ON THE DODGE
Up in the hills back of Bear Canon two men were camping. They breakfasted on slow elk, coffee, and flour-and-water biscuits. When they had finished, they washed their tin dishes with sand in the running brook.
“Might’s well be hittin’ the trail,” one growled.
The other nodded without speaking, rose lazily, and began to pack the camp outfit. Presently, when he had arranged the load to his satisfaction, he threw the diamond hitch and stood back to take a chew of tobacco while he surveyed his work. He was a squat, heavy-set man with a Chihuahua hat. Also he was a two-gun man. After a moment he circled an arrowweed thicket and moved into the chaparral where his horse was hobbled.
The man who had spoken rose with one lithe twist of his big body. His eyes, hard and narrow, watched the shorter man disappear in the brush. Then he turned swiftly and strode toward the shoulder of the ridge.
In the heavy undergrowth of dry weeds and grass he stopped and tested the wind with a bandanna handkerchief. The breeze was steady and fairly strong. It blew down the canon toward the foothills beyond.
The man stripped from a scrub oak a handful of leaves. They were very brittle and crumbled in his hand. A match flared out. His palm cupped it for a moment to steady the blaze before he touched it to the crisp foliage. Into a nest of twigs he thrust the small flame. The twigs, dry as powder from a four-months’ drought, crackled like miniature fireworks. The grass caught, and a small line of fire ran quickly out.
The man rose. On his brown face was an evil smile, in his hard eyes something malevolent and sinister. The wind would do the rest.
He walked back toward the camp. At the shoulder crest he turned to look back. From out of the chaparral a thin column of pale gray smoke was rising.
His companion stamped out the remains of the breakfast fire and threw dirt on the ashes to make sure no live ember could escape in the wind. Then he swung to the saddle.
“Ready, Dug?” he asked.
The big man growled an assent and followed him over the summit into the valley beyond.
“Country needs a rain bad,” the man in the Chihuahua hat commented. “Don’t know as I recollect a dryer season.”
The big hawk-nosed man by his side cackled in his throat with short, splenetic mirth. “It’ll be some dryer before the rains,” he prophesied.
They climbed out of the valley to the rim. The short man was bringing up the rear along the narrow trail-ribbon. He turned in the saddle to look back, a hand on his horse’s rump. Perhaps he did this because of the power of suggestion. Several times Doble had already swung his head to scan with a searching gaze the other side of the valley.
Mackerel clouds were floating near the horizon in a sky of blue. Was that or was it not smoke just over the brow of the hill?