Inside The Polka, not a bit more, and not a bit less sardonic—it was thi_mperturbability which made him so resistless to most people—than he was prio_o the banishment of The Sidney Duck, the Sheriff of Manzaneta County waite_atiently until the returning puppets of his will had had time to compos_hemselves. It took them merely the briefest of periods, but it served t_ncrease visibly the long ash at the end of Rance's cigar. At length he shot _awk-like glance at Sonora and proposed a little game of poker.
"This time, gentlemen—" he said, with a significant pause and accent—"just fo_ocial recreation. What do you say?"
"I'm your Injun!" acquiesced Sonora, rubbing his hands together gleefully a_he prospect of winning from the Sheriff, whom he liked none too well.
"That's me, too!" concurred Trinidad.
"Chips, then, Nick!" called out the Sheriff, quietly taking a seat at th_able; while Sonora, bubbling over with spirits, hitched up his trousers i_ailor fashion and executed an impromptu hornpipe, bellowing in his deep, bas_oice:
> > "I shipped aboard of a liner, boys—"
"Renzo, boys, renzo," finished Trinidad, falling in place at the table.
At this point the outside door was unexpectedly pushed open, inward, and th_eputy-Sheriff came into their midst.
"Ashby just rode in with his posse," he announced huskily to his superior.
The Sheriff flashed a look of annoyance and inquired of the gaunt, hollow- cheeked, muscular Deputy whose beaver overcoat was thrown open so that his gu_nd powder-flask showed plainly in his belt:
"Why, what's he doing here?"
"He's after Ramerrez," answered the Deputy, eyeing him intently.
Rance received this information in silence and went on with his shuffling o_he cards; presently, unconcernedly, he remarked:
"Ramerrez—Oh, that's the polite road agent who has been visiting the othe_amps?"
"Yes; he's just turned into your county," declared the Deputy, meaningly.
"What?" Sonora looked dumbfounded.
The Deputy nodded and proceeded to the bar. And while he drained the content_f his glass, the Minstrel played on his banjo, much to the amusement of th_en, who showed their appreciation by laughing heartily, the last bars of,
"Pop Goes the Weasel."
"Hello, Sheriff!" greeted Ashby, coming in just as the merriment over th_instrel's little joke had died away. Ashby's voice—quick, sharp and decisiv_as that of a man accustomed to ordering men, but his manner was suave, if _rifle gruff. Moreover, he was a man of whom it could be said, paradoxical a_t may seem, that he was never known to be drunk nor ever known to be sober.
It was plain from his appearance that he had been some time on the road.
Rance rose and politely extended his hand. And, although the greeting betwee_he two men was none too cordial, yet in their look, as they eyed each other, was the respect which men have for others engaged more or less in the sam_usiness and in whom they recognise certain qualities which they have i_ommon. In point of age Ashby was, perhaps, the senior. As far as reputatio_as concerned, both men were accounted nervy and square. Rance introduced hi_o Sonora and the others, saying:
"Boys, Mr. Ashby of Wells Fargo."
The latter had a pleasant word or two for the men; then, turning to th_eputy, he said:
"And how are you these days?"
"Fit. And yourself?"
"Same here." Turning now to the barkeeper, Ashby, with easy familiarity, added: "Say, Nick, give us a drink."
"Sure!" came promptly from the little barkeeper.
"Everybody'll have the same?" inquired Ashby, turning once more to the men.
"The same!" returned the men in chorus.
Thereupon, Nick briskly slapped down a bottle and four glasses before th_heriff, and leaving him to do the honours, disappeared into the dance-hall.
"'Well, I trust the Girl who runs The Polka is well?" inquired Ashby, pushin_is glass near the bottle.
"Fine as silk," vouched Sonora, adding in the next breath: "But, say, Mr.
Ashby, how long you been chasm' up this road agent?"
"Oh, he only took to the road a few months ago," was Ashby's answer. "Well_argo have had me and a posse busy ever since. He's a wonder!"
"Must be to evade you," complimented Sonora, much to the discomfort of th_heriff.
"Yes, I can smell a road agent in the wind," declared Ashby somewha_oastfully. "But, Rance, I expect to get that fellow right here in you_ounty."
The Sheriff looked as if he scouted the idea, and was about to speak, bu_hecked the word on his tongue. Then followed a short silence in which th_eputy, smiling a trifle derisively, went out of the saloon.
"Is this fellow a Spaniard?" questioned the Sheriff, drawling as usual, but a_he same time jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards a placard on th_all, which read:
> **"FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS REWARD > FOR THE ROAD AGENT RAMERREZ, > OR INFORMATION > LEADING TO HIS CAPTURE.**
"No—can't prove it. The fact of his leading a crew of greasers and Spaniard_ignifies nothing. His name is assumed, I suppose."
"They say he robs you like a gentleman," remarked Rance with some show o_nterest.
"Well, look out for the greasers up the road!" was Ashby's warning as h_mptied his glass and put it down before him.
"We don't let them pass through here," shrugged Rance, likewise putting dow_is glass on the table.
Ashby now picked up the whisky bottle and carried it over to the deserted far_able before which he settled himself comfortably in a chair.
"Well, boys, I've had a long ride—wake me up when The Pony Express goe_hrough!" he called over his shoulder as he put his coat over him.
But no sooner was he comfortably ensconced for a snooze than Nick cam_ustling in with a kettle of boiling water and several glasses half-fille_ith whisky and lemon. Stopping before Ashby he said in his best professiona_anner:
"Re-gards of the Girl—hot whisky straight with lemming extract."
Ashby took up his glass, as did, in turn, the men at the other table. But i_as Rance who, with arm uplifted, toasted:
"The Girl, gentlemen, the only Girl in Camp, the Girl I mean to make Mrs. Jac_ance!"
Confident that neither would catch him in the act, Nick winked first at Sonor_nd then at Trinidad. That the little barkeeper was successful in making th_ormer, at least, believe that he possessed the Girl's affections wa_anifested by the big miner's next remark.
"That's a joke, Rance. She makes you look like a Chinaman."
Rance sprang to his feet, white with rage.
"You prove that!" he shouted.
"In what particular spot will you have it?" taunted Sonora, as his hand crep_or his gun.
Simultaneously, every man in the room made a dash for cover. Nick ducke_ehind the bar, for, as he told himself when safely settled there, he was to_ld a bird to get anywhere near the line of fire when two old stagers got t_aking lead fly about. Nor was Trinidad slow in arriving at the other end o_he bar where he caromed against Jake, who had dropped his banjo and wa_rantically trying to kick the spring of the iron shield in an endeavour t_rotect himself—a feat which, at last, he succeeded in performing. But, fortunately, for all concerned, as the two men stood eyeing each other, thei_ands on their hips ready to draw, Nick, from his position behind the bar, glimpsed through the window the Girl on the point of entering the saloon.
"Here comes the Girl!" he cried excitedly. "Aw, leave your guns alone—tak_our drinks, quick!"
For a fraction of a second the men looked sheepishly at one another, even Nic_ppearing a trifle uncomfortable, as he picked up the kettle and went off wit_t.
"Once more we're friends, eh, boys?" said Rance, with a forced laugh; and the_s he lifted his glass high in the air, he gave the toast:
"The Girl!" repeated all—all save Ashby, whose snores by this time could b_eard throughout the big room—and drained their glasses.