Title: The Octopus of Pilgrim Valley Author: Ernest Haycox * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000481h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2020 Most recent update: May 2020 This eBook was produced by Robert Matthews, 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
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
"Politeness is shorely a shield that stops many a bullet. Still an' all, if a feller has got to insinuate hisself into another party's quarrel, it's plumb best to omit apologies until the shootin' is over...I nev' yit did see a red- headed gent that wa'n't burnin' to right the wrongs of this yere unjust world."—Parting advice of Joe Breedlove to Tom Lilly.
THE blazing, blood-red sun dropped over the western rim and left the valley to a twilight peace. Tom Lilly riding his weary buckskin toward the distant huddle of buildings that formed the isolated town of Powder, felt the first of the evening's breeze. It had all the effect of a cold shower on man and beast; Lilly wiped the crusted sweat from his face and washed his parched throat with a drink.
"Another day, another dollar. Buck, you got a restless, homeless no-account for a rider."
The pony raised its ears and quickened the pace Dust rose behind in swirling eddies. Night threw successive darkening cobalt shadows across the land, through which twinkled here and there the light of a homesteader's shack; eastward the high mesa became nothing but a stark outline against the sky.
It was new country to Tom Lilly. For that reason and no other was he here. The lure of the unknown, the unseen drew him like a magnet. Beyond the hill was always the promise of fairer fields, the hint of great adventure. And as tired as he was, a small excitement burned in his blue eyes and compressed the muscles of his lean, sun-blackened face as he drew upon Powder and beheld the lights shining out of the windows into the rutty, dusty street. This was the whole story of Tom Lilly and explained the wistfulness of his features, the temper that slumbered fitfully beneath the sorrel-red thatch of hair. He was a wanderer, a seeker of something that could never come to pass; Joe Breedlove, his partner back on the H-H, had said this in plain blunt language—though rather sorrowfully—when Tom was on the point of moving.
"Yuh ain't foolin' me, old-trapper, with that poker face o' yourn. I reads you mos' clearly. Yore a red-haired gent with misbegotten idears o' romance. All red-heads is the same, which is a fact. Yuh have traveled a hell of a lot o' trails before yuh camped here, without findin' anything to please yuh. Better stick to these diggin's, amigo. Yuh won't locate any better. All you'll do is grow gray an' mis'ble. Ain't I seen how these roamers end up? Usually over a bar'l o' spuds in some town restaurant. Yeah, a broken-down old codger washin' dishes fer a livin'. Ain't that a fine end fer an A-l top hand?"
But Tom Lilly tightened his cinches and tied down his blanket roll, smiling in a faint sheepish way. "Lots of country I ain't seen, Joe. If I don't like it I'll mosey back."
Joe Breedlove shook his head. "Yore kind don't back track." Then the man's big paw gripped his friend's arm. "Well, yuh know best. If yuh ever git in a jam, drop a line or send up a smoke signal. I'll come-a-runnin'."
"Sho'," muttered Tom, losing his grin. He had ridden off with a very brief farewell. Now, as he entered this straggling town street, he was recalling those words. "The hardest part about movin'," he said to himself "is leavin' a good Joe like that behind." He had said goodbye often, yet never with quite the same depression of spirit. "He was shore a square gent. Well, here we are, and where are we?"
Powder was just another desert town. Tom Lilly had seen a hundred built in the same loose-jointed shackling fashion, with a dozen or more false-fronted frame buildings abutting a dirt street. There would be two or three saloons with their kerosene lights beckoning through the swinging doors, a general store, a restaurant, a jail and, somewhere near the edge of town, a livery stable. Lilly rode slowly, looking for this latter establishment. Men moved in the shadows, their cigarette tips gleaming. Dishes rattled in the restaurant and from the nearest saloon came the flat, unmelodious notes of a piano. Powder was tuning up for the night, given a new lease on life by the evening breeze. Lilly, turning his horse into the stable, felt depressed. It was the same old story over again; Joe Breedlove was right—he would travel the long trail until he could no longer sit in the saddle, looking for something not to be found. How could he find it when he didn't know what he looked for? Just another stray critter never thrown and branded. He slipped off the buckskin, seeing the stable roustabout amble through the door.
"This pony," said he, "gets oats. Where's yore brush and currycomb?"
He led the animal to a stall, slipped off the gear and set to work with the implements the roustabout produced. The latter, displaying the indirect curiosity of his kind, spoke casually.
"Hope it ain't this hot where you come from."
"We had rain there in 1903," opined Tom gravely. "Where's a good place to eat?"
"They's only one place, which is the Star. You won't mind it too much if yore hungry, I might add they's usually a gentleman's game o' poker in progress at Jake Miner's place. Mos' stranger like to know, so I'm a-tellin' you. Mama Ringo runs the hotel if it's your desire to sleep on a real four-bit bed. The sher'ff an' marshal are both tol'rant to'rds ord'nary misdemeanors o' the peace. I might add the likker here abouts is thirty proof an' the cards entirely without marks. Which constitutes the whole story o' this hole in the ground. It's a nice leetle place—if you don't stay long."
"You shore are a compendium of useful knowledge," averred Lilly, strolling out. "Civic pride is a jewel of great renown."
The roustabout's retort was a short and emphatic word that exploded in the darkness. Tom Lilly, smiling slightly, crossed to the Star and had his supper in solitary state. Powder had unanimously eaten and departed to its pleasures, leaving the latest arrival to finish his steak and onions among a debris of dishes. It was a meal, nothing more than that and Tom paid his bill and walked out, hungry; not for food, but for the palaver of his own kind, for the rough joke and the twang of a familiar voice. It was always thus when restlessness drove him onward and away from friends. He was forever an alien in a strange land, left to his own sober, wistful thoughts. Under the impulse of this loneliness, he built himself a cigarette and headed for Jake Miner's.
But before he reached the door the jingling of the piano, the rattling of chips and the hum of voices suddenly ceased. A silence, uneasy and expectant, pervaded the place and when he pushed through the swinging portals he became a witness to a scene that jerked at his nerves and sent a warning down his right arm. There was something going on here out of the ordinary, something that made him brush the butt of his gun with careful fingers and move quickly to a rear wall. It was such a little drama as he had often seen before and within thirty seconds his quick-acting, partisan temper was thoroughly engaged on the side of a man who appeared to be the under dog. And of a man not of his own kind or profession.
He was a nester, this fellow. That was obvious from a glance at the shabby overalls and the sallow, bewhiskered face. He had a gaunt, weather-beaten frame and a pair of hands warped out of shape by hard labor. A very homely man, who leaned uneasily against the mahogany bar and gripped a glass of whisky that had not been touched. He was perhaps forty, but he looked older, and from beneath bushy sun-bleached brows a pair of faded blue eyes stared out in mixed defiance and fear. Lilly leaned against the wall, hearing a faint whisper float across a near table. "Trono'll shore kill 'im. He shore will." And Lilly, growing angry on the instant, turned his attention to the second party at the bar.
Trono was smiling in the tight malevolent way of a man enjoying himself over a victim. He was a short and burly creature with immense shoulders and arms; a thick, columnar neck supported a face that was as swart as any Indian's; but here the resemblance stopped, for his chin was of the outthrust, cleft kind and he had bulging green eyes. Somewhere he had been engaged in desperate fighting, one mark of which ran across the high bridge of his nose and up in to the half-bald bullet head. Undeniably he was of the cattle range, and he was taking a cowman's attitude toward the nester. He lifted his own whisky glass, speaking in a rumbling, husky voice.
"We'll drink to the sudden death o' all nesters. Down she goes."
"Well, I dunno's that's perlite," protested the other. "I'm a peaceable feller, a-mindin' my own business."
"Mean to say yuh won't drink with a man?" roared Trono. "That's the sorta insult that don't go down in this country! Why, you—"
"Oh, I'll drink if it'll soothe yer feelin's any," said the nester, raising his glass.
Trono was grinning. And when the nester was about to drink, one massive arm swept across the intervening space and slapped the glass to the floor. The nester spewed the liquor from his mouth and wiped his eyes. His flat chest rose and fell with an excess of outraged feeling, but in the end he spoke quite mildly. "Seems to me you be tryin' to pick trouble. I want these fellers to know I ain't startin' no trouble. It's a free country."
"Free fer anything but bugs," broke in Trono, working himself to a rage. "Y' know what we do with bugs, mister? We bash 'em! Better take warnin' an' clear out."
"No, I don't guess I'll give up," said the nester. Tom Lilly inwardly applauded the man's courage. It took nerve to stand in the midst of a crowd of cowpunchers and declare himself. Even more nerve to say what he went on to say. "Pilgrim Valley wa'n't created jes' purposely fer the Octopus an' his JIB ranch, though you seem to think so. I'm holdin' my land by gov'ment consent. Mean to prove it an' farm it."
"Oh, you do?" muttered Trono, bearing down on the final word.
The nester hastened to take the sting from his pronouncement. "Ain't no reason fer you folks to git sore. They's aplenty land left to run cows on. Shucks, I'm only holdin' a half section outen three-four hundred thousand acres."
"Bugs breed," replied Trono. "Leave one alone an' he hatches a hundred more. No, that ain't no argument. Hey, where you goin'?"
The nester had started to back off. Trono's right hand dropped half way to his gun and the nester's whole body stiffened; he, too, made a gesture toward his coat pocket, only to throw both arms free of his body as if to show he meant no trouble. It was a cruel ordeal and the mark of it appeared on his lean face in deep furrows and fine beads of sweat. Tom Lilly sighed to relieve the pressure of his accumulating anger. First and foremost he was a cowman, with most of the prejudices of that class. But he fought fair, always, and now his sympathies were entirely with the nester who was being badgered. It bore hard on him to stand back and watch this quarrel being trumped up by Trono; for there could be only one end to it. It was obvious that Trono meant there should be but one end.
"I'm goin' about my business," muttered the nester, rubbing his lips with a trembling hand. "I know you, Mister Trono. You figger to cause trouble. You've allus tried to haze me off my claim. Well, if I was a younger feller I might stand up to you. All I ask is to be let alone. It's a free country and they's plenty o' room fer all o' us in it. I'm gettin' along in years an' there's nobody to take care o' me when I break down, so I want to make a little stake afore I die. Now you leave me be."
Lilly checked an impulse to step forward between the men. His sharp eyes caught the stiffening muscles beneath Trono's coat and the sudden flare of fire in Trono's eyes. The killer instinct was there; he had seen such a light before. But, on the verge of acting, he took hold of himself. It was not his quarrel and nobody had asked him to interfere. The strictest kind of unwritten rules guarded such an affair and held him in his place. Even so, as he watched Trono gather himself, he had come to a decision. Trono's voice droned throughout the room.
"Callin' me a trouble maker, you damn fool? Come back here an' drink!"
What passed in the succeeding moments was something that only swift eyes might see. Trono's arm dropped and seemed to waver. It was only a gesture, yet it might have been the first move to draw his gun. The nester, badgered until his nerves were torturing him, saw that gesture and copied it. But where Trono had been clever, he was only clumsy. He could not feint. One paw started downward and could not stop. After that it was murder. Trono's gun gleamed in the light; the room rocked and roared and someone cried out a warning. That was Tom Lilly's voice, though he never knew it. His eyes, passing from side to side, saw the nester struggle with his weapon and stand a moment; then like a man crushed by a burden, he buckled at the knees and fell forward. The life was out of him before he struck the floor. His lean, bewildered face stared dumbly through the trailing gun smoke. Not a soul in that room moved, not a word was spoken until Trono's harsh voice broke the spell.
"You boys saw it. You saw he went for his gun. I'd 'a' been plugged cold if I'd waited. Plain self-defense, understand? Such actions is about all you can expect from a nester." And he swept the crowd with a hard, cold glance. For one instant his attention was fixed on Tom Lilly; then he walked from the place. Lilly rubbed his hands along his coat edge and tried to clear the unreasoning, white-hot rage from his head. A kind of whistling sigh passed ever the onlookers and the bartender's carefully indifferent words reached him.
"Some o' you gents lug him into the side room. I don't want my floors all bloodied up."
Lilly turned away from the sight and built himself a cigarette with unusually awkward fingers. One of the men at the near table shuffled a deck and spoke philosophically. "Well, that's another chalked up to Theed Trono in behalf o' the JIB. God-darnit, why didn't the fool stay clear o' Trono?"
Lilly bent forward, speaking with a sharp rise o| voice. "Does this Trono hombre run this JIB rancho?"
The group at the table turned toward him and spent some time in a carefull inspection. He was rewarded finally by a brief word. "Not exactly, stranger. Though I'd say he had a-plenty to say about it. Fact is, he's old Jim Breck's foreman. Who is Jim Breck? You shorely must be from distant parts. Jim Breck is chief factotum o' Pilgrim Valley."
"And where might that be?"
"South thirty miles or so. It's behind the string o' Buttes you might see from here of a day. Though if yore lookin' fer a job you won't have to ride that far."
"I'm han'somely obliged, but I mistrust my ability to work under that Trono gent," said Lilly. "I take it this here nester occupied unhealthy soil."
"Well, you can read the picture an' title fer yourself," answered his informant somewhat briefly, and turned away. Lilly understood the meaning of this perfectly. Trono, he decided, in a wave of disgust, had Powder buffaloed. He said as much in an audible phrase that was addressed at nobody in particular. It was meant to provoke attention and it succeeded admirably. The group turned on him with sharpened interest and the spokesman put a direct question. "Who the hell are you, amigo, to tell us what the trouble is? You a candidate for the unpopularity contest?"
"I'm just a simple creature," murmured Lilly, "that never learned the a-b-c's from any book. But I was always taught murder was a crime."
"Mebbe you'd like to try yore luck with Theed Trono."
Lilly ground the cigarette beneath his boot heel and stared at a group with a cold directness. Ice edged his words. "You can bet your last chip, fellow, that if I ever do, there'll be more'n one bullet fired. That's information for general publication." He swung and left the saloon, knowing that every soul within the room had heard his last statement. Knowing, too, that in time the challenge would reach Theed Trono. He had meant it as a deliberate challenge; etiquette had kept him out of a poor nester's trouble, but there was nothing in the books that forbade a man starting an entirely new quarrel if he was so minded. As he walked somberly down the dark street he had a clear picture of Trono's savage, bullying face. Why, the man had committed the coldest kind of murder and these fellows stayed glued to their seats! It was enough to rouse the spirit of an Eskimo, for a fact. What sort of a fool was this Trono and what kind of an outfit was the JIB to allow such free-handed killing?
He paused in front of the livery stable, sympathies more and more engaged in the affairs of the dead nester. There was a volcanic upheaval inside him and he stared narrowly through the dark, recalling the sage words of Joe Breedlove. "I nev yit did know a redheaded gent that wa'n't burnin' to right the wrongs of this yere unjust world." Well, that wasn't exactly so. He, Tom Lilly, wasn't going around with a chip on his shoulder, but there certainly was such a thing as fair play in the world.
The stable roustabout ambled out of the doorway and murmured. "Ain't the flesh pots lured yuh yet?"
Tom Lilly built another cigarette and began delving for information. "Once upon a time there was a nester—"
"Yeah. I heard that shot in the saloon. The ways o' man are plumb mortal."
"Where might that nester have had his claim, anyhow?"
"Jes' inside Pilgrim Valley, offen the road to the JIB about four miles. They's a nice cold spring on the place, which shore has been poison bait fer many a foolish feller."
"In other words," said Lilly, "the JIB has sort of illegally swallowed a lot of gov'ment entry land along with its rightful range an' objects to a man peaceably settlin' thereon."
"If yore askin' fer an opinion I ain't got any. If it's a question o' facts, then I guess you don't need no correction on the foregoin' statement."
"Well, it's an old game," murmured Lilly. "But mos' usually a cattle outfit will draw the line at cold murder. Pilgrim Valley, I reckon, is exclusively JIB territory?"
The roustabout happily fell upon a remembered phrase. "The memory o' man runneth not to the contrary."
"Sho'," approved Lilly, glowering at the shadows. A vague excitement gripped him and he felt a sense of personal injury. Theed Trono was taking in too much territory and so was a ranch that tried to keep settlers off government land. Boiled down, it amounted to nothing more than a curtailment of his own liberty, for if the nester was shooed off, then they'd shoo him off too. No, that was a situation hardly bearable. He threw away the cigarette with a hunch on his shoulders. "Ain't there a land office here?"
"Over the gen'ral store. See the yaller light? He sleeps there, too. An old dodo bird that come out here to die an' ain't been lucky at it yit." As Lilly drifted away the roustabout sent a warning whisper after him. "Don't you be a fool, amigo."
"It's a man's born privilege," replied Lilly, crossing the street. "A privilege I shore do exercise a lot, too," he said to himself, climbing the stairway. He steered for a door emitting a single beam of light through the keyhole and knocked once. A grumbling invitation was evoked and he entered a room that was both an office and a kind of living quarters. On an army cot behind the counter—a counter heaped with record books and plat maps—was stretched an ancient fellow with tobacco stained whiskers and a parchment skin. Amber eyes moved fretfully toward Lilly. "What you want?"
"Aim to file on some land."
The old fellow stroked his faded whiskers and grinned a toothless grin. "Wal, my conscience is clear, friend. Takes a lot o' people to make the world. Don't never say I encouraged you."
"Cheerfulness," opined Lilly, "is a priceless thing. Don't get up if it hurts you, though I'd like to have you show me one particular spot on yore maps."
The old man groaned and hoisted himself an inch at a time. "Ain't there nothin' I can do to restore sanity. Le's see; have you got a thousand dollars, a copper lined stomach, the strength o' a horse? Have you—?"
"Yore makin' that up," interrupted Lilly. "Just state gov'ment requirements."
"Upon which portion of this earth's crust do you aim to take root?"
"Why, there was a claim relinquished half an hour ago by a gentleman in Jake Miner's place. It's over in Pilgrim Valley an' it's got a spring on it. I don't doubt but what you recall the spot."
The answer came quickly enough. The old man's face drooped a little and he made aimless figures on the counter with his pencil. "If the advice of a friend is worth anything, my boy, you don't want land there."
"JIB got you buffaloed, too?"
The other shook his head. "I'm too far along to mind bein' shot. It'd be a blessin' to die that sudden. But they wouldn't tackle a government official. You watch your step."
"Show me this place," insisted Lilly. And the old man displaying visible reluctance, turned the book to a certain page and with traveling pencil point indicated the homestead. "Hamby was a nice feller, too," he opined. "I thought it was jes' an ordinary shot when I heard it. Well, you understand, there's formalities to go through with before you can file. If you want to squat until then it'll be all right. Better take lots of cattridges."
Lilly turned toward the door. "Consider me as bein' entered, then. I'm here to stay." He walked out, going cautiously down the stairway. There was a matter of supplies to take care of, but these could wait until later in the evening. Right at present he felt inclined to return to Jake Miner's place; he had laid an egg there that by now ought to have hatched something. Poised in the doorway he heard voices floating through the darkness and by and by Theed Trono came into the small reflection of the hotel light. There was another man with him—the tall, horsey-faced type familiar throughout the cattle country. England was stamped all over the long, out-thrust chin and the prominent nose. Only for a moment were they suspended in this yellow beam. Lilly tarried thoughtfully, mind revolving around several pieces of information he had gathered. What he now proposed to do was enter Pilgrim Valley and challenge Theed Trono's attention; Theed Trono, who was a killer foreman walking under the protection of the JIB, and its owner. Men seemed to be reluctant to speak of the owner of this ranch. The roustabout had mentioned his name—it was Jim Breck—casually and with no desire to go on. And the nester had called him an octopus. Fitting title.
"Well, if Breck instigated the shootin' the devil will shorely pay him for it."
With this reflection he advanced on the saloon and pushed through the door and into trouble. Trono was at the bar, his eyes quite hard and bright; when he saw Lilly advancing he put his whisky glass carefully on the bar and thrust his bullet head forward as if wishing a closer view of this new specimen. Once again Lilly was aware of the pervading silence of the expectancy half-veiled in men's eyes. The Englishman, he noticed, had not entered the saloon.
"Amigo, I been hearin' things about yuh."
It was Trono's voice, unpleasant and blunt. Lilly inclined his head, eyes pinned on the burly one. "Always been my policy to declare myself," he admitted. "Whatever you heard about me goes."
"Uhuh. Pass some remark about more'n one bullet flyin?"
"Ain't you a little previous with them rash words?" growled Trono. He closed the fingers of one hand as if to show Lilly the power that was in his arm. "Usually a gent don't go huntin' fer trouble."
"Fatal error of my education," admitted Lilly.
"It's apt to be fatal, shore enough," said Trono, displeasure growing. "I think I got an apology comin' from you. Gettin' pretty bad when a man can't perform his chores 'thout bein' libelled. I'm listenin'."
"You'll listen a long, long while, hombre," replied Lilly. He had a hard struggle with the flame of outraged anger that blazed up. "To shorten this palaver I will add that I don't like yore methods or yore manners. I hear you don't allow nesters in Pilgrim Valley. Tomorrow mornin' I'll be on my way up there. You'll find me squattin'. Better change yore style, mister, before you try to run me off."
Fighting talk. A cooler head would not have invited trouble in such a way. But Tom Lilly's sympathies were in control and he was willing to force the issue. He saw quite clearly that sooner or later he would clash with this Trono and he was willing that the fight should come and be done with. Trono seemed plunged in deep thought, studying Lilly with a long, deliberate glance. Evidently the swart foreman saw something in his adversary that bade him move carefully. Lilly was no half-broken nester. That gun butt was placed in the careful manner of a man who had experience.
"Well," he muttered, "if yore lookin' fer trouble, they's folks that'll oblige yuh. Personally I'm a peaceable man—" He seemed to feel that he was losing ground, so he finished with a huge roar. "But I'll give yuh twenty-four hours to pull freightl After that I'm shootin' at sight!"
"A large and clear statement," observed Lilly and turned squared around. It was fifteen feet to the door and at each step he expected to hear a warning shout. None came. He reached the street with mingled regret and relief. "I shore played my cards to the limit that time. Joe Breedlove wouldn't scarcely care for such sword-swallowin'."
There was another question in his mind and he re-traced his steps to ask it of the roustabout. "Say, tell me somethin' more about this Jim Breck."
The answer rolled solemnly out of the doorway. "Sooner or later, amigo, he'll cross yore path. An' you won't never fergit it. That's the old Octopus."
The meeting of Lancelot Stubbins and Theed Trono had been very brief and very private. Only by a moment of carelessness had Stubbins permitted himself to be drawn into the patch of light near the hotel. It was here that Lilly had seen the man's English features, and in turn Stubbins had caught a glimpse of the newcomer. The next moment he had pulled Trono into the helter of the shadows, grumbling at his own negligence. "That was foolish. Well, I'll turn into this alley. Trono, I wish you could hustle things a bit."
"Tomorrow night is plenty soon, ain't it?"
"How's Breck now?"
"Seems like he's losin' his grip faster ner usual. He don't get around like he used to a month back."
"His kind goes down all in a pile," observed Stubbins. "I don't believe it'll be long now. Then you and I can do what we want to."
Trono was dubious. "You got to consider the girl, Stubbins. She's a fighter like her daddy."
Stubbins laughed. "Trono, I've got a way with women. Don't let that worry you. It's only old Jim Breck I'm afraid of. He's stung me too many times when I thought he was licked. We can afford to wait. Tomorrow night, then, at the usual place."
"Uhuh," said Trono, started toward the saloon. Stubbins looked back toward the hotel and saw Tom Lilly advancing also upon the saloon. But the stranger made no particular impression on Stubbins, whose mind was filled with other things, and thus preoccupied he slipped between buildings and rode from town.
"This bein' a bad man is shorely a tough job, fer sooner er later they's bound to come a leetle bit badder man who's honin' to shoot off the tie."—Joe Breedlove.
AT false dawn Tom Lilly was away from Powder, heading south toward the Buttes. By sunrise he had crossed the railroad tracks and penetrated a land that boasted neither house nor windmill nor fence. It was strictly cattle country and for the greater part of the morning he traveled across it, marching directly upon the high bluffs and then paralleling them until the road swung sharply upward and passed through a gap into a kind of elevated valley. This, Lilly had discovered from the maps, was Jim's Pass and the only entrance to Pilgrim Valley from the west. He turned his horse up the side of the gap and stopped on a commanding point What he saw caused him to whistle softly and build a cigarette in deep meditation.
The valley, ringed on three sides by the Buttes and merging into a pine forest far to the south, was a self-contained, almost inaccessible land. No such thing as a fence was needed and since it was a great deal higher than the country outside and below the Buttes it drew more moisture and was visited with a cooler air. The buffalo grass, just turning yellow, covered the valley in a solid mat as far as his eyes could reach. It was an astonishing contrast to the dead area stretching west and north. No wonder Jim Breck, the octopus, wanted to keep out interlopers. The sight of it explained a great many things to Tom Lilly and as his eyes wandered out upon the plain below him he recalled stray gossip he had pumped from the reticent roustabout.
That road, for instance, which drifted away before it reached Jim's Pass and vanished into the desert. He had learned that it led to the 3Cross, an outfit owned by an Englishman called Stubbins. Stubbins, the roustabout had cautiously implied, ruled the country outside of Pilgrim Valley and had even tried to penetrate the JIB domain. But old Jim Breck had fought him to a standstill, using the heavy-handed methods common to the country. Ever since they had dwelt side by side in an uneasy attitude of peace; just two gents, the roustabout had indicated, trying to cut each other's throat and alike only in the manner they hazed unwelcome newcomers out of the country.
Lilly pinched out his cigarette and threw it away, turning down into the valley. Five miles farther on he reached a small trail that darted from the road toward the pine forest and this he followed for something like an hour when of a sudden he dipped over a ridge and came upon a shanty nestling between three or four young cottonwoods. The soil had been broken around the house and corn was coming up; a piece of fence had been built and a plow stood idle in the yard. Tom slid from the horse, took his sack of supplies and pushed through the door.
Typical bachelor's quarters. The dead Hamby had spent very little time in housekeeping. A long row of nails stretched around the walls from which hung most everything capable of being suspended. A pine table, a bunk, a chair, and a stove well filled the place. All there was of food stood on the table and Lilly saw at a glance that the nestcr had allowed himself to get very low before venturing to town. The man must have understood his danger and put off the trip as long as possible. The thought revived Lilly's sulphurous anger and on sight of a riflc hanging above the doorway he walked over and took it down, sliding the bolt thoughtfully.
"Well, old fellow, I sure can't help you any, but I can show this JIB crew a few things about land rights."
That reminded him he meant to pay a visit. So, after watering his horse from the spring at the rear of the shanty and eating a can of cold beans, he swung up and rode east. Somewhere beyond the grassy ridges was the JIB home quarters. What he meant to do was state his intentions to the so-called octopus and withdraw. After that it was a case of listening for the thunder to roll across the sky.
He smiled grimly at the thought of turning nester. Twenty-four hours before he would have taken the idea in great and unbelieving humor. Why, he hardly ever turned around unless on the back of a horse. And as for struggling behind the handles of a plow—"Joe Breedlove shore would laugh," he murmured, closing his eyes against the glare of the day. "Oh, I know I'm hot-headed. It's been proved plenty times enough. But, by the Lord, that shootin' would make a wooden Indian cuss. If this ain't a free land it's high time somebody changed things."
And as he was thus plunged deep in a study he crossed a ridge and saw the many buildings of the JIB ranch stretched before him. The place took him back forty years to the time of the Indian wars. Once upon a time there had been a stockade stretched around the place, an occasional mark of which still was visible. Within this stockade they had built the dozen or so houses in the shape of a square, with the main house sitting in the middle of the great yard thus formed. All were built of logs and the center house, a single storied structure sixty feet long, had elbows built at each corner with rifle embrasures cut through; atop a sod roof a cupola likewise hewn of logs commanded all angles of the yard. A porch ran the length of the place, upon which at intervals opened heavy oak doors.
Men moved slowly about. Dust rose out of a remote corral and a horse sunfished upward through the haze with a man weaving perilously in the saddle. At another corner several Indians seemed busy around a fire. As Lilly drew rein before the main house he was hailed by a rumbling voice.
"Sit an' light."
Tom had to look around a pine pillar to see the man, and at once knew him to be the redoubtable Jim Breck. He was sprawled in a chair, his massive body overflowing it—a body that even with the accumulated layers of fat displayed something of the tremendous muscles that once must have stretched across the shoulders. The head was square and seemed hewn out of so much granite, each feature chiseled roughly and generously. The Octopus, someone had called him. Well, it was a good nickname. Even so Lilly was not prepared exactly for the rest of the picture. Here was an old man, a sick man; one who sat very still and listened to the sound of his own heart as it labored toward the end of its journey. A gray, dust-like pallor was on the face and the lips were almost colorless; a strange and depressing spectacle of a mighty frame going to pieces. Still, there was fire in those grim eyes. It flashed out now, fitfully.
"Come out o' the sun, young man. We'll eat shortly."
At this moment an ancient, skinny Indian slipped around the corner of the house and reached for Lilly's reins.
"No, I don't believe I will, thanks. It ain't right to traffic on a man's hospitality. I take it yore Jim Breck. Such bein' the case I don't reckon I could eat comfortable at your table."
One mighty shoulder rose and fell. "Knew somethin' was itchin' you when I saw you comin' over the rise. Say it, younker."
"I'm settlin' on the three-sixty over at the spring. I aim to stay, notwithstandin' yore foreman. Just wanted to declare myself."
Jim Breck sat motionless, his eyes exploring Lilly. After a long interval he answered almost gently. "The fightin' kind, ain't you? Somethin's roused yore sense o' justice. But it's too late, Red. They's a nester on that place now. A fellow by the name o' Hamby."
Tom shook his head. "Yore foolin' me, Mister Breck. You ought to know better."
"What's that?" asked Breck with an increase of energy.
"Yore foreman bullied him into a fight. Shot him dead." Lilly was unable to keep the anger from his words. "About as dirty a piece o' work as I've seen in my time. Don't you draw the line at anything?"
"So," muttered Breck. His chin fell forward and he fumbled in his pocket for a cigar. He looked wistfully at it, then with a defiant gesture put it in his mouth. "So that's got you excited. Hornin' in on another party's misfortune. 'Tain't a safe game, son. But yore kind don't care about playin' safe. Reckon you've got me gauged as a hop toad, eh?"
"Yore reputation is on public record," said Tom.
"Well, that's so," murmured Breck in a gentle voice. "But I was raised in a hard school. Had to fight my way. Don't this ranch look like it was built to stand siege? If you observe them logs you'll see bullet marks a-plenty."
"That ain't no answer for shootin' a nester."
Fire gleamed in the eyes again. "Mebbee 'tain't. When a man gets to the end o' the road an' looks back he sees plenty things different than he used to. Well, I like yore spunk. I could shorely use a fighter on this ranch. Want a job?"
"No," said Lilly. "I'm obliged, but that's not my politics. The world ain't goin' to be large enough for Trono an' me, let alone a ranch. Anyhow, I'm camped off yonder an' I wanted to let you know."
"Pleased to know a man's real feelin's," agreed Breck. He started to add something, but was interrupted. A door opened and a woman's voice broke in. "Dad, are you disobeying the doctor? You give me that cigar."
"Damn the pill peddler," muttered Breck, irritably. "If I got to die, I got to die. But I'm goin' to have a leetle fun."
Lilly turned in the saddle and without knowing just why, removed his hat. She was a girl of perhaps eighteen or twenty; a sturdy supple figure dressed in riding clothes. In the shadow of the porch her eyes glowed and there was a rose-pink color on her cheeks. She took the cigar from her father in a quick, defensive movement "You won't help yourself, so I must treat you like a baby." Then she saw Lilly and a smile flashed out. Her black eyes passed from man to man and the quick, open-handed hospitality of the West prompted her to speak to the newcomer. "Won't you stop for dinner?"
"I'm han'somely pleased," said Lilly, "but I've got to get back to my place."
"You live near here?" she asked, puzzled.
"Yes'm. I'm taking up the homestead by the spring."
He saw friendliness vanish and resentment spring up.
Old Jim Breck's chuckle followed him away from the place and far along the road home.
"Spitfire," he murmured. "She's got every bit of her daddy's temper. But, by Godfrey, she's pretty! Now look what I'm into."
The rest of the journey was made in heavy silence. This meeting had greatly puzzled him. If Breck were so heavy-handed, why hadn't the man challenged him on the spot? Instead he'd been offered a job. Was the Octopus the kind that spoke softly and struck in the dark? This affair was getting complicated and that was a fact. There was only one thing he could depend on for a certainty—Theed Trono's outright enmity.
Back on the porch, Jill Breck spoke her mind. "He certainly has got his nerve riding deliberately over here to tell us that. Did he mean, Dad, he was going in with Hamby?"
"Hamby died," answered Breck, staring into the bright yard. "The lad's goin' to take over the homestead."
Jill fell silent for a moment. She was a loyal girl with an immense pride for everything concerning the JIB. Nor was it her fault that she did not know the seamier side of her father's affairs. She had always thought that every acre within the valley was owned in fee simple and she could never understand why nesters dared to trespass. She had asked her father about this once, but the reply had been so vague and technical that it only served to strengthen her belief that her father was, in a kindly way, trying to shield the lawless nesters. For she had never seen other than kindness in her father. What he had been in his younger days she never knew, and was never told. The stories of the range wars came down to her as so much legend and whatever the trouble occurring between JIB and 3Cross in later years, it was carefully kept from her, just as it was kept from the outside world.
"Well, I'm sorry the man died. He was old and goodness knows how he made a living, but he shouldn't have come on our land. And I don't see why you allow this red-headed cowpuncher to defy you like he did. I'll bet he's a Stubbins' man. A nester doesn't wear clothes like that, or ride like that."
"Uhuh. Jill, you go see about the grub."
When she had disappeared inside, Breck spoke to the Indian who had held Lilly's horse. "Pattipaws, you git Trono for me. Tell him I want him."
The Indian was away on the run, leaving Breck a morose, silent figure. "Seems there's a lot o' things passin' on hereabouts I don't have wind of lately. Trono's forcin' my hand. Well, I allus knew what sort of man he was. If he's tryin' to out-nigger me, it's my own fault."
Trono rolled around the corner of the house, a surly indifferent man built in the same mold as his boss. Breck, eyeing the foreman, concluded that was the reason he had kept the foreman so long. Here was the image of himself as he had been in earlier days—huge and tireless, without compunction, a hard driver. If Trono, in addition, had the handicap of being without loyalty and was a dirty fighter in his rages, Breck had shut his eyes. Trono had accomplished the necessary and unmentionable JIB chores; that was the service he had required. But now Trono was assuming too much; he was becoming intractable.
"Well?" muttered the foreman.
Breck closed his great fists. "Who told you to kill Hamby?"
Trono smiled. "How d'yuh know?"
"Don't trim with me, you yellow-belly!" cried Breck. "Ain't I told you to leave Hamby alone?"
"Well, that's all the good it did yuh. If yore goin' to call names, I'll call a few myself. Yore gettin' chicken-hearted. Losin' yore grip. I tried to use peaceable means on that nester, but he was pigheaded, so I killed him. Since when've you changed idees on that subject? Wa'n't long ago when you sent me out with a gun fer those fellas."
The gray color swept down into Breck's collar and his hand pressed at his heart. "The world ain't the same to an old man, Theed. Was a time when the whole valley wasn't elbow room enough. Well, I'm more peaceable now to'rds neighbors. Y'see, about all the land I'll be needin' is a strip six feet by three."
Trono ripped out a short and ugly word. "I killed Hamby fer my own personal satisfaction like I used to do certain jobs fer you. An' I'll kill any other gent tha tries to squat on that spring."
"You got my orders on that, Trono," said Breck, speaking in a dead level tone. "Mean to disobey me?"
Trono was grinning. It was the same tight, malevolent grin Lilly had witnessed the night before in Jake Miner's place; the man was riding his victory high and wide. "Who's talkin' about obedience? I'm a free man, Breck."
Breck leaned forward, one trembling forefinger tapping the arm of his chair. "Listen, Theed. Nobody ever crossed me yet an' got away with it. Which applies to you. Yore my foreman. I picked you outen trouble an' I give you a job when other folks wanted to tie you to a limb. Now, boy, don't try any rannies or I'll bust you. I'll bust you, hear? You do my orders an' you do 'em on the jump. What's more, keep away from the spring. They's a new man there and he's welcome to the place. I suspect he's more'n a match fer you, at that."
Trono's features suffused with a purplish red. "That redhead eh? So he come tellin' you tales. I give him twenty-four hours to pull out an' by Godfrey he'd better take the warnin'!"
"You got my orders, Trono!"
"To hell with you, Breck. I'll do as I please. You start a fight with me an' I'm apt to show you a few surprises on this yere ranch. Think that over!"
He wheeled off toward the bunkhouse. Breck saw him stop, whisper something to one of the hands and jerk a thumb toward the porch, nodding his head derisively. The old man relaxed in his chair, breathing hard. A grinding pain ran from his neck down his left arm and a old sweat covered him from head to foot. Of a sudden he was very weak and the world grew dim and distant. He seemed to be apart from his body—watching himself die. Well, he had a few regrets. He had lived his share of years, lived them up to the hilt and had all the fun any man could have wished. A few things, perhaps, he would like to have the power of undoing. But life wasn't that way; once a man played his hand there was no recalling it.
No, it wasn't for himself, but for his girl that he worried. Trono had the upper hand now, and Trono was a disloyal, self- seeking dog. Why hadn't he considered this long ago when he could have crushed the man with his fist? What would happen to the place after he died? Jill was a hard-headed little kid with a world of spunk, but she couldn't run a cattle ranch without help and she couldn't buck Trono if he was of a mind to make trouble. And the foreman meant to make trouble; the man's last warning indicated as much. There were a dozen ways in which a ranch could be stripped, mined and made unbearable for the girl. Breck gripped his hands together, feeling the sweat roll down his sleeves. This helplessness was something new, something terrible.
"I'm of a mind to kill him, by the Lord!" He groaned, and he thought of getting his gun and calling Trono back. Shoot him cold. Once he would have had no scruples, but the stomach was out of him now, just as the foreman had said.
The day grew dimmer and the sunshine turned to shadow. In the dim borderland which is passed by man but once he found himself thinking of Tom Lilly. There was a fighting heart and an honest face. He had seen men like that before. He had ruined men like that before. Ruined them and laughed. But there was no laughter in him now. "Jill," he muttered, "Jill! You send for the pill peddler. And bring Pattipaws to me. I've got one more shot in the barrel yet."
Tom Lilly ate his supper, rolled a cigarette and sat in the doorway watching the sun go down over the Buttes. With the lengthening shadows came a breeze that soughed through the cottonwoods and lulled him to a lazy, dreaming peace. There were plenty of things to think about, but for a time he let his fancy roll where it pleased. It was a mighty queer feeling, this, of being perched high above the heat of the desert and watching the world turn around from his own doorstep. Of course, it wasn't really his yet, but it would be. He meant to camp. The rolling stone had found a mighty fine place to grow a little moss.
"Joe Breedlove would shore laugh," he murmured. Tom Lilly a nester. Well, worse things had happened. Clerking in a store, for example, or doing roustabout's work in a stable. And this land suited him right down to the grass roots. He ran his eyes along the unfinished fence with a professional interest and he began to calculate the amount of hand labor that lay before him. There was plenty of it—but there was plenty of time, too. First and foremost, he would be busy with the JIB and its efforts to remove him from the valley.
So he sat until it was quite dark. Then he rose and lugged his saddle to a ridge a hundred yards left of the house and returned for his pony. It wouldn't do to sleep in the shack this night. Unless he was greatly mistaken there would be visitors along to see him. He picketed the buckskin in a hollow and rolled himself in a blanket, staring upward at the inky sky. It was very strange, this feeling of restfulness that took hold. Most usually he was always wanting to go on, always wanting to see the land beyond the ridge. He chuckled. "I'll have to tell Joe about this."
He wondered how much the girl knew of her father's affairs. By George, but she was a pretty one, and with her little head plumb full of fight! Those black eyes had changed powerfully quick from friendliness to resentment when he announced himself. "I wonder if she understands what her daddy and that Trono person have been up—"
The question was pushed to the back of his mind. The ground was telegraphing him the beat of many hoofs coming rapidly across the swelling valley floor. He rolled from his blanket and touched the butt of his gun; the rumbling grew louder and presently a party swept over the ridge and toward his house. He heard them stop and made out the murmur of voice. A match flared and by it he saw the dim blur of a face. According to the noise of the horses there must have been a half dozen in the party and they appeared to be waiting. A horse blubbered softly and a stray word floated over the still air. "Late."
This was interesting. Lilly gathered himself and crept down the side of the ridge until he made out the faint outline of men and beasts. In a few moments he heard the rumbling of another rider and he stopped, plastering himself to the ground. The newcomer spurred out of the east and reined in with a jingling of gear. A heavy, grumbling voice that was quite familiar to him floated across the black gulf of space. "Hey, Stubbins, this is a hell of a place to stop. They's that red-head around here. He's took up Hamby's claim."
A ripping, explosive oath. Men dropped out of their saddles and circled around the house. A match flared again and by it Lilly saw someone move in and out the door of the shanty. "Well," announced a voice, "He ain't here now. Guess he got cold feet an' departed. Whyn't you let me know this before, Trono?"
"Wasn't able to get away. Been a lot o' thunder raised at the rancho."
"Old man gettin' ticklish, eh?"
"I told him where to head in," muttered Trono. He was in the saddle again, moving toward Lilly's position. "And I give this red-head twenty-four hours to vamoose, but he's plumb bull-faced an' won't scare. Can't have him puttin' his long nose into our affairs, Stubbins."
"Well, if he meddles he'll get badly scorched," replied the Englishman. "No great worry about that. You're always issuin' some sort of a challenge, me lad. Better salve yourself. And I wouldn't cross old Jim. He's a tough fellow. Easy does it."
"Pussyfoot," snorted Trono. He was within ten feet of Lilly, turning from side to side in his saddle. "That don't get you nowhere."
"Sometimes it does," countered the Englishman. "The trouble with you, me lad, is that you fail to understand when a soft word will do the work of a hard one. I have no scruples about violence, you mind. But I'd rather take the easy path than the hard one. There is trouble enough in this country without creating more. Well, let's haze these brutes out of the timber before daylight. Onward."
The party drifted around the shack and were lost in the rising ground to the south. Lilly rose and returned to his blanket, piercing together diverse bits of information. Trono was a JIB man and Stubbins ran the 3Cross. Why all this fraternizing when the two outfits were in a state of armed truce? The answer was simple enough. Trono was knifing his boss. This night party was making a raid on JIB stock; they meant to break the old Octopus who was no longer able to fight for himself. Lilly shook his head in disgust. "I'd as lief sleep with a skunk as have any business with Trono. The doggone doublecrosser! If he ain't even loyal to his own outfit he ain't fit to be shot." Perhaps old Jim Breck was unscrupulous, but it was plain dirty to knife a man when he was down. And so he drifted off to a light slumber, mildly sympathizing with the man he had not long before defied.
He had trained himself to wake at the slightest sound. Yet when he did wake it was at no sound, but rather from a sense of danger close by. Even before his eyes opened the nerves at the back of his neck sent a chilly warning through him and he groped for his gun, rolling swiftly aside from his blanket. Gray dawn had come and at his very feet, crouched, was the skinny Indian buck who had held his reins the day before, Pattipaws. The Indian had crept within five feet of Lilly without betraying himself and now as he saw Lilly rising up in self-defense he held out a hand, palm to the front, and the inscrutable copper-colored visage moved from side to side. "Pattipaws a frien'. You come with me. Boss he want to see you now."
Lilly studied the Indian with mild indignation. "You shore had me in a hole, Smoke Face. First time I was ever trapped like that."
"Indian way," said Pattipaws briefly. His faded, murky eyes played across Lilly's face for a long while. He put out his hand. "We frien's. Come."
Lilly saddled and swung up. The Indian trotted over the ridge and reappeared on a flea-bitten paint pony, riding bareback. Together they galloped eastward toward the ranch. Rose dawn suffused the sky and the light, cold air carried the heavy aromatic smell of the sage. Lilly bent toward Pattipaws. "This a peace talk, Smoke Face, or are we raisin' the hatchet?"
"Plenty peace, plenty trouble," said Pattipaws, his moccasined heels banging at the paint pony's flanks. "Boss, he dyin'."
And when they reached the ranch and entered the house Lilly found old Jim Breck lying in bed, the massive face turned to the color of old ivory. But there was still a gleam in the heavy eyes; when he saw Lilly he smiled in a grim sort of way at his daughter and an elderly man who bent over him. "I'm playin' my last card," he muttered and for a moment was silent, collecting his energy. Short, clipped words issued from his strangely immobile lips.
"Red, you come to this country lookin' fer trouble. Well, you're goin' to get it. I'm passin' out. You take my cards from now on. I'm makin' you foreman on the spot. Ain't time to tell you what to do, or what to watch for. But—you'll have to fight Trono. He's bent on bustin' the JIB. Act as if this place belonged to you. Jill understands. Take care of the kid. You promise?"
The elderly man, who appeared to be a doctor, leaned over to mark Breck's flagging pulse and shook his head in warning. Lilly, plunged in a profound and wondering study, saw the girl fasten a sharp glance on him that had all the effect of a blow. Then she dismissed him with a pressure of her lips and turned toward her father, her hands tightly clenched and her whole body rigid. "Father, what is it you are doing?"
"Yeah," assented Lilly. "You don't know me."
"I've seen yore kind afore," muttered Breck. "Know you right down to the ground. I'm bankin' on you, Red. It's a go!"
"It's a go," said Lilly in a gentle voice. "But there'll have to be a showdown with Trono. You don't know half o' what he's up to."
"I can guess," replied Breck, grimly. His chest filled and swelled under the bed covers. "Damnation I'd like to be strong fer five minutes. I'd break him with my two hands!"
"That," broke in the doctor, "is no way to leave the earth. You'd better get a little charity in your system, Jim. You'll need it."
"I ain't no hypocrite," said Breck. "A man can't change himself in the last five minutes." His face turned toward Pattipaws who stood silently in the background. Of a sudden the room was filled with a guttural droning of the Bannock dialect, at the end of which the Indian stepped between Lilly and the girl, laying his hands on both and in turn tapping his own heart. Gratitude crept over Breck's face—a strange emotion for that heavy, granite countenance. "He'll stick when all the rest are gone," said the old man, pointing toward the Indian. "I fought this buck's tribe forty years ago. Made friends with 'em and quartered 'em on the ranch. They'll be leavin' now, but Pattipaws said he'd stick. He knows a few things that may be helpful when the shootin' starts. Now, Jill girl, I don't want you to feel harsh to'rds yore paw fer what he's told you in the last couple hours. When a man plays with a deck that's been marked by crooks, he's got to do the best he can. Doc, gimme a cigar."
But the cigar was of no earthly use to him. He died before it touched his mouth. Pattipaws turned sharply and darted out; in a moment there was a long subdued wailing from the Indian quarters and when Lilly left the room he saw the Bannocks filing slowly away toward the pine forest, their travois raising dust in the fresh morning air. One by one the cowhands began to collect in front of the porch, staring at Lilly in the manner of men not pleased by what they saw. The Octopus had departed and with him went the iron discipline surrounding his name. Trouble brewed, even as the doctor emerged and spoke briefly. "He's on his way, boys. Said he wanted to be buried before noon. You know what to do."
"When a gent figgers to pick a quarrel with yuh, don't watch his eyes ner his gun arm. Keep yore orbs plastered in the middle o' his chest. He'll telegraph his nex' move from there."—Joe Breedlove.
IT was a hurried, brief funeral and of all the crowd only Jill, the doctor and Pattipaws seemed to show grief at the old Octopus' passing. The doctor, standing beside Lilly as the grave was dug—on a knoll near the house—spoke sadly. "He never was a hand for sentiment. Never gave any and never expected any, except with Jill. There ought to be a parson to say a few right words, but he wouldn't have it that way. Said he wanted to be out of the road so he wouldn't be cluttering the affairs of live folks. My boy, there was iron in old Jim!"
It was wholly a man's affair. Jill had taken leave of her father in the bedroom and after that vanished somewhere in the dark recesses of the house. One of the hands who was something of a carpenter made a coffin and presently they were lowering it, with its great burden, into the earth. All of the crew stood about, with Theed Trono in the background. Lilly, turning his eyes on the foreman, saw nothing of sympathy in the hard, coarse face, nothing of regret. Rather, there was a kind of sardonic, illy-concealed triumph on his countenance as the coffin vanished from sight. It was an expression that, in varying shapes and degrees, could be seen among the others also. The doctor, conscious of his lack of Biblical knowledge, stooped and took up a handful of soil, letting it trickle beneath his fingers.
"There ain't nothing I could say to speed Jim along," he murmured. "There ain't much he'd want me to say. He always figured he could fight his own way, here and hereafter. He never needed help, he never turned color when he was in a hard fix. It was always up and a-doing. He took his medicine and kept his mouth shut. He was hard, but he never double crossed a friend and he never pretended to be something he wasn't." The doctor pressed his lips tightly together and surveyed the crew with a defiant, unfriendly glance. "You won't ever see another like him—never. Good hunting, Jim."
That was all. Pattipaws stretched his skinny hand toward the west and turned away. Trono stepped to the fore and pulled his gun, firing once into the air. "That was the sound he like best to hear," he explained and stared at Lilly from beneath his heavy lids. The newcomer met the challenge with a brief glance and followed the doctor down the hill. On the porch he tarried, building himself a cigarette and watching the crew drift slowly toward the bunkhouse. The doctor went inside and presently came out, looking very glum. As he climbed into the saddle he swept the ranch with an arm and spoke.
"You got a job, boy. I don't envy you. But you better be straight to the girl or I'll have something to say."
With that warning he galloped away, his little black satchel flopping from the pommel and his coat-tails streaming in the wind. In a moment he was beyond a ridge and out of sight, leaving Lilly to his problem. The crew had disappeared and the yard baked under the hard noon-day light. A Sunday's stillness pervaded the place, but it was not the silence of peace. Lilly could feel a threat in the warm, lazy air, a warning of trouble to come. Still he smoked on as if serenely unconscious of impending danger. Perhaps he put more of negligence in his bearing than he felt, for he knew that from the windows of the bunkhouse he was being surveyed by many pairs of eyes.
"If the old man had wanted to get even with me," he reflected, "he shore couldn't have picked a better way. Here I am plumb in the middle of uncertainty with nine chances out of ten that I'll get my head shot off before sundown. A pleasant prospect. If I got any value on my hide it'd be better for me to take a good long pasear and never come back."
But he was only kidding himself. He was in this fight up to his neck and he had no idea of backing out. Meanwhile time rolled on and there was something being hatched over at the bunkhouse. It would do no good standing here and letting them get the bulge on him. He had to get busy. So he tossed the cigarette into the yard and went through the door to the main room. It was dark and cool in this long, low-beamed parlor and for a moment his eyes, dilated by the sun, saw nothing.
He stood there on the threshold sweeping the dark corners until he made out a figure huddled in a chair. A silent figure who stared at him with hot, mistrustful eyes. She had been crying, he could see that; but the tears had dried, leaving her with somber, unpleasant thoughts. Lilly guessed that Breck had told his daughter many things about the JIB she had never known and that she was struggling now to reconcile them with her father's kindness and with her own sense of loyalty. He hated to break in, but he knew very well he had to come to some understanding with this girl. He could not begin unless she supported him, and already he felt he had in some manner aroused her antagonism.
"Ma'am," said he, still on the threshold. "It's a hard time to palaver, but we've got to thresh a few things out. What I want to know is: Are you acceptin' me as foreman o' this ranch?"
He thought she had not heard him, so long was the silence. In the end she moved her head slightly. "You heard what my father told you."
"Yes, I heard. But I ain't heard what you think about it. We've got to work together if we work at all."
The dam broke all of a sudden. "Who are you? What do I know about you? What did my father know? He saw you twice and then trusted you with the ranch—and with me. Am I to believe you are the only honest man in the county?"
"As to that," said he, "I don't know. I'm not claimin' any particular virtue for myself. But yore daddy appeared to be in trouble and he thought I could help you. Give him a little credit if you can't trust yore own eyes. That's about all I can ask. Maybe there's lots of honest men hereabouts, but there's also a considerable number o' crooks—a few of which are on this ranch at the present time."
"How do you know? You rode into this country yesterday and now you say you are quite honest and that the crew is not. That's taking in a lot of ground."
"You heard what yore daddy said. I'm no prosecutin' attorney. I've been given a job to do and I got to have yore help to do it. If yore goin' to buck me I might as well roll my blankets."
"You know the way out," she reminded him. "You can quit now if you want."
"I can," he admitted grimly, "but I won't. I give my word and I'll keep it. Yore old enough to know better. Don't be so foolish. I don't love this ranch, ma'am, and I don't hone to assume any responsibility for its past misdemeanors. But we're in a hole right now and we've got to pull together." He saw that he had spoken more sharply than he meant so he tried to soften his words. "There ain't any reason why you should jump on me."
"Oh, I know it! But can't you see—my father told me things—! Everything is crooked, everything is opposite what I've always believed it to be. Now you come and ask me to trust you. How can I know that the men here are not loyal, or that you are any better than they are—if they are not loyal?"
"You better believe me on that subject," said he. "And come to a decision."
Again a long silence. There was a rumbling of voices outside, a short distance from the house and the girl seemed to see the tightening of Lilly's face muscles. "Well," she admitted, "I'll do what my father asked. You are the foreman. But remember I have the final say. I won't have you discharging men who have worked here for years."
"We'll strive to please," said he, though he disliked her assumption that she was doing him a favor. "But there'll have to be a show-down between Trono and me. Unless I'm plumb wrong, one of us has got to go. We'll know in a minute, for I think I hear a committee."
When he reached the porch they were grouped around the steps—every man who had been at the funeral. It was not a committee, it was the whole crew and they were led by Trono who was standing with his shoulders squared and a light of trouble in his eyes. The man was reaching out now to new heights of recklessness. The only power that had ever been able to check him was gone and he had come to the point where he might work his own will, whatever it was. Lilly understood instantly that Trono regarded him as only a straw to be blown away, and at the thought he scanned the crew with a careful, hopeful glance. But if he hoped for supporters he was to be mistaken. The character of the JIB cowpunchers was written quite plainly on their faces. With the exception of one or two, they were the sort of men to be found along the border, one jump from Mexico; restless, unscrupulous men who hired out their services to the highest bidder. They were not the type that ran a peaceful cattle ranch. Lilly did not fail to note their white hands and the way their gunbutts swung forward; the new foreman guessed that they were better with the gun than with the rope.
Well, it was none of his business if this was the kind of a puncher old Jim Breck had needed in his business. Many and many a ranch had to have its professional fighters if it were to survive the encroachment of other ranches. Still, this kind of warfare was dying out; cattlemen used more peaceful methods and it was something of a surprise to Lilly that the JIB still carried its full complement of feudists. It would make his job the more difficult. He stood immobile, trying to gauge the extent of their hostility toward him; and while he was thus groping for the right word to say Trono took the bit in his mouth and issued his challenge.
"Don't yuh believe in signs, amigo?"
"Depends on the sign," replied Lilly amiably.
"Well, yuh heard my statement the other night. Yore twenty- four hours is about up. I ain't a man to go back on my word. What yuh doin' around here?"
Nothing could come of the delay or soft speech. Trono was not the kind to understand it. So Lilly spoke his piece.
"I'm foreman here now, Trono. Yore out of a job. My orders are to give you a job as top hand if you want it. If you don't want it, roll your blanket and walk."
Trono had not looked for such an attack. It took the belligerent words from his mouth and he stood with his head craned forward while the ruddy blood rushed into his face. The green eyes were unblinking. "Who told yuh that?"
"The old man."
Trono's reply was short and unmentionable. He took half a step forward, his arms swinging wide. "Yuh lie! Bring Jill out here a minute and I'll talk to her! Don't fool me, Red."
From somewhere came Jill's voice. "That is the truth, Theed. You have your choice."
Trono looked from window to window; but Jill had vanished again and in the silence Lilly tried again to find a friendly face in the crowd. "Well, we might as well get this straight. Are you working for me or are you pullin' out?"
"Work fer yuh? Hell, I wouldn't take yore orders if I starved. Yuh ain't gettin' away with that, Red. As to pullin' out, I dunno about that, either. Misdoubt if you got any right to hire or fire."
Lilly looked to the others. "You boys have yore choice. It's me or Trono."
There was no answer. None was needed. Lilly understood his situation thoroughly. These were Trono's creatures, they would fight at Trono's nod. The new foreman, watching Trono with a steady, cautious glance, wondered why that nod didn't come. If the man was brash enough to force the issue now was the proper time. Trono's face was settled in reflection and there was a slow evaporation of his belligerence. Again, as in the saloon, he hesitated, seeming to weigh Lilly. In the end he turned and spoke briefly to the men. "We're pullin' out We ain't workin' on no ranch run by this jasper. If the old man wanted him so bad that ain't no skin off our nose."
The whole group turned and walked toward the bunkhouse. A quarter hour later they were galloping over the ridge and out of sight. Lilly watched them go, both relieved and puzzled; it was hard to understand Trono's mildness, hard to fathom why the man hadn't made a stronger bid for control.
"It shore looks like he's backed down from his bluff about me leavin' the country in twenty-four hours. Yet, somehow, it don't seem Trono would give in that easy. Must be a nigger in the woodpile."
Rolling a cigarette, he settled in a chair and watched the sun dip westward. Life on the ranch had come to a full stop. Nothing moved in the yard, no sound came from the corrals. It was as if Breck's passing had withdrawn the JIB's driving force; as if Pilgrim Valley had shrunk and shriveled and like many another deserted cattle ranch would forthwith be a place of memories. Well, perhaps the old man in his sickness had been too suspicious, too willing to believe in trouble and disaster. Anyhow, it was a serious matter to usurp authority without sufficient reason. Perhaps Trono had realized it and ridden away to other fields.
Here was a job for a man to do. Somehow or other, he had to get a decent, faithful crew and start the ball rolling again; prepare for the fall roundup and patch up any number of things. It took but a brief glance to see that Breck had let things sort of slide. Some of the top rails of the corral were down, the barn doors sagging on their runners. The Indian quarters were strewn with trash piles and the sod roofs of all houses were badly shaken. When the fall rains set in there wouldn't be a dry spot in any of these old structures.
"If it's this way on the home stretch," he mused, "what will it be like out on the range? How many cows am I goin' to find?"
Considering the night party that had passed by the homesteader's shack, it looked as if he wasn't going to have much rest. Well, he could put a stop to rustling and he could make a sweet-running place of it, providing he could find men. There was the rub. Being a stranger in the land, knowing nothing of ranch politics or of men's sympathies, he was going to have difficulty in collecting six or seven good top hands.
Studying this from all its angles he was interrupted a couple of hours later when a pair of riders dropped over the ridge and galloped down the slope toward him. Within fifty yards he recognized them to be from Trono's party and he stood up, suddenly wary. They whirled before the house and dismounted, each looking to the other until one took up the burden of explanation.
"It's like this," said the spokesman looking the new foreman squarely in the face. "We couldn't nowise break away from Trono here on the ranch. We ain't his kind, y'understan'? But a fella has got to watch his p's and q's. Bill an' me is square an' we like the JIB. So we sorter told Trono we was a-goin' to ride up in the pines to have a look-see. When the boys got out o' sight we come foggin' back here. If yuh need help we'd be right pleased to throw in. They'll be gunplay sooner or later, yuh bet."
Lilly worked his thumbs through his belt and stared at them with a mild, disbelieving countenance. "If you weren't Trono's men how does it come you worked under him?"
"Hell, a man's got to eat, ain't he? Now, amigo, let that ride. We didn't bust into this jes' cause we liked to be shot at. The old man was white to us. We been here a long time—before most o' those jaspers Trono hired on his own hook. Yu' see? Better make peace an' take what help yu' can get, which ain't goin' to be plenty, Trono'll scare cowhands away from here an' yu' ain't ble to turn this job by yoreself."
"Lads, it's too good to be a real yarn. I'm obliged but I don't hire on Tuesdays or Fridays. Just run back an' tell Trono it didn't work."
The pair looked mournfully disappointed. The spokesman shook his head and observed that you never could tell which way a red- head would jump and wasn't it a fact. "Amigo, what's bit yu'? Yu' asked for help an' now yu' won't take it. Tell a man!"
"I've changed my mind. It's goin to be a new deck. I'm obliged but the road out is over yonder—"
"They can stay."
It was Jill speaking. She had come from the house and stood with her back to the logs, tight-lipped and somber. "I know these men. Billy and Slim have always been good hands. My father spoke highly of them. Hang your saddles in the bunkhouse, boys, And thanks for coming."
The two made off, but not before Slim, the spokesman, had gravely assured Lilly he didn't hold anything against him for the refusal. "A man can't be too careful these days."
Lilly waited until they were well out of sight before speaking. "Ma'am, why do you suppose they come back? Don't you think they'd of stayed when I asked for 'em to choose between me and Trono? Their yarn is full of holes. They're Trono's men shore as shootin' an they'll only make trouble—of which we've got a-plenty right now."
She was bitter-eyed, resentful; and when he had finished she laid down the law to him in no uncertain terms. "Remember, you are the foreman. Nothing more. I told you I would do the firing. As for those two I know them better than you do. How is it that you, a complete stranger, insist that all this crew is untrustworthy? I might use the very same words to you."
He rubbed his hand slowly along the back of the chair, watching her as the anger seemed to mount. Perhaps he would have washed his hands of the affair then and there, have taken his horse and ridden over the ridge—if the saving grace of humor had not helped him. She was a spitfire and no mistake! But he knew, or thought he knew, what was behind those hard words. Her pride and her loyalty had been shaken by Jim Breck's confession of fault and in the after hours of tragedy when she was trying to rebuild something from the wreck, trying to regain her own self-respect, she had unconsciously laid the blame on the nearest man. Which happened to be himself. "She hates to have me see her humbled like this," he reflected. "She thinks I'm passin' judgment." Well, that would pass and she would be sorry for it. He could bear it. If she didn't change he would still stick until the trouble was averted and then pull freight. He hated a shrewish woman.
So he turned her accusation aside. "Well, if you think they're all right that settles the matter. Maybe I'm wrong. I've always been taught to be suspicious until I was shown otherwise. Now, ma'am, if you don't mind I'd like to see yore daddy's books. I've got to understand his business before I can start working."
She turned this over in her mind for some time and Lilly thought she was about to refuse him. "I guess you have a right to that," she admitted. "His office was at the end of the house. Look for yourself."
"Look for himself," he judged was going to be his motto on the JIB. Entering the old man's office—which was a bare room with only a great roll-topped desk and pine chair to relieve its emptiness—he sat down and tried to find his way through the mass of letters, catalogues and bills of lading. Everything was in confusion and according to the dates of the letters nothing had been filed for six months. The drawers and the pigeon holes were jammed full of unrelated things as if the old man, suddenly tired of seeing the top of the desk so cluttered, had swept it clear with his fist.
It grew dark long before Lilly had reduced anything to order or had found what he most wanted to find—the tallies of the spring roundup. Abandoning the job for the day he strolled to the porch. A light burned in the kitchen and he saw the girl bending over the stove; her white, strong arms moved swiftly and once as she turned Lilly thought she looked somewhat happier. She had forgotten for the moment the troubles of the day. Work did that, Lilly reflected, strolling across the yard. Many a time he had plunged headlong into any kind of labor to keep himself from thinking. Dusk fell across the land in gray, swirling waves, bringing with it a cool night breeze. There was a light in the bunkhouse and he heard one of the hands singing a doleful ditty about Sam Bass.
He moved by the corner of an Indian house and started toward the corrals. There was a slight, hissing sound to his rear and the crunch of a boot. He turned swiftly, arm dropping toward his gun; but he was too late to save himself. A loop fell over his shoulders and tautened with such a force that it threw him to the ground. In the dusk he heard a man breathing heavily, advancing on the run; and when the fellow stooped to take another hitch in the rope he saw it to be Slim the spokesman. Slim grunted his satisfaction. "Yu' damn rascal! I knew I'd ketch yu' if I waited long enough. Quit that squirmin' or I'll bust yu' to aitch! Hey, Billy—come on now. I done snared him!"
Slim was on his knee, one arm planted in Lilly's chest. Lilly bent upward and with one desperate wrench of his shoulders butted the puncher beneath the chin, throwing the man off balance. A stream of profanity followed, and though Lilly tried to pull his hands clear of the rope he failed. Slim's fist shot through the shadows and took Lilly in the temple. "Yu' damn fool, I could smash yu' fer that! Now git up an' travel to'rds the bunkhouse!"
"Here," said Lilly, "what kind of a game are you playin'? Just what's yore profit in this?"
Bill, who had joined Slim, chuckled. "You'll have to ask Trono that, amigo. Hey, Slim, it's the smokehouse we want. Yeah. All right, fella, back in there an' hold yore nose."
Lilly could not see where they were putting him. A door groaned and Slim's hand went rummaging through his pockets for knives and sundry weapons. The gunbelt dropped from his hip and he was shoved none too gently across the high sill of a shed no more than three feet square. Then the door closed and the hasp fell over a staple, to be locked. The two men, retreated speaking softly. By-and-by Lilly heard three shots near the main house. Three shots evenly spaced—the ancient signal of the range. Within ten minutes he heard many men riding into the yard. Trono had returned.
"The picture o' a gal blindfolded an boldin' a pair o' scales is shorely a fine sentiment as regards equal justice to all. But sometimes the lady ain't blind. Sometimes she's cross-eyed, which is shorely sad."—Joe Breedlove.
TRAPPED. Neatly put out of the way in a place so small that he could touch all four walls without moving. Above his head was a sharp steel hook; from below a current of air scoured through an aperture in one corner of the hard-packed floor. Long seasons of meat curing had impregnated the pine boards with a sharp, woody smell and left heavy layers of soot. His exploring fingers found it everywhere; found, too, an occasional rafter charred from the heat. Still, it was not an unsubstantial prison for when he put his shoulders against the door it did not give. The old man had built this house as he had built all others—solidly and meant to endure.
His head ached from the blow Slim had given him on the temple; blood trickled down his jaw. But that didn't matter. What really hurt was to have been so easily captured and put into Trono's power. What would the old man say if he knew what was going on? Lilly saw Breck's heavy, fighting face scowling at him through the black pit. This was not what he had expected of the red- headed stranger. Lilly reached for his makin's, growing impatient with himself. What he ought to have done was to have kicked those two agents off the ranch in spite of Jill's say-so. After all, he was responsible for her—responsible for the JIB. She wasn't the one that had to do the fighting.
"Well," he muttered, "this ain't no time to hold postmortems. Every minute I stay here means money in Trono's pocket. That gent used his head proper. Instead o' bein' bull-headed and shootin' it out he saved himself the trouble an' snares me like a rabbit. Oh, fine! That's what I get for not followin' my original idea. The question becomes, what does he aim to do now that he's got control?"
It was very puzzling. Not that a man couldn't wreck a ranch and make it thoroughly unprofitable for the owners to stay on. Between Trono and Stubbins, Jill couldn't hold her own. By sundry devices, most of which were illegal, they could haze her off. Just bring the pressure to bear hard enough and she would have to quit. It was a matter of rustling JIB cows, of sending 3Cross stock in to graze on JIB territory, of preventing cow-punchers from working for JIB. Threats—and actual violence. Oh, the road was wide enough for them to follow and no doubt they had examples set them by old Breck himself in earlier days.
Still, what was their next move? Having control, what would they do with him? They couldn't kill him outright. That would—or it should—create a stink in the country. Probably they'd escort him down the line and see that he didn't get a chance to come back. What would they do with Jill? Lilly shook his head and drew a deep breath of cigarette smoke. There was one girl they'd have to treat with gloves. She could fight and she might be able to draw enough sympathy to her throughout the county so that both Trono and Stubbins would find it entirely disagreeable. So, if they figured to do the thing neatly they'd have to keep Jill from getting where she could make herself heard.
But they couldn't keep her prisoner forever. That would leak out. What they ought to do was withdraw from the ranch and do their dirty work from the sidelines. If he was Trono and in that kind of a game it would be his tactics.
"Followin' which train of thought," he mused, "they got to put me out o' the road. Then, if they've got the county buffaloed, which it seems they have, it's only a waitin' game before the JIB is busted. Tom Lilly, my boy, it's yore move, even though you only got four feet to move in."
Someone passed near the smokehouse, feet shuffling on the hard earth. Lilly flattened himself against the door, listening. Presently the sound died. The crew appeared to be in the bunkhouse and in a happy frame of mind. They were making the rafters ring with "Arizona Boys and Girls," with now and then a gun shot to punctuate the rhyme. Lilly, crouched on the floor, opined they must have found a quart of whisky somewhere to induce all the hilarity.
"The boys in this country, they try to
By courtin' the ladies an' learnin' to dance—
An' they're down, down, an' they're down!"
"You'll shore be down if ever I get out o' this mousetrap," muttered Lilly, enraged. "A fine specimen, I am! Supposed to be protectin' the gal an' here I sit, of no more use than two-bits worth of canary seed!"
He waited until the crew had embarked on another verse of the song before butting the door with his shoulders. It gave slightly and he tried it a second time, hearing the hasp grate against the lock. Someone moved outside and he stopped quickly, gathering himself in a corner. As before the sound vanished, leaving him perplexed. Were they guarding him? And what about Jill? Were they keeping watch over her? Lilly had a vision of Trono smiling in his tight-lipped, sardonic manner; smiling at the girl with his immense shoulders humped forward. He would ride his victory high, this one-time foreman, would probably exult in his dominion over the possessions of old Jim Breck. He was dangerous—dangerous because of the uncertainty of his temper and of his mind. There was no telling when he might take it in his head to use violence; Lilly had read the ruthlessness, the killer's instinct in the green eyes and he well knew that a time might come when Trono would tire of playing safe.
The thought moved Lily around in his black cubicle and set him to exploring again. He dug his fist down into the vent hole at the bottom of the house. This was the flue by which smoke was sent into the place from a near-by oven. If he could enlarge it—dig his way through to the outside. A few attempts at crumbling the hard-packed ground discouraged him. It would take hours to make any impression and unless he mistook his man very much, Trono would be up and doing before long. Probably the burly one was mulling over the situation now in his clumsy mental processes. Lilly stepped back a pace and hurled himself at the door once again. There was a long groan of the hasp and a sharp splintering of a board, followed by those soft, shuffling steps outside. This time they came nearer and stopped. Someone was fumbling with the lock and as Lilly crowded himself in a corner, ready to spring at whoever crossed the sill, he heard the hasp give way. The door came open, inch by inch. As he poised on his toes the soft, guttural voice of Pattipaws floated in. "Huh. You come now."
He slid outside, to be met by the Indian's outstretched hand. Gun and gunbelt was there, not his own, but one that did quite as well and felt extremely satisfying as he strapped it about his waist. The Indian whispered. "You go get girl. I fin' horses. Put 'em by barn. Hyak."
The singing had diminished. Of a sudden the light streaming from the bunkhouse was shut off by an emerging figure. A figure that rolled unsteadily along for a brief time on the path of the yellow beam and then turned directly toward the smoke house. Pattipaws dissolved in the shadows, leaving Tom Lilly rooted in his place. The advancing puncher stumbled over his own high heeled boots, swearing immoderately and presently he was directly before the house, swaying a little, his tall, lanky figure but an outline in the night. Lilly tarried, not quite sure of his future course. But here was a temptation too great to be passed by. Thus, when the man stretched his arm forward and put one hand on the open door Lilly drew his gun and reversed the butt, lifting it high. It was a moment of uncertainty until Lilly heard the puncher's breath whistling inward as if preparing to send out a cry of discovery. That cry was never uttered; Lilly crossed the intervening space at one stride; the gun came down, not with full force, but heavily enough to send the wandering puncher to the ground senseless.
Lilly worked quickly. He untied the man's neck piece and gagged him. With his own handkerchief he tied the fellow's hands. Then he lifted him into the smoke house and closed the door, propping it shut with a stray piece of wood. This was all makeshift, he well knew; at the most he had no more than fifteen minutes to warn the girl and effect an escape before the puncher would rouse himself and struggle free. Turning, he tiptoed across the yard to the house, coming to a halt at one end of the porch. He had meant to save time and enter by one of the front doors, but the gleaming tip of a cigarette told him he would have to circle around to the rear. He could not see the man, but it took only half a guess to surmise who sat in Jim Breck's rocker. Trono. Trono mimicking the habits of the old man and flattering his own vanity by the performance. Temptation beset Lilly once more; this time he shook it off. The odds were too much against him. Possibly he might surprise and take Trono stowing him away as he had the fellow in the smoke house. But there were a good dozen men in the bunkhouse and he could not hope to dispose of them in the same manner. So, foregoing the pleasure, he retreated, circled the house and came to the kitchen door. It stood ajar, leading into a darkened room. Listening for a moment, he finally groped through it and opened an inner portal; this was a hallway leading he knew not just where. But he could hear the creaking of a rocker out on the porch and presently a man coughing. Nowhere could he see a light until he turned about and looked at the other end of the hall; then he made out a faint yellow beam creeping beneath a doorway. On his toes he crept toward it, listening. No sound.
Undoubtedly it was the girl's room since all the rest of the house was dark. She was in there, waiting for trouble to break, grieving for what the day had seen. Well, it was a poor time to spend in grief. Right now self-preservation was foremost. He put his hand on the knob, very much wanting to announce himself but afraid of having her challenge him and thus arouse Trono. Half turning it, he felt the latch give and at a single movement opened the door, swung himself inside and closed it, coming face to face with Jill.
She was in a chair and she had a gun trained directly on him. The color had partly left her face, but he was never to forget that flash of eye which fell fully upon him and then, after what seemed a long, long time, fade before relief. She had been expecting someone else—had posted herself there to stop that someone. Lilly put a finger to his lips and crossed the room. "Fix up. We're pullin' out. Quick now."
She nodded, keeping the silence, and rose. Whatever of resentment Lilly had felt against her for withholding trust in him vanished. She was a thoroughbred! She asked no silly questions, wasted no time. A small bundle of papers went into her coat pocket, papers she had no doubt salvaged from her father's office. Then she clapped on a battered hunting hat and turned to him as if asking his approval. And for the first time he saw friendliness in her face. The color had returned; something moved in the depths of her eyes as she held out her hand, offering him her gun. He shook his head and beckoned. Together they stepped into the hall, closing the door behind, crossing to the kitchen and threading its cluttered space to the back. The night breeze struck Lilly's face and the fresh, sage-scented air was as a call to adventure. Up above, the sky was metal black, pricked by a dozen dim stars. Beyond this cluttered yard and its garrison of lustful, over-weening men was freedom. Southward stood the shadow of the pine forest. Lilly felt the girl's hand slip into his; with a swift upthrust of reckless pride he closed his calloused fists about her small fingers and led her across the yard toward the corrals, venturing a husky phrase.
"We'll beat 'em, my girl. Don't you forget it."
They had only passed the smoke house when a strangled cry emerged from it—a cry that woke every echo on the ranch. Boots struck the bunkhouse floor, the hum of speech ceased. Trono's bull voice boomed across the area. "Who's that?"
"Shucks," grunted Lilly. "I didn't hit that hombre nowise hard enough. Comes o' bein' chicken-hearted. Now we've got to leg it. Hold tight, girl."
The crew rushed pell-mell out of their quarters and directed by another muffled cry, bore down upon the smoke house as Lilly and the girl slipped away from the yard and circled the corrals; Pattipaws waited somewhere ahead, obscured by the heavy shadows. Fury was behind. The crew had found and released the imprisoned puncher. Lilly, chuckling softly, observed he hadn't impaired the man's voice. It rose toward the sky in outraged accents. "—An' I gits a strangle holt on 'im an' he breaks it like I was a leetle chil'. Belts me acrost the coco a terrible wallop! Boys, I'm all busted up! Somebody gimme a drink! Oh, Gawd that was a dirty blow! I'll rake him across his face with m' spurs! Yeh, I will! Say, gimme a drink!"
"Pattipaws," breathed Lilly, coming to a halt. They were behind the corrals, groping into a small hollow. "Injun, where are you at? By the Lord Harry, I hope he got the cayuses. Listen to Trono yell!"
Trono had done some exploring on his own account and found the girl missing. He was thundering furiously at the crew. "Jill's done gone. That red-head missin', too? Well, you damn fools, don't stand there chatterin' like a cage full o' monkeys! Git yore hosses! They ain't far away! Two-three you boys gallop aroun' the premises! On yore toes now! We're shore sunk if they ain't rounded up!"
"I'm shore glad to hear it from his own mouth," muttered Lilly. "Pattipaws—Oh, that you?" The Indian slipped up to them and grunted briefly. He was leading three horses. Lilly helped the girl into a saddle, hearing someone running around the corrals, rapidly approaching. "Injun," murmured Lilly, "you lead off to'rd the hills, savvy? Walk along easy for a hundred yards, so they won't hear."
The Indian was in front, the girl in the center and Lilly at the rear. They climbed the far slope of the hollow and pointed south, going at a slow and silent gait The exploring party had gone on to the back of the corrals, missing the hollow by a few yards. Elsewhere was the creaking confusion of men saddling up in the dark. Trono's bellicose voice rose and fell, cursing, threatening, lashing at the crew as so many convicts. Quite gradually these sounds grew less distinct and mingled to a kind of rumble. Lilly spoke to the Indian. "All right. Let's stretch out now. We'll have to clear this place before they begin to circle around. Hustle."
Jill had not uttered a word all this time. And now as they swung toward the towering shadow of the pine forest she was equally silent. The leather gear creaked beneath them and the steady breathing of the horses made a kind of rhythm as they covered the miles. Behind them was the one clear beacon of the sky, the North Star. Elsewhere a dusky veil covered the countless twinkling lights; a soft breeze fanned them and presently the aromatic smell of the sage was blended with that of the trees.
It was a sober, thoughtful caravan that fled from the JIB. Once only during the night were they in danger. Lilly halting the group got down and put his ear to the ground. Somewhere in the near distance was a pursuing party. He published it briefly. "Find us a hollow or arroyo somewhere, Injun. We'll anchor a minute." The Indian grunted and turned his course until they were traveling back toward the ranch. The ground grew rough and in five minutes dropped from them. Here they stopped and waited until the rumbling of hoofs could be distinctly heard in the clear, quiet air. Presently a cavalcade swept by with a great clatter and groaning, to vanish westward. Lilly waited some length of time and then signaled the Indian to move on. As near as he could judge, Trono was sweeping the land in widening circles from the ranch.
Midnight passed and they stopped for a brief breathing spell. Toward morning they reached the first trees and began climbing, penetrating deeper and deeper into the recesses of the pines. Daybreak found them high above the valley floor. Lilly, seeing the weariness on the girl's face called a halt. But she was quick to dissent, saying, "If you're stopping on my account, I won't have it. I can travel as long as needed." And Pattipaws made a vague gesture forward, at which Lilly gave in. So they went for perhaps another hour until the pines suddenly made a small bayou and revealed a cabin. There they stopped.
It was an old, mouldering trappers' cabin. On all sides of the little clearing the ground rose in rugged layers and the underbrush sprang up quickly between the trees. Not a great deal farther ahead Lilly saw the base of a half bald peak and he marked it as a place from which he might scour the valley below. Meanwhile there were other things to consider. Rest and food—and a plan for the future. For all her splendid endurance and courage, the mark of the night's ride was on the girl as she slid from the horse and looked uncertainly to Lilly.
"Well," said she, "what are you planning now, Red?"
Lilly grew unaccountably warm at her use of the name. The last twelve hours had revealed many things to her; she accepted him now. Drowsiness weighted her lids, but still there was a frank friendliness in her eyes, and unreserved trust.
"First off we'll fix up a place for you to get a little sleep," he replied. "But not in that shack. If they pick up our trail—and I think they wall—they'll have a look at it. I'll spread the saddle blankets up in the brush for you. As for anything to eat, it appears as if we went on a water diet for a few meals."
She waved that aside as unimportant. "I've been hungry before." Then she flushed a little, still holding his eyes. "I'm—I'm sorry. Most of this is my own fault. But Slim and Bill were two of Dad's trusted men. Even Trono was always kind to me. I had no idea—"
"Yore dad," he reminded her, "was a powerful man. Nobody tried anything on him. They toed the mark and jumped at his word. But you can never tell what a fellow carries around in his mind. That crew puzzles me. A fine bunch of bandits! I'd think yore dad would have known what they were like."
She was struggling to keep awake. "I think he did. You see Trono picked quarrels with some of our old hands and they quit. Usually there'd be a new man the next morning. Dad didn't like some of them—I could see that, though he never told me—but we had to have help and Trono always recommended them. So Dad took Trono's word. Now that I think of it. Trono seemed to do a lot of things, these last few months, that Dad used to do himself. Dad—was getting sick."
"Uhuh. Trono packed the ranch with his own private bunch. Prob'ly bought Slim and Bill to his own side o' the fence. It's an old story. Well, it looks like a running fight for us. We'll do a lot of dodgin' before we can hit back."
"You're the boss, Red. I'll not speak out of my turn from now on."
That gave him courage to say what was in the back of his head. Through the long night ride he had come to a plan that he thought would work. "All right. We'll, sleep on it. Then, this afternoon we'll dodge into Powder and leave you."
He was not quite prepared for her sudden awaking. Dissent flashed in the dark eyes. "What will I do there?"
"Just wait until I get things in order."
"And where will you be?"
"Roamin' these hills and sort of scoutin' until I lay a few traps. Don't you worry, girl. Inside of three-four days I'll wash these bad, bold hombres off the map."
"Leave me in town, doing nothing while you're up here fighting? No! I won't do it, Red."
"But look here. I've got to leave you in a safe place. This is going to be a rough job."
She was looking at him with a curious intensity. There was something of her father in that sharp, weighing, penetrating glance; something of the same forthright recklessness in the way she threw back her head and pursed her lips together. The rich color rose higher in her cheeks. "I'll ride with you. Do you think I'm a coward? This is my country and I'll fight for it. Oh, I know what you're thinking! How will I stand up! Don't you worry about me. And I don't care a rap what anybody thinks! Maybe I can't be of any help. Maybe I'll even hinder you. But I'd die in Powder. I'd feel like a shirker, thinking about you doing the hard work and me doing nothing. No, we'll ride together, Red."
She spoke her mind and turned half away, as if afraid to see the effect on the man. Lilly fumbled for his cigarette papers, disturbed profoundly. This was not at all as he had planned it. What could she be thinking of, anyway? In the midst of these troubled reflections he caught her eyes—and his uncertainty vanished. She was a fighter, like her daddy. And she had forgotten, it seemed, that she was a woman. He doubted if she realized what a curious, gossiping world would have to say.
"Red, I know what you're thinking. Never mind me. I don't belong to any social clubs and so they can't kick me out in disgrace. It's my business. I'm not an infant—and I will fight for JIB!"
He nodded. "All right. That's settled. We'll get along somehow. Now for a siesta. Come along."
He took off the saddles and appropriated the blankets, leading her well into the thicket. It was a rough bed, among the rocks, but when she settled down she was already half asleep. Lilly bent over and folded a loose end around her shoulders, wondering if ever a girl had been fashioned quite like Jill Breck. The dark hair was all tousled, making her strangely boyish. Yet no amount of sun or rain or rough riding could conceal the beauties of the clear white skin of her neck or the pink flush on her cheeks. She had a drowsy, warming smile for him. Then she was plunged in profound slumber.
Lilly walked down the slope to where Pattipaws crouched against the side of the cabin, warming himself in a patch of sun.
"Old-timer," said Lilly, "I've got a chore for you to do."
"Um. Pattipaws do."
"It's a long trip. Sleep first."
The Indian shook his head. "Pattipaws no need sleep. Sleep for young bucks. You fix'm."
Lilly found a pencil and piece of paper in his pocket and after staring thoughtfully at the ground wrote a very brief message, signing his first name. He folded it and passed it to the Indian who tucked it in a pocket. Thereafter for three or four minutes Lilly carefully explained the contents and delivered his instructions. In the end the Indian rose, jumped on one of the horses—scorning a saddle—and pushed through the brush. Lilly watched him go and listened until he could no longer hear the rustling of leaves and the click of hoofs on the stony ground.
One more chore he had to do before finding himself a moment's rest. Hiding the horses deep in the forest and likewise caching the saddles where they could not be seen by prying eyes, he started toward the summit of the peak. It was a long, weary climb and more than a half hour elapsed before he reached the top. Once there he was rewarded by a magnificent sight of the whole valley. It lay before him as a map unrolled on a table with each depression and each knoll visible under the hot summer sun. Here was an isolated kingdom, elevated above the burning desolation of the desert outside the rimming Buttes. And in the center of it huddled the buildings of the JIB. He could see them as so many dark specks against the yellow earth.
But as for moving figures, he saw none. Not a thing seemed to tenant the valley. No tell-tale wisp of dust kicked up behind a traveling cavalcade. Trono had buried himself; Lilly, venturing a shrewd guess, believed the foreman was already in the pine forest seeking his erstwhile prisoners. The thought hurried his inspection and he turned down the slope, plunging through the trees. By-and-by, he heard a sound and he stopped dead, searching the brush with cautious eyes. It came but once and after a few moments he proceeded onward, using a great deal more caution. A warning had come to him, not anything tangible that he could put his five senses to, but still a warning that stayed his feet when he reached the edge of the little clearing again. Heavy silence pervaded it, broken by the sudden heavy beating of a grouse's wings. Far off, he thought he heard the click of rock against rock.
Very still, very peaceful—yet a quick, unfathomable excitement took possession of Lilly and, without displaying himself he withdrew and he circled higher in the brush, aiming for the girl's covert. He crossed a small valley of trees on his stomach, crawled over heavy boulders and half fell into the pit formed by an uprooted pine. And of a sudden he was looking at the very spot he had placed Jill. The ferns and smaller brush were trampled down on all sides, the blankets thrown carelessly aside. And the girl was not to be seen.
She had vanished without warning. But at the end of twenty fleeting minutes Tom Lilly read the story all too well. Trono had traced the hoof prints this far—Trono and a party of four others. And he had found the girl. There was the mark of struggle in the manner the brush had been beaten down; Jill had not surrendered without a fight, though it puzzled Lilly that she had not sent out at least one cry. The pine trees made a vast sounding board and would have carried her warning well up the slope. Perhaps she had—and he had been just beyond the range of hearing. At any rate, struggling had done her no good. Trono had taken her and made his escape.
The horses were still tethered where he had left them. That, too, was peculiar. If they had sought through the underbrush for the girl and found her, how was it they had not discovered the horses?
Lilly extended his radius of search, combing the rocky slopes and the long avenues between trees, coming at last to the conclusion that Trono had been satisfied with his single capture and was not in the vicinity, waiting to ambush him. Quickly saddling a horse and letting the other animal go free, he struck downward, following the trail. It was a clear trail in places, showing the homeward bound prints of Trono's horses. At other places it grew dim and was lost on the rock surfaces. Lilly pursued it as rapidly as his sense of caution allowed, at times striking into the woods and skirting such points and ledges as might form a decent place for a surprise.
When he arrived at the edge of the timber he found the trail of the party diverged from the route leading to the JIB and swung westerly on a path that led directly toward the homestead and Jim's Pass. The thought that they were taking Jill away from her own house to some unknown hiding place enraged him beyond measure. He struck the flank of his horse, swearing softly.
"Damn 'em, they can't get away with it! They can't do it! By the Lord Harry, I'll kill the man if he hurts her! I'll run the legs off him!"
He spurred along the trail, growing reckless. During the fore part of the morning he had been very careful; the farther he traveled across the undulating floor of the valley the less heed he took of his own safety. He kept recalling the old man's last words. "You take care o the gal, Red." What a fine job he'd done so far! For all the good he'd accomplished he might as well be in China. Then he kept seeing her as she was in the covert, her black hair tousled, her sleepy eyes smiling upward at him. The fighting rage welled up and flowed over. Rising in the stirrups he scanned the ground ahead.
Once, toward noon, he thought he saw something moving along the skyline near the homestead and he turned toward it, quickening the pace. Up and down the rolling slopes he galloped, the wild temper overmastering his caution. Once indeed he drew rein to give his horse a brief rest and in the breathing space he recalled Joe Breedlove's sage remarks about the unnecessary trouble red-head gents brought down upon themselves. He threw the thought aside and went on. "Joe never got into a jackpot like this," he muttered, squinting against the hard, glittering light. What good came of holding back, of caution? He had been careful and see what had come of it! "I ain't made on that plan," he reflected. "Better stick to my own method o' fightin'. And by the Lord Harry, I'll nail Trono's hide to the wall!"
The long chase was rewarded at last. When he reached the top of a swelling ridge he saw the homestead shack nestling in the cottonwoods a hundred yards away. Around it were three horses, and loitering in the shade were three men. They saw him the moment he came in view and, as he was against the sun, mistook him for one of the JIB crew. That was all the favor he needed. Drawing his gun he raced down upon them, seeing Trono's massive frame rise slowly and then come to astonished attention and swift recognition. The bawling voice broke the silence.
"Hey—it's the red-head!" And his big fist swooped downward.
Lilly stopped him with a shot that furrowed the sand. "Cut that! You other two boys put 'em in the air! Nev' mind edgin' to'rds the door! I ain't in no good humor right now." His attention snapped back to Trono. "You dirty pirate, what'd you do with Jill?"
Trono, hands half raised, looked toward the man on his left and winked broadly. "Hear him," he grunted. "That's a big bluff for certain. Red, yuh oughta know where she is since yore the one that took her away. Here, yuh be careful o' that cannon! Goin' to shoot me cold?"
Lilly, shifting his glance toward the others, realized they were both strangers; neither were JIB hands. The one to whom Trono had spoken had a pair of cold gray eyes and a clean shaven face that at present wrinkled in puzzlement. Trono broke in, "Yuh fool! Tryin' to bluff it out now? it won't wash. This yere's the sheriff an' he's lookin' fer yuh. Better put down yore gun. Yuh can't bluff the law, kid!"
Lilly slid from the saddle advancing on Trono. "Listen," said he, checking the volcanic eruption of anger, "I'm of no mind to be played with. Yore goin' to tell me what you did with Jill Breck an' yore goin' to do it sudden. Hear that? I'm a white man, but by the Lord Harry I'll use Injun methods if you stand there an' fool me! Know what that means, don't you?"
A side glance into the cabin had told him the girl was not around the homestead; and the three horses likewise indicated there had been a shifting of the original party. As to this stranger being a sheriff, that was a bluff. Even so the man did not bear the stamp of Trono's breed. He looked honest. Meanwhile the JIB foreman shifted his weight and, seeing the expression on Lilly's face, he began to sputter.
"That don't get you by! If you touch me you'll live to regret it!"
Lilly was on the point of replying when the man with the honest face broke in, speaking quietly and with a certain clear assurance. "Put yore gun down, boy. I declare yore under arrest." With that announcement he hitched his shoulder in a way that threw his coat aside, displaying a star.
"Arrest me?" demanded Lilly. "And what for?"
"Kidnappin' Jill Brock," announced the official. "When the doc got back to Powder he said the situation out here was in poor shape, so I rode over. First thing I found was you'd gone off with the gal an' the whole ranch was lookin' fer you. That's a serous offense, my boy."
"Yore takin' Trono's word against mine?"
The sheriff seemed to have some certain mental reservations. In the end he shrugged his shoulder. "Yore a stranger here. All the JIB boys stick to the same story. Deliver me yore gun."
Lilly was shaking his head. "Don't propose to do it, sher'ff. They may have you deceived, but they ain't got me that way. If I got to buck the law to find Jill Breck it's plumb too bad. But I aim to wring a confession out of Trono or cripple him in the attempt."
There was a movement of the sheriff's eye and a sudden relief on Trono's sweating face. At the same time a cool voice spoke from Lilly's rear. "Yore covered. Drop the gun."
Lilly stood immobile for one long, desperate instant. In the end he nodded briefly, passing his revolver to the sheriff and locking his lips to keep in the flood of bitter disappointment. Trono, relieved of danger, sprang forward with an upraised fist. "Now who's goin' to do the cripplin', you—"
"Back off," said the sheriff, coldly. "You'll do nothing to this man. He goes to Powder."
"He oughta be lynched here an' now," muttered Trono. "If the rest o' my crew was around you'd have a hard time gettin' him off safe."
"So?" grunted the sheriff. "Trono, you don't talk sense."
Another man moved into view, the one who had caught Lilly from behind. He, too, was a stranger, and doubtless of the sheriff's party. "Good thing," said he, "I happened to stray off."
The sheriff motioned Lilly to get in the saddle. Meanwhile he and his deputies found their animals and mounted, leaving Trono alone. The heavy man was frowning deeply and the sheriff, catching sight of his temper, stopped to issue a warning. "Don't get it in yore head you can raid the jail, either. There'll be no lynchin' in my bailiwick."
"You goin' to let him go off 'thout tellin' where he's got the gal!" bawled Trono.
"That will develop," said the sheriff, cryptically and started on. The deputies fell in behind. They rode as far as the main trail through the Pass before Lilly roused himself to speak. "So this is justice in Robey County."
"Sometimes," stated the sheriff, "justice don't show her face completely to the onlooker."
When Lilly turned to look at the sheriff, the latter was smiling slightly. That smile engrossed Lilly's attention all the long weary ride into town and puzzled him even when he had been locked behind the cell door.
"Hark to me, amigo: a woman may shorely be a weak vessel but she's got more ways o' fightin' than a man ever heard about. It ain't because o' chivalry a man don't want to hit a lady—it's because o' fear o' gettin' a fine lickin'. You bet."—Joe Breedlove.
JILL BRECK had fallen asleep instantly in the hidden glade. But it was not a dreamless sleep; the long ride and all the discouraging, tragic incidents of the day had bruised her profoundly and left unforgettably vivid pictures in her mind. So she dreamed; terrifying dreams that at times brought helpless cries from her. It seemed she was being led away from the JIB, that the house and quarters were going up in flames. She was being roughly treated and each time she protested a vise-like fist closed around her throat. She was driven to a strange country—to the chasm of a river she could not recognize. Above the roar and rush of water she felt a heavy fist closed about her wrist and someone spoke ironically.
"What yuh shoutin' about, sister?"
She woke with a scream in her throat. Trono, his face beet-red and glistening with sweat, was bending over her, grinning in his- tight, triumphant manner. "If yuh aimed to hide yuh shouldn't be caterwaulin' in yore sleep. Come up girl, we got to be movin'. Where's that red-head went?"
"Take your hand off me!"
"Oh, don't talk sassy. Yuh'll live to regret it!"
When she pulled back, resisting the force of his massive arm, he grew suddenly enraged and yanked her forward at a motion. She struck at his leering face and left her mark; roaring, Trono slapped her with the palm of his hand, shoved her through the bushes and into the clearing. Half a dozen of the JIB crew were scattered around the cabin, guns out, moving warily. "Yuh goin' to tell me where the red-head went?" demanded Trono.
She felt the cruel pressure of his grip and gave up her attempt to get free. "You will be paid for this, Trono! Don't you know what the men of the county will do to you for treating me like you do?"
"If there's any pay comin' I guess we'll get it all right," muttered Trono, hoisting her into the saddle before him. "But I guess we'll ride that down. As fer the men o' this county they oughta know better'n to tackle me or my men. Stop that squirmin', yuh little spitfire! Ain't your own crew good enough fer yuh? Think yore awful smart, sidin' in with this waddy. Well, we'll learn yuh manners."
"What are you going to do with me?"
"Wait an' see. Come on, boys. We've lost the redhead, I guess. It won't do fer us to let him take pot shots from the bush. Anyhow, we've got Jill, which is plenty. We're ridin'."
"If my father were alive he'd skin you."
Trono chuckled. "Yeah, he shore would. Or I'd skin him. The old man was afraid o' me. Never had the nerve to gimme my time. Didn't know that, did yuh? Well, I had the dope on him. I'm a- tellin' yuh. I ain't no church member, but yore dad wa'n't a Methodist elder by a long shot. Come on, boys."
She closed her lips, venturing no more. Trono was a desperate man, and the recent turn of events had unleashed the everpresent strain of lawlessness. Authority, he had never held in great esteem. More than once he had openly flouted it, though he perhaps did not quite understand that the county left him alone because he had the protection of Old Jim Breck. In his overweening pride he considered that it was his reputation they were afraid of; he believed he was the one who had made the JIB formidable. Stubbins would have told him otherwise, but on this morning Stubbins was not present to give his cautious advice. The girl wisely held her peace, uncomfortable in her precarious seat, thinking of Red and wondering what had become of him.
They reached the open country and instead of going toward the ranch, curved westward, dropping into an arroyo that put them below the horizon. Much later they reached the homesteader's shack and stopped for a rest while Trono sent out men to skirmish. Jill, half asleep in the house, heard one of them ride hurriedly back some time later and presently the word "sheriff'" revived her hopes. It was swiftly quenched. Trono hailed her, half hurled her up before another of the party. Then they were away, riding in great haste, leaving Trono behind.
She grew so weary that she lost trace of time. Once they stopped in a depression, the men whispering to one another and keeping watch over the surrounding land; later they left their shelter and struck rapidly toward the Pass, crossed it and dipped into the burning plain below. Jill closed her eyes and for long stretches of time was oblivious of her surroundings. She never knew how long she rode; but toward sunset she was roused by a man speaking and she looked up to see the 3Cross ranch-house directly in front of them. One of the party rode ahead. By-and-by the cavalcade reached the porch and stopped before Stubbins.
Stubbins smiled courteously, but Jill understood him well enough to know there was little hope of help here. Still, she protested as much as her flagging strength permitted.
"Mr. Stubbins, are you making war on a woman? For shame, but you will never live it down! I'll fight back—you'll never keep me long!"
"Ma'am," said he evenly, "don't put it that way. We're only rescuin' you from your enemies. Consider yourself my guest, nothing more. All right, boys, the lady rests here."
She slid gingerly to the ground. "Rescue! Fine words. But, then, you never were a hand to speak the truth. You were afraid of my father, Mr. Stubbins. You never had the courage to face him. So you waited until he died—and then began to fight me!"
Stubbins reddened. His thin lips folded beneath the bear-like nose and he motioned her inside with a gesture abrupt and impatient. "You take advantage of a man, knowin' he can't strike back."
"Fine reasoning," she retorted. "What excuse have you for taking advantage of a woman?"
He half pushed her down a hall, into a bedroom. Without a word, bowed himself out. She heard the key turn and when she crossed to pull down the shade at the window she saw a puncher negligently stroll across from the bunkhouse and take up his station. A prisoner of the 3Cross! She dropped on the bed to cry but instead, fell asleep.
Though transplanted from his native land—or, more properly, driven from it by an outraged family—Stubbins had never foregone its leisurely, formal customs. It was quite dark when he knocked on the door and announced supper. "I am waiting for you, of course. We must not let the meal get cold. Come, now."
Awakened, Jill debated on self-imposed confinement. But that passed, for she was not the kind to sulk. Hers was the temperament that took the fight to the enemy; in this case she considered it the better part of valor to break bread with the Englishman and talk him out of his ideas. So she rose, washed some of the dust from her face and stepped forth to meet him. He had recovered his perfect urbanity and led her into the dining- room, seating her with a studious politeness. Jill looked about her with considerable interest.
The man lived high and took pains to bring as much of England into the desert as he could. He had fashioned the dining-room, which was the living-room as well, after the fashion of a manorial hall, its ceiling extending a story and a half up. Trophies studded the four walls and bear rugs quite entirely covered the floor. There was a great fireplace, surmounted by a mantel filled with pipes, tobacco and a litter of purely masculine bric-a-brac. A long gun rack stood to one side, the row of oiled weapons glistening dully in the lamp light And somewhere he had picked up some magnificent oil paintings of the West—a Remington's scene of a bighorn on the high ledges; a thorough-brace stage coach tilting perilously down a mountain road done as Russell alone knew how to do.
He enjoyed her unspoken compliment and said so. "You see, I surround myself with as many comforts as I can. Really, the old Westerners are grand fighters, but they don't understand the gentle art of living. It takes a gentleman of the old country to show them."
Jill shrugged her shoulders in dissent. A Chinaman came silently in and they ate through four sedate courses, conversing in desultory phrases. The Englishman proceeded quite as if he were entertaining an honored guest and Jill, for all her distrust of the man, conceded that he was a far more polished specimen than she had ever before known. He made a ritual of supper and, when they had finished, drew her to the glowing blaze. The Chinaman came in with coffee; over the cups Stubbins smiled expansively and touched on dangerous territory.
"Jill, it has been unfortunate that your father and I never struck it off. A fine gentleman. One I was sincerely sorry to see go."
The girl stared at him somberly. It was a direct lie—she saw as much in his eyes. Stubbins spread his hands outward in a symbol of frankness. "All this warfare has been exaggerated. True, we fought sometimes, but usually it was our crews that collided and caused the rumpus. What I'm getting around to, is that you must not harbor ill will toward me on account of a fancied feud. I—most assuredly do I say so—am your friend."
"What are you getting to?" demanded Jill, using her father's bluntness.
Stubbins shut his mouth suddenly and breathed through his nose. "Ah, you disbelieve. My dear girl, you must understand that this world is a dreadful place. Men fight each other over nothing at all, bear tales that are untrue and so go on weaving a web of animosity. It's this I wish to break down, betwixt you and me. We must stick together."
"By all means," said Jill. "Even if you must lock me in my bedroom."
"Only because I was afraid you would run away before I had a chance of putting the situation before you in its proper light. Now, look; here you are entirely alone and very much in trouble. What are you going to do about it?"
"I am going to scratch your eyes out, Mr. Stubbins," said she, quite earnestly. "Once I get the chance."
He pondered over this, not quite knowing whether she meant it literally or figuratively. The girl made herself clear.
"Don't take me for a baby. Trono is quite crooked—and you are behind him. You mean to make life so miserable for me that I'll be glad to give you the JIB."
"Who told you that?" he asked, drawing the question through his nose.
"It's to be seen."
He put his cup down, growing slightly red around the gills. "That newcomer filled you with that yarn. You sh'd have known better than to've trusted him."
"How is it you know so much about him in so short a time?" she countered. "Evidently someone has been keeping you informed."
The Englishman studied her at some length and at last came to a decision. "Well, if you want the cards on the table, I'll not deny I've been interested. But I'm a little better than you give me credit for being. Truth is, I have long cherished a notion."
For so stolid a temper, he displayed unusual signs of nervousness. Rising, he kicked back the log of the fire, aligned the pipes on the mantle, and jammed one hand in his coat pocket. "Jill, you can't go on alone. Who ever heard of a woman running a cattle ranch? Now, look; I'm a substantial man. I own a great deal of land and stock and I can command a fair size of money. I'm not so old and, bless me, I do know how to enjoy life. But it is plagued lonesome batching in this house. Here—I'm getting into deep water! Will you throw in with me, Jill?"
"Well, it's a pleasant idea."
He was not expecting the torrent of laughter that followed. Indignant refusal he could understand, but laughter! Ridicule! The rosy color stained his long, horsey jaws from temple to cleft and he stood very quiet, waiting for her to stop. "What would you be marrying me for?" she asked, catching her breath.
"Why, devil! What does a man marry for? Companionship."
"And land and cattle." she added ironically.
"You are refusing me?"
"Of course. Do you think you are so profound that you can't be seen through? Now, let's talk sense. When are you going to stop this piracy and let me go? You will find you're keeping a white elephant. Sooner or later there will be trouble for you."
"I had thought you owned a little solid wisdom," he muttered. "I see you are but a giddy thing. I'll teach you better. Ay, I will."
She rose. "I give you warning you will learn more than you teach, Mr. Stubbins."
Stubbins watched her vanish toward her bedroom, his hands locked behind his broad back. He was scowling heavily in the heavy outraged manner of a man who had found his charitable intentions trampled under. Like many another of his kind he lacked humor; not the small incidental humor that causes a man to laugh at incongruous things, but the deep, rich vein of amusement rising out of self-knowledge. He was, in truth, a grave ass who thought he was doing Jill Breck a great turn. Naturally, he expected to profit from it. The fact of the matter was he did care somewhat for the girl, but this curious affection had been nourished almost wholly on the assumption that in marrying her he would be master of Pilgrim Valley.
Deprived of this manner of acquiring territory he became distinctly dangerous. Cautious, disposed to use a soft word where it would do the work of a hard one, he nevertheless always pushed toward the main object, never allowing himself to be shunted aside. He had feared Breck as he had feared no other living man; that alone kept him humble. But Breck was gone and, like Trono, he felt a weight removed. From now on he would be less cautious.
So he stood before the fireplace, pipe clenched in his teeth, studying his problem. Possession of Jill was no simple matter; he knew he had most of the county officials beneath his thumb and he likewise knew that with the 3Cross crew and the JIB crew—the latter chosen by him through Trono—he could stand off a good sized posse. Even so, it was a dangerous situation. Once a sentiment thoroughly took hold of the country it swept men along at a tremendous rate. If Jill's captivity should become general knowledge it would do nothing but harm to him.
"Trono," he muttered, "was a cursed fool for making this move. He should have taken the girl back to the JIB and held her there. Then nobody could say she was being kidnapped—on her own ranch."
Trono, as it had often turned out before, was the stumbling block. The man was forever doing the wrong thing, the bull-headed thing. Always butting into trouble. Trono didn't know that you could only push a community about so far; after that they rose and wrought destruction.
"Well," he said to himself, "she made a bad bargain when she turned me down. I may look soft but I'll not let her turn me. Gad, I will not! She chooses to take pot luck. All right. I'll use a man's weapons on her. That I will."
Jill, meanwhile, had gone storming to her room with mixed emotions. In the darkness—there seemed to be no lamp—she stood quite still, listening for the lock to turn; but Stubbins had not followed her and she felt more relieved than she could express. Stubbins had made his bid and in doing so had disclosed his mind. Here was another of those men who would stop at no point short of his destination. He used a little bluster, he was quite the suave gentleman when it pleased him; that made him the more formidable. Jill, on tiptoes, went to the window and peeped through the blind. A cigarette tip glowed in the darkness, warning her that she was still guarded.
It heightened her feeling of desperate resistance. Catching hold of the door knob she turned it until the lock clicked ever so slightly. Inch at a time she slipped it open; down the hall the boards glowed from the reflection of the fire in the big room. That way she could not go without crossing Stubbins' vision. The other way, then. Slipping through, she closed the door with equal care and slid into darkness, not knowing where this black alley led. Dishes rattled from the kitchen, a patch of light fell athwart her path, then a draught of air. Luck! She was on the sill of an open door that led into the back yard of the house.
The glowing cigarette tip was just out of range around an elbow of the house. The barn loomed against the sky, a landmark on which she unconsciously set her course. Somewhere she'd find a horse and get clear of this Englishman and his plans. But Red, where was he? Jill, setting her foot into an unexpected hollow, bit her tongue and wistfully wished for the comfort of his presence. Her father had judged right at first sight—Red was a man!
The barn's shadow engulfed her and Jill, fearful that Stubbins might now be discovering her absence, moved faster. She brushed a post, lost her balance in the sharp turn and unexpectedly kicked over a bucket, waking what seemed to her every echo on the ranch. To the right, the bunkhouse door suddenly opened and a figure stood silhouetted in a gush of yellow light. Someone drawled, "That you, Bill?" Hard on this, she heard Stubbins' mealy accent bark across the yard. "Ashbey, where the devil have you been? She's given me the slip! Roust out!"
At that she ran faster, circling the barn, seeing the man spring from the bunkhouse in hot pursuit. She collided against the sharp bars of a corral and said "darn!" in an aggravated, rising tone. She could not turn back, so she started to climb over; but that, too, was fatal. Boots thudded near by and an ungentle hand hauled her down from her perch. "Honey," said a soft, southern voice, "you got spunk, but yore buckin' the wrong brand."
She marched meekly back to the house and into the light of the big room. Stubbins stared at her with a hard, glowering gaze. "Get to your room! Don't try that again, hear! I have men on guard around this house and they're ordered to shoot."
Jill said, malice in her voice, "I told you, Mr. Stubbins, you'd have trouble keeping me. I'll scratch your eyes out yet." She went quickly to her room, this time hearing the key turn. There was another sound, too. Hoofs drummed on the hard ground outside and a man challenged, evoking a rumbling, familiar reply. "Oh, put up yore damn gun. Yuh'd think this was an army. It's me—Trono."
The interview between Trono and Stubbins was very brief, as usual. The two men seemed to find little comfort in each other's company; for all their common crookedness. Trono strode across the room in long, aggressive steps, stopping directly in front of Stubbins.
"Well, you got the girl. Now what you goin' to do with her?"
"That's something you should have considered before you brought her to me," answered Stubbins. "It was a foolish thing to do. Supposing this gets out? Why, I'll have a fight on my hands. You should have left her at the JIB and seen to it she stayed right in the house until she was ready to pack up and leave the country."
"Yeh? Yuh always got a better idea, ain't yuh?" grumbled Trono. "I brought her here because the sher'ff was roamin' around the Valley. Then that damn Red was causin' trouble. We pinned his ears back an' led him to the calaboose fin'lly. But yore the boss, so you tell me what yore goin' to do."
"Mean to say the fellow is in jail? Oh, the devil! Now he'll spread the story and stir the county. My Godfrey, why didn't you put him out of the way?"
Trono took the rebuke with ill grace. "Say, do yuh think I'm Jesse James? I been havin' plenty o' trouble the last thirty-six hours. Now I'm sharin' some o' it with you. It's yore job, anyhow. You jes' mix in an' do a few licks yoreself. As fer the red-head, the sher'ff got him booked fer kidnappin'. I think he'll have a hard time."
"Kidnappin'? Hm. That sounds interestin'" Stubbins studied his ally. "He ought to be put out of the way, my lad. He's a dangerous critter."
"How about this?" said Trono, leaning forward. "We'll jes' hide the girl some place an' then take a bunch o' the boys down to Powder an' lynch him fer doin' the deed. Then he won't give us no bother."
Stubbins nodded. "Now you're thinking what you should have thought some time ago. But I can't have her here. Somebody's liable to drop in and see her. Got to put her in some other cache."
"Thought you had a way with wimmen." Trono grinned.
Stubbins pressed his lips together and looked angry. "You take her, Trono. Now. Over the mountains to the last line rider's cabin. Grub there. Then in a couple days I'll see to it a lynchin' party starts for Powder."
"So I'm to pull the coals outa the fire again?" Trono was sullenly intractable. "Why don't you do it yoreself? Supposin' I get caught?"
"Hell! I'll go. But what you goin' to do with her after that?"
Stubbins hadn't decided that. Truly, Jill was becoming a burden to him. But he didn't say as much to Trono; the burly foreman was given to spells of ridicule that Stubbins disliked. So he dropped his head significantly and said, "That will take care of itself. This newcomer must be fixed first. I'll get the lady."
He roused Jill and escorted her into the hall. Trono grinned sourly at her and winked portentously at Stubbins. "Jill, we got to go fer a little ride. Don't you be afeerd, though. It's all right."
The girl lifted her shoulders. She knew, in a half certain way, what they were about, though she didn't understand that it implicated Tom Lilly. Resistance was utterly useless. Mustering her courage she lifted her clear, oval face to Stubbins. "I'm already becoming a burden to you, am I not? All right, Mr. Stubbins. You'll find that a woman has a thousand ways of fighting back you never heard of. And, remember, I'll scratch your eyes out before you are finished with me."
Trono led her into the yard. In a few minutes a 3Cross man led around a second horse and presently the girl was traveling again. This time southward. She had managed to smile somewhat at Stubbins and assumed an air of triumph. Here in the utter darkness, bound for an unknown destination, this triumph deserted her.
"Oh, Red, where are you! I wish you'd come!"
"I'm a peaceful man. Fightin' I don't like. But here I am, now who do I shoot?"—Joe Breedlove.
POWDER sweltered under the baking, midday heat; Powder shivered with the midnight cold. It was a town of violent extremes, living in a state of suspended animation for long periods of time until the cowboy and his money rode furiously in to spill the red paint. Life here was indolent and easy until the slumbering passions flared up; then it became cruel, raw, unjust. Such was Powder as it appeared to Tom as he surveyed it from the second floor of the sheriff's office during the two days of his confinement.
There was nothing much to divert him, save his own thoughts and these were not of a kind to guarantee peace. He was never the man to play possum; he had no easy-going philosophy to console him when things went wrong. Rather his quick temper fed upon his injuries and the injuries done to others, growing greater, more volcanic. So it flickered and flared under pressure, ready to burst forth at the first opportunity, making of him an extremely dangerous character. The sheriff, visiting now and then, saw this and in an easy-going way tried to humor him.
"Now it don't ever help a man to hold his breath until his lungs cave in," he warned. "That's what yore doin'. You'll bust yore G string and be plumb out of harmony if you don't just float with the tide a while. Sing yoreself a sweet little ditty an' pretend yore takin' the rest cure."
"That," muttered Tom Lilly, "is what Joe Breedlove would say. Yeh, 'Take it easy' is his fav'rite motto."
"Yore friend has got plenty of sense," said the sheriff. "An oiled wheel lasts longer than a dry one."
"Hell! I'm not built that way. Yore a fine fellow to come round here talkin' like Santy Claus. It ain't no skin off yore nose that they's a bunch of wild men up in the hills pickin' the JIB to pieces."
He couldn't quite understand the sheriff. The man draped himself against the door, smiling down his pipestem. There was apparent honesty in his eyes and a certain stubborn fearlessness in the cut of the grizzled, middle-aged face. "Seems to me you didn't have any friendly notions to'rds the JIB when you went into Pilgrim Valley," said he. "Why all the concern now?"
"I hate a double crosser," said Tom. "It natcherlly makes me riled."
"Well, you're buckin' some powerful gents, my son. Take the advice of an old campaigner. Slick does it in this country. Don't go around announcin' your intentions. Just sing low until you're ready to slam in with the artillery."
"Fine to say," grunted Tom. "But do you realize they's a girl bein' held somewhere in those hills? By the Lord Harry, it ain't nothin' to smile about! That's what gripes me. I'd kill somebody for that."
The sheriff stared long and intently at Tom Lilly. His forehead wrinkled thoughtfully and he removed his pipe, tapping it against the grating. "Wherever she is, nobody's treatin' her too bad. Them boys ain't forgot they're gentlemen—of a sort."
"What boys?" demanded Lilly.
The sheriff merely grinned. Lilly stood up. "Say, you seem to know a powerful lot. When do I get tried for this awful crime I didn't commit?"
"Soon enough," said the sheriff. "As for knowin' things, I'll admit it. That's why I hold my job. You have to mingle politics with duty in this country, Red."
Lilly heard him creaking down the stairs and call to somebody in the street. A short while after a rider cantered southward from the town—Lilly saw him go from the back window of his cubicle. The sheriff, too, got aboard his sorrel and ambled leisurely away from the smothering heap that was Powder. The day droned along; night came and with it the sounds of reviving pleasure. Supper came. The piano in Jake Miner's place sent forth its stuttering off-key harmony. Boots clumped across the sheriff's office below him. Evidently that worthy was back from his ride. Lilly rolled an after supper cigarette and reflected on many things. Considering the seriousness of the charge placed against him, it seemed the sheriff maintained a mighty friendly attitude toward him; nor did he seem greatly exercised at the thought of Jill Breck having disappeared. There was mystery behind this. Was the man in league with Trono? On the surface it appeared so, but Lilly could not imagine double-dealing behind the sheriffs square, frank face.
Darkness had long since fallen. Below, there was a murmuring of voices, two or three of them. Then the stairway squealed under a heavy body and a vague shadow appeared beyond the grating. A key scraped the lock and a soft voice—a voice that had a sweet and laughing timber to it—floated inward.
"Yeh. The sheriff said this was where he kept his star boarder. Iron bars do not a prison make! Shore enough. Mister Lilly would you be so kind as to step forth where I c'n shock myself with yore unholy mug oncet more?"
Lilly sprang up, checking a shout of delight. Joe Breedlove! Pattipaws then, had delivered his message. He shoved the door open and with an effort spoke casually. "You old wampus cat."
"Yeh. Same to yuh an' many of them. It shorely seems natcheral—me gittin' yuh outa jail oncet more. I'm allus giftin' yuh outa some mess." A firm hand closed on his shoulder. Breedlove's tall, square body stooped toward him. "I'm a man o' peace. I hate to fight. But here I am, now who do I shoot?"
"Easy, boy. What'd you do with the sheriff?"
"Oh, Moses an' I sorter sauntered in like we wanted to converse with him an' gits the drop. He's down talkin' religion to Moses now. Only it's hard fer a gent to talk with his hands tied."
"You brought the boys along?"
"Eight simple-minded men o' the open spaces. We rolled our blankets five minutes after yore telegram come. Hopped a freight at the water tank an' had a right nice journey. Railroad men c'n be awful accommodatin', when they got to be. The Injun was at the Junction waitin' fer us. Guess he knew all about yuh, fer he leads us thisaway. I left the boys outside so nobody'd get excited."
Lilly groped down the stairway and opened a door into a side room. A lantern emitted feeble rays through its smudgy shield, revealing the sheriff neatly tied to a chair and a sad-faced, loose-jointed person standing near him, speaking in polite solemnity about the weather. The sheriff seemed not to mind his position; he grinned with cheerful humor when Tom Lilly entered.
"I was wonderin' when your party would arrive," said he. "Better turn down that lantern a little. Somebody might peek in that door."
"Huh?" asked Lilly. "How did you know I asked for help?"
"Shucks, man, give me a little credit. Ever' time a sparrow ketches a worm in Robey County I know it. How? That's my own business. What's your next move?"
"Now look here," interrupted Lilly. "Explain yoreself. I don't arrive at you atall. Are you for me or agin me? If yore for me, why did you put me in the jug? If yore agin me, what's the idea o' actin' as if you'd found yore long lost brother?"
"I'm for justice. Red. That's a-plenty. But sometimes I've got to use devious means to arrive at it. Now, I pinched you to keep Trono and his fine assassins from tyin' you to a tree, which they honed to do. As for lookin' proud in these close-embracin' folds of rope, what good would it do me to cuss? You got me. Now go on an' peddle your papers. Though I'm more'n half glad you rustled up some good men."
"Don't it beat hell?" grunted Lilly. Joe Breedlove was smiling, his tall, husky frame slightly bent over. His was the countenance of a man well disposed toward the world; from his sandy yellow hair downward he made a picture of an easy-going, shrcwdly-observant character. Sadness had touched Joe Breedlove; he had never had a home. Once, he had seen himself double-hitched and running his own small ranch. But that was only a memory now. Out of all this he could still smile that sweet, charitable smile, looking at the world with eyes that were sometimes thoughtful, but never embittered.
The sheriff seemed to find him worth studying. "Tell that red- headed friend of yours how it is when you get a chance. You savvy, don't you?"
Breedlove nodded. "Uhuh. Tom might, too, if he wa'n't such a dog-goned ser'ous nature. Y' see, he's all fight."
"So I can see. Well, where you bound for now?'"
"I'm goin' to rake Pilgrim Valley with a fine comb," said Tom Lilly.
"It's plumb empty," replied the sheriff. "Turn your attention to the 3Cross. You'll find something interesting there."
"Well, by the Lord Harry," exploded Tom, "if you know that much, why haven't you collected a posse and gone after 'em?"
"Because I couldn't find ten men I could trust. Somebody'd squeal and when I got to the rancho I wouldn't find a thing."
"Well, we'll surprise 'em this time," said Tom. "You better come along."
"Nope," objected the sheriff. "There might be some violence done and I'd have to take official cognizance of it. What I don't see I don't know. Just tie me tighter in this chair an' shove me in the corner. Then turn out the light, lock the door and be on your way. Good luck."
Joe Breedlove, chuckling, stepped forward to do as the sheriff asked. The two exchanged glances, they understood each other quite well, for they were of the same type. "I'd admire to drink with yuh some day," said Breedlove.
"Well, that goes double," replied the sheriff. "When your vacation in the hills is finished drop back."
Lilly shook his head. "You shore beat me, Sheriff. Well, let's be goin'." They slid out of the office and, hidden by the shadows, ducked through an alley to the back of the town. A hundred yards off they collided with a waiting party. Muffled words of greeting floated upward, the rough and apparently unemotional talk of men glad to see another.
"Here's the ol' hoss."
"Drunk er sober? Hey, remember when we had t' pull him outen that scrape at Box Canyon?"
"He don't git no tamer."
Lilly fired back. "Same old pack of gossipin' gran-ma's. Hope you brought yore tattin' along."
They had journeyed into the country without horses or gear. Yet here they stood, eight of them, each mounted, and with an extra animal for Lilly. Mounting and leading away to the south, he put a puzzled question. "Where'd you collect these scarecrows from, Joe?"
"Why, we borrowed 'em from the town's stable. The gent in charge is out in one o' them empty sheds, reflectin' over the sinfulness o' this world."
There was a suppressed chuckle. The H-H crew was having a glorious vacation. Lilly settled into a stiff pace and led them toward the 3Cross. "Well, have a good time while you can, amigos. There's shootin' work ahead. Don't forget it." Leather creaked and spurs jingled. A black veil shrouded the sky and left the world in utter darkness. Somewhere, a coyote sent forth his quavering, lonesome cry; the smell of sage was in the night breeze.
"Ease up," said Lilly in a muffled voice. The cavalcade dropped to a slow walk, crawling southward. "We're pretty close to the 3Cross now. I can smell it."
"Do we pay 'em a visit or a surprise?" whispered Joe Breedlove.
"A surprise. It's a fightin' game now, Joe. I want you to take four of the boys and corral the bunkhouse. I'll picket a couple around the house an' one at the barn. Me, I'm goin' in to find this horse-faced Englishman and pluck his eyebrows out, one at a time."
"Sounds bad," murmured Breedlove; he was chuckling. "The boys'll enjoy this little holiday."
Blacker shadows in the thin, morning air. Lilly halted, the cavalcade colliding with him. Soft warning ran from man to man and there was a slight groaning of leather and the muffled sound of hands sliding across holsters. "We walk from here," announced Lilly. "Joe, I'll give you five minutes to get that bunkhouse located. When yore ready, let out a whoop and a shot as warnin' to me."
They slid down, leaving the horses. Indian file, they slouched forward behind Lilly until the ranch-house barred their way. Silently, Joe Breedlove touched the four nearest men and, together they disappeared. Lilly whispered directions to the remaining three and waited until they had slipped off before advancing across the porch of the house. As with all Westerners, Stubbins scorned to lock his doors and Lilly raised the latch and opened the portal an inch at a time. A single coal gleamed in the fireplace; stale pipe smoke filled the room. Lilly groped his way over the rug-strewn floor, touched a table and stopped to orient himself. This room was quite silent; but he heard the heavy snoring of a man come out of some near-by room. He skirted a chair, entered what felt like a hallway to his exploring fingers and stopped at a sudden opening. The sleeping fellow's breath rose and fell, alternately sibilant and droning. A heavy sleeper, this one. Lilly felt certain it was Stubbins and moved over the threshold, approaching the bed. There was a window directly beyond the bed and by the patch of gray shadow relieving the opaque dark of the room he saw the crooked figure sprawled beneath the blankets.
Closer he dared not go. So he rested, bringing up his gun and waiting for the signal from Joe Breedlove. Treacherous silence pervaded the 3Cross. The sleeping figure strangled and turned, relapsing to a more normal breathing.
The signal changed all this. There was a high, "Eee-yippy- yippy-yip!" and the flat explosion of a revolver. A door was smashed in and instantly a dozen voices and another gun shot answered the challenge. Lilly had no opportunity to follow Joe Breedlove's fortunes; his own man had risen bolt upright in bed, silhouetted by the gray patch of the window, and was swearing broadly. "What's that—what's that?" he grumbled. A better comprehension came to him when Lilly stepped up, speaking in a soothing voice. "You stand fast, brother Stubbins. I recognize that beef-eatin' accent. Boost yore hands. Boost 'em!"
The bed springs screeched. Stubbins flung himself backward and smote the woolen head of his couch with terrific force. Lilly saw a hand go around in a semicircle and knew the man was reaching for his gun. He brought the barrel of his own weapon down, smashing Stubbins across the head. Thereupon, the master of the 3Cross grunted and temporarily passed from the scene. Lilly's exploring hand reached and appropriated Stubbins' gun and holster hanging on the bed post.
A rear door opened with a clatter and boots came tramping down the hallway. A voice said, "Hey, Stubbins! What the hell—?"
He was pouring words through the bedroom door; but his senses told him something was wrong and he drew back with a challenge. "Who's that there? Speak up or I'll plug yuh!"
"Same to you, brother," announced Lilly and stepped aside into a deeper patch of darkness. An orange-purple flame ran out and was met by another; a water jar trembled in its bowl, the acrid odor of burnt powder swirled high. A gun dropped, a body slid down with a surprising sigh. Somewhere to the rear a Chinaman's voice was flinging weird, wild words about like so many pitched knives. Over this bedlam he heard the drawling voices of one of his own men, Moses. "Well, how's it stand?"
"I plugged somebody," announced Lilly. "The main guy is here on the bed where I plastered him."
"Fifty-fifty," announced Moses in a bored tone. "I ketched me a person at the front door. Seems like he was on guard, but I reckon he fell asleep till the noise jarred him some. He's chewin' at the knots I took in him. Say, that Chink is apt to bust a lung if he don't take a few cinches in them gosh-awful words."
"Light up," said Lilly. "I think Joe's rounded his critters."
He had followed the sound of struggle in the bunk-house but intermittently during his own activity; and by now the shots had ceased and there was only the hum of voices like the buzzing of bees in a disturbed hive. Breedlove sent his gay announcement across the yard. "Say what, Tommy."
"Good enough here."
"Well, what'll I do with these boys? Never saw so many punchers fer one ranch. I count fifteen."
"Hobble 'em an' come over."
Moses had found and lighted a lamp in the main room. He carried it into the bedroom and inspected the man Lilly had dropped at the door. Blood streamed down his face, but it seemed to be something less than a mortal wound. Moses put the lamp on the floor and ran an investigating finger over the fellow's head. "He's grazed, Tom. Sorter knocked him cuckoo. I'll put a han'k'chuff aroun' it an' he'll be good enough."
Stubbins on the bed, was coming out of his enforced sleep; coming out in a fighting mood, twitching his arms. Lilly waited until the Englishman opened his eyes and shook the mists clear of his head. Anger glinted in the pale blue eyes as he stared toward Lilly. "What's this confounded banditry about?" he growled. "I shall hold you for this, friend. I'll have your scalp for it, believe me."
"What have you done with Jill Breck?" demanded Lilly.
"Oh—that's it, eh? It would please you to find out, wouldn't it? Well, she's not here, Red. She's far away." Then it seemed to occur to him that he had forgotten himself. "Why, you damn pup, you know well enough where she is! I'll have you back in jail within six hours. Watch you hang, too, by Godfrey!"
"Yore out of date," said Lilly. "Things have happened since you went to sleep. Yore gang is hog-tied. I've got a posse here that'll string you to a tree if you lie to me. Time's past for foolin'. I've got enough on you this minute to send you to the pen."
"Some of the JIB boys have been tellin' tales," offered Lilly. "Some of the JIB cows have been found in yore herds, too. We know Jill Breck's been here. Now, you talk turkey an' talk fast."
It was all guess work, but based on good evidence. Lilly watched the Englishman's face settle and to further upset the man he ordered him up and into the main room where Joe Breedlove and three or four of the H-H crew were lounging. "It's all off with you, Stubbins. You tell the truth. We've got six men who'll turn state's evidence against you. Where's Jill Breck?"
"What if I tell?"
"You'll get an even break," promised Lilly.
"What if I don't tell?" shot back Stubbins, his thin mouth disappearing beneath the great nose.
"You'll be hung in an hour."
"Eh? Oh, no. You wouldn't dare that. I'm too big a man in this country."
"So? Say, when this leaks out there won't be a man, woman or dog in Robey County but what won't want to take a piece out of yore hide. No, you ain't got a foot to stand on. Now, where's Jill Breck?"
Stubbins thrust a long, cool glance around at the H-H men, then rose and filled one of the pipes on the mantel. Behind a cloud of tobacco smoke he deliberated. For all his villainy, there was something in the man to evoke admiration. Here he stood, with all his plans crashing down around his head, with three or four grave charges against him—charges that would inevitably lead him to the penitentiary or worse; he had no means of knowing whether this posse would take his life or not, or if they let him go, whether an outraged county would be as lenient. Still, he smoked imperturbably, as if deciding no more important a thing than whether or not to hire another hand for his ranch.
"Yore house is made of cards," broke in Lilly. "As long as old Breck lived, he and you could buffalo this county. But it's too big a job for you alone. A dozen good men can bust any sort of range piracy, and we're goin' to bust you. Times are changin', amigo. You'll change with 'em or go down."
Fretfulness invaded the horsey face. "Damn the man," said Stubbins testily. "Damn Trono. He was the one I always mistrusted. You can't play with a bullheaded fool. Now, he shouldn't have brought—" There he stopped, finishing the sentence to himself.
"Anybody's a fool to trail along with Trono," broke in Lilly. "He'll saddle murder to you yet."
"What's that?" demanded Stubbins, jerking up his head. "Murder—murder?"
"It's the kind he is," replied Lilly. "I know him. He'll go bugs an' shoot anything in sight."
Stubbins appeared to be seeing unwelcome visions. "Ay, I know that. Look, what do you mean by an even break?"
"Stolen goods returned and no questions asked."
"Ah. What goods?"
"Jill Breck for one. Later Joe and I will hold a roundup of yore stock and pick JIB critters."
"And no tales told!"
"None but what naturally leak out, amigo. Of course, yore goin' to lose some of them nice cut-throats you've got hired. Joe's goin' to see that they get started north after breakfast. I'll send the JIB bunch over to you, seein' they're yore men anyhow. Now, let's shorten this palaver."
"Devil," muttered Stubbins. He shot a glance at Lilly. "My boy, you ain't scarin' me, understand? I do this of my own conscience. No man's big enough to scare me."
"Have it yore own way," said Lilly. Joe Breedlove dropped a wink at his partner, which Lilly answered.
"Well, then, Trono took Jill Breck, the night before lost. I told him to stop at a line rider's cabin." He marched to a book case and found a map of the country, running his finger along its surface and pointing for Lilly's benefit. "There you are. It's twenty miles southeast. In the fringe of rock and trees. Welcome, my lad."
"And you let that lout take her off!" cried Lilly, his temper rising. "If she's harmed I'll kill you for it!"
Stubbins returned a hard, obstinate stare, growing red around his heavy neck. He was about to make some rousing answer when he caught Joe Breedlove's usually mild eyes anchored on him with such an intent, weighing glance that he forebore. Instead, he asked a question.
"You mean to kill him?"
"One of us goes down," retorted Lilly.
"It's all the same to me," said Stubbins. "You or him." With that he dropped in a chair and smoked furiously.
"Moses," said Lilly, "find me a fresh horse." He walked into the pale light of false dawn, Joe Breedlove close behind. The big man's arm rested lightly on Lilly's shoulder.
"Well, this is yore fight, Red, so I ain't goin'. But watch yore rear. An' say, yuh wouldn't have hung Stubbins, even if he'd refused to talk."
"I guess not," said Lilly, "but I shore would've done somethin'. He's slick, that boy. Know why he told on Trono? Because he knew one of us won't come back, which is just right for him."
"Like hell it is," growled Breedlove. Moses was returning with a saddled paint horse. "If yuh don't show up in five-six hours, Mr. Stubbins is like to have an accident. Meanwhile, we'll take care o' this crew."
Lilly swung up, gripped Joe's outstretched arm, and spurred away. Dawn was just below the eastern rim; toward it he traveled, going as fast as the horse would stand.
The sun rose in its arc, glowered from zenith, and fell westward, growing more wrathful, more sultry. The vast plain shimmered under the heat and above the undulating barren spaces queer, phantasmic shapes formed and dissolved. To all this Tom Lilly was unconscious. He traveled with Stubbins' map firmly fixed in his head, and an unreasoning hatred in his heart. It was Trono, always Trono who interposed his unlovely, killer's face into the 2000481h-images/ that passed and re-passed Tom Lilly's vision. Trono was a bad Indian; and never would be a good one until dead. Where had the man got all this vindictiveness of spirit? What could he hope to profit from his course of lawlessness? Well, he was an outlaw by nature; made the more so by his training under old Jim Breck in the days when the Octopus had given him hard chores to do. Evidently, he had formed connections with Stubbins—probably would be a chief heir of the looting of the JIB.
"Even if there wasn't a cent to be made he'd be a renegade, though," opined Lilly. Reviewing the course of events he slapped one hand against the saddle skirts, saying, "It's him or me. If he's laid one o' his dirty paws on Jill—"
He could not, for all the glaring sun, keep her clear oval face from his eyes. She was like no other woman he had ever known. Old Jim Breck had given her a good measure of his sturdy spirit and some of his uncomplaining fortitude. Never, in that long night of flight, had she whimpered. Never had she traded on the fact that she was a woman; seemed, in fact, reluctant to admit that she couldn't do all a man could do. And she had smiled at him in such a manner when she rolled up in the blankets, the rosy color tinging her cheeks and some unfathomable emotion moving in the sleepy eyes.
He swerved, climbed the bench on his left and presently was threading his way among the pines. Shade here, but no coolness. He struck a trail that slanted upward into deeper recesses of the forest and of a sudden all things immaterial to the chase left his head. The tracks of two horses were in the sandy course before him. Not fresh tracks, but recent enough to still show a clear imprint. These he followed, resorting to trailing tactics, for he had followed men before and understood their slyness.
At intervals he left the trail and dived into the trees, going a hundred yards or more before reappearing. Sometimes, confronted by a barrier of rock or deadfall, he made a considerable detour and came to a halt, sweeping the vistas, listening for out of the way sounds. But the forest was silent, save for the drone of heat and small insects. So, he pushed on until his eyes saw a thinning of the pines directly ahead and when he dismounted and crawled forward flat on his stomach, he saw a miniature meadow in which sat a cabin and a small corral. Lush grass stood ankle-high; a small path was beaten through it from the trees to the door. And on the threshold of the door, squatted down like a massive, sullen spider, was Theed Trono. The sun slanted against his face, bringing into bold relief the cleft chin, the columnar neck; shaded by the wide hat-brim his upper features were obscured. A cigarette dangled from one corner of his mouth and he played idly with his lariat, making loops on the ground.
He seemed so much off guard, so little expecting danger that Tom Lilly tarried a while in his covert, shooting glances to all corners of the clearing, seeking some manner of a trap. But though he waited a good ten minutes, he could find nothing to justify his caution. The girl was not to be seen; doubtless she was inside the cabin.
He parted the grass before him, gun forward, and rose to one knee. "Trono," said he, in a quiet voice, "you'll stay right there. Hoist yore hands."
Trono's body stiffened. The hand holding the lariat stopped its circular movement and the Stetson jerked upward, revealing the flash of his green eyes. By and by he dropped the rope and hunched his shoulders, moving his big arms above his head. Lilly stepped from his shelter and walked half way across the meadow. The burly one watching him from half closed eyes; an almost lifeless tone emerged from his enormous chest—the tone of a man discouraged and defeated.
"Knew yuh'd git here soon er late. Shore a persistent fella, ain't yuh, Red?"
"Yeh." The green eyes flared. "I've had too much time to think. Thinkin' ain't good fer a critter. A fack. Bust outa jail?"
"That's right," agreed Lilly, watching his man closely "No fooling, now. You know what I'll do."
"I reckon," said Trono, wearily. "Nex' time Stubbins c'n do his own chores. What a hell of a time I've had. Well, le's git this over with."
Looking beyond the man, Lilly saw Jill Breck half-risen, dimly visible, in the semi-darkness of the cabin. He saw some movement of her lips and shook his head at her; whereupon she disappeared, leaving him with his great problem. Trono was smiling slightly. "Don't yuh know what to do with me, kid?"
"I see trouble in yore face, Trono. Turn around, face against the logs. I came here to get you—bear it in mind, amigo. If you want to take the chance, all right. I'm just warnin' you."
Trono turned, muttering, "Oh, I've had plenty. I been thinkin' Stubbins double crossed me. What would I do with this gal, anyhow? Ain't it a hell of a chore fer a man? Him a-sittin' back an' lettin' me run the danger. No, I won't raise a rumpus. I'm a- goin' back with you an' turn state's evidence on that beef- eatin', mealy-mouth fool. A fack."
"Change of heart, eh?" grunted Lilly, moving closer, distrusting all this talk. Trono was a bundle of dynamite; a vicious cross-grained man who liked to lull an opponent and strike unawares. So he moved cautiously, arm reaching out for Trono's revolver.
"Well, call it that," said Trono, his great body as straight and rigid as he could carry it. The massive shoulders seemed to fill and threaten the seams of his coat. "But what'd happen to me when a posse got on my trail? I'll go with yuh, an' be thankful it ain't a worse proposition. That gun don't slide out easy, Red. Pull hard. Oh, pull harder!"
Lilly, his fingers touching Trono's gun felt the big body tremble. He had jammed his own weapon into Trono's back. But the feeling came over him all of a sudden that the man meant to make a play; desperate as the case was, Trono had decided to fight. And so, dropping his fingers, Lilly stepped back. Trono waited an instant then swung about. The change in his face was striking. Sweat poured down his swart cheeks and the glitter of evil was in those green, sparkling eyes. Once more he carried the high, triumphant, gloating grin.
"Nerve a-failin' yuh, Red? Caught on to my leetle trick, eh? All right, I'm a-tellin' yuh, I won't go."
"I can't shoot you in the back, Trono," said Lilly. "And I'd have to if you turned on me like that."
"I knew yuh didn't have no nerve," said Trono. "What yuh goin' to do?"
Lilly nodded his head. "Walk over there ten yards. I'll give you an even break."
"Fight it square?" bellowed Trono.
"Fight it square, or drop yore gun belt," announced Lilly.
Trono, without a word, backed away from the log house and stopped. "Red, I shore take my hat off to yuh. But I ain't goin to go back, see? Say when."
"Drop yore arms, slow, until they're to yore belt. All right, that's good. Now I'm puttin' my gun in the holster. We're even." Lilly's hand rose clear of the gun butt. "Last warnin', amigo. You'd better give in."
Trono only shook his head. He was a sinister figure, this man, with his thin lips but a white line in the dark face and the nostrils contracted from inner excitement. Beads of sweat stood out on his upper lip; he was swaying slightly, leaning forward, arms spreading away from his body. Lilly felt the full impact of that deadly gaze and there flashed across his mind the picture of a rattlesnake coiled and about to strike. Trono the killer stood forth in full panoply.
"No signal," said Lilly. His own nerves had jangled a moment and then stopped. He was cold—very cold in this bright sun- drenched clearing. Cold with the premonition of death. All his senses focused themselves on the bulky figure ten yards away; he heard nothing but the drone of his own words; saw nothing but a patch of Trono's shirt where his eyes had centered; felt nothing but the flexing of his right arm. "No signal," he repeated. "Go to it when yore ready."
The world was remote. Time ceased to be. Trono seemed to grow larger, bulk tremendously against the light. The patch of shirt wrinkled and the man's right arm dropped. Lilly had no notion what his own gun arm was doing; it appeared to be detached from whatever mental motor guided it. Fretfully, he wondered why he wasn't matching that swift, cat-like draw. The blue metal barrel gleamed in the afternoon sun. As from a distance he heard a heavy explosion—no, there was a double explosion and instantly the world and all its bustling noises, its cheerful warmth, its grateful light, flooded back. Trono was squinting across the space, the tip of his gun slightly deflected. Lilly, watching the weapon with a queer fascination, saw it dip, jerk upward, and dip again. It dropped to the ground and Trono began to droop. The starch of life was going out of him; quite slowly at first he sagged, then, as if his will power had snapped, he collapsed and lay sprawled, face turned toward Lilly. His thin lips were fashioning words.
"I'll cash my chips, mister. Yuh c'n never tell—what a redhead will do."
He was dead. It seemed altogether ridiculous to Lilly until he looked down and saw his own gun in his hand. Why, he never knew he had drawn, never had felt the recoil of firing! He returned it to his holster and in a moment of thoughtfulness extended his arm to full length. It seemed ice-cold; not a tremor moved his fingers.
"Tom Lilly didn't fire that shot," he murmured. "I guess the Lord shorely is providin' protection."
Jill Breck's voice issued from the cabin, high and electrical. "Red—Red, did he touch you?"
Tom was at the door at one stride. "Lord bless you, no. I'm a fool meant for a different end. Why, what's the matter with you?" Rage jumbled his words together. "Did that swine hurt you?"
Her voice was of a sudden faint. For a moment he saw only an outline in the semi-darkness. "No, Red. I'm all right. All right. But he's kept me tied to this bunk most of the time."
His eyes, becoming accustomed to the shadows, saw that she was half sitting, half lying on the bunk. Her feet were loosely tied to the frame and her hands were bound behind her. She could move two or three feet, no more. Lilly got his knife and cut the rope, his hand beginning to tremble. Her arms went around him and he lifted her up as if she were an invalid. It was then his opportunity came and again his guiding angel helped him to do something that he would never have been able to do otherwise. In short, he kissed her, called her "Jill kid!"
Her body quivered. She was saying over and over again, "I thought you'd never come. I knew you would, but it was so long waiting. It was so long waiting!"
Dusk had settled around the 3Cross. Close harmonies emerged from the bunkhouse, that is to say, harmonies as close as the ensembled voices of the happy H-H crew could manage. It had been a full day and a satisfying one; now they reclined on alien bunks, sustained by 3Cross chuck. In the main house Joe Breedlove was playing a close game of checkers with Lancelot Stubbins, his mild eyes holding no greater care than a concern for the next move. Stubbins seemed to have forgotten his own tangled, troubled affairs. Pipe smoke curled high in the room and the mellow light of the fireplace shimmered over the floor. Remington's bighorn looked down from his high perch with a smug, defiant glance of safety.
"Checkers," observed Joe Breedlove, "is a pastime from which due observations regardin' life might be made. Yuh advance, then yuh stop. Mebbe yuh are taken. But yuh don't go back unless yuh reach the king row. Same in a man's life—only they ain't no king row."
"Mr.," said Lancelot Stubbins. "D'ye know, you're a queer cuss."
"It's been told me before," replied Joe, "only in less elegant terms. Don't I hear hawsses?"
He abandoned his game and went to the door. And when he saw Jill and Tom advancing out of the night he began to smile that rare, sweet smile. He saw them dismount and observed the careful manner in which Lilly lifted down the girl. At that he turned back. "Guess JIB will have good management from now on."
The pair came into the room. Tom Lilly walked straight over to Stubbins. "I'll keep my promise, amigo. Yore free as the air. But I'm yore nex' door neighbor from now on and you'll shoot square with the JIB."
"I guess," said Joe, "us boys won't have much more to do in these parts."
"Oh yes, you will," replied Tom. "Yore goin' to conduct a roundup on 3Cross an' ketch JIB critters. Also I'll be needin' a man to go to Powder an', have the sher'ff come out. He'll find Trono in the line rider's cabin."
"Is that all?" asked Joe.
"No, you son o' Satan, it ain't. Yore hired permanent as foreman o' the JIB. I'd like the boys to stay with us, too. We got to run the present crew off the range. Then we got to make a skookum ranch of it. What'd you do with Mr. Stubbins' men?"
Stubbins slammed down the handful of checkers he carried and rose, exploding a brief word. "Ran them to the county line, by Gad!"
"Is that all?" persisted Joe, smiling.
Tom Lilly looked to Jill soberly; she had nothing to say. "Well, you can be best man," he replied.
Joe's arm fell across his partner's shoulder. Nothing was said, but a glance passed between the two of them such as only loyal abiding friends would exchange.