Authors: Max Brand
Ronicky Doone's Treasure
One. Strange Company
Snow had already fallen above timber line, and the horseman, struggling over the summit, looked eagerly down into the broad valleys below, dark with evergreens. There was half an hour more of sunshine, but by the time he had ridden through the belt of lodge-pole pines, those stubborn marchers up to the mountaintops, a stiffening north wind had sheeted the sky from horizon to horizon with clouds.
Even before the rain began he put on his slicker to turn the edge of the gale, but, as he came out of the pines and into the more open and gently rolling lands beyond, the rain was beginning to drive down the valley. The lower he dropped toward the bottom lands the lower dropped the storm clouds above him, until the summits were quite lost in rolling gray masses and a mist of thin rain slanted across the trail.
The mare turned her head sideways to it, taking the brunt on one flattened ear and from time to time shaking off the drops of moisture. Between her and the rider there existed an almost conversational intimacy, it seemed. He had spread out the skirt of his slicker so as to cover as great a portion of her barrel as possible; as the chill of the rain increased, he encouraged her with talk. She replied with a slight pricking of her ears from time to time and often threw up her head in that way horses have when they wish to see the master the more clearly.
Meanwhile, she descended the precipitous trail with such cat-footed activity that it was plain she had spent her life among the mountains. The rider made little effort to direct her but allowed her to follow her own fancy, as though confident that she would take the quickest way to the bottom of the slope. This, indeed, she did, sometimes slackening her pace for a moment to study the lay of the land ahead, sometimes taking a steep down pitch on braced legs, sometimes wandering in easy loops to one side or the other.
In such a manner she came in the dusk of that late, stormy afternoon to the almost level going of the valley floor. Now it was possible to see her at her best, for she sprang out in a smooth and stretching gallop with such easily working muscles that her gait was deceptively fast. Here, again, the rider simply pointed out the goal and then let her take her own way toward it.
That goal was the only building in sight. Perhaps for miles and miles it was the only structure, and the face of the rider brightened as he made out the sharp angle of the roof. The ears of the mare pricked. Their way across the mountains had been a long one; they had been several hours in the snows above timber line; and this promise of shelter was a golden one.
But it was a deceptive promise, for when they came in the face of the driving storm they found that the tall building was not a ranch house but merely a ruined barn. It had once been a portion of a large establishment of some cattle owner, but the house proper and its outlying structures had melted away with the passage of time and the beating of such storms as that of this day. The sheds were mere crumbling ridges; the house was a ragged mound from which rotting timber ends projected. Only the barn subsisted.
It was of vast size. Hundreds of tons of loose hay could have been stored in its mow; scores of horses could have been stalled along its sides. And it had been built with such unusual solidity that, whereas the rest of the buildings had disintegrated, this one kept its original dimensions intact through half of its length. The south front was whole. Only the northern portion of the building had crushed in. But for some reason this combination of ruin and repair was more melancholy than the utter destruction of the rest of the ranch.
The horseman regarded this sight with a shake of the head and then looked again up the valley. But it would be difficult to continue. By this time it must have been sunset, and the storm dimmed the earth to the colors of late twilight. Every moment the wind freshened out of the north, picking up the drifts of rain and whirling them into gray ghost forms. To continue down a blind trail in the face of this gale, with no definite destination, was madness. The horseman resigned himself with a sigh to staying in the ruined barn until dawn.
He rode the mare, therefore, through a fallen section of the south front of the structure and into what had once been the mow. Stale scents of moldy straw still lingered in it.
Once inside, there was barely sufficient light to show the wanderer the dim outlines of the barn, and it was even more imposing in dimensions from within than from without. To the roof was a dizzy rise. A broad space extended on either side to the supporting walls. Half a regiment might bivouac here. Most important of all, the north gable was almost entirely blocked. That end of the building, though fallen, had not yet crumbled to the ground, and the broken roof formed a sort of enormous apron extending against the wind.
As soon as he had discovered this, the wanderer began at once to make systematic preparations for spending the night. He first rode the mare back into the open air to a rain rivulet, where she was allowed to drink. Then he returned, dismounted, gathered some fragments of wood, and lighted a fire.
The first leap of the yellow light transfigured the gloomy place. It started a shudder and dance of great shadows among the network of rafters above and in the corners of the building; it also showed the mare, from which the traveler now removed the saddle and rubbed her down
a bit of work of which most of the other riders of the Rocky Mountains would not have thought. He dried her as well as he could, and, before paying the slightest attention to his own wants, he produced from his saddle bags a mixture of chopped hay and crushed barley, a provision for his horse which he carried with him wherever he went. His glance wandered affectionately over her, for truly she was a beautiful creature.
In color she was a rich bay. Her stature was rather less than the average, for she was not more than fifteen hands and three inches in height; but what she lacked in height she made up in the exquisite nicety of her proportions. At first glance she looked rather too fine for hard mountain work, but a little closer examination showed ample girth at the cinches, nobly sloped shoulders, and quarters to match. In fact, she could have carried a heavyweight, and the bulk of her owner was a trifle for her strength.
He proved a slenderly made fellow as he turned away from the mare and threw more wood on the fire
a man of medium height and in no way imposing physically. His carriage alone struck the eye. He was erect as a whipstock, bore his head high and proudly, and moved with a light, quick step, as though he had been forced to act quickly so often that the habit had formed and hardened on him. That alert and jaunty carriage would in itself have won him some respect, even if his name had not been Ronicky Doone, whose fame in the more southerly ranges was already a notable thing. Horse-breaker, mischief-maker, adventurer by instinct, and fighter for sheer love of battle, he carried on his young body enough scars to have decked out half a dozen hardy warriors of the mountains, but the scars were all he had gained. The quarrels he fought had been the quarrels of others; and, since he was a champion of lost causes, the rewards of his actions went to others.
Now he rolled down his blanket beside the fire, which he had built for the sake of warmth and good cheer rather than for cooking. His fare consisted of hard crackers and was finished off with a draft of cold water from his canteen; then he was ready for sleep.
He found shelter at the north end of the mow. Here a great section of the disintegrating roof had fallen and stood end up, walling away a little room half a dozen paces in length and something more than half of that in width. By the vague light cast from the fire, which was rapidly blackening under the downpour of the rain, he took up his new abode for the night, and Lou followed him into it, unbidden.
He was wakened, after how long an interval he could not guess, by the sound of Lou getting to her feet, and a moment later he heard voices sounding in the big mow of the barn. Other travelers had taken refuge from the storm, it seemed. Ronicky Doone, glad of a chance to exchange words with men, rose hastily and walked to the entrance his quarters.
As he did so, a match was lighted, revealing two men standing beside their horses in the center of the great inclosure.
"A fine place for a meeting," said he who held the match. "How come we got to ride out here to the end of the world?"
His companion answered: "Maybe you'd have us meet up in a hotel or something, where the sheriff could scoop the whole bunch of us in. Is that your idea, Marty?"
Ronicky Doone had already advanced a step toward the newcomers, but as he heard these speeches he slipped back again, and, putting his hand over the nose of Lou, he hissed a caution into her ear. And glad he was that he had taught her this signal for silence. She remained at his back, not daring to stir or make a sound, and Ronicky, with a beating heart, crouched behind his barrier to spy on these strangers.
Two. The Plot
"All I say, 'Baldy' McNair," said Marty, "Is that the old man is sure stepping out long and hard to make things seem as mysterious as he can. Which they ain't no real need to come clean out here. This makes fifty miles I've rode, and you've come nigher onto eighty. What sense is in that, Baldy?"
The match burned out. Baldy spoke in the dark.
"Maybe the work he's got planned out lies ahead
"Maybe. But it sure grinds in on me the way he works. Never no reasons. Just orders. 'Meet here today after sunset.' That's all he says. I up and asks him: "Why after sunset, Jack? Afraid they'll be somebody to see us out there
a coyote or something, maybe?' But he wouldn't answer me nothing. 'You do what I say, ' says he, 'and figure out your reasons for yourself.' That's the way he talks. I say: Is it fit and proper to talk to a gent like he was a slave?"
"Let's start a fire," said his companion. "Talk a pile better when we get some light on the subject."
In a minute or two they had collected a great pile of dry stuff; a little later the flames were leaping up in great bodies toward the roof and puffing out into the darkness.
The firelight showed Ronicky two men who had thrown their dripping slickers back from their shoulders. Marty was a scowling fellow with a black leather patch over his right eye. His companion justified his nickname by taking off his hat and revealing a head entirely and astonishingly free from hair. From the nape of his neck to his eyebrows there was not a vestige or a haze of hair. It gave him a look strangely infantile, which was increased by cheeks as rosy as autumn apples.
"Now," went on Baldy McNair, "let me put something in your ear, Lang. A lot of the boys have heard you knock the chief. Which maybe the chief himself has heard."
"He's give no sign," muttered Marty.
"Son," said Baldy, who was obviously much younger than the man of the patched eye, but who apparently gained dignity by the baldness of his head, "when Jack Moon gives a sign, it's the first sign and the last sign all rolled into one. First you'll hear of it will be Moon asking you to step out and talk to him. And Moon'll come back from that talk alone and say that you started out sudden on a long trip. You wouldn't be the first. There was my old pal 'Lefty' and 'Gunner' Matthews. There was more, besides. Always that way! If they start getting sore at the way he runs things, he just takes them out walking, and they all go on that long journey that you'll be taking one of these days if you don't mind your talk, son! I'm telling you because I'm your friend, and you can lay to that!"
"What I don't see," answered Marty Lang, "is why the chief wants to hang on to a gent forever. You make it out? Once in the band, always in the band. That ain't no sense. A gent don't want to stick to this game forever."
"Oh, ho!" chuckled Baldy. "Is that the way of it? Well, son, don't ever let the chief hear you say that! Sure we get tired of having to ride wherever he tells us to ride, and we want to settle down now and then
or we think that we want to
and lead a quiet life and have a wife and a house and a family and all that. For that matter, there's nothing to keep us from it. The chief don't object."
"Don't object? How can a gent settle down at anything when he's apt to get a call from the chief any minute?"
"Wrong again. Not more'n once every six months. That's about the average. And then it's always something worth while. How long you been with us?"
"Ever gone hungry for four years?"
"When you was sick, two years back, were you took care of?"
"What did you have when the chief picked you up?"
"All right. You were down to zero. He picked you up. He gave you a chance to live on the fat. All you got to do in return is to ride with him once in six months and to promise never to leave the band. Why? Because he knows that if ever a gent shakes clear of it he'll be tempted to start talking some day, and a mighty little talk would settle the hash of all of us. That's the why of it! He's a genius, Moon is. How long d'you think most long riders last?"
"I dunno. They get bumped off before long."
"Sure they do. Know why? Because the leaders have always kept their men together in a bunch most of the time. Moon seen that. What does he do? He gets a picked lot together. He gets a big money scheme all planned. Then he calls in his men. Some of 'em come fifty miles. Some of 'em live a hundred miles away. They all come. They make a dash and do the work. Soon's it's done they scatter again. And the posse that takes the tracks has five or six different trails to follow instead of one. Result? They get all tangled up. Jack Moon has been working twenty years and never been caught once! And he'll work twenty years more, son, and never be caught. Because why? Because he's a genius! Steady up! Who's that?"