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Title: Moon Riders (1936) Author: Laurence Donovan * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0603951h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: July 2006 Date most recently updated: July 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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