"They'll keep it to theirselves, whether they believe it or not," Frank assured Swan in his labored whisper. "It don't go down with me. I ain't supe'stitious enough fer that."
"The doctor he comes, don't he?" Swan retorted. "I shall go back now and milk the cows and do chores."
"But if your shoulder is lame, Swan, how can you?" Lorraine asked in her unexpected fashion.
Swan swallowed and looked helplessly at the doctor, who stood smoothing his chin. "The muscle strain is not serious," he said calmly. "A little gentle exercise will prevent further trouble, I think." Whereupon he turned abruptly to the door of the other room, glanced in at Brit and beckoned Lorraine with an upraised finger.
"You have had a hard time of it yourself, young lady," he told her. "You needn't worry about Swan. He is not suffering appreciably. I shall mix you a very unpleasant dose of medicine, and then I want you to go to bed and sleep. I shall stay with your father to-night; not that it is necessary, but because I prefer daylight for the trip back to town. So there is no reason why you should sit up and wear yourself out. You will have plenty of time to do that while your father's bones mend."
He proceeded to mix the unpleasant dose, which Lorraine swallowed and straightway forgot, in the muddle of thoughts that whirled confusingly in her brain. Little things distressed her oddly, while her father's desperate state left her numb. She lay down on the cot in the farther corner of the kitchen where her father had slept just last night—it seemed so long ago!—and almost immediately, as her senses recorded it, bright sunlight was shining into the room.
LONE TAKES HIS STAND
Lone Morgan, over at Elk Spring camp, was just sitting down to eat his midday meal when some one shouted outside. Lone stiffened in his chair, felt under his coat, and then got up with some deliberation and looked out of the window before he went to the door. All this was a matter of habit, bred of Lone's youth in the feud country, and had nothing whatever to do with his conscience.
"Hello!" he called, standing in the doorway and grinning a welcome to Swan, who stood with one arm resting on the board gate. "She's on the table—come on in."
"I don't know if you're home with the door shut like that," Swan explained, coming up to the cabin. "I chased a coyote from Rock City to here, and by golly, he's going yet! I'll get him sometime, maybe. He's smart, but you can beat anything with thinking if you don't stop thinking. Always the other feller stops sometimes, and then you get him. You believe that?"
"It most generally works out that way," Lone admitted, getting another plate and cup from the cupboard, which was merely a box nailed with its bottom to the wall, and a flour sack tacked across the front for a curtain. "Even a coyote slips up now and then, I reckon."
Swan sat down, smoothing his tousled yellow hair with both hands as he did so. "By golly, my shoulder is sore yet from carrying Brit Hunter," he remarked carelessly, flexing his muscles and grimacing a little.
Lone was pouring the coffee, and he ran Swan's cup over before he noticed what he was doing. Swan looked up at him and looked away again, reaching for a cloth to wipe the spilled coffee from the table.
"How was that?" Lone asked, turning away to the stove. "What-all happened to Brit Hunter?"
Swan, with his plate filled and his coffee well sweetened, proceeded to relate with much detail the story of Brit's misfortune. "By golly, I don't see how he don't get killed," he finished, helping himself to another biscuit. "By golly, I don't. Falling into Spirit Canyon is like getting dragged by a horse. It should kill a man. What you think, Lone?"
"It didn't, you say." Lone's eyes were turned to his coffee cup.
"It don't kill Brit Hunter—not yet. I think maybe he dies with all his bones broke, like that. By golly, that shows you what could happen if a man don't think. Brit should look at that chain on his wheel before he starts down that road."
"Oh. His brake didn't hold, eh?"
"I look at that wagon," Swan answered carefully. "It is something funny about that chain. I worked hauling logs in the mountains, once. It is something damn funny about that chain, the way it's fixed."
Lone did not ask him for particulars, as perhaps Swan expected. He did not speak at all for awhile, but presently pushed back his plate as if his appetite were gone.
"It's like Fred Thurman," Swan continued moralizing. "If Fred don't ride backwards, I bet he don't get killed—like that."
"Where's Brit now?" Lone asked, getting up and putting on his hat. "At the ranch?"
"Or heaven, maybe," Swan responded sententiously. "But my dog Yack, he don't howl yet. I guess Brit's at the ranch."
"Sorry I'm busy to-day," said Lone, opening the door. "You stay as long as you like, Swan. I've got some riding to do."
"I'll wash the dishes, and then I maybe will think quicker than that coyote. I'm after him, by golly, till I get him."
Lone muttered something and went out. Within five minutes Swan, hearing hoofbeats, looked out through a crack in the door and saw Lone riding at a gallop along the trail to Rock City. "Good bait. He swallows the hook," he commented to himself, and his good-natured grin was not brightening his face while he washed the dishes and tidied the cabin.
With Lone rode bitterness of soul and a sick fear that had nothing to do with his own destiny. How long ago Brit had been hurled into the canyon Lone did not know; he had not asked. But he judged that it must have been very recently. Swan had not told him of anything but the runaway, and of helping to carry Brit home—and of the "damn funny thing about the chain"—the rough-lock, he must have meant. Too well Lone understood the sinister meaning that probably lay behind that phrase.
"They've started on the Quirt now," he told himself with foreboding. "She's been telling her father——"
Lone fell into bitter argument with himself. Just how far was it justifiable to mind his own business? And if he did not mind it, what possible chance had he against a power so ruthless and so cunning? An accident to a man driving a loaded wagon down the Spirit Canyon grade had a diabolic plausibility that no man in the country could question. Brit, he reasoned, could not have known before he started that his rough-lock had been tampered with, else he would have fixed it. Neither was Brit the man to forget the brake on his load. If Brit lived, he might talk as much as he pleased, but he could never prove that his accident had been deliberately staged with murderous intent.
Lone lifted his head and looked away across the empty miles of sageland to the quiet blue of the mountains beyond. Peace—the peace of untroubled wilderness—brooded over the land. Far in the distance, against the rim of rugged hills, was an irregular splotch of brown which was the headquarters of the Sawtooth. Lone turned his wrist to the right, and John Doe, obeying the rein signal, left the trail and began picking his way stiff-legged down the steep slope of the ridge, heading directly toward the home ranch.
John Doe was streaked with sweat and his flanks were palpitating with fatigue when Lone rode up to the corral and dismounted. Pop Bridgers saw him and came bow-legging eagerly forward with gossip titillating on his meddlesome tongue, but Lone stalked by him with only a surly nod. Bob Warfield he saw at a distance and gave no sign of recognition. He met Hawkins coming down from his house and stopped in the trail.
"Have you got time to go back to the office and fix up my time, Hawkins?" he asked without prelude. "I'm quitting to-day."
Hawkins stared and named the Biblical place of torment. "What yuh quittin' for, Lone?" he added incredulously. "All you boys got a raise last month; ain't that good enough?"
"Plenty good enough, so long as I work for the outfit."
"Well, what's wrong? You've been with us five years, Lone, and it's suited you all right so far——"
Lone looked at him. "Say, I never set out to marry the Sawtooth," he stated calmly. "And if I have married you-all by accident, you can get a bill of divorce for desertion. This ain't the first time a man ever quit yuh, is it, Hawkins?"
"No—and there ain't a man on the pay roll we can't do without," Hawkins retorted, his neck stiffening with resentment. "It's a kinda rusty trick, though, Lone, quittin' without notice and leaving a camp empty."
"Elk Spring won't run away," Lone assured him without emotion. "She's been left alone a week or two at a time during roundups. I don't reckon the outfit'll bust up before you get a man down there."
The foreman looked at him curiously, for this was not like Lone, whose tone had always been soft and friendly, and whose manner had no hint of brusqueness. There was a light, too, in Lone's eyes that had not been there before. But Hawkins would not question him further. If Lone Morgan or any other man wanted to quit, that was his privilege,—providing, of course, that his leaving was not likely to menace the peace and security of the Sawtooth. Lone had made it a point to mind his own business, always. He had never asked questions, he had never surmised or gossiped. So Hawkins gave him a check for his wages and let him go with no more than a foreman's natural reluctance to lose a trustworthy man.
By hard riding along short cuts, Lone reached the Quirt ranch and dropped reins at the doorstep, not much past mid-afternoon.
"I rode over to see if there's anything I can do," he said, when Lorraine opened the door to him. He did not like to ask about her father, fearing that the news would be bad.
"Why, thank you for coming." Lorraine stepped back, tacitly inviting him to enter. "Dad knows us to-day, but of course he's terribly hurt and can't talk much. We do need some one to go to town for things. Frank helps me with dad, and Jim and Sorry are trying to keep things going on the ranch. And Swan does what he can, of course, but——"
"I just thought you maybe needed somebody right bad," said Lone quietly, meaning a great deal more than Lorraine dreamed that he meant. "I'm not doing anything at all, right now, so I can just as well help out as not. I can go to town right away, if I can borrow a horse. John Doe, he's pretty tired. I been pushing him right through—not knowing there was a town trip ahead of him."
Lorraine found her eyes going misty. He was so quiet, and so reassuring in his quiet. Half her burden seemed to slip from her shoulders while she looked at him. She turned away, groping for the door latch.
"You may see dad, if you like, while I get the list of things the doctor ordered. He left only a little while ago, and I was waiting for one of the boys to come back so I could send him to town."
It was on Lone's tongue to ask why the doctor had not taken in the order himself and instructed some one to bring out the things; but he remembered how very busy with its own affairs was Echo and decided that the doctor was wise.
He tiptoed in to the bed and saw a sallow face covered with stubbly gray whiskers and framed with white bandages. Brit opened his eyes and moved his thin lips in some kind of greeting, and Lone sat down on the edge of a chair, feeling as miserably guilty as if he himself had brought the old man to this pass. It seemed to him that Brit must know more of the accident than Swan had told, and the thought did not add to his comfort. He waited until Brit opened his eyes again, and then he leaned forward, holding Brit's wandering glance with his own intent gaze.
"I ain't working now," he said, lowering his voice so that Lorraine could not hear. "So I'm going to stay here and help see you through with this. I've quit the Sawtooth."
Brit's eyes cleared and studied Lone's face. "D'you know—anything?"
"No, I don't." Lone's face hardened a little. "But I wanted you to know that I'm—with the Quirt, now."
"Frank hire yuh?"
"No. I ain't hired at all. I'm just—with yuh."
"We—need yuh," said Brit grimly, looking Lone straight in the eyes.
"Frank come yet?" The peevish impatience of an invalid whose horizon has narrowed to his own personal welfare and wants was in Brit's voice. Two weeks he had been sick, and his temper had not sweetened with the pain of his broken bones and the enforced idleness. Brit was the type of man who is never quiet unless he is asleep or too ill to get out of bed.
Lorraine came to the doorway and looked in at him. Two weeks had set their mark on her also. She seemed older, quieter in her ways; there were shadows in her eyes and a new seriousness in the set of her mouth. She had had her burdens, and she had borne them with more patience than many an older woman would have done, but what she thought of those burdens she did not say.
"No, dad—but I thought I heard a wagon a little while ago. He must be coming," she said.
"Where's Lone at?" Brit moved restlessly on the pillow and twisted his face at the pain.
"Lone isn't back, either."
"He ain't? Where'd he go?"
Lorraine came to the bedside and, lifting Brit's head carefully, arranged the pillow as she knew he liked it. "I don't know where he went," she said dully. "He rode off just after dinner. Do you want your supper now? Or would you rather wait until Frank brings the fruit?"
"I'd ruther wait—if Frank don't take all night," Brit grumbled. "I hope he ain't connected up with that Echo booze. If he has——"
"Oh, no, dad! Don't borrow trouble. Frank was anxious to get home as soon as he could. He'll be coming any minute, now. I'll go listen for the wagon."
"No use listenin'. You couldn't hear it in that sand—not till he gits to the gate. I don't see where Lone goes to, all the time. Where's Jim and Sorry, then?"
"Oh, they've had their supper and gone to the bunk-house. Do you want them?"
"No! What'd I want 'em fur? Not to look at, that's sure. I want to know how things is going on this ranch. And from all I can make out, they ain't goin' at all," Brit fretted. "What was you 'n Lone talkin' so long about, out in the kitchen last night? Seems to me you 'n' him have got a lot to say to each other, Raine."
"Why, nothing in particular. We were just—talking. We're all human beings, dad; we have to talk sometimes. There's nothing else to do."
"Well, I caught something about the Sawtooth. I don't want you talking to Lone or anybody else about that outfit, Raine. I told yuh so once. He's all right—I ain't saying anything against Lone—but the less you have to say the more you'll have to be thankful fur, mebby."
"I was wondering if Swan could have gotten word somehow to the Sawtooth and had them telephone out that you were hurt. And Lone was drawing a map of the trails and showing me how far it was from the canyon to the Sawtooth ranch. And he was asking me just how it happened that the brake didn't hold, and I said it must have been all right, because I saw you come out from under the wagon just before you hitched up. I thought you were fixing the chain on them."
"Huh?" Brit lifted his head off the pillow and let it drop back again, because of the pain in his shoulder. "You never seen me crawl out from under no wagon. I come straight down the hill to the team."
"Well, I saw some one. He went up into the brush. I thought it was you." Lorraine turned in the doorway and stood looking at him perplexedly. "We shouldn't be talking about it, dad—the doctor said we mustn't. But are you sure it wasn't you? Because I certainly saw a man crawl out from under the wagon and start up the hill. Then the horses acted up, and I couldn't see him after Yellowjacket jumped off the road."
Brit lay staring up at the ceiling, apparently unheeding her explanation. Lorraine watched him for a minute and returned to the kitchen door, peering out and listening for Frank to come from Echo with supplies and the mail and, more important just now, fresh fruit for her father.
"I think he's coming, dad," she called in to her father. "I just heard something down by the gate."
She could save a few minutes, she thought, by running down to the corral where Frank would probably stop and unload the few sacks of grain he was bringing, before he drove up to the house. Frank was very methodical in a fussy, purposeless way, she had observed. Twice he had driven to Echo since her father had been hurt, and each time he had stopped at the corral on his way to the house. So she closed the screen door behind her, careful that it should not slam, and ran down the path in the heavy dusk wherein crickets were rasping a strident chorus.
"Oh! It's you, is it, Lone?" she exclaimed, when she neared the vague figure of a man unsaddling a horse. "You didn't see Frank coming anywhere, did you? Dad won't have his supper until Frank comes with the things I sent for. He's late."
Lone was lifting the saddle off the back of John Doe, which he had bought from the Sawtooth because he was fond of the horse. He hesitated and replaced the saddle, pulling the blanket straight under it.
"I saw him coming an hour ago," he said. "I was back up on the ridge, and I saw a team turn into the Quirt trail from the ford. It couldn't be anybody but Frank. I'll ride out and meet him."
He was mounted and gone before she realized that he was ready. She heard the sharp staccato of John Doe's hoofbeats and wondered why Lone had not waited for another word from her. It was as if she had told him that Frank was in some terrible danger,—yet she had merely complained that he was late. The bunk-house door opened, and Sorry came out on the doorstep, stood there a minute and came slowly to meet her as she retraced her steps to the house.
"Where'd Lone go so sudden?" he asked, when she came close to him in the dusk. "That was him, wasn't it?"
Lorraine stopped and stood looking at him without speaking. A vague terror had seized her. She wanted to scream, and yet she could think of nothing to scream over. It was Lone's haste, she told herself impatiently. Her nerves were ragged from nursing her dad and from worrying over things she must not talk about,—that forbidden subject which never left her mind for long.
"Wasn't that him?" Sorry repeated uneasily. "What took him off again in such a rush?"
"Oh, I don't know! He said Frank should have been here long ago. He went to look for him. Sorry," she cried suddenly, "what is the matter with this place? I feel as if something horrible was just ready to jump out at us all. I—I want my back against something solid, all the time, so that nothing can creep up behind. Nothing," she added desperately, "could happen to Frank between here and the turn-off at the ford, could it? Lone saw him turn into our trail over an hour ago, he said."
Sorry, his fingers thrust into his overalls pockets, his thumbs hooked over the waistband, spat into the sand beside the path. "Well, he started off with a cracked doubletree," he said slowly. "He mighta busted 'er pullin' through that sand hollow. She was wired up pretty good, though, and there was more wire in the rig. I don't know of anything else that'd be liable to happen, unless——"
"Unless what?" Lorraine prompted sharply. "There's too much that isn't talked about, on this ranch. What else could happen?"
Sorry edged away from her. "Well—I dunno as anything would be liable to happen," he said uncomfortably. "'Taint likely him 'n' Brit 'd both have accidents—not right hand-runnin'."
"Accidents?" Lorraine felt her throat squeeze together. "Sorry, you don't mean—Sawtooth accidents?" she blurted.
She surprised a grunt out of Sorry, who looked over his shoulder as if he feared eavesdroppers. "Where'd you git that idee?" he demanded. "I dunno what you mean. Ain't that yore dad callin' yuh?"
Lorraine ignored the hint. "You do know what I mean. Why did you say they wouldn't both be likely to have accidents hand-running? And why don't you do something? Why does every one just keep still and let things happen, and not say a word? If there's any chance of Frank having an—an accident, I should think you'd be out looking after him, and not standing there with your hands in your pockets just waiting to see if he shows up or if he doesn't show up. You're all just like these rabbits out in the sage. You'll hide under a bush and wait until you're almost stepped on before you so much as wiggle an ear! I'm getting good and tired of this meek business!"
"We-ell," Sorry drawled amiably as she went past him, "playin' rabbit-under-a-bush mebby don't look purty, but it's dern good life insurance."
"A coward's policy," Lorraine taunted him over her shoulder, and went to see what her father wanted. When he, too, wanted to know why Lone had come and gone again in such a hurry, Lorraine felt all the courage go out of her at once. Their very uneasiness seemed to prove that there was more than enough cause for it. Yet, when she forced herself to stop and think, it was all about nothing. Frank had driven to Echo and had not returned exactly on time, though a dozen things might have detained him.
She was listening at the door when Swan appeared unexpectedly before her, having walked over from the Thurman ranch after doing the chores. To him she observed that Frank was an hour late, and Swan, whistling softly to Jack—Lorraine was surprised to hear how closely the call resembled the chirp of a bird—strode away without so much as a pretense at excuse. Lorraine stared after him wide-eyed, wondering and yet not daring to wonder.
Her father called to her fretfully, and she went in to him again and told him what Sorry had said about the cracked doubletree, and persuaded him to let her bring his supper at once, and to have the fruit later when Frank arrived. Brit did not say much, but she sensed his uneasiness, and her own increased in proportion. Later she saw two tiny, glowing points down by the corral and knew that Sorry and Jim were down there, waiting and listening, ready to do whatever was needed of them; although what that would be she could not even conjecture.
She made her father comfortable, chattered aimlessly to combat her understanding of his moody silence, and listened and waited and tried her pitiful best not to think that anything could be wrong. The subdued chuckling of the wagon in the sand outside the gate startled her with its unmistakable reality after so many false impressions that she heard it.
"Frank's coming, dad," she announced relievedly, "and I'll go and get the mail and the fruit."
She ran down the path again, almost light-hearted in her relief from that vague terror which had held her for the past hour. From the corral Sorry and Jim came walking up the path to meet the wagon which was making straight for the bunk-house instead of going first to the stable. One man rode on the seat, driving the team which walked slowly, oddly, reminding Lorraine of a funeral procession. Beside the wagon rode Lone, his head drooped a little in the starlight. It was not until the team stopped before the bunk-house that Lorraine knew what it was that gave her that strange, creepy feeling of disaster. It was not Frank Johnson, but Swan Vjolmar who climbed limberly down from the seat without speaking and turned toward the back of the wagon.
"Why, where's Frank?" she asked, going up to where Lone was dismounting in silence.
"He's there—in the wagon. We picked him up back here about three-quarters of a mile or so."
"What's the matter? Is he drunk?" This was Sorry who came up to Swan and stood ready to lend a hand.
"He's so drunk he falls out of wagon down the road, but he don't have whisky smell by his face," was Swan's ambiguous reply.
"He's not hurt, is he?" Lorraine pressed close, and felt a hand on her arm pulling her gently away.
"He's hurt," Lone said, just behind her. "We'll take him into the bunk-house and bring him to. Run along to the house and don't worry—and don't say anything to your dad, either. There's no need to bother him about it. We'll look after Frank."
Already Swan and Sorry and Jim were lifting Frank's limp form from the rear of the wagon. It sagged in their arms like a dead thing, and Lorraine stepped back shuddering as they passed her. A minute later she followed them inside, where Jim was lighting the lamp with shaking fingers. By the glow of the match Lorraine saw how sober Jim looked, how his chin was trembling under the drooping, sandy mustache. She stared at him, hating to read the emotion in his heavy face that she had always thought so utterly void of feeling.
"It isn't—he isn't——" she began, and turned upon Swan, who was beside the bunk, looking down at Frank's upturned face. "Swan, if it's serious enough for a doctor, can't you send another thought message to your mother?" she asked. "He looks—oh, Lone! He isn't dead, is he?"
Swan turned his head and stared down at her, and from her face his glance went sharply to Lone's downcast face. He looked again at Lorraine.
"To-night I can't talk with my mind," Swan told her bluntly. "Not always I can do that. I could ask Lone how can a man be drunk so he falls off the wagon when no whisky smell is on his breath."
"Breath? Hell! There ain't no breath to smell," Sorry exclaimed as unexpectedly as his speeches usually were. "If he's breathin' I can't tell it on him."
"He's got to be breathing!" Lone declared with a suppressed fierceness that made them all look at him. "I found a half bottle of whisky in his pocket—but Swan's right. There wasn't a smell of it on his breath—I tell you now, boys, that he was lying in the sand between two sagebushes, on his face. And there is where he got the blow—behind his ear. It's one of them accidents that you've got to figure out for yourself."
"Oh, do something!" Lorraine cried distractedly. "Never mind now how it happened, or whether he was drunk or not—bring him to his senses first, and let him explain. If there's whisky, wouldn't that help if he swallowed some now? And there's medicine for dad's bruises in the house. I'll get it. And Swan! Won't you please talk to your mother and tell her we need the doctor?"
Swan drew back. "I can't," he said shortly. "Better you send to Echo for telegraph. And if you have medicine, it should be on his head quick."
Lone was standing with his fingers pressed on Frank's wrist. He looked up, hesitated, drew out his knife and opened the small blade. He moved so that his back was to Lorraine, and still holding the wrist he made a small, clean cut in the flesh. The three others stooped, stared with tightened lips at the bloodless incision, straightened and looked at one another dumbly.
"I'd like to lie to you," Lone told Lorraine, speaking over his shoulder. "But I won't. You're too game and too square. Go and stay with your dad, but don't let him know—get him to sleep. We don't need that medicine, nor a doctor either. Frank's dead. I reckon he was dead when he hit the ground."
SWAN TRAILS A COYOTE
At daybreak Swan was striding toward the place where Frank Johnson had been found. Lone, his face moody, his eyes clouded with thought, rode beside him, while Jack trotted loose-jointedly at Swan's heels. Swan had his rifle, and Lone's six-shooter showed now and then under his coat when the wind flipped back a corner. Neither had spoken since they left the ranch, where Jim was wandering dismally here and there, trying to do the chores when his heart was heavy with a sense of personal loss and grim foreboding. None save Brit had slept during the night—and Brit had slept only because Lorraine had prudently given him a full dose of the sedative left by the doctor for that very purpose. Sorry had gone to Echo to send a telegram to the coroner, and he was likely to return now at any time. Wherefore Swan and Lone were going to look over the ground before others had trampled out what evidence there might be in the shape of footprints.
They reached the spot where the team had stopped of its own accord in crossing a little, green meadow, and had gone to feeding. Lone pulled up and half turned in the saddle, looking at Swan questioningly.
"Is that dog of yours any good at trailing?" he asked abruptly. "I've got a theory that somebody was in that wagon with Frank, and drove on a ways before he jumped out. I believe if you'd put that dog on the trail——"
"If I put that dog on the trail he stays on the trail all day, maybe," Swan averred with some pride. "By golly, he follows a coyote till he drops."
"Well, it's a coyote we're after now," said Lone. "A sheep-killer that has made his last killin'. Right here's where I rode up and caught the team, last night. We better take a look along here for tracks."
Swan stared at him curiously, but he did not speak, and the two went on more slowly, their glances roving here and there along the trail edge, looking for footprints. Once the dog Jack swung off the trail into the brush, and Swan followed him while Lone stopped and awaited the result. Swan came back presently, with Jack sulking at his heels.
"Yack, he take up the trail of a coyote," Swan explained, "but it's got the four legs, and Yack, he don't understand me when I don't follow. He thinks I'm crazy this morning."
"I reckon the team came on toward home after the fellow jumped out," Lone observed. "He'd plan that way, seems to me. I know I would."
"I guess that's right. I don't have experience in killing somebody," Swan returned blandly, and Lone was too preoccupied to wonder at the unaccustomed sarcasm.
A little farther along Swan swooped down upon a blue dotted handkerchief of the kind which men find so useful where laundries are but a name. Again Lone stopped and bent to examine it as Swan spread it out in his hands. A few tiny grains of sandstone rattled out, and in the center was a small blood spot. Swan looked up straight into Lone's dark, brooding eyes.
"By golly, Lone, you would do that, too, if you kill somebody," he began in a new tone,—the tone which Lorraine had heard indistinctly in the bunk-house when Swan was talking to the doctor. "Do you think I'm a damn fool, just because I'm a Swede? You are smart—you think out every little thing. But you make a big mistake if you don't think some one else may be using his brain, too. This handkerchief I have seen you pull from your pocket too many times. And it had a rock in it last night, and the blood shows that it was used to hit Frank behind the ear. You think it all out—but maybe I've been thinking too. Now you're under arrest. Just stay on your horse—he can't run faster than a bullet, and I don't miss coyotes when I shoot them on the run."
"The hell you say!" Lone stared at him. "Where's your authority, Swan?"
Swan lifted the rifle to a comfortable, firing position, the muzzle pointing straight at Lone's chest. With his left hand he turned back his coat and disclosed a badge pinned to the lining.
"I'm a United States Marshal, that's all; a government hunter," he stated. "I'm hot on the trail of coyotes—all kinds. Throw that six-shooter over there in the brush, will you?"
"I hate to get the barrel all sanded up," Lone objected mildly. "You can pack it, can't you?" He grinned a little as he handed out the gun, muzzle toward himself. "You're playing safe, Swan, but if that dog of yours is any good, you'll have a change of heart pretty quick. Isn't that a man's track, just beside that flat rock? Put the dog on, why don't you?"
"Yack is on already," Swan pointed out. "Ride ahead of me, Lone."
With a shrug of his shoulders Lone obeyed, following the dog as it trotted through the brush on the trail of a man's footprints which Swan had shown it. A man might have had some trouble in keeping to the trail, but Jack trotted easily along and never once seemed at fault. In a very few minutes he stopped in a rocky depression where a horse had been tied, and waited for Swan, wagging his tail and showing his teeth in a panting smile. The man he had trailed had mounted and ridden toward the ridge to the west. Swan examined the tracks, and Lone sat on his horse watching him.
Jack picked up the trail where the horseman had walked away toward the road, and Swan followed him, motioning Lone to ride ahead.
"You could tell me about this, I think, but I can find out for myself," he observed, glancing at Lone briefly.
"Sure, you can find out, if you use your eyes and do a little thinking," Lone replied. "I hope you do lay the evidence on the right doorstep."
"I will," Swan promised, looking ahead to where Jack was nosing his way through the sagebrush.
They brought up at the edge of the road nearly a quarter of a mile nearer Echo than the place where Frank's body had been found. They saw where the man had climbed into the wagon, and followed to where they had found Frank beside the road, lying just as he had pitched forward from the wagon seat.
"I think," said Swan quietly, "we will go now and find out where that horse went last night."
"A good idea," Lone agreed. "Do you see how it was done, Swan? When he saw the team coming, away back toward Echo, he rode down into that wash and tied his horse. He was walking when Frank overtook him, I reckon—maybe claiming his horse had broke away from him. He had a rock in his handkerchief. Frank stopped and gave him a lift, and he used the rock first chance he got. Then I reckon he stuck the whisky bottle in Frank's pocket and heaved him out. He dropped the handkerchief out of his hip pocket when he jumped out of the rig. It's right simple, and if folks didn't get to wondering about it, it'd be safe as any killing can be. As safe," he added meaningly, "as dragging Fred Thurman, or unhooking Brit's chain-lock before he started down the canyon with his load of posts."
Swan did not answer, but turned back to where the horse had been left tied and took up the trail from there. As before, the dog trotted along, Lone riding close behind him and Swan striding after. They did not really need the dog, for the hoofprints were easily followed for the greater part of the way.
They had gone perhaps four miles when Lone turned, resting a hand on the cantle of his saddle while he looked back at Swan. "You see where he was headed for, don't yuh, Swan?" he asked, his tone as friendly as though he was not under arrest as a murderer. "If he didn't go to Whisper, I'll eat my hat."
"You're the man to know," Swan retorted grimly. And then, because Lone's horse had slowed in a long climb over a ridge, he came up even with a stirrup. "Lone, I hate to do it. I'd like you, if you don't kill for a living. But for that I could shoot you quick as a coyote. You're smart—but not smart enough. You gave yourself away when I showed you Fred's saddle. After that I knew who was the Sawtooth killer that I came here to find."
"You thought you knew," Lone corrected calmly.
"You don't have to lie," Swan informed him bluntly. "You don't have to tell anything. I find out for myself if I make mistake."
"Go to it," Lone advised him coldly. "It don't make a darn bit of difference to me whether I ride in front of you or behind. I'm so glad you're here on the job, Swan, that I'm plumb willing to be tied hand and foot if it'll help you any."
"When a man's too damn willing to be my prisoner," Swan observed seriously, "he gets tied, all right. Put out your hands, Lone. You look good to me with bracelets on, when you talk so willing to go to jail for murder."
He had slipped the rifle butt to the ground, and before Lone quite realized what he was doing Swan had a short, wicked-looking automatic pistol in one hand and a pair of handcuffs in the other. Lone flushed, but there was nothing to do but hold out his hands.
THE SAWTOOTH SHOWS ITS HAND
In her fictitious West Lorraine had long since come to look upon violence as a synonym for picturesqueness; murder and mystery were inevitably an accompaniment of chaps and spurs. But when a man she had cooked breakfast for, had talked with just a few hours ago, lay dead in the bunk-house, she forgot that it was merely an expected incident of Western life. She lay in her bed shaking with nervous dread, and the shrill rasping of the crickets and tree-toads was unendurable.
After the first shock had passed a deep, fighting rage filled her, made her long for day so that she might fight back somehow. Who was the Sawtooth Company, that they could sweep human beings from their path so ruthlessly and never be called to account? Not once did she doubt that this was the doing of the Sawtooth, another carefully planned "accident" calculated to rid the country of another man who in some fashion had become inimical to their interests.
From Lone she had learned a good deal about the new irrigation project which lay very close to the Sawtooth's heart. She could see how the Quirt ranch, with its water rights and its big, fertile meadows and its fences and silent disapprobation of the Sawtooth's methods, might be looked upon as an obstacle which they would be glad to remove.
That her father had been sent down that grade with a brake deliberately made useless was a horrible thought which she could not put from her mind. She had thought and thought until it seemed to her that she knew exactly how and why the killer's plans had gone awry. She was certain that she and Swan had prevented him from climbing down into the canyon and making sure that her dad did not live to tell what mischance had overtaken him. He had probably been watching while she and Swan made that stretcher and carried her dad away out of his reach. He would not shoot her,—he would not dare. Nor would he dare come to the cabin and finish the job he had begun. But he had managed to kill Frank—poor old Frank, who would never grumble and argue over little things again.
There was nothing picturesque, nothing adventurous about it. It was just straight, heart-breaking tragedy, that had its sordid side too. Her dad was a querulous sick man absorbed by his sufferings and not yet out of danger, if she read the doctor's face aright. Jim and Sorry had taken orders all their life, and they would not be able to handle the ranch work alone; yet how else would it be done? There was Lone,—instinctively she turned her thoughts to him for comfort. Lone would stay and help, and somehow it would be managed.
But to think that these things could be done without fear of retribution. Jim and Sorry, Swan and Lone had not attempted to hide their belief that the Sawtooth was responsible for Frank's death, yet not one of them had hinted at the possibility of calling the sheriff, or placing the blame where it belonged. They seemed brow-beaten into the belief that it would be useless to fight back. They seemed to look upon the doings of the Sawtooth as an act of Providence, like being struck by lightning or freezing to death, as men sometimes did in that country.
To Lorraine that passive submission was the most intolerable part, the one thing she could not, would not endure. Had she lived all of her life on the Quirt, she probably would never have thought of fighting back and would have accepted conditions just as her dad seemed to accept them. But her mimic West had taught her that women sometimes dared where the men had hesitated. It never occurred to her that she should submit to the inevitable just because the men appeared to do so.
Wherefore it was a new Lorraine who rose at daybreak and silently cooked breakfast for the men, learned from Jim that Sorry was not back from Echo, and that Swan and Lone had gone down to the place where Frank had been found. She poured Jim's coffee and went on her tiptoes to see if her father still slept. She dreaded his awakening and the moment when she must tell him about Frank, and she had an unreasonable hope that the news might be kept from him until the doctor came again.
Brit was awake, and the look in his eyes frightened Lorraine so that she stopped in the middle of the room, staring at him fascinated.
"Well," he said flatly, "who is it this time? Lone, or—Frank?"
"Why—who is what?" Lorraine parried awkwardly. "I don't——"
"Did they git Frank, las' night?" Brit's eyes seemed to bore into her soul, searching pitilessly for the truth. "Don't lie to me, Raine—it ain't going to help any. Was it Frank or Lone? They's a dead man laid out on this ranch. Who is it?"
"F-frank," Lorraine stammered, backing away from him. "H-how did you know?"
"How did it happen?" Brit's eyes were terrible.
Lorraine shuddered while she told him.
"Rabbits in a trap," Brit muttered, staring at the low ceiling. "Can't prove nothing—couldn't convict anybody if we could prove it. Bill Warfield's got this county under his thumb. Rabbits in a trap. Raine, you better pack up and go home to your mother. There's goin' to be hell a-poppin' if I live to git outa this bed."
Lorraine stooped over him, and her eyes were almost as terrible as were Brit's. "Let it pop. We aren't quitters, are we, dad? I'm going to stay with you." Then she saw tears spilling over Brit's eyelids and left the room hurriedly, fighting back a storm of weeping. She herself could not mourn for Frank with any sense of great personal loss, but it was different with her dad. He and Frank had lived together for so many years that his loyal heart ached with grief for that surly, faithful old partner of his.
But Lorraine's fighting blood was up, and she could not waste time in weeping. She drank a cup of coffee, went out and called Jim, and told him that she was going to take a ride, and that she wanted a decent horse.
"You can take mine," Jim offered. "He's gentle and easy-gaited. I'll go saddle up. When do you want to go?"
"Right now, as soon as I'm ready. I'll fix dad's breakfast, and you can look after him until Lone and Swan come back. One of them will stay with him then. I may be gone for three or four hours. I'll go crazy if I stay here any longer."
Jim eyed her while he bit off a chew of tobacco. "It'd be a good thing if you had some neighbor woman come in and stay with yuh," he said slowly. "But there ain't any I can think of that'd be much force. You take Snake and ride around close and forget things for awhile." He hesitated, his hand moving slowly back to his pocket. "If yuh feel like you want a gun——"
Lorraine laughed bitterly. "You don't think any accident would happen to me, do you?"
"Well, no—er I wouldn't advise yuh to go ridin'," Jim said thoughtfully. "This here gun's kinda techy, anyway, unless you're used to a quick trigger. Yuh might be safer without it than with it."
By the time she was ready, Jim was tying his horse, Snake, to the corral. Lorraine walked slowly past the bunk-house with her face turned from it and her thoughts dwelling terrifiedly upon what lay within. Once she was past she began running, as if she were trying to outrun her thoughts. Jim watched her gravely, untied Snake and stood at his head while she mounted, then walked ahead of her to the gate and opened it for her.
"Yore nerves are sure shot to hell," he blurted sympathetically as she rode past him. "I guess you need a ride, all right. Snake's plumb safe, so yuh got no call to worry about him. Take it easy, Raine, on the worrying. That's about the worst thing you can do."
Lorraine gave him a grateful glance and a faint attempt at a smile, and rode up the trail she always took,—the trail where she had met Lone that day when he returned her purse, the trail that led to Fred Thurman's ranch and to Sugar Spring and, if you took a certain turn at a certain place, to Granite Ridge and beyond.
Up on the ridge nearest the house Al Woodruff shifted his position so that he could watch her go. He had been watching Lone and Swan and the dog, trailing certain tracks through the sagebrush down below, and when Lorraine rode away from the Quirt they were in the wagon road, fussing around the place where Frank had been found.
"They can't pin nothing on me," Al tried to comfort himself. "If that damn girl would keep her mouth shut I could stand a trial, even. They ain't got any evidence whatever, unless she saw me at Rock City that night." He turned and looked again toward the two men down on the road and tilted his mouth down at the corners in a sour grin.
"Go to it and be damned to you!" he muttered. "You haven't got the dope, and you can't git it, either. Trail that horse if you want to—I'd like to see yuh amuse yourselves that way!"
He turned again to stare after Lorraine, meditating deeply. If she had only been a man, he would have known exactly how to still her tongue, but he had never before been called upon to deal with the problem of keeping a woman quiet. He saw that she was taking the trail toward Fred Thurman's, and that she was riding swiftly, as if she had some errand in that direction, something urgent. Al was very adept at reading men's moods and intentions from small details in their behavior. He had seen Lorraine start on several leisurely, purposeless rides, and her changed manner held a significance which he did not attempt to belittle.
He led his horse down the side of the ridge opposite the road and the house, mounted there and rode away after Lorraine, keeping parallel with the trail but never using it, as was his habit. He made no attempt to overtake her, and not once did Lorraine glimpse him or suspect that she was being followed. Al knew well the art of concealing his movements and his proximity from the inquisitive eyes of another man's saddle horse, and Snake had no more suspicion than his rider that they were not altogether alone that morning.
Lorraine sent him over the trail at a pace which Jim had long since reserved for emergencies. But Snake appeared perfectly able and willing to hold it and never stumbled or slowed unexpectedly as did Yellowjacket, wherefore Lorraine rode faster than she would have done had she known more about horses.
Still, Snake held his own better than even Jim would have believed, and carried Lorraine up over Granite Ridge and down into the Sawtooth flat almost as quickly as Lorraine expected him to do. She came up to the Sawtooth ranch-houses with Snake in a lather of sweat and with her own determination unweakened to carry the war into the camp of her enemy. It was, she firmly believed, what should have been done long ago; what would have curbed effectually the arrogant powers of the Sawtooth.
She glanced at the foreman's cottage only to make sure that Hawkins was nowhere in sight there, and rode on toward the corrals, intercepting Hawkins and a large, well-groomed, smooth-faced man whom she knew at once must be Senator Warfield himself. Unconsciously Lorraine mentally fitted herself into a dramatic movie "scene" and plunged straight into the subject.
"There has been," she said tensely, "another Sawtooth accident. It worked better than the last one, when my father was sent over the grade into Spirit Canyon. Frank Johnson is dead. I am here to discover what you are going to do about it?" Her eyes were flashing, her chest was rising and falling rapidly when she had finished. She looked straight into Senator Warfield's face, her own full in the sunlight, so that, had there been a camera "shooting" the scene, her expression would have been fully revealed—though she did not realize all that.
Senator Warfield looked her over calmly (just as a director would have wished him to do) and turned to Hawkins. "Who is this girl?" he asked. "Is she the one who came here temporarily—deranged?"
"She's the girl," Hawkins affirmed, his eyes everywhere but on Lorraine's face. "Brit Hunter's daughter—they say."
"They say? I am his daughter! How dare you take that tone, Mr. Hawkins? My home is at the Quirt. When you strike at the Quirt you strike at me. When you strike at me I am going to strike back. Since I came here two men have been killed and my father has been nearly killed. He may die yet—I don't know what effect this shock will have upon him. But I know that Frank is dead, and that it's up to me now to see that justice is done. You—you cowards! You will kill a man for the sake of a few dollars, but you kill in the dark. You cover your murders under the pretense of accidents. I want to tell you this: Of all the men you have murdered, Frank Johnson will be avenged. You are going to answer for that. I shall see that you do answer for it! There is justice in this country, there must be. I'm going to demand that justice shall be measured out to you. I——"
"Was she violent, before?" Senator Warfield asked Hawkins in an undertone which Lorraine heard distinctly. "You're a deputy, Hawkins. If this keeps on, I'm afraid you will have to take her in and have her committed for insanity. It's a shame, poor thing. At her age it is pitiful. Look how she has ridden that horse! Another mile would have finished him."
"Do you mean to say you think I'm crazy? What an idea! It seems to me, Senator Warfield, that you are crazy yourself, to imagine that you can go on killing people and thinking you will never have to pay the penalty. You will pay. There is law in this land, even if——"
"This is pathetic," said Senator Warfield, still speaking to Hawkins. "Her father—if he is her father—is sick and not able to take care of her. We'll have to assume the responsibility ourselves, I'm afraid, Hawkins. She may harm herself, or——"
Lorraine turned white. She had never seen just such a situation arise in a screen story, but she knew what danger might lie in being accused of insanity. While Warfield was speaking, she had a swift vision of the evidence they could bring against her; how she had arrived there delirious after having walked out from Echo,—why, they would call even that a symptom of insanity! Lone had warned her of what people would say if she told any one of what she saw in Rock City, perhaps really believing that she had imagined it all. Lone might even think that she had some mental twist! Her world was reeling around her.
She whirled Snake on his hind feet, struck him sharply with the quirt and was galloping back over the trail past the Hawkins house before Senator Warfield had finished advising Hawkins. She saw Mrs. Hawkins standing in the door, staring at her, but she did not stop. They would take her to the asylum; she felt that the Sawtooth had the power, that she had played directly into their hands, and that they would be as ruthless in dealing with her as they had been with the nesters whom they had killed. She knew it, she had read it in the inscrutable, level look of Senator Warfield, in the half cringing, wholly subservient manner of Hawkins when he listened to his master.
"They're fiends!" she cried aloud once, while she urged Snake up the slope of Granite Ridge. "I believe they'd kill me if they were sure they could get away with it. But they could frame an insanity charge and put me—my God, what fiends they are!"
At the Sawtooth, Senator Warfield was talking with Mrs. Hawkins while her husband saddled two horses. Mrs. Hawkins lived within her four walls and called that, her "spere," and spoke of her husband as "he." You know the type of woman. That Senator Warfield was anything less than a godlike man who stood very high on the ladder of Fame, she would never believe. So she related garrulously certain incoherent, aimless utterances of Lorraine's, and cried a little, and thought it was perfectly awful that a sweet, pretty girl like that should be crazy. She would have made an ideal witness against Lorraine, her very sympathy carrying conviction of Lorraine's need of it. That she did not convince Senator Warfield of Lorraine's mental derangement was a mere detail. Senator Warfield had reasons for knowing that Lorraine was merely afflicted with a dangerous amount of knowledge and was using it without discretion.
"You mustn't let her run loose and maybe kill herself or somebody else!" Mrs. Hawkins exclaimed. "Oh, Senator, it's awful to think of! When she went past the house I knew the poor thing wasn't right——"
"We'll overtake her," Senator Warfield assured her comfortingly. "She can't go very far on that horse. She'd ridden him half to death, getting here. He won't hold out—he can't. She came here, I suppose, because she had been here before. A sanitarium may be able to restore her to a normal condition. I can't believe it's anything more than some nervous disorder. Now don't worry, my good woman. Just have a room ready, so that she will be comfortable here until we can get her to a sanitarium. It isn't hopeless, I assure you—but I'm mighty glad I happened to be here so that I can take charge of the case. Now here comes Hawkins. We'll bring her back—don't you worry."
"Well, take her away as quick as you can, Senator. I'm scared of crazy people. His brother went crazy in our house and——"
"Yes, yes—we'll take care of her. Poor girl, I wish that I had been here when she first came," said the senator, as he went to meet Hawkins, who was riding up from the corrals leading two horses—one for Lorraine, which shows what was his opinion of Snake.
YACK DON'T LIE
For a time the trail seemed to lead toward Whisper. Then it turned away and seemed about to end abruptly on a flat outcropping of rock two miles from Whisper camp. Lone frowned and stared at the ground, and Swan spoke sharply to Jack, who was nosing back and forth, at fault if ever a dog was. But presently he took up the scent and led them down a barren slope and into grassy ground where a bunch of horses grazed contentedly. Jack singled out one and ran toward it silently, as he had done all his trailing that morning. The horse looked up, stared and went galloping down the little valley, stampeding the others with him.
"That's about where I thought we'd wind up—in a saddle bunch," Lone observed disgustedly. "If I had the evidence you're carrying in your pocket, Swan, I'd put that darn dog on the scent of the man, not the horse."
"The man I've got," Swan retorted. "I don't have to trail him."
"Well, now, you think you've got him. Here's good, level ground—I couldn't get outa sight in less than ten minutes, afoot. Let me walk out a ways, and you see if that handkerchief's mine. Oh, search me all you want to, first," he added, when he read the suspicion in Swan's eyes. "Make yourself safe as yuh please, but give me a fair show. You've made up your mind I'm the killer, and you've been fitting the evidence to me—or trying to."
"It fits," Swan pointed out drily.
"You see if it does. The dog'll tell you all about it in about two minutes if you give him a chance."
Swan looked at him. "Yack don't lie. By golly, I raised that dog to trail, and he trails, you bet! He's cocker spaniel and bloodhound, and he knows things, that dog. All right, Lone, you walk over to that black rock and set down. If you think you frame something, maybe, I pack a dead man to the Quirt again."
"You can, for all me," Lone replied quietly. "I'd about as soon go that way as the way I am now."
Swan watched him until he was seated on the rock as directed, his manacled hands resting on his knees, his face turned toward the horses. Then Swan took the blue handkerchief from his pocket, called Jack to him and muttered something in Swedish while the dog sniffed at the cloth. "Find him, Yack," said Swan, standing straight again.
Jack went sniffing obediently in wide circles, crossing unconcernedly Lone's footprints while he trotted back and forth. He hesitated once on the trail of the horse he had followed, stopped and looked at Swan inquiringly, and whined. Swan whistled the dog to him with a peculiar, birdlike note and called to Lone.
"You come back, Lone, and let Yack take a damn good smell of you. By golly, if that dog lies to me this time, I lick him good!"
Lone came back, grinning a little. "All right, now maybe you'll listen to reason. I ain't the kind to tell all I know and some besides, Swan. I've been a Sawtooth man, and a fellow kinda hates to throw down his outfit deliberate. But they're going too strong for any white man to stand for. I quit them when they tried to get Brit Hunter. I don't know so much, Swan, but I'm pretty good at guessing. So if you'll come with me to Whisper, your dog may show yuh who owns that handkerchief. If he don't, then I'm making a mistake, and I'd like to be set right."
"Somebody rode that horse," Swan meditated aloud. "Yack don't make a mistake like that, and I don't think I'm blind. Where's the man that was on the horse? What you think, Lone?"
"Me? I think there was another horse somewhere close to that outcropping, tied to a bush, maybe. I think the man you're after changed horses there, just on a chance that somebody might trail him from the road. You put your dog on the trail of that one particular horse, and he showed yuh where it was feeding with the bunch. It looks to me like it was turned loose, back there, and come on alone. Your man went to Whisper; I'll bank money on that. Anyway, your dog'll know if he's been there."
Swan thought it over, his eyes moving here and there to every hint of movement between the skyline and himself. Suddenly he turned to Lone, his face flushing with honest shame.
"Loney, take a damn Swede and give him something he believes, and you could pull his teeth before you pull that notion from his thick head. You acted funny, that day Fred Thurman was killed, and you gave yourself away at the stable when I showed you that saddle. So I think you're the killer, and I keep on thinking that, and I've been trying to catch you with evidence. I'm a Swede, all right! Square head. Built of wood two inches thick. Loney, you kick me good. You don't have time to ride over here, get some other horse and ride back to the Quirt after Frank was killed. You got there before I did, last night. We know Frank was dead not much more than one hour when we get him to the bunk-house. Yack, he gives you a good alibi."
"I sure am glad we took the time to trail that horse, then," Lone remarked, while Swan was removing the handcuffs. "You're all right, Swan. Nothing like sticking to an idea till you know it's wrong. Now, let's stick to mine for awhile. Let's go on to Whisper. It ain't far."
They returned to the rocky hillside where the trail had been covered, and searched here and there for the tracks of another horse; found the trail and followed it easily enough to Whisper. Swan put Jack once more on the scent of the handkerchief, and if actions meant anything, Jack proved conclusively that he found the Whisper camp reeking with the scent.
But that was all,—since Al was at that moment trailing Lorraine toward the Sawtooth.
"We may as well eat," Swan suggested. "We'll get him, by golly, but we don't have to starve ourselves."
"He wouldn't know we're after him," Lone agreed. "He'll stick around so as not to raise suspicion. And he might come back, most any time. If he does, we'll say I'm out with you after coyotes, and we stopped here for a meal. That's good enough to satisfy him—till you get the drop on him. But I want to tell yuh, Swan, you can't take Al Woodruff as easy as you took me. And you couldn't have taken me so easy if I'd been the man you wanted. Al would kill you as easy as you kill coyotes. Give him a reason, and you won't need to give him a chance along with it. He'll find the chance himself."
Because they thought it likely that Al would soon return, they did not hurry. They were hungry, and they cooked enough food for four men and ate it leisurely. Jim was at the ranch, Sorry had undoubtedly returned before now, and the coroner would probably not arrive before noon, at the earliest.
Swan wanted to take Al Woodruff back with him in irons. He wanted to confront the coroner with the evidence he had found and the testimony which Lone could give. There had been too many killings already, he asserted in his naive way; the sooner Al Woodruff was locked up, the safer the country would be.
He discussed with Lone the possibility of making Al talk,—the chance of his implicating the Sawtooth. Lone did not hope for much and said so.
"If Al was a talker he wouldn't be holding the job he's got," Lone argued. "Don't get the wrong idea again, Swan. Yuh may pin this on to Al, but that won't let the Sawtooth in. The Sawtooth's too slick for that. They'd be more likely to make up a lynching party right in the outfit and hang Al as an example than they would try to shield him. He's played a lone hand, Swan, right from the start, unless I'm badly mistaken. The Sawtooth's paid him for playing it, that's all."
"Warfield, he's the man I want," Swan confided. "It's for more than killing these men. It goes into politics, Loney, and it goes deep. He's bad for the government. Getting Warfield for having men killed is getting Warfield without telling secrets of politics. Warfield, he's a smart man, by golly. He knows some one is after him in politics, but he don't know some one is after him at home. So the big Swede has got to be smart enough to get the evidence against him for killing."
"Well, I wish yuh luck, Swan, but I can't say you're going at it right. Al won't talk, I tell yuh."
Swan did not believe that. He waited another hour and made a mental inventory of everything in camp while he waited. Then, chiefly because Lone's impatience finally influenced him, he set out to see where Al had gone.
According to Jack, Al had gone to the corral. From there they put Jack on the freshest hoofprints leaving the place, and were led here and there in an apparently aimless journey to nowhere until, after Jack had been at fault in another rock patch, the trail took them straight away to the ridge overlooking the Quirt ranch. The two men looked at one another.
"That's like Al," Lone commented drily. "Coyotes are foolish, alongside him, and you'll find it out. I'll bet he's been watching this place since daybreak."
"Where he goes, Yack will follow," Swan grinned cheerfully. "And I follow Yack. We'll get him, Lone. That dog, he never quits till I say quit."
"You better go down and get a horse, then," Lone advised. "They're all gentle. Al's mounted, remember. He's maybe gone over to the Sawtooth, and that's farther than you can walk."
"I can walk all day and all night, when I need to go like that. I can take short cuts that a horse can't take. I think I shall go on my own legs."
"Well, I'm going down to the house first. I know them two men riding down to the gate. I want to see what the boss and Hawkins have got to say about this last 'accident.' Better come on down, Swan. You might pick up something. They're heading for the ranch, all right. Going to make a play at being neighborly, I reckon."
"You bet I want to see Warfield," Swan assented rather eagerly and called Jack, who had nosed around the spot where Al had waited so long and was now trotting along the ridge on the next lap of Al's journey.
They reached the gate in time to meet Warfield and Hawkins face to face. Hawkins gave Lone a quick, questioning look and nodded carelessly to Swan. Warfield, having a delicate errand to perform and knowing how much depended upon first impressions, pulled up eagerly when he recognized Lone.
"Has the girl arrived safely, Lone?" he asked anxiously.
"What girl?" Lone looked at him noncommittally.
"Miss—ah—Hunter. Have you been away all the forenoon? The girl came to the ranch in such a condition that I was afraid she might do herself or some one else an injury. Has she been unbalanced for long?"
"If you mean Lorraine Hunter, she was all right last time I saw her, and that was last night." Lone's eyes narrowed a little as he watched the two. "You say she went to the Sawtooth?"
"She came pelting over there crazier than when you brought her in," Hawkins broke in gruffly. "She ain't safe going around alone like that."
Senator Warfield glanced at him impatiently. "Is there any truth in her declaring that Frank Johnson is dead? She seemed to have had a shock of some kind. She was raving crazy, and in her rambling talk she said something about Frank Johnson having died last night."
Lone glanced back as he led the way through the gate which Swan was holding open. "He didn't die—he got killed last night," he corrected.
"Killed! And how did that happen? It was impossible to get two coherent sentences out of the girl." Senator Warfield rode through just behind Lone and reined close, lowering his voice. "No use in letting this get out," he said confidentially. "It may be that the girl's dementia is some curable nervous disorder, and you know what an injustice it would be if it became noised around that the girl is crazy. How much English does that Swede know?"
"Not any more than he needs to get along on," Lone answered, instinctively on guard. "He's all right—just a good-natured kinda cuss that wouldn't harm anybody."
He glanced uneasily at the house, hoping that Lorraine was safe inside, yet fearing that she would not be safe anywhere. Sane or insane, she was in danger if Senator Warfield considered her of sufficient importance to bring him out on horseback to the Quirt ranch. Lone knew how seldom the owner of the Sawtooth rode on horseback since he had high-powered cars to carry him in soft comfort.
"I'll go see if she's home," Lone explained, and reined John Doe toward the house.
"I'll go with you," Senator Warfield offered suavely and kept alongside. "Frank Johnson was killed, you say? How did it happen?"
"Fell off his wagon and broke his neck," Lone told him laconically. "Brit's pretty sick yet; I don't guess you'd better go inside. There's been a lot of excitement already for the old man. He only sees folks he's used to having around."
With that he dismounted and went into the house, leaving Senator Warfield without an excuse for following. Swan and Hawkins came up and waited with him, and Jim opened the door of the bunk-house and looked out at them without showing enough interest to come forward and speak to them.
In a few minutes Lone returned, to find Senator Warfield trying to glean information from Swan, who seemed willing enough to give it if only he could find enough English words to form a complete sentence. Swan, then, had availed himself of Lone's belittlement of him and was living down to it. But Lone gave him scant attention just then.
"She hasn't come back. Brit's worked himself up into a fever, and I didn't dare tell him she wasn't with me. I said she's all tired out and sick and wanted to stay up by the spring awhile, where it's cool. I said she was with me, and the sun was too much for her, and she sent him word that Jim would take care of him awhile longer. So you better move down this way, or he'll hear us talking and want to know what's up."
"You're sure she isn't here?" Senator Warfield's voice held suspicion.
"You can ask Jim, over here. He's been on hand right along. And if you can't take his word for it, you can go look in the shack—but in that case Brit's liable to take a shot at yuh, Senator. He's on the warpath right, and he's got his gun right handy."
"It is not necessary to search the cabin," Senator Warfield answered stiffly. "Unless she is in a stupor we'd have heard her yelling long ago. The girl was a raving maniac when she appeared at the Sawtooth. It's for her good that I'm thinking."
Jim stepped out of the doorway and came slowly toward them, eyeing the two from the Sawtooth curiously while he chewed tobacco. His hands rested on his hips, his thumbs hooked inside his overalls; a gawky pose that fitted well his colorless personality,—and left his right hand close to his six-shooter.
"Cor'ner comin'?" he asked, nodding at the two who were almost strangers to him. "Sorry, he got back two hours ago, and he said the cor'ner would be right out. But he ain't showed up yet."
Senator Warfield said that he felt sure the coroner would be prompt and then questioned Jim artfully about "Miss Hunter."
"Raine? She went fer a ride. I loaned her my horse, and she ain't back yet. I told her to take a good long ride and settle her nerves. She acted kinda edgy."
Senator Warfield and his foreman exchanged glances for which Lone could have killed them.
"You noticed, then, that she was not quite—herself?" Senator Warfield used his friendly, confidential tone on Jim.
"We-ell—yes, I did. I thought a ride would do her good, mebby. She's been sticking here on the job purty close. And Frank getting killed kinda—upset her, I guess."
"That's it—that's what I was saying. Disordered nerves, which rest and proper medical care will soon remedy." He looked at Lone. "Her horse was worn out when she reached the ranch. Does she know this country well? She started this way, and she should have been here some time ago. We thought it best to ride after her, but there was some delay in getting started. Hawkins' horse broke away and gave us some trouble catching him, so the girl had quite a start. But with her horse fagged as it was, we had no idea that we would fail to get even a sight of her. She may have wandered off on some other trail, in which case her life as well as her reason is in danger."
Lone did not answer at once. It had occurred to him that Senator Warfield knew where Lorraine was at that minute, and that he might be showing this concern for the effect it would have on his hearers. He looked at him speculatively.
"Do you think we ought to get out and hunt for her?" he asked.
"I certainly think some one ought to. We can't let her wander around the country in that condition. If she is not here, she is somewhere in the hills, and she should be found."
"She sure ain't here," Jim asserted convincingly. "I been watching for the last two hours, expecting every minute she'd show up. I'd a been kinda oneasy, myself, but Snake's dead gentle, and she's a purty fair rider fer a girl."
"Then we'll have to find her. Lone, can you come and help?"
"The Swede and me'll both help," Lone volunteered. "Jim and Sorry can wait here for the coroner. We ought to find her without any trouble, much. Swan, I'll get you that tobacco first and see if Brit needs anything."
He started to the house, and Swan followed him aimlessly, his long strides bringing him close to Lone before they reached the door.
"What do you make of this new play?" Lone muttered cautiously when he saw Swan's shadow move close to his own.
"By golly, it's something funny about it. You stick with them, Loney, and find out. I'm taking Al's trail with Yack. You fix it." And he added whimsically, "Not so much tobacco, Lone. I don't eat it or smoke it ever in my life."
His voice was very Swedish, which was fortunate, because Senator Warfield appeared softly behind him and went into the house. Swan was startled, but he hadn't much time to worry over the possibility of having been overheard. Brit's voice rose in a furious denunciation of Bill Warfield, punctuated by two shots and followed almost immediately by the senator.
"My God, the whole family's crazy!" Warfield exclaimed, when he had reached the safety of the open air. "You're right, Lone. I thought I'd be neighborly enough to ask what I could do for him, and he tried to kill me!"
Lone merely grunted and gave Swan the tobacco.
"I THINK AL WOODRUFF'S GOT HER"
There was no opportunity for further conference. Senator Warfield showed no especial interest in Swan, and the Swede was permitted without comment to take his dog and strike off up the ridge. Jim and Sorry were sent to look after Brit, who was still shouting vain threats against the Sawtooth, and the three men rode away together. Warfield did not suggest separating, though Lone expected him to do so, since one man on a trail was as good as three in a search of this kind.
He was still inclined to doubt the whole story. He did not believe that Lorraine had been to the Sawtooth, or that she had raved about anything. She had probably gone off by herself to cry and to worry over her troubles,—hurt, too, perhaps, because Lone had left the ranch that morning without a word with her first. He believed the story of her being insane had been carefully planned, and that Warfield had perhaps ridden over in the hope that they would find her alone; though with Frank dead on the ranch that would be unlikely. But to offset that, Lone's reason told him that Warfield had probably not known that Frank was dead. That had been news to him—or had it? He tried to remember whether Warfield had mentioned it first and could not. Too many disturbing emotions had held him lately; Lone was beginning to feel the need of a long, quiet pondering over his problems. He did not feel sure of anything except the fact that the Quirt was like a drowning man struggling vainly against the whirlpool that is sucking him slowly under.
One thing he knew, and that was his determination to stay with these two of the Sawtooth until he had some definite information; until he saw Lorraine or knew that she was safe from them. Like a weight pressing harder and harder until one is crushed beneath it, their talk of Lorraine's insanity forced fear into his soul. They could do just what they had talked of doing. He himself had placed that weapon in their hands when he took her to the Sawtooth delirious and told of wilder words and actions. Hawkins and his wife would swear away her sanity if they were told to do it, and there were witnesses in plenty who had heard him call her crazy that first morning.
They could do it; they could have her committed to an asylum, or at least to a sanitarium. He did not underestimate the influence of Senator Warfield. And what could the Quirt do to prevent the outrage? Frank Johnson was dead; Brit was out of the fight for the time being; Jim and Sorry were the doggedly faithful sort who must have a leader before they can be counted upon to do much.
Swan,—Lone lifted his head and glanced toward the ridge when he thought of Swan. There, indeed, he might hope for help. But Swan was out here, away from reinforcements. He was trailing Al Woodruff, and when he found him,—that might be the end of Swan. If not, Warfield could hurry Lorraine away before Swan could act in the matter. A whimsical thought of Swan's telepathic miracle crossed his mind and was dismissed as an unseemly bit of foolery in a matter so grave as Lorraine's safety. And yet—the doctor had received a message that he was wanted at the Quirt, and he had arrived before his patient. There was no getting around that, however impossible it might be. No one could have foreseen Brit's accident; no one save the man who had prepared it for him, and he would be the last person to call for help.
"We followed the girl's horse-tracks almost to Thurman's place and lost the trail there." Warfield turned in the saddle to look at Lone riding behind him. "We made no particular effort to trace her from there, because we were sure she would come on home. I'm going back that far, and we'll pick up the trail, unless we find her at the ranch. She may have hidden herself away. You can't," he added, "be sure of anything where a demented person is concerned. They never act according to logic or reason, and it is impossible to make any deductions as to their probable movements."
Lone nodded, not daring to trust his tongue with speech just then. If he were to protect Lorraine later on, he knew that he must not defend her now.
"Hawkins told me she had some sort of hallucination that she had seen a man killed at Rock City, when she was wandering around in that storm," Warfield went on in a careless, gossipy tone. "Just what was that about, Lone? You're the one who found her and took her in to the ranch, I believe. She somehow mixed her delusion up with Fred Thurman, didn't she?"
Lone made a swift decision. He was afraid to appear to hesitate, so he laughed his quiet little chuckle while he scrambled mentally for a plausible lie.
"I don't know as she done that, quite," he drawled humorously. "She was out of her head, all right, and talking wild, but I laid it to her being sick and scared. She said a man was shot, and that she saw it happen. And right on top of that she said she didn't think they ought to stage a murder and a thunderstorm in the same scene, and thought they ought to save the thunder and lightning for the murderer to make his getaway by. She used to work for the moving pictures, and she was going on about some wild-west picture she thought she was acting a part in.
"Afterwards I told her what she'd been saying, and she seemed to kinda remember it, like a bad dream she'd had. She told me she thought the villain in one of the plays she acted in had pulled off a stage murder in them rocks. We figured it out together that the first crack of thunder had sounded like shooting, and that's what started her off. She hadn't ever been in a real thunderstorm before, and she's scared of them. I know that one we had the other day like to of scared her into hysterics. I laughed at her and joshed her out of it."
"Didn't she ever say anything about Fred Thurman, then?" Warfield persisted.
"Not to me, she didn't. Fred was dragged that night, and if she heard about a man being killed during that same storm, she might have said something about it. She might have wondered if that was what she saw. I don't know. She's pretty sensible—when she ain't crazy."
Warfield turned his horse, as if by accident, so that he was brought face to face with Lone. His eyes searched Lone's face pitilessly.
"Lone, you know how ugly a story can grow if it's left alone. Do you believe that girl actually saw a man shot? Or do you think she was crazy?"
Lone met Warfield's eyes fairly. "I think she was plumb out of her head," he answered. And he added with just the right degree of hesitation: "I don't think she's what you'd call right crazy, Mr. Warfield. Lots of folks go outa their heads and talk crazy when they get a touch of fever, and they get over it again."
"Let's have a fair understanding," Warfield insisted. "Do you think I am justified in the course I am taking, or don't you?"
"Hunting her up? Sure, I do! If you and Hawkins rode on home, I'd keep on hunting till I located her. If she's been raving around like you say, she's in no shape to be riding these hills alone. She's got to be taken care of."
Warfield gave him another sharp scrutiny and rode on. "I always prefer to deal in the open with every one," he averred. "It may not be my affair, strictly speaking. The Quirt and the Sawtooth aren't very intimate. But the Quirt's having trouble enough to warrant any one in lending a hand; and common humanity demands that I take charge of the girl until she is herself again."
"I don't know as any one would question that," Lone assented and ground his teeth afterwards because he must yield even the appearance of approval. He knew that Warfield must feel himself in rather a desperate position, else he would never trouble to make his motives so clear to one of his men. Indeed, Warfield had protested his unselfishness in the matter too much and too often to have deceived the dullest man who owned the slightest suspicion of him. Lone could have smiled at the sight of Senator Warfield betraying himself so, had smiling been possible to him then.
He dropped behind the two at the first rough bit of trail and felt stealthily to test the hanging of his six-shooter, which he might need in a hurry. Those two men would never lay their hands on Lorraine Hunter while he lived to prevent it. He did not swear it to himself; he had no need.
They rode on to Fred Thurman's ranch, dismounted at Warfield's suggestion—which amounted to a command—and began a careful search of the premises. If Warfield had felt any doubt of Lone's loyalty he appeared to have dismissed it from his mind, for he sent Lone to the stable to search there, while he and Hawkins went into the house. Lone guessed that the two felt the need of a private conference after their visit to the Quirt, but he could see no way to slip unobserved to the house and eavesdrop, so he looked perfunctorily through all the sheds and around the depleted haystacks,—wherever a person could find a hiding place. He was letting himself down through the manhole in the stable loft when Swan's voice, lowered almost to a whisper, startled him.
"What the hell!" Lone ejaculated under his breath. "I thought you were on another trail!"
"That trail leads here, Lone. Did you find Raine yet?"
"Not a sign of her. Swan, I don't know what to make of it. I did think them two were stalling. I thought they either hadn't seen her at all, or had got hold of her and were trying to square themselves on the insanity dodge. But if they know where she is, they're acting damn queer, Swan. They want her. They haven't got her yet."
"They're in the house," Swan reassured Lone. "I heard them walking. You don't think they've got her there, Lone?"
"If they have," gritted Lone, "they made the biggest blunder of their lives bringing me over here. No, I could see they wanted to get off alone and hold a powwow. They expected she'd be at the Quirt."
"I think Al Woodruff, he's maybe got her, then," Swan declared, after studying the matter briefly. "All the way he follows the trail over here, Lone. I could see you sometimes in the trail. He was keeping hid from the trail—I think because Raine was riding along, this morning, and he's following. The tracks are that old."
"They said they had trailed Raine this far, coming from the Sawtooth," Lone told him worriedly. "What do you think Al would want——"
"Don't she see him shoot Fred Thurman? By golly, I'm scared for that girl, Loney!"
Lone stared at him. "He wouldn't dare!"
"A coward is a brave man when you scare him bad enough," Swan stated flatly. "I'm careful always when I corner a coward."
"Al ain't a coward. You've got him wrong."
"Maybe, but he kills like a coward would kill, and he's scared he will be caught. Warfield, he's scared, too. You watch him, Lone.
"Now I tell you what I do. Yack, he picks up the trail from here to where you can follow easy. We know two places where he didn't go with her, and from here is two more trails he could take. But one goes to the main road, and he don't take that one, I bet you. I think he takes that girl up Spirit Canyon, maybe. It's woods and wild country in a few miles, and plenty of places to hide, and good chances for getting out over the top of the divide.
"I'm going to my cabin, and you don't say anything when I leave. Warfield, he don't want the damn Swede hanging around. So you go with them, Loney. This is to what you call a show-down."
"We'll want the dog," Lone told him, but Swan shook his head. Hawkins and Warfield had come from the house and were approaching the stable. Swan looked at Lone, and Lone went forward to meet them.
"The Swede followed along on the ridge, and he didn't see anything," he volunteered, before Warfield could question him. "We might put his dog on the trail and see which way she went from here."
Warfield thought that a good idea. He was so sure that Lorraine must be somewhere within a mile or two of the place that he seemed to think the search was practically over when Jack, nosing out the trail of Al Woodruff, went trotting toward Spirit Canyon.
"Took the wrong turn after she left the corrals here," Warfield commented relievedly. "She wouldn't get far, up this way."
"There's the track of two horses," Hawkins said abruptly. "That there is the girl's horse, all right—there's a hind shoe missing. We saw where her horse had cast a shoe, coming over Juniper Ridge. But there's another horse track."
Lone bit his lip. It was the other horse that Jack had been trailing so long. "There was a loose horse hanging around Thurman's place," he said casually. "It's him, tagging along, I reckon."
"Oh," said Hawkins. "That accounts for it."
SWAN CALLS FOR HELP
Past the field where the horses were grazing and up the canyon on the side toward Skyline Meadow, that lay on a shoulder of Bear Top, the dog nosed unfalteringly along the trail. Now and then he was balked when the hoofprints led him to the bank of Granite Creek, but not for long. Jack appeared to understand why his trailing was interrupted and sniffed the bank until he picked up the scent again.
"Wonder if she changed off and rode that loose horse," Hawkins said once, when the tracks were plain in the soft soil of the creek bank. "She might, and lead that horse she was on."
"She wouldn't know enough. She's a city girl," Lone replied, his heart heavy with fear for Lorraine.
"Well, she ain't far off then," Hawkins comforted himself. "Her horse acted about played out when she hit the ranch. She had him wet from his ears to his tail, and he was breathin' like that Ford at the ranch. If that's a sample of her riding, she ain't far off."
"Crazy—to ride up here. Keep your eyes open, boys. We must find her, whatever we do." Warfield gazed apprehensively at the rugged steeps on either hand and at the timber line above them. "From here on she couldn't turn back without meeting us—if I remember this country correctly. Could she, Hawkins?"
"Not unless she turned off, up here a mile or two, into that gulch that heads into Skyline," said Hawkins. "There's a stock trail part way down from the top where it swings off from the divide to Wilder Creek."
Swan, walking just behind Hawkins, moved up a pace.
"I could go on Skyline with Yack, and I could come down by those trail," he suggested diffidently, Swedishly, yet with a certain compelling confidence. "What you think?"
"I think that's a damned good idea for a square head," Hawkins told him, and repeated it to Warfield, who was riding ahead.
"Why, yes. We don't need the dog, or the man either. Go up to the head of the gulch and keep your eyes open, Swan. We'll meet you up here. You know the girl, don't you?"
"Yas, Ay know her pretty good," grinned Swan.
"Well, don't frighten her. Don't let her see that you think anything is wrong—and don't say anything about us. We made the mistake of discussing her condition within her hearing, and it is possible that she understood enough of what we were saying to take alarm. You understand? Don't tell girl she's crazy." He tapped his head to make his meaning plainer. "Don't tell girl we're looking for her. You understand?"
"Yas, Ay know English pretty good. Ay don't tell too moch." His cheerful smile brought a faint response from Senator Warfield. At Lone he did not look at all. "I go quick. I'm good climber like a sheep," he boasted, and whistling to Jack, he began working his way up a rough, brush-scattered ledge to the slope above.
Lone watched him miserably, wishing that Swan was not quite so matter of fact in his man-chasing. If Al Woodruff, for some reason which Lone could not fathom, had taken Lorraine and forced her to go with him into the wilderness, Warfield and Hawkins would be his allies the moment they came up with him. Lone was no coward, but neither was he a fool. Hawkins had never distinguished himself as a fighter, but Lone had gleaned here and there a great deal of information about Senator Warfield in the old days when he had been plain Bill. When Lorraine and Al were overtaken, then Lone would need to show the stuff that was in him. He only hoped he would have time, and that luck would be with him.
"If they get me, it'll be all off with her," he worried, as he followed the two up the canyon. "Swan would have been a help. But he thinks more of catching Al than he does of helping Raine."
He looked up and saw that already Swan was halfway up the canyon's steep side, making his way through the brush with more speed than Lone could have shown on foot in the open, unless he ran. The sight heartened Lone a little. Swan might have some plan of his own,—an ambush, possibly. If he would only keep along within rifle shot and remain hidden, he would show real brains, Lone thought. But Swan, when Lone looked up again, was climbing straight away from the little searching party; and even though he seemed tireless on foot, he could not perform miracles.
Swan, however, was not troubling himself over what Lone would think, or even what Warfield was thinking. Contrary to Lone's idea of him, Swan was tired, and he was thinking a great deal about Lorraine, and very little about Al Woodruff, except as Al was concerned with Lorraine's welfare. Swan had made a mistake, and he was humiliated over his blunder. Al had kept himself so successfully in the background while Lone's peculiar actions had held his attention, that Swan had never considered Al Woodruff as the killer. Now he blamed himself for Frank's death. He had been watching Lone, had been baffled by Lone's consistent kindness toward the Quirt, by the force of his personality which held none of the elements of cold-blooded murder. He had believed that he had the Sawtooth killer under observation, and he had been watching and waiting for evidence that would impress a grand jury. And all the while he had let Al Woodruff ride free and unsuspected.
The one stupid thing, in Swan's opinion, which he had not done was to let Lone go on holding his tongue. He had forced the issue that morning. He had wanted to make Lone talk, had hoped for a weakening and a confession. Instead he had learned a good deal which he should have known before.
As he forged up the slope across the ridged lip of the canyon, his one immediate object was speed. Up the canyon and over the divide on the west shoulder of Bear Top was a trail to the open country beyond. It was perfectly passable, as Swan knew; he had packed in by that trail when he located his homestead on Bear Top. That is why he had his cabin up and was living in it before the Sawtooth discovered his presence.
Al, he believed, was making for Bear Top Pass. Once down the other side he would find friends to lend him fresh horses. Swan had learned something of these friends of the Sawtooth, and he could guess pretty accurately how far some of them would go in their service. Fresh horses for Al, food—perhaps even a cabin where he could hide Lorraine away—were to be expected from any one of them, once Al was over the divide.
Swan glanced up at the sun, saw that it was dropping to late afternoon and started in at a long, loose-jointed trot across the mountain meadow called Skyline. A few pines, with scattered clumps of juniper and fir, dotted the long, irregular stretch of grassland which formed the meadow. Range cattle were feeding here and there, so wild they lifted heads to stare at the man and dog, then came trotting forward, their curiosity unabated by the fact that they had seen these two before.
Jack looked up at his master, looked at the cattle and took his place at Swan's heels. Swan shouted and flung his arms, and the cattle ducked, turned and galloped awkwardly away. Swan's trot did not slacken. His rifle swung rhythmically in his right hand, the muzzle tilted downward. Beads of perspiration on his forehead had merged into tiny rivulets on his cheeks and dripped off his clean-lined, square jaw. Still he ran, his breath unlabored yet coming in whispery aspirations from his great lungs.
The full length of Skyline Meadow he ran, jumping the small beginning of Wilder Creek with one great leap that scarcely interrupted the beautiful rhythm of his stride. At the far end of the clearing, snuggled between two great pines that reached high into the blue, his squatty cabin showed red-brown against the precipitous shoulder of Bear Top peak, covered thick with brush and scraggy timber whipped incessantly by the wind that blew over the mountain's crest.
At the door Swan stopped and examined the crude fastening of the door; made himself certain, by private marks of his own, that none had entered in his absence, and went in with a great sigh of satisfaction. It was still broad daylight, though the sun's rays slanted in through the window; but Swan lighted a lantern that hung on a nail behind the door, carried it across the neat little room, and set it down on the floor beside the usual pioneer cupboard made simply of clean boxes nailed bottom against the wall. Swan had furnished a few extra frills to his cupboard, for the ends of the boxes were fastened to hewn slabs standing upright and just clearing the floor. Near the upper shelf a row of nails held Swan's coffee cups,—four of them, thick and white, such as cheap restaurants use.
Swan hooked a finger over the nail that held a cracked cup and glanced over his shoulder at Jack, sitting in the doorway with his keen nose to the world.
"You watch out now, Yack. I shall talk to my mother with my thoughts," he said, drawing a hand across his forehead and speaking in breathless gasps. "You watch."
For answer Jack thumped his tail on the dirt floor and sniffed the breeze, taking in his overlapping tongue while he did so. He licked his lips, looked over his shoulder at Swan, and draped his pink tongue down over his lower jaw again.
"All right, now I talk," said Swan and pulled upon the nail in his fingers.
The cupboard swung toward him bodily, end slabs and all. He picked up the lantern, stepped over the log sill and pulled the cupboard door into place again.
Inside the dugout Swan set the lantern on a table, dropped wearily upon a rough bench before it and looked at the jars beside him, lifted his hand and opened a compact, but thoroughly efficient field wireless "set." His right fingers dropped to the key, and the whining drone of the wireless rose higher and higher as he tuned up. He reached for his receivers, ducked his head and adjusted them with one hand, and sent a call spitting tiny blue sparks from the key under his fingers.