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Title: Boot-Hill Payoff
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608131.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

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Boot-Hill Payoff
Robert E. Howard



Chapter I The Laramies Ride



Five men were riding down the winding road that led to San Leon,
and one was singing, in a toneless monotone:

_"Early in the mornin' in the month of May,_
Brady came down on the mornin' train.
Brady came down on the Shinin' Star.
And he shot Mr. Duncan in behind the bar!"

"Shut up! _Shut up!"_ It was the youngest of the riders who ripped
out like that. A lanky, tow-headed kid, with a touch of pallor under
his tan, and a rebellious smolder in his hot eyes.

The biggest man of the five grinned.

"Bucky's nervous," he jeered genially. "You don't want to be no
derned bandit, do you, Bucky?"

The youngest glowered at him.

"That welt on yore jaw ought to answer that, Jim," he growled.

"You fit like a catamount," agreed Big Jim placidly. "I thought
we'd never git you on yore cayuse and started for San Leon, without
knockin' you in the head. 'Bout the only way you show yo're a Laramie,
Bucky, is in the handlin' of yore fists."

"T'ain't no honor to be a Laramie," flared Bucky. "You and Luke
and Tom and Hank has dragged the name through slime. For the last
three years you been worse'n a pack of starvin' lobos--stealin' cattle
and horses; robbin' folks--why, the country's near ruint. And now
yo're headin' to San Leon to put on the final touch--robbin' the
Cattlemen's Bank, when you know dern well the help the ranchmen got
from that bank's been all that kept 'em on their feet. Old man Brown's
stretched hisself nigh to the bustin' p'int to help folks."

He gulped and fought back tears that betrayed his extreme youth.
His brothers grinned tolerantly. "It's the last time," he informed
them bitterly. "You won't git me into no raid again!"

"It's the last time for all of us," said Big Jim, biting off a cud
of tobacco. "We're through after this job. We'll live like honest men
in Mexico."

"Serve you right if a posse caught us and hanged us all," said
Bucky viciously.

"Not a chance." Big Jim's placidity was unruffled. "Nobody but us
knows the trail that follows the secret waterholes acrost the desert.
No posse'd dare to foller us. Once out of town and headed south for
the border, the devil hisself couldn't catch us."

"I wonder if anybody'll ever stumble onto our secret hide-out up
in the Los Diablos Mountains," mused Hank.

"I doubt it. Too well hid. Like the desert trail, nobody but us
knows them mountain trails. It shore served us well. Think of all the
steers and horses we've hid there, and drove through the mountains to
Mexico! And the times we've laid up there laughin' in our sleeves as
the posse chased around a circle."

Bucky muttered something under his breath; he retained no fond
memories of that hidden lair high up in the barren Diablos. Three
years before, he had reluctantly followed his brothers into it from
the little ranch in the foothills where Old Man Laramie and his wife
had worn away their lives in futile work. The old life, when their
parents lived and had held their wild sons in check, had been drab and
hard, but had lacked the bitterness he had known when cooking and
tending house for his brothers in that hidden den from which they had
ravaged the countryside. Four good men gone bad--mighty bad.

San Leon lay as if slumbering in the desert heat as the five
brothers rode up to the doors of the Cattlemen's Bank. None noted
their coming; the Red Lode saloon, favorite rendezvous for the
masculine element of San Leon, stood at the other end of the town, and
out of sight around a slight bend in the street.

No words were passed; each man knew his part beforehand. The three
elder Laramies slid lithely out of their saddles, throwing their reins
to Bucky and Luke, the second youngest. They strode into the bank with
a soft jingle of spurs and creak of leather, closing the door behind
them.

Luke's face was impassive as an image's, as he dragged leisurely
on a cigarette, though his eyes gleamed between slitted lids. But
Bucky sweated and shivered, twisting nervously in his saddle. By some
twist of destiny, one son had inherited all the honesty that was his
parents' to transmit. He had kept his hands clean. Now, in spite of
himself, he was scarred with their brand.

He started convulsively as a gun crashed inside the bank; like an
echo came another reverberation.

Luke's Colt was in his hand, and he snatched one foot clear of the
stirrup, then feet pounded toward the street and the door burst open
to emit the three outlaws. They carried bulging canvas sacks, and
Hank's sleeve was crimson.

"Ride like hell!" grunted Big Jim, forking his roan. "Old Brown
throwed down on Hank. Old fool! I had to salivate him permanent."

And like hell it was they rode, straight down the street toward
the desert, yelling and firing as they went. They thundered past
houses from which startled individuals peered bewilderedly, past
stores where leathery faced storekeepers were dragging forth blue-
barreled scatter-guns. They swept through the futile rain of lead that
poured from the excited and befuddled crowd in front of the Red Lode,
and whirled on toward the desert that stretched south of San Leon.

But not quite to the desert. For as they rounded the last bend in
the twisting street and came abreast of the last house in the village,
they were confronted by the gray-bearded figure of old "Pop" Anders,
sheriff of San Leon County. The old man's gnarled right hand rested on
the ancient single-action Colt on his thigh, his left was lifted in a
seemingly futile command to halt.

Big Jim cursed and sawed back on the reins, and the big roan slid
to a halt.

"Git outa the way, Pop!" roared Big Jim. "We don't want to hurt
you."

The old warrior's eyes blazed with righteous wrath.

"Robbed the bank this time, eh?" he said in cold fury, his eyes on
the canvas sacks. "Likely spilt blood, too. Good thing Frank Laramie
died before he could know what skunks his boys turned out to be. You
ain't content to steal our stock till we're nigh bankrupt; you got to
rob our bank and take what little money we got left for a new start.
Why, you damned human sidewinders!" the old man shrieked, his control
snapping suddenly. "Ain't there _nothin'_ that's too low-down for you
to do?"

Behind them sounded the pound of running feet and a scattering
banging of guns. The crowd from the Red Lode was closing in.

"You've wasted our time long enough, old man!" roared Luke,
jabbing in the spurs and sending his horse rearing and plunging toward
the indomitable figure. "Git outa the way, or--"

The old single-action jumped free in the gnarled hand. Two shots
roared together, and Luke's sombrero went skyrocketing from his head.
But the old sheriff fell face forward in the dust with a bullet
through his heart, and the Laramie gang swept on into the desert,
feeding their dust to their hurriedly mounted and disheartened
pursuers.

Only young Buck Laramie looked back, to see the door of the last
house fly open, and a pig-tailed girl run out to the still figure in
the street. It was the sheriff's daughter, Judy. She and Buck had gone
to the same school in the old days before the Laramies hit the wolf-
trail. Buck had always been her champion. Now she went down on her
knees in the dust beside her father's body, seeking frantically for a
spark of life where there was none.

A red film blazed before Buck Laramie's eyes as he turned his
livid face toward his brothers.

"Hell," Luke was fretting, "I didn't aim to salivate him
permanent. The old lobo woulda hung everyone of us if he could of--but
just the same I didn't aim to kill him."

Something snapped in Bucky's brain.

"You didn't aim to kill him!" he shrieked. "No, but you did! Yo're
all a pack of low-down sidewinders just like he said! They ain't
nothin' too dirty for you!" He brandished his clenched fists in the
extremity of his passion. "You filthy scum!" he sobbed. "When I'm
growed up I'm comin' back here and make up for ever' dollar you've
stole, ever' life you've took. I'll do it if they hang me for tryin',
s'help me!"

His brothers did not reply. They did not look at him. Big Jim
hummed flatly and absently:

_"Some say he shot him with a thirty-eight,_
Some say he shot him with a forty-one;
But I say he shot him with a forty-four.
For I saw him as he lay on the barroom floor."

Bucky subsided, slumped in his saddle and rode dismally on. San
Leon and the old life lay behind them all. Somewhere south of the hazy
horizon the desert stretched into Mexico where lay their future
destiny. And his destiny was inextricably interwoven with that of his
brothers. He was an outlaw, too, now, and he must stay with the clan
to the end of their last ride.

Some guiding angel must have caused Buck Laramie to lean forward
to pat the head of his tired sorrel, for at that instant a bullet
ripped through his hat-brim, instead of his head.

It came as a startling surprise, but his reaction was instant. He
leaped from his horse and dove for the protection of a sand bank, a
second bullet spurting dust at his heels. Then he was under cover,
peering warily out, Colt in hand.

The tip of a white sombrero showed above a rim of sand, two
hundred yards in front of him. Laramie blazed away at it, though
knowing as he pulled the trigger that the range was too long and the
target too small for six-gun accuracy. Nevertheless, the hat-top
vanished.

"Takin' no chances," muttered Laramie. "Now who in hell is _he?_
Here I am a good hour's ride from San Leon, and folks pottin' at me
already. Looks bad for what I'm aimin' to do. Reckon it's somebody
that knows me, after all these years?"

He could not believe it possible that anyone would recognize the
lanky, half-grown boy of six years ago in the bronzed, range-hardened
man who was returning to San Leon to keep the vow he had made as his
clan rode southward with two dead men and a looted bank behind them.

The sun was burning hot, and the sand felt like an oven beneath
Laramie. His canteen was slung to his saddle, and his horse was out of
his reach, drooping under a scrubby mesquite. The other fellow would
eventually work around to a point where his rifle would out-range
Laramie's six-gun--or he might shoot the horse and leave Buck afoot in
the desert.

The instant his attacker's next shot sang past his refuge, he was
up and away in a stooping, weaving run to the next sand hill, to the
right and slightly forward of his original position. He wanted to get
in close quarters with his unknown enemy.

He wriggled from cover to cover, and sprinted in short dashes over
narrow strips of open ground, taking advantage of every rock, cactus-
bed and sand-bank, with lead hissing and spitting at him all the way.
The hidden gunman had guessed his purpose, and obviously had no desire
for a close-range fight. He was slinging lead every time Laramie
showed an inch of flesh, cloth or leather, and Buck counted the shots.
He was within striking distance of the sand rim when he believed the
fellow's rifle was empty.

Springing recklessly to his feet he charged straight at his hidden
enemy, his six-gun blazing. He had miscalculated about the rifle, for
a bullet tore through the slack of his shirt. But then the Winchester
was silent, and Laramie was raking the rim with such a barrage of lead
that the gunman evidently dared not lift himself high enough to line
the sights of a six-gun.

But a pistol was something that must be reckoned with, and as he
spent his last bullet, Laramie dove behind a rise of sand and began
desperately to jam cartridges into his empty gun. He had failed to
cross the sand rim in that rush, but another try would gain it--unless
hot lead cut him down on the way. Drum of hoofs reached his ears
suddenly and glaring over his shelter he saw a pinto pony beyond the
sand rim heading in the direction of San Leon. Its rider wore a white
sombrero.

"Damn!" Laramie slammed the cylinder in place and sent a slug
winging after the rapidly receding horseman. But he did not repeat the
shot. The fellow was already out of range.

"Reckon the work was gettin' too close for him," he ruminated as
he trudged back to his horse. "Hell, maybe he didn't want me to get a
good look at him. But why? Nobody in these parts would be shy about
shootin' at a Laramie, if they knew him as such. But who'd know I
_was_ a Laramie?"

He swung up into the saddle, then absently slapped his saddle bags
and the faint clinking that resulted soothed him. Those bags were
loaded with fifty thousand dollars in gold eagles, and every penny was
meant for the people of San Leon.

"It'll help pay the debt the Laramies owe for the money the boys
stole," he confided to the uninterested sorrel. "How I'm goin' to pay
back for the men they killed is more'n I can figure out. But I'll
try."

The money represented all he had accumulated from the sale of the
Laramie stock and holdings in Mexico--holdings bought with money
stolen from San Leon. It was his by right of inheritance, for he was
the last of the Laramies. Big Jim, Tom, Hank, Luke, all had found
trail's end in that lawless country south of the Border. As they had
lived, so had they died, facing their killers, with smoking guns in
their hands. They had tried to live straight in Mexico, but the wild
blood was still there. Fate had dealt their hands, and Buck looked
upon it all as a slate wiped clean, a record closed--with the
exception of Luke's fate.

That memory vaguely troubled him now, as he rode toward San Leon
to pay the debts his brothers contracted.

"Folks said Luke drawed first," he muttered. "But it wasn't like
him to pick a barroom fight. Funny the fellow that killed him cleared
out so quick, if it was a fair fight."

He dismissed the old problem and reviewed the recent attack upon
himself.

"If he knowed I was a Laramie, it might have been anybody. But how
could he know? Joel Waters wouldn't talk."

No, Joel Waters wouldn't talk; and, Joel Waters, old time friend
of Laramie's father, long ago, and owner of the Boxed W ranch, was the
only man who knew Buck Laramie was returning to San Leon.

"San Leon at last, cayuse," he murmured as he topped the last
desert sand hill that sloped down to the town. "Last time I seen it
was under circumstances most--what the devil!"

He started and stiffened as a rattle of gunfire burst on his ears.
Battle in San Leon? He urged his weary steed down the hill. Two
minutes later history was repeating itself.



Chapter II Owl-Hoot Ghosts



As Buck Laramie galloped into San Leon, a sight met his eyes which
jerked him back to a day six years gone. For tearing down the street
came six wild riders, yelling and shooting. In the lead rode one, who,
with his huge frame and careless ease, might have been Big Jim Laramie
come back to life again. Behind them the crowd at the Red Lode, roused
to befuddled life, was shooting just as wildly and ineffectively as on
that other day when hot lead raked San Leon. There was but one man to
bar the bandits' path--one man who stood, legs braced wide, guns
drawn, in the roadway before the last house in San Leon. So old Pop
Anders had stood, that other day, and there was something about this
man to remind Laramie of the old sheriff, though he was much younger.
In a flash of recognition Laramie knew him--Bob Anders, son of Luke's
victim. He, too, wore a silver star.

This time Laramie did not stand helplessly by to see a sheriff
slaughtered. With the swiftness born of six hard years below the
border, he made his decision and acted. Gravel spurted as the sorrel
threw back his head against the sawing bit and came to a sliding stop,
and all in one motion Laramie was out of the saddle and on his feet
beside the sheriff--half crouching and his six-gun cocked and pointed.
This time two would meet the charge, not one.

Laramie saw that masks hid the faces of the riders as they swept
down, and contempt stabbed through him. No Laramie ever wore a mask.
His Colt vibrated as he thumbed the hammer. Beside him the young
sheriff's guns were spitting smoke and lead.

The clumped group split apart at that blast. One man, who wore a
Mexican sash instead of a belt, slumped in his saddle clawing for the
horn. Another with his right arm flopping broken at his side was
fighting his pain-maddened beast which had stopped a slug intended for
its rider.

The big man who had led the charge grabbed the fellow with the
sash as he started to slide limply from his saddle, and dragged him
across his own bow. He bolted across the roadside and plunged into a
dry wash. The others followed him. The man with the broken arm
abandoned his own crazed mount and grabbed the reins of the riderless
horse. Beasts and men, they slid over the rim and out of sight in a
cloud of dust.

Anders yelled and started across the road on the run, but Laramie
jerked him back.

"They're covered," he grunted, sending his sorrel galloping to a
safe place with a slap on the rump. "We got to get out of sight,
_pronto!_"

The sheriff's good judgment overcame his excitement then, and he
wheeled and darted for the house, yelping: "Follow me, stranger!"

Bullets whined after them from the gulch as the outlaws began
their stand. The door opened inward before Anders' outstretched hand
touched it, and he plunged through without checking his stride. Lead
smacked the jambs and splinters flew as Laramie ducked after Anders.
He collided with something soft and yielding that gasped and tumbled
to the floor under the impact. Glaring wildly down Laramie found
himself face to face with a vision of feminine loveliness that took
his breath away, even in that instant. With a horrified gasp he
plunged to his feet and lifted the girl after him. His all-embracing
gaze took her in from tousled blond hair to whipcord breeches and
high-heeled riding boots. She seemed too bewildered to speak.

"Sorry, miss," he stuttered. "I hope y'ain't hurt. I was--I was--"
The smash of a window pane and the whine of a bullet cut short his
floundering apologies. He snatched the girl out of line of the window
and in an instant was crouching beside it himself, throwing lead
across the road toward the smoke wisps.

Anders had barred the door and grabbed a Winchester from a rack on
the wall.

"Duck into a back room, Judy," he ordered, kneeling at the window
on the other side of the door. "Partner, I don't know you--" he
punctuated his remarks with rapid shots, "--but I'm plenty grateful."

"Hilton's the name," mumbled Laramie, squinting along, his six-gun
barrel. "Friends call me Buck--damn!"

His bullet had harmlessly knocked dust on the gulch rim, and his
pistol was empty. As he groped for cartridges he felt a Winchester
pushed into his hand, and, startled, turned his head to stare full
into the disturbingly beautiful face of Judy Anders. She had not
obeyed her brother's order, but had taken a loaded rifle from the rack
and brought it to Laramie, crossing the room on hands and knees to
keep below the line of fire. Laramie almost forgot the men across the
road as he stared into her deep clear eyes, now glowing with
excitement. In dizzy fascination he admired the peach-bloom of her
cheeks, her red, parted lips.

"Th-thank you, miss!" he stammered. "I needed that smoke-wagon
right smart. And excuse my language. I didn't know you was still in
the room--"

He ducked convulsively as a bullet ripped across the sill,
throwing splinters like a buzz-saw. Shoving the Winchester out of the
window he set to work. But his mind was still addled. And he was
remembering a pitifully still figure sprawled in the dust of that very
road, and a pig-tailed child on her knees beside it. The child was no
longer a child, but a beautiful woman; and he--he was still a Laramie,
and the brother of the man who killed her father.

_"Judy!"_ There was passion in Bob Anders' voice. "Will you get
out of here? There! Somebody's callin' at the back door. Go let 'em
in. And stay back there, will you?"

This time she obeyed, and a few seconds later half a dozen pairs
of boots clomped into the room, as some men from the Red Lode who had
slipped around through a back route to the besieged cabin, entered.

"They was after the bank, of course," announced one of them. "They
didn't git nothin' though, dern 'em. Ely Harrison started slingin'
lead the minute he seen them masks comin' in the door. He didn't hit
nobody, and by good luck the lead they throwed at him didn't connect,
but they pulled out in a hurry. Harrison shore s'prised me. I never
thought much of him before now, but he showed he was ready to fight
for his money, and our'n."

"Same outfit, of course," grunted the sheriff, peering warily
through the jagged shards of the splintered window-pane.

"Sure. The damn' Laramies again. Big Jim leadin', as usual."

Buck Laramie jumped convulsively, doubting the evidence of his
ears. He twisted his head to stare at the men.

"You think it's the Laramies out there?" Buck's brain felt a bit
numb. These mental jolts were coming too fast for him.

"Sure," grunted Anders. "Couldn't be nobody else. They was gone
for six year--where, nobody knowed. But a few weeks back they showed
up again and started their old deviltry, worse than ever."

"Killed his old man right out there in front of his house,"
grunted one of the men, selecting a rifle from the rack. The others
were firing carefully through the windows, and the men in the gulch
were replying in kind. The room was full of drifting smoke.

"But I've heard of 'em," Laramie protested. "They was all killed
down in Old Mexico."

"Couldn't be," declared the sheriff, lining his sights. "These are
the old gang all right. They've put up warnin's signed with the
Laramie name. Even been heard singin' that old song they used to
always sing about King Brady. Got a hide-out up in the Los Diablos,
too, just like they did before. Same one, of course. I ain't managed
to find it yet, but--" His voice was drowned in the roar of his .45-
70.

"Well, I'll be a hammer-headed jackass," muttered Laramie under
his breath. "Of all the--"

His profane meditations were broken into suddenly as one of the
men bawled: "Shootin's slowed down over there! What you reckon it
means?"

"Means they're aimin' to sneak out of that wash at the other end
and high-tail it into the desert," snapped Anders. "I ought to have
thought about that before, but things has been happenin' so fast. You
_hombres_ stay here and keep smokin' the wash so they can't bolt out
on this side. I'm goin' to circle around and block 'em from the
desert."

"I'm with you," growled Laramie. "I want to see what's behind them
masks."

They ducked out the back way and began to cut a wide circle which
should bring them to the outer edge of the wash. It was difficult
going and frequently they had to crawl on their hands and knees to
take advantage of every clump of cactus and greasewood.

"Gettin' purty close," muttered Laramie, lifting his head. "What
I'm wonderin' is, why ain't they already bolted for the desert?
Nothin' to stop 'em."

"I figger they wanted to get me if they could, before they lit
out," answered Anders. "I believe I been snoopin' around in the
Diablos too close to suit 'em. Look out! They've seen us!"

Both men ducked as a steady line of flame spurts rimmed the edge
of the wash. They flattened down behind their scanty cover and bullets
cut up puffs of sand within inches of them.

"This is a pickle!" gritted Anders, vainly trying to locate a
human head to shoot at. "If we back up, we back into sight, and if we
go forward we'll get perforated."

"And if we stay here the result's the same," returned Laramie.
"Greasewood don't stop lead. We got to summon reinforcements." And
lifting his voice in a stentorian yell that carried far, he whooped:
"Come on, boys! Rush 'em from that side! They can't shoot two ways at
once!"

They could not see the cabin from where they lay, but a burst of
shouts and shots told them his yell had been heard. Guns began to bang
up the wash and Laramie and Anders recklessly leaped to their feet and
rushed down the slight slope that led to the edge of the gulch,
shooting as they went.

They might have been riddled before they had gone a dozen steps,
but the outlaws had recognized the truth of Laramie's statement. They
couldn't shoot two ways at once, and they feared to be trapped in the
gulch with attackers on each side. A few hurried shots buzzed about
the ears of the charging men, and then outlaws burst into view at the
end of the wash farthest from town, mounted and spurring hard, the big
leader still carrying a limp figure across his saddle.

Cursing fervently, the sheriff ran after them, blazing away with
both six-shooters, and Laramie followed him. The fleeing men were
shooting backward as they rode, and the roar of six-guns and
Winchesters was deafening. One of the men reeled in his saddle and
caught at his shoulder, dyed suddenly red.

Laramie's longer legs carried him past the sheriff, but he did not
run far. As the outlaws pulled out of range, toward the desert and the
Diablos, he slowed to a walk and began reloading his gun.

"Let's round up the men, Bob," he called. "We'll follow 'em. I
know the water-holes--"

He stopped short with a gasp. Ten yards behind him Bob Anders, a
crimson stream dyeing the side of his head, was sinking to the desert
floor.

Laramie started back on a run just as the men from the cabin burst
into view. In their lead rode a man on a pinto--and Buck Laramie knew
that pinto.

_"Git him!"_ howled the white-hatted rider. "He shot Bob Anders in
the back! I seen him! _He's a Laramie!_"

Laramie stopped dead in his tracks. The accusation was like a
bomb-shell exploding in his face. That was the man who had tried to
drygulch him an hour or so before--same pinto, same white sombrero--
but he was a total stranger to Laramie. How in the devil did _he_ know
of Buck's identity, and what was the reason for his enmity?

Laramie had no time to try to figure it out now. For the excited
townsmen, too crazy with excitement to stop and think, seeing only
their young sheriff stretched in his blood, and hearing the frantic
accusation of one of their fellows, set up a roar and started blazing
away at the man they believed was a murderer.

Out of the frying pan into the fire--the naked desert was behind
him, and his horse was still standing behind the Anders' cabin--with
that mob between him and that cabin.

But any attempt at explanation would be fatal. Nobody would
listen. Laramie saw a break for him in the fact that only his accuser
was mounted, and probably didn't know he had a horse behind the cabin,
and would try to reach it. The others were too excited to think
anything. They were simply slinging lead, so befuddled with the mob
impulse they were not even aiming--which is all that saved Laramie in
the few seconds in which he stood bewildered and uncertain.

He ducked for the dry wash, running almost at a right angle with
his attackers. The only man capable of intercepting him was White-Hat,
who was bearing down on him, shooting from the saddle with a
Winchester.

Laramie wheeled, and as he wheeled a bullet ripped through his
Stetson and stirred his hair in passing. White-Hat was determined to
have his life, he thought, as his own six-gun spat flame. White-Hat
flinched sidewise and dropped his rifle. Laramie took the last few
yards in his stride and dived out of sight in the wash.

He saw White-Hat spurring out of range too energetically to be
badly wounded, and he believed his bullet had merely knocked the gun
out of the fellow's hands. The others had spread out and were coming
down the slope at a run, burning powder as they came.

Laramie did not want to kill any of those men. They were law-
abiding citizens acting under a misapprehension. So he emptied his gun
over their heads and was gratified to see them precipitately take to
cover. Then without pausing to reload, he ducked low and ran for the
opposite end of the wash, which ran on an angle that would bring him
near the cabin.

The men who had halted their charge broke cover and came on again,
unaware of his flight, and hoping to get him while his gun was empty.
They supposed he intended making a stand at their end of the wash.

By the time they had discovered their mistake and were pumping
lead down the gully, Laramie was out at the other end and racing
across the road toward the cabin. He ducked around the corner with
lead nipping at his ears and vaulted into the saddle of the sorrel--
and cursed his luck as Judy Anders ran out the rear door, her eyes
wide with fright.

"What's happened?" she cried. "Where's Bob?"

"No time to pow-wow," panted Laramie. "Bob's been hurt. Don't know
how bad. I got to ride, because--"

He was interrupted by shouts from the other side of the cabin.

"Look out, Judy!" one man yelled. "Stay under cover! He shot Bob
in the back!"

Reacting to the shout without conscious thought, Judy sprang to
seize his reins.

Laramie jerked the sorrel aside and evaded her grasp. "It's a
lie!" he yelled with heat. "I ain't got time to explain. Hope Bob
ain't hurt bad."

Then he was away, crouching low in his saddle with bullets pinging
past him; it seemed he'd been hearing lead whistle all day; he was
getting sick of that particular noise. He looked back once. Behind the
cabin Judy Anders was bending over a limp form that the men had
carried in from the desert. Now she was down on her knees in the dust
beside that limp body, searching for a spark of life.

Laramie cursed sickly. History was indeed repeating itself that
day in San Leon.

For a time Laramie rode eastward, skirting the desert, and glad of
a breathing spell. The sorrel had profited by its rest behind the
Anders' cabin, and was fairly fresh. Laramie had a good lead on the
pursuers he knew would be hot on his trail as soon as they could get
to their horses, but he headed east instead of north, the direction in
which lay his real goal--the Boxed W ranch. He did not expect to be
able to throw them off his scent entirely, but he did hope to confuse
them and gain a little time.

It was imperative that he see his one friend in San Leon County--
Joel Waters. Maybe Joel Waters could unriddle some of the tangle. Who
were the men masquerading as Laramies?

He had been forging eastward for perhaps an hour when, looking
backward from a steep rise, he saw a column of riders approaching some
two miles away through a cloud of dust that meant haste. That would be
the posse following his trail--and that meant that the sheriff was
dead or still senseless.

Laramie wheeled down the slope on the other side and headed north,
hunting hard ground that would not betray a pony's hoof-print.



Chapter III Trigger Debt



Dusk was fast settling when he rode into the yard of the Boxed W.
He was glad of the darkness, for he had feared that some of Waters'
punchers might have been in San Leon that day, and seen him. But he
rode up to the porch without having encountered anyone, and saw the
man he was hunting sitting there, pulling at a corn-cob pipe.

Waters rose and came forward with his hand outstretched as Laramie
swung from the saddle.

"You've growed," said the old man. "I'd never knowed you if I
hadn't been expectin' you. You don't favor yore brothers none. Look a
lot like yore dad did at yore age, though. You've pushed yore cayuse
hard," he added, with a piercing glance at the sweat-plastered flanks
of the sorrel.

"Yeah." There was bitter humor in Laramie's reply. "I just got
through shootin' me a sheriff."

Waters jerked the pipe from his mouth. He looked stunned.

"What?"

"All you got to do is ask the upright citizens of San Leon that's
trailin' me like a lobo wolf," returned Laramie with a mirthless grin.
And tersely and concisely he told the old rancher what had happened in
San Leon and on the desert.

Waters listened in silence, puffing smoke slowly.

"It's bad," he muttered, when Laramie had finished. "Damned bad--
well, about all I can do right now is to feed you. Put yore cayuse in
the corral."

"Rather hide him near the house, if I could," said Laramie. "That
posse is liable to hit my sign and trail me here any time. I want to
be ready to ride."

"Blacksmith shop behind the house," grunted Waters. "Come on."

Laramie followed the old man to the shop, leading the sorrel.
While he was removing the bridle and loosening the cinch, Waters
brought hay and filled an old log-trough. When Laramie followed him
back to the house, the younger man carried the saddle bags over his
arm. Their gentle clink no longer soothed him; too many obstacles to
distributing them were rising in his path.

"I just finished eatin' before you come," grunted Waters. "Plenty
left."

"Hop Sing still cookin' for you?"

"Yeah."

"Ain't you ever goin' to get married?" chaffed Laramie.

"Shore," grunted the old man, chewing his pipe stem. "I just got
to have time to decide what type of woman'd make me the best wife."

Laramie grinned. Waters was well past sixty, and had been giving
that reply to chaffing about his matrimonial prospects as far back as
Buck could remember.

Hop Sing remembered Laramie and greeted him warmly. The old
Chinaman had cooked for Waters for many years. Laramie could trust him
as far as he could trust Waters himself.

The old man sat gripping his cold pipe between his teeth as
Laramie disposed of a steak, eggs, beans and potatoes and tamped it
down with a man-sized chunk of apple pie.

"Yo're follerin' blind trails," he said slowly. "Mebbe I can help
you."

"Maybe. Do you have any idea who the gent on the showy pinto might
be?"

"Not many such paints in these parts. What'd the man look like?"

"Well, I didn't get a close range look at him, of course. From
what I saw he looked to be short, thick-set, and he wore a short beard
and a mustache so big it plumb ambushed his pan."

"Why, hell!" snorted Waters. "That's bound to be Mart Rawley! He
rides a flashy pinto, and he's got the biggest set of whiskers in San
Leon."

"Who's he?"

"Owns the Red Lode. Come here about six months ago and bought it
off of old Charlie Ross."

"Well, that don't help none," growled Laramie, finishing his
coffee and reaching for the makings. He paused suddenly, lighted match
lifted. "Say, did this hombre ride up from Mexico?"

"He come in from the east. Of course, he could have come from
Mexico, at that; he'd have circled the desert. Nobody but you Laramies
ever hit straight across it. He ain't said he come from Mexico
original; and he ain't said he ain't."

Laramie meditated in silence, and then asked: "What about this new
gang that calls theirselves Laramies?"

"Plain coyotes," snarled the old man. "Us San Leon folks was just
gittin' on our feet again after the wreck yore brothers made out of
us, when this outfit hit the country. They've robbed and stole and
looted till most of us are right back where we was six years ago.
They've done more damage in a few weeks than yore brothers did in
three years.

"I ain't been so bad hit as some, because I've got the toughest,
straightest-shootin' crew of punchers in the county; but most of the
cowmen around San Leon are mortgaged to the hilt, and stand to lose
their outfits if they git looted any more. Ely Harrison--he's
president of the bank now, since yore brothers killed old man Brown--
Ely's been good about takin' mortgages and handin' out money, but he
cain't go on doin' it forever."

"Does everybody figure they're the Laramies?"

"Why not? They send letters to the cowmen sayin' they'll wipe out
their whole outfit if they don't deliver 'em so many hundred head of
beef stock, and they sign them letters with the Laramie name. They're
hidin' out in the Diablos like you all did; they's always the same
number in the gang; and they can make a get-away through the desert,
which nobody but the Laramies ever did.

"Of course, they wear masks, which the Laramies never did, but
that's a minor item; customs change, so to speak. I'd have believed
they was the genuine Laramies myself, only for a couple of reasons--
one bein' you'd wrote me in your letter that you was the only Laramie
left. You didn't give no details." The old man's voice was
questioning.

"Man's reputation always follows him," grunted Buck. "A barroom
gladiator got Jim. Hank got that gunfighter the next week, but was
shot up so hisself he died. Tom joined the revolutionaries and the
_rurales_ cornered him in a dry wash. Took 'em ten hours and three
dead men to get him. Luke--" He hesitated and scowled slightly.

"Luke was killed in a barroom brawl in Sante Maria, by a two-
gunfighter called Killer Rawlins. They said Luke reached first, but
Rawlins beat him to it. I don't know. Rawlins skipped that night. I've
always believed that Luke got a dirty deal, some way. He was the best
one of the boys. If I ever meet Rawlins--" Involuntarily his hand
moved toward the worn butt of his Colt. Then he shrugged his
shoulders, and said: "You said there was two reasons why you knowed
these coyotes wasn't Laramies; what's t'other'n?"

"They work different," growled the old man. "Yore brothers was
bad, but white men, just the same. They killed prompt, but they killed
clean. These rats ain't content with just stealin' our stock. They
burn down ranch houses and pizen water holes like a tribe of cussed
Apaches. Jim Bannerman of the Lazy B didn't leave 'em two hundred of
steers in a draw like they demanded in one of them letters. A couple
of days later we found nothin' but smokin' ruins at the Lazy B, with
Jim's body burned up inside and all his punchers dead or shot up."

Buck's face was gray beneath its tan. His fist knotted on the
gunbutt.

"The devil!" he choked, in a voice little above a whisper. "And
the Laramies are gettin' the blame! I thought my brothers dragged the
name low--but these devils are haulin' it right down into hell. Joel
Waters, listen to me! I come back here to pay back money my brothers
stole from San Leon; I'm stayin' to pay a bigger debt. The desert's
big, but it ain't big enough for a Laramie and the rats that wears his
name. If I don't wipe that gang of rattlers off the earth they can
have my name, because I won't need it no more."

"The Laramies owe a debt to San Leon," agreed old Joel, filling
his pipe. "Cleanin' out that snake-den is the best way I know of
payin' it."

Some time later Laramie rose at last and ground his cigarette butt
under his heel.

"We've about talked out our wampum. From all I can see, everything
points to this Mart Rawley bein' connected with the gang, somehow. He
must have been the one that shot Bob Anders. He was ahead of the other
fellows; they couldn't see him for a rise in the ground. They wouldn't
have seen him shoot Anders. He might have been aimin' at me; or he
might have just wanted Anders out of the way.

"Anyway, I'm headin' for the Diablos tonight. I know yo're willin'
to hide me here, but you can help me more if nobody suspects yo're
helpin' me, yet.

"I'm leavin' these saddle-bags with you. If I don't come back out
of the Diablos, you'll know what to do with the money. So long."

They shook hands, and old Joel said: "So long, Buck. I'll take
care of the money. If they git crowdin' you too close, duck back here.
And if you need help in the hills, try to git word back to me. I can
still draw a bead with a Winchester, and I've got a gang of hard-
ridin' waddies to back my play."

"I ain't forgettin', Joel."

Laramie turned toward the door. Absorbed in his thoughts, he
forgot for an instant that he was a hunted man, and relaxed his
vigilance. As he stepped out onto the veranda he did not stop to think
that he was thrown into bold relief by the light behind him.

As his boot-heel hit the porch yellow flame lanced the darkness
and he heard the whine of a bullet that fanned him as it passed. He
leapt back, slamming the door, wheeled, and halted in dismay to see
Joel Waters sinking to the door. The old man, standing directly behind
Laramie, had stopped the slug meant for his guest.

With his heart in his mouth Laramie dropped beside his friend.
"Where'd it get you, Joel?" he choked.

"Low down, through the leg," grunted Waters, already sitting up
and whipping his bandanna around his leg for a tourniquet. "Nothin' to
worry about. You better git goin'."

Laramie took the bandanna and began knotting it tightly, ignoring
a hail from without.

"Come out with yore hands up, Laramie!" a rough voice shouted.
"You can't fight a whole posse. We got you cornered!"

"Beat it, Buck!" snapped Waters, pulling away his friend's hands.
"They must have left their horses and sneaked up on foot. Sneak out
the back way before they surround the house, fork yore cayuse and burn
the breeze. That's Mart Rawley talkin', and I reckon it was him that
shot. He aims to git you before you have time to ask questions or
answer any. Even if you went out there with yore hands up, he'd kill
you. Git goin', dern you!"

"All right!" Laramie jumped up as Hop Sing came out of the
kitchen, almond eyes wide and a cleaver in his hand. "Tell 'em I held
a gun on you and made you feed me. T'ain't time for 'em to know we're
friends, not yet."

The next instant he was gliding into the back part of the house
and slipping through a window into the outer darkness. He heard
somebody swearing at Rawley for firing before the rest had taken up
their positions, and he heard other voices and noises that indicated
the posse was scattering out to surround the house.

He ran for the blacksmith shop, and, groping in the dark,
tightened the cinch on the sorrel and slipped on the bridle. He worked
fast, but before Laramie could lead the horse outside he heard a
jingle of spurs and the sound of footsteps.

Laramie swung into the saddle, ducked his head low to avoid the
lintel of the door, and struck in the spurs. The sorrel hurtled
through the door like a thunderbolt. A startled yell rang out, a man
jumped frantically out of the way, tripped over his spurs and fell
flat on his back, discharging his Winchester in the general direction
of the Big Dipper. The sorrel and its rider went past him like a
thundering shadow to be swallowed in the darkness. Wild yells answered
the passionate blasphemy of the fallen man, and guns spurted red as
their owners fired blindly after the receding hoof-beats. But before
the possemen could untangle themselves from their bewilderment and
find their mounts, the echoes of flying hoofs had died away and night
hid the fugitive's trail. Buck Laramie was far away, riding to the
Diablos.



Chapter IV Sidewinder Ramrod



Midnight found Laramie deep in the Diabios. He halted, tethered
the sorrel, and spread his blankets at the foot of a low cliff. Night
was not the time to venture further along the rock-strewn paths and
treacherous precipices of the Diablos. He slept fitfully, his slumber
disturbed by dreams of a girl kneeling beside a wounded man.

With the first gray of dawn he was riding familiar trails that
would lead him to the cabin in the hidden canyon that he knew so well,
the old hideout of his gang, where he believed he would find the new
band which was terrorizing the country. The hideout had but one
entrance--a rock-walled tunnel. How the fake gang could have learned
of the place Laramie could not know.

The hideout was in a great bowl, on all sides of which rose walls
of jumbled rock, impassable to a horseman. It was possible to climb
the cliffs near the entrance of the tunnel, which, if the fake gang
were following the customs of the real Laramies, would be guarded.

Half an hour after sunrise found him making his way on foot toward
the canyon entrance. His horse he had left concealed among the rocks
at a safe distance, and lariat in hand he crept along behind rocks and
scrub growth toward the old river bed that formed the canyon.
Presently, gazing through the underbrush that masked his approach, he
saw, half hidden by a rock, a man in a tattered brown shirt who sat at
the mouth of the canyon entrance, his hat pulled low over his eyes,
and a Winchester across his knees.

Evidently a belief in the security of the hide-out made the sentry
careless. Laramie had the drop on him; but to use his advantage
incurred the possibility of a shot that would warn those inside the
canyon and spoil his plans. So he retreated to a point where he would
not be directly in the line of the guard's vision, if the man roused,
and began working his way to a spot a few hundred yards to the left,
where, as he knew of old, he could climb to the rim of the canyon.

In a few moments he had clambered up to a point from which he
could glimpse the booted feet of the guard sticking from behind the
rock. Laramie's flesh crawled at the thought of being picked off with
a rifle bullet like a fly off a wall, if the guard looked his way.

But the boots did not move, he dislodged no stones large enough to
make an alarming noise, and presently, panting and sweating, he heaved
himself over the crest of the rim and lay on his belly gazing down
into the canyon below him.

As he looked down into the bowl which had once been like a prison
to him, bitterness of memory was mingled with a brief, sick longing
for his dead brothers; after all, they were his brothers, and had been
kind to him in their rough way.

The cabin below him had in no wise changed in the passing of the
years. Smoke was pouring out of the chimney, and in the corral at the
back, horses were milling about in an attempt to escape the ropes of
two men who were seeking saddle mounts for the day.

Shaking out his lariat, Laramie crept along the canyon rim until
he reached a spot where a stunted tree clung to the very edge. To this
tree he made fast the rope, knotted it at intervals for handholds, and
threw the other end over the cliff. It hung fifteen feet short of the
bottom, but that was near enough.

As he went down it, with a knee hooked about the thin strand to
take some of the strain off his hands, he grinned thinly as he
remembered how he had used this descent long ago when he wanted to
dodge Big Jim who was waiting at the entrance to give him a licking.
His face hardened.

"Wish he was here with me now. We'd mop up these rats by
ourselves."

Dangling at the end of the rope at arm's length he dropped,
narrowly missing a heap of jagged rocks, and lit in the sand on his
feet, going to his all-fours from the impact.

Bending low, sometimes on hands and knees, he headed circuitously
for the cabin, keeping it between himself and the men in the corral.
To his own wonderment he reached the cabin without hearing any alarm
sounded. Maybe the occupants, if there were any in the canyon beside
the men he had seen, had gone out the back way to the corral. He hoped
so.

Cautiously he raised his head over a window sill and peered
inside. He could see no one in the big room that constituted the front
part of the cabin. Behind this room, he knew, were a bunk room and
kitchen, and the back door was in the kitchen. There might be men in
those backrooms; but he was willing to take the chance. He wanted to
get in there and find a place where he could hide and spy.

The door was not locked; he pushed it open gently and stepped
inside with a cat-like tread, Colt poked ahead of him.

_"Stick 'em up!"_ Before he could complete the convulsive movement
prompted by these unexpected words, he felt the barrel of a six-gun
jammed hard against his backbone. He froze--opened his fingers and let
his gun crash to the floor. There was nothing else for it.

The door to the bunkroom swung open and two men came out with
drawn guns and triumphant leers on their unshaven faces. A third
emerged from the kitchen. All were strangers to Laramie. He ventured
to twist his head to look at his captor, and saw a big-boned, powerful
man with a scarred face, grinning exultantly.

"That was easy," rumbled one of the others, a tall, heavily built
ruffian whose figure looked somehow familiar. Laramie eyed him
closely.

"So yo're 'Big Jim'," he said.

The big man scowled, but Scarface laughed.

"Yeah! With a mask on nobody can tell the difference. You ain't so
slick, for a Laramie. I seen you sneakin' through the bresh ten
minutes ago, and we been watchin' you ever since. I seen you aimed to
come and make yoreself to home, so I app'inted myself a welcome
committee of one--behind the door. You couldn't see me from the
winder. Hey, you Joe!" he raised his voice pompously. "Gimme a piece
of rope. Mister Laramie's goin' to stay with us for a spell."

Scarface shoved the bound Laramie into an old Morris chair that
stood near the kitchen door. Laramie remembered that chair well; the
brothers had brought it with them when they left their ranch home in
the foothills.

He was trying to catch a nebulous memory that had something to do
with that chair, when steps sounded in the bunkroom and "Jim" entered,
accompanied by two others. One was an ordinary sort of criminal,
slouchy, brutal faced and unshaven. The other was of an entirely
different type. He was elderly and pale-faced, but that face was bleak
and flinty. He did not seem range-bred like the others. Save for his
high-heeled riding boots, he was dressed in town clothes, though the
well-worn butt of a .45 jutted from a holster at his thigh.

Scarface hooked thumbs in belt and rocked back on his heels with
an air of huge satisfaction. His big voice boomed in the cabin.

"Mister Harrison, I takes pleasure in makin' you acquainted with
Mister Buck Laramie, the last of a family of honest horse-thieves,
what's rode all the way from Mexico just to horn in on our play. And
Mister Laramie, since you ain't long for this weary world, I'm
likewise honored to interjuice you to Mister Ely Harrison, high man of
our outfit and president of the Cattlemen's Bank of San Leon!"

Scarface had an eye for dramatics in his crude way. He bowed
grotesquely, sweeping the floor with his Stetson and grinning
gleefully at the astounded glare with which his prisoner greeted his
introduction.

Harrison was less pleased.

"That tongue of yours wags too loose, Braxton," he snarled.

Scarface lapsed into injured silence, and Laramie found his
tongue.

"Ely Harrison!" he said slowly. "Head of the gang--the pieces of
this puzzle's beginnin' to fit. So you generously helps out the
ranchers yore coyotes ruins--not forgettin' to grab a healthy mortgage
while doin' it. And you was a hero and shot it out with the terrible
bandits when they come for yore bank; only nobody gets hurt on either
side."

Unconsciously he leaned further back in the Morris chair--and a
lightning jolt of memory hit him just behind the ear. He stifled an
involuntary grunt, and his fingers, hidden by his body from the eyes
of his captors, began fumbling between the cushions of the chair.

He had remembered his jackknife, a beautiful implement, and the
pride of his boyhood, stolen from him and hidden by his brother Tom,
for a joke, a few days before they started for Mexico. Tom had
forgotten all about it, and Buck had been too proud to beg him for it.
But Tom had remembered, months later, in Mexico; had bought Buck a
duplicate of the first knife, and told him that he had hidden the
original between the cushions of the old Morris chair.

Laramie's heart almost choked him. It seemed too good to be true,
this ace in the hole. Yet there was no reason to suppose anybody had
found and removed the knife. His doubts were set at rest as his
fingers encountered a smooth, hard object. It was not until that
moment that he realized that Ely Harrison was speaking to him. He
gathered his wits and concentrated on the man's rasping voice, while
his hidden fingers fumbled with the knife, trying to open it.

"--damned unhealthy for a man to try to block _my_ game," Harrison
was saying harshly. "Why didn't you mind your own business?"

"How do you know I come here just to spoil yore game?" murmured
Laramie absently.

"Then why _did_ you come here?" Harrison's gaze was clouded with a
sort of ferocious uncertainty. "Just how much did you know about our
outfit before today? Did you know I was the leader of the gang?"

"Guess," suggested Laramie. The knife was open at last. He jammed
the handle deep between the cushions and the chair-back, wedging it
securely. The tendons along his wrists ached. It had been hard work,
manipulating the knife with his cramped fingers, able to move just so
far. His steady voice did not change in tone as he worked. "I was kind
of ashamed of my name till I seen how much lower a man could go than
my brothers ever went. They was hard men, but they was white, at
least. Usin' my name to torture and murder behind my back plumb upsets
me. Maybe I didn't come to San Leon just to spoil yore game; but maybe
I decided to spoil it after I seen some of the hands you dealt."

"You'll spoil our game!" Harrison sneered. "Fat chance you've got
of spoiling anybody's game. But you've got only yourself to blame. In
another month I'd have owned every ranch within thirty miles of San
Leon."

"So that's the idea, huh?" murmured Laramie, leaning forward to
expectorate, and dragging his wrists hard across the knife-edge. He
felt one strand part, and as he leaned back and repeated the movement,
another gave way and the edge bit into his flesh. If he could sever
one more strand, he would make his break.

"Just how much did you know about our outfit before you came
here?" demanded Harrison again, his persistence betraying his
apprehension on that point. "How much did you tell Joel Waters?"

"None of yore derned business," Laramie snapped. His nerves
getting on edge with the approach of the crisis.

"You'd better talk," snarled Harrison. "I've got men here who'd
think nothing of shoving your feet in the fire to roast. Not that it
matters. We're all set anyway. Got ready when we heard you'd ridden
in. It just means we move tonight instead of a month later. But if you
can prove to me that you haven't told anybody that I'm the real leader
of the gang--well, we can carry out our original plans, and you'll
save your life. We might even let you join the outfit."

"Join the--do you see any snake-scales on me?" flared Laramie,
fiercely expanding his arm muscles. Another strand parted and the
cords fell away from his wrists.

"Why you--" Murderous passion burst all bounds as Harrison lurched
forward, his fist lifted. And Laramie shot from the chair like a steel
spring released, catching them all flat-footed, paralyzed by the
unexpectedness of the move.

One hand ripped Harrison's Colt from its scabbard. The other
knotted into a fist that smashed hard in the banker's face and knocked
him headlong into the midst of the men who stood behind him.

"Reach for the ceilin', you yellow-bellied polecats!" snarled
Laramie, livid with fury and savage purpose; his cocked .45 menaced
them all. "Reach! I'm dealin' this hand!"



Chapter V First Blood



For an instant the scene held--then Scarface made a convulsive
movement to duck behind the chair.

"Back up!" yelped Laramie, swinging his gun directly on him, and
backing toward the door. But the tall outlaw who had impersonated Big
Jim had recovered from the daze of his surprise. Even as Laramie's
pistol muzzle moved in its short arc toward Braxton, the tall one's
hand flashed like the stroke of a snake's head to his gun. It cleared
leather just as Laramie's .45 banged.

Laramie felt hot wind fan his cheek, but the tall outlaw was
sagging back and down, dying on his feet and grimly pulling trigger as
he went. A hot welt burned across Laramie's left thigh, another slug
ripped up splinters near his feet. Harrison had dived behind the
Morris chair and Laramie's vengeful bullet smashed into the wall
behind him.

It all happened so quickly that the others had barely unleathered
their irons as he reached the threshold. He fired at Braxton, saw the
scar-faced one drop his gun with a howl, saw "Big Jim" sprawl on the
floor, done with impersonation and outlawry forever, and then he was
slamming the door from the outside, wincing involuntarily as bullets
smashed through the panels and whined about him.

His long legs flung him across the kitchen and he catapulted
through the outer door. He collided head-on with the two men he had
seen in the corral. All three went into the dust in a heap. One, even
in falling, jammed his six-gun into Buck's belly and pulled trigger
without stopping to see who it was. The hammer clicked on an empty
chamber. Laramie, flesh crawling with the narrowness of his escape,
crashed his gun barrel down on the other's head and sprang up, kicking
free of the second man whom he recognized as Mart Rawley, he of the
white sombrero and flashy pinto.

Rawley's gun had been knocked out of his hand in the collision.
With a yelp the drygulcher scuttled around the corner of the cabin on
hands and knees. Laramie did not stop for him. He had seen the one
thing that might save him--a horse, saddled and bridled, tied to the
corral fence.

He heard the furious stamp of boots behind him. Harrison's voice
screamed commands as his enemies streamed out of the house and started
pouring lead after him. Then a dozen long leaps carried him spraddle-
legged to the startled mustang. With one movement he had ripped loose
the tether and swung aboard. Over his shoulder he saw the men
spreading out to head him off in the dash they expected him to make
toward the head of the canyon. Then he wrenched the cayuse around and
spurred through the corral gate which the outlaws had left half open.

In an instant Laramie was the center of a milling whirlpool of
maddened horses as he yelled, fired in the air, and lashed them with
the quirt hanging from the horn.

"Close the gate!" shrieked Harrison. One of the men ran to obey
the command, but as he did, the snorting beasts came thundering
through. Only a frantic leap backward saved him from being trampled to
death under the maddened horses.

His companions yelped and ran for the protection of the cabin,
firing blindly into the dust cloud that rose as the herd pounded past.
Then Laramie was dashing through the scattering horde and drawing out
of six-gun range, while his enemies howled like wolves behind him.

"Git along, cayuse!" yelled Laramie, drunk with the exhilaration
of the hazard. "We done better'n I hoped. They got to round up their
broncs before they hit my trail, and that's goin' to take time!"

Thought of the guard waiting at the canyon entrance did not sober
him.

"Only way out is through the tunnel. Maybe he thinks the shootin'
was just a family affair, and won't drill a gent ridin' from _inside_
the canyon. Anyway, cayuse, we takes it on the run."

A Winchester banged from the mouth of the tunnel and the bullet
cut the air past his ear.

"Pull up!" yelled a voice, but there was hesitancy in the tone.
Doubtless the first shot had been a warning, and the sentry was
puzzled. Laramie gave no heed; he ducked low and jammed in the spurs.
He could see the rifle now, the blue muzzle resting on a boulder, and
the ragged crown of a hat behind it. Even as he saw it, flame spurted
from the blue ring. Laramie's horse stumbled in its headlong stride as
lead ploughed through the fleshy part of its shoulder. That stumble
saved Laramie's life for it lurched him out of the path of the next
slug. His own six-gun roared.

The bullet smashed on the rock beside the rifle muzzle. Dazed and
half-blinded by splinters of stone, the outlaw reeled back into the
open, and fired without aim. The Winchester flamed almost in Laramie's
face. Then his answering slug knocked the guard down as if he had been
hit with a hammer. The Winchester flew out of his hands as he rolled
on the ground. Laramie jerked the half-frantic mustang back on its
haunches and dived out of the saddle to grab for the rifle.

"Damn!" It had struck the sharp edge of a rock as it fell. The
lock was bent and the weapon useless. He cast it aside disgustedly,
wheeled toward his horse, and then halted to stare down at the man he
had shot. The fellow had hauled himself to a half-sitting position.
His face was pallid, and blood oozed from a round hole in his shirt
bosom. He was dying. Sudden revulsion shook Laramie as he saw his
victim was hardly more than a boy. His berserk excitement faded.

"Laramie!" gasped the youth. "You must be Buck Laramie!"

"Yeah," admitted Laramie. "Anything--anything I can do?"

The boy grinned in spite of his pain.

"Thought so. Nobody but a Laramie could ride so reckless and shoot
so straight. Seems funny--bein' plugged by a Laramie after worshippin'
'em most of my life."

"What?" ejaculated Laramie.

"I always wanted to be like 'em," gasped the youth. "Nobody could
ride and shoot and fight like them. That's why I j'ined up with these
polecats. They said they was startin' up a gang that was to be just
like the Laramies. But they ain't; they're a passel of dirty coyotes.
Once I started in with 'em, though, I had to stick."

Laramie said nothing. It was appalling to think that a young life
had been so warped, and at last destroyed, by the evil example of his
brothers.

"You better go and raise a posse if yo're aimin' to git them
rats," the boy said. "They's goin' to be hell to pay tonight."

"How's that?" questioned Laramie, remembering Harrison's remarks
about something planned for the night.

"You got 'em scared," murmured the boy. "Harrison's scared you
might have told Joel Waters he was boss-man of the gang. That's why he
come here last night. They'd aimed to keep stealin' for another month.
Old Harrison woulda had most all the ranches around here by then,
foreclosin' mortgages.

"When Mart Rawley failed to git you, old Harrison sent out word
for the boys to git together here today. They figgered on huntin' you
down, if the posse from San Leon hadn't already got you. If they found
out you didn't know nothin' and hadn't told nobody nothin', they just
aimed to kill you and go on like they'd planned from the first. But if
they didn't git you, or found you'd talked, they aimed to make their
big cleanup tonight, and then ride."

"What's that?" asked Laramie.

"They're goin' down tonight and burn Joel Waters' ranch buildings,
and the sheriff's, and some of the other big ones. They'll drive all
the cattle off to Mexico over the old Laramie trail. Then old
Harrison'll divide the loot and the gang will scatter. If he finds you
ain't spilled the works about him bein' the top man, he'll stay on in
San Leon. That was his idee from the start--ruin the ranchers, buy up
their outfits cheap and be king of San Leon."

"How many men's he got?"

"'Tween twenty-five and thirty," panted the youth. He was going
fast. He choked, and a trickle of blood began at the corner of his
mouth. "I ought not to be squealin', maybe; t'ain't the Laramie way.
But I wouldn't to nobody but a Laramie. You didn't see near all of
'em. Two died on the way back from San Leon, yesterday. They left 'em
out in the desert. The rest ain't got back from drivin' cattle to
Mexico, but they'll be on hand by noon today."

Laramie was silent, reckoning on the force he could put in the
field. Waters' punchers were all he could be sure of--six or seven men
at the most, not counting the wounded Waters. The odds were stacking
up.

"Got a smoke?" the youth asked weakly. Laramie rolled a cigarette,
placed it between the blue lips and held a match. Looking back down
the canyon, Laramie saw men saddling mounts. Precious time was
passing, but he was loath to leave the dying lad.

"Get goin'," muttered the boy uneasily. "You got a tough job ahead
of you--honest men and thieves both agen you--but I'm bettin' on the
Laramies--the real ones--" He seemed wandering in his mind. He began
to sing in a ghastly whisper the song that Laramie could never hear
without a shudder.

_"When Brady died they planted him deep,_
Put a bottle of whisky at his head and feet.
Folded his arms across his breast.
And said: 'King Brady's gone to his rest!'"

The crimson trickle became a sudden spurt; the youth's voice
trailed into silence. The cigarette slipped from his lips. He went
limp and lay still, through forever with the wolf-trail.

Laramie rose heavily and groped for his horse, trembling in the
shade of the rock. He tore the blanket rolled behind the saddle and
covered the still figure. Another debt to be marked up against the
Laramies.

He swung aboard and galloped through the tunnel to where his own
horse was waiting--a faster mount than the cayuse he was riding. As he
shifted mounts he heard shouts behind him, knew that his pursuers had
halted at the body, knew the halt would be brief.

Without looking back, he hit the straightest trail he knew that
led toward the ranch of Joel Waters.



Chapter VI "String Him Up!"



It was nearly noon when Laramie pulled up his sweating bronc at
the porch of the Boxed W ranch house. There were no punchers in sight.
Hop Sing opened the door.

"Where's Waters?" rapped out Laramie.

"Solly!" Hop Sing beamed on the younger man. "He gone to town to
see doctluh and get leg fixed. Slim Jones dlive him in in buckbload.
He be back tonight."

"Damn!" groaned Laramie. He saw his plan being knocked into a
cocked hat. That plan had been to lead a band of men straight to the
outlaws' hide-out and bottle them up in their stronghold before they
could scatter out over the range in their planned raid. The Boxed W
punchers would not follow a stranger without their boss's orders, and
only Waters could convince the bellicose citizens of San Leon that
Laramie was on the level. Time was flying, and every minute counted.

There was only one risky course left open. He swung on his tiring
horse and reined away on the road for San Leon.

He met no one on the road, for which he was thankful. When he drew
up on the outskirts of the town his horse was drawing laboring
breaths. He knew the animal would be useless in case he had to dust
out of town with a posse on his heels.

Laramie knew of a back alley that led to the doctor's office, and
by which he hoped to make it unseen. He dismounted and headed down the
alley, leading the gelding by the reins.

He sighted the little adobe shack where the town's one physician
lived and worked, when a jingle of spurs behind him caused him to jerk
his head in time to see a man passing the end of the alley. It was
Mart Rawley, and Laramie ducked behind his horse, cursing his luck.
Rawley must have been prowling around the town, expecting him, and
watching for him. His yell instantly split the lazy silence.

"Laramie!" howled Rawley. "Laramie's back! Hey, Bill! Lon! Joe!
Everybody! Laramie's in town again! This way!"

Laramie forked his mustang and spurred it into a lumbering run for
the main street. Lead was singing down the alley as Laramie burst into
Main Street, and saw Joel Waters sitting in a chair on the porch of
the doctor's shack.

"Get all the men you can rustle and head for the Diablos!" he
yelled at the astonished ranchman. "I'll leave a trail for you to
follow. I found the gang at the old hide-out--and they're comin' out
tonight for a big cleanup!"

Then he was off again, his clattering hoofs drowning Waters' voice
as he shouted after the rider. Men were yelling and .45s banging.
Ahorse and afoot they came at him, shooting as they ran. The dull,
terrifying mob-roar rose, pierced with yells of: "String him up!" "He
shot Bob Anders in the back!"

His way to open country was blocked, and his horse was exhausted.
With a snarl Laramie wheeled and rode to the right for a narrow alley
that did not seem to be blocked. It led between two buildings to a
side-street, and was not wide enough for a horse to pass through.
Maybe that was the reason it had been left unguarded. Laramie reached
it, threw himself from his saddle and dived into the narrow mouth.

For an instant his mount, standing with drooping head in the
opening, masked his master from bullets, though Laramie had not
intended sacrificing his horse for his own hide. Laramie had run half
the length of the alley before someone reached out gingerly, grasped
the reins and jerked the horse away. Laramie half turned, without
pausing in his run, and fired high and harmlessly back down the alley.
The whistle of lead kept the alley clear until he bolted out the other
end.

There, blocking his way in the side, street, stood a figure beside
a black racing horse. Laramie's gun came up--then he stopped short,
mouth open in amazement. It was Judy Anders who stood beside the black
horse.

Before he could speak she sprang forward and thrust the reins in
his hand.

"Take him and go! He's fast!"

"Why--what?" Laramie sputtered, his thinking processes in a
muddle. The mere sight of Judy Anders had that effect upon him. Hope
flamed in him. Did her helping him mean--then reason returned and he
took the gift the gods had given him without stopping for question. As
he grabbed the horn and swung up he managed: "I sure thank you kindly,
miss--"

"Don't thank me," Judy Anders retorted curtly; her color was high,
but her red lips were sulky. "You're a Laramie and ought to be hung,
but you fought beside Bob yesterday when he needed help. The Anderses
pay their debts. Will you go?"

A nervous stamp of her little foot emphasized the request. The
advice was good. Three of the townsmen appeared with lifted guns
around a corner of a nearby building. They hesitated as they saw the
girl near him, but began maneuvering for a clear shot at him without
endangering her.

"See Joel Waters, at the doctor's office!" he yelled to her, and
was off for the open country, riding like an Apache, and not at all
sure that she understood him. Men howled and guns crashed behind him,
and maddened citizens ran cursing for their mounts, too crazy-mad to
notice the girl who shrieked vainly at them, unheeding her waving
arms.

"Stop! Stop! Wait! Listen to me!" Deaf to her cries they streamed
past her, ahorse and afoot, and burst out into the open. The mounted
men spurred their horses savagely after the figure that was swiftly
dwindling in the distance.

Judy dashed aside an angry tear and declaimed her opinion of men
in general, and the citizens of San Leon in particular, in terms more
expressive than lady-like.

"What's the matter?" It was Joel Waters, limping out of the alley,
supported by the doctor. The old man seemed stunned by the rapidity of
events. "What in the devil's all this mean? Where's Buck?"

She pointed. "There he goes, with all the idiots in San Leon after
him."

"Not all the idiots," Waters corrected. "_I'm_ still here. Dern
it, the boy must be crazy, comin' here. I yelled myself deef at them
fools, but they wouldn't listen--"

"They wouldn't listen to me, either!" cried Judy despairingly.
"But they won't catch him--ever, on that black of mine. And maybe when
they come limping back, they'll be cooled down enough to hear the
truth. If they won't listen to me, they will to Bob!"

"To Bob?" exclaimed the doctor. "Has he come out of his daze? I
was just getting ready to come over and see him again, when Joel came
in for his leg to be dressed."

"Bob came out of it just a little while ago. He told me it wasn't
Laramie who shot him. He's still groggy and uncertain as to just what
happened. He doesn't know who it was who shot him, but he knows it
wasn't Buck Laramie. The last thing he remembers was Laramie running
some little distance ahead of him. The bullet came from behind. He
thinks a stray slug from the men behind them hit him."

"I don't believe it was a stray," grunted Waters, his eyes
beginning to glitter. "I got a dern good idee who shot Bob. I'm goin'
to talk--"

"Better not bother Bob too much right now," interrupted the doctor
"I'll go over there--"

"Better go in a hurry if you want to catch Bob at home," the girl
said grimly. "He was pulling on his boots and yelling for our cook to
bring him his gun-belt when I left!"

"What? Why, he musn't get up yet!" The doctor transferred Waters'
arm from his shoulder to that of the girl, and hurried away toward the
house where Bob Anders was supposed to be convalescing.

"Why did Buck come back here?" Judy wailed to Waters.

"From what he hollered at me as he lighted past, I reckon he's
found somethin' up in the Diablos. He come for help. Probably went to
my ranch first, and findin' me not there, risked his neck comin' on
here. Said send men after him, to foller signs he'd leave. I relayed
that there information on to Slim Jones, my foreman. Doc lent Slim a
horse, and Slim's high-tailin' it for the Boxed W right now to round
up my waddies and hit the trail. As soon as these San Leon snake-
hunters has ruint their cayuses chasin' that black streak of light you
give Buck, they'll be pullin' back into town. This time, I bet they'll
listen."

"I'm glad he didn't shoot Bob," she murmured. "But why--why did he
come back here in the first place?"

"He come to pay a debt he figgered he owed on behalf of his no-
account brothers. His saddle bags is full of gold he aims to give back
to the citizens of this here ongrateful town. What's the matter?"

For his fair companion had uttered a startled exclamation.

"N-nothing, only--only I didn't know it was that way! Then Buck
never robbed or stole, like his brothers?"

"Course he didn't!" snapped the old man irascibly. "Think I'd kept
on bein' his friend all his life, if he had? Buck ain't to blame for
what his brothers did. He's straight and he's always been straight."

"But he was with them, when--when--"

"I know." Waters' voice was gentler. "But he didn't shoot yore
dad. That was Luke. And Buck was with 'em only because they made him.
He wasn't nothin' but a kid."

She did not reply and old Waters, noting the soft, new light
glowing in her eyes, the faint, wistful smile that curved her lips,
wisely said nothing.

In the meantime the subject of their discussion was proving the
worth of the sleek piece of horseflesh under him. He grinned as he saw
the distance between him and his pursuers widen, thrilled to the
marvel of the horse between his knees as any good horseman would. In
half an hour he could no longer see the men who hunted him.

He pulled the black to an easier, swinging gait that would eat up
the miles for long hours on end, and headed for the Diablos. But the
desperate move he was making was not dominating his thoughts. He was
mulling over a new puzzle; the problem of why Judy Anders had come to
his aid. Considering her parting words, she didn't have much use for
him. If Bob had survived his wound, and asserted Laramie's innocence,
why were the citizens so hot for his blood? If not--would Judy Anders
willingly aid a man she thought shot her brother? He thrilled at the
memory of her, standing there with the horse that saved his life. If
only he weren't a Laramie--How beautiful she was.



Chapter VII Bottled Up



A good three hours before sundown Laramie was in the foothills of
the Diablos. In another hour, by dint of reckless riding over trails
that were inches in width, which even he ordinarily would have
shunned, he came in sight of the entrance to the hide-out. He had left
signs farther down the trail to indicate, not the way he had come, but
the best way for Waters' punchers to follow him.

Once more he dismounted some distance from the tunnel and stole
cautiously forward. There would be a new sentry at the entrance, and
Laramie's first job must be to dispose of him silently.

He was halfway to the tunnel when he glimpsed the guard, sitting
several yards from the mouth, near a clump of bushes. It was the scar-
faced fellow Harrison had called Braxton, and he seemed wide-awake.

Falling back on Indian tactics, acquired from the Yaquis in
Mexico, Laramie began a stealthy, and necessarily slow, advance on the
guard, swinging in a circle that would bring him behind the man. He
crept up to within a dozen feet.

Braxton was getting restless. He shifted his position, craning his
neck as he stared suspiciously about him. Laramie believed he had
heard, but not yet located, faint sounds made in Laramie's progress.
In another instant he would turn his head and stare full at the bushes
which afforded the attacker scanty cover.

Gathering a handful of pebbles, Laramie rose stealthily to his
knees and threw them over the guard's head. They hit with a loud
clatter some yards beyond the man. Braxton started to his feet with an
oath. He glared in the direction of the sound with his Winchester half
lifted, neck craned. At the same instant Laramie leaped for him with
his six-gun raised like a club.

Scarface wheeled, and his eyes flared in amazement. He jerked the
rifle around, but Laramie struck it aside with his left hand, and
brought down his pistol barrel crushingly on the man's head. Braxton
went to his knees like a felled ox; slumped full-length and lay still.

Laramie ripped off belts and neckerchief from the senseless
figure; bound and gagged his captive securely. He appropriated his
pistol, rifle and spare cartridges, then dragged him away from the
tunnel mouth and shoved him in among a cluster of rocks and bushes,
effectually concealing him from the casual glance.

"Won the first trick, by thunder!" grunted Laramie. "And now for
the next deal."

The success of that deal depended on whether or not all the
outlaws of Harrison's band were in the hide-out. Mart Rawley was
probably outside, yet; maybe still back in San Leon. But Laramie knew
he must take the chance that all the other outlaws _were_ inside.

He glanced up to a ledge overhanging the tunnel mouth, where stood
precariously balanced the huge boulder which had given him his idea
for bottling up the canyon.

"Cork for my bottle!" muttered Laramie. "All I need now's a
lever."

A broken tree limb sufficed for that, and a few moments later he
had climbed to the ledge and was at work on the boulder. A moment's
panic assailed him as he feared its base was too deeply imbedded for
him to move it. But under his fierce efforts he felt the great mass
give at last. A few minutes more of back-breaking effort, another
heave that made the veins bulge on his temples--and the boulder
started toppling, crashed over the ledge and thundered down into the
tunnel entrance. It jammed there, almost filling the space.

He swarmed down the wall and began wedging smaller rocks and brush
in the apertures between the boulder and the tunnel sides. The only
way his enemies could get out now was by climbing the canyon walls, a
feat he considered practically impossible, or by laboriously picking
out the stones he had jammed in place, and squeezing a way through a
hole between the boulder and the tunnel wall. And neither method would
be a cinch, with a resolute cowpuncher slinging lead at everything
that moved.

Laramie estimated that his whole task had taken about half an
hour. Slinging Braxton's rifle over his shoulder he clambered up the
cliffs. At the spot on the canyon rim where he had spied upon the
hide-out that morning, he forted himself by the simple procedure of
crouching behind a fair-sized rock, with the Winchester and pistols
handy at his elbows. He had scarcely taken his position when he saw a
mob of riders breaking away from the corral behind the cabin. As he
had figured, the gang was getting away to an early start for its
activities of the night.

He counted twenty-five of them; and the very sun that glinted on
polished gun hammers and silver conchas seemed to reflect violence and
evil deeds.

"Four hundred yards," muttered Laramie, squinting along the blue
rifle barrel. "Three fifty--three hundred--now I opens the ball!"

At the ping of the shot dust spurted in front of the horses'
hoofs, and the riders scattered like quail, with startled yells.

"Drop them shootin' irons and hi'st yore hands!" roared Laramie.
"Tunnel's corked up and you can't get out!"

His answer came in a vengeful hail of bullets, spattering along
the canyon rim for yards in either direction. He had not expected any
other reply. His shout had been more for rhetorical effect than
anything else. But there was nothing theatrical about his second shot,
which knocked a man out of his saddle. The fellow never moved after he
hit the ground.

The outlaws converged toward the tunnel entrance, firing as they
rode, aiming at Laramie's aerie, which they had finally located.
Laramie replied in kind. A mustang smitten by a slug meant for his
rider rolled to the ground and broke his rider's leg under him. A
squat raider howled profanely as a slug ploughed through his breast
muscles.

Then half a dozen men in the lead jammed into the tunnel and found
that Laramie had informed them truthfully. Their yells reached a
crescendo of fury. The others slid from their horses and took cover
behind the rocks that littered the edges of the canyon, dragging the
wounded men with them.

From a rush and a dash the fight settled to a slow, deadly grind,
with nobody taking any rash chances. Having located his tiny fort,
they concentrated their fire on the spot of the rim he occupied. A
storm of bullets drove him to cover behind the breastworks, and became
exceedingly irksome.

He had not seen either Rawley or Harrison. Rawley, he hoped, was
still in San Leon, but the absence of Harrison worried him. Had he,
too, gone to San Leon? If so, there was every chance that he might get
clean away, even if his band was wiped out. There was another chance,
that he or Rawley, or both of them, might return to the hide-out and
attack him from the rear. He cursed himself for not having divulged
the true identity of the gang's leader to Judy Anders; but he always
seemed addled when talking to her.

The ammunition supply of the outlaws seemed inexhaustible. He knew
at least six men were in the tunnel, and he heard them cursing and
shouting, their voices muffled. He found himself confronted by a
quandary that seemed to admit of no solution. If he did not discourage
them, they would be breaking through the blocked tunnel and potting
him from the rear. But to affect this discouragement meant leaving his
point of vantage, and giving the men below a chance to climb the
canyon wall. He did not believe this could be done, but he did not
know what additions to the fortress had been made by the new
occupants. They might have chiseled out handholds at some point on the
wall. Well, he'd have to look at the tunnel.

"Six-guns against rifles, if this keeps up much longer," he
muttered, working his way over the ledges. "Cartridges most gone. Why
the devil don't Joel's men show up? I can't keep these hombres hemmed
up forever--_damn!_"

His arm thrust his six-gun out as he yelped. Stones and brush had
been worked out at one place in the tunnel-mouth, and the head and
shoulders of a man appeared. At the crash of Laramie's Colt the fellow
howled and vanished. Laramie crouched, glaring; they would try it
again, soon. If he was not there to give them lead-argument, the whole
gang would be squeezing out of the tunnel in no time.

He could not get back to the rim, and leave the tunnel unguarded;
yet there was always the possibility of somebody climbing the canyon
wall.

Had he but known it, his fears were justified. For while he
crouched on the ledge, glaring down at the tunnel-mouth, down in the
canyon a man was wriggling toward a certain point of the cliff, where
his keen eyes had discerned something dangling. He had discovered
Laramie's rope, hanging from the stunted tree on the rim. Cautiously
he lifted himself out of the tall grass, ready to duck back in an
instant, then as no shot came from the canyon rim, he scuttled like a
rabbit toward the wall.

Kicking off his boots and slinging his rifle on his back, he began
swarming, ape-like, up the almost sheer wall. His outstretched arm
grasped the lower end of the rope, just as the others in the canyon
saw what he was doing, and opened a furious fire on the rim to cover
his activities. The outlaw on the rope swore luridly, and went up with
amazing agility, his flesh crawling with the momentary expectation of
a bullet in his back.

The renewed firing had just the effect on Laramie that the climber
had feared it would have--it drew him back to his breastwork. It was
not until he was crouching behind his breastwork that it occurred to
him that the volleys might have been intended to draw him away from
the tunnel. So he spared only a limited glance over the rocks, for the
bullets were winging so close that he dared not lift his head high. He
did not see the man on the rope cover the last few feet in a
scrambling rush, and haul himself over the rim, unslinging his rifle
as he did so.

Laramie turned and headed back for the ledge whence he could see
the opening. And as he did so, he brought himself into full view of
the outlaw who was standing upright on the rim, by the stunted tree.

The whip-like crack of his Winchester reached Laramie an instant
after he felt a numbing impact in his left shoulder. The shock of the
blow knocked him off his feet, and his head hit hard against a rock.
Even as he fell he heard the crashing of brush down the trail, and his
last, hopeless thought was that Rawley and Harrison were returning.
Then the impact of his head against the rock knocked all thought into
a stunned blank.



Chapter VIII Boot-Hill Talk



An outlaw came scrambling out of the tunnel with desperate haste,
followed by another and another. One crouched, rifle in hand, glaring
up at the wall, while the others tore away the smaller stones, and
aided by those inside, rolled the boulder out of the entrance. Three
men ran out of the tunnel and joined them.

Their firing roused Buck Laramie. He blinked and glared, then
oriented himself. He saw five riders sweeping toward the tunnel, and
six outlaws who had rushed out while he was unconscious, falling back
into it for shelter; and he recognized the leader of the newcomers as
Slim Jones, Joel Waters' foreman. The old man had not failed him.

"Take cover, you fools!" Laramie yelled wildly, unheard in the
din.

But the reckless punchers came straight on and ran into a blast of
lead poured from the tunnel mouth into which the outlaws had
disappeared. One of the waddies saved his life by a leap from the
saddle as his horse fell with a bullet through its brain, and another
man threw wide his arms and pitched on his head, dead before he hit
the pebbles.

Then only did Slim and his wild crew swerve their horses out of
line and fall back to cover. Laramie remembered the slug that had
felled him, and turned to scan the canyon rim. He saw the man by the
stunted tree then; the fellow was helping one of his companions up the
same route he had taken, and evidently thought that his shot had
settled Laramie, as he was making no effort at concealment. Laramie
lifted his rifle and pulled the trigger--and the hammer fell with an
empty click. He had no more rifle cartridges. Below him the punchers
were futilely firing at the tunnel entrance, and the outlaws within
were wisely holding their fire until they could see something to shoot
at.

Laramie crawled along a few feet to put himself out of range of
the rifleman on the rim, then shouted: "Slim! Swing wide of that trail
and come up here with yore men!"

He was understood, for presently Slim and the three surviving
punchers came crawling over the tangle of rocks, having necessarily
abandoned their horses.

"'Bout time you was gettin' here," grunted Laramie. "Gimme some
.30-30s."

A handful of cartridges were shoved into his eager fingers.

"We come as soon as we could," said Slim. "Had to ride to the
ranch to round up these snake-hunters."

"Where's Waters?"

"I left him in San Leon, cussin' a blue streak because he couldn't
get nobody to listen to him. Folks got no more sense'n cattle; just as
easy to stampede and as hard to git millin' once they bust loose."

"What about Bob Anders?"

"Doctor said he was just creased; was just fixin' to go over there
when me and Joel come into town and he had to wait and dress Joel's
leg. Hadn't come to hisself, last time the doc was there."

Laramie breathed a sigh of relief. At least Bob Anders was going
to live, even if he hadn't been able to name the man who shot him.
Soon Judy would know the truth. Laramie snapped into action.

"Unless Waters sends us more men, we're licked. Tunnel's cleared
and men climbin' the cliff."

"You're shot!" Jones pointed to Laramie's shirt shoulder, soaked
with blood.

"Forget it!" snapped Laramie. "Well, gimme that bandanna--" and
while he knotted it into a crude bandage, he talked rapidly. "Three of
you _hombres_ stay here and watch that tunnel. Don't let nobody out,
d'you hear? Me and Slim are goin' to circle around and argy with the
gents climbin' the cliffs. Come on, Slim."

It was rough climbing, and Laramie's shoulder burned like fire,
with a dull throbbing that told him the lead was pressing near a bone.
But he set his teeth and crawled over the rough rocks, keeping out of
sight of the men in the canyon below, until they had reached a point
beyond his tiny fort on the rim, and that much closer to the stunted
tree.

They had kept below the crest and had not been sighted by the
outlaws on the rim, who had been engrossed in knotting a second rope,
brought up by the second man, to the end of the lariat tied to the
tree. This had been dropped down the wall again, and now another
outlaw was hanging to the rope and being drawn straight up the cliff
like a water bucket by his two friends above.

Slim and Laramie fired almost simultaneously. Slim's bullet burned
the fingers of the man clinging to the lariat. He howled and let go
the rope and fell fifteen feet to the canyon floor. Laramie winged one
of the men on the cliff, but it did not affect his speed as he raced
after his companion in a flight for cover. Bullets whizzed up from the
canyon as the men below spotted Laramie and his companion. They ducked
back, but relentlessly piled lead after the men fleeing along the rim
of the cliff.

These worthies made no attempt to make a stand. They knew the lone
defender had received reinforcements and they were not stopping to
learn in what force. Laramie and Slim caught fleeting glimpses of the
fugitives as they headed out through the hills.

"Let 'em go," grunted Laramie. "Be no more trouble from that
quarter, and I bet them rannies won't try to climb that rope no more.
Come on; I hear guns talkin' back at the tunnel."

Laramie and his companion reached the punchers on the ledge in
time to see three horsemen streaking it down the trail, with lead
humming after them. Three more figures lay sprawled about the mouth of
the tunnel.

"They busted out on horseback," grunted one of the men, kneeling
and aiming after the fleeing men. "Come so fast we couldn't stop 'em
all--uh."

His shot punctuated his remarks, and one of the fleeing horsemen
swayed in his saddle. One of the others seemed to be wounded, as the
three ducked into the trees and out of sight.

"Three more hit the trail," grunted Slim.

"Not them," predicted Laramie. "They was bound to see us--know
they ain't but five of us. They won't go far; they'll be sneakin' back
to pot us in the back when their pards start bustin' out again."

"No racket in the tunnel now."

"They're layin' low for a spell. Too damn risky now. They didn't
have but six horses in the tunnel. They got to catch more and bring
'em to the tunnel before they can make the rush.

"They'll wait till dark, and then we can't stop 'em from gettin'
their cayuses into the tunnel. We can't stop 'em from tearin' out at
this end, neither, unless we got more men. Slim, climb back up on the
rim and lay down behind them rocks I stacked up. Watch that rope so
nobody climbs it; we got to cut that, soon's it gets dark. And don't
let no horses be brought into the tunnel, if you can help it."

Slim crawled away, and a few moments later his rifle began
banging, and he yelled wrathfully: "They're already at it!"

"Listen!" ejaculated Laramie suddenly.

Down the trail, out of sight among the trees sounded a thundering
of hoofs, yells and shots.

The shots ceased, then after a pause, the hoofs swept on, and a
crowd of men burst into view.

"Yippee!" whooped one of the punchers bounding into the air and
swinging his hat. "Reinforcements, b'golly! It's a regular army!"

"Looks like all San Leon was there!" bellowed another. "Hey, boys,
don't git in line with that tunnel mouth! Spread out along the trail--
who's them three fellers they got tied to their saddles?"

"The three snakes that broke loose from the tunnel!" yelped the
third cowboy. "They scooped 'em in as they come! Looks like
everybody's there. There's Charlie Ross, and Jim Watkins, the mayor,
and Lon Evans, Mart Rawley's bartender--reckon he didn't know his boss
was a crook--and by golly, look who's leadin' 'em!"

_"Bob Anders!"_ ejaculated Laramie, staring at the pale-faced, but
erect figure who, with bandaged head, rode ahead of the thirty or
forty men who came clattering up the trail and swung wide through the
brush to avoid the grim tunnel mouth. Anders saw him and waved his
hand, and a deep yell of approbation rose from the men behind the
sheriff. Laramie sighed deeply. A few hours ago these same men wanted
to hang him.

Rifles were spitting from the tunnel, and the riders swung from
their horses and began to take up positions on each side of the trail,
as Anders took in the situation at a glance and snapped his orders.
Rifles began to speak in answer to the shots of the outlaws. Laramie
came clambering down the cliff to grasp Anders' outstretched hand.

"I came to just about the time you hit town today, Laramie," he
said. "Was just tellin' Judy it couldn't been you that shot me, when
all that hell busted loose and Judy run to help you out if she could.
Time I could get my clothes on, and out-argy the doctor, and get on
the streets, you was gone with these addle-heads chasin' you. We had
to wait till they give up the chase and come back, and then me and
Judy and Joel Waters lit into 'em. Time we got through talkin' they
was plumb whipped down and achin' to take a hand in yore game."

"I owe you all a lot, especially your sister. Where's Rawley?"
Laramie asked.

"We thought he was with us when we lit out after you," the sheriff
answered. "But when we started back we missed him."

"Look out!" yelled Slim on the rim above them, pumping lead
frantically. "They're rushin' for the tunnel on horses! Blame it, why
ain't somebody up here with me? I can't stop 'em all--"

Evidently the gang inside the canyon had been whipped to
desperation by the arrival of the reinforcements, for they came
thundering through the tunnel laying down a barrage of lead as they
came. It was sheer madness. They ran full into a blast of lead that
piled screaming horses and writhing men in a red shambles. The
survivors staggered back into the tunnel.

Struck by a sudden thought, Laramie groped among the bushes and
hauled out the guard, Braxton, still bound and gagged. The fellow was
conscious and glared balefully at his captor. Laramie tore the gag
off, and demanded: "Where's Harrison and Rawley?"

"Rawley rode for San Leon after you got away from us this
mornin'," growled Braxton sullenly. "Harrison's gone, got scared and
pulled out. I dunno where he went."

"Yo're lyin'," accused Laramie.

"What'd you ast me for, if you know so much?" sneered Braxton, and
lapsed in stubborn, hill-country silence, which Laramie knew nothing
would break, so long as the man chose to hold his tongue.

"You mean Harrison's in on this, Buck?" the sheriff exclaimed.
"Joel told me about Rawley."

"In on it?" Laramie laughed grimly. "Harrison is the kingpin, and
Rawley is his chief sidewinder, I ain't seen neither Harrison nor
Rawley since I got here. Be just like them rats to double-cross their
own men, and run off with the loot they've already got.

"But we still got this nest to clean out, and here's my idea. Them
that's still alive in the canyon are denned up in or near the tunnel.
Nobody nigh the cabin. If four or five of us can hole up in there,
we'll have 'em from both sides. We'll tie some lariats together, and
some of us will go down the walls and get in the cabin. We'll scatter
men along the rim to see none of 'em climb out, and we'll leave plenty
men here to hold the tunnel if they try that again--which they will,
as soon as it begins to get dark, if we don't scuttle 'em first."

"You ought a been a general, cowboy. Me and Slim and a couple of
my Bar X boys'll go for the cabin. You better stay here; yore shoulder
ain't fit for tight-rope work and such."

"She's my hand," growled Laramie. "I started dealin' her and I aim
to set in till the last pot's raked in."

"Yo're the dealer," acquiesced Anders. "Let's go."

Ten minutes later found the party of five clustered on the canyon
rim. The sun had not yet set beyond the peaks, but the canyon below
was in shadow. The spot Laramie had chosen for descent was some
distance beyond the stunted tree. The rim there was higher, the wall
even more precipitous. It had the advantage, however, of an outjut of
rock that would partially serve to mask the descent of a man on a
lariat from the view of the men lurking about the head of the canyon.

If anyone saw the descent of the five invaders, there was no sign
to show they had been discovered. Man after man they slid down the
dangling rope and crouched at the foot, Winchesters ready. Laramie
came last, clinging with one hand and gritting his teeth against the
pain of his wounded shoulder. Then began the advance on the cabin.

That slow, tortuous crawl across the canyon floor seemed endless.
Laramie counted the seconds, fearful that they would be seen, fearful
that night would shut down before they were forted. The western rim of
the canyon seemed crested with golden fire, contrasting with the blue
shadows floating beneath it. He sighed gustily as they reached their
goal, with still enough light for their purpose.

The cabin doors were shut, the windows closely shuttered.

"Let's go!" Anders had one hand on the door, drawn Colt in the
other.

"Wait," grunted Laramie. "I stuck my head into a loop here once
already today. You all stay here while I take a _pasear_ around to the
back and look things over from that side. Don't go in till you hear me
holler."

Then Laramie was sneaking around the cabin, Indian-fashion, gun in
hand. He was little more than half the distance to the back when he
was paralyzed to hear a voice inside the cabin call out: "All clear!"

Before he could move or shout a warning, he heard Anders answer:
"Comin', Buck!" Then the front door slammed, and there was the sound
of a sliding bolt, a yell of dismay from the Bar X men. With sick fury
Laramie realized that somebody lurking inside the cabin had heard him
giving his instructions and imitated his voice to trick the sheriff
into entering. Confirmation came instantly, in a familiar voice--the
voice of Ely Harrison!

"Now we can make terms, gentlemen!" shouted the banker, his voice
rasping with ferocious exultation. "We've got your sheriff in a wolf-
trap with hot lead teeth! You can give us road-belts to Mexico, or
he'll be deader than hell in three minutes!"



Chapter IX Killer Unmasked



Laramie was charging for the rear of the house before the
triumphant shout ended. Anders would never agree to buying freedom for
that gang to save his own life; and Laramie knew that whatever truce
might be agreed upon, Harrison would never let the sheriff live.

The same thought motivated the savage attack of Slim Jones and the
Bar X men on the front door; but that door happened to be of unusual
strength. Nothing short of a log battering ram could smash it. The
rear door was of ordinary thin paneling.

Bracing his good right shoulder to the shock, Laramie rammed his
full charging weight against the rear door. It crashed inward and he
catapulted into the room gun-first.

He had a fleeting glimpse of a swarthy Mexican wheeling from the
doorway that led into the main room, and then he ducked and jerked the
trigger as a knife sang past his head. The roar of the .45 shook the
narrow room and the knife thrower hit the planks and lay twitching.

With a lunging stride Laramie was through the door, into the main
room. He caught a glimpse of men standing momentarily frozen, glaring
up from their work of tying Bob Anders to a chair--Ely Harrison,
another Mexican, and Mart Rawley.

For an infinitesimal tick of time the scene held--then blurred
with gun-smoke as the .45s roared death across the narrow confines.
Hot lead was a coal of hell burning its way through the flesh of
Laramie's already wounded shoulder. Bob Anders lurched out of the
chair, rolling clumsily toward the wall. The room was a mad welter of
sound and smoke in the last light of gathering dusk.

Laramie half rolled behind the partial cover of a cast iron stove,
drawing his second gun. The Mexican fled to the bunk-room, howling,
his broken left arm flopping. Mart Rawley backed after him at a
stumbling run, shooting as he went; crouched inside the door he
glared, awaiting his chance. But Harrison, already badly wounded, had
gone berserk. Disdaining cover, or touched with madness, he came
storming across the room, shooting as he came, spattering blood at
every step. His eyes flamed through the drifting fog of smoke like
those of a rabid wolf.

Laramie raised himself to his full height and faced him. Searing
lead whined past his ear, jerked at his shirt, stung his thigh; but
his own gun was burning red and Harrison was swaying in his stride
like a bull which feels the matador's steel. His last shot flamed
almost in Laramie's face, and then at close range a bullet split the
cold heart of the devil of San Leon, and the greed and ambitions of
Ely Harrison were over.

Laramie, with one loaded cartridge left in his last gun, leaned
back against the wall, out of range of the bunk room.

"Come on out, Rawley," he called. "Harrison's dead. Yore game's
played out."

The hidden gunman spat like an infuriated cat.

"No, my game ain't played out!" he yelled in a voice edged with
blood-madness. "Not till I've wiped you out, you mangy stray. But
before I kill you, I want you to know that you ain't the first Laramie
I've sent to hell! I'd of thought you'd knowed me, in spite of these
whiskers. I'm Rawlins, you fool! Killer Rawlins, that plugged yore
horse-thief brother Luke in Santa Maria!"

"Rawlins!" snarled Laramie, suddenly white. "No wonder you knowed
me!"

"Yes, Rawlins!" howled the gunman. "I'm the one that made friends
with Luke Laramie and got him drunk till he told me all about this
hide-out and the trails across the desert. Then I picked a fight with
Luke when he was too drunk to stand, and killed him to keep his mouth
shut! And what you goin' to do about it?"

"I'm going to kill you, you hell-buzzard!" gritted Laramie,
lurching away from the wall as Rawlins came frothing through the door,
with both guns blazing. Laramie fired once from the hip. His last
bullet ripped through Killer Rawlins' warped brain. Laramie looked
down on him as he died, with his spurred heels drumming a death-march
on the floor.

Frantic feet behind him brought him around to see a livid, swarthy
face convulsed with fear and hate, a brown arm lifting a razor-edged
knife. He had forgotten the Mexican. He threw up his empty pistol to
guard the downward sweep of the sharp blade, then once more the blast
of a six-gun shook the room. Jose Martinez of Chihuahua lifted one
scream of invocation and blasphemy at some forgotten Aztec god, as his
soul went speeding its way to hell.

Laramie turned and stared stupidly through the smoke-blurred dusk
at a tall, slim figure holding a smoking gun. Others were pouring in
through the kitchen. So brief had been the desperate fight that the
men who had raced around the house at the first bellow of the guns,
had just reached the scene. Laramie shook his head dazedly.

"Slim!" he muttered. "See if Bob's hurt!"

"Not me!" The sheriff answered for himself, struggling up to a
sitting posture by the wall. "I fell outa the chair and rolled outa
line when the lead started singin'. Cut me loose, somebody."

"Cut him loose, Slim," mumbled Laramie. "I'm kinda dizzy."

Stark silence followed the roar of the six-guns, silence that hurt
Buck Laramie's ear-drums. Like a man in a daze he staggered to a chair
and sank down heavily upon it. Scarcely knowing what he did he found
himself muttering the words of a song he hated:

_"When the folks heard that Brady was dead,_
They all turned out, all dressed in red;
Marched down the street a-singin' a song:
'Brady's gone to hell with his Stetson on!'"

He was hardly aware when Bob Anders came and cut his blood-soaked
shirt away and washed his wounds, dressing them as best he could with
strips torn from his own shirt, and whisky from a jug found on the
table. The bite of the alcohol roused Laramie from the daze that
enveloped him, and a deep swig of the same medicine cleared his dizzy
head.

Laramie rose stiffly; he glanced about at the dead men staring
glassily in the lamplight, shuddered, and retched suddenly at the reek
of the blood that blackened the planks.

"Let's get out in the open!"

As they emerged into the cool dusk, they were aware that the
shooting had ceased. A voice was bawling loudly at the head of the
canyon, though the distance made the words unintelligible.

Slim came running back through the dusk.

"They're makin' a parley, Bob!" he reported. "They want to know if
they'll be give a fair trial if they surrender."

"I'll talk to 'em. Rest of you keep under cover."

The sheriff worked toward the head of the canyon until he was
within earshot of the men in and about the tunnel, and shouted: "Are
you _hombres_ ready to give in?"

"What's yore terms?" bawled back the spokesman, recognizing the
sheriff's voice.

"I ain't makin' terms. You'll all get a fair trial in an honest
court. You better make up yore minds. I know they ain't a lot of you
left. Harrison's dead and so is Rawley. I got forty men outside this
canyon and enough inside, behind you, to wipe you out. Throw yore guns
out here where I can see 'em, and come out with yore hands high. I'll
give you till I count ten."

And as he began to count, rifles and pistols began clattering on
the bare earth, and haggard, blood-stained, powder-blackened men rose
from behind rocks with their hands in the air, and came out of the
tunnel in the same manner.

"We quits," announced the spokesman. "Four of the boys are laying
back amongst the rocks too shot up to move under their own power.
One's got a broke laig where his horse fell on him. Some of the rest
of us need to have wounds dressed."

Laramie and Slim and the punchers came out of cover, with guns
trained on the weary outlaws, and at a shout from Anders, the men
outside came streaming through the tunnel, whooping vengefully.

"No mob-stuff," warned Anders, as the men grabbed the prisoners
and bound their hands, none too gently. "Get those four wounded men
out of the rocks, and we'll see what we can do for them."

Presently, a curious parade came filing through the tunnel into
the outer valley where twilight still lingered. And as Laramie emerged
from that dark tunnel, he felt as if his dark and sinister past had
fallen from him like a worn-out coat.

One of the four wounded men who had been brought through the
tunnel on crude stretchers rigged out of rifles and coats was in a
talkative mood. Fear and the pain of his wound had broken his nerve
entirely and he was overflowing with information.

"I'll tell you anything you want to know! Put in a good word for
me at my trial, and I'll spill the works!" he declaimed, ignoring the
sullen glares of his hardier companions.

"How did Harrison get mixed up in this deal?" demanded the
sheriff.

"Mixed, hell! He planned the whole thing. He was cashier in the
bank when the Laramies robbed it; the real ones, I mean. If it hadn't
been for that robbery, old Brown would soon found out that Harrison
was stealin' from him. But the Laramies killed Brown and give Harrison
a chance to cover his tracks. They got blamed for the dough he'd
stole, as well as the money they'd actually taken.

"That give Harrison an idee how to be king of San Leon. The
Laramies had acted as scapegoats for him once, and he aimed to use 'em
again. But he had to wait till he could get to be president of the
bank, and had taken time to round up a gang."

"So he'd ruin the ranchers, give mortgages and finally get their
outfits, and then send his coyotes outa the country and be king of San
Leon," broke in Laramie. "We know that part of it. Where'd Rawlins
come in?"

"Harrison knowed him years ago, on the Rio Grande. When Harrison
aimed to raise his gang, he went to Mexico and found Rawlins. Harrison
knowed the real Laramies had a secret hide-out, so Rawlins made
friends with Luke Laramie, and--"

"We know all about that," interrupted Anders with a quick glance
at Buck.

"Yeah? Well, everything was _bueno_ till word come from Mexico
that Buck Laramie was ridin' up from there. Harrison got skittish. He
thought Laramie was comin' to take toll for his brother. So he sent
Rawlins to waylay Laramie. Rawlins missed, but later went on to San
Leon to try again. He shot you instead, Anders. Word was out to get
you, anyway. You'd been prowlin' too close to our hide-out to suit
Harrison.

"Harrison seemed to kinda go locoed when first he heard Laramie
was headin' this way. He made us pull that fool stunt of a fake bank
hold-up to pull wool over folks's eyes more'n ever. Hell, nobody
suspected him anyway. Then he risked comin' out here. But he was
panicky and wanted us to git ready to make a clean sweep tonight and
pull out. When Laramie got away from us this mornin', Harrison decided
he'd ride to Mexico with us.

"Well, when the fightin' had started, Harrison and Rawley stayed
out a sight. Nothin' they could do, and they hoped we'd be able to
break out of the canyon. They didn't want to be seen and recognized.
If it should turn out Laramie hadn't told anybody he was head of the
gang, Harrison would be able to stay on, then."

Preparations were being made to start back to San Leon with the
prisoners, when a sheepish looking delegation headed by Mayor Jim
Watkins approached Laramie. Watkins hummed and hawed with
embarrassment, and finally blurted out, with typical Western
bluntness:

"Look here, Laramie, we owe you somethin' now, and we're just as
hot too pay our debts as you are to pay yours. Harrison had a small
ranch out a ways from town, which he ain't needin' no more, and he
ain't got no heirs, so we can get it easy enough. We thought if you
was aimin', maybe, to stay around San Leon, we'd like powerful well to
make you a present of that ranch, and kinda help you get a start in
the cow business. And we don't want the fifty thousand Waters said you
aimed to give us. You've wiped out that debt."

A curious moroseness had settled over Laramie, a futile feeling of
anti-climax, and a bitter yearning he did not understand. He felt old
and weary, a desire to be alone, and an urge to ride away over the rim
of the world and forget--he did not even realize what it was he wanted
to forget.

"Thanks." he muttered. "I'm paying that fifty thousand back to the
men it belonged to. And I'll be movin' on tomorrow."

"Where to?"

He made a helpless, uncertain gesture.

"You think it over," urged Watkins, turning away. Men were already
mounting, moving down the trail. Anders touched Laramie's sleeve.

"Let's go. Buck. You need some attention on them wounds."

"Go ahead. Bob. I'll be along. I wanta kind set here and rest."

Anders glanced sharply at him and then made a hidden gesture to
Slim Jones, and turned away. The cavalcade moved down the trail in the
growing darkness, armed men riding toward a new era of peace and
prosperity; gaunt, haggard bound men riding toward the penitentiary
and the gallows.

Laramie sat motionless, his empty hands hanging limp on his knees.
A vital chapter in his life had closed, leaving him without a goal. He
had kept his vow. Now he had no plan or purpose to take its place.

Slim Jones, standing nearby, not understanding Laramie's mood, but
not intruding on it, started to speak. Then both men lifted their
heads at the unexpected rumble of wheels.

"A buckboard!" ejaculated Slim.

"No buckboard ever come up that trail," snorted Laramie.

"One's comin' now; and who d'you think? Old Joel, by golly. And
look who's drivin'!"

Laramie's heart gave a convulsive leap and then started pounding
as he saw the slim supple figure beside the old rancher. She pulled up
near them and handed the lines to Slim, who sprang to help her down.

"Biggest fight ever fit in San Leon County!" roared Waters, "and I
didn't git to fire a shot. Cuss a busted laig, anyway!"

"You done a man's part, anyway, Joel," assured Laramie; and then
he forgot Joel Waters entirely, in the miracle of seeing Judy Anders
standing before him, smiling gently, her hand outstretched and the
rising moon melting her soft hair to golden witch-fire.

"I'm sorry for the way I spoke to you today," she said softly.
"I've been bitter about things that were none of your fault."

"D-don't apologize, please," he stuttered, inwardly cursing
himself because of his confusion. The touch of her slim, firm hand
sent shivers through his frame and he knew all at once what that
empty, gnawing yearning was; the more poignant now, because so
unattainable.

"You saved my neck. Nobody that does that needs to apologize. You
was probably right, anyhow. Er--uh--Bob went down the trail with the
others. You must have missed him."

"I saw him and talked to him," she said softly. "He said you were
behind them. I came on, expecting to meet you."

He was momentarily startled. "You came on to meet _me_? Oh, of
course. Joel would want to see how bad shot up I was." He achieved a
ghastly excuse for a laugh.

"Mr. Waters wanted to see you, of course. But I--Buck, I wanted to
see you, too."

She was leaning close to him, looking up at him, and he was dizzy
with the fragrance and beauty of her; and in his dizziness said the
most inane and idiotic thing he could possibly have said.

"To see me?" he gurgled wildly. "What--what you want to see _me_
for?"

She seemed to draw away from him and her voice was a bit too
precise.

"I wanted to apologize for my rudeness this morning," she said, a
little distantly.

"I said don't apologize to me," he gasped. "You saved my life--and
I--I--Judy, dang it, I love you!"

It was out--the amazing statement, blurted out involuntarily. He
was frozen by his own audacity, stunned and paralyzed. But she did not
seem to mind. Somehow he found she was in his arms, and numbly he
heard her saying: "I love you too, Buck. I've loved you ever since I
was a little girl, and we went to school together. Only I've tried to
force myself not to think of you for the past six years. But I've
loved the memory of you--that's why it hurt me so to think that you'd
gone bad--as I thought you had. That horse I brought you--it wasn't
altogether because you'd helped Bob that I brought it to you. It--it
was partly because of my own feeling. Oh, Buck, to learn you're
straight and honorable is like having a black shadow lifted from
between us. You'll never leave me, Buck?"

"Leave you?" Laramie gasped. "Just long enough to find Watkins and
tell him I'm takin' him up on a proposition he made me, and then I'm
aimin' on spendin' the rest of my life makin' you happy." The rest was
lost in a perfectly natural sound.

"Kissin'!" beamed Joel Waters, sitting in his buckboard and gently
manipulating his wounded leg. "Reckon they'll be a marryin' in these
parts purty soon, Slim."

"Don't tell me yo're figgerin' on gittin' hitched?" inquired Slim,
pretending to misunderstand, but grinning behind his hand.

"You go light on that sarcastic tone. I'm liable to git married
any day now. It's just a matter of time till I decide what type of
woman would make me the best wife."



THE END



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