Jed Parker straightened his back, rolled up the bandana handkerchief, and thrust it into his pocket, hit flat with his hand the touselled mass of his hair, and thrust the long hunting knife into its sheath.
"You're the man I want," said he.
Instantly the two-gun man had jerked loose his weapons and was covering the foreman.
"Am I!" he snarled.
"Not jest that way," explained Parker. "My gun is on my hoss, and you can have this old toad-sticker if you want it. I been looking for you, and took this way of finding you. Now, let's go talk."
The stranger looked him in the eye for nearly a half minute without lowering his revolvers.
"I go you," said he briefly, at last.
But the crowd, missing the purport, and in fact the very occurrence of this colloquy, did not understand. It thought the bluff had been called, and naturally, finding harmless what had intimidated it, gave way to an exasperated impulse to get even.
"You — — — bluffer!" shouted a voice, "don't you think you can run any such ranikaboo here!"
Jed Parker turned humorously to his companion.
"Do we get that talk?" he inquired gently.
For answer the two-gun man turned and walked steadily in the direction of the man who had shouted. The latter's hand strayed uncertainly toward his own weapon, but the movement paused when the stranger's clear, steel eye rested on it.
"This gentleman," pointed out the two-gun man softly, "is an old friend of mine. Don't you get to calling of him names."
His eye swept the bystanders calmly.
"Come on, Jack," said he, addressing Parker.
On the outskirts he encountered the Mexican from whom he had borrowed the knife.
"Here, Tony," said he with a slight laugh, "here's a peso. You'll find your knife back there where I had to drop her."
He entered a saloon, nodded to the proprietor, and led the way through it to a boxlike room containing a board table and two chairs.
"Make good," he commanded briefly.
"I'm looking for a man with nerve," explained Parker, with equal succinctness. "You're the man."
"Do you know the country south of here?"
The stranger's eyes narrowed.
"Proceed," said he.
"I'm foreman of the Lazy Y of Soda Springs Valley range," explained Parker. "I'm looking for a man with sand enough and sabe of the country enough to lead a posse after cattle-rustlers into the border country."
"I live in this country," admitted the stranger.
"So do plenty of others, but their eyes stick out like two raw oysters when you mention the border country. Will you tackle it?"
"What's the proposition?"
"Come and see the old man. He'll put it to you."
They mounted their horses and rode the rest of the day. The desert compassed them about, marvellously changing shape and colour, and every character, with all the noiselessness of phantasmagoria. At evening the desert stars shone steady and unwinking, like the flames of candles. By moonrise they came to the home ranch.
The buildings and corrals lay dark and silent against the moonlight that made of the plain a sea of mist. The two men unsaddled their horses and turned them loose in the wire-fenced "pasture," the necessary noises of their movements sounding sharp and clear against the velvet hush of the night. After a moment they walked stiffly past the sheds and cook shanty, past the men's bunk houses, and the tall windmill silhouetted against the sky, to the main building of the home ranch under its great cottonwoods. There a light still burned, for this was the third day, and Buck Johnson awaited his foreman.
Jed Parker pushed in without ceremony.
"Here's your man, Buck," said he.
The stranger had stepped inside and carefully closed the door behind him. The lamplight threw into relief the bold, free lines of his face, the details of his costume powdered thick with alkali, the shiny butts of the two guns in their open holsters tied at the bottom. Equally it defined the resolute countenance of Buck Johnson turned up in inquiry. The two men examined each other—and liked each other at once.
"How are you," greeted the cattleman.
"Good-evening," responded the stranger.
"Sit down," invited Buck Johnson.
The stranger perched gingerly on the edge of a chair, with an appearance less of embarrassment than of habitual alertness.
"You'll take the job?" inquired the Senor.
"I haven't heard what it is," replied the stranger.
"Said you'd explain."
"Very well," said Buck Johnson. He paused a moment, collecting his thoughts. "There's too much cattle-rustling here. I'm going to stop it. I've got good men here ready to take the job, but no one who knows the country south. Three days ago I had a bunch of cattle stolen right here from the home-ranch corrals, and by one man, at that. It wasn't much of a bunch—about twenty head—but I'm going to make a starter right here, and now. I'm going to get that bunch back, and the man who stole them, if I have to go to hell to do it. And I'm going to do the same with every case of rustling that comes up from now on. I don't care if it's only one cow, I'm going to get it back—every trip. Now, I want to know if you'll lead a posse down into the south country and bring out that last bunch, and the man who rustled them?"
"I don't know—" hesitated the stranger.
"I offer you five thousand dollars in gold if you'll bring back those cows and the man who stole 'em," repeated Buck Johnson. "And I'll give you all the horses and men you think you need."
"I'll do it," replied the two-gun man promptly.
"Good!" cried Buck Johnson, "and you better start to-morrow."
"I shall start to-night—right now."
"Better yet. How many men do you want, and grub for how long?"
"I'll play her a lone hand."
"Alone!" exclaimed Johnson, his confidence visibly cooling.
"Alone! Do you think you can make her?"
"I'll be back with those cattle in not more than ten days."
"And the man," supplemented the Senor.
"And the man. What's more, I want that money here when I come in. I don't aim to stay in this country over night."
A grin overspread Buck Johnson's countenance. He understood.
"Climate not healthy for you?" he hazarded. "I guess you'd be safe enough all right with us. But suit yourself. The money will be here."
"That's agreed?" insisted the two-gun man.
"I want a fresh horse—I'll leave mine—he's a good one. I want a little grub."
"All right. Parker'll fit you out."
The stranger rose.
"I'll see you in about ten days."
"Good luck," Senor Buck Johnson wished him.