Toward evening of the third day out of Showdown, Pete came upon a most unexpected barrier to his progress—a wire fence stretching east and west; a seemingly endless succession of diminishing posts. He estimated that there must he at least forty thousand acres under fence. According to location, this was The Spider's ranch—the Olla—Pete reined around and rode along the fence for a mile or so, searching for a gateway; but the taut barbed wire ran on and on, toward a sun that was rounding swiftly down to the western horizon. He dismounted and pulled the staples from several lengths of wire until he had enough slack to allow the top wire to touch the ground. He stood on the wires and jockeyed Blue Smoke across, tied him to a post, and tacked the wire back in place.
Headed south again, he had just passed a clump of chaparral when up from the draw came a tall, muscular cowboy, riding a big horse—and a fast one, thought Pete.
"Evenin'," drawled the cowboy—a slow-speaking Texan, who was evidently waiting for Pete to explain his presence.
"How!—Is this here the Olla ranch?"
"One end of her."
"I'm lookin' for the foreman."
"What name did you say?"
"I didn't say."
"What's your business down this way?" queried the cowboy.
"It's mine. I dunno as it's any of yours."
"So? Now, that's mighty queer! Lookin' for the fo'man, eh? Well, go ahead and look—they's plenty of room."
"Too much," laughed Pete. "Reckon I got to bush here and do my huntin' in the mornin'—only"—and Pete eyed the other significantly—"I kind of hate to bush on the ground. I was bit by a spider onct—"
"A spider, eh? Now that's right comical. What kind of a spider was it that bit you?"
"Trap-door spider. Only this here one was always home."
"So?" drawled the Texan. "Now, that's right funny. I was bit by a rattler once. Got the marks on my arm yet."
"Well, if it comes to a showdown, that there spider bite—"
"The ranch-house is yonder," said the Texan. "Just you ride along the way you're headed. That's a pretty horse you're settin' on. If it wa'n't so dark I'd say he carried the Concho brand."
"That's him," said Pete.
"He's a long jump from home, friend."
"And good for twice that distance, neighbor."
"You sure please me most to death," drawled the Texan.
"Then I reckon you might call in that there coyote in the brush over there that's been holdin' a gun on me ever since we been talkin',"—and Pete gestured with his bridle hand toward the clump of chaparral.
"Sam," called the Texan, "he says he don't like our way of welcomin' strangers down here. He's right friendly, meetin' one man at a time—but he don't like a crowd, nohow."
A figure loomed in the dusk—a man on foot who carried a rifle across his arm. Pete could not distinguish his features, but he saw that the man was tall, booted and spurred, and evidently a line-rider with the Texan.
"This here young stinging-lizard says he wants to see the fo'man, Sam. Kin you help him out?"
"Go ahead and speak your piece," said the man with the rifle.
"She's spoke," said Pete.
"I'm the man you're huntin'," asserted the other.
"Thought you was jest a hand—ridin' fence, mebby." And as Pete spoke he rolled a cigarette. His pony shied at the flare of the match, but Pete caught an instant glimpse of a lean-faced, powerfully built man of perhaps fifty years or more who answered The Spider's description of the foreman. "I got a letter here for Sam Brent, foreman of the Olla," said Pete.
"Now you're talkin' business."
"His business," laughed the Texan.
"Nope—The Spider's," asserted Pete.
"Your letter will keep," said the foreman. "Ed, you drift on along down the fence till you meet Harper. Tell him it's all right." And the foreman disappeared in the dusk to return astride a big cowhorse. "We'll ride over to the house," said he.
Pete estimated that they had covered three or four miles before the ranch-buildings came in sight—a dim huddle of angles against the starlit sky. To his surprise the central building was roomy and furnished with a big table, many chairs, and a phonograph, while the floor was carpeted with Navajo blankets, and a big shaded hanging lamp illumined the table on which were scattered many dog-eared magazines and a few newspapers. Pete had remarked upon the stables while turning his own horse into the corral. "We got some fast ones," was all that the foreman chose to say, just then.
Pete and the foreman had something to eat in the chuck-house, and returned to the larger building. Brent read The Spider's letter, rolled the end of his silver-gray mustache between his thumb and forefinger, and finally glanced up. "So, you're Pete Annersley?"
"That's my name."
"Have a chair. You're right young to be riding alone. How did you come to throw in with The Spider?"
Pete hesitated. Why should he tell this man anything other than that he had been sent by The Spider with the letter which—he had been told—would explain his presence and embody his instructions?
"Don't he say in that letter?" queried Pete.
"He says you were mixed up in a bank robbery over to Enright," stated the foreman.
"That's a dam' lie!" flared Pete.
"I reckon you'll do," said Brent, as he folded the letter. The Spider had made that very statement in his letter to Brent for the purpose of finding out, through the foreman, whether or not Pete had taken it upon himself to read the letter before delivering it. And Brent, aware of The Spider's methods, realized at once why his chief had misstated the facts. It was evident that Pete had not read the letter, otherwise he would most probably have taken his cue from The Spider's assertion about the bank robbery and found himself in difficulties, for directly after the word "Enright" was a tiny "x"—a code letter which meant "This is not so."
"Reckon I'll do what?" queried Pete. "Let The Spider or anybody like him run a whizzer on me after I run a good hoss ragged to git here with his doggone letter—and then git stuck up like I was a hoss-thief? You got another guess, uncle."
The old cowman's eyes twinkled. "You speak right out in meetin', don't you, son?" His drawl was easy and somehow reminded Pete of Pop Annersley. "Now there's some wouldn't like that kind of talk—even from a kid."
"I'd say it to The Spider as quick as I would to you," asserted Pete.
"Which might be takin' a chance, both ways."
"Say"—and Pete smiled—"I guess I been talkin' pretty fast, I was some het up. The Spider used me as white as he could use anybody, I reckon. But ever since that killin' up to his place, I been sore at the whole doggone outfit runnin' this here world. What does a fella git, anyhow, for stickin' up for himself, if he runs against a killer? He gits bumped off—or mebby he kills the other fella and gits run out of the country or hung. Pardners stick, don't they? Well, how would it git you if you had a pardner that—well, mebby was a girl and she got killed by a bunch of deputies jest because she was quick enough to spoil their game? Would you feel like shakin' hands with every doggone hombre you met up with, or like tellin' him to go to hell and sendin' him there if he was lookin to argue with you? I dunno. Mebby I'm wrong—from the start—but I figure all a fella gits out of this game is a throwdown, comin' or goin'—'for the deck is stacked and the wheel is crooked."
"I was fifty-six last February," said Brent.
"And how many notches you got on your gun?" queried Pete.
"Oh, mebby two, three," drawled the foreman.
"That's it! Say you started in callin' yourself a growed man when you was twenty. Every ten years you had to hand some fella his finish to keep from makin' yours. 'Got to kill to live,' is right!"
"Son, you got a good horse, and yonder is the whole State of Texas, where a man can sure lose himself without tryin' hard. There's plenty of work down there for a good cow-hand. And a man's name ain't printed on his face. Nobody's got a rope on you."
"I git you," said Pete. "But I throwed in with The Spider—and that goes."
"That's your business—and as you was sayin' your business ain't mine. But throwin' a fast gun won't do you no good round here."
"Oh, I don't claim to be so doggone fast," stated Pete.
"Faster than Steve Gary?"
Pete's easy glance centered to a curious, tense gaze which was fixed on the third button of Brent's shirt. "What about Steve Gary?" asked Pete, and even Brent, old hand as he was, felt the sinister significance in that slow question. The Spider's letter had said to "give him a try-out," which might have meant almost anything to a casual reader, but to Brent it meant just what he had been doing that evening—seeking for a weak spot in Pete's make-up, if there were such, before hiring him.
"My gun is in the bedroom," said Brent easily.
"Well, Gary's wasn't," said Pete.
"We ain't had a gun-fight on this ranch since I been foreman," said Brent. "And we got some right fast men, at that. Seein' you're goin' to work for me a spell, I'm goin' to kind of give you a line on things. You can pick your own string of horses—anything that you can get your rope on that ain't branded 'J.E.', which is pet stock and no good at workin' cattle. You met up with Ed Brevoort this evenin'. Well, you can ride fence with Ed and he'll show you the high spots and hollows—and the line—south. If you run onto any strangers ridin' too close to the line, find out what they want. If you can't find out, get word to me. That goes for strangers. But if you get to arguin' with any of my boys—talk all you like—but don't start a smoke—for you won't get away with it. The Spider ain't payin' guns to shoot up his own outfit. If you're lookin' for real trouble, all you got to do is to ride south acrost the line—and you'll find it. And you're gettin' a straight hundred a month and your keep as long as you work for the Olla."
"Which is some different from takin' my hoss and fannin' it easy for Texas," said Pete, grinning.
"Some different," said Brent.
OVER THE LINE
Few cattle grazed across the Olla's well-fenced acres—and these cattle were of a poor strain, lean Mexican stock that would never run into weight as beef. Pete had expected to see many cattle—and much work to be done. Instead, there were few cattle; and as for work—he had been put to riding line with big Ed Brevoort. For two weeks he had done nothing else. Slowly it dawned upon Pete that The Spider's ranch was little more than a thoroughfare for the quick handling of occasional small bands of cattle from one questionable owner to another. He saw many brands, and few of them were alike, and among them none that were familiar. Evidently the cattle were from the south line. The saddle-stock was branded "J.E." and "The Olla." These brands appeared on none of the cattle that Pete had seen. About a month after his arrival, and while he was drifting slowly along the fence with Brevoort, Pete caught sight of a number of horsemen, far out beyond the ranch-line, riding slowly toward the north. He spoke to Brevoort, who nodded. "We're like to be right busy soon."
Brevoort and Pete rode to the ranch-house that evening to get supplies for their line shack. The place was all but deserted. The cook was there—and the Mexican Jose who looked after the "fast ones" in the stables; but Brent, Harper, Sandy Bell, and the rest of the men were gone. Pete thought of the horsemen that he had seen—and of Brevoort's remark, that they would "be right busy soon." Pete wondered how soon, and how busy.
The day after the departure of the men, Brevoort told Pete that they would take turn about riding the north line, in an eight-hour shift, and he cautioned Pete to be on the lookout for a messenger riding a bay horse—"Not a cow-horse, but a thoroughbred."
This was at the line shack.
Several nights later, as Pete was riding his line, he noticed that Blue Smoke occasionally stopped and sniffed, and always toward the north. Near the northwestern angle of the fence, Pete thought he could hear the distant drumming of hoofs. Blue Smoke fretted and fought the bit. Pete dismounted and peered into the darkness. The rhythmic stride of a running horse came to him—not the quick patter of a cow-pony, but the long, sweeping stride of a racer.
Then out of the night burst a rider on a foam-flecked horse that reared almost into the gate, which Pete unlooped and dragged back.
"That you, Brevoort?" called the horseman.
"He's at the shack," Pete shouted, as the other swept past.
"Looks like we're goin' to be right busy," reflected Pete as he swung to the saddle. "We'll jest jog over to the shack and report."
When he arrived at the line shack, Brevoort was talking with the hard-riding messenger. Near them stood the thoroughbred, his flanks heaving, his neck sweat-blackened, his sides quivering with fatigue. He had covered fifty miles in five hours.
"—and countin' the Concho stuff—I'd say something like two hundred head," the messenger was saying. "Brent'll be in to-morrow, long 'bout noon. So far, she worked slick. No trouble and a show of gettin' through without any trouble. Not much young stock, so they're drivin' fast."
Brevoort turned to Pete. "Take this horse over to the corral. Tell Moody that Harper is in, and that the boys will be here in a couple of days. He'll know what to do."
Pete rode at a high lope, leading the thoroughbred, and wondering why the messenger had not gone on to the corral. Moody, the cook, a grizzled, heavy-featured man, too old for hard riding, expressed no surprise at Pete's message, but awakened the Mexican stableman and told him to fetch up a "real one," which the Mexican did with alertness, returning to the house leading another sleek and powerful thoroughbred. "Take him over to the shack," said Moody. "Harper wants him." And he gave Pete a package of food which he had been preparing while the Mexican was at the stable.
When Pete returned to the line shack he found Brevoort sitting in the doorway smoking, and the messenger asleep on the ground, his head on his saddle.
"Here's your horse," said Brevoort, "and some chuck."
Harper sat up quickly, too quickly for a man who had ridden as far as he had. Pete wondered at the other's hardihood and grit, for Harper was instantly on his feet and saddling the fresh horse, and incidentally cursing the Olla, Brent, and the universe in general, with a gusto which bespoke plenty of unspoiled vigor.
"Tell Brent the coast is clear," said Brevoort as Harper mounted.
They could hear his horse getting into his stride long before the sound of his hoofbeats was swallowed up in the abyss of the night.
Pete turned in. Brevoort rode out to drift along the line fence until daylight.
And Pete dreamed strange dreams of night-riders who came and went swiftly and mysteriously; and of a dusty, shuffling herd that wound its slow way across the desert, hazed by a flitting band of armed riders who continually glanced back as though fearful of pursuit. Suddenly the dream changed. He was lying on a bed in a long, white-walled room, dimly lighted by a flickering gas-jet, and Boca stood beside him gazing down at him wistfully. He tried to speak to her, but could not. Nor did she speak to him, but laid her hand on his forehead, pressing down his eyelids. Her hand was dry and hot. Pete tried to open his eyes—to raise his hand, to speak. Although his eyes were closed and Boca's hot hand was pressed down on them, Pete knew that round-about was a light and warmth of noonday . . . Boca's hand drew back—and Pete lay staring straight into the morning sun which shone through the open doorway. In the distance he could see Brevoort riding slowly toward him. Pete raised on his elbow and threw back the blankets. As he rose and pulled on his overalls he thought of the messenger. He knew that somewhere back on the northern trail the men of the Olla were pushing a herd of cattle slowly south,—cattle from the T-Bar-T, the Blue, and . . . he suddenly recalled Harper's remark—"And countin' the Concho stuff . . ." Pete thought of Jim Bailey and Andy White, and of pleasant days riding for the Concho. But after all, it was none of his affair. He had had no hand in stealing the cattle. He would do well enough to keep his own hide whole. Let the cattlemen who lived under the law take care of their own stock and themselves. And curiously enough, Pete for the first time wondered what had become of Malvey—if the posse had actually shot him, or if they had simply taken the horse and let Malvey go. The arrival of Brevoort put an end to his pondering.
"Brent will be in to-day," said Brevoort. "You stick around here; and call me about noon."
"The old man ain't takin' chances," remarked Pete.
"You're wrong there," asserted Brevoort. "He's takin' the long chance every time, or he wouldn't be foreman of this outfit. You'll find that out if you stick round here long enough. If you don't call it takin' a chance pullin' off a trick like this one that's comin', jest try it yourself."
"He handles men easy," asserted Pete, recalling Brent's rather fatherly advice in regard to Texas and the opportunity for a young man to go straight.
"You sure please me most to death," drawled Brevoort. "You been a right quiet little pardner, and smilin', so I'm going to tell you somethin' that you can keep right on bein' quiet about. Sam Brent would send you or me or any man into a gun-fight, or a posse, or a jail, and never blink his eye, if he thought it was good business for him. He'd do it pleasant, too, jest like he was sendin' you to a dance, or a show. But he'd go jest as quick hisself, if he had to."
"Then I guess we got no kick," said Pete.
"I ain't kickin'. I'm jest puttin' you wise."
"I ain't forgittin', Ed."
Pete turned, following Brevoort's gaze. The man they were talking about was in sight and riding hard. Presently Brent was close enough to nod to them. Although he had ridden far and fast, he was as casual as sunshine. Neither in his voice nor his bearing was the least trace of fatigue.
"I'm goin' to need you," he told Pete. "We're short of hands right now. If you need anything over in the line shack, go git it and come along down after Ed and me."
Pete took the hint and left Brevoort and Brent to ride to the house together while he rode over to the shack and warmed up some coffee and beans. In an hour he was at the house. A thoroughbred stood at the hitching-rail. Pete noticed that the animal carried Brevoort's saddle. Evidently there was to be more hard riding. As Pete entered the big room, he also noticed that Brevoort was heavily armed, and carried an extra belt of cartridges. Brent was examining a rifle when Pete stepped in. "You may need this," said Brent, handing the rifle and scabbard to Pete. "Go over to the bunk-house and get another belt and some shells."
When Pete returned, Blue Smoke was in the corral and his own saddle was on a big bay that looked like a splendid running-mate for Brevoort's mount. Pete busied himself slinging the rifle, curious as to what his new venture would or could be, yet too proud to show that he was interested.
Brevoort, hitching up his belt, swung to his horse. Without hesitation Pete followed. Well-fed, eager and spirited, the horses lunged out into the open and settled into a long, swinging stride—a gait that was new to Pete, accustomed as he was to the shorter, quick action of the cow-pony.
They rode south, across the sunlit expanse of emptiness between the hacienda and the line. A few hundred yards beyond the fence, Brevoort reined in. "Mexico," he said, gesturing round about. "Our job is to ride to the Ortez rancho and get that outfit movin' up this way."
"Goin' to turn the cattle over to 'em?" queried Pete.
"Yes—and that quick they won't know they got 'em. It's a big deal, if she goes through. If she don't, it's like to be the finish of the Olla."
"Meanin' if the T-Bar-T and the Concho gits busy, there's like to be some smoke blowin' down this way?"
"The same. Recollect what I was tellin' you this mornin'."
"About Brent sendin' a man into a fight?"
"Yes. But I wasn't figurin' on provin' it to you so quick," drawled the Texan. "Hold your horse down to a walk. We'll save speed for a spell. No, I wasn't figurin' on this. You see, when I hired out to Brent, I knew what I was doin'—so I told him I'd jest earn my pay on the white side of the border—but no Mexico for mine. That was the understandin'. Now he goes to work and sends you and me down into this here country on a job which is only fit for a Greaser. I'm goin' to see it through, but I done made my last ride for the Olla."
"Brent was sayin' he was short of hands," suggested Pete.
"Which is correct. But there's that Jose who knows every foot of the dry-spot clean to the Ortez—and he knows every hoss-thief in this sun-blasted country. Does he send Jose? No. He sends two white men, tellin' me that it is too big a deal to trust the Mexican with."
"And a fine chance of gittin' bumped off by a lousy bunch of Cholas callin' themselves soldiers, eh?"
"You said it."
"Well, we got good hosses, anyway. And I sabe the Mexican talk."
"Guess that's why Brent sent you along. He knows I talk mighty little Mexican." And Brevoort gazed curiously at Pete.
"Seein' as you feel that way about it, Ed, I got somethin' I been millin' over in my head. Now, when The Spider sent me down here he said he had some important business he wanted me to handle. Brent was to tell me. Now I don't see anything important about ridin' line or chasin' into Mexico to wake up a bunch of Greasers and tell 'em to get busy. Uncle Sammy Brent's got somethin' hid up his sleeve, Ed."
Brevoort, riding slowly beside Pete, turned from gazing across the desert and looked Pete over from spur to sombrero with a new interest. He thought he knew now why The Spider had sent Pete to the ranch and why Brent, in turn, had sent Pete on this dangerous mission. "Is The Spider much of a friend of yours?" queried Brevoort suddenly.
"Why, I dunno. 'Course he acted like he was—but you can't tell about him. He—he helped me out of a hole onct."
"Did you ever help him out?"
"Me? No, I never had the chanct."
"Uh-huh. Well, just you pull in your hoss and run your good eye over this a minute." And Brevoort drew a folded slip of paper from his shirt-pocket and handed it to Pete. It was a brief note addressed to Brevoort and signed "J.E." It instructed Brevoort to accompany Pete Annersley to El Paso after the sale of the cattle and to see to it that the money which Annersley would have with him was deposited to the credit of James Ewell in the Stockmen's Security and Savings Bank.
Pete had difficulty in reading the note and took some time to read it, finally handing it back to Brevoort in silence. And then, "Where did you git it? Who is 'J.E.'?"
"From Harper. 'J.E.' is Jim Ewell—The Spider."
"So Harper rode to Showdown and back?"
"He took word from Brent to The Spider that the boys had started," said Brevoort.
"And Brent—" Pete hesitated for fear of committing himself even though he trusted Brevoort. But Brevoort had no hesitation. He anticipated Pete's thought and spoke frankly.
"Brent figured it fine. I knew why he sent you and me on this ride—but I was tryin' to find out if you was wise—or ridin' blind. If we come back, Brent won't show his hand. If we don't come back he'll collect the dough and vamoose. Kin you see a hole in the fence?"
"You're whistlin', Ed! It's one crook tryin' to git the best of another crook. But I would 'a' said Brent was straight. I say The Spider's money goes into that there bank."
"Same here. I ain't so dam' honest that it hurts me, but I quit when it comes to stealin' from the man that's payin' my wages."
"Then I reckon you and me is pardners in this deal," and Pete, boyishly proffered his hand.
Big Ed Brevoort grasped Pete's hand, and held it till the horses shied apart. "To the finish," he said.
"To the finish," echoed Pete, and with one accord they slackened rein. The thoroughbreds reached out into that long, tireless running stride that brought their riders nearer and nearer to the Ortez rancho and the Mexican agent of the guerilla captain whose troops were so sadly in need of beef.
On either side of a faint trail rose the dreary, angling grotesques of the cactus, and the dried and dead stalks of the soapweed. Beyond, to the south, lay a sea of shimmering space, clear to the light blue that edged the sky-line. The afternoon sun showed copper-red through a faint haze which bespoke a change of weather. The miles between the Olla and that tiny dot on the horizon—the Ortez hacienda—seemed endless, because of no pronounced landmarks. Pete surmised that it would be dark long before they reached their destination. Incidentally he was amazed by the speed of the thoroughbreds, who ran so easily, yet with a long, reaching stride that ate into the miles. To Pete they seemed more like excellent machines than horses—lacking the pert individuality of the cow-pony. Stall-fed and groomed to a satin-smooth glow, stabled and protected from the rains—pets, in Pete's estimation—yet he knew that they would run until they dropped, holding that long, even stride to the very end. He reached out and patted his horse on the neck. Instantly the sensitive ears twitched and the stride lengthened. Pete tightened rein gently. "A quirt would only make him crazy," he thought; and he grinned as he saw that Brevoort's horse had let out a link or two to catch up with its mate.
The low sun, touching the rim of the desert, flung long crimson shafts heavenward—in hues of rose and amethyst, against the deep umber and the purple of far spaces. From monotonous and burning desolation the desert had become a vast momentary solitude of changing beauty and enchantment. Then all at once the colors vanished, space shrank, and occasional stars trembled in the velvet roof of the night. And one star, brighter than the rest, grew gradually larger, until it became a solitary camp-fire on the level of the plain.
"Don't like the looks of that," said Brevoort, as he pulled up his horse. "It's out in front of the 'dobe—and it means the Ortez has got company."
"Looks like it."
"I reckon so. And they're up pretty clost to the line—too clost to suit me. We'll ride round and do our talkin' with Ortez."
"Ain't they friendly?" queried Pete.
"Friendly, hell! Any one of 'em would knife you for the hoss you're ridin'! Hear 'em sing! Most like they're all drunk—and you know what that means. Just follow along slow; and whatever you run into don't get off your hoss."
"Ain't them there coyotes friendly to Ortez?"
"S' long as he feeds 'em. But that don't do us no good. Ought to be some of the Ortez riders hangin' round somewhere. They don't mix much with Arguilla's men."
"She's a lovely lay-out," said Pete. "But I'm with you."
Circling the ranch, Brevoort and Pete rode far out into the desert, until the camp-fire was hidden by the ranch-buildings. Then they angled in cautiously, edging past the 'dobe outbuildings and the corrals toward the hacienda. "Don't see anybody around. Guess they 're all out in front drinkin' with the bunch," whispered Brevoort. Just as Pete was about to make a suggestion, a figure rose almost beneath the horse's head, and a guttural Mexican voice told him to halt. Pete complied, telling the Mexican that they were from the Olla, that they had a message for Ortez.
"No use arguin'," said Brevoort—and Pete caught Brevoort's meaning as another man appeared.
"Ask him if Arguilla is here," said Brevoort. And Pete knew that these were Arguilla's men, for none of the Ortez vaquero's carried bolt-action rifles.
The sentry replied to Pete's question by poking him in the ribs with the muzzle of his rifle, and telling his to get down muy pronto.
"Tell him our message is for Arguilla—not Ortez," suggested Brevoort. "There's something wrong here. No use startin' anything," he added hastily, as he dismounted. "Ortez is agent for Arguilla's outfit. If you get a chance, watch what they do with our horses."
"We came to see El Comandante," said Pete as the sentries marched them to the house. "We're his friends—and you'll be coyote-meat before mornin' if you git too careless with that gun."
The sentry grunted and poked Pete in the back with his rifle, informing him in that terse universal idiom that he could "tell it to El Comandante."
From the outer darkness to the glare of the light in the 'dobe was a blinding transition. Pete and Brevoort blinked at the three figures in the main room: Arguilla, who sat at the long table, his heavy features glistening with sweat, his broad face flushed to a dull red, had his hand on a bottle of American whiskey, from which he had just filled his glass. Near him sat the owner of the rancho, Ortez, a man much older, bearded and lean, with face lined and interlined by weather and age. At the closed door stood a sentry. From without came raucous laughter and the singing of the soldiers. The sentry nearest Pete told Arguilla that the Gringoes had been caught sneaking in at the back of the hacienda.
Pete briskly corrected this statement. "We're from the Olla—about the cattle—for your army," added Pete, no whit abashed as he proffered this bit of flattery.
"Si! You would talk with the patron then?"—and Arguilla gestured toward Ortez.
"We got orders from Brent—he's our boss—-to make our talk to you," said Pete, glancing quickly at Brevoort.
"How did you know that I was here with my army?" queried Arguilla.
"Shucks! That's easy. It's in all the papers," asserted Pete, rather proud of himself, despite the hazard of the situation.
Arguilla's chest swelled noticeably. He rose and strutted up and down the room, as though pondering a grave and weighty question. Presently he turned to Ortez. "You have heard, senor?"
Ortez nodded. And in that nod Brevoort read the whole story. Ortez was virtually a prisoner on his own ranch. The noble captain of Liberty had been known to use his best friends in this way.
"When will the cattle arrive at the Olla?" asked Arguilla, seating himself.
"To-morrow, Senor Comandante. That is the word from Sam Brent."
"And you have come for the money, then?"
Pete barely hesitated. "No. Brent said there ain't no hurry about that. He said you could figure on two hundred head"—Pete recalled Harper's statement—"and that you would send your agent over to the Olla with the cash."
Arguilla glanced at Ortez. "You have heard, senor?"
Ortez nodded dejectedly. He had heard, but he dare not speak. As the trusted agent of the financiers backing Arguilla, he had but recently been given the money for the purchase of these supplies, and almost on the heels of the messenger bearing the money had come Arguilla, who at once put Ortez under arrest, conveyed the money to his own coffers, and told the helpless Ortez that he could settle with the Gringo Brent according to the understanding between them.
Brevoort, silently eying Arguilla, saw through the scheme. Arguilla had determined to have both the money and the cattle. This explained his unwonted presence at the Ortez hacienda.
Arguilla took a stiff drink of whiskey, wiped his mustache and turned to Brevoort. "You have heard?" he said.
Brevoort knew enough Mexican to understand the question. "We'll tell Brent that everything is all right," he said easily. "But he's a dam' liar," he added in an undertone to Pete. Brevoort had made the mistake of assuming that because he did not understand Mexican, Arguilla did not understand English. Arguilla did not hear all that Brevoort said, but he caught the one significant word. His broad face darkened. These Gringoes knew too much! He would hold them until the cattle had been delivered—and then they could join his army—or be shot. A mere detail, in either event.
"Put these men under arrest!" he commanded the sentries. "If they escape—you are dead men."
"What's the idee—" began Pete, but the noble captain waved his hand, dismissing all argument, along with the sentries, who marched their prisoners to the stable and told them plainly that they had much rather shoot them than be bothered with watching them; a hint that Pete translated for Brevoort's benefit.
One of the sentries lighted a dusty lantern and, placing it on the floor of a box stall, relieved his captives of their belts and guns. The sentries squatted at the open end of the stall and talked together while Brevoort and Pete sat each in a corner staring at the lantern.
Presently Brevoort raised his head. "Find out if either of 'em sabe American talk," he whispered.
"You sabe my talk?" queried Pete.
One of the sentries turned to stare at Pete. The Mexican shook his head.
"You're a liar by the watch—and your father was a pig and the son of a pig, wasn't he?" asked Pete, smiling pleasantly.
"Si!" said the Mexican, grinning as though Pete had made a friendly joke.
"And the other fella there, with ears like the barndoor in a wind, he's jest nacherally a horn-toad that likes whiskey and would jest as soon knife his mother as he would eat a rattlesnake for supper, eh?" And Pete smiled engagingly.
"Si. It is to laugh."
"You sabe whiskey?"
The Mexican shook his head.
"You sabe dam' fool?" Pete's manner was serious as though seeking information.
Again the Mexican shook his head.
"He sure don't," said Pete, turning to Brevoort—"or he'd 'a' jest nacherally plugged me. If a Chola don't know what whiskey or dam' fool means, he don't know American."
Meanwhile the two guards had turned to the natural expedient of gambling for Pete's belt and gun. The elaborately carved holster had taken their fancy. Pete and his companion watched them for a while.
Presently Pete attracted Brevoort's attention by moving a finger. "Hear anything?" he whispered.
"I hear 'em eatin'," said Brevoort. He was afraid to use the word "horses."
Pete nodded. "Speakin' of eatin'—you hungry, Ed?"
"Plumb empty. But I didn't know it till you asked me."
"Well, I been feelin' round in the hay—and right in my corner is a nest full of eggs. There's so doggone many I figure that some of 'em is gettin' kind of ripe. Did you ever git hit in the eye with a ripe egg?"
"Not that I recollect'."
"Well, you would—if you had. Now I don't know what that swelled up gent in there figures on doin' with us. And I don't aim to hang around to find out. These here Cholas is gamblin' for our hosses, right now. It kind of looks to me like if we stayed round here much longer we ain't goin' to need any hosses or anything else. I worked for a Mexican onct—and I sabe 'em. You got to kind of feel what they mean, and never mind what they are sayin'. Now I got a hunch that we don't get back to the Olla, never—'less we start right now."
"But how in—"
"Wait a minute. I'm goin' to dig round like I was goin' to take a sleep—and find these here eggs. Then I'm goin' to count 'em nacheral, and pile 'em handy to you. Then we rig up a deal like we was gamblin' for 'em, to kind of pass the time. If that don't git them two coyotes interested, why, nothin' will. Next to gamblin' a Chola likes to watch gamblin' better 'n 'most anything. When you git to win all my eggs, I make a holler like I'm mad. You been cheatin'. And if them two Cholas ain't settin' with their mouths open and lookin' at us, why, I don't know Cholas. They're listenin' right now—but they don't sabe. Go ahead and talk like you was askin' me somethin'."
"What's your game after we start beefin' about the eggs?"
"You pick up a couple—and I pick up a couple. First you want to move round so you kin swing your arm. When I call you a doggone bald-face short-horn, jest let your Chola have the eggs plumb in his eye. If they bust like I figure, we got a chanct to jump 'em—but we got to move quick. They's a old single-tree layin' right clost to your elbow, kind of half under the hay. Mebby it'll come handy. I figure to kick my friend in the face when I jump. Do I find them eggs?"
"Dig for 'em," drawled the Texan.
"If we miss the first jump, then they shoot, and that'll be our finish. But that's a heap better 'n gittin' stood up against a 'dobe wall. I jest found them eggs."
And Pete uttered an exclamation as he drew his hand from the straw behind him, and produced an egg. The Mexicans glanced up. Pete dug in the straw and fetched up another egg—and another. Brevoort leaned forward as though deeply interested in some sleight-of-hand trick. Egg after egg came from the abandoned nest. The Mexicans laughed. The supply of eggs seemed to be endless.
Finally Pete drew out his hand, empty. "Let's count 'em," he said, and straightway began, placing the eggs in a pile midway between himself and his companion. "Twenty-eight. She was a enterprisin' hen."
"I'll match for 'em," said Brevoort, hitching round and facing Pete.
"I'll go you!" And straightway Brevoort and Pete became absorbed in the game, seemingly oblivious to the Mexicans, who sat watching, with open mouths, utterly absorbed in their childish interest. Two Gringoes were gambling for bad eggs.
Pete won for a while. Then he began to lose. "They're ripe all right. I can tell by the color. Plumb ready to bust. The Cholas sabe that. Watch 'em grin. They 're waitin' for one of us to bust a egg. That'll be a big joke, and they'll 'most die a-laughin'—'cause it's a joke—and 'cause we're Gringoes."
"Then here's where I bust one," said Brevoort. "Get a couple in your hand. Act like you was chokin' to death. I'll laugh. Then I'll kind of get the smell of that lame egg and stand up quick. Ready?"
"Shoot," said Pete.
Brevoort tossed an egg on the pile. Several of the eggs broke with a faint "plop." Pete wrinkled his nose, and his face expressed such utter astonishment, disgust, even horror, as the full significance of the age of those eggs ascended to him, that he did not need to act his part. He got to his feet and backed away from those eggs, even as Brevoort rose slowly, as though just aware that the eggs were not altogether innocent. The two Mexicans had risen to their knees and rocked back and forth, laughing at the beautiful joke on the Gringoes. Plop!—Plop!—Plop! and three of the four eggs targeted an accurate twelve o'clock. Pete leaped and kicked viciously. His high heel caught one choking Mexican in the jaw just as Brevoort jumped and swung the single-tree. Pete grabbed up his belt and gun.
Brevoort had no need to strike again.
"You go see if the horses are saddled. I'll watch the door," said Brevoort.
Arguilla was awakened from a heavy sleep by the sound of a shot and the shrill yelp of one of his men. A soldier entered and saluted. "The Americans have gone," he reported.
Arguilla's bloated face went from red to purple, and he reached for his gun which lay on the chair near his bed. But the lieutenant who had reported the escape faced his chief fearlessly.
Arguilla hesitated. "Who guarded them?" he asked hoarsely.
The lieutenant named the men.
"Take them out and shoot them—at once."
"But, Senor Comandante, they may not stand. The Americans have beaten them so that they are as dead."
"Then shoot them where they lay—which will be easier to do."
Far out across the starlit gloom the two thoroughbreds raced side by side. They seemed to know what was required of them. A mile, two miles, three miles, and the night-fire of Arguilla's men was a flickering dot against the black wall of the night.
Brevoort pulled his horse to a walk. "We done left 'em looking at each other," he drawled.
"Two of 'em ain't," said Pete succinctly.
Brevoort chuckled. "I was tryin' that hard not to laugh when you smelled them aigs, that I come nigh missin' my chanct. You sure are some play-actor."
"Play-actor nothin'! I was doggone near sick. I kin smell 'em yet. Say, I'd like to know what'll happen to them two Cholas."
"Ain't you satisfied with what we done to 'em?"
"Yep. But Arguilla won't be. I'd hate to be in their boots—" From the south came the faint, sinister "pop! pop!" of rifle shots. Pete turned quickly toward his companion. "Right now," he concluded, shrugging his shoulders.
"We got trouble of our own," said Brevoort. "Brent tried to run his iron on us—but he got hold of the wrong iron. Now the deal will have to go through like The Spider figured. Mebby Brent knows that Arguilla's men are at the Ortez—and mebby he don't. But we don't say. We ride in and repo't that Ortez says O.K.—that his vaqueros are comin' for the cattle and that he is comin' with the cash. Brent won't bat an eye. I know him. He'll jest tell you to take the dough and ride to Sanborn and take the train for El Paso. Then he'll vamose."
"'Cause he knows that this is the finish. When he was handlin' stock from south of the line,—in small bunches, and pushin' it through fast,—we was all right. The Mexican punchers was doin' the stealin', sellin' the stuff to Brent. And Brent was sellin' to Arguilla's agent—which is Ortez. All Ortez did was pay for it and turn it over to Arguilla. Mexicans was stealin' from Mexicans and sellin' to Brent cheap, 'cause he paid cash, and Brent was sellin' it to Mexicans. The fellas that stole the stuff knew better 'n to try to sell to Arguilla. All they would 'a' got would 'a' been a promise. So they sells to Brent, who bought mighty cheap, but paid real money. That worked fine. But when Brent starts stealin' from white men on his side of the line—why, he knows that it is the finish—so he figures on a big haul—or The Spider does—kind of takes them ranchers up north by surprise and gets away with a couple of hundred head. But he knows, as sure's he's a foot high, that they'll trail him—so he forgets that The Spider said you was to collect from Ortez and bank the dough—and figures on collectin' it himself."
"Kind of a cold deal, eh, Ed?"
"All crooked deals is cold."
"But I wonder why Brent didn't send me down to the Ortez alone. What did he ring you in for?"
"Brent figured that I'd get wise to his scheme. You see, the understandin' with The Spider is, that I'm fo'man of the Olla, case Brent gets bumped off. Mebby The Spider thinks I'm square. Mebby he jest plays me against Brent to keep us watchin' each other. I dunno."
"You figure Arguilla will send old man Ortez over the line with the cash?"
"Yes. He will now. We done spoiled his game by gittin' loose. But I don't say that Arguilla won't try to raid the Olla and get that money back, after he's got the cattle movin' south. You see the high-steppers that are backin' Arguilla ain't trustin' him with a whole lot of cash, personal. 'Course, what he loots is his. But their money is goin' for grub and ammunition. They figure if he gets enough cash, he'll quit. And they don't want him to quit. He thinks he's the big smoke—but all he is is hired man to big money."
"He's been played, right along—same as us, eh?"
"Same as us."
"Well, Ed, I don't mind takin' a long chanct—but I sure don't aim to let any man make a monkey of me."
"Then you want to quit this game," said Brevoort. "Why don't you kind of change hosses and take a fresh start? You ain't been in the game so long but what you can pull out."
"I was thinkin' of that. But what's a fella goin' to do? Here we be, ridin' straight for the Olla. Right soon the sun'll be shinin' and the hosses millin' round in the corral and gittin' warmed up, and Brent'll be tellin' us he can use us helpin' push them cattle through to the south end: and I reckon we'll change our saddles and git right to work, thinkin' all the time of quittin', but keepin' along with the job jest the same. A fella kind of hates to quit any job till it's done. And I figure this here deal ain't even started to make trouble—yet. Wait till the T-Bar-T outfit gits a-goin'; and mebby the Concho, and the Blue Range boys."
"Hand over your canteen a minute," said Brevoort. "I lost mine in the get-away."
Dawn found them inside the south line fence. In an hour they were at the 'dobe and clamoring for breakfast. The cook told them that Brent was at the north line camp, and had left no word for them.
Brevoort glanced quickly at Pete. Evidently Brent had not expected them to return so soon, if at all.
After breakfast they sauntered to the bunk-house, and pulled off their boots and lay down.
It was about noon when the cook called them. "The bunch is back," he said. "Harper just rode in. He says the old man is sore about somethin'."
"The Spider?" queried Brevoort.
"Goin' to ride over?" asked Pete, after the cook had left.
"No. But I'm goin' to throw a saddle on one of the never-sweats and I'm goin' to pick a good one."
"I reckon Blue Smoke'll do for me. You goin' to pull your freight, Ed?"
"We got our runnin' orders. The minute old man Ortez hands over that cash, there'll be a hole in the scenery where we was."
"That's my idee. But suppose we make it through to El Paso all right. What do we do next?"
"That's kind of like jumpin' off the aidge of the Grand Canon and askin' yourself what you're goin' to do while you're in the air. We ain't lit yet."
Following the trail that Brevoort and Pete had taken from the Ortez rancho, Arguilla and his men rode north and with them rode Ortez and several of his vaqueros. Within a few miles of the Olla the ragged soldiery swung west to the shelter of the low hills that ran parallel to the Olla line, while Ortez and his men rode directly to the Olla fence and entered a coulee near the big gate, where they waited the arrival of Brent and the herd.
About two hours before sundown one of Arguilla's lieutenants appeared on the edge of the coulee where he could overlook the country. At his signal the soldiers were to join the Ortez riders, but not until Brent and his men had the cattle delivered.
Arguilla, who was to keep out of sight, had told Ortez to pay the amount stipulated by Brent—and at the old established rate of twenty dollars a head—which meant that upon receipt of the cattle Ortez would give the foreman of the Olla four thousand dollars in gold. Ortez knew that Arguilla contemplated killing Brent and his men and recovering the money. Although his sympathies were with his own people, Ortez felt that such treachery was too black, even for a leader of guerillas.
He realized that the first word of warning to Brent would mean his own doom and the death of his men in the battle which would follow, for he knew the Gringo cowboys would fight to the last man. Against this he weighed the probability of a fight if he did not speak. In either event he would be dishonored in the eyes of the powers who had trusted him with handling the finances of the cause. It was in this state of mind that he waited for the arrival of the men whom he considered doomed, never imagining for a moment that Brent himself anticipated treachery.
The sun had almost touched the western sky-line when a solitary rider spurred out from the great gate of the Olla and up to Ortez, who recognized in him one of the young vaqueros that had escaped from Arguilla's guards the preceding night.
"Here's our tally." Pete handed Ortez a slip of paper. "Two hundred and three head. My patron says to call it two hundred even, and to give you a receipt for the money when you turn it over to me."
Arguilla's lieutenant had expected to see the herd turned over to Ortez before the payment of any moneys. He hesitated as to whether or not he should ride to the rim of the coulee and signal his company to interfere with the transaction then and there in the name of his superior officer. The lieutenant did not believe that Ortez would turn over the money for a mere slip of paper. But Ortez, strangely enough, seemed only too eager to close the transaction. Stepping to his horse, he took two small canvas sacks from his saddle-pockets. Still the lieutenant hesitated. He had had no instructions covering such a contingency.
"I await your receipt, senor," said Ortez as he handed the money to Pete.
Pete drew a folded slip of paper from his pocket and gave it quickly to Ortez. "Brent'll push the cattle through muy pronto." And whirling his horse round under spur, he was halfway back to the Olla gate before the lieutenant thought of signaling to Arguilla.
From the vantage of the higher ground the lieutenant could see that the gate was already open—that the Gringos were slowly pushing the cattle through, and out to the desert. He waved his serape. Almost on the instant Arguilla's men appeared in the distance, quirting their ponies as they raced toward the coulee. The lieutenant turned and gazed at the herd, which, from bunching through the gateway, had spread out fanwise. Already the Ortez vaqueros were riding out to take charge. But something was happening over near the Olla gate. The American cowboys had scattered and were riding hard, and behind them faint flashes cut the dusk and answering flashes came from those who fled. The lieutenant shouted and spread his arms, signaling Arguilla to stop as he and his men swung round the mouth of the coulee below. Some thirty riders from the T-Bar-T, the Blue Range, and the Concho swept through the gateway and began shooting at the Ortez vaqueros. Arguilla saw that his own plan had gone glimmering. Ortez had in some way played the traitor. Moreover, they were all on American territory. The herd had stampeded and scattered. In the fading light Arguilla saw one after another of the Ortez vaqueros go down. Did this noble captain of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity rush to the rescue of his countrymen? He did not. Cursing, he swung his horse toward the south, followed by his amazed and altogether uncomprehending soldiery. There had been too many Gringoes in that wild, shrilling cavalcade to suit his fancy. Meanwhile the Mexican lieutenant wisely disappeared down the western edge of the coulee and rode wide until he deemed it safe to change his course and follow in the dusty wake of his noble leader's "strategic retreat."
Only one of the Ortez riders escaped the sudden and furious visitation of the northern cattlemen, and he escaped because his horse, mortally wounded, had fallen upon him. In the succeeding darkness he was passed unnoticed by the returning Americans.
The Olla men, also taken by surprise, had acted quickly. Better mounted than most of their pursuers, who rode tired horses, the Olla riders spread at the first warning shout. Familiar with the country, they were able to get away unscathed, partly because the attention of the pursuers was centered chiefly on the herd.
It had been a case of each man for himself with the Olla riders, the exceptions to this being Brevoort and Pete, who had ridden together from the moment that Pete had shouted that sudden warning to his companions at the gateway, where they had sat their horses waiting for him to return from his mission to Ortez. Brent himself had posted a lookout at the northern gateway of the ranch, with instructions to watch for any possible pursuit. This cowboy, wise in his generation, had caught sight of a large body of riders bearing down from the north. He knew by the way they rode that they meant business. He knew also that they were too many for the Olla men. He focused his glass on them, got one good look, and calmly turned his horse and rode along the line fence to an arroyo, where he dismounted and waited until the visiting gentlemen had got well onto the Olla territory. Then he mounted and took his leisurely way toward space. He knew that the Olla, as a safe and paying proposition, had ceased to exist.
Brent, mounted on one of the thoroughbreds, lost no time in heading for Sanborn and the railroad, once he had ridden clear of the running skirmish with the northerners. He surmised that Pete and Brevoort would make for Sanborn—and they had The Spider's money. Brent also knew that he had a faster horse than either of them. If he could reach Sanborn ahead of them, he would have the advantage of cover—and of taking them by surprise . . .
The country was fairly open from the eastern boundary of the Olla to within a few miles of Sanborn, where a veritable forest of cacti had sprung up—one of those peculiar patches of desert growth, outlined in a huge square as definitely as though it had been planted by man. The wagon-road passed close to the northern edge of this freakish forest, and having passed, swung off toward the railroad, which it finally paralleled. It was in this vantage-ground of heavy shadow that Brent had planned to waylay Brevoort and Pete. To avoid chance discovery, Brent had ridden considerably out of his way to keep clear of the regular trail from the Olla to Sanborn, and had lost more time than he realized. Brevoort, on the contrary, had taken the regular trail, which joined the main wagon-road.
Pete and Brevoort rode easily, as the local made the Sanborn stop at six in the morning. Moreover, they did not care to spend any great length of time in Sanborn. They had planned to leave their horses at the livery stable—to be called for later.
At first they talked of the raid, the probable fate of Ortez and his men, and of Arguilla's flight. And from that they came to considering their own plans which, if successful, would find them in El Paso with several thousand dollars which belonged in reality to Arguilla's backers. There was an unvoiced but evident understanding between them that they would keep together so long as safety permitted. Pete had made up his mind to look for work on some southern ranch—and have done with the high trails of outlawry. Brevoort, falling into his mood, as much because he liked Pete as anything else, had decided to "throw in" with him. Had Pete suggested robbing a bank, or holding up a train, the big, easy-going Texan would have fallen in with the suggestion quite as readily, not because Pete had any special influence over him, but purely because Pete's sprightliness amused and interested him. Moreover, Pete was a partner that could be depended upon in fair weather or foul.
Their plan once made, they became silent, each busy with his own more intimate thoughts: Brevoort wondering what Pete would say if he were to suggest dividing the money and making for the coast and Alaska—and Pete endeavoring to reconcile himself to the idea that The Spider was actually Boca's father. For Pete had been thinking of Boca, even while he had been talking with Brevoort. It seemed that he always thought of her just before some hidden danger threatened. He had been thinking of her—even aside from her presence in the patio—that night when the posse had entered Showdown. He had thought of her while riding to the Ortez rancho—and now he was thinking of her again . . . He raised his head and glanced around. The starlit desert was as soundless as the very sky itself. The soft creak of the saddles, the breathing of the horses, the sand-muffled sound of their feet . . . Directly ahead loomed a wall of darkness. Pete touched Brevoort's arm and gestured toward it.
"They call it the Devil's Graveyard," said Brevoort. "A sizable bunch of cactus alongside the road. We're closer to Sanborn than I figured."
"Well, we can't go any slower 'less we git off and set down," Pete remarked. "Blue Smoke here is fightin' the bit. He ain't no graveyard hoss."
"I notice he's been actin' nervous—and only jest recent."
"He always runs his fool head off—if I let him," asserted Pete. And he fell silent, thinking of Boca and the strange tricks that Fate plays on the righteous and wicked alike. He was startled out of his reverie by Brevoort. "Mebby I'm dreamin'," whispered the Texan, "but I'm plumb certain I seen somethin' drift into that cactus-patch."
"Cattle," said Pete.
"No. No cattle in these parts."
"I dunno. Jest sit light in your saddle and watch your hoss's ears. He'll tell you right quick if there's another hoss in there."
Pete knew that the Texan would not have spoken without some pertinent reason. They were drawing close to the deeper shadow of the cacti, which loomed strangely ominous in the faint light of the stars. Brevoort's horse, being the faster walker, was a little ahead and seemingly unconscious of anything unusual in the shadows, when Blue Smoke, range-bred and alert, suddenly stopped.
"Put 'em up—quick!" came from the shadows.
Pete's hand dropped to his holster, but before he could jerk out his gun, Brevoort had fired at the sound—once, twice, three times . . . Pete heard the trampling of a frightened horse somewhere in the brush.
"I got him," Brevoort was saying.
Pete's face was cold with sweat. "Are you hit, Ed?" he said.
"No, he missed me. He was right quick, but I had him lined against that openin' there before he said a word. If he'd 'a' stood back and kept still he could have plugged us when we rode past. He was too sure of his game."
"Who was it, Ed?"
"I got one guess. We got the money. And he got what was comin' to him." Brevoort swung down and struck a match. "I owed you that, Brent," he said as the match flared up and went out.
"Brent!" exclaimed Pete.
Brevoort mounted and they rode on past the sinister place, in the chill silence of reaction from the tense and sudden moment when death had spoken to them from the shadows where now was silence and that voiceless thing that had once been a man. "Got to kill to live!" Pete shivered as they swung from the shadows and rode out across the open, and on down the dim, meandering road that led toward the faint, greenish light glimmering above the desert station of Sanborn.
Rodeo, Hachita, Monument—long hours between each town as the local did its variable thirty-five miles an hour across the southern end of New Mexico. It was Pete's first experience in traveling by rail, and true to himself he made the most of it. He used his eyes, and came to the conclusion that they were aboard a very fast train—a train that "would sure give a thoroughbred the run of its life"—Pete's standard of speed being altogether of the saddle—and that more people got on and off that train than could possibly have homes in that vast and uninhabited region. The conductor was an exceedingly popular individual. Every one called him by his "front name," which he acknowledged pleasantly in like manner. Pete wondered if the uniformed gentleman packed a gun; and was somewhat disappointed when he discovered that that protuberance beneath the conductor's brass-buttoned coat was nothing more deadly than a leather wallet, pretty well filled with bills and loose silver—for that isolated railroad did a good cash business and discriminating conductors grew unobtrusively wealthy. And what was still more strange to Pete was the fact that the conductor seemed to know where each person was going, without having to refer to any penciled notation or other evident data.
The conductor was surprisingly genial, even to strangers, for, having announced that the next station was El Paso, he took the end seat of the combination baggage and smoking car, spread out his report sheet, and as he sorted and arranged the canceled tickets, he chatted with Pete and Brevoort, who sat facing him. Had they heard the news? Brevoort shook his head. Well, there had been a big fight down along the line, between the northern cattlemen and Arguilla's soldiers. It was rumored that several American cowboys had been killed. He had heard this from the agent at Hermanas, who had "listened in" on the wire to El Paso. Perhaps they had heard about it, though, as they had come up from that way. No? Well, the El Paso papers already had the news, by wire. How was the cattle business going, anyway?
Brevoort said that it was pretty fair.
The conductor knew of a nice little hotel near the station—in fact he stopped there himself. El Paso was the end of his run. If the boys were going to see the town, they couldn't do better than to stop at this hotel. Clean beds, good food, quiet, and reasonable as to rates.
Pete was about to say something when Brevoort touched him gently with his knee.
"We was lookin' for a place like that," said Brevoort, suddenly loquacious. "We sure aim to see this town. We just been paid off—we was workin' for the Bar-Cross—and we figured on seein' a little high life a-fore we went to punchin' again. Is that hotel you was speakin' about open all night?"
The conductor chuckled. "Ain't been closed a minute for six years that I know. Mostly railroad men. And say, if you figure on being in town more than a couple of days, you can save money by taking your room by the week."
"Thanks," said Brevoort. "We aim to stay a week, anyhow."
"Well, they'll use you all right," asserted the conductor. "And if you're looking for a place to buy anything—clothes or collars or shirts—why, right across from the hotel there's as fine a little clothing-store as you can find in town. The man that runs is a friend of mine, and he'll use you white. Just tell him I sent you. Stokes is his name—Len Stokes."
"Thanks, neighbor," said Brevoort, and Pete thought that Brevoort's tone was the least bit sarcastic.
"That's all right," said the genial conductor. "I always like to see the boys have a good time."
Pete himself was a trifle suspicious of the conductor's solicitude as to their welfare, naturally unaware that that worthy official got a rake-off on all customers mentioning his name at the hotel and clothing-store.
He gathered up his reports and tickets, snapped a rubber band round them, and dropped them in his capacious pocket. "We're eight minutes late," he remarked, glancing at his watch. "Now what—" He rose and made for the end door as the train slowed up and stopped at an isolated siding. Pete glanced out and saw a little red box of a building, four or five empty freight cars, and a curve of rail that swung off south from the main line. No passengers got on or off the train, but Pete noticed that the conductor was talking earnestly with a hollow-cheeked, blue-overalled man who had just handed him a slip of paper.
The conductor waved his arm. The train pulled out. A little later he came and took his seat opposite Pete. Conductor Stokes seemed even more genial than ever, elaborating on the opportunities for "a good time" in El Paso, and reiterating the hope that they would make themselves at home at his hotel. He joked and talked familiarly about the more notorious sections of the town, warned them to be on the lookout for thugs, and finally excused himself and entered the baggage compartment.
Pete saw Brevoort lean forward and hastily snatch up a crumpled slip of paper which had dropped from the conductor's pocket as he got up. Brevoort scanned the paper, crumpled it, and tossed it out in the aisle.
"We didn't see that," he told Pete.
"What was it?"
"Forget it," said Brevoort, as the door opened and the conductor, glancing about, finally saw and recovered the service wire. "Running orders," he said, as he stuffed it in his pocket and moved on down the aisle. Pete gazed out of the window, apparently absorbed in looking at the desert. Brevoort rolled a cigarette, and nodded casually.
The door in the far end of the car slammed. Brevoort turned to Pete. "Look straight ahead and—listen. That paper you saw was a telegraph from the agent at Sanborn sayin' a man had been found shot, and to watch out for two cow-punchers that bought tickets for El Paso—which is us. That's how we came to stop at the junction back there, which ain't a regular stop. It means there'll be a marshal waitin' for us at El Paso."
"Then let's git off this doggone thing," suggested Pete.
"She stops onct before we git in," said Brevoort. "It's gittin' dark—and we got one chanct. When she slows down, we go into the baggage-car there and tell the boss we're lookin' for our war-bag, which we didn't have. Jest about the time she stops, we drop off. The side door's open."
"We'll be plumb afoot," said Pete.
"Yes. And we'll have to hole up somewhere till we git some store-clothes—and change our looks—and mebby our luck, which is runnin' bad right now."
"Do we split up when we hit town?" queried Pete.
"We got to: and you want to git rid of that there cash just as quick as you kin. Got any of your own money on you?"
"Got a couple of month's pay. You got the tickets. I'll give you that."
"Forget it! Small change don't count right now. Awhile back I was thinkin' of puttin' it up to you that we split the big money and take a little pasear up to Alaska, where it ain't so warm. The Spider dassent squeal to the law, bein' in bad hisself. We could sure make a get-away with it. But that there telegraph done settled that deal."
"It was settled afore that, Ed."
"Meanin' you wouldn't split, anyhow?"
"But it's crooked money, Pete. And it ain't lucky. Supposin' we get caught? Who gits the money? The Spider, or Arguilla's bunch, or you or me? Not on your life! The cops get it—and keep it."
"That's all right. But if I git through, these here pesos goes to that bank. Anyhow, you said it ain't lucky money. So I aim to git away from it pronto. Then I'm square with The Spider—and I quit."
"You can't shake the game that easy, Pete. I quit when we started for Sanborn—and what did we run into? And you bein' with me gits you in bad, likewise."
"If that's what's botherin' you, why, I'll take the chanct, and stick," said Pete.
"Nope. Right now I'm lookin' out for myself, and nobody else. If they kin hang that last deal onto me—and you know what I mean—why, your Uncle Ed'll sure have to take the long trail. And I aim to keep a-ridin' in the sun for a spell yet. We're gittin' clost to town. Mebby we can drop off easy and sift out of sight without any fuss. Then we got a chanct to change our clothes and git rid of that dough. They'll be lightin' the lamps right soon. Them saddle-bags buckled?"
"They sure are."
"All right. When you hear 'em whistle for the crossin' jest stand up and drop 'em out of the window. Nobody kin see you from behind. Then we mosey into the baggage-car and tell the agent in there we're lookin' for our war-bag. Bein' express messenger, he packs a gun. You want to step lively for that side door."
"I git you, Ed. What's all them lights out there?"
"That's the town. She's jest whistlin' for the crossin'. Dump your freight—easy, like you was lookin' out at the scenery. That's her. Now, stretch your arms and kind of look round. The conductor is out on the back platform. Come on!"
The express messenger was leaning from the side door in the act of swinging a parcel to the local agent at the Grossing, when Brevoort and Pete entered. With his back toward them and absorbed in launching the package he did not see them as they angled quickly to the other door and dropped off into the night. The train slowed almost to a stop, the grinding brakes eased, and it drew away, leaving Pete and Brevoort squatting behind a row of empty oil barrels along the track.
As the tail-lights of the train disappeared, Pete and Brevoort rose and walked down the track several hundred yards. Pete was certain that they had retraced too far, but Brevoort assured him that he knew about where to look for the saddle-bags. "I noticed that we passed a pile of new ties, jest after you dropped 'em," said the Texan.
Pete insisted that they had come too far until they almost walked into the ties. They searched about in the darkness, feeling along the ground with their feet, until finally Brevoort stumbled over the saddle-bags at the bottom of the ditch along the right-of-way. He picked them up. Pete was still rummaging around as Brevoort straightened. For an instant the Texan was tempted to keep up the pretense of searching and so drift farther from Pete, until under cover of darkness he could decamp with the money—across the border and make a fresh start with it—as he told himself, "something to start on."
But suddenly, and most absurdly alien to his present mood, came the vivid recollection of Pete's face when he had smelled those unforgettable eggs in the box-stall of the Ortez stables. Why this should have changed Brevoort's hasty inclination is explainable, perhaps, through that strange transition from the serious to the humorous; that quick relief from nervous tension that allows a man to readjust himself toward the universe. Brevoort cursed softly to himself as he strode to Pete. "Here they are. Found them back there a piece. Now we got to foot it acrost this end of the town and drift wide of the white-lights. Down to the south end we kin get somethin' to eat, and some new clothes. Them Jew stores is open late."
Following the river road they skirted the town until opposite the Mexican quarter, where, Brevoort explained, they would be comparatively safe, so long as they attended to their own business.
Pete was amazed by the lights and the clamor—a stringed orchestra playing in this open front, and a hot-dog vender declaiming in this open front; a moving-picture entrance brilliantly illuminated, and a constant movement of folk up and down the streets in free-and-easy fashion, and he almost forgot the cumulative hazards of their companionship in experiencing his first plunge into city life. Brevoort, who knew the town, made for a Mexican lodging-house, where they took a room above the noisy saloon, washed, and after downing a drink of vile whiskey, crossed the street to a dingy restaurant. Later they purchased some inconspicuous "town-clothes" which they carried back to their room.
Pete was for staying right where they were until morning, but Brevoort, naturally restless, suggested that they go to a moving-picture theater. They changed their clothes. Pete felt decidedly uncomfortable in the coat, and was only persuaded to wear it when Brevoort pointed out that it was a case of either leave their guns in the room or wear something to cover them. Then came the question of what they were to do with the money. Pete was for taking it along with them, but Brevoort vetoed the suggestion. "It's as safe here as in a bank," he said, and taking the two sacks from the saddle-pockets he lowered each one gently into the big water-pitcher. "Nothin' in there but water, which don't interest a Chola nohow. But I'll cinch it." Which he did downstairs, as he drew a handful of gold pieces from his pocket, counted them carefully, and left something like fifty dollars with the proprietor, asking him to take care of the money for them, as they did not want to get "plumb broke" the first night in town. The Mexican grinned understandingly. He was familiar with the ways of cowboys. Their money would be safe with him.
Outside Pete asked Brevoort if he had not "jest about made a present of fifty to that Mex."
"Not any. He figures he'll get his share of it when we git to hittin' the high-spots—which we don't aim to hit, this journey. That Mexican sure thinks he's got all the money we own except what's on us right now. So he won't ever think of goin' through our stuff upstairs. That fifty was insurance on the big money. Let's go where we kin git a real drink—and then we'll have a look at a show."
The "real drink" was followed by another. When Brevoort suggested a third, Pete shook his head. "It's all right, if you want to hit it, Ed—but it's takin' a big chanct. Somethin' might slip. 'T ain't the drinkin'—but it's the drinkin' right now."
"Reckon you 're right," concurred Brevoort. "But I ain't had a drink for so long—let's go see that show."
They crowded into a cheap and odoriferous nickel theater, and straightway Pete forgot where he was and all about who he was in watching the amazing offerings of the screen. The comedy feature puzzled him. He thought that he was expected to laugh—folks all round him were laughing—but the unreality of the performance left him staring curiously at the final tangle of a comedy which struggled to be funny to the bitter end. His attention was keen for the next picture, a Western drama, entitled "The Battle of the Border," which ran swiftly to lurid climax after climax, until even Pete's unsophisticated mind doubted that any hero could have the astounding ability to get out of tight places as did the cowboy hero of this picture. This sprightly adventurer had just killed a carload of Mexicans, leaped from the roof of an adobe to his horse, and made off into the hills—they were real hills of the desert country, sure enough—as buoyantly as though he had just received his pay-check and was in great haste to spend it, never once glancing back, and putting his horse up grades at a pace that would have made an old-timer ashamed of himself had he to ride sixty miles to the next ranch before sundown—as the lead on the picture stated. Still, Pete liked that picture. He knew that kind of country—when suddenly he became aware of the tightly packed room, the foul air laden with the fumes of humanity, stale whiskey, and tobacco, the shuffling of feet as people rose and stumbled through the darkness toward the street. Pete thought that was the end of the show, but as Brevoort made no move to go, he fixed his attention on the screen again. Immediately another scene jumped into the flickering square. Pete stiffened. Before him spread a wide canon. A tiny rider was coming down the trail from the rim. At the bottom was a Mexican 'dobe, a ramshackle stable and corral. And there hung the Olla beneath an acacia. A saddle lay near the corral bars. Several horses moved about lazily . . . The hero of the recent gun-fight was riding into the yard . . . Some one was coming from the 'dobe. Pete almost gasped as a Mexican girl, young, lithe, and smiling, stepped into the foreground and held out her hands as the hero swung from his horse. The girl was taller and more slender than Boca—yet in the close-up which followed, while her lover told her of the tribulations he had recently experienced, the girl's face was the face of Boca—the same sweetly curved and smiling mouth, the large dark eyes, even the manner in which her hair was arranged . . .
Pete nudged Brevoort. "I reckon we better drift," he whispered.
"How's that, Pete?"
"The girl there in the picture. Mebby you think I'm loco, but there's somethin' always happens every time I see her."
"You got a hunch, eh?"
"I sure got one."
"Then we play it." And Brevoort rose. They blinked their way to the entrance, pushed through the crowd at the doorway, and started toward their room. "I didn't want to say anything in there," Brevoort explained. "You can't tell who's sittin' behind you. But what was you gettin' at, anyhow?"
"You recollect my tellin' you about that trouble at Showdown? And the girl was my friend? Well, I never said nothin' to you about it, but I git to thinkin' of her and I can kind of see her face like she was tryin' to tell me somethin', every doggone time somethin's goin' to go wrong. First off, I said to myself I was loco and it only happened that way. But the second time—which was when we rode to the Ortez ranch—I seen her again. Then when we was driftin' along by that cactus over to Sanborn I come right clost to tellin' you that I seen her—not like I kin see you, but kind of inside—and I knowed that somethin' was a-comin' wrong. Then, first thing I know—and I sure wasn't thinkin' of her nohow—there is her face in that picture. I tell you, Ed, figuring out your trail is all right, and sure wise—but I'm gettin' so I feel like playin' a hunch every time."
"Well, a drink will fix you up. Then we'll mosey over to the room. Our stuff'll be there all right."
"'T ain't the money I'm thinkin' about. It's you and me."
"Forget it!" Brevoort slapped Pete on the shoulder. "Come on in here and have something."
"I'll go you one more—and then I quit," said Pete. For Pete began to realize that Brevoort's manner was slowly changing. Outwardly he was the same slow-speaking Texan, but his voice had taken on a curious inflection of recklessness which Pete attributed to the few but generous drinks of whiskey the Texan had taken. And Pete knew what whiskey could do to a man. He had learned enough about that when with the horse-trader. Moreover, Pete considered it a sort of weakness—to indulge in liquor when either in danger or about to face it. He had no moral scruples whatever. He simply viewed it from a utilitarian angle. A man with the fine edge of his wits benumbed by whiskey was apt to blunder. And Pete knew only to well that they would have need for all of their wits and caution to get safely out of El Paso. And to blunder now meant perhaps a fight with the police—for Pete knew that Brevoort would never suffer arrest without making a fight—imprisonment, and perhaps hanging. He knew little of Brevoort's past record, but he knew that his own would bulk big against him. Brevoort had taken another drink after they had tacitly agreed to quit. Brevoort was the older man, and Pete had rather relied on his judgment. Now he felt that Brevoort's companionship would eventually become a menace to their safety.
"Let's get back to the room, Ed," he suggested as they came out of the saloon.
"Hell, we ain't seen one end of the town yet."
"I'm goin' back," declared Pete.
"Got another hunch?"—and Brevoort laughed.
"Nope. I'm jest figurin' this cold. A good gambler don't drink when be's playin'. And we're sure gamblin'—big."
"Reckon you're right, pardner. Well, we ain't far from our blankets. Come on."
The proprietor of the rooming-house was surprised to see them return so soon and so unauspiciously. He counted out Brevoort's money and gave it back to him.
"Which calls for a round before we hit the hay," said Brevoort.
The room upstairs was hot and stuffy. Brevoort raised the window, rolled a cigarette and smoked, gazing down on the street, which had become noisier toward midnight. Pete emptied the pitcher and stowed the wet sacks of gold in his saddle-pockets.
"Told you everything was all right," said Brevoort, turning to watch Pete as he placed the saddlebags at the head of the bed.
"All right, so far," concurred Pete.
"Say, pardner, you losin' your nerve? You act so dam' serious. Hell, we ain't dead yet!"
"No, I ain't losin' my nerve. But I'm tellin' you I been plumb scared ever since I seen that picture. I don't feel right, Ed."
"I ain't feelin' so happy myself," muttered Brevoort, turning toward the window.
Pete, sitting on the edge of the bed, noticed that Brevoort's face was tense and unnatural. Presently Brevoort tossed his cigarette out of the window and turned to Pete. "I been thinkin' it out," he began slowly. "That hunch of yours kind of got me goin'. The best thing we kin do is to get out of this town quick. We got to split—no way round that. We're all right so far, but by to-morrow they'll be watchin' every train and every hotel, and doggin' every stranger to see what he's doin'. What you want to do is to take them sacks, wrap 'em up in paper, put ole E. H. Hodges's name on it—he's president of the Stockmen's Security Bank here, and a ole pal of The Spider's—and pack it over to the express company and git a receipt. They'll sure git that money to the bank. And then you want to fan it. If you jest was to walk out of town, no'th, you could catch a train for Alamogordo, mebby, and then git a hoss and work over toward the Organ Range, which is sure open country—and cattle. You can't go back the way we come—and they'll be watchin' the border south."
"Where is that express outfit, anyhow?"
"You know that street where we seen the show? Well, if you keep right on you'll come to the Square and the express company is right on the corner."
"All right, Ed. But what you goin' to do?"
"I'm goin' to git a soogun to-morrow mornin', roll my stuff and head for the border, afoot. I'm a ranch-hand lookin' for work. I know where I kin get acrost the river. Then I aim to hit for the dry spot, bush out, and cross the line where they won't be lookin' for a man afoot, nohow."
"Why don't you git to movin' right now?" Brevoort smiled curiously. "They's two reasons, pardner; one is that I don't want to git stood up by a somebody wantin' to know where I'm goin' at night with my war-bag—and I sure aim to take my chaps and boots and spurs and stuff along, for I'm like to need 'em. Then you ain't out of town yet."
"Which is why you're stickin' around."
"If we only had a couple of hosses, Pete. It's sure hell bein' afoot, ain't it?"
"It sure is. Say, Ed, we got to split, anyhow. Why don't you git to goin'? It ain't like you was quittin' me cold."
"You're a mighty white kid, Pete. And I'm goin' to tell you right now that you got a heap more sense and nerve than me, at any turn of the game. You been goin' round to-night on cold nerve and I been travelin' on whiskey. And I come so clost to gittin' drunk that I ain't sure I ain't yet. It was liquor first started me ridin' the high trail."
Brevoort had seated himself on the bed beside Pete. As the big Texan rolled a cigarette, Pete saw that his hands trembled. For the first time that evening Pete noticed that his companion was under a high tension. He could hardly believe that Brevoort's nerve was really shaken.
The street below had grown quieter. From below came the sound of a door being closed. Brevoort started, cursed, and glanced at Pete. "Closin' up for the night," he said. Pete quickly shifted his gaze to the open window. He did not want Brevoort to know that he had noticed the start, or those hands that trembled.
They rose early, had breakfast at the restaurant across the street, and returned to the room, Brevoort with a sogun in which he rolled and corded his effects and Pete with some brown paper in which he wrapped the sacks of gold. Brevoort borrowed a pencil from the proprietor and addressed the package.
"But how's the bank goin' to know who it's from?" queried Pete,
"That's right. I'll put The Spider's name here in the corner. Say, do you know we're takin' a whole lot of trouble for a man that wouldn't lift a hand to keep us from bein' sent up?" And Brevoort weighed the package thoughtfully. "By rights we ought to hang onto this dough. We earned it."
"I sure don't want any of it, Ed. I'm through with this game."
"I reckon you're right. Well, next off, you git it to that express office. I'll wait till you git back."
"What's the use of my comin' back, anyhow?" queried Pete. "We paid for our room last night."
"Ain't you goin' to take your stuff along? You can pack it same as mine. Then when you git to a ranch you are hooked up to ride."
"Guess you're right, Ed. Well, so-long."
"See you later."
Brevoort, who seemed to have recovered his nerve, added, "I aim to light out jest as quick as you git back."
Pete was so intent on his errand that he did not see Conductor Stokes, who stood in the doorway of the El Paso House, talking to a man who had a rowdy rolled under his arm, wore overalls, and carried a dinner-pail. The conductor glanced sharply at Pete as he passed, then turned abruptly, and stepped to a man who stood talking to the clerk at the desk.
"I jest saw one of 'em," said the conductor. "I never forget a face. He was rigged out in town-clothes—but it was him—all right."
"You sure, Len?"
"Pretty darned sure."
"Well, we can find out. You set down over there in the window and be reading a paper. I'll go out and follow him. If he comes back this way, you take a good look at him and give me the high sign if it's one of 'em. And if it is, he'll be connectin' up with the other one, sooner or later. I'll jest keep my eye on him, anyway. You say he had on a dark suit and is dark-complexioned and young?"
"Yes—that one. The other was bigger and taller and had light hair and gray eyes. Both of 'em were in their range clothes on number three."
"All right." And the plain-clothes man hastened out and up the street until he had "spotted" Pete, just entering the doorway of the express office.
Pete came out presently, glanced about casually, and started back for the room. Half a block behind him followed the plain-clothes man, who glanced in as he passed the hotel. The conductor nodded. The plain-clothes man hastened on down the street. He saw Pete turn a corner several blocks south. When the detective arrived at the corner Pete was just entering the door of the little clothing-store next to the restaurant. Presently Pete came out and crossed to the saloon. The detective sauntered down the opposite walk and entering the restaurant telephoned to headquarters. Then he called for coffee and sat watching the saloon across the way.
Brevoort, who had been sitting on the bed gazing down at the street, saw Pete turn the corner and enter the store. He also saw the plain-clothes man enter the restaurant and thought nothing of it until presently he saw another man enter the place. These two were talking together at the table near the front window. Brevoort grew suspicious. The latest arrival had not ordered anything to eat, nor had he greeted the other as men do when they meet. And they did not seem quite the type of men to dine in such a place. Pete, cording his belongings in the new sogun, heard Brevoort muttering something, and turned his head.
"I'm watchin' a couple of fellas acrost the street," explained Brevoort. "Keep back out of sight a minute."
Pete, on his knees, watched Brevoort's face. "Anything wrong, Ed?" he queried presently.
"I dunno. Jest step round behind me. Kin you see that eatin'-place?"
"Did you see either of them guys when you was out on the street?"
"Why, no. Hold on a minute! That one with the gray clothes was standin' on the corner by the express office when I come out. I recollec' now. He was smokin' a cigar."
"Yes. And he thrun it away when he went in there. I seen him at the telephone there on the desk—and pretty soon along comes his friend. Looks kind of queer that he was up at the Square when you was, and then trails down here where we be."
"You think mebby—"
"I dunno. If it is we better drift out at the back afore any of 'em gits round there."
"And leave our stuff, eh?"
"Yes. We got to move quick. They 're sizin' up this buildin' right now. Don't show yourself. Wait! One of 'em is comin' out and he's headed over here."
Brevoort drew back, and stepping to the door opened it and strode swiftly down the dim hall to a window at its farther end. Below the window was a shed, and beyond the farther edge of the shed-roof was an alley. He hastened back to the room and closed and locked the door. "You loco?" he growled. Pete had drawn a chair to the window and was sitting there, looking out as casually as though there was no danger whatever.
"I thought you made your get-away," said Pete, turning. "I was jest keepin' that hombre interested in watchin' me. Thought if he seen somebody here he wouldn't make no quick move to follow you."
"So you figured I quit you, eh? And you go and set in that winda so they'd think we was in the room here? And you done it to give me a chanct? Well, you got me wrong. I stick."
"Then I reckon somebody's goin' to git hurt," said Pete, "for I'm goin' to stick too."
Brevoort shook his head. "The first guy most like come over to ask the boss who's up here in this room. The boss tells him about us. Now, them coyotes sure would like it a heap better to git us out on the street—from behind—than to run up against us holed up here, for they figure somebody'll git hurt. Now you slip down that hall, easy, and drop onto the shed under the winda and fan it down the alley back there. You got a chanct. I sized up the layout."
"Nothin' doin'. Why don't you try it yourself?"
"'Cause they'll git one of us, anyhow, and it'll be the fella that stays."
"Then I'll flip a dollar to see which stays," said Pete.
Before Brevoort could speak, Pete drew a dollar from his pocket and flipped it toward his companion. It fell between them. "I say heads," said Pete. And he glanced at the coin, which showed tails. "The dollar says you go, Ed. You want to git a-movin'!"
Brevoort hesitated; Pete rose and urged him toward the door. "So-long, Ed. If you'd 'a' stayed we'd both got shot up. I'll set in the winda so they'll think we 're both here."
"I'll try her," said Brevoort. "But I'd 'a' stayed—only I knowed you wouldn't go. So-long, pardner." He pulled his gun and softly unlocked the door. There was no one in the hall—and no one on the narrow stairway to the right. He tiptoed to the window, climbed out, and let himself down to the shed-roof. From the roof he dropped to the alley, glanced round, and then ran.
Pete locked the door and went back to his chair in front of the window. He watched the man in the restaurant, who had risen and waved his hand, evidently acknowledging a signal from some one. It was the man Pete had seen near the express office—there was no doubt about that. Pete noticed that he was broad of shoulder, stocky, and wore a heavy gold watch-chain. He disappeared within the doorway below. Presently Pete heard some one coming up the uncarpeted stairway—some one who walked with the tread of a heavy person endeavoring to go silently. A brief interval in which Pete could hear his own heart thumping, and some one else ascended the stairway. The boards in the hallway creaked. Some one rapped on the door.
"I guess this is the finish," said Pete to himself. Had he been apprehended in the open, in a crowd on the street, he would not have made a fight. He had told himself that. But to be run to earth this way—trapped in a mean and squalid room, away from the sunlight and no slightest chance to get away . . . He surmised that these men knew that the men that they hunted would not hesitate to kill. Evidently they did not know that Brevoort was gone. How could he hold them that Brevoort might have more time? He hesitated. Should he speak, or keep silent?
He thought it better to answer the summons. "What do you want?" he called.
"We want to talk to your partner," said a voice.
"He's sleepin'," called Pete. "He was out 'most all night."
"Well, we'll talk with you then."
"Go ahead. I'm listenin'."
"Suppose you open the door."
"And jest suppose I don't? My pardner ain't like to be friendly if he's woke up sudden."
Pete could hear the murmuring of voices as if in consultation. Then, "All right. We'll come back later."
"Who'll I say wants to see him?" asked Pete.
"He'll know when he sees us. Old friends of his."
Meanwhile Pete had risen and moved softly toward the door. Standing to one side he listened. He heard footsteps along the hall—and the sound of some one descending the stairs. "One of 'em has gone down. The other is in the hall waitin'," he thought. "And both of 'em scared to bust in that door."
He tiptoed back to the window and glanced down. The heavy-shouldered man had crossed the street and was again in the restaurant. Pete saw him step to the telephone. Surmising that the other was telephoning for reinforcements, Pete knew that he would have to act quickly, or surrender. He was not afraid to risk being killed in a running fight. He was willing to take that chance. But the thought of imprisonment appalled him. To be shut from the sun and the space of the range—perhaps for life—or to be sentenced to be hanged, powerless to make any kind of a fight, without friends or money . . . He thought of The Spider, of Boca, of Montoya, and of Pop Annersley; of Andy White and Bailey. He wondered if Ed Brevoort had got clear of El Paso. He knew that there was some one in the hall, waiting. To make a break for liberty in that direction meant a killing, especially as Brevoort was supposed to be in the room. "I'll keep 'em guessin'," he told himself, and went back to his chair by the window. And if there was supposed to be another man in the room, why not carry on the play—for the benefit of the watcher across the street? Every minute would count for or against Brevoort's escape.
Thrusting aside all thought of his own precarious situation, Pete began a brisk conversation with his supposed companion. "How does your head feel?" he queried, leaning forward and addressing the empty bed. He nodded as if concurring in the answer.
Then, "Uh-huh! Well, you look it, all right!"
"You don't want no breakfast? Well, I done had mine."
"What's the time? 'Bout ten. Goin' to git up?"
Pete gestured as he described an imaginative incident relative to his supposed companion's behavior the preceding night. "Some folks been here askin' for you." Pete shook his head as though he had been asked who the callers were. He had turned sideways to the open window to carry on this pantomimic dialogue. He glanced at the restaurant across the street. The heavy-shouldered man had disappeared. Pete heard a faint shuffling sound in the hall outside. Before he could turn the door crashed inward. He leapt to his feet. With the leap his hand flashed to his side. Unaccustomed to a coat, his thumb caught in the pocket just as the man who had shouldered the flimsy door down, reeled and sprawled on the floor. Pete jerked his hand free, but in that lost instant a gun roared in the doorway. He crumpled to the floor. The heavy-shouldered man, followed by two officers, stepped into the room and glanced about.