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Title: Moon Riders (1936)
Author: Laurence Donovan
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Language: English
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Date first posted: July 2006
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Moon Riders
Laurence Donovan



CHAPTER I.

WHIPS OF DEATH.

RAY ALLISON heard the little man's scream of agony. The Federal Agent
shivered. Though he had steeled himself to remain inactive during this
whipping, now that the cries of tortured flesh echoed from the
hillside rocks, Allison grunted an oath, gripped his automatic and
started down the hill.

Flaring torches were added to the moonlight. Allison saw vague, moving
figures. These were oddly like men without faces or heads, only legs
and arms that moved about in hooding sacks.

The Moon Riders!

Charley Hawkins--the mild little fellow who kept the small tourist
stand at the crossroads--was being whipped. From the piercing tenor of
his cries, it was apparent that the whispered reports of the Moon
Riders had not been exaggerated, even among the terrorized,
superstitious hill folk of White Horse Valley. The mountain folk said
the Moon Riders used whips of red-hot wire. The government department
had not been able to confirm this. Allison had not intended to permit
the torture to proceed beyond the preliminary stage required for
evidence.

But at least a score of the Moon Riders had arrived at the bowl in the
mountains in cars from which even the license plates had been removed.
Allison could see the little man, his scrawny body standing out white
against the flare of the pine torches. He had been stripped of all his
clothing and set in the middle of the ring.

The fire burning in a pit of rocks and the heating of the lengths of
wire to which wooden handles were attached confirmed the reports of
the torture. Allison, concealed in the rocks high above the Moon
Riders' bowl, had watched, grim-lipped and blazing with anger, as the
score of burly figures had pushed Hawkins from one of the cars. For
Allison knew he was one man against the small mob of hooded figures. A
miscalculation in time had been responsible for these long odds.

Half a dozen more Government Men were due to arrive in White Horse
Valley two days later. Previous attacks by the Moon Riders had always
been scheduled by the complete full moon. But Charley Hawkins had been
seized two nights before this was due.

CHARLEY HAWKINS had received a letter warning him to settle up his
affairs and get out of that part of the country. It was this phase of
the reign of terror that had brought the attention of the U.S.
Government. Another man had been killed just across the State border.
This victim had also received a letter through the U.S. mails. It was
now time for the government to take action. The Secret Service desired
to link that government missive with an actual whipping at the hands
of the Moon Riders. Undercover Agent Allison had been assigned to the
case.

Allison had learned that Hawkins had been snatched in the night from
his roadside shack. The Undercover Agent had followed as rapidly as
possible. But the fire had been burning in the Moon Riders' bowl when
he got into the rocks above. Charley Hawkins stood there, his skinny
body shivering, but his chin uplifted and defiant.

A guttural voice growled from inside one of the hooding sacks.

"You've been havin' truck with folks comin' at night to your den of
iniquity, Charley Hawkins! Such as you must be punished according to
the sworn ritual!"

"It's a lie!" blazed Hawkins. "The folks who stop by are tourists who
want a bite! All of you know that!"

The Fed heard and he knew this to be true. Allison connected in his
own mind a possible reason why other persons in White Horse Valley
might not want that roadside stand to remain.

He did not consider this long, for there was little more conversation.
Even as Allison was condemning himself for not having armed himself
with a sub-gun, and was sliding down the rocks with his single
automatic, Charley Hawkins leaped high as the hot whip cut viciously
around his stomach and back.

The little man then must have gone completely insane. The slashing of
the other wires did not stop him. He screamed crazily, "I know you! I
know your voice!"

A heated wire snapped around Hawkins' face and seared his lips. He
started to fall forward, but he got out the mumbled syllables of a
name, a name that did not reach Allison.

The Federal Agent at this instant was trying for a cleft of rocks
where he could command all of the group with the automatic. Most of
the riders were armed with shotguns. It was a desperate chance at the
best, but even for the sake of valuable evidence the Federal Agent
could not stomach any more of this torture.

"So, you know me, huh?"

The voice was a rasped guttural from under the drawn hood. The man's
face and most of his body were concealed, for the sack was one used
for grain, with suitable holes cut in its side.

Charley Hawkins' bleeding, burned mouth opened wide and he screamed
directly at the man who had spoken.

"I know you--I know you--"

Allison's even teeth clicked together. He centered his automatic on
the hooded figure who had spoken. Murder was to be read in that
muffled guttural. The Federal Agent could see the upward movement of
the muzzles of shotguns.

"Stop it, you devils!" shouted Allison, his pistol steadily upon the
man he took to be the leader. "Stop it, in the name of--"

Perhaps it was just as well Ray Allison did not complete the sentence
"in the name of the law!" He did not finish it for the simple reason
of a gun barrel slamming down on the back of his head. The Government
Man collapsed.

He was spared seeing Charley Hawkins curl into a knot on the ground
and die with his ribs and stomach blasted from his scrawny body.

The Undercover Agent did not know when the topless small cars coasted
down the mountain road, leaving him among the rocks. The Moon Riders
did not wait to finish off Allison, for his bloody head had the
appearance of being completely caved in.

MEN walked through the single dusty street of White Horse Village with
lips held tight and eyes slanted upon the faces of all their
neighbors. Charley Hawkins had been found this morning.

The mild, little man of the tourist stand had been discovered sitting
upright in a chair behind his hamburger counter. Charley Hawkins was
minus both his face and his stomach. He was only a bloody carcass, the
parts not torn by the shot showing livid welts from burning whips. A
printed card was strung by a hempen cord about the man's neck.

WE WILL NOT HAVE SUCH IN

OUR MIDST--THE MOON RIDERS.

There were about fifteen hundred persons living in White Horse
Village. John Simpson was the marshal, and Curt Roden was the
sheriff's deputy. Simpson and Roden necessarily performed the official
rites of the law, which were brief.

The truth was that Curt Roden looked into John Simpson's red face and
recalled that Marshal Simpson had been drinking heavily since the
beginning of depredations by the Moon Riders. And Marshal Simpson
avoided Deputy Curt Roden's piercing gaze, tried to forget that Roden
had been regarded as a wild one before he had steadied down and taken
this job as deputy sheriff.

It is doubtful if there was a single family that fully trusted any
other family. Only one man stood out, his joviality attempting to
override the furtiveness of his fellow citizens.

He was Joel Romer, proprietor of the village general store.
Postmaster, justice of the peace and mayor, Joel Romer was a bald-
headed, constantly perspiring, but constantly laughing fellow with a
moonlike face.

"We'll never get at this, every man tryin' to see under his neighbor's
hide," Joel Romer said to Marshal Simpson. "Dammit! I'm for callin' in
the Feds an' havin' them root out this thing bud an' branch."

None of these men knew about Ray Allison; or that the Moon Riders,
believing him dead, had left the Federal Agent on the rocks.

ABOUT the time the fussy village doctor was performing his perfunctory
services for the remains of Charley Hawkins, a lean, swarthy fellow
with big earrings in his lobes and sleek black hair, plodded along the
dusty street.

The man was a wandering Syrian peddler, one who sells everything from
tinware to calico prints, to the poorer women in the hill cabins. The
Syrian had been peddling merchandise from his rattling auto truck. For
several weeks now he had been seen around the village. But today, he
was without his familiar, rattling truck.

The Syrian's half-lidded gray eyes observed the fat, good-natured Joel
Romer standing in the broad porch of his general store, which was also
the village post office. Marshal Simpson and Deputy Sheriff Roden were
in the knot of a dozen tightmouthed villagers listening to Romer.

"Put in my own post office, right among the other mail!" proclaimed
Joel Romer, his usual laugh missing. "Threatening me! If you don't
send for the government men, I'm sendin' myself on account of this
bein' in the mail!"

Marshal Simpson did not speak. Deputy Roden was silent. So were the
others of the few villagers listening. They glanced at each other and
they looked at their postmaster and mayor. The Syrian knew without
seeing the letter that Joel Romer had received a threat from the Moon
Riders.

The sudden movement away from the store porch indicated none of those
listening had any comment they wanted to make publicly. It was
dangerous to speak, to express sympathy with a man who had been
threatened.



CHAPTER II.

A BULLET FROM NOWHERE.

RAY ALLISON and the Syrian peddler were one and the same man. The
Secret Agent was keenly observing every man of perhaps a hundred or
more he had passed in the dusty street, and especially those who had
congregated about Joel Romer's porch.

Allison was convinced of a simple fact. The men who were the hooded
Moon Riders would be here in the village. They would be watching and
listening for the reaction over the brutal murder of Charley Hawkins.

In his guise of a Syrian peddler, Allison had become a familiar figure
in White Horse Valley. As such he was held in the usual contempt by
the men who despised "foreigners" of his type. But this morning, the
agent's veiled gaze was looking for surprise in some of the rugged
faces around him.

An hour ago another attempt had been made on the Government Man's
life. While coming down a winding road along the side of the mountain,
someone had loosened boulders on a hill beside him. In a moment a
small avalanche had swept down on the pseudo-Syrian and his small
peddler's truck. Only by a miracle had the Secret Agent escaped with
his life. The truck had been crushed to bits.

Those who might be the hooded Moon Riders would believe he had been
killed in the rocks at the time Hawkins was murdered. Others, who
probably were also Moon Riders, would think he had died as the Syrian
peddler under the wreckage of his truck.

The Federal Agent could feel the antagonism of scores of men. Yet
there was less suspicion of him than these villagers held for each
other. Allison caught the bulging eyes of Marshal Simpson upon him and
it seemed to him the drunken marshal appeared greatly surprised to see
the Syrian walking into town.

Allison used a broken English. He said, "My trook she is bust in the
heels when the mountain she comes down."

Marshal Simpson growled something about any hard luck happening to a
foreigner being good luck all around. Allison was looking at Deputy
Sheriff Roden. The lanky, dark-eyed deputy was muttering under his
breath. He seemed greatly surprised to see the Syrian, as much so as
Marshal Simpson had been.

Allison had to take into account that both the marshal and the
sheriff's deputy had been much discredited by the activities of the
Moon Riders. There had been a dozen whippings, four outright murders
and the disappearance of seven men.

The Federal Agent had listed these. He was seeking to discover if the
victims of the Moon Riders did not have some common enemy. And he had
found out that, like the ill-fated Charley Hawkins, each of the
victims had been engaged in some small enterprise that might possibly
afford competition for others in the village.

That had been Allison's idea for assuming the identity of the Syrian
peddler. As such, he also was competing with those who might be
engaged in trade. He was sure it would be only a question of time
until he received a warning from the Moon Riders.

ON his store porch, Joel Romer was almost apoplectic with rage as he
held up and read the few typewritten lines of a letter he had
received. Allison was close enough to hear most of it. It was the
usual warning to close up his affairs and get out of White Horse.

Being the biggest man in the village, from point of standing, the
anger of Joel Romer could be well understood. Yet immediately, his
friends and neighbors started moving away from that store porch. A
Moon Rider or two might be among them, but those who were not wanted
no association with a man who had been threatened.

The village could not unite against the scourge, because none knew
whom he could trust. This was what had thus far balked Allison.

Any citizen might be a Moon Rider. Allison was convinced that even
Marshal Simpson and Deputy Roden were surprised to see him walking
down that dusty street. Still, their surprise might have been over the
absence of his truck.

Joel Romer had finished reading his threatening letter. The Federal
Agent had got close enough to see the typewritten missive. He was near
Joel Romer's shoulder and the words were clear enough. The store man
did not omit anything that was written.

When he finished, Marshal Simpson stepped forward.

"I'll be takin' that, Joel, for evidence," he announced. "It's the
first one I've been able to get my hands on."

Allison was a little surprised when Joel Romer handed over the letter.
Allison had seen one other, in fact had it in his possession. That had
been written to Charley Hawkins. He judged the typing was the same on
both letters.

The group had melted away by this time and the Undercover Agent
glanced into the store. He saw the torn envelope from which Joel Romer
had taken his letter. It might be advisable to have that envelope, he
thought, and edged toward the door.

Joel Romer turned heavily upon him.

"You can see you're not wanted around here," he said. "This is a white
man's country and we ain't trustin' any foreigner traipsin' around
among the women folks, so if your truck's smashed, you'd better get
out now."

As if the words had been a signal, there was first a thudding blow
into one of the wooden pillars of the porch, followed instantly by the
vicious crack of a rifle. A bullet had struck only a foot or so from
Joel Romer's head.

The first rifle shot was followed by a second. That bullet must have
passed between the store proprietor and the man he believed to be a
Syrian peddler. It whined with the venomous sound of a leaden slug
flattened off a spike head in the porch floor.

Joel Romer swore loudly and ducked inside the store door. Allison saw
that only Marshal Simpson had remained standing below the porch, and
the bulky marshal dropped himself to the ground.

It gave the Federal Agent an opportunity to feign fright. He squawked
in an apparently foreign tongue and rolled off the porch. But his eyes
were fixed on a spot between two brown, unpainted buildings possibly
fifty yards down the street. He made the pretense of running behind
the store building, but he toed swiftly around the store and darted
across the street, as other villagers slipped hastily into sheltering
doorways.

NO man in White Horse, not excepting the marshal, had made any effort
to descend upon the hidden marksman. The terror of the Moon Riders had
come to that. As Allison got across the street and between the
buildings near where the rifleman had been, no other person had come
in that direction.

The Federal Agent heard a man's feet shuffling. He reached the corner
of the shack and peered cautiously around. Deputy Sheriff Roden was
standing in a narrow passage and he was holding a light rifle. Allison
remained riveted to his position. The lanky, dark-eyed deputy glanced
all around. Then he walked to a gutter that had been partly boarded
over, slipped the rifle hurriedly out of sight and went on around a
building to emerge into the street from another direction.

The Fed did not move for several minutes. He recalled that Deputy
Roden had slipped away while Joel Romer was reading his Moon Rider
letter, and was declaring he would summon the government men. Allison
made a hasty inventory in his mind of the typewriters, only a few, in
the village.

There was a machine in the deputy sheriff's office, one in the office
of Marshal Simpson, four others in lawyers' and doctors' offices and
one in the Joel Romer store.

Allison glided over to the boarded gutter. In ten seconds he had
examined the rifle, noted it had just been fired, and that it was a
.25-30, an unusually small caliber for this region, but deadly enough
at fifty yards.

The Federal Agent could see where the rifleman had stood. It was a
clean fifty yards with nothing to intervene. Joel Romer had been a
bulky target.

"Funny," murmured Allison. "Deputy Roden's a crack shot. There's
probably not a marksman in White Horse Valley who couldn't hit a
silver dollar at fifty yards."

Yet two bullets had gone more than a foot wide of the shining mark
Joel Romer had been. It was not improbable that Deputy Roden or any
other man could be one of the Moon Riders. Right now, no doubt, his
fingerprints were all over this rifle.

Allison's stained face took on hard lines. He replaced the rifle
carefully and took a roundabout way to Joel Romer's store. It was
evidence of the general fear that no villagers had come rushing into
the place.

Only Joel Romer, Marshal Simpson, a pottering, stoop-shouldered clerk
and bookkeeper, and Audrey Romer were there. Audrey was the daughter
of Joel Romer, and she probably had her good looks from her mother.
She had a prettiness and fineness of feature and figure that hardly
went with the native mountain type.

Allison dropped altogether into his role of a bewildered Syrian. He
spread his hands expressively. He said his truck was wrecked and could
he buy one of Joel Romer's small ones.

"I have it the money," he stated in stilted English. "Maybe you will
sell to me also the older cooking ware and dry goods?"

It was difficult to judge whether Joel Romer was badly frightened or
burning with anger over the threatening letter. Before Allison could
lift a hand, the storekeeper's heavy fist crashed into his face.

"You damn foreign skunk!" Romer shouted. "Comin' into the valley
stealin' my business!"

Before Romer could have hit him again, Allison could have rolled his
head. The lean, whip-muscled Undercover Agent could easily have cut
the bigger and heavier man to pieces.

But he was a humble Syrian peddler now. His purpose in sticking to
that role included continuing as he was, without arousing suspicion.
He heard Audrey Romer cry out in a shocked voice. Joel Romer cursed
him again and gave it to him on the chin.

Allison went flat on his back, his hands moving feebly.

"Oh, the poor fellow! You've killed him!" cried out the girl.

"Joel," said Marshal Simpson, "I think it might be safest for you to
get home until I can look into this shootin'."

Allison kept his eyes closed and breathed heavily as Marshal Simpson
pulled him from the floor and boosted him into a chair. But he was
fully aware of Audrey Romer bringing a dampened towel and wiping the
blood from his face.

She expressed concern.

"The poor fellow lost his truck this morning," the girl said to
Marshal Simpson. "I'll get pa home, marshal, and maybe you'd better
get him out of the village. Pa's nearly crazy with the goings on of
the Moon Riders."

Allison heard the girl and Joel Romer go out.



CHAPTER III.

THAT TRICK LETTER.

ALLISON, in the minds of Marshal Simpson and Joel Romer's stoop-
shouldered bookkeeper, was all that he seemed. A Syrian peddler who
had lost his truck and who had won the dislike of the storekeeper.

The Federal Agent remained sagging in the chair, though he was
watching the marshal through slitted eyes. Only Marshal Simpson and
the bookkeeper remained in the store.

He heard the bookkeeper hiss a few words.

"Before anybody else comes in, marshal, you got that letter Joel was
showin'?"

"I took it offa him," said the marshal. "It's evidence maybe. I'm
thinkin' they'll get Joel. That shootin'--"

Allison saw the wizened, gray face of the bookkeeper peering at him
over the counter. He was named Jonas Loney and Allison knew he boarded
at the Joel Romer home.

It seemed that Jonas Loney was not as loyal to his boss as he might
have been.

"Yup, that shootin', marshal!" he interrupted Simpson. "Hit me they
ain't nobody around these parts but what could spang a spike buck deer
through the heart at a hundred yards. That feller missed twice an'
Joel was in plain view."

Allison saw Marshal Simpson turn his bulging eyes toward him.

"I was thinkin' the same thing, Loney," said the marshal, evidently
satisfied the Syrian peddler still was out.

Allison made himself limper in his chair, his chin sunk on his breast.
Loney and the marshal had voiced his own thoughts. There was something
decidedly queer about a native of this region missing a full-grown man
at fifty yards, and with two open shots.

Jonas Loney was whispering across the counter to Marshal Simpson.

"You got that letter, marshal, and I got the envelope what it come
in," he said. "Before anybody comes in, slip around back here."

Allison elevated himself just enough to look over the counter. He
could see an ancient typewriter on an open table used by the
bookkeeper. But Jonas Loney glanced out the door into the deserted
street and started poking around among some empty packing boxes.

A box slid along the floor. Marshal Simpson said, "Tarnation an' all,
Loney! You don't think it could be him?"

LONEY'S husky whisper came to Allison.

"Never saw that old typewriter until a week or so ago, an' look at the
't' and the 'e' on this paper."

The typewriter that had been hidden in the pile of packing boxes
clicked a few times. Marshal Simpson pulled out the letter he had
taken from Joel Romer.

"Dang it all!" exploded the marshal. "They match! An' them two bullets
missed 'im too far! What y' think we should do, Loney?"

"Lay low, marshal," said Loney promptly. "It ain't positive, an'
there's bound to be another'n in this same full moon!"

Allison noticed Marshal Simpson's big head turn slowly in his
direction. There was no doubt who the marshal and Loney believed would
be next on the list of the Moon Riders.

Allison had become the Syrian peddler with the direct purpose of
inviting the attention of the Moon Riders. As a Federal Agent, it was
all in the day's work. The Moon Riders must be trapped in an act of
torture. The leader must be unmasked.

Then these activities must be connected up with the use of the mails.
That would make the case complete.

Now he heard boots clumping along the street. He saw Joel Romer
through the door, stopping to talk with a man. The man was Deputy
Roden. And Roden had had the .25-30 rifle, had hidden it, and there
had been no reason to believe he was in pursuit of some other man who
might have used it.

Before Joel Romer came on into the store, Allison apparently recovered
consciousness. He was now a Syrian peddler, speaking bad English and
demanding to use the telephone. He knew when Romer came in behind him,
and at that minute he was connected with a city down below.

"Send me the truck by the tomorrow night and the money to pay I have--
" Joel Romer heard the hated Syrian peddler saying. "Make it the two
gross of the saucepans, an' the four bolts of the red and blue
calico--bring him to the Horseshoe Crossroads where I will be to pay
the money--"

Romer bellowed at him, one big hand whirling him around.

"So, you think you're stayin' in the peddlin' business around here?"
Joel Romer shouted. "You'd better be out of White Horse before tonight
or you'll be carried out!"

Allison sputtered, shrank from the big man's gripping hand. Marshal
Simpson started to speak, but Romer cut him off.

"You want to keep on bein' marshal, you'll stay out've this! Now, you
skunk, get out!"

Allison squawked in realistic terror as Joel Romer slapped him through
the door and sent him spinning into the dusty street. He skidded on
his nose and hastily picked himself up.

Pretty Audrey Romer came running along the plank sidewalk.

"Please!" she said. "Please, you'll have to do as pa says, or I'm
afraid for you! Here! Take this, and please get out before pa does
something terrible!"

The Federal Agent was a woebegone figure, with torn clothes and blood
trickling from his nose. The girl was thrusting some money into his
hand.

Allison muttered thickly and pushed her hand away. He was thinking
fast. Audrey Romer's eyes were big and brown. She had an appealing
face. But there might be something more in her sympathy and fear for
the safety of a humble Syrian peddler than appeared on the surface.

There was the hidden typewriter in the store. The missed rifle shots.
The fearful, whispered belief of the old bookkeeper. Allison dropped
his head and muttered a thanks to the girl as he shuffled away in the
dust.



CHAPTER IV.

THE HOODED VISITOR.

RAY ALLISON awoke just after sunset under a tree beside a creek. He
grinned through lips swollen by the punches he had taken from big Joel
Romer. A Fed had to take it on the chin as well as pass it out.

Allison had confirmed that telephone call made from Joel Romer's store
with Marshal Simpson listening. Romer and the others would have been
amazed to know how that order would be filled.

Two armored cars, several sub-machine guns and shotguns were--a truck,
saucepans and dry goods! Allison had been down to the Horseshoe
Crossroads and, through a single contact man, had completed
arrangements for delivery of the goods. The mountain bowl habitually
used by the Moon Riders was the place.

He had hoped to receive a threatening letter addressed to himself as
the Syrian peddler. This he was forced to give up. The letter sent to
the murdered Charley Hawkins would have to serve in possible
prosecution.

Allison crossed the mountain fields below White Horse Village before
the moon had come up. There were only a few lights in the town. Since
the reign of Moon Riders' terror, honest citizens did not venture out
much after darkness. Not one citizen showed on the single street,
though twilight still lingered over the mountain gap to the westward.

Joel Romer's store was in darkness, this not being a village where
robbery was feared and good electric light wasted in front of the
store safe. Allison grunted as he noted this, for it fitted in with a
plan he had been formulating during the afternoon.

As the Syrian peddler, he was aware he was marked by the Moon Riders.
Joel Romer's open threat had been heard by others. Allison was
checking in his mind the identity and business of all previous victims
of the riders.

It was inescapable that each one had in some manner been a competitor
of the biggest village store. The rifle shooting, the producing by
Jonas Loney of the hidden typewriter, and other incidents seemed to
make it apparent why the Moon Riders had succeeded in carrying out
their campaign without detection.

Allison had sought for some of the cars without licenses used by the
whippers, but had been unsuccessful.

AFTER passing the general store, the Undercover Agent moved like a
shadow back toward one of the village barns. He entered and when he
emerged he glided swiftly up the hill.

Joel Romer's pretentious stone and beam house was set on a terraced
spot well above the level of other buildings along the single street.
Its location was ideal for the daring plan the Federal Agent had
decided upon.

Allison crouched near some rocks for perhaps half an hour. Finally a
stoop-shouldered figure came from the front door and went down the
hill toward the village.

The Federal Agent swore under his breath, but Jonas Loney turned and
took a direction away from the store. Two minutes later the Secret
Agent had pulled a long grain sack over his head and stuck his arms
through holes cut in the sides.

Allison could see through the holes cut for his eyes. He might have
been one of the Moon Riders as he slipped through the shadows to Joel
Romer's door. He rapped softly and waited.

Slow steps came toward the door and a voice inside said, "Who is it?"

Allison stifled an oath. It was the husky, musical voice of Audrey
Romer. But he had to go through with it. He thickened his voice as
nearly as he could recall the tone and said, "It's me, Simpson, the
marshal!"

The door swung open at once. The light in a living room silhouetted
the girl's head and willowy figure.

Her eyes were big and utterly terrified as she stared at him. There
seemed no doubt but she believed the Moon Riders had come for Joel
Romer. Allison jammed the door back and closed a hand tightly over the
girl's mouth, hissing a warning in her ear.

The Federal Agent was prepared with tape for just this emergency.
Binding and throttling the girl's cries was distasteful, but he got it
over with quickly and pushed the girl helplessly into a chair. He
regretted doing this.

Though he worked fast, he heard Joel Romer clumping in from the
direction of the kitchen.

"Who's it, Audrey?" said the store man's heavy voice.

The girl was able to make a muffled, gurgling sound.

"By damamighty!" shouted Joel Romer. "What's goin' on?"

THE big man had started to cross the living room, sprang toward the
open fireplace, hands reaching up for a rifle on pegs.

The Federal Agent enjoyed the following five seconds. He had taken
plenty from the ready fists of the big store man. His swinging
knuckles caught Joel Romer with hard swung rights and lefts that more
than evened the score.

Joel Romer swore wildly, attempted to hold onto the rifle, but before
Romer could recover, the Federal Agent was pushing a revolver of the
oldfashioned type into Romer's ribs.

Allison said in a muffled voice, "Just walk out ahead of me, Romer.
Make any outcry and I'll pulverize your short-ribs.

"You're takin' me--you ain't--you don't understand, you fool!" gulped
Joel Romer.

"I understand plenty and you've almost said too much!" snapped
Allison, aware the store man's words might be interpreted to mean his
last expectation was to be seized by the Moon Riders.

"You'll walk ahead of me along the hill and go into your store the
back way!" ordered the Federal Agent.

Allison looked at the white face of the girl as he forced her father
from the door. He thought grimly that no matter how this came out, his
chance of any future acquaintance with Audrey Romer was less than one
in a million.

Due to the virtually besieged state of the village, the two figures
crossing the hillside and coming down to the general store were not
observed. Allison compelled Romer to unlock the door. He saw there was
a small office where the light would not show in the street.

The Secret Service Agent pushed Romer roughly into a chair before the
table on which reposed the bookkeeper's typewriter. The crude grain
sack he was employing as a disguise hampered Allison's movements, but
the revolver covered the storekeeper steadily.

"Romer, you're taking a long trip," he stated harshly. "We are giving
you only five minutes to leave any message for your daughter or
others."

The Federal Agent was taking a long chance. He had formed his own
theory of Joel Romer's possible connection with the Moon Riders. He
desired to see the big man use that typewriter on the table.

Romer sputtered, "You ain't one of the Moon Riders! I've heard your
voice before somewhere, but you ain't one of them!"

"You ought to know, Romer!" said Allison harshly. "Five minutes to
leave a message, and whether you come back depends upon you! You might
suggest that your daughter or your bookkeeper have ten thousand handy
in cash!"

Sweat broke out on Romer's baldish head.

"It's a kidnappin' and ransom, huh?" he muttered.

"Get busy on that message!"

Joel Romer put a paper in the typewriter. He fumbled for a minute,
punching with one finger at letters. Then he swore and took a pen from
the table. He dipped it in ink and started to write.

The Federal Agent had noted every fumbling move at the typewriter. Now
he stepped over to the packing boxes and pushed them over with his
knee. Another old typewriter was in the bottom box of the pile.



CHAPTER V.

THE MOB IN THE NIGHT.

ABOUT the time Ray Allison brought the second old typewriter under
Joel Romer's suddenly bulging eyes, Audrey Romer twisted the tape that
had been holding her wrists. She rapidly freed herself. The girl
proved she was not one given to hysterics.

Only her brown eyes became blazing agates. She darted into the living
room and picked up the rifle Allison had knocked from her father's
hands. When she reached the front door, she could see across the
hillside to the store. There was a light showing through a back
window.

Audrey Romer again proved her mountain training by making sure the
rifle in her hands was loaded. She could hear several persons moving
beyond her view in the village street, but her curved lips had become
a straight line and she did not call out for help.

Perhaps the girl, like other villagers, had no confidence in any of
her neighbors. She may have believed the Moon Riders had come for her
father. The persons she heard moving might number Moon Riders among
them.

The villagers in the street were not Moon Riders, or at least they
were not wearing sacks. The moving group was advancing with the
purpose of going up the hill to Joel Romer's house. Marshal Simpson
was with the group, as was also Deputy Sheriff Roden.

During the past half-hour, Sheriff Simpson had got together only those
he felt could surely be trusted, and imparted the suspicion that had
been aroused against Joel Romer by Jonas Loney. In fact, Jonas Loney
had attended that small secret meeting and had his say for a few
minutes.

Joel Romer's customers, his neighbors, men who owed him money and
others who owed him only debts of gratitude for helping them out
during hard times were going to his house to have a showdown on his
standing. They wanted to know about that hidden typewriter in his
store on which Moon Rider letters apparently had been written.

They were keen mountaineers, and they wanted an explanation of the
very bad shooting of two rifle bullets that day.

They had agreed that Joel Romer was a smart man. His own reception of
a threatening letter, and what might have looked like an attempt on
his life when he had said he would bring in government men, could all
have been a clever plan to mislead the villagers.

Audrey Romer did not know the group had turned into the lane leading
to her father's house. Her movements were quick and light-footed as
she circled and approached the lighted office of the store.

Had Ray Allison, working out his own idea with respect to Joel Romer,
known of the girl's approach, of the stern-visaged group going up the
hill, he might not have been so confident he would get at the truth
from Joel Romer himself. Allison had pulled the second typewriter into
view.

His concealing grain sack impeded his action and the holes cut for
eyes slipped momentarily to one side. He heard Joel Romer bellow
suddenly with anger or surprise. Allison whirled, shaking his head to
clear his eyes.

A numbing blow, of such impact it might almost have been a bullet,
caught him between the shoulders. It was followed instantly by the
crashing out of his senses with another rap on his skull. The Secret
Service Agent had the final vague sensation of hearing a rifle shot,
but that might have been only the explosion in his own brain.

ALLISON had the impression he was still in the store office as he
tried to shake the numbing pain from his aching head. But he was being
roughly jolted and it required only a few seconds to establish his
position as in the rear seat of a small automobile, with men beside
him concealed in the crude grain sacks.

Two other small cars were moving ahead and two more behind on the
rough mountain road. In all of these cars showed only the ghostly,
headless figures of men in sacks, the Moon Riders. The men beside
Allison were talking.

"This damn heathen will be the last, but the boss rider thinks he
knows a lot too much to be let get away."

Allison had been stripped of his grain sack disguise. His coat and
shirt had been ripped off. His face and body showed the dark stain
that had made him resemble a Syrian. Though his head ached and the
speech he had heard held a sinister menace, the Federal Agent had a
quick sense of elation.

He remembered now he had been about to fix the status of Joel Romer
and he had been knocked out. But he had expected finally to become a
victim of the Moon Riders, human bait, and here he was riding to the
bowl of torture in the mountains. He had expected to be captured in a
different fashion, but this would serve his purpose as well.

Allison thought, rather ruefully, that the connection of Joel Romer
with the Moon Riders now was pretty well established. Perhaps the big
store man had knocked him out in the office, then saw he was the hated
Syrian peddler and summoned the Moon Riders.

Strangely enough, the Federal Agent was not deeply concerned with his
own danger. He was thinking of the friendly, pretty mountain girl,
Audrey Romer, and his failure to spare her from the inevitable
exposure of her father. For it had been largely because of the girl
that he had attempted to give Joel Romer a separate chance.

As for himself, Allison maintained the pretense of unconsciousness,
secure in his own knowledge that by this time the mountain bowl of
torture had become a deadly trap. A trap hedged in by Federal Agents
with machine guns and shotguns.

Allison had established by the marks of fires, and by other reports,
that the Moon Riders had carried out their torture and their murders
in that one secure basin in the mountains, under the full light of a
hanging moon. The Federal Agent writhed a little as he thought of the
carrying out of the government trap.

He had instructed his men to set the ambush, but to remain undercover
until the whipping with redhot wires had actually begun. His evidence
must be actual, and Allison had some thought for the fate that the
game little man, Charley Hawkins, had experienced.

In a way, the Federal Agent felt responsible for Hawkins' brutal
murder because of a change in the Moon Riders' schedule. It would be
the only tribute he could pay the little man who had tried to help, if
he bore away a scar or two from the trap he had prepared.

The small cars jolted and jounced. The mountain road was rough and
little used. None who were not Moon Riders ever traveled that road at
night in these past weeks. Allison remained inert and concentrated on
attempting to identify the voices of the four men in the car with him.

But the sacks they wore were muffling and their speech was in
gutturals. The full moon splashed the road with lights and shadows.
Suddenly the lead car was halted. A hooded figure got out and strode
back along the line.

"This is the cleanup!" announced this man. "They've been getting
together tonight down in the village! Maybe some of 'em will have the
nerve to go up to the bowl! So, we'll take the left-hand turn at Bald
Eagle Forks!"

THE cars were moving again before Allison had absorbed all of the
meaning of that order. Something had happened. Some warning of
possible interference had been given.

They were not taking him to the bowl in the mountains. The cars were
swinging to the left into another crooked road which led away behind
another hogback of the White Horse range.

Allison experienced an empty sensation that almost robbed him of his
breath. He was unarmed, of course, and all of his clothing but his
trousers and shoes had been stripped off. He had not been identified
as other than the Syrian peddler, due to his foresight in having no
credentials or badge on his person.

But this case of mistaken identity was poor consolation. It could not
prevent the muscles around Allison's heart contracting, or stop the
chill like ice sliding down his spine. Even if his captors could
somehow be made to believe he was a Federal Agent, his fate would then
be only more surely sealed.

The grim procession moved perhaps a mile along the strange road until
it reached a beetling overhang of the rocky wall. There the cars swung
into what looked like a gouged-out clearing, but which proved to be
the entrance to a vaulted sandstone cave.

Allison maintained a semblance of half coma as he was pushed roughly
to the floor. He knew there was an egg-like bulge at the back of his
head. His neck remained limp and his arms dangled. He saw that the
cave was not of great size and had but the single, arched entrance
which narrowed to only a few feet.

The cars were parked outside. Allison's slitted gray eyes counted
fourteen men, all armed with the close-range, deadly shotguns. He
sagged to the floor and two hooded figures squatted beside him with
their shotguns across their knees.

Ribald and profane comment accompanied the lighting of a fire. The
Moon Riders were working by the light of smoking pine knots. The
resinous fumes soon filled the upper part of the cave.

"Have to make it short an' sweet!" proclaimed a muffled voice. "The
damn torches'll choke us in here!"

Allison was forced to exercise all his selfcontrol as the strips of
wire with their wooden handles went into the fire. One Moon Rider,
apparently the leader, walked over and kicked him sharply in the ribs.

"He won't feel much!" complained the man's muffled voice, as the
Federal Agent held his breath tightly and remained limp against the
grinding pain.

"But we'll mark him anyway, so others like him will know what to
expect!"

Apparently a guard or two had been left outside. Allison had
definitely fixed the man who had kicked him as the Moon Rider boss,
when a man in a sack waddled into the cave. This man spoke.

"I ain't so sure we ain't been trailed! 'Peared like there was someone
movin' in the rocks below the road, but it might've been only a damn
porky! I went down there, but didn't find nothin'!"

Allison concentrated now upon the figure of the riders' boss, the man
who had kicked him. The enveloping grain sack concealed the
proportions of the man's body in the smoky cave. The torch fumes were
becoming thicker.

TWO Moon Riders received a command and pulled Allison to his feet.
They gripped him firmly by the wrists, supporting him and pushing him
into position against a rock. Three men were pulling wire whips from
the fire and these glowed with a dull red against the smoke in the
cave.

The Federal Agent lifted his head slowly, mumbled, "Don't! Don't--you
can't--"

He dropped his chin on his bared breast. Though his stomach was
shrinking to his backbone, Allison fought his desire to twitch or
talk, and compelled the two men to hold onto his wrists.

This made his position worse, as the three men with the glowing whips
walked slowly in front of him. A man could take the biting agony of a
redhot whip across his shoulders, but Allison could almost feel the
searing wire slicing across the more sensitive muscles of his stomach.
This was the only place he could be freely hit, and the first hooded
figure was chuckling in his throat as he lifted the glowing strands of
wire.

The whip was rising, when the riders' boss stepped forward and said,
"Just a minute before you let him have it! I'll see if this heathen is
as nearly out as he seems! Listen, you skunk! You know why you have to
leave White Horse, don't you? You know who told you that you'd be
carried out if you stayed around?"

Allison could not forget that Joel Romer had told him that. But he
made no reply, showed no evidence of having heard. He thought of the
men and guns hedging the torture bowl on the other side of the
mountain. Of the Secret Service Men who would learn of his mistake too
late, and who probably would find him like they had found Charley
Hawkins.

Would he be minus a face, with his body blasted to shreds with the
deadly shotguns?

The riders' boss stepped back, swore and said, "Maybe the whip may
wake him up for a minute! I ain't altogether satisfied about this
damned peddler!"

Allison's slitted eyes took in the clear mouth of the cave with the
moonlight outside. Could it be possible some of his men had acted on a
hunch, and the Moon Riders had been trailed?

He closed his eyes, for the red-hot whip was rising and Allison didn't
want to see it coming. That one cut of the wire he must take. It was
the only thing to do, to fit in with his desperate plan.

Yet, as the whip swished viciously and his eyes closed, he was sure he
had seen a hooded guard outside the cave in the moonlight struck down
by a flashing figure that had come up behind him.

Intense agony shot through Allison's body as the hot wire ripped and
sliced across his stomach.



CHAPTER VI.

THE FIGHTING FEDERAL.

IT was as if that flesh-searing wire had touched some galvanic spring
in Allison's lean, hardmuscled body. He had counted on a relaxing of
the hands gripping his wrists, holding his back against the rock, with
the reaction from the first slash of the whip.

It came, and fingers loosened slightly on his arms. Allison let out a
roaring scream, set his heels against the rocks and snapped his steel-
strong body forward. One man holding him was jerked loose and the
other was lifted from his feet.

Another whip sang across Allison's body, but a man feels less when he
is in fighting motion. There were sudden cries in the smoky fumes, the
shouted order of the riders' boss to "Blast him! He wasn't out! He--"

The boss rider abruptly doubled over a hard fist that seemed to be
driven to the depths of the Federal Agent's wrist into his short-ribs.
Allison had never let his gaze wander from the leader. He sent that
ramrod blow to the man's body, because the folds of the sack around
his head made it uncertain where knuckles might connect with his face.

The Undercover Agent knew shotguns were being centered upon him, but
his catlike leap had carried him to the leader and among the three men
with the wire whips. For the next few seconds he offered no target for
blasting shot.

Three times Allison's hard fists drummed into the ribs of the rider's
boss, slugging him to the floor of the cave. Twice the wires cut
across Allison's back and the whips hissed venomously past his ears.
One man was attempting to strike him across the eyes.

The wire came so close to his face that Allison fell. He saw the boss
rider crawling slowly toward the mouth of the cave. A shotgun barrel
was thrust at the Federal Agent's head, rasping along one ear.

Then it was that Allison put all of his trained strength into the
seizing and twisting of the shotgun from the Moon Rider's shoulder.
The gun exploded and powder stung Allison's face, but he rolled over
with the shotgun in his possession. Other guns started booming in the
smoky cave.

The Federal Agent was holding the weapon, and it was of the magazine
fowling piece variety. He lay flat on his back close to the rocks and
started pumping shells into the firing chamber, holding the trigger
and exploding them as fast as the shotgun could be worked.

The three nearest men howled and fell, though Allison had been given
no time to aim. Three or four men had been holding the smoking torches
and this gave the Federal Agent his first real break, for the lights
went to the floor and the smoke-filled cave would have been a dungeon
except for the dull glow of the whip-heating fire.

The sacked men were at the disadvantage of having only a single
target, while Allison had many. He thought he saw a second hooded
figure getting out of the mouth of the cave, then he heard the single
crack of a rifle outside and that Moon Rider lay writhing in the
entrance.

A nearby gun blasted and the Federal Agent's left shoulder and arm
went numb and useless. He could feel the welling of blood down to his
wrist and scattered shot stung the muscles of his breast.

A Moon Rider shouted, "Get out! Get out! It's a trap outside!"

This man acted on his own words, but they were his last. Perhaps the
rifle bullet was not aimed at him, for it whined wickedly off the
rocks before it tore out one great vein in his throat.

ALLISON was given respite enough to crawl along the side of the cave.
He secured the shotgun of a dead Moon Rider as he reached the narrow
entrance and crouched behind a rock. Bedlam had broken loose inside
the cave. Shotguns sent charges rocketing over the Federal Agent's
body. He crawled backward, feet first, letting go a single shell when
a Moon Rider showed.

Allison was dizzy and being weakened rapidly by the blood flowing from
his shoulder. He first doubted if he could make it to one of the cars,
then he knew he couldn't. He would have to hang on here as long as
possible, and when he passed out that would be the finish.

If the sounds of the shooting carried to the other Federals around the
mountain, they would be many minutes locating the cave and getting to
it. His senses were fading and he could no longer distinguish the dull
glow of the whip fire from the black shadows of the cave walls.

But as he knew consciousness was passing, he propped the shotgun over
a rock, lay flat and pumped two shots with his right hand. Allison was
not aware when he ceased to know or see anything, or if it had only
been an illusion that he was unconscious.

For a husky voice was saying in his ear, "Are you all right? I've got
the blood stopped. Please speak to me if you can."

The whole thing seemed a sort of a dream as a girl's pretty face
floated near him in the moonlight, and it looked like the face of
Audrey Romer, who had been left taped in her father's house.

"I'm all right, but what--"

Allison choked and couldn't finish, but the girl's cool hand touched
his face and steadied him.

"How did you get here?" said Allison. "Then it was you--you with the
rifle."

"Yes, it was me with the rifle," said the girl calmly. "I stopped two
of them. Two others got away. My father--he was--"

"Get 'em up, everybody! Up high! And walk out of there before we turn
the Tommies loose!"

That was the incisive voice of Secret Agent Carson, Allison knew.
Carson, who had been in charge of the men setting the trap at the
torture bowl. He hailed Carson and in half a minute the arriving
Government Men ringed the entrance to the cave.

Five unwounded men and four others who were hurt, but alive, came from
the cave.

Audrey Romer said to Allison, "I was looking for my father, and I saw
them taking you away in a car. The villagers are on their way but I
took a short cut across the mountain. I heard them say they were
coming to the cave. I hoped to save you, because my father had
threatened you."

Carson said to Allison, "Her father's that Joel Romer, isn't he? Well,
the villagers are on the road below with the cars. Come here, Al, I
want a word with you, if you can listen."

Allison was weak and sick, but feeling better. He got to his feet and
said he was all right. Audrey Romer spoke with deadly calmness.

"I know what you're going to tell, and I know the man we thought was a
peddler is one of you. They've caught my father with the others, and
the villagers believe he was the leader of the Moon Riders. But you've
got to save him, for it isn't true."

Allison's whip burns were an agony worse than the pain of the wound in
his shoulder. Livid streaks showed across his upper torso where he had
been stripped of clothing. But he found strength enough to keep on his
feet.

"So, they've got Joel Romer, Carson? We don't stand for lynchings and
I'm afraid the White Horse folks are a mad lot tonight. We'd better
get down there."



CHAPTER VII.

THE LYNCH MOB.

RINGED by torches in an open space on the road below the cave, nearly
a hundred grim-faced mountaineers stood facing two Federal Men,
Marshal Simpson and Deputy Sheriff Roden. In the forefront of the
determined, small mob was Jonas Loney, the stoop-shouldered
bookkeeper, with his thin lips righteously tight.

Big Joel Romer had a rope caught around his shoulders and the loop was
of the kind that could be quickly tightened to the size of a man's
neck. Romer's fat face was vacant, as if he had recently come out of a
stupor, and he was shaking his head.

"Jonas proved it on Joel Romer before this happened," stated Marshal
Simpson. "But I ain't for any lynchin' and you've got to think it
over, men."

Jonas Loney's lips tightened.

"I got suspicious of him when I found he was hidin' a typewriter in
the packin' boxes," said Jonas Loney grimly. "I showed the marshal,
an' the typin' matched them threatenin' letters from the Moon Riders.
Tarnation, if he didn't send one of 'em to himself, an' then had one
of his Moon Riders pretend to try an' kill him with a rifle to make it
look good for him!"

A guttural growl of menace went around the ring of villagers. They had
seen several dead Moon Riders, and there were nine others now
prisoners. The villagers were no longer suspicious of each other, for
all of these Moon Riders they now recognized as men who had always
been regarded as a bad lot.

"We're mighty thankful the Government Men stepped in," stated one of
the Mountaineers. "But we don't 'low it'd be anything but a waste of
good money to cart Joel Romer down to the valley an' have him hirin'
high-priced lawyers to save his skin."

"That's right! We'll take care of it!" assented many voices.

Audrey Romer cried out and tried to reach her father. Mountaineers
caught the girl's arms. Carson rapped out to Allison, "I'll stop 'em!
The Tommies will--"

Allison trapped Carson's wrist with his good hand.

"Hold it, fellow!" he snapped. "They're mad and they mean business!
There's been enough blood spilled!"

Joel Romer was staring at the man he had believed to be the Syrian
peddler. Allison stepped in front of the big store man. A grain sack
with holes cut for the arms and the eyes lay on the ground beside
Romer.

"You fellows found Romer wearing this sack?" he said.

"That's right!" growled a villager. "He was climbin' out've one of the
cars an' tryin' to get away after that shootin' up in the cave! We
nailed him still wearin' the sack!"

Allison glanced at a swelling bruise over Joel Romer's ear. His own
body showed the welts of the whips.

"SEEING it was me took the licking, I've got a right to speak," said
the Federal Agent. "You've made a couple of mistakes, men. This sack
you took off Joel Romer I got from the livery stable and cut for
myself. You see, Romer and me had a little session just before I got
knocked out."

"You was wearin' that sack?" said the village leader.

"Sure!" grinned Allison. "And before Joel Romer probably was bumped
out the same as I was, I found out he couldn't have written those
letters on the typewriter found by Jonas Loney! He can't use a
typewriter, and I have one of the letters here! It hasn't even a wrong
punctuation mark! Now who could use a typewriter that perfectly?"

Jonas Loney sneered and said, "I know Romer could use a machine, and
he was just puttin' on like he couldn't!"

"That's a lie!" cried Audrey Romer. "I've done some typing for my
father myself, because he could never learn!"

"What was that old typewriter doin' in the store hid among them boxes
then?" snarled Jonas Loney.

Allison had stepped close to the stoopshouldered bookkeeper. His elbow
suddenly punched into Jonas Loney's short-ribs. The man's snarl died
and was replaced by a deep groan. Allison's good arm encircled him and
squeezed.

An involuntary scream of agony came from Loney's lips.

"Take him, Carson!" snapped Allison, stepping suddenly to one side to
swing his same good right fist in a crashing blow.

The knuckles had connected with the chin of the dark-eyed Deputy
Sheriff Roden. The deputy went down and the amazed villagers saw the
handcuffs of a Government Man snapping onto his wrists.

Jonas Loney was white-faced, groaning, but still protesting. The
villagers were staring at Allison. He rubbed one hand over the red
welts across his body.

"I think I managed to smash a couple of Jonas Loney's ribs before he
deserted his Moon Riders and got out of the cave," stated Allison.
"That will be evidence he'll have to bring to court himself. As for
Roden, he was hooked up with Loney in an effort to put the Moon Riding
blame upon Joel Romer. Jonas Loney had got Romer's business in such
shape he could have taken over most of it. He framed with Deputy Roden
for that poor rifle shooting, and the only box of .25-30 cartridges in
White Horse are in Loney's desk at the store."

The Federal Men had quickly formed a tight ring about the accused men.
Marshal Simpson and the village leader prevailed upon the others to
let the law take its course.

Joel Romer said to Allison, a grim smile crossing his broad mouth:

"I never thought I'd be askin' a peddler, much less a black-skinned
foreigner to my house, but I figure I've got the best place in White
Horse for a busted-up man to recuperate. I'm apologizin' and sayin' my
home is open as long as you want to stay."

Audrey Romer smiled from her father's arms.

"We'll see that even a peddler gets the best of care."

"I think," grinned Allison, "I can be a sick man for a long time."


THE END



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