Man to man, p.5

Man to Man, page 5


Man to Man

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  Had Steve Packard ridden straightway back to Ranch Number Ten he wouldhave arrived at the ranch headquarters long before noon. But, once outin the still dawn, he rode slowly. His mind, when he could detach itfrom that irritating Terry Pert, was given over to a searchingconsideration of those conditions which were beginning to dawn on him.

  It was clear that his destiny was offering him a new trail to blaze,one which drew him on with its lure, tempting him with its vaguepromises. There was nothing to cause surprise in the fact that theranch was his to have and to hold if he had the skill and the will forthe job; nor yet in the other fact that the outfit was mortgaged to hisgrandfather; nor, again, was it to be wondered at that the old man wasalready acting as actual owner. For never had the oldest Packard hadany use for the subtleties and niceties and confusing technicalities ofthe law. It was his way to see clearly what he wanted, to make up hismind definitely as to a desired result, and then to go after it theshortest way. And that way had never led yet through the law-courts.

  These matters were clear. But as he dwelt upon them they were madecomplex by other considerations hingeing upon him. Most of all he hadto take stock of what lay in his own mind and soul, of all that dweltbehind his present purpose.

  Riding back to Ranch Number Ten, saying, "It is mine and I mean to haveit," was simple enough. But for him actually to commit himself to theline of action which this step would entail would very obviouslyconnote a distinct departure from the familiar, aimless,responsibility-free career of Steve Packard.

  If he once sat into the game he'd want to stick for a showdown; if hestarted out now bucking old man Packard, he would perhaps wind up inthe scrap-heap. It was just as well to think things over before heplunged in--which set him musing upon Terry again.

  Swerving from yesterday's path, he followed a new trail leading aboutthe edge of the Temple ranch and into the southeastern borders of RanchNumber Ten. At a logging-camp well up on the slope of the mountainsjust after he had forded the upper waters of Packard's Creek, hebreakfasted on warmed-over coffee and greasy hot cakes.

  He opened his eyes interestedly as he watched a gang of timberjackscutting into a forest of his pines.

  "Old man Packard's crowd?" he asked the camp cook.

  "Sure thing," was the cook's careless answer. Steve Packard rode on,grown more thoughtful than before. But he directed his course this wayand that on a speculative tour of investigation, seeking to see thegreater part of the big, sprawling ranch, to note just what had beendone, just what was being done, before having his talk with Blenham.And so the first stars were out before he came once more to the homecorrals.

  While Steve was turning down into Packard's Grab from the foot-hillsthe men working for Ranch Number Ten, having eaten their supper, werecelebrating the end of a hard day's work with tobacco smoke anddesultory talk.

  There were a dozen of them, clear-eyed, iron-muscled, quick-footed tothe last man of them. For wherever Packard pay was taken it went intothe pockets of just such as these, purposeful, self-reliant, men's menwho could be counted on in a pinch and who, that they might be held inthe service which required such as they, were paid a better wage thanother ranches offered.

  Young, most of them, too, boisterous when upon occasion their handswere idle, devil-may-care scalawags who had earned in many a littlecattle town up and down the country their title as "that wild gang ofPackard's," prone to headlong ways and yet dependable.

  There are such men; Packard knew it and sought them out and held themto him. The oldest man there, saving Bill Royce only, was Blenham theforeman, and Blenham had yet to see his thirty-fifth birthday.

  Ten years ago, that is to say before he came into the cattle countryand found work for Packard, Blenham had been a sergeant in the regulararmy, had seen something of service on the border. Now, in hisdealings with the men under him, he brought here all that he hadlearned from a military life.

  He held himself aloof, was seldom to be found in the bunk-house, makinghis quarters in the old ranch-house. He was crisp and final in hisorders and successful in exacting swift attention when he spoke andimmediate obedience when he ordered.

  Few of his men liked him; he knew this as well as another and cared notthe snap of his big, blunt fingers. There was remarkably little of thesentimental about Blenham. He was a capable lieutenant for such as themaster of the Packard millions, he earned and received his increase inwages every year, he got results.

  This evening, however, the man's heavy, studied indifference to allabout him was ruffled. During the afternoon something had gone wrongand no one yet, save "Cookie" Wilson, had an inkling of what hadplunged the foreman into one of his ill-tempered fits.

  To-morrow it would be a ranch topic when Cookie could have had ampletime to embroider the thin fabric of his surmise; for it had fallen tothe cook's lot to answer the bunk-house telephone when there had been along-distance message for Blenham--and Wilson recognized old manPackard's voice in a fit of rage.

  No doubt the foreman of Ranch Number Ten had "slipped up" somewhere,and his chief, in a very few words and those of a brand not to bemisunderstood, had taken him to task. At any rate Cookie was swellingwith eager conjecture and Blenham was in an evil mood. All evening hisspleen had been rising in his throat, near choking him; now suddenly hespewed it upon Bill Royce.

  "Royce!" he burst out abruptly.

  The blind man was lying upon the edge of his bunk at the far end of theroom, smoking his pipe. He stirred uneasily.

  "Well?" he asked. "What is it?"

  "Cool old cucumber, ain't you?" jeered Blenham. "Layin' there like abag of mush while you listen to me. Damn you, when I talk to you,stand up!"

  Royce's form stiffened perceptibly and his lips tightened about thestem of his pipe. But before he could shape his rejoinder there camean unexpected voice from one of the four men just beginning a game ofpedro under the swinging lamp, a young voice, impudent, clear-toned,almost musical.

  "Tell him to go to hell, Bill," was the freely proffered counsel.

  Blenham swung about on his heel, his eyes narrowing.

  "That you, Barbee?" he demanded sharply.

  "Sure it's me," rejoined Barbee with the same cool impudence. And tothe man across the table from him, "Deal 'em up, Spots; you an' me isgoin' to pry these two bum gamblers loose from their four-bit piecesreal _pronto_ by the good ol' road of high, low, jack, an' the game.Come ahead, Spots-ol'-Spotty."

  Blenham stared a moment, obviously surprised by this attitude taken byyoung Barbee.

  "I'll attend to you when I got nothin' else to do, Barbee," he saidshortly. And, giving the whole of his attention again to the man onthe bunk, "Royce, I said when I talk to you to stand up!"

  To the last man of them, even to young Barbee, who had made hisyouthful pretense at an all-embracing interest in the cards, theyturned to watch Bill Royce and see what he would do.

  They saw that Royce lay a moment as he was, stiff and rigid to hishands and feet, that his face had gone a fiery red which threw thewhite of the long scar across his nose into bloodless contrast, thatthe most obvious thing in the world was that for the moment his mindwas torn two ways, dual-purposed, perfectly balanced, so that in thegrip of his contending passions he was powerless to stir, a picture ofimpotence, like a man paralyzed.

  "Blenham," he said presently without moving, his voice uncertain andthick and ugly, "Blenham----"

  "I said it once," cried Blenham sharply, "an' I said it twice. Whichought to be enough, Bill Royce! Hear me?"

  They all watched interestedly. Bill Royce moistened his lips andpresented his pitiful spectacle of a once-strong man on the verge ofyielding to his master, to the man he hated most on earth. A smilecame into Blenham's expectant eyes.

  The brief silence was perfect until the youthful Barbee broke it, notby speech but by whistling softly, musically, impudently. And the airwhich Barbee selected at this juncture, tho
ugh not drawn from theclassics, served its purpose adequately; the song was a favorite in therange-lands, the refrain simple, profane, and sincere. Translated intowords Barbee's merry notes were:

  "Oh, I don't give a damn for no damn man that don't give a damn for me!"

  Blenham understood and scowled at him; Bill Royce's hesitant soul mayhave drawn comfort and strength from a sympathy wordlessly expressed.At any rate his reply came suddenly now:

  "I've took a good deal off'n you, Blenham," he said quietly. "I'd beglad to take all I could. But a man can't stand everything, no, noteven for a absent pal. Like Barbee said, you know where you can go."

  Cookie Wilson gasped, his the sole audible comment upon an entirelynovel situation. Barbee smiled delightedly. Blenham continued tofrown, his scowl subtly altered from fierceness to wonder.

  "You'll obey orders," he snapped shortly, "or----"

  "I know," replied Royce heavily. "Go to it. All you got to do is fireme."

  And now the pure wonder of the moment was that Blenham did notdischarge Royce in three words. It was his turn for hesitation, forwhich there was no explanation forthcoming. Then, gripped by a ragewhich made him inarticulate,--he whirled upon Barbee.

  Yellow-haired Barbee at the table promptly stood up, awaiting no secondinvitation to that look of Blenham's. Were one staging a morality playand in search of the personification of impertinence, he need look nofarther than this cocksure youth. He was just at that age when one isdetermined that there shall be no mistake about his status in thematters of age and worldly experience; in short, something overtwenty-one, when the male of the species takes it as the insult ofinsults to be misjudged a boy. His hair was short--Barbee always keptit close cropped--but for all that it persisted in curling, seeking toexpress itself in tight little rings everywhere; his eyes were veryblue and very innocent, like a young girl's--and he was, all in all,just about as good-for-nothing a young rogue as you could find in a tendays' ride. Which is saying rather a good deal when it be understoodthat that ten days' ride may be through the cattle country back of SanJuan.

  "Goin' to eat me alive?" demanded Barbee lightly, "Or roast me first?"

  "For two cents," said Blenham slowly, "I'd forget you're just a kid an'slap your face!"

  Barbee swept one of the fifty-cent pieces from the table and tossed itto the foreman.

  "You can keep the change out'n that," he said contemptuously.

  It was nothing new in the experience of Blenham, could be nothingunforeseen for any ranch foreman, to have his authority called intoquestion, to have a rebellious spirit defy him. If he sought to remainmaster, the foreman's answer must be always the same. And promptlygiven.

  "Royce," said Blenham, his hesitation passed, "you're fired. Barbee,I'll take you on right now."

  Few-worded was Blenham, a trick learned from his master. Across theroom Bill Royce had floundered at last to his feet, crying out mightily:

  "Hi! None o' that, Blenham. It's my fight, yours an' mine, withBarbee jus' buttin' in where he ain't asked. If you want trouble, takea man your size, full-grown. Blind as I am--and you know the how an'the why of it--I'm ready for you. Yes, ready an' anxious."

  Here was diversion and the men in the bunkhouse, drawing back againstthe walls, taking their chairs with them that there might be room forwhatever went forward, gave their interest unstintedly. So completelythat they did not hear Steve Packard singing far out in the night as herode slowly toward the ranch-house:

  "An' I'd rather hear a kiote howl Than be the King of Rome! An' when day comes--if day does come-- By cripes, I'm goin' home! Back home! Hear me comin', boys? Yeee! I said it. Comin' home!"

  But in very brief time Steve Packard's loitering pace was exchanged forred-hot haste as the sounds winging outward from the bunk-house methim, stilled his singing, and informed him that men were battling in afury which must have something of sheer blood-thirst in it. He racedto the closed door, swung down from the saddle, and threw the door open.

  He saw Bill Royce being held by two men, fighting at them while hereviled a man whom Steve guessed to be Blenham; he saw Blenham and acurly-haired, blue-eyed boy struggling up and down, striking the savageblows of rage. He came just in time to see Blenham drive a big, brutalfist into the boy's face and to mark how Barbee fell heavily and for alittle lay still.

  The moment was charged with various emotions, as though with contendingelectrical currents. Bill Royce, championed by a man he had never somuch as seen, had given fully of his gratitude and--they meant the samething to Bill Royce--of his love; after to-night he'd go to hell for"yellow" Barbee.

  Barbee, previsioning defeat at Blenham's hard hand, suffering in hisyouthful pride, had given birth, deep within him, to an undying hatred.And Blenham, for his own reasons and after his own fashion, wasbursting with rage.

  "Get up, Barbee," he yelled. "Get up an', so help me----"

  "I'm goin' to kill you, Blenham," said Barbee faintly, lifting himselfa little, his blue eyes swimming. "With my hands or with a knife orwith a gun or anyway; now or to-morrow or some time I'm goin' to killyou."

  "They all heard you," Blenham spat out furiously. "You're a fool,Barbee. Goin' to get up? Ever goin' to get up?"

  "Turn me loose, boys," muttered Bill Royce. "I've waited long enough;I've stood enough. I been like an ol' woman. Jus' let me an' Blenhamfinish this."

  They had, none of them, so much as noted Steve Packard's entrance.Now, however, he forced them to take stock of him.

  "Bill Royce," he said sharply, "keep your shirt on. Barbee, you do thesame. Blenham, you talk with me."

  "You?" jeered Blenham. "You? Who are you?"

  "I'm the man on the job right now," answered Packard crisply. "Andfrom now on, I'm running the Ranch Number Ten, if you want to know. Ifyou want to know anything else, why then you don't happen to be foremanany longer. You're fired! As for foreman under me--my old pardner,Bill Royce, blind or not blind, has his old job back."

  Bill Royce grew rigid.

  "You ain't--you ain't Stevie come back?" he whispered. "You ain'tStevie!"

  With three strides Packard reached him, finding Bill Royce's hand withhis.

  "Right you are, Bill Royce," he cried warmly as at last his and Royce'shands locked hard.

  "I'm fired, you say!" Blenham was storming, his eyes wide. "Fired?Who says so, I want to know?"

  "I say so," returned Packard shortly.

  "You?" shouted Blenham. "If you mean ol' man Packard has sent you totake my place just because-- It's a lie; I don't believe it."

  "This outfit doesn't happen to belong to old man Packard--yet," saidSteve coolly. "Does it, Royce?"

  "Not by a jugful!" answered the blind man joyously. "An' it never willnow, Steve! Not now."

  Blenham looked mystified. Rubbing his skinned knuckles he glared fromSteve to Royce, then to the other faces, no less puzzled than his own.

  "Nobody can fire me but ol' man Packard," he muttered heavily, thoughhis tone was troubled. "Without you got an order from him, all signedan' ready for me to read----"

  "What I have," cut in Steve crisply, "is the bulge on the situation,Blenham. Ranch Number Ten doesn't belong to the old man; it is theproperty of his grandson, whose name is Steve Packard. Which alsohappens to be my name."

  Blenham sneered.

  "I don't believe it," he snapped. "Expect me to pull my freight at thesay-so of the first stranger that blows in an' invites me to hand himmy job?" He laughed into the newcomer's face.

  Packard studied him a moment curiously, instinctively aware that thetime might come when it would be well to have taken stock correctly ofhis grandfather's lieutenant. Then, before replying, he looked at thefaces of the other men. When he spoke it was to them.

  "Boys," he said quietly, "this outfit belongs to me. I am StevePackard, the son of Philip Packard, who owned Number Ten Ranch and whomortgaged it but did not sell it to his father--my grandfather. I'vejust got back home;
I mean to have what is mine; I am going to pay themortgage somehow. I haven't jumped in with my sleeves rolled up fortrouble either; had Blenham been a white man instead of a brute and abully he might have kept his job under me. But I guess you all knowthe sort of life he has been handing Royce here. Bill taught me how toride and shoot and fight and swim; pretty well everything I know that'sworth knowing. Since I was a kid he's been the best friend I ever had.Anything else you boys would like to know?"

  Barbee had risen slowly from the floor.

  "Packard's son or the devil's," he said quickly, his eyes never leavingBlenham, "I'm with you."

  The man whom, over the card-table, Barbee had addressed as Spotty andwhose nickname had obviously been gained for him by the peculiar tuftsof white hair in a young, tousled head of very dark brown, cleared histhroat and so drew all eyes to himself at his side of the room.

  "Bill Royce bein' blind, if you could only prove somehow who you are--"he suggested, tone and expression plainly indicating his willingness,even eagerness, to be convinced.

  "Even if I can't see him," said Royce, his own voice eager, "I know!An' I can prove it for my part by a couple of little questions--if youboys will take my word for it?"

  "Shoot," said Spotty. "No man's called you liar yet, Bill."

  "Then, Stevie," said Royce, just a shade of anxiety in his look as hissightless eyes roved here and there, "answer me this: What was thefirst horse you ever rode?"

  "A mare," said Steve. "Black Molly."

  "Right!" and Royce's voice rang triumphantly. "Next: Who nailed theboard over the door? The ol' cedar board?"

  "I did. Just before I went away."

  "An'," continued Royce, his voice lowered a trifle, "an' what did yousay about it, Stevie? I was to know----"

  "Coach him up! Tell him what to say, why don't you?" jeered Blenham.

  "I don't think I need to," replied Royce quietly. "Do I, Steve?"

  "I was pretty much of a kid then, Bill," said Packard, a half-smilecoming into his eyes for the first time, a smile oddly gentle. "I hadbeen reading one of the Arabian Nights tales; that's what put it intomy head."

  "Go ahead, Steve; go ahead!"

  "I said that I was going to seek my fortune up and down the world; thatthe board above the door would be a sign if all went well with me.That as long as I lived it would be there; if I died it would fall."

  There was a little, breathless silence. It was broken by Bill Royce'sjoyous laughter as Bill Royce's big hand smote his thigh.

  "Right again, Steve! An' the ol' board's still there. Go look at it;it's still there."

  Again all eyes sought Blenham. For a moment he stood uncertain,looking about him. Then abruptly he swept up his hat and went out.And Barbee's laughter, like an evil echo of Royce's, followed him.


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