"In plain speech," said Wade, pale but calm, "you propose to starve me to death."
"Exactly," was the cheerful assurance. "If I were you, I'd think a bit before answering."
Because the cattleman was in the fullest flush of physical vigor, the lust of life was strong in him. Never doubting that Moran meant what he said, Wade was on the point of compliance, thinking to assume the burden later on, of a struggle with Rexhill to regain his ranch. His manhood rebelled at the idea of coercion, but, dead, he could certainly not defend himself; it seemed to him better that he should live to carry on the fight. He would most likely have yielded but for the taunt of cowardice which had already been noised about Crawling Water. True, the charge had sprung from those who liked him least, but it had stung him. He was no coward, and he would not feed such a report now by yielding to Moran. Whatever the outcome of a later fight might be, the fact that he had knuckled under to the agent could never be lived down. Such success as he had won had been achieved by playing a man's part in man's world.
"I'll tell you what I'll do, Moran," he said, finally. "Give me a hand out of this hole, or come down here yourself. Throw aside your gun, but keep your knife. I'll allow you that advantage. Meet me face to face! Damn you, be a man! Anything that you can gain by my signature, you can gain by my death. Get the best of me, if you can, in a man's fight. Pah!" He spat contemptuously. "You're a coward, Moran, a white-livered coward! You don't dare fight with me on anything like equal terms. I'll get out of here somehow, and when I do—by Heaven, I'll corner you, and I'll make you fight."
"Get out? How?" Moran laughed the idea to scorn. "Your friends can look for you from now till snowfall. They'll never find even your bones. Rot there, if you choose. Why should I take a chance on you when I've got you where I want you? You ought to die. You know too much."
"Yes," Wade retorted grimly. "I know too much. I know enough to hang you, you murderer. Who killed Oscar Jensen? Answer that! You did it, or you had it done, and then you tried to put it on Santry and me, and I'm not the only one who knows it. This country's too small to hold you, Moran. Your fate is settled already, whatever may happen to me."
"Still, I seem to be holding four aces now," Moran grinned back at him. "And the cards are stacked."
Left alone, Wade rolled himself a cigarette from his scant hoard of tobacco. Already he was hungry, for deep shadows in his prison marked the approach of night, and he had the appetite of a healthy man. The knowledge that he was to be denied food made him feel the hungrier, until he resolutely put the thought of eating out of his mind. The water, trickling down the face of the rock, was a God-send, though, and he drank frequently from the little stream.
By habit a heavy smoker, he viewed with dismay the inroads which he had already made on his store of tobacco for that deprivation he felt would be the most real of any that he could suffer. He tried to take shorter puffs upon his cigarette, and between them shielded the fire with his hand, so that the air-draughts in the fissure might not cheat him of any of the smoke. He figured that he had scarcely enough tobacco left for a dozen cigarettes, which was less than his usual daily allowance.
On searching his pockets, in the hope of finding a second sack of Durham, he chanced upon his clasp-knife, and viewed the find with joy. The thought of using it as a weapon did not impress him, for his captors would keep out of reach of such a toy, but he concluded that he might possibly use it to carve some sort of foothold in the rock. The idea of cutting the granite was out of the question, but there might be strata of softer stone which he could dig into. It was a forlorn hope, in a forlorn cause, and it proved futile. At his first effort the knife's single blade snapped off short, and he threw the useless handle away.
Darkness fell some time before the cool night air penetrated the fissure; when it did so the cold seemed likely to be added to his other physical discomforts. In the higher altitudes the nights were distinctly chilly even in mid-summer, and he had on only a light outing shirt, above his waist. As the hour grew late, the cold increased in severity until Wade was forced to walk up and down his narrow prison in the effort to keep warm. He had just turned to retrace his steps, on one such occasion, when his ears caught the soft pat-pat of a footfall on the ground above. He instantly became motionless and tensely alert, wondering which of his enemies was so stealthily returning, and for what reason.
He thought it not unlikely that Moran had altered his purpose and come back to shoot him while he slept. Brave though he was, the idea of being shot down in such a manner made his flesh crawl. Stooping, he picked up a fragment of rock; although he realized the futility of the weapon, it was all he had. Certainly, whoever approached was moving with the utmost stealth, which argued an attack of some kind. Drawing back the hand that held the stone, the cattleman shrank into a corner of the fissure and waited. Against the starlit sky, he had an excellent view of the opening above him, and possibly by a lucky throw the stone would serve against one assailant, at least.
The pat-pat-pat drew nearer and stopped, at last, on the extreme edge of the hole. A low, long-drawn sniff showed that this was no human enemy. If the sound had been louder, Wade would have guessed that it was made by a bear; but as it was he guessed the prowler to be a mountain-lion. He had little fear of such a beast; most of them were notorious cowards unless cornered, and when presently a pair of glowing eyes peered down into the fissure, he hurled the stone at them with all his might. His aim was evidently true, for with a snarl of pain the animal drew back.
But just as amongst the most pacific human races there are some brave spirits, so amongst the American lions there are a few which possess all the courage of their jungle brothers. Actuated by overweening curiosity, or else by a thirst for blood, the big cat returned again and again to the edge of the hole. After his first throw Wade was unable to hit the beast with a stone, although his efforts had the temporary effect of frightening it. Gradually, however, it grew bolder, and was restrained from springing upon him only, as it seemed, by some sixth sense which warned it of the impossibility of getting out of the fissure after once getting in. Baffled and furious, the lion sniffed and prowled about the rim of the hole until the ranchman began to think it would surely leap upon him.
He picked up his broken pocket-knife and waited for this to happen. The shattered blade would be of little use, but it might prove better than his bare hands if he had to defend himself against the brute's teeth and claws.
A WAR OF WITS
"Kidnaped? Gordon Wade?"
At Dorothy's announcement, Mrs. Purnell sank, with a gasp, into her rocking-chair, astonished beyond expression. She listened, with anxiety scarce less than her daughter's, to the girl's account of the event as she had it from Trowbridge. Her mouth opened and shut aimlessly as she picked at her gingham apron. If Wade had been her own son, she could hardly have loved him more. He had been as tender to her as a son, and the news of his disappearance and probable injury was a frightful shock.
Weakly she attempted to relieve her own anxiety by disputing the fact of his danger.
"Oh, I guess nothing's happened to him—nothing like that, anyway. He may have had a fall from his horse. Or maybe it broke away from him and ran off."
"Bill Santry found their trail," Dorothy said, with a gesture so tragic that it wrung her mother's heart strings. "He followed it as far as he could, then lost it." In any other case she would have tried to keep the bad news from her mother, because of her nerves, but just now the girl was too distraught to think of any one but the man she loved. "Oh, if I could only do something myself," she burst out. "It's staying here, helpless, that is killing me. I wish I'd gone with Lem up into the mountains. I would have if he hadn't said I might better stay in town. But how can I help? There's nothing to do here."
"The idea!" Mrs. Purnell exclaimed. "They'll be out all night. How could you have gone with them? I don't believe Gordon has been kidnaped at all. It's a false alarm, I tell you. Who could have done such a thing?"
"Who?" The question broke Dorothy's patience. "Who's done everything that's abominable and contemptible lately here in Crawling Water? That Moran did it, of course, with Senator Rexhill behind him. Oh!"
"Nonsense!" said her mother, indignantly.
"Lem Trowbridge thinks so. Nearly everybody does."
"Then he hasn't as good sense as I thought he had." Mrs. Purnell arose and moved toward the kitchen. "You come on and help me make some waffles for supper. Perhaps that will take such foolishness out of your head. The idea of a Senator of the United States going about kidnaping people."
Dorothy obeyed her mother's wish, but not very ably. Her face was flushed and her eyes hot; ordinarily she was a splendid housekeeper and a dutiful daughter, but there are limits to human endurance. She mixed the batter so clumsily and with such prodigal waste that her mother had to stop her, and she was about to put salt into the sugar bowl when Mrs. Purnell snatched it out of her hands. "Go into the dining-room and sit down, Dorothy," she exclaimed. "You're beside yourself." It is frequently the way with people, who are getting on in years and are sick, to charge their own shortcomings on any one who may be near. Mrs. Purnell was greatly worried.
"What's the matter now?" she demanded, when Dorothy left her supper untasted on her plate.
"I was thinking."
"Well, can't you tell a body what you're thinking about? What are you sitting there that way for?"
"I was wondering," said Dorothy in despair, "if Helen Rexhill knows where Gordon is."
Mrs. Purnell snorted in disdain.
"Land's sakes, child, what put that into your head? Drink your tea. It'll do you good."
"Why shouldn't she know, if her father does?" The girl pushed her tea-cup farther away from her. "She wouldn't have come all the way out here with him—he wouldn't have brought her with him—if they weren't working together. She must know. But I don't see why...."
"Dorothy Purnell, I declare to goodness, I believe you're going crazy." Mrs. Purnell dropped her fork. "All this about Gordon is bad enough without my being worried so...."
"I'd even give him up to her, if she'd tell me that." Dorothy's voice was unsteady, and she seemed to be talking to herself rather than to her mother. "I know she thinks I've come between her and Gordon, but I haven't meant to. He's just seemed to like me better; that's all. But I'd do anything to save him from Moran."
"I should say that you might better wait until he asks you, before you talk of giving him up to somebody." Mrs. Purnell spoke with the primness that was to be expected, but her daughter made no reply. She had never mentioned the night in Moran's office, and her mother knew nothing of Wade's kiss. But to the girl it had meant more than any declaration in words. She had kept her lips inviolate until that moment, and when his kiss had fallen upon them it had fallen upon virgin soil, from out of which had bloomed a white flower of passion. Before then she had looked upon Wade as a warm friend, but since that night he had appeared to her in another guise; that of a lover, who has come into his own. She had met him then, a girl, and had left him a woman, and she felt that what he had established as a fact in the one rare moment of his kiss, belonged to him and her. It seemed so wholly theirs that she had not been able to bring herself to discuss it with her mother. She had won it fairly, and she treasured it. The thought of giving him up to Helen Rexhill, of promising her never to see Wade again, was overwhelming, and was to be considered only as a last resource, but there was no suffering that she would not undertake for his sake.
Mrs. Purnell was as keenly alive as ever to the hope that the young ranch owner might some day incline toward her little girl, but she was sensitive also to the impression which the Rexhills had made upon her. Her life with Mr. Purnell had not brought her many luxuries, and perhaps she over-valued their importance. She thought Miss Rexhill a most imposing young woman and she believed in the impeccability of the well-to-do. Her heart was still warmed by the memory of the courtesy with which she had been treated by the Senator's daughter, and was not without the gratification of feeling that it had been a tribute to her own worth. She had scolded Dorothy afterward for her frank speech to Miss Rexhill at the hotel, and she felt that further slurs on her were uncalled for.
"I'm sure that Miss Rexhill treated us as a lady should," she said tartly. "She acted more like one than you did, if I do have to say it. She was as kind and sweet as could be. She's got a tender heart. I could see that when she up and gave me that blotter, just because I remarked that it reminded me of your childhood."
"Oh, that old blotter!" Dorothy exclaimed petulantly. "What did it amount to? You talk as though it were something worth having." She was so seldom in a pet that her mother now strove to make allowance for her.
"I'm not saying that it's of any value, Dorothy, except to me; but it was kind of her to seem to understand why I wanted it."
"It wasn't kind of her. She just did it to get rid of us, because we bored her. Oh, mother, you're daffy about the Rexhills, why not admit it and be done with it? You think they're perfect, but I tell you they're not—they're not! They've been behind all our troubles here. They've...." Her voice broke under the stress of her emotion and she rose to her feet.
"Dorothy, if you have no self-respect, at least have some...."
"I won't have that blotter in the house." The strain was proving more than the girl's nerves could stand. "I won't hear about it any longer. I'm going to—to tear it up!"
For all the good that Mrs. Purnell's tone of authority did, it might as well have fallen upon the wind. She hastily followed her daughter, who had rushed from the room, and overtook her just in time to prevent her from destroying the little picture. Her own strength could not have sufficed to deter the girl in her purpose, if the latter had not realized in her heart the shameful way in which she was treating her mother.
"Aren't you ashamed of yourself, child? Look in that glass at your face! No wonder you don't think you look like the sweet child in the picture. You don't look like her now, nor act like her. That was why I wanted the blotter, to remind me of the way you used to look."
"I'm sorry, mother."
Blushing deeply as she recovered her self-control, Dorothy stole a glance at her reflection in the looking-glass of the bureau, before which she stood, and shyly contrasted her angry expression of countenance with the sweet one of the child on the blotter. Suddenly she started, and leaned toward the mirror, staring at something she saw there. The blood seemed driven from the surface of her skin; her lips were parted; her eyes dilated. She drew a swift breath of amazed exultation, and turned to her mother, who had viewed the sudden transformation with surprise.
"I'll be back soon, mother. I can't tell you what it is." Dorothy's voice rang with the suggestion of victory. "But I've discovered something, wonderful!"
Before Mrs. Purnell could adjust herself to this new mood, the girl was down the stairs and running toward the little barn. Slipping the bridle on her pony, she swung to its back without thought of a saddle, and turned the willing creature into the street. As she passed the house, she waved her hand to her mother, at the window, and vanished like a specter into the night.
"Oh, hurry, Gypsy, hurry!" she breathed into the pony's twitching ear.
Her way was not far, for she was going first to the hotel, but that other way, into the mountains after Gordon, would be a long journey, and no time could be wasted now. She was going to see Helen Rexhill, not as a suppliant bearing the olive branch, but as a champion to wage battle in behalf of the missing ranchman. She no longer thought of giving him up, and the knowledge that she might now keep the love which she had won for her very own made her reel on the pony's back from pure joy. She was his as he was hers, but the Rexhills were his enemies: she knew that positively now, and she meant to defeat them at their own game. If they would tell her where Gordon was, they might go free for all she cared; if they would not, she would give them over to the vengeance of Crawling Water, and she would not worry about what might happen to them. Meanwhile she thanked her lucky stars that Trowbridge had promised to keep a man at the big pine.
She tied her pony at the hitching-rack in front of the hotel and entered the office. Like most of the men in the town, the proprietor was her ardent admirer, but he had never seen her before in such radiant mood. He took his cigar from between his lips, and doffed his Stetson hat, which he wore indoors and out, with elaborate grace.
"Yes, Miss, Miss Rexhill's in, up in the parlor, I think. Would you like me to step up and let her know you're here?"
"No, thank you, I'll go right up myself," said Dorothy; her smile doubly charming because of its suggestion of triumph.
Miss Rexhill, entirely unaware of what was brewing for her, was embroidering by the flickering light of one of the big oil lamps, with her back to the doorway, and so did not immediately note Dorothy's presence in the room. Her face flushed with annoyance and she arose, when she recognized her visitor.
"You will please pardon me, but I do not care to receive you," she said primly.
This beginning, natural enough from Helen's standpoint, after what her father had told her in Moran's office, convinced Dorothy that she had read the writing on the blotter correctly. She held her ground, aggressively, between Miss Rexhill and the door.
"You must hear what I have to say to you," she declared quietly. "I have not come here to make a social call."
"Isn't it enough for me to tell you that I do not wish to talk to you?" Helen lifted her brows and shrugged her shoulders. "Surely, it should be enough. Will you please stand aside so that I may go to my room?"
"No, I won't! You can't go until you've heard what I've got to say." Stung by the other woman's contemptuous tone, and realizing that the situation put her at a social disadvantage, Dorothy forced an aggressive tone into her voice, ugly to the ear.
"Very well!" Miss Rexhill shrugged her shoulders disdainfully, and resumed her seat. "We must not engage in a vulgar row. Since I must listen to you, I must, but at least I need not talk to you, and I won't."
"You know that Gordon Wade has disappeared?" Helen made no response to this, and Dorothy bit her lip in anger. "I know that you know it," she continued. "I know that you know where he is. Perhaps, however, you don't know that his life is in danger. If you will tell me where he is, I can save him. Will you tell me?" The low throaty note of suffering in her voice brought a stiletto-like flash into the eyes of the other woman, but no response.
"Miss Rexhill," Dorothy went on, after a short pause. "You and Mr. Wade were friends once, if you are not now. Perhaps you don't realize just how serious the situation is here in this town, where nearly everybody likes him, and what would happen to you and your father, if I told what I know about you. I don't believe he would want it to happen, even after the way you've treated him. If you will only tell me...."
Helen turned abruptly in her chair, her face white with anger.
"I said that I would not talk to you," she burst out, "but your impertinence is so—so insufferable—so absolutely insufferable, that I must speak. You say you will tell people what you know about me. What do you know about me?" She arose to face Dorothy, with blazing eyes.
"I am sure that you know where Gordon is."
"You are sure of nothing of the kind. I do not know where Mr. Wade is, and why should I tell you if I did? Suppose I were to tell what I know about you? I don't believe the whole of it is known in Crawling Water yet. You—you must be insane."
"About me?" Dorothy's surprise was genuine. "There is nothing you could tell any one about me."
Miss Rexhill laughed scornfully, a low, withering laugh that brought a flush to the girl's cheeks, even though her conscience told her that she had nothing to be ashamed of. Dorothy stared at the other woman with wide-open, puzzled eyes, diverted for the moment from her own purpose.
"At least, you need not expect me to help you," Helen said acidulously. "I have my own feelings. I respected Mr. Wade at one time and valued his friendship. You have taken from me my respect for him, and you have taken from him his self-respect. Quite likely you had no respect for yourself, and so you had nothing to lose. But if you'll stop to consider, you may see how impertinent you are to appeal to me so brazenly."
"What are you talking about?" Dorothy's eyes, too, were blazing now, but more in championship of Wade than of herself. She still did not fully understand the drift of what Miss Rexhill had said.
"Really, you are almost amusing." Helen looked at her through half-closed lids. "You are quite freakish. I suppose you must be a moral degenerate, or something of the sort." She waited for the insult to sink in, but Dorothy was fairly dazed and bewildered. "Do you want me to call things by their true names?"
"Yes," answered Dorothy, "I do. Tell me what you are talking about."
"I don't mind, I'm sure. Plain speaking has never bothered me. It's the deed that's horrible, not the name. You were found in Mr. Moran's office with Mr. Wade, late at night, misbehaving yourself. Do you dare to come now to me and...."
"That is not true!" The denial came from Dorothy with an intensity that would have carried conviction to any person less infuriated than the woman who faced her. "Oh!" Dorothy raised her hands to her throat as though struggling for breath. "I never dreamed you meant that. It's a deliberate lie!"
In the grip of their emotions, neither of the girls had noticed the entrance of Senator Rexhill. Helen saw him first and dramatically pointed to him.
"There is my father. Ask him!"
"I do not need to ask him what I've done." Dorothy felt as though she would suffocate. "No one would believe that story of Gordon, whatever they might think of me."
"Ask me? Ask me what?" the Senator nervously demanded. He had in his pocket a telegram just received from Washington, stating that the cavalry would be sent from Fort Mackenzie only at the request of the Governor of Wyoming. The Governor was not at all likely to make such a request, and Rexhill was more worried than he had been before, in years. He could only hope that Tug Bailey would escape capture. "Who is this?" He put on his glasses, and deliberately looked Dorothy over. "Oh, it's the young woman whom Race found in his office."
"She has come here to plead for Gordon Wade—to demand that I tell her where he is now. I don't know, of course; none of us know; but I wouldn't tell her if I did." Helen spoke triumphantly.
"You had better leave us," Rexhill said brusquely to Dorothy. "You are not wanted here. Go home!"
While they were talking, Dorothy had looked from one to the other with the contempt which a good woman naturally feels when she is impugned. Now she crossed the room and confronted the Senator.
"Did you tell your daughter that I was caught in your office with Gordon Wade?" she demanded; and before her steady gaze Rexhill winced.
"You don't deny it, do you?" he blustered.
"I don't deny being there with him, and I won't deny anything else to such a man as you. I'm too proud to. For your own sake, however, you would have done better not to have tried to blacken me." She turned swiftly to his daughter. "Perhaps you don't know all that I supposed you did. We were in Moran's office—Mr. Wade and myself—because we felt sure that your father had some criminal purpose here in Crawling Water. We were right. We found papers showing the location of gold on Mr. Wade's ranch, which showed your father's reasons for trying to seize the land."
Helen laughed scornfully.
"Do you expect me to believe that?"
"No, of course not," her father growled. "Come on up to our rooms. Let her preach here until she is put out." He was on his way to the door when the vibrant command in Dorothy's voice halted him.
"Wait. You'd better listen to me, for it's the last chance you'll have. I have you absolutely at my mercy. I've caught you! You are trapped!" There was no doubting that the girl believed what she said, and the Senator's affairs were in a sufficiently precarious state to bid him pause.
"Nonsense!" He made his own tone as unconcerned as he could, but there was a look of haunting dread in his eyes.
"Senator Rexhill,"—Dorothy's voice was low, but there was a quality in it which thrilled her hearers,—"when my mother and I visited your daughter a few days ago, she gave my mother a blotter. There was a picture on it that reminded my mother of me as a child; that was why she wanted it. It has been on my mother's bureau ever since. I never noticed anything curious about it until this evening." She looked, with a quiet smile at Helen. "Probably you forgot that you had just blotted a letter with it."
Helen started and went pale, but not so pale as her father, who went so chalk-white that the wrinkles in his skin looked like make-up, against its pallor.
"I was holding that blotter before the looking-glass this evening," Dorothy continued, in the same low tone, "and I saw that the ink had transferred to the blotter a part of what you had written. I read it. It was this: 'Father knew Santry had not killed Jensen....'"
The Senator moistened his lips with his tongue and strove to chuckle, but the effort was a failure. Helen, however, appeared much relieved.
"I remember now," she said, "and I am well repaid for my moment of sentiment. I was writing to my mother and was telling her of a scene that had just taken place between Mr. Wade and my father. I did not write what you read; rather, it was not all that I wrote. I said—'Gordon thought that father knew Santry had not killed Jensen.'"
"Have you posted that letter?" her father asked, repressing as well as he could his show of eagerness.
"No. I thought better about sending it. I have it upstairs."
"If you hadn't it, of course you could write it again, in any shape you chose," Dorothy observed crisply, though she recognized, plainly enough, that the explanation was at least plausible.
"There is nothing in that," Rexhill declared, when he had taken a deep breath of relief. "Your championship of Wade is running away with you. What other—er!—grave charges have you to bring against me?"
"I have one that is much more grave," she retorted, so promptly that he could not conceal a fresh start of uneasiness. "This morning, Mr. Trowbridge and I were out for a ride. We rode over to the place where Jensen was shot, and Mr. Trowbridge found there a cartridge shell which fits only one gun in Crawling Water. That gun belongs to a man named Tug Bailey."
By now Rexhill was thoroughly aroused, for although he was too good a jurist not to see the flaws in so incomplete a fabric of evidence against him, he was impressed with the influence such a story would exert on public opinion. If possible, this girl's tongue must be stopped.
"Pooh!" He made a fine show of indifference. "Why bring such tales to me? You'd make a very poor lawyer, young woman, if you think that such rumors will serve to impeach a man of my standing."
"There is a warrant out for Bailey," Dorothy went on quietly. "If he is caught, and I choose to make public what I know and can guess, I am sure that you will never reach a court. You underestimate the people here. I would not have to prove what I have told you. I need only to proclaim it, and—I don't know what they'd do to you. It makes me a bit sick to think about it."
The thought made the Senator sick, too, for of late he had seen that things were going very badly for him. He was prepared to temporize, but there was no need for him to contemplate surrender, or flight, so long as Bailey remained at large. If the man were captured, and there was likelihood of a confession being wrung from him, then most decidedly discretion would be the better part of valor.
"Oh, of course," he confessed, "I am willing to admit that in such a community as this you might make trouble, unjustly, for me and my daughter. I am anxious to avoid that, because my interests are valuable here and I have my daughter's safety to consider."
"Don't think of me," Helen interposed quickly. Above all fear for herself would be the shame of being beaten by Dorothy and of having her triumph go to the making of Wade's happiness. The thought of that appeared far worse to her mind than any physical suffering. "Do what you think is right. We are not cowards."
"But I must think of you, my dear. I am responsible to your mother." He turned to Dorothy again. "How much do you want?"
"How much? Oh!" She flushed hotly beneath the insult, but she chose to ignore it. "There is only one price that will purchase my silence. Tell me where Mr. Wade is?"
"Bless my soul, I don't know." The Senator affected a display of injured innocence, which sat oddly upon his harried countenance. "I am willing to do what I can to save trouble, but I can't do the impossible."
For a moment, in a wretched slough of helplessness, Dorothy found her conviction wavering. Could it really be possible that he was speaking the truth; that he did not know? But with the dreadful thought came also the realization that she must not let him fathom her mind. She told herself that she must keep her countenance, and she did so.
"There is not a man in Crawling Water who does not believe that Race Moran is responsible for Mr. Wade's disappearance," she declared. "That is another thing that you should consider, for it is one more link in the chain of evidence—impressions, you may call them, but they will be accepted as evidence by Wade's friends."
Rexhill was considering it, and swiftly, in the light of the visit he had had from Trowbridge. The cattleman had left him with a distinct feeling that every word spoken had been meant. "If we can prove it against you, we'll ride you to hell on a rail." The language was melodramatic, but it seemed very suggestive as the Senator called it to mind. He regretted that he had supported Moran in his lust for revenge. The lawless spirit of the West seemed to have poisoned his own blood, but somehow the feeling of indifference as to suffering personal violence had been left out, and he realized that the West was no place for him.
"Even so," he said pompously, "even if what you say of Moran should prove true, it does not follow that I know it, or am a party to it. Race Moran is his own master."
"He is your employee—your agent—and you are responsible for what he does in your behalf," Dorothy retorted desperately. "Why do you bandy words with me like this? You may be able to do it with me, but don't think that you can do it with Mr. Trowbridge, and the others, if I tell them what I know. I tell you, you can't. You feel safe before me alone, but you are in much greater danger than you think. You don't seem to realize that I am holding your lives in my hand."
Helen's cheeks blanched at this.
"I do realize it." There was a slight quaver in the Senator's voice, although he tried to speak with easy grace. "I assure you, I do and I shall be very grateful to you"—his anxiety was crowding out his discretion—"if you will help me to save my daughter...."
"I say just what I said before," Helen interposed, courageous to the last. There is, many times, in the woman a finer fiber of courage than runs in the man.
Dorothy regarded the Senator scornfully, her feminine intuition assuring her that he was weakening. She no longer doubted that he knew; she was certain of it and happy to feel that she had only to press him harder to wring the truth from him.
"Grateful? For helping you? I am not trying to help you. You deserve any punishment that could be inflicted upon you, I would say that, even if you had not insulted me and lied about me. You are an evil man. I am offering you your safety, so far as I can grant, only for the sake of Mr. Wade. If it were not for him, I should not have come here at all."
Her sense of approaching triumph had carried her a little too far. It aroused Helen to bitter resentment, and when she began to speak Dorothy was sorry that she had not kept silent.
"Father, don't do it!" Miss Rexhill burst out. "It is insufferable that this woman should threaten us so. I would rather run any risk, I don't care what, than give in to her. I won't tolerate such a thing."
"You may be urging him to his death," Dorothy warned her. "I will not stop at anything now. If I tell the cattlemen what I know they will go wild. I mean what I say, believe me!"
"I know you will not stop at anything. I have seen that," Helen admitted. "A woman who can do what you've already done...."
"Helen!" The Senator was carrying with him a sense of gratitude toward Dorothy, and in the light of her spirit he was a little ashamed of the part he had played against her. "Let's try to forget what has past. At least, this young woman is offering us a chance."
"Listen!" Dorothy cried out suddenly.
Outside, in the street, a galloping horseman was shouting to some one as he rode. The girl ran to the window and raised the shade to look out. The lusty voice of the horseman bore well into the room. "They've caught Bailey at Sheridan. He'll be here to-morrow."
"Senator Rexhill," said Dorothy, turning away from the window, "you'd better take the chance I've offered you, while you can. Do it for the sake of the old friendship between you and Gordon Wade, if for no other reason. No matter how bitter he may feel toward you, he would not want you in Crawling Water when Tug Bailey confesses. It would be too awful." She shuddered at the thought. "Tell me where he is and get out of town at once."
"Bailey hasn't confessed yet," Helen cut in gamely.
"No; but he will," Dorothy declared positively. "They'll put a rope around his neck, and he'll confess. Such men always do. Try to remember the position you are in. You'd be sorry if your father were lynched. Go with him, while you can. I know these people better than you do."
The Senator swallowed hard and mopped his damp forehead with his handkerchief. There was nothing to do but follow the girl's advice, and that quickly, he knew. After all, in the face of death, financial ruin seemed a mere bagatelle.
"So far as I have been informed, Wade is confined at Coyote Springs, somewhere in the mountains," he said bluntly. "That's all I know of the matter. I hope you will find him all right there. He ought to be very proud of you."
Dorothy caught her hands to her breast in a little gesture of exultation, and the expression on her face was a wonderful thing to see.
"In the morning," Senator Rexhill answered.
Eager as Dorothy was to reach the big pine with her message, she could not leave without giving Helen such a glance of triumph as made her wince.
Then, hurrying to her pony, she rode rapidly out of town into the black night which cloaked the trail leading to the pine. She knew that her mother would miss her and be anxious, but the minutes were too precious now to be wasted even on her mother. She did not know what peril Gordon might be in, and her first duty was to him. She was almost wild with anxiety lest the courier should not be at his post, but he was there when she dashed up to the pine.
"Take me to Mr. Trowbridge. Quick!" she panted.
"He's somewhere between Bald Knob and Hatchet Hill," the man explained, knocking the ashes from his pipe. "It's some dark, too, miss, for ridin' in this country. Can't you wait until morning?"
"I can't wait one second. I have found out where Mr. Wade is, and I mean to be with you all when you find him."
"You have, eh?" The man, who was one of Trowbridge's punchers, swung into his saddle. "That bein' so, we'd get there if this here night was liquid coal."
A RESCUE AND A VIGILANCE COMMITTEE
At the end of an hour, or so, the lion withdrew and Wade thought he had seen the last of it. He began to pace up and down the fissure once more, for now that his thin shirt was damp with perspiration, set flowing by the nervous strain he had been under, he began to get chilly again. He had just begun to warm up, when he heard the animal returning. He crouched back against the cavern wall, but the lion had evidently lost the zest for such impossible prey. It walked about and sniffed at the edges of the fissure for some minutes; then it sneaked off into the timber with a cat-like whimper.
The exhausted ranchman kept his feet as long as he could, but when the first rays of the morning sun cast purple shadows into the depths of the hole, he could no longer keep awake. With his hands, he drifted the loose sand about him, as travelers do when exposed to a snow-blizzard, and slept until Goat Neale aroused him, in broad daylight. The Texan performed this service by deftly dropping a small stone upon the sleeping man's face.
"I just stepped over to inquire what you-all'd like for breakfast this mornin'," he said with a grin. "Not that it matters much, 'cause the dumb-waiter down to where you be ain't waitin' to-day, but it's manners, kinder, to ask."
Wade looked up at him grimly, but said nothing. Just awake as he was, his healthy stomach clamored for food, but since none would be given him, he knew that he might as well try to be patient.
"Mebbe you'd like to step over to our hotel an' take your meals, eh?" The Texan went on, after a short pause. "I've got a pot of coffee bilin' an' a mess o' bacon fryin'. No?" He grinned sardonically. "How'd you like me to give you some o' this here cabareet stuff, while you're waitin'? I ain't no great shucks as a entertainer, but I'll do what I can. Mebbe, you'd like to know how I happened to catch you that clump on the head yesterday. Huh?
"I was up in the low branches of a thick pine, where you was moseyin' along. You was that busy watchin' the ground, you never thought to raise them eyes o' yourn. I just reached down and lammed you good with a piece of stick, an' here you be, safe an' sound as a beetle in a log. Here you'll stay, too, likely, on-less you get some sense, and I don't know when that there dumbwaiter'll get to runnin'. It's a shame, too, if you ask me, 'cause a man needs his three or four squares a day in this here climate."
"How much do you want to give me a hand out of here, Neale?" the cattleman demanded abruptly, tired of listening to the fellow's monotonous drawl; and after all the chance was worth taking.
The eyes of the Texan glittered.
"Got the money on you?"
"You'd get the money all right."
"Sure, son, I know that—if you had it! I'd just hold my gun on you, an' you'd toss the roll up here, without puttin' me to the trouble o' givin' you no hand." He chuckled in appreciation of his own humor. "But I know you ain't got it on you—we frisked you down yonder in the timber—an' I don't deal in no promises. This here is a cash game. If I thought tha...."
He whirled about suddenly, looking behind him and seemed to listen for an instant; then his hand dropped to the gun at his hip. He never drew the weapon, however, for with a horrible facial grimace, as his body contorted under the impact of a bullet, he threw his arms into the air and reeled over the edge of the hole. A second afterward the report of a rifle came to Wade's ears.
"Hello!" the rancher shouted, springing from under the Texan's falling body. The instant it struck the sand, Wade snatched Neale's revolver from its holster and waited for him to try to rise; but he did not move. A bloody froth stained his lips, while a heavier stain on his shirt, just under the heart, told where the bullet had struck. The man was dead.
"Hello! Hello!" Wade shouted repeatedly, and discharged the revolver into the sand. He realized that, although a friend must have fired the rifle, there was nothing to show where he was. "Hello!"
"Hello!" The hail was answered by the newcomer, who, thus guided, approached the spot until his voice was near at hand. "Hello!"
"Hello! Come on!" The prisoner threw his hat up out of the hole. "Here I am!"
The next moment Bill Santry, with tears streaming down his weather-beaten cheeks, was bending over the edge of the fissure with down-stretched hands. Beneath his self-control the old man was soft-hearted as a woman, and in his delight he now made no attempt to restrain himself.
"Thank Gawd for this minute!" he exclaimed. "Give me your hands, boy. I can just reach 'em if I stretch a little an' you jump." Wade did so and was drawn up out of the hole. "Thank Gawd! Thank Gawd!" the old fellow kept exclaiming, patting his employer on the back. "Didn't hurt you much, did they?"
Before Wade could answer, a patter of hoofs caused him to turn, as Dorothy slipped from Gypsy's bare back and ran toward him. She stumbled when she had almost reached him, and he caught her in his arms.
"Are you all right? Oh, your head! It's hurt—see, the blood?" She clung to him and searched his face with her eyes, while he tried to soothe her.
"It's nothing, just a bad bruise, but how—?" He checked the question upon his lips. "We mustn't stay here. Moran may have...."
"There ain't nobody here. I wish to Gawd he was here. I'd...." Santry's face was twisted with rage. "'Course," he added, "I knew it was him, so'd Lem Trowbridge. But we come right smack through their camp, and there was nobody there. This here skunk that I plugged, he must be the only one. I got him, I reckon."
"Yes," Wade answered simply, as he watched three men from the Trowbridge ranch ride up to them. "Where's Lem?"
Dorothy explained that she had set out to find him in company with the man she had met at the big pine; but on the way they had met Santry and the three cowboys. One of the men had then ridden on to Bald Knob after Trowbridge, while the rest had come straight to Coyote Springs. She tried to speak quietly, but she could not keep the song of happiness out of her voice, or the love out of her eyes.
"Then you did this, too?" Wade wrung her hands and looked at her proudly. "But how—I don't understand?"
"I'll tell you, when we're in the saddle," she said shyly. "There's so much to tell."
"Santry!" The ranch owner threw his arm fondly across the shoulders of his foreman. "You, too, and Lem. I've got all my friends to thank. Say, dig a grave for this fellow, Neale. There was a lion around here last night, and I'd hate to have him get Neale, bad as he was. Then—" His voice became crisp with determination. "Hunt up Trowbridge and ask him to pass the word for everybody to meet at the ranch, as soon as possible. There's going to be open war here in the valley from now on." He turned again to Dorothy. "Dorothy, I'm going to take you right on home with me."
"Oh, but...." The gleam in his eyes made her pause. She was too glad to have found him safe, besides, to wish to cross him in whatever might be his purpose.
"No buts about it. I'll send for your mother, too, of course. Town won't be any place for either of you until this business is settled. George!" he called to one of the three cowmen, who rode over to him. "I suppose it'll be all right for you to take orders from me?"
"I reckon so."
"I want you to ride into Crawling Water. Get a buckboard there and bring Mrs. Purnell out to my place. Tell her that her daughter is there, and she'll come. Come now, little girl." He caught Dorothy in his arms and lifted her on to Gypsy's back. "All right, boys, and much obliged." He waved the little cavalcade on its way, and swung into the saddle on the extra horse, which Santry had provided.
On the way down through the timber, Dorothy modestly told him of the part she had played, with the help of Lem Trowbridge. He listened with amazement to the story of her generalship, and was relieved to hear that the Rexhills were probably already out of Crawling Water, for that left him a free hand to act against Moran. This time the agent must suffer the penalty of his misdeeds, but greater even than his pleasure at that thought, was Wade's gratitude to Dorothy for all she had done for him. He was filled with a wonderful tenderness for her, which made him see in the play of her facial expression; the shy lowering of her lashes; the color which ebbed and flowed in her cheeks; the free use which she made of her red lips, a greater fascination than she had ever before exerted over him. There, in the fissure, he had expected never to be at her side again, and now that he was so, and knew what she had come to mean to him, the old friendship between them seemed no longer possible; certainly not from his side. He felt, in its place, all the confusion of a lover, anxious to speak and yet struck dumb with clumsiness and the fear, never absent no matter what the degree of encouragement, that his suit might not find favor with the lady when put into words.
"You're a wonderful girl," he burst out, at last, with a heartiness that, in bringing a flush to her cheeks, made the old phrase seem new to her ears.
"I'm not at all," she denied shyly. "I just had to do it, that was all. People always do what they have to do."
"They do not. Lots of them can't, but you—you're always capable; that's what makes you so wonderful, Dorothy!" He pulled his horse closer to hers, meaning to put his arm around her, but he dared not attempt it, when her dress brushed his sleeve.
"Yes?" She was trembling now far more than when she had faced the Rexhills. "What is it?"
His arm dropped to his side, and he suddenly became acutely conscious of his appearance, what with his blood-matted hair; his blood-stained and soiled face; his generally woe-begone and desperate state. At least, before he risked his future on such a question, he ought to make himself as presentable as he could.
"But—" She looked at him curiously. "You were going to say something, weren't you?"
"Yes; but I'm not going to do it until I can get to a hair-brush, and a wash-basin, and a clean shirt," he answered lugubriously. "What I've got on my mind is a church-going sentiment and I want to be in church-going clothes." The expression of his countenance contributed more than his words to the humor he strove for, and she laughed at him, merrily with her mouth, very tenderly with her eyes.
"There's the house." She pointed ahead. "Even though I'm riding bareback, I can beat you to it. Come on!"
Once Wade was within reach of food, his hunger became insistent, and he could not wait for the cook to prepare a meal of fried chicken. He foraged in the larder beforehand, and then did full justice to the meal put before him. By the time this was over, Mrs. Purnell arrived, and he had no chance to get into his "church-going clothes," as he called them. He had to tell the old lady all that had befallen him.
"I never would have thought it of that Miss Rexhill," Mrs. Purnell declared.
"It wasn't Miss Rexhill, it was her father and Race Moran," Dorothy interposed.
"Or the Senator either, speaking merely from the looks of him," her mother retorted. "And think of the position he holds, a Senator of the United States!"
"That's no hall-mark of virtue these days," Wade laughed.
"Well, it should be. If we're to have people like him running the Nation, there's no telling where we'll end."
"It just goes to show how an honest man, for I think Rexhill was an honest man when I first knew him, can go wrong by associating with the wrong people," said Wade. He could not forget his earlier friendship for the Rexhills, and to him the word friendship meant much. "He not only got in with a bad crowd, but he got going at a pace that wrung money out of him every time he moved. Then, in the last election, he was hit hard, and I suppose he felt that he had to recoup, even if he had to sacrifice his friends to do it. We mustn't judge a man like that too hard. We live differently out here, and maybe we don't understand those temptations. I'm mighty glad they've gone away. I can get right down to work now, without any qualms of conscience."
"But think of you, Dorothy, out all night in those mountains!" Mrs. Purnell exclaimed.
"Mother—" Dorothy smiled tenderly. "You always think backward to yesterday, instead of forward to to-morrow."
By then, the first of the neighboring ranchers were drifting in, in response to Wade's summons. When all were present, and Trowbridge had wrung Wade's hand in a hearty pressure of congratulation, they were asked into the living-room, where Santry stood in a corner, munching slowly on a mouthful of tobacco and smiling grimly to himself.
"Gentlemen," began Wade, facing the little group of stern-faced men, "you all know why we are here. To a greater or lesser extent, we've all suffered from Race Moran's depredations, although until lately none of us knew his motive. Now, however, we know that there is gold here in the valley—on our land—which Moran is trying to get possession of. He has proved that he is willing to resort to any villainy to get what he wants, and while he and his men are at large our lives and most of our ranches are in danger.
"We have tried the law, but it has not helped us. Such little law as we have here is entirely in the hands of the enemy. We must now assume the direction of our own affairs. Many of you have already served in a vigilance committee, and you all know the purpose of such an organization. My idea is to form one now to take possession of Crawling Water and run Moran and his hired bullies out of the county. Between us, we can muster about a hundred men; more than enough to turn the trick, and the quicker we get to work the sooner we'll be able to go about our business affairs without fear of being shot in the back. My plan is this: Let us assemble our force quietly, ride into Crawling Water, capture Moran and his followers, and escort them out of the county. There must be no lynching or unnecessary bloodshed; but if they resist, as some of them will, we must use such force as is needed to overcome them."
He stopped speaking, and for some minutes silence prevailed. Then Bill Santry shifted the quid in his cheek, spat unerringly through the open window, and began to talk. His loose-jointed figure had suddenly become tense and forceful; his lean face was determined and very grim.
"Being as I've suffered some from this skunk, and have lived here some while, so to say, mebbe I can horn in?" he began.
"Go ahead!" said Wade heartily.
"Gordon here has stated the gist o' this business a whole lot better'n I could, but I'd like to make a few additional remarks. We've all been neighbors for some years, and in the natural course of things we've been pretty good friends. Until this feller, Moran, got to monkeyin' around here, there wasn't no trouble to talk about, and we was all able to carry on our work calm and peaceful like. But since this skunk camped among us, we ain't hardly knowed what a decent sleep is like; he's grabbed our range, butchered our stock, shot up our men, lied, and carried on high, in general. We've given the law a chance to do the square thing by us. All we asked was a fair shake, and we turned the other cheek, as the Bible says, hopin' that we could win through without too much fightin', but we've been handed the muddy end of the stick every time. It's come to a showdown, gents. We either got to let Moran do as he damn pleases 'round here, or show him that he's tackled a buzz-saw. Most of us was weaned some earlier than the day before yisterday. We gradooated from the tenderfoot class some time back, and it's up to us to prove it."
He paused and looked around him earnestly for a moment; then, as his audience remained silent, he went on:
"I'm older'n you men, an' I've lived a heap in my time. For nearly forty years I've been knockin' 'round this Western country without no nurse or guardeen to look after me. I've mixed with all kinds, and I've been in some scrapes; there's notches on my gun handles to prove that I ain't been no quitter. I've rode with the vigilantes more'n once, and the vigilantes has rode after me—more'n once; in my young days I wa'n't exactly what you'd call a nickel-plated saint. But I never killed a man, 'cept in a fair fight, an' I don't believe in violence unless it's necessary. It's necessary right now, fellers! Moran's gone too far! Things have drawed to a point where we've got to fight or quit. In my experience, I ain't never seen but one judge that couldn't be bought; money an' influence don't count a whoop with him. It's Judge Colt, gents! You all know him; an' with him on our side we can round up Moran an' his crew of gun-fighters, an' ship 'em out of the country for keeps. Now's the time! The quicker we get busy, the quicker the air in these hills will be fit for a white man to breathe."
"It's a go with me," Lem Trowbridge declared grimly. "That's what I'm here for. How about the rest of you?"
When the other stock men assented, Wade smiled, for he knew their type. Honest, hard-working, peace-loving men though they were, when aroused they possessed the courage and tenacity of bull-dogs. They were aroused now, and they would carry on to the end, with a step as firm and relentless as the march of Time. Woe to whoever attempted to thwart them in their purpose!
Wade's neighbor to the north, Dave Kelly, spoke up in his slow, nasal drawl. "You say there's to be no lynchin'," he remarked. "How about Tug Bailey, when he gets here from Sheridan? According to what Lem says, Bailey shot Jensen."
"Sure, he did," Trowbridge put in. "We'll just slip a noose over his head and make him confess. That'll publicly clear Gordon and Bill. Then we'll give him a good coat of tar and feathers and run him out of town."
"That's right," said Santry. "Jensen was only a Swede and a sheepherder. This here committee's to protect men."
Kelly chuckled. "Have it your own way," he said. "I'm not particular. As it is, there'll be plenty doing."
For an hour or more the cattlemen went over the plan of their campaign, which worked out into simplicity itself. Early the next evening they would marshal their force outside of Crawling Water, each man armed and mounted. After dark they would ride up the main street, where they would halt at each crossing, while a squad detailed for the purpose searched each saloon and other gathering place for members of Moran's gang. After the prisoners were rounded up they would be assembled in a compact body and marched to the railroad where they would be set free, under threat of instant death if they ever returned to Crawling Water.
Although counting on superior numbers and the morale of his men, Wade, who had been chosen to command the little army, knew that there would be considerable hard fighting. Moran's people would probably be scattered and otherwise unprepared for the attack, but many of them would resist to the death. If Moran should attempt an organized resistance, the cattlemen meant to storm the town. Once the first shot was fired, the fight would be to a finish, for any other outcome than victory would spell ruin for the cattle interests in that section.
The prospect was more than serious. Moran had established himself in Crawling Water and practically ruled it, surrounded as he was by some sixty adherents, the off-scouring of a dozen lawless communities. The decent citizens held aloof from him, but on the other hand the lower element viewed his reign with favor. The gamblers, particularly Monte Joe, who proclaimed himself Moran's lieutenant, had welcomed him, as had the saloonkeepers, to all of whom the presence of his men meant gainful trade. The better class, in the town itself, was in the minority and unable to restrain the unbridled license which flourished everywhere.
No matter how stiff Moran's resistance proved, however, Wade felt very sure of the final result. He knew the men in his party and he knew that they meant business. He was relieved to believe that Dorothy and her mother would be safe at the ranch until after the trouble was over, and that Helen and Senator Rexhill had left Crawling Water. The two factions were now arrayed against each other almost like opposing armies, and the cattleman shuddered to think what his state of mind would have been had Dorothy and Mrs. Purnell remained in Crawling Water.
"You'll be entirely safe here," he told them, when he was ready to leave for Crawling Water on the following evening. "I shall leave Barker to look after your wants, but you won't really need him. There isn't a sheepherder, or any of the Moran gang, between here and Crawling Water. The fighting will all be in town, thank goodness."
At the word "fighting" Dorothy caught her breath sharply, too proud to urge him against his duty and yet afraid for him. He had not been able to muster courage enough to speak to her of what was in his heart, foolish though that was in him, and he sat there in the saddle for a moment, looking tenderly down on her as she stood smoothing out his horse's forelock.
"Do be careful of yourself, Gordon," Mrs. Purnell called to him from the porch, but he did not hear her.
"I haven't had a chance yet to get into my church-going clothes, have I?" he said whimsically to Dorothy, who flushed prettily and looked away.
"I don't see what clothes have to do with talking to me," she said half coyly and half mischievously.
"Neither do I," he agreed. She had stepped aside and his horse's head was free. "I guess they haven't a thing to do with it, but I haven't been seeing things exactly straight lately. I reckon I've been half locoed."
Touching his horse with the spurs, he loped away to join Santry, who was waiting for him on ahead.
BAFFLED, BUT STILL DANGEROUS
When Trowbridge left Dorothy Purnell, promising to find his friend for her sake, he had assumed a confidence that he was far from feeling. No man knew the country thereabout any better than he did, and he realized that there was, at best, only a meager chance of trailing the miscreant who had succeeded in trapping his victim somewhere in the mountains. A weaker man would have paused in dismay at the hopelessness of the task he had undertaken, but Lem Trowbridge was neither weak nor capable of feeling dismay, or of acknowledging hopelessness. Time enough for all that after he should have failed. In the meantime it was up to him to follow Moran. He had learned from Santry of the place where Wade was stricken down, but how far from there, or in what direction he had been taken, was a matter of conjecture only, and the only way to learn was to trail the party that had undoubtedly carried the helpless man away perhaps to his death, but possibly, and more probably, to hold him captive.
Desperate as he knew Moran to be, he did not believe that the immediate murder of Gordon Wade was planned. That would be poor strategy and Moran was too shrewd to strike in that fashion.
It seemed clear enough that parley of some sort was intended but knowing both Wade and Moran as he did, Trowbridge realized that in order to be of any assistance, he must be on the spot without delay. He had planned rapidly and he now acted rapidly.
One of his men was stationed at the big pine, as he had told Dorothy, but all the others in his employ rode with him as swiftly as the best horses on his ranch could carry them, to the spot Santry had told him of. There they found unmistakable traces of half a dozen or more horses, besides the footprints of Wade's mount, and a brief examination was enough to show which way the party had gone. Undoubtedly they had taken Wade with them, so the pursuing party followed.
It was one thing to follow, however, and another thing to overtake. Moran was better versed in the intricacies of big cities than in those of the wilderness, but he was shrewd enough to realize that Wade's friends would start an instant search, as soon as they should miss the ranchman, and it was no part of his plans to be taken by surprise.
Therefore, as soon as he had had his victim thrown into the prison from which escape seemed impossible, Moran selected a camp site nearby, from which he had a view of the surrounding country for miles around in every direction, and scanning the horizon carefully after his vain attempt to intimidate Wade, he saw Trowbridge's party approaching, while they were still half a dozen miles away.
His first thought was to stay where he was and give battle. In this he would have had a good chance of victory, for, by opening fire on Trowbridge and his followers as they came up, he could undoubtedly have picked off three or four of them before they reached him, and so secured odds in his own favor, if it should come to an immediate encounter.
Second thought, however, showed him the folly of such a course. There was too much remaining for him to do, and the temporary advantage he might gain would not compensate him for the havoc it would make in his ultimate designs. He therefore called Goat Neale aside and said: "There's a party of Wade's friends coming up from the East, looking for him, and I've got to lead them away. You stay here, but keep in hiding and take care that nobody learns where Wade is. He'll live for a few days without grub and I'll come back and tend to his case after I've got this party going round in circles.
"You stay, and the rest of us will all ride off to the north, and they'll think we have Wade with us, so they'll follow us, but we'll lose them somewhere on the way. Sabe?"
Neale demurred at first to the plan, but consented willingly enough when Moran promised him extra pay; so he stayed, and we already know the result. Moran, however, followed out his plans successfully enough, and before night he reached Crawling Water in safety, while Trowbridge, getting word through one of his scouts of Wade's rescue, abandoned the pursuit. He had been prepared to shoot Moran down at sight, but he was ready enough to leave that work to the man who had a better claim to the privilege than he had.
Accordingly Moran had ridden into town, exhausted by the exertions of his trip, and had slept for twelve hours before thinking of anything else. When he learned on awakening of all that had happened during his absence, he was furious with rage. Tug Bailey had been arrested and was on his way to Crawling Water in custody. Senator Rexhill and Helen had taken an Eastward-bound train without leaving any word for him, and to crown it all, he presently learned that Neale had been shot and Wade had been found, and that the whole countryside was aflame with indignation.
It was characteristic of the man that even in this emergency he had no thought of following his cowardly accomplice in flight. It might be hopeless to stay and fight, but he was a fighting man, and he really exulted in the thought of the inevitable struggle that was coming.
Sitting alone in his office studying the situation, he felt the need of liquor even more strongly than usual, though the habit had grown on him of late, and accordingly he drank again and again, increasing his rage thereby, but getting little help towards a solution of his difficulties.
He was enraged most of all at Wade's escape from Coyote Springs and was still puzzled to think how this had happened, for Senator Rexhill in leaving had kept his own counsel on that point, and Moran did not dream of his having betrayed the secret.
Not only had the ranchman been able to turn another trick in the game by escaping, but he had also evaded Moran's intended vengeance, for the latter had had no thought of letting his prisoner go alive. He had meant first to secure Wade's signature, and then to make away with him so cleverly as to escape conviction for the act.
He realized now, when it was too late, that he had acted too deliberately in that matter, and he was sorry for it. He considered the departure of the Rexhills a cowardly defection. He was furious to think that Helen had refused to listen to him while she stayed, or to say good-by to him before leaving. The sting of these various reflections led him to take further pull at a silver flask which he kept in his pocket, and which bore the inscription, "To Race Moran from his friends of the Murray Hill Club."
"So," he muttered, chewing his mustache, "that's what I get for sticking to Rexhill." Leaning back in his swivel chair, he put his feet up on the desk and hooked his fingers in the arm-holes of his vest. "Well, I ain't ready to run yet, not by a jugful."
In his decision to remain, however, he was actuated by a desire to close with Wade, and not by any enthusiasm for the cause of the hired rascals who were so loudly singing his praise. They were not cowards, nor was he, but he had had too much experience with such people to be deluded into believing that, when the showdown came, they would think of anything but their own precious skins. He had heard rumors of the activity of the cattlemen but he discounted such rumors because of many false alarms in the past. He would not be frightened off; he determined to remain until there was an actual clash of arms, in the hope that events would so work out as to allow him a chance to get back, and severely, at Wade.
He got to his feet and rolled about the room, like a boozy sailor, puffing out volumes of smoke and muttering beneath his breath. When he had worked off some of his agitation, the big fellow seated himself again, shrugged his massive shoulders, and lapsed into an alcoholic reverie. He was applying his inflamed brain to the problem of vengeance, when hurried footsteps on the stairs aroused him. Going to the door, he flung it open and peered out into the dimly lighted hallway.
"Hello, Jed!" he exclaimed, upon finding that the newcomer was one of his "heelers." "What d'you want? Hic!" He straightened up with a ludicrous assumption of gravity.
"The night riders! They've...." The man was breathless and visibly panic-stricken.
"Riders? Hic! What riders?" Moran growled. "Out with it, you jelly-fish!"
"The ranchers—the cattlemen—they've entered the town: they're on the warpath. Already a lot of our fellows have been shot up."
"The hell they have! How long ago? Where?"
"Other end of town. Must be two hundred or more. I hustled down here to put you wise to the play."
"Thanks!" said Moran laconically. "You're headed in the right direction, keep going!"
But the man lingered, while Moran, as lightly as a cat, despite his great bulk and the liquor he carried, sprang to the nearest window. Far up the street, he could distinguish a huddled mass, pierced by flashes of fire, which he took to be horsemen; as he watched, he heard scattered shots and a faint sound of yelling. The one hasty glance told him all that he needed to know; he had not thought this move would come so soon, but luck seemed to be against him all around. Something of a fatalist, in the final analysis, he no longer wasted time in anger or regrets. He was not particularly alarmed, and would not have been so could he have known the truth, that the yelling he had heard marked the passing of Tug Bailey, who had confessed but had made his confession too late to please the crowd, which had him in its power. Nevertheless, Moran realized that there was no time now to form his men into anything like organized resistance. The enemy had caught him napping, and the jig was up. He had seen the vigilantes work before, and he knew that if he intended to save his own skin he must act quickly. When he turned from the window, short though the interval had been, he had formed a plan of escape.
"They've brought every man they could rake up," Jed added. "I reckon they've combed every ranch in the county to start this thing."
Moran looked up quickly, struck by the significance of the remark. If it were true, and it probably was, then Wade's ranch also would be deserted. He half opened his mouth, as though to confide in his companion, when he evidently concluded to keep his own counsel.
"All right," he said simply. "I guess there's still plenty of time. I've got a good horse at the lower end of the street. Take care of yourself. So long!"
The man clattered down the stairs, and Moran turned to his desk, from which he took some papers and a roll of money, which he stuffed into his pockets. In the hallway he paused for a moment to examine a wicked looking revolver, which he took from his hip pocket; for, contrary to the custom of the country, he did not wear his gun openly in a holster. Convinced that the weapon was in good working order, he walked calmly down to the street, sobered completely by this sudden call on his reserve powers.
His horse, a large, rawboned gray, was where he had left it, and shaking his fist in the direction of the vigilantes, he mounted and rode off. He meant to make a wide detour and then work back again to the Double Arrow range. If the ranch were really deserted, he meant to fire the buildings, before attempting his escape. Such a revenge would be a trifle compared to that which he had planned, but it would be better than nothing, while one more offense would not lengthen his term in jail any, if he were caught afterward. He felt in his pocket for the whiskey flask, and swore when he found it missing. He wanted the liquor, but he wanted the flask more, for its associations; he drew rein and thought of returning to search for it, but realizing the folly of this, he pressed on again.
The round-about way he took was necessarily a long one and the ride entirely sobered him, except for a crawling sensation in his brain, as though ants were swarming there, which always harassed him after a debauch. At such times he was more dangerous than when under the first influence of whiskey. It was close upon noon, and the silvery sagebrush was shimmering beneath the direct rays of the sun, when he rode his lathered horse out of a cottonwood grove to gaze, from the edge of a deep draw, at Wade's ranch buildings. That very morning a gaunt, gray timber-wolf had peered forth at almost the same point; and despite Moran's bulk, there was a hint of a weird likeness between man and beast in the furtive suspicious survey they made of the premises. The wolf had finally turned back toward the mountains, but Moran advanced. Although he was reasonably certain that the place was deserted, a degree of caution, acquired overnight, led him first to assure himself of the fact. He tied his horse to a fence post and stealthily approached the house to enter by the back door.
Dorothy was alone in the building, for her mother had gone with the overly confident Barker to pick blackberries, and the Chinese cook was temporarily absent. The girl was making a bed, when the door swung open, and she turned with a bright greeting, thinking that her mother had returned. When she saw Moran leering at her, the color fled from her cheeks, in a panic of fright which left her unable to speak or move. She was looking very pretty and dainty in a cool, fresh gown, which fitted her neatly, and her sleeves were rolled up over her shapely forearms, for the task of housekeeping which she had assumed. In her innocent way, she would have stirred the sentiment in any man, and to the inflamed brute before her she seemed all the more delectable because helpless. Here was a revenge beyond Moran's wildest dreams. To her he appeared the incarnation of evil, disheveled, mud-splashed and sweaty, as his puffed and blood-shot eyes feasted on her attractiveness.
"Good morning!" He came into the room and closed the door. "I didn't expect to find you, but since you're here, I'll stop long enough to return your visit of the other night. That's courteous, ain't it?"
Dorothy gulped down the lump in her throat, but made no reply. Realizing the importance of a show of bravery, she was fighting to conquer her panic.
"You're sure a good-looking kid," he went on, trying to approach her; but she put the width of the bed between him and herself. "Each time I see you, you're better looking than you were the last time. Say, that last time, we were talking some about a kiss, weren't we, when we were interrupted?"
"Mr. Wade may come in at any moment," Dorothy lied desperately, having found her tongue at last. "You'd better not let him find you here."
"I shouldn't mind," Moran said nonchalantly. "Fact is, on my way out of the country, I thought I'd pay a farewell call on my good friend, Wade. I'm real sorry he ain't here—and then again I'm not. I'll—I'll leave my visiting card for him, anyhow." He chuckled, a nasty, throaty, mirthless chuckle that sent chills up and down the girl's spine. "Say, what's the matter with giving me that kiss now? There's nobody around to interrupt us this time."
Dorothy shuddered, for already she had divined what was in his mind. The avid gleam in his eyes had warned her that he would not restrain himself for long, and summoning all her strength and courage, she prepared to meet the fearful crisis she must face.
"Will you please go?"
"No!" Moran chuckled again, and stepped toward her. "Will you come to me now, or shall I go after you?"
"You brute! You coward!" she cried, when she found herself, after a desperate struggle, held firmly in his grasp.
She screamed, then, at the top of her lung power until his hand fell firmly across her mouth, and she could only struggle with the mad strength of desperation. Her muscles could offer him no effective resistance, although for a moment the sudden fury of her attack drove him back, big though he was; but it was only for a moment. It gave her a chance to scream once more; then, closing in upon her, he seized her again in his ape-like embrace. She fought like a cornered wild-cat, but slowly and surely he was bending her to his will. Her nails were leaving raw marks upon him, until the blood ran down his face, and presently catching between her teeth one of the fingers of the hand which gagged her, she bit it so fiercely that he cried out in pain.
"Curse you, you little she-devil," he grunted savagely. "I'll make you pay twice for that!"
"Gordon! Oh, come to me! Quick! Quick!"
Quivering all over, she sank on her knees before the brute who confronted her, a figure of distress that must have appealed to the heart of any man above the level of a beast. But in the heat of passion and rage, Moran had lost kinship with even the beasts themselves. Lust burned in his eyes and twisted his features horribly as he seized her again, exhausted by the brave struggle she had made, and all but helpless in his grasp.
"Gordon! Mother! Barker! Save me! Oh, my God!"
THE STORM BURSTS
The vigilantes had entered Crawling Water at about ten o'clock, when the saloons and gambling joints were in full swing. Ribald songs and oaths from the players, drinkers, and hangers-on floated into the street, with now and then the bark of a six-shooter telling of drunken sport or bravado. Few people were abroad; good citizens had retired to their homes, and the other half was amusing itself.
So it was, at first, that few noticed the troop of horsemen which swung in at one end of the town, to ride slowly and silently down the main street. Each of the hundred men in the troop carried a rifle balanced across his saddle pommel; each was dressed in the garb of the range-rider; and the face of each, glimpsed by the light from some window or doorway, was grimly stern. The sight was one calculated to make Fear clutch like an ice-cold hand at the hearts of those with guilty consciences; a spectacle which induced such respectable men as saw it to arm themselves and fall in behind the advancing line. These knew without being told what this noiseless band of stern-eyed riders portended, and ever since the coming of Moran into Crawling Water Valley, they had been waiting for just this climax.
Before the first of the dives, the troop halted as Wade raised his right arm high in the air. Twenty of the men dismounted to enter the glittering doorway, while the remainder of the vigilantes waited on their horses. A few seconds after the twenty had disappeared, the music of the piano within abruptly ceased. The shrill scream of a frightened woman preceded a couple of pistol shots and the sounds of a scuffle; then, profound silence. Presently the twenty reappeared guarding a handful of prisoners, who were disarmed and hustled across the street to an empty barn, where they were placed under a guard of citizen volunteers.
So they proceeded, stopping now and then to gather in more prisoners, who were in turn escorted to the temporary jail, while the column continued its relentless march. The system in their attack seemed to paralyze the activities of the Moran faction and its sycophants; there was something almost awe-inspiring in the simple majesty of the thing. By now the whole town was aware of what was taking place; men were scurrying hither and thither, like rats on a sinking ship. Occasionally one, when cornered and in desperation, put up a fight; but for the most part, the "bad men" were being captured without bloodshed. Few bad men are so "bad" that they would not rather live, even in captivity, than come to their full reward in the kingdom of Satan. Frightened and disorganized, the enemy seemed incapable of any concentrated resistance. As Santry succinctly put it: "They've sure lost their goat."
Not until the troop reached Monte Joe's place, which was the most imposing of them all, was real opposition encountered. Here a number of the choicer spirits from the Moran crowd had assembled and barricaded the building, spurred on by the knowledge that a rope with a running noose on one end of it would probably be their reward if captured alive. Monte Joe, a vicious, brutal ruffian, was himself in command and spoke through the slats of a blind, when the vigilantes stopped before the darkened building.
"What d'you want?" he hoarsely demanded.
"You, and those with you," Wade curtly answered.
The gambler peered down into the street, his little blood-shot eyes blinking like a pig's. "What for?" he growled.
"We'll show you soon enough," came in a rising answer from the crowd. "Open up!"
Monte Joe withdrew from the window, feeling that he was doomed to death, but resolved to sell his life dearly. "Go to hell!" he shouted.
Wade gave a few tersely worded orders. Half a dozen of his men ran to a nearby blacksmith shop for sledge hammers, with which to beat in the door of the gambling house, while the rest poured a hail of bullets into the windows of the structure. Under the onslaught of the heavy hammers, swung by powerful arms, the door soon crashed inward, and the besiegers poured through the opening. The fight which ensued was short and fierce. Outnumbered though the defenders were, they put up a desperate battle, but they were quickly beaten down and disarmed.
Shoved, dragged, carried, some of them cruelly wounded and a few dead but all who lived swearing horribly, the prisoners were hustled to the street. Last of all came Monte Joe, securely held by two brawny cow-punchers. At sight of his mottled, blood-besmeared visage, the crowd went wild.
"Hang him! Lynch the dirty brute! Get a rope!" The cry was taken up by fifty voices.
Hastily running the gambler beneath a convenient tree, they proceeded to adjust a noose about his neck. In another instant Monte Joe's soul would have departed to the Great Beyond but for a series of interruptions. Wade created the first of these by forcing his big, black horse through the throng.
"Listen, men!" he roared. "You must stop this! This man—all of them—must have a fair trial."
"Trial be damned!" shouted a bearded rancher. "We've had enough law in this valley. Now we're after justice."
Cheering him the crowd roared approbation of the sentiment, for even the law-abiding seemed suddenly to have gone mad with blood-lust. Wade, his face flushed with anger, was about to reply to them when Santry forced his way to the front. Ever since Wade had released the old man from jail, he had been impressed with the thought that, no matter what his own views, gratitude demanded that he should instantly back up his employer.
"Justice!" snapped the old man, pushing his way into the circle that had formed around the prisoner, a pistol in each hand. "Who's talkin' o' justice? Ain't me an' Wade been handed more dirt by this bunch o' crooks than all the rest o' you combined? Joe's a pizenous varmint, but he's goin' to get something he never gave—a square deal. You hear me? Any man that thinks different can settle the p'int with me!"
He glared at the mob, his sparse, grizzled mustache seeming actually to bristle. By the dim light of a lantern held near him his aspect was terrifying. A gash on his forehead had streaked one side of his face with blood, while his eyes, beneath their shaggy thatch of brows, appeared to blaze like live coals. Involuntarily, those nearest him shrank back a pace but only for a moment for such a mob was not to be daunted by threats. A low murmur of disapproval was rapidly swelling into a growl of anger, when Sheriff Thomas appeared.
"Gentlemen!" he shouted, springing upon a convenient box. "The law must be respected, and as its representative in this community...."
"Beat it, you old turkey buzzard!" cried an irate puncher, wildly brandishing a brace of Colts before the officer. "To hell with the law and you, too. You ain't rep'sentative of nothin' in this community!"