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Title: The Ghost Author: Max Brand * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0601961h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2013 Most recent update: May 2013 This eBook was produced by Malcolm Farmer and updated by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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The gold strike which led the fortune-hunters to Murrayville brought with them the usual proportion of bad men and outlaws. Three months after the rush started a bandit appeared so consummate in skill and so cool in daring that all other offenders against the law disappeared in the shade of his reputation. He was a public dread. His comings were unannounced; his goings left no track. Men lowered their voices when they spoke of him. His knowledge of affairs in the town was so uncanny that people called him the "Ghost."
The stages which bore gold to the railroad one hundred and thirty miles to the south left at the most secret hours of the night, but the Ghost knew. Once he "stuck up" the stage not a mile from town while the guards were still occupied with their flasks of snakebite. Again, when the stage rolled on at midday, eighty miles south of Murrayville, and the guards nodded in the white- hot sun, the Ghost rose from behind a bush, shot the near-leader, and had the cargo at his mercy in thirty seconds.
He performed these feats with admirable finesse. Not a single death lay charged to his account, for he depended upon surprise rather than slaughter. Yet so heavy was the toll he exacted that the miners passed from fury to desperation.
They organized a vigilance committee. They put a price on his head. Posses scoured the region of his hiding-place, Hunter's Caņon, into which he disappeared when hard pressed, and left no more trace than the morning mist which the sun disperses. A hundred men combed the myriad recesses of the caņon in vain. Their efforts merely stimulated the bandit.
While twoscore men rode almost within calling distance, the Ghost appeared in the moonlight before Pat McDonald and Peters and robbed them of eighteen pounds of gold-dust which they carried in their belts. When the vigilance committee got word of this insolent outrage they called a mass- meeting so large that even drunken Geraldine was enrolled.
Never in the history of Murrayville had there been so grave and dry- throated an affair. William Collins, the head of the vigilantes, addressed the assembly. He rehearsed the list of the Ghost's outrages, pointed out that what the community needed was an experienced man-hunter to direct their efforts, and ended by asking Silver Pete to stand up before them. After some urging Pete rose and stood beside Collins, with his hat pushed back from his gray and tousled forelock and both hands tugging at his cartridge-belt.
"Men," went on Collins, placing one hand on the shoulder of the man- killer, "we need a leader who is a born and trained fighter, a man who will attack the Ghost with system and never stop after he takes up the trail. And I say the man we need is Silver Pete!"
Pete's mouth twitched back on one side into the faint semblance of a grin, and he shrugged off the patronizing hand of the speaker. The audience stirred, caught each other with side-glances, and then stared back at Silver Pete. His reputation gave even Murrayville pause, for his reputed killings read like the casualty list of a battle.
"I repeat," said Collins, after the pause, in which he allowed his first statement to shudder its way home, "that Silver Pete is the man for us. I've talked it over with him before this, and he'll take the job, but he needs an inducement. Here's the reward I propose for him or for any other man who succeeds in taking the Ghost prisoner or in killing him. We'll give him any loot which may be on the person of the bandit. If the Ghost is disposed of in the place where he has cached his plunder, the finder gets it all. It's a high price to pay, but this thing has to be stopped. My own opinion is that the Ghost is a man who does his robbing on the side and lives right here among us. If that's the case, we'll leave it to Silver Pete to find him out, and we'll obey Pete's orders. He's the man for us. He's done work like this before. He has a straight eye, and he's fast with his six-gun. If you want to know Pete's reputation as a fighting man—"
"He'll tell you himself," said a voice, and a laugh followed.
Silver Pete scowled in the direction of the laugh, and his right hand caressed the butt of his gun, but two miners rose from the crowd holding a slender fellow between them.
"It's only Geraldine," said one of them. "There ain't no call to flash your gun, Pete."
"Take the drunken fool away," ordered Collins angrily. "Who let him in here? This is a place for men and not for girl-faced clowns!"
"Misher Collins," said Geraldine, doffing his broad-brimmed hat and speaking with a thick, telltale accent—"Misher Collins, I ask your pardon, shir."
He bowed unsteadily, and his hat brushed the floor.
"I plumb forgot I was in church with Silver Pete for a preacher!" he went on.
The audience turned their heads and chuckled deeply.
"Take him out, will you?" thundered Collins. "Take him out, or I'll come down there and kick him out myself!"
The two men at Geraldine's side turned him about and led him toward the door. Here he struggled away from his guides. "Misher Collins!" he cried in a voice half-whining and half-anger, "if I capture the Ghost do Iget the loot?"
A yell of laughter drowned the reply, and Geraldine staggered from the room.
"What do you say, men?" roared Collins, enraged by these repeated interruptions. "Is Silver Pete the man for us?"
There was no shout of approval but a deep muttering of consent.
"I'd hire the devil himself," murmured one man, "if he'd get rid of the Ghost."
"All right," said Collins, and he turned to Pete. "You're in charge here, and it's up to you to tell us what to do. You're the foreman, and we're all in your gang."
The crowd was delighted, for Pete, finding himself deserted before the mass of waiting men, shifted uneasily from one foot to the other and kept changing the angle of the hat upon his mop of gray hair.
"Speech!" yelled a miner. "Give us a speech, Pete!" Silver Pete favored the speaker with a venomous scowl.
"Speech nothin'," he answered. "I ain't here to talk. I ain't no gossipin' bit of calico. I got a hunch my six-gun'll do my chatterin' for me."
"But what do you want us to do, Pete?" asked Collins. "How are we going to help you?"
"Sit tight and chaw your own tobacco," he said amiably. "I don't want no advice. There's been too many posses around these diggin's. Maybe I'll start and hunt the Ghost by myself. Maybe I won't. If I want help I'll come askin' it."
As a sign that the meeting had terminated he pulled his hat farther down over his eyes, hitched his belt, and stalked through the crowd without looking to either side.
Thereafter Murrayville saw nothing of him for a month, during which the Ghost appeared five times and escaped unscathed. The community pondered and sent out to find Pete, but the search was vain. There were those who held that he must have been shot down in his tracks by the Ghost, and even now decorated some lank hillside. The majority felt that having undertaken his quest alone Pete was ashamed to appear in the town without his victim.
On the subject of the quest Geraldine composed a ballad which he sang to much applause in the eight saloons of the town. It purported to be the narrative of Silver Pete's wanderings in search of the Ghost. In singing it Geraldine borrowed a revolver and belt from one of the bystanders, pushed back his hat and roughed up his hair, and imitated the scowling face of Pete so exactly that his hearers fairly wept with pleasure. He sang his ballad to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," and the sad narrative concluded with a wailing stanza:
"I don't expect no bloomin' tears;
The only thing I ask
Is something for a monument
In the way of a whisky flask."
Geraldine sang himself into popularity and many drinks with his song, and for the first time the miners began to take him almost seriously. He had appeared shortly after old John Murray struck gold six months before, a slender man of thirty-five, with a sadly drooping mouth and humorous eyes.
He announced himself as Gerald Le Roy Witherstone, and was, of course, immediately christened "Geraldine."
Thereafter he wandered about the town, with no apparent occupation except to sing for his drinks in the saloons. Hitherto he had been accepted as a harmless and amusing man-child, but his ballad gave him at once an Homeric repute, particularly when men remembered that the song was bound to come sooner or later to the ear of Silver Pete.
For the time being Pete was well out of ear-shot. After the meeting, at which he was installed chief man-hunter of the community, he spent most of the evening equipping himself for the chase. Strangely enough, he did not hang a second revolver to his belt nor strap a rifle behind his saddle; neither did he mount a fleet horse. To pursue the elusive Ghost he bought a dull-eyed mule with a pendulous lower lip. On the mule he strapped a heavy pack which consisted chiefly of edibles, and in the middle of the night he led the mule out of Murrayville in such a way as to evade observation. Once clear of the town he headed straight for Hunter's Caņon.
Once inside the mouth of the caņon he began his search. While he worked he might have been taken for a prospector, for there was not a big rock in the whole course of the caņon which he did not examine from all sides. There was not a gully running into Hunter's which he did not examine carefully. He climbed up and down the cliffs on either side as if he suspected that the Ghost might take to wings and fly up the sheer rock to a cave.
The first day he progressed barely a half-mile. The second day he covered even less ground. So his search went on. In the night he built a fire behind a rock and cooked. Through four weeks his labor continued without the vestige of a clue to reward him. Twice during that time he saw posses go thundering through the valley and laughed to himself. They did not even find him, and yet he was making no effort to elude them. What chance would they have of surprising the Ghost?
This thought encouraged him, and he clung to the invisible trail, through the day and through the night, with the vision of the outlaw's loot before him. He ran out of bacon. Even his coffee gave out. For ten days he lived on flour, salt, and water, and then, as if this saintly fast were necessary before the vision, Pete saw the Ghost.
It was after sunset, but the moon was clear when he saw the fantom rider race along the far side of the valley. The turf deadened the sound of the horse's hoofs, and, like another worldly apparition, the Ghost galloped close to the wall of the valley—and disappeared.
Peter rubbed his eyes and looked again. It give him a queer sensation, as if he had awakened suddenly from a vivid dream, for the horse, with its rider, had vanished into thin air between the eyes of Peter and the sheer rock of the valley wall. A little shudder passed through his body, and he cursed softly to restore his courage.
Yet the dream of plunder sent his blood hotly back upon its course. He carefully observed the marks which should guide him to the point on the rock at which the rider disappeared. He hobbled the mule, examined his revolver, and spun the cylinder, and then started down across the caņon.
He had camped upon high ground, and his course led him on a sharp descent to the stream which cut the heart of the valley. Here, for two hundred yards, trees and the declivity of the ground cut off his view, but when he came to the higher ground again he found that he had wandered only a few paces to the left of his original course.
The wall of the valley was now barely fifty yards away, and as nearly as he could reckon the landmarks, the point at which the rider vanished was at or near a shrub which grew close against the rock. For an instant Pete thought that the tree might be a screen placed before the entrance of a cave. Yet the rider had made no pause to set aside the screen. He walked up to it and peered beneath the branches. He even fumbled at the base of the trunk, to make sure that the roots actually entered the earth. After this faint hope disappeared, Pete stepped back and sighed. His reason vowed that it was at this point that the horse turned to air, and Pete's was not a nature which admitted the supernatural.
He turned to the left and walked along the face of the cliff for fifty paces. It was solid rock. A chill like a moving piece of ice went up Pete's back.
He returned to the shrub and passed around it to the right.
At first he thought it merely the black shadow of the shrub. He stepped closer and then crouched with his revolver raised, for before him opened a crevice directly behind the shrub. It was a trifle over six feet high and less than half that in width; a man could walk through that aperture and lead a horse. Pete entered the passage with cautious steps.
Between each step he paused and listened. He put forth a foot and felt the ground carefully with it, for fear of a pebble which might roll beneath his weight, or a twig which might snap. His progress was so painfully slow that he could not even estimate distances in the pitch-dark. The passage grew higher and wider—it turned sharply to the right—a faint light shone.
Pete crouched lower and the grin of expectancy twisted at his lips. At every step, until this moment; he had scarcely dared to breathe, for fear of the bullet which might find him out. Now all the advantage was on his side. Behind him was the dark. Before him was the light which must outline, however faintly, the figure of any one who lurked in wait. With these things in mind he went on more rapidly. The passage widened again and turned to the left. He peered cautiously around the edge of rock and looked into as comfortable a living-room as he had ever seen.
The rock hung raggedly from the top of the cave, but the sides were smooth from the action of running water through long, dead ages. The floor was of level-packed gravel. Silver Pete remained crouched at the sharp angle of the passage until he heard the stamp and snort of a horse. It gave him heart and courage to continue the stealthy progress, inch by inch, foot by foot, pace by pace toward the light, and as he stole forward more and more of the cave developed before him.
A tall and sinewy horse was tethered at one end, and at the opposite side sat a man with his back to Pete, who leveled his revolver and drew a bead on a spot between the shoulder blades. Yet he did not fire, for the thought came to him that if it were an honor to track the Ghost to his abode and kill him, it would be immortal glory to bring back the bandit alive, a concrete testimony to his own prowess.
Once more that catlike progress began until he could see that the Ghost sat on his saddle in front of a level-topped boulder in lieu of a table. The air was filled with the sweet savor of fried bacon and coffee. Pete had crawled to the very edge of the cave when the horse threw up its head and snorted loudly. The Ghost straightened and tilted back his head to listen.
"Up with yer hands!" snarled Silver Pete.
He had his bead drawn and his forefinger tightened around the trigger, but the Ghost did not even turn. His hands raised slowly above his shoulders to the level of his head and remained there.
"Stand up!" said Pete, and rose himself from the ground, against which he had flattened himself. For if the Ghost had decided to try a quick play with his gun the shot in nine cases out of ten would travel breast-high.
"Turn around!" ordered Pete, feeling more and more sure of himself as he studied the slight proportions of the outlaw.
The Ghost turned and showed a face with a sad mouth and humorous eyes.
"By God!" cried Silver Pete, and took a pace back which brought his shoulders against the wall of rock, "Geraldine!"
If the Ghost had had his gun on his hip he could have shot Pete ten times during that moment of astonishment, but his belt and revolver hung on a jutting rock five paces away. He dropped his hands to his hips and smiled at his visitor.
"When they put you on the job, Pete," he said, "I had a hunch I should beat it."
At this inferred compliment the twisted smile transformed one side of Silver Pete's face with sinister pleasure, but there was still wonder in his eyes.
"Damn me, Geraldine," he growled, "I can't believe my eyes!"
Geraldine smiled again.
"Oh, it's me, all right," he nodded. "You got me dead to rights, Pete. What do you think the boys will do with me?"
"And you're—the Ghost?" sighed Silver Pete, pushing back his hat as though to give his thoughts freer play. He had met many a man of grim repute along the "border," but never such nonchalance as he found in the Ghost.
"What'll they do with you?" he repeated, "I dunno. You ain't plugged nobody, Geraldine. I reckon they'll ship you South and let the sheriff handle you. Git away from that gun!"
For Geraldine had stepped back with apparent unconcern until he stood within a yard of his revolver. He obeyed the orders with unshaken good humor, but it seemed to Silver Pete that a yellow light gleamed for an instant in the eyes of the Ghost. It was probably only a reflection from the light of the big torch that burned in a corner of the cave.
"Gun?" grinned Geraldine. "Say, Pete, do you think I'd try and gunplay while you have the drop on me?"
"Nope," he went on. "If you was one of those tinhorn gunmen from the town over yonder, I'd lay you ten to one I could drill you and make a getaway, but you ain't one of them, Pete, and, seeing it's you, I ain't going to try no funny stuff. I don't hanker after no early grave, Pete!"
This tribute set a placid glow of satisfaction in Pete's eyes.
"Take it from me, Geraldine," he said, "you're wise. But there ain't no need for you to get scared of me so long as you play the game square and don't try no fancy moves. Now show me where you got the loot stowed and show it quick. If you don't—"
The threat was unfinished, for Geraldine nodded.
"Sure I'll show it to you, Pete," he said. "I know when I got a hand that's worth playing, and I ain't a guy to bet a measly pair of treys against a full house. Take a slant over there behind the rock and you'll find it all."
He indicated a pile of stones of all sizes which lay heaped in a corner. Pete backed toward it with his eye still upon the Ghost. A few kicks scattered the rocks and exposed several small bags. When he stirred these with his foot their weight was eloquent, and the gun-fighter's smile broadened.
"Think of them tin-horns," he said, "that offered all your pickings to the man that got you dead or alive, Geraldine!"
The Ghost sighed.
"Easy pickings," he agreed. "No more strong-arm work for you, Pete!"
The jaw of Silver Pete set sternly again.
"Lead your hoss over here," he said, "and help me stow this stuff in the saddlebags. And if you make a move to get the hoss between me and you—"
The Ghost grinned in assent, saddled his mount, and led him to Pete. Then in obedience to orders he unbuckled the slicker strapped behind the saddle and converted it into a strong bag which easily held the bags of loot. It made a small but ponderous burden, and he groaned with the effort as he heaved it up behind the saddle and secured it. Pete took the bridle and gestured at the Ghost with the revolver.
"Now git your hands up over your head agin, Geraldine," he said, "and go out down the tunnel about three paces ahead of me."
"Better let me take the torch," suggested the Ghost, "it'll show us the way."
Pete grunted assent, and Geraldine, on his way toward the torch, stopped at the boulder to finish off his coffee. He turned to Pete with the cup poised at his lips.
"Say, Pete," he said genially. "Anything wrong with a cup of coffee and a slice of bacon before we start back?"
"By God, Geraldine," grinned the gun-fighter, "you're a cool bird, but your game is too old!"
Nevertheless his very soul yearned toward the savor of bacon and coffee.
"Game?" repeated the Ghost, who caught the gleam of Pete's eye. "What game? I say let's start up the coffee-pot and the frying-pan. I can turn out flapjacks browner than the ones mother used to make, Pete!"
Pete drew a great breath, for the taste of his flour and water diet of the past few days was sour in his mouth.
"Geraldine," he said at last, "it's a go! But if you try any funny passes I ain't going to wait for explanations. Slide out the chow!"
He rolled a large stone close to the boulder which served as dining-table to the bandit, and sat down to watch the preparations. The Ghost paid little attention to him, but hummed as he worked. Soon a fire snapped and crackled. The coffee can straddled one end of the fire; the frying-pan occupied the other. While the bacon fried he mixed self-rising pancake flour in a tin plate, using water from a tiny stream which trickled down from the rocks at one side of the cave, disappearing again through a fissure in the floor. Next he piled the crisp slices of bacon on a second tin plate and used the fried-out fat to cook the flapjacks.
"What I can't make out," said Geraldine, without turning to his guest, "is why you'd do this job for those yellow livers over in the town."
Pete moved the tip of his tongue across his lips, for his mouth watered in anticipation.
"Why, you poor nut," he answered compassionately, "I ain't working for them. I'm working for the stuff that's up there behind the saddle."
Geraldine turned on him so suddenly that Pete tightened his grip upon the revolver, but the Ghost merely stared at him.
"Say," he grinned at last, "have you got a hunch they'll really let you walk off with all that loot?"
The face of the gunman darkened.
"I sure think they'll let me," he said with a sinister emphasis. "That was the way they talked."
Geraldine sighed in apparent bewilderment, but turned back to his work without further comment. In a few moments he rose with the plates of bacon and flapjacks piled on his left arm and the can of coffee in his right hand. He arranged them on the boulder before Silver Pete, and then sat on his heels on the other side of the big stone. The gun-fighter laid his revolver beside his tin cup and attacked the food with the will of ten. Yet even while he ate the eye which continually lingered on the Ghost noted that the latter stared at him with a curious and almost pitying interest. He came to a pause at last, with a piece of bacon folded in a flapjack.
"Look here," he said, "just what were you aiming at a while ago?"
Geraldine shrugged his shoulders and let his eye wander away as though the subject embarrassed him.
"Damn it!" said Pete with some show of anger, "don't go staring around like a cross-eyed girl. What's biting you?"
"It ain't my business," he said. "As long as I'm done for, I don't care what they do to you."
He stopped and drummed his finger-tips against his chin while he scowled at Pete.
"If it wasn't for you I'd be a free bird," he went on bitterly. "Do you think I'm goin' to weep any of the salt and briny for you, what?" \
"Wha'd'ya mean?" Pete blurted. "D'ya mean to say them quitters are going to double-cross me?"
The Ghost answered nothing, but the shrug of his shoulders was eloquent. Pete started up with his gun in his hand.
"By God, Geraldine," he said, "you ain't playin' fair with me! Look what I done for you. Any other man would of plugged you the minute they seen you, but here I am lettin' you walk back safe and sound—treating you as if you was my own brother, almost!"
He hesitated a trifle over this simile. Legend told many things of what Silver Pete had done to his own brother. Nevertheless, Geraldine met his stare with an eye full as serious.
"I'm going to do it," he said in a low voice, as if talking to himself. "Just because you come out here and caught me like a man there ain't no reason I should stand by and see you made a joke of. Pete, I'm going to tell you!"
Pete settled back on his stone with his fingers playing nervously about the handle of his gun.
"Make it short, Geraldine," he said with an ominous softness. "Tell me what the wall-eyed cayuses figure on doin'!"
The Ghost studied him as if he found some difficulty in opening his story in a delicate manner.
"Look here, Pete," he said at last. "There ain't no getting out of it that some of the things you've done read considerable different from Bible stories."
"Well?" snarled Silver Pete.
"Well," said the Ghost, "those two-card Johnnies over to town know something of what you've done, and they figure to double-cross you."
He paused, and in the pause Pete's mouth twitched so that his teeth glinted yellow.
"Anybody could say that," he remarked. "What's your proof?"
"Proof?" echoed the Ghost angrily. "Do you think I'm telling you this for fun? No, Pete," he continued with a hint of sadness in his voice, "it's because I don't want to see those guys do you dirt. You're a real man and they're only imitation-leather. The only way they're tough is their talk."
"Damn them!" commented Pete.
"Well," said Geraldine, settling into the thread of his narrative, "they knew that once you left the town on this job you wouldn't come back until you had the Ghost. Then when you started they got together and figured this way. They said you was just a plain man-killer and that you hadn't any more right to the reward than the man in the moon. So they figured that right after you got back with the Ghost, dead or alive, they'd have the sheriff pay you a little visit and stick you in the coop. They've raked up plenty of charges against you, Peter."
"What?" asked Pete hoarsely.
The Ghost lowered his voice to an insinuating whisper.
"One thing is this. They say that once you went prospecting with a guy called Red Horry. Horace was his right name."
Silver Pete shifted his eyes and his lips fixed in a sculptured grin.
"They say that you went with him and that you was pals together for months at a time. They say once you were bit by a rattler and Red Horry stuck by you and saved you and hunted water for you and cared for you like a baby. They say you got well and went on prospecting together and finally he struck a mine. It looked rich. Then one day you come back to Truckee and say that Red Horry got caught in a landslide and was killed and you took the mine. And they say that two years later they found a skeleton, and through the skull, right between the eyes, was a little round hole, powerful like a hole made by a .45. They say—"
"They lie!" yelled Silver Pete, rising. "And you lie like the rest of them. I tell you it was—it was—"
"Huh!" said Geraldine, shrugging away the thought with apparent scorn. "Of course they lie. Nobody could look at you and think you'd plug a pal —not for nothing."
Pete dropped back to his stone.
"Go on," he said. "What else do they say?"
"I don't remember it all," said the Ghost, puckering his brows with the effort of recollection, "but they got it all planned out when you come back with the loot they'll take it and split it up between them—one-third to Collins, because he made the plan first.
"They even made up a song about you," went on Geraldine, "and the song makes a joke out of you all the way through, and it winds up like this— you're supposed to be talking, see?
"I don't expect no bloomin' tears;
The only thing I ask
Is something for a monument
In the way of a whisky flask."
"Who made up the song, Geraldine?" asked Pete.
"I dunno," answered the Ghost. "I reckon Collins had a hand in it."
"Collins," repeated the gun-fighter. "It sounds like him. I'll get him first!"
"And it was Collins," went on the Ghost, leaning a little forward across the boulder, while he lowered his voice for secrecy. "It was Collins who got them to send out three men to watch you from a distance. They was to trail you and see that if you ever got to the Ghost you didn't make off with the loot without showing up in town. Ever see anybody trailing you, Pete?"
The gun-fighter flashed a glance over his shoulder toward the dark and gaping opening of the passage from the cave. Then he turned back to the Ghost.
"I never thought of it," he whispered. "I didn't know they was such skunks. But, by God, they won't ever see the money! I'll take it and line out for new hunting grounds."
"And me?" asked the Ghost anxiously.
"You?" said Silver Pete, and the whisper made the words trebly sinister. "I can't leave you free to track me up, can I? I'll just tie you up and leave you here."
"To starve?" asked the Ghost with horror.
"You chose your own house," said Pete, "an" now I reckon it's good enough for you to live in it."
"But what'll you do if they're following you up?" suggested the Ghost. "What'll you do if they've tracked you here and the sheriff with them? What if they get you for Red Horry?"
The horse had wandered a few paces away. Now its hoof struck a loose pebble which turned with a crunching sound like a footfall.
"My God!" yelled the Ghost, springing up and pointing toward the entrance passage, "they've got you, Pete!"
The gun-fighter whirled to his feet, his weapon poised and his back to the Ghost. Geraldine drew back his arm and lunged forward across the boulder. His fist thudded behind Silver Pete's ear. The revolver exploded and the bullet clicked against a rock, while Pete collapsed upon his face, with his arms spread out crosswise. The Ghost tied his wrists behind his back with a small piece of rope. Silver Pete groaned and stirred, but before his brain cleared his ankles were bound fast and drawn up to his wrists, so that he lay trussed and helpless. The Ghost turned him upon one side and then, strangely enough, set about clearing up the tinware from the boulder. This he piled back in its niche after he had rinsed it at the runlet of water. A string of oaths announced the awakening of Silver Pete. Geraldine went to him and leaned over his body.
Pete writhed and cursed, but Geraldine kneeled down and brushed the sand out of the gun-fighter's hair and face. Then he wiped the blood from a small cut on his chin where his face struck a rock when he fell.
"I have to leave you now, Pete," he said, rising from this work of mercy. "You've been good company, Pete, but a little of you goes a long way."
He turned and caught his horse by the bridle.
"For God's sake!" groaned Silver Pete, and Geraldine turned. "Don't leave me here to die by inches. I done some black things, Geraldine, but never nothing as black as this. Take my own gun and pull a bead on me and we'll call everything even."
The Ghost smiled on him.
"Think it over, Pete," he said. "I reckon you got enough to keep your mind busy. So-long!"
He led his horse slowly down the passage, and the shouts and pleadings of Silver Pete died out behind him. At the mouth of the passage his greatest shout rang no louder than the hum of a bee.
Grimly silent was the conclave in Billy Hillier's saloon. That evening, while the sunset was still red in the west, the Ghost had stopped the stage scarcely a mile from Murrayville, shot the sawed-off shotgun out of the very hands of the only guard who dared to raise a weapon, and had taken a valuable packet of the "dust." They sent out a posse at once, which rode straight for Hunter's Caņon, and arrived there just in time to see the fantom horseman disappear in the mouth of the ravine. They had matched speed with that rider before, and they gave up the vain pursuit. That night they convened in Hillier's, ostensibly to talk over new plans for apprehending the outlaw, but they soon discovered that nothing new could be said. Even Collins was silent, twisting his glass of whisky between his fingers and scowling at his neighbors along the bar. It was small wonder, therefore, if not a man smiled when a singing voice reached them from a horseman who cantered down the street:
"I don't expect no bloomin' tears;
The only thing I ask
Is something for a monument
In the way of a whisky flask."
The sound of the gallop died out before the saloon, the door opened, and Geraldine staggered into the room, carrying a small but apparently ponderous burden in his arms. He lifted it to the bar which creaked under the weight.
"Step up and liquor!" cried Geraldine in a ringing voice. "I got the Ghost!"
A growl answered him. It was a topic over which they were not prepared to laugh.
"Get out and tell that to your hoss, son," said one miner. "We got other things to think about than your damfoolery."
"Damfoolery?" echoed Geraldine. "Step up and look at the loot! Dust, boys, real dust!"
He untied the mouth of a small buckskin bag and shoved it under the nose of the man who had spoken to him. The latter jumped back with a yell and regarded Geraldine with fascinated eyes.
"By God, boys," he said, "it is dust!"
Geraldine fought off the crowd with both hands.
"All mine!" he cried. "Mine, boys! You voted the loot to the man who caught the Ghost!"
"And where's the Ghost?" asked several men together.
"Geraldine," said Collins, pushing through the crowd, "if this is another joke we'll hang you for it!"
"It's too heavy for a joke," grinned Geraldine. "I'll put the loot in your hands, Collins, and when I show you the Ghost I'll ask for it again."
Collins caught his shoulder in a strong grasp.
"Honest to God?" he asked. "Have you got him?"
"I have," said Geraldine, "and I'll give him to you on one ground."
"Out with it," said Collins.
"Well," said Geraldine, "when you see him you'll recognize him. He's been one of us!"
"I knew it," growled Collins; "some dirty dog that lived with us and knifed us in the back all the time."
"But, remember," said Geraldine, "he never shot to kill, and that's why you sha'n't string him up. Is it a bargain?"
"It's a bargain," said Collins, "we'll turn him over to the sheriff. Are you with me, boys?"
They yelled their agreement, and in thirty seconds every man who had a horse was galloping after Collins and Geraldine. At the shrub beside the wall of the valley Geraldine drew rein, and they followed him in an awed and breathless body into the passage.
"I went out scouting on my own hook," explained Geraldine, as he went before them, "and I saw the Ghost ride down the caņon and disappear in here. I followed him."
"Followed up this passage all alone?" queried Collins.
"I did," said Geraldine.
"And what did you do to him?"
"You'll see in a minute. There was only one shot fired, and it came from his gun."
They turned the sharp angle and entered the lighted end of the passage. In another moment they crowded into the cave and stood staring at the tightly bound figure of Silver Pete. His eyes burned furiously into the face of Geraldine. The men swarmed about his prostrate body.
"Untie his feet, boys," said Collins, "and we'll take him back. Silver Pete, you can thank your lucky stars that Geraldine made us promise to turn you over to the law."
"How did you do it?" he continued, turning to Geraldine.
"I'm not very handy with a gun," said the Ghost, "so I tackled him with my fists. Look at that cut on his jaw. That's where I hit him!"
A little murmur of wonder passed around the group. One of them cut the rope which bound Pete's ankles together, and two more dragged him to his feet.
"Stand up like a man, Pete," said Collins, "and thank Geraldine for not cutting out your rotten heart!"
But Silver Pete, never moving his eyes from the face of the Ghost, broke into a long and full-throated laugh.
"Watch him, boys!" called Collins sharply. "He's going looney! Here, Jim, grab on that side and I'll take him here. Now start down the tunnel."
Yet, as they went forward, the rumbling laugh of the gun-fighter broke out again and again.
"I got to leave you here," said the Ghost, when they came out from the mouth of the passage. "My way runs east, and I got a date at Tuxee for to- night. I'll just trouble you for that there slicker with the dust in it, Collins."
Without a word the vigilance men unstrapped the heavy packet which he had tied behind his saddle. He fastened it behind Geraldine's saddle and then caught him by the hand.
"Geraldine," he said, "you're a queer cuss! We haven't made you out yet, but we're going to take a long look at you when you come back to Murrayville to- morrow."
"When I come back," said Geraldine, "you can look at me as long as you wish."
His eyes changed, and he laid a hand on Collins's shoulder.
"Take it from me," he said softly, "you've given me your word that the boys won't do Pete dirt. Remember, he never plugged any of you. He's got his hands tied now, Collins, and if any of the boys try fancy stunts with him —maybe I'll be making a quick trip back from Tuxee. Savvy?"
His eyes held Collins for the briefest moment, and then he swung into his saddle and rode east with the farewell yells of the posse ringing after him. By the time they were in their saddles Geraldine had topped a hill several hundred yards away and his figure was black against the moon. A wind from the east blew back his song to them faintly:
The only thing I ask
Is something for a monument
In the way of a whisky flask."
"Look at him, boys," said Collins, turning in his saddle. "If it wasn't for what's happened to-night, I'd lay ten to one that that was the Ghost on the wing for his hiding-place!"
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