HotFreeBooks.com
The Quirt
by B.M. Bower
Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse

He waited, repeating the call. His blue eyes clouded with anxiety and he fumbled the adjustments, coaxing the current into perfect action before he called again. Answer came, and Swan bent over the table, listening, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the opposite wall of the dugout. Then, his fingers flexing delicately, swiftly, he sent the message that told how completely his big heart matched the big body:

"Send doctor and trained nurse to Quirt ranch at once. Send men to Bear Top Pass, intercept man with young woman, or come to rescue if he don't cross. Have three men here with evidence to convict if we can save the girl who is valuable witness. Girl being abducted in fear of what she can tell. They plan to charge her with insanity. Urgent. Hurry. Come ready to fight.

"S.V."

Swan had a code, but codes require a little time in the composition of a message, and time was the one thing he could not waste. He heard the gist of the message repeated to him, told the man at the other station that lives were at stake, and threw off the current.



CHAPTER TWENTY

KIDNAPPED

Lorraine had once had a nasty fall from riding down hill at a gallop. She remembered that accident and permitted Snake to descend Granite Ridge at a walk, which was fortunate, since it gave the horse a chance to recover a little from the strain of the terrific pace at which she had ridden him that morning. At first it had been fighting fury that had impelled her to hurry; now it was fear that drove her homeward where Lone was, and Swan, and that stolid, faithful Jim. She felt that Senator Warfield would never dare to carry out his covert threat, once she reached home. Nevertheless, the threat haunted her, made her glance often over her shoulder.

At the Thurman ranch, which she was passing with a sickening memory of the night when she and Swan had carried her father there, Al Woodruff rode out suddenly from behind the stable and blocked the trail, his six-shooter in his hand, his face stony with determination. Lorraine afterwards decided that he must have seen or heard her coming down the ridge and had waited for her there. He smiled with his lips when she pulled up Snake with a startled look.

"You're in such a hurry this morning that I thought the only way to get a chance to talk to you was to hold you up," he said, in much the same tone he had used that day at the ranch.

"I don't see why you want to talk to me," Lorraine retorted, not in the least frightened at the gun, which was too much like her movie West to impress her much. But her eyes widened at the look in his face, and she tried to edge away from him without seeming to do so.

Al stopped her by the simple method of reaching out his left hand and catching Snake by the cheek-piece of the bridle. "You don't have to see why," he said. "I've been thinking a lot about you lately. I've made up my mind that I've got to have you with me—always. This is kinda sudden, maybe, but that's the way the game runs, sometimes. Now, I want to tell yuh one or two things that's for your own good. One is that I'll have my way, or die getting it. Don't be scared; I won't hurt you. But if you try to break away, I'll shoot you, that's all. I'm going to marry you, see, first. Then I'll make love to you afterwards. I ain't asking you if you'll marry me. You're going to do it, or I'll kill you."

Lorraine gazed at him fascinated, too astonished to attempt any move toward escape. Al's hand slipped from the bridle down to the reins, and still holding Snake, still holding the gun muzzle toward her, still looking her straight in the eyes, he threw his right leg over the cantle of his saddle and stepped off his horse.

"Put your other hand on the saddle horn," he directed. "I ain't going to hurt you if you're good."

He twitched his neckerchief off—Lorraine saw that it was untied, and that he must have planned all this—and with it he tied her wrists to the saddle horn. She gave Snake a kick in the ribs, but Al checked the horse's first start and Snake was too tired to dispute a command to stand still. Al put up his gun, pulled a hunting knife from a little scabbard in his boot, sliced two pairs of saddle strings from Lorraine's saddle, calmly caught and held her foot when she tried to kick him, pushed the foot back into the stirrup and tied it there with one of the leather strings. Just as if he were engaged in an everyday proceeding, he walked around Snake and tied Lorraine's right foot; then, to prevent her from foolishly throwing herself from the horse and getting hurt, he tied the stirrups together under the horse's belly.

"Now, if you'll be a good girl, I'll untie your hands," he said, glancing up into her face. He freed her hands, and Lorraine immediately slapped him in the face and reached for his gun. But Al was too quick for her. He stepped back, picked up Snake's reins and mounted his own horse. He looked back at her appraisingly, saw her glare of hatred and grinned at it, while he touched his horse with the spurs and rode away, leading Snake behind him.

Lorraine said nothing until Al, riding at a lope, passed the field at the mouth of Spirit Canyon where the blaze-faced roan still fed with the others. They were feeding along the creek quite close to the fence, and the roan walked toward them. The sight of it stirred Lorraine out of her dumb horror.

"You killed Fred Thurman! I saw you," she cried suddenly.

"Well, you ain't going to holler it all over the country," Al flung back at her over his shoulder. "When you're married to me, you'll come mighty close to keeping your mouth shut about it."

"I'll never marry you! You—you fiend! Do you think I'd marry a cold-blooded murderer like you?"

Al turned in the saddle and looked at her intently. "If I'm all that," he told her coolly, "you can figure out about what'll happen to you if you don't marry me. If you saw what I done to Fred Thurman, what do you reckon I'd do to you?" He looked at her for a minute, shrugged his shoulders and rode on, crossing the creek and taking a trail which Lorraine did not know. Much of the time they traveled in the water, though it slowed their pace. Where the trail was rocky, they took it and made better time.

Snake lagged a little on the upgrades, but he was well trained to lead and gave little trouble. Lorraine thought longingly of Yellowjacket and his stubbornness and tried to devise some way of escape. She could not believe that fate would permit Al Woodruff to carry out such a plan. Lone would overtake them, perhaps,—and then she remembered that Lone would have no means of knowing which way she had gone. If Hawkins and Senator Warfield came after them, her plight would be worse than ever. Still, she decided that she must risk that danger and give Lone a clue.

She dropped a glove beside the trail, where it lay in plain sight of any one following them. But presently Al looked over his shoulder, saw that one of her hands was bare, and tied Snake's reins to his saddle and his own horse to a bush. Then he went back down the trail until he found the glove. He put it into his pocket, came silently up to Lorraine and pulled off her other glove. Without a word he took her wrists in a firm clasp, tied them together again to the saddle horn, pulled off her tie, her hat, and the pins from her hair.

"I guess you don't know me yet," he remarked dryly, when he had confiscated every small article which she could let fall as she rode. "I was trying to treat yuh white, but you don't seem to appreciate it. Now you can ride hobbled, young lady."

"Oh, I could kill you!" Lorraine whispered between set teeth.

"You mean you'd like to. Well, I ain't going to give you a chance." His eyes rested on her face with a new expression; an awakening desire for her, an admiration for the spirit that would not let her weep and plead with him.

"Say! you ain't going to be a bit hard to marry," he observed, his eyes lighting with what was probably his nearest approach to tenderness. "I kinda wish you liked me, now I've got you."

He shook her arm and laughed when she turned her face away from him, then remounted his horse. Snake moved reluctantly when Al started on. Lorraine felt hope slipping from her. With her hands tied, she could do nothing at all save sit there and ride wherever Al Woodruff chose to lead her horse. He seemed to be making for the head of Spirit Canyon, on the side toward Bear Top.

As they climbed higher, she could catch glimpses of the road down which her father had driven almost to his death. She studied Al's back as he rode before her and wondered if he could really be cold-blooded enough to kill without compunction whoever he was told to kill, whether he had any personal quarrel with his victim or not. Certainly he had had no quarrel with her father, or with Frank.

It was long past noon, and she was terribly hungry and very thirsty, but she would not tell Al her wants if she starved. She tried to guess at his plans and at his motive for taking her away like this. He had no camping outfit, a bulkily rolled slicker forming his only burden. He could not, then, be planning to take her much farther into the wilderness; yet if he did not hide her away, how could he expect to keep her? His motive for marrying her was rather mystifying. He did not seem sufficiently in love with her to warrant an abduction, and he was too cool for such a headlong action, unless driven by necessity. She wondered what he was thinking about as he rode. Not about her, she guessed, except when some bad place in the trail made it necessary for him to stop, tie Snake to the nearest bush, lead his own horse past the obstruction and come back after her. Several times this was necessary. Once he took the time to examine the thongs on her ankles, apparently wishing to make sure that she was not uncomfortable. Once he looked up into her sullenly distressed face and said, "Tired?" in a humanly sympathetic tone that made her blink back the tears. She shook her head and would not look at him. Al regarded her in silence for a minute, led Snake to his own horse, mounted and rode on.

He was a murderer; he had undoubtedly killed many men. He would kill her if she attempted to escape—"and he could not catch me," Lorraine was just enough to add. Yet she felt baffled; cheated of the full horror of being kidnapped.

She had no knowledge of a bad man who was human in spots without being repentant. For love of a girl, she had been taught to believe, the worst outlaw would weep over his past misdeeds, straighten his shoulders, look to heaven for help and become a self-sacrificing hero for whom audiences might be counted upon to shed furtive tears.

Al Woodruff, however, did not love her. His eyes had once or twice softened to friendliness, but love was not there. Neither was repentance there. He seemed quite satisfied with himself, quite ready to commit further crimes for sake of his own safety or desire. He was hard, she decided, but he was not unnecessarily harsh; cruel, without being wantonly brutal. He was, in short, the strangest man she had ever seen.



CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

"OH, I COULD KILL YOU!"

Before sundown they reached the timberland on Bear Top. The horses slipped on the pine needles when Al left the trail and rode up a gentle incline where the trees grew large and there was little underbrush. It was very beautiful, with the slanting sun-rays painting broad yellow bars across the gloom of the forest. In a little while they reached the crest of that slope, and Lorraine, looking back, could only guess at where the trail wound on among the trees lower down.

Birds called companionably from the high branches above them. A nesting grouse flew chuttering out from under a juniper bush, alighted a short distance away and went limping and dragging one wing before them, cheeping piteously.

While Lorraine was wondering if the poor thing had hurt a leg in lighting, Al clipped its head off neatly with a bullet from his six-shooter, though Lorraine had not seen him pull the gun and did not know he meant to shoot. The bird's mate whirred up and away through the trees, and Lorraine was glad that it had escaped.

Al slid the gun back into his holster, leaned from his saddle and picked up the dead grouse as unconcernedly as he would have dismounted, pulled his knife from his boot and drew the bird neatly, flinging the crop and entrails from him.

"Them juniper berries tastes the meat if you don't clean 'em out right away," he remarked casually to Lorraine, as he wiped the knife on his trousers and thrust it back into the boot-scabbard before he tied the grouse to the saddle by its blue, scaley little feet.

When he was ready to go on, Snake refused to budge. Tough as he was, he had at last reached the limit of his energy and ambition. Al yanked hard on the bridle reins, then rode back and struck him sharply with his quirt before Snake would rouse himself enough to move forward. He went stiffly, reluctantly, pulling back until his head was held straight out before him. Al dragged him so for a rod or two, lost patience and returned to whip him forward again.

"What a brute you are!" Lorraine exclaimed indignantly. "Can't you see now tired he is?"

Al glanced at her from under his eyebrows. "He's all in, but he's got to make it," he said. "I've been that way myself—and made it. What I can do, a horse can do. Come on, you yella-livered bonehead!"

Snake went on, urged now and then by Al's quirt. Every blow made Lorraine wince, and she made the wincing perfectly apparent to Al, in the hope that he would take some notice of it and give her a chance to tell him what she thought of him without opening the conversation herself.

But Al did not say anything. When the time came—as even Lorraine saw that it must—when Snake refused to attempt a steep slope, Al still said nothing. He untied her ankles from the stirrups and her hands from the saddle horn, carried her in his arms to his own horse and compelled her to mount. Then he retied her exactly as she had been tied on Snake.

"Skinner knows this trail," he told Lorraine. "And I'm behind yuh with a gun. Don't forget that, Miss Spitfire. You let Skinner go to suit himself—and if he goes wrong, you pay, because it'll be you reining him wrong. Get along there, Skinner!"

Skinner got along in a businesslike way that told why Al Woodruff had chosen to ride him on this trip. He seemed to be a perfectly dependable saddle horse for a bandit to own. He wound in and out among the trees and boulders, stepping carefully over fallen logs; he thrust his nose out straight and laid back his ears and pushed his way through thickets of young pines; he went circumspectly along the edge of a deep gulch, climbed over a ridge and worked his way down the precipitous slope on the farther side, made his way around a thick clump of spruces and stopped in a little, grassy glade no bigger than a city lot, but with a spring gurgling somewhere near. Then he swung his head around and looked over his shoulder inquiringly at Al, who was coming behind, leading Snake.

Lorraine looked at him also, but Al did not say anything to her or to the horse. He let them stand there and wait while he unsaddled Snake, put a drag rope on him and led him to the best grazing. Then, coming back, he very matter-of-factly untied Lorraine and helped her off the horse. Lorraine was all prepared to fight, but she did not quite know how to struggle with a man who did not take hold of her or touch her, except to steady her in dismounting. Unconsciously she waited for a cue, and the cue was not given.

Al's mind seemed intent upon making Skinner comfortable. Still, he kept an eye on Lorraine, and he did not turn his back to her. Lorraine looked over to where Snake, too exhausted to eat, stood with drooping head and all four legs braced like sticks under him. It flashed across her mind that not even her old director would order her to make a run for that horse and try to get away on him. Snake looked as if he would never move from that position until he toppled over.

Al pulled the bridle off Skinner, gave him a half-affectionate slap on the rump, and watched him go off, switching his tail and nosing the ground for a likable place to roll. Al's glance went on to Snake, and from him to Lorraine.

"You sure do know how to ride hell out of a horse," he remarked. "Now he'll be stiff and sore to-morrow—and we've got quite a ride to make."

His tone of disapproval sent a guilty feeling through Lorraine, until she remembered that a slow horse might save her from this man who was all bad,—except, perhaps, just on the surface which was not altogether repellent. She looked around at the tiny basin set like a saucer among the pines. Already the dusk was painting deep shadows in the woods across the opening, and turning the sky a darker blue. Skinner rolled over twice, got up and shook himself with a satisfied snort and went away to feed. She might, if she were patient, run to the horse when Al's back was turned, she thought. Once in the woods she might have some chance of eluding him, and perhaps Skinner would show as much wisdom going as he had in coming, and take her down to the sageland.

But Skinner walked to the farther edge of the meadow before he stopped, and Al Woodruff never turned his back to a foe. An owl hooted unexpectedly, and Lorraine edged closer to her captor, who was gathering dead branches one by one and throwing them toward a certain spot which he had evidently selected for a campfire. He looked at her keenly, even suspiciously, and pointed with the stick in his left hand.

"You might go over there by the saddle and set down till I get a fire going," he said. "Don't go wandering around aimless, like a hen turkey, watching a chance to duck into the brush. There's bear in there and lion and lynx, and I'd hate to see you chawed. They never clean their toe-nails, and blood poison generally sets in where they leave a scratch. Go and set down."

Lorraine did not know how much of his talk was truth, but she went and sat down by his saddle and began braiding her hair in two tight braids like a squaw. If she did get a chance to run, she thought, she did not want her hair flying loose to catch on bushes and briars. She had once fled through a brush patch in Griffith Park with her hair flowing loose, and she had not liked the experience, though it had looked very nice on the screen.

Before she had finished the braiding, Al came over to the saddle and untied his slicker roll and the grouse.

"Come on over to the fire," he said. "I'll learn yuh a trick or two about camp cooking. If I'm goin' to keep yuh with me, you might just as well learn how to cook. We'll be on the trail the biggest part of our time, I expect."

He took her by the arm, just as any man might have done, and led her to the fire that was beginning to crackle cheerfully. He set her down on the side where the smoke would be least likely to blow her way and proceeded to dress the grouse, stripping off skin and feathers together. He unrolled the slicker and laid out a piece of bacon, a package of coffee, a small coffeepot, bannock and salt. The coffeepot and the grouse he took in one hand—his left, Lorraine observed—and started toward the spring which she could hear gurgling in the shadows amongst the trees.

Lorraine watched him sidelong. He seemed to take it for granted now that she would stay where she was. The woods were dark, the firelight and the warmth enticed her. The sight of the supper preparations made her hungrier than she had ever been in her life before. When one has breakfasted on one cup of coffee at dawn and has ridden all day with nothing to eat, running away from food, even though that food is in the hands of one's captor, requires courage. Lorraine was terribly tempted to stay, at least until she had eaten. But Al might not give her another chance like this. She crept on her knees to the slicker and seized one piece of bannock, crawled out of the firelight stealthily, then sprang to her feet and began running straight across the meadow toward Skinner.

Twenty yards she covered when a bullet sang over her head. Lorraine ducked, stumbled and fell headfirst over a hummock, not quite sure that she had not been shot.

"Thought maybe I could trust yuh to play square," Al said disgustedly, pulling her to her feet, the gun still smoking in his hands. "You little fool, what do you think you'd do in these hills alone? You sure enough belittle me, if you think you'd have a chance in a million of getting away from me!"

She fought him, then, with a great, inner relief that the situation was at last swinging around to a normal kidnapping. Still, Al Woodruff seemed unable to play his part realistically. He failed to fill her with fear and repulsion. She had to think back, to remember that he had killed men, in order to realize her own danger. Now, for instance, he merely forced her back to the campfire, pulled the saddle strings from his pocket and tied her feet together, using a complicated knot which he told her she might work on all she darn pleased, for all he cared. Then he went calmly to work cooking their supper.

This was simple. He divided the grouse so that one part had the meaty breast and legs, and the other the back and wings. The meaty part he larded neatly with strips of bacon, using his hunting knife,—which Lorraine watched fascinatedly, wondering if it had ever taken the life of a man. He skewered the meat on a green, forked stick and gave it to her to broil for herself over the hottest coals of the fire, while he made the coffee and prepared his own portion of the grouse.

Lorraine was hungry. She broiled the grouse carefully and ate it, with the exception of one leg, which she surprised herself by offering to Al, who was picking the bones of his own share down to the last shred of meat. She drank a cup of coffee, black, and returned the cup to the killer, who unconcernedly drank from it without any previous rinsing. She ate bannock with her meat and secretly thought what an adventure it would be if only it were not real,—if only she were not threatened with a forced marriage to this man. The primitive camp appealed to her; she who had prided herself upon being an outdoor girl saw how she had always played at being primitive. This was real. She would have loved it if only the man opposite were Lone, or Swan, or some one else whom she knew and trusted.

She watched the firelight dancing on Al's somber face, softening its hardness, making it almost wistful when he gazed thoughtfully into the coals. She thrilled when she saw how watchful he was, how he lifted his head and listened to every little night sound. She was afraid of him as she feared the lightning; she feared his pitiless attitude toward human life. She would find some way to outwit him when it came to the point of marrying him, she thought. She would escape him if she could without too great a risk of being shot. She felt absolutely certain that he would shoot her with as little compunction as he would marry her by force,—and it seemed to Lorraine that he would not greatly care which he did.

"I guess you're tired," Al said suddenly, rousing himself from deep study and looking at her imperturbably. "I'll fix yuh so you can sleep—and that's about all yuh can do."

He went over to his saddle, took the blanket and unfolded it until Lorraine saw that it was a full-size bed blanket of heavy gray wool. The man's ingenuity seemed endless. Without seeming to have any extra luggage, he had nevertheless carried a very efficient camp outfit with him. He took his hunting knife, went to the spruce grove and cut many small, green branches, returning with all he could hold in his arms. She watched him lay them tips up for a mattress, and was secretly glad that she knew this much at least of camp comfort. He spread the blanket over them and then, without a word, came over to her and untied her feet.

"Go and lay down on the blanket," he commanded.

"I'll do nothing of the kind!" Lorraine set her mouth stubbornly.

"Well, then I'll have to lay you down," said Al, lifting her to her feet. "If you get balky, I'm liable to get rough."

Lorraine drew away from him as far as she could and looked at him for a full minute. Al stared back into her eyes. "Oh, I could kill you!" cried Lorraine for the second time that day and threw herself down on the bed, sobbing like an angry child.

Al said nothing. The man's capacity for keeping still was amazing. He knelt beside her, folded the blanket over her from the two sides, and tied the corners around her neck snugly, the knot at the back. In the same way he tied her ankles. Lorraine found herself in a sleeping bag from which she had small hope of extricating herself. He took his coat, folded it compactly and pushed it under her head for a pillow; then he brought her own saddle blanket and spread it over her for extra warmth.

"Now stop your bawling and go to sleep," he advised her calmly. "You ain't hurt, and you ain't going to be as long as you gentle down and behave yourself."

She saw him draw the slicker over his shoulders and move back where the shadows were deep and she could not see him. She heard some animal squall in the woods behind them. She looked up at the stars,—millions of them, and brighter than she had ever seen them before. Insensibly she quieted, watching the stars, listening to the night noises, catching now and then a whiff of smoke from Al Woodruff's cigarette. Before she knew that she was sleepy, she slept.



CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

"YACK, I LICK YOU GOOD IF YOU BARK"

Swan cooked himself a hasty meal while he studied the various possibilities of the case and waited for further word from headquarters. He wanted to be sure that help had started and to be able to estimate within an hour or two the probable time of its arrival, before he left the wireless. Jack he fed and left on watch outside the cabin, so that he could without risk keep open the door to the dugout.

His instrument was not a large one, and the dugout door was thick,—as a precaution against discovery if he should be called when some visitor chanced to be in the cabin. Not often did a man ride that way, though occasionally some one stopped for a meal if he knew that the cabin was there and had ever tasted Swan's sour-dough biscuits. His aerial was cleverly camouflaged between the two pine trees, and he had no fear of discovery there; Jack was a faithful guardian and would give warning if any one approached the place. Swan could therefore give his whole attention to the business at hand.

He was not yet supplied with evidence enough to warrant arresting Warfield and Hawkins, but he hoped to get it when the real crisis came. They could not have known of Al Woodruff's intentions toward Lorraine, else they would have kept themselves in the background and would not have risked the failure of their own plan.

On the other hand, Al must have been wholly ignorant of Warfield's scheme to try and prove Lorraine crazy. It looked to Swan very much like a muddling of the Sawtooth affairs through over-anxiety to avoid trouble. They were afraid of what Lorraine knew. They wanted to eliminate her, and they had made the blunder of working independently to that end.

Lone's anxiety he did not even consider. He believed that Lone would be equal to any immediate emergency and would do whatever the circumstances seemed to require of him. Warfield counted him a Sawtooth man. Al Woodruff, if the four men met unexpectedly, would also take it for granted that he was one of them. They would probably talk to Lone without reserve,—Swan counted on that. Whereas, if he were present, they would be on their guard, at least.

Swan's plan was to wait at the cabin until he knew that deputies were headed toward the Pass. Then, with Jack, it would be a simple matter to follow Warfield to where he overtook Al,—supposing he did overtake him. If he did not, then Swan meant to be present when the meeting occurred. The dog would trail Al anywhere, since the scent would be less than twenty-four hours old. Swan would locate Warfield and lead him straight to Al Woodruff, and then make his arrests. But he wanted to have the deputies there.

At dusk he got his call. He learned that four picked men had started for the Pass, and that they would reach the divide by daybreak. Others were on their way to intercept Al Woodruff if he crossed before then.

It was all that Swan could have hoped for,—more than he had dared to expect on such short notice. He notified the operator that he would not be there to receive anything else, until he returned to report that he had got his men.

"Don't count your chickens till they're hatched," came facetiously out of the blue.

"By golly, I can hear them holler in the shell," Swan sent back, grinning to himself as he rattled the key. "That irrigation graft is killed now. You tell the boss Swan says so. He's right. The way to catch a fox is to watch his den."

He switched off the current, closed the case and went out, making sure that the cupboard-camouflaged door looked perfectly innocent on the outside. With a bannock stuffed into one pocket, a chunk of bacon in the other, he left the cabin and swung off again in that long, tireless stride of his, Jack following contentedly at his heels.

At the farther end of Skyline Meadow he stopped, took a tough leather leash from his pocket and fastened it to Jack's collar.

"We don't go running to paw nobody's stomach and say, 'Wow-wow! Here we are back again!'" he told the dog, pulling its ears affectionately. "Maybe we get shot or something like that. We trail, and we keep our mouth still, Yack. One bark, and I lick you good!"

Jack flashed out a pink tongue and licked his master's chin to show how little he was worried over the threat, and went racing along at the end of the leash, taking Swan's trail and his own back to where they had climbed out of the canyon.

At the bottom Swan spoke to the dog in an undertone, and Jack obediently started up the canyon on the trail of the five horses who had passed that way since noon. It was starlight now, and Swan did not hurry. He was taking it for granted that Warfield and Hawkins would stop when it became too dark to follow the hoofprints, and without Jack to show them the way they would perforce remain where they were until daybreak.

They would do that, he reasoned, if they were sincere in wanting to overtake Lorraine and in their ignorance that they were also following Al Woodruff. And try as he would, he could not see the object of so foolish a plan as this abduction carried out in collusion with two men of unknown sentiments in the party. They had shown no suspicion of Al's part in the affair, and Swan grinned when he thought of the mutual surprise when they met.

He was not disappointed. They reached timber line, following the seldom used trail that wound over the divide to Bear Top Pass and so, by a difficult route which he did not believe Al would attempt after dark, to the country beyond the mountain. Where dark overtook them, they stopped in a sheltered nook to wait, just as Swan had expected they would. They were close to the trail, where no one could pass without their knowledge.

In the belief that it was only Lorraine they were following, and that she would be frightened and would come to the cheer of a campfire, they had a fine, inviting blaze. Swan made his way as close as he dared, without being discovered, and sat down to wait. He could see nothing of the men until Lone appeared and fed the flames more wood, and sat down where the light shone on his face. Swan grinned again. Warfield had probably decided that Lorraine would be less afraid of Lone than of them and had ordered him into the firelight as a sort of decoy. And Lone, knowing that Al Woodruff might be within shooting distance, was probably much more uncomfortable than he looked.

He sat with his legs crossed in true range fashion and stared into the fire while he smoked. He was a fair mark for an enemy who might be lurking out there in the dark, but he gave no sign that he realized the danger of his position. Neither did he wear any air of expectancy. Warfield and Hawkins might wait and listen and hope that Lorraine, wide-eyed and weary, would steal up to the warmth of the fire; but not Lone.

Swan, sitting on a rotting log, became uneasy at the fine target which Lone made by the fire, and drew Al Woodruff's blue bandanna from his pocket. He held it to Jack's nose and whispered, "You find him, Yack—and I lick you good if you bark." Jack sniffed, dropped his nose to the ground and began tugging at the leash. Swan got up and, moving stealthily, followed the dog.



CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

"I COULDA LOVED THIS LITTLE GIRL"

A chill wind that hurried over Bear Top ahead of the dawn brought Swan and Jack clattering up the trail that dipped into Spirit Canyon. Warfield rose stiffly from the one-sided warmth of the fire and walked a few paces to meet him, shrugging his wide shoulders at the cold and rubbing his thigh muscles that protested against movement. Much riding upon upholstered cushions had not helped Senator Warfield to retain the tough muscles of hard-riding Bill Warfield. The senator was saddle-sore as well as hungry, and his temper showed in his blood-shot eyes. He would have quarreled with his best-beloved woman that morning, and he began on Swan.

Why hadn't he come back down the gulch yesterday and helped track the girl, as he was told to do? (The senator had quite unpleasant opinions of Swedes, and crazy women, and dogs that were never around when they were wanted, and he expressed them fluently.)

Swan explained with a great deal of labor that he had not thought he was wanted, and that he had to sleep on his claim sometimes or the law would take it from him, maybe. Also he virtuously pointed out that he had come with Yack before daylight to the canyon to see if they had found Miss Hunter and gone home, or if they were still hunting for her.

"If you like to find that jong lady, I put Yack on the trail quick," he offered placatingly. "I bet you Yack finds her in one-half an hour."

With much unnecessary language, Senator Warfield told him to get to work, and the three tightened cinches, mounted their horses and prepared to follow Swan's lead. Swan watched his chance and gave Lone a chunk of bannock as a substitute for breakfast, and Lone, I may add, dropped behind his companions and ate every crumb of it, in spite of his worry over Lorraine.

Indeed, Swan eased that worry too, when they were climbing the pine slope where Al had killed the grouse. Lone had forged ahead on John Doe, and Swan stopped suddenly, pointing to the spot where a few bloody feathers and a boot-print showed. The other evidence Jack had eaten in the night.

"Raine's all right, Lone. Got men coming. Keep your gun handy," he murmured and turned away as the others rode up, eager for whatever news Swan had to offer.

"Something killed a bird," Swan explained politely, planting one of his own big feet over the track, which did not in the least resemble Lorraine's. "Yack! you find that jong lady quick!"

From there on Swan walked carefully, putting his foot wherever a print of Al's boot was visible. Since he was much bigger than Al, with a correspondingly longer stride, his gait puzzled Lone until he saw just what Swan was doing. Then his eyes lightened with amused appreciation of the Swede's cunning.

"We ought to have some hot drink, or whisky, when we find that girl," Hawkins muttered unexpectedly, riding up beside Lone as they crossed an open space. "She'll be half-dead with cold—if we find her alive."

Before Lone could answer, Swan looked back at the two and raised his hand for them to stop.

"Better if you leave the horses here," he suggested. "From Yack I know we get close pretty quick. That jong lady's horse maybe smells these horse and makes a noise, and crazy folks run from noise."

Without objection the three dismounted and tied their horses securely to trees. Then, with Swan and Jack leading the way, they climbed over the ridge and descended into the hollow by way of the ledge which Skinner had negotiated so carefully the night before. Without the dog they never would have guessed that any one had passed this way, but as it was they made good progress and reached the nearest edge of the spruce thicket just as the sun was making ready to push up over the skyline.

Jack stopped and looked up at his master inquiringly, lifting his lip at the sides and showing his teeth. But he made no sound; nor did Swan, when he dropped his fingers to the dog's head and patted him approvingly.

They heard a horse sneeze, beyond the spruce grove, and Warfield stepped forward authoritatively, waving Swan back. This, his manner said plainly, was first and foremost his affair, and from now on he would take charge of the situation. At his heels went Hawkins, and Swan sent an oblique glance of satisfaction toward Lone, who answered it with his half-smile. Swan himself could not have planned the approach more to his liking.

The smell of bacon cooking watered their mouths and made Warfield and Hawkins look at one another inquiringly. Crazy young women would hardly be expected to carry a camping outfit. But Swan and Lone were treading close on their heels, and their own curiosity pulled them forward. They went carefully around the thicket, guided by the pungent odor of burning pine wood, and halted so abruptly that Swan and Lone bumped into them from behind. A man had risen up from the campfire and faced them, his hands rising slowly, palms outward.

"Warfield, by——!" Al blurted in his outraged astonishment. "Trailing me with a bunch, are yuh? I knew you'd double-cross your own father—but I never thought you had it in you to do it in the open. Damn yuh, what d'yuh want that you expect to get?"

Warfield stared at him, slack-jawed. He glanced furtively behind him at Swan, and found that guileless youth ready to poke him in the back with the muzzle of a gun. Lone, he observed, had another. He looked back at Al, whose eyes were ablaze with resentment. With an effort he smiled his disarming, senatorial smile, but Al's next words froze it on his face.

"I think I know the play you're making, but it won't get you anything, Bill Warfield. You think I slipped up—and you told me not to let my foot slip; said you'd hate to lose me. Well, you're the one that slipped, you damned, rotten coward. I was watching out for leaks. I stopped two, and this one——"

He glanced down at Lorraine, who sat beside the fire, a blanket tied tightly around her waist and her ankles, so that, while comfortably free, she could make no move to escape.

"I was fixing to stop her from telling all she knew," he added harshly. "By to-night I'd have had her married to me, you damned fool. And here you've blocked everything for me, afraid I was falling down on my job!

"Now folks, lemme just tell you a few little things. I know my limit—you've got me dead to rights. I ain't complaining about that; a man in my game expects to get his, some day. But I ain't going to let the man go that paid me my wages and a bonus of five hundred dollars for every man I killed that he wanted outa the way.

"Hawkins knows that's a fact. He's foreman of the Sawtooth, and he knows the agreement. I've got to say for Hawkins that aside from stealing cattle off the nesters and helping make evidence against some that's in jail, Hawkins never done any dirty work. He didn't have to. They paid me for that end of the business.

"I killed Fred Thurman—this girl, here, saw me shoot him. And it was when I told Warfield I was afraid she might set folks talking that he began to get cold feet. Up to then everything was lovely, but Warfield began to crawfish a little. We figured—we figured, emphasize the we, folks,—that the Quirt would have to be put outa business. We knew if the girl told Brit and Frank, they'd maybe get the nerve to try and pin something on us. We've stole 'em blind for years, and they wouldn't cry if we got hung. Besides, they was friendly with Fred.

"The girl and the Swede got in the way when I tried to bump Brit off. I'd have gone into the canyon and finished him with a rock, but they beat me to it. The girl herself I couldn't get at very well and make it look accidental—and anyway, I never did kill a woman, and I'd hate it like hell. I figured if her dad got killed, she'd leave.

"And let me tell you, folks, Warfield raised hell with me because Brit Hunter wasn't killed when he pitched over the grade. He held out on me for that job—so I'm collecting five hundred dollars' worth of fun right now. He did say he'd pay me after Brit was dead, but it looks like he's going to pull through, so I ain't counting much on getting my money outa Warfield.

"Frank I got, and made a clean job of it. And yesterday morning the girl played into my hands. She rode over to the Sawtooth, and I got her at Thurman's place, on her way home, and figured I'd marry her and take a chance on keeping her quiet afterwards. I'd have been down the Pass in another two hours and heading for the nearest county seat. She'd have married me, too. She knows I'd have killed her if she didn't—which I would. I've been square with her—she'll tell you that. I told her, when I took her, just what I was going to do with her. So that's all straight. She's been scared, I guess, but she ain't gone hungry, and she ain't suffered, except in her mind. I don't fight women, and I'll say right now, to her and to you, that I've got all the respect in the world for this little girl, and if I'd married her I'd have been as good to her as I know how, and as she'd let me be.

"Now I want to tell you folks a few more things about Bill Warfield. If you want to stop the damnest steal in the country, tie a can onto that irrigation scheme of his. He's out to hold up the State for all he can get, and bleed the poor devils of farmers white, that buys land under that canal. It may look good, but it ain't good—not by a damn sight.

"Yuh know what he's figuring on doing? Get water in the canal, sell land under a contract that lets him out if the ditch breaks, or something so he can't supply water at any time. And when them poor suckers gets their crops all in, and at the point where they've got to have water or lose out, something'll happen to the supply. Folks, I know! I'm a reliable man, and I've rode with a rope around my neck for over five years, and Warfield offered me the same old five hundred every time I monkeyed with the water supply as ordered. He'd have done it slick; don't worry none about that. The biggest band of thieves he could get together is that company. So if you folks have got any sense, you'll bust it up right now.

"Bill Warfield, what I've got to say to you won't take long. You thought you'd make a grand-stand play with the law, and at the same time put me outa the way. You figured I'd resist arrest, and you'd have a chance to shoot me down. I know your rotten mind better than you do. You wanted to bump me off, but you wanted to do it in a way that'd put you in right with the public. Killing me for kidnapping this girl would sound damn romantic in the newspapers, and it wouldn't have a thing to do with Thurman or Frank Johnson, or any of the rest that I've sent over the trail for you.

"Right now you're figuring how you'll get around this bawling-out I'm giving you. There's nobody to take down what I say, and I'm just a mean, ornery outlaw and killer, talking for spite. With your pull you expect to get this smoothed over and hushed up, and have me at a hanging bee, and everything all right for Bill! Well——"

His eyes left Warfield's face and went beyond the staring group. His face darkened, a sneer twisted his lips.

"Who're them others?" he cried harshly. "Was you afraid four wouldn't be enough to take me?"

The four turned heads to look. Bill Warfield never looked back, for Al's gun spoke, and Warfield sagged at the knees and the shoulders, and he slumped to the ground at the instant when Al's gun spoke again.

"That's for you, Lone Morgan," Al cried, as he fired again. "She talked about you in her sleep last night. She called you Loney, and she wanted you to come and get her. I was going to kill you first chance I got. I coulda loved this little girl. I—could——"

He was down, bleeding and coughing and trying to talk. Swan had shot him, and two of the deputies who had been there through half of Al's bitter talk. Lorraine, unable to get up and run, too sturdy of soul to faint, had rolled over and away from him, her lips held tightly together, her eyes wide with horror. Al crawled after her, his eyes pleading.

"Little Spitfire—I shot your Loney—but I'd have been good to you, girl. I watched yuh all night—and I couldn't help loving yuh. I—couldn't——" That was all. Within three feet of her, his face toward her and his eyes agonizing to meet hers, he died.



CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

ANOTHER STORY BEGINS

This chapter is very much like a preface: it is not absolutely necessary, although many persons will read it and a few will be glad that it was written.

The story itself is ended. To go on would be to begin another story; to tell of the building up of the Quirt outfit, with Lone and Lone's savings playing a very important part, and with Brit a semi-invalided, retired stockman who smoked his pipe and told the young couple what they should do and how they should do it.

Frank he mourned for and seldom mentioned. The Sawtooth, under the management of a greatly chastened young Bob Warfield, was slowly winning its way back to the respect of its neighbors.

For certain personal reasons there was no real neighborliness between the Quirt and the Sawtooth. There could not be, so long as Brit's memory remained clear, and Bob was every day reminded of the crimes his father had paid a man to commit. Moreover, Southerners are jealous of their women,—it is their especial prerogative. And Lone suspected that, given the opportunity, Bob Warfield would have fallen in love with Lorraine. Indeed, he suspected that any man in the country would have done that. Al Woodruff had, and he was noted for his indifference to women and his implacable hardness toward men.

But you are not to accuse Lone of being a jealous husband. He was not, and I am merely pointing out the fact that he might have been, had he been given any cause.

Oh, by the way, Swan "proved up" as soon as possible on his homestead and sold out to the Quirt. Lone managed to buy the Thurman ranch also, and the TJ up-and-down is on its feet again as a cattle ranch. Sorry and Jim will ride for the Quirt, I suppose, as long as they can crawl into a saddle, but there are younger men now to ride the Skyline Meadow range.

Some one asked about Yellowjacket, having, I suppose, a sneaking regard for his infirmities. He hasn't been peeled yet—or he hadn't, the last I heard of him. Lone and Lorraine told me they were trying to save him for the "Little Feller" to practise on when he is able to sit up without a cushion behind his back, and to hold something besides a rubber rattle. And—oh, do you know how Lone is teaching the Little Feller to sit up on the floor? He took a horse collar and scrubbed it until he nearly wore out the leather. Then he brought it to the cabin, put it on the floor and set the Little Feller inside it.

They sent me a snap-shot of the event, but it is not very good. The film was under-exposed, and nothing was to be seen of the Little Feller except a hazy spot which I judged was a hand, holding a black object I guessed was the ridgy, rubber rattle with the whistle gone out of the end,—down the Little Feller's throat, they are afraid. And there was his smile, and a glimpse of his eyes.

Aren't you envious as sin, and glad they're so happy?

THE END



NOVELS BY B.M. BOWER

* * * * *

THE RANCH AT THE WOLVERINE

A ringing tale full of exhilarating cowboy atmosphere, abundantly and absorbingly illustrating the outstanding feature of that alluring ranch life that is fast vanishing.—Chicago Tribune.

JEAN OF THE LAZY A

A spirited novel of ranch life in which the fascinating heroine poses for film pictures that she may make money necessary to prove her father innocent of a crime for which he has been convicted.

It possesses all the popular ingredients—a quick-action plot, color and picturesqueness aplenty, and an unflagging interest—to be found in Bower's earlier successes.—Philadelphia Public Ledger.

THE PHANTOM HERD

Another western tale in which the Happy Family become real "movie" actors.

There has been so much truck written in the last few years about motion pictures, that it is a positive relief to find a book by an author who knows exactly what to talk about in an entertaining manner with a knowledge of actual conditions as they exist.—Boston Post.

THE HERITAGE OF THE SIOUX

A Flying U story in which the Happy Family get mixed up in a robbery faked for film purposes.

Altogether a rattling story, that is better in conception and expression than the conventional thriller on account of its touches of real humanity in characterization.—Philadelphia Public Ledger.

RIM O' THE WORLD

An engrossing tale of a ranch-feud between "gun-fighters" in Idaho.

THE LOOKOUT MAN

A tale of action, excitement and love, full of the charm of the great outdoors, in which the story of the life at a Forest Reserve Station on top of a California mountain is vividly portrayed.

The signature of B.M. Bower is a valuable trade-mark. It stands for fiction filled with the spirit of ranch life in the northwest.—Boston Herald.

CABIN FEVER

How Bud Moore and his wife, Marie, fared through their attack of "cabin fever" is the theme of this B.M. Bower story.

The author has put some real sentiment into a story that gives a rapidly filmed "movie" of Western life.—Philadelphia Public Ledger.

STARR, OF THE DESERT

A story of mystery, love and adventure, which has a Mexican revolt as its main theme.

The tale is well written, with the fine art of artlessness, and of unflagging interest; a book worth the reading which it is sure to get from every one who begins it.—New York Tribune.

THE FLYING U'S LAST STAND

What happened when a company of school teachers and farmers encamped on the grounds of the Flying U Ranch.

The Northwestern cattle country has never had a better chronicler in fiction of its deeds and its people than B.M. Bower.—New York Times.

GOOD INDIAN

A story named for its half-breed hero, who dominates this stirring Western romance.

There is excitement and action on every page.... A somewhat unusual love story runs through the book.—Boston Transcript.

THE UPHILL CLIMB

How a cowboy fought the hardest of all battles—a fight against himself.

Bower knows the West of the cowboys, as do few writers to-day.... The word pictures of Western life are realistic, and strongly suffused with local color.—Philadelphia North American.

LONESOME LAND

A story of modern Montana, giving a wholly different phase of life among the ranches.

Montana described as it really is, is the "lonesome land" of this new Bower story. A prairie fire and the death of the worthless husband are especially well handled.—A. L. A. Booklist.

SKYRIDER

A cowboy who becomes an aviator is the hero of this new story of Western ranch life.

An engrossing ranch story with a new note of interest woven into its breezy texture.—Philadelphia Public Ledger.

THE THUNDER BIRD

Further aeronautic adventures of "Skyrider" Johnnie Jewel.

"A good story with numberless thrills and a humorous quality throughout its pages."—New York Sun.

* * * * *

LITTLE, BROWN & CO., Publishers, Boston, Mass.

THE END

Previous Part     1  2  3  4
Home - Random Browse