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Authors: Luke; Short

Fiddlefoot

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Fiddlefoot

Luke Short

Chapter 1

It was up above in the mountain meadows and the aspens that Roan Creek found and spent its first vigor. Here below, in the wedge of dark canyon, it prowled quietly around vast boulders under the black shade of the pines, patient enough now to form deep and sunless pools.

The young man in the dusty blue uniform of a second lieutenant, United States Cavalry, lay on his belly atop a flat high boulder, and he was watching one of these pools. His arms were folded on the boulder's edge, and his chin was cushioned on his arms. His black campaign hat lay beside him, and a faint checkering of early morning sunlight touched his right leg and scuffed cavalry boots. His long form was motionless, relaxed, as if he had been here some time.

He watched the water at the base of this boulder for many minutes, then rolled over on his side and from his hip pocket drew a crumpled, non-regulation red-checked bandanna handkerchief. Putting a corner of it in his mouth, he tore the hem with his teeth, and then, with strong sun-blackened hands, he ripped off the corner. Wadding up this piece, he put it in his mouth and when it was wet he took it out and balled it between his fingers, then rolled back on his belly. With his right hand, he made a couple of practice passes, and then threw the wad of handkerchief into the pool. It landed at the base of the boulder opposite, and then, caught by the slow current, unfurled gradually in the dark water, a patch of brilliant color.

Deep in the pool at the base of the boulder something moved. The young man watched intently while a dark uncertain shape detached itself from the black rock and was finally outlined against the lighter-colored gravel of the pool's bottom. It was a trout, thick as a man's calf and as long as his arm. Motionless now, it lifted warily toward the patch of color. Then, its curiosity satisfied, it halted, suspending itself a bare moment before it circled majestically against the current and vanished under the ledge.

Frank Chess rose to his feet now and picked up his campaign hat. He was a tall young man, slow-moving now in abstraction, and he looked briefly again at the pool, a lingering soberness in his dark eyes. The expression went oddly with his face, which was narrow and dark and held an indefinable hint of cheerfulness and even impudence, now overlaid with thoughtfulness.

He clambered off the high boulder and began the steep climb up through the thick pines. Once, just below the rim, he turned to look back and saw through a break in the trees, the dark, silent pool. The bit of handkerchief was gone.

His horse was tethered in the timber beyond the rim, and he stepped into the McClellan saddle, cut over the ridge, and presently picked up a cattle trail which brought him in another hour to a dim road. He traveled this only a short way, left it again for timber, and by noon reached an obscure canyon where he picked up a faint wagon road. In a short while, he came to a clearing where a sorry looking tangle of corrals huddled close to a rotting shack.

The man who was standing in the door of the shack now leaned his rifle against the inside wall and stepped out into the sunlight. He was an unshaven, middle-aged man in tattered denims and rundown half-boots, but there was a genuine pleasure in his slack face now as he grinned and said, “Hello, Frank. Didn't figure to see you for two-three weeks yet. Where's the bunch?”

“Coming, Ed,” Frank said, and then he added, “Rob's dead.” He stepped out of the saddle, took off his hat, and slapped the dust from his trousers. Looking up now, he caught the slack-mouthed amazement in Ed Hanley's face.

“Well, well,” Ed said then. “I always figured Rob was too mean to die.”

Frank said, “Hide that horse and get mine, will you?” and went on into the shack.

When he came out some minutes later, he was wearing a faded calico shirt, worn denim pants, and scuffed cowman's boots. Ed led a saddled sorrel gelding from the corrals, and Frank accepted the reins in silence and mounted.

“Need anything?” Frank asked.

Ed scratched his head. “Nothin' but company.” Now he looked carefully up at Frank and said slyly, “Maybe somethin' else too.”

“What?”

“You're a rich man now, ain't you?” Ed asked softly. “I need money.”

Frank looked at him a long moment, and then swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. He walked up to Hanley and hit him in the face, hard.

Hanley sprawled on his back on the dust. After shaking his head once, he rose. Frank hit him again in the face, and again Hanley went down. This time, he rolled over on an elbow and be and Frank watched each other a long, long moment.

“Still need it?” Frank asked quietly.

“I don't reckon.”

Frank stepped into the saddle and rode out of the clearing without looking back.

It was almost dark when he reached the switchbacks above the town of Rifle and the last ridge before Grand River's gorge. The two-score false-front frame buildings making up the town's business district fronted both sides of the road, and this road crossed the narrow bench paralleling the river. Lamps were being lighted now against the August dusk, and from this height Frank could hear the whoops of the kids playing along the river after the supper hour. Immediately below him, the big spread of high-country pine that laced the residence part of the town was black and murmuring with the breeze of coming night.

At the bottom of the grade, he turned downriver, avoiding the main street. There, across the road and past the last mean shack on the town's outskirts, was a narrow frame building set beside a high gate which bore the legend on the boards of its wide arch:

J.J. HULST

Horses Bought and Sold

A high board fence began at the open gate and ran several hundred gray and sagging feet toward town, and behind it the big barns and sheds and corrals were scattered in an orderly maze clear to the river-bank. The rich and not unpleasant smell of manure was in the air like a stain.

The office was lighted, and Frank rode under the arch, dismounted and tied his horse out of the drive. Back across the corrals he could see the dim flicker of the stable lanterns.

Mounting the short steps to the open side door leading into the front office, he went in and glanced around at the three slanting desks behind the rail. This was a shabby room, and he was moving purposefully through it toward the door in its rear wall when he remarked the lamps still burning there, and remembered Tess Falette.

He halted suddenly and looked about him, and he saw her kneeling in front of the safe, putting away some ledgers. When she heard his footsteps pause, she looked over her shoulder. There was faint irritation in her face that vanished immediately at sight of him; she rose, a long-legged, slim and shining girl, softly rounded under her dark office dress that exaggerated her pale and gleaming hair, and she lent a kind of splendor to this drab room. Her dark eyes held warm and honest greeting for him as he came over to the rail.

“You're working too late, Tess,” he said, in a tone without banter.

“Why are teamsters always drunk when they unload?” she asked him. Her voice was low and husky, and it held an admission of the deep pleasure she felt now as she said, “It's nice you're back, Frank.” She smiled, meaning it, and Frank read the gay spirit of her in her smile. Her mouth was wide and sweetly shaped, her eyes set wide apart, and in them now was a lingering and friendly appraisal of him, as if, since they had talked only a few times and briefly in the three months he had worked for Hulst, she was still learning about him, and at the same time liking him.

He said, “Back for good this time,” and because this reminded him of his errand, he asked, “Rhino still in, Tess?”

She nodded, and he smiled at her and moved on through the door into a hall. Down it a dozen feet, lamplight was pooled in front of an open door, and he walked through it.

The man sitting at the roll-top desk had heard him and was waiting. He was a tall man going to fat, immensely big-framed, and a kind of bull-like vitality was reflected in his ruddy face, which held a curious benignity. He had close-cropped white hair that lay rich and shining close to his round skull, and there was a tranquil shrewdness in his bleak eyes as he beheld Frank. His worn vest lacked inches of meeting across his high belly, and the rest of his clothes were mussed and careless, and utterly clean. He lifted a big hand about four inches off the desk in lazy greeting and said, “Hello, Boy,” and Frank said quietly, “Hello, Rhino,” and sank into the chair against the near wall.

Rhino surveyed him a moment in silence, and then said gently, “I got word to you as soon as I could, Frank. I'm sorry about Rob.”

Frank said idly, “You don't care a damn, Rhino, and you know it.”

Rhino Hulst eyed him without rancor and then smiled faintly. “All right, I don't. No more than you.”

Frank made no protest. The unaccustomed soberness still lingered in his face; he stretched his feet before him and pushed his worn Stetson to the back of his head. His hatband had pressed down his short curly brown hair at the temples. He ran a hand idly through his hair.

“Where'd Dick find you?” Rhino asked.

“Northern Utah.” Frank sat up, putting his elbows on the arms of his chair, and looking now at the big man, asked, “Now tell me.”

“Dick told you all I know. Fred Dutra was bringing some cattle over Battle Mountain Pass. They spooked away from something on the trail where it rounded the peak. He found Rob lying just off the trail.” Rhino's massive hand was lying palm down on the desk; he turned it over, shrugged his shoulders an eighth of an inch and pursed his lips. “He'd fallen and broken his back. Weeks ago, Fred said. They buried him yesterday.”

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