and cleared his throat with great difficulty.

Hashknife appeared to size up the rest of the crowd.

“I dunno the rest of you, gentlemen, but you’re in danged bad comp’ny.”

“You two are under arrest,” declared Blue loudly, “and we want Lonesome Lee’s body.”

“You don’t need to watch these two,” stated Skelton from the doorway, indicating Blue and the doctor. Skelton had them covered with his double-barreled shot-gun.

“You’re under arrest, too!” wailed Blue nervously. “Better submit quietly if you know what’s good fer you.”

The big-nosed cowboy must have thought that the Sheriff’s discourse had drawn Hashknife’s attention, because he whirled quickly in his saddle.

Hashknife’s right hand flicked down and up, and Blackwood flung himself forward to be out of line with the bullet that hissed past him and thudded into the big-nosed one. The latter’s pistol discharged and broke a window. He jerked back, swayed sidewise and fell out of his saddle, while his horse whirled, kicked at the falling man, and trotted toward the gate.

“Oh, the —— fool!” complained Blackwood bitterly. “If he didn’t know Hashknife Hartley—Gawd!”

The shooting had unnerved Blackwood.

“You seen how it was done, didn’t you Blue?” asked Hashknife softly. “He went for his gun.”

“By ——!” swore Blue savagely. “Can’t ten of us take two men?”

“Hop to it,” said Hashknife. “Ain’t no reason why you can’t try it.”

“Count me out,” said Blackwood quickly. “I sure as —— ain’t lost neither of ’em.”

He turned his horse and rode straight toward the gate and the rest of the horsemen followed him.

“Come back here and get Holy Smoke!” snapped Hashknife.

Blackwood and two of the men dismounted, and one of them put the wounded man on his saddle and rode away with him.

Blue chewed savagely on his tobacco and stared at Doc Clevis, who seemed indifferent to it all.

“Arrestin’ folks ain’t in my line,” stated Doc, as if in self-defense. “I’m here to take charge of the body of Lonesome Lee.”

“What’s your line, Blue?” asked Hashknife, and the Lodge-Pole sheriff swore feelingly.

“If cussin’ showed ability, you’d be Secretary of War,” said Hashknife. “What’s all this about Lonesome Lee bein’ dead?”

“We-well!” snorted Doc Clevis wonderingly.

“He’s in there,” said Blue pointing into the house. “By ——, I’m goin’ t’ find out about things.”

He brushed past Skelton, who stepped aside at a nod from Hashknife, and they all went inside. Blue and the doctor looked around. The blood-stained blanket on the bed caught Blue’s eye, and he pounced on it quickly.

“Whose blood is that?” he asked triumphantly.

“You can have it, if you want it,” said Hashknife.

“What’sa idea of hidin’ the body?” demanded the doctor.

“Looks —— queer t’ me,” swore Blue meaningly. “Man gets shot and his body hid. You fellers think you can do things like that? Huh!”

“Mebbe he’s already buried,” suggested Hashknife. “Mebbe we dug a hole and buried him.”

Blue snorted in disgust and turned toward the door, as if to go outside, but whirled like a flash, gun in hand. Skelton, who was a trifle to one side, idly swinging the shot-gun in one hand, had seen Blue’s move toward his gun, and as Blue whirled, Skelton threw the heavy riot-gun straight at his head.

It was over in a second. The breech of the shot-gun crashed into Blue’s face, knocking him off his feet and tossing his pistol toward the ceiling, while the shotgun slammed into the wall and sent a handful of buckshot into the floor.

“Kerzowie!” whooped Hashknife.

Doc Clevis helped Blue to his feet and led him outside to his horse. Blue did not seem to have the slightest idea of what had happened to him, although his nose had shifted from its original mooring, giving him a peculiar lopsided, cock-eyed appearance. His right eye was also beginning to draw a dark mantle across his vision, but in spite of it all, Blue whistled through his teeth and obeyed Doc Clevis to the letter.

As they rode away Bliz Skelton shook his head and looked at Hashknife.

“It’s all right so far, but this is the finish, I reckon. I don’t like Blue and his gang, but they stand for the law. Everybody around here hates me, and it ain’t goin’ to stretch your imagination to see that Blue will have the whole country behind him. If I was you fellers I’d saddle up and pull m’ freight, muy pronto.”

“Not yet, Bliz. Shucks,” Hashknife looked solemnly at several heifers, which had drifted up past the barn and were grazing among the tombstones. “I’ve got business to attend to, don’tcha know it. There’s——”

Hashknife stopped and squinted at a spotted yearling, which had turned broadside to him, about fifty feet away.

“You brand on the right hip, Bliz?”


Hashknife stepped inside the house and took a coiled rope from a peg in the wall. Quickly fashioning a hondo and running out a loop, he roped the yearling, which bucked and bawled, kicking over a number of tombstones in its gyrations, while Sleepy and Hashknife dug their heels into the hard ground and held it firm.

“Mebbe I’m wrong,” panted Hashknife, “but I wish you’d take a squint at that brand, Bliz.”

Skelton approached the half-choked calf and squinted at the 88 on its hip.

“Nothin’ but an 88 calf,” he replied.

“Look closer,” urged Hashknife. “See if the front halves of the 88 ain’t newer burn than the other.”

“By ——, it is!” exploded Skelton foolishly. “Whatcha know about that? Who in —— done that?”

“Come on and let’s put the critter into the corral,” ordered Hashknife.

They led it into a gate and removed the rope while the rest of the calves scattered out through the main gate and into the hills.

“That’s where your calves have gone to,” said Hashknife seriously. “It’s a cinch to use a runnin’-iron and make 88 out of 33. Some danged cow-men ain’t got sense enough to make their brand fool-proof. How long has that outfit been knowed as the 88?”

Skelton masticated rapidly for a moment.

“Since Easton’s been in control, I betcha. I’ve hear the place spoke of as the old Cross-L outfit. That was likely Lonesome Lee’s brand. We’ll ask him.”

Lonesome Lee came painfully and cautiously out of his hiding-place and considered Skelton’s question.

“Easton bought that brand from a feller over near Ross Mountains. He drove in a hundred head of feeders which was wearin’ the 88, and he—aw, I’m danged if I know what he wanted to do it for, but he rebranded all of the Cross-L stock, and cancelled my registry.”

“And the 88 brand made it a cinch to steal all of Skelton’s stock,” said Hashknife. “All they had to do was to burn on the other half of the 88.”

He took a pencil and illustrated it to Lonesome.

“I—I didn’t have nothin’ to do with that,” wailed Lonesome. “My ——, I ain’t no thief!”

“No, I don’t reckon you are, Lonesome.”

“I’ll make it all up, Skelton,” blurted Lonesome. “I sure will. I’ll give him half of my own stock.”

“Have you got any stock?” asked Hashknife.

Lonesome stared at the three men and turned away.

“I dunno,” he said dully. “I ain’t got no idea how I stand. Mebbe I’ve got a thousand head of cows, and if I have, I’d give ’em all for just one drink of liquor.”

Skelton dug under his bunk and drew out a jug and handed it to Lonesome.

“I reckon you need a shot, Lonesome. If you’re goin’ to do a good job of quittin’, you’ve got to—what’sa matter?”

Lonesome turned and walked wearily to the door.

“I ain’t drinkin’ nothin’, Skelton—not today. I’ve had my share.”

Skelton shook his head wonderingly and replaced the jug, while Hashknife went to Lonesome and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder.

“Everybody in Caldwell thinks you’re dead, Lonesome. Mind keepin’ out of sight for a while, and let ’em go on thinkin’ that?”

“What’s the idea?”

“It’s like this,” Hashknife wrinkled his nose away from the smoke of his cigaret. “In an honest court we could make Easton and his gang hard to catch, for rustlin’, but under the present conditions it’s only an excuse to kill somebody. If you can keep out of sight I’m bettin’ my hunch that we can wallop —— out of that gang. I ain’t no Sherlock Holmes, but I sure as —— have an idea.

“If you got an effect, you sure must ’a’ had a cause. Know what I mean?”

Hashknife pointed at the tombstones.

“There’s an effect, Lonesome.”

Lonesome nodded as if only half-understanding and looked at Hashknife.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“Never mind her, Lonesome. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, and dead men tell no tales. You’re supposed to be dead, you know.”

“All right. I ain’t goin’ to worry about her; but there’s a danged lot of things I don’t understand.”

“We’re all thataway, old-timer,” said Hashknife.

Nothing further happened that day at the Tombstone ranch. Everyone kept under cover for fear of another shot from the hills. Lonesome Lee asked no more questions. He seemed to be willing to let Hashknife engineer the whole thing.

It was about eleven o’clock the next morning when Mrs. Frosty Snow drove through the big gate and uprooted several of the tombstones in her mad haste.

Hashknife met her at the door, and she fairly exploded in her eagerness to tell the latest news.

“You fellers better hit the hills!” she panted. “You’re accused of kidnapin’ Lonesome Lee’s daughter and killin’ the old man, ’cause he tried to make you give her up!”

“Whatcha know about that?” Hashknife asked with a grunt.

“Shall I bring that girl up here?” asked Mrs. Snow. “It won’t take me——”

“No,” Hashknife shook his head. “Leave her stay where she is, Mrs. Snow. I kinda reckoned that somethin’ like this was due to happen, but it sort of makes me work faster. How soon do you reckon they’ll show up here?”

“Pretty soon. Jake Blue is organizin’ the whole thing, and he says he ain’t takin’ no chances on you gettin’ away. Goin’ to surround the place.”

“Jake’s got a lotta good ideas,” said Hashknife. “If he only turned his mind to honest endeavors he’d do well and last longer.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Snow dubiously, as she brushed the tumbled hair from her forehead and took a deep breath, “well, I’ve done my darndest. If you won’t run—don’t mind me. Maybe you don’t realize what they mean to do to you.”

“Ma’am, I sure thank you a lot. If you want to bring that girl up here in about an hour, it might be kinda opportune.”

“I’ll bring her.”

Mrs. Snow went back to her team and climbed up on the wagon-seat.

“You fellers hang onto your necks until I get back.”

As she whirled her team around and drove swiftly back down the road, Hashknife turned and grinned at Sleepy and Skelton.

“Whatcha goin’ to do?” blurted Skelton. “Produce the old man and the girl?”

“They’re comin’ in a bunch this time,” observed Sleepy, “and we can’t out-smart the whole danged country.”

Hashknife squinted out at the tombstones and turned quickly to Skelton.

“You got any wire, Skelton?”

“Wire? Yeah, I got a big spool of small wire—smaller than bailin’-wire, if that’s what you mean.”

“That’s the stuff, Skelton. Sleepy, you find a pick and shovel.”

When the desired articles were produced, Hashknife dug four small holes; spading up the top soil on each for a space of about three feet square. He got four stakes, which he drove into the ground, and fastened a wire to each; piling the dirt to cover the stakes.

These spaded places were in a semi-circle in front of the porch, and about ten feet apart. Hashknife worked swiftly, whistling unmusically between his teeth, while Skelton and Sleepy watched him curiously. When the work was all finished, Hashknife took the wires back into the house and fastened them to a chair.

“Looney as a shepherd!” exploded Sleepy. “Can you beat that? Whatcha think you are—a medicine man?”

“Now, come on—fast!” grunted Hashknife. “Skelton, you stay here with Lonesome, and we’ll try and be back ahead of the procession.”

He turned and raced for the corral, still carrying the pick and shovel, while Sleepy, protesting at the top of his voice, followed. Swiftly they saddled. Hashknife mounted, holding the pick and shovel across the fork of his saddle in front of him.

“Headin’ for the graveyard, Sleepy!” he yelped.

“Y’betcha,” grunted Sleepy meaningly as he spurred after him.

Skelton stared open-mouthed as they galloped past the house and headed toward town. It was beyond him. He studied the four wires, shook his head, and going inside he squirted some oil into the old riot-gun. That done he sat down to wait.

At the entrance to the obliterated graveyard Hashknife drew up and vaulted off his horse.

“Go to the point above that first curve, Sleepy,” he ordered. “Glue your eye to the road, and when you see ’em comin’—yell like —— and come runnin’.”

“Aw-w-w!” protested Sleepy disgustedly, but Hashknife, with a shovel in one hand and the pick in the other, was already through the wire fence and running toward the creek.

Sleepy yanked his horse around and rode swiftly away. Hashknife’s actions left little doubt in Sleepy Stevens’ mind but that he was crazy. Still, Hashknife had never failed in an emergency—yet.

Hashknife stopped near the bank of the little creek and studied the ground. The graveyard had been most thoroughly obliterated, but luckily the destroyers had only harrowed the ground where the graves had been. Hashknife was able to find the spot where the gambler, “Faro,” had been buried. Barney Stout had said that Faro was buried between the other graves and the creek.

Hashknife took off his coat and began digging. It was hot work, hard work. The ground was rocky and progress was slow, and Hashknife had a horror of digging into a grave. The old pick was dull and the spring was missing in the shovel. A rocky reef impeded his progress and he was forced to dig around it.

Suddenly he dropped to his knees and began an examination which made his eyes sparkle. Every few moments his head would pop up like a prairie-dog, listening for Sleepy’s yell of warning.

Then it came—the long-drawn “Yee-hoo-o-o!” cowboy yell, and he saw Sleepy riding swiftly down the side of the hill toward the road.

Hashknife sprang to his feet and ran toward the fence, drawing on his coat as he ran. He was in his saddle when Sleepy galloped up.

“Everybody in the county comin’!” panted Sleepy. “And they’re sure comin’ in a hurry.”

“Quite an honor,” laughed Hashknife, as they spurred down the road. “First time we ever had ’em all callin’ on us, cowboy.”

“If you can see a joke in it, —— knows I can’t,” grumbled Sleepy. “A big audience ain’t goin’ to bring no joy to my soul when I’m standin’ on nothin’, and lookin’ up a rope.”

They stabled their horses and raced for the house. Skelton met them with an unspoken question, but Hashknife only laughed and shut the door softly on the four wires.

“Lemme do the talkin’,” he said, “and don’t start no gun-play until I bust loose.”

“Here they come!” exclaimed Sleepy, peering out of a rear window. “By cripes! They’re surroundin’ the place this time!”

“Wish ’em joy, Sleepy,” chuckled Hashknife, licking the edge of a fresh cigaret.

“Skelton, you keep that danged riot-gun under control, will you. There’s a lot of decent folks in that mob, and that thing scatters.”

Beyond a doubt this time Jake Blue was prepared to make good. He had at least fifty men in his posse, fifty hard-bitten cattlemen, who were determined to help him uphold the law. Easton’s tale of the kidnaping had been substantiated by the stable-man, at Gunsight.

The reported murder of Lonesome Lee did not stir them up, as did the kidnaping, but showed a clear incentive for the murder. Spot Easton had felt perfectly safe in elaborating his story considerably. He had spoken at length on the graveyard question, which was still warm in the minds of those who had friends or relatives buried there, and it appeared that Skelton was in danger of sharing punishment with Hashknife and Sleepy.

In fact, Easton and Blue had dwelt long upon the graveyard question, and there were some in the posse in whose minds this was of more interest than kidnaping and murder. Considerable liquor had also added to the general ill-feeling.

The Tombstone ranch-house door was closed, and there was no sign of life about the place. Blue detailed twelve men to circle the place and stop any chance of escape, while the rest of them, confident in their might, rode straight to the porch. Nearly every man held a rifle in his hands, ready for action, while Jake Blue swung onto the porch and approached the door.

Doc Clevis, Spot Easton and Blondy Hagen were in the main body of the mob, as were also Dell Blackwood and two of the boys from the 88. Blackwood’s horse was at the extreme outer edge of the crowd, and Blackwood’s eyes shifted around as he considered the safest way out. He knew Hashknife Hartley.

“Inside there!” yelled Blue, knocking on the door with the barrel of his rifle.

“Well, if it ain’t Mr. Blue!” exclaimed Hashknife’s voice. “Ain’tcha never goin’ to have any sense, sheriff?”

“What do you mean?” roared Blue nervously. He did not trust Hashknife.

“Look at them four wires which runs across the porch, will you?”

Blue glanced down at the small copper wires and his eyes traveled their length. The rest of the crowd took them into consideration. A horse was standing with both front feet on one of the mounds, and its rider yanked back on the reins, half-swinging the horse around.

“We was expectin’ you,” stated Hashknife, “and we got all set. Now, everybody hold quiet or my pardner will slam on the battery. You came down here to kill us and, if we’ve got to pass out, we’ll take a lot of company.”

He opened the door and came out on the porch. The assembled company relaxed. They felt they were sitting over a volcano; and men do not argue in a case of that kind.

Jake Blue backed away from Hashknife, masticating rapidly, and his eyes flashed from the wires to the interior of the house, as if trying to see if it was only a bluff.

“Well,” said Hashknife grimly, “we’re all together, it seems.”

“Do you think you can git away with this?”

Blue’s voice was thin as a high violin note. Some one in the crowd laughed. Blue’s nose resembled a beet, and one eye was almost swollen shut.

“I kinda thought I would,” said Hashknife as he looked around at the crowd.

“Well, well! There’s Mister Easton and Mister Hagen. And there’s my old friend, Doc Clevis. I was afraid they’d disappoint me. If there ain’t Dell Blackwood! My, my! The devil must be gittin’ a laugh out of this.”

Those indicated shifted nervously. They had no idea of what was to come next, but they were afraid to force the issue. Hashknife singled out a respectable-looking cowman and spoke directly to him:

“Pardner, you look honest to me. Talk a little, will you?”

“Sure will.”

The man cleared his throat.

“Mebbe you can explain this here kidnapin’ and murder charge. Lonesome Lee’s daughter was stolen and old Lonesome was murdered. Anyway, that’s how she’s been told to me.”

“You’re —— right!” snapped Blue.

Hashknife looked at Blue, steadily and closely. Blue shifted nervously. He liked to be the center of interest, but not at a time like this.

Hashknife backed against the wall near the door, where he could include Jake Blue in his sweep of the crowd.

“Folks, this is kind of a long tale I’m goin’ to tell you, and I ask you to set tight. One crooked move and my pardner, who is just inside the door, will jam down the little handle and we’ll migrate together.”

“We’re listenin’,” said one of the men.

“Why listen to him!” exploded Easton angrily. “We didn’t come down here to listen to a lot of —— lies, did we?”

“Stuff your fingers in your ears then!” retorted the cowboy who had pulled his horse off the spaded spot. “I sure as —— am willin’ to listen. I know dinnymite, y’betcha.”

“’Pears to me that the whole thing started over the graveyard,” observed Hashknife slowly. “Somebody played a joke on Skelton, and he returned the compliment.”

One of the men swore feelingly, and a growl came from several more. They agreed on this point, at least.

“It was a —— of a joke,” continued Hashknife, “but was it a joke?”

“Whatcha mean?” snapped Blue.

“Mebbe I’ll tell you.” Hashknife was quite at his ease. “Old Lonesome Lee owned the Cross-L outfit—and a big thirst—a very big thirst. Bein’ drunk most of the time made it plumb easy for another man to hoodle him out of the brand, which was changed to the 88—for a reason.”

“That’s a —— lie!” snorted Easton. “Everybody knows that I——”

“About that time,” interrupted Hashknife, “this old 33 outfit begins to dwindle. Their cows don’t bring in no calves. Everybody hates Skelton, and he knows —— well that nobody is goin’ to help him find out where they went to. Somebody tries to buy him out. I reckon there was quite a few tryin’ to buy him out. About that time he gets shot at a few times. ’Pears to me that it’s a —— bad shot, or shootin’ to scare him.”

“Now, wait a minute!” interposed Blue. “If Skelton was losin’ cows and gettin’ shot at, why didn’t he come to me about it?”

“You?” Hashknife squinted at Blue and shook his head. “Mebbe you was busy at that time, sheriff.”

The inference was plain, and it drew a mild laugh. The crowd was interested in Hashknife’s story, and did not relish an interruption.

“Lonesome Lee has a daughter,” said Hashknife. “She’s a danged nice-lookin’ girl, too. Lonesome was too drunk to sabe things much, and this girl writes him letters, which somebody else reads—and answers. There was a photygraph, too, I reckon. Pretty girls ain’t any too plentiful.

“Then somebody killed Quinin Quinn, and a poor, drunken Swede cook was jailed for it.”

“Yes, and if them guns hadn’t been stolen—” wailed Blue meaningly.

“Outside of that you feel good, don’tcha?” asked Hashknife seriously. “I dunno who killed Quinn, but I’ve sure got a hunch. Anyway, this girl was sent for and came to Gunsight, where she kinda dropped out of sight, leavin’ a certain party very peevish.”

Hashknife glanced at Easton, who was sitting very straight in his saddle.

“Then Lonesome Lee sobered up,” Hashknife continued, “and realized what a —— fool he had been. He comes down here to find out a few things, and somebody pot-shoots him at long range.”

“That’s your story,” interrupted Doc Clevis. “You never let us see the body, so how do we know how he got killed?”

“The man that shot him didn’t want him to find out anythin’.” Hashknife ignored Doc’s peevish statement.

“What’sa idea?” queried one of the cattlemen. “Who didn’t want him to?”

“I’m leadin’ up to that, pardner. The man who shot him was the man who was interested in this girl. He knew that Lonesome Lee was sober. He was the same man who bought the 88 outfit and changed Lonesome Lee’s brand to the 88. Didja ever figure that a 33 is easy to change to an 88 with a runnin’ iron?”

“You’re a —— liar!” yelped Easton trying to draw his gun. But the man next to him, fearful of the buried dynamite, stopped him.

“Now,” Hashknife swayed away from the wall and hooked a thumb over the top of his belt above his holster, “now, I’ll tell you where it all started. Hold still, Blue! You’re as close to your gun as you’ll ever get. Listen, you —— coyotes are to blame for this Lodge-Pole trouble!

“Skelton did not wipe out your graveyard. He had nothin’ to do with it. Accusin’ him of that was a —— good scheme to git rid of him. It’s a wonder that folks didn’t lynch him for it. It was a good joke to plant them tombstones in his front-yard. Sure it was. It gave a —— good reason for him to go out and wipe out the graveyard and to stop any more buryin’ there.”

Hashknife stopped for a moment. Jake Blue had gone gray as ashes, but his eyes flashed wickedly. Doc Clevis hunched in his saddle, his face set in lines of wonderment and fear.

“Skelton told me he didn’t do it,” continued Hashknife softly, “and I believed him. I knew that somebody wanted to force him away from this country. Them white tombstones”—Hashknife pointed at the yard—“were only an effect.

“The last man to be buried in that graveyard up the road was Faro, a gambler. Jake Blue, Doc Clevis and Spot Easton buried him, ’cause the other folks didn’t want him buried there.

“They dug his grave near the little creek. Right after that burial this graveyard joke was pulled off. Do you know why?”

Hashknife leaned closer to the crowd and his eyes flashed wickedly.

“No? You don’t? Well, I do! Two feet deep, where that gambler was buried, is the cropping of a ledge of quartz that is so danged rich in gold that it scared me. Jake Blue, Easton and Doc Clevis moved your graveyard for fear they might never own that gold. They killed Quinin Quinn, either because he knew too much, or to try and scare Skelton into sellin’ ’em the ranch!”

As Hashknife was finishing Skelton and Sleepy stepped out onto the porch beside him. Behind them came Lonesome Lee.

For a moment there was absolute silence, broken only by the slap of Jake Blue’s palm against the butt of his gun.

But, swiftly as he drew, Hashknife shaded him by a second and fired —— from his hip. Blue spun off the porch, splintering one of the porch-posts with his misdirected bullet.

Spot Easton had thrown himself sidewise and fired across his horse’s neck, but his horse threw its head wildly, and the bullet buzzed through the doorway—doing no damage. A second later one of the cowboys crashed his horse into Easton’s mount, knocking Easton from his saddle.

Doc Clevis, insane from the disclosures, and knowing what it would mean, drew a heavy pistol from under his coat and spurred straight at the porch, only to meet Skelton’s riot-gun at close range. He was literally blown out of his saddle.

From the ground, among the milling horses, Spot Easton shot wildly at Sleepy, who was churning up the dirt around Easton’s head with bullets. Hagen fired once, and his bullet ripped along Hashknife’s forearm just as Hashknife shot. The jar of the bullet threw Hashknife’s gun far enough aside to miss Hagen but caught his horse, which whirled wildly, unseating its rider. Hagen’s foot hung in the stirrup.

Bucking and kicking, the bronco whirled into the tangle of tombstones where Hagen fell free. Easton’s gun was empty and he tried to fight his way out of the milling horses, but Sleepy dove after him and, locked together, they rolled into the open.

Dell Blackwood forced his horse to the porch and held up his hands.

“I’m out of it,” he yelled. “I’m admittin’ that I stole some 33 calves for Easton, but I never shot nobody.”

He tossed his reins to the ground and slid out of his saddle.

Came the rattle of a wagon, and Mrs. Frosty Snow and Jane drove into the yard. Two cowboys helped Sleepy rope Spot Easton, and then all eyes turned to the two women in the wagon.

“Lonesome Lee, here’s yore daughter!” called Mrs. Snow.

Lonesome went slowly out to the wagon to meet Jane and held up his arms to her. The crowd watched them silently.

“I been waitin’ for you, Jane,” said Lonesome slowly as she climbed down over the wheel.

He held her in his arms for a moment and turned to the crowd.

“Hashknife, I want you to meet my daughter; you and Sleepy Stevens.”

“Why, I know them!” exclaimed Jane. “They ——”

“Know us?” grinned Sleepy. “My ——, I sung all night to her once.”

A grizzled cowman leaned over the shoulder of his horse and said to Hashknife—

“You can prove all the things you said?”

“Yeah,” nodded Hashknife. “I sure can.”

“What about him?”

The man pointed at Blackwood, who stood beside the porch, guarded by another cowboy.

“Him?” Hashknife squinted at Blackwood seriously. “Pardner, I—I dunno. He kept out of this. He admits that he mis-branded calves for Easton, and we could likely send him—” Hashknife shook his head slowly. “Lookin’ at it from a cold-blooded angle, suppose we give him his horse and tell him to git to —— out of here.”

“But he’s a rustler!” exclaimed another cowman.

“That’s a fact,” nodded Hashknife. “That sure is a fact. He admits it, don’t he?”

Hashknife looked around at his listeners.

“How many of us would admit the truth?”

Somewhere in the crowd a man laughed and smiles began to appear. Hashknife had won his point. He turned to Blackwood, who could scarcely believe his ears.

“Blackwood, you’re free to drift. I ain’t preachin’ to you, but kinda remember what might ’a’ happened.”

“You mean—” Blackwood licked his dry lips. “You mean, I’m free to—go?”

“You’ve got good ears, old-timer.”

Blackwood swung into his saddle, looked at Hashknife for several moments as though wanting to say something, but was unable to begin. Then as he turned slowly and rode out of the yard, unbelieving that any man or men could be so generous.

The cattlemen roped Easton to a horse, picked up Doc Clevis and Jake Blue, and strung out in a long cavalcade toward town.

“What happened here?” asked Jane wonderingly.

“Well, ma’am,” said Hashknife slowly, looking back at the tumbled tombstones, “you see, a front-yard ain’t no place for a cemetery, so we held a meetin’ today to start a new one some’ers else.”

“And that ain’t such a big lie, at that,” said Mrs. Frosty Snow slowly. Then to Lonesome and Jane, she said:

“Pile in here and go back to the ranch for supper with me. I hope that danged Swede cook don’t take the things to heart that I told him today, ’cause I need him for one more meal. You fellers better come along, too, ’cause I want you to tell me all about it.”

“Please do,” Jane pleaded. “Perhaps Mr. Stevens will sing for us.”

Mrs. Frosty Snow turned the team around and headed for the gate, while Hashknife, Sleepy and Skelton stood together and watched them disappear around the bend. Hashknife went over to the porch and kicked loose the pegs and broken wires.

“Do we go over to Snow’s to supper?” asked Sleepy.

“Uh-huh,” grunted Hashknife. “I’d like to get used to Jane Lee, ’cause she’s sure as —— got a wide streak of humor in her system. You goin’, Skelton?”

“After what you’ve done for me? My ——, I’d even do a little singin’ m’self, Hashknife.”

“Thassall right,” said Hashknife hastily as he wound a handkerchief around his scored forearm, where Hagen’s bullet had left its mark.

“Your appreciation is accepted—but don’t sing. There’s such a thing as carryin’ humor to excess, Skelton.”

Skelton grinned widely and put his hand on Hashknife’s shoulder.

“Cowboy, you shore made history in Lodge-Pole County today, and jist t’ show you how much I appreciates it, I’m splittin’ the 33 into three parts right now. From this here date, me and you and Sleepy own this place. No arguments a-tall—no sir. She ain’t worth a —— of a lot for cows, but if there’s a gold mine—anyway, we’re pardners; the three of us.”

Hashknife looked closely at the old man and at Sleepy, who was busily rolling a cigaret. It was very quiet now. A string of dusty-looking cattle were coming down past the corner of the ranch-house fence, heading for the creek.

A magpie flew past the house, swerved sharply at sight of the three men, and perched on a corner of the corral, scolding earnestly. Fleecy clouds flecked the blue sky beyond the timbered ridges; from the hillside came the whistling bark of a ground-squirrel; down in the willows a cow bawled softly for her calf.

Hashknife turned slowly and took a deep breath, as he said—

“Whatcha say t’ havin’ a song by the Tombstone trio?”

Transcriber’s Note: This story appeared in the December 30, 1922 issue of Adventure Magazine.