There were five horses hobbled near the line cabin. C.J. recognized Clem’s horse; it was the only one that didn’t have the HW brand on a shoulder.
He’d have to watch what he said if Harlan Webster’s riders were here. C.J. already had an insight into how ranchers dealt with rustlers. He’d only tried to steal cattle once, and the effort ended with three men dead.
As he neared the cabin, a cowboy stepped out with a rifle cradled in the crook of his arm. He tongued a wad of food or tobacco in his mouth to the side and spoke without smiling. “Howdy. You look to be new around here.”
C.J. felt a tingle run up his back to the nape of his neck. The hair there was probably standing up. Clem or Smitty would have vouched for him if everyone was having a friendly set-down.
Serious or Not
Either his partners were letting the newcomers hoorah him a little, or something was out of kilter.
C.J. coughed, mainly to avoid answering immediately while he took to the puzzle. There was only one man in front of him—hold it—he saw movement in the shack, there were more. Better match serious with serious. If it turns out to be a gibe, he’d laugh at it later.
“Yeah, I come from that’a way,” C.J. said, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder.
“Step on down and come in for grub. Ain’t met a man yet who wouldn’t want beans and bacon.”
“Sounds good,” C.J. said. “Coffee, too?”
The cowboy nodded. “What’s your name?”
It was a simple question, but C.J. had the same tingling sensation as before.
What if the ranch hands caught Clem and Smitty drunk, and they told all their plans? The riders would be looking for C.J.
“Easterly. That’s what them that knows me calls me.” C.J. put on a smile as he wrapped Skewy’s reins to a post. His stomach wanted to empty its contents, but C.J. determined to play-act until he found out who held the cards. “Most of the time, though, it’s just ‘Hey You.’”
The cowboy tipped his head for C.J. to follow and went inside.
And You Are?
C.J. said, “You didn’t tell me your name.”
A tall man rose from the crude, wooden table as they entered.
The cowboy with the Winchester said, “Carl Ridgeway. I go by Ridge.” He twitched his head in the direction of the six-footer plus that finally unfolded to almost brush his hat on the ceiling. “That’s Shorty.”
Shorty stepped around C.J. and grinned. “He always says, ‘Carl.’ Fact is, he’s Carlton.” He ducked through the door. “A right prissy name.”
Just a Couple of Ranch Hands
Shorty had a drawl that hit C.J. as pleasing. He’d never been to Texas, but that’s where Esther May was from, and she made words sound like that.
Ridge said, “Beans and fatback in the pot.”
C.J. got a tin plate, filled it, and took it to the table. He let his shoulders relax. Whatever was going on, these men were friendly enough, and the beans weren’t burnt.
Shorty returned through the door and straightened. He stared at C.J., but spoke to Ridge. “He could be the third man. The horse’s shoes look pretty dang close to the prints we found, but we’ll have to wait for the Navajo to get here to be sure.”
What’s the third man mean, and what’s the Navajo going to do? Leave a comment now.
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