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Title: The Horse Thief (Outlaws of Palouse) Author: Zane Grey * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500801h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jul 2015 Most recent update: Nov 2015 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and 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
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THE lone horseman rode slowly up the slope, bending far down from his saddle in the posture customary for a range rider when studying hoof tracks. The intensity of his scrutiny indicated far more than the depth or direction of these imprints in the dust.
Presently the rider sat up and turned in his saddle to look back. While pondering the situation, his eagle eyes swept the far country below. It was a scene like hundreds of others limned upon his memory—a vast and rugged section of the West, differing only in the elements of color, beauty, distance and grandeur that characterized the green Salmon River Valley, the gray rolling range beyond, the dead-white plain of alkali and the purple sawtoothed peaks piercing the sky in the far distance.
That the tracks of the stolen Watrous thoroughbreds would lead over the range into Montana had been the trailer's foregone conclusion. But that the mysterious horse thieves had so far taken little care to conceal their tracks seemed a proof of how brazen this gang had become. On the other hand, Dale Brittenham reflected that he was a wild-horse hunter—that a trail invisible to most men would be like print to him.
He gazed back down the long slope into Idaho, pondering his task, slowly realizing that he had let himself in for a serious and perhaps deadly job.
It had taken Dale five hours to ride up to the point where he now straddled his horse, and the last from which he could see the valley. From here the stage road led north over the divide into the wild timbered range.
The time was about noon of an early summer day. The air at that height had a cool sweet tang, redolent of the green pines and the flowered mountain meadows. Dale strongly felt the beauty and allurement of the scene, and likewise a presentiment of trouble. The little mining town of Salmon, in the heyday of its biggest gold-producing year—1886—nestled in a bend of the shining white-and-green river. Brittenham had many enemies down there and but few friends. The lonely life of a wild-horse hunter had not kept him from conflict with men. Whose toes might he not step upon if he tracked down these horse thieves? The country was infested with road agents, bandits, horse thieves; and the wildest era Idaho had ever known was in full swing.
"I've long had a hunch," Dale soliloquized broodingly. "There're men down there, maybe as rich and respectable as Watrous himself, who're in cahoots with these thieves...'Cause if there wasn't, thick slick stealin' couldn't be done."
The valley shone green and gold and purple under the bright sun, a vast winding range of farms, ranches, pastures, leading up to the stark Sawtooth Mountains, out of which the river glistened like a silver thread. It wound down between grassy hills to meander into the valley. Dale's gaze fastened upon an irregular green spot and a white house surrounded by wide sweeping pastures. This was the Watrous ranch. Dale watched it, conscious of a pang in his heart. The only friendship for a man and love of a woman he had ever known had come to him there. Leale Hildrith, the partner of Jim Watrous in an extensive horse-breeding and trading business, had once been a friend in need to Brittenham. But for Hildrith, the wild-horse hunter would long before have taken the trail of the thieves who regularly several times a year plundered the ranches of the valley. Watrous had lost hundreds of horses.
"Dale, lay off," Hildrith had advised impatiently. "It's no mix of yours. It'll lead into more gunplay, and you've already got a bad name for that. Besides, there's no telling where such a trail might wind up."
Brittenham had been influenced by the friend to whom he owed his life. Yet despite his loyalty, he wondered at Hildrith's attitude. It must surely be that Hildrith again wanted to save him from harm, and Dale warmed to the thought. But when, on this morning, he had discovered that five of Edith Waltrous's thoroughbreds, the favorite horses she loved so dearly, had been stolen, he said no word to anyone at the ranch and set out upon the trail.
At length Brittenham turned his back upon the valley and rode on up the slope toward the timberline, now close at hand. He reached the straggling firs at a point where two trails branched off the road. The right one led along the edge of the timberline, and on it the sharp tracks of the shod horses showed plainly in dust.
At this junction Dale dismounted to study the tracks. After a careful scrutiny he made the deduction that he was probably two hours behind the horse thieves, who were plainly lagging along. Dale found an empty whiskey bottle, which was still damp and strong with the fumes of liquor. This might in some measure account for the carelessness of the thieves.
Dale rode on, staying close to the fir trees, between them and the trail, while he kept a keen eye ahead. On the way up he had made a number of conjectures, which he now discarded. This branching off the road puzzled him. It meant probably that the horse thieves had a secret rendezvous somewhere off in this direction. After perhaps an hour of travel along the timber belt, Dale entered a rocky region where progress was slow, and he came abruptly upon a wide, well-defined trail running at right angles to the one he was on. Hundreds of horses had passed along there, but none recently. Dale got off to reconnoiter. He had stumbled upon something that he had never heard the riders mention—a trail which wound up the mountain slope over an exceedingly rough route. Dale followed it until he had an appreciation of what a hard climb, partly on foot, riders must put themselves to, coming up from the valley. He realized that here was the outlet for horse thieves operating on the Salmon and Snake river ranges of Idaho. It did not take Dale long to discover that it was a one-way trail. No hoof tracks pointing down!
"Well, here's a rummy deal!" he ejaculated. And he remembered the horse traders who often drove bands of Montana horses down into Idaho and sold them all the way to Twin Falls and Boise. Those droves of horses came down the stage road. Suddenly Dale arrived at an exciting conclusion. "By thunder! Those Montana horses are stolen, too. By the same gang—a big gang of slick horse thieves. They steal way down on the Montana ranges...drive up over a hidden trail like this to some secret place where they meet part of their outfit who've been stealin' in Idaho...then they switch herds...and they drive down, sellin' the Montana horses in Idaho and the Idaho horses in Montana...Well! The head of that outfit has got brains. Too many to steal Jim Watrous's fine blooded stock! That must have been a slip...But any rider would want to steal Edith Watrous's horses!"
Returning to his mount, Dale led him in among the firs and rocks, keeping to the line of the new trail but not directly upon it. A couple of slow miles brought him to the divide. Beyond that the land sloped gently, the rocks and ridges merged into a fine open forest. His view was unobstructed for several hundred yards. Bands of deer bounded away from in front of Dale, to halt and watch with long ears erect. Dale had not hunted far over that range. He knew the Saw-tooth Mountains in as far as Thunder Mountain. His wild-horse activities had been confined to the desert and low country toward the Snake River. Therefore he had no idea where this trail would lead him. Somewhere over this divide, on the eastern slope, lived a band of Palouse Indians. Dale knew some of them and had hunted wild horses with them. He had befriended one of the number, Nalook, to the extent of saving him from a jail sentence. From that time Nalook had been utterly devoted to Dale, and had rendered him every possible service.
By midafternoon Brittenham was far down on the forested tableland. He meant to stick to the trail as long as there was light enough to see. His saddlebag contained meat, biscuits, dried fruit and salt. His wild-horse hunts often kept him weeks on the trail, so his present pursuit presented no obstacles. Nevertheless, as he progressed he grew more and more wary. He expected to see a log cabin in some secluded spot. At length he came to a brook that ran down from a jumble of low bluffs and followed the trail. The water coursed in alternate eddies and swift runs. Beaver dams locked it up into little lakes. Dale found beaver cutting aspens in broad daylight, which attested to the wildness of the region. Far ahead he saw rocky crags and rough gray ridgetops. This level open forest would not last much farther.
Suddenly Brittenham's horse shot up his ears and halted in his tracks. A shrill neigh came faintly to the rider's ears. He peered ahead through the pines, his nerves tingling.
But Dale could not make out any color or movement, and the sound was not repeated. This fact somewhat allayed his fears. After a sharp survey of his surroundings, Dale had led his horse into a clump of small firs and haltered him there. Then, rifle in hand, he crept forward from tree to tree. This procedure was slow work, as he exercised great caution.
The sun sank behind the fringe of timber on the high ground and soon shadows appeared in thick parts of the forest. Suddenly the ring of an ax sent the blood back to Dale's heart. He crouched down behind a pine and rested a moment, his thoughts whirling. There were campers ahead, or a cabin; and Dale strongly inclined to the conviction that the horse thieves had halted for the night. If so, it meant they were either far from their rendezvous or taking their time waiting for comrades to join them. Dale pondered the situation. He must be decisive, quick, ruthless. But he could not determine what to do until he saw the outfit and the lay of the land.
Therefore he got up, and after a long scrutiny ahead, he slipped from behind the tree and stole on to another. He repeated this move. Brush and clumps of fir and big pines obstructed any considerable survey ahead. Finally he came to less thick covering on the ground. He smelled smoke. He heard faint indistinguishable sounds. Then a pinpoint of fire gleamed through the thicket in front of him. Without more ado Dale dropped on all fours and crawled straight for that light. When he got to the brush and peered through, his heart gave a great leap at the sight of Edith Watrous's horses staked out on a grassy spot.
Then he crouched on his knees, holding the Winchester tight, trying to determine a course of action. Various plans flashed through his mind. The one he decided to be the least risky was to wait until the thieves were asleep and quietly make away with the horses. These thoroughbreds knew him well. He could release them without undue excitement. With half a night's start he would be far on the way back to the ranch before the thieves discovered their loss. The weakness of this plan lay in the possibility of a new outfit joining this band. That, however, would not deter Dale from making the attempt to get the horses.
It occurred to him presently to steal up on the camp under cover of the darkness and if possible get close enough to see and hear the robbers. Dale lay debating this course and at last yielded to the temptation. Dusk settled down. The night hawks wheeled and uttered their guttural cries overhead. He waited patiently. When it grew dark he crawled around the thicket and stood up. A bright campfire blazed in the distance. Dark forms moved to and fro across the light. Off to the left of Dale's position there appeared to be more cover. He sheered off that way, lost sight of the campfire, threaded a careful approach among trees and brush, and after a long detour came up behind the camp, scarcely a hundred yards distant. A big pine tree dominated an open space lighted by the campfire. Dale selected objects to use for cover and again sank to his hands and knees. Well he knew that the keenest of men were easier to crawl upon than wild horses at rest. He was like an Indian. He made no more noise than a snake. At intervals he peered above the grass and low brush. He heard voices and now and then the sputtering of the fire. He rested again. His next stop would be behind a windfall that now obscured the camp. Drawing a deep breath, he crawled on silently without looking up. The grass was wet with dew.
A log barred Dale's advance. He relaxed and lay quiet, straining his ears.
"I tell you, Ben, this hyar was a damn fool job," spoke up a husky-voiced individual. "Alec agrees with me."
"Wal, I shore do," corroborated another man. "We was drunk."
"Not me. I never was more clearheaded in my life," replied the third thief, called Ben. His reply ended with a hard chuckle.
"Wal, if you was, no one noticed it," returned Alec sourly. "I reckon you roped us into a mess."
"Aw, hell! Big Bill will yelp with joy."
"Mebbe. Shore he's been growin' overbold these days. Makin' too much money. Stands too well in Halsey an' Bannock, an' Salmon. Cocksure no one will ever find our hole-up."
"Bah! That wouldn't faze Big Bill Mason. He'd bluff it through."
"Aha! Like Henry Plummer, eh? The coldest proposition of a robber that ever turned a trick. He had a hundred men in his outfit. Stole damn near a million in gold. High respected citizen of Montana. Mayor of Alder Gulch...All the same, he put his neck in the noose!"
"Alec is right, Ben," spoke up the third member in his husky voice. "Big Bill is growin' wild. Too careless. Spends too much time in town. Gambles. Drinks...Someday some foxy cowboy or hors hunter will trail him. An' that'll be about due when Watrous finds his blooded horses gone."
"Wal, what worries me more is how Hildrith will take this deal of yours," said Alec. "Like as not he'll murder us."
Brittenham sustained a terrible shock. It was like a physical rip of his flesh. Hildrith! Those horse thieves spoke familiarly of his beloved friend. Dale grew suddenly sick. Did not this explain Leale's impatient opposition to the trailing of horse thieves?
"Ben, you can gamble Hildrith will be wild," went on Alec. "He's got sense if Big Bill hasn't. He's Watrous's pardner, mind you. Why, Jim Watrous would hang him."
"We heard talk this time that Hildrith was goin' to marry old Jim's lass. What a hell of a pickle Leale will be in!"
"Fellers, he'll be all the stronger if he does grab thet hoss-lovin' girl. But I don't believe he'll be so lucky. I seen Edith Watrous in town with that cowboy Les Crocker. She shore makes a feller draw his breath hard. She's young an' she likes the cowboys."
"Wal, what of thet? If Jim wants her to marry his pardner, she'll have to."
"Mebbe she's a chip off the old block. Anyway, I've knowed a heap of women an' thet's my hunch...Hildrith will be as sore as a bunged-up thumb. But what can he do? We got the hosses."
"So we have. Five white elephants! Ben, you've let your cravin' for fine hossflesh carry you away."
An interval of silence ensued, during which Dale raised himself to peer guardedly over the log. Two of the thieves sat with hard red faces in the glare of the blaze. The third had his back to Dale.
"What ails me, now I got 'em, is can I keep 'em," this man replied. "Thet black is the finest hoss I ever seen."
"They're all grand hosses. An' thet's all the good it'll do you," retorted the leaner of the other two.
"Ben, them thoroughbreds air known from Deadwood to Walla Walla. They can't be sold or rid. An' shore as Gawd make little apples, the stealin' of them will bust Big Bill's gang."
"Aw, you're a couple of yellow pups," rejoined Ben contemptuously. "If I'd known you was goin' to show like this, I'd split with you an' done the job myself."
"Uhuh! I recollect now thet you did the watchin' while Steve an' me stole the horses. An' I sort of recollect dim-like thet you talked big about money while you was feedin' us red likker."
"Yep, I did—an' I had to get you drunk. Haw! Haw!"
"On purpose? Made us trick the outfit an' switch to your job, huh?"
"Yes, on purpose."
"So...How you like this on purpose, Ben?" hissed Alec, and swift as a flash he whipped out a gun. Ben's hoarse yell of protest died in his throat with the bang of the big Colt.
The bullet went clear through the man to strike the log uncomfortably near Dale. He ducked instinctively, then sank down again, tense and cold.
"My Gawd! Alec, you bored him," burst out the man Steve.
"I shore did. The damn bullhead!...An' thet's our out with Hildrith. We're gonna need one. I reckon Big Bill won't hold it hard agin us."
Dale found himself divided between conflicting courses—one, to shoot these horse thieves in their tracks, and a stronger one, to stick to his first plan and avoid unnecessary hazard. Wherewith he noiselessly turned and began to crawl away from the log. He had to worm under spreading branches. Despite his care, a dead limb, invisible until too late, caught on his long spur, which gave forth a ringing metallic peal. At the sudden sound, Dale sank prone, his blood congealing in his veins.
"Alec! You hear thet?" called Steve, his husky voice vibrantly sharp.
"By Gawd I did!...Ring of a spur! I know thet sound."
"Behind the log!"
The thud of quick footsteps urged Dale out of his frozen inaction. He began to crawl for the brush.
"There, Steve! I hear someone crawlin'. Smoke up thet black patch!"
Gunshots boomed. Bullets thudded all around Dale. Then one tore through his sombrero, leaving a hot sensation on his scalp. A gust of passion intercepted Dale's desire to escape. He whirled to his knees. Both men were outlined distinctly in the firelight. The foremost stood just behind the log, his gun spouting red. The other crouched peering into the darkness. Dale shot them both. The leader fell hard over the log, and lodged there, his boots beating a rustling tattoo on the ground. The other flung his gun high and dropped as if his legs had been chopped from under him.
Brittenham leaped erect, working the lever of his rifle, his nerves strung like wires. But the engagement had ended as quickly as it had begun. He strode into the campfire circle of light. The thief Ben lay on his back, arms wide, his dark visage distorted, ghastly. Dale's impulse was to search these men, but resisting it, he hurriedly made for the horses. The cold sick grip on his vitals eased with hurried action, and likewise the fury.
Presently he reached the grassy plot where the horses were staked out. They snorted and thumped the ground. "Prince," he called, and whistled.
The great stallion whinnied recognition. Dale made his way to the horse. Prince was blacker than the night. Dale laid gentle hands on him and talked to him. The other horses quieted down.
"Jim...Jade...Ringspot...Bluegrass," called Dale, and repeated the names as he passed among the horses. They all were pets except Jade, and she was temperamental. She had to be now. Presently Dale untied her long stake rope, and after that the ropes of the other horses. He felt sure Prince and Jim would follow him anywhere, but he did not want to risk it then.
He led the five horses back, as nearly as he could, on the course by which he had approached the camp. In the darkness the task was not easy. He chose to avoid the trail, which ran somewhere to the left. A tree and a thicket here and there he recognized. But he was off his direction when his own horse nickered to put him right again.
"No more of that, Hoofs," he said, when he found his animal. Cinching his saddle, he gathered up the five halters and mounted. "Back-trail yourself, old boy!"
The Waltrous horses were eager to follow, but the five of them abreast on uneven and obstructed ground held Dale to a slow and watchful progress. Meanwhile, as he picked his way, he began figuring the situation. It was imperative that he travel all night. There seemed hardly a doubt that the three thieves would be joined by others of their gang. Anyone save a novice could track six horses through a forest. Dale meant to be a long way on his back trail before dawn. The night was dark. He must keep close to the path of the horse thieves so that he would not get lost in this forest. Once out on the stage road, he could make up for slow travel.
Trusting to Hoofs, the rider advanced, peering keenly into the gloom. He experienced no difficulty in leading the thoroughbreds; indeed they often slacked their halters and trampled almost at his heels. They knew they were homeward bound, in the charge of a friend. Dale hoped all was well, yet could not rid himself of a contrary presentiment. The reference of one of the horse thieves to Ben's double-crossing their comrades seemed to Dale to signify that the remaining outfit might be down in the Salmon River Valley.
At intervals Dale swerved to the left far enough to see the trail in the gloom. When he could hear the babble of the brook, he knew he was going right. In due time he worked out of the open forest and struck the grade, and eventually got into the rocks. Here he had to follow the path, but he endeavored to keep his tracks out of it. And in this way he found himself at length in a shallow, narrow gulch, the sides of which appeared unscalable. If it were short, all would be well; on the other hand, he distrusted a long defile, where it would be perilous if he happened to encounter any riders. They would scarcely be honest riders.
The gulch was long. Moreover, it narrowed and was dark as pitch except under the low walls. Dale did not like Hoofs's halting. His trusty mount had the nose and ears of the wild horses he had hunted for years.
"What ails you, hoss?" queried Dale.
Finally Hoofs stopped. Dale, feeling for his ears, found them erect and stiff. Hoofs smelled or heard something. It might be a bear or a cougar, both of which the horse disliked exceedingly. It might be more horse thieves, too. Dale listened and thought hard. Of all things, he did not want to retrace his steps. While he had time then, and before he knew what menaced further progress, he dismounted and led the horses as far under the dark wall as he could get them. Then he drew their heads up close to him and called low, "Steady, Prince...Jade, keep still...Blue, hold now..."
Hoofs stood at his elbow. It was Dale's voice and hand that governed the intelligent animals. Then as a low trampling roar swept down the gully, they stood stiff. Dale tingled. Horses coming at a forced trot! They were being driven when they were tired. The sound swelled, and soon it was pierced by the sharp calls of riders.
"By thunder!" muttered Dale, aghast at the volume of sounds. "My hunch was right!...Big Bill Mason has raided the valley...Must be over a hundred head in that drove."
The thudding, padded roar, occasionally emphasized by an iron-shod hoof ringing on stone, or a rider's call, swept down the gully. It was upon Dale before he realized the drove was so close. He could see a moving, obscure mass coming. He smelled dust. "Git in thar!" shouted a weary voice. Then followed a soft thudding of hoofs on sand. Dale's situation was precarious, for if one of his horses betrayed his whereabouts, there would be riders sheering out for strays. He held the halters with his left hand, and pulled his rifle from its saddle sheath. If any of these raiders bore down on him, he would be forced to shoot and take to flight. But his thoroughbreds, all except Jade, stood like statues. She champed her bit restlessly. Then she snorted. Dale hissed at her. The moment was one to make him taut.
He peered through the gloom, expecting riders to loom up, and he had the grim thought that it would be death for them. Then followed a long moment of sustained suspense, charged with incalculable chance.
"Go along there, you lazy hawses," called a voice.
The soft thumping of many hoofs passed. Voices trailed back. Dale relaxed in immeasurable relief. The driving thieves had gone by. He thought then for the first time what a thrilling thing it was going to be to return these thoroughbreds to Edith Watrous.
Hard upon that came the thought of Leale Hildrith—his friend. It was agony to think that Leale was involved with these horse thieves. On the instant, Dale was shot through with the memory of his debt to Hildrith—of that terrible day when Hildrith had found him out on the range, crippled, half-starved and frozen, and had, at the risk of his own life, carried Dale through the blizzard to the safety of a distant shelter. A friendship had sprung up between the two men, generous and careless on Hildrith's part, even at times protective. In Dale had been engendered a passionate loyalty and gratitude, almost a hero worship for the golden-bearded Hildrith.
What would come of it? No solution presented itself to Dale at the moment. He must meet situations as they arose, and seek in every way to protect his friend.
Toward sunset the following day Dale Brittenham rode across the clattering old bridge, leading the Watrous thoroughbreds into the one and only street of Salmon. The dusty horses, five abreast, trotting at the end of long halters, would have excited interest in any Western town. But for some reason that puzzled Dale, he might have been leading a circus or a band of painted Indians.
Before he had proceeded far, however, he grasped that something unusual accounted for the atmosphere of the thronged street. Seldom did Salmon, except on a Saturday night, show so much activity. Knots of men, evidently in earnest colloquy, turned dark faces in Dale's direction; gaudily dressed dance-hall girls, black-frocked gamblers, and dusty-booted, bearded miners crowded out in the street to see Dale approach; cowboys threw up their sombreros and let out their cracking whoops; and a throng of excited youngsters fell in behind Dale to follow him.
Dale began to regret having chosen to ride through town, instead of fording the river below and circling to the Watrous ranch. He did not like the intense curiosity manifested by a good many spectators. Their gestures and words, as he rode by, he interpreted as more speculative and wondering than glad at his return with the five finest horses in Idaho.
When Dale was about halfway down the wide street, a good friend of his detached himself from a group and stepped out.
"Say, Wesley, what'n hell's all this hubbub about?" queried Brittenham as he stopped.
"Howdy, Dale," returned the other, offering his hand. His keen eyes flashed like sunlight on blue metal and a huge smile wrinkled his bronzed visage. "Well, if I ain't glad to see you I'll eat my shirt...Just like you, Dale, to burst into town with thet bunch of hosses!"
"Sure, I reckoned I'd like it. But I'm gettin' leary. What's up?"
"Hoss thieves raided the river ranches yesterday," replied the other swiftly. "Two hundred head gone!...Chamberlain, Trash, Miller—all lost heavy. An' Jim Watrous got cleaned out. You know, lately Jim's gone in for cattle buyin', an' his riders were away somewhere. Jim lost over a hundred head. He's ory-eyed. An' they say Miss Edith was heartbroke to lose hers. Dale, you sure got the best of her other beaux with this job."
"Stuff!" ejaculated Dale, feeling the hot blood in his cheeks, and he sat up stiffly. "Wes, damn you—"
"Dale, I've had you figgered as a shy hombre with girls. Every fellow in this valley, except you, has cocked his eyes at Edith Watrous. She's a flirt, we all know...Listen. I been achin' to tell you, my sister Sue is a friend of Edith, an' she says Edith likes you pretty well. Hildrith only has the inside track 'cause of her father. I'm tellin' you, Dale."
"Shut up, Wes. You always hated Hildrith, an' you're wrong about Edith."
"Aw, hell! You're scared of her an' you overrate what Hildrith did for you once. Thet's all. This was the time for me to give you a hunch. I won't shoot off my chin again."
"An' the town's all het-up over the horse-thief raid?"
"You bet it is. Common talk runs thet there's some slick hombre here who's in with the hoss thieves. This Salmon Valley has lost nigh on to a thousand head in three years. An' every one of the big raids comes at a time when the thieves had to be tipped off."
"All big horse-thief gangs work that way," replied Dale ponderingly. Wesley was trying to tell him that suspicion had fallen upon his head. He dropped his eyes as he inquired about his friend Leale Hildrith.
"Humph! In town yesterday, roarin' louder than anybody about the raid. Swore this stealin' had to be stopped. Talked of offerin' ten thousand dollars' reward—that he'd set an outfit of riders after the thieves. You know how Leale raves. He's in town this mornin', too."
"So long, Wes," said Dale soberly, and was about to ride on when a commotion broke the ring of bystanders to admit Leale Hildrith himself.
Dale was not surprised to see the golden-bearded, booted, and spurred partner of Watrous, but he did feel a surprise at a fleeting and vanishing look in Hildrith's steel-blue eyes. It was a flash of hot murderous amazement at Dale there with Edith Watrous's thoroughbreds. Dale understood it perfectly, but betrayed no sign.
"Dale! You son-of-a-gun!" burst out Hildrith in boisterous gladness as he leaped to seize Dale's hand and pumped it violently. His apparent warmth left Dale cold, and bitterly sad for his friend. "Fetched Edith's favorites back! How on earth did you do it, Dale? She'll sure reward you handsomely. And Jim will throw a fit...Where and how did you get back the horses?"
"They were stolen out of the pasture yesterday mornin' about daylight," replied Dale curtly. "I trailed the thieves. Found their camp last night. Three men, callin' themselves Ben, Alec, an' Steve. They were fightin' among themselves. Ben tricked them, the other two said. An' one of them shot him...They caught me listenen' and forced me to kill them."
"You killed them!" queried Hildrith hoarsely, his face turning pale. His eyes held a peculiar oscillating question.
"Yes. An' I didn't feel over-bad about it, Leale," rejoined Dale with sarcasm. "Then I wrangled the horses an' rode down."
"Where was this?"
"Up on the mountain, over in Montana somewhere. After nightfall I sure got lost. But I hit the stage road...I'll be movin' along, Leale."
"I'll come right out to the ranch," replied Hildrith, and hurried through the crowd.
"Open up, there," called Dale to the staring crowd. "Let me through."
As he parted the circle and left it behind, a taunting voice cut the silence. "Cute of you, Dale, fetchin' the high-steppers back. Haw! Haw!"
Dale rode on as if he had not heard, though he could have shot the owner of that mocking voice. He had been implicated in this horse. stealing. Salmon was full of shifty-eyed, hard-lipped men who would have had trouble in proving honest occupations. Dale had clashed with some of them, and he was hated and feared. He rode on through town and out into the country. He put the horses to a brisk trot, as he wanted to reach the Watrous ranch ahead of Hildrith.
Dale stood appalled at the dual character of the man to whom he considered himself so deeply indebted, whom he had looked on as a friend and loved so much. It was almost impossible to believe. Almost every man in the valley liked Leale Hildrith and called him friend. The women loved him, and Dale felt sure, despite Wesley's blunt talk, that Edith Watrous was one of them. And if she did love him, she was on the way to disgrace and misery. Leale, the gay handsome blade, not yet thirty, so good-natured and kindly, bighearted and openhanded, was secretly nothing but a lowdown horse thief. Dale had hoped against hope that when he saw Hildrith the disclosures of the three horse thieves would somehow be disproved. But that had not happened. Hildrith's eyes, in only a flash, had betrayed him. Dale suffered the degradation of his own disillusion. Yet the thought of Edith's unhappiness hurt him even more.
He had not gotten anywhere in his perplexed and bewildered state of mind when the bronze-and-gold hills of the Watrous ranch loomed before him. From the day he had ridden up to it, Dale had loved this great ranch, with its big old weather-beaten house nestling among the trees up from the river, its smooth shining hills bare to the gray rocks and timberline, its huge fields of corn and alfalfa green as emerald, its level range spreading away from the river gateway to the mountains. From that very day, too, Dale had loved the lithe, free-stepping, rouguish-eyed daughter of Jim Watrous, a melancholy and disturbing fact that he strove to banish from his consciousness. Her teasing and tormenting, her fits of cold indifference and her resentment that she could not make him bend to her like her other admirers, her flirting before his eyes plainly to make him jealous—all these weaknesses of Edith's did not equal in sum her kindness to him, and the strange inexplicable fact that when she was in trouble she always came to him.
As Dale rode around the grove into the green square where the gray ranch house stood on its slope, he was glad to see that Hildrith had not arrived. Three saddled horses standing on the porch, and they had sighted him. Crowding to the high steps, they could be heard exclaiming. Then gray-haired Jim Watrous, stalwart of build and ruddy of face, descended down a step to call lustily, "Edith! Rustle out here. Quick!"
Dale halted on the green below the porch. It was going to be a hard moment. Watrous and his visitors could not disturb him. But Edith!...Dale heard the swift patter of light feet—then a little scream, sweet, high-pitched, that raised a turbulent commotion in his breast.
"Oh, Dad!...My horses!" she exclaimed in ecstasy, and she clasped her hands.
"They sure are, lass," replied Watrous gruffly.
"Ha! Queer, Brittenham should fetch them," added a man back of Watrous.
In two leaps Edith came down the high steps, supple as a cat, and bounded at Dale, her bright hair flying, her dark eyes shining.
"Dale! Dale!" she cried rapturously, and ran to clasp both hands around his arm. "You old wild-horse hunter! You darling!"
"Well, I'll stand for the first," said Dale, smiling down at her.
"You'll stand for that...and hugs...and kisses when I get you alone, Dale Brittenham...You've brought back my horses! My heart was broken. I was crazy. I couldn't eat or sleep...Oh, it's too good to be true! Oh, Dale, I can never thank you enough."
She left him to throw her arms around Prince's dusty neck and to cry over him. Watrous came slowly down the steps, followed by his three visitors, two of whom Dale knew by sight. He bent the eyes of a hawk upon Dale.
"Howdy, Brittenham. What have you got to say for yourself?"
"Horses talk, Mr. Watrous, same as money," replied Dale coolly. He sensed the old horse trader's doubt and dismay.
"They sure do, young man. There's ten thousand dollars' worth of horseflesh. To Edith they're priceless. What's your story?"
Dale told it briefly, omitting the description of the horse-thief trail and the meeting upon it with the raided stock from the valley. He chose to save these details until he had had more time to ponder over them.
"Brittenham, you can prove those three horse thieves are dead—an' that you made away with two of them?" queried Watrous tensely.
"Prove!" ejaculated Dale, sorely nettled. "I could prove it—certainly, sir, unless their pards came along to pack them away...But my word should be proof enough, Mr. Watrous."
"I reckon it would be, for me, Brittenham," returned the rancher hastily. "But this whole deal has a queer look...This gang of horse thieves has an accomplice—maybe more than one—right here in Salmon."
"Mr. Watrous, I had the same thought," said Dale shortly. "Last night, Brittenham, your name was whispered around in this connection."
"That doesn't surprise me. Salmon is full of crooked men. I've clashed with some. I've only a few friends, an'—"
Edith whirled to confront her father with pale face and blazing eyes.
"Dad! Did I hear right? What did you say?"
"I'm sorry, lass. I told Brittenham he was suspected of bein' the go-between for this horse-thief gang."
"For shame, Father! It's a lie. Dale Brittenham would not steal, let alone be a cowardly informer."
"Edith, I didn't say I believed it," rejoined Watrous, plainly upset. "But it's bein' said about town. It'll fly over the range. An' I thought Brittenham should know."
"You're right, Mr. Watrous," said Dale. "Thank you for tellin' me."
The girl turned to Dale, evidently striving for composure. "Come, Dale. Let us take the horses out."
She led them across the green toward the lane. Dale had no choice but to follow, though he desperately wanted to flee. Before the men were out of range of his acute hearing, one of them exclaimed to Watrous. "Jim, he didn't deny it!"
"Huh! Did you see his eyes?" returned the rancher shortly. "I'd not want to be in the boots of the man who accuses him-to his face."
"Here comes Hildrith, drivin' as if the devil was after him."
Dale heard the clattering buckboard, but he did not look. Neither did Edith. She walked with her head down, deep in thought. Dale dared to watch her, conscious of inexplicable feelings.
The stable boy, Joe, ran out to meet them, with a face that was a study in inexpressible wonder and delight. Edith did not relinquish the halters until she had led the horses up the incline into the wide barn.
"Joe, water them first," she said. "Then wash and rub them down. Take a look at their hoofs. Feed them a little alfalfa. And watch them every minute till the boys get back."
"Yes, Miss Edith, I shore will," he replied eagerly. "We done had words they'll be hyar by dark."
Dale dismounted and removed saddle and bridle from his tired horse.
"Let Joe watch your horse, Dale. I want to talk to you."
Dale leaned against some bales of hay, not wholly from weariness. He had often been alone with Edith Watrous, but never like this.
"Reckon I ought to...to clean up," he stammered, removing his sombrero. "I...I must look a mess."
"You're grimy and worn, yes. But you look pretty proven and good to me, Dale Brittenham...What's that hole in your hat?"
"By thunder! I forgot about that. It's a bullet hole."
"Oh—so close...Who shot it there, Dale?"
"One of the horse thieves."
"It was self-defense, then?"
"You bet it was."
"I've hated your shooting scrapes, Dale," she rejoined earnestly. "But here I see I'm squeamish—and unreasonable...Only the reputation you have—your readiness to shoot—that's all I never liked about it."
"I'm sorry. But I can't help that," replied Dale, turning his sombrero round and round with restless hands.
"You needn't be sorry this time...Dale, look me straight in the eye."
Thus so earnestly urged, Dale had to comply. Edith appeared pale of face and laboring under suppressed emotion. Her dark eyes had held many expressions for him, mostly roguish and coquettish, and sometimes blazing, but at this moment they were beautiful with a light, a depth he had never seen in them before. And it challenged him with a truth he had always driven from his consciousness—that he loved this bright-haired girl.
"Dale, I was ashamed of Dad," she said. "I detest that John Stafford. He is the one who brought the gossip from town—that you were implicated in this raid. I don't believe it.
"Thanks, Edith. It's good of you."
"Why didn't you say something?" she asked spiritedly. "You should have cussed Dad roundly."
"I was sort of flabbergasted."
"Dale, if this whole range believed you were a horse thief, I wouldn't. Even if your faithful Nalook believed it—though he never would."
"No. I reckon that Indian wouldn't believe bad of me."
"Nalook thinks heaps of you, Dale...and...and that's one reason why I do too."
"I'd never have suspected it."
"Evidently you never did. But it's true. And despite your...your rudeness...your avoidance of me, now is the time to tell it."
Dale dropped his eyes again, sorely perturbed and fearful that he might betray himself. Edith was not bent on conquest now. She appeared roused to championship of him, and there was something strange and soft about her that was new and bewildering.
"I never was rude," he denied stoutly.
"We won't argue about that now," she went on hurriedly. "Never mind about me and my petty vanity...I'm worried about this gossip. It's serious, Dale. You'll get into trouble and go gunning for somebody—unless I keep you from it. I'm going to try...Will you take a job riding for me—taking care of my horses?"
"Edith!...I'm sure obliged to you for that offer. But Watrous wouldn't see it."
"I'll make him see it."
"Hildrith?...He wouldn't like that idea now."
"Leale will like anything I want him to."
"Not this time."
"Dale, will you ride for me?" she queried impatiently.
"I'd like to...if...if...Well, I'll consider it."
"If you would, that'd stop this gossip more than anything I can think of...I'd like it very much, Dale. I'll never feel safe about my horses again. Not until these thieves are rounded up. If you worked for me, I could keep you here—out of that rotten Salmon. And you wouldn't be going on those long wild-horse hunts."
"Edith, you're most amazin'—kind an'...an' thoughtful all of a sudden." Dale could not quite keep a little bitter surprise out of his voice.
She blushed vividly. "I might have been all that long ago—if you had let me," she responded.
"Who am I to aspire to your kindness?" he said almost coldly. "But even if I wasn't a poor wild-horse hunter, I'd never run after you like these...these—"
"Maybe that's one reason why...Well, never mind," she interrupted, with a hint of her old roguishness. "Dale, I'm terribly grateful to you for bringing back my horses. I know you won't take money. I'm afraid you'll refuse the job I offered...So, Mr. Wild-Horse Hunter, I'm going to pay you as I said I would back at the house."
"No!" he cried, suddenly weak. "Edith, you wouldn't be so silly...so...Aw, it's just the devil in you."
"I'm going to, Dale."
Her voice drew him as well as her intent; and forced to look up, he was paralyzed to see her bending to him, her face aglow, her eyes alight. Her hands flashed upon his shoulders—slipped back—and suddenly pressed like bands of steel. Dale somehow recovered strength to stand up and break her hold.
"Edith, you're out of...your head," he said huskily.
"I don't care if I am. I always wanted to, Dale Brittenham. This was a good excuse...and I'll never get another."
The girl's face was scarlet as she drew back from Dale, but it paled before she concluded her strange speech.
"You're playin' with me—you darned flirt," he blurted out.
"Not this time, Dale," she replied soberly, and then Dale grasped that something deeper and hitherto unguessed had followed hard on her real desire to reward him for his service.
"It'll be now or never, Dale...For this morning at breakfast, I gave in at last to Dad's nagging...and consented to marry Leale Hildrith."
"Then it'll be never, my strange girl," replied Dale hoarsely, shot through with anguish for Edith and his treacherous friend. "I...I reckoned this was the case...You love Leale?"
"I think...I do," replied Edith somewhat hesitantly. "He's handsome and gay. Everybody loves Leale. You do. All the girls are mad about him, I...I love him, I guess...But it's mostly Dad. He hasn't given me any peace for a year. He's set on Hildrith. Then he thinks I ought to settle down...that I flirt...that I have all his riders at odds with each other on my account...Oh, it made me furious."
"Edith, I hope you will be happy."
"A lot you care, Dale Brittenham."
"I cared too much. That was the trouble."
"Dale!...So that was why you avoided me?"
"Yes, that was why, Edith."
"But you are as good as any man."
"You're a rich rancher's daughter. I'm a poor wild-horse hunter."
"Oh! As if that made any difference between friends."
"Edith, it does," he replied sadly. "An' now they're accusin' me of being a horse thief...I'll have to kill again."
"No! You mustn't fight," she cried wildly. "You might be shot. Dale, promise me you'll not go gunning for anyone."
"That's easy, Edith. I promise."
"Thanks, Dale...Oh, I don't know what's come over me." She dropped her head on his shoulder. "I'm glad you told me. It hurts—but it helps somehow. I...I must think."
"You should think that you must not be seen...like this," he said gently.
"I don't care," she flashed, suddenly aroused. Edith's propensity to change was one of her bewildering charms. Dale realized he had said the wrong thing and he shook in her tightening grasp. "You've cheated me, Dale, of a real friendship. And I'm going to punish you. I'm going to keep my word, no matter what comes of it...Oh, you'll believe me a flirt—like Dad and all of these old fools that think I've kissed these beaux of mine. But I haven't—well, not since I was a kid. Not even Leale!...Dale, you might have kissed me if you'd had any sense."
"Edith, have you lost all sense of...of..." he choked out.
"Of modesty?...I'm not in the least ashamed." But her face flamed as she tightened her arms around him and pressed sweet cool lips to his cheek. Dale was almost unable to resist crushing her in his arms. He tried, weakly, to put her back. But she was strong, and evidently in the grip of some emotion she had not calculated upon. For her lips sought his and their coolness turned to sweet fire. Her eyelids fell heavily. Dale awoke to spend his hunger for love and his renunciation in passionate response.
That broke the spell which had moved Edith.
"Oh, Dale!" she whispered as she wrenched her lips free. "I shouldn't have...Forgive me...I was beside myself."
Her arms were sliding from his neck when quick footfalls and the ring of spurs sounded in the doorway. Dale looked up to see Hildrith, livid under his golden beard, with eyes flaring, halting at the threshold.
"What the hell!" he burst out incredulously.
Dale's first sensation was one of blank dismay, and as Edith, with arms dropping, drew back, crimson of face, he sank against the pile of bales like a guilty man caught in some unexplainable act.
"Edith, what did I see?" demanded Hildrith in jealous wrath.
"Not very much! You were too late. Why do you slip up on people like that?" the girl returned with a tantalizing laugh. She faced him, her blush and confusion vanishing. His strident voice no doubt roused her imperious spirit. "You had your arms around Dale?"
"I'm afraid I had."
"You kissed him?"
"Once...No, twice, counting a little one," returned this amazing creature. Dale suffered some kind of torture, only part of which was shame.
"Well, by heaven!" shouted Hildrith furiously. "I'll beat him half to death for that."
Edith intercepted him and got between him and Dale. She pushed him back with no little force. "Don't be a fool, Leale. It'd be dangerous to strike Dale. Listen..."
"I'll call him out," shouted her lover.
"And get shot for your pains. Dale has killed half a dozen men...Let me explain."
"You can't explain a thing like this."
"Yes, I can. I admit it looks bad, but it really isn't...When Dale brought my horses back, I was so crazy with joy that I wanted to hug and kiss him. I told him so. But I couldn't before Dad and all those men. When we came out here I...I tried to, but Dale repulsed me—"
"Edith! Do you expect me to believe that?" queried Hildrith.
"Yes. It's true...But the second time, I succeeded—and you almost caught me in the act."
"You damned little flirt!"
"Leale, I wasn't flirting. I wanted to kiss Dale; I was in rapture about my horses. And before that, Dad and those men hinted Dale was hand and glove with these horse thieves. I hated that. It excited me. Perhaps I was out of my head. Dale said I was. But you shall not blame him. It was my fault."
"Oh, hell!" fumed Hildrith in despair. "Do you deny the poor beggar is in love with you?"
"I certainly do deny that," she retorted, and her gold-tan cheeks flamed red.
"Well, he is. Anybody could see that."
"I didn't. And if it's true, he never told me."
Hildrith began to pace the barn. "Good God! Engaged to marry me for half a day, and you do a brazen thing like that...Watrous is sure right. You need to be tied down. Playing fast and loose with every rider on the range! Coaxing your Dad to set our marriage day three months off!...Oh, you drive me mad. I'll tell you, young woman, when you are my wife—"
"Don't insult me, Mr. Hildrith," interrupted Edith coldly. "I'm not your wife yet. I was honest with you because I felt sure you'd understand. I'm sorry I told you the truth, and I don't care whether you believe me or not."
With her bright head erect, she walked past Hildrith, avoiding him as he reached for her, and she was deaf to his entreaties.
"Edith, I'll take it all back," he cried after her. But so far as Dale could see or hear, she made no response. Hildrith turned away from the door, wringing his hands. It was plain that he worshiped the girl, that he did not trust her, that he was inordinately suspicious, that for an accepted lover he appeared the most wretched of men. Dale watched him, seeing him more clearly in the revelation of his dual nature. Just how far Hildrith had gone with this horse-stealing gang, Dale did not want to know. Dale did see that his friend's redemption was possible—that if he could marry this girl, and if he could be terribly frightened with possible exposure, he might be weaned from whatever association he had with Mason, and go honest and make Edith happy. It was not a stable conviction, but it gripped Dale. He had his debt to pay to Hildrith, and a glimmering of a possible way to do it formed in his mind. Even at that moment, though, he felt the ax of disillusion and reality at the roots of his love for this man. Hildrith was not what he had believed him. But that would not deter Dale from paying his debt a thousandfold. Lastly, if Edith Watrous loved this man, Dale felt that he must save him.
Hildrith whirled upon Dale. "So this is how you appreciate what I've done for you, Dale. You made love to my girl. You damned handsome ragamuffin—you worked on Edith's sympathy! You've got me into a hell of a fix."
"Leale, you sure are in a hell of a fix," replied Dale with dark significance.
"What do you mean?" queried Hildrith sharply, with a quick uplift of head.
"You're one of Big Bill Mason's gang," rejoined Dale deliberately.
Hildrith gave a spasmodic start, as if a blade had pierced his side. His jaw dropped and his face blanched to an ashen hue under his blond beard. He tried to speak, but no words came.
"I sneaked up on the camp of those three horse thieves. I listened. Those low-down thieves—Ben, Alec, Steve—spoke familiarly of you. Alec an' Steve were concerned over what you'd do about the theft of the Watrous horses. Ben made light of it. He didn't care. They talked about Big Bill. An' that talk betrayed you to me...Leale, you're the range scout for Mason. You're the man who sets the time for these big horse raids."
"You know!...Oh, my God!" cried Hildrith abjectly.
"Yes, I know that an' more. I know the trail to Mason's secret rendezvous. I was on that trail an' saw this last big drove of stolen horses pass by. I figured out how Mason's gang operates. Pretty foxy. I'll say. But it was too good, too easy, too profitable. It couldn't last."
"For God's sake, Dale, don't squeal on me!" besought Hildrith, bending over Dale with haggard, clammy face. "I've money. I'll pay you well—anything..."
"Shut up! Don't try to buy me off, or I'll despise you for a yellow cur...I didn't say I'd squeal on you. But I do say you're a madman to think you can work long at such a low-down game."
"Dale, I swear to God this was my last deal. Mason forced me to one more, a big raid which was to be his last in this valley. He had a hold on me. We were partners in a cattle business over in Montana. He roped me into a rustling deal before I knew what it actually was. That was three years ago, over in Kalispel. Then he found a hiding place, a box canyon known only to the Indians, and that gave him the idea of raiding both Montana and Idaho ranges at the same time—driving to the canyon and there changing outfits and stolen horses. While a raid was on over there, Mason made sure to be in Bannock or Kalispel, and he roared louder than anyone at the horse thieves. He had the confidence of all the ranchers over there. My job was the same here in the Salmon Valley. But I fell in love with Edith and have been trying to break away."
"Leale, you say you swear to God this was your last deal with Mason?"
"Yes, I swear it. I have been scared to death. I got to thinking it was too good to last. I'd be found out. Then I'd lose Edith."
"Man, you'd not only lose her. But you'd be shot—or worse, you'd be hanged. These ranchers are roused. Watrous is ory-eyed, so Wesley told me. They'll organize an' send a bunch of Wyomin' cowboys out on Mason's trail. I'll bet that's exactly what Watrous is talkin' over now with these visitors."
"Then it's too late. They'll find me out. God! Why didn't I have some sense?"
"They won't find you out if you quit. Absolutely quit! I'm the only man outside the Mason gang who knows. If some of them are captured an' try to implicate you, it wouldn't be believed. I'll not give you away."
"Dale, by heaven, that's good of you," said Hildrith hoarsely. "I did you an injustice. Forgive me...Dale, tell me what to do. I'm in your hands. I'll do anything. Only save me. I wasn't cut out for a horse thief. It's galled me. I've been sick after every raid. I haven't the guts. I've learned an awful lesson."
"Have you any idea how Edith would despise you if she knew?"
"That's what makes me sweat blood. I worship the very ground she walks on."
"Does she love you?"
"Oh, Lord, I don't know now. I thought so. She said she did. But she wouldn't...She promised to marry me. Watrous wants her settled. If she will marry me, I know I can make her love me."
"Never if you continued to be a two-faced, dirty, lousy, yellow dog of a horse thief," cried Dale forcefully. "You've got to perform a miracle. You've got to change. That's the price of my silence."
"Dale, I'm torn apart...What use to swear? You know I'll quit—and go straight all my life. For Edith! What man wouldn't? You would if she gave herself...any man would. Don't you see?"
"Yes, I see that, an' I believe you," replied Dale, convinced of the truth in Hildrith's agony. "I'll keep your secret, an' find a way to save you if any unforseen thing crops up...An' that squares me with you, Leale Hildrith."
Swift light footsteps that scattered the gravel cut short Hildrith's impassioned gratitude. Edith startled Dale by appearing before them, her hand at her breast, her face white as a sheet, her eyes blazing.
Hildrith met her on the incline, exclaiming, "Why, Edith! Running back like that! What's wrong?"
She paid no heed to him, but ran to Dale, out of breath and visibly shaking.
"Oh...Dale..." she panted. "Stafford sent...for the sheriff!...They're going to...arrest you."
"Stafford? Who's he? That man in the black coat?"
"Yes. He's lately got in with Dad...Cattle. It's his outfit of cowboys coming...He's hard as nails."
"Are they here?"
"Will be directly. I tore loose from Dad...and ran all the way...Oh, Dale, what will you do?" She was unconscious of her emotion—and she put an appealing hand upon Dale's arm. Dale had never seen her like that, nor had Hildrith. They were deeply struck, each according to his reception of her white-faced, earnest demeanor.
"Edith, you can bet I won't run," declared Dale grimly. "Thank you, girl, all the same...Don't take this so...so strangely. Why, you're all upset. They can't arrest me."
Hildrith drew back from the wide door. He appeared no less alarmed and excited than Edith. "They're coming, Dale," he said thickly. "Bayne and Stafford in the lead...That sheriff has it in for you, Dale. Only last night I heard him swear he'd jail you if you came back...It's ticklish business. What'll you do?"
"I'm sure I don't know," returned Dale with a laugh. Edith besought him, "Oh, Dale, don't kill Bayne!...For my sake!"
"If you brace up, I reckon maybe I can avoid that."
Dale led his horse out of the barn, down the runway into the open. Then he stepped aside to face the advancing men, now nearly across the wide court. The dark-garbed Stafford was talking and gesticulating vehemently to a stalwart booted man. This was the one officer that Salmon supported, and it had been said of him that he knew which side of the law to be on. Watrous and three other men brought up the rear. They made no bones about sheering off to the side. Stafford, however, a swarthy and pompous man, evidently accustomed to authority, remained beside Bayne.
"Hey, you," called out Dale, far from civilly. "If you want to talk with me, that's close enough."
Hildrith, to Dale's surprise, came down in the incline and took up a stand beside Dale.
"What you mean by this turkey-strutting?" he demanded, and his simulation of resentment would have deceived anyone but Dale.
"Hildrith, we got business with Brittenham," declared Bayne harshly.
"Well, he's my friend, and that concerns me."
"Thanks, Leale," interposed Dale. "But let me handle this. Bayne, are you looking for me?"
"I sure am."
"At whose instigation?"
"Mr. Stafford, here. He sent for me, an' he orders you arrested."
Watrous broke in to say nervously, "Brittenham, I adivsed against this. I have nothing to do with it. I don't approve of resorting to law on the strength of gossip. If you'll deny any association with horse thieves, that will do for me. If your word is good to Edith, it ought to be for me."
"Jim Watrous, you're a fool," rasped out Stafford. "Your daughter is apparently infatuated with this...this—"
"Careful!" cut in Dale. "You might say the wrong thing. An' leave Miss Edith's name out of this deal...Stafford, what's your charge against me?"
"I think you're one of this horse-raiding gang," declared Stafford stoutly, though he turned pale.
"On what grounds?"
"I wasn't influenced by gossip, sir. I base my suspicion on your fetching back those thoroughbred horses. They must have been driven off by mistake. Any horse thief would know they couldn't be ridden or sold in Montana or Idaho. They'd be recognized. So you fetched them back because it was good business. Besides, it'd put you in better with Watrous, and especially his—"
"Shut up! If you speak of that girl again, I'll shoot your leg off," interrupted Dale. "An' you can gamble on this, Stafford: if I don't shoot you anyhow, it'll be the only peg on which you can hang a doubt of my honesty."
"You insolent ruffian!" ejaculated Stafford, enraged and intimidated. "Arrest him, sheriff."
"Brittenham, you'll have to come with me," spoke up Bayne with an uneasy cough. "You appear to be a talker. You'll get a chance to talk in court at Twin Falls."
"You're tryin' to go through with it?" asked Dale derisively.
"I say you're under arrest."
"What's your charge?"
"Same as Mr. Stafford's."
"But that's ridiculous, Bayne. You can't arrest a man for bringing back stolen horses. There's not the slightest case against me. Stafford has heard gossip in town—where half the population is crooked. How do I know an' how do you know that Stafford himself is not the big hand in this horse-stealin' gang? There's some big respectable rancher on this range who stands in with the thieves. Why do you pick on a poor wild-horse hunter? A ragamuffin, as he has called me. Look at my boots! Look at my saddle! If I was the go-between, wouldn't I have better equipment? You're not very bright, Bayne."
"Aw, that's all bluff. Part of your game. An' you've sure pulled it clever around here for three years."
While Dale had prolonged this argument, his mind had been conceiving and fixing upon a part he wanted to play. It would have been far easier but for Edith's inexplicable importunity. She had awakened to something strange and hitherto unrevealed. It must have been pity, and real sincerity and regret come too late. Then, the girl had always been fair in judging something between others. If Dale had had an inkling it was anything else, he never could have made the sacrifice, not even to save Hildrith. But she loved Hildrith; she would become his wife, and that surely meant his salvation. Dale felt that ignominy, a bad name thrust upon him, and acknowledged by his actions, could not make much difference to him. He was only a wild-horse hunter. He could ride away to Arizona and never be heard of again. Still, he hated the thing he felt driven to do.
Then Edith stepped into the foreground, no longer the distraught girl who had arrived there a few moments ago to warn Dale. Had she read his mind? That suspicion affected him more stirringly than anything yet that had happened.
"Sheriff Bayne, you must not try to arrest Dale without proof," she said earnestly.
"I'm sorry, lady. It's my duty. He'll get a fair trial."
"Fair!" she exclaimed scornfully. "When this arrest is so unfair! Bayne, there's something wrong—something dishonest here—and it's not in Dale."
"Edith, don't say more," interposed her father. "You're overwrought."
Hildrith strode to her side, hurried in manner, dark and strained of face.
"Leale, why don't you speak up for Dale?" she queried, and her eyes blazed upon him with a marvelously penetrating and strange look.
"Bayne, let Dale off," Hildrith said huskily. "Don't make a mistake here. You've no proof—and you can't arrest him."
"Can't! Why the hell can't I?" rejoined the sheriff. "Because he won't let you. Good God, man, haven't you any mind?"
"Humph! I've got mind enough to see there's somethin' damn funny here. But it ain't in me...Brittenham, you're under arrest. Come on, now, no buckin'."
As he made a step forward, Dale's gun gleamed blue and menacing.
"Look out, Bayne! If you move a hand, I'll kill you," he warned.
He backed cautiously down the court, leading his horse to one side.
"I see what I'm up against here, an' I'm slopin'," went on Dale. "Stafford, you had it figured. Watrous, I engineered that raid...Edith, I fetched your horses back because I was in love with you." A strange laugh followed his words.
Dale backed across the square to the lane, where he leaped into his saddle and spurred swiftly out of sight.
DALE'S campfire that night was on a bend of the brook near where he had surprised the three horse thieves and had recovered the Watrous thoroughbreds.
Upon riding away from the Watrous ranch, he had halted in Salmon long enough to buy supplies; then he had proceeded down the river to a lonely place where he had rested his horse and slept. By dawn he was climbing the mountain into Montana, and by sundown that night he was far down the horse-thief trail.
Notwithstanding the fact that Dale had branded himself by shouldering Hildrith's guilt, he had determined to find Big Bill Mason's rendezvous and evolve a plan to break up the horse-thief band. Born of his passion at riding away from the Watrous ranch a fugitive, leaving Edith to regret her faith in him, this plan seemed to loom as gigantic and impossible after the long hours of riding and thinking. But he would not abandon it.
"Stafford and Bayne will send a big outfit after me," he muttered as he sat before his little campfire. "An' I'll lead them to Mason's hiding place, Failin' that, I'll go down on the range below Bannock an' get the ranchers there to raise a big posse of cowboys. One way or another I'm goin' to break up Mason's gang."
Dale had not thought of that in the hour of his sacrifice for Hildrith and Edith. He had meant to take his friend's ignominy and ride away from Idaho forever. But two things had operated against this—first, the astounding and disturbing fact that Edith Watrous, in her stress of feeling, had betrayed not only faith in him but also more real friendship than she had ever shown; and secondly, his riding away in disgrace would leave the Mason gang intact, free to carry on their nefarious trade. He was the man for the job. If he broke up the gang, it would remove the stain from his name. Not that he would ever want to or dare to go back to the Watrous ranch! But there was a tremendous force in the thought that he might stand clean and fine again in Edith Watrous's sight. How strangely she had reacted to that situation when her father and the others had confronted him! What could she have meant when she said there was something wrong, something dishonest there in that climax? Could she have had a glimmering of the truth? This thought was so disturbing that it made Dale catch his breath. Edith was a resourceful, strong-minded girl, once she became aroused. On reflection, however, he eased away that doubt, and also the humanly weak joy at a possible indestructible faith in him. No! He felt sure Hildrith would be safe. Once the Mason outfit was broken up, with the principals killed and the others run out of the country, Hildrith would be safe, and Edith's happiness would be assured.
In hours past, Dale had, in the excitement of his flight, believed that he could kill his love for Edith Watrous and forget her. This proved to be an illusion, the recognition of which came to him beside his lonely campfire. He would love her more, because his act had been something big and for her sake, and in his secret heart he would know that if she could be told the truth, she would see her faith justified, and whatever feeling she had for him would be intensified.
He saw her dark proud eyes and her white face in the opal glow of his fire. And having succumbed to that, he could not help but remember her boldness to reward him, her arms and her kiss, and, most poignant of all, the way she had been betrayed by her impulse, how that kiss had trapped her into emotion she had not intended. Was it possible that he had had this chance for Edith Watrous and had never divined it? The thought was torture, and he put it from him, assuring himself that the girl's actions had been the result of her gratitude and joy at the return of her beloved horses.
The fire died down to ruddy coals; the night wind began to seep through the grass and brush; four-footed prowlers commenced their questing. Standing erect, Dale listened. He heard his horse cropping the grass. A brooding solitude lay upon the forest.
He made his bed close under the side of a fallen pine, using his saddle for a pillow. So many nights of his life he had lain down to look up at the open dark sky with its trains of stars. But this night the stars appeared closer and they seemed to talk to him. He was conscious that his stern task, and the circumstances which had brought it about, had heightened all his faculties to a superlative degree. He seemed a vastly different man, and he conceived that it might develop that he would revel in what fate had set him to do.
At last he fell asleep. During the night he awoke several times, and the last time, which was near dawn and nippingly cold, he got up and kindled a fire. All about him rose dark gray forest wall, except in the east, where a pale brightening betokened dawn.
It was Dale's custom to cook and eat a hearty breakfast, so that he could go long on this meal if he had to. His last task before saddling was to obliterate signs of his camp. Then, with light enough to see clearly, he mounted and was off on his perilous quest.
All the way, Dale had kept off the main trail. It would take an Indian or a wild-horse hunter to track him. He traveled some few paces off the horse-thief trail, but kept it in sight. And every mile or so he would halt, dismount, and walk a few steps away from his horse to listen. In that silent forest he could have heard a sound at a considerable distance.
By sunrise he was down out of the heavy timber belt and riding out upon a big country of scaly rock and immense thickets of evergreen and cedar, with only an occasional large pine. The brook disappeared—probably dried up, or sunk into the earth. The trail led on straight as a beeline for a while.
The sun rose high, and grew hot. With the morning half spent, he figured that he had traveled fifteen miles from his last camp. Occasionally he had glimpses of the lower range, gray and vast and dim below. The trail turned west, into more rugged plateaus and away from the descent. But presently, beyond a long fringe of evergreen thicket, he saw the peculiar emptiness that proclaimed the presence of a void.
Dale knew before he reached it that he had come upon the hole in the ground where Big Bill Mason had his hideout. Leaving the proximity of the trail, Dale rode to a little higher ground, where a gray stone eminence, less thickly overgrown, seemed to offer easy access to the place. Here he dismounted and pushed his way through the evergreens. At once he emerged upon a point, suddenly to stand rooted to the spot.
"What a wonderful place," he exclaimed as he grasped the fact that his sight commanded. He stood upon the rim of a deep gorge a mile long and half as wide. On all sides, the walls sheered down a thousand feet, gray and craggy, broken and caverned, lined by green benches, and apparently unscalable. Of course trails led in and out of this hole, but Dale could not see where. The whole vast level bottomland was as green as an emerald. At each end, where the gorge narrowed, glistened a lake. All around the rims stood up a thick border of evergreens, which screened the gorge from every side. Hunters and riders could pass near there without ever guessing the presence of such a concealed pocket in the mountain plateau.
"Ahuh. No wonder Mason can steal horses wholesale," soliloquized Dale. "All he had to do was to hide his tracks just after he made a raid."
Dale reflected that the thieves had succeeded in this up to present time. However, any good tracker could sooner or later find this rendezvous for resting and shifting droves of horses. Dale was convinced that Stafford and Watrous would send out a large outfit of riders as soon as they were available.
It struck Dale singularly that he could not see an animal or a cabin in the gorge below. But undoubtedly there were points not visible to him from this particular location. Returning to his horse, he decided to ride around the gorge to look for another trail.
He found, after riding for a while, that although the gorge was hardly more than three or four miles in circumference, to circle it on horseback or even on foot, a man would have to travel three times that far. There were canyon offshoots from the main valley, and these had to be headed.
At the west side Dale found one almost as long as the gorge itself. But it was narrow. Here he discovered the first sign of a trail since he had left the main one. And this was small, and had never been traveled by a drove of horses. It led off to the south toward Bannock. Dale deliberated a moment. If he were to risk going down to investigate this trail, about halfway between the lakes at each end should be the one for him to take. Certainly it did not show much usage. At length he rode down, impelled by a force that seemed to hold less of reason than of presagement.
It grew steep in the notch, and shady, following a precipitous watercourse. He had to get off and lead his horse. Soon trees and brush obstructed his view. The trail was so steep that he could only proceed slowly, and before he surmised that he was halfway down, he emerged into the open'to see a beautiful narrow valley, richly green, enclosed by timbered slopes. A new cabin of peeled logs stood in the lea of the north side. He saw cattle, horses and finally a man engaged in building a fence. If Dale had encountered an individual laboring this way in any other locality he would have thought him a homesteader. It was indeed the most desirable place to homestead and ranch on a small scale that Dale had ever seen in his hunting trips.
The man saw Dale just about as quickly as Dale had seen him. Riding by the cabin, where a buxom woman and some children peeped out fearfully, Dale approached the man. He appeared to be a sturdy, thickset farmer, bearded and sharp-eyed. He walked forward a few steps and stopped significantly near a shiny rifle leaning against the fence. When Dale got close enough, he recognized him.
"Well, Rogers, you son-of-a-gun! What're you doin' down here?"
"Brittenham! By all thet's strange. I might ask you the same," was the hearty reply, as he offered a horny hand. Two years before, Dale had made the acquaintance of Rogers back in the Sawtooth range.
"When'd you leave Camus Creek?" he asked.
"This spring, fine place thet. But too cold. I was snowed in all winter. Sold out to a Mormon."
"How'd you happen to locate in here?"
"Just by accident. I went to Bannock, an' from there to Halsey. Liked thet range country. But I wanted to be high, where I could hunt an' trap as well as homestead. One day I hit the trail leadin' in here. An' you bet I located pronto."
"Before ridin' out in the big valley?"
"Yes. But I saw it. What a range! This was big enough for me. If I'm not run out, I'll get rich here in five years."
"Then you located before you found out you had neighbors?"
"What do you know about them?" queried Rogers, giving Dale a speculative glance.
"I know enough."
"Brittenham, I hope to heaven you're not in thet outfit."
"No. An' I hope the same of you. Have you got wise yet to Mason's way of operatin'?"
"Mason! You don't mean the rancher an' horse trader Bill Mason?"
"So help me! Big Bill—the biggest horse thief in this country."
"If thet's true, who can a man trust?"
"It's true, Rogers, as you can find out for yourself by watchin'. Mason runs a big outfit. They split. One operates in Idaho, the other in Montana. They drive the stolen horses up here an' switch men an' herds. They sell the Montana stock over in Idaho an' the Idaho stock over on the Montana ranges."
"Hell you say! Big idee an' sure a bold one. I savvy now why these men politely told me to pull up stakes an' leave. But I had my cabin up an' my family here before they found out I'd located. Then I refused to budge. Reed, the boss of the outfit, rode down again last week. Offered to buy me out. I thought thet strange. But he didn't offer much, so I refused to sell. He said his boss didn't want any homesteaders in here."
"Rogers, they'll drive you out or kill you," said Dale.
"I don't believe it. They're bluffin'. If they murdered me, it'd bring attention to this place. Nobody knows of it. I haven't told about it yet. My wife would, though, if they harmed me."
"This gang wouldn't hesitate to put you all out of the way. They just don't take you seriously yet. Think they can scare you out."
"Not me! Brittenham, how'd you come to know about this horse stealin' an' to find this hole?"
Dale told him about the theft of the Watrous thoroughbreds, how he had trailed the robbers up the mountain, what happened there and lastly about the big raid that followed hard the same day.
"I'll tell you, Rogers. I got blamed for bein' the scout member of Mason's outfit. It made me sore. I left Salmon in a hurry, believe me. My aim in findin' this hole is to organize a big posse of cowboys an' break up Mason's gang."
"Humph! You ain't aimin' to do much atall."
"It'll be a job. There's no tellin' how many outfits Mason runs. It's a good bet that his ranch outfit is honest an' don't suspect he's a horse thief. I'll bet he steals his own horses. If I can raise a hard-fightin' bunch an' corral Mason's gang all here in this hole...To catch them here—that's the trick. I'd reckon they'll be stragglin' in soon. It doesn't take long to sell a bunch of good horses. Then they'd hide here, gamblin' an' livin' fat until time for another raid...Rogers, breakin' up this outfit is important to you. How'd you like to help me?"
"What could I do? Remember I'm handicapped with a wife an' two kids."
"No fightin' an' no risk for you. I'd plan for you to watch the valley, and have some kind of signs I could see from the rim to tell me when the gang is here."
"Get down an' come in," replied the homesteader soberly. "We'll talk it over."
"I'll stop a little while. But I mustn't lose time."
"Come set on the porch. Meet the wife an' have a bite to eat...Brittenham, I think I'll agree to help you. As for signs... There. It's the only place on the rim from which you can see my valley an' cabin. I've a big white cowhide thet I could throw over the fence. You could see it much farther than thet. If you did see it, you'd know the gang was here."
"Just the trick, Rogers. An' no risk to you," replied Dale with satisfaction. He unsaddled Hoofs and let him free on the rich grass. Then he accompanied Rogers to the cabin, where he spent a restful hour. When he left, Rogers walked with him to the trail. They understood one another and were in accord on the plan to break up Mason's band. Dale climbed on foot to the rim, his horse following, and then rode east to the point designated by the homesteader. Rogers watched for him and waved.
Across the canyon Dale located a curve in the wall which partly enclosed a large area black with horses. He saw cattle, too, and extensive gardens, and far up among the trees yellow cabins amidst the green. He rode back to Rogers's trail and headed for Bannock, keen and grim over his project.
The trail zigzagged gradually down toward lower country. Dale was always vigilant. No moving object escaped him. But there was a singular dearth of life along this scantily timbered eastern mountain slope. Toward late afternoon he found himself in broken country again, where the trail wound between foothills. It was dark when he rode into Banhock.
This town, like Salmon, was in the heyday of its productivity. And it was considerably larger. Gold and silver mining were its main assets, but there was some cattle trade, and extensive business in horses, and the providing of supplies for the many camps in the hills. Gambling halls of the period, with all their manifest and hidden evils, flourished flagrantly.
A miner directed Dale to a stable, where he left his horse. Here he inquired about his Indian friend Nalook. Then he went uptown to find a restaurant. He did not expect to meet anyone who knew him unless it was the Indian. Later that contingency would have to be reckoned with. Dale soon found a place to eat. Next to him at the lunch counter sat a red-faced cowboy who answered his greeting civilly.
"How's the hash here?" asked Dale.
"Fair to middlin'...Stranger hereabouts, eh?"
"Yep. I hail from the Snake River country."
"I see you're a range rider, but no cowman."
"You're a good guesser. My job is horses."
"Bronco buster, I'll bet."
"Nope. But I can an' do break wild horses."
"Reckon you're on your way to Halsey. There's a big sale of Idaho stock there tomorrow."
"Idaho horses. You don't say?" ejaculated Dale, pretending surprise. "I hadn't heard of it."
"Wal, I reckon it wasn't advertised over your way," replied the cowboy with a short laugh. "An' when you buy fine horses at half their value, you don't ask questions."
"Cowboy, you said a lot. I'm goin' to have a look at that bunch. How far to Halsey?"
"Two hours for you, if you stretch leather. It takes a buckboard four."
Dale then attended to the business of eating, but that did not keep his mind from functioning actively. It staggered him to think that it was possible Mason had the brazen nerve to sell stolen Idaho horses not a hundred miles across the line.
"How about buckin' the tiger?" asked Dale's acquaintance as they went out into the street.
"No gamblin' for me, cowboy. I like to look on, though, when there's some big bettin'."
"I seen a game today. Poker. Big Bill Mason won ten thousand at Steen's. You should have heard him roar. `Thet pays up for the bunch of horses stole from me the other day.'"
"Who's Big Bill Mason?" asked Dale innocently.
"Wal, he's about the whole cheese down Halsey way. Got his hand in most everythin'. I rode for him a spell."
"Does he deal much in horses?"
"Not so much as with cattle. But he always runs four or five hundred haid on his ranch."
Presently Dale parted from the cowboy and strolled along the dimly lighted street, peering into the noisy saloons, halting near groups of men, and listening. He spent a couple of hours that way, here and there picking up bits of talk. No mention of the big steal of Idaho horses came to Dale's ears. Still, with a daily stagecoach between the towns it was hardly conceivable that some news had not sifted through to Bannock.
Before leaving town, Dale bought a new shirt and a scarf. He slept that night in the barn where he had his horse put up. A pile of hay made a better bed than Dale was used to. But for a disturbing dream about Edith Watrous, in which she visited him in jail, he slept well. Next morning he shaved and donned his new garments, after which he went into the town for breakfast. He was wary this morning. Early though the hour, the street was dotted with vehicles, and a motley string of pedestrians passed to and fro on the sidewalks.
Dale had a leisurely and ample breakfast, after which he strolled in the street to the largest store and entered, trying to remember what it was that he had wanted to purchase.
"Dale!" A voice transfixed him. He looked up to be confronted by Edith Watrous.
A red-cheeked, comely young woman accompanied Edith, and looked at Dale with bright, curious eyes. He stammered confusedly in answer to Edith's greeting.
"Susan, this is my friend Dale Brittenham." Edith introduced him hurriedly. "Dale...Miss Bradford...I came over here to visit Susan."
"Glad to meet you, Miss," returned Dale, doffing his sombrero awkwardly.
"I've heard about you," said the girl, smiling at Dale. But evidently she saw something was amiss, for she turned to Edith and said, "You'll want to talk, I'll do my buying."
"Yes, I want to talk to my friend Dale Brittenham," agreed Edith seriously. Her desire to emphasize the word "friend" could not be mistaken. She drew him away from the entrance of the store to a more secluded space. Then: "Dale!" Her voice was low and full of suppressed emotion. Pale, and with eyes dark with scorn and sorrow, she faced him.
"How'd you come over here?" he queried, regaining his coolness.
"Nalook drove me in the buckboard. He returned to the ranch after you left. We got here last night."
"I'm sorry you had the bad luck to run into me."
"Not bad luck, Dale. I followed you. I was certain you'd come here. There's no other town to go to."
"Followed me? Edith, what for?"
"Oh, I don't know yet...After you left, I had a quarrel with Leale and Dad. I upbraided them for not standing by you. I swore you couldn't be a horse thief. I declared you were furious—that in your bitterness you just helped them to think badly of you."
"How could they help that when I admitted my...my guilt?"
"They couldn't—but I could...Dale, I know you. If you had been a real thief, you'd never...never have told me you...you loved me that last terrible moment. You couldn't. You wanted me to know. You looked bitter...hard...wretched. There was nothing low-down or treacherous about you."
"Edith, there you're wrong," returned Dale hoarsely. "For there is."
"Dale, don't kill my faith in you...Don't kill something I'm...I'm afraid—"
"It's true—to my shame an' regret."
"Oh!...So that's why you never made love to me like the other boys? You were man enough for that, at least. I'm indebted to you. But I'll tell you what I've found out. If you had been the splendid fellow I thought you—and if you'd had sense enough to tell me sooner that you loved me—well...there was no one I liked better, Dale Brittenham."
"My God! Edith, don't—I beg you—don't say that now," implored Dale in passionate sadness.
"I care a great deal for Leale Hildrith. But it was Dad's match. I told Leale so. I would probably have come to it of my own accord in time. Yesterday we had a quarrel. He made an awful fuss about my leaving home, so I slipped away unseen. But I'll bet he's on the way here right now."
"I hope he comes after you," said Dale, bewildered and wrenched by this disclosure.
"He'd better not...Never mind him, Dale. You've hurt me. Perhaps I deserved it. For I have been selfish and vain with my friends. To find out you're a...a thief...Oh, I hate you for making me believe it! It's just sickening. But you can't—you simply can't have become callous. You always had queer notions about range horses being free. There are no fences in parts of Idaho...Oh, see how I make excuses for you! Dale, promise me you will never help to steal another horse so long as you live."
Dale longed to fall upon his knees to her and tell her the truth. She was betraying more than she knew. He had seen her audacious and winning innumerable times, and often angry, and once eloquent, but never so tragic and beautiful as now. It almost broke down his will. He had to pull his hand from hers—to force a hateful stand utterly foreign to his nature.
"Edith, I won't lie to you—"
"I'm not sure of that," she retorted, her eyes piercing him. They had an intense transparancy through which her thought, her doubt, shone like a gleam.
"Nope. I can't promise. My old wild-horse business is about played out. I've got to live."
"Dale, I'll give...lend you money, so you can go away far and begin all over again. Please, Dale?"
"Thanks, lady," he returned, trying to be laconic. "Sure I couldn't think of that."
"You're so strange—so different. You didn't used to be like this...Dale, is it my fault you went to the bad?"
"Nonsense!" he exclaimed in sudden heat. "Reckon it was just in me."
"Swear you're not lying to me."
"All right, I swear."
"If I believed I was to blame, I'd follow you and make you honest. I ought to do it anyhow."
"Edith, I'm sure glad you needn't go to such extremes. You can't save a bad egg."
"Oh...Dale..." She was about to yield further to her poignant mood when her friend returned.
"Edie, I'd have stayed away longer," said Susan, her eyes upon them. "Only if we're going to Halsey, we must rustle pronto."
"Edith, are you drivin' over there?" asked Dale quickly.
"Yes. Susan's brother is coming. There's a big horse sale on. I'm just curious to see if there will be any of Dad's horses there."
"I'm curious about that, too," admitted Dale soberly. "Good-by, Edith...Miss Bradford, glad to meet you, an' good-by."
Dale strode swiftly out of the store, though Edith's call acted upon him like a magnet. Once outside, with restraint gone, he fell in a torment. He could not think coherently, let alone reason. That madcap girl, fully aroused, might be capable of anything. Dale suffered anguish as he rushed down the street and to the outskirts of town, where he saddled his horse and rode away down the slope to the east.
There were both horsemen and vehicles going in the same direction, which he surmised was toward Halsey. Dale urged his mount ahead of them and then settled down to a steady sharp gait. He made no note of time, or the passing country. Long before noon, he rode into Halsey.
The town appeared to be deserted, except for clerks in stores, bartenders at the doors of saloons, and a few loungers. Only two vehicles showed down the length of the long street. Dale did not need to ask why, but he did ask to be directed to the horse fair. He was not surprised to find a couple of hundred people, mostly men, congregated at the edge of town, where in an open green field several score of horses, guarded by mounted riders, grazed and bunched in front of the spectators. Almost the first horse he looked at twice proved to be one wearing the Watrous brand.
Then Dale had a keen eye for that drove of horses and especially the horsemen. In a country where all men packed guns, their being armed did not mean anything to casual observers. Nevertheless, to Dale it was significant. They looked to him to be a seasoned outfit of hard riders. He hid Hoofs in the background and sauntered over toward the center of activities.
"Where's this stock from?" he asked one of a group of three men, evidently ranchers, who were bystanders like himself.
"Idaho. Snake River range."
"Sure some fine saddle hosses," went on Dale. "What they sellin' for?"
"None under a hundred dollars. An' goin' like hotcakes."
"Who's the hoss dealer?"
"Ed Reed. Hails from Twin Falls."
"Ahuh. Gentlemen, I'm a stranger in these parts," said Dale deliberately. "I hear there's no end of hoss business goin' on—hoss sellin', hoss buyin', hoss tradin'...and hoss stealin'."
"Wal, this is a hoss country," spoke up another of the trio dryly as he looked Dale up and down. Dale's cool speech had struck them significantly.
"You all got the earmarks of range men," Dale continued curtly. "I'd ask, without 'pearin' too inquisitive, if any one of you has lost stock lately?"
There followed a moment of silence, in which the three exchanged glances and instinctively edged close together.
"Wal, stranger. I reckon thet's a fair question," replied the eldest, a gray-haired, keen-eyed Westerner. "Some of us ranchers down in the range have been hit hard lately."
"By what? Fire, flood, blizzard, drought—or hoss thieves?"
"I'd reckon thet last, stranger. But don't forget you said it."
"Fine free country, this, where a range man can't talk right out," rejoined Dale caustically. "I'll tell you why. You don't know who the hoss thieves are. An' particular, their chief. He might be one of your respectable rancher neighbors."
"Stranger, you got as sharp a tongue as eye," returned the third member of the group. "What's your name an' what's your game?"
"Brittenham. I'm a wild-horse hunter from the Snake River Basin. My game is to get three or four tough cowboy outfits together."
"Wal, thet oughtn't be hard to do in this country, if you had reason," returned the rancher, his eyes narrowing. Dale knew he did not need to tell these men that the drove of horses before them had been stolen.
"I'll look you up after the sale," he concluded.
"My name's Strickland. We'll sure be on the lookout for you."
The three moved on toward the little crowd near the horses at that moment under inspection. "Jim, if we're goin' to buy some stock, we've got to hustle," remarked one.
Dale sauntered away to get a good look at the main drove of horses. When he recognized Dusty Dan, a superb bay that he had actually straddled himself, a bursting gush of hot blood burned through his veins. Deliberately he stepped closer, until he was halted by one of the mounted guards.
"Whar you goin', cowboy?" demanded this individual, a powerful rider of mature years, clad in greasy leather chaps and dusty blouse. He had a bearded visage and deep-set eyes, gleaming under a black sombrero pulled well down.
"I'm lookin' for my hoss," replied Dale mildly.
The guard gave a slight start, barely perceptible.
"Wal, do you see him?" he queried insolently.
"What kind of hoss, cowboy?"
"He's a black with white face. Wearin' a W brand like that bay there. He'd stand out in that bunch like a silver dollar in a fog."
"Wal, he ain't hyar, an' you can mosey back."
"Hell you say," retorted Dale, changing his demeanor in a flash. "These horses are on inspection...an' see here, Mr. Leather Pants, don't tell me to mosey anywhere."
Another guard, a lean, sallow-faced man, rode up to query, "Who's this guy, Jim?"
"Took him for a smart-alec cowboy."
"You took me wrong, you Montana buckaroos," interposed Dale, cool and caustic. "I'll mosey around an' see if I can pick out a big black hoss with the W brand."
Dale strode on, but he heard the guard called Jim mutter to his companion, "Tip Reed off." Presently Dale turned in time to see the rider bend from his saddle to speak in the ear of a tall dark man. Thus Dale identified Ed Reed, and without making his action marked, he retraced his steps. On his way he distinguished more W brands and recognized more Watrous horses.
Joining the group of buyers, Dale looked on from behind. After one survey of Big Bill Mason's right-hand man, Dale estimated him to be a keen, suave villain whose job was to talk, but who would shoot on the slightest provocation.
"Well, gentlemen, we won't haggle over a few dollars," Reed was saying blandly as he waved a hairy brown hand. "Step up and make your offers. These horses have got to go."
Then buying took on a brisk impetus. During the next quarter of an hour a dozen and more horses were bought and led away, among them Dusty Dan. That left only seven animals, one of which was the white-faced black Dale had spoken about to the guard, but had not actually seen.
"Gentlemen, here's the pick of the bunch," spoke up Reed. "Eight years old. Sound as a rock. His sire was blooded stock. I forget the name. What'll you offer?"
"Two hundred fifty," replied a young man eagerly.
"That's a start. Bid up, gentlemen. This black is gentle, fast, wonderful gait. A single-footer. You see how he stacks up.
"Three hundred," called Dale, who meant to outbid any other buyers, take the horse and refuse to pay.
"Come on. Don't you Montana men know horseflesh when—"
Reed halted with a violent start and the flare of his eyes indicated newcomers. Dale wheeled with a guess that he verified in the sight of Edith Watrous and Leale Hildrith, with another couple behind them. He also saw Nalook, the Indian, at the driver's seat of the buckboard. Hildrith's face betrayed excessive emotion under control. He tried to hold Edith back. But, resolute and pale, she repelled him and came on. Dale turned swiftly so as not to escape Reed's reaction to this no-doubt-astounding and dangerous interruption. Dale was treated to an extraordinary expression of fury and jealousy. It passed from Reed's dark glance and dark face as swiftly as it had come.
Dale disliked the situation that he saw imminent. There were ten in Reed's gang—somber, dark-browed men, whom it was only necessary for Dale to scrutinize once to gauge their status. On the other hand, the majority of spectators and buyers were not armed. Dale realized that he had to change his mind, now that Edith was there. To start a fight would be foolhardy and precarious.
The girl had fire in her eyes as she addressed the little group.
"Who's boss here?" she asked.
"I am, Miss...Ed Reed, at your service." Removing his sombrero, he made her a gallant bow, his face strong and not unhandsome in a bold way. Certainly his gaze was one of unconcealed admiration.
"Mr. Reed, that black horse with the white face belongs to me," declared Edith imperiously.
"Indeed?" replied Reed, exhibiting apparently genuine surprise. "And who're you, may I ask?"
"Edith Watrous. Jim Watrous is my father."
"Pleased to meet you...You'll excuse me, Miss Watrous, if I ask for proof that this black is yours."
Edith came around so that the horse could see her, and she spoke to him. "Dick, old boy, don't you know me?"
The black pounded the ground, and with a snort jerked the halter from the man who held him. Whinnying, he came to Edith, his fine eyes soft, and he pressed his nose into her hands.
"There!...Isn't that sufficient?" asked Edith.
Reed had looked on with feigned amusement. Dale gauged him as deep and resourceful.
"Sam, fetch my hoss. I'm tired standing and I reckon this lady has queered us for other buyers."
"Mr. Reed, I'm taking my horse whether you like it or not," declared Edith forcefully.
"But, Miss Watrous, you can't do that. You haven't proved to me he belongs to you. I've seen many fine horses that'd come to a woman."
"Where did you get Dick?"
"I bought him along with the other W-brand horses."
"From whom?" queried Edith derisively.
"John Williams. He's a big breeder in horses. His ranch is on the Snake River. I daresay your father knows him."
Dale stepped out in front. "Reed, there's no horse breeder on the Snake River," he said.
The horse thief coolly mounted a superb bay that had been led up, and then gazed sardonically from Edith to Dale. "Where do you come in?"
"My name is Brittenham. I'm a wild-horse hunter. I know every foot of range in the Snake between the falls an' the foothills."
"Williams's ranch is way up in the foothills," rejoined Reed easily. He had not exactly made a perceptible sign to his men, but they had closed in, and two of them slipped out of their saddles. Dale could not watch them and Reed at the same time. He grew uneasy. These thieves, with their crafty and bold leader, were masters of the situation.
"Lady, I hate to be rude, but you must let go that halter," said Reed with an edge on his voice.
"Then I'll have to be rude. Sam, take that rope away from her."
"Leale, say something, can't you? What kind of a man are you, anyway?" cried Edith, turning in angry amazement to her fiancÚ.
"What can I say?" asked Hildrith, spreading wide his hands, as if helpless. His visage at the moment was not prepossessing.
"What! Why, tell him you know this is my horse."
Reed let out a laugh that had bitter satisfaction as well as irony in it. Dale had to admit that the predicament for Hildrith looked extremely serious.
"Reed, if Miss Watrous says it's her horse, you can rely on her word," replied the pallid Hildrith.
"I'd take no woman's word," returned the leader.
"Dale, you know it's my horse. You've ridden him. If you're not a liar, Mr. Reed knows you as well as you know me."
"Excuse me, lady," interposed Reed. "I never saw your wild-horse-hunter champion in my life. If he claims to know me, he is a liar."
"Dale!" Edith transfixed him with soul-searching eyes.
"I reckon you forget, Reed. Or you just won't own up to knowin' me. That's no matter...But the horse belongs to Miss Watrous. I've ridden him. I've seen him at the Watrous ranch every day or so for years."
"Brittenham. Is that what you call yourself? I'd lie for her, too. She's one grand girl. But she can't rob me of this horse."
"Rob! That's funny, Mr. Reed," exclaimed Edith hotly. "You're the robber! I'll bet Dick against two bits that you're the leader of this horse-thief gang."
"Well, I can't shoot a girl, much less such a pretty and tantalizing one as you. But don't sat that again. I might forget my manners."
"You brazen fellow!" cried Edith, probably as much incensed by his undisguised and bold gaze as by his threat. "I not only think you're a horse thief, but I call you one!"
"All right. You can't be bluffed, Edith," he returned grimly. "You've sure got nerve. But you'll be sorry, if it's the last trick I pull on this range."
"Edith, get away from here," ordered Hildrith huskily, and he plucked at her with shaking hands. "Let go that halter."
"No!" cried Edith, fight in every line of her face and form, and as she backed away from Hildrith, she inadvertently drew nearer to Reed.
"But you don't realize who...what this man—"
"Do you?" she flashed piercingly.
Dale groaned in spirit. This was the end of Leale Hildrith. The girl was as keen as a whip, and bristling with suspicion. The unfortunate man almost cringed before her. Then Reed rasped out, "Rustle, there!"
At the instant that Reed's ally Sam jerked the halter out of Edith's hand, Dale felt the hard prod of a gun against his back. "Put 'em up, Britty," called a surly voice. Dale lost no time getting his hands above his head, and he cursed under his breath for his haste and impetuosity. He was relieved of his gun. Then the pressure on his back ceased.
Reed reached down to lay a powerful left hand on Edith's arm.
"Let go!" the girl burst our angrily, and she struggled to free herself. "Oh...you hurt me! Stop, you ruffian."
"Stand still, girl!" ordered Reed, trying to hold her and the spirited horse. "He'll step on you—crush your foot."
"Ah-h!" screamed Edith in agony, and she ceased her violent exertion to stand limp, holding up one foot. The red receded from her face.
"Take your hand off her," shouted Hildrith, reaching for a gun that was not there.
"Is that your stand, Hildrith?" queried Reed, cold and hard.
"What do you...mean?"
"It's a showdown. This jig is up. Show yellow...or come out with the truth before these men. Don't leave it to me."
"Are you drunk...or crazy?" screamed Hildrith, beside himself. He did not grasp Reed's deadly intent, whatever his scheme was. He thought his one hope was to play his accustomed part. Yet he suspected a move that made him frantic. "Let her go!...Damn your black hide—let her go!"
"Black, but not yellow, you traitor!" wrung out Reed as he leveled a gun at Hildrith. "We'll see what the boss says to this...Rustle, or I'll kill you. I'd like to do it. But you're not my man...Get over there quick. Put him on a horse, men, and get going. Sam, up with her!"
Before Dale could have moved, even if he had been able to accomplish anything, unarmed as he was, the man seized Edith and threw her up on Reed's horse, where despite her struggles and cries he jammed her down in the saddle in front of Reed.
As Reed wheeled away, looking back with menacing gun, the spectators burst into a loud roar. Sam dragged the black far enough to be able to leap astride his own horse and spur away, pulling his captive into his stride. The other men, ahead of Reed, drove the unsaddled horses out in front. The swiftness and precision of the whole gang left the crowd stunned. They raced out across the open range, headed for the foothills. Edith's pealing cry came floating back.
DALE was the first to recover from the swift raw shock of the situation. All around him milled an excited crowd. Most of them did not grasp the significance of the sudden exodus of the horse dealers until they were out of sight. Dale, nearly frantic, lost no time in finding Strickland.
"Reckon-I needn't waste time now convincin' you there are some horse thieves in this neck of the woods," he spat out sarcastically.
"Brittenham, I'm plumb beat," replied the rancher, and he looked it. "In my ten years on this range I never saw the like of that...My Gawd! What an impudent rascal! To grab the Watrous girl right under our noses! Not a shot fired!"
"Don't rub it in," growled Dale. "I had to watch Reed. His man got the drop on me. A lot of slick hombres. An' that's not sayin' half."
"We'll hang every damn one of them," shouted Strickland harshly.
"Yes. After we save the girl...Step aside here with me. Fetch those men you had...Come, both of you...Now, Strickland, this is stern business. We've not a minute to waste. I want a bunch of hard-ridin' cowboys here pronto. Figure quick now, while I get my horse an' find that Indian."
Dale ran into the lithe, dark, buckskin-clad Nalook as he raced for his horse. This Indian had no equal as a tracker in Idaho.
"Boss, you go me," Nalook said in his low voice, with a jerk of his thumb toward the foothills. Apparently the Indian had witnessed the whole action.
"Rustle, Nalook. Borrow a horse an' guns. I've got grub."
Dale hurried back, leading Hoofs. Reaching Strickland and his friends, he halted with them and waited, meanwhile taking his extra guns out of his pack.
"I can have a posse right here in thirty minutes," declared the rancher.
"Good. But I won't wait. The Indian here will go with me. We'll leave a trail they can follow on the run. Tracks an' broken brush."
"I can get thirty or more cowboys here in six hours."
"Better. Tell them the same."
Nalook appeared at his elbow. "Boss, me no find hoss."
"Strickland, borrow a horse for this Indian. I'll need him."
"Joe, go with the Indian," said Strickland. "Get him horse and outfit if you have to buy it."
"You men listen and hold your breath," whispered Dale. "This Reed outfit is only one of several. Their boss is Big Bill Mason."
The ranchers were beyond surprise or shock. Strickland snapped his fingers.
"That accounts. Dale, I'll tell you something. Mason got back to Halsey last night from Bannock, he said. He was not himself. This morning he sold his ranch—gave it away, almost—to Jeff Wheaton. He told Wheaton he was leaving Montana."
"Where is he now?"
"Must have left early. You can bet something was up for him to miss a horse sale."
"When did Reed's outfit arrive?"
"Just before noon."
"Here's what has happened," Dale calculated audibly. "Mason must have learned that Stafford an' Watrous was sendin' a big posse out on the trail of Mason's Idaho outfit."
"Brittenham, if this Ed Reed didn't call Hildrith to show his hand for or against that outfit, then I'm plumb deaf."
"It looked like it," admitted Dale gloomily.
"I thought he was going to kill Hildrith."
"So did I. There's bad blood between them."
"Hildrith has had dealings of some kind with Reed. Remember how Reed spit out, `We'll see what the boss says about this...I'd like to kill you'? Brittenham, I'd say Hildrith has fooled Watrous and his daughter, and this Mason outfit also.."
Dale was saved from a reply by the approach of Nalook, mounted on a doughty mustang. He carried a carbine and wore a brass-studded belt with two guns.
"We're off, Strickland," cried Dale, kicking his stirrup straight and mounting. "Hurry your posse an' outfits. Pack light, an' rustle's the word."
Once out of the circle of curious onlookers, Dale told Nalook to take the horse thieves' trail and travel. The Indian pointed toward the foothills.
"Me know trail. Big hole. Indian live there long time. Nalook's people know hoss thieves."
"I've been there, Nalook. Did you know Bill Mason was chief of that outfit?"
"No sure. See him sometime. Like beaver. Hard see."
"We'd better not shortcut. Sure Reed will make for the hideout hole. But he'll camp on the way."
"No far. Be there sundown."
"Is it that close from this side?...All the better. Lead on, Nalook. When we hit the brush, we want to be close on Reed's heels."
The Indian followed Reed's tracks at a lope. They led off the grassy lowland toward the hills. Ten miles or more down on the range to the east Dale spied a ranch, which Nalook said was Mason's. At that distance it did not look pretentious. A flat-topped ranch house, a few sheds and corrals, and a few cattle dotting the grassy range inclined Dale to the conviction that this place of Mason's had served as a blind to his real activities.
Soon Nalook led off the rangeland into the foothills. Reed's trail could have been followed in the dark. It wound through ravines and hollows between hills that soon grew high and wooded on top. The dry wash gave place to pools of water here and there, and at last a running brook, lined by grass and willows growing green and luxuriant.
At length a mountain slope confronted the trackers. Here the trail left the watercourse and took a slant up the long incline. Dale sighted no old hoofmarks and concluded that Reed was making a shortcut to the rendezvous. At intervals Dale broke branches on the willows and brush he passed, and let them hang down, plainly visible to a keen eye. Rocks and brush, cactus and scrub oak, grew increasingly manifest, and led to the cedars, which in turn yielded to the evergreens.
It was about midafternoon when they surmounted the first bench of the mountain. With a posse from Halsey possibly only a half-hour behind, Dale slowed up the Indian. Reed's tracks were fresh in the red bare ground. Far across the plateau the belt of pines showed black, and the gray rock ridges stood up. Somewhere in that big rough country hid the thieves' stronghold.
"Foller more no good," said Nalook, and left Reed's tracks for the first time.
Dale made no comment. But he fell to hard pondering. Reed, bold outlaw that he was, would this time expect pursuit and fight, if he stayed in the country. His abducting the girl had been a desperate unconsidered impulse, prompted by her beauty, or by desire for revenge on Hildrith, or possibly to hold her for ransom, or all of these together. No doubt he knew this easy game was up for Mason. He had said as much to Hildrith. It was not conceivable to Dale that Reed would stay in the country if Mason was leaving. They had made their big stake.
Nalook waited for Dale on the summit of a ridge. "Ugh!" he said, and pointed.
They had emerged near the head of a valley that bisected the foothills and opened out upon the range, dim and hazy below. Dale heard running water. He saw the white flags of deer in the green brush. It was a wild and quiet scene.
"Mason trail come here," said the Indian, with an expressive gesture downward.
Then he led on, keeping to the height of slope; and once over that, entered rough and thicketed land that impeded their progress. In many places the soft red and yellow earth gave way to stone, worn to every conceivable shape. There were hollows and upstanding grotesque slabs and cones, and long flat stretches, worn uneven by erosion. Evergreens and sage and dwarf cedars found lodgment in holes. When they crossed this area to climb higher and reach a plateau, the sun was setting gold over the black mountain heights. Dale recognized the same conformation of earth and rock that he had found on the south side of the robbers' gorge. Nalook's slow progress and caution brought the tight cold stretch to Dale's skin. They were nearing their objective.
At length the Indian got off his horse and tied it behind a clump of evergreens. Dale followed suit. They drew their rifles.
"We look—see. Mebbe come back," whispered Nalook. He glided on without the slightest sound or movement of foliage, Dale endeavoring to follow his example. After traversing half a mile in a circuitous route, he halted and put a finger to his nose. "Smell smoke. Tobac."
But Dale could not catch the scent. Not long afterward, however, he made out the peculiar emptiness behind a line of evergreens, and this marked the void they were seeking. They kept on at a snail's pace.
Suddenly Nalook halted and put a hand back to stop Dale. He could not crouch much lower. Warily he pointed over the fringe of low evergreens to a pile of gray rocks. On the summit sat a man with his back to the trackers. He was gazing intently in the opposite direction. This surely was a guard stationed there to spy any pursuers, presumably approaching on the trail.
"Me shoot him," whispered Nalook.
"I don't know," whispered Dale in reply, perplexed. "How far to their camp?".
"No hear gun."
"But there might be another man on watch."
The Indian glided away like a snake. How invaluable he was in a perilous enterprise like this! Dale sat down to watch and wait. The sun sank and shadows gathered under the evergreens. The scout on duty seemed not very vigilant. He never turned once to look back. But suddenly he stood up guardedly and thrust his rifle forward. He took aim and appeared about to fire. Then he stiffened strangly, and jerked up as if powerfully propelled. Immediately there followed the crack of a rifle. Then the guard swayed and fell backward out of sight. Dale heard a low crash and a rattle of rocks. Then all was still. He waited. After what seemed a long anxious time, the thud of hoofs broke the silence. He sank down, clutching his rifle. But it was Nalook coming with the horses.
"We go quick. Soon night," said the Indian, and led the way toward the jumble of rocks. Presently Dale saw a trail as wide as a road. It led down. Next he got a glimpse of the gorge. From this end it was more wonderful to gaze down into, a magnificent hole, with sunset gilding the opposite wall, and purple shadows mantling the caverns, and the lake shining black.
Viewed from this angle, Mason's rendezvous presented a different and more striking spectacle. This north end where Dale stood was a great deal lower than the south end, or at least the walls were lower and the whole zigzag oval of rims sloped toward him, so that he was looking up at the southern escarpments. Yet the floor of the gorge appeared level. From this vantage point the caverns and cracks in the walls stood out darkly and mysteriously, suggesting hidden places and perhaps unseen exits from this magnificent burrow. The deep indentation of the eastern side, where Mason had his camp, was not visible from any other point. At that sunset hour a mantle of gold and purple hung over the chasm. All about it seemed silent and secretive, a wild niche of nature, hollowed out for the protection of men as wild as the place. It brooded under the gathering twilight. The walls gleamed dark with a forbidding menace.
Nalook started down, leading his mustang. Then Dale noted that he had a gun belt and long silver spurs hung over the pommel of his saddle. He had taken time to remove these from the guard he had shot. This trail was open and from its zigzag corners Dale caught glimpses of the gorge, and of droves of horses. Suddenly he remembered that he had forgotten to break brush and otherwise mark their path after they had sheered off Reed's tracks.
"Hist!" he whispered. The Indian waited. "It's gettin' dark. Strickland's posse can't trail us."
"Ugh. They foller Reed. Big moon. All same day." Thus reassured, Dale followed on, grimly fortifying himself to some issue near at hand.
When they came out into the open valley below, dusk had fallen. Nalook had been in that hole before, Dale made certain. He led away from the lake along a brook, and let his horse drink. Then he drank himself, and motioned Dale to do likewise. He went on then in among scrub-oak trees to a grassy open spot, where he halted.
"Mebbe long fight," he whispered. "I rope hoss." Dale removed saddle and bridle from Hoofs and tied him on a long halter.
"What do?" asked Nalook.
"Sneak up on them."
By this time it was dark down in the canyon, though still light above. Nalook led out of the trees and, skirting them, kept to the north wall. Presently he turned and motioned Dale to lift his feet, one after the other, to remove his spurs. The Indian hung them in the crotch of a bush. Scattered trees of larger size began to loom up on this higher ground. The great black wall stood up rimmed with white stars. Dim lights glimmered through the foliage and gradually grew brighter. Nalook might have been a shadow for all the sound he made. Intensely keen and vigilant as Dale was, he could not keep from swishing the grass or making an occasional rustle in the brush. Evidently the Indian did not want to lose time, but he kept cautioning Dale with an expressive backward gesture.
Nalook left the line of timber under the wall and took out into the grove. He now advanced more cautiously than ever. Dale thought this guide must have the eyes of a night hawk. They passed a dark shack which was open in front and had a projecting roof. Two campfires were blazing a hundred yards farther on. And a lamp shone through what must have been a window of a cabin.
Presently the Indian halted. He pointed. Then Dale saw horses and men, and he heard gruff voices and the sound of flopping saddles. Some outfit had just arrived. Dale wondered if it was Reed's. If so, he had tarried some little time after getting down into the gorge.
"We go look—see," whispered Nalook in Dale's ear. The Indian seemed devoid of fear. He seemed actuated by more than friendship for Dale and gratitude to Edith Watrous. He hated someone in that horse-thief gang.
Dale followed him, growing stern and hard. He could form no idea of what to do except get the lay of the land, ascertain if possible what Reed was up to, and then go back to the head of the trail and wait for the posse. But he well realized the precarious nature of spying on these desperate men. He feared, too, that Edith Watrous was in vastly more danger of harm than of being held for ransom.
The campfires lighted up two separate circles, both in front of the open-faced shacks. Around the farther one, men were cooking a meal. Dale smelled ham and coffee. The second fire had just been kindled and its bright blaze showed riders moving about still with chaps on, unsaddling and unpacking. Dale pierced the gloom for sight of Edith but failed to locate her.
The Indian sheered away to the right so that a cabin hid the campfires. This structure was a real log cabin of some pretensions. Again a lamp shone through a square window. Faint streaks of light, too, came from chinks between the logs. Dale tried to see through the window, but Nalook led him at a wrong angle. Soon they reached the cabin. Dale felt the rough peeled logs. Nalook had an ear against the log wall. No sound within! Then the Indian, moving with extreme stealth, slipped very slowly along the wall until he came to one of the open chinks. Dale suppressed his eagerness. He must absolutely move without a sound. But that was easy. Thick grass grew beside the cabin. In another tense movement Dale came up with Nalook, who clutched his arm and pulled him down.
There was an aperture between the logs where the mud filling had fallen out. Dale applied his eyes to the small crack. His blood leaped at sight of a big man sitting at a table. Black-browed, scant-bearded, leonine Bill Mason! A lamp with a white globe shed a bright light. Dale saw a gun on the corner of the table, some buckskin sacks, probably containing gold, in front of Mason, and some stacks of greenbacks. An open canvas pack sat on the floor beside the table. Another pack, half full, and surrounded by articles of clothing added to Dale's conviction that the horse-thief leader was preparing to leave this rendezvous. The dark frown on Mason's brow appeared to cast its shadow over his strong visage.
A woman's voice, high-pitched and sweet, coming through the open door of the cabin, rang stingingly on Dale's ears.
"...I told you...keep your horsy hands off me. I can walk."
Mason started up in surprise. "A woman! Now, what in hell?"
Then Edith Watrous, pale and worn, her hair disheveled and her dress so ripped that she had to hold it together, entered the cabin to fix dark and angry eyes upon the dual-sided rancher. Behind her, cool and sardonic, master of the situation, appeared Reed, blocking the door as if to keep anyone else out.
"Mr. Mason, I am Edith...Watrous," panted the girl.
"You needn't tell me that. I know you...What in the world are you doing here?" rejoined Mason slowly, as he arose to his commanding height. He exhibited dismay, but he was courteous.
"I've been...treated to an...outrage. I was in Halsey...visiting friends. There was a horse sale...I went out. I found my horse Dick—and saw other Watrous horses in the bunch...I promptly told this man Reed it was my horse. He argued with me...Then Hildrith came up...and that precipitated trouble. Reed put something up to Hildrith—I didn't get just what. But it looks bad. I thought he was going to kill Hildrith. But he didn't. He cursed Hildrith and said he'd see what the boss would do about it...They threw me on Reed's horse...made me straddle his saddle in front...and I had to endure a long ride...with my dress up to my head...my legs exposed to brush...and, what was more, to...to the eyes of Reed and his louts...It was terrible...I'm so perfectly furious that...that..."
She choked in her impassioned utterance.
"Miss Watrous, I don't blame you," said Mason. "Please understand this is not my doing." Then he fastened his black angry eyes upon his subordinate. "Fool! What's your game?"
"Boss, I didn't have any," returned Reed coolly. "I just saw red. It popped into my head to make off with this stuck-up Watrous woman. And here we are."
"Reed, you're lying. You've got some deep game...Jim Watrous was a friend of mine. I can't stand for such an outrage to his daughter."
"You'll have to stand it, Mason. You and I split, you know, over this last deal. It's just as I gambled would happen. You've ruined us. We're through."
"Ha! I can tell you as much."
"There was a wild-horse hunter down at Halsey—Dale Brittenham. I know about him. He's the man who trailed Ben, Alec and Steve—killed them. He's onto us. I saw that. He'll have a hundred gunners on our trail by sunup."
"Ed, that's not half we're up against," replied the chief gloomily. "This homesteader Rogers, with his trail to Bannock—that settled our hash. Stafford and Watrous have a big outfit after us. I heard it at Bannock. That's why I sold out. I'm leaving here as soon as I can pack."
"Fine. That's like you. Engineered all the jobs and let us do the stealing while you hobnobbed with the ranchers you robbed. Now you'll leave us to fight...Mason, I'm getting out too—and I'm taking the girl."
"Good God! Ed, it's bad enough to be a horse thief like this...Why, man, it's madness! What for, I ask you?"
"That's my business."
"You want to make Watrous pay to get her back. He'd do it, of course. But he'd tear Montana to pieces, and hang you."
"I might take his money—later. But I confess to a weakness for the young lady...And I'll get even with Hildrith."
"Revenge, eh? You always hated Leale. But what's he got to do with your game?"
"He's crazy in love with her. Engaged to marry her."
"He was engaged to me, Mr. Mason," interposed Edith scornfully. "I thought I cared for him. But I really didn't. I despise him now. I wouldn't marry him if he was the last man on earth."
"Reed, does she know?" asked Mason significantly.
"Well, she's not dumb, and I reckon she's got a hunch."
"I'll be...!" Whatever Mason's profanity was, he did not give it utterance. "Hildrith! But we had plans to pull stakes and leave this country. Did he intend to marry Miss Watrous and bring her with us?...That's not conceivable."
"Boss, he cheated you. He never meant to leave."
Mason made a passionate gesture, and as if to strike deep and hard, his big eyes rolled in a fierce glare. It was plain now to the watching Dale why Reed had wanted Hildrith to face his chief.
"Where's Hildrith?" growled Mason.
"Out by the fire under guard."
"Call him in." Reed went out.
Then Edith turned wonderingly and fearfully to Mason.
"Hildrith is your man!" she affirmed rather than queried.
"Yes, Miss Watrous, he was."
"Then he is the spy, the scout—the traitor who acted as go-between for you."
"Miss Watrous, he certainly has been my right-hand man for eight years...And I'm afraid Reed and you are right about his being a traitor."
At that juncture Hildrith lunged into the cabin as if propelled viciously from behind. He was ashen-hued under his beard. Reed stamped in after him, forceful and malignant, sure of the issue. But just as Mason, after a steady hard look at his lieutenant, was about to address him, Edith flung herself in front of Hildrith.
"It's all told, Leale Hildrith," she cried with a fury of passion. "Reed gave you away. Mason corroborated him...You are the tool of these men. You were the snake in the grass. You, the liar who ingratiated himself into my father's confidence. Made love to me! Nagged me until I was beside myself!...But your wrong to me—your betrayal of Dad—these fall before your treachery to Dale Brittenham...You let him take on your guilt...Oh, I see it all now. It's ghastly. That man loved you...You despicable...despicable..."
Edith broke off, unable to find further words. With tears running down her colorless cheeks, her eyes magnificent with piercing fire, she manifestly enthralled Reed with her beauty and passion. She profundly impressed Mason and she struck deep into what manhood the stricken Hildrith had left.
"All true, Bill, I'm sorry to confess," he said, his voice steady. "I'm offering no excuse. But look at her, man...look at her! And then you'll understand."
"What's that, Miss, about Dale Brittenham?" queried Mason.
"Brittenham is a wild-horse hunter," answered Edith, catching her breath. "Hildrith befriended him once. Dale loved Hildrith...When Stafford came to see Dad—after the last raid—he accused Dale of being the spy who kept your gang posted. The go-between. He had the sheriff come to arrest Dale...Oh, I see it all now. Dale knew Hildrith was the traitor. He sacrificed himself for Hildrith—to pay his debt...or because he thought I loved the man. For us both!...He drew a gun on Bayne—said Stafford was right—that he was the horse-thief spy...Then he rode away."
It was a poignant moment. No man could have been unaffected by the girl's tragic story. Mason paced to and fro, then halted behind the table.
"Boss, that's not all," interposed Reed triumphantly. "Down at Halsey, Hildrith showed his color—and what meant most to him. Brittenham was there, as I've told you. And he was onto us. I saw the jig was up. I told Hildrith. I put it up to him. To declare himself. Every man there had waked up to the fact that we were horse thieves. I asked Hildrith to make his stand—for or against us. He failed us, boss."
"Reed, that was a queer thing for you to insist on," declared Mason in stem doubt. "Hildrith's cue was the same as mine. Respectability. Could you expect him to betray himself there—before all, Halsey and his sweetheart, too?"
"I knew he wouldn't. But I meant it."
"You wanted to show him up, before them all, especially her?"
"I certainly did."
"Well, you're low-down yourself, Reed, when it comes to one you hate."
"All's fair in love and war," replied the other with a flippant laugh.
The chief turned to Hildrith. "I'm not concerned with the bad blood between you and Reed. But...is he lying?"
"No. But down at Halsey I didn't understand he meant me to give myself away," replied Hildrith with the calmness of bitter resignation. He had played a great game, for a great stake, and he had lost. Friendship, loyalty, treachery, were nothing compared to his love for this girl.
"Would you have done so if you had understood Reed?"
"No. Why should I? There was no disloyalty in that. If I'd guessed that, I'd have shot him."
"You didn't think quick and right. That'd have been your game. Too late, Hildrith. I've a hunch it's too late for all of us...You meant to marry Miss Watrous if she'd have you?"
"Why ask that?"
"Well, it was unnecessary...And you really let this Brittenham sacrifice himself for you?"
"Yes, I'd have sacrificed anyone—my own brother."
"I see. That was dirty, Leale...But after all these things, don't...You've been a faithful pard for many years. God knows, a woman—"
"Boss, he betrayed you," interrupted Reed stridently. "All the rest doesn't count. He split with you. He absolutely was not going to leave the country with you."
"I get that—hard as it is to believe," rasped Mason, and he took up the big gun from the table and deliberately cocked it.
Edith cried out low and falteringly, "Oh...don't kill him! If it was for me, spare him!"
Reed let out that sardonic laugh. "Bah! He'll deny...he'll lie with his last breath."
"That wouldn't save you, Leale, but..." Mason halted, the dark embodiment of honor among thieves.
"Hell! I deny nothing," rang out Hildrith, with something grand in his defiance. "It's all true. I broke over the girl. I was through with you, Mason—you and your raids, you and your lousy sneak here, you and your low-down—"
The leveled gun boomed to cut short Hildrith's wild denunciation. Shot through the heart, he swayed a second, his distorted visage fixing, and then, with a single explosion of gasping breath, he fell backward through the door.
A HEAVY cloud of smoke obscured Dale's sight of the center of the cabin. As he leaned there near the window, strung like a quivering wire, he heard the thump of Mason's gun on the table. It made the gold coins jingle in their sacks. The thud of boots and hoarse shouts arose on the far side of the cabin. Then the smoke drifted away to expose Mason hunched back against the table, peering through the door into the blackness. Reed knelt on the floor where Edith had sunk in a faint.
Other members of the gang arrived outside the cabin. "Hyar! It's Hildrith. Reckon the boss croaked him."
"Mebbe Reed did it. He sure was hankerin' to."
"How air you, chief?" called a third man, presenting a swarthy face in the lamplight.
"I'm...all right," replied Mason huskily. "Hildrith betrayed us. I bored him...Drag him away...You can divide what you find on him."
"Hey, I'm in on that," called Reed as the swarthy man backed away from the door. "Lay hold, fellers."
Slow, labored footfalls died away. Mason opened his gun to eject the discharged shell and to replace it with one from his belt.
"She keeled over," said Reed as he lifted the girl's head.
"So I see...Sudden and raw for a tenderfoot. I'm damn glad she hated him...Did you see him feeling for his gun?"
"No. It's just as well I took that away from him on the way up. Nothing yellow about Hildrith at the finish."
"Queer what a woman can do to a man! Reed, haven't you lost your head over this one?"
"Hell yes!" exploded the other.
"Better turn her loose. She'll handicap you. This hole will be swarming with posses tomorrow."
"You're sloping tonight?"
"I am...How many horses did you sell?"
"Eighty-odd. None under a hundred dollars. And we drove back the best."
"Keep it. Pay your outfit. We're square. My advice is to let this Watrous girl go, and make tracks away from here."
"Thanks...But I won't leave my tracks," returned Reed constrainedly. "She's coming too."
"Pack her out of here...Reed, I wouldn't be in your boots for a million."
"And just why, boss?"
"Women always were your weakness. Your only one. You'll hang on to the Watrous girl."
"You bet your life I will."
"Don't bet my life on it. You're gambling your own. And you'! lose it."
Reed picked up the reviving Edith and took her through the door, turning sidewise to keep from striking her head. Dale's last glimpse of his gloating expression, as he gazed down into her face, nerved him to instant and reckless action. Reed had turned to the left outside the door, which gave Dale the impression that he did not intend to carry the girl toward the campfires.
Nalook touched Dale and silently indicated that he would go around his end of the cabin. Dale turned to the left. At the corner he waited to peer out. He saw a dark form cross the campfire light. Reed! He was turning away from his comrades, now engaged in a heated hubbub, no doubt over money and valuables they had found on Hildrith.
Dale had to fight his overwhelming eagerness. He stole out to follow Reed. The man made directly for the shack that Dale and Nalook had passed on their stalk to the cabin. Dale did not stop to see if the Indian followed, though he expected him to do so. Dale held himself to an absolutely noiseless stealth. The deep grass made that possible.
Edith let out a faint cry, scarcely audible. It seemed to loose springs of fire in Dale's muscles. He glided on, gaining upon the outlaw with his burden. They drew away from the vicinity of the campfires. Soon Dale grew sufficiently accustomed to the starlight to keep track of Reed. The girl was speaking incoherently. Dale would rather have had her still unconscious. She might scream and draw Reed's comrades in that direction.
Under the trees, between the bunches of scrub oak, Reed hurried. His panting breath grew quite audible. Edith was no slight burden, especially as she had begun to struggle in his arms.
"Where?...Who?...Let me down," she cried, but weakly.
"Shut up, or I'll bat you one," he panted.
The low shack loomed up blacker than the shadows. A horse, tethered in the gloom, snorted at Reed's approach. Dale, now only a few paces behind the outlaw, gathered all his forces for a spring.
"Let me go...Let me go...I'll scream—"
"Shut up, I tell you. If you scream I'll choke you. If you fight, I'll beat you."
"But, Reed...for God's sake!...You're not drunk. You must be mad—if you mean..."
"Girl, I didn't know what I meant when I grabbed you down there," he panted passionately, "but I know now...I'm taking you away...Edith Watrous...out of Montana...But tonight, by heaven!"
Dale closed in swiftly and silently. With relentless strength he crushed a strangling hold around Reed's neck. The man snorted as his head went back. The girl dropped with a sudden gasp. Then Dale, the fingers of his left hand buried in Reed's throat, released his right hand to grasp his gun. He did not dare to shoot, but he swung the weapon to try to stun Reed. He succeeded in landing only a glancing blow.
"Aggh!" gasped Reed, and for an instant his body appeared to sink.
Dale tried to strike again. Because of Reed's sudden grip on his arm he could not exert enough power. The gun stuck. Dale felt it catch in the man's coat. Reed let out a strangled yell, which Dale succeeded in choking off again.
Suddenly the outlaw let go Dale's right hand and reached for his gun. He got to it, but could not draw, due to Dale's constricting arm. Dale pressed with all his might. They staggered, swayed, bound together as with bands of steel. Dale saw that if his hold loosened on either Reed's throat or gun hand, the issue would be terribly perilous. Reed was the larger and more powerful, though now at a disadvantage. Dale hung on like the grim death he meant to mete out to that man.
Suddenly, with a tremendous surge, Reed broke Dale's hold and bent him back. Then Dale saw he would be forced to shoot. But even as he struggled with the gun, Reed, quick as a cat, intercepted it, and with irresistible strength turned the weapon away while he drew his own. Dale was swift to grasp that with his left hand. A terrific struggle ensued, during which the grim and silent combatants both lost hold of their guns.
Reed succeeded in drawing a knife, which he swung aloft. Dale caught his wrist and jerked down on it with such tremendous force that he caused the outlaw to stab himself in the side. Then Dale grappled him round the waist, pinning both arms to Reed's sides, so that he was unable to withdraw the knife. Not only that, but soon Dale's inexorable pressure sank the blade in to the hilt. A horrible panting sound escaped Reed's lips.
Any moment Nalook might come to end this desperate struggle. The knife stuck in Reed's side, clear to the hilt. Dale had the thought that he must hold on until Reed collapsed. Then he would have to run with Edith and try to get up the trail. He could not hope to find the horses in that gloomy shadow.
Reed grew stronger in his frenzy. He whirled so irresistibly that he partly broke Dale's hold. They plunged down, with Dale on the top and Reed under him. Dale had his wind almost shut off. Another moment...But Reed rolled like a bear. Dale, now underneath, wound his left arm around Reed. Over and over they rolled, against the cabin, back against a tree, and then over a bank. The shock broke both Dale's holds. Reed essayed to yell, but only a hoarse sound came forth. Suddenly he had weakened. Dale beat at him with his right fist. Then he reached for the knife in Reed's side, found the haft, and wrenched so terrifically that he cracked Reed's ribs. The man suddenly relaxed. Dale tore the knife out and buried it in Reed's breast.
That ended the fight. Reed sank shudderingly into a limp state. Dale slowly got up, drawing the knife with him. He had sustained no injury that he could ascertain at the moment. He was wet with sweat or blood, probably both. He slipped the knife in his belt and untied his scarf to wipe his hands and face. Then he climbed up the bank, expecting to see Edith's white blouse in the darkness.
But he did not see it. Nor was Nalook there. He called low. No answer! He began to search around on the ground. He found his gun. Then he went into the shack. Edith was gone and Nalook had not come. Possibly he might have come while the fight was going on down over the bank and, seeing the chance to save Edith, had made off with her to the horses.
Dale listened. The crickets were in loud voice. He could see the campfires, and heard nothing except the thud of the hoofs. They seemed fairly close. He retraced his steps back to the shack. Reed's horse was gone. Dale strove for control over his whirling thoughts. He feared that Edith, in her terror, had run off at random, to be captured again by some of the outlaws. After a moment's consideration, he dismissed that as untenable. She had fled, unquestionably, but without a cry, which augured well. Dale searched the black rim for the notch that marked the trail. Then he set off.
Reaching the belt of brush under the rim, he followed it until he came to an opening he thought he recognized. A stamp of hoofs electrified him. He hurried toward it and presently emerged into a glade less gloomy. First his keen sight distinguished Edith's white blouse. She was either sitting or lying on the ground. Then he saw the horses. As he hurried forward, Nalook met him.
"Nalook! Is she all right?" he whispered eagerly. "All same okay. No hurt."
"What'd you do?"
"Me foller. See girl run. Me ketch."
"Go back to that shack and search Reed. He must have a lot of money on him...We rolled over a bank."
"Ugh!" The Indian glided away.
Dale went on to find Edith sitting propped against a stone. He could not distinguish her features, but her posture was eloquent of spent force.
"Edith," he called gently.
"I'm all right," he replied hastily.
"You...you killed him?"
"Of course. I had to. Are you hurt?"
"Only bruised. That ride!...Then he handled me...Oh, the brute! I'm glad you killed...I saw you bend him back—hit him. I knew you would. But it was awful...And seeing Leale murdered, so suddenly—right before my eyes—that was worse."
"Put all that out of your mind...Let me help you up. We can't stay here long. Your hands are like ice," he whispered as he got her up.
"I'm freezing to death," she replied. "This thin waist. I left my coat in the buckboard."
"Here. Slip into mine." Dale helped her into his coat, and then began to rub her cold hands between his.
"Dale, I wasn't afraid of Reed—at first. I scorned him. I saw how his men liked that. I kept telling him that you would kill him for this outrage to me. That if you didn't, Dad would hang him. But there in Mason's cabin—there I realized my danger...You must have been close."
"Yes. Nalook and I watched between the logs. I saw it all. But I tell you to forget it."
"Oh, will I ever?...Dale, you saved me from God only knows what," she whispered, and putting her arms around his neck, she leaned upon his breast, and looked up. Out of her pale face great midnight eyes that reflected the starlight transfixed him with their mystery and passion. "You liar. You fool!" she went on, her soft voice belying the hard words. "You poor misguided man! To dishonor your name for Hildrith's sake! To tell Stafford he was right! To let Dad hear you say you were a horse thief!...Oh, I shall never forgive you."
"My dear. I did it for Leale—and perhaps more for your sake," replied Dale unsteadily. "I thought you loved him. That was a chance to reform. He would have done it, too if—"
"I don't care what he would have done. I imagined I loved him. But I didn't. I was a vain, silly, headstrong girl. And I was influenced. I don't believe I ever could have married him—after you brought back my horses. I didn't realize then. But when I kissed you...Oh, Dale! Something tore through my heart. I know now. It was love. Even then, what I needed was this horrible experience. It has awakened me...Oh, Dale, if I loved you then, what do you think it is now?"
"I can't think...dearest," whispered Dale huskily, as he drew her closer, and bent over her to lay his face against her hair. "Only, if you're not out of your mind, I'm the luckiest man that ever breathed."
"Dale, I'm distraught, yes, and my heart is bursting. But I know I love you...love you...love you! Oh, with all my mind and soul!"
Dale heard in a tumultuous exaltation, and he stood holding her with an intensely vivid sense of the place and moment. The ragged rim loomed above them, dark and forbidding, as if to warn; the incessant chirp of crickets, the murmur of running water, the rustle of the wind in the brush, proved that he was alive and awake, living the most poignant moment of his life.
Then Nalook glided silently into the glade. Dale released Edith, and stepped back to meet the Indian. Nalook thrust into his hands a heavy bundle tied up in a scarf.
"Me keep gun," he said, and bent over his saddle. "What'll we do, Nalook?" asked Dale.
"Me stay—watch trail. You take girl Halsey."
"Dale, I couldn't ride it. I'm exhausted. I can hardly stand," interposed Edith.
"Reckon I'd get lost in the dark," returned Dale thoughtfully. "I've a better plan. There's a homesteader in this valley. Man named Rogers. I knew him over in the mountains. An' I ran across his cabin a day or so ago. It's not far. I'll take you there. Then tomorrow I'll go with you to Bannock, or send you with him."
"Yes. I've got to be here. Strickland agreed to send a posse after me in half an hour—an' later a big outfit of cowboys."
"But you've rescued me. Need you stay? Nalook can guide these men."
"I reckon I want to help clean out these horse thieves."
"Bayne is on your trail with a posse."
"Probably he's with Stafford's outfit."
"That won't clear you of Stafford's accusation."
"No. But Strickland an' his outfit will clear me. I must be here when that fight comes off. If it comes. You heard Mason say he was leavin' tonight. I reckon they'll all get out pronto."
"Dale! You...you might get shot—or even...Oh, these are wicked, hard men!" exclaimed Edith as she fastened persuasive hands on his coatless arms.
"That's the chance I must run to clear my name, Edith," he rejoined gravely.
"You took a fearful chance with Reed."
"Yes. But he had you in his power."
"My life and more were at stake then," she said earnestly. "It's still my love and my happiness."
"Edith, I'll have Nalook beside me an' we'll fight like Indians. I swear I'll come out of it alive."
"Then...go ahead...anyway..." she whispered almost inaudibly, and let her nerveless hands drop from him.
"Nalook, you watch the trail," ordered Dale. "Stop any man climbing out. When Strickland's posse comes, hold them till the cowboys get here. If I hear shots this way, I'll come pronto."
The Indian grunted and, taking up his rifle, stole away. Dale untied and led his horse up to where his saddle lay. Soon he had him saddled and bridled. Then he put on his spurs, which the Indian had remembered to get.
"Come," said Dale, reaching for Edith. When he lifted her, it came home to him why Reed had not found it easy to carry her.
"That's comfortable, if I can stay on," she said, settling herself.
"Hoofs, old boy," whispered Dale to his horse. "No actin' up. This'll be the most precious load you ever carried."
Then Dale, rifle in hand, took the bridle and led the horse out into the open. The lake gleamed like a black starlit mirror. Turning to the right, Dale slowly chose the ground and walked a hundred steps or more before he halted to listen. He went on and soon crossed the trail. Beyond that he breathed easier, and did not stop again until he had half circled the lake. He saw lights across the water up among the trees, but heard no alarming sound.
"How're you ridin'?" he whispered to Edith.
"I can stick on if it's not too far."
"Half a mile more."
As he proceeded, less fearful of being heard, he began to calculate about where he should look for Rogers's canyon. He had carefully marked it almost halfway between the two lakes and directly across from the highest point of the rim. When Dale got abreast of this he headed to the right, and was soon under the west wall. Then despite the timber on the rim and the shadowed background, he located a gap which he made certain marked the canyon.
But he could not find any trail leading into it. Therefore he began to work a cautious way through the thickets. The gurgle and splash of running water guided him. It was so pitch black that he had to feel his way. The watercourse turned out to be-rocky, and he abandoned that. When he began to fear he was headed wrong, a dark tunnel led him out into the open canyon. He went on and turned a corner to catch the gleam of a light. Then he rejoiced at his good fortune. In a few minutes more he arrived at the cabin. The door was open. Dale heard voices.
"Hey, Rogers, are you home?" he called.
An exclamation and thud of bootless feet attested to the homesteader's presence. The next instant he appeared in the door.
"Brittenham," replied Dale, and lifting Edith off the saddle, he carried her up on the porch into the light. Rogers came out in amazement. His wife cried from the door, "For land's sake!"
"Wal, a girl! Aw, don't say she's hurt," burst out the homesteader.
"You bet it's a girl. An' thank heaven she's sound! Jim Watrous's daughter, Rogers. She was kidnapped by Reed at the Halsey horse sale. That happened this afternoon. I just got her back. Now, Mrs. Rogers, will you take her in for tonight? Hide her someplace."
"That I will. She can sleep in the loft...Come in, my dear child. You're white as a sheet."
"Thank you. I've had enough to make me green," replied Edith, limping into the cabin.
Dale led Rogers out of earshot. "Hell will bust loose here about tomorrow," he said, and briefly told about the several posses en route for the horse thieves' stronghold, and the events relating to the capture and rescue of Edith.
"By gad! Thet's all good," ejaculated the homesteader. "But it's not so good—all of us hyar if they have a big fight."
"Maybe the gang will slope. Mason is leavin'. I heard him tell Reed. An' Reed meant to take the girl. I don't know about the rest of them."
"Wal, these fellers ain't likely to rustle in the dark. They've been too secure. An' they rigger they can't be surprised at night."
"If Mason leaves by the lower trail, he'll get shot. My Indian pard is watchin' there."
"Gosh, I hope he tries it."
"Mason had his table loaded with bags of coin an' stacks of bills. We sure ought to get that an' pay back the people he's robbed."
"It's a good bet Mason won't take the upper trail...Brittenham, you look fagged. Better have some grub an' drink. An' sleep a little."
"Sure. But I'm a bloody mess, an' don't want the women to see me. Fetch me somethin' out here."
Later Dale and Rogers walked down to the valley. They did not see any lights or hear any sounds. Both ends of the gorge, where the trails led up, were dark and silent. They returned, and Dale lay down on the porch on some sheepskins. He did not expect to sleep. His mind was too full. Only the imminence of a battle could have kept his mind off the wondrous and incomprehensible fact of Edith's avowal. After pondering over the facts and probabilities, Dale decided a fight was inevitable. Mason and Reed had both impressed him as men at the end of their ropes. The others would, no doubt, leave, though not so hurriedly, and most probably would be met on the way out.
Long after Rogers's cabin was dark and its inmates wrapped in slumber, Dale lay awake, listening, thinking, revolving plans to get Edith safely away and still not seem to shirk his share of the fight. But at least, worn out by strenuous activity and undue call on his emotions, Dale fell asleep.
A step on the porch aroused him. It was broad daylight. Rogers was coming in with an armload of firewood.
"All serene, Brittenham," he said with satisfaction. "Good. I'll wash an' slip down to get a look at the valley."
"Wal, I'd say if these outfits of cowboys was on hand, they'd be down long ago."
"Me too." Dale did not go clear out into the gateway of the valley. He climbed to a ruddy eminence and surveyed the gorge from the lookout. Sweeping the gray-green valley with eager gaze, he failed to see a moving object. Both upper and lower ends of the gorge appeared as vacant as they were silent. But at length he quickened sharply to columns of blue smoke rising above the timber up from the lower lake. He watched for a good hour. The sun rose over the gap at the east rim. Concluding that posses and cowboys had yet to arrive, Dale descended the bluff and retraced his steps toward the cabin.
He considered sending Edith out in charge of Rogers, to conduct her as far as Bannock. This idea he at once conveyed to Rogers.
"Don't think much of it," returned the homesteader forcibly. "Better hide her an' my family in a cave. I know where they'll be safe until this fracas is over."
"Well! I reckon that is better."
"Come in an' eat. Then we'll go scoutin'. An' if we see any riders, we'll rustle back to hide the women an' kids."
Dale had about finished a substantial breakfast when he thought he heard a horse neigh somewhere at a distance. He ran out on the porch and was suddenly shocked to a standstill. Scarcely ten paces out stood a man with leveled rifle.
"Hands up, Britt," he ordered with a hissing breath. Two other men, just behind him, leaped forward to present guns, and one of them yelled, "Hyar he is, Bayne."
"Rustle! Up with 'em!"
Then Dale, realizing the cold bitter fact of an unlooked-for situation, shot up his arms just as Rogers came stamping out.
"What the hell? Who..."
Six or eight more men, guns in hands, appeared at the right, led by the red-faced sheriff of Salmon. He appeared to be bursting with importance and vicious triumph. Dale surveyed the advancing group, among whom he recognized old enemies, and then his gaze flashed back to the first man with the leveled rifle. This was none other than Pickens, a crooked young horse trader who had all the reason in the world to gloat over rounding up Dale in this way.
"Guess I didn't have a hunch up thar, fellers, when we crossed this trail," declared Bayne in loud voice. "Guess I didn't measure his hoss tracks down at Watrous's for nothin'!"
"Bayne, you got the drop," spoke up Dale coolly, "and I'm not fool enough to draw in the face of that."
"You did draw on me once, though, didn't you, wild-hoss hunter?" called Bayne derisively.
"An' you told Stafford he was right, didn't you?"
"No buts. You admitted you was a hoss thief, didn't you?"
"Rogers here can explain that, if you won't listen to me."
"Wal, Brittenham, your homesteadin' pard can explain thet after we hang you!"
Rogers stalked off the porch in the very face of the menacing guns and confronted Bayne in angry expostulation.
"See here, Mr. Bayne, you're on the wrong track."
"We want no advice from you," shouted Bayne. "An' you'd better look out or we'll give you the same dose."
"Boss, he's shore one of this hoss-thief gang," spoke up a lean, weathered member of the posse.
"My name's Rogers. I'm a homesteader. I have a wife an' two children. There are men in Bannock who'll vouch for my honesty," protested Rogers.
"Reckon so. But they ain't here. You stay out of this...Hold him up, men."
Two of them prodded the homesteader with cocked rifles, a reckless and brutal act that would have made the bravest man turn gray. Rogers put up shaking hands.
"Friend Rogers, don't interfere," warned Dale, who had grasped the deadly nature of Bayne's procedure. The sheriff believed Dale was one of the mysterious band of thieves that had been harassing the ranchers of Salmon River Valley for a long time. It had galled him, no doubt, to fail to bring a single thief to justice. Added to that was an animosity toward Dale and a mean leaning to exercise his office. He wanted no trial. He would brook no opposition. Dale stood there a self-confessed criminal.
"Rope Brittenham," ordered Bayne. "Tie his hands behind his back. Bore him if he as much as winks."
Two of the posse dragged Dale off the porch, and in a moment had bound him securely. Then Dale realized too late that he should have leaped while he was free to snatch a gun from one of his captors, and fought it out. He had not taken seriously Bayne's threat to hang him. But he saw now that unless a miracle came to pass, he was doomed. The thought was so appalling that it clamped him momentarily in an icy terror. Edith was at the back of that emotion. He had faced death before without flinching, but to be hanged while Edith was there, possibly a witness—that would be too horrible. Yet he read it in the hard visages of Bayne and his men. By a tremendous effort he succeeded in getting hold of himself.
"Bayne, this job is not law," he expostulated. "It's revenge. When my innocence is proved, you'll be in a tight fix."
"Innocence! Hell, man, didn't you confess your guilt?" ejaculated Bayne. "Stafford heard you, same as Watrous an' his friends."
"All the same, that was a lie."
"Aw, it was? My Gawd, man, but you take chances with your life! An' what'd you lie for?"
"I lied for Edith Watrous."
Bayne stared incredulously and then he guffawed. He turned to his men.
"Reckon we better shet off his wind. The man's plumb loco."
From behind Dale a noose, thrown by a lanky cowboy, sailed and widened to encircle his head, and to be drawn tight. The hard knot came just under Dale's chin and shut off the hoarse cry that formed involuntarily.
"Over thet limb, fellers," called out Bayne briskly, pointing to a spreading branch of a pion tree some few yards farther out. Dale was dragged under it. The loose end of the rope was thrown over the branch, to fall into eager hands.
"Dirty business, Bayne, you—!" shouted Rogers, shaken by horror and wrath. "So help me Gawd, you'll rue it!"
Bayne leaped malignantly, plainly in the grip of passion too strong for reason.
"Thar's five thousand dollars' reward wrapped up in this wild-hoss hunter's hide, an' I ain't takin' any chance of losin' it."
Dale forced a strangled utterance. "Bayne...I'll double that...if you'll arrest me...give...fair trial."
"Haw! Haw! Wal, listen to our ragged hoss thief talk big money."
"Boss, he ain't got two bits...We're wastin' time."
"Swing him, fellers!"
Four or five men stretched the rope and had lifted Dale to his toes when a piercing shriek from the cabin startled them so violently that they let him down again. Edith Watrous came flying out, half-dressed, her hair down, her face blanched. Her white blouse fluttered in her hand as she ran, barefooted, across the grass.
"Merciful heaven! Dale! That rope!" she screamed, and as the shock of realization came, she dropped her blouse to the ground and stood stricken before the staring men, her bare round arms and lovely shoulders shining white in the sunlight. Her eyes darkened, dilated, enlarged as her consciousness grasped the significance here, and then fixed in terror.
Dale's ghastly sense of death faded. This girl would save him. A dozen Baynes could not contend with Edith Watrous, once she was roused.
"Edith, they were about...to hang me."
"Hang you?" she cried, suddenly galvanized. "These men?...Bayne?"
Leaping red blood burned out the pallor of her face. It swept away in a wave, leaving her whiter than before, and with eyes like coals of living fire.
"Miss Watrous. What you...doin' here?" queried Bayne, halting, confused by this apparition.
"I'm here—not quite too late," she replied, as if to herself, and a ring of certainty in her voice followed hard on the tremulous evidence of her thought.
"Kinda queer—meetin' you up here in this outlaw den," went on Bayne with a nervous cough.
"Bayne...I remember," she said ponderingly, ignoring his statement. "The gossip linking Dale's name with this horse-thief outfit...Stafford!...Your intent to arrest Dale!...His drawing on you! His strange acceptance of Stafford's accusation!"
"Nothin' strange about thet, Miss," rejoined Bayne brusquely. "Brittenham was caught in a trap. An' like a wolf, he bit back."
"That confession had to do with me, Mr. Bayne," she retorted.
"So he said. But I ain't disregardin' same."
"You are not arresting him," she asserted swiftly.
"Nope, I ain't."
"But didn't you let him explain?" she queried.
"I didn't want no cock-an'-bull explainin' from him or this doubtful pard of his here, Rogers...I'll just hang Brittenham an' let Rogers talk afterwards. Reckon he'll not have much to say then."
"So, that's your plan, you miserable thick-headed skunk of a sheriff?" she exclaimed in lashing scorn. She swept her flaming eyes from Bayne to his posse, all of whom appeared uneasy over this interruption. "Pickens!...Hall...Jason...Pike! And some more hard nuts from Salmon. Why, if you were honest yourself, you'd arrest them. My father could put Pickens in jail...Bayne, your crew of a posse reflects suspiciously on you."
"Wal, I ain't carin' for what you think. It's plain to me you've took powerful with this hoss thief an' I reckon thet reflects suspicions on you, Miss," rejoined Bayne, galled to recrimination.
A scarlet blush wiped out the whiteness of Edith's neck and face. She burned with shame and fury. That seemed to remind her of herself, of her half-dressed state, and she bent to pick up her blouse. When she rose to slip her arms through the garment, she was pale again. She forgot to button it.
"You dare not hang Brittenham."
"Wal, lady, I just do," he declared, but he was weakening somehow.
"You shall not!"
"Better go indoors, Miss. It ain't pleasant to see a man hang an' kick an' swell an' grow black in the face."
Bayne had no conception of the passion and courage of a woman. He blundered into the very speeches that made Edith a lioness.
"Take that rope off his neck," she commanded, as a queen might have to slaves.
The members of the posse shifted from one foot to the other, and betrayed that they would have looked to their leader had they been able to remove their fascinated gaze from this girl. Pickens, the nearest to her, moved back a step, holding his rifle muzzle up. The freckles stood out awkwardly on his dirty white face.
"Give me that rifle," she cried hotly, and she leaped to snatch at it. Pickens held on, his visage a study in consternation and alarm. Edith let go with one hand and struck him a staggering blow with her fist. Then she fought him for the weapon. Bang! It belched fire and smoke up into the tree. She jerked it away from him, and leaping back, she worked the lever with a swift precision that proved her familiarity with firearms. Without aiming, she shot at Pickens's feet. Dale saw the bullet strike up dust between them. Pickens leaped with a wild yell and fled.
Edith whirled upon Bayne. She was magnificent in her rage. Such a thing as fear of these men was as far from her as if she had never experienced such an emotion. Again she worked the action of the rifle. She held it low at Bayne and pulled the trigger. Bang! The bullet sped between his legs, and burned the left one, which flinched as the man called, "Hyar! Stop thet, you fool woman. You'll kill somebody!"
"Bayne, I'll kill you if you try to hang Brittenham," she replied, her voice ringing high-keyed but level and cold. "Take that noose off his neck!"
The frightened sheriff made haste to comply.
"Now untie him!"
"Help me hyar—somebody," snarled Bayne, turning Dale around to tear at the rope. "My Gawd, what's this range comin' to when wild women bust loose?...The luck! We can't shoot her! We can't rope Jim Watrous's girl!"
"Boss, I reckon it may be jist as well," replied the lean gray man who was helping him, "'cause it wasn't regular."
"You men! Put away your guns," ordered Edith. "I wouldn't hesitate to shoot any one of you...Now, listen, all of you...Brittenham is no horse thief. He is a man who sacrificed his name...his honor, for his friend—and because he thought I loved that friend. Leale Hildrith! He was the treacherous spy—the go-between, the liar who deceived my father and me. Dale took his guilt. I never believed it. I followed Dale to Halsey. Hildrith followed me. There we found Ed Reed and his outfit selling Watrous horses. I recognized my own horse, Dick, and I accused Reed. He betrayed Hildrith right there and kidnapped us both, and rode to his hole...We got here last night. Reed took me before Bill Mason. Big Bill, who is leader of this band. They sent for Hildrith. And Mason shot him. Reed made off with me, intending to leave. But Dale had trailed us, and he killed Reed. Then he fetched me here to this cabin...You have my word. I swear this is the truth."
"Wal, I'll be...!" ejaculated Bayne, who had grown so obsessed by Edith's story that he had forgotten to untie Dale.
"Boss! Hosses comin' hell bent!" shouted one of Bayne's men, running in.
A ringing trample of swift hoofs on the hard trail drowned further shouts. Dale saw a line of riders sweep round the corner and race right down upon the cabin. They began to shoot into Bayne's posse. There were six riders, all shooting as hard as they were riding, and some of them had two guns leveled. Hoarse yells rose about the banging volley of shots.
The horsemen sped on past, still shooting. Bullets thudded into the cabin. The riders vanished in a cloud of dust and the clatter of hoofs died away.
Dale frantically unwound the rope which Bayne had suddenly let go at the onslaught of the riders. Freeing himself, Dale leaped to Edith, who had dropped the rifle and stood unsteadily, her eyes wild.
"Did they hit you?" gasped Dale, seizing her.
Rogers rushed up to join them, holding a hand to a bloody shoulder. "Some of Mason's outfit," he boomed, and he gazed around with rolling eyes. Pickens lay dead, his bloody head against the tree. Bayne had been shot through the middle. A spreading splotch of red on his shirt under his clutching hands attested to a mortal wound. Three other men lay either groaning or cursing. That left four apparently unscratched, only one of whom, a lean oldish man, showed any inclination to help his comrades.
"Lemme see how bad you're hit," he was growling over one of them.
"Aw, it ain't bad, but it hurts like hell."
"Edith, come, I'll take you in," said Dale, putting his arm around the weakening girl.
"Britt, I've a better idee," put in Rogers. "I'll take her an' my family to the cave, where they'll be safe."
"Good! That outfit must have been chased."
"We'd have heard shots. I reckon they were rustlin' away and jest piled into us."
The two reached the cabin, where Dale said, "Brace up, Edith. It sure was tough. It'll be all right now."
"Oh, I'm sick," she whispered, as she leaned against him.
Rogers went in, calling to his wife. Dale heard him rummaging around. Soon he appeared in the door and handed a tin box and a bundle of linen to Dale.
"Those hombres out there can take care of their own wounded."
Dale pressed Edith's limp hand and begged earnestly, "Don't weaken now, dear. Good Lord, how wonderful an' terrible you were!...Edith, I'll bear a charmed life after this...Go with Rogers. An' don't worry, dar-lin'...The Mason gang is on the run, that's sure."
"I'll be all right," she replied with a pale smile. "Go—do what's best...but don't stay long away from me."
Hurrying out, Dale found all save one of the wounded on their feet.
"Wal, thet's decent of you," said the lean, hawk-faced man, as he received the bandages and medicine from Dale. "Bayne jist croaked an' he can stay croaked right there for all I care. I'm sorry he made the mistake takin' you for a hoss thief."
"He paid for it," rejoined Dale grimly. "You must bury him and Pickens. I'll fetch you some tools. But move them away from here."
Dale searched around until he found a spade and mattock, which he brought back. Meanwhile the spokesman of Bayne's posse and Jason Pike had about concluded a hasty binding of the injured men.
"Brittenham, we come down this trail from Bannock. Are there any other ways to get in an' out of this hole?"
"Look here," replied Dale, and squatted down to draw an oval in the dust. "This represents the valley. It runs almost directly north an' south. There's a trail at each end. This trail of Rogers's leads out of here, almost due west, an' leads to Bannock. There might be, an' very probably is, another trail on the east side, perhaps back of Mason's camp. But Nalook didn't tell me there was."
"Thet outfit who rid by here to smoke us up—they must have been chased or at least scared."
"Chased, I figure that, though no cowboys appear to be comin' along. You know Stafford an' Watrous were sendin' a big outfit of cowboys up from Salmon. They'll come down the south trail. An' I'm responsible for two more, raised by a rancher named Strickland over at Halsey. They are due an' they'll come in at the lower end of the hole. The north end."
"Wal, I'd like to be in on that round-up. What say, Jason?"
"Hell, yes. But, Tom, you'd better send Jerry an' hike out with our cripples. They'd just handicap us."
"Reckon so. Now let's rustle to put these stiffs under the sod an' the dew. Strip them of valuables. Funny about Bayne. He was sure rann' to spend that five thousand Stafford offered for Brittenham alive or dead."
"Bayne had some faults. He was some previous on this job...Hyar, fellars, give us a hand."
"I'll rustle my horse," said Dale, and strode off. He had left Hoofs to graze at will, but the sturdy bay was nowhere in sight. Finally Dale found him in Rogers's corral with two other horses. He led Hoofs back to the cabin, and was saddling him when he saw Rogers crossing the brook into the open. Evidently he had taken the women and children somewhere in that direction. Dale's keen eye approved of the dense thicket of brush and trees leading up to a great wall of cliffs and caverns and splintered sections. They would be safely hidden in there.
Then Dale bethought himself of his gun, which Pickens had taken from him. He found it under the tree with the weapons, belts and spurs of the slain men. Dale took up the carbine that Pickens had held, and which Edith had wrenched out of his hands. He decided he would like to keep it, and carried it to the cabin.
Tom and Pike, with the third man, returned from their gruesome task somewhere below. The next move was to send the four cripples, one of whom lurched in his saddle, up the trail to Bannock with their escort.
When Dale turned from a dubious gaze after them, he sighted Nalook riding up from the valley. The Indian appeared to be approaching warily. Dale hallooed and strode out to meet him.
The Indian pointed with dark hand at the hoof tracks in the trail.
"Me come slow—look see."
"Nalook, those tracks were made by six of Mason's outfit who rode through, hell bent for election."
"Me hear shots."
"They killed Bayne an' one of his posse, an' crippled four more."
"Ugh! Bayne jail Injun no more!" Nalook ejaculated with satisfaction.
"I should smile not. But, Nalook, what's doin' down in the hole?"
"Ten paleface, three my people come sunup. No cowboy."
"Well! That's odd. Strickland guaranteed a big outfit. I wonder...No sign of Stafford's cowboys on the other trail?"
"Me look long, no come."
"Where's that outfit from Halsey?"
The Indian indicated by gesture that he had detained these men at the rim.
"You watch trail all night?"
Nalook nodded, and his inscrutable eyes directed Dale's to the back of his saddle. A dark coat of heavy material, and evidently covering a bundle, had been bound behind the cantle. Dale put a curious hand on the coat. He felt something hard inside, and that caused him to note how securely and rightly the coat had been tied on. Suddenly a dark red spot gave him a shock. Blood! He touched it, to find it a smear glazed over and dry. Dale looked into the bronzed visage and somber eyes of the Indian with a cold sense of certainty.
The Indian nodded. "Me watch long. Big Bill he come. Two paleface foller. Top trail. Me watch. Big powwow. They want gold. Mason no give. Cuss like hell. They shoot. Me kill um."
"Nalook, you just beat hell!" ejaculated Dale, at once thrilled and overcome at the singular way things were working out. He had not forgotten the sacks of gold and pile of greenbacks on Mason's table. To let the robber chief make off with that had been no easy surrender.
"Me beat hoss thief," replied the Indian, taking Dale literally. "Big Bill no good. He take Palouse girl away."
"Aha! So that's why you've been so soft and gentle with these horse thieves...Nalook, I don't want anyone, not even Rogers, to see this coat an' what's in it."
"Me savvy. Where hide?"
"Go to the barn. Hide it in the loft under the hay."
Nalook rode on by the cabin. Dale sat down on the porch to wait for his return and the others. He found himself trembling with the significance of the moment. He had possession of a large amount of money, probably more than enough to reimburse all the ranchers from whom cattle and horses had been stolen. Moreover, the losses of any poor ranchers over on the Palouse range would have to be made good. That, however, could hardly make much of a hole in the fortune Mason had no doubt been accumulating for years.
The Indian came back from the barn, leading his horse. He sat down beside Dale and laid a heavy hand on his arm.
"No look!...Me see man watchin' on the rock," he said.
"Where'?" asked Dale, checking a start.
Nalook let go of Dale and curved a thumb that indicated the bare point on the west rim, in fact the only lookout on that side, and the one from which he had planned to get Rogers's signal. On the moment, Rogers returned.
"Rogers, stand pat now," said Dale. "The Indian sighted someone watchin' us. From the bare point you know, where I was to come for our signal."
"Wal, thet ain't so good," growled the homesteader with concern. "Must be them cusses who busted through here, shootin'. By thunder, I'd like to get a crack at the feller who gave me this cut in the shoulder."
"I forgot, Rogers. Is it serious?"
"Not atall. But it's sore an' makes me sore. I was fool enough to show it to my wife. But I couldn't tie it up myself. Blood always sickens wimmen."
"What do?" asked the Indian.
"We won't let on we know we're bein' watched...Rogers, could any scout on that point see where you took your wife an' Edith?"
"I reckon not. Fact is, I'm sure not."
"Well, you stay here. It's reasonable to figure these horse thieves won't come back. An' if any others came out of the valley, they'll be stretchin' leather. You keep hid. I'll take Nalook an' these men, an' see what's up out there."
"Couldn't do no better. But you want to come back by dark, 'cause that girl begged me to tell you," replied Rogers earnestly. "Gosh, I never saw such eyes in a human's face. You be...careful, Britt. Thet girl is jist livin' for you."
"Rogers, I'm liable to be so careful that I'll be yellow," rejoined Dale soberly.
Soon Dale was jogging down the trail at the head of the quartet. In the brush cover at the outlet of the canyon they had to ride single file. Once out in the valley, Nalook was the first to call attention to horses scattered here and there all over the green. They evidently had broken out of the pasture or had been freed. Dale viewed them and calculated their number with satisfaction. Not a rider in sight!
Dale led a brisk trot. It did not take long to reach the lower trail. Here he sent Nalook up to fetch down the ten white men and four Indians that Strickland had been able to get together. After an interval of keen survey of the valley, Dale voiced his surprise to Tom and Jason.
"Queer, all right," agreed the older man. "Kinda feels like a lull before the storm."
"I wonder what happened to Stafford's outfit. They've had hours more time than needed. They've missed the trail."
The Indian was clever. He sent the men down on foot, some distance apart. They made but little noise and raised scarcely any dust. Dale looked this posse over keenly. They appeared to be mostly miners, rough, bearded, matured men. There were, however, several cowboys, one of whom Dale had seen at the horse sale. The last two to descend the trail proved to be Strickland with the Indian.
"By Jove, you, Strickland!" ejaculated Dale in surprise.
"I couldn't keep out of it, Brittenham," returned the rancher dryly. "This sort of thing is my meat. Besides, I'm pretty curious and sore."
"How about your cowboys?"
"I'm sure I can't understand why those outfits haven't shown up, but I didn't send for my own. I've only a few now, and they're out on the range. Sanborn and Drew were to send theirs, with an outfit from the Circle Bar. Damn strange! This is stern range business that concerns the whole range."
"Maybe not so strange. If they were friends of Mason."
"Thick as hops!" exclaimed Strickland with a snort.
"We'll go slow an' wait for Stafford's cowboys," decided Dale ponderingly.
"Hoss thieves all get away mebbe," interposed Nalook, plainly not liking this idea of waiting.
"All right, Nalook. What's your advice?"
"Crawl like Injun," he replied, and spread wide his fingers. "Mebbe soon shoot heap much."
"Strickland, this Indian is simply great. We'll be wise to listen to him. Take your men an' follow him. Cowboy, you hide here at the foot of the trail an' give the alarm if any riders come down. We've reason to believe some of the gang are scoutin' along this west rim. I'll slip up on top an' have a look at Mason's camp."
Drawing his rifle from its saddle sheath, Dale removed his coat and spurs. Nalook was already leading his horse into the brush, and the Indians followed him. Strickland, with a caustic word of warning to Dale, waved his men after the Indian.
"Come with me. Throw your chaps an' spurs, cowboy," advised Dale, and addressed himself to the steep trail. Soon the long-legged cowboy caught up with him, but did not speak until they reached the rim. Dale observed that he also carried a rifle and had the look of a man who could use it.
"Brittenham, if I see any sneakin' along the rim, shall I smoke 'em up?" he queried.
"You bet, unless they're cowboys."
"Wal, I shore know thet breed."
They parted. Dale stole into the evergreens, walking on his toes. He wound in and out, keeping as close to the rim as possible, and did not halt until he had covered several hundred yards. Then he listened and tried to peer over the rim. But he heard nothing and could see only the far part of the valley. Another quarter of a mile ought to put him where he could view Mason's camp. But he had not gone quite so far when a thud of hoofs on soft ground brought him up tight-skinned and cold. A horse was approaching at some little distance from the rim. Dale glided out to meet it. Presently he saw a big sombrero, then a red youthful face, above some evergreens. In another moment horse and rider came into view. Leveling his rifle, Dale called him to halt. The rider was unmistakably a young cowboy, and as cool as he could be. He complied with some range profanity. Then at second glance he drawled, "Howdy, Brittenham."
"You've got the advantage of me, Mr. Cowboy," retorted Dale curtly.
"Damn if I can see thet," he rejoined, with a smile that eased Dale's grimness.
"You know me?" querried Dale.
"Shore, I recognized you. I've a pard, Jen Pierce, who's helped you chase wild hosses. My name's Al Cook. We both ride for Stafford."
"You belong to Stafford's outfit?" asked Dale, lowering his rifle.
"Yep. We got heah before sunup this mornin'."
"How many of you an' where are they?"
"About twenty, I figger. Didn't count. Jud Larken, our foreman, left five of us to watch thet far trail, up on top. He took the rest down."
"Where are they now?"
"I seen them just now. I can show them to you."
"Rustle. By gum, this is queer."
"You can gamble on it," returned Cook as he turned his horse. "We got tired waitin' for a showdown. I disobeyed orders an' rode around this side. Glad I did For I run plumb across a trail fresh with tracks of a lot of horses. All shod! Brittenham, them hoss thieves have climbed out."
"Another trail? Hell! If that's not tough...Where is it?"
"Heads in thet deep notch back of them cabins."
"They had a back hole to their burrow. Nalook didn't know that."
"Heah we air," said the cowboy, sliding off. "Come out on the rim."
In another moment Dale was gazing down upon the grove of pines and the roofs of cabins. No men—no smoke! The campsite appeared deserted.
"Say, what the hell you make of thet?" ejaculated the cowboy, pointing. "Look! Up behind the thicket, makin' for the open grass! There's Larkin's outfit all strung out, crawlin' on their bellies like snakes!"
Dale saw, and in a flash he surmised that Stafford's men were crawling up on Strickland's. Each side would mistake the other for the horse thieves. And on the instant a clear crack of a rifle rang out. But it was up on the rim. Other shots, from heavy short guns, boomed. That cowboy had run into the spying outlaws. Again the sharp ring of the rifle.
"Look!" cried the cowboy, pointing down.
Dale saw puffs of blue smoke rise from the green level below. Then gunshots pealed up.
"My Gawd! The locoed idiots are fightin' each other. But at that, neither Nalook or Strickland would know Stafford's outfit."
"Bad! Let me ride down an' put them wise."
"I'll go. Lend me your horse, you follow along the rim to the trail. Come down."
Dale ran back to leap into the cowboy's saddle. The stirrups fit him. With a slap of the bridle and a kick he urged the horse into a gallop. It did not take long to reach the trail. Wheeling into it, he ran the horse out to the rim, and then sent him down at a sliding plunge. He yelled to the cowboy on guard. "Brittenham! Brittenham! Don't shoot!" Then, as the horse sent gravel and dust sky-high, and, reaching a level, sped by the cowboy, Dale added, "Look out for our men above!"
Dale ran the fast horse along the edge of the timber and then toward the thicket where he calculated Nalook would lead Strickland. He crashed through one fringe of sage and laurel, right upon the heels of men. Rifles cracked to left and right. Dale heard the whistle of bullets that came from Stafford's outfit.
"Stop!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. "Horse thieves gone! You're fightin' our own men!"
Out upon the open grass level he rode, tearing loose his scarf. He held this aloft in one hand and in the other his rifle. A puff of white smoke rose from the deep grass ahead, then another from a clump of brush to the right, and next, one directly in front of him. The missile from the gun which belched that smoke hissed close to Dale's ear. He yelled with all his might and waved as no attacking enemy ever would have done. But the shots multiplied. The cowboys did not grasp the situation.
"No help for it!" muttered Dale with a dark premonition of calamity. But he had his good name to regain. He raced on right upon kneeling, lean-shaped cowboys.
"Stop! Stop! Horse thieves gone! You're fightin' friends! My outfit! Brittenham! Britt—"
Dale felt the impact of a bullet on his body somewhere. Then a terrible blinding shock.
When consciousness returned, Dale knew from a jolting sensation that he was being moved. He was being propped up in a saddle by a man riding on each side of his horse. His head sagged, and when he opened his eyes to a blurred and darkened sight, he saw the horn of his saddle and the mane of his horse. His skull felt as if it had been split by an ax.
His senses drifted close to oblivion again, then recovered a little more clearly. He heard voices and hoofbeats. Warm blood dripped down on his hands. That sensation started conscious thought. He had been shot, but surely not fatally, or he would not have been put astraddle a horse. His reaction to that was swift, and revivifying with happiness. A faintness, a dizziness seemed to lessen, but the pain in his head grew correspondingly more piercing.
Dale became aware then that a number of horsemen rode with him. They began to crash through brush out into the open again, where gray walls restricted the light. Then he felt strong hands lift him from the saddle and lay him on the grass. He opened his eyes. Anxious faces bent over him, one of which was Strickland's.
"My Gawd, men!" came to Dale in Rogers's deep voice. "It's Brittenham! Don't say he's—"
"Just knocked out temporarily," replied Strickland cheerfully. "Ugly scalp wound, but not dangerous. Another shot through the left shoulder. Fetch whiskey, bandages, hot water, and iodine if you have it."
"Aw!" let out Rogers, expelling a loud breath. He thumped away.
Dale lay with closed eyes, deeply grateful for having escaped serious injury. They forced him to swallow whiskey, and then they began to work over him.
"You're the homesteader, Rogers?" Strickland queried.
"Yes, Me an' Britt have been friends. Knew each other over in the Sawtooths...Lord, I'm glad he ain't bad hurt. It'd just have killed thet Watrous girl."
"I'm Strickland," replied the other. "These fellows here are part of a posse I brought up from Halsey."
"Much of a fight? I heerd a lot of shootin'."
"It would have been one hell of a fight but for Brittenham. You see, the horse-thief gang had vamoosed last night. But we didn't know that. The Indian led us up on an outfit that had discovered us about the same time, We were crawling toward each other, through the thickets and high grass. The Indian began to shoot first. That betrayed our position, and a lively exchange of shots began. It grew hot. Brittenham had gone up on the rim to scout. He discovered our blunder and rode back hell bent for election right into our midst. He stopped us, but the other outfit kept on shooting. Brittenham went on, and rode into the very face of hard shooting. He got hit twice. Nervy thing to do! But it saved lives. I had two men wounded besides him. Stafford's outfit suffered some casualties, but fortunately no one killed."
"What become of the hoss thieves?"
"Gone! After Reed and Mason had been killed, the gang evidently split. Some left in the night, leaving all their property except light packs. Sam Hood, one of Strickland's boys, killed two of them up on the rim, just before our fight started below."
"Ha! Thet ought to bust the gang for keeps," declared Rogers, rubbing his big hands.
"It was the best night's work this range ever saw. And the credit goes to Brittenham."
"Wal, I'll go fetch the wimmin," concluded Rogers heartily.
When, a little later, Dale had been washed and bandaged, and was half sitting up receiving the plaudits of the riders, he saw Edith come running out from under the trees into the open. She ran most of the way; then, nearing the cabin, she broke into a hurried walk and held a hand over her heart. Even at a distance Dale saw her big dark eyes, intent and staring in her pale face. As she neared the spot where he lay surrounded by a half-circle of strange men, it was certain she saw no one but him. Reaching the spot where he lay, she knelt beside him.
"Hello...Edith," he replied huskily. "I guess I didn't bear such a charmed life...after all. I sure got in the way of two bullets. But my luck held, Edith."
"Oh! You're not seriously injured?" she asked composedly, with a gentle hand on his. "But you are suffering."
"My head did hurt like h—sixty. It's sort of whirlin' now."
"Rogers told me, Dale. That was a wonderful and splendid thing for you to do," Edith said softly. "What will Dad say? And won't I have Mr. Stafford in a hole?"
Strickland interposed with a beaming smile, "You sure will, Miss Watrous. And I hope you make the most of it."
"Edith, I reckon we might leave for Bannock pronto," spoke up Dale eagerly. "I sent Nalook to tell your friends of your safety."
"Wal, Dale, mebbe I'll let you go tomorrow," chimed in Rogers.
"Don't go today," advised Strickland.
Next day Dale, despite his iron will and supreme eagerness to get home, suffered an ordeal that was almost too much for him. Toward the end of the ride to Bannock, members of Strickland's posse were supporting Dale on his horse. But to his relief and Edith's poignant joy, he made it. At Bannock, medical attention and a good night's sleep made it possible for him to arrange to go on to Salmon by stage.
The cowboy Cook, who had taken a strong fancy to Dale, and had hung close to him, came out of the inn carrying a canvas-covered pack that Dale had him carefully stow under the seat.
"Britt, you sure have been keen about that pack. What's in it?" inquired Strickland with shrewd curiosity.
"Wouldn't you like to know, old-timer?"
"I've got a hunch. Wal, I'll look you up over at the Watrous ranch in a couple of days. I want to go home first."
"Ahuh. You want to find out why those cowboy outfits didn't show up?"
"I confess to a little curiosity," replied the rancher dryly. "Don't try to find out. Forget it," said Dale earnestly. The stage, full of passengers, and driven by the jovial stage driver Bill Edmunds, rolled away to the cheers of a Bannock crowd.
"Dale, what is in this pack under the seat?" asked Edith.
"It looked heavy, and considering how fussy you've been about it, I'd say...gold," she whispered.
Dale put his lips to her ear. "Edith, no wonder I'm fussy. I'm wild with excitement. That gang is broken up. An' I have Reed's money in my coat here—an' Mason's fortune in that pack."
"Oh, how thrilling!" she whispered, and then on an afterthought she spoke out roguishly. "Well, in view of the...er...rather immediate surrender of your independence, I think I'd better take charge."
Darkness had settled down over the Salmon River Valley when the stage arrived at Salmon. Old Bill, the driver, said to Edith, "I reckon I'd better hustle you young folks out home before the town hears what Britt has done."
"Thad'd be good of you, Bill," replied Edith gratefully. "Dale is tired. And I'd be glad to get him home pronto."
They were the only passengers for the three miles out to the ranch. Dale did not speak, and Edith appeared content to hold his hand. They both gazed out at the shining river and the dark groves, and over the moonlit range. When they arrived at the ranch, Dale had Bill turn down the lane to the little cabin where he lived.
"Carry this pack in, Bill, an' don't ask questions, you son-of-a-gun, or you'll not get the twenty-dollar gold piece I owe you."
"Wal, if this hyar pack is full of gold, you won't miss thet double eagle, you doggone lucky wild-hoss hunter."
"Thank you, Bill," said Edith. "I'll walk the rest of the way."
Dale was left alone with Edith, who stood in the shadow of the maples with the moon lighting her lovely face. He could hear the low roar of rapids on the river.
"It's wonderful, gettin' back, this way," he said haltingly. "You must run in an' tell your dad."
"Dad can wait a moment longer...Oh, Dale, I'm so proud—so happy—my heart is bursting."
"Mine feels queer, too. I hope this is not a dream, Edith."
"Why, all that's happened—an' you standin' there safe again—an' so beautiful. You just don't appear real."
"I should think you could ascertain whether I'm real flesh and blood or not."
Dale fired to that. "You'll always be the same, Edith. Can't you see how serious this is for me?" He took her in his arms. "Darlin', I reckon I know how you feel. But no words can tell you my feelin's...Kiss me, Edith—then I'll try."
She was in his arms, to grow responsive and loving in her eager return of his kisses.
"Oh...Dale!" she whispered, with eyes closed. "I have found my man at last."
"Edith, I love you...an' tomorrow I'll have the courage to ask your dad if I can have you."
"Dale, I'm yours—Dad or no Dad. But he'll be as easy as that," she replied, stirring in his arms and snapping her fingers. "I hate to leave you. But we have tomorrow—and forever. Oh, Dale! I don't deserve all this happiness. Kiss me good night...I'll fetch your breakfast myself...Kiss me once more...Another! Oh, I am..."
She broke from him to run up the lane and disappear under the moonlit maples. Dale stood there a few moments alone in the silver-blanched gloom, trying to persuade himself that he was awake and in possession of his senses.
Next morning he got up early, to find the pain in his head much easier. But his shoulder was so stiff and sore that he could not use the arm on that side. Having only one hand available, he was sore beset by the difficulty of washing, shaving and making himself as presentable as possible.
He did not get through any too soon, for Edith appeared up the lane accompanied by a servant carrying a tray. She saw him and waved, then came tripping on. Dale felt his heart swell and he moved about to hide his tremendous pride. He shoved a bench near the table under a canvas shelter that served for a porch. And when he could look up again, there she was, radiant in white.
"Mornin', Edith. Now I believe in fairies again."
"Oh, you look just fine. I'm having my breakfast with you. Do you feel as well as you look?"
"Okay, except for my arm. It's stiff. I had a devil of a time puffin' my best foot forward. You'll have to do with a one-armed beau today."
"I'd rather have your one arm than all the two arms on the range," she replied gaily.
They had breakfast together, which to Dale seemed like enchantment. Then she took him for a stroll under the cottonwoods out along the riverbank. And there, hanging on his good arm, she told him how her father had taken her story. Visitors from Salmon had come last night up to a late hour, and had begun to arrive already that morning. Stafford's outfit had returned driving a hundred recovered horses. Date's feat was on the tip of every tongue.
"I didn't tell Dad about...about us till this morning," she added finally.
"Lord help me! What'd he say?" gulped Dale.
"I don't know whether it was flattering or not—to me," Edith replied dubiously. "He said, `That wild-horse tamer? Thank God, your hash is settled at last!"
"He sure flatters me if he thinks I can tame you. Wait till I tell him how you routed Bayne's outfit!"
"Oh, Dale, Dad was fine. He's going to ask you...But that'd be telling."
"Edith, if he accepts me, must I...will I have to wait very long for you?"
"If! Dad has accepted you, Dale. And honestly, he's happy over it...And as for the other—just what do you mean, Mr. Brittenham?"
"Aw! Will you marry me soon?"
"I...I don't know, darlin'."
"Dale, dearest, I couldn't marry you with your head bandaged like that—or your arm in a sling," she said tantalizingly, as her dark eyes shed soft warm light upon him.
"But Edith!" he burst out. "I could take them off pronto. In less than a week!"
"Very well. Just that pronto."
Watrous came out to meet them as they crossed the green. His face showed emotion and his eyes, at that moment, had something of the fire of Edith's. He wrung Dale's hand. But as befitted a Westerner, a little trace of his deep feeling pervaded his voice.
"Brittenham, I won't try to thank you," he said in simple heartiness.
"That suits me, Mr. Watrous. I'm kind of overwhelmed An'...so I'd better get somethin' out before I lose my nerve...I've loved Edith since I came here first, three years ago. Will you give her to me?"
"Dale, I will, and gladly, provided you live here with me. I'm getting on, and since Mother has been gone, Edith has been all to me."
"Dad, we will never leave you," replied Edith softly.
"Bless you, my children! And, Dale, there's a little matter I'd like to settle right now. I'll need a partner. Stafford has persuaded me to go in big for the cattle game. I see its possibilities. That, of course, means we'll have cattle stealing as we have had horse stealing. I'll need you pretty bad."
"Dad!" cried Edith in dismay. "You didn't tell me you'd want Dale to go chasing cattle thieves!"
"My dear, it might not come for years. Such developments come slowly. By that time Dale may have some grown cowboy sons to take his place."
"Oh!" exclaimed Edith, plunged into sudden confusion. "Dale, do you accept?" added Watrous, extending his hand with an engaging smile.
"Yes, Mr. Watrous. An' I'll give Edith an' you the best that's in me."
"Settled! Oh, here comes Stafford. Lay into him, youngster, for he sure has been nasty."
As Stafford came slowly down the broad steps, Dale found himself unable to feel the resentment that had rankled in him.
"Brittenham," said the rancher as he advanced, "I've made blunders in my life, but never so stupid a one as that regarding you. I am ashamed and sorry. It'll be hard for me to live this injustice down unless you forgive me. Can I ask that of you?"
"Nothin' to forgive," declared Dale earnestly, won by Stafford's straightforwardness and remorse. He offered his hand and gripped the rancher's. "Suspicion pointed at me. An' I took on Hildrith's guilt for reasons you know. Let's forget it an' be friends."
"You are indeed a man."
But when Stafford turned to Edith, he had a different proposition to face. She eyed him with disdainful scorn, and stood tapping a nervous foot on the path.
"Edith, you can do no less than he. Say you forgive me, too."
"Yes, of course, since Dale is so kind. But I think you are a rotten judge of men."
"Indeed I am, my dear."
"And you're a hard man when you're crossed."
"Yes. But I'm a loyal friend. After all, this was a misunderstanding. You believed it, didn't you?"
"I never did—not for a minute. That's why I followed Dale."
"Well, you found him and brought him back." Stafford took a colored slip of paper from his pocket. He looked at it, then held it out to Edith. "I offered five thousand dollars' reward for Brittenham, dead or alive. You brought him back alive—very much alive, as anyone with half an eye could see. And no wonder! It seems to me that this reward should go to you. Indeed, I insist upon your taking it."
"Reward! But, Mr. Stafford...you...I..." stammered Edith. "Five thousand dollars for me?"
"Surely. I imagine you will be able to spend it pronto. We all know your weakness for fine clothes and fine horses. Please accept it as a wedding present from a friend who loves you and who will never cease to regret that he mistook so splendid and noble a fellow as Dale Brittenham for a horse thief!"
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