But here was another case: an attack by a secret, sober, malevolent band, who in cold blood approached to demolish the company works. Not liquor moved them on their mission, but money—money paid by his arch enemies. The men were simply hired tools, brazenly indifferent no doubt to crimes, desperate in character certainly, for a handful of coins ready to wipe out a million dollars' worth of property and effort. Such deserved no consideration or quarter.
Weir proposed to give none. With enemies of this kind he had but one policy, strike first and strike with deadly force. One does not seek to dissuade a rattlesnake; one promptly stamps it under heel. One cannot compromise with ravenous wolves; one shoots them down. One does not wait to see how far a treacherous foe will go; one forestalls and crushes him before he begins. Moreover, if wise, one does it in such fashion that the enemy will not arise from the blow.
With the information given him by the guard posted at the spring Weir immediately grasped the true nature of the plot. The "whiskey party" was but a means of withdrawing the workmen from the scene, of weakening the camp, while a picked company of ruffians wrecked the property. It was an assault intended to wipe out the works and end construction, coincident with his arrest. Both the company and he were to pay the penalty for resisting the powers that rule San Mateo. And if the tale were spread that the destruction had been wrought by his workmen while drunk, who would doubt it?
Like shadows the band of Mexican desperadoes would come, dynamite the dam, fire the buildings, stampede the horses, and like shadows vanish again. In the unexpectedness of the raid, in the confusion, in the dim light, no one would with certainty be able to say who the assailants were. A scheme ferocious in its conception and diabolical in its cunning! But there was one flaw—the element of chance. Chance had given Weir warning.
A strong man warned is a strong man armed.
As the engineer stood in the office, swiftly measuring the imminent menace of which he had just been told, calculating the meager instruments of defense at hand, his mind sweeping up all the salient aspects, features, advantages and disadvantages of the situation, he seized on the one weak spot in the attacking party's plan. At that spot he would strike.
So giving Johnson and Madden the order to take charge of the little handful of guards, he had plunged out into the night.
The men from the bunk-house were already running toward the office, before the door of which the rancher gathered them together to make sure of their arms and ammunition. All told, when Martinez and Pollock presently came from the store with guns, the little party numbered eleven.
"Is this all there are of us?" Dr. Hosmer asked.
"We are worth all that crowd that's coming," Johnson exclaimed, taking a spare gun Martinez had brought him.
"Did Weir send the rest of the engineers down to that house? I understood so."
"That's where they are, I reckon."
Dr. Hosmer considered for a minute.
"I can be there in five minutes in my car. The road is on the north side of the stream, as is this camp: the gang that's heading here to blow things up is coming up from the south, so it will not block the way. Men could be here in twenty minutes from down yonder by running."
"A good suggestion, doctor," Pollock said. "It may take you a bit longer to find and tell them what's occurring, but even so they may return in time. Fifty, or even twenty, might give us enough assistance to beat off the attack."
"There comes the moon," said the man who had been at the spring. "They must be near now."
Far in the east the moon was stealing above the horizon. Under its light the mesa took form out of the darkness—the level sagebrush plain criss-crossed by willow-lined ditches and checkered by small Mexican fields, the winding shimmering Burntwood River with its border of cottonwoods, the narrow road, the distant town of San Mateo, a vague blot of shadow picked out by tiny specks of light.
The mountains too now reared in view, silent, silvered, majestic, towering about the camp on the lower base. One could see, as the moon swam higher, the low long buildings of the camp clustered on the hillside above the canyon, in the bottom of which was the dashing stream and the bone-white core of the dam.
"Look down yonder on the other side!" Martinez exclaimed suddenly, pointing a long thin forefinger at the mouth of the canyon where a group of black dots were moving up the river.
"That's them," said the man who had given the warning.
"And they're armed," said another. "You can see the moon shine on their gun-barrels."
On the opposite side of the stream, some two hundred yards below the dam and three or four hundred feet lower in elevation than the camp, advancing up the canyon in a string, the men looked like a line of insects.
"I'm off for help," the doctor said, springing into his car. "Janet, you and Mary go higher up among the rocks and hide if these buildings are attacked." Away he went, buzzing down the hillside to the long stretch of road.
Weir now came into sight, walking quickly towards the group. That he saw the Mexicans down in the canyon was evident from his swift appraising glances thither.
"Johnson, move your men down halfway to the dam and have them scatter there behind bowlders. I shall go still lower down," he said. "You will hold your fire until I signal with my hat from the dam."
"You're going to the dam?"
"We ought to go with you."
"I don't need you. You'll be more effective hidden above. You'll have plenty of light as the moon is shining squarely in the gorge. And await my signal."
"All right; you're the general."
"But take no extreme risks, Weir. The company doesn't ask you to sacrifice yourself," Pollock stated.
"The sacrifice will be down among those fellows," Steele replied, with set jaw. "Don't worry about me. Now, start, men."
He stood for a little watching the rate of progress of the line of Mexicans ascending the stream, which was not rapid owing to the broken rocks lining the bank. Then he swung about to the two girls.
"Every one here now is under my orders," he said. "You two will take your car and go at once. This is no place for you."
"But——" Janet began.
"I'm taking no chances that you shall fall into the hands of those scoundrels," he declared, sternly. "They may succeed in reaching this spot. You must not be here; you must go."
Taking each by an arm he piloted them to the car.
"Sorry, but it has to be," he added. "This is work for men, and men alone."
Janet and Mary climbed up into the seat.
"You—you will take care of yourself," Janet said, tremulously.
"I expect to. Still, this isn't going to be a croquet party; anything may happen. Good-by."
With that he swung about and breaking into a run made for a small building half-buried in the hillside and apart from the camp. There he stooped and picked up under each arm what looked like a cylinder of some size and went down towards the dam. For a time they could see him, but all at once he slipped behind an outcrop of rock and they saw him no more.
Janet turned to eye her companion. Once more her face was pale.
"Well?" she inquired of Mary.
"I reckon we'd better do as he says. He'd be awful mad if we didn't. Did you see his eyes when he talked to us?"
"But if he—he and others are wounded?"
Uneasily Mary gazed at the older girl and then down at the canyon. On the hillside the men led by her father were no longer in sight, somewhere concealed among the stones that dotted the earth. But down by the stream and now scarcely fifty yards from the white stretch of concrete barring the river bed through a tunnel in which the water foamed and escaped, the Mexicans were clearly visible, their hats bobbing about, their guns flinging upward an occasional gleam.
"It doesn't seem as if anything was going to happen," Mary went on in awed tones. "Things are so quiet and peaceful."
Still Janet delayed starting the car, divided in feelings between a wish to respect Steele Weir's insistent command and a growing fear for his safety. She could see nothing of him. Into the shadow of a rock he had disappeared and thither she gazed with straining eyes, hoping to see again his straight strong figure.
"Why, look down there at the dam," Mary said, whose eyes had been wandering from, point to point of the scene. "Isn't that him?"
Janet's heart gave a quicker beat, then seemed to sink in her breast as staring downward she recognized the engineer. He had come out all at once from the shade cast by a wooden framework. He had with him the burdens he had lifted from the ground before the little detached stone house at the edge of the camp, and these, the cylinders, he placed on the surface of the concrete core at the spot where he stood. Then he knelt down, struck a match, lighted a cigar—as if any man in his senses would stop to smoke in such a situation!—and busied himself at some task over the cylinders.
Only for an instant had he stood erect on the flat top of the dam. Apparently he had been unseen by the attackers, engaged in picking their footing: and now in his crouching position, retired from the upper edge of the dam's front as he was, it was very likely that he was wholly out of view of the band.
At last Weir moved his cylinders forward towards this edge. Afterwards he straightened up and standing hands on hips, smoking his cigar, the tiny crimson glow of which rose and fell, he watched the party nearing the foot of the white gleaming wall, fifty feet below him.
For Janet the sight was too much. His indifference to risk froze her; he appeared to be courting death; and she strove to open her lips to send down to him an imploring cry to draw back, but succeeded in uttering only a tremulous wail.
"They'll shoot him," Mary was saying, "oh, they'll kill him!"
A surge of terror swept Janet. Next thing she knew she was out of the car and running down the hillside among the stones and the stalks of sagebrush, frantic to reach him, to pull him out of view of the men beneath. Only a single one of them had to cast a glance upward and to raise his gun and fire, then he would die. He should not die! She should fling herself as a protection before him rather than that he should be slain!
On a sudden a hand reached up from a rock and seized her arm, stopping her with a jerk. Then she was roughly pulled down beside it. The man was Madden, the sheriff.
"What in hell are you doing?" he demanded harshly. "Have you gone crazy?"
His grip was not relinquished.
"But see him! Aren't you men going to help him? Are you going to let him be killed?"
Madden forced her to her knees, so that she was sheltered by the outcrop of stone.
"Any man who can smoke a cigar like that at such a time as this knows just what he's doing," was the answer. "Keep quiet and watch."
"Oh, I don't want to see," she said. But she continued to look with fascinated eyes at the lone, calm figure on the dam.
Presently Madden pushed his gun forward over the rock.
"They've caught sight of him," he stated.
The greater part of the number of bandits had stopped in a group a few yards from the base of the white dam core, though a few stragglers were some way behind. Among these Steele Weir made out the figure of one whom he recognized as a white man; he whom the guard from the spring had mentioned as directing the company; and when at a number of exclamations from Mexicans who perceived the engineer the man lifted his face, Weir saw he was Burkhardt.
No more than this was needed to show whose the hand behind this treacherous conspiracy. Clear, too, it was that Burkhardt, determined that no mistake or abandonment of the operation should occur, had come to see it through in person. Weir could ask nothing better; he had one of the plotters caught in the act.
Apparently orders had been to carry through the first part of the diabolical plan of destruction in silence, that of gaining control of the dam, for when two or three Mexicans flung up rifles to shoot at Weir a sharp word from another Mexican, seemingly their leader, had checked the volley and shouted to Burkhardt.
The latter had stopped; he stared for a few seconds at the man on the white wall above and finally signaled with a wave of his arm.
"Come down here," he ordered.
But Weir made no move to obey. He continued to stand motionless, coolly regarding the party beneath. His eyes particularly considered two men who carried wooden boxes, square and stout, on their shoulders. At last he spoke.
"What do you want here?"
"Come down, then you'll learn," Burkhardt shouted up, making no effort to hide the enmity in his voice.
Weir puffed at his cigar, removed it from his lips to glance at its glowing end, while the Mexicans stared up at him in silence, puzzled by this lone guard who carried no rifle, who did not flee away to spread an alarm and seek aid, and who so unexpectedly had appeared as if anticipating their visit.
Murmurs broke out. Why were they not allowed to shoot him at once in the approved Mexican bandit fashion and proceed to their work? If he were not shot at once, he yet could escape for aid. The party had to ascend the hillside in order to mount to the top of the concrete work. Time would be required to place and fire their charges of dynamite—and they were eager to get at the loot in the buildings above.
"Kill him," Burkhardt roared suddenly, jerking forth his revolver and blazing at the engineer.
The bullet sang past Weir's head. He did not duck; indeed, kept his place calmly while the Mexicans were raising their guns, as if to show his supreme contempt for their power. But at the instant Burkhardt fired again and a dozen rifles blazed he sprang back and dropped flat, leaving the deadly missiles to speed harmlessly above the dam.
Raising himself cautiously he seized the end of a fuse projecting from one of the canisters and held the crimson end of his cigar against it until a sputter of sparks showed that it had caught. From this fuse he turned to the one in the second can and repeated the operation.
This was the essence of his plan of defense. With guns the defenders on the hillside would be outnumbered and probably killed in an attack. The information that the assailants were to steal up the canyon, however, was the key that would unlock a desperate situation, and his mind had grasped the mode and means of defeating the enemy.
With the first shots quiet had returned. The night seemed for Weir as peaceful as ever, the earth bathed in moonlight, the camp at rest. Only before him there was the sputter of the two fuses, one at the right, one at the left, as the trains of fire burned towards the holes in the canisters. He watched these calculatingly. His cigar no longer of service had been cast aside.
All at once he rose erect again. A few men were starting along the wall to climb the hillside, but the greater number were gathered about Burkhardt and the Mexican leader. Now Weir glanced at them and now at the fuses.
"I warn you to leave this dam and camp, Burkhardt," he shouted, when a few seconds had passed. "Don't say I didn't give you warning."
Every head jerked upward at this surprising reappearance and voice. They had supposed him fled, the men down there, and were having a last hasty conference, doubtless as to the wisdom of now first attacking the camp. A grim smile came on the engineer's face. Their astonishment was comic—or would have been at a moment less perilous and fraught with less grave consequences.
An oath ripped from Burkhardt's lips. An angry curse it might have been at Madden that he had failed to arrest and hold the engineer according to plan. He gestured right and left, yelling something to the men around him. He himself began to run towards one end of the dam.
Weir stooped, picked up one of the canisters, blew on the fuse now burned so near the hole. Some men perhaps at this instant would have quailed for their own safety and at the prospect of hurling death among others. For death this tin cylinder meant for those below. But there was no tremor in Steele Weir's arm or heart.
He was the man of metal who had won the name "Cold Steel"—calm, implacable, of steel-like purpose. With such enemies he could hold no other communion than that which gave death. For such there was no mercy. By the same sort of law that they would execute let them suffer—the law of lawlessness and force. Destruction they would give, destruction let them gain.
He straightened. He took a last look at the snapping, sparkling, smoldering fuse, then flung his burden full down upon the spot where the Mexicans were again pointing their guns at him. Swiftly picking up the second canister, while bullets whined by, he cast it down after the first. A glimpse of startled faces he had, of men attempting to scatter from before the huge missiles, then he flung himself full length upon the dam.
Interminably time seemed to stretch itself out as lying there he listened, waited, sought to brace himself for the impending shock. A quick doubt assailed his mind. Had the charges failed.
All at once the earth seemed rent by a roar that shook the very dam. Followed instantly a second volume of sound more terrific, more blasting in its quality, more dreadful in its power, deafening, stunning, as if the world had erupted.
"Their dynamite!" Weir breathed to himself.
His ear-drums appeared to be broken. His hat was gone. His body ached from the tremendous dispersion of air. But that he could still hear he discovered when through his shocked auditory nerves he distinguished, as if far off, faint booming echoes from the hills.
He got to his knees, finally to his feet. Pressing his hands to his head he gazed slowly about. Stones and a rain of earth were still falling, as if from a meteoric bombardment. About him he perceived sections of woodwork shaken to pieces, collapsed.
Stepping to the edge of the dam he peered downward. A vast hole showed in the earth before the wall though the wall itself was uninjured and only smeared with a layer of soil. Huge rocks lay where there had been none before, uprooted and flung aside by the explosion, dispersed by the gigantic blast. On the hillside half a dozen men were picking themselves up and struggling wildly to flee. Nearer, a few other forms lay in the moonlight mangled and still, or mangled, and writhing in pain. Of all the rest—nothing.
Almost completely Burkhardt's predatory band had been blotted out. Weir's thunderbolt had struck down into its very heart, and it had vanished.
As he turned and walked towards the end of the dam, he staggered a little. The sight had shaken even his iron nerve.
WEIR STRIKES WHILE THE IRON IS HOT
In his runabout, with Sheriff Madden at his side, and followed by Atkinson and half a dozen men for guards in two other machines, Weir sped along the road to San Mateo. They carried with them Burkhardt, who had been found stunned and slightly injured, and two Mexican bandits who had been captured. Those of the party of attackers yet alive but seriously hurt were being treated at camp by Dr. Hosmer, while the young engineers, armed and eager, were scouring the mountain side for the few Mexicans who had got away.
It seemed a miracle that Burkhardt had escaped death, but the explanation was found no doubt in the fact he had started from the spot where the canisters fell and so at the moment of explosion was outside the area of its full destruction. To Weir the matter went deeper than that. Providence appeared to have saved him for punishment, for the long term of imprisonment he deserved for his crimes.
"I'd much rather have him alive than dead," Steele had remarked to Madden, when the man was brought up from the canyon a prisoner.
The tremendous thunder-clap of sound from the camp had quickened the return of the superintendent and his men, already reached and warned by the doctor. More, it had startled even the drunken workmen so that when some one shouted that the dam had been blown up the debauch came to an immediate end, the house was deserted and the throng, incited by curiosity and wonder, went staggering and running for camp.
The first of these had arrived and the rest were tailing behind for half a mile when Weir and his companions set out for town, the blinding headlights of the machines scattering on either side of the road the approaching workmen. It was not likely many would go back to the house when they were told at headquarters how narrowly destruction of the works had been averted and how their spree had been a move in the plot. Between shame at being-duped and drowsiness resulting from drink they would, after a look at the hole blown in the earth at the base of the dam, want to seek their bunk-houses.
As they sped towards town Weir and Madden rapidly made their plans, for the sheriff having witnessed with his own eyes the enormity of the plotters' guilt was all for quick action.
"These engineers of yours with us and the other men Meyers will bring down can be thrown as a guard around the jail," he stated. "I'll swear them all in as deputies. With Sorenson and Vorse locked up along with Burkhardt—and I'll throw Lucerio, the county attorney, in with them on the off chance he's an accomplice—there will be high feeling running in San Mateo. As quick as I can make arrangements, we'll take them to safe quarters elsewhere—to-night if possible, to-morrow at the latest, in fast machines. These men have friends, remember."
"You've Burkhardt handcuffed; it might be well to gag him, too, for fear the crowd might make trouble if he yelled for help," Weir replied.
"Yes, we'll do that, though I think we can rush him into the jail before anyone knows what's happening."
On the outskirts of town therefore the cars stopped. When Burkhardt, who had recovered his senses and with them a knowledge of his plight, perceived the sheriff's intention his rage burst all bounds.
"You fool, you muddle-headed blunderer!" he exclaimed, with a string of oaths. "Take these cuffs off! You'll lose your job for this trick. When I see Sorenson——"
"When you see him, you'll see him; and that will be inside a cell," was the cool rejoinder. "I didn't know you were a dynamiter and would-be murderer until to-night, but I watched you at work and saw you shoot twice at Weir."
"You'll unlock these, I say, here and now!" And the raging voice went off in a further stream of biting curses. "Look at me; I'm Burkhardt. You're crazy to talk of throwing me in jail, with my influence and——"
"Your influence be damned," was the imperturbable answer. "You'll have a long time in a penitentiary to see how much influence you have, if you don't swing first."
Burkhardt struggled fiercely for a moment against the steel bands about his wrists and the men who held him.
"No crook like this Weir shall ever send me behind bars, or any other man put me there. Wait till Sorenson and Vorse and Judge Gordon learn what you're trying! Wait till they find out you've double-crossed us for this engineer! Wait till Gordon turns me loose with a habeas corpus, you'll sweat blood for this night's work, Madden!"
The sheriff shook out the red handkerchief with which he expected to bind the prisoner's mouth.
"I'll wait for a long time if I wait for Gordon to issue the writ," he remarked. "Seeing that he's dead."
"Dead! You're a liar, you sneaking cur; you can't bluff me. And when I'm loose, if I don't fill you full of lead it will be because——"
But Burkhardt's explanation was never finished on that point, for Madden whipped the rolled handkerchief over his mouth and quickly knotted it behind, shutting off the flow of seething vituperative speech. If looks could slay, those he received from the prisoner's bloodshot maddened eyes would have dropped the sheriff in his tracks; as it was, they fell harmless against the law officer's person.
"Things have changed sort of sudden, haven't they, Burkhardt?" Madden stated, sardonically. "Never can tell what's going to happen between supper and breakfast. Here I go out to serve a warrant on Weir, and instead I'm bringing you in for trying a low I.W.W. trick. Surprising cards a fellow sometimes gets on the draw." With which he went back to the other car.
Counting on quickness for the safe delivery of his men in jail, Madden did not attempt to approach the court house by a side street. On the contrary he drove fast down the main way, with the other two cars following close, passing without pause through the crowd of Mexicans drawn forth in wonder at the booming report of the explosion that had sounded from the dam.
One could see that excitement was at a high pitch. With the rumors that all day had been in circulation, with later vague tales of the great debauch proceeding at the old 'dobe house half way up the road to camp, with the thunder-clap that had burst from the base of the mountains coming on top of all, every man, woman and child had run to the main street, where those in the automobiles could see by wagging tongues and gesticulating hands that speculation was rife and curiosity afire.
"The talk this evening when I set out for your camp was that I expected to bring you in and hang you," Madden said dryly, to the engineer. "Quite a crowd had come to town. Plain to see now that Burkhardt and his bunch had started the talk. I shouldn't be surprised if there had been trouble had I arrested and locked you up. There are a few bad Mexicans around these parts that would do anything for money, and it's evident from what's happened that Sorenson's gang was ready to go the limit. What I'm trying to figure out is where these fellows Burkhardt had with him up yonder came from."
"I can tell you. From across the line. I've seen plenty just like them down there," Weir affirmed. "Look at their hats and clothes—but you'll be able to make them talk after a while. However, you won't find any of them speaking English. Offer one of them some money and a trip home and he'll give you the story quick enough, especially after you've thrown a scare into him. We can afford to let one go to get the facts."
"You better keep out of sight after we have the men in the jail. Slip behind the jail to the rear of the yard, and when I've locked them up and told Atkinson what to do about keeping the people away from the building, I'll join you there."
"I understand," Weir stated.
"And we can slip off and grab Vorse if he's in his saloon and then Sorenson before any one knows what's happening."
"That's right; don't want the game spoiled now. Here we are."
The cars had arrived at the gate before the courthouse. Here, too, however, the crowd was densest, having gathered at the spot as if the roar of powder from the camp was an overture to Weir's arrest and appearance. It had proved a prelude to his appearance, at any rate. The crowd perceived him with Madden and it believed him a prisoner even if not handcuffed and marched with a pistol at his head.
A profound silence at first greeted the party as it alighted. Madden, assisting Burkhardt to alight, pulled the man's broad-brimmed hat low over his eyes to conceal his face from the revealing moonlight. A short struggle again ensued, but Burkhardt finally yielded to the pressure exerted by his companion guards.
A murmur of astonishment ran over the surrounding throng, each instant being augmented by the voices of others running to the place. Not only did it appear that the engineer was under arrest, but likewise others,—a handcuffed, gagged man and two sullen Mexicans, strangers to the community. Yet a number of the onlookers, possibly men with Vorse's or Sorenson's money in their pockets, shouted as the new-comers moved through the press:
"Killer, murderer! Hang him, shoot him!" And more voices began to join in the cry.
Clearly the intent was to stir up feeling in the crowd to a point where action against Weir would seem a spontaneous outbreak. Even women joined in the cry; curses followed; fists were shaken.
"Open up the way," Madden ordered, as a surge of the crowd threatened to surround him and his party. In his hand, as if to emphasize his command, a six-shooter swung into view, sweeping to and fro and menacing the press of people.
The frightened men directly before the party struggled to get out of line of the weapon, yielding suddenly a clear passage.
"Quick! Around the courthouse and back to the jail," Madden exclaimed to those with him.
Pushing forward from the moonlight into the shade cast by the cottonwoods, they dragged their prisoners past the first building towards the low stout stone structure at the rear, half-illuminated and half-concealed by the patches of light and shade falling from the trees.
A minute later Madden whipped out his keys.
"Two men remain here at the door and don't be afraid to show your rifles to that bunch," he said. "In with you, Burkhardt; there's a nice soft stone floor to sleep on. Keep those Mexican camp-burners covered, Atkinson, till I get the cells open. You, Weir, slip on back there in the shadow and wait for me."
The engineer had taken but three steps into the gloom along the outside jail wall, glancing about to avoid any curious straggler of the crowd already hurrying around the court house towards the jail, when he heard a call. In the advance was a slim well-dressed Mexican, full in the moonlight and very important of bearing. The call was directed not at Weir but at Madden.
"You got him all right, sheriff?" he said.
"Yes. He came in with me," was the answer.
"But who are these others?"
"Step inside and I'll tell you, Lucerio."
The county attorney joined the sheriff, peered inside the doorway and hesitated. It was dark within; no light showed except a patch of moonlight at the far side of the building that fell through a barred window.
"Go right in," Madden exclaimed. And laying hand on the other's shoulder he forced him ahead. The door closed after the pair. Before the doorway there remained, however, the pair of young engineers, rifle in hand, whose threatening bearing and glistening gun-barrels were apparent even in the patchy light dropping through the boughs. At a distance of about ten feet off the crowd of people halted, staring eagerly at the jail building, showing their white teeth as they carried on low talk in Spanish and awaiting with impatience the return of Madden and Lucerio that they might flood them with questions.
Weir remained to see no more, for the increasing crowd pushed out further and further on the flanks, a circumstance that would eventually result in his discovery. So slipping to the rear of the jail and keeping well in the shadows he gained the fence. This he leaped and, lighting a cigarette, examined his pistol, then proceeded to smoke calmly until Madden arrived.
"Hurry; slip away," the latter said. "They wondered what the devil I dodged back here for and are coming, curious as cats."
The two men glided away, keeping well in shadows until they gained the side street and thence passed to the main thoroughfare.
"What if Sorenson and Vorse are somewhere in that crowd?" Madden asked. "They're likely to be, expecting your arrest."
"Then we'll have to wait till they leave it. But I don't believe they're there. They won't want to show their hand even by being on the scene."
"Probably they've found out Gordon is dead."
"Probably. But on the other side, they suppose now that the dam has been destroyed and that I'm locked up," Weir said. "Still, I'll guess that if they've learned Pollock and Martinez and I were at Gordon's all the afternoon, and he committed suicide, they'll be worrying some just the same."
Madden glanced at his companion.
"I don't believe we'll bring Vorse in—alive," he said.
"That's the way I want him, and Sorenson, too. I want to see them go up for life, but if not that then hanged. But a life term for both, along with Burkhardt, is my choice. I want them to suffer as my father suffered. Only worse. Dying's too easy for them. Let them have hell here for awhile before they get it on the other side. Let the iron bars and stone walls kill them. I hope they live for twenty years to gnaw out their hearts every day and every night behind steel doors. That wouldn't half pay what they owe. But if they finish in prison, knowing there's no hope, knowing I've put them there for what they did to my father and Jim Dent, knowing that all the money and cattle they stole had slipped through their fingers, that they've lost all they gained and more, that their curses and crimes are crushing their own heads, why, that will help. And Sorenson—Sorenson there every day knowing his son lies a helpless cripple, without the money that has been piled up for him! I couldn't invent a worse hell for him. And that's the hell he's going to have!"
Though a man not easy to move, Madden at Weir's cold implacable expression of hatred shivered slightly. Sorenson and his accomplices would be lucky indeed if they died by the rope.
Across the main street the two men walked, wearing their hats low and making no answer to shouted questions of those hurrying to the courthouse yard. Already the grounds about the court house and the street in front were jammed with eager, excited Mexicans, thrilled with an expectation of something to happen, though they knew not exactly what. The murderer, the killer, they have taken the killer, was the constant statement tossed from mouth to mouth.
"But not the killer they think," Madden said, in a low aside to Weir as they moved ahead on their errand.
The pair were now advancing toward the saloon, along the opposite side of the street where a slight shadow afforded them concealment. By the time they came opposite the building they had escaped altogether from the crowd, though looking thither over shoulder they could see the black press of people in the moonlight at the public building; and here the street was empty except for a few belated women and children running toward the assemblage.
Madden's hand suddenly gripped the engineer's arm as they were about to step forth from the shadow to cross the street to the saloon.
"There he is," the sheriff whispered.
Vorse had pushed open the slatted door of his place and stepped outside. In the moonlight his figure and face were clearly visible: his thin whip-cord body and predatory face, and bald head as shiny and hard as a fish-scale. He wore no coat, while his vest hung unbuttoned and open as usual. About his waist was an ammunition belt carrying a holster, as if he were prepared for action.
Thus he stood for a time, hands on hips, motionless, his cruel hatchet-like face directed towards the scene further along the street. Presently a man came running to him, Miguel, his bartender, who had been one of the two men serving out whiskey to the workmen at the old adobe house and who at the break-up of the spree had hastened back to town to report to his employer. Now, it seemed, he had fresher news to give.
"Yes, it is the engineer, for a certainty," he exclaimed panting, as he stopped before Vorse. "The sheriff arrested him and he now lies in jail there. It is said he fought and tried to shoot Madden, but that the sheriff was too quick and shot the gun out of his hand. It is said also that the dam is blown into a million little stones, but men are riding there on horses to see for themselves. They will soon return. Anyway a fight there was up there undoubtedly, for Madden brought in not only the engineer but three other men, bound and handcuffed and struggling furiously, trying to strike and bite the crowd like mad dogs. From time to time the sheriff had to beat them on the heads with his pistol, especially the engineer, who is the worst. I did not see them, but those who did said their faces were streaming with blood."
"All right. Go find Jose Molina and 'Silver' Leon."
"Are they not up in the hills with their bands of sheep?"
"No. They are here. Look around till you find them; then send them to me."
"That means something lively to happen, eh?" Miguel said with a laugh.
He did not wait, however, for an answer, but set off at once for the court house.
"I hope Meyers shows up soon with more men," Madden said to Weir. "Those two sheepherders of Vorse's are a pair of snakes; he always hires that kind; and they probably have some fellows with them like themselves."
"Meyers is on the way with twenty men or so by this time. They had to come in wagons, as we had the cars. Atkinson ought to be able to stand off the crowd with the half dozen boys he has until the others arrive."
While they had conducted this brief exchange of opinions they had kept their gaze on the saloon-keeper, who continued to stand before his door. The cold and merciless character of the man was never more revealed than now as he waited for his hired assassins to come to receive orders. Possessing already a full knowledge of the plot, Weir and Madden were able to guess what culmination was now contemplated and measure the true depth of the conspirators' infamy. The sheriff especially boiled with inward wrath that they should expect to make him not only a dupe but a tool in their crime.
"It's clear they never intended you should come to trial when arrested," he said to his companion.
"Certainly not. That isn't the way they play the game. And I suppose Vorse there imagines the cards are all falling his way at this moment."
"He's going in."
"Good. Now then!"
Weir struck off across the street, striding forward at a pace Madden found it difficult to keep. As they neared the door, Weir loosened the gun in his holster.
In this action the sheriff imitated him and then changing his mind drew the weapon itself. Plain man that he was, he was an instinctive judge of character; he had encountered men of Vorse's type before, less shrewd but equally savage; their nature was to fight, not surrender; their way was to kill or be killed in the final issue. He anticipated no arrest.
He felt no necessity, however, to express this view to the engineer, who had proved himself in the time he had been at San Mateo wholly competent to deal with any situation that arose. Moreover, while Vorse had had a reputation of being a quick shot in the past, he was confident Weir was his master.
With a quiet movement the engineer pushed open the door and stepped into the saloon. Madden following him had allowed the slatted door to swing shut again and the sound of its hinges caused Vorse, who was just starting away from the bar, to turn about. In his hand was a tray holding a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of mineral water and glasses, which apparently he had just lifted up.
For a space of ten seconds or so he remained unmoving, the tray in his hand and his eyes regarding the visitors fixedly. Behind him in the rear of the saloon a second man had sprung up from the table where he sat, but after that first startled action he, too, had not stirred. The man was Sorenson.
With Madden at his side and with a grim smile on his lips Weir walked slowly towards Vorse. In his tread there was something of the quality of a tiger's, the light, deliberate, poised advance, the easy and dangerous movement of body, the effortless glide of a powerful animal ready to spring and strike. His hands swung idly at his sides, but that did not mean they would not be swift once they responded to the call of the brain that controlled them.
"You gentlemen were just about to celebrate my downfall, I perceive, by pouring a libation," Weir said. "Don't let me interrupt. Only I must request you to conduct the proceedings there where you're standing, Vorse, instead of at the rear of the room: Madden and I wish a good view of the ceremony. If Mr. Sorenson will be so agreeable as to step forward, you may go ahead."
Sorenson did not join Vorse, but instead he spoke.
"Why haven't you locked up your prisoner, Madden?" he demanded harshly. "And you're letting him keep his gun. Don't you know enough to disarm a murderer and throw him into jail when you arrest him?"
"I haven't arrested him yet," was the sheriff's answer.
"Well, do it then. You have the warrant for the scoundrel. Perhaps you haven't heard he almost killed my boy Ed last night—and you're allowing him to walk around with you as if he were a bosom friend. Do your duty, or we'll get a sheriff who will."
"That's why I'm here, to do my duty."
"You didn't have to bring this man here to do it."
"I decided to bring him, however."
From Vorse had come not a word. Only his gleaming evil eyes continued to rest on the two men without wink or change. For him explanations were unnecessary; he had divined instantly that somewhere, somehow the plotters' plans had gone awry.
"Did you know that Gordon is dead?" Weir asked, all at once.
Vorse lowered the tray to the bar and ran the tip of his tongue over his lips.
"No," said he, "we didn't know it."
"He deeded his property over this evening and then swallowed poison," the engineer stated. "He saw the game was up."
"You can't make me believe your lies," came sneering from Sorenson. "And you shall pay, you and that girl, for every broken bone in my boy's body. I'll spend my last dollar for that if necessary. Madden, do your duty and lock him up."
The sheriff said nothing, but lifted his gun a little. Vorse by a slight movement of his body had edged from the bar as if to gain freedom for action.
"The game's up for you men too," Weir said. "You've murdered and robbed and swindled in this country long enough; I've got the proof and I'm going to remove you from this community. It's not I who will be arrested. You killed Jim Dent after cleaning him out at cards and then made my father believe he was guilty of the crime. All I fear is that the court will hang you instead of sending you up for life; that would be too good for you. I want your crooked souls to die a thousand deaths within stone walls before you die in body. The game's up, I say. I've Saurez' deposition and I've the man who was the boy looking in the back door there that day thirty years ago and saw you shoot Dent, and he'll go on the stand against you."
A stillness so profound that one could hear the tiny insects hovering about the lamps succeeded this statement. If words had not been enough, Weir's cold, harsh face would have removed the men's last hope, for on it was not a single trace of relenting. A stone could have been no flintier.
"Well?" Vorse inquired softly.
His arched bony nose appeared thinner and more hawk-like. His lips were compressed in a white scornful smile, while his eyelids now drooped until but slits of light showed from the orbs.
"And you may be interested to know Burkhardt and some of the Mexicans he hired are now locked up in jail; the rest, or nearly all, are dead," Weir continued, with slow distinctness. "Your little scheme to blow up the dam and burn the camp failed. We caught Burkhardt at the spot leading the gang. Your plot to make the workmen drunk and leave the dam unprotected worked well enough so far as that part was concerned, but a keg of powder dropped on your bunch of imported bandits ended that part of the show. And we have Burkhardt! You gentlemen are going to join him in the jail, where we shall give you all the care and attention you deserve."
Vorse turned his head about towards Sorenson.
"Do you hear?" he asked.
"Madden, you've too much sense to believe all this trumped-up libel!" Sorenson exclaimed furiously. "About us, respected leaders of this town! Arrest the blackguard!"
Even facing assured proof of his complicity and guilt, the cattleman still believed in the power of his wealth and influence, in his ability to browbeat opponents, to command the man he had elected to office, to dominate and ruthlessly crush by sheer will power all resistance, as he had done for years.
"I take no orders from you," the sheriff replied.
"Well, I suppose I can empty the till and lock the safe before going?" Vorse questioned.
"No. Keep in front of the bar where you are," the sheriff commanded.
"And have everything stolen."
"Your bar-keeper will be back presently. He will look after things for you."
"You say Burkhardt is locked up?"
"That will hurt his pride," Vorse laughed. "He always swore that no one should put him behind bars. He wouldn't have minded so much finishing in a gun-fight, but to serve a term in prison would surely go against the grain with Burk. Though I think with Sorenson——"
Weir's eyes had never left the speaker. Through the other's inconsequential talk and apparently careless acceptance of the fact of arrest the engineer had noted the tense gathering of the man's body.
"Put your hands up," he interrupted at this point.
Vorse had uttered no following word after speaking Sorenson's name; his voice terminated abruptly. At the same instant his right hand flew to his holster and whipped out his gun. It was the advantageous time for which he had waited, for Madden's look which had been moving back and forth from Vorse to Sorenson so as to cover both had passed to the latter. And Weir's weapon was undrawn.
But if Vorse drew fast, the engineer's motion was like a flash of light. His weapon leaped on a level with the other's breast. The report sounded a second before that of Vorse's and three before Madden's, who also had fired.
Then, if ever, Steele Weir had displayed his amazing speed in beating an enemy to his gun, for Vorse had indeed been quick, keyed by a knowledge that for him this meant imprisonment or freedom, a slow death or liberty.
For a minute he stood half crouching as he had been at the instant of shooting, his eyes glaring balefully at his enemy and the thin cruel smile on his lips, while the two men in front stood warily waiting with weapons extended. Then Vorse clutched at his breast, muttered thickly and toppled over full length on the floor.
The sharp pungent smell of powder smoke mingled with the reek of liquor.
"He's dead," Madden said.
"Are you hit?"
"No. His bullet went past my hip; he never got his gun up."
Madden glanced about towards the rear of the room. A command for Sorenson to stop broke from his lips. Next he fired. And Weir swinging his look that way saw Sorenson's form, untouched by the bullet, vanishing through the rear door into the night. Using the minute that the two men's surveillance had been lifted he had escaped.
"Hard luck when we had him," Weir growled.
"He can't get away."
"I'm not so sure. And he's armed."
"He'll strike for home to get his car."
"Or to the office for money," Weir exclaimed.
THE FOURTH MAN
A last look Steele Weir had at the dead man on the floor before he turned to go in search of Sorenson. Not so astute or crafty as Judge Gordon, nor so intelligent as Sorenson, nor so belligerent as Burkhardt, he had been as rapacious and infinitely more cool-minded than any of the three. If anything, he was the one of them all to proceed to a crime, whether fraud or murder, in sheer cold blood and by natural craving. No uneasy conscience would have ever disturbed his rest: no remorse or pity ever stirred in his breast. He was the human counterpart of a bird of prey.
Well, he was dead now. Three of the quartette who had been joined by avarice and lawless actions were taken care of—Burkhardt a prisoner, Gordon dead by self-administered poison, Vorse by bullets. Almost did Steele Weir feel himself an embodiment of Fate, clipping the strands of these men's power and lives as with shears. Sorenson alone remained to be dealt with and his freedom should be short.
Beckoning Madden, he went swiftly through the door where the cattleman had leaped into the shadows. Where the gloom ceased and the space behind the row of store buildings was clear in the moonlight, nothing was to be seen. Naturally the man had kept within black shade in his flight.
When they reached the rear of the cattle company's office building, they peered in through its barred back windows, but all was dark inside the structure so far as they could determine. To all appearance Sorenson had not stopped here: it was quiet, gloomy, untenanted.
"We'll have to try his home now," the sheriff stated. "If we don't find him there, we'll set the telephones going to warn all the ranches and towns around to be on the lookout and either to stop or report him if he shows up. He hasn't start enough to get away now."
They hastened on along the line of buildings until they reached a side street. But when they had proceeded a short way, Weir stopped.
"I'm not satisfied about the office," said he. "Suppose you go on to his house and I'll return for a look inside from the front. If you fail to find him join me at Martinez' office, where no one is likely to be around and we can then lay further plans."
"That suits," Madden responded, and set off alone.
Weir's alert brain had been turning over the possibilities of Sorenson's course. Rather by pursuing what would be the man's line of reasoning than by depending on chance, he had come to the quick decision to turn back once again to the office. Sorenson would so act as would best serve his immediate escape and that of the future.
Would he expect the sheriff and the engineer to look for him to flee by the speediest means, an automobile, and to the natural avenue of escape, the railroad? Yes. Therefore on that expectation he would adopt another way to throw off pursuit. And perilous as a delay would be in getting away from San Mateo, yet he must risk the few minutes necessary to get money. For to fly with pockets empty meant eventual, certain capture. Money a fugitive from justice must possess above everything in order to possess wings; and no one would know that better than Sorenson.
Though Madden and he had seen no light in the office building, the cattleman nevertheless might have been within. If he had been in the vault, he could safely have lighted a candle without their perceiving its beams; and though the safe was modern it probably had no time lock. Sorenson could unlock it with a few twirls of the combination, stuff his pockets with currency and negotiable paper to the amount of thousands and then slip away.
Fortunately the moonlight was to Weir's advantage. He quickened his steps, passed round the corner into the main street and moved towards the building. For him the crowd at the court house at that moment had no interest; one person, and one person alone, commanded his thoughts.
How correct had been his logic—logic not unmixed with intuition, perhaps—appeared when he was yet some fifty yards away from the door he sought. A tall bulky figure suddenly stepped forth from the building and instantly ran across the street and lost itself in the shifting, jostling crowd that was half-disclosed, half-concealed by the broken shadows of the moonlit trees.
Steele Weir proceeded to a spot near the office and halted. His first impulse to rush after Sorenson had been promptly suppressed, as cooler judgment ruled. To seek his quarry in that throng would be labor wasted, while to reveal his identity would be to court a disastrous interference with the business at hand. From where he stood he should much better be able to see Sorenson when he did emerge, unless he chose to remain in the crowd or steal away at the rear of the court house yard, a chance Weir must take.
Five minutes passed. The restless, talkative Mexicans continued to swarm and buzz with excitement, ceaselessly moving about, forming and reforming in groups, agitatedly repeating newer and wilder rumors concerning events. Despite Weir's intent watch for Sorenson, the engineer could not but observe the mob's manifestations, observe them with sardonic humor. For their ebullition of the present would be nothing to what it would be if they learned he stood across the street, uncaged, unfettered, free and armed, a "gun-man" loose instead of a "gun-man" in jail.
All at once Weir noted out of the tail of his eye a slight stir among a number of horses standing with reins a-trail before a store a little way down the street. The horses were partly in the light, partly in the shadow, so that all he could see was that one or two of them had jerked aside quickly, then resumed their listless postures.
He was about to withdraw his eyes when he saw a man swing upon the back of one of them and start off at an easy canter. Weir sprang towards the spot at a run. That big figure could only be Sorenson's, for no Mexican he had ever seen in San Mateo could match it. And the plan of escape showed the other's craft in an emergency; gradually working his way through the crowd he had at last gained the protective shadow of the building on that side of the street and slipped along in it until he reached the horses.
Doubtless the man had conceived the plan at the instant he had stepped from his office, sweeping the street by one gauging look. With the whole town assembled at the court house, his departure was little likely to be noted by the Mexicans, while Madden and Weir would never suspect him of riding off on a horse, or suspect too late. Indeed, he rode at first as if in no great haste, but as he turned his mount into a narrow by-way, more a lane than a street that disappeared between two mud walls, Weir saw him strike his heels into the pony's flanks.
But for the startled movement of the nearby horses when Sorenson took stirrup, Weir would not have looked that way. He might possibly have seen the horseman start off, but that is not certain. He unquestionably would have supposed him an ordinary rider if he had not noticed the man until he reached the mouth of the lane.
Meantime the engineer had made his best speed to the line of waiting horses. Slowing to a walk so as not to scare them, though as he discovered on examination most of them looked too bony and spiritless for that, he approached and carefully inspected the bunch. He took his time in the selection: the more haste in choosing a mount might prove less speed in the end. He tightened the saddle-girths and ran a finger along the head straps of the bridle of the horse picked to judge their fit, receiving a snap from the pony's teeth, which gave him satisfaction. Not only was this animal a wiry, tough-looking little beast, but he had life.
Up into the saddle Weir went, followed Sorenson's line to the lane, down which he swung. Coming out into the next street, he pursued it to an intersecting street, and there galloped for the edge of town without trying to guess the way taken by his enemy. Once he reached the open fields he would quickly get sight of the man racing away somewhere on the mesa.
Evidently the quarry he pursued had not taken so direct a course as Weir, for when the latter at length came forth where he could have a wide view he perceived the horseman a quarter of a mile off and further east, galloping south. The engineer at once raced thither to gain the same road and turning into it made for Sorenson.
Thus the two men sped away from San Mateo. The wire fences and the adobe houses of Mexicans owning little farms adjoining soon ceased. The wide mesa lay on either side. Though a quarter of a mile had separated the men when Weir first observed the other, the distance between had been increased while the engineer was gaining the road, until now the interval was almost twice as great.
Weir guessed the fleeing man's plan. Instead of seeking the railroad for the present, he would disappear in the mountains, where with the assistance of some loyal employee, cowman or sheepherder, he would lie hid until the first fury of the hunt had subsided. Possibly his bold brain even conceived the idea of again returning to San Mateo some dark night soon and further looting the office, vigilance being relaxed.
In any case, he would expect to remain safe from pursuit in a mountain fastness until either on horseback or by automobile he could work his way out of the country. With what he had unquestionably carried off he would not be a poor man. In some spot far away he could assume a new name, start in business and later be joined by his wife and crippled son.
Alas, for those plans, arising like mushrooms on the ruins of his life! Behind him followed the same inexorable antagonist who so swiftly had brought everything crashing about his head. Possibly Sorenson once out of the town had failed to look back; possibly looking back he had been unable to distinguish against the blur of houses and trees the horseman galloping in the moonlight along the same road.
But all at once when they were two miles away from San Mateo he discovered Weir, who had been gradually cutting down the space between until now again he was within a quarter of a mile of his quarry. Sorenson had been riding rapidly but not hard; he now beat his horse to a furious gallop,—a good pony, too, from its speed, showing that the banker as well as Weir had picked his mount with care.
Weir did not urge his horse to a similar pace, only maintaining a fast steady gallop that kept the other in sight though the space between again widened. Apparently Sorenson realized the folly of attempting to outrun, his pursuer at once, for he soon dropped back into a regular, mile-eating gallop. Gradually in turn Weir crept up to his old position.
To each the only sound was that of drumming hoof-beats. In front rode the fleeing man—dethroned leader and criminal and murderer. Behind relentlessly came his Nemesis, the son of the man whom he had deceived and damned to mental suffering. All about them as they flew along was the silent, moonlit, sage-covered mesa. At their right towered the misty, unchanging peaks, as if watching unmoved this strange race of two human beings. A strange race, in truth,—a race where vengeance rode.
Ten miles the two men had gone when Sorenson's horse began to fail. The rider's weight was proving too much for the sturdy little animal and though he strove to maintain his speed the strain told on lungs and legs. Weir had reduced the distance first to three hundred yards, then to two hundred, and at last but a hundred separated him from the man and horse ahead.
The hard chase indeed was beginning to tell on his own mount. Flecks of foam flew from its lips; its neck was wet with sweat; the whistle of its breath was audible to the engineer at every stride. For as both men had realized that now the end could not be far off, they had pushed their horses to faster and faster galloping.
On a sudden Sorenson swung his animal into a dim trail leading from the main road skirting the mountain range to the base of the mountains themselves. The first slopes were but a mile away, covered with a scattering growth of pinyon pines. Just in front, too, for which the trail seemed pointing, was a dark ravine filled with brush that rose to the denser timber above. This was the fugitive's goal. Once he could fling himself from the saddle and plunge into the undergrowth he would be safe from his pursuer.
The two ponies struggled on with exhausted leaps. Weir had reduced the interval to seventy-five yards by the time half the distance was covered and to fifty as they drew near the mouth of the ravine. He measured his gain and the remaining two hundred yards or so with savage eyes, then drew his revolver. He desired to take Sorenson unharmed. But rather than that the man should escape he would kill him.
Sorenson's horse stumbled, but a jerk of the reins saved him and kept him moving on. The engineer struck his own pony fiercely on the flank, which produced a tremendous effort in the striving beast that brought it within thirty paces or so of Sorenson. That, however, was the best it could do, labor as it would. Its knees were trembling at every stride, its head swinging heavily.
Sorenson's horse suddenly went to its knees. But the man leaping clear took the ground on his feet and instantly set off at a run for the line of brush in the draw some seventy or eighty paces away. A last spurt Weir's pony made, bringing his rider to within thirty yards of the cattleman, who glancing over his shoulder halted, swung about, fired a shot and again started to run.
The pony under Weir came to an abrupt stop, shaking. He was done, whether from exhaustion or the bullet the engineer did not wait to see. Flinging himself out the saddle he raced after his man, taking the rough trail leading up the slope in swift strides. On foot Sorenson was no match for him. But the latter had the start; he was now almost within reach of the thick screen of bushes; and he bent every energy to make the ambuscade.
Still running, Weir flung up his gun and fired. Close the shot must have gone to Sorenson, so close as to inject into the man's mind recollection of his pursuer's accuracy and a fear of a bullet in his back, for when within twenty feet of the bushes he dropped behind a small bowlder, whence he fired twice at Weir but without striking his mark.
Neither man after the furious ride and the concluding run on foot was fit for sure marksmanship. This Weir realized, so stopped where he was some forty feet off from Sorenson's stone in order to regain his breath and calm his nerves. Of the cattleman he could see nothing; the man crouched low out of sight, perhaps reloading his weapon, perhaps steeling himself for a dash across that small moonlit space that separated him from safety, or perhaps preparing for a quick upward spring and a fresh volley directed at his foe.
It may be questioned if in his heart Sorenson was not almost disposed to fight the matter out. He was no coward; his original hatred for the engineer had by recent events been swelled to a diabolical desire to kill; and now even if he, Sorenson, succeeded in slipping away, his whereabouts would be known unless he destroyed the man. Safety demanded that he not only escape but escape without this witness.
Weir had not sought cover. He stood upright, his revolver ready, trusting to have an advantage in his speed when it came to an exchange of shots. Then he began an advance, a slow noiseless circling advance that at the same time of taking him closer to his enemy brought him round on his flank.
Sorenson's hand and pistol appeared and half his face while three shots rattled from his gun, two at the spot where Weir had been and one at him in his new position, which the hiding man had immediately located. The last shot ticked the engineer's sleeve. In return Weir fired twice, the first bullet striking the rock and ricocheting off with a loud whine, while the second struck the pistol from Sorenson's hand.
Instantly Weir sprang forward.
"Show yourself," he ordered. And the kneeling fugitive, disarmed, gripping his bleeding hand, sullenly arose to his feet. "You've led me a chase, but I have you at last," the engineer continued. "Now you're going back to San Mateo and jail. Walk towards the horses."
Sorenson cast one bitter glance at the thicket in the ravine; by only the little matter of a few yards he had failed to gain liberty. For Weir his visage when he looked around again was never more hard, hostile, full of undying hatred. Though balked, he was not submissive, and was the kind who kept his animosity to the end. Then he started off towards the horses, his own which had staggered to its feet again and Weir's, both standing with hanging heads and heaving, quivering sides.
All at once the cattleman halted and faced about.
"Most men have a price, and I suppose you have yours," he said, with forced calmness. "I'm ready to pay it."
"You're going to pay it," was the answer.
"How much will you ask to let me go?"
"If you offered me ten million, which you haven't got, I wouldn't accept it," Weir said, harshly. "There isn't enough money in the world to buy your liberty. You're going back to San Mateo, and from there to the penitentiary or to the gallows, one or the other."
"It will be neither," Sorenson stated.
"You're mistaken, but I shall not argue the matter with you. Keep walking towards the horses."
Sorenson's lips became compressed. He glanced down at his bleeding hand, shook the blood from his fingers.
"I stay here," said he.
Weir went a step nearer and thrust his face forward, jaw set, eyes smoldering.
"Go on, I say," he exclaimed.
But the other did not retreat before him or indeed move at all. A sneer lifted his gray mustache.
"You have a gun; you're a killer; here I am unarmed and in your power," he said. "You intend to take me in; I propose to stay here. If I go to San Mateo, it will be as a dead man. I'll see whether you have the nerve to shoot me down where I now stand. If you have, go to it. You can then take my body to town, but I'll not have paid the price you name and I'll have the satisfaction of knowing I beat you at the last—in that, at least. Your bragging will be empty. Start your shooting any time you please." The tone spoke complete contempt.
Weir said nothing. The defiance, the supreme audacity of this assertion, coming so unexpectedly, surprised him and left him at a loss. He would not kill an unresisting man, even Sorenson, his worst enemy. Sorenson in his place probably would not have hesitated to do so, for he had no fine scruples in such matters; but for Steele Weir the thing was no more possible than striking a woman or a child.
It was not a question of nerve, as the other had stated. It was a test of brutality and consciencelessness. To shoot a man while escaping is one thing; to kill him while a prisoner, however contemptuous and brazen, was another. But there are means other than bullets for handling obstinate prisoners.
Weir shifted his weapon so as to grasp the barrel and have the butt free.
"I'll leave your execution to the proper officials, if an execution is what you want," he said. "Now will you go?" he demanded, threateningly.
His foe gazed at the clubbed pistol and turned as if to yield. Next instant he whirled, lunging at Weir and flinging his arms about his captor. An exultant exclamation slipped from his lips; his hot breath fell on the engineer's cheek; his eyes glared into those of the man his arms encircled. He had tricked Weir by his pretense of obstinacy, led him to weaken his guard and had him in his grasp.
Weir braced himself to resist the man's effort to force him down. Strong arms the other had, now doubly strengthened by hate and a belief in victory. All the power of Sorenson's great body was exerted to lift him off his feet, crush him in a terrific bear-hug, put him on his back and render him helpless; and Weir in his turn was tensing his muscles and arching his frame with every ounce of his lean, iron-like frame.
Thus they swayed and struggled in the moonlight, without witnesses. A sinister silent fight, marked only by their fierce breathing and fiercer heart-beats. The pistol had dropped from Steele Weir's hand; instead of attempting to break the other's hold he had yielded to it and pushing his own arms forward had clasped his hands behind Sorenson's back in the wrestler's true defense to such an attack.
Once Sorenson almost had him on his knees, but by a quick powerful upthrust of his legs he regained his upright position. However, it had been a close shave for Weir, for he well knew that his opponent would use any tactics, fair or foul, to kill him if he once lay on his back.
"You hound from hell!" Sorenson snarled. "You crippled my boy, and you shall die for that. You've ruined me in San Mateo, and you shall die for that. You jailed Burkhardt and poisoned Gordon and shot Vorse, and you shall die for that. I'm going to choke the life out of you, and grind your dead head into the dust, and then spit on you. That's how I treat snakes. Say your prayers, if you know any, for you'll never get another chance. Your friends won't recognize your remains when I'm done with you."
Venomous and impassioned, all the hate in the man's heart flowed forth in a fuming stream. For hate and murderous desire was all that was left him in the wreck of life caused by the engineer. If he could no longer rule, he could at least destroy.
Weir had made no response to the fierce imprecations. He was working his hands upward, straining his arms so as to reach Sorenson's head.
"When the coyotes are gnawing your skull," Sorenson went on, raging, "when the worms are feeding on you——"
The words died in a gurgle of pain. Weir's hands had closed about his temples, a finger sunk in each eye, forcing his head back. Sorenson shook himself frantically to break the torturing hold. His head went farther and farther back as if it seemed his neck would snap; his mouth opened to gasp, "Oh, God!" and all at once his hug slipped apart.
Instantly Weir tripped him, falling on top. Reaching out like a flash he seized his pistol lying on the ground and brought it down on the head of his enemy, who momentarily blinded and suffering could not resist. Sorenson went limp. From the savage beast of a minute before he had been changed to a huge, motionless, sprawling figure, with face upturned to the moon.
And on that face the victor of the life and death struggle could still behold, through the contorted lines stamped by pain, the man's brutal passion and fixed malevolence.
"You felt the hound of hell's teeth," he muttered.
With thongs from one of the saddles he bound Sorenson's hands, pulling the knots tight and hard. The prostrate man moaned, opened his eyes. Weir jerked him dazed and staggering to his feet.
"Up into the saddle with you if you don't want another rap on the head," Steele ordered, bruskly. "And go straight this time. From now on I'll take you at your word and put a hole through your black heart if you try any more tricks."
When his prisoner was mounted, he fastened his ankles together by another thong under the belly of the pony. Weir was taking no chances. Up into his own saddle then he swung himself.
No exultant curses now came from his captive's lips.
A FINAL CHALLENGE
The hour was drawing near midnight when Weir and his prisoner entered the town. Most of the women and children of the crowd of Mexicans had gone to their homes, but men yet remained before the court house and in the street, discussing and arguing the exciting events of the night.
In some mysterious manner knowledge that Burkhardt and not Weir was the prisoner in the jail, together with news of Judge Gordon's suicide and Vorse's death, had spread from mouth to mouth. Amazement and incredulity had been followed by an aroused feeling of anger, for to the Mexicans it appeared that the crushing blow dealt the leaders of the town was the arbitrary act of the man they believed a lawless gun-man. Were not Weir's foremen and engineers guarding the jail? Men who were strangers, not even citizens of the county?
But though an undercurrent of feeling ran among the talking groups, gradually increasing as the time passed, yet was there no active desire on the part of all or a concerted movement to drive away the seeming invaders of the law. For any such attempt a strong leader was necessary. There was none: Madden frowned upon them, only saying as he moved about that he was executing the law; Sorenson, the dominating figure of the town, and Burkhardt's, Vorse's and Gordon's friend, was strangely absent.
The determined guard about the jail was in itself a deterrent to mob action. Meyers had brought twenty or more men from camp, armed and alert, who with those already about the building constituted a force to make any crowd of Mexicans, however angry, think twice before seeking to rescue prisoners. But the wish and the spirit were not lacking. Employees of the plotters, men who had received favors from Sorenson or Vorse or Burkhardt, Mexicans of a naturally vicious and unruly temper, were all for rushing the jail. The great number of the people, however, peaceful and indolent, preferred to content themselves with satisfying their curiosity by talk instead of seeking a taste of blood. And so as a result of this divided opinion the hostility for Weir had not expressed itself in an effort to assail the keepers of the jail.
When he was discovered to have returned to town, this angry feeling assumed a menacing form. He approached the court house by the side street, Sorenson riding at his side, for it was his plan to lodge his prisoner in the Jail with as much secrecy as possible. Nevertheless in this he was disappointed; men saw him arrive, assist his prisoner to alight and climb the board fence about the yard; and drawn by the expectation of new events the nearer groups hastened forward.
Weir impelled his man towards the jail.
"Stand back," he commanded the Mexicans.
The latter at first stared in astonishment at beholding the pair, one of whom was San Mateo's foremost citizen, now sullenly advancing with wrists bound. Exclamations burst from their lips.
At that a flash of hope filled Sorenson's breast.
"To my rescue, friends!" he cried, beginning to struggle.
Weir jerked him ahead fiercely and cast fiercer looks at the Mexicans.
"This man is under arrest. And remember I can still shoot straight," he warned.
Towards him came Madden running, who in Weir's disappearance earlier in the night he had guessed a pursuit of the cattleman and had therefore returned to the jail. He placed himself at Sorenson's right.
"Whoever tries to take Sorenson from the hands of the law does so at his own peril," he exclaimed.
A few mocking shouts resulted. These were gradually increased until the Mexicans, now being joined by scores of others from the street, became a howling, cursing, hysterical mob, crying Sorenson and Burkhardt's innocence, calling down imprecations on the heads of the sheriff and the engineer, stirred by certain lawless spirits to wilder and wilder passion.
Weir and Madden had not been standing still, for the crowd was not yet numerous enough at first or bold enough to attack. Moreover the two men held their pistols well in view. Forcing Sorenson ahead, driving apart those who blocked their way, they pushed across the yard until but a few paces from the jail.
One Mexican, a ranch hand from one of Vorse's ranches, wearing a great high-peaked felt hat and chaps, insolently thrust himself before the trio, spitting at Weir's face and in Spanish begging companions to help him release Sorenson. His right hand was resting on his holster as if but awaiting an excuse to use his gun.
"Get to one side," was Weir's harsh order.
The man's answer was a string of foul curses. Like a panther the engineer leaped forward and struck the fellow on the side of his head with revolver barrel, dropping him where he stood.
As the crowd remained suddenly mute, unmoving, their howls checked by this swift reprisal, Weir spoke to Madden:
"Quick! To the door!"
Each with an arm in Sorenson's, they made a run for the jail, passed through the line of armed guards and for the moment were safe. The sheriff lost no time in dragging the prisoner inside and when presently he stepped forth again, locking the door after him, he showed a relieved face.
"I put irons on him, hands and feet," he informed Weir. "He's out of the way at any rate if we're in for a row."
That was exactly what appeared in prospect. Only the rifles in the grip of the two dozen men about the jail kept the now thoroughly aroused mob from rushing forward. From yelling it had changed to low fierce murmurs that bespoke a more desperate mood.
"We ought to move the men somewhere else," Steele Weir stated. "Pretty soon they'll go for arms and then we'll have real trouble."
"I arranged while you were gone to transfer them to the county seat in the next county," Madden said. "Telephoned the sheriff; he's expecting them. To-morrow we can take them to Santa Fe, out of this part of the country till time for their trial. I placed the automobile your man brought Burkhardt in from the dam and another machine back in the alley; they are there now in the shadow."
"Good. The quicker you take them, the better. They ought to be gagged when brought out. Get them here to the door; the men who are to drive should have the cars ready, engines going——"
"That's fixed. Your superintendent will drive one car and one of the engineers the other; they can slip back there at once. Six more of the guards are to go with us."
"All right. You know whom you want. Station them here at the door to rush the prisoners back the instant you're ready. Have them go round to the rear on the dark side of the jail; they should gain a good start before they're discovered."
Madden called from the line Atkinson and the men whom he had chosen to accompany him on the night ride. A brief parley followed. Then he and two of the engineers went inside the jail, while the superintendent and one young fellow stole away in the shadows towards the spot where stood the cars.
Meanwhile the throng had grown until it filled all the space about the rear of the court house and formed a mass of human bodies on which the checkered moonlight played reaching to within half a dozen paces of the jail. A shot rang out and a bullet struck the jail. It was like a match lighted near powder, that if allowed to burn would set off an explosion. One shot would lead to others from reckless spirits, to a volley and in the end to an onslaught.
Perhaps that was the reasoning and the purpose of the man who had fired. In any case, it must not be repeated.
Weir strode forward towards the crowd.
"If that man, or any of you, want to shoot this out with me, let him show himself," he said, threateningly and swinging the muzzle of his weapon along the line of faces.
A quick retreat on the part of those nearest marked the respect with which it was considered. Frantically they strove to push further back into the mob, clawing and elbowing.
"If you try any more shots," he continued, speaking in Spanish as before, "those rifles will open fire." He paused to allow this information to have full effect. "Finally, if you attempt wrecking this jail, the three hundred workmen from the dam will march down to San Mateo and teach you proper observance of the law. If you're really looking for trouble, those three hundred men will give this town trouble that will be remembered for twenty years."
Standing there in the moonlight between the two parties, between the thin line of sentinels about the jail and the dense mob in front, Steele Weir's action seemed the height of rashness. A rush of the Mexicans and he would be overwhelmed, a cowardly shot from somewhere in the rear and he might be killed. It was like inviting disaster.
If, however, he recognized his danger, he gave no sign of it. By the power of his gun and sheer boldness he faced them, calm, fearless, masterful. His unexpected advance had surprised the Mexicans, left them confused and uncertain. Wild and sinister tales concerning his prowess magnified him in their eyes notwithstanding their animosity. Now they seemed to feel his iron will beating against their faces.
During the pause that ensued Weir heard the jail door open. Madden was preparing to take his prisoners out.
"I'm not seeking trouble, but I'm not avoiding it," the engineer proceeded, for this was the critical minute, and he sought to have all eyes focused upon him instead of upon the activity at his back. "The sheriff represents the law here in San Mateo, and I give you plain warning that every man who attempts violence to-night will be called upon to pay the account. By to-morrow the Governor may have soldiers stationed in your houses and in your streets, for the prisoners are now the prisoners of the state, arrested for stealing cattle——"
That was a happy inspiration. Had Weir stated the whole category of Sorenson's and Burkhardt's crimes, including murder and dynamiting, he could not have struck so shrewdly as in naming the sin of cattle-stealing. For this was a cattle country and even the most ignorant Mexican grasped the significance of this charge.
A visible stir answered the statement.
"For stealing cattle from other men"—he did not trouble to mention the fact the crime had occurred thirty years previous—"and for that and other things Sheriff Madden has arrested them. Because they are rich, their guilt is all the worse. Perhaps they have taken cattle belonging to you, who knows? That may come out in their trial; if they have taken them, you shall have them back."
From the rear of the grounds came the low sounds of automobile engines being started. Weir dared not look about to learn if Madden and his party were safely on their way thither. As for the Mexicans, the speaker's words had created a sensation. For men were there who owned small herds now feeding on the range, and from anger their minds yielded to sudden anxiety; each saw himself a possible sufferer from cattle depredations; and in the minds of these, at least, thought of loss supplanted thought of Sorenson and Burkhardt.
"I helped Sheriff Madden arrest these men because they stole cattle, possibly some of your steers among them. Is that why you would like to lynch me, as I've heard you wanted to do?" he demanded, savagely. "Because I save your animals? Or is it because I shot that renegade Mexican whom Ed Sorenson hired to try and kill me? Ed Sorenson, yes. Sheriff Madden has the knowledge of it. Not only would Sorenson the father like to see me die because I know about his cattle-stealing, but Ed Sorenson, the son, hired that strange Mexican to shoot me from the dark because I stopped him from trying to steal a girl. Has Ed Sorenson left your daughters alone? I would save your daughters from his evil hands, as I would your cattle from his father's."
A man all at once pushed forth from the crowd, wrathfully elbowing his way among neighbors. He was Naharo, the Mexican who had chatted once with Martinez in the latter's office.