A Western Story
By JAMES ROBERTS
79 SEVENTH AVENUE—NEW YORK CITY
Copyright, 1925, by CHELSEA HOUSE
(Printed in the United States of America)
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian.
CHAPTER PAGE I. Rewards Offered 11 II. A Boy and a Girl 17 III. The Law 24 IV. "I Knew He Lied!" 32 V. A Capture 38 VI. The Real Low-Down 45 VII. Where to Hide 52 VIII. Two Queer Moves 57 IX. Leave It to Me 65 X. Caught in the Cellar 71 XI. Freedom Behind Bars 77 XII. Against His Ethics 87 XIII. A Man and His Horse 93 XIV. The Witness 98 XV. The Welcome 106 XVI. The Dixie's Boss 114 XVII. A Commission 121 XVIII. In the Night 129 XIX. Quick Turns 136 XX. Appeal to the Law 145 XXI. A Capture 151 XXII. A Second Capture 160 XXIII. Quick Facts 165 XXIV. The Show-down 170 XXV. Filed! 175 XXVI. The Prodigal 179 XXVII. The Desert Code 185 XXVIII. A Night Summons 194 XXIX. Gunmen 201 XXX. The Sheriff's Plight 207 XXXI. A New Count 215 XXXII. The Compass Fails 220 XXXIII. Fast Work 224 XXXIV. The Compass Wavers 230 XXXV. Guns in the Night 235 XXXVI. The Loot 242 XXXVII. The Test of a Man 245 XXXVIII. Ten Miles' Start 250
The sign on the tree attracted the man's attention while he was still far down the slope. He could see the tall pine on the crest of the ridge above a veritable landmark in that country of stunted timber, and the square of paper, tacked to its trunk under the lowest branches, gleamed white against the background of vivid green.
The air was clear, and every detail of the landscape—the red rocks, the saffron-colored slopes, the green pines and firs and buck brush, the white cliffs—everything within sight for miles stood out, clean-cut in the brilliant sunshine which flooded the empty land under a cloudless sky.
When the man, mounted on a lean, dun-colored horse, first looked up at a turn of the narrow trail and saw the sign, he grunted. Then he frowned and looked back along the way he had come with a glowing light of reflection in his gray eyes. He was a tall man, slim and muscular, clean-shaven, his face and hands bronzed by sun and wind, and his face open and good-natured. A shock of blond hair showed where his gray, wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat was pushed back from his high forehead.
His dress, though typical of the country which he traversed, was distinctive, or it might have been a certain natural grace that made it seem so. He wore a light-gray, soft shirt made of French flannel, a dark-blue silk scarf, leather chaps over olive-drab khaki trousers, black, hand-sewed riding boots which displayed their polish despite a coating of fine dust, silver spurs, and, strapped to his right thigh, was a worn leather holster, natural color, from which protruded the black butt of a six-gun.
On the back of his saddle was tied a black slicker, the raincoat of the open country, which bulged with a medium-sized pack done up within it.
One would have taken him to be thirty, perhaps a year or two more when his face was serious; but when he smiled, that is, when he smiled naturally, he looked little more in years than a youth who has just attained his majority.
When he smiled the other smile—the smile he now expressed as he looked up the slope toward the tall pine with the white square of paper on its trunk—one would have forgotten the smile because of the sinister, steel-blue look in his eyes, and the direct, piercing quality of his gaze.
He walked his horse up the winding trail. His right foot was clear of the stirrup, and he swung it idly. His left hand, in which he held the reins, rested lightly on the horn of his saddle, and his right gripped the cantle at his back. He hummed a ditty of the desert, but his gaze, keen and alert, continually sought the open stretches of trail above him, and at regular intervals flashed back along the way he had come.
In time he reached the top of the ridge and pulled up his horse near the tree bearing the poster. He dismounted and walked slowly up a little grade to where he could the better read the legend on the paper.
It was printed in large letters, but recent rain had somewhat faded it.
FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD This will be paid for THE COYOTE dead or alive, by San Jacinto County. JUDSON BROWN, J. P., Dry Lake.
This man is tall and light in complexion, gray or blue eyes, good teeth, his horse said branded CC2, keeps himself neat, dangerous with gun, squints when mad. Bring him in and get the money.
The man swore softly as he read the last sentence. "Bring him in an' get the money," he said snortingly. "You'd think they was talkin' about a locoed steer that just had to be roped an' drug, or shot an' hauled. Bring him in an' get the money!"
There was genuine indignation in his tone as he repeated the offensive sentence.
"Well, it can't be me," he said facetiously, aloud. "My name's Rathburn—a right good name." His eyes clouded. "A right good name till they began to tamper with it," he muttered with a frown as he lit a cigarette he had built while perusing the placard.
He took the stub of a lead pencil from the pocket of his shirt. For some moments he reflected, staring at the sign on the tree trunk. Then he laboriously printed on its lower edge:
Five thousand dollars more from the State of Arizona if you can get it.
Rathburn surveyed his work with a grin, replacing the pencil in his shirt pocket. Then he stepped back and drew his gun. He seemed on the point of sending a half dozen bullets through the paper when he suddenly shook his head, glanced hurriedly about him, and shoved the weapon back into its sheath.
He walked quickly to his horse, swung into the saddle, and started down the trail on the western side of the ridge.
Below him he saw a far-flung vista of rounded, yellow hills, spotted with the green of small pines and firs. The ground was hard, dry, and gravelly. There were boulders a-plenty, and long, sharp-edged outcroppings of hard rock of a reddish hue. There was no sign of habitation to be glimpsed from the trail leading down from the high ridge which he had crossed. He continually looked about him with the interested air of a man who is venturing into a new locality with which he is not familiar.
"Dry Lake!" he exclaimed, while his horse pricked up its ears at the familiar voice. "Good name for it, if it's anywhere in this country. Hoss, I don't know when we're goin' to drink again. I didn't figure on hittin' a desert up here."
He rode on at a brisk jog, down and down the winding trail. Then it led across a number of the round, low hills, ever westward.
As the afternoon wore on, more green brightened the landscape and patches of grass appeared. Then they came upon a small stream trickling down from the higher slopes to northward where horse and rider drank their fill and rested in a quiet, secluded meadow off the trail.
The man's face was a study as he lay back upon the grass in the cool shade of a clump of pines. Whimsical and wistful, it was occasionally lit by a peculiar smile which carried a hint of sadness. His eyes half closed, dreamily. The smoke from his cigarette curled upward in a thin spiral in the still air of the altitudes. His horse, with reins dangling and saddle cinch loosened, cropped the grass which carpeted the meadow.
Finally the man arose, tightened the cinch in an absent manner, mounted, and rode back to the trail to continue on his way. At the top of the next ridge he halted, looking at a little ranch which lay in a wide valley a mile or two north of the thread of trail which he could see winding westward. The place looked poor, poverty-stricken, despite the small field of living green south of the house and the few head of cattle grazing along the banks of a little stream which wound through the valley.
For some time the rider sat his horse motionless, frowning in indecision. Then he touched the dun lightly with his spurs, left the trail, and struck off to the north, following the ridge. He kept his gaze focused on the little ranch. The only sign of life which he saw was a heavily-burdened clothesline flapping in the idle breeze which at this point was wafted down from the mountains.
When he was almost directly above the small house he turned his mount down the slope and gaining the floor of the valley, rode at a gallop for the house. His right hand now rested on his thigh near the holstered gun.
As he brought his horse to a stop near the front of the house a girl appeared in the doorway. He looked at her in pleased surprise. Then his hat swept low in a gesture of courtesy.
"Ma'am, I've found this to be a country of scattered habitations," he said in a musical bass. "So when I glimpsed your abode from yonder hills I said to myself, 'Rathburn, you're most powerful hungry; maybe you better pay a call.'"
His eyes were glowing with an amused light, and a pleasant smile played upon his lips.
The girl, who had listened curiously, now laughed in welcome. "There aren't many places between here and Dry Lake," she said; "and I guess it would be a pretty hot ride to-day. You can water your horse—and feed him at the barn, if you wish—and I'll get you something to eat, if you're not particular." Her eyes danced merrily.
"Ma'am!" he exclaimed, with mock severity, "I quit bein' particular when I was—when I was as young as that youngster."
A boy of ten or twelve had appeared beside the girl.
"Young man, what're those dirt-looking spots on your face?" asked the stranger, frowning with his eyes but smiling with his lips.
"They ain't dirt spots!" returned the boy with spirit, advancing a step.
"No?" said the man, feigning intense astonishment. "What are they?"
"They're freckles," answered the boy stoutly.
"Oh—oh, that's what they are," said the stranger with a delighted laugh. "Won't they wash off?"
"Naw. You can't fool me. You knew what they were!"
"Well, now, maybe so," observed the man as the girl laughingly turned inside.
"Grub'll be ready by time you are," she called back to him.
"I'll show you where to put your horse," said the boy as the man looked searchingly up and down the valley.
A BOY AND A GIRL
When Rathburn had put up his horse, after giving him a light feed of grain in the barn, he followed the boy to the rear of the house where he found water, soap, and a towel on a bench, above which hung a small mirror.
The boy left him there, and he soon washed and combed his hair. The girl opened the rear door for him and he walked through the little kitchen into a small front room where a table was set for him.
"Sure, ma'am, I didn't figure on causing you so much trouble," he said with a smile. "I didn't expect anything but a snack, an' here you've gone an' fixed a regular dinner—this time of day, too."
"My experience with men in this country has taught me that when they're hungry, they're hungry," replied the girl. "And it wasn't much trouble. Those beans were in the oven and already warm. I just had to make the coffee. I was expecting my brother."
"I didn't see any men around the place," he said, beginning to eat. "If I had I'd have made myself known to them before coming to the house. Where is he—out with the cattle?"
He saw her gaze was troubled. "I don't know just where he is—to-day," she confessed. "He goes away and sometimes doesn't come back for a day or two." She stood in the doorway.
Rathburn noted her trim, slim figure and her wealth of chestnut hair. She was pretty and capable. He surmised that her parents were dead, although he could not ascribe the reason for this deduction. Evidently the boy was a younger brother. He wondered if the older brother would return before he finished eating.
"How far is it to Dry Lake?" he asked casually.
"Oh—why, didn't you come from there?" She seemed surprised.
"No. I came from over to eastward."
"But it's miles and miles to any place east of here, isn't it?" she asked, puzzled. "You must have had a long ride."
A ghost of a frown played on his brows. Then he laughed. "Yes, miss, I've been ridin' some," he confessed. "I didn't know how far it was to anywhere or I mightn't have come in this direction."
She looked at him wonderingly, and again he thought he saw a troubled look in her eyes.
"You're going to Dry Lake?" she asked.
"Yes," he said shortly, and a grim note crept into his voice. "It's west of here, ain't it?"
"About fifteen or eighteen miles," she answered. "The trail leads there from the lower end of this valley—the same trail you came on, I guess. Are you a cow-puncher?"
"Don't I look like one, miss?"
"Yes, you do and—you don't." She was confused by the quality of his smile. But his eyes seemed to glow at her kindly, with a cheerful, amused light—altogether honest and friendly. She lowered her gaze and flushed despite herself.
"My vocation, miss—you're too young an' pretty to be called ma'am, if you'll excuse me for saying so—is a peculiar one. I've punched cows, yes; I've prospected an' worked a bit in the mines. I've scared the wolf from the 'Welcome' mat by standing off the boys at green-topped tables, an' once I—I—worked on a sort of farm." He appeared apologetic as he confessed this last. "I guess I wasn't cut out for a farm hand, miss."
She laughed at this. "Are you going to work in Dry Lake?" she asked, sobering.
"Well, now, that is a question," he returned, draining his cup of the last of the coffee.
"I'll get you some more," she said quickly, taking his cup. "Dry Lake isn't a very big place, you know."
"Just how big is Dry Lake?" he asked when she returned from the kitchen with more coffee for him.
"Only a hundred or two. But the men from miles and miles go there because—because there are places there where they can stand the wolf off at the green-topped tables and—drink." The troubled look was in her eyes again. "Sometimes the wolf catches up with them before they get home," she added, smiling faintly.
"It's not a safe system," he said thoughtfully.
"But you might get work in Dry Lake," she said hopefully. "You—you look capable. The cattlemen from back in the hills go there and they're nearly always looking for men, I've heard. You might meet some of them and get a job."
He beamed upon her. "I've always heard that a woman gave a man encouragement an' ambition, if she was a good one," he mused. "You've almost got me thinking I'd better go straight to work."
"Why—didn't—wasn't that your intention?" she asked wonderingly.
His face clouded. "It ain't always so easy for me to do what I want to do, miss," he said. "I—you see——" He broke off his speech with a frown. "This is a queer country, miss," he said earnestly.
"Oh, I know," she said eagerly. "I'll bet you're an—an officer!"
Then he laughed. It was the spontaneous laugh of youth, vibrant, compelling, mirth-inspiring.
"Say, miss, if there's one thing I ain't tackled yet, it's being an officer," he chuckled as he finished his repast.
She smiled vaguely, studying him under her long, dark lashes. The boy came into the room, holding his hands behind him, and stood with his sturdy legs braced apart, staring at Rathburn.
"There he is now!" Rathburn exclaimed. "Did you try to wash the freckles off?" he queried with a wink.
"I know who you are!" said the boy. There was admiration and awe in his wide eyes.
Rathburn looked at him closely, his brows wrinkling.
"Yes, I do," said the boy, nodding. "Did he tell you who he is, sis?" he asked, looking at the girl.
"Now, Frankie, we don't care who the man is," she reproved. "He was hungry and he's welcome. What's the matter with you?"
"I guess you'd be surprised if you knew as much as I do," the boy boasted. "I guess you'd be surprised all right. I do."
"I've been surprised more than once at things you knew," the girl said with a laugh.
"Yes, but I guess you'd be surprised all right if you knew who he is," cried the boy, pointing at Rathburn.
"Come, now, young fellow, don't be getting all het up here," said Rathburn slowly, drawing tobacco and papers from his shirt pocket. "What do you find to do with yourself around here?"
But the youngster was not to be diverted from his topic. "I was lookin' at your horse," he said, his eyes shining. "That's how I know for sure an' certain who you are."
Rathburn gazed at the boy sternly as he touched a match to his brown-paper cigarette. "My horse is all right, ain't he?"
"Sure he is," said the boy eagerly. "I bet he can go some, too. He'd have to go for you to have him, wouldn't he? You're The Coyote!"
Rathburn continued to smile with an amused tolerance. But the girl gave a start; her hands flew to her breast, and she stared at the man with wide-open eyes.
"Frankie! What are you saying?" she exclaimed.
The boy triumphantly brought his hands from behind his back. He held out a poster.
"His horse has got CC2 for a brand, just like it says in this bill Ed brought from town!" he cried. "He's The Coyote, all right. But I won't tell," he added quickly, looking at Rathburn.
The man avoided the girl's eyes. The boy laid the poster on the table where she could read it again, word for word.
"Tall—light in complexion—gray or blue eyes—good teeth—horse branded CC2—dangerous——"
And this man was tall and blond, with gray eyes. Five hundred dollars reward!
"I won't tell anybody you've been here," the boy continued. "We won't tell, will we, sis?" He looked at the girl imploringly.
"My brother Ed says what you want you take," said the boy, gazing at the man in admiration. "An' he says you don't rob anybody that can't afford it! He says the banks are insured an' you've been a friend to more'n one that's just gettin' a start in the cattle. I won't tell anybody you've been here, an' I won't let sis tell anybody, either!"
Rathburn was smiling wistfully. "Always tell the truth, sonny," he said in a low voice. "Don't forget that. I wouldn't want you to lie for me. Any man that would want you to lie for him wouldn't be a man a-tall, son. See?"
"But old Brown, the judge, or the sheriff might come along an' want to know if you'd been here!" said the boy in breathless excitement.
"Then tell 'em the truth," said Rathburn smilingly. "Tell 'em a man with a horse branded CC2 was here an' kidded you about your freckles, had something to eat, an' rode away. Don't lie, sonny, no matter what happens."
The girl took a step toward the table. "You—are—The Coyote?" she asked in a whisper.
"My name is Rathburn, miss," he replied cheerfully. "In some ways I'm a lot like the man described in that reward notice. An' I'm riding a dun-colored horse branded CC2. I don't like that monicker, Coyote, or I might 'fess up to it."
"Then—if you're him—you're an outlaw!" she stammered.
Rathburn's dreamy look shifted to the boy who was staring at him.
"You'll grow up to be quite a man, son," he said in a fatherly tone. "Those freckles mean a tough skin. A weak sort of skin tans quick an' the toughest just sunburns. You're halfway between. That's all right for freckles; but it don't go in life. It's best to be on one side or the other, an' the right side's the best for most folks."
He rose and went for his hat. Then he extracted a roll of bills from a hip pocket and laid a five-dollar note on the table.
"That meal was worth it," he said to the girl with a smile.
She shook her head. "I—I couldn't take it," she said.
"That's clean money, miss. I earned it circumventin' three of the most ornery card sharps in Arizona."
She continued to shake her head. "You do not understand," she murmured. "It—it wouldn't make any difference. We couldn't take money from a stranger who came to us—hungry. It wouldn't make any difference who you were."
"Aw, we need it, sis!" blurted out the boy. "The Coyote's all right. He wouldn't lie to us."
Rathburn laughed and, stepping to the boy, ran his fingers in his hair. "I guess I've made a friend," he said in a wistful voice. Then he picked up the bill on the table and stuffed it into the boy's pocket. His eyes encountered the poster again and they clouded. He turned away from it.
"Miss, you'll let me thank you—sure."
She nodded, retreating a few paces.
"Then I'll be going," he said, stepping to the door.
"To—to Dry Lake?" she found the voice to ask.
"Yes. To Dry Lake."
He left the house and in a few minutes reappeared from the direction of the barn, riding his dun-colored horse. He did not stop, but galloped down the valley, waving a hand in farewell which the boy answered.
The day was nearly spent. The sun was low in the west, sliding down like a ball of gold toward the rim of the blue mountains. A stiff breeze had sprung up, driving the heat before it. At the lower end of the valley Rathburn found the trail he had left when he detoured to the ranch. He turned westward upon it, put spurs to his horse, and sped toward town.
It was just as well that the girl could not see the look which came to his face as he rode into the sunset.
Night had descended when Rathburn came in sight of the little town on the edge of the foothills. He rode slowly toward it, staring moodily at the flickering lights between interlaced branches which waved and weaved in the wind blowing down from the mountains. In all the distance he had traveled from the lonely ranch where he had met the girl and the boy he had encountered no one. He surmised that the trail to the desert hills to eastward was not a popular one.
As he neared the town he saw that it consisted of one main street with buildings clustered about it, and numerous shacks scattered in the lee of the hills. There were trees close to the eastern end of the street which he was approaching, and when he reached these trees he dismounted, led his horse into the shadows, and tied it.
He walked down the main street, which was illuminated only by the stars and the yellow gleams of light from windows on either side.
There were several resorts, and one in particular seemed the most popular. Rathburn glanced in through the door of this place as he passed and saw that it consisted of a bar and numerous tables, where games were in progress. He did not stop but continued on his way.
Few people were on the street; none of them took any especial notice of him. Several doors below the largest resort which he had so casually investigated, he came to a small, one-story, white-painted building, which, save for the door and window in its front, looked like a huge box.
Across the glass in the door was lettered in gold:
JUDSON BROWN Justice of the Peace Notary Public
A dim light shone within, and, peering through the window, Rathburn saw that this light came from a lamp in a second room behind the little front office.
He looked up and down the street and saw but two pedestrians, both walking up the other side of the thoroughfare with their back to him. He tried the door stealthily, found it unlocked, and stepped quickly inside. Three strides took him to the door of the inside room.
A man looked up from a small table where he was engaged in writing. He was a stout man, large of countenance, with small black eyes under bushy brows which were black, although his hair was gray. He scowled heavily at the intruder who failed to remove his hat, and who stood, with feet well apart, in the doorway, a whimsical smile playing on his lips.
In a sweeping glance Rathburn saw that the room contained a bed, wardrobe closet, several chairs, and other articles of furniture and decoration of a bedroom and living room. His eyes flashed back to the burly man sitting at the table, pen poised, coolly surveying him with a frown.
"Your name Jud Brown?" he asked, stepping inside the room and to the side of the door toward the table where he could not be seen from the street.
"I'm Judge Brown," replied the large man testily. "You should have knocked before you came in, but now you're here, state your business as quickly as possible."
"That's a businesslike tone that I admire to hear, Brown," drawled Rathburn. "You'll excuse my not callin' you judge. I'm afraid when you find out who I am you'd think I was kiddin' you!"
He smiled amiably while the justice glared angrily.
"You're drunk!" flared Brown. "The best thing you can do is get out of here—quick."
Rathburn looked pained. "First you ask me to state my business an' now you tell me to get out," he complained. "You might as well know that I never touch likker," he added convincingly.
Brown was studying him intently with a puzzled look on his face. "Well," he said finally, with a show of irritation, "what do you want?"
"I want you to tell me the why an' the wherefores of this document," said Rathburn sternly as he drew a folded piece of paper from a pocket and spread it out on the table before the astonished gaze of the justice.
"That's one of a number I saw tacked on trees on the east trail out of here," continued Rathburn, frowning. "What's it all about, Brown?"
The pen in the hand of the justice suddenly began to waver as the hand trembled. Then Brown dropped it, squared away his chair, and looked grimly at his nocturnal visitor. For some moments his gaze was concentrated on Rathburn's face. Then he slowly read the poster offering a reward of five hundred dollars for The Coyote. He wet his lips with his tongue.
"So I was right!" he exclaimed. "You were headed in this direction. I'm assuming that you're The Coyote!"
"And you're assuming what's the bare, untarnished truth," said Rathburn. "I'm The Coyote you've offered five hundred for, an' who'll bring another five hundred in several counties in Arizona, not to mention five thousand that the State of Arizona has tossed into the pot. I suppose I'm worth at least ten thousand as I stand here."
"That would be cheap for a man of your reputation!" said the justice bravely. "We don't want you across the line in California, Coyote. We won't put up with your depredations, and if you murder one of our citizens you'll hang!"
Rathburn's chilling laugh hung upon the justice's words. "You're side-stepping the point," he said suddenly in crisp tones that were like the crack of a whiplash. "You're anticipating events, Jud. That's my complaint—that's my business here with you." He brought his right palm down upon the table smartly.
"An' now that I'm here, Jud, you're sure goin' to listen!"
"Don't threaten me!" cried the justice. "There are a hundred men within call and they'd make short work of you if they got their hands on you. Darn your ornery hide, I'm holding the winning cards in this game!" he concluded excitedly.
Rathburn was smiling at him; and it was not his natural smile. It gave the justice pause as he looked up into those narrowed gray eyes, shot with a steel-blue light. Rathburn's right hand and wrist moved with incredible swiftness, and Brown found himself staring into the black bore of a six-gun. Still he saw the eyes above the weapon. His face blanched.
"There are six winning cards in my right hand," Rathburn said slowly. "You can start shoutin' for those hundred men you mentioned just as soon as you want. Brown, it's you an' your kind that's made me desperate—dangerous, like you said in that printed notice. I won't fool with you or any other man on earth!"
"What—what did you come here for?" stammered the justice.
"To get away from—from back there in that cactus-bordered country of black, lava hills where I was born an' where I belong!" said Rathburn grimly, sliding into a chair on the opposite side of the table from Brown.
"Listen to me! I was driven out. I've ridden for a week with the idea of gettin' where I wasn't known an' where I could maybe get a fresh start, and here I find a reward notice staring me in the face from the top of the first hill I cross after leaving Arizona. I've never been here before; I've done nothing to molest you or your town; but you sic the pack on me first off an' hand-running, without any reason, except that you've heard things about me, I reckon."
Brown nodded his head as Rathburn finished. A measure of composure returned to him. His eyes gleamed with cunning as he remembered that his front door was unlocked and some one might by chance come in. But he again felt troubled as he conjectured what might happen in such event.
"You cannot blame me," he said to Rathburn. "You've robbed, and you're a killer——"
"That's what you hear?" thundered Rathburn. "I admit several robberies—holdups of crooked, gambling joints like you've got in this town, an' petty-larceny bankers who robbed poor stockmen with sanction of the law. I've killed one man who had it coming to him. But I've shouldered the blame for every killing an' every robbery that's been staged in the desert country for the last three years. 'The Coyote did it,' is what they say, an' the crooks an' gunmen that turned the deal go free. I'm talking to you, Brown, as man to man—a thing I've never done with any mouthpiece of the law before. I'm trying to show you how you an' your kind can make a man an outlaw an' keep him one till somebody shoots him down. I'm sore, Brown, because I know that one of these days I'm going to get it myself!"
The justice saw that the man was in deadly earnest. He saw the hand resting on the table tighten its grip upon the gun.
"I didn't know all these things," he said hastily. "I had to judge by what I heard—and read. Why didn't you make all this known to the Arizona authorities?"
Rathburn laughed harshly. "Because I'd be framed clear across the board," he said jeeringly. "It's the law! It's as much of a crime to rob a thieving gambler or a snake of a whisky runner or peddler as it is to rob a home! I've had to rob to live! An' all the while there's been the makings of one of the hardest-lookin' bad men that this Southwest country ever saw in me. And, now that I think of it, why the devil I've held off I don't know!"
Brown was moved by the sincerity of the man. He saw in Rathburn's eyes that he was speaking the gospel truth. He saw something else in those eyes—the yearning of a homeless, friendless man, stamped with the stigma of outlawry, rebelling against the forces which were against him, relentlessly hunting him down.
"You say you came here to start over?" he asked curiously. "How do I know you won't walk right out of this office and turn a trick right here in this very town?"
"You don't know it, that's the devil of it!" exclaimed Rathburn. "An' there's no use in my telling you I won't, for you wouldn't take my word for it. You've got me pegged for a gun-fightin' bandit of first water an' clear crystal, an' I won't try to wise you up because it wouldn't do any good. Now that you know I'm in this country, you'll blame the first wrong thing that happens on to me. I've got no business here talking to you. I'm wasting my breath. You'll have to find out from somebody besides me that I was telling you the truth, an' I reckon that coincidence ain't in the pictures. Where's your handcuffs?"
The justice stared at him, startled.
"Where's your handcuffs?" insisted Rathburn angrily.
"In the drawer of my desk out in front," replied Brown.
"Go an' get 'em an' bring 'em here," Rathburn commanded. "I'll keep my drop on you under cover."
Brown rose and went to his desk in the front room while Rathburn watched him in the doorway with his gun held under his coat.
When the justice returned to the inside room Rathburn moved a chair close against one of the bedposts. He compelled Brown to sit in the chair, put his hands around between the supports in the back, and about the bedpost. He handcuffed him in that position.
Drawing a bandanna handkerchief from a pocket he swiftly gagged the justice. Then he rummaged about the room until he found a piece of rope tied about a pack in the bottom of the wardrobe. With this he secured Brown's ankles to the front legs of the chair.
"There!" he said, standing back to view his handiwork. "You're pretty well trussed up. I ain't trusting you any more than you'd trust me, an' I don't figure on you raising any hue an' cry before I can get along on my way."
The eyes of the justice were rolling as he struggled in vain to speak.
"Never mind," said Rathburn. "I reckon I know what you want to say. Under the circumstances, the same being so much on my side, you'd say you believed me an' all that. But I took a chance in coming here to tell you what I did an' I never aim to take more'n one chance in a day. So long."
"I KNEW HE LIED!"
Rathburn extinguished the light in the lamp, walked swiftly to the front door, and outside. Closing the door softly he turned back up the street. He sauntered along slowly, debating his next move. Evidently the town was the last for many miles in the mountainous country east and north. Westward he would come upon many towns as the country became more and more densely populated toward the coast. Northwestward he would be able to keep within the arm of the mountains and still be in touch with civilization. But he would have to make some changes in his attire and fix that brand on his horse.
Instinctively his course brought him to the big resort he had noticed upon his arrival. The entrance doors had been closed against the chill of the night, but he could see the interior of the place through one of the windows despite the coating of dust upon the glass.
As he peered within he stiffened to alert attention and a light oath escaped him. Walking swiftly from a rear door was a tall man, the lower part of his face concealed by a black handkerchief. He held a gun in each hand and was covering the score or more patrons of the place who had risen from the tables, or stepped back from the bar, with their hands held high above their heads.
"Keep 'em there an' you'll be all right," the masked man was saying in a loud voice which carried to Rathburn through cracks in the window glass. "Line up down there, now—you hear me? Line up!"
The patrons lined up, keeping their faces toward the bandit.
"If anybody gets to acting uneasylike it'll be the signal for me to start shootin'—understand?" came the holdup's menacing voice as he moved around behind the bar.
"Open both cash drawers," he ordered the servitor in the white apron. He covered the bartender with one gun while he kept the other pointed in the direction of the men standing in line.
Obeying instructions, the bartender took the bills from the cash drawers and laid them before the bandit on the bar. He then made several piles of silver near the bills, walking to and from the drawers of the big cash register. Continuing to do as he was told, he stuffed the bank notes and silver into the masked man's pockets, one gun's muzzle against his breast, the other holding the men in line at bay.
Rathburn heard footsteps on the walk close to him. He whirled and saw two men about to enter the resort. "I wouldn't go in there," he said sharply in a low voice.
The two men paused, looking at him questioningly.
"I wouldn't go in there," Rathburn repeated. "Come here an' take a look."
One of the men stepped to his side and peered curiously through the window.
"Bill!" he whispered excitedly. "Look here. It's a holdup!"
The other man looked over his shoulder. He swore softly.
"I'll bet it's The Coyote!" said the first man in an awed voice.
"Probably is," said Rathburn sneeringly. "They say he was heading this way."
"Good place to stay out of—if it's him," declared the second man.
Rathburn suddenly pulled back his left sleeve. "See that?" he said, pointing to his left forearm.
The two men stared at the bared forearm in the yellow light which shone through the dust-stained window. They saw a scar about three inches below the elbow.
"Looks like a bullet made that," one of the men observed.
"You're right," said Rathburn, letting down his shirt sleeve. "A bullet from The Coyote's gun left that mark."
The men looked at him wonderingly and respectfully.
"You boys live here?" asked Rathburn.
"Sure," was the reply. "We work in the Pine Knot Hotel an' stables. You from the hills?"
"Yep," answered Rathburn. "Cow-puncher an' horseshoer an' one thing an' another. What's he doing now?" He again turned his attention to the scene within the resort, as did the two men with him.
The bandit was backing away from the bar toward the rear of the room, still keeping his guns thrust out before him, menacing the men who stood with uplifted hands.
"You can tell your funny judge that I called!" he sang out as he reached the rear door. "An' now, gents," he continued in an excited voice, "it won't go well with the man that tries to get out this back way too soon."
As he ceased speaking his guns roared. The two large hanging lamps, suspended from the ceiling in the center, went out to the accompaniment of shattered glass crashing on the floor. The three smaller lamps above the back bar next were cut to splinters by bullets and the place was in total darkness.
Then there was silence, save for the sound of a horse's hoofs coming from somewhere behind the building.
Rathburn drew back from the window as a match flared within and his two companions moved toward the front door. He stole around the corner of the building and started on a run for the rear. He stopped when he heard a horse galloping toward the east end of the street behind the buildings which lined that side. He hurried behind two buildings which did not extend as far as the resort and hastened up the street. He did not once look back.
Behind him he heard shouts and men running in the street. He increased his pace until he was running swiftly for the trees where he had left his horse. From above he caught the dying echoes of hoofs flying on the trail up the foothills by which he had come early that night.
The cries down the street increased, a gun barked, and bullets whined over his head.
"The locoed fools!" he panted. "Didn't they hear that fellow ride away?"
But the shooting evidently was of a promiscuous nature, for he heard more shots around by the rear of the place where the robbery had been committed. No more bullets were fired in his direction as he darted into the black shadows of the trees.
He quickly untied his horse, mounted, rode in the shelter of the timber to the east trail, and began the ascent, urging his horse to its fastest walking gait up the hard trail. The fleeing bandit's sounds of retreat no longer came to his ears, but he kept on, scanning the open stretches of trail above in the starlight, a disparaging smile playing upon his lips.
Back in the little town excitement was at a high pitch. Extra lamps had been lighted in the resort where a big crowd had gathered. Several men ran to the office of Judson Brown, justice of the peace, while others went in search of the constable.
When Brown failed to answer the summons at his door, some one discovered it was not locked, and the little group of men trooped in to find the justice gagged and handcuffed to his bed. They lighted the lamp and removed the gag. Then acting upon his instructions they took a bunch of keys from his pocket and unlocked the handcuffs.
He stood, boiling with rage, while they alternately hurled questions at him and told him of the holdup.
He ignored their questions as to how he came to be bound and gagged and demanded more details of the robbery.
"We took him to be The Coyote," said the spokesman of the group. He had been one of the men the bandit had lined up. "He was tall, an' blue or gray eyes, an'——"
"A puncher from up north picked him out through the window," spoke up one of the men who had encountered Rathburn outside the resort. "He'd been shot in the forearm by him once—showed us the scar. The robber was The Coyote, all right."
"Certainly it was him!" roared Brown. "He came in here, tied me up after pulling a gun on me, an' threatening to kill me, practically, so he wouldn't have any trouble pulling his trick. Tried to steer me off by saying he didn't come here to make any trouble. I knew he lied!"
The constable came in as the justice was finishing his irate speech.
"I'm going to lead this chase myself!" cried Brown. "I want The Coyote, and I'm going to get him. I raise that reward to a thousand on the spot, and I know the sheriff will back me up. Get out every man in town that can stick on a horse, and we'll catch him if we have to comb the hills and desert country till doomsday!"
Already horsemen were gathering in the street outside. Feeling was high, for Dry Lake prided itself on its record of freedom from the molestation of outlaws. The rough element, too, was strong for a man hunt, or anything, for that matter, promising excitement.
A quarter of an hour later Brown, who was accepted as the leader when emergencies involving the law arose, distributed his forces. He sent two posses of twenty men each north and northwest. A third posse of a dozen men started southward. Towns to the west were notified by telephone as was the sheriff's office. The sheriff said he would be on his way to Dry Lake in an hour. He was amazed that The Coyote should be in his territory. He, too, wanted the outlaw, and he praised Brown for his reward offer.
Judson Brown himself led the posse of thirty men which took the east trail up the foothills. It was an hour past midnight. The moon had risen and was flooding the tumbled landscape with its cold, white light. From different vantage points on ridges high above, two men looked grimly down and saw the moving shadows of the man hunters as they took the trail.
Three hours after the posses scattered on their search for The Coyote, spurred by thoughts of the reward of a thousand dollars offered by San Jacinto county, and Judson Brown's declaration that the reward would be increased by the thousands more which Arizona had laid upon the fugitive's head, Rathburn smiled at the rosy dawn in supreme satisfaction.
He had not lost his man's trail during the early morning hours. Time and again he had outwitted the man ahead when the latter had waited to scan the back trail for signs of pursuit; more than once he had gained ground when screened by timber growth close to the trail; every stretch of dust-filled trail had been taken advantage of, while the soft going underfoot had deadened the sound of his horse's flying hoofs.
The bandit had traveled fast and he had kept steadily to the eastward. This last was what caused Rathburn to smile with satisfaction. The man for whose crime Rathburn was suspected was heading straight for Rathburn's own stamping ground—the far-distant desert range, which he knew from the low horizon in the south to the white-capped peaks in the north. To catch up with him would be but a matter of a few hours, Rathburn reflected contentedly.
Nor had the posse gained upon the two men ahead. Brown's men, perhaps, did not have as excellent specimens of horseflesh as Rathburn and his quarry rode. Nor did they possess the trail knowledge, the tricks which Rathburn knew, and which the latter, more or less to his surprise, found that the man ahead knew. Whatever it was that caused that curling, sneering smile of contempt to play upon Rathburn's lips at intervals, it was not scorn of the riding ability of the man he was pursuing.
Moreover, both men ahead were saving their horses' strength against a probable spurt by the posse at daylight. It would not be a hard matter to follow their trail by the bright light of broad day. So far as he could determine, Rathburn did not believe the man ahead knew he was followed by a solitary rider who was between him and the hounds of the law.
Under the circumstances, the bandit would expect to be pursued by a number, Rathburn reasoned. He was ordering his pursuit on this theory, and he did not intend to take any more time than was absolutely necessary in catching up with the man ahead.
Rathburn's horse had not been hard ridden the day preceding, nor for several days before that. He had journeyed westward by easy stages, taking his time, favoring his mount in anticipation of some unforeseen emergency which might require hard riding. And he well knew the extraordinary powers of speed and endurance which the animal possessed.
He frowned as he thought of the brand. He had not been under the impression that the iron his horse wore was generally known to the authorities. He would have to hole-up somewhere in the hills before long and attend to that brand. As it was, it was a dead give-away as to his identity. He could thank Brown for this bit of information, anyway.
With the dawn, Rathburn found it easier to keep on his man's trail without being seen himself. He gained considerable until he estimated that he was not more than a mile and a half, or two miles at most, behind.
The sun was up when he reached the crest of the high ridge where was the tall pine and the sign which he had first seen the afternoon before.
He hesitated, debating whether to let the printed notice remain with his penciled inscription about the Arizona reward on it, or to tear it down. Then he saw the man he was pursuing below on the trail. He moved swiftly out of sight down the eastern side of the ridge. But when he came to the next vantage point he discovered that his man had apparently seen him; for he was riding at a mad gallop on the trail which wound eastward along the edge of the hills.
"Now's as good a time as any, hoss!" he cried to his mount as he drove in his spurs and dashed in swift pursuit.
Down the winding trail plunged horse and rider. The dun slipped and slid on the hard surface of the steep declivities and finally emerged upon the more open path which the man ahead was following.
Rathburn no longer made any attempt at concealment. He was after the man ahead, and, somewhere behind, a posse was in mad pursuit. If he were captured before he could overtake the bandit who was responsible for the robbery, the latter would very likely escape—was certain to make his get-away, in fact.
Rathburn called upon his horse by voice and spur for all the speed there was in him. He could see the fugitive ahead urging his horse to its utmost. The race was on in earnest. Thus they came to a long stretch of open, level trail. Here Rathburn's horse began slowly to gain.
The man ahead turned in his saddle, and Rathburn saw the glint of sunlight on dull metal. He brought out his own gun. But the other did not fire. He kept on, half-turned in the saddle, watching his pursuer keenly. Rathburn continued to gain upon him.
They now were less than half a mile apart, and the fugitive suddenly turned his horse due north, straight toward the hills, and sent a volley of shots whistling in his pursuer's direction.
Rathburn held his fire. The bullets flew wide of their mark, and he could see his man reloading as he rode. Rathburn now cut across, racing for the point where he thought the other would reach the hills. His horse rose to the emergency with a tremendous burst of speed. He was close enough now to shoot with a reasonable certainty of scoring a hit on his flying target. But he had no desire to kill, and he could not be certain, at that distance, of merely wounding his quarry. He also recoiled from the thought that he might accidently hit the other's splendid horse.
Just ahead a thin line of straggling pines ranged down the gradual slope from the first low ridge of the hills for which they were heading. Rathburn swung north and gained the shelter of this screen just as the other rider again began firing. The trees now were between them, and each was an equal distance from the gentle slope of the ridge.
Rathburn called upon his horse for a last, heartbreaking burst of speed and the dun made good. At the beginning of the slope to the ridge, Rathburn veered sharply to the right and burst through the trees a scant rod or two from his man. His gun was leveled straight at the other, who had been caught momentarily off his guard.
"Drop it!" shouted Rathburn, racing toward him.
The man's right hand fell to his side while he checked his horse with his left. Rathburn rode in close to him and they came to a halt. Rathburn's lips were curled in a smile of contempt. The other stared at him, white-faced, his eyes wide and inquiring. The fingers of his right hand relaxed, and the gun fell to the ground. Rathburn swung low in the saddle and scooped it up, thrusting it into a pocket of his coat.
"Now beat it up over that ridge ahead," Rathburn ordered. "And be quick about it. That posse may be close behind us."
The other's eyes lit up with surprise. "You—you're not an officer?" he stammered.
"Shut up, you fool!" cried Rathburn. "You want to stay here an' talk when there's a score or two of men after us? I'm worse than an officer. Slope for that ridge now. Hurry!"
The man put the steel to his horse, and they dashed up the slope, crossed the ridge, and found themselves in a thick growth of timber which covered a large area.
"Pick your way into the middle of that patch of timber," snapped out Rathburn. "An' don't forget I'll be right close behind you. Get going—don't gape!"
The captive's face flushed at the other's manner and the indubitable note of contempt in his voice. But he obeyed the instructions and pushed into the timber.
When they had proceeded some distance Rathburn called a halt. "Ever been in this country before?" he demanded with a sneer.
"Yes." The other was more composed now. He studied his captor curiously and seemed more at ease. Evidently he was heartened by the fact that Rathburn had said he was not an officer and he believed him.
"I suppose you're after what I'm carrying on me," he said with a touch of bitterness. "I guess I'd have had as much chance as I've got now if I'd started shootin' even after you got the drop on me!"
Rathburn laughed harshly. "You never had a chance from the start, if you only knew it," he jeered. "Why, you upstart, you're not entitled to any chance!"
The other man's face darkened in swift anger. "Brave talk," he said sneeringly. "You've got me where you want me, so you can say anything."
"I've got a pile to say," replied Rathburn shortly. "But this isn't the time or place to say it. We want to be good an' away out of that posse's path—an' quick."
"You might as well take what you're after an' then each of us can look out for himself," was the hot retort.
Rathburn looked at the man quizzically. "You've got more spunk than I thought," he mused.
He stared at the other man closely. The bandit could not have been more than twenty-five or twenty-six. He was tall, well-built, blond. His hair and eyes were about the color of Rathburn's. But Rathburn particularly noted the man's face, and whatever it was he saw there caused him to shrug and frown deeply.
"What's your name?" he demanded coldly.
"Percy," sneeringly replied the other.
"That's good enough for me," said Rathburn cheerfully. "All I need is a name to call you by. Now, Percy, if you're acquainted with this country in here an' can steer the way to where the posse'll be liable to overlook us you better be leading on. I see you've ditched your other gun somewhere—you had two."
"So you want me to take you where you'll be safe so you can rob me, maybe shoot me down, an' then make your get-away," the other accused.
Rathburn looked him straight in the eyes. "If you think I'm the kind of a man who'd shoot another down in cold blood when he was helpless you don't know much about human beings," he said slowly. "I have no intention of murdering you or harming you a-tall, if you're halfway careful. If you feel that it's against your principles to lead this expedition to temporary safety, we can turn back toward Dry Lake. We're going to do one thing or the other within one minute!"
"Oh, come on," muttered the captive. He led the way through the timber to its western edge, then turned north in the shelter of the trees traversing a long, high, rocky ridge.
"Our horses won't leave any tracks here," he called back. "Or maybe you don't care whether we leave any tracks or not," he added sarcastically.
Rathburn spurred his horse alongside of him. "It doesn't make a bit of difference to me," he said. "You're the one that's got to be scared of that posse, Percy, not me. If it wasn't for one thing I'd take you right down there to meet 'em!"
The other looked at him both in anger and perplexity. "Suppose you'd object to tellin' what that one thing is," he said savagely.
"Well, it may be that I feel sorry for you," said Rathburn as if to himself. "An' it may be that I want credit for bringing you in without the help of any posse an' without them knowing it!"
THE REAL LOW-DOWN
They rode on in silence. When they reached the north end of the ridge the man in the lead turned west on a slope studded with large boulders and rock outcroppings. There was considerable shale here, too, and they had to proceed cautiously in spots, both for fear of sliding down the shale and to prevent making much noise.
"If they follow us up here, we can hear 'em before they get to us," said the man who called himself Percy, with a shrug and a frowning look at his companion.
Rathburn did not reply.
They continued across the slope and descended into a large bowl or pocket, guarded by huge boulders and scattering trees on the slope above.
"Guess it's safe to rest our horses here," said Percy. "We can hear 'em coming either way; but I don't think they'll get up here."
However, neither he nor Rathburn knew how many men Brown had at his command, nor did they know that the sheriff of the county, with two deputies, had raced to Dry Lake by automobile, procured horses, and hastened to join Brown on the east trail, which seemed the most likely route of escape for the outlaw.
There was a spring in the pocket surrounded by a small meadow of good grass. The pair watered their horses, loosened their saddle-cinches, and permitted the animals to graze with reins dangling.
Rathburn took his slicker pack from the rear of his saddle and spread it open on the ground.
"Reckon it's safe to build a small fire here?" he asked cheerfully. "I'm powerful hungry, an' I've got some emergency provisions—being trail-broke."
Percy, too, was hungry, as his eager look toward the pack testified.
"I'll climb up to the top on the lower side an' keep an eye out while you fix some grub," he volunteered. "You needn't be scared of me jumping over the other side. There's a drop of about five hundred feet over there."
"Go ahead and jump if you want," said Rathburn. "Me—I'd rather live. That's why I want to eat."
While the other climbed to his lookout position Rathburn made a fire. Then he took a small frying pan and coffeepot, minus its handle, from the pack, removed the packages stuffed in them, and soon was making coffee, frying bacon, and warming up beans. This, with some hard biscuits and some sirup out of a bottle, constituted their meal, which Rathburn soon had ready.
Again he looked closely at Percy's face as the latter scrambled down from his perch to appease his hunger.
Suddenly he burst out laughing; but it was a belittling laugh, half sneering, which brought the blood to the face of the captive while Rathburn watched him closely.
"If I had to-day's actions to do over again you mightn't be so tickled," said the man viciously.
"I'm laughing to think how lucky you are for a rank beginner an' botcher!" said Rathburn as they began to eat. "You must have took a course in outlawing from some correspondence school," he continued.
"Maybe you could have done better," hinted the other.
"Quite likely I could," admitted Rathburn. "In the first place I'd have shut that back door after I came in so nobody could pot shot me from behind. Yes, I reckon I'd have done that."
Percy glared at him thoughtfully.
"Then I wouldn't have let myself get in line with the front and side windows," Rathburn taunted. "Lots of men are shot through windows. Ever hear of such a thing?"
His listener didn't answer.
"An' now that I think of it," Rathburn droned on, "I'd have lined those men up against the wall with their faces turned away from me. That puts 'em at more of a disadvantage, an' they can't see what's going on."
Percy now was regarding him keenly.
"Let's see," said Rathburn, with tantalizing slowness. "Oh, yes, Percy. I wouldn't have taken anything from the cash drawers but the bills. I don't like to take the time to monkey around with a lot of silver; besides, it sort of weights one down."
He paused long enough to let that sink in, then continued: "The thing I'd have paid most of my attention to—excepting for keeping a watchful eye on the men against the wall an' the windows an' doors—would have been the safe. The big money's usually in the safe, an' the bartender can be induced to open the safe just as easy as he can be persuaded into opening the cash drawers. An' say, Percy, I'd never let a bartender get as close to me as you let that fellow get to you. He might start something, then you'd have to begin shootin' an' that would alarm the town an' ball up the program."
"You talk like you'd had considerable experience," observed Percy warily.
"Maybe so. Maybe I have. But if I have, I can say I've never pulled anything quite so raw as the way you pulled that stunt last night down in Dry Lake, Percy. That is the real low-down on that. You just naturally laid yourself open to attack from all quarters."
His captive looked at him both respectfully and sheepishly.
"An' there's only one reason why you got away with it," said Rathburn, his eyes narrowing.
"Because I was lucky like you say, I suppose," sneeringly answered Percy.
"No!" thundered Rathburn. "You got away with it because they thought you were The Coyote!"
The captive started; stared at Rathburn with widened eyes.
"That's why you got away with it," continued Rathburn in a hard voice. "An' you thought you'd cinch it when you told 'em before you went out that they could tell their funny judge you called!"
Rathburn's eyes blazed with angry contempt. "Trading on somebody else's name," he mocked. "Trying to make out you was the goods, an' I believe they thought you was The Coyote, at that. Man, I saw the whole dirty business."
Percy's face went white. However, his emotion was more anger than fear, and he was prey to an overpowering curiosity.
"How do you know I ain't The Coyote?" he asked shrewdly.
Rathburn stared at him—stunned. Then he leaped to his feet and his gun flashed into his hand in a movement too swift for the eye to follow.
"Go over there and look at the brand on my horse," he commanded. "Remember how that printed bill read that put it in your fool head to try an' masquerade as The Coyote, an' then read the brand on that horse!"
The captive rose and without a look back walked to where Rathburn's horse was cropping the grass. The left side of the animal was toward him and for a few moments he stood looking with bulging eyes at the CC2 on the shoulder. Then he turned slowly.
Rathburn's gaze burned into his, but a cool, deliberate light had come into his eyes.
"So you're The Coyote!" Percy said quietly. "I should have recognized you."
"Yes, I'm called The Coyote," said Rathburn, walking slowly toward him. "I'm the man they think robbed that joint down in Dry Lake last night. I'm the man they're looking for. I'm the man they want to make pay for your bungling work. That's the way it's gone for three years, Percy. I've been blamed for job after job that I didn't even know was pulled off till I heard they were looking for me on account of it. But this is one job they'll not be able to lay at my door; for I've got the man who's responsible an' I've got him red-handed!"
"What're you going to do about it?" asked the other coolly.
Again Rathburn's eyes blazed with rage. "Do? Why, I'm just naturally going to take you in all by my lonesome an' turn you over to the sheriff with my compliments."
Rathburn cooled down as he said this, drew tobacco and papers from his shirt pocket, and proceeded to build a cigarette. He looked at his man queerly.
"Now I reckon you know why I ain't got any idea of taking that money off you," he said.
"They might not believe you," returned the other.
"I know what you mean. You mean they might think I was putting up a job on 'em an' trying to shift the blame on somebody else. It can't be done, Percy. Listen to this: I was looking through the front window of that place last night when you held it up. Two men that work in the hotel down there came along an' looked in alongside of me after I warned 'em not to go in. I showed 'em this scar on my arm." He rolled back his left sleeve disclosing a scar on the forearm about three inches below the elbow.
"I told 'em that scar was made by a bullet from The Coyote's gun," Rathburn went on, pulling down his sleeve and drawing his right hand back to the gun he had replaced in its holster. "That scar was made by The Coyote's gun. I shot myself in the arm by accident some few years ago. Now, here's the point: Those men will remember me an' remember that scar. The descriptions the sheriff of that county must have in his office will tell all about that scar. It won't be hard to identify me by it an' by the two men that stood out there by the window with me. So they'll know I didn't pull the robbery!"
The other man shifted uneasily on his feet.
"An' that ain't all, Percy," Rathburn continued. "Somebody saw me running up the street afterward because they took a couple of shots at me for luck. That'll dovetail with my story. I've never been known to use two guns. An' if they want any more proof all they'll have to do will be to stand you up in front of the men you had in line, dressed as you are with that black handkerchief over your face. That'll settle it. I reckon the sheriff will believe me an' give me a chance when he hears the facts, or I may not wait for a talk with him."
"I take it you've got me right," said the captive, compressing his lips. "But if you're really The Coyote I've heard so much about, you'll give me my gun an' give me a chance to run for it!"
Rathburn's laugh jarred on his ears. "Give you a chance an' take a chance myself on going to the gallows?"
"The gallows!" exclaimed the other. "Oh—I see. But didn't you say you thought the sheriff would give you a chance if he met you an' heard your story? At that you don't have to stay around an' get taken back to Arizona now."
"They hang men in this State," Rathburn interrupted.
"But—there wasn't——" The other man faltered, staring.
"One of those shots you fired at the lamp went wild, or glanced off something, an'——" Rathburn lifted his brows significantly.
"Killed somebody!" cried the other.
He staggered back just as a rattle of falling stones signified that horsemen were in the shale on the slope to eastward.
WHERE TO HIDE
For the space of several seconds Rathburn and his captive looked into each other's eyes. Rathburn's gaze was keen, alert, fired by the quick thinking he was doing. Stark terror showed in the other's look which gradually changed to one of haunting fear and indecision. Then his eyes became clear and he returned Rathburn's glance, cool and questioning.
"Get your horse," ordered Rathburn, running to his own mount.
In a twinkling he had tightened his cinch, caught up the reins, and vaulted into the saddle. His captive was at his side shortly afterward.
"You're still in the lead," Rathburn snapped out; "unless you want to wait for 'em."
The other whirled his horse, sent him flying for the western end of the pocket, with Rathburn close behind. They went up a steep, rocky trail, screened by boulders. When they reached the top of the west rim they looked back and saw four horsemen on the shale slope leading to the pocket. Brown evidently had split up his posse and was literally combing the hills for his quarry.
"They'll know they're on the right trail when they see the remains of our dinner an' my pack down there," remarked Rathburn dryly.
"But they haven't seen us yet," said Percy breathlessly. "If we can make Sunrise Canon Trail we can lose 'em in the mountains—that is if you want to lose 'em."
"Where's the trail?" asked Rathburn.
"'Bout five miles west. It's the only trail goin' up into the big mountains between here an' the other side of the Dry Lake range, an' it's a tough one."
Rathburn quickly sized up the country ahead. He saw low and high ridges with towering mountains to the right, or north, of them. There were scattering pines on the slopes and patches of timber in the wide ravines, many of which were veritable valleys.
"We'll run for it while they're getting in an' out of that hole," he suddenly decided with a click of his teeth. "Their horses are in no better shape than ours. Slope along."
The other had dug in his spurs even before he got the order. They rode swiftly down the steep trail from the rim of the pocket and fled across an open space and up the slope of the first ridge.
Rathburn looked back as they crossed it, but could see no sign of their pursuers. His face still was troubled; his gaze kept boring into the back of the man on the horse ahead of him. At times he muttered to himself.
They galloped up the hard bed of a dry arroyo and swung westward across another rock-bound ridge, picking their way carefully among the boulders. Rathburn's face became more and more strained as he noted that the leader evidently knew the country they were in like a book. Rathburn, with the experience born of years spent in the open places, was able to keep his bearings.
They had followed a course for some miles north of the main trail leading east, the trail by which he had first come into the locality. Then they had doubled back westward, some miles above that trail, of course, and now were heading almost due north again, in the direction of the mountains which did not appear to be far away. He surmised that they were nearly directly north of the ranch where he had had the meal with the girl and boy.
At the top of the next ridge his guide pointed above them.
"See that crack in the mountain?" he said.
Rathburn nodded as he made out what appeared to be a gash in the steep side of a mountain north of them.
"That's Sunrise Canon," said the other quietly. "There's a trail up that canyon into the heart of the mountains where they couldn't catch us—or you, if you want to go alone—in a hundred years!"
He stared steadily at Rathburn.
"Mosey along, then," said Rathburn. "Let's get somewheres before our horses drop."
They kept along the ridge until it was cut by a canyon. Here they descended and entered another long, narrow ravine which they negotiated at a gallop. At its upper end they again climbed a steep slope. Their horses were showing the strain of the hours of hard riding. Rathburn realized that they could go but a limited distance. But the members of the posse most assuredly must be in the same fix so far as their mounts were concerned.
He decided that if they could get into the canyon unseen they would be able to rest their horses and remain secure for the night. Next morning they could continue on up into the hills, or slip back by a roundabout way to Dry Lake.
His lips froze into a thin white line. He did not look at the man with him as they paused for a few moments under the trees which covered the top of the ridge and gazed at a long, gently sloping stretch of nearly open country. It was covered with clumps of trees at intervals, that reached to the dark, narrow opening in the mountains, marking the entrance to Sunrise Canon and the trail to the fastnesses of the higher hills.
"You can swing off here to the left an' down a wide valley to where there's a cut-off into Dry Lake," he heard his captive suggesting. "I don't see any sense in all this hard ridin' an' hidin' if you're goin' to turn me in."
"We'll go on," growlingly replied Rathburn.
They descended the ridge and entered the long, sloping valley, so wide that it virtually was a plain. They made good headway, although they favored their horses. They took advantage of the shelter provided by the occasional clumps of pines. The afternoon was drawing to a close with the sun dipping sharply toward the western hills when they came in sight of the entrance to the canyon. But with the first glimpse they checked their horses and turned into the shelter of some trees near by.
"Beat us to it!" exclaimed Percy.
"Four of 'em," said Rathburn, frowning. "Brown ain't taking any chances. He's a better man than I figured him out. An' there's more of 'em!"
He pointed westward where two riders were barely discernible on the crest of a ridge. They disappeared almost immediately in the timber below.
"We'll turn back," Rathburn decided. "We'll ride with the trees between us an' the men up at the canyon, an' keep an eye out for the pair to the west. You might watch that side, an' I'll look out for the east an' south. C'mon, let's drift."
The face of the man who called himself Percy was white and strained as they urged their tired mounts southward. They skirted the western end of the ridge by which they had gained the wide valley and continued on, carefully scanning the landscape in all directions for indications of pursuit. It was plain to them that they had been seen to leave the east trail early that morning. Brown and his men undoubtedly knew they had headed north, and the justice had immediately dispatched men to guard the entrance to the canyon trail into the mountains. Then they had begun a systematic search of the locality.
This deduction was strengthened when Rathburn suddenly pointed toward the east. More riders were to be seen on the slope of the valley's side in that direction. Even as they looked, these riders, too, disappeared from view as they dropped down behind a rise of ground.
The sun was going down fast. Already the red banners of the sunset were flaunted in the high western skies. The twilight would be upon them apace—the long-lasting, purple-veiled twilight of the altitudes. Then the night would close down with its canopy of stars.
Rathburn looked speculatively at his companion. "We'll make a break for that clump of trees about a quarter of a mile ahead with all our horses have got left," he said, driving in his spurs.
In a last mad dash which taxed every iota of strength and endurance left in their beasts they gained the shelter of the little patch of timber.
"Here we'll wait," said Rathburn coolly as he dismounted.
"What?" cried the other, staring at him incredulously. "We ain't quite surrounded yet. We haven't seen anybody in the south. That way may be open an' it's liable to be closed while we're stayin' here."
"Get off your horse and unsaddle him," commanded Rathburn sternly. "The best place to hide from a posse is in the middle of it!"
TWO QUEER MOVES
The captive complied with the order, looking at Rathburn in a peculiar way—half disgusted, half contemptuous. Indeed, he turned his back on the other, leaned against the slender trunk of a pine, and stared steadily into the south. He appeared much worried.
The horses welcomed the chance to rest.
Rathburn walked slowly back and forth the width of the patch of timber, vigilantly keeping watch. He paid no attention whatsoever to the man leaning against the tree. For all the interest he displayed he might have completely forgotten his very existence. In time this got on the other's nerves.
"I believe you lied when you said there was a man killed down there last night," he said coolly.
"I didn't say anybody was killed," Rathburn returned without looking in his direction. "You assumed that part of it."
"Then you wanted me to think so," said the other in a loud voice. "You was tryin' to throw a scare into me!"
Rathburn swung on his heel and stepped squarely in front of him. "I let you think that to show you what might have happened," he said. "Such things have happened to me an' swelled the price on my head. Now, darn you, if you talk that loud again I'll choke your wind off!"
The words came with sinister earnestness, but they seemed to rouse some dormant strain of extraordinary courage in the man to whom they were addressed.
He suddenly leaped from the tree and struck out with all the force at his command.
But Rathburn had anticipated the attack. He knocked the other's blow aside and drove his right straight to the jaw.
"There's a little souvenir to show you that I mean business, Percy," he panted.
Percy came back to the attack with eyes gleaming with malice. Again he attempted to hit Rathburn, but the latter stepped aside with lightning swiftness and drove home another blow. He followed it up with a left and right and Percy sprawled his length on the grass.
After a time he sat up, dazed. Rathburn was standing over him. But although he realized fully that he was not a match for Rathburn in physical combat, and doubtless was greatly his inferior with his gun, his spirit was undaunted.
"You better finish me, or drag me in," he gritted; "for I'll get you, if I can. I don't know what your play is, but you've acted too queer to-day for me to believe you're on the square one way or the other."
"You want some more, Percy?"
"My name is Lamy," growlingly replied the other, as he rose cautiously.
"Oh, o-h. Percy Lamy."
"No, just Lamy. Lamy's my name, an' I ain't ashamed of it. You'd find it out—sooner or later—anyway, I—expect." He stammered during this speech as if he had just remembered something—remembered when it was too late.
Rathburn noted the frown and the confused expression in Lamy's eyes. He turned abruptly and walked away.
A few minutes later he came back to find Lamy sitting with his back to a tree, staring unseeing into the deepening twilight.
"Lamy," he said harshly, "we're going to get away from this posse—maybe. Anyway, soon's it's dark we'll ride south. It's just possible we can leave 'em up here in the hills."
"Suppose I refuse to go?"
"Then I'll have to truss you up an' tie you to your horse, an' don't think I won't do it!" The ring of menace in Rathburn's voice convinced the other, but he made no comment.
When darkness had fallen they saddled their mounts and started. They rode at a jog, keeping as much as possible in the shadow of the timber. Rathburn noticed that the valley gradually widened; he showed interest in his surroundings.
Then, off to the left below them, he saw moving shadows. He called a halt at the next clump of trees. "Lamy, are there any horses running in here that you know of?" he asked.
"There probably are," said Lamy sarcastically; "an' they've probably got riders on 'em."
"No doubt," returned Rathburn gravely. "I just saw some shadows that looked like horses down to the left of us."
"I expected they'd shut us off in the south," snapped out Lamy. "You gave 'em plenty of time."
"We just naturally had to rest our horses," observed Rathburn. "As it is, they're not good for far, nor for any fast riding. Besides, I've changed my mind some since this morning."
"So? I suppose you're goin' to give me a chance?" sneeringly inquired the other.
He could see Rathburn's eyes in the twilight, and suddenly he shifted in his saddle uneasily. For Rathburn's gaze had narrowed; and it shot from his eyes steel blue with a flash of fire. His face had set in cold, grim lines. The whole nature of the man seemed to undergo a change. He radiated menace, contempt, cold resentment. The corners of his mouth twisted down sharply. His voice, as he spoke now, seemed edged like a knife.
"Lamy, hand over that money!"
Lamy's brows lifted in swift comprehension; a look of cunning came into his eyes—was followed by a gleam of hope, not unmixed with derision. He thrust his hands into his coat pockets and held out bills and silver to Rathburn who stuffed the plunder into his own pockets.
"That all of it?" demanded Rathburn sharply. He made no effort to temper the tones of his voice.
For answer Lamy dug into his trousers' pockets, under his chaps, and produced two more rolls of bills.
"That's the chunk," he said with a sneering inflection in his voice. "If you want I'll stand a frisk."
"No, I won't search you. I take it you're too sensible to lie!"
"Thanks," replied Lamy dryly. "I suppose I'm free to go now, unless you figure you'd be safer by killin' me off."
Anger, swift and uncontrollable, leaped into Rathburn's eyes. Then he laughed, softly and mirthlessly. "If I'd been minded to do for you, or had any such idea in my head, I'd have given it to you long before this," he said. "It's lucky for you, Lamy, that I'm pretty much the breed you thought I was."
"Don't pose!" retorted Lamy hotly. "You intended to get that money and make me the goat if you could, from the start. If you'd had any idea of turnin' me over to Brown you'd have done that little thing, too, long before this."
"Maybe so," Rathburn mused, staring at the other thoughtfully in the dim light of the stars. "Maybe I will yet. You're not out of this—an' neither am I. Those shadows down to the left are getting plainer. What's that long dark streak over there on the right?"
"Those are trees," answered Lamy sneeringly.
"Let's make for 'em," ordered Rathburn. "Don't forget you're still under orders, Lamy. An' don't overlook the fact that I'm more or less in earnest about things in general," he added significantly.
They rode at a tangent for the dark shadow of the trees. At the edge of the timber ensued another long wait, with Rathburn uncommunicative, moodily pacing restlessly back and forth. The horses had another excellent opportunity to rest and the fagged animals took advantage of it.
Once or twice Rathburn thought he glimpsed a light far down the valley, but he couldn't be sure. Neither could he be sure he saw the moving shadows on the opposite side of the wide valley again.
The night wore into early morning and the moon added its cold radiance to the faint glow of the myriads of stars. Rathburn sensed the nearness of enemies. Several times he stopped before Lamy, who sat upon his saddle blanket with his back against a tree trunk and dozed. Rathburn had to fight off continual drowsiness.
For long hours he walked along the edge of the pines. He dared not trust himself to sleep. He dared not trust Lamy to stand guard while he obtained some rest, and he knew that when the sun came up and the day began, he would be thoroughly awake again; for more than once he had gone two nights without sleep. Also, he assumed that the hunt would be less spirited during the night. Members of the posse would themselves be drowsy, but they could spell each other and in that way maintain their vigil and secure a few hours of rest.
Rathburn's rage rose at frequent intervals as he thought of the predicament he was in through no fault of his own. More than once he glared malevolently at the sleeping Lamy; then the troubled look would come again to his eyes and he would resume his pacing, muttering to himself, staring into the blue veil of the night. Once he sat down and removed his right boot and sock in the darkness; shortly afterward he again began his pacing.
He felt the pangs of hunger and shook his head savagely as he thought of the scanty supply of provisions he had been compelled to leave in the mountain pocket.
His spirits revived as he thought of the horses. They would be fresh in the morning; and he intended that his horse should have a grain feed that day. Rathburn always thought of his horse first; and, although it might seem that he taxed the animal's powers to their utmost at times, he never went beyond a certain point. He had often said he would surrender to his pursuers rather than kill his mount in evading them.
The first faint glimmer of the dawn was lighting the skies above the ridges to the eastward when he roused Lamy. He awoke with a start, stared sleepily at Rathburn, then got speedily to his feet.
"You been awake all night?" he asked curiously.
Rathburn nodded, looking at him closely. "Saddle up," he ordered.
They rode southward at a canter in the shelter of the edge of the timber. When the eastern skies were rosy red and fast changing to gold with the advent of the sun they saw two things; a small ranch house about a mile southeast of them, and two riders some distance north.
Rathburn reined in his mount. He looked at Lamy who met his gaze in defiance. Then Rathburn reached into his coat pocket with his right hand and drew out a gun.
"Here's your shooting iron," he said, as he held the weapon out to Lamy.
The other stared at him in astonishment.
"Take it!" snapped out Rathburn. "Take it, or I may change my mind!"
Lamy took the gun wonderingly, balanced it for a moment in his hand, and shoved it into his holster.
Rathburn motioned toward the south and Lamy rode along at his side. They caught another glimpse of the horsemen in the north. As they drew opposite the ranch house, on the west or front side, they saw a woman leave it and walk the short distance to the barn and enter. At that moment both Rathburn and Lamy gave vent to low exclamations. They had caught sight of riders in the south and to the east. They appeared to be surrounded by the posse.
Rathburn looked at Lamy soberly. However, it was Lamy who spoke first. "You said the best place to hide from a posse was in the middle of it," he said scornfully. "Why not leave the horses in the timber an' run for the house? Maybe it has a cellar."
"I reckon that would be as good a move as any," replied Rathburn, to the other's surprise. "I'm game if you are."
Lamy's eyes flamed with excitement as he turned his mount into the trees. They came to what looked like a bear pit or a prospect hole. It was partly filled with brush.
"We can hide our saddles in there an' let the horses go," Lamy suggested. "There's a few horses runnin' in through here, an' they may join 'em."
"You can do that with yours," said Rathburn grimly. "You seem to forget that the brand on this dun is pretty well known."
He coolly tied his horse as Lamy followed his own suggestion, hid his saddle, and turned his mount loose.
They moved back to the edge of the timber and waited until they could see no one in sight about the house or in any direction in the valley. Then they started on a run for the house.
LEAVE IT TO ME
Rathburn had recognized the ranch long before they came close to it. It was the place where he had stopped for a meal with the girl and the freckle-faced boy two days before—the day he had gone on into Dry Lake. He saw no sign of the girl or the boy or any one else as they reached the front door and hurried inside.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lamy look hurriedly about and step into the kitchen. He followed him.
Lamy grabbed part of a loaf of bread and some cold meat on a shelf above the kitchen table.
"There's usually a cellar under the main room in these square houses," he said, hurrying back into the larger room.
Rathburn stepped after him, and Lamy pulled back the rug before the table and disclosed a trapdoor. He raised the door, held out the food to Rathburn, and whispered: "You better get down there. Take this grub an'——"