a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Tales of the West Author: Robert E. Howard * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304831h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Aug 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
RED GHALLINAN was a gunman. Not a trade to be proud of, perhaps, but Red was proud of it. Proud of his skill with a gun, proud of the notches on the long blue barrels of his heavy .45's. Red was a wiry, medium sized man with a cruel, thin lipped mouth and close-set, shifty eyes. He was bow-legged from much riding, and, with his slouching walk and hard face he was, indeed, an unprepossessing figure. Red's mind and soul were as warped as his exterior. His sinister reputation caused men to strive to avoid offending him but at the same time it cut him off from the fellowship of people. No man, good or bad, cares to chum with a killer. Even the outlaws hated him and feared him too much to admit him to their gang, so he was a lone wolf. But a lone wolf may sometimes be more feared than the whole pack.
Let us not blame Red too much. He was born and reared in an environment of evil. His father and his father's father had been rustlers and gunfighters. Until he was a grown man, Red knew nothing but crime as a legitimate way of making a living and by the time he learned that a man may earn a sufficient livelihood and still remain within the law he was too set in his ways to change. So it was not altogether his fault that he was a gunfighter. Rather, it was the fault of those unscrupulous politicians and mine- owners who hired him to kill their enemies. For that was the way Red lived. He was born a gun-fighter. The killer instinct burned strongly in him—the heritage of Cain. He had never seen the man who surpassed him or even equalled him in the speed of the draw or in swift, straight shooting. These qualities, together with the cold nerve and reckless bravery that goes with red hair, made him much in demand with rich men who had enemies. So he did a large business.
But the fore-van of the law began to come into Idaho and Red saw with hate the first sign of that organization which had driven him out of Texas a few years before—the vigilantes. Red's jobs became fewer and fewer for he feared to kill unless he could make it appear self-defense.
At last it reached a point where Red was faced with the alternative of moving on or going to work. So he rode over to a miner's cabin and announced his intention of buying the miner's claim. The miner, after one skittish glance at Red's guns, sold his claim for fifty dollars, signed the deed, and left the country precipitately.
Red worked the claim for a few days and then quit in disgust. He had not gotten one ounce of gold dust. This was due, partly, to his distaste for work, partly to his ignorance of placer mining, and mostly to the poorness of the claim.
He was standing in the front door of the saloon of the little mining town when the stage-coach drove in and a passenger alit.
He was a well built, frank-appearing young fellow and Red hated him instinctively. Hated him for his cleanness, for his open, honest, pleasant face, because he was everything Red was not.
The newcomer was very friendly and very soon the whole town knew his antecedents. His name was Hal Sharon, a tenderfoot from the east, who had come to Idaho with high hopes of striking a bonanza and going home wealthy. Of course there was a girl in the case, though Hal said little on that point. He had a few hundred dollars and wanted to buy a good claim. At this Red took a new interest in the young man.
Red bought drinks and lauded his claim. Sharon proved singularly trustful. He did not ask to see the claim but took Red's word for it. A trustfulness that would have touched a less hardened man than Red.
One or two men, angered at the deliberate swindle, tried to warn Hal but a cold glance from Red caused them to change their minds. Hal bought Red's claim for five hundred dollars.
He toiled unceasingly all fall and early winter, barely making enough to keep him in food and clothes, while Red lived in the little town and sneered at his uncomplaining efforts.
Christmas was in the air. Everywhere the miners stopped work and came to town to live there until the snow should have melted and the ground thawed out in the spring. Only Hal Sharon stayed at his claim, working on in the cold and snow, spurred on by the thought of riches—and a girl.
It was a little over three weeks until Christmas, when, one cold night, Red Ghallinan sat by the stove in the saloon and listened to the blizzard outside. He thought of Sharon doubtless shivering in his cabin up on the slopes and he sneered. He listened idly to the talk of the miners and cowpunchers who were discussing the coming festivals, a dance and so on.
Christmas meant nothing to Red. Though the one bright spot in his life had been one Christmas years ago when Red was a ragged waif, shivering on the snow covered streets of Kansas City.
He had passed a great church and, attracted by the warmth, had entered timidly. The people had sung "Hark the Herald Angels Sing!" and when the congregation passed out, an old, white-haired woman had seen the boy and had taken him home and fed him and clothed him. Red had lived in her home as one of the family until spring but when the wild geese began to fly north and the trees began to bud, the wanderlust got into the boy's blood and he ran away and came back to his native Texas prairies. But that was years ago and Red never thought of it now.
The door flew open and a furred and muffled figure strode in. It was Sharon—his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets.
Instantly Red was on his feet, hand twisting just above a gun. But Hal took no notice of him. He pushed his way to the bar.
"Boys," he said, "I named my claim the Golden Hope, and it was a true name! Boys, I've struck it rich!"
And he threw a double handful of nuggets and gold-dust on the bar.
On Christmas Eve Red stood in the door of an eating house and watched Sharon coming down the slope, whistling merrily. He had a right to be merry. He was already worth twelve thousand dollars and had not exhausted his claim by half. Red watched with hate in his eyes. Ever since the night Sharon had thrown his first gold on the bar, his hatred of the man had grown. Hal's fortune seemed a personal injury to Red. Had he not worked like a slave on that claim without getting a pound of gold? And here this stranger had come and gotten rich off that same claim! Thousands to him, a measly five hundred to Red. To Red's warped mind this assumed monstrous proportions—an outrage. He hated Sharon as he had never hated a man before. And, since with him to hate was to kill, he determined to kill Hal Sharon. With a curse he reached for a gun when a thought stayed his hand. The Vigilantes! They would get him sure if he killed Sharon openly. A cunning light came to his eyes and he turned and strode away toward the unpretentious boarding-house where he stayed.
Hal Sharon walked into the saloon.
"Seen Ghallinan lately?" he asked.
The bar-tender shook his head.
Hal tossed a bulging buck-skin sack on the bar.
"Give that to him when you see him. It's got about a thousand dollars worth of gold dust in it."
The bar-tender gasped. "What! You giving Red a thousand bucks after he tried to swindle you? Yes, it is safe here. Ain't a galoot in camp would touch anything belonging to that gun-fighter. But say—"
"Well," answered Hal, "I don't think he got enough for his claim; he practically gave it to me. And anyway," he laughed over his shoulder, "it's Christmas!"
MORNING in the mountains. The highest peaks touched with a delicate pink. The stars paling as the darkness grew grey. Light on the peaks, shadow still in the valleys, as if the paint brush of the Master had but passed lightly over the land, coloring only the highest places, the places nearest to Him. Now the light-legions began to invade the valleys, driving before them the darkness; the light on the peaks grew stronger, the snow beginning to cast back the light. But as yet no sun. The King had sent his couriers before him but he himself had not appeared.
In a certain valley, smoke curled from the chimney of a rude log cabin. High on the hillside, a man gave a grunt of satisfaction. The man lay in a hollow, from which he had scraped the drifted snow. Ever since the first hint of dawn, he had lain there, watching the cabin. A heavy rifle lay beneath his arm.
Down in the valley, the cabin door swung wide and a man stepped out. The watcher on the hill saw that it was the man he had come to kill.
Hal Sharon threw his arms wide and laughed aloud in the sheer joy of living. Up on the hill, Red Ghallinan watched the man over the sights of a Sharps .50 rifle. For the first time he noticed what a magnificent figure the young man was. Tall, strong, handsome, with the glow of health on his cheek.
For some reason Red was not getting the enjoyment he thought he would. He shook his shoulders impatiently. His finger tightened on the trigger—suddenly Hal broke into song; the words floated clearly to Red.
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing!"
Where had he heard that song before? Then suddenly a mist floated across Red Ghallinan's eyes; the rifle slipped unnoticed from his hands. He drew his hand across his eyes and looked toward the east. There, alone, hung one great star and as he looked, over the shoulder of a great mountain came the great sun.
"Gawd!" gulped Red, "why—it is Christmas!"
"Now, come all you punchers, and listen to my
"When I tell you of troubles on the Chisholm Trail!"
STEVE HARMER was riding Texas-fashion, slow and easy, one knee hooked over the saddle horn, hat pulled over his brows to shade his face. His lean body swayed rhythmically to the easy gait of his horse.
The trail he was following sloped gradually upward, growing steeper as he continued. Cedars flanked the narrow path, with occasional pinons and junipers. Higher up, these gave place to pines.
Looking back, Steve could see the broad level country he had left, deeply grassed and sparsely treed. Beyond and above, the timbered slopes of the mountains frowned. Peak beyond peak, pinnacle beyond pinnacle they rose, with great undulating slopes between, as if piled by giants.
Suddenly behind the lone rider came the clatter of hoofs. Steve pulled aside to let the horsemen by, but they came to a halt beside him. Steve swept off his broad-brimmed hat.
There were two of the strangers, and one was a girl. To Steve she seemed strangely out of place, somehow, in this primitive setting. She sat her horse in an unfamiliar manner and her whole air was not of the West. She wore an Eastern riding habit—and then Steve forgot her clothes as he looked at her face. A vagrant curl, glinting gold in the sun, fell over her white forehead and from beneath this two soft grey eyes looked at him. Her full lips were half parted—
"Say, you!" a rough voice jarred Steve out of his daydreams.
The girl's companion was as characteristically Western as she was not. He was a heavily built man of middle life, thickly bearded and roughly clad. His features were dark and coarse, and Steve noted the heavy revolver which hung at his hip.
This man spoke in a harsh, abrupt manner.
"Who're you and where do you reckon you're goin'?"
Steve stiffened at the tone. He shot a glance at the girl, who seemed rather pale and frightened.
"My name's Harmer," said he, shortly. "I'm just passin' through."
"Yeah?" the bearded lips parted in a wolfish grin. "I reckon, stranger, you done lost your way—you shoulda took that trail back yonder a ways that branched off to the south."
"I ain't said where I was goin'," Steve responded, nettled. "Maybe I have reason for goin' this way."
"That's what I'm thinkin'," the bearded man answered, and Steve sensed the menacing note in his voice. "But you may have reason for takin' the other trail yet. Nobody lives in these hills, and they don't like strangers! Be warned, young feller, and don't git into somethin' you don't know nothin' about."
And while Steve gaped at him, not understanding, the man flung a curt order to the girl, and they both sped off up the trail, their horses laboring under the stress of quirt and spur. Steve watched in amazement.
"By golly, they don't care how they run their broncs uphill. What do you reckon all that rigamarole meant? Maybe I oughta taken the other trail, at that—golly, that was a pretty girl!"
The riders disappeared on the thickly timbered slope and Steve, after some musing, nudged his steed with his knee and started on.
"I'm a goin' West and punch Texas cattle!
"Ten dollar horse and forty dollar saddle."
Crack! A sharp report cut through the melody of his lazy song. A flash of fire stabbed from among trees further up the slope. Steve's hat flew from his head, his horse snorted and reared, nearly unseating his rider.
Steve whirled his steed, dropping off on the far side. His gun was in his hand as he peered cautiously across his saddle in the direction from which the shot had come. Silence hovered over the tree-masked mountain side and no motion among the intertwining branches betrayed the presence of the hidden foe.
At last Steve cautiously stepped from behind his horse. Nothing happened. He sheathed his gun, stepped forward and recovered his hat, swearing as he noted the neat hole through the crown.
"Now did that whiskered galoot stop up there some place and sneak back for a crack at me?" he wondered. "Or did he tell somebody else to—or did that somebody else do it on their own idea? And what is the idea? What's up in them hills that they don't want seen? And was this sharpshooter tryin' to kill me or just warn me?"
He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
"Anyway," he meditated as he mounted, "I reckon that south trail is the best road, after all."
THE south branch, he found, led down instead of up, skirting the base of the incline. He sighted several droves of sheep, and as the sun sank westward, he came upon a small cabin built near a running stream of clear water.
"Hi yah! Git down and set!" greeted the man who came to the door.
He was a small, wizened old fellow, remarkably bald, and he seemed delighted at the opportunity for conversation which Steve's coming afforded. But Steve eyed him with a suspicious glance before he dismounted.
"My name is Steve Harmer," said Steve abruptly. "I'm from Texas and I'm just passin' through. If you hone for me to ride on, just say so and they won't be no need for slingin' lead at me."
"Heh, heh!" laughed the old fellow. "Son, I kin read yore brand! You done fell in with my neighbors of the Sunset Mountains!"
"A tough lookin' hombre and a nice lookin' girl," admitted Steve. "And some fellow who didn't give his name, but just ruined my best hat."
"Light!" commanded the old man. "Light and hobble yore bronc. This ain't no hotel, but maybe you can struggle along with the accommodations. My name is ... 'Hard Luck Harper,' and I aim to live up to that handle. You ain't by no chance got no corn juice in them saddle bags?"
"No, I ain't," answered Steve, dismounting.
"I was afeard not," sighed the old man. "Hard Luck I be to the end—come in—I smell that deer meat a- burnin'."
After a supper of venison, sourdough bread and coffee, the two sat on the cabin stoop and watched the stars blink out as they talked. The sound of Steve's horse, cropping the luxuriant grass, came to them, and a night breeze wafted the spicy scents of the forest.
"This country is sure different from Texas," said Steve. "I kinda like these mountains, though. I was figurin' on campin' up among 'em tonight, that's why I took that west trail. She goes on to Rifle Pass, don't she?"
"She don't," replied the old man. "Rifle Pass is some south of here and this is the trail to that small but thrivin' metropolis. That trail you was followin' meanders up in them hills and where she goes, nobody knows."
"Why don't they?"
"Fer two reasons. The first is, they's no earthly reason fer a man in his right mind to go up there, and I'll refer you to yore hat fer the second."
"What right has this bird got to bar people from these mountains?"
"I think it must be a thirty-thirty caliber," grinned the old man. "That feller you met was Gila Murken, who lays out to own them mountains, like, and the gal was his niece, I reckon, what come from New York.
"I dunno what Gila's up to. I've knowed him, off and on, fer twenty years, and never knowed nothin' good. I'm his nearest neighbor, now, but I ain't got the slightest idee where his cabin is—up there somewhere." He indicated the gigantic brooding bulk of the Sunset Mountains, black in the starlight.
"Gila's got a couple fellers with him, and now this gal. Nobody else ever goes up that hill trail. The men come up here a year ago."
Steve mused. "An' what do you reckon is his idee for discouragin' visitors?"
The old man shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. "Son, I've wondered myself. He and his pards lives up in them mountains and regular once a week one of 'em rides to Rifle Pass or maybe clean to Stirrup, east. They have nothin' to do with me or anybody else. I've wondered, but, gosh, they ain't a chance!"
"Ain't a chance of what?"
"Steve," said Hard Luck, his lean hand indicating the black vastness of the hills, "somewhere up there amongst them canyons and gorges and cliffs, is a fortune! And sometimes I wonder if Gila Murken ain't found it.
"It's forty year ago that me and Bill Hansen come through this country—first white men in it, so far as I know. I was nothin' but a kid then an' we was buffalo hunters, kinda strayed from the regular course.
"We went up into them hills, Sunset Mountains, the Indians call 'em, and away back somewheres we come into a range of cliffs. Now, it don't look like it'd be that way, lookin' from here, but in among the mountains they's long chains of cliffs, straight up and down, maybe four hundred feet high, clay and rock—mighty treacherous stuff. They's maybe seventeen sets of these cliffs, Ramparts, we call 'em, and they look just alike. Trees along the edge, thick timber at the base. The edges is always crumblin' and startin' landslides and avalanches.
"Me and Bill Hansen come to the front of one of these Ramparts and Bill was lookin' at where the earth of the cliff face had kinda shelved away when he let out a whoop!
"Gold! Reef gold—the blamedest vein I ever see, just lying there right at the surface ready for somebody to work out the ore and cart it off! We dropped our guns and laid into the cliff with our fingernails, diggin' the dirt away. And the vein looked like she went clear to China! Get that, son, reef gold and quartz in the open cliff face.
" 'Bill,' says I, 'we're milyunaires!'
"And just as I said it, somethin' came whistlin' by my cheek and Bill gave one yell and went down on his face with a steel-pointed arrow through him. And before I could move a rifle cracked and somethin' that felt like a red hot hammer hit me in the chest and knocked me flat.
"A war party—they'd stole up on us while we was diggin'. Cheyennes they was, from the north, and they come out and chanted their scalp songs over us. Bill was dead and I lay still, all bloody but conscious, purtendin' I was a stiff, too.
"They scalped Bill and they scalped me—"
Steve gave an exclamation of horror.
"Oh, yes," said Hard Luck tranquilly. "It hurt considerable—fact is, I don't know many things that hurt wuss. But somehow I managed to lie still and not let on like I was alive, though a couple of times I thought I was goin' to let out a whoop in spite of myself."
"Did they scalp you plumb down to the temples?" asked Steve morbidly.
"Naw—the Cheyennes never scalped that way." Hard Luck ran his hand contemplatively over his glistening skull. "They just cut a piece out of the top—purty good sized piece, though—and the rest of the ha'r kinda got discouraged and faded away, after a few years.
"Anyway, they danced and yelled fer awhile an' then they left an' I began to take invoice to see if I was still livin'. I was shot through the chest but by some miracle the ball had gone on through without hitting anything important. I thought, though, I was goin' to bleed to death. But I stuffed the wound with leaves and the webs these large white spiders spin on the low branches of trees. I crawled to a spring which wasn't far away and lay there like a dead man till night, when I came to and lay there thinkin' about my dead friend, and my wounds and the gold I'd never enjoy.
"Then, I got out of my right mind and went crawlin' away through the forest, not knowin' why I did it. I was just like a man that's drunk: I knowed what I was doin' but I didn't know why I was doin' it. I crawled and I crawled and how long I kept on crawlin' I don't know fer I passed clean out, finally, and some buffalo hunters found me out in the level country, miles and miles from where I was wounded. I was ravin' and gibberin' and nearly dead.
"They tended to me and after a long time my wounds healed and I come back to my right mind. And when I did, I thought about the gold and got up a prospectin' party and went back. But seems like I couldn't remember what all happened just before I got laid out. Everything was vague and I couldn't remember what way Bill and me had taken to get to the cliff, and I couldn't remember how it looked. They'd been a lot of landslides, too, and likely everything was changed in looks.
"Anyway, I couldn't find the lost mine of Sunset Mountain, and though I been comin' every so often and explorin' again, for forty years me nor no other livin' man has ever laid eyes on that gold ledge. Some landslide done covered it up, I reckon. Or maybe I just ain't never found the right cliff. I don't know.
"I done give it up. I'm gettin' old. Now I'm runnin' a few sheep and am purty contented. But you know now why they call me Hard Luck."
"And you think that maybe this Murken has found your mine and is workin' it on the sly?"
"Naw, really I don't. T'wouldn't be like Gila Murken to try to conceal the fact—he'd just come out and claim it and dare me to take it away from him. Anyway," the old man continued with a touch of vanity, "no dub like Gila Murken could find somethin' that a old prospector like me has looked fer, fer forty year without findin', nohow."
Silence fell. Steve was aware that the night wind, whispering down from the mountains, carried a strange dim throbbing—a measured, even cadence, haunting and illusive.
"Drums," said Hard Luck, as if divining his thought. "Indian drums; tribe's away back up in the mountains. Nothin' like them that took my scalp. Navajoes, these is, a low class gang that wandered up from the south. The government give 'em a kind of reservation back in the Sunset Mountains. Friendly, I reckon—trade with the whites a little.
"Them drums is been goin' a heap the last few weeks. Still nights you can hear 'em easy; sound travels a long way in this land."
His voice trailed off into silence. Steve gazed westward where the monstrous shadowy peaks rose black against the stars. The night breeze whispered a lonely melody through the cedars and pines. The scent of fresh grass and forest trees was in his nostrils. White stars twinkled above the dark mountains and the memory of a pretty, wistful face floated across Steve's vision. As he grew drowsy, the face seemed nearer and clearer, and always through the mists of his dreams throbbed faintly the Sunset drums.
STEVE drained his coffee cup and set it down on the rough- hewn table.
"I reckon," said he, "for a young fellow you're a pretty good cook—Hard Luck, I been thinkin'."
"Don't strain yoreself, son. It ain't a good idee startin' in on new things, at this time of yore life—what you been thinkin' about?"
"That mine of yours. I believe, instead of goin' on to Rifle Pass like I was thinkin' of doin', I'll lay over a few days and look for that lost gold ledge."
"Considerin' as I spent the best part of my life huntin' it," said Hard Luck testily, "it's very likely you'll stub yore toes on it the first thing. The Lord knows, I'd like to have you stay here as long as you want. I don't see many people. But they ain't one chance in a hundred of you findin' that mine, and I'm tellin' you, it ain't healthy to ramble around in the Sunsets now, with Gila Murken hatchin' out the Devil only knows what, up there."
"Murken owes me a new hat," said Steve moodily. "And furthermore and besides it's time somebody showed him he ain't runnin' this country. I crave to hunt for that mine. I dreamed about it last night."
"You better forgit that mountain-business and work with me here on my ranch," advised Hard Luck. "I'll give you a job of herdin' sheep."
"Don't get insultin'," said Steve reprovingly. "How far up in them hills can a horse go?"
"You can navigate most of 'em on yore bronc if you take yore time an' let him pick his way. But you better not."
In spite of Hard Luck's warning, Steve rode up the first of the great slopes before the sun had risen high enough for him to feel its heat. It was a beautiful morning; the early sunlight glistened on the leaves of the trees and on the dew on the grass. Above and beyond him rose the slopes, dark green, deepening into purple in the distance. Snow glimmered on some of the higher peaks.
Steve felt a warmth of comfort and good cheer. The fragrance of Hard Luck's coffee and flapjacks was still on his palate, and the resilience of youth sang through his veins. Somewhere up there in the mysterious tree-clad valleys and ridges adventure awaited him, and as Steve rode, the lost mine of the Sunsets was least in his thoughts.
No trail led up the way he took, but his horse picked his route between boulders and cedars, climbing steep slopes as nimbly as a mountain goat. The cedars gave way to pines and occasionally Steve looked down into some small valley, heavily grassed and thickly wooded. The sun was slanting toward the west when he finally pulled up his horse on the crest of a steep incline and looked down.
A wilder and more broken country he had never seen. From his feet the earth sloped steeply down, covered with pines which seemed to cling precariously, to debouch into a sort of plateau. On three sides of this plateau rose the slanting sides of the mountains. The fourth or east side fell away abruptly into cliffs which seemed hundreds of feet high. But what drew Steve's gaze was the plateau itself.
Near the eastern cliffs stood two log cabins. Smoke curled from one, and as Steve watched, a man came out of the door. Even at that distance Steve recognized the fellow whom Hard Luck had designated as Gila Murken.
Steve slipped from the saddle, led his horse back into the pines a short distance and flung the reins over a tree limb. Then he stole back to the crest of the slope. He did not think Murken could see him, hidden as he was among the trees, but he did not care to take any chances. Another man had joined Murken and the two seemed to be engaged in conversation. After awhile they turned and went into the second cabin.
Time passed but they did not emerge. Suddenly Steve's heart leaped strangely. A slim girlish form had come from the cabin out of which the men had come, and the sunshine glinted on golden hair. Steve leaned forward eagerly, wondering why the mere sight of a girl should cause his breath to come quicker.
She walked slowly toward the cliffs and Steve perceived that there was what seemed to be a deep gorge, presumably leading downward. Into this the girl disappeared. Steve now found that the mysterious cabins had lost much of their interest, and presently he went back to his horse, mounted and rode southward, keeping close to the crest of the slopes. At last he attained a position where he could look back at the plateau and get a partial view of the cliffs. He decided that they were some of the Ramparts, spoken of by Hard Luck. They rose steep and bare for four hundred feet, deeply weathered and serrated. Gorges cut deep into them and promontories stood out over the abysses beneath. Great boulders lined the edge of the precipices and the whole face of the cliffs looked unstable and treacherous.
At the foot, tall forest trees masked a rough and broken country. And as he looked Steve saw the girl, a tiny figure in the distance, come out into a clearing. He watched her until she vanished among the trees, and then turned his steed and rode back in the direction from which he had come, though not following the same route. He took his time, riding leisurely.
The sun slanted westward as he came to the lower slopes and looked back to see the rim of the Ramparts jutting below the heights he had left. He had made a vast semicircle and now the cliffs were behind and above him, instead of in front and below.
He went his leisurely way and suddenly he was aware of voices among the cedars in front of him. He slipped from his saddle, dropped the reins to the horse's feet and stole forward. Hidden among the undergrowth, he looked into a small glade where stood two figures—the girl of the cliffs and a tall lanky man.
"No! No!" the girl was saying. "I don't want to have anything to do with you. Go away and let me alone or I'll tell my uncle."
"Haw! Haw!" The man's laugh was loud but mirthless. "Yore uncle and me is too close connected in a business way for him to rile me! I'm tellin' you, this ain't no place for you and you better let me take you away to whar there's people and towns and the like."
"I don't trust you," she answered sullenly.
"Aw, now don't you? Come on—admit you done come down here just to meet me!"
"That's a lie!" the girl cried, stung. "You know I just went for a stroll; I didn't know you were here."
"These mountains ain't no place for a 'stroll.' "
"My uncle won't let me have a horse and ride, unless he's with me. He's afraid I'll run away."
"And wouldn't you?"
"I don't know. I haven't anywhere to go. But I'd about as soon die as stay here much longer."
"Then let me take you away! I'll marry you, if you say so. They's many a gal would jump to take Mark Edwards up on that deal."
"Oh, let me alone! I don't want to marry you, I don't want to go away with you, I don't even want to look at you! If you really want to make a hit with me, go somewhere and shoot yourself!"
Edwards' brow darkened.
"Oh ho, so I ain't good enough for you, my fine lady. Reckon I'll just take a kiss anyhow."
His grimed hands shot and closed on her shoulders. Instantly she clenched a small fist and struck him in the mouth, so that blood trickled from his lips. The blow roused all the slumbering demon in the man.
"Yore a spit-fire," he grunted. "But I 'low I'll tame you."
He pinioned her arms, cursed soulfully as she kicked him on the shins, and crushed her slim form to him. His unshaven lips were seeking hers when Steve impulsively went into action.
He bounded from his covert, gripped the man's shoulder with steely fingers and swung him around, smashing him in the face with his left hand as he did so. Edwards gaped in astonishment, then roared and rushed in blindly, fingers spread to gouge and tear. Steve was not inclined to clinch rough-and- tumble fashion. He dropped his right fist nearly to his ankle and then brought it up in a long sweeping arc that stopped at Edwards's chin. That worthy's head went back as if it were hinged and his body, following the motion, crashed to the leaf-covered earth. He lay as if in slumber, his limbs tossed about in a careless and nonchalant manner. Steve caressed his sore knuckles and glanced at the girl.
"Is—is—is he dead?" she gasped, wide eyed.
"Naw, miss, I'm afraid he ain't," Steve answered regretfully. "He's just listenin' to the cuckoo birds. Shall I tie him up?"
"What for?" she asked reasonably enough. "No, let's go before he comes to."
And she started away hurriedly. Steve got his horse and followed her, overtaking her within . He walked beside her, leading his steed, his eyes admiringly taking in the proud, erect carriage of her slim figure, and the faint delicate rose-leaf tint of her complection.
"I hope you won't think I'm intrudin' where I got no business," said the Texan apologetically. "But I'm a seein' you to wherever you're goin'. That bird might follow you or you might meet another one like him."
"Thank you," she answered in a rather subdued voice. "You were very kind to help me, Mr. Harmer."
"How'd you know my name?"
"You told my uncle who you were yesterday, don't you remember?"
"Seems like I recollect, now," replied Steve, experiencing a foolish warm thrill that she should remember his name. "But I don't recall you saying what your name was."
"My name is Joan Farrel. I'm staying here with my uncle, Mr. Murken, the man with whom you saw me yesterday."
"And was it him," asked Steve bluntly, "that shot a hole in my hat?"
Her eyes widened; a frightened look was evident in her face.
"No! No!" she whispered. "It couldn't have been him! He and I rode right up on to the cabin after we passed you. I heard the shot but I had no idea anyone was shooting at you."
Steve laughed, rather ashamed of having mentioned it to the girl.
"Aw, it wasn't nothin'. Likely somebody done it for a joke. But right after you-all went on, somebody cracked down on me from the trees up the trail a ways and plumb ruint my hat."
"It must have been Edwards," she said in a frightened voice. "We met him coming down the trail on foot after we'd gotten out of sight of you, and Uncle stopped and said something to him I couldn't hear, before we went on."
"And who is Edwards?"
"He's connected with my uncle's business in some way; I don't know just how. He and a man named Allison camp up there close to our cabin."
"What is your uncle's business?" asked Steve with cool assumption.
She did not seem offended at the question.
"I don't know. He never tells me anything. I'm afraid of him and he don't love me."
Her face was shadowed as if by worry or secret fear. Something was haunting her, Steve thought. Nothing more was said until they had reached the base of the cliffs. Steve glanced up, awed. The great walls hung threateningly over them, starkly and somberly. To his eye the cliffs seemed unstable, ready to crash down upon the forest below at the slightest jar. Great boulders jutted out, half embedded in the clay. The brow of the cliff, fringed with trees, hung out over the concave walls.
From where he stood Steve could see a deep gorge, cut far into the face of the precipice and leading steeply upward. He caught his breath. He had never imagined such a natural stairway. The incline was so precipitous that it seemed it would tax the most sure-footed horse. Boulders rested along the trail that led through it, as if hovering there temporarily, and the high walls on each side darkened the way, looming like a sinister threat.
"My gosh!" said he sincerely. "Do you have to go up that gulch every time you leave your cabin?"
"Yes—or else climb the slopes back of the plateau and make a wide circle, leaving the plateau to the north and coming down the southern ridges. We always go this way. I'm used to climbing it now."
"Must have took a long time for the water to wash that out," said Steve. "I'm new to this mountain country, but it looks to me like if somebody stubbed their toe on a rock, it would start a landslide that would bring the whole thing right down in that canyon."
"I think of that, too," she answered with a slight shudder. "I thank you for what you've done for me. But you mustn't go any further. My uncle is always furious if anyone comes into these mountains."
"What about Edwards?"
"I'll tell my uncle and he'll make him leave me alone." She started to go, then hesitated.
"Listen," said Steve, his heart beating wildly, "I'd like to know you better—will—will you meet me tomorrow somewhere?"
"Yes!" she spoke low and swiftly, then turned and ran lightly up the slope. Steve stood, looking after her, hat in hand.
NIGHT had fallen as Steve Harmer rode back to the ranch of Hard Luck Harper.
"Clouds in the west and a-lookin' like rain,
"And my blamed old slicker's in the wagon again!"
he declaimed to the dark blue bowl of the star-flecked sky.
The crisp sharp scent of cedar was in the air and the wind fanned his cheek. He felt his soul grow and expand in the silence and the majesty of the night.
"Woke up one mornin' on the Chisholm
"Rope in my hand and a cow by the tail!"
He drew rein at the cabin stoop and hailed his host hilariously. Old Hard Luck stood in the door and the starlight glinted on the steel in his hand.
"Huh," grunted he suspiciously. "You done finally come back, ain't you? I'd 'bout decided you done met up with Gila Murken and was layin' in a draw somewheres with a thirty-thirty slug through yore innards. Come in and git yore hoofs under the table—I done cooked a couple of steers in hopes of stayin' yore appetite a little."
Steve tended to his horse and then entered the cabin, glancing at the long rifle which the old man had stood up against the cabin wall.
"That was a antique when they fought the Revolution," said Steve. "What's the idea? Are you afraid of Murken?"
"Afeard of Murken? That dub? I got no call to be afeard of him. And don't go slingin' mud at a gun that's dropped more Indians than you ever see. That's a Sharps .50 caliber and when I was younger I could shave a mosquito at two hundred yards with it.
"Naw, it ain't Murken I'm studyin'. Listen!"
Again Steve caught the faint pulsing of the mountain drums.
"Every night they get louder," said Hard Luck. "They say them redskins is plumb peaceful but you can't tell me—the only peaceful Indian I ever see had at least two bullets through his skull. Them drums talks and whispers and they ain't no white man knows what's hatchin' back up in them hills where nobody seldom ever goes. Indian magic! That's what's goin' on, and red magic means red doin's. I've fought 'em from Sonora to the Bad Lands and I know what I'm talkin' about."
"Your nerves is gettin' all euchered up," said Steve, diving into food set before him. "I kinda like to listen to them drums."
"Maybe you'd like to hear 'em when they was dancin' over yore scalp," answered Hard Luck gloomily. "Thar's a town about forty mile northwest of here whar them red devils comes to trade sometimes, 'steader goin' to Rifle Pass, and a fellow come through today from thar and says they must be some strange goin's on up in the Sunsets.
" 'How come?' says I.
" 'Why,' says he, 'them reservation Navajoes has been cartin' down greenbacks to buy their tobaccer and calico and the other day the storekeepers done found the stuff is all counterfeit. They done stopped sellin' to the Indians and sent for a Indian agent to come and investigate. Moreover,' says he, 'somebody is sellin' them redskins liquor too.' "
Hard Luck devoted his attention to eating for a few moments and then began again.
"How come them Indians gets any kind of money up in the mountains, much less counterfeit? Reckon they're makin' it theirselves? And who's slippin' them booze? One thing's shore, Hell's to pay when redskins git drunk and the first scalp they'll likely take is the feller's who sold them the booze."
"Yeah?" returned Steve absent-mindedly. His thoughts were elsewhere.
"Did you find the mine?" asked Hard Luck sarcastically.
"What mine?" The Texan stared at his host blankly.
Hard Luck grunted scornfully and pushed back his chair. After awhile silence fell over the cabin, to be broken presently by Steve's voice rising with dolorous enjoyment in the darkness:
"And he thought of his home, and his loved ones
"And the cowboys gathered to see him die!"
Hard Luck sat up in his bunk and cursed, and hurled a boot.
"For the love of mud, let a old man sleep, willya?"
As Steve drifted off into dreamland, his last thoughts were of gold, but it was not the lost ore of the Sunsets; it was the soft curly gold that framed the charming oval of a soft face. And still through the shimmery hazes of his dreams beat the sinister muttering of the Sunset drums.
THE dew was still on the mountain grass when Steve rode up the long dim slopes to the glade where he had fought Edwards the day before. He sat down on a log and waited, doubting if she whom he sought would really come.
He sat motionless for nearly an hour, and then he heard a light sure step and she stood before him, framed in the young glow of the morning sun. The beauty of her took Steve's breath and he could only stand, hat in hand, and gape, seeking feebly for words. She came straight to him, smiling, and held out her hand. The touch of her slim firm fingers reassured him and he found his voice.
"Miss Farrel, I plumb forgot yesterday to ask you where you'd rather meet me at, or what time. I come here because I figured you'd remember—I mean, you'd think—aw heck!" he stumbled.
"Yes, that was forgetful of us. I decided that you'd naturally come to the place where you found me yesterday and I came early because—because I was afraid you'd come and not find me here and think I wasn't coming," she finished rather confusedly.
As she spoke her eyes ran approvingly over Steve, noting his six-foot build of lithe manhood and the deep tan of his whimsical face.
"I promised to tell you all I know," said she abruptly, twisting her fingers. She seemed paler and more worried than ever. Steve decided that she had reached the point where she was ready to turn to any man for help, stranger or not. Certainly some deep fear was preying on her.
"You know my name," she said, seating herself on the log and motioning him to sit beside her. "Mr. Murken is my mother's brother. My parents separated when I was very young and I've been living with an aunt in New York state. I'd never been west before, until my aunt died not long ago. Before she died she told me to go to her brother at Rifle Pass and not having anywhere else to go, I did so.
"I'd never seen my uncle and I found him very different from what I had expected. He didn't live at Rifle Pass then, but had moved up in these mountains. I came on up here with a guide and my uncle seemed very much enraged because I had come. He let me stay but I'm very unhappy because I know he don't want me. Yet, when I ask him to let me go, he refuses. He won't even let me go to Rifle Pass unless he is with me, and he won't let me go riding unless he's with me. He says he's afraid I'll run away, yet I know he doesn't love me or really want me here. He's not exactly unkind to me, but he isn't kind either.
"There are two men who stay up there most of the time: Edwards, the man you saw yesterday, and a large black-bearded man named Allison. That one, Allison, looks like a bandit or something, but he is very courteous to me. But Edwards—you saw what he did yesterday and he's forever trying to make love to me when my uncle isn't around. I'm afraid to tell my uncle about it, and I don't know whether he'd do anything, if I did tell him.
"The other two men stay in a smaller cabin a little distance from the one occupied by my uncle and myself, and they won't let me come anywhere near it. My uncle even threatened to whip me if I looked in the windows. I think they must have something hidden there. My uncle locks me in my cabin when they are all at work in the other cabin—whatever they're doing in there.
"Sometimes some Indians come down the western slopes from somewhere away back in the hills, and sometimes my uncle rides away with them. Once a week one of the men loads his saddle bags full of something and rides away to be gone two or three days.
"I don't understand it," she added almost tearfully. "I can't help but believe there's something crooked about it. I'm afraid of Edwards and only a little less afraid of my uncle. I want to get away."
Suddenly she seized his hands impulsively.
"You seem good and kind," she exclaimed. "Won't you help me? I'll pay you—"
"You'll what?" he said explosively.
"I beg your pardon. I should have known better than to make that remark. I know you'll help me just from the goodness of your heart."
Steve's face burned crimson. He fumbled with his hat.
"Sure I'll help you. If you want I'll ride up and get your things—"
She stared at him in amazement.
"I don't want you committing suicide on my account," said she. "You'd get shot if you went within sight of my uncle. No, this is what I want you to do. I've told you my uncle won't let me have a horse, and I certainly can't walk out of these mountains. Can you meet me here early tomorrow morning with an extra horse?"
"Sure I can. But how are you goin' to get your baggage away? Girls is usually got a lot of frills and things."
"I haven't. But anyway, I want to get out of this place if I have to leave my clothes, even, and ride out in a bathing suit. I'll stroll out of the cabin in the morning, casually, come down the gulch and meet you here."
"And then where will you want to go?"
"Any place is as good as the next," she answered rather hopelessly. "I'll have to find some town where I can make my own living. I guess I can teach school or work in an office."
"I wish—" said he impulsively, and then stopped short.
"You wish what?" she asked curiously.
"That them drums would quit whoopin' it up at night," he added desperately, flushing as he realized how close he had been to proposing to a girl he had known only two days. He was surprised at himself; he had spoken on impulse and he wondered at the emotion which had prompted him.
She shivered slightly.
"They frighten me, sometimes. Every night they keep booming, and last night I was restless and every time I awoke I could hear them. They didn't stop until dawn. This was the first time they've kept up all night."
"I've stayed as long as I dare. My uncle will get suspicious of me and come looking for me if I'm gone too long."
Steve rose. "I'll go with you as far as the gorge."
AGAIN Steve stood among the thick trees at the foot of the Ramparts and watched the girl go up the gorge, her slim form receding and growing smaller in his sight as she ascended. The gulch lay in everlasting shadow and Steve unconsciously held his breath, as if expecting those grim, towering walls to come crashing down on that slender figure.
Nearly at the upper mouth she turned and waved at him, and he waved back, then turned and made his way back to his horse. He rode carelessly, and with a slack rein, seeming to move in a land of rose-tinted clouds. His heart beat swiftly and his blood sang through his veins.
"I'm in love! I'm in love!" he warbled, wild- eyed, to the indifferent trees. "Oh heck! Oh golly! Oh gosh!"
Suddenly he stopped short. From somewhere further back and high above him came a quick rattle of rifle fire. As he listened another volley cracked out. A vague feeling of apprehension clutched at him. He glanced at the distant rim of the Ramparts. The sounds had seemed to come from that direction. A few straggling shots sounded faintly, then silence fell. What was going on up above those grim cliffs?
"Reckon I ought to go back and see?" he wondered. "Reckon if Murken and his bold boys is slaughterin' each other? Or is it some wanderin' traveler they're greetin'? Aw, likely they're after deer or maybe a mountain lion."
He rode on slowly, but his conscience troubled him. Suddenly a familiar voice hailed him and from the trees in front of him a horseman rode.
"Hi yah!" The rider was Hard Luck Harper. He carried the long Sharps rifle across his saddle bow and his face was set in gloomy lines.
"I done got to worryin' about a brainless maverick like you a- wanderin' around these hills by yoreself with Gila Murken runnin' wild thata-way, and I come to see if you was still in the land of the livin'!"
"And I reckon you're plumb disappointed not to run into a murder or two."
"I don't know so much about them murders," said the old man testily. "Didn't I hear guns a-talkin' up on the Ramparts a little while ago?"
"Likely you did, if you was listenin'."
"Yeah—and people don't go wastin' ammunition fer nothin' up here—look there!"
Hard Luck's finger stabbed upward and Steve, a numbing sense of foreboding gripping his soul, whirled to look. Up over the tree-lined rim of the Ramparts drifted a thin spiral of smoke.
"My Lord, Hard Luck!" gasped Steve. "What's goin' on up there?"
"Shet up!" snarled the old man, raising his rifle. "I hear a horse runnin' hard!"
The wild tattoo of hoofs crashed through the silence and a steed burst through the trees of the upper slope and came plunging down toward them, wild- eyed, nostrils flaring. On its back a crimsoned figure reeled and flopped grotesquely. Steve spurred in front of the frantic flying animal and caught the hanging rein, bringing the bronco to a rearing, plunging halt. The rider slumped forward and pitched to the earth.
"Edwards!" gasped Steve.
The man lay, staring up with blank wide eyes. Blood trickled from his lips and the front of his shirt was soaked in red. Hard Luck and Steve bent over him. At the first glance it was evident that he was dying.
"Edwards!" exclaimed Hard Luck. "What's happened? Who shot you? And whar's yore pards and the gal?"
"Dead!" Edwards' unshaven lips writhed redly and his voice was a croak.
"Daid!" Hard Luck's voice broke shrilly. "Who done it?''
"Them Navajoes!" the voice sank to a ghastly whisper as blood rose to the pallid lips.
"I told you!" gibbered Hard Luck. "I knowed them drums meant deviltry! I knowed it!"
"Shut up, can't you?" snarled Steve, torn by his emotions. He gripped the dying man's shoulder with unconsciously brutal force and shook him desperately.
"Edwards," he begged, "you're goin' over the ridge – can't you tell us how it was before you go? Did you see Murken and his niece die?"
"Yes—it—was—like—this," the man began laboriously. "I was—all set to go—to Rifle Pass—had my bronc loaded—Murken and Allison was out near—the corral—the gal was—in the cabin. All to once—the west slopes began to shower lead. Murken went down—at the first fire. Allison was hit—and I got a slug through me. Then a gang—of Navajoes come ridin' down—the slopes—drunk and blood crazy.
"I got to my bronc—and started ridin' and—they drilled me—a couple of times from behind. Lookin' back I saw—Allison standin' in the cabin door with—both guns goin' and the gal—crouchin' behind him. Then the whole mob—of red devils—rushed in and I saw—the knives flashin' and drippin' as—I come into—the gulch."
Steve crouched, frozen and horror struck. It seemed that his heart had crumbled to ashes. The taste of dust was in his mouth.
"Any of 'em chasin' you, Edwards?" asked Hard Luck. The old Indian fighter was in his element now; he had sloughed off his attitude of lazy good nature and his eyes were hard and cold as steel.
"Maybe—don't know," the wounded man muttered. "All our fault—Murken would give 'em whiskey. Warned him. They found out—the money—he was given' 'em—was no good."
The voice broke suddenly as a red tide gushed to Edwards' lips. He lurched up on his elbows, then toppled back and lay still.
Hard Luck grunted. He stepped over to Edwards' horse which stood trembling, and cut open the saddlebags. He nodded.
"No more'n I expected."
Steve was rising slowly, mechanically wiping his hands on a wisp of grass. His face was white, his eyes staring.
"She's dead!" he whispered. "She's dead!"
Hard Luck, gazing at him, felt a pang in his heart. The scene brought back so poignantly the old bloody days of Indian warfare when men had seen their loved ones struck down by knife and arrow.
"Son," said he, solemnly, "I never expected to see such a sight as this again."
The Texan gave him a glance of agony, then his eyes blazed with a wild and terrible light.
"They killed her!" he screamed, beating his forehead with his clenched fists. "And by God, I'll kill 'em all! I'll kill—kill—"
His gun was swinging in his hand as he plunged toward his horse. Hard Luck sprang forward and caught him, holding him with a wiry strength that was astounding for his age. He ignored the savage protests and curses, dodged a blow of the gun barrel which the half-crazed Texan aimed at his face, and pinioned Steve's arms. The youth's frenzied passion went as suddenly as it had come, leaving him sobbing and shaken.
"Son," said Hard Luck calmly, "cool down. I reckon you don't want to lift them Navajo scalps any more'n I do, and before this game's done, we're goin' to send more'n one of 'em over the ridge. But if you go gallopin' up after 'em wide open thataway, you'll never git the chance to even the score, fer they'll drill you before you even see 'em. Listen to me, I've fought 'em from Sonora to the Bad Lands and I know what I'm talkin' about. Git on yore bronc. We can't do nothin' more fer Edwards and we got work to do elsewhar. He said Allison and Murken and the gal was daid. I reckon Murken and Allison is gone over the ridge all right, but he didn't rightly see 'em bump off the gal, and I'll bet my hat she's alive right now."
Steve nodded shortly. He seemed to have aged years in the last few minutes. The easygoing young cowpuncher was gone, and in his place stood a cold steel fighting man of the old Texas blood. His hand was as steady as a rock, as he sheathed his pistol and swung into the saddle.
"I'm followin' your lead, Hard Luck," said he briefly. "All I ask is for you to get me within shootin' and stabbin' distance of them devils."
The old man grinned wolfishly.
"Son, yore wants is simple and soon satisfied; follow me!"
STEVE and Hard Luck rode slowly and warily up the tree- covered slopes which led to the foot of the Ramparts. Silence hung over the mountain forest like a deathly fog. Hard Luck's keen old eyes roved incessantly, ferreting out the shadows, seeking for sign of something unnatural, something which was not as it should be, to betray the hidden assassins. He talked in a low, guarded tone. It was dangerous but he wished to divert Steve's mind as much as possible.
"Steve, I done looked in Edwards' saddle bags, and what you reckon I found? A whole stack of greenbacks, tens, twenties, fifties and hundreds, done up in bundles! It's money he's been packin' out to Rifle Pass. Whar you reckon he got it?"
Steve did not reply nor did the old man expect an answer. The Texan's eyes were riveted on the frowning buttresses of the Ramparts, which now loomed over them. As they came under the brow of the cliffs, the smoke they had seen further away was no longer visible.
"Reckon they didn't chase Edwards none," muttered Hard Luck. "Leastways they ain't no sign of any horses followin' his. There's his tracks, alone. These Navajoes is naturally desert Indians, anyhow, and they're 'bout as much outa place in the mountains as a white man from the plains. They can't hold a candle to me, anyhow."
They had halted in a thick clump of trees at the foot of the Ramparts and the mouth of the steep defile was visible in front of them.
"That's a bad place," muttered Hard Luck. "I been up that gulch before Gila built his cabins up on the plateau. Steve, we kin come at them Navajoes, supposin' they're still up on there, by two ways. We kin circle to the south, climb up the mountain-sides and come down the west slopes or we kin take a chance an' ride right up the gulch. That's a lot quicker, of course, pervidin' we ain't shot or mashed by fallin' rocks afore we git to the top."
"Let's take it on the run," urged Steve, quivering with impatience. "It'll take more'n bullets and rocks to stop me now."
"All right," said Hard Luck, reining his horse out of the trees, "here goes!"
Of that wild ride up the gorge Steve never remembered very much. The memory was always like a nightmare, in which he saw dark walls flash past, heard the endless clatter of hoofs and the rattle of dislodged stones. Nothing seemed real except the pistol he clutched in his right hand and the laboring steed who plunged and reeled beneath him, driven headlong up the slope with spurs that raked the panting sides.
Then they burst into the open and saw the plateau spread wide and silent before them, with smoldering masses of coals where the cabins and corrals should have stood. They rode up slowly. The tracks of horses led away up into the hills to the west and there was no sign of life. Dreading what he might see, Steve looked. Down close to where the corral had been lay the body of Gila Murken. Lying partly in the coals that marked the remnants of the larger cabin, was the corpse of a large darkfaced man who had once worn a heavy beard, though now beard and hair were mostly scorched off. There was no sign of the girl.
"Do you—do you think she burned in the cabin, Hard Luck?"
"Naw, I know she didn't fer the reason that if she hada, they'd be some charred bones. They done rode off with her."
Steve felt a curious all-gone feeling, as if the realization that Joan was alive was too great a joy for the human brain to stand. Even though he knew that she must be in a fearful plight, at least she was living.
"Look it the stiffs," said Hard Luck admiringly. "There's whar Allison made his last stand—at the cabin door, protectin' the gal, I reckon. This Allison seemed to be a mighty hard hombre but I reckon he had a streak of the man in him. Stranger in these parts to all but Murken."
Four Navajoes lay face down in front of the white man's body. They were clad only in dirty trousers and blankets flung about their shoulders. They were stone dead.
"Trail of blood from whar the corral was," said Hard Luck. "They caught him in the open and shot him up afore he could git to the cabin, I figure. Down there at the corral Murken died. The way I read it, Allison made a break and got to the cabin whar the gal was. Then they surged in on him and he killed these four devils and went over the ridge hisself."
Steve bent over the grim spectacle and then straightened.
"Thought I knowed him. Allison—Texas man he was. A real bad hombre down on the border. Got run outa El Paso for gun-runnin' into Mexico."
"He shore made a game stand fer his last fight."
"Texas breed," said Steve grimly.
"I reckon all the good battlers ain't in Texas," said Hard Luck testily. "Not denyin' he put up a man-sized fight. Now then, look. Trails of fourteen horses goin' west—five carryin' weight, the rest bare—tell by the way the hoofs sink in, of course. All the horses missin' out of the corral, four dead Indians here. That means they wan't but a small party of 'em. Figurin' one of the horses is bein' rid by the gal, I guess we got only four redskins to deal with. Small war party scoutin' in front of the tribe, I imagine, if the whole tribe's on the war path. Now they're lightin' back into the hills with the gal, the broncs they took from the corral, and the horses of their dead tribesmen—which stopped Allison's bullets. Best thing fer us to do is follow and try to catch up with 'em afore they git back to the rest of their gang."
"Then, let's go," exclaimed Steve, trembling with impatience. "I'm nearly crazy standin' here doin' nothin'."
Hard Luck glanced at the steeds, saw that they had recovered from the terrific strain of the flying climb, and nodded. As they rode past the embers of the smaller cabin, he drew rein for an instant.
"Steve, what's them things?"
Steve looked sombrely at the charred and burnt machines which lay among the smoking ruins.
"Stamps and presses and steel dies," said he. "Counterfeit machines. And look at the greenbacks."
Fragments of green paper littered the earth as if they had been torn and flung about in anger or mockery.
"Murken and Edwards and Allison was counterfeiters, then. Huh! No wonder they didn't want anybody snoopin' around. That's why Murken wouldn't let the gal go—afeard she knew too much."
They started on again at a brisk trot and Hard Luck ruminated.
"Mighta known it when they come up here a year ago. Reckon Edwards went to Rifle Pass every week, or some other nearby place, and put the false bills in circulation. Musta had an agent. And they give money to the Indians, too, to keep their mouths shet, and give 'em whiskey. And the Indians found they'd been given money which was no good. And bein' all fired up with Murken's bad whiskey, they just bust loose."
"If so be we find Joan," said Steve somberly, "say nothin' about her uncle bein' a crook."
Their steeds were mounting the western slopes, up which went the trail of the marauders. They crossed the ridge, went down the western incline and struck a short expanse of comparatively level country.
"Listen at the drums!" muttered Hard Luck. "Gettin' nearer. The whole tribe must be on the march."
The drums were talking loud and clear from somewhere in the vastness in front of them and Steve seemed to catch in their rumble an evil note of sinister triumph.
Then the two riders were electrified by a burst of wild and ferocious yells from the heavily timbered levels to the west, in the direction they were going. Flying hoofs beat out a thundering tattoo and a horse raced into sight running hard and low, with a slim white figure lying close along his neck. Behind came four hideous painted demons, spurring and yelling.
"Joan!" The word burst from Steve's lips in a great shout and he spurred forward. Simultaneously he heard the crash of Hard Luck's buffalo gun and saw the foremost redskin topple earthward, his steed sweeping past with an empty saddle. The girl whirled up beside him, her arms reaching for him.
"Steve!" Her cry was like the wail of a lost child.
"Ride for the plateau and make it down through the gulch!" he shouted, wheeling aside to let her pass. "Go!"
Then he swung back to meet the oncoming attackers. The surprize had been as much theirs as the white men's. They had not expected to be followed so soon, and when they had burst through the trees, the sight of the two white men had momentarily stunned them with the unexpectedness of it. However, the remaining three came on with desperate courage and the white men closed in to meet them.
Hard Luck's single shot rifle was empty, but he held it in his left hand, guiding his steed with his knees, while he drew a long knife with his free hand. Steve spurred in, silent and grim, holding his fire until the first of the attackers was almost breast to breast with him. Then, as the rifle stock in the red hands went up, Steve shot him twice through his painted face and saw the fierce eyes go blank before the body slumped from the saddle. At the same instant Hard Luck's horse crashed against the bronc of another Indian and the lighter mustang reeled to the shock. The redskin's thrusting blade glanced from the empty rifle barrel and the knife in Hard Luck's right hand whipped in, just under the heart.
The lone survivor wheeled his mustang as if to flee, then pivoted back with an inhuman scream and fired point-blank into Steve's face, so closely that the powder burned his cheek. Without stopping to marvel at the miracle by which the lead had missed, Steve gripped the rifle barrel and wrenched.
White man and Indian tumbled from the saddles, close-locked, and there, writhing and struggling in the dust, the Texan killed his man, beating out his brains with the pistol barrel.
"Hustle!" yelled Hard Luck. "The whole blame tribe is just over that rise not a half a mile away, if I'm to jedge by the sounds of them riding-drums!"
Steve mounted without a backward glance at the losers of that grim red game who lay so stark and motionless. Then he saw the girl, sitting her horse not a hundred yards away, and he cursed in fright. He and Hard Luck swept up beside her and he exclaimed:
"Joan, why didn't you ride on, like I told you?"
"I couldn't run away and leave you!" she sobbed; her face was deathly white, her eyes wide with horror.
"Hustle, blast it!" yelled Hard Luck, kicking her horse. "Git movin'! Do you love birds wanta git all our scalps lifted?"
Over the thundering of the flying hoofs, as they raced eastward, she cried:
"They were taking me somewhere—back to their tribe, maybe—but I worked my hands loose and dashed away on the horse I was riding. Oh, oh, the horrors I've seen today! I'll die, I know I will."
"Not so long as me and brainless here has a drop of blood to let out," grunted Hard Luck, misunderstanding her.
They topped the crest which sloped down to the plateau and Joan averted her face.
"Good thing scalpin's gone outa fashion with the Navajoes," grunted Hard Luck under his breath, "or she'd see wuss than she's already saw."
They raced across the plateau and swung up to the upper mouth of the gulch. There Hard Luck halted.
"Take a little rest and let the horses git their wind. The Indians ain't in sight yit and we kin see 'em clean across the plateau. With this start and our horses rested, we shore ought to make a clean gitaway. Now, Miss Joan, don't you look at—at them cabins what's burned. What's done is done and can't be undid. This game ain't over by a long shot and what we want to do is to think how to save us what's alive. Them that's dead is past hurtin'."
"But it is all so horrible," she sobbed, drooping forward in her saddle. Steve drew up beside her and put a supporting arm about her slim waist. He was heart-torn with pity for her, and the realization that he loved her so deeply and so terribly.
"Shots!" she whimpered. "All at once—like an earthquake! The air seemed full of flying lead! I ran to the cabin door just as Allison came reeling up all bloody and terrible. He pushed me back in the cabin and stood in the door with a pistol in each hand. They came sweeping up like painted fiends, yelling and chanting.
"Allison gave a great laugh and shot one of them out of his saddle and roared: 'Texas breed, curse you!' And he stood up straight in the doorway with his long guns blazing until they had shot him through and through again and again, and he died on his feet." She sobbed on Steve's shoulder.
"Sho, Miss," said Hard Luck huskily. "Don't you worry none about Allison; I don't reckon he woulda wanted to go out any other way. All any of us kin ask is to go out with our boots on and empty guns smokin' in our hands."
"Then they dragged me out and bound my wrists," she continued listlessly, "and set me on a horse. They turned the mustangs out of the corral and then set the corral on fire and the cabins too, dancing and yelling like fiends. I don't remember just what all did happen. It seems like a terrible dream."
She passed a slim hand wearily across her eyes.
"I must have fainted, then. I came to myself and the horse I was on was being led through the forest together with the horses from the corral and the mustangs whose riders Allison had killed. Somehow I managed to work my hands loose, then I kicked the horse with my heels and he bolted back the way we had come."
"Look sharp!" said Hard Luck suddenly, rising in his saddle. "There they come!"
The crest of the western slopes was fringed with war-bonnets. Across the plateau came the discordant rattle of the drums.
"EASY ALL!" said Hard Luck. "We got plenty start and we got to pick our way, goin' down here. A stumble might start a regular avalanche. I've seen such things happen in the Sunsets. Easy all!"
They were riding down the boulder-strewn trail which led through the defile. It was hard to ride with a tight rein and at a slow gait with the noise of those red drums growing louder every moment, and the knowledge that the red killers were even now racing down the western slopes.
The going was hard and tricky. Sometimes the loose shale gave way under the hoofs, and sometimes the slope was so steep that the horses reared back on their haunches and slid and scrambled. Again Steve found time to wonder how Joan found courage to go up and down this gorge almost every day. Back on the plateau, now, he could hear the yells of the pursuers and the echoes shuddered eerily down the gorge. Joan was pale, but she handled her mount coolly.
"Nearly at the bottom," said Hard Luck, after what seemed an age. "Risk a little sprint, now."
The horses leaped out at the loosening of the reins and crashed out onto the slopes in a shower of flying shale and loose dirt. "Good business—" said Hard Luck—and then his horse stumbled and went to its knees, throwing him heavily.
Steve and the girl halted their mounts, sprang from the saddle. Hard Luck was up in an instant cursing.
"My horse is lame—go on and leave me!"
"No!" snarled Steve. "We can both ride on mine."
He whirled to his steed; up on the plateau crashed an aimless volley as if fired into the air. Steve's horse snorted and reared—the Texan's clutching hand missed the rein and the bronco wheeled and galloped away into the forest. Steve stood aghast, frozen at this disaster.
"Go on!" yelled Hard Luck. "Blast you, git on with the gal and dust it outta here!"
"Get on your horse!" Steve whirled to the girl. "Get on and go!"
"I won't!" she cried. "I won't ride off and leave you two here to die! I'll stay and die with you!"
"Oh, my Lord!" said Steve, cursing feminine stubbornness and lack of logic. "Grab her horse, Hard Luck. I'll put her on by main force and—"
"Too late!" said Hard Luck with a bitter laugh. "There they come!"
Far up at the upper end of the defile a horseman was silhouetted against the sky like a bronze statue. A moment he sat his horse motionless and in that moment Hard Luck threw the old buffalo gun to his shoulder. At the reverberating crash the Indian flung his arms wildly and toppled headlong, to tumble down the gorge with a loose flinging of his limbs. Hard Luck laughed as a wolf snarls and the riderless horse was jostled aside by flying steeds as the upper mouth of the defile filled with wild riders.
"Git back to the trees," yelled Hard Luck, leading the race from the cliff's base, reloading as he ran. "Guess we kin make a last stand, anyway!"
Steve, sighting over his pistol barrel as he crouched over the girl, gasped as he saw the Navajoes come plunging down the long gulch. They were racing down- slope with such speed that their horses reeled to their knees again and again, recovering balance in a flying cloud of shale and sand. Rocks dislodged by the flashing hoofs rattled down in a rain. The whole gorge was crowded with racing horsemen. Then—
"I knowed it!" yelled Hard Luck, smiting his thigh with a clenched fist.
High up the gulch a horse had stumbled, hurtling against a great boulder. The concussion had jarred the huge rock loose from its precarious base and now it came rumbling down the slope, sweeping horses and men before it. It struck other boulders and tore them loose; the gorge was full of frantic plunging steeds whose riders sought vainly to escape the avalanche they had started. Horses went down screaming as only dying horses can scream, a wild babble of yells arose, and then the whole earth seemed to rock.
Jarred by the landslide, the overhanging walls reeled and shattered and came thundering down into the gorge, wiping out the insects which struggled there, blocking and closing the defile forever. Boulders and pieces of cliff weighing countless tons shelved off and came sliding down. The awed watchers among the trees rose silently, unspeaking. The air seemed full of flying stones, hurled out by the shattering fall of the great rocks. And one of these stones through some whim of chance came curving down through the trees and struck Hard Luck Harper just over the eye. He dropped like a log.
Steve, still feeling stunned, as if his brain had been numbed by the crash and the roar of the falling cliffs, knelt beside him. Hard Luck's eyes flickered open and he sat up.
"Kids," said he solemnly, "that was a terrible and awesome sight! I've seen a lot of hard things in my day and I ain't no Indian lover, but it got me to see a whole tribe of fighting men git wiped out that way. But I knowed as shore as they started racing down that gulch, it'd happen."
He glanced down idly at the stone which had struck him, started, stooped and took it up in his hand. Steve had turned to the girl, who, the reaction having set in, was sobbing weakly, her face hidden in her hands. The Texan put his arms about her hesitantly.
"Joan," said he, "you ain't never said nothin' and I ain't never said nothin' but I reckon it hasn't took words to show how I love you."
"Steve—" broke in Hard Luck excitedly.
"Shut up!" roared Steve, glaring at him. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
Hard Luck shrugged his shoulders and approached the great heap of broken stone and earth, from which loose shale was still spilling in a wide stream down the slight incline at the foot of the cliffs.
"Joan," went Steve, "as I was sayin' when that old buzzard interrupted, I love you, and—and—and if you feel just a little that way towards me, let me take care of you!"
For answer she stretched out her arms to him.
"Joan kid," he murmured, drawing her cheek down on his bosom and stroking her hair with an awkward, gentle hand, "reckon I can't offer you much. I'm just a wanderin' cowhand—"
"You ain't!" an arrogant voice broke in. Steve looked up to see Hard Luck standing over them. The old man held the stone which had knocked him down, while with the other hand he twirled his long drooping mustache. A strange air was evident about him—he seemed struggling to maintain an urbane and casual manner, yet he was apparently about to burst with pride and self-importance.
"You ain't no wanderin' cowboy," he repeated. "You'll never punch another cow as long as you live. Yore one fourth owner of the Sunset Lode Mine, the blamedest vein of ore ever discovered!"
The two stared at him.
"Gaze on this yer dornick!" said Hard Luck. "Note the sparkles in it and the general appearance which sets it plumb apart from the ordinary rock! And now look yonder!"
He pointed dramatically at a portion of the cliff face which had been uncovered by the slide.
"Quartz!" he exulted. "The widest, deepest quartz vein I ever see! Gold you can mighta near work out with yore fingers, by golly! I done figured it out—after I wandered away and got found by them buffalo hunters, a slide come and covered the lode up. That's why I couldn't never find it again. Now this slide comes along, forty year later, and uncovers it, slick as you please!
"Very just and proper, too. Indians euchered me outa my mine the first time and now Indians has give it back to me. I guess I cancel the debt of that lifted ha'r.
"Now listen to me and don't talk back. One fourth of this mine belongs to me by right of discovery. One fourth goes to any relatives of Bill Hansen's which might be living. For the other two fourths, I'm makin' you two equal partners. How's that?"
Steve silently gripped the old man's hand, too full for speech. Hard Luck took the young Texan's arm and laid it about Joan's shoulders.
"Git to yore love makin' and don't interrupt a man what's tryin' to figure out how to spend a million!" said he loftily.
"Joan, girl," said Steve softly, "what are you cryin' about? It's easy to forget horrors when you're young. You're wealthy now, we're goin' to be married just as soon as we can—and the drums of Sunset Mountains will never beat again."
"I guess I'm just happy," she answered, lifting her lips to his.
"He first come in the money, and he spent it just
"He always drank good liquor wherever he might be!"
So sang Hard Luck Harper from the depths of his satisfaction.
FIVE men were riding down the winding road that led to San Leon, and one was singing, in a toneless monotone:
"Early in the mornin' in the month of May,
Brady came down on the mornin' train.
Brady came down on the Shinin' Star.
And he shot Mr. Duncan in behind the bar!"
"Shut up! Shut up!" It was the youngest of the riders who ripped out like that. A lanky, tow-headed kid, with a touch of pallor under his tan, and a rebellious smolder in his hot eyes.
The biggest man of the five grinned.
"Bucky's nervous," he jeered genially. "You don't want to be no derned bandit, do you, Bucky?"
The youngest glowered at him.
"That welt on yore jaw ought to answer that, Jim," he growled.
"You fit like a catamount," agreed Big Jim placidly. "I thought we'd never git you on yore cayuse and started for San Leon, without knockin' you in the head. 'Bout the only way you show yo're a Laramie, Bucky, is in the handlin' of yore fists."
"T'ain't no honor to be a Laramie," flared Bucky. "You and Luke and Tom and Hank has dragged the name through slime. For the last three years you been worse'n a pack of starvin' lobos—stealin' cattle and horses; robbin' folks—why, the country's near ruint. And now yo're headin' to San Leon to put on the final touch—robbin' the Cattlemen's Bank, when you know dern well the help the ranchmen got from that bank's been all that kept 'em on their feet. Old man Brown's stretched hisself nigh to the bustin' p'int to help folks."
He gulped and fought back tears that betrayed his extreme youth. His brothers grinned tolerantly. "It's the last time," he informed them bitterly. "You won't git me into no raid again!"
"It's the last time for all of us," said Big Jim, biting off a cud of tobacco. "We're through after this job. We'll live like honest men in Mexico."
"Serve you right if a posse caught us and hanged us all," said Bucky viciously.
"Not a chance." Big Jim's placidity was unruffled. "Nobody but us knows the trail that follows the secret waterholes acrost the desert. No posse'd dare to foller us. Once out of town and headed south for the border, the devil hisself couldn't catch us."
"I wonder if anybody'll ever stumble onto our secret hide-out up in the Los Diablos Mountains," mused Hank.
"I doubt it. Too well hid. Like the desert trail, nobody but us knows them mountain trails. It shore served us well. Think of all the steers and horses we've hid there, and drove through the mountains to Mexico! And the times we've laid up there laughin' in our sleeves as the posse chased around a circle."
Bucky muttered something under his breath; he retained no fond memories of that hidden lair high up in the barren Diablos. Three years before, he had reluctantly followed his brothers into it from the little ranch in the foothills where Old Man Laramie and his wife had worn away their lives in futile work. The old life, when their parents lived and had held their wild sons in check, had been drab and hard, but had lacked the bitterness he had known when cooking and tending house for his brothers in that hidden den from which they had ravaged the countryside. Four good men gone bad—mighty bad.
San Leon lay as if slumbering in the desert heat as the five brothers rode up to the doors of the Cattlemen's Bank. None noted their coming; the Red Lode saloon, favorite rendezvous for the masculine element of San Leon, stood at the other end of the town, and out of sight around a slight bend in the street.
No words were passed; each man knew his part beforehand. The three elder Laramies slid lithely out of their saddles, throwing their reins to Bucky and Luke, the second youngest. They strode into the bank with a soft jingle of spurs and creak of leather, closing the door behind them.
Luke's face was impassive as an image's, as he dragged leisurely on a cigarette, though his eyes gleamed between slitted lids. But Bucky sweated and shivered, twisting nervously in his saddle. By some twist of destiny, one son had inherited all the honesty that was his parents' to transmit. He had kept his hands clean. Now, in spite of himself, he was scarred with their brand.
He started convulsively as a gun crashed inside the bank; like an echo came another reverberation.
Luke's Colt was in his hand, and he snatched one foot clear of the stirrup, then feet pounded toward the street and the door burst open to emit the three outlaws. They carried bulging canvas sacks, and Hank's sleeve was crimson.
"Ride like hell!" grunted Big Jim, forking his roan. "Old Brown throwed down on Hank. Old fool! I had to salivate him permanent."
And like hell it was they rode, straight down the street toward the desert, yelling and firing as they went. They thundered past houses from which startled individuals peered bewilderedly, past stores where leathery faced storekeepers were dragging forth blue-barreled scatter-guns. They swept through the futile rain of lead that poured from the excited and befuddled crowd in front of the Red Lode, and whirled on toward the desert that stretched south of San Leon.
But not quite to the desert. For as they rounded the last bend in the twisting street and came abreast of the last house in the village, they were confronted by the gray-bearded figure of old "Pop" Anders, sheriff of San Leon County. The old man's gnarled right hand rested on the ancient single-action Colt on his thigh, his left was lifted in a seemingly futile command to halt.
Big Jim cursed and sawed back on the reins, and the big roan slid to a halt.
"Git outa the way, Pop!" roared Big Jim. "We don't want to hurt you."
The old warrior's eyes blazed with righteous wrath.
"Robbed the bank this time, eh?" he said in cold fury, his eyes on the canvas sacks. "Likely spilt blood, too. Good thing Frank Laramie died before he could know what skunks his boys turned out to be. You ain't content to steal our stock till we're nigh bankrupt; you got to rob our bank and take what little money we got left for a new start. Why, you damned human sidewinders!" the old man shrieked, his control snapping suddenly. "Ain't there nothin' that's too low-down for you to do?"
Behind them sounded the pound of running feet and a scattering banging of guns. The crowd from the Red Lode was closing in.
"You've wasted our time long enough, old man!" roared Luke, jabbing in the spurs and sending his horse rearing and plunging toward the indomitable figure. "Git outa the way, or—"
The old single-action jumped free in the gnarled hand. Two shots roared together, and Luke's sombrero went skyrocketing from his head. But the old sheriff fell face forward in the dust with a bullet through his heart, and the Laramie gang swept on into the desert, feeding their dust to their hurriedly mounted and disheartened pursuers.
Only young Buck Laramie looked back, to see the door of the last house fly open, and a pig-tailed girl run out to the still figure in the street. It was the sheriff's daughter, Judy. She and Buck had gone to the same school in the old days before the Laramies hit the wolf-trail. Buck had always been her champion. Now she went down on her knees in the dust beside her father's body, seeking frantically for a spark of life where there was none.
A red film blazed before Buck Laramie's eyes as he turned his livid face toward his brothers.
"Hell," Luke was fretting, "I didn't aim to salivate him permanent. The old lobo woulda hung everyone of us if he could of—but just the same I didn't aim to kill him."
Something snapped in Bucky's brain.
"You didn't aim to kill him!" he shrieked. "No, but you did! Yo're all a pack of low-down sidewinders just like he said! They ain't nothin' too dirty for you!" He brandished his clenched fists in the extremity of his passion. "You filthy scum!" he sobbed. "When I'm growed up I'm comin' back here and make up for ever' dollar you've stole, ever' life you've took. I'll do it if they hang me for tryin', s'help me!"
His brothers did not reply. They did not look at him. Big Jim hummed flatly and absently:
"Some say he shot him with a thirty- eight,
Some say he shot him with a forty-one;
But I say he shot him with a forty-four.
For I saw him as he lay on the barroom floor."
Bucky subsided, slumped in his saddle and rode dismally on. San Leon and the old life lay behind them all. Somewhere south of the hazy horizon the desert stretched into Mexico where lay their future destiny. And his destiny was inextricably interwoven with that of his brothers. He was an outlaw, too, now, and he must stay with the clan to the end of their last ride.
Some guiding angel must have caused Buck Laramie to lean forward to pat the head of his tired sorrel, for at that instant a bullet ripped through his hat-brim, instead of his head.
It came as a startling surprise, but his reaction was instant. He leaped from his horse and dove for the protection of a sand bank, a second bullet spurting dust at his heels. Then he was under cover, peering warily out, Colt in hand.
The tip of a white sombrero showed above a rim of sand, two hundred yards in front of him. Laramie blazed away at it, though knowing as he pulled the trigger that the range was too long and the target too small for six-gun accuracy. Nevertheless, the hat-top vanished.
"Takin' no chances," muttered Laramie. "Now who in hell is he?Here I am a good hour's ride from San Leon, and folks pottin' at me already. Looks bad for what I'm aimin' to do. Reckon it's somebody that knows me, after all these years?"
He could not believe it possible that anyone would recognize the lanky, half-grown boy of six years ago in the bronzed, range-hardened man who was returning to San Leon to keep the vow he had made as his clan rode southward with two dead men and a looted bank behind them.
The sun was burning hot, and the sand felt like an oven beneath Laramie. His canteen was slung to his saddle, and his horse was out of his reach, drooping under a scrubby mesquite. The other fellow would eventually work around to a point where his rifle would out-range Laramie's six-gun—or he might shoot the horse and leave Buck afoot in the desert.
The instant his attacker's next shot sang past his refuge, he was up and away in a stooping, weaving run to the next sand hill, to the right and slightly forward of his original position. He wanted to get in close quarters with his unknown enemy.
He wriggled from cover to cover, and sprinted in short dashes over narrow strips of open ground, taking advantage of every rock, cactus-bed and sand- bank, with lead hissing and spitting at him all the way. The hidden gunman had guessed his purpose, and obviously had no desire for a close-range fight. He was slinging lead every time Laramie showed an inch of flesh, cloth or leather, and Buck counted the shots. He was within striking distance of the sand rim when he believed the fellow's rifle was empty.
Springing recklessly to his feet he charged straight at his hidden enemy, his six-gun blazing. He had miscalculated about the rifle, for a bullet tore through the slack of his shirt. But then the Winchester was silent, and Laramie was raking the rim with such a barrage of lead that the gunman evidently dared not lift himself high enough to line the sights of a six-gun.
But a pistol was something that must be reckoned with, and as he spent his last bullet, Laramie dove behind a rise of sand and began desperately to jam cartridges into his empty gun. He had failed to cross the sand rim in that rush, but another try would gain it—unless hot lead cut him down on the way. Drum of hoofs reached his ears suddenly and glaring over his shelter he saw a pinto pony beyond the sand rim heading in the direction of San Leon. Its rider wore a white sombrero.
"Damn!" Laramie slammed the cylinder in place and sent a slug winging after the rapidly receding horseman. But he did not repeat the shot. The fellow was already out of range.
"Reckon the work was gettin' too close for him," he ruminated as he trudged back to his horse. "Hell, maybe he didn't want me to get a good look at him. But why? Nobody in these parts would be shy about shootin' at a Laramie, if they knew him as such. But who'd know I was a Laramie?"
He swung up into the saddle, then absently slapped his saddle bags and the faint clinking that resulted soothed him. Those bags were loaded with fifty thousand dollars in gold eagles, and every penny was meant for the people of San Leon.
"It'll help pay the debt the Laramies owe for the money the boys stole," he confided to the uninterested sorrel. "How I'm goin' to pay back for the men they killed is more'n I can figure out. But I'll try."
The money represented all he had accumulated from the sale of the Laramie stock and holdings in Mexico—holdings bought with money stolen from San Leon. It was his by right of inheritance, for he was the last of the Laramies. Big Jim, Tom, Hank, Luke, all had found trail's end in that lawless country south of the Border. As they had lived, so had they died, facing their killers, with smoking guns in their hands. They had tried to live straight in Mexico, but the wild blood was still there. Fate had dealt their hands, and Buck looked upon it all as a slate wiped clean, a record closed—with the exception of Luke's fate.
That memory vaguely troubled him now, as he rode toward San Leon to pay the debts his brothers contracted.
"Folks said Luke drawed first," he muttered. "But it wasn't like him to pick a barroom fight. Funny the fellow that killed him cleared out so quick, if it was a fair fight."
He dismissed the old problem and reviewed the recent attack upon himself.
"If he knowed I was a Laramie, it might have been anybody. But how could he know? Joel Waters wouldn't talk."
No, Joel Waters wouldn't talk; and, Joel Waters, old time friend of Laramie's father, long ago, and owner of the Boxed W ranch, was the only man who knew Buck Laramie was returning to San Leon.
"San Leon at last, cayuse," he murmured as he topped the last desert sand hill that sloped down to the town. "Last time I seen it was under circumstances most—what the devil!"
He started and stiffened as a rattle of gunfire burst on his ears. Battle in San Leon? He urged his weary steed down the hill. Two minutes later history was repeating itself.
AS Buck Laramie galloped into San Leon, a sight met his eyes which jerked him back to a day six years gone. For tearing down the street came six wild riders, yelling and shooting. In the lead rode one, who, with his huge frame and careless ease, might have been Big Jim Laramie come back to life again. Behind them the crowd at the Red Lode, roused to befuddled life, was shooting just as wildly and ineffectively as on that other day when hot lead raked San Leon. There was but one man to bar the bandits' path—one man who stood, legs braced wide, guns drawn, in the roadway before the last house in San Leon. So old Pop Anders had stood, that other day, and there was something about this man to remind Laramie of the old sheriff, though he was much younger. In a flash of recognition Laramie knew him—Bob Anders, son of Luke's victim. He, too, wore a silver star.
This time Laramie did not stand helplessly by to see a sheriff slaughtered. With the swiftness born of six hard years below the border, he made his decision and acted. Gravel spurted as the sorrel threw back his head against the sawing bit and came to a sliding stop, and all in one motion Laramie was out of the saddle and on his feet beside the sheriff—half crouching and his six-gun cocked and pointed. This time two would meet the charge, not one.
Laramie saw that masks hid the faces of the riders as they swept down, and contempt stabbed through him. No Laramie ever wore a mask. His Colt vibrated as he thumbed the hammer. Beside him the young sheriff's guns were spitting smoke and lead.
The clumped group split apart at that blast. One man, who wore a Mexican sash instead of a belt, slumped in his saddle clawing for the horn. Another with his right arm flopping broken at his side was fighting his pain-maddened beast which had stopped a slug intended for its rider.
The big man who had led the charge grabbed the fellow with the sash as he started to slide limply from his saddle, and dragged him across his own bow. He bolted across the roadside and plunged into a dry wash. The others followed him. The man with the broken arm abandoned his own crazed mount and grabbed the reins of the riderless horse. Beasts and men, they slid over the rim and out of sight in a cloud of dust.
Anders yelled and started across the road on the run, but Laramie jerked him back.
"They're covered," he grunted, sending his sorrel galloping to a safe place with a slap on the rump. "We got to get out of sight, pronto!"
The sheriff's good judgment overcame his excitement then, and he wheeled and darted for the house, yelping: "Follow me, stranger!"
Bullets whined after them from the gulch as the outlaws began their stand. The door opened inward before Anders' outstretched hand touched it, and he plunged through without checking his stride. Lead smacked the jambs and splinters flew as Laramie ducked after Anders. He collided with something soft and yielding that gasped and tumbled to the floor under the impact. Glaring wildly down Laramie found himself face to face with a vision of feminine loveliness that took his breath away, even in that instant. With a horrified gasp he plunged to his feet and lifted the girl after him. His all-embracing gaze took her in from tousled blond hair to whipcord breeches and high-heeled riding boots. She seemed too bewildered to speak.
"Sorry, miss," he stuttered. "I hope y'ain't hurt. I was—I was—" The smash of a window pane and the whine of a bullet cut short his floundering apologies. He snatched the girl out of line of the window and in an instant was crouching beside it himself, throwing lead across the road toward the smoke wisps.
Anders had barred the door and grabbed a Winchester from a rack on the wall.
"Duck into a back room, Judy," he ordered, kneeling at the window on the other side of the door. "Partner, I don't know you—" he punctuated his remarks with rapid shots, "—but I'm plenty grateful."
"Hilton's the name," mumbled Laramie, squinting along, his six-gun barrel. "Friends call me Buck—damn!"
His bullet had harmlessly knocked dust on the gulch rim, and his pistol was empty. As he groped for cartridges he felt a Winchester pushed into his hand, and, startled, turned his head to stare full into the disturbingly beautiful face of Judy Anders. She had not obeyed her brother's order, but had taken a loaded rifle from the rack and brought it to Laramie, crossing the room on hands and knees to keep below the line of fire. Laramie almost forgot the men across the road as he stared into her deep clear eyes, now glowing with excitement. In dizzy fascination he admired the peach-bloom of her cheeks, her red, parted lips.
"Th-thank you, miss!" he stammered. "I needed that smoke-wagon right smart. And excuse my language. I didn't know you was still in the room—"
He ducked convulsively as a bullet ripped across the sill, throwing splinters like a buzz-saw. Shoving the Winchester out of the window he set to work. But his mind was still addled. And he was remembering a pitifully still figure sprawled in the dust of that very road, and a pig-tailed child on her knees beside it. The child was no longer a child, but a beautiful woman; and he —he was still a Laramie, and the brother of the man who killed her father.
"Judy!" There was passion in Bob Anders' voice. "Will you get out of here? There! Somebody's callin' at the back door. Go let 'em in. And stay back there, will you?"
This time she obeyed, and a few seconds later half a dozen pairs of boots clomped into the room, as some men from the Red Lode who had slipped around through a back route to the besieged cabin, entered.
"They was after the bank, of course," announced one of them. "They didn't git nothin' though, dern 'em. Ely Harrison started slingin' lead the minute he seen them masks comin' in the door. He didn't hit nobody, and by good luck the lead they throwed at him didn't connect, but they pulled out in a hurry. Harrison shore s'prised me. I never thought much of him before now, but he showed he was ready to fight for his money, and our'n."
"Same outfit, of course," grunted the sheriff, peering warily through the jagged shards of the splintered window-pane.
"Sure. The damn' Laramies again. Big Jim leadin', as usual."
Buck Laramie jumped convulsively, doubting the evidence of his ears. He twisted his head to stare at the men.
"You think it's the Laramies out there?" Buck's brain felt a bit numb. These mental jolts were coming too fast for him.
"Sure," grunted Anders. "Couldn't be nobody else. They was gone for six year—where, nobody knowed. But a few weeks back they showed up again and started their old deviltry, worse than ever."
"Killed his old man right out there in front of his house," grunted one of the men, selecting a rifle from the rack. The others were firing carefully through the windows, and the men in the gulch were replying in kind. The room was full of drifting smoke.
"But I've heard of 'em," Laramie protested. "They was all killed down in Old Mexico."
"Couldn't be," declared the sheriff, lining his sights. "These are the old gang all right. They've put up warnin's signed with the Laramie name. Even been heard singin' that old song they used to always sing about King Brady. Got a hide-out up in the Los Diablos, too, just like they did before. Same one, of course. I ain't managed to find it yet, but—" His voice was drowned in the roar of his .45-70.
"Well, I'll be a hammer-headed jackass," muttered Laramie under his breath. "Of all the—"
His profane meditations were broken into suddenly as one of the men bawled: "Shootin's slowed down over there! What you reckon it means?"
"Means they're aimin' to sneak out of that wash at the other end and high- tail it into the desert," snapped Anders. "I ought to have thought about that before, but things has been happenin' so fast. You hombres stay here and keep smokin' the wash so they can't bolt out on this side. I'm goin' to circle around and block 'em from the desert."
"I'm with you," growled Laramie. "I want to see what's behind them masks."
They ducked out the back way and began to cut a wide circle which should bring them to the outer edge of the wash. It was difficult going and frequently they had to crawl on their hands and knees to take advantage of every clump of cactus and greasewood.
"Gettin' purty close," muttered Laramie, lifting his head. "What I'm wonderin' is, why ain't they already bolted for the desert? Nothin' to stop 'em."
"I figger they wanted to get me if they could, before they lit out," answered Anders. "I believe I been snoopin' around in the Diablos too close to suit 'em. Look out! They've seen us!"
Both men ducked as a steady line of flame spurts rimmed the edge of the wash. They flattened down behind their scanty cover and bullets cut up puffs of sand within inches of them.
"This is a pickle!" gritted Anders, vainly trying to locate a human head to shoot at. "If we back up, we back into sight, and if we go forward we'll get perforated."
"And if we stay here the result's the same," returned Laramie. "Greasewood don't stop lead. We got to summon reinforcements." And lifting his voice in a stentorian yell that carried far, he whooped: "Come on, boys! Rush 'em from that side! They can't shoot two ways at once!"
They could not see the cabin from where they lay, but a burst of shouts and shots told them his yell had been heard. Guns began to bang up the wash and Laramie and Anders recklessly leaped to their feet and rushed down the slight slope that led to the edge of the gulch, shooting as they went.
They might have been riddled before they had gone a dozen steps, but the outlaws had recognized the truth of Laramie's statement. They couldn't shoot two ways at once, and they feared to be trapped in the gulch with attackers on each side. A few hurried shots buzzed about the ears of the charging men, and then outlaws burst into view at the end of the wash farthest from town, mounted and spurring hard, the big leader still carrying a limp figure across his saddle.
Cursing fervently, the sheriff ran after them, blazing away with both six- shooters, and Laramie followed him. The fleeing men were shooting backward as they rode, and the roar of six-guns and Winchesters was deafening. One of the men reeled in his saddle and caught at his shoulder, dyed suddenly red.
Laramie's longer legs carried him past the sheriff, but he did not run far. As the outlaws pulled out of range, toward the desert and the Diablos, he slowed to a walk and began reloading his gun.
"Let's round up the men, Bob," he called. "We'll follow 'em. I know the water-holes—"
He stopped short with a gasp. Ten yards behind him Bob Anders, a crimson stream dyeing the side of his head, was sinking to the desert floor.
Laramie started back on a run just as the men from the cabin burst into view. In their lead rode a man on a pinto—and Buck Laramie knew that pinto.
"Git him!" howled the white-hatted rider. "He shot Bob Anders in the back! I seen him! He's a Laramie!"
Laramie stopped dead in his tracks. The accusation was like a bomb-shell exploding in his face. That was the man who had tried to drygulch him an hour or so before—same pinto, same white sombrero—but he was a total stranger to Laramie. How in the devil did he know of Buck's identity, and what was the reason for his enmity?
Laramie had no time to try to figure it out now. For the excited townsmen, too crazy with excitement to stop and think, seeing only their young sheriff stretched in his blood, and hearing the frantic accusation of one of their fellows, set up a roar and started blazing away at the man they believed was a murderer.
Out of the frying pan into the fire—the naked desert was behind him, and his horse was still standing behind the Anders' cabin—with that mob between him and that cabin.
But any attempt at explanation would be fatal. Nobody would listen. Laramie saw a break for him in the fact that only his accuser was mounted, and probably didn't know he had a horse behind the cabin, and would try to reach it. The others were too excited to think anything. They were simply slinging lead, so befuddled with the mob impulse they were not even aiming—which is all that saved Laramie in the few seconds in which he stood bewildered and uncertain.
He ducked for the dry wash, running almost at a right angle with his attackers. The only man capable of intercepting him was White-Hat, who was bearing down on him, shooting from the saddle with a Winchester.
Laramie wheeled, and as he wheeled a bullet ripped through his Stetson and stirred his hair in passing. White-Hat was determined to have his life, he thought, as his own six-gun spat flame. White-Hat flinched sidewise and dropped his rifle. Laramie took the last few yards in his stride and dived out of sight in the wash.
He saw White-Hat spurring out of range too energetically to be badly wounded, and he believed his bullet had merely knocked the gun out of the fellow's hands. The others had spread out and were coming down the slope at a run, burning powder as they came.
Laramie did not want to kill any of those men. They were law-abiding citizens acting under a misapprehension. So he emptied his gun over their heads and was gratified to see them precipitately take to cover. Then without pausing to reload, he ducked low and ran for the opposite end of the wash, which ran on an angle that would bring him near the cabin.
The men who had halted their charge broke cover and came on again, unaware of his flight, and hoping to get him while his gun was empty. They supposed he intended making a stand at their end of the wash.
By the time they had discovered their mistake and were pumping lead down the gully, Laramie was out at the other end and racing across the road toward the cabin. He ducked around the corner with lead nipping at his ears and vaulted into the saddle of the sorrel—and cursed his luck as Judy Anders ran out the rear door, her eyes wide with fright.
"What's happened?" she cried. "Where's Bob?"
"No time to pow-wow," panted Laramie. "Bob's been hurt. Don't know how bad. I got to ride, because—"
He was interrupted by shouts from the other side of the cabin.
"Look out, Judy!" one man yelled. "Stay under cover! He shot Bob in the back!"
Reacting to the shout without conscious thought, Judy sprang to seize his reins.
Laramie jerked the sorrel aside and evaded her grasp. "It's a lie!" he yelled with heat. "I ain't got time to explain. Hope Bob ain't hurt bad."
Then he was away, crouching low in his saddle with bullets pinging past him; it seemed he'd been hearing lead whistle all day; he was getting sick of that particular noise. He looked back once. Behind the cabin Judy Anders was bending over a limp form that the men had carried in from the desert. Now she was down on her knees in the dust beside that limp body, searching for a spark of life.
Laramie cursed sickly. History was indeed repeating itself that day in San Leon.
For a time Laramie rode eastward, skirting the desert, and glad of a breathing spell. The sorrel had profited by its rest behind the Anders' cabin, and was fairly fresh. Laramie had a good lead on the pursuers he knew would be hot on his trail as soon as they could get to their horses, but he headed east instead of north, the direction in which lay his real goal—the Boxed W ranch. He did not expect to be able to throw them off his scent entirely, but he did hope to confuse them and gain a little time.
It was imperative that he see his one friend in San Leon County— Joel Waters. Maybe Joel Waters could unriddle some of the tangle. Who were the men masquerading as Laramies?
He had been forging eastward for perhaps an hour when, looking backward from a steep rise, he saw a column of riders approaching some two miles away through a cloud of dust that meant haste. That would be the posse following his trail—and that meant that the sheriff was dead or still senseless.
Laramie wheeled down the slope on the other side and headed north, hunting hard ground that would not betray a pony's hoof-print.
DUSK was fast settling when he rode into the yard of the Boxed W. He was glad of the darkness, for he had feared that some of Waters' punchers might have been in San Leon that day, and seen him. But he rode up to the porch without having encountered anyone, and saw the man he was hunting sitting there, pulling at a corn-cob pipe.
Waters rose and came forward with his hand outstretched as Laramie swung from the saddle.
"You've growed," said the old man. "I'd never knowed you if I hadn't been expectin' you. You don't favor yore brothers none. Look a lot like yore dad did at yore age, though. You've pushed yore cayuse hard," he added, with a piercing glance at the sweat-plastered flanks of the sorrel.
"Yeah." There was bitter humor in Laramie's reply. "I just got through shootin' me a sheriff."
Waters jerked the pipe from his mouth. He looked stunned.
"All you got to do is ask the upright citizens of San Leon that's trailin' me like a lobo wolf," returned Laramie with a mirthless grin. And tersely and concisely he told the old rancher what had happened in San Leon and on the desert.
Waters listened in silence, puffing smoke slowly.
"It's bad," he muttered, when Laramie had finished. "Damned bad— well, about all I can do right now is to feed you. Put yore cayuse in the corral."
"Rather hide him near the house, if I could," said Laramie. "That posse is liable to hit my sign and trail me here any time. I want to be ready to ride."
"Blacksmith shop behind the house," grunted Waters. "Come on."
Laramie followed the old man to the shop, leading the sorrel. While he was removing the bridle and loosening the cinch, Waters brought hay and filled an old log-trough. When Laramie followed him back to the house, the younger man carried the saddle bags over his arm. Their gentle clink no longer soothed him; too many obstacles to distributing them were rising in his path.
"I just finished eatin' before you come," grunted Waters. "Plenty left."
"Hop Sing still cookin' for you?"
"Ain't you ever goin' to get married?" chaffed Laramie.
"Shore," grunted the old man, chewing his pipe stem. "I just got to have time to decide what type of woman'd make me the best wife."
Laramie grinned. Waters was well past sixty, and had been giving that reply to chaffing about his matrimonial prospects as far back as Buck could remember.
Hop Sing remembered Laramie and greeted him warmly. The old Chinaman had cooked for Waters for many years. Laramie could trust him as far as he could trust Waters himself.
The old man sat gripping his cold pipe between his teeth as Laramie disposed of a steak, eggs, beans and potatoes and tamped it down with a man- sized chunk of apple pie.
"Yo're follerin' blind trails," he said slowly. "Mebbe I can help you."
"Maybe. Do you have any idea who the gent on the showy pinto might be?"
"Not many such paints in these parts. What'd the man look like?"
"Well, I didn't get a close range look at him, of course. From what I saw he looked to be short, thick-set, and he wore a short beard and a mustache so big it plumb ambushed his pan."
"Why, hell!" snorted Waters. "That's bound to be Mart Rawley! He rides a flashy pinto, and he's got the biggest set of whiskers in San Leon."
"Owns the Red Lode. Come here about six months ago and bought it off of old Charlie Ross."
"Well, that don't help none," growled Laramie, finishing his coffee and reaching for the makings. He paused suddenly, lighted match lifted. "Say, did this hombre ride up from Mexico?"
"He come in from the east. Of course, he could have come from Mexico, at that; he'd have circled the desert. Nobody but you Laramies ever hit straight across it. He ain't said he come from Mexico original; and he ain't said he ain't."
Laramie meditated in silence, and then asked: "What about this new gang that calls theirselves Laramies?"
"Plain coyotes," snarled the old man. "Us San Leon folks was just gittin' on our feet again after the wreck yore brothers made out of us, when this outfit hit the country. They've robbed and stole and looted till most of us are right back where we was six years ago. They've done more damage in a few weeks than yore brothers did in three years.
"I ain't been so bad hit as some, because I've got the toughest, straightest-shootin' crew of punchers in the county; but most of the cowmen around San Leon are mortgaged to the hilt, and stand to lose their outfits if they git looted any more. Ely Harrison—he's president of the bank now, since yore brothers killed old man Brown—Ely's been good about takin' mortgages and handin' out money, but he cain't go on doin' it forever."
"Does everybody figure they're the Laramies?"
"Why not? They send letters to the cowmen sayin' they'll wipe out their whole outfit if they don't deliver 'em so many hundred head of beef stock, and they sign them letters with the Laramie name. They're hidin' out in the Diablos like you all did; they's always the same number in the gang; and they can make a get-away through the desert, which nobody but the Laramies ever did.
"Of course, they wear masks, which the Laramies never did, but that's a minor item; customs change, so to speak. I'd have believed they was the genuine Laramies myself, only for a couple of reasons—one bein' you'd wrote me in your letter that you was the only Laramie left. You didn't give no details." The old man's voice was questioning.
"Man's reputation always follows him," grunted Buck. "A barroom gladiator got Jim. Hank got that gunfighter the next week, but was shot up so hisself he died. Tom joined the revolutionaries and the rurales cornered him in a dry wash. Took 'em ten hours and three dead men to get him. Luke—" He hesitated and scowled slightly.
"Luke was killed in a barroom brawl in Sante Maria, by a two-gunfighter called Killer Rawlins. They said Luke reached first, but Rawlins beat him to it. I don't know. Rawlins skipped that night. I've always believed that Luke got a dirty deal, some way. He was the best one of the boys. If I ever meet Rawlins—" Involuntarily his hand moved toward the worn butt of his Colt. Then he shrugged his shoulders, and said: "You said there was two reasons why you knowed these coyotes wasn't Laramies; what's t'other'n?"
"They work different," growled the old man. "Yore brothers was bad, but white men, just the same. They killed prompt, but they killed clean. These rats ain't content with just stealin' our stock. They burn down ranch houses and pizen water holes like a tribe of cussed Apaches. Jim Bannerman of the Lazy B didn't leave 'em two hundred of steers in a draw like they demanded in one of them letters. A couple of days later we found nothin' but smokin' ruins at the Lazy B, with Jim's body burned up inside and all his punchers dead or shot up."
Buck's face was gray beneath its tan. His fist knotted on the gunbutt.
"The devil!" he choked, in a voice little above a whisper. "And the Laramies are gettin' the blame! I thought my brothers dragged the name low —but these devils are haulin' it right down into hell. Joel Waters, listen to me! I come back here to pay back money my brothers stole from San Leon; I'm stayin' to pay a bigger debt. The desert's big, but it ain't big enough for a Laramie and the rats that wears his name. If I don't wipe that gang of rattlers off the earth they can have my name, because I won't need it no more."
"The Laramies owe a debt to San Leon," agreed old Joel, filling his pipe. "Cleanin' out that snake-den is the best way I know of payin' it."
Some time later Laramie rose at last and ground his cigarette butt under his heel.
"We've about talked out our wampum. From all I can see, everything points to this Mart Rawley bein' connected with the gang, somehow. He must have been the one that shot Bob Anders. He was ahead of the other fellows; they couldn't see him for a rise in the ground. They wouldn't have seen him shoot Anders. He might have been aimin' at me; or he might have just wanted Anders out of the way.
"Anyway, I'm headin' for the Diablos tonight. I know yo're willin' to hide me here, but you can help me more if nobody suspects yo're helpin' me, yet.
"I'm leavin' these saddle-bags with you. If I don't come back out of the Diablos, you'll know what to do with the money. So long."
They shook hands, and old Joel said: "So long, Buck. I'll take care of the money. If they git crowdin' you too close, duck back here. And if you need help in the hills, try to git word back to me. I can still draw a bead with a Winchester, and I've got a gang of hard-ridin' waddies to back my play."
"I ain't forgettin', Joel."
Laramie turned toward the door. Absorbed in his thoughts, he forgot for an instant that he was a hunted man, and relaxed his vigilance. As he stepped out onto the veranda he did not stop to think that he was thrown into bold relief by the light behind him.
As his boot-heel hit the porch yellow flame lanced the darkness and he heard the whine of a bullet that fanned him as it passed. He leapt back, slamming the door, wheeled, and halted in dismay to see Joel Waters sinking to the door. The old man, standing directly behind Laramie, had stopped the slug meant for his guest.
With his heart in his mouth Laramie dropped beside his friend. "Where'd it get you, Joel?" he choked.
"Low down, through the leg," grunted Waters, already sitting up and whipping his bandanna around his leg for a tourniquet. "Nothin' to worry about. You better git goin'."
Laramie took the bandanna and began knotting it tightly, ignoring a hail from without.
"Come out with yore hands up, Laramie!" a rough voice shouted. "You can't fight a whole posse. We got you cornered!"
"Beat it, Buck!" snapped Waters, pulling away his friend's hands. "They must have left their horses and sneaked up on foot. Sneak out the back way before they surround the house, fork yore cayuse and burn the breeze. That's Mart Rawley talkin', and I reckon it was him that shot. He aims to git you before you have time to ask questions or answer any. Even if you went out there with yore hands up, he'd kill you. Git goin', dern you!"
"All right!" Laramie jumped up as Hop Sing came out of the kitchen, almond eyes wide and a cleaver in his hand. "Tell 'em I held a gun on you and made you feed me. T'ain't time for 'em to know we're friends, not yet."
The next instant he was gliding into the back part of the house and slipping through a window into the outer darkness. He heard somebody swearing at Rawley for firing before the rest had taken up their positions, and he heard other voices and noises that indicated the posse was scattering out to surround the house.
He ran for the blacksmith shop, and, groping in the dark, tightened the cinch on the sorrel and slipped on the bridle. He worked fast, but before Laramie could lead the horse outside he heard a jingle of spurs and the sound of footsteps.
Laramie swung into the saddle, ducked his head low to avoid the lintel of the door, and struck in the spurs. The sorrel hurtled through the door like a thunderbolt. A startled yell rang out, a man jumped frantically out of the way, tripped over his spurs and fell flat on his back, discharging his Winchester in the general direction of the Big Dipper. The sorrel and its rider went past him like a thundering shadow to be swallowed in the darkness. Wild yells answered the passionate blasphemy of the fallen man, and guns spurted red as their owners fired blindly after the receding hoof-beats. But before the possemen could untangle themselves from their bewilderment and find their mounts, the echoes of flying hoofs had died away and night hid the fugitive's trail. Buck Laramie was far away, riding to the Diablos.
MIDNIGHT found Laramie deep in the Diabios. He halted, tethered the sorrel, and spread his blankets at the foot of a low cliff. Night was not the time to venture further along the rock-strewn paths and treacherous precipices of the Diablos. He slept fitfully, his slumber disturbed by dreams of a girl kneeling beside a wounded man.
With the first gray of dawn he was riding familiar trails that would lead him to the cabin in the hidden canyon that he knew so well, the old hideout of his gang, where he believed he would find the new band which was terrorizing the country. The hideout had but one entrance—a rock-walled tunnel. How the fake gang could have learned of the place Laramie could not know.
The hideout was in a great bowl, on all sides of which rose walls of jumbled rock, impassable to a horseman. It was possible to climb the cliffs near the entrance of the tunnel, which, if the fake gang were following the customs of the real Laramies, would be guarded.
Half an hour after sunrise found him making his way on foot toward the canyon entrance. His horse he had left concealed among the rocks at a safe distance, and lariat in hand he crept along behind rocks and scrub growth toward the old river bed that formed the canyon. Presently, gazing through the underbrush that masked his approach, he saw, half hidden by a rock, a man in a tattered brown shirt who sat at the mouth of the canyon entrance, his hat pulled low over his eyes, and a Winchester across his knees.
Evidently a belief in the security of the hide-out made the sentry careless. Laramie had the drop on him; but to use his advantage incurred the possibility of a shot that would warn those inside the canyon and spoil his plans. So he retreated to a point where he would not be directly in the line of the guard's vision, if the man roused, and began working his way to a spot a few hundred yards to the left, where, as he knew of old, he could climb to the rim of the canyon.
In a few moments he had clambered up to a point from which he could glimpse the booted feet of the guard sticking from behind the rock. Laramie's flesh crawled at the thought of being picked off with a rifle bullet like a fly off a wall, if the guard looked his way.
But the boots did not move, he dislodged no stones large enough to make an alarming noise, and presently, panting and sweating, he heaved himself over the crest of the rim and lay on his belly gazing down into the canyon below him.
As he looked down into the bowl which had once been like a prison to him, bitterness of memory was mingled with a brief, sick longing for his dead brothers; after all, they were his brothers, and had been kind to him in their rough way.
The cabin below him had in no wise changed in the passing of the years. Smoke was pouring out of the chimney, and in the corral at the back, horses were milling about in an attempt to escape the ropes of two men who were seeking saddle mounts for the day.
Shaking out his lariat, Laramie crept along the canyon rim until he reached a spot where a stunted tree clung to the very edge. To this tree he made fast the rope, knotted it at intervals for handholds, and threw the other end over the cliff. It hung fifteen feet short of the bottom, but that was near enough.
As he went down it, with a knee hooked about the thin strand to take some of the strain off his hands, he grinned thinly as he remembered how he had used this descent long ago when he wanted to dodge Big Jim who was waiting at the entrance to give him a licking. His face hardened.
"Wish he was here with me now. We'd mop up these rats by ourselves."
Dangling at the end of the rope at arm's length he dropped, narrowly missing a heap of jagged rocks, and lit in the sand on his feet, going to his all-fours from the impact.
Bending low, sometimes on hands and knees, he headed circuitously for the cabin, keeping it between himself and the men in the corral. To his own wonderment he reached the cabin without hearing any alarm sounded. Maybe the occupants, if there were any in the canyon beside the men he had seen, had gone out the back way to the corral. He hoped so.
Cautiously he raised his head over a window sill and peered inside. He could see no one in the big room that constituted the front part of the cabin. Behind this room, he knew, were a bunk room and kitchen, and the back door was in the kitchen. There might be men in those backrooms; but he was willing to take the chance. He wanted to get in there and find a place where he could hide and spy.
The door was not locked; he pushed it open gently and stepped inside with a cat-like tread, Colt poked ahead of him.
"Stick 'em up!" Before he could complete the convulsive movement prompted by these unexpected words, he felt the barrel of a six-gun jammed hard against his backbone. He froze—opened his fingers and let his gun crash to the floor. There was nothing else for it.
The door to the bunkroom swung open and two men came out with drawn guns and triumphant leers on their unshaven faces. A third emerged from the kitchen. All were strangers to Laramie. He ventured to twist his head to look at his captor, and saw a big-boned, powerful man with a scarred face, grinning exultantly.
"That was easy," rumbled one of the others, a tall, heavily built ruffian whose figure looked somehow familiar. Laramie eyed him closely.
"So yo're 'Big Jim'," he said.
The big man scowled, but Scarface laughed.
"Yeah! With a mask on nobody can tell the difference. You ain't so slick, for a Laramie. I seen you sneakin' through the bresh ten minutes ago, and we been watchin' you ever since. I seen you aimed to come and make yoreself to home, so I app'inted myself a welcome committee of one—behind the door. You couldn't see me from the winder. Hey, you Joe!" he raised his voice pompously. "Gimme a piece of rope. Mister Laramie's goin' to stay with us for a spell."
Scarface shoved the bound Laramie into an old Morris chair that stood near the kitchen door. Laramie remembered that chair well; the brothers had brought it with them when they left their ranch home in the foothills.
He was trying to catch a nebulous memory that had something to do with that chair, when steps sounded in the bunkroom and "Jim" entered, accompanied by two others. One was an ordinary sort of criminal, slouchy, brutal faced and unshaven. The other was of an entirely different type. He was elderly and pale- faced, but that face was bleak and flinty. He did not seem range-bred like the others. Save for his high-heeled riding boots, he was dressed in town clothes, though the well-worn butt of a .45 jutted from a holster at his thigh.
Scarface hooked thumbs in belt and rocked back on his heels with an air of huge satisfaction. His big voice boomed in the cabin.
"Mister Harrison, I takes pleasure in makin' you acquainted with Mister Buck Laramie, the last of a family of honest horse-thieves, what's rode all the way from Mexico just to horn in on our play. And Mister Laramie, since you ain't long for this weary world, I'm likewise honored to interjuice you to Mister Ely Harrison, high man of our outfit and president of the Cattlemen's Bank of San Leon!"
Scarface had an eye for dramatics in his crude way. He bowed grotesquely, sweeping the floor with his Stetson and grinning gleefully at the astounded glare with which his prisoner greeted his introduction.
Harrison was less pleased.
"That tongue of yours wags too loose, Braxton," he snarled.
Scarface lapsed into injured silence, and Laramie found his tongue.
"Ely Harrison!" he said slowly. "Head of the gang—the pieces of this puzzle's beginnin' to fit. So you generously helps out the ranchers yore coyotes ruins—not forgettin' to grab a healthy mortgage while doin' it. And you was a hero and shot it out with the terrible bandits when they come for yore bank; only nobody gets hurt on either side."
Unconsciously he leaned further back in the Morris chair—and a lightning jolt of memory hit him just behind the ear. He stifled an involuntary grunt, and his fingers, hidden by his body from the eyes of his captors, began fumbling between the cushions of the chair.
He had remembered his jackknife, a beautiful implement, and the pride of his boyhood, stolen from him and hidden by his brother Tom, for a joke, a few days before they started for Mexico. Tom had forgotten all about it, and Buck had been too proud to beg him for it. But Tom had remembered, months later, in Mexico; had bought Buck a duplicate of the first knife, and told him that he had hidden the original between the cushions of the old Morris chair.
Laramie's heart almost choked him. It seemed too good to be true, this ace in the hole. Yet there was no reason to suppose anybody had found and removed the knife. His doubts were set at rest as his fingers encountered a smooth, hard object. It was not until that moment that he realized that Ely Harrison was speaking to him. He gathered his wits and concentrated on the man's rasping voice, while his hidden fingers fumbled with the knife, trying to open it.
"—damned unhealthy for a man to try to block my game," Harrison was saying harshly. "Why didn't you mind your own business?"
"How do you know I come here just to spoil yore game?" murmured Laramie absently.
"Then why did you come here?" Harrison's gaze was clouded with a sort of ferocious uncertainty. "Just how much did you know about our outfit before today? Did you know I was the leader of the gang?"
"Guess," suggested Laramie. The knife was open at last. He jammed the handle deep between the cushions and the chair-back, wedging it securely. The tendons along his wrists ached. It had been hard work, manipulating the knife with his cramped fingers, able to move just so far. His steady voice did not change in tone as he worked. "I was kind of ashamed of my name till I seen how much lower a man could go than my brothers ever went. They was hard men, but they was white, at least. Usin' my name to torture and murder behind my back plumb upsets me. Maybe I didn't come to San Leon just to spoil yore game; but maybe I decided to spoil it after I seen some of the hands you dealt."
"You'll spoil our game!" Harrison sneered. "Fat chance you've got of spoiling anybody's game. But you've got only yourself to blame. In another month I'd have owned every ranch within thirty miles of San Leon."
"So that's the idea, huh?" murmured Laramie, leaning forward to expectorate, and dragging his wrists hard across the knife-edge. He felt one strand part, and as he leaned back and repeated the movement, another gave way and the edge bit into his flesh. If he could sever one more strand, he would make his break.
"Just how much did you know about our outfit before you came here?" demanded Harrison again, his persistence betraying his apprehension on that point. "How much did you tell Joel Waters?"
"None of yore derned business," Laramie snapped. His nerves getting on edge with the approach of the crisis.
"You'd better talk," snarled Harrison. "I've got men here who'd think nothing of shoving your feet in the fire to roast. Not that it matters. We're all set anyway. Got ready when we heard you'd ridden in. It just means we move tonight instead of a month later. But if you can prove to me that you haven't told anybody that I'm the real leader of the gang—well, we can carry out our original plans, and you'll save your life. We might even let you join the outfit."
"Join the—do you see any snake-scales on me?" flared Laramie, fiercely expanding his arm muscles. Another strand parted and the cords fell away from his wrists.
"Why you—" Murderous passion burst all bounds as Harrison lurched forward, his fist lifted. And Laramie shot from the chair like a steel spring released, catching them all flat-footed, paralyzed by the unexpectedness of the move.
One hand ripped Harrison's Colt from its scabbard. The other knotted into a fist that smashed hard in the banker's face and knocked him headlong into the midst of the men who stood behind him.
"Reach for the ceilin', you yellow-bellied polecats!" snarled Laramie, livid with fury and savage purpose; his cocked .45 menaced them all. "Reach! I'm dealin' this hand!"
FOR an instant the scene held—then Scarface made a convulsive movement to duck behind the chair.
"Back up!" yelped Laramie, swinging his gun directly on him, and backing toward the door. But the tall outlaw who had impersonated Big Jim had recovered from the daze of his surprise. Even as Laramie's pistol muzzle moved in its short arc toward Braxton, the tall one's hand flashed like the stroke of a snake's head to his gun. It cleared leather just as Laramie's .45 banged.
Laramie felt hot wind fan his cheek, but the tall outlaw was sagging back and down, dying on his feet and grimly pulling trigger as he went. A hot welt burned across Laramie's left thigh, another slug ripped up splinters near his feet. Harrison had dived behind the Morris chair and Laramie's vengeful bullet smashed into the wall behind him.
It all happened so quickly that the others had barely unleathered their irons as he reached the threshold. He fired at Braxton, saw the scar-faced one drop his gun with a howl, saw "Big Jim" sprawl on the floor, done with impersonation and outlawry forever, and then he was slamming the door from the outside, wincing involuntarily as bullets smashed through the panels and whined about him.
His long legs flung him across the kitchen and he catapulted through the outer door. He collided head-on with the two men he had seen in the corral. All three went into the dust in a heap. One, even in falling, jammed his six-gun into Buck's belly and pulled trigger without stopping to see who it was. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Laramie, flesh crawling with the narrowness of his escape, crashed his gun barrel down on the other's head and sprang up, kicking free of the second man whom he recognized as Mart Rawley, he of the white sombrero and flashy pinto.
Rawley's gun had been knocked out of his hand in the collision. With a yelp the drygulcher scuttled around the corner of the cabin on hands and knees. Laramie did not stop for him. He had seen the one thing that might save him —a horse, saddled and bridled, tied to the corral fence.
He heard the furious stamp of boots behind him. Harrison's voice screamed commands as his enemies streamed out of the house and started pouring lead after him. Then a dozen long leaps carried him spraddle-legged to the startled mustang. With one movement he had ripped loose the tether and swung aboard. Over his shoulder he saw the men spreading out to head him off in the dash they expected him to make toward the head of the canyon. Then he wrenched the cayuse around and spurred through the corral gate which the outlaws had left half open.
In an instant Laramie was the center of a milling whirlpool of maddened horses as he yelled, fired in the air, and lashed them with the quirt hanging from the horn.
"Close the gate!" shrieked Harrison. One of the men ran to obey the command, but as he did, the snorting beasts came thundering through. Only a frantic leap backward saved him from being trampled to death under the maddened horses.
His companions yelped and ran for the protection of the cabin, firing blindly into the dust cloud that rose as the herd pounded past. Then Laramie was dashing through the scattering horde and drawing out of six-gun range, while his enemies howled like wolves behind him.
"Git along, cayuse!" yelled Laramie, drunk with the exhilaration of the hazard. "We done better'n I hoped. They got to round up their broncs before they hit my trail, and that's goin' to take time!"
Thought of the guard waiting at the canyon entrance did not sober him.
"Only way out is through the tunnel. Maybe he thinks the shootin' was just a family affair, and won't drill a gent ridin' from insidethe canyon. Anyway, cayuse, we takes it on the run."
A Winchester banged from the mouth of the tunnel and the bullet cut the air past his ear.
"Pull up!" yelled a voice, but there was hesitancy in the tone. Doubtless the first shot had been a warning, and the sentry was puzzled. Laramie gave no heed; he ducked low and jammed in the spurs. He could see the rifle now, the blue muzzle resting on a boulder, and the ragged crown of a hat behind it. Even as he saw it, flame spurted from the blue ring. Laramie's horse stumbled in its headlong stride as lead ploughed through the fleshy part of its shoulder. That stumble saved Laramie's life for it lurched him out of the path of the next slug. His own six-gun roared.
The bullet smashed on the rock beside the rifle muzzle. Dazed and half- blinded by splinters of stone, the outlaw reeled back into the open, and fired without aim. The Winchester flamed almost in Laramie's face. Then his answering slug knocked the guard down as if he had been hit with a hammer. The Winchester flew out of his hands as he rolled on the ground. Laramie jerked the half- frantic mustang back on its haunches and dived out of the saddle to grab for the rifle.
"Damn!" It had struck the sharp edge of a rock as it fell. The lock was bent and the weapon useless. He cast it aside disgustedly, wheeled toward his horse, and then halted to stare down at the man he had shot. The fellow had hauled himself to a half-sitting position. His face was pallid, and blood oozed from a round hole in his shirt bosom. He was dying. Sudden revulsion shook Laramie as he saw his victim was hardly more than a boy. His berserk excitement faded.
"Laramie!" gasped the youth. "You must be Buck Laramie!"
"Yeah," admitted Laramie. "Anything—anything I can do?"
The boy grinned in spite of his pain.
"Thought so. Nobody but a Laramie could ride so reckless and shoot so straight. Seems funny—bein' plugged by a Laramie after worshippin' 'em most of my life."
"What?" ejaculated Laramie.
"I always wanted to be like 'em," gasped the youth. "Nobody could ride and shoot and fight like them. That's why I j'ined up with these polecats. They said they was startin' up a gang that was to be just like the Laramies. But they ain't; they're a passel of dirty coyotes. Once I started in with 'em, though, I had to stick."
Laramie said nothing. It was appalling to think that a young life had been so warped, and at last destroyed, by the evil example of his brothers.
"You better go and raise a posse if yo're aimin' to git them rats," the boy said. "They's goin' to be hell to pay tonight."
"How's that?" questioned Laramie, remembering Harrison's remarks about something planned for the night.
"You got 'em scared," murmured the boy. "Harrison's scared you might have told Joel Waters he was boss-man of the gang. That's why he come here last night. They'd aimed to keep stealin' for another month. Old Harrison woulda had most all the ranches around here by then, foreclosin' mortgages.
"When Mart Rawley failed to git you, old Harrison sent out word for the boys to git together here today. They figgered on huntin' you down, if the posse from San Leon hadn't already got you. If they found out you didn't know nothin' and hadn't told nobody nothin', they just aimed to kill you and go on like they'd planned from the first. But if they didn't git you, or found you'd talked, they aimed to make their big cleanup tonight, and then ride."
"What's that?" asked Laramie.
"They're goin' down tonight and burn Joel Waters' ranch buildings, and the sheriff's, and some of the other big ones. They'll drive all the cattle off to Mexico over the old Laramie trail. Then old Harrison'll divide the loot and the gang will scatter. If he finds you ain't spilled the works about him bein' the top man, he'll stay on in San Leon. That was his idee from the start —ruin the ranchers, buy up their outfits cheap and be king of San Leon."
"How many men's he got?"
"'Tween twenty-five and thirty," panted the youth. He was going fast. He choked, and a trickle of blood began at the corner of his mouth. "I ought not to be squealin', maybe; t'ain't the Laramie way. But I wouldn't to nobody but a Laramie. You didn't see near all of 'em. Two died on the way back from San Leon, yesterday. They left 'em out in the desert. The rest ain't got back from drivin' cattle to Mexico, but they'll be on hand by noon today."
Laramie was silent, reckoning on the force he could put in the field. Waters' punchers were all he could be sure of—six or seven men at the most, not counting the wounded Waters. The odds were stacking up.
"Got a smoke?" the youth asked weakly. Laramie rolled a cigarette, placed it between the blue lips and held a match. Looking back down the canyon, Laramie saw men saddling mounts. Precious time was passing, but he was loath to leave the dying lad.
"Get goin'," muttered the boy uneasily. "You got a tough job ahead of you —honest men and thieves both agen you—but I'm bettin' on the Laramies—the real ones—" He seemed wandering in his mind. He began to sing in a ghastly whisper the song that Laramie could never hear without a shudder.
"When Brady died they planted him deep,Put a bottle of whisky at his head and feet. Folded his arms across his breast. And said: 'King Brady's gone to his rest!'"
The crimson trickle became a sudden spurt; the youth's voice trailed into silence. The cigarette slipped from his lips. He went limp and lay still, through forever with the wolf-trail.
Laramie rose heavily and groped for his horse, trembling in the shade of the rock. He tore the blanket rolled behind the saddle and covered the still figure. Another debt to be marked up against the Laramies.
He swung aboard and galloped through the tunnel to where his own horse was waiting—a faster mount than the cayuse he was riding. As he shifted mounts he heard shouts behind him, knew that his pursuers had halted at the body, knew the halt would be brief.
Without looking back, he hit the straightest trail he knew that led toward the ranch of Joel Waters.
IT was nearly noon when Laramie pulled up his sweating bronc at the porch of the Boxed W ranch house. There were no punchers in sight. Hop Sing opened the door.
"Where's Waters?" rapped out Laramie.
"Solly!" Hop Sing beamed on the younger man. "He gone to town to see doctluh and get leg fixed. Slim Jones dlive him in in buckbload. He be back tonight."
"Damn!" groaned Laramie. He saw his plan being knocked into a cocked hat. That plan had been to lead a band of men straight to the outlaws' hide-out and bottle them up in their stronghold before they could scatter out over the range in their planned raid. The Boxed W punchers would not follow a stranger without their boss's orders, and only Waters could convince the bellicose citizens of San Leon that Laramie was on the level. Time was flying, and every minute counted.
There was only one risky course left open. He swung on his tiring horse and reined away on the road for San Leon.
He met no one on the road, for which he was thankful. When he drew up on the outskirts of the town his horse was drawing laboring breaths. He knew the animal would be useless in case he had to dust out of town with a posse on his heels.
Laramie knew of a back alley that led to the doctor's office, and by which he hoped to make it unseen. He dismounted and headed down the alley, leading the gelding by the reins.
He sighted the little adobe shack where the town's one physician lived and worked, when a jingle of spurs behind him caused him to jerk his head in time to see a man passing the end of the alley. It was Mart Rawley, and Laramie ducked behind his horse, cursing his luck. Rawley must have been prowling around the town, expecting him, and watching for him. His yell instantly split the lazy silence.
"Laramie!" howled Rawley. "Laramie's back! Hey, Bill! Lon! Joe! Everybody! Laramie's in town again! This way!"
Laramie forked his mustang and spurred it into a lumbering run for the main street. Lead was singing down the alley as Laramie burst into Main Street, and saw Joel Waters sitting in a chair on the porch of the doctor's shack.
"Get all the men you can rustle and head for the Diablos!" he yelled at the astonished ranchman. "I'll leave a trail for you to follow. I found the gang at the old hide-out—and they're comin' out tonight for a big cleanup!"
Then he was off again, his clattering hoofs drowning Waters' voice as he shouted after the rider. Men were yelling and .45s banging. Ahorse and afoot they came at him, shooting as they ran. The dull, terrifying mob-roar rose, pierced with yells of: "String him up!" "He shot Bob Anders in the back!"
His way to open country was blocked, and his horse was exhausted. With a snarl Laramie wheeled and rode to the right for a narrow alley that did not seem to be blocked. It led between two buildings to a side-street, and was not wide enough for a horse to pass through. Maybe that was the reason it had been left unguarded. Laramie reached it, threw himself from his saddle and dived into the narrow mouth.
For an instant his mount, standing with drooping head in the opening, masked his master from bullets, though Laramie had not intended sacrificing his horse for his own hide. Laramie had run half the length of the alley before someone reached out gingerly, grasped the reins and jerked the horse away. Laramie half turned, without pausing in his run, and fired high and harmlessly back down the alley. The whistle of lead kept the alley clear until he bolted out the other end.
There, blocking his way in the side, street, stood a figure beside a black racing horse. Laramie's gun came up—then he stopped short, mouth open in amazement. It was Judy Anders who stood beside the black horse.
Before he could speak she sprang forward and thrust the reins in his hand.
"Take him and go! He's fast!"
"Why—what?" Laramie sputtered, his thinking processes in a muddle. The mere sight of Judy Anders had that effect upon him. Hope flamed in him. Did her helping him mean—then reason returned and he took the gift the gods had given him without stopping for question. As he grabbed the horn and swung up he managed: "I sure thank you kindly, miss—"
"Don't thank me," Judy Anders retorted curtly; her color was high, but her red lips were sulky. "You're a Laramie and ought to be hung, but you fought beside Bob yesterday when he needed help. The Anderses pay their debts. Will you go?"
A nervous stamp of her little foot emphasized the request. The advice was good. Three of the townsmen appeared with lifted guns around a corner of a nearby building. They hesitated as they saw the girl near him, but began maneuvering for a clear shot at him without endangering her.
"See Joel Waters, at the doctor's office!" he yelled to her, and was off for the open country, riding like an Apache, and not at all sure that she understood him. Men howled and guns crashed behind him, and maddened citizens ran cursing for their mounts, too crazy-mad to notice the girl who shrieked vainly at them, unheeding her waving arms.
"Stop! Stop! Wait! Listen to me!" Deaf to her cries they streamed past her, ahorse and afoot, and burst out into the open. The mounted men spurred their horses savagely after the figure that was swiftly dwindling in the distance.
Judy dashed aside an angry tear and declaimed her opinion of men in general, and the citizens of San Leon in particular, in terms more expressive than lady-like.
"What's the matter?" It was Joel Waters, limping out of the alley, supported by the doctor. The old man seemed stunned by the rapidity of events. "What in the devil's all this mean? Where's Buck?"
She pointed. "There he goes, with all the idiots in San Leon after him."
"Not all the idiots," Waters corrected. "I'm still here. Dern it, the boy must be crazy, comin' here. I yelled myself deef at them fools, but they wouldn't listen—"
"They wouldn't listen to me, either!" cried Judy despairingly. "But they won't catch him—ever, on that black of mine. And maybe when they come limping back, they'll be cooled down enough to hear the truth. If they won't listen to me, they will to Bob!"
"To Bob?" exclaimed the doctor. "Has he come out of his daze? I was just getting ready to come over and see him again, when Joel came in for his leg to be dressed."
"Bob came out of it just a little while ago. He told me it wasn't Laramie who shot him. He's still groggy and uncertain as to just what happened. He doesn't know who it was who shot him, but he knows it wasn't Buck Laramie. The last thing he remembers was Laramie running some little distance ahead of him. The bullet came from behind. He thinks a stray slug from the men behind them hit him."
"I don't believe it was a stray," grunted Waters, his eyes beginning to glitter. "I got a dern good idee who shot Bob. I'm goin' to talk—"
"Better not bother Bob too much right now," interrupted the doctor "I'll go over there—"
"Better go in a hurry if you want to catch Bob at home," the girl said grimly. "He was pulling on his boots and yelling for our cook to bring him his gun-belt when I left!"
"What? Why, he musn't get up yet!" The doctor transferred Waters' arm from his shoulder to that of the girl, and hurried away toward the house where Bob Anders was supposed to be convalescing.
"Why did Buck come back here?" Judy wailed to Waters.
"From what he hollered at me as he lighted past, I reckon he's found somethin' up in the Diablos. He come for help. Probably went to my ranch first, and findin' me not there, risked his neck comin' on here. Said send men after him, to foller signs he'd leave. I relayed that there information on to Slim Jones, my foreman. Doc lent Slim a horse, and Slim's high-tailin' it for the Boxed W right now to round up my waddies and hit the trail. As soon as these San Leon snake-hunters has ruint their cayuses chasin' that black streak of light you give Buck, they'll be pullin' back into town. This time, I bet they'll listen."
"I'm glad he didn't shoot Bob," she murmured. "But why—why did he come back here in the first place?"
"He come to pay a debt he figgered he owed on behalf of his no-account brothers. His saddle bags is full of gold he aims to give back to the citizens of this here ongrateful town. What's the matter?"
For his fair companion had uttered a startled exclamation.
"N-nothing, only—only I didn't know it was that way! Then Buck never robbed or stole, like his brothers?"
"Course he didn't!" snapped the old man irascibly. "Think I'd kept on bein' his friend all his life, if he had? Buck ain't to blame for what his brothers did. He's straight and he's always been straight."
"But he was with them, when—when—"
"I know." Waters' voice was gentler. "But he didn't shoot yore dad. That was Luke. And Buck was with 'em only because they made him. He wasn't nothin' but a kid."
She did not reply and old Waters, noting the soft, new light glowing in her eyes, the faint, wistful smile that curved her lips, wisely said nothing.
In the meantime the subject of their discussion was proving the worth of the sleek piece of horseflesh under him. He grinned as he saw the distance between him and his pursuers widen, thrilled to the marvel of the horse between his knees as any good horseman would. In half an hour he could no longer see the men who hunted him.
He pulled the black to an easier, swinging gait that would eat up the miles for long hours on end, and headed for the Diablos. But the desperate move he was making was not dominating his thoughts. He was mulling over a new puzzle; the problem of why Judy Anders had come to his aid. Considering her parting words, she didn't have much use for him. If Bob had survived his wound, and asserted Laramie's innocence, why were the citizens so hot for his blood? If not—would Judy Anders willingly aid a man she thought shot her brother? He thrilled at the memory of her, standing there with the horse that saved his life. If only he weren't a Laramie—How beautiful she was.
A GOOD three hours before sundown Laramie was in the foothills of the Diablos. In another hour, by dint of reckless riding over trails that were inches in width, which even he ordinarily would have shunned, he came in sight of the entrance to the hide-out. He had left signs farther down the trail to indicate, not the way he had come, but the best way for Waters' punchers to follow him.
Once more he dismounted some distance from the tunnel and stole cautiously forward. There would be a new sentry at the entrance, and Laramie's first job must be to dispose of him silently.
He was halfway to the tunnel when he glimpsed the guard, sitting several yards from the mouth, near a clump of bushes. It was the scar-faced fellow Harrison had called Braxton, and he seemed wide-awake.
Falling back on Indian tactics, acquired from the Yaquis in Mexico, Laramie began a stealthy, and necessarily slow, advance on the guard, swinging in a circle that would bring him behind the man. He crept up to within a dozen feet.
Braxton was getting restless. He shifted his position, craning his neck as he stared suspiciously about him. Laramie believed he had heard, but not yet located, faint sounds made in Laramie's progress. In another instant he would turn his head and stare full at the bushes which afforded the attacker scanty cover.
Gathering a handful of pebbles, Laramie rose stealthily to his knees and threw them over the guard's head. They hit with a loud clatter some yards beyond the man. Braxton started to his feet with an oath. He glared in the direction of the sound with his Winchester half lifted, neck craned. At the same instant Laramie leaped for him with his six-gun raised like a club.
Scarface wheeled, and his eyes flared in amazement. He jerked the rifle around, but Laramie struck it aside with his left hand, and brought down his pistol barrel crushingly on the man's head. Braxton went to his knees like a felled ox; slumped full-length and lay still.
Laramie ripped off belts and neckerchief from the senseless figure; bound and gagged his captive securely. He appropriated his pistol, rifle and spare cartridges, then dragged him away from the tunnel mouth and shoved him in among a cluster of rocks and bushes, effectually concealing him from the casual glance.
"Won the first trick, by thunder!" grunted Laramie. "And now for the next deal."
The success of that deal depended on whether or not all the outlaws of Harrison's band were in the hide-out. Mart Rawley was probably outside, yet; maybe still back in San Leon. But Laramie knew he must take the chance that all the other outlaws were inside.
He glanced up to a ledge overhanging the tunnel mouth, where stood precariously balanced the huge boulder which had given him his idea for bottling up the canyon.
"Cork for my bottle!" muttered Laramie. "All I need now's a lever."
A broken tree limb sufficed for that, and a few moments later he had climbed to the ledge and was at work on the boulder. A moment's panic assailed him as he feared its base was too deeply imbedded for him to move it. But under his fierce efforts he felt the great mass give at last. A few minutes more of back-breaking effort, another heave that made the veins bulge on his temples —and the boulder started toppling, crashed over the ledge and thundered down into the tunnel entrance. It jammed there, almost filling the space.
He swarmed down the wall and began wedging smaller rocks and brush in the apertures between the boulder and the tunnel sides. The only way his enemies could get out now was by climbing the canyon walls, a feat he considered practically impossible, or by laboriously picking out the stones he had jammed in place, and squeezing a way through a hole between the boulder and the tunnel wall. And neither method would be a cinch, with a resolute cowpuncher slinging lead at everything that moved.
Laramie estimated that his whole task had taken about half an hour. Slinging Braxton's rifle over his shoulder he clambered up the cliffs. At the spot on the canyon rim where he had spied upon the hide-out that morning, he forted himself by the simple procedure of crouching behind a fair-sized rock, with the Winchester and pistols handy at his elbows. He had scarcely taken his position when he saw a mob of riders breaking away from the corral behind the cabin. As he had figured, the gang was getting away to an early start for its activities of the night.
He counted twenty-five of them; and the very sun that glinted on polished gun hammers and silver conchas seemed to reflect violence and evil deeds.
"Four hundred yards," muttered Laramie, squinting along the blue rifle barrel. "Three fifty—three hundred—now I opens the ball!"
At the ping of the shot dust spurted in front of the horses' hoofs, and the riders scattered like quail, with startled yells.
"Drop them shootin' irons and hi'st yore hands!" roared Laramie. "Tunnel's corked up and you can't get out!"
His answer came in a vengeful hail of bullets, spattering along the canyon rim for yards in either direction. He had not expected any other reply. His shout had been more for rhetorical effect than anything else. But there was nothing theatrical about his second shot, which knocked a man out of his saddle. The fellow never moved after he hit the ground.
The outlaws converged toward the tunnel entrance, firing as they rode, aiming at Laramie's aerie, which they had finally located. Laramie replied in kind. A mustang smitten by a slug meant for his rider rolled to the ground and broke his rider's leg under him. A squat raider howled profanely as a slug ploughed through his breast muscles.
Then half a dozen men in the lead jammed into the tunnel and found that Laramie had informed them truthfully. Their yells reached a crescendo of fury. The others slid from their horses and took cover behind the rocks that littered the edges of the canyon, dragging the wounded men with them.
From a rush and a dash the fight settled to a slow, deadly grind, with nobody taking any rash chances. Having located his tiny fort, they concentrated their fire on the spot of the rim he occupied. A storm of bullets drove him to cover behind the breastworks, and became exceedingly irksome.
He had not seen either Rawley or Harrison. Rawley, he hoped, was still in San Leon, but the absence of Harrison worried him. Had he, too, gone to San Leon? If so, there was every chance that he might get clean away, even if his band was wiped out. There was another chance, that he or Rawley, or both of them, might return to the hide-out and attack him from the rear. He cursed himself for not having divulged the true identity of the gang's leader to Judy Anders; but he always seemed addled when talking to her.
The ammunition supply of the outlaws seemed inexhaustible. He knew at least six men were in the tunnel, and he heard them cursing and shouting, their voices muffled. He found himself confronted by a quandary that seemed to admit of no solution. If he did not discourage them, they would be breaking through the blocked tunnel and potting him from the rear. But to affect this discouragement meant leaving his point of vantage, and giving the men below a chance to climb the canyon wall. He did not believe this could be done, but he did not know what additions to the fortress had been made by the new occupants. They might have chiseled out handholds at some point on the wall. Well, he'd have to look at the tunnel.
"Six-guns against rifles, if this keeps up much longer," he muttered, working his way over the ledges. "Cartridges most gone. Why the devil don't Joel's men show up? I can't keep these hombres hemmed up forever— damn!"
His arm thrust his six-gun out as he yelped. Stones and brush had been worked out at one place in the tunnel-mouth, and the head and shoulders of a man appeared. At the crash of Laramie's Colt the fellow howled and vanished. Laramie crouched, glaring; they would try it again, soon. If he was not there to give them lead-argument, the whole gang would be squeezing out of the tunnel in no time.
He could not get back to the rim, and leave the tunnel unguarded; yet there was always the possibility of somebody climbing the canyon wall.
Had he but known it, his fears were justified. For while he crouched on the ledge, glaring down at the tunnel-mouth, down in the canyon a man was wriggling toward a certain point of the cliff, where his keen eyes had discerned something dangling. He had discovered Laramie's rope, hanging from the stunted tree on the rim. Cautiously he lifted himself out of the tall grass, ready to duck back in an instant, then as no shot came from the canyon rim, he scuttled like a rabbit toward the wall.
Kicking off his boots and slinging his rifle on his back, he began swarming, ape-like, up the almost sheer wall. His outstretched arm grasped the lower end of the rope, just as the others in the canyon saw what he was doing, and opened a furious fire on the rim to cover his activities. The outlaw on the rope swore luridly, and went up with amazing agility, his flesh crawling with the momentary expectation of a bullet in his back.
The renewed firing had just the effect on Laramie that the climber had feared it would have—it drew him back to his breastwork. It was not until he was crouching behind his breastwork that it occurred to him that the volleys might have been intended to draw him away from the tunnel. So he spared only a limited glance over the rocks, for the bullets were winging so close that he dared not lift his head high. He did not see the man on the rope cover the last few feet in a scrambling rush, and haul himself over the rim, unslinging his rifle as he did so.
Laramie turned and headed back for the ledge whence he could see the opening. And as he did so, he brought himself into full view of the outlaw who was standing upright on the rim, by the stunted tree.
The whip-like crack of his Winchester reached Laramie an instant after he felt a numbing impact in his left shoulder. The shock of the blow knocked him off his feet, and his head hit hard against a rock. Even as he fell he heard the crashing of brush down the trail, and his last, hopeless thought was that Rawley and Harrison were returning. Then the impact of his head against the rock knocked all thought into a stunned blank.
AN outlaw came scrambling out of the tunnel with desperate haste, followed by another and another. One crouched, rifle in hand, glaring up at the wall, while the others tore away the smaller stones, and aided by those inside, rolled the boulder out of the entrance. Three men ran out of the tunnel and joined them.
Their firing roused Buck Laramie. He blinked and glared, then oriented himself. He saw five riders sweeping toward the tunnel, and six outlaws who had rushed out while he was unconscious, falling back into it for shelter; and he recognized the leader of the newcomers as Slim Jones, Joel Waters' foreman. The old man had not failed him.
"Take cover, you fools!" Laramie yelled wildly, unheard in the din.
But the reckless punchers came straight on and ran into a blast of lead poured from the tunnel mouth into which the outlaws had disappeared. One of the waddies saved his life by a leap from the saddle as his horse fell with a bullet through its brain, and another man threw wide his arms and pitched on his head, dead before he hit the pebbles.
Then only did Slim and his wild crew swerve their horses out of line and fall back to cover. Laramie remembered the slug that had felled him, and turned to scan the canyon rim. He saw the man by the stunted tree then; the fellow was helping one of his companions up the same route he had taken, and evidently thought that his shot had settled Laramie, as he was making no effort at concealment. Laramie lifted his rifle and pulled the trigger—and the hammer fell with an empty click. He had no more rifle cartridges. Below him the punchers were futilely firing at the tunnel entrance, and the outlaws within were wisely holding their fire until they could see something to shoot at.
Laramie crawled along a few feet to put himself out of range of the rifleman on the rim, then shouted: "Slim! Swing wide of that trail and come up here with yore men!"
He was understood, for presently Slim and the three surviving punchers came crawling over the tangle of rocks, having necessarily abandoned their horses.
"'Bout time you was gettin' here," grunted Laramie. "Gimme some .30- 30s."
A handful of cartridges were shoved into his eager fingers.
"We come as soon as we could," said Slim. "Had to ride to the ranch to round up these snake-hunters."
"I left him in San Leon, cussin' a blue streak because he couldn't get nobody to listen to him. Folks got no more sense'n cattle; just as easy to stampede and as hard to git millin' once they bust loose."
"What about Bob Anders?"
"Doctor said he was just creased; was just fixin' to go over there when me and Joel come into town and he had to wait and dress Joel's leg. Hadn't come to hisself, last time the doc was there."
Laramie breathed a sigh of relief. At least Bob Anders was going to live, even if he hadn't been able to name the man who shot him. Soon Judy would know the truth. Laramie snapped into action.
"Unless Waters sends us more men, we're licked. Tunnel's cleared and men climbin' the cliff."
"You're shot!" Jones pointed to Laramie's shirt shoulder, soaked with blood.
"Forget it!" snapped Laramie. "Well, gimme that bandanna—" and while he knotted it into a crude bandage, he talked rapidly. "Three of you hombres stay here and watch that tunnel. Don't let nobody out, d'you hear? Me and Slim are goin' to circle around and argy with the gents climbin' the cliffs. Come on, Slim."
It was rough climbing, and Laramie's shoulder burned like fire, with a dull throbbing that told him the lead was pressing near a bone. But he set his teeth and crawled over the rough rocks, keeping out of sight of the men in the canyon below, until they had reached a point beyond his tiny fort on the rim, and that much closer to the stunted tree.
They had kept below the crest and had not been sighted by the outlaws on the rim, who had been engrossed in knotting a second rope, brought up by the second man, to the end of the lariat tied to the tree. This had been dropped down the wall again, and now another outlaw was hanging to the rope and being drawn straight up the cliff like a water bucket by his two friends above.
Slim and Laramie fired almost simultaneously. Slim's bullet burned the fingers of the man clinging to the lariat. He howled and let go the rope and fell fifteen feet to the canyon floor. Laramie winged one of the men on the cliff, but it did not affect his speed as he raced after his companion in a flight for cover. Bullets whizzed up from the canyon as the men below spotted Laramie and his companion. They ducked back, but relentlessly piled lead after the men fleeing along the rim of the cliff.
These worthies made no attempt to make a stand. They knew the lone defender had received reinforcements and they were not stopping to learn in what force. Laramie and Slim caught fleeting glimpses of the fugitives as they headed out through the hills.
"Let 'em go," grunted Laramie. "Be no more trouble from that quarter, and I bet them rannies won't try to climb that rope no more. Come on; I hear guns talkin' back at the tunnel."
Laramie and his companion reached the punchers on the ledge in time to see three horsemen streaking it down the trail, with lead humming after them. Three more figures lay sprawled about the mouth of the tunnel.
"They busted out on horseback," grunted one of the men, kneeling and aiming after the fleeing men. "Come so fast we couldn't stop 'em all— uh."
His shot punctuated his remarks, and one of the fleeing horsemen swayed in his saddle. One of the others seemed to be wounded, as the three ducked into the trees and out of sight.
"Three more hit the trail," grunted Slim.
"Not them," predicted Laramie. "They was bound to see us—know they ain't but five of us. They won't go far; they'll be sneakin' back to pot us in the back when their pards start bustin' out again."
"No racket in the tunnel now."
"They're layin' low for a spell. Too damn risky now. They didn't have but six horses in the tunnel. They got to catch more and bring 'em to the tunnel before they can make the rush.
"They'll wait till dark, and then we can't stop 'em from gettin' their cayuses into the tunnel. We can't stop 'em from tearin' out at this end, neither, unless we got more men. Slim, climb back up on the rim and lay down behind them rocks I stacked up. Watch that rope so nobody climbs it; we got to cut that, soon's it gets dark. And don't let no horses be brought into the tunnel, if you can help it."
Slim crawled away, and a few moments later his rifle began banging, and he yelled wrathfully: "They're already at it!"
"Listen!" ejaculated Laramie suddenly.
Down the trail, out of sight among the trees sounded a thundering of hoofs, yells and shots.
The shots ceased, then after a pause, the hoofs swept on, and a crowd of men burst into view.
"Yippee!" whooped one of the punchers bounding into the air and swinging his hat. "Reinforcements, b'golly! It's a regular army!"
"Looks like all San Leon was there!" bellowed another. "Hey, boys, don't git in line with that tunnel mouth! Spread out along the trail—who's them three fellers they got tied to their saddles?"
"The three snakes that broke loose from the tunnel!" yelped the third cowboy. "They scooped 'em in as they come! Looks like everybody's there. There's Charlie Ross, and Jim Watkins, the mayor, and Lon Evans, Mart Rawley's bartender—reckon he didn't know his boss was a crook—and by golly, look who's leadin' 'em!"
"Bob Anders!" ejaculated Laramie, staring at the pale-faced, but erect figure who, with bandaged head, rode ahead of the thirty or forty men who came clattering up the trail and swung wide through the brush to avoid the grim tunnel mouth. Anders saw him and waved his hand, and a deep yell of approbation rose from the men behind the sheriff. Laramie sighed deeply. A few hours ago these same men wanted to hang him.
Rifles were spitting from the tunnel, and the riders swung from their horses and began to take up positions on each side of the trail, as Anders took in the situation at a glance and snapped his orders. Rifles began to speak in answer to the shots of the outlaws. Laramie came clambering down the cliff to grasp Anders' outstretched hand.
"I came to just about the time you hit town today, Laramie," he said. "Was just tellin' Judy it couldn't been you that shot me, when all that hell busted loose and Judy run to help you out if she could. Time I could get my clothes on, and out-argy the doctor, and get on the streets, you was gone with these addle-heads chasin' you. We had to wait till they give up the chase and come back, and then me and Judy and Joel Waters lit into 'em. Time we got through talkin' they was plumb whipped down and achin' to take a hand in yore game."
"I owe you all a lot, especially your sister. Where's Rawley?" Laramie asked.
"We thought he was with us when we lit out after you," the sheriff answered. "But when we started back we missed him."
"Look out!" yelled Slim on the rim above them, pumping lead frantically. "They're rushin' for the tunnel on horses! Blame it, why ain't somebody up here with me? I can't stop 'em all—"
Evidently the gang inside the canyon had been whipped to desperation by the arrival of the reinforcements, for they came thundering through the tunnel laying down a barrage of lead as they came. It was sheer madness. They ran full into a blast of lead that piled screaming horses and writhing men in a red shambles. The survivors staggered back into the tunnel.
Struck by a sudden thought, Laramie groped among the bushes and hauled out the guard, Braxton, still bound and gagged. The fellow was conscious and glared balefully at his captor. Laramie tore the gag off, and demanded: "Where's Harrison and Rawley?"
"Rawley rode for San Leon after you got away from us this mornin'," growled Braxton sullenly. "Harrison's gone, got scared and pulled out. I dunno where he went."
"Yo're lyin'," accused Laramie.
"What'd you ast me for, if you know so much?" sneered Braxton, and lapsed in stubborn, hill-country silence, which Laramie knew nothing would break, so long as the man chose to hold his tongue.
"You mean Harrison's in on this, Buck?" the sheriff exclaimed. "Joel told me about Rawley."
"In on it?" Laramie laughed grimly. "Harrison is the kingpin, and Rawley is his chief sidewinder, I ain't seen neither Harrison nor Rawley since I got here. Be just like them rats to double-cross their own men, and run off with the loot they've already got.
"But we still got this nest to clean out, and here's my idea. Them that's still alive in the canyon are denned up in or near the tunnel. Nobody nigh the cabin. If four or five of us can hole up in there, we'll have 'em from both sides. We'll tie some lariats together, and some of us will go down the walls and get in the cabin. We'll scatter men along the rim to see none of 'em climb out, and we'll leave plenty men here to hold the tunnel if they try that again —which they will, as soon as it begins to get dark, if we don't scuttle 'em first."
"You ought a been a general, cowboy. Me and Slim and a couple of my Bar X boys'll go for the cabin. You better stay here; yore shoulder ain't fit for tight-rope work and such."
"She's my hand," growled Laramie. "I started dealin' her and I aim to set in till the last pot's raked in."
"Yo're the dealer," acquiesced Anders. "Let's go."
Ten minutes later found the party of five clustered on the canyon rim. The sun had not yet set beyond the peaks, but the canyon below was in shadow. The spot Laramie had chosen for descent was some distance beyond the stunted tree. The rim there was higher, the wall even more precipitous. It had the advantage, however, of an outjut of rock that would partially serve to mask the descent of a man on a lariat from the view of the men lurking about the head of the canyon.
If anyone saw the descent of the five invaders, there was no sign to show they had been discovered. Man after man they slid down the dangling rope and crouched at the foot, Winchesters ready. Laramie came last, clinging with one hand and gritting his teeth against the pain of his wounded shoulder. Then began the advance on the cabin.
That slow, tortuous crawl across the canyon floor seemed endless. Laramie counted the seconds, fearful that they would be seen, fearful that night would shut down before they were forted. The western rim of the canyon seemed crested with golden fire, contrasting with the blue shadows floating beneath it. He sighed gustily as they reached their goal, with still enough light for their purpose.
The cabin doors were shut, the windows closely shuttered.
"Let's go!" Anders had one hand on the door, drawn Colt in the other.
"Wait," grunted Laramie. "I stuck my head into a loop here once already today. You all stay here while I take a pasear around to the back and look things over from that side. Don't go in till you hear me holler."
Then Laramie was sneaking around the cabin, Indian-fashion, gun in hand. He was little more than half the distance to the back when he was paralyzed to hear a voice inside the cabin call out: "All clear!"
Before he could move or shout a warning, he heard Anders answer: "Comin', Buck!" Then the front door slammed, and there was the sound of a sliding bolt, a yell of dismay from the Bar X men. With sick fury Laramie realized that somebody lurking inside the cabin had heard him giving his instructions and imitated his voice to trick the sheriff into entering. Confirmation came instantly, in a familiar voice—the voice of Ely Harrison!
"Now we can make terms, gentlemen!" shouted the banker, his voice rasping with ferocious exultation. "We've got your sheriff in a wolf-trap with hot lead teeth! You can give us road-belts to Mexico, or he'll be deader than hell in three minutes!"
LARAMIE was charging for the rear of the house before the triumphant shout ended. Anders would never agree to buying freedom for that gang to save his own life; and Laramie knew that whatever truce might be agreed upon, Harrison would never let the sheriff live.
The same thought motivated the savage attack of Slim Jones and the Bar X men on the front door; but that door happened to be of unusual strength. Nothing short of a log battering ram could smash it. The rear door was of ordinary thin paneling.
Bracing his good right shoulder to the shock, Laramie rammed his full charging weight against the rear door. It crashed inward and he catapulted into the room gun-first.
He had a fleeting glimpse of a swarthy Mexican wheeling from the doorway that led into the main room, and then he ducked and jerked the trigger as a knife sang past his head. The roar of the .45 shook the narrow room and the knife thrower hit the planks and lay twitching.
With a lunging stride Laramie was through the door, into the main room. He caught a glimpse of men standing momentarily frozen, glaring up from their work of tying Bob Anders to a chair—Ely Harrison, another Mexican, and Mart Rawley.
For an infinitesimal tick of time the scene held—then blurred with gun-smoke as the .45s roared death across the narrow confines. Hot lead was a coal of hell burning its way through the flesh of Laramie's already wounded shoulder. Bob Anders lurched out of the chair, rolling clumsily toward the wall. The room was a mad welter of sound and smoke in the last light of gathering dusk.
Laramie half rolled behind the partial cover of a cast iron stove, drawing his second gun. The Mexican fled to the bunk-room, howling, his broken left arm flopping. Mart Rawley backed after him at a stumbling run, shooting as he went; crouched inside the door he glared, awaiting his chance. But Harrison, already badly wounded, had gone berserk. Disdaining cover, or touched with madness, he came storming across the room, shooting as he came, spattering blood at every step. His eyes flamed through the drifting fog of smoke like those of a rabid wolf.
Laramie raised himself to his full height and faced him. Searing lead whined past his ear, jerked at his shirt, stung his thigh; but his own gun was burning red and Harrison was swaying in his stride like a bull which feels the matador's steel. His last shot flamed almost in Laramie's face, and then at close range a bullet split the cold heart of the devil of San Leon, and the greed and ambitions of Ely Harrison were over.
Laramie, with one loaded cartridge left in his last gun, leaned back against the wall, out of range of the bunk room.
"Come on out, Rawley," he called. "Harrison's dead. Yore game's played out."
The hidden gunman spat like an infuriated cat.
"No, my game ain't played out!" he yelled in a voice edged with blood- madness. "Not till I've wiped you out, you mangy stray. But before I kill you, I want you to know that you ain't the first Laramie I've sent to hell! I'd of thought you'd knowed me, in spite of these whiskers. I'm Rawlins, you fool! Killer Rawlins, that plugged yore horse-thief brother Luke in Santa Maria!"
"Rawlins!" snarled Laramie, suddenly white. "No wonder you knowed me!"
"Yes, Rawlins!" howled the gunman. "I'm the one that made friends with Luke Laramie and got him drunk till he told me all about this hide-out and the trails across the desert. Then I picked a fight with Luke when he was too drunk to stand, and killed him to keep his mouth shut! And what you goin' to do about it?"
"I'm going to kill you, you hell-buzzard!" gritted Laramie, lurching away from the wall as Rawlins came frothing through the door, with both guns blazing. Laramie fired once from the hip. His last bullet ripped through Killer Rawlins' warped brain. Laramie looked down on him as he died, with his spurred heels drumming a death-march on the floor.
Frantic feet behind him brought him around to see a livid, swarthy face convulsed with fear and hate, a brown arm lifting a razor-edged knife. He had forgotten the Mexican. He threw up his empty pistol to guard the downward sweep of the sharp blade, then once more the blast of a six-gun shook the room. Jose Martinez of Chihuahua lifted one scream of invocation and blasphemy at some forgotten Aztec god, as his soul went speeding its way to hell.
Laramie turned and stared stupidly through the smoke-blurred dusk at a tall, slim figure holding a smoking gun. Others were pouring in through the kitchen. So brief had been the desperate fight that the men who had raced around the house at the first bellow of the guns, had just reached the scene. Laramie shook his head dazedly.
"Slim!" he muttered. "See if Bob's hurt!"
"Not me!" The sheriff answered for himself, struggling up to a sitting posture by the wall. "I fell outa the chair and rolled outa line when the lead started singin'. Cut me loose, somebody."
"Cut him loose, Slim," mumbled Laramie. "I'm kinda dizzy."
Stark silence followed the roar of the six-guns, silence that hurt Buck Laramie's ear-drums. Like a man in a daze he staggered to a chair and sank down heavily upon it. Scarcely knowing what he did he found himself muttering the words of a song he hated:
"When the folks heard that Brady was dead,They all turned out, all dressed in red; Marched down the street a-singin' a song: 'Brady's gone to hell with his Stetson on!'"
He was hardly aware when Bob Anders came and cut his blood-soaked shirt away and washed his wounds, dressing them as best he could with strips torn from his own shirt, and whisky from a jug found on the table. The bite of the alcohol roused Laramie from the daze that enveloped him, and a deep swig of the same medicine cleared his dizzy head.
Laramie rose stiffly; he glanced about at the dead men staring glassily in the lamplight, shuddered, and retched suddenly at the reek of the blood that blackened the planks.
"Let's get out in the open!"
As they emerged into the cool dusk, they were aware that the shooting had ceased. A voice was bawling loudly at the head of the canyon, though the distance made the words unintelligible.
Slim came running back through the dusk.
"They're makin' a parley, Bob!" he reported. "They want to know if they'll be give a fair trial if they surrender."
"I'll talk to 'em. Rest of you keep under cover."
The sheriff worked toward the head of the canyon until he was within earshot of the men in and about the tunnel, and shouted: "Are you hombres ready to give in?"
"What's yore terms?" bawled back the spokesman, recognizing the sheriff's voice.
"I ain't makin' terms. You'll all get a fair trial in an honest court. You better make up yore minds. I know they ain't a lot of you left. Harrison's dead and so is Rawley. I got forty men outside this canyon and enough inside, behind you, to wipe you out. Throw yore guns out here where I can see 'em, and come out with yore hands high. I'll give you till I count ten."
And as he began to count, rifles and pistols began clattering on the bare earth, and haggard, blood-stained, powder-blackened men rose from behind rocks with their hands in the air, and came out of the tunnel in the same manner.
"We quits," announced the spokesman. "Four of the boys are laying back amongst the rocks too shot up to move under their own power. One's got a broke laig where his horse fell on him. Some of the rest of us need to have wounds dressed."
Laramie and Slim and the punchers came out of cover, with guns trained on the weary outlaws, and at a shout from Anders, the men outside came streaming through the tunnel, whooping vengefully.
"No mob-stuff," warned Anders, as the men grabbed the prisoners and bound their hands, none too gently. "Get those four wounded men out of the rocks, and we'll see what we can do for them."
Presently, a curious parade came filing through the tunnel into the outer valley where twilight still lingered. And as Laramie emerged from that dark tunnel, he felt as if his dark and sinister past had fallen from him like a worn-out coat.
One of the four wounded men who had been brought through the tunnel on crude stretchers rigged out of rifles and coats was in a talkative mood. Fear and the pain of his wound had broken his nerve entirely and he was overflowing with information.
"I'll tell you anything you want to know! Put in a good word for me at my trial, and I'll spill the works!" he declaimed, ignoring the sullen glares of his hardier companions.
"How did Harrison get mixed up in this deal?" demanded the sheriff.
"Mixed, hell! He planned the whole thing. He was cashier in the bank when the Laramies robbed it; the real ones, I mean. If it hadn't been for that robbery, old Brown would soon found out that Harrison was stealin' from him. But the Laramies killed Brown and give Harrison a chance to cover his tracks. They got blamed for the dough he'd stole, as well as the money they'd actually taken.
"That give Harrison an idee how to be king of San Leon. The Laramies had acted as scapegoats for him once, and he aimed to use 'em again. But he had to wait till he could get to be president of the bank, and had taken time to round up a gang."
"So he'd ruin the ranchers, give mortgages and finally get their outfits, and then send his coyotes outa the country and be king of San Leon," broke in Laramie. "We know that part of it. Where'd Rawlins come in?"
"Harrison knowed him years ago, on the Rio Grande. When Harrison aimed to raise his gang, he went to Mexico and found Rawlins. Harrison knowed the real Laramies had a secret hide-out, so Rawlins made friends with Luke Laramie, and—"
"We know all about that," interrupted Anders with a quick glance at Buck.
"Yeah? Well, everything was bueno till word come from Mexico that Buck Laramie was ridin' up from there. Harrison got skittish. He thought Laramie was comin' to take toll for his brother. So he sent Rawlins to waylay Laramie. Rawlins missed, but later went on to San Leon to try again. He shot you instead, Anders. Word was out to get you, anyway. You'd been prowlin' too close to our hide-out to suit Harrison.
"Harrison seemed to kinda go locoed when first he heard Laramie was headin' this way. He made us pull that fool stunt of a fake bank hold-up to pull wool over folks's eyes more'n ever. Hell, nobody suspected him anyway. Then he risked comin' out here. But he was panicky and wanted us to git ready to make a clean sweep tonight and pull out. When Laramie got away from us this mornin', Harrison decided he'd ride to Mexico with us.
"Well, when the fightin' had started, Harrison and Rawley stayed out a sight. Nothin' they could do, and they hoped we'd be able to break out of the canyon. They didn't want to be seen and recognized. If it should turn out Laramie hadn't told anybody he was head of the gang, Harrison would be able to stay on, then."
Preparations were being made to start back to San Leon with the prisoners, when a sheepish looking delegation headed by Mayor Jim Watkins approached Laramie. Watkins hummed and hawed with embarrassment, and finally blurted out, with typical Western bluntness:
"Look here, Laramie, we owe you somethin' now, and we're just as hot too pay our debts as you are to pay yours. Harrison had a small ranch out a ways from town, which he ain't needin' no more, and he ain't got no heirs, so we can get it easy enough. We thought if you was aimin', maybe, to stay around San Leon, we'd like powerful well to make you a present of that ranch, and kinda help you get a start in the cow business. And we don't want the fifty thousand Waters said you aimed to give us. You've wiped out that debt."
A curious moroseness had settled over Laramie, a futile feeling of anti- climax, and a bitter yearning he did not understand. He felt old and weary, a desire to be alone, and an urge to ride away over the rim of the world and forget—he did not even realize what it was he wanted to forget.
"Thanks." he muttered. "I'm paying that fifty thousand back to the men it belonged to. And I'll be movin' on tomorrow."
He made a helpless, uncertain gesture.
"You think it over," urged Watkins, turning away. Men were already mounting, moving down the trail. Anders touched Laramie's sleeve.
"Let's go. Buck. You need some attention on them wounds."
"Go ahead. Bob. I'll be along. I wanta kind set here and rest."
Anders glanced sharply at him and then made a hidden gesture to Slim Jones, and turned away. The cavalcade moved down the trail in the growing darkness, armed men riding toward a new era of peace and prosperity; gaunt, haggard bound men riding toward the penitentiary and the gallows.
Laramie sat motionless, his empty hands hanging limp on his knees. A vital chapter in his life had closed, leaving him without a goal. He had kept his vow. Now he had no plan or purpose to take its place.
Slim Jones, standing nearby, not understanding Laramie's mood, but not intruding on it, started to speak. Then both men lifted their heads at the unexpected rumble of wheels.
"A buckboard!" ejaculated Slim.
"No buckboard ever come up that trail," snorted Laramie.
"One's comin' now; and who d'you think? Old Joel, by golly. And look who's drivin'!"
Laramie's heart gave a convulsive leap and then started pounding as he saw the slim supple figure beside the old rancher. She pulled up near them and handed the lines to Slim, who sprang to help her down.
"Biggest fight ever fit in San Leon County!" roared Waters, "and I didn't git to fire a shot. Cuss a busted laig, anyway!"
"You done a man's part, anyway, Joel," assured Laramie; and then he forgot Joel Waters entirely, in the miracle of seeing Judy Anders standing before him, smiling gently, her hand outstretched and the rising moon melting her soft hair to golden witch-fire.
"I'm sorry for the way I spoke to you today," she said softly. "I've been bitter about things that were none of your fault."
"D-don't apologize, please," he stuttered, inwardly cursing himself because of his confusion. The touch of her slim, firm hand sent shivers through his frame and he knew all at once what that empty, gnawing yearning was; the more poignant now, because so unattainable.
"You saved my neck. Nobody that does that needs to apologize. You was probably right, anyhow. Er—uh—Bob went down the trail with the others. You must have missed him."
"I saw him and talked to him," she said softly. "He said you were behind them. I came on, expecting to meet you."
He was momentarily startled. "You came on to meet me? Oh, of course. Joel would want to see how bad shot up I was." He achieved a ghastly excuse for a laugh.
"Mr. Waters wanted to see you, of course. But I—Buck, I wanted to see you, too."
She was leaning close to him, looking up at him, and he was dizzy with the fragrance and beauty of her; and in his dizziness said the most inane and idiotic thing he could possibly have said.
"To see me?" he gurgled wildly. "What—what you want to see mefor?"
She seemed to draw away from him and her voice was a bit too precise.
"I wanted to apologize for my rudeness this morning," she said, a little distantly.
"I said don't apologize to me," he gasped. "You saved my life—and I—I—Judy, dang it, I love you!"
It was out—the amazing statement, blurted out involuntarily. He was frozen by his own audacity, stunned and paralyzed. But she did not seem to mind. Somehow he found she was in his arms, and numbly he heard her saying: "I love you too, Buck. I've loved you ever since I was a little girl, and we went to school together. Only I've tried to force myself not to think of you for the past six years. But I've loved the memory of you—that's why it hurt me so to think that you'd gone bad—as I thought you had. That horse I brought you—it wasn't altogether because you'd helped Bob that I brought it to you. It—it was partly because of my own feeling. Oh, Buck, to learn you're straight and honorable is like having a black shadow lifted from between us. You'll never leave me, Buck?"
"Leave you?" Laramie gasped. "Just long enough to find Watkins and tell him I'm takin' him up on a proposition he made me, and then I'm aimin' on spendin' the rest of my life makin' you happy." The rest was lost in a perfectly natural sound.
"Kissin'!" beamed Joel Waters, sitting in his buckboard and gently manipulating his wounded leg. "Reckon they'll be a marryin' in these parts purty soon, Slim."
"Don't tell me yo're figgerin' on gittin' hitched?" inquired Slim, pretending to misunderstand, but grinning behind his hand.
"You go light on that sarcastic tone. I'm liable to git married any day now. It's just a matter of time till I decide what type of woman would make me the best wife."
A VAGRANT wind stirred tiny dust-eddies where the road to California became, for a few hundred yards, the main street of Capitán town. A few mongrel dogs lazed in the shade of the false-fronted frame buildings. Horses at the hitching rack stamped and switched flies. A child loitered along the warped board walk; except for these signs of life, Capitán might have been a ghost town, deserted to sun and wind. A covered wagon creaked slowly along the road from the east. The horses, gaunt and old, leaned forward with each lurching step. The girl on the seat peered under a shading hand and spoke to the old man beside her.
"There's a town ahead, father."
He nodded. "Capitán. We won't wast time there. A bad town. I've heard of it ever since we crossed the Pecos. No law there. A haunt of renegades and refugees. But we must stop there long enough to buy bacon and coffee."
His tired old voice encouraged the laboring horses; dust of the long, long trail sifted greyly from the wagon bed as they creaked into Capitán.
Capitán, baking under the sun that drew a curtain of shimmering heat waves between it and the bare Guadalupes, rising from the rolling wastelands to the south. Capitán, haunt of the hunted, yet not the last haunt, not the ultimate, irrevocable refuge for the desperate and damned.
But not all who came to Capitán were scarred with the wolf-trail brand. One was standing even then at the bar of the Four Aces saloon, frowning at the man before him. Big Mac, cowpuncher from Texas, broad-shouldered, deep- chested, with thews hardened to the toughness of woven steel by years on the cattle trails that stretch from the live-oaks of the Gulf marshes to the prairies of Canada. A familiar figure wherever cowmen gathered, with his broad brown face, volcanic blue eyes, and unruly thatch of curly black hair. There were no notches in the butt of the big Colt .45 which jutted from the scabbard at his right hip, but that butt was worn smooth from much usage. Big Mac did not notch his gun, but it had blazed in range wars and cow-town feuds from the Sabine to Milk River.
"You're Bill McClanahan, ain't you?" the other man asked with a strange eagerness his casual manner could not conceal. "You remember me?"
"Yeah." A man with many enemies must have a keen memory for faces. "You're the Checotah Kid. I saw you in Hayes City, three years ago."
"Let's drink." At the Kid's gesture, the bartender sent glasses and a bottle sliding down the wet bar. The Kid was Mac's opposite in type. Slender, though hard as steel, smooth-faced, blond, his wide grey eyes seemed guileless at first glance. But a man wise in the ways of men could see cruelty and murderous treachery lurking in their depths.
But something else burned there now, something fearful and hunted. There was a nervous tension underlying the Kid's manner that puzzled Big Mac, who remembered him as a suave, self-possessed young scoundrel of the Kansas trail-towns. Doubtless he was on the dodge; yet that did not explain his nervousness, for there was no law in Capitán, and the Border was less than a hundred miles to the south.
Now the Kid leaned toward him and lowered his voice, though only the bartender and a loafer at a table shared the saloon with them.
"Mac, I need a partner! I've found color in the Guadalupes! Gold, as sure as hell!"
"Never knew you were a prospector," grunted Big Mac.
"A man gets to be lots of things!" The Kid's laugh was mirthless. "But I mean it!"
"Why'n't you stay and work it, then?" demanded the other.
"El Bravo's gang ran me out. Thought I was a sheriff or something!" Again the Kid laughed harshly, almost hysterically. "You've heard of El Bravo, maybe? Heads a gang of outlaws that hang out in the Guadalupes. But with a man to watch and another to work, we could take out plenty! The pocket's in a canyon just in the edge of the hills. What do you say?" Again that flaming intentness. His eyes burned on Big Mac like the eyes of a condemned man, seeking reprieve.
The Texan emptied his glass and shook his head.
"I'm no prospector," he rumbled. "I'm sick of work, anyway. I ain't never had a vacation all my life, except a few days in town at the end of the drive, or before round-up. I quit my job at the Lazy K three weeks ago, and I'm headin' for San Francisco to enjoy life for a spell. I'm tired of cow towns. I want to see what a real city looks like."
"But it's a fortune!" urged the Kid passionately, his grey eyes blazing with a weird light. "You'd be a fool to pass it up!"
Big Mac bristled. He'd never liked Checotah anyway. But he merely replied: "Well, mebbyso, but that's how she stands."
"You won't do it?" It was almost a whisper. Sweat beaded the Kid's forehead.
"No! Looks like to me you could find some other partner easy enough."
Mac turned away, reaching for the bottle.
It was a glimpse of the big mirror behind the bar, caught from the tail of his eye, that saved his life. In that fleeting reflection he saw the Checotah Kid, his face a livid mask of desperation, draw his pistol. Big Mac whirled, knocking the gun aside with the bottle in his hand. The smash of breaking glass mingled with the bang of the shot. The bullet ripped through the slack of the Texan's shirt and thudded into the wall. Almost simultaneously Mac crashed his left fist full into the Kid's face.
The killer staggered backward, the smoking pistol escaping his numbed fingers. Mac was after him like a big catamount. There could be no quarter in such a fight. Mac did not spare his strength, for he knew the Kid was deadly—knew he had killed half a dozen men already, some treacherously. He might have another gun hidden on him somewhere.
But it was a knife he was groping for, as he reeled backward under the sledge-hammer impact of the Texan's fists. He found it, just as a thundering clout on the jaw knocked him headlong backward through the door to fall sprawling in the dusty street. He lay still, stunned, blood trickling from his mouth. Big Mac strode swiftly toward him to learn whether or not he was possuming.
But he never reached him. There was a quick patter of light feet, a swish of skirts, and even as Mac saw the girl spring in front of him, he received a resounding slap on his startled face.
He recoiled, glaring in amazement at the slender figure which confronted him, vibrant with anger.
"Don't you dare touch him again, you big bully!" she panted, her dark eyes blazing. "You coward! You brute! Attacking a boy half your size!"
He found no words to reply. He did not fully realize how savage and formidable he looked, with his fierce eyes and dark, scarred face as he stood there with his mallet-like fists clenched, glaring down at the man he had knocked down. He looked like a giant beside the slender Kid. Checotah looked boyish, innocent; to the girl, ignorant of men's ways, it looked like the brutal attack of a ruffian on an inoffensive boy. Mac realized this vaguely, but he could not find words to defend himself. She had not seen the bowie knife, which had fallen in the dust.
A small crowd was gathering, silent and inscrutable. The loafer who had been in the saloon was among them. An old man, his hands gnarled and his bony shoulders stooped, came from the store that stood next to the saloon, with bundles in his hands. He started toward a dust-stained wagon standing beside a board fence just beyond the store, then saw the crowd and hurried toward it, concern shadowing his eyes.
The girl turned lithely and knelt beside the Kid, who was struggling to a sitting position. He saw the pity in her wet, dark eyes, and understood. Checotah could play his cards as they fell.
"Don't let him kill me, Miss." he groaned. "I wasn't doing anything!"
"He shan't touch you," she assured him, flashing a look of defiance at Big Mac. She wiped the blood from the Kid's mouth, and looked angrily at the taciturn, leather-faced men who stood about.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves!" she stormed, with the ignorant courage of the very young. "Letting a bully like him abuse a boy!"
They made no response; only their lips twisted a little, in grim, sardonic humor she could not understand. Big Mac, his face dark, muttered under his breath and turning on his heel, re-entered the saloon. In there the voices reached him only as an incoherent murmur—the faltering, hypocritical voice of the Kid followed quickly by the soothing, sympathetic tones of the girl.
"Hell's fire!" Big Mac grabbed the whisky bottle.
"Wimmen are shore funny critters," remarked the bartender, scouring the bar. Mac's snarl discouraged conversation. The Texan took the bottle to a table at the back of the saloon. He was smarting mentally. The slap the girl had given him was no more than the tap of a feather. But a deeper sting persisted. He was angry and humiliated. A slip of a girl had abused him, like, as he would have put it, an egg-suckin' dog. Like most men of the wild trails, he was extremely sensitive where women were concerned. Indifferent to the opinions of men, a woman's scorn or anger could hurt him deeply. Like all men of his breed, he held women in high esteem, and desired their good opinion. But this girl had condemned him on the appearance of things. His sense of justice was outraged; his soul harbored a sting not to be soothed by the thought of the thousand-odd dollars in greenbacks in his pocket, nor the anticipation of spending them in that far-away city which he had never seen.
He drank, and drank again. His face grew darker, his blue eyes burned more savagely. As he sat there, huge, dark and brooding, he looked capable of any wild, ferocious deed. So thought the man who after awhile entered furtively and slipped into a chair opposite him. Big Mac scowled at him. He knew him as Slip Ratner, one of the many shady characters which haunted Capitán.
"I was in here when the Kid drawed on you," said Ratner, a faint, evil smile twisting his thin lips. "That girl sure hauled you over the coals, didn't she?"
"Shut up!" snarled Big Mac, grabbing the bottle again.
"Sure, sure!" soothed Ratner. "No offense. Sassy snip she was—you ought to of smacked her face for her. Listen!" He hunched forward and lowered his voice: "How'd you like to get even with that fresh dame?"
Big Mac merely grunted. He was paying little attention to what Ratner was saying. Get even with a woman? The thought never entered his mind. His code, the rigid, iron-bound code of the Texas frontier, did not permit of retaliation against a woman, whatever the provocation. But Ratner was speaking again, hurriedly.
"I don't know why the Kid tried to drill you, but that gold- talk of his was a lie. He's been in the Guadalupes, yes, but not after gold. He was trying to join up with El Bravo. I have ways of knowing things—
"Checotah hit Capitán just a few days ago. He's just a few jumps ahead of the Federal marshals. Besides that, there's reward notices for him stuck up all over Mexico. He's killed and robbed on both sides of the Line till there ain't but one place left for him—El Bravo's hide-out in the Guadalupes. That's where men go when both the United States and Mexico are barred to them.
"But El Bravo don't take in no man free. They have to buy into the gang. You remember Stark Campbell, that robbed the bank at Nogales? He got ten thousand dollars and he had to give every cent of it to El Bravo to join the gang. Tough, but it was that or his life. They say El Bravo's got a regular treasure trove hid away somewhere up in the Guadalupes.
"But Checotah didn't have nothing, and El Bravo wouldn't take him. The Kid's desperate. If he stayed here the law would get him in a few days, and there wasn't no place else for him to go. When I seen him playing up to that fool girl, I figgered he had something up his sleeve. And he did! He begged them to take him out of town with them—said he was afraid you'd murder him if he stayed in Capitán. And you know what they done? Invited him to go on to California with them! They laid him in the wagon, him pretending to be crippled, and pulled out, the girl washing the blood off his face, and his saddle-horse tied to the tail-board.
"Well, when they took him to the wagon, I sneaked up behind that board fence and listened to them talk. The girl told Checotah everything. Their names is Ellis; she's Judith Ellis. The old man's got a thousand dollars he saved up, working on a farm back in Illinois or somewhere, and he aims to use it making first payment on a piece of irrigated land in California.
"Now, I know the Kid. He ain't goin' to California. Why, he don't even dare show himself in the next town, out beyond Scalping Knife. Somewhere along the trail he'll kill old Ellis and head for the Guadalupes with the money and the girl. He'll pay his way into the Bravo gang with them! El Bravo likes women, and she's purty enough for any man.
"Here's where we come in. I don't figure the Kid'll strike till after they've passed Seven Mule Pass. That's nine miles from here. If we get on our horses and ride through the sage-brush, we can get past them and waylay them in the pass. Or we can wait till the Kid kills the old man, and then crack down on him. We kill the Kid, and that evens you up with him. Then we split the loot. I take the money. You take the girl. Nobody'll ever know. Plenty of places in the mountains you can take her, and—"
For an instant Big Mac sat silent, glaring incredulously at the leering face before him, while the monstrous proposal soaked in. Ratner could not properly interpret his stunned silence; Ratner credited all men with his own buzzard-instincts.
"What do you say?" he urged.
"Why, you damned—!" Big Mac's eyes flared red as he heaved up. The table crashed sidewise, bottles smashing on the floor. Ratner, almost pinned beneath it, yelped in fright and fury as he jumped clear. He snatched at a pistol as the berserk cowman towered over him. Mac did not waste lead on him. His movement was like the swipe of a bear's paw as his hand locked on Ratner's wrist. The renegade screamed, and a bone snapped. The pistol flew into the corner, and Big Mac hurled the snarling wretch after it, to lie in a stunned, crumpled heap. Men scattered as Big Mac stormed out of the saloon and made for the hitching rack where stood his big bay gelding.
A few moments later the giant Texan thundered out of town in a whirlwind of dust, and took the road that ran west.
EAST of Capitán, the road stretched across a dusty level and was visible for miles, which was an advantage to the citizens, for it was from the east that sheriffs and Federal marshals were most likely to come riding. But westward the terrain changed to a broken country in which the road disappeared from view of the town within a mile. Miles away to the southwest rose the grim outlines of the Guadalupes, shimmering under a sky tinted steel- white by the morning sun. Haunt of fierce desert killers they had always been—painted red men once, and later sombreroed bandidos—but never had they sheltered more deadly slayers than the gang of the mysterious El Bravo. Big Mac had heard of him, had heard, too, that few knew his real identity, save that he was a white man.
The town disappeared behind him, and after that the Texan passed only one habitation—the adobe hut of a Mexican sheepherder, some five miles west of Capitán. A mile further on the trail dipped down into the broad deep canyon cut by Scalping Knife River, in its southerly course—now only a trickle of water in its shallow bed. Three miles beyond the canyon lay a chain of hills, a spur of the Guadalupes, through which the road threaded by Seven Mule Pass. There it was that Ratner expected to lay ambush. Big Mac expected to overhaul the slow-moving wagon long before it reached the Pass.
But as he rode down the eastern slope of the canyon, he grunted and stiffened at the sight of the form lying limply on the canyon floor. The Kid had not waited to get beyond the Pass. Mac bent over old man Ellis. He had been shot through the left shoulder and was unconscious. He had lost a great deal of blood, but the thrum of his old heart was strong. The wagon was nowhere in sight. Wheel tracks wandered away up the canyon; the tracks of a single horse went down the canyon. Big Mac read the sign easily. Ratner had prophesied unerringly, with the wisdom of a wolf concerning the ways of wolves. Checotah had shot the old man—probably without warning. The team, frightened, had run away with the wagon. The Kid had ridden down the canyon with the girl, and, without doubt, the old man's pitiful savings.
Mac stanched the flow of blood with his bandanna. He lifted the senseless man across the saddle and turned back on his trail, leading the big bay, and cursing as the rocks of the flinty trail turned under his high-heeled boots. Back at the sheepherder's hut, a mile from the canyon, he lifted the wounded man down and carried him in, laid him on a bunk. The old Mexican watched inscrutably.
Mac tore a ten dollar bill in two, and handed one half to the peon.
"If he's alive when I get back, you get the other half. If he ain't, I'll make you hard to catch. There's a wagon and team up the canyon. Send a boy to find 'em and bring 'em back here."
"Si, señor." The old man at once gave his attention to the wounded man; more than half Indian, his knowledge of primitive surgery was aboriginal, but effective.
Mac headed back for the canyon. The Kid had not bothered to hide his sign. There was no law in Capitán. There were men there who would not have allowed him to kidnap a girl if they could have prevented it. But they would not attempt to follow him into the outlaw-haunted Guadelupes.
The trail was plain down the canyon. He followed it for three miles, the walls growing steeper and higher as the canyon wound deeper and deeper into the hills. The trail turned aside up a narrow ravine, and Mac, following it, came out upon a benchland, dry and sandy, hemmed in by the slopes of the mountains. At the south edge of the flat buzzards rose and flapped heavily away. They had not feasted; they had been waiting, with grisly patience, for a feast. A few moments later Big Mac looked down on the sprawling form of the Checotah Kid. He had been shot in the open, and a smear of blood on the sand showed how he had wriggled an agonized way to the shade of a big rock.
He had been shot through the body, near the heart. His eyes were glazed, and at each choking gasp bloody bubbles burst on his blue lips.
Big Mac looked down on him with hard, merciless eyes.
"You dirty skunk! I'm sorry somebody beat me to it! Where's the girl?"
"El Bravo took her," panted the Kid. "They saw me riding—with the flag. Came to meet me. I gave him the girl—to pay my way into the gang. Tried to hold out the thousand—I took off the old man. They grabbed me—searched me—El Bravo shot me—for trying to hold out."
"Where'd they take her to?"
"The hideout. I don't know where. Nobody knows but them." The Kid's voice was growing weaker and thicker. "They watch the trails—all the time. Nobody can get—in the Guadalupes—without them knowing it. I carried the signal flag—only reason I got this far." He gestured vaguely toward a cottonwood limb with a shred of white cloth tied to it, which lay near him.
Curiosity prompted Big Mac's next question.
"Why'd you try to shoot me? We never had no trouble in Kansas."
"You were to be my price," gasped the Kid. "That's why I tried to lure you into the hills. El Bravo had rather have you alive. But when you wouldn't come, I thought if I brought him proof I'd downed you, maybe he'd take me in anyway. He's Garth Bissett!"
Garth Bissett! That explained many things. There were reasons why Bissett should hate Big Mac. They first met in a Kansas cow-town, at the end of a cattle-trail from Texas. Bissett was marshal of that town. A hard man, wary as a wolf, quick as summer lightning with the ivory-butted pistols that hung at his hips—and withal as rotten-souled a scoundrel as ever ruled a buzzard- roost trail town. It was Big Mac who broke his dominion. Going to the aid of a young cowboy, framed by one of Bissett's gun-fighting deputies, the big herd-boss had left the deputy dead on a dance-hall floor after a blur of gun- smoke, and in the dead man's pockets were found letters revealing the extent of Bissett's crookedness—proof of theft and murder. A Federal marshal stepped into the game. Bissett might have escaped, but he paused at the cow-camp at the edge of town to even scores with the big trail- driver.
Big Mac came out of the gun-play that followed with a bullet in his breast- muscles, while Bissett, his leg broken by a slug from Mac's .45, was taken by the Federal man. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment, but on the way to the penitentiary escaped, and dropped out of sight. Rumor said he had fled to Mexico, and become involved in a revolution.
Big Mac absently noted that the Kid was dead. Without another glance he mounted and rode deeper into the hills, following the faint trail the slayers had left. His face was darker and grimmer, but the shadow of a sardonic smile played about the corners of his hard mouth, and in one hand he carried the make- shift flag the Kid had borne. He had made his plan, a desperate, reckless plan, with one chance in a thousand of success. But it was the only one. He knew that he could not go into the Guadalupes shooting. If he tried to force his way to the bandit hangout, even if he should find it he would be shot from ambush long before he got there. There was but one way to reach the heart of El Bravo's stronghold. He was taking that way.
He did not ask himself why he followed the trail of a girl who meant nothing to him. It was part of him that he should do so—part of the code of the Texas Border, born of half a century of merciless warfare with red men and brown men, to whom the women of the whites were fair prey. A white man went to the aid of a woman in distress, regardless of who she might be. That was all there was to it. And so Big Mac was going to the aid of the girl who had despised him, instead of riding on his way to the faroff city where he expected to squander the wad of greenbacks he carried in his pocket. Only he knew how much hard work and self-denial they represented.
He had left the flat a few miles behind him and was riding through a rugged defile when a harsh voice bawled an order to halt. Instantly he pulled up and elevated his hands. The command came from a cluster of boulders to the right.
"Who're you and what'a you want?" came the crisp question.
"I'm Big Mac," answered the Texan tranquilly. "I'm lookin' for El Bravo."
"What you got for him?" was the next demand—a stock question, evidently.
Big Mac laughed. "Myself!"
"Are you crazy?" There was a snarl in the voice.
"No. Take me to Bissett. If he don't thank you, he'll be crazy."
"Well, he ain't!" growled the bushwhacker. "Get off yore horse! Now unbuckle yore gun-belt and let 'er drop. Now step back away from it—further back, blast you! Keep yore hands up. I got a .45-70 trained on yore heart all the time."
Big Mac did exactly as he was told. He was standing there, unarmed, his hands in the air, when the man came from behind the rocks, a tall man, who walked with the springy tread of a cougar. Mac knew him instantly.
"Stark Campbell!" he said softly. "So this is why they never got you!"
"And they never will, neither!" retorted the outlaw with an oath. "They can't git to us, up here in the Guadalupes. But a man has to pay high to git in." Bitter anger vibrated in his voice as he said that. "What you done, that you want in?"
"Never mind that. You just lead me to Bissett."
"I'll have to take you to the hang-out, if you see him," said Campbell. "He just taken a girl there. He don't let nobody see the hang-out and live, unless they're in his gang. If he don't let you join us, he'll kill you. You can go back, though, if you want to, now. I won't stop you. You ain't no law."
"I want to see Bissett," replied the Texan. Campbell shrugged his shoulders and drew a pistol, laying aside the rifle. He ordered Big Mac to turn around and put his hands behind him, and the outlaw then bound his wrists—awkwardly, with one hand, for he kept the pistol muzzle jammed in Mac's back with the other, but when the Texan's hands were partly confined, he completed the job with both hands. Then Campbell led his own horse, a rangy roan, from behind the rocks, and hung Mac's gun-belt over the roan's saddle-horn.
"Git on yore horse," he growled. "I'll help you up."
They started on, Campbell leading the big bay. For three or four miles they threaded a precarious path through as wild and broken a country as Big Mac had ever seen, until they entered a steep-walled canyon which, apparently, came to a blind in ahead of them, as the walls pinched together. But as they neared it Big Mac saw a cleft in the angle, fifty feet above the canyon floor, and reached by a narrow, winding trail. A man hailed them from above.
"It's me, Campbell!" shouted his captor, and a growling voice bade them advance. "This is the only way into our hang-out," said Campbell. "You see how much chance a posse'd have of gittin' in, even if they found it. One man with plenty of shells could hold that cleft agen a army."
They went up the trail, single file. The horses crowded against the wall, fearful of the narrow footing. Mac knew that Campbell spoke the truth when he said no posse could charge up that trail, raked by fire from above.
As they entered the cleft a black-whiskered man rose from behind a ledge of rock and glared suspiciously at them.
"All right, Wilson. I'm takin' this fellow to Bissett."
"Ain't that Big Mac?" asked Wilson, in whom Mac recognized another "lost outlaw." "What's he got for Bissett? You searched him?"
"You know damn' well I ain't, only for guns," snarled Campbell. "You know the rule, well as me. Nobody takes money off 'em except Bissett." He spat. "Come on, Mac. If you got somethin' Bissett'll accept, I'll take yore ropes off. If you ain't, you won't be carin' anyway, not with a bullet through yore head."
The cleft was like a tunnel in the rock. It ran for forty feet and then widened out into a space that was like a continuation of the canyon they had left. It formed a bowl, its floor higher than the floor of the canyon outside by fifty feet, walled by unbroken cliffs three hundred feet high, and apparently unscalable. Campbell confirmed this.
"Can't nobody git at us from them cliffs," he snarled. "They're steep outside as inside. It's jest like somebody scooped a holler in the middle of a rock mesa. The holler's this bowl. Gwan. Git down."
Big Mac managed it, with his hands bound, and Campbell left the horses standing in the shade of the wall, reins hanging. He drove Big Mac before him toward the adobe hut that stood in the middle of the bowl, surrounded by a square rock wall, breast-high to a tall man.
"Last line of defense, Bissett says," growled Campbell. "Even if a posse was to git into the bowl—which ain't possible—we could fight 'em off indefinite behind that wall. There's a spring inside the stockade, and we got provisions and ca'tridges enough for a year."
The renegade marshal had always been a master of strategy. Big Mac did not believe the outlaw hangout would ever fall by a direct attack, regardless of the numbers assailing it—if it were ever discovered by the lawmen.
A man Campbell addressed as Garrison came from the corral, adjoining the wall, where a dozen horses grazed, and another met them at the heavy plank gate, built to turn bullets.
"Why, hell!" ejaculated the latter. "That's Big Mac! Where'd you catch him?"
"He rode in with a flag of truce, Emmett," answered Campbell. "Bissett in the shack?"
"Yeah; with the girl," grunted Emmett. "By God, I dunno what to make of this!"
Evidently Emmett knew something of Bissett's former life. The three men followed Mac as he strode across the yard toward the hut. Stark Campbell, John Garrison, Red Emmett; Wolf Wilson, back there at the tunnel. He had indeed come into the last haunt of the hunted, last retreat of these, the most desperate of all the Border renegades, to whom all other doors were barred, against whom the hands of all men were raised. Only in this lost canyon of the Guadalupes could they find sanctuary—the refuge of the wolf's lair, for which they had forfeited all their blood-tinged gains.
Theirs could be only a wolf-pack alliance. Bissett dominated them by virtue of keener wits and swifter gun-hand. They hated him for the brutal avarice that stripped from them their last shred of plunder, in return for a chance of bare life; but they feared him too, and recognized his superiority, knew that without his leadership the pack must perish, despite all natural advantages.
Campbell pushed the door open. As Big Mac loomed in the doorway, the man in the room turned with the blurring speed of a wolf, his hand streaking to an ivory-handled gun even in the instant it took him to see the stranger was a captive, with his hands bound behind him.
"You!" It was the ripping snarl of a timber wolf. Bissett was as tall as Big Mac, but not so heavy. He was wiry, rangy; yellow mustaches drooped below a mouth thin as a knife gash. His pale eyes glittered with an icy, blood-chilling fire.
"What the hell!" He seemed stunned with surprize. Big Mac looked past him to the girl who cringed in the corner, her eyes wide with terror. There was no hope in them when they met his. To her he was but another beast of prey.
Big Mac grinned at Bissett, without mirth.
"Come to join your gang, Garth," he said calmly. "Heard you had to have a gift. Well, I'm it! I've heard you'd bid high for my hide!"
He was gambling on his knowledge of Bissett's nature—on the chance that the outlaw would not instantly shoot him down. They faced each other, the big dark Texan smiling, a trifle grimly, but calm; Bissett snarling, tense, suspicious as a wolf.
"Where'd you get him, Campbell?" he snapped.
"He come in under a flag of truce," growled Campbell. "Same as any man that wants to join up with us. Said you'd be glad to see him."
Bissett turned on Mac, his eyes shining like a wolf's that scents a trap. "Why did you come here?" he ripped out. "You're no fool. You wouldn't put yourself in my power unless you had a damned good reason—some edge—" He whirled on his men, in a frenzy of suspicion.
"Get out to the wall, damn you! Watch the cliffs! Watch everything! This devil wouldn't come in here alone unless he had something up his sleeve—"
"Well, I—" began Campbell, but Bissett's voice cut his sullen drawl like the slash of a whip.
"Shut up, damn you! Get out there! I do the thinking for the gang!"
Mac saw the unveiled hate in Campbell's eyes as he slouched silently out after the others, saw Bissett's eyes dwell burningly on the man. Bad blood there. Campbell feared Bissett less than the others, and was therefore the focus of the wolfish chief's suspicion.
As the men left the building, Bissett picked up a double-barreled shotgun, and cocked it.
"I don't know what your game is," he said between his teeth. "You must have a gang following you, or something. But whatever happens, I aim to get you!"
Mac appeared helpless, unarmed, his hands bound; but a wolf-like suspicion of appearances was at once Bissett's strength and his weakness.
"You're no outlaw," he snarled. "You didn't come here to join my gang. You knew I'd skin you alive, or stake you out on an ant-bed. What are you up to?"
Big Mac laughed in his face. A man who followed the herds up the long trail year after year learned to judge men as well as animals. Bissett was reacting exactly as Mac had expected him to. The Texan was playing that knowledge blindly, waiting for some kind of a break. A desperate game, but he was used to games where the Devil dealt for deadly stakes.
"You ain't got a very big gang, Bissett," he said.
"They're not all here," rapped the outlaw. "Some are out on a raid, toward the Border. Never mind. What's your game? If you talk, your finish will be easier."
Mac glanced again at Judith Ellis, cowering in a corner. The stark terror in her wide eyes hurt him. To this girl, unused to violence, her experience was like a nightmare.
"My game, Bissett?" asked Big Mac coolly. "What could it be? Nobody could get past Wilson in the tunnel, could they? Nobody could climb the cliffs, could they? What good would it do if I did have a gang followin' me, like you think?"
"You wouldn't come here without an ace in the hole," Bissett all but whispered.
"What about your own men?" Big Mac played his ace.
Bissett blanched. His suspicions crystalized, for the moment—suspisions of Big Mac's coming, suspicions of his own men, which forever gnawed at his brain. His eyes, glaring at Mac over the shotgun's black muzzles, were tinged with madness.
"You're trapped, Bissett!" jeered Big Mac, playing his hand from minute to minute, for whatever it might be worth. "Your own men have sold you out! For the loot you took from them and hid—"
And at that moment the break came. Outside Campbell had turned back toward the adobe, and Mac saw him and yelled: "Campbell! Help!" Bissett whirled like a flash, shifting the shotgun to cover his amazed follower. It was an instinctive movement. Even so he would not have pulled the triggers—would have seen through Mac's flimsy scheme, had he had time to think.
But Mac saw and took his desperate chance. He hurled himself headlong against Bissett, and at the impact the shotgun hammers, hung on hair-triggers, fell to the involuntary, convulsive jerk of Bissett's fingers. Both barrels exploded as Bissett went down under Mac's hurtling body, and buckshot blasted Stark Campbell's skull. He died on his feet without knowing why. That was chance; Mac did not, could not have planned his death.
As they went down together, Mac drove his knee savagely into Bissett's belly and rolled clear as the outlaw doubled in gasping agony. Mac heaved up on his feet somehow, roaring: "His knife, quick! Cut these cords!"
The impact of his voice jolted the terrified girl into action. She sprang blindly forward, snatched the knife from Bissett's boot, and sawed at the cords that held Mac's wrists, slicing skin as well as hemp. It had all happened in a stunning instant. Outside, Garrison and Emmett were running toward the house with guns in their hands. Some of the strands parted under the blade, and Mac snapped the others. He stooped and dragged Bissett to his feet. The half-senseless outlaw was clawing dazedly at his pistols. Mac jerked them from him and swung the limp frame around before him.
"Tell your men to get back!" he snarled, jamming a muzzle hard in Bissett's back. "They'll obey you! Tell 'em, quick!"
But the order was never given. The men outside did not know what had happened in the hut. They had only seen Campbell blasted down by a shot through the doorway, and they thought their leader was turning against them. Emmett caught a glimpse of Bissett through the door and fired. Mac felt Bissett's body jerk convulsively in his hands. The bullet had drilled through the outlaw's head.
Mac threw the corpse aside, and fired from the hip. Emmett, struck in the mouth, went down heavily on his back. Garrison, as he saw Emmett fall and Mac loom in the doorway, began to fall back, firing as he went. He was making for the protection of the corral. Once there, he might make a long fight of it. Wilson would be coming up from the tunnel. If it came to a siege, the girl would be endangered by the raking lead.
Mac sprang recklessly into the open, shooting two-handed. He felt hot lead rip through his shirt, burn the skin on his ribs. Garrison snarled, whirled, sprang for the wall. In mid-stride he staggered drunkenly, hard hit. He wheeled and started shooting again, even as he crumpled, holding his sixshooter in both hands. Hit again and yet again, he kept on pulling the trigger, his bullets knocking up the dirt in front of Big Mac's boots. His pistol snapped on an empty chamber before he lurched to the ground and lay still, in a spreading red puddle.
Mac heard Judith scream, and simultaneously came a report behind him and the impact of a blow that knocked him staggering. He came about in a drunken semi-circle, glimpsing Wilson's black-bearded face. The outlaw was straddling the wall, preparing to leap down inside before he fired again. Mac's last bullet broke his neck and dropped him at the foot of the wall, flopping for a dozen seconds like a beheaded chicken.
In the deafening silence that followed the roar of the guns, Mac turned back toward the hut, blood streaming down his shirt. The pale girl cowered in the door, still uncertain as to her fate. His first words reassured her.
"Don't be scairt, Miss. I come to take you back to your dad."
Then she was clinging to him, weeping in hysterical relief.
"Oh, you're hurt! You're bleeding!"
"Just a slug in my shoulder," he grunted, self-conscious. "Ain't nothin'."
"Let me dress it," she begged, and he followed her into the hut. She avoided looking at Bissett, sprawling in a red pool, as she bound up Mac's shoulder with strips torn from her dress, fumbling and clumsily.
"I—I misjudged you," she faltered. "I'm sorry. The Kid—he was a beast—my father—" She choked on the words.
"Your dad's all right," he assured her. "Just drilled through the shoulder, like me. Some rotten shootin' in these parts. Couple of horses saddled at the mouth of the tunnel. Go on out there and wait for me."
After she had gone, he began a hasty search. And presently he desisted, swearing. Neither the pockets of the dead chief nor a hasty ransacking of the rooms rewarded him with what he sought. The money taken from Ellis had gone to join the rest of Bissett's loot, in whatever crypt he had hidden it. Surely he had planned, some day, a flight to some other continent with his plunder. But whatever it was, it was well hidden; a man might hunt it for years, in vain. And Big Mac had not time for hunting. Bissett might have been lying when he said he had other men, out on a raid, but with the girl, Mac could not take the chance of being caught by returning outlaws. He hurried from the hut.
The girl had already mounted Campbell's roan. A few minutes later they were riding together down the outer canyon.
"I found that thousand Checotah took off your dad," he announced, handing her a wad of dingy greenbacks. "Next time don't tell nobody about it."
"You're a guardian angel," she said faintly. "It was all we had—we'd have starved without it—I don't know how I can ever thank you—"
"Aw, shucks, don't try!"
His shoulder hurt, but another, deeper sting was gone, and Big Mac grinned contentedly, even as he slapped his flat pocket, and reflected on the dusty miles back to the Lazy K in Texas where the job he had quit still awaited him; after all, he reckoned he could get along another year without a vacation.
THIS story was originally published with two different endings in the December 1936 issue of Smashing Novels Magazine under the title "The Vultures of Wahpeton." It was preceded by following note from the editor, Cliff Campbell:
"Of course, giving a story two endings is sort of unorthodox. But Smashing Novels, ever since its first issue, hasn't been a particularly orthodox magazine. We've tried, and we are trying, to give you different stories with different slants, and we've been doing our darndest to give you the best stories possible."
The present PGA/RGL e-book edition conforms with the version published in Smashing Novels Magazine, except for correcting the spelling of the scene of action from "Wahpeton" to "Wahpeton."
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 Wahpeton strode from the saloon.
Ten miles east of Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton. 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," 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 Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton.
"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 Wahpeton. 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 Wahpeton, 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.
THE mining town of Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton, 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 Wahpeton, 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 Wahpeton. 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 Wahpeton 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!"
NIGHT had fallen over the roaring madness that was Wahpeton 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."
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.
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 Wahpeton, 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."
"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 Wahpeton 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.
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 Wahpeton, 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 Wahpeton."
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 Wahpeton," 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."
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 Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton to impanel a jury! Sorry you can't make the rush. If we can, Dick and I will stake out a claim for you!"
"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 Wahpeton 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. Wahpeton 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.
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 Wahpeton, 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?"
"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 Wahpeton. 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?"
"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.
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 Wahpeton 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.
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.
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 Wahpeton! 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 Wahpeton. 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."
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 Wahpeton.
"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, 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 Wahpeton? 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 Wahpeton. 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 Wahpeton, 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. Wahpeton 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 Wahpeton. 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 Wahpeton 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?"
"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."
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. Wahpeton'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 Wahpeton 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.
But he must stir. There would be prisoners, eager to talk. Their speech would weave a noose about his neck. The men of Wahpeton must not find him here when they came.
But before he turned his back forever upon Wahpeton Gulch, he had a task to perform. He did not glance again at the gold, gleaming there where the honest people of the camp would find it. Two horses waited, bridled and saddled, among the restless mules tethered under the trees. One was the animal which had borne him into Wahpeton. He mounted it and rode slowly toward the cabin where a woman lay beside dead men. He felt vaguely that it was not right to leave her lying there among those shot-torn rogues.
He braced himself against the sight as he entered the cabin of death. Then he started and went livid under his sun-burnt hue. Glory was not lying as he had left her! With a low cry he reached her, lifted her in his arms. He felt life, pulsing strongly under his hands.
"Glory! For God's sake!" Her eyes were open, not so glazed now, though shadowed by pain and bewilderment. Her arms groped toward him. He lifted and carried her into the back room, laid her on the bunk where Joe Willoughby had received his death wounds. His mind was a whirling turmoil, as he felt with practised fingers of the darkly-clotted wound at the edge of her golden hair.
"Steve," she whimpered. "I'm afraid! Middleton—"
"He won't hurt you any more. Don't talk. I'm goin' to wash that wound and dress it."
Working fast and skillfully, he washed the blood away with a rag torn from her petticoat—as being the cleanest material he could find—and soaked in water and whisky. Corcoran had just ceased bandaging her head when she struggled upright, despite his profane objections, and caught at his arm.
"Steve!" Her eyes were wide with fear. "You must go—go quick! I was crazy—I told McNab what you told me—told Middleton, too, that's why he shot me. They'll kill you."
"Not them," he muttered. "Do you feel better now?"
"Oh, don't mind me! Go! Please go! Oh, Steve, I must have been mad! I betrayed you! I was coming here to tell you that I had, to warn you to get away, when I met Middleton. Where is he?"
"In Hell, where he ought to been years ago," grunted Corcoran. "Never mind. But the vigilantes will be headin' this way soon as some of the rats they've caught get to talkin'. I've got to dust out. But I'll take you back to the Golden Garter first."
"Steve, you're mad! You'd run your head into a noose! Get on your horse and ride!"
"Will you go with me?" His hands closed on her, hurting her with their unconscious strength.
"You still want me, after—after what I did?" she gasped.
"I've always wanted you, since I first saw you. I always will. Forgive you? There's nothin' to forgive. Nothin' you could have ever done could be anywhere near as black as what I've been for the past month. I've been like a mad-dog; the gold blinded me. I'm awake now. And I want you."
For answer her arms groped about his neck, clung convulsively; he felt the moisture of her passionate tears on his throat. Lifting her, he carried her out of the cabin, pressing her face against his breast that she might not see the stark figures lying there in their splashes of crimson.
An instant later he was settled in the saddle, holding her before him, cradled like a child in his muscular arms. He had wrapped his coat about her, and the pale oval of her face stared up at his like a white blossom in the night. Her arms still clung to him, as if she feared he might be torn from her.
"How the lights blaze over the camp!" she murmured irrelevantly, as they climbed toward the ravine.
"Take a good look," he said, his voice harsh with suppressed and unfamiliar emotions. "It's our old life we're leavin' behind, and I hope we're headin' for a better one. And as a beginnin', we're goin' to get married the first town we hit."
An incoherent murmur was her only reply as she snuggled closer in his arms; behind them the lights of the camp, the distant roar of voices fell away and grew blurred in the distance. But it seemed to Corcoran that they rode in a blaze of glory, that emanated not from moon nor stars, but from his own breast. And perhaps it was his soul, at last awakened.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia