Man to man, p.9

Man to Man, page 9

 

Man to Man
 



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  CHAPTER IX

  "IT'S MY FIGHT AND HIS. LET HIM GO!"

  Steve Packard, walking swiftly, reached the west bridge just before thefront tires of Terry's car thudded on the heavy planks. He glimpsedBlenham jogging along behind her and knew that Blenham had seen him.

  But his eyes were for Terry now. She, too, had recognized him with buta few yards separating them. She gave him a blast of her hornwarningly, and, slowing down no more than was necessary for the sharpturn, came on across the bridge. He read it in her eye that it wouldbe an abiding joy for Miss Terry if she could send him scampering outof her way; the horn as much as said: "You step aside or I'll run youdown!"

  With no intention of going under the wheels, Steve waited until thelast moment and then jumped. But not to the side as Terry hadanticipated. Obeying his impulse and taking his chance, he sprang upto her running-board as she whizzed over the bouncing planks of thebridge, grasping the door of her car to steady himself. The featsafely accomplished, he grinned up into Terry's startled eyes.

  "We meet again," he laughed sociably. "Howdy!"

  Her lips tight-pressed, she gave her attention for a moment to herwheel and the rutty road in front of her. Her cheeks were red and grewredder. Perhaps a dozen men, here and there upon the street, had seen.She had meant them to see; it would have tickled her no little to havehad them note Steve Packard flying wildly to the side of the road whileshe shot by. She had not counted upon him doing anything else.

  "Smarty!" she cried hotly.

  "Smart enough to climb out from under when an automobile driven by amanslaughter artist comes along," he chuckled, sensing an advantage anddrawing a deep enjoyment from it. "Don't you know, young lady, you'vegot to be careful sometimes? Now, if you had run over me----"

  "Serve you right," sniffed Terry.

  "Yes, but think! Running over a man who hasn't had time to take hisspurs off yet, why you stood all kinds of chances getting a puncture!You don't want to forget things like that."

  Terry bit her lip, stepped on the throttle, swung across the street,made a reckless turn, and brought up in front of the lunch-counter.

  "Do you know," remarked Packard lightly, ignoring the fact that she hadanswered him with only the contempt of her silence, "you remind me ofmy grandfather. Fact! You two have the same little trick of driving.Wonder what would happen if you and he met on a narrow road?"

  "At least," said Terry, eying him belligerently, "he is a man, if he isa scoundrel. Not just a hobo!"

  "Oh, I didn't mean to call you a scoundrel! Nor yet to say that youstruck me as mannish. Of course----"

  "Oh, you make me sick!" cried Terry. And she flashed away from him,going into the lunch-room.

  He followed her with speculative eyes. Then he glanced across thestreet. Blenham had dismounted in front of the Ace of Diamonds and waswatching. As Packard turned Blenham went into Hodges's saloon.

  "Wonder what he'll have to say when Hodges hands him his roll?" musedPackard.

  Well, he had accomplished his purpose. He had done all that he hadhoped to do in Red Creek this afternoon, had assured himself that hissuspicions against Blenham were justified by the fact and that thetheft was only a week old. He went back slowly to his horse in frontof the Old Trusty. But his eyes were frowning thoughtfully.

  What would be Blenham's next move? What would Blenham do, what wouldhe say when Hodges gave him Packard's message? Might he, in anunguarded moment, give a hint toward the answer of that other questionwhich now had become the only consideration: "Were the larger banknotesstill hidden at Ranch Number Ten or had Blenham already removed them?"

  Instead of mounting to ride away, Packard hung his spurs upon hissaddlehorn and turned again into Whitey Wimble's place.

  The late afternoon faded into dusk, the first stars came out, WhiteyWimble lighted his lamps. Steve, advised of the fact by the purr of amotor, knew when Terry left the lunch-room and drove to the store for avisit with the storekeeper's wife. Was she going to remain in townovernight? It began to look as though she were.

  Across the street Hodges came out and lighted the big lamps at eachside of his doorway. A cowboy swung down from his horse and went in,his spurs winking in the lamplight as though there were jewels uponthem. A buckboard pulled up and two other men went in after him. Avoice in sudden laughter boomed out. Saturday night had come. AsWhitey Wimble had predicted, the boys were showing up and Red Creekstood ready to lose something of its brooding afternoon quiet.

  Once again Packard crossed the bridge and made his way along theechoing wooden sidewalk to the Ace of Diamonds. A dozen saddle-horseswere tied at the hitching-rail. Among them was Blenham's white-footedbay. Up and down the street glowing cigarette ends like fireflies cameand went. In front of the saloon a number of men made a good-natured,tongue-free crowd, most of whom had had their first drinks and werebeginning to liven up as in duty bound on a Saturday night.

  A four-horse wagon came rattling into town from the east to pour outits contents, big, husky men, at Hodges's door. Among them Packardrecognized one man. He was the lumber-camp cook from whom he hadgotten coffee and hotcakes the other day, that morning after he hadrefused to accept Terry's cool invitation to breakfast.

  "I'll have to look in on those fellows tomorrow," he thought as theyshouldered past, boisterous and eager. "Grandy's sure had his nervecutting my timber with never so much as a by-your-leave."

  Their foreman was with them; one glance singled him out. He was ofthat type chosen always by old man Packard to head any one of thePackard units, a sort of confident mastery in his very stride, thebiggest man of them, unkempt and heavy, with a brutal face and hardeyes. Joe Woods, his name. Packard had already heard of him, a rowdyand a rough-neck but a capable timberjack to the calloused fingers ofhim. He followed the men into the saloon.

  At his place behind the long bar was Hodges, busy filling imperativeorders, taking in the money which he counted as good as his once itleft the paymaster's pocket. But it struck Packard that the bartenderdid not appear happy; his face was flushed and hot, his eyes lookedtroubled. Now and then he flashed a quick look at Blenham who stoodleaning against the bar at the far end, twisting an empty whiskey-glassslowly in his big hand, staring frowningly at nothing.

  "Hodges is a fool and he has just been told so!" was Steve's answer tothe situation.

  "Hi, Blenham!" called big Joe Woods. "Have a drink."

  "No," growled Blenham, deep down in his throat. "I don't want it.I----"

  His eyes, lifted to the lumber-camp boss, passed on and rested on StevePackard. He broke off abruptly, his look changing, probing, seemingfull of question.

  "Get the money I gave Hodges for you?" asked Packard, coming into theroom. "The ten one-dollar bills that you left behind you?"

  "They wasn't mine," said Blenham quickly, his hand hard about thewhiskey glass, his manner vaguely nervous. "I tol' Dan to give 'emback to you."

  Steve smiled.

  "Funny," he said carelessly. "Hodges said----"

  "I made a mistake," called Hodges sharply. "I got Blenham mixed upwith some other guy. I don't know nothin' about this here." Heslammed the little roll down on the bar. "Come get it, if you wantit." Packard promptly stepped forward, taking the money.

  "I figured there was a chance to make ten dollars, easy money, if Ijust walked across the street for it," he said, looking pleasantly fromHodges to Blenham. "Sure, I want it. It's luck-money; didn't youknow? You see, when a man loses anything he loses some of his luckwith it; when another man gets it, he gets the luck along with it.Thanks, Blenham."

  Blenham made no answer. His eyes were bright with anger and yettroubled with uncertainty. The uncertainty was there to be recognizedby him who looked keenly for it. Blenham did not know just which wayto jump. From that fact Steve drew a deep satisfaction. For therewould have been no reason for indecision if Blenham knew that he hadthose other, bigger bank-notes, safe.

  At the rear of the long
room a man was dealing cards forseven-and-a-half. As though to demonstrate the truth of his boastabout "luck-money" Steve stepped to the table, the roll of bills in hishand. He was dealt a card. Without turning it up to look at it heshoved it under the ten banknotes.

  "Standing?" said the dealer.

  Steve nodded.

  "Playing my luck," he answered.

  The dealer turned lack-lustre eyes upon Steve's card, then upon his ownwhich he turned up. It was the four of clubs.

  "I've the hunch that will beat you, pardner," he said listlessly. "ButI'll come again."

  He turned another card, a deuce.

  "That'll about beat you," he suggested. He leaned forward for Steve'scard. "Unless you've got a seven in the hole."

  And a seven it was; the bright red seven of hearts. The dealer paid,ten dollars to Steve's ten.

  "Come again?" he asked.

  "Not to-night," returned Packard. "I took just the one flutter to showBlenham."

  He turned and saw that Blenham had already slipped quietly out of theroom. Dan Hodges, his face a fiery red, was just coming back from thecard-room. With him was the big timber boss.

  "Tin-horn!" shouted Joe Woods at Packard. "Quitter!"

  A quick joy spurted up in Steve Packard's heart; he was right aboutBlenham. Blenham, filled with anxiety, had gone already, would berushing back to Ranch Number Ten to make sure if the ten thousanddollars were safe or had been discovered already by the rightful owner.He had slipped away hurriedly but, after the fashion of a careful,practical man, had taken time to confer with Dan Hodges and hadcommissioned Joe Woods to hold Packard here. And so, though he couldnot remember of having ever run away from a fight before, Steve Packardwas strongly of that mind right now.

  "Joe Woods, I believe?" he said coolly, his mind busy with the newproblem of a new situation. "Boss of the timber crew on the east sideof Number Ten? I was planning on riding out to-morrow for a word withyou, Woods."

  "So?" cried Woods. "What's the matter with havin' that word to-night?"

  "Haven't time," was the simple rejoinder. "I'm about due across thestreet now; at Whitey Wimble's place."

  "Which is where you belong," growled Woods, his under jaw thrustforward, his whole attitude charged with quarrelsome intent. "Over atthe White Rat's with the rest of the Willies!"

  The ever-ready Packard temper was getting into Steve's head, beating inhis temples, pounding along his pulses. He had never had a man baithim like that before. But he strove to remember Blenham only, to takestock of the fact that this was a bit of Blenham's game, and that anytrouble with another than Blenham was to be avoided at this juncture.So, though the color was rising into his face and a little flicker offire came into his eyes, he said briefly:

  "Then I'd better go across, hadn't I? See you in the morning, Woods."

  But there is always the word to whip the hot blood into the coolesthead, to snare a man's caution out of him and inject fury in its stead,and Joe Woods, a downright man and never a subtle, put his tongue toit. On the instant Packard gave over thought of such side issues as aman named Blenham and hidden bank-notes.

  He cried out inarticulately and leaped forward and struck. Joe Woodsreeled under the first blow full in the face, staggered under thesecond, and was borne back into the tight-jammed crowd of his followers.

  The men about him and Packard withdrew this way and that, leaving emptyfloor space to accommodate the two pairs of shuffling boots. Joe Woodswiped his lips with the back of a big, hairy hand, saw traces of blood,and charged. The sound of blows given and taken and of little gruntsand of scraping feet were for a space the only sounds heard in Hodges'ssaloon.

  The men about him and Packard withdrew this way andthat, leaving empty floor space.]

  Packard's attack had been swift and sure and not without a certainskill; against it Woods opposed all he had, ponderous strength,slow-moving, brutal force, broad-backed, deep-chested endurance. Butfrom the first it was clear to all who watched and was suspected byWoods himself that he had chosen the wrong man.

  Steve was taller, had the longer reach, was gifted by the gods with asupple strength no whit less than the bearish power of the timber boss.With ten blows struck, with both men rocking dizzily, it was patentlySteve Packard's fight. But a dull, dogged persistence was in JoeWoods's eyes as again he shook his head and charged.

  Steve struck for the stomach and landed--hard. Woods doubled up; thesweat came in drops upon his forehead; his face went suddenly a sickwhite. But the light in his eyes, as again he lifted his head, wasunaltered.

  "He can lick me--I know it! He can lick me--I know it!" he mutteredand kept muttering. "But, by God, he's got to do it!"

  And Steve did it and men looked on queerly, appraising him anew. Hetook Woods's blows when he must and felt the pain go stabbing throughhis body; but he stood up and struck back and forced the fightsteadily, crowding his adversary relentlessly, seeming always to strikeswifter and harder.

  It was a bleeding fist driven into Joe Woods's throbbing throat,followed by the other fist, going piston-like, at Joe Woods's stomach,that ended the fight.

  The bigger man crumpled and went down slowly like one of his own treesjust toppling, and lay staring up into Packard's face with dull eyes.Steve stepped over him, going to the door.

  "I'll see you in the morning, Woods," he panted.

  But again boots were shuffling on the floor and already several men,Dan Hodges among them, were between him and the door. It dawned uponhim that Blenham must have given emphatic orders and that Blenham hadthe trick of exacting obedience.

  "Hold him here," shouted Hodges, and being a man of little spirit hewithdrew hastily under Steve's eyes, thrusting another man in front ofhim. "Keep him for the sheriff. Startin' a fight in my place--it'sdisturbin' the peace, that's what it is! I won't stand it!"

  Packard drew back two or three paces, his eyes narrowing. At thatinstant he was sure of what he saw in the faces of at least three ofthe men confronting him; they were going to rush him together.

  But now Joe Woods was on his feet again. Packard drew still furtherback, getting the wall behind him. And then came a diversion. It wasJoe Woods speaking heavily:

  "I fought him fair an' he licked me. Think I'm the kind of a she-manas stands for you guys buttin' in on my fight? Stand back an' let himgo!"

  "Blenham said--" screamed Hodges.

  "Damn Blenham an' you, too," growled Woods. "It's my fight an' his.Let him go!"

  They let him go, drawing apart slowly. With watchful eyes Steve passeddown the little lane they made. At the door he turned, saying briefly:

  "I'll see you in the morning, Woods!"

  Then he went out.

 

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