CHARLES ALDEN SELTZER
Author of The Boss of the Lazy Y, "Firebrand" Trevison, The Trail Horde, The Ranchman, Etc.
Frontispiece by P. V. E. Ivory
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers :: New York
Made in the United States of America
Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1921
Published May, 1921
Copyrighted in Great Britain
CHAPTER PAGE I A Desert Rider 1 II A Man's Reputation 9 III A Girl Waits 31 IV His Shadow Before 38 V A Prison 48 VI Chain-Lightning 58 VII Single-Handed 66 VIII Barbara Is Puzzled 78 IX An Unwelcome Guest 88 X On Guard 96 XI The Intruder 107 XII Barbara Sees a Light 114 XIII Harlan Takes Charge 119 XIV Shadows 129 XV Linked 142 XVI Deep Water 153 XVII Forging a Letter 159 XVIII Harlan Rides Alone 169 XIX Harlan Joins the Gang 174 XX Left-Handed 191 XXI The Black-Bearded Man 206 XXII A Dead Man Walks 219 XXIII Deveny Secedes 225 XXIV Kidnapped 229 XXV Ambushed 238 XXVI Rogers Takes a Hand 242 XXVII A Dual Tragedy 248 XXVIII Converging Trails 252 XXIX World's End 258 XXX The Ultimate Treachery 263 XXXI Peace—and a Sunset 274
A DESERT RIDER
From out of the shimmering haze that veiled the mystic eastern space came a big black horse bearing a rider. Swinging wide, to avoid the feathery dust that lay at the base of a huge sand dune, the black horse loped, making no sound, and seeming to glide forward without effort. Like a somber, gigantic ghost the animal moved, heroic of mold, embodying the spirit of the country, seeming to bear the sinister message of the desert, the whispered promise of death, the lingering threat, the grim mockery of life, and the conviction of futility.
The black horse had come far. The glossy coat of him was thickly sprinkled with alkali dust, sifted upon him by the wind of his passage through the desert; his black muzzle was gray with it; ropes of it matted his mane, his forelock had become a gray-tinged wisp which he fretfully tossed; the dust had rimmed his eyes, causing them to loom large and wild; and as his rider pulled him to a halt on the western side of the sand dune—where both horse and rider would not be visible on the sky line—he drew a deep breath, shook his head vigorously, and blew a thin stream of dust from his nostrils.
With head and ears erect, his eyes flaming his undying courage and his contempt for distance and the burning heat that the midday sun poured upon him, he gazed westward, snorting long breaths into his eager lungs.
The rider sat motionless upon him—rigid and alert. His gaze also went into the west; and he blinked against the white glare of sun and distance, squinting his eyes and scanning the featureless waste with appraising glances.
In the breathless, dead calm of the desert there was no sound or movement. On all sides the vast gray waste stretched, a yawning inferno of dead, dry sand overhung with a brassy, cloudless sky in which swam the huge ball of molten silver that for ages had ruled that baked and shriveled land.
A score of miles westward—twoscore, perhaps—the shadowy peaks of some mountains loomed upward into the mystic haze, with purple bases melting into the horizon; southward were other mountains, equally distant and mysterious; northward—so far away that they blurred in the vision—were still other mountains. Intervening on all sides was the stretching, soundless, aching void of desolation, carrying to the rider its lurking threat of death, the promise of evil to come.
The man, however, seemed unperturbed. In his narrowed, squinting eyes as he watched the desert was a gleam of comprehension, of knowledge intimate and sympathetic. They glowed with the serene calm of confidence; and far back in them lurked a glint of grim mockery. It was as though they visualized the threatened dangers upon which they looked, answering the threat with contempt.
The man was tall. His slim waist was girded by a cartridge belt which was studded with leaden missiles for the rifle that reposed in the saddle holster, and for the two heavy pistols that sagged at his hips. A gray woolen shirt adorned his broad shoulders; a scarlet neckerchief at his throat which had covered his mouth as he rode was now drooping on his chest; and the big, wide-brimmed felt hat he wore was jammed far down over his forehead. The well-worn leather chaps that covered his legs could not conceal their sinewy strength, nor could the gauntleted leather gloves on his hands hide the capable size of them.
He was a fixture of this great waste of world in whose center he sat. He belonged to the country; he was as much a part of it as the somber mountains, the sun-baked sand, the dead lava, and the hardy, evil-looking cacti growth that raised its spined and mocking green above the arid stretch. He symbolized the spirit of the country—from the slicker that bulged at the cantle of the saddle behind him, to the capable gloved hands that were now resting on the pommel of the saddle—he represented the force which was destined to conquer the waste places.
For two days he had been fighting the desert; and in the serene calm of his eyes was the identical indomitability that had been in them when he had set forth. As he peered westward the strong lines around his mouth relaxed, his lips opened a trifle, and a mirthless smile wreathed them. He patted the shoulder of the black horse, and the dead dust ballooned from the animal's coat and floated heavily downward.
"We're about halfway, Purgatory," he said aloud, his voice coming flat and expressionless in the dead, vacuum-like silence. He did not cease to peer westward nor to throw sharp glances north and south. He drew off a glove and pushed his hat back, using a pocket handkerchief to brush the dust from his face and running the fingers of the hand through his hair—thereby producing another ballooning dust cloud which splayed heavily downward.
"What's botherin' me is that shootin'," he went on, still speaking to the black horse. "We sure enough heard it—didn't we?" He laughed, again patting the black's shoulder. "An' you heard it first—as usual—with me trailin' along about half a second behind. But we sure heard 'em, eh?"
The black horse whinnied lowly, whereupon the rider dismounted, and stretched himself.
From a water-bag at the cantle of the saddle he poured water into his big hat, watching sympathetically while the big horse drank. Some few drops that still remained in the hat after the horse had finished he playfully shook on the animal's head, smiling widely at the whinny of delight that greeted the action. He merely wet his own lips from the water-bag. Then for an instant, after replacing the bag, he stood at the black's shoulder, his face serious.
"We'll hit the Kelso water-hole about sundown, I reckon, Purgatory," he said. "That's certain. There's only one thing can stop us—that shootin'. If it's Apaches, why, I reckon there's a long dry spell ahead of us; but if it's only Greasers——"
He grinned with grim eloquence, patted the black again, and climbed into the saddle. Again, as before, he sat silent upon his mount, scanning the sun-scorched waste; and then he rode forward.
An hour later, during which he loped the black horse slowly, he again drew the animal to a halt and gazed around him, frowning, his eyes gleaming with a savage intolerance.
The shooting he had heard some time previous to his appearance at the base of the big sand dune had not been done by Indians. He was almost convinced of that now. Or, if Indians had done the shooting, they had not yet observed him. The fact that he had seen no smoke signals proved that.
Still, there was the deep silence on every hand to bring doubt into his mind; and he knew that Indians—especially Apaches—were tricky, sometimes foregoing the smoke signals to lie in ambush. And very likely—if they had seen him coming—they were doing that very thing: waiting for him to ride into the trap they had prepared. He had not been able to locate the point from which the reports had come. It had seemed to him that they had come from a point directly westward; but he could not be sure, for he had seen no smoke.
He talked no more to the horse, sitting rigidly in the saddle, erect, his head bent a little forward, his chin thrusting, his lips curving with a bitterly savage snarl. He felt the presence of living things with him in the desert; a presentiment had gripped him—a conviction that living men were close and hostile.
Reaching downward, he drew the rifle from the saddle holster and examined its mechanism. Placing it across his knee, he drew out his heavy pistols, one after another, slowly twirling the cylinders. He replaced the pistols, making sure that the holster flaps were out of the way so that they would not catch or drag at the weapons when he wanted to use them—and with the rifle resting across his legs near the saddle horn, he rode slowly forward.
He swung wide of even the small sand dunes as he passed them, and he kept a vigilant eye upon the dead rocks that dotted the level at infrequent intervals. Even the cactus clumps received flattering attention; and the little stretches of greasewood that came within range of his vision were examined closely.
At the end of half an hour he had seen nothing unusual. Here and there he had noticed a rattler lurking in the shade of a rock or partly concealed under the thorny blade of a sprawling cactus; and he had seen a sage hen nestling in the hot sand. But these were fixtures—as was also the Mexican eagle that winged its slow way in mile-wide circles in the glaring, heat-pulsing sky.
The rider again halted the black horse. The presentiment of evil had grown upon him, and he twisted around in the saddle, sweeping the desolate vast level with cold, alert, puzzled eyes.
There was no object near him behind which an enemy might lie concealed; the gray floor of the desert within many hundred miles of him was smooth and flat and obstructionless. Far away, half a mile, perhaps, he saw a thrusting knob of rock, with some cactus fringing it. From where he sat in the saddle it seemed that the rock might be the peak of a mountain reaching upward out of the sea of sand and desert waste—but it was barren on sides and top, and would afford no concealment for an enemy, except at its base. And even the base was not large enough to conceal more than a few men.
The rider gazed long at the rock, but could detect no sign of movement near it. He had turned from it, to look again into the western distance, when Purgatory whinnied lowly.
Flashing around in the saddle, the rider again faced the rock. And he saw movement there now. The distance was great, but the clarity of the atmosphere brought a moving object distinctly into his vision. The object was a man, and, like a huge fly, he was crawling rapidly up the sloping side of the rock, toward its peak, which flattened abruptly at the summit.
The man bore a rifle. The rider could see it dragging from the man's hand; and in a flash the rider was out of the saddle, throwing himself flat behind a low ridge of sand, his own rifle coming to a rest on a small boulder as he trained its muzzle upon the man, who by this time had reached the summit of the rocks in the distance. The rider waited, nursing the stock of the rifle, his eyes blazing, while Purgatory, seemingly aware of an impending tragedy, moved slowly away as though understanding that he must not expose himself.
The rider waited, anticipating the bullet that would presently whine toward him. And then he heard the report of the man's rifle, saw that the smoke streak had been directed downward, as though the man on the summit of the rock were shooting at something below him.
The rider had been pressing the trigger of his own weapon when he saw the smoke streak. He withheld his fire when he divined that the man was not shooting at him; and when he saw the man on the rock shoot again—downward once more—the rider frowned with embarrassment.
"Don't even know I'm here!" he mused. "An' me gettin' ready to salivate him!"
He got to his knees and watched, curiosity gleaming in his eyes. He saw the man on the rock fire again—downward—and he noted a smoke spurt answer the shot, coming upward from the base of the rock. The rider got to his feet and peered intently at the rock. And now he saw another man crouching near its base. This man, however, was not the one the man on the summit of the rock was shooting at, for smoke streaks were issuing from a weapon in that man's hand also, but they were horizontal streaks.
Therefore the rider divined that the two men must be shooting at another who was on the far side of the rock; and he ran to Purgatory, speaking no word until he had vaulted into the saddle. Then he spoke shortly.
"They're white men, Purgatory, an' they're havin' a private rukus, looks like. But we're doin' some investigatin' just to see if the game's on the level."
A MAN'S REPUTATION
Purgatory moved fast, but warily. The black horse seemed to have caught something of his rider's caution. For part of the distance toward the rock the animal traveled straight, loping rapidly, but as he neared the little stretch of broken country that surrounded the rock he began to sheer off, advancing with mincing steps, his ears erect, his eyes wide and alert, snorting suspiciously.
Knowing his horse, the rider made no attempt to guide him; he knew Purgatory was alert to any hostile movement on the part of the men who were shooting, and that at the first sign of danger to himself or to his rider he would do what was required of him.
The man on the summit of the rock was still shooting, though intermittently. It seemed to the rider that the man's target must be elusive or concealed, for the shooter's actions showed that he was irritated. The other man, too, was still shooting. The rider noted that he, too, seemed to be meeting with failure, for as the rider drew nearer he heard the man curse.
Neither of the two men who were visible to the rider had seen him—neither of them had heard the big black horse gliding over the deep sand of the desert. The rider grinned with grim mirthlessness, edging Purgatory around so that the two men, their backs toward him, were not more than twenty or thirty feet away and entirely exposed to his view.
So intent were they upon their work that they did not even hear the rider's low laugh as he brought the big black horse to a halt and sat quietly in the saddle, a heavy pistol in each hand, watching them.
The rock, the rider noted, was a huge granite block, rotted from long exposure to the elements, seamed and scarred and cracked. The action of the eternally moving sand had worn an irregular-shaped concave into its southern wall, so that the summit overhung the side. The man on the summit was lying flat on his stomach, leaning far over, still shooting downward. The other man, who was standing at the base, was flattened against it, facing the concave side, shooting occasionally, and cursing volubly.
The rider was curious. Glancing sidelong, southward, he saw two horses not more than a hundred yards away. They were in a depression, behind a sand ridge, which accounted for the fact that the rider had not seen them before.
Sight of the horses brought a widening grin to the rider's face. He had thought, at first, that the two men were shooting at another man, concealed behind the rock; but the fact that there were only two horses indicated that he had been in error. No man would be foolhardy enough to attempt to cross the desert on foot, and unless a man were a friend he would not be carried upon another man's horse. Therefore, it seemed to be evident that the target at which the men were shooting was not another man.
And now, convinced that the men had cornered an animal of some kind, and that they feared it too greatly to face it openly, the rider laughed loudly and called to the men, his voice freighted with sarcasm.
"Scared?" he said. "Oh, don't be. If you'll back off a little an' give him room, he'll just naturally slope, an' give you a chance to get to your cayuses."
Both men wheeled almost at the same instant. The man at the base of the rock snarled—after the first gasp of astonishment, baring his teeth in hideous mirth and embarrassment; the other man, startled and caught off balance at the sound of the rider's voice, slipped, tried to catch himself, failed, and tumbled awkwardly down, scrambling and cursing, to the sand within a few feet of the rider.
Sitting in the sand at the base of the rock, the man who had fallen also snarled as he sat, looking at the rider.
Neither of the two men moved after the involuntary muscular action that had resulted from their astonishment. The man at the base of the rock stood in the position in which he had found himself when he had wheeled.
The pistol in his right hand was held close to his side, the muzzle directed at the rider.
But a change was coming over the man's face. The color was slowly going out of it, the lips were loosening as his jaws dropped, his body began to sag, and his eyes began to widen with fear, stark and naked. At length, the rider now watching him with a gaze in which there began to glow recognition and contempt, the man dropped his hands to his sides and leaned against the rock.
"'Drag' Harlan!" he muttered hoarsely.
The rider watched, his eyes glittering coldly, his lips twisting in a crooked sneer. Amusement was his dominating emotion, but there was hate in his gaze, mingling with a malignant joy and triumph. The pistols in his hands became steady as his wrist muscles stiffened; and he watched the two men warily, apparently looking straight at the standing man, but seeing the sitting man also.
And now a silence fell—a strained, premonitory silence that had in it a hint of imminent tragedy. The sitting man stiffened, divining the promise of violence; the standing man shrank back a little and looked downward at the pistol in his right hand.
The rider saw the glance and laughed lowly.
"Keep her right where she is, Dolver," he warned. "You lift her one little wee lift, an' I bore you plumb in the brain-box. Sort of flabbergasted, eh? Didn't expect to run into me again so soon?"
He laughed as the other cringed, his face dead white, his eyes fixed on the rider with a sort of dread fascination.
"Dolver, didn't you know when you got my little partner, Davey Langan, that I'd be comin' for you?" said the rider in a slow, drawling whisper. "In the back you got him, not givin' him a chance. You're gettin' yours now. I'm givin' you a chance to take it like a man—standin', with your face to me. Lift her now—damn you!"
There was no change in his expression as he watched the man he had called Dolver. There came no change in the cold, steady gleam of his eyes as he saw the man stiffen and swing the muzzle of his pistol upward with a quick, jerky motion. But he sneered as with the movement he sent a bullet into the man's chest; his lips curving with slight irony when Dolver's gun went off, the bullet throwing up sand at Purgatory's forehoofs.
His eyes grew hard as he saw Dolver stagger, drop his pistol, and clutch at his chest; and he watched with seeming indifference as the man slowly sank to his knees and stretched out, face down, in the dust at the base of the rock.
His lips were stiff with bitter rage, however, as he faced the other man, who had not moved.
"Get up on your hind legs, you yellow coyote!" he commanded.
For an instant it seemed that the other man was to share the fate of the first. The man seemed to think so, too, for he got up trembling, his hands outstretched along the rock, the fingers outspread and twitching from the paralysis of fear that had seized him.
"Shoot your gab off quick!" commanded the rider. "Who are you?"
"I'm Laskar," the man muttered.
"Where you from?"
The rider's eyes quickened. "Where did you meet up with that scum?" He indicated Dolver.
The man nodded.
"How long ago?" asked the rider.
"'Bout a week."
The man's voice was hoarse; he seemed reluctant to talk more, and he cast furtive, dreading glances toward the base of the rock where Dolver had stood before the rider had surprised the men.
Watching the man narrowly, the rider noted his nervous glance, and his shrinking, dreading manner. Harlan's eyes gleamed with suspicion, and in a flash he was off the black and standing before Laskar, forbidding and menacing.
"Take off your gun-belt an' chuck it under my horse!" he directed sharply. "There's somethin' goin' on here that ain't been mentioned. I'm findin' out what it is."
He watched while the man unbuckled his cartridge belt and threw it—the pistol still in the holster—into the sand at Purgatory's hoofs. Then he stepped to the man, sheathed one of his pistols, and ran the free hand over the other's clothing in search of other weapons. Finding none, he stooped and took up Dolver's pistol and rifle that had fallen from the man's hands when he had tumbled off the rock, throwing them near where the cartridge belt had fallen.
"You freeze there while I take a look around this rock!" he commanded, with a cold look at the man.
Half a dozen steps took him around the base of the rock. He went boldly, though his muscles were tensed and his eyes alert for surprises. But he had not taken a dozen steps in all when he halted and stiffened, his lips setting into straight, hard lines.
For, stretched out on his left side in the sand close to the base of the rock—under the flattened summit which had afforded him protection from the bullets the man with the rifle had been sending at him—was a man.
The man was apparently about fifty, with a seamed, pain-lined face. His beard was stained with dust, his hair was gray with it; his clothing looked as though he had been dragged through it. He was hatless, and one of his boots was off. The foot had been bandaged with a handkerchief, and through the handkerchief the dark stains of a wound appeared.
The man's shirt was open in front; and the rider saw that another wound gaped in his chest, near the heart. The man had evidently made some attempt to care for that wound, too, for a piece of cloth from his shirt had been cut away, to permit him to get at the wound easily.
The man's left side seemed to be helpless, for the arm was twisted queerly, the palm of the hand turned limply upward; but when the rider came upon him the man was trying to tuck a folded paper into one of the cylinders of a pistol.
He had laid the weapon in the sand, and with his right hand was working with the cylinder and the paper. When he saw the rider he sneered and ceased working with the pistol, looking up into the rider's face, his eyes glowing with defiance.
"No chance for that even, eh?" he said, glancing at the paper and the pistol. "Things is goin' plumb wrong!"
He sagged back, resting his weight on the right elbow, and looked steadily at the rider—the look of a wounded animal defying his pursuers.
"Get goin'!" he jeered. "Do your damnedest! I heard that sneak, Dolver, yappin' to you. You're 'Drag' Harlan—gun-fighter, outlaw, killer! I've heard of you," he went on as he saw Harlan scowl and stiffen. "Your reputation has got all over. I reckon you're in the game to salivate me."
Harlan sheathed his gun.
"You're talkin' extravagant, mister man." And now he permitted a cold smile to wreathe his lips. "If it'll do you any good to know," he added, "I've just put Dolver out of business."
"I heard that, too," declared the man, laughing bitterly. "I heard you tellin' Dolver. He killed your partner—or somethin'. That's personal, an' I ain't interested. Get goin'—the sooner the better. If you'd hand it to me right now, I'd be much obliged to you; for I'm goin' fast. This hole in my chest—which I got last night while I was sleepin'—will do the business without any help from you."
After a pause for breath, the man began to speak again, railing at his would-be murderers. He was talking ramblingly when there came a sound from the opposite side of the rock—a grunt, a curse, and, almost instantly, a shriek.
The wounded man raised himself and threw a glance of startled inquiry at Harlan: "What's that?"
Harlan watched the man steadily.
"I reckon that'll be that man Laskar," he said slowly. "I lifted his gun an' his rifle, an' Dolver's gun, an' throwed them under Purgatory—my horse. Laskar has tried to get them, an' Purgatory's raised some objection."
He stepped back and peered around the rock. Laskar was lying in the sand near the base of the rock, doubled up and groaning loudly, while Purgatory, his nostrils distended, his eyes ablaze, was standing over the weapons that lay in the sand, watching the groaning man malignantly.
Harlan returned to the wounded man, to find that he had collapsed and was breathing heavily.
For some minutes Harlan stood, looking down at him; then he knelt in the sand beside him and lifted his head. The man's eyes were closed, and Harlan laid his head down again and examined the wound in his chest.
He shook his head as he got up, went to Purgatory, and got some water, which he used to wipe away the dust and blood which had become matted over the wound. He shook his head again after bathing the wound. The wound meant death for the man within a short time. Yet Harlan forced some water into the half-open mouth and bathed the man's face with it.
For a long time after Harlan ceased to work with him the man lay in a stupor-like silence, limp and motionless, though his eyes opened occasionally, and by the light in them Harlan knew the man was aware of what he had been doing.
The sun was going now; it had become a golden, blazing ball which was sinking over the peaks of some distant mountains, its fiery rays stabbing the pale azure of the sky with brilliantly glowing shafts that threw off ever-changing seas of color that blended together in perfect harmony.
Harlan alternately watched the wounded man and Laskar.
Laskar was still groaning, and finally Harlan walked to him and pushed him with a contemptuous foot.
"Get up, you sneak!" he ordered. And Laskar, groaning, holding his chest—where Purgatory's hoofs had struck him—staggered to his feet and looked with piteously pleading eyes at the big man who stood near him, unmoved by the spectacle of suffering he presented.
And when he found that Harlan gave him no sympathy, he cursed horribly. This drew a cold threat from Harlan.
"Shut your rank mouth or I'll turn Purgatory loose on you—again. Lookin' for sympathy, eh? How much sympathy did you give that hombre who's cashin' in behind the rocks? None—damn you!"
It was the first flash of feeling Harlan had exhibited, and Laskar shrank from him in terror.
But Harlan followed him, grasping him by a shoulder and gripping it with iron fingers, so that Laskar screamed with pain.
"Who is that man?" Harlan motioned toward the rock.
"Lane Morgan. He owns the Rancho Seco—about forty miles south of Lamo," returned Laskar after a long look into Harlan's eyes.
"Who set you guys onto him—what you wantin' him for?"
"I don't know," whined Laskar. "Day before yesterday Dolver an' me meets up in Lamo, an' Dolver asks me to help him give Morgan his pass-out checks on the ride over to Pardo—which Morgan's intendin' to make. I ain't got any love for Morgan, an' so I took Dolver up."
"You're a liar!"
Harlan's fingers were sinking into Laskar's shoulder again, and once more the man screamed with pain and impotent fury.
"I swear—" began Laskar.
Harlan's grin was bitterly contemptuous. He placed the other hand on Laskar's shoulder and forced the man to look into his eyes.
"You're a liar, but I'm lettin' you off. You're a sneak with Greaser blood in you. I don't ever want to see you again. I'm goin' to Lamo—soon as this man Morgan cashes in. I'll be there some time tomorrow. Lamo wouldn't please me none if I was to find you there when I ride in. You slope, now—an' keep on hittin' the breeze until there ain't no more of it. I'd blow you apart if this man Morgan was anything to me. But it ain't my game unless I see you again."
He watched until Laskar, still holding his chest, walked to where the two horses were concealed, and mounted one of them. When Laskar, leaning over the pommel of the saddle, had grown dim in the haze that was settling over the desert, Harlan scowled and returned to the wounded man.
To his astonishment, Morgan was conscious—and a cold calmness seemed to have come over him. His eyes were filled with a light that told of complete knowledge and resignation. He half smiled as Harlan knelt beside him.
"I'm about due, I reckon," he said. "I heard you talkin' to the man you just let get away. It don't make any difference—about him. I reckon he was just a tool, anyway. There's someone behind this bigger than Dolver an' that man Laskar. He didn't tell you?"
Harlan shook his head negatively, watching the other intently.
"I didn't reckon he would," said Morgan. "But there's somebody." He gazed long into Harlan's face, and the latter gazed steadily back at him. He seemed to be searching Harlan's face for signs of character.
Harlan stood the probing glance well—so that at last Morgan smiled, saying slowly: "It's funny—damned funny. About faces, I mean. Your reputation—it's bad. I've been hearin' about you for a couple of years now. An' I've been lookin' at you an' tryin' to make myself say, 'Yes, he's the kind of a guy which would do the things they say he's done.'
"I can't make myself say it; I can't even make myself think it. Either you're a mighty good actor, or you're the worst-judged man I ever met. Which is it?"
"Mostly all of us get reputations we don't deserve," said Harlan lowly.
Morgan's eyes gleamed with satisfaction. "Meanin' that you don't deserve yours?" he said.
"I reckon there's been a heap of lyin' goin' on about me."
For a long time Morgan watched the other, studying him. The long twilight of the desert descended and found them—Morgan staring at Harlan; the latter enduring the gaze—for he knew that the end would not long be delayed.
At last Morgan sighed.
"Well," he said, "I've got to take a chance on you. An', somehow, it seems to me that I ain't takin' much of a chance, either. For a man that's supposed to be the hell-raisin' outlaw that folks say you are, you've got the straightest eyes I ever seen. I've seen killers—an' outlaws, an' gun-fighters, an' I never seen one that could look at a man like you've looked at me. Harlan," he went on slowly, "I'm goin' to tell you about some gold I've hid—a hundred thousand dollars!"
Keenly, suspicion lurking deep in his eyes, his mouth half open, seemingly ready to snap shut the instant he detected greed or cupidity in Harlan's eyes, he watched the latter.
It seemed that he expected Harlan to betray a lust for the gold he had mentioned; and he was ready to close his lips and to die with his secret. And when he saw that apparently Harlan was unmoved, that he betrayed, seemingly, not the slightest interest, that even his eyelids did not flicker at his words, nor his face change color—Morgan drew a tremulous sigh.
"You've got me guessin'," he confessed weakly. "I don't know whether you're a devil or a saint."
"I ain't claimin' nothin'," said Harlan. "An' I ain't carin' a damn about your gold. I'd a heap rather you wouldn't mention it. More than one man has busted his character chasin' that rainbow."
"You ain't interested?" demanded Morgan.
Morgan's eyes glowed with an eager light. For now that Harlan betrayed lack of interest, Morgan was convinced—almost—that the man's reputation for committing evil deeds had been exaggerated.
"You've got to be interested," he declared, lifting himself on his good arm and leaning toward Harlan. "It ain't the gold that is botherin' me so much, anyway—it's my daughter.
"It's all my own fault, too," he went on when he saw Harlan's eyes quicken. "I've felt all along that somethin' was wrong, but I didn't have sense enough to look into it. An' now, trustin' folks so much, an' not payin' strict attention to what was goin' on around me, I've got to the point where I've got to put everything into the hands of a man I never saw before—an outlaw."
"There ain't nobody crowdin' you to put anything into his hands," sneered Harlan. "I ain't a heap anxious to go around buttin' into trouble for you. Keep your yap shut, an' die like a man!"
Morgan laughed, almost triumphantly. "I'll do my dyin' like a man, all right—don't be afraid of that. You want to hear what I've got to tell you?"
"I've got to listen. Shoot!"
"There's a gang of outlaws operatin' in the Lamo country. Luke Deveny is the chief. It's generally known that Deveny's the boss, but he keeps his tracks pretty well covered, an' Sheriff Gage ain't been able to get anything on him. Likely Gage is scared of him, anyway.
"Anyway, Gage don't do nothin'. Deveny's a bad man with a gun; there ain't his equal in the Territory. He's got a fellow that runs with him—Strom Rogers—who's almost as good as he is with a gun. They're holy terrors; they've got the cattlemen for two hundred miles around eatin' out of their hands. They're roarin', rippin' devils!
"There ain't no man knows how big their gang is—seems like half the people in the Lamo country must belong to it. There's spies all around; there ain't a thing done that the outlaws don't seem to know of it. They drive stock off right in front of the eyes of the owners; they rob the banks in the country; they drink an' kill an' riot without anyone interferin'.
"There ain't anyone knows where their hang-out is—no one seems to know anything about them, except that they're on hand when there's any devilment to be done.
"I've got to talk fast, for I ain't got long. I've never had any trouble with Deveny or Rogers, or any of the rest of them, because I've always tended to my own business. I've seen the thing gettin' worse an' worse, though; an' I ought to have got out of there when I had a chance. Lately there ain't been no chance. They watch me like a hawk. I can't trust my men. The Rancho Seco is a mighty big place, an' I've got thirty men workin' for me. But I can't trust a damned one of them.
"About a year ago I found some gold in the Cisco Mountains near the ranch. It was nugget gold—only a pocket. I packed it home, lettin' nobody see me doin' it; an' I got it all hid in the house, except the last batch, before anybody knowed anything about it. Then, comin' home with the last of it, the damned bottom had to bust out of the bag right near the corral gate, where Meeder Lawson, my foreman, was standin' watchin' me.
"It turned out that he'd been watchin' me for a long time. I never liked the cuss, but he's a good cowman, an' I had to hold onto him. When he saw the gold droppin' out an' hittin' the ground like big hailstones, he grinned that chessie-cat grin he's got, an' wanted to know if I was through totin' it home.
"I wanted to know how he knowed there was more of it, an' he said he'd been keepin' an eye on me, an' knowed there was a heap more of it somewhere around.
"I fired him on the spot. There'd have been gunplay, but I got the drop on him an' he had to slope. Well, the next mornin' Luke Deveny rode up to where I was saddlin', an' told me I'd have to take Lawson back.
"I done so, for I knowed there'd be trouble with the outlaws if I didn't. I ain't never been able to get any of that gold to the assayer. They've been watchin' me like buzzards on a limb over some carrion. I don't get out of their sight.
"An' now they've finally got me. I've got a little of the gold in my pocket now—here it is." He drew out a small buckskin bag and passed it to Harlan, who took it and held it loosely in his hands, not taking his gaze from Morgan.
"Keep a-goin'," suggested Harlan.
"Interested, eh?" grinned Morgan; "I knowed you'd be. Well, here I am—I didn't get to the assay office at Pardo; an' I'll never get there now." He paused and then went on:
"Now they're after Barbara, my daughter. Deveny—an' Strom Rogers, an' some more—all of them, I reckon. I ought to have got out long ago. But it's too late now, I reckon.
"That damned Deveny—he's a wolf with women. Handsome as hell, with ways that take with most any woman that meets him. An' he's as smooth an' cold an' heartless as the devil himself. He ain't got no pity for nobody or nothin'. An' Strom Rogers runs him a close second. An' there's more of them almost as bad.
"They watch every trail that runs from the Rancho Seco to—to anywhere. If I ride north there's someone watchin' me. If I ride south there's a man on my trail. If I go east or west I run into a man or two who's takin' interest in me. When I go to Lamo, there'll be half a dozen men strike town about the same time.
"I can't prove they are Deveny's men—but I know it, for they're always around. An' it's the same way with Barbara—she can't go anywhere without Deveny, or Rogers—or some of them—ain't trailin' her.
"As I said, the sheriff can't do anything—or he won't. He looks worried when I meet him, an' gets out of my way, for fear I'll ask him to do somethin'.
"That's the way it stands. An' now Barbara will have to play it a lone hand against them. Bill Morgan—that's my son—ain't home. He's gallivantin' around the country, doin' some secret work for the governor. Somethin' about rustlers an' outlaws. He ought to be home now, to protect Barbara. But instead he's wastin' his time somewheres else when he ought to be here—in Lamo—where's there's plenty of the kind of guys he's lookin' for.
"There's only one man in the country I trust. He's John Haydon, of the Star ranch—about fifteen miles west of the Rancho Seco. Seems to me that Haydon's square. He's an upstandin' man of about thirty, an' he's dead stuck on Barbara. Seems to me that if it wasn't for Haydon, Deveny, or Lawson, or Rogers, or some of them scum would have run off with Barbara long ago.
"You see how she shapes up?" he queried as he watched Harlan's face.
"Looks bad for Barbara," said Harlan slowly.
Morgan writhed and was silent for a time.
"Look here, Harlan," he finally said; "you're considered to be a hell-raiser yourself, but I can see in your eyes that you ain't takin' advantage of women. An' Harlan"—Morgan's voice quavered—"there's my little Barbara all alone to take care of herself with that gang of wolves around. I'm wantin' you to go to the Rancho Seco an' look around. My wife died last year. There's mebbe two or three guys around the ranch would stick to Barbara, but that's all. Take a look at John Haydon, an' if you think he's on the level—an' you want to drift on—turn things over to him."
Morgan shuddered, and was silent for a time, his lips tight-shut, his face whitening in the dusk as he fought the pain that racked him. When he at last spoke again his voice was so weak that Harlan had to kneel and lean close to him to hear the low-spoken words that issued from between his quavering lips:
"Harlan—you're white; you've got to be white—to Barbara! That paper I was tryin' to stuff into my gun—when you come around the rock. You take it. It'll tell you where the gold is. You'll find my will—in my desk in my office—off the patio. Everything goes to Barbara. Everybody knows that. Haydon knows it—Deveny's found it out. You can't get me back—it's too far. Plant me here—an' tell Barbara." He laughed hollowly. "I reckon that's all." He felt for one of Harlan's hands, found it, and gripped it with all his remaining strength. His voice was hoarse, quavering:
"You won't refuse, Harlan? You can't refuse! Why, my little Barbara will be all alone, man! What a damned fool I've been not to look out for her!"
Night had come, and Morgan could not see Harlan's face. But he was conscious of the firm grip of Harlan's hands, and he laughed lowly and thankfully.
"You'll do it—for Barbara—won't you? Say you will, man! Let me hear you say it—now!"
"I'm givin' you my word," returned Harlan slowly. And now he leaned still closer to the dying man and whispered long to him.
When he concluded Morgan fought hard to raise himself to a sitting posture; he strained, dragging himself in the sand in an effort to see Harlan's face. But the black desert night had settled over them, and all Morgan could see of Harlan was the dim outlines of his head.
"Say it again, man! Say it again, an' light a match so's I can see you while you're sayin' it!"
There was a pause. Then a match flared its light revealing Harlan's face, set in serious lines.
"I wouldn't lie to you—now—Morgan," he said; "I'm goin' to the Lamo country to bust up Deveny's gang."
Morgan stared hard at the other while the flickering light lasted with a strained intensity that transfigured his face, suffusing it with a glow that could not have been more eloquent with happiness had the supreme Master of the universe drawn back the mysterious veil of life to permit him to look upon the great secret.
When the match flickered and went out, and the darkness of the desert reigned again, Morgan sank back with a tremulous, satisfied sigh.
"I'm goin' now," he said; "I'm goin'—knowin' God has been good to me." He breathed fast, gaspingly. And for a moment he spoke hurriedly, as though fearful he would not be given time to say what he wanted to say:
"Someone plugged me—last night while I was sleepin'. Shot me in the chest—here. Didn't give me no chance. There was three of them. My fire had gone out an' I couldn't see their faces. Likely Laskar an' Dolver was two. The other one must have sloped. It was him shot me. Tried to knife me, too; but I fought him, an' he broke away. It happened behind a rock—off to the left—a red boulder.
"I grabbed at him an' caught somethin'. What it was busted. I couldn't wait to find out what it was. I'm hopin' it's somethin' that'll help you to find out who the man was. I ain't goin' to be mean—just when I'm dyin'; but if you was to look for that thing, find it, an' could tell who the man is, mebbe some day you'd find it agreeable to pay him for what he done to me."
He became silent; no sound except his fast, labored breathing broke the dead calm of the desert night.
"Somethin' more than the gold an' Barbara back of it all," he muttered thickly, seeming to lapse into a state of semiconsciousness in which the burden that was upon his mind took the form of involuntary speech: "Somethin' big back of it—somethin' they ain't sayin' nothin' about. But Harlan—he'll take care of—" He paused; then his voice leaped. "Why, there's Barbara now! Why, honey, I thought—I—why——"
His voice broke, trailing off into incoherence.
After a while Harlan rose to his feet. An hour later he found the red rock Morgan had spoken of—and with a flaming bunch of mesquite in hand he searched the vicinity.
In a little depression caused by the heel of a boot he came upon a glittering object, which he examined in the light of the flaming mesquite, which he had thrown into the sand after picking up the glittering object. Kneeling beside the dying flame he discovered that the glittering trifle he had found was a two- or three-inch section of gold watch chain of peculiar pattern. He tucked it into a pocket of his trousers.
Later, he mounted Purgatory and fled into the appalling blackness, heading westward—the big black horse loping easily.
The first streaks of dawn found Purgatory drinking deeply from the green-streaked moisture of Kelso's water-hole. And when the sun stuck a glowing rim over the desert's horizon, to resume his rule over the baked and blighted land, the big black horse and his rider were traveling steadily, the only life visible in the wide area of desolation—a moving blot, an atom behind which was death and the eternal, whispered promise of death.
A GIRL WAITS
Lamo, sprawling on a sun-baked plain perhaps a mile from the edge of the desert, was one of those towns which owed its existence to the instinct of men to foregather. It also was indebted for its existence to the greed of a certain swarthy-faced saloon-keeper named Joel Ladron, who, anticipating the edict of a certain town marshal of another town that shall not be mentioned, had piled his effects into a prairie schooner—building and goods—and had taken the south trail—which would lead him wherever he wanted to stop.
It had chanced that he had stopped at the present site of Lamo. Ladron saw a trail winding over the desert, vanishing into the eastern distance; and he knew that where trails led there were sure to be thirsty men who would be eager to look upon his wares.
Ladron's history is not interesting. As time fled to the monotonous clink of coins over the bar he set up in the frame shack that faced the desert trail, Ladron's importance in Lamo was divided by six.
The other dispensers had not come together; they had appeared as the needs of the population seemed to demand—and all had flourished.
Lamo's other buildings had appeared without ostentation. There were twenty of them. A dozen of the twenty, for one reason or another, need receive no further mention. Of the remaining few, one was occupied by Sheriff Gage; two others by stores; one answered as an office and storage-room for the stage company; and still another was distinguished by a crude sign which ran across its weather-beaten front, bearing the legend: "Lamo Eating-House." The others were private residences.
Lamo's buildings made some pretense of aping the architecture of buildings in other towns. The eating-house was a two-story structure, with an outside stairway leading to its upper floor. It had a flat roof and an adobe chimney. Its second floor had been subdivided into lodging-rooms. Its windows were small, grimy.
Not one of Lamo's buildings knew paint. The structures, garish husks of squalor, befouled the calm, pure atmosphere, and mocked the serene majesty of nature.
For, beginning at the edge of "town," a contrast to the desert was presented by nature. It was a mere step, figuratively, from that land from which came the whisper of death, to a wild, virgin section where the hills, the green-brown ridges, the wide sweeps of plain, and the cool shadows of timber clumps breathed of the promise, the existence, of life.
To Barbara Morgan, seated at one of the east windows of the Lamo Eating-House—in the second story, where she could look far out into the desert—the contrast between the vivid color westward and the dun and dead flatness eastward, was startling. For she knew her father had entered the desert on his way to Pardo, on some business he had not mentioned; and the whispered threat that the desert carried was borne to her ears as she watched.
On a morning, two days before, Morgan had left the Rancho Seco for Pardo. The girl had watched him go with a feeling—almost a conviction—that she should have kept him at home. She had not mentioned to him that she had a presentiment of evil, for she assured herself that she should have outgrown those puerile impulses of the senses. And yet, having watched him depart, she passed a sleepless night, and early the next morning had saddled her horse to ride to Lamo, there to await her father's return.
It was late in the afternoon when she reached Lamo; and she had gone directly to the Eating-House, where she had passed another restless night—spending most of her time sitting at the window, where she was at this minute.
Of course it was a three-day trip to Pardo, and she had no reason to expect Morgan to return until the end of the sixth day, at the very earliest. And yet some force sent her to the window at frequent intervals, where she would sit, as now, her chin resting in her hands, her eyes searching the vast waste land with an anxious light.
An attache of the Eating-House had put her horse away—where, she did not know; and her meals had been brought to her by a middle-aged slattern, whose probing, suspicion-laden glances had been full of mocking significance. She had heard the woman speak of her to other female employees of the place—and once she had overheard the woman refer to her as "that stuck-up Morgan heifer."
Their coarse laughter and coarser language had disgusted the girl, and she had avoided them all as much as possible.
It was the first time she had remained overnight in the Eating-House lodging-rooms, though she had seen the building many times during her visits to Lamo. It wasn't what she was accustomed to at the Rancho Seco, nor was it all that a lodging-house might be—but it provided shelter for her while she waited.
The girl felt—as she looked—decidedly out of place in the shabby room. Many times during her vigil she had shuddered when looking at the dirty, threadbare ingrain carpet on the floor of the room; oftener, when her gaze went to the one picture that adorned the unpapered walls, she shrank back, her soul filled with repugnance.
Art, as here represented, was a cheap lithograph in vivid colors, of an Indian—an Apache, judging from his trappings—scalping a white man. In the foreground, beside the man, was a woman, her hair disheveled, wild appeal in her eyes, gazing at the Indian, who was grinning at her.
A cheap bureau, unadorned, with a broken mirror swinging in a rickety frame; one chair, and the bed in which she had tried to sleep, were the only articles of furniture in the room.
The girl, arrayed in a neat riding habit; her hair arranged in graceful coils; her slender, lissom figure denoting youth and vigor; the clear, smooth skin of her face—slightly tanned—indicating health—was as foreign to her present surroundings as life is foreign to the desert. In her direct eyes was the glow of sturdy honesty that had instantly antagonized the slattern who had attended her.
That glow was not so pronounced now—it was dulled by anxiety as she looked out of the window, watching the desert light fade as twilight came, blotting the hot sand from her sight, erasing the straight, unfeatured horizon, and creating a black void which pulsed with mystery.
She sighed when at last she could no longer penetrate the wall of darkness; got up and moved her chair to one of the front windows, from where she could look down into Lamo's one street.
Lamo's lights began to flicker; from the town's buildings sounds began to issue—multisonous, carrying the message of ribaldry unrestrained.
From a point not very far away came the hideous screeching of a fiddle, accompanied by a discordant, monotonous wail, as of someone singing a song unfamiliar to him; from across the street floated a medley of other noises, above which could be heard the jangling music of a heavily drummed piano. There came to her ears coarse oaths and the maudlin laughter of women.
She had heard it all the night before; but tonight it seemed that something had been added to the volume of it. And as on the night before, she sat at the window, watching—for it was all new and strange to her—even if unattractive. But at last the horror of it again seized her, and she closed the window, determined to endure the increased heat.
Half an hour later, lying, fully dressed, on the bed, she heard a voice in the hallway beyond the closed door of her room—a man's voice.
"It isn't what one might call elegant," said the voice; "but if it's the best you've got—why, of course, it will have to do."
The girl sat straight up in bed, breathless, her face paling.
"It's Luke Deveny!" she gasped in a suffocating whisper.
The man's voice was answered by a woman's—low, mirthful. The girl in the room could not distinguish the words. But the man spoke again—in a whisper which carried through the thin board partition to the girl:
"Barbara Morgan is in there—eh?" he said and the girl could almost see him nodding toward her room.
This time the girl heard the woman's voice—and her words:
"Yes she's there, the stuck-up hussy!"
The voice was that of the slattern.
The man laughed jeeringly.
"Jealous, eh?" he said. "Well, she is a mighty good-looking girl, for a fact!"
That was all. The girl heard Deveny step into a room—the room adjoining hers; she could hear his heavy boots striking the floor as he removed them.
For a long time the girl rested on her elbow, listening; but no further sounds came from the room into which Deveny had gone. At last, trembling, her face white with fear, the girl got up and stole noiselessly to the door.
A light bolt was the door's only fastening; and the girl stood long, with a hand upon it, considering its frailty. How easy it would be for a big man like Deveny to force the door. One shove of his giant shoulder and the bolt would give.
Stealthily, noiselessly, straining with every ounce of her strength, she managed to lift the cheap bureau and carry it to the door, placing it against the latter, barricading it. Not satisfied, she dragged the bed over against the bureau.
Even when that had been accomplished, she was not satisfied and during the greater part of the night she sat on the edge of the bed, listening and watching the door. For in the days that had fled Deveny had said certain things to her that she had not repeated to her father; he had looked at her with a significance that no man could have understood; and there had been a gleam in his eyes at these times which had convinced her that behind the bland smoothness of him—back of the suave politeness of his manner—was a primitive animalism. His suave politeness was a velvet veil of character behind which he masked the slavering fangs of the beast he really was.
HIS SHADOW BEFORE
At ten o'clock the following morning, in a rear room of "Balleau's First Chance" saloon—which was directly across the street from the Lamo Eating-House—Luke Deveny and two other men were sitting at a card-table with bottle and glasses between them. A window in the eastern side of the room gave the men an unobstructed view of the desert, and for half an hour, as they talked and drank, they looked out through the window.
A tall, muscular man with a slightly hooked nose, keen blue eyes with a cold glint in them, black hair, and an equally black mustache which revealed a firm-lipped mouth with curves at the corners that hinted of cynicism, and, perhaps cruelty, was sitting at the table so that he faced the window. His smile, as he again glanced out of the window, roved to Deveny—who sat at his right.
"One man—an' a led horse," he said shortly. "Looks like Laskar."
Deveny—big, smooth-shaven—with black, glowing, attractive eyes that held a glint quite as hard as that which shone in the eyes of the speaker, looked long out of the window at a moving dot on the desert, which seemed to be traveling toward them. Deveny had looked before; but now he saw two dots where at other times he had seen only one. His lips held a slight pout as he glanced at the speaker.
"You're right, Rogers," he said; "there's only one. The old fool must have put up a fight."
Deveny filled a glass from the bottle and drank slowly. His features were large. His nose was well shaped, with wide nostrils that hinted of a fiery, passionate nature; his thrusting chin and the heavy neck muscles told of strength, both mental and physical—of mental strength that was of a tenacious character, of physical strength that would respond to any demand of the will.
He was handsome, and yet the suggestion of ruthlessness in the atmosphere of him—lurking behind the genial, easy-going exterior that he wore for appearances—or because it was his nature to conceal his passions until he desired to unleash them—was felt by those who knew him intimately. It had been felt by Barbara Morgan.
Deveny was king of the lawless element in the Lamo section. The magnetism of him; the arrogance, glossed over with the calm and cold politeness of his manner; his unvarying immaculateness; the air of large and complete confidence which marked his every action; the swiftness with which he struck when he was aroused, or when his authority was questioned, placed him without dissent at the head of the element that ruled the Lamo country.
Deveny ruled, but Deveny's rule was irksome to Strom Rogers—the man to whom Deveny had just spoken. For while Deveny drank, Rogers watched him with covert vigilance, with a jeering gleam far back in his eyes, with a secret envy and jealousy, with hatred and contempt and mockery.
Yet there was fear in Rogers' eyes, too—a mere glimmer of it. Yet it was there; and when Deveny set his glass down and looked straight at Rogers, it was that fear which brought the fawning, insincere smirk to Rogers' lips.
"See the girl?" questioned Rogers.
Deveny laughed lowly. Apparently he did not notice the glow in Rogers' eyes; but had Rogers looked closely he might have seen Deveny's lips straighten as he shot a glance at the other.
"Had the room next to her last night. Heard her drag the bed in front of the door of her room. She knew I was there, all right!" Deveny laughed deeply. "She's wised up by this time. Lolly Kaye hates her—because Barbara's a good-looking girl, I suppose. That's like some women. Lolly would see Barbara roasting in hell and not give her a hand!"
"Lolly's been disappointed in love—I reckon." Rogers' laugh was hollow, mirthless. And again Deveny shot a glance at him.
"But you didn't bother her—Barbara?" questioned Rogers in a dry, light voice.
"No," grinned Deveny; "that time hasn't come—yet. It's coming soon. I told Lolly to keep an eye on her; I've got Engle and Barthman and Kelmer watching at the doors so Barbara can't light out for the Rancho Seco. She don't get away until tomorrow. Then she goes with me to the end of Sunset Trail. I've sent Shorty Mallo to Willow's Wells for the parson."
"Barbara know what's up?" Rogers' voice was low and throaty.
Again Deveny glanced at him—sharply.
"Hell, no!" he snapped. "It's none of her damned business—nor anybody's!" He grinned maliciously when he saw Rogers' face whiten.
"Barbara will need a husband now," Deveny went on. "With old Morgan gone and her brother sloped from the home ranch, she'll be kind of lonesome. I aim to cure her of that."
He laughed, and Rogers writhed inwardly. For Rogers had long nursed a secret hope that one day the fates might take a notion to give him the chance that Deveny intended to seize.
But Rogers was forced to conceal his jealousy and disappointment. He laughed mirthlessly.
"So she can't get away, eh?—she's corralled!"
"Bah!" declared Deveny; "she won't want to get away—once she knows what I mean—that it's going to be a regular wedding. She'll raise a fuss, most likely, to make folks believe she's unwilling, but in the end she'll get over it."
Deveny glanced out of the window at the blot that was now closer.
"It's Laskar, all regular," he said. "He's leading a sorrel horse—Dolver's horse. Old Morgan got Dolver—looks like, the damned old gopher! Men as willing as Dolver are not found every day." He looked at the third man, who had not spoken.
"Lawson," he said, "you mosey down the trail a little piece and meet Laskar. Bring him here!"
Lawson, a thin-faced, medium-sized man with narrow shoulders, whose distinguishing mark was a set of projecting upper teeth that kept his mouth in a continual smirking smile, got up quickly and went out. Deveny and Rogers, their thoughts centered upon the same person—Barbara Morgan—sat silent, watching Lawson as he rode down the street toward the point where the trail, crossing the broken stretch of country that intervened, merged into the desert.
Half an hour later Laskar, holding his chest, where Purgatory had kicked him, was sitting at the table in the rear room of the First Chance, cursing with a fluency that he had not yielded to in many years.
"Dolver's wiped out!" he gasped hoarsely; "plugged so quick he didn't know he was hit. A center shot—plumb in the heart; his own gun goin' off while he was fallin'. I looked him over—after. He was croaked complete. Then that sober-faced hyena lifts my gun—an' the rifle—an' says things to me, which I don't try to cross him. Then he goes behind the rock—where we was havin' it out—an' while he's gone I tries to git my guns from under that devil-eyed cayuse of his'n.
"An' I don't succeed—noways. That black devil turns on a half-dollar an' plants his hoofs plumb in my breast-bone. If I'd been an inch nearer, or if he'd have kicked me a foot lower, or a foot higher, I'd be layin' out there where Dolver is now, the coyotes an' the buzzards gnawin' at me."
Unmoved by Laskar's incoherence, Deveny calmly watched him. And now, when Laskar paused for breath, Deveny spoke slowly:
"A black horse, you said. How did a black horse get there? Old Morgan rode a bay when he left Lamo—Balleau says."
"Did I say Morgan rode a black horse?" queried Laskar, knowledge in his eyes that he had a thing to tell that would blanch their faces. He grinned, still holding his chest, his glance malicious.
"Did I say a black horse?" he repeated. "Did I say Morgan rode a black horse? Morgan didn't. Morgan rode a bay—an' the Chief run it off after he shot Morgan. But Morgan didn't die right away, an' the Chief he had to slope, he said—an' he did—leavin' me an' Dolver to finish old Morgan.
"We was tryin' our damnedest when this guy on the black horse pops up out of nowhere an' salivates Dolver."
"Who was it?"
This was Deveny. He was now leaning forward, a pout on his lips, watching Laskar with an intent, glowering gaze.
"'Drag' Harlan!" shouted Laskar. His face lighted with a hideous joy as he watched the effect of his news.
"'Drag' Harlan! Do you hear?" he went on. "'Drag' Harlan, the Pardo 'two-gun' man! He's headed toward Lamo. He bored Dolver, an' he said that soon as Morgan cashed in he was hittin' the breeze for here!"
Lawson, the man who had gone to meet Laskar, ejaculated hoarsely, and stood rigid, his mouth open, his eyes bulging. It was the involuntary expression of the astonishment and fear that had seized him. Laskar forgot the pain in his chest long enough to straighten and grin at Lawson.
Rogers' face had changed color. He, too, had become rigid. He had been in the act of reaching for the bottle on the table, and the hand that had been extended had been suddenly drawn back, so that the hand was now midway between his body and the bottle—and the fingers were clenched. The other hand, under the table, was likewise clenched, and the muscles of his jaws were corded. Into his eyes had come a furtive, restless gleam, and his face had paled.
Deveny gave no visible sign of perturbation. He coolly reached out, grasped the bottle that Rogers had been reaching for, and poured some of the amber fluid into one of the glasses. The other men watched him silently—all of them intent to note the tremor they expected to see.
Deveny's hand did not tremble. He noted the glances of the men—the admiration that came into their eyes as with steady muscles he raised the glass and drank—and he smiled with slight contempt.
"Coming here, eh?" he said evenly. "So he said that. Did he mention what he was coming for?"
"He didn't mention," replied Laskar.
"So he downed Dolver. Did he say what for?"
"Said Dolver had shot up his partner, Davey Langan—back in Pardo. Harlan was evenin' up."
"What do you know about Harlan?"
The question was addressed to all of them.
"He's a bad guy—all bad. He's an iceberg, an' he's got the snakiest gun-hand of any man in the country. Draws hesitatin'-like. A man don't know when he's goin' to uncork his smoke-wagons. I seen him put Lefty Blandin' out. He starts for his guns, an' then kind of stops, trickin' the other guy into goin' for his. Then, before the other guy can get his gun to workin', Harlan's stickin' his away, an' the guy's ready for the mourners.
"Harlan got his handle that way. He goes for his guns so slow an' hesitatin' that he seems to drag 'em out. But some way he's always shootin' first. An' they always let him off because it's mighty plain that the other guy tried to draw first."
"I've heard that," said Deveny slowly. "What's his record?"
"Plays her a lone hand," returned Rogers. He watched the other steadily.
Deveny toyed with a glass as he gazed out of the window. There was a cold, sullen gleam in his eyes when he finally looked at Laskar.
"You said Harlan told you he was coming here as soon as Morgan cashed in. According to that, Morgan must have been hit bad."
"The Chief said he bored him plenty. An' me an' Dolver must have got him some."
"You didn't get a chance to search Morgan?"
"No chance—he fit like a hyena; an' when he got behind that damned rock there was no way of gettin' at him."
"Then," said Deveny, "according to what you say, Harlan will come here as soon as Morgan dies. And when you left there Morgan was in a bad way. Harlan is due most any time, then."
"That's the way I figger," agreed Laskar.
And now Laskar fidgeted. "I aim to be hittin' the breeze now—before Harlan hits town. This climate is gettin' unhealthy for me. Harlan give me notice."
"To leave town?"
It was Deveny who spoke. There was a snarl in his voice; he leaned forward and scowled at Laskar.
Rogers cleared his throat, and Lawson moved his feet uneasily.
Deveny's scowl faded; he grinned coldly.
"Giving orders—is he?" he snapped. "Well, we'll see." He laughed. "When Harlan hits town it will be a sign that old Morgan's crossed the Divide. Well, there was no witnesses to Morgan's cashing in, and one man's word is as good as another's in this country."
"Meanin'?" questioned Rogers, noting the light in Deveny's eyes.
"Meaning that Laskar is going—right now—to whisper into Sheriff Gage's ear that he saw our friend, 'Drag' Harlan, killing old Morgan."
Rogers got to his feet, grinning. The gleam in his eyes indicated that he felt some relief over the prospect presented by Deveny's suggestion.
"Of course we ain't sure Harlan means to make trouble here," he told Deveny; "but it's just as well to shove him off onto the sheriff."
The four men walked to the front door of the First Chance, after pausing for a few minutes at the bar.
Outside, halting for an instant on the board platform in front of the saloon, Rogers, who had been the first to emerge, started as he glanced toward the desert, and then stood rigid, shading his hands with his eyes against the sun that poured into his face.
"He's comin' now!" he said.
Deveny and the others also looked into the blinding glare of the sun—likewise shading their eyes. And they saw, far out upon the vast sea of sand—yet not so far that they could not distinguish objects—a black horse coming steadily toward them.
Deveny was strangely silent, glowering toward the desert; Rogers folded his arms and faced the oncoming rider and the somber-coated animal he bestrode; Lawson scowled; and Laskar nervously estimated the distance that stretched between himself and the steady-eyed man who had told him certain things in a voice that had been entirely convincing.
Barbara Morgan had not been able to sleep except by fits and starts. A dozen times during the night she had caught herself on the verge of sinking into deep slumber, and each time she had got up and washed her eyes with some water from a pitcher on the bureau, determined that she would not take any chances of permitting Deveny to surprise her.
When the dawn came she was haggard and tired; and she got up listlessly, combed her hair, and washed her face, and dragged away the pieces of furniture that had formed the barricade at the door.
She felt more secure with the dawn, and when the sunlight began to stream into the east windows she opened the door of the room, descended the stairs, and took a short walk to the edge of town.
Returning, she saw a man arrayed in overalls, boots, a blue woolen shirt, and broad felt hat, standing in the doorway of the stable that, she felt, belonged to the Eating-House. Sight of the stable brought to her thoughts of her horse—Billy—and she decided to determine if the man who had taken charge of him had put him into the stable.
She paused before the door, directly in front of the man, who did not move aside to permit her to enter.
She thought at first that he was not aware of her desire—until she observed an amused light in his eyes; and then she knew that he was purposely barring her way.
"This is the Eating-House stable, I suppose?" she inquired quietly.
"You're supposin' is a heap correct, ma'am," grinned the man.
"Well," she said, "if you will kindly step aside I shall see if my horse is all right."
"Your horse is all right, ma'am," returned the man. "I've just fed him."
Irritated by his attitude, she spoke sharply:
"Step aside, please; I am going into the stable!"
The man grinned widely. "It's ag'in' orders, ma'am; you'll have to stay out."
"Deveny's. You ain't to go into the stable."
She hesitated, afflicted with a queer sensation of weakness and indecision.
It was her fear of Deveny, she supposed, that made her feel that way, together with the conviction that Deveny must have known that she had been in the room next to the one he had taken, even before he had ascended the stairs. It seemed to her that this deliberate interference with her must be inspired by evil intentions, and for an instant panic overtook her.
Then, yielding to the flash of anger that surged over her, she drew the small revolver she always carried with her on her rides, and presented it. She stepped back a little, so that the man might not strike the weapon from her hand, and spoke shortly, commandingly to him.
"Get away from that door!"
"Shootin', ma'am?" he drawled. "Oh, don't!"
He grinned at her and calmly began to roll a cigarette, at which action she gulped with dismay, wheeled swiftly, and walked to the stairs. She went up proudly enough, her head held high, for she divined that the man would be watching her. But when she entered her room her pride forsook her, and she sank into a chair by the east window, dismayed and frightened.
While she sat there the slatternly woman slowly opened the door and stuck her head in. She grinned widely at Barbara.
"Goin' ridin' this mawnin', deary?"
Barbara looked at her, saw the mockery in the jealous eyes, and turned her head again, making no reply.
"Too stuck up to talk, eh?" jibed the slattern. "Well, before you get out of here you'll be tickled enough to shoot off your gab. Bah! You an' your airs! If you want any grub this mawnin' you'll come down an' grab it yourself, I'm tellin' you that."
She slammed the door, her jeering laugh penetrating the partition with hideous resonance.
After the woman had gone Barbara got up, her lips set in resolute lines.
Once in the hall she started to walk toward the stairs, when she saw the cowboy of the stable lounging against the rail on the platform. He saw her at the instant she looked at him, and he grinned hugely.
"I reckon you've noticed I've sort of shifted," he said. "I keep goin' up—gettin' higher in the world."
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Just loafin', I reckon," grinned the other. "An' obeyin' orders," he added instantly. "Much as I hate to disconvenience a lady, I ain't takin' no chances on rilin' Deveny."
"Do you mean that Deveny placed you here to watch me?"
"He didn't issue no particular orders as to where I was to do my standin'. But he was sure earnest about sayin' that you wasn't to leave your room."
"I left it once this morning."
"My fault," he grinned. "I was sneakin' a drink in the Antler, an' you slipped me. I'm bettin' it don't happen ag'in!"
Overcome with a cold terror that suddenly seized her, Barbara wheeled and re-entered her room, standing for an instant at the door as she locked it, and then walking to the chair and sinking nervelessly into it.
Somehow, she sensed the futility of further effort at escape. She was aware of Deveny's power in the country; she knew that he ruled Lamo as he ruled every foot of land in the section; and she was convinced that it would be wasted effort to call for help. Even her own sex—represented by the slattern, and most of the women in Lamo were of that type, in character—seemed to be antagonistic toward her. It seemed to her that they would mock her as the slattern had mocked her, should she appeal to them.
And as for the men of Lamo, they were not to be considered. She was certain she could not induce one of them to act contrary to Deveny's wishes. For her father had told her about Lamo's men—how they were slaves to the will of the man whose deeds of outlawry had made him feared wherever men congregated; and she knew Lamo itself was a sink-hole of iniquity where women were swallowed by the evil passions of men.
She might have appealed to Gage, the sheriff, and she thought of Gage while she sat at the window. But Gage, her father had told her, with disgust in his eyes, was a man of colorless personality and of little courage—a negligible character upon whom the good people of the section, who were pitifully few, could not depend. Her father had told her that it was his opinion that Gage, too, was a slave to Deveny's will.
She wished now that she had not yielded to the impulse which had brought her to Lamo; but her lips grew firm and her eyes defiant as she at last got up and walked to one of the front windows.
Now, more vividly than ever, could she understand the significance of Deveny's glances at her in the past; the light in his eyes had been an expression of premeditated evil, awaiting an opportunity.
She was pale, and her hands were trembling as she placed them on the sill of the front window and glanced down into the street, hoping that she might see a friendly face; praying that one of the Rancho Seco men might have come to town during the night.
But she saw no one she knew. Indeed, except for a pony standing in front of a saloon down the street a little distance, and several others hitched to a rail across the street, in front of the First Chance saloon, Lamo seemed to be deserted. And a silence, deep and portentous of evil, seemed to have settled over the town.
But as she leaned upon the sill a sound floated to her through the open window—a man's voice, so close to her that it made her start and stiffen. It was Deveny's voice, and it seemed to come from a point in the street directly beneath the window.
"Did you find Gage?" it said.
Barbara leaned forward a little and looked downward. Below her, on the narrow board-walk that ran in front of the Eating-House, were four men. She recognized three of them—Deveny, Strom Rogers, and Meeder Lawson, the Rancho Seco foreman.
The other man was a stranger. Evidently it was the stranger to whom Deveny had spoken, for it was the stranger who answered.
"He's in his office now."
Deveny turned to Lawson and Rogers. "You two wait here, Laskar and myself will do the talking to Gage." He started away with the man who had answered him; then called back over his shoulder: "Hang around; if there's trouble, you'll want to get in on it."
Deveny and Laskar walked down the street; the girl saw them enter the building occupied by the sheriff.
Wondering, intensely curious—for that word "trouble" meant shooting in the vocabulary of men of the Deveny type—Barbara drew back until she was certain the men in the street could not see her.
When Deveny and Laskar disappeared, Strom Rogers laughed sneeringly:
"Deveny's scared of 'Drag' Harlan, I reckon. It's a cheap frame-up."
"Aw, hell," jibed the other; "you're jealous, that's all. You'd like to see Harlan plug Deveny, eh; so's you'd have a chance with Barbara Morgan. I'd be a heap careful, if I was you, Rogers. Deveny knows you took a shine to Barbara Morgan. I seen him lookin' hostile at you when you was quizzin' him in Balleau's. He's next."
"This is a free country," returned Rogers. The girl caught the malignant note in his voice, and she leaned outward a little, trying to see his face, while she shivered with dread.
"Yes," laughed Lawson; "a man can cash in without any excuse, usual; all he's got to do is to cross Deveny. You're a damned fool, Strom, to go to takin' a shine to Barbara Morgan, when Deveny wants her. He's been waitin' for her, an' meanin' to have her, all along. He's only been waitin' until ol' Morgan cashed in, so's he'd have a chance to take her. Now that Morgan's dead his chance has come."
Silently, her face dead white, her eyes closed, Barbara slipped backward and crumpled into a heap on the dirty carpet of the room.
When she again opened her eyes it was to look wildly at the open window through which the terrible news had come. Then she dragged herself to it, and making no sound leaned her arms on the sill and listened again, her heart seeming to be in the clutch of icy fingers, her brain atrophied, reeling in a chaos of incoherent, agonized impulses.
She did not know how long she had been unconscious. She saw that Rogers and Lawson were still below, and still talking. So keen was her sense of hearing—every nerve straining in the effort to learn more—that the voices of the men came in through the window with a resonance that, she felt, must be audible to every person in Lamo.
"It ain't my style, that's all. I'd meet Harlan on the level, man to man, if he was lookin' for me. It's likely he ain't at that. I've heard, bad as he is, that he plays square. An' if I was runnin' things I'd take a look at him before chargin' him with killin' Lane Morgan, when the killin' had been done by the Chief, an' Dolver, an' Laskar."
It was Strom Rogers' voice. It bore conviction with it, even though there was passionate feeling behind it, mingled strangely with personal hatred and jealousy.
Dumbly, Barbara clutched the window-sill. One dry, agonized sob racked her; and then she sat on the floor, to stare vacantly at the dingy walls of the room.
Once more she heard Rogers' voice; this time there was a note of savage glee in it:
"There's Harlan now, just slippin' off his cayuse in front of Gage's place. 'Drag,' eh? Well, there don't seem to be nothin' impedin' his actions anywhere."
Prompted by the urge of a curiosity that she could not resist, Barbara reeled to her feet, and with her hands resting on the window-sill leaned out and looked up the street.
In front of the sheriff's office, not more than thirty or forty feet distant, she saw a tall, well-built man standing beside the hitching rail that fringed the board sidewalk. He had evidently just dismounted, and he was standing at the head of a big, coal-black horse. He was in the act of hitching the animal, and his back was toward her.
She watched breathlessly until he turned. And then she stared hard at him, noting the steady, cold, alert eyes; the firm lips; the bigness of him, the atmosphere of capableness that seemed to surround him; the low-swung guns at his hips, with no flaps on the holster-tops, and the bottoms of the holsters tied to his leather chaps with rawhide thongs.
Never had she seen a man like him. For some reason, as yet inexplicable to her, he brought into her troubled consciousness a feeling of cold calm, a refreshing influence that might be compared to the sweep of a cool and unexpected breeze in the middle of a hot day.
He dominated the group of men that instantly surrounded him; and the dominance was not of attire, for he was arrayed like the others. She saw Deveny standing near him, and the man Laskar behind Deveny and Sheriff Gage and several other men. And she saw Rogers and Lawson as they walked slowly toward him.
And then a realization of her loss, of the tragedy that had descended upon her, again assailed her; and a fury of intolerance against inaction seized her. She could not stay in this room and suffer the hideous uncertainty; she could not take Rogers' word that her father had been killed. There must be some mistake. Perhaps Rogers knew she was at the window, listening, and he had said that just to spite her. For she had discouraged Rogers' advances as she had discouraged Deveny's.
Breathing fast, she unlocked the door and went out into the hall.
The man whom Deveny had placed to guard her was still lounging on the stair platform, and he grinned when he saw her.
"Comin' to try ag'in?" he grinned.
She smiled—a disarming smile that brought a fatuous gleam into the man's eyes, so that he permitted her to come close to him.
"Deveny's got damn' good judgment," he said as she halted near him. "He knows a thoroughbred when he sees—Hell!"
The ejaculation came from his lips as Barbara leaped swiftly past him. He threw out a futile arm, and stood for an instant, shocked into inaction as Barbara ran down the stairs toward the street. Then the man leaped after her, cursing. She could hear him saying: "Damn your hide! Damn your hide!" as he came after her, his spurs jangling on the steps.
Turning from Purgatory, after he had dismounted in front of the sheriff's office, Harlan faced three men who stood just outside of the building, watching him.
The slightly humorous smile that curved Harlan's lips might have betrayed his reason for dismounting in front of the sheriff's office, for he had seen Laskar standing with the two other men. But no man could have told that he looked at Laskar directly, except Laskar himself, who would have sworn that Harlan did not remove his gaze from him, once he had slipped from Purgatory's back.
For Harlan's eyes told nothing. They seemed to be gazing at nothing, and at everything. For Gage, watching the man, was certain Harlan was looking directly at him as he grinned, and Deveny, like Laskar, was sure Harlan's gaze was upon him. And all of them, noting one another's embarrassment, stood silent, marveling.
And now Deveny discovered that Harlan was watching the three of them together—a trick which is accomplished by fixing the gaze upon some object straight in front of one; in this case it was Deveny's collar—and then including other objects on each side of the center object.
Steady nerves and an inflexible will are required to keep the gaze unwavering, and a complete absence of self-consciousness. Thus Deveny knew he was standing in the presence of a man whose poise and self-control were marvelous; and he knew, too, that Harlan would be aware of the slightest move made by either of the three; more, he could detect any sign of concerted action.
And concerted action was what Deveny and Laskar and the sheriff had planned. And they had purposely dragged Laskar outside, expecting Harlan would do just as he had done, and as his eyes warned he intended to do.
"I'm after you, Laskar," he said softly.
Laskar stiffened. He made no move, keeping his hands at his sides, where they had been all the time that had elapsed since Harlan had dismounted.
Laskar's eyes moved quickly, with an inquiring flash in them, toward Deveny and the sheriff. It was time for Deveny and the sheriff to precipitate the action they had agreed upon.
But the sheriff did not move. Nor did Deveny change his position. A queer, cold chill had come over Deveny—a vague dread, a dragging reluctance—an indecision that startled him and made of his thoughts an odd jumble of half-formed impulses that seemed to die before they could become definite.
He had faced gun-fighters before, and had felt no fear of them. But something kept drumming into his ears at this instant with irritating insistence that this was not an ordinary man; that standing before him, within three paces, his eyes swimming in an unfixed vacuity which indicated preparation for violent action, was Harlan—"Drag" Harlan, the Pardo two-gun man; Harlan, who had never been beaten in a gunfight.
Could he—Deveny—beat him? Could he, now, with "Drag" Harlan watching the three of them, could he draw with any hope of success, with the hope of beating the other's lightning hand on the downward flash to life or death?
Deveny paled; he was afraid to take the chance. His eyes wavered from Harlan's; he cast a furtive glance at the sheriff.
Harlan caught the glance, smiled mirthlessly and spoke shortly to Laskar:
"I told you to keep hittin' the breeze till there wasn't any more breeze," he said. "I ought to have bored you out there by the red rock. I gave you your chance. Flash your gun!"
This was Gage. His voice sounded as though it had been forced out: it was hoarse and hollow.
Harlan did not move, nor did his eyes waver. There was feeling in them now: intense, savage, cold. And his voice snapped.
"You're the sheriff, eh? You want to gas, I reckon. Do it quick before this coyote goes for his gun."
The sheriff cleared his throat. "You're under arrest, Harlan, for killin' Lane Morgan out there in the desert yesterday."
Harlan's eyes narrowed, his lips wreathed into a feline smile. But he did not change his position.
"Who's the witness against me?"
"Has he testified?"
"He's goin' to."
Harlan backed away a little. His grin was tiger-like, a yellow flame seemed to leap in his eyes. Laskar, realizing at last that he could hope for no assistance from Gage or Deveny, grew rigid with desperation.
Death was in front of him; he knew it. Death or a deathless fame. The fates had willed one or the other, and he chose to take the gambler's chance, the chance he and Dolver and the Chief had refused Lane Morgan.
Deathless fame, the respect and the admiration of every man in the section was his if he beat "Drag" Harlan to the draw. Forever afterward, if he beat Harlan, he would be pointed at as the man who had met the Pardo gunman on even terms and had downed him.
He stepped out a little, away from the front of the building, edging off from Deveny and Gage so that Harlan would have to watch in two directions.
Lawson and Rogers, having advanced to a position within a dozen paces of the group in front of the sheriff's office, now backed away, silent, watchful. Other men who had been standing near were on the move instantly. Some dove into convenient doorways, others withdrew to a little distance down the street. But all intently watched as Laskar showed by his actions that he intended to accept his chance.
Deveny, too, watched intently. He kept his gaze fixed upon Harlan, not even glancing toward Laskar. For Deveny's fear had gone, now that the dread presence had centered its attention elsewhere, and he was determined to discover the secret of Harlan's hesitating "draw," the curious movement that had given the man his sobriquet, "Drag." The discovery of that secret might mean much to him in the future; it might even mean life to him if Harlan decided to remain in the section.
Harlan had made no hostile movement as yet. He still stood where he had stood all along, except for the slight backward step he had taken before Laskar began to move. But he watched Laskar as the latter edged away from the other men, and when he saw Laskar's eyes widen with the thought that precedes action, with the gleam that reflects the command the brain transmutes to the muscles, his right hand flashed downward toward the hip.
With a grunt, for Harlan had almost anticipated his thoughts, Laskar's right hand swept toward the butt of his pistol.
But Harlan's hand had come to a poise, just above the stock of his weapon—a pause so infinitesimal that it was merely a suggestion of a pause.
It was enough, however, to throw Laskar off his mental balance, and as he drew his weapon he glanced at Harlan's holster.
A dozen men who watched swore afterward that Laskar drew his gun first; that it was in his hand when Harlan's bullet struck him. But Deveny knew better; he knew that Laskar was dead on his feet before the muzzle of his weapon had cleared the holster, and that the shot he had fired had been the result of involuntary muscular action; that he had pulled the trigger after Harlan's bullet struck him, and while his gun had been loosening in his hand.
For Deveny had seen the bullet from Laskar's gun throw up sand at Harlan's feet after Harlan's weapon had sent its death to meet Laskar. And Deveny had discovered the secret of Harlan's "draw." The pause was a trick, of course, to disconcert an adversary. But the lightning flash of Harlan's hand to his gun-butt was no trick. It was sheer rapidity, his hand moving so fast that the eye could not follow.
And Deveny could get no pleasure from his discovery. Harlan had waited until Laskar's fingers were wrapped around the stock of his pistol before he had drawn his own, and therefore in the minds of those who had witnessed the shooting, Harlan had been justified.
Sheriff Gage thought so, too. For, after Laskar's body had been carried away, Harlan stepped to where the sheriff stood and spoke shortly:
"You wantin' me for this?"
Sheriff Gage shook his head. "I reckon everybody saw Laskar go for his gun. There was no call for him to go for his gun. If you'd have shot him without him reachin' for it things would have been different."
Harlan said coldly, "I'm ready for that trial, now."
The sheriff's eyes glowed with some secret significance as they met Harlan's. He was standing at a little distance from Deveny, and he deliberately closed an eye at Harlan.
"Trial—hell!" he declared, "you've destroyed the evidence."
Harlan wheeled, to see Deveny standing near. And for an instant as their eyes met—Harlan's level and cold, Deveny's aflame with a hostility unmistakable—the crowd which had witnessed the shooting of Laskar again became motionless, while a silence, portending further violence, descended over the street.
Then Deveny abruptly wheeled and began to walk across to the First Chance.
He had not taken many steps, however, when there were sounds of commotion farther down the street toward the Eating-House—a man cursing and a girl screaming.
Deveny halted and faced the point from which the sounds came, and a scowl appeared on his face.
Harlan wheeled, also. And he saw, at a little distance down the street, a girl running, her hair tossing in a mass around her, her eyes wild with fright and terror. Behind her came a man, cursing as he ran.
Harlan heard Sheriff Gage curse, too—heard him say:
"That's Lane Morgan's daughter—Barbara! What in hell is she doin' here?"
The girl, not more than a dozen feet ahead of her pursuer, ran straight toward Harlan. And when—as she drew closer and he saw that she was, indeed, actually coming toward him—her eyes on him as though she had singled him out as a protector—he advanced toward her, drawing one of his guns as he went.
And, grinning as she neared him, he opened his arms wide and she ran straight into them, and laid her head on his shoulder, sobbing, and talking incoherently. While Harlan, his grin fading as he looked at her pursuer—who had halted within half a dozen paces of the girl—commanded lowly:
"You're runnin' plumb into a heap of trouble, mister man. Throw your rope around the snubbin' post. Then get on your hind legs an' do some explainin'. What you chasin' this girl for?"
The man reddened, looked downward, then up at Deveny. The latter, a pout on his lips, his eyes glowing savagely, walked to where Harlan stood with one arm around the girl, while Lawson, Rogers, Gage, and several other men advanced slowly and stood near him.
Noting the concerted movement toward him, Harlan grinned at Barbara, gently disengaged himself from her grasp, and urged her toward the door of the sheriff's office. She made no objection, for she felt that further trouble impended, and she knew she must not impede any action her rescuer planned.
Reaching the street a few minutes before, she had noted the preparations for the swift tragedy that had followed; and despite her wild desire to escape Deveny's man, she had halted, fascinated by the spectacle presented by the two men, gambling with death.
She had halted at a little distance, crouching against the front of a building. And while she had been crouching there, trembling with a new apprehension, her pursuer had caught her.
She had hardly been aware of him, and his grasp on her arm she had not resisted, so intense was her interest in what was transpiring. But the sudden ending of the affair brought again into her consciousness the recollection of her own peril, and when she saw Deveny cross the street she broke from the man's restraining grasp and ran to Harlan, convinced that he—because he seemed to be antagonistic toward the forces arrayed against her—would protect her.