Chapter III

The Old-Timer Sits into a Big Game

THE room into which Dingwell had stepped was as large as a public dance-hall. Scattered in one part or another of it, singly or in groups, were fifty or sixty men. In front, to the right, was the bar, where some cowmen and prospectors were lined up before a counter upon which were bottles and glasses. A bartender in a white linen jacket was polishing the walnut top with a cloth.

Dave shook his head in answer to the invitation to drink that came to him at once. Casually he chatted with acquaintances as he worked his way toward the rear. This part of the room was a gambling resort. Among the various methods of separating the prodigal from his money were roulette, faro, keno, chuckaluck, and poker tables. Around these a motley assemblage was gathered. Rich cattlemen brushed shoulders with the outlaws who were rustling their calves. Mexicans without a nickel stood side by side with Eastern consumptives out for their health. Chinese laundrymen played the wheel beside miners and cowpunchers. Stolid, wooden-faced Indians in blankets from the reservation watched the turbid life of the Southwest as it eddied around them. The new West was jostling the old West into the background, but here the vivid life of the frontier was making its last stand.

By the time that Dave had made a tour of two thirds of the room he knew that Sheriff Sweeney was not among those present. His inquiries brought out the fact that he must have just left. Dingwell sauntered toward the door, intending to follow him, but what he saw there changed his mind. Buck Rutherford and Slim Sanders were lounging together at one end of the bar. It took no detective to understand that they were watching the door. A glance to the rear showed Dave two more Rutherfords at the back exit. That he would have company in case he left was a safe guess.

The cattleman chuckled. The little devils of mischief already mentioned danced in his eyes. If they were waiting for him to go, he would see that they had a long session of it. Dave was in no hurry. The night was young yet, and in any case the Legal Tender never closed. The key had been thrown away ten years before. He could sit it out as long as the Rutherfords could.

Dingwell was confident no move would be made against him in public. The sentiment of the community had developed since that distant day when the Rutherford gang had shot down Jack Beaudry in open daylight. Deviltry had to be done under cover now. Moreover, Dave was in the peculiar situation of advantage that the outlaws could not kill him until they knew where he had hidden the gold. So far as the Rutherfords went, he was just now the goose that laid the golden egg.

He stood chatting with another cattleman for a few moments, then drifted back to the rear of the hall again. Underneath an elk's head with magnificent antlers a party sat around a table playing draw poker with a skinned deck. Two of them were wall-eyed strangers whom Dingwell guessed to be professional tinhorns. Another ran a curio store in town. The fourth was Dan Meldrum, one of the toughest crooks in the county. Nineteen years ago Sheriff Beaudry had sent him to the penitentiary for rustling calves. The fifth player sat next to the wall. He was a large, broad-shouldered man close to fifty. His face had the weather-beaten look of confidence that comes to an outdoor Westerner used to leading others.

While Dave was moving past this table, he noticed that Chet Fox was whispering in the ear of the man next the wall. The poker-player nodded, and at the same moment his glance met that of Dingwell. The gray eyes of the big fellow narrowed and grew chill. Fox, starting to move away, recognized the cattleman from whom he had escaped half an hour before. Taken by surprise, the little spy looked guilty as an urchin caught stealing apples.

It took no clairvoyant to divine what the subject of that whispered colloquy had been. The cheerful grin of Dave included impartially Fox, Meldrum, and the player beneath the elk's head.

The ex-convict spoke first. "Come back to sit in our game, Dave?" he jeered.

Dingwell understood that this was a challenge. It was impossible to look on the ugly, lupine face of the man, marked by the ravages of forty years of vice and unbridled passion, without knowing that he was ready for trouble now. But Meldrum was a mere detail of a situation piquant enough even for so light-hearted a son of the Rockies as this cattleman. Dave had already invited himself into a far bigger game of the Rutherford clan than this. Moreover, just now he was so far ahead that he had cleared the table of all the stakes. Meldrum knew this. So did Hal Rutherford, the big man sitting next the wall. What would be their next move? Perhaps if he joined them he would find out. This course held its dangers, but long experience had taught him that to walk through besetting perils was less risk than to run from them.

"If that's an invitation, Dan, you 're on," he answered gayly. "Just a minute, and I 'll join you. I want to send a message to Sweeney."

Without even looking at Meldrum to see the effect of this, Dave beckoned a Mexican standing near. "Tell the sheriff I want to see him here pronto. You win a dollar if he is back within an hour."

The Mexican disappeared. Fox followed him.

The cattleman drew in his chair and was introduced to the two strangers. The quick, searching look he gave each confirmed his first impression. These men were professional gamblers. It occurred to him that they had made a singularly poor choice of victims in Dan Meldrum and Hal Rutherford. Either of them would reach for his gun at the first evidence of crooked play.

No man in Battle Butte was a better poker psychologist than Dingwell, but to-night cards did not interest him. He was playing a bigger game. His subconscious mind was alert for developments. Since only his surface attention was given to poker he played close.

While Rutherford dealt the cards he talked at Dave. "So you 're expecting Sweeney, are you? Been having trouble with any one?"

"Or expect to have any?" interjected Meldrum, insolence in his shifty pig eyes.

"No, not looking for any," answered Dingwell amiably. "Fact is, I was prospecting around Lonesome Park and found a gold mine. Looks good, so I thought I'd tell Sweeney about it. … Up to me? I 've got openers." He pushed chips to the center of the table.

Rutherford also pushed chips forward. "I 'll trail along. … You got an idea of taking in Sweeney as a partner? I'm looking for a good investment. It would pay you to take me in rather than Sweeney."

Three of those at the table accepted this talk at its face value. They did not sense the tension underneath the apparently casual give-and-take. Two of them stayed and called for cards. But Dave understood that he had been offered a compromise. Rutherford had proposed to divide the gold stolen from the express car, and the proffer carried with it a threat in case of refusal.

"Two when you get to me. … No, I reckon I 'll stick to the sheriff. I 've kinda arranged the deal."

As Rutherford slid two cards across to him the eyes of the men met. "Call it off. Sweeney is not the kind of a partner to stay with you to the finish if your luck turns bad. When I give my word I go through."

Dingwell looked at his cards. "Check to the pat hand. … Point is, Hal, that I don't expect my luck to turn bad."

"Hmp! Go in with Sweeney and you 'll have bad luck all right. I 'll promise you that. Better talk this over with me and put a deal through." He rapped on the table to show that he too passed without betting.

The curio dealer checked and entered a mild protest. "Is this a poker game or a conversazione, gentlemen? It's stuck with Meldrum. I reckon he's off in Lonesome Park gold-mining the way he's been listening."

Meldrum brought his attention back to the game and bet his pat hand. Dave called. After a moment's hesitation Rutherford threw down his cards.

"There's such a thing as pushing your luck too far," he commented. "Now, take old man Crawford. He was mightily tickled when his brother Jim left him the Frying Pan Ranch. But that was n't good enough as it stood. He had to try to better it by marrying the Swede hash-slinger from Los Angeles. Later she fed him arsenic in his coffee. A man's a fool to overplay his luck."

At the showdown Meldrum disclosed a four-card flush and the cattleman three jacks.

As Dave raked in the pot he answered Rutherford casually. "Still, he had n't ought to underplay it either. The other fellow may be out on a limb."

"Say, is it any of your business how I play my cards?" demanded Meldrum, thrusting his chin toward Dingwell.

"Absolutely none," replied Dave evenly.

"Cut that out, Dan," ordered Rutherford curtly.

The ex-convict mumbled something into his beard, but subsided.

Two hours had slipped away before Dingwell commented on the fact that the sheriff had not arrived. He did not voice his suspicion that the Mexican had been intercepted by the Rutherfords.

"Looks like Sweeney did n't get my message," he said lazily. "You never can tell when a Mexican is going to get too tired to travel farther."

"Better hook up with me on that gold-mine proposition, Dave," Hal Rutherford suggested again.

"No, I reckon not, Hal. Much obliged, just the same."

Dave began to watch the game more closely. There were points about it worth noticing. For one thing, the two strangers had a habit of getting the others into a pot and cross-raising them exasperatingly. If Dave had kept even, it was only because he refused to be drawn into inviting pots when either of the strangers was dealing. He observed that though they claimed not to have met each other before there was team work in their play. Moreover, the yellow and blue chips were mostly piled up in front of them, while Meldrum, Rutherford, and the curio dealer had all bought several times. Dave waited until his doubts of crooked work became certainty before he moved.

"The game's framed. Blair has rung in a cold deck on us. He and Smith are playing in cahoots."

Dingwell had risen. His hands rested on the table as an assurance that he did not mean to back up his charge with a gunplay unless it became necessary.

The man who called himself Blair wasted no words in denial. His right hand slid toward his hip pocket. Simultaneously the fingers of Dave's left hand knotted to a fist, his arm jolted forward, and the bony knuckles collided with the jaw of the tinhorn. The body of the cattleman had not moved. There seemed no special effort in the blow, but Blair went backward in his chair heels over head. The man writhed on the floor, turned over, and lay still.

From the moment that he had launched his blow Dave wasted no more attention on Blair. His eyes fastened upon Smith. The man made a motion to rise.

"Don't you," advised the cattleman gently. "Not till I say so, Mr. Smith. There's no manner of hurry a-tall. Meldrum, see what he's got in his right-hand pocket. Better not object, Smith, unless you want to ride at your own funeral."

Meldrum drew from the man's pocket a pack of cards.

"I thought so. They 've been switching decks on us. The one we 're playing with is marked. Run your finger over the ace of clubs there, Hal. … How about it?"

"Pin-pricked," announced Rutherford. "And they 've garnered in most of the chips. What do you think?"

"That I 'll beat both their heads off," cut in Meldrum, purple with rage.

"Not necessary, Dan," vetoed Dingwell. "We 'll shear the wolves. Each of you help yourself to chips equal to the amount you have lost. … Now, Mr. Smith, you and your partner will dig up one hundred and ninety-three dollars for these gentlemen."

"Why?" sputtered Smith. "It's all a frame-up. We 've been playing a straight game. But say we have n't. They have got their chips back. Let them cash in to the house. What more do you want?"

"One hundred and ninety-three dollars. I thought I mentioned that already. You tried to rob these men of that amount, but you did n't get away with it. Now you 'll rob yourself of just the same sum. Frisk yourself, Mr. Smith."

"Not on your life I won't. It … it's an outrage. It's robbery. I 'll not stand for it." His words were brave, but the voice of the man quavered. The bulbous, fishy eyes of the cheat wavered before the implacable ones of the cattleman.

"Come through."

The gambler's gaze passed around the table and found no help from the men he had been robbing. A crowd was beginning to gather. Swiftly he decided to pay forfeit and get out while there was still time. He drew a roll of bills from his pocket and with trembling fingers counted out the sum named. He shoved it across the table and rose.

"Now, take your friend and both of you hit the trail out of town," ordered the cattleman.

Blair had by this time got to his feet and was leaning stupidly on a chair. His companion helped him from the room. At the door he turned and glared at Dingwell.

"You 're going to pay for this—and pay big," he spat out, his voice shaking with rage.

"Oh, that's all right," answered Dingwell easily.

The game broke up. Rutherford nodded a good-night to the cattleman and left with Meldrum. Presently Dave noticed that Buck and the rest of the clan had also gone. Only Slim Sanders was left, and he was playing the wheel.

"Time to hit the hay," Dave yawned.

The bartender called "Good-night" as Dingwell went out of the swinging doors. He said afterward that he thought he heard the sound of scuffling and smothered voices outside. But his interest in the matter did not take him as far as the door to find out if anything was wrong.