E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE SHERIFF'S SON
WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
Author of The Yukon Trail, Wyoming, etc.
Illustrated by Harold Cue
[Frontispiece: When Meldrum came in answer to her summons, he met the shock of his life.]
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Made in the United States of America Copyright, 1917 and 1918, by Frank A. Munsey Company Copyright, 1918, by William Macleod Raine All Rights Reserved Published April 1918
ROBERT H. DAVIS
WHO WITH HIS USUAL GENEROSITY TO WRITERS
MADE THE AUTHOR A PRESENT
OF THE GERM IDEA
OF THIS PLOT
Foreword I. Dingwell Gives Three Cheers. II. Dave Caches a Gunnysack III. The Old-Timer Sits into a Big Game IV. Royal Beaudry Hears a Call V. The Hill Girl VI. "Cherokee Street" VII. Jess Tighe Spins a Web VIII. Beulah Asks Questions IX. The Man on the Bed X. Dave Takes a Ride XI. Tighe Weaves his Web Tighter XII. Stark Fear XIII. Beulah Interferes XIV. Personally Escorted XV. The Bad Man XVI. Roy is Invited to Take a Drink XVII. Roy Improves the Shining Hours XVIII. Rutherford Answers Questions XIX. Beaudry Blows a Smoke Wreath XX. At the Lazy Double D XXI. Roy Rides his Paint Hoss XXII. Miss Rutherford Speaks her Mind XXIII. In the Pit XXIV. The Bad Man Decides not to Shoot XXV. Two and a Camp-Fire XXVI. The Sins of the Fathers XXVII. The Quicksands XXVIII. Pat Ryan Evens an Old Score XXIX. A New Leaf
The Sheriff's Son
Through the mesquite a horse moved deviously, following the crooked trail of least resistance. A man was in the saddle and in front of him a little boy nodding with sleep. The arm of the rider cradled the youngster against the lurches of the pony's gait.
The owner of the arm looked down at the tired little bundle it was supporting. A wistful tenderness was in the leathery face. To the rest of the world he was a man of iron. To this wee bit of humanity he was a nurse, a playmate, a slave.
"We're 'most to the creek now, son. Onc't we get there, we'll throw off and camp. You can eat a snack and tumble right off to bye-low land," he promised.
The five-year-old smiled faintly and snuggled closer. His long lashes drooped again to the soft cheeks. With the innocent selfishness of a child he accepted the love that sheltered him from all troubles.
A valley opened below the mesa, the trail falling abruptly almost from the hoofs of the horse. Beaudry drew up and looked down. From rim to rim the meadow was perhaps half a mile across. Seen from above, the bed of it was like an emerald lake through which wound a ribbon of silver. This ribbon was Big Creek. To the right it emerged from a draw in the foothills where green reaches of forest rose tier after tier toward the purple mountains. Far up among these peaks Big Creek had its source in Lost Lake, which lay at the foot of a glacier near the top of the world.
The saw-toothed range lifted its crest into a sky of violet haze. Half an hour since the sun had set in a blaze of splendor behind a crotch of the hills, but dusk had softened the vivid tints of orange and crimson and scarlet to a faint pink glow. Already the mountain silhouette had lost its sharp edge and the outlines were blurring. Soon night would sift down over the roof of the continent.
The eyes of the man searched warily the valley below. They rested closely on the willows by the ford, the cottonwood grove to the left, and the big rocks beyond the creek. From its case beneath his leg he took the sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot. It rested on the pommel of the saddle while his long and careful scrutiny swept the panorama. The spot was an ideal one for an ambush.
His unease communicated itself to the boy, who began to whimper softly. Beaudry, distressed, tried to comfort him.
"Now, don't you, son—don't you. Dad ain't going to let anything hurt you-all."
Presently he touched the flank of his roan with a spur and the animal began to pick its way down the steep trail among the loose rubble. Not for an instant did the rider relax his vigilance as he descended. At the ford he examined the ground carefully to make sure that nobody had crossed since the shower of the afternoon. Swinging to the saddle again, he put his horse to the water and splashed through to the opposite shore. Once more he dismounted and studied the approach to the creek. No tracks had written their story on the sand in the past few hours. Yet with every sense alert he led the way to the cottonwood grove where he intended to camp. Not till he had made a tour of the big rocks and a clump of prickly pears adjoining was his mind easy.
He came back to find the boy crying. "What's the matter, big son?" he called cheerily. "Nothing a-tall to be afraid of. This nice camping-ground fits us like a coat of paint. You-all take forty winks while dad fixes up some supper."
He spread his slicker and rolled his coat for a pillow, fitting it snugly to the child's head. While he lit a fire he beguiled the time with animated talk. One might have guessed that he was trying to make the little fellow forget the alarm that had been stirred in his mind.
"Sing the li'l' ole hawss," commanded the boy, reducing his sobs.
Beaudry followed orders in a tuneless voice that hopped gayly up and down. He had invented words and music years ago as a lullaby and the song was in frequent demand.
"Li'l' ole hawss an' li'l' ole cow, Amblin' along by the ole haymow, Li'l' ole hawss took a bite an' a chew, 'Durned if I don't,' says the ole cow, too."
Seventeen stanzas detailed the adventures of this amazing horse and predatory cow. Somewhere near the middle of the epic little Royal Beaudry usually dropped asleep. The rhythmic tale always comforted him. These nameless animals were very real friends of his. They had been companions of his tenderest years. He loved them with a devotion from which no fairy tale could wean him.
Before he had quite surrendered to the lullaby, his father aroused him to share the bacon and the flapjacks he had cooked.
"Come and get it, big son," Beaudry called with an imitation of manly roughness.
The boy ate drowsily before the fire, nodding between bites.
Presently the father wrapped the lad up snugly in his blankets and prompted him while he said his prayers. No woman's hands could have been tenderer than the calloused ones of this frontiersman. The boy was his life. For the girl-bride of John Beaudry had died to give this son birth.
Beaudry sat by the dying fire and smoked. The hills had faded to black, shadowy outlines beneath a night of a million stars. During the day the mountains were companions, heaven was the home of warm friendly sunshine that poured down lance-straight upon the traveler. But now the black, jagged peaks were guards that shut him into a vast prison of loneliness. He was alone with God, an atom of no consequence. Many a time, when he had looked up into the sky vault from the saddle that was his pillow, he had known that sense of insignificance.
To-night the thoughts of John Beaudry were somber. He looked over his past with a strange feeling that he had lived his life and come to the end of it. He was not yet forty, a well-set, bow-legged man of medium height, in perfect health, sound as to every organ. From an old war wound he had got while raiding with Morgan he limped a little. Two more recent bullet scars marked his body. But none of these interfered with his activity. He was in the virile prime of life; yet a bell rang in his heart the warning that he was soon to die. That was why he was taking his little son out of the country to safety.
He took all the precautions that one could, but he knew that in the end these would fail him. The Rutherfords would get him. Of that he had no doubt. They would probably have killed him, anyhow, but he had made his sentence sure when he had shot Anse Rutherford and wounded Eli Schaick ten days ago. That it had been done by him in self-defense made no difference.
Out of the Civil War John Beaudry had come looking only for peace. He had moved West and been flung into the wild, turbulent life of the frontier. In the Big Creek country there was no peace for strong men in the seventies. It was a time and place for rustlers and horse-thieves to flourish at the expense of honest settlers. They elected their friends to office and laughed at the law.
But the tide of civilization laps forward. A cattlemen's association had been formed. Beaudry, active as an organizer, had been chosen its first president. With all his energy he had fought the rustlers. When the time came to make a stand the association nominated Beaudry for sheriff and elected him. He had prosecuted the thieves remorselessly in spite of threats and shots in the dark. Two of them had been put by him behind bars. Others were awaiting trial. The climax had come when he met Anse Rutherford and his companion at Battle Butte, had defeated them both single-handed, and had left one dead on the field and the other badly wounded.
Men said that John Beaudry was one of the great sheriffs of the West. Perhaps he was, but he would have to pay the price that such a reputation exacts. The Rutherford gang had sworn his death and he knew they would keep the oath.
The man sat with one hand resting on the slim body of the sleeping boy. His heart was troubled. What was to become of little Royal without either father or mother? After the manner of men who live much alone in the open he spoke his thoughts aloud.
"Son, one of these here days they're sure a-goin' to get yore dad. Maybe he'll ride out of town and after a while the hawss will come galloping back with an empty saddle. A man can be mighty unpopular and die of old age, but not if he keeps bustin' up the plans of rampageous two-gun men, not if he shoots them up when they're full of the devil and bad whiskey. It ain't on the cyards for me to beat them to the draw every time, let alone that they'll see to it all the breaks are with them. No, sir. I reckon one of these days you're goin' to be an orphan, little son."
He stooped over the child and wrapped the blankets closer. The muscles of his tanned face twitched. Long he held the warm, slender body of the boy as close to him as he dared for fear of wakening him.
The man lay tense and rigid, his set face staring up into the starry night. It was his hour of trial. A rising tide was sweeping him away. He had to clutch at every straw to hold his footing. But something in the man—his lifetime habit of facing the duty that he saw—held him steady.
"You got to stand the gaff, Jack Beaudry. Can't run away from your job, can you? Got to go through, haven't you? Well, then!"
Peace came at last to the tormented man. He fell asleep. Hours later he opened his eyes upon a world bathed in light. It was such a brave warm world that the fears which had gripped him in the chill night seemed sinister dreams. In this clear, limpid atmosphere only a sick soul could believe in a blind alley from which there was no escape.
But facts are facts. He might hope for escape, but even now he could not delude himself with the thought that he might win through without a fight.
While they ate breakfast he told the boy about the mother whom he had never seen. John Beaudry had always intended to tell Royal the story of his love for the slender, sweet-lipped girl whose grace and beauty had flooded his soul. But the reticence of shyness had sealed his lips. He had cared for her with a reverence too deep for words.
She was the daughter of well-to-do people visiting in the West. The young cattleman and she had fallen in love almost at sight and had remained lovers till the day of her death. After one year of happiness tragedy had stalked their lives. Beaudry, even then the object of the rustlers' rage, had been intercepted on the way from Battle Butte to his ranch. His wife, riding to meet him, heard shots and galloped forward. From the mesa she looked down into a draw and saw her husband fighting for his life. He was at bay in a bed of boulders, so well covered by the big rocks that the rustlers could not easily get at him. His enemies, scattered fanshape across the entrance to the arroyo, were gradually edging nearer. In a panic of fear she rode wildly to the nearest ranch, gasped out her appeal for help, and collapsed in a woeful little huddle. His friends arrived in time to save Beaudry, damaged only to the extent of a flesh wound in the shoulder, but the next week the young wife gave premature birth to her child and died four days later.
In mental and physical equipment the baby was heir to the fears which had beset the last days of the mother. He was a frail little fellow and he whimpered at trifles. But the clutch of the tiny pink fingers held John Beaudry more firmly than a grip of steel. With unflagging patience he fended bogies from the youngster.
But the day was at hand when he could do this no longer. That was why he was telling Royal about the mother he had never known. From his neck he drew a light gold chain, at the end of which was a small square folding case. In it was a daguerreotype of a golden-haired, smiling girl who looked out at her son with an effect of shy eagerness.
"Give Roy pretty lady," demanded the boy.
Beaudry shook his head slowly. "I reckon that's 'most the only thing you can ask your dad for that he won't give you." He continued unsteadily, looking at the picture in the palm of his hand. "Lady-Bird I called her, son. She used to fill the house with music right out of her heart. . . . Fine as silk and true as gold. Don't you ever forget that your mother was a thoroughbred." His voice broke. "But I hadn't ought to have let her stay out here. She belonged where folks are good and kind, where they love books and music. Yet she wouldn't leave me because . . . because . . . Maybe you'll know why she wouldn't some day, little son."
He drew a long, ragged breath and slipped the case back under his shirt.
Quickly Beaudry rose and began to bustle about with suspicious cheerfulness. He whistled while he packed and saddled. In the fresh cool morning air they rode across the valley and climbed to the mesa beyond. The sun mounted higher and the heat shimmered on the trail in front of them. The surface of the earth was cracked in dry, sun-baked tiles curving upward at the edges. Cat's-claw clutched at the legs of the travelers. Occasionally a swift darted from rock to rock. The faint, low voices of the desert were inaudible when the horse moved. The riders came out of the silence and moved into the silence.
It was noon when Beaudry drew into the suburbs of Battle Butte. He took an inconspicuous way by alleys and side streets to the corral. His enemies might or might not be in town. He wanted to take no chances. All he asked was to postpone the crisis until Royal was safe aboard a train. Crossing San Miguel Street, the riders came face to face with a man Beaudry knew to be a spy of the Rutherfords. He was a sleek, sly little man named Chet Fox.
"Evening sheriff. Looks some like we-all might have rain," Fox said, rasping his unshaven chin with the palm of a hand.
"Looks like," agreed Beaudry with a curt nod and rode on.
Fox disappeared around a corner, hurried forward for half a block, and turned in at the Silver Dollar Saloon. A broad-shouldered, hawk-nosed man of thirty was talking to three of his friends. Toward this group Fox hurried. In a low voice he spoke six words that condemned John Beaudry to death.
"Beaudry just now rode into town."
Hal Rutherford forgot the story he was telling. He gave crisp, short orders. The men about him left by the back door of the saloon and scattered.
Meanwhile the sheriff rode into the Elephant Corral and unsaddled his horse. He led the animal to the trough in the yard and pumped water for it. His son trotted back beside him to the stable and played with a puppy while the roan was being fed.
Jake Sharp, owner of the corral, stood in the doorway and chatted with the sheriff for a minute. Was it true that a new schoolhouse was going to be built on Bonito? And had the sheriff heard whether McCarty was to be boss of Big Creek roundup?
Beaudry answered his questions and turned away. Royal clung to one hand as they walked. The other held the muley gun.
It was no sound that warned the sheriff. The approach of his enemies had been noiseless. But the sixth sense that comes to some fighting men made him look up quickly. Five riders were moving down the street toward the stable, Hal Rutherford in the lead. The alert glance of the imperiled man swept the pasture back of the corral. The glint of the sun heliographed danger from the rifle barrels of two men just topping the brow of the hill. Two more were stealing up through a draw to the right. A bullet whistled past the head of the officer.
The father spoke quietly to his little boy. "Run, son, to the stable."
The little chap began to sob. Bullets were already kicking up the dust behind them. Roy clung in terror to the leg of his father.
Beaudry caught up the child and made a dash for the stable. He reached it, just as Sharp and his horse-wrangler were disappearing into the loft. There was no time to climb the ladder with Royal. John flung open the top of the feed-bin, dropped the boy inside, and slammed down the lid.
The story of the fight that followed is still an epic in the Southwest. There was no question of fair play. The enemies of the sheriff intended to murder him.
The men in his rear were already clambering over the corral fence. One of them had a scarlet handkerchief around his neck. Beaudry fired from his hip and the vivid kerchief lurched forward into the dust. Almost at the same moment a sharp sting in the fleshy part of his leg told the officer that he was wounded.
From front and rear the attackers surged into the stable. The sheriff emptied the second barrel of buckshot into the huddle and retreated into an empty horse-stall. The smoke of many guns filled the air so that the heads thrust at him seemed oddly detached from bodies. A red-hot flame burned its way through his chest. He knew he was mortally wounded.
Hal Rutherford plunged at him, screaming an oath. "We've got him, boys."
Beaudry stumbled back against the manger, the arms of his foe clinging to him like ropes of steel. Twice he brought down the butt of his sawed-off gun on the black head of Rutherford. The grip of the big hillman grew lax, and as the man collapsed, his fingers slid slackly down the thighs of the officer.
John dropped the empty weapon and dragged out a Colt's forty-four. He fired low and fast, not stopping to take aim. Another flame seared its way through his body. The time left him now could be counted in seconds.
But it was not in the man to give up. The old rebel yell of Morgan's raiders quavered from his throat. They rushed him. With no room even for six-gun work he turned his revolver into a club. His arm rose and fell in the melee as the drive of the rustlers swept him to and fro.
So savage was the defense of their victim against the hillmen's onslaught that he beat them off. A sudden panic seized them, and those that could still travel fled in terror.
They left behind them four dead and two badly wounded. One would be a cripple to the day of his death. Of those who escaped there was not one that did not carry scars for months as a memento of the battle.
The sheriff was lying in the stall when Sharp found him. From out of the feed-bin the owner of the corral brought his boy to the father whose life was ebbing. The child was trembling like an aspen leaf.
"Picture," gasped Beaudry, his hand moving feebly toward the chain.
A bullet had struck the edge of the daguerreo-type case.
"She . . . tried . . . to save me . . . again," murmured the dying man with a faint smile.
He looked at the face of his sweetheart. It smiled an eager invitation to him. A strange radiance lit his eyes.
Then his head fell back. He had gone to join his Lady-Bird.
Dingwell Gives Three Cheers
Dave Dingwell had been in the saddle almost since daylight had wakened him to the magic sunshine of a world washed cool and miraculously clean by the soft breath of the hills. Steadily he had jogged across the desert toward the range. Afternoon had brought him to the foothills, where a fine rain blotted out the peaks and softened the sharp outlines of the landscape to a gentle blur of green loveliness.
The rider untied his slicker from the rear of the saddle and slipped into it. He had lived too long in sun-and-wind-parched New Mexico to resent a shower. Yet he realized that it might seriously affect the success of what he had undertaken.
If there had been any one to observe this solitary traveler, he would have said that the man gave no heed to the beauty of the day. Since he had broken camp his impassive gaze had been fixed for the most part on the ground in front of him. Occasionally he swung his long leg across the rump of the horse and dismounted to stoop down for a closer examination of the hoofprints he was following. They were not recent tracks. He happened to know that they were about three days old. Plain as a printed book was the story they told him.
The horses that had made these tracks had been ridden by men in a desperate hurry. They had walked little and galloped much. Not once had they fallen into the easy Spanish jog-trot used so much in the casual travel of the South-west. The spur of some compelling motive had driven this party at top speed.
Since Dingwell knew the reason for such haste he rode warily. His alert caution suggested the panther. The eye of the man pounced surely upon every bit of cactus or greasewood behind which a possible foe might be hidden. His lean, sun-tanned face was an open letter of recommendation as to his ability to take care of himself in a world that had often glared at him wolfishly. A man in a temper to pick a quarrel would have looked twice at Dave Dingwell before choosing him as the object of it—and then would have passed on to a less competent citizen.
The trail grew stiffer. It circled into a draw down which tumbled a jocund little stream. Trout, it might be safely guessed, lurked here in the riffles and behind the big stones. An ideal camping-ground this, but the rider rejected it apparently without consideration. He passed into the canon beyond, and so by a long uphill climb came to the higher reaches of the hills.
He rode patiently, without any hurry, without any hesitation. Here again a reader of character might have found something significant in the steadiness of the man. Once on the trail, it would not be easy to shake him off.
By the count of years Dingwell might be in the early forties. Many little wrinkles radiated fanlike from the corners of his eyes. But whatever his age time had not tamed him. In the cock of those same steel-blue eyes was something jaunty, something almost debonair, that carried one back to a youth of care-free rioting in a land of sunshine. Not that Mr. Dingwell was given to futile dissipations. He had the reputation of a responsible ranchman. But it is not to be denied that little devils of mischief at times danced in those orbs.
Into the hills the trail wound across gulches and along the shoulders of elephant humps. It brought him into a country of stunted pines and red sandstone, and so to the summit of a ridge which formed part of the rim of a saucer-shaped basin. He looked down into an open park hedged in on the far side by mountains. Scrubby pines straggled up the slopes from arroyos that cleft the hills. By divers unknown paths these led into the range beyond.
A clump of quaking aspens was the chief landmark in the bed of the park. Though this was the immediate destination of Mr. Dingwell, since the hoofprints he was following plunged straight down toward the grove, yet he took certain precautions before venturing nearer. He made sure that the 45-70 Winchester that lay across the saddle was in working order. Also he kept along the rim of the saucer-shaped park till he came to a break where a creek tumbled down in a white foam through a ravine.
"It's a heap better to be safe than to be sorry," he explained to himself cheerfully. "They call this Lonesome Park, and maybe so it deserves its name to-day. But you never can tell, Dave. We'll make haste slowly if you don't mind."
Along the bank of the creek he descended, letting his sure-footed cowpony pick its own way while he gave strict attention to the scenery. At a bend of the stream he struck again the trail of the riders he had been following and came from there directly to the edge of the aspen clump.
Apparently his precautions were unnecessary. He was alone. There could be no doubt of that. Only the tracks of feet and the ashes of a dead fire showed that within a few days a party had camped here.
Dingwell threw his bridle to the ground and with his rifle tucked under his arm examined the tracks carefully. Sometimes he was down on hands and knees peering at the faint marks of which he was reading the story. Foot by foot he quartered over the sand, entirely circling the grove before he returned to the ashes of the dead fire. Certain facts he had discovered. One was that the party which had camped here had split up and taken to the hills by different trails instead of as a unit. Still another was that so far as he could see there had been no digging in or near the grove.
It was raining more definitely now, so that the distant peaks were hidden in a mist. In the lee of the aspens it was still dry. Dingwell stood there frowning at the ashes of the dead campfire. He had had a theory, and it was not working out quite as he had hoped. For the moment he was at a mental impasse. Part of what had happened he could guess almost as well as if he had been present to see it. Sweeney's posse had given the fugitives a scare at Dry Gap and driven them back into the desert. In the early morning they had tried the hills again and had reached Lonesome Park. But they could not be sure that Sweeney or some one of the posses sent out by the railroad was not close at hand. Somewhere in the range back of them the pursuers were combing the hills, and into those very hills the bandits had to go to disappear in their mountain haunts.
Even before reaching the park Dingwell had guessed the robbers would separate here and strike each for individual safety. But what had they done with the loot? That was the thing that puzzled him.
They had divided the gold here. Or one of them had taken it with him to an appointed rendezvous in the hills. Or they had cached it, One of these three plans had been followed. But which?
Dingwell rubbed the open fingers of one hand slowly through his sunburnt thatch of hair. "Doggone my hide, if it don't look like they took it with them," he murmured. "But that ain't reasonable, Dave. The man in charge of this hold-up knew his business. It was smooth work all the way through. If it hadn't been for bad luck he would have got away with the whole thing fine. They still had the loot with them when they got here. No doubt about that. Well, then! He wouldn't divvy up here, because, if they separated, and any one of them got caught with the gold on him, it would be a give-away. But if they didn't have the dough on them, it would not matter if some of the boys were caught. You can't do anything with a man riding peaceable through the hills looking for strays, no matter how loaded to the guards with suspicions you may be. So they would cache the loot. Wouldn't they? Sure they would if they had any sense. But tell me where, Dave."
His thoughtful eyes had for some moments been resting on something that held them. He stooped and picked up a little chip of sealing-wax. Instantly he knew how it had come here. The gold sacks had been sealed by the express company with wax. At least one of the sacks had been opened here by the robbers.
Did this mean they had divided their treasure here? It might mean that. Or it might mean that before they cached it they had opened one sack to see how much it held. Dingwell clung to the opinion that the latter was the truth, partly because this marched with his hopes and partly because it seemed to him more likely. There would be a big risk in taking their haul with them farther. There was none at all in caching it.
It was odd how that little heap of ashes in the center of the camp-fire drew his eye. Ashes did not arrange themselves that way naturally. Some one had raked these into a pile. Why? And who?
He could not answer those questions offhand. But he had a large bump of curiosity about some things. Otherwise he would not have been where he was that afternoon. With his boot he swept the ashes aside. The ground beneath them was a little higher than it was in the immediate neighborhood. Why should the bandits have built their fire on a small hillock when there was level ground adjacent? There might be a reason underneath that little rise of ground or there might not. Mr. Dingwell got out his long hunting-knife, fell on his knees, and began to dig at the center of the spot where the campfire had been.
The dirt flew. With his left hand he scooped it from the hole he was making. Presently the point of his knife struck metal. Three minutes later he unearthed a heavy gunnysack. Inside of it were a lot of smaller sacks bearing the seal of the Western Express Company. He had found the gold stolen by the Rutherford gang from the Pacific Flyer.
Dave was pleased with himself. It had been a good day's work. He admitted cheerfully that there was not another man in New Mexico who could have pulled off successfully the thing he had just done. The loot had been well hidden. It had been a stroke of genius to cache it in the spot where the camp-fire was afterward built. But he had outguessed Jess Tighe that time. His luck had sure stood up fine. The occasion called for a demonstration.
He took off his broad-rimmed gray hat. "Three rousing cheers, Mr. Dingwell," he announced ceremoniously. "Now, all together."
Rising to his toes, he waved his hat joyously, worked his shoulders like a college cheer leader, and gave a dumb pantomime of yelling. He had intended to finish off with a short solo dance step, for it is not every day that a man finds twenty thousand dollars in gold bars buried in the sand.
But he changed his mind. As he let himself slowly down to his heels there was a sardonic grin on his brown face. In outguessing Tighe he had slipped one little mental cog, after all, and the chances were that he would pay high for his error. A man had been lying in the mesquite close to the creek watching him all the time. He knew it because he had caught the flash of light on the rifle barrel that covered him.
The gold-digger beckoned with his hat as he called out. "Come right along to the party. You're welcome as a frost in June."
A head raised itself cautiously out of the brush. "Don't you move, or I'll plug lead into you."
"I'm hog-tied," answered Dingwell promptly. His mind worked swiftly. The man with the drop on him was Chet Fox, a hanger-on of the Rutherford gang, just as he had been seventeen years before when he betrayed John Beaudry to death. Fox was shrewd and wily, but no gunman. If Chet was alone, his prisoner did not propose to remain one. Dave did not intend to make any fool breaks, but it would be hard luck if he could not contrive a chance to turn the tables.
"Reach for the roof."
Dingwell obeyed orders.
Fox came forward very cautiously. Not for an instant did his beady eyes lift from the man he covered.
"Turn your back to me."
The other man did as he was told.
Gingerly Fox transferred the rifle to his left hand, then drew a revolver. He placed the rifle against the fork of a young aspen and the barrel of the six-gun against the small of Dingwell's back.
"Make just one break and you're a goner," he threatened.
With deft fingers he slid the revolver of the cattleman from its holster. Then, having collected Dingwell's rifle, he fell back a few steps.
"Now you can go on with those health exercises I interrupted if you've a mind to," Fox suggested with a sneer.
His prisoner turned dejected eyes upon him. "That's right. Rub it in, Chet. Don't you reckon I know what a long-eared jackass I am?"
"There's two of us know it then," said Fox dryly. "Now, lift that gunnysack to your saddle and tie it on behind."
This done, Fox pulled himself to the saddle, still with a wary eye on his captive.
"Hit the trail along the creek," he ordered.
Dingwell moved forward reluctantly. It was easy to read chagrin and depression in the sag of his shoulders and the drag of his feet.
The pig eyes of the fat little man on horseback shone with triumph. He was enjoying himself hugely. It was worth something to have tamed so debonair a dare-devil as Dingwell had the reputation of being. He had the fellow so meek that he would eat out of his hand.
Dave Caches a Gunnysack
Fox rode about ten yards behind his prisoner, who plodded without spirit up the creek trail that led from the basin.
"You're certainly an accommodating fellow, Dave," he jeered. "I've seen them as would have grumbled a heap at digging up that sack, and then loaning me their horse to carry it whilst they walked. But you're that cheerful. My own brother wouldn't have been so kind."
Dingwell grunted sulkily. He may have felt cheerful, but he did not look it. The pudgy round body of Fox shook with silent laughter.
"Kind is the word, Dave. Honest, I hate to put myself under obligations to you like this. If I hadn't seen with my own eyes how you was feeling the need of them health exercises, I couldn't let you force your bronc on me. But this little walk will do you a lot of good. It ain't far. My horse is up there in the pines."
"What are you going to do with me?" growled the defeated man over his shoulder.
"Do with you?" The voice of Fox registered amiable surprise. "Why, I am going to ask you to go up to the horse ranch with me so that the boys can thank you proper for digging up the gold."
Directly in front of them a spur of the range jutted out to meet the brown foothills. Back of this, forty miles as the crow flies, nestled a mountain park surrounded by peaks. In it was the Rutherford horse ranch. Few men traveled to it, and these by little-used trails. Of those who frequented them, some were night riders. They carried a price on their heads, fugitives from localities where the arm of the law reached more surely.
Through the dry brittle grass the man on horseback followed Dingwell to the scant pines where his cowpony was tethered. Fox dismounted and stood over his captive while the latter transferred the gunnysack and its contents to the other saddle. Never for an instant did the little spy let the other man close enough to pounce upon him. Even though Dingwell was cowed, Chet proposed to play it safe. Not till he was in the saddle himself did he let his prisoner mount.
Instantly Dave's cowpony went into the air.
"Whoa, you Teddy! What's the matter with you?" cried the owner of the horse angrily. "Quit your two-stepping, can't you?"
The animal had been gentle enough all day, but now a devil of unrest seemed to have entered it. The sound of trampling hoofs thudded on the hard, sun-baked earth as the bronco came down like a pile-driver, camel-backed, with legs stiff and unjointed. Skyward it flung itself again, whirled in the air, and jarred down at an angle. Wildly flapped the arms of the cattleman. The quirt, wrong end to, danced up and down clutched in his flying fist. Each moment it looked as if Mr. Dingwell would take the dust.
The fat stomach of Fox shook with mirth. "Go it, you buckaroo," he shouted. "You got him pulling leather. Sunfish, you pie-faced cayuse."
The horse in its lunges pounded closer. Fox backed away, momentarily alarmed. "Here —— you, hold your brute off. It'll be on top of me in a minute," he screamed.
Apparently Dingwell had lost all control of the bucker. Somehow he still stuck to the saddle, by luck rather than skill it appeared. His arms, working like windmills, went up as Teddy shot into the air again. The hump-backed weaver came down close to the other horse. At the same instant Dingwell's loose arm grew rigid and the loaded end of the quirt dropped on the head of Fox.
The body of Fox relaxed and the rifle slid from his nerveless fingers. Teddy stopped bucking as if a spring had been touched. Dingwell was on his own feet before the other knew what had happened. His long arm plucked the little man from the saddle as if he had been a child.
Still jarred by the blow, Fox looked up with a ludicrous expression on his fat face. His mind was not yet adjusted to what had taken place.
"I told you to keep the brute away," he complained querulously. "Now, see what you've done."
Dave grinned. "Looks like I spilled your apple cart. No, don't bother about that gun. I'll take care of it for you. Much obliged."
Chet's face registered complex emotion. Incredulity struggled with resentment. "You made that horse buck on purpose," he charged.
"You're certainly a wiz, Chet," drawled the cattleman.
"And that business of being sore at yourself and ashamed was all a bluff. You were laying back to trick me," went on Fox venomously.
"How did you guess it? Well, don't you care. We're born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for man, his days are as grass. He diggeth a pit and falleth into it his own self. Likewise he digs a hole and buries gold, but beholds another guy finds it. See, Second Ananias, fourteen, twelve."
"That's how you show your gratitude, is it? I might 'a' shot you safe and comfortable from the mesquite and saved a lot of trouble."
"I don't wonder you're disgusted, Chet. But be an optimist. I might 'a' busted you high and wide with that quirt instead of giving you a nice little easy tap that just did the business. There's no manner of use being regretful over past mistakes," Dave told him cheerfully.
"It's easy enough for you to say that," groaned Fox, his hand to an aching head. "But I didn't lambaste you one on the nut. Anyhow, you've won out."
"I had won out all the time, only I hadn't pulled it off yet," Dingwell explained with a grin. "You didn't think I was going up to the horse ranch with you meek and humble, did you? But we can talk while we ride. I got to hustle back to Battle Butte and turn in this sack to the sheriff so as I can claim the reward. Hate to trouble you, Chet, but I'll have to ask you to transfer that gunnysack back to Teddy. He's through bucking for to-day, I shouldn't wonder."
Sourly Fox did as he was told. Then, still under orders, he mounted his own horse and rode back with his former prisoner to the park. Dingwell gathered up the rifle and revolver that had been left at the edge of the aspen grove and headed the horses for Battle Butte.
"We'll move lively, Chet," he said. "It will be night first thing we know."
Chet Fox was no fool. He could see how carefully Dingwell had built up the situation for his coup, and he began at once laying the groundwork for his own escape. There was in his mind no intention of trying to recover the gold himself, but if he could get away in time to let the Rutherfords know the situation, he knew that Dave would have an uneasy life of it.
"'Course I was joking about shooting you up from the mesquite, Dave," he explained as the horses climbed the trail from the park. "I ain't got a thing against you—nothing a-tall. Besides, I'm a law-abiding citizen. I don't hold with this here gunman business. I never was a killer, and I don't aim to begin now."
"Sure, I know how tender-hearted you are, Chet. I'm that way, too. I'm awful sorry for myself when I get in trouble. That's why I tapped you on the cocoanut with the end of my quirt. That's why I'd let you have about three bullets from old Tried and True here right in the back if you tried to make your getaway. But, as you say, I haven't a thing against you. I'll promise you one of the nicest funerals Washington County ever had."
The little man laughed feebly. "You will have your joke, Dave, but I know mighty well you wouldn't shoot me. You got no legal right to detain me."
"I'd have to wrastle that out with the coroner afterward, I expect," replied Dingwell casually. "Not thinking of leaving me, are you?"
"Oh, no! No. Not at all. I was just kinder talking."
It was seven miles from Lonesome Park to Battle Butte. Fox kept up a kind of ingratiating whine whenever the road was so rough that the horses had to fall into a walk. He was not sure whether when it came to the pinch he could summon nerve to try a bolt, but he laid himself out to establish friendly relations. Dingwell, reading him like a primer, cocked a merry eye at the man and grinned.
About a mile from Battle Butte they caught up with another rider, a young woman of perhaps twenty. The dark, handsome face that turned to see who was coming would have been a very attractive one except for its look of sulky rebellion. From the mop of black hair tendrils had escaped and brushed the wet cheeks flushed by the sting of the rain. The girl rode splendidly. Even the slicker that she wore could not disguise the flat back and the erect carriage of the slender body.
Dingwell lifted his hat. "Good-evenin', Miss Rutherford."
She nodded curtly. Her intelligent eyes passed from his to those of Fox. A question and an answer, neither of them in words, flashed forth and back between Beulah Rutherford and the little man.
Dave took a hand in the line-up as they fell into place beside each other. "Hold on, Fox. You keep to the left of the road. I'll ride next you with Miss Rutherford on my right." He explained to the girl with genial mockery his reason. "Chet and I are such tillicums we hate to let any one get between us."
Bluntly the girl spoke out, "What's the matter?"
The cattleman lifted his eyebrows in amused surprise. "Why, nothing at all, I reckon. There's nothing the matter, is there, Chet?"
"I've got an engagement to meet your father and he won't let me go," blurted out Fox.
"When did you make that hurry-up appointment, Chet?" laughed Dingwell. "You didn't seem in no manner of hurry when you was lying in the mesquite back there at Lonesome Park."
"You've got no business to keep him here. He can go if he wants to," flashed the young woman.
"You hear that, Chet. You can go if you want to," murmured Dave with good-natured irony.
"Said he'd shoot me in the back if I hit the trail any faster," Fox snorted to the girl.
"He wouldn't dare," flamed Beulah Rutherford.
Her sultry eyes attacked Dingwell.
He smiled, not a whit disturbed. "You see how it is, Chet. Maybe I will; maybe I won't. Be a sport and you'll find out."
For a minute the three rode in silence except for the sound of the horses moving. Beulah did not fully understand the situation, but it was clear to her that somehow Dingwell was interfering with a plan of her people. Her untamed youth resented the high-handed way in which he seemed to be doing it. What right had he to hold Chet Fox a prisoner at the point of a rifle?
She asked a question flatly. "Have you got a warrant for Chet's arrest?"
"Only old Tried and True here." Dave patted the barrel of his weapon.
"You're not a deputy sheriff?"
"No-o. Not officially."
"What has Chet done?"
Dingwell regarded the other man humorously. "What have you done, Chet? You must 'a' broke some ordinance in that long career of disrespectability of yours. I reckon we'll put it that you obstructed traffic at Lonesome Park."
Miss Rutherford said no more. The rain had given way to a gentle mist. Presently she took off her slicker and held it on the left side of the saddle to fold. The cattleman leaned toward her to lend a hand.
"Lemme roll it up," he said.
"No, I can."
With the same motion the girl had learned in roping cattle she flung the slicker over his head. Her weight on the left stirrup, she threw her arms about him and drew the oil coat tight.
"Run, Chet!" she cried.
Fox was off like a flash.
Hampered by his rifle, Dave could use only one hand to free himself. The Rutherford girl clung as if her arms had been ropes of steel. Before he had shaken her off, the runaway was a hundred yards down the road galloping for dear life.
Dave raised his gun. Beulah struck the barrel down with her quirt. He lowered the rifle, turned to her, and smiled. His grin was rueful but friendly.
"You're a right enterprising young lady for a schoolmarm, but I wouldn't have shot Chet, anyhow. The circumstances don't warrant it."
She swung from the saddle and picked her coat out of the mud where it had fallen. Her lithe young figure was supple as that of a boy.
"You've spoiled my coat," she charged resentfully.
The injustice of this tickled him. "I'll buy you a new one when we get to town," he told her promptly.
Her angry dignity gave her another inch of height. "I'll attend to that, Mr. Dingwell. Suppose you ride on and leave me alone. I won't detain you."
"Meaning that she doesn't like your company, Dave," he mused aloud, eyes twinkling. "She seemed kinder fond of you, too, a minute ago."
Almost she stamped her foot. "Will you go? Or shall I?"
"Oh, I'm going, Miss Rutherford. If I wasn't such an aged, decrepit wreck I'd come up and be one of your scholars. Anyhow, I'm real glad to have met you. No, I can't stay longer. So sorry. Good-bye."
He cantered down the road in the same direction Fox had taken. It happened that he, too, wanted to be alone, for he had a problem to solve that would not wait. Fox had galloped in to warn the Rutherford gang that he had the gold. How long it would take him to round up two or three of them would depend on chance. Dave knew that they might be waiting for him before he reached town. He had to get rid of the treasure between that spot and town, or else he had to turn on his tired horse and try to escape to the hills. Into his mind popped a possible solution of the difficulty. It would depend on whether luck was for or against him. To dismount and hide the sack was impossible, both because Beulah Rutherford was on his heels and because the muddy road would show tracks where he had stopped. His plan was to hide it without leaving the saddle.
He did. At the outskirts of Battle Butte he crossed the bridge over Big Creek and deflected to the left. He swung up one street and down another beside which ran a small field of alfalfa on one side. A hundred yards beyond it he met another rider, a man called Slim Sanders, who worked for Buck Rutherford as a cow-puncher.
The two men exchanged nods without stopping. Apparently the news that Fox had brought was unknown to the cowboy. But Dingwell knew he was on his way to the Legal Tender Saloon, which was the hang-out of the Rutherford followers. In a few minutes Sanders would get his orders.
Dave rode to the house of Sheriff Sweeney. He learned there that the sheriff was downtown. Dingwell turned toward the business section of the town and rode down the main street. From a passer-by he learned that Sweeney had gone into the Legal Tender a few minutes before. In front of that saloon he dismounted.
Fifty yards down the street three men were walking toward him. He recognized them as Buck Rutherford, Sanders, and Chet Fox. The little man walked between the other two and told his story excitedly. Dingwell did not wait for them. He had something he wanted to tell Sweeney and he passed at once into the saloon.
The Old-Timer Sits into a Big Game
The room into which Dingwell had stepped was as large as a public dance-hall. Scattered in one part or another of it, singly or in groups, were fifty or sixty men. In front, to the right, was the bar, where some cowmen and prospectors were lined up before a counter upon which were bottles and glasses. A bartender in a white linen jacket was polishing the walnut top with a cloth.
Dave shook his head in answer to the invitation to drink that came to him at once. Casually he chatted with acquaintances as he worked his way toward the rear. This part of the room was a gambling resort. Among the various methods of separating the prodigal from his money were roulette, faro, keno, chuckaluck, and poker tables. Around these a motley assemblage was gathered. Rich cattlemen brushed shoulders with the outlaws who were rustling their calves. Mexicans without a nickel stood side by side with Eastern consumptives out for their health. Chinese laundrymen played the wheel beside miners and cowpunchers. Stolid, wooden-faced Indians in blankets from the reservation watched the turbid life of the Southwest as it eddied around them. The new West was jostling the old West into the background, but here the vivid life of the frontier was making its last stand.
By the time that Dave had made a tour of two thirds of the room he knew that Sheriff Sweeney was not among those present. His inquiries brought out the fact that he must have just left. Dingwell sauntered toward the door, intending to follow him, but what he saw there changed his mind. Buck Rutherford and Slim Sanders were lounging together at one end of the bar. It took no detective to understand that they were watching the door. A glance to the rear showed Dave two more Rutherfords at the back exit. That he would have company in case he left was a safe guess.
The cattleman chuckled. The little devils of mischief already mentioned danced in his eyes. If they were waiting for him to go, he would see that they had a long session of it. Dave was in no hurry. The night was young yet, and in any case the Legal Tender never closed. The key had been thrown away ten years before. He could sit it out as long as the Rutherfords could.
Dingwell was confident no move would be made against him in public. The sentiment of the community had developed since that distant day when the Rutherford gang had shot down Jack Beaudry in open daylight. Deviltry had to be done under cover now. Moreover, Dave was in the peculiar situation of advantage that the outlaws could not kill him until they knew where he had hidden the gold. So far as the Rutherfords went, he was just now the goose that laid the golden egg.
He stood chatting with another cattleman for a few moments, then drifted back to the rear of the hall again. Underneath an elk's head with magnificent antlers a party sat around a table playing draw poker with a skinned deck. Two of them were wall-eyed strangers whom Dingwell guessed to be professional tinhorns. Another ran a curio store in town. The fourth was Dan Meldrum, one of the toughest crooks in the county. Nineteen years ago Sheriff Beaudry had sent him to the penitentiary for rustling calves. The fifth player sat next to the wall. He was a large, broad-shouldered man close to fifty. His face had the weather-beaten look of confidence that comes to an outdoor Westerner used to leading others.
While Dave was moving past this table, he noticed that Chet Fox was whispering in the ear of the man next the wall. The poker-player nodded, and at the same moment his glance met that of Dingwell. The gray eyes of the big fellow narrowed and grew chill. Fox, starting to move away, recognized the cattleman from whom he had escaped half an hour before. Taken by surprise, the little spy looked guilty as an urchin caught stealing apples.
It took no clairvoyant to divine what the subject of that whispered colloquy had been. The cheerful grin of Dave included impartially Fox, Meldrum, and the player beneath the elk's head.
The ex-convict spoke first. "Come back to sit in our game, Dave?" he jeered.
Dingwell understood that this was a challenge. It was impossible to look on the ugly, lupine face of the man, marked by the ravages of forty years of vice and unbridled passion, without knowing that he was ready for trouble now. But Meldrum was a mere detail of a situation piquant enough even for so light-hearted a son of the Rockies as this cattleman. Dave had already invited himself into a far bigger game of the Rutherford clan than this. Moreover, just now he was so far ahead that he had cleared the table of all the stakes. Meldrum knew this. So did Hal Rutherford, the big man sitting next the wall. What would be their next move? Perhaps if he joined them he would find out. This course held its dangers, but long experience had taught him that to walk through besetting perils was less risk than to run from them.
"If that's an invitation, Dan, you're on," he answered gayly. "Just a minute, and I'll join you. I want to send a message to Sweeney."
Without even looking at Meldrum to see the effect of this, Dave beckoned a Mexican standing near. "Tell the sheriff I want to see him here pronto. You win a dollar if he is back within an hour."
The Mexican disappeared. Fox followed him.
The cattleman drew in his chair and was introduced to the two strangers. The quick, searching look he gave each confirmed his first impression. These men were professional gamblers. It occurred to him that they had made a singularly poor choice of victims in Dan Meldrum and Hal Rutherford. Either of them would reach for his gun at the first evidence of crooked play.
No man in Battle Butte was a better poker psychologist than Dingwell, but to-night cards did not interest him. He was playing a bigger game. His subconscious mind was alert for developments. Since only his surface attention was given to poker he played close.
While Rutherford dealt the cards he talked at Dave. "So you're expecting Sweeney, are you? Been having trouble with any one?"
"Or expect to have any?" interjected Meldrum, insolence in his shifty pig eyes.
"No, not looking for any," answered Dingwell amiably. "Fact is, I was prospecting around Lonesome Park and found a gold mine. Looks good, so I thought I'd tell Sweeney about it. . . . Up to me? I've got openers." He pushed chips to the center of the table.
Rutherford also pushed chips forward. "I'll trail along. . . . You got an idea of taking in Sweeney as a partner? I'm looking for a good investment. It would pay you to take me in rather than Sweeney."
Three of those at the table accepted this talk at its face value. They did not sense the tension underneath the apparently casual give-and-take. Two of them stayed and called for cards. But Dave understood that he had been offered a compromise. Rutherford had proposed to divide the gold stolen from the express car, and the proffer carried with it a threat in case of refusal.
"Two when you get to me. . . . No, I reckon I'll stick to the sheriff. I've kinda arranged the deal."
As Rutherford slid two cards across to him the eyes of the men met. "Call it off. Sweeney is not the kind of a partner to stay with you to the finish if your luck turns bad. When I give my word I go through."
Dingwell looked at his cards. "Check to the pat hand. . . . Point is, Hal, that I don't expect my luck to turn bad."
"Hmp! Go in with Sweeney and you'll have bad luck all right. I'll promise you that. Better talk this over with me and put a deal through." He rapped on the table to show that he too passed without betting.
The curio dealer checked and entered a mild protest. "Is this a poker game or a conversazione, gentlemen? It's stuck with Meldrum. I reckon he's off in Lonesome Park gold-mining the way he's been listening."
Meldrum brought his attention back to the game and bet his pat hand. Dave called. After a moment's hesitation Rutherford threw down his cards.
"There's such a thing as pushing your luck too far," he commented. "Now, take old man Crawford. He was mightily tickled when his brother Jim left him the Frying Pan Ranch. But that wasn't good enough as it stood. He had to try to better it by marrying the Swede hash-slinger from Los Angeles. Later she fed him arsenic in his coffee. A man's a fool to overplay his luck."
At the showdown Meldrum disclosed a four-card flush and the cattleman three jacks.
As Dave raked in the pot he answered Rutherford casually. "Still, he hadn't ought to underplay it either. The other fellow may be out on a limb."
"Say, is it any of your business how I play my cards?" demanded Meldrum, thrusting his chin toward Dingwell.
"Absolutely none," replied Dave evenly.
"Cut that out, Dan," ordered Rutherford curtly.
The ex-convict mumbled something into his beard, but subsided.
Two hours had slipped away before Dingwell commented on the fact that the sheriff had not arrived. He did not voice his suspicion that the Mexican had been intercepted by the Rutherfords.
"Looks like Sweeney didn't get my message," he said lazily. "You never can tell when a Mexican is going to get too tired to travel farther."
"Better hook up with me on that gold-mine proposition, Dave," Hal Rutherford suggested again.
"No, I reckon not, Hal. Much obliged, just the same."
Dave began to watch the game more closely. There were points about it worth noticing. For one thing, the two strangers had a habit of getting the others into a pot and cross-raising them exasperatingly. If Dave had kept even, it was only because he refused to be drawn into inviting pots when either of the strangers was dealing. He observed that though they claimed not to have met each other before there was team work in their play. Moreover, the yellow and blue chips were mostly piled up in front of them, while Meldrum, Rutherford, and the curio dealer had all bought several times. Dave waited until his doubts of crooked work became certainty before he moved.
"The game's framed. Blair has rung in a cold deck on us. He and Smith are playing in cahoots."
Dingwell had risen. His hands rested on the table as an assurance that he did not mean to back up his charge with a gunplay unless it became necessary.
The man who called himself Blair wasted no words in denial. His right hand slid toward his hip pocket. Simultaneously the fingers of Dave's left hand knotted to a fist, his arm jolted forward, and the bony knuckles collided with the jaw of the tinhorn. The body of the cattleman had not moved. There seemed no special effort in the blow, but Blair went backward in his chair heels over head. The man writhed on the floor, turned over, and lay still.
From the moment that he had launched his blow Dave wasted no more attention on Blair. His eyes fastened upon Smith. The man made a motion to rise.
"Don't you," advised the cattleman gently. "Not till I say so, Mr. Smith. There's no manner of hurry a-tall. Meldrum, see what he's got in his right-hand pocket. Better not object, Smith, unless you want to ride at your own funeral."
Meldrum drew from the man's pocket a pack of cards.
"I thought so. They've been switching decks on us. The one we're playing with is marked. Run your finger over the ace of clubs there, Hal. . . . How about it?"
"Pin-pricked," announced Rutherford. "And they've garnered in most of the chips. What do you think?"
"That I'll beat both their heads off," cut in Meldrum, purple with rage.
"Not necessary, Dan," vetoed Dingwell. "We'll shear the wolves. Each of you help yourself to chips equal to the amount you have lost. . . . Now, Mr. Smith, you and your partner will dig up one hundred and ninety-three dollars for these gentlemen."
"Why?" sputtered Smith. "It's all a frame-up. We've been playing a straight game. But say we haven't. They have got their chips back. Let them cash in to the house. What more do you want?"
"One hundred and ninety-three dollars. I thought I mentioned that already. You tried to rob these men of that amount, but you didn't get away with it. Now you'll rob yourself of just the same sum. Frisk yourself, Mr. Smith."
"Not on your life I won't. It. . . it's an outrage. It's robbery. I'll not stand for it." His words were brave, but the voice of the man quavered. The bulbous, fishy eyes of the cheat wavered before the implacable ones of the cattleman.
The gambler's gaze passed around the table and found no help from the men he had been robbing. A crowd was beginning to gather. Swiftly he decided to pay forfeit and get out while there was still time. He drew a roll of bills from his pocket and with trembling fingers counted out the sum named. He shoved it across the table and rose.
"Now, take your friend and both of you hit the trail out of town," ordered the cattleman.
Blair had by this time got to his feet and was leaning stupidly on a chair. His companion helped him from the room. At the door he turned and glared at Dingwell.
"You're going to pay for this—and pay big," he spat out, his voice shaking with rage.
"Oh, that's all right," answered Dingwell easily.
The game broke up. Rutherford nodded a good-night to the cattleman and left with Meldrum. Presently Dave noticed that Buck and the rest of the clan had also gone. Only Slim Sanders was left, and he was playing the wheel.
"Time to hit the hay," Dave yawned.
The bartender called "Good-night" as Dingwell went out of the swinging doors. He said afterward that he thought he heard the sound of scuffling and smothered voices outside. But his interest in the matter did not take him as far as the door to find out if anything was wrong.
Royal Beaudry Hears a Call
A bow-legged little man with the spurs still jingling on his heels sauntered down one side of the old plaza. He passed a train of fagot-laden burros in charge of two Mexican boys from Tesuque, the sides and back of each diminished mule so packed with firewood that it was a comical caricature of a beruffed Elizabethan dame. Into the plaza narrow, twisted streets of adobe rambled carelessly. One of these led to the San Miguel Mission, said to be the oldest church in the United States.
An entire side of the square was occupied by a long, one-story adobe structure. This was the Governor's Palace. For three hundred years it had been the seat of turbulent and tragic history. Its solid walls had withstood many a siege and had stifled the cries of dozens of tortured prisoners. The mail-clad Spanish explorers Penelosa and De Salivar had from here set out across the desert on their search for gold and glory. In one of its rooms the last Mexican governor had dictated his defiance to General Kearny just before the Stars and Stripes fluttered from its flagpole. The Spaniard, the Indian, the Mexican, and the American in turn had written here in action the romance of the Southwest.
The little man was of the outdoors. His soft gray creased hat, the sun-tan on his face and neck, the direct steadiness of the blue eyes with the fine lines at the corners, were evidence enough even if he had not carried in the wrinkles of his corduroy suit about seven pounds of white powdered New Mexico.
He strolled down the sidewalk in front of the Palace, the while he chewed tobacco absent-mindedly. There was something very much on his mind, so that it was by chance alone that his eye lit on a new tin sign tacked to the wall. He squinted at it incredulously. His mind digested the information it contained while his jaws worked steadily.
The sign read:—
ROYAL BEAUDRY, LICENDIADO.
For those who preferred another language, a second announcement appeared below the first:—
ATTORNEY AT LAW.
"Sure, and it must be the boy himself," said the little man aloud.
He opened the door and walked in.
A young man sat reading with his heels crossed on the top of a desk. A large calf-bound volume was open before him, but the book in the hands of the youth looked less formidable. It bore the title, "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." The budding lawyer flashed a startled glance at his caller and slid Dr. Watson's hero into an open drawer.
The visitor grinned and remarked with a just perceptible Irish accent: "'Tis a good book. I've read it myself."
The embryo Blackstone blushed. "Say, are you a client?" he asked.
"Gee! I was afraid you were my first. I like your looks. I'd hate for you to have the bad luck to get me for your lawyer." He laughed, boyishly. There was a very engaging quality about his candor.
The Irishman shot an abrupt question at him. "Are you John Beaudry's son—him that was fighting sheriff of Washington County twenty years ago?"
A hint of apprehension flickered into the eyes of the young man. "Yes," he said.
"Your father was a gr-reat man, the gamest officer that ever the Big Creek country saw. Me name is Patrick Ryan."
"Glad to meet any friend of my father, Mr. Ryan." Roy Beaudry offered his hand. His fine eyes glowed.
"Wait," warned the little cowpuncher grimly. "I'm no liar, whativer else I've been. Mebbe you'll be glad you've met me—an' mebbe you won't. First off, I was no friend of your father. I trailed with the Rutherford outfit them days. It's all long past and I'll tell youse straight that he just missed me in the round-up that sent two of our bunch to the pen."
In the heart of young Beaudry a dull premonition of evil stirred. His hand fell limply. Why had this man come out of the dead past to seek him? His panic-stricken eyes clung as though fascinated to those of Ryan.
"Do you mean . . . that you were a rustler?"
Ryan looked full at him. "You've said it. I was a wild young colt thim days, full of the divil and all. But remimber this. I held no grudge at Jack Beaudry. That's what he was elected for—to put me and my sort out of business. Why should I hate him because he was man enough to do it?"
"That's not what some of your friends thought."
"You're right, worse luck. I was out on the range when it happened. I'll say this for Hal Rutherford. He was full of bad whiskey when your father was murdered. . . . But that ended it for me. I broke with the Huerfano gang outfit and I've run straight iver since."
"Why have you come to me? What do you want?" asked the young lawyer, his throat dry.
"I need your help."
"What for? Why should I give it? I don't know you."
"It's not for mysilf that I want it. There's a friend of your father in trouble. When I saw the sign with your name on it I came in to tell you."
"What sort of trouble?"
"That's a long story. Did you iver hear of Dave Dingwell?"
"Yes. I've never met him, but he put me through law school."
"How come that?"
"I was living in Denver with my aunt. A letter came from Mr. Dingwell offering to pay the expenses of my education. He said he owed that much to my father."
"Well, then, Dave Dingwell has disappeared off the earth."
"What do you mean—disappeared?" asked Roy.
"He walked out of the Legal Tender Saloon one night and no friend of his has seen him since. That was last Tuesday."
"Is that all? He may have gone hunting—or to Denver—or Los Angeles."
"No, he didn't do any one of the three. He was either murdered or else hid out in the hills by them that had a reason for it."
"Do you suspect some one?"
"I do," answered Ryan promptly. "If he was killed, two tinhorn gamblers did it. If he's under guard in the hills, the Rutherford gang have got him."
"The Rutherfords, the same ones that—?"
"The ver-ry same—Hal and Buck and a brood of young hellions they have raised."
"But why should they kidnap Mr. Dingwell? If they had anything against him, why wouldn't they kill him?"
"If the Rutherfords have got him it is because he knows something they want to know. Listen, and I'll tell you what I think."
The Irishman drew up a chair and told Beaudry the story of that night in the Legal Tender as far as he could piece it together. He had talked with one of the poker-players, the man that owned the curio store, and from him had gathered all he could remember of the talk between Dingwell and Rutherford.
"Get these points, lad," Ryan went on. "Dave comes to town from a long day's ride. He tells Rutherford that he has been prospecting and has found gold in Lonesome Park. Nothing to that. Dave is a cattleman, not a prospector. Rutherford knows that as well as I do. But he falls right in with Dingwell's story. He offers to go partners with Dave on his gold mine—keeps talking about it—insists on going in with him."
"I don't see anything in that," said Roy.
"You will presently. Keep it in mind that there wasn't any gold mine and couldn't have been. That talk was a blind to cover something else. Good enough. Now chew on this awhile. Dave sent a Mexican to bring the sheriff, but Sweeney didn't come. He explained that he wanted to go partners with Sweeney about this gold-mine proposition. If he was talking about a real gold mine, that is teetotally unreasonable. Nobody would pick Sweeney for a partner. He's a fathead and Dave worked against him before election. But Sweeney is sheriff of Washington County. Get that?"
"I suppose you mean that Dingwell had something on the Rutherfords and was going to turn them over to the law."
"You're getting warm, boy. Does the hold-up of the Pacific Flyer help you any?"
Roy drew a long breath of surprise. "You mean the Western Express robbery two weeks ago?"
"Sure I mean that. Say the Rutherford outfit did that job."
"And that Dingwell got evidence of it. But then they would kill him." The heart of the young man sank. He had a warm place in it for this unknown friend who had paid his law-school expenses.
"You're forgetting about the gold mine Dave claimed to have found in Lonesome Park. Suppose he was hunting strays and saw them cache their loot somewhere. Suppose he dug it up. Say they knew he had it, but didn't know where he had taken it. They couldn't kill him. They would have to hold him prisoner till they could make him tell where it was."
The young lawyer shook his head. "Too many ifs. Each one makes a weak joint in your argument. Put them all together and it is full of holes. Possible, but extremely improbable."
An eager excitement flashed in the blue eyes of the Irishman.
"You're looking at the thing wrong end to. Get a grip on your facts first. The Western Express Company was robbed of twenty thousand dollars and the robbers were run into the hills. The Rutherford outfit is the very gang to pull off that hold-up. Dave tells Hal Rutherford, the leader of the tribe, that he has sent for the sheriff. Hal tries to get him to call it off. Dave talks about a gold mine he has found and Rutherford tries to fix up a deal with him. There's no if about any of that, me young Sherlock Holmes."
"No, you've built up a case. But there's a stronger case already built for us, isn't there? Dingwell exposed the gamblers Blair and Smith, knocked one of them cold, made them dig up a lot of money, and drove them out of town. They left, swearing vengeance. He rides away, and he is never seen again. The natural assumption is that they lay in wait for him and killed him."
"Then where is the body?"
"Lying out in the cactus somewhere—or buried in the sand."
"That wouldn't be a bad guess—if it wasn't for another bit of testimony that came in to show that Dave was alive five hours after he left the Legal Tender. A sheepherder on the Creosote Flats heard the sound of horses' hoofs early next morning. He looked out of his tent and saw three horses. Two of the riders carried rifles. The third rode between them. He didn't carry any gun. They were a couple of hundred yards away and the herder didn't recognize any of the men. But it looked to him like the man without the gun was a prisoner."
"Well, what does that prove?"
"If the man in the middle was Dave—and that's the hunch I'm betting on to the limit—it lets out the tinhorns. Their play would be to kill and make a quick getaway. There wouldn't be any object in their taking a prisoner away off to the Flats. If this man was Dave, Blair and Smith are eliminated from the list of suspects. That leaves the Rutherfords."
"But you don't know that this was Dingwell."
"That's where you come in, me brave Sherlock. Dave's friends can't move to help him. You see, they're all known men. It might be the end of Dave if they lifted a finger. But you're not known to the Rutherfords. You slip in over Wagon Wheel Gap to Huerfano Park, pick up what you can, and come out to Battle Butte with your news."
"You mean—spy on them?"
"But what if they suspected me?"
"Then your heirs at law would collect the insurance," Ryan told him composedly.
Excuses poured out of young Beaudry one on top of another. "No, I can't go. I won't mix up in it. It's not my affair. Besides, I can't get away from my business."
"I see your business keeps you jumping," dryly commented the Irishman. "And you know best whether it's your affair."
Beaudry could have stood it better if the man had railed at him, if he had put up an argument to show why he must come to the aid of the friend who had helped him. This cool, contemptuous dismissal of him stung. He began to pace the room in rising excitement.
"I hate that country up there. I've got no use for it. It killed my mother just as surely as it did my father. I left there when I was a child, but I'll never forget that dreadful day seventeen years ago. Sometimes I wake in bed out of some devil's nightmare and live it over. Why should I go back to that bloody battleground? Hasn't it cost me enough already? It's easy for you to come and tell me to go to Huerfano Park—"
"Hold your horses, Mr. Beaudry. I'm not tellin' you to go. I've laid the facts before ye. Go or stay as you please."
"That's all very well," snapped back the young man. "But I know what you'll think of me if I don't go."
"What you'll think of yourself matters more. I haven't got to live with ye for forty years."
Roy Beaudry writhed. He was sensitive and high-strung. Temperamentally he coveted the good opinion of those about him. Moreover, he wanted to deserve it. No man had ever spoken to him in just the tone of this little Irish cowpuncher, who had come out of nowhere into his life and brought to him his first big problem for decision. Even though the man had confessed himself a rustler, the young lawyer could not escape his judgment. Pat Ryan might have ridden on many lawless trails in his youth, but the dynamic spark of self-respect still burned in his soul. He was a man, every inch of his five-foot three.
"I want to live at peace," the boy went on hotly. "Huerfano Park is still in the dark ages. I'm no gunman. I stand for law and order. This is the day of civilization. Why should I embroil myself with a lot of murderous outlaws when what I want is to sit here and make friends—?"
The Irishman hammered his fist on the table and exploded. "Then sit here, damn ye! But why the hell should any one want to make friends with a white-livered pup like you? I thought you was Jack Beaudry's son, but I'll niver believe it. Jack didn't sit on a padded chair and talk about law and order. By God, no! He went out with a six-gun and made them. No gamer, whiter man ever strapped a forty-four to his hip. He niver talked about what it would cost him to go through for his friends. He just went the limit without any guff."
Ryan jingled out of the room in hot scorn and left one young peace advocate in a turmoil of emotion.
Young Beaudry did not need to discuss with himself the ethics of the situation. A clear call had come to him on behalf of the man who had been his best friend, even though he had never met him. He must answer that call, or he must turn his back on it. Sophistry would not help at all. There were no excuses his own mind would accept.
But Royal Beaudry had been timid from his childhood. He had inherited fear. The shadow of it had always stretched toward him. His cheeks burned with shame to recall that it had not been a week since he had looked under the bed at night before getting in to make sure nobody was hidden there. What was the use of blinking the truth? He was a born coward. It was the skeleton in the closet of his soul. His schooldays had been haunted by the ghost of dread. Never in his life had he played truant, though he had admired beyond measure the reckless little dare-devils who took their fun and paid for it. He had contrived to avoid fights with his mates and thrashings from the teachers. On the one occasion when public opinion had driven him to put up his fists, he had been saved from disgrace only because the bully against whom he had turned proved to be an arrant craven.
He remembered how he had been induced to go out and try for the football team at the university. His fellows knew him as a fair gymnast and a crack tennis player. He was muscular, well-built, and fast on his feet, almost perfectly put together for a halfback. On the second day of practice he had shirked a hard tackle, though it happened that nobody suspected the truth but himself. Next morning he turned in his suit with the plea that he had promised his aunt not to play.
Now trepidation was at his throat again, and there was no escape from a choice that would put a label on him. It had been his right to play football or not as he pleased. But this was different. A summons had come to his loyalty, to the fundamental manhood of him. If he left David Dingwell to his fate, he could never look at himself again in the glass without knowing that he was facing a dastard.
The trouble was that he had too much imagination. As a child he had conjured dragons out of the darkness that had no existence except in his hectic fancy. So it was now. He had only to give his mind play to see himself helpless in the hands of the Rutherfords.
But he was essentially stanch and generous. Fate had played him a scurvy trick in making him a trembler, but he knew it was not in him to turn his back on Dingwell. No matter how much he might rebel and squirm he would have to come to time in the end.
After a wretched afternoon he hunted up Ryan at his hotel.
"When do you want me to start?" he asked sharply.
The little cowpuncher was sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper. He took one look at the harassed youth and jumped up.
"Say, you're all right. Put her there."
Royal's cold hand met the rough one of Ryan. The shrewd eyes of the Irishman judged the other.
"I knew youse couldn't be a quitter and John Beaudry's son," he continued. "Why, come to that, the sooner you start the quicker."
"I'll have to change my name."
"Sure you will. And you'd better peddle something—insurance, or lightning rods, or 'The Royal Gall'ry of Po'try 'n Art' or—"
"'Life of the James and Younger Brothers.' That ought to sell well with the Rutherfords," suggested Roy satirically, trying to rise to the occasion.
"Jess Tighe and Dan Meldrum don't need any pointers from the James Boys."
"Tighe and Meldrum— Who are they?"
"Meldrum is a coyote your father trapped and sent to the pen. He's a bad actor for fair. And Tighe—well, if you put a hole in his head you'd blow out the brains of the Rutherford gang. For hiven's sake don't let Jess know who you are. All of sivinteen years he's been a cripple on crutches, and 't was your father that laid him up the day of his death. He's a rivingeful divil is Jess."
Beaudry made no comment. It seemed to him that his heart was of chilled lead.
The Hill Girl
The Irish cowpuncher guided young Royal Beaudry through Wagon Wheel Gap himself. They traveled in the night, since it would not do for the two to be seen together. In the early morning Ryan left the young man and turned back toward Battle Butte. The way to Huerfano Park, even from here, was difficult to find, but Roy had a map drawn from memory by Pat.
"I'll not guarantee it," the little rider had cautioned. "It's been many a year since I was in to the park and maybe my memory is playing tricks. But it's the best I can do for you."
Beaudry spent the first half of the day in a pine grove far up in the hills. It would stir suspicion if he were seen on the road at dawn, for that would mean that he must have come through the Gap in the night. So he unsaddled and stretched himself on the sun-dappled ground for an hour or two's rest. He did not expect to sleep, even though he had been up all night. He was too uneasy in mind and his nerves were too taut.
But it was a perfect day of warm spring sunshine. He looked up into a blue unflecked sky. The tireless hum of insects made murmurous music all about him. The air was vocal with the notes of nesting birds. His eyes closed drowsily.
When he opened them again, the sun was high in the heavens. He saddled and took the trail. Within the hour he knew that he was lost. Either he had mistaken some of the landmarks of Ryan's sketchy map or else the cowpuncher had forgotten the lay of the country.
Still, Roy knew roughly the general direction of Huerfano Park. If he kept going he was bound to get nearer. Perhaps he might run into a road or meet some sheepherder who would put him on the right way.
He was in the heart of the watershed where Big Creek heads. Occasionally from a hilltop he could see the peaks rising gaunt in front of him. Between him and them were many miles of tangled mesquite, wooded canons, and hills innumerable. Somewhere among the recesses of these land waves Huerfano Park was hidden.
It was three o'clock by Royal's watch when he had worked to the top of a bluff which looked down upon a wooded valley. His eyes swept the landscape and came to rest upon an object moving slowly in the mesquite. He watched it incuriously, but his interest quickened when it came out of the bushes into a dry water-course and he discovered that the figure was that of a human being. The person walked with an odd, dragging limp. Presently he discerned that the traveler below was a woman and that she was pulling something after her. For perhaps fifty yards she would keep going and then would stop. Once she crouched down over her load.
Roy cupped his hands at his mouth and shouted. The figure straightened alertly and looked around. He called to her again. His voice must have reached her very faintly. She did not try to answer in words, but fired twice with a revolver. Evidently she had not yet seen him.
That there was something wrong Beaudry felt sure. He did not know what, nor did he waste any time speculating about it. The easiest descent to the valley was around the rear of the bluff, but Roy clambered down a heavily wooded gulch a little to the right. He saved time by going directly.
When Roy saw the woman again he was close upon her. She was stooped over something and her back and arms showed tension. At sound of his approach she flung up quickly the mass of inky black hair that had hidden her bent face. As she rose it became apparent that she was tall and slender, and that the clear complexion, just now at least, was quite without color.
Moving forward through the underbrush, Beaudry took stock of this dusky nymph with surprise. In her attitude was something wild and free and proud. It was as if she challenged his presence even though she had summoned him. Across his mind flashed the thought that this was woman primeval before the conventions of civilization had tamed her to its uses.
Her intent eyes watched him steadily as he came into the open.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"I was on the bluff and saw you. I thought you were in trouble. You limped as if—"
He stopped, amazed. For the first time he saw that her foot was caught in a wolf trap. This explained the peculiarity of gait he had noticed from above. She had been dragging the heavy Newhouse trap and the clog with her as she walked. One glance at her face was enough to show how greatly she was suffering.
Fortunately she was wearing a small pair of high-heeled boots such as cowpunchers use, and the stiff leather had broken the shock of the blow from the steel jaws. Otherwise the force of the released spring must have shattered her ankle.
"I can't quite open the trap," she explained. "If you will help me—"
Roy put his weight on the springs and removed the pressure of the jaws. The girl drew out her numb leg. She straightened herself, swayed, and clutched blindly at him. Next moment her body relaxed and she was unconscious in his arms.
He laid her on the moss and looked about for water. There was some in his canteen, but that was attached to the saddle on the top of the bluff. For present purposes it might as well have been at the North Pole. He could not leave her while she was like this. But since he had to be giving some first aid, he drew from her foot the boot that had been in the steel trap, so as to relieve the ankle.
Her eyelids fluttered, she gave a deep sigh, and looked with a perplexed doubt upon the world to which she had just returned.
"You fainted," Roy told her by way of explanation.
The young woman winced and looked at her foot. The angry color flushed into her cheeks. Her annoyance was at herself, but she visited it upon him.
"Who told you to take off my boot?"
"I thought it might help the pain."
She snatched up the boot and started to pull it on, but gave this up with a long breath that was almost a groan.
"I'm a nice kind of a baby," she jeered.
"It must hurt like sixty," he ventured. Then, after momentary hesitation: "You'd better let me bind up your ankle. I have water in my canteen. I'll run up and get some as soon as I'm through."
There was something of sullen suspicion in the glance her dark eyes flashed at him.
"You can get me water if you want to," she told him, a little ungraciously.
He understood that his offer to tie up the ankle had been refused. When he returned with his horse twenty minutes later, he knew why she had let him go for the water. It had been the easiest way to get rid of him for the time. The fat bulge beneath her stocking showed that she had taken advantage of his absence to bind the bruised leg herself.
"Is it better now—less painful?" he asked.
She dismissed his sympathy with a curt little nod. "I'm the biggest fool in Washington County. We've been setting traps for wolves. They've been getting our lambs. I jumped off my horse right into this one. Blacky is a skittish colt and when the trap went off, he bolted."
He smiled a little at the disgust she heaped upon herself.
"You'll have to ride my horse to your home. How far is it?"
"Five miles, maybe." The girl looked at her ankle resentfully. It was plain that she did not relish the idea of being under obligations to him. But to attempt to walk so far was out of the question. Even now when she was not using the foot she suffered a good deal of pain.
"Cornell isn't a bit skittish. He's an old plug. You'll find his gait easy," Beaudry told her.
If she had not wanted to keep her weight from the wounded ankle, she would have rejected scornfully his offer to help her mount, for she was used to flinging her lithe body into the saddle as easily as her brothers did. The girl had read in books of men aiding women to reach their seat on the back of a horse, but she had not the least idea how the thing was done. Because of her ignorance she was embarrassed. The result was that they boggled the business, and it was only at the third attempt that he got her on as gracefully as if she had been a sack of meal.
"Sorry. I'm awfully awkward," he apologized.
Again an angry flush stained her cheeks. The stupidity had been hers, not his. She resented it that he was ready to take the blame,—read into his manner a condescension he did not at all feel.
"I know whose fault it was. I'm not a fool," she snapped brusquely.
It added to her irritation at making such an exhibition of clumsiness that she was one of the best horsewomen in the Territory. Her life had been an outdoor one, and she had stuck to the saddle on the back of many an outlaw bronco without pulling leather. There were many things of which she knew nothing. The ways of sophisticated women, the conventions of society, were alien to her life. She was mountain-bred, brought up among men, an outcast even from the better class of Battle Butte. But the life of the ranch she knew. That this soft-cheeked boy from town should think she did not know how to get on a horse was a little too humiliating. Some day, if she ever got a chance, she would let him see her vault into the saddle without touching the stirrups.
The young man walking beside the horse might still be smooth-cheeked, but he had the muscles of an athlete. He took the hills with a light, springy step and breathed easily after stiff climbing. His mind was busy making out what manner of girl this was. She was new to his experience. He had met none like her. That she was a proud, sulky creature he could easily guess from her quickness at taking offense. She resented even the appearance of being ridiculous. Her acceptance of his favors carried always the implication that she hated him for offering them. It was a safe guess that back of those flashing eyes were a passionate temper and an imperious will.
It was evident that she knew the country as a teacher knows the primer through which she leads her children. In daylight or in darkness, with or without a trail, she could have followed almost an air-line to the ranch. The paths she took wound in and out through unsuspected gorges and over divides that only goats or cow-ponies could have safely scrambled up and down. Hidden pockets had been cached here so profusely by nature that the country was a maze. A man might have found safety from pursuit in one of these for a lifetime if he had been provisioned.
"Where were you going when you found me?" the young woman asked.
"Up to the mountain ranches of Big Creek. I was lost, so we ought to put it that you found me," Beaudry answered with the flash of a pleasant smile.
"What are you going to do up there?" Her keen suspicious eyes watched him warily.
"Sell windmills if I can. I've got the best proposition on the market."
"Why do you come away up here? Don't you know that the Big Creek headwaters are off the map?"
"That's it exactly," he replied. "I expect no agents get up here. It's too hard to get in. I ought to be able to sell a whole lot easier than if I took the valleys." He laughed a little, by way of taking her into his confidence. "I'll tell the ranchers that if they buy my windmills it will put Big Creek on the map."
"They won't buy them," she added with a sudden flare of temper. "This country up here is fifty years behind the times. It doesn't want to be modern."
Over a boulder bed, by rock fissures, they came at last to a sword gash in the top of the world. It cleft a passage through the range to another gorge, at the foot of which lay a mountain park dotted with ranch buildings. On every side the valley was hemmed in by giant peaks.
"Huerfano Park?" he asked.
"You live here?"
"Yes." She pointed to a group of buildings to the left. "That is my father's place. They call it the 'Horse Ranch.'"
He turned startled eyes upon her. "Then you are—?"
"Beulah Rutherford, the daughter of Hal Rutherford."
She was the first to break the silence after her announcement.
"What's the matter? You look as if you had seen a ghost."
He had. The ghost of a dreadful day had leaped at him out of the past. Men on murder bent were riding down the street toward their victim. At the head of that company rode her father; the one they were about to kill was his. A wave of sickness shuddered through him.
"It—it's my heart," he answered in a smothered voice. "Sometimes it acts queer. I'll be all right in a minute."
The young woman drew the horse to a halt and looked down at him. Her eyes, for the first time since they had met, registered concern.
"The altitude, probably. We're over nine thousand feet high. You're not used to walking in the clouds. We'll rest here."
She swung from the saddle and trailed the reins.
"Sit down," the girl ordered after she had seated herself tailor-fashion on the moss.
Reluctantly he did as he was told. He clenched his teeth in a cold rage at himself. Unless he conquered that habit of flying into panic at every crisis, he was lost.
Beulah leaned forward and plucked an anemone blossom from a rock cranny. "Isn't it wonderful how brave they are? You wouldn't think they would have courage to grow up so fine and delicate among the rocks without any soil to feed them."
Often, in the days that followed, he thought of what she had said about the anemones and applied it to herself. She, too, had grown up among the rocks spiritually. He could see the effect of the barren soil in her suspicious and unfriendly attitude toward life. There was in her manner a resentment at fate, a bitterness that no girl of her years should have felt. In her wary eyes he read distrust of him. Was it because she was the product of heredity and environment? Her people had outlawed themselves from society. They had lived with their hands against the world of settled order. She could not escape the law that their turbulent sins must be visited upon her.
Young Beaudry followed the lead she had given him. "Yes, that is the most amazing thing in life—that no matter how poor the soil and how bad the conditions fine and lovely things grow up everywhere."
The sardonic smile on her dark face mocked him. "You find a sermon in it, do you?"
She plucked the wild flower out by the roots. "It struggles—and struggles—and blooms for a day—and withers. What's the use?" she demanded, almost savagely. Then, before he could answer, the girl closed the door she had opened for him. "We must be moving. The sun has already set in the valley."
His glances swept the park below. Heavily wooded gulches pushed down from the roots of the mountains that girt Huerfano to meet the fences of the ranchers. The cliffs rose sheer and bleak. The panorama was a wild and primitive one. It suggested to the troubled mind of the young man an eagle's nest built far up in the crags from which the great bird could swoop down upon its victims. He carried the figure farther. Were these hillmen eagles, hawks, and vultures? And was he beside them only a tomtit? He wished he knew.
"Were you born here?" he asked, his thoughts jumping back to the girl beside him.
"And you've always lived here?"
"Except for one year when I went away to school."
The thing he was thinking jumped into words almost unconsciously.
"Do you like it here?"
"Like it?" Her dusky eyes stabbed at him. "What does it matter whether I like it? I have to live here, don't I?"
The swift parry and thrust of the girl was almost ferocious.
"I oughtn't to have put it that way," he apologized. "What I meant was, did you like your year outside at school?"
Abruptly she rose. "We'll be going. You ride down. My foot is all right now."
"I wouldn't think of it," he answered promptly. "You might injure yourself for life."
"I tell you I'm all right," she said, impatience in her voice.
To prove her claim she limped a few yards slowly. In spite of a stubborn will the girl's breath came raggedly. Beaudry caught the bridle of the horse and followed her.
"Don't, please. You might hurt yourself," he urged.
She nodded. "All right. Bring the horse close to that big rock."
From the boulder she mounted without his help. Presently she asked a careless question.
"Why do you call him Cornell? Is it for the college?"
"Yes. I went to school there a year." He roused himself to answer with the proper degree of lightness. "At the ball games we barked in chorus a rhyme: 'Cornell I yell—yell—yell—Cornell.' That's how it is with this old plug. If I want to get anywhere before the day after to-morrow, I have to yell—yell—yell."
The young woman showed in a smile a row of white strong teeth. "I see. His real name is Day-After-To-Morrow, but you call him Cornell for short. Why not just Corn? He would appreciate that, perhaps."
"You've christened him, Miss Rutherford. Corn he shall be, henceforth and forevermore."
They picked their way carefully down through the canon and emerged from it into the open meadow. The road led plain, and straight to the horse ranch. Just before they reached the house, a young man cantered up from the opposite direction.
He was a black-haired, dark young giant of about twenty-four. Before he turned to the girl, he looked her companion over casually and contemptuously.
"Hello, Boots! Where's your horse?" he asked.
"Bolted. Hasn't Blacky got home yet?"
"Don't know. Haven't been home. Get thrown?"
"No. Stepped into one of your wolf traps." She turned to include Beaudry. "This gentleman—Mr.—?"
Caught at advantage, Roy groped wildly for the name he had chosen. His mind was a blank. At random he snatched for the first that came. It happened to be his old Denver address.
"Cherokee Street," he gasped.
Instantly he knew he had made a mistake.
"That's odd," Beulah said. "There's a street called Cherokee in Denver. Were you named for it?"
He lied, not very valiantly. "Yes, I—I think so. You see, I was born on it, and my parents—since their name was Street, anyhow,—thought it a sort of distinction to give me that name. I've never much liked it."
The girl spoke to the young man beside her. "Mr. Street helped me out of the trap and lent me his horse to get home. I hurt my leg." She proceeded to introductions. "Mr. Street, this is my brother, Jeff Rutherford."