Brazenly eyeing her silent captors, the crowd formed a closely-packed circle about the girl!
GENTLEMAN COLBY perked jaded nostrils and sniffed. From one of the lesser places on down the street a crowd of bearded grangers, cowpokes, and slattern-faced women pushed out the door, dragging a protesting figure with them. The crowd tramped around a corner and disappeared into the alley, from which huge, billlowing clouds drifted out to hang above the little town like a tinted Paisley shawl. Smoke! And in it, Gentleman Colby smelled excitement! Pulling the sorrel back from the hitch rail, he jogged down to where the smoke drifted out and turned in. The crowd formed a closely-packed circle about a girl of perhaps eighteen and beautiful, brazenly eyeing her silent captors. To one side, but dangerously near, an iron kettle bubbled and sputtered its awful brew over a well-built fire. Gentleman Colby sniffed again. Tar!
Colby edged in, coughed, and touched a surly granger's shoulder. "What's the trouble, if I'm not buttin' in?" he asked brightly.
"Trouble?" the granger snarled, and pointed., "There's yer trouble! The lass o' Bitter Creek. As troublesome a critter as ever went through a man's pockets.
Gentleman Colby cocked an appraising eye in the girl's direction. And the appraisal reflected a vision he had fought away too many times of late; of a place by the side of the road, a cow or two, and a woman to make it homey. "Why, she doesn't look so all fired troublesome," he mused. "I'd admire to say I've seen worse!"
The granger's blue jowls dropped in amazement. "Lige," he howled to the leader of the band, "Here's a cove says she don't look troublesome worse he says!"
Lige stalked through the crowd, now turned and staring at this apparition enough to debate a lost cause so arrogantly.
“Did we understand you to say this don't look bad?" he asked sharply.
Colby leered across the glowering heads to the girl. "That's about the way I put it," he smirked through even white teeth.
The Lass o' Bitter Creek flicked eyelashes demurely.
"Ahem, gentlemen," Colby warmed to his subject, "it seems to me you people are takin' advantage of this girl. Harrumph! Offhand I'd say, from her looks, she don't know noihin' about stealin'. It ain't in her eye. A fair trial by jury would be the fair way to settle this. Put the evidence out front, I do say, and show it to light of day."
"Gor-a-mighty! Did ye hear that?" the bull-necked leader blurted to the crowd. "Did ye hear what this pilgrim says?" His eyes rolled skyward. "A trial! And he means it!"
Gentleman Colby looked over to note the effect on the girl. Her long brown lashes shaded blushing cbeeks!
"May I ask," Colby smiled, “what, if any, are the charges?"
"Stealin'," Lige roared. "Why that strumpet---"
"Hold on there!" Colby stopped him short. "Stealin's a mighty high crime to be accusin' a girl that age of. Why, that lass wouldn't steal the hair off a dead man's head. Bein' modest is more to the point!"
Lige and the granger conferred. The restless crowd sneered surrily at the gentleman, shifted uneasily, and waited.
Lige stepped forward, planted feet wide apart, and spoke. "Stranger, we ain't exactly havin' delirium tremens over a fool pilgrim buttin' in on a good chore and speakin' his piece. For all perfect things has a flaw, a scratch underneath the surface ye might say, that shows up mighty tremendjous sometimes when polished-off in the smooth. And lots o’ times the other side o' the question makes interestin' small talk around a supper table, if fer nothin' else afterward. Now me and Henry has been sizing you up and from yer looks we'd say you was a gentleman o' chance. Innocent you says! Wal, they's ways o' puttin' your marbles in the ring 'thout talkin’!” He stopped for effect.
“Now here is how our deal stacks up," "You to play Henry here a game o’ poker. We the people, represented by Henry, puts the girl up fer our chips. You to put up thet sorrel. If you win, the lass goes free, pervided always of course ye both shags out o' town before sunup. If Henry wins, the pot bpils again! And no argufyin' about the sorrel. Put out or take out, and no argufyin’ about yer choice.”
Colby smiled. The Lass o' Bitter Creek sent a burning look over the crowd that worked wonders. That house, a cow or two, and a woman too were taking shape.
Colby appeared to study a moment. “Very well,” he purred, "where do we play the game?”
“Why up to the Rimfire Saloon'll be as likely a place as any," Henry answered belligerently.
“Then come on, boys," Colby lilted, the light of love in his eyes.
The humming mob swarmed out of the alley and up the street to the saloon.
Inside a space was cleared and the gentlemen went to work. Colby leaned in and stretched across the table. Henry drew three and raised the ante. Colby shoved a stack of blue chips in and laid down his cards. Henry bellowed hoarsely and called for a new deck. The game was on. The close-packed crowd simmered down; the swift lightning-like, yet casual plays lulled their senses. The feel of cards in Colby 's long white fingers brought the surging desire to win as it always had before. That home, its cow or two, and someone to make it homey, were lost in the shuffle.
HENRY shifted uneasily. A low babble of voices down the bar came floating up to break the silence in the room. Another voice close by took up the murmur and the spell was broken. Henry was losing. Something rustled behind, the soft white hand of the Lass o' Bitter Creek disappeared from Colby's shoulder, and heavy boots shuffled together behind the rustle 'of silk. Colby glanced back. The girl was gone. The crowd edged in, intent only on the play. Gentleman Colby returned to his first love and reached for another card.
An hour passed. Two. Henry picked up his hand and laughed harshly, to send his dwindling chips out and spread cards on the green baize cloth. Colby met his three aces with a busted flush. Henry looked up snarling. Slowly his features contorted. His mouth opened. "Where's the girl?" he bawled.
Mute faces broke into whispers, then howls. Colby reached instinctively for his derringer. The seething crowd, surged toward the door carrying Colby along with its tide.
Outside, staunch citizens deployed, some running around to the alley, some beyond, some up the street. Colby, disentangled himself and stepped over to look to the sorrel. Henry rolled off the crowd's outer fringe and bumped to a stop at the rack.
Eyeing Colby, he panted, "Guess, you know what kind o' stealin' she specialized in, don't you?"
"Not horse stealin'?" Gentleman Colby gulped, and looked to the horseless hitch rail.