WHO WANTS TO LIVE FOREVER?
by William MacLeod Raine
DALE CAME OUT of the cool dark house to the wide veranda. The ranch headquarters were on a mesa overlooking the Soledad Valley, and the eyes of the girl swept terrain that was largely part of the Seven Up and Down spread.
From the bluff upon which the house was set, the ground fell away sharply to the undulating floor of the valley through which the Soledad took its twisting way, a silver thread in the brown basin except where its banks were here and there green with cottonwoods and willows. For a dozen miles the eye could follow the river, to the huddled hills that concealed it before the plunge into Rabbit Ear Gorge. The Seven Up ran only to the park boundary. Beyond it lay the M K range.
Though the day was still so young that shreds of mist lingered in the gulches opposite and long shadows lanced into the desert from projecting cliffs, shimmering heat waves danced above the baked plain. Sunlight streamed across the cholla and the sage. In the south pasture Seven Up riders, diminutive from distance, moved among the cattle they were working. Dale heard the click of the windmill back of the house and the bawling of yearlings shut up in a corral behind the stable.
Incuriously her gaze rested on a small cloud of dust advancing up the road that led from the valley. It marked the approach of a rider. Not one of her men, she decided, as he drew nearer, and the bay gelding he was riding did not carry a Z on the right shoulder. He might be a drifter on the chuck line, though cowboys out of a job were few since the draft had reached out for ablebodied men.
She recognized resentfully the man in the saddle. What was Hal Stevens doing inside her fences? Between the Seven Up and the M K was no friendliness.
Stevens pulled up and took in the girl’s slim grace with a leisurely regard that affronted Dale. Beneath the even tan of her cheeks a pink flush showed. It was vexatious to feel herself a source of mirth to one she so much disliked. On the rare occasions when they met, she was always at a disadvantage because he had a knack of putting a spur to her quick temper while remaining quite cool himself.
‘If you came to see Frawley,’ she began coldly, ‘he’s probably in the south pasture.’
‘I came to see Miss Lovell,’ he corrected cheerfully.
‘About what?’ she demanded, chin up.
He took his time to answer. It ran through the hinterland of his mind that this proud, lovely girl was worth seeing. She was wearing fresh white slacks and a jacket of the same material faced with blue. No spirited young racehorse could have been more fine of line than she, and the dark eyes that scorned him gave accent to a face beautifully modeled. The situation was to him piquantly amusing. She had inherited her father’s enmity to the Stevens family and did not want him to have a moment’s doubt of it.
‘I’m an ambassador of good will,’ he explained.
‘If you have any business with me—’
She broke off. It was not necessary to finish the sentence. The sharpness with which she spoke made it clear he was to say what was in his mind and go.
‘No business.’ He eased the strong slender body in the saddle, letting the weight rest on a stirrup. ‘Just putting into effect locally the Great White Father’s good-neighbor policy. Unfortunately, I am the bearer of bad news.’
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that the sight of him was bad news, but she let him guess what she was thinking. It was eloquent in her stiff silence. She did not want to feed his derisive amusement by showing pique.
‘Your north fence was cut last night near Bull Creek,’ he continued. ‘Tracks show that a truck drove into the pasture and out again. The M K offers regrets and condolences.’
The heat of anger whipped into her face. It was enough to learn that thieves had been busy again stealing her stuff without having to endure his mocking sympathy.
‘Good of you to let me know. Maybe you can tell where the truck went after it left and who is the owner of it.’ In her words was the singing lash of a small whip, but he chose to ignore the innuendo.
‘Afraid I can’t. All I can tell you is that some of your stock must have been stolen.’
‘You are sure of that?’ she flung out.
‘By inference.’ The grin on his face acknowledged the hit. ‘The ground was soft where the wire was cut, and the tracks coming out were deeper than those going in. So I gathered the truck must have been loaded in the pasture.’
‘Clever of you, Mr. Stevens.’
‘An obvious deduction, Doctor Watson.’
‘You got the situation as clearly as if you had been there at the time.’
He chuckled. ‘Right on the chin, lady.’
‘It is fortunate for you that thieves never take your stock.’
‘Yes. The best way for a truck to get into the hills where my stock runs is by the road passing in front of my house. Too great a risk to take, going down by my front yard.’
‘That’s one explanation,’ she agreed stiffly.
The white teeth in the brown face flashed to a sardonic smile. ‘Another is that I would be foolish to rob myself.’
He had put her in the wrong. She had no evidence that he was a rustler, though she had heard queer stories about his consorting with the lawless riff-raff who nested in the hills close to the big ranches. Stevens lived his own life, in the way he wanted.
‘You suggest that, not I,’ she told him.
‘Oh, no! It is in your mind.’ Mirth danced in his gray eyes. ‘I’m a lowdown miscreant running off your beef. Might be a good idea for me to include in my next gather some of my own and howl to high heaven about my loss — as a red herring across the track.’
‘What you do is not important to me. But you might broadcast word to your friends that after this my riders will carry guns.’
‘My goodness! Just like the good old days. And if your boys catch me will they hang me to a tree as the Virginian did Steve?’
Her stern young face refused to join in the jest with him.
From the house a young man strolled. His resemblance to Dale was marked. He had her dark eyes and light, graceful figure, but the chin was less clean-cut and the mouth a little weak. Apparently he had just got up, for there was still a sleepy look on the handsome face. The night before he had been up late playing poker.
He waved a hand at Stevens. ‘Hello, Hal. What’s new?’
‘Mr. Stevens rode in to tell us more of our cattle have been stolen while you and Jim slept,’ his sister answered acidly. ‘Very kind of him.’
Frank Lovell had struck a match to light a cigarette. He held it in his hand, a startled look in his eyes, until it burned his fingers and he was forced to drop the stub. ‘Anybody see who the fellows were?’ he asked quickly.
Stevens shook his head. ‘Far as I know they made a clean getaway.’
Young Lovell lit another match on the flap and cupped it in his hand. ‘They are probably in New Mexico or Texas by this time,’ he guessed, a surprising note of relief in his voice.
‘Or burning up rubber to get there,’ the owner of the M K added.
From the stable a big bowlegged man in chaps walked across to join them. Above a crook nose very light blue eyes were set a little too close in a brown leathery face. Jim Frawley, foreman of the Seven Up and Down, had the reputation of being a tough nut to crack. His gaze met and clashed with that of Stevens. These two did not like each other. There was no declared war between them, but both knew that some day trouble would flare up.
‘Hal says the rustlers have got to our stuff again,’ Frank told the foreman sulkily. ‘We sure look after our stock well. A neighbor even has to tell us when we have lost some.’
Frawley flushed angrily. His stormy eyes fastened on Stevens. ‘I’m listening,’ he snapped. ‘Where and when?’
The M K man looked with bland insolence at his questioner and turned to Dale. ‘Nice meeting you again, Miss Lovell, but there is no use asking me to stay longer. Got a date to see a man at Big Bridge. I really must go.’ He gathered the reins, an ironic smile on his face. ‘Hope you catch the thieves. Must be annoying to have them load up a truck from your herd so often. This is the third time, isn’t it?’
‘You seem to know all about it,’ Dale retorted. ‘But we can do without your sympathy, Mr. Stevens. Give it to the robbers. They’ll need it one of these days soon.’
‘If I meet the scalawags I’ll tell them you are gunning for them. Maybe they’ll lay off. Be seeing you, Frank.’
Frawley’s beefy face was purple with anger. He was not used to being ignored. ‘Fellow, I asked you a question,’ he blustered, blocking the way in front of the horse.
Stevens did not explain that he did not answer questions put in that tone of voice. He said, with a cool, insulting drawl, ‘I deal with principals, Mr. Frawley.’
The foreman choked with rage. ‘For two bits I’d drag you outa that saddle and break you in two.’
The visitor spoke to Dale, polite inquiry in his voice. ‘Have you two bits with you, Miss Lovell?’
Frawley caught the bridle rein in his fist and jerked it. ‘You can’t pull that line of talk on me,’ he cried.
Hal Stevens did not argue the point. A spur touched the flank of his horse. It went into the air, and as it came down plunged forward. Its shoulder struck Frawley and flung him headlong.
The rider turned in the saddle and waved a farewell to the Lovells.
FRAWLEY LEAPED to his feet and ran a few yards after the racing horse. He shook his fist in the air and broke into raucous curses. With them he interspersed threats.
‘That will do, Jim,’ ordered Dale sharply. ‘You can do your swearing in the stable when I’m not there.’
The foreman turned to her furiously. ‘He rode me down. The scalawag rode me down.’
‘He certainly did,’ she answered. ‘Don’t you know better than to snatch at a man’s reins when he starts to go?’
Frank had private reasons for being glad to see Frawley humiliated. ‘Funny to see him send you spinning,’ he said.
‘Funny!’ The foreman glared at him. ‘Pleased you, did it? After the fellow wouldn’t answer my question — treated me like I was the dirt under his feet.’
‘Next time you ask a question of Hal Stevens, you’d better make your voice real gentle and polite,’ Frank suggested maliciously.
‘I’ll get him if it’s the last thing I ever do in the world,’ stormed Frawley, and strode in a rage to the stable.
Dale watched their visitor ride down the hill, a figure light in the saddle, flat-backed, strong. He was a man who went his own reckless, devil-may-care way, too careless or too proud to explain himself to those who criticized his manner of life. He might be a lawbreaker, as his father had been before him. Homer Stevens had started the M K spread more than fifty years ago when the ownership of cattle had been as much an adventure as a business. In those days cattle ranged far over a territory thinly populated, and it was easy to build up a herd by the overfree use of a running iron. Dale was not sure that Homer Stevens was a proved rustler, though he had been suspected by many. He had been a hard, tough citizen, one whom few cared to challenge. Her father, Frank Lovell, was one of the few. Bold and hot-tempered, he had spoken his mind. There had been a gun-fight, and both of them carried the bullet scars until the days of their deaths.
Dale turned on her younger brother bitterly. ‘Do you have to treat Hal Stevens like a friend?’ she demanded. ‘After the trouble we’ve had with the M K all these years, I should think loyalty to father’s memory, if nothing else, would prevent it.’
‘What’s the sense in keeping up an old feud that ought to have been dead a dozen years?’ he asked sulkily. ‘We’ve got to live and let live. Hal is all right. He came over here to tell us about the raid. Why can’t we be neighborly too?’
‘He came to jeer at us,’ she differed. ‘And what do you mean he is all right? He let that killer Wall lie in the hills back of his place last year. They say he even fed him. Men with clean records don’t shelter outlaws.’
‘Wall wasn’t an outlaw. He was a friend of Hal who got in a jam. He was cleared later, with Hal’s help.’
‘And I suppose the Black outfit are friends of his caught in a jam,’ she suggested, with obvious sarcasm. ‘They ride through his pastures to rustle our stock and he doesn’t lift a hand to prevent them.’
‘Why should he — if they do — and you’re not sure of it. Hal isn’t sheriff of this county. They let his stuff alone. They’re not barking his shins.’
‘You have a fine sense of a citizen’s duty to the community!’ she flung out. ‘A man is honest — or he is a thief. You can’t touch mud without being defiled.’
Frank shrugged his shoulders. There was never any use in arguing with Dale. She was one of those persons who are always one hundred per cent right, he told himself bitterly. Her opinions were fixed, and she was usually hell-bent on having her own way. He had as much interest in the ranch as she had, but because he was three years younger Dale acted as if he was still a child. One of these days he was going to show her, though it was going to be difficult to get control of the Seven Up and Down, since their father’s will had fixed it that she was to be sole manager until Frank was twenty-five. If she had any sense and would allow him more money to spend, he would not be in the trouble he now was.
Dale walked back into the house to telephone Sheriff Elbert of the raid on their pasture. It would do no good. If, as was likely, the stock had been lifted about midnight, the thieves would have had eight or nine hours to reach safety. By this time they were probably holed-up in their hide-out. This might be two hundred miles away, or it might be in the next county if they were selling to a black market.
Ever since her father had first settled here, rustling had been a problem. He had fought the thieves whenever they grew active. Some, he and the other cattlemen had sent to the penitentiary. A few had been shot down when caught. Others had been driven out of the district. As the country grew more settled, cattle-stealing became riskier and thefts decreased. But of late years it had again become prevalent. The rustlers no longer drove the bullocks into the hills, but hauled them away in trucks to an arranged market. A nest of the scoundrels lived in the hills on the outskirts of the Seven Up and Down. Dale had set her stubborn will in a resolve to clean them out.
In this she realized her brother would be no help. Apparently he had in him none of the fighting tallow that had made his father a formidable opponent. A streak of softness ran through him, and already he was drinking too much. They were paying Jim Frawley to run the ranch, he had several times reminded her petulantly. It was a man’s job. Why stick out her head and interfere? Dale had a different opinion. As long as she was boss of the Seven Up and Down, she meant to run it.
AS HAL STEVENS jogged down to the main road there was a small smile of amusement on his sardonic face. He had made an enemy of Frawley, but that did not disturb him. He had made a good many in his life. His thoughts were of the young woman he had just left. The vividness of her youth and the hardness of her spirit were incongruous. Though she had evidently tried to restrain herself during their talk, she had a good deal of feminine ferocity in her make-up. No doubt she inherited the stiff dourness and the quick temper from her father. Frank Lovell, Senior, had been a tough
Before she was out of her teens, a large cattle ranch had been turned over to her to handle. She must have soon discovered that plenty of crooks were out to do a pair of orphans. Hal chuckled. Most of those who had tried it had run into an unexpected flintiness.
He was interested to see how she would cope with the recent outbreak of rustling. That an organized band was working stood out like a bandaged thumb. With so much dude beef in Arizona now, he was a little surprised that the thieves were centering the attack on the Seven Up and Down. Newcomers from the East with money had been buying up cattle spreads and putting in patios, swimming pools, and expensive haciendas. The pastures of two of these had been raided, but the robbers had specialized in Lovell stuff. Of course they were supplying a black market.
Hal could understand one reason for this. To the night-riding gentry the pastures of the Seven Up and Down must be a temptation because so many trails ran down from the hills to them. What puzzled Hal was the weakness of the defense the ranch had shown. Frawley knew cattle. He had worked with them all his life. The ways and methods of stock thieves were familiar to him. It was not strange that they had made one successful raid. On a big acreage such as the Lovells had, it was not possible to guard all vulnerable points every night. But three steals in a month, each with a clean getaway. Frawley ought to do better than that. One of the new dude outfits could not do any worse.
From a rise Hal looked down at the flat where Big Bridge lay. The sun was high in the sky now and its rays beat down on a parched desert bounded by papier-m?ch? mountains gaunt and stark. Below him lay a street of flat-roofed adobe houses running parallel to the river, a thin trickling stream following the line of least resistance in a wide sandy wash. There were times when the river was a roaring torrent.
He rode across the long narrow bridge, the slap of his horse’s hoofs beating up from the planks of the floor. Powdered dust lay heavy on the street, and a thin haze of it floated in the air. Hal drew up at the hitchrack in front of the Rest Easy Saloon. Three horses already drowsed there. Two or three cars were in sight. A new expensive station wagon was parked a few yards lower down the road, the property of one of the new rich dude outfits.
Hal tied and walked into the Rest Easy. He ordered a beer. While waiting for it, his glance swept the room. Three men were sitting at a table playing pitch. They stopped the game for a moment to watch him when he walked to the bar. He spoke to them and they answered his greeting. A fourth man stood alone at the end of the bar, a half-empty glass in front of him. He looked like an actor dressed for the part of a cowboy. The stranger was large, broad-shouldered, pink-cheeked. He wore high-heeled boots, brown range clothes, a big white sombrero, all of them a little too new.
The cold beer washed the dust from the dry throat of Stevens.
‘Hot,’ the bartender said, mopping with a towel his fat face. ‘Hottest summer in forty years. A hog got loose in Yuma the other day, and when the owner rounded it up, Mr. Pig had turned into a bucket of leaf lard. Jest melted down.’
‘Funny how many hottest summers we’ve had in the last ten years,’ Hal drawled. ‘I haven’t found one yet that’s too cool for me.’
His eyes rested on the pitch-players. They had this in common, that they were dusty, unshaven, and tough-looking customers. Hal knew them all. He had several times met them riding down from the hills where they lived close to Rabbit Ear Gorge. The smallest of them, a wiry fellow with beady eyes black as shoe buttons, had been in the district ever since Hal had been a small boy. His name was Cash Polk, and he had the reputation of being both slippery and dangerous. The other two he was not so well acquainted with, but he knew them casually. Brick Fenwick and Cad Hanford they called themselves. The underground story about them was that they were bad men, killers. Their villainous deadpan faces justified the guess. Hal understood that they had come from Texas a year or two ago. If so, they had probably migrated because that habitat had grown too hot for them.
Cash Polk commented: ‘Seems like it’s always hotter in a town than out in the open country. We spent the night at Tucson and like to of smothered. Had a two-by-four room right under the roof of a rooming house. It never did cool off all night.’
‘If you’ve just got back,’ Hal said casually, ‘maybe you haven’t heard that the Seven Up and Down was raided again last night.’
Polk’s eyes slid from one pitch-player to the other before they reached those of Stevens. ‘Well, I’ll be doggoned. Again. Don’t that beat the Dutch!’
‘Lucky you can prove you were at Tucson,’ Hal replied dryly. ‘I haven’t as good an alibi as that.’
‘We don’t have to prove where we were,’ Hanford said, his voice heavy and harsh. He was a solidly built man past his first youth. His slate-colored eyes had no more life in them than those of a dead cod.
‘That’s fine.’ There was a touch of contempt in the cool look Stevens let rest on the pitch-players. ‘Wish my reputation would stand up like that.’
‘Meaning that ours don’t?’ demanded Fenwick. He was scarcely more than a boy in years, but in vice he was a hundred. His figure was neat and slender, his motions quick and sure. It was easy to look at him and believe the story that he was a killer untroubled by conscience, and probably a very efficient one.
Hal hooked his elbows on the top of the bar and smiled. ‘If you are satisfied with them, Mr. Fenwick, why should I worry?’ he asked.
‘Don’t,’ advised the boy, the words so low that they came in almost a whisper. ‘What we do is strictly our own business. Anybody buttin’ in is asking for trouble. We wouldn’t stand for it a minute.’
The eyes of Fenwick and Stevens locked and held fast. Those of the cattleman met the chill threat between the slitted lids of the other with a steady scorn.
‘Am I treading on your toes, Mr. Fenwick?’ he asked.
‘By cripes, you better not try it. Don’t get nosey.’
‘Orders from Black?’ Stevens inquired cheerfully.
The boy slammed a fist down on the table. ‘I don’t take orders from anybody. I won’t let you tell me I do. Keep your mouth shut.’
‘I talk too much, don’t I?’ the cowman said, and laughed.
He knew why this young killer had a chip on his shoulder. Yesterday Hal had met Tick Black and told him where he stood on this rustling of stock to supply an illicit market; that if any evidence came to his hand, he would use it to convict the thieves if possible. Tick had agreed with him suavely that all good men must support the Government in war measures, but his assent had come a moment too late, after he had rubbed from his thin and bitter face a venomous flash of rage.
‘Those who mind their own business live longer,’ Fenwick reminded him out of the corner of thin lips almost closed.
‘Who wants to live forever?’ Stevens retorted, his manner so indifferent that the other found it insulting.
‘I’ve told you. Ride around my reservation.’
‘I ride my own trail, no matter whose it crosses,’ Hal said evenly.
‘If it crossed mine, that — would — be — too — bad,’ the Texan answered, menace in the spaced words.
‘For me, I take it,’ Hal suggested carelessly. ‘Already I’m feeling awfully sorry for myself.’
Cash Polk made peace talk. ‘Now, gentlemen, that’s no way to talk. Brick, you hadn’t ought to take up Mr. Stevens thataway. He wasn’t slamming at us any. We hill folks have always been friends with the M K outfit. Many is the good turn it has done us.’ Cash turned to Stevens. ‘You mustn’t mind Brick. He’s a mite rough, but lots of good dogs bark.’
‘Some of ’em bite too,’ Hanford added. ‘But if Mr. Stevens meant no offense, none is taken. Let’s top off with a drink.’
‘I’ll have to take a raincheck on mine,’ Hal said lightly. ‘Too early in the day for much drinking.’
The stranger standing at the other end of the bar moved a step toward the cattleman. ‘Like to speak to you a minute, sir,’ he began. ‘I’m looking for a job on a ranch. If you could use a man, maybe you would give me a try.’
‘Are you a cowhand?’ Hal asked skeptically.
‘Well, no, I’m not. Fact is, I came here for my health — from Pennsylvania. But I’m a pretty good hand with horses. You need not pay me full wages at first — just what I’m worth, whatever that is.’
‘Are you a sick man?’
‘I had a touch of t.b. But the doctor says all I need now is to be out in the air and sunshine.’
‘We’ve got quite a lot of both in Arizona.’ Hal drummed on the top of the bar with his fingertips. ‘The draft certainly has left me empty-handed.’ He flung a question at the man from Pennsylvania. ‘Are you a good rider?’
‘Pretty good. I don’t suppose I could stay on a bucker.’
‘Not necessary. All right. You’re hired. I can tell in a few days how much you are worth to me.’
‘Mr. Stevens will treat you right,’ Polk said smoothly.
‘Thanks for the testimonial,’ Hal returned shortly, and continued to give his attention to his new employee. ‘When can you start?’
‘Right now, soon as I can get my suitcase to your ranch.’
‘I’ll send a man in this afternoon. He’ll pick you up at Flack’s store. What’s your name?’
Stevens let his eye range over the man once more. ‘You’re a city man, I take it. Do you think you can stand up to the work?’
‘Give me a trial. If I’m no good, fire me.’
The cattleman and the tenderfoot walked out of the Rest Easy together and along the wooden sidewalk. They talked about the work. It was not until they reached a vacant lot that Hal said, ‘When did you get in, Ranny?’
‘Couple of hours ago. On the bus. You haven’t changed much since our college days — except that you are browner and look tougher.’
‘You’ve filled out a bit.’ Hal grinned. ‘Well, your problem jumped right up at you soon as you arrived. All you need to do is find out who is making this black market, spot the fellows who killed Curtis, arrest them, prove their guilt, and have them executed. Ought to be easy.’
‘How did the criminals get onto it that Curtis was a Government man?’
Stevens shook his head. ‘He must have made a slip somehow. I don’t think anybody else here knows he was.’
They wandered down to the hotel, apparently in the most casual talk.
‘How about that little set-to with the young ruffian Fenwick? Have you had trouble with him before?’ Arnold asked.
‘Not directly. His boss, Tick Black, knows how I stand. He has been watching me for some time. But he is too smooth a proposition to approve of the way Brick jumped me. Tick likes to set the time and place for settling accounts. The three beauties playing pitch were disturbed for fear I knew too much.’
‘I judge you suspect them.’
‘And they know I do. I was the first to discover last night’s raid on the Seven Up pasture. I rode down and reported it to the Lovells. That ought to give you an idea of what you are up against, Ranny. One of their gang must have seen me at the scene of the raid and followed me down the valley, must have watched me turn in to the Seven Up and then got the word down to Big Bridge, probably by phone. Nothing goes on in this valley Black does not find out sooner or later.’
‘Fenwick was ordering you, hands off.’
‘You had better watch your step, Hal. If they are the men I am after, they are dangerous.’
Hal chuckled. ‘You’ll look after me now you are here.’
‘Not I. My job is to find out where this black market is and who supplies it. From what I’ve heard this morning, I should think that might be easy.’
‘Easy to guess. Not so easy to prove. It would take thirty men to stop up every hole these rats get out of.’
‘This Brick Fenwick could have followed his own advice profitably. He also talks too much.’
‘He didn’t give away anything the whole valley has not guessed.’ Hal frowned, his eyes narrowed in reflection. ‘Most of these raids have been on the Seven Up and Down pastures. The outfit is owned by a family named Lovell. They have been here a great many years. Their foreman Frawley is an oldtime cowhand. I don’t savvy how the rustlers can work the Seven Up spread so much and get away with it.’
‘You think Frawley is lying down on his job?’
‘I don’t know. Another thing, young Frank Lovell has been playing poker with these scalawags and has lost a lot. So I’ve heard. The games have been going on ever since last winter, long before this rustling began. Frawley sometimes plays too. Since neither the kid nor the foreman is a fool, they must suspect this hill trash of stealing their stuff. If they do, why do they keep playing cards with them?’
Arnold offered a suggestion tentatively. ‘Perhaps because the Seven Up and Down is selling its stuff to a black market and only pretending to have it stolen.’
‘No.’ Hal vetoed this decisively. ‘Dale Lovell runs the outfit. She is a vixen, and she hates me as if I were the devil.
But when you meet her, you’ll know she is on the level.’
Arnold shrugged his shoulders. ‘When we’ve proved the crooks guilty, we’ll know the whole story.’
‘If these gunmen haven’t done us in,’ Hal excepted with a laugh.
The Government man looked at him appraisingly. Arnold himself was in an occupation where danger might leap up at him any day. But if he could he always discounted it in advance, took all possible precautions, sidestepped crises for which he was not prepared. Hal lacked altogether this deliberate prudence. Now a reckless light danced in his eyes. Randolph Arnold had seen it there in their college days. It always portended trouble ahead.
‘Take this Brick Fenwick’s advice, Hal. Keep out of this. I’m paid to handle it.’
‘Fine,’ Hal agreed. ‘I’m not inviting myself in. But I just had an idea. A couple of years ago I sat in two or three times at the poker games my hill neighbors used to have. Think I’ll drop in at Cash Polk’s house tonight and take a hand again.’
‘No,’ Arnold vetoed bluntly. ‘These scoundrels would think it a challenge. You might never get home alive.’
‘If there is a tie-up between them and the Seven Up, I could maybe find out what it is. When those fellows report to Tick Black what took place at the Rest Easy, he will order them to hold their horses. Tick does not want any unnecessary killings. And I’ll back his play by acting apologetic to Fenwick for crossing him.’
Arnold shook his head. ‘This Fenwick is unpredictable. As he told you, Black hasn’t got him on a leash even if he is the head of the gang. He might explode any moment. It would be foolish for you to break into one of their games.’
‘It was just a notion I had, Ranny,’ the cattleman said meekly. ‘I dare say you’re right.’
He glanced at his friend, but looked quickly away before Arnold caught his eye.
AT THE M K RANCH the men ate dinner with the boss in the big house. It was a democratic set-up Stevens had continued from the days of his father, one that helped to make for solidarity in the outfit.
After he had eaten and smoked a cigarette, Hal rose and stretched himself in a yawn. ‘About nine hours of shut-eye for me, boys,’ he said. ‘Mike, I’m putting Arnold in the cabin Steve had. Will you see he has blankets and anything else he needs?’
The lights of the big house went out and Hal lay down on his bed and slept for two hours. At the end of that time he rose, put his boots on, and slipped into a holster under his arm the .38 army special revolver he kept in a case on a shelf. He did not turn on the lights, but moved in the darkness. Keeping in the shadows of some live oaks, he stepped lightly to the car back of the house. On purpose he had left it at the top of the long slope which led to the house, its nose pointed down the road.
Releasing the brake, he started the car rolling down the hill and swung in beneath the wheel. Its momentum carried it a hundred and fifty yards before he had to engage the clutch. A quarter of a mile below the house, he took the first turn to the right along a narrow track that went up and down rocky hills and brought him to a small park into which he descended. From a cluster of pines a light shone.
It came from an adobe cabin set beside a small stream. Hal got out of the car and knocked on the door. Cash Polk opened. He stood there, his long jaw dropping with surprise. At a round table four other men with cards in their hands had suspended play and turned to look at the newcomer.
‘I’ll be damned if it isn’t the buttinski,’ Brick Fenwick said in a low voice.
Frank Lovell called to Hal. ‘Come in and take a hand. Maybe you’ll change my rotten luck.’
‘Don’t mind if I do,’ Stevens answered cheerfully. ‘Haven’t been in a game for quite a while.’ He nodded to Fenwick. ‘ ‘Lo, Brick. No hard feeling from this morning. Perhaps I was a little brash.’
‘Who invited you here?’ snarled Frawley.
Hal smiled genially. ‘Thought there might be a game and drove over. Afraid my horse owes you an apology, Jim. He’s a little nervous when a stranger grabs the bridle rein. Hope he didn’t hurt you.’
The Seven Up and Down foreman jumped to his feet. ‘You can’t come that guff over me, not after riding me down the way you did.’
‘Sit down, Jim, and don’t be a fool,’ Lovell snapped. ‘You scared the horse yourself.’
The fifth man, Cad Hanford, cut in gruffly. He was bearing in mind the instructions Tick Black had given them a few hours since. ‘If Mr. Stevens wants to play, that’s fine with me.’
‘Of course.’ Cash Polk’s voice was smooth as cream. ‘Honored to have him with us. Shove in that chair, Frank.’
Hal sat down with Fenwick on his left and Lovell on the other side. To the right of Frank was Hanford. The Seven Up foreman came next. Cash completed the circle.
After the hand that had been dealt was finished, Hal bought a twenty-dollar stack. It was a no limit game and took a dollar to open. The dealer decided whether they would play draw, stud, or Kansas City Liz.
Hal nursed his chips carefully, contrary to his usual custom in a poker game. He had not come here to enjoy himself, but to discover the tie-up between these hill nesters and the two from the Seven Up. Both Frank and the foreman were losing, neither of them cheerfully. Each time he lost a pot, Frawley called attention to the fact sourly.
Soon after Hal drew up a chair, the run of luck shifted. Frank began to win, at the expense of Polk and Hanford. The chips of the Seven Up foreman continued to drift from him.
Young Lovell was jubilant. ‘Time I had a change of luck,’ he said, drawing in a good pot. ‘I’ve lost nearly two thousand here in three months.’
The furtive eyes of Cash Polk slid toward the boy. ‘Sho, Frank, you’re exaggerating that a heap, though you have had a spell of bad cards.’
Lovell started to defend the claim he had made. His eyes met those of Frawley. He said sullenly, ‘Well, I’ve lost plenty.’
Hal could have sworn that was not what he had started to say.
‘No more than I have,’ the foreman growled. ‘Haven’t won a good pot for weeks. If I have three aces, some guy shows a small full.’
‘I reckon the game breaks about even in the long run,’ Polk commented. ‘We all have those bad spells when we can’t win… Open for a buck.’
The game seesawed, but Lovell’s stack grew larger. Hal still had more than half of his original investment. Frawley bought again from the banker Hanford, loudly cursing his luck.
Hal observed, made mental notes. Frank was the sucker, and they had him somehow in a cleft stick so that all he could do was wriggle. Frawley protested too much at his losses. Even a poor sport did not howl about each pot he did not win. The change in Lovell’s luck was being maneuvered because Hal was present. At least two of the players had refused to call the boy’s raises and had flung better hands into the discard, the cattleman would have been willing to bet. His guess was that the size of the pots was being held down far below those usually played.
That he was an unwelcome guest to all of them except Lovell, he knew. More than once Fenwick had been ready to explode and Cash Polk had interfered suavely to divert his anger. This suited Hal. He meant to dynamite this party presently, but he wanted to choose the time and the occasion.
There was a bottle of whiskey at a side table. Frawley and Hanford helped themselves frequently. Lovell and Polk took one or two drinks. Neither Brick Fenwick nor Hal touched the liquor. Each of them was watching the other, Fenwick with open malice and the ranchman more casually.
Young Lovell dealt. Polk opened, Frawley threw in his cards, and Hanford raised.
Frank pinched his cards and looked them over slowly. ‘Kick it five,’ he said, and pushed in chips. ‘To keep the grocery clerks out.’
‘That means me,’ Hal mentioned, dropping out.
‘Here, too,’ Fenwick said.
Polk showed his openers, kings and sevens. Hanford took his time. ‘I’ll see that raise,’ he said at last. ‘Gimme two cards, both aces.’
Frank dealt him two, laid down the pack, held three of his, and gave himself the same number as his opponent. Hal chanced to be looking at Hanford when the man glanced at his two new cards. The quick flicker of surprise in the fellow’s eyes told Hal that he had helped his hand beyond expectation. Hal guessed that he was holding, not a full house, but fours.
Hanford checked the bet.
‘I can’t insult my hand by not betting,’ Frank announced, and he pushed in two yellows.
A ten-dollar raise must mean that he had filled, but Hal would have given odds that Hanford held the better hand. He waited, keenly interested to see what the man from Texas would do.
‘I ought to raise you,’ Hanford said, and tapped the table with his fingertips while he pretended to weigh the chances. ‘I ought to, but I won’t. My luck’s out tonight.’
Hal was the next dealer, and he was gathering in the discard when Hanford threw down his cards.
Lovell spread his cards, laughed gleefully, and reached for the pot. He had laid down three kings. ‘Fooled you that time, Cad,’ he exulted. ‘Or were you bluffing?’
‘Three jacks,’ answered the hill nester. ‘I didn’t help.’
Hal drew Hanford’s five cards toward him, as if to put them in the pack. ‘I’ve got twenty says you had Frank beat,’ he remarked to Hanford quietly.
The hooded eyes of Hanford fastened on Stevens. They were bleak and cold as a blast from the north in January. ‘You’ll never know,’ he replied, resentment in the grating voice.
What Hal did then was something he had never done before, a clear violation of poker ethics. He flipped the cards over so that they lay face up. Hanford had been holding four aces and a five spot.
Of the six men present only one was ready for this critical moment, the one who had set the scene. The others sat in icy silence, startled at the challenge flung at them. When they recovered, it was too late. Hal had pushed back his chair and risen. The .38 army special was in his hand.
‘Take it easy,’ he warned. ‘Don’t make a move. Hands on the table, gentlemen.’
‘What the hell is this?’ Frawley growled, his face purple with rage. There was a scar on one side of the crooked nose, and it stood out white against the blood-filled cheeks.
‘A showdown,’ Hal told him, his voice sharp and imperative. ‘There won’t be any fireworks, unless your fingers get itchy. Frank, collect the hardware and throw it out of the window. I don’t want to tempt any of your friends to suicide.’
‘Now look here, Hal,’ Frank began.
‘Don’t talk. Get the guns.’
The cool, hard eyes, the day-of-judgment voice, decided Frank. He made a circuit of the table. Polk and Frawley were not carrying weapons. Hanford’s revolver went out of the window. Brick Fenwick said, murderous eyes fixed on Stevens, ‘Don’t touch my gun, Frank.’
The revolver in Hal’s hand covered steadily the young ruffian’s chest. ‘Disarm him, Frank. Check up to see he hasn’t two guns.’ He added, the words as chill as water from a Newfoundland iceberg, ‘I’ll blast him off the map if he stirs.’
Frank found an automatic in Fenwick’s pocket and tossed it into the dark night outside.
‘Sure he hasn’t another?’ Hal snapped.
‘That’s all,’ Lovell said.
‘Fine. Now I’ll talk. You’ve been a sucker for months, Frank. These buzzards have been feasting on you. Frawley’s losses are come-on stuff. The play was for him to be sore and lead you on to keep coming back to win from them what you had lost. After I butted in, they decided to let you win, so as to throw me off the track. Any chump could see you took two or three big pots when you didn’t have the best hand. When I saw Hanford look at his last two cards, I could have told you he had fours. I thought he wouldn’t call — and he didn’t. Generous of him not to interfere with the small killing you were to make.’
‘That’s a lie — everything you’ve said,’ Hanford flung back, his half-shuttered eyes dark with menace. ‘I misread my hand and didn’t see the fourth ace.’
‘Better get glasses, Hanford,’ the cattleman jeered. ‘All right, Frank. Where do you go from here? I’m leaving. You going, too? Or do you stay with these crooks?’
‘Some day I’ll fill you full of lead, smart aleck,’ Fenwick said in a low deadly voice, and added a string of curses in the same tone.
Hal’s eyes held fast to the man, but his words were for Lovell. ‘Make up your mind, Frank. It’s one or the other. You go straight or crooked. Think fast.’
The whole dirty intrigue was clear to Frank. He owed money to these men, and he had let them use him by way of payment. At least two of them were killers. He had not dared to tell them he could not make good the losses and to stand out against the raids on the ranch. But he had not suspected they had cheated him in the poker games. Anger boiled up in him.
Always he had admired the reckless courage of Hal Stevens and found his audacity fascinating. Swiftly he came to a decision. He had been a craven fool, but, by Heaven, he would go straight now.
‘I’m with you, Hal,’ he said.
‘Good. Cash your chips and mine. I’m sure Mr. Hanford will be glad to have you deputy banker.’
‘You can’t call me a crook,’ the Seven Up foreman told Stevens thickly, anger choking him. ‘And I’ll get you for this some day sure as you’re a foot high. You can stand there back of that gun and insult me, but you haven’t the nerve to go outside with me and settle this man to man.’
‘No, I haven’t just now,’ Hal agreed. ‘Too many of your anxious friends around. All ready, Frank?’
‘In just a second.’ Frank pushed the money box from him. ‘Okey, Hal!’
‘Start my car for me, then get going in your own. Soon as I hear it moving, I’ll be out.’
Frank hesitated, his eyes shifting from one angry, threatening face to another. ‘Hadn’t we better go out together?’ he asked in a low voice.
‘No. Do as I say. I’ll be with you before you get out of the park.’
A minute later, Hal heard the sound of his purring engine, and then the grating wheels of Lovell’s automobile scraping loose gravel. His gaze traveled grimly around the circle. ‘I’ll be saying “Adios!” gentlemen. A pleasant time has been had by all. I’ll leave you to talk it over among yourselves.’
He backed out through the door, slammed it shut, and raced for his car. His enemies were boiling out of the cabin before he had slid under the wheel. Instantly he was on his way across the park. Shots slammed against the hill in front of him. A bullet struck the hub cap of a wheel and slanted off on ricochet. His car jumped along the rough road like a bucking broncho, but steadied as he took the hill to the rim above. On the summit he found Frank waiting.
YOU ALL RIGHT?’ Frank asked.
‘Fine as silk. You’d better come home with me for the night. We’ve got to talk over this thing.’
The boy hesitated. His sister would not like that, but she would not like any part of the story. He was not sure how much he was going to tell her.
‘Think maybe I ought to go home,’ he said.
‘Not until we’ve figured out where we stand. I’ve declared war, and you are in it.’ Hal looked across at the shadowy form of Lovell behind the wheel of the other car. ‘I’m not sure that you are not in more danger than I. You’ll have to put all your cards on the table, Frank, before we can decide what to do.’
‘I’ll follow you to the M K,’ Frank said. ‘After we have talked I can go home.’
When they drew up in the yard of the ranch house, a man came forward from the shadow of one of the buildings.
‘That you, Hal?’ he called.
‘Right first time, Ranny,’ Stevens answered lightly.
‘Where have you been?’ Arnold inquired, admonition in his voice.
Hal laughed. ‘I’ve been playing poker. This is Frank Lovell.’ His hand swept toward the new employee. ‘Mr. Randolph Arnold, Frank.’
The two men shook hands. Arnold’s mind jumped back instantly to the previous question. ‘Playing poker — where?’
‘With some of my neighbors. It’s a long story. Let’s go inside. Better get your gun first, Ranny. We may have visitors.’
The cattleman bolted the doors and drew the blinds before he sat down to recount the adventure of the night.
‘I don’t know this gentleman,’ Frank objected. ‘He may be all right, but—’
‘He was my roommate at college,’ Hal explained. ‘Ranny was the best blocking back I ever knew. All I ever had to do was to trot along behind him and carry the ball. He is absolutely dependable.’
‘Is he visiting you?’
‘Recuperating from an illness, he says,’ grinned Hal. ‘But he looks right healthy to me. I hope he is. We may need a husky guy to break up interference.’
Hal told the story of the poker game, his deductions from it, and the stormy finale.
‘You look for trouble?’ Arnold said, after he had finished.
‘Double trouble. For Frank and for me.’
‘For you, certainly,’ Arnold agreed. ‘But perhaps not for Mr. Lovell. It depends on how much he knows.’
Frank flushed. He had played a weak part and knew it. But no matter how much it embarrassed him, he had to come clean now.
‘Altogether I owe Frawley, Hanford, and Fenwick more than seventeen hundred dollars,’ the boy blurted out.
‘From poker losses?’ Hal inquired.
‘Why should they let you get in so deep?’
Young Lovell found it difficult to answer that. He began twice and broke off, then poured out the words in a gulp. ‘I overheard something Brick said one day, and it made me think they might be the cattle raiders. Nothing very definite. But I had a hunch. I began to put this and that together. Once I told them my suspicions, one night when I was a little drunk. Nothing was said to me then, but later Brick took me aside.’
‘And gave you a choice — to keep your mouth shut and live or to talk and get shot in the back.’
‘Something like that. I wanted to quit the game, but they wouldn’t let me. It wasn’t my money they wanted, because I didn’t have any to speak of. The idea was to keep me close to them and in their debt. Then I dare not squawk. I’ve been losing ever since. They don’t bother me about what I owe. They carry me on credit. But I knew I was gone if I was not careful.’
‘And you are to wink at the raids, even those against the Seven Up and Down,’ Hal suggested. ‘Probably they would claim the stock they steal is a rough offset against your poker losses.’
‘Yes,’ Frank assented miserably. ‘Though nothing has been said in words. They are very careful now about what I hear. The fact is, I don’t
‘You’ve guessed so much that you would be a valuable witness against them, Mr. Lovell,’ said Arnold. ‘You’ll have to be very careful. They may decide that dead men tell no tales.’
‘Anyhow, I feel better now I’ve broken with them,’ Frank said, and took a deep free breath. ‘It’s been hell living with this on my mind.’
‘It must have been.’ Hal came to another angle of the problem. ‘What about Frawley? He must be one of them. It is easy to see now how they could pull off their raids and not get caught.’
‘I think Jim told them what pastures they could rob safely on any given night,’ Frank replied. ‘I hate him more than I do any of the others. He has been with us ten years and now throws us down. And he’s a terrible bully.’
Hal lit a cigarette and took a few puffs before he spoke. ‘It comes to this,’ he summed up. ‘We are sure we have spotted the thieves, but we still haven’t any proof, nothing that would stand up in court.’
‘I suppose you will fire Frawley,’ Arnold said to Frank.
‘Dale will, with some smoking words that ought to scorch his thick hide.’ The boy grinned wryly. ‘He’ll try to take it out of me later.’
Hal agreed. ‘He’s a vindictive scoundrel, and he’ll have Black’s gang with him. Stick close to the ranch, Frank. Don’t go to town unless you have three or four armed men with you. Never ride your fences alone. You know too much. The thieves would feel safer if you were out of the way. For Pete’s sake, keep away from brush country. Get this in your head and don’t forget it. You will be murdered if they can kill you safely.’
Young Lovell was startled at the harsh bluntness of Hal’s words. He stared wide-eyed at his neighbor. ‘Would they go that far?’ he asked doubtfully. He wanted reassurance, though he had often felt as much himself, knowing how carefully they watched him.
‘Brick Fenwick would shoot his own brother if the man stood in his way. That man is a killer. So is Hanford. And I wouldn’t trust Jim Frawley any farther than I could throw a bull by the tail.’
‘They’ll be after you more than they will me.’
‘After both of us. But they can’t get us if we don’t give them a chance.’ It occurred to Hal that he ought to impress on Dale Lovell’s mind the danger in which her brother stood. ‘Think I’ll change my mind, Frank, and ride home with you. But we won’t take the road. We’ll go by the hill trail and drop down Frenchy’s Draw to your pasture.’
‘Fine.’ The boy was pleased with this arrangement. He thought it would be a good idea to have somebody else present when he broke the bad news to Dale. In the hearing of a comparative stranger, she would probably modify the blistering epithets she would be ready to pour on him. They drove over the hills in Frank’s car to the ridge overlooking the valley and descended into it by way of the wide ca?on known as Frenchy’s Draw.
ALMOST BEFORE HAL was out of the cabin, Brick Fenwick plunged across the room for the rifle that stood in the corner. Cash Polk had to take only two steps to reach the revolver beneath the pillow on his bed. They collided at the door. The impact flung Cash against the jamb, but he was in the open first. The car was moving when his gun bucked from the shot aimed at the figure back of the wheel.
Brick blazed away, too fast for an accurate aim. His second shot thudded against the car. The night was dark, and before he could fire again the coupe was a shadowy bulk nearly a hundred yards distant. Yet the crash of the rifle continued to fill the park, though he had now nothing but hope to guide the bullets.
‘No use,’ Frawley cried savagely. ‘He’s got away — for this time.’
The young killer lowered the rifle. ‘That’s right — for this time. I’m heading for the M K tonight to stop his clock.’ He started for a car that stood close to the house.
‘Hold yore horses a minute, Brick,’ Cash objected. ‘We got to talk this over. No sense jumpin’ the gun. When we settle his hash, I want it to be a sure thing. No finger of the law pointing at us. If we go raring over there hell-for-leather, some of us are liable to be shot. Anyhow, they will know who we are. A nice quiet dry-gulching would be better. Just one crook of the finger from the brush, with nobody wise to whose finger.’
‘Cash is right,’ Hanford agreed. ‘It would be crazy for us to attack the ranch house, with half a dozen of Stevens’s punchers ready to pop away at us soon as we show up. Not good enough.’
‘Okey!’ Frawley snarled. ‘But when? When do we bump off this smart aleck? It can’t be soon enough to suit me.’
‘Nor me. He’s got the gall of a pack rat to hold us up and make monkeys of us.’ Cash shook his fist at the darkness into which Hal had disappeared. ‘The scalawag is living on borrowed time from tonight. Why not tomorrow morning — when he comes out of the house? From the ridge opposite.’
They trooped back into the house, to discuss time and place. Frawley paced up and down the room, restless as a caged panther. The others sat around the table.
‘The sooner the better,’ Fenwick said. ‘Before he has any time to talk this over with other ranchers on the river. Soon as he steps out into the open tomorrow, like Cash said. Whoever does this will have to carry glasses, so as to make sure he is getting the right fellow.’
Other plans were proposed and rejected. The ridge was not too far from the house for an accurate shot, and the killer could make a getaway safely in a car before any pursuit would be possible. If necessary, the other four would testify that he had been with them at the time of the shooting.
Polk raised the question that was in all of their minds. ‘Who is the best man to do it?’ he asked, his eyes sliding from one to another.
‘Frawley is the best shot with a rifle,’ Hanford suggested.
‘I got to be at the Seven Up,’ the foreman objected instantly. ‘To look over a beef herd with the boss. She has a buyer from Denver coming out.’
‘You can be back there by that time,’ Polk said.
The stony eyes of Frawley rested on Polk. ‘What’s the matter with you doing it?’
‘I’m too short-sighted to see that far.’
Fenwick laughed insultingly. ‘Time for your excuse now, Cad,’ he said to Hanford.
The deadpan face of Hanford was expressionless. ‘I haven’t heard you offer to do the job, Brick.’
‘And you won’t. We’ll deal cards for it.’
‘Suits me,’ Hanford assented.
The other two agreed reluctantly.
‘Each of us will put fifty dollars in the pot, and it will all go to the guy who loses,’ Brick proposed. ‘The man who gets the high spade is out. One card to each of us. We’ll deal in turn. The bird with the low spade or no spade in the finals is elected. If any time no spade shows, the dealer stays on the job. That clear?’
‘Anyone has the privilege of cutting the deck whenever he pleases,’ Cash added suspiciously.
They high-spaded for the first deal, and it fell to Hanford. He shuffled the cards and offered them for a cut, an offer that both Frawley and Polk accepted. The eyes of the other three were glued to the dealer. Hanford was an expert with cards, and none of the rest intended to let him pull any shenanigan. He dealt a queen of hearts to Cash, a three of clubs to the foreman, a seven of spades to Fenwick, and a four of spades to himself. The young Texan was out. This was one killing he did not have to do.
On Polk’s deal Hanford went out on a ten of spades.
‘We’re certainly out of luck, Cad,’ Fenwick drawled. ‘One of the other boys is going to collect this two hundred in the jackpot.’
‘After he has collected Mr. Hal Stevens,’ Hanford amended.
‘If you feel that way, Brick, you can take the two hundred and do the job yourself,’ the foreman growled.
‘I wouldn’t crowd you out of a nice paying job, Jim,’ the boy answered, with a sneering laugh. ‘One hundred and fifty plunks net, just for crooking a finger.’
Frawley dealt. He gave Cash the king of spades and himself the nine spot of the same suit. With a curse he flung the deck on the table, sending half the cards slithering to the floor. The scar on his face stood out livid and ragged.
Cash wiped the tiny sweat beads from his forehead. He was tremendously relieved at having escaped.
‘It’s a nice bonus, Jim,’ he tittered, ‘for doing only what you’ve been bragging you meant to do anyhow.’
Frawley’s big fist crashed into the man’s face and flung him against the wall. ‘You’ll laugh at me, will you?’ he roared. ‘God damn you all to hell!’
‘No use getting so goosey, Jim,’ Fenwick chided. ‘It might have been one of us, and anyhow it’s only a dirty chore soon finished.’
‘There’s another dirty chore,’ Hanford reminded them. ‘What about the kid — Frank?’
They had forgotten Frank. The name came to them with a little shock. Something had to be done about him. In one way he was more dangerous than Stevens. They were not sure how much he knew, but it was plenty. Since he was now under the influence of the M K owner, it was sure that he would tell enough to bring trouble knocking at their doors.
Cash groaned. He dabbed with a handkerchief tenderly at his bruised cheek. ‘I hate to have the kid hurt. Still and all—’
‘He’s nothing but a spoiled brat,’ Frawley said, with reminiscent venom. ‘Several times I’ve come near beating his fool head in.’
‘That wouldn’t be enough now,’ Brick said, puffing at the cigarette he was lighting. His shallow eyes were cold and hard, quite without anger or pity. The mouth was a thin, cruel slit in a face that evil long ago had furrowed. ‘He’ll have to be rubbed out. Long as he is alive, we’ll not feel safe.’
The beady eyes of Cash slid slyly over his confederates. ‘He’s going to be inducted into the army soon. Maybe if Jim was to talk to him—’
The hooded, dead-cod gaze of Hanford rested on Polk. ‘You voting to turn the kid loose, Cash?’ he sneered.
‘Why, no — no. We dassent do that.’
‘I wouldn’t exactly know. It’s a tough proposition.’
‘Well, I know.’ There was an ugly malicious grin on the mouth of Hanford. ‘You know he has to be rubbed out, just like the rest of us do. But you think, if you hint around about going easy on him, you could claim later, in case you get yore tail in a crack, that you stood up to us and tried to save him.’
‘Nothing like that, Cad,’ protested Cash. ‘You hadn’t ought to talk to me thataway.’
‘Too bad you can’t have yore bread buttered on both sides, Cash.’ Brick let the ghost of a tormenting smile rest on his immobile face. ‘Might be a good idea for us to have Cash take over this little task of sending Frank west. We would have the dead wood on him then.’
‘No. No.’ The voice of Cash was shrill with fright. ‘I never killed a man in my life. I couldn’t do it.’
‘You’ll find it easy.’ Brick’s voice was smoothly ironic. ‘All you have to do is get him where you want him and cut loose the blast. Boys, what say we let Cash have this experience? He’ll learn there is no sport like man-hunting. It’s tops.’
Cash was voluble, but so excited by fear that his speech lacked coherence. ‘Now see here, Brick. I ain’t — I ain’t — I’m peaceful. No gun-fighter. I wouldn’t have any idea how — I just couldn’t do it.’
Fenwick borrowed his revolver. ‘I’ll show you how, Cash. Watch how I do this, and you’ll never need another lesson.’
He turned the gun on the little man, pressing the end of the barrel against his belly. The unwavering eyes that bored into those of Polk were filled with a strange, vicious excitement. The lust to kill burned up in them like evil lights.
‘Don’t, Brick, don’t!’ the victim screamed. ‘For God’s sake—’
Fenwick laughed, but the sound of his mirth was brittle. There had been one uncertain moment when death had been very near. He gave the revolver back to the shaking hand of its owner. ‘You see how easy it is, Cash. The other fellow is the one who has to worry.’
‘If you fellows are going to draw straws, get at it,’ the foreman said impatiently.
‘What do you mean us fellows?’ Brick demanded. ‘You’re in it, too. We took our chance with Stevens. You take yours now.’
‘Not on your life,’ Frawley flung back at him. ‘I’m out of it. And don’t think you can scare me. I’m not Cash.’
They faced each other for a moment, the big red-faced arrogant bully and the slim neat deadly killer.
Hanford interposed. ‘Go easy, Brick. I think Jim is right. One of the rest of us can take care of the boy.’
Brick shrugged his shoulders. The point was not worth fighting about. Except for the principle of the thing, he would just as soon take on the killing as not.
They let the cards decide a second time. Hanford drew the high spade the first round. The ace of that suit fell to Fenwick on the next try. Cash stood looking down at the ace of hearts which lay in front of him, his face and lips ashen pale. There was no pity in his heart for the doomed boy. He was thinking wholly of his own safety.
WHEN FRANK AND HAL walked into the living-room before breakfast, they found Dale reading the market quotations for cattle in the Tucson
At sight of Hal Stevens, her face set. He smiled at her with the cheerful impudence she so much disliked.
‘Sorry, Miss Lovell,’ he said. ‘The bad penny has turned up again.’
She held the newspaper in her hands resting on the thighs encased in the levis, looked Stevens over resentfully, and turned to her brother.
‘Listen, Dale,’ Frank broke out. ‘This is important. You won’t like it, but you’ve got to hear it. Hal and I are in a jam, and it concerns you.’
‘What do you mean that you are in a jam with him?’ Dale asked coldly.
‘I mean he got me out of it, far as I am out of it, and that’s not saying much.’
‘Maybe you had better tell me what the trouble is.’
‘Part of it is that Frawley is in cahoots with Black’s gang to rob us of our stock.’
‘Did Mr. Stevens tell you that?’ Dale asked bitingly.
‘No. I told him.’
‘And when did you find it out?’
Her brother told her the whole story — his gambling losses and suspicions, the fear they had drilled into him, his inability to escape from the strangle-hold they had on him, and the chance of deliverance Hal Stevens had unexpectedly offered.
‘Very interesting,’ the girl commented bitterly. ‘Mr. Stevens is the hero of your ignoble adventure. And you — you are not even the villain, but the poor fool the thieves led by the nose.’
The boy flushed. ‘Go ahead,’ he said, with sullen anger. ‘Say anything you like. I reckon I deserve it.’
Hal took part in the discussion for the first time. ‘Frank isn’t the only boy who has sowed a few wild oats. When he knew what he had got into and wanted to pull up, it was too late. He was in trouble up to his neck. Black’s killers would not have let him break away alive. The first chance he had — and that was last night when I put it up to him to declare himself on one side or the other — he came through clean as a whistle, backed my play at once, disarmed them, and started my car so that I could get out of there alive. If you have the sense I think you have, Miss Lovell, you won’t let your silly pride play any part in this. You’ll start with us here from scratch. First off, get this. Frank is marked for death by these scoundrels, and it’s your job to see that they don’t find a chance to get him. If we’re going to smash this thieving gang, we all have to stand together. That’s point number two. We don’t need to like each other to be allies until the enemy is licked.’
Color flooded the girl’s face. As usual, he had managed to put himself in the right and her in the wrong. She had not been just to Frank. It had taken courage for him to stand up to Black’s gang and walk out on them. For months she had been worried about him, and now he had cut loose from the associates who were ruining him. He was safe, if he could be protected from their vengeance. As for Hal Stevens, though she was prejudiced against him, she had to admit that he had behaved splendidly.
‘All right, Mr. Stevens. We’ll be polite allies for the duration, as friendly as Italy is to Germany, with all rights to subsequent hostilities reserved.’ An inner urge swept the mocking smile from her face and showed it for a moment young and warm. ‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your help to Frank. We both thank you.’
He waved a hand airily. ‘Think nothing of it, Miss Lovell. I’m not a noble character. The idea came to me that I would enjoy stirring up the animals. So I used Frank as a prod.’
As she looked at this lean brown man with the compelling devil-may-care charm, a strange heat ran through her. For years she had hated him. Even now resentment boiled up in her that they should be under so great an obligation to their traditional enemy. She detested his cool, poised assurance, though she felt certain that back of the reckless confidence was the stark courage to justify it. He lived by no settled principle, and his wild youth had been a scandal in the valley. Yet some magnetized current reached out from him and drew her with a force that washed away the barriers her strong young will had built. He was intensely masculine. She felt it in his thick crisp reddish hair, in the bone conformation of his face, in the smooth rhythmic co-ordination of his muscular system.
Dale beat down the wave of emotion sweeping over her. She spoke with light sarcasm. ‘I must thank you, too, for telling me off so candidly. I’m fortunate to have such a model character here to point out to me my duty. I’ll pocket my silly pride, as you suggest, and start from scratch.’
Frank was delighted not to be put in the doghouse. He raised a question. ‘What about the seventeen hundred I owe?’
‘We’ll have to pay it,’ Dale said. ‘You can’t welsh.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Hal told them bluntly. ‘They have been stealing your stock. The poker games were fixed for Frank to lose. He would be a chump to pay.’ He passed to another point. ‘It’s not my business, maybe. But what are you going to do about Frawley?’
‘He’s in the raids as deep as any of them,’ Frank said.
‘We’ll fire him, of course,’ Dale replied. ‘By the way, where is he? He should have been here before this. We were going to look over some beef stuff a Greeley man wants to buy.’
‘Maybe he has ducked out,’ Frank hazarded.
‘No,’ Hal differed. ‘He’ll try to bull it through. Jobs like his aren’t a dime a dozen. If he loses out here, he will never get a chance to be foreman of another big outfit. But if you fire him, remember this. He’s a vindictive fellow. No doubt he has been tipping off Black’s gang where and when to raid your pastures. Yet, if you give him his time, he will become a bitter enemy.’
‘Better that than a false friend who is selling us out.’
A heavy step sounded on the porch. Frawley’s big form appeared in the doorway. At sight of Stevens there jumped to the light blue eyes in the beefy face a look so startled that it was akin to fear. The man he had been lying on the ridge to kill since before dawn was here to confront him.
Although Frawley must have known there was likely to be a blow-up between him and Dale, he took a bold, domineering line.
‘What’s that man doing in this house?’ he demanded.
‘Frank and I decide who comes here,’ she answered. ‘And you are one we won’t have on the place any longer. You’re through working for the Seven Up. Get your time and pack up your roll.’
‘Why am I through?’ he asked stormily.
‘Because we no longer want you on the place.’
‘That’s no answer. I’m asking you why.’
‘I’ll tell you why.’ Her face lost its soft contours. The eyes grew hard and bright with anger. ‘You don’t know what loyalty is. You have done your best to lead Frank astray — to ruin him with drink and gambling, in order to make money out of it. You are one of a gang of thieves, the lowest one of the lot, since you are selling out the employers who promoted you from a forty-dollar-a-month job to a responsible position.’
‘It’s a lie,’ Frawley blustered. ‘You can’t prove it.’ . ‘If I could prove it, I would send you to the penitentiary. Maybe it will come to that yet. But at least I can have you kicked off the ranch as a lowdown scoundrel the decent boys in the bunkhouse won’t want to associate with. You are leaving the Seven Up, and I’ll tell you that it will be my business to see that you are never foreman again on any Arizona ranch.’
‘You think you are God Almighty, don’t you?’ the ex-foreman sneered. ‘I’ll be tickled to leave an outfit bossed by a shrew who hasn’t cow sense enough to tell a heifer from a steer.’
‘I want you off the place as soon as you can pack,’ she told the discharged man sharply.
‘I’ll go when I get good and ready,’ he retorted. ‘And that will be after your brother pays me five hundred dollars he owes.’
‘I don’t have to pay money lost in a crooked game,’ Frank interposed.
‘Who says the game was crooked? You’ll pay. Or I’ll take it out of your hide.’
Hal spoke, mildly. ‘I say it was crooked. The rest of you had been taking Frank for a ride all spring.’
Frawley swung round on him. ‘You’re a hell of a fine witness, a fellow with a reputation like yours.’ The ex-foreman turned back to the mistress of the ranch. ‘Last night he barged in on our poker game, and after he had lost held us up with a gun. He and your fine brother robbed our bank. They both belong in the penitentiary, and that’s where we aim to send them.’
‘I’m not interested,’ Dale said curtly. ‘Clear out.’
‘You claim for years that you hate this fellow. His father shot and ‘most killed your dad. All your riders know how unfriendly you’ve been to the M K. Now all of a sudden you are as thick with him as three in a bed. You know what a bad egg he is, but when he cooks up these lies against me you side with him.’ Frawley broke off from his harsh scolding to laugh raucously. ‘I reckon the settlers in this valley will think there is a reason.’
Frank stepped forward, his face white with anger. ‘Get out of here, you scoundrel, or I’ll have you whipped from the ranch.’
‘You will, eh?’
The bully had lost control of his temper completely. His heavy fist lifted to the point of Frank’s jaw. The boy staggered back and went down to the carpet in a huddled heap.
Dale flew to help her unconscious brother.
In a quiet, cool voice Hal made a proposition to Frawley. ‘Yesterday you wanted to tear me in two. How would you like to step outside and try it now?’
The infuriated ruffian sized up his opponent, a lithe, graceful man who weighed fifty pounds less than he, with smooth muscles that did not bulge. He had the reputation of being a good fighter for his weight, but Frawley did not believe there was a man alive who could give him fifty pounds and stand up against him. The foreman was a notorious brawler, and he was strong as an ox.
‘You’re on,’ he said exultantly. ‘Let’s go.’
Three men were standing outside the bunkhouse waiting for orders. Frawley called to them. ‘Come and see the show, boys. Somebody is going to get the licking of his life.’
He threw his coat to one of them and doubled his fists.
‘Just a moment,’ Hal said. ‘We’re both armed. Before we start this argument we’ll give our guns to the boys.’
His big foe hesitated an instant before he said,’ Suits me.’ He handed his revolver to one of the men. ‘Here, take this, Casey. I can knock the living daylights out of this buttinski with nothing but my fists.’
Hal turned over his weapon to the cowboy. He said, chuckling, ‘You can get my last words later.’
Beside his huge opponent Hal seemed slight. There was not an ounce of unnecessary weight on him anywhere. Feet, hips, and hands were in perfect co-ordination, but the massive shoulders and body of Frawley looked overpowering. They packed tremendous force.
‘Bet you a buck Stevens doesn’t last five minutes, Bill,’ Casey said to one of the other cowboys.
Bill shook his head. ‘No dice. Stevens is a good man, but he hasn’t the weight to beat Jim.’
Frawley came in flatfooted and heavy, swinging hard, with a piledriving force that might have felled a steer. Hal’s head moved a few inches. As the big fist scraped over his shoulder his left pumped into the belly of the foreman. That first blow told Hal something he wanted to know. The bully had been a heavy drinker for years, and the midriff that had once been a tight band of steel was now paunchy and soft. The big man’s grunt was evidence of its vulnerability.
Hal danced away, his footwork worth seeing as he circled his foe. The motions of arms, shoulders, and long slim body were as rhythmic as the pistons of well-oiled machinery. He had been the middleweight champion of his college, and since then had learned how to adapt his technique to a rough-and-tumble fight. One first principle he had discovered — to hurt his opponent as hard and as often as he could early in a fray without allowing his own power to be sapped. Now he slammed first one fist and then the other into the soft tire of fat circling his enemy’s waist.
Frawley began to blow like a porpoise. He plunged at Stevens, disregarding defense, eager to knock out the smaller man quickly. Hal smothered one fist by clever arm work, ducked the other, and drove a right once more into the belly. The foreman glared, breast heaving. Savagely he charged once more. It was the only way of fighting he knew — to slog and hammer his foe to a pulp, if necessary crushing his ribs in by sheer strength. Some of his blows got home. Hal’s face was badly cut. One of his eyes was swelling, and there was a bad bruise on his cheek. As yet there was not a mark on Frawley’s face. But he was breathing hard. Sharp clean-cut blows had rammed into his kidneys and stomach. Already the fellow was in distress.
Hal began to pay attention to the face. He stepped warily around the man, feinted for the body, and landed hard on the mouth. Before he broke ground, he pounded right and left at the kidneys and slashed another right at the nose that drew blood freely. Frawley gasped. He was being punished cruelly. Surges of nausea swept over him. It came to him that he had to carry the battle or be beaten. He shuffled forward, trying to close with his light-stepping, elusive antagonist. Hal stopped him with two straight smashes to the chin that rocked his head back.
The foreman’s eyes were glassy. His arms were so heavy he found difficulty in lifting them. The flailing fists of the cattleman landed almost at will, slashing both at the heaving belly and the battered face. Frawley was bewildered, beaten, almost helpless.
Casey said,’ We’d better stop this.’ He had no love for the wagon boss, but after all they belonged to the same outfit.
Frank Lovell stood in the doorway, his sister behind him. ‘Keep out of this, boys,’ he ordered. ‘Frawley asked for it. He doesn’t work for the Seven Up any more.’
‘Gimme my gun,’ Frawley demanded of Casey, and staggered toward him.
‘Look out!’ Dale cried sharply.
The warning was not needed. Frawley did not reach the cowboy. Hal’s fist ripped up at his jaw, all the weight of his body back of the blow. The foreman swayed for a moment, feet spraddled, and went down like a log. His big body rolled over, and he lay still, not senseless but unable to rise.
The cowboy Bill goggled at Stevens. ‘By golly, I didn’t think there was a man in Arizona could do that.’
Hal said negligently, ‘He fights like an old woman.’
Wonder in her eyes, Dale looked at the bleeding face of the victor. To Casey she gave an abrupt order. ‘Empty all the cartridges from that revolver before you give it back to Frawley.’
‘Did Frank mean he has quit this outfit?’ Casey asked.
‘I fired him ten minutes ago,’ Dale answered. ‘He has been helping the rustlers to steal our stock. See that he gets off the ranch as soon as he is able to ride.’
Casey watched the whipped man getting laboriously to his feet. The sight of the man’s shamed, lowering face was convincing. He did not doubt that the accusation was true. Frawley’s character was not of a kind to inspire confidence in his integrity anyhow.
‘So he has sold his saddle,’1 Casey said contemptuously. ‘Well, we’ve got Mr. Stevens to thank for giving him what was coming to the skunk. I’ll say this, no scalawag ever got a more thorough licking.’
1When a cowboy reached the lowest point of degradation, he sold his saddle, but not until then. The expression came to be a figure of speech.
‘I’ve had all I want of this spread,’ Frawley said thickly. ‘I was aiming to quit anyhow. I’ll be damned if I’ll work for a’ — he stopped, changing the word he had been about to use — ‘for a woman who is never satisfied.’
‘Run up his horse for him, Bill,’ suggested Frank.
‘I can get my own horse. I don’t want any favors from this two-bit outfit.’ Frawley turned to Dale. ‘I’ll remember this, Miss. There will come a day when you’ll wish you had sung a different song.’ His gaze settled on Hal. ‘As for you, I’ll say just this. You’re already a dead man and don’t know it.’
‘For a dead man he’s mighty handy with his dibs,’ Casey chuckled. ‘Get a move on you, Frawley. If the boys hear you’ve been selling us out, they’ll likely tar and feather you. I’d advise you to light a shuck
The discharged foreman headed dejectedly for his cabin, rage and humiliation surging up in him.
DALE SAID, ‘Come into the house and let me give first aid to your face.’
Hal grinned. ‘I could do with a washup and some sticking plaster,’ he admitted.
He followed Frank to a bathroom and washed his face in cold water several times. Blood still oozed out from the cuts.
A knock sounded on the door. ‘Doctor Lovell ready for the patient,’ Dale announced.
Hal dried his face and opened the door. ‘Do I get medical service under the terms of our temporary defensive alliance?’ he asked.
‘When you are wounded in the service,’ she told him. ‘Sit down in this chair.’
He sat down, looking at her with a deceptive meekness behind which she discerned an impudent glee. ‘My, but we are getting along fast,’ he chuckled. ‘Yesterday you were looking for a nice tree on which your boys could hang me. Now you are patching me up with your own lily-white hands.’
‘I fixed our dog’s wounds last week after he had gashed himself on barbed wire,’ she mentioned tartly, and tilted his head up so that she could get at a cut better.
‘But not an M K dog,’ he murmured.
‘That eye is going to close on you, I’m afraid. You had better lie down in Frank’s room and put a cold pack on it.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he said obediently. ‘By the way, Frawley is cut up some too. Does he get any kind attention?’
She ignored that. ‘I wish you hadn’t fought him. He’ll never forgive you for shaming him.’
‘He can’t hate me much more than he did before our mixup. All he can do is shoot me, and I fancy that had already been arranged.’
‘Why do you talk that way, as if it didn’t matter?’ Dale reproved.
‘It matters a lot to me,’ Hal replied. ‘But why worry about it, since I don’t expect the plans to succeed?’
One of the ranch riders knocked at the door and came in with the mail. He looked curiously at Stevens.
‘I walked into a door,’ Hal explained, a grin on his battered face.
‘I reckon Jim must have walked into half a dozen doors,’ the cowboy guessed. He handed three letters and a newspaper to Frank. ‘There’s one from the draft board,’ he told the boy. ‘Looks like this is it.’
Frank ripped open the letter and glanced it over. ‘You’re a hundred per cent right, Shorty,’ he said. ‘I’m to report at Tucson within forty-eight hours.’
After a moment his sister spoke. ‘Maybe it is a good thing to have the call come now. Once you’re in the army, these fellows won’t bother you.’
‘What fellows?’ Shorty asked bluntly. ‘Mebbe it’s none of our business, Miss Dale, but then again mebbe it is. We boys in the bunkhouse can’t quite figure this business out. If anything is liable to pop sudden, we’d be better prepared if we knew what it is all about.’
‘You’re right, Shorty,’ Dale answered. ‘Tell the boys to come to the house.’
‘Has Frawley gone yet?’ Frank inquired.
‘He was saddling that pinto of his when I left.’ The white teeth in the brown face of the cowpuncher flashed to a wide grin. ‘Jim don’t feel so awful good this mo’nin’ — since he ran into them doors.’
‘Keep an eye on him until he leaves,’ Dale ordered. ‘He’s crazy enough with hate to start something.’
‘Yes’m. We’ll see him on his way and then come to the house.’
Dale finished giving first aid, cleaned up, and washed her hands. She stood beside the fireplace, a hand on the mantel, frowning down at the rug.
‘Even though we think Black’s crowd is doing this raiding, we are not much farther forward,’ she said. ‘How can we prove it? And, more important still, how can we prevent them from killing you two? If you were together, and we could keep you guarded— But even that would be difficult, since we don’t know where and when they will strike.’
‘You ought to have been a lawyer, Miss Lovell,’ Hal responded. ‘In three or four sentences you have summed up all our difficulties. Let’s take one at a time. First, our personal danger. I suggest Frank and I go to Tucson this morning and stay there till Frank has joined up. We’ll be safe there.’
‘And after he is in the army, how safe will you be?’ Dale wanted to know.
Her eyes met the quizzical gaze of their guest. The color beat up into her cheeks. She was annoyed that his cool, not unfriendly derision had so much power to disturb her, and she hastened to explain away her anxiety.
‘Since the M K ranch is on our side during this trouble, I don’t want to lose its help on account of an accident to its owner,’ she said defensively.
‘Neither do I,’ he agreed. ‘But we needn’t worry about that. I’ll come home unexpectedly and be all right.’
‘And after you get there?’
He laughed, shrugging his shoulders. ‘One bridge at a time, lady.’
Frank’s mind could not leave the subject so lightly. ‘You can’t just toss the danger aside, Hal. If these fellows want to shoot you from ambush, they can do it. Out in the open you can’t guard yourself every minute. You’ll have to stay away until this wolves’ den is cleared out.’
Hal did not argue the matter. ‘About the other point you raised, Miss Lovell, the matter of proof. We can work at that from two ends — here where the thieving takes place and at the place where the cattle are delivered.’
‘Which may be anywhere within a radius of two hundred miles,’ Frank said.
‘Make it a hundred,’ Hal differed. ‘Let us say the last raid took place about midnight. Certainly it would not be before that. Frank was playing cards with them until after eleven. At ten o’clock next morning, I found three of these beauties at the Rest Easy. Black would not operate with a gang any larger than was necessary to do the job. All of them except Black himself and Frawley guarded the stock to the delivery point. I took the trouble to find out that Hanford, Fenwick, and Polk reached Big Bridge about seven-thirty. That would leave them not much over six hours to truck the cattle to the buyer, unload, and get back.’
‘Maybe they have the stock cached somewhere in the hills to wait for a favorable chance to get rid of it,’ Dale objected.
‘Possible but not probable. Why risk making two trips when one will do? These fellows are not expecting to sell to some chance buyer. They know exactly where their market is. They would travel right to it. Of course, it is a black market. My guess is that some packing plant is running it in with their legitimate stuff.’
Casey, Bill, and Shorty trooped into the house.
‘If I was a correspondent for the
‘The gent is frothing at the mouth and spittin’ hate,’ Bill added. ‘His friends will have to look at him twice before they recognize his ugly mug. There wasn’t a dry eye at the bunkhouse when he pulled his freight.’
‘He sure enough knew how not to make friends,’ Shorty commented. ‘I was aimin’ to buy him a copy of that Carnegie book for Christmas.’
Dale told them with one or two elisions the story of the past twenty-four hours.
‘Do we put on our war paint?’ Casey asked. He was a well-set red-headed Irishman just past the draft age. For eight years he had been employed by the Seven Up and Down. His frank face and steady blue eyes were better than letters of recommendation. Already Dale had decided to put him in Frawley’s place.
‘You had better carry revolvers — in case you should see rattlesnakes on the ridge.’ The girl’s voice was dry and brittle. ‘But don’t have any trouble with these fellows if you can help it. Avoid any arguments, and in case any of them get nasty, ride away and leave them.’
‘Not so easy to do when a mean guy is crowding you, Miss Dale,’ Shorty said. ‘Talk nice to him, and he thinks you are scared and rides you harder.’
‘I know. But do your best not to have any difficulty. We must stay on the side of the law.’
Casey shook his head. ‘For us to talk and act humble won’t do any good. This has gone too far for that. Frank knows too much. They dare not let him be a witness against them. And Mr. Stevens has hurt their pride so badly they won’t rest till they have paid him off. They are a bad bunch. Don’t forget that for a minute.’
‘Frank is leaving this morning to join the army,’ Dale explained.
‘If the army wants him, it had better come and get him,’ Casey said bluntly. ‘Soon as Frawley reaches a phone, he will report to Tick Black, who will start stirring up trouble right then.’
‘I’m driving to Tucson with Frank,’ Hal said.
‘That will make it fine and dandy.’ Casey’s smile was blandly sarcastic. ‘They can get you both at one gather.’
‘It can’t be as bad as that.’ Dale spoke with no conviction in her voice. ‘They wouldn’t go as far as open murder.’
‘Wouldn’t they?’ The smile had been wiped from the face of Casey. ‘I thought you knew Black.’
‘I know he is a bad man, but—’
‘A bad wily old devil who would stick at nothing,’ Casey interrupted. ‘And he has a pair of killers ready to jump when he gives the word, not to mention Frawley. Black is a smooth villain. The job won’t be in the open probably. He’ll cover it up somehow.’
‘We had better get out before he has his trap set,’ Frank said.
Dale was worried. ‘Pack up and go,’ she cried. ‘Don’t wait a minute longer.’
HAL STEVENS and Frank Lovell did not take the valley highway to Big Bridge. They followed a little-used trail along the ridge, one too rough for ordinary travel by car. Frank drove, and his companion sat beside him, a rifle in the brown competent hands of the M K man. They did not do much talking. Hal’s eyes searched the scenery to right and left. He thought it unlikely that their enemies would be guarding this trace so soon, but he did not want to underestimate the sly wariness of Tick Black. If he made one mistake, he might not live to make another.
The coupe bounced over rocks, climbed sharp rises along sloping ledge cuts just wide enough for a skillful driver to negotiate, and slithered down descents so precipitous that with the clutch in low Frank had to brake heavily to keep the car from crashing at the bottom. The radiator was blowing off steam like a kettle going dry.
‘Nice treatment to give tires,’ Lovell mentioned. ‘A chuck wagon can make it, but no car ought to be asked to do it.’
Stevens grinned. ‘We’re getting too soft. When my dad came to this country, any road you could get over was a good one.’
‘If I get into a tank division I’ll probably think this was pretty easy,’ the boy agreed.
‘Yes. Hope you’ll get a job in the army you like.’
‘I don’t want to sit at a desk all through the war. Two or three fellows I know are stuck in offices and can’t get to the front. I’m a hell of a long way from being a hero, but I don’t want to have to tell my kids, if I ever have any, that I won the war by filing papers at some camp in this country.’
‘Some fellows have to do that, I suppose, but it’s tough on them if they have lived outdoors and want to get into the scrap,’ Hal said. He added ruefully: ‘It isn’t much fun either to be told every time you try to horn in to the armed forces that your job is to stay at home to raise beef. I was too young for the last war, and it looks as if I’m going to miss this one too.’
‘I expect if I ever get where the going is pretty hot I’d be willing to let you have my share of it,’ Frank admitted.
‘No, you wouldn’t. It’s human nature for each of us to wonder how we would stand up to danger crowding on us, but when the time comes we take it. Oh, damn!’
The expletive had been jerked out of Hal by the blowing-out of a tire that had crashed down on a sharp boulder projecting from the ground.
Rifle in hand Hal climbed a bluff to search the terrain while Frank changed to the spare. Far down in the valley below him he saw a billow of dust behind a moving car.
‘Somebody heading for Big Bridge,’ he announced to Lovell. ‘Likely some rancher going in for supplies.’
Frank was setting the jack under the hub. ‘Hope so. If it is some of Black’s boys going to welcome us, we’ll know later.’
‘Whoever it is will get there before we shall now. But they won’t be expecting us to come down the ca?on back of the hotel.’
They started again, climbed a long hill with a fairly easy grade, and dropped into Big Bridge Gulch. The road was better here, and the car did not have to take the jolting given it on the trail above. From the mouth of the ca?on they came out to a sudden view of the little town.
‘We’ll have to stop at a filling station for water,’ Frank said.
The place lay baking under the midday sun. Except a dog and a boy crossing the street there was no sign of life.
‘Looks as safe as an old ladies’ home,’ Hal hazarded hopefully, his gaze sweeping the street.
They drew up at a filling station. No attendant was in sight. He had apparently closed up for dinner. Frank filled the radiator and Hal lounged against the fender. The rifle hung negligently from his right hand. Stevens looked a picture of easy unconcern, but every nerve in him was keyed to watchfulness. The ca?on street cut the main one of the town at right angles. If they were seen, it would be from the hotel or from the back of some saloon or store. Frank put down the water can and screwed on the radiator cap. He glanced at the hotel as he moved toward the car door.
A man came out of the hotel and stood on the porch. He looked up and down the main street, started back through the door, and stopped to sweep with his eyes the ca?on road. The man was Cash Polk. His gaze fell on them and instantly he darted into the building.
‘Let’s go!’ Frank cried.
They piled into the car. It started like a bucking bronco and shot down the roadbed of rubble to the main highway. Frank swung the wheel sharply to the right, in time to miss the platform of a feed store.
From the window of the hotel a single shot rang out. The right front tire exploded with a bang and the car instantly was out of control. It lurched drunkenly and crashed into a telephone pole.
Hal was flung clear, rifle still in hand. He got to his feet dizzily and looked around. Frank was climbing out of the smashed car. A bullet whistled past the boy and flung a spurt of dirt from the adobe wall across the street. He snatched his rifle from the coupe and ran.
‘This way!’ Hal shouted, and raced for the shelter of the nearest building.
Guns roared again as their feet flung up dust from the road. They were inside, safe for the moment, battered but unwounded by the fire.
‘Hey! What’s all this about?’ a voice demanded sharply.
A young woman confronted them, arms akimbo, challenge in her sparkling eyes. She was red-headed, pretty, and quite mistress of the situation.
One glance told Hal that they were in a restaurant. The tables were set for lunch. A Mexican waiter with a water pitcher in his hand stared at them, a glass he had been filling poised in the air.
Stevens swept the hat from his head and smiled. ‘Sorry, Miss Barnes. A port in storm.’
‘I heard shooting,’ she said. ‘And a car smashed.’
‘Afraid you’ll hear more. We’ll get out the back door. Come on, Frank.’
‘Wait a minute.’ Her strong, firmly fleshed body blocked the way. ‘You’ve been hurt. What’s it all about?’
Hal put a hand to the side of his head and saw it was covered with blood. He must have landed there when he was tossed from the car.
A scatter of shots struck the adobe wall forming the front of the restaurant.
‘No time to explain,’ Hal told her. ‘A bunch of Tick Black’s men are trying to get us. We’ll be on our way.’
‘Where?’ she asked.
‘I wish I knew. This is an ambush.’
The girl did not faint. She did not even look frightened at being caught in this trap set for others. He could see a pulse of excitement beating in her throat.
‘No,’ she vetoed. ‘You can’t go. They’ll have you in the open out there and shoot you down.’
The grin of the cattleman was sardonic. ‘We can’t go, and we can’t stay. That’s one for the book.’
‘I’ll go to the front door and talk with them.’
Frank was watching through a corner of the window the other side of the street. ‘You can’t do that,’ he objected. ‘They might shoot you down before they saw it was a woman.’
Hal frowned, considering the situation. ‘Something queer about this. They could have killed us before we reached cover. Why didn’t they? Looks as if they wanted to take us alive. Orders from Tick, I reckon.’
‘You mean — they aren’t trying to murder you,’ Helen Barnes said.
‘I’m only guessing. Not at this precise moment, I would say. The law would get them if they did. Tick has something up his sleeve. I wonder what.’
‘The bullets all landed in the soft adobe,’ Frank added. ‘Not one came through the windows.’
‘They didn’t want to hit anybody else in the restaurant,’ Miss Barnes suggested.
‘Might be that,’ Hal agreed dubiously.
‘Man coming across the street with a white flag,’ Frank spoke up. ‘It’s Dud Calloway.’
The young woman turned to the waiter. ‘Manuel, lock the back door so that nobody can come in that way.’
Hal stepped to the window and looked out, exposing himself as little as possible. A fat man had stopped in the middle of the road to wave a white tablecloth. He was so obviously afraid of his reception that he made a ludicrous picture.
Through the open screened window Stevens called to him. ‘All right, Dud. We’re not on the prod. Come along. If your friends want to surrender, we’ll give them terms.’
Calloway waddled forward to the sidewalk and through the door. He wiped his red perspiring face with a bandanna handkerchief.
‘Let’s not have any trouble, boys,’ he puffed.
‘Are you having trouble, Dud?’ Hal asked.
‘I’m an officer of the law,’ Calloway explained. ‘No personal feeling against you, understand. But I got a warrant to serve on you, Mr. Stevens, and on Frank. For your arrest.’
‘Who wants us arrested? And what for?’
‘Several of the boys claim you held them up at a poker game and robbed them. ‘Course I don’t know a thing about it. I’m just a deputy sheriff doing his duty.’
‘Do you always make arrests in this rather violent way — by first wrecking a car, nearly killing the occupants, and then shooting at them as they run for cover?’
The deputy lifted a fat hand in protest. ‘Now, Mr. Stevens, I hadn’t a thing to do with that. Not a thing. Probably the boys thought you were trying to run away. But I’m not justifying them. They were too hasty.’
‘You think so?’ The smile on the face of Stevens was ironic. ‘No doubt you will arrest them for assault with a deadly weapon and intent to kill.’
‘If a warrant is sworn out for their arrest, I’ll sure serve it.’
‘And who pays for our ruined car?’
‘Why, that would be a civil case, wouldn’t it?’
Helen Barnes could keep silent no longer. ‘This is the most outrageous thing I ever saw,’ she burst out. ‘You know what riff-raff these men are. You ought to be ashamed to come here on such an errand, Dud Calloway.’
Calloway’s fat face creased to an oily propitiatory smile. ‘Now, Miss Helen, you’re not looking at this the right way, I got no option but to serve this paper. If these gentlemen are not guilty, why, of course they will come clear.’
‘Is the idea to let us put up bond?’ Hal inquired.
‘Probably I would have to take care of you for tonight until we could get to a judge.’
‘I thought so. In that flimsy old cabin you call a jail.
And what’s to prevent somebody who doesn’t like us much from slipping up in the night and shooting holes in us through the window?’
The officer looked shocked. ‘Nobody would do that, Mr. Stevens. Why, that would be murder.’
‘So it would. We don’t want to be responsible for such a crime. It would be wrong for us to put such a temptation before anybody. Therefore, if you please, we’ll postpone the arrest.’
‘The United States has called Frank up to join the army. We want to be sure he reaches Tucson in time — and not in a box. As a patriot you will understand, Dud, that the call of the country comes first.’
Galloway looked stumped. He did not know how much legality this argument had to stand on, but he was quite sure that he would have no luck in trying to arrest this cool customer with the gentle voice and the steely eyes. And he was just as certain that the men back of the guns across the street would give it no weight.
He rubbed a hand dubiously over his unshaven chin. ‘I’ll tell the boys,’ he said, plainly crestfallen.
‘Yes, do. And tell them that Miss Barnes and the restaurant force will come out and leave Frank and me here. If they think they can arrest us, they are welcome to try.’
‘I don’t want to leave,’ the girl demurred. ‘It’s my place. If we go they will attack you.’
She thought of another talking point. ‘Before they got through they would ruin the place.’
‘Afraid you’ll have to risk that.’
She still objected to going, but in the end he made her see that their enemies would come over in a body if she was still on the place and any effective defense would be impossible. With her beside them, they could not open fire on the attackers.
HELEN BARNES crossed the street to the hotel, Manuel and the colored cook in her wake. She saw a man peering out of a window of the Rest Easy and another lounging in the doorway of Flack’s store. Probably both of them were on guard to prevent the escape of the two penned in the restaurant. The one at Flack’s certainly was. He had a rifle in his hands. She knew him well enough to say ‘Good morning’ when they met. More than once he had eaten in the restaurant. His name was Hanford.
Except herself and the restaurant employees nobody was on the street. That was understandable, since it had just been swept by bullets and might be again at any moment. At sight of them a dog trotted down the middle of the road, cheerfully unaware of being in a dangerous No Man’s Land. What interested him was the sight of two friends, Manuel and Sam, both of whom had frequently fed him table scraps.
‘You Pete, better light outa here sudden,’ Sam warned the dog, waving menacing arms.
Pete thought this a new and delightful form of play and bounded forward to jump up at the gesturing hands.
‘Let him come into the hotel with you, Sam,’ the young woman advised.
In the lobby were two more men with rifles, Cash Polk and a young fellow she had heard called Brick Fenwick, She turned on Cash, eyes hot with anger.
‘What do you mean by shooting at my restaurant?’ she demanded.
‘Don’t you worry, Miss Helen. You’re just as safe as when you are singing in the choir. We wouldn’t hurt you for anything.’ The man’s voice was unctuous with false good will. ‘We were mighty careful where we shot. All we wanted was to let them two criminals who ran into your place know we wouldn’t let them make a getaway.’
‘I didn’t see any criminals.’ Her wrath exploded. ‘I’m going to find out whether riff-raff can shoot up my restaurant and not go to prison for it.’
Brick Fenwick spoke, a drawl in his cool voice, but a quick excitement in his hot and glittering eyes. ‘You and I will have to talk that over, Miss. We might come to an understanding.’
For just an instant her scornful gaze swept across him. In her words there was the sting of a small whistling whiplash. ‘I have nothing to talk over with you… ever. When I talk, it will be to the law.’
‘Now, Miss Helen, I wouldn’t do that,’ Cash replied, smooth as a well-oiled hinge. ‘We’ll fix up the front of your place and pay any damages you might ask.’
‘And drop in frequent to eat at the restaurant,’ Brick added, his gaze of jeering admiration still fixed on its owner.
‘None of you will ever eat there again.’
‘Take it easy, Miss,’ the young ruffian advised. ‘I like yore spunk. We’re gonna be good friends, you and me.’
She gave him one brief contemptuous look before she turned away, moving toward the young man behind the desk. He was the son of the woman who ran the hotel, and she had often danced with him. ‘You might tell these men, Jack, that if they make a move to attack Frank Lovell and Hal Stevens, two or three of them are going to die very quickly.’
Frawley came into the room by a passage that led from the back door. The girl noted that his face was badly cut and bruised. ‘What’s doing?’ he asked harshly.
‘Nothing yet, except that Stevens told Dud he couldn’t arrest them,’ Cash explained. ‘He said Frank had got his call to report for enlistment and was on his way to Tucson.’
‘We ought to of rubbed them both out while we had the chance,’ Frawley cried bitterly. ‘All this monkeying around and nonsense about arresting. They’re a pair of hold-ups. Ain’t that enough?’
The shocked voice of Cash reproved him. ‘Sh-sh, Jim! That’s no way to talk. We got to act lawful.’ He gave a slight warning tilt of his head in the direction of Helen Barnes.
The discharged foreman was beyond caution. ‘And very likely let them get away,’ he stormed.
‘They ain’t going to get away,’ Brick told him, almost in a murmur, the words distinctly spaced. ‘I’m making it my personal business to see to that.’
Helen, puzzled and troubled, pointed a question at Frawley. ‘I don’t understand. You’re the foreman of the Seven Up and Down. Why are you helping these men against Frank?’
‘You had trouble with them?’
‘What’s that to you? Mind yore own business.’
‘Keep yore shirt on, Jim,’ Fenwick said gently. He was smiling thinly, but his eyes were cold. ‘That’s no way to talk to a lady.’
The big man stared at the boy, surprised at this unexpected consideration for a woman. ‘What’s eatin’ you, Brick?’ he snapped.
Helen said, suddenly, ‘I’m going down the street to Flack’s.’
‘A good idea, Miss,’ Brick agreed. ‘Only that’s a little near. I’d keep on going to some friend’s house in the edge of town. And don’t be frightened if you hear a little shooting.’
The girl looked at the evil face of the boy, and a surge of sickness went through her. ‘If you go on with this, it will be murder,’ she told him in a low voice.
‘That’s not a nice word for a lady to use,’ the young scoundrel replied, grinning.
Cash would not let it go at that. He was always careful to build up a justification for whatever he did. He must have a color of legality to his outrages.
‘We don’t aim to hurt these boys at all, Miss Helen. They are both neighbors of mine. I like them fine, though I’m afraid they have gone too far this time. All we want to do is arrest them. Maybe you could talk them into having a little sense.’
‘I wouldn’t try,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what this is all about, but I can see they are fighting for their lives. They can’t trust you. I’ll just say one thing before I go. If you kill those two men, the law will never let you rest as long as you live.’
She walked out of the hotel followed by her
Another reason for leaving was urgent in her mind. She wanted to phone to the Seven Up and Down news of the trap into which Frank and his companion had fallen.
HAL GUESSED they would have a few minutes before the attack. These fellows were not going to walk up to two rifles without contriving some way of making it as safe as possible. The trapped men could count on that as surely as on the certainty that next time there would be no wasted shots. They had tried Tick Black’s way. Now it would be one devised by Cash Polk.
Frank stayed on guard in the front room while Hal looked after the defenses in the rear. The back door was locked and bolted. Hal piled the kitchen table and chairs against it. On a shelf he found a stack of old newspapers. These he crumpled and flung under the two windows until there was a mound of them knee-high. If anybody came in through a window, he could not reach the floor without a warning rustle of paper.
Through the swing doors Hal returned to the dining-room.
‘All quiet on the western front,’ Frank reported.
Helen Barnes and her followers came out of the hotel and passed down the street. She stopped in front of the Rest Easy and called to somebody inside the saloon. A man carrying a Winchester rifle came to the door and stepped quickly back of her. He was not letting himself be a target for a shot from the restaurant. The girl talked with him for two or three minutes. Once the beleaguered men heard her voice raised in urgent argument, but the distance was too far for them to make out what she said. Presently the little party walked down the sidewalk as far as the Flack store. They disappeared into it.
‘Zero hour pretty soon,’ Frank said. His voice was a little strained. Waiting for the enemy to make its move was trying on the nerves.
‘They might get at us if we are not careful from the hotel upstairs windows,’ Hal replied. ‘They won’t come ramping across the street at us, unless they have lost their senses.’
‘No. I wonder what they will do.’ Frank grinned. He meant to keep up a good front. ‘I’m getting some good army training anyhow. I’ll bet there won’t be another fellow in my company get under fire as he was on the way to being inducted.’
They caught a glimpse of a man slipping across the ca?on road from the back door of the hotel. Just after they saw him, he disappeared over the brow of a small hill. Their guess was that he was carrying instructions to the outposts watching the back door of the restaurant. The plan might be to drum in a heavy fire from the rear and under cover of it to slip across the road for a try at shooting the defenders through the windows.
Neither of them was under any delusion as to the determination of their foes to rub them out. Frank had tried to reach the Seven Up and Down to get reinforcements and found the wire from the restaurant cut. They could thank Cash Polk for thinking of that. The significance of it stood out like a sore thumb. The hill men intended to settle this before any help from outside reached their victims. There must be eight or ten of them in Big Bridge. Later they would try to escape the law by sticking to a common story that Stevens had fired the first shot.
The minutes dragged. Frank lit a cigarette.
‘I got you into this, Hal,’ he blurted. ‘If I hadn’t fooled with those poker games, you wouldn’t be here.’
‘And if I hadn’t butted into the game you wouldn’t be here,’ Stevens answered evenly. ‘I’ve been in spots just as hot before and wiggled out. I’m expecting us to get out of this one.’
‘I don’t see how.’
‘Nor I yet. We’ve got to wait tor a break.’
Hal spoke more confidently than he felt. The few residents of the town would not dare to stand up to these ruffians from the hills. Given time, their enemies could smoke them out.
A bullet crashed through a window and tore a hole in the top of a table. It must have come from a rifleman stationed in an upstairs room of the hotel. Almost before the sound of it had died away, the rat-tat-tat-tat of a submachine gun began popping. Somebody in the brush at the rear was peppering the back of the building.
‘This is it,’ Frank said. ‘They’ll come tearing in the back way.’
‘Not just yet. They are feeling us out — softening us up. I’ll slip into the kitchen and see if I can get a crack at the busy boy in the mesquite.’
‘I wouldn’t. He’ll spray the whole room.’
‘He has quit for the moment. All I want to do is to let him know we can still sting.’
Hal crept through the swinging doors on all fours, reached a window, and looked out. He saw a surprising sight. A man was moving out of the bushes into the open, his hands in the air. At his heels, a revolver pressed into his back, another man walked with him stride for stride. They were headed for the restaurant. Hal tore away the chairs and the table that blockaded the door. He drew back the bolt and turned the key. The two men walked into the kitchen, and Hal slammed the door shut, bolted, and locked it.
‘Where in Mexico did you come from?’ Hal asked the man with the gun.
The man was a narrow-flanked, lean-shouldered customer wearing a white sombrero, hickory shirt, and corduroy trousers tucked into cowboy boots. He cocked an eyebrow whimsically at Stevens.
‘From Salina, Kansas, if you’re taking the census, fellow. Born in Lima, Ohio, twenty-five years ago come next Christmas Day.’
Tom Wall was the name of the man. He had spent six weeks at a line cabin on the M K ranch the winter before, a man wanted by the law for murder. Hal had not only kept him hidden; he had dug up the evidence to prove that the killing had been done in self-defense.
The captive he had brought with him out of the brush spoke bitterly. ‘The boys will get you for this, Tom. This wasn’t any row of yours.’
Wall disagreed with that lightly. ‘Any of Hal’s rows are mine. Tell the boys to like it or lump it, whichever they please.’
While they tied up their prisoner, Wall explained that he was working at a garage in town. When he had heard that Stevens was one of the two trapped in the restaurant, he had buckled on his gun and started on the warpath. He had chanced to see Mullins heading for the brush and had thought it a good idea to follow him unobserved. His order to the hill man to drop his weapon had been one Mullins recognized reluctantly he must obey.
The guns were sounding again in front. One roared out louder than the others. Hal pushed open the swing doors.
‘You all right, Frank?’ he asked.
‘Yep. The shots are coming from the Rest Easy and the hotel. One bullet chipped the wall almost back of me. I took a crack at the fellow upstairs.’ Frank turned and caught sight of Wall dragging in the captured man. ‘Where did Tom come from?’ he cried in astonishment.
‘He saw what Mullins was up to and got the drop on him.’
Hal’s smile was ironic. ‘He picked this as a good place to eat. Maybe he is right at that. If this siege lasts long, we ought to be well provisioned.’
‘It won’t last long,’ Mullins growled. ‘The boys will come right in after you.’
‘Some of them,’ Hal corrected gently. ‘A few of them will stop before they get here.’
Another bullet tore through one of the shattered windows and splintered the leg of a chair.
‘Better get back against the wall, Tom,’ advised Hal. He dragged the prisoner to a less exposed place than the one where he was lying.
They heard the noise of an automobile coming down the street. It stopped directly in front of the hotel. Hal risked a peep through the window below which he was crouched. He saw armed men jumping down from the car, four or five of them. Casey and Shorty were two of them. Dale Lovell was at the wheel.
Hal called across to Frank, ‘The whole Seven Up ranch has moved in.’
The boy gave a whoop and started to his feet.
‘Wait a minute,’ Wall suggested. ‘Let’s make sure the shooting is over.’
‘Dale is with the boys and has gone into the hotel,’ Hal reported. ‘She is probably arranging an armistice.’
They waited in the restaurant to give her time.
CASH POLK came forward with an unhappy smile to meet Dale Lovell. ‘I’m right glad to see you, Miss Dale,’ he told her. ‘We been having a little trouble with Hal Stevens. Dud Calloway tried to arrest him and he started shooting. He’s over there in the restaurant right now.’
‘Where is Frank?’ the young woman demanded.
‘He’s with Stevens. I’m sorry about that.’
‘Are either of them hurt?’
‘Not far as I know. Now you have come we can fix this up. You go talk to the boys and tell them they had better surrender, Miss Dale.’
‘What have they been doing?’
‘I think Dud wants to arrest Stevens for holding up a poker game.’
‘He can’t do it,’ she said bluntly. ‘The game was crooked. All the boys took was the money that belonged to them. You can’t get away with this, Cash.’
‘Now, Miss Dale, there’s evidence to show different. This isn’t business for a young lady to mix up in.’ Casey was standing in the doorway. ‘The Seven Up thinks otherwise,’ he said quietly. ‘The ranch boys are backing any play Miss Dale makes.’
Frawley and Brick Fenwick had come into the room through the back door.
‘Keep out of this, Casey,’ the former warned, ‘unless you are looking for trouble.’
Dud Calloway came forward, a much-worried man. Though he was lined up with the hill men, the shooting had shaken his nerve. He was too timid to want to be involved in a killing by being made a cat’s-paw. Lacking the courage to stand out against Frawley and Fenwick, he welcomed the support of the Seven Up ranch that would give him an out.
‘I reckon this has gone far enough,’ he said. ‘I don’t want any bloodshed in making this arrest. If Miss Dale feels thataway about the matter, I’ll call the whole thing off for the present and put it up to Sheriff Elbert.’
Brick said, a warning in his slitted eyes and icy voice, ‘Trying to crawl out of it, Dud?’
Anger for the moment choked down Dale’s fear for the trapped men. ‘You want to murder my brother and Hal Stevens, don’t you?’ she cried. ‘You can’t do it. I won’t let you. If you take my advice, you and the rest of your despicable gang will get in a car and keep going day and night till you are a thousand miles from here. There’s law in this country, and I am going to see it runs you down unless you get out.’
The young killer’s laugh was low and taunting. ‘You talk like you was Roosevelt,’ he mocked.
‘We’re deputies, Miss Dale, trying to arrest two wild boys who have gone outside the law,’ explained Cash in the reasonable, long-suffering voice of a parent seeking to soothe a child in a bad temper. ‘You ain’t got the right point of view just now. ‘Course you are worked up about this on account of because Frank is one of the boys. That’s natural. Only you mustn’t blame us. We got to do our duty.’
His fawning impudence made the girl sick. He was as bad as Brick Fenwick, but without that young ruffian’s courage.
‘You always were a rat,’ she exploded.
‘Now — now, Miss Dale, you’re excited,’ he remonstrated mildly. ‘When you think this over you will be sorry.’
Shorty cut in bluntly. ‘Get this straight. You can’t move a foot against those two boys without taking us on. We won’t stand for it.’
Cash realized the immediate chance of wiping out Stevens and young Lovell had gone. They would have to wait for another opportunity. ‘If you want to stand in the way of the law, Miss Dale, there is nothing we can do about it just now,’ he said reprovingly. ‘Maybe you think big property owners like you-all don’t have to obey the law. Maybe it is only for poor folks.’
Helen Barnes stood in the doorway. ‘If it is for poor folks, then it must be for me,’ she told Cash. ‘You and your friends have pretty nearly ruined my place. Do you intend to make the damage good?’
Cash rubbed his bristly chin and considered. ‘We were sworn in as deputies to help arrest these men. Seems to me you ought to look to Stevens and Lovell for payment, Miss Helen. How about that, Brick?’ He turned toward Fenwick for support, but that young man had vanished through the door. ‘Well, if they ain’t men enough to pay it, I’ll personally attend to it, Miss. Let’s go, Jim. We ain’t wanted here, I reckon.’
Frawley said, glaring at Dale, ‘This thing ain’t over yet.’ He added an angry curse before he followed Cash from the room, making his exit through the back door.
Dale and Helen went out to the porch. Four men were just emerging from the restaurant. One of them had his hands tied behind him. The two parties met in the street. In spite of his bloody face, battered twice within a few hours, Hal smiled with gay insouciance. ‘This is certainly Ladies’ Day at the show. Choice seats reserved in the grandstand.’
Dale said sharply, ‘You’ve been shot.’
‘No, lady. Tried to steal home and slid in on my face.’
She glanced at the wrecked car. ‘When you had the smash, I suppose.’
Dale turned to her brother, looked him over swiftly to make sure he was uninjured, and asked a question. ‘Was it an accident?’
‘No accident,’ Frank answered. ‘One of the scoundrels shot the tire and we crashed.’
His sister said angrily, ‘We’ll see if there isn’t law in the land.’
Hal caught sight of Calloway on the porch. The deputy sheriff was uncertain what he ought to do. He wanted to explain away his share in this to Dale, but he was afraid he would not have much luck.
‘Lots of law,’ Hal said. ‘There’s good old Dud now, watching over us like a hen over its chickens. Can’t anyone hurt us while Dud is around.’
Dale looked scornfully at the deputy. ‘What were you doing while these villains were trying to kill my brother?’
‘I couldn’t do a thing — one man against eight or nine,’ he protested.
‘You could have joined the men in the restaurant, couldn’t you?’
Dale turned her back on Calloway. She had nothing more to say to him. There was no bottom in him on which to build character.
‘What are we going to do with this bird?’ Wall asked, jerking his head toward Mullins.
‘Nothing to do but turn him loose,’ Hal said, and untied the rope fastening the hands of the man.
‘You were lucky you had a couple of women to hide behind,’ Mullins said, with a jeering laugh.
‘Yes,’ agreed Hal. ‘Very lucky.’
‘Some of your crowd were lucky too,’ Wall retorted. ‘On your way, fellow.’
‘I don’t think I have met you before,’ Dale said to Wall.
‘No, ma’am. I’ve often seen you. My name is Tom Wall.’
She drew back, stiffening. ‘I’ve heard of you,’ she said curtly.
Hal said, quietly, his steady eyes on her: ‘I dare say you have heard about how he had to kill Gus Nesbit in self-defense last year. Fortunately, we were able to prove there was no other way out for Tom. But you haven’t heard how he went into the brush and captured this fellow Mullins who was drilling at us with a machine gun. He did not have to get into this brawl. Nobody else in town lifted a hand except Miss Barnes.’
Dale offered Wall her hand. ‘It seems I am wrong again, as usual,’ she told him, a wry smile on her face.
At Helen’s suggestion they moved into the restaurant.
‘I tried to call you at the ranch,’ Helen said to Dale. ‘But nobody answered. You must have been on the way.’
‘Through field-glasses I saw a car filled with these men go down the valley road,’ Dale explained. ‘I recognized two of them, so I thought we had better follow. Well, it’s all over now. There won’t be any more trouble.’
‘Won’t there?’ Hal asked, almost in a murmur.
Helen flung a startled look at him. ‘You don’t think they will try again?’
‘They have gone too far to quit now.’
‘What’s it about — rustling?’
‘More than that. Creating a black market. Killing a Government man who came here to investigate. They have to destroy the evidence that would send half a dozen of them to death.’
The girl was shocked. She had not realized that this was anything more than a modern version of the old trouble between cattlemen and rustlers.
‘What Government man did they kill?’ asked Helen.
‘He boarded at your restaurant. Passed as a preacher named Andrew Watts.’
‘Do you mean Mr. Watts wasn’t a preacher?’
‘He was sent here to find out who was creating the black market by supplying the beef. You thought he fell off a cliff. That is not true. He was captured by the gang, taken up on the cliff, and pushed off.’
‘How do you know?’
‘They left evidence. It had rained the day before. I found that four horses had climbed the shoulder of the cliff that day. I don’t think the fall killed the victim immediately. They rode down to the foot of the cliff and bashed his head in. The wound could not possibly have been made from the fall. He struck on the right shoulder. This was on the left side of the head.’
The startled eyes of Frank were fastened on Stevens in a horrified fascination. ‘I heard Cash and Brick tell how they found the preacher’s body and rode to your place, the nearest ranch, for help to bring it in. I never guessed there was foul play.’
‘If this is a secret, why are you telling it now?’ Dale asked.
‘It does not matter any more. This is out in the open now. The Government wants it known. Some day one of the gang, when the hunt gets hot, will come in and offer state’s evidence.’
‘You hope,’ Wall said.
‘If not, the case may be broken open anyhow.’
‘I begin to understand why these outlaws are so persistent,’ Dale said. ‘Rustlers are always on the defensive. They don’t carry the war to cattlemen, but skulk around in the brush. It’s not their rustling that worries these miscreants, but the fact that Uncle Sam wants them for murder.’
‘The two things tie up together,’ Hal suggested.
The whole party ate a midday dinner at the restaurant.
Before all of them were finished, Dale asked Shorty to saunter down Main Street and find out if the hill men had yet left town. He reported that they were getting ready to go.
‘They been drinkin’ their dinner at the Rest Easy,’ he drawled. ‘That young plug-ugly Brick Fenwick is sitting on the porch steps lookin’ like he had swallowed a half a bottle of quinine.’
He was still sitting there when Hal strolled out of the restaurant. Stevens stood in the doorway. The rest of his group would join him in a minute or two. His glance picked up casually the three men across the street. The sight of them tightened his stomach muscles and brought him to rigid attention.
THOUGH HAL stood in the warm sunlight, a cold chill ran through him. He had walked into a trap. Brick was rising from the hotel steps, gun in hand. Hanford stood at the corner of the Rest Easy. To the right, in front of the grocery store next to the restaurant, Frawley had stationed himself. The hill men had cut Hal off on three sides. With luck he might get back into the restaurant alive, but he knew they would be hard on his heels. In the crash of guns that would follow, the women must be endangered.
He thought in quick, flashing stabs. Retreat was out of the question. He must get away from the front of the eating house, so that bullets would not tear into it. His hand reached back and closed the door. Without haste he took a few steps along the sidewalk toward Hanford.
Brick followed him step for step. ‘Stay where you’re at, fellow,’ he ordered, from between clamped teeth. ‘You got no women to hide behind now.’
It was a showdown. Hal had not the least doubt of that. They intended to riddle him with bullets. His whole mind was concentrated on the problem, searching for some slender chance of escape. He could find none. They were three to one, and they had their guns out while he had not drawn.
‘Don’t tell us you’ve left yore gun at home,’ Frawley jeered.
Hal saw nothing except these three men whose eyes were fastened on him so steadily. Yet afterward he recalled that the same brindle pup that had entered the danger zone before was trotting forward again. Moreover, he knew that somebody had opened the door of the restaurant.
‘Shut that door,’ he warned. ‘Don’t let the women out.’
The first glance told Casey that the battle was about to begin. With his left hand he closed the door behind him and held on to the knob.
‘Don’t start anything, boys,’ he pleaded. ‘Not with the women here.’
‘You’re not in this, Casey,’ his former foreman snarled. ‘Get back into the house.’
After the first brief glance, none of them paid any attention to Casey. Their whole tense interest was focused on Stevens. Hal knew this was the preliminary war of nerves. They were trying to break him down before the weapons crashed. That they had him cold they knew, but if they could flood him with fear, it would be an extra margin of safety for them.
‘What are you waiting for?’ he asked. ‘Some more of your friends to show up?’
Even as he spoke, his hand was sweeping out the revolver from its holster. Their weapons were smoking while he was diving for the scant shelter of the nearest doorway. The sound of their shots went smashing down the street tunnel before he got into action. He crouched, flattened against the jamb, flinging his first bullet at Brick. A slug ripped at the woodwork beside him. Another tore the hat from his head. Though he counted himself a dead man, he was quite cool and deliberate. Frawley could not easily get at him in the recess where he stood, so Hal fired at Brick a second time and then at Hanford. Casey had his sixshooter out. The bark of it joined the others. The hammering of the guns filled the roadway with the sharp explosions.
Brick moved closer, knees bent, face venomous with hate.
Hanford shifted position warily, coming to the edge of the sidewalk across the street. Hal’s gun covered him. It jumped with the crook of the finger. The heavy body of Hanford plunged forward into the street. The weapon dropped from his hand. He rolled over, lay still.
The door of the restaurant opened and men poured out.
Jolted by the sight of Hanford lying sprawled on the road and by the arrival of reinforcements for his enemy, Frawley turned and ran. Brick stayed to pump one last shot at Stevens before going, then backed into the Rest Easy and raced through it to the alley in the rear.
A moment before, the street had been empty except for the fighters and one stray brindle pup streaking down the road. Now a dozen people jostled one another as they crowded forward to look at the dead man.
‘Are you — all right?’ Dale asked Hal, her voice low and shaky. The girl’s face and lips were colorless.
‘Yes. They were waiting for me, hoping I would come out alone.’
Casey said,’I thought you were gone when I saw all three of them with their guns on you.’
Hal nodded thanks. ‘They gave you a chance to get away, but you didn’t take it. I think that saved me. You divided their attention when you began shooting.’
‘Is one of them… dead?’ Dale questioned.
‘The one called Hanford,’ answered Hal. ‘They kept crowding closer.’
‘You killed him in self-defense,’ she replied. ‘We all know that.’
Their eyes met and held for a long second. She knew what he was thinking, that Tom Wall, too, had slain a man because it had been forced upon him and she had thought of him as a killer, a man set apart by reason of what he had done. Later she might think of him the same way.
DALE CALLED up Sheriff Elbert by long distance and told him, not only what had just taken place at Big Bridge, but also gave him an account of the events that had led to the trouble. He had been a friend of her father and was himself a cattleman, so that he did not doubt the accuracy of her story. He said he would drive over at once. In the meantime her brother and Stevens could go on to Tucson, but he would expect the latter to return to his ranch as soon as he could.
Within five minutes of the time that the Black gang left town on the valley road headed for the hills, the men they had tried to rub out departed in the opposite direction. Hal and Frank traveled in an old roadster owned by Wall. The owner of the car went with them. It seemed to him prudent to leave Big Bridge for a time. He had not felt very safe there, even before his part in the trouble earlier in the day, since the man he had been forced to kill a year ago was a hanger-on of the Black outfit. The outlaws would regard what he had just done as surplusage, and if they found it difficult to get Stevens would very likely try to kill him as part payment on account.
Dale watched them go with some misgivings, though she did not see how their enemies could waylay them before reaching Tucson, since the valley road was the only direct route and they had set out apparently for their home terrain. She followed the Black car as far as the Seven Up and Down. Shortly after dinner the telephone rang. Hal was on the line. They had reached Tucson unmolested and Frank was safe in the hands of the army.
‘And whose hands are
‘I’m at the Frontera,’ he answered cheerfully. ‘With Tom Wall. We’ve just finished a good dinner. Tomorrow we are going to fly back. That level pasture back of your house would make a good landing place — if you are hospitable enough to offer it.’
‘Wouldn’t it be safer not to wait, but to come tonight?’ she asked.
‘I don’t think so. In a few minutes we are going up to our room. Probably none of the enemy are in Tucson yet, if they come at all. We’ll take off fairly early in the morning.’
‘I’ll be looking for you,’ she said quietly, and hung up.
As Hal came out of the booth, Wall warned him. ‘Look across the lobby,’ Tom said, a grin on his face. ‘Over by the drugstore entrance. And see if you see what I do.’
Hal’s glance picked up Frawley and Mullins. A moment later, Brick Fenwick came out of the drugstore and joined them. They had not yet seen the two men standing by the telephone booth, but Hal knew it would be impossible to cross either to the elevator or the stairway without being observed. They might as well get credit for facing the situation.
Stevens and Wall were half way across the lobby, moving directly toward the hill men, before Frawley caught sight of them.
‘Look!’ he cried.
The outlaws were taken by surprise. They had reached Tucson not ten minutes ago, and they had stopped in front of the Frontera to get a drink at the bar. They were looking for Stevens, but they had not wanted to meet him openly. Their idea was to find out where he was stopping and work out the best way to trap him.
‘Welcome to Tucson,’ Hal called to them. ‘If you haven’t eaten yet, we can recommend the chef here.’
Frawley called him a vile name angrily.
‘I don’t believe he likes you, Hal,’ Wall said.
‘I’m unfortunate,’ Hal answered. ‘The last three times we have met I have annoyed him. Afraid he’s not of a forgiving nature.’
The shallow eyes between Brick Fenwick’s narrowed lids were wary and savage. ‘You lookin’ for trouble again?’ he asked, his pitch a low drawl. ‘Right here in the hotel?’
‘Nothing like that.’ Hal’s voice was cool and light, his manner casually insolent and at the same time scrupulously amiable. ‘My suggestion is no hostilities till you can take me by surprise. You are not so good at open warfare. Or perhaps you are just unlucky.’
‘You won’t always have a bunch of women to hide behind,’ Frawley broke in, hoarse rage in his throat.
‘Quite right,’ Hal agreed. ‘I can’t carry one around with me as a bodyguard. If you ever catch me alone, Frawley, you’ll likely beat the tar out of me.’
The scar on Frawley’s face stood out white against a purple background. He was furious, yet somehow helpless against the smiling derision of the cattleman.
‘If you’ll come outside—’
He broke off, to finish with a scabrous epithet.
‘I stepped out with you once today,’ Stevens reminded him. ‘It’s not fair to ask you to give so much time to my education. Some other day, maybe.’
Mullins was a heavyset short man with thick rounded shoulders. Hard muscles packed the framework of his body, but his mouth was loose and the chin weak. Character etches itself on the faces of men who live on the edge of civilization faced by danger. What Wall and Stevens read in his was that he had to be bolstered by stronger men before he became dangerous.
‘I told you the boys would fix you for buttin’ in,’ he told Wall irritably.
‘So you did,’ Tom answered. ‘I haven’t heard them mention it yet.’
‘I’ll mention it now,’ Frawley said, an unpleasant rasp to his voice. ‘If you know what’s good for you, pull yore freight away from this bird here and light out sudden.’
Wall shook his head. ‘I always was an obstinate cuss and never did know what was good for me. Think I’ll stick around.’
The two friends turned to go. Fenwick called them back.
‘Wait a minute.’ A redhot devil of malice glared out of the eyes looking at Stevens. ‘Don’t figure you’ve got away with the killing of Hanford. If the law won’t fix you, there are those who will.’
Hal nodded. ‘If they can,’ he said quietly.
He walked across with Wall to the elevator, straight-backed and light-footed, in his poised grace an arrogance born of contempt for his foes. None the less he was glad when the elevator door closed behind them. A bullet in the back is an argument not easily answered.
As the elevator moved upward, Wall asked the operator, ‘How many miles is it across the Frontera lobby?’
The boy looked at him, puzzled. ‘I don’t get you, sir.’
‘I’m a crippled old vinegaroon,’ Wall explained, ‘and I wasn’t sure my tottering legs would get me to yore cage.’ To Hal he added, after the door of their room had been closed and locked: ‘That was no josh. Honest, my knees were wobbling. If you knew how near I came to running that last ten yards!’
His friend laughed. ‘If you had ever started, I would have beaten you to the elevator.’
Wall took off his coat and flung it on the bed. ‘Where do the three anxious gents downstairs go from here?’ he inquired.
‘We’re going to find that out,’ Hal answered. ‘They came here to get me, and they won’t go home without having a try at it.’ He looked steadily at Wall. ‘Time you got out of the picture, Tom. Frawley is right. You have done plenty for me today.’
A dull flush burned in Wall’s face beneath the tan. ‘I’m paying a debt,’ he replied stiffly. ‘What makes you think I’m a quitter?’
‘You’ve paid it ten times over,’ Hal said. ‘There was no risk in what I did for you.’
‘Hell, this is no time for yore friends to join in a loose-blanket stampede,’ Wall said, embarrassed and annoyed. ‘A bunch of wolves can’t give me orders what I can and can’t do. Far as that goes, the brake has done bust already. I’d rather take my chance hanging on than jump into a bed of cactus.’
Hal gave up. ‘All right. Have it your own way. I reckon we’ll make out.’
It was about fifteen minutes later that a knock came at the door.
‘This might be it,’ Hal murmured.
Both men moved from in front of the door toward the walls. The knock sounded on the door again. A voice said, ‘A bellhop with ice water, gents.’
Neither the words nor the tone sounded right to Hal. He said blithely:’ Shove it under the door. I’ll leave a dime tip for you at the room clerk’s desk, Mullins.’
Half a dozen bullets crashed through the door. Those inside the room heard the sound of hurried feet racing down the corridor. A minute later, an engine started beneath the window. Hal looked out and saw an automobile tearing past the postoffice with gathering speed.
THROUGH the window of the bare room he called his office, Tick Black watched a car roll into the yard and three men descend from it. Before they had taken five steps toward the house, he knew they had no good news to report. Mullins and Frawley moved heavily, with no spring of victory in their gross bodies, and even Brick Fenwick’s light, quick-stepping figure seemed to drag.
When they came into the room, Black was sitting at his desk. He was a small lean man past middle life dressed in levis tucked into dusty run-down-at-the-heel boots. His blue shirt was old and patched, and the white Stetson on his head had not been new within the memory of any of his associates. No razor had touched his face for days. He looked as ruthless as an old gray wolf.
His flinty eyes passed from one to another of the men and came to rest on those of Fenwick. The thin lips of the cattleman were tightly closed. Whatever news his gunmen had to tell would be told without any help from him.
‘We didn’t get either of them,’ Brick blurted out bluntly.
Tick did not say anything. He had long ago learned the value of silence. The blaze in his bleak eyes was enough.
‘They were at the Frontera,’ Mullins explained. ‘Right after supper they went up to their room. We never saw them again till they were getting in the bus for the flying field, and three or four other guys were going out too.’
‘Soon as they reached Tucson, they took the kid out to the camp and left him there,’ Frawley contributed. ‘We only met Stevens and Wall.’
‘Just chinned with them awhile and maybe bellied up to the bar for a drink or two,’ Black suggested with bitter sarcasm.
‘We couldn’t cut loose right in the lobby of the Frontera, could we?’ demanded Frawley. ‘With a lot of tourists standing around.’
A shutter dropped over the eyes of the ranchman, a film which left them opaque and blank. ‘So it comes to this, that I sent a bunch of boys to mill,’ he said gently, with biting malice.
Brick took up the challenge instantly. ‘Maybe you’d better go yourself next time.’
‘Maybe I had.’ Black’s splenetic laughter had as much mirth as the lash of a whip. ‘This Stevens certainly has the Indian sign on the lot of you. He holds you up in a poker game. He whales the stuffing out of Frawley. At Big Bridge he kills Hanford and doesn’t get a scratch, though you spill a pint of lead at him. And all you dare do at Tucson is to swap the time of day with him. I wish I had a Mr. Big like that on this ranch.’
‘He’s a lucky stiff,’ Mullins growled.
‘He makes his own luck, and he’s not a stiff yet. If he were, everything would be nice and dandy.’ The little cattleman leaned forward and rapped sharply on the top of the table with his knuckles, an appalling malignity in his eyes. ‘Can’t you get it into your thick skulls that the fellow knows enough to have you all fried?’
‘I don’t think so. He’s just guessing.’ Frawley’s big fist made the table jump when it thumped down. ‘Tell us what you would have done, Mr. Smart Man. I mean last night — at Tucson.’
‘Used my head,’ Black flung back. ‘I can think of a dozen ways to have got at him. You might have sent a bellhop up with a telegram, been waiting in the corridor, and shot him into a rag doll when he came to the door.’
‘We tried that,’ Mullins defended. ‘Not a telegram, but a jug of ice water. Stevens got on to who we were and was scared to open the door.’
‘He’s too clever and too tough for you, looks like.’
‘We scared the living daylights out of him anyhow,’ Frawley boasted. ‘Before we left we poured lead through the door.’
Anger leaped into Black’s thin high voice. ‘You blundering lunkheads, you haven’t sense enough to pound sand into a rathole. I send you to do a job. You not only fail to deliver, but you have to advertise to everybody in Arizona what you are trying to pull off.’
‘We didn’t do any such thing,’ denied Frawley. ‘Nobody knows who we were. We went down the back stairs and lit out without being seen.’
‘That will be enough from you, Mr. Black,’ Fenwick warned in a low, even voice. ‘I do your dirty work, but no old blister like you can sling names at me.’
Black looked into the hard shallow eyes and swallowed his rage. ‘All right. All right. Naturally I am annoyed. But we’ll forget the past and start from the chunk again. Did you find out why Stevens was going out to the flying field?’
‘Sure,’ Mullins said. ‘We trailed out after the bus. He and Wall chartered a plane to get back here.’
‘Then he’s at the M K?’
‘We wouldn’t know,’ Fenwick answered dryly. ‘Maybe he went to New York — or Africa. All we know is that he told the company he was going home and that he headed this way.’
‘A plane landed in the valley this morning, somewhere near the Seven Up. He and Wall must have been on it.’
‘So what do we do?’ Mullins asked.
‘It will be as easy to stop his clock tomorrow morning as it was today. If he had been at home this morning, Jim would have got him. We’re still sitting pretty, boys ‘Black’s smile was suave and friendly.
‘You’re electing me to take the risk,’ Frawley growled.
‘That’s history, Jim,’ Fenwick reminded him. ‘We drew cards for it night before last.’
‘Nothing said about me spending my life at it, was there?’ Frawley inquired acidly. ‘Three times yesterday I tried to get the bird. From the hill opposite his ranch house, and he wasn’t home. Again at Big Bridge. And last night at the Frontera.’
‘Don’t you count the time you beat him up at the Lovell ranch?’ Tick asked, a masked barb in his innocent voice.
‘By God, you’ll go too far sometime,’ Frawley warned. ‘And what you got to do with it? You didn’t draw cards with us. You didn’t even put money in the pot like the rest of us.’
‘I’ll right that now,’ Black said. ‘I’ll match what all three of the other boys put up. Count me in for a hundred and fifty plunks.’
‘Fair enough, Jim,’ Fenwick said. ‘When you get this fellow alone, blast him. Then slip away without being seen. That’s all there is to it.’
‘That wasn’t all there was to it when we had him in front of the restaurant,’ the ex-foreman complained.
‘We didn’t get him alone. His friends poured out to help him. You’ll catch him out in the brush some day.’
‘Easy as falling off a log — for you fellows who haven’t got to do it,’ Frawley sneered.
Black passed to new business. ‘There’s another thing, boys. The Government can’t prove that this spy they sent here didn’t fall off the cliff accidentally. But even if they are satisfied he did, another man is likely to be sent in his place. I’m a little worried about this tenderfoot who came to work at the M K. If you get a chance to talk with him or with any of the M K riders, find out all you can as to his past and how he spends his time.’
Fenwick agreed that would not be a bad idea. It might be only a coincidence that he and Stevens had met at the Rest Easy, or, on the other hand, they might have come together by appointment. Why not throw a scare into the fellow — tell him he was getting mixed up in a dangerous situation? If he was just a maverick who had drifted in on the lookout for a job, he would pull his freight rather than stay and get into trouble. If he sat tight, they could figure him as possibly a Government man.
That struck Black as a good idea, provided Fenwick was very careful not to tell him anything damaging. The chances were, of course, that the man was what he gave himself out for — an arrested case of tuberculosis sent out to complete a cure in the dry air of Arizona.
But Stevens was in another category. He was a menace to them all. Word had been phoned to Black from Big Bridge that the M K man had gathered evidence of the murder of the spy Watts, had been over the ground where the fellow was killed and checked up tracks. They had to get rid of him, and it had to be done soon.
WHEN HAL STEVENS and Tom Wall got out of the plane, they saw Dale coming across the field from the house to meet them. In her light swift tread, each step modeling the long slender thighs beneath the summer dress, was the unconscious pride of undefeated youth. All through the ages, Hal thought, there must have been women like that, free and untrammeled, with a fine animal vigor that showed the warm color blooming under the summer tan.
‘You left Frank all right?’ she called to them while still a dozen yards away.
Hal drew his heels together and saluted. ‘We report Private Lovell in the pink at last report,’ he said.
‘You don’t think they will try to bother him now?’
‘They would have to be better than the Japs or the Germans to reach him. He is in camp with a good many thousand others, and I’m told he won’t have a chance to get outside the gates for several weeks. I can’t see Tick Black’s gunmen getting through that interference.’
‘No,’ she admitted. ‘It’s a pity the army didn’t draft you and Mr. Wall while you were there.’
‘My turn is coming in a few weeks,’ Wall said.
Hal said nothing. Dale knew he was not over age and wondered why he was not in the service. He could probably have had a commission by going after it. It could hardly be a physical disability that kept him at home. She would have expected his reckless courage to take him in early. Maybe he would rather stay on the ranch and make a cleaning during the war years. She was aware of a lurking sense of disappointment.
‘I don’t suppose you saw anything of Black’s gang while you were in town,’ Dale said as they walked back to the house.
‘Yes, we saw them at the Frontera just after I phoned you,’ Hal answered. ‘We left them in the lobby and went to our rooms.’
‘And you didn’t see them after that?’
‘Twice. Once as they were driving away, and again as we were starting for the air field.’
‘But you had no trouble with them?’
Hal smiled. ‘We’re here. Sound as two silver dollars.’
Dale intercepted the grin Wall flashed at his friend.
‘What’s the catch?’ she asked sharply.
‘Might as well tell her, Tom,’ Hal said. ‘Miss Lovell could drag a secret out of a clam.’
‘Only if it’s one I’m entitled to know,’ she differed.
‘Well, they knocked on our room door and said it was a bellhop with ice water,’ Wall explained. ‘We didn’t fall for that one, so they sent their calling cards through the door and then beat it.’
‘You mean that they shot through the door?’
She was astounded at the boldness of their enemies. ‘With the hotel full of people? What did the manager say?’
‘Plenty. He raised quite some cane. Said that sort of horseplay gives a hotel a bad name. The guests don’t like it. Hal told him he ought not to let drunken cowboys cavort around like that, but he promised not to sue the hotel if it didn’t happen again.’
‘The manager was rather nonplused at that,’ Hal mentioned, with a reminiscent smile. ‘The drunken cowboy idea struck him as a bit fishy. He had heard a rumor of the Big Bridge incident. We paid for another door, but I doubt if he wants us as guests again.’
Dale did not respond to their humor. This was too serious for jesting. ‘I told you to come back last night,’ she said shortly. ‘But you knew best.’
‘So you did.’ Hal’s cool, amused eyes rested on the girl. ‘And of course you are a hundred per cent right, Miss Lovell. I ought to do as teacher tells me.’
She felt the color mounting into her cheeks. ‘You like to stir up trouble. But it’s none of my business.’
‘Still a hundred per cent right,’ he murmured.
‘We tried to get a plane last night,’ Wall cut in. ‘But the pilot had never tried landing here and wouldn’t tackle it in the dark. So we had to wait.’
Dale was annoyed, both at herself and at Stevens. It was just like him to stand back chuckling and watch her catch herself in a trap. She spoke to Wall, ignoring Hal. ‘They are determined to kill you. Mr. Stevens seems to think this is some kind of a game. It isn’t. If you hadn’t been fortunate, you would both be dead now.’
‘We don’t aim to throw down on ourselves,’ Wall replied. ‘Till this rookus is over, I’m going to be one of Hal’s hired hands.’
‘You mustn’t go out into the pastures, either of you,’ Dale insisted.
‘No, ma’am,’ Hal said meekly.
‘I think the M K is too close to their district anyhow,’ the girl continued, disregarding her neighbor’s ironic submission. ‘And the country is so brushy they could easily ambush you. The boys can make room for you in our bunkhouse until the danger is past.’
‘Don’t you think we would be safer in a young ladies’ seminary somewhere?’ Hal asked.
She clamped her lips, to keep back an angry retort. When she spoke, it was to say in a dry, colorless voice, ‘I see I’m still not minding my own business.’
But all through the breakfast they found waiting for them at the house, she wanted to renew the battle. Looking at this lean brown man with the slim whipcord figure and the reckless eyes, she felt a chill wind blow through her. Back of her anger at him was fear. He was so bold and careless. He would ride out from his ranch some morning. There would sound the crack of a rifle from the brush, his knees would lose their grip on the saddle, and the strong body would plunge down into the sand to lie there slack and lifeless. For the moment the picture was so vivid that the shock of it held her breathless, even while she sat opposite to him as he described with gay animation her brother getting into a uniform four sizes too large for him.
He would go his own way. There was nothing she could do or say to restrain him. They were not even friends, and even if she had been close to him, it would have made no difference. He was not a man to be swayed by a woman in matters of importance.
They stayed all day and left after dark, on horseback, riding across the south pasture to the boundary of the valley. From here they would ascend Frenchy’s Draw into the hills.
Dale watched them go, war in her heart. All her life she had hated the Stevens outfit, lock, stock, and barrel. They had been enemies of her father, to whose memory she was devoted. She was furious at Hal, and all day had been barely civil to him, a fact of which he had been apparently quite oblivious. And all through the hours she had been torn by the knowledge that he possessed her heart wholly. The lean head so live, so strong. The rhythmic motions of his body, smooth and sure. The careless indomitable spirit. They drew her to this gay turbulent foe straight as filings to a magnet. Yet his ways were not hers. They could never be. Both the past and the present were impassable barriers between them. There was, too, the crowning humiliation that his only interest in her was as a source of amusement She ministered to his satiric humor. This alone was enough to keep resentment churning in her.
RANDOLPH ARNOLD rode the west fence of the M K. He had come to repair a break in it reported by one of the men. That was his ostensible motive, but there was another more important one. He wanted to meet and establish contact with some of the men nesting in the tangle of gulches between the M K and Rabbit Ear Gorge.
Arizona had got into his blood. In the clear cool air of early morning, with the sun streaming over the greasewood and the mesquite in a silvery sheen, he was in danger of forgetting that his business here was to uncover evidence to send criminals to their death. This desert atmosphere held some quality exciting as wine, an intoxicant of the spirit that did for him what the vitamin manufacturers claimed for their products. He had discovered that the desert was infinitely variable. It might be one hour an opalescent mirage, the next a bare baked caldron challenging any life to survive. The changing beauty of its sunsets never wearied him.
From the west fence he could look down across the huddled hills to the undulating valley of the Soledad, through which the winding river wound its lazy way. The windmills of the Seven Up and Down flung back glints of sunlight as the blades went round. Back of him was the Rabbit Ear Gorge. Though he had never been there, he had been told that the ca?ons in and leading to the porphyry range were a maze of crosscut defiles which could be traversed only by those to whom they were as familiar as the lines in the palms of their hands.
He tied his mount to a fencepost and began to work on the broken strand of wire. Occasionally he could see little dust puffs on the valley road stirred by a rider or a wagon. No other sign of human life gave evidence that he had a companion in this great gulf of space. So intent was he on his job that when a drawling voice broke the silence, it startled him.
‘You want to anchor that wire better, brother,’ it said.
A man was sitting his saddle indolently, body relaxed, gleaming white teeth parted in a smile. He had moved up the sandy wash so silently that no rumor of his coming had reached Arnold.
The tenderfoot gave him back his smile. ‘I didn’t hear you till you spoke,’ he said.
Arnold knew the man by sight. He was the young fellow Brick Fenwick whom he had seen baiting Stevens in the Rest Easy.
The boy swung from the saddle, grounded his reins, and came forward. He took the pliers from Arnold and showed him how the barbed wire should be fastened. The Government man noticed how the long brown fingers of his hands worked with no loss of motion. There was something fascinating about their sureness. No doubt they could handle a gun with expert precision. Yet on more than one occasion, within a week, they had scored two or three misses. Hal Stevens had been lucky.
Fenwick returned the pliers. ‘How’s the job going?’ he asked.
‘All right, I guess.’ Arnold added ruefully: ‘Except that there isn’t a thing on a ranch that I can do well. Life in Pittsburgh doesn’t fit you for outdoor Arizona.’
‘Like it here?’
‘Funny thing is that I do. It’s raw — elemental. No city conveniences. But you get so you don’t miss them.’
‘Get along all right with yore boss?’
‘I haven’t spoken ten sentences to him. My orders come from the foreman Holt.’
Fenwick slid a sharp look at the other. ‘If you’re a sick man here for yore health, you came to a funny place,’ he said.
The tenderfoot showed surprise. ‘I’ve always heard Arizona recommended as the best climate for t.b.’
‘Maybe so. There are other things you can die of a heap quicker at the M K.’
There was puzzled innocence in Arnold’s questioning gaze. ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he said.
A cold, fierce challenge shone in the shallow eyes of the gunman. ‘Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that Stevens killed a man the other day at Big Bridge.’
‘Sure I’ve heard about it. But that has nothing to do with me. I’m not in it. I’m a stranger here. Just a hired man.’
‘You’re in it up to yore neck,’ Fenwick told him bluntly. ‘Every man that works on the M K is. If Stevens tells you different, he’s a liar.’
‘But I don’t see why I should be,’ Arnold protested. ‘I haven’t been in the state two weeks. These rustlers who attacked Mr. Stevens are strangers to me. I never met any of them. They can’t have anything against me.’
‘You’ve got the story wrong,’ Fenwick answered impatiently. ‘They weren’t rustlers, but deputy sheriffs arresting Stevens for holding up a poker game. He drew a gun and killed one of them. Now he is back at his ranch holed-up there. If he wasn’t depending on his men to back him, he would have skedaddled out of the country.’
‘I’m not backing him. Where I come from we don’t get mixed up in feuds. I’m a peaceable citizen.’
‘You’re packing a gun right now.’ The boy’s mouth was a thin cruel slash, his eyes tigerish.
‘For rattlesnakes. Holt told me they were bad here in the pasture.’
‘They’ve coached you good,’ Fenwick jeered. ‘Now tell me you don’t even know the names of the men trying to arrest yore boss.’
‘I heard the boys in the bunkhouse telling their names, but they didn’t mean anything to me. Why should they? I tell you I am a stranger. When I got here, I didn’t know there was a feud going on in this section.’
‘Brick Fenwick was one of the men Stevens tried to kill that day.’
Arnold nodded. ‘I remember the name now. I think another name was Frawley.’
‘I’m Brick Fenwick,’ the boy said, the words low and menacing.
The face of the tenderfoot lit up. ‘You were in the Rest Easy the day I got here!’ he exclaimed.
‘Yore memory is improving,’ the young desperado said dryly.
‘I understand now,’ Arnold replied. ‘You are afraid I’m joining Stevens to oppose you.’
Fenwick came a step nearer. His body moved with the litheness of a cat. ‘Get this, fellow,’ he ordered. ‘I’m not afraid of you — or him — or yore whole damned outfit. And I’m not arguing with you. I’m telling you. Get out of this valley. If you’re what you claim you are, you have no business in this trouble. Beat it.
The eyes of Arnold met steadily the arrogant anger in the boyish face of the killer. Not a muscle of his body moved, but there was a change in it, as if the will had stiffened the shoulders and made taut the nerves.
‘I’m new to the West, Mr. Fenwick,’ he said quietly. ‘I like it, because it is more friendly and less formal than the East. What you have just said surprises me. No man with any spirit could make any answer but one. I have as much right here as you have, and I’m going to stay.’
‘That’s bad.’ The gunman’s thin lips twisted to an evil smile. ‘For you.’
He walked to his horse, mounted, and rode away.
Arnold reported the meeting to his host, whom he found at the corral watching a cowboy break a colt to the saddle. Hal rested his forearms on the top rail of the fence and looked sideways at his friend, a sardonic grin on his brown face.
‘They’re getting on to you, Ranny,’ he said. ‘At least, enough to be worried. Brick wouldn’t think it worth while to serve notice on a lunger tenderfoot to get out. From now on they will be watching you as much as they will me.’
‘I think I’ll take the young scoundrel’s advice — for a few days,’ Arnold said, after a pause for consideration. ‘This isn’t ready to break yet from this end. I’ve got to find the receiving point for the cattle. Want to go along with me?’
Hal thought not. His job was on the ranch. If he went with Arnold, his presence would call attention to what the Government man was doing, ‘You can send for me if you find I can help,’ he said.
‘Fact is, I don’t like to leave you here,’ Arnold explained. ‘They mean to get you. It was just luck you weren’t killed yesterday morning when some fellow took a crack at you from that hilltop over there.’
‘It’s a long shot,’ Hal mentioned. ‘He won’t get a chance to try it again, since I’m keeping a man posted there.’
‘You’re too careless, Hal.’
‘A namesake of mine once said four hundred years ago or more that out of the nettle danger he plucked the flower safety.’
‘So Hotspur said,’ answered Arnold dryly, ‘but if I remember the play correctly, he plucked a poisonous weed called death.’
Hal laughed. ‘You have me there. But don’t worry, old man. The bullet isn’t molded yet that will get me. Careful is going to be my middle name from now on.’
‘That’s a promise,’ his friend said.
SHERIFF ELBERT looked up from the desk where he was sitting and greeted his visitor. Tick Black said, ‘Mornin’, Sheriff,’ and eased himself into a chair.
‘What can I do for you?’ Elbert asked. He was thinking that no self-respecting tramp would wear the old and dirty clothes of this financially responsible ranchman.
‘You can arrest Hal Stevens for the murder of Cad Hanford,’ Black answered, his thin voice high and shrill.
The sheriff lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair. ‘I had a talk with Hal the other day,’ he said between the first few puffs. ‘His story is that he was attacked by Hanford and some others. If that is true, he can claim self-defense.’
‘He has to claim that to save his bacon. Fact is, Dud Calloway tried to arrest him for holding up some of the boys with a gun and robbing them. When he resisted, Dud deputized Cad and the others to take him. That was when he killed Cad. One of the most damnable murders I ever heard of.’
Elbert declined to get excited. He was a large well-fleshed man past fifty. In memory of his days as a cattleman he wore a big white Stetson, corduroy trousers and coat, and cowboy boots. His face was tanned and the back of his neck crisscrossed with deep wrinkles.
‘I talked with several witnesses,’ he mentioned casually. ‘Among others Miss Lovell and Miss Barnes. They didn’t look at this the same way you do, Tick. In fact, they agreed that if the Seven Up boys hadn’t arrived in time, Stevens and young Frank Lovell would have been rubbed out.’
‘Miss Lovell has to stand by her brother when the young fool gets in a jam, doesn’t she? Count her out as a witness.’
The sheriff inspected the growing ash at the end of his cigar. ‘I’m not satisfied with the way Dud behaved,’ he said. ‘He acted like a partisan. Cash Polk and his friends used him as a cover for the killing they meant to pull off. Dud did not admit that in so many words, but everything he said pointed to it. I’ll say this for Dud. He didn’t know how far they meant to go. His idea was they would stop with an arrest. But that wasn’t their idea.’
‘You’ve decided to tie in with the big ranches. That the long and the short of it, Elbert?’
The sheriff flushed with anger. ‘I’ve decided to stand with honest men against rustlers and killers. But I didn’t come to that decision this week or this year, as you damned well know. I would like to make some arrests in this case, but when I went into the hills looking for Cash Polk and Jim Frawley and that boy Fenwick, I couldn’t find hide nor hair of them.’
‘I expect they didn’t know you wanted them.’ Tick looked virtuously indignant. ‘No reason for them to hide. They have done nothing wrong. But it’s the old story. The law leans over backward to help rich folks against the poor.’
‘You have money enough to burn a wet mule, Tick,’ Elbert said tartly. ‘But if I can show you are tied up with this gang of thieves and killers, you’ll find out whether I go after the rich.’
Black leaned forward, his flinty eyes drained of expression. ‘Don’t make that claim, Carl, unless you can prove it,’ he warned.
‘When I can prove it, I won’t talk but act,’ the sheriff answered. ‘You have come here to hurrah me, Tick. I thought you had better judgment than to try it.’ He rose from his chair. ‘You have your answer. If that is all the business you have with me, get out.’
‘Sure I’ll get out. When you ran for sheriff, you got a lot of votes from the hill country. I’ll guarantee you won’t get so many if you run again.’
‘That will be fine,’ Elbert replied. ‘I don’t want the votes of crooks. You might tell your friends that in my opinion when next election comes around, some of them won’t be voting.’
As he went out, Black slammed the door hard behind him. He had come to find out just where the sheriff stood, though he already had a pretty fair idea. He knew Elbert could not have any sympathy with rustlers. All his background would prevent that. But he had not been sure whether he would have to count on him as an active enemy. It might be important to know. The sheriff had made his position clear.
Black got into his old rattletrap car and drove out of town. He left the paved road after a few miles, to take a dirt cross-cut to Big Bridge. Yellow dust rose behind him in thick clouds, churned to a fine powder by the wheels of the cars passing since the last rain of a month before. It hung in the air for many minutes after the automobile had stirred it up.
The hill cattleman wanted to see Brick Fenwick, and he knew the young man would probably be found at Big Bridge. Of late he had been given to hanging around the Barnes restaurant. Black had a feeling that it would be well to move fast against Hal Stevens. With the M K man out of the picture, he would feel a great deal safer. Stevens not only knew and guessed too much. He meant to know a great deal more. The man was dangerous. He had not only a sharp fighting edge, but with it the wisdom to gauge and meet the dangers facing him. Within a few hours of the time that the body of the Government man Watts had been found, Stevens had been quartering over the ground gathering evidence to prove murder and not accident. His wily boldness had detached Frank Lovell from the side of the outlaws and made the boy a menace. As long as he was alive, there would be no safety for Black and his men.
HELEN BARNES was alone in her restaurant checking up the receipts and expenditures of the day. Manuel and the colored cook had gone home. She looked up from adding a column of figures, aware that the door she had purposely left unlocked had opened very softly and been closed again. On her lips was a welcoming smile, but it died away quickly. This was not the man she had been expecting.
Brick Fenwick stood with his back to the door, no motion in his neat lithe body, so insolently sure of himself that it sent a shiver through her. She must get him away from here before the other man arrived. But how? To the rebuffs she had given him during the past week, he paid not the least attention. Her anger he found amusing. Her contempt did not reach him.
‘The restaurant is closed,’ she told him. ‘What do you want here?’
‘You know what I want,’ he said in a low purring voice. ‘I want you.’
He moved forward with catlike grace to the raised cashier’s desk behind which she sat.
Her blue eyes blazed. A pulse of anger beat in her throat. ‘Can’t you understand English,’ she said. ‘I’ve told you a dozen times that I think you evil — that I despise you — want nothing to do with you.’
He ignored what she had said. ‘I like you angry,’ he re plied, with cool impudence. ‘A woman with no ginger wouldn’t interest me, any more than a horse without spirit. I want one I have to curb.’
Her glance swept to the door. At any moment it might open to admit the other man. ‘It makes no difference to me what you want. Please leave this room. At once.’
He shook his head, laughing at her. ‘You women must always be actresses. A man must make allowances and not believe everything one says. I regret to refuse, but I think I’ll stay.’ He bowed, with a tag of bronco Spanish,’
‘If you have something to say to me, I’ll see you some other time.’
‘Now,’ he corrected. ‘Sheriff Elbert is on my tail. I can’t drop in any minute.’
‘It would make me happy to know I would never see you again,’ she said, eyes full on him.
‘But I don’t believe that. A woman’s no means yes.’
Her hand moved in a little gesture of futility. ‘Your vanity is so colossal you can’t understand a woman finding you repellent.’
‘What has yore friend Hal Stevens got that I haven’t?’ he inquired gently, his sharp eyes searching for information.
‘Mr. Stevens doesn’t come into this. But since you ask — he has integrity, decency, a respect for the rights of others.’
‘Words,’ he summed up contemptuously. ‘Just words. Men all want the same things — women and money. Those who fight hard enough get what they want. The others don’t. I come out on top. What I want I mean to take.’
‘Whether it is right or not.’
‘You’re foolin’ with words again, girl. It’s right for me if I want it.’
‘That makes no sense,’ she retorted impatiently. ‘There are other people living in the world besides you. What makes you think you can override their wishes? You wanted to kill Hal Stevens the other day, but you couldn’t do it.’
She had broken through his brutal arrogance to the hot temper underneath. ‘He is a dead man already, though he doesn’t know it yet,’ he told her harshly.
Fear came into her eyes. ‘Have you killed him?’ she cried.
‘Give me time. If you are thinking of that man, get him out of yore head. There’s no use thinking about dead men.’
‘Maybe he’ll kill you, as he did your friend Hanford.’
‘No. He has been measured for his coffin.’
His bleak malignity appalled her. ‘Do you think you are God, with the power and right to decide when a man shall die?’ she flung out. ‘Go away from me. Leave me alone. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.’
‘But you are going to.’
A faint rippling of the muscles stirred in him. He stepped on the stand and stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. The fingers bit into her flesh, firmly, but not deep enough to give intolerable pain.
‘You are hurting me,’ the girl said evenly, not wincing. ‘But if you want to, of course, that’s all right. You are Brick Fenwick.’
His fingers dug in deeper. She wanted to scream, but clamped her teeth. There was a sadistic desire in him, she guessed, to break her spirit. The pressure relaxed.
‘Little kittens must learn not to show their claws,’ he drawled, almost in a murmur. ‘They must do what they are told and play pretty.’
‘I’m not a kitten,’ Helen said. ‘I’m a woman — in a free land. You can hurt me till I can’t stand it any longer. It will only make me hate you.’
He snatched her out of the chair and swung her round. He held her there motionless, the red-hot devil of desire blazing into her eyes. She did not try to struggle uselessly. Her strong young body went rigid, as if she had been in a trance. When he kissed her lips and eyes and throat, she neither resisted nor yielded, but was no more responsive than a dress model in a store window. Presently he flung her savagely against the desk.
‘By God, I’ll get the ice out of yore blood before I’m through!’ he cried. ‘I’ll teach you who is yore master.’
The look in her eyes made him furious. No words he could use, no force, could quell that measured scorn with which she faced him. He might whip her as he did a fractious horse. It would still be there.
The door opened and Tom Wall walked into the restaurant. His first quick glance told him that he had interrupted a scene between them. Brick’s face mirrored anger and frustration. There was disdain in her eyes, but there was fear too.
A gun seemed to jump to the fingers of the desperado. His body crouched. His mouth had become a tight, thin, cruel line. When he spoke his lips scarcely moved.
‘So this is the guy, not Stevens,’ he said.
‘No,’ Helen cried. ‘Don’t be a fool.’ Her heart beat like a bird against a cage. A weakness ran through her.
Brick sidestepped, to be out of Helen’s reach and to have her within the orbit of his vision. You never knew what fool thing a woman would do. Yet his eyes never left the man at the door.
Tom Wall thought fast. He felt it had to be fast to save his life. His voice sounded cool and indifferent. ‘We’ve got you, Brick,’ he said. ‘I’m with Elbert’s posse. They are outside in the street. Better drop that gun and give up.’
He knew Fenwick would not surrender. That was not what he hoped for from his bluff, but to make the killer think it was too dangerous to fire now.
‘So it’s that way, is it?’ Brick answered, his words almost a snarl.
‘It’s that way,’ Wall replied easily. ‘When I call for him, he’ll come busting in.’
‘And before he gets here, you’ll be dead.’
Helen felt a faint lift of hope. If Fenwick believed that the sheriff was outside in the street — and he did not seem to doubt it — both of these men were handcuffed. Wall could not raise a shout and the hunted man could not shoot. She was still frightened for Tom, but the despair of that first moment had gone. The situation might work itself out without tragedy.
‘Let’s not have trouble, please,’ she said anxiously.
Tom Wall’s hands were hanging at his sides. ‘Looks like I can’t start it,’ he said, grinning. ‘Not with Brick’s gun on me.’
‘We’re going out the back door, you an’ me,’ Fenwick said.
Wall shook his head. He had no intention of walking out to be shot in the alley.
‘We’ll finish this here,’ he said.
Brick moved forward slowly, his shallow, intent eyes fixed on the other man. ‘Damn you, do as I say,’ he ordered. ‘Get yore hands up.’
The face of Wall set mulishly. His arms still hung down. ‘If I go West you’ll be right on my heels,’ he said.
Helen ran between the men. She faced Fenwick. Except for the scarlet streak of lipstick, her face was colorless.
‘Get outa the way,’ Brick snapped.
‘No. You can’t do it. I won’t have you both killed here.’
From the street outside a voice called. ‘Where are you, Tom?’
The steel-trap mouth of Fenwick loosened. His eyes slid to the door and returned to Wall. Slowly he began to back away.
‘Don’t move,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Don’t answer, or I’ll blast you.’
He went back, step by step, as far as the screen door, then wheeled and dashed through it on a run. They heard him tear open the back door and the slap of his running feet.
Helen saw a tipsy world going up and down. Her body pushed back against that of the man. She thought she was going to faint.
His arm went around her waist. ‘Head up, girl,’ he said. ‘It’s all over now.’
‘Yes,’ she said unsteadily. ‘Call in the sheriff quick.’
‘The sheriff isn’t here. I threw a bluff.’
‘But — someone called you.’
‘And was I glad to hear him? He was a fellow I was ducking who wanted me to take a drink with him.’
She fought down the dreadful fear as she stared at him. ‘He meant to kill you,’ she murmured.
‘He would have done it if you hadn’t been here.’ His voice jumped to a higher note. ‘Don’t you know better than to get in front of a crazy man with a gun?’
She shuddered. ‘I thought…’ Her voice died away.
‘I know what you thought.’ Tilting her chin, he looked into her eyes. He had never held her in his arms before. He did not kiss her now. That Fenwick had been making violent and unwelcome love to her, he did not doubt. The certainty of this restrained him now. In her mind there must be just now a resentment against the possessive instincts of man. When his lips met hers for the first time, he did not want the memory of Brick Fenwick’s outrage to mar the moment.
Helen released herself and drew back. The color was beating back into her face. ‘I must have been awf’ly frightened to pull a baby act like that.’
‘My knees were wobbly,’ he admitted. ‘He’s one bad
‘Yes. Maybe he is still hanging around, to shoot you when you come out.’
He shook his head. ‘Don’t think so. He’s likely hitting the high spots on the road to the hills.’
‘You’d better get out of town — as soon as you are sure he has gone. But we want to make sure. He might find out the sheriff isn’t here. I’ll go out first and find out.’
‘No, you won’t.’ His veto was decisive. ‘We’ll go together. I’ll see you to your home.’ ‘He might follow us and get you afterward.’ ‘Don’t worry. I’ll have a gun out next time.’ ‘What right has he to interfere with other people’s lives?’ she demanded angrily. ‘As if he were some kind of super man.’
‘He’s a wolf. One of these days he will be trapped. It will be soon.’
The telephone on her desk rang. Helen answered it. ‘Yes, he’s here,’ she said. ‘Are you in town?’ A minute later she added: ‘If you’re coming right over, I’ll have him wait for you.’ She hung up. ‘It’s Mr. Stevens. He wants to see you and will be here in a jiffy. He phoned from the drugstore at the corner.’
‘Sure it was Hal? You recognized his voice?’
She told him yes. Presently they heard his sharp quick tread on the sidewalk.
‘Sorry to interrupt, but I had to see you,’ Hal said.
‘You’re a lot more welcome than the last fellow who butted in,’ Tom replied, and told him what had just taken place.
Hal did not smile. One could find no amusement in the anger of a killer like Fenwick. The man was as dangerous as a tiger loose in a jungle close to a village.
TICK BLACK drove into the hotel parking lot and clumped to the house. He went in through the back door to the lobby. Jack Lindell, the son of the woman who ran the hotel, was at the desk.
‘Seen anything of Brick Fenwick today?’ Black asked.
‘No, I haven’t,’ the boy answered.
‘Hmp!’ Black thought for a moment and walked into the telephone booth. He called up his ranch and Frawley’s voice came back to him.
‘Know where Brick is?’ he inquired.
Frawley told him that Fenwick had left for Big Bridge two hours earlier. Both of them spoke in low tones.
‘Okey. I’ll pick him up and start home. See you there before morning. Stick around till I come.’
‘Cash called you up from Casa Rita. Said a fellow was around asking questions, a guy Brick talked with the other day while the man was fixing a fence. Cash thought you ought to know about it.’
‘Yeah. Maybe I ought.’ Black dragged the palm of a hand across his unshaven chin. ‘Reckon you’d better come in and meet me here, Jim.’
‘Elbert isn’t around there, is he?’
‘No. I left him in his office couple of hours ago. We won’t be staying here long.’
‘I get you. Meet you at the hotel.’
Tick hung up and walked down the street to the Rest Easy. As he entered by the front door, Brick ducked into the saloon by the back way. The young man’s glance slid around the room to see who was present before he moved forward to the bar.
‘Elbert is in town with a posse,’ he murmured out of the corner of his mouth.
‘You saw him — just now?’
‘No. Tom Wall told me. He’s one of the posse.’
‘That’s funny. I just drove over from Fair Play and left Elbert there. Maybe somebody phoned him you were expected here.’
Brick’s eyes narrowed. ‘Or maybe he’s not here at all. Maybe that skunk Wall lied to me — to get out of the jam he was in. I’ll see about that.’ He turned to go, his face a map of black anger.
‘Wait a minute.’ The ranchman stopped him. ‘If you and Wall have been having a run-in, forget it just now. He isn’t important.’
‘He’s important to me,’ the younger man flung back. ‘I’m gonna hang his hide up to dry.’
Tick caught him by the arm. ‘Don’t go off half-cocked, Brick. Listen to me.’ He drew the Texan into a far corner of the room where they would not be heard. ‘I’ve just heard some disturbing news. The tenderfoot who calls himself Arnold is at Casa Rita nosing around. That will have to be stopped. You can’t mess things up by having trouble with Wall now. He isn’t going to leave the country. You can take care of him later.’
‘After I’ve handled your chores,’ Brick sneered.
‘Not so much mine as yours. Don’t forget that Arnold is here trying to dig up evidence as to who killed that spy Watts, if that was his name.’
‘Watts wasn’t killed at Casa Rita. He couldn’t find any evidence there. You know damned well that if Arnold is a Government man, he is checking up on where we sell the stuff we get on the raids.’
‘It all ties up together. First, let’s find out if Elbert is here. Unless you want to be arrested. I’ll make sure of that. Soon as I know, I’ll meet you in the parking lot back of the hotel.’
‘All right. Don’t be long. I’m making no promises about what I’ll do if he isn’t here.’
They separated, each leaving the Rest Easy by the way he had come.
Black stopped a man on the street. ‘I’m looking for Sheriff Elbert,’ he said. ‘Somebody told me he is in town.’
‘Somebody told you wrong, Tick,’ the man answered. ‘I been around ever since dinner time. If he was here I would have seen him.’
Another man drifted along, was questioned, and corroborated the story of the first. Black was satisfied that Wall had not told the truth. Five minutes later, he reported to Brick, who received the information with a good deal of profanity. He did not like being made a monkey of, as he expressed it. Wall had butted in twice, and that was twice too often.
‘Tom left town ten minutes ago driving like a man in a hurry,’ Black said. ‘Looks like he was scared of you. If you tried, you couldn’t find him now.’
The cattleman did not know whether what he had said was true or not. Wall might still be in town. But he wanted to get Fenwick’s one-track mind functioning along another line.
‘All right,’ Brick agreed sullenly. ‘What’s eatin’ you? Where do we go from here?’
‘We go to Casa Rita and see what this fellow Arnold is uncovering. If Cash is right, we’ll have to wind up his ball of yarn. We’ll wait for Frawley at the edge of town.’
Fenwick hung fire, uncertain what to do. He had a feeling by no means new that this sly schemer was using him, and he did not like it. ‘I’ll trail along,’ he said. ‘But you needn’t ask me to bump off Arnold for you. I took care of Watts. I’m gonna let you have this gent.’
They got into the car and drove out of the parking lot. Black turned into the business street. As they passed the Rest Easy, the sound of laughter came to them. There were not many people on the sidewalks. Big Bridge was not a lively spot at night.
Two men came out of Sid’s Garage, crossed the road, and passed into an alley. For a moment they had been under a street light’s glare.
Brick leaned forward and turned off the car switch. ‘You damned lying old buzzard, I might have known you couldn’t tell the truth,’ he said angrily, and got out of the car as soon as the speed slackened.
He had recognized Wall as the nearer of the two men who had passed into the alley.
WE’LL BOTH walk home with Miss Barnes,’ Hal said. ‘After that, I’ll see you started for the ranch, Tom. I have to go to Casa Rita. I just heard tonight from Ranny Arnold. It looks as if he has something, and he wants me there to verify what he has found out. He was very cautious over the phone, so I don’t know just what it is. But my guess is that he thinks he has discovered the destination of the cattle that have been raided by these hill outlaws.’
‘You don’t want me to go with you,’ Wall suggested.
‘No, I want you at the ranch. I don’t want to close-herd you, Tom, but I think you had better stay right there for the next few days. I’m pretty short-handed, you know, and that calf cut has to be made.’
‘Also, you think I’ll be safer there than I would be anywhere else.’
‘Well, Brick is a gentleman who rides an idea very hard. If he were to get the drop on you a second time, you might not be so lucky. We have to remember that he would see to it you didn’t get an even break.’
Helen locked the back door and, after they were in the street, the front one. They walked toward her home three abreast. The eyes of the men swept the path in front of them and occasionally the road in their rear.
When they reached her house, Helen invited them in to meet her mother, a bright-eyed sprightly lady with whom Hal had frequently swapped badinage. Hal took a raincheck on the young woman’s suggestion, explaining that it would be better not to delay their departure.
Miss Barnes thought that was wise. She offered advice hesitantly. ‘I think Mr. Stevens is right, Tom. Stay at the ranch and don’t go out to work alone. I wish he were staying there, too.’
‘Oh, I’m moving out of the danger zone,’ Hal replied. ‘But you are right about Tom. It’s a good rule if in doubt not to take the chance.’
‘Which rule I hope you follow, Mr. Stevens,’ Helen said dryly.
The two men walked back to the main street together. It was quiet, almost deserted, but that did not prove enemies were not floating about the town. Hal stopped his friend at Sid’s Garage. Somebody had stolen the radiator cap of his car and he wanted to get another. Sid found one that would fit.
They crossed the road to an alley, a short cut to the lots where their cars were parked. As they did so, they noticed an old flivver coming down the street toward them. It stopped a little way from them, but by this time they were in the shadows between two buildings.
The road into which they came from the alley was not paved. Between the adobe houses were unfenced lots, where of late those from the M K ranch had taken to leaving their cars because this street was darker and less conspicuous than the main thoroughfare. Hal and Tom separated after a moment of talk, each to go to the place where he had left his automobile. Neither of them saw the shadowy figure creeping up the alley from which they had just emerged.
The moon was not yet up, and in the darkness the man trailing them did not identify the companion of Wall. But he knew the easy gait of the cowboy and after a second or two crossed the road to follow him.
Hal wondered later whether it was sheer chance that made him remember a message he wanted delivered to his foreman and led him to turn his head at that exact moment. The call to Tom died in the throat of Stevens. Wall was walking into the lot where he had left his car and another man who had his back turned to Hal was creeping up behind him. Even if Hal had not seen the revolver in the fellow’s hand, he would have recognized the neat slender figure of Fenwick. He padded softly after the man.
‘Hold it, Brick,’ he shouted presently.
Fenwick whirled. It was too late for him to make for the alley now. He was caught between the two of them. Instantly he flung a long-distance shot at Hal and darted down a path beside a one-story house to a group of small buildings back of it.
Wall ran back to join his companion.
‘Look out, Tom!’ shouted Hal. ‘It’s Fenwick.’
There was an adobe wall back of the lot. It was likely that Fenwick would lie crouched behind one of the buildings hoping for a good shot at either Wall or Stevens and in case they crowded him, would go over the wall into the straggly brush of the desert.
‘How would it do to circle around to the back of the wall and come at him from the rear?’ Hal asked. ‘He won’t dare try to escape by the road because he’ll think we’re waiting for him out in front somewhere.’
‘Sounds reasonable,’ Wall agreed. ‘Do we go together?’
They decided that each would make a half-circle in opposite directions, to meet in a few minutes back of the wall. The radius of it must be long enough so that Brick would not be able to see them. Since the darkness still held, that would be not very far.
Both had been big-game hunters and they knew how to move silently. Hal stopped once to listen, but he could not hear even a rumor of Tom’s progress. No sound came from the man they were stalking. A barbed-wire fence stopped Hal, but he slid under the lowest strand. He was in a vegetable garden and crossed it on hands and knees. At the back of the lot, he negotiated the wire again very slowly and cautiously, being careful not to put a foot on any dry brush that might crackle in breaking. He realized that this great care might be unnecessary. Fenwick might long since have clambered over the wall and disappeared among the cholla. But he did not think so. Brick was a hardy villain, with a pronounced streak of obstinacy in him. He was crouched back of cover, and he would probably stay there for a time in the hope of getting one of his enemies.
Hal knew a moment later that he had guessed right. The voice of Fenwick came to him out of the darkness. ‘Why don’t you show up and fight, you damned skulkers?’ it called, the defiance a little high and shrill.
The man was getting nervous under the strain, Hal guessed. A long wait in dead silence, with doubts as to what the foe is doing trooping through the mind, is shattering to one’s composure.
Hal was back of the wall now, and he crept forward toward it. Soon now, if he had gauged Brick’s mentality correctly, the young killer would decide for safety and climb over it to escape.
Back of the wall Hal waited to listen, then stood up and looked over it. He ducked just in time. Fenwick, backing to the wall, began to turn as Hal’s head vanished.
The crouching man pressed close to the adobe, every sense alert and wary. He had to judge to the split second the moment of opportunity. His gun still hung in its scabbard. In his right fist the radiator cap was tightly clenched.
Faint sounds told him that Fenwick’s hands were resting on the top of the adobe, that his toes were scuffing the soft dirt surface as they came up from the ground. The head of the outlaw showed and leaned forward as the body swung to the top and a leg dropped over. The startled eyes of Fenwick met those of the man he hated. Unable either to attack or defend himself, he lay there helpless while Hal’s arm rose and fell. The iron cap crashed against the side of his head.
The force of the blow was deadened by the hat. Fenwick was jarred, but not unconscious. He rolled forward from the wall and grappled with Hal as he went down. The weight of his body dragged Stevens with him. They struggled, their hands searching for grips. Their writhing bodies were so close that neither could reach for a weapon.
Fenwick was as wiry and as muscular as a wildcat. Before Hal could get set, the man had rolled over and was on top. His feet were flung wide to grip the earth for a leverage to hold the advantage. With a mighty heave Hal threw him over toward the wall. The knees of the cattleman clamped against the sides of his foe. He had clung to the radiator cap through the struggle and he smashed it against the distorted face glaring up at him. It struck by chance the vulnerable spot on the chin. Brick’s arms and body relaxed. He fell back, completely out.
Hal heard the slap of running feet. Wall pulled up beside him, gun in hand.
‘You got him!’ he cried. ‘Is he dead?’
‘Just knocked out.’
Tom stared down at the white, still face, then looked at Hal with a cold, fierce urge shining in his eyes. ‘He would be better dead.’ The words fell softly.
‘Yes,’ Hal agreed, but shook his head.
‘He never gave a man a break in his life. If he was where you are and you there, how long would you last?’
There was no chance for argument on that point. Hal looked at his companion, a trace of a grim smile on his lips.
‘All right, Tom,’ he said. ‘You kill him.’
Wall gazed at the lax body and the boyish face. ‘I reckon I can’t do it,’ he answered, anger in his voice.
‘I thought not. We’re under the disadvantage of not being murderers.’
‘How came you to get him? Didn’t he have a gun in his hand?’
‘He had to shove it into its holster while he was climbing the wall. I figured he would have to do that, and I caught him at just the right tick of time.’
Wall thought bitterly, ‘He could just as well have shot him then and saved us both a heap of trouble.’ Hal guessed what he was thinking. ‘Must be a soft streak in me, Tom. I couldn’t do it while he didn’t have his gun out.’ He said it almost as if it were an apology.
The other man nodded. ‘Sure. That same disadvantage. What are you going to do with him?’
‘Take him to Fair Play and turn him over to Elbert.’
‘We’ll have to tie him. There’s a rope in my car.’ Wall started to get it.
‘Better bring your car back here. I’d rather get away without being seen.’
‘All right.’ Wall went to get the car.
The unconscious man stirred. His eyes flickered open, as Stevens was removing his weapon. He digested the situation silently, in his eyes hatred and the fury of defeat.
‘Why don’t you cut loose with that gun?’ he demanded.
Hal did not answer. The young desperado cursed him with deep malignant rage, in a low monotone that spaced the epithets dripping from his thin lips.
Wall drove up in his car and joined them, a rope in his hand. Fenwick fought savagely to keep his hands from being tied behind him. Both of the others were physically more powerful than he, but it was all they could do to rope their prisoner securely. Even after his arms were bound, it was difficult getting him into the automobile.
Tom drove and Hal sat beside Fenwick to watch him. They followed the dirt road through the desert that led to Fair Play, swallowing dust most of the way. The clock in front of a jewelry store registered twelve o’clock as they reached the courthouse square. Sheriff Elbert had to be routed out of bed to receive the prisoner.
‘I’ll fix you both for this,’ Fenwick threatened, with tight-lipped venom as they turned to leave.
As they tramped back to the car, Wall made a sour comment. ‘He’ll do just that, too, if we’re not careful. Black will get him out of jail somehow, and he’ll be raring to get us. The hell of it is that we can’t go gunning for him, but he can for us. The law is quite a protection for criminals, looks like.’
Hal agreed that being a law-abiding citizen carried its penalties.
AS FRAWLEY was driving in to Big Bridge, his car was stopped on the edge of town by Black.
‘Did you find Brick?’ Frawley asked.
‘Yes,’ snapped the ranchman. ‘Found him and lost him again.’
‘What you mean?’
‘What I say. Brick had some kind of run-in with that fellow Wall over a girl. Someone stopped it before they got to shooting. As we were coming out here, Wall and some other man crossed the street. Like the damn fool he is, Brick shut off the switch and got out, hell-bent to go after Wall and get him. I haven’t seen him since. That was more than an hour ago.’
‘What do you think became of him?’
‘How would I know? I heard a shot. Just one. If that spells anything.’
They talked the situation over and decided to wait in Big Bridge till morning, by which time Fenwick would probably show up. Without any more data to go on, it was impossible to know what had happened. Brick might have killed Wall, been recognized by the companion of his victim, and fled to the hills to avoid arrest. Or he might have been killed himself. Wall was a tough nut to crack and might have ambushed the man pursuing him.
They ate next morning at the Barnes restaurant. While waiting for the ham and eggs to be served, Black walked to the cashier’s desk. The young woman making change for a customer was the one Brick Fenwick had been attentive to, and the ranchman thought it possible she might have some information about him. He mentioned that it was a nice day and then put his question.
The steady eyes of the red-headed girl took in with distaste the soiled and dirty hill man. ‘I don’t know where he is, and I don’t care. My only hope about him is that I never see him again.’
Black’s smile was bland and oily. ‘You’ve got that boy wrong, Miss Barnes. I grant you he’s a bit wild and sometimes too impulsive, but he has a kind heart.’
‘I don’t care to discuss him,’ she said, and turned to ring up an eighty-five-cent tab paid by another customer.
The cattleman went back to his table. ‘No soap,’ he told Frawley. ‘She is plenty sore at Brick. Likely the rambunctious fool got fresh with her. I dunno why I put up with that boy.’
Frawley’s splenetic laughter was derisive. ‘You put up with him because he’ll do yore dirty work. What’s the sense in trying to run any flubdub on me? I know you.’
Into the restaurant walked Hal Stevens and Tom Wall. They took a corner table near the kitchen. After they were seated, Tom said in a murmur, ‘Look who is with us.’
Frawley was bristling like a turkey-cock. His face had turned purple with rage. Black said something to him in a low voice. The big man flung out a rough answer loud enough for anybody in the room to hear. ‘I don’t have to keep still, Tick. I’d as lief tell the so-and-so what I think of him, right damn now.’
Manuel brought the bill of fare to the corner table and left it with Hal, who discussed breakfast with Tom and wrote down their choice. He had got as far as orange juice and oatmeal when Helen walked down the aisle to them.
‘I think you’d like the bacon,’ she said, and added in a whisper: ‘Mr. Black asked me where Fenwick is.’
Hal replied, ‘On your recommendation, Miss Barnes, we’ll take the bacon.’ He wrote on the paper below the word oatmeal, ‘Brick is in jail at Fair Play.’
‘How do you like your eggs?’
‘Sunny side up,’ Hal answered. On the breakfast order he scribbled, ‘We trapped him last night.’
‘Coffee, of course?’
‘Without cream for mine,’ Wall replied.
Helen took the order and walked into the kitchen.
At the adjoining table Black had been pouring remonstrances into Frawley’s ear. He rose and stepped back to the one where the M K men sat.
‘I’m a little worried about that boy Fenwick,’ he said. ‘The kid was to have met us here and he hasn’t showed up. I don’t suppose either of you have seen him.’
‘I wouldn’t worry too much about him, Tick,’ Hal replied, eyeing his neighbor from the hills coolly. ‘A fine young fellow like that wouldn’t get into trouble.’
‘He flies off the handle too quickly,’ Black submitted. ‘Like he did the other day with you and young Frank Lovell. I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t lie him. But I’m kinda responsible to his mother for him. His wildness worries me.’
‘Boys will be boys. You must make allowances for high spirits, Tick. Maybe he is a little quick on the trigger, but it is all nice clean fun.’
The hill man slid a quick look at Hal’s innocent face. ‘I thought perhaps you or Wall might have seen him.’
‘You’re too conscientious and get disturbed when there is no need. I’ll bet that right now he isn’t in any mischief at all. Very likely he is studying his Sunday School lesson.’ Hal sprinkled sugar on the oatmeal Manuel had just put in front of him, poured cream in the dish, and started to eat.
Black watched the breakfasters, in doubt as to the value of further conversation. ‘I suppose
‘I’ve been with Hal all night,’ Wall said, wooden-faced. ‘I haven’t seen any more of him than Hal has.’
The oldtimer went back to his table and sat down.
‘Well!’ rasped Frawley. ‘I’ll bet you didn’t find out a thing.’
The ham and eggs had arrived. Black jerked his plate toward him irritably. ‘They’ve got something up their sleeves. They sat there laughing at me, making but they were dead serious.’
‘He’ll laugh on the other side of his mouth before I’m through with him,’ the big ruffian growled.
‘Referring to Stevens, I judge.’ The old man’s sneer was obvious. ‘Better not fool with him, Jim. Even when you have a dead center shot on him, like you had the other morning, all you do is miss. I reckon you had buck fever.’
Frawley thumped on the table angrily. ‘Don’t ride me, Tick. I won’t take it. Not for a minute. How come I to miss was because the sun was in my eyes.’ Even in his rage he kept his voice low.
‘All right. I ain’t riding you. Better luck next time.’
They finished their breakfasts and left. Helen joined her friends quickly. There was nobody else in the room except Manuel, who was removing the used dishes.
‘Tell me about it,’ she said.
‘Brick followed us down an alley,’ Wall explained. ‘And Hal got onto it. We trapped him back of the Tejon house. When he tried to get away over the wall, Hal was waiting there and knocked him out. We turned him over to Sheriff Elbert at Fair Play.’
‘It’s a pity you didn’t kill him,’ Helen said vindictively. ‘That man oughtn’t to be alive.’
‘Right you are,’ Wall agreed. ‘But we couldn’t kill a prisoner who had no gun.’
‘I suppose not.’ She made a gesture of protest. ‘But we’ll all live to be sorry for it.’
Hal and Tom both thought that might be true.
‘Dale Lovell called me up at the house last night,’ Helen said to Stevens. ‘She knew that you were on your way to Casa Rita and wanted to make sure there had not been any trouble in town.’
‘And you told her?’ Hal asked.
‘I told her Brick Fenwick had been here making trouble, but that as far as I knew you had not met him.’
‘She worries too much about what that young ruffian and his friends will do. After all, they are only a few jumps ahead of the law. With Uncle Sam after them, they won’t go far. But I’ll phone her after I reach Casa Rita.’
Helen did not think she worried a bit too much and said so. There were probably a dozen outlaws implicated in these cattle raids. If they were caught, all of them would be given stiff terms in prison, except the ones who would be executed. They were desperate men, and as they saw it their safety lay in rubbing out the man who was drawing the net about them closer. If that was not reason enough to fear them, a more personal one could be added. They hated Stevens for the humiliating defeats he had put upon them, and they included his friends in this.
The red-headed girl looked pointedly at Wall as she finished her little harangue. The hot color was in her cheeks, for she did not want him to think her interest was too great.
His easy smile discounted her alarm. ‘I’ll treat you to a coke at the drugstore on the day these crooks are sent to Alcatraz in irons, and I’ll bring Hal with me. That’s a promise.’ He put a rider on it. ‘Unless Uncle Sam wants me before that time. I hear he is beginning to take cripples into the service.’
Tom had lost two fingers on his right hand when they got caught in a rope with a plunging four-year-old steer at the other end. But he did not regard himself as a cripple even if the draft board did. So far he did not seem to be wanted on land, sea, or in the air. But he still had hopes.
DALE LOVELL had spent a restless night, filled with dreams of sudden death to the man she loved. Helen had told her that Brick Fenwick was in town and that Tom Wall had escaped being shot down only by his presence of mind. Very guardedly Hal Stevens had mentioned over the telephone that he was leaving for Casa Rita to join Arnold. Since the line was a two-party one, it was possible that somebody connected with the Black gang had been listening. That would explain Brick’s presence at Big Bridge. He might be there lying in wait for Hal.
She was up early, spurred by a sudden decision to go to town and make sure there had been no trouble there. With no breakfast except a cup of coffee, she drove down to the valley road and headed for town. The highway followed the course of the river, crossing the stream three times in the first four miles.
The second bridge was a narrow one, with just room enough for two cars to pass. Another automobile was approaching from the other direction, and she waited for it to go by. The driver of it, while still on the bridge, braked swiftly and stopped in the center of the road. He sat there for a moment glaring at her, then got out of the car and lumbered heavily toward her. Early in the morning though it was, Dale could see that Frawley had been drinking. His face was flushed, his eyes glassy.
The other man in the seat called to him, ‘Hold on, Jim,’ and scrambled out after him. He was Tick Black. Much as Dale disliked and distrusted him, she was glad of his presence.
‘Please get out of the middle of the road and let me pass,’ she said, her voice a sharp imperative.
‘I’ll move when I get ready,’ Frawley answered. ‘I haven’t seen my little boss alone since she fired me. It will be nice to chin over old times.’
‘I have nothing to say to you, sir,’ the young woman told him stiffly, a touch of arrogance in tone and manner.
In spite of her fine-lined grace and vivid good looks, this girl reminded Tick Black of her father. Her mouth and chin were firm, and from the dark lovely eyes an indomitable resolution flashed.
‘Don’t get hoity-toity with me, you little devil,’ her former foreman cried. ‘I’ve got plenty to say to you.’
‘Now — now, Jim, go slow,’ cautioned Black. ‘You’re talking to a young lady, not to those killers Stevens and Wall.’
‘I know who I’m talking to — an obstinate bossy shrew who thinks she can run this whole valley. I aim to show her about that.’
He flung open the car door, intending to drag her from the seat. His hand stopped halfway toward her, for she was holding quite steadily, pointed at his big bulging stomach, a small but businesslike revolver. The dark blood poured into his swollen face. The thought was in his mind to brush aside the gun and drag her out, so heady was his rage.
She read his urge and forestalled it. ‘Don’t!’ she ordered, a low and deadly warning in the word.
The anger did not drain out of his face, but there was a whisper of doubt that reached his eyes. She was just vixen enough to shoot him, he thought. He was not drunk enough to risk that. Better talk her out of it before he went any further.
‘You wouldn’t dare shoot,’ he blustered.
Dale did not answer that challenge in words. She let the hard cold glitter in her eyes deny it.
Black caught the arm of the infuriated man and tried to pull him back. ‘Let’s get outa here, Jim,’ he begged. ‘You’re drunk.’
‘Lemme go!’ Frawley cried. ‘I’m gonna show this wench she can’t run over me.’
He tore away from Black’s tight grip, and in doing so threw himself back toward the car. Dale had lowered the gun, thinking the danger of attack past, but as his huge body plunged forward, due to his effort to free himself, her finger tightened on the trigger. The gun was discharged. Frawley fell back a step or two, amazement stamped on his bloated face. A hand caught at his thigh.
‘My God, the little devil has shot me!’ he cried.
A car had rumbled over the bridge and stopped. From it a man descended and ran toward the group. He was Tom Wall. He pushed past the men to join Miss Lovell.
‘I’ve shot him!’ Dale cried, white to the lips. ‘I thought—’ She stopped, appalled at what she had done.
‘Think nothing of it,’ Tom told her coolly. ‘He asked for it, didn’t he?’ Already his quick eyes had read the situation. The car stopped in the middle of the road, the glimpse of the actual shooting he had seen, told him the story. Frawley had been charging toward her when she fired. That would be enough for any court, if the affair ever came to a trial.
Like many men who have never been ill, the big ruffian was very much frightened.
‘I’m bleeding to death!’ he cried. ‘Get me to a doctor.’
‘Let’s take a look at your wound,’ Wall said, and to the girl added a word, ‘Wait here, Miss Lovell.’
The two men supported Frawley to the car he had been driving. They put him in the back seat and examined the wound, which looked to Tom not a serious one.
‘Just ripped a slice of flesh off,’ he said. ‘Hold a handkerchief over it and get to town. A doc will fix you up in two shakes of a cow’s tail.’
‘We don’t want to compromise Miss Lovell,’ Black suggested. ‘Better give it out that Jim shot himself by accident.’
Tom looked at the thin-lipped mouth in the foxlike face of the old man. ‘You’re mighty particular to shield Miss Lovell, aren’t you, Tick?’ he said, with dry irony.
‘We wouldn’t want a story to get out that she is going around shooting folks she don’t like.’
‘That is not quite the story people would tell,’ Tom answered. ‘I saw the shooting. If Frawley had been killed, nobody except himself would have been to blame. But I’ll see how Miss Lovell feels.’
He rejoined Dale.
‘Is it very bad?’ she asked anxiously.
‘Just a scratch, though he is making an awful fuss about it. Black suggests we give out a story that he shot himself. How about that? It might save some talk, though, of course, nobody would blame you.’
‘If they want to tell that story, we need not deny it,’ Dale replied. ‘I’m so glad it isn’t bad. I don’t know how I came to do it. It sort of — happened — when he was jumping at me.’
‘Don’t ever make any apologies, Miss Lovell. He got what was coming to him. Just stand pat and say nothing. Let them think you knew what you were doing.’
‘You mean — that I shot him on purpose?’
‘Yes. When you covered him with the gun, you meant to shoot if he kept coming. Maybe you got a little goosey and shot when it wasn’t necessary. We don’t have to admit you got excited. So far we’ve had the breaks and come out on top in every tussle. That throws a jolt into them. Let ’em think we’re too cold-blooded and smart for their game.’
‘Tell them whatever you like. You are sure the wound isn’t serious?’
‘He’ll be all right in a week.’ Tom sauntered back to the enemy. He reported that Miss Lovell felt this ought to be taken to the sheriff, but, in view of the fact that Frawley had already been punished enough, she had decided to let it go pending good behavior on his part.
Frawley cut in, his voice angry and frightened. ‘Don’t stand jawing here, Tick. Get me to Doc Hinman, damn it.’
Black turned his car and headed for town.
Dale explained that she had been going to Big Bridge because she had heard from Helen that Fenwick was there making trouble. She did not like to do much telephoning because of listeners.
‘All quiet on the Soledad,’ Tom assured her. ‘Brick did have an idea, but it fizzled out. Right now he is enjoying a little well-earned rest as the guest of Sheriff Elbert.’
‘You mean he is in jail!’ she said.
‘Correct.’ Wall gave her an account of the adventures of the previous night, and of the meeting at the restaurant an hour or two ago. ‘Hal was on his way to Casa Rita when I last saw him,’ he concluded.
There did not seem to be any point in continuing the trip to town, Dale thought, since she now had all the information she wanted. Wall drove behind her back to the Seven Up and Down. From there he got in touch with the M K ranch. Since everything was going well there, he decided to accept Dale’s invitation to stay at the bunkhouse with her men for a few days. There might be repercussions from the Frawley shooting, and it would be just as well to be on hand.
Later in the day he telephoned Doctor Hinman and asked him as to Frawley’s condition. ‘I hear he shot himself,’ Tom mentioned. ‘Anything serious?’
Doctor Hinman thought not. The wound was a flesh one. Fortunately, no arteries had been in the path of the bullet.
It was always surprising to him, though by this time he ought to know better than to be astonished, how many men used to weapons accidentally shot themselves. Some day they would give up this fool custom of monkeying with pistols, the doctor fumed.
WHAT RANDOLPH ARNOLD had to tell Hal was nothing more definite than a suspicion. He had been at Phoenix trying to dig up some evidence and had fallen into talk with an oldtime cattleman named Jackson Selkirk in the lobby of the Adams Hotel. Arnold had been interested in his salty reminiscences and they had eaten dinner together. In his tales of the old days, Selkirk had naturally some stories to tell about rustling. Answering a question of the Easterner, he had sketched on the back of an old envelope examples of well-known brands that had been doctored to make quite different ones.
For instance, Goodnight’s J A had become, by the touch of a running iron, D A. The addition of two strokes and a letter transformed the 3 C to B 0 B. Selkirk’s own brand, the S Bar, which on the flank of a cow was S, had been changed to the Box S, burned into the hide
‘There’s still a good deal of cattle-stealing, I’m told,’ Arnold had ventured. ‘Or is this exaggerated?’
‘I dunno. I quit running cattle years ago. Now that the stock is under fence, the rustling is different. They do it with trucks. Cut the wires, load up the stuff, and run it fast clear out of the district.’
‘They don’t have to change the brands then now?’
‘I wouldn’t know about that. If they were going to beef the critters right away, they might not, but if they were going to feed the stuff, they probably would.’ Selkirk cut himself a chew of tobacco and put it in his mouth. ‘Funny thing. I was thinking about that the other day when I was down at Casa Rita. I moseyed round to the Gibson Packing Company, and I saw in the pens some good-looking steers branded . The mind of an old codger like me always runs back to the old days, so I got to figurin’ that a thief could have made that Circle X by touching up the brand of the Seven Up and Down which looks just like a capital Z. ‘Course I don’t mean that was done. I was just letting my mind play tricks.’
Arnold repeated this conversation to Hal Stevens. ‘So I ran over here to see what I could find out. There are no cattle in the pens now with that brand on them. But there is a big warehouse where they keep the hides before they send them to the tannery. Looking at those hides wouldn’t tell me anything, but it might give you information I couldn’t see.’
‘It might,’ Hal agreed. ‘If there are any Circle X hides there, I could probably tell if the brands had been altered recently. The fellow who changes the brand is up against a difficulty. To make it look the same on the surface, he has to burn the hair off the new part of the brand and touch the hide itself quite lightly. Otherwise the more recent burn will look angry. While the animal is on the hoof, that is fine for the thief, but after the steer has been slaughtered, an examination of the hide could show the added scars were different from the original one.’
‘We would have to get into the Gibson warehouse to check up on this,’ Arnold said.
‘Yes. If the manager of the company isn’t in on the steal, all we would have to do would be to ask his permission. If he is sharing in the profits of the rustling, we’d have to get in without his knowledge.’
‘Assuming that some of the hides were taken from Seven Up and Down steers.’
‘First, we ought to find out who owns this Circle X brand. It may be a legitimate outfit nowhere near the Soledad Valley. In that case we can find out from the owner if he recently sold a bunch to the Gibson packers.’
‘How can you locate the owner?’ Arnold asked.
‘All brands have to be recorded at the State House. I’ll phone to Phoenix and find who claims this one.’
Within the hour they knew that the Circle X had been recorded by Edward Mullins of the Rabbit Ear Gorge range. Hal chuckled. Some more of Tick Black’s smooth work. The brand was in the name of a stooge. He would reap the profits, and if by unlucky chance there was trouble, he would slide out and let Mullins take the punishment.
They were still in the dark as to the Gibson Company’s share, if any, in the theft. It might be an entirely innocent buyer. The manager and principal owner of the packing house was Jubal L. Gibson. There had been litigation between him and the widow of his brother, also one of the owners of the company. She was suing him on the ground that he had defrauded her. Hal did not know the right of the case. He had met Jubal L. only once and had not liked him. The head of the packing house was a plump, soft-handed man with a superficial heartiness that failed to give warmth to his cold eyes. But the lack of an engaging personality was not
Hal went to the leading banker in Casa Rita for information. James Hunter had been an Arizona ranger in his youth. From that he had drifted into mining and had made a small fortune in copper. Since Hal had been a small boy, he had known Hunter as a blunt, upright citizen, a wise man with a kindly sense of tolerance.
He greeted Hal and his friend warmly, took them into his private office, and offered cigars.
‘No see you for a long time, son,’ he told Stevens. A smile lit his face. ‘The last time I was fronting for you to keep you out of jail.’
‘I raised a lot of hell when I was a kid,’ Hal admitted. ‘You’ll be glad to know I’m a responsible citizen now.’
‘Then I won’t have to go bail for you this time?’
‘It may come to that,’ Hal said blithely. ‘Ranny and I are probably going in for burglary.’
The banker glanced at Arnold. ‘As a career?’ he asked.
Hal shook his head. ‘No. Arnold is a Government bureaucrat. We’ll try it only once, if at all. But first we would like your advice.’
‘My advice is — don’t.’
‘You can’t give it wisely without knowing the circumstances. The reasons—’
‘I know,’ interrupted Hunter. ‘A starving wife and seven children at home.’ He put a silver half-dollar on the table and pushed it toward Hal. ‘Take that and buy them some oatmeal.’
The cattleman threw up his hands. ‘All right. If you won’t become an accomplice in crime, will you give me some perfectly lawful information?’
‘No promises.’ Hunter looked at him suspiciously. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘If you were going into a business enterprise, would you pick Jubal L. Gibson as a partner?’
That question wiped the smile from the banker’s face. When he spoke, after a few moments of consideration, it was to say, ‘I would accept Mr. Gibson’s check with no misgivings.’
‘Not what I asked you, Mr. Hunter.’ Hal grinned at Arnold. ‘I think it’s time to take Wall Street into our confidence.’
‘Go slow, boy, if this is going to be as bad as it sounds,’ the banker warned.
Hal told briefly the whole story, coming back in the end to the question of Gibson’s integrity.
Hunter blew some fat smoke wreaths before he said anything. ‘Mr. Gibson puts a high value on a dollar,’ was his comment. ‘Maybe too high a value.’ He presently continued, cautiously: ‘There have been some ugly stories told about him. I have never seen any of them entirely confirmed. He takes considerable interest in public affairs. On the whole, he is an influential citizen.’
‘But you wouldn’t trust him any farther than you could throw a bull by the tail,’ Hal said bluntly.
The banker opened up. ‘That’s my position exactly,’ he replied. ‘Jubal L. is at heart a scoundrel.’
‘You think he might be in a deal with Black?’
‘Not unless he felt it was quite safe. For instance, I think he might be satisfied in his mind that some of the stock coming in from Black was stolen, but he would be sure to go through the proper formalities to protect himself.’
‘The point is, we wouldn’t get anywhere if we went to him and asked permission to look the hides over,’ Hal said.
‘Not if he is in with these thieves. You would only be warning him to get rid of the evidence.’
‘That’s what we are afraid of,’ Arnold agreed.
‘So we’ll hold everything and tell you nothing more, Mr. Hunter,’ Hal contributed. ‘We wouldn’t want a leading citizen in jail with us as an accessory before the fact.’
They rose to leave. Hunter had one last word of advice. ‘I don’t
Hal nodded lightly. ‘Important and true.’
As they walked back to the hotel where they were stopping, Hal caught sight of Cash Polk dodging into a cigar shop. When they reached it, they dropped in, too.
Cash said, with bright excitement, ‘Think of you boys being here! I came up on a little business. Starting home pretty soon. You staying long?’
Hal was not sure how long they would stay, but he said it certainly was nice to meet old friends by chance, though he would not give Cash the name of the hotel where they were staying because it was expensive to buy new doors when the boys from home called.
TICK BLACK was not himself with the party that drove to Fair Play for the jail break. He liked to spin the web of his schemes, but he preferred to stay back at the ranch while others executed them. This had several advantages. He avoided the immediate personal danger. In case the plan failed, he could lay the blame on his subordinates. And if there should be trouble with the law, he could be shocked and distressed about what his wild young friends had done.
Since Cash Polk was at Casa Rita watching Arnold, Frawley at the ranch sulkily nursing a wound practically healed, and Brick Fenwick fretting in a cell, Black selected a young man named Bill Nuney to head the rescuers. Nuney was a lank, happy-go-lucky young fellow who had gone bad because in following the line of least resistance it had chanced to take him down the wrong turn. Without an ounce of wickedness in him, the weak strain might in the end bring him to the same destination as much worse men.
He drew up in a quiet street just outside of the better-lighted part of town. With him were Mullins and a Mexican named Carlos Vallejo. He told them to wait in the car until he returned.
Bill wanted to see a man who spent most of his evenings at Hank’s Pool Hall, but he did not care to be observed talking with the man, nor to be identified by anybody as having been here on this particular night. Taking advantage of the darkness, he slipped down a back road to the alley beside the pool hall. Here he waited for ten minutes, on the lookout for a suitable messenger.
A barefoot negro boy passed the mouth of the alley, and Nuney hailed him. ‘Want to make half a dollar, kid?’ he asked.
The boy did. Nuney gave him careful instructions. He was to go into the pool hall and draw Shep Rogers aside, to tell him that a man in the alley had five dollars to give him to do a little job that would not take over an hour. Bill paid the boy and said that, after he had delivered the message, he could go on his way.
A few minutes later, a man came to the alley entrance and peered into the darkness. ‘Someone want to see Shep Rogers?’ he asked.
Bill drew Rogers a bit deeper into the alley. ‘You don’t know me,’ he said. ‘But that doesn’t matter. Here is your five.’
Rogers held the bill in his hand suspiciously. He never did any work and he lived on nothing a year, but it was his experience that five-dollar bills were not so easily come by as this.
‘What you want me to do?’ he demanded.
‘I’ll tell you as we go along. It won’t take half an hour.’
‘You’ll tell me now,’ the loafer differed.
‘You owe John Webster three dollars, don’t you?’
‘What if I do? I ain’t got through borrowing it yet.’
‘I want you to go with me and tell him you’ve come to pay it back. That is all you have to do.’
This did not make sense to Rogers, and he said so. ‘I don’t get this. Who are you? And what difference does it make to you if I never pay John back?’
Bill Nuney saw that he was not getting far on this line. Shep needed more urgent persuasion. He pushed the barrel of a revolver into the man’s belly. ‘Less talk from you,’ he ordered. ‘Just do as I say.’
The eyes of Rogers bulged and his jaw fell. ‘Goddle-mighty, don’t shoot me,’ he gasped. ‘I haven’t got a nickel, mister.’
‘You’ve got five dollars, and there will be five more on top of that if you behave right. You are as safe as an old lady in church. Walk beside me down the alley to the road. Take it easy and don’t try any monkey-shines.’
Bill put the gun under his coat as they started. Rogers mentioned that he had a bad heart and excitement was bad for him. Maybe somebody else could do this job better. Nuney told him that he could do it fine and that his heart did not need to act up because there wasn’t going to be any excitement. ‘You don’t even need to pay the three dollars,’ he added with a grin. ‘Just say you are going to pay it.’
Rogers’s heart had another shock when they reached a car in which two masked men sat. He was invited to get into the back seat, and did so after a mumbled protest. Nuney sat beside him and one of the two in front started the engine. Along back streets the car took a roundabout way to the jail. While going there, Nuney talked into the ear of their unwilling passenger.
All Rogers had to do was to call to the jailer that he had come to pay the three dollars he owed. Webster would be surprised and pleased to get this news and he would come to the door to receive it. Rogers need bear in mind only two things. The first was that if he did not speak in a perfectly natural voice, it would be too bad for him, and the other that he had better forget what any of them looked like since they were a tough bunch of bad
The car was stopped fifty yards from the jail, an old square brick building set well back from the street. The hill men stood close to the building by the door when Rogers called to the jailer. After the third call, Webster came to a window and asked who wanted him. Rogers told who he was and why he had come.
Webster was certainly surprised. ‘Where did you get the three dollars, Shep?’ he asked.
‘I found a wallet with five hundred dollars in it belonging to a dude from Boston. He gave me twenty-five bucks for returning it.’
The jailer knew that there had been two or three tourists from Massachusetts in town. It did not occur to him to doubt the story. He came down wearing slippers, his nightgown thrust into the top of his trousers. As soon as he opened the door and saw the three masked men, he knew he had been trapped.
‘We want Brick Fenwick,’ Nuney told him.
‘Now — now, boys, you can’t do anything like that,’ Webster remonstrated. ‘A little fun is all right, but—’
Mullins pushed a gun into his back. ‘Don’t talk,’ the outlaw snapped. ‘Move along and get yore keys. Stick right here with us, Rogers, till we turn you loose.’
The jailer made one more attempt to dissuade the masked men. ‘I don’t know any of you, but you’re going to get in bad if you pull off a jail break.’
‘Don’t argue,’ Nuney said. ‘Unless you want to be pistol-whipped. Get yore keys and take us to Fenwick’s cell.’
Webster got the bunch of keys and led them upstairs. He opened the outer cell and let the rescuers into it. From the inner cage Brick Fenwick growled at his rescuers.
‘Where the hell you been all this time?’ he demanded. ‘Does Black think he can let me rot in this hole and do nothing about it?’
‘We’re doing something about it, Brick,’ Nuney answered mildly. ‘We didn’t know till this morning you were here. Did you expect us to come in open daylight and bust the calaboose open? You got no kick coming. You haven’t been here forty-eight hours yet.’
‘It seems like forty-eight years,’ Fenwick complained. At Webster he yelped, ‘Hurry up and get that door open, or I’ll break you in two when I get out.’
‘He’s doing his best, Brick,’ expostulated Nuney. ‘Soon as he picks the right key, he’ll get it open.’
The steel door swung open and Fenwick stepped out. He took the key-ring from the jailer and swung the heavy bunch of keys against the man’s forehead. The knees of Webster buckled and he slid down the metal door to the floor.
‘No need of doing that, Brick,’ said Nuney. ‘He treated you all right, didn’t he?’
‘Don’t tell me what I’m to do,’ Fenwick snarled. ‘I do as I please… Fling the fellow into the cell and see how he likes being locked up.’
Mullins and Vallejo picked Webster up by the head and the heels and dropped his unconscious body on the cot inside.
‘What about Rogers?’ Mullins wanted to know.
‘Who is he?’ Brick asked tartly.
‘The fellow we used to get Webster downstairs,’ explained Nuney. ‘I owe him five dollars more. He won’t bother us any.’
Fenwick caught the man by the back of the neck and flung him into the cell with the jailer. He locked the door and made for the stairs. ‘Let’s go!’ he barked.
Bill Nuney stayed long enough to peel another five-dollar bill from his roll. This he pushed between the bars where Rogers could get it.
As the car crossed a bridge on the edge of town, Fenwick reached out of the window and dropped the keys into the stream. Five minutes later he woke up to the fact that they were not on the right road for the Rabbit Ear Gorge country.
‘Where we headin’?’ he questioned.
‘For Casa Rita,’ Nuney told him.
‘No. Black can’t order me around like a slave. I’m going back into the hills.’
‘Better stop the car, Carlos,’ the lank cowboy said, ‘Brick wants to get out.’
‘I don’t either,’ Fenwick denied. ‘Take me home.’
Bill Nuney was fed up with the rescued prisoner’s surliness. Like other men he usually walked around the young killer carefully rather than run the risk of angering him. But Bill was a bold young scamp who did not intend to be trampled upon even by a man with Fenwick’s reputation.
‘I’m not lookin’ for any trouble, Brick,’ he said quietly, ‘but we have our orders and I reckon we’ll carry them out whether you go along or not.’
Carlos unexpectedly backed Nuney up. ‘
‘Is Black at Casa Rita?’ Fenwick inquired sourly.
‘No,’ Nuney replied. ‘Cash is there.’
Bill shook his head. ‘Jim is at the ranch nursing his wound. He acts like a Jap rifle had ripped him to pieces.’
‘What wound? Did that wolf Stevens get him?’
There was subdued mirth in Nuney’s voice as he gave information. ‘The little lady who used to be his boss put a pill in him for not remembering how to treat a lady. It punctured his laig and Jim is an interesting invalid, you might say. Doc Hinman figures that with careful nursing he’ll continue to cumber the earth.’
‘Was he shot bad?’
‘Hell, no! But to listen to Jim, you’d think we had better be ordering his coffin. He squawks plenty.’
Carlos came back to the question that had been raised. ‘Do I turn the car and go back to let Mr. Fenwick out?’ he asked.
‘I’ll go to Casa Rita,’ Brick decided. ‘But if I don’t like the layout, I won’t lift a hand. I’m tired of playing Tick Black’s game for him. He sits up there in the hills getting richer every year and the guys that have done his dirty work are either dead or broke. Me, I’m getting sick of it.’
Mullins was by nature a malcontent. ‘That’s sure enough so, Brick. We run the risk and he rakes in the dough.’
‘Not all of it,’ Nuney mentioned. ‘On this deal there is a cut-in for us.’
‘What is the deal?’ Fenwick asked sullenly. ‘I’m not reaching in to pull something sight unseen out of a grab bag.’
‘Some dude beef is coming into Casa Rita tonight. From the J Bar outfit. We’re to receive it and do some branding.’
‘In the draw above the Montoyo Flats.’
‘And after we have done that?’
‘Why, I reckon we beat it back to the hills.’
Brick’s jeering laughter was offensive. ‘You’re certainly easy, Bill.’
‘Ever hear of a fellow called Arnold, who claims he is a tenderfoot with t.b. and rides for Stevens? Well, Tick thinks he is a Government man checking up on a black market. Soon as we have done the branding, Cash will drop it gently to us that Arnold is to be bumped off. Of course that’s a nice easy job, not half as hard as touching up the J Bar brand. You won’t mind it a bit, Bill.’
‘I won’t have a thing to do with it,’ Nuney said bluntly. ‘I’m no killer.’
The shallow, hooded eyes of Fenwick fastened on him. ‘You’re too soft for this business. It takes a man with sand in his craw. I suppose yore idea would be to sit around and do nothing while this fellow gathers evidence to send you to the pen.’
Nuney flushed angrily. ‘Maybe I’m not so soft as you think, Brick. Anyhow, I’m going to have a chance to toughen up. In a few days I’ll be in the Marines. What killing I do will be on the level and for Uncle Sam.’
‘That’s nice,’ Fenwick retorted with gentle malice. ‘Bill is going to be a hero, boys.’
Nuney glared at him, but did not answer.
LIKE OTHER Arizona packing plants the Gibson Company had recently cut down from three shifts to one, pending a Government adjustment of prices. The packers claimed they could not operate without loss when there was a ceiling on their product, but none on livestock. This was one of the many inevitable tangles that had to be straightened out by the agencies trying to keep living costs from getting too high.
Since the demand for meat was great, Stevens could understand how an unscrupulous operator like Jubal L. Gibson would welcome an illicit supply of beef on the hoof without inquiring too carefully from where it came. No doubt he safeguarded himself by requiring proof of ownership, though the low price of the stuff he bought from Black’s dummies must make him aware of crookedness.
Both Stevens and Arnold were convinced that an examination of the packing plant’s books would show no evidence of guilt. The checks paid would be normal. Refunds by Black in cash would go into Gibson’s own pocket and no entry of this would appear in the books. Proof of theft must be made by an examination of the hides. Since the last raid had been nearly two weeks ago, it was very likely that the hides had already been shipped to a tannery. But there was a chance that some of them were still in the company warehouse. If it was possible, they meant to get into the building and find out.
The job of getting into the warehouse must be done by forcible entry while the night watchman was in some other part of the plant. If caught, they would face a charge of burglary.
During the day they made the acquaintance of a workman who had been employed on the graveyard shift while the company was operating at full capacity. He was quite willing to drink a couple of free beers with two amiable strangers, and from him they pumped information he did not suspect was of any importance to them. Before parting company with him, they had a mental map of the physical plant and knew the routine habits of the night watchman.
It was after midnight when they walked cut of their hotel and got into the car Hal had left parked against the curb near the side entrance. As Hal drove down the main street, a sedan pulled up to the sidewalk in front of them. Out of it stepped four men. Two of them Hal did not know, but the others were Fenwick and Mullins. Cash Polk emerged from the shadowy alley to meet them.
Hal kept going, hoping they would not be noticed and recognized. To his companion he said, ‘Brick Fenwick in that car.’
Arnold’s gaze was glued to the men on the sidewalk. ‘I saw him. They didn’t even look at us.’
‘That’s a break. We’ll have to decide what is best to do?’
Hal swung round the next corner and halfway down the block stopped under a cottonwood in a vacant lot.
‘Do you think Black sent them to kill us?’ Arnold asked.
‘I left Brick Fenwick under Sheriff Elbert’s charge, as I told you. Black must have got him out somehow. Perhaps he gave bond. Brick is boiling mad at me, and of course Cash has been in touch with Black. They did not come here to blow their money. This town doesn’t offer entertainment enough. One of two reasons brought them — either to rub us out, or to take care of a bunch of beef stuff due to arrive.’
‘Or to do both,’ Arnold suggested.
They agreed that whatever the rustlers had come to do would be taken care of before morning. Black was too wily an old bird to have so many of his men hanging around any longer than necessary. The best plan seemed to be to keep an eye on the hill men. Soon the object of their coming would develop. If they had in mind murder, Arnold and Stevens would try to get out of their way and avoid a clash. But if cattle were being delivered from another raid, this might be a good opportunity to gather evidence.
They drove around the block and stopped opposite the side entrance of the hotel. Arnold scouted the Black party while Hal remained in the car.
From the corner Arnold saw the automobile of the cattle thieves still standing where they had seen it stop. Several of the men were grouped beside it, possibly talking over plans. Four men got into the car. It started down the street toward the hotel.
Arnold ran back to Hal. ‘They’re coming this way,’ he warned.
The two men waited, nerves tense. Polk might have told his confederates where Arnold and Stevens were staying and this might be the attack. As the sedan passed the street intersection without stopping, Hal drew a breath of relief. Apparently the rustlers were not just now after them.
After a few moments he started the car, without putting on the lights. They swung in back of the hill men, staying well in the rear. The lights of the sedan guided them.
‘Looks as if they were going back home,’ Arnold said.
If so, the reason for their coming to Casa Rita was not clear. There would be no sense in driving forty miles, and after a five minute’s stay heading for the place from which they had just come.
The road dipped down from the mesa to the desert stretch known as the Montoyo Flats. The moon was out, and it shone on a hillside of sahuaro to the right of them, the giant cactus looking like monuments in a ghostly graveyard. They passed this and came to the undulating floor of the valley.
‘Blackout,’ Hal said. ‘We must be getting warm.’ He stopped the car.
The lights of the sedan had gone out. They listened. Presently the light night breeze carried to them the faint sound of wheels moving.
‘They are leaving the road,’ Arnold remarked.
‘You tell me.’
To them there came the bawling of a steer.
Hal said, ‘Listen.’ The bellow reached them again. ‘This is where we cache the car and foot it,’ Hal decided, and swung the wheel sharply into the cholla growth beside the road. Somewhere in front of them, not far distant, was the rendezvous of the thieves.
‘They must have pulled off another raid,’ Hal guessed. ‘If we are lucky, we may get the evidence we want right now.’
‘And if we are unlucky?’ Arnold asked dryly.
‘If we are too unlucky Tick Black will sleep easier,’ his friend answered. ‘But I don’t expect it to be that way.’
They did not return to the road, but worked their way through the cactus growth toward the bawling of the restless steers. Hal was in the lead, because he knew this outdoor life better than his companion. He moved slowly, careful to avoid stepping on any dry growth that would crackle beneath his feet. That they were too far from the scene of activity to be heard he knew, but it was possible that the rustlers had put out sentries to protect them from discovery.
The ground fell away in front of them. It was not light enough to see clearly, but Hal guessed this was the rim of a draw running down into Montoyo Flats. Judging by the noise made by the stock, the outlaws must be at work several hundred yards farther from the road. This was reasonable, since they would not want to be too near anybody traveling to or from Casa Rita.
Hal turned to the left, well back from the arroyo rim to escape likelihood of being seen. He whispered into Arnold’s ear a warning against speaking or making any sound as he crept forward. They might stumble into a watcher at any time.
The bellowing of the stock was louder. A man’s voice drifted to them. Stevens went down to his hands and knees, and Arnold followed suit. They edged toward the draw, taking advantage of every clump of greasewood or cactus that offered concealment. Hal scanned every dark mass as he hitched his body into greater danger. At times he lay crouched for several minutes without moving. He had to be sure that what looked like a bush was not a sitting man.
Smoke tickled his nostrils, and there was a slight luminosity in the atmosphere. Somebody had lit a fire. The moon was obscured by scudding clouds, but, when Stevens and Arnold looked into the draw from back of a heavy screen of vegetation, there was sufficient light to make out the dark forms of men against the background of the fire and the shapes of several trucks.
The night raiders had made coffee. One of them was pouring it into the cups held by others. Two or three were lounging on the ground at ease. The small glow from their cigarettes went on and off like fireflies in the night. The watchers could hear voices, though the distance was too far to understand what was said.
Hal could not see the branding irons, but he knew they were being heated to change the marks of ownership on the cattle in the trucks. He was pretty sure the steers had been stolen from some pasture in the Soledad Valley. There was a chance that they belonged to him.
‘Could we get closer, so as to identify some of them?’ Arnold whispered in the ear of his friend.
Hal shook his head. ‘Too big a risk. We’ll do better playing it safe.’
The cattleman knew from a dozen experiences this indolent ten minutes while the irons were heating before branding began. A man strolled to the fire and with a long rod raked the coals around the irons. A wave of laughter followed a remark one of the group had evidently made. Occasionally some unseen animal stretched out its head and mooed plaintively.
From a truck a roped steer was dragged down a landing ladder. Lariats snaked out and caught its feet. Taken by surprise, it fell heavily. A man sat on its head. Others drew the ropes tight. An expert applied the branding iron, careful to make sure the burn was enough and no more. It scrambled to its feet, dazed and bewildered, to be pushed and prodded up the ladder into the truck. Presently another bawling steer took the place of the first. The branding went on for hours. Even from the distance where the two watchers lay, the acrid smell of burnt hair and flesh could be savored.
When the job was done, the trucks drove away, followed by the sedan. Stevens and Arnold had not waited till the branding was finished. They had slipped away to the road and were lying behind some prickly pears when the procession passed on the way to town. The moon was under cover again as the trucks rolled by, so that it was not possible to recognize the drivers. But it slid out from a cloud before the sedan appeared. Hal did not know the man at the wheel, nor could he identify the two in the dark rear seat. But the other rider in the front seat was Brick Fenwick.
HAL KNEW it was not necessary for them to follow the trucks closely. They would be unloaded at the packinghouse pens. As a precaution, since the thieves knew Stevens and his guest were in town, a guard of at least two men would be left with them until morning. Gibson would take no chances. This new shipment would be butchered and the hides disposed of at once. The situation boiled down to this, that any proof of brand-blotting obtained would have to be got during the night.
The difficulty of getting evidence was increased by the fact that if the outlaws caught sight of them anywhere, a battle would almost certainly be precipitated. They could not shoot down the guards left at the stockyards nor could they make an investigation in their presence.
‘Looks as though we are stymied,’ Arnold conceded.
‘Yes,’ Hal agreed. ‘We’ll have to be lucky to hole out.’ He added with a grin: ‘We’re too blamed lawful in our lawlessness.’
They decided that their best chance was to go down to the pens and hang around watching for an opportunity. The bandits might make a mistake. Five minutes inside the corral would be long enough if they were not interrupted.
Hal slipped down with a torch into the basement of the hotel to find a weapon necessary for the job. He discovered one in the furnace room, an axe used for splitting firewood and kindling.
Since there was a chance that the enemy might be watching their car, they decided to go to the packing house on foot. By way of the service entrance they slipped from the building into the alley back of the hotel, then cut across a vacant lot, which brought them to a narrow, unpaved road running parallel with the main one. Along this they trudged for nearly a mile before coming to the back fence of the Gibson plant. The sky had cleared, but the moon was down. They would have to be careful to avoid being seen.
Hal scouted the terrain, leaving his companion in the brush that grew thick almost to the fence. Owing to the limited activity of the company, most of the pens were empty. Those occupied were the ones close to the building. Hugging a fence, he drew near to an enclosure in which steers were moving about restlessly, protesting by uneasy bellows the indignity they had suffered. He felt sure these must be part of the consignment just trucked to the yards, because just before dark he had circled the pens and all but one had been empty.
Somebody in an adjoining corral grumbled a complaint to another unseen guard. ‘Why do we have to draw this damned graveyard shift, Bill?’ he wanted to know sulkily. Hal thought the voice was that of Mullins. He could vaguely see the man sitting on the fence.
From another pen a man answered, cheerfully enough. ‘Someone has to do it, Ed. It’s past three o’clock now. You can sit in the back seat on the way home and snooze.’
‘I notice Brick ain’t taking a turn.’
‘Brick is sore about being dragged to jail. He’ll get over it. No use stirring him up. It would only raise a rumpus.’
‘And what makes you think we’ll be headin’ for home in the morning? Cash good as said there was another job to do.’
‘Not for me,’ Bill answered. ‘If it’s the one Brick was talking about, I’m out.’
The nearer man struck a match to light a cigarette. Back of the cupped hand shielding the flame Hal recognized the face of Mullins.
Hal edged back, in the shadow of the fence, at first slowly, later with more speed. He rejoined Arnold and told him what he had found out. ‘If they were in the same pen we might hold them up,’ he concluded. ‘But it isn’t likely we could take both of them by surprise.’
‘No.’ Arnold offered a suggestion. ‘If we could get close enough to cover one and keep him from yelling to the other, we might make him call the other.’
‘Might be done,’ Hal assented. ‘The second man would hear our voices, but if his pal was scared enough, we could make him say we were some of the gang.’
‘And if he didn’t scare but started shooting?’
Hal thought that out. ‘Mullins isn’t very game, Ranny. He’ll scare. Point is, can we stop him before he lets out a yell?’
‘There’s only one way to find out,’ Arnold said with a wry grin. ‘I don’t like this. It’s a long shot. But we’ll have to take it.’
‘Yes. If I can get near enough before he sees me, the surprise might hold him.’
They worked back toward the pen where Mullins had been. The gray light of dawn was beginning to sift into the sky, but it had not yet scattered the darkness below. Yet Hal knew their time was running out. What they had to do must be done quickly. It had been arranged that Arnold would hang back and let Hal attempt the hold-up alone. If it was successful, he would at once pile over the fence and assist with the second guard.
Hal crept forward, close to the ground. He circled the fence of the corral where Mullins sat on the top rail, his back to the approaching man. There was a rifle across the guard’s knees. He put it down against a post to light another cigarette. The match had just flared when a voice not four feet away sent a shiver of fear down his spine.
‘Make a sound, Mullins, and I’ll pump lead into you,’ it whispered.
The match went out. Mullins opened his mouth to yell and clapped a hand over it to stop himself.
‘Slide down on this side of the fence,’ Hal ordered.
Mullins swung his legs over and came to the ground. He was trembling violently. ‘Don’t shoot,’ he begged.
A second man had joined his captor. Mullins’s frightened eyes shifted to Arnold and back to Stevens. The stomach muscles of the rustler had gone lax from fright.
The man in the other pen had heard shuffling movements and looked across. Where there had been one man there were now three.
‘Who is it, Ed?’ he cried. ‘Is everything all right?’
Hal was afraid the shaky voice of Mullins would give them away. He decided to do the talking himself. A good mimic, his slow drawl was an excellent imitation of Polk.
‘It’s Cash, Bill. Something unexpected has broke. Come over and I’ll explain.’
Whatever suspicion had been in Bill’s mind vanished when he heard the voice of Polk. He came across an empty pen to join them. While he was astride the fence, both hands on the top rail, the sharp summons came to stay there and let his ringers remain exactly where they were. A gun covered him not three feet from his belly. Bill Nuney was a game man, but he knew when not to fight. Before it would be possible for him to draw, this man could pour bullet after bullet into him.
‘All right,’ Nuney said quietly. ‘What’s yore game?’
‘Come down,’ Hal ordered, ‘leaving your hands on the rail.’
Bill came down and Arnold disarmed him. Nuney knew Stevens by sight, though Hal did not remember having seen him before. The young rustler looked the cattleman over hardily. ‘When I saw a guy standing back of Ed, I might have known it would be you,’ he said disgustedly. ‘You certainly enjoy buttin’ in where you’re not wanted.’
Hal liked the young scamp’s audacity. Moreover, unless he had misunderstood the talk he had overheard, Bill had served notice to Mullins that murder was not his game and he would have nothing to do with it.
‘I’m an annoying character,’ Hal admitted. ‘But we won’t have time to go into that tonight. Ranny, if you’ll ride herd on the gentlemen, I’ll get busy. Better have them sit down against the fence so that they won’t be tempted to try suicide by jumping you.’
Hal got the axe he had brought with him, climbed the fence, and watched his chance. As the cattle milled past him, he selected a steer and swung the butt of the axe against its forehead. The animal went down almost at his feet, dead before it struck the ground. The rest of the stock, excited by the smell of blood, rushed around wildly for a minute.
‘Look out they don’t trample you,’ Arnold called to him.
‘They’ll quiet in a minute and huddle in the other side of the corral,’ Hal said.
Already he had his knife out and was on his knees. He cut a circle through the hide around the brand and ripped off the enclosed skin. This he rammed into his pocket. In another minute he was outside of the pen with the other men.
From where he sat in the dust, Nuney looked up at him. ‘Smart as a new whip, aren’t you? Maybe too smart. I know some fellows who aren’t going to take this well. If I were you I’d hire about six bodyguards.’
‘Thanks,’ answered Hal. ‘And while free advice is going, let me give some, Bill. Better get out of this part of the country and lose yourself while there is still time. The rustling game here is played out. It’s the penitentiary for you if you stick around.’
‘If I get you right, you’re not putting us in the calaboose tonight then,’ Nuney said.
‘Not tonight. Too busy. You can drift as soon as you like, but we’ll keep your weapons.’
Nuney rose and dusted his trousers. ‘You’d be surprised, Mr. Stevens,’ he said lightly, ‘but maybe you have made an honest man of me. I don’t like the way this thing is developing. I’m no killer, and sure as God made little apples you are marked for death unless you watch yore step. Your advice is good medicine — and so is mine.’
‘You talk too much,’ Mullins growled. ‘Let’s beat it.’
‘Have you a car down here?’ Arnold asked.
‘No,’ Nuney replied. ‘They were going to pick us up.’
‘Wait here till we have gone, and don’t hurry to catch up with us,’ the Government man ordered.
‘Suits me,’ Nuney said. ‘Our shift isn’t over anyhow.’ He laughed wryly. ‘We’re going to have a hell of a story to tell the boys.’
As Hal and Ranny walked back to town, they decided it would be better not to try to reach their car. They could telephone to the hotel later to take care of it. James Hunter lived in a hill suburb north of town. He had two cars and would probably lend them the small one. They must leave as soon as they could, for when Brick Fenwick heard what had occurred at the Gibson yards he would not lose a moment.
JAMES HUNTER led the way into the living-room of his house and turned on his tormentors. He was in pajamas and dressing-gown, and sleep was not yet wholly rubbed out of his eyes. A solid man, square-shouldered and well-set-up, even under the present unfavorable circumstances he retained a certain dignity and poise.
‘Now what do you want?’ he demanded. ‘Your story has to be good after waking me up in the middle of the night.’
‘We want to borrow yore car for a joyride,’ Hal told him, eyes twinkling impudently.
‘What for?’ he snapped. ‘You have a car of your own.’
‘We have and we haven’t,’ the cattleman explained. ‘Our idea is that four or five men with guns are hanging around it waiting for us.’
‘What have you been up to — that burglary you were hinting about?’
‘We took your advice and dropped that idea.’ Hal grinned. ‘All they can send you to jail for is being accessory to a hold-up after the fact. Probably you won’t get more than a couple of years if you throw yourself on the mercy of the court.’
‘Stop talking in riddles and spill your story,’ the banker ordered.
Hal told him briefly the tale of the night’s adventures. The comment of Hunter was tart. ‘After the Lord made you, I hope he broke the mold. I’ve seen a lot of hella-milers in my time, but you take the cake.’
This criticism did not quite express Hunter’s real feeling. He had spent an adventurous youth, and young Stevens carried him back to the carefree days when he had lived in the open and spent months in the hills on the trail of horse thieves and bandits. As a solid citizen it was his duty to disapprove of his friend’s audacious methods of countering crime. Arizona was a civilized state, and this reversion to the wild days of its territorial status was outdated. Yet he felt a queer lift at being dragged even into the outskirts of such jeopardy. Vicariously at least he could experience for an hour the old untamed frontier license.
‘I’m a Government officer,’ Arnold reminded their host.
‘And you know very well that Washington would repudiate such high-handed ways of getting evidence if it turned out these men you held up were not guilty.’
Hal pulled from his pocket the strip of hide he had skinned from the dead steer. ‘We haven’t had time to examine our evidence yet,’ he said. ‘Maybe we have been holding up good honest citizens and are headed for the penitentiary.’
From another pocket he took a magnifying glass. The bit of hide he put on a table with a newspaper under it. He scanned deliberately both the hairy and the inner sides of the hide patch they had risked their lives to get, after which he handed the glass to Arnold. Ranny took a long look, and so in turn did the banker.
‘The brand has been doctored, I think,’ Hunter said at last, ‘but I don’t know whether a jury would accept that as proved.’
‘It would after it had looked at magnified photographic charts,’ Hal said confidently. ‘The difference between the old marking and the new would show very clearly.’
‘Whose brand is this 0 B in a Box?’ Hunter asked.
‘We’ll find that out tomorrow, but I’ll give you ten to one that it is registered in the name of one of Black’s gang,’ Hal replied. ‘The original brand is a J Bar. It belongs to an Easterner named Walsh who bought out an oldtimer last year.’
He took the magnifying glass a second time and inspected the markings on the hide. His trained eye saw clearly that the J of the first branding had cut deeper into the hide than the which had been added to make the new brand .
Hunter said abruptly, ‘I think you boys had better get into that sport car of mine and light out of here before these fellows find you.’
‘That’s in perfect agreement with our wishes,’ Arnold replied.
‘You know too much for your own safety. They dare not rest now until they have stopped you from talking.’
‘If you will take care of Exhibit A, we’ll leave it with you,’ Hal said, indicating the strip of hide. ‘It will be safer in a deposit box in your bank vault than with us.’
‘I’ll take care of it,’ Hunter promised. ‘Now get going as soon as I have given you the car keys — and don’t stop until you have plenty of friends around you.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Hal promised meekly.
‘No more damn foolishness. You have your evidence now, and it isn’t worth a nickel if you let these scoundrels shoot you down.’
Hunter watched them drive away. He liked this cool young ranchman who had the gift of taking danger in his stride, and with it the aplomb to shrug off the experience as all in the day’s work.
As he was walking along the upstairs hall to his bedroom, a girl of about nineteen poked her head out of a door he was passing. ‘For Pete’s sake, who were they and what did they want in the middle of the night?’ she demanded.
‘Go to bed, young woman,’ her father told her. ‘Their business was very private.’
‘Is that so?’ she retorted saucily and somewhat sleepily. ‘And it’s none of my business, of course, even though I saw them driving away in my car.’
‘If you’ll look up the records at the courthouse you’ll find it isn’t your car,’ he said, and continued to his room.
‘It’s practically mine,’ she flung after him. ‘And I can tell you one thing. They won’t get far. The tank registered empty last night, and I didn’t have my coupons with me.’
Hunter was just closing his door, but he jerked it open fast. ‘What’s that — no gas in the car?’
‘Not a pint. But of course they can get it filled — if they happen to notice. I hope they stall two miles from a filling station. Serve them right for having the nerve to wake us up at this hour.’ She yawned, stretched, gave him a mocking ‘Good night, darling,’ and went back to bed. Her tousled head had scarcely hit the pillow before she was again asleep.
But the information she had tossed off so airily interfered effectually with any more sleep for her father. Instead of having helped young Stevens and his friend, he had increased their danger by giving them a car they could not use. Even if they discovered at once that the tank was empty, they could not get it filled at this time of day.
THE NEWS CARRIED by the two night guards to their companions brought them out of their beds and into a huddle. This was disturbing information. Their foes had outwitted them and obtained evidence the rustlers had trucked fifty miles to put in their possession.
‘So you handed over yore guns like a pair of lambs and let them skin the brand off one of the critters,’ jeered Fenwick.
‘That’s right,’ agreed Nuney. ‘We sat there with a six-shooter at our heads and liked it.’ He added gently, ‘The way you did when Stevens took you to the calaboose.’
Fenwick glared at him. ‘Don’t get funny with me, fellow,’ he warned, the words coming from between set teeth.
‘Now, boys,’ interrupted Cash Polk, ‘let’s not fuss about what can’t be helped.’ He picked up a rifle from the corner and gave it to Nuney. ‘You may be needing this.’
‘No two-bit cowpuncher can ride me and get away with it,’ Fenwick growled.
‘Bill wouldn’t try it,’ Cash said. ‘Let’s get down to brass tacks. First off, these fellows can’t get out of town because Chad ripped the wires loose under the hood of their car. But they will come back to sneak the car away, and we had better be there to see they don’t.’
‘Chad is down there watching. He’ll let us know if they come.’ A little man usually called Doc made the suggestion.
‘Two more of you boys had better go help Chad.’ Polk looked around and selected Nuney and Doc. ‘Make sure if they come they stay,’ he concluded softly, his beady black eyes shuttling from one to the other.
‘Just what do you mean by that?’ Nuney asked.
‘He means to fill them full of lead — before they take yore gun away from you again,’ sneered Brick.
‘Nothing doing,’ answered Nuney bluntly, his steady gaze on Fenwick. ‘I’m no killer. In a fair fight I’ll take my chance, but—’
Brick interrupted with a bitter curse. ‘Can’t you get it through yore thick head, you numskull, that they’re fixing to put us all in the pen? We’ve got to blot them out — and quick.’
Nuney shook his head obstinately. ‘Count me out. I won’t do it.’
‘It’s got to be that way, Bill,’ Cash said, in a voice that was almost pleading. ‘I don’t like it any more than you do. But we’ve got to stick together. These fellows butted in and asked for it. What else can we do?’ He answered his own question. ‘Not a thing. It’s neck meat or nothing. Either these two fellows go, or the whole caboodle of us get sent up for long terms.’
A big bull-necked fellow with buck teeth rose from the bed on which he was sitting. ‘Hell, we got no time to chew the fat. I’m not so choosy. I’ll go with Doc’ He pulled up halfway across the room, stung by suspicion. ‘Why don’t we all go? Do you fellows aim to sit here on yore fannies while we do the dirty work?’
‘We’ve got to guard both roads out of town, and we have no time to lose, like Buck says.’ The eyes of Polk took a quick census. There were seven of them in the room — Mullins, Fenwick, Buck, Nuney, Doc, Carlos Vallejo, and himself. The truck drivers had headed for home to have their vehicles out of the danger zone before morning. Chad made the eighth. Cash appointed Brick and Mullins to hold the road at the north end of town, while he and Nuney took the south exit. Vallejo, Buck, Doc, and Chad would cover the district in the heart of town near Stevens’s car.
‘You picked yoreself a soft spot, Cash,’ taunted Fenwick. ‘Those fellows won’t try to go south, and you know it. But what’s the use of gassing? Let’s go get ’em.’ He stopped in front of Nuney. ‘I’ll see you later, Mr. Quitter. There can’t anybody throw me down and get away with it.’
‘I’ll be waiting at the gate, Brick,’ promised Nuney. ‘Just tell me where and when,’
They scattered in front of their hotel to cover the assignments allotted them. Carlos walked beside Nuney, of whom he was very fond. Jim had once saved him from a beating at the hands of a big drunken teamster.
‘Are you going through with this, Jim?’ the Mexican asked in a low voice.
‘I don’t know.’ Nuney was troubled. This was what came of taking the first wrong step. He had not expected to be called on to do murder. Yet how could he escape it without throwing down his companions? ‘I wish to God I had never let myself into a jam like this.’
‘Maybe it will work out okey,’ Carlos said. ‘Some of the others may see them first.’
Nuney shook his head. ‘We’re all in it, no matter who fires the shots. Unless—’
‘Vamonos,’ murmured Carlos. ‘Muy pronto.’
Their eyes met. ‘When we reach the alley,’ Nuney said.
The man Chad came forward to meet them from the alley entrance where he had been lurking. ‘What’s cooking?’ he asked.
Polk explained to him what had occurred at the Gibson pens and the decision to which they had come. Chad was a bulky man with a brutal face in which small pale eyes were set too close. Jim Nuney thought that it would not disturb him to do murder if it served his interest.
‘If they came back to town from the packing plant, they must still be here,’ Chad said. ‘And if they are, we finish this business tonight. Me, I do not like prison. I was in one two years. That is enough. Let us stop the clock of these meddlesome fools.’
‘Afraid we must,’ Polk agreed, with his usual apparent reluctance. ‘We’d better be going, Jim.’
‘I told you I wasn’t in this, Cash,’ Nuney said. ‘That still goes.’
‘But you can’t desert now.’ Polk’s voice was shrill with anxiety. He did not like the job set him. A cold, sinking feeling had settled in his stomach. ‘We’re trapped and have to fight our way out, every last one of us.’
‘Carlos and I don’t go for murder, and that is what this is,’ Nuney answered. ‘This is where we beat it.’
‘Not on yore life, you rat!’ Chad cried. ‘You’ll stay with us, dead or alive.’
His revolver jumped out, a fraction of a second before the rifle of Nuney. Swiftly Polk’s hands closed on the hairy wrist of Chad. ‘For God’s sake, don’t!’ he screamed, flinging his weight on the man’s arm to push it down. ‘We’ll settle this later. Just now we’ve got to get Stevens.’
Carlos stood beside his friend, an automatic in his fingers. ‘
‘We’re not going to rat on you,’ Nuney explained. ‘We’re getting out of the country. What’s the sense of getting deeper into trouble? It would be smart for all of you to take it on the lam for Mexico.’
Polk was still struggling to hold the wrist of Chad when Nuney and Carlos backed into the alley and ran.
AS HAL DROVE down the hill from the Hunter place, Arnold gave an exclamation of annoyance.
‘I left the rifle we took from Mullins standing in the hall,’ he said. ‘Clean forgot it when we went to the garage the back way.’
‘Hope we won’t need it, Ranny,’ his friend said. ‘What I crave is peace and plenty of it. My idea of heaven just now is a round-the-clock sleep in a comfortable bed.’
They had decided to head north for Tucson, but abruptly Hal changed his mind. Just before he struck the main highway, he caught sight of two men ducking from the pavement to cover back of some bushes on a lawn. Hal swung the wheel to the right and headed in the opposite direction. One of the men was Brick Fenwick.
A bullet struck a back wheel fender and caromed off to lodge in the trunk of a cottonwood. A second missed Arnold’s neck by inches.
‘Get your head down,’ Hal snapped.
‘They must have men posted ahead of us,’ Arnold said. ‘Do we give her the gas and try to run the gantlet?’
On each side of them was a solid block of stores. At the next intersection they could turn right or left and get off the main business street. But if they did this, the road would not take them out of town, since it ran only through the residence district.
Already they could see men racing toward them. Arnold became aware that the car was losing speed rapidly.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.
‘Engine not getting any gas.’ Hal glanced at the register. ‘Tank empty.’
He cut to the left and jammed on the hand brake. They flung themselves out of the car and ran down the side street. Halfway down the block were some lots filled with used automobiles. Arnold bolted through the gate to find cover. An old sedan carried a sign chalked on its windshield,’ For Sale, $250.’ He tried to wrench open the door, but found it locked. They crouched between two lumbering limousines of ancient vintage.
The lots were enclosed by high adobe walls on three sides. A plank fence was the front boundary. Back of the rear wall stood a rooming house which faced the adjoining street. One glance showed that there was no exit except the one through which they had come.
‘This looks like one of the better mouse traps,’ Hal drawled. ‘I hope too many men won’t beat a path to the door this morning.’
It was odd, Arnold thought later, that with danger pressing so closely there should jump to his mind a memory of old football games when Hal would drop whimsical remarks as he was being dragged up from the mud with the ball after half the opposing team had tackled him.
By craning forward, Hal could see four or five men gathered around the car at the intersection. Raised voices came to him.
‘They ran down this street!’ one cried.
‘No time for them to reach the next corner,’ another answered. ‘They must be in the used car lot.’
There was the slap of running feet. Another man joined the group.
‘We’ve got ’em cornered,’ the first speaker told him. ‘They can’t get away.’
A derisive laugh followed. Fenwick, Hal guessed. A moment later he knew he was right. ‘If you’ve got them sewed up so nice, go in and collect them, Ed,’ his gibing voice suggested.
The sound of the hill men’s voices died down. The concealed men could see them in a huddle, too far away for a revolver to carry accurately. Two men separated from the group and disappeared behind the store buildings. Another left, to go in the opposite direction. The enemy was surrounding them. Polk was probably sending riflemen into the alley opposite the lots. He might have thought, too, of the rooming house, from the upper windows of which the victims could be picked off neatly. Just now there was no indiscriminate firing. No doubt Cash did not want to arouse the town until it was too late for rescuers to save the trapped men. Since he was cautious and sly rather than bold, he would want to finish the job and get away without being recognized.
‘We might make a dash across the road for the alley,’ Arnold said,’ and reach the other end of it before we are cut off.’
Hal shook his head. ‘We’d never make it to the alley. That fellow with the rifle standing by our car would cut one of us down at least, maybe both.’
Daylight was driving away the darkness of night, a fact that brought the besieged no comfort. The minutes dragged. It would not be long before the snipers opened on them. The outlaws dared not wait a moment after they were set to attack.
A man was moving up the alley toward them.
‘If I hadn’t left that Winchester at Hunter’s we could pick him off,’ Arnold said regretfully.
A rifle’s whine broke the silence. The bullet struck one of the limousines. They shifted their positions to get better protection.
‘Kindness of the fellow in the alley,’ Hal commented, his grin none too cheerful. ‘It’s like shooting fish in a bathtub.’
‘Look!’ Arnold cried. ‘A fellow in the window.’
Hal’s eyes lifted to the upper story of the rooming house back of them. A man with a rifle was standing in an open window, a rifle in his hands. He was not fifty yards from them, and he had a clean shot at his prey. The man was Bill Nuney.
‘This is where one of us goes on a long journey,’ Hal said.
The crack of the rifle sounded from the window. Hal’s astonished eyes met those of his friend. Nuney had not fired at them, but at the man in the alley.
‘Get out of there, Chad, or I’ll drill you full of holes,’ Nuney shouted.
The gunman in the alley shook a fist at him and cursed. ‘A rat like I told you,’ he shouted back.
‘Never mind that now,’ Nuney warned. ‘Light out, or get plugged.’
Chad fired at the figure in the window and the bullet tore through the woodwork of the frame just above Nuney’s head. The answering shot came almost as an echo. Chad dropped the weapon and caught at his leg. He sank down back of a barrel fifteen feet distant from the rifle.
The face and torso of a Mexican showed at a window near the one where Nuney stood. ‘My friend Carlos,’ the cowboy called to those in the lot below. ‘We had a bust-up with the other boys.’
Chad was slowly beating a retreat down the alley. He hung on to his leg and limped as he walked.
‘What a break!’ Arnold said. ‘Never bumped into anything like this before in my life.’
‘We’ll not forget this, Bill,’ Hal promised, raising his voice to be heard. ‘When we get out of this, stick around with us till we have talked it over. You and your friend too.’
‘Okey! I judge we had better leave town together and separate later,’ Nuney laughed. ‘Bet you never shook a present off the Christmas Tree more welcome than this one.’
Hunter’s car moved very slowly down the street toward the battle zone. Some men were in the rear pushing it. Hal and Ranny fired at their legs. It stopped. The head of Cash Polk appeared cautiously at a corner of the intersection.
‘Come on back, Brick,’ he called. ‘Bill Nuney has done shot Chad. He’s in the window of that hotel, and soon as he can see you he’ll cut loose.’
Brick’s two assistants ran back to the main street. Brick followed, pouring out a stream of profanity.
‘We’ve gotta light out!’ Polk cried shrilly. ‘Folks are up around the pool hall with guns. Gather the boys, Ed. And tell them to get a move on them before we’re cut off.’
Hal heard the sound of running and shouting men, the snort of a car, and presently the roar of it racing down the street. He called up to Nuney, ‘Meet you at the corner.’ Arnold and he walked back to the main street, where they were presently joined by Nuney and Vallejo.
The lank cowpuncher laughed. ‘This sure seems to be our night for adventure. No use me going over to the Solomon Islands or New Guinea with the Marines. I can get all the gun-fighting I want right here.’
‘How did you happen to be up in that hotel so pat?’ Hal asked.
‘When we heard the first shooting, we knew they were after you,’ Nuney explained. ‘We hung around and heard someone say you were in that lot. So we walked into the rooming house, up two flights of stairs, and into an empty room overlooking yore hiding place.’
‘What made you take a hand in the fight?’ Arnold asked. He was puzzled. Certainly these rustlers, whom he had been trying to hound into prison, could have no love for them.
‘I’m doggoned if I know.’ Nuney scratched his curly poll to find an answer. ‘Except that I don’t hold with murder. These birds had kinda dragged me and Carlos into one, and we sort of figured it was up to us to stop their game if we could, seeing that we knew it might be our turn next.’ His boyish face showed for a moment lines of worry. ‘This puts me in a jam. I’m joining up with the Marines next week. Where do I get off now? If there is a charge of rustling hanging over me, they won’t take me in, I reckon.’
Arnold thought that could be got around. It was not likely the case against the rustlers would come to a head before he was inducted. After he was in the service, they could probably get the charge against him dropped on account of the help he had given them.
Some men were coming down the street. One of them called to them, ‘Any of you boys hurt?’
‘None of us, Mr. Hunter,’ Arnold answered. ‘One of the rustlers got shot in the leg by one of our friends.’
‘You had friends?’ the banker asked.
‘A couple of men from the Soledad Valley jumped in to help us.’ Arnold introduced Nuney and Vallejo. ‘Without them we would have been goners.’
Hunter explained his presence. ‘My daughter told me there was no gas in the car and that worried me. When I heard shooting, I called up the police and some friends. We armed and met at the hotel.’
‘That was what scared the rustlers off,’ Hal said. ‘They had to get out without being identified.’
‘Well, all’s well that ends well,’ the banker said tritely. ‘I’m glad the Wild West Show is over without casualties.’
‘If you don’t count Chad’s punctured leg, se?or,’ Carlos amended, with a flash of white teeth shown in a wide smile.
Hal admitted that he was a good deal relieved himself. There had been a few minutes, he suggested, when even Lloyd’s would not have quoted an insurance rate on him and Arnold.
‘Well, it’s all over now,’ one of the town policemen said cheerfully.
The eyes of Arnold and Stevens met. The officer’s assurance would have been a comforting one if they could have believed it.
When confronted with the evidence that he had been buying stolen stock, Jubal L. Gibson looked surprised and shocked. At once he passed the buck to Tick Black, who had represented the alleged owners of the beef stuff. He showed his books, and as Arnold had guessed there was no appearance of crooked dealing visible. The price that showed on them was a fair one. Before purchasing the shipments Gibson had satisfied himself that the brands were recorded at the State House. Edward Mullins owned the Circle X and Brick Fenwick the O B in a Box. Black had shown him bills of sale from both of these men. Why should he suspect any chicanery from a reputable citizen like Mr. Black?
Arnold made no comment on this explanation. He said bluntly, ‘We want two or three of the hides carrying the Mullins brand.’
Gibson was very sorry, but all of them had been sent to the tannery.
‘Give us an order on the tannery for them,’ Arnold continued. ‘And don’t telephone to the manager before we get there.’
The meat packer was hurt that Mr. Arnold could think him capable of doing such a thing. Of course he would cooperate with them in every way possible.
The hides obtained at the tannery showed plainly that the original brands had been altered at a later period. This had been done skillfully enough to pass a casual inspection, but under the microscope the additions stood out clearly.
Arnold felt that he had evidence enough to warrant an arrest. Both Nuney and Vallejo flatly declined to support the theft charges against their former associates, but Hal was of opinion that if they could capture Mullins and put pressure on him he would turn state’s witness.
With very little hope of success, Sheriff Elbert led a posse into the hills to arrest half a dozen of the rustlers known to be Black’s men. He knew that, before he could get within miles of the men wanted, outposts would carry back to them word to hide themselves in the Rabbit Ear Gorge country. What he anticipated came to pass. When he rode up to the Double B ranch, he found the owner of it sitting on the porch poring over the Fair Play
Tick Black inspected the posse with a sly wintry smile. There were six of them. He recognized Tom Wall, Arnold, and Casey of the Seven Up and Down.
‘Nice of my old friends to come up on my birthday to wish me happy returns,’ he said, not disguising the sarcasm. ‘But how come my dear pal Stevens isn’t with you? Don’t tell me he is minding his own business for a change.’
‘I’m looking for some of your neighbors, Tick,’ the sheriff told him. ‘Fenwick, Polk, Frawley, Mullins, and two men called Chad and Doc, whose last names I don’t know.’
‘Haven’t seen hair or hide of any of them for a week. Want ’em to serve on a jury, Elbert?’
‘Not exactly. I saw a couple of lads at the corral as we arrived. Mind giving them a call, Tick?’
‘Anything to oblige,’ snickered Black. He raised his voice to a shout. ‘Sam — Rusty. Where you boys at?’
A youngster came to the door of the stable and answered. ‘What you want, Tick?’
‘We got visitors who would like to see you.’
Two eighteen-year-old boys in levis and big Stetsons crossed the yard to the house.
‘This is Sheriff Elbert, boys,’ explained their employer. ‘He’s taking a
The sheriff asked them their names. Sam Hitchcock and Rusty Peters, they told him.
Elbert turned to his posse. ‘Any of you know these boys?’
One of the deputies said he had seen them at Fair Play hanging around a pool hall, but he had never met the lads.
When the sheriff quizzed the Double B men about Fenwick, Polk, and the others wanted, no information could be got from them. They could not remember exactly when they had last seen any of those for whom the officer had warrants.
‘Why come looking for them here?’ Black asked. ‘They don’t live on this ranch.’
‘I thought you might know where they are, since you are their sponsor.’
‘What d’you mean by that?’ the ranchman snapped.
The sheriff looked steadily at him. ‘I mean that you buy cattle from some of them and sell the stuff to a packing house, thereby vouching for them as the
‘I did not do any vouching,’ Black disagreed. ‘I showed Gibson a bill of sale. You can’t touch me, if that’s what you are getting at. Maybe the boys made a mistake or two in branding. You can’t always be sure what cow a calf belongs to, and errors are made.’
‘These were not legitimate errors. I have proof that brands were changed.’
‘But not that I changed them. Gibson can bring a civil action for damages in case he isn’t satisfied.’
‘That won’t go, Black. The brands were changed outside Casa Rita after you had bought the cattle.’ The sheriff took from his pocket a paper. ‘I have a warrant for your arrest.’
‘I’ll be out of jail inside of two hours after you put me in,’ Black said, and tossed the paper back contemptuously so that it fell on the porch.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ Elbert answered. ‘But after your trial you’ll be behind bars quite a while.’
‘What evidence you got, outside of this mistake in the brand, which may be some trumped-up evidence fixed by Stevens?’
The sheriff did not intend to tip the hand of the prosecution. ‘You’ll find out when the time comes. If you want to pack a suitcase, one of the boys will go in and help you.’
Black clumped into the house, Arnold at his heels. He reappeared shortly carrying a shabby valise of imitation leather.
‘Let’s go,’ he snapped. ‘I won’t need this suitcase at yore jail, but I’ll probably stay in town a day or two while I’m starting a suit for false imprisonment.’
Arnold and Wall took the prisoner to the M K ranch, from which they could travel by car to Fair Play. A man was leading a horse across the yard to the blacksmith shop.
‘Where is Hal, Mike?’ asked Arnold.
‘He left on horseback just after you fellows did,’ Mike replied. ‘Didn’t say where he was going, but he carried some grub and a coffee pot with him like he was going camping for a day or two. Told me to tell you not to begin worrying till you saw him again, that he was aiming to commune with nature.’
‘That’s queer,’ Wall said.
‘I don’t like it,’ Arnold replied. ‘This is no time for him to be going off alone. He’s probably got some crazy idea in his nut.’
‘I thought it was funny when he slid out of being on the posse,’ Wall remarked. ‘Even though he told us we were going on a wild goose chase and wouldn’t bag any more than Black was willing for us to get.’
‘Hal can look after himself pretty well,’ Mike said, by way of consolation. ‘I reckon he knows what he is doing.’
None the less, Arnold was troubled all the way to Fair Play and back again. Hal was too fond of playing hunches. Some day one of them would not work out.
WHEN HAL reached the first mesa that looked down on the valley, he rested the buckskin for a minute and his gaze swept the country he was leaving. Distance softened the harshness of the desert, lent it a golden harmony that satisfied his sense of beauty. White billowy clouds were drifting across the sky, and the shadows from them moved very slowly along the undulating floor. He could see here and there a bunch of cattle ‘standing on their heads,’ as he had heard his father say of stock when grazing.
On this he turned his back and pushed to the far side of the mesa, his horse sidestepping the catclaw and the prickly pear. The ground rose gradually, and when he entered a rocky gulch with yucca sprinkling the steep sides, the ascent grew less easy. It brought him to a grassy park with a growth of live oaks rising to the yonder rim in the midst of which a low log house nestled. He circled around the lip of the park, out of sight of the house, and from the rear dropped down to it through the grove.
It was not a bad stand, he thought. The grass was good. A small stream ran into the meadow, and when he reached the house he saw pans full of sweet milk resting on the sandy bottom of the shallow brook. At the water’s edge a woman stood washing clothes. When she turned, startled at the sound of the cowpony’s hoof striking a stone, he saw that she was long and lean as a starved Yaqui, with the dry parched face Arizona gives to women who do not take care of their complexions.
‘Good evening, Mrs. Kendall,’ he said, every sense keyed to alertness. Danger might be ready to explode at him from the house, though his relaxed attitude in the saddle showed no evidence of his awareness of it. ‘Aleck at home?’
Hal could see that her angular body was braced rigidly. That might mean only that the word had run through all the gulches and pockets of these hills that he was an enemy who must be guarded against.
‘No, he’s not,’ she answered. ‘He’s gone — I don’t know where.’ She added, as an apparent afterthought, ‘Looking for strays.’
Her visitor was relieved. She had been about to tell him where her husband was and had remembered in time to be cautious. Hal did not care where Aleck was, since he was not on the ranch watching him.
In spite of her obvious hostility, Hal felt a little rush of sympathy for her. As children they had gone to the same public school at Big Bridge. He had watched her grow up into a pretty girl with the color of wild roses fluttering in her cheeks. Several times, on his summer vacations from college, he had treated her to ice cream sodas at the drugstore, and once he had taken her to a barn dance. In those days she had been gay and full of laughter. But she had made a bad mistake in marriage, and life had done this to her.
‘No see you for a long time, Sally,’ he said. ‘We ought to be more neighborly. Great Scott, it’s — why, it must be ten years since I took you to the Peterson dance. You were the prettiest girl in the valley.’
A slow flush beat into her thin cheeks. She needed no reminder of the time when she could not see him without a pulse of excitement beating fast in her throat. She would have jumped then at the chance to marry him, but she knew now that no thought of such a result of their friendship had been in his mind.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked stiffly.
‘I’m hunting a bull that broke through a fence. Thought it might have strayed up this way.’
‘You had better turn and go home,’ she warned. ‘Don’t you know that any one of half a dozen men in this district would shoot you as they would a coyote?’
‘Can you tell me where any of them are today?’ he asked, smiling at her.
‘No, I can’t, and I wouldn’t if I could.’ She flung out the retort violently, then let her voice drop to an anticlimax. ‘Aleck isn’t one of those who would hurt you,’ she said sullenly.
‘I know that, Sally,’ he agreed gently. ‘Aleck is all right. It’s a pity he homesteaded here, though it is a good spread.’
Kendall was a shiftless rancher. The rundown appearance of the house and other buildings testified to that, but he was a friendly and good-natured wastrel. ‘There is a gang of ruffians around here who have murdered one man and want to kill more of us. Do you blame me for throwing in against them?’
‘I blame you for riding up here alone, since you know that. Haven’t you a lick of sense, Hal Stevens? Why did you come here? What do you want of me?’
‘Sheriff Elbert rode in to the Double B today with a posse to arrest some of these outlaws,’ he told her. ‘He doesn’t want Aleck. There is no charge against him. I hope he has kept his hands clean. But the sheriff wants Frawley and Fenwick and Polk, and three-four others. He won’t get them, because news of his coming will have got in ahead of him. They have holed-up somewhere. I don’t want to run into them. I am not asking you where they are, but where they are not.’
‘What do you mean?’ she frowned, puzzled.
‘I want to go into the Rabbit Ear Gulch country — or at least into the outskirts of it — without meeting any of the Black gang unexpectedly,’
‘But what do you want to do there?’
‘Never mind about that, Sally. If Aleck isn’t one of them, I’m not going to do him any harm.’
‘He isn’t. Aleck keeps out of their deviltry, but you’re not fool enough not to know that he must keep his mouth shut and so must I.’
‘I know that. I don’t want to find out from you where the hiding place of these scoundrels is. You probably don’t know exactly where they hole-up. But you can tell me this — and forget afterward you have told me. If I went to Ed Mullins’s place, would I be likely to bump into them?’
Looking at him, the woman felt again for a moment the hot excitement that had so stirred her blood in the days of her warm youth. He still had the same lean clean build, the same reckless dancing eyes, wrinkled at the corners now from having squinted into a thousand summer suns. And he still carried his lithe body with that grace which was neither insolence nor pride, but had a touch of kinship with both — the poised power of leashed strength she had never seen in any other man.
‘Go home, before anything happens to you,’ she pleaded.
He smiled at her. ‘You haven’t answered my question, Sally. I’m not going home until I’ve finished my business.’
‘But you won’t tell me what it is,’ she said sulkily.
‘If you don’t know, you can’t tell your husband,’ he reminded her.
‘If I told him, he would never peep. But all right. Don’t tell me.’ She said, ungraciously: ‘I don’t think they will be at Ed’s place today. They will be deeper in the hills.’
‘Good. Enough said.’ He gathered the reins, but before he started asked a friendly question. ‘How have things been going with you, Sally?’
‘I’m all right.’ She brushed his interest aside rudely. ‘Worry about yourself. They say you’ve grazed death a dozen times in these last weeks.’
‘Yet I am here,’ he answered lightly.
‘For how long?’
As he rode out of the park to the bench above, the last challenge she had flung at him lingered in his mind. He could turn right toward the pleasant plain he had left an hour ago, or he could head toward the notched peaks which lay sharp and bleak above the huddled hills and tangled gorges to the left. What he had in mind was perilous, perhaps foolhardy. But at this same hour a hundred thousand American boys were following the hard straight path leading to certain and desperate danger. They were not going forward because they liked it, or because they were being driven by anything except the spark of self-respect burning in them that would not let them falter. It was their job. Well, this was his, a small one compared to theirs. Even to let the two sift through his mind together made him ashamed.
His buckskin climbed steadily, following no path, circling rocks, turning back where sheer cliffs in front of him made an impasse and searching for breaks in the rock walls that would permit a passage. There was an easier way to Mullins’s mountain ranch, but it was essential to his purpose that he meet nobody
By way of a box ca?on he came to a crotch in the hills from which he could look down on the cabin and the corrals Mullins had built in this mountain pocket. Already the hard dry peaks back of it were taking on the colors of sunset, the gorges in them filled with lakes of violet and purple. Through glasses he watched the clearing below, scanning every acre of it for signs of human life. No smoke came from the chimney. The door of the house was closed. Mullins had a shepherd dog. It was not moving about the homestead. Cattle and horses grazed in the pasture. Since a small stream ran through it, they could take care of themselves if the owner was absent.
Cautiously he rode down to the steading, alert for the least suspicious movement. The bay horse Mullins usually rode was not in the pasture. Hal was convinced the man was absent. He dismounted, opened the door of the cabin, and walked inside. The place was neater and cleaner than he had expected it would be. Fresh bedding and a swept floor, clothes hung up in an orderly way on a rack, surprised the uninvited visitor. There were evidences that the owner had left in haste. The table was set for dinner, but the meal had not been eaten. Half-cooked potatoes were on a stove in which only a few embers of fire were left. Coffee had been put in the pot, but no water had yet been added. It was plain that word had reached Mullins of man-hunters in the hills and that he had beaten a hurried retreat. He would not be back as long as Sheriff Elbert’s posse was in the Rabbit Ear district. That might be for two or three days.
Hal camped in a ravine the entrance to which was fenced by nature with a thick growth of prickly pear. He waited until after dark before lighting a fire for fear somebody might come to the cove and see the smoke. The buckskin he picketed in a growth of alfilaria. He slept beneath the stars with his saddle for a pillow. Once he awoke, to hear the barking of a coyote, but fell asleep again almost at once.
While the darkness still held, he ate a breakfast of coffee, flapjacks, and bacon. Before the crystal dawn broke, he stamped out the fire. Objects were mysterious in the dim morning light, but as the sun rose the ocotilla and Spanish bayonets lost their ghostly appearance and the country took on its desert harshness.
There was no sign of life in the cabin. Hal watered the buckskin and picketed the pony in another place, after which he lay down in the shade of a mesquite where he could see the trail that descended from the rim. He had brought several books with him, in expectation of one or two long days of waiting. A volume of Shaw’s plays he tried first. The acid tang of the humor suited his mood.
HAL REMAINED a squatter on the Mullins place two days without seeing another human being. Though a man fond of activity, he had the capacity for patience acquired by years of life in the outdoors where nature cannot be hurried. He read and ate and slept. His pipe he smoked contentedly, no suggestion of restlessness in his easy indolence.
It was in the late afternoon of the third day that Ed Mullins came back to his ranch. Hal caught sight of him as he and his horse appeared in silhouette on the rim rock of the saucer where the rustler had homesteaded. The bay gelding moved down the ledge road and another horse and rider stood against the skyline. A third horseman appeared.
Hal sat up, a wry grin on his face. ‘Holy smoke, it’s an army,’ he told himself aloud.
When he had finished counting, six riders were descending the steep trail into the ranch basin. Through his glasses he picked them out one by one — Mullins, Fenwick, Doc, Polk, Frawley, and Buck. One could not find a choicer bunch of ruffians in a visit to Alcatraz, he thought. No doubt they had gathered here on some definite mission of deviltry. It flashed into his mind that they might have come to get him, but he rejected this guess as improbable. They could not know he was on the place unless Sally Kendall had betrayed him, and he was quite sure she had not.
While they were still coming down the ledge road in Indian file, he walked through the brush to where his buckskin was picketed. The belly of the horse was full of alfileria, and fortunately he had watered it not more than an hour ago. He saddled, packed his belongings, and tied the animal to a mesquite. When he left, it was probable that he would be in such a hurry that every second counted.
From his observation post back of the prickly pears, Hal watched the riders unsaddle and turn their mounts into the pasture. Evidently they meant to spend the night here. Occasionally their voices drifted to him on the evening breeze, but they were too far away for him to make out what they said. He was pleased to see that Mullins’s dog had reached home with his tail down and head dragging. Evidently the day’s trip had exhausted him. After being fed the shepherd would very likely fall into a long sound sleep. Hal hoped so. An inquisitive and intelligent dog nosing about might destroy his chance of escape.
Some of the men hung around the corral. Doc went with Muffins into the cabin, from the chimney of which smoke presently rose. They were preparing supper for the party.
The long shadow from the mountain back of the park began to stretch across the floor of the little valley. In the crotch of two peaks the sky became a caldron of color, changing quickly from turquoise and magenta and rose to violet and purple. A film of mist softened the harsh outlines of the range. Night was dropping its blanket of darkness over the land.
Mullins came to the door and shouted, ‘Come and get it.’ The men outside hurried into the house.
Hal took from the saddlebags he had inherited from his father all the food that remained, a bit of dry cheese rind, a crust of bread, and a piece of chocolate. He announced formally, ‘Dinner is served, Mr. Stevens,’ and began his meal. If circumstances had been different, it would have been pleasant to drop in and eat a hearty meal with the outlaws. It amused him to wonder whether they would kill him at once or feed him first, in case he sauntered into the room and announced himself a guest. Probably he had got in their hair so much that they would rub him out before he could even speak.
He knew that it would be wise to lie low till they were asleep and then slip away from the ranch. Very likely he would be fortunate to escape with a whole skin, but the thought of such a termination of the adventure was not pleasing to him. He had made a gesture before his friends that could justify itself only by success. Unless he took Mullins back with him, he would feel a sense of humiliation. There might still be a slim chance of doing this.
He knew the habits of outdoor men. Each one of these outlaws would come out before turning in for sleep to have a look around and make sure everything seemed safe. Mullins might appear by himself. If there was a poker game there was more likelihood of men drifting alone from the hot room into the cool night.
To take advantage of such an opportunity, Hal had to be nearer the house. He crept forward from the ravine and took a position back of the stable. There was a manure heap beside him, luckily an old one. Though he did not find this pleasant, it might turn out an advantage if he had to crouch down to avoid detection.
His vigil proved a long one. There was a poker game, and hours slipped away before the door opened and Mullins stood in the spot of light thrown out by the lamp behind him. He came into the starlit night, closing the door, and walked to the corral. Presently he lit a cigarette, flung away a match, and turned toward the house.
A figure lounged forward to meet him. ‘Damn the game,’ a voice drawled. ‘I can’t win a pot, Ed.’
Mullins was not a quick thinker. He supposed another player had wandered temporarily away from the game. Not until the gun was rammed into his belly did he recognize Stevens.
‘Goddlemighty!’ gasped Mullins. ‘You — again!’
‘Right. We’re going back to the corral.’ Hal tucked an arm under his. ‘Easy does it. No noise.’
When they reached the corral, Hal told him to pick up his saddle and bridle. They walked through a gate into the pasture. The horses could be seen, dim shapes in the darkness, feeding at the far end of the five-acre enclosure.
Hal ran a hand over the man’s body, found a weapon, and flung it into the brush.
‘Look here, Mr. Stevens,’ remonstrated Mullins. ‘You can’t do this. You’re crazy. Some of the boys are sure to come out and see you before you get away. The game is about ready to break up. You’d better skedaddle before they know you’re here.’
‘Exactly my idea,’ Hal chuckled. ‘We’ll both go soon as you have saddled.’
‘If I was you I wouldn’t wait—’
Hal cut his advice short. ‘Get your rope and catch a fresh horse,’ his captor ordered.
They cornered the grazing animals. Mullins picked a roan and threw. The loop slid down the shoulder of the horse. He coiled the rope and made a second throw. Caught by the neck, the cowpony gave up at once.
Still protesting, Mullins put on the bridle and cinched the saddle. They walked back to the gate. Light from the lamp in the cabin shone through the open door. A man in the doorway wanted to know profanely where Ed was.
‘Tell him you’ve been looking after a cow ready to calve,’ Hal said.
Mullins relayed the message. He shouted as an afterthought that he would be back pretty soon. The inquirer went back into the house and closed the door.
‘You’re doing fine,’ Hal congratulated his prisoner. ‘Maybe I can get you out alive.’
He prodded the homesteader to the ravine and tied his feet under the belly of the horse. The loop of his own rope he put around the man’s neck.
‘An hour from now we’ll both be out of here or permanent residents,’ Hal told him coolly. ‘It’s up to you to play on my side just now.’
To reach the ledge road they had to pass within fifty yards of the house. Mullins hung back.
‘If anybody opens the door—’
‘Then the band will begin to play.’ Hal felt the pulse of excitement beating in him that the presence of danger always set drumming. ‘And since I am, like Mercutio, the very pink of courtesy, I’ll let you lead the way.
Hal’s rifle lay across the saddle in front of him. In spite of his blithe manner, the rustler knew he must obey that order to go. The roan moved forward, and before it had taken a dozen steps light streamed out from the opened cabin door.
Frawley’s big frame stood in the entrance. He gave a shout of warning. ‘What’s going on here?’
‘We’ve got to run for it,’ Hal cried, and lashed the rump of the roan with his quirt.
The horses raced straight for the house.
‘It’s Stevens,’ Frawley roared, and disappeared from the doorway.
Hal swung his horse against the roan. ‘Cut to the right,’ he ordered. Mullins did as he was directed. He was as eager to get out of range as his captor. Looking back over his shoulder, the heart died in him. Men were pouring out of the house like seeds squirted from an orange. The crash of revolvers filled the night. A rifle’s sharp whine whipped across the park.
The buckskin was hit. Hal could feel the horse begin to go down an instant before its collapse. He threw himself out of the saddle, caught at Mullins’s belt, and swung himself behind the man.
‘Keep going,’ he snapped.
A man ran forward to cut them off from the road. Hal realized later that he could not have been in the house at the time Frawley discovered them. He was a big bull-necked fellow with buck teeth. Without stopping, he fired and missed. Plunging forward, his hand caught the bridle rein. Hal had dropped the rifle when vaulting to the back of the roan, but his revolver was out. Flung off-balance by the impetus of the horse’s motion, the rustler lost the fraction of a second that might have saved him. Before he could steady himself, his finger pressed the trigger and sent a bullet flying skyward. The slug from Hal’s .38 plowed into his brain. A slack hand fell from the bridle and the big body of the outlaw sank to the ground.
The horse almost went down over the body, but Mullins steadied its head and lifted it to its feet again. He urged the roan into a slow heavy gallop. The fugitives were now out of revolver range. The rifle still pumped at them, but the light was not good enough to make out objects clearly at a distance. They had reached the road, and the weighted cowpony was laboring with difficulty up the hill.
Hal slipped from the back of the roan and ran beside it on the inside of the ledge trail. Apparently a second rifle had joined the first, and both of them were raking the rocky hillside. Only the darkness saved the escaping men from being picked off by the marksmen in the valley.
‘They’ll get us yet,’ Mullins said fretfully.
‘Not unless someone makes a lucky shot,’ Hal amended.
‘Soon as they can saddle, they’ll take after us. How can we get away on one horse? If you’re smart you’ll let me go and ride like the heel flies are after you.’
‘I like yore company,’ Hal drawled. ‘With you here I won’t be afraid of the dark. Come to think of it, we have half a world of darkness in which to hide. I reckon we’ll make out.’
‘You’ll push yore fool luck too far some time,’ Mullins complained angrily.
‘It has stood up fine so far,’ Hal mentioned cheerfully.
He had lost a good horse and saddle, but he felt the elation that comes after escape from danger pressing close on one.
HAL knew that as soon as the outlaws could catch and saddle they would come pounding up the ledge road after him. This did not disturb him greatly, for in this rough country scarred with gullies their chance of finding him at night would be slight. The danger would come later, when after daybreak he drew close to the M K. Probably they would be waiting in the brush for him there.
At the summit of the shale ridge bounding the mountain pocket, he left the road and cut into the brush-covered mesa. Hal walked beside the horse, a hand on the stirrup leather. It was likely that they would get lost temporarily in this tiptilted No Man’s Land, but eventually they could get down to the valley by bearing south.
A water-gutted arroyo slashed through the mesa. Hal pulled up the horse to listen. On the gentle night breeze there came to them a rumor of drumming hoofs, so faint that only a trained ear could register the sound.
‘Yore anxious friends aren’t losing any time,’ Hal mentioned to his prisoner.
‘What’s the sense in taking me with you?’ Mullins wanted to know fretfully. ‘Why don’t you take the horse and let me hoof it back?’
‘I wouldn’t desert you after all we’ve been through,’ his captor told him with gentle irony. ‘Question before the house is, Do we follow this arroyo or keep going straight ahead?’
‘We’ll get lost, whichever we do,’ Mullins prophesied sourly.
‘So we may,’ Hal agreed. ‘But we’ll have each other for company. The arroyo wins. Right face.’
The bed of the ravine became a thicket of yucca, mesquite, cholla, and bisnaga. Hal mounted behind the hill man, to protect his legs from the thorns snatching at them.
The pony picked its way along the line of least resistance with the sure instinct of a horse trained in brush country, and after a few minutes came to a ca?on with high perpendicular walls. The darkness was almost impenetrable. Far above was a narrow ribbon of star-dotted sky, but the light did not reach the floor of the gorge along which they were feeling their way.
A cleft opened in the left wall, a narrow gulch down which in floodtime water must have poured for thousands of years. Whether it was possible to get out of the gorge by this steep stairway, they could find out only by trying.
Hal cocked an inquiring eye at his companion. ‘How would you like to be a human fly, Mr. Mullins?’ he asked.
Mullins declined emphatically. ‘I’m not going up there. A mountain goat couldn’t make it.’
‘Now — now, that’s not the spirit,’ Hal chided. ‘In the bright lexicon of youth there is no such word as can’t. Remember how Hannibal crossed the Alps — and Caesar the Rubicon.’
His captive looked at him angrily. ‘You’re crazy as a hoot owl. I don’t want to break my neck, if you do.’
Yet a minute later the cowpony, with Mullins on its back, was scrambling up the defile. Hal led the way on foot, to help with suggestions at the more difficult bits. The gorge was strewn with rubble that offered bad footing and in places big boulders filled the floor. The roan stumbled, slipped, slithered down, found its feet, and pressed forward with catlike sureness.
They came to a trough so steep that Hal hesitated to try it, but just above this the way eased gently to the summit.
‘Told you we couldn’t make it,’ Mullins exulted. ‘But of course it had to be your way. Nothing you don’t know.’
‘We’ll have to give the horse some help,’ Hal said, after studying the situation. He untied the rope that bound the feet of his prisoner and put the loop around the neck of the roan. ‘I’ll go ahead with the rope far as that rock outcrop, you come next with the bridle coaxing the horse up the trough.’
Mullins refused bitterly to join in the attempt. ‘You’re fixing to get us both killed. I’m going back.’
‘No,’ Hal told him firmly. ‘You’re going to the top if I have to rope you and drag you up.’
The horse balked, but after a time knifed its front hoofs into the ground and plunged forward. More than once it refused to try the precipitous slope. Mullins petted and soothed the animal till it was ready for another rush. How they got it to the rock outcrop where there was solid ground for standing was a marvel. From there the rise was more gradual. They hauled, encouraged, and bullied the roan to the summit.
Mullins wiped the sweat from his face with a sleeve. ‘If I ever tell the boys I brought a horse up there, I’ll be called a liar for the rest of my life,’ he said.
It was lighter on the plateau. While they waited to rest, Hal noticed the ground sloped to the south. A stand of junipers covered the mesa, but there was little small brush. Before they reached the yonder side of the high land, the gray light of dawn was beginning to sift into the sky. In front of them were cowbacked hills with wide draws between. The M K rancher recognized this country.
If they kept going, the coming day would show them the range where his cattle fed. They descended a slope sown with a thin stand of Spanish bayonet and climbed the hill beyond.
‘Home soon,’ Hal said cheerfully. ‘We’ve earned a first-class breakfast.’
His companion growled resentfully. He guessed that an ordeal was ahead of him. Stevens intended to break his resistance and make him talk.
They dipped into another draw and moved up the opposite incline. Day was breaking clear, and they could see the blades of the M K windmill whirling in the breeze.
Hal gave an exclamation of annoyance. In the valley below them a man stood holding a bunch of saddled horses. One of the dismounted riders was lying back of a clump of bushes watching the ranch house. The outlaws had cut him off from his friends. When he glanced at Mullins, he saw a sly pleased smile vanishing from the man’s face.
‘Looks like your luck has run out,’ the rustler said.
Stevens caught the bridle rein and moved the horse back of the hill crest. ‘I’ll have to give you a raincheck on that breakfast,’ he told his prisoner. ‘We’re traveling again.’
‘Where?’ asked Mullins.
‘Away from here,’ Hal answered.
He knew this part of the country as a teacher does her textbook. In and out among the low hills he took Mullins and brought him at last down Frenchy’s Draw to the valley.
‘You’re headin’ for the Seven Up,’ the outlaw said.
‘But the boys will see us crossing the pasture.’
‘They may. We’ll leave the horse in the arroyo and cut across on foot. Maybe they won’t notice us.’
‘You can’t do that to me!’ Mullins cried. ‘I’m not going.
Of course they would see us — and pick us off with rifles. They wouldn’t know me from you.’
Hal said quietly, ‘We’ll go together.’
There was a cold, hard light in his eyes that chilled the hill man. In his will was a driving force not to be denied. His reckless feet had carried him on many a dangerous trail. Mullins knew that this was one he had to take with him.
When they emerged from the draw, the eyes of both men swept the ridge to the north. No sign of the enemy could be seen there. But before they had covered a hundred yards of the meadow, several horsemen sat in silhouette against the skyline. Mullins gave a yelp of alarm and began to run. He had not gone a dozen steps when the riders started down the hill toward them.
Hal’s guess was that they would be caught before they could reach the ranch house. As he ran, he fired twice into the air, in the hope of drawing the attention of somebody at the Seven Up to their predicament. The distance to the hill below the house was probably a mile and a half. The riders would come in through the north gate and cut diagonally across in front of them. He looked over his shoulder and saw that they were already pouring through the opening in the barbed wire fence. Soon bullets would begin to throw up spits of dirt in front of and behind them.
DALE’S restless gaze wandered from the mountain spikes of Rabbit Ear, down the torn hill country to the M K ranch, and swept the valley at her feet. She had risen from a night of wakefulness and troubled dreams due to anxiety on account of Hal Stevens. For nearly three days he had been missing. His friends had hoped that he would return with Sheriff Elbert’s posse, but it had come back yesterday afternoon with no news of him and without any of the men wanted by the law.
Casey joined her in front of the house. He knew that she was greatly worried. Since he liked and admired Hal, his mind too was disturbed. But he did not let this doubt reach the surface.
‘Stevens will turn up all right,’ he assured her. ‘He has more lives than a cat. Don’t you fret, Miss Dale. That young man will come in grinning when he is ready.’
‘He’s up there somewhere in the Rabbit Ear country,’ she said, her harassed eyes shuttling back to the hills. ‘One of his men saw him heading that way.’ A pulse of anger leaped into her voice. ‘What is he trying to do alone? Hasn’t he any sense?’
‘The crazy things he does seem always to come out right. It will be that way this time too.’
‘There are some men on the valley rim this side of the M K,’ the girl cried. ‘Wait a minute.’ She ran into the house and returned with field glasses.
After a long look she handed the glasses to her foreman. The men were on horseback, but were too far away to be identified.
‘They are starting down into the valley,’ Casey said. ‘What for?’
‘Look!’ Dale pointed across the pasture to the mouth of Frenchy’s Draw. Two men had come out of it and were running across the meadow. She snatched the glasses from Casey and with them picked up the two on foot. ‘I believe—’
Dale broke off her sentence and gave a sharp order. ‘Get that car going and pick me up here.’ She ran into the house and was back in time to meet Casey in the sedan. He flung open the door without quite stopping and the girl jumped in beside him. She had a rifle in her hand.
‘They are boiling into the pasture to cut those fellows off,’ the foreman said. ‘How many of them?’
He was busy keeping the car in the road. They were racing downhill as fast as he dared, and he must watch where he was going.
‘Five of them,’ Dale answered. ‘Hal is one of the two.’
Casey slackened for the gate. She jumped out and flung it wide. In another moment she was beside him again.
The horsemen were firing as they galloped, Dale could see the spurts of dust flung up where the bullets struck. Fortunately, none of the riders pulled up to take careful aim. They did not want to lose the chance of cutting off the runners from the ranch house.
It would be a near thing. The car would beat the hill men to their prey, but the pickup would be under the fire of the rifles. Over the grass bumps travel was rough, and at the speed they were making the sedan pitched like a bucking bronco.
Casey gauged the distance carefully to avoid loss of even a second. He swept the car around in a circle just in front of the runners. Mullins glanced at his friends in the saddle, undecided whether he had better make a bolt to escape. But the rifles were spitting at him, and he had no time to explain he was no enemy. Hal pushed him forward into the rear seat and fell on top of him.
Dale’s rifle roared at the attackers. She fired again as Casey completed the circle and dashed for the ranch house. Hal took the weapon from her, crashed the butt through the rear window, and answered the fusillade hammering at the car. Bullets spattered around them. Two or three struck the car. One must have hit the gas tank, for a jet of gasoline spurted from it.
The sound of the firing back of them grew fainter as the distance from the attackers grew greater. The car left the pasture and ran up the hill road to the house.
‘They are still coming,’ Hal warned. ‘We had better get inside and lock up.’
Piling out of the car, they ran into the house and locked the doors, after which they fastened the windows and lowered the blinds. Susie followed her young mistress from the kitchen. She was fat, forty, and very black.
‘Wha’s all the rumpus about?’ she demanded.
‘You’d better go down into the basement, Susie,’ Dale said. ‘Some of the rustlers are attacking us.’
‘I ain’t goin’ down into no cellar,’ Susie answered. ‘I stays right here with yo’ folks.’
Hal was busy tieing up the prisoner. ‘You had better take your own advice,’ he told Dale. ‘Casey and I will hold the fort.’
‘I’m too busy.’ Dale went to the telephone and called up the M K ranch. When she had got the connection, she said: ‘This is Dale Lovell. Mr. Stevens is here at the ranch. A lot of his enemies are outside. I think we are going to be attacked.’
Wall was at the other end of the line. He promised help as soon as he could gather a few men.
‘They are down at the bunkhouse deciding what to do,’ Casey announced from one of the windows. ‘Fenwick is one of them — and Frawley another.’
Hal took the receiver from Dale and called up Elbert. ‘I’ve got a bird here I would like you to make sing, sheriff. Better come over right away. I’m at the Seven Up and Down. There has been shooting, and likely there will be more. Black’s gang is all set for war. They’re helling around outside, and we are in the house.’
‘How many of them?’
‘Five. Casey and Miss Lovell and I are holding the fort.’
‘Anybody been hurt yet?’
‘I was attacked in the hills and had to shoot one to get away.’ Hal listened to Elbert explode, and after a moment interrupted. ‘Save it till we meet, sheriff. I was in a jam and—’ He broke off in the middle of the sentence.
To Dale he said, ‘The phone has gone dead. They must have cut the wire.’
‘You… killed another of them?’ she asked, her low voice almost a whisper.
‘Yes. Forget that now.’ He spoke curtly. ‘Go down into the cellar with Susie till this is over.’
She was shocked at his brusque dismissal of what he had done, and she resented his sharp order to go packing until the danger was past. This was her house. He could not push her out of the picture. Even though he seemed not to appreciate it, she had just saved his life.
Stiffly, she told him, ‘I’m going to stay here, sir. If you wish to go into the cellar, you may do so.’
He stared at her, a little surprised at her anger, but there was no time to make explanations now. His smile was ironic. ‘I’m running true to form, according to Brick Fenwick — always hiding behind a woman’s skirts.’ Abruptly he brushed non-essentials aside. ‘Is there another rifle in the house?’
‘Yes. I’ll get it.’
‘Fellow headed this way waving a white flag.’ Casey added to his bulletin. ‘It’s that young Fenwick.’
Dale and Hal moved to different windows. Fenwick had a white handkerchief in his hand, but he was not making much of it. He came forward confidently, with the lithe catlike tread that distinguished him.
Hal flung open the door and stood in the entrance. Fenwick stopped at the foot of the porch steps.
‘Let him come in,’ Dale said to Stevens, a command in her voice.
The M K man stepped back into the room and the outlaw followed him. Casey kept an eye on the companions of the envoy and Hal watched Fenwick closely. This might be a trick with an unpleasant surprise back of it.
‘What do you want?’ demanded Dale.
The boy’s slitted eyes shifted from the young woman to Stevens. ‘I want him — and Mullins.’
The bound man made haste to get in his explanation. ‘He got the drop on me, Brick. I couldn’t do a thing but go with him. I told him you’d fix him.’
Nobody paid the slightest attention to him.
Dale said to Fenwick, ‘You can’t have Mr. Stevens.’ She turned to Hal. ‘I don’t suppose he can have this man Mullins either, can he?’
‘No, I had too much trouble getting him here.’ Hal had some misinformation he wanted to pass on to the enemy. ‘Soon as I can get the sheriff, I want him to come over and collect Mullins. That will have to wait, since the telephone wires have been cut.’
Mullins started to correct this statement, but as he opened his mouth Hal, apparently by inadvertence, put his heel on the man’s hand and ground it into the floor. The prisoner forgot what he had been going to say and let out a yell of pain instead.
‘Sorry,’ Hal apologized.
‘I’m not asking you to turn over this gunman Stevens to me, Miss Lovell,’ the outlaw said, a cold fierce eagerness shining in his eyes. ‘I’m telling you we mean to take him. He went up into the hills and last night murdered another of our boys. He has run his string out. If it’s the last thing I do in this world, I’ll blast the life out of him. You have been running around butting into what’s none of yore business. Keep out of this, ma’am. Let him play his own hand. Keep plugging at us with guns, and you’ll end on a slab.’
‘Now we understand one another, there’s no reason for you to stay any longer, Fenwick,’ Hal said, steel in his voice. ‘Offer declined. Get out.’
The outlaw’s furious eyes were a barometer of his rage. A dull flush suffused his face, and the thin cruel line of his mouth tightened. Though Hal’s gaze had never left him, the swiftness with which that tense still body came to life caught the cattleman unprepared. An empty brown hand swept up. Without stopping, the fingers closed on the butt of a revolver. The roar of the gun filled the room. As Hal dived to one side, a blow hit his left arm. He slipped to a knee and dragged out a revolver. Casey swung from the window, shortened the rifle by drawing it back, and fired from his hip. The crash of the weapons lasted scarcely two seconds. Fenwick dodged out of the doorway and ran close to the side of the house, his body bent so that he would offer no mark from the window. He slipped back of the root house and kept going. From the stable the rifles of his companions covered the man’s retreat.
HAL LOOKED at Dale with shocked eyes. ‘Why did I come here and bring these wolves at my heels?’ he asked. ‘You might have been killed.’
Her eyes fastened to a thin stream of blood running down under the sleeve of the coat to his wrist. Fear had driven the blood from her lips. ‘You’re wounded!’ she cried.
He stared at his hand, surprised to see the red stain. ‘Must have been his first shot. I felt something slap me.’ From a pocket of his coat he took a handkerchief to prevent the blood from dripping to the carpet. ‘Lucky I had just time to duck.’
‘Get a basin of water, Susie,’ said Dale. She went to a closet in the next room and brought back surgical dressings. In spite of Hal’s protests she helped him take off his coat.
‘Just tie it up,’ he told Dale. ‘We’ve got no time to fool with this scratch now.’
‘That’s all right,’ Casey differed. ‘I’ve got my eye on the fellows. They are down in the stable having a powwow. I’ll let you know when they start buzzing.’
While Dale was busy tying up the arm, Mullins voiced a complaint. ‘You told Brick you didn’t get to talk with the sheriff.’
‘Did I?’ Hal laughed grimly. ‘Afraid I made a mistake.
I didn’t want to hurry him away before Elbert gets here. Wish now I had let him know I reached the sheriff.’
‘Does you think they’ll come bustin’ into the house, Mr. Stevens?’ asked Susie.
‘I don’t know what they will do,’ Hal replied. ‘They won’t have a great deal of time before my boys come over from the M K. But there will be more shooting. The best thing you can do, Susie, is to persuade your mistress to go down with you into the cellar until reinforcements come.’
‘He’s right, Miss Dale,’ Casey agreed. ‘We can stand them off all right till help comes. You’ve done your share — and more. I’d get down where it is safe if I were you.’
Dale shook her head decisively. ‘No. Susie can go down. I think she ought to go. But my place is here.’
Hal moved with her to the far corner of the big living room. ‘Aren’t you being stubborn?’ he asked in a low voice. ‘If we are attacked, Casey and I will be worried all the time for fear you get hurt. After all, this is my fight. These scoundrels are here to get me. You’re not in it.’
Looking at him, the girl felt herself torn by conflicting emotions. She was shaken by the knowledge of the strange drag flowing from him to her that implied a closeness between them startling and frightening, a weakness in her born of agitation, of the conviction that she was utterly his to take or to fling away. But with this was blended anger. He said this was his fight and he did not want her in it. Yet only a few minutes ago she had driven down into the pasture to rescue him from almost certain death. He brushed away obligations as if they did not exist. She was just a meddling woman, to be put in her place.
‘Isn’t it my fight when they are attacking my house?’ she asked, her eyes bright and hard. ‘If you didn’t want me in it, why did you bring them here?’
He smiled wryly. ‘We haven’t time for a good quarrel now. Look at it this way, Miss Lovell. You saved my life a few minutes ago at the risk of yore own. I ought never to have come here. How do you think I would feel if you get shot when there is no need of it?’
In spite of herself, she felt her anger leaving. ‘You’re a fine one to talk about being cautious,’ she jeered. ‘After going up into the den where these wolves hole-up, leaving all your friends to worry about whether you are dead or alive. I should think you would be ashamed of yourself.’
‘I am,’ he confessed, with the friendly grin that mitigated his audacities. ‘I’m ashamed of having flunked the job. My idea was to get Mullins alone and bring him down for Elbert to quiz. I thought and still think he will turn state’s evidence to save himself. But I didn’t expect to stir up such a hornets’ nest.’
‘You never do,’ Dale said dryly.
‘No. So I come running to you to save me. You have done that. Later I’ll have time to say thanks. As Casey says, it’s up to him and me to stand off these fellows. Stay up here, and you’ll make it harder for us.’
Outside, a rifle coughed. The bullet struck a window and left a small round hole in it.
Dale said quickly, ‘If I’m in the way, I’ll go down into the cellar.’ She wanted to tell him to be careful, but there was no use in that, any more than there was in this wild emotion that swept away her strength and will, that left her weak and flaccid in his presence.
‘They’re spreading out,’ Casey reported. ‘One of us had better make a round of the windows.’
‘I’ll go,’ Hal agreed. He called to Dale, as she followed Susie down the stairs into the basement: ‘
Hal made a tour of the first floor, stopping at each window for a careful inspection of the terrain in front. He caught sight of a man slipping back of the garage. At once he fired, with no intention of hitting the fellow, but to let the enemy know the defenders were on the alert.
Bullets spattered against the walls of the house. Somebody was tinkering with the car in the garage, perhaps trying to turn on the ignition without a key. Presently he gave it up, called something to a companion, and walked to the group of horses tied to a rack at the corral. He mounted one, waved a hand, and went down the valley road at a canter. It was an easy guess that he was going to telephone for reinforcements. Now that the wire had been cut, the hill men did not worry about help for the besieged. After a time the Seven Up and Down punchers would ride home, to find themselves prisoners. Probably they would be held under guard until Hal Stevens had been rubbed out. No doubt that was the plan.
Except for an occasional shot, the firing died down. The outlaws evidently felt they had the situation in hand and did not intend to take chances. This Fabian policy suited the men in the ranch house, since it could not be many minutes before aid arrived from the M K. When Wall and the others got here, the outlaws would be outnumbered. Evidently Fenwick had picked up one man on the way down, but he had been in too great a hurry to cut off the retreat of Stevens to stop for more.
WALL SLAMMED the receiver back on the hook and ran out to the porch. His voice lifted to a shout. ‘Hi, Mr. Arnold —Bill —Mike! Trouble at the Seven Up. We’ve got to jump.’
They came running toward Wall — Arnold from his cabin, Mike from the horse he was saddling, Bill Nuney and Carlos Vallejo from the corral. Swiftly Wall explained. Miss Dale had called. Stevens was at her ranch and a lot of his enemies were outside ready to attack. That was all he knew.
‘Sure it was Miss Lovell talking?’ Arnold asked.
‘Yes. I’d know her voice anywhere. We’ll take the station wagon. Better leave a note for the other boys to join us when they drift in, Mike. Too bad there’s only one rifle here, but that will have to do.’ Wall swung round sharply on Nuney. ‘You and Carlos sitting in with us, Bill —or not?’
Bill’s eyes asked a question of Carlos. He knew what he was going to do. The Mexican nodded. Nuney said, annoyed at the query, ‘Hell, yes!’
They got their weapons, piled into the station wagon, and started down the hill to the valley.
‘Did Miss Lovell say how many of Black’s men are there — or how they are armed?’ Arnold wanted to know.
‘She didn’t say a thing more than I told you,’ Wall replied.
‘If they have rifles, they can keep us from getting close,’ Mike said. ‘Unless we barge ahead anyhow.’
‘Any hill road leading to the ranch from the rear?’ Arnold inquired.
‘Not one we can strike from here.’ Wall grinned. ‘Only thing to do is pound right up the hill — and pray.’
They decided to stop for a few moments at the brow of the mesa on which the ranch house stood and let Nuney pump the rifle as fast as he could, to give the impression that several weapons were in action, after which they would make a run in the car for the house.
As soon as they reached the paved valley road, Mike put his foot down and set the station wagon racing. They were doing better than ninety when they swept past a wagon loaded with hay. Just beyond a curve an old Mexican driving a ramshackle outfit drew aside hurriedly to let the car thunder past. ‘Mother of God!’ he cried in Spanish, and wondered what kind of liquor the mad Americanos had been drinking.
Mike slackened to take the side road for the Seven Up and Down. A man on horseback drew aside to miss being hit. Nuney recognized him, a boy named Rusty Peters who worked for Black.
On the brow of the mesa a stone’s throw from the house, Mike braked. The crack of a gun sounded. It came from a front window of the house. A man crouched back of the tool shed answered it. Around the corner of the stable the head of Cash Polk craned to check up the situation. Nuney took a quick shot at it. The head was hurriedly withdrawn.
‘It’s Doc back of the shed,’ Vallejo said.
Nuney pumped two bullets at the man. He gave a yelp and started to run, disappearing back of the building.
A moment later he could be seen running for the stable. From the way he moved, it was plain he had been hit. Nuney raised his rifle. Vallejo leaned forward, his shoulder jolting against his friend’s elbow. The shot went wild. Bill Nuney grinned. He had not intended to kill Doc, though if his rifle had covered Brick Fenwick, he would not have hesitated an instant.
Mike threw in the clutch and took the car to the house, stopping in front of the porch. Casey opened the door, and they piled out of the station wagon into the living room. Blithely Hal gave them the old Spanish welcome.
He was very glad, indeed, to see them. Never had the lean brown faces of these hard, tough men looked better to him.
Over his shoulder Dale’s voice said quietly, ‘Mr. Stevens has taken the words out of my mouth, gentlemen.’
Hal turned, embarrassed. He had not known she had come up from the basement. His greeting had been a little unfortunate, since it was her place and not his to tell them this was their home.
‘We’re right glad to see you, boys,’ Casey said. ‘Quite a bit of excitement on the Soledad today. Brick Fenwick pretty nearly sent Mr. Stevens over the hill.’
Hal corrected the statement with a smile. ‘I’m a long way from being a dead man, though Brick’s intentions were good. A scratch.’
‘Where you been these last few days, Hal?’ asked Wall. ‘Yore friends would feel better if you would leave an address when you disappear.’
‘Amen to that,’ agreed Arnold. ‘Let’s hear your story.’
‘I went into the hills to talk Mullins into surrendering,’ Hal explained. ‘We had some trouble getting down here, but Miss Lovell and Casey fixed that up. So here we are.’
‘When did Brick plug you?’ inquired Mike.
‘About a half an hour ago,’ Dale answered. ‘He was here talking peace terms and started shooting as he was leaving.’
Through the open door the sound of horses’ hoofs came down the wind. ‘Some gents pulling their freight,’ announced Nuney from the window where he was posted. ‘They’re riding back into the hills and not down into the valley.’
‘We can run the station wagon up far as the gap and head them off maybe,’ Wall suggested.
‘So we can, if we get going now,’ Hal agreed. ‘But we’ll have to hurry.’ He started for the door.
‘Hold on a minute,’ Arnold interposed. ‘You’re staying here. A doctor has to look at your wound.’
A chorus of assent drowned Hal’s remonstrance. He had done enough. They would carry on while he rested. This avalanche of public opinion proved too much for him. He had to yield to it.
‘You’d better send for a nurse too,’ he said sarcastically.
‘Aren’t you satisfied with the one you have?’ Arnold asked; with a glance at Dale.
‘She is decorative and efficient,’ Hal agreed.
‘But bossy,’ Dale added. ‘Mr. Stevens thinks a woman ought to know her place and keep it. He frequently tells me so.’
It was decided that two men should stay on the ranch with Hal and the women. Bill Nuney and Carlos Vallejo were picked, chiefly because the others thought it might be embarrassing for them to join in an attack on their former companions. The sheriff’s posse was to follow and meet the others at Paddy Ryan’s mine. Dale agreed to join Susie in cooking food for the men, to be sent up later either by Elbert or one of the ranch hands.
In the station wagon Casey, Mike, Wall, and Arnold took the road that wound through the foothills toward the notch in the range beyond the barrancas back of the Seven Up and Down. They saw nothing of the outlaws, who were not following the trace, but cutting directly across the hills. Their plan was to hold the ridge and drive Black’s men back if possible. With luck the fellows might be caught between two fires, assuming that the sheriff’s men arrived in time to join in the battle before they escaped.
THE UNEXPECTED arrival of the M K men in the station wagon was a blow to the outlaws. Since the news was out that the hill rustlers were in the valley and on the prod, others would presently pour in to wipe them out Already Doc was wounded. They had better get away before it was too late.
‘I’m lightin’ outa here now,’ Cash Polk said. ‘Mighty soon this place will be a hornets’ nest.’
‘You’re easy scared, Cash,’ Brick Fenwick jeered.
The boy killer was in a sullen and dangerous mood. He wanted to stay and finish this job. Though he had wounded Stevens, he felt pretty sure the cattleman was not badly hurt. Yet he knew Polk was right. It was time to be going.
‘We can’t ride down into the valley now,’ Frawley snapped. ‘Before we reached the hills we would be cut off sure.’
That was very likely. No doubt men were already busy at telephones stirring up their neighbors for the man hunt. To reach the Rabbit Ear country by way of the hill notch back of the Seven Up would necessitate circuitous travel over very rough country, but it was the alternative offering the better chance of safety.
They helped Doc to the saddle, opened the gate into the west pasture, and put their horses to a canter. Fenwick led the way and Doc brought up the rear. The wound of the little rustler was paining him a great deal and the jolting of the cowpony kept his side bleeding. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, but he clamped his teeth to stick it. He leaned forward and clung to the horn of the saddle.
Polk cut across to ride beside him. ‘How you doing, Doc?’ he asked.
The little man said, ‘Fine.’
‘Once we reach the hills we can hole-up somewhere and fix you up.’
‘Y’betcha,’ Doc grunted, jaws set.
‘Soon as we get through Paddy’s Notch we’ll be okey,’ Polk went on. ‘It’s not more than four-five miles.’
They wound in and out among the hills, bearing to the right. Frawley and Fenwick were far ahead of the other two. Polk called to them two or three times, but they paid no attention. They were looking after themselves.
‘Go ahead and join those yellow coyotes, Cash,’ advised Doc. ‘Probably I won’t make it anyhow.’
Polk had an urgent desire to do just that. Fear was riding his shoulders now. But Doc was his neighbor. They had always been friendly and stood together. He could not ride away and leave him. Weakly he shook a fist at those in front and cursed them bitterly. It was his opinion that after Fenwick and Frawley were through the notch, neither of them would wait for their lagging companions.
The shoulders of Doc drooped lower. His fingers clung desperately to the saddle horn. But he made no complaint. The horses were walking. Polk rode knee to knee with the wounded man. He knew that Doc could not stay in the hull at any faster gait.
‘Not far now,’ Polk encouraged. ‘I’d say no more than a mile to the gap.’
To them there came sounds like the popping of distant firecrackers. Polk pulled up his mount. He knew at once that the pass had been blocked by the enemy. A cold heavy lump of despair settled in his stomach.
Slowly Doc slid from the saddle to the ground. Polk swung down and pulled the inert body from under the belly of the pony. He had no water. All he could do was to open the clothing of his companion and try to bind a bandanna handkerchief around the wound.
The beat of a horse’s hoofs startled him. Polk dragged out a revolver and waited. A laboring horse pounded at a gallop over the hill crest. Two riders were astride it, Frawley and Fenwick.
‘What happened, boys?’ Polk asked.
Frawley spat out a furious oath. ‘They were waiting for us at the gap. One of them got Brick’s horse.’
‘Then we’re trapped!’ Polk cried.
‘Not by a damn sight.’ Fenwick swung from the back of the horse to the ground. His cold narrowed eyes fastened on the small huddled body of the unconscious man.
‘Doc fainted,’ explained Polk. ‘Loss of blood, I guess. Are they coming after us from the notch?’
Brick showed his teeth in a snarling grin. ‘What do
‘We might get across the range farther down,’ Polk suggested, white to the lips with rising fear. ‘We’ll have to rope Doc on his horse.’
The evil slitted eyes of Fenwick shuttled back to the slack body at his feet. ‘Doc won’t need a horse,’ he said, almost in a whisper.
Polk tried to misread what he saw in the face of the young villain. ‘That’s right. If we left him here, they would take care of him better than we can. He’s too sick to travel.’
‘But not too sick to talk later. We’ll leave him here, period.’ Brick drew a revolver and put a bullet through the temple of the wounded man. ‘Three horses — three men,’ he said callously. ‘That fixes everything nice.’
Impatiently Frawley cried, ‘Let’s get outa here before they jump us.’
Fenwick swung to the saddle of Doc’s horse and turned it at the same moment. The big man followed him out of the draw. Polk leaned against his horse, weak and nauseated. Though a man who had long since turned his back on honesty and decency, he was not cold-blooded enough to stomach ruthlessness like this. For two or three minutes he stood there, clenched fingers clinging to the mane of the pony. Waves of fear and horror swept through him. If Fenwick decided he was a nuisance, or if some crazy suspicion filtered into his brain, it would be Polk’s turn to go as Doc had gone.
Cash climbed to the back of his horse and moved down the draw. His two companions were just disappearing over the next rise. They cared nothing about what became of him. He was lucky that Brick had not destroyed him too. The little man came to an abrupt decision. He would cut loose from them and go his own way, clear out of the country if he could do so without being discovered. Maybe he could reach Big Bridge by the back road and from there get to Nogales. Across the line he could bury himself for a time.
FRAWLEY PULLED his mount up sharply. ‘Listen. Someone coming up the gulch. Several of them.’
To the fugitives came the sound of a horse’s hoof striking a rock. A voice drifted on the wind. Into the ravine ran a draw, angling sharply fifty feet above its mouth. The outlaws turned into it, swung round the bend, and dismounted. Frawley held the horses, while the younger man, rifle in hand, soft-footed to a thick clump of prickly pears from back of which he could watch the travelers in the gulch. A horse nickered in the defile, and Frawley, already shaken by fear, felt the grip of terror tighten his nerves. If one of the ponies he was holding neighed an answer, they were lost.
Brick counted the riders as they appeared. There were six of them, Sheriff Elbert in the lead, mounted on stock from the Seven Up and Down remuda. The young killer held his rifle in both hands, ready to lift and fire if the posse turned up the ravine. Elbert held a straight course, and Fenwick breathed a deep lungful of air in relief.
He rejoined his companion. The hunted men discussed their plight. The hills above and around them would be full of men spreading out to comb the barrancas for them. What chance of safety there was lay below. Nobody at the Seven Up would be expecting their return. At least four or five cars must be parked at the ranch house now. If they could sneak back and get hold of one, they might make a getaway. That was the idea of Fenwick, the bolder of the two. Frawley did not like any part of it, but he liked even less the thought of returning to the valley on horseback.
‘There may be nobody at the Seven Up except the girl and Stevens,’ Fenwick urged. ‘They figure we haven’t a chance, and the whole boiling of them are probably out to get us. Nobody would expect us to double back to the ranch.’
That might or might not be true, Frawley argued. If Elbert had thought to leave a guard at the ranch, the fellows could mow them down.
The young killer looked at him with disgusted contempt. ‘You talk as if we had a dozen choices. What else can we do — stay here and be trapped — ride down into the valley and be hunted by cars filled with men? It’s going to take guts to get us out of this jam, fellow. If you haven’t any, you’d better put a gun to yore head.’
Frawley growled an angry answer.
They rode in sullen silence till they came to a narrow gulch that ran down to the orchard back of the Lovell house. It was Fenwick’s opinion that they had better leave their mounts in the ravine, near the lower end of it, and move forward from there cautiously on foot. Again Frawley was not sure. Perhaps they might have to make a very hurried getaway, and if they were afoot they would be hampered.
‘Didn’t I tell you we were going to leave in one of the cars at the ranch?’ Fenwick snapped angrily.
‘And if you don’t get one?’
‘It will be because I won’t need one by that time. You and me, both, you white-livered rat.’
They tied to young ironwood trees and crossed the brushy slope that led to the mesa upon which the house had been built and the orchard planted. This stretch they took in laps, with mesquites and clumps of cactus as bases behind which to hide, creeping along the open spaces between with great care. As far as they could tell, the ranch headquarters was deserted. It might be there was not a soul there. The Lovell girl could have driven Stevens to town for medical attention. If so, one of the ranch cars must still be here. Frawley knew where the extra keys were kept in Dale’s desk. This would be better luck than they could dare hope for, but it was time their bad luck ran out after a long spell of it.
Through the barbed wire fence at the back of the orchard they snaked, inching forward in the lush grass to the shelter of a peach tree. The fruit season was past, and it was not likely that anybody would be in this part of the orchard. But one could not be sure, and to be seen would prove fatal to any chance of escape. The mesa dipped toward the house. From this distance only the roof of it could be seen through the foliage. They advanced from tree to tree, anxious eyes scanning the terrain. Presently they found themselves in the apple section, and from it they had a clear view of the ranch buildings.
Frawley caught at the younger outlaw’s arm. ‘Look!’
A man had come out of the bunkhouse and was taking a leisurely survey of the landscape, north, south, east, and west. He strolled a few steps toward the orchard, stopped to light a cigarette, then turned to go back into the bunkhouse.
The face of Fenwick tightened. An evil light came into his eyes. ‘It’s that double-crosser Nuney. I’ve a mind to blast him now.’
‘Are you crazy?’ Frawley’s hand pushed down the half-lifted barrel of the rifle. ‘If they find out we’re here, we won’t have a dead man’s chance.’
‘Don’t worry.’ The face of the killer was feral rather than human. ‘I’m saving my first bullet for Stevens.’
The big man looked at Fenwick suspiciously. He knew the reactions of the young ruffian were not dependable. Because his impulses were not under control, he was as dangerous as a tiger. In his warped mind now might be lurking the intention of killing Stevens now regardless of the cost.
‘Listen, Brick,’ he urged, a studied patience in his voice back of which were anxiety and irritation. ‘We’ve got to plan to get out of this tight alive. That comes first. We slip into the house without being seen and cover everybody we meet. No shooting, or they’ll come buzzing around us like hornets. If that vixen Dale Lovell is there we’ll take her in the car with us. Then they can’t shoot. Somewhere this side of Nogales we’ll drop her in the desert. If we don’t lose our heads, we can pull this off.’
The boyish desperado slid a sneering look at him. ‘Okey, wise guy,’ he agreed. ‘We’ll play it yore way.’
After they left the orchard, they were in the open for fifty yards. They crossed the vegetable garden and came into the house by way of the kitchen.
AFTER SHERIFF ELBERT’S posse had caught and saddled, Dale and Hal watched them ride into the hill country back of the ranch.
‘If our boys got to the pass in time and closed it, this may be the end of the road for the Black gang,’ Hal said.
‘I hope so,’ Dale replied, and took a long deep breath. ‘It’s a miracle you’re still alive.’
‘You were in our little local war too,’ he reminded her. ‘I won’t soon forget seeing you blaze away at those fellows in the pasture. You are one up on Marshal Bl?cher, if he really turned the tide at Waterloo. This was the second battle you have saved.’
‘My father brought me up outdoors.’ She smiled wryly. ‘You can’t be both a cowboy and a lady. At least I couldn’t manage it.’
He knew she was not fishing for a compliment. She was regretting that the conditions of her life had made her hard and unfeminine. Some instinct deeper than his judgment denied that this was true. The lovely lines of the slender graceful body, the fine dark eyes lighting a beautifully modeled face, the light and jocund tread that made her walk a joy to see, expressed a personality gentle and womanly. She had plenty of spunk, and the hostility she had inherited seemed always to be setting a spark to it. If necessary she could be hard, but his guess was that when she gave her heart to a man the surrender would be generous.
They walked back into the house. She lit a cigarette for him and another for herself.
He said, with a whimsical smile, ‘When we have taken care of these hill gentry you may find it hard to start hating me again, since we’ve been through so much together.’
Beneath the tan a warm color beat into her cheeks. ‘I’ll never hate you again,’ she said, and looked at the tip of her cigarette as if to make sure she had a good light. ‘Frank was right when he told me I was a hundred per cent pigheaded.’
‘Something to be said on both sides,’ Hal threw out. ‘You hold your convictions tightly. Frank is easy-going. He doesn’t hate people, at least not often.’
‘Neither do you. I don’t suppose you really hate Frawley or Fenwick, though both of them would give anything for a chance to kill you.’
‘Perhaps you can’t hate anybody for whom you have a contempt, but I certainly won’t be sorry to have the law close on them.’
‘I’ve been an awful prig,’ she confessed, after a moment of thought. ‘I hope I’ve learned to have some tolerance. Because Tom Wall had killed a man, I thought of him as a murderer — and as it turned out I might so easily have killed one myself.’
‘Did you think of me as one?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she answered swiftly. ‘Not for an instant.’
He pressed the lighted tip of his cigarette against the bottom of an ash tray and did the same with the one in her hand. She looked at him, surprised.
‘We can do better with our time now than smoke,’ he told her.
Her startled glance, born of an immense surprise, flickered over him. A faint tremor passed through her body. He took her hands in his and looked into her eyes.
‘Is it to be the way I want?’ he asked. ‘That you and I will walk together all our lives?’
‘Is that what you want — too?’ she answered.
‘That’s what I want.’
‘Even though I am — the way I am?’
‘Because you are the way you are.’
‘But you’ve always laughed at me — and showed me up — and enjoyed making me mad.’
He laughed, still teasing her. ‘And you’ve always lectured me — and disapproved of me — and thought I was a show-off.’
‘Oh, no — never the last,’ she protested. ‘I thought you were too reckless. I still do. Something inside of you bubbles up when you are in danger. You’ve kept me so worried.’
‘There’s an easier way to wipe away differences than by talk,’ he said, and took her in his arms.
Her warm strong body clung to his. She met his kisses with a passion keen-edged. A trumpet of joy sounded in her heart. She had found her man, the one with whom she wanted to live through the marching years, one to whom she would love making a thousand surrenders.
When at last she freed herself, she said, mirth in her eyes, ‘Isn’t there something you have forgotten?’
He knew what she meant. ‘Oh, that,’ he said gaily. ‘Lovers don’t need words to tell each other what they feel. You and I have used words to build a wall between us, and the first kiss blew them all away.’
‘Still, you might say it, for the record.’ He loved the laughter in her face. ‘Not enough of them to start another quarrel. Just three words.’
He said them.
She remembered of a sudden his wound. ‘Oh, my dear — your arm!’
‘A scratch. When the doctor gets here he’ll laugh at you for calling him.’ He added, ‘If I were overseas a nurse would dab something on it and a sergeant would hustle me back to my job.’
‘Why aren’t you in the army? I’ve wondered at that, though I’m glad you’re not.’
He explained to her that he had been repeatedly rejected because the authorities thought he was needed at home to raise beef. ‘And now I can get in,’ he chuckled. ‘I’m going to marry a woman who knows all about raising stock. She can run the M K in addition to the Seven Up. That’s why I’m marrying her.’
‘I’ll run them both and keep you as a foreman,’ she threatened.
‘We’ll see about that, Mrs. Stevens,’ he told her.
‘Now that I have stopped worrying about these hill desperadoes, you are going to give me an entire new set of anxieties,’ she complained, but with a smile.
‘No need to worry. You’ve seen how the bad penny keeps turning up all right.’
She made him sit down to rest. They spent a happy half-hour together, during which the world inhabitants were limited to two. At the end of that time she came back to matters mundane.
‘I wish somebody would come back from the hills and tell us that those dreadful men have been captured,’ she said. ‘They may have slipped past our boys and got away.’
Hal glanced by chance at the nearest window. What he saw brought him abruptly to his feet. Dale looked at his face and was shocked at the change in it.
‘Go down into the cellar — quick!’ he ordered. Swift strides were taking him to the table where he had laid down his revolver.
‘What is it?’ she asked, the color draining from her face.
‘Don’t talk,’ he told her harshly. ‘Go.’
She heard the sound of softly padding feet coming along the passage from the kitchen.
WHEN BRICK FENWICK soft-footed into the livingroom, Frawley at his heels, Dale was standing by the bookcase, her face washed of color. Hal was on the opposite side of the room, near the head of the lounge. He held a revolver in his hand about waist-high, the barrel pointed floorward. The eyes in his hard-set lean face did not lift from the shallow glittering ones of the boy killer.
The outlaws were caught at momentary disadvantage. They both carried rifles, and at short range that weapon is unwieldy and slow to handle. With so much at stake, they had not dared to leave the rifles in the hall.
Frawley’s huge rounded shoulders filled the doorway. ‘Don’t start anything,’ he cried to Stevens. ‘All we want is a key to a car.’
Without lifting his gaze from Hal, Fenwick snapped an order from the side of his mouth to the other ruffian. ‘Keep yore trap shut. I’m runnin’ this.’
Hal said, his voice quiet and even, ‘There will be no shooting here unless you start it.’
Even then, in the dreadful stress of that moment, Dale was proud of her man. He carried his lean, flat-muscled body as one does who is physically fit and very sure of himself. The poised alertness of him told how well-balanced his reflexes were.
‘I’ve a mind to blast you right now,’ Fenwick croaked. ‘You’re living on borrowed time, damn you.’
A tight hard ball knotted below Dale’s heart. She reached a hand to the top of the bookcase to steady herself. The weight of it shook for an instant a small statuette standing there, the head of the Praxiteles Hermes.
‘I —you can have my coupe,’ she said unsteadily. ‘I’ll get the key.’
‘Where is the coupe?’ Fenwick asked.
‘At the end of the house.’
‘Get the key.’
Dale went to her desk, chose a bunch of three keys, took them to the outlaw, and walked back to the bookcase.
Still watching Stevens, the young scoundrel said to Dale, ‘You’re going with us, girl.’
Hal cut in curtly. ‘No.’
The cold eyes of the bandit filled with rage. ‘I say yes.’
‘Don’t be a fool, Fenwick,’ Hal answered. ‘Try anything like that, and this whole country would run you down.’
‘Time we got going, Brick,’ Frawley interrupted uneasily.
‘Come here, girl,’ ordered Brick, an ugly rasp to his voice. His rifle, still at the hip, pointed directly at his enemy.
Hal’s eyes, very searching and steady, held fast to the young bandit. ‘It won’t be that way,’ he warned, his voice dangerously gentle.
Frawley’s huge frame no longer blocked the doorway. He had sidestepped, to be out of direct range. Stevens did not look at him, but his eyes registered the maneuver.
‘Stay where you are, Frawley,’ the cattleman enjoined.
The big man stopped. ‘Now, boys,’ he wheedled. ‘No need of trouble. All we want is to make a getaway. We don’t aim to hurt the young lady.’
The jaw muscles of Fenwick stood out tensely like ropes. Hal read the signal in the stormy evil lights flooding his eyes. The rifle and the revolver roared, almost together. Already Hal’s pliant body was on its way to cover back of the lounge head. The guns crashed again. Frawley flung up his rifle to fire. Something hurtled across the room and struck him on the chin. He staggered back, his shot gone wild. The Hermes bust broke into fragments and littered the floor.
Fenwick swayed on his feet, which seemed rooted to the carpet. On his face was a horrible twisted look of agony. His third bullet went through the ceiling just as a slug from the revolver caught him in the stomach. It took a fourth one to bring him down. He rolled over, arms flung out at length, the rifle under his body.
The big ruffian had disappeared. He had snatched the key from the floor where Brick Fenwick had dropped it and had vanished through the doorway. His heavy boots clumped on the porch as he ran.
Hal’s gaze did not lift from the inert figure on the floor. He moved slowly forward, gun in hand, a thin trickle of smoke rising from the barrel. With the toe of his boot he nudged the ribs of his fallen foe, to make sure the man was beyond doing any mischief.
He heard a strangled sob and turned to look at Dale. She was leaning heavily against the bookcase, the eyes in her ashen face big as a biscuit. Hal walked across the room and said gently, ‘It’s all over.’
‘Are you… all right?’ she asked, in a whisper.
‘All right, thanks to you again. I couldn’t watch Frawley too. If you hadn’t flung the little statue he would have got me.’
Two rifles crashed outside, so close they sounded almost like one. Another sounded, a moment later.
Hal ran out to the porch. Nuney and Vallejo were approaching from the bunkhouse. Frawley lay in front of the coupe.
‘Carlos got him,’ Nuney cried. ‘As he jumped down from the porch. We thought he had killed you.’
‘No. Fenwick is dead in the house. Lucky for me they had rifles in their hands and couldn’t use revolvers without warning me.’
Nuney looked at Hal with wondering admiration. ‘You certainly take the cake, sir. Yore friends leave you here at the house to keep you out of trouble while they hunt down these two wolves, and I’m blamed if they don’t come knocking at the door where you are and you rub out the worst of them. Come to think of it, you have busted this gang of bad men up almost single-handed. They start crowding you, and you kill three, take two prisoner, and reform two more. I never saw the beat of it. After today Tick Black will find himself playing a lone hand. What’s left of the boys will be slipping away fast as they can.’
Nuney’s prediction proved to be correct. There was an exodus of rustlers from the Rabbit Ear country. Cash Polk reached the border and escaped. Black, Chad, and two others were caught and faced a trial. Mullins turned state’s witness. His companions in crime were convicted.
In the peaceful days that followed, there was a double wedding in the Soledad Valley. But a week later, both husbands were in the armed forces. Tom Wall joined the Navy, Hal Stevens the Marines. When the rumor came back that Hal had sailed for the South Pacific, Casey voiced an opinion in the Seven Up and Down bunkhouse that was enthusiastically endorsed by those present, even though they knew it was a humorous exaggeration.
‘If Hal Stevens really has gone, the Japs had better throw in their hands,’ he said, ‘for that boy sure will clean them up.’
It is reasonable to hope that he will help a million or two more like him do that job.