But there was malice in Rogers' heart toward the two outlaw leaders, and a perverse devil lurked in him. For many months he had worshiped Barbara Morgan from a distance, vaguely aware that his passion for her could never be realized. But there was a spark of honesty and justice in Rogers despite his profession, and a sincere admiration for the girl that admitted of no thought of evil toward her.
He had almost betrayed his resentment to Deveny when in Lamo, on the day of the coming of Harlan, Deveny had boldly announced his intentions toward the girl; and it had been a dread of clashing with Deveny that had kept him from interfering. The will to protect the girl had been in Rogers' mind, but he lacked the physical courage to risk his life for her.
This man who had boldly entered the outlaw camp, after first defying Deveny in Lamo, had made a stirring appeal to the good in Rogers; and he foresaw that trouble, in which Harlan had a chance to emerge victorious, was certain. And he had decided to align himself with the Pardo gunman.
Therefore, on this morning, when it was certain that the cattle in the corral must be moved, he deliberately refused to exercise his prerogative. Instead, he waited until after breakfast—when the men were congregated outside the bunkhouse door—when he was certain they would all hear him.
Harlan had come out, too. He had not visited the Rancho Seco for more than a week, fearing that his absence might jeopardize the advantage he had gained over the men through the killing of Latimer.
With the attention of all the men centered upon him, Rogers walked close to Harlan, speaking loudly:
"Them cattle ought to hit the trail, Harlan. It's up to you—you're the boss. Do we move 'em—an' where?"
A comprehensive light gleamed in Harlan's eyes.
"They move," he said shortly. "Drive them where you've been drivin' them."
As though he had been giving orders to the outlaws all his life, he briskly mentioned the names of the men who were to form the trail herd.
Not a man dissented. Those whose names were called quickly detached themselves from the group, and sought the horse corral; where they roped their horses and began to make preparations to obey Harlan's order. And later, when the cattle were driven out of the corral, and the trail herd crew straggled behind them over the level that led southward, the men were grinning.
For Harlan had told them that their share of the spoils resulting from the sale of the cattle was to be materially increased. He had likewise told them that they might spend an extra day in "town" before their return.
Only one man besides Harlan remained at the Star after the herd vanished into the southern distance. That man was the black-bearded fellow who had escorted Harlan to the ranchhouse on the occasion of his first visit—Lafe Woodward.
This man's admiration for Harlan had never been concealed. He had stayed as close to Harlan as possible; and from his manner Harlan had divined that the man was eager to ingratiate himself.
Woodward stood near Harlan as the herd and the men vanished. He had grinned widely when, just before the outfit had departed, he had heard Rogers whisper to Harlan:
"You've made yourself solid with the bunch, for sure, by offerin' 'em a bigger divvy. They've been grumblin' about it for a long time. They're all sore at Haydon an' Deveny for bein' greedy. But you're sure cookin' up a heap of trouble with Haydon an' Deveny!"
Harlan grinned with grim mirthlessness. It had been his first opportunity to stir up dissension and strife in the outlaw camp, and he had taken instant advantage of it. He had created factional feeling, and he was prepared to accept the consequences.
And, later in the day, when he saw Haydon ride in, dismount and cast a surprised glance at the empty corral, he knew that the moment for which he had planned, had come.
Woodward was nowhere in sight; and Harlan, who had been in the blacksmith-shop, made himself visible to Haydon by stepping outside.
Haydon called to him, sharply; and Harlan walked slowly to where the outlaw chief stood, a saturnine grin on his face, his eyes alight with a cold humor that might have been illuminating to Haydon had he taken the trouble to look into them.
Haydon was laboring under some strong passion. He was suppressing it with an effort, but it showed in his tensed muscles and in his flushed face.
"Where are the cattle?" he demanded, his voice a trifle hoarse.
"They're headed for Willow Wells—where you've been sellin' them."
"By whose orders?" Haydon's voice was choked with passion.
"Mine," drawled Harlan. Harlan might have explained that the stock had been suffering in the crowded enclosure, thus assuaging Haydon's wrath. But he gave no explanation—that would have been a revelation of eagerness to escape blame and the possible consequences of his act. Instead of explaining he looked steadily into Haydon's eyes, his own cold and unblinking.
He saw Haydon's wrath flare up—it was in the heightened color that spread upward above the collar of his shirt; he saw the man's terrific effort at self-control; and his look grew bitter with insolence.
"What's botherin' you?" he said.
"The cattle—damn it!" shouted Haydon. "What in hell do you mean by sending them away without orders?"
"I'm havin' my say, Haydon. We agreed to split everything three ways. Authority to give orders goes with that. That was the agreement. A man's got to be either a captain or a private, an' I've never played second to any man. I ain't beginnin' now."
"Why, damn you!" gasped Haydon. His eyes were aglare with a terrible rage and hate; he stepped backward a little, bending his right arm, spreading the fingers.
Harlan had made no move, but the light in his eyes betrayed his complete readiness for the trouble that Haydon plainly meditated.
"Yes," he said, slowly, drawling his words, a little! "It's come to that, I reckon. You've got to flash your gun now, or take it back. No man cusses me an' gets away with it. Get goin'!"
Haydon stood, swaying from side to side, in the grip of a mighty indecision. The fingers of his right hand spread wider; the hand descended to a point nearer to his pistol holster.
There it poised, the fingers hooked, like the talons of some giant bird about to clutch a victim.
Had Haydon faced a man with less courage; had Harlan's iron control lacked that quality which permitted him to give an enemy that small chance for life which he always gave them, death might have reigned at the Star again. Haydon owed his life to that hesitation which had made Harlan famous.
And as the strained, tense seconds passed with both men holding the positions they had assumed, it seemed Haydon was slowly beginning to realize that Harlan was reluctant, was deliberately giving him a chance.
A change came over Haydon. The clawlike fingers began to straighten; imperceptibly at first, and then with a spasmodic motion that flexed the muscles in little jerks. The hand became limp; it dropped slowly to his side—down beyond the pistol holster. Then it came up, and the man swept it over his eyes, as though to brush away a vision that frightened him.
His face grew pale, he shuddered; and at last he stood, swaying a little, his mouth open with wonder for the phenomenal thing that had happened to him.
Harlan's voice, cold and expressionless, startled him:
"You wasn't meanin' to cuss me?"
"No!" The denial was blurted forth. Haydon grinned, faintly, with hideous embarrassment; the knowledge that he had been beaten, and that he owed his life to Harlan, was plain in his eyes.
He laughed, uncertainly, as he made an effort to stiffen his lagging muscles.
"I was a bit flustered, Harlan; I talked rather recklessly, I admit. You see, I've been used to giving orders myself. I was riled for a minute."
"That goes!" said Harlan, shortly. His voice had changed. The slow drawl had gone, and a snapping, authoritative sharpness had replaced it.
Haydon gazed at him with a new wonder. He sensed in Harlan's manner the consciousness of power, the determination to command. At a stroke, it seemed, Harlan had wrenched from him the right to rule. He felt himself being relegated to a subordinate position; he felt at this minute the ruthless force of the man who stood before him; he felt oddly impotent and helpless, and he listened to Harlan with a queer feeling of wonder for the absence of the rage that should have gripped him.
"I'm runnin' things from now on," Harlan said. "I ain't interferin' with the Star. But I'm runnin' things for the boys. I told Rogers to drive the cattle to Willow's Wells—an' to sell them. I've promised the boys a bigger divvy. They get it. I've told them to take a day off, in town, after they turn the cattle over.
"There's got to be a new deal. The boys are fussed up—claimin' they ain't gettin' their share. I'm seein' that they do. You can't run a camp like this an' not treat the boys right."
The wonder that had been aroused in Haydon grew as Harlan talked; it increased in intensity until, when Harlan's voice died away, it developed into suspicion.
That was what Harlan had come to the Star for! He wanted to run the camp, to direct the activities of the outlaws in the valley. Power! Authority! Those were the things Harlan craved for.
Haydon saw it all, now. He saw that Harlan wanted to dominate—everything. He wanted to rule the outlaw camp; he wanted to run the Rancho Seco; he intended to get possession of the gold that Morgan had left, and he wanted Barbara Morgan.
The rage that had held Haydon in its clutch when he had called Harlan to him was reviving. Haydon's face was still white, but the fury in his eyes—slowly growing—was not to be mistaken.
Harlan saw it, and his lips straightened. He had expected Haydon would rage over what he had determined to tell him; and he was not surprised. He had deliberately goaded the man into his present fury. He had determined to kill him, and he had been disappointed when he had seen Haydon lose his courage when the crisis arrived. And now his deliberate and premeditated plan was to bear fruit.
Harlan was reluctant to kill, but there seemed to be no other way. Haydon was a murderer. He had killed Lane Morgan; he was an outlaw whose rule had oppressed the valley for many months. If Harlan could have devised some plan that would make it possible for him to attain his end without killing anybody, he would have eagerly adopted it.
But in this country force must be fought with force. It was a grim game, and the rules were inflexible—kill or be killed.
His own life would be safe in this section so long as he guarded it. Eternal vigilance and the will to take life when his own was threatened was a principle which custom had established. If he expected to save the girl at the Rancho Seco he could not temper his actions with mercy. And he knew that if he was to succeed in his design to disrupt the outlaw gang he would have to remove the man who stood before him, working himself into a new frenzy. There seemed to be no other way.
But Haydon seemed to have control of himself, now, despite the frenzied glare of his eyes. He was outwardly cool; his movements were deliberate—he had conquered his fear of Harlan, it seemed.
He laughed, harshly.
"Harlan," he said; "you had me going—talking that way. By Heaven! you almost convinced me that I'd let you run things here. I was beginning to believe I'd lost my nerve. But see here!"
He held out his right hand toward Harlan—it was steady, rigid, not a nerve in it quivered.
"You're fast with your guns, but you can't run any whizzer in on me—you can't intimidate me. You killed Latimer the other day; and you've got the boys with you. But you can't run things here. Have all the boys gone?"
Harlan spoke lowly; his eyes were keenly watchful. This flare-up on Haydon's part was merely a phase of his confused mental condition. He saw that Haydon did not mean to use his gun—that he intended to ignore it, no doubt planning to regain his authority when the men of the outfit returned—when he might enlist the support of some of them.
"Woodward's here—eh?" laughed Haydon. He raised his voice, shouting for the man. And Harlan saw Woodward come from behind an outbuilding, look toward the ranchhouse, and then walk slowly toward them.
Woodward halted when within several paces of the two, and looked from one to the other curiously, his eyes narrowed with speculation.
"Woodward," directed Haydon; "hit the breeze after the outfit and tell them to drive those cattle back here!"
Harlan grinned. "Woodward," he said, gently; "you climb on your cayuse an' do as Haydon tells you. Haydon is figurin' on cashin' in when you do."
Haydon blustered. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that if Woodward goes after the boys I'm goin' to blow you apart. I'm givin' the orders around here!"
Watching Haydon, Harlan saw that he was not exhibiting rage, but intense interest. He was not looking at Harlan, but at Woodward. And, turning swiftly, his guns both leaping into his hands with the movement—for he had a swift suspicion that Woodward might be standing with Haydon against him—he saw that Woodward had fallen into a crouch; that the man's right hand was hovering over his pistol holster, and that his eyes were gleaming with a light that could mean only the one thing—murder.
Backing slowly away from both Haydon and Woodward, Harlan watched them, his guns ready for instant action should he catch any sign that would indicate trickery toward himself.
He saw no such signs. It became plain to him that Woodward had no eyes for anyone but Haydon, and that Haydon's attention was fixed upon Woodward with an intentness that meant he had divined that Woodward's peculiar manner had a definite, personal meaning.
Woodward continued to advance on Haydon. He was waving his left hand as though giving Harlan a silent order to get out of his way, while his gaze was centered upon Haydon with an unspoken promise of violence, fascinating to behold.
It seemed to have fascinated Haydon. Harlan saw him shrink back, the bluster gone out of him, his face the color of ashes. He kept stepping back, until he brought up against the rear wall of the ranchhouse; and there he stood, watching Woodward, his eyes bulging with dread wonder.
Harlan saw his lips move; heard his voice, hoarse and throaty:
"It's a frame-up—a frame-up. Both of you are out to get me!"
This was Woodward. He was a sinister figure, with his black beard seeming to bristle with passion, his eyes flaming with it; all his muscles tensed and quivering, and his right hand, with clawlike fingers, poised above the butt of his pistol.
"Frame-up!" he repeated, laughing hoarsely between his teeth. "Hell's fire! Do you think it takes two men to 'get' you—you miserable whelp?
"I've been waitin' for this day—waitin' for it, waitin' to get you alone—waitin' for the boys to go so's I could tell you somethin'.
"You know what it is. You ain't guessin', eh? Listen while I tell you somethin'. The day 'Drag' Harlan got in Lamo he brought news that Lane Morgan had been killed out in the desert. I heard the boys sayin' you had a hand in it. But I thought that was just talk. I didn't believe you was that kind of a skunk. I waited.
"Then you sent me over to the edge of the level, near the Rancho Seco—where Harlan found that flattened grass when he rode over here. You told me to watch Harlan and Barbara Morgan. You said you thought Harlan would try some sneak game with her.
"You can gamble I watched. I saw Harlan standin' guard over her; I saw him follow that sneak Lawson. I heard the shot that killed Lawson, an' I saw Harlan tote him downstairs, an' then set on the door-sill all night, guardin' Barbara Morgan.
"The sneakin' game was played by you, Haydon. When I saw Harlan headin' toward the valley the day he come here, I lit out ahead of him. And when he got to the timber over there I brought him in.
"An' I heard you talk that day. I heard him sayin' that you killed Lane Morgan. He said my dad told him you fired the shot that killed him."
Harlan started and leaned forward, amazed. But Haydon swayed, and then steadied himself with an effort, and stared at Woodward with bulging, incredulous eyes.
"Your dad?" he almost shrieked; "Lane Morgan was your father?"
Woodward's grin was wolfish. He took two or three steps toward Haydon—panther-like steps that betrayed the lust that was upon him.
"I'm Billy Morgan," he said, his teeth showing in a merciless grin; "Barbara's brother. Flash your gun, Haydon; I'm goin' to kill you!"
Haydon clawed for his pistol, missing the butt in his eagerness, and striving wildly to draw it. It snagged on a rawhide thong that supported the holster and his fingers were loosening in the partial grip when Billy Morgan shot him.
He flattened against the wall of the ranchhouse for an instant, staring wildly around him; then his head sagged forward and he slid down the wall of the ranchhouse into the deep dust that was mounded near it.
A DEAD MAN WALKS
Harlan had paid strict attention to Lane Morgan's words at Sentinel Rock, and he remembered that Morgan had told him that his son, whom he had called "Bill," had left the Rancho Seco on some mission for the governor. Evidently it had not occurred to Morgan that his son's mission had taken him only to the valley in which reigned those outlaws Morgan had reviled.
But it was plain to Harlan that "Billy" was here—he had said so himself, and he had given proof that he had been watchful and alert to Barbara's interests. And now was explained young Morgan's interest in himself. The thought that during all the days he had spent at the Rancho Seco, his movements had been watched by the man who had just killed Haydon, brought a glow of ironic humor to Harlan's eyes.
During a long interval, through which Billy Morgan stood over Haydon, watching him with a cold savagery, Harlan kept at a respectable distance, also watching.
He saw that for Haydon the incident had been fatal. The man's body did not move after it slipped to the ground beside the ranchhouse wall. Yet Morgan watched until he was certain; then he slowly wheeled and looked at Harlan.
"That settles him—damn him!" he said, with a breathlessness that told of the intense strain he had been laboring under.
Still Harlan did not speak; and his guns were in their holsters when Morgan walked close to him, grinning wanly.
"I had to do it. There's no use tryin' to depend on the law in this country. You've seen that, yourself."
"I've noticed it," grinned Harlan. "You're feelin' bad over it. I wouldn't. If it had been my dad he killed I couldn't have done any different. I reckon any man with blood in him would feel that way about a coyote like that killin' his father. If men don't feel that way, why do they drag murderers to courts—where they have courts—an' ask the law to kill them. That's just shovin' the responsibility onto some other guy.
"I've handed several guys their pass-out checks, an' I ain't regrettin' one of them. There wasn't one of them that didn't have it comin' to him. They was lookin' for it, mostly, an' had to have it. I've heard of guys that had killed a man feelin' squeamish over it—with ghosts visitin' them at night; an' sufferin' a lot of mental torture. I reckon any man would feel that way if he'd killed an inoffensive man—or a good man, or one that hadn't been tryin' to murder him." He grinned again. "Why, I'm preachin'!"
And now into his gaze as he looked at Morgan, came cold reproach.
"You wasn't figurin' to let Barbara play it a lone hand?" he said.
"Hell's fire—no!" denied Morgan, his eyes blazing. "I've been watchin' the Rancho Seco—as I told Haydon. I saw Barbara set out for Lamo. There was no one followin' her, an' so I thought she'd be all right. That mixup at Lamo slipped me. But I seen you an' Barbara come back, an' I heard the boys talkin' about what happened at Lamo. I'd heard of you, too; an' when I seen you come back with Barbara I watched you. An' I seen you was square, so I trusted you a heap.
"An' I had a talk with Sheriff Gage about you, an' he told me my dad had sent to Pardo for you, through Dave Hallowell, the marshal of Pardo. Gage said you was out to clean up Deveny an' Haydon, an' so I knowed I could depend on you."
"Barbara don't know you're hangin' around here—she ain't known it?"
"Shucks, I reckon not," grinned Morgan. "I didn't come here for six months after I left the Rancho Seco—until I growed a beard. Barbara's been within a dozen feet of me, an' never knowed me. I've been thinkin' of telling her, but I seen Haydon was sweet on her, an' I didn't dare tell her. Women ain't reliable. She'd have showed it some way, an' then there'd have been hell to pay."
"An' I've been pridin' myself on takin' care of Barbara," said Harlan. "I feel a heap embarrassed an' useless—just like I'd been fooled."
"You've done a thing I couldn't do," confessed Morgan; "you've busted Haydon's gang wide open. If you hadn't showed up there'd have been nothin' done. There's some of the boys that ain't outlaws—boys that are with me, havin' sneaked into the gang to help me out. But we wan't makin' no headway to speak of."
Harlan looked at Haydon. "That guy was educated," he said. "What was his game? I've felt all along that there was somethin' big back of him—that he wasn't here just to steal cattle an' rob folks, an' such."
"You ain't heard," smiled Morgan. "Of course you wouldn't—unless Gage had gassed to you.
"There's a gang of big men in Frisco, an' in the East, figurin' to run a railroad through the basin. A year or so ago there was secret talk of it in the capital. It leaked out that the railroad guys was intendin' to run their road through the basin. They was goin' to build a town right where the Rancho Seco lays; an' they was plannin' to irrigate a lot of the land around there. The governor says it was to be big—an' likely it'll be big, when they get around to it.
"But them things go slow, an' a gang of cheap crooks got wise to it. They sent Haydon down here, to scare the folks in the basin into sellin' out for a song. They've scared one man out—a Pole from the west end. But the others have stuck. Looks like they was figurin' on grabbin' the Rancho Seco without payin' anything for it—Haydon intendin', I reckon, to put dad an' me out of the way an' marry Barbara. Then he could have cut the ranch up into town lots an' made a mint of coin."
"Deveny's a wolf. Haydon brought him here from Arizona—where he'd terrorized a whole county, runnin' it regardless. He figured to cash in, I reckon, but he's been grabbin' up everything he could lay his hands on, on the way."
"You'll be tellin' Barbara, now?" suggested Harlan.
"You're shoutin'!" said Morgan, his eyes glowing. "I'm hittin' the breeze to the Rancho Seco for fair." He looked at Haydon, and his eyes took on a new expression. "I was almost forgettin' what the governor sent me here for," he added. "The governor was wantin' to know who is behind Haydon an' Deveny, an' I'm rummagin' around in Haydon's office to find out. Goin'?" he invited.
Both looked down at Haydon as they passed him, and an instant later they were entering a door of the ranchhouse.
They had hardly disappeared when Haydon's head moved slightly.
His eyes were open; he glanced at the door of the ranchhouse through which Harlan and Morgan had entered. Then he raised his head, dragged himself to an elbow—upon which he rested momentarily, his face betraying the bitter malignance and triumph that had seized him.
He had realized that Morgan had meant to kill him, even before Morgan had revealed his identity, and his backward movement, which had brought him against the wall of the ranchhouse had been made with design. He had felt that even if he should succeed in beating Morgan, Harlan would have taken up the quarrel, for he knew that Harlan also had designs on his life. And with a cupidity aroused over the desperate predicament in which he found himself, he had decided to take a forlorn chance.
Morgan's bullet had struck him, but by a convulsive side movement at the instant Morgan's gun roared Haydon had escaped a fatal wound, and the bullet had entered his left side above the heart, paralyzing one of the big muscles of the shoulder.
His left arm was limp and useless, and dragged in the dust as he squirmed around and gained his feet. There was no window in the wall of the ranchhouse on that side; and he backed away, staggering a little, for he had lost much blood. He kept the blank wall before him as he backed away from the house; and when he reached his horse he was a long time getting into the saddle. But he accomplished it at last; and sent the horse slowly up the slope and into the timber out of which Harlan had ridden with the black-bearded man on the day of his first visit to the Star.
Back where the trail converged with the main trail that ran directly up the valley, Haydon, reeling in the saddle, sent his horse at a faster pace, heading it toward the Cache where he was certain he would find Deveny. And as he rode the triumph in his eyes grew. For he had heard every word of the conversation between Harlan and Morgan, and he hoped to get to the Cache before the two men discovered the trick he had played upon them—before they could escape.
Since the day he had heard that Harlan had appeared at the Star and had been taken into the outlaw band by Haydon, Deveny had exhibited fits of a sullen moroseness that had kept his closest friends from seeking his companionship. Those friends were few, for Deveny's attitude toward his men had always been that of the ruthless tyrant; he had treated them with an aloofness that had in it a contempt which they could not ignore. More—he was merciless, and had a furious temper which found its outlet in physical violence.
Deveny was a fast man with the big Colt that swung at his hip, a deadly marksman, and he needed but little provocation to exhibit his skill. For that reason his men kept the distance Deveny had established between them—never attempting familiarity with him.
Deveny had heard from a Star man the story of Harlan's coming to the Star and when a day or so later Haydon rode into the Cache, Deveny was in a state of furious resentment.
There had been harsh words between Haydon and Deveny; the men of the Cache had no difficulty in comprehending that Deveny's rage was bitter.
Not even when Haydon told him that his acceptance of Harlan had been forced by circumstances, and that he was tricking Harlan into a state of fancied security in which he could the more easily bring confusion upon him did Deveny agree.
"You're a damned fool, Haydon!" he told the other, his face black with passion. "That guy is slick as greased lightning—and faster. And he don't mean any good to the camp. He's out for himself."
Deveny did not intimate that his dislike of Harlan had been caused by the latter's interference with his plans the day he had held Barbara Morgan a prisoner in the room above the Eating-House in Lamo; but Haydon, who had heard the details of the affair from one of his men, smiled knowingly.
It was not Haydon's plan to let Deveny know he knew of the affair, or that he cared about it if he had heard. And so he did not mention it.
But in his heart was a rage that made his thoughts venomous; though he concealed his emotions behind the bland, smooth smile of good-natured tolerance.
"I'll handle him, Deveny," he said as he took leave of the other. "He'll get his when he isn't expecting it."
Deveny, however, had no faith in Haydon's ability to "handle" Harlan. He had seen in the man's eyes that day in Lamo something that had troubled him—an indomitability that seemed to indicate that the man would do whatever he set out to do.
But Deveny did not ride to the Star to see Harlan; he was reluctant to stir outside the Cache, and for many days, while Harlan was attaining supremacy at the Star, and while Haydon was absent on a mysterious mission, Deveny kept close to the Cache, nursing his resentment against Haydon, and deepening—with fancied situations—his hatred for Harlan.
It did not surprise Deveny when a Star man rode into the Cache one day and told him that Harlan had killed Latimer in a gunfight, and that Harlan was slowly but surely gaining a following among the men. The information did not surprise Deveny; but it sent his mind into a chaos of conjecture and speculation, out of which at last a conviction came—that Harlan was seeking control of the outlaw band; that Haydon's days as a leader were almost over, so far as he was concerned. For if Haydon insisted on taking Harlan into the secret councils of the camp he—Deveny—was going to operate independently.
The more his thoughts dwelt upon that feature the more attractive it seemed to him. Independence of Haydon meant that he could do as he pleased without the necessity of consulting anybody. He could rustle whatever cattle he wanted—getting them where he could without following Haydon's plans—which had always seemed rather nonsensical, embracing as they did the scheme of railroad building and town sites; and he could do as he pleased with Barbara Morgan, not having to consider Haydon at all.
It was that last consideration that finally decided Deveny. He was an outlaw—not a politician; he robbed for gain, and not for the doubtful benefits that might be got out of the building of a town. And when he looked with desire upon a woman he didn't care to share her with another man—not even Haydon.
For two or three days after the conviction seized Deveny, he pondered over his chances, and when he reached a decision he acted with the volcanic energy that had characterized his depredations in the basin.
On the morning of the day upon which Haydon returned to the Star to find the cattle gone and Harlan in control, Deveny appeared to a dozen Cache men who were variously engaged near the corral, ordering them to saddle their horses.
Later, Deveny and his men rode southward across a low plateau that connected the buttes near the entrance to the Cache with the low hills that rimmed the basin. They traveled fast, and when they reached the rimming hills they veered eastward upon a broad sand plain.
There was a grin on Deveny's face now—a grin which expressed craft, duplicity, and bestial desire. And as he rode at the head of his men he drew mental pictures that broadened his grin and brought into his eyes an abysmal gleam.
Barbara Morgan had yielded to the fever of impatience which had afflicted her during the latter days of Harlan's absence from the Rancho Seco. She had been impatient ever since she had been forced to stay close to the house by Harlan's orders; but she had fought it off until now, for she had been interested in Harlan, and had felt a deep wonder over his probable actions regarding her future.
She had known, of course, that real danger from Deveny existed, for the incident in Lamo had convinced her of that, but she felt that Harlan's fears for her were rather extravagant—it was rather improbable that Deveny would come boldly to the Rancho Seco and attempt to carry her away by force.
The clear, brilliant sunshine of the country dispelled so grotesque a thought; the peaceful hills seemed to smile their denial; and the broad level near the entrance to the basin sent a calm message of reassurance to her.
She had known Red Linton for a long time—for he had been with her father for nearly two seasons—and she had respected him for what he had seemed to be, a quiet, rather humorous man who did his work well, though without flourishes. He had never figured prominently in her thoughts, however, until the day Harlan had appointed him foreman of the Rancho Seco, and then her attention had been attracted to him because he had seemed interested in her.
And she had noted that Linton's interest in her seemed to grow after Harlan's departure. He had talked with her several times, and she had questioned him about Harlan's whereabouts. But Linton had not seemed to know; at least, if he did know, he kept his knowledge strictly to himself, not even intimating that he knew where Harlan had gone.
Another thing she noted was that Linton seemed to have her under surveillance. Whenever she left the house—even for a short ride eastward—where Harlan had told her she might ride without danger—she discovered that Linton immediately mounted his horse, to linger somewhere in sight.
The knowledge that she was watched began to irritate her and this morning she had got up with a determination to ride without company. With that end in view she had kept Billy all night in the patio; and when rather late in the morning she saw Linton riding eastward, she hurriedly threw saddle and bridle on the horse and rode westward, toward the big basin.
She kept the house between her and the point where she had seen Linton—until a turn northward became inevitable; and then she urged Billy to a faster pace, in an endeavor to cross the wide plain that reached to the entrance to the basin before Linton could see her.
Many times during the days before the coming of Deveny and Haydon to the valley she had ridden there; it had been a place in which reigned a mighty silence which she had loved, which had thrilled her. During those other days she was in the habit of riding to a point several miles up the valley—between the little basin where the Star was now and the Rancho Seco.
The trail led upward in a slow, gradual slope to that point—a rugged promontory that jutted out from a mesa that rose above the floor of the valley. The mesa was fringed at the southern edge with stunt oak and nondescript brush. But there were breaks in the fringe which permitted her to ride close to the edge of the mesa; and from there she could look many miles up the valley—and across it, where the solemn hills rimmed the southern horizon, to a trail—called the South Trail by cattlemen in the valley, to distinguish it from the main trail leading through the mighty hollow in which she rode.
When she reached the mesa she headed Billy directly for the break on the promontory. Dismounting, she stretched her legs to disperse the saddle weariness; then she found a huge rock which had been the seat from which she had viewed the wondrous landscape in the past.
The reverent awe with which she had always viewed the valley was as strong in her today as it had ever been—stronger, in fact, because she had not seen the place for some time, and because in her heart there now dwelt a sadness that had not been there in those other days—at least since her mother had died.
She was high above the floor of the valley; and she could see the main trail below her weaving around low mounds and sinking into depressions; disappearing into timber groves, reappearing farther on, disappearing again, and again reappearing until it grew blurred and indistinct in her vision.
In the marvelous clarity of the atmosphere this morning every beauteous feature of the valley was disclosed to her inspection. The early morning haze had lifted, and the few fleecy clouds that floated in the blue bowl of sky were motionless, their majestic billows glowing in the sun. She saw a Mexican eagle swoop over the cloud, sailing on slow wing high above it, and growing so distant in her vision that he became a mere speck moving in the limitless expanse of space.
It was a colossal landscape, and its creator had neglected no detail. And it was harmonious, from the emerald green that carpeted the floor of the valley near the gleaming river to the gigantic shoulders of the rugged hills that lifted their huge, bastioned walls into the blue of the sky. Some tall rock spires that thrust their peaks skyward far over on the southern side of the valley had always interested her; they seemed to be sentinels that guarded the place, hinting of an ages-old mystery that seemed to reign all about them.
But there was mystery in everything in the valley, she felt; for it lay before her, spreading, slumbrous, basking in the brilliant sunlight—seeming to wait, as it seemed to have waited from the dawn of the first day, for man to wonder over it.
She saw the Mexican eagle again after a while. It was making a wide circle beyond the rock spires, floating lazily above them in long, graceful swoops that were so lacking in effort that she longed to be up there with him—to ride the air with him, to feel the exhilaration he must feel.
As she looked, however, she caught a faint blur on the southern horizon of the big picture—a yellowish-black cloud that hugged the horizon and traveled rapidly eastward. It was some time before she realized that what she saw was a dust cloud, and there were men in it—horsemen.
She got up from the rock, her face slowly whitening. And into her heart came a presentiment that those men in the dust cloud were abroad upon an errand of evil.
No doubt the presentiment was caused from the dread and fear she had lived under for days—the consciousness that Deveny was in the valley, and a recollection of the warnings that Harlan had given her. And she knew the horsemen could not be Rancho Seco men—for they had gone southward from the ranch, and there was no grass range where the horsemen were riding. Also, the men were riding eastward, toward the Rancho Seco.
Trembling a little with apprehension, she mounted Billy and sent him down the slope to the floor of the valley. The descent was hazardous, and Billy did not make good time, but when he reached the level at the foot of the slope he stretched his neck and fell into a steady, rapid pace that took him down the valley swiftly.
As the girl rode, the presentiment of evil increased, and she grew nervous with a conviction that she would not be able to reach the Rancho Seco much in advance of the men. For she could see them more clearly now, because they were in the valley, traveling a shelving trail that sloped down from the hills toward the level that stretched to the ranchhouse.
It was several miles from where she rode to the point where the horsemen were riding, and she was traversing a long ridge which must have revealed her to the men if they looked toward her.
She had thought—after she had left the promontory—of concealing herself somewhere in the valley, to wait until she discovered who the men were and what their errand was; but she had a fear that if the men were Deveny's outlaws they might return up the valley and accidentally come upon her. Also, she had yielded to the homing instinct which is strong in all living beings, for at home was safety that could not be found elsewhere.
The South Trail, she knew, converged with the valley trail at the edge of the level. If she could reach that point a few minutes before the horsemen reached it she would rely on Billy to maintain his lead. Billy would have to maintain it!
Leaning far over Billy's mane she urged him on, coaxing him, flattering him, calling to him in terms of endearment. And the loyal little animal did his best, running as he had never run before.
Barbara though, watching the horsemen with eyes into which there had come a glow of doubt, began to realize that Billy was losing the race. Also, by the time she had gone four or five miles, she discovered that the men had seen her. For the trails were growing close together now—not more than half a mile of slightly broken country stretched between them, and she could see the men waving their hats; could hear their voices above the whir and clatter of Billy's passing.
Still, she was determined to win, and Billy's flanks felt the sting of the quirt that, hitherto, had swung from Barbara's wrist.
Billy revealed a marvelous burst of speed. But it did not last, and the horsemen, after hanging for an instant abreast of Billy, began to forge ahead.
The courageous little animal had almost reached the covert that Harlan had discovered the day he had visited the Star the first time, and was nobly answering the stern urge of the quirt when another horseman suddenly appeared on the trail directly ahead of the girl, seemingly having ridden out of the covert.
The trail was narrow, and Billy could not swerve around the new rider. So, sensing the danger of a collision he stiffened his legs, making a sliding halt that carried him a dozen feet, leaving him upon his haunches with Barbara frantically trying to keep to the saddle.
Then Billy's forehoofs came down; he grunted, heaved a tremendous sigh and stood, his legs braced, awaiting orders.
No order came. For no words escaped Barbara's lips. She sat in the saddle, her face ashen, terror clutching her.
For the horseman who had ridden out of the covert was Stroud, the Rancho Seco straw-boss. He was grinning, and in his eyes was a gloating triumph that she could not mistake.
"Lucky I took a notion to come in this mornin'," he said. "I just got here. I seen you hittin' the breeze for fair while you was quite a piece up the basin; an' I seen Deveny an' the boys a-fannin' it, too. An' I says to myself: 'Stroud, here's Deveny racin' to see Miss Barbara, an' her actin' like she don't want to see him. But I'll fix it so she does.'"
The girl touched Billy with the quirt, and the little animal lunged forward, close to Stroud's horse. As the two beasts came close together Barbara struck at Stroud with the quirt, hoping to disconcert him so that she could send Billy past him.
Stroud ducked and shot a hand out, seized the quirt and wrenched it from her hand. She screamed as the hairloop scraped the flesh of her wrist. And then she heard a thundering clatter of hoofs and saw Deveny and his men appear from beyond the covert and race toward her.
Deveny spoke no word. But as he rode toward her she saw the gleam in his eyes, and she silently fought Stroud, who had grasped her and was pulling her toward him.
It seemed to her that Deveny must have misunderstood Stroud's action, for it was clear to her—even in the stress and confusion of the moment—that Deveny thought Stroud had attacked her through motives that were strictly personal.
Anyway, before Stroud could speak Deveny's pistol glittered. And malignantly, his eyes blazing with a jealous, evil light, he shot Stroud—twice.
He sat in the saddle, his lips twitching into a sneer as he watched the straw-boss tumble from his horse and fall limply into the grass. Then with a smile that was hideous with a triumphant passion, he spurred his horse to Billy's side, pulled the girl from the saddle, and sent his horse up the valley, motioning his men to follow.
Red Linton had ridden eastward to examine the grass of the range in that direction, for it had been some days since he had sent Stroud to the southern range, and since the cattle had been there for some time before that Linton felt they should be driven to fresh grass.
And yet, perhaps, Linton's search for good grass should not have taken him so far from the ranchhouse, for he remembered his promise to Harlan that he would not let Barbara out of his sight. But Barbara had made no objection to his guardianship of her, so far, and he had longed for a ride.
He worried a little, though, and felt guilty of something very like treason to Harlan; and at last, not being able to ride farther with the thoughts that fought with his desires, he wheeled his horse and sent it scampering back toward the ranchhouse.
When he reached the ranchhouse he saw none of the men, for he had set them at tasks inside the buildings; and he rode down to the ranchhouse, resolved to have a talk with the girl.
When he rode around the near corner he saw that the patio gate was open. His horse leaped with the stern word he spoke to it, bringing him swiftly to the gate, where he dismounted and threw open a door that led into the house.
He called to Barbara, and receiving no answer, he ran from room to room, not hesitating until he had explored them all.
Emerging from the house, he mounted his horse and sent him westward, while he scanned the big level around him for sight of the girl.
She had always ridden into the valley in former days, he remembered—and during the days of his guardianship she had more than once threatened to ride there. And he had no doubt she had gone there now, out of perverseness, just to irritate him.
He held his horse to a rapid pace as he crossed the level, and he was still a mile distant from the covert where Barbara had met Stroud when he saw a group of horsemen traveling rapidly up the valley.
Linton rode on, his anxiety acute, a grave suspicion afflicting him. And when, after he had ridden a little farther, he saw Barbara's horse trotting slowly toward him, the stirrups swinging and flopping emptily against the saddle skirts, he drew a deep breath and brought his own horse to a halt, while he sat motionless in the saddle, tortured by bitter thoughts.
He had no doubt that what Harlan feared would happen, had happened—that Deveny had come for Barbara. And Deveny had found her, through his dereliction. He had relaxed his vigilance for only a short time, and during that time Deveny had come.
Linton looked back toward the Rancho Seco. The distance to the ranchhouse seemed to be interminable. He looked again up the valley, and saw that the horsemen were growing indistinct. Within a few minutes, so rapid was their pace, they would vanish altogether.
Linton thought of going back to the ranchhouse for the other men—that was why he had looked in that direction. But if he wished to keep the horsemen in sight he would not have time to get the other men. Before he could get the men and return to where he now stood Deveny would have taken the girl to that mysterious and unknown rendezvous in the hills in which his band had always concealed themselves, and Barbara would be lost.
Linton's lips straightened. He was to blame.
He knew the danger that would attend the action of following Deveny's men up the valley. Other men had attempted to trail them, and they had been found murdered, often with warnings upon them.
But Linton hesitated only momentarily. With a grim smile for his chances of emerging unscathed from the valley, he urged his horse up the trail, riding hard.
Several miles he had traveled, keeping the horsemen in sight, and he was beginning to believe that he would succeed where others had failed, when, passing through a clump of timber he detected movement in some brush at a little distance back.
Divining that Deveny had seen him and had sent a man into the timber to ambush him, Linton threw himself flat on the horse's mane. He felt a bullet sing past him, coming from the right, and he got his pistol out and was swinging its muzzle toward the point from which the bullet had come when a gun roared at his left.
He felt a hot, searing pain in his side, and he reeled in the saddle from the shock. Instantly another bullet struck him, coming from the right. His pistol dropped from his weakening fingers, he toppled sidewise and tumbled limply into the dust.
Shortly afterward, seemingly while he was in a state of coma, he heard hoofbeats, rapidly growing distant.
He knew they were Deveny's men and he yielded to a vague wonder as to why they had not made sure of their work.
Doggedly, and with long and bitter effort, Linton began to turn himself so that he could get up. The pain from his wounds was excruciating, so that each muscular effort brought a retching groan from him. Yet he kept moving, twisting himself around until he got on his knees. From that position he tried a number of times to get to his feet, but he failed each time.
At last, though, with the help of a boulder that lay beside the trail, he got his feet under him and stood for an instant, staggering weakly. Then he began to move forward to his horse. When he managed at last to clutch the saddle skirt he was reeling, his knees bending under him. However, he managed to get one leg over the saddle, taking a long time to do it; and eventually he was in the seat.
He spent another long interval lashing himself to the saddle with the rope that he carried at the pommel; and then headed the horse toward the Rancho Seco.
He began to ride, urging the horse to what seemed to him a rapid pace. But he had not gone very far when he sagged against the pommel, lifelessly.
ROGERS TAKES A HAND
The trail herd had made good progress through the valley, and Rogers, aided by the Star men, had kept them going. The men feared no interference with the work, for they had terrorized the ranchers in the valley until the latter well knew the futility of retaliatory measures. Still, a certain furtive quickness of movement had always characterized the operations of the outlaws—the instinct to move secretly, if possible, and to strike swiftly when they struck was always strong in them.
Besides, the drive to Willow's Wells was not a long one, and the cattle could stand a fast pace. So it was not long after the herd had left the Star until it straggled up a defile in the hills and out upon the level where Deveny's men had to ride to take the south trail to the Rancho Seco.
The level extended southward for a distance of several miles to a grass range that the Star men knew well—for there had been times when they had grazed cattle there, making camp on their frequent trips to the Wells.
A range of low, flat hills marked the northern limits of the grazing section; and Rogers and his men trailed the cattle through the hills while the morning was still young.
The herd was through the hills, and Rogers, twisting in the saddle, was taking a last look over the plain to make certain there had been no prying eyes watching the movements of himself and the men, when he saw, far to the west, a group of horsemen just coming into view at the edge of the plain—seemingly having ridden out of the big valley.
Rogers wheeled his horse and watched the horsemen as they traveled eastward, making good time. He called to a man, named Colver, who was riding close to him.
"Them's Deveny's men—from the Cache. What in blazes are they up to? Somethin's in the wind, Colver—they're ridin' like the devil was after them an' burnin' the breeze for fair!"
Rogers sent his horse scampering to the crest of one of the hills where, concealed behind some brush, he watched the progress of Deveny's men eastward.
When they passed the point on the plain where they would have to veer northward if they intended to visit the Star, he breathed with relief. For he had almost yielded to a conviction that Deveny was headed for the Star.
But after the horsemen passed the point that led to the Star trail, a new anxiety seized Rogers—and a passion that sent the blood to his face swept over him.
His eyes were glowing with an excitement that he could not repress when he turned to Colver.
"Somethin's up!" he snapped. "Deveny's been sullen as hell for a good many days—ever since Harlan came to the Star. One of the boys was tellin' me he heard Deveny an' Haydon havin' it out over at the Cache. If there's goin' to be a ruckus I'm goin' to be in on it!"
He leaped his horse off the hill, racing him down into the grass plain after the other men. When he reached them he yelled sharply, and they spurred quickly to him, anticipating from his manner that danger threatened.
"I've got a hunch that hell's a-goin' to pop right sudden, boys," he told them. "An' we're goin' away from it. If there's any trouble we want to be in on it. Deveny's up to somethin'. You-all know about the agreement made between Haydon an' Harlan—that Harlan was to run the Rancho Seco without interference. Deveny's headed that way, an' Haydon ain't around. It's up to us boys to keep our eyes open.
"Harlan's at the Star. He won't be knowin' that Deveny is headin' for the Rancho Seco. Harlan's white, boys; he's done more for us guys since he's been at the Star than Haydon or Deveny ever done for us. He's promised us things that Haydon an' Deveny would never do. He's a white man, an' I'm for him. An' I'm for takin' orders from him from now on. Who's with me?"
"You're shoutin'!" declared Colver.
"It's time for a new deal," muttered another.
"You're doin' the yappin'," grimly announced a big man who was close to Rogers; "we're followin' your lead."
"I'm jumpin' for the Star then!" declared Rogers; "to put Harlan wise to where Deveny's headed for. We're leavin' the herd here until we find out what's goin' on. Half of you guys beat it to the Rancho Seco—trailin' Deveny an' his boys, to find out what they're doin'. You're herd-ridin' them if they go to monkeyin' with the Rancho Seco. Slope!"
Rogers had hardly ceased speaking when the outfit was on the move. There were eleven men, including Rogers; and they sent their horses leaping over the crest of the hill nearest them—dividing, as they reached the level on the other side with seemingly no previous arrangement, into two groups—one group going northeastward, toward the South Trail, and the other fading into the space that yawned between it and the point where the trail to the Star led downward into the big basin.
* * * * *
Haydon, holding hard to the pommel of the saddle, urging his horse along the trail that led up the valley, looked back whenever he reached a rise, his eyes searching the space behind him for the dread apparition that he expected momentarily.
He knew that it would not be long before Morgan and Harlan would emerge from the ranchhouse to discover that he had escaped; and he knew, too, that they would suspect that he had gone to the Cache.
He expected they would delay riding after him, however, until they searched for him in some of the buildings, and that delay, he hoped, would give him time to reach the Cache.
He was handicapped by his useless arm—for it made riding awkward, and the numbness was stealing down his side, toward his leg. He paid little attention to the pain; indeed, he entirely forgot it in his frenzied eagerness to reach the Cache.
More prominent in his brain at this minute than any other emotion was a dread of Billy Morgan. He had yielded to terror when Morgan had revealed his identity; but the terror he had felt then had not been nearly so paralyzing as that which was now upon him.
His eyes were bulging as he rode; his lips were slavering, and he shuddered and cringed as he leaned over his horse's mane, urging him to greater effort—even though there were times when his lurches almost threw him out of the saddle.
For his previous terror had been somewhat tempered with a doubt of Morgan's veracity. Even when he had seen Morgan reaching for his pistol he had felt the doubt—had felt that Morgan was not Morgan at all, but Woodward, perpetrating a grotesque joke. To be sure, when he had seen that Morgan really intended to kill him, he had been convinced that the man was in deadly earnest. It had been then that he had desperately twisted himself so that Morgan's bullet had not touched a vital spot.
But now his terror had grown; it was a thing that had got into his soul—for he had had time to meditate over what Morgan's vengeance meant to him.
It meant that Morgan would kill him, if he caught him; that the life he treasured would be taken from him; that the magnificent body which he had always so greatly admired would be shattered and broken. The mental picture he drew further increased his terror, and he began to mutter incoherent blasphemies as he raced his horse at a breakneck pace toward the Cache.
But when he had ridden several miles and knew from the appearance of the valley that he was nearing the Cache and that he would reach it in safety, there came a change in him.
He grew calmer; he began to feel a rage that sent the blood racing through his veins again. He looked back over the trail as often as formerly, but it was with a new expression—malevolent hatred. And when he finally reached the entrance to the Cache and rode through it, heading toward the building in which, he expected, he would find Deveny, the malevolence in his expression was mingled with triumph and cunning.
A DUAL TRAGEDY
Harlan and Morgan had made a thorough search of Haydon's desk in the latter's office in the ranchhouse, and they had found letters addressed to Haydon—received at various towns in the vicinity and proving Morgan's charges against him. And upon several of the letters were names that provided damaging evidence of the connection of influential men with the scheme to gain unlawful possession of much land in the basin.
"This cinches it!" declared Morgan as he carefully placed the letters into a pocket when he and Harlan emerged from the ranchhouse. "I reckon we've got proof now. An' the governor'll be plumb tickled."
They stepped down from the doorway and turned the corner of the house. Instantly they noted the disappearance of Haydon's body. But they did not search among the other buildings for Haydon—as he had expected them to do. For they saw that his horse was also missing.
Morgan ran for the corral, saying no word, his lips set in grim, vengeful lines. He had been a fool for not making sure that he had killed Haydon, but he would not make that mistake again. The gleam in his eyes revealed that.
Harlan, too, divined what had happened. Purgatory was in the stable—which was farther from the ranchhouse than the corral. And though Harlan moved swiftly Morgan was already on his horse and racing toward the timber when Purgatory emerged from the stable, saddled and bridled.
Harlan noted that Morgan had not stopped to saddle his horse, and that omission revealed the man's intense desire for haste. Harlan, however, headed Purgatory into the timber, but he was more than half a mile behind Morgan when he reached the main trail.
He saw Morgan riding the trail that led up the valley, and he set out after him, giving the big black horse the rein. He divined that Morgan suspected Haydon had ridden in that direction; and while Harlan had never seen the Cache, he had heard the Star men speak of it, and he had noticed that when setting out for it they had always traveled the trail Morgan was traveling. Therefore, it was evident that Morgan thought Haydon had gone to the Cache. In that case he depended upon Deveny to assist him—if Morgan followed; and Harlan was determined to see the incident through.
He sent Purgatory ahead at a good pace, but he noted soon that Morgan was increasing the distance between them. He began to urge Purgatory forward, and gradually the distance between the two riders grew shorter.
Both were traveling rapidly, however, and it seemed to Harlan that they had not gone more than three or four miles when—watching Morgan closely, he saw him ride pell-mell into some timber that—apparently—fringed the front of a cave.
It was some time before Harlan reached the timber, and when he did he could not immediately discover the spot into which Morgan had ridden. When he did discover it he rode Purgatory through, and found himself in a narrow gorge.
He raced Purgatory through the gorge, and out of it to the sloping side of a little basin.
He saw a house near the center of the basin—and Morgan riding close to it.
The distance to the house was not great—not more than a quarter of a mile, it seemed; and Harlan felt some wonder that Morgan—who had been quite a little in advance of him—had not reached the house sooner. That mystery was explained to him almost instantly, though, when he saw that Morgan's horse was walking, going forward with a pronounced limp. Evidently Morgan had met with an accident.
Harlan was riding across the floor of the little basin, watching Morgan and wondering at the seeming absence of Deveny's men, when he saw a smoke streak issue from one of the windows of the house, saw Morgan reel in the saddle, and slide to the ground.
But before Harlan could reach the spot where Morgan had fallen, the man staggered to his feet and was running toward the house, swaying as he went.
Harlan heard a muffled report as he sent Purgatory scampering after Morgan. He saw Morgan reel again, and he knew someone in the house was using a rifle.
There was another report as Morgan lurched through an open doorway of the house. Then Harlan knew Morgan was using his gun, for its roaring crash mingled with the whiplike crack of a rifle.
The firing had ceased when Harlan slipped off Purgatory at the open door; and both his guns were out as he leaped over the threshold.
He halted, though, standing rigid, his guns slowly swagging in his hands, their muzzles drooping.
For on the floor of the room—flat on his back near a corner—was Haydon. He was dead—there was no doubt of that.
Nor was there any doubt that the bullets Haydon had sent had finished Morgan. He was lying on his right side, his right arm under him, extended; the palm of the hand upward, the fingers limply holding the pistol he had used, some smoke curling lazily from the muzzle.
Harlan knelt beside Morgan, examining him for signs of life. He got up a little later and stood for some time looking down at the man, thinking of Barbara. Twice had tragedy cast its sinister shadow over her.
An hour or so later, Harlan, having finished his labors in a clearing at the edge of the level near the gorge, climbed slowly on Purgatory and sent him back down the valley trail toward the Star.
From the first his sympathies for Barbara had been deep, beginning on the evening Lane Morgan had mentioned her in his presence—when the man seemed to see her in that strange, awesome moment before his death—when he had seemed to hold out his arms to her. Later, at Lamo, when Harlan had held the girl in his arms, he felt that at that instant he must have experienced much the same protective impulse that Morgan would have felt, had the experience occurred to him. Harlan had been slightly cynical until that minute; but since then he had known that his rage against the outlaws was deeply personal.
That rage, though, had centered most heavily upon Deveny. He had hated Haydon, too—from the first. In the beginning it had been a jealous hatred, aroused over the conviction that Barbara loved the man. But later—when he had discovered that Haydon was the mysterious "Chief," that he was the real murderer of Lane Morgan, and that behind his professed love for the girl was meditated trickery—his hatred had become a passion in which Barbara did not figure.
His hatred for Haydon, though, could not be compared with the passionate contempt and loathing he felt for Deveny. The man had attempted, in Lamo, a thing that Harlan had always abhorred, and the memory of that time was still vivid in Harlan's brain.
Into Harlan's heart as he rode toward the Star flamed that ancient loathing, paling his face and bringing a gleam to his eyes that had been in them often of late—a lust for the lives of the men whose evil deeds and sinister influence had kept Barbara a virtual prisoner at the Rancho Seco.
He rode the valley trail slowly, his thoughts upon Barbara, his lips straightening when he thought of how he would have to return to the Rancho Seco, some day, to tell her of her brother's death. Twice had tragedy visited her, and again he would be the messenger to bring her the grim news.
When he reached the Star he rode up to the corral fence and dismounted. He stood for a long time at the fence, his elbows on one of the rails, his thoughts dwelling upon Barbara. Pity for her whitened his face, set his lips in rigid lines.
She had been in danger, but it seemed to him that it would soon be over. For Haydon would bother the girl no more, and as soon as he could meet Deveny he would remove another menace to Barbara's life and happiness.
He had no regrets for the men he had killed; they deserved what he had given them. As he had told Morgan, he had considered himself merely an instrument of the law of right and justice—which law was based upon the very principle that governed men in civilized communities.
He was facing south, and he raised his head after a few minutes, for upon the slight breeze was borne to him the rapid drumming of hoofs. As he looked up he saw, far out toward the southern edge of the valley, a dust cloud, moving swiftly toward him.
At first he suspected that the men in the group belonged to Deveny, and he drew out his pistols, one after the other, and examined them—for he decided—if Deveny was among the men—to settle for good the question of power and authority that Haydon had raised.
When the men came closer, though, swooping toward the ranchhouse like feathers before a hurricane, he saw that Rogers was among them.
Then, as the men came toward him down along the corral fence, Harlan saw that Rogers' eyes were wide with excitement. And he stood, his face darkening, as Rogers told him what he had seen, and voiced his suspicions.
"We're with you, Harlan," declared Rogers, sweeping a hand toward the men; "an' them other boys which have trailed Deveny, are with you. We're out to 'get' Deveny if you say the word; and that thief, Haydon, too."
Harlan did not answer. He grinned at the men, though, and at Rogers—acknowledging his gratitude for their decision to be "with" him; then he turned, leaped on Purgatory, and sent the big beast thundering toward the timber that led to the main trail.
Their voices silent, their horses falling quickly into the pace set by the big black, Rogers and the other men followed.
The other half of Rogers' men, headed by Colver, were several miles behind Deveny's horsemen when they reached the South Trail. They gained very little on the other men, though, for Deveny and his men were just then racing Barbara to the point where the trails converged, having seen her. But during Deveny's halt at the covert, where he had shot Stroud, Colver's men gained, and they were not more than two or three miles from the covert when Deveny's men left it.
From the shelving trail, ever sweeping toward the trail in the valley, Colver had noted the halt at the covert, though he had not seen Barbara, nor Stroud. He had seen, of course, that Deveny had not gone to the Rancho Seco, that for some reason or other he had swerved, taking the trail up the valley.
Colver was puzzled, but he remembered Rogers' orders, and when he and his men reached the covert, they halted. They came upon Stroud, lying near some bushes, and they saw his horse, grazing on the tall grass near by. They had reached the covert too late to see Barbara's pony; and when they remounted, after taking a look at Stroud, they caught a glimpse of a lone horseman racing up the valley in the direction taken by Deveny and his men.
The lone horseman was Red Linton, though Colver did not know it, for the South Trail dipped into the basin miles before it emerged to the level at the point of convergence with the other trail, and Colver had not seen Linton when he had passed.
Colver and his men fled up the valley, following the trail taken by Deveny and the lone horseman, and when they had gone two or three miles they saw a rider coming toward them. They raced toward him, for they saw he was in trouble; that he had lashed himself to the pommel of the saddle, and that he was leaning far over it, limp and inert.
Linton was not unconscious, but he was very near it; so near that he seemed to dream that men were around him and that voices were directed at him.
Into his mind as he straightened and looked at the men finally came the conviction that this was not a dream; and after an instant of intense effort, during which he fixed his gaze on Colver, he recognized the other.
He laughed, grimly, mockingly:
"Front an' rear—eh?" he said. "You got me, goin' an' comin'. Well, go to it—I deserve it, for lettin' Barbara out of my sight. If you don't kill me, Harlan will. But if you guys are men, you won't let Deveny——"
"Deveny's got Barbara Morgan?"
This was Colver. Something in his voice straightened Linton further, and he steadied himself in the saddle and looked fairly at the man.
"Deveny's got her. An' they got me—chasin' 'em. I was headin' back to the Rancho Seco, to get the T Down boys—all Harlan's friends—to wipe Deveny out. If you guys are men——"
Sheer will could no longer support Linton's failing muscles—and he again collapsed over the pommel.
For an instant only did Colver hesitate. Then he turned to a lean rider who bestrode a tall, rangy horse. He spoke sharply to the rider:
"Hit the breeze to the Rancho Seco, an' get them T Down boys. Fan it, damn you!"
The rider was off with the word, leaping his horse down the trail with dizzying speed. Then Colver loosed the rope that held Linton to the saddle, and with the help of the other men lifted the man down and stretched him in a plot of grass beside the trail, where they worked over him until they saw, far out on the level toward the Rancho Seco, a number of horsemen coming, seemingly abreast, as though they were racing, each man trying his best to outstrip the others.
Barbara Morgan had fought Deveny until she became exhausted. Thereafter she lay quiet, breathing fast, yielding to the nameless terror that held her in its icy clutch.
The appearance of Deveny so soon after the end of the heartbreaking ride down the trail had brought into her heart a sense of the futility of resistance—and yet she had resisted, involuntarily, instinctively. Yet resistance had merely served to increase the exhaustion that had come upon her.
She had not known—until she lay passive in Deveny's arms—how taut her nerves had been, nor how the physical ordeal had drained her strength.
She felt the strain, now, but consideration for her body was overwhelmed by what she saw in Deveny's eyes as she lay watching him.
There were a dozen men with Deveny—she had seen them, counted them when they had been racing down the shelving trail on the other side of the valley. And she knew they were following Deveny, for she could hear the thudding of hoofs behind.
Deveny's big arms were around her; she could feel the rippling of his muscles as he swayed from side to side, balancing himself in the saddle. He was not using the reins; he was giving his attention to her, letting the horse follow his own inclinations.
Yet she noted that the animal held to the trail, that he traveled steadily, requiring no word from his rider.
Once, after they had ridden some distance up the valley, Barbara heard a man behind them call Deveny's attention to some horsemen who were riding the shelving trail that Deveny and his men had taken on their way to the level; and she heard Deveny laugh.
"Some of the Star gang, I reckon. Mebbe Haydon, goin' to the Rancho Seco, to see his girl." He grinned down into Barbara's face, his own alight with a triumph that made a shiver run over her.
Later—only a few minutes, it seemed—she heard a man call to Deveny again, telling him that a lone rider was "fannin' it" up the valley.
"Looks like that guy, Linton," said the man.
"Two of you drop back and lay for him!" ordered Deveny. "Make it sure!" he added, after a short pause.
Barbara yielded to a quick horror. She fought with Deveny, trying in vain to free her arms—which he held tightly to her sides with his own. She gave it up at last, and lay, looking up into his face, her eyes blazing with impotent rage and repugnance.
"You mean to kill him?" she charged.
"Sure," he laughed; "there's no one interfering with what's going on now."
Overcome with nausea over the conviction that Deveny's order meant death to Red Linton, Barbara lay slack in Deveny's arms for a long time. A premonitory silence had settled over the valley; she heard the dull thud of hoofs behind her, regular and swift, the creaking of the saddle leather as the animal under her loped forward.
There was no other sound. For the men behind her were strangely silent, and even Deveny seemed to be listening.
After what seemed to be a long interval, she heard a shot, and then almost instantly, another. She shuddered, closing her eyes, for she knew they had killed Linton. And she had blamed Linton for guarding her from—from the very thing that had happened to her. And Linton had given his life for her!
How long she had her eyes closed she did not know. The time could not have been more than a few minutes though, for she heard a voice behind her saying to Deveny:
"They got him."
Then she looked up, to see Deveny grinning at her.
"I reckon that's all," he said. "We're headin' for the Cache—my hang-out. If you'd have been good over in Lamo, the day that damned Harlan came, this wouldn't have happened. I'd sent for a parson, an' I intended to give you a square deal. But now it's different. Then I was scared of running foul of Haydon—I didn't want to make trouble. But I'm running my own game now—Haydon and me have agreed to call it quits. Me not liking the idea of Haydon adopting Harlan."
She stared up at him, her eyes widening.
"You and Haydon were—what do you mean?" she asked, her heart seeming to be a dead weight in her breast, heavy with suspicion over the dread significance in his voice and words. She watched him, breathlessly.
"I'm meaning that Haydon and me were running things in the valley—that we were partners, splitting equal. But I'm playing a lone hand now."
He seemed to enjoy her astonishment—the light in her eyes which showed that comprehension, freighted with hopelessness, was stealing over her.
He grinned hugely as he watched her face.
"Haydon is the guy we called 'Chief,'" he said, enjoying her further amazement and noting the sudden paleness that swept over her face. "He's the guy who killed your father at Sentinel Rock. He was after you, meaning to make a fool of you. Hurts—does it?" he jeered, when he saw her eyes glow with a rage that he could understand. "I've heard of that chain deal—Haydon was telling me. When he shot your father he lost a bit of chain. Harlan found it and gave it back to him, with you looking on. I reckon that's why him and Harlan hit it off together so well—Harlan knowing he killed your father and not telling you about it."
The long shudder that shook the girl betrayed something of the terrible emotion under which she was laboring; and when she finally opened her eyes to gaze again into Deveny's, they were filled with a haunting hopelessness—a complete surrender to the sinister circumstances which seemed to have surrounded her from the beginning.
"Harlan," she said weakly, as though upon him she had pinned her last hope; "Harlan has joined you after all—he is against me—too?"
"Him and Haydon are after the Rancho Seco. Harlan's been playing with Haydon right along."
Barbara said nothing more. She was incapable of coherent thought or of definite action—or even of knowledge of her surroundings.
For it seemed to her that Deveny had spoken truthfully. She had seen the incident of the broken chain; she had seen Harlan's hypocritical grin upon that occasion—how he had seemed to be eager to ingratiate himself with Haydon.
All were against her—everybody. Everybody, it seemed, but Red Linton. And they had killed Linton.
She seemed to be drifting off into a place which was peopled with demons that schemed and planned for her honor and her life; and not one of them who planned and schemed against her gave the slightest indication of mercy or manliness. The world became chaotic with swirling objects—then a blank, aching void into which she drifted, feeling nothing, seeing nothing.
THE ULTIMATE TREACHERY
When Barbara regained consciousness she was lying in some long, dusty grass beside the trail where she seemed to have been thrown, or where she had fallen. For she was lying on her right side, her right arm doubled under her, and she felt a pain in her shoulder which must have been where she had struck when she had fallen.
She twisted around and sat up, bewildered, almost succumbing to the hideous terror which instantly gripped her when she remembered what had happened.
Deveny's horse stood near her, nipping the tips of the grass that grew at her feet. Beyond the animal—a little to her right, and perhaps fifty feet from her—were other horses, with riders.
As she staggered to her feet she recognized the men who had been with Deveny. They were on their horses—all facing away from her. Facing Deveny's men were all the T Down boys—she recognized them instantly. Pistols glittered in their hands; they seemed to be in the grip of some strong passion, which wreathed their faces into grim, bitter lines.
Near the T Down men—flanking them—were other men. Among them she saw faces she knew—Colver, Strom Rogers, and others.
There must have been twenty-five or thirty men, altogether, and they were all on a little level beside the trail. It seemed to Barbara that they all appeared to have forgotten her; seemed not to know that she was in the vicinity.
She saw Deveny standing on the little level. His profile was toward her; there was a wild, savage glare in his eyes.
Not more than a dozen feet from him was Harlan.
She saw Harlan's face from the side also. There was a grin on his lips—bitter, mirthless, terrible.
She stood for what seemed to her a long time, watching all of them; her heart throbbing with a dread heaviness that threatened to choke her; her body in a state of icy paralysis.
She thought she knew what had happened, for it seemed to her that everything in the world—all the passions and the desires of men—centered upon her. She felt that there were two factions—one headed by Deveny, and the other by Harlan, representing Haydon—and that they were about to fight for her. The T Down men seemed to be standing with Harlan—as, of course, they would, since he had sent for them to come to the Rancho Seco.
Oddly, though, they apparently seemed to pay no attention to her; not one of them looked at her.
If they were to fight it made no difference to her which faction won, for her fate would be the same, if she stayed.
She did not know what put the thought into her mind, but as she stood there watching the men she repeated mentally over and over the words: "If I stay."
Why should she stay? She answered the question by stealing toward Deveny's horse. When she reached the animal she paused, glancing apprehensively at the men, her breathing suspended—hoping, dreading, her nerves and muscles taut. It seemed they must see her.
Not a man moved as she climbed upon the back of the horse; it seemed to her as she urged the animal gently and slowly away from the men that they heard nothing and saw nothing but Harlan and Deveny, and that Harlan and Deveny saw nothing but each other.
She sent the horse away, walking him for a dozen yards or more, until he crossed the little level and sank into a shallow depression in the trail. Still looking back, she saw that none of the men had changed position—that they seemed to be more intent upon Harlan and Deveny. And she could hear Harlan's voice, now, low, husky.
She urged the horse into a lope; and when she had ridden perhaps a hundred yards, the conviction that she would escape grew strong in her. Once out of the valley she would ride straight to Lamo, to ask Sheriff Gage to protect her.
She rode faster as she widened the distance that separated her from the men; and soon the horse was covering the trail rapidly; and she leaned forward in the saddle, praying that the men might not see her.
She had gone several miles when she noticed a dark object beside the trail ahead of her. She drew the horse down and approached the spot cautiously. And when she saw that the object was a man, her thoughts flew to the shot she had heard, and to Deveny's words:
"Make sure of it."
It was Linton, she saw, as she halted the horse near the object she had seen. He was lying on his right side, resting his weight on an elbow, as though trying to rise.
In an instant she was out of the saddle and at his side, raising his head.
He looked at her, smiled, and said weakly:
"You got away, eh? I reckon they met Harlan. I was hopin' they would. Did they?"
"Yes," she answered quickly. She had seen that Linton was badly wounded, and she knew that she must give up hope of getting to Lamo in order to give him the care he needed.
So without speaking further, though with an effort that required the last ounce of her strength, she lifted Linton, he helping a little, and led him toward her horse. Somehow, with Linton doing all he could, she got him into the saddle, climbed up behind him, and sent the horse toward the Rancho Seco.
Back at the little level where the men were grouped there was a tension that seemed to charge the atmosphere with tragedy. Deveny's men sat silent in their saddles, watching their leader and Harlan with sullen, savage eyes. The T Down men, facing them, were equally sullen. Guns in hand, they alertly watched the men who were with Deveny, plainly determined that there should be no interference from them in the tragedy that seemed imminent.
Rogers and his men, and the riders who had come with Colver, were also watching the Deveny group. All of these held weapons, too; and Rogers, who had dismounted, was standing beside his horse, a rifle resting on the saddle seat, his cheek snuggling the stock, the muzzle trained on Deveny.
Harlan, Rogers, and the others, racing down the valley, had met Deveny and his men coming up. And when Deveny had recognized Harlan and the others he had quickly dismounted, bearing his unconscious burden. Because he felt that trouble would result from the meeting, Deveny had thrown Barbara from him.
He had instantly forgotten the girl. For when Harlan came up Deveny saw a gleam in his eyes that sent his brain to throbbing with those unmistakable impulses of fear which had seized him the day, in Lamo, when Harlan had faced him.
There had been a moment of silence when the two groups met; a stiffening of muscles and the heavy, strained breathing that, in men, tells of mental preparation for violence, swift and deadly.
It had been Harlan who had prevented concerted action—action that would have brought about a battle in which all would have figured. His guns came out before the thought of trouble could definitely form in the brains of the Deveny men; and he had held them—the men in the saddles, Deveny standing—until the T Down men, whom he had seen from a distance, coming toward him, could arrive.
Then, still menacing the Deveny men with weapons, he had dismounted to face Deveny—where he had been when Barbara Morgan had recovered consciousness.
And while the girl had been stealing away he had been talking to Deveny, though loud enough for all of them to hear.
There was about Harlan as this moment a threat that brought awe into the hearts of Deveny's men—a cold, savage alertness that told them, unmistakably, that the man's rage was at a pitch where the slightest movement by any of them would precipitate that action for which, plainly, Harlan longed.
"So you got Barbara Morgan?" he said as he stood close to Deveny. There was a taunt in his voice, and an irony that made Deveny squirm with fury.
And yet Deveny fought hard for composure. He could see in Harlan's manner something akin to what he had seen that day, in Lamo, when Harlan had baited him. His manner was the same, yet somehow it was not the same. There was this difference:
In Lamo, Harlan had betrayed the threat of violence that Deveny had felt. But he had seemed to be composed, saturnine—willing to wait. It had seemed, then, that he wanted trouble, but he would not force it.
Now, he plainly intended to bring a clash quickly. The determination was in his eyes, in the set of his head, and in his straight, stiff lips.
He seemed to have forgotten the other men; his gaze was on Deveny with a boring intensity that sent a chill of stealthy dread over the outlaw.
Deveny had faced many men in whose hearts lurked the lust to kill; he had shot down men who had faced him with that lust in their eyes—and he knew the passion when he saw it.
He saw it now, in Harlan's eyes—they were wanton—in them was concentrated all the hate and contempt that Harlan felt for him. But back of it all was that iron self-control that Deveny had seen in the man when he had faced him in Lamo.
Deveny had avoided Harlan since that day. He had known why—and he knew at this minute. It was because he was afraid of Harlan—he feared him as a coward fears the death that confronts him. The sensation was premonitory. Nor was it that. It had been premonitory—it was now a conviction. In the time, in Lamo, when he had faced Harlan some prescience had warned him that before him was the man whom the fates had selected to bring death to him.
He had felt it during all the days of Harlan's presence in the section; he had felt it, and he had avoided the man. He felt it now, and his breathing grew fast and difficult—his chest laboring as he shrilled breath into his lungs.
He knew what was coming; he knew that presently Harlan's passion would reach the point where action would be imperative; that presently would come that slow, halting movement of Harlan's hands toward his gun—which gun? He would witness, with himself as one of the chief actors, the hesitating movement which had brought fame of a dread kind to the man who stood before him.
Could he beat Harlan to the "draw?" Could he? That question was dinned into his ears and into his consciousness by his brain and his heart. He heard nothing of what was going on around him; he did not hear Harlan's voice, though he saw the man's lips moving. He did not see any of the men who stood near, nor did he see his men, sitting in their saddles, watching him.
He saw nothing but Harlan; felt nothing except the blood that throbbed in his temples; was conscious of nothing but the question that filled his heart, his brain, and his soul—could he beat Harlan to the "draw?"
Presently, when he saw, with astonishment, that Harlan was slowly backing away from him, crouching a little, he divined vaguely that the moment had come. And now, curiously, he heard Harlan's voice—low, distinct, even. What an iceberg the man was!
"Haydon's dead," he heard Harlan saying—and he stared at Harlan, finding it difficult to comprehend. "Lafe Woodward killed him," Harlan went on "killed him at the Cache. Now get this straight—all of you." It seemed strange to Deveny that Harlan seemed to be speaking to the men, while watching him, only.
"Woodward was killed, too. His real name was Bill Morgan. He was Lane Morgan's son. Bill Morgan was sent here by the governor, to get evidence against Haydon. He got it. I took it from his pockets when I planted him—an' it's goin' straight to the governor.
"You guys are through here—" again he seemed to speak to all the men. "Morgan told me he had some men with the Cache gang. They're to ride out an' join my boys—the T Down outfit."
Deveny was conscious that several men detached themselves from the group of riders he had brought with him, and rode to where the T Down men were standing. Then Harlan spoke again:
"Now, she shapes up like this. If there's any of the Star gang wantin' to go straight, they can throw in with the T Down boys, too. If there's some that figure on pullin' their freight out of the valley—an' stayin' out—they can hit the breeze right now—drivin' that Star herd to Willow's Wells, sellin' them, an' dividin' the money. Whoever is takin' up that proposition is startin' right now!"
About half the Star men began to move; heading up the valley. There was a momentary pause, and then those that were left of Deveny's men moved uneasily.
"Does that go for us guys too?"
"It's wide open," announced Harlan, cold humor seeming to creep into his voice. "It's your chance to get out of this deal without gettin' what's comin' to you."
There was a rush and clatter as Deveny's men joined the men of the Star, who were already on the move. And then there followed a long silence, during which Deveny glanced up the valley and saw the men riding away.
He turned again, to face Harlan, with the consciousness that he stood alone. The T Down men, half of the Star men, and a large proportion of the Cache men were standing with Harlan. Deveny saw Colver and Rogers among those who had aligned themselves with Harlan.
No invitation to withdraw had been extended to Deveny. The knowledge strengthened his conviction that Harlan intended to kill him. And yet, now, facing Harlan, he knew that he would never take up the slender thread of chance that was offered him—to draw his gun, kill Harlan and resume his authority over the men who were left.
The possibility, dangling at the other end of the slender thread of chance, did not allure him. For he knew he could not draw the pistol at his hip with Harlan's gaze upon him—that would be suicide.
Harlan's voice, snapping with menace roused him, straightened him, brought an ashen pallor to his face.
"It's your turn, Deveny. You stay here. Flash your gun!"
Here it was—the dreaded moment. Deveny saw the men around him stiffen rigidly; he heard their slow-drawn breaths. The thought to draw his gun was strong in him, and he fought hard to force his recreant muscles to do the will of his mind. For an instant he stood, his right hand poised above the holster of his pistol, the elbow crooked, ready to straighten.
And then, with the steady, coldly flaming eyes of Harlan upon him, Harlan's right hand extended slightly, the fingers spread a little as though he was about to offer his hand to the other. Deveny became aware that he was doing an astonishing thing. He was raising his right hand!