The girl glanced at Cavendish.
"You answer him."
He stepped closer to the door.
"Protection from whom?" he asked briefly.
"From my men; I am Pasqual Mendez."
"But you propose holding us prisoners? You intend delivering us up to the man Lacy as soon as he arrives?"
"Yes," he admitted, "but I hold no animosity—none. The senorita need not fear. I will intercede for you both with the Senor Lacy, and he will listen to what I say. You may trust me, if you unbar the door."
"And if we refuse?"
"We shall break in, and there will be no promise. I ask you now for the last time."
Cavendish turned his head slightly to regard his companion.
"What shall I say?" he whispered.
"The man lies; he will keep no promise once we are in his power. Besides they have not yet found Cateras. When they do there will be no thought of mercy."
"Then we fight it out?"
"I shall; I will never give myself into the hands of that creature."
"Senor," and Cavendish stepped aside to the protection of the logs, "we will not surrender. That is our answer."
"Fools!" he called back, his voice rising harsh above the growling of others. "We will show you. Silva, Felipe, quick now; do what I told you. We will teach these Americano dogs a lesson. No, stand back! Wait until I speak the word."'
A faint glimmer of light through one of the log crevices caught Cavendish's attention, and he bent down, his eye to the crack, one hand grasping the barrel of his gun. Stella watched him motionless and silent, her face again pale from strain. A moment he stared out, without speaking, the only noise the movement of men beyond the log walls, and the occasional sound of a voice in Spanish.
"I can count about a dozen out there," he said finally, his words barely audible, and his eye still at the slight opening. "All Mexican except two—they look American. Most of them are armed. You must have pricked Mendez, for he has one arm in a sling, and the cloth shows bloody. Ah! Wait! The fellows have searched the cells and discovered Cateras. Do you hear that yell? It will be a fight to a finish now. Here come two men with a log—that's their game then; they mean to smash in the door."
He straightened up, casting a swift glance about the apartment. All hesitancy, doubt, had left him, now that the supreme test had come. He was again capable of thinking clearly, and acting.
"Miss Donovan," he burst out, "we can never hope to hold back those men here—in this room. There must be fifteen of them, and our ammunition is scanty. We shall be in bright light as soon as the door is battered down, and then, if they crush in the window also, we shall surely be attacked from two sides."
"What will be better?" she asked.
"The back room; it is dark, with no windows, and there are strips nailed between the logs. We can force that heavy wooden bed across the door, and hide behind it. We ought to hold them there as long as our cartridges last, unless they set the cabin afire. Good God! They have begun already. Three more blows like that and the door goes down. Come; it's our only chance."
It was the work of a moment; it had to be. The inner room was so dark they had to feel their way about blindly, yet those splintering crashes on the outer door, interspersed by the shouts of the men, spurred both to hurried effort. Nor was there much to be done. The heavy bed was thrown upon its side, and hauled and pushed forward until it rested against the door jambs, the mattress and blankets so caught and held as to form protection against bullets. Breathless the two sank to their knees in the darkness behind, their eyes on the brightening daylight of the room beyond. Already a hole had been stove through the upper panel of the door, the surrounding wood splintered. Some one fired once through the jagged opening, and an exultant yell followed from without.
"No firing!" the voice was Mendez's rising sharply above the other sounds. "I don't want the girl shot, you fools. Take that other log around to the window. They'll surrender fast enough once we're inside. Now, another one. Here, five of you swing her!"
Stella touched Cavendish's sleeve.
"Show me how to load, please," she urged feverishly. "I've fired two shots already."
His gun rested across the rude barricade, and he left it there, seizing the revolver from her hand.
"You have never handled one before?"
"No; not like this. Oh, I see; you press that spring. I can do that. You have the belt with the revolver cartridges—fasten it about my waist; quick! The door is almost down."
"Rest your barrel on the edge of the bed," he muttered, gripping the shotgun again, "and aim at that door. The instant you see one of those devils, give it to him."
With a crash the remaining wood gave way, the end of the log, used as a battering ram, projecting into the room. Over the shattered door, now held only by one bent hinge, a half dozen forms swarmed inward, the quick rush blocking their passage.
Cavendish pulled trigger, the deep boom of his shotgun echoed instantly by the sharper report of the girl's revolver. She fired twice before the swirling smoke obstructed the view, conscious only that one man had leaped straight into the air, and another had sprawled forward on hands and knees. Cavendish pushed home a fresh cartridge, and the smoke cloud lifted just enough to permit them to perceive the farther doorway. A Mexican lay curled up in the centre of the floor, his gun a dozen feet away; another hung dangling across an over-turned stool, but the opening was vacant. Just outside, a fellow, wounded, was dragging himself out of range.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Cavendish, excitedly. "Every shot counted. Here, load up quick. They'll try the window next. Get down!"
The warning was not an instant too soon, the hasty volley largely thudding harmlessly into the thick mattress, although a bullet or two sang past and found billets in the logs behind. Cavendish returned the fire, shooting blindly into the smoke, but the girl only lifted her head, staring intently into the smother, until the cloud floated away through the door. The attackers had again vanished, all semblance of them, except those two motionless bodies.
She had not before been conscious of any feeling; all she had done had been automatic, as though under compulsion; but now she felt strangely sick, and faint. An unutterable horror seized her and her hands gripped the edge of the bed to keep her erect. She could seem to see nothing but the ghastly face of that dead man hanging over the stool, and she closed her eyes. Yet this reaction was only momentary. She had fired in defence; in a struggle for the preservation of life and honour. Under spur of this thought she once more gained control.
But how still it was! Even the sound of voices had ceased; and out through the open door there was no sign of movement. The light seemed dimmer, also, as though the sun had sunk below the opposite cliffs, and night was slowly descending upon the valley. What could be happening out there? Were those men planning some new attempt? Or had they decided it was better to wait for a larger force? The silence and uncertainty were harder to combat than the violence of assault; she struggled to refrain from screaming. Cavendish never moved, his gun flung forward across the improvised barricade, the very grip of his hand proving the intensity of nervous strain. Something caused him to glance toward her.
"Looks as though they had enough of it," he said grimly, "and have decided to starve us out."
"Oh, do you think so? I heard a noise then."
He heard it also, his glance returning instantly to the front, his form stiffening into preparation. For a moment neither could determine the meaning of the sounds. Then he cocked his gun, the sharp click echoing almost loudly in the stillness.
"Trying the window this time," he murmured, "Do you hear that? Be ready."
Nothing happened; even the slight noise in the outer room ceased; there was not a sound except their own breathing. The two knelt motionless, peering over the edge of the bed into the dim twilight, seeing nothing, each with finger on trigger—tense, expectant. Then, without warning, the flying figure of a man leaped across the doorway into the security of the opposite wall. It was done so quickly neither fired, but Cavendish licked his parched lips with a dry tongue.
"I'll get the next one who tries that trick," he muttered, "It will be easier than partridge shooting."
A minute—two passed, every nerve on edge; then a second flying form, almost a blur in the gathering gloom, shot across the narrow opening. The shotgun spoke, and the wildly leaping figure seemed to crumble to the floor—its lower half had reached shelter, but head and shoulders lay exposed, revealing grey hair and a white moustache. Cavendish sprang erect, all caution forgotten.
"It's Mendez," he cried. "I got the arch-fiend of them——"
A rifle cracked and he went plunging back, his body striking the girl, and crushing her to the floor beside him. There was no cry, no groan of agony, yet he lay there motionless. She crept across and bent over him, almost dumb with fear.
"You—you are shot?" she made herself speak.
"Yes; they've got me," the utterance of the words a struggle. "It's here in the chest; I—I don't know how bad; perhaps if you tear open my shirt, you—you might stop the blood."
She could see nothing, not even the man's face, yet her fingers rent the shirt asunder and searched for the wound. It was not bleeding greatly, and she had no water, but not knowing what else to do, she tore a strip from her skirt and bound it hastily. He never moved, or spoke, and she bent her head closer. The wounded man had lost consciousness.
Alone, in the dark, she crept back on her knees to her place behind the barricade. Her hand touched the empty gun he had dropped, and she reloaded it slowly, only half comprehending its mechanism. The revolver, every chamber filled, rested on the upturned edge of the bed; her lips were firmly pressed together. Quietly she pushed forward the barrel of the shotgun, and waited.
CHAPTER XXIX: A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
The little marshal of Haskell had the reputation of being as quick of wit as of trigger finger. Startled as he was by that sudden apparition appearing before them in the dark road, and at being addressed by a woman's voice, the mention of the name Cassady gave him an instant clue. There was but one Cassady in camp, and that individual's reputation was scarcely of a kind to recommend him in the eyes of the law. If any woman sought that fellow in this out-of-the-way spot, it was surely for no good purpose. Brennan caught his breath, these thoughts flashing through his brain. He leaned forward over his saddle horn, lowering his voice confidentially, and managing to achieve a highly meritorious brogue.
"Sure, Oi'm Cassady," he admitted grouchily. "How iver come yer ter guess thot?"
"I was sent here to meet you," she explained hurriedly, as though eager to have her task done. "I thought maybe it wasn't you, with another man along. Who is he?"
"His noime's Crowley; just a friend o' moine; mebbe yer know the lad?"
"No; certainly not. Does he go along with you?"
"Fer only a bit o' ther way"; he lowered his voice to even greater intimacy. "Shure, it's a parfectly still tongue the b'y has in the cheek o' him."
She laughed nervously.
"Well, I'm glad of that; and we'll not stand here discussing the matter. Do you know who I am?"
"Divil a thought have Oi."
"You were expecting to meet Mr. Enright, weren't you? That was what Bill Lacy told you. He was to explain to you just what you were to do."
Brennan mumbled something indistinctly, now thoroughly aroused to the situation.
"Well, Mr. Enright couldn't come, and Lacy is over across the creek yet, hunting down Ned Beaton's murderer. I am Miss La Rue," she hurried on, almost breathlessly, "and I've brought you Lacy's note, which you are to give to that Mexican—Pasqual Mendez. You understand? You are to give it to him, and no one else. Lacy said you could kill your horse, if necessary, but the note must be there by daylight to-morrow. Here—take it."
Brennan thrust it into an inner pocket, and cleared his throat. There was no small risk in asking questions, yet, unless he learned more, this information might prove utterly useless. The note to Mendez meant little until he discovered where that bandit was to be found. He felt his flesh prickle in the intensity of his suppressed excitement.
"Shure now, miss," he said insinuatingly. "Mr. Lacy must hev' sint more insthructions 'long with ye then them. All ther word thet iver come ter me wus ter saddle oop, ride down here an' mate this man Enright. I don't aven know fer shure whar ol' Mendez is—likely 'nough he be in Mexico."
"In Mexico!" indignantly. "Of course not. Lacy said you knew the trail. It's a place they call 'Sunken Valley'—out there somewhere," and Brennan could barely distinguish the movement of her arm desert-ward. "It's across that sand flat."
"Yes; I couldn't remember the name. That's all I know about it, only Lacy said you'd been there before."
"Shure, miss," assured the marshal softly, clearly realising that he had already gone the limit, and that any further questioning must lead inevitably to trouble. "If it is Sunken Valley I'm ter ride ter, thet's aisy."
"Then it's good night."
She vanished up the side-trail, as though the wind had blown away a shadow. Except for the slight rustling of dried leaves under her feet, the two men, staring blindly through the darkness, could not have told the direction in which she had gone. Then all was silence, the mystery of night. Brennan gathered up his reins, straightening his body in the saddle. He glanced back toward the dim shade of his companion, chuckling.
"Some bit of luck that, Jim."
"Doesn't seem to me we know much more than we did before," Westcott answered gloomily. "Only that this chap Mendez is at a place called Sunken Valley. I never heard of it; did you?"
"No; I reckon it's no spot the law has ever had any use for. I've supposed all along them Mexican cattle thieves had a hidden corral somewhar in this country; but nobody has ever found it yet. Right now, thanks to this Miss La Rue, I've got a hunch that we're goin' to make the discovery, and put Bill Lacy and ol' Mendez out of business. But there's no sense of our gassin' here. We got a right smart bit o' ridin' to do afore daylight."
They advanced cautiously as far as the bridge, but at that point Brennan turned his pony's head southward, and spurred the reluctant animal up the steep bank. Without question Westcott followed, and the two horses broke into a trot as soon as they attained the more level land beyond. They were slightly above the town now, and could gaze back at the glittering lights in the valley below. The sound of men's voices failed to reach them over the soft pounding of the ponies' hoofs on the prairie sod, but suddenly the distant crackling of a half dozen shots pierced the silence, and their eyes caught the sparkle of the discharges, winking like fireflies in the night. Before they could draw up their mounts, the fusillade had ended, and all beneath them was unbroken gloom.
"Must be rushing the rock," commented Westcott.
"More likely saw something and blazed away at it, just as they did at that log," and Brennan laughed. "Anyhow they haven't discovered we have vanished yet. With an hour more we'll be where trails are unknown."
"In the desert?"
"That is the only safe hiding place around here. Besides we're carrying a message to Mendez."
"Without the slightest knowledge of where that party is."
"Well, hardly that, Jim. I may not know exactly, but I've got a glimmer of a notion about where the cuss hangs out, an' I'm going to have a hunt for it. There's five thousand dollars posted down in Arizona for that fellow, dead or alive; an' I need the money. Besides, I reckon this yere Miss Donovan, an' yer ol' partner—what's his name?—sure, Cavendish—will be mighty glad to see us. You're game for a try, ain't yer?"
"I shall never stop until I do find them, Dan," said the other earnestly, the very tone of his voice carrying conviction. "Every cent of reward is yours; it will be satisfaction enough for me to know those two are safe."
"That's how I figured it. Now let's trot on; we ain't gaining nothing by sittin' our saddles here. We can talk while we travel."
There was a few moments of silence, both men evidently busied with their thoughts; then Westcott asked:
"What is your idea, Dan?"
The marshal rode steadily, humped up over his saddle-horn, his eyes on the uncertainties in front.
"I ain't really got none," he admitted doggedly, "less it be a blind trust in Divine Providence; still I got a medium strong grip on a few things. That Capley girl told you that Matt Moore drove out on the ridge road?"
"Yes; I asked her about that twice."
"Well, he likely was headed for this yere Sunken Valley. That's point number one. But he never followed the ridge road very far, for it skirts the desert. He must have turned off south—but where?"
"Near the lone cottonwood is my guess."
"Because there is a swale there of hard sand, which is easily followed, and leaves no trail. On either side for miles the sand is in drifts, and no two horses would ever pull a wagon through it. This hard ridge, which is more rock than sand, goes straight south to Badger Springs, the only place to get water. I was there once, three years ago."
"You've hit it, old man," exclaimed the other confidently. "That's exactly how I had it doped out. He'd have to use that swale, or go ten miles farther east. I never was at Badger myself, but I've travelled that ridge road some, with my eyes open. Then, I take it, that our course is already laid out pretty straight as far as them springs. Beyond there the general lay of the land may help us, and I aim to reach that point along about daylight. Accordin' to Miss La Rue—she's that blond female I seen at the hotel, ain't she—Cassady was expected to reach this place where Mendez is about dawn, if he had to kill his hoss to do it. That would mean some considerable of a ride, I reckon."
"And yet," put in Westcott, with increasing interest, "would seem naturally to limit the spot to within a radius of ten miles from Badger Springs."
"Likely enough—yes; either south, southeast, or southwest; what sort o' country is it?"
"Absolutely barren; a desolate waste as far as the eye can see, except that range of mountains away to the south, fifty miles or more off. It would be a dead level, except for the sand-hills; that's all the memory I've got of it."
"Well, thar's allers some landmark to a trail, an' I used ter be a pretty fair tracker. Speed yer hoss up a bit, Jim; we've got to ride faster than this."
"How about the note she gave you?"
"We'll wait a while to read that. I don't want to strike no light just yet. Maybe it had best be kept till daybreak."
The men rode steadily, and mostly in silence, a large part of the way side by side. The animals they bestrode were fairly mated, quite capable of maintaining their gait for several hours, and needing little urging. The night air was cool, and a rather stiff breeze swept over the wide extent of desert, occasionally hurling spits of loosened sand into their faces, and causing them to ride with lowered heads. The night gloom enveloped them completely; their strained eyes were scarcely able to trace the dim outlines of the ridge road, but the horses were desert broke, and held closely to the beaten track, Before they arrived at the lone cottonwood, Westcott's pony, which carried by far the heavier load, began to show signs of fatigue. They drew up here, and the marshal dismounted, searching about blindly in the darkness.
"Too damn dark," he said, coming back, and catching up his rein. "A cat couldn't find anything there; but there's firm sand. Wait a minute; I've got a pocket compass."
He struck a match, sheltering the sputtering blaze with one hand. The light illuminated his face for an instant, and then went out, leaving the night blacker than before.
"That's south," he announced, snapping the compass-case shut, "and this blame wind is southeast; that ought to keep us fairly straight."
"The ponies will do that; they'll keep where the travelling is good. Shift this bag back of your saddle, Dan. You ride lighter, and my horse is beginning to pant already; that will ease him a few pounds."
The transfer was made, and the two men rode out into the rear desert, urging their animals forward, trusting largely to their natural instinct for guidance. They would follow the hard sand, and before long the scent of water would as certainly lead them directly toward the spring. With reins dangling and bodies crouched to escape the blast of the sharp wind, neither spoke as they plunged through the gloom which circled about them like a black wall.
Yet it was not long until dawn began to turn the desert grey, gradually revealing its forlorn desolation. Westcott lifted his head, and gazed about with wearied eyes, smarting still from the whipping of the sand-grit. On every side stretched away a scene of utter desolation, unrelieved by either shrub or tree—an apparently endless ocean of sand, in places levelled by the wind, and elsewhere piled into fantastic heaps. There were no landmarks, nothing on which the mind could concentrate—just sand, barren, shapeless, ever-changing form, stretching to the far horizons. The breeze slackened somewhat as the sun reddened the east, and the ponies threw up their heads and whinnied slightly, increasing their speed. Westcott saw the marshal arouse himself, straighten in the saddle, and stare about, his eyes still dull and heavy.
"One hell of a view, Jim," he said disgustedly, "but I reckon we can't be a great ways from that spring. We've been ridin' right smart."
"It's not far ahead; the ponies sniff water. Did you ever see anything more dismal and desolate?"
"Blamed if I see how even a Mex can run cattle through here."
"They know the trails, and the water-holes—ah! there's a bunch o' green ahead; that'll likely be Badger Springs."
Assured they were beyond pursuit, the two unsaddled, and turned the ponies out to crop the few handfuls of wire grass which the sweet water bubbling up from a slight depression had coaxed into stunted growth. There was no wood to be had, although they found evidence of several camp-fires, and consequently they were obliged to content themselves with what they could find eatable in their bag. It was hardly a satisfying meal, and their surroundings did not tend toward a joyful spirit. Except for a few sentences neither spoke, until Brennan, having partially satisfied his appetite, produced the note given him by Miss La Rue, and deliberately slashed open the sealed envelope.
"In the name of the law," he said grimly, hauling out the enclosure. "Now we'll see what's the row. Holy smoke! it's in Spanish! Here, Jim, do you read that lingo?"
"I know words here and there," and Westcott bent over the paper, his brows wrinkling. "Let's see, it's not quite clear, but the sense is that Mendez will be paid a thousand dollars for something—I can't make out what, only it has to do with prisoners. Lacy says he'll be there to confer with him some time to-night."
"Where? At Sunken Valley?"
"The place is not mentioned."
"Lacy write it?"
"Yes; at least he signed it; there's a message there about cattle, too, but I can't quite make it out."
"Well, we don't care about that. If Lacy aims to meet Mendez to-night, he ought to be along here soon after nightfall. How'd it do to hide in these sand-hills, and wait?"
"We can do that, Dan, if we don't hit any trail," said Westcott, leaning over, his hand on the other's knee, "but if we can get there earlier, I'd rather not waste time. There's no knowing what a devil like Mendez may do. Let's take a scout around anyhow."
They started, the one going east, the other west, and made a semicircle until they met, a hundred yards or so, south of the spring, having found nothing. Again they circled out, ploughing their way through the sand, and all at once Brennan lifted his hand into the air and called. Westcott hurried over to where he stood motionless, staring down at the track of a wagon-wheel. It had slid along a slight declivity, and left a mark so deep as not yet to be obliterated. They traced it for thirty feet before it entirely disappeared.
"Still goin' south," affirmed the marshal, gazing in that direction. "Don't look like there's nothin' out there, but we might try—what do you say?"
"I vote we keep moving; that wagon is bound to leave a trail here and there, and so long as we get the general direction, we can't go far wrong."
"I reckon you're right. Come on then; let's saddle up."
It was a blind trail, and progress was slow. The men separated, riding back and forth, leaning forward in the saddles, scanning the sand for the slightest sign. Again and again they were encouraged by some discovery which proved they were on the right track—the clear print of a horse's hoof; a bit of greasy paper which might have been tied round a lunch, and thrown away; impresses in the sand which bore resemblance to a man's footprints; a tin can, newly opened, and an emptied tobacco-pouch. Twice they encountered an undoubted wheel mark, and once traces of the whole four wheels were plainly visible. These could be followed easily for nearly a quarter of a mile, but then as quickly vanished as the wagon came again to an outcropping of rock. Yet this was assured—the outfit had headed steadily southward.
This was desperately slow work, and beyond that ridge of rock they discovered no other evidence. An hour passed, and not the slightest sign gave encouragement. Could the wagon have turned in some other direction? In the shadow of a sand-dune they halted finally to discuss the situation. Should they go on? Or explore further to the east and west? Might it not even be better to retrace their way to the springs, and wait the coming of Lacy? All in front of them the vast sand plain stretched out, almost as level as a floor. So far as the eye would carry there was no visible sign of any depression or change in conformity. Certainly there was no valley in that direction. Beyond this dune, in whose shelter they stood, there was nothing on which the gaze could rest; all was utter desolation, apparently endless.
Brennan was for turning back, arguing the uselessness of going further, and the necessity of water for the ponies.
"Come on, Jim," he urged. "Be sensible; we've lost the trail, and that's no fault o' ours. An Apache Indian couldn't trace a herd o' steers through this sand. And look ahead thar! It's worse, an' more of it. I'm for stalking Lacy at the springs." He stopped suddenly, staring southward as though he had seen a vision. "Holy smoke! What's that? By God! It's a wagon, Jim; an' it come right up out of the earth. There wasn't no wagon there a second ago."
CHAPTER XXX: ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF
For a moment both men suspected that what they looked upon was a mirage—its actual existence there in that place seemed impossible. Yet there was no disputing the fact, that yonder in the very midst of that desolation of sand, a wagon drawn by straining horses was slowly moving directly toward them. Westcott was first to grasp the truth, hastily jerking the marshal back to where the tired ponies stood with drooping heads behind the protection of the dune.
"It's the same outfit coming back," he explained. "The Sunken Valley must be out there—just a hole in the surface of the desert—and that's how that wagon popped up out of the earth the way it did. I couldn't believe my eyes."
"Nor me neither," and the marshal drew one of his guns, and held it dangling in his hand. "I'm a bit flustered yet, but I reckon that's about the truth. Get them ponies round a bit more, an' we'll wait and see what's behind that canvas."
The distance must have been farther than it seemed, or else the travelling difficult, for it was some time before the heavy wagon and straining team drew near enough for the two watchers to determine definitely the character of the outfit. Westcott lay outstretched on the far side of the dune, his hat beside him, and his eyes barely able to peer over the summit, ready to report observations to the marshal crouched below.
"It's Moore's team, all right," he whispered back, "and Matt is driving them. There isn't any one else on the seat, so I guess he must be alone."
"We can't be sure of that," returned Brennan, wise in guarding against surprises. "There was another fellow with him on the out trip, and he might be lying down back in the wagon. We'd better both of us hold 'em up. I can hear the creak of the wheels now, so maybe you best slide down. Is the outfit loaded?"
"Travelling light, I should say," and Westcott, after one more glance, crept down the sand-heap and joined the waiting man below. Both stood intent and ready, revolvers drawn, listening. The heavy wheels grated in the sand, the driver whistling to while away the dreary pull and the horses breathing heavily. Moore pulled them up with a jerk, as two figures leaped into view, his whistle coming to an abrupt pause.
"Hell's fire!" was all he said, staring dumbly down into Brennan's face over the front wheel. "Where in Sam Hill did you come from?"
"I'm the one to ask questions, son," returned the little marshal, the vicious blue barrel shining in the sunlight, "and the smarter you answer, the less reason I shall have to hurt yer. Don't reach for that gun! Are you travelling alone?"
Moore nodded, his hands up, but still grasping the reins.
"Then climb down over the wheel. Jim, take a look under that canvas; Moore, here, is generally a genial sort o' liar, and we'd better be sure. All right—hey? Then dismount, Matt, and be quick about it. Now unbuckle that belt, and hand the whole outfit over to Westcott; then we'll talk business together."
He shoved his own weapon back into its holster, and faced the prisoner, who had recovered from his first shock of surprise, and whose pugnacious temper was beginning to assert itself. Brennan read this in the man's sulky, defiant glance, and his lips smiled grimly.
"Getting bullish, are you, Matt?" he said, rather softly. "Goin' ter keep a close tongue in your head; so that's the game? Well, I wouldn't, son, if I was you. Now, see here, Moore," and the voice perceptibly hardened, and the marshal's eyes were like flints. "You know me, I reckon, an' that I ain't much on boys' play. You never heard tell o' my hittin' anybody just fer fun, did yer?"
There was no answer.
"An' yer never heard no one say," went on Brennan, "that I was afraid ter hit when I needed to. I reckon also yer know what sorter man Jim Westcott is. Now the two ov us ain't out here in this damned Shoshone desert fer the fun of it—not by a jugful. Get that fact into yer head, son, an' maybe it'll bring yer some sense. Do yer get me?"
"Yes," sullenly and reluctantly. "But yer haven't got nuthin' on me."
"Oh, haven't I? Well, you shut up like a clam, and find out what I've got. You drove a young woman out here from Haskell night afore last, for Bill Lacy. Ain't abduction no crime? An' that's only one count. I've had an eye on you for more'n six months, an' Lacy's been makin' a damn cat's-paw out of you all that time. Well, Lacy is playin' his last hand right now, an' I've got the cards." The marshal paused, fully aware that he had struck home, then added quietly: "It allers struck me, Matt, that naturally you was a pretty decent fellow, but had drifted in with a bad crowd. I'm offering you now a chance to get straight again." He threw back his coat and exhibited his star. "Yer see, I ain't just talkin' ter yer as Dan Brennan—I'm the law."
The boy, for he was scarcely more than that in years, shuffled his feet uneasily, and his eyes wandered from Brennan to Westcott. The look of sullen defiance had vanished.
"Whar is Lacy?" he asked.
"Back in town, but he will be at Badger Springs about dark. We've got him corralled this time. Yer better climb inter the band-wagon, son; it's the last call."
"Wotcher wanter ask?"
"Who was with you the out-trip, along with Miss Donovan?"
"And yer left him back there, guarding the girl?"
"He stayed; them was the orders, while I was to bring back the team; but I reckon he won't need to do no guardin' to speak of, fer we run inter a bunch o' fellows."
"You got the right dope, marshal, so I reckon I ain't spillin' no beans. It was the Mex all right, an' some o' his bunch."
"And Lacy didn't know they were there?"
"I reckon not; leastways he never said so, an' they'd only come a few days."
"How many are they?"
"Maybe a dozen; I don't just know. I saw eight, or ten, round the bunk-house, besides ol' Mendez an' that dude lieutenant of his, Juan Cateras. I ain't got no use fer that duck; I allers did want ter soak him. Then ther' was others out with the cow herd."
"They had a bunch o' cattle?"
"Maybe three hundred head, run in from Arizona. I heard that much, but I don't talk their lingo."
"What was done with the young lady?"
Moore spat vindictively into the sand, digging a hole with his heel. He had talked already more than he intended, but what was the difference?
"Cateras took her," he admitted, "but I don't know whar. I rather liked that girl; she's got a hell ov a lot o' sand, an' never put up a whimper. I tried ter find out whar she was, but nobody'd tell me. Then I had ter pull out."
Westcott interjected a question.
"Did you learn if there was any other prisoner there?"
"Not that I heard of. Who do yer mean?"
"A man named Cavendish."
"No, I reckon not." He turned back to the marshal.
"What are you guys goin' ter do with me?"
"That depends, Matt. When a lad is straight with me, I generally play square with him. All this took place in Sunken Valley?"
"Yep; whar'd you hear it called that?"
"Oh, I know more'n some ov you boys think I do. That name's been floatin' 'bout fer some time. I've even got the spot located—it's straight south thar a ways. But you've been in it, an' I never have. Here's whar you can serve the law, an' so get out of yer own trouble if yer so minded. It don't make a hell ov a lot o' difference to me whether yer speak up or not, but it's liable to ter you. What do yer say?"
"Fire away; I reckon I'm up against it anyhow."
"What's the valley like, an' how do you get into it?"
"Well, I'd say it was just a sort o' sink in the desert, a kinder freak. Anyhow, I never saw nuthin' like it afore. You'd never know it was thar a hundred yards away; it kinder scares me sometimes when I come up to it thro' all this sand. The walls is solid rock, almost straight up an' down, but thar's a considerable stream flowin' down thar that just bursts out a hole in the rock, an' plenty o' grass fer quite a bunch of steers."
"How do they get down into it?"
"'Long a windin' trail on the west side. It used to be mighty rough, I reckon, an' only good fer hikers, but they fixed it up so they can drive cattle down, an' even a wagon if yer take it easy."
"Mendez fixed it?"
"No; I heerd that Bill Lacy sorter handled that job. The Mex can't do nuthin' but steal."
"Then Lacy is the go-between? He sells the cattle?"
"Sure; I s'posed yer knew that. He ships them east from Bolton Junction, an' pretends they come from his ranch over on Clear Water. The Mexicans drive 'em in that way, an' they're all branded 'fore they leave the valley. It's a cinch."
The marshal's eyes brightened; he was gaining the information he most desired.
"And there is no other way to the bottom except along this trail?"
"That's 'bout all."
"Well, could Jim and I make it—say after dark?"
Moore laughed, the reckless boy in him again uppermost.
"Mebbe so; but I reckon ye'd be dead when yer got thar. Thar's allers two Mexes on guard when Mendez is in the valley. He ain't takin' no chances o' gettin' caught that way."
"Where are they?"
"Just below the top, whar they kin see out over the desert. Hell, yer couldn't get within half a mile an' not be spotted. It's bull luck yer run inter me."
Brennan and Westcott looked at each other, both uncertain as to the next step. What were they to do with their prisoner? And how could they proceed toward effecting the rescue of the helpless girl? It was a problem not easy to solve, if what Moore told them was true. The latter shuffled his feet in the sand, lifted his eyes shrewdly, and studied the faces of his captors. He was figuring his own chance.
"You fellows want ter get down inter the valley?" he asked at last.
"Yes," and Brennan turned again quickly, "if it can be done. Of course thar's only two of us, an' it would be sort o' foolish tryin' ter fight a way through, even ag'in' Mexicans. Fifteen ter two is some odds, but 'tain't in my nature, or Jim's here, ter turn round an' leave that girl in the hands o' them cusses—is it, Jim?"
"I never will," replied Westcott earnestly. "Not if I have to tackle the whole outfit alone."
"You won't never have to do that. What's the idea, Moore?"
"Oh, I was just thinkin'," he answered, still uncertain. "She's a good fellow, all right, an' I wouldn't mind givin' her a hand myself, pervidin' you men do the square thing. If I show yer a way, what is thar in it fer me?"
Brennan stiffened, his features expressing nothing.
"What do yer mean? I'm an officer o' the law?"
"I know it; I ain't asking yer ter make no promise. But yer word will go a hell ov a ways if this ever gets in court.
"If I help yer I've got ter be protected frum Bill Lacy. He'd kill me as quick as he'd look at me. Then I'd want yer ter tell the judge how it all happened. If yer got the cards stacked, an' I reckon yer have, I ain't big enough fool to try an' play no hand against 'em. But I want ter know what's goin' ter happen ter me. You don't need ter promise nuthin'; only say yer'll give me a show. I know ye're square, Dan Brennan, an' whatever yer say goes."
The marshal stuck out his hand.
"That's the gospel truth, Matt," he said gravely, "an' I'm with yer till the cows come home. What is it you know?"
"Well," with a quick breath as he took the plunge, "it's like this, marshal; there is just one place out yonder," and he waved his hand to indicate the direction, "on the east rim o' the valley, where yer might get down. Ye'd have ter hang on, tooth an' toe-nail; but both of yer are mountain men, an' I reckon yer could make the trip if yer took it careful an' slow like. Leastwise that's the one chance, an' I don't believe thar's another white critter who even knows thar is such a trail."
"Have you ever been down?"
"Wunst, an' that was enough fer me," he confessed, drawling his words. "Yer see it was this a-way. One time I was out there in that hell hole plum' alone fer a whole week, just a waitin' fer Mendez ter show up so I could ride into Haskell and tell Lacy he'd come. It was so damn lonesome I explored every nook an' cranny between them rocks, an' one day, lyin' out in front o' ther bunk-house, I happened to trace this ol' trail. I got a notion to give it a trial, an' I did that same afternoon. I got down all right, but it was no place fer a lady, believe me, an' I reckon no white man ever made it afore."
"It had been used once?"
"There was some signs made me think so; Injuns, I reckon, an' a long while ago."
Westcott asked: "How can we get there safely? Can you guide us?"
Moore swept his eyes over the dull range of sand, expectorated thoughtfully, and rammed his hands deep into his trouser-pockets. He was slow about answering, but the two men waited motionless.
"If it was me," he said finally. "I'd take it on foot. It'll be a jaunt ov near on to three miles, unless yer want ter risk bein' seen by them Mexes on the main trail. You couldn't go straight, but would have ter circle out an' travel mostly behind that ridge o' sand thar to the left. Goin' that a-way nobody's likely ter get sight o' yer on foot. You couldn't take no hoss, though. Here'd be my plan; lead this yere outfit o' mine an' your ponies back inter them sand dunes whar nobody ever goes. They're tired 'nough ter stand, an' there ain't anything fer 'em to graze on. Then we kin hoof it over ter the place I'm tellin' yer about, an' yer kin sorter size it up fer yerselves. That's fair, ain't it?"
They went at it with a will, glad to have something clearly defined before them, Brennan in his slow, efficient way, but Westcott, eager and hopeful, spurred on by his memory of the girl, whose rescue was the sole object which had brought him there. The team was driven into the security of the sand drifts and unhitched. The saddles were taken from the backs of the ponies, and what grain Moore had in the wagon was carefully apportioned among the four animals. Satisfied these would not stray, the men looked carefully to their supply of ammunition and set forth on their tramp.
This proved a harder journey than either Brennan or Westcott had anticipated, for Moore led off briskly, taking a wide circle, until a considerable ridge concealed their movements from the south. The sand was loose, and in places they sank deeply, their feet sliding back and retarding progress. All three were breathing heavily from the exertion when, under protection of the ridge, they found better walking.
Even here, however, the way was treacherous and deceiving, yet they pressed forward steadily, following the twists and turns of the pile of sand on their right. The distance seemed more than three miles, but at last Moore turned sharply and plunged into what resembled a narrow ravine through the ridge. Here they struggled knee deep in the sand, but finally emerged on the very rim overlooking the valley.
So perfectly was it concealed they were within ten feet of the edge before the men, their heads bent in the strenuous effort to advance, even realised its immediate presence. They halted instantly, awestruck, and startled into silence by the wonder of that scene outspread below. Moore grinned as he noted the surprise depicted on their faces, and waved his hand.
"Yer better lie down an' crawl up ter the edge," he advised. "Some hole, ain't it?"
"I should say so," and Westcott dropped to his knees. "I never dreamed of such a place. Why it looks like a glimpse into heaven from this sand. Dan, ain't this an eye-opener?"
"It sure is," and the marshal crept cautiously forward. "Only it's devils who've got possession. Look at them cattle up at the further end; they don't look no bigger than sheep, but there's quite a bunch of 'em. What's that down below, Matt? Houses, by Jingo! Well, don't that beat hell?—all the comforts of home."
"Two big cabins," explained Moore, rather proud of his knowledge. "Carted the logs in from ol' Baldy, more'n forty miles. One is the bunk-house; the other is whar Mendez stops when the ol' cuss is yere. Creep up a bit an' I'll show yer how the trail runs. Don't be afeerd; nobody kin see yer from down below."
"All right, son, where is it?"
"It starts at the foot o' that boulder," indicating with his finger, "an' goes along the shelf clear to the end; then thar's a drop ov maybe five feet to that outcroppin' o' rock just below. It's wider than it looks to be from yere. After that yer can trace it quite a spell with yer eyes, kinder sidlin' ter the left, till yer come to that dead root ov a cedar. Then thar's a gap or two that ain't over easy, an' a slide down ter another shelf. Yer can't miss it, cause there's no other way ter go."
"And what's at the bottom?"
"Them huts, an' the mouth of a damn big cave just behind 'em. I reckon it's in the cave they've got the gal; there's places there they kin shut up, but I don't know what they was ever made fer. I asked Lacy wunst, but he only laughed."
The two men lay flat, staring down. It was almost a sheer wall, and the very thought of climbing along the almost impassable path pointed out by Moore made Westcott dizzy. He had clambered along the ragged crags of many a mountain in search for gold, but the necessity of finding blindly in the dark that obscure and perilous passage brought with it a sensation of horror which he had to fight in order to conquer. It was such a sheer, precipitous drop, a path—if path it could be called—so thickly studded with danger the mind actually recoiled in contemplation.
"You have really been down there, Moore?" he questioned, half unbelieving.
"Oh, I made it all right," boastfully. "But it's no picnic. I'd hate like hell to risk it at night, but that's the only chance you fellows will have to git down. It would be like trap-shootin' for them Mexes if you tried it now."
They lay there for some time talking to each other, and staring down at the strange scene so far beneath them, and which appeared almost like a painted picture within its dark frame of towering rocks and wide expanse of sand. Except for the rather restless herd of cattle there was little movement perceptible—a herder or two could be distinguished riding here and there on some duty; there was a small horse corral a short distance to their right, with something like a dozen ponies confined within, and a bunch of saddles piled outside the fence. Once a man came out of the bunk-house and went down to the stream for a bucket of water, returning leisurely. He wore the braided jacket and high, wide-brimmed hat of the Mexican peon, and spurs glittered on his boot-heels. Beyond this the cabins below gave no sign of occupancy. Moore pointed out to them the main trail leading across the valley and winding up along the front of the opposite wall. They could trace it a large part of the way, but it disappeared entirely as it approached the summit.
The three men, wearied with looking, and knowing there was nothing more to do, except wait for night, crept back into the sand hollow and nibbled away at the few eatables brought with them in their pockets. Brennan alone seemed cheerful and talkative—Moore had liberally divided with him his stock of chewing-tobacco.
CHAPTER XXXI: WITH FORCE OF ARMS
They were still sitting there cross-legged in the sand when the silence was suddenly punctuated by the sharp report of a revolver. The sound barely reached their ears, yet it undoubtedly came from below, and all three were upon their feet, when a second shot decided the matter.
Westcott was first at the rim, staring eagerly downward. It was growing dusk down there in the depths, yet was still light enough to enable him to perceive movement, and the outlines of the cabins. For a moment all he noticed was a man lying on the ground in front of the small hut, but almost immediately men began to swarm out through the door of the bunk-house, and a horseman came spurring from the field beyond.
The men were armed, several with guns in their hands; all with revolvers buckled at the waist, and they bunched there, just outside the door, evidently startled, but not knowing which way to turn. The figure on the ground lifted itself partly, and the fellow must have called to the others, although no sound of a voice attained the summit of the cliff, for the whole gang rushed in that direction, and clustered about, gesticulating excitedly.
An occasional Spanish oath exploded from the mass with sufficient vehemence to reach the strained ears above, and the watchers were able to perceive the fellows lift the fallen man to his feet, and untie his hands, which were apparently secured behind his back. He must have been wounded also, for one sleeve was hastily rolled up, and water brought from the stream, in which it was bathed. Not until this had been attended to did the crowd fall away, sufficiently to permit the fellow himself to be distinctly seen. Moore's hand closed convulsively on the marshal's arm.
"It's ol' Mendez, as I'm a livin' sinner,", he announced hoarsely. "An' somebody's plunked him. What'd yer make o' that?"
Brennan never removed his gaze from the scene below, but his face was tense with interest.
"Blamed if I know; might be a mere row—hold on, there! Whoever did it is in that cabin; watch what they're up to, now."
The three hung there scanning every movement of those below, too intently interested to talk, yet unable for some time to determine clearly what was impending. Occasionally the sound of a voice reached them, shouting orders in Spanish, and men came and went in obedience to the commands. More guns were brought forth from the bunk-house, and distributed; the single horseman rode swiftly up the valley, and a half-dozen of the fellows lugged a heavy timber up from the corral, and dropped it on the ground in front of the smaller cabin. Mendez, his arm in a sling, passed from group to group, profanely busy, snapping out orders.
"They are going to break in the door with that log!" muttered Westcott between his clenched teeth. "That white-head down there is boiling with rage, and whoever the poor devil, or devils, may be, they'll have to fight."
"Yes, but who are they?" and Brennan sat up. "The whole gang must be outside there; I counted fourteen. Then, did you notice? Mendez had his hands bound behind his back. He couldn't even get up until those fellows untied him. That's what puzzles me."
"It would take more than one to do that job. Maybe we'll find out now—he's pounding with a revolver butt on the front door."
They listened breathlessly, hanging recklessly over the rim of the chasm, and staring at that strange scene below, but the man's words only reached them broken and detached. They got enough, however, to realise that he demanded the unbarring of the door, and that he both threatened and promised protection to whoever was within. It was the language he employed that aroused Westcott.
"Did you hear that?" he asked shortly. "The man spoke English. Whoever's in there doesn't understand Spanish. Were any Americans down there when you left, Moore?"
"Joe Sikes, and a fellow they call 'Shorty,' but they're both outside; that was Joe who bound up ol' Mendez's arm, an' Shorty was helpin' bring up the log."
The eyes of Brennan and Westcott met understandingly.
"Yer don't suppose that girl——"
"Aye, but I do," and Westcott's voice proved his conviction. "There's nothing too nervy for her to tackle if it needed to be done. But she never could have corralled Mendez alone."
"Then there must be another along with her—that fellow yer told me about likely."
"Fred Cavendish! By Jove, it would be like him. Say, boys, I'm going down and take a hand in this game."
The marshal gripped him.
"Not yet, Jim! It ain't dark enough. Wait a bit more an' I'm with yer, old man. It'll be blacker than hell down there in fifteen minutes, an' then we'll have some chance. They'd pot us now sure afore we got as far as that cedar. What is the gang up to now, Matt?"
"They're a goin' ter bust in the door," and Moore craned his head farther out over the edge in eagerness to see. "I reckon they didn't git no answer that pleased 'em. See ol' Mendez hoppin' about! Lord! he's mad 'nough to eat nails. Thar comes the log—say, they hit that some thump; thar ain't no wood that's goin' ter stand agin them blows long. Do yer hear?"
They did; the dull reverberation as the log butt crashed against the closed door was plainly audible. Once, twice, three times it struck, giving forth at last the sharper crackling of splintered wood. They could see little now distinctly—only the dim outlines of the men's figures, Mendez shouting and gesticulating, the fellows grasping the rough battering-ram, a group of others on either side the door, evidently gathered for a rush the moment the latter gave way.
"My God!" cried Westcott, struggling to restrain himself. "Suppose I take a crack at them!"
Brennan caught the hand tugging at the half-drawn revolver.
"Are you mad, man? You couldn't even hit the house at that distance. Holy smoke! There she goes!"
The door crashed in; there was a fusillade of shots, the spits of fire cleaving the dusk, and throwing the figures of the men into sudden bold relief. The log wielders sprang aside, and the others leaped forward, yelling wildly and plunging in through the broken doorway. An instant later three muffled reports rang out from the interior—one deep and booming, the others sharper, more resonant—and the invaders tumbled backward into the open, seeking shelter. Westcott was erect, Brennan on hands and knees.
"Damn me!" ejaculated the latter, his excitement conquering restraint. "Whoever they are, Jim, they're givin' ol' Mendez his belly full. Did yer hear them shots? There's sure two of 'em in thar—one's got a shotgun an' the other a revolver. I'll bet yer they punctuated some o' those lads. Lord! They come out like rats."
Westcott's teeth gripped.
"I'm going down," he said grimly, "if I have to go alone."
Brennan scrambled to his feet.
"Just a second, Jim, an' I'm with yer. Moore, get up yere. Now, what do yer say? Can we count you in on this shindig?"
"Go down thar with yer?"
"Sure! Y're a man, ain't yer? If yer say y're game, I'll play square—otherwise we'll see to your case afore we start. I don't leave yer up yere to play no tricks—now which is it?"
Moore stared over the edge into the black depths.
"Yer want me to show you the way?"
"Yer say you've made the trip wunst. If yer have, yer kin do it again. I'm askin' yer fer the last time."
The boy shivered, but his jaw set.
"I don't give a damn fer you, Dan Brennan," he returned half angrily, "but I reckon that might be the girl down thar, an' I'll risk it fer her."
"You'll go then?"
"Sure; didn't I just tell you so?"
Brennan wheeled about.
"Give him his gun, Jim, and the belt," he commanded briefly. "I don't send no man into a fracas like this unless he's heeled. Leave yer coats here, an' take it slow. Both of yer ready?"
Not until his dying day will Westcott ever forget the moment he hung dangling over the edge of that pit, following Moore who had disappeared, and felt gingerly in the darkness for the narrow rock ledge below. The young miner possessed imagination, and could not drive from memory the mental picture of those depths beneath; the horror was like a nightmare, and yet the one dominant thought was not of an awful death, of falling headlong, to be crushed shapeless hundreds of feet below. This dread was there, an intense agony at first, but beyond it arose the more important thought of what would become of her if he failed to attain the bottom of that cliff alive. Yet this was the very thing which steadied him, and brought back his courage.
At best they could only creep, feeling a way blindly from crag to crag, clinging desperately to every projection, never venturing even the slightest movement until either hand or loot found solid support. Moore led, his boyish recklessness and knowledge of the way, giving him an advantage. Westcott followed, keeping as close as possible, endeavouring to shape his own efforts in accordance with the dimly outlined form below; while Brennan, short-legged and stout, probably had the hardest task of all in bringing up the rear.
No one spoke, except as occasionally Moore sent back a brief whisper of warning at some spot of unusual danger, but they could hear each other's laboured breathing, the brushing of their clothing against the surface of the rock, the scraping of their feet, and occasionally the faint tinkle of a small stone, dislodged by their passage and striking far below. There was nothing but intense blackness down there—a hideous chasm of death clutching at them; the houses, the men, the whole valley was completely swallowed in the night.
Above it all they clung to the almost smooth face of the cliff, gripping for support at every crevice, the rock under them barely wide enough to yield purchase to their feet. Twice Westcott had to let go entirely, trusting to a ledge below to stop his fail; once he travelled a yard, or more, dangling on his hands over the abyss, his feet feeling for the support beyond; and several times he paused to assist the shorter-legged marshal down to a lower level. Their progress was that of the snail, yet every inch of the way they played with death.
Now and then voices shouted out of the gloom beneath them, and they hung motionless to listen. The speech was Spanish garnished with oaths, its meaning not altogether clear. They could distinguish Mendez's harsh croak easily among the others.
"What's he saying, Moore?" whispered Westcott to the black shape just below.
"Something 'bout the log. I don't just make it, but I reckon they aim now to batter in the winder."
"Well, go on," passed down the marshal gruffly. "What in Sam Hill are yer holdin' us up yere for? I ain't got more'n two inches ter stand on."
Fifty feet below, just as Moore rounded the dead cedar, the guns began again, the spits of red flame lighting up the outlines of the cabin, and the dark figures of men. It was as though they looked down into the pit, watching the brewing of some sport of demons—the movements below them weird, grotesque—rendered horrible by those sudden glares of light. This firing was all from without, and was unanswered; no boom of shotgun replied, no muffled crack of revolver. Yet it must have been for a purpose, for the men crouching against the cliff, their faces showing ghastly in the flashes of powder, were able to perceive a massing of figures below. Then the shots ceased, and the butt of the great log crashed against something with the force of a catapult, and a yell rolled up through the night.
At last Moore stopped, and waited until Westcott was near enough for him to whisper in the other's ear.
"There's a drop yere, 'bout ten er twelve feet, I reckon; an' then just a slope to ther bottom. Don't make no more noise then yer have to, an' give me a chance ter git out of ther way afore yer let go."
Westcott passed the word back across his shoulder to Brennan who was panting heavily, and, watched, as best he could on hands and knees, while Moore lowered himself at arm's length over the narrow rock ledge. The boy loosened his grip, but landed almost noiselessly. Westcott, peering over, could see nothing; there was beneath only impenetrable blackness. Silently he also dropped and his feet struck earth, sloping rapidly downward. Hardly had he advanced a yard, when the little marshal struck the dirt, with a force that made him grunt audibly. At the foot of this pile of debris, Moore waited for them, the night so dark down there in the depths, Westcott's outstretched hand touched the fellow before he was assured of his presence.
The Mexicans were still; whatever deviltry they were up to, it was being carried on now in silence; the only sound was a muffled scraping. Brennan yet struggled for breath, but was eager for action. He shoved his head forward, listening.
"What do yer make o' that noise?" he asked, his words scarcely audible.
"I heerd it afore yer come up," returned Moore. "'Tain't nuthin' regular. I figure the Mex are goin' in through that winder they busted. That sound's their boots scaling the wall."
"Ever been inside?"
"Wunst, ter take some papers ter Lacy."
"Well, what's it like? For God's sake speak up—there's goin' ter be hell to pay in a minute."
"Thar's two rooms; ther outside door an' winder are in the front one, which is the biggest. The other is whar Mendez sleeps, an' thar's a door between 'em."
"No windows in the rear room?"
"None I ever see."
"And just the one door; what sort o' partition?"
"Just plain log, I reckon."
"That's all right, Jim," and Westcott felt the marshal's fingers grasp his arm. "I got it sized up proper. Whoever them folks be, they've barricaded inter that back room. Likely they've got a dead range on the front door, an' them Mexes have had all they want tryin' to get to 'em in that way. So now they're crawlin' in through the window. There'll be some hellabaloo in there presently to my notion, an' I want ter be thar ter see the curtain go up. Wharabouts are we, Matt?"
"Back o' the bunk-house. Whar do yer want ter go? I kin travel 'round yere with my eyes shut."
"The front o' Mendez's cabin," said the marshal shortly. "Better take the other side; if that door is down we'll take those fellows in the rear afore they know what's happening." He chuckled grimly. "We've sure played in luck so far, boys; go easy now, and draw yer guns."
They were half-way along the side wall when the firing began—but it was not the Mexicans this time who began it. The shotgun barked; there was the sound of a falling body; two revolver shots and then the sharp ping of a Winchester. Brennan leaped past the boy ahead, and rounded the corner. A Mexican stood directly in front of the shattered door peering in, a rifle yet smoking in his hands. With one swift blow of a revolver butt the marshal dropped him in his tracks, the fellow rolling off the steps onto the ground. With outstretched hands he stopped the others, holding them back out of any possible view from within.
"Quick now, before that bunch inside gets wise to what's up. We've got 'em cornered. You, Matt, strip the jacket off that Mex, an' get his hat; bunch 'em up together, and set a match to 'em. That's the stuff! Now, the minute they blaze throw 'em in through that doorway. Come on, Westcott, be ready to jump."
The hat was straw, and the bundle of blazing material landed almost in the centre of the floor, lighting up the whole interior. Almost before it struck, the three men, revolvers gleaming in their hands, had leaped across the shattered door, and confronted the startled band huddled in one corner. Brennan wasted no time, his eyes sweeping over the array of faces, revealed by the blaze of fire on the floor.
"Hands up, my beauties—every mother's son of yer. Yes, I mean you, yer human catapiller. Don't waste any time about it; I'm the caller fer this dance. Put 'em up higher, less yer want ter commit suicide. Now drop them rifles on the floor—gently, friends, gently. Matt, frisk 'em and see what other weapons they carry. Ever see nicer bunch o' lambs, Jim?" His lips smiling, but with an ugly look to his gleaming teeth, and steady eyes. "Why they'd eat outer yer hand. Which one of yer is Mendez?"
"He dead, senor," one fellow managed to answer in broken English. "That heem lie dar."
"Well, that's some comfort," but without glancing about. "Now kick the guns over this way, Matt, and touch a match to the lamp on that shelf yonder; and, Jim, perhaps you better stamp out the fire; we'll not need it any more. Great Scott! What's this?"
It was Miss Donovan, her dress torn, her hair dishevelled, a revolver still clasped in her hand, half levelled as though she yet doubted her realisation of what had occurred. She emerged from the blackness of the rear room, advanced a step and stood there hesitating, her wide-open eyes gazing about in bewilderment on the strange scene revealed by the glow of the lamp. That searching, pathetic glance swept from face to face about the motionless circle—the cowed Mexican prisoners with uplifted hands backed against the wall; the three dead bodies huddled on the floor; Moore, with the slowly expiring match yet smoking in his fingers; the little marshal, erect, a revolver poised in either hand, his face set and stern. Then she saw Westcott, and her whole expression changed. An instant their eyes met; then the revolver fell to the floor unnoticed, and the girl sprang toward him, both hands outstretched.
"You!" she cried, utterly giving way, forgetful of all else except the sense of relief the recognition brought her. "You! Oh! Now I know it is all right! I was so sure you would come."
He caught the extended hands eagerly, drawing her close, and looking straight down into the depths of her uplifted eyes. To him, at that moment, there was no one else in the room, no one else in the wide, wide world.
"You knew I would come?" he echoed. "You believed that much in me?"
"Yes; I have never had a doubt. I told him so; that if we could only hold out long enough we would be saved. But," her lips quivered, and there were tears glistening in the uplifted eyes, "you came too late for him."
"For him? The man who was with you, you mean? Has he been shot?"
She bent her head, the lips refusing to answer.
"Who was he?"
It was a cry of complete reaction; the room reeled about her and she would have fallen headlong had not Westcott clasped the slender form closely in his arms. An instant he stood there gazing down into her face. Then he turned toward Brennan.
"Leave us alone, Dan," he said simply. "Get that gang of blacklegs out of here."
CHAPTER XXXII: IN THE TWO CABINS
The marshal's lips smiled.
"Sure, Jim," he drawled, "anything to oblige, although this is a new one on me. Come on, Matt; it seems the gentleman does not wish to be disturbed—— Well, neither would I under such circumstances. Here you! line up there in single file, and get a move on you—pronto! Show 'em what I mean, Matt; put that guy that talks English at the head—— Yes, he's the one. Now look here, amigo, you march straight out through that door, and head for the bunk-house—do you get that?"
"Si, senor; I savvy!"
"Well, you better; tell those fellows that if one of 'em makes a break he's goin' ter be a dead Mex—will yer? Get to the other side of them, Matt; now step ahead—not too fast."
Westcott watched the procession file out, still clasping the partially unconscious girl in his arms. Moore, bringing up the rear, disappeared through the entrance, and vanished into the night without. Except for the three motionless bodies, they were alone. The lamp on the high shelf flared fitfully in the wind, and the charred embers on the floor exhibited a glowing spark of colour. From a distance Brennan's voice growled out a gruff order to his line of prisoners. Then all was still. The eyes of the girl opened slowly, her lids trembling, but as they rested on Westcott's face, she smiled.
"You are glad I came?"
"Glad! Why I never really knew what gladness meant before."
He bent lower, his heart pounding fiercely, strange words struggling for utterance.
"You love me?"
She looked at him, all the fervent Irish soul of her in her eyes. Then one arm stole upward to his shoulder.
"As you love me," she whispered softly, "as you love me!"
"I can ask no more, sweetheart," he breathed soberly, and kissed her. At last she drew back, still restrained by his arms, but with her eyes suddenly grave and thoughtful.
"We forget," she chided, "where we are. You must let me go now, and see if he is alive. I will wait on the bench, here."
"But you said he had been killed."
"I do not know; there was no time for me to be sure of that. The shot struck him here in the chest, and when he fell he knocked me down. I tore open his shirt, and bound up the wound hastily; it did not bleed much. He never spoke after that, and lay perfectly still."
"Poor old Fred. I'll do what I can for him—I'll not be away a minute, dear."
He could see little from the doorway, only the dark shadow of a man's form lying full length on the floor. To enter he pushed aside the uptilted bed, picking up the shotgun, and setting it against the log wall. Then he took the lamp down from the shelf, and held it so the feeble light fell upon the upturned face. He stared down at the features thus revealed, unable for the moment to find expression for his bewilderment.
"Can you come here, dear?" he called.
She stood beside him, gazing from his face into those features on which the rays of the lamp fell.
"What is it?" she questioned breathlessly. "Is he dead?"
"I do not know; but that man is not Cavendish."
"Not Cavendish! Why he told me that was his name; he even described being thrown from the back platform of a train by that Ned Beaton; who can he be, then?"
"That is more than I can guess; only he is not Fred Cavendish. Will you hold the lamp until I learn if he is alive?"
She took it in trembling hands, supporting herself against the wall, while he crossed the room, and knelt beside the motionless figure. A careful examination revealed the man's wound to be painful though not particularly serious, Westcott carefully redressed the wound as best he could, then with one hand he lifted the man's head and the motion caused the eyelids to flutter. Slowly the eyes opened, and stared up into the face bending over him. The wounded man breathed heavily, the dull stare in his eyes changing to a look of bewildered intelligence.
"Where am I?" he asked thickly. "Oh, yes, I remember; I was shot. Who are you?"
"I am Jim Westcott; do you remember me?"
The searching eyes evidenced no sense of recollection.
"No," he said, struggling to make the words clear. "I never heard that name before."
Miss Donovan came forward, the lamp in her hand, the light shining full in her face.
"But you told me you were Mr. Cavendish," she exclaimed, "and Mr. Westcott was an old friend of his—surely you must remember?"
He looked up at her, and endeavoured to smile, yet for the moment did not answer. He seemed fascinated by the picture she made, as though some vision had suddenly appeared before him.
"I—I remember you," he said at last. "You—you are Miss Donovan; I'll never forget you; but I never saw this man before—I'm sure of that."
"And I am equally convinced as to the truth of that remark," returned Westcott, "but why did you call yourself Cavendish?"
"Because that is my name—why shouldn't I?"
"Why, see here, man," and Westcott's voice no longer concealed his indignation, "you no more resemble Fred Cavendish than I do; there is not a feature in common between you."
"Certainly; of New York; who do you think we were talking about?"
"I've had no chance to think; you jump on me here, and insist I'm a liar, without even explaining what the trouble is all about. I claim my name is Cavendish, and it is; but I've never once said I was Fred Cavendish of New York. If you must know, I am Ferdinand Cavendish of Los Angeles."
Westcott permitted the man's head to rest back on the floor, and he arose to his feet. He felt dazed, stunned, as though stricken a sudden blow. His gaze wandered from the startled face of the motionless girl to the figure of the man outstretched on the floor at his feet.
"Good God!" he exclaimed. "What can all this mean? You came from New York City?"
"Yes; I had been there a month attending to some business."
"And when you left for the coast, you took the midnight train on the New York Central?"
"Yes. I had intended taking an earlier one, but was delayed."
"You bought return tickets at the station?"
"No; I had return tickets; they had to be validated."
"Then your name was signed to them; what is your usual signature?"
"I thought so. Stella, this has all been a strange blunder, but it is perfectly clear how it happened. That man Beaton evidently had never seen Frederick Cavendish. He was simply informed that he would leave New York on that train. He met this Cavendish on board, perhaps even saw his signature on the ticket, and cultivated his acquaintance. The fellow never doubted but what he had the right man."
The wounded man managed to lift himself upon one elbow.
"What's that?" he asked anxiously. "You think he knocked me overboard, believing I was some one else? That all this has happened on account of my name?"
"No doubt of it. You have been the victim of mistaken identity. So have we, for the matter of that."
He paused suddenly, overwhelmed by a swift thought. "But what about Fred?" he asked breathless.
Stella's hand touched his arm.
"He—he must have been the dead man in the Waldron Apartments," she faltered. "There is no other theory possible now."
The marshal of Haskell came out of the bunk-house, and closed the door carefully behind him. He was rather proud of his night's work, and felt quite confident that the disarmed Mexicans locked within those strong log walls, and guarded by Moore, with a loaded rifle across his knee, would remain quiet until daylight. The valley before him was black and silent. A blaze of light shone out through the broken door and window of the smaller cabin, and he chuckled at remembrance of the last scene he had witnessed there—the fainting girl lying in Westcott's arms. Naturally, and ordinarily, Mr. Brennan was considerable of a cynic, but just now he felt in a far more genial and sympathetic mood.
"Jim's some man," he confided to himself, unconsciously speaking aloud. "An' the girl's a nervy little thing—almighty good lookin', too. I reckon it'll cost me a month's salary fer a weddin' present, so maybe the joke's on me." His mind reverted to Mendez. "Five thousand on the old cuss," he muttered gloomily, "an' somebody else got the chance to pot him. Well, by hooky, whoever it was sure did a good job—it was thet shotgun cooked his goose, judgin' from the way his face was peppered. Five thousand dollars—oh, hell!"
His eyes followed the outline of the valley, able to distinguish the darker silhouette of the cliffs outstanding against the sky sprinkled with stars. Far away toward the northern extremity a dull red glow indicated the presence of a small fire.
"Herders," Brennan soliloquised, his thought instantly shifting. "Likely to be two, maybe three ov 'em out there; an' then there's them two on guard at the head o' the trail. I reckon they're wonderin' what all this yere shootin' means; but 'tain't probable they'll kick up any fuss yet awhile. We can handle them all right, if they do—hullo, there! What's comin' now?"
It was the thud of a horse's hoofs being ridden rapidly. Brennan dropped to the ground, and skurried out of the light. He could perceive nothing of the approaching rider, but whoever the fellow was he made no effort at secrecy. He drove his horse down the bank and into the stream at a gallop, splashed noisily through the water, and came loping up the nearer incline. Almost in front of the bunk-house he seemed suddenly struck by the silence and gleam of lights, for he pulled his pony up with a jerk, and sat there, staring about. To the marshal, crouching against the earth, his revolver drawn, horse and man appeared a grotesque shadow.
"Hullo!" the fellow shouted. "What's up? Did you think this was Christmas Eve? Hey, there—Mendez; Cateras."
The little marshal straightened up, and took a step forward; the light from the cabin window glistened wickedly on the blue steel of his gun barrel.
"Hands up, Bill!" he said quietly, in a voice carrying conviction. "None of that—don't play with me. Take your left hand an' unbuckle your belt—I said the left. Now drop it into the dirt."
"Who the hell are you?"
"That doesn't make much difference, does it, as long as I've got the drop?" asked the other genially. "But, if you must know to be happy—I'm the marshal o' Haskell. Go easy, boy; you've seen me shoot afore this, an' I was born back in Texas with a weapon in each hand. Climb down off'n that hoss."
Lacy did so, his hands above his head, cursing angrily.
"What kind of a low-down trick is this, Brennan?" he snapped, glaring through the darkness at the face of his captor. "What's become of Pasqual Mendez? Ain't his outfit yere?"
"His outfit's here all right, dead an' alive," and Brennan chuckled cheerfully, "but not being no gospel sharp I can't just say whar ol' Mendez is. What's left ov his body is in thet cabin yonder, so full o' buckshot it ought ter weigh a ton."
"As a door nail, if yer ask me. It was some nice ov yer ter come ridin' long here ter-night, Lacy. It sorter helps me ter make a good, decent clean-up ov this whole measly outfit. I reckon I'll stow yer away, along with them others. Mosey up them steps there, an' don't take no chances lookin' back."
"I'll get you for this, Brennan."
"Not if the Circuit Court ain't gone out o' business, you won't. I've got yer cinched an' hog tied—here now; get in thar."
He opened the door just wide enough for Lacy to pass, holding it with one hand, his revolver ready and eager in the other.
A single lamp lit the room dingily, revealing the Mexicans bunched on the farther side, a number of them lying down. Moore sat on a stool beside the door, a rifle in the hollow of his arm. He rose up as the door opened, and grinned at sight of Lacy's face.
"Well, I'll be dinged," he said. "What have we got here?"
Brennan thrust his new prisoner forward.
"Another one of yer ol' pals, Matt. You two ought ter have a lot ter talk over, an' thar's six hours yet till daylight."
The little marshal drew back, and closed the door. He heard the echo of an oath, or two, within as he turned the key in the lock. Then he straightened up and laughed, slapping his knee with his hand.
"Well," he said at last, soberly. "I reckon my place will be about yere till sun-up; thar might be some more critters like that gallivantin' round in these parts—I hope Matt's enjoyin' himself."
CHAPTER XXXIII: THE REAL MR. CAVENDISH
It was a hard, slow journey back across the desert. Moore's team and wagon were requisitioned for the purpose, but Matt himself remained behind to help Brennan with the prisoners and cattle, until the party returning to Haskell could send them help.
Westcott drove, with Miss Donovan perched beside him on the spring-seat, and Cavendish lying on a pile of blankets beneath the shadow of the canvas top. It became exceedingly hot as the sun mounted into the sky, and once they encountered a sand storm, which so blinded horses and driver, they were compelled to halt and turn aside from its fury for nearly an hour. The wounded man must have suffered, yet made no complaint. Indeed he seemed almost cheerful, and so deeply interested in the strange story in which he had unconsciously borne part, as to constantly question those riding in front for details.
Westcott and Stella, in spite of the drear, dread monotony of those miles of sand, the desolate barrenness of which extended about in every direction, and, at last, weighed heavily upon their spirits, found the ride anything but tedious. They had so much to be thankful for, hopeful over: so much to say to each other. She described all that had occurred during her imprisonment, and he, in turn, told the story of what himself and Brennan had passed through in the search for her captors. Cavendish listened eagerly to each recital, lifting his head to interject a question of interest, and then dropping wearily back again upon his blankets.
They stopped to lunch at Baxter Springs, and to water the team; and it was considerably after dark when they finally drove creaking up the main street of Haskell and stopped in front of the Timmons House to unload. The street was devoid of excitement, although the Red Dog was wide open for business, and Westcott caught a glimpse of Mike busily engaged behind the bar. A man or two passing glanced at them curiously, but, possibly because of failure to recognise him in the darkness, no alarm was raised, or any effort made to block their progress. Without Lacy to urge them on, the disciples of Judge Lynch had likely enough forgotten the whole affair. Timmons, hearing the creak of approaching wheels, and surmising the arrival of guests, came lumbering out through the open door, his face beaming welcome. Behind him the vacant office stood fully revealed in the light of bracket-lamps.
As Westcott clambered over the wheel, and then assisted the lady to alight, the face of the landlord was sufficiently expressive of surprise.
"You!" he exclaimed, staring into their faces doubtfully. "What the Sam Hill does this mean?"
"Only that we've got back, Timmons. Why this frigid reception?"
"Well, this yere is a respectable hotel, an' I ain't goin' ter have it all mussed up by no lynchin' party," the landlord's voice full of regret. "Then this yere gal; she wrote me she'd gone back East."
"Stow your grouch, old man, and give us a hand. There will be no lynching, because Lacy is in the hands of the marshal. As to this lady, she never sent you that note. She was abducted by force, and has just escaped. Don't stand there like a fool."
"But where did yer come from? This yere is Matt Moore's outfit."
"From the Shoshone Desert, if you must know. I'll tell you the story later. There's a wounded man under the canvas there. Come on, and help me carry him inside."
Timmons, sputtering but impotent to resist, took hold reluctantly, and the two together bore the helpless Cavendish through the deserted office and up the stairs to the second floor, where he was comfortably settled and a doctor sent for. The task was sufficiently strenuous to require all the breath Timmons possessed, and he managed to repress his eager curiosity until the wounded man had been attended to. Once in the hall, however, and the door closed, he could no longer control himself.
"Now see yere, Jim Westcott," he panted, one hand gripping the stair-rail. "I've got ter know what's up, afore I throw open this yere hotel to yer free use this-away. As a gineral thing I ain't 'round huntin' trouble—I reckon yer know that—but this yere affair beats me. What was it yer said about Bill Lacy?"
"He's under arrest, charged with cattle-stealing, abduction, conspiracy, and about everything else on the calendar. Brennan's got him, and likewise the evidence to convict."
"Good Lord! Is that so!"
"It is; the whole Mendez gang has been wiped out. Old Mendez has been killed. The rest of the outfit, including Juan Cateras, are prisoners."
Timmons's eyes were fairly popping out of his head, his voice a mere thread of sound.
"Don't that beat hell!" he managed to articulate. "Where's the marshal?"
"Riding herd at a place they call Sunken Valley, about fifty miles south of here. He and Moore have got ten or twelve Mexicans, and maybe three hundred head of cattle to look after, until I can send somebody out there to help him bring them in. Now that's all you need to know, Timmons; but I've got a question or two I want to ask you. Come on back into the office."
Miss Donovan sat in one of the chairs by the front window waiting. As they entered she arose to her feet.
Westcott crossed the room and took her hand.
"He's all right," he assured her quickly, interpreting the question in her eyes. "Tired from the trip, of course, but a night's rest will do wonders. And now, Timmons," he turned to the bewildered landlord, "is that man Enright upstairs?"
"The New York lawyer? No, he got frightened and left. He skipped out the next day after you fellers got away. Bill wanted him to go along with him, but he said he was too sick. Then he claimed to have a telegram callin' him East, but he never did. I reckon he must 've got cold feet 'bout somethin'—enyhow he's gone."
"And Miss La Rue?"
"Sure; she took the same train," eager now to divulge all he knew. "But that ain't her real name—it's a kind o' long name, an' begins with C. I saw it in a letter she left up-stairs, but I couldn't make it all out. She's married."
The eyes of Westcott and Miss Donovan met. Here was a bit of strange news—the La Rue woman married, and to a man with a long name beginning with C. The same thought occurred to them both, yet it was evidently useless to question Timmons any longer. He would know nothing, and comprehend less. The girl looked tired, completely worn out, and the affair could rest until morning.
"Take Miss Donovan to a room," Westcott said shortly, "and I'll run up-stairs and have another look at Cavendish."
"Cavendish, the wounded man we just carried in."
"Well, that's blamed funny. Say, I don't remember ever hearin' that name before in all my life till just now. Come ter think of it, I believe that was the name in that La Rue girl's letter. I got it yere in the desk; it's torn some, an' don't mean nothin' to me; sounds kinder nutty." He threw open a drawer, rummaging within, but without pausing in speech, "Then a fellow blew in yere this mornin' off the Limited, asking about you, Jim, an' danged if I don't believe he said his name was Cavendish. The register was full so he didn't write it down, but that was the name all right. And now you tote in another one. What is this, anyhow—a family reunion?"
"You say a man by that name was here—asking for me?"
"Yep; I reckon he's asleep up-stairs, for he never showed up at supper."
"In what room, Pete?"
Westcott, with a swift word of excuse to Stella, dashed into the hall, and disappeared up the stairway, taking three steps at a time. A moment later those below heard him pounding at a door; then his voice sounded:
"This is Jim Westcott; open up."
Timmons stood gazing blankly at the empty stair-case, mopping his face with a bandanna handkerchief. Then he removed his horn-rimmed spectacles, and polished them, as though what mind he possessed had become completely dazed.
"Well, I'll be jiggered," he confessed audibly. "What's a comin' now, I wonder?"
He turned around and noticed Miss Donovan, the sight of her standing there bringing back a reminder of his duty.
"He was a sayin' as how likely yer wanted to go to bed, Miss."
"Not now; I'll wait until Mr. Westcott comes down. What is that paper in your hand? Is that the letter Miss La Rue left?"
He held it up in surprise, gazing at it through his glasses.
"Why, Lord bless me—it is, isn't it? Must have took it out o' ther drawer an' never thought of the darned thing agin."
"May I see it?"
"Sure; 'tain't o' no consequence ter me; I reckon the woman sorter packed in a hurry, and this got lost. The Chink found it under the bed."
She took it in her hand, and crossed the room, finding a seat beneath one of the bracket-lamps, but with her face turned toward the hall. It was just a single sheet of folded paper, not enclosed in an envelope, and had been torn across, so that the two parts barely held together. She stared at it for a moment, almost motionless, her fingers nervously moving up and down the crease, as though she dreaded to learn what was within. She felt that here was the key which was to unlock the secret of this strange crime. Whoever the man upstairs might prove to be—the real Cavendish or some impostor—this paper she held in her hands was destined to be a link in the chain. She unfolded it slowly and her eyes traced the written words within. It was a hasty scrawl, written on the cheap paper of some obscure hotel in Jersey City, extremely difficult to decipher, the hand of the man who wrote exhibiting plainly the excitement under which he laboured.
It was a message of warning, he was leaving New York, and would sail that evening for some place in South America, where he did not say. Love only caused him to tell her what had occurred. A strange word puzzled her, and before she could decipher it, voices broke the silence, followed by steps on the stairs. She glanced up quickly; it was Westcott returning, accompanied by a tall, rather slender man with a closely-trimmed beard. The two crossed the room, and she met them standing, the opened letter still in her hand.
"Miss Donovan, this is Frederick Cavendish—the real Frederick Cavendish. I have told him something of the trouble he has been to us all."
The real Frederick Cavendish smiled down into her eyes, while he held her fingers tightly clasped in his own. She believed in him, liked him instantly.
"A trouble which I regret very much," he said humbly. "Westcott has told me a little, a very little, of what has occurred since I left New York so hurriedly two months ago. This is the first I knew about it, and the mystery of the whole affair is as puzzling as ever."
Her eyes widened wonderingly.
"You cannot explain? Not even who the dead man was found murdered in your apartments?"
"I haven't the least idea."
"Fred has told me all he knows," broke in Westcott "but it only extends to midnight when he left the city. He was in his apartments less than ten minutes after his valet retired. He supposed he left everything in good order, with a note on the writing-table instructing Valois what to do during his absence, and enclosing a sum of money. Afterward, on the train, he discovered that he had mislaid the key to his safe but this occasioned no worry, as he had taken with him all the cash it held, and the papers were of slight importance."
"But," she broke in impatiently, "where did he go? How did he escape encountering Beaton and why did he fail to answer your message?"
The eyes of the two men met, and they both smiled. "The very questions I asked," replied Westcott instantly. "In the instructions left Valois was a check for five thousand dollars made to my order, to be forwarded at once. Fred's destination was Sonora, Mexico, where he had some large copper interests. He intended to look after these and return here to Haskell within a week, or ten days. But the war in Mexico made this impossible—once across the border he couldn't get back. He wrote me, but evidently the letter miscarried."
"And Beaton missed him entirely."
"By pure luck. Fred phoned the New York Central for a lower to Chicago, and they were all gone. Enright must have learned, in some way, of his calling that office, and so informed Beaton, who took that train. Later, from his own rooms, Cavendish secured accommodations on the Pennsylvania."
He paused, endeavouring to see out through the window, hearing the hoof beats of an approaching team.
"What's that, Pete?" he asked of Timmons, who was hovering as closely as he dared. "Pretty late, isn't it?"
"Guests, I reckon; the Overland was three hours late; sure, they're stoppin' yere."
CHAPTER XXXIV: MISS DONOVAN DECIDES
Two men came in through the door together, each with a small grip in his hand, which Timmons took from them, and deposited beside the stove. The larger wrote both names in the register, and then straightened up, and surveyed the landlord.
"Any chance to eat?" he asked. "We're both of us about starved."
Timmons scratched his head.
"I reckon there's plenty o' cold provender out thar," he said doubtfully, "an' maybe I could hustle you up some hot coffee, but we don't aim ter do no feedin' at this time o' night. What's the matter with the diner?"