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Title: The Vultures of Whapeton
Author: Robert E. Howard
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0608151.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2006
Date most recently updated: November 2006

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The Vultures of Whapeton
Robert E. Howard



Chapter 1 Guns in the Dark



The bare plank walls of the Golden Eagle Saloon seemed still to
vibrate with the crashing echoes of the guns which had split the
sudden darkness with spurts of red. But only a nervous shuffling of
booted feet sounded in the tense silence that followed the shots. Then
somewhere a match rasped on leather and a yellow flicker sprang up,
etching a shaky hand and a pallid face. An instant later an oil lamp
with a broken chimney illuminated the saloon, throwing tense bearded
faces into bold relief. The big lamp that hung from the ceiling was a
smashed ruin; kerosene dripped from it to the floor, making an oily
puddle beside a grimmer, darker pool.

Two figures held the center of the room, under the broken lamp.
One lay facedown, motionless arms outstretching empty hands. The other
was crawling to his feet, blinking and gaping stupidly, like a man
whose wits are still muddled by drink. His right arm hung limply by
his side, a long-barreled pistol sagging from his fingers.

The rigid line of figures along the bar melted into movement. Men
came forward, stooping to stare down at the limp shape. A confused
babble of conversation rose. Hurried steps sounded outside, and the
crowd divided as a man pushed his way abruptly through. Instantly he
dominated the scene. His broad-shouldered, trim-hipped figure was
above medium height, and his broad-brimmed white hat, neat boots and
cravat contrasted with the rough garb of the others, just as his keen,
dark face with its narrow black mustache contrasted with the bearded
countenances about him. He held an ivory-butted gun in his right hand,
muzzle tilted upward.

"What devil's work is this?" he harshly demanded; and then his
gaze fell on the man on the floor. His eyes widened.

"Grimes!" he ejaculated. "Jim Grimes, my deputy! Who did this?"
There was something tigerish about him as he wheeled toward the uneasy
crowd. "Who did this?" he demanded, half-crouching, his gun still
lifted, but seeming to hover like a live thing ready to swoop.

Feet shuffled as men backed away, but one man spoke up: "We don't
know, Middleton. Jackson there was havin' a little fun, shootin' at
the ceilin', and the rest of us was at the bar, watchin' him, when
Grimes come in and started to arrest him--"

"So Jackson shot him!" snarled Middleton, his gun covering the
befuddled one in a baffling blur of motion. Jackson yelped in fear and
threw up his hands, and the man who had first spoken interposed.

"No, Sheriff, it couldn't have been Jackson. His gun was empty
when the lights went out. I know he slung six bullets into the ceilin'
while he was playin' the fool, and I heard him snap the gun three
times afterwards, so I know it was empty. But when Grimes went up to
him, somebody shot the light out, and a gun banged in the dark, and
when we got a light on again, there Grimes was on the floor, and
Jackson was just gettin' up."

"I didn't shoot him," muttered Jackson. "I was just havin' a
little fun. I was drunk, but I ain't now. I wouldn't have resisted
arrest. When the light went out I didn't know what had happened. I
heard the gun bang, and Grimes dragged me down with him as he fell. I
didn't shoot him. I dunno who did."

"None of us knows," added a bearded miner. "Somebody shot in the
dark--"

"More'n one," muttered another. "I heard at least three or four
guns speakin'."

Silence followed, in which each man looked sidewise at his
neighbor. The men had drawn back to the bar, leaving the middle of the
big room clear, where the sheriff stood. Suspicion and fear galvanized
the crowd, leaping like an electric spark from man to man. Each man
knew that a murderer stood near him, possibly at his elbow. Men
refused to look directly into the eyes of their neighbors, fearing to
surprise guilty knowledge there--and die for the discovery. They
stared at the sheriff who stood facing them, as if expecting to see
him fall suddenly before a blast from the same unknown guns that had
mowed down his deputy.

Middleton's steely eyes ranged along the silent line of men. Their
eyes avoided or gave back his stare. In some he read fear; some were
inscrutable; in others flickered a sinister mockery.

"The men who killed Jim Grimes are in this saloon," he said
finally. "Some of you are the murderers." He was careful not to let
his eyes single out anyone when he spoke; they swept the whole
assemblage.

"I've been expecting this. Things have been getting a little too
hot for the robbers and murderers who have been terrorizing this camp,
so they've started shooting my deputies in the back. I suppose you'll
try to kill me, next. Well, I want to tell you sneaking rats, whoever
you are, that I'm ready for you, any time."

He fell silent, his rangy frame tense, his eyes burning with
watchful alertness. None moved. The men along the bar might have been
figures cut from stone.

He relaxed and shoved his gun into its scabbard; a sneer twisted
his lips.

"I know your breed. You won't shoot a man unless his back is
toward you. Forty men have been murdered in the vicinity of this camp
within the last year, and not one had a chance to defend himself.

"Maybe this killing is an ultimatum to me. All right; I've got an
answer ready: I've got a new deputy, and you won't find him so easy as
Grimes. I'm fighting fire with fire from here on. I'm riding out of
the Gulch early in the morning, and when I come back, I'll have a man
with me. A gunfighter from Texas!"

He paused to let this information sink in, and laughed grimly at
the furtive glances that darted from man to man.

"You'll find him no lamb," he predicted vindictively. "He was too
wild for the country where gun-throwing was invented. What he did down
there is none of my business. What he'll do here is what counts. And
all I ask is that the men who murdered Grimes here, try that same
trick on this Texan.

"Another thing, on my own account. I'm meeting this man at Ogalala
Spring tomorrow morning. I'll be riding out alone, at dawn. If anybody
wants to try to waylay me, let him make his plans now! I'll follow the
open trail, and anyone who has any business with me will find me
ready."

And turning his trimly-tailored back scornfully on the throng at
the bar, the sheriff of Whapeton strode from the saloon.

 * * *

Ten miles east of Whapeton a man squatted on his heels, frying
strips of deer meat over a tiny fire. The sun was just coming up. A
short distance away a rangy mustang nibbled at the wiry grass that
grew sparsely between broken rocks. The man had camped there that
night, but his saddle and blanket were hidden back in the bushes. That
fact showed him to be a man of wary nature. No one following the trail
that led past Ogalala Spring could have seen him as he slept among the
bushes. Now, in full daylight, he was making no attempt to conceal his
presence.

The man was tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, lean-hipped,
like one who had spent his life in the saddle. His unruly black hair
matched a face burned dark by the sun, but his eyes were a burning
blue. Low on either hip the black butt of a heavy Colt jutted from a
worn black leather scabbard. These guns seemed as much part of the man
as his eyes or his hands. He had worn them so constantly and so long
that their association was as natural as the use of his limbs.

As he fried his meat and watched his coffee boiling in a battered
old pot, his gaze darted continually eastward where the trail crossed
a wide open space before it vanished among the thickets of a broken
hill country. Westward the trail mounted a gentle slope and quickly
disappeared among trees and bushes that crowded up within a few yards
of the spring. But it was always eastward that the man looked.

When a rider emerged from the thickets to the east, the man at the
spring set aside the skillet with its sizzling meat strips, and picked
up his rifle--a long range Sharps .50. His eyes narrowed with
satisfaction. He did not rise, but remained on one knee, the rifle
resting negligently in his hands, the muzzle tilted upward, not aimed.

The rider came straight on, and the man at the spring watched him
from under the brim of his hat. Only when the stranger pulled up a few
yards away did the first man lift his head and give the other a full
view of his face.

The horseman was a supple youth of medium height, and his hat did
not conceal the fact that his hair was yellow and curly. His wide eyes
were ingenuous, and an infectious smile curved his lips. There was no
rifle under his knee, but an ivory-butted .45 hung low at his right
hip.

His expression as he saw the other man's face gave no hint to his
reaction, except for a slight, momentary contraction of the muscles
that control the eyes--a movement involuntary and all but
uncontrollable. Then he grinned broadly, and hailed:

"That meat smells prime, stranger!"

"Light and help me with it," invited the other instantly. "Coffee,
too, if you don't mind drinkin' out of the pot."

He laid aside the rifle as the other swung from his saddle. The
blond youngster threw his reins over the horse's head, fumbled in his
blanket roll and drew out a battered tin cup. Holding this in his
right hand he approached the fire with the rolling gait of a man born
to a horse.

"I ain't et my breakfast," he admitted. "Camped down the trail a
piece last night, and come on up here early to meet a man. Thought you
was the _hombre_ till you looked up. Kinda startled me," he added
frankly. He sat down opposite the taller man, who shoved the skillet
and coffee pot toward him. The tall man moved both these utensils with
his left hand. His right rested lightly and apparently casually on his
right thigh.

The youth filled his tin cup, drank the black, unsweetened coffee
with evident enjoyment, and filled the cup again. He picked out pieces
of the cooling meat with his fingers--and he was careful to use only
his left hand for that part of the breakfast that would leave grease
on his fingers. But he used his right hand for pouring coffee and
holding the cup to his lips. He did not seem to notice the position of
the other's right hand.

"Name's Glanton," he confided. "Billy Glanton. Texas. Guadalupe
country. Went up the trail with a herd of mossy horns, went broke
buckin' faro in Hayes City, and headed west lookin' for gold. Hell of
a prospector I turned out to be! Now I'm lookin' for a job, and the
man I was goin' to meet here said he had one for me. If I read your
marks right you're a Texan, too?"

The last sentence was more a statement than a question.

"That's my brand," grunted the other. "Name's O'Donnell. Pecos
River country, originally."

His statement, like that of Glanton's, was indefinite. Both the
Pecos and the Guadalupe cover considerable areas of territory. But
Glanton grinned boyishly and stuck out his hand.

"Shake!" he cried. "I'm glad to meet an _hombre_ from my home
state, even if our stampin' grounds down there are a right smart piece
apart!"

Their hands met and locked briefly--brown, sinewy hands that had
never worn gloves, and that gripped with the abrupt tension of steel
springs.

The handshake seemed to relax O'Donnell. When he poured out
another cup of coffee he held the cup in one hand and the pot in the
other, instead of setting the cup on the ground beside him and pouring
with his left hand.

"I've been in California," he volunteered. "Drifted back on this
side of the mountains a month ago. Been in Whapeton for the last few
weeks, but gold huntin' ain't my style. I'm a _vaquero_. Never should
have tried to be anything else. I'm headin' back for Texas."

"Why don't you try Kansas?" asked Glanton. "It's fillin' up with
Texas men, bringin' cattle up the trail to stock the ranges. Within a
year they'll be drivin' 'em into Wyoming and Montana."

"Maybe I might." O'Donnell lifted the coffee cup absently. He held
it in his left hand, and his right lay in his lap, almost touching the
big black pistol butt. But the tension was gone out of his frame. He
seemed relaxed, absorbed in what Glanton was saying. The use of his
left hand and the position of his right seemed mechanical, merely an
unconscious habit.

"It's a great country," declared Glanton, lowering his head to
conceal the momentary and uncontrollable flicker of triumph in his
eyes. "Fine ranges. Towns springin' up wherever the railroad touches.

"Everybody gettin' rich on Texas beef. Talkin' about 'cattle
kings'! Wish I could have knowed this beef boom was comin' when I was
a kid! I'd have rounded up about fifty thousand of them maverick
steers that was roamin' loose all over lower Texas, and put me a brand
on 'em, and saved 'em for the market!" He laughed at his own conceit.

"They wasn't worth six bits a head then," he added, as men in
making small talk will state a fact well known to everyone. "Now
twenty dollars a head ain't the top price."

He emptied his cup and set it on the ground near his right hip.
His easy flow of speech flowed on--but the natural movement of his
hand away from the cup turned into a blur of speed that flicked the
heavy gun from its scabbard.

Two shots roared like one long stuttering detonation.

The blond newcomer slumped sidewise, his smoking gun falling from
his fingers, a widening spot of crimson suddenly dyeing his shirt, his
wide eyes fixed in sardonic self-mockery on the gun in O'Donnell's
right hand.

"Corcoran!" he muttered. "I thought I had you fooled--you--"

Self-mocking laughter bubbled to his lips, cynical to the last; he
was laughing as he died.

The man whose real name was Corcoran rose and looked down at his
victim unemotionally. There was a hole in the side of his shirt, and a
seared spot on the skin of his ribs burned like fire. Even with his
aim spoiled by ripping lead, Glanton's bullet had passed close.

Reloading the empty chamber of his Colt, Corcoran started toward
the horse the dead man had ridden up to the spring. He had taken but
one step when a sound brought him around, the heavy Colt jumping back
into his hand.

He scowled at the man who stood before him: a tall man, trimly
built, and clad in frontier elegance.

"Don't shoot," this man said imperturbably. "I'm John Middleton,
sheriff of Whapeton Gulch."

The warning attitude of the other did not relax.

"This was a private matter," he said.

"I guessed as much. Anyway, it's none of my business. I saw two
men at the spring as I rode over a rise in the trail some distance
back. I was only expecting one. I can't afford to take any chance. I
left my horse a short distance back and came on afoot. I was watching
from the bushes and saw the whole thing. He reached for his gun first,
but you already had your hand almost on your gun. Your shot was first
by a flicker. He fooled me. His move came as an absolute surprise to
me."

"He thought it would to me," said Corcoran. "Billy Glanton always
wanted the drop on his man. He always tried to get some advantage
before he pulled his gun.

"He knew me as soon as he saw me; knew that I knew him. But he
thought he was making me think that he didn't know me. I made him
think that. He could take chances because he knew I wouldn't shoot him
down without warnin'--which is just what he figured on doin' to me.
Finally he thought he had me off my guard, and went for his gun. I was
foolin' him all along."

Middleton looked at Corcoran with much interest. He was familiar
with the two opposite breeds of gunmen. One kind was like Glanton;
utterly cynical, courageous enough when courage was necessary, but
always preferring to gain an advantage by treachery whenever possible.
Corcoran typified the opposite breed; men too direct by nature, or too
proud of their skill to resort to trickery when it was possible to
meet their enemies in the open and rely on sheer speed and nerve and
accuracy. But that Corcoran was a strategist was proved by his
tricking Glanton into drawing.

Middleton looked down at Glanton; in death the yellow curls and
boyish features gave the youthful gunman an appearance of innocence.
But Middleton knew that that mask had covered the heart of a merciless
grey wolf.

"A bad man!" he muttered, staring at the rows of niches on the
ivory stock of Glanton's Colt.

"Plenty bad," agreed Corcoran. "My folks and his had a feud
between 'em down in Texas. He came back from Kansas and killed an
uncle of mine--shot him down in cold blood. I was in California when
it happened. Got a letter a year after the feud was over. I was
headin' for Kansas, where I figured he'd gone back to, when I met a
man who told me he was in this part of the country, and was ridin'
towards Whapeton. I cut his trail and camped here last night waitin'
for him.

"It'd been years since we'd seen each other, but he knew me--
didn't know I knew he knew me, though. That gave me the edge. You're
the man he was goin' to meet here?"

"Yes. I need a gunfighting deputy bad. I'd heard of him. Sent him
word."

Middleton's gaze wandered over Corcoran's hard frame, lingering on
the guns at his hips.

"You pack two irons," remarked the sheriff. "I know what you can
do with your right. But what about the left? I've seen plenty of men
who wore two guns, but those who could use both I can count on my
fingers."

"Well?"

"Well," smiled the sheriff, "I thought maybe you'd like to show
what you can do with your left."

"Why do you think it makes any difference to me whether you
believe I can handle both guns or not?" retorted Corcoran without
heat.

Middleton seemed to like the reply.

"A tinhorn would be anxious to make me believe he could. You don't
have to prove anything to me. I've seen enough to show me that you're
the man I need. Corcoran, I came out here to hire Glanton as my
deputy. I'll make the same proposition to you. What you were down in
Texas, or out in California, makes no difference to me. I know your
breed, and I know that you'll shoot square with a man who trusts you,
regardless of what you may have been in other parts, or will be again,
somewhere else.

"I'm up against a situation in Whapeton that I can't cope with
alone, or with the forces I have.

"For a year the town and the camps up and down the gulch have been
terrorized by a gang of outlaws who call themselves the Vultures.

"That describes them perfectly. No man's life or property is safe.
Forty or fifty men have been murdered, hundreds robbed. It's next to
impossible for a man to pack out any dust, or for a big shipment of
gold to get through on the stage. So many men have been shot trying to
protect shipments that the stage company has trouble hiring guards any
more.

"Nobody knows who are the leaders of the gang. There are a number
of ruffians who are suspected of being members of the Vultures, but we
have no proof that would stand up, even in a miners' court. Nobody
dares give evidence against any of them. When a man recognizes the men
who rob him he doesn't dare reveal his knowledge. I can't get anyone
to identify a criminal, though I know that robbers and murderers are
walking the streets, and rubbing elbows with me along the bars. It's
maddening! And yet I can't blame the poor devils. Any man who dared
testify against one of them would be murdered.

"People blame me some, but I can't give adequate protection to the
camp with the resources allowed me. You know how a gold camp is;
everybody so greedy-blind they don't want to do anything but grab for
the yellow dust. My deputies are brave men, but they can't be
everywhere, and they're not gunfighters. If I arrest a man there are a
dozen to stand up in a miners' court and swear enough lies to acquit
him. Only last night they murdered one of my deputies, Jim Grimes, in
cold blood.

"I sent for Billy Glanton when I heard he was in this country,
because I need a man of more than usual skill. I need a man who can
handle a gun like a streak of forked lightning, and knows all the
tricks of trapping and killing a man. I'm tired of arresting criminals
to be turned loose! Wild Bill Hickok has the right idea--kill the
badmen and save the jails for the petty offenders!"

The Texan scowled slightly at the mention of Hickok, who was not
loved by the riders who came up the cattle trails, but he nodded
agreement with the sentiment expressed. The fact that he, himself,
would fall into Hickok's category of those to be exterminated did not
prejudice his viewpoint.

"You're a better man than Glanton," said Middleton abruptly. "The
proof is that Glanton lies there dead, and here you stand very much
alive. I'll offer you the same terms I meant to offer him."

He named a monthly salary considerably larger than that drawn by
the average Eastern city marshal. Gold was the most plentiful
commodity in Whapeton.

"And a monthly bonus," added Middleton. "When I hire talent I
expect to pay for it; so do the merchants and miners who look to me
for protection."

Corcoran meditated a moment.

"No use in me goin' on to Kansas now," he said finally. "None of
my folks in Texas are havin' any feud that I know of. I'd like to see
this Whapeton. I'll take you up."

"Good!" Middleton extended his hand and as Corcoran took it he
noticed that it was much browner than the left. No glove had covered
that hand for many years.

"Let's get it started right away! But first we'll have to dispose
of Glanton's body."

"I'll take along his gun and horse and send 'em to Texas to his
folks," said Corcoran.

"But the body?"

"Hell, the buzzards'll 'tend to it."

"No, no!" protested Middleton. "Let's cover it with bushes and
rocks, at least."

Corcoran shrugged his shoulders. It was not vindictiveness which
prompted his seeming callousness. His hatred of the blond youth did
not extend to the lifeless body of the man. It was simply that he saw
no use in going to what seemed to him an unnecessary task. He had
hated Glanton with the merciless hate of his race, which is more
enduring and more relentless than the hate of an Indian or a Spaniard.
But toward the body that was no longer animated by the personality he
had hated, he was simply indifferent. He expected some day to leave
his own corpse stretched on the ground, and the thought of buzzards
tearing at his dead flesh moved him no more than the sight of his dead
enemy. His creed was pagan and nakedly elemental.

A man's body, once life had left it, was no more than any other
carcass, moldering back into the soil which once produced it.

But he helped Middleton drag the body into an opening among the
bushes, and build a rude cairn above it. And he waited patiently while
Middleton carved the dead youth's name on a rude cross fashioned from
broken branches, and thrust upright among the stones.

Then they rode for Whapeton, Corcoran leading the riderless roan;
over the horn of the empty saddle hung the belt supporting the dead
man's gun, the ivory stock of which bore eleven notches, each of which
represented a man's life.



Chapter 2 Golden Madness



The mining town of Whapeton sprawled in a wide gulch that wandered
between sheer rock walls and steep hillsides. Cabins, saloons and
dance-halls backed against the cliffs on the south side of the gulch.
The houses facing them were almost on the bank of Whapeton Creek,
which wandered down the gulch, keeping mostly to the center. On both
sides of the creek cabins and tents straggled for a mile and a half
each way from the main body of the town. Men were washing gold dust
out of the creek, and out of its smaller tributaries which meandered
into the canyon along tortuous ravines. Some of these ravines opened
into the gulch between the houses built against the wall, and the
cabins and tents which straggled up them gave the impression that the
town had overflowed the main gulch and spilled into its tributaries.

Buildings were of logs, or of bare planks laboriously freighted
over the mountains. Squalor and draggled or gaudy elegance rubbed
elbows. An intense virility surged through the scene. What other
qualities it might have lacked, it overflowed with a superabundance of
vitality. Color, action, movement--growth and power! The atmosphere
was alive with these elements, stinging and tingling. Here there were
no delicate shadings or subtle contrasts. Life painted here in broad,
raw colors, in bold, vivid strokes. Men who came here left behind them
the delicate nuances, the cultured tranquilities of life. An empire
was being built on muscle and guts and audacity, and men dreamed
gigantically and wrought terrifically. No dream was too mad, no
enterprise too tremendous to be accomplished.

Passions ran raw and turbulent. Boot heels stamped on bare plank
floors, in the eddying dust of the street. Voices boomed, tempers
exploded in sudden outbursts of primitive violence. Shrill voices of
painted harpies mingled with the clank of gold on gambling tables,
gusty mirth and vociferous altercation along the bars where raw liquor
hissed in a steady stream down hairy, dust-caked throats. It was one
of a thousand similar panoramas of the day, when a giant empire was
bellowing in lusty infancy.

But a sinister undercurrent was apparent. Corcoran, riding by the
sheriff, was aware of this, his senses and intuitions whetted to razor
keenness by the life he led. The instincts of a gunfighter were
developed to an abnormal alertness, else he had never lived out his
first year of gunmanship. But it took no abnormally developed instinct
to tell Corcoran that hidden currents ran here, darkly and strongly.

As they threaded their way among trains of pack-mules, rumbling
wagons and swarms of men on foot which thronged the straggling street,
Corcoran was aware of many eyes following them. Talk ceased suddenly
among gesticulating groups as they recognized the sheriff, then the
eyes swung to Corcoran, searching and appraising. He did not seem to
be aware of their scrutiny.

Middleton murmured: "They know I'm bringing back a gunfighting
deputy. Some of those fellows are Vultures, though I can't prove it.
Look out for yourself."

Corcoran considered this advice too unnecessary to merit a reply.
They were riding past the King of Diamonds gambling hall at the
moment, and a group of men clustered in the doorway turned to stare at
them. One lifted a hand in greeting to the sheriff.

"Ace Brent, the biggest gambler in the gulch," murmured Middleton
as he returned the salute. Corcoran got a glimpse of a slim figure in
elegant broadcloth, a keen, inscrutable countenance, and a pair of
piercing black eyes.

Middleton did not enlarge upon his description of the man, but
rode on in silence.

They traversed the body of the town--the clusters of stores and
saloons--and passed on, halting at a cabin apart from the rest.
Between it and the town the creek swung out in a wide loop that
carried it some distance from the south wall of the gulch, and the
cabins and tents straggled after the creek. That left this particular
cabin isolated, for it was built with its back wall squarely against
the sheer cliff. There was a corral on one side, a clump of trees on
the other. Beyond the trees a narrow ravine opened into the gulch, dry
and unoccupied.

"This is my cabin," said Middleton. "That cabin back there"--he
pointed to one which they had passed, a few hundred yards back up the
road--"I use for a sheriff's office. I need only one room. You can
bunk in the back room. You can keep your horse in my corral, if you
want to. I always keep several there for my deputies. It pays to have
a fresh supply of horseflesh always on hand."

As Corcoran dismounted he glanced back at the cabin he was to
occupy. It stood close to a clump of trees, perhaps a hundred yards
from the steep wall of the gulch.

There were four men at the sheriff's cabin, one of which Middleton
introduced to Corcoran as Colonel Hopkins, formerly of Tennessee. He
was a tall, portly man with an iron grey mustache and goatee, as well
dressed as Middleton himself.

"Colonel Hopkins owns the rich Elinor A. claim, in partnership
with Dick Bisley," said Middleton; "in addition to being one of the
most prominent merchants in the Gulch."

"A great deal of good either occupation does me, when I can't get
my money out of town," retorted the colonel. "Three times my partner
and I have lost big shipments of gold on the stage. Once we sent out a
load concealed in wagons loaded with supplies supposed to be intended
for the miners at Teton Gulch. Once clear of Whapeton the drivers were
to swing back east through the mountains. But somehow the Vultures
learned of our plan; they caught the wagons fifteen miles south of
Whapeton, looted them and murdered the guards and drivers."

"The town's honeycombed with their spies," muttered Middleton.

"Of course. One doesn't know who to trust. It was being whispered
in the streets that my men had been killed and robbed, before their
bodies had been found. We know that the Vultures knew all about our
plan, that they rode straight out from Whapeton, committed that crime
and rode straight back with the gold dust. But we could do nothing. We
can't prove anything, or convict anybody."

Middleton introduced Corcoran to the three deputies, Bill McNab,
Richardson, and Stark. McNab was as tall as Corcoran and more heavily
built, hairy and muscular, with restless eyes that reflected a violent
temper. Richardson was more slender, with cold, unblinking eyes, and
Corcoran instantly classified him as the most dangerous of the three.
Stark was a burly, bearded fellow, not differing in type from hundreds
of miners. Corcoran found the appearances of these men incongruous
with their protestations of helplessness in the face of the odds
against them. They looked like hard men, well able to take care of
themselves in any situation.

Middleton, as if sensing his thoughts, said: "These men are not
afraid of the devil, and they can throw a gun as quick as the average
man, or quicker. But it's hard for a stranger to appreciate just what
we're up against here in Whapeton. If it was a matter of an open
fight, it would be different. I wouldn't need any more help. But it's
blind going, working in the dark, not knowing who to trust. I don't
dare to deputize a man unless I'm sure of his honesty. And who can be
sure of who? We know the town is full of spies. We don't know who they
are; we don't know who the leader of the Vultures is."

Hopkins' bearded chin jutted stubbornly as he said: "I still
believe that gambler, Ace Brent, is mixed up with the gang. Gamblers
have been murdered and robbed, but Brent's never been molested. What
becomes of all the dust he wins? Many of the miners, despairing of
ever getting out of the gulch with their gold, blow it all in the
saloons and gambling halls. Brent's won thousands of dollars in dust
and nuggets. So have several others. What becomes of it? It doesn't
all go back into circulation. I believe they get it out, over the
mountains. And if they do, when no one else can, that proves to my
mind that they're members of the Vultures."

"Maybe they cache it, like you and the other merchants are doing,"
suggested Middleton. "I don't know. Brent's intelligent enough to be
the chief of the Vultures. But I've never been able to get anything on
him."

"You've never been able to get anything definite on anybody,
except petty offenders," said Colonel Hopkins bluntly, as he took up
his hat. "No offense intended, John. We know what you're up against,
and we can't blame you. But it looks like, for the good of the camp,
we're going to have to take direct action."

Middleton stared after the broadcloth-clad back as it receded from
the cabin.

"'We,'" he murmured. "That means the vigilantes--or rather the men
who have been agitating a vigilante movement. I can understand their
feelings, but I consider it an unwise move. In the first place, such
an organization is itself outside the law, and would be playing into
the hands of the lawless element. Then, what's to prevent outlaws from
joining the vigilantes, and diverting it to suit their own ends?"

"Not a damned thing!" broke in McNab heatedly. "Colonel Hopkins
and his friends are hot-headed. They expect too much from us. Hell,
we're just ordinary workin' men. We do the best we can, but we ain't
gunslingers like this man Corcoran here."

Corcoran found himself mentally questioning the whole truth of
this statement; Richardson had all the earmarks of a gunman, if he had
ever seen one, and the Texan's experience in such matters ranged from
the Pacific to the Gulf.

Middleton picked up his hat. "You boys scatter out through the
camp. I'm going to take Corcoran around, when I've sworn him in and
given him his badge, and introduce him to the leading men of the camp.

"I don't want any mistake, or any chance of mistake, about his
standing. I've put you in a tight spot, Corcoran, I'll admit--boasting
about the gunfighting deputy I was going to get. But I'm confident
that you can take care of yourself."

The eyes that had followed their ride down the street focused on
the sheriff and his companion as they made their way on foot along the
straggling street with its teeming saloons and gambling halls.
Gamblers and bartenders were swamped with business, and merchants were
getting rich with all commodities selling at unheard-of prices. Wages
for day-labor matched prices for groceries, for few men could be found
to toil for a prosaic, set salary when their eyes were dazzled by
visions of creeks fat with yellow dust and gorges crammed with
nuggets. Some of those dreams were not disappointed; millions of
dollars in virgin gold was being taken out of the claims up and down
the gulch. But the finders frequently found it a golden weight hung to
their necks to drag them down to a bloody death. Unseen, unknown, on
furtive feet the human wolves stole among them, unerringly marking
their prey and striking in the dark.

From saloon to saloon, dance hall to dance hall, where weary girls
in tawdry finery allowed themselves to be tussled and hauled about by
bear-like males who emptied sacks of gold dust down the low necks of
their dresses, Middleton piloted Corcoran, talking rapidly and
incessantly. He pointed out men in the crowd and gave their names and
status in the community, and introduced the Texan to the more
important citizens of the camp.

All eyes followed Corcoran curiously. The day was still in the
future when the northern ranges would be flooded by Texas cattle,
driven by wiry Texas riders; but Texans were not unknown, even then,
in the mining camps of the Northwest. In the first days of the gold
rushes they had drifted in from the camps of California, to which, at
a still earlier date, the Southwest had sent some of her staunchest
and some of her most turbulent sons. And of late others had drifted in
from the Kansas cattle towns along whose streets the lean riders were
swaggering and fighting out feuds brought up from the far south
country. Many in Whapeton were familiar with the characteristics of
the Texas breed, and all had heard tales of the fighting men bred
among the live oaks and mesquites of that hot, turbulent country where
racial traits met and clashed, and the traditions of the Old South
mingled with those of the untamed West.

Here, then, was a lean grey wolf from that southern pack; some of
the men looked their scowling animosity; but most merely looked, in
the role of spectators, eager to witness the drama all felt imminent.

"You're, primarily, to fight the Vultures, of course," Middleton
told Corcoran as they walked together down the street. "But that
doesn't mean you're to overlook petty offenders. A lot of small-time
crooks and bullies are so emboldened by the success of the big robbers
that they think they can get away with things, too. If you see a man
shooting up a saloon, take his gun away and throw him into jail to
sober up. That's the jail, up yonder at the other end of town. Don't
let men fight on the street or in saloons. Innocent bystanders get
hurt."

"All right." Corcoran saw no harm in shooting up saloons or
fighting in public places. In Texas few innocent bystanders were ever
hurt, for there men sent their bullets straight to the mark intended.
But he was ready to follow instructions.

"So much for the smaller fry. You know what to do with the really
bad men. We're not bringing any more murderers into court to be
acquitted through their friends' lies!"



Chapter 3 Gunman's Trap



Night had fallen over the roaring madness that was Whapeton Gulch.
Light streamed from the open doors of saloons and honky-tonks, and the
gusts of noise that rushed out into the street smote the passers-by
like the impact of a physical blow.

Corcoran traversed the street with the smooth, easy stride of
perfectly poised muscles. He seemed to be looking straight ahead, but
his eyes missed nothing on either side of him. As he passed each
building in turn he analyzed the sounds that issued from the open
door, and knew just how much was rough merriment and horseplay,
recognized the elements of anger and menace when they edged some of
the voices, and accurately appraised the extent and intensity of those
emotions. A real gunfighter was not merely a man whose eye was truer,
whose muscles were quicker than other men; he was a practical
psychologist, a student of human nature, whose life depended on the
correctness of his conclusions.

It was the Golden Garter dance hall that gave him his first job as
a defender of law and order.

As he passed a startling clamor burst forth inside--strident
feminine shrieks piercing a din of coarse masculine hilarity.
Instantly he was through the door and elbowing a way through the crowd
which was clustered about the center of the room. Men cursed and
turned belligerently as they felt his elbows in their ribs, twisted
their heads to threaten him, and then gave back as they recognized the
new deputy.

Corcoran broke through into the open space the crowd ringed, and
saw two women fighting like furies. One, a tall, fine blond girl, had
bent a shrieking, biting, clawing Mexican girl back over a billiard
table, and the crowd was yelling joyful encouragement to one or the
other: "Give it to her, Glory!" "Slug her, gal!" "Hell, Conchita, bite
her!"

The brown girl heeded this last bit of advice and followed it so
energetically that Glory cried out sharply and jerked away her wrist,
which dripped blood. In the grip of the hysterical frenzy which seizes
women in such moments, she caught up a billiard ball and lifted it to
crash it down on the head of her screaming captive.

Corcoran caught that uplifted wrist, and deftly flicked the ivory
sphere from her fingers. Instantly she whirled on him like a tigress,
her yellow hair falling in disorder over her shoulders, bared by the
violence of the struggle, her eyes blazing. She lifted her hands
toward his face, her fingers working spasmodically, at which some
drunk bawled, with a shout of laughter: "Scratch his eyes out, Glory!"

Corcoran made no move to defend his features; he did not seem to
see the white fingers twitching so near his face. He was staring into
her furious face, and the candid admiration of his gaze seemed to
confuse her, even in her anger. She dropped her hands but fell back on
woman's traditional weapon--her tongue.

"You're Middleton's new deputy! I might have expected you to butt
in! Where are McNab and the rest? Drunk in some gutter? Is this the
way you catch murderers? You lawmen are all alike--better at bullying
girls than at catching outlaws!"

Corcoran stepped past her and picked up the hysterical Mexican
girl. Conchita seeing that she was more frightened than hurt, scurried
toward the back rooms, sobbing in rage and humiliation, and clutching
about her the shreds of garments her enemy's tigerish attack had left
her.

Corcoran looked again at Glory, who stood clenching and
unclenching her white fists. She was still fermenting with anger, and
furious at his intervention. No one in the crowd about them spoke; no
one laughed, but all seemed to hold their breaths as she launched into
another tirade. They knew Corcoran was a dangerous man, but they did
not know the code by which he had been reared; did not know that
Glory, or any other woman, was safe from violence at his hands,
whatever her offense.

"Why don't you call McNab?" she sneered. "Judging from the way
Middleton's deputies have been working, it will probably take three or
four of you to drag one helpless girl to jail!"

"Who said anything about takin' you to jail?" Corcoran's gaze
dwelt in fascination on her ruddy cheeks, the crimson of her full lips
in startling contrast against the whiteness of her teeth. She shook
her yellow hair back impatiently, as a spirited young animal might
shake back its flowing mane.

"You're not arresting me?" She seemed startled, thrown into
confusion by this unexpected statement.

"No. I just kept you from killin' that girl. If you'd brained her
with that billiard ball I'd have had to arrest you."

"She lied about me!" Her wide eyes flashed, and her breast heaved
again.

"That wasn't no excuse for makin' a public show of yourself," he
answered without heat. "If ladies have got to fight, they ought to do
it in private."

And so saying he turned away. A gusty exhalation of breath seemed
to escape the crowd, and the tension vanished, as they turned to the
bar. The incident was forgotten, merely a trifling episode in an
existence crowded with violent incidents. Jovial masculine voices
mingled with the shriller laughter of women, as glasses began to clink
along the bar.

Glory hesitated, drawing her torn dress together over her bosom,
then darted after Corcoran, who was moving toward the door. When she
touched his arm he whipped about as quick as a cat, a hand flashing to
a gun. She glimpsed a momentary gleam in his eyes as menacing and
predatory as the threat that leaps in a panther's eyes. Then it was
gone as he saw whose hand had touched him.

"She lied about me," Glory said, as if defending herself from a
charge of misconduct. "She's a dirty little cat."

Corcoran looked her over from head to foot, as if he had not heard
her; his blue eyes burned her like a physical fire.

She stammered in confusion. Direct and unveiled admiration was
commonplace, but there was an elemental candor about the Texan such as
she had never before encountered.

He broke in on her stammerings in a way that showed he had paid no
attention to what she was saying.

"Let me buy you a drink. There's a table over there where we can
sit down."

"No. I must go and put on another dress. I just wanted to say that
I'm glad you kept me from killing Conchita. She's a slut, but I don't
want her blood on my hands."

"All right."

She found it hard to make conversation with him, and could not
have said why she wished to make conversation.

"McNab arrested me once," she said, irrelevantly, her eyes
dilating as if at the memory of an injustice. "I slapped him for
something he said. He was going to put me in jail for resisting an
officer of the law! Middleton made him turn me loose."

"McNab must be a fool," said Corcoran slowly.

"He's mean; he's got a nasty temper, and he--what's that?"

Down the street sounded a fusillade of shots, a blurry voice
yelling gleefully.

"Some fool shooting up a saloon," she murmured, and darted a
strange glance at her companion, as if a drunk shooting into the air
was an unusual occurrence in that wild mining camp.

"Middleton said that's against the law," he grunted, turning away.

"Wait!" she cried sharply, catching at him. But he was already
moving through the door, and Glory stopped short as a hand fell
lightly on her shoulder from behind. Turning her head she paled to see
the keenly-chiseled face of Ace Brent. His hand lay gently on her
shoulder, but there was a command and a blood-chilling threat in its
touch. She shivered and stood still as a statue, as Corcoran, unaware
of the drama being played behind him, disappeared into the street.

The racket was coming from the Blackfoot Chief Saloon, a few doors
down, and on the same side of the street as the Golden Garter. With a
few long strides Corcoran reached the door. But he did not rush in. He
halted and swept his cool gaze deliberately over the interior. In the
center of the saloon a roughly dressed man was reeling about, whooping
and discharging a pistol into the ceiling, perilously close to the big
oil lamp which hung there. The bar was lined with men, all bearded and
uncouthly garbed, so it was impossible to tell which were ruffians and
which were honest miners. All the men in the room were at the bar,
with the exception of the drunken man.

Corcoran paid little heed to him as he came through the door,
though he moved straight toward him, and to the tense watchers it
seemed the Texan was looking at no one else. In reality, from the
corner of his eye he was watching the men at the bar; and as he moved
deliberately from the door, across the room, he distinguished the pose
of honest curiosity from the tension of intended murder. He saw the
three hands that gripped gun butts.

And as he, apparently ignorant of what was going on at the bar,
stepped toward the man reeling in the center of the room, a gun jumped
from its scabbard and pointed toward the lamp. And even as it moved,
Corcoran moved quicker. His turn was a blur of motion too quick for
the eye to follow and even as he turned his gun was burning red.

The man who had drawn died on his feet with his gun still pointed
toward the ceiling, unfired. Another stood gaping, stunned, a pistol
dangling in his fingers, for that fleeting tick of time; then as he
woke and whipped the gun up, hot lead ripped through his brain. A
third gun spoke once as the owner fired wildly, and then he went to
his knees under the blast of ripping lead, slumped over on the floor
and lay twitching.

It was over in a flash, action so blurred with speed that not one
of the watchers could ever tell just exactly what had happened. One
instant Corcoran had been moving toward the man in the center of the
room, the next both guns were blazing and three men were falling from
the bar, crashing dead on the floor.

For an instant the scene held, Corcoran half-crouching, guns held
at his hips, facing the men who stood stunned along the bar. Wisps of
blue smoke drifted from the muzzles of his guns, forming a misty veil
through which his grim face looked, implacable and passionless as that
of an image carved from granite. But his eyes blazed.

Shakily, moving like puppets on a string, the men at the bar
lifted their hands clear of their waistline. Death hung on the crook
of a finger for a shuddering tick of time. Then with a choking gasp
the man who had played drunk made a stumbling rush toward the door.
With a catlike wheel and stroke Corcoran crashed a gun barrel over his
head and stretched him stunned and bleeding on the floor.

The Texan was facing the men at the bar again before any of them
could have moved. He had not looked at the men on the floor since they
had fallen.

"Well, _amigos_!" His voice was soft, but it was thick with
killer's lust. "Why don't you-all keep the _baile_ goin'? Ain't these
_hombres_ got no friends?"

Apparently they had not. No one made a move.

Realizing that the crisis had passed, that there was no more
killing to be done just then, Corcoran straightened, shoving his guns
back in his scabbards.

"Purty crude," he criticized. "I don't see how anybody could fall
for a trick that stale. Man plays drunk and starts shootin' at the
roof. Officer comes in to arrest him. When the officer's back's
turned, somebody shoots out the light, and the drunk falls on the
floor to get out of the line of fire. Three or four men planted along
the bar start blazin' away in the dark at the place where they know
the law's standin', and out of eighteen or twenty-four shots, some's
bound to connect."

With a harsh laugh he stooped, grabbed the "drunk" by the collar
and hauled him upright. The man staggered and stared wildly about him,
blood dripping from the gash in his scalp.

"You got to come along to jail," said Corcoran unemotionally.
"Sheriff says it's against the law to shoot up saloons. I ought to
shoot you, but I ain't in the habit of pluggin' men with empty guns.
Reckon you'll be more value to the sheriff alive than dead, anyway."

And propelling his dizzy charge, he strode out into the street. A
crowd had gathered about the door, and they gave back suddenly. He saw
a supple, feminine figure dart into the circle of light, which
illumined the white face and golden hair of the girl Glory.

"Oh!" she exclaimed sharply. "Oh!" Her exclamation was almost
drowned in a sudden clamor of voices as the men in the street realized
what had happened in the Blackfoot Chief.

Corcoran felt her pluck at his sleeve as he passed her, heard her
tense whisper.

"I was afraid--I tried to warn you--I'm glad they didn't--"

A shadow of a smile touched his hard lips as he glanced down at
her. Then he was gone, striding down the street toward the jail, half-
pushing, half-dragging his bewildered prisoner.



Chapter 4 The Madness That Blinds Men



Corcoran locked the door on the man who seemed utterly unable to
realize just what had happened, and turned away, heading for the
sheriff's office at the other end of town. He kicked on the door of
the jailer's shack, a few yards from the jail, and roused that
individual out of a slumber he believed was alcoholic, and informed
him he had a prisoner in his care. The jailer seemed as surprised as
the victim was.

No one had followed Corcoran to the jail, and the street was
almost deserted, as the people jammed morbidly into the Blackfoot
Chief to stare at the bodies and listen to conflicting stories as to
just what had happened.

Colonel Hopkins came running up, breathlessly, to grab Corcoran's
hand and pump it vigorously.

"By gad, sir, you have the real spirit! Guts! Speed! They tell me
the loafers at the bar didn't even have time to dive for cover before
it was over! I'll admit I'd ceased to expect much of John's deputies,
but you've shown your metal! These fellows were undoubtedly Vultures.
That Tom Deal, you've got in jail, I've suspected him for some time.
We'll question him--make him tell us who the rest are, and who their
leader is. Come in and have a drink, sir!"

"Thanks, but not just now. I'm goin' to find Middleton and report
this business. His office ought to be closer to the jail. I don't
think much of his jailer. When I get through reportin' I'm goin' back
and guard that fellow myself."

Hopkins emitted more laudations, and then clapped the Texan on the
back and darted away to take part in whatever informal inquest was
being made, and Corcoran strode on through the emptying street. The
fact that so much uproar was being made over the killing of three
would-be murderers showed him how rare was a successful resistance to
the Vultures. He shrugged his shoulders as he remembered feuds and
range wars in his native Southwest: men falling like flies under the
unerring drive of bullets on the open range and in the streets of
Texas towns. But there all men were frontiersmen, sons and grandsons
of frontiersmen; here, in the mining camps, the frontier element was
only one of several elements, many drawn from sections where men had
forgotten how to defend themselves through generations of law and
order.

He saw a light spring up in the sheriff's cabin just before he
reached it, and, with his mind on possible gunmen lurking in ambush--
for they must have known he would go directly to the cabin from the
jail--he swung about and approached the building by a route that would
not take him across the bar of light pouring from the window. So it
was that the man who came running noisily down the road passed him
without seeing the Texan as he kept in the shadows of the cliff. The
man was McNab; Corcoran knew him by his powerful build, his slouching
carriage. And as he burst through the door, his face was illuminated
and Corcoran was amazed to see it contorted in a grimace of passion.

Voices rose inside the cabin, McNab's bull-like roar, thick with
fury, and the calmer tones of Middleton. Corcoran hurried forward, and
as he approached he heard McNab roar: "Damn you, Middleton, you've got
a lot of explainin' to do! Why didn't you warn the boys he was a
killer?"

At that moment Corcoran stepped into the cabin and demanded:
"What's the trouble, McNab?"

The big deputy whirled with a feline snarl of rage, his eyes
glaring with murderous madness as they recognized Corcoran.

"You damned--" A string of filthy expletives gushed from his thick
lips as he ripped out his gun. Its muzzle had scarcely cleared leather
when a Colt banged in Corcoran's right hand. McNab's gun clattered to
the floor and he staggered back, grasping his right arm with his left
hand, and cursing like a madman.

"What's the matter with you, you fool?" demanded Corcoran harshly.
"Shut up! I did you a favor by not killin' you. If you wasn't a deputy
I'd have drilled you through the head. But I will anyway, if you don't
shut your dirty trap."

"You killed Breckman, Red Bill and Curly!" raved McNab; he looked
like a wounded grizzly as he swayed there, blood trickling down his
wrist and dripping off his fingers.

"Was that their names? Well, what about it?"

"Bill's drunk, Corcoran," interposed Middleton. "He goes crazy
when he's full of liquor."

McNab's roar of fury shook the cabin. His eyes turned red and he
swayed on his feet as if about to plunge at Middleton's throat.

"Drunk?" he bellowed. "You lie, Middleton! Damn you, what's your
game? You sent your own men to death! Without warnin'!"

"His own men?" Corcoran's eyes were suddenly glittering slits. He
stepped back and made a half-turn so that he was facing both men; his
hands became claws hovering over his gun-butts.

"Yes, his men!" snarled McNab. "You fool, _he's_ the chief of the
Vultures!"

An electric silence gripped the cabin. Middleton stood rigid, his
empty hands hanging limp, knowing that his life hung on a thread no
more substantial than a filament of morning dew. If he moved, if, when
he spoke, his tone jarred on Corcoran's suspicious ears, guns would be
roaring before a man could snap his fingers.

"Is that so?" Corcoran shot at him.

"Yes," Middleton said calmly, with no inflection in his voice that
could be taken as a threat. "I'm chief of the Vultures."

Corcoran glared at him puzzled. "What's your game?" he demanded,
his tone thick with the deadly instinct of his breed.

"That's what I want to know!" bawled McNab. "We killed Grimes for
you, because he was catchin' on to things. And we set the same trap
for this devil. He knew! He must have known! You warned him--told him
all about it!"

"He told me nothin'," grated Corcoran. "He didn't have to. Nobody
but a fool would have been caught in a trap like that. Middleton,
before I blow you to Hell, I want to know one thing: what good was it
goin' to do you to bring me into Whapeton, and have me killed the
first night I was here?"

"I didn't bring you here for that," answered Middleton.

"Then what'd you bring him here for?" yelled McNab. "You told us--
"

"I told you I was bringing a new deputy here, that was a
gunslinging fool," broke in Middleton. "That was the truth. That
should have been warning enough."

"But we thought that was just talk, to fool the people," protested
McNab bewilderedly. He sensed that he was beginning to be wound in a
web he could not break.

"Did I tell you it was just talk?"

"No, but we thought--"

"I gave you no reason to think anything. The night when Grimes was
killed I told everyone in the Golden Eagle that I was bringing in a
Texas gunfighter as my deputy. I spoke the truth."

"But you wanted him killed, and--"

"I didn't. I didn't say a word about having him killed."

"But--"

"Did I?" Middleton pursued relentlessly. "Did I give you a
definite order to kill Corcoran, to molest him in any way?"

Corcoran's eyes were molten steel, burning into McNab's soul. The
befuddled giant scowled and floundered, vaguely realizing that he was
being put in the wrong, but not understanding how, or why.

"No, you didn't tell us to kill him in so many words; but you
didn't tell us to let him alone."

"Do I have to tell you to let people alone to keep you from
killing them? There are about three thousand people in this camp I've
never given any definite orders about. Are you going out and kill
them, and say you thought I meant you to do it, because I didn't tell
you not to?"

"Well, I--" McNab began apologetically, then burst out in
righteous though bewildered wrath: "Damn it, it was the understandin'
that we'd get rid of deputies like that, who wasn't on the inside. We
thought you were bringin' in an honest deputy to fool the folks, just
like you hired Jim Grimes to fool 'em. We thought you was just makin'
a talk to the fools in the Golden Eagle. We thought you'd want him out
of the way as quick as possible--"

"You drew your own conclusions and acted without my orders,"
snapped Middleton. "That's all that it amounts to. Naturally Corcoran
defended himself. If I'd had any idea that you fools would try to
murder him, I'd have passed the word to let him alone. I thought you
understood my motives. I brought Corcoran in here to fool the people;
yes. But he's not a man like Jim Grimes. Corcoran is with us. He'll
clean out the thieves that are working outside our gang, and we'll
accomplish two things with one stroke: get rid of competition and make
the miners think we're on the level."

McNab stood glaring at Middleton; three times he opened his mouth,
and each time he shut it without speaking. He knew that an injustice
had been done him; that a responsibility that was not rightfully his
had been dumped on his brawny shoulders. But the subtle play of
Middleton's wits was beyond him; he did not know how to defend himself
or make a countercharge.

"All right," he snarled. "We'll forget it. But the boys ain't
goin' to forget how Corcoran shot down their pards. I'll talk to 'em,
though. Tom Deal's got to be out of that jail before daylight. Hopkins
is aimin' to question him about the gang. I'll stage a fake jailbreak
for him. But first I've got to get this arm dressed." And he slouched
out of the cabin and away through the darkness, a baffled giant,
burning with murderous rage, but too tangled in a net of subtlety to
know where or how or who to smite.

Back in the cabin Middleton faced Corcoran who still stood with
his thumbs hooked in his belt, his fingers near his gun butts. A
whimsical smile played on Middleton's thin lips, and Corcoran smiled
back; but it was the mirthless grin of a crouching panther.

"You can't tangle me up with words like you did that big ox,"
Corcoran said. "You let me walk into that trap. You knew your men were
ribbin' it up. You let 'em go ahead, when a word from you would have
stopped it. You knew they'd think you wanted me killed, like Grimes,
if you didn't say nothin'. You let 'em think that, but you played safe
by not givin' any definite orders, so if anything went wrong, you
could step out from under and shift the blame onto McNab."

Middleton smiled appreciatively, and nodded coolly.

"That's right. All of it. You're no fool, Corcoran."

Corcoran ripped out an oath, and this glimpse of the passionate
nature that lurked under his inscrutable exterior was like a momentary
glimpse of an enraged cougar, eyes blazing, spitting and snarling.

"Why?" he exclaimed. "Why did you plot all this for me? If you had
a grudge against Glanton, I can understand why you'd rib up a trap for
him, though you wouldn't have had no more luck with him than you have
with me. But you ain't got no feud against me. I never saw you before
this mornin'!"

"I have no feud with you; I had none with Glanton. But if Fate
hadn't thrown you into my path, it would have been Glanton who would
have been ambushed in the Blackfoot Chief. Don't you see, Corcoran? It
was a test. I had to be sure you were the man I wanted."

Corcoran scowled, puzzled himself now.

"What do you mean?"

"Sit down!" Middleton himself sat down on a nearby chair,
unbuckled his gun-belt and threw it, with the heavy, holstered gun,
onto a table, out of easy reach. Corcoran seated himself, but his
vigilance did not relax, and his gaze rested on Middleton's left arm
pit, where a second gun might be hidden.

"In the first place," said Middleton, his voice flowing
tranquilly, but pitched too low to be heard outside the cabin, "I'm
chief of the Vultures, as that fool said. I organized them, even
before I was made sheriff. Killing a robber and murderer, who was
working outside my gang, made the people of Whapeton think I'd make a
good sheriff. When they gave me the office, I saw what an advantage it
would be to me and my gang.

"Our organization is airtight. There are about fifty men in the
gang. They are scattered throughout these mountains. Some pose as
miners; some are gamblers--Ace Brent, for instance. He's my right-hand
man. Some work in saloons, some clerk in stores. One of the regular
drivers of the stage-line company is a Vulture, and so is a clerk of
the company, and one of the men who works in the company's stables,
tending the horses.

"With spies scattered all over the camp, I know who's trying to
take out gold, and when. It's a cinch. We can't lose."

"I don't see how the camp stands for it," grunted Corcoran.

"Men are too crazy after gold to think about anything else. As
long as a man isn't molested himself, he doesn't care much what
happens to his neighbors. We are organized; they are not. We know who
to trust; they don't. It can't last forever. Sooner or later the more
intelligent citizens will organize themselves into a vigilante
committee and sweep the gulch clean. But when that happens, I intend
to be far away--with one man I can trust."

Corcoran nodded, comprehension beginning to gleam in his eyes.

"Already some men are talking vigilante. Colonel Hopkins, for
instance. I encourage him as subtly as I can."

"Why, in the name of Satan?"

"To avert suspicion; and for another reason. The vigilantes will
serve my purpose at the end."

"And your purpose is to skip out and leave the gang holdin' the
sack!"

"Exactly! Look here!"

Taking the candle from the table, he led the way through a back
room, where heavy shutters covered the one window. Shutting the door,
he turned to the back wall and drew aside some skins which were hung
over it. Setting the candle on a roughly hewed table, he fumbled at
the logs, and a section swung outward, revealing a heavy plank door
set in the solid rock against which the back wall of the cabin was
built. It was braced with iron and showed a ponderous lock. Middleton
produced a key, and turned it in the lock, and pushed the door inward.
He lifted the candle and revealed a small cave, lined and heaped with
canvas and buckskin sacks. One of these sacks had burst open, and a
golden stream caught the glints of the candle.

"Gold! Sacks and sacks of it!"

Corcoran caught his breath, and his eyes glittered like a wolf's
in the candlelight. No man could visualize the contents of those bags
unmoved. And the gold-madness had long ago entered Corcoran's veins,
more powerfully than he had dreamed, even though he had followed the
lure to California and back over the mountains again. The sight of
that glittering heap, of those bulging sacks, sent his pulses pounding
in his temples, and his hand unconsciously locked on the butt of a
gun.

"There must be a million there!"

"Enough to require a good-sized mule-train to pack it out,"
answered Middleton. "You see why I have to have a man to help me the
night I pull out. And I need a man like you. You're an outdoor man,
hardened by wilderness travel. You're a frontiersman, a _vaquero_, a
trail-driver. These men I lead are mostly rats that grew up in border
towns--gamblers, thieves, barroom gladiators, saloon-bred gunmen; a
few miners gone wrong. You can stand things that would kill any of
them.

"The flight we'll have to make will be hard traveling. We'll have
to leave the beaten trails and strike out through the mountains.
They'll be sure to follow us, and we'll probably have to fight them
off. Then there are Indians--Blackfeet and Crows; we may run into a
war party of them. I knew I had to have a fighting man of the keenest
type; not only a fighting man, but a man bred on the frontier. That's
why I sent for Glanton. But you're a better man than he was."

Corcoran frowned his suspicion.

"Why didn't you tell me all this at first?"

"Because I wanted to try you out. I wanted to be sure you were the
right man. I had to be sure. If you were stupid enough, and slow
enough to be caught in such a trap as McNab and the rest would set for
you, you weren't the man I wanted."

"You're takin' a lot for granted," snapped Corcoran. "How do you
know I'll fall in with you and help you loot the camp and then double-
cross your gang? What's to prevent me from blowin' your head off for
the trick you played on me? Or spillin' the beans to Hopkins, or to
McNab?"

"Half a million in gold!" answered Middleton. "If you do any of
those things, you'll miss your chance to share that cache with me."

He shut the door, locked it, pushed the other door to and hung the
skins over it. Taking the candle he led the way back into the outer
room.

He seated himself at the table and poured whisky from a jug into
two glasses.

"Well, what about it?"

Corcoran did not at once reply. His brain was still filled with
blinding golden visions. His countenance darkened, became sinister as
he meditated, staring into his whisky glass.

The men of the West lived by their own code. The line between the
outlaw and the honest cattleman or _vaquero_ was sometimes a hair
line, too vague to always be traced with accuracy. Men's personal
codes were frequently inconsistent, but rigid as iron. Corcoran would
not have stolen one cow, or three cows from a squatter, but he had
swept across the border to loot Mexican _rancherios_ of hundreds of
head. He would not hold up a man and take his money, nor would he
murder a man in cold blood; but he felt no compunctions about killing
a thief and taking the money the thief had stolen. The gold in that
cache was bloodstained, the fruit of crimes to which he would have
scorned to stoop. But his code of honesty did not prevent him from
looting it from the thieves who had looted it in turn from honest men.

"What's my part in the game?" Corcoran asked abruptly.

Middleton grinned zestfully.

"Good! I thought you'd see it my way. No man could look at that
gold and refuse a share of it! They trust me more than they do any
other member of the gang. That's why I keep it here. They know--or
think they know--that I couldn't slip out with it. But that's where
we'll fool them.

"Your job will be just what I told McNab: you'll uphold law and
order. I'll tell the boys not to pull any more holdups inside the town
itself, and that'll give you a reputation. People will think you've
got the gang too scared to work in close. You'll enforce laws like
those against shooting up saloons, fighting on the street, and the
like. And you'll catch the thieves that are still working alone. When
you kill one we'll make it appear that he was a Vulture. You've put
yourself solid with the people tonight, by killing those fools in the
Blackfoot Chief. We'll keep up the deception.

"I don't trust Ace Brent. I believe he's secretly trying to usurp
my place as chief of the gang. He's too damned smart. But I don't want
you to kill him. He has too many friends in the gang. Even if they
didn't suspect I put you up to it, even if it looked like a private
quarrel, they'd want your scalp. I'll frame him--get somebody outside
the gang to kill him, when the time comes.

"When we get ready to skip, I'll set the vigilantes and the
Vultures to battling each other--how, I don't know, but I'll find a
way--and we'll sneak while they're at it. Then for California--South
America and the sharing of the gold!"

"The sharin' of the gold!" echoed Corcoran, his eyes lit with grim
laughter.

Their hard hands met across the rough table, and the same
enigmatic smile played on the lips of both men.



Chapter 5 The Wheel Begins to Turn



Corcoran stalked through the milling crowd that swarmed in the
street, and headed toward the Golden Garter Dance Hall and Saloon. A
man lurching through the door with the wide swing of hilarious
intoxication stumbled into him and clutched at him to keep from
falling to the floor.

Corcoran righted him, smiling faintly into the bearded, rubicund
countenance that peered into his.

"Steve Corcoran, by thunder!" whooped the inebriated one
gleefully. "Besh damn' deputy in the Territory! 'S' a honor to get
picked up by Steve Corcoran! Come in and have a drink."

"You've had too many now," returned Corcoran.

"Right!" agreed the other. "I'm goin' home now, 'f I can get
there. Lasht time I was a little full, I didn't make it, by a quarter
of a mile! I went to sleep in a ditch across from your shack. I'd 'a'
come in and slept on the floor, only I was 'fraid you'd shoot me for
one of them derned Vultures!"

Men about them laughed. The intoxicated man was Joe Willoughby, a
prominent merchant in Whapeton, and extremely popular for his free-
hearted and open-handed ways.

"Just knock on the door next time and tell me who it is," grinned
Corcoran. "You're welcome to a blanket in the sheriff's office, or a
bunk in my room, any time you need it."

"Soul of gener--generoshity!" proclaimed Willoughby boisterously.
"Goin' home now before the licker gets down in my legs. S'long, old
pard!"

He weaved away down the street, amidst the jovial joshings of the
miners, to which he retorted with bibulous good nature.

Corcoran turned again into the dance hall and brushed against
another man, at whom he glanced sharply, noting the set jaw, the
haggard countenance and the bloodshot eyes. This man, a young miner
well known to Corcoran, pushed his way through the crowd and hurried
up the street with the manner of a man who goes with a definite
purpose. Corcoran hesitated, as though to follow him, then decided
against it and entered the dance hall. Half the reason for a
gunfighter's continued existence lay in his ability to read and
analyze the expressions men wore, to correctly interpret the jut of
jaw, the glitter of eye. He knew this young miner was determined on
some course of action that might result in violence. But the man was
not a criminal, and Corcoran never interfered in private quarrels so
long as they did not threaten the public safety.

A girl was singing, in a clear, melodious voice, to the
accompaniment of a jangling, banging piano. As Corcoran seated himself
at a table, with his back to the wall and a clear view of the whole
hall before him, she concluded her number amid a boisterous clamor of
applause. Her face lit as she saw him. Coming lightly across the hall,
she sat down at his table. She rested her elbows on the table, cupped
her chin in her hands, and fixed her wide clear gaze on his brown
face.

"Shot any Vultures today, Steve?"

He made no answer as he lifted the glass of beer brought him by a
waiter.

"They must be scared of you," she continued, and something of
youthful hero-worship glowed in her eyes. "There hasn't been a murder
or holdup in town for the past month, since you've been here. Of
course you can't be everywhere. They still kill men and rob them in
the camps up the ravines, but they keep out of town.

"And that time you took the stage through to Yankton! It wasn't
your fault that they held it up and got the gold on the other side of
Yankton. You weren't in it, then. I wish I'd been there and seen the
fight, when you fought off the men who tried to hold you up, halfway
between here and Yankton."

"There wasn't any fight to it," he said impatiently, restless
under praise he knew he did not deserve.

"I know; they were afraid of you. You shot at them and they ran."

Very true; it had been Middleton's idea for Corcoran to take the
stage through to the next town east, and beat off a fake attempt at
holdup. Corcoran had never relished the memory; whatever his faults,
he had the pride of his profession; a fake gunfight was as repugnant
to him as a business hoax to an honest business man.

"Everybody knows that the stage company tried to hire you away
from Middleton, as a regular shotgun-guard. But you told them that
your business was to protect life and property here in Whapeton."

She meditated a moment and then laughed reminiscently.

"You know, when you pulled me off of Conchita that night, I
thought you were just another blustering bully like McNab. I was
beginning to believe that Middleton was taking pay from the Vultures,
and that his deputies were crooked. I know things that some people
don't." Her eyes became shadowed as if by an unpleasant memory in
which, though her companion could not know it, was limned the
handsome, sinister face of Ace Brent. "Or maybe people do. Maybe they
guess things, but are afraid to say anything.

"But I was mistaken about you, and since you're square, then
Middleton must be, too. I guess it was just too big a job for him and
his other deputies. None of them could have wiped out that gang in the
Blackfoot Chief that night like you did. It wasn't your fault that Tom
Deal got away that night, before he could be questioned. If he hadn't
though, maybe you could have made him tell who the other Vultures
were."

"I met Jack McBride comin' out of here," said Corcoran abruptly.
"He looked like he was about ready to start gunnin' for somebody. Did
he drink much in here?"

"Not much. I know what's the matter with him. He's been gambling
too much down at the King of Diamonds. Ace Brent has been winning his
money for a week. McBride's nearly broke, and I believe he thinks
Brent is crooked. He came in here, drank some whisky, and let fall a
remark about having a showdown with Brent."

Corcoran rose abruptly. "Reckon I better drift down towards the
King of Diamonds. Somethin' may bust loose there. McBride's quick with
a gun, and high tempered. Brent's deadly. Their private business is
none of my affair. But if they want to fight it out, they'll have to
get out where innocent people won't get hit by stray slugs."

Glory Bland watched him as his tall, erect figure swung out of the
door, and there was a glow in her eyes that had never been awakened
there by any other man.

Corcoran had almost reached the King of Diamonds gambling hall,
when the ordinary noises of the street were split by the crash of a
heavy gun. Simultaneously men came headlong out of the doors,
shouting, shoving, plunging in their haste.

"McBride's killed!" bawled a hairy miner.

"No, it's Brent!" yelped another. The crowd surged and milled,
craning their necks to see through the windows, yet crowding back from
the door in fear of stray bullets. As Corcoran made for the door he
heard a man bawl in answer to an eager question: "McBride accused
Brent of usin' marked cards, and offered to prove it to the crowd.
Brent said he'd kill him and pulled his gun to do it. But it snapped.
I heard the hammer click. Then McBride drilled him before he could try
again."

Men gave way as Corcoran pushed through the crowd. Somebody
yelped: "Look out, Steve! McBride's on the warpath!"

Corcoran stepped into the gambling hall, which was deserted except
for the gambler who lay dead on the floor, with a bullet-hole over his
heart, and the killer who half-crouched with his back to the bar, and
a smoking gun lifted in his hand.

McBride's lips were twisted hard in a snarl, and he looked like a
wolf at bay.

"Get back, Corcoran," he warned. "I ain't got nothin' against you,
but I ain't goin' to be murdered like a sheep."

"Who said anything about murderin' you?" demanded Corcoran
impatiently.

"Oh, I know you wouldn't. But Brent's got friends. They'll never
let me get away with killin' him. I believe he was a Vulture. I
believe the Vultures will be after me for this. But if they get me,
they've got to get me fightin'."

"Nobody's goin' to hurt you," said Corcoran tranquilly. "You
better give me your gun and come along. I'll have to arrest you, but
it won't amount to nothin', and you ought to know it. As soon as a
miners' court can be got together, you'll be tried and acquitted. It
was a plain case of self-defense. I reckon no honest folks will do any
grievin' for Ace Brent."

"But if I give up my gun and go to jail," objected McBride,
wavering, "I'm afraid the toughs will take me out and lynch me."

"I'm givin' you my word you won't be harmed while you're under
arrest," answered Corcoran.

"That's enough for me," said McBride promptly, extending his
pistol.

Corcoran took it and thrust it into his waistband. "It's damned
foolishness, takin' an honest man's gun," he grunted. "But accordin'
to Middleton that's the law. Give me your word that you won't skip,
till you've been properly acquitted, and I won't lock you up."

"I'd rather go to jail," said McBride. "I wouldn't skip. But I'll
be safer in jail, with you guardin' me, than I would be walkin' around
loose for some of Brent's friends to shoot me in the back. After I've
been cleared by due process of law, they won't dare to lynch me, and I
ain't afraid of 'em when it comes to gunfightin', in the open."

"All right." Corcoran stooped and picked up the dead gambler's
gun, and thrust it into his belt. The crowd surging about the door
gave way as he led his prisoner out.

"There the skunk is!" bawled a rough voice. "He murdered Ace
Brent!"

McBride turned pale with anger and glared into the crowd, but
Corcoran urged him along, and the miner grinned as other voices rose:
"A damned good thing, too!" "Brent was crooked!" "He was a Vulture!"
bawled somebody, and for a space a tense silence held. That charge was
too sinister to bring openly against even a dead man. Frightened by
his own indiscretion the man who had shouted slunk away, hoping none
had identified his voice.

"I've been gamblin' too much," growled McBride, as he strode along
beside Corcoran. "Afraid to try to take my gold out, though, and
didn't know what else to do with it. Brent won thousands of dollars
worth of dust from me; poker, mostly.

"This mornin' I was talkin' to Middleton, and he showed a card he
said a gambler dropped in his cabin last night. He showed me it was
marked, in a way I'd never have suspected. I recognized it as one of
the same brand Brent always uses, though Middleton wouldn't tell me
who the gambler was. But later I learned that Brent slept off a drunk
in Middleton's cabin. Damned poor business for a gambler to get drunk.

"I went to the King of Diamonds awhile ago, and started playin'
poker with Brent and a couple of miners. As soon as he raked in the
first pot, I called him--flashed the card I got from Middleton and
started to show the boys where it was marked. Then Brent pulled his
gun; it snapped, and I killed him before he could cock it again. He
knew I had the goods on him. He didn't even give me time to tell where
I'd gotten the card."

Corcoran made no reply. He locked McBride in the jail, called the
jailer from his nearby shack and told him to furnish the prisoner with
food, liquor and anything else he needed, and then hurried to his own
cabin. Sitting on his bunk in the room behind the sheriff's office, he
ejected the cartridge on which Brent's pistol had snapped. The cap was
dented, but had not detonated the powder. Looking closely he saw faint
abrasions on both the bullet and brass case. They were such as might
have been made by the jaws of iron pinchers and a vise.

Securing a wire-cutter with pincher jaws, he began to work at the
bullet. It slipped out with unusual ease, and the contents of the case
spilled into his hand. He did not need to use a match to prove that it
was not powder. He knew what the stuff was at first glance--iron
filings, to give the proper weight to the cartridge from which the
powder had been removed.

At that moment he heard someone enter the outer room, and
recognized the firm, easy tread of Sheriff Middleton. Corcoran went
into the office and Middleton turned, hung his white hat on a nail.

"McNab tells me McBride killed Ace Brent!"

"You ought to know!" Corcoran grinned. He tossed the bullet and
empty case on the table, dumped the tiny pile of iron dust beside
them.

"Brent spent the night with you. You got him drunk, and stole one
of his cards to show to McBride. You knew how his cards were marked.
You took a cartridge out of Brent's gun and put that one in place. One
would be enough. You knew there'd be gunplay between him and McBride,
when you showed McBride that marked card, and you wanted to be sure it
was Brent who stopped lead."

"That's right," agreed Middleton. "I haven't seen you since early
yesterday morning. I was going to tell you about the frame I'd ribbed,
as soon as I saw you. I didn't know McBride would go after Brent as
quickly as he did.

"Brent got too ambitious. He acted as if he were suspicious of us
both, lately. Maybe, though, it was just jealousy as far as you were
concerned. He liked Glory Bland, and she could never see him. It
gouged him to see her falling for you.

"And he wanted my place as leader of the Vultures. If there was
one man in the gang that could have kept us from skipping with the
loot, it was Ace Brent.

"But I think I've worked it neatly. No one can accuse me of having
him murdered, because McBride isn't in the gang. I have no control
over him. But Brent's friends will want revenge."

"A miners' court will acquit McBride on the first ballot."

"That's true. Maybe we'd better let him get shot, trying to
escape!"

"We will like hell!" rapped Corcoran. "I swore he wouldn't be
harmed while he was under arrest. His part of the deal was on the
level. He didn't know Brent had a blank in his gun, any more than
Brent did. If Brent's friends want his scalp, let 'em go after
McBride, like white men ought to, when he's in a position to defend
himself."

"But after he's acquitted," argued Middleton, "they won't dare
gang up on him in the street, and he'll be too sharp to give them a
chance at him in the hills."

"What the hell do I care?" snarled Corcoran. "What difference does
it make to me whether Brent's friends get even or not? Far as I'm
concerned, he got what was comin' to him. If they ain't got the guts
to give McBride an even break, I sure ain't goin' to fix it so they
can murder him without riskin' their own hides. If I catch 'em
sneakin' around the jail for a shot at him, I'll fill 'em full of hot
lead.

"If I'd thought the miners would be crazy enough to do anything to
him for killin' Brent, I'd never arrested him. They won't. They'll
acquit him. Until they do, I'm responsible for him, and I've give my
word. And anybody that tries to lynch him while he's in my charge
better be damned sure they're quicker with a gun than I am."

"There's nobody of that nature in Whapeton," admitted Middleton
with a wry smile. "All right, if you feel your personal honor is
involved. But I'll have to find a way to placate Brent's friends, or
they'll be accusing me of being indifferent about what happened to
him."



Chapter 6 Vultures' Court



Next morning Corcoran was awakened by a wild shouting in the
street. He had slept in the jail that night, not trusting Brent's
friends, but there had been no attempt at violence. He jerked on his
boots, and went out into the street, followed by McBride, to learn
what the shouting was about.

Men milled about in the street, even at that early hour--for the
sun was not yet up--surging about a man in the garb of a miner. This
man was astride a horse whose coat was dark with sweat; the man was
wild eyed, bareheaded, and he held his hat in his hands, holding it
down for the shouting, cursing throng to see.

"Look at 'em!" he yelled. "Nuggets as big as hen eggs! I took 'em
out in an hour, with a pick, diggin' in the wet sand by the creek! And
there's plenty more! It's the richest strike these hills ever seen!"

"Where?" roared a hundred voices.

"Well, I got my claim staked out, all I need," said the man, "so I
don't mind tellin' you. It ain't twenty miles from here, in a little
canyon everybody's overlooked and passed over--Jackrabbit Gorge! The
creek's buttered with dust, and the banks are crammed with pockets of
nuggets!"

An exuberant whoop greeted this information, and the crowd broke
up suddenly as men raced for their shacks.

"New strike," sighed McBride enviously. "The whole town will be
surgin' down Jackrabbit Gorge. Wish I could go."

"Gimme your word you'll come back and stand trial, and you can
go," promptly offered Corcoran. McBride stubbornly shook his head.

"No, not till I've been cleared legally. Anyway, only a handful of
men will get anything. The rest will be pullin' back into their claims
in Whapeton Gulch tomorrow. Hell, I've been in plenty of them rushes.
Only a few ever get anything."

Colonel Hopkins and his partner Dick Bisley hurried past. Hopkins
shouted: "We'll have to postpone your trial until this rush is over,
Jack! We were going to hold it today, but in an hour there won't be
enough men in Whapeton to impanel a jury! Sorry you can't make the
rush. If we can, Dick and I will stake out a claim for you!"

"Thanks, Colonel!"

"No thanks! The camp owes you something for ridding it of that
scoundrel Brent. Corcoran, we'll do the same for you, if you like."

"No, thanks," drawled Corcoran. "Minin's too hard work. I've got a
gold mine right here in Whapeton that don't take so much labor!"

The men burst into laughter at this conceit, and Bisley shouted
back as they hurried on: "That's right! Your salary looks like an
assay from the Comstock lode! But you earn it, all right!"

Joe Willoughby came rolling by, leading a seedy-looking burro on
which illy-hung pick and shovel banged against skillet and kettle.
Willoughby grasped a jug in one hand, and that he had already been
sampling it was proved by his wide-legged gait.

"H'ray for the new diggin's!" he whooped, brandishing the jug at
Corcoran and McBride. "Git along, jackass! I'll be scoopin' out
nuggets bigger'n this jug before night--if the licker don't git in my
legs before I git there!"

"And if it does, he'll fall into a ravine and wake up in the
mornin' with a fifty pound nugget in each hand," said McBride. "He's
the luckiest son of a gun in the camp; and the best natured."

"I'm goin' and get some ham-and-eggs," said Corcoran. "You want to
come and eat with me, or let Pete Daley fix your breakfast here?"

"I'll eat in the jail," decided McBride. "I want to stay in jail
till I'm acquitted. Then nobody can accuse me of tryin' to beat the
law in any way."

"All right." With a shout to the jailer, Corcoran swung across the
road and headed for the camp's most pretentious restaurant, whose
proprietor was growing rich, in spite of the terrific prices he had to
pay for vegetables and food of all kinds--prices he passed on to his
customers.

While Corcoran was eating, Middleton entered hurriedly, and
bending over him, with a hand on his shoulder, spoke softly in his
ear.

"I've just got wind that that old miner, Joe Brockman, is trying
to sneak his gold out on a pack mule, under the pretense of making
this rush. I don't know whether it's so or not, but some of the boys
up in the hills think it is, and are planning to waylay him and kill
him. If he intends getting away, he'll leave the trail to Jackrabbit
Gorge a few miles out of town, and swing back toward Yankton, taking
the trail over Grizzly Ridge--you know where the thickets are so
close. The boys will be laying for him either on the ridge or just
beyond.

"He hasn't enough dust to make it worth our while to take it. If
they hold him up they'll have to kill him, and we want as few murders
as possible. Vigilante sentiment is growing, in spite of the people's
trust in you and me. Get on your horse and ride to Grizzly Ridge and
see that the old man gets away safe. Tell the boys Middleton said to
lay off. If they won't listen--but they will. They wouldn't buck you,
even without my word to back you. I'll follow the old man, and try to
catch up with him before he leaves the Jackrabbit Gorge road.

"I've sent McNab up to watch the jail, just as a formality. I know
McBride won't try to escape, but we mustn't be accused of
carelessness."

"Let McNab be mighty careful with his shootin' irons," warned
Corcoran. "No 'shot while attemptin' to escape', Middleton. I don't
trust McNab. If he lays a hand on McBride, I'll kill him as sure as
I'm sittin' here."

"Don't worry. McNab hated Brent. Better get going. Take the short
cut through the hills to Grizzly Ridge."

"Sure." Corcoran rose and hurried out in the street which was all
but deserted. Far down toward the other end of the gulch rose the dust
of the rearguard of the army which was surging toward the new strike.
Whapeton looked almost like a deserted town in the early morning
light, foreshadowing its ultimate destiny.

Corcoran went to the corral beside the sheriff's cabin and saddled
a fast horse, glancing cryptically at the powerful pack mules whose
numbers were steadily increasing. He smiled grimly as he remembered
Middleton telling Colonel Hopkins that pack mules were a good
investment. As he led his horse out of the corral his gaze fell on a
man sprawling under the trees across the road, lazily whittling. Day
and night, in one way or another, the gang kept an eye on the cabin
which hid the cache of their gold. Corcoran doubted if they actually
suspected Middleton's intentions. But they wanted to be sure that no
stranger did any snooping about.

Corcoran rode into a ravine that straggled away from the gulch,
and a few minutes later he followed a narrow path to its rim, and
headed through the mountains toward the spot, miles away, where a
trail crossed Grizzly Ridge, a long, steep backbone, thickly timbered.

He had not left the ravine far behind him when a quick rattle of
hoofs brought him around, in time to see a horse slide recklessly down
a low bluff amid a shower of shale. He swore at the sight of its
rider.

"Glory! What the hell?"

"Steve!" She reined up breathlessly beside him. "Go back! It's a
trick! I heard Buck Gorman talking to Conchita; he's sweet on her.
He's a friend of Brent's--a Vulture! She twists all his secrets out of
him. Her room is next to mine, she thought I was out. I overheard them
talking. Gorman said a trick had been played on you to get you out of
town. He didn't say how. Said you'd go to Grizzly Ridge on a wild-
goose chase. While you're gone they're going to assemble a 'miners'
court,' out of the riff-raff left in town. They're going to appoint a
'judge' and 'jury,' take McBride out of jail, try him for killing Ace
Brent--and hang him!"

A lurid oath ripped through Steve Corcoran's lips, and for an
instant the tiger flashed into view, eyes blazing, fangs bared. Then
his dark face was an inscrutable mask again. He wrenched his horse
around.

"Much obliged, Glory. I'll be dustin' back into town. You circle
around and come in another way. I don't want folks to know you told
me."

"Neither do I!" she shuddered. "I knew Ace Brent was a Vulture. He
boasted of it to me, once when he was drunk. But I never dared tell
anyone. He told me what he'd do to me if I did. I'm glad he's dead. I
didn't know Gorman was a Vulture, but I might have guessed it. He was
Brent's closest friend. If they ever find out I told you--"

"They won't," Corcoran assured her. It was natural for a girl to
fear such black-hearted rogues as the Vultures, but the thought of
them actually harming her never entered his mind. He came from a
country where not even the worst of scoundrels would ever dream of
hurting a woman.

He drove his horse at a reckless gallop back the way he had come,
but not all the way. Before he reached the Gulch he swung wide of the
ravine he had followed out, and plunged into another, that would bring
him into the Gulch at the end of town where the jail stood. As he rode
down it he heard a deep, awesome roar he recognized--the roar of the
man-pack, hunting its own kind.

A band of men surged up the dusty street, roaring, cursing. One
man waved a rope. Pale faces of bartenders, store clerks and dance
hall girls peered timidly out of doorways as the unsavory mob roared
past. Corcoran knew them, by sight or reputation: plug-uglies, barroom
loafers, skulkers--many were Vultures, as he knew; others were riff-
raff, ready for any sort of deviltry that required neither courage nor
intelligence--the scum that gathers in any mining camp.

Dismounting, Corcoran glided through the straggling trees that
grew behind the jail, and heard McNab challenge the mob.

"What do you want?"

"We aim to try your prisoner!" shouted the leader. "We come in the
due process of law. We've app'inted a jedge and paneled a jury, and we
demands that you hand over the prisoner to be tried in miners' court,
accordin' to legal precedent!"

"How do I know you're representative of the camp?" parried McNab.

"'Cause we're the only body of men in camp right now!" yelled
someone, and this was greeted by a roar of laughter.

"We come empowered with the proper authority--" began the leader,
and broke off suddenly: "Grab him, boys!"

There was the sound of a brief scuffle, McNab swore vigorously,
and the leader's voice rose triumphantly: "Let go of him, boys, but
don't give him his gun. McNab, you ought to know better'n to try to
oppose legal procedure, and you a upholder of law and order!"

Again a roar of sardonic laughter, and McNab growled: "All right;
go ahead with the trial. But you do it over my protests. I don't
believe this is a representative assembly."

"Yes, it is," averred the leader, and then his voice thickened
with blood-lust. "Now, Daley, gimme that key and bring out the
prisoner."

The mob surged toward the door of the jail, and at that instant
Corcoran stepped around the corner of the cabin and leaped up on the
low porch it boasted. There was a hissing intake of breath. Men halted
suddenly, digging their heels against the pressure behind them. The
surging line wavered backward, leaving two figures isolated--McNab,
scowling, disarmed, and a hairy giant whose huge belly was girt with a
broad belt bristling with gun butts and knife hilts. He held a noose
in one hand, and his bearded lips gaped as he glared at the unexpected
apparition.

For a breathless instant Corcoran did not speak. He did not look
at McBride's pallid countenance peering through the barred door behind
him. He stood facing the mob, his head slightly bent, a somber,
immobile figure, sinister with menace.

"Well," he said finally, softly, "what's holdin' up the _baile_?"

The leader blustered feebly.

"We come here to try a murderer!"

Corcoran lifted his head and the man involuntarily recoiled at the
lethal glitter of his eyes.

"Who's your judge?" the Texan inquired softly.

"We appointed Jake Bissett, there," spoke up a man, pointing at
the uncomfortable giant on the porch.

"So you're goin' to hold a miners' court," murmured Corcoran.
"With a judge and jury picked out of the dives and honky-tonks--scum
and dirt of the gutter!" And suddenly uncontrollable fury flamed in
his eyes. Bissett, sensing his intention, bellowed in ox-like alarm
and grabbed frantically at a gun. His fingers had scarcely touched the
checkered butt when smoke and flame roared from Corcoran's right hip.
Bissett pitched backward off the porch as if he had been struck by a
hammer; the rope tangled about his limbs as he fell, and he lay in the
dust that slowly turned crimson, his hairy fingers twitching
spasmodically.

Corcoran faced the mob, livid under his sun-burnt bronze. His eyes
were coals of blue hell's-fire. There was a gun in each hand, and from
the right-hand muzzle a wisp of blue smoke drifted lazily upward.

"I declare this court adjourned!" he roared. "The judge is done
impeached, and the jury's discharged! I'll give you thirty seconds to
clear the courtroom!"

He was one man against nearly a hundred, but he was a grey wolf
facing a pack of yapping jackals. Each man knew that if the mob surged
on him, they would drag him down at last; but each man knew what an
awful toll would first be paid, and each man feared that he himself
would be one of those to pay that toll.

They hesitated, stumbled back--gave way suddenly and scattered in
all directions. Some backed away, some shamelessly turned their backs
and fled. With a snarl Corcoran thrust his guns back in their
scabbards and turned toward the door where McBride stood, grasping the
bars.

"I thought I was a goner that time, Corcoran," he gasped. The
Texan pulled the door open, and pushed McBride's pistol into his hand.

"There's a horse tied behind the jail," said Corcoran. "Get on it
and dust out of here. I'll take the full responsibility. If you stay
here they'll burn down the jail, or shoot you through the window. You
can make it out of town while they're scattered. I'll explain to
Middleton and Hopkins. In a month or so, if you want to, come back and
stand trial, as a matter of formality. Things will be cleaned up
around here by then."

McBride needed no urging. The grisly fate he had just escaped had
shaken his nerve. Shaking Corcoran's hand passionately, he ran
stumblingly through the trees to the horse Corcoran had left there. A
few moments later he was fogging it out of the Gulch.

McNab came up, scowling and grumbling.

"You had no authority to let him go. I tried to stop the mob--"

Corcoran wheeled and faced him, making no attempt to conceal his
hatred.

"You did like hell! Don't pull that stuff with me, McNab. You was
in on this, and so was Middleton. You put up a bluff of talk, so
afterwards you could tell Colonel Hopkins and the others that you
tried to stop the lynchin' and was overpowered. I saw the scrap you
put up when they grabbed you! Hell! You're a rotten actor."

"You can't talk to me like that!" roared McNab.

The old tigerish light flickered in the blue eyes. Corcoran did
not exactly move, yet he seemed to sink into a half-crouch, as a
cougar does for the killing spring.

"If you don't like my style, McNab," he said softly, thickly,
"you're more'n welcome to open the _baile_ whenever you get ready!"

For an instant they faced each other, McNab black browed and
scowling, Corcoran's thin lips almost smiling, but blue fire lighting
his eyes. Then with a grunt McNab turned and slouched away, his shaggy
head swaying from side to side like that of a surly bull.



Chapter 7 A Vulture's Wings Are Clipped



Middleton pulled up his horse suddenly as Corcoran reined out of
the bushes. One glance showed the sheriff that Corcoran's mood was far
from placid. They were amidst a grove of alders, perhaps a mile from
the Gulch.

"Why, hello, Corcoran," began Middleton, concealing his surprise.
"I caught up with Brockman. It was just a wild rumor. He didn't have
any gold. That--"

"Drop it!" snapped Corcoran. "I know why you sent me off on that
wild-goose chase--same reason you pulled out of town. To give Brent's
friends a chance to get even with McBride. If I hadn't turned around
and dusted back into Whapeton, McBride would be kickin' his life out
at the end of a rope, right now."

"You came back--?"

"Yeah! And now Jake Bissett's in Hell instead of Jack McBride, and
McBride's dusted out--on a horse I gave him. I told you I gave him my
word he wouldn't be lynched."

"You killed Bissett?"

"Deader'n hell!"

"He was a Vulture," muttered Middleton, but he did not seem
displeased. "Brent, Bissett--the more Vultures die, the easier it will
be for us to get away when we go. That's one reason I had Brent
killed. But you should have let them hang McBride. Of course I framed
this affair; I had to do something to satisfy Brent's friends.
Otherwise they might have gotten suspicious.

"If they suspicioned I had anything to do with having him killed,
or thought I wasn't anxious to punish the man who killed him, they'd
make trouble for me. I can't have a split in the gang now. And even I
can't protect you from Brent's friends, after this."

"Have I ever asked you, or any man, for protection?" The quick
jealous pride of the gunfighter vibrated in his voice.

"Breckman, Red Bill, Curly, and now Bissett. You've killed too
many Vultures. I made them think the killing of the first three was a
mistake, all around. Bissett wasn't very popular. But they won't
forgive you for stopping them from hanging the man who killed Ace
Brent. They won't attack you openly, of course. But you'll have to
watch every step you make. They'll kill you if they can, and I won't
be able to prevent them."

"If I'd tell 'em just how Ace Brent died, you'd be in the same
boat," said Corcoran bitingly. "Of course, I won't. Our final getaway
depends on you keepin' their confidence--as well as the confidence of
the honest folks. This last killin' ought to put me, and therefore
you, ace-high with Hopkins and his crowd."

"They're still talking vigilante. I encourage it. It's coming
anyway. Murders in the outlying camps are driving men to a frenzy of
fear and rage, even though such crimes have ceased in Whapeton. Better
to fall in line with the inevitable and twist it to a man's own ends,
than to try to oppose it. If you can keep Brent's friends from killing
you for a few more weeks, we'll be ready to jump. Look out for Buck
Gorman. He's the most dangerous man in the gang. He was Brent's
friend, and he has his own friends--all dangerous men. Don't kill him
unless you have to."

"I'll take care of myself," answered Corcoran somberly. "I looked
for Gorman in the mob, but he wasn't there. Too smart. But he's the
man behind the mob. Bissett was just a stupid ox; Gorman planned it--
or rather, I reckon he helped you plan it."

"I'm wondering how you found out about it," said Middleton. "You
wouldn't have come back unless somebody told you. Who was it?"

"None of your business," growled Corcoran. It did not occur to him
that Glory Bland would be in any danger from Middleton, even if the
sheriff knew about her part in the affair, but he did not relish being
questioned, and did not feel obliged to answer anybody's queries.

"That new gold strike sure came in mighty handy for you and
Gorman," he said. "Did you frame that, too?"

Middleton nodded.

"Of course. That was one of my men who poses as a miner. He had a
hatful of nuggets from the cache. He served his purpose and joined the
men who hide up there in the hills. The mob of miners will be back
tomorrow, tired and mad and disgusted, and when they hear about what
happened, they'll recognize the handiwork of the Vultures; at least
some of them will. But they won't connect me with it in any way. Now
we'll ride back to town. Things are breaking our way, in spite of your
foolish interference with the mob. But let Gorman alone. You can't
afford to make any more enemies in the gang."

Buck Gorman leaned on the bar in the Golden Eagle and expressed
his opinion of Steve Corcoran in no uncertain terms. The crowd
listened sympathetically, for, almost to a man, they were the ruffians
and riff-raff of the camp.

"The dog pretends to be a deputy!" roared Gorman, whose bloodshot
eyes and damp tangled hair attested to the amount of liquor he had
drunk. "But he kills an appointed judge, breaks up a court and drives
away the jury--yes, and releases the prisoner, a man charged with
murder!"

It was the day after the fake gold strike, and the disillusioned
miners were drowning their chagrin in the saloons. But few honest
miners were in the Golden Eagle.

"Colonel Hopkins and other prominent citizens held an
investigation," said someone. "They declared that evidence showed
Corcoran to have been justified--denounced the court as a mob,
acquitted Corcoran of killing Bissett, and then went ahead and
acquitted McBride for killing Brent, even though he wasn't there."

Gorman snarled like a cat, and reached for his whisky glass. His
hand did not twitch or quiver, his movements were more catlike than
ever. The whisky had inflamed his mind, illumined his brain with a
white-hot certainty that was akin to insanity, but it had not affected
his nerves or any part of his muscular system. He was more deadly
drunk than sober.

"I was Brent's best friend!" he roared. "I was Bissett's friend."

"They say Bissett was a Vulture," whispered a voice. Gorman lifted
his tawny head and glared about the room as a lion might glare.

"Who says he was a Vulture? Why don't these slanderers accuse a
living man? It's always a dead man they accuse! Well, what if he was?
He was my friend! Maybe that makes _me_ a Vulture!"

No one laughed or spoke as his flaming gaze swept the room, but
each man, as those blazing eyes rested on him in turn, felt the chill
breath of Death blowing upon him.

"Bissett a Vulture!" he said, wild enough with drink and fury to
commit any folly, as well as any atrocity. He did not heed the eyes
fixed on him, some in fear, a few in intense interest. "Who knows who
the Vultures are? Who knows who, or what anybody really is? Who really
knows anything about this man Corcoran, for instance? I could tell--"

A light step on the threshold brought him about as Corcoran loomed
in the door. Gorman froze, snarling, lips writhed back, a tawny-maned
incarnation of hate and menace.

"I heard you was makin' a talk about me down here, Gorman," said
Corcoran. His face was bleak and emotionless as that of a stone image,
but his eyes burned with murderous purpose.

Gorman snarled wordlessly.

"I looked for you in the mob," said Corcoran, tonelessly, his
voice as soft and without emphasis as the even strokes of a feather.
It seemed almost as if his voice were a thing apart from him; his lips
murmuring while all the rest of his being was tense with concentration
on the man before him.

"You wasn't there. You sent your coyotes, but you didn't have the
guts to come yourself, and--"

The dart of Gorman's hand to his gun was like the blurring stroke
of a snake's head, but no eye could follow Corcoran's hand. His gun
smashed before anyone knew he had reached for it. Like an echo came
the roar of Gorman's shot. But the bullet ploughed splinteringly into
the floor, from a hand that was already death-stricken and falling.
Gorman pitched over and lay still, the swinging lamp glinting on his
upturned spurs and the blue steel of the smoking gun which lay by his
hand.



Chapter 8 The Coming of the Vigilantes



Colonel Hopkins looked absently at the liquor in his glass,
stirred restlessly, and said abruptly: "Middleton, I might as well
come to the point. My friends and I have organized a vigilante
committee, just as we should have done months ago. Now, wait a minute.
Don't take this as a criticism of your methods. You've done wonders in
the last month, ever since you brought Steve Corcoran in here. Not a
holdup in the town, not a killing--that is, not a murder, and only a
few shootings among the honest citizens.

"Added to that the ridding of the camp of such scoundrels as Jake
Bissett and Buck Gorman. They were both undoubtedly members of the
Vultures. I wish Corcoran hadn't killed Gorman just when he did,
though. The man was drunk, and about to make some reckless disclosures
about the gang. At least that's what a friend of mine thinks, who was
in the Golden Eagle that night. But anyway it couldn't be helped.

"No, we're not criticizing you at all. But obviously you can't
stop the murders and robberies that are going on up and down the
Gulch, all the time. And you can't stop the outlaws from holding up
the stage regularly.

"So that's where we come in. We have sifted the camp, carefully,
over a period of months, until we have fifty men we can trust
absolutely. It's taken a long time, because we've had to be sure of
our men. We didn't want to take in a man who might be a spy for the
Vultures. But at last we know where we stand. We're not sure just who
_is_ a Vulture, but we know who _isn't_, in as far as our organization
is concerned.

"We can work together, John. We have no intention of interfering
within your jurisdiction, or trying to take the law out of your hands.
We demand a free hand outside the camp; inside the limits of Whapeton
we are willing to act under your orders, or at least according to your
advice. Of course we will work in absolute secrecy until we have proof
enough to strike."

"You must remember, Colonel," reminded Middleton, "that all along
I've admitted the impossibility of my breaking up the Vultures with
the limited means at my disposal. I've never opposed a vigilante
committee. All I've demanded was that when it was formed, it should be
composed of honest men, and be free of any element which might seek to
twist its purpose into the wrong channels."

"That's true. I didn't expect any opposition from you, and I can
assure you that we'll always work hand-in-hand with you and your
deputies." He hesitated, as if over something unpleasant, and then
said: "John, are you sure of _all_ your deputies?"

Middleton's head jerked up and he shot a startled glance at the
Colonel, as if the latter had surprised him by putting into words a
thought that had already occurred to him.

"Why do you ask?" he parried.

"Well," Hopkins was embarrassed, "I don't know--maybe I'm
prejudiced--but--well, damn it, to put it bluntly, I've sometimes
wondered about Bill McNab!"

Middleton filled the glasses again before he answered.

"Colonel, I never accuse a man without iron-clad evidence. I'm not
always satisfied with McNab's actions, but it may merely be the man's
nature. He's a surly brute. But he has his virtues. I'll tell you
frankly, the reason I haven't discharged him is that I'm not sure of
him. That probably sounds ambiguous."

"Not at all. I appreciate your position. You have as much as said
you suspect him of double-dealing, and are keeping him on your force
so you can watch him. Your wits are not dull, John. Frankly--and this
will probably surprise you--until a month ago some of the men were
beginning to whisper some queer things about you--queer suspicions,
that is. But your bringing Corcoran in showed us that you were on the
level. You'd have never brought him in if you'd been taking pay from
the Vultures!"

Middleton halted with his glass at his lips.

"Great heavens!" he ejaculated. "Did they suspect me of _that_?"

"Just a fool idea some of the men had," Hopkins assured him. "Of
course I never gave it a thought. The men who thought it are ashamed
now. The killing of Bissett, of Gorman, of the men in the Blackfoot
Chief, show that Corcoran's on the level. And of course, he's merely
taking his orders from you. All those men were Vultures, of course.
It's a pity Tom Deal got away before we could question him." He rose
to go.

"McNab was guarding Deal," said Middleton, and his tone implied
more than his words said.

Hopkins shot him a startled glance.

"By heaven, so he was! But he was really wounded--I saw the bullet
hole in his arm, where Deal shot him in making his getaway."

"That's true." Middleton rose and reached for his hat. "I'll walk
along with you. I want to find Corcoran and tell him what you've just
told me."

"It's been a week since he killed Gorman," mused Hopkins. "I've
been expecting Gorman's Vulture friends to try to get him, any time."

"So have I!" answered Middleton, with a grimness which his
companion missed.



Chapter 9 The Vultures Swoop



Down the gulch lights blazed; the windows of cabins were yellow
squares in the night, and beyond them the velvet sky reflected the
lurid heart of the camp. The intermittent breeze brought faint strains
of music and the other noises of hilarity. But up the gulch, where a
clump of trees straggled near an unlighted cabin, the darkness of the
moonless night was a mask that the faint stars did not illuminate.

Figures moved in the deep shadows of the trees, voices whispered,
their furtive tones mingling with the rustling of the wind through the
leaves.

"We ain't close enough. We ought to lay alongside his cabin and
blast him as he goes in."

A second voice joined the first, muttering like a bodyless voice
in a conclave of ghosts.

"We've gone all over that. I tell you this is the best way. Get
him off guard. You're sure Middleton was playin' cards at the King of
Diamonds?"

Another voice answered: "He'll be there till daylight, likely."

"He'll be awful mad," whispered the first speaker.

"Let him. He can't afford to do anything about it. _Listen!_
Somebody's comin' up the road!"

They crouched down in the bushes, merging with the blacker
shadows. They were so far from the cabin, and it was so dark, that the
approaching figure was only a dim blur in the gloom.

"It's him!" a voice hissed fiercely, as the blur merged with the
bulkier shadow that was the cabin.

In the stillness a door rasped across a sill. A yellow light
sprang up, streaming through the door, blocking out a small window
high up in the wall. The man inside did not cross the lighted doorway,
and the window was too high to see through into the cabin.

The light went out after a few minutes.

"Come on!" The three men rose and went stealthily toward the
cabin. Their bare feet made no sound, for they had discarded their
boots. Coats too had been discarded, any garment that might swing
loosely and rustle, or catch on projections. Cocked guns were in their
hands, they could have been no more wary had they been approaching the
lair of a lion. And each man's heart pounded suffocatingly, for the
prey they stalked was far more dangerous than any lion.

When one spoke it was so low that his companions hardly heard him
with their ears a matter of inches from his bearded lips.

"We'll take our places like we planned, Joel. You'll go to the
door and call him, like we told you. He knows Middleton trusts you. He
don't know you'd be helpin' Gorman's friends. He'll recognize your
voice, and he won't suspect nothin'. When he comes to the door and
opens it, step back into the shadows and fall flat. We'll do the rest
from where we'll be layin'."

His voice shook slightly as he spoke, and the other man shuddered;
his face was a pallid oval in the darkness.

"I'll do it, but I bet he kills some of us. I bet he kills me,
anyway. I must have been crazy when I said I'd help you fellows."

"You can't back out now!" hissed the other. They stole forward,
their guns advanced, their hearts in their mouths. Then the foremost
man caught at the arms of his companions.

"Wait! Look there! He's left the door open!"

The open doorway was a blacker shadow in the shadow of the wall.

"He knows we're after him!" There was a catch of hysteria in the
babbling whisper. "It's a trap!"

"Don't be a fool! How could he know? He's asleep. I hear him
snorin'. We won't wake him. We'll step into the cabin and let him have
it! We'll have enough light from the window to locate the bunk, and
we'll rake it with lead before he can move. He'll wake up in Hell.
Come on, and for God's sake, don't make no noise!"

The last advice was unnecessary. Each man, as he set his bare foot
down, felt as if he were setting it into the lair of a diamond-backed
rattler.

As they glided, one after another, across the threshold, they made
less noise than the wind blowing through the black branches. They
crouched by the door, straining their eyes across the room, whence
came the rhythmic snoring. Enough light sifted through the small
window to show them a vague outline that was a bunk, with a shapeless
mass upon it.

A man caught his breath in a short, uncontrollable gasp. Then the
cabin was shaken by a thunderous volley, three guns roaring together.
Lead swept the bunk in a devastating storm, thudding into flesh and
bone, smacking into wood. A wild cry broke in a gagging gasp. Limbs
thrashed wildly and a heavy body tumbled to the floor. From the
darkness on the floor beside the bunk welled up hideous sounds,
choking gurgles and a convulsive flopping and thumping. The men
crouching near the door poured lead blindly at the sounds. There was
fear and panic in the haste and number of their shots. They did not
cease jerking their triggers until their guns were empty, and the
noises on the floor had ceased.

"Out of here, quick!" gasped one.

"No! Here's the table, and a candle on it. I felt it in the dark.
I've got to _know_ that he's dead before I leave this cabin. I've got
to see him lyin' dead if I'm goin' to sleep easy. We've got plenty of
time to get away. Folks down the gulch must have heard the shots, but
it'll take time for them to get here. No danger. I'm goin' to light
the candle--"

There was a rasping sound, and a yellow light sprang up, etching
three staring, bearded faces. Wisps of blue smoke blurred the light as
the candle wick ignited from the fumbling match, but the men saw a
huddled shape crumpled near the bunk, from which streams of dark
crimson radiated in every direction.

_"Ahhh!"_

They whirled at the sound of running footsteps.

"Oh, God!" shrieked one of the men, falling to his knees, his
hands lifted to shut out a terrible sight. The other ruffians
staggered with the shock of what they saw. They stood gaping, livid,
helpless, empty guns sagging in their hands.

For in the doorway, glaring in dangerous amazement, with a gun in
each hand, stood the man whose lifeless body they thought lay over
there by the splintered bunk!

"Drop them guns!" Corcoran rasped. They clattered on the floor as
the hands of their owner mechanically reached skyward. The man on the
floor staggered up, his hands empty; he retched, shaken by the nausea
of fear.

"Joel Miller!" said Corcoran evenly; his surprise was passed, as
he realized what had happened. "Didn't know you run with Gorman's
crowd. Reckon Middleton'll be some surprised, too."

"You're a devil!" gasped Miller. "You can't be killed! We killed
you--heard you roll off your bunk and die on the floor, in the dark.
We kept shooting after we knew you were dead. But you're alive!"

"You didn't shoot me," grunted Corcoran. "You shot a man you
thought was me. I was comin' up the road when I heard the shots. You
killed Joe Willoughby! He was drunk and I reckon he staggered in here
and fell in my bunk, like he's done before."

The men went whiter yet under their bushy beards, with rage and
chagrin and fear.

"Willoughby!" babbled Miller. "The camp will never stand for this!
Let us go, Corcoran! Hopkins and his crowd will hang us! It'll mean
the end of the Vultures! Your end, too, Corcoran! If they hang us,
we'll talk first! They'll find out that you're one of us!"

"In that case," muttered Corcoran, his eyes narrowing, "I'd better
kill the three of you. That's the sensible solution. You killed
Willoughby, tryin' to get me; I kill you, in self-defense."

"Don't do it, Corcoran!" screamed Miller, frantic with terror.

"Shut up, you dog," growled one of the other men, glaring
balefully at their captor. "Corcoran wouldn't shoot down unarmed men."

"No, I wouldn't," said Corcoran. "Not unless you made some kind of
a break. I'm peculiar that way, which I see is a handicap in this
country. But it's the way I was raised, and I can't get over it. No, I
ain't goin' to beef you cold, though you've just tried to get me that
way.

"But I'll be damned if I'm goin' to let you sneak off, to come
back here and try it again the minute you get your nerve bucked up.
I'd about as soon be hanged by the vigilantes as shot in the back by a
passle of rats like you-all. Vultures, hell! You ain't even got the
guts to be good buzzards.

"I'm goin' to take you down the gulch and throw you in jail. It'll
be up to Middleton to decide what to do with you. He'll probably work
out some scheme that'll swindle everybody except himself; but I warn
you--one yap about the Vultures to anybody, and I'll forget my raisin'
and send you to Hell with your belts empty and your boots on."

The noise in the King of Diamonds was hushed suddenly as a man
rushed in and bawled: "The Vultures have murdered Joe Willoughby!
Steve Corcoran caught three of 'em, and has just locked 'em up! This
time we've got some live Vultures to work on!"

A roar answered him and the gambling hall emptied itself as men
rushed yelling into the street. John Middleton laid down his hand of
cards, donned his white hat with a hand that was steady as a rock, and
strode after them.

Already a crowd was surging and roaring around the jail. The
miners were lashed into a murderous frenzy and were restrained from
shattering the door and dragging forth the cowering prisoners only by
the presence of Corcoran, who faced them on the jail-porch. McNab,
Richardson and Stark were there, also. McNab was pale under his
whiskers, and Stark seemed nervous and ill at ease, but Richardson, as
always, was cold as ice.

"Hang 'em!" roared the mob. "Let us have 'em, Steve! You've done
your part! This camp's put up with enough! Let us have 'em!"

Middleton climbed up on the porch, and was greeted by loud cheers,
but his efforts to quiet the throng proved futile. Somebody brandished
a rope with a noose in it. Resentment, long smoldering, was bursting
into flame, fanned by hysterical fear and hate. The mob had no wish to
harm either Corcoran or Middleton--did not intend to harm them. But
they were determined to drag out the prisoners and string them up.

Colonel Hopkins forced his way through the crowd, mounted the
step, and waved his hands until he obtained a certain amount of
silence.

"Listen, men!" he roared, "this is the beginning of a new era for
Whapeton! This camp has been terrorized long enough. We're beginning a
rule of law and order, right now! But don't spoil it at the very
beginning! These men shall hang--I swear it! But let's do it legally,
and with the sanction of law. Another thing: if you hang them out of
hand, we'll never learn who their companions and leaders are.

"Tomorrow, I promise you, a court of inquiry will sit on their
case. They'll be questioned and forced to reveal the men above and
behind them. This camp is going to be cleaned up! Let's clean it up
lawfully and in order!"

"Colonel's right!" bawled a bearded giant. "Ain't no use to hang
the little rats till we find out who's the big 'uns!"

A roar of approbation rose as the temper of the mob changed. It
began to break up, as the men scattered to hasten back to the bars and
indulge in their passion to discuss the new development.

Hopkins shook Corcoran's hand heartily.

"Congratulations, sir! I've seen poor Joe's body. A terrible
sight. The fiends fairly shot the poor fellow to ribbons. Middleton, I
told you the vigilantes wouldn't usurp your authority in Whapeton. I
keep my word. We'll leave these murderers in your jail, guarded by
your deputies. Tomorrow the vigilante court will sit in session, and I
hope we'll come to the bottom of this filthy mess."

And so saying he strode off, followed by a dozen or so steely-eyed
men whom Middleton knew formed the nucleus of the Colonel's
organization.

When they were out of hearing, Middleton stepped to the door and
spoke quickly to the prisoners: "Keep your mouths shut. You fools have
gotten us all in a jam, but I'll snake you out of it, somehow." To
McNab he spoke: "Watch the jail. Don't let anybody come near it.
Corcoran and I have got to talk this over." Lowering his voice so the
prisoners could not hear, he added: "If anybody does come, that you
can't order off, and these fools start shooting off their heads, close
their mouths with lead."

Corcoran followed Middleton into the shadow of the gulch wall. Out
of earshot of the nearest cabin, Middleton turned. "Just what
happened?"

"Gorman's friends tried to get me. They killed Joe Willoughby by
mistake. I hauled them in. That's all."

"That's not all," muttered Middleton. "There'll be hell to pay if
they come to trial. Miller's yellow. He'll talk, sure. I've been
afraid Gorman's friends would try to kill you--wondering how it would
work out. It's worked out just about the worst way it possibly could.
You should either have killed them or let them go. Yet I appreciate
your attitude. You have scruples against cold-blooded murder; and if
you'd turned them loose, they'd have been back potting at you the next
night."

"I couldn't have turned them loose if I'd wanted to. Men had heard
the shots; they came runnin'; found me there holdin' a gun on those
devils, and Joe Willoughby's body layin' on the floor, shot to
pieces."

"I know. But we can't keep members of our own gang in jail, and we
can't hand them over to the vigilantes. I've got to delay that trial,
somehow. If I were ready, we'd jump tonight, and to hell with it. But
I'm not ready. After all, perhaps it's as well this happened. It may
give us our chance to skip. We're one jump ahead of the vigilantes and
the gang, too. We know the vigilantes have formed and are ready to
strike, and the rest of the gang don't. I've told no one but you what
Hopkins told me early in the evening.

"Listen, Corcoran, we've got to move tomorrow night! I wanted to
pull one last job, the biggest of all--the looting of Hopkins and
Bisley's private cache. I believe I could have done it, in spite of
all their guards and precautions. But we'll have to let that slide.
I'll persuade Hopkins to put off the trial another day. I think I know
how. Tomorrow night I'll have the vigilantes and the Vultures at each
others' throats! We'll load the mules and pull out while they're
fighting. Once let us get a good start, and they're welcome to chase
us if they want to.

"I'm going to find Hopkins now. You get back to the jail. If McNab
talks to Miller or the others, be sure you listen to what's said."

Middleton found Hopkins in the Golden Eagle Saloon.

"I've come to ask a favor of you, Colonel," he began directly. "I
want you, if it's possible, to put off the investigating trial until
day after tomorrow. I've been talking to Joel Miller. He's cracking.
If I can get him away from Barlow and Letcher, and talk to him, I
believe he'll tell me everything I want to know. It'll be better to
get his confession, signed and sworn to, before we bring the matter
into court. Before a judge, with all eyes on him, and his friends in
the crowd, he might stiffen and refuse to incriminate anyone. I don't
believe the others will talk. But talking to me, alone, I believe
Miller will spill the whole works. But it's going to take time to wear
him down. I believe that by tomorrow night I'll have a full confession
from him."

"That would make our work a great deal easier," admitted Hopkins.

"And another thing: these men ought to be represented by proper
counsel. You'll prosecute them, of course; and the only other lawyer
within reach is Judge Bixby, at Yankton. We're doing this thing in as
close accordance to regular legal procedure as possible. Therefore we
can't refuse the prisoner the right to be defended by an attorney.
I've sent a man after Bixby. It will be late tomorrow evening before
he can get back with the Judge, even if he has no trouble in locating
him.

"Considering all these things, I feel it would be better to
postpone the trial until we can get Bixby here, and until I can get
Miller's confession."

"What will the camp think?"

"Most of them are men of reason. The few hotheads who might want
to take matters into their own hands can't do any harm."

"All right," agreed Hopkins. "After all, they're your prisoners,
since your deputy captured them, and the attempted murder of an
officer of the law is one of the charges for which they'll have to
stand trial. We'll set the trial for day after tomorrow. Meanwhile,
work on Joel Miller. If we have his signed confession, naming the
leaders of the gang, it will expedite matters a great deal at the
trial."



Chapter 10 The Blood on the Gold



Whapeton learned of the postponement of the trial and reacted in
various ways. The air was surcharged with tension. Little work was
done that day. Men gathering in heated, gesticulating groups, crowded
in at the bars. Voices rose in hot altercation, fists pounded on the
bars. Unfamiliar faces were observed, men who were seldom seen in the
gulch--miners from claims in distant canyons, or more sinister figures
from the hills, whose business was less obvious.

Lines of cleavage were noticed. Here and there clumps of men
gathered, keeping to themselves and talking in low tones. In certain
dives the ruffian element of the camp gathered, and these saloons were
shunned by honest men. But still the great mass of the people milled
about, suspicious and uncertain. The status of too many men was still
in doubt. Certain men were known to be above suspicion, certain others
were known to be ruffians and criminals; but between these two
extremes there were possibilities for all shades of distrust and
suspicion.

So most men wandered aimlessly to and fro, with their weapons
ready to their hands, glancing at their fellows out of the corners of
their eyes.

To the surprise of all, Steve Corcoran was noticed at several
bars, drinking heavily, though the liquor did not seem to affect him
in any way.

The men in the jail were suffering from nerves. Somehow the word
had gotten out that the vigilante organization was a reality, and that
they were to be tried before a vigilante court. Joel Miller,
hysterical, accused Middleton of double-crossing his men.

"Shut up, you fool!" snarled the sheriff, showing the strain under
which he was laboring merely by the irascible edge on his voice.
"Haven't you seen your friends drifting by the jail? I've gathered the
men in from the hills. They're all here. Forty-odd men, every Vulture
in the gang, is here in Whapeton.

"Now, get this: and McNab, listen closely: we'll stage the break
just before daylight, when everybody is asleep. Just before dawn is
the best time, because that's about the only time in the whole twenty-
four hours that the camp isn't going full blast.

"Some of the boys, with masks on, will swoop down and overpower
you deputies. There'll be no shots fired until they've gotten the
prisoners and started off. Then start yelling and shooting after
them--in the air, of course. That'll bring everybody on the run to
hear how you were overpowered by a gang of masked riders.

"Miller, you and Letcher and Barlow will put up a fight--"

"Why?"

"Why, you fool, to make it look like it's a mob that's capturing
you, instead of friends rescuing you. That'll explain why none of the
deputies are hurt. Men wanting to lynch you wouldn't want to hurt the
officers. You'll yell and scream blue murder, and the men in the masks
will drag you out, tie you and throw you across horses and ride off.
Somebody is bound to see them riding away. It'll look like a capture,
not a rescue."

Bearded lips gaped in admiring grins at the strategy.

"All right. Don't make a botch of it. There'll be hell to pay, but
I'll convince Hopkins that it was the work of a mob, and we'll search
the hills to find your bodies hanging from trees. We won't find any
bodies, naturally, but maybe we'll contrive to find a mass of ashes
where a log hut had been burned to the ground, and a few hats and belt
buckles easy to identify."

Miller shivered at the implication and stared at Middleton with
painful intensity.

"Middleton, you ain't planning to have us put out of the way?
These men in masks are our friends, not vigilantes you've put up to
this?"

"Don't be a fool!" flared Middleton disgustedly. "Do you think the
gang would stand for anything like that, even if I was imbecile enough
to try it? You'll recognize your friends when they come.

"Miller, I want your name at the foot of a confession I've drawn
up, implicating somebody as the leader of the Vultures. There's no use
trying to deny you and the others are members of the gang. Hopkins
knows you are; instead of trying to play innocent, you'll divert
suspicion to someone outside the gang. I haven't filled in the name of
the leader, but Dick Lennox is as good as anybody. He's a gambler, has
few friends, and never would work with us. I'll write his name in your
'confession' as chief of the Vultures, and Corcoran will kill him 'for
resisting arrest,' before he has time to prove that it's a lie. Then,
before anybody has time to get suspicious, we'll make our last big
haul--the raid on the Hopkins and Bisley cache!--and blow! Be ready to
jump, when the gang swoops in.

"Miller, put your signature to this paper. Read it first if you
want to. I'll fill in the blanks I left for the 'chief's' name later.
Where's Corcoran?"

"I saw him in the Golden Eagle an hour ago," growled McNab. "He's
drinkin' like a fish."

"Damnation!" Middleton's mask slipped a bit despite himself, then
he regained his easy control. "Well, it doesn't matter. We won't need
him tonight. Better for him not to be here when the jail break's made.
Folks would think it was funny if he didn't kill somebody. I'll drop
back later in the night."

Even a man of steel nerves feels the strain of waiting for a
crisis. Corcoran was in this case no exception. Middleton's mind was
so occupied in planning, scheming and conniving that he had little
time for the strain to corrode his willpower. But Corcoran had nothing
to occupy his attention until the moment came for the jump.

He began to drink, almost without realizing it. His veins seemed
on fire, his external senses abnormally alert. Like most men of his
breed he was high-strung, his nervous system poised on a hair-trigger
balance, in spite of his mask of unemotional coolness. He lived on,
and for, violent action. Action kept his mind from turning inward; it
kept his brain clear and his hand steady; failing action, he fell back
on whisky. Liquor artificially stimulated him to that pitch which his
temperament required. It was not fear that made his nerves thrum so
intolerably. It was the strain of waiting inertly, the realization of
the stakes for which they played. Inaction maddened him. Thought of
the gold cached in the cave behind John Middleton's cabin made
Corcoran's lips dry, set a nerve to pounding maddeningly in his
temples.

So he drank, and drank, and drank again, as the long day wore on.

The noise from the bar was a blurred medley in the back room of
the Golden Garter. Glory Bland stared uneasily across the table at her
companion. Corcoran's blue eyes seemed lit by dancing fires. Tiny
beads of perspiration shone on his dark face. His tongue was not
thick; he spoke lucidly and without exaggeration; he had not stumbled
when he entered. Nevertheless he was drunk, though to what extent the
girl did not guess.

"I never saw you this way before, Steve," she said reproachfully.

"I've never had a hand in a game like this before," he answered,
the wild flame flickering bluely in his eyes. He reached across the
table and caught her white wrist with an unconscious strength that
made her wince. "Glory, I'm pullin' out of here tonight. I want you to
go with me!"

"You're leaving Whapeton? _Tonight_?"

"Yes. For good. Go with me! This joint ain't fit for you. I don't
know how you got into this game, and I don't give a damn. But you're
different from these other dance hall girls. I'm takin' you with me.
I'll make a queen out of you! I'll cover you with diamonds!"

She laughed nervously.

"You're drunker than I thought. I know you've been getting a big
salary, but--"

"Salary?" His laugh of contempt startled her. "I'll throw my
salary into the street for the beggars to fight over. Once I told that
fool Hopkins that I had a gold mine right here in Whapeton. I told him
no lie. I'm _rich_!"

"What do you mean?" She was slightly pale, frightened by his
vehemence.

His fingers unconsciously tightened on her wrist and his eyes
gleamed with the hard arrogance of possession and desire.

"You're mine, anyway," he muttered. "I'll kill any man that looks
at you. But you're in love with me. I know it. Any fool could see it.
I can trust you. You wouldn't dare betray me. I'll tell you. I
wouldn't take you along without tellin' you the truth. Tonight
Middleton and I are goin' over the mountains with a million dollars'
worth of gold tied on pack mules!"

He did not see the growing light of incredulous horror in her
eyes.

"A million in gold! It'd make a devil out of a saint! Middleton
thinks he'll kill me when we get away safe, and grab the whole load.
He's a fool. It'll be him that dies, when the time comes. I've planned
while he planned. I didn't ever intend to split the loot with him. I
wouldn't be a thief for less than a million."

"Middleton--" she choked.

"Yeah! He's chief of the Vultures, and I'm his right-hand man. If
it hadn't been for me, the camp would have caught on long ago."

"But you upheld the law," she panted, as if clutching at straws.
"You killed murderers--saved McBride from the mob."

"I killed men who tried to kill me. I shot as square with the camp
as I could, without goin' against my own interests. That business of
McBride has nothin' to do with it. I'd given him my word. That's all
behind us now. Tonight, while the vigilantes and the Vultures kill
each other, we'll _vamose_! And you'll go with me!"

With a cry of loathing she wrenched her hand away, and sprang up,
her eyes blazing.

"Oh!" It was a cry of bitter disillusionment. "I thought you were
straight--honest! I worshiped you because I thought you were
honorable. So many men were dishonest and bestial--I idolized you! And
you've just been pretending--playing a part! Betraying the people who
trusted you!" The poignant anguish of her enlightenment choked her,
then galvanized her with another possibility.

"I suppose you've been pretending with me, too!" she cried wildly.
"If you haven't been straight with the camp, you couldn't have been
straight with me, either! You've made a fool of me! Laughed at me and
shamed me! And now you boast of it in my teeth!"

"Glory!" He was on his feet, groping for her, stunned and
bewildered by her grief and rage. She sprang back from him.

"Don't touch me! Don't look at me! Oh, I hate the very sight of
you!"

And turning, with an hysterical sob, she ran from the room. He
stood swaying slightly, staring stupidly after her. Then fumbling with
his hat, he stalked out, moving like an automaton. His thoughts were a
confused maelstrom, whirling until he was giddy. All at once the
liquor seethed madly in his brain, dulling his perceptions, even his
recollections of what had just passed. He had drunk more than he
realized.

Not long after dark had settled over Whapeton, a low call from the
darkness brought Colonel Hopkins to the door of his cabin, gun in
hand.

"Who is it?" he demanded suspiciously.

"It's Middleton. Let me in, quick!"

The sheriff entered, and Hopkins, shutting the door, stared at him
in surprise. Middleton showed more agitation than the Colonel had ever
seen him display. His face was pale and drawn. A great actor was lost
to the world when John Middleton took the dark road of outlawry.

"Colonel, I don't know what to say. I've been a blind fool. I feel
that the lives of murdered men are hung about my neck for all
Eternity! All through my blindness and stupidity!"

"What do you mean, John?" ejaculated Colonel Hopkins.

"Colonel, Miller talked at last. He just finished telling me the
whole dirty business. I have his confession, written as he dictated."

"He named the chief of the Vultures?" exclaimed Hopkins eagerly.

"He did!" answered Middleton grimly, producing a paper and
unfolding it. Joel Miller's unmistakable signature sprawled at the
bottom. "Here is the name of the leader, dictated by Miller to me!"

"Good God!" whispered Hopkins. "Bill McNab!"

"Yes! My deputy! The man I trusted next to Corcoran. What a fool--
what a blind fool I've been. Even when his actions seemed peculiar,
even when you voiced your suspicions of him, I could not bring myself
to believe it. But it's all clear now. No wonder the gang always knew
my plans as soon as I knew them myself! No wonder my deputies--before
Corcoran came--were never able to kill or capture any Vultures. No
wonder, for instance, that Tom Deal 'escaped,' before we could
question him. That bullet hole in McNab's arm, supposedly made by
Deal--Miller told me McNab got that in a quarrel with one of his own
gang. It came in handy to help pull the wool over my eyes.

"Colonel Hopkins, I'll turn in my resignation tomorrow. I
recommend Corcoran as my successor. I shall be glad to serve as deputy
under him."

"Nonsense, John!" Hopkins laid his hand sympathetically on
Middleton's shoulder. "It's not your fault. You've played a man's part
all the way through. Forget that talk about resigning. Whapeton
doesn't need a new sheriff; you just need some new deputies. Just now
we've got some planning to do. Where is McNab?"

"At the jail, guarding the prisoners. I couldn't remove him
without exciting his suspicion. Of course he doesn't dream that Miller
has talked. And I learned something else. They plan a jailbreak
shortly after midnight."

"We might have expected that!"

"Yes. A band of masked men will approach the jail, pretend to
overpower the guards--yes, Stark and Richardson are Vultures, too--and
release the prisoners. Now this is my plan. Take fifty men and conceal
them in the trees near the jail. You can plant some on one side, some
on the other. Corcoran and I will be with you, of course. When the
bandits come, we can kill or capture them all at one swoop. We have
the advantage of knowing their plans, without their knowing we know
them."

"That's a good plan, John!" warmly endorsed Hopkins. "You should
have been a general. I'll gather the men at once. Of course, we must
use the utmost secrecy."

"Of course. If we work it right, we'll bag prisoners, deputies and
rescuers with one stroke. We'll break the back of the Vultures!"

"John, don't ever talk resignation to me again!" exclaimed
Hopkins, grabbing his hat and buckling on his gun-belt. "A man like
you ought to be in the Senate. Go get Corcoran. I'll gather my men and
we'll be in our places before midnight. McNab and the others in the
jail won't hear a sound."

"Good! Corcoran and I will join you before the Vultures reach the
jail."

Leaving Hopkins' cabin, Middleton hurried to the bar of the King
of Diamonds. As he drank, a rough-looking individual moved casually up
beside him. Middleton bent his head over his whisky glass and spoke,
hardly moving his lips. None could have heard him a yard away.

"I've just talked to Hopkins. The vigilantes are afraid of a jail
break. They're going to take the prisoners out just before daylight
and hang them out of hand. That talk about legal proceedings was just
a bluff. Get all the boys, go to the jail and get the prisoners out
within a half-hour after midnight. Wear your masks, but let there be
no shooting or yelling. I'll tell McNab our plan's been changed. Go
silently. Leave your horses at least a quarter of a mile down the
gulch and sneak up to the jail on foot, so you won't make so much
noise. Corcoran and I will be hiding in the brush to give you a hand
in case anything goes wrong."

The other man had not looked toward Middleton; he did not look
now. Emptying his glass, he strolled deliberately toward the door. No
casual onlooker could have known that any words had passed between
them.

When Glory Bland ran from the backroom of the Golden Garter, her
soul was in an emotional turmoil that almost amounted to insanity. The
shock of her brutal disillusionment vied with passionate shame of her
own gullibility and an unreasoning anger. Out of this seething
cauldron grew a blind desire to hurt the man who had unwittingly hurt
her. Smarting vanity had its part, too, for with characteristic and
illogical feminine conceit, she believed that he had practiced an
elaborate deception in order to fool her into falling in love with
him--or rather with the man she thought he was. If he was false with
men, he must be false with women, too. That thought sent her into
hysterical fury, blind to all except a desire for revenge. She was a
primitive, elemental young animal, like most of her profession of that
age and place; her emotions were powerful and easily stirred, her
passions stormy. Love could change quickly to hate.

She reached an instant decision. She would find Hopkins and tell
him everything Corcoran had told her! In that instant she desired
nothing so much as the ruin of the man she had loved.

She ran down the crowded street, ignoring men who pawed at her and
called after her. She hardly saw the people who stared after her. She
supposed that Hopkins would be at the jail, helping guard the
prisoners, and she directed her steps thither. As she ran up on the
porch Bill McNab confronted her with a leer, and laid a hand on her
arm, laughing when she jerked away.

"Come to see me, Glory? Or are you lookin' for Corcoran?"

She struck his hand away. His words, and the insinuating guffaws
of his companions were sparks enough to touch off the explosives
seething in her.

"You fool! You're being sold out, and don't know it!"

The leer vanished.

"What do you mean?" he snarled.

"I mean that your boss is fixing to skip out with all the gold you
thieves have grabbed!" she blurted, heedless of consequences, in her
emotional storm, indeed scarcely aware of what she was saying. "He and
Corcoran are going to leave you holding the sack, tonight!"

And not seeing the man she was looking for, she eluded McNab's
grasp, jumped down from the porch and darted away in the darkness.

The deputies stared at each other, and the prisoners, having heard
everything, began to clamor to be turned out.

"Shut up!" snarled McNab. "She may be lyin'. Might have had a
quarrel with Corcoran and took this fool way to get even with him. We
can't afford to take no chances. We've got to be sure we know what
we're doin' before we move either way. We can't afford to let you out
now, on the chance that she might be lyin'. But we'll give you weapons
to defend yourselves.

"Here, take these rifles and hide 'em under the bunks. Pete Daley,
you stay here and keep folks shooed away from the jail till we get
back. Richardson, you and Stark come with me! We'll have a showdown
with Middleton right now!"

When Glory left the jail she headed for Hopkins' cabin. But she
had not gone far when a reaction shook her. She was like one waking
from a nightmare, or a dope-jag. She was still sickened by the
discovery of Corcoran's duplicity in regard to the people of the camp,
but she began to apply reason to her suspicions of his motives in
regard to herself. She began to realize that she had acted
illogically. If Corcoran's attitude toward her was not sincere, he
certainly would not have asked her to leave the camp with him. At the
expense of her vanity she was forced to admit that his attentions to
her had not been necessary in his game of duping the camp. That was
something apart; his own private business; it must be so. She had
suspected him of trifling with her affections, but she had to admit
that she had no proof that he had ever paid the slightest attention to
any other woman in Whapeton. No; whatever his motives or actions in
general, his feeling toward her must be sincere and real.

With a shock she remembered her present errand, her reckless words
to McNab. Despair seized her, in which she realized that she loved
Steve Corcoran in spite of all he might be. Chill fear seized her that
McNab and his friends would kill her lover. Her unreasoning fury died
out, gave way to frantic terror.

Turning she ran swiftly down the gulch toward Corcoran's cabin.
She was hardly aware of it when she passed through the blazing heart
of the camp. Lights and bearded faces were like a nightmarish blur, in
which nothing was real but the icy terror in her heart.

She did not realize it when the clusters of cabins fell behind
her. The patter of her slippered feet in the road terrified her, and
the black shadows under the trees seemed pregnant with menace. Ahead
of her she saw Corcoran's cabin at last, a light streaming through the
open door. She burst into the office-room, panting--and was confronted
by Middleton who wheeled with a gun in his hand.

"What the devil are you doing here?" He spoke without
friendliness, though he returned the gun to its scabbard.

"Where's Corcoran?" she panted. Fear took hold of her as she faced
the man she now knew was the monster behind the grisly crimes that had
made a reign of terror over Whapeton Gulch. But fear for Corcoran
overshadowed her own terror.

"I don't know. I looked for him through the bars a short time ago,
and didn't find him. I'm expecting him here any minute. What do you
want with him?"

"That's none of your business," she flared.

"It might be." He came toward her, and the mask had fallen from
his dark, handsome face. It looked wolfish.

"You were a fool to come here. You pry into things that don't
concern you. You know too much. You talk too much. Don't think I'm not
wise to you! I know more about you than you suspect."

A chill fear froze her. Her heart seemed to be turning to ice.
Middleton was like a stranger to her, a terrible stranger. The mask
was off, and the evil spirit of the man was reflected in his dark,
sinister face. His eyes burned her like actual coals.

"I didn't pry into secrets," she whispered with dry lips. "I
didn't ask any questions. I never before suspected you were the chief
of the Vultures--"

The expression of his face told her she had made an awful mistake.

"So you know that!" His voice was soft, almost a whisper, but
murder stood stark and naked in his flaming eyes. "I didn't know that.
I was talking about something else. Conchita told me it was you who
told Corcoran about the plan to lynch McBride. I wouldn't have killed
you for that, though it interfered with my plans. But you know too
much. After tonight it wouldn't matter. But tonight's not over yet--"

"Oh!" she moaned, staring with dilated eyes as the big pistol slid
from its scabbard in a dull gleam of blue steel. She could not move,
she could not cry out. She could only cower dumbly until the crash of
the shot knocked her to the floor.

As Middleton stood above her, the smoking gun in his hand, he
heard a stirring in the room behind him. He quickly upset the long
table, so it could hide the body of the girl, and turned, just as the
door opened. Corcoran came from the back room, blinking, a gun in his
hand. It was evident that he had just awakened from a drunken sleep,
but his hands did not shake, his pantherish tread was sure as ever,
and his eyes were neither dull nor bloodshot.

Nevertheless Middleton swore.

"Corcoran, are you crazy?"

"You shot?"

"I shot at a snake that crawled across the floor. You must have
been mad, to soak up liquor today, of all days!"

"I'm all right," muttered Corcoran, shoving his gun back in its
scabbard.

"Well, come on. I've got the mules in the clump of trees next to
my cabin. Nobody will see us load them. Nobody will see us go. We'll
go up the ravine beyond my cabin, as we planned. There's nobody
watching my cabin tonight. All the Vultures are down in the camp,
waiting for the signal to move. I'm hoping none will escape the
vigilantes, and that most of the vigilantes themselves are killed in
the fight that's sure to come. Come on! We've got thirty mules to
load, and that job will take us from now until midnight, at least. We
won't pull out until we hear the guns on the other side of the camp."

"Listen!"

It was footsteps, approaching the cabin almost at a run. Both men
wheeled and stood motionless as McNab loomed in the door. He lurched
into the room, followed by Richardson and Stark. Instantly the air was
supercharged with suspicion, hate, tension. Silence held for a tick of
time.

"You fools!" snarled Middleton. "What are you doing away from the
jail?"

"We came to talk to you," said McNab. "We've heard that you and
Corcoran planned to skip with the gold."

Never was Middleton's superb self-control more evident. Though the
shock of that blunt thunderbolt must have been terrific, he showed no
emotion that might not have been showed by any honest man, falsely
accused.

"Are you utterly mad?" he ejaculated, not in a rage, but as if
amazement had submerged whatever anger he might have felt at the
charge.

McNab shifted his great bulk uneasily, not sure of his ground.
Corcoran was not looking at him, but at Richardson, in whose cold eyes
a lethal glitter was growing. More quickly than Middleton, Corcoran
sensed the inevitable struggle in which this situation must culminate.

"I'm just sayin' what we heard. Maybe it's so, maybe it ain't. If
it ain't, there's no harm done," said McNab slowly. "On the chance
that it was so, I sent word for the boys not to wait till midnight.
They're goin' to the jail within the next half-hour and take Miller
and the rest out."

Another breathless silence followed that statement. Middleton did
not bother to reply. His eyes began to smolder. Without moving, he yet
seemed to crouch, to gather himself for a spring. He had realized what
Corcoran had already sensed; that this situation was not to be passed
over by words, that a climax of violence was inevitable.

Richardson knew this; Stark seemed merely puzzled. McNab, if he
had any thoughts, concealed the fact.

"Say you _was_ intendin' to skip," he said, "this might be a good
chance, while the boys was takin' Miller and them off up into the
hills. I don't know. I ain't accusin' you. I'm just askin' you to
clear yourself. You can do it easy. Just come back to the jail with us
and help get the boys out."

Middleton's answer was what Richardson, instinctive man-killer,
had sensed it would be. He whipped out a gun in a blur of speed. And
even as it cleared leather, Richardson's gun was out. But Corcoran had
not taken his eyes off the cold-eyed gunman, and his draw was the
quicker by a lightning-flicker. Quick as was Middleton, both the other
guns spoke before his, like a double detonation. Corcoran's slug
blasted Richardson's brains just in time to spoil his shot at
Middleton. But the bullet grazed Middleton so close that it caused him
to miss McNab with his first shot.

McNab's gun was out and Stark was a split second behind him.
Middleton's second shot and McNab's first crashed almost together, but
already Corcoran's guns had sent lead ripping through the giant's
flesh. His ball merely flicked Middleton's hair in passing, and the
chief's slug smashed full into his brawny breast. Middleton fired
again and yet again as the giant was falling. Stark was down, dying on
the floor, having pulled trigger blindly as he fell, until the gun was
empty.

Middleton stared wildly about him, through the floating blue fog
of smoke that veiled the room. In that fleeting instant, as he
glimpsed Corcoran's image-like face, he felt that only in such a
setting as this did the Texan appear fitted. Like a somber figure of
Fate he moved implacably against a background of blood and slaughter.

"God!" gasped Middleton. "That was the quickest, bloodiest fight I
was ever in!" Even as he talked he was jamming cartridges into his
empty gun chambers.

"We've got no time to lose now! I don't know how much McNab told
the gang of his suspicions. He must not have told them much, or some
of them would have come with him. Anyway, their first move will be to
liberate the prisoners. I have an idea they'll go through with that
just as we planned, even when McNab doesn't return to lead them. They
won't come looking for him, or come after us, until they turn Miller
and the others loose.

"It just means the fight will come within the half-hour instead of
at midnight. The vigilantes will be there by that time. They're
probably lying in ambush already. Come on! We've got to sling gold on
those mules like devils. We may have to leave some of it; we'll know
when the fight's started, by the sound of the guns! One thing, nobody
will come up here to investigate the shooting. All attention is
focused on the jail!"

Corcoran followed him out of the cabin, then turned back with a
muttered: "Left a bottle of whisky in that back room."

"Well, hurry and get it and come on!" Middleton broke into a run
toward his cabin, and Corcoran re-entered the smoke-veiled room. He
did not glance at the crumpled bodies which lay on the crimson-stained
floor, staring glassily up at him. With a stride he reached the back
room, groped in his bunk until he found what he wanted, and then
strode again toward the outer door, the bottle in his hand.

The sound of a low moan brought him whirling about, a gun in his
left hand. Startled, he stared at the figures on the floor. He knew
none of them had moaned; all three were past moaning. Yet his ears had
not deceived him.

His narrowed eyes swept the cabin suspiciously, and focused on a
thin trickle of crimson that stole from under the upset table as it
lay on its side near the wall. None of the corpses lay near it.

He pulled aside the table and halted as if shot through the heart,
his breath catching in a convulsive gasp. An instant later he was
kneeling beside Glory Bland, cradling her golden head in his arm. His
hand, as he brought the whisky bottle to her lips, shook queerly.

Her magnificent eyes lifted toward him, glazed with pain. But by
some miracle the delirium faded, and she knew him in her last few
moments of life.

"Who did this?" he choked. Her white throat was laced by a tiny
trickle of crimson from her lips.

"Middleton--" she whispered. "Steve, oh, Steve--I tried--" And
with the whisper uncompleted she went limp in his arms. Her golden
head lolled back; she seemed like a child, a child just fallen asleep.
Dazedly he eased her to the floor.

Corcoran's brain was clear of liquor as he left the cabin, but he
staggered like a drunken man. The monstrous, incredible thing that had
happened left him stunned, hardly able to credit his own senses. It
had never occurred to him that Middleton would kill a woman, that any
white man would. Corcoran lived by his own code, and it was wild and
rough and hard, violent and incongruous, but it included the
conviction that womankind was sacred, immune from the violence that
attended the lives of men. This code was as much a vital, living
element of the life of the Southwestern frontier as was personal
honor, and the resentment of insult. Without pompousness, without
pretentiousness, without any of the tawdry glitter and sham of a false
chivalry, the people of Corcoran's breed practiced this code in their
daily lives. To Corcoran, as to his people, a woman's life and body
were inviolate. It had never occurred to him that that code would, or
could be violated, or that there could be any other kind.

Cold rage swept the daze from his mind and left him crammed to the
brim with murder. His feelings toward Glory Bland had approached the
normal love experienced by the average man as closely as was possible
for one of his iron nature. But if she had been a stranger, or even a
person he had disliked, he would have killed Middleton for outraging a
code he had considered absolute.

He entered Middleton's cabin with the soft stride of a stalking
panther. Middleton was bringing bulging buckskin sacks from the cave,
heaping them on a table in the main room. He staggered with their
weight. Already the table was almost covered.

"Get busy!" he exclaimed. Then he halted short, at the blaze in
Corcoran's eyes. The fat sacks spilled from his arms, thudding on the
floor.

"You killed Glory Bland!" It was almost a whisper from the Texan's
livid lips.

"Yes." Middleton's voice was even. He did not ask how Corcoran
knew, he did not seek to justify himself. He knew the time for
argument was past. He did not think of his plans, or of the gold on
the table, or that still back there in the cave. A man standing face
to face with Eternity sees only the naked elements of life and death.

_"Draw!"_ A catamount might have spat the challenge, eyes flaming,
teeth flashing.

Middleton's hand was a streak to his gun butt. Even in that flash
he knew he was beaten--heard Corcoran's gun roar just as he pulled
trigger. He swayed back, falling, and in a blind gust of passion
Corcoran emptied both guns into him as he crumpled.

For a long moment that seemed ticking into Eternity the killer
stood over his victim, a somber, brooding figure that might have been
carved from the iron night of the Fates. Off toward the other end of
the camp other guns burst forth suddenly, in salvo after thundering
salvo. The fight that was plotted to mask the flight of the Vulture
chief had begun. But the figure which stood above the dead man in the
lonely cabin did not seem to hear.

Corcoran looked down at his victim, vaguely finding it strange,
after all, that all those bloody schemes and terrible ambitions should
end like that, in a puddle of oozing blood on a cabin floor. He lifted
his head to stare somberly at the bulging sacks on the table.
Revulsion gagged him.

A sack had split, spilling a golden stream that glittered evilly
in the candlelight. His eyes were no longer blinded by the yellow
sheen. For the first time he saw the blood on that gold, it was black
with blood; the blood of innocent men; the blood of a woman. The mere
thought of touching it nauseated him, made him feel as if the slime
that had covered John Middleton's soul would befoul him. Sickly he
realized that some of Middleton's guilt was on his own head. He had
not pulled the trigger that ripped a woman's life from her body; but
he had worked hand-in-glove with the man destined to be her murderer--
Corcoran shuddered and a clammy sweat broke out upon his flesh.

Down the gulch the firing had ceased, faint yells came to him,
freighted with victory and triumph. Many men must be shouting at once,
for the sound to carry so far. He knew what it portended; the Vultures
had walked into the trap laid for them by the man they trusted as a
leader. Since the firing had ceased, it meant the whole band were
either dead or captives. Whapeton's reign of terror had ended.

But he must stir. There would be prisoners, eager to talk. Their
speech would weave a noose about his neck.

He did not glance again at the gold, gleaming there where the
honest people of Whapeton would find it. Striding from the cabin he
swung on one of the horses that stood saddled and ready among the
trees. The lights of the camp, the roar of the distant voices fell
away behind him, and before him lay what wild destiny he could not
guess. But the night was full of haunting shadows, and within him grew
a strange pain, like a revelation; perhaps it was his soul, at last
awakening.



THE END



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