TWO BIT THOMPSON and Chuck Parker quarreled amiably as they jogged down the trail leading out of Charleston where during the night just past they had indulged in a weakness for draw poker with the denizens of that rowdy camp.
"That Curly Bill guy plays some terrible poker," said Two Bit as he searched through his pockets for the makings.
"It was good enough to shuck me loose from a month's pay," grumbled Chuck. "That rustler handles cards just like he handles other folks' cattle. Some of these days some one's going to hang leaves Arizona stuff alone. Cripes, he's even a good friend of the sheriff and all the rest of the law around Charleston."
"Yeah, but all the law in Charleston won't bother no rustler. Old Judge Burnett don't fine nobody but Chinamen nor jail no one but Mexican miners. He makes more out of Curley and the rest of his crowd in his saloon by leaving them alone. But you'll see, it won't be long until that gang starts swinging a long loop on this side of the line. They're going to look different to folks around here then."
"Aw, what's the matter with you?" snapped Two Bit. "You getting ready to run for sheriff or just sore because you lost your bank-roll? Old Curley isn't the only guy around here that's handling wet cattle. Come on, let's rock along a bit and get home."
Chuck, still grumbling, lifted his pony into a canter and swung alongside of his companion as they cut across the high mesa toward the ranch where they worked.
It was only a few days later that Two Bit and Chuck were riding the high country seeking strays. They were drifting along easily when Two Bit suddenly halted and waved his companion to silence. Clearly came the sound of the broken bawling of driven cattle.
"Now who in blazes is moving stock around here?" queried Two Bit as he swung his pony's head toward the sound and, sided by Chuck, angled up the range toward the top.
As they reached the crest the answer lay before them. Working down a long draw in the direction of the valley in which lay the construction-camps of the railroad, a small group of men was pushing a bunch of steers through the greasewood and mesquite. The two cowboys gazed steadily for a moment, then exclaimed almost as one, "Rustlers, by damn! And those steers belong to us."
Two Bit Thompson, ever the hasty one of the pair, jabbed the spurs into his pony and started downhill toward the moving herd. Chuck Parker followed, cursing his ill fortune that he had left his rifle at home.
But even as he started Two Bit was seen by the rustlers and a rifle cracked sharply from the group behind the cattle. Two Bit yelled and fired a futile pistol in rely, pulled his pony to his haunches, whirled and rode behind a point of rock. That bullet had been too close for comfort. Helplessly he watched the men his pistol could not reach.
Chuck, seeing his friend temporarily safe, sought shelter for himself as other rifles appeared from below.
The rustlers, realizing that only two men faced them, spread out, leaving two of their number to keep the cattle moving while the other four devoted their attention to the cowboys on the slope. They had no intention of letting them escape to tell what they had seen.
"Come on, Two Bit. We've got to run for it," cried Chuck as another rifle bullet scattered bits of rock near where the two cowboys crouched in their saddles.
"Run hell!" replied Two Bit. "The buzzard that shot at me is one of the guys we played poker with at Charleston. That's Curley Bill's outfit down there and we're never going to get a chance to run. They'll pick us off with those rifles before we get well started."
Chuck, despite the seriousness of the situation, could not resist jibing at his partner. "I thought you said they never stole from anybody but Mexicans. I told you they ought to be hung."
A rifle cracked from a new quarter and the bullet threw up the dirt at the feet of Two Bit's horse. It was the first of several shots, all of them close. Two Bit snapped a shot down the slope at one of the men but it was far short. The pistols of the two punchers were no weapons to ward off the rifles of the rustlers.
"We gotta get out of here, Chuck," said Two Bit. "Let's make a break for it. You go one way and I'll go the other. Then we'll cut for the ranch. They'll get us both if we stay here long enough for them to get behind us."
Chuck nodded, wasting no words, and swung his horse sharply to the right as Two Bit turned to the left.
"Now!" he cried, and spurring madly the two cowboys dashed for the crest of the hill behind them as the rifles below cracked anew. Chuck made the crest and dashed over into safety but Two Bit, caught in the open by one of the rustlers, was dropped from his saddle. Chuck, unable to help him, raced for the ranch, followed by a scattered burst of bullets.
Several hours later men from the ranch reached the scene. Two Bit was lying where he had fallen, his horse not far away, its leg broken by a bullet. The cowboy was dead, shot through the back.
The men buried Two Bit Thompson and then took up the trail of the rustlers. Chuck Parker led the way on a fresh mount. But search was futile. Within a few miles of the scene of the gunfight they found a little bunch of cattle abandoned by the rustlers when they realized that Chuck would soon return with aid. From there the trail became hard to follow, weaving into the rocky slopes of the foothill country and finally disappearing entirely. The cowmen gave up at a loss, returned to the cattle and drove them back to their own range.
But Chuck Parker had other ideas. He knew one man who had been in the group and he was looking for that one man. Chuck was going to Charleston.
As they rode back toward the ranch Chuck's friends tried to dissuade him or at least to convince him that they should be allowed to go along.
"Nothing doing," he said. "If we go busting into that camp all togged up for war there'll be a lot of good guys get hurt. Hell! They know Two Bit is dead as well as we do, but they don't know that any one knows who did it. There ain't no use swearing out warrants either. They'd have a dozen fellows to swear they were somewhere else. If I go alone they won't see anything strange about it. I've been there before. I'm going alone."
So it was settled and Chuck headed for Charleston.
The sun had set and it was almost dark when he rode into the little mining-camp which was also the headquarters of the rustlers. No law except the justice of the peace bothered Charleston. That personage, using a system of fines and rulings all his own, worried the rustlers not at all. Charleston for the time was theirs to be run as they pleased.
Business was already brisk in the little adobe saloon before which Chuck stopped his horse. He peered above the swinging-doors and quickly checked over those at the bar. The man he wanted was not there. But he would be, Chuck decided as he dismounted and led his horse down the path besides the building.
Near a window he tied him with a short bit of rope to a scrub tree. He left the reins on the pony's neck looped over the saddle horn. For Chuck was planning to leave Charleston in a hurry.
His horse ready, he walked into the saloon through the front door. Once inside, he made some simple preparations. He sat down at a table near the window, eased his holster around into his lap and loosened the short-barreled Colt in the leather.
His pocket-knife, with one keen blade opened, he held concealed in his left hand. As he waited he ordered a drink and sipped it.
He had not waited long before several men entered the saloon. One of them was a tall sharp featured rider with a broken nose. This man saw Chuck Parker and, apparently confident that Chuck had not recognized him, moved toward the table where the cowboy sat. He was within a few paces of it when Chuck kicked back his chair, leaped to his feet pistol in hand and fired twice.
The rustler had reached for his gun but as it cleared the holster he crumpled to the floor with two of Chuck's bullets in his body.
While the other occupants of the saloon dived under tables or behind the bar the cowboy plunged through the window and with a quick slash of his open knife cut the rope that held his horse. In a flash he was in the saddle and away.
Far down the trail toward the ranch he pulled his heaving horse to a walk, reloaded his pistol and jogged on. No longer would Curley Bill's rustlers ride the valleys unchallenged as they moved Mexican cattle to construction-camp or reservation. War had been declared!