His final ejaculation was made at Rocket. There were three glasses set out on the counter, and the saloon-keeper was handing him his change.
"Three drinks," that worthy was explaining. "The rest o' the boys don't guess they're thirsty."
Jim stiffened his back, and coldly glanced over the faces about him. He counted ten men, without including himself and Rocket. Of these, only two, Jake and Gay, had accepted his invitation. Suddenly his eyes rested on the triumphant face of Smallbones. Without a word he strode across the room, and his hand fell heavily on the man's quaking shoulder. In a moment he had dragged him to the centre of the room.
"Guess you'll do, Smallbones," he began, as he released the man's coat collar. "No, don't move. You're going to stand right there and hand me out the story I see dodging behind those wicked eyes of yours. You've got it there, good and plenty, back of them, so get going, and—we'll all listen. Whatever I've got to say you'll get after."
Smallbones' eyes snapped fire. He was furious at the rough handling, and he longed more than ever to hurt this man.
"You're a strong man, an bein' strong, you're mighty free with your hands," he snarled. "But you're up agin it. Up agin it bad, Jim Thorpe." His face lit with a grin of venom. "Say, you don't need no story from me. You'll get it plenty from—everywhere! McLagan's quit you, because—— Wal, I'm a law-abidin' citizen, an' don't figger to drink with folks suspected of—cattle-rustlin'."
Smallbones' challenge held the whole room silent. Jake, watching and listening, was astonished at the man's moral courage. But the chief interest was in the ex-ranch-foreman. What would he do?
The question was swiftly answered. Jim's head went up, and a light laugh prefaced his words.
"So I'm up against it?" he said calmly. Then he gazed contemptuously round on those who had rejected his hospitality. "So that's why all you fellows refused to drink with me. Well, it's a nasty pill, and it's likely to hand me indigestion." Then he deliberately turned his back on Smallbones and glanced at the counter. The drinks he had bought were still there. He looked up with a frank smile into the faces of the two men who were willing to drink with him. "Gentlemen," he said, "it seems to me there are just two drinks between me and—the rope. Will you honor a suspected man by clinking glasses with him?"
He raised his own glass to them, and Jake and Gay nearly fell over each other in their frantic efforts to express their willingness, and their disapproval of Smallbones. They clumsily clinked their glasses, and drank to the last drop. Then, in silence, they set their glasses down.
"Thanks, Jake. Thanks, Gay," said Jim, after a moment. Then he turned to the saloon-keeper. "I'm sorry the order's so small," he said, with a laugh.
"You can make it one bigger," grinned Silas, and Promptly held out his hand.
The two men gripped.
"Thanks," murmured Jim. And at the same instant Smallbones' offensive voice broke in.
"A real elegant scene," he sneered. "Most touchin'. Sort o' mothers' meetin'." But in a second his tone changed to a furious rasp. "But don't you mistake, Jim Thorpe; three drinks ain't buyin' you clear. If you're the honest man you say, you'll hev to prove it. There's the cattle with your brand on 'em. Whose hand set it on? Who keeps that brand? Who runs his stock in hidin' up in the hills? Them's the questions we're all astin', an' it's up to you to answer 'em right. Ef you don't, then——" he finished with a suggestive motion of hanging.
But Jim had had enough. A moment of blind fury seized upon him, and he swung round on his accuser. The heavy rawhide quirt hanging on his wrist was raised aloft threateningly, and his eyes were the eyes of a man at the limit of endurance.
"Another word from you and I'll flay you alive with this quirt," he cried. "You've had your say, and now, I guess, I'll have mine. You know just as much as all the rest of the folk here; no more and no less. No more and no less than I do. When you or anybody else gets definite proof that I'm a cattle-thief you are at liberty to talk, but, until then, if I hear you, or of you, publicly charging me with cattle stealing, I'll smash you, if I swing for it. Get right out, now. Get right out, quick!"
Smallbones stood for a moment glaring at the threatening man. His teeth were bared in a tigerish grin. He was the picture of ferocity, but, as Jim took a step toward him, his dark face white with passion, he dropped back and finally made for the door.
But the turn of fortune's wheel was still against Jim. For Smallbones, the situation was saved by the advent of Doc Crombie. That redoubtable man pushed his way in through the swing doors and promptly hailed him back.
"Hold on, Smallbones," he cried, "I've a word for you fellows. How many are there here?" He glanced round the bar swiftly, and finally his eyes rested on Jim Thorpe.
"Ah!" He paused, while he mentally estimated the prevailing feeling. Then he addressed himself to Silas behind the bar. "You'll help the boys to drinks," he said. Then, pointedly, "All of 'em." After that, he turned to Jim. "Jest in from the 'AZ's'?" he inquired casually.
"McLagan's quit me on account of those cattle," Jim admitted, frankly.
"Those wi' your brand on?"
Doc smiled. He could not well have failed to become the leader of this village. Power was written in every line of his hard, shrewd face.
The moment the drinks had been served and heartily consumed, he addressed himself to the company generally. And, at his first words, Smallbones flashed a wicked look of triumph into the face of Jim Thorpe.
"It's this cattle-rustlin'," he said, coming to the point at once. "It's got to quit, an' it's right up to us to see it does quit. I ain't come here like a politician, nor a sky-pilot to talk the rights an' wrongs of things. It's not in my line ladlin' out psalms an' things. Ther's folks paid fer that sort o' hogwash. It's jest been decided to run a gang o' vigilantes over this district, an' every feller called upon's expected to roll up prompt. I've been around an' located twelve of the boys from the ranges. I want eight more. With me it'll make twenty-one. Smallbones," he proceeded, turning on the hardware merchant with an authority that would not be denied, "you'll make one. You two fellers, Jake, an' you, carpenter—that's three. You, Rust—that's four. Long Pete an' you, Sam Purdy, an' Crook Wilson; you three ain't doin' a heap hangin' around this bum canteen—that's seven." His eyes suddenly sought Jim's, and a cold command fell upon his victim even before his words came. "Guess, under the circ's," he remarked pointedly, "you'd best make the eighth."
But Jim shook his head. A light of determination, as keen as the doctor's own, shone in the smiling eyes that confronted the man of authority.
"Not for mine, Doc," he said deliberately. "Not on your life. Here, I don't want any mistake," he hastened on, as he watched the anger leap into the other's face, and beheld the sparkle of malice lighting the beady eyes of Smallbones. "Just listen to me. If you'll take a look around you'll see a number of fellers, mostly good fellers, more than half of 'em believing me to be the rustler they're all looking for. Well, for one thing you can't put me on a vigilance committee with folks suspecting me. It isn't fair either way, to me or them. Then, in the second place, I've got a say. I tell you, Doc, straight up and down, as man to man, I don't hunt with hounds that are snapping at my shoulders in the run. I'm either a rustler or I'm not. I choose to say I'm not. That being so I guess I'm the most interested in running these gophers, who are, to their holes. Well, that's what I'm going to do. But I'm going to do it in my own way, and not under any man's command. I've got a few dollars by me and so long as they last, and my horse lasts out, I'm going to get busy. You're a man of intelligence, so I guess you'll see my point. Anyway, I hunt alone."
It was a lucky thing for Jim Thorpe that he was dealing with a really strong man, and a fearless one. One weak spot in the character of Doc Crombie, one trifling pettiness, which could have taken umbrage at the defiance of his authority, one atom of small-mindedness, whereby he could have been influenced by the curious evidence against this man, and the yelping hounds of Barnriff would have been let loose, and set raging at his heels. As it was, Doc Crombie, whatever may have been his faults, was before all things a man.
He turned from Jim with a shrug.
"Plain speakin's good med'cine," he said, glancing coldly over his shoulder. "You've spoke a heap plain. So will I. Hit your own trail, boy. But remember, this dogone rustler's got to be rounded up and finished off as neat as a rawhide rope'll do it. If he ain't found—wal, we're goin' to clear Barnriff of this trouble anyways. I don't guess you need a heap of extry-ordinary understandin' to get my meaning. You're gettin' a big chanct—why, take it. Gay," he said, turning abruptly to the butcher, "I guess you'll make the tally of the committee. We start out to-night."
Eve was alone. Never in all her life had she been so absolutely alone as now. She rocked herself to and fro beside her kitchen stove, her thoughts and fears rioting through body and mind, until she sat shivering with terror in the warmth of her own fireside.
It was nearly nine o'clock in the evening and the vigilantes were due back in the village before midnight. What would be their news? What——? She paused, listening fearfully. But the sound she heard was only a creaking of the frame of her little home.
The suspense was nerve racking. Would it never end? Yes, she felt it would end—certainly, inevitably. And the conviction produced a fresh shudder in her slight body. Three hours ago she had seen Jim Thorpe and his jaded horse return to the village. She had longed to seek him out—he had gone to Peter Blunt's hut for the night—and question him. But she had refrained. Whatever Jim's actual attitude toward her, she must think of him in her calculations as the bitterest enemy. In her tense nervousness she laughed hysterically. Jim, her enemy? How ridiculous it seemed. And a year ago he had been her lover.
For a moment her terror eased. Thoughts of a year ago were far removed from the horror of her present. Jim could be nobody's enemy unless it were his own. Her enemy? Never. He was too kind, too honest, too much a man. And yet—the haunting of the moment broke out afresh—he must be. In self-defense he must be her enemy. He could not clear his own name otherwise.
She pondered. Her eyes grew less wild, less frightened, and a soft glow welled up in her heart as she thought of the man whom she declared must be her enemy. Just for a moment she thought how different things might have been had only her choice fallen otherwise. Then she stifled her regrets, and, in an instant, was caught again in the toils of the horror that lay before her.
She tried to think out what she must do when the vigilantes returned. What would be her best course? She wanted advice so badly. She wanted to talk it over with somebody, somebody who had clear judgment, somebody who could think with a man's cool courage. Yes, she wanted a man's advice. And there was no man to whom she could appeal. Jim?—no, she decided that she could not go to him. She felt that, for safety, she had seen too much of him already. Peter? Ah, yes! But the thought of him only recalled to her mind another trouble with which she was beset. It was one, which, amidst the horror of the matter of the cattle stealing, had, for the moment, been banished from her mind.
She remembered the note she had received from him that morning, and groped for it in the bosom of her dress. It had reached her by a special messenger, and its tone, for Peter, was urgent and serious. She found it at last, and straightened out its creases. She was thankful for the occupation, and lingered over it before she read it over again.
"Has Elia returned home? He left camp two mornings ago, before sun up. I've been hunting him ever since, but can't locate him. I've a shrewd idea that he's on the trail of your Will, but can't be sure. Anyway, I'm worried to death about him, and, as a last resource, thought he might have gone back to you. Send word by the bearer.
"Yours, "PETER BLUNT."
Elia gone. The thought filled her with dismay. Elia was the one person in the world she still clung to. And now he had gone—been spirited away.
She thought of the poor stricken lad with his crooked body. She loved him as she might have loved a child of her own. Yes, he was much more to her than her brother. Had not she cared and struggled for him all these years? He had become part of her very life.
And Peter, in whose care she had left him, had failed her. Who on earth could she trust, if not Peter? She blamed him, blamed him bitterly; but, in her heart, she knew she had no right to. Peter would not willingly hurt her, and she knew well enough that if Elia had gone it was through no carelessness of this gentle, kindly man.
She put the note away, and sat staring into the fire. The change of thought had eased the pitch of her nerves for a moment. If she could only blot that other out altogether—but even as the wish was formulated in her brain, the horror and dread were on her again crushing her.
She sprang to her feet and paced the room with rapid, uneven strides. She could not rest. The dread of the return of the vigilantes obsessed her. She found herself vaguely wondering if they were all out. Was Doc Crombie out? No, she knew he wasn't. That was something. That was the man she most dreaded. To her heated imagination he seemed inevitable. He could not fail in his self-imposed mission. He would hunt his man down. He would never pause until the wretched victim was swinging at the rope end.
She shuddered. This sort of thing had never before impressed its horror upon her as it did now. How should it? It had always seemed so far away, so remote from her life. And now—oh, God, to think that its shadow was so near her!
Then for a second her struggling brain eased with an undefined hope. She was thinking of how they had tried to track Will before, and how they had failed. She tried to tell herself that then their incentive had been even greater. Had it not been the greed of gold? And she well knew its power with these men. Yes, it suggested hope. But that one passing gleam vanished all too swiftly. She felt in her inmost heart that no such luck would serve him now. These men were bloodhounds on a trail of blood. They were demanding a life, nor would they lift their noses from the scent until their work was accomplished.
It was not the man. It was not the thought of his life that drove her frantic now. It was the horror of such an end to her wretched marriage. The wife of a cattle-thief! The widow of a man lynched by his fellow citizens! She buried her face in her hands, and hard, dry sobs racked her body.
For a moment she stood thus. Then she suddenly lifted her head, her eyes staring, her whole attitude alert, intent. There was a sound outside. She heard the clank of the latch. And now an awkward shuffling gait just outside her door. She moved toward the parlor and stood listening in the doorway.
Suddenly a light broke in upon her. That awkward footstep! She knew it! Her relief was heartbreaking. It was Elia. With a rush she was at the door, and the next moment she dragged the boy in, and was crooning over him like some mother over a long-lost child.
But the boy pushed her away roughly. His calm face and gentle eyes now shone with excitement, one of those excitements she so dreaded in him.
"Quit, sis," he cried sharply. "I ain't no use fer sech slobberin'. I ain't a kid. Say——"
He broke off, eyeing her with his head bent sideways in the extraordinary attitude which a cruel nature had inflicted upon him.
Eve's eyes were full of a yearning tenderness. His rebuff meant nothing to her devotion. She believed it to be only his way. Part of the cruel disease for which he must be pitied and not blamed.
But his broken sentence remained uncompleted. His eyes were fixed upon her face bland yet sparkling with the thought behind them.
"Peter sent word to me to-day that you—you were lost," Eve said.
The boy laughed without relaxing a muscle.
"Did he? He's a fule someways."
He passed into the kitchen and took Eve's rocking-chair. She followed him, and stood leaning against the table.
"Then you—you didn't get lost?"
"Say, you folks make me sick. Why 'ud I get lost more'n other fellers? You guess I'm a kid—but I ain't. Lost! Gee! Say, sis, Peter orter know'd wher' I was. I told him I was goin'. An' I went. Sure I went." He rubbed his delicate hands together in his glee. His eyes sparkled again with rising excitement. But Eve forgot her fears for him now; she was interested. She was lifted out of her own despair by his evident joy, and waited for him to tell his story.
But Elia had his own way of doing things, and that way was rarely a pleasant one. Nor was it now, as Eve was quickly to learn.
"Yes, sure, Peter's a fule, someways—but I like him. He's real good. Say, sis, he's goin' to give me all the gold he finds. He said so. Yep. An' he'll do it. Guess he's good. That's sure why I didn't do what he told me not to."
He sat blinking up at his sister with impish amusement. Suddenly something in his expression stirred his sister to alarm. Nor could she have said how it came to her, or what the nature of the alarm. It was there undefined, but none the less certain.
"What did he tell you not to do?" she asked anxiously.
"Give him away. Say, here, I'll tell you. It's a dandy yarn. Y'see I ain't just as other folks are, sis; there's things I ken do, an' things I ken understand wot other folks can't. Say, I ken trail like—like a wolf. Well, I guess one day I told Peter I could trail. I told him I could trail your Will, an' find out wher' he got his gold."
"And did you?"
The girl's demand was almost a shriek. The boy nodded his bent head wisely, and his eyes lit with malice.
"And you didn't give him away? You wouldn't—you wouldn't? He's my husband."
The pleading in his sister's voice was pitiful to hear.
"That's sure what Peter made me promise—or I wouldn't get his gold."
Eve breathed more freely. But her relief was short-lived.
The boy began to laugh. It was a soft chuckle that found no expression in his face. The sound of it sent a shudder through the harassed woman.
"No. I didn't give him away," he said suddenly. "Sis, I trailed an' trailed, an' I found him. Gee, I found him. He was diggin' his gold, but it was in the hides of cattle, an' with a red-hot brandin' iron. Gee! I watched him, but he didn't see me. Oh, no, I took care of that. If he'd seen me he'd sure have killed me. Say, sis, your Will's a cattle-thief. You've heerd tell of 'em, ain't you? Do you know what they do to cattle-thieves? I'll tell you. They hang 'em. They hang 'em slow. They haul 'em up, an' their necks stretch, an'—an' then they die. Then the coyotes come round an' jump up an' try to eat 'em. An' they hang there till they stink. That's how they treat cattle-rustlers. An' Will's a cattle-rustler."
"For God's sake, be quiet!"
The woman's face was terrible in its horror, but it only seemed to give the boy pleasure, for he went on at once.
"Ther' ain't no use in squealin'. I didn't give him away. I'd like to, because I'd like to see Will with his neck pulled sure. But I want Peter's gold, an' I wouldn't get it if I give him away."
"Did you come straight back here?" Eve questioned him sharply, a faint hope stirring her.
"Yep, sis, straight here." He laughed silently while he watched her with feline glee. "An' jest as fast as I could get, too. You see, I guessed I might miss Doc Crombie."
"Doc Crombie?" The girl's eyes dilated. She stood like one petrified.
"Sure. You see I couldn't give Will away because of Peter. But I told him wher' the stolen cattle wer'. An' that I'd seen the rustlers at work, an' if he got busy he'd get 'em right off, an'——"
But he got no further; Eve had him by the shoulders in a clutch that chilled his heart to a maddening fear. His eyes stared, and he gasped as though about to faint.
"You told him that—you—you? You never did! You couldn't! You wouldn't dare! Oh, God, and to think! Elia, Elia! Say you didn't. You'll never—you'll never get Peter's gold!"
The woman was beside herself. She had no idea of what she was saying. All she knew was that Doc Crombie had been told of Will's hiding-place, and, for all she knew, might be on his way there now. Discovery was certain; and discovery meant——
But suddenly she realized the boy's condition. He was on the verge of collapse from sheer dread of physical hurt. His face was ashen, and his eyes were almost starting from their sockets. In an agony of remorse and fear she released him and knelt before him.
"I'm sorry, Elia. I didn't mean to hurt you. But—but you haven't told Doc?" she cried piteously. "Say you haven't, dear. Oh, God!"
She abruptly buried her face in her hands as though to shut out the horrid sight of this thing her brother had done.
Elia recovered quickly, but his vicious glee had dropped to a sulky savagery.
"You're a fule, sis," he said, in a sullen tone. "I sure did it for you—an' 'cos I hate him. But say," he cried, becoming suddenly suspicious. "I didn't tell Doc who it was. I kep' my promise to Peter. I sure didn't give him away. So why for do you raise sech a racket? An' anyway if he hangs you won't be married to him no more. You——"
He broke off, listening. The sound of a horse galloping could be plainly heard. The noise abruptly ceased, and the boy looked up with the light of understanding in his eyes.
"One o' the boys, sis. One o' Doc's boys. Mebbe——"
But he was interrupted by the opening of the outer door, and Peter Blunt strode in.
The expression of the man's face was sufficient explanation of his unceremonious visit. He made no pretense at apology. He glanced swiftly round the little parlor, and finally espied Eve and her brother through the open kitchen door. He hurried across and stood before them, his eyes on the boy he had spent two days searching for.
"Thank God I've found you, laddie——" he began.
But Eve cut him short.
"Oh, Peter, Peter, thank God you've come!" she cried.
Immediately the man's eyes were transferred to her face.
"What is it?" he demanded sharply. And some of the girl's terror suddenly clutched at his heart.
"He's found him. Will, I mean. Will's the cattle-thief. He found him in the midst of re-branding. And he came right in and told—told Doc Crombie."
In an instant Elia was sitting forward defending himself.
"I didn't tell him who he was. Sure I didn't, 'cos you said I wouldn't get that gold if I did—if I give him away. I didn't give him away, sure—sure. I jest told Doc where he'd find the rustlers. That's all. That ain't giving Will away, is it?"
But Peter ignored the boy's defense. His shrewd mind was working swiftly. Here was his own unspoken suspicion of the man verified. The whole situation was all too clear. He turned to Eve with a sharp inquiry.
"So Will's the cattle-thief. You knew it?"
The girl shook her head and wrung her hands piteously.
"No, no; I didn't know it. Indeed, indeed, I didn't. Lately I suspected—thought—but I didn't know." Then she cried helplessly. "Oh, Peter, what's to be done? We must—we must save him!"
In an instant Elia was on his feet protesting.
"What for you want to save him?" he cried. "He's a crook. He's a thief. He's bad—I tell you he's bad."
But Peter suddenly thrust out one great hand and pushed him back into his chair.
"Sit there and keep quiet," he said sternly. "Now, let's think. You told Doc, eh?"
"Yes," retorted the boy sulkily. "An' he's goin' out after 'em to-night. An' I'm glad, 'cos they'll get him."
"If they get him you'll never get your gold, laddie, because you've given him away. Do you understand?"
Eve, watching these two, began to realize something of the working of Peter's mind. He meant to win Elia over to his side, and was adopting the only possible means.
The boy remained obstinately silent, and Peter went on.
"Now, see here, which would you rather do, get that gold—an' there's plenty; it comes right through here to Barnriff—or see Will hang?"
In spite of his hatred of Will, the boy was dazzled.
"I'd like to see Will hang—but—I'd rather git the gold."
"Well," said Peter, with a sigh of relief, "ther's just one way for you to get it. You've got to put us wise how to get to Will to warn him before Doc gets him. If Will hangs, you don't get your gold."
A sudden hope lit Eve's troubled face. This man, she knew, was to be Will's savior—her savior. Her heart swelled with thankfulness and hope. This man, without a second's demur, had embraced her cause, was ready to incriminate himself, to save the worst criminal a cattle country knows, because—just because he wanted to help a woman, who was nothing to him, and never could be anything to him. It was the love he had for all suffering humanity, the wonderful charity of his kindly heart, that made him desire to help all those who needed his help.
She was listening now to the manner in which he extracted from her unwilling brother the information he sought. He did it bit by bit, with much care and deliberation. He wanted no mistake. The direction in which Will's secret corrals lay must be given with the last word in exactness, for any delay in finding him might upset his purpose.
Having extracted all the information necessary, he gave the lad a final warning.
"Now, see here, Elia, you're a good lad—better than you seem; but I'm not going to be played with. I've got gold in plenty, sure, and you're going to get it if you stay right here, and don't say a word to any one about Will or this cattle-rustling. If you do anything that prevents Will getting clear away, or let folks know that he's the rustler, then you get no gold—not one cent."
"Then, wot's this I've heerd about Jim? Guess you want him to get the blame. You want 'em to hang Jim Thorpe?"
The boy's cunning was paralyzing. Eve's eyes widened with a fresh fear, and, for a moment, Peter was gravely silent.
"Yes," he said presently, "for a while he must still have the blame."
Then he turned to the woman.
"I wish I could get hold of Jim," he said regretfully. "Amongst other things, I want his horse."
In an instant Eve remembered.
"He's over in your shack. I saw him go there at sundown."
Peter's face cleared.
"Good," he cried. "Come on, we'll all go over there. I'll go by the front way, with Elia. You sneak out the back way after we're gone."
FOR A WOMAN
Seated before the cold stove in Peter Blunt's hut, Jim Thorpe was lost in moody thought. His day had been long and wearying. He had risen before sun-up with little enough hope in his heart to cheer his day in the saddle, and now he was contemplating his blankets at night with even less.
Search, search. That had been his day. A fruitless search for the one man whom he now believed to be the only person who could lift the blight of suspicion from his overburdened shoulders.
Yes, where most Eve had sought to shield, she had most surely betrayed by her woman's weakness and fear. For the truth had been forced upon Jim's unsuspicious mind even against himself. Eve's terror, during her long talk with him on his return from McLagan's ranch, had done the very thing she had most sought to prevent. Her whole attitude had told him its own story of her anxiety for some one, and that some one could only have been her husband. And the rest had been brought about by the arguments of his own common sense.
At first her fear had only suggested the anxiety of a friend for himself, at the jeopardy in which public suspicion had placed him. Now he laughed at the conceit of the thought, although, at the time, it had seemed natural enough. Then the intensity of her fears had become so great, and the personal, selfish note in her attitude so pronounced, that his suspicion was aroused, and he found himself groping for its meaning, its necessity.
Her terror seemed absurd. It could not be for him. It was out of all proportion. No, it was not for him. Was it for herself? He could see no reason. Then, why? For whom? And in a flash, as such realizations sometimes do come, even to the most unsuspicious, the whole thing leaped into his focus. If she had nothing to fear for herself, for whom did she fear? There was but one person—her husband.
If she feared for her husband, then she must suspect him. If she suspected, then there must be reason. But once this key was put into his hand, it needed little argument to make the whole thing plain. Point after point occurred to his mind carrying with each a conviction that was beyond the necessity of any argument that he could offer. He saw the whole thing with much the same instinctive conviction with which the wife had seen it.
Will had calculated his revenge on him carefully. He saw now what Eve had missed. The using of the "[double star]" brand,—which he must have stolen from Jim's implement shed—the running of the small bunch of McLagan's cattle with his, Jim's; these things had been well thought out, a carefully calculated revenge for his interference on the night Will had come so near to killing his own wife. He meant to throw suspicion upon him, suspicion which, in such a country of hot-headed cattlemen, was so narrowly removed from conviction.
So he had set out on his solitary quest to find this man, and had failed. He felt that he must find him, yet he hardly knew how it could serve him to do so. For there was that in the back of his mind which sorely troubled him.
He was thinking of Eve. Poor Eve! With Will found, or suspicion directed upon him, her troubles would be a hundred times magnified. The man was her husband, and there was no doubt in his mind, that, whatever his faults, she still loved him. If he needed confirmation of his belief there was her anxiety, her terrible dread when talking to him. The position was one to tax a far more subtle mind than his. What was to be done?
Clear himself he must, but every way he looked seemed to be barred by the certainty of bringing disgrace and unhappiness upon Eve. The thought revolted him, and yet—and yet, why should he take the blame? Why should he leave his name stinking in the mire of such a crime? It was maddening. What devilish luck! Was there no end to the cruelty of his fate?
Suddenly, he laughed. He had to, or the thing would drive him to something desperate. Fate had such refreshing ways of getting at a man. She brought about his disgrace through no fault of his own, and then refused him the only means of clearing himself. Fortune certainly could be a jade when she chose. Clear himself at the expense of the one woman in the world he loved? No, he couldn't do that. Perhaps that was why he was given such a cruel chance.
But his whimsical moment was quickly gone. The tragedy of his position was all too harsh for such levity, and he frowned down at the cold iron of Peter's stove. What must he do? He could see no way out. For perhaps the hundredth time that day his question remained unanswered. One thing he had made up his mind to, although he could not see how it was to help him in his dilemma. He must find Will Henderson.
He rose from his seat, stretched his aching limbs, and turned to his blankets.
But he did not unroll them. The heavy step of some one approaching startled him. Who could it be? Peter was away—and yet—and yet—— He listened intently, and suddenly his eyes lit. It was like Peter's step. He went to the door and threw it open, and in a moment was greeting the one man whose coming at such a moment could have made him feel glad.
"Say, Peter, this is bully," he cried, shaking the big man's hand. "I didn't guess you'd be coming along in. Who's that with you? Eh? Oh, Elia."
Peter nodded. But his usual smile was lacking.
"Yes. Eve's just coming along. Ah, here she is," he added, as the girl suddenly appeared in the doorway. "Come in, my dear," he went on kindly. "Guess we caught Jim before he got down for the night."
Jim offered the girl no greeting. All thought of formalities was driven from his mind at the sight of her expression. The hunted look in her eyes was even greater than it had been two days ago, and he wondered what fresh development had brought it about. He was not long left in doubt. Peter eyed him ruefully, and then glanced at the door which was still open.
"It's trouble, Jim, fresh trouble, so—I guess I'll shut this door tight."
While he was doing so, Jim pushed the chair toward Eve, into which she almost fell. Then he glanced at Elia, speculating. As Peter returned to the group he dropped back and seated himself on the rough bed, waiting for enlightenment. Peter leaned himself against the table, his grizzled face frowning thoughtfully.
"I'm needing a horse to-night—now," he said. "An' he's got to do sixty miles between this and sundown to-morrow. I want yours. Can I have it?"
The man's shrewd blue eyes were steadily fixed on Jim's face. He was putting all his knowledge of the ranchman to the test in his own subtle way. He was asking this man to help him against himself. He was asking this man to help him prevent his removing the unmerited suspicion with which he was branded. But he intended to do it openly, frankly. And his reason was because he understood a good deal of human nature, and of Jim Thorpe particularly.
"You can have him. What for?"
"No, no," Eve cried, starting up to prevent Peter answering.
But the big man motioned her to calm herself.
"Don't worry, Eve, my dear," he said. "This thing's between Jim an' me. And I don't think there's going to be much explanation needed."
Jim nodded, and his glance fell on Elia. He was wondering what part the boy was playing in the scene.
"It's Will," said Peter. "We've got to get him warned—for her sake." He nodded in Eve's direction, but turned away quickly as her face dropped into her two hands and remained hidden.
"You don't need to tell me any more, Peter," said Jim, huskily. "Just give me the other details. You see, I fancy I know all about him, except his whereabouts."
Eve looked up startled.
"You know," she whispered in awe.
"I've thought things out this last two days," he said quietly. Then he turned to Peter. "But this warning. What's made it necessary? Have others been—thinking?"
"No. They've been put wise." Peter's eyes sought the unsmiling face of Elia. "You see, Elia hunted him out. He's told Doc where he'll find the rustlers. But mercifully he didn't say who the rustler was."
"Ah, Elia hates Will," Jim said thoughtfully.
"Doc's setting out to-night to—find him," Peter added.
Jim glanced from Eve to the grizzled man. Just for a second he marveled at him. Then the feeling passed as recollections flew through his mind of a dozen and one kindnesses of heart which this quaint Englishman had performed. This was just the sort of thing Peter would do. He would simply, and unconcernedly, thrust his head into the lion's jaws to help anybody.
"You're going to take the warning?" he inquired.
"Sure." Then Peter added apologetically, with a swift glance in Eve's direction, "You see, we can't let 'em—find him."
A shadowy smile grew into Jim's eyes. Peter wanted his horse for a purpose. And that very purpose would inevitably drive the brand which was already upon him deeper and deeper into his flesh. He was calmly asking him to sacrifice himself for Eve. He glanced in the girl's direction, and all the old love was uppermost in his simple heart.
"When did you get in?" he asked Peter, abruptly.
"Been in the saddle all day?"
"Yep. But that's no con——"
"No. Only I was thinking."
Jim's eyes were still on Eve. The girl was looking straight before her at the stove. She could only wait. These men, she felt, were shouldering her burden. But she was anxious. Somehow she hadn't the same knowledge of Jim that Peter had. But then, how should she? Her point of view was so different.
Suddenly Jim started up.
"No, Peter, old friend, you can't have the horse—I need it."
Peter started forward. He was startled out of his belief in the man.
But Jim cut him short.
"Hold up, Peter. Eve's here," he said. Then he glanced at Elia. "I'll carry that warning. And I'll tell you why. Oh, no," as Eve suddenly started to protest, "I'm only going to speak common sense. Here's the facts which you, old friend, with all your wisdom, seem to have overlooked." He smiled up into Peter's face. "First, the man who goes must ride light. You can't be accused of that. You see, we've sure got to get there first. My plug's been out all day, and has only had about four hours' rest. I can get the most out of him the easiest. Then, you see, you're known to be in town, and if you pike the trail to-night folks'll get guessing. Then, you see, it's my business to be out—they expect it of me. Then—if things go wrong—which I don't guess they will—my name stinks a bit around here, and, well, a bit more or less don't cut any ice. Then there's another thing—Elia. You've got to keep a close eye on him, sure. If they get at him—well—— Anyway, that's what I can't do under the circumstances."
Peter's face grew almost stern as he listened to the marshaling of the man's arguments. Jim saw his look and understood. But he had clearly made up his mind.
"It's no use, Peter. You can't have that horse. I'm going to get the saddle on."
He rose to go. But the big man suddenly barred his way. His face was stern and set—something like a thunder-cloud seemed to have settled upon his kindly brow.
"Hold on. I'll allow your arguments are mostly clear. Guess you'll have to go. But I want to tell you this, Jim. If things go wrong, I'll—I'll shoot the man that lays hands on you. I'll shoot him dead!"
But Eve was on her feet at Jim's side, and her soft hands were gripping his arm with a nervous clutch.
"No, no, Jim," she cried, with tears in her eyes. "You—you mustn't go. I see it now. I didn't see it before. You—you are branded now, and—and you're going to help him. Oh, Jim, you mustn't! We had no right to ask for your horse. Indeed, indeed we hadn't. You mustn't go. Neither of you must. No, please, please stay. It means hanging if you are——"
"Don't you say anything more, Eve," Jim said, gently but firmly releasing himself from her hold. "I've thought of all those things. Besides, you must never forget that Will—is my cousin."
But Peter could stand no more.
"Come on," he said, almost roughly. "It's late enough already. Maybe they'll be starting directly. Here, Elia, you tell us just where Will's in hiding, and mind you don't miss anything."
It took barely five minutes for Elia to give the required directions again, which he did ungraciously enough. But Peter verified his account with the original story, and was satisfied.
Then the two men went out and saddled the horse. In three minutes Jim was in the saddle, and Peter gripped him by the hand.
"The good God'll help you out for this, Jim. So long."
As the horseman passed the hut Eve and Elia were standing before the closed door. Jim saw them, but he would not pause. However, his keen ears heard the whispered "God bless you" which the woman threw after him. And somehow he felt that nothing else in his life much mattered.
A few moments later Eve was at her gate, fumbling for the latch. Elia was at her side, looking out at the lights of the village. Suddenly he turned and raised his beautiful face to hers.
"Say, sis, you're a fule woman," he declared sharply. He was listening to the sounds of bustle down at the saloon. "Can't you hear? That's the boys. They've come in, and they're gettin' ready to start with Doc. If they get him—they'll hang him."
"Him? Who? What d'you mean?"
The terrified woman was staring down into his calm eyes.
"Oh, God, no! They can't! They won't! He's too good—too brave! God will never let them. It would be too cruel."
"Say, I guess you'd be sorry some?"
But Eve was fumbling again at the gate. Nor could the boy extract another word from her.
THE TRAIL OF THE RUSTLERS
The blackness of night begins to stir. Ahead and above roll vague shadows, darkening, threatening, in the immensity of their wave-like shapes. Away behind the stars shine pitifully, for a dim gray light in the east heralds the coming of day. Slowly the shadows change from black to a faint gray, and their rolling becomes more pronounced. Now, with each passing moment, the eastern light grows, and the darkness of the west responds; now, too, the shadows show themselves for what they are. They stir and seethe like the churning of water nearly boiling, under the rising zephyrs of mountain air. They are the dense morning mists, a hazy curtain shutting out the mountain splendor beyond.
In less than half an hour a wonderful metamorphosis. A tinted fringe of cloud appears on the mists high up, and gives the impression of a beam of sunlight amidst the shadows. But no sun has broken the eastern sky-line, nor will it for another half-hour. Yet the light increases, and the swirling mists become a rosy cloudland, deep, ruddy, and exquisitely beautiful. The living fog rolls up, lifting, lifting, and every moment the picture grows in beauty and in its wonders of changing colors.
Eastward the horizon lights a glowing yellow, shot with feathery dashes of ruddy orange; yellow to green, and then the gray of the high starlit vault. But the stars are dimming, whimpering under their loss of power. Their archenemy of day is approaching, and they must shrink away and hide till the fiery path of the monarch of the universe cools, and they are left again to their own.
Doc Crombie was riding at the head of his men when the sun cleared the horizon. He was staring ahead at the still hazy foot-hills, the hiding-place of the criminal he sought. The light of battle was in his keen, quick, luminous eyes. His face was set and stern. There was no mercy in the set of his jaws, in the drawn shaggy brows. He was out to rid the country, his country, of a scourge, a pestilence neither he nor his fellow townsmen would tolerate.
The rest of the vigilantes rode behind him, no less stern-faced than their leader. With fresh horses they had traveled long and hard that night. The journey had been chilly, and the trail rough. Their tempers were at a low ebb, and the condition only added to their determination to hang the man as soon as he was in their power.
Doc drew rein suddenly and called Smallbones to his side. The trail, which had now faded into something little better than a cattle track, was leading into the mouth of a narrow valley, bordered on either side by towering, forest-clad hills. He pointed ahead.
"That blamed kid said we'd keep right on down this cuttin' to the third hill on the left," he said. "It's nigh four miles. Then we'd find a clump of scrub with two lone pines standin' separate. Here we'd get a track of cattle marked plenty. Then we'd follow that for nigh two miles, and we'd drop into the rustlers' hollow."
"Sure. Don't sound a heap o' trouble," said Smallbones, cheerfully.
"Say, I'm not figgerin' the trouble. But we've traveled slow. We won't make it for an hour an' more, an' we're well past sun-up now. It was waitin' for the boys to git in. I sort o' wish I'd brought that kid along."
They were moving on again at a rapid canter, and Smallbones was riding at his side. The little man, like the rest, was armed liberally. But whereas the others were, for the most part, content with two guns, he had four. It would not be for lack of desire on his part if somebody did not die before noon.
"We couldn't help startin' late," grumbled the little man. "An' as fer that kid, I'd sure 'a' kep' him with us. Who's to say he ain't handed us a fool game? He's a crank, anyways, an' orter be looked after by State. He guessed he see the rustlers at work, but didn't rec'nize 'em. I said right then he was bluffin'. D'you think he wouldn't know Jim Thorpe?"
"Barkin' that yet, eh!" retorted Doc, sharply. "Say, boy," he went on with a great contempt, "you're dirty. Jim Thorpe ain't the man we're after. Leastways I won't believe it till we git him red-handed. I wouldn't be out to-night if I thought it was Jim Thorpe. We left him back ther' in the village. He's been out two days chasin' for rustlers. See here, you're mean on him 'bout this thing, because things are queer his way. An' you ain't got savvee to see that it's 'cos things is queer his way is just the reason he ain't the dogone rustler we're chasin'. You need to think a sight more. Mebbe it hurts some, but it's a heap good."
Smallbones shot a swift, sidelong glance at the doctor, in which there was little enough friendliness. He probably had no friendliness for anybody.
"I'll hand you a noo buggy to a three-year-old driver he's our man," he snapped.
"Done," grinned the sporting doctor promptly. And Smallbones was the least bit sorry he had laid so generous odds.
By this time day was in its full early-morning glory, but they were passing from the dazzling light of the plains into the more sheltered atmosphere of the valley. Everywhere the hills rose about them, on either side and ahead. The gloomy woods on the vast slopes threw a marked shadow over the prospect. Ahead lay a wide vista of tremendous mountains, with their crowning, snow-bound peaks lost in a world of gray, fleecy cloud. In the heart of one distant rift lay the steely bed of a glacier, hoary with age and immovable as the very bedrocks of the mountains themselves. It sloped away into the distance, and lost itself in the heart of a mighty canyon. Even to these men on their trail of death, living, as they did, so adjacent to these mysterious wilds, the scene was not without its awe.
The doctor was watching the hills to the left. The first one seemed endless, and he sought a break in it in every shadowed indentation upon its face. He was feeling more anxious than his own words suggested. He was a shrewd man who had understood the ring of truth in Elia's story at once, but now, in face of this stupendous world, he was wondering if he had been well advised in leaving the boy behind. He had only done so on the score of his crippled condition being a nuisance to them. However, his doubt found no further expression now, and his keen eyes watched for the landmarks in a way that left him little chance of missing them.
At last the first hill came to a distinct end, and the second rose higher and more rough. Its face was torn and barren, and what timber there was grew low down almost at its foot. The valley was narrowing, and the rich prairie grass was changing to a lank tangle of weedy tufts. There was a suspicion of moisture, too, in the spongy tread. The sun further lost power here, between these narrowing crags, and, although summer was well advanced, the ground still bore the moist traces of the mountain spring.
The second hill was passed quickly. It was merely a split of the original mountain, the result, no doubt, of a great volcanic upheaval in the early days of the world. And now, as they rode on, the third and last landmark before the two lone pines rapidly slipped away behind them.
The leader bustled his horse. His nervous force was at a great tension of impatience. He, like the rest of the merciless band, was yearning for his goal.
At last the two lone pines loomed up. The eyes of the men brightened with eagerness, and their leader felt certain of the faith he had placed in Elia's story. Now for the cattle tracks.
As they came abreast of the low bush, the doctor scattered his men in various directions to hunt for the trail. Nor did the matter take long. In less than five minutes two of the ranch hands lit on the tracks simultaneously. A great broad track of hoof-marks deeply indented in the soft ground stretched away up over the shoulder of the hill. So plain were they that the horsemen were able to follow them at a gallop.
Away up the hillside they sped. The way was a sharp incline, but smooth and wide, and free from obstruction. And in ten minutes they were pausing to breathe their hard-blowing horses on the shoulder of the hill, with a wide view and a level track ahead of them.
The doctor turned to order a careful redistribution. They were near the rustlers' hollow now, he believed, and it was his intention to leave nothing to chance. Each man received his instructions for the moment when the hollow should be reached, for Elia had given him full details of its locality, and the possibilities of approach.
He knew it to be a mere cup, with, apparently, no entrance or exit, except the way they were now approaching it. It had appeared to Elia to be surrounded by towering hills, densely clad in forests of spruce and pine. He had described the corral as being on the left front from the entrance, and that a hut, backing into the flanking woods, occupied the distance on the right.
The doctor's disposition, in consequence, was simple. The whole party were to race at a gallop into the hollow. The eight leaders were to ride straight for the hut, no matter what fire might be opposed to them. The six men immediately in their rear were to open out and ride for the encompassing fringe of woods, lest any of the rustlers should make for escape that way. While the rest of the party were to ride for the corral, and round up everything that looked like a saddle horse; this last with a view to preventing any chances of ultimate escape.
These matters settled they continued their journey without loss of time. For every man of them was sternly eager to come to clinches with their quarry. The excited interest was running high as they neared their goal. Then all at once Smallbones suddenly threw the whole party into confusion by flinging his horse abruptly upon its haunches, and wildly pointing up the hillside on their immediate left.
"Gee!" he cried, furiously. "Look at that. There! There! There he goes!"
But there was no need for his added explanation. Two hundred yards away to their left a horseman was racing headlong in a parallel direction. It needed no imagination to tell them that he was a scout carrying the alarm to his comrades in the hollow beyond.
But his course was a different one to that which might have been expected, for it showed no signs of converging with the track below, and was significant of an unsuspected, possibly secret entrance to the hiding-place.
But the doctor was a man for emergency. Four of the men carried rifles, and these he warned to be ready to fire on the fugitive when he gave the word.
Then he led his men at a race down the track.
* * * * *
It was an inspiring spot for the imaginative.
A little cup of perfect emerald green set within the darker border of the soft pinewoods. Above, the brilliant sky poured down a dazzling light through the funnel-like opening walled by an almost complete circle of hills. But the circle was not quite complete. There were three distinct, but narrow rifts, and they opened out in three widely opposite directions. The cup rim was almost equally divided into three.
In a spacious corral of raw timbers a number of cattle were moving restlessly about, vainly searching for something with which to satisfy their voracious morning appetites. Close beside the corral was a small branding forge, its fire smouldering dismally in the chill air. Round about this, strewn upon the trampled grass, lay a number of branding irons, coiled ropes, and all the paraphernalia of a cattle-thief's trade, while beside the corral itself were three telltale saddle horses, waiting ready for their riders on the first sound of alarm.
Fifty yards away stood a log hut. It was solid and practical, and comparatively capacious. A couple of yards away a trench fire was burning cheerfully. And over it, on an iron hook-stanchion, was suspended a prairie cooking "billy," from which a steaming aroma, most appetizing at that hour of the morning, was issuing. Various camping utensils were scattered carelessly about, and a perfect atmosphere of the most innocent homeliness prevailed.
On the sill of the hut door Will Henderson was seated smoking, with his elbows planted on his knees, and his two hands supporting the bowl of his pipe. His eyes were as calmly contemplative as those of the stolen cattle in the corral.
To judge by his expression, he had no thought of danger, and his affairs were prospering to his keenest satisfaction. His handsome boyish face had lost all signs of dissipation. His eyes, if sullen, were clear, with the perfect health of his outdoor, mountain life. Nor was there anything of the vicious cattle-rustler about him. His whole expression suggested the hard-working youngster of the West, virile, strong, and bursting with the love of life.
But here, again, appearances were all wrong. Will's mood at that moment was dissatisfied, suspicious. He was yearning for the flesh-pots of town, as exampled by the bad whiskey and poker in Silas Rocket's saloon.
Lying on the ground, close against the hut wall, two low-looking half-breeds in gaudy shirts, and wearing their black hair long and unkempt, were filling in the time waiting for breakfast, shooting "crap dice." The only words spoken between them were the filthy epithets and slang they addressed to the dice as they threw them, and the deep-throated curses as money passed between them.
No, there was little enough to suggest the traffic in which these men were engaged. Yet each knew well enough that the shadow of the rope was hanging over him, and that, at any moment, he might have to face a life and death struggle, which would add the crime of murder to the list of his transgressions.
Will slowly removed his pipe from his mouth.
"Say, ain't that grub ready?" he growled. "Hi, you, Pete, quit those dice an' see to it. You're 'chores' to-day. We've got to make forty miles with those damned steers before sun-up to-morrow."
"Ho, you. Git a look at the grub yourself. Say——"
He broke off listening. Then he dropped the dice he was preparing to throw, and a look of alarm leaped to his eyes. "I tink I hear hoofs. Hush!"
Will was on his feet in a second. The sullen light had vanished from his eyes and a startled look of apprehension replaced it.
"Those plugs cinched up?" he demanded sharply. And mechanically his hand fell on the butt of one of the guns at his waist.
"Sure," nodded the other half-breed.
All three listened acutely. Yes, the sound of galloping was plain to their trained hearing. The mountains carried a tremendous echo.
Without further words all three men set off at a run for the corral. Will was the fleetest and reached his horse first. In a second he was in the saddle and sat waiting, and listening for the next alarming sound.
"It's Ganly, sure," he muttered, turning one ear in the direction of the rapidly approaching sound.
"Sounds like dogone 'get out,'" cried Pete, sharply. The shadow of the rope was very near him at that moment.
The other half-breed nodded.
"Hist!" A sudden fear leaped into Will's eyes. "There's others," he cried. "Come on, and bad luck to the hindmost! Joe's safe. He can get clear by the south trail. They can't follow that way. I'm for the northeast. You best follow. Gee!"
His final exclamation burst from him at the echoing reports of several rifles. And now the sound of galloping hoofs was very near. The men waited no longer. Will set spurs into his horse, and the half-breeds, following him, raced for the northeast exit from the hollow.
But they had waited just a second or two longer than was safe. For, as they reached the forest path, and were vanishing beneath the shadowy trees, a fierce yell went up behind them. Pete, looking back over his shoulder, hissed his alarm to his speeding comrades.
"Ho, boy, it's Doc Crombie, an' a whole gang. An' dey see us, too, sure. But dey never catch us!"
Spurs went into their horses' flanks and the race began. For the noose of the rope was looming large and ominous before their terrified eyes.
A quarter of a mile from the hollow they divided and went their ways in three different directions.
ON THE LITTLE BLUFF RIVER
Away to the west, where the plains cease and the hills begin, where the Little Bluff River debouches upon the plains from its secret path through canyon and crevasse, Jim Thorpe was standing beside a low scrub bush, gazing ruefully at his distressed horse. The poor brute was too tired to move from where he stood, nipping at the rich prairie grass about his feet. He still had the strength and necessary appetite to do this, but that was about all.
In his anxiety to serve the woman he loved Jim had done what years ago he had vowed never to do. He had ridden his willing servant to a standstill.
The saddle had been removed for more than an hour and was lying beside the bush, and the man, all impatience and anxiety, was considering his position and the possibility of fulfilling his mission. The outlook was pretty hopeless. He judged that he had at least ten miles to go, with no other means of making the distance than his own two legs.
And then, what would be the use? Doc Crombie was probably on the road. He had heard the men preparing for the start before he left the village. True, they had not overtaken him, but that was nothing. There were other ways of reaching the rustlers' hollow. He knew of at least three trails, and the difference in the distance between them was infinitesimal.
For all he knew the other men might have already reached their destination. Yes, they probably had. He had been out of the saddle more than an hour. It was rotten luck. What would Eve think? He had failed her in her extremity. At least his horse had. And it was much the same thing. He realized now the folly of his attempt on a tired horse. But then there had been no time to get a fresh one. No possibility of getting one without rousing suspicion. Truly his luck was devilish.
He sat down, his back propped against the stump of a dead sapling. And from beneath the wide brim of his hat, pressed low down upon his forehead, he gazed steadily out over the greensward at the southern sky-line. His face was moody. His feelings were depressed. What could he do? In profound thought he sat clasping one knee, which was drawn up almost to his chin.
The beauty and peace of the morning had no part in his thoughts just now. Bitter and depressed feelings alone occupied him. Behind him the noisy little river sped upon its tumultuous way, just below sharp, high banks, and entirely screened from where he sat. There was a gossipy, companionable suggestion in the bustling of the noisy waters. But the feeling was lost upon him. He prayed for inspiration, for help. It was not for himself. It was for a woman. And the bitterness of it all was that he, he with all his longing, was denied the power to help her.
He turned from the hills with a feeling of irritation. Away to his left the prairie rolled upward, a steady rise to a false sky-line something less than a mile away. There was sign of neither man, nor beast, nor habitation of any sort in the prospect. There was just the river bank on which he sat to break up the uniformity of the plain. Here was bush, here were trees, but they were few and scattered.
Presently he rose from his seat and moved over to his horse. The animal lifted its head and looked wistfully into his face. The man interpreted the appeal in his own fashion. And the look hurt him. It was as if the poor beast were asking to be allowed to go on feeding a little longer. Jim was soft-hearted for all dumb animals, and he quietly and softly swore at his luck. However, he resaddled the animal to protect its back from the sun and turned back again to the bush.
But he never reached his seat. At that instant the quiet was suddenly and harshly broken. The stillness of the plain seemed literally split with the crack of firearms. Two shots rang out in rapid succession, and the faintest of echoes from the distant hills suggested an opposing fire at long range. But the first two shots were near, startlingly near.
All was still again. The man stood staring out in the direction whence came those ominous sounds. No, all was not quite still again. His quick ears detected a faint pounding of hoofs, and a racing thought flew through his brain. His movements became swift, yet deliberate. He crossed over to his horse and replaced the bit in its mouth. Then he faced round at the rising ground and watched the sky-line. It was thence that the reports had come, and his practiced ears had warned him that they were pistol shots.
Now he shaded his eyes gazing at one particular spot on the sky-line. For his horse, too, was gazing thither, with its ears sharply pricked. And, in consequence, he knew that the man, or men who had fired those shots were there, beyond the rise.
He waited. Suddenly a moving speck broke the sky-line. Momentarily it grew larger. Now it was sufficiently silhouetted for him to recognize it. A horseman was coming toward him, racing as hard as spurs could drive the beast under him.
Just for a moment he wondered. Then he glanced swiftly round at the river behind him. Yes, the river. This man was riding from the hills. And he understood in a flash. He was pursued. The hounds had him out in the open. The only shelter for miles around was the sparse bush at the riverside, and—the river itself. His interest became excitement, and a sudden wild hope. He now searched the horizon behind the man. There was not a soul in sight—and yet—those two shots.
But the situation suddenly became critical for himself. He realized that the fugitive had seen him. From a low bending attitude over his horse's neck the man had suddenly sat erect. Also he was gripping a heavy revolver in his hand.
Suddenly a further excitement stirred the waiting man. As the fugitive sat up he recognized him. It was Will Henderson.
He was still a hundred yards away, but the distance was rapidly narrowing. At fifty yards he, Jim, would be well within range, and the memory of those two shots warned him that the revolver in the horseman's hand was no sort of bluff. It meant business, sure enough, and his own identity was not in the least likely to add to his safety. He must convey his peaceful intentions at once.
It was difficult. He dared not shout. He knew how the voice traveled over the plains. Suddenly he remembered. He was one of the few prairie men who still clung to the white handkerchief of civilization. He drew one out of his pocket. It was anything but clean, but it would serve. Throwing up both arms he waved it furiously at the man. This he did three times. Then, dropping it to the ground, he held up both hands in the manner of a prairie surrender.
There was a moment of anxious waiting, then, to his relief, he saw Will head his hard blowing horse in his direction. But still retaining his hold of his pistol, he came on. And in those few moments before he reached him Jim had an opportunity of close observation.
First he saw that the horse was nearly done. Evidently the chase had been, if short, at least a hard one, and if the hunters were close behind, there was little enough chance of escape for him. The man's eyes were alight and staring with the suspicious look of the hunted. His young mouth was set desperately, and the watching man read in his face a determination to sell his life at the highest price he could demand. And somehow, in spite of all that had gone, he felt a great pity for him.
Then, in a moment, his pity fled. It was the color of the man's shirt that first caught his attention. It was identical with his own. From this he examined the rest of his clothing. Will Henderson was clad as much like himself as possible. And the meaning of it was quite plain to him.
The horseman came up. He flung himself back in the saddle and reined his horse up with a jerk.
"What's your game?" he demanded fiercely, still gripping the threatening revolver, as Jim dropped his hands.
"I came to warn you—but my horse foundered. See."
Jim pointed at the dejected beast. "I came because she asked me to come," he added.
Will glanced back up the hill. It needed little enough imagination to guess what he was looking for.
"Well, the game's up, and—I'm hunted. They're about three miles behind—all except one." He laughed harshly. Then he caught Jim's eyes. "You came because she sent you? That means you're goin' to help me, I guess, but only—because she sent you. Are you goin' to?" He edged his gun forward so that the other could not miss seeing it.
But Jim had no fear. He was thinking with all the power of his brain. Time was everything. He doubted they had more than five minutes. He knew this patch of country by heart, which was one of the reasons he had taken the northern trail. Now his knowledge served him.
He answered instantly, utterly ignoring the threatening gun.
"Yes. Now get this quickly. Your only chance is to drop down into that river. It's shallow, though swift—about two feet to possibly two and a half. Ride down stream for two miles. It winds tremendously, so the others won't see you. You'll come to a thick patch of woods on either bank. Take the left bank, and make through the woods, north. Then keep right on to some foot-hills about ten miles due north. Once there you can dodge 'em, sure. Anyway it's up to you. Leave 'em to me, when they come up. I'll do my best to put 'em off."
Jim's voice was cold enough, but he spoke rapidly. Will, who had turned again to scan the sky-line, now looked down at him suspiciously.
"Is this bluff—or straight business?" he demanded harshly.
"You best get on—if you're going to clear. You said they were three miles off," he reminded him, in the same cold manner.
Will looked back. He was still doubtful, but—he realized he must take the advice. He had delayed too long now for anything else.
"She sent you, eh?" he asked, sharply. "It's not your own doin'?"
"I've no sympathy with—cattle-thieves," Jim retorted. "Git, quick!"
His eyes were on the horizon now. And it was his alert look that finally decided the doubting man. He swung his horse round, and rode for the river.
"So long," he called back. But there was no word of thanks. Neither had the other any response to his farewell.
Jim watched him till he disappeared, then he turned again to the rising grassland and watched for the coming of the hunters. And as he watched his thoughts reverted to the doctrine of the one-way trail. Will was traveling it hard. For him there was certainly no turning back now.
But his horse had ceased grazing again, and once more stood with ears pricked, gazing up the slope. Its master understood. This was no moment to consider abstract problems, however they might interest him. Stern reality lay ahead of him, and he knew he was in for an unpleasant time. He linked his arm through his horse's reins, and, with head bent, trailed slowly up the incline, pausing and stooping to examine the hoof-prints of Will Henderson's horse, as though it were a trail he had just discovered, and was anxious to learn its meaning. He was thinking hard the while, and calculating his chances when the hunters should come up.
While he appeared to be studying the track so closely, he yet was watching the hill-crest ahead. He knew the men were rapidly approaching, for the rumble of galloping horses was quite distinct to his well-trained ears. He wanted his intentness to be at its closest when the gang first discovered him.
He had his wish. As the men topped the ridge he was on one knee studying a clearer imprint than usual. Doc Crombie and Smallbones, riding at the head of a party of five men, saw him, and the latter shouted his joy.
"Gee! we've got him! Say——" He broke off, staring hard at the kneeling figure. The outline was familiar. Suddenly Jim stood up, and the little man instantly recognized him. "Guess you lost that three-year-old 'driver,' Doc," he cried, his face alight with malice. "Ther's our man, an'—it's Jim Thorpe. I thought I rec'nized him from the first, when he broke cover. This is bully!"
But the stern-faced doctor had no answer for him. His eyes were fixed on the man, who now stood calmly waiting for him to approach. Experienced in such matters as he was, he looked for the threatening gun in Jim Thorpe's hand. There was none. On the contrary, the man seemed to be waiting for them in the friendliest spirit. There was his horse, too; why was he on foot? It struck him that the riddle wanted more reading than Smallbones had given it. He was not so sure he had yet lost that three-year-old "driver."
Jim made no change of position as they clattered up. Smallbones was ahead, with a gun leveled as he came.
"Hands up! Hands up, you dogone skunk, or I'll blow your roof off!" he cried fiercely.
But Jim only grinned. It was not a pleasant grin, either, for the hardware dealer's epithet infuriated him.
"Don't be a blamed fool, Smallbones," he said sharply. "You're rattled."
"Put your darned hands up, or——!"
But Doc Crombie knocked the little man's gun up.
"Say, push that back in its kennel," he cried, harshly. "You sure ain't safe with a gun."
Then, after seeing that his comrade obeyed him, and permitting himself a shadowy grin at the man's crestfallen air, he turned to Jim Thorpe.
"Wal?" he drawled questioningly.
"Thanks, Doc," said Jim, with a cheery smile. "I guess you saved my life. Smallbones shouldn't be out without his nurse." Then he glanced swiftly down at the track he had been examining. "Say, I've hit a trail right here. It goes on down to the river, an' I can't locate it further. I was just going back on it a piece. Guess you've come along in the same direction. See, here it is. A horse galloping hell-for-leather. Guess it's not a lope. By the splashing of sand, I'd say he was racing." He looked fearlessly into the doctor's eyes, but his heart was beating hard with guilty consciousness. He was trying to estimate the man's possible attitude.
"That's the trail we're on," the doctor said sharply. "Say, how long you been here?" he inquired, glancing at Jim's horse.
"Well, round about here, getting on for two hours."
"What are you out here for, anyway?"
Jim glanced from the doctor to Smallbones, and then on at the rest of the men. They were all cattlemen, none of them were villagers. He laughed suddenly.
"Say, is this an—er—inquisition?"
"Sure." The doctor's reply rapped out tartly.
"Well, that being the way of things, guess I'd best tell you first as last. You see, I got back to the village yesterday afternoon. As maybe you know, I've been out nearly two days on the trail. Well, late last night, Elia Marsham came to me with a yarn about a hollow in the hills, where he said he'd seen the rustlers at work. He told me how to find it, an'—well, I hit the trail. I hoped to head you, and get 'em myself, but," with a shrug, "I guess I was a fool some. My plug petered out two hours back, and I had to quit. You see he was stale at the start."
"An' this trail?" snapped the doctor.
"I was way back there down the river a goodish piece, getting a sleep by the bush, and easing my plug, when I woke up quick. Seemed to me I heard a gunshot. Maybe I was dreaming. Anyway I sat up and took notice, but didn't see a thing. So, after a while, I got dozing again. Then my plug started to neigh, and kept whinnying. I got around then, guessing something was doing. So I started to chase up the river. Then I found this trail. It's new, fresh done this morning, sure. Guess it must have been some feller passing that worried my horse. You say you're on this trail? Whose? It isn't—eh?" as the doctor nodded. "Then come right on down to the river. We're losing time."
Jim turned to lead his horse away, but Smallbones laughed. There was no mistaking the derision, the challenge of that laugh. Jim turned again, and the look he favored the hardware dealer with was one that did not escape the doctor, who promptly interposed.
"If you're right an' he's wrong, you've got time in plenty to correct him later, Jim," he said, in his stern fashion. "Meanwhiles you'll keep your face closed, Smallbones, or—light right out." Then he turned back to Jim. "Ther' ain't a heap o' hurry now, boy, fer that feller. His horse was nigh done," he went on, glancing at the dejected creature Jim was leading. "Done jest about as bad as yours. An' his plug was the same color, and he was rigged out much as you are." Then his tone became doubly harsh. "Say, the feller we're chasin' was your build. He was so like you in cut, and his plug so like yours, that if I put it right here to the vote I'm guessin' you'd hang so quick you'd wonder how it was done. But then, you see, I've got two eyes, an' some elegant savvee, which some folks ain't blessed with," with an eye in Smallbones' direction. "An' I tell you right here ther's just the fact your plug is stone cold between you an' a rawhide rope. You jest couldn't be the man we're chasin' 'less you're capable o' miracles. Get me? But I'm goin' to do some straight talk. Not more than ten minutes gone the feller we're after shot down one o' the boys back ther' over the rise. That boy was on a fast hoss, an' was close on that all-fired Dago's heels. Wal, he got it plenty, an' we're goin' back to bury that honest citizen later. Meanwhiles, ten minutes gone that rustler got down here, an' as you say, made that river, an' you—you didn't see him. Get me? You're jest goin' to show me wher' you sat."
For a second Jim's heart seemed to stand still. He was not used to lying. However, he realized only too well how the least hesitation would surely hang him, and he promptly nodded his head.
"Sure I will. Come right along." And he led the way diagonally from the horseman's tracks, so as to strike the river obliquely.
It was a silent procession, and the air was charged with possible disaster. Jim walked ahead, his horse hanging back and being urged forward by no very gentle kicks from Smallbones.
And as he walked he thought hard. He was struggling to remember a likely spot. He dare not choose one where grass lay under foot. These men had eyes like hawks for a spot on such ground. There was only one underlay where their eyes could be fooled, and that was under the shelter of a pine tree, where the pine-needles prevented impress and yielded no trace of footsteps. Was there such a spot near by? He vaguely remembered a small cluster of such trees beside his track, but he couldn't remember how far away it lay. He knew he must take a big risk.
He did not hesitate, and, though slowly, he walked deliberately in a definite direction, winding in and out the bush. Then to his intense relief, after about five minutes' walking, he saw the trees he was looking for. Yes, they were right in his track, and he remembered now skirting them as he came along. But he was not yet clear of trouble by any means. What was the underlay like?
He avoided giving any sign of his destination. That was most important. And he was fearful lest he should be questioned. He knew the shrewdness of the redoubtable doctor, and he feared it. He was on his own track now, which showed plain enough in the grass. And as he came to the clump of pines he still kept on until he had practically passed it. He did this purposely. It was necessary to satisfy himself that the ground under the trees was bare except for a thick carpet of pine-needles. Fortune was with him for once, and he suddenly turned and led his horse in among the trees. As he walked he disturbed the carpet as much as he could without attracting attention, and having come to a halt, he quickly turned his horse about the further to disturb the underlay. Then he flung himself into a sitting posture at the foot of one of the trees, at the same time deliberately raising a dust with his feet.
"This is the spot," he said, looking frankly up into the doctor's face. "I s'pose I must have been here somewhere around two hours. How far have we come? A matter of two hundred yards? Look out there. It's more or less a blank outlook of trees."
But Doc Crombie was studying the ground. Jim sprang up and began to move round his horse, feeling the cinchas of his saddle. He felt he could reasonably do this, and further disturb the underlay without exciting suspicion. It was a dreadful moment for him, for he noted that all eyes were closely scrutinizing the ground.
Suddenly the doctor fixed an eagle glance on his face. Jim met it. He believed it to be the final question. But the man gave him no satisfaction. He left him with the uncertainty as to whether he had wholly fooled him or not. His words were peremptory.
"We'll git back an' finish the hunt," he declared. Then, "Will that durned plug carry you now?"
"Maybe at a walk."
"Wal, git right on."
Jim obeyed. It would have been madness to refuse. But his brain was desperately busy.
They rode back to the river bank at the point where the fugitive had taken to the water. Most of the men dismounted, and, with noses to the ground, they studied the tracks. Two or three moved along the bank vainly endeavoring to discover the man's further direction; and two of them rode across to the opposite side. But the banks told them nothing. Their quarry had obviously not crossed the water. A quarter of an hour was spent thus, Jim helping all he knew; then finally Doc Crombie called his men together.
"We'll git right on," he declared authoritatively.
"Which way?" inquired Smallbones. He was angry, but looked depressed.
The doctor considered a moment, and the men stood round waiting.
"We'll head up-stream for the hills," he said at last. "Guess he'll make that way. We'll divide up on either side of the river. Guess you best take three men, Smallbones, an' cross over. You, Thorpe, 'll stop with me."
But Thorpe shook his head. He saw an opportunity to play a big hand for Eve, and, win or lose, he meant to play it. He would not have attempted it on a man less keen than the doctor.
"You're wrong, Doc," he said coolly, and all eyes were at once turned upon him. Every man in the party was at once agog with interest, for not one of them but shared Smallbones' suspicion in some degree, however little it might be.
"See here," Jim went on, with a great show of enthusiasm, "do you know this river? Well," as the doctor shook his head, "I do. That's why I came this trail. I guessed if any of the rustlers were liable to hit the trail, it 'ud be somewhere around this river. You figger he's gone up-stream. I'd gamble he's gone down. There's a heavy timber two miles or so down-stream, and that timber is a sheer cover right up to the hills farther north. D'you get me? Well, personally, I don't think he's gone up-stream—so I hunt down."
He was relying on the independence of his manner and the truth of his arguments for success, and he achieved it even beyond his hopes. Doc Crombie's eyes blazed.
"You'll hunt with me, Jim Thorpe," he cried sharply.
But Jim was ready. This was what he was looking for.
"See here, Doc, I'm not out for foolishness, neither are you. Oh, yes, I know I'm suspected, and there's folks, especially our friend Smallbones, would like to hang me right off. Well, get busy and do the hanging, I shan't resist, and you'll all live to regret it; that is, except Smallbones. However, this is my point. This suspicion is on me, and I've got to clear it. I'm a sight more interested than any of you fellows. I believe that fellow has headed down-stream, and I claim the right, in my own self-defense, to follow him as far as my horse will let me. I want to hit his trail, and I'll run him to earth if I have to do it on foot. And I tell you right here you've no authority to stop me. I'm not a vigilante, and you're not a sheriff, nor even a 'deputy.' I tell you you have neither moral nor legal right to prevent me clearing myself in my own way."
"Want to get rid of us," snarled Smallbones.
Jim turned on him like a knife.
"I've a score to settle with you, and, small as you are, you're going to get all that's coming to you—later."
"You'll have to get busy quick, or you won't have time," grinned the little man, making a hideous motion of hanging.
But further bickering was prevented by the doctor. At this moment he rose almost to the greatness which his associates claimed for him. Bitter as his feelings were at thus openly being defied and flouted, he refused to blind himself to the justness of the other's plea. He even acquiesced with a decent grace, although he refused—as Jim knew he would—to change his own opinions.
"Hit your trail, boy," he cried, in his large, harsh voice. "Guess you sure got the rights of a free citizen, an'—good luck."
He rode off; and Smallbones, with a venomous glance back at the triumphant Jim, started across the river. Jim remounted his horse and rode off down the river. He glanced back at the retreating party with the doctor, and sighed his relief. He felt as though he had been passing through a lifetime of crime, and ahead lay safety.
He did not attempt to push his tired horse faster than a walk, but continued on until he came to the woods, where he knew Will had sought shelter; then he off-saddled. He had no intention of proceeding farther until sundown.
He thanked his stars that he had read Doc Crombie aright. He would never have dared to bluff a lesser man than he.
And then, having seated himself for rest under a bush, his last waking thoughts were black with the despair of an honest man who has finally and voluntarily made it impossible to prove his own innocence.
Doc Crombie and his men had returned to Barnriff after a long and fruitless hunt. Two days and two nights they had spent on the trail. They had found the haunt of the rustlers; they had seen the men—at least, they had had an excellent view of their backs; they had pursued—and they had lost them all four. But this was not all. One of the boys had been shot down in his tracks by the man they believed to be the leader of the gang. So it was easy enough to guess their temper.
The doctor said little, because that was his way when things went wrong. But the iron possessed his soul to a degree that suggested all sorts of possibilities. And Barnriff was a raging cauldron of fury and disappointment. So was the entire district, for the news was abroad, travelling with that rapidity which is ever the case with the news of disaster. Every rancher was, to use a local phrase, "up in the air, and tearing his sky-piece" (his hair), which surely meant that before long there would be trouble for some one, the nature of which would be quite easy to guess.
The "hanging committee," as the vigilantes were locally called, returned at sundown, and the evening was spent in spreading the news. Thus it was that Annie Gay learned the public feeling, and the general drift of Barnriff's thought. Her husband dutifully gave her his own opinions first, that there might be no doubt in her own mind; then he proceeded to show her how Barnriff saw these things.
"Of course," he said. "What ken you expect wi' folk like Smallbones an' sech on a committee like this! Doc's to blame, sure. Ef he'd sed to me, 'Gay, you fix this yer racket. I leave it to you,' I'd sure 'a' got men in the gang, an' we'd 'a' cleared the country of all sech gophers as rustlers. But ther', guess I don't need to tell you 'bout Doc."