“You seem to be right now. You and yore friend the convict,” sneered the short cowpuncher.
“Don’t use that word again, Shorty,” advised the ranchman in a voice gently ominous.
“Why not? True, ain’t it? Doesn’t deny it none, does he?”
“We’ll not discuss that. Where were you yesterday?”
“Here, part o’ the day. Where was you?” demanded Shorty impudently. “Seems to me I heard you was right busy.”
“What part of the day? Begin at the beginnin’ and tell us what you did. You may put yore hands down.”
“Why, I got up in the mo’nin’ and put on my pants an’ my boots,” jeered Shorty. “I don’t recolleck whether I put on my hat or not. Maybe I did. I cooked breakfast and et it. I chawed tobacco. I cooked dinner and et it. Smoked and chawed some more. Cooked supper and et it. Went to bed.”
“Why, no, I fed the critters and fixed up a busted stirrup.”
“Who was with you?”
“I was plumb lonesome yesterday. This any business of yours, by the way, Em?”
“Think again, Shorty. Who was with you?”
The heavy-set cowpuncher helped himself to a chew of tobacco. “I told you onct I was alone. Ain’t seen anybody but you for a week.”
“Then how did you hear yesterday was my busy day?” Crawford thrust at him.
For a moment Shorty was taken aback. Before he could answer Dave spoke.
“Man coming up from the creek.”
Crawford took crisp command. “Back in that corner, Shorty. Dave, you stand back, too. Cover him soon as he shows up.”
A man stood in the doorway, big, fat, swaggering. In his younger days his deep chest and broad shoulders had accompanied great strength. But fat had accumulated in layers. He was a mountain of sagging flesh. His breath came in wheezy puffs.
“Next time you get your own—”
The voice faltered, died away. The protuberant eyes, still cold and fishy, passed fearfully from one to another of those in the room. It was plain that the bottom had dropped out of his heart. One moment he had straddled the world a Colossus, the next he was collapsing like a punctured balloon.
“Goddlemighty!” he gasped. “Don’t shoot! I—I give up.”
He was carrying a bucket of water. It dropped from his nerveless fingers and spilt over the floor.
Like a bullet out of a gun Crawford shot a question at him. “Where have you hidden the money you got from the stage?”
The loose mouth of the convict opened. “Why, we—I—we—”
“Keep yore trap shut, you durn fool,” ordered Shorty.
Crawford jabbed his rifle into the ribs of the rustler. “Yours, too, Shorty.”
But the damage had been done. Miller’s flabby will had been braced by a stronger one. He had been given time to recover from his dismay. He moistened his lips with his tongue and framed his lie.