A Tale of the Unfenced Border
By William MacLeod Raine
To My Brother
EDGAR C. RAINE
MY DEAR WANDERER:
I write your name on this page that you may know we hold you not less in our thoughts because you have heard and answered again the call of the frozen North, have for the time disappeared, swallowed in some of its untrodden wilds. As in those old days of 59 Below On Bonanza, the long Winter night will be of interminable length. Armed with this note of introduction then, Bucky O'Connor offers himself, with the best bow of one Adventurer to another, as a companion to while away some few of those lonely hours.
March, 1910, Denver.
1. Enter "Bear-Trap" Collins 2. Taxation Without Representation 3. The Sheriff Introduces Himself 4. A Bluff is Called 5. Bucky Entertains 6. Bucky Makes a Discovery 7. In the Land of Revolutions 8. First Blood! 9. "Adore Has Only One D" 10. The Hold-Up of the M. C. P. Flyer 11. "Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make" 12. A Clean White Man's Option 13. Bucky's First-Rate Reasons 14. Le Roi Est Mort; Vive Le Roi 15. In the Secret Chamber 16. Juan Valdez Scores 17. Hidden Valley 18. A Dinner for Three 19. A Villon of the Desert 20. Back to God's Country 21. The Wolf Pack 22. For a Good Reason
CHAPTER 1. ENTER "BEAR-TRAP" COLLINS
She had been aware of him from the moment of his spectacular entrance, though no slightest sign of interest manifested itself in her indolent, incurious eyes. Indeed, his abundant and picturesque area was so vivid that it would have been difficult not to feel his presence anywhere, let alone on a journey so monotonous as this was proving to be.
It had been at a water-tank, near Socorro, that the Limited, churning furiously through brown Arizona in pursuit of a lost half-hour, jarred to a sudden halt that shook sleep from the drowsy eyes of bored passengers. Through the window of her Pullman the young woman in Section 3 had glimpsed a bevy of angry train officials eddying around a sturdy figure in the center, whose strong, lean head rose confidently above the press. There was the momentary whirl of a scuffle, out of the tangle of which shot a brakeman as if propelled from a catapult. The circle parted, brushed aside by a pair of lean shoulders, muscular and broad. Yet a few moments and the owner of the shoulders led down the aisle to the vacant section opposite her a procession whose tail was composed of protesting trainmen.
"You had no right to flag the train, Sheriff Collins, and you'll have to get off; that's all there is to it," the conductor was explaining testily.
"Oh, that's all right," returned the offender with easy good nature, making himself at home in Section 4. "Tell the company to send in its bill. No use jawing about it."
"You'll have to get off, sir."
"That's right—at Tucson."
"No, sir. You'll have to get off here. I have no authority to let you ride."
"Didn't I hear you say the train was late? Don't you think you'd arrive earlier at the end of your run if your choo-choo got to puffing?"
"You'll have to get off, sir."
"I hate to disoblige," murmured the owner of the jingling spurs, the dusty corduroys, and the big, gray hat, putting his feet leisurely on the cushion in front of him. "But doesn't it occur to you that you are a man of one idea?"
"This is the Coast Limited. It doesn't stop for anybody—not even for the president of the road."
"You don't say! Well, I ce'tainly appreciate the honor you did me in stopping to take me on." His slight drawl was quite devoid of concern.
"But you had no right to flag the train. Can't you understand ANYTHING?" groaned the conductor.
"You explain it again to me, sonny. I'm surely thick in the haid," soothed the intruder, and listened with bland good-humor to the official's flow of protest.
"Well—well! Disrupted the whole transcontinental traffic, didn't I? And me so innocent, too. Now, this is how I figured it out. Here's me in a hurry to get to Tucson. Here comes your train a-foggin'—also and likewise hittin' the high spots for Tucson. Seemed like we ought to travel in company, and I was some dubious she'd forget to stop unless I flagged her. Wherefore, I aired my bandanna in the summer breeze."
"But you don't understand." The conductor began to explain anew as to a dull child. "It's against the law. You'll get into trouble."
"Put me in the calaboose, will they?"
"It's no joke."
"Well, it does seem to be worrying you," Mr. Collins conceded. "Don't mind me. Free your mind proper."
The conductor, glancing about nervously, noticed that passengers were smiling broadly. His official dignity was being chopped to mince-meat. Back came his harassed gaze to the imperturbable Collins with the brown, sun-baked face and the eyes blue and untroubled as an Arizona sky. Out of a holster attached to the sagging belt that circled the corduroy trousers above his hips gleamed the butt of a revolver. But in the last analysis the weapon of the occasion was purely a moral one. The situation was one not covered in the company's rule book, and in the absence of explicit orders the trainman felt himself unequal to that unwavering gaze and careless poise. Wherefore, he retreated, muttering threats of what the company would do.
"Now, if I had only known it was against the law. My thick haid's always roping trouble for me," the plainsman confided to the Pullman conductor, with twinkling eyes.
That official unbent. "Talking about thick heads, I'm glad my porter has one. If it weren't iron-plated and copper-riveted he'd be needing a doctor now, the way you stood him on it."
"No, did I? Ce'tainly an accident. The nigger must have been in my way as I climbed into the car. Took the kink out of his hair, you say? Here, Sam!" He tossed a bill to the porter, who was rolling affronted eyes at him. "Do you reckon this is big enough to plaster your injured feelings, boy?"
The white smile flashed at him by the porter was a receipt for indemnity paid in full.
Sheriff Collins' perception of his neighbor across the aisle was more frank in its interest than the girl's had been of him. The level, fearless gaze of the outdoors West looked at her unabashed, appreciating swiftly her points as they impinged themselves upon his admiration. The long, lithe lines of the slim, supple body, the languid grace missing hauteur only because that seemed scarce worth while, the unconscious pride of self that fails to be offensive only in a young woman so well equipped with good looks as this one indubitably was the rider of the plains had appraised them all before his eyes dismissed her from his consideration and began a casual inspection of the other passengers.
Inside of half an hour he had made himself persona grata to everybody in the car except his dark-eyed neighbor across the way. That this dispenser of smiles and cigars decided to leave her out in the distribution of his attentions perhaps spoke well for his discernment. Certainly responsiveness to the geniality of casual fellow passengers did not impress Mr. Collins as likely to be an outstanding, quality in her. But with the drummer from Chicago, the young mining engineer going to Sonora, the two shy little English children just in front of him traveling to meet their father in California, he found intuitively common ground of interest. Even Major Mackenzie, the engineer in charge of the large irrigation project being built by a company in southern Arizona, relaxed at one of the plainsman's humorous tales.
It was after Collins had half-depopulated the car by leading the more jovial spirits back in search of liquid refreshments that an urbane clergyman, now of Boston but formerly of Pekin, Illinois, professedly much interested in the sheriff's touch-and-go manner as presumably quite characteristic of the West, dropped into the vacant seat beside Major Mackenzie.
"And who might our energetic friend be?" he asked, with an ingratiating smile.
The young woman in front of them turned her head ever so slightly to listen.
"Val Collins is his name," said the major. "Sometimes called 'Bear-trap Collins.' He has always lived on the frontier. At least, I met him twelve years ago when he was riding mail between Aravaipa and Mesa. He was a boy then, certainly not over eighteen, but in a desperate fight he had killed two men who tried to hold up the mail. Cow-puncher, stage-driver, miner, trapper, sheriff, rough rider, politician—he's past master at them all."
"And why the appellation of 'Bear-trap,' may I ask?" The smack of pulpit oratory was not often missing in the edifying discourse of the Reverend Peter Melancthon Brooks.
"Well, sir, that's a story. He was trapping in the Tetons about five years ago thirty miles from the nearest ranch-house. One day, while he was setting a bear-trap, a slide of snow plunged down from the tree branches above and freed the spring, catching his hand between its jaws. With his feet and his other hand he tried to open that trap for four hours, without the slightest success. There was not one chance in a million of help from outside. In point of fact, Collins had not seen a human being for a month. There was only one thing to do, and he did it."
"And that was?"
"You probably noticed that he wears a glove over his left hand. The reason, sir, is that he has an artificial hand."
"You mean—" The Reverend Peter paused to lengthen his delicious thrill of horror.
"Yes, sir. That's just what I mean. He hacked his hand off at the wrist with his hunting-knife."
"Why, the man's a hero!" cried the clergyman, with unction.
Mackenzie flung him a disgusted look. "We don't go much on heroes out here. He's game, if that's what you mean. And able, too. Bucky O'Connor himself isn't any smarter at following a trail."
"And who is Bucky O'Connor?"
"He's the man that just ran down Fernendez. Think I'll have a smoke, sir. Care to join me?"
But the Pekin-Bostonian preferred to stay and jot down in his note-book the story of the bear-trap, to be used later as a sermon illustration. This may have been the reason he did not catch the quick look that passed without the slightest flicker of the eyelids between Major Mackenzie and the young woman in Section 3. It was as if the old officer had wired her a message in some code the cipher of which was known only to them.
But the sheriff, returning at the head of his cohorts, caught it, and wondered what meaning might lie back of that swift glance. Major Mackenzie and this dark-eyed beauty posed before others as strangers, yet between them lay some freemasonry of understanding to which he had not the key.
Collins did not know that the aloofness in the eyes of Miss Wainwright—he had seen the name on her suit-case—gave way to horror when her glance fell on his gloved hand. She had a swift, shuddering vision of a grim-faced man, jaws set like a vise, hacking at his wrist with a hunting-knife. But the engaging impudence of his eye, the rollicking laughter in his voice, shut out the picture instantly.
The young man resumed his seat, and Miss Wainwright her listless inspection of the flying stretches of brown desert. Dusk was beginning to fall, and the porter presently lit the lamps. Collins bought a magazine from the newsboy and relapsed into it, but before he was well adjusted to reading the Limited pounded to a second unscheduled halt.
Instantly the magazine was thrown aside and Collins' curly head thrust out of the window. Presently the head reappeared, simultaneously with the crack of a revolver, the first of a detonating fusillade.
"Another of your impatient citizens eager to utilize the unspeakable convenience of rapid transit," suggested the clergyman, with ponderous jocosity.
"No, sir; nothing so illegal," smiled the cattleman, a whimsical light in his daredevil eyes. He leaned forward and whispered a word to the little girl in front of him, who at once led her younger brother back to his section.
"I had hoped it would prove to be more diverting experience for a tenderfoot," condescended the gentleman of the cloth.
"It's ce'tainly a pleasure to be able to gratify you, sir. You'll be right pleased to know that it is a train hold-up." He waved his hand toward the door, and at the word, as if waiting for his cue, a masked man appeared at the end of the passage with a revolver in each hand.
CHAPTER 2. TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
There was a ring of crisp menace in the sinister voice that was a spur to obedience. The unanimous show of hands voted "Aye" with a hasty precision that no amount of drill could have compassed.
It was a situation that might have made for laughter had there been spectators to appreciate. But of whatever amusement was to be had one of the victims seemed to hold a monopoly. Collins, his arm around the English children by way of comfort, offered a sardonic smile at the consternation his announcement and its fulfillment had created, but none of his fellow passengers were in the humor to respond.
The shock of an earthquake could not have blanched ruddy faces more surely. The Chicago drummer, fat and florid, had disappeared completely behind a buttress of the company's upholstery.
"God bless my soul!" gasped the Pekin-Bostonian, dropping his eyeglass and his accent at the same moment. The dismay in his face found a reflection all over the car. Miss Wainwright's hand clutched at her breast for an instant, and her color ebbed till her lips were ashen, but her neighbor across the aisle noticed that her eyes were steady and her figure tense.
"Scared stiff, but game," was his mental comment.
"Gents to the right and ladies to the left; line up against the walls; everybody waltz." called the man behind the guns, with grim humor.
The passengers fell into line as directed, Collins with the rest.
"You're calling this dance, son; it's your say-so, I guess," he conceded.
"Keep still, or I'll shoot you full of holes," growled the autocrat of the artillery.
"Why, sure! Ain't you the real thing in Jesse Jameses?" soothed the sheriff.
At the sound of Collins' voice, the masked man had started perceptibly, and his right hand had jumped forward an inch or two to cover the speaker more definitely. Thereafter, no matter what else engaged his attention, the gleaming eyes behind the red bandanna never wandered for a moment from the big plainsman. He was taking no risks, for he remembered the saying current in Arizona, that after Collins' hardware got into action there was nothing left to do but plant the deceased and collect the insurance. He had personal reasons to know the fundamental accuracy of the colloquialism.
The train-conductor fussed up to the masked outlaw with a ludicrous attempt at authority. "You can't rob the passengers on this train. I'm not responsible for the express-car, but the coaches—"
A bullet almost grazed his ear and shattered a window on its way to the desert.
"Drift, you red-haired son of a Mexican?" ordered the man behind the red bandanna. "Git back to that seat real prompt. This here's taxation without representation."
The conductor drifted as per suggestion.
The minutes ticked themselves away in a tense strain marked by pounding hearts. The outlaw stood at the end of the aisle, watching the sheriff alertly.
"Why doesn't the music begin?" volunteered Collins, by way of conversation, and quoted: "On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined."
A dull explosion answered his question. The bandits were blowing open the safe in the express-car with dynamite, pending which the looting of the passengers was at a standstill.
A second masked figure joined his companion at the end of the passage and held a hurried conversation with him. Fragments of their low-voiced talk came to Collins.
"Only thirty thousand in the express-car. Not a red cent on the old man himself."
"Where's the rest?" The irritation in the newcomer's voice was pronounced.
Collins slewed his head and raked him with keen eyes that missed not a detail. He was certain that he had never seen the man before, yet he knew at once that the trim, wiry figure, so clean of build and so gallant of bearing, could belong only to Wolf Leroy, the most ruthless outlaw of the Southwest. It was written in his jaunty insolence, in the flashing eyes. He was a handsome fellow, white-toothed, black-haired, lithely tigerish, with masterful mouth and eyes of steel, so far as one might judge behind the white mask he wore. Alert, cruel, fearless from the head to the heel of him, he looked the very devil to lead an enterprise so lawless and so desperate as this. His vigilant eyes swept contemptuously up and down the car, rested for a moment on the young woman in Section 3, and came back to his partner.
"Bah! A flock of sheep—tamest bunch of spring lambs we ever struck. I'll send Scott in to go through them. If anybody gets gay, drop him." And the outlaw turned on his heel.
Another of the highwaymen took his place, a stout, squat figure in the flannel shirt, spurs, and chaps of a cow-puncher. It took no second glance to tell Collins this bandy-legged fellow had been a rider of the range.
"Come, gentlemen, get a move on you," Collins implored. "This train's due at Tucson by eight o'clock. We're more than an hour late now. I'm holding down the job of sheriff in that same town, and I'm awful anxious to get a posse out after a bunch of train-robbers. So burn the wind, and go through the car on the jump. Help yourself to anything you find. Who steals my purse takes trash. 'Tis something, nothing. 'Twas mine; 'tis his. That's right, you'll find my roll in that left-hand pocket. I hate to have you take that gun, though. I meant to run you down with that same old Colt's reliable. Oh, well, just as you say. No, those kids get a free pass. They're going out to meet papa at Los Angeles, boys. See?"
Collins' running fire of comment had at least the effect of restoring the color to some cheeks that had been washed white and of snatching from the outlaws some portion of their sense of dominating the situation. But there was a veiled vigilance in his eyes that belied his easy impudence.
"That lady across the aisle gets a pass, too, boys," continued the sheriff. "She's scared stiff now, and you won't bother her, if you're white men. Her watch and purse are on the seat. Take them, if you want them, and let it go at that."
Miss Wainwright listened to this dialogue silently. She stood before them cool and imperious and unwavering, but her face was bloodless and the pulse in her beautiful soft throat fluttered like a caged bird.
"Who's doing this job?" demanded one of the hold-ups, wheeling savagely on the impassive officer "Did I say we were going to bother the lady? Who's doing this job, Mr. Sheriff?"
"You are. I'd hate to be messing the job like you—holding up the wrong train by mistake." This was a shot in the dark, and it did not quite hit the bull's-eye. "I wouldn't trust you boys to rob a hen-roost, the amateur way you go at it. When you get through, you'll all go to drinking like blue blotters. I know your kind—hell-bent to spend what you cash in, and every mother's son of you in the pen or with his toes turned up inside of a month."
"Who'll put us there?" gruffly demanded the bowlegged one.
Collins smiled at him with confidence superb "Mebbe I will—and if I don't Bucky O'Connor will—those of you that are left alive when you go through shooting each other in the back. Oh, I see your finish to a fare-you-well."
"Cheese it, or I'll bump you off." The first out law drove his gun into the sheriff's ribs.
"That's all right. You don't need to punctuate that remark. I line up with the sky-pilot and chew the cud of silence. I merely wanted to frame up to you how this thing's going to turn out. Don't come back at me and say I didn't warn you, sonnie."
"You make my head ache," snarled the bandy-legged outlaw sourly, as he passed down with his sack, accumulating tribute as he passed down the aisle with his sack, accumulating tribute as he went.
The red-kerchiefed robber whooped when they came to the car conductor. "Dig up, Mr. Pullman. Go way down into your jeans. It's a right smart pleasure to divert the plunder of your bloated corporation back to the people. What! Only fifty-seven dollars. Oh, dig deeper, Mr. Pullman."
The drummer contributed to the sack eighty-four dollars, a diamond ring, and a gold watch. His hands were trembling so that they played a tattoo on the sloping ceiling above him.
"What's the matter, Fatty? Got a chill?" inquired one of the robbers, as he deftly swept the plunder into the sack.
"For—God's sake—don't shoot. I have—a wife—and five children," he stammered, with chattering teeth.
"No race suicide for Fatty. But whyfor do they let a sick man like you travel all by his lone?"
"I don't know—I—Please turn that weapon another way."
"Plumb chuck full of malaria," soliloquized the owner of the weapon, playfully running its business end over the Chicago man's anatomy. "Shakes worse'n a pair of dice. Here, Fatty. Load up with quinine and whisky. It's sure good for chills." The man behind the bandanna gravely handed his victim back a dollar. "Write me if it cures you. Now for the sky-pilot. No white chips on this plate, parson. It's a contribution to the needy heathen. You want to be generous. How much do you say?"
The man of the cloth reluctantly said thirty dollars, a Lincoln penny, and a silver-plated watch inherited from his fathers. The watch was declined with thanks, the money accepted without.
The Pullman porter came into the car under compulsion of a revolver in the hand of a fourth outlaw, one in a black mask. His trembling finger pointed out the satchel and suit-case of Major Mackenzie, and under orders he carried out the baggage belonging to the irrigation engineer. Collin observed that the bandit in the black mask was so nervous that the revolver in his hand quivered like an aspen in the wind. He was slenderer and much shorter than the Mexican, so that the sheriff decided he was a mere boy.
It was just after he had left that three shots in rapid succession rang out in the still night air.
The red-bandannaed one and his companion, who had apparently been waiting for the signal, retreated backward to the end of the car, still keeping the passengers covered. They flung rapidly two or three bullets through the roof, and under cover of the smoke slipped out into the night. A moment later came the thud of galloping horses, more shots, and, when the patter of hoofs had died away—silence.
The sheriff was the first to break it. He thrust his brown hands deep into his pockets and laughed—laughed with the joyous, rollicking abandon of a tickled schoolboy.
"Hysterics?" ventured the mining engineer sympathetically.
Collins wiped his eyes. "Call 'em anything you like. What pleases me is that the reverend gentleman should have had this diverting experience so prompt after he was wishing for it." He turned, with concern, to the clergyman. "Satisfied, sir? Did our little entertainment please, or wasn't it up to the mark?"
But the transported native of Pekin was game. "I'm quite satisfied, if you are. I think the affair cost you a hundred dollars or so more than it did me."
"That's right," agreed the sheriff heartily. "But I don't grudge it—not a cent of it. The show was worth the price of admission."
The car conductor had a broadside ready for him. "Seems to me you shot off your mouth more than you did that big gun of yours, Mr. Sheriff."
Collins laughed, and clapped him on the back. "That's right. I'm a regular phonograph, when you wind me up." He did not think it necessary to explain that he had talked to make the outlaws talk, and that he had noted the quality of their voices so carefully that he would know them again among a thousand. Also he had observed—other things—the garb of each of the men he had seen, their weapons, their manner, and their individual peculiarities.
The clanking car took up the rhythm of the rails as the delayed train plunged forward once more into the night. Again the clack of tongues, set free from fear, buzzed eagerly. The glow of the afterclap of danger was on them, and in the warm excitement each forgot the paralyzing fear that had but now padlocked his lips. Courage came flowing back into flabby cheeks and red blood into hearts of water.
At the next station the Limited stopped, and the conductor swung from a car before the wheels had ceased rolling and went running into the telegraph office.
"Fire a message through for me, Pat. The Limited has been held up," he announced.
"Held up?" gasped the operator.
"That's right. Get this message right through to Sabin. I'm not going to wait for an answer. Tell him I'll stop at Apache for further instructions."
With which the conductor was out again waving his lantern as a signal for the train to start. Sheriff Collins and Major Mackenzie had entered the office at his heels. They too had messages to send, but it was not until the train was already plunging into the night that the station agent read the yellow slips they had left and observed that both of them went to the same person.
"Lieutenant Bucky O'Connor, Douglas, Arizona," was the address he read at the top of each. His comment serves to show the opinion generally in the sunburned territory respecting one of its citizens.
"You're wise guys, gents, both of yez. This is shure a case for the leftenant. It's send for Bucky quick when the band begins to play," he grinned.
Sitting down, he gave the call for Tucson, preparatory to transmitting the conductor's message to the division superintendent. His fingers were just striking the first tap when a silken voice startled him.
"One moment, friend. No use being in a hurry."
The agent looked up and nearly fell from his stool. He was gazing into the end of a revolver held carelessly in the hand of a masked man leaning indolently on the counter.
"Whe—where did you come from?" the operator gasped.
"Kaintucky, but I been here a right smart spell. Why? You takin' the census?" came the drawling answer.
"I didn't hear youse come in."
"I didn't hear you come in, either," the man behind the mask mocked. But even as he spoke his manner changed, and crisp menace rang in his voice. "Have you sent those messages yet?"
"Those lying on your desk. I say, have you sent them?"
"Hand them over here."
The operator passed them across the counter without demur.
"Now reach for the roof."
Up shot the station agent's hands. The bandit glanced over the written sheets and commented aloud:
"Huh! One from the conductor and one from Mackenzie. I expected those. But this one from Collins is ce'tainly a surprise party. I didn't know he was on the train. Lucky for him I didn't, or mebbe I'd a-put his light for good and all. Friend, I reckon we'll suppress these messages. Military necessity, you understand." And with that he lightly tore up the yellow sheets and tossed them away.
"The conductor will wire when he reaches Apache," the operator suggested, not very boldly.
The outlaw rolled a cigarette deftly and borrowed a match. "He most surely will. But Apache is seventy miles from here. That gives us an extra hour and a half, and with us right now time is a heap more valuable than money. You may tell Bucky O'Connor when you see him that that extra hour and a half cinches our escape, and we weren't on the anxious seat any without it."
It may have been true, as the train robber had just said, that time was more valuable to him then than money, but if so he must have held the latter of singularly little value. For he sat him down on the counter with his back against the wall and his legs stretched full length in front of him and glanced over the Tucson Star in leisurely fashion, while Pat's arms still projected roofward.
The operator, beginning to get over his natural fright, could not withhold a reluctant admiration of this man's aplomb. There was a certain pantherish lightness about the outlaw's movements, a trim grace of figure which yet suggested rippling muscles perfectly under control, and a quiet wariness of eye more potent than words at repressing insurgent impulses. Certainly if ever there was a cool customer and one perfectly sure of himself, this was he.
"Not a thing in the Star to-day," Pat's visitor commented, as he flung it away with a yawn. "I'll let a thousand dollars of the express company's money that there will be something more interesting in it to-morrow."
"That's right," agreed the agent.
"But I won't be here to read it. My engagements take me south. I'll make a present to the great Lieutenant O'Connor of the information. We're headed south, tell him. And tell Mr. Sheriff Collins, too—happy to entertain him if he happens our way. If it would rest your hands any there's no law against putting them in your trousers pockets, my friend."
From outside there came a short sharp whistle. The man on the counter answered it, and slipped at once to the floor. The door opened, to let in another masked form, but one how different from the first! Here was no confidence almost insolent in its nonchalance. The figure was slight and boyish, the manner deprecating, the brown eyes shy and shrinking He was so obviously a novice at outlawry that fear sat heavy upon his shoulders. When he spoke, almost in a whisper, his teeth chattered.
"All ready, sir."
"The wires are cut?" demanded his leader crisply.
"On both sides?"
"On both sides."
His chief relieved the operator of the revolver in his desk, broke it, emptied out the shells, and flung them through the window, then tossed the weapon back to its owner.
"You'll not shoot yourself by accident now," he explained, and with that he had followed his companion into the night.
There came to the station agent the sound of galloping horses, growing fainter, until a heavy silence seemed to fill the night. He stole to the door and locked it, pulled down the window blinds, and then reloaded his revolver with feverish haste. This done, he sat down before his keys with the weapon close at hand and frantically called for Tucson over and over again. No answer came to him, nor from the other direction when he tried that. The young bandit had told the truth. His companions had cut the wires and so isolated from the world for the time the scene of the hold-up. The agent understood now why the leader of the outlaws had honored him with so much of his valuable time. He had stayed to hold back the telegrams until he knew the wires were cut.
CHAPTER 3. THE SHERIFF INTRODUCES HIMSELF
Bear-trap Collins, presuming on the new intimacy born of an exciting experience shared in common, stepped across the aisle, flung aside Miss Wainwright's impedimenta, and calmly seated himself beside her. She was a young woman capable of a hauteur chillier than ice to undue familiarity, but she did not choose at this moment to resent his assumption of a footing that had not existed an hour ago. Picturesque and unconventional conduct excuses itself when it is garbed in picturesque and engaging manners. She had, besides, other reasons for wanting to meet him, and they had to do with a sudden suspicion that flamed like tow in her brain. She had something for which to thank him—much more than he would be likely to guess, she thought—and she was wondering, with a surge of triumph, whether the irony of fate had not made his pretended consideration for her the means of his undoing.
"I am sorry you lost so much, Miss Wainwright," he told her.
"But, after all, I did not lose so much as you. Her dark, deep-pupiled eyes, long-lashed as Diana's, swept round to meet his coolly.
"That's a true word. My reputation has gone glimmering for fair, I guess." He laughed ruefully. "I shouldn't wonder, ma'am, when election time comes round, if the boys ain't likely to elect to private life the sheriff that lay down before a bunch of miscreants."
"Why did you do it?"
His humorous glance roamed round the car. "Now, I couldn't think it proper for me to shoot up this sumptuous palace on wheels. And wouldn't some casual passenger be likely to get his lights put out when the band began to play? Would you want that Boston church to be shy a preacher, ma'am?"
Her lips parted slightly in a curve of scorn. "I suppose you had your reasons for not interfering."
"Surely, ma'am. I hated to have them make a sieve of me."
"Were you afraid?"
"Most men are when Wolf Leroy's gang is on the war path."
"That was Wolf who came in to see they were doing the job right. He's the worst desperado on the border—a sure enough bad proposition, I reckon. They say he's part Spanish and part Indian, but all pisen. Others say he's a college man of good family. I don't know about that, for nobody knows who he really is. But the name is a byword in the country. People lower their voices when they speak of him and his night-riders."
"I see. And you were afraid of him?"
Her narrowed eyes looked over the strong lines of his lean face and were unconvinced. "I expect you found a better reason than that for not opposing them."
He turned to her with frank curiosity. "I'd like real well to have you put a name to it."
But he was instantly aware that her interest had been side tracked. Major Mackenzie had entered the car and was coming down the aisle. Plainer than words his eyes asked a question, and hers answered it.
The sheriff stopped him with a smiling query: "Hit hard, major?"
Mackenzie frowned. "The scoundrels took thirty thousand from the express car, I understand. Twenty thousand of it belonged to our company. I was expecting to pay off the men next Tuesday."
"Hope we'll be able to run them down for you," returned Collins cheerfully. "I suppose you lay it to Wolf Leroy's gang?"
"Of course. The work was too well done to leave any doubt of that." The major resumed his seat behind Miss Wainwright.
To that young woman the sheriff repeated his unanswered question in the form of a statement. "I'm waiting to learn that better reason, ma'am."
She was possessed of that spice of effrontery more to be desired than beauty. "Shall we say that you had no wish to injure your friends?"
Her untender eyes mocked his astonishment. "Do I choose the wrong word?" she asked, with an audacity of a courage that delighted him. "Perhaps they are not your friends—these train robbers? Perhaps they are mere casual acquaintances?"
His bold eyes studied with a new interest her superb, confident youth—the rolling waves of splendid Titian hair, the lovely, subtle eyes with the depths of shadowy pools in them, the alluring lines of long and supple loveliness. Certainly here was no sweet, ingenuous youth all prone to blushes, but the complex heir of that world-old wisdom the weaker sex has shaped to serve as a weapon against the strength that must be met with the wit of Mother Eve.
"You ce'tainly have a right vivid imagination, ma'am," he said dryly.
"You are quite sure you have never seen them before?" her velvet voice asked.
He laughed. "Well, no—I can't say I am."
"Aren't you quite sure you have seen them?"
Her eyes rested on him very steadily.
"You're smart as a whip, Miss Wainwright. I take off my hat to a young lady so clever. I guess you're right. About the identity of one of those masked gentlemen I'm pretty well satisfied."
She drew a long breath. "I thought so."
"Yes," he went on evenly, "I once earmarked him so that I'd know him again in case we met."
"I beg pardon. You—what?"
"Earmarked him. Figure of speech, ma'am. You may not have observed that the curly-headed person behind the guns was shy the forefinger of his right hand. We had a little difficulty once when he was resisting arrest, and it just happened that my gun fanned away his trigger finger." He added reminiscently:
"A good boy, too, Neil was once. We used to punch together on the Hashknife. A straight-up rider, the kind a fellow wants when Old Man Trouble comes knocking at the door. Well, I reckon he's a miscreant now, all right."
"They knew YOU—at least two of them did."
"I've been pirootin' around this country, boy and man, for fifteen years. I ain't responsible for every yellow dog that knows me," he drawled.
"And I noticed that when you told them not to rob the children and not to touch me they did as you said."
"Hypnotism," he suggested, with a smile.
"So, not being a child, I put two and two together and draw an inference."
He seemed to be struggling with his mirth. "I see you do. Well, ma'am, I've been most everything since I hit the West, but this is the first time I've been taken for a train robber."
"I didn't say that," she cried quickly.
"I think you mentioned an inference." The low laugh welled out of him and broke in his face. "I've been busy on one, too. It's a heap nearer the truth than yours, Miss Mackenzie."
Her startled eyes and the swift movement of her hand toward her heart showed him how nearly he had struck home, how certainly he had shattered her cool indifference of manner.
He leaned forward, so close that even in the roar of the train his low whisper reached her. "Shall I tell you why the hold-ups didn't find more money on your father or in the express car, Miss Mackenzie?"
She was shaken, so much so that her agitation trembled on her lips.
"Shall I tell you why your hand went to your breast when I first mentioned that the train was going to be held up, and again when your father's eyes were firing a mighty pointed question at you?"
"I don't know what you mean," she retorted, again mistress of herself.
Her gallant bearing compelled his admiration. The scornful eyes, the satirical lift of the nostrils, the erect, graceful figure, all flung a challenge at him. He called himself hard names for putting her on the rack, but the necessity to make her believe in him was strong within him.
"I noticed you went right chalky when I announced the hold-up, and I thought it was because you were scared. That was where I did you an injustice, ma'am, and you can call this an apology. You've got sand. If it hadn't been for what you carry in the chamois skin hanging on the chain round your neck you would have enjoyed every minute of the little entertainment. You're as game as they make them."
"May I ask how you arrived at this melodramatic conclusion?" she asked, her disdainful lip curling.
"By using my eyes and my ears, ma'am. I shouldn't have noticed your likeness to Major Mackenzie, perhaps, if I hadn't observed that there was a secret understanding between you. Now, whyfor should you be passing as strangers? I could guess one reason, and only one. There have twice been attempted hold-ups of the paymaster of the Yuba reservoir. It was to avoid any more of these that Major Mackenzie took charge personally of paying the men. He has made good up till now. But there have been rumors for months that he would be held up either before leaving the train or while he was crossing the desert. He didn't want to be seen taking the boodle from the express company at Tucson. He would rather have the impression get out that this was just a casual visit. It occurred to him to bring along some unsuspected party to help him out. The robbers would never expect to find the money on a woman. That's why the major brought his daughter with him. Doesn't it make you some uneasy to be carrying fifty thousand in small bills sewed in your clothes and hung round your neck?"
She broke into musical laughter, natural and easy. "I don't happen to have fifty thousand with me."
"Oh, well, say forty thousand. I'm no wizard to guess the exact figure."
Her swift glance at him was almost timid.
"Nor forty thousand," she murmured.
"I should think, ma'am, you'd crinkle more than a silk-lined lady sailing down a church aisle on Sunday."
A picture in the magazine she was toying with seemed to interest her.
"I expect that's the signal for 'Exit Collins.' I'll say good-by till next time, Miss Mackenzie."
"Oh, is there going to be a next time?" she asked, with elaborate carelessness.
"Several of them."
He took a notebook from his pocket and wrote.
"I ain't the son of a prophet, but I'm venturing a prediction," he explained.
She had nothing to say, and she said it competently.
"Concerning an investment in futurities I'm making," he continued.
Her magazine article seemed to be beginning, well.
"It's a little guess about how this train robbery is coming out. If you don't mind, I'll leave it with you." He tore the page out, put it in an empty envelope, sealed the flap, and handed it to her.
"Open it in a month, and see whether my guess is a good one."
The dusky lashes swept round indolently. "Suppose I were to open it to-night."
"I'll risk it," smiled the blue eyes.
"On honor, am I?"
"That's it." He held out a big, brown hand.
"You're going to try to capture the robbers, are you?"
"I've been thinking that way—with the help of Lieutenant Bucky O'Connor, I mean."
"And I suppose you've promised yourself success."
"It's on the knees of chance, ma'am. We may get them. They may get us."
"But this prediction of yours?" She held up the sealed envelope.
"That's about another matter."
"But I don't understand. You said—" She gave him a chance to explain.
"It ain't meant you should. You'll understand plenty at the proper time."
He offered her his hand again. "We're slowing down for Apache. Good-by—till next time."
The suede glove came forward, and was buried in his handshake.
He understood it to be an unvoiced apology of its owner for her suspicions, and his instinct was correct. For how could her doubts hold their ground when he had showed himself a sharer in her secret and a guardian of it? And how could anything sinister lie behind those frank, unwavering eyes or consist with that long, clean stride that was carrying him so forcefully to the vestibule?
At Apache no telegrams were found waiting for those who had been expecting them. Communication with the division superintendent at Tucson uncovered the fact that no message of the hold-up had yet reached him. It was an easy guess for Collins to find the reason.
"We're in the infant class, major," he told Mackenzie, with a sardonic laugh. "Leroy must have galloped down the line direct to the station after the hold-up. Likely enough he went into the depot just as we went out. That gives him the other hour or two he needs to make his getaway with the loot. Well, it can't be helped now. If I can only reach Bucky there's one chance in fifty he can head them off from crossing into Sonora. Soon as I can get together a posse I'll take up the trail from the point of the hold-up. But they'll have a whole night's start on me. That's a big handicap."
From Apache Collins sent three dispatches. One was to his deputy, Dillon, at Tucson. It read:
"Get together at once posse of four and outfit same for four days."
Another went to Sabin, the division superintendent:
"Order special to carry posse with horses from Tucson to Big Gap. Must leave by midnight. Have track clear."
The third was a notification to Lieutenant O'Connor, of the Arizona Rangers, of the hold-up, specifying time and place of the occurrence. The sheriff knew it was not necessary to add that the bandits were probably heading south to get into Sonora. Bucky would take that for granted and do his best to cover the likely spots of the frontier.
It was nearly eleven when the Limited drew in to Tucson. Sabin was on the platform anxiously awaiting their arrival. Collins reached him even before the conductor.
"Ordered the special, Mr. Sabin?" he asked, in a low voice.
The railroad man was chewing nervously on an unlit cigar. "Yes, sheriff. You want only an engine and one car, I suppose."
"That will be enough. I've got to go uptown now and meet Dillon. Midnight sharp, please."
"Do you know how much they got?" Sabin whispered.
"Thirty thousand, I hear, besides what they took from the passengers. The conductor will tell you all about it. I've got to jump to be ready."
A disappointment awaited him in the telegrapher's room at the depot. He found a wire, but not from the person he expected. The ranger in charge at Douglas said that Lieutenant O'Connor was at Flag staff, but pending that officer's return he would put himself under the orders of Sheriff Collins and wait for instructions.
The sheriff whistled softly to himself and scratched his head. Bucky would not have waited for instructions. By this time that live wire would have finished telephoning all over Southern Arizona and would himself have been in the saddle. But Bucky in Flagstaff, nearly three hundred miles from the battlefield, so far as the present emergency went, might just as well be in Calcutta. Collins wired instructions to the ranger and sent a third message to the lieutenant.
"I expect I'll hear this time he's skipped over to Winslow," he told himself, with a rueful grin.
The special with the posse on board drew out at midnight sharp. It reached the scene of the holdup before daybreak. The loading board was lowered and the horses led from the car and picketed. Meanwhile two of the men lit a fire and made breakfast while the others unloaded the outfit and packed for the trail. The first faint streaks of gray dawn were beginning to fleck the sky when Collins and Dillon, with a lantern, moved along the railroad bed to the little clump of cottonwoods where the outlaws had probably lain while they waited for the express. They scanned this ground inch by inch. The coals where their camp-fire had been were still alive. Broken bits of food lay scattered about. Half-trampled into the ground the sheriff picked up a narrow gold chain and locket. This last he opened, and found it to contain a tiny photograph of a young mother and babe, both laughing happily. A close search failed to disclose anything else of interest.
They returned to their companions, ate breakfast, and saddled. It was by this time light enough to be moving. The trail was easy as a printed map, for the object of the outlaws had been haste rather than secrecy. The posse covered it swiftly and without hesitation.
"Now, I wonder why this trail don't run straight south instead of bearing to the left into the hills. Looks like they're going to cache their stolen gold up in the mountains before they risk crossing into Sonora. They figure Bucky'll be on the lookout for them," the sheriff said to his deputy.
"I believe you've guessed it, Val. Stands to reason they'll want to get rid of the loot soon as they can. Oh, hell!"
Dillon's disgust proved justifiable, for the trail had lost itself in a mountain stream, up or down which the outlaws must have filed. A month later and the creek would have been dry. But it was still spring. The mountain rains had not ceased feeding the brook, and of this the outlaws had taken advantage to wipe out their trail.
The sheriff looked anxiously at the sky. "It's fixin' to rain, Jim. Don't that beat the Dutch? If it does, that lets us out plenty."
The men they were after might have gone either upstream or down. It was impossible to know definitely which, nor was there time to follow both. Already big drops of rain were splashing down.
"We'll take a chance, and go up. They're probably up in the hills somewhere right now," said Collins, with characteristic decision.
He had guessed right. A mile farther upstream horses had clambered to the bank and struck deeper into the hills. But already rain was falling in a brisk shower. The posse had not gone another quarter of a mile before the trail was washed out. They were now in a rough and rocky country getting every minute steeper.
"It's going to be like lookin' for a needle in a haystack, Val," Dillon growled.
Collins nodded. "We ain't got one chance in a hundred, Jim, but I reckon we'll take that chance."
For three days they blundered around in the hills before they gave it up. The first night, about dusk, the pursuers were without knowing it so warm that one of the bandits lay with his rifle on a rock rim not a stone's throw above them as they wound through a little ravine. But Collins got no glimpse of the robbers. At last he reluctantly gave the word to turn back. Probably the men he wanted had already slipped down to the plains and across to Mexico. If not, they might play hide and seek with him a month in the recesses of these unknown mountains.
Next morning the sheriff struck a telephone wire, tapped it, got Sabin on the line, told him of his failure and that he was returning to Tucson. About the middle of the afternoon the dispirited posse reached its sidetracked special.
A young man lay stretched full length on the loading board, with a broad-brimmed felt hat over his eyes. He wore a gray flannel shirt and corduroy trousers thrust into half-leg laced boots. At the sound of voices he turned lazily on his side and watched the members of the posse swing wearily from their saddles. An amiable smile, not wholly free of friendly derision, lit his good-looking face.
"Oh, you sheriff," he drawled.
Collins swung round, as if he had been pricked with a knife point. He stared an instant before he let out a shout of welcome and fell upon the youth.
"Bucky, by thunder!"
The latter got up nimbly in time to be hospitably thumped and punched. He was a lithe, slender young fellow, of medium height, and he carried himself lightly with that manner of sunburned competency given only by the rough-and-tumble life of the outdoors West.
While the men reloaded the car he and the sheriff stood apart and talked in low tones. Collins told what he knew, both what he had seen and inferred, and Bucky heard him to the end.
"Yes, it ce'tainly looks like one of Wolf Leroy's jobs," he agreed. "Nobody else but Leroy would have had the nerve to follow you right up to the depot and put the kibosh on sending those wires. He's surely game from the toes up. Think of him sittin' there reading the newspaper half an hour after he held up the Limited!"
"Did he do that, Bucky?" The sheriff's tone conceded admiration.
"He did. He's the only train robber ever in the business that could have done it. Oh, the Wolf's tracks are all over this job."
"No doubt about that. I told you I recognized York Neil by him being shy that trigger finger I fanned off down at Tombstone. Well, they say he's one of the Wolf's standbys."
"Yes. I warned him two months ago that if he didn't break away he'd die sudden. Somehow I couldn't persuade him he was an awful sick man right then. You saw four of these hold-ups in all, didn't you, Val?"
"Four's right. First off Neil, then the fellow I took to be the Wolf. After he went out a bowlegged fellow came in, and last a slim little kid that was a sure enough amateur, the way his gun shook."
"Any notion how many more there were?"
"I figured out two more. A big gazabo in a red wig held up Frost, the engineer. He knew it was a wig because he saw long black hair peeping out around his neck. Then there must 'a' been another in charge of blowing up the express car, a Mexican, from the description the messenger gives of him."
Bucky nodded. "Looks like you got it figured about right, Val. The Mexican is easy to account for. The Wolf spends about half his time down in Chihuahua and trains with some high-class greasers down there. Well, we'll see what we'll see. I'll set my rangers at rounding up the border towns a bit, and if I don't start anything there I'll hike down into Mexico and see what's doing. I'll count on you to run the Arizona end of it while I'm away, Val. The Wolf's outfit is a pretty wild one, and it won't be long till something begins to howl. We'll keep an eye on the gambling halls and see who is burning up money. Oh, they'll leave plenty of smoke behind them," the ranger concluded cheerfully.
"There will be plenty of smoke if we ever do round 'em up, not to mention a heap of good lead that will be spilled," the sheriff agreed placidly. "Well, all I got to say is the sooner the quicker. The bunch borrowed a mighty good.45 of mine I need in my biz. I kinder hanker to get it back muy pronto."
"Here's hoping," Bucky nodded gayly. "I bet there will be a right lively wolf hunt. Hello! The car's loaded. All aboard for Tucson."
The special drew out from the side track and gathered speed. Soon the rhythmic chant of the rails sounded monotonously, and the plains on either side of the track swam swiftly to the rear.
CHAPTER 4. A BLUFF IS CALLED
Torpid lay Aravaipa in a coma of sunheat. Its adobe-lined streets basked in the white glare of an Arizona spring at midday. One or two Papago Indians, with their pottery wares, squatted in the shade of the buildings, but otherwise the plaza was deserted. Not even a moving dog or a lounging peon lent life to the drowsy square. Silence profound and peace eternal seemed to brood over the land.
Such was the impression borne in upon the young man riding townward on a wiry buckskin that had just topped the rise which commanded the valley below. The rider presented a striking enough appearance to take and hold the roving eye of any young woman in search of romance. He was a slender, lithe young Adonis of medium height. His hair and eyebrows left one doubtful whether to pronounce them black or brown, but the eyes called for an immediate verdict of Irish blue. Every inch of him spoke of competency—promised mastership of any situation likely to arise. But when the last word is said it was the eyes that dominated the personality. They could run the whole gamut of emotions, or they could be impervious as a stone wall. Now they were deep and innocent as a girl's, now they rollicked with the buoyant youth in them. Comrades might see them bubbling with fun, and the next moment enemies find them opague as a leaden sky. Not the least wonder of them was that they looked out from under long lashes, soft enough for any maiden, at a world they appraised with the shrewdness of a veteran.
The young man drew rein above the valley, sitting his horse in the easy, negligent fashion of one that lives in the saddle. A thumb was hitched carelessly in the front pocket of his chaps, which pocket served also as a holster for the .45 that protruded.
Even in the moment that he sat there a change came over Aravaipa. As a summer shower sweeps across a lake so something had ruffled the town to sudden life. From stores and saloons men dribbled, converging toward a common centre hurriedly.
"I reckon, Bucky, the band has begun to play," the rider told himself aloud. "Mebbe we better move on down in time for the music."
But no half-expected revolver shots shattered the stillness, even though interest did not abate.
"There's ce'tainly something doing at the Silver Dollar this glad mo'ning. Chinks, greasers, and several other kinds of citizens driftin' that way, not to mention white men. I expect there will be room for you, Bucky, if you hurry before the seats are all sold out."
He cantered down the plaza, swung from the saddle, threw the rein over the pony's head to the ground, and jingled across the sidewalk into the gambling house. It was filled with a motley crowd of miners, vaqueros, tourists, cattlemen, Mexicans, Chinese, and a sample of the rest of the heterogeneous population of the Southwest. Behind this assemblage the newcomer tiptoed in vain to catch a glimpse of the cause of the excitement. Wherefore, he calmly removed an almond-eyed Oriental from a chair on which he was standing, tipped the ex-Cantonese a half dollar, and appropriated the point of vantage himself.
There was a cleared space in the corner by the roulette table, and here, his chair tipped back against the wall and a glass of whisky in front of him, sat a sufficiently strange specimen of humanity. He was a man of about fifty years, large boned and gaunt. Dressed in fringed buckskin trousers and a silver-laced Mexican sombrero, he affected the long hair, the sweeping mustache, and the ferocious aspect that are the custom of the pseudo-Westerners who do business in the East with fake medical remedies. Around his waist was a belt garnished with knives by the dozen. These were long and pointed, sharpened to a razor edge. One of them was in his hand poised for a throw at the instant Bucky mounted the chair and looked over the densely packed mass of heads in front of him.
The ranger's keen glance swept to the wall and took in the target. A slim lad of about fifteen stood against it with his arms outstretched. Above and below each hand and on either side of the swelling throat knives quivered in the frame wall. There was a flash of steel, and the seventh knife sank into the wood so close to the crisp curls that a lock hung by a hair, almost completely severed by the blade. The boy choked back a scream, his big brown eyes dilating with terror.
The bully sipped at his highball and deliberately selected another knife. To Bucky's swift inspection it was plain he had drunk too much and that a very little slip might make an end of the boy. The fascinated horror in the lad's gaze showed that he realized his danger.
"Now, f'ler cit'zens, I will continue for your 'musement by puttin' next two knives on right and lef' sides of his cheek. Observe, pleash, that these will land less than an inch from hish eyes. As the champion knife thrower in the universe I claim—"
What he claimed his audience had to guess, for at this instant another person took a part in the act. Bucky had stepped lightly across the intervening space on the shoulders of the tightly packed crowd and had dropped as lightly to the ground in front of the astonished champion of the universe.
"I reckon you've about wore out that target. What's the matter with trying a brand new one," drawled the ranger, his quiet, unwavering eye fixed on the bloated, mottled face of the imitation "bad man."
The bully, half seas over, leaned forward and gripped his knife. He was sober enough to catch the jeer running through the other's words without being sufficiently master of himself to appreciate the menace that underlay them.
"Wha's that? Say that again!" he burst out, purple to the collar line. He was not used to having beardless boys with long, soft eyelashes interfering with his amusements, and a blind rage flooded his heart.
"I allowed that a change of targets would vary the entertainment, if you haven't any objections, seh," the blue-eyed stranger explained mildly.
"Who is this kid?" demanded the bully, with a sweep of his arm toward the intruder.
Nobody seemed to know, wherefore the ranger himself gave the information mildly:
"Bucky O'Connor they call me."
A faint murmur of surprise soughed through the crowd, for Bucky O'Connor of the Arizona Rangers was by way of being a public hero just now on account of his capture of Fernendez, the stage robber. But the knife thrower had but lately arrived in the country. The youth carried with him none of the earmarks of his trade, unless it might be that quiet, steady gaze that seemed to search the soul. His voice was soft and drawling, his manner almost apologetic. In the smile that came and went was something sweet and sunny, in his bearing a gay charm that did not advertise the recklessness that bubbled from his daredevil spirit. Surely here was an easy victim upon whom to vent his spleen, thought the other in his growing passion.
"You want to be my target, do you?" he demanded, tugging ferociously at his long mustache.
"If you please, seh."
The fellow swore a vile oath. "Just as you say. Line up beside the other kid."
With three strides Bucky reached the wall, and turned.
"Let 'er go," his gentle voice murmured.
He was leaning back easily against the wall, his thumb hitched carelessly in the revolver pocket of his worn leather chaps. He looked at ease, every jaunty inch of him, but a big bronzed cattleman who had just pushed his way in noticed that the frosty blue eyes never released for an instant those of the enemy.
The bully at the table passed an uncertain hand over his face to clear his blurred vision, poised the cruel blade in his hand, and sent it flashing forward with incredible swiftness. The steel buried itself two inches deep in the soft pine beside Bucky's head. So close had it shaved him that a drop of blood gathered and dropped from his ear to the floor.
"Good shot," commented the ranger quietly, and on the instant his revolver seemed to leap from its holster to his hand. Without raising or moving his arm in the least, Bucky fired.
Again a murmur eddied through the crowd. The bullet had neatly bored the bully's ear. He raised his hand in dazed fashion and brought it away covered with blood. With staring eyes he looked at his moist red fingers, then at his latest victim, who was proving such an unexpected surprise.
The big cattleman, who by this time had pushed a way with his broad shoulders to the front, observed the two men attentively with a derisive smile on his frank face. He was seeing a bluff called, and he enjoyed it.
"You'll be able to wear earrings, Mr. Champion of the Universe, after I have ventilated the other," suggested the ranger affably. "Come again, seh."
But his opponent had had enough, and more than enough. It was one thing to browbeat a harmless boy, quite another to measure courage with a young gamecock like this. He had all the advantage of the first move. He was an expert and could drive his first throw into the youth's heart. But at bottom he was a coward and lacked the nerve, if not the inclination, to kill. If he took up that devil-may-care challenge he must fight it out alone. Moreover, as his furtive glance went round the ring of faces, he doubted whether a rope and the nearest telegraph pole might not be his fate if he went the limit. Sourly he accepted defeat, raging in his craven spirit at the necessity.
"Hell! I don't fight with boys," he snarled,
Bucky moved forward with the curious lightness of a man spring-footed. His gaze held the other's shifting eyes as he plucked the knife from his opponent's hand.
"Unbuckle that belt," he ordered.
All said, the eye is a prince of weapons. It is a moral force more potent than the physical, and by it men may measure strength to a certainty. So now these two clinched and battled with it till the best man won. The showman's look gave way before the stark courage of the other. His was no match for the inscrutable, unwavering eye that commanded him. His fingers began to twitch, edged slowly toward his waist. For an instant they fumbled at the buckle of the belt, which presently fell with a rattle to the floor.
"Now, roll yore trail to the wall. Face this way! Arms out! That's good! You rest there comfortable while I take these pins down and let the kid out."
He removed the knives that hemmed in the boy and supported the half-fainting figure to a chair beside the roulette table. But always he remained in such a position as to keep the big bully he was baiting in view. The boy dropped into the chair and covered his face with his hands, sobbing with deep, broken breaths. The ranger touched caressingly the crisp, fair hair that covered the head in short curls.
"Don't you worry, bub. Now, don't you. It's all over with now. That coyote won't pester you any more. Will you, Mr. False Alarm Bad Man?"
At the last words he wheeled suddenly to the showman. "You're right sorry already you got so gay, ain't you? Come! Speak yore little piece, please."
He waited for an answer, and his gaze held fast to the bloated face that cringed before his attack.
"What's your name?"
"Jay Hardman," quavered the now thoroughly sobered bad man.
"Dead easy jay, I reckon you mean. Now, chirp, up and tell the boy how sorry you are you got fresh with your hardware."
"He's my boy. I guess I can do what I like with him," the man burst out angrily. "I wasn't hurting him any, either. That's part of our show, to—"
Bucky fondled suggestively the revolver in his hand. A metallic click came to his victim.
"Don't you shoot at me again," the man broke off to scream.
The Colt clipped the sentence and the man's other ear.
"You can put in your order now for them earrings we were mentionin', Mr. Deadeasy. You see, I had to puncture this one so folks would know they were mates."
"I'll put you in the pen for this," the fellow whined, in terror.
"Funny how you will get off the subject. We were discussin' an apology when you got to wandering in yore haid."
The mottled face showed white in patches. Beads of perspiration stood out on the forehead of Hardman. "I didn't aim to hurt him any. I'll be right glad to explain to you—"
A bullet plowed a path through the long hair that fell to the showman's shoulders and snipped a lock from it.
"You don't need to explain a thing to me, seh. I'm sure resting easy in my mind. But as you were about to re-mark you're fair honin' for a chance to ask the kid's pardon. Now, ain't I a mind reader, seh?"
A trembling voice stammered huskily an apology.
"Better late than too late. Now, I've a good mind to take a vote whether I'd better unload the rest of the pills in this old reliable medicine box at you. Mebbe I ought to pump one into that coyote heart of yours."
The fellow went livid. "My God, you wouldn't kill an unarmed man, would you?"
For answer the ranger tossed the weapon on the table with a scornful laugh and strode up to the other. The would-be bad man towered six inches above him, and weighed half as much again. But O'Connor whirled him round, propelled him forward to the door, and kicked him into the street.
"I'd hate to waste a funeral on him," he said, as he sauntered back to the boy at the table.
The lad was beginning to recover, though his breath still came with a catch. His rag of a handkerchief was dabbing tears out of his eyes. O'Connor noticed how soft his hands and how delicate his features.
"This kid ain't got any more business than a rabbit going around in the show line with that big scoundrel. He's one of these gentle, rock-me-to-sleep-mother kids that ought to stay in the home nest and not go buttin' into this hard world. I'll bet a doughnut he's an orphan, though."
Bucky had been brought up in the school of experience, where every student keeps his own head or goes to the wall. All his short life he had played a lone hand, as he would have phrased it. He had campaigned in Cuba as a mere boy. He had ridden the range and held his own on the hurricane deck of a bucking broncho. From cowpunching he had graduated into the tough little body of territorial rangers at the head of which was "Hurry Up" Millikan. This had brought him a large and turbulent experience in the knack of taking care of himself under all circumstances. Naturally, a man of this type, born and bred to the code of the outdoors West, could not fail of a certain contempt for a boy that broke down and cried when the game was going against him.
But Bucky's contempt was tolerant, after all. He could not deny his sympathy to a youngster in trouble. Again he touched gently the lad's crisp curls of burnished gold.
"Brace up, bub. The worst is yet to come," he laughed awkwardly. "I reckon there's no use spillin' any more emotion over it. He ain't your dad, is he?"
The lad's big brown eyes looked up into the serene blue ones and found comfort in their strength. "No, he's my uncle—and my master."
"This is a free country, son. We don't have masters if we're good Americans, though we all have to take orders from our superior officers. You don't need to serve this fellow unless you want to. That's a cinch."
The boy's troubled eyes were filmed with reminiscent terror. "You don't know him. He is terrible when he is angry," he murmured.
"I don't think it," returned Bucky contemptuously. "He's the worst blowhard ever. Say the word and I'll run the piker out of town for you."
The boy whipped up the sleeve of the fancy Mexican jacket he wore and showed a long scar on his arm. "He did that one day when he was angry at me. He pretended to others that it was an accident, but I knew better. This morning I begged him to let me leave him. He beat me, but he was still mad; and when he took to drinking I was afraid he would work himself up to stick me again with one of his knives."
Bucky looked at the scar in the soft, rounded arm and swept the boy with a sudden puzzled glance that was not suspicion but wonder.
"How long have you been with him, kid?"
"Oh, for years. Ever since I was a little fellow. He took me after my father and mother died of yellow fever in New Orleans. His wife hates me too, but they have to have me in the show."
"Then I guess you had better quit their company. What's your name?"
"Frank Hardman. On the show bills I have all sorts of names."
"Well, Frank, how would you like to go to live on a ranch?"
"Where he wouldn't know I was?" whispered the boy eagerly.
"If you like. I know a ranch where you'd be right welcome."
"I would work. I would do anything I could. Really, I would try to pay my way, and I don't eat much," Frank cried, his eyes as appealing as a homeless puppy's.
Bucky smiled. "I expect they can stand all you eat without going to the poorhouse. It's a bargain then. I'll take you out there to-morrow."
"You're so good to me. I never had anybody be so good before." Tears stood in the big eyes and splashed over.
"Cut out the water works, kid. You want to take a brace and act like a man," advised his new friend brusquely.
"I know. I know. If you knew what I have done maybe you wouldn't ask me to go with you. I—I can't tell you anything more than that," the youngster sobbed.
"Oh, well. What's the diff? You're making a new start to-day. Ain't that right?"
"Call me Bucky."
"Yes, sir. Bucky, I mean."
A hand fell on the ranger's shoulder and a voice in his ear. "Young man, I want you."
The lieutenant whirled like a streak of lightning, finger on trigger already. "I'll trouble you for yore warrant, seh," he retorted.
The man confronting him was the big cattleman who had entered the Silver Dollar in time to see O'Connor's victory over the showman. Now he stood serenely under Bucky's gun and laughed.
"Put up your .45, my friend. It's a peaceable conference I want with you."
The level eyes of the young man fastened on those of the cattleman, and, before he spoke again, were satisfied. For both of these men belonged to the old West whose word is as good as its bond, that West which will go the limit for a cause once under taken without any thought of retreat, regardless of the odds or the letter of the law. Though they had never met before, each knew at a glance the manner of man the other was.
"All right, seh. If you want me I reckon I'm here large as life," the ranger said,
"We'll adjourn to the poker room upstairs then, Mr. O'Connor."
Bucky laid a hand on the shoulder of the boy. "This kid goes with me. I'm keeping an eye on him for the present."
"My business is private, but I expect that can be arranged. We'll take the inner room and let him have the outer."
"Good enough. Break trail, seh. Come along, Frank."
Having reached the poker room upstairs, that same private room which had seen many a big game in its day between the big cattle kings and mining men of the Southwest, Bucky's host ordered refreshments and then unfolded his business.
"You don't know me, lieutenant, do you?"
"I haven't that pleasure, seh."
"I am Major Mackenzie's brother."
"Webb Mackenzie, who came from Texas last year and bought the Rocking Chair Ranch?"
"I'm right glad to meet you, seh."
"And I can say the same."
Webb Mackenzie was so distinctively a product of the West that no other segment of the globe could have produced him. Big, raw-boned, tanned to a leathery brick-brown, he was as much of the frontier as the ten thousand cows he owned that ran the range on half as many hills and draws. He stood six feet two and tipped the beam at two hundred twelve pounds, not an ounce of which was superfluous flesh. Temperamentally, he was frank, imperious, free-hearted, what men call a prince. He wore a loose tailor-made suit of brown stuff and a broad-brimmed light-gray Stetson. For the rest, you may see a hundred like him at the yearly stock convention held in Denver, but you will never meet a man even among them with a sounder heart or better disposition.
"I've got a story to tell you, Lieutenant O'Connor," he began. "I've been meaning to see you and tell it ever since you made good in that Fernendez matter. It wasn't your gameness. Anybody can be game. But it looked to me like you were using the brains in the top of your head, and that happens so seldom among law officers I wanted to have a talk with you. Since yesterday I've been more anxious. For why? I got a letter from my brother telling me Sheriff Collins showed him a locket he found at the place of the T. P. Limited hold-up. That locket has in it a photograph of my wife and little girl. For fifteen years I haven't seen that picture. When I saw it last 'twas round my little baby's neck. What's more, I haven't seen her in that time, either."
Mackenzie stopped, swallowed hard, and took a drink of water.
"You haven't seen your little girl in fifteen years," exclaimed Bucky.
"Haven't seen or heard of her. So far as I know she may not be alive now. This locket is the first hint I have had since she was taken away, the very first news of her that has reached me, and I don't know what to make of that. One of the robbers must have been wearing it, the way I figure it out. Where did he get it? That's what I want to know."
"Suppose you tell me the story, seh," suggested the ranger gently.
The cattleman offered O'Connor a cigar and lit one himself. For a minute he puffed slowly at his Havana, leaning far back in his chair with eyes reminiscent and half shut. Then he shook himself back into the present and began his tale.
"I don't reckon you ever heard tell of Dave Henderson. It was back in Texas I knew him, and he's been missing sixteen years come the eleventh of next August. For fifteen years I haven't mentioned his name, because Dave did me the dirtiest wrong that one man ever did another. Back in the old days he and I used to trail together. We was awful thick, and mostly hunted in couples. We began riding the same season back on the old Kittredge Ranch, and we went in together for all the kinds of spreeing that young fellows who are footloose are likely to do. Fact is, we suited each other from the ground up. We frolicked round a-plenty, like young colts will, and there was nothing on this green earth Dave could have asked from me that I wouldn't have done for him. Nothing except one, I reckon, and Dave never asked that of me."
Mackenzie puffed at his cigar a silent moment before resuming. "It happened we both fell in love with the same girl, little Frances Clark, of the Double T Ranch. Dave was a better looker than me and a more taking fellow, but somehow Frances favored me from the start. Dave stayed till the finish, and when he seen he had lost he stood up with me at the wedding. We had agreed, you see, that whoever won it wasn't to break up our friendship.
"Well, Frankie and I were married, and in course of time we had two children. My boy, Tom, is the older. The other was a little girl, named after her mother." The cattleman waited a moment to steady his voice, and spoke through teeth set deep in his Havana. "I haven't seen her, as I said, since she was two years and ten months old—not since the night Dave disappeared."
Bucky looked up quickly with a question on his lips, but he did not need to word it.
Mackenzie nodded. "Yes, Dave took her with him when he lit out across the line for Mexico."
But I'll have to go back to something that happened earlier. About three months before this time Dave and me were riding through a cut in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, when we came on a Mexican who had been wounded by the Apaches. I reckon we had come along just in time to scare them off before they finished him. We did our best for him, but he died in about two hours. Before dying, he made us a present of a map we found in his breast pocket. It showed the location of a very rich mine he had found, and as he had no near kin he turned it over to us to do with as we pleased.
"Just then the round-up came on, and we were too busy to pay much attention to the mine. Each of us would have trusted the other with his life, or so I thought. But we cut the paper in half, each of us keeping one part, in order that nobody else could steal the secret from the one that held the paper. The last time I had been in El Paso I had bought my little girl a gold chain with two lockets pendent. These lockets opened by a secret spring, and in one of them I put my half of the map. It seemed as safe a place as I could devise, for the chain never left the child's neck, and nobody except her mother, Dave, and I knew that it was placed there. Dave hid his half under a rock that was known to both of us. The strange thing about the story is that my false friend, in the hurry of his flight, forgot to take his section of the map with him. I found it under the rock next day, so that his vile treachery availed him nothing from a mercenary point of view."
"Didn't take his half of the map with him. That's right funny," Bucky mused aloud.
"We never could understand why he didn't."
"Mebbe if you understood that a heap of things might be clear that are dark now."
"Mebbe. Knowing Dave Henderson as I did, or, rather, as I thought I did, such treachery as his was almost unbelievable. He was the sweetest, sunniest soul I ever knew, and no two brothers could have been as fond of each other as we seemed to be. But there was no chance of mistake. He had gone, and taken our child with him, likely in accordance with a plan of revenge long cherished by him. We never heard of him or the child again. They disappeared as completely as if the earth had swallowed them up. Our cook, too, left with him that evil night."
"Your cook?" It was the second comment Bucky had ventured, and it came incisively. "What manner of man was he?"
"A huge, lumbering braggart. I could never understand why Dave took the man with him."
"If he did."
"But I tell you he did. They disappeared the same night, and the trail showed they went the same road. We followed them for about an hour next day, but a heavy rain came up and blotted out the tracks."
"What was the cook's name?"
"Have you a picture of him, or one of your friend?"
"Back at the ranch I had pictures of Dave, but I burned them after he left. Yes, I reckon we have one of Anderson, standing in front of the chuck wagon."
"Send it to me, please."
The ranger asked a few questions that made clearer the situation on the day of the kidnapping, and some more concerning Anderson, then fell again into the role of a listener while Mackenzie concluded his story.
"All these years I have kept my eyes open, confident that at last I would discover something that would help me to discover the whereabouts of my child, or, at least, give me a chance to punish the scoundrel who betrayed my confidence. Yesterday my brother's letter gave the first clue we have had. I want that lead worked. Ferret this thing out to the bottom, lieutenant. Get me something definite to go on. That's what I want you to do. Run the thing to earth, get at the facts, and find my child for me. I'll give you carte blanche up to a hundred thousand dollars. All I ask of you is to make good. Find the little girl, or else bring me face to face with that villain Henderson. Can you do it?"
O'Connor was strangely interested in this story of treachery and mystery. He rose with shining eyes and held out his hand. "I don't know, seh, but I'll try damned hard to do three things: find out what has become of the little girl, of Dave Henderson, and of the scoundrel who stole your baby because he thought the map was in the pocket."
"You mean that you don't think Dave—"
"That is exactly what I mean. Your cook, Anderson, kidnapped the child, looks like to me. I saw that locket Collins found. My guess was that the marks on the end of the chain were deep teeth marks. The man that stole your baby tried first to cut the chain with his teeth so as to steal the chain. You see, he could not find the clasp in the dark. Then the child wakened and began to cry. He clapped a hand over its mouth and carried the little girl out of the room. Then he heard somebody moving about, lost his nerve, and jumped on the horse that was waiting, saddled, at the door. He took the child along simply because he had to in order to get the chain and the secret he thought it held."
"Perhaps; but that does not prove it was not Dave."
"It's contributory evidence, seh. Your friend could have slipped the chain from her neck any day, or he could have opened the locket and taken the map. No need for him to steal in at night. Do you happen to remember whether your little girl had any particular aversion to the cook?"
The cattleman's forehead frowned in thought. "I do remember, now, that she was afraid of him. She always ran screaming to her mother when he tried to be friendly with her. He was a sour sort of fellow."
"That helps out the case a heap, for it shows that he wanted to make friends with her and she refused. He was thus forced to take the chain when she was asleep instead of playing with her till he had discovered the spring and could simply take the map."
"But he didn't know anything about the map. He was not in our confidence."
"You and your friend talked it over evenings when he was at the ranch, and other places, too, I expect."
"Yes, our talk kind of gravitated that way whenever we got together."
"Well, this fellow overheard you. That's probable, at least."
"But you're ignoring the important fact. Dave disappeared too that night, with my little girl."
Bucky cut in sharply with a question. "Did he? How do you know he disappeared WITH her? Why not AFTER? That's the theory my mind is groping on just now."
"That's a blind trail to me. Why AFTER? And what difference does it make?"
"All the difference in the world. If he left after the cook, you have been doing him an injustice for fifteen years, seh."
Mackenzie leaned forward, excitement burning in his eyes. "Prove that, young man, and I'll thank you to the last day of my life. It's for my wife's sake more than my own I want my little girl back. She jes' pines for her every day of her life. But for my friend—if you can give me back the clean memory of Dave you'll have done a big thing for me, Mr. O'Connor."
"It's only a working theory, but this is what I'm getting at. You and Henderson had arranged to take an early start on a two days' deer hunt next mo'ning. That's what you told me, isn't it?"
"We were to start about four. Yes, sir."
"Well, let's suppose a case. Along comes Dave before daybreak, when the first hooters were beginning to call. Just as he reaches your ranch he notices a horse slipping away in the darkness. Perhaps he hears the little girl cry out. Anyhow, instead of turning in at the gate, he decides to follow. Probably he isn't sure there's anything wrong, but when he finds out how the horse he's after is burning the wind his suspicions grow stronger. He settles down to a long chase. In the darkness, we'll say, he loses his man, but when it gets lighter he picks up the trail again. The tracks lead south, across the line into Mexico. Still he keeps plodding on. The man in front sees him behind and gets scared because he can't shake him off. Very likely he thinks it is you on his track. Anyhow, while the child is asleep he waits in ambush, and when Henderson rides up he shoots him down. Then he pushes on deeper into Chihuahua, and proceeds to lose himself there by changing his name."
"You think he murdered Dave?" The cattleman got up and began to pace up and down the floor.
"I think it possible."
Webb Mackenzie's face was pallid, but there was a new light of hope in it. "I believe you're right. God knows I hope so. That may sound a horrible thing to say of my best friend, but if it has got to be one or the other—if it is certain that my old bunkie came to his death foully in Chihuahua while trying to save my baby, or is alive to-day, a skulking coward and villain—with all my heart I hope he is dead." He spoke with a passionate intensity which showed how much he had cared for his early friend, and how much the latter's apparent treachery had cut him. "I hope you'll never have a friend go back on you, Mr. O'Connor, the one friend you would have banked on to a finish. Why, Dave Henderson saved my life from a bunch of Apaches once when it was dollars to doughnuts he would lose his own if he tried it. We were prospecting in the Galiuros together, and one mo'ning when he went down to the creek to water the hawsses he sighted three of the red devils edging up toward the cabin. There might have been fifty of them there for all he knew, and he had a clear run to the plains if he wanted to back one of the ponies and take it. Most any man would have saved his own skin, but not Dave. He hoofed it back to the cabin, under fire every foot of the way, and together we made it so hot for them that they finally gave up getting us. We were in the Texas Rangers together, and pulled each other through a lot of close places. And then at the end—Why, it hurt me more than it did losing my own little girl."
Bucky nodded. Since he was a man and not a father, he could understand how the hurt would rankle year after year at the defalcation of his comrade.
"That's another kink we have got to unravel in this tangle. First off, there's your little girl, to find if she is still alive. Second, we must locate Dave Henderson or his grave. Third, there's something due the scoundrel who is responsible for this. Fourthly, brethren, there's that map section to find. And lastly, we've got to find just how this story you've told me got mixed with the story of the holdup of the Limited. For it ce'tainly looks as if the two hang together. I take it that the thing to do is to run down the gang that held up the Limited. Once we do that, we ought to find the key to the mystery of your little girl's disappearance. Or, at least, there is a chance we shall. And it's chances we've got to gamble on in this thing."
"Good enough. I like the way you go at this. Already I feel a heap better than I did."
"If the cards fall our way you're going to get this thing settled once for all. I can't promise my news will be good news when I get it, but anything will be better than the uncertainty you've been in, I take it," said Bucky, rising from his chair.
"You're right there. But, wait a moment. Let's drink to your success."
"I'm not much of a sport," Bucky smiled. "Fact is, I never drink, seh."
"Of course. I remember, now. You're the good bad man of the West," Mackenzie answered amiably. "Well, I drink to you. Here's good hunting, lieutenant."
"I suppose you'll get right at this thing?"
"I've got to take that kid in the next room out to my ranch first. I won't stand for that knife thrower making a slave of him."
"What's the matter with me taking the boy out to the Rocking Chair with me? My wife and I will see he's looked after till you return."
"That would be the best plan, if it won't trouble you too much. We'd better keep his whereabouts quiet till this fellow Hardman is out of the country."
"Yes, though I hardly think he'd be fool enough to show up at the Rocking Chair. If my vaqueros met up with him prowling around they might show him as warm a welcome as you did half an hour ago."
"A chapping would sure do him a heap of good," grinned Bucky, and so dismissed the Champion of the World from his mind.
CHAPTER 5. BUCKY ENTERTAINS
Bucky began at once to tap the underground wires his official position made accessible to him. These ran over Southern Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua. All the places to which criminals or frontiersmen with money were wont to resort were reported upon. For the ranger's experience had taught him that since the men he wanted had money in their pockets to burn gregarious impulse would drive them from the far silent places of the desert to the roulette and faro tables where the wolf and the lamb disport themselves together.
The photograph from Webb Mackenzie of the cook Anderson reached him at Tucson the third day after his interview with that gentleman, at the same time that Collins dropped in on him to inquire what progress he was making.
O'Connor told him of the Aravaipa episode, and tossed across the table to him the photograph he had just received.
"If we could discover the gent that sat for this photo it might help us. You don't by any chance know him, do you, Val?"
The sheriff shook his head. "Not in my rogues' gallery, Bucky."
The ranger again examined the faded picture. A resemblance in it to somebody he had met recently haunted vaguely his memory. As he looked the indefinite suggestion grew sharp and clear. It was a photograph of the showman who had called himself Hardman. All the trimmings were lacking, to be sure—the fierce mustache, the long hair, the buckskin trappings, none of them were here. But beyond a doubt it was the same shifty-eyed villain. Nor did it shake Bucky's confidence that Mackenzie had seen him and failed to recognize the man as his old cook. The fellow was thoroughly disguised, but the camera had happened to catch that curious furtive glance of his. But for that O'Connor would never have known the two to be the same.