Man to man, p.8

Man to Man, page 8


Man to Man

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  The little town of Red Creek had an individuality all its own. Itmight have prided itself, had it any civic sense whatever, upon itsaloofness. It stood apart from the rest of the world, at a safedistance from any of its rival settlements, even drawn apart as thoughdistrustfully from its own railroad station which baked and blisteredin the sun a good half-mile to the west. Grown up here haphazardlylong before the "Gap" had been won through by the "iron trail," itignored the beckoning of the glistening rails and refused to extenditself toward the traffic artery.

  More than all this, Red Creek gave the impression, not in the leastincorrect, of falling apart into two watchful sections which eyed eachother suspiciously, being cynically and unsociably inclined. Its mainstreet was as wide as Van Ness Avenue and down the middle of it, like aborder line between two hostile camps, sprawled a stream which sharedits name with the town.

  The banks here and there were the brick-red of a soil whose chiefmineral was iron; here and there were screened by willows. There weretwo insecure-looking bridges across which men went infrequently.

  For the spirit which had brooded over the birth of Red Creek when asheepman from the north and a cow-man from the south had set theirshacks opposite each other, lived on now; long after the old feuds weredead and the whole of the grazing lands had been won over to the cattleraisers, a new basis for quarrels had offered itself at Red Creek'sneed.

  Much of this Steve Packard knew, since it was so in his time, before hehad gone wandering; much he had learned from Barbee in a long talk withhim before riding the twenty-five miles into the village. Old ManPackard had drawn to himself a host of retainers since his interestswere big, his hired-men many, his wages generous. And, throughout thecountryside across which he cast his shadow, he had cultivated andgrown a goodly crop of enemies, men with whom he had contended, menwhom he had branded sweepingly as liars and thieves and cutthroats, menwhose mortgages he had taken, men whom, in the big game which heplayed, he had broken. The northern half of Red Creek was usually andsignificantly known as Packard's Town; the southern half sold liquorand merchandise, offered food and lodging, to men who harbored fewfriendly feelings for Packard's "crowd."

  Hence, in Red Creek were two saloons, confronting each other across thered scar of the creek; two stores, two lunch-counters, two blacksmithshops, each eying its rival jealously. At this time the post-officehad been secured by the Packard faction; the opposition snortedcontempt and called attention to the fact that the constable residedwith them. Thus honors were even.

  Steve Packard rode into town in the late afternoon, his motiveclear-cut, his need urgent. If Blenham had stolen his ten thousanddollars for which he had so imperative a call now, then Blenham hadbeen the one who had replaced the large bank-notes with the small;there was the chance that Blenham, just a week ago to-night, had gottenthe dollar bills in Red Creek. If such were the case Packard meant toknow it.

  "There are things, Barbee," he had said bluntly, "which I can't tellyou yet; I don't know you well enough. But this I can say: I am out toget Blenham's tag."

  "So'm I," said Barbee.

  "That's one reason you've got the job you're holding down right now.Here's one point though, which it's up to you to know; I very muchsuspect that for reasons of his own Blenham hasn't set foot for thelast time on Ranch Number Ten. He'll come back; he'll come snoopingaround at night; he'll perhaps have a way of knowing the first nightI'm away and come then. There's something he left there that he wants.At least that is the way I'm stringing my bet. And while I am awayyou're foreman, Barbee."

  A flickering light danced in Barbee's blue eyes.

  "Orders from you, if Blenham shows up at night----"

  "To throw a gun on him and run him out! The quickest way. To-night Iwant you to squat out under a tree and keep awake--all night. Forwhich you can have two days off if you want."

  "If I thought he'd show," and the boy's voice was little more than aneager whisper, "I couldn't sleep if I tried!"

  Then Packard had spoken a little about Red Creek, asking his fewquestions and had learned that Blenham had his friends in "Packard'sTown" where Dan Hodges of the Ace of Diamonds saloon was an old pal,that "Whitey" Wimble of the Old Trusty saloon across the street hatedboth Hodges and Blenham like poison.

  "Us boys," added Barbee, "always hung out at the Ace of Diamonds, bein'Packard's men. After now, when I go on a rampage, I'm goin' to makefrien's across the street. Friends sometimes comes in handy in RedCreek," he added smilingly.

  The road, as one comes into Red Creek from the east, divides at thefirst bridge, one fork becoming the northern half of the intersectedstreet, the other the southern half. Steve Packard, filling his eyeswith the two rows of similar shacks, hesitated briefly.

  Until now he had always gone to the Packard side; when a boy he hadregarded the rival section with high contempt, looking upon it asinferior, sneering at it as a thoroughbred might lift lip at anunworthy mongrel. The prejudice was old and deep-rooted; he felt asubtle sense of shame as though the eyes of the world were upon him,watching to see him turn toward the "low-down skunks an' varmints"which his grandfather had named these denizens of the defamed section.

  The hesitation was brief; he reined his horse impatiently to the left,riding straight toward the flaunting sign upon the lofty false front ofthe Old Trusty saloon. But short as was his indecision it had notended before he had glimpsed at the far end of the street theincongruous lines of an automobile--red racing type.

  "Boyd-Merril. Twin Eight," thought Packard. "So we'll meet on thesame side after all, Miss Terry Pert!"

  There were seeds of content in the thought. If it were to be range warbetween him and his grandfather, then since obviously the Temples hadalready been drawn into contention with the old man Packard, it wasjust as well the fates decreed that he and Terry should be on the sameside of the fence, the same side of the fight, the same side of RedCreek.

  He tickled his horse with a light spur; despite the manner of theirlast encounter he could look forward with something akin to eagernessto another meeting. For, he told himself carelessly, she amused himvastly.

  But the meeting was not just yet. He saw Terry, jauntily, even saucilydressed, as she came out of the store and jumped into her car, markedhow the bright sunlight winked from her high boots, how it flamed uponher gay red scarf, how it glinted from a burnished steel buckle in herhat band. As bright as a sunbeam herself, loving gay colors about her,across the distance she fairly shone and twinkled.

  There was a faint shadow of regret in his eyes as she let in the clutchand whizzed away. She was headed down the street, her back to him,driving toward the remote railroad station. Off to the north he saw agrowing plume of black smoke.

  "Going away?" he wondered. "Or just meeting some one?"

  But he had come into Red Creek on a business in no way connected withTerry Temple.

  He had figured it out that Blenham, if it had been Blenham who hadchanced on Bill Royce's secret and no longer ago than last Saturdaynight, would have wasted no time in acquiring the one-dollar bills forhis trick of substitution; that if he had come for them to Red Creekthat same night, after post-office and stores were closed, he wouldhave sought them at one of the two saloons; that, since currency is atall times scarce in cattle towns in the West, he might have had to goto both saloons for them.

  Packard began investigations at the Old Trusty saloon whose doors stoodinvitingly open to the faint afternoon breeze.

  In the long room half-a-dozen idle men looked up at him with mildinterest, withdrawing their eyes briefly from solitaire or newspaper orcribbage game or whatever had been holding their careless attention ashe entered.

  A glance at them showed him no familiar face. He turned to the bar.

  Behind it a man was polishing glasses with quick, skilful hands. Steveknew him at once for Whitey Wimble. He was a pronounced albino,unhealthy-looking, with overlarge, thin ears, sm
all pale eyes, andteeth that looked like chalk. Steve nodded to him and spun a dollar onthe bar.

  "Have something," he suggested.

  Wimble returned his nod, left off his polishing to shove forward acouple of the glistening glasses, and produced a bottle from behind him.

  "Regards," he said apathetically, taking his whiskey with theenthusiasm and expression of a man observing his doctor's orders."Stranger in Red Creek?"

  "I haven't been here," Steve answered, "for several years. I never sawthe town any quieter. Used to be a rather gay little place, didn't it?"

  "It's early yet," said Whitey, going back to his interrupted task."Bein' Saturday, the boys from the ranches will be showin' up beforelong. Then it ain't always so quiet."

  Packard made his cigarette, lighted it, and then said casually: "Howare you fixed for dollar bills in your strong-box?"

  "Nary," returned Whitey Wimble without troubling himself to look intohis till. "We don't see overmuch rag money in Red Creek."

  "Guess that's so," admitted Steve. "They do come in handy, though,sometimes; when you want to send a dollar in a letter or something ofthat kind."

  "That's a fac', too; never thought of that." Which, since he neverwrote or received letters, was no doubt true.

  "Men around here don't have much use for paper money, do they?"continued Packard carelessly, his interest seeming to centre in hiscigarette smoke. "I'd bet a man the drinks nobody else has asked youfor a dollar bill for the last six months."

  "You'd lose," said Whitey. "I had three of 'em in the drawer for acoon's age; feller asked me for 'em jus' the other night."

  "Yes?" He masked his eagerness as he thrust a quarter forward. "Thedrink's on me then. Let me have a cigar."

  Whitey also took a cigar, indicating friendliwise the better box.

  "Who was it asked you for the paper money?" Steve went on. "He mighthave one he doesn't need."

  "It was Stumpy Collins. The bootblack across the street."

  "I'll look him up; yesterday he had them, you say?"

  Wimble shook his head, gave the matter his thought a moment, and said:

  "It was las' Saturday night; I remember 'cause there was a right smartcrowd in an' I was busy an' Stumpy kep' pesterin' me until I 'tended tohim. He won't have nothin' lef by this, though; it ain't Stumpy's wayto save his money long. Firs' time I ever knowed him to have threedollars all at once."

  From the Old Trusty Steve went across the street, leaving his horse infront of Wimble's door where there was a big poplar and a gratefulshade. Crossing the second of the two bridges he turned his eyestoward the railroad station; the red touring-car stood forthbrilliantly in the sunshine, a freight train was just pulling in, Terrywas not to be seen.

  "She'll eat before she starts back home," he thought, hastening hisstride on to Hodges's place, the Ace of Diamonds. "I'll see her at thelunch-counter."

  Tucked in beside the Ace of Diamonds was a bootblack stand, a crazy,home-made affair with dusty seat. The wielder of the brush and polishwas nowhere in evidence. Steve passed and turned in at the saloondoor, wishing to come to Hodges, Blenham's pal. For it required littleimagination to suspect that it had been Hodges at Blenham's behest, orBlenham himself, who had sent Stumpy across the street to the OldTrusty.

  Here, as in Wimble's place, a few men loitered idly; here as there theproprietor stood behind his own bar. Hodges, a short, squat man with aprize-fighter's throat, chest, and shoulders and a wide, thin-lippedmouth, leaned forward in dirty shirt-sleeves, chewing at a moistcigar-stump.

  "Hello, stranger," he offered offhandedly. "What's the word?"

  "Know Blenham, don't you?" asked Steve quietly. "Works for old manPackard."

  "Sure, I know him. What about him?"

  "Seen him lately?"

  "Ten minutes ago. Why? Want him?"

  Packard had not counted on this, having no idea that Blenham was intown. He hesitated, then said quickly:

  "Hasn't left yet, has he? Where is he now?"

  "Down to the depot. Trailin' a skirt. An' some skirt, too, take itfrom me."

  He laughed.

  Steve wanted suddenly to slap the broad, ugly face. Since, however, hecould formulate no logically sufficient reason for the act, he saidinstead:

  "Maybe I'll see him before I pull out. If I don't, ask him if he losta wad like this?"

  Fleetingly he flashed the little roll of banknotes before Hodges's eyes.

  "Greenbacks?" asked Hodges. "How much?"

  Packard laughed.

  "Not so all-fired much," he said lightly. "But enough to buy a hat!"

  "If hats are sellin' ten dollars or under?" ventured Hodges.

  Packard affected to look surprised.

  "What do you know about how much is in this roll?" he demandedinnocently.

  "One-dollar bills?" said Hodges. "Ten of 'em?"

  "You don't look like a mind-reader."

  "Well, you're right about the wad bein' Blenham's. Leave it with me,if you want. I'll see he gets it. There ain't enough there for a manto steal," he added reassuringly.

  "How do you know it's Blenham's? If he told you that he had lost ithe'd have told you where. What's the answer; where did I pick this up?"

  "Blenham didn't say he los' nothin'. But I know it's his because hegot most of them bills from me."

  "Tell me when," and Packard held the roll in a tight-shut hand, "andI'll leave them with you."

  "Las' Saturday night," said Hodges, after a brief moment of reflection.

  Packard tossed the little roll to the bar.

  "There's the money. Tell Blenham I thought it was his!"

  He turned to the door, his blood suddenly stirred with certainty:Blenham had stolen the ten thousand dollars, and the theft had beencommitted no longer ago than last Saturday night. Just a week--therewas the chance----

  "Hey, there," called Hodges. "Who'll I say lef this? What name,stranger?"

  Steve turned and regarded him coolly.

  "Tell him Steve Packard called. Steve Packard, boss of Ranch NumberTen."

  And Dan Hodges, dull wit that he was, felt that something was wrong.The look in the stranger's eyes had altered swiftly, the eyes had grownhard. Steve went out. As he reached the sidewalk he glimpsed a redautomobile racing townward from the station. Behind it, riding in itsdust, came Blenham.


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