Straight out from the place of gray smoke four men and four horses were making their way across the slide. They were halfway across. But they had stopped. The down rush of Molly's horse had apparently given them pause. Now two men started ahead, one stood irresolute and one started to retrace his steps. It is a true saying that he who hesitates is lost. Straight over the irresolute man and his horse rolled the dust cloud whose centre was Molly's horse. When the dust cloud passed on it was much larger, and both the man and his horse had disappeared.
The man who had started to retreat continued to retreat, and more rapidly. The two who had held on did not cease to advance, but they proceeded very slowly.
"If that feller with the Winchester don't get us we're all right for a spell," Racey muttered.
He knew that on their side of the slide for a distance of several hundred yards up and down the side of the mountain and for several miles athwart it the underbrush was impenetrable for horses and wicked travelling for men. There had been a forest fire four years before, and everyone knows what happens after that.
In but one place, where a ridge of rock reared through the soil, was it possible to cross the stretch of burned-over ground. Naturally Racey had picked this one spot. Whether the posse had not known of this rock ridge, or whether they had simply miscalculated its position it is impossible to say.
"Those two will shore be out of luck when they get in among the stubs," he thought to himself, as he waited for his strength to come back.
But youth recovers quickly and Racey was young. It may be that the lead that was being sent at him and Molly Dale was a potent revivifier.
Certainly within three or four minutes after he had cut the bridle Racey began to work his way up the rope to where his patient and well-trained horse stood braced and steady as the proverbial boulder.
Monotonously the man behind the Winchester whipped bullet after bullet into the rocky face of the slide in the immediate vicinity of Racey Dawson and the senseless burden in the crook of his left arm. Nevertheless, Racey took the time to work to the right and recover the hat that a bullet had flicked from his head.
Then he resumed his slow journey upward.
Ages passed before he felt the good firm ground under his feet and laid the still unconscious Molly on the grass behind a gray and barkless windfall that had once been a hundred-foot fir.
Then he removed his horse farther back among the stubs where it could not be seen, took his Winchester from the scabbard under the left fender and went back to the edge of the slide to start a return argument with the individual who had for the last ten minutes been endeavouring to kill him.
HUE AND CRY
"Did you hit him?"
"I don't think so," replied Racey without turning his head. "Keep down."
"I am down."
"How you feel?"
"Yes," said she in a small voice, "it was a close squeak. You—you saved my life, Racey."
"Shucks," he said, much embarrassed, "that wasn't anythin'—I mean—you—you know what I mean."
"Surely, I know what you mean. All the same, you saved my life. Tell me, was that man shooting at us all the time after I fainted until you got me under cover?"
"Not all the time, no."
"But most of the time. Oh, you can make small of it, but you were very brave. It isn't everybody would have stuck the way you did."
Smack! Tchuck! A bullet struck a rock two feet below where Racey lay on his stomach, his rifle-barrel poked out between two shrubs of smooth sumac—another bored the hole of a gray stub at his back.
He fired quickly at the first puff of smoke, then sent two bullets a little to the left of the centre of the second puff.
"Not much chance of hittin' the first feller," he said to Molly. "He's behind a log, but that second sport is behind a bush same as me.... Huh? Oh, I'm all right. I got the ground in front of me. He hasn't. Alla same, we ain't stayin' here any longer. I think I saw half-a-dozen gents cuttin' across the end of the slide. Give 'em time and they'll cut in behind us, which ain't part of my plans a-tall. Let's go."
He crawfished backward on his hands and knees. Molly followed his example. When they were sufficiently far back to be able to stand upright with safety they scrambled to their feet and hurried to the horse.
"I'll lead him for a while," said Racey, giving Molly a leg up, for the horse was a tall one. "He won't have to carry double just yet."
So, with Racey walking ahead, they resumed their retreat.
The ridge of rock cutting across the burned-over area could not properly be called rimrock. It was a different formation. Set at an angle it climbed steadily upward to the very top of the mountain. In places weatherworn to a slippery smoothness; in others jagged, fragment-strewn; where the rain had washed an earth-covering upon the rock the cheerful kinnikinick spread its mantle of shining green.
The man and the girl and the horse made good time. Racey's feet began to hurt before he had gone a mile, but he knew that something besides a pair of feet would be irreparably damaged if he did not keep going. If they caught him he would be lynched, that's what he would be. If he weren't shot first. And the girl—well, she would get at the least ten years at Piegan City, if they were caught. But "if" is the longest and tallest word in the dictionary. It is indeed a mighty barrier before the Lord.
"Did you ever stop to think they may come up through this brush?" said Molly, on whom the silence and the sad gray stubs on either hand were beginning to tell.
"No," he answered, "I didn't, because they can't. The farther down you go the worse it gets. They'd never get through. Not with hosses. We're all right."
"Are we?" She stood up in her stirrups, and looked down through a vista between the stubs.
They had reached the top of the mountain. It was a saddle-backed mountain, and they were at the outer edge of the eastern hump. Far below was a narrow valley running north and south. It was a valley without trees or stream and through it a string of dots were slipping to the north.
"Are we all right?" she persisted. "Look down there."
At this he turned his head and craned his neck.
"I guess," he said, stepping out, "we'd better boil this kettle a li'l faster."
She made no comment, but always she looked down the mountain side and watched, when the stubs gave her the opportunity, that ominous string of dots. She had never been hunted before.
They crossed the top of the mountain, keeping to the ridge of rock, and started down the northern slope. Here they passed out of the burned-over area of underbrush and stubs and scuffed through brushless groves of fir and spruce where no grass grew and not a ray of sunshine struck the ground and the wind soughed always mournfully.
But here and there were comparatively open spaces, grassy, drenched with sunshine, and sparsely sprinkled with lovely mountain maples and solitary yellow pines. In the wider open spaces they could see over the tops of the trees below them and catch glimpses of the way they must go.
A deep notch, almost a canon, grown up in spruce divided the mountain they were descending from the next one to the north. This next one thrust a rocky shoulder easterly. The valley where the horsemen rode bent round this shoulder in a curve measured in miles. They could not see the riders now.
"There's a trail just over the hill," said Racey, nodding toward the mountain across the notch. "It ain't been regularly used since the Daisy petered out in '73, but I guess the bridge is all right."
"And suppose it ain't all right?"
"We'll have to grow wings in a hurry," he said, soberly, thinking of the deep cleft spanned by the bridge. "Does this trail lead to Farewell?"
"Same thing—it'll take us to the Farewell trail if we wanted to go there, but we don't. We ain't got time. We'll stick to this trail till we get out of the Frying-Pans and then we'll head northeast for the Cross-in-a-box. That's the nearest place where I got friends. And I don't mind saying we'll be needing friends bad, me and you both."
"Suppose that posse reaches the trail and the bridge before we do?"
"Oh, I guess they won't. They have to go alla way round and we go straight mostly. Don't you worry. We'll make the riffle yet."
His voice was more confident than his brain. It was touch and go whether they would reach the trail and the bridge first. The posse in the valley—that was what would stack the cards against them. And if they should pass the bridge first, what then? It was at least thirty miles from the bridge to the Cross-in-a-box ranch-house. And there was only one horse. Indeed, the close squeak was still squeaking.
"Racey, you're limping!"
"Not me," he lied. "Stubbed my toe, thassall."
"Nothing of the kind. It's those tight boots. Here, you ride, and let me walk." So saying, she slipped to the ground.
As was natural the horse stopped with a jerk. So did Racey.
"You get into that saddle," he directed, sternly. "We ain't got time for any foolishness."
Foolishness! And she was only trying to be thoughtful. Foolishness! She turned and climbed back into the saddle, and sat up straight, her backbone as stiff as a ramrod, and looked over his head and far away. For the moment she was so hopping mad she forgot the danger they were in. They made their way down into the heavy growth of Engelmann spruce that filled the notch, crossed the floor of the notch, and began again to climb.
An hour later they crossed the top of the second mountain and saw far below them a long saddle back split in the middle by a narrow cleft. At that distance it looked very narrow. In reality, it was forty feet wide. Racey stopped and swept with squinting eyes the place where he knew the bridge to be.
"See," he said, suddenly, pointing for Molly's benefit. "There's the Daisy trail. I can see her plain—to the left of that arrowhead bunch of trees. And the bridge is behind the trees."
"But I don't see any trail."
"Grown up in grass. That's why. It's behind the trees mostly, anyhow. But she's there, the trail is. You can bet on it."
"I don't want to bet on it." Shortly. She was still mad at him. He had saved her life, he had succeeded in saving the family ranch, he had put her under eternal obligations, but he had called her thought for him foolishness. It was too much.
Yet all the time she was ashamed of herself. She knew that she was small and mean and narrow and deserved a spanking if any girl did. She wanted to cuff Racey, cuff him till his ears turned red and his head rang. For that is the way a woman feels when she loves a man and he has hurt her feelings. But she feels almost precisely the same way when she hates one who has. Truth it is that Love and Hate are close akin.
Down, down they dropped two thousand feet, and when they came out upon the fairly level top of the saddle back Racey mounted behind Molly.
"He'll have to carry double now," he explained. "She's two mile to the bridge, and my wind ain't good enough to run me two mile."
It was not his wind that was weak, it was his feet—his tortured, blistered feet that were two flaming aches. Later they would become numb. He wished they were numb now, and cursed silently the man who first invented cowboy boots. Every jog of the trotting horse whose back he bestrode was a twitching torture.
"We'll be at the bridge in another mile," he told her.
Silent and grass-grown lay the Daisy trail when they came out upon it winding through a meagre plantation of cedars.
"No one's come along yet," vouchsafed Racey, turning into the trail after a swift glance at its trackless, undisturbed surface.
He tickled the horse with both spurs and stirred him into a gallop. There was not much spring in that gallop. Racey weighed fully one hundred and seventy pounds without his clothes, Molly a hundred and twenty with all of hers, and the saddle, blanket, sack, rifle, and cartridges weighed a good sixty. On top of this weight pile many weary miles the horse had travelled since its last meal and you have what it was carrying. No wonder the gallop lacked spring.
"Bridge is just beyond those trees," said Racey in Molly's ear.
"The horse is nearly run out," was her comment.
"He ain't dead yet."
They rocked around the arrowhead grove of trees and saw the bridge before them—one stringer. There had been two stringers and adequate flooring when Racey had seen it last. The snows of the previous winter must have been heavy in the Frying-Pan Mountains.
Molly shivered at the sight of that lone stringer.
"The horse is done, and so are we," she muttered.
"Nothing like that," he told her, cheerfully. "There's one stringer left. Good enough for a squirrel, let alone two white folks."
"I—I couldn't," shuddered Molly.
They had stopped at the bridge head, Racey had dismounted, and she, was looking down into the dark mouth of the cleft with frightened eyes.
"It must be five hundred feet to the bottom," she whispered, her chin wobbling.
"Not more than four hundred," he said, reassuringly. "And that log is a good strong four-foot log, and she's been shaved off with the broadaxe for layin' the flooring so we got a nice smooth path almost two feet wide."
In reality, that smooth path retained not a few of the spikes that had once held the flooring and it was no more than eighteen inches wide. Racey gabbled on regardless. If chatter would do it, he'd get her mind off that four-hundred-foot drop.
"I cue-can't!" breathed Molly. "I cue-can't walk across on that lul-log! I'd fall off! I know I would!"
"You ain't gonna walk across the log," he told her with a broad grin. "I'll carry you pickaback. C'mon, Molly, slide off. That's right. Now when I stoop put yore arms round my neck. I'll stick my arms under yore legs. See, like this. Now yo're all right. Don't worry. I won't drop you. Close yore eyes and sit still, and you'll never know what's happening. Close 'em now while I walk round with you a li'l bit so's to get the hang of carryin' you."
She closed her eyes, and he began to walk about carrying her. At least she thought he was walking about. But when he stopped and she opened her eyes, she discovered that the horse was standing on the other side of the cleft. At first she did not understand.
"How on earth did the horse get over?" she asked in wonder.
"He didn't," Racey said, quietly, setting her down, "but we did. I carried you across while you had yore eyes shut. I told you you'd never know what was happenin'."
She sat down limply on the ground. Racey started back across the stringer to get the horse. He hurried, too. That posse they had seen in the valley! There was no telling where it was. It might be four miles away, or four hundred yards.
"C'mon, feller," said Racey, picking up the reins of the tired horse. "And for Gawd's sake pick up yore feet! If you don't that dynamite is gonna make one awful mess at the bottom of the canon."
Dynamite! Mess! There was an idea. Although in order to spare Molly an extra worry for the time being, he had told her they would push on together, it had been his intention to hold the bridge with his rifle while Molly rode alone to the Cross-in-a-box for help. But those six sticks of dynamite would simplify the complex situation without difficulty.
He did not hurry the horse. He merely walked in front holding the bridle slackly. The horse followed him as good as gold—and picked up his feet at nearly every spike. Once or twice a hind hoof grazed a spike-head with a rasping sound that sent Racey's heart bouncing up into his throat. Lord, so much depended on a safe passage!
For the first time in his eventful life Racey Dawson realized that he possessed a full and working set of nerves.
When they reached firm ground Racey flung the reins to Molly.
"Unpack the dynamite," he cried. "It's in the slicker."
With his bowie he began furiously to dig under the end of the stringer where it lay embedded in the earth. Within ten minutes he had a hole large enough and long enough to thrust in the whole of his arm. He made it a little longer and a little wider, and at the end he drove an offset. This last that there might be no risk of the charge blowing out through the hole.
When the hole was to his liking, he sat back on his haunches and grabbed the dynamite sticks Molly held out to him. With strings cut from his saddle, he tied the sticks into a bundle. Then he prepared his fuse and cap. In one of the sticks he made a hole. In this hole he firmly inserted the copper cap. Above the cap he tied the fuse to the bundle with several lappings of a saddle-string.
"There!" he exclaimed. "I guess that cap will stay put. You and the hoss get out of here, Molly. Go along the trail a couple of hundred yards or so. G'on. Get a move on. I'll be with you in a minute. Better leave my rifle."
Molly laid the Winchester on the grass beside him, mounted the horse, and departed reluctantly. She did not like to leave Racey now. She had burned out her "mad". She rode away chin on shoulder. The cedars swallowed her up.
Racey with careful caution stuffed the dynamite down the hole and into the offset. Then he shovelled in the earth with his hands and tamped it down with a rock.
Was that the clack of a hoof on stone? Faint and far away another hoof clacked. He reached up to his hatband for a match. There were no matches in his hatband. Feverishly he searched his pockets. Not a match—not a match anywhere!
He whipped out his sixshooter, held the muzzle close to the end of the fuse and fired. He had to fire three times before the fuse began to sparkle and spit.
Clearly it came to his ears, the unmistakable thudding of galloping hoofs on turf. The posse was riding for the bridge full tilt. He picked up his rifle and dodged in among the trees along the trail. Forty yards from the mined stringer he met Molly riding back with a scared face.
"What is it?" she cried to him. "I heard shots! Oh, what is it?"
"Go back! Go back!" he bawled. "I only cut that fuse for three minutes."
Molly wheeled the horse and fled. Racey ran to where a windfall lay near the edge of the cleft and some forty yards from the stringer. Behind the windfall he lay down, levered a cartridge into the chamber, and trained his rifle on the bridge head.
The galloping horsemen were not a hundred paces from the stringer when the dynamite let go with a soul-satisfying roar. Rocks, earth, chunks and splinters of wood flew up in advance of a rolling cloud of smoke that obscured the cleft from rim to rim.
A crash at the bottom of the narrow canon told Racey what had happened to that part of the stringer the dynamite had not destroyed.
Racey lowered the hammer of his rifle to the safety notch just as the posse began to approach the spot where the bridge had been. It approached on foot by ones and twos and from tree to tree. Racey could not see any one, but he could see the tree branches move here and there.
"I guess," muttered Racey, as he crawfished away from the windfall, "I guess that settles the cat-hop."
* * * * *
The sun was near its rising the following day when Racey and Molly, their one horse staggering with fatigue, reached the Cross-in-a-box. Racey had walked all the distance he was humanly able to walk, but even so the horse had carried double the better part of twenty miles. It had earned a rest.
So had Racey's feet.
* * * * *
"My Gawd, what a relief!" Racey muttered, and sat back and gingerly wiggled his toes.
"Damn shame you had to cut 'em up thataway," said Jack Richie, glancing at Racey's slit boots. "They look like new boots."
"It is and they are, but I couldn't get 'em off any other way, and I'll bet I won't be able to get another pair on inside a month. Lordy, man, did you ever think natural-born feet would swell like that?"
"You better soak them awhile," said Jack Richie. "C'mon out to the kitchen."
"Shore feels good," said Racey, when his swelled feet were immersed in a dishpan half full of tepid water. "Lookit, Jack, let Miss Dale have her sleep out, and to-morrow sometime send a couple of boys with her over to Moccasin Spring."
"Whatsa matter with you and one of the boys doing it?"
"Because I have to go to Piegan City."
"Yep—Piegan City. I'm coming back, though, so you needn't worry about losing the hoss yo're gonna lend me."
"That's good. But—"
"And if any gents on hossback should drop in on you and ask questions just remember that what they dunno won't hurt 'em."
Jack Richie nodded understandingly. "Trust me," he said. "As I see it, Miss Dale and you come in from the north, and—"
"Only me—you ain't seen any Miss Dale—and I only stopped long enough to borrow a fresh hoss and then rode away south."
"I know it all by heart," nodded Jack Richie.
"In about a week or ten days, maybe less," said Racey Dawson, "you'll know more than that. And so will a good many other folks."
"Mr. Pooley," said Racey Dawson, easing himself into the chair beside the register's desk, "where is McFluke?"
Mr. Pooley's features remained as wooden as they were fat. His small, wide-set eyes did not flicker. He placed the tips of his fingers together, leaned back in his chair, and stared at Racey between the eyebrows.
"McFluke?" he repeated. "I don't know the name."
"I mean the murderer Jack Harpe sent to you to be taken care of," explained Racey.
Mr. Pooley continued to stare. For a long moment he made no comment. Then he said, "Still, I don't know the name."
"If you will lean back a li'l more," Racey told him, "you can look out of the window and see two chairs in front of the Kearney House. On the right we have Bill Riley, a Wells Fargo detective from Omaha, on the left Tom Seemly from the Pinkerton Agency in San Francisco. They know something but not everything. Suppose I should spin 'em all my li'l tale of grief—what then, Mr. Pooley?"
"Still—I wouldn't know the name McFluke," maintained Mr. Pooley.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Pooley," said Racey, rising to his feet. "I shore am."
"Don't strain yoreself," advised Mr. Pooley, making a brave rustle among the papers on his desk.
"I won't," Racey said, turning at the door to bestow a last! grin upon Mr. Pooley. "So long. Glad I called."
Mr. Pooley laughed outright. "G'by," he called after Racey as the door closed.
Mr. Pooley leaned far back in his chair. He saw Racey Dawson stop on the sidewalk in front of the two detectives. The three conversed a moment, then Racey entered the Kearney House. The two detectives remained where they were.
Mr. Pooley arose and left the room.
* * * * *
"You gotta get out of here!" It was Mr. Pooley speaking with great asperity.
"Why for?" countered our old friend McFluke, one-time proprietor of a saloon on the bank of the Lazy.
"Because they're after you, that's why."
"Racey Dawson for one."
McFluke sat upright in the bunk. "Him! That ——!"
"Yes, him," sneered Pooley. "Scares you, don't it? And he's got two detectives with him, so get a move on. I don't want you anywhere on my property if they do come sniffin' round."
"I'm right comfortable here," declared McFluke, and lay down upon the bunk.
"You'd better go," said Mr. Pooley, softly.
"Not unless I get some money first."
"So that's the game, is it? Think I'll pay you to drift, huh? How much?"
"Oh, about ten thousand."
"Is that all?"
"Well, say fifteen—and not a check, neither."
"No," said Mr. Pooley, "it won't be a check. It won't be anything, you—worm."
So saying Mr. Pooley laid violent hands on McFluke, yanked him out of the bunk, and flung him sprawling on the floor.
"Not one cent do you get from me," declared Mr. Pooley. "I never paid blackmail yet and I ain't beginning now. I always told Harpe you'd upset the applecart with yo're bullheaded ways. You stinking murderer, it wasn't necessary to kill Old Man Dale! Suppose he did hit you, what of it? You could have knocked him out with a bungstarter. But no, you had to kill him, and get everybody suspicious, didn't you? Why—you, you make me feel like cutting your throat, to have you upset my plans this way!"
McFluke raised himself on an arm. "I didn't upset yore plans none," he denied, sulkily. "Everythin's comin' out all right. Hell, he wouldn't play that day, anyway! Said he'd never touch a card or look at a wheel again as long as he lived, and when I laughed at him he hit me. Whatell else could I do? I hadda shoot him. I—"
"Shut up, you and your 'I's' and 'He wouldn't' and 'I hadda!' If you've told me that tale once since you came here you've told me forty times. Get up and get out! Yore horse is tied at the corral gate. I roped him on my way in. C'mon! Get up! or will I have to crawl yore hump again?"
But McFluke did not get up. Instead he scrabbled sidewise to the wall and shrank against it. His eyes were wide, staring. They were fixed on the doorway behind Mr. Pooley.
"I didn't do it, gents!" cried McFluke, thrusting out his hands before his face as though to ward off a blow. "I didn't kill him! I didn't! It's all a lie! I didn't kill him!"
Fat Jacob Pooley whirled to face three guns. His right hand fell away reluctantly from the butt of his sixshooter. Slowly his arms went above his head. Racey Dawson and his two companions entered the room. The eldest of these companions was one of the Piegan City town marshals. He was a friend of Jacob Pooley's. But there was no friendliness in his face as he approached the register, removed his gun, and searched his person for other weapons. Jacob Pooley said nothing. His face was a dark red. The marshal produced a pair of handcuffs. The register recoiled.
"Not those!" he protested. "Don't put handcuffs on me!"
"Put yore hands down," ordered the marshal.
"Look here, I'll go quietly. I'll—"
"Put yore hands down!" repeated the inexorable marshal.
Jacob Pooley put his hands down.
Racey and the other man were handcuffing McFluke, who was keeping up an incessant wail of, "I didn't do it! I didn't, gents, I didn't!"
"Oh, shut up!" ordered Racey, jerking the prisoner to his feet. "You talk too much."
"Where's yore Wells Fargo and Pinkerton detectives?" demanded Mr. Pooley.
"This gent is the Wells Fargo detective," replied Racey, indicating the man who had helped him handcuff McFluke. "There ain't any Pinkerton within five hundred miles so far as I know.... Huh? Them? Oh, they were just drummers from Chicago I happened to speak to because I figured you'd be expectin' me to after I'd told you who they were. The real Wells Fargo, Mr. Johnson here, was a-watchin' yore corral alla time, so when you got a friend of yores to pull them two drummers into a poker game and then saddled yore hoss and went bustin' off in the direction of yore claim we got the marshal and trailed you."
"You can't prove anything!" bluffed Mr. Pooley.
"We were here beside the door listenin' from the time McFluke said he was too comfortable to move out of here." Thus the marshal wearily.
Mr. Pooley considered a moment. "Who snitched where Mac was?" he asked, finally.
"Nobody," replied Racey, promptly.
"Somebody must have. Who was it?"
"Nobody, I tell you. McFluke had to go somewhere, didn't he? He couldn't hang around Farewell. Too dangerous. But the chances were he wouldn't leave the country complete till he got his share. And as nothing had come off it wasn't any likely he'd got his share. So he'd want to keep in touch with his friends till the deal was put through. It was only natural he'd drift to you. And when I come here to Piegan City and heard you had hired a man to live on yore claim and then got a look at him without him knowing it the rest was easy."
"But what," inquired Mr. Pooley, perplexedly, "has Wells Fargo to do with this business?"
"Anybody that knows Bill Smith alias Jack Harpe as well as you do," spoke up Mr. Johnson, grimly, "is bound to be of interest to Wells Fargo."
THE LAST TRICK
"I'd take it kindly if you gents would stick yore guns on the mantel-piece," said Judge Dolan.
Jack Harpe and Luke Tweezy looked at each other.
"I ain't wearing a gun," said Luke Tweezy, crossing one skinny knee over the other.
"But Mr. Harpe is," pointed out Judge Dolan.
Jack Harpe jackknifed his long body out of his chair, which was placed directly in front of an open doorway giving into an inner room, crossed the floor, and placed his sixshooter on the mantel-piece.
"What is this," he demanded, returning to his place "a trial?"
"Not a-tall," the Judge made haste to assure him. "Just a li'l friendly talk, thassall. I'm a-lookin' for information, and I've an idea you and Luke can give it to me."
"I'd like a li'l information my own self," grumbled Luke Tweezy. "When are you gonna make the Dales vacate?"
"All in good time," the Judge replied with a wintry smile. "I'll be getting to that in short order. Here comes Kansas and Jake Rule now."
"What you want with the sheriff?" Luke queried, uneasily.
"He's gonna help us in our li'l talk," explained the Judge, smoothly.
"I think I'll get my gun," observed Jack Harpe.
He made as if to rise but sank back immediately for Racey Dawson had suddenly appeared in the open doorway behind him and run the chill muzzle of a sixshooter into the back of his neck.
"Never sit with yore back to a doorway," advised Racey Dawson. "If you'll clamp yore hands behind yore head, Jack, we'll all be the happier. Luke, fish out the knife you wear under yore left armpit, lay it on the floor and kick it into the corner."
Luke Tweezy's knife tinkled against the wall at the moment that the sheriff, his deputy, and two other men entered from the street. The third man was Mr. Johnson, the Wells Fargo detective. The fourth man wore his left arm in a sling and hobbled on a cane. The fourth man was Swing Tunstall.
"What kind of hell's trick is this?" demanded Jack Harpe, glaring at the Wells Fargo detective.
"It's the last trick, Bill," said Mr. Johnson.
At the mention of which name Jack Harpe appeared to shrink inwardly. He looked suddenly very old.
"Take chairs, gents," invited Judge Dolan, looking about him in the manner of a minstrel show's interlocutor. "If everybody's comfortable, we'll proceed to business."
"I thought you said this wasn't a trial," objected Luke Tweezy.
"And so it ain't a trial," the Judge rapped out smartly. "The trial will come later."
Luke Tweezy subsided. His furtive eyes became more furtive than ever.
"Go ahead, Racey," said Judge Dolan.
Racey, still holding his sixshooter, leaned hipshot against the doorjamb.
"It was this way," he began, and told what had transpired that day in the hotel corral when he had been bandaging his horse's leg and had overheard the conversation between Lanpher and Jack Harpe and later, Punch-the-breeze Thompson.
"They's nothing in that," declared Jack Harpe with contempt, twisting his neck to glower up at Racey. "Suppose I did wanna get hold of the Dale ranch. What of it?"
"Shore," put in Luke Tweezy. "What of it? Perfectly legitimate business proposition. Legal, and all that."
"Not quite," denied Racey. "Not the way you went about it. Nawsir. Well, gents," he resumed, "what I heard in that corral showed plain enough there was something up. Dale wouldn't sell, and they were bound to get his land away from him. So they figured to have Nebraska Jones turn the trick by playin' poker with the old man. When Nebraska—They switched from Nebraska to Peaches Austin, plannin' to go through with the deal at McFluke's from the beginning. And that was where Tweezy come in. He was to get the old man to McFluke's, and with the help of Peaches Austin cheat Dale out of the ranch."
"That's a damn lie!" cried Tweezy.
"I suppose you'll deny," said Racey, "that the day I saw you ride in here to Farewell—I mean the day Jack Harpe spoke to you in front of the Happy Heart, and you didn't answer him—that day you come in from Marysville on purpose to tell Jack an' Lanpher about the mortgage having to be renewed and that now was their chance. I suppose you'll deny all that, huh?"
"Yo're—yo're lyin'," sputtered Luke Tweezy.
"Am I? We'll see. When playin' cards with old Dale didn't work they caught the old man at McFluke's one day and after he'd got in a fight with McFluke and McFluke downed him, they saw their chance to produce a forged release from Dale."
"Who did the forging?" broke in the Judge.
"I dunno for shore. This here was found in Tweezy's safe." He held out a letter to the Judge.
Judge Dolan took the letter and read it carefully. Then he looked across at Luke Tweezy.
"This here," said he, tapping the letter with stiffened forefinger, "is a signed letter from Dale to you. It seems to be a reply in the negative to a letter of yores askin' him to sell his ranch."
The Judge paused and glanced round the room. Then his cold eyes returned to the face of Luke Tweezy who was beginning to look extremely wretched.
"Underneath the signature of Dale," continued the Judge, "somebody has copied that signature some fifty or sixty times. I wonder why."
"I dunno anything about it," Luke Tweezy denied, feebly.
"We'll come back to that," the Judge observed, softly. "G'on, Racey."
"I figure," said Racey, "that they'd hatched that forgery some while before Dale was killed. The killing made it easier to put it on record."
"Looks that way," nodded the Judge.
"Lookit here," boomed Jack Harpe, "you ain't got any right to judge us thisaway. We ain't on trial."
"Shore you ain't," asserted the Judge. "I always said you wasn't. This here is just a talk, a friendly talk. No trial about it."
"Here's another letter, Judge," said Racey Dawson.
The Judge read the other letter, and again fixed Luke Tweezy with his eye.
"This ain't a letter exactly," said Judge Dolan. "It's a quadruplicate copy of an agreement between Lanpher of the 88 ranch, Jacob Pooley of Piegan City, and Luke Tweezy of Marysville, parties of the first part, and Jack Harpe, party of the second part, to buy or otherwise obtain possession of the ranch of William Dale, in the northeast corner of which property is located an abandoned mine tunnel in which Jack Harpe, the party of the second part, has discovered a gold-bearing lode."
"A mine!" muttered Swing Tunstall. "A gold mine! And I thought they wanted it for a ranch."
"So did I," Racey nodded.
"I know that mine," said Jake Rule. "Silvertip Ransom and Long Oscar drove the tunnel, done the necessary labour, got their patent, and sold out when they couldn't get day wages to old Dale for one pony and a jack. But Dale never worked it. A payin' lode! Hell! Who'd 'a' thought it?"
"Old Salt an' Tom Loudon got a couple o' claims on the other side of the ridge from Dale's mine," put in Kansas Casey. "They bought 'em off of Slippery Wilson and his wife. Them claims oughta be right valuable now."
"They are," nodded Judge Dolan. "The agreement goes on to say that Jack Harpe found gold-bearing lodes in both of Slippery's old tunnels, that these claims will be properly relocated and registered—I guess that's where Jakey Pooley come in—and all three mines will be worked by a company made up of these four men, each man to receive one quarter of the profits. This agreement is signed by Jack Harpe, Simon Lanpher, and Jacob Pooley."
"And after Pooley was arrested," contributed Racey Dawson, "the Piegan City marshal went through his safe and found the original of this agreement signed by Tweezy, Lanpher, and Harpe."
Luke Tweezy held up his hand. "One moment," said he. "Where was the agreement signed by Harpe, Pooley, and Lanpher found?"
"In yore safe," replied Racey Dawson.
"Did you find it there?"
"What were you doing at my safe?"
"Now don't get excited, Luke. I happened to be in the neighbourhood of yore house in Marysville about a month ago when I noticed one of yore back windows open. I snooped in and there was Jack Harpe working on yore combination with Jakey Pooley watchin' him. Jack Harpe was the boy who opened the safe.... Huh? Shore, I know him and Jakey Pooley sicked posses on my trail. Why not? They hadda cover their own tracks, didn't they? But that ain't the point. What I can't help wondering is why Harpe and Pooley was fussin' with the safe in the first place. What do you guess, Luke?"
Evidently Tweezy knew the answer. With a yelp of "Tried to cross me, you—!" he flung himself bodily upon Jack Harpe.
In a moment the two were rolling on the floor. It required four men and seven minutes to pry them apart.
THE END OF THE TRAIL
Molly Dale looked at Racey with adoring eyes. "How on earth did you guess that the Bill Smith who robbed the Wells Fargo safe at Keeleyville and killed the agent was Jack Harpe?"
"Oh, that was nothing. You see, I'd heard somebody say—I disremember exactly who now—that Jack Harpe's real name was Bill Smith, that he'd shaved off his beard and part of his eyebrows to make himself look different, and that he'd done something against the law to some company in some town. I didn't know what company nor what town, but I had somethin' to start with when McFluke was let loose. I figured out by this, that, and the other that Jack Harpe had let McFluke loose. Aw right, that showed Jack Harpe was a expert lock picker. He showed us at Marysville that he was a expert on safe combinations. Now there can't be many men like that. So I took what I knew about him to the detective chiefs of three railroads. He'd done somethin' against a company, do you see, and of course I went to three different railroad companies before I woke up and went to the Wells Fargo an' found out that such a man as Jack Harpe named Bill Smith was wanted for the Keeleyville job. So you see there wasn't much to it. It was all there waitin' for somebody to find it."
"But it lacked the somebody till you came along," she told him with shining eyes.
"No shucks about it. That we have our ranch to-day with a sure-enough producing gold mine in one corner of it is all due to you."
"Shucks, suppose now those handwritin' experts Judge Dolan got from Chicago hadn't been able to prove at the time that the forgery and the fifty or sixty copies of yore dad's name were written by the same hand, ink, and pen? Suppose now they hadn't? What then? Where'd you be, I'd like to know? Nawsir, you give them the credit. They deserve it. Well, I'm shore glad yo're all gonna be rich, Molly. It's fine. That's what it is—fine—great. Well, I've got to be driftin' along. I'm going to meet Swing in town. We're riding south Arizona way to-morrow."
"Yeah, we're going to give the mining game a whirl."
"Why—why not give it a whirl up here in this country?"
"Because there ain't another mine like yores in the territory. No, we'll go south. Swing wants to go—been wanting to go for some time."
"Bub-but I thought you were going to stay up here," persisted Molly, her cheeks a little white.
"Not—not now," Racey said, hastily. "So long, take care of yoreself."
He reached for her hand, gave it a quick squeeze, then picked up his hat and walked out of the house without another word or a backward look.
* * * * *
"What makes me sick is not a cent out of Old Salt," said Racey, wrathfully, as he and Swing Tunstall walked their horses south along the Marysville trail.
"What else could you expect?" said the philosopher Swing. "We specified in the agreement that it was cows them jiggers was gonna run on the range. We didn't say nothin' about a mine."
"'We?'" repeated Racey. "'We?' You didn't have a thing to do with that agreement. I made it. It was my fool fault we worked all those months for nothing."
"What's the dif?" Swing said, comfortably. "We're partners. Deal yoreself a new hand and forget it. Tough luck we couldn't 'a' made a clean sweep of that bunch, huh?"
"Oh, I dunno. Suppose Peaches, Nebraska, and Thompson did get away. We did pretty good, considerin'. You can't expect everything."
"Alla same they'd oughta been a reward—for Jack Harpe, anyway. Wells Fargo is shore getting mighty close-fisted."
"Jack did better than I thought he would. He never opened his yap about Marie being in that Keeleyville gang."
"Maybe he didn't know for shore or else knowed better. Bull was in that gang, too, and Bull got his throat cut. If Jack had done any blattin' about Marie and Keeleyville he might 'a' had to stand trial for murder right here in this county instead of going down to New Mexico to be tried for a murder committed ten years ago with all that means—evidence gone rusty with age and witnesses dead or in jail themselves most like. Oh, he'll be convicted, but it won't be first degree, you can stick a pin in that."
"I wonder if he did kill Bull."
"I wonder, too. Didja know who Bull really was, Swing?... Marie's brother. Yep, she told me about it yesterday."
"Her own brother, huh? That's a odd number. Alla same I'll bet she don't miss him much."
"Nor Nebraska, neither. He'll never come back to bother her again, that's a cinch. Who's that ahead?"
"That" was Molly waiting for them at a turn in the trail. When they came up to her she nodded to both men, but her smile was all for Racey Dawson. He felt his pulse begin to beat a trifle faster. How handsome she was with her dark hair and blue eyes. And at the moment those blue eyes that were looking into his were deep enough to drown a man.
"Can I see you a minute, Racey?" said she.
Swing immediately turned his horse on a dime and loped along the back trail. Left alone with Racey she moved her horse closer to his. Their ankles touched. His hands were clasped on the saddle-horn. She laid her cool hand on top of them.
"Racey," she said, her wonderful eyes holding him, "why are you going away?"
This was almost too much for Racey. He could hardly think straight. "I told you," he said, hoarsely. "We're goin' to Arizona—minin'."
She flung this statement aside with a jerk of her head. "You used to like me, Racey," she told him.
He nodded miserably.
"Don't you like me any more?" she persisted.
He did not nod. Nor did he speak. He stared down at the back of the hand lying on top of his.
"Look at me, boy," she directed.
He looked. The fingers of the hand on top of his slid in between his fingers.
"Look me in the eye," said she, "and tell me you don't love me."
"I cuc-can't," he muttered in a panic.
"Then why are you going away?" Her voice was gentle—gentle and wistful.
"Because yo're rich now, that's why," he replied, thickly, the words wrung out in a rush. "You've lots o' money, and I ain't got a thing but my hoss and what I stand up in. How can I love you, Molly?"
"Lean over here, and I'll show you how," said Molly Dale.