[Transcriber's note: Extensive research found no evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Kid Wolf Of Texas
A Western Story
WARD M. STEVENS
79 Seventh Avenue, New York, N. Y.
Kid Wolf Of Texas
Copyright, 1930, by CHELSEA HOUSE
Printed in the U. S. A.
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian.
I. THE LIVING DEAD II. A THANKLESS TASK III. THE GOVERNOR'S ANSWER IV. SURPRISES V. THE CAMP OF THE TERROR VI. ON THE CHISHOLM TRAIL VII. MCCAY'S RECRUIT VIII. ONE GAME HOMBRE IX. THE NIGHT HERD X. TUCUMCARI'S HAND XI. A BUCKSHOT GREETING XII. THE S BAR SPREAD XIII. DESPERATE MEASURES XIV. AT DON FLORISTO'S XV. GOLIDAY'S CHOICE XVI. A GAME OF POKER XVII. POT SHOTS XVIII. ON BLACKSNAKE'S TRAIL XIX. THE FANG OF THE WOLF XX. BATTLE ON THE MESA XXI. APACHES XXII. THE RESCUE XXIII. TWO OPEN GRAVES XXIV. PURSUIT XXV. BLIZZARD'S CHARGE
KID WOLF OF TEXAS
THE LIVING DEAD
"Oh, I want to go back to the Rio Grande! The Rio! That's where I long to be!"
The words, sung in a soft and musical tenor, died away and changed to a plaintive whistle, leaving the scene more lonely than ever. For a few moments nothing was to be seen except the endless expanse of wilderness, and nothing was to be heard save the mournful warble of the singer. Then a horse and rider were suddenly framed where the sparse timber opened out upon the plain.
Together, man and mount made a striking picture; yet it would have been hard to say which was the more picturesque—the rider or the horse. The latter was a splendid beast, and its spotless hide of snowy white glowed in the rays of the afternoon sun. With bit chains jingling, it gracefully leaped a gully, landing with all the agility of a mountain lion, in spite of its enormous size.
The rider, still whistling his Texas tune, swung in the concha-decorated California stock saddle as if he were a part of his horse. He was a lithe young figure, dressed in fringed buckskin, touched here and there with the gay colors of the Southwest and of Mexico.
Two six-guns, wooden-handled, were suspended from a cartridge belt of carved leather, and hung low on each hip. His even teeth showed white against the deep sunburn of his face.
"Reckon we-all bettah cut south, Blizzahd," he murmured to his horse. "We haven't got any business on the Llano."
He spoke in the soft accents of the old South, and yet his speech was colored with just a trace of Spanish—a musical drawl seldom heard far from that portion of Texas bordering the Rio Bravo del Norte.
Wheeling his mount, he searched the landscape with his keen blue eyes. Behind him was broken country; ahead of him was the terrible land that men have called the Llano Estacado. The land rose to it in a long series of steppes with sharp ridges.
Queerly shaped and oddly colored buttes ascended toward it in a puzzling tangle. Dim in the distance was the Llano itself—a mesa with a floor as even as a table; a treeless plain without even a weed or shrub for a landmark; a plateau of peril without end.
The rider was doing well to avoid the Llano Estacado. Outlaw Indian bands roamed over its desolate expanse—the only human beings who could live there. In the winter, snowstorms raced screaming across it, from Texas to New Mexico, for half a thousand miles. It was a country of extremes. In the summer it was a scorching griddle of heat dried out by dry desert winds. Water was hard to find there, and food still harder to obtain. And it was now late summer—the season of mocking mirages and deadly sun.
The horseman was just about to turn his steed's head directly to the southward when a sound came to his ears—a cry that made his eyes widen with horror.
Few sounds are so thrillingly terrible as the dying scream of a mangled horse, and yet this was far more awful. Only the throat of a human being could emit that chilling cry. It rose in shrill crescendo, to die away in a sobbing wail that lifted the hair on the listener's head. Again and again it came—a moan born of the frightful torture of mortal agony.
Giving his mount a touch of spur, the horseman turned the animal westward toward the Llano Estacado. So horrible were the sounds that he had paled under his tan. But he headed directly toward the direction of the cries. He knew that some human being was suffering frightful pain.
Crossing a sun-baked gully, he climbed upward and onto a flat-topped, miniature butte. Here he saw a spectacle that literally froze him with horror.
Although accustomed to a hundred gruesome sights in that savage land, he had never seen one like this. Staked on the ground, feet and arms wide-stretched, and securely bound, was a man. Or rather, it was a thing that had once been a man. It was a torture that even the diabolical mind of an Indian could not have invented. It was the insane creation of another race—the work of a madman.
For the suffering wretch had been left on his back, face up to the sun, with his eyelids removed!
Ants crawled over the sufferer, apparently believing him dead. Flies buzzed, and a raven flapped away, beating the air with its startled wings. The horseman dismounted, took his water bag from his horse, and approached the tortured man.
The moaning man on the ground did not see him, for his eyes were shriveled. He was blind.
The youth with the water bag tried to speak, but at first words failed to come. The sight was too ghastly.
"Heah's watah," he muttered finally. "Just—just try and stand the pain fo' a little longah. I'll do all I can fo' yo'."
He held the water bag at the swollen, blackened lips. Then he poured a generous portion of the contents over the shriveled eyes and skeletonlike face.
For a while the tortured man could not speak. But while his rescuer slashed loose the rawhide ropes that bound him, he began to stammer a few words:
"Heaven bless yuh! I thought I was dead, or mad! Oh, how I wanted water! Give me more—more!"
"In a little while," said the other gently.
In spite of the fact that he was now free, the sufferer could not move his limbs. Groans came from his lips.
"Shoot me!" he cried. "Put a bullet through me! End this, if yuh've got any pity for me! I'm blind—dying. I can't stand the pain. Yuh must have a gun. Why don't yuh kill me and finish me?"
It was the living dead! The buckskin-clad youth gave him more water, his face drawn with compassion.
"Yo'll feel bettah afta while," he murmured. "Just sit steady."
"Too late!" the tortured man almost screamed, "I'm dyin', I tell yuh!"
"How long have yo' been like this?"
"Three-four days. Maybe five. I lost count."
"Who did this thing?" was the fierce question.
"'The Terror'!" the reply came in a sobbing wail. "'The Masked Terror' and his murderin' band. I was a prospector. A wagon train was startin' across the Llano, and I tried to warn 'em. I never reached 'em. The Terror cut me off and left me like this! Say, I don't know yore name, pard, but——"
"Call me 'Kid Wolf,'" answered the youth, "from Texas." His eyes had narrowed at the mention of the name "The Terror."
"Somethin' on my mind, Kid Wolf. It's that wagon train. The Terror will wipe it out. Promise me yuh'll try and warn 'em."
"I promise, old-timah," murmured the Texan. "Only yo' needn't to have asked that. When yo' first mentioned it, I intended to do it. Where is this wagon train, sah?"
In gasps—for his strength was rapidly failing him—the prospector gave what directions he could. Kid Wolf listened intently, his eyes blazing-blue coals.
"I'm passin' in my checks," sighed the sufferer weakly, when he had given what information he could. "I'll go easier now."
"Yo' can be sure that I'll do all I can," the Texan assured him. "Fo' yo' see, that's always been mah business. I'm just a soldier of misfohtune, goin' through life tryin' to do all I can fo' the weak and oppressed. I'll risk mah life fo' these people, and heah's mah hand on that!"
The prospector groped for his hand, took it, and tried to smile. In a few moments he had breathed his last, released from his pain. Kid Wolf removed the bandanna from his own throat and placed it over the dead man's face. Then he weighted it down with small rocks and turned to go.
"Just about the time I get to thinkin' the world is good, Blizzahd," he sighed, addressing his white horse, "I find somethin' like this. Well, seems like we hit out across the Llano, aftah all. Let's get a move on, amigo! We've got work to do."
The Texan's face, as he swung himself into the saddle, was set and hard.
"Oh, I'm goin' back to the Rio Grande! The Rio! For most a yeah, I've been away, And I'm lonesome now fo' me Old Lone Stah! The Rio! Wheah the gila monsters play!"
It was Kid Wolf's second day on the Llano Estacado, and his usual good spirits had returned. His voice rose tunefully and cheerily above the steady drumming of Blizzard's hoofs.
Surely the scene that lay before his eyes could not have aroused his enthusiasm. It was lonely and desolate enough, with its endless sweeps dim against each horizon. The sky, blue, hot and pitiless, came down to meet the land on every hand, making a great circle unbroken by hill or mountain.
So clean-swept was the floor of the vast table-land that each mile looked exactly like another mile. There was not a tree, not a shrub, not a rock to break the weary monotony. It was no wonder that the Spanish padres, who had crossed this enormous plateau long before, had named it the Llano Estacado—the Staked Plains. They had had a good reason of their own. In order to keep the trail marked, they had been compelled to drive stakes in the ground as they went along. Although the stakes had gone long since, the name still stuck.
The day before, the Texan had climbed the natural rock steps that led upward and westward toward the terrible mesa itself, each flat-topped table bringing him nearer the Staked Plains. And soon after reaching the plateau he had found the trail left by a wagon train.
From the ruts left in the soil, Kid Wolf estimated that the outfit must consist of a large number of prairie schooners, at least twenty. The Texan puzzled his mind over why this wagon train was taking such a dangerous route. Where were they bound for? Surely for the Spanish settlements of New Mexico—a perilous venture, at best.
Even on the level plain, a wagon outfit moves slowly, and the Texan gained rapidly. Hourly the signs he had been following grew fresher. Late in the afternoon he made out a blot on the western horizon—a blot with a hazy smudge above it. It was the wagon train. The smudge was dust, dug up by the feet of many oxen.
"They must be loco," Kid Wolf muttered, "to try and cut across The Terror's territory."
The Texan had heard much of The Terror. And what plainsman of that day hadn't? He was the scourge of the table-lands, with his band of a hundred cutthroats, desperadoes recruited from the worst scum of the border. More than half of his hired killers, it was said, were Mexican outlaws from Sonora and Chihuahua. Some were half-breed Indians, and a few were white gunmen who killed for the very joy of killing.
And The Terror himself? That was the mystery. Nobody knew his identity. Some rumors held that he was a white man; others maintained that he was a full-blooded Comanche Indian. Nobody had ever seen his face, for he always was masked. His deeds were enough. No torture was too cruel for his insane mind. No risk was too great, if he could obtain loot. With his band behind him, no man was safe on the Staked Plains. Many a smoldering pile of human bones testified to that.
As the Texan approached the outfit, he could hear the sharp crack of the bull whips and the hoarse shouts of the drivers. Twenty-two wagons, and in single file! Against the blue of the horizon, they made a pretty sight, with their white coverings. Kid Wolf, however, was not concerned with the beauty of the picture. Great danger threatened them, and it was his duty to be of what assistance he could. Touching his big white horse with the spur, he came upon the long train's flank.
Ahead of the train were the scouts, or pathfinders. In the rear was the beef herd, on which the outfit depended for food. Behind that was the rear guard, armed with Winchesters.
The Texan neared the horseman at the head of the train, raising his arm in the peace signal. To his surprise, one of the scouts threw up his rifle! There was a puff of white smoke, and a bullet whistled over Kid Wolf's head.
"The fools!" muttered the Texan. "Can't they see I'm a friend?"
Setting his teeth, he rode ahead boldly, risking his life as he did so, for by this time several others had lifted their guns.
The six men who made up the advance party, eyed him sullenly as he drew up in front of them. The Texan found himself covered by half a dozen Winchesters.
"Who are yuh, and what do yuh want?" one of them demanded.
"I'm Kid Wolf, from Texas, sah. I have impo'tant news fo' the leader of this outfit."
One of the sextet separated himself from the others and came so close to the Texan that their horses almost touched.
"I'm in command!" he barked. "My name's Modoc. I'm in charge o' this train, and takin' it to Sante Fe."
The man, Modoc, was an impressive individual, bulky and stern. His face was thinner than the rest of his body, and Kid Wolf was rather puzzled to read the surly eyes that gleamed at him from under the bushy black brows. He was more startled still, however, when Modoc whispered in a voice just loud enough for him to hear:
"What color will the moon be to-night?"
Kid Wolf stared in astonishment. Was the man insane?
A THANKLESS TASK
Modoc waited, as if for an answer, and when it did not come, his face took on an expression of anger, in which cunning seemed to be mingled.
"What's yore message?" he rasped.
It took Kid Wolf several seconds to recover his composure. Was the wagon train being led to its doom by a madman? What did Modoc mean by his low-voiced, mysterious query? Or did he mean anything at all? The Texan put it down as the raving of a mind unbalanced by hardship and peril.
"I suppose yo'-all know," he drawled loudly enough for them all to hear, "that yo're on the most dangerous paht of the Llano, and that yo're off the road to Santa Fe."
"Yo're a liar!" the train commander snarled.
Kid Wolf tried to keep his anger from mounting. This was the thanks he got for trying to help these people!
"I'll prove it," sighed the kid patiently. "What rivah was that yo' crossed a few days ago?"
"Why, the Red River; we crossed it long ago," Modoc sneered. "Yo're either a liar or a fool, Kid! And I'd advise yuh to mind yore own business."
"Call me 'Wolf,'" said the Texan, a ring of steel in his voice. "I'm just 'The Kid' to friends. Others call me by mah last name. And speakin' of the trail, that wasn't the Red Rivah yo' crossed. It was the Wichita. And yo' must have gone ovah the Wichita Mountains, too."
"The Wichita!" ejaculated one of the other men. "Why, Modoc, yuh told us——"
"And I told yuh right!" said the leader furiously. "I've been over this route before, and I know just where we are."
"Yo're in The Terror's territory," drawled The Kid softly. "And I've heahd from a reliable source that he's planned to raid yo'."
The others paled at the mention of The Terror. But Modoc raised his voice in fury.
"Who are yuh goin' to believe?" he shouted. "This upstart, or me? Why, for all we know"—his voice dropped to a taunting sneer—"he might be a spy for The Terror himself—probably measurin' the strength of our outfit!"
The other men seemed to hesitate. Then one of them spoke out:
"Reckon we'll believe you, Modoc. We don't know this man, and we've trusted yuh so far."
Modoc grinned, showing a line of broken and tobacco-stained teeth. He looked at Kid Wolf triumphantly.
"Now I'll tell you a few things, my fine young fellow," he leered. "Burn the wind out o' here and start pronto, before yuh get a bullet through yuh. Savvy?"
Kid Wolf decided to make one last appeal. If Modoc were insane, it seemed terrible that these others should be led to their doom on that account. Only the Texan could fully appreciate their peril. The wagon train was loaded with valuable goods, for these men were traders. The Terror would welcome such plunder, and it was his custom never to leave a man alive to carry the tale.
"Men," he said, "yo'-all got to believe me! Yo're in terrible danger, and off the right road. One man has already given his life to save yo', and now I'm ready to give mine, if necessary. Let me stay with yo' and guide yo' to safety, fo' yo' own sakes! Mah two guns are at yo' service, and if The Terror strikes, I'll help yo' fight."
The advance guard heard him out. Unbelief was written on all their faces.
"I think yuh'd better take Modoc's advice," one of them said finally, "and git! We can take care of ourselves."
His heart heavy, Kid Wolf shrugged and turned away. The rebuff hurt him, not on his own account, but because these blindly trusting men were being deceived. Modoc, whether purposely or not, had led them astray.
He was about to ride away when his eyes fell upon the foremost of the wagons, which was now creaking up, pulled by its straining team. Kid Wolf gave a start. Thrust out of the opening in the canvas was a child's head, crowned with golden hair. There were women and children, then, in this ill-fated outfit!
The Texan rode his horse over to the wagon and smiled at the youngster. It was a boy of three, chubby-faced and brown-eyed.
"Hello, theah," Kid called. "What's yo' name?"
The baby returned the smile, obviously interested in this picturesque stranger.
"Name's Jimmy Lee," was the lisped answer. "I'm goin' to Santa Fe. Where you goin'?"
Kid Wolf gulped. He could not reply. There was small chance that this little boy would ever reach Santa Fe, or anywhere else. Tears came to his eyes, and he wheeled Blizzard fiercely.
"Good-by!" came the small voice.
"Good-by, Jimmy Lee," choked the Texan.
When he looked back again at the wagon train, he could still see a small, golden head gleaming in the first prairie schooner.
"Blizzahd," muttered Kid Wolf, "we've just got to help those people, whethah they want it or not."
He pretended to head eastward, but when he was out of sight of the wagon train, he circled back and drummed west at a furious clip. The only thing he could do, he saw now, was to go to Santa Fe for help. With the obstinate traders headed directly across the Llano, they were sure to meet with trouble. If he could bring back a company of soldiers from that Mexican settlement, he might aid them in time. "If they won't let me help 'em at this end," he murmured, "I'll have to help 'em at the othah."
The town of Santa Fe—long rows of flat-topped adobes nestling under the mountain—was at that day under Spanish rule. Only a few Americans then lived within its limits.
It was a thriving, though sleepy, town, as it was the gateway to all Chihuahua. A well-beaten trail left it southward for El Paso, and its main street was lined with cantinas—saloons where mescal and tequila ran like water. There were gambling houses of ill repute, an open court for cockfighting, and other pastimes. The few gringos who were there looked, for the most part, like outlaws and fugitives from the States.
It lacked a few hours until sunset when Kid Wolf drummed into the town. The mountains were already beginning to cast long shadows, and the sounds of guitars and singing were heard in the gay streets.
Galloping past the plazas, the Texan at once went to the presidio—the palace of the governor. It was of adobe, like the rest of the buildings, but the thick walls were ornately decorated with stone. It was a fortress as well as a dwelling place, and it contained many rooms. Several dozen rather ragged soldiers were loafing about the presidio when Kid Wolf reached it, for a regiment was stationed in the town.
Kid Wolf sought an interview with the governor at once, but in spite of his pleading, he was told to return in two hours. "The most honored and respected Governor Manuel Quiroz," it seemed, was busy. If the senor would return later, Governor Quiroz would be highly pleased to see him.
There was nothing to do but wait, and the Texan decided to be patient. He spent an hour in caring for his horse and eating his own hasty meal. Then, finding some time on his hands, he walked through the plaza, watching the crowds with eyes that missed nothing.
He found himself in a street where frijoles, peppers, and other foods were being offered for trade or barter. Cooking was even being done in open-air booths, and the air was heavy with seasoning and spice. Here and there was a drinking place, crowded with revelers. It was evidently some sort of feast day in Santa Fe.
In front of one of the wine shops a little knot of men and soldiers had gathered. All were flushed with drink and talking loudly in their own tongue. One of them—a captain in a gaudy uniform—saw the Texan and made a laughing remark to his companions.
Kid Wolf's face flushed under its tan. His eyes snapped, but he continued his walk. He had too much on his mind just then to resent insults.
But the captain had noticed his change of expression. The gringo, then, knew Spanish. His remarks became louder, more offensive. More than half intoxicated, he called jeeringly:
"I was just saying, senor, that many men who wear two guns do not know how to use even one. You understand, senor? Or perhaps the senor does not know the Spanish?"
Kid Wolf turned quietly.
"The senor knows the Spanish," he said softly.
The captain turned to his companions with a knowing wink. Then he addressed the Texan.
"Then, amigo, that is well," he mocked. "Perhaps the senor can shoot also. Perhaps the senor could do this."
A peon stood near by, and the captain pulled off the fellow's straw sombrero and tossed it into the street. The wind caught it and the hat sailed for some distance. With a quick movement the Spanish captain drew a pistol from his belt and fired. With a sharp report, a round, black hole appeared in the hat, low in the crown.
The crowd murmured its admiration at this feat. The captain stroked his thin black mustache and smiled proudly.
"Perhaps the senor might find that difficult to do," he mocked.
"Quien sabe?" Kid Wolf shrugged and started to pass on. He did not care to make a public exhibition of his shooting, especially when he had graver matters on his mind. But the jeers and taunts that broke loose from the half-drunken assembly were more than any man could endure, especially a Texan with fiery Southern blood in his veins. He turned, smiling. His eyes, however, were as cold as ice.
"Why," he asked calmly, "should I mutilate this po' man's hat?" His words were spoken in perfectly accented Spanish.
"The hat? Ah," mocked the captain, "if the senor hits it, I will pay for it with gold."
Kid Wolf drew his left-hand Colt so quickly that no man saw the motion. Before they knew it, there was a sudden report that rolled out like thunder—six shots, blended into one stuttering explosion. He had emptied his gun in a breath!
A gust of wind blew away the cloud of black powder smoke, and the crowd stared. Then some one began to laugh. It was taken up by others. Even the customers in the booths chuckled at Kid Wolf's discomfiture. The captain's laugh was the loudest of all.
"Six shots the senor took," he guffawed, "and missed with them all! Ah, didn't I tell you that the Americans are bluffers, like their game of poker? This one carries two guns and cannot use even one!"
Kid Wolf smiled quietly. A faint look of amusement was in his eyes.
"Maybe," he drawled, "yo'-all had bettah look at that hat."
Curiously, and still smiling, some of the loiterers went over to examine the target. When they had done so, they cried out in amazement. It was true that just one bullet hole showed in the front of the sombrero. The captain's shot had drilled that one. Naturally all had supposed that the gringo had missed. Such was not the case. All of Kid Wolf's six bullets had passed through the captain's bullet mark! For the back of the hat was torn by the marks of seven slugs! Some one held the sombrero aloft, and the excited crowd roared its approval and enthusiasm. Never had such shooting been seen within the old city of Santa Fe.
The Spanish captain, after his first gasp of surprise, had nothing to say. Chagrin and disgust were written over his face. If ever a man was crestfallen, the captain was. He hated to be made a fool of, and this quiet man from Texas had certainly accomplished it.
He was about to slink off when Kid Wolf drawled after him:
"Oh, captain! Pahdon, but haven't yo' forgotten somethin'?"
"What do you mean?" snapped the other.
"Yo' were goin' to pay for this man's sombrero, I believe," said Kid Wolf softly, "in gold."
"Bah!" snarled the officer. "That I refuse to do!"
The Texan's hand snapped down to his right Colt. A blaze of flame leaped from the region of his hip. Along with the crashing roar of the explosion came a sharp, metallic twang.
The bullet had neatly clipped away the captain's belt buckle! A yell of laughter rang out on all sides. For the captain's trousers, suddenly unsupported, slipped down nearly to his knees. With a cry of dismay, the disgruntled officer seized them frantically and held them up.
"Reach down in those," drawled the Texan, "and see if yo' can't find that piece of gold!"
The officer, white with rage in which hearty fear was mingled, obeyed with alacrity, pulling out a gold coin and handing it, with an oath, to the peon whose hat he had ruined.
"Muchas gracias," murmured Kid Wolf, reholstering his gun. "And now, if the fun's ovah, I must bid yo' buenas tardes. Adios!"
And doffing his big hat, the Texan took his departure with a sweeping bow, leaving the captain glaring furiously after him.
THE GOVERNOR'S ANSWER
Judging that it was almost time for his interview with the governor, Kid Wolf saddled Blizzard in the public establo, or stable, and rode at once to the governor's palace.
Although it did not occur to him that Quiroz would reject his plea for aid, he was filled with foreboding. He had a premonition that made him uneasy, although there seemed nothing at which to be alarmed.
Dismounting, he walked up the stone flags toward the presidio entrance—a huge, grated door guarded by two flashily dressed but barefooted soldiers. They nodded for him to pass, and the Texan found himself in a long, half-lighted passage. Another guard directed him into the office of Governor Quiroz, and Kid Wolf stepped through another carved door, hat in hand.
He found that he had entered a large, cool room, lighted softly by windows of brightly colored glass and barred with wrought iron. The tiles of the floor were in black-and-white design, and the place was bare of furniture, except at one end, where a large desk stood.
Behind it, in a chair of rich mahogany, sat an impressive figure. It was the governor.
While bowing politely, the Texan searched the pale face of the man of whom he had heard so much. By looking at him, he thought he discovered why Quiroz was so feared by the oppressed people of the district. Iron strength showed itself in the official's aristocratic features.
There was something there besides power. Quiroz had eyes that were mysterious and deep. Not even the Texan could read the secrets they masked. Cruelty might lurk there, perhaps, or friendliness—who could say? At the governor's soft-spoken invitation, Kid Wolf took a chair near the huge desk.
"Your business with me, senor?" asked the official in smoothly spoken English.
Kid Wolf spoke respectfully, although he did not fawn over the dignitary or lose his own quiet self-assertion. He was an American. He told of finding the tortured prospector and of the plight of the approaching wagon train.
"If they continue on the course they are followin', guv'nor," he concluded, "they'll nevah reach Santa Fe. And I have every reason to believe that The Terror plans to raid them."
"And what," asked the governor pleasantly, "do you expect me to do?"
"I thought, sah," Kid Wolf replied, "that yo' would let me return to them with a company of yo' soldiers."
"My dear senor," the governor said with suave courtesy, "the people you wish to rescue are not subjects of mine."
Kid Wolf tried not to show the irritation he felt. "Surely, sah, yo' are humane enough to do this thing. I thought I told yo' theah's women and children in the wagon train."
Quiroz rubbed his chin as if in thought. His eyes, however, seemed to smolder with an emotion of which Kid Wolf could only guess the nature. The Spaniard's face was that of a hypnotist, with its thin, high-bridged nose and its chilling, penetrating gaze.
"Your name, senor?"
"Kid Wolf, from Texas, sah."
Spanish governors of that day had no reason to like gunmen from the Lone Star State. From the time of Santa Anna, Texas fighters had been thorns in their sides. But if Quiroz was thinking of this, he made no sign. He smiled with pleasure, either real or assumed.
"That is good," he said. "Senor Wolf, to show your good faith, will you be kind enough to lay your weapons on my desk? It is a custom here not to come armed in the presence of the governor."
Suspicion began to burn strongly in the back of the Texan's brain. Was Quiroz playing a crafty game? He was supposed to be friendly toward those from the States, but once before, in California, Kid Wolf had had dealings with a Spanish governor. Instantly he was on his guard, although he did not allow his face to show it.
"I am an American, sah," he replied. "Some have called me a soldier of misfohtune. Anyway, I try and do good. What good I have done fo' the weak and oppressed, sah, I've done with these." The Kid tapped his twin Colts and went on: "I've twelve lead aces heah, sah, and I'm not in the habit of layin' 'em down."
"We're not playing cards, senor." Quiroz smiled pleasantly.
"No." Kid Wolf's quick smile flashed. "But if a game is stahted, I want a hand to play with."
His eyes were fixed on the carved front of the governor's desk. There seemed something strange about the carved design. He was seated directly in front of it, in the chair Quiroz had pointed out to him, and for the last few minutes he had wondered what it was that had attracted his attention.
The desk was carved with a series of squares chiseled deep into the dark wood. In one of the squares was a black circle about the size of a small silver piece. Somehow Kid Wolf did not like the looks of it. What it could be, he could hardly guess. The Texan had learned not to take chances. Slowly, and with his eyes still on the official's smiling face, he edged his chair away from it, an inch at a time. His progress was slow enough not to attract Quiroz's attention.
"Then," asked the governor slowly, "you refuse, senor?"
"Yo'-all are a fine guessah, sah!" snapped the Texan, alert as a steel spring.
The governor moved his knee. There was a sharp report, and a streak of flame leaped from the desk front, followed by a puff of blue smoke. The bullet, however, knocked a slab of plaster from the opposite wall. Just in time, Kid Wolf had moved his chair from the range of the trap gun.
Quiroz's death-dealing apparatus had failed. The Texan's cleverness had matched his own. Concealed in the desk had been a pistol, the trigger of which had been pressed by the weight of the official's knee on a secret panel. Quick as a flash, Kid Wolf was on his feet, hands flashing down toward his two .45s!
The governor, however, was not in the habit of playing a lone hand against any antagonist. Behind Kid Wolf rang out a command in curt Spanish:
Kid Wolf's sixth sense warned him that he was covered with a dead drop. His mind worked rapidly. He could have drawn and taken the governor of Santa Fe with him to death, perhaps cutting down some of the men behind him, as well. But in that case, what would become of the wagon train, with no one to save them from The Terror? A vision of the little golden-haired child crossed his mind. No, while there was life, there was hope. Slowly he took his hands away from his gun handles and raised them aloft.
Turning, he saw six soldiers, each with a rifle aimed at his breast. In all probability they had had their eyes on him during his audience with the governor. Quiroz snarled an order to them.
"Take away his guns!" he cried. Then, while the Texan was being disarmed, he took a long black cigarette from a drawer and lighted it with trembling fingers.
"You are clever, senor," said the governor, recovering his composure. "I am exceedingly sorry, but I will have to deal with you in a way you will not like—the adobe wall." Quiroz bowed. "I bid you adios." He turned to his soldiers. "Take him to the calabozo!" he ordered sharply.
The building that was then being used as Santa Fe's prison was constructed of adobe with tremendously thick walls and no windows. The only place light and air could enter the sinister building was through a grating the size of a man's hand in the huge, rusty iron door.
Kid Wolf was marched to the prison by his sextet of guards. While the door was being opened, he glanced around him, taking what might prove to be his last look at the sky. His eyes fell upon one of the walls of the jail. It was pitted with hundreds of little holes. The Texan smiled grimly. He knew what had made them—bullets. It was the execution place!
The door clanged behind him, and a scene met The Kid's eyes that caused him to shudder. In the big, dank room were huddled fourteen prisoners. Most of them were miserable, half-naked peons. It was intolerably hot, and the air was so bad as almost to be unbreathable.
The prisoners kept up a wailing chant—a hopeless prayer for mercy and deliverance. A guttering candle shed a ghastly light over their thin bodies.
So this was what his audience with the governor had come to! What a tyrant Quiroz had proved to be! Strangely enough, The Kid's thoughts were not of his own terrible plight, but of the peril that awaited the wagon train. If he could only escape this place, he might at least help them. What a mistake he had made in going to the governor for aid!
His next thought was of his horse, Blizzard. What would become of him, if he, Kid Wolf, died? The Texan knew one thing for certain, that Blizzard was free. Nobody could touch him save his master. He was also sure that the faithful animal awaited his beck and call. The white horse was somewhere near and on the alert. Kid Wolf had trained it well.
He soon saw that escape by ordinary means from the prison was quite hopeless. There was no guard to overpower, the walls were exceedingly thick, and the door impregnable.
Only one of the prisoners, Kid Wolf noted, was an American—a sickly faced youth of about the Texan's own age. A few questions brought out the information that all the inmates of the jail were under sentence of death.
The hours passed slowly in silent procession while the dying candle burned low in the poison-laden air. Kid Wolf paced the floor, his eyes cool and serene.
His mind, however, was wide awake. When was he to be shot? In the morning? Or would his execution be delayed, perhaps for days?
The Texan never gave up hope, and he was doing more than hoping now—he was planning carefully. Kid Wolf had a hole card. Had the Spanish soldiers known him better, they would have used more care in disarming him. But then, enemies of Kid Wolf had made that mistake before, to their sorrow.
Clearly enough, he could not help the wagon train where he was. He must get out. But the only way to get out, it seemed, was to go out with the firing squad—a rather unpleasant thing to do, to say the least.
The tiny grated square in the jail door began to lighten. It grew brighter. Day was breaking.
"It will soon be time for the beans," muttered the American youth.
"Will they give us breakfast?" asked the Texan.
The other laughed bitterly. "We'll have beans," he said shortly, "but we won't eat them."
Not long afterward the iron door opened, and two soldiers entered, carrying a red earthenware olla. "Fifteen men," said one of them in Spanish, "counting the new one."
"Fifteen men," chanted the other in singsong voice. "Fifteen beans."
Kid Wolf's brows began to knit. At first he had thought that the beans meant breakfast. Now he saw that something sinister was intended. Some sort of lottery was about to be played with beans.
"There are fourteen white beans," the young American whispered, "and one black one. We all draw. The man who gets the black bean dies this morning."
The hair prickled on the Texan's head. Every morning these unfortunates were compelled to play a grim game with death.
The prisoners were all quaking with terror, as they came up to the ugly red jug to take their chance for life. As much as these miserable men suffered in this terrible place, existence was still dear to them.
One soldier shook the beans in the olla; the other stood back against the wall with leveled gun to prevent any outbreak. Then the lottery began.
Kid Wolf viewed the situation calmly, and decided that to try to wrest the weapon from the soldier would be folly. Other soldiers were watching through the grated door.
One by one, the prisoners drew. The opening in the olla was just large enough for a hand to be admitted. All was blind chance, and no one could see what he had drawn until his bean was out of the jug. Some of the peons screamed with joy after drawing their white beans. The black one was still in the jar.
The two white men were the last to draw. Both took their beans and stepped to one side to look at them. It was an even break. Kid Wolf was smiling; the other was trembling.
The eyes of Kid Wolf met the fear-stricken eyes of the other. They stood close together. Each had looked at his bean. The sick man's face had gone even whiter.
"I'll trade yo' beans," offered the Texan.
"Mine's—black!" gasped the other.
"I know," The Kid whispered in reply. "Trade with me!"
"It means that yuh give yore life for mine," was the agonized answer. "I can't let yuh do that."
"Believe me or not, but I have a plan," urged the Texan in a low tone. "And it might work. Hurry."
The color returned to the sick youth's face as the beans were cautiously exchanged. Then Kid Wolf turned to the soldiers and displayed a black bean.
"Guess I'm the unlucky one." He smiled whimsically. He turned to the sick boy for a final handshake. "Good luck," he whispered, "and if my plans fail, adios forever."
"Come!" ordered a Spanish soldier.
Waving his hand in farewell, Kid Wolf stepped out to meet the doom that had been prepared for him.
At the prison door, Kid Wolf was met by a squad of ten soldiers. It was the firing squad. The Texan fell in step with them and was marched around the building to the bullet-scarred wall. Kid Wolf faced the rising sun. Was he now seeing it for the last time?
If he was afraid, he made no sign. His expression was unruffled and calm. He was smiling a little, and his arms, as he folded them on his breast, did not tremble in the slightest.
The officer who was to have charge of the execution had not yet appeared on the scene, and the soldiers waited with their rifle stocks trailing in the sand.
Then there was a quick bustle. The officer sauntered around the corner of the building, his bright uniform making a gay sight in the early sun. He was a captain—the captain whom Kid Wolf had humiliated the afternoon before! The eyes of the Spanish officer, when they fell upon his victim, widened with surprise which at once gave way to exultation.
"Ah, it is my amigo—the senor of the two guns!" he cried.
It was his day of revenge! The captain could not conceal his joy at this chance to square things with his enemy for good and all. He did not try to. His laugh was sneering and amused.
"And to think it will be me—Captain Hermosillo—who will say the word to fire!" He turned to his soldiers in high good humor and waved his sword. "At twenty paces," he ordered. "We shall soon see how bravely the senor dies. Ready!"
The rifle mechanisms clattered sharply.
Then the captain turned to his victim, an insolent smile on his cruel features. "Will the senor have his eyes bandaged? Blindfolded, yes?"
Kid Wolf returned the smile. "Yes," he replied quietly. "Maybe yo' better blindfold me."
Hermosillo laughed tauntingly and turned to wink at his men. "He is brave, yes!" he mocked. "He cannot endure seeing the carabinas aimed at his heart. He wants his eyes bandaged—the muchos grande Americano! Ah, the coward!" He spat contemptuously on the sand. "He does not know how to face the guns. Well, we will humor him!"
The captain whipped a silk handkerchief from his pocket and stepped forward. Kid Wolf's eyes were gleaming with icy-blue lights. This was the moment he had been waiting for! That handkerchief was a necessary cog in his carefully laid plans. Captain Hermosillo was soon to learn just how cowardly this young Texan was. And the surprise was not going to be pleasant.
Kid Wolf's hole card was a big bowie knife—the same weapon that had played such havoc at the Alamo. He carried it in a strange hiding place—tucked into a leather sheath sewn to the inside of his shirt collar, between his shoulder blades. That knife had rescued Kid Wolf from many a tight situation, and he had practiced until he could draw it with all the speed of heat lightning.
When the captain placed the handkerchief over his eyes, Kid Wolf reached back, as if pretending to assist him. Like a flash, his fingers closed over the bone handle of the knife instead. Hermosillo found himself with the cold point of the gleaming bowie pressed against his throat!
At the same time, Kid Wolf whirled his body about so that the officer was between him and the firing squad. His left hand held the captain in a grip of steel; his right held the glittering blade against Hermosillo's Adam's apple!
"Throw down yo' rifles and back away from 'em!" Kid Wolfe called to the soldiers. "Pronto! Or I'll kill yo' captain!"
Hermosillo gave an agonized yell of fear. In a voice of quaking terror, he ordered his men to do what Kid Wolf had commanded them. His breath was coming in wheezing gasps.
The firing squad, taken aback by this sudden development—for only a few seconds had passed since The Kid had drawn the knife—hesitated, and then obeyed. At best, they were none too quick-thinking, and they saw that their leader was in a perilous plight. Their carabinas thudded to the sand.
"Bueno!" laughed the Texan boyishly.
He pushed the captain just far enough away for him to be in good hitting range. Then he lashed out at him with his hard fist, catching the fear-crazed officer directly on the point of the jaw. Many pounds of lean muscle were behind the blow, and Hermosillo landed ten feet away in a cloud of dust.
The Texan lost no time in whirling on his feet and sprinting for the corner of the building. He reached it just in time to bump into another officer, who was just then arriving on the scene. Kid Wolf snatched the pistol from his belt and sent him up against the wall with a jar. Before the disarmed Spaniard knew what had happened, he was sitting on the ground, nursing a bruised jaw, and Kid Wolf was gone!
The Texan found the streets deserted at that early hour. Racing across the plaza, he raised his voice in a coyote yell:
"Yip, yip, yipee-e-e!"
It was answered by an eager whinny. It was Blizzard! The horse, waiting patiently in the vicinity, knew that signal. It came running down another street like a white snowstorm.
Kid Wolf ran to meet the horse. A sharp rattle of rifle fire rang out behind him. The soldiers had given chase! A bullet zipped the stone flags under his feet; another smacked solidly into the corner of an adobe house.
The alarm had been given. Two gayly uniformed officers ran into the street from the direction of the presidio. They were trying to head the Texan off, attempting to get between him and his horse.
But Blizzard was coming at too hot a pace. The two Spaniards cut in just as Kid Wolf leaped to the saddle. He fired the pistol's single barrel at one of the officers, and hurled the useless weapon into the other's face.
"Come on, Blizzahd!" Kid Wolf sang out. "Let's go from heah!"
The powerful animal's hoofs thundered against the flagstones, leaped a stone wall, and charged down the street. Behind them, already organized, came the pursuit. To Kid Wolf's ears came the whine of bullets.
"From now on," he cried to his plunging horse, "it all depends on yo'-all! Burn that wind!"
Once Blizzard had hit his stride, Kid Wolf knew that no horse in Santa Fe could catch him. Striking off to the eastward in the direction of the Staked Plains, the Texan gave his animal free rein.
The pursuit was dropping behind, a few yards at a time. Instead of buzzing around his ears now, the bullets were falling short, kicking up spurts of dust. The cries in angry Spanish grew fainter until they died into a confused hubbub. Kid Wolf had left the town behind him and was racing out over the level plain. Looking back, he could see a score or more of brown clouds—dirt stirred by the horsemen who were now almost lost from view. These dwindled. In an hour only half a dozen riders remained on his trail. Blizzard was still going strong.
Out on the great Llano Estacado, The Kid managed, by superior horsemanship, to give the balance of his pursuers the slip. When he had succeeded in confusing them, he slowed his faithful mount down for a needed rest. And now where was the wagon train? Where was he to find it? A chill raced down his spine. Had The Terror already struck? The thought of the women and children in the hapless outfit filled him with a feeling akin to panic. He must find the wagon train. It might not yet be too late.
Kid Wolf was a plainsman. He could locate water where none appeared to exist; he could discover game when older men failed; and he could follow a course on the limitless prairie as surely as a sailor could navigate the seas by means of his compass. By day or by night, he was "trailwise."
Carefully Kid Wolf estimated the route the wagon train had been taking. Then he figured out the progress it had probably made since he had left it. In this way he fixed a point in his mind—an imaginary dot that he must reach if he meant to find the prairie schooners. If Modoc—the leader of the outfit—had kept to his original course, The Kid could not fail to meet them.
Accordingly, Kid Wolf traveled all the rest of that day in a straight line, marking his course by the sun. He stopped only once at noon for water and a short rest, going on again until dusk.
At nightfall, he made camp and lay awake, looking at the stars overhead. His thoughts were of The Terror and of his intended victims. Strangely enough, the face of Modoc came into his reflections, also. He could not dismiss him. Was he really insane, or was it just obstinacy? If the latter, what had he meant by his strange expression: "What color will the moon be to-night?" Kid Wolf thought for a long time and then gave it up.
He did not fear any further pursuit by the Spanish soldiers. The trail he had left behind was too puzzling; he had taken care of that. Besides, he knew that the average Spaniard feared the Apache and the other Indian tribes that infested portions of the Staked Plains. If there were any danger during the night, Blizzard would give him warning.
He was up with the dawn. At its first faint, pinkish glow, he was in the saddle again. The day promised to be hot. The midsummer sun had burned the grass to a crisp brown. By midday, mirages began to show in hollows. Heat flickered. Both horse and rider drank at a pool of yellow-brown water and pressed on.
Late in the afternoon, Kid Wolf made out a faint white line on the far horizon. It was the wagon train! He sighed with relief. The Terror, then, had not yet raided it. For The Terror left only destruction in his wake. Had he already plundered it, he would have burned the wagons to the ground.
Increasing his speed, Kid Wolf rapidly approached it. As he came nearer, he saw that the outfit was in the center of a field of alkali and making slow and painful progress. He did not see the beef herd. Plainly, something had happened during his absence.
Kid Wolf rode in, waving his hat. Would he get a bullet for his pains? He kept his eyes open as he drummed in over the alkali flat.
Modoc and three others were at the head of the outfit. They recognized him at once. Modoc started to raise his rifle. One of the others struck the weapon down. Obviously the train commander had lost some of his influence. Another of the pathfinders shouted for Kid Wolf to come on. A dozen of the travelers left their wagons and came forward. This time they seemed glad to see Kid Wolf.
"Yuh was right, after all!" one of them cried. "Modoc led us out of the way. We're lost!"
"I meant all right," Modoc grumbled. "I did my best—must have made a mistake somewhere. I'll find the trail, never worry. And if yuh take my advice, yuh'll drive this four-flusher away from here! He don't mean us any good. What business is it of his?"
Kid Wolf sternly pointed back to the wagons.
"Those women and children theah," he snapped, "is mah business."
"Shut up, Modoc!" ordered one of the men. "We trust this man, and we believe he's our friend." He turned to the Texan. "Yuh can consider yoreself in command here now," he added.
Modoc trembled with ungovernable anger, but, outnumbered as he was, he could say nothing. Sulkily he returned to his own wagon.
From the drivers, Kid Wolf learned a story of hardship and semi starvation. Indians had driven away their beef herd, leaving them without food. All day they had had nothing to eat, and were at the point of killing and devouring prairie dogs. The water, too, was bad—so full of alkali as nearly to be undrinkable, and as bitter as gall.
Kid Wolf lost no time in taking the situation in hand. His own provisions he turned over to the women and children of the outfit. Then he changed the course of the train so that it led toward civilization. At nightfall they made camp by a pool of fair drinking water. The outfit told him that as yet they had seen no sign of The Terror.
"Probably we won't," said one.
Kid Wolf was not so optimistic. That night he borrowed two .45 Colt revolvers from the wagon-train supplies. He selected them with extreme care, testing them by shooting at marks. So accurate was his shooting that the men of the outfit could not conceal their admiration. The first weapon he tried threw the shots an inch or two to one side, but he finally obtained a pair that worked perfectly. Then he sanded the wooden handles of the guns to roughen them slightly.
"It nevah pays to have yo' hand slip when makin' a draw," he explained.
The outfit's camp fire was shielded with canvas that night, at Kid's suggestion. On that wide plain a light showed for many miles, and it was poor policy to advertise one's position.
Tired as he was, Kid Wolf rose at midnight, after sleeping a few hours. He wanted to be sure that everything was well. Making a tour of the wagon train, he suddenly stopped in his tracks and sniffed. There was no mistaking the delicious odor. It made Kid Wolf hungry. It was frying meat. The Texan quietly aroused some of the men and led them to one of the wagons.
"I want yo'-all to see fo' yo'selves," he explained.
The wagon was Modoc's own, and they entered it. The ex-wagon-train commander had a shielded lantern burning inside, and he was in the act of eating a big supper! When he saw that he had visitors, he tried to reach the gun belt he had hung up at one end of the wagon. Kid Wolf was too quick for him.
"Yo' call yo'self a man!" he murmured in a voice filled with contempt. "Why, a low-down coyote is a gentleman alongside of yo'. I wondered why yo' looked so well fed, while the rest of the camp was starvin'. Men, search this wagon!"
While Modoc swore, the search was made. It disclosed many pounds of dried beef and other provisions. It was Modoc's little private supply.
"We'll divide it up with everybody in the mohnin'," suggested the Texan, "with a double allowance fo' the children and the women."
The wagon men were so furious at Modoc's selfishness that they could have torn him to pieces. Kid Wolf, however, prevented the trouble that was brewing.
"Every one to their blankets, men," he said. "We can't affohd to fight among ouahselves just now."
When the camp was asleep again, he took up his lonely vigil. The night was pitch black, without moon or stars. A wind whispered softly across the great Llano.
Suddenly The Kid's attention was attracted by something on the western horizon. It seemed to be in the sky—a faint red glow, across which shadows appeared to move like phantoms. Like a picture from the ghost world, it flickered for a few minutes like heat lightning, then disappeared, leaving the night as dark as before. It was a night mirage, and something more than an optical illusion. It was a rare thing on the plain. The Kid knew that it meant something. That glow was the reflection in the sky of a camp fire! Those shadows were men! The Texan quickly told his sentinels.
"I'm ridin' out to see what it is," he said. "Keep a close watch while I'm gone. I'm on a little scoutin' pahty of mah own. It might be that Quiroz has followed me—which I doubt. And it might be—The Terror!"
Mounting Blizzard, he was quickly swallowed up in the darkness.
THE CAMP OF THE TERROR
Kid Wolf knew that the camp fire was many miles away. He gave his horse just a touch of the spur—that was always enough for Blizzard—and they proceeded to split the wind. The horse was as sure-footed as a cat, and was not an animal to step into a prairie-dog hole, even on a black night. Blizzard had ample rest and water, and was never fresher. He ran like a greyhound.
Kid Wolf never forgot that gallop across the Llano by night. It was like running full tilt against an ever-opening velvet curtain. He could hardly see his horse's head.
Blizzard's hoofs pounded on and on across the level plateau. Miles disappeared under his flying feet, while Kid's keen eyes were fastened on the horizon ahead. Finally he made out an orange glow—a light that changed to a redder and redder hue until it became a point of fire. The Texan approached it rapidly, more and more cautious.
That was no small camp! Many men were around that flickering fire. Kid Wolf dismounted, whispering for Blizzard to remain where he was. Then, like a slinking Apache Indian, he approached on foot, making no sound. Not once did his high-heeled boots snap a weed or rustle the dried grass. He would not have been more silent had he been wearing moccasins.
There were a hundred or more men in the camp. It was a small city. Kid Wolf could hear the champing and stamping of countless restless horses, and the men were thick around the fire. A conference of some kind was being held.
The Texan approached closer and closer, all eyes and ears. If he could discover the identity of this band and something of their plans——
Suddenly a sentry rose up from the grass not a yard from him. His eyes fell upon the intruder, and his mouth flew open. In his hand was a short-barreled carbine.
The Texan seized him, dodged under the half-raised weapon and cut off the man's cry with the pressure of a muscular hand. He fought noiselessly, and the sentry—a Mexican—was no match for him. Throwing him to the ground, Kid Wolf gagged him with the man's own gayly colored scarf. Then he bound him securely, using the sentry's sash and carbine strap.
Kid Wolf exchanged his hat for the Mexican's steep-crowned sombrero and picked up the carbine. In this guise he could approach the camp with comparative safety. Pulling the sombrero over his eyes, he came in closer to the camp fire. As he did so, a trio of men—two white men and one half-breed—came into the camp from another direction. The Kid heard one of the other sentries hail the newcomers.
"What color will the moon be to-night?" was the challenge.
Thrills raced up Kid Wolf's spine. That was the question Modoc had asked him! What deep plot was behind that seemingly meaningless query? Then the Texan heard the response.
"The moon will be red!" was the countersign, and the trio passed and approached the ring around the fire.
There was no doubt now that he was in the camp of The Terror! The men outlined in the ruddy fire-light were desperadoes. Never had the Texan seen such a gathering. Some were American gunmen, evil-faced and heavily armed. Others were Mexicans and Indians. There was a tenseness in the very atmosphere. As Kid Wolf came closer to the fire, he was hailed in turn:
"What color will the moon be to-night?"
"The moon will be red," Kid Wolf replied softly.
No one paid him any attention. All eyes were on a figure near the glowing fire.
The man was talking and seemed to be in authority. He was dressed in a red Mexican coat, rich silver-trimmed pantaloons, and carried a brace of gold-mounted pistols. His face was covered with a mask of black velvet. Instinctively Kid Wolf knew that he was looking at the dread scourge of the Llano Estacado—The Terror of the Staked Plains! The bandit, then, kept himself masked even in front of his own men! Kid Wolf, as he listened, grew tense. His eyes were shining with snapping blue fire. The Terror was planning a raid upon the wagon train! His voice, cold and deadly, came to Kid Wolf's ears:
"Everything, then, caballeros, is arranged. We strike at dawn and wipe them out, sparing nobody. If a man escapes, you are all running a risk, for some of you might be identified. Man, woman, and child, they must die! Our man, of course, you all know. Do not fire on him."
Kid Wolf listened to that sinister voice and wondered what the face behind the mask looked like. The bandit leader had no more soul than a rattler, and one might expect more mercy from a wolf. And Kid Wolf already knew whom The Terror meant when he spoke of "our man." Anger shook the Texan from head to foot. He had learned enough. The bandits were already about to mount their horses in order that they might reach the wagon train at daybreak. There was no time to lose. He must get back to the helpless outfit ahead of them.
Sauntering carelessly, he slipped out of the circle about the fire and made his way out of the camp without being noticed. Once out of the range of the firelight, he raced into the darkness for his horse.
Blizzard was waiting patiently. He had not moved from his tracks. An ordinary animal might have nickered upon scenting other horses, but Blizzard had been trained otherwise. Kid Wolf leaped into the saddle, slapped his mount gently on the neck, and was swallowed up in the night as Blizzard answered the summons.
The east was a pale line against the dark of the prairie night when Blizzard drummed up to the sleeping wagon train with his rider. It still lacked a half hour until the dawn.
The Texan sent the sentries to arouse every available fighting man in the wagon train.
"Is it The Terror?" one of them questioned, paling.
"It is," replied Kid Wolf. "We must act quickly."
In a few minutes men were pouring out of the wagons, weapons in their hands. It was just light enough now to see. Modoc ran out of his wagon, strapping on his Colt .45 as he came. He advanced toward the Texan sneeringly. The others gathered about to see what would happen. Something in Kid Wolf's eyes warned them of impending trouble.
"What's the idea now?" Modoc snarled, showing his stained teeth like a wolf. "Has this four-flusher been up to his tricks again?"
Kid Wolf's voice came cool and calm. "Modoc," he drawled, "what color will the moon be to-night?"
Modoc's face went the color of putty. Like a flash, the insolence had gone out of his eyes, to be replaced with fear. He moistened his lips feverishly.
"I—I don't know what yo're talkin' about," he stammered.
"Are yo' sure," said Kid Wolf with deadly quietness, "that the moon won't be red?"
Modoc began to tremble like a leaf. His gun hand moved part way to his hip, then stopped. Beads of perspiration stood out on his clammy forehead.
"Afraid to draw like a man?" the Texan drawled. "I wouldn't doubt it. Men, this man is a betrayah. He is one of The Terror's bandits. That's why he led yo' off the track. He brought yo' here to die like rats."
Modoc's face was blue-white as Kid Wolf continued:
"When I first showed up, Modoc thought I might be one of The Terror's messengahs. I didn't come through with the password, and he learned different. I didn't know what he meant, then, but I know now!"
The wagon men surged around Modoc threateningly. Fury was written over the faces of them all. There were cries of "Kill him!" "Hang the traitor!"
Kid Wolf still faced the fear-frozen Modoc, smiling coolly. There was quiet menace in that easy smile.
"I usually shoot the head off a rattlesnake when I see one," he said softly. "One day, yeahs ago, a rattlah killed a favorite dawg of mine. I blew that snake apart, bit by bit. Modoc, that snake was a gentleman alongside of yo'. I'm givin' yo' an even chance to kill me. Fill yo' hand!"
Modoc, with a wheezing, gasping breath, decided upon action. His hand streaked for his hip. But Kid Wolf had drawn a split second later and more than a split second faster. The fingers of his right hand closed upon the handle of one of his twin Colts. In the same instant, fire flew!
With the first explosion, Modoc grunted with pain, dropping his gun. The bullet had caught him squarely in the wrist, rendering his fingers useless. But Kid Wolf kept firing, although he did not aim for Modoc's head or body. His gun flashed and stuttered twice, three times, four—five—six! Dust flew from Modoc's coat sleeve as the bullets landed with a series of terrific smashes. As he had torn the rattlesnake bit by bit, Kid Wolf ripped Modoc's gun arm.
Each bullet took effect, and Modoc staggered from the impacts, knees slumping to the ground. The traitor would never use that gun arm again. It dangled from his body, broken and useless. The others would have literally torn Modoc limb from limb had not the Texan ordered otherwise.
"He doesn't deserve hangin'," he said, "so let him be. We've got work to do. The Terror and his gang will be here at any minute. Now listen carefully to what I say."
Quietly he gave his orders, and just as carefully, the wagon men carried them out. Under Kid Wolf's masterly leadership they had regained their nerve. Panic left them, and they became grim and determined.
The Kid learned that there were thirty-four men in the outfit. Thirty-four against at least a hundred! The odds were great, but the Texan had faced greater ones alone. With the train in the hands of Modoc—one of their own men—the marauders expected to take the outfit by surprise. Thanks to the Texan, all that was changed now. He gave orders that the wagons be shifted into a circle, with the children and women on the inside behind shelter. The men were posted in the wagons and behind them, Kid Wolf giving each man his station.
"Do not fiah until I give the coyote yell," he said. "And then keep yo' sights down. Shoot low!"
Kid Wolf himself took a position between two of the covered wagons, his horse Blizzard within quick call. In the narrow chink, just wide enough for him to ride his horse through, he placed three loaded Sharps .50-caliber rifles, ready for quick use.
They had not long to wait. Only a few minutes had elapsed after the wagons had been shifted when Kid Wolf saw a body of horsemen approaching from the west. It was The Terror's band! Dust stirred by the hoofs of a hundred galloping horses rose in the air like brown thunderclouds.
As the grim defenders watched, the band split up, divided into two rapidly moving lines, and began to surround the train in a sweeping circle. The circle formed, began to close in. Kid Wolf peered along the barrel of one of the Sharps rifles. Then, after what seemed minutes, he uttered his coyote cry:
"Yip, yip, yip-ee!"
It was followed by a terrific burst of fire from the wagon train. The signal had been given at the opportune time. The bandits faltered. They hadn't expected this! The Terror had hoped to find the wagon train still asleep and defenseless. The rolling powder smoke cleared away somewhat, and it could be seen that a dozen or more of the attackers had melted out of their saddles, like butter on a hot stove.
But the raiders, outnumbering the defenders and realizing it, still came on. Kid Wolf threw aside the rifle and drew his twin .45s. Deliberately stepping out into the open, he fanned the hammers from the level of his hip. His waistline, as he swung the thundering Colts from side to side, seemed to be alive with sputtering red sparks. Smoke rolled around him. The bandits in front of him dropped by twos and threes.
Holes appeared in this side of the bandits' circle—holes that did not close up. Riderless mounts dashed about frantically, their reins trailing; wounded horses added to the uproar with their death screams. It was a battle!
Seeing that the force of the charge had been broken on this flank, Kid Wolf ran across to reenforce the other sides of the circle. At one point the outlaws had already broken through the circle of wagons. Kid Wolf sent three screaming slugs toward them, and they fell back in disorder, leaving one desperado stretched out behind them.
Reloading his guns, Kid Wolf climbed upon one of the wagons and again opened fire; this time with such an effect that all sides of the attacking circle began to break and fall back to safety. Mere force of numbers does not always count in a gun fight. Not more than half a dozen of the defenders had been hit. The survivors raised a hearty cheer. Kid Wolf's generalship had beaten back the first outlaw charge!
It was then that Modoc played his final card. Hoping to gain the protection of the outlaws, and fearing the wagon train's vengeance, he slipped out of the circle of covered wagons and, on foot, began running. His goal was ahead of him, but he never reached it. His late comrades—the bandits—evidently thought he had played the traitor with them, for they fired on him relentlessly. He fell, then rose again to scramble on. Bullets kicked up the sod around him. Others plumped into his body. Again he fell, this time to stay. His body was riddled with scores of bullets. So died the traitor.
Kid Wolf knew that a certain advantage always lies with the offensive. Defenders haven't the power of attackers. The Texan decided to risk a counter-charge. He knew that it might break down the courage of the bandit band. At least it would be a surprise. He called for volunteers.
"I want a dozen men who can shoot straight from the back of a runnin' hoss," he said. "It'll be dangerous. Who's with me?"
Immediately more men than he wanted spoke up. Quickly choosing twelve, he gave them their orders.
"At the next chahge," the Texan drawled, "we'll ride out theah and give 'em somethin' to think about. If I'm right, I think they'll scattah. If I'm wrong—well, they'll probably wipe us out. Are yo' game?"
The men were game, as the Texan soon found out. They were fighting for their families, as well as their own lives and possessions.
Again the attacking line of horsemen formed, and in a cloud of dust, they came at the wagon train. Their bullets cut slashes in the covered-wagon tops, smashed into wheels and wagon trees, and kicked up geysers of sand. They would be hard to stop this time!
But Kid Wolf gave the word for his own charge. He had several reasons for doing this. It amounted to folly in the eyes of some, but the Texan knew the value of a countercharge. And if he could bring down The Terror himself, he knew the battle was as good as won. Out of the wagon circle they came, saddle leather creaking and guns blazing! The Kid, on his snow-white charger, was in the lead. A lane opened in the bandit ranks as if by magic.
Kid Wolf pressed his quick advantage. His movement had taken the outlaw band by surprise. The utter recklessness of it shook their nerve.
Two of the wagon men fell. The others kept on, clearing a swathe with their sputtering Colts.
The bandits hesitated. The defenders who had remained behind the wagons kept up their deadly barrage. They were dropping accurately placed shots where they would be sure to do the most good. Then The Terror's band retreated, broke formation. The retreat became a rout—a mad get-away with every man for himself. Outnumbered as they were, the defenders were making more than a good account of themselves.
Kid Wolf's eyes sought for The Terror himself—and found him. His red coat and gay trappings were easy to locate, even in that mad stampede. The bandit chief was attempting to make his get-away. The Texan, however, cut him off after a hard, furious ride.
Separated from his men, The Terror turned in his saddle, wildly attempting to get the drop on Kid Wolf as he came in. One of his gold-mounted pistols flashed. The bullet hissed over the Texan's head. He had dropped low in the saddle.
The Terror whirled his horse at Kid Wolf's. He realized that it was a fight to the end. He fired his other weapon almost in the Texan's face. The Kid, however, had pulled the trigger of his own gun just a fraction of a second before. The Terror's aim was spoiled just enough so that the bullet whined wide. The bandit chief collapsed in his saddle. He had been hit in the shoulder.
The Texan closed in. There was a violent shock as Blizzard thudded into the bandit's horse. The Terror, eyes glittering wickedly through the openings in his velvet mask, slid from his horse, landing feet first. With a glittering knife in his unwounded hand, he made a spring toward Kid Wolf. The blade would have buried itself in the Texan's thigh had not The Kid whirled his horse just in time.
"All right," said the Texan coolly. "We have it out with ouah hands."
Holstering his guns, he leaped from his horse. He scorned even to use his bowie knife, as he advanced toward the bandit at a half crouch. The Terror thought he had the advantage. The Kid's hands were bare of any weapons. With a snarl, the bandit chief leaped forward, knife swishing aloft. Never had Kid Wolf struck so hard a blow as he struck then! Added to the power of his own tremendous strength and leverage was The Terror's own speed as he lunged in. Fist met jaw with a sickening thud.
The Terror was a big and heavy man. His weight was added to Kid Wolf's as both men came together. There was a snap as his head went back—went back at too great an angle. His neck was broken instantly. Without a moan, the bandit chief dropped limply to the sand, dead before he ever reached it!
Kid Wolf took a deep breath. Then he bent over the fallen man and jerked the velvet mask from his features. He gasped in amazement. It was Quiroz! For a moment the Texan could not believe his eyes. Then the truth began to dawn on him. The Terror and the tyrannical governor of Santa Fe were one and the same! Quiroz had led a double life for years, and had covered his tracks well. So powerful had he become that he had received the appointment as governor. No wonder he had refused Kid Wolf aid! And no wonder he had sought his life!
"Well, I guess his account is paid," said Kid Wolf grimly. "The Terror of the Staked Plains is no more."
He looked about him. The remainder of the bandits had made a thorough retreat, leaving a large number of their companions on the plain behind them. Their defeat had been complete and decisive.
"Bueno," said Kid Wolf.
"Oh, the cows stampede on the Rio Grande! The Rio! The sand do blow, and the winds do wail, But I want to be wheah the cactus stands! The Rio! And the rattlesnake shakes his ornery tail!"
The buckskin-clad singer raised his hat in happy farewell. The people of the wagon train answered his shout:
"Shore yo' won't go on with us?"
"We shore thank yuh for what yuh done, Kid!"
Others took up the cry. They hated to lose this smiling young Texan's company. He had saved them from death—and worse. Not only that, but they had learned to like him and depend on him.
The Texan, however, declined to stay longer. Nor would he listen to any thanks.
"Adios," he called, "and good luck! Wheahevah the weakah side needs a champion, theah yo'll find Kid Wolf. Somehow I always find lots to do. Heah's hopin' yo' won't evah need mah services again."
He caught sight of a golden-haired child beaming at him from one of the wagons.
"Good-by, Jimmy Lee!" he called.
He whirled in his saddle, touched Blizzard with the reins, and rode away at a long lope.
ON THE CHISHOLM TRAIL
From the sweeps of high country bordering close upon Santa Fe, it was no easy journey to the Chisholm Trail, even for a trail-eating horse of Blizzard's caliber. But The Kid had taken his time. His ultimate destination, unless fate altered his plans, was his own homeland—the sandy Rio Grande country.
More than anything else, it was the thirst for adventure that led the buckskin-clad rider to the beaten cattle road which cut through wilderness and prairie from Austin to the western Kansas beef markets.
And now, after following the trail for one uneventful day, Kid Wolf had left it—in search of water. A line of lofty cottonwoods on the eastern horizon marked the course of a meandering stream and The Kid had been glad of the chance to turn Blizzard's head toward it. Horse and rider, framed in the intense blue of the western sky, formed a picture of beauty and grace as they drummed through the unmarked wastes. The Kid, riding "light" in his saddle, his supple body rising and falling with the rhythm of his loping mount and yet firm in his seat, dominated that picture. His face was tanned to the color of the buckskin shirt he wore, and a vast experience, born of hardship and danger on desert and mountain, was in his eyes—eyes that were sometimes gray and sometimes steely blue. Just now they were as carefree as the skies above.
A stranger might have wondered just what Kid Wolf's business was. He did not appear to be a cow-puncher, or a trapper or an army scout. A reata was coiled at his saddle, and two big Colts swung from a beaded Indian belt. No matter how curious the stranger might be, he would have thought twice before asking questions.
The horse, in color like snow with the sun on it, was splitting the breeze—and yet the stride was easy and tireless. Blizzard, big and immensely strong, was as fast as the winds that swept the Panhandle.
The stream, Kid Wolf discovered, was a fairly large creek bordered with a wild tangle of bushes, vines, and creeper-infested trees. It was no easy matter to force one's way through the choked growth, especially without making a great deal of noise.
But The Kid never believed in advertising his presence unnecessarily. He had the uncanny Apache trick of slipping silently through underbrush, even while on horseback. The country of the Indian Nations, at that time, was a territory infested with peril. And even now, although he seemed to be alone on the prairie, he was cautious.
Some distance before he reached it, he saw the creek, swollen and brown from rains above. So quiet was his approach that even a water moccasin, sunning itself on the river bank, did not see him.
Suddenly the white horse pricked up its ears. Kid Wolf, too, had heard the sound, and he pulled up his mount to watch and listen, still as a statue.
Splash! Splash! A rider was bringing his horse down to the creek at a walk. The sounds came from above and from across the stream. The water on that side had overflowed its bank and lay across the sand in blue puddles. In a few minutes Kid Wolf caught sight of a man on a strawberry roan, coming at a leisurely gait. As it was a white man, and apparently a cattleman, The Kid's vigilance relaxed a little.
In another moment, though, his heart gave a jump. And then, even before his quick muscles could act in time to save the newcomer it had happened. From behind a bush clump, a figure had popped up, rifle leveled. A thin jet of flame spat out of the rusty gun barrel, followed by a cracking report and a little burst of steaming smoke.
The man on the strawberry roan lurched wildly, groaned, and pitched headlong from his saddle, landing in the creek edge with a loud splash. One foot still stuck in a stirrup, and for a few yards the frightened pony dragged him through the muddied water. Then something gave way, and the murdered man plumped into the water and disappeared.
The killer stood on his feet, upright. He laughed—a chilling, mirthless rattle—and began to reload his old-pattern rifle. He was a half-breed Indian. The dying sun glistened on his coppery, strongly muscled flesh, for he was stripped to the waist. He wore trousers and a hat, but his hair hung nearly to his shoulders in a coarse snarl, and his feet were shod with dirty moccasins.
Kid Wolf's eyes crackled. He had seen deliberate murder committed, an unsuspecting man shot down from ambush. His voice rang out:
"Drop that rifle and put up yo' hands!"
The soft drawl of the South was in his accents, but there was nothing soft about his tone. The half-breed whirled about, then slowly loosened his hold on his gun. It thudded to the grass. On a line with his bare chest was one of Kid Wolf's big-framed .45s.
The snaky eyes of the half-breed were filled with panic, but as The Kid did not shoot or seem to be about to do so, they began to glitter with mockery. Kid Wolf dismounted, keeping his gun leveled.
"Why did yo' shoot that man?" he demanded.
The half-breed was sullenly silent for a long moment. "What yuh do about it?" he sneered finally.
Kid Wolf's smile was deadly. His answer took the murderer by surprise. The half-breed suddenly found his throat grasped in a grip of steel. The fingers tightened relentlessly. The Indian's beady eyes began to bulge; his tongue protruded. With all his strength he struggled, but Kid Wolf handled him with one arm, as easily as if he had been a child!
"Yo're goin' to answer fo' yo' crime—that's what I'm goin' to do about it!" The Kid declared.
The half-breed's yell was wild and unearthly, when the grip at his throat was released. All the fight was taken out of him. Kid Wolf shook him until his teeth rattled, picked him up bodily and hurled him across his saddle.
"I'm takin' yo' to the law," he drawled. "I might kill yo' now and be justified, too. But I believe in doin' things in the right way."
At the mention of "law," the half-breed snarled contemptuously.
"Ain't no law," he grunted, "southwest o' Dodge. Yuh no take me there. Too far."
Kid Wolf knew that the killer was right. Still, on the prairie, men make their own commandments.
"Theah's a new town, I hear, not far from heah—Midway, I think they call it," he drawled. "Yo're goin' theah with me, and if theah's no law in Midway, I'll see that some laws are passed. And yo' won't need that, eithah!" he added suddenly.
The knife that the half-breed had attempted to draw tinkled to the ground as The Kid gave the treacherous wrist a quick twist.
"Step along, Blizzahd," sang out Kid Wolf in his Southern drawl. "Back to the trail, as soon as we get a drink of watah, then no'th!"
At the mention of Midway, the half-breed's expression had changed to one of snakelike cunning. But if The Kid noted his half-concealed smile, he paid no attention to it. They were soon on their way.
Always, even in the savage lands beyond civilization, Kid Wolf tried to take sides with the weak against the strong, with the right against the wrong. And on more than one occasion he had found himself in hot water because of it.
The average man of the plains, upon seeing the murder committed, would have considered it none of his business, and would have let well enough alone. Another type would have killed the half-breed on general principles. Kid Wolf however, determined that the murderer would be given a fair trial and then punished.
Again striking the Chisholm Trail—a well-beaten road several hundred yards wide—he veered north. Thousands upon thousands of longhorns from Texas and New Mexico had beaten that trail. This was the halfway point. Kid Wolf had heard of a new settlement in the vicinity, and, judging from the landmarks, he estimated it to be only a few miles distant.
In the meantime, the sun went down, creeping over the level horizon to leave the world in shadows which gradually deepened into dusk. All the while, the half-breed maintained a stoical silence. Kid Wolf, keeping a careful eye on him, but ignoring him otherwise, hummed a fragment of song:
"Oh, theah's hombres poison mean, on the Rio! And theah's deadly men at Dodge, no'th o' Rio! And to-day, from what I've seen, Theah's some bad ones in between, And I aim to keep it clean, beyond the Rio!"
Stars began to twinkle cheerily in the black vault overhead. Then The Kid made out a few points of yellow light on the plain ahead of them.
"That must be Midway," he mused to himself. "Those aren't stahs, or camp fiahs. Oil lamps mean a settlement."
Camps of any size were few and far between on the old Chisholm Trail. The moon was creeping up as Kid Wolf and his prisoner arrived, and by its light, as well as the few lights of the town, he could see that the word "town" flattered the place known as "Midway."
There were a few scattered sod houses, and on the one street were two large buildings, facing each other on opposite sides of the road. The first was a saloon, brilliantly lighted in comparison to the semidarkness of the other, which seemed to be a general store. A sign above it read:
THE IDEL HOUR SALOONE
Below it, in similar letters, the following was spelled out, or rather misspelled:
JACK HARDY OWNER AND PROPRIATER
As the only life of Midway seemed to be centered here, Kid Wolf drew up his horse, Blizzard, dismounted, and dragged his prisoner to the swinging green doors that opened into the Idle Hour Saloon.
Pushing the half-breed through by main strength, he found himself in a big room, lighted by three oil lamps and reflectors suspended from beams in the roof. For all the haze of tobacco smoke, the place was agleam with light. For a moment Kid Wolf stood still in astonishment.
To find such a group of men together at one place, and especially such a remote place, was surprising. A score or more of booted-and-spurred loungers were at the bar and at the gambling tables. A roulette wheel was spinning at full clip, its little ivory ball dancing merrily, and at other tables were layouts of faro and various games of chance. Cards were being riffled briskly at a poker game near the door, and a little knot of men were in a corner playing California Jack.
Kid Wolf took in these details at a glance. What puzzled him was that these men did not appear to be cattlemen or followers of any calling, unless possibly it was the profession of the six-gun. All were heavily armed, and although that fact in itself was by no means unusual, The Kid did not like the looks of several of the men he saw there. Some were half-breeds of his prisoner's own stripe.
At The Kid's entrance with his still-struggling prisoner, every one stared. The bartender—a bulky fellow with a scarred face—paused in the act of pouring a drink, his eyes widening. The quiet shuffle of cards ceased, the wheel of fortune slowed to a clicking stop, and every one looked up in sudden silence.