THE DESIRE OF THE MOTH AND THE COME ON
BY EUGENE MANLOVE RHODES
ILLUSTRATIONS BY H.T. DUNN
They were riding hard
THE DESIRE OF THE MOTH
"Little Next Door—her years are few— Loves me, more than her elders do; Says, my wrinkles become me so; Marvels much at the tales I know. Says, we shall marry when she is grown——"
The little happy song stopped short. John Wesley Pringle, at the mesa's last headland, drew rein to adjust his geography. This was new country to him.
Close behind, Organ Mountain flung up a fantasy of spires, needle-sharp and bare and golden. The long straight range—saw-toothed limestone save for this twenty-mile sheer upheaval of the Organ—stretched away to north and south against the unclouded sky, till distance turned the barren gray to blue-black, to blue, to misty haze; till the sharp, square-angled masses rounded to hillocks—to a blur—a wavy line—nothing.
More than a hundred miles to the north-west, two midget mountains wavered in the sky. John Wesley nodded at their unforgotten shapes and pieced this vast landscape to the patchwork map in his head. Those toy hills were San Mateo and Magdalena. Pringle had passed that way on a bygone year, headed east. He was going west, now.
"I'm too prosperous here," he had explained to Beebe and Ballinger, his partners on Rainbow. "I'm tedious to myself. Guess I'll take a pasear back to Prescott. Railroad? Who, me? Why, son, I like to travel when I go anywheres. Just starting and arriving don't delight me any. Besides, I don't know that strip along the border. I'll ride."
It was a tidy step to Prescott—say, as far as from Philadelphia to Savannah, or from Richmond to Augusta; but John Wesley had made many such rides in the Odyssey of his wonder years. Some of them had been made in haste. But there was no haste now. Sam Bass, his corn-fed sorrel, was hardly less sleek and sturdy than at the start, though a third of the way was behind him. Pringle rode by easy stages, and where he found himself pleased, there he tarried for a space.
With another friendly nod to the northward hills that marked a day of his past, Pringle turned his eyes to the westlands, outspread and vast before him. To his right the desert stretched away, a mighty plain dotted with low hills, rimmed with a curving, jagged range. Beyond that range was a nothingness, a hiatus that marked the sunken valley of the Rio Grande; beyond that, a headlong infinity of unknown ranges, tier on tier, yellow or brown or blue; broken, tumbled, huddled, scattered, with gulfs between to tell of unseen plains and hidden happy valleys—altogether giving an impression of rushing toward him, resistless, like the waves of a stormy sea.
At his feet the plain broke away sharply, in a series of steplike sandy benches, to where the Rio Grande bore quartering across the desert, turning to the Mexican sea; the Mesilla Valley here, a slender ribbon of mossy green, broidered with loops of flashing river—a ribbon six miles by forty, orchard, woodland, and green field, greener for the desolate gray desert beyond and the yellow hills of sand edging the valley floor. Below him Las Uvas, chief town of the valley, lay basking in the sun, tiny square and street bordered with greenery: its domino houses white-walled in the sun, with larger splashes of red from courthouse or church or school.
Far on the westering desert, beyond the valley, Pringle saw a white feather of smoke from a toiling train; beyond that a twisting gap in the blue of the westmost range.
"That's our road." He lifted his bridle rein. "Amble along, Sam!"
To that amble he crooned to himself, pleasantly, half-dreamily—as if he voiced indirectly some inner thought—quaint snatches of old song:
"She came to the gate and she peeped in— Grass and the weeds up to her chin; Said, 'A rake and a hoe and a fantail plow Would suit you better than a wife just now.'"
"Schooldays are over now, Lost all our bliss; But love remembers yet Quarrel and kiss. Still, as in days of yore——"
Then, after a long silence, with a thoughtful earnestness that Rainbow would scarce have credited, he quoted a verse from what he was wont to call Billy Beebe's Bible:
"One Moment in Annihilation's waste, One Moment of the Well of Life to taste— The Stars are setting, and the Caravan Starts for the Dawn of——Nothing. Oh, make haste!"
After late dinner at the Gadsden Purchase, Pringle had tidings of the Motion Picture Palace; and thither he bent his steps. He was late and the palace was a very small palace indeed; it was with difficulty that he spied in the semidarkness an empty seat in a side section. A fat lady and a fatter man, in the seats nearest the aisle, obligingly moved over rather than risk any attempt to squeeze by.
Beyond them, as he took the end seat, Pringle was dimly aware of a girl who looked at him rather attentively.
He turned his mind to the screen, where a natty and noble young man, with a chin, bit off his words distinctly and smote his extended palm with folded gloves to emphasize the remarks he was making to a far less natty man with black mustaches. John Wesley rightly concluded that this second man, who gnashed his teeth so convincingly, and at whom an incredibly beautiful young lady looked with haughty disdain, was the villain, and foiled.
The blond and shaven hero, with a magnificent gesture, motioned the villain to begone! That baffled person, after waiting long enough to register despair, spread his fingers across his brow and be-went; the hero turned, held out his arms; the scornful young beauty crept into them. Click! On the screen appeared a scroll:
Keep Your Seats. Two Minutes to Change Reels.
The lights were turned on. Pringle looked at the crowd—girls, grandmas, mothers with their families, many boys, and few men; Americans, Mexicans, well-dressed folk and roughly dressed, all together. Many were leaving; among them Pringle's fat and obliging neighbors rose with a pleasant: "Excuse me, please!"
A stream of newcomers trickled in through the door. As Pringle sat down the lights were dimmed again. Simultaneously the girl he had noticed beyond the fat couple moved over to the seat next to his own. Pringle did not look at her; and a little later he felt a hand on his sleeve.
"Tut, tut!" said Pringle in a tolerant undertone. "Why, chicken, you're not trying to get gay with your old Uncle Dudley, are you?"
"John Wesley Pringle!" came the answer in a furious whisper, each indignant word a missile. "How dare you! How dare you speak to me like that?"
"What!" said Pringle, peering. "What! Stella Vorhis! I can hardly believe it!"
"But it's oh-so-true!" said Stella, rising. "Let's go—we can't talk here."
"That was one awful break I made. I most sincerely and humbly beg your pardon," Pringle said on the sidewalk.
"That's all right—I understand—forget it! You hadn't looked at me. But I knew you when you first came in—only I wasn't sure till the lights were turned on. Of course it would be great fun to tease you—pretend to be shocked and dreadfully angry, and all that—but I haven't got time. And oh, John Wesley, I'm so delighted to see you again! Let's go over to the park. Not but what I was dreadfully angry, sure enough, until I had a second to think. Why don't you say you're glad to see me—after five years?"
"Stella! You know I am. Six years, please. But I thought you were still in Prescott?"
"We came here three years ago. Here's a bench. Now tell it to me!"
But Pringle stood beside and looked down at her without speech, with a smile unexpected from a face so lean, so brown, so year-bitten and iron-hard—a smile which happily changed that face, and softened it.
The girl's eyes danced at him.
"I'm so glad you've come, John Wesley! Good old Wes!"
"So I am—both those little things. Six years!" he said slowly. "Dear me—dear both of us! That will make you twenty-five. You don't look a day over twenty-four! But you're still Stella Vorhis?"
She met his gaze gravely; then her lids drooped and a wave of red flushed her face.
"I am Stella Vorhis—yet."
"Meaning—for a little while yet?"
"Meaning, for a little while yet. That will come later, John Wesley. Oh, I'll tell you, but not just now. You tell about John Wesley, first—and remember, anything you say may be used against you. Where have you been? Were you dead? Why didn't you write? Has the world used you well? Sit down, Mr. John Wesley Also-Ran Pringle, and give an account of yourself!"
He sat beside her: she laid her hand across his gnarled brown fingers with an unconscious caress.
"It's good to see you, old-timer! Begin now—I, John Wesley Pringle, am come from going to and fro upon the earth and from walking up and down in it. But I didn't ask you where you were living. Perhaps you have a—home of your own now."
John Wesley firmly lifted her slim fingers from his hand and as firmly deposited them in her lap.
"Kindly keep your hands to yourself, young woman," he said with stately dignity.
"Here is an exact account of all my time since I saw you: I have been hungry, thirsty, sleepy, tired. To remedy these evils, upon expert advice I have eaten, drunk, slept, and rested. I have worked and played, been dull and gay, busy and idle, foolish and unwise. That's all. Oh, yes—I'm living in Rainbow Mountain; cattle. Two pardners—nice boys but educated. Had another one; he's married now, poor dear—and just as happy as if he had some sense."
"Not what—happy or married?"
"And I'm not. Now it's your turn. Where do you live? Here in town?"
"Oh, no. Dad's got a farm twenty miles up the river and a ranch out on the flat. I just came down on the morning train to do a little shopping and go back on the four-forty-eight—and I'll have to be starting soon. You'll walk down to the station with me?"
"But the sad story of your life?" objected Pringle.
"Oh, I'll tell you that by installments. You're to make us a long, long visit, you know—just as long as you can stay. You're horseback, of course? Well, then, ride up to-night. Ask for Aden Station. We live just beyond there."
"But the Major was a very hostile major when I saw him last."
"Oh, father's got all over that. He hadn't heard your side of it then. He often speaks of you now and he'll be glad to see you."
"To-morrow, then. My horse is tired—I'll stay here to-night."
"You'll find dad changed," said the girl. "This is the first time in his life he has ever been at ease about money matters. He's really quite well-to-do."
"That's good. I'm doing well in that line too. I forgot to tell you." There was no elation in his voice; he looked back with a pang to the bold and splendid years of their poverty. "Then the Major will quit wandering round like a lost cat, won't he?"
"I think he likes it here—only for the crazy-mad political feeling; and I think he's settled down for good."
"High time, I think, at his age."
"You needn't talk! Dad's only ten years older than you are." She leaned her cheek on her hand, she brushed back a little stray tendril of midnight hair from her dark eyes, and considered him thoughtfully. "Why, John Wesley, I've known you nearly all my life and you don't look much older now than when I first saw you."
"That was in Virginia City. You were just six years old and your pony ran away with you. We were great old chums for a month or so. The next time I saw you was—"
"At Bakersfield—at mother's funeral," said the girl softly. "Then you came to Prescott, and you had lost your thumb in the meantime; and I was Little Next Door to you—"
"And Prescott and me, we agreed it was best for both of us that I should go away."
"Yes; and when you came back you were going to stay. Why didn't you stay, John Wesley?"
"I think," said Pringle reflectively, "that I have forgotten that."
"Do you know, John Wesley, I have never been back to any place we have left once? And of all the people I have ever known, you are the only one I have ever lost track of and found again. And you're always just the same old John Wesley; always gay and cheerful; nearly always in trouble; always strong and resourceful—"
"How true!" said Pringle. "Yes, yes; go on!"
"Well, you are! And you're so—so reliable; like Faithful John in the fairy story. You're different from anyone else I know. You're a good boy; when you are grown up you shall have a yoke of oxen, over and above your wages."
"This is very gratifying indeed," observed Pringle. "But—a sweetly solemn thought comes to me. You were going to tell me about another boy—the onliest little boy?"
"He's not a boy," said Stella, flushing hotly. "He's a man—a man's man. You'll like him, John Wesley—he's just your kind. I'm not going to tell you. You'll see him at our house, with the others. And he'll be the very one you'd pick out for me yourself. Of course you'll want to tease me by pretending to guess someone else; but you'll know which one he is, without me telling you. He stands out apart from all other men in every way. Come on, John Wesley—it's time to go down to the station."
Pringle caught step with her.
"And how long—if a reliable old faithful John may ask—before you become Stella Some-One-Else?"
"At Christmas. And I am a very lucky girl, John. What an absurd convention it is that people are never supposed to congratulate the girl—as if no man was ever worth having! Silly, isn't it?"
"Very silly. But then, it's a silly world."
"A delightful world," said Stella, her eyes sparkling. "You don't know how happy I am. Or perhaps you do know. Tell me honestly, did you ever l—like anyone, this way?"
"I refuse to answer, by advice of counsel," said John Wesley. "I'll say this much, though. X marks no spot where any Annie Laurie gave me her promise true."
When the train had gone John Wesley wandered disconsolately back to his hotel and rested his elbows on the bar. The white-aproned attendant hastened to serve him.
"What will it be, sir?"
"Give me a gin pitfall," said John Wesley.
"Horrible!" said Anastacio.
Matthew Lisner, sheriff of Dona Ana, bent a hard eye on his subordinate.
"It's got to be done," he urged. "To elect our ticket we must have all the respectable and responsible people of the valley. If we can provoke Foy into an outbreak——"
"Not we—you," corrected Anastacio. "Myself, I do not feel provoking."
"Are you going to lay down on me?"
"If you care to put it that way—yes. Kit Foy is just the man to leave alone."
"Now, listen!" said the sheriff impatiently. "Half the valley is owned by newcomers, men of substance, who, with the votes they influence or control, will decide the election. Foy is half a hero with them, because of these vague old stories. But let him be stirred up to violence now and you'll see! They won't see any romance in it—just an open outrage; they will flock to us to the last man. Ours is the party of law and order—"
"Law to order, some say."
The veins swelled in the sheriff's heavy face and thick neck; he regarded his deputy darkly.
"That comes well from you, Barela! Don't you see, with the law on our side all these men of substance will be with us unconditionally? I tell you, Christopher Foy is the brains of his party. Once he is discredited—"
"And I tell you that I am the brains of your party and I'll have nothing to do with your fine plan. 'Tis an old stratagem to call oppression, law, and resistance to oppression, lawlessness. You tried just that in ninety-six, didn't you? And I never could hear that our side had any the best of it or that the good name of Dona Ana was in any way bettered by our wars. Come, Mr. Lisner—the Kingdom of Lady Ann has been quiet now for nearly eight years. Let us leave it so. For myself, the last row brought me reputation and place, made me chief deputy under two sheriffs—so I need have the less hesitation in setting forth my passionate preference for peace."
"You have as much to gain as I have," growled the sheriff. "Besides your own cinch, you have one of your gente for deputy in every precinct in the county."
"Exactly! And if we have wars again, who but the Barelas would bear the brunt? No, no, Mr. Matt Lisner; while I may be a merely ornamental chief deputy, it will never be denied that I am a very careful chief to my gente. Be sure that I shall think more than once or twice before I set a man of my men at a useless hazard to pleasure you—or to reelect you."
"You speak plainly."
"I intend to. I speak for three hundred—and we vote solid. Make no mistake, Mr. Lisner. You need me in your business, but I can do nicely without you."
"Perhaps you'd like to be sheriff yourself."
"I might like it—except that I am not as young and foolish as I was," said Anastacio, smiling. "Now that I am so old, and so wise and all, it is clear to see that neither myself nor any of the fighting men of the mad old days—on either side—should be sheriff."
"You were not always so thoughtful of the best interests of the dear pee-pul," sneered the sheriff.
"That I wasn't. I was as silly and hot-brained a fool as either side could boast. But you, Sheriff, are neither silly nor hot-headed. In cold blood you are planning that men shall die; that other men shall rot in prison. Why? For hate and revenge? Not even that. Oh, a little spice of revenge, perhaps; Foy and his friends made you something of a laughing stock. But your main motive is—money. And I don't see why. You've got all the money any one man needs now."
"I notice you get your share."
"I hope so. But, even as a money-making proposition, your troubled-voters policy is a mistake. All the mountain men want is to be let alone, and you might be sheriff for life for all they care. But you fan up every little bicker into a lawsuit—don't I know? Just for the mileage—ten cents a mile each way in a county that's jam full of miles from one edge to the other; ten cents a mile each way for each and every arrest and subpoena. You drag them to court twice a year—the farmer at seed time and harvest, the cowman from the spring and fall round-ups. It hurts, it cripples them, they ride thirty miles to vote against you; it costs you all the extra mileage money to offset their votes. As a final folly, you purpose deliberately to stir up the old factions. What was it Napoleon said? 'It is worse than a crime: it is a blunder.' I'll tell you now, not a Barela nor an Ascarate shall stir a foot in such a quarrel. If you want to bait Kit Foy, do it yourself—or set your city police on him."
A faint tinge of color came to the clear olive of Anastacio's cheek as he rose.
"But don't promise my place to any of them, sheriff. I might hear of it."
"Stranger," said Ben Creagan, "you can't play pool! I can't—and I beat you four straight games. You better toddle your little trotters off to bed." The words alone might have been mere playfulness; glance and tone made plain the purposed offense.
The after-supper crowd in the hotel barroom had suddenly slipped away, leaving Max Barkeep, three others, and John Wesley Pringle—the last not unnoting of nudge and whisper attending the exodus. Since that, Pringle had suffered, unprotesting, more gratuitous insults than he had met in all the rest of his stormy years. His curiosity was aroused; he played the stupid, unseeing, patient, and timid person he was so eminently not. Plainly these people desired his absence; and Pringle highly resolved to know why. He now blinked mildly.
"But I'm not sleepy a-tall," he objected.
He tried and missed an easy shot; he chalked his cue with assiduous care.
"Here, you! Quit knockin' those balls round!" bawled Max, the bartender. "What you think this is—a kindergarten?"
"Why, I paid for all the games I lost, didn't I?" asked Pringle, much abashed.
He mopped his face. It was warm, though the windows and doors were open.
"Well, nobody's going to play any more with you," snapped Max. "You bore 'em."
He pyramided the balls and covered the table. With a sad and lingering backward look Pringle slouched abjectly through the wide-arched doorway to the bar.
"Come on, fellers—have something."
"Naw!" snarled Jose Espalin. "I'm a-tryin' to theenk. Shut up, won't you?"
Pringle sighed patiently at the rebuff and stole a timid glance at the thinker. Espalin was a lean little, dried-up manikin, with legs, arms, and mustaches disproportionately long for his dwarfish body. His black, wiry hair hung in ragged witchlocks; his black pin-point eyes were glittering, cold, and venomous. He looked, thought Pringle, very much like a spider.
"I'm steerin' you right, old man," said Creagan. "You'd better drag it for bed."
"I ain't sleepy, I tell you."
Espalin leaped up, snarling.
"Say! You lukeing for troubles, maybe? Bell, I theenk thees hombre got a gun. Shall we freesk him?"
As he flung the query over his shoulder his beady little eyes did not leave Pringle's.
Bell Applegate got leisurely to his feet—a tall man, well set up, with a smooth-shaved, florid face and red hair.
"If he has we'll jack him in the jug." He threw back the lapel of his coat, displaying a silver star.
"But I ain't got no gun," protested John Wesley meekly. "You-all can see for yourself."
"We will—don't worry! Don't you make one wrong move or I'll put out your light!"
"Be you the sheriff?"
"Police. Go to him, Ben!"
"No gun," reported Ben after a swift search of the shrinking captive.
"I done told you so, didn't I?"
"Mighty good thing for you, old rooster. Gun-toting is strictly barred in Las Uvas. You got to take your gun off fifteen minutes after you get in from the road and you can't put it on till fifteen minutes before you take the road again."
"Is that—er—police regulations or state law?"
"State law—and has been any time these twenty-five years. Say, you doddering old fool, what do you think this is—a night school?"
"I—I guess I'll go to bed," said Pringle miserably.
"I—I guess if you come back I'll throw you out," mimicked Ben with a guffaw.
Pringle made no answer. He shuffled into the hall and up the stairway to his bedroom. He unlocked the door noisily; he opened it noisily; he took his sixshooter and belt from the wall quietly and closed the door, noisily again; he locked it—from the outside. Then he did a curious thing; he sat down very gently and removed his boots.
* * * * *
The four in the barroom listened, grinning. When they heard Pringle's door slam shut Bell Applegate nodded and Creagan went out on the street. Behind him, at a table near the pool-room door, the law planned ways and means in a slinking undertone. "You keep in the background, Joe. Let us do the talking. Foy just naturally despises you—we might not get him to stay the fifteen minutes out. You stay back there. Remember now, don't shoot till Ben lets him get his arm loose. Sabe?"
"Maybe Meester Ben don't find heem."
"Oh, yes, he will. Ditch meeting to-night. Ought to be out about now. Setting the time to use the water and assessing fatiga work. Every last man with a water right will be there, sure, and Foy's got a dozen. Max, you are to be a witness, remember, and you mustn't be mixed up in it. Got your story straight?"
"Foy he comes in and makes a war-talk about Dick Marr," recited Max. "After we powwow awhile you see his gun. You tell him he's under arrest for carryin' concealed weapons. You and Ben grabbed his arm; he jerked loose and went after his gun. And then Joe shot him."
"That's it. We'll all stick to that. S-st! Here they come!"
There are men whose faces stand out in a crowd, men you turn to look after on the street. Such—quite apart from his sprightly past—was Christopher Foy, who now entered with Creagan. He was about thirty, above middle height, every mold and line of him slender and fine and strong. His face was resolute, vivacious, intelligent; his eyes were large and brown, pleasant and fearless. A wide black hat, pushed back now, showed a broad forehead white against crisp coal-black hair and the pleasant tan of neck and cheek. But it was not his dark, forceful face alone that lent him such distinction. Rather it was the perfect poise and balance of the man, the ease and unconscious grace of every swift and sure motion. He wore a working garb now—blue overalls and a blue rowdy. But he wore them with an air that made him well dressed.
Foy paused for a second; Applegate rose.
"Well, Chris!" he laughed. "There has been a time when you might not have fancied this particular bunch—hey? All over now, please the pigs. Come in and give it a name. Beer for mine."
"I'll smoke," said Foy.
"Me too," said Espalin.
He lit a cigar and returned to his chair. Ben Creagan passed behind the bar and handed over a sixshooter and a cartridge belt.
"Here, Chris—here's the gun I borrowed of you when I broke mine. Much obliged."
Foy twirled the cylinder to make sure the hammer was on an empty chamber and buckled the belt under his rowdy.
"My hardware is mostly plows and scrappers and irrigating hoes nowadays," he remarked. "Good thing too."
"All the same, Foy, I'd keep a gun with me if I were you. Dick Marr is drinking again—and when he soaks it up he gets discontented over old times, you know." Applegate lowered his voice, with a significant glance at Espalin. "He threatened your life to-day. I thought you ought to know it."
Foy considered his cigar.
"That's awkward," he replied briefly.
"Chris," said Ben, "this isn't the first time. Dick's heart is bad to you. I'm sorry. He was my friend and you were not. But you're not looking for any trouble now. Dick is. And I'm afraid he'll keep on till he gets it. Me and the sheriff we managed to get him off to bed, but he says he's going to shoot you on sight—and I believe he means it. You ought to have him bound over to keep the peace."
Foy smiled and shook his head.
"I can't do that—and it would only make him madder than ever. But I'll get out of his way and keep out of his way. I'll go up to the Jornado to-night and stay with the Bar Cross boys awhile. He won't come up there."
"You'll enjoy having people tellin' how you run away to keep from meeting Dick Marr?" said Applegate incredulously.
"Why shouldn't they say it? It will be exactly true," responded Foy quietly, "and you're authorized to say so. I'm learning some sense now; I'm getting to own quite a mess of property; I'm going to be married soon; and I don't want to fight anyone. Besides, quite apart from my own interests, other men will be drawn into it if I shoot it out with Marr. No knowing where it will stop. No, sir; I'll go punch cows till Marr quiets down. Maybe it's just the whisky talking. Dick isn't such a bad fellow when he's not fighting booze. Or maybe he'll go away. He hasn't much to keep him here."
"Say, I could get a job offered to him out in San Simon," said Applegate, brightening.
His eye rested on the clock over the long mirror. He stepped over to the show case, clipped the end from a cigar and obtained a light from a shapely bronze lady with a torch. When he came back he fell in on Foy's left; at Foy's right Creagan leaned his elbows on the bar.
"Well, I'm obliged to you, boys," said Foy. "This one's on me. Come on, Joe—have a hoot."
"Thanks, no," said Espalin. "I not dreenkin' none thees times. Eef I dreenk some I get full, and loose my job maybe."
"Vichy," said Foy. "Take something yourself, Max."
As Mr. Max poured the drinks an odd experience befell Mr. Jose Espalin. His tilted chair leaned against the casing of the billiard-room door. As Max filled the first glass Espalin became suddenly aware of something round and hard and cold pressed against his right temple. Mr. Espalin felt some curiosity, but he sat perfectly still. The object shifted a few inches; Mr. Espalin perceived from the tail of his eye the large, unfeeling muzzle of a sixshooter; beyond it, a glimpse of the forgotten elderly stranger, Mr. Pringle.
Only Mr. Pringle's fighting face appeared, and that but for a moment; he laid a finger to lip and crouched, hidden by the partition and by Espalin's body. Mr. Espalin gathered that Pringle desired no outcry and shunned observation; he sat motionless accordingly; he felt a hand at his belt, which removed his gun.
"Happy days!" said Foy, and raised his glass to his lips.
Creagan seized the uplifted wrist with both hands, Applegate pounced on the other arm. Pringle leaped through the doorway. But something happened swifter than Pringle's swift rush. Foy's knee shot up to Applegate's stomach. Applegate fell, sprawling. Foy hurled himself on Creagan and bore him crashing to the floor. Foy whirled over; he rose on one hand and knee, gun drawn, visibly annoyed; also considerably astonished at the unexpected advent of Mr. Pringle. Applegate lay groaning on the floor. Pringle kicked his gun from the holster and set foot upon it; one of his own guns covered the bartender and the other kept watch on Espalin, silent on his still-tilted chair.
"Who're you!" challenged Foy.
"Friend with the countersign. Don't shoot! Don't shoot me, anyhow."
Foy rose from hand and knee to knee and foot. This rescuer, so opportunely arrived from nowhere, seemed to be an ally. But to avoid mistakes, Foy's gun followed Pringle's motions, at the same time willing and able to blow out Creagan's brains if advisable. He also acquired Creagan's gun quite subconsciously.
"Let me introduce myself, gentlemen," said Pringle. "I'm Jack-in-a-Pinch, Little Friend of the Under Dog—see Who's This? page two-thirteen. My German friend, come out from behind that bar—hands up—step lively! Spot yourself! My Mexican friend, join Mr. Max. Move, you poisonous little spider—jump! That's better! Gentlemen—be seated! Right there—smack, slapdab on the floor. Sit down and think. Say! I'm serious. Am I going to have to kill some few of you just because you don't know who I am? I'll count three! One! two!—That's it. Very good—hold that—register anticipation! I am a worldly man," said Pringle with emotion, "but this spectacle touches me—it does indeed!"
"I'll get square with you!" gurgled Applegate, as fiercely as his breathless condition would permit.
"George—may I call you George? I don't know your name. You may get square with me, George—but you'll never be square with anyone. You are a rhomboidinaltitudinous isosohedronal catawampus, George!"
George raved unprintably. He made a motion to rise, but reconsidered it as he noted the tension of Pringle's trigger finger.
"Don't be an old fuss-budget, George," said Pringle reprovingly. "Because I forgot to tell you—I've got my gun now—and yours. You won't need to arrest me, though, for I'm hitting the trail in fifteen minutes. But if I wasn't going—and if you had your gun—you couldn't arrest one side of me. You couldn't arrest one of my old boots! Listen, George! You heard this Chris-gentleman give his reasons for wanting peace? Yes? Well, it's oh-so-different here. I hate peace! I loathe, detest, abhor, and abominate peace! My very soul with strong disgust is stirred—by peace! I'm growing younger every year, I don't own any property here, I'm not going to be married; I ain't feeling pretty well anyhow; and if you don't think I'll shoot, try to get up! Just look as if you thought you wanted to wish to try to make an effort to get up."
"How—who——" began Creagan; but Pringle cut him short.
"Ask me no more, sweet! You have no speaking part here. We'll do the talking. I just love to talk. I am the original tongue-tied man; I ebb and flow. Don't let me hear a word from any of you! Well, pardner?"
Foy, still kneeling in fascinated amaze, now rose. Creagan's nose was bleeding profusely.
"That was one awful wallop you handed our gimlet-eyed friend," said Pringle admiringly. "Neatest bit of work I ever saw. Sir, to you! My compliments!" He placed a chair near the front door and sat down. "I feel like a lion in a den of Daniels," he sighed.
"But how did you happen to be here so handy?" inquired Foy.
"Didn't happen—I did it on purpose," said John Wesley. "You see, these four birds tipped their hand. All evening they been instructing me where I got off. They would-ed I had the wings of a dove, so I might fly far, far away and be at rest. Now, I put it to you, do I look like a dove?"
"Not at present," laughed Foy.
"Well, I didn't like it—nobody would. I see there was a hen on, I knew the lay of the ground from looking after my horse. So I clomped off to bed, got my good old Excalibur gun—full name X.L.V. Caliber—slipped off my boots, tippytoed down the back stairs like a Barred Rock cat, oozed in by the side door—and here I be! I overheard their pleasant little plan to do you. I meant to do the big rescue act, but you mobilize too quick for me. All the same, maybe it's as well I chipped in, because—take a look at them cartridges in your gun, will you? Your own gun—the one they borrowed from you."
Foy twisted a bullet from a cartridge. There was no powder. The four men on the floor looked unhappy under his thoughtful eye.
"Nice little plant—what? Do we kill 'em?" said Pringle cheerfully. "I don't know the rules well enough to break them. What was the big idea? Was they vexed at you, son?"
"It would seem so," said Foy, smiling. "We had a little war here a spell back. I suspect they wanted to stir it up again for political effect. Election this fall."
"And you were not in their party? I see!" said Pringle, nodding intelligently, "Well, they sure had it fixed to make your side lose one vote—fixed good and proper. The Ben-boy was to let your right hand loose and the Joe-boy was to shoot you as you pulled your gun. Why, if you had lived to make a statement your own story woulda mighty near let them out."
"I believe that I am greatly obliged to you, sir."
"I believe you are," said Pringle. "And—but, also, I know the two gentlemen you were drinking with should be very grateful to you. They had just half a second more to live—and you beat me to it. Too bad! Well, what next?"
Foy pondered a little.
"I guess I'll go up to the Bar Cross wagon, as I intended, till things simmer down. The Las Uvas warriors seldom ever bother the Bar Cross Range. My horse is hitched up the street. How'd you like to go along with me, stranger? You and me would make a fair-sized crowd."
"I'd like it fine and dandy," said Pringle. "But I got a little visit to make to-morrow. Maybe I'll join you later. I like Las Uvas," stated John Wesley, beaming. "Nice, lively little place! I think I'll settle down here after a bit. Some of the young fellows are shy on good manners. But I can teach 'em. I'd enjoy it.... Now, let's see: If you'll hold these lads a few minutes I'll get my boots and saddle up and bring my horse to the door; then I'll pay Max my hotel bill and talk to them while you get your horse; and we'll ride together till we get out in the open. How's that for a lay?"
That was a good lay, it seemed; and it was carried out—with one addition: After Foy brought his horse he rang Central and called up the sheriff.
"Hello! That you, Mr. Lisner? This is Kitty Foy," he said sweetly. "Sheriff, I hate to bother you, but old Nueces River, your chief of police, is out of town. And I thought you ought to know that the police force is all balled up. They're here at the Gadsden Purchase. Bell Applegate is sick—seems to be indigestion; Espalin is having a nervous spell; and Ben Creagan is bleeding from his happiest vein. You'd better come see to 'em. Good-by!"
Pringle smiled benevolently from the door.
"There! I almost forgot to tell you boys. We disapprove of your actions oh-very-much! You know you were doing what was very, very wrong—like three little mice that were playing in the barn though the old mouse said: 'Little mice, beware! When the owl comes singing "Too-whoo" take care!' If you do it again we shall consider it deliberately unfriendly of you.... Well, I'll toddle my decrepit old bones out of this. Eleven o'clock! How time has flown, to be sure! Thank you for a pleasant evening. Good-by, George. Good-by, all! Be good little boys—go nighty-nighty!"
They raced to the corner, scurried down the first side street, turned again, and slowed to a gallop. Pringle was in high feather; he caroled blithesome as he rode:
"So those three little owls flew back up in the barn— Inky, dinky, doodum, day! And they said, 'Those little mice make us feel so nice and warm!' Inky, dinky, doodum, day! Then they all began to sing, 'Too-whit! Too-who!' I don't think much of this song, do you? But there's one thing about it—'tis certainly true— Inky, dinky, doodum, day!"
They reached the open; the gallop became a trot.
"I go north here," said Foy at the cross-roads above the town. "Which way for you?"
"North too," said Pringle. "I don't know just where, but you can tell me. I go to a railroad station first—Aden. Then to the Vorhis place?"
"Vorhis? I'm going there myself?" said Foy. "You didn't tell me your name yet."
"What? Not John Wesley Pringle? Great Scott, man! I've heard Stella talk about you a thousand times. Say, I'm sure glad to meet you! My name's Foy—Christopher Foy."
"Why, yes," said Pringle. "I think I've heard Stella speak of you, too."
Being a child must have been great fun—once. Nowadays one would as lief be a Strasburg goose. When you and I went to school it was not quite so bad. True, neither of us could now extract a cube root with a stump puller, and it is sad to reflect how little call life has made for duodecimals. Sometimes it seems that all our struggle with moody verbs and insubordinate conjunctions was a wicked waste—poor little sleepy puzzleheads! But there were certain joyous facts which we remember yet. Lake Erie was very like a whale; Lake Ontario was a seal; and Italy was a boot.
The great Chihuahuan desert is a boot too; a larger boot than Italy. The leg of it is in Mexico, the toe is in Arizona, the heel in New Mexico; and the Jornado is in the boot-heel.
El Jornado del Muerto—the Journey of the Dead Man! From what dim old legend has the name come down? No one knows. The name has outlived the story.
Perhaps some grim, hard-riding Spaniard made his last ride here; weary at last of war, turned his dead face back to Spain and the pleasant valleys of his childhood. We have a glimpse of him, small in the mighty silence; his faithful few about him, with fearful backward glances; a gray sea of waving grama breaking at their feet; the great mountains looking down on them. Plymouth Rock is unnamed yet.—Then the mist shuts down.
The Santa Fe Trail reaches across the Jornado; tradition tells of vague, wild battles with Apache and Navajo; there are grave-cairns on lone dim ridges, whereon each passer casts a stone. Young mothers dreamed over the cradles of those who now sleep here, undreaming; here is the end of all dreams.
Doniphan passed this way; Kit Carson rode here; the Texans journeyed north along that old road in '62—to return no more.
These were but passers-by. The history of the Jornado, of indwellers named and known, begins with six Americans, as follows: Sandoval, a Mexican; Toussaint, a Frenchman; Fest, a German; Martin, a German; Roullier, a Swiss; and Teagardner, a Welshman.
You might have thought the Jornado a vast and savage waste or a pleasant place and a various. That depended upon you. Materials for either opinion were plenty; lava flow, saccaton flats, rolling sand hills sage-brush, mesquite and yucca, bunch grass and shallow lakes, bench and hill, ridge and groundswell and wandering draw; always the great mountains round about; the mountains and the warm sun over all.
A certain rich man desired to be President—to please his wife, perhaps. He was a favorite son sure of his home-state vote in any grand old national convention. He gave largely to charities and campaign funds, and his left hand would have been justly astonished to know what his right hand was about.
Those were bargain-counter days. Fumbling the wares, our candidate saw, among other things, that New Mexico had six conventional votes: He sent after them.
So the Bar Cross Cattle Company was founded; range, the Jornado. Our candidate provided the money and a manager, also ambidextrous with instructions to get those votes and incidentally to double the money, as a good and faithful manager should.
He got the six votes, but our candidate never became president. Poor fellow, his millions could not bring him happiness. He died, an embittered and disappointed man, in the obscurity of the United States Senate.
The Bar Cross brand was the sole fruit of that ambition. Other ranches had dwindled or vanished; favored by environment the Bar Cross, almost alone, withstood the devastating march of progress. It was still a mark of distinction to be a Bar Cross man. The good old customs—and certain bad old customs, too—still held on the Bar Cross Range, fifty miles by one hundred, on the Jornado. Scattered here and there were smaller ranches: among them the V H—the Vorhis Ranch.
Stella Vorhis and John Wesley, far out on the plain, rode through the pleasant afternoon. The V H. Ranch was in sight now, huddled low before them; beyond, a cluster of low hills rose from the plain, visible center of a world fresh, eager, and boundless.
The girl's eye kindled with delight as it sought the far horizons, the misty parapets gleaming up through the golden air; she was one who found dear and beautiful this gray land, silent and ensunned. She flung up her hand exultingly.
"Isn't it wonderful, John Wesley? Do you know what it makes me think of? This:
"'... Magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn!'
"Think, John! This country hasn't changed a bit since the day Columbus set out from Spain."
"How true! Fine old bird, Columbus—he saw America first. Great head he showed, too, getting himself named Christopher. Otherwise you might have said, 'the day Antony discovered Cleopatra'—or something like that. Wise old Chris!"
Stella's eyes narrowed reflectively.
"John Wesley, you've been reading! You never used to know anything about Mark Antony."
"I cribbed that remark from Billy Beebe and he swiped it from a magazine. I don't know much about Mark, even this very yet. Good old easy Mark!"
"That's the how of it. You've been absorbing knowledge from those pardners of yours. Your talk shows it. You're changed a lot—that way. Every other way you're the same old Wes!"
"Now, that sounds better!" said Pringle in his most complacent tones. "I want to talk about myself, always, Stella May Vorhis; we've come thirty miles and I've heard Christopher Foy, Foy, Foy, all the way! It's exasperating! It's sickening!"
But Stella was not to be flustered. She held her head proudly.
"It's you that have been talking about him. I told you you'd like him, John Wesley."
"Yes, you did—and I do. He's a self-starter. He's a peppermist. He's a regular guy. It wasn't only the way he smashed those thugs—taken by surprise and all—but that he had judgment enough not to shoot when there was no need for it; that's what gets me! And then he went and spoiled it all."
"Hiking on up to the ranch with the Major, without even waking you up. Why, if it was me, do you s'pose I'd leave another man—no matter how old and safe he was—to tell such a story as that his own way and hog all the credit for himself? That Las Uvas push is a four-flush—he needn't stir a peg for them. No, sir! I'd have stayed right there till you got ready to come—and every time I'd narrate that tale about the scrap it would get scarier and scarier."
"I know, without telling, what my Chris does is the brave thing, the best thing," said the girl, with softly shining eyes. "And he never brags—any more than you do, Wes. You're always making fun of yourself. And I'm afraid you don't know how serious a menace this Las Uvas gang is. It isn't what Chris may do or may not do. All they want is a pretext. Why, John, there are men down there who are really quite truthful—as men go—till they get on the witness stand. But the minute they're under oath they begin to lie. Force of habit, I guess. The whole courthouse ring hates Chris and fears him—especially Matt Lisner, the sheriff. In the old trouble, whenever he was outwitted or outfought, Chris did it. Besides——" She paused; the color swept to her cheek.
"Besides—you. Yes, yes," grumbled Pringle. "Might have been expected. These women! Does the Foy-boy know?"
"He knows that Lisner wanted to marry me," said Stella. Neck and cheek were crimson now; but it was characteristic that her level eyes met Pringle's fearlessly. "But before that—he—he persecuted me, John. Chris must not know. He would kill him. But I wanted you to know in case anything happened to Chris. There is nothing they will stick at, these men. Lisner is the vilest; he hates Chris worst of all." She was in deep distress; there were tears in her eyes as she smiled at him. "And I wish—oh, John Wesley, you don't know how I wish you were staying here—dear old friend!"
"As a dear and highly valuable old friend," said Pringle sedately, "let me point out how shrewd and sensible a plan it would be for you and your Chris to go on a honeymoon at once—and never come back."
"I am beginning to think so. Up to last night I had only my fears to go on."
"But now you know. We managed to make a joke of last night—but what that push had in mind was plain murder. I would dearly like," said John Wesley, "to visit Las Uvas—some dark night—in a Zeppelin."
* * * * *
At the corral gate the Major met them, with a face so troubled that Stella cried out in alarm:
"Father! What is it? Chris?"
"Stella—be brave! Dick Marr was killed at midnight—and they're swearing it off on Chris."
"But John Wesley was with him."
"That's just it. Applegate and Creagan tell it that they saw Chris leaving town at eleven o'clock, that he said he was coming up here, and that he made a war-talk about Marr. But not a word about Pringle or the fight at the hotel. Joe Espalin doesn't appear—no claim that he saw Foy at all."
"That looks ugly," observed Pringle.
"Ugly! Your testimony is to be thrown out as a lie made of whole cloth. Espalin and the barkeeper don't appear. They're afraid the Mexican will get tangled up, and Max will swear he didn't see Chris at all. It's cut and dried. You are to be canceled. Marr was found this morning at the first crossroad above town. His watch was stopped at ten minutes to twelve—mashed, it seemed, where it hit on a stone when he fell. If they had told about the mix-up with you and Chris last night, I might have thought they really believed Chris killed Marr—or suspected it. As it stands, we know the whole thing is a black, rotten conspiracy."
"But where's Chris?" demanded Stella, trembling.
"We have none of us seen Chris—you want to remember that. You won't have to lie, Stella—you didn't see him. Pringle, I bank on you."
"Sure! I can lie and stick to it, though I'm sadly out of practice," said Pringle. "But hadn't we better fix up the same history to tell? And where's your man Hargis that stays here? Will he do?"
"Unsaddle and I'll tell you. We've only got a few minutes. I saw the dust of them coming down from the north as I drove in this bunch of saddle horses. Some of them went up by train to Upham, you know. Hargis has gone to the round-up, and I'm just as well pleased. I'm not sure he can be trusted. We are to know not the first word of what has happened. We haven't seen Chris and haven't heard of the murder. Come in—we'll start dinner and be taken by surprise. Pringle, throw your gun over on the bunk. Stella, get that look off your face. After you hear the news you can look any old way and it'll be natural enough. But you've got to be unconcerned and unsuspicious when they first come."
He started a fire. Stella set about preparing dinner.
"Who brought the news?" she asked.
"Joe Cowan—and a relay. Someone rode to Jeff Isaack's ranch as fast as ever a horse could go. Jeff came to Quartzite; Dodd passed the word on to Goldenburg's and Cowan came here. At every ranch they drove all the fresh saddle horses out of the way, so a posse couldn't get a remount without losing time. Kitty Foy has got good friends, and they don't believe he'd shoot any man in the back."
"And Foy's drifted with Cowan?"
"He hadn't a chance to get clear," said the Major. "We had no fresh horses here. They've sworn in a small army of deputies. Nearly a hundred men are out hunting for him by this time. One posse was to go up the San Andres on the east, leaving a man at every waterhole. The sheriff wired for a special train, took a carload of saddle horses and dropped a couple of men off at every station. At Upham the rest of them were to unload and string out across the Jornado, so as to cut Chris off from the Bar Cross round-up at Alaman. It's some of that bunch I saw coming, I guess. And the others were to scatter out and come up the middle of the plain. They'll drag the Jornado with a fine-toothed comb."
"How's he to get away, then?"
"Cowan took Kit's horse and led his own, which was about give out. He turned back east, up a draw where he won't be seen unless somebody's right on top of him. Eight or ten miles out he'll turn Foy's horse loose; he'll carry the extra saddle on a ways and drop it in a washout. They'll find Foy's horse and think he's roped a fresh one. Then Cowan will start up a fresh bunch of mares and raise big dust. He will ride straight to the first posse he sees, claiming he's run his horse down chasing the mares. That'll let him out—maybe."
"We rode my horse double to the edge of the hills, to where he could walk on a ledge and leave no tracks," said the Major. "Then I went on. I rounded up this bunch of saddle horses and brought them back. He went up on Little Thumb Butte. It's all bluffs and bowlders there. Up on the highest big cliff, at the very top, is a deep crack that winds up in a cave like a tunnel. You know the place, Stella?"
"Yes. But, dad, they'll hunt out the hills the first thing."
"They will not!" said the Major triumphantly. "They'll read our sign; they'll see where four shod horses came up the road. I'll claim one of them was a horse I was leading—that'll be that bald-faced roan out in the corral. We all want to stick to that."
"But he's bigger than any of our horses," objected Pringle. "They'll know better by the tracks."
"Exactly! So they'll find a fresh-shod track going east—a track matching the fourth track we left on the road. They'll reason that we're trying to keep them from following that track. So they'll follow it up; they'll find Kit's give-out horse and then they'll know they're right."
"It seems to me," said Pringle reflectively, "that friend Cowan may have an interesting time if they get him."
The Major permitted himself a grin.
"He yanked the shoes off his horse before he left. Once he mixes his tracks up with a bunch of wild mares he'll be all right. They may think, but they can't prove anything. And Foy'll be all right—if only the posse follows the plain trail."
"It's too much to hope," said Stella. "They'll split up. Some of them will hunt out the hills anyway—to-morrow, if not to-day."
"That's my idea of it," said Pringle.
"They won't find the cave if they do," said Vorhis hopefully. "If he can get to the Bar Cross they'll see him through, once they hear his story. Not telling about that clean-up you and Kit made last night is a dead give-away."
"Any chance of Foy slipping out afoot?"
"Too far. But he could stand a siege till we could get word to his friends if, by any chance, the posse should find his cave. He took my rifle. He can see them coming; he'll have every advantage against attack; and there's another way out of the cave, up on top of the hill. There's just one thing against him. There wasn't even a canteen here. He took some jerky and canned stuff—but only one measly beer bottle of water. When that's used up it's going to be a dull time for him. We can't get water to him very handy without leaving some sign. We mustn't get hostile with the posse. Take it easy—you especially, Pringle. Stella and me, they know where we stand. But you're a stranger. Maybe they'll let you go on. If you once get away—bring the Bar Cross boys and they'll take Foy out of here in broad day."
"Very pretty—but there's four men in Las Uvas that know me—and three of them are police. Maybe they'll stay in the city though—being police?"
"No, they won't," said the Major gloomily. "They'll be along—deputized, of course. Maybe they won't be in the first batch though. Your part is to be the disinterested traveler, wanting to be on your way."
"It won't work, Major. This is a put-up job. Even if Applegate and his strikers aren't along they've given my description. Somebody will know I was with Foy last night, and they'll know I'm lying."
The Major sighed. "That's so, too. I'm afraid you're in for trouble."
"I'm used to that," said Pringle lightly. "Once, in Arizona——"
"Don't throw it up to me, John," said the Major a trifle sheepishly. "I'll say this though: I wouldn't ask for a better man in a tight than you."
"Thanks so much!" murmured Pringle. "And that Sir Hubert Stanley thing."
"One more point, John: You don't know Foy. I do. Foy'll never give up. He's desperate—and he's not pleased. There's no question of surrender and standing trial; understand that. He'd be lynched, probably, if they ever got him in Las Uvas. A trial, even, would be just lynching under another name. They don't want to capture him anyway—they want a chance to kill him."
"I wouldn't want the job," said Pringle.
"Hush!" said Stella. "I hear them coming. Talk about something else—the war in Europe."
The Major picked up a paper.
"What do you think about the United States building a big navy, John?" he asked casually.
Stealthy footsteps rustled without.
"Fine!" said Pringle. "I'm strong for it. We want dreadnoughts, and lots of 'em—biggest we can build. But that ain't all. When we make the navy appropriations we ought to set by about fifty-some-odd million and build a big multiple-track railroad, so we can carry our navy inland in case of war. The ocean is no place for a battleship these days."
"Stop your kidding!"
"I'm not kidding," said John Wesley indignantly. "I never was twice as serious in my whole life. My plan is sound, statesman-like—"
"Shut up, you idiot! I want to read."
"Oh, very well, then! I'll grind the coffee."
Men crept close to the open door on each side of the kitchen. Stella slipped a pan of biscuits in the oven; she laid the table briskly, with a merry clatter of tinware; her face was cheerful and unclouded. The Major leaned back in one chair, his feet on another; he was deep in the paper; he puffed his pipe. John Wesley Pringle twirled the coffee mill between his knees and sang a merry tune:
"There were three little mice, playing in the barn— Inky, dinky, doodum, day! Though they knew they were doing what was very, very wrong— Inky, dinky, doodum, day! And the song of the owls, it sounded so nice That closer and closer crept the three little mice. And the owls came and gobbled them——"
A shadow fell across the floor.
"Hands up!" said the sheriff of Dona Ana. "We want Chris Foy!"
Navajo, Pima, and Hopi enjoy seven cardinal points—north, east, west, south, up, down, and right here. In these and any intermediate directions from the Vorhis Ranch the diligent posse comitatus made swift and jealous search through the slow hours of afternoon. It commandeered the V H Saddle horses in the corral; it searched for sign in the soft earth of the wandering draws between the dozen low hills scattered round Big Thumb Butte and Little Thumb Butte; it rode circles round the ranch; the sign of Christopher Foy's shod horse was found and followed hotfoot by a detachment. Eight men had arrived in the first bunch, with the sheriff; others from every angle joined by twos and threes from hour to hour till the number rose to above a score. A hasty election provided a protesting cook and a horse wrangler; a V H beef was slaughtered.
The posse was rather equally divided between two classes—simpletons and fools. The first unquestionably believed Foy to be a base and cowardly murderer, out of law, whom it were most righteous to harry; else, as the storied juryman put it, "How came he there?" The other party were of those who hold that evildoing may permanently prosper and endure.
In the big living room of the adobe ranch house much time had been wasted in cross-questions and foolish answers. Stella Vorhis had been banished to her own room and Sheriff Matt Lisner had privately told off a man to make sure she did not escape.
Lisner and Ben Creagan, crossest of the four examiners, had been prepared to meet by crushing denial an eager and indignant statement from Pringle, adducing the Gadsden House affair and his subsequent companying with Foy as proof positive of Foy's innocence. That no such accusation came from Pringle set these able but mystified deniers entirely at a loss, left the denial high and dry. Creagan mopped his brow furtively.
"Vorhis," said Sheriff Matt, red and angry from an hour's endeavor, "I think you're telling a pack of lies—every word of it. You know mighty well where Foy is."
The Major's gray goatee quivered.
"Guess I'll tell you lies if I want to," he retorted defiantly.
"But, Sheriff, he may be telling us the truth," urged Paul Breslin. "Foy may very well have ridden here alone before Vorhis got here. I've known the Major a long time. He isn't the man to protect a red-handed murderer."
"Aw, bah! How do you know I won't? How do you know he's a murderer? You make me sick!" declared the Major hotly. Breslin was an honest, well-meaning farmer; the Major was furious to find such a man allied with Foy's foes—certain sign that other decent blockheads would do likewise. "Matt Lisner tells you Kit Foy is a murderer and you believe him implicitly: Matt Lisner tells you I'm a liar—but you stumble at that. Why? Because you think about me—that's why! Why don't you try that plan about Foy—thinking?"
"But Foy's run away," stammered Breslin, disconcerted.
"Run away, hell! He's not here, you mean. According to your precious story, Foy was leaving before Marr was killed—or before you say Marr was killed. Why don't you look for him with the Bar Cross round-up? There's where he started for, you say?"
"I wired up and had a trusty man go out there quietly at once. He's staying there still—quietly," said the sheriff. "Foy isn't there—and the Bar Cross hasn't heard of the killing yet. It won't do, Major. Foy's run away."
John Wesley Pringle, limp, slack, and rumpled in his chair, yawned, stretching his arms wide.
"This man Foy," he ventured amiably, "if he really run away, he done a wise little stunt for himself, I think. Because every little ever and anon, thin scraps of talk float in from your cookfire in the yard—and there's a heap of it about ropes and lynching, for instance. If he hasn't run away yet, he'd better—and I'll tell him so if I see him. Stubby, red-faced, spindlin', thickset, jolly little man, ain't he? Heavy-complected, broad-shouldered, dark blond, very tall and slender, weighs about a hundred and ninety, with a pale skin and a hollow-cheeked, plump, serious face?"
At this ill-timed and unthinkable levity Breslin stared in bewilderment; Lisner glared, gripping his fist convulsively; and Mr. Ben Creagan, an uneasy third inquisitor, breathed hard through his nose. Anastacio Barela, the fourth and last inquisitor, maintained unmoved the disinterested attitude he had held since the interrogation began. Feet crossed, he lounged in his chair, graceful, silent, smoking, listening, idly observant of wall and ceiling.
No answer being forthcoming to his query Pringle launched another:
"Speaking of faces, Creagan, old sport, what's happened to you and your nose? You look like someone had spread you on the minutes." He eyed Creagan with solicitous interest.
Mr. Creagan's battered face betrayed emotion. Pringle's shameless mendacity shocked him. But it was Creagan's sorry plight that he must affect never to have seen this insolent Pringle before. The sheriff's face mottled with wrath. Pringle reflected swiftly: The sheriff's rage hinted strongly that he was in Creagan's confidence and hence was no stranger to last night's mishap at the hotel; their silence proclaimed their treacherous intent.
On the other hand, these two, if not the others, knew very well that Pringle had left town with Foy and had probably stayed with him; that the Major must know all that Foy and Pringle knew. Evidently, Pringle decided, these two, at least, could expect no direct information from their persistent questionings; what they hoped for was unconscious betrayal by some slip of the tongue. As for young Breslin, Pringle had long since sized him up for what the Major knew him to be—a good-hearted, right-meaning simpleton. In the indifferent-seeming Anastacio, Pringle recognized an unknown quantity.
That, for a certainty, Christopher Foy had not killed Marr, was a positive bit of knowledge which Pringle shared only with the murderer himself and with that murderer's accomplices, if any. So much was plain, and Pringle felt a curiosity, perhaps pardonable, as to who the murderer really was.
Duty and inclination thus happily wedded, Pringle set himself to goad ferret-eyed Creagan and the heavy-jawed sheriff into unwise speech. And inattentive Anastacio had a shrewd surmise at Pringle's design. He knew nothing of the fight at the Gadsden House, but he sensed an unexplained tension—and he knew his chief.
"And this man, too—what about him?" said Breslin, regarding Pringle with a puzzled face. "Granted that the Major might have a motive for shielding Foy—he may even believe Foy to be innocent—why should this stranger put himself in danger for Foy?"
"Here, now—none of that!" said Pringle with some asperity. "I may be a stranger to you, but I'm an old friend of the Major's. I'm his guest, eating his grub and drinking his baccy; if he sees fit to tell any lies I back him up, of course. Haven't you got any principle at all? What do you think I am?"
"I know what you are," said the sheriff. "You're a damned liar!"
"An amateur only," said Pringle modestly. "I never take money for it." He put by a wisp of his frosted hair, the better to scrutinize, with insulting slowness, the sheriff's savage face. "Your ears are very large!" he murmured at last. "And red!"
The sheriff leaped up.
"You insolent cur-dog!" he roared.
"To stand and be still to the Birken'ead drill is a dam' tough bullet to chew,'" quoted Pringle evenly. "But he done it—old Pringle—John Wesley Pringle—liar and cur-dog too! We'll discuss the cur-dog later. Now, about the liar. You're mighty certain, seems to me. Why? How do you know I'm lying? For I am lying—I'll not deceive you. I'm lying; you know I'm lying; I know that you know I'm lying: and you apprehend clearly that I am aware that you are cognizant of the fact that I am fully assured that you know I am lying. Just like that! What a very peculiar set of happenstances! I am a nervous woman and this makes my head go round!"
"The worst day's work you ever did for yourself," said the angry sheriff, "was when you butted into this business."
"Yes, yes; go on. Was this to-day or yesterday—at the hotel?"
"Liar!" roared Lisner. "You never were at the Gadsden House."
"Who said I was?"
The words cracked like a whiplash. Simultaneously Pringle's tilted chair came down to its four legs and Pringle sat poised, his weight on the balls of his feet, ready for a spring. The sheriff paused midway of a step; his mottled face grew ashen. A gurgle very like a smothered chuckle came from Anastacio. Creagan flung himself into the breach.
"Aw, Matt, let's have the girl in here. We can't get nothing from these stiff-necked idiots."
"Might as well," agreed Lisner in a tone that tried to be contemptuous but trembled. "We're wasting time here."
"Lisner," said the Major in his gentlest tone, "be well advised and leave my daughter be."
"And if I don't?" sneered Lisner. He had no real desire to question Stella, but welcomed the change of venue as a diversion from his late indiscretion. "If, in the performance of my duty, I put a few civil questions to Miss Vorhis—in the presence of her father, mind you—then what?"
"But you won't!" said the Major softly.
"Do you know, Sheriff, I think the Major has the right idea?" said Pringle. "We won't bother the young lady."
"Who's going to stop me?"
Anastacio, in his turn, brought his chair to the floor, at the same time unclasping his hands from behind his head.
"I'll do that little thing, Sheriff," he announced mildly. "Miss Vorhis has already told us that she has not seen Foy since yesterday noon. That is quite sufficient."
"This makes me fidgety. Somebody say something, quick—anything!" begged Pringle. "All right, then; I will. Let's go back—we've dropped a stitch. That goes about me being a liar and a damned one, Sheriff; but I'm hurt to have you think I'm a cur-dog. You're the sheriff, doin' your duty, as you so aptly observed. And you've done took my gun away. But if bein' a cur-dog should happen to vex me—honest, Sheriff, I'm that sensitive that I'll tell you now—not hissing or gritting or gnashing my teeth—just telling you—the first time I meet you in a strictly private and unofficial way I'm goin' to remold you closer to my heart's desire!"
"You brazen hussy! You know you lied!"
"You're still harpin' on that, Sheriff? That doesn't make it any easier to be a cur-dog. How did you know I lied? You say so, mighty positive—but what are your reasons? Why don't you tell your associates? There is an honest man in this room. I am not sure there are not two—"
Anastacio's eyes again removed themselves from the ceiling.
"If you mean me—and somehow I am quite clear as to that—"
"I mean Mr. Breslin."
"Oh, him—of course!" said Anastacio in a shocked voice. "Breslin, by all means, for the one you were sure of. But the second man, the one you had hopes of—who should that be but me? I thank you. I am touched. I am myself indifferent honest, as Shakespere puts it."
The sheriff licked his dry lips.
"If you think I am going to stay here to be insulted—"
"You are!" taunted John Wesley Pringle. "You'll stay right here. What? Leave me here to tell what I have to say to an honest man and a half? Impossible! You'll not let me out of your sight."
"My amateur Ananias," interrupted Anastacio dispassionately, "you are, unintentionally, perhaps, doing me half of a grave injustice. In this particular instance—for this day and date only—I am as pure as a new-mown hay. To prevent all misapprehension let me say now that I never thought Foy killed Dick Marr."
"In heaven's name, why?" demanded Breslin.
"My honest but thick-skulled friend, let me put in my oar," implored the Major. "Let me show you that Matt Lisner never thought Foy was guilty. Foy said last night, before the killing, that he was coming up here, didn't he?"
"Hey, Major—hold up!" cried Pringle. But Vorhis was not to be stopped.
"Don't you see, you doddering imbecile? If Foy had really killed Dick Marr he might have gone to any other place in the world—but he wouldn't have come here."
"Aha! So Foy did come here, hey?" croaked the sheriff, triumphant in his turn. "Thanks, Major, for the information, though I was sure before, humanly speaking, that he came this way."
"Which is another way of saying that you don't think Foy did the killing—that you don't even suspect him of it," said Anastacio. as the Major subsided, crestfallen. "Matt Lisner, I know that you hate Foy. I know that you welcome this chance to get rid of him. Make no mistake, Breslin. I was not wanted here. I wasn't asked and none of my people were brought along. I tagged along, though—to wait. It's one of the best little things I do—waiting. And I came to protect Foy, not to capture him. I came to keep right at his side, in case he surrendered without a fight—for fear he might be killed ... escaping ... on the way back. It's a way that we have in Las Uvas!"
Lisner threw a look of hate at his deputy.
"You don't mean to tell me there's any danger of anything like that?" said Breslin, staggered and aghast.
"Every danger. That's an old gag—the ley fuga."
"You lie!" bawled Creagan. His six-shooter covered Anastacio.
"That'll keep. Put up your gun, Bennie," said Anastacio with great composure. "Supper's most ready. Besides, the Barelas won't like it if you shoot me this way. There's a lot of the Barelas, Ben. I'll tell you what I'll do, though—I'll slip the idea to my crowd, and any time you want to kill me on an even break, no Barela or Ascarate will take it up. Put it right in your little holster—put it up, I say! That's right. You see, Breslin? Don't let Foy out of your sight if he should be taken."
"But he'll never let himself be taken alive," said Vorhis. "Even if anyone wants to take him—alive. Pass the word to your friends, Breslin, unless you want them to take part in a deliberate, foreplanned murder."
"Damn you, what do you mean?" shouted the sheriff.
"By God, sir, I mean just what I say!"
"Why, girls!" said Pringle. "You shock me! This is most unladylike. This is scandalous talk. Be nice! Please—pretty please! See, here comes some more pussy-foot posse—three, six, eleven hungry men. Have they got Foy? No; they have not got Foy. Is he up? He is up. Look who's here too! Good old Applegate and Brother Espalin. I wonder now if they're goin' to give me the cut direct, like Creagan did? You notice, Mr. Breslin."
The horsemen rode into the corral.
"No; don't go, Sheriff," said Anastacio.
"I'm anxious to see if those two will recognize Ananias the Amateur. They'll be here directly. You, either, Creagan. Else I'll shoot you both in the back, accidentally, cleaning my gun."
From without was the sound of spurred feet in haste; three men appeared at the open door.
"Why, if it ain't George! Good old George!" cried Pringle, rising with outstretched arms. "And my dear friend Espalin! What a charming reunion!"
Applegate's eyes threw a startled question at his chief and at Creagan; Espalin slipped swiftly back through the door.
"I don't know you, sir," said Applegate.
"George! You're never going to disown me! Joe's gone, too. Nobody loves me!"
The third man, a grizzled and bristly old warrior with a limp, broke in with a roar.
"What in hell's going on here?" he stormed.
"You are, for one thing, if you don't moderate your voice," said Anastacio. "Nueces, you bellow like the bulls of Bashan. Mr. Applegate, meet Mr. Pringle."
"What does he mean, then, by such monkeyshines?" demanded the other—old Nueces River, chief of police, ex-ranger, and, for this occasion, deputy sheriff. "I got no time for foolishness. And you can't run no whizzer on me, Barela. Don't you try it!"
"Oh, they're just joking, Nueces," said the Major. "Tell us how about it. Here, I'll light the lamp; it's getting dark. Find any sign of Foy?"
Nueces leveled a belligerent finger at the Major.
"You've been joking, too! I've heard about you. Lisner, I'm ashamed of you! Let Vorhis pull the wool over your eyes, while you sit here and jaw all afternoon, doing nothing!"
"Why, what did you find out?"
"A-plenty. Them stiffs you sent out found Foy's horse, to begin with."
"Sure it was Foy's horse?" queried Lisner eagerly.
"Sure! I know the horse—that big calico horse of his."
"Why didn't you follow him up?"
"Follow hell! Oh, some of the silly fools are milling round out there—going over to the San Andres to-night to take a big hunt manana. Not me. That horse was a blind. They pottered round tryin' to find some trace of Foy—blind fools!—till I met up with 'em. I'd done gathered in that mizzable red-headed Joe Cowan on a give-out horse, claim-in' he'd been chousin' after broom-tails. He'd planted Foy's horse, I reckon. But it can't be proved, so I let him go. He'll have to walk in; that's one good thing."
"But Foy—where do you figure Foy's gone?"
"Maybe he simply was not," suggested Pringle, "like Enoch when he was translated into all European languages, including the Scandinavian."
"Pringle, if you say another word I'll have you gagged!" said the exasperated sheriff. "Don't you reckon, Nueces, that Cowan brought Foy a barefooted horse? He can't have gone on afoot or you'd have seen his tracks."
"Sheriff, you certainly are an easy mark!" returned Nueces, in great disgust. "Foy didn't go on afoot or horseback, because he was never there. I've told you twice: Cowan left that calico horse on purpose for us to find. Vorhis is Foy's friend. Can't you see, if Foy had tried to get away by hard riding he would have had a fresh horse, not the one he rode from Las Uvas, and you wouldn't have found a penful of fresh horses to chase him with? Not in a thousand years! That was to make it nice and easy for you to ride on—a six-year-old kid could see through it! It's a wonder you didn't all fall for it and chase away. No, sir! Foy either stopped down on the river and sent his horse on to fool us—or, more likely, he's up in the Buttes. Did you look there?"
"I sent the boys round to out sign. I didn't feel justified in hunting out the rough places till we had more men. Too much cover for him."
"And none for you, I s'pose? Mamma! but you're a fine sheriff! Look now: After we started back here we sighted a dust comin' 'way up north. We went over, and 'twas Hargis, the Major's buckaroo, throwin' in a bunch from the round-up. He didn't know nothin' and was not right sure of that—till I mentioned your reward. Soon as ever I mentioned twenty-five hundred, he loosened up right smart."
"Well? Did he know where Foy was?"
"No; but he knew of the place where I judge Foy is, this very yet. Gosh!" said Nueces River in deep disgust, "it beats hell what men will do for a little dirty money! Seems there's a cave near the top of the least of them two buttes—the roughest one—a cave with two mouths, one right on the big top. Nobody much knows where it is, only the V H outfit."
Pringle had edged across the room. He now plucked at Bell Applegate's sleeve.
"Say, is that right about that reward—twenty-five hundred?" he whispered. His eyes glistened.
"Forty-five," said Bell behind his hand. "The Masons, they put up a thousand, and Dick's old uncle—that would have let Dick starve or work—he tacked on a thousand more. Dead or alive!" He looked down at Pringle's face, at Pringle's working fingers, opening and shutting avariciously; he sneered. "Don't you wish you may get it? S-sh! Hear what the old man's saying."
During the whispered colloquy the old ranger had kept on:
"There's where he is, a twenty-to-one shot! He'll lay quiet, likely, thinkin' we'll miss him. Brush growin' over both the cave mouths, Hargis says, so you might pass right by if you didn't know where to look. These short nights he couldn't never get clear on foot. Thirty mile to the next water—we'd find his tracks and catch him. But he might make a break to get away, at that. Never can tell about a he-man like that. We can't take no chances. We'll pick a bite of supper and then we surround that hill, quiet as mice, and close up on him. He can't see us to shoot if we're fool enough to make any noise. Come daylight, we'll have him cornered, every man behind a bowlder. If he shows up he's our meat; if he don't we'll starve him out."
"And suppose he isn't there?" said Creagan. "What would we look like, watching an empty cave two or three days?"
"What do we look like now? Give you three guesses," retorted Nueces. "And how'd we look rushin' that empty cave if it didn't happen to be empty? Excuse me! I'd druther get three grand heehaws and a tiger for bein' ridiculous than to have folks tiptoe by a-whisperin': 'How natural he looks!' I been a pretty tough old bird in my day—but goin' up a tunnel after Kitty Foy ain't my idea of foresight."
"Some man—some good man, too—will have to stay here and stand guard on the Major and this fresh guy, Pringle," said the sheriff thoughtfully. "He'll get his slice of the money, of course."
"You'll find a many glad to take that end of the job; for," said Nueces River, "it is in my wise old noddle some of us are going to be festerin' in Abraham's bosom before we earn that reward money. Leave Applegate—he's in bad shape for climbing anyway; bruise on his belly big as a washpan."
"Bronc' bucked me over on the saddle horn," explained Applegate. "Sure, I'll stay. And the Pringle person will be right here when you get back, too."
"Let the Major take some supper in to Miss Vorhis," suggested Breslin. "I'll keep an eye on him. He can eat with her and cheer her up a little. This is hard lines for a girl."
Lisner shrugged his shoulders.
"We have to keep her here till Foy's caught. She might bring a sight of trouble down on us."
"Say, what's the matter with me going out and eating a few?" asked Pringle.
"You stay here! You talk too much with your mouth," replied the sheriff. "I'll send in a snack for you and Bell. Come on, boys."
They filed out to the cook's fire in the walled courtyard.
"George, dear," said Pringle when the two were left alone, "is that right about the reward? 'Cause I sure want to get in on it."
"Damn likely. You knew where Foy was. You know where he is now. Why didn't you tell us, if you wanted in on the reward?"
"Why, George, I didn't know there was any reward. Besides, him and me split up as soon as we got clear of town."
"You're a damn liar!"
"That's what the sheriff said. Somebody must 'a' give me away," complained John Wesley. He rolled a cigarette and walked to the table. "All the same, you're making a mistake. You hadn't ought to roil me. Just for that, soon as they're all off on their man hunt, I'm goin' to study up some scheme to get away."
"I got a picture of you gettin' away!"
"George," said John Wesley, "you see that front door? Well, that's what we call in theatrical circles a practical door. Along toward morning I'm going out through that practical door. You'll see!"
He raised the lamp, held the cigarette over the chimney top and puffed till he got a light; so doing he smoked the chimney. To inspect the damage he raised the lamp higher. Swifter than thought he hurled it at his warder's head. The blazing lamp struck Applegate between the eyes. Pringle's fist flashed up and smote him grievously under the jaw; he fell crashing; the half-drawn gun clattered from his slackened fingers. Pringle caught it up and plunged into the dark through the practical door.
He ran down the adobe wall of the water pen; a bullet whizzed by; he turned the corner; he whisked over the wall, back into the water pen. Shouts, curses, the sound of rushing feet without the wall. Pringle crouched in the deep shadow of the wall, groped his way to the long row of watering troughs, and wormed himself under the upper trough, where the creaking windmill and the splashing of water from the supply pipe would drown out the sound of his labored breath.
Horsemen boiled from the yard gate with uproar and hullabaloo; Pringle heard their shouts; he saw the glare of soap weeds, fired to help their search.
The lights died away; the shouts grew fainter: they swelled again as the searchers straggled back, vociferous. Pringle caught scraps of talk as they watered their horses.
"One bad actor, that hombre!"
"Batting average about thirteen hundred, I should figger."
"Life-size he-man! Where do you suppose——"
"Saw a lad make just such another break once in Van Zandt County——"
"Say! Who're you crowdin'?"
"Hi, fellers! Bill's giving some more history of the state of Van Zandt!"
"Applegate's pretty bad hurt."
"——in a gopher hole and near broke my fool neck."
"Where'd this old geezer come from, anyway? Never heard of him before!"
"'Tain't fair, just when we was all crowdin' up for supper! He might have waited."
"This will be merry hell and repeat if he hooks up with Foy," said Creagan's voice, adding a vivid description of Pringle.
Old Nueces answered, raising his voice:
"He's afoot. We got to beat him to it. Let's ride!"
"That's right," said the sheriff. "But we'll grab something to eat first. Saddle up, Hargis, and lead us to your little old cave. Robbins, while we snatch a bite you bunch what canteens we've got and fill 'em up. Then you watch the old man and that girl, and let Breslin come with us. You can eat after we've gone."
"Don't let the girl heave a pillow at you, Robbins!" warned a voice.
"Better not stop to eat," urged Nueces.
"We can lope up and get to the foot of Thumb Butte before Pringle gets halfway—if he's going there at all. Most likely he's had a hand in the Marr killing and is just running away to save his own precious neck," said the sheriff. "We'll scatter out around the hill when we get to the roughs, and go up afoot till every man can see or hear his neighbor, so Pringle can't get through. Then we'll wait till daylight."
"That may suit you," retorted Nueces. "Me, I don't intend for any man that will buck a gun with a lamp to throw in with Kit Foy while I stuff my paunch. That sort is just the build to do a mile in nothing flat—and it's only three miles to the hill. I'm goin' now, and I'm goin' hellity-larrup! Come on, anybody with more brains than belly—I'm off to light a line of soap weeds on that hill so this Mr. Pringle-With-the-Punch don't walk himself by. If he wants up he'll have to hoof it around the other side of the hill. We won't make any light on the north side. That Bar Cross outfit is too damn inquisitive. The night herders would see it; they'd smell trouble; and like as not the whole bilin' of 'em would come pryin' down here by daylight. Guess they haven't heard about Foy or they'd be here now. They're strong for Foy. Come on, you waddies!"
Mr. Pringle-With-the-Punch, squeezed, cramped, and muddy under the trough, heard this supperless plan with displeasure; his hope had been otherwise. He heard the sound of hurried mounting; from the thunder of galloping hoofs it would seem that a goodly number of the posse had come up to the specifications laid down by the old ranger.
The others clanked away, leaving their horses standing. The man Robbins grumbled from saddle to saddle and gathered canteens. As he filled them from the supply pipe directly above Mr. Pringle's head, he set them on the ground within easy reach of Mr. Pringle's hand. Acting on this hint Mr. Pringle's hand withdrew a canteen, quite unostentatiously. An unnecessary precaution, as it turned out; Mr. Robbins, having filled that batch, went to the horses farther down the troughs to look for more canteens. So Pringle wriggled out with his canteen, selected a horse, and rode quietly through the open gate.