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Title: Six Feet Four
Author: Gregory, Jackson, 1882-1943
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Six Feet Four" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                             SIX FEET FOUR

                           by Jackson Gregory

                                 1917



TO E. M. GREGORY

"HERE'S YOUR BOOK"



CHAPTER

       I The Storm

      II The Devil's Own Night

     III Buck Thornton, Man's Man

      IV The Ford

       V The Man from Poison Hole Ranch

      VI Winifred Judges a Man

     VII An Invitation to Supper

    VIII In Harte's Cabin

      IX The Double Theft

       X In the Moonlight

      XI The Bedloe Boys

     XII Rattlesnake Pollard

    XIII The Ranch on Big Little River

     XIV In the Name of Friendship

      XV The Kid

     XVI A Guarded Conference

    XVII Suspicion

   XVIII The Dance at Deer Creek Schoolhouse

     XIX Six Feet Four!

      XX Pollard Talks "Business"

     XXI The Girl and the Game

    XXII The Yellow Envelope Again!

   XXIII Warning

    XXIV The Gentleman from New Mexico

     XXV In the Dark

    XXVI The Frame-Up

   XXVII Jimmie Squares Himself

  XXVIII The Show Down



CHAPTER I

THE STORM


All day long, from an hour before the pale dawn until now after the
thick dark, the storm had raged through the mountains. Before midday it
had grown dark in the cañons. In the driving blast of the wind many a
tall pine had snapped, broken at last after long valiant years of
victorious buffeting with the seasons, while countless tossing branches
had been riven away from the parent boles and hurled far out in all
directions. Through the narrow cañons the wet wind went shrieking
fearsomely, driving the slant rain like countless thin spears of
glistening steel.

At the wan daybreak the sound filling the air was one of many-voiced but
subdued tumult, like the faraway growling of fierce, hungry, imprisoned
beasts. As the sodden hours dragged by the noises everywhere increased
steadily, so that before noon the whole of the wilderness seemed to be
shouting; narrow creek beds were filled with gushing, muddy water; the
trees on the mountainsides shook and snapped and creaked and hissed to
the hissing of the racing wind; at intervals the thunder echoing
ominously added its boom to the general uproar. Not for a score of
years and upward had such a storm visited the mountains in the vicinity
of the old road house in Big Pine Flat.

Night, as though it had leaped upon the back of the storm and had ridden
hitherward on the wings of the wind all impatience to defy the laws of
daylight, was in truth mistress of the mountains a full hour or more
before the invisible sun's allotted time of setting. In the
storm-smitten, lonely building at the foot of the rocky slope, shivering
as though with the cold, rocking crazily as though in startled fear at
each gust, the roaring log fire in the open fireplace made an uncertain
twilight and innumerable ghostlike shadows. The wind whistling down the
chimney, making that eerie sound known locally as the voice of William
Henry, came and went fitfully. Poke Drury, the cheerful, one-legged
keeper of the road house, swung back and forth up and down on his one
crutch, whistling blithely with his guest of the chimney and lighting
the last of his coal oil lamps and candles.

"She's a Lu-lu bird, all right," acknowledged Poke Drury. He swung
across his long "general room" to the fireplace, balanced on his crutch
while he shifted and kicked at a fallen burning log with his one boot,
and then hooked his elbows on his mantel. His very black, smiling eyes
took cheerful stock of his guests whom the storm had brought him. They
were many, more than had ever at one time honoured the Big Pine road
house. And still others were coming.

"If Hap Smith ain't forgot how to sling a four horse team through the
dark, huh?" continued the landlord as he placed still another candle at
the south window.

In architectural design Poke Drury's road house was as simple an affair
as Poke Drury himself. There was but one story: the whole front of the
house facing the country road was devoted to the "general room." Here
was a bar, occupying the far end. Then there were two or three rude pine
tables, oil-cloth covered. The chairs were plentiful and all of the
rawhide bottom species, austere looking, but comfortable enough. And,
at the other end of the barn like chamber was the long dining table.
Beyond it a door leading to the kitchen at the back of the house. Next
to the kitchen the family bed room where Poke Drury and his dreary
looking spouse slept. Adjoining this was the one spare bed room, with a
couple of broken legged cots and a wash-stand without any bowl or
pitcher. If one wished to lave his hands and face or comb his hair let
him step out on the back porch under the shoulder of the mountain and
utilize the road house toilet facilities there: they were a tin basin, a
water pipe leading from a spring and a broken comb stuck after the
fashion of the country in the long hairs of the ox's tail nailed to the
porch post.

"You gents is sure right welcome," the one-legged proprietor went on,
having paused a moment to listen to the wind howling through the narrow
pass and battling at his door and windows. "I got plenty to eat an'
more'n plenty to drink, same as usual. But when it comes to sleepin',
well, you got to make floors an' chairs an' tables do. You see this here
little shower has filled me all up. The Lew Yates place up the river got
itself pretty well washed out; Lew's young wife an' ol' mother-in-law,"
and Poke's voice was properly modified, "got scared clean to pieces. Not
bein' used to our ways out here," he added brightly. "Any way they've
got the spare bed room. An' my room an' Ma's ... well, Ma's got a real
bad cold an' she's camped there for the night. But, shucks, boys, what's
the odds, when there's fire in the fire place an' grub in the grub box
an' as fine a line of licker as you can find any place I know of. An' a
deck or two of cards an' the bones to rattle for them that's anxious to
make or break quick ... Hap Smith _ought_ to been here before now. You
wouldn't suppose...."

He broke off and looked at those of the faces which had been turned his
way. His thought was plain to read, at least for those who understood
recent local conditions. Hap Smith had been driving the stage over the
mountains for only something less than three weeks; which is to say
since the violent taking off of his predecessor, Bill Varney.

Before any one spoke the dozen men in the room had had ample time to
consider this suggestion. One or two of them glanced up at the clock
swinging its pendulum over the chimney piece. Then they went on with
what they were doing, glancing through old newspapers, dealing at
cards, smoking or just sitting and staring at nothing in particular.

"The last week has put lots of water in all the cricks," offered old man
Adams from his place by the fire. "Then with this cloud-bust an'
downpour today, it ain't real nice travellin'. That would be about all
that's holdin' Hap up. An' I'm tellin' you why: Did you ever hear a man
tell of a stick-up party on a night like this? No, sir! These here
stick-up gents got more sense than that; they'd be settin' nice an' snug
an' dry like us fellers, right now."

As usual, old man Adams had stated a theory with emphasis and utterly
without any previous reflection, being a positive soul, but never a
brilliant. And, again quite as usual, a theory stated was naturally to
be combated with more or less violence. Out of the innocent enough
statement there grew a long, devious argument. An argument which was at
its height and evincing no signs of ever getting anywhere at all, when
from the night without came the rattle of wheels, the jingle of harness
chains and Hap Smith's voice shouting out the tidings of his tardy
arrival.

The front door was flung open, lamps and candles and log fire all danced
in the sudden draft and some of the flickering flames went out, and the
first one of Hap Smith's belated passengers, a young girl, was fairly
blown into the room. She, like the rest, was drenched and as she
hastened across the floor to the welcome fire trailed rain water from
her cape and dress. But her eyes were sparkling, her cheeks rosy with
the rude wooing of the outside night. After her, stamping noisily, glad
of the light and warmth and a prospect of food and drink, came Hap
Smith's other passengers, four booted men from the mines and the cattle
country.

To the last man of them in the road house they gave her their immediate
and exclusive attention. Briefly suspended were all such operations as
smoking, drinking, newspaper reading or card playing. They looked at her
gravely, speculatively and with frankly unhidden interest. One man who
had laid a wet coat aside donned it again swiftly and surreptitiously.
Another in awkward fashion, as she passed close to him, half rose and
then sank back into his chair. Still others merely narrowed the gaze
that was bent upon her steadily.

She went straight to the fireplace, threw off her wraps and extended her
hands to the blaze. So for a moment she stood, her shoulders stirring to
the shiver which ran down her whole body. Then she turned her head a
little and for the first time took in all of the rude appointments of
the room.

"Oh!" she gasped. "I...."

"It's all right, Miss," said Poke Drury, swinging toward her, his hand
lifted as though to stop one in full flight. "You see ... just that end
there is the bar room," he explained nodding at her reassuringly. "The
middle of the room here is the ... the parlour; an' down at that end,
where the long table is, that's the dinin' room. I ain't ever got
aroun' to the partitions yet, but I'm goin' to some day. An' ... Ahem!"

He had said it all and, all things considered, had done rather well with
an impossible job. The clearing of the throat and a glare to go with it
were not for the startled girl but for that part of the room where the
bar and card tables were being used.

"Oh," said the girl again. And then, turning her back upon the bar and
so allowing the firelight to add to the sparkle of her eyes and the
flush on her cheeks, "Of course. One mustn't expect everything. And
please don't ask the gentlemen to ... to stop whatever they are doing on
my account. I'm quite warm now." She smiled brightly at her host and
shivered again.

"May I go right to my room?"

In the days when Poke Drury's road house stood lone and aloof from the
world in Big Pine Flat, very little of the world from which such as Poke
Drury had retreated had ever peered into these mountain-bound
fastnesses; certainly less than few women of the type of this girl had
ever come here in the memory of the men who now, some boldly and some
shyly, regarded her drying herself and seeking warmth in front of the
blazing fire. True, at the time there were in the house three others of
her sex. But they were ... different.

"May I go right to my room?" she repeated as the landlord stood gaping
at her rather foolishly. She imagined that he had not heard, being a
little deaf ... or that, possibly, the poor chap was a trifle slow
witted. And again she smiled on him kindly and again he noted the
shiver bespeaking both chill and fatigue.

But to Poke Drury there had come an inspiration. Not much of one,
perhaps, yet he quickly availed himself of it. Hanging in a dusty corner
near the long dining table, was an old and long disused guest's book,
the official road house register. Drury's wandering eye lighted upon it.

"If you'll sign up, Miss," he suggested, "I'll go have Ma get your room
ready."

And away he scurried on his crutch, casting a last look over his
shoulder at his ruder male guests.

The girl went hastily as directed and sat down at the table, her back to
the room. The book she lifted down from its hanging place; there was a
stub of pencil tied to the string. She took it stiffly into her fingers
and wrote, "Winifred Waverly." Her pencil in the space reserved for the
signer's home town, she hesitated. Only briefly, however. With a little
shrug, she completed the legend, inscribing swiftly, "Hill's Corners."
Then she sat still, feeling that many eyes were upon her and waited the
return of the road house keeper. When finally he came back into the
room, his slow hesitating gait and puckered face gave her a suspicion of
the truth.

"I'm downright sorry, Miss," he began lamely. "Ma's got
somethin' ... bad cold or pneumonia ... an' she won't budge. There's
only one more bed room an' Lew Yates's wife has got one cot an Lew's
mother-in-law has got the other. An' _they_ won't budge. An' ..."

He ended there abruptly.

"I see," said the girl wearily. "There isn't any place for me."

"Unless," offered Drury without enthusiasm and equally without
expectation of his offer being of any great value, "you'd care to crawl
in with Ma ..."

"No, thank you!" said Miss Waverly hastily. "I can sit up somewhere;
after all it won't be long until morning and we start on again. Or, if I
might have a blanket to throw down in a corner ..."

Again Poke Drury left her abruptly. She sat still at the table, without
turning, again conscious of many eyes steadily on her. Presently from an
adjoining room came Drury's voice, subdued to a low mutter. Then a
woman's voice, snapping and querrulous. And a moment later the return of
Drury, his haste savouring somewhat of flight from the connubial
chamber, but certain spoils of victory with him; from his arm trailed a
crazy-quilt which it was perfectly clear he had snatched from his wife's
bed.

He led the way to the kitchen, stuck a candle in a bottle on the table,
spread the quilt on the floor in the corner, made a veritable ceremony
of fastening the back door and left her. The girl shivered and went
slowly to her uninviting couch.

Poke Drury, in his big general room again, stood staring with troubled
face at the other men. With common consent and to the last man of them
they had already tiptoed to the register and were seeking to inform
themselves as to the name and habitat of the prettiest girl who had ever
found herself within the four walls of Poke Drury's road house.

"Nice name," offered old man Adams whose curiosity had kept stride with
his years and who, lacking all youthful hesitation, had been first to
get to the book. "Kind of stylish soundin'. But, Hill's Corners?" He
shook his head. "I ain't been to the Corners for a right smart spell,
but I didn't know such as _her_ lived there."

"They don't," growled the heavy set man who had snatched the register
from old man Adams' fingers. "An' I been there recent. Only last week.
The Corners ain't so all-fired big as a female like her is goin' to be
livin' there an' it not be knowed all over."

Poke Drury descended upon them, jerked the book away and with a screwed
up face and many gestures toward the kitchen recalled to them that a
flimsy partition, though it may shut out the vision, is hardly to be
counted on to stop the passage of an unguarded voice.

"Step down this way, gents," he said tactfully. "Where the bar is. Bein'
it's a right winterish sort of night I don't reckon a little drop o'
kindness would go bad, huh? Name your poison, gents. It's on me."

In her corner just beyond the flimsy partition, Winifred Waverly, of
Hill's Corners or elsewhere, drew the many coloured patch work quilt
about her and shivered again.



CHAPTER II

THE DEVIL'S OWN NIGHT


Hap Smith, the last to come in, opened the front door which the wind
snatched from his hands and slammed violently against the wall. In the
sudden draft the old newspapers on one of the oil-cloth covered tables
went flying across the room, while the rain drove in and blackened the
floor. Hap Smith got the door shut and for a moment stood with his back
against it, his two mail bags, a lean and a fat, tied together and flung
over his shoulder, while he smote his hands together and laughed.

"A night for the devil to go skylarkin' in!" he cried jovially. "A night
for murder an' arson an' robbin' graveyards! Listen to her, boys! Hear
her roar! Poke Drury, I'm tellin' you, I'm glad your shack's right where
it is instead of seventeen miles fu'ther on. An' ... Where's the girl?"
He had swept the room with his roving eye; now, dropping his voice a
little he came on down the room and to the bar. "Gone to bed?"

As one thoroughly at home here he went for a moment behind the bar,
dropped the bags into a corner for safety and threw off his heavy outer
coat, frankly exposing the big revolver which dragged openly at his
right hip. Bill Varney had always carried a rifle and had been unable to
avail himself of it in time; Hap Smith in assuming the responsibilities
of the United States Mail had forthwith invested heavily of his cash on
hand for a Colt forty-five and wore it frankly in the open. His, by the
way, was the only gun in sight, although there were perhaps a half dozen
in the room.

"She ain't exactly gone to bed," giggled the garrulous old man Adams,
"bein' as there ain't no bed for her to go to. Ma Drury is inhabitin'
one right now, while the other two is pre-empted by Lew Yates' wife an'
his mother-in-law."

"Pshaw," muttered Hap Smith. "That ain't right. She's an awful nice girl
an' she's clean tuckered out an' cold an' wet. She'd ought to have a bed
to creep into." His eyes reproachfully trailed off to Poke Drury. The
one-legged man made a grimace and shrugged.

"I can't drag Lew's folks out, can I?" he demanded. "An' I'd like to see
the jasper as would try pryin' Ma loose from the covers right now. It
can't be did, Hap."

Hap sighed, seeming to agree, and sighing reached out a big hairy hand
for the bottle.

"She's an awful nice girl, jus' the same," he repeated with head-nodding
emphasis. And then, feeling no doubt that he had done his chivalrous
duty, he tossed off his liquor, stretched his thick arms high over his
head, squared his shoulders comfortably in his blue flannel shirt and
grinned in wide good humour. "This here campoody of yours ain't a
terrible bad place to be right bow, Poke, old scout. Not a bad place
a-tall."

"You said twice, she was nice," put in old man Adams, his bleary, red
rimmed ferret eyes gimleting at the stage driver. "But you ain't said
who she was? Now..."

Hap Smith stared at him and chuckled.

"Ain't that jus' like Adams for you?" he wanted to know. "Who is she, he
says! An' here I been ridin' alongside her all day an' never once does
it pop into my head to ask whether she minds the name of Daisy or Sweet
Marie!"

"Name's Winifred Waverly," chirped up the old man. "But a name don't
mean much; not in this end of the world least ways. But us boys finds it
kind of interestin' how she hangs out to Dead Man's Alley. That bein'
kind of strange an' ..."

"Poh!" snorted Hap Smith disdainfully. "Her hang out in that little town
of Hill's Corners? Seein' as she ain't ever been there, havin' tol' me
so on the stage less'n two hours ago, what's the sense of sayin' a fool
thing like that? She ain't the kind as dwells in the likes of that nest
of polecats an' sidewinders. Poh!"

"Poh, is it?" jeered old man Adams tremulously. "Clap your peep sight on
that, Hap Smith. Poh at me, will you?" and close up to the driver's eyes
he thrust the road house register with its newly pencilled inscription
so close that Hap Smith dodged and was some time deciphering the brief
legend.

"Beats me," he grunted, when he had done. He tossed the book to a table
as a matter of no moment and shrugged. "Anyways she's a nice girl, I
don't care where she abides, so to speak. An' me an' these other boys,"
with a sweeping glance at the four of his recent male passengers, "is
hungrier than wolves. How about it, Poke? Late hours, but considerin'
the kind of night the devil's dealin' we're lucky to be here a-tall. I
could eat the hind leg off a ten year ol' steer."

"Jus' because a girl's got a red mouth an' purty eyes ..." began old man
Adams knowingly. But Smith snorted "Poh!" at him again and clapped him
good naturedly on the thin old shoulders after such a fashion as to
double the old man up and send him coughing and catching at his breath
back to his chair by the fire.

Poke Drury, staring strangely at Smith, showed unmistakable signs of his
embarrassment. Slowly under several pairs of interested eyes his face
went a flaming red.

"I don't know what's got into me tonight," he muttered, slapping a very
high and shining forehead with a very soft, flabby hand. "I clean forgot
you boys hadn't had supper. An' now ... the grub's all in the kitchen
an' ... _she's_ in there, all curled up in a quilt an' mos' likely
asleep."

Several mouths dropped. As for Hap Smith he again smote his big hands
together and laughed.

"Drinks on Poke Drury," he announced cheerfully. "For havin' got so
excited over a pretty girl he forgot we hadn't had supper! Bein' that's
what's got into him."

Drury hastily set forth bottles and glasses. More than that, being
tactful, he started Hap Smith talking. He asked of the roads, called
attention to the fact that the stage was several hours late, hinted at
danger from the same gentleman who had taken off Bill Varney only
recently, and so succeeded in attaining the desired result. Hap Smith,
a glass twisting slowly in his hand, declaimed long and loudly.

But in the midst of his dissertation the kitchen door opened and the
girl, her quilt about her shoulders like a shawl, came in.

"I heard," she said quietly. "You are all hungry and the food is in
there." She came on to the fireplace and sat down. "I am hungry, too.
And cold." She looked upon the broad genial face of Hap Smith as upon
the visage of an old friend. "I am not going to be stupid," she
announced with a little air of taking the situation in hand. "I would
be, if I stayed in there and caught cold. Tell them," and it was still
Hap Smith whom she addressed, "to go on with whatever they are doing."

Again she came in for a close general scrutiny, one of serious, frank
and matter of fact appraisal. Conscious of it, as she could not help
being, she for a little lifted her head and turned her eyes gravely to
meet the eyes directed upon her. Hers were clear, untroubled, a deep
grey and eminently pleasant to look into; especially now that she put
into them a little friendly smile. But in another moment and with a half
sigh of weariness, she settled into a chair at the fireside and let her
gaze wander back to the blazing fire.

Again among themselves they conceded, what by glances and covert nods,
that she was most decidedly worth a man's second look and another after
that. "Pretty, like a picture," offered Joe Hamby in a guarded whisper
to one of the recent arrivals, who was standing with him at the bar.
"Or," amended Joe with a flash of inspiration, "like a flower; one of
them nice blue flowers on a long stem down by the crick."

"Nice to talk to, too," returned Joe's companion, something of the pride
of ownership in his tone and look. For, during the day on the stage had
he not once summoned the courage for a stammering remark to her, and had
she not replied pleasantly? "Never travelled with a nicer lady."
Whereupon Joe Hamby regarded him enviously. And old man Adams, with a
sly look out of his senile old eyes, jerked his thin old body across the
floor, dragging a chair after him, and sat down to entertain the lady.
Who, it would seem from the twitching of her lips, had been in reality
wooed out of herself and highly amused, when the interruption to the
quiet hour came, abruptly and without warning.

Poke Drury, willingly aided by the hungrier of his guests, had brought
in the cold dishes; a big roast of beef, boiled potatoes, quantities of
bread and butter and the last of Ma Drury's dried-apple pies. The long
dining table had begun to take on a truly festive air. The coffee was
boiling in the coals of the fireplace. Then the front door, the knob
turned and released from without, was blown wide open by the gusty wind
and a tall man stood in the black rectangle of the doorway. His
appearance and attitude were significant, making useless all conjecture.
A faded red bandana handkerchief was knotted about his face with rude
slits for the eyes. A broad black hat with flapping, dripping brim was
down over his forehead. In his two hands, the barrel thrust forward into
the room, was a sawed-off shotgun.

He did not speak, it being plain that words were utterly superfluous and
that he knew it. Nor was there any outcry in the room. At first the girl
had not seen, her back being to the door. Nor had old man Adams, his red
rimmed eyes being on the girl. They turned together. The old man's jaw
dropped; the girl's eyes widened, rather to a lively interest, it would
seem, than to alarm. One had but to sit tight at times like this and
obey orders....

The intruder's eyes were everywhere. His chief concern, however, from
the start appeared to be Hap Smith. The stage driver's hand had gone to
the butt of his revolver and now rested there. The muzzle of the short
barrelled shotgun made a short quick arc and came to bear on Hap Smith.
Slowly his fingers dropped from his belt.

Bert Stone, a quick eyed little man from Barstow's Springs, whipped out
a revolver from its hidden place on his person and fired. But he had
been over hasty and the man in the doorway had seen the gesture. The
roar of the shotgun there in the house sounded like that of a cannon;
the smoke lifted and spread and swirled in the draft. Bert Stone went
down with a scream of pain as a load of buckshot flung him about and
half tore off his outer arm. Only the fact that Stone, in firing, had
wisely thrown his body a little to the side, saved the head upon his
body.

The wind swept through the open door with fresh fury. Here a lamp went
out, there the unsteady flame of a candle was extinguished. The smoke
from the shotgun was mingled with much wood smoke whipped out of the
fireplace. The man in the doorway, neither hesitating nor hurrying,
eminently cool and confident, came into the room. The girl studied him
curiously, marking each trifling detail of his costume: the shaggy black
chaps like those of a cowboy off for a gay holiday; the soft grey shirt
and silk handkerchief to match knotted loosely about a brown throat. He
was very tall and wore boots with tall heels; his black hat had a crown
which added to the impression of great height. To the fascinated eyes of
the girl he appeared little less than a giant.

He stopped and for a moment remained tensely, watchfully still. She felt
his eyes on her; she could not see them in the shadow of his hat, but
had an unpleasant sensation of a pair of sinister eyes narrowing in
their keen regard of her. She shivered as though cold.

Moving again he made his away along the wall and to the bar. He stepped
behind it, still with neither hesitation nor haste, and found the two
mail bags with his feet. And with his feet he pushed them out to the
open, along the wall, toward the door. Hap Smith snarled; his face no
longer one of broad good humour. The shotgun barrel bore upon him
steadily, warningly. Hap's rising hand dropped again.

Then suddenly all was uproar and confusion, those who had been chained
to their chairs or places on the floor springing into action. The man
had backed to the door, swept up the mail bags and now suddenly leaped
backward into the outside night. Hap Smith and four or five other men
had drawn their guns and were firing after him. There were outcries,
above them surging the curses of the stage driver. Bert Stone was
moaning on the floor. The girl wanted to go to him but for a little
merely regarded him with wide eyes; there was a spreading pool on the
bare floor at his side, looking in the uncertain light like spilled ink.
A thud of bare feet, and Ma Drury came running into the room, her night
dress flying after her.

"Pa!" she cried wildly. "You ain't killed, are you, Pa?"

"Bert is, most likely," he answered, swinging across the room to the
fallen man. Then it was that the girl by the fire sprang to her feet
and ran to Bert Stone's side.

"Who was it? What happened?" Ma Drury asked shrilly.

The men looked from one to another of their set-faced crowd. Getting
only silence for her answer Ma Drury with characteristic irritation
demanded again to be told full particulars and in the same breath
ordered the door shut. A tardy squeal and another like an echo came from
the room which harboured Lew Yates's wife and mother-in-law. Perhaps
they had just come out from under the covers for air and squealed and
dived back again ... not being used to the customs obtaining in the
vicinity of Drury's road house as Poke himself had remarked.

Hap Smith was the first one of the men who had dashed outside to return.
He carried a mail bag in each hand, muddy and wet, having stumbled over
them in the wild chase. He dropped them to the floor and stared angrily
at them.

The bulky mail bag, save for the damp and mud, was untouched. The lean
bag however had been slit open. Hap Smith kicked it in a sudden access
of rage.

"There was ten thousan' dollars in there, in green backs," he said
heavily. "They trusted it to me an' Bert Stone to get across with it.
An' now ..."

His face was puckered with rage and shame. He went slowly to where Bert
Stone lay. His friend was white and unconscious ... perhaps already his
tale was told. Hap Smith looked from him to the girl who, her face as
white as Bert's, was trying to staunch the flow of blood.

"I said it," he muttered lugubriously; "the devil's own night."



CHAPTER III

BUCK THORNTON, MAN'S MAN


Those who had rushed into the outer darkness in the wake of the
highwayman returned presently. Mere impulse and swift natural reaction
from their former enforced inactivity rather than any hope of success
had sent them hot-foot on the pursuit. The noisy, windy night, the
absolute dark, obviated all possibility of coming up with him. Grumbling
and theorising, they returned to the room and closed the door behind
them.

Now that the tense moment of the actual robbery had passed there was a
general buzzing talk, voices lifted in surmise, a lively excitement
replacing the cosy quiet of a few moments ago. Voices from the spare bed
room urged Ma Drury to bring an account of the adventure, and Poke's
wife, having first escorted the wounded man to her own bed and donned a
wrapper and shoes and stockings, gave to Lew Yates's women folk as
circumstantial a description of the whole affair as though she herself
had witnessed it.

After a while a man here and there began to eat, taking a slab of bread
and meat in one hand and a cup of black coffee in the other, walking
back and forth and talking thickly. The girl at the fireplace sat stiff
and still, staring at the flames; she had lost her appetite, had quite
forgotten it in fact. At first from under the hand shading her eyes she
watched the men going for one drink after another, the strong drink of
the frontier; but after a little, as though this had been a novel sight
in the beginning but soon lost interest for her, she let her look droop
to the fire. Fresh dry fuel had been piled on the back log and at last a
grateful sense of warmth and sleepiness pervaded her being. She no
longer felt hunger; she was too tired, her eyelids had grown too heavy
for her to harbour the thought of food. She settled forward in her chair
and nodded. The talk of the men, though as they ate and drank their
voices were lifted, grew fainter and fainter in her ears, further and
further away. Finally they were blended in an indistinguishable murmur
that meant nothing.... In a doze she caught herself wondering if the
wounded man in the next room would live. It was terribly still in there.

She was in that mental and physical condition when, the body tired and
the brain betwixt dozing and waking, thought becomes a feverish process,
the mind snatching vivid pictures from the day's experience and weaving
them into as illogical a pattern as that of the crazy quilt over her
shoulders. All day long she had ridden in the swaying, lurching, jerking
stage until now in her chair, as she slipped a little forward, she
experienced the sensations of the day. Many a time that day as the
racing horses obeying the experienced hand of the driver swept around a
sharp turn in the road she had looked down a sheer cliff that had made
her flesh quiver so that it had been hard not to draw back and cry out.
She had seen the horses leaping forward scamper like mad runaways down a
long slope, dashing through the spray of a rising creek to take the
uphill climb on the run. And tonight she had seen a masked man shoot
down one of her day's companions and loot the United States mail.... And
in a register somewhere she had written down the name of Hill's Corners.
The place men called Dead Man's Alley. She had never heard the name
until today. Tomorrow she would ask the exact significance of it....

At last she was sound asleep. She had found comfort by twisting sideways
in her chair and resting her shoulder against the warm rock-masonry of
the outer edge of the fireplace. She awoke with a start. What had
recalled her to consciousness she did not know. Perhaps a new voice in
her ears, perhaps Poke Drury's tones become suddenly shrill. Or it may
be that just a sudden sinking and falling away into utter silence of all
voices, the growing still of hands upon dice cups, all eloquent of a new
breathless atmosphere in the room had succeeded in impressing upon her
sleep-drugged brain the fact of still another vital, electrically
charged moment. She turned in her chair. Then she settled back,
wondering.

The door was open; the wind was sweeping in; again old newspapers went
flying wildly as though in panicky fear. The men in the room were
staring even as she stared, in bewilderment. She heard old man Adams's
tongue clicking in his toothless old mouth. She saw Hap Smith, his
expression one of pure amazement, standing, half crouching as though to
spring, his hands like claws at his sides. And all of this because of
the man who stood in the open doorway, looking in.

The man who had shot Bert Stone, who had looted a mail bag, had
returned! That was her instant thought. And clearly enough it was the
thought shared by all of Poke Drury's guests. To be sure he carried no
visible gun and his face was unhidden. But there was the hugeness of
him, bulking big in the doorway, the spare, sinewy height made the
taller by his tall boot heels, the wide black hat with the drooping brim
from which rain drops trickled in a quick flashing chain, the shaggy
black chaps of a cowboy in holiday attire, the soft grey shirt, the grey
neck handkerchief about a brown throat, even the end of a faded bandana
trailing from a hip pocket.

He stood stone-still a moment, looking in at them with that queer
expression in his eyes. Then he stepped forward swiftly and closed the
door. He had glanced sharply at the girl by the fire; she had shaded her
eyes with her hand, the shadow of which lay across her face. He turned
again from her to the men, his regard chiefly for Hap Smith.

"Well?" he said lightly, being the first to break the silence. "What's
wrong?"

There are moments in which it seems as if time itself stood still.
During the spellbound fragment of time a girl, looking out from under a
cupped hand, noted a man and marvelled at him. By his sheer physical
bigness, first, he fascinated her. He was like the night and the storm
itself, big, powerful, not the kind born to know and suffer restraint;
but rather the type of man to dwell in such lands as stretched mile
after unfenced mile "out yonder" beyond the mountains. As he moved he
gave forth a vital impression of immense animal power; standing still he
was dynamic. A sculptor might have carved him in stone and named the
result "Masculinity."

The brief moment in which souls balanced and muscles were chained passed
swiftly. Strangely enough it was old man Adams who precipitated action.
The old man was nervous; more than that, bred here, he was fearless.
Also fortune had given him a place of vantage. His body was half
screened by that of Hap Smith and by a corner of the bar. His eager old
hand snatched out Hap Smith's dragging revolver, levelled it and
steadied it across the bar, the muzzle seeking the young giant who had
come a step forward.

"Hands up!" clacked the old man in tremulous triumph. "I got you, dad
burn you!" And at the same instant Hap Smith cried out wonderingly:

"Buck Thornton! You!"

The big man stood very still, only his head turning quickly so that his
eyes were upon the feverish eyes of old man Adams.

"Yes," he returned coolly. "I'm Thornton." And, "Got me, have you?" he
added just as coolly.

Winifred Waverly stiffened in her chair; already tonight had she heard
gunshots and smelled powder and seen spurting red blood. A little surge
of sick horror brought its tinge of vertigo and left her clear thoughted
and afraid.

"Hands up, I say," repeated the old man sharply. "I got you."

"You go to hell," returned Thornton, and his coolness had grown into
curt insolence. "I never saw the man yet that I'm going to do that for."
He came on two more quick, long strides, thrust his face forward and
cried in a voice that rang out commandingly above the crash of the wind,
"_Drop that gun! Drop it!_"

Old man Adams had no intention of obeying; he had played poker himself
for some fifty odd years and knew what bluff meant. But for just one
brief instant he was taken aback, fairly shocked into a fluttering
indecision by the thunderous voice. Then, before he could recover
himself the big man had flung a heavy wet coat into Adams's face, a gun
had been fired wildly, the bullet ripping into the ceiling, and Buck
Thornton had sprung forward and whipped the smoking weapon from an
uncertain grasp. Winifred Waverly, without breathing and without
stirring, saw Buck Thornton's strong white teeth in a wide, good
humoured smile.

"I know you were just joking but..."

He whirled and fired, never lifting the gun from his side. And a man
across the room from him cried out and dropped his own gun and grasped
his shoulder with a hand which slowly went red.

Now again she saw Buck Thornton's teeth. But no longer in a smile. He
had seemed to condone the act of old Adams as a bit of senility; the
look in his eyes was one of blazing rage as this other man drew back and
back from him, muttering.

"I'd have killed you then," said Thornton coldly, his rage the cold
wrath that begets murder in men's souls. "But I shot just a shade too
quick. Try it again, or any other man here draw, and by God, I'll show
you a dead man in ten seconds."

He drew back and put the bar just behind him. Then with a sudden
gesture, he flung down the revolver which had come from Hap Smith's
holster and more recently from old man Adams's fingers, and his hand
flashed to his arm pit and back into plain sight, his own weapon in it.

"I don't savvy your game, sports," he said with the same cool insolence.
"But if you want me to play just go ahead and deal me a hand."

To the last man of them they looked at him and hesitated. It was written
in large bold script upon the faces of them that the girl's thought was
their thought. And yet, though there were upward a dozen of them and
though Poke Drury's firelight flickered on several gun barrels and
though here were men who were not cowards and who did not lack
initiative, to the last man of them they hesitated. As his glance sped
here and there it seemed to stab at them like a knife blade. He
challenged them and stood quietly waiting for the first move. And the
girl by the fire knew almost from the first that no hostile move was
forthcoming. And she knew further that had a man there lifted his hand
Buck Thornton's promise would have been kept and he'd show them a dead
man in ten seconds.

"Suppose," said Thornton suddenly, "you explain. Poke Drury, this being
your shack.... What's the play?"

Drury moistened his lips. But it was Hap Smith who spoke up.

"I've knowed you some time, Buck," he said bluntly. "An' I never knowed
you to go wrong. But ... Well, not an hour ago a man your build an' size
an' with a bandana across his face stuck this place up."

"Well?" said Thornton coolly.

"At first," went on the stage driver heavily and a bit defiantly, "we
thought it was him come back when you come in." His eye met Thornton's
in a long unwavering look. "We ain't certain yet," he ended briefly.

Thornton pondered the matter, his thumb softly caressing the hammer of
his revolver.

"So that's it, is it?" he said finally.

"That's it," returned Hap Smith.

"And what have you decided to do in the matter?"

Smith shrugged. "We acted like a pack of kids," he said. "Lettin' you
get the drop on us like this. Oh, you're twice as quick on the draw as
the best two of us an' we know it. An' ... an' we ain't dead sure as we
ain't made a mistake."

His candidly honest face was troubled. He was not sure that Thornton was
the same man who so short a time ago had shot Bert Stone. It did not
seem reasonable to Hap Smith that a man, having successfully made his
play, would return just to court trouble.

"If you're on the square, Buck," he said in a moment, "throw down your
gun an' let's see the linin' of your pockets!"

"Yes?" retorted Thornton. "What else, Mr. Smith?"

"Let us take a squint at that bandana trailin' out'n your back pocket,"
said Smith crisply. "If it ain't got deep holes cut in it!"

Now that was stupid, thought Winifred. Nothing could be more stupid, in
fact. If this man had committed the crime and had thus voluntarily
returned to the road house, he would be prepared. He would have emptied
his pockets, he certainly would have had enough brains to dispose of so
tell-tale a bit of evidence as a handkerchief with slits let into it.

"Maybe," said Thornton quietly, and she did not detect the contemptuous
insolence under the slow words until he had nearly completed his
meaning, "you'd like to have me tell you where I'm riding from and why?
And maybe you'd like to have me take off my shoes so you can look in
them for your lost treasures?" Now was his contempt unhidden. He strode
quickly across the room, coming to the fireplace where the girl sat. He
took the handkerchief from his pocket, keeping it rolled up in his hand;
stooping forward he dropped it into the fire, well behind the back log.

Then for the first time he saw her face plainly. As he had come close to
her she had slipped from her chair and stood now, her face lifted,
looking at him. His gaze was arrested as his eyes met hers. He stood
very still, plainly showing the surprise which he made no slightest
effort to disguise. She flushed, bit her lip, went a fiery red. He put
up his hand and removed his hat.

"I didn't expect," he said, still looking at her with that intent,
openly admiring acknowledgment of her beauty, "to see a girl like you.
Here."

The thing which struck her was that still there were men in the room who
were armed and distrustful of him and that he had forgotten them. What
she could not gauge was the full of the effect she had had upon him. He
had marked a female form at the fireside, shawled by a shapeless
patchwork quilt; out of it, magically it seemed to his startled
fancies, there had stepped a superb creature with eyes on fire with her
youth, a superlatively lovely creature, essentially feminine. From the
flash of her eyes to the curl of her hair, she was all girl. And to Buck
Thornton, man's man of the wide open country beyond the mountains, who
had set his eyes upon no woman for a half year, who had looked on no
woman of her obvious class and type for two years, who had seen the
woman of one half her physical loveliness and tugging charm never, the
effect was instant and tremendous. A little shiver went through him; his
eyes caught fire.



CHAPTER IV

THE FORD


"These little cotton-tail rabbits," he said to her slowly, without
turning his eyes from hers to those of whom he spoke, "haven't any more
sense than you'd think to look at them. Once let them get a notion in
their heads.... Look here!" he broke off sharply. "You don't think the
same way they do, do you?"

"No!" she said hurriedly.

Hurriedly, because for the moment her poise had fled from her and she
knew that he must note the high colour in her cheeks. And the colour had
come not in response to his words but in quick answer to his look. A
young giant of a man, he stood staring at her like some artless boy who
at a bend in the road had stopped, breathless, to widen his eyes to the
smile of a fairy fresh from fairy land.

And her "No," was the true reply to his question and burst spontaneously
from her lips. Her first swift suspicion when she had seen the bulk of
him framed against the bleak night had been quite natural. But now that
she had marked the man's carriage and had seen his face and looked for
one instant deep into his clear eyes, she set her conjecture aside as an
absurdity. It was not so much that her reason had risen to demand why a
successful highwayman should return into danger and the likelihood of
swift punishment. It was rather and simply because she felt that this
bronzed young stranger, seeming to her woman's instinct a sort of breezy
incarnation of the outdoors, partook of none of the characteristics of
the footpad, sneak thief or nocturnal gentleman of the road. An
essential attribute of the boldest and most picturesque of that gentry
was the quality of deceit and subterfuge and hypocrisy. Consecutive
logical thought being, after all, a tedious process, she had had no time
to progress from step to step of deduction and inference; he had asked
his question with a startling abruptness and as abruptly she had given
him her answer. The rest might believe what they chose to believe. She
for her part, held Buck Thornton, whoever he might be, guiltless of the
earlier affair of the evening. And, moreover, she could quite understand
the impulse that sent an innocent man to toss a handkerchief into the
fire and let them ponder on the act's significance. The act may have
been foolhardy and certainly had the youthful flavour of bravado; none
the less in her eyes the man achieved through it a sort of magnificence.

He stood looking at her very gravely and gravely she returned the look.
And it was borne in upon the girl's inner consciousness that now and for
the first time in her life she had come face to face with a man
absolutely without guile or the need thereof. He was in character as he
was in physique, or she read him wrongly. He thought his thought
straight out and made no pretence of hiding it for the simple and
sufficient reason that there was in all the universe no slightest need
of hiding it. As she looked straight back into his eyes little flashes
of impressions which had fastened upon her mind during the day came back
to her, things which he suggested, which were like him. She was very
tired and further she was overwrought from the nervous excitement of the
evening; hence her mental processes were the quicker and more prone to
fly off at wild tangents.... She had seen a tall, rugged cedar on a
rocky ridge blown through by the tempest, standing out in clear relief
against the sky; this man recalled the scene, the very atmosphere. She
had seen a wild swollen torrent hurtling on its way down the
mountainside; the man had threatened to become like that, headlong with
unbounded passion, fierce and destructive when a moment ago they opposed
him.... Again she bit her lip; she was thinking of this huge male
creature in hyperboles. Yes; she was overwrought; it was not well to
think thusly of any mere male creature.

And yet she but liked him the better and her fancies were smitten anew
by what he did now. Having filled his eyes with her as a man athirst may
fill himself with water from a brook, he turned abruptly away and left
her. He did not tarry to say "Thank you," that she had been almost eager
in asserting her belief in his innocence. He did not go back to a futile
and perhaps quarrelsome discussion with Hap Smith and old man Adams and
the rest. He simply dropped everything where it was, shoved his big
revolver out of sight under his left arm-pit and went to the long dining
table. There, his back to the room, he helped himself generously to cold
meat, bread and luke-warm coffee and ate hungrily.

She sank back into her chair and let her eyes wander to his breadth of
shoulder, straightness of back and even to the curl of his hair that
cast its dancing shadows upon the wall in front of him. She had never
had a man turn his back on her this way, and yet now the accomplished
deed struck her in nowise as boorish or rude. He had paid her the
tribute of a deep admiration, as clear and strong and unsullied as a
racing mountain stream in spring time. The few words which he deemed
necessary had passed between them. Then he had withdrawn himself from
her attention. Not rude, the act savoured somehow of the downright free
bigness of unconvention.

"It's silly, jumping to conclusions, any way," she informed herself.
"Why suspect him just because he wears the costume of the country, has
the usual red handkerchief in his possession and is tall? There are half
a dozen big red handkerchiefs in this room right now ... and this would
seem to be the land of tall men."

Only once again did he speak to her that night and then just to say in
plain matter-of-fact style: "You'd better lie down there and get some
sleep. Good night." And this remark had come only after fifteen minutes
of busy preparation on his part and curiosity on hers. He had gone out
of the room into the night with no offered explanation and with many
eyes following him; men began to show rising signs of excitement and to
regret audibly that they had not "gathered him in." But in a few minutes
he was back, his arms filled with loose hay from the barn. He spread it
out in a corner, down by the long table. The table itself he drew out of
the way. On the hay he smoothed out her quilt. Then, after a brief word
with Poke Drury, he made another expedition into the night, returning
with a strip of weather beaten, patched canvas; this he hung by the
corners from the nails he hammered into a beam of the low ceiling,
letting the thing drop partition-wise across the room. It had been then
that he said quietly: "You'd better lie down there and get some sleep.
Good night."

"Good night," she answered him. And as it was with his eyes that again
he told her frankly what he thought of her, so was it with her eyes that
she thanked him.

The night passed somehow. She lay down and slept, awoke, moved her body
for more comfort, slept again. And through her sleep and dreams and
wakeful moments she heard the quiet voices of the men who had no beds to
go to; that monotonous sound and an occasional clink of glass and
bottle neck or the rustling of shuffled cards. Once she got up and
looked through a hole in the canvas; she had taken off her shoes and
made no noise to draw attention to her spying. It must have been chance,
therefore, which prompted Thornton to lift his head quickly and look
toward her. The light was all on his side of the room; she knew that he
had not heard her and could not see her; the tear in her flimsy wall was
scarcely more than a pin-hole. He was playing cards; furthermore he was
winning, there being a high stack of blue and red and white chips in
front of him and a sprinkling of gold. But she saw no sign of the
gambling fever in his eyes. Rather, there was in them a look which made
her draw back guiltily; which sent her creeping back to her rude bed
with suffused cheeks. He was still thinking of her, solely of her,
despite the spoils of chance at his hand....

All night the storm beat at the lone house in the mountain pass,
rattling at doors and windows, whistling down the chimney, shaking the
building with its fierce gusts. The rain ceased only briefly when the
cold congealed it into a flurry of beating hail stones; thereafter came
the rain again, scarcely less noisy. And in the morning when she awoke
with a start and smelled boiling coffee the wind was still raging, the
rain was falling heavily and steadily.

In the dark and with the lamps burning on palely into the dim day she
breakfasted. Together with several of the men she ate in the kitchen
where a fire roared in an old stove, and where a table was placed
conveniently. Ma Drury was about, sniffling with her cold, but cooking
and serving her guests sourly, slamming down the enamelled ware in front
of them and challenging them with a look to find fault anywhere. She
reported that in some mysterious way, for which God be thanked, there
were no dead men in her house this morning. Bert Stone was alive and
showed signs of continuing to live, a thing to marvel at. And the man
whom Buck Thornton had winged, beyond displaying a sore arm and
disposition, was for the present a mere negligible and disagreeable
quantity.

Hap Smith came in from the barn while she was eating. He was going to
start right away. There was no use, however, in her attempting to make
the rest of the trip with him. His other passengers would lie over here
for a day or two. She looked at him curiously: why should she not go on?
It certainly was not pleasant to think of remaining in these cramped
quarters indefinitely.

Hap Smith, hastily eating hot cakes and ham, answered briefly and to the
point. Mountain streams were all up, filling their narrow beds, spilling
over. A rain like this downpour brought them up in a few hours; it would
stop raining presently and they'd go down as fast as they had risen.
Just two miles from the road house was the biggest stream of all to
negotiate, being the upper waters of Alder Creek. It was up to Hap to
make it because he represented a certain Uncle Samuel who was not to be
stopped by hell or high water; literally that. He'd tie his mail bags
in; leave all extras at Poke Drury's, drive his horses into the
turbulent river high above the ford and ... make it somehow. It was up
to her to stay here.

He gobbled down his breakfast, rolled a fat brown cigarette, buttoned up
his coat and went out to his stage. Before he could snap back his brake
she was at his side.

"My business is as important to me as Uncle Samuel's is to him," she
told him in a steady, matter-of-fact voice. "What is more, I have paid
my fare and mean to go through with you."

He saw that she did mean it. He expostulated, but briefly. He was behind
time, he knew that already they had sought to argue with her in the
house, he recognized the futility of further argument. He had a wife of
his own, had Hap Smith. He grunted his displeasure with the arrangement,
informed her curtly that it was up to her and that, if they went under,
his mail bags would require all of his attention, shrugged his two
shoulders at once and high up, released his brake and went clattering
down the rocky road. The girl cast a quick look behind her as they drew
away from the road house; she had not seen Buck Thornton this morning
and wondered if he had been loitering about the barn or had turned back
into the mountains or had ridden ahead.

Alder Creek was a mad rush and swirl of muddy water; the swish and hiss
of it smote their ears five minutes before they saw the brown, writhing
thing itself. The girl tensed on her seat; her breathing was momentarily
suspended; her cheek went a little pale. Then, conscious of a quick
measuring look from the stage driver, she said as quietly as she could:

"It doesn't look inviting, does it?"

Hap Smith grunted and gave his attention forthwith and solely to the
dexterous handling of his tugging reins. He knew the crossing; had made
it with one sort of a team and another many times in his life. But he
had never seen it so swollen and threatening and he had never heard its
hissing sound upgathered into such a booming roar as now greeted them.
He stopped his team and looked from under drawn brows at the water.

"You'd better get out," he said shortly.

"But I won't!" she retorted hurriedly. "And, since we are going to make
the crossing ... go ahead, quick!"

He winked both eyes at the rain driving into his face and sat still,
measuring his chances. While he did so she looked up and down; not a
hundred paces from them, upstream on the near bank, the figure of a man
loomed unnaturally large in the wet air. He was mounted upon a tall,
rangy horse that might have been foaled just for the purpose of carrying
a man of his ilk, a pale yellow-sorrel whose two forefeet, had it not
been for the mud, would have shone whitely. She wondered what he was
doing there. His attitude was that of one who was patiently waiting.

"Hold on good an' tight," said Smith suddenly. "I'm goin' to tackle it."

She gripped the back of the seat firmly, braced her feet, set her teeth
together, a little in quick fear, a great deal in determination. Smith
swung his team upstream fifty paces, then in a short arc out and away
from the creek; then, getting their heads again to the stream he called
to them, one by one, each of the four in turn, saying crisply: "You,
Babe! Charlie! that's the boy! Baldy! You Tom, you Tom! Into it; into
it; _get up_!"

With shaking heads that flung the raindrops from tossing manes, with
gingerly lifted forefeet, with a snort here and a crablike sidling dance
there, they came down to the water's edge at a brisk trot. The off-lead,
Charlie, fought shy and snorted again; the long whip in Hap Smith's hand
shot out, uncurled, flicked Charlie's side, and with a last defiant
shake of the head the big bay drove his obedient neck into his collar
and splashed mightily in the muddy current. Babe plunged forward at his
side; the two other horses followed as they were in the habit of
following.

The girl, fascinated, saw the water curl and eddy and whiten about their
knees; she saw it surge onward and rise about the hubs of the slow
turning wheels. Higher it came and higher until the rushing sound of it
filled her ears, the dark yellow flash of it filled her eyes and she
sat breathless and rigid.... A quick glance showed her the man,
Thornton, still above them on the bank of the stream. She noted that he
had drawn a little closer to the water's edge.

They were half way across, fairly in midstream, and Hap Smith, utterly
oblivious of his one passenger, cursing mightily, when the mishap came.
The mad stream, rolling its rocks and boulders and jagged tree trunks,
had gouged holes in the bank here and there and had digged similar holes
in the uneven bed itself. Into such a hole the two horses on the lower
side floundered, with no warning and with disastrous suddenness. Then
went down, until only their heads were above the current. They lost all
solid ground under their threshing hoofs and, as they rose a little,
began to swim, flailing about desperately. Hap Smith yelled at them,
yanked at his reins, seeking to turn them straight down stream for a
spell until the hole be passed. But already another horse was in and
engulfed, the wagon careened, was whipped about in the furious struggle,
a wheel struck a submerged boulder and Hap Smith leaped one way while
Winifred Waverly sprang the other as the awkward stage tipped and went
on its side.

She knew on the instant that one had no chance to swim here, no matter
how strong the swimmer. For the current was stronger than the mere
strength of a human being. She knew that if Hap Smith clung tight to his
reins he might be pulled ashore in due time, if all went well for him.
She knew that Winifred Waverly had never been in such desperate
straits. And finally she understood, and the knowledge was infinitely
sweet to her in her moment of need, why the man yonder had been sitting
his horse so idly in the rain, and just why he had been waiting.

She did not see him as his horse, striking out valiantly, swimming and
finding precarious foothold by turns, bore down upon her; she saw only
the yellow, dirty current when she saw anything at all. She could not
know when, the first time, he leaned far out and snatched at her ... and
missed. For at the moment a sucking maelstrom had caught her and whipped
her out of his reach and flung her onward, for a little piling the
churning water above her head. She did not see when finally he succeeded
in that which he had attempted. But she felt his two arms about her and
in her heart there was a sudden glow and, though the water battled with
the two of them, strangely enough a feeling of safety.

Perhaps it was only because he had planned on the possibility of just
this and was ready for it that she came out of Alder Creek alive. He had
slipped the loop of his rope about the horn of his saddle, making it
secure with an additional half hitch; when he was sure of her he flung
himself from the saddle, still keeping the rope in his hand as he took
her into his arms. Then, swimming as best he could, seeking to keep her
head and his above the water, he left the rest to a certain rangy,
yellow-sorrel saddle horse. And as Hap Smith and his struggling team
made shore just below the ford, Buck Thornton and Winifred Waverly were
drawn to safety by Buck Thornton's horse.

Just as there had been no spoken thanks last night for a kindness
rendered, so now on this larger occasion there was no gush of grateful
words. He released her slowly and their eyes met. As he turned to help
Hap Smith with the frightened horses entangled in their harness, the
only words were his:

"A couple of miles farther on you'll pass a ranch house. You can get
warm and dry your clothes there. This is the last bad crossing."

And so, lifting his hat, he left her.



CHAPTER V

THE MAN FROM POISON HOLE RANCH


Dry Town never looked less dry. As Buck Thornton drew rein in front of
the one brick building of which the ugly little village could boast, the
mud was above his yellow-sorrel's fetlocks. But the rain was over, the
sun was out glorious and warm above the level lands and in the air was a
miraculous feeling as of spring. It is the way of Dry Town in the matter
of seasons to rival in abruptness its denizens' ways in other matters.
The last great storm had come and gone and seeds would be bursting on
every hand and eagerly now.

Because he loved a good horse, and this rangy sorrel above others, and
because further he had been forced to ride the willing animal unusually
hard all day yesterday, Thornton today had travelled slowly. So, long
ago, he had watched the stage out of sight and now, when finally he drew
up in front of the bank, he saw Hap Smith's lumbering vehicle standing
down by the stable. From it he let his eyes travel along the double row
of ill kept, unpainted houses. Fifty yards away a stranger would have
marked only his great height, the lean, clean, powerful physique. But
from near by one might have forgotten this matter of physical bigness
for another, noting just the man's eyes alone. Very keen, piercing,
quick eyes just now, watchful and suspicious of every corner and alley,
they more than hinted at a stern vigilance that was more than half
positive expectancy.

Only for a moment he sat so. Then he swung down from the saddle and with
spurs clanking noisily upon the board sidewalk went into the bank
building.

"I want to see Mr. Templeton," he said abruptly to the clerkly looking
individual behind the new lattice work. The words were very quietly
spoken, the voice rather soft and gentle for so big a man. And yet the
cashier turned quickly, looking at him curiously.

"Who shall I say it is?" he demanded.

"This man's town is getting citified mighty fast," the tall man grunted.
"I should have brought my cards! Well, just tell him it's Thornton."

"Thornton?"

"You got it. Buck Thornton, from the Poison Hole ranch."

He spoke lightly, his voice hinting at a vast store of good nature, his
eyes, however, losing meanwhile no glint of their stern light as they
looked at the man to whom he was talking and beyond him watched the door
through which he had entered. The cashier regarded him with new
interest.

"You are early, Mr. Thornton," he said, rather more warmly than he had
spoken before. "But Mr. Templeton will be glad to see you. He is in
his private office. Walk right in."

Thornton stooped, his back to the wall, and swiftly unbuckled his spurs.
Carrying them in his left hand he passed along the lattice work
partition which shut off the cashier with his books and till, and threw
open the door at the end of the short hallway. Here was a sort of
waiting room, to judge from the two or three chairs, the square topped
table strewn with financial journals and illustrated magazines
indiscriminately mixed. He closed the door behind him, standing again
for a moment as he had stood out in the street, his eyes keen and
watchful as they took swift inventory of the room and its furnishings.

Before him was a second door upon the frosted glass top of which were
the stencilled words: J.W. TEMPLETON, President, Private. He took a step
toward the door and then stopped suddenly as though the very vehemence
of the voice bursting out upon the other side of it had halted him.

"I tell you, Miss Waverly," ... it was Templeton's voice, snappy and
irritable, ... "this thing is madness! Pure and simple, unadulterated
madness! It's as devoid of sense as a last year's nest of birds; it's as
full of danger as a ... a ..."

"Never mind exhausting your similes, Mr. Templeton," came the answer,
the girl's voice young and fresh and yet withal firm and a little cool.
"I didn't come to ask your advice, you know. And you haven't given me
what I did come for. If you ..."

Thornton pushed the door open, sweeping off his hat as he came in, and
said bluntly,

"I don't know what you folks are talking about, but I judge it's
important. And there's no sense in loose-endish talk when you don't know
who's listening."

The square built, square faced man tapping with big square finger ends
at the table in front of him whirled about suddenly, his gesture and
eyes alike showing his keen annoyance at the interruption. Then when he
saw who it was he got to his feet, saying crisply:

"I'm glad it's you. This young woman has got it into her head ..."

"You will remember, Mr. Templeton, that this is in strict confidence?"

Templeton's teeth shut with a click. Thornton turned from him and, with
his spurs in one hand, his hat caught in the other, stood looking down
upon the owner of the voice that was at once so fresh and young, so
coolly determined and vaguely defiant. And as he looked at her there was
much speculation in his grave eyes. Odd that he should stumble upon her
the first thing. Odd and--natural....

The girl's back was to him. For a moment she did not shift her position
the least fraction of an inch, but sat very still, leaning forward in
her chair, facing the banker. Then after a little when it was evident
that Templeton was going to say nothing more she turned slowly to the
new comer, her lashes sweeping upward swiftly as her eyes met his full
and steady. And the man from the Poison Hole ranch, his own eyes looking
down into hers very gravely, noted many things in the quick, keen way
characteristic of him.

He saw that her mouth, red lips about very white teeth, was smiling
softly, confidently; and yet that the brown-flecked grey of her eyes was
as unsmiling, as gravely speculative as his own eyes were. He saw that
her skin was a golden brown from life in the open outdoors, that she had
upon the heels of her boots a pair of tiny, sharp rowelled spurs, that a
riding quirt hung from her right wrist by its rawhide thong, that her
cheeks were a little flushed as though from excitement but that she knew
the trick of forbidding her eyes to tell what her excitement was. He saw
that her throat, where her neck scarf fell loosely away from it, was
very round and white. He saw that while her grey riding habit covered
her body it hid none of her body's grace and strength and slender
youthfulness.

While his eyes left hers to note these things her eyes had been as busy,
running from the man's close cropped dark hair to his mud-spattered
boots. And there came into her look just a hint of admiration which the
man did not see as she in her swift examination noted the breadth of
shoulder, the straight tallness of him, the clean, supple, sinewy form
which his loose attire of soft shirt, unbuttoned vest grey with dust,
and shaggy chaps, black and much worn, in no way concealed.

"I have come," he was saying now to Templeton, speaking abruptly
although his voice was as gentle and low-toned and pleasant as when he
had spoken with the cashier, "three days ahead of time. It won't take me
a minute to get through. And if you and the young lady will excuse me
I'll say my little speech and drift, giving you a free swing for your
business. Besides, I'm in a fair sized hurry."

"Certainly," said Templeton immediately, while the girl, smiling now
with eyes and lips together, unconcernedly, made no answer. "Miss
Waverly is planning to.... Well, I want to talk with her a little more.
Well, Thornton," and only now he put out his hand to be gripped quickly
and warmly by the other's, "what is it? I'm glad to see you.
Everything's all right?"

"Yes. I just dropped in to fix up that second payment."

"Shall I go out while you talk?" The girl had gotten to her feet
swiftly. "If you are going to say anything important ..."

"No, you'd better stay," Thornton said, and added jestingly: "I've got
nothing confidential on my mind, and since I'm just going to hand Mr.
Templeton some money, an almighty big pile of money for me to be
carrying around, maybe we'd better have a witness to the transaction."

The banker looked at him in surprise.

"You don't mean that you've got it with you now? That you've just
ridden in from the range and have brought it with you ... in cash!"

For answer the cattle man slipped a bronzed hand into his shirt and
brought out a small packet done up in a piece of buckskin and tied with
a string. He tossed it to the shining table top, where it fell heavily.

"There she is," he said lightly. "Gold and a few pieces of paper. The
whole thing. Count it."

Templeton sank back into his chair and stared at him. He put out his
hand, lifted the packet, dropped it back upon the table, stared again,
and then burst out irritably:

"Of all the reckless young fools in the county you two are without
equals. Buck Thornton, I thought _you_ had some sense!"

"You never can tell," came the quiet rejoinder from unsmiling lips. "I
saw a man once I thought had sense and I found out afterwards he ran
sheep. Now, if you'll see my bet I'll travel."

Templeton's desk shears were already busy. He jerked the packet open
flat on the table. There were many twenty dollar pieces, some fives and
tens and a little bundle of bank notes. He counted swiftly.

"It's all right. Five thousand dollars," he said crisply. "In full for
second payment due, as you say, in three days. I'll note it on the two
agreements. And I'll give you a receipt."

The tall man's deep chest rose and fell to a sigh as of relief at having
done his errand; he placed his spurs in his hat and his hat upon a
chair and began to roll a cigarette. The banker wrote quickly with
sputtering pen in a book of receipt blanks, tore out the leaf and passed
it across the table.

"There you are, Buck Thornton of the Poison Hole," he said with an
increase of irritability in his curt tones. "And now you listen to me;
you're a fool! Or else you're so far out of the world over on your ranch
that you don't know what's going on. Which is it?"

"I hear a good deal of what's happening," returned Thornton drily.

"Then I suppose you realize that a man who rides day and night, through
that country, carrying five thousand dollars with him, and when
everybody in the country knows that according to contract he is about
due to make a five thousand dollar payment, is acting like a fool with a
suicidal mania?"

For a moment Thornton did not answer. He seemed so engrossed in his
cigarette building that one might almost suppose that he had not heard.
And then, lifting his head suddenly, his eyes keen and hard upon
Templeton's, he said casually,

"I dropped in three days ahead of time, didn't I?"

"And the wonder is," snapped Templeton, "that you haven't dropped clean
out of the world! If you do a fool thing like this, Buck Thornton, when
your last payment is due, you can do it. But I won't go near your
funeral!"

Thornton laughed easily, tucked the receipt into his vest pocket, and
reached for his hat and spurs.

"I'm obliged, Mr. Templeton," he acknowledged lightly. "But we've got to
admit that I got across all right this time. And, as you've heard, I
suppose, right under Mr. Bad Man's nose, since I was carrying that
little wad last night when Hap Smith got cleaned at Poke Drury's. Well,
I'll be going. Just give that rattlesnake Pollard the five thousand and
an invitation from me to keep off my ranch, remembering that it doesn't
happen to belong to him any more."

He nodded and went to the door. There he turned and looked back at the
girl. She had risen swiftly, even coming a step toward him.

"I haven't thanked you ... I ..."

Templeton looked on curiously, an odd twitching at the corners of his
large mouth. Thornton threw up a sudden hand.

"No," he said hastily. "You haven't spoiled things by thanking me.
And.... We'll see each other again," he concluded in his quietly
matter-of-fact way. And, his nod for both of them, he went out.



CHAPTER VI

WINIFRED JUDGES A MAN


There was a puzzled frown in her eyes, a faint flush tingeing her cheeks
as, withdrawing her regard from Thornton's departure, she looked to
Templeton and asked quickly:

"Why did he call Henry Pollard a rattlesnake?"

A faint smile for a moment threatened to drive the sternness away from
Templeton's lips. But it was gone in a quick tightening of the mouth,
and he answered briefly.

"He didn't know that you knew Pollard."

"I don't know him," she reminded him coolly. "You will remember that I
haven't seen him since I was six years old. I hardly know what he looks
like. But you haven't answered me; why did your imprudent giant call him
a rattlesnake?"

"They have had business dealings together," he told her vaguely. "Maybe
they have disagreed about something. Men out there are a little given to
hard words, I think."

She sat silent, leaning forward, tapping at her boot with her quirt.
Then quickly, just as the banker was opening his lips to speak of the
other matter, she demanded:

"Why did you call him a fool for bringing the money here? It had to be
brought, hadn't it?"

"Yes! That's just it. It had to be brought and there is not a man in all
of the cattle country here who does not know all about the terms of the
contract Thornton and Pollard made. Ten thousand down, five thousand in
three days from now, the other five thousand in six months. Why, right
now I wouldn't attempt to carry five thousand dollars _in cash_ over
that wilderness trail if there were ten times the amount to come to me
at the end of it! It's as mad as this thing you want to do."

"He did it."

"Yes," shortly. "He did it." He gathered up the loose money, pushed a
button set in the table, and upon the prompt appearance of the cashier
said crisply, "Five thousand to apply on the Pollard-Thornton agreement.
Put it in the big safe immediately."

"He looks as though he could take care of himself," the girl said
thoughtfully when the money had gone.

Templeton whirled about upon her, his eyes blazing.

"Take care of himself!" he scoffed. "What chance has a man to take care
of himself when another man puts a rifle ball through his back? What
chance had Bill Varney of the Twin Dry Diggings stage only three weeks
ago? Varney is dead and the money he was carrying is gone, that's the
chance he had! What chance has any man had for the last six months if he
carried five hundred dollars on him and any one knew about it? They
chased off a dozen steers from Kemble's place not three days ago, you
yourself know what happened at Drury's road house last night, and now
Buck Thornton rides through the same country with five thousand dollars
on him!"

"He did it," she repeated again very softly, her eyes musing.

"And one of these days he's going to find out how simple a matter it is
for a gang like the gang operating in broad daylight in this country now
to separate a fool and his money! The Lord knows how a simple trick like
coming in three days ahead of time fooled them. It won't do it again."

"He is the type of man to succeed," she went on, still musingly.

Templeton shrugged.

"We have our own business on our hands," he said abruptly, looking at
his watch. "The stage leaves in half an hour. Are you going to be
reasonable?"

Then she stood up and smiled at him very brightly.

"The stage is going its way, Mr. Templeton. I am going mine."

Templeton flung down his pen with an access of irritation which brought
a flicker of amusement into the bright grey eyes. But the banker's grim
mouth did not relax; there was anger in the gesture with which he
slammed a blotter down on the big yellow envelope on which his wet pen
had fallen. After his carefully precise fashion he was reaching for a
fresh, clean envelope when the girl took the slightly soiled one from
him.

"Thank you," she said, rising and smiling down at him. "But this will do
just as well. And now, if you'll wish me good luck..."

She went out followed by a look of much grave speculation.

Meanwhile Buck Thornton, leading his horse after him, crossed the dusty
street to the Last Chance saloon. At the watering trough he watered his
horse, and then, slackening the cinch a little, he went inside. In the
front part of the long, dreary room was the bar presided over by a
gentleman in overalls, shirt sleeves and very black hair plastered close
to his low forehead. At the rear was the lunch counter where two
Chinamen were serving soup and stew and coffee to half a dozen men.
Thornton, with one of his quick, sharp glances which missed nothing in
the room, went to the bar.

"Hello, Blackie," he said quietly.

The bartender, who in a leisure moment had been bending in deep
absorption over an illustrated pink sheet spread on the bar, looked up
quickly. For a short second a little gleam as of surprise shone in his
shoe-button eyes. Then he put out his hand, shoving the pink sheet
aside.

"Hello, Buck," he cried genially. "Where'd you blow in from?"

"Poison Hole," briefly. He spun a silver dollar on the bar and ignored
the hand.

Blackie reached for bottle and glass, and putting them before the cowboy
bestowed upon him a shrewd, searching look.

"What's the news out your way, Buck?"

"Nothing." He tossed off his whiskey, took up his change and went on to
the lunch counter. Several men looked up at him; one or two nodded. It
was evident that the new owner of the Poison Hole was something of a
stranger here. He called an order to the Chinaman at the stove, told him
that he'd be back in ten minutes and was in a hurry and went out to his
horse. The bartender watched him go but said nothing.

Within less than ten minutes Thornton had left his sorrel at the stable,
seeing personally the animal had its grain, and had come back to the
saloon. Blackie, idle with his gazette unnoticed in front of him, saw
him come in this time.

"In town for a little high life, Buck?" he queried listlessly.

"No. Business." He passed on down toward the lunch counter, and then
swinging about suddenly came back. "Bank business," he added quietly. "I
just paid my second instalment of five thousand dollars cash!"

For a moment he stood staring very steadily into the bartender's eyes,
a great deal of significance in his look. Blackie returned his stare
steadily.

"You're lucky, Buck," he offered colourlessly.

"Meaning to get the Poison Hole? Yes. It's the best cow range I ever
saw."

"Meanin' to pack five thousan' aroun' in your tail pocket an' get away
with it with this stick-up gang workin' the country."

Thornton shrugged his shoulders.

"There isn't any gang," he said, speaking as a man who knew. "It's one
man with a confederate here and there maybe to keep him here. Every job
that has been pulled off yet was a one man job."

Blackie polished his bar and shook his head.

"Jed Macintosh got cleaned out night before last," he retorted. "He'd
made a clean-up right in here playin' stud. They got his wad before he'd
gone to the end of the street. That was more than a one man job."

"Did Jed see more than one?" demanded Thornton sharply.

"No. Jed didn't see nothin', I guess. But we all seen the trail their
horses made goin' through Jed's hayfield. There was three horses any
way."

With no answer to this Thornton turned away, washed at the faucet near
the back door, and settled his tall form upon one of the high stools at
the counter. He ate hungrily, with no remark to the men upon right and
left of him. But he heard their scraps of talk, noting that the one
topic of conversation here in Dry Town was the work of the "stick-up
party" manifesting itself in such episodes as the robbery and murder of
Bill Varney, stage driver, the theft of Kemble's cattle, the "cleanin'"
of Jed Macintosh and, finally, the affair of last night at Poke Drury's.
He listened with what seemed frank and only mild interest.

"It's a funny thing to me," one little dried-up old man with fierce
moustaches and very gentle eyes was saying, "what we got a sheriff for.
This sort of gun play's been runnin' high for nigh on six months now,
an' Cole Dalton ain't boarded anybody in his little ol' jail any worse'n
hoboes an' drunks for so long it makes a feller wonder what a jail an' a
sheriff is for."

"Give him time, Pop," laughed a young rancher at his side. "You know all
that's the matter with Cole Dalton is he's got his election on the
Republican ticket, an' you ain't never saw a man yet as wasn't a
Demmycrat as you'd admit was any 'count. Give him time. Cole knows what
he's doin', an' when he does git his rope on Mr. Badman he ain't goin'
to need no jail. Cole'll give him a firs' class funeral an' save the
county a board bill."

Pop grunted, sniffed, and got to his feet to go to the door and watch
the stage pull out. At the rumble and creak of the great lumbering
vehicle and the quick thud of the hoofs of the four running horses
several men left the lunch counter and followed him. Buck Thornton,
finishing his own meal swiftly, went with the others.

Hap Smith took on fresh mail bags in front of the post-office, slammed
back his brake, and with his long whip cracking like pistol shots over
his leaders' heads, drove on until he had passed the Last Chance. And
then he came to a halt again, his coach rocking and rolling on its great
springs, in front of the bank.

"Hi, there," he yelled mightily. "Git a move on, will you? I'm half a
day late now."

Mr. Templeton himself appeared on the instant at the door, a small
strong box in his hands. He tossed it up into the ready hands of the
bull-necked, round-shouldered guard who sat at Hap Smith's side with a
rifle between his knees, the two passengers craned their necks with much
interest, the guard bestowed the box under the seat, the driver loosened
his reins, threw off his brake, and the stage rocked and rumbled down
the street, spattering mud on either hand, racing away upon the last leg
of its two hundred and fifty mile trip to the last town upon the far
border of the great state.

"And Templeton called me a fool!" mused the tall cattle man, a look of
vast contempt in his stern eyes.

He stood a little behind the other men, looking over their heads. For
only a fleeting second had his glance rested upon the stage at the bank.
Then he looked swiftly at the man in front of him. It was Blackie, the
bartender. When Blackie turned abruptly Thornton looked squarely into
the black eyes, seeing there an unusually beady brightness, something
of the hint of a quick frown upon the thin slick line of the eyebrows.

"Driver and guard will both be needing their shooting irons before they
see the border, Blackie," Thornton said quietly.

And then with a short, insolent laugh he returned for the hat he had
left hanging upon a nail. Blackie, making no answer, followed, going
behind his bar. A little dusky red had crept up into his shallow face,
his eyes burned hard into Thornton's as the man from the Poison Hole
came by him.

"When you goin' back to the range, Buck?" he asked sharply.

"I'm going to start as soon as I can roll a smoke and saddle a horse,"
Thornton answered him, a little smile in his eyes. And then, as an after
thought, "I follow the stage road for about ten miles before I turn off
on the trail. Wish I could stick with them clean through."

"What for?" demanded Blackie in the same sharp tone.

"Oh, just to see the fun," Thornton told him lightly. "So long,
Blackie."

"You seem to be mighty sure something's goin' to be pulled off this
trip."

Thornton hung upon his heel, turning slowly.

"I am, Blackie," he said carelessly. And then, "Say, did you notice the
two passengers in the stage?"

"No." He put a great deal of emphasis into the denial. "Who was it?"

"I thought you might have noticed. One of them was that crooked eyed
jasper I saw you staking to free drinks the last time I was in town."

He stared straight into the smaller man's eyes, saw the colour deepen in
his cheeks, shrugged his big shoulders and went to the door. Several of
the men who had come back into the room looked after him curiously, then
as though for explanation, into Blackie's narrowed eyes. The bartender's
hand dropped swiftly out of sight under his bar. Thornton's back was
turned square upon him. And yet, as though he had seen the gesture and
it had been full of significance to him, he whirled with a movement even
quicker than Blackie's had been, and standing loosely, his hands at his
side, looked coolly into the bright black eyes. For a moment no man
moved. Then Blackie, with a little sigh which sounded loudly in the
quiet room, brought his hand back into sight, letting his fingers tap
upon the bar. Thornton smiled, turned again and stepped quickly out of
the door.

"As long as they don't get any closer to the Poison Hole it's none of my
funeral," he muttered to himself. "But if they do, I know one little man
who could do a powerful lot of squealing with the proper inducement!"

Not turning once he passed swiftly down the street toward the stable,
his meditative eyes upon the rocking stage sweeping on to the
south-east, already drawing close to the first of the wooded foothills.
He waited ten minutes, watching his horse eating, and then saddled and
rode out toward the hills.



CHAPTER VII

AN INVITATION TO SUPPER


It was hardly noon. Here the county road, cutting straight through the
rolling fields, was broad, wet and black, glistening under the sun. Out
yonder in front of him the stage, driven rapidly by Hap Smith that he
might make up a little of the lost time, topped a gentle rise, stood out
briefly against the sky line, shot down into the bed of Dry Creek and
was lost to him. A little puzzled frown crept into Thornton's eyes.

"A man would almost say old Pop was right," he told himself. "This state
is getting too settled up for this kind of game to be pulled off so
all-fired regularly. Cole Dalton must be blind in his off eye.... Oh,
hell! It is none of my business. Any way ... not yet."

He pulled his horse out into the trail paralleling the muddy road,
jerked his hat down lower over his forehead, slumped forward a little in
the saddle, and gave himself over to the sleepy thirty mile ride to
Harte's Camp. He rode slowly now, allowing Hap Smith's speeding horses
to draw swiftly away ahead of him. He saw the stage once more climbing a
distant ridge; then it was lost to him in the steepening hills. A little
more than an hour later he turned off to the left, leaving the
county road and entering the mouth of the canyon through which his trail
led. He would not see the road again although after a while he would
parallel it with some dozen miles of rolling land between him and it.

Behind him lay the wide stretch of plain in which Dry Town was set;
about him were the small shut-in valleys where the "little fellows" had
their holdings and small herds of long horns and saddle ponies. Before
him were the mountains with Kemble's place upon their far slope and his
own home range lying still farther to the east. There were many streams
to ford in the country through which he was now riding, all
muddy-watered, laced with white, frothing edgings, but none to rise
higher than his horse's belly.

Here there was a tiny valley, hardly more than a cup in the hills, but
valuable for its rich feed and for the big spring set in the middle of
it. He dismounted, slipped the Spanish bit from his horse's mouth, and
waited for the animal to drink. It was a still, sleepy afternoon. The
storm had left no trace in the deep blue of the sky; the hills were
rapidly drying under the hot sun. Man and horse seemed sleepy, slow
moving figures to fit into a glowing landscape, harmoniously. The horse
drank slowly, shook its head in half tolerant protest at the flies
singing before its eyes, and played with the water with twitching lips
as though, with no will to take up the trail again, it sought to deceive
its master into thinking that it was still drinking. The man yawned and
his drowsy eyes came away from the wood-topped hills before him to the
moist earth under foot. For the moment they did not seem the eyes of the
Buck Thornton who had ridden to the bank in Dry Town a little before
noon, but were gentle and dreamily meditative with all of the earlier
sharp alertness gone. And then suddenly there came into them a quick
change, a keen brightness, as he jerked his head forward and stared down
at the ground at his feet.

"Now what is she doing out this way?" he asked himself aloud. "And where
is she going?"

Though the soil was cut and beaten with the sharp hoofs of the many
cattle that had drunk here earlier in the day, it was not so rough that
it hid the thing which the quick eyes of the cattle man found and
understood. There, close to the water's edge and almost under his own
horse's body, were the tracks a shod horse had left not very long ago.
The spring water was still trickling into one of them. There, too, a
little to the side was the imprint of the foot of the rider who had
gotten down to drink from the same stream, the mark of a tiny, high
heeled boot.

"It might be some other girl," he told himself by way of answer to his
own question. "And it might be a Mex with a proud, blue-blooded foot.
But," and he leaned further forward studying the foot print, "it's a
mighty good bet I could tell what she looks like from the shape of her
head to the colour of her eyes! Now, what do you suppose she's tackling?
Something that Mr. Templeton says is plumb foolish and full of danger?"

He slipped the bit back into his horse's mouth and swung up into the
saddle.

"She didn't come out the way I came," he reflected as for a moment he
sat still, looking down at the medley of tracks. "I'd have seen her
horse's tracks. She must have made a big curve somewhere. I wonder what
for?"

Then slowly the gravity left his eyes and a slow smile came into them.
He surprised his horse with a touch of the spurs.

"Get into it, you long-legged wooden horse, you!" he chuckled. "We've
got something to ride for now! We're going to see Miss Grey Eyes again.
There's something besides stick-up men worth a man's thinking about,
little horse!"

He reined back into the trail, rode through the little valley, climbed
the ridge beyond and so pushed on deeper and ever deeper into the long
sweep of flat country upon the other side. Often his eyes ran far ahead,
seeking swiftly for the slender figure he constantly expected to see
riding eastward before him; often they dropped to the trail underfoot to
see that her horse's tracks had not turned to right or left should she
leave this main horseman's highway for some one of the countless cross
trails.

The afternoon wore on, the miles dropped away behind him; and he came to
the end of the flat country and again was in low rolling hills. Her
horse's tracks were there always before him, and yet he had had no sight
of any rider that day since leaving the county road. Again much gravity
came back into his eyes.

"Where's she going?" he asked himself again. "It looks like she was
headed for Harte's Camp too. And then on to Hill's Corners? All alone?
It's funny."

Twenty miles he had come from Dry Town. He was again riding slowly,
remembering that his horse had carried the great weight of him many long
miles yesterday and today. Now the hills grew steep and shot up high and
rugged against the sky. The trail was harder, steeper, narrower where it
wound along the edges of the many ravines. Again and again the ground
was so flinty that it held no sign to show whether shod horse had passed
over it or not. But he told himself that there was scant likelihood of
her having turned out here; there was but the one trail now. And then,
suddenly when he came down into another little valley through which a
small drying stream wandered, he came upon the tracks he had been so
long following. And he noted, with a little lift to the eyebrows, that
here were the fresh hoof marks of two horses leading on toward the Camp.

"Somebody else has cut in from the side," he pondered. "Lordy, but this
cattle country is sure getting shot all to pieces with folks. Who'd you
suppose this new pilgrim is?"

Once or twice he drew rein, studying the signs of the trail. The tracks
he had picked up at the stream with the print of the tiny boot were the
small marks of a pony. This second horse for which he was seeking to
account was certainly a larger animal, leaving bigger tracks, deeper
sunk. There was little difficulty in distinguishing one from the other.
And there was as little trouble in reading that the larger horse had
followed the pony, for again and again the big, deep track lay over the
other, now and then blotting it out.

A man, with a long solitary ride ahead of him, has much time for
conjecture, idle and otherwise. Here lay the hint of a story; who was
the second rider, what was his business? Whence had he come and whither
was he riding? And did his following the girl mean anything?

Thornton came at last, in the late afternoon, to the last stream he
would ford before reaching Harte's Camp. Another half mile, the passing
over a slight rise, and he would be in sight of the end of his day's
ride. He crossed the stream, and then, looking for the tracks he had
been following, he saw that again the pony was pushing on ahead of him,
that the horseman had turned aside. He jerked his horse back seeking for
the lost tracks. And presently he found them, turning to the south and
leading off into the mountains.

With thoughtful eyes he returned to his trail. He rode over the little
ridge and so came into sight of the three log cabins under the oaks of
Harte's place. Beyond was the barn. He would go there, find her horse
at the manger. Then he would go up to the cabin in which the Hartes'
lived and there find her.

Twenty minutes later, his face and hands washed at the well, his short
cropped hair brushed back with the palm of his hand, he went to the main
cabin. The door was shut but the smoke from the rough stone chimney
spoke eloquently of supper being cooked within. But he was not thinking
a great deal of the supper. He had found the pony in the barn, had even
seen a quirt which he remembered, knew that he had not been mistaken in
the matter of ownership of the trim boots that had left their marks at
the spring, and realized that he was rather gladder of the circumstance
than the mere facts of the case would seem to warrant. And then, with
brows lifted and mouth puckered into a silent whistle, he read the words
on a bit of paper tacked to the cabin door:

"We've gone over to Dave Wendells. The old woman is took sick. Back in
the morning most likely make yourself to home. W. HARTE."

He paused a moment, frowning, his hat in his hand. It seemed to be in
his thought to go back to his horse. While he hesitated the door was
flung open and a pair of troubled grey eyes looked out at him
searchingly; a pair of red lips tremulously trying to be firm smiled at
him, and a very low voice faltered, albeit with a brave attempt to be
steady:

"Won't you come in... Mr. Thornton? And ... and make yourself at home,
too? I've done it. I suppose it's all right...."

And then when still he hesitated, and his embarrassment began to grow
and hers seemed to melt away, she added brightly and quite coolly:

"Supper is ready ... and waiting. And I'm simply starved. Aren't you?"

Thornton laughed.

"Come to think of it," he admitted, "I believe I am."



CHAPTER VIII

IN HARTE'S CABIN


There was a rough board table, oilcloth-covered, in front of the
fireplace. There were coffee, bread and butter, crisp slices of bacon, a
dish of steaming tinned corn. There were two plates with knife and fork
at the side, two cups, two chairs drawn up to the table.

"You see," she said, gaily and lightly enough, "you _have_ kept me
waiting."

He glanced swiftly at her as she stood by the fireplace, and away. For
though twilight in the wooded country had crept out upon them he could
see the look in her eyes, the set of the red lipped mouth. And he knew
downright fear when he saw it, though it be fear bravely masked.

"Let's eat," he answered, having many things in his mind, but no other
single thing to say to her just yet.

She flashed him a quick look and sat down. Thornton dragged back the
other chair, flung his hat to the bunk in the corner of the room, and
disposed his long legs uncomfortably under the small table. Inwardly he
was devoutly cursing Dave Wendell for allowing anybody at his place to
choose this particular time to get sick and the Hartes for going to the
assistance of a ten-mile distant neighbour.

He watched the girl's quick fingers busy with the blackened coffee pot,
realized at one and the same time that she had no ring upon a particular
finger and that it was idiotic for him to so much as look for it, never
allowed his glance to wander higher than her hands and attacked his
bread and butter as though its immediate consumption were the most
important thing in all the world. And she, when she felt that he was not
watching her, when his silence was almost a tangible thing, looked at
him with quick furtiveness. The something in her expression which had
spoken of terror began to give place to the look of amusement which
twitched at her lips and flickered up in the soft grey of her eyes. And
since still he gave no sign of breaking the silence which had fallen
over them, she said at last:

"Didn't you know all the time who I was?"

Then he looked up at her inquiringly. And when he saw that she was
smiling, a little of his sudden restraint fled from him and his eyes
smiled back gently a little and reassuringly into hers.

"All the time?" he asked. "Meaning when?"

"Back there. On the trail," she told him.

"Well," he admitted slowly, "I guess I was pretty sure. Of course I
couldn't be dead certain. It might have been anybody's tracks ... that
is," he corrected with a quick broadening of the smile, "anybody with a
foot the right size to fit into a boot like that."

"Like what?" she asked in turn.

"Like the one that made the tracks by the creek where you came into the
main trail, where you stopped to drink."

"You saw that?"

"If I hadn't seen it how was I to guess that it was you ahead of me?" he
demanded. And when she frowned a little and did not answer for a moment
he gave his attention to the black coffee which she had poured for him.
"You sure know how to make coffee _right_," he complimented her with a
vast show of sincerity. "This is the best I ever tasted."

"I'm glad you like it," she retorted as the frown fled before a hint of
laughter. "I found it already made in the pot and just warmed it over!"

"Oh," said Thornton. And then with much gravity of tone but with
twinkling eyes, "Come to think of it it isn't the _taste_ of it that a
man notices; it's the being just hot enough. I never had any coffee
better warmed-up than this."

"Thank you." She stirred the sugar in her own cup of muddy looking
beverage and without glancing up at him this time, went on, "You mean
that you didn't know who I was when you saw me?"

"At the bank in Dry Town?"

"Of course not. Back there on the trail."

"I didn't see you," he told her.

Now she flashed another quick upward glance at him as though seeking for
a reason lying back of his words.

"I saw you" she said steadily. "Twice. First from the top of a hill
half a dozen miles back when you got down to look at your horse's foot.
Did he pick up a stone?"

His eyes opened in surprise.

"I didn't get off to look at my horse's foot. And he didn't pick up
anything."

"The second time," she continued, "was just when you had come to the
last stream. I thought that you were going to turn off into the cañon. I
saw that your horse was limping."

He shook his head. She must have seen that other fellow whose tracks
Thornton had for so long seen following the tracks of her pony.

"What made you think you recognized me?" he asked.

"I didn't think. I knew."

"Then ... how did you know?"

The surprise showing in her frankly lifted brows was very plain now.

"You were hardly five hundred yards away," she retorted. "And," with a
quick, sweeping survey of him, "you are not a man to be readily mistaken
even at that distance, you know."

"Meaning the inches of me? The up-and-down six feet four of me?" He
shook his head. "I'm the only man in this neck of the woods built on the
bean pole style."

"Meaning," she returned steadily, "your size and form; meaning the
unusually wide hat you wear; meaning your blue shirt and grey
neck-handkerchief ... grey handkerchiefs aren't so common, are they?...
meaning your tall sorrel horse that limped, and your bridle with the red
tassel swinging from the headstall! Now," a little sharply, a little
anxiously, he thought, "you are not going to tell me that I was
mistaken, are you?"

She saw that his surprise, growing into sheer amazement as she ran on,
was a wonderfully simulated thing if it were not real.

"You made a mistake," he said coolly. "I saw in the trail that there was
another man following you. If I had known his get-up was so close to
mine, I'd have done a little fast riding to take a peep at him. He
turned off at the last creek, as you thought."

"You saw him?" she asked quickly.

"I saw his tracks. And," he added with deep thoughtfulness as he stared
past her into the smouldering fire in the fireplace, "I'd sure like to
know who he is."

Again, as she watched him, an expression of uneasiness crept into her
eyes; then as he turned back to her she looked down quickly.

"Is it far to the Wendell place?" she asked abruptly. "Where the sick
woman is?"

"Ten miles. Off to the north."

"Not on our trail?" anxiously.

"You're going on, further?"

"Yes. To ..." she hesitated, and then concluded hurriedly, "To Hill's
Corners."

He sat silent for a moment, his strong brown fingers playing with his
knife and fork. And his eyes were merely stern when he spoke quietly.

"So you're going to Dead Man's Alley, are you?"

"I said that I was going to Hill's Corners!"

"And folks who know that quiet little city," he informed her, "have got
into the habit of calling it by the name of its principal street.... I
wonder if you've ever been there?"

"No. Why?"

"I wonder if you know anything about the place?"

"What I've heard. What Mr. Templeton tried to tell me."

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I don't know that I blame him for trying
to turn you into another trail. He must have told you," and he was
watching her very keenly, "that the stage runs there from Dry Town?"

"Yes. But I chose to ride on horseback. Is there anything strange in
that?"

"Oh, no!" he said briefly. "Just a nice little ride!"

"I have ridden long trails before."

Again for a little while she watched him with intent, eager eyes; he was
silent, frowning into his own cup of coffee.

"Dead Man's Alley," he volunteered abruptly, "is the worst little bad
town I ever saw. And I've camped in two or three that a man wouldn't
call just exactly healthy on the dark of the moon. I guess Mr.
Templeton must have told you, but unless it's happened in the last
month, there isn't a man in that town who has his wife or daughters
there. If I were you," and he lifted his cup to his lips as a sign that
he had said his say, "I'd rope my cow pony and hit the home trail for
Dry Town!"

"Thank you," she said as quietly as he had spoken. "But really Mr.
Templeton gave me enough advice to last me a year, I think. I have made
up my mind to go on to ... to Dead Man's Alley, as you call it."

"Well," he grinned back at her as though the discussion had been of no
moment and now was quite satisfactorily ended, "I ought to be glad,
oughtn't I? Since my trail runs that way, and since the Poison Hole
ranch is only twenty miles out from the Corners. Maybe you'll let me
ride over and see you?"

"Of course. I'll be glad to have you. That is," and her smile came back,
a very teasing smile, too, "if you'll care to call at the house where
I'm going to stop? I'm going to stay with my uncle."

"The chances are that I don't know him. I don't know half a dozen folks
in the town. What's his name?"

"His name," she told him demurely, "is Henry Pollard. I think you know
him."

He flushed a little as she had hoped that he would. He remembered. He
knew that he had spoken this morning at the bank of Henry Pollard from
whom he was buying his outfit, knew that he must have called him, as he
always did when he spoke of him, "Rattlesnake" Pollard. And Henry
Pollard was her uncle!

"I didn't know," he said slowly and a little lamely, "that he was your
uncle. But," he added cheerfully, his assurance coming back to him, "you
can't help that, you know. I don't blame you for it. Yes, I'll ride over
from the ranch. It's good of you to let me."

They finished the meal in a rather thoughtful silence. Thornton made a
cigarette and went to the door to look for the upclimbing moon; the girl
carried her chair to the fireplace and sat down, her hands in her lap,
her eyes staring into the coals.

The man was asking himself stubbornly why this girl, this type of girl,
dainty, frank-eyed, clean-hearted as he felt instinctively that she was,
was making this trip to that dirty town which straddled the state border
line like an evil, venomous toad and sneered in its ugly defiant fashion
at the peace officers of two states. He was trying to see what the
reason could be that carried her through this little-travelled country
to the house of such a man as not only Buck Thornton but every one in
this end of the cattle country knew Henry Pollard to be; trying above
all to seek the reason for her making the trip on horse back, alone,
over a wild trail, when the stage for Hill's Corners had left Dry Town
so little after her and must reach its journey's end well ahead of her.

And she, over and over, was asking herself why this man whom she was so
certain she had seen twice that day upon the trail behind her, denied
that he had been the man who got down to look at his horse's foot, who
later had ridden a limping mount aside into the cañon. For she felt very
sure that she had not been mistaken and, therefore, that he was lying to
her. She frowned and glanced over her shoulder. She was a little afraid
of a man who could look at her out of clear eyes as he had looked, and
lie to her as she was so confident he had lied. She knew nothing of him
save that this morning he had come to her assistance at a moment of
great peril and that he was suspected by some of a certain robbery and
assault....

"Are you very tired?"

She started. He had turned at last and came back to where she sat.

"No, I am not tired. Why do you ask?"

"There'll be a moon soon. We can let the horses rest a bit.... I have
ridden mine pretty hard the last few days ... and then after moon-up we
can ride on. There's another shack where a man and his wife live just a
little off the trail and about seven miles further on. It'll be better
than trying to make Wendell's place."



CHAPTER IX

THE DOUBLE THEFT


After that there were no more uncomfortable silences in the Harte cabin.
Thornton found a lamp, lighted it and placed it on the table. And with
the act he seemed to take upon himself the part of host, playing it with
a quiet courtesy and gentleness fitting well with the unconscious grace
of his lithe body and with the kindliness softening his dark eyes. He
told her of his ranch, of the cowboys working for him, of the cattle
they were running, of little incidents of everyday life on the range,
seeking to make her forget that in reality they were strangers very
unconventionally placed. And he did not once ask her a direct question
about herself or concerning her business. That she was quick to notice.

For an hour they chatted pleasantly. Now, when Thornton got to his feet
again, and went to the door to see what promise the night gave of being
cloudless and to note the moon already pushing up above the jagged
skyline where the trees stood upon the hill tops, she watched him with
an interest that was not tinged with the vague suspicion of an hour ago.
She saw that as he stood lounging in the doorway, his hands upon his
hips, one shoulder against the rude door jamb, he had to stoop his head
a little, and knew that he was a taller, bigger man than she had
realized until now.

"If I were as big as you are," she laughed at him, "I'd be in constant
fear of bumping my head in the dark."

He laughed with her, told her that he was getting used to it, and came
back for his hat.

"If you'll be getting ready," he told her, "I'll go out and bring in the
horses. If you're rested up?"

She assured him that she was, noted again how he stooped for the
doorway, and watched him move swiftly away through the shadows cast by
the trees about the cabin. She put on her hat, buckled on the spurs she
had dropped on the table, and was ready. Then, before he could have gone
half way to the barn, she heard swift steps coming back.

He had forgotten something; but what? She looked about her expecting to
see his tobacco sack or some such article, a block of matches, maybe,
which he had left behind. But there was nothing. She lifted the lamp in
her hand so that the weak rays searched out the four corners of the
cabin. Then she turned again toward the door.

Out yonder through the clear night came on the tall figure with the long
free stride of the man of the outdoors. In a patch of bright moonlight
his head was down as though his mood were one of thoughtfulness, and the
shadow of his wide hat hid his face and eyes from her. In the black
shade under the live oak before Harte's door he lifted his head
quickly; here he came for an instant to a dead halt, half turning. It
struck her abruptly that he was tense, that the atmosphere was suddenly
charged with uneasiness, that he was listening as a man listens who more
than half expects trouble.

"What is it?" she called. She could not make out more than the vague
outline of his figure now as he stood still, his body seeming to merge
into the great trunk of the tree. He did not answer. Again, head down
and hurriedly, he came on. On through the thinning fringe of shadow and
into the full bright moonlight.

A sudden formless fear which in no way could she explain was upon her.
His actions were so strange; they hinted at furtiveness. He had been so
outright and hearty and wholesome a moment ago and now struck her as
anything but the big free and easy man who had supped with her. She drew
back a little, her underlip caught between her teeth as was her habit
when undue stress was laid upon her nerves, her breath coming a trifle
irregularly. After all she was just a girl and he was a man, big, strong
and perhaps brutal, of whom she knew virtually nothing. And they were
very far from any other human beings....

He came straight on to the open door; as the lamp light fell upon him
her formless fear of a moment ago was swept up and engulfed in an access
of terror which made her sick and dizzy. All of the time until now, even
when appearances hinted at an inexplicable duplicity, she had felt safe
with him, trusting to what her natural instinct read of him in his eyes
and carriage and voice. And now she clutched at the mantel with one hand
while in the other the lamp swayed precariously.

The reason for her agitation was plain enough; had it been his sole
purpose to strike terror into her heart he could hardly have selected a
more efficient method. Across the face, hiding it entirely, leaving only
the eyes to glint through two rude slits at her, was a wide bandana
handkerchief. The big black hat was drawn low, now; the handkerchief,
bound about the brow, fell to a point well below the base of his throat.

"Easy there," he said in a voice which upon her ears was only a tense,
evil whisper. "Easy. You know what I want.... Look out for that lamp!
Making it dark in here, even setting the shack on fire, isn't going to
help much. Easy, girlie."

"You ... you ..." she panted, and found no word to go on.

He came in and strode across the room, taking the lamp from her and
setting it on the mantel. She had come near dropping it when his hand
brushed hers. Again she drew back from him hastily, her eyes running to
the door. But he forestalled her, closed the door and stood in her way,
towering above her, his air charged with menace.

"You pretty thing!" he muttered, his tone frankly sincere though his
voice was still hardly more than a harsh whisper. "If I just had time to
play with you ... I said you'd know what I want. And don't get funny
with the little toy pistol you'd be sure to have in your dress. It won't
do you any good; you know that, don't you?"

She did know. Her hand had already gone into her bosom where the "little
toy pistol" lay against that which she had vainly thought it could
guard, a thick envelope. The man came quite close to her, so close that
she felt his breath stir her hair, so close that his slightly uplifted
hand could come down upon her before she could stir an inch.

"You can tell Henry Pollard for me," he jeered from the secure
anticipation of his present triumph, "that the unknown stranger names
him seven kinds of fool. To think he could get across this way and sneak
that little wad by me! And by the by, it's getting late and if you don't
mind I'll take what's coming to me and move on."

Then she found her tongue, the fires blazed up in her eyes and a hot
flush came into her pale cheeks.

"Big brute and cur and coward!" she flung at him. "Woman-fighter!"

"All of that," he laughed insolently. "And then some. And you? Grey
eyed, pink beauty! By God, girl, you'd make an armful for a man! Soon to
be queen of Dead Man's Alley, eh? I'll see you there; I'll come and pay
my respects! Oh, but I will, coward that I am! But now...."

"There! Take it! Take it! Oh...."

She shuddered away from him, her face went white again, she grew cold
with the fear upon her. Just then she cared infinitely little for the
sheaf of banknotes in the yellow envelope which the banker had given to
her. She jerked the parcel out from her dress and tossed it to him, her
fingers fumbling with the button of the thin garment under which her
heart was beating wildly. And the little "toy pistol" she could have
hurled from her, too. Against this physical bigness, against this
insolent bravado and this swift sureness of eye and muscle, she knew the
small weapon to be a ridiculous and utterly insufficient plaything.

He caught the envelope and thumbed it, tore off an end and glanced
swiftly at the contents and then stowed it away inside his grey flannel
shirt. Again his eyes came back to her.

"I'm in a hurry," he said swiftly. "But there's always time for a girl
like you!"

She had foreseen how it would be. Now that she struggled to draw her
tiny revolver and fire he was upon her, his long arms about her, his
muscular strength making her own as nothing. And though he was breathing
more quickly still he had his quiet insolent laugh for still further
insult. Though she sought to strike at him he held her in utter
helplessness. Slowly he lifted her face, a big hand under her chin. The
lamp was close by; he blew down the chimney and save for the moonlight
across the threshold it was dark in the cabin. With his other hand he
lifted his crude mask from the lower part of his face. She sought again
to strike, to batter his lips. But her heart sank as the relentless
rigidity of his embrace baffled her attempt. He brought his face closer
to hers, slowly closer until at last she knew the outrage of a violent
kiss....

From outside came a little sound, not to be catalogued. It might have
been only a dead twig snapping under the talons of a night bird
alighting in the big oak tree. But suddenly the arms about her relaxed,
the man whirled and sprang back, whipped open the door and silently was
gone into the outer night.

Moaning, swaying, dizzy and sick, she crouched in a far corner. Then she
ran to the door and looked out. There was nothing moving to be seen
anywhere. Just the white moonlight here, the black patches of shadow
there, the sombre wall of the forest land a few yards away. Her nausea
of dread, her uncertainty, had passed. With never a glance behind her
she ran down toward the barn. She knew that she would be afraid to go
into the black maw of the silent building for her horse and yet she knew
that she must, that she must mount and ride.... She had never until now
known the terror of being alone, utterly alone in the night and the
wilderness.

Suddenly she stopped to stare incredulously. About a corner of the barn,
coming out into the bright moonlight, leading his own horse and her own,
was Buck Thornton. She was so certain that he had gone! For the instant
she could not move but stood powerless to lift a hand, rooted to the
spot. She noted that his face was unhidden now, his black hat pushed
far back on his head, while from his hip pocket trailed the end of a
handkerchief which may and may not have had slits let in it for his eyes
to peer through.

"You ... here? Yet?" she found herself stammering at him.

"Yes," he answered heavily. "I have been all this time looking for the
horses. The corral was broken; they had gotten out into the pasture."

"A likely tale!" she cried with a sudden heat of passionate fury at the
man and his cold manner and his mad thought that she was fool enough to
be beguiled from her knowledge of what he was. And then a fresh fear
made her draw back and widened her eyes. She had not thought of madness
but ... if the man were mad....

But he was not mad and she knew it. His were the clear eyes of perfect
sanity. He was simply ... an unthinkable brute.

"Look," she said as his horse moved nervously. "Your horse _does_ limp!"

His answer came quickly. And there was a queer note in his voice, harsh
and ugly, which sent a shiver through her shaken nerves:

"A man did that while we were in the cabin. With a knife." The moon
shone full in his face; she had never seen such a transformation, such a
semblance of quiet, cold rage. If the man were just acting....

"I've just got the hunch," he said bluntly, "that I know who he is, too.
And, for the last time, Winifred Waverly, I am interfering in your
business and advising you the best way I know how to turn back right
here and right now and forget that you've got an uncle named Pollard!"



CHAPTER X

IN THE MOONLIGHT


She stood there in a bright patch of moonlight looking up into his face,
seeing every line of it in the rich flood of light from the full moon,
wondering dully if she had lost her sense of the real and the unreal. It
seemed to her so rankly absurd, so utterly preposterous that he should
seek to pretend with her. For, now that she had seen the limping gait of
his big sorrel, was she more than certain that this was the man whom she
had seen following her in the afternoon. And as she noted again the
sinewy bigness of him, the garb of grey shirt, open vest and black
chaps, she told herself angrily that he was a fool, or that he thought
her a fool, to pretend that he knew nothing of that thing which had just
happened in the lonely cabin. Even the grey neck-handkerchief, now
knotted loosely about the brown throat, was there to give him the
lie.... With shame and anger her cheeks burned until they went as
crimson as hot blood could make them.

It was all so clear to her. She had refused to believe that he had
robbed Hap Smith's mail bags. Why? She bit her lip in sudden anger:
because he had fitted well in a romantic girl's eye! Fool that she was.
She should have put sterner interpretation upon the fact that Thornton,
coming rudely into the banker's private office, had admitted hearing
part of her conversation with Mr. Templeton. Now she had no doubt that
he had heard everything.

"Have you ever been over this trail? As far as the next ranch, seven
miles further on?" he asked at last, his hard eyes coming away from the
horse that stood with one foot lifted a little from the ground, the
quick twitching of the foot itself, the writhing and twisting of the
foreleg, speaking of the pain from the deep cut.

"No."

There was so much of hatred in the one short word which she flung at
him, so much of passionate contempt, that he looked at her wonderingly.

"What's the matter, Miss Waverly?" he asked, his voice a shade gentler.
"You seem all different somehow. Are you more tired than you thought?"

She laughed and the wonder grew in his eyes. He had never heard a woman
laugh like that, had not dreamed that this girl's voice could grow so
bitter.

"No," she told him coldly. She jerked her pony's reins out of Thornton's
hand. "I am going to ride on. And I suppose you will ride that poor
wounded horse until it drops!"

"No," he said. "That's why I asked if you knew the trails. I didn't
notice he limped out there where I put the saddle on. It was dark under
the trees, you know."

"Was it?" she retorted sarcastically, drawing another quick, searching
look from him.

There was no call for an answer and he made none. He stepped to his
horse's head, lifted the wincing forefoot very tenderly, and stooping
close to it looked at it for a long time. The girl was behind the broad,
stooping back. Impulsively her hand crept into the bosom of her dress,
her face going steadily white as her fingers curved and tightened about
the grip of the small calibre revolver she carried there. And then she
jerked her hand out, empty.

She saw him straighten up, heard again the long, heavy sigh and marked
how his face was convulsed with rage.

"I don't know why a man did that." He was only ten steps away and yet
she turned her head a little sideways that she might catch the low
words. She shivered. His voice was cold and hard and deadly. It was
difficult for her to believe that in reality he had not forgotten her
presence.

"No, I don't know why a man did that. But I'm going to know. Yes, I'm
going to know if it takes fifty years."

"Where is my trail?" she called sharply. "I am going."

"You couldn't find it alone. I'm going with you."

Her scorn of him leaped higher in her eyes. It was her thought that he
was going to ride this poor, tortured brute. For she knew that there was
no other horse in the barn or about the camp. But he was quietly
loosening his cinch, lifting down the heavy Mexican saddle, removing the
bit from his horse's mouth.

"What are you going to do?" She bit her lips after the question, but it
had leaped out involuntarily.

"I'm going to leave him here for the present. The wound will heal up
after a while."

With the saddle thrown over his own shoulders, he ran a gentle hand over
the soft nose of his horse which was thrust affectionately against his
side, and turned away. She watched him, expecting him to go back to the
barn to leave his saddle and bridle. But instead he set his face toward
the hills beyond the cabin, where she supposed the trail was.

"I'll pick up another horse at the next ranch," he offered casually by
way of explanation. "And we had better hit the trail. It's getting
late."

Wordlessly she followed, her eyes held, fascinated by the great, tall
bulk of him swinging on in front of her, carrying the heavy saddle with
as little care to its weight as if he had been entirely unconscious of
it, as no doubt such a man could be. She knew that already he had ridden
sixty miles today and that it was seven miles farther to the ranch where
he would get another horse. And yet there he strode on, swiftly, as
though he had rested all day and now were going to walk the matter of a
few yards.

She could not understand this man, whom, since she must, she followed.
Had he not told her there in the cabin when he had played at hiding his
identity from her, that he knew she was armed? And yet, encumbered with
the saddle upon his shoulder, his right hand carrying the bridle, he
turned his back square upon her with no glance to see if she were even
now covering him with her revolver. And had she not called him a coward,
thought him a coward? Was this the way a coward should act?

Again and again during those first minutes her hand crept to the bosom
of her dress. Did he know it? she wondered. Was he laughing at her,
knowing that she could not bring herself to the point of actually
shooting? But then, she might cover him, call to him that she would
shoot if he made her, and so force him to return the money he had
stolen.

"He would laugh at me," she told herself each time, her anger at him and
at herself rising higher and higher. "He would know that I could not
kill him. Not in cold blood, this way!"

So Buck Thornton strode on, grim in the savage silence which gripped
him, on through the shadows and out into the moonlight beyond the trees,
and she followed in silence. There were times when she hated him so that
she thought that she could shoot, shoot to kill. His very going with her
angered her. Was it not more play-acting, as insolent as anything he
could do, as insolent as his kissing her had been! She grew red and went
white over it. It was as though he were laughing into her face, making
sport of her, saying, "I am a gentleman, you see. I could stay here all
night, and you would have to stay with me! But I am not taking
advantage of you; I am walking seven miles over a hard trail, carrying a
pack like a mule, that you may sleep tonight under the same roof with
another woman."

Now she was tempted to wheel her horse, to turn back, to camp alone
somewhere out there in the woods, or to ride the thirty miles back to
Dry Town. And now, remembering the bank notes which had been taken from
her, remembering the insult in the cabin, she held on after him,
resolved that she would not lose sight of this man, that she would see
him handed over to justice when she could taunt him, saying: "I didn't
shoot you, you see, because I am a woman and not a tough. But I have
given you into hands that are not woman's hands, because I hate you so!"

Her horse carried her on at a swift walk, but she did not have to draw
rein to keep from passing Thornton. His long stride was so smooth,
regular, swift and tireless that it soon began to amaze her. They had
passed through the little valley in which Harte's place stood, and
entered a dark cañon leading into the steeper hills. The trail was
uneven, and now and then very steep. Yet Thornton pushed on steadily
with no slowing in the swift gait, no sign to tell that he felt fatigue
in muscles of back or legs.

"He must be made of iron," she marvelled.

In an hour they had come to the top of a ridge, and Thornton stopped,
tossing his saddle to the ground. He had not once spoken since they left
the Harte place. Now with quick fingers he made his cigarette. She
stopped a dozen paces from him, and though one would have said that she
was not looking at him, saw the flare of his match, glimpsed the hard
set lines of his face, and knew that he would not speak until she had
spoken. And the lines of her own face grew hard, and she turned away
from him, feeling a quick spurt of anger that she had so much as looked
at him when he had not turned his eyes upon her. He smoked his
cigarette, swept up saddle and bridle, and moved on, striking over the
ridge and down upon the other side.

It was perhaps ten minutes later when she saw, far off to the left, the
glimmer of a light, lost it through the trees, found it again and knew
that it told of some habitation. They came abreast of a branch trail,
leading toward the lighted window; the girl's eager eyes found it
readily, and then noted that Thornton was passing on as though he had
seen neither light nor trail. She spoke hurriedly, saying:

"Isn't that the place? Where the light is?"

"No," he told her colourlessly and without turning. "That's the Henry
place. We're going on to Smith's."

"Why don't we stop here? It's nearer. And I'm tired."

"We can stop and rest," he replied. "Then we had better go on. It's not
very much further now."

"But why not here?" she cried insistently in sudden irritation that upon
all matters this man dictated to her and dictated so assuredly. "One
place is as good as another."

"This one isn't, Miss Waverly. There's a tough lot here, and there are
no women among them. So we'll have to make it to Smith's. Do you want to
rest a while?"

"No," she cried sharply. "Let's hurry and get it over with!"

He inclined his head gravely and they went on. And again her anger rose
against this man who seemed over and over to wish to remind her that he
was a gentleman. As though she had forgotten any little incident
connected with him!

Again they made their way through lights and shadows, down into ragged
cuts in the hills, over knolls and ridges, through a forest where
raindrops were still dripping from the thick leaves and where she knew
that without him she never could have found her way. And not once more
did they speak to each other until, unexpectedly for her, they came out
of the wood and fairly upon a squat cabin with a light running out to
meet them through the square of a window.

"Smith's place," he informed her briefly.

Already three dogs had run to meet them, with much barking and simulated
fierceness, and a man and a woman had come to the door.

"Hello," called the man. "Who is it?"

"Hello, John. It's Thornton. Howdy, Mrs. Smith." Thornton tossed his
saddle to the ground, pushed down one of the dogs that had recognized
him and was leaping up on him. "Mrs. Smith, this is Miss Waverly from
Dry Town. A friend of the Templetons. She'll be grateful if you could
take her in for the night."

Man and wife came out, shook hands with the girl, the woman led her into
the cabin, and Smith took her horse. Then the rancher saw Thornton's
saddle.

"Where's your horse?" he asked quickly.

"Back at Harte's. Lame."

In a very few words he told of a deep knife cut beneath the fetlock,
explained Miss Waverly's presence with him, and ended by demanding,

"Who do you suppose did that trick for me, John? It's got me buffaloed."

Smith shook his head thoughtfully.

"By me, Buck," he answered slowly. "Most likely some jasper you've had
trouble with an' is too yeller to get even any other way. I haven't seen
any of your friends from Hill's Corners stickin' around though. Have
you?"

"No. But Miss Waverly saw somebody on the trail the other side of
Harte's this afternoon. Mistook him for me until I told her. A big man
about my size riding a sorrel. Know who it was?"

Again Smith shook his head.

"Can't call him to mind, Buck. It might be Huston for size, but he
hasn't got a sorrel in his string, an' then he's took on too much fat
lately to be mistook for you. Go on inside. You'll want to eat, I
guess. I'll put up the lady's horse an' be with you in two shakes."

"Thanks, John. But I had supper back at Harte's. Can you let me have a
horse in the morning? I'll send him back by one of the boys."

"Sure. Take the big roan. An' you don't have to send him back, either.
I'm ridin' that way myself tomorrow, an' I'll drop by an' get him."

"Which way are you ridin'?"

"To the Bar X. I got word last week three or four of my steers was over
there. I want to see about 'em. Before," he added drily, "they get any
closer to Dead Man's."

Thornton's nod indicated that he understood. And then, suddenly, he
said,

"If you're going that way you can see Miss Waverly through, can't you?
She's going to the Corners."

Smith whistled softly.

"Now what the devil is the like of her goin' to that town for?" he
demanded.

"I don't know the answer. But she's going there." And as partial
explanation, he added, "She's Henry Pollard's niece."

For a moment Smith pondered the information in silence. Then his only
reference to it was a short spoken, "Well, she don't look it! Anyway,
that's her look-out, an' I'll see her within half a dozen miles of the
border. You'll turn off this side the Poison Hole, huh?"

"I'll turn off right here, and right now. I've got a curiosity, John,"
and his voice was harder than Winifred Waverly had ever heard it, "to
know a thing or two about the way my horse went lame. I'm going to sling
my saddle on your roan and take a little ride back to Harte's. Maybe I
can pick up that other jasper's trail in the cañon back there."

The two men went down to the stable, and while the rancher watered and
fed the pony Thornton roped the big roan in the fenced-in pasture. Ten
minutes after he had come to the Smith place he had saddled and ridden
back along the trail toward Harte's.

The two women in the cabin looked up as Smith came in.

"Where's Mr. Thornton?" his wife asked.

"He's gone back," Smith told her. He drew out his chair, sat down and
filled his pipe. Before Mrs. Smith's surprise could find words the girl
had started to her feet, crying quickly:

"Gone back! Where?"

"To Harte's. A man knifed his horse back there." He stopped, lighted
his pipe, and then said slowly, with much deep thoughtfulness, "If I
was that man I'd ride some tonight! I'd keep right on ridin' until
I'd put about seven thousand miles between me an' Buck Thornton. An'
then ... well, then, I guess I'd jest naturally dig a hole an' crawl
in it so deep nothin' but my gun stuck out!"

"What did he say?" she asked breathlessly.

"That's jest it, Miss. He didn't say much!"



CHAPTER XI

THE BEDLOE BOYS


All thoughts of denouncing Buck Thornton before these people fled before
the girl had followed the rancher's wife into the cabin. They spoke of
him only in tones warm with friendship and with something more than mere
friendship, an admiration that was tinged with respect. They had known
him since first he had come into this country, and although that had
been only a little more than a year ago, they had grown to know him as
men and women in these far-out places come to know each other, swiftly,
intimately.

He was a favourite topic of conversation and they talked of him
naturally, readily, and Mrs. Smith, fluently. She recounted, not
guessing how eagerly the girl was listening to every word, many an
episode which in the aggregate had given him the reputation he bore
throughout these wild miles of cattle land, the reputation of a man who
was hard, hard as rock "on the outside," as she put it, hard inside,
too, when they drove him to it, but naturally as soft-hearted as a baby.
She wished _she_ had a boy like him! Why, when she and John hit hard
luck, last year, what with the cattle getting diseased first and her and
John getting laid up next, flat of their backs with the grip, that man
was an angel in britches and spurs if there ever was an angel in
anything! He'd nursed them and cooked for them, and lifted her out of
her bed while he made it up himself, just as smooth and nice as you
could have done, Miss. And he rode clean into town for a doctor, and
brought him out and a lot of store stuff that was nice for sick folks to
eat. And he'd paid the doctor, too, and laughed and said he'd come some
day and borry the money back when he got busted playing poker!

"And then, all of a sudden, when you'd have thought he was soft that way
clean through," she went on, her eyes blazing now at the memory of it,
"them Bedloe boys come over lookin' for trouble. An' Buck sure gave it
to them!"

"Tell me about it," the girl said quickly. "Who are the Bedloe boys?
What did they do?"

"The Bedloe boys," Mrs. Smith ran on, eager in the recounting, "belong
over to the Corners. Or the Corners belongs to them, I don't know which
you'd say. Never heard of them boys? Well, most folks has. There used to
be lots like the Bedloe boys when I was a girl, Miss, but thank gracious
they're getting thinned out powerful fast. First an' last an' all the
time they're rowdies an' gunfighters an' bad men. There's more of their
kind in Hill's Corners, but these are the worst of the outfit. They keep
close in to the Corners, seeing it's right on the state line, where they
can dodge from one state to another when it comes handy. Which is right
often.

"There's three of 'em. Charley an' Ed an' the youngest one everybody
calls the Kid. That's three an' I guess there's a good many more would
be glad of the chance to shoot Buck up. I guess the Bedloes heard that
time that John was sick. Anyway, they come over, all three of 'em,
hunting trouble. Buck was out in the barn, feeding the horses, an' they
didn't know he was on the ranch. The Kid, he's the youngest of the mess
an' the worst an' the han'somest, with them little yeller curls, an' his
daredevil blue eyes, come on ahead, riding his horse right up to the
door, yelling like a drunk Injun an' cussing so it made a woman wonder
how any woman could ever have a son like him. He tried to ride his horse
right in the door, an' when it got scared of me an' John lyin' in bed,
an' rared up, the Kid hit it over the head with the gun in his hand, an'
slipped out'n the saddle, laughin' at it stagger.

"But he come on in an' Charley come in, too. Ed Bedloe was out in the
far corral, gettin' ready to throw the gate open an' turn out the cows
an' stampede 'em off'n the ranch. What for?" She lifted her bony
shoulders. "Oh, nothin'. They'd jus' had trouble with my John about six
months before, an' was taking a good chance to smash up things in
general about the ranch. They swore they was going to burn the cabin an'
the barn an' scatter the stock an' do anything else they could put their
hands to. An' while they was in here, cussing an' abusing my John, who
couldn't even get up an' grab his shotgun in the corner, an' insulting
me all they could lay their dirty tongues to, there's a step at the
door right behind 'em, light as a cat, an' here's Buck come in from the
barn.

"I wish you'd seen that man's eyes! Then you'd know what I mean when I
say he gets hard, hard an' bitter sometimes. An' his voice--it was so
low an' soft you might 'a' thought he was putting a baby to sleep with
it! There was two of them boys, big an' ugly-mean, an' they both had
guns on, in sight. There was jus' one of Buck Thornton, an' I didn't
know yet he ever toted a gun. He uses his hands, mostly, I reckon, Buck
does. He didn't say much. He just got them two hands of his on Charley
Bedloe's neck, an' I thought he was goin' to break it sure. An' Charley
got flung clean out in the yard before the Kid had finished going for
his gun! You wouldn't believe a man could be that quick.

"Quick? It wasn't nothin' to his next play. I tell you the Kid's hand
was on the way to his gun an' Buck didn't have a gun _on_ him, you'd
have said. An' then he _did_ have a gun, an' John an' me didn't even see
where he got it, an' he didn't seem to be in a hurry, an' he'd shot
before the Kid could more'n pull his gun up!"

"He killed him?"

"He could have killed him just as easy as a man rolls a cigareet! There
wasn't six feet between 'em. Only men like Buck Thornton don't kill men
unless they got to, I guess. But he shot the Kid in the arm, takin' them
chances as cool as an icicle; an' when the Kid dropped his gun an' then
grabbed at it with his other hand, Buck shot him in the left arm the
same way. An' then, using his hands, he threw _him_ out. An' I don't
believe Charley Bedloe more'n got on his hands an' knees outside! An'
then somehow Buck has a gun in each hand, and has stepped outside, too.
And I reckon the Bedloe boys saw the same thing in his eyes me an' John
saw there when he come back in. Anyway, they got on their horses an' we
ain't seen hide nor hair of 'em since."

Miss Waverly sat very still, leaning forward a little, her eyes big and
bright upon the eyes of this other woman. The man, despite her calmer
judgment, appealed to her imagination....

"You'd think," Mrs. Smith went on, "that that man would be tired enough
for one day, wouldn't you? Ridin' all day, walking seven mile toting
that big saddle on his back; an' now he goes an' starts out to ride the
Lord knows how far. What do you suppose a man like him is made out'n?"

Smith answered her out of the corner of his mouth from which a slow curl
of smoke was mounting:

"Sand, mostly."

       *       *       *       *       *

No, the girl could not say to these people that which she had to say of
Buck Thornton. She switched the conversation abruptly, asking them to
tell her of Hill's Corners.

She knew something of the place already. Mr. Templeton had told her a
great deal when insistently urging her not to do the thing she had
determined to do and she had thought that he exaggerated merely in order
to turn her aside from her purpose. She had even heard far-reaching
rumours of the border town in Crystal City, where her own home had been
for the five years since the deaths of her parents. These rumours, too,
she had supposed inflated as rumours will be when they are bad and have
travelled far. Now it was a little anxiously that she asked for further
information, and not altogether because she sought some new topic.

"She's Henry Pollard's niece, Mary," Smith said rather hurriedly. The
girl glanced at him sharply. There was something in his tone which told
her that he was warning his wife, cautioning her to speak guardedly of
Pollard or not at all.

When, an hour later, she went to bed, she lay long sleepless, wondering,
nervously dreading the morrow. For these people who should know gave
Hill's Corners the same name that Mr. Templeton had given it, the same
name it bore as far as Crystal City and beyond. It was one of those far
removed towns which are the last stand of the lawless, the ultimate
breastwork before the final ditch into which in his hour the gunfighter
has finally gone down. Desperate characters, men wanted in two states
and perhaps in many more, flocked here where they found the one chance
to live out their riotous lives riotously. Here they could "straddle"
the line, and when wanted upon one side slip to the other. And
hereabouts, for very many miles in all directions, the big cattle men,
the small ranchers, the "little fellows," all slept "with their eyes
open and their gunlocks oiled."

But, she tried to tell herself, Henry Pollard had sent for her, he was
her own mother's brother, he would not have had her come here if it were
not safe. He had written clearly enough, had told her in his letter that
he could not leave the Corners, that he must have the money, that there
were hold-up men in the country who would not hesitate to rob the stage
if they learned that he had five thousand dollars in it, that she could
bring the bills which Templeton would have ready for her and that there
would be no suspicion, no danger for her. And she would believe her
uncle, would believe that these people had had trouble with the Bedloes
and perhaps others in the town, and that they warped the truth in the
telling. For was any more faith to be put in the word of the Smiths than
in that of Buck Thornton himself? And did she not know him for what he
was, a man who was not above assaulting a defenceless girl, not above
robbery?

Wearied out, she went to sleep, her last waking thoughts trailing off
through the night after a man who could laugh like a boy, whose eyes
could grow very gentle or very, very hard and inexorable.

In the morning John Smith's first words to her drove again a hot, angry
flush into her face. For he told her that Thornton, before he would ride
away last night, had made sure that Smith would accompany her, showing
her the way and "taking care of her." She bit her lip and turned away.
She was grateful that soon breakfast was eaten, the horses saddled and
once more she was riding out toward the south-east. Smith rode at her
elbow.

All morning they rode slowly, over rough trails in the mountains where a
horse found scant foothold, where they wound down into deep, close
walled canyons where the sunlight was dim at noon, where the pines stood
tall and straight in thick ranks untouched by an ax. They came out into
little valleys, past a half dozen ranch houses, saw many herds of cattle
and horses, crossed Indian Gully, topped another steep ridge and at last
looked down upon the Poison Hole ranch.

The ranch lay off to the east as they looked down upon it, a great sweep
of rolling hills sprinkled with big oaks looking like shrubs from their
vantage point, cut in two by the Big Little River, along the banks of
which and out in the meadow lands many herds of cattle ranged free.
Rising in his stirrup Smith pointed out to her the spot near the centre
of the big range where Buck Thornton's "range house" was, a dozen miles
away over the rolling country. And then he swung about and pointed to
the south, saying shortly:

"Yonder's the country you're lookin' for. We strike due south here along
the edge of the Poison Hole ranch. When we get to that next string of
lulls you can see the hills of three states, all at once and the same
time. And you can see the town you're headed for; it sets on top a sort
of hill. Down yonder," and he swung his long arm off to the south-west,
"is the Bar X outfit; that's as far as I'm going. But, if you want
company, one of the boys will sure be glad to ride on with you. The
Corners is only about a dozen mile from there on."



CHAPTER XII

RATTLESNAKE POLLARD


IT was barely noon, the air clear, the sky cloudless, when Winifred
Waverly rode into Hill's Corners. She had shaken her head at the
suggestion of further escort. Here, in the open country and in the full
sunlight, she was grateful for the opportunity of being alone.

At the foot of a gentle eminence she entered the narrow, winding street
of the town, a crooked little town physically both in the matter of this
meandering alley-like thoroughfare and in the matter of the hastily
builded, unprepossessing houses; a crooked town in its innermost
character, it was easy to believe. On either hand as she rode forward
were low, squat, ugly shacks jammed tight together or with narrow
passageways between their unlovely walls, these spaces more often than
not cluttered and further disfigured by piles of rusty tins, old
clothing and shoes and other discarded refuse. As she rode farther she
saw now and then the more pretentious buildings, some with the false
fronts which deceived nobody, the houses appearing shoddy and aged and
sinister, one here and there deserted and given over to ruin,
disintegration and spiders spinning unmolested in dark corners.

The next peculiar impression created upon her was that some evil charm
was over the place, that in the sweet sunlight it lay drugged, that in
those rows of slatternly shacks where the sunlight did not enter men
either hid in dark secrecy or lay in some unnatural stupour. The whole
settlement seemed preternaturally quiet; the fancy came to her that the
town had died long ago and that she merely looked on its ghost.

She had shrunk before now at the thought of men coming to the doors to
stare after her, and perhaps even to call coarsely after her; now it
seemed the dreariest thing in all the world to ride down this dirty,
muddy street and see no man or woman or child, not so much as a saddled
horse at a hitching pole. She came abreast of the most pretentious
building of Hill's Corners; its swing doors were closed, but from within
she heard a low, monotonous hum of languid voices. Upon the crazy false
front, a thing to draw the wondering eye of a stranger, was a gigantic
and remarkably poorly painted picture of a bear holding a glass in one
deformed paw, a bottle in the other, while the drunken letters of the
superfluous sign spelled: "The Brown Bear Saloon." Almost directly
across the street from the Brown Bear was a rival edifice which though
slightly smaller was no less squat and ugly and which bore its own
highly ambitious sign: a monster hand clutching a monster whiskey glass,
with the illuminating words beneath, "The Here's How Saloon." That the
two works of art were from the same brain and hand there was no
doubting. In the inscriptions the n's and s's were all made backwards,
presenting an interesting and entirely suitable air of maudlin
drunkenness.

The girl hurried by. There were other saloons, so many, so close
together that, used as she was to frontier towns, she wondered at it;
she saw other buildings whose signs informed her they were store and
post-office, drug store, blacksmith shop and restaurant. And now the
first visible token of life, a thin spiral of smoke from "Dick's Oyster
House." She passed it, pushing her horse to a gallop. She had seen the
two or three men upon the high stools at the counter taking their coffee
and bacon. They had swung about quickly, like one man, at the cook's
grin and quiet word. One of them even called out something as she
passed; another laughed.

As she rode down the tortuous street, fairly racing now, the blood
whipped into her face, she caught a glimpse of a man standing by his
horse, preparing to swing up into the saddle. His eyes followed her with
a look in them easy to read and unpleasant; something too ardently
admiring to be trusted. She had seen the man's face. He was a big man,
broad and straight and powerful, builded like a Vulcan. He was branded
unmistakably as a rowdy; his very carriage, a sort of conscious swagger,
the bold impudence of his face told that. The laughing face stood out
before her eyes as she rode on, evil and reckless and handsome, with
very bright blue eyes and hair curling in little yellow rings about the
forehead from which the hat was pushed back. It was her first glimpse of
the youngest of the Bedloe boys, the worst of them the "Kid."

She knew that she would find her uncle's house at the end of the street.
Mr. Templeton had told her that, and had described it so that she could
have no trouble in knowing it. And as she rode on, making the curve of
the long, crooked lane which had come to be known as Dead Man's Alley,
she found time to wonder that such a town could be so silent and
deserted with the sun so high in the sky. For she had not learned that
here men did in their way what men do in larger cities, that they turned
the day topsy turvy, that the street seethed with surging life through
late afternoon and night and the dark hours of the morning, that the
saloons stood brightly lighted then, that their doors were filled with
men coming and going, that games ran high, voices rose high, while life,
as these men knew it, ran higher still.

At last she came to Henry Pollard's house. It stood back from the street
in a little yard notable for the extreme air of untidiness the rank
weeds gave it and for its atmosphere of semi-desertion among its few
stunted, twisted, unpruned pear trees. The fence about it had once been
green, but that was long, long ago. The doors were closed, the shades
close drawn over the windows, the house still and gloom-infested even in
the sunlight.

Stronger and higher within her welled her misgivings; for the first
time she admitted to herself that she was sorry that she had tried to do
this thing which Mr. Templeton had told her was madness. She hesitated,
sitting her horse at the gate, with half a mind to whirl and ride back
whence she had come. And then, with an inward rebuke to her own
timidity, she dismounted and hurried along the weed bordered walk, and
knocked at the door.

There came quick answer, a man's voice, heavy and curt, crying:

"Who is it?"

"Are you Mr. Pollard?" she called back, her voice a little eager, more
than a little anxious.

"Yes." There was a note as of excitement in the voice. "Is that you,
Winifred?"

"Yes, uncle. I ... I ..."

She faltered, hesitated, and broke off pitifully. She had heard the
eagerness in Pollard's voice, guessed at what it was that he was
thinking, knew that now she would have to tell him that she had failed
in the errand which he had entrusted to her, that she had let a man rob
her of the five thousand dollars of which he stood so urgently in need.
Oh, why had she attempted to do it, why had she not listened to Mr.
Templeton? And, now, what would her uncle say?

"Just a minute, Winifred. I'm a little under the weather and am in bed.
Now." She heard no footsteps; yet there was the noise of a wooden bar
being drawn away from the door. "Come in. You'll pardon me, being in
bed, my dear. And fasten the door after you, will you, please?"

She stepped across the threshold and into the darkened house, her heart
beating quickly. As she slipped the bar back into its place she saw that
there was fastened to the end of it a cord which passed through a pulley
over the door and then ran down the hallway, disappearing through
another door at the left. So, following the cord, she went on slowly.

The outside of the house had given her a certain impression. Now, in a
flash, that impression was superseded by a new one. Here was the home of
a man of means, the heavy, rich furniture spoke of that, the painting
there in the living room into which she glanced, the tastefully papered
walls, the thick carpet muffling her footfalls. If only the curtains
were thrown back, if only the sun were looking in upon it all!

And now the man. Henry Pollard, whom she had not seen since she was a
very little girl and then only during his short visit at her father's
house, struck her as being in some way not entirely unlike this
habitation of his. A gentleman gone to seed, was that it?

His manner was courteous, courtly even, his speech soft, his eyes gentle
as they rested upon her, gentle and yet eager. There was something fine
about his face, about the eyes and high forehead, and yet alongside it
there was something else which drove a little pain into the girl's eyes.
The mouth was hard, there were deep, set lines about it and about the
eyes there was a hint of cruelty which not even his smile hid entirely.
And though she strove to smile back bravely as she came forward to kiss
him, she knew that she was disappointed, and a little uneasy.

She knew that Henry Pollard must be about fifty; she saw that he looked
to be sixty. He had pulled himself up against his pillows and had drawn
on a dressing gown to cover his shoulders. He was well groomed; he had
had a shave yesterday; he did not look sick. But he did look old, like a
man who had aged prematurely and suddenly; and he did look worried and
tired, as though he had not slept well last night.

"I am alone just now," he smiled. "Mrs. Riddell is keeping house for me,
but I heard her go out a little while ago. For something for breakfast,
I suppose. You are looking well, Winifred. I knew you would be pretty.
Now, sit down."

No word yet of her errand, no query as to its success. She was grateful
to him for that. She wanted a moment, time in which to feel that she
knew him a little bit, before she could tell him. But she saw in his
eyes that he was curbing his eagerness, and that she would have to tell
him in a moment.

"I am sorry that you are sick, Uncle Henry," she said hastily, taking
the chair near his bed. "It isn't anything serious, is it?"

"No, no." His answer was as hasty as her question had been. "Just
rheumatism, Winifred. I'm subject to it here of late."

Then she saw that he had sat stiffly, that his shoulder, the left
shoulder, was carried awkwardly and was evidently bandaged.

"I'm sorry," she said again. And then, determined to tell him before he
should ask, "Uncle, I...." Oh, it was so hard to say with him looking at
her with those keen, bright eyes of his! "You should have got some one
else to help you. I have failed.... I have lost your money for you!"

She dropped her face into her hands, trembling, striving to keep her
tears back, feeling now, as she had not felt before, as if she had been
altogether to blame for all that had happened, as though it had been her
carelessness that had cost her uncle his five thousand dollars. And when
at last he did not speak and she looked up again, she saw that his eyes
had not changed, that there was no surprise in them, that if he felt
anything whatever he hid it.

"Don't cry about it, my dear," he said gently. He even smiled a little.
"Tell me about it. You were robbed of it? Before you had more than got
out of light of Dry Town?"

"How do you know?" she cried.

"I don't know, my dear. But I do know that the stage came on through,
with no attempt at a hold-up, and I guessed that our little ruse didn't
fool anybody. When I got the empty strong box from the bank I knew
pretty well what to look for."

"But," she told him, flushed with her hope, "we'll get it back! For I
know who robbed me, I can swear to him!"

Pollard's hand, lying upon the bed spread, had shut tight. She noticed
that and no other sign of emotion.

"And _I_ know!" he said harshly. "Yes, I'll get it back! Now, tell me
how it happened."

"It was a man named Buck Thornton...."

She saw the quick change of light in his eyes and in the instant knew
that if Buck Thornton hated Henry Pollard he was hated no less in
return. Further, she saw that back of the hatred there was a sort of
silent laughter as though the thing she had said had pleased this man as
no other thing could have pleased him, that in some way which she could
not understand, this information had moved him as he had not been moved
by news of his heavy loss. And she wondered.

"You are ready to swear to that?" he asked sharply, his eyes searching
and steady and eager upon hers. "You will swear that it was Thornton who
robbed you?"

"Yes," she cried hotly as she remembered the insult of a kiss and in the
memory forgot the robbery itself.

"I'll get him now," he muttered. "Both ways; going and coming! Tell me
all about it, Winifred."

She began, speaking swiftly, telling him of her meeting with Thornton
at the bank, of her suspicion that he had overheard her talk with the
banker. Then of her second meeting with the man after she had seen him
on the trail behind her, the encounter at the Harte cabin.... A sudden
banging of the kitchen door, and he had stopped her abruptly, putting
his hand warningly upon her arm.

"Later. It can wait. That is Mrs. Riddell. She will show you to your
room. And it will be better, my dear, if you say nothing to her. Or to
any one else just yet."

She got to her feet and went to the door. Turning there, to smile back
at her uncle, she saw that his pillows had slipped a little and that
under them lay a heavy revolver. And she surprised upon the man's face a
look which was gone so quickly that she wondered if she had seen right
in the darkened room, a look so filled with malicious triumph. Instead
of being profoundly disturbed by the tidings of her adventure, the man
appeared positively to gloat.... Now, more than ever, did she regret
that she had come to the town of Dead Man's Alley.



CHAPTER XIII

THE RANCH ON BIG LITTLE RIVER


Buck Thornton had returned to the Poison Hole ranch. But first he had
ridden from the Smith place down the trail to Harte's, where he made
swift, careful search for some sign to tell him who was the man who had
lamed his horse maliciously and seemingly with no purpose to be gained.
Further, he had sought for tracks to tell him from where this man had
come, where he had gone. When he had found nothing he went, he hardly
knew why, to the cabin, pushed the door open and entered. And instead of
learning anything definitely now he was merely the more perplexed. By
the fireplace lay a chair, overturned. There had been some sort of
hurried movement here, perhaps a struggle. The table had been pushed to
one side, one leg catching in the rag rug and rumpling it. He struck a
match, lighted the lamp and sought for some explanation. When had this
struggle, if struggle there had been, occurred? It must have been after
he and Miss Waverly had set out on the trail to Smith's, he told himself
positively. Then there had been two people here in the meantime, for it
takes two people to make a tussel. And they had gone. Who could it be?
Was he after all to find a clue to the man who had maimed his horse?

Looking about him curiously it chanced that he found something that
drove a puzzled frown into his eyes. It had caught in the frayed edge of
the rug, and to have been so caught and so left meant that it had been
done during the struggle he had already pictured. He took it up into his
hand, trying to understand. For it was the rowel of a spur, a tiny,
sharp, shining rowel that had come loose from a spur he remembered very
well. And he remembered, too, that Winifred Waverly had had her spurs on
when she came out to him at the barn!

"It happened while I was out after the horses!" He sat down, the shining
spiked wheel lying in the palm of his hand, his brows drawn heavily.
"While I was out there ... it happened. Some jasper came in here, there
was some sort of a tussle ... and she didn't say a damned word about
it!"

Yes, he was certain now that something had happened during the brief
time between his going out for the horses and the girl's coming to him
at the barn. Something that had changed her, that had killed her
friendliness toward him, that had made her cold and cruelly different.

"The same man who slipped his knife across my horse's foot came in here
and saw her while I was out for the horses," he said slowly. "The same
man. It must have been. And she could tell me who it was and she
didn't. Why? After they had struggled here, too! Why?"

He could see no reason in it all, no reason for her silence, no reason
for a man's malicious cruelty to a horse. Nor were these the only things
which he could not understand. Groping for the truth, he began carefully
to run over the things which had seemed strange to him and which now
struck him as being connected in some plan darkly hidden.

The girl was Henry Pollard's niece. He began with that fact. She was on
her way to Pollard's and on an errand which the banker Templeton had
called mad and dangerous. Some man had followed her, a man whom she had
twice seen on the trail and whose outfit resembled Thornton's, resembled
it too closely to be the result of chance! The same headstall with the
red tassel, the same grey neck-handkerchief, a sorrel horse....

"By God!" whispered the cowboy, a sudden light in his eyes, "he lamed my
horse so it would limp the same as his! So she'd be sure she had seen me
on the trail behind her! And when she came out and saw my horse limping
she knew I had lied to her!"

But why? Why? What lay back of all this?

In the end he put out the light, slipped the spur rowel into his vest
pocket, and went out to his horse. Then when an hour's search brought
him no nearer to the hidden truth for which he was groping, he gave up
trying to pick up this other man's trail in the rocky soil about
Harte's place and turned back toward the south-east and his own ranch.

"I'm going to have a talk with you, Miss Grey Eyes," he said softly.
"I've got to give you back your spur, and I'm going to ask you some
questions."

He rode late into the night, stopped for a few hours under the stars
with saddle blanket for bed, and in the dawn pushed on again.

For the few days which followed he had, in the stress of range work,
little time for thought of the riddle which had been set for him to
solve, and when he had time after the day's work he was tired and ready
for sleep. He was working short handed now for the very simple and not
uncommon reason that he was spending no dollar which he did not have to
spend. The payments he had already made to Pollard had been heavy for
him, and there was yet another five thousand dollars to be forthcoming
in six months. The contract was clear upon the point, and he knew that
if he failed to meet his obligation Henry Pollard would be vastly
pleased, being in a position to keep the fifteen thousand which had been
paid to him and to get his range back to boot.

Perhaps because Henry Pollard had never lived upon the ranch during the
twenty years he had owned it improvements were few and poor. There was
the barn, too small now, which must come down in another year; there was
the old corral which was little used since Thornton had had the newer,
bigger one builded. Then, for ranch house, there was a single room
cabin, its walls of heavy logs from the hills at the head of the Big
Little River, its door of great thick planks rough and nail studded, its
roof of shakes. A hundred yards from it, at the foot of the knoll upon
which the ranch house stood, was a similar cabin, a dozen feet longer,
serving as the men's bunk house.

Big Little River wound about the foot of the knoll, separating
Thornton's cabin from the bunk house, three or four feet deep here and
spanned by a crude footbridge. In its windings it made a sort of
horseshoe about the knoll so that looking out from the door of the
cattle man's cabin one saw the sluggish water to east, west and north.

Upon the third morning after his return to the range Thornton rose
early, scowled sleepily at the little alarm clock whose strident clamour
had startled him out of his sleep at four o'clock, kicked off his
pajamas and with towel in hand started down to the river for his morning
plunge. Subconsciously he noted a scrap of white paper lying upon the
hewn log which served as doorstep, but he paid no heed to it. He had his
dip, diving from the big rock from which most mornings of the year he
dived into the deepest part of the stream; and in a little came back
through the brightening daylight rosy and tingling and with the last
webs of sleep washed out of his brain. Again he noted the paper; this
time he stooped and caught it up. For now he saw that it was folded,
carefully placed where he must see it, pinned down with a sharp pointed
horseshoe nail.

"Now who's sending me letters this way?" he demanded of himself.

And he flushed a little and called himself a fool because he knew that
he half expected to find that it was a note from a certain girl with
unforgettable grey eyes. But before he had read the few words, as soon
in fact as his eyes had fallen upon the uneven, laboriously constructed
letters of the lead-pencilled scrawl, he knew that this did not come
from her hand. The signature puzzled him; it consisted of two letters,
initials evidently, a very large j, not capitalized, followed by a very
small capital C.

"Now, who's J.C.?" he muttered. "I can call to mind no J.C. who would be
writing me letters!"

As he read the note a look of astonishment came into his eyes. It ran:

"Deer buck, I am shure up against hard luck. Dont know nobody but you
can give me a hand remember that time down in El paso I was yore freind.
Come to old shack by Poison hole tonight & dont tell nobody & bring sum
grub Buck remember El paso.

"j.c.

"p.s. I was yore freind buck."

Thornton remembered. He went slowly about his dressing, turning again
and again to look at the note he had placed upon his little pine table.
That had been five years ago. He was riding between Juarez and El Paso,
having just sold a herd of steers from the range he had owned in Texas
then. He had been detained in the Mexican town until after dark, and
before its lights had ceased winking behind him he had known that though
his precaution of taking a check instead of gold had saved his money to
him it had not saved him from coming very close to death. There were
still three scars, two in the shoulder, one in the right side, to show
where the bullets had bitten deep into him, from behind. He had been
searched swiftly, roughly, his clothing torn by the hurried fingers of
the man who had shot him.

It had been close to midnight when his consciousness came back to him. A
little man, hard featured but gentle fingered, was working over him. It
was Jimmie Clayton. And Clayton had found the crumpled check in the
darkness, had gotten the wounded man on his own horse, had taken him to
El Paso, and finally had saved his life, nursing him, working over him
day and night for the two weeks in which his life was in danger.

Since then Thornton had seen little of Clayton. He had known even at the
time of the shooting that the man was as hard a character as his
close-set, little eyes and weasel face bespoke him; he had come to know
him as an insatiate gambler, the pitiful sort of gambler who is too much
of a drunkard to be more than his opponent's dupe at cards. He had found
him to be a brawler and very much of a ruffian. But though he did not
close his eyes to these things they did not matter to him. For
gratitude and a sense of loyalty were two of the strong silver threads
that went to make up the mesh of Buck Thornton's nature, and it was
enough to him that little Jimmie Clayton had played the part of friend
in a town where friends were scarce and at a time when but for a friend
he would have died.

It was not alone the fact of Clayton's turning up here and now that
surprised the cattle man; it was the fact of his turning up anywhere.
For he had thought that Clayton, weak natured and so very often the
other man's tool, was serving time in the Texas penitentiary. For, three
years ago, rumour had brought to him word of a sheriff's clean-up, and
the names of three men who had been working a crude confidence game,
bold rather than shrewd, and Jimmie Clayton's name was one of the three.
He had heard only after the men had been convicted and sentenced for
five years apiece, and had at the time regretted that he could not have
known sooner so that in some way he might have returned the favour he
had never forgotten.

At last having dressed, he shoved the letter into his pocket, and went
down to the bunk house for breakfast. To the cook and to the three men
already at the table he had little to say, so full were his thoughts of
Jimmie Clayton. He was wondering what "hard luck" the little fellow had
run up against, why he was hiding out at a place like the Poison Hole
shack, how he had gotten the letter to the range cabin, and, if he had
brought it himself, why he had not made himself known last night.

He gave his few, succinct orders for the day, made his hurried meal,
and went to the corral for his horse. And all that day he rode hard out
in the broken country where the eastern end of the range ran up and back
into the gorges of the mountains, shifting herd, collecting stragglers,
bringing them down into the meadow lands where the feed was abundant now
that he had sold the cattle he had had ranging there in order that he
might raise the money to make up the five thousand dollars for Henry
Pollard.

As he rode he spoke seldom to the horse running under him or to the boys
with whom he worked, his thoughts flying now to another horse, lamed
from a knife cut, now to a girl whose spur rowel he carried in his vest
pocket, now to a man whose appealing letter he carried in another
pocket. And he was glad when the day was done and the boys raced away
through the dusk to their supper.

Not infrequently did he ride on after he had told the others to "knock
off," working himself harder than he could ask them to work, riding late
to look at the water holes or find a new pasture in some of the little
mountain valleys or to bring in a fresh string of saddle horses for the
morrow's riding. So now, as darkness gathered, he watched the boys
scamper away to their food and smoke and bunks, and rode on slowly
toward the north.

He chose this time, the thickening darkness before moonrise, for he had
caught the insistent plea for secrecy running through the lines of the
letter. And so, though he was not a little impatient and curious, he let
his tired horse choose its own loitering gait, willing that the night
draw down blacker about him.

He crossed the Big Flat, rich grassy land watered by the Big Little
River, and struck off into the hills that closed in about it, following
the river trail. It was very still, with no sound save the swish of the
water against the willows drooping downward from its banks, no light
save the dim glimmer of the early stars. For two miles he followed the
stream, then left it for a short cut over the ridge, to pick it up again
upon the farther side. Now he was in a tiny valley with the mountains
close to the spot which gave its name to the range.

Big Little River writhed in from the east, twisted out to the south. And
in the shut-in valley it made and left behind it to all but cover the
entire floor of the valley a lakelet of very clear water not over a
quarter of a mile from edge to edge, but very deep. Upon the far side, a
little back and close under the overhanging cliffs, there was a great,
jagged-mouthed, yawning hole, of a type not uncommon in this part of the
western country, from which heavy, noxious gases drifted sometimes when
the wind caught them up, gases which for the most part thickened and
made deadly the dark interior. There were skeletons to be seen dimly by
daylight down there, ten feet below the surface of the uneven ground,
the vaguely phosphorescent bones of jack rabbits that had fallen into
this natural trap, of coyotes, even of a young cow that had been
overpowered before it could struggle upward along the steep sides. And
the odour clinging to the mouth of the hole was indescribably foul and
sickening.

Not a pretty place, and yet some man many years ago had builded him a
habitation here that was half dugout, half log lean-to. The door of the
place faced Poison Hole, and was not two hundred yards from it. The
hovel had been in disuse long before Buck Thornton came to the range
save as a shelter to some of the wild things of the mountains.

From the southern shore of the lake Thornton stared across the little
body of water trying to make out a light to tell him that Clayton was
expecting him. But there was no fire, and the stars, reflecting
themselves in the natural mirror, failed to show him so much as the
outline of the lean-to in the shadows of the cliffs. He turned down into
the trail which ran about the shore, passed around the western end of
the lake, and riding slowly, his eyes ever watchful about him as was the
man's habit, he came at last to the deserted "shack."



CHAPTER XIV

IN THE NAME OF FRIENDSHIP


Twenty yards from the door he drew rein, sitting still, frowning into
the darkness. Not for the first time was he realizing that the note
might not be from Clayton at all; that some other man could have known
of his debt of gratitude to the little fellow who had befriended him
five years ago; that the name might have been used to draw him here,
alone and very far from any ears to hear, any eyes to see, what might
happen. He could name a half dozen men who were not above this sort of
thing, men who had, some of them, sworn to "get him." There were the
Bedloe boys, the three of them. There were two other men who do not come
into this story. There was Henry Pollard.

"And it would be almighty like Pollard to put up a job like this," he
told himself grimly. "He could afford to pay a man a good little pile to
get me out of the game, and keep the money I've paid him and get back
his range besides. And I reckon the Kid would be one of a dozen who
would take on the job dirt cheap!"

He reined his horse a little deeper into the shadows. Then he slipped
swiftly from the saddle, one end of his thirty-feet rope in his hand,
the other end about the horse's neck, and with a quick flick of the
quirt sent the animal trotting ahead to swing about and stop when the
rope drew taut. He half expected his ruse to draw fire from somewhere in
the darkness. Instead there came a low voice, sharp and querulous,
through the open door.

"That you, Buck?"

"Yes. That you, Clayton?"

"Yes. Are you alone?"

"Yes."

Then Thornton came on swiftly, coiling his rope as he walked. For he had
recognized the voice.

"What's the matter, Jimmie?" He was at the door now, peering in but
making nothing of the blot of shadows.

"Come in," Clayton answered. "An' shut the door, Buck. I'll make a light
when the door's shut."

He stepped in, dropping his rope, and moving slowly again, his back
against the wall. For after all he would not be sure of everything until
there was a light, until he saw that he was alone with Clayton.

A match sputtered, making vague shadows as it was held in a cupped hand.
It travelled downward to the earthen floor, found the stub of a candle,
and then the greater light, poor as it was, drove out the shadows. And
Thornton saw that it was Jimmie Clayton, that the man was alone, and
that evidently his note had put it mildly when he had said that he had
struck "hard luck."

The man, small, slight and nervous looking, lay upon a bed of boughs,
covered with an old saddle blanket, his eyes bright as though with fever
or fear. The skin of his face where it was seen through the black
stubble of beard looked yellow with sickness. The cheek bones stood out
sharply, little pools of shadow emphasizing the hollowness of his sunken
cheeks. Above the waist he was stripped to his undershirt; a rude
bandage under the shirt was stained the reddish brown of dried blood. A
quick pity drove the distrust out of the eyes of the man who saw and who
remembered.

"You poor little devil!" he said softly. He reached out his hand
quickly, downright hungrily, for Jimmie's.

Clayton took the hand eagerly and held it a moment in his tense hot
fingers as his eyes sought and studied Thornton's. Then he sank back
with a little satisfied sigh, lying flat, his hands under his head.

"I'm sure gone to seed, huh, Buck?" he demanded.

"It's tough, Jimmie. Tell me about it."

The broken line of discolored teeth showed suddenly under the lifted
lip.

"It ain't much to tell, Buck," Clayton answered slowly as the snarl left
the pinched features. "But it's somethin' for a man to think about when
he lays in a hole like this like a sick cat. But, Buck," and he spoke
sharply, "didn't you bring no grub with you?"

"Yes, Jimmie. Wait a minute." Thornton stepped outside, not forgetting
to close the door quickly after him, jerked the little package from his
saddle strings where it had posed all day as his own lunch, and brought
it back into the dugout. "I didn't know just what you wanted, but here's
some bread and a hunk of cold meat and here's some coffee. We'll get it
to boiling in a minute, and..."

"An' a drink, Buck?" eagerly. "You brung a flask, didn't you?"

"Yes, Jimmie," Thornton assured him with a quiet smile. He whipped the
flask from his pocket and removing the cork held it out. "I remember
that you used to say a meal without a drink wasn't any use to you."

Clayton put out a swift hand for the flask, shot it to his lips, and the
gurgle of the running liquor spoke of a long draught.

"Now, the grub, Buck." He sat up, a little healthier color in his
cheeks. "Let the coffee go; it'll come in handy tomorrow."

Thornton made a cigarette and leaning back against the door watched this
outcast who bore the brand of the hunted on his brow, whose eyes were
feverish with a hunger that was ravenous.

"Poor little old Jimmie," he muttered under his breath.

Clayton picked over the contents of the little package with hasty
fingers, pushing the bread aside, eating noisily of the meat. When at
last he had finished he rolled up the remainder of the lunch in the
greasy paper, thrust it under the corner of his blanket, and put out his
hands for the tobacco and papers.

"I ain't even had a smoke for three days, Buck. Hones' to Gawd, I
ain't."

"Now, Jimmie," Thornton suggested when both men were smoking, and
Clayton again lay on his back, resting, "better tell me about it. Can't
I move you over to my cabin?"

"No, Buck. You can't. An' I'll tell you." He broke off suddenly, his
eyes burning with an anxious intensity upon Thornton's. Then, with a new
note in his voice, a half whimper, he blurted out, "Hones' to Gawd, I'll
blow my brains out before I let 'em get me again! But you wouldn't give
me away, Buck, would you? You'd remember how I stuck by you down in El
Paso, won't you, Buck? You wouldn't give a damn for ... for a reward if
they was to offer one, would you, Buck? 'Cause you know I'd shoot myself
if they got me, an' you don't forget how I stuck to you, do you, Buck?"

"No, Jimmie," came the assurance very softly. "I don't give a damn for
the reward and I don't forget. Pull yourself together, Jimmie."

"Then here it is, an' I'll give you my word, s'elp me Gawd, that every
little bit of it is like I'm tellin' you. I ain't stringin' you, Buck,
an' I am puttin' myself in your hands, like one friend with another.
That's right, ain't it?"

"That's right, Jimmie. Go ahead."

"They had me in the pen, then; you knowed that, Buck? Run me in, by
Gawd, because I happened to be havin' a drink with a man named Stenton
an' a man named Cosgrove an' a dirty Mex as was all crooked an' was
wanted for somethin' they pulled off back down there ... I don't know
rightly what it was, damn if I do, Buck! But they wanted _somebody_, an'
they got the deadwood on them jaspers, an' me bein' seen with 'em, they
put me across, too. Put me across three years ago, Buck! An' it was
hell, jes' hell, that's all. Hell for a man like me, Buck, as is used to
sleepin outdoors an' the fresh air blowin' over the big ranges, an'
horses an' things. An' ... well, I stood it for three years, Buck. Three
years, man! Think o' that! _You_ don't know what it means. An' then,
when I couldn't stand it no longer," and his voice dropped suddenly and
the look of the hunted ran back into his eyes, "I broke jail. An' I got
this."

He touched his fingers gingerly to the bandaged side, wincing even with
the gesture.

"Two bullets," he muttered. "Colt forty-fives. An' I been like this nine
days. Or ten, I ain't sure. An' nights, Buck. The nights ... Gawd!"

Thornton, his lips tightening a little, watched the man and for a moment
said nothing. And then, suddenly, his voice commanding the truth:

"Don't hold back anything, Jimmie," he said. "It'll be all over the
country in a week, anyway. How'd you make your get-away? Did you have
to kill anybody?"

He had his answer in the silence which for ten seconds Clayton's
twitching lips hesitated to break. When spoken answer came it was broken
down into a whisper.

"I ... I wasn't goin' to hurt anybody, Buck. Hones' to Gawd, I wasn't.
An' then, then I got hold his gun, an' I seen he was goin' to fight for
it, an' I ... I _had_ to shoot! I didn't go to kill him, Buck! An' he
shot me firs' with the other gun ... you oughta see them holes in my
side!... an'...." He stopped abruptly, and then, a little defiance
sweeping up into his eyes, rushing into his voice, he ended sulkily,
"The son of a ---- had it comin' to him!"

For a long time Buck Thornton, sunk into a deep, thoughtful silence,
said nothing. Jimmie's account of an adventure of this kind was sure to
be garbled; considering it in an attempt to get to the truth at the
bottom of it was an occupation comparable to that of staring down into
muddy water in search of a hidden white pebble. He knew Jimmie Clayton.
He knew him as perhaps Clayton did not know himself. The man had been
sent to state's prison, not because of the company he kept, but because,
in Jimmie's own words, "he had it comin'." He had known long ago that
Jimmie Clayton would end this way, or worse. Now Clayton was giving his
own version of the killing of the guard, and this version would probably
be a lie. But through all of these considerations which Thornton saw so
clearly there was something else; something seen as clearly, looming
high and distinct above them: Jimmie had played the part of friend when
but for a friend Thornton would have died. That counted with Buck
Thornton. And now Clayton had sent for him, had entrusted into his hands
all hope of safety. And he was not this man's judge.

While the cowboy sat silent and thoughtful Jimmie Clayton was watching
him, watching him with anxiety brilliant in his eyes, his tongue
moistening, constantly moistening the lips which went dry and parched
and cracked. Thornton knew, without lifting his eyes from the pool of
shadow quivering at the base of the candle stub.

"You ain't goin' back on me, Buck!" The wounded man had drawn himself up
on his elbow. "I'll leave it to you, Buck, if I didn't stick by you when
you was in trouble. Remember, Buck, when I found you, out on the trail
between Juarez and El Paso. And you don't care a damn about the reward,
Buck; you said so, didn't you?"

"Jimmie," said Thornton slowly, lifting his eyes from the floor to meet
both the pleading and the terror in Clayton's, "I'm going to do what I
can for you. But I don't quite know what is to be done. They're going to
be on your trail mighty soon if they're not on it now. Can you ride?"

"I can't ride much, Buck." And yet Clayton's voice rang with its first
note of hope. For if Thornton knew him, then no less did Clayton know
Thornton. And Buck had said that he was going to help him. "I rode them
two hundred miles getting here, me all shot to hell that away. An' I
rode into your camp las' night to leave the letter. An' I guess if it
had been half a mile fu'ther I wouldn't never have made it back."

"Why didn't you come in at my cabin? I'd have fixed you up there."

"I come awful near it, Buck! I wanted to. But I didn't know. There might
'a' been some of the other boys bunkin' there an' I wasn't takin'
chances."

"I see. Now, let's see what we're goin' to do."

He stood whipping at his boots with his quirt, trying to see a way. This
lonely place might be a safe refuge for a few days. But range business
sometimes carried his men this far, and soon or late some one would
stumble upon Clayton's hiding place. Clayton's voice, eager again and
confident, broke into his thoughts.

"I got to find somebody as'll give me a lift, ain't I? A man can't go on
playin' a lone han' like I'm adoin' an' get away with it long. Now, I
got to be laid up here four or five days, anyway, until I can ride
again. You can keep your punchers away from here that long, can't you?"

"Yes. I can give them plenty to do on the other end."

"That's good. An' you can ride out again, at night, you know, Buck, an'
smuggle me some more grub, can't you?"

"Yes. But...."

"Wait a minute! I know a man in Hill's Corners as'll give me a han'. I
done him favours before now, same as I done for you, Buck. An' he knows
the ropes up here. You can git word to him, can't you? An' then I'll
drift, an' he'll look out for me, an' you'll be square with what I done
for you, Buck. Will you do it?"

"Yes, Jimmie. I'll do it. I'll ride in and see your man at the Corners.
Who is it, Jimmie?"

"An' you won't tell nobody but him, will you, Buck?"

"No. I won't tell any one else. Who is it?"

"It's a man as may be crooked with some," said Clayton slowly. "But he's
awful square with a pal. It's a man name of Bedloe. They call him the
Kid."



CHAPTER XV

THE KID


So the next day Buck Thornton rode away to the south and to Hill's
Corners.

He had planned to have his errand over early, to have seen the Kid and
to have turned back toward the ranch before noon. For he knew the town's
habit of late sleeping and he wanted to be gone from it before it was
awake and pouring into its long street and into its many swinging doors
the stream of men whom he had no wish to see now. Perfectly well he knew
how easily he could find trouble there, and it seemed to him that he had
enough on his hands already without seeking to add to it.

But the press of range business kept him later than he had thought it
would. And then the one horse on the range he would ride today had to be
found out in the hills and roped.

"For," he told himself grimly, "if I'm going to stick my nose in that
man's town I'm going to have a horse between my knees that knows how to
do something more than creep! And when it comes to horses there's only
one real horse I ever saw. I got you, Comet, you old son-of-a-gun!"

And his rope flew out and its wide noose landed with much precision,
drawing tight about the neck of a great, lean barrelled, defiant-eyed
four-year-old that in the midst of its headlong flight stopped with feet
bunched together before the rope had grown taut. The animal, standing
now like a horse cut from a block of grey granite, chiselled by the
hands of a great sculptor who at the same time was a great lover of
equine perfection, swung about upon its captor, its eyes blazing, just a
little quiver of the clean-cut nostrils showing the red satin of the
skin lining them. The mane was like a tumbled silken skein, the ears
dainty and small and keen pointed, the chest splendidly deep and strong;
the forelegs small, so slender that to a man who did not know a horse
they would have seemed fragile but only because they were all bone and
sinew like steel and muscle hardened and stripped clean of the last
milligram of fat, as exquisite as the perfect ankle of a high bred
woman.

"Part greyhound and part steam engine and part devil!" Thornton muttered
with vast approval shining in his eyes. "And _all horse_! A man could
ride you right through hell, Little Horse, and come out the other side
and never smell your hair burn!"

He drew saddle and bridle from the animal he had been riding and turned
it loose. Then coiling his rope as he went, he came up to Comet's
high-lifted head. With much evident distaste but with what looked like
too much pride to struggle in an encounter in which he knew that he was
to be overcome, the big grey accepted the hard Spanish bit. He allowed,
too, the saddle to be thrown on him, only a quick little quivering of
the tense flanks and a twitching of the skin upon his back showing that
he felt and resented. And then with his master's weight upon him, his
master's softened voice in his ear, a hard hand very gently stroking the
hot shoulder, Comet shook his head, a great sigh expanded the deep
lungs, and he was the perfect saddle horse with too much sense to rebel
further at the knowledge that after all he is a horse and the man who
bestrides him is a man. And Buck Thornton, because he knew this animal
and loved him, slackened the reins a little, sensed the tensing of the
powerful muscles slipping like pliant steel through satin sheaths,
turned the proud head toward the south and felt the rush of air whipping
back his hat brim, stinging his face as they shot out across the rolling
hills.

When Comet had had his run, racing through the other herds that flung up
their heads to look at him and the first half mile had sped away behind,
Thornton coaxed him down into a gentle gallop, swearing at him with much
soft and deep affection.

"Easy, Little Horse," he soothed. "Easy. We're going to Dead Man's.
We'll go in slow and watching where we put our feet, all rested and
quick on the trigger and ready to come out ... if we _want_ to! ... like
winning a race."

And Comet, snorting his dislike of any conservation of strength and
energy, nevertheless obeyed. So it was a little after three o'clock
when they entered the crooked, narrow street which gives a bad town a
bad name.

The town had shaken off the lethargy of its morning sleep: there were
many men in the street, some riding back and forth, disdaining to walk
the distance of a hundred yards from a saloon they had just left to the
saloon to which they were going, some sitting their horses in the shade,
lounging in the saddle as a man may lounge in an arm chair, some idled
on foot at the swinging doors, while many others made a buzz of deep
throated voices at the bars and over the gaming tables. As Buck
Thornton, riding slowly, his hat back upon his head, his eyes ranging to
right and left, came into the street where Winifred Waverly had entered
it last week, more than one man lifted his eyebrows on seeing him and
wondered what business had brought him here. For the memory of his
meeting with the Bedloes was still green, the scars which the Kid wore
on his right wrist and his left arm were still fresh, and this town was
the Bedloes' town in more ways than one.

He nodded to a few men, spoke to fewer, for here was he more a stranger
than he was in Dry Town. Riding straight to the Brown Bear Saloon he
swung down. He left his horse, trained to stand by the hour for him, at
the edge of the board sidewalk, the bridle reins caught around the horn
of the saddle, moved at an even pace through the men at the door and
went inside.

A dozen men stood at the long bar, big men and little, dark men and
light, of this nationality and that, but alike in the one essential
thing that they were of the type by which the far-out places are wrested
from the wilderness of God and made part of the wildness of man, hard
men of tongue, of hand, of nature, hard drinkers, hard fighters. Gunmen,
to the last man of them, who live with a gun always, by a gun often
enough, who are dropping fast before the onrush of the civilization for
which they themselves have made the way, but who will daily walk over
their graves until the glimmer of steel rails runs into the last of the
far places, until there be no longer wide, unfenced miles where cattle
run free and rugged mountain sides into which men dip to bring out red
and yellow gold.

Thornton's eyes ran down the line of them, swiftly. There was no man
there whom he knew. He stepped a little to one side, the door at his
left, the bare front wall at his back. He stood loosely, carelessly to
judge from the little slump of the shoulders, the burning cigarette in
the fingers of his left hand, the thumb of the right hand caught in his
belt.

The bar was at his left, the bare floor running away in front of him,
sawdust covered, the string of gaming tables stretched along the wall at
his right. As by instinct his eyes lighted upon the man whom he sought.
First a round topped table where three men cut and dealt at "stud";
then a faro lay-out with its quick-eyed dealer, its quick-eyed look-out
upon his stool, its half dozen men playing and looking on; then the
"wheel"; then a second table with six men busy at "draw." There, at this
table, with his broad back to him, sat the Kid. And as usual, to complete
the youthful swagger of him, he wore his two guns in plain sight.

Still the cattle man made no move, still his eyes ran back and forth,
seeking, showing nothing of what they sought or of what they had found
already. He marked every man in the place; saw that there were only two
of them besides the Kid whom he had ever seen before, one the bartender,
one a man with whom he had had no dealings; noted that neither Charley
nor Ed Bedloe were in the house. He saw too that the bartender had
leaned a little over his bar, saying something swiftly to the man whom
he was serving; that the man turned curiously to look toward the door;
while at the same time the man across the table from the Kid had given
warning, and the Kid's hands had come away from his cards, dropping down
into his lap.

Then Thornton came on, walking slowly, passing about the first poker
table, then by the faro table, the roulette wheel, and finally to the
table where the Kid sat. Bedloe had not moved again: he had not turned,
his cards lay unheeded before him. The other men were silent with a jack
pot waiting for their attention.

"When he turns," Thornton was telling himself, "it's going to be in the
direction of his gun, and he's going to come up shooting."

There were many men there who sensed the thing he did. Not a man in the
saloon whose eyes were not keen and expectant as they ran back and forth
between the two, Thornton who had shot Bedloe before now, Bedloe who had
sworn to "get him." A chair leg scraped and many men started as if it
had been the first pistol shot; it was only the man across the table
from Bedloe moving back a little, ready to leap to his feet to right or
left. Somebody laughed. At the sound though Bedloe's big thick body
remained steady like a rock his fingers twitched perceptibly.

"Bedloe," and Thornton's voice was cool and low toned, with no tremor in
it, no fear, no threat, no hint of any kind of expression, "I want a
talk with you."

He was not five short paces behind the brawler's back. The Kid turned a
little in his chair, slowly, very slowly like a machine. His eyes came
to rest full upon Thornton's. And Thornton, looking back steadily into
the hard eyes, steely and blue and fearless, low lidded and watchful,
knew that the man had fully expected to see straight into the barrel of
a revolver. For a moment it was as though this place had come under such
a spell as that in the tale of the Sleeping Beauty, with every man
touched by a swift enchantment that had stilled his blood and turned his
body to stone.

Thornton saw that Bedloe's hands were tense with tendons standing out
sharply under the brown skin, the fingers rigid, curved inward a little,
and not three inches from the grips of his guns. And Bedloe saw that
Thornton carried a burning cigarette in his left hand, that his right,
with thumb caught in the band of his chaps, was careless only in the
seeming and that it, too, was alert and tense. And he remembered the
lighting quickness of that right hand.

"What do you want?"

No bluster, no threat, no fear, no hint of expression in the voice which
was as steady as Thornton's, with something in it akin to the steely
steadiness of the hard eyes.

They spoke slowly, with little pauses, little silences between. The man
whose chair had scraped looked uncomfortable; the muscles of his throat
contracted; his hand shut tight upon his cards, cracking the backs; then
he pushed back his chair again, swiftly, and got to his feet. His deep
breathing was audible when he stood to one side where, if there was to
be shooting, he would no longer be "in line." No one noticed him.

"I want a quiet talk," was Thornton's reply. "I'm not here to start
anything, Bedloe. Will you give me a chance to talk with you?"

Bedloe pondered the words, without distrust, without credence, merely
searching for what lay back of them. And finally he answered with a
brief question:

"Where?"

"Anywhere. In yonder," and Thornton's nod indicated the little room
partitioned off from the larger for a private poker room while his eyes
clung to Bedloe's. "Or outside. Anywhere."

Again the Kid pondered.

"I'm playin' poker," he said presently, very quietly. "An' I ain't
playin' for fun. There's one hell of a lot of money changin' han's this
deal, an'," with the first flash of defiance, and much significance to
words and look alike, "my luck's runnin' high today!"

"I'll wait until you play your hand," returned Thornton without
hesitation. "I'll step right over here."

As he spoke he moved, walking slowly with cautious feet feeling for an
obstacle over which he might stumble and so for just the one vital
fraction of a second give the Kid the chance to draw first, his eyes
upon the eyes which followed him. He stepped, so, about the table, to
the other side, so that Bedloe, once more sitting straight in his chair,
faced him over the jack pot.

The big blue eyed man didn't speak. It was his move and he knew it, knew
that all men there were looking at him. He studied Thornton's eyes as he
had never studied a man before, taking his time, cool, clear headed. He
could get his gun in a flash; he could throw himself to one side as he
jammed it across the table, shooting; he could do it before most men
there could even guess that he was going to do it. He knew that very
well. And he knew too, that although he was quick and sure on the draw,
here was a man who was just that wee, deadly fraction of a second
quicker.

As though he would find a flicker in the steady eyes of the other man to
tell him what he wanted to know, he moved his hand, his left, a very,
very little, so little that save at a time like this no man would have
seen. There came no change in Thornton's eyes. The Kid lifted the hand,
laying it with still fingers upon the table before him. Still nothing in
Thornton's eyes to tell that he had seen or had not seen. One second
more the Kid sat motionless, pondered. Then he had decided. The right
hand came up and lay beside the left on the table.

A man at the bar set down his glass and the faint noise against the hard
wood sounded unnaturally loud. Another man ordered a drink, and the low
voice breaking the silence sounded like a shout. Men who had stood in
tense, cramped positions moved, games that had stopped went on. The
strain of a few moments was gone, though still no one lost sight for
more than an instant of Thornton and the Kid.

Bedloe dropped his eyes to his cards, merely turning the corners as they
lay flat on the table. The man who had gotten hastily out of his chair
came back. The game went on as the others were going, silently and
swiftly. The jack pot was opened, "boosted," and grew fat. Bedloe played
a cool hand, and the impression until near the show-down was that he was
not to be reckoned with. Then, a little impudently, as was his way, he
shoved his pile to the centre of the table.

"See that or drop out," he said curtly.

The nervous man dropped out. Two men saw it. They both lost to the Kid's
full hand.

He swept up the gold and silver and slipped it into his pocket, his
hand going very close to his gun during the process but never
hesitating. Then he got to his feet.

"Let's go outside," he said, turning toward Thornton.

He led the way, swinging about so that the broad of his back was to the
man who followed him and the man whom he had sworn to kill. Walking so,
a few paces between them, they passed by the bar, through the clutter of
men about the door and out upon the narrow sidewalk. Still the Kid did
not stop. He strode on, not so much as looking to see if he were
followed, until he came to the middle of the narrow street. Then he came
to a quick halt and turned.

"Now," said the Kid, "spit it out. If you want to finish what we begun
at Smith's start in. I'm ready."

"I told you," Thornton answered him, "that I am not looking for trouble.
When I am I know where I can find it." He dropped his voice yet lower so
that by no possibility could any one of the men upon the sidewalk hear
him, and ended, "Jimmie Clayton sent me."

"An'," asked the Kid coolly, "who the hell is Jimmie Clayton?"

"He's a poor little devil who is in need of a friend, if he's got any,"
Thornton returned. "And he said you were the only friend he had here."

"Maybe I am an' maybe I ain't." The sharpness of suspicion was still high
in Bedloe's eyes. "What about him?"

"You knew he was in the pen?"

"I ain't answerin' questions. Go ahead."

"He broke jail a few days ago. He killed his guard and got himself
pretty badly shot up. I guess they're on his trail now. And he's going
to swing for it if they ever get him."

"Where is he?" asked Bedloe sharply with no lessening of the suspicion
and ready watchfulness.

"In the old dugout at the Poison Hole."

"How's it happen you know so much about it?"

"Jimmie was a friend to me once when I needed a friend. He got this far,
he held out to ride to my cabin night before last and left a note. I
took him out some grub last night. It's all I can do for him; I haven't
any way to hide him out. And he's in too bad shape to ride."

"Well, where do I come in?"

Thornton shrugged his shoulders.

"That's your business, yours and Jimmie's. He said that you were a pal
of his, and," he added bluntly, with a keen curious look into the Kid's
steel-blue eyes, "that you never went back on a pal."

Behind him in the street Thornton heard the clatter of horses' hoofs
coming on rapidly. He paid no attention until they were close to him, so
close that from the corner of his eye he caught the flutter of a woman's
skirt. Then he knew who it was before she passed on. One was Pollard
looking white and sick; the other, rosy cheeked and bright eyed, was
Winifred Waverly.

A quick smile drove the sternness from his eyes and he swept off his hat
to her, ignoring the presence of Pollard. But into her expression as she
returned his look for the moment in which she was flashing by, there
came no vague hint of recognition. He turned back to Bedloe, a little
flush of anger in his cheeks. The two men were very near only battle
just then. For the Kid smiled.

"How do I know you're tellin' me the truth?" They had gone back to
Jimmie Clayton, Bedloe speaking suspiciously again. "How do I know you
ain't puttin' up a game on me? It's a nice lonely place, where that
dugout is."

The flush died out of the cowboy's tanned skin as swiftly as it had run
into it.

"I guess you can't tell," he retorted. "Unless you go and find out. And
you know if I wanted to get you I could have got you in there, and I
could have got you that time at Smith's. And," with an impudence to
match Bedloe's, "I could get you now!"

The Kid passed over the remark, his brows knitted thoughtfully.

"Well," he said in a moment, "you've shot your wad now, ain't you? I
guess there ain't no call for me an' you to talk all day."

"That's all. What'll I tell Jimmie?"

"You can tell him he ain't made no mistake. You may be lyin' an' you
may be tippin' me the straight. But he is a pal of mine an' a damn
decent little pal, an' I'll take a chance."

"You'll get him?"

"If he's there I'll get him."

"When?"

"You'd like the time o' day to the minute, I reckon!" He laughed softly.
"Jus' the first show I get, which'll be in three or four days."

"If you want a horse for him after a while, a good horse, I'll give him
one. That's the best I can do. And I guess that's all, Bedloe."

Thornton stepped back toward his horse. Bedloe turned abruptly and
strode through the crowd of men on the sidewalk and back to the saloon
and his game, no doubt. Thornton swung up into the saddle, and riding
swiftly, passed down the street and back toward the range. As he went he
felt little satisfaction in an errand done, little relief to have it
over. For he was thinking of the look in a girl's eyes, and again a
flush ran up into his cheeks, the bright flush of anger.



CHAPTER XVI

A GUARDED CONFERENCE


With flaming eyes Winifred Waverly whirled upon her uncle.

"Why do you suffer it?" she cried hotly. "The man knows that I was not
deceived by his idiotic mask, he knows that I have told you, and still
you let him go free where he pleases, swagger about with brawlers like
that horrible Kid Bedloe, and dribble your money over the bars for drink
and over the poker tables! Why do you suffer it?"

A fleeting smile of deep satisfaction brightened Pollard's eyes. They
had ridden home in silence and now, with the door barely closed behind
them, she had turned upon him with her indignant question.

"I am waiting," began Pollard.

"Waiting for what?" she demanded. "Until he can have had time to
squander what is rightfully yours, until there be no chance of getting
it back or bringing such a man to justice!"

"You little fire-eater!" he laughed at her. "Come with me in here." He
turned and led the way into the room just off the hall and at the front
of the house where he had his office. When the door was closed behind
him he dropped into a chair, his face a little white and drawn from the
exertion of his ride, the first he had had since the girl had come. "I
want to talk with you, and I don't want anybody, Mrs. Riddell in
particular, to overhear. She's too fond of talking."

Winifred stood across the room from him, her quirt in her hand switching
restlessly at the carpet, her eyes showing a little sympathy for his
illness but more anger at Buck Thornton.

"You ask why I don't bring that man to reckoning, and I tell you that I
am waiting. Then you ask, for what?" He leaned a little forward, and she
saw again in his eyes the look she had surprised there on that first day
she had come to Hill's Corners, a look of hate and of a sinister
satisfaction. "Waiting for the time when I am sure there will be no
loophole for him to crawl through! You are ready to go into a court room
and swear that he robbed you; that is a great deal and it will go a long
way toward convicting him. But it isn't enough. It's only your word
against his; don't you see? He will swear that he did _not_ rob you,
won't he? We can prove that you left Dry Town with the five thousand
dollars; we might even prove that you didn't bring it on to me. But we
couldn't prove, beyond the last shadow of doubt, that you didn't lose
it, or that somebody else didn't rob you of it."

"But," she asked, frowning in her perplexity, "what good will it do to
wait?"

"Your evidence," he went on slowly, as though working the thing out for
himself, "is enough to convince eleven jurors out of the twelve; now we
must make sure of the twelfth. How will we do it? One way is to find the
lost bank notes in Thornton's possession. The other way is to get other
evidence to add to yours, cumulative evidence all of which will point
one way, to one conclusion!"

"To one conclusion?" she repeated after him, prompting him, so eager was
she for him to go on.

"To the fact that Buck Thornton is the man who, for six months now, has
been committing the series of crimes, running the gamut from the murder
of a stage driver to the theft of cattle from Kemble's place! That is
the thing I am waiting for!"

She frowned. A mental picture of the cowboy rose quickly and vividly
before her. She saw the clear, steadfast eyes, the free, upright
carriage, the flash of a smile that was like a boy's. She had come to be
firm in her belief that he was the man who had robbed her, had forced
the insult of his kiss upon her, but it was hard, with that picture of
him before her, to think him a murderer, too. But then, as though to
sweep away her last shred of doubt, the vision widened and into it came
another man: she saw Buck Thornton as she had seen him only a few
minutes ago, in seeming friendly conversation with the youngest Bedloe
whose eyes soiled the woman they rested upon, whose name had travelled
even to her home in Crystal City and beyond as a roisterer, a brawler,
a man of unsavoury deeds done boldly and shamelessly.

"I am a little sick of it all," she said wearily. "I want to go back
home, uncle."

He had looked for that and had his answer ready.

"I know, Winifred. And I don't blame you. But I want you to stay a
little longer, won't you? Your evidence is going to be the strongest
card in our deck. Will you stay and give it?"

"How long?"

"Not long now. I expect Dalton here today."

"Who is Dalton?"

"Cole Dalton, the sheriff. He is as anxious as I am to get his hands on
Thornton. The whole country has been growing hotter in its criticisms of
him every day for the last six months, blaming him for not rounding up
the man who has committed one depredation on top of another, and gotten
away with it."

"And you are sure," she hesitated a little in spite of herself,
repeating, "you are sure ... that Buck Thornton is that man?"

"Yes. I guessed it a long time ago. I know it now that he has robbed
you. You will wait a few days, won't you?"

"Yes, I'll wait. But, oh," she cried out with sudden vehemence, swinging
about when half way to the door, "I hate this sort of thing! Get it over
with quick, Uncle Henry!"

She left him then and went upstairs to her own room where for a little
she tried to concentrate her wandering thoughts upon a book. But in the
end she flung the volume aside impatiently and went to her window,
staring down into the neglected tangle of the front yard and the glimpse
of the street through the straggling branches of the pear trees. She
tried to see only that men like Kid Bedloe and Buck Thornton were not to
be thought of as men, but rather as some rare species of clear-eyed,
unscrupulous, conscienceless animals; that they were not human, that it
would not be humane but foolish to regard them with any kind of
sympathy; that the law should set its iron heel upon them as a man might
set his heel upon a snake's flat, venomous head.

And she felt a hard contempt of self, she hated herself, when again and
again there rose before her mind's eye the form and face of the man who
surely was the worst of the lot, and yet who looked like a gentleman and
who knew how to carry himself like a gentleman, who knew what courtesy
to a woman was when he wanted to know, who had in a few hours made upon
her an impression which she realized shamefacedly would stay with her
always.

She had been in her room for an hour, driven by her loneliness had run
downstairs to chat a few minutes with Mrs. Riddell in the kitchen and,
unusually restless, had gone back upstairs. As she came again to her
window, she saw two men leave their horses at the front gate and turn
toward the house along the walk under the pear trees. Both were men whose
very stature would have drawn one's thoughts away from even pleasant
preoccupation, and Winifred Waverly's thoughts were sick of the channel
in which they had been running.

One, the one who came on slightly in front of his companion, was very
broad and heavy and thick. Thick of arm, of thigh, of neck. He was not
short, standing close to six feet, and yet his bigness of girth made him
seem of low, squat stature as she looked down upon him. She did not see
his face under the wide, soft hat but guessed it to be heavy like the
rest of him, square jawed and massive. She noted curiously that his
tread was light, that his whole being spoke of energy and swift
initiative, that the alertness of his carriage was an incongruity in a
man so heavily built from the great, monster shoulders of him to the
bulging calves.

The face of the other man she saw. His hat was far back upon his head
and as he come on his dark features fascinated her. He was tall, as tall
or nearly as tall as the Kid or Buck Thornton, she thought, slender,
full of the grace of perfect physical manhood. There was a dash to him
that, to the girl, was not without its charm. It spoke from the finely
chiselled lips, curved to a still, contemptuous smile, from the eyes,
long lashed, well set far apart, from the swinging careless stride. A
handsome devil, as handsome in his own way as the Kid in his, as defiant
an insolence in his smiling eyes, as cool an assurance and a vague added
charm which was not so readily classified.

The two men came to the door. She heard Pollard greet them, calling
them by name, and thus learned that one was Cole Dalton, the sheriff,
one Broderick. Then there came up to her the hum of voices from her
uncle's office, the heavy, rasping voice which she was certain belonged
to the thicker-set man, the light, careless pleasant tones of the taller
man. She found herself listening, not for the words which were lost in
the indistinct hum, but to the qualities of tone, idly speculating as to
which man was the sheriff, which Broderick. She wondered if now they
were going to arrest Buck Thornton and if Broderick were a deputy? And
again she hated herself with a quick spurt of contemptuous indignation
that she allowed a feeling of sympathy for the tall cattleman to slip
into her heart.

For a long time the low toned conversation in the room below her
continued. At first it was her uncle who did the greater part of the
talking, his utterances at once emphatic and yet guarded. She had the
uneasy feeling that the tones were hushed less because of Mrs. Riddell
whom she could hear clattering with her pots and pans in the kitchen,
than because of herself. A little hurt, half angry that he should think
of her as a possible eavesdropper, she took up her book again, turning
the pages impatiently in search of the place which she had a great deal
of trouble in finding since she had understood so little of what she had
read that day. And even then one half of her mind was on the men below
as she wondered why they should not want her to know what it was they
said.

Evidently Pollard had finished what he had to say. She supposed that he
had been telling them of his loss and her robbery. Then the heavy,
rasping voice, Cole Dalton's she was right in guessing it to be, as
guarded as Pollard's had been, broke in and for several minutes it was
the only sound that came to her, save twice when a low laugh from
Broderick interrupted. She frowned at that; to her it seemed that in
this stern discussion which had for theme crime and retribution there
was no place for a man's laughter; even then her dislike for Ben
Broderick had begun.

Then Cole Dalton had finished and Broderick was talking. It was as
though each man in turn were making his report to the others. As before
not a word came to the ears which she strove futilely to make
inattentive. A certain quality in the speaker's voice drew fresh
speculation from her. He spoke quietly, with no single interruption from
the others and with a positiveness that was like a command, as though he
whom she had thought possibly a deputy were coolly telling both Pollard
and Cole Dalton what they should do, when they should do it and how. The
voice was arrogant, cool and confident.

Again the sheriff's voice floated up to her, raised a little, rasping
out what sounded like a protest. And Broderick's answer was another
short laugh, full of contempt and followed by a few emphatic, crisp
words which she did not catch.

That ended the consultation. She knew it from the silence which
followed the curt finality of Broderick's retort and from the scraping
of chair legs followed by the sound of the men pacing back and forth and
speaking in new, unguarded tones. Now their conversation came to her for
the first time.

"You'll be going out tonight, Dalton?" Pollard asked.

"No. The first thing in the morning."

"And you, Broderick?"

"I'll trot along tonight, Henry. But not," the cool voice carelessly,
"until I've had something to eat. I know you're going to ask me to stay
to supper!"

"What do you want to stay for, Ben?" demanded Pollard with something of
irritation in the question. "Haven't you got enough on your hands...."

Broderick's ready laugh, slow, easy, vaguely insolent, rose clearly to
Winifred's ears.

"You're sure a hospitable cuss," he retorted. "Don't be a hog on top of
it, Henry. I want to see that pretty niece of yours."

The girl's cheeks went red at the light tone. She waited to hear her
uncle's short rejoinder. And she heard nothing beyond the sheriff's
rasping chuckle.

When Mrs. Riddell called from the foot of the stairs that supper was
ready Winifred had fully made up her mind that she would not go down.
She heard the three men chatting lightly and decided that she would get
something to eat after they had finished and gone. But as though her
uncle had caught her thought he too came to the foot of the stairs,
calling to her.

"Winifred," he was saying, "supper's ready. Sheriff Dalton is here, and
Mr. Broderick, a friend of mine. I want you to tell them what you have
told me."

She hesitated a moment, biting her lip. Then she answered, "All right,
Uncle Henry; I'll be right down." She went to her wash-stand, arranged
her hair swiftly, saw that the flush had gone out of her cheeks, that
her eyes were cool and told nothing, and went down to join the three men
who had already taken their places at the dinner table.

As she came through the door, her head up, her lips a little hard,
Broderick was the first to see her and was upon his feet in a flash, as
graceful as a cavalier, as debonair in his big boots and soft white silk
shirt as though he had been a courtly gentleman dressed for the ball,
his eyes frankly filled with the appreciation of her dainty beauty.
Pollard, remembering, rose too, and last of all Cole Dalton, his shrewd
eyes intense and keen upon her. Winifred's gaze passed by Broderick as
though she had not seen him and travelled to her uncle while she waited
for the introductions.

Dalton, who was first to be presented, put out a big, hard, square hand,
capturing and releasing Winifred's suddenly as though it were a part of
the day's work to be done and over with. He had stepped forward and now
stepped back to his chair, his keen, watchful eyes never leaving her
face.

Then Broderick took the hand which she did not like to refuse to her
uncle's friend and guest and yet which she disliked giving him, saw the
little flush which his gaze drove into her cheeks, and with a hint of
laughter in his eyes bowed over it gallantly, murmuring his happiness in
knowing her. And it was Broderick who stepped quickly to her chair,
drawing it out for her to be seated. She found herself wondering where
this man had learned to do these little things which are no part of the
training of the far out cattle men.

During the first half of the meal there was no reference to the
happening at Harte's Camp. Broderick, with a mood contagiously care free
and sparkling, did the greater part of the talking, and though he
elicited from the girl rare words beyond a brief "yes" or "no," he
seemed content. And he interested her. He talked well, with little slurs
of grammar that seemed rather due to the man's carelessness of nature
than to ignorance, his vocabularly not without picturesque force. It
seemed natural that he should do the talking, that he should address
himself largely to her, and that Pollard and Cole Dalton should listen
and watch him.

Within ten minutes she gleaned that Broderick was a miner, that he had a
claim of some sort in the mountains back of Hill's Corners, to the
eastward, that a couple of years ago he had made his "pile" in the
Yukon country and that he had lost it in unwise speculation, that he
knew more than the names of the streets of the chief cities of both
coasts, that he had strong hopes of making a strike where he was and of
selling out at a good figure to a mining concern with which he was
already corresponding. And yet this light miscellany of information was
so brightly sprinkled into the flow of talk upon a score of other
matters that it did not seem that the man was ever talking of himself.

Finally Pollard, catching a sharp look from Sheriff Dalton, got up and
stepped into the kitchen where Mrs. Riddell was. The woman went out into
the yard and Pollard came back. Before he had taken his chair again
Dalton said abruptly, turning upon the girl:

"Pollard mentioned your seeing the stick-up man at Harte's cabin. Tell
us about it."

She told him swiftly, eager to have it over with, conscious that the
eyes of all three of the men watched her with a very intense interest.
From her account she omitted only that which concerned her personally
and alone and of which she had not even spoken to her uncle.

"You're sure it was Thornton?" demanded the sheriff when she had
finished. "Dead sure?"

"Yes," she answered resolutely, defiant of her own self that hesitated
to fix on an absent man the crime of which she believed him guilty.

Dalton sat still save for the drumming of his thick fingers upon the
table cloth. Presently his big stocky body turned slowly in his chair as
he looked from Broderick to Pollard, the hint of a smile merely making
his eyes the harder.

"So," he said, his wide shoulders rising to his deep breath, "it looks
like all we got to do is just go out and put our rope on Mr. Badman!"

"It looks like it, Cole," laughed Broderick gently. "Only when you get
ready to pull off your little roping party I wish you'd let me know. He
don't look like he's the kind to lie down and let you hog-tie him, does
he, Miss Waverly? They say he's half Texan an' the other half panther.
You want to be quick on the throw, Cole. Remember the way he got the Kid
last winter!"

"The only wonder," growled Dalton, "is that the Kid hasn't taken him off
our hands and got him long ago!"

"But," put in Winifred hastily, "they're friends now. Uncle Henry and I
saw them talking together this afternoon."

She saw the start that her words gave the sheriff, and turning toward
Broderick glimpsed a look, steely and hard and glittering with suspicion
that had driven the smile from his eyes.

"If Bedloe...." began Dalton sharply, his great fist clenched. But he
stopped short. He saw and understood the warning glance Broderick shot
at him; Winifred saw, too, but did not understand.

"Let's go into the other room," the miner said carelessly, "and see what
Henry's cigars are made out of."

They rose and went back to Pollard's office. And Ben Broderick, who had
suggested cigars, was the only one of the three men who rolled his own
cigarette, rolled it slowly and with deep thoughtfulness.



CHAPTER XVII

SUSPICION


After all it seemed that for some reason the time was not yet ripe for
Cole Dalton to put his rope on "Mr. Badman". For the days ran on
smoothly for Buck Thornton, the weeks grew out of them and he rode,
unmolested, unsuspicious of any threatened interference, about his own
business.

He had gone a second time to the dugout at Poison Hole, carrying
provisions enough to last Jimmie Clayton several days. Clayton seemed
assured that Bedloe would look out for him now and insisted that there
was danger of some of the range hands learning of Thornton's trips here.
So, for a week he did not ride near the man's hiding place, and when one
day he did visit the dugout again there was nothing to show that Clayton
had been there and no hint of how or where he had gone. Thornton felt a
deep sense of relief, believing that the episode, so far as he was
concerned, was closed.

Another week and he was close to forgetting Jimmie Clayton altogether.
The demands of the routine of range work kept him busy every day, early
and late, and as though that were not enough to tax his endurance there
came a fresh call upon him.

The stage had not been robbed that day he had seen it leaving Dry Town,
and he had begun to persuade himself that the epidemic of crime from one
end of the county to the other was at an end; that the highwayman had
left the country while he could. But now came news of fresh outlawry,
news that ran from tongue to tongue of the angered cattle men and miners
who demanded more and more loudly that Cole Dalton "get busy".

Rumour flew back and forth, indignant, voluble, accusatory. It stacked
crime upon crime; it mouthed the names of many men whom the county would
be glad to entertain in its empty jail, the names of the three Bedloe
boys, of Black Dan, of Long Phil Granger, of certain newcomers to Hill's
Corners who, naturally, were to be looked upon with suspicion. It listed
the depredations committed during four weeks with a result that was
startling. It told of the theft of a herd of steers from Kemble's place;
the shooting of Bert Stone and the looting of Hap Smith's mail bags; the
robbery of Seth Powers who left the poker table at Gold Run at two
o'clock one morning with seven hundred dollars in his overalls and was
found at eight o'clock beaten into unconsciousness and with his pockets
turned wrong-side out; the stage robbery in which Bill Varney of Twin
Dry Diggings had been killed; the robbery of Jed Macintosh in Dry Town.
A hundred and fifty miles lay between the most widely removed of the
places where these things had happened, but no two of them had occurred
within a time too short for a man to ride from one to the other.

And now came the list of the bold crimes committed since the day, four
weeks ago, when Buck Thornton had ridden into Dry Town with the five
thousand dollars. Kemble, to the westward of the Poison Hole, told of
again losing cattle, seven big steers run off in a single night, nothing
left of them but their tracks and the tracks of a horse which
disappeared in the rocky mountain soil; Joe Lee, of the Figure Seven
Bar, to the north of the Poison Hole, reported the loss of nine cows and
two horses, all picked stock; Old Man King of the Bar X grew almost
speechless with trembling wrath at the loss of at least a score of
cattle. And Ben Broderick, the mining man who was working his claim to
the eastward of the Poison Hole, admitted quietly that a man, a big man
wearing a bandana handkerchief as a mask, had slipped into his camp one
night, covered him with a heavy calibre Colt, and had taken away with
him a six hundred dollar can of dust.

As yet no single loss had been noted by the Poison Hole outfit. But
Thornton believed that he saw the reason: now, there were few nights
that found him at the range cabin or his cowboys in the bunk house. His
cattle had been brought down from the mountains, herded into the open
meadow lands, and the night riders kept what watch they could upon the
big herds. Many a night he lay in his blankets close to the border of
his range upon the south, knowing that here and there upon other
borders, watching over his cattle, guarding the mouths of cañons down
which a rustler might choose his way, his men lay. He began to wish that
his property might be attacked, feeling secure in his alertness,
thinking that an over bold "badman" might come suddenly to the end of
his depredations here. And yet no attack came, not so much as a
wandering yearling was lost to him.

Men of the stamp and calibre of these ranchers who were hearing of a
neighbour's losses only as a sort of prelude to their own, were not
patient men at the best, nor did such lives as they led permit of lax
hands and natures without initiative. It was in no way a surprise to
Thornton, upon riding to the Bar X, to learn that the cattle men were
now rising swiftly and actively to a defence of their own property. Many
of them lifted frank and angry voices in condemnation of their county
sheriff, many of them more generously admitted that Dalton was up
against a hard proposition and was doing all that any one man could do.
But they were unanimous in saying that what Cole Dalton couldn't do they
would do.

This morning Thornton found old man King saddling his horse in the Bar X
corrals and snapping out orders to his foreman and the two cowboys who
sat their horses watching him with speculative eyes. His recent loss had
driven him to a towering rage and his voice shook with anger in it.

"Twenty head they've took from me," he spat out angrily. "Twenty head
in one night an' they think they c'n git away with it an' go on doin'
jest what they damn please!" He jerked his cinch tight, climbed into his
saddle and as his young horse whirled about Thornton saw that he had a
rifle under his leg.

"Them cows," he went on wrathfully, merely ducking his head at the new
comer, "will average a hundred dollars a head. Two thousan' bucks gone
like a fog when the sun's up! What in hell do you fellers think I'm
payin' you for?"

"It ain't goin' to happen one more time," growled Bart Elliott, the
foreman whose wrath under the direct eyes of the "Old Man" was no less
than King's. "I jes' wish they'd try it on again...."

"Ain't goin' to happen again, ain't it?" retorted King. "That's got to
satisfy me, huh? Jest so long as they take a couple thousan' dollars
out'n my pockets, an' then don't come back for _all_ I got, it's all
right, huh? Now you boys can jest nacherally take the glue out'n your
ears an' listen a minute: I'm goin' to know who took them cows an' where
they went, an' I'm goin' to have 'em back, every little cow brute of
'em! Git me, Elliott? An' you, Jim an' Hodge? If you fellers are lookin'
for jobs where you ain't got nothin' to do you better look somewhere
else. Now, listen some more."

He told them that they would find two more rifles and a shotgun at the
range house. To this information he added that they could pack up some
grub and hit the trail along with him. For he was going to bring his
cattle back if he had to ride through three states to get them and back
through hell to drive them home.

The men rode away to the range house talking among themselves, and King
swung about upon Thornton.

"Hello, Buck," he said shortly.

"Hello, King. Anything I can do?"

"Not for me," said King drily. "How about yourself? Lost any cows off'n
the Poison Hole?"

"Not a one. The rustlers seem to be giving me a wide berth. I've had my
men out every night, though. Maybe they've got wise."

King looked at him sharply. And Thornton was vaguely aware in that swift
glance of something which made but little impression on him at the time,
something which he forgot even as he saw it, imagining he had misread
but something to be remembered in the days that followed: it was a cool,
steely look of suspicion.

"Mebbe," King grunted. "It's happenin' all _aroun'_ you. I wasn't sayin'
much so long's it didn't come too close the Bar X. An' now I ain't goin'
to _say_ much."

Thornton finished his errand with Old Man King and saw him with his men
ride away into the little hills of the range. Then he was turning back
toward the Poison Hole when young King, riding around the corner of the
barn, called to him.

"Hello, Bud," Thornton said casually. "What's the word?"

Bud King rode up to him before he answered. Then, sitting loosely in
the saddle, his eyes meditative upon one free, swinging boot, he
answered.

"There's a dance over to the school house tonight, for one thing.
Coming, Buck?"

Thornton shook his head.

"No. Hadn't heard of it and I guess I'll be busy enough without prancing
out to dances." And then, a little curiosity in his even tones, "How
does it happen you're not out hunting rustlers with the old man?"

Young King lifted his head and again Thornton saw in a man's eyes a
thing which was so vague that it went almost unnoted, a look of veiled
suspicion.

"The old man hunts his way and I hunt mine," Bud King said briefly. "And
besides, I haven't been to a shindig for six months."

A little flush ran up into his face under Thornton's level glance, and
Buck laughed softly.

"Who's the girl, Bud?" he challenged.

"Aw, go chase yourself," Bud flung back at him, but with a reddening
grin. To Thornton came a swift inspiration.

"Wonder if Miss Waverly will be over from the Corners?" he asked.

"Dunno," Bud replied innocently, so innocently that Thornton laughed
again.

Thornton rode back to the Poison Hole. And as he went, his thoughts ran
now to the mission upon which old man King had set forth, now upon the
wisdom of shaving, putting on his best suit and new hat and going to a
dance....

"It isn't so much I want to see her again," he told himself, "as I want
to give back her spur rowel!"



CHAPTER XVIII

THE DANCE AT DEER CREEK SCHOOLHOUSE


Deer Creek schoolhouse stood in a tiny, emerald valley half a dozen
miles from Hill's Corners, some fifteen miles from Thornton's cabin, its
handful of barefooted pupils coming from the families scattered through
the valley. It was a one roomed building with two low doors and six
square windows. And yet it offered ample enough floor space and bench
accommodations for the valley dances, its one room being twenty-four
feet long and twelve feet wide, certainly over large for the single
"school marm" and her small flock, having been constructed with an eye
to just such social gatherings as the one tonight.

The teacher's desk had been taken outdoors by willing hands; the pupils'
benches stood along the walls for the "women folk" during the
intermissions; upon the slightly raised platform at one end of the room
were the chairs for the musicians, fiddler and guitarist. And upon the
floor was much shaved candle. For light there were the four coal-oil
lamps with their foolish reflectors against the walls, and a full moon
shining in through door and windows.

Thornton came late, late that is, for a country dance. It was after
nine o'clock when, riding Comet, he saw the schoolhouse lamps winking at
him through the oaks and heard the merry music of fiddle and guitar in
the frolic of a heel-and-toe polka. Already he made out here and there
the saddle horses which had brought so many "stags" so many miles to the
dance, and which stood tied to tree and shrub. Also there were the usual
spring wagons that had brought their family loads of father, mother,
son, daughter, hired man and the baby; while the inevitable cart was in
evidence speaking unmistakably of mooning couples whose budding interest
in each other did not permit of the drive in the family carry-all.

Thornton noted the vehicles as he passed them, and turned to look at the
saddle horses, saying to himself, "So-and-so is here from Pine Ridge,
So-and-so from the Corners." For hereabouts a man knew another man's
horse and saddle, or wagon, as well as he knew the man himself. So when
Thornton saw the buckboard near the door with its two cream-coloured
mares, there was at once pleasure and speculation in his eyes, and he
told himself, "Somebody is here from Pollard's."

He loosened Comet's cinch, flung the tie rope over the low limb of the
big oak near Pollard's team, and leaving his horse in the shadows, went
on to the open door.

Already the polka had come to its giddy end. Men and women, boys and
girls, old folks with white hair and young folks in knee breeches and
short skirts, laughing and talking crisscrossed the floor this way and
that seeking seats. The girls and women sinking affectedly or plumping
in matter-of-fact style down into their places, with languishing upward
looks if they be young and in tune with the moon outside, with red faced
jollity and much frankness of chatter if they were married and perhaps
had a husband and children likewise disporting themselves, made long
rows about the walls of the schoolhouse, looking for the world like
orderly flocks of bright plumaged birds in their bravery of many hued
calicos and ginghams; a gay display of bold reds and shy blues, of
mellow yellows and soft pinks, with the fluttering of fans everywhere
like little restless wings.

The men had left their partners, as custom demanded, and had gone to the
doors, energetically mopping their brows with handkerchiefs as various
in colour as the women's dresses; red and yellow silk, blue and purple,
and the eternal gaudy bandana. Thornton paused at the door, losing
himself among the men who had come out to stand there smoking or to
wander a little away in the darkness where earlier in the evening each
had hidden his personal flask under his particular bush. There would be
a good deal of drinking tonight, but then that too was custom, and there
was no more danger here of drunkenness than in those more pretentious
balls in town where men and women partake together of heady punch.

Thornton passed words of greeting with many of these men, ranchers for
the most part whom he knew well. There was Bud King, his tie a vivid
scarlet, his store clothes a blue-bird-blue, the wide silk handkerchief
mopping his flushed face a rich yellow; there was Hank James from the
Deer Creek outfit speeding away with long strides to his own bottle
under his own bush where he might conceal the tremor of the new
happiness he had but come from and drink to the big-eyed girl in the
pink dress with the cascades of baby-ribbon; there was Ruf Ettinger with
his new overalls turned back the regulation six inches from the bottoms
in a cowboy cuff that permitted of the vision of six inches of grey
trouser leg below; there was Chase Harper of Tres Pinos in the smallest
boots man ever wore, with the highest heels, their newness a thing of
which in their pride they shrieked manfully as he walked; and there was
Ben Broderick, the miner, quietly dressed in black broadcloth, looking
almost the man of the city. To him Thornton merely nodded, briefly,
knowing the man but little, liking him less. But Broderick put out his
hand, saying cordially:

"Hello, Buck. Going to shake a leg a little?"

"I might." They were just outside the door, and the cowboy's eyes
running on past the miner sought up and down the lines of chatting women
for the girl who had tempted him to his first dance in many months. He
had seen Pollard's team, but he had not seen Pollard or his niece.
Broderick watched him, smiling a little. "Have a drink, Buck?" he asked,
seeming not to have noticed the other's curtness of word and manner.
"I've got something prime outside."

"Not thirsty right now, Broderick," Thornton returned coolly.

Then he heard a man's voice from the shadows at his back, and without
turning knew that Henry Pollard was out there, just behind him. At the
same instant his busy eyes found the girl he sought.

Winifred Waverly's days in Hill's Corners had had little enough of the
joy of life in them for her; she had felt that she breathed an
atmosphere charged with forces which she could not understand; upon her
spirit had rested a weight of uncertainty and uneasiness and suspicion;
the men she saw had hard, sinister faces and seemed cast for dark,
merciless things; even her uncle appeared a strange sort of stranger to
her and she shrank from following her natural train of surmise and
suspicion when now and then she surprised a certain look upon his face
or when she saw him with the type of man with whom he mixed.

Tonight it was as though after a long period of gloomy, overcast skies,
a storm had passed and the sun had broken through. About her were light
and music, the merry faces of children and girls with everywhere joyous,
full throated, light hearted laughter. And the spirit of her ran out to
meet the simple joy of the dance, glad just to be glad again.

Thornton knew that he had found her before she turned her face toward
him. He recognized the trim little figure although now the riding habit
was discarded for a pretty gown of white which he guessed her own quick
fingers had fashioned for the dance; he recognized the white neck with
the brown tendrils of hair rebelling from the ribbon-band about her
head. And then, when she turned a little, he stared at her from his
vantage in the outside darkness, wondering if she had grown prettier
than ever in the few weeks since he had seen her, or if it were the
dress and the way she wore her hair with a white flower in it, or if he
had been half blind that other time.

There was a warm, tender flush upon her cheeks telling of her happiness.
Her eyes shone, soft in their brightness, and her lips were red with the
leaping blood of youth. She had turned to speak with Mrs. Sturgis, the
stoutest, jolliest and altogether most motherly woman in the valley, and
Mrs. Sturgis, watching her eyes and lips and paying no attention to her
words, put out her plump hands suddenly, crying heartily:

"You pretty little mouse! If I had just one wish I'd wish I was a man,
an' I'd just grab you up in my arms an' I wouldn't stop goin' until I
set you down in front of a preacher. Come here an' let Mother Mary kiss
you."

"There's a woman with brains for you, Buck," chuckled Broderick.

Thornton, though he agreed very heartily just then, did so in silence.

"It's Winifred Waverly," went on Broderick carelessly. "She's Henry
Pollard's niece, you know. A little beauty, don't you think?"

Thornton nodded. Again he had agreed but he did not care to discuss her
with Ben Broderick. The miner laughed lightly, and added for Thornton's
further information,

"As keen a dancer as she is a looker. And a flirt from the drop of the
hat! Had the last dance with her. Which reminds me I better hurry and
down my booze and get back. I'm going to rope her for the next dance,
too."

Broderick went his way for his bottle. Thornton did not speak, did not
turn, did not move that a man might see. But the fingers of the hand at
his side twitched suddenly and for a moment were tense.

"Pollard can't help being mostly rattlesnake," he muttered angrily. "But
he ought to be man enough to keep his own blood kin away from Ben
Broderick's kind. Lord, Lordy, but it's sure enough hell folks can't
help having uncles like Ben Pollard. Poor little girl!" And then,
thoughtfully, his eyes filled with speculation as they rested upon
Winifred Waverly, "Mother Mary Sturgis was absolutely right!"

Now the fiddler was tuning with long drawn bow, and the patting of the
guitarist's foot told that he was ready. Thornton, tossing his hat to
the teacher's desk just outside the door, entered the building and
strode straight to the girl. Other men were hurrying across the floor
eager to be first to ask this or that demurely waiting maiden for the
dance, but Thornton was well in the lead. He nodded and smiled and spoke
to many of the women whom he knew, but he did not stop until he came to
Winifred Waverly and Mrs. Sturgis. There he was stopped by the older
woman who had not read his intentions, and who, thinking that he was
going by, took his arm in her two plump hands.

"Why, Buck Thornton, you rascal, you!" she cried heartily. "Where you
been all year? I ain't seen you since I c'n remember. An' where you
think you're goin', stampedin' along like a runaway horse?"

"Howdy, Mother Mary," he returned as they shook hands. "I was headed
right here to see you and Miss Waverly. Howdy, Miss Waverly."

The eyes which the girl turned upon him were wide with surprise. She had
had no thought that he would come here tonight. Surely he must know that
her uncle, the man whom he had robbed, was here! And Broderick,
too--another man whom he had robbed! And how many others? And yet he had
come, he seemed careless and without uneasiness, he dared to speak with
her quite as if that which had happened in Harte's cabin had never
occurred outside of his own imaginings. He even had the assurance to put
out his hand to her! As though she would touch him!...

"Take your pardners for a waltz!" cried Chase Harper of the Tres Pinos,
he of the small boots, coming in through the door, wiping his mouth and
resuming his duties as "caller" of the dances. "Shake a leg, boys!"

The hurried progress of men in search of "pardners" became a race, boots
clumped noisily against the floor, the cowboys swooped down upon the
line of women folks, often enough there was no spoken invitation to the
waltz as a strong arm ran about a lithe waist, the fiddle scraped, the
guitar thrummed into the tune, and with the first note they were
dancing.



CHAPTER XIX

SIX FEET FOUR!


Winifred Waverly looked steadily into Buck Thornton's eyes, suddenly
determined that she would see in them the guile which must be there.
Surely a man could not do the things which this man so brazenly did, and
not show something of it! And she saw a glance as steady as her own,
eyes as clear and filled with a very frank admiration. In spite of her,
her color rose and her eyes wavered a little. Then she noticed that Mrs.
Sturgis's keen eyes were upon her, and swiftly drove the expression from
her own eyes and returned Thornton's greeting indifferently. Some day
her uncle would accuse this man, but she did not care to give her
personal affair over to the tongue of gossip, nor did she care to have
her name linked in any way with Buck Thornton's.

"May I have this dance, Miss Waverly?"

He had put out his arm as though her affirmative were a foregone
conclusion. She stared at him, wondering where were the limits to this
man's audacity. Then, before she could reply, Mrs. Sturgis had answered
for her. For Mrs. Sturgis was a born match maker, Buck was like a son to
her motherly heart, Winifred Waverly was the "sweetest little thing"
she had ever seen, and they had in them the making of such a couple as
Mrs. Sturgis couldn't find every day of the week.

"Go 'long with you, Buck Thornton!" she cried, making a monumental
failure of the frown with which she tried to draw her placid brows.
"Here I thought all the time you was goin' to ask me!"

Then she jerked him by the arm, dragging him nearer, playfully pushed
the girl toward him, and before she well knew what had happened Winifred
found herself in Thornton's arms, whirling with him to the merry-fiddled
music, putting out her little slipper by the side of his big boot to the
step of the rye-waltz. And Mrs. Sturgis, drawing her twinkling eyes away
from them and turning upon Ben Broderick, who had arrived just too late,
with as much malice in her smile as she knew how to put into it,
remarked meaningly,

"A little slow, Mr. Broderick! You got to keep awake when there's a man
like Buck around."

And she seemed very much pleased with the look in Broderick's eyes, a
look of blended surprise and irritation.

"Thornton and her uncle are not just exactly friends," he retorted
coolly.

"If they was," she flung back at him, "I'd think a heap sight more of
ol' Ben Pollard!"

Mrs. Sturgis's manoeuvre had so completely taken the girl by surprise
that as she floated away in the cowboy's arms she was for a little
undecided what to do. She did not want to dance with Thornton; it had
been upon the tip of her tongue to make the old excuse and tell him that
she was engaged for this waltz. In that way the whole episode would have
passed unnoticed. But now, if they stopped, if she had him take her to
her seat and leave her, everybody would see, everybody would talk,
gossip would remember that when she had first come to Hill's Corners
John Smith had ridden with her as far as the Bar X, and that Smith had
told there how Buck Thornton had ridden as far as his place with her;
and then gossip would go on into endless speculation as to what had
happened upon the trail which now made her refuse to dance with him.

That was why she hesitated, undecided, at first. Then Thornton began to
speak and she wanted to know what he was going to say. Besides, she
admitted to herself, begrudgingly, that she had never known a man dance
as this man danced, and the magic of the waltz was on her.

"I had to return something you left at Harte's Camp," were his first
words. "That's the reason I rode over tonight."

"What is it?" she asked quickly.

Now suddenly there rose up into her heart a swift hope that after all he
was not entirely without principle, that he had grown ashamed of having
taken from a girl the money with which she had been entrusted and that
he was bringing it back to her. If he were man enough to do this ... the
blood ran up higher in her cheeks at the thought ... she could almost
forgive him for that other thing he had done.

So they moved on in the dance, her hand resting lightly in his, his
fingers closing about it with no hint of a pressure to tell her that
again he would take what small advantage he could, his eyes looking
gravely down into the eyes which flashed up at him with her question.

"Didn't you lose anything that night?" he countered. "In the cabin after
I went for the horses?"

"Well?" she countered, the quick hope leaping higher within her.

"You did?"

She wondered why his eyes were so grave, so stern now, why they had
ceased to say flattering things of her and merely hinted of a mind at
work on a puzzle. How could she know that while she was thinking of a
yellow, cloth lined envelope, he was thinking of a horse lamed with a
knife, and hoping to learn from her something of the man who had wounded
the animal?

"Well?" she asked again, hardly above a whisper. Did he dare even talk
of it here, among all these men and women? She glanced about her
anxiously to see if Pollard were in the room. "You are going to give it
back to me?"

Her wonderment was hardly more than Thornton's. Why should she show this
eager excitement, because of a lost spur rowel?

"I rode over to give it to you," he answered, swinging her clear of an
eddy in the swirl of dancers and to the edge of the crowd. "First,
though, I want you to tell me something. A man came into the cabin about
three minutes before you came out to the barn, didn't he?"

She had lowered her eyes, aware that people were noticing them, her
looking up so earnestly, him looking down into her face so gravely. But
now, in spite of her, she looked up at him again.

"Why do you ask that?" she demanded with a flash of anger that he should
continue this useless pretence. "Do you think I am a fool?"

"No. I am asking because I want to know. It's a safe gamble that the man
you had a tussel with is the man who lamed my horse."

"Is it?" she asked with cool sarcasm. "And it's just as safe a gamble
that he is a coward and a ... brute!"

"I don't know about his being a coward, and I don't care about his being
a brute," he told her steadily. "But I do want to know what he looks
like."

Again she called herself a little fool and bit her lip in the surge of
her vexation. She had been glad and over eager just now to restore her
faith to this big brut of a man; at a mere word from him she had been
ready to condone a crime and forgive an insult.... She felt her face
grow hot; he had kissed her rudely and she had been willing to find
excuses, she had even felt as odd sort of thrill tingling through her.
And now this eternal play-acting of his, this insane pretence....

"Mr. Thornton, this is getting us nowhere," she reminded him coldly. "If
you care to be told I can assure you that I know perfectly well who the
man was who ... who came into the cabin that night. And I think that it
would be for the best if you returned ... my property!"

"I'm going to return it. Now, will you answer my question? Will you tell
me who that man was?"

"Why do you pretend in this stupid way?" she demanded hotly.

"Why don't you tell me who he was?" he returned, frowning a little.

For a moment she did not answer. Then, her voice very low, she said,
speaking slowly,

"I don't tell you, Mr. Thornton, because you know as well as I do!"

She saw nothing but blank amazement in his eyes.

"If I knew I wouldn't be asking you," he informed her.

Again she looked up at him, their eyes meeting steadily, searchingly.

"You say that you don't know who it was?" she challenged. And the eyes
into which she looked were as clear of guile as a mountain lake when he
answered:

"No. I don't know!"

Then through lips which were moulded to a passionate scorn no less of
self than of him, in a fierce whisper, she paid him in the coin of her
contempt with the one word: "_Liar_!"

She saw the anger leap up into his eyes and the red run into his bronzed
skin, she felt the arm about her contract tensely until for one dizzy
second she thought that he would crush her. And then they were swinging
on through the dance to the merry beat of the music and above the music
she heard his soft laugh.

He did not look at her, nor did she again lift her eyes to his. But both
of them saw Broderick where he stood near the door, his hands shoved
down into his pockets, his tall, gaunt form leaning against the wall.
His eyes had been following them, and there was in them an expression
hard to read. It might have been anger or distrust or suspicion.

And both Thornton and Winifred as they turned in the dance caught a
quick glimpse of the face of another man. It was Henry Pollard. He had
evidently just come in and as evidently had not seen Thornton and his
niece dancing together until this moment. And the look in his eyes
springing up naked and startled was a thing easy to read. For it was the
look of fear!

Winifred Waverly tried to tell herself that it was fear for her, at
seeing her in Thornton's arms. But she knew that it was not. Nor was it
fear for himself, not mere physical fear of Thornton. Already she knew
of her uncle that the man was no coward. It was not that kind of fear;
it was a fear that was apprehension, dread lest something might happen.
What? "_Dread that something he did not want her to know might become
known to her in her talk with Buck Thornton!_"

It was as though a voice had shouted it in her ear. Where so many things
were muddled in inexplicability this one matter seemed suddenly
perfectly clear to her. He had not wanted her to talk with Buck
Thornton! Why?

Thornton, with no further word to her, had bowed to her, his eyes hard
and stern, and taking a paper-wrapped packet from his vest pocket had
given it to her, and had walked swiftly to the door near which Broderick
stood. In spite of her her eyes had gone down the room after the tall
figure. And then something happened which could have meant nothing to
any one else in the house, but which brought leaping up into the girl's
heart both fear and gladness. And, at last, understanding.

Broderick, smiling, had said some light word to Thornton, laying his
hand upon the cowboy's shoulder. For a moment, just the fraction of a
second the two men stood side by side in the open doorway. Until they
stood so, close together, a man would have said that they were of the
same height. Now Winifred marked that there was a full two-inch
difference and that Thornton was the taller.

Together they stepped out through the doorway. The door was low, Buck
stooped his head a little, Broderick passed out without stooping! It
seemed only last night that she had made her supper in the Harte camp
with Buck Thornton. She remembered so distinctly each little event. She
could see him now as he had sat making his cigarette, could see him
going to the door to look at the upclimbing moon. She had marked then
the tall, wiry body that must stoop a little to stand in the low
doorway. She had jested about his height; the six-feet-four of him, as
he called it....

She could see again the man who had come in, masked, the man whose
clothes were like the clothes of Buck Thornton even to the grey neck
handkerchief. She could remember that this man had stood in the same
doorway, that his eyes had gleamed at her through the slits in the
handkerchief,... that he had held his head thrown back, that he had not
stooped!

"It wasn't Buck Thornton!" she whispered to herself, her hands going
white in their tense grip upon the parcel they held. "A man did lame his
horse, a man who wanted me to think all the time that it was Buck
Thornton. And that man," with swift certainty, "is Ben Broderick! Uncle
Henry's friend. And Uncle ... knows!"



CHAPTER XX

POLLARD TALKS "BUSINESS"


The promise of the night flat and stale in his mouth, Thornton turned
his back upon the merriment in the little schoolhouse and strode away to
his horse awaiting him under the oak. He tightened the cinch with a
savage jerk, coiled his tie rope and flung himself into the saddle. Did
he not already have enough on his hands without running after a girl
with grey eyes and a blazing temper? Had he not already enough to think
about, what with guarding his range interests from a possible visit from
the marauder who was driving wrath into the hearts of the cattle men and
terror into the hearts of the isolated families, what with scraping
every dollar here and there that he might be on time with his final
payment to Henry Pollard? Must he further puzzle over the insolent whims
of a captious girl?

Which was all very well, and yet as he turned Comet's head toward the
Poison Hole ranch the blood was still hot on his brow, his thoughts were
still busy with Winifred Waverly and the enigma she was to him, while
his mind, still touched with the opiate of the loveliness of her, was
filled with the picture she made in the moment of her flaming
accusation.

"I have been calling her Miss Grey Eyes!" he mused angrily. "That name
doesn't suit her. Little Blue Blazes would be better!"

"Mr. Thornton!"

It was Henry Pollard's voice, and for a moment Thornton had no thought
of heeding it. But the voice called again, and he drew an impatient
rein, waiting.

"Well," came his answer shortly. "What do _you_ want?"

"I want to talk business with you or I wouldn't stop you," Pollard
returned coolly. He came close to Comet's head and in the same, cool,
impersonal voice continued.

"When time comes for your last payment are you going to be able to make
it?"

"Until time does come," Thornton snapped at him, "it's my business what
I'm going to do."

"Certainly it's your business. But since you've put fifteen thousand
into it already I guess you won't slip up on the last five thousand. Now
it's nearly five months until that payment falls due, isn't it?"

"Well? Talk fast, Pollard."

"I want to make you a proposition. I need money, and I don't mind saying
that I need it bad! I've got a chance for something good, something big,
in a mining speculation, and I'm short of cash. If I could raise the
money within thirty days..."

Thornton laughed.

"Nothing doing, Pollard," he cut in. "When your money's due you can
come talk to me. Not before."

"I said I had a proposition, didn't I?" went on Pollard evenly. "I see
where I can make by it, and I'm willing for you to profit at the same
time."

"Spit it out. Where do I get off?"

"You owe me five thousand yet."

"Five thousand with interest, six per cent...."

"Forget the interest; I don't want it. And I'll carve five hundred
dollars off the five thousand too, if you'll raise it within thirty
days. That is my proposition. What do you say to it?"

For a little Buck Thornton was silent, thinking swiftly. For the life of
him he could not but look for some trickery in any proposition which
might come from "Rattlesnake" Pollard. And when Pollard coolly offered
to give away eight hundred dollars, five hundred of it principal, three
hundred interest, Thornton had an uneasy sense that there was something
crooked in the deal. But at the same time he knew that a year ago
Pollard had been short of funds and for this reason had been driven to
sell the Poison Hole. Hence it might be that now Pollard was telling the
truth when he said that he needed money.

"You mean," he said presently, speaking slowly, trying to see Pollard's
face in the shadows, "that if I come across with four thousand five
hundred dollars in thirty days you will give me the deed to the Poison
Hole?"

"That's what I mean," agreed Pollard bluntly. "It's a proposition you
can take or leave alone. Only you have got to take it right now if you
want it. What do you say?"

"I've got out the habit of carrying forty-five hundred around in my vest
pocket...."

"You've got an equity of fifteen thousand in a range that is worth a
whole lot more than you are paying for it, young man! The bank in Dry
Town would advance you the money and never bat an eye."

Again Thornton asked himself swiftly if there were some trap here
Pollard was setting for him to blunder into. But he could see none, and
he could understand that matters might stand so that the smaller sum
_now_ would be worth more to him than the larger amount in five months.

"This is the fifteenth," replied the cowboy. "On the twenty-fifth I'll
have the money ready at the Dry Town bank."

"I don't want it in the bank," Pollard told him shortly. "I want it in
my fist! It's just about time for the stage to get held up again, and
I'm taking no chances on this bet. You bring the money to _me_ or the
bet's off."

"An' _I_ take the chances of gettin' held up!" grunted Thornton.

"You take all the chances there are. You stand to make eight hundred
dollars, and you can take it or leave it! If you take it you can have
the papers made out in town, deed and receipt and all, and I'll sign
them. You can bring them to me at the Corners, or," with a little sneer
creeping into his cool voice, "if you don't like the Corners, anywhere
you say. And you can have half a dozen witnesses if you like."

"Why don't you ride with me into Dry Town?"

"Because I don't want to! Because, if you agree to put this thing over,
I'm going to be mighty busy getting my deal in shape here and on the
other side of the line."

"All right. I'll take the chance," Thornton said crisply, his voice as
cool as Pollard's had been. "I'll raise the money and I'll get the
papers made out. I'll bring them to you at Hill's Corners on the morning
of the twenty-fifth."

He reined Comet about, turning again toward the range, and gave him his
head. Pollard watched him a moment, then swinging about upon his heel,
went back toward the school house. Chase Harper's voice from within rose
above the fiddle and guitar, calling for the quadrille. Broderick came
forward to meet Pollard.

"Well?" he asked quickly. "You made him your proposition?"

"Yes."

"What did he say?" Broderick's voice and eyes alike were eager.

"He swallowed it whole," laughed Pollard.

Broderick laughed with him, and then suddenly, the laughter going out of
his voice, his hand shutting down tight upon Pollard's arm and drawing
him away further from the door, deeper into the shadows, his words
almost a whisper, he said:

"He danced with Winifred. You saw that?"

"Yes, damn him. That's what he came for. But I don't think that they
said anything...."

"Shut up, man! Don't you suppose I know what you mean? I don't know what
they said. It's up to you to find out. He gave her something, a little
parcel done up in paper. I don't know what. That's up to you, too. And,
what's more," and his voice grew harsh with the menace in it, "it's up
to you that they don't see each other again! I don't think that any harm
was done tonight. He went away red-mad. When I stopped him at the door
for a minute he hardly knew I was there. They didn't say a word to each
other the last half of their dance. She said something to him, and her
eyes were on fire when she said it, like his when he went out; that put
an end to their talk. They didn't even say good night."

"I've got a notion to send her away," muttered Pollard sullenly. "It was
a fool idea to drag a woman into this."

"Send her away ... now?" cried Broderick sharply. "You're the fool,
Pollard. She's the best bit of evidence we've got. Keep her here, but
for God's sake, man, keep her close! And let's jam this thing through to
a quick finish."

"You're right, I suppose, Broderick." Pollard ran his hand across a wet
forehead. "We've got to put the whole thing across in a hurry. Ten days,
and we'll wind it up.... What's Cole Dalton doing?"

"He's getting mighty hot under the collar," said Broderick grimly. "He's
got to get somebody in his little old jail damn' soon, or he'll have a
bunch of wild men in his hair. And he knows it. Now we can get our crop
planted and things will be ripe for him to gather in in eleven days."

"Let's go inside." Pollard turned toward the front door. "I want to see
Winifred. I want to see how she looks before she gets through thinking
about Thornton."

And Winifred Waverly, who, after her stunned hesitation when she had
seen Thornton and Broderick standing side by side in the doorway, and
who had hurried out through the back door, hoping to find Thornton
before he had gone, got to her feet in the black shadow where she had
crouched by the school house wall, her face dead white, her eyes wide
and staring, her heart pounding wildly.



CHAPTER XXI

THE GIRL AND THE GAME


She did not fully understand, she could not grasp everything yet, she
was filled with doubts and suspicions and a growing terror. What had her
uncle said to Thornton, what had the cowboy "swallowed whole"? What was
the whole scheme which connected the two men, which envolved Thornton
and the sheriff, which seemed clear in one moment only to be a tangle in
the next?

One thing only was perfectly clear now to the girl. And seeing it, she
gathered up her skirts in her two hands and ran, ran back along the
wall, keeping in the shadows, drawing close about her the dark cloak she
had thrown about her white dress. She must get into the house before
they came in, she must let her face show nothing, she must have time to
think before she spoke with them. So she came to the back door, paused a
brief moment, commanding her nerves to be steady, then slipped in,
letting the cloak fall from her shoulders. She saw Bud King standing
with his back to the wall watching the dancers, and going swiftly to
him, putting her hand lightly upon his arm, she summoned a smile into
her eyes as she cried breathlessly:

"Will you dance this with me?"

Young King looked at her in quick surprise, startled at the nearness of
the girl for whom his eyes had been seeking, and a little flush ran up
into his cheeks, a sparkle of gladness into his eyes.

"Sure," he grinned happily. "I been looking for you, Miss Waverly."

He ran his arm about her, she bent her head a little so that he could
not see the whiteness of her face, and they caught the beat of the
music. She lost the step, purposely that she might have a little more
time before they pass down the room toward Pollard and Broderick,
hesitated, taking her time to catch it, laughed at his apology for the
mistake, noted that her own laugh sounded free and natural, caught the
step, and swirled away into the crowd, daring now to look up laughingly
into Bud's face unmindful of the havoc she was working in his soul. The
two-step was lively; the room was warm, and the colour rose high in her
cheeks. But still she was careful to turn her head a little as they
whirled by the front door. But when, for the second time, the dance
carried them to the end of the room where Pollard and Broderick were,
she was so sure of herself that she sent a quick, laughing glance at her
uncle. And a little of the tightness about her heart was gone as she saw
the look of relief in his eyes.

King, reckless with the wine of her, demanded the next waltz, claiming
that this had been only half a dance, and she gave it to him laughingly,
the more pleased that she saw Broderick coming toward her and that this
was the second time tonight that he had been a little too late, and that
she saw a frown in his eyes as they followed her and King out upon the
floor.

But she knew that if she play her part as she must play it until she
could have time for the definite shaping of plans, she must dance again
with Broderick. When he came for her she nodded carelessly, let him take
her into his arms, and even looking up at him, forced a smile. For
surely, if these men could do what they were doing and give no hint of
it, she could play her part with clear eyes and a steady heart. She knew
now that Ben Broderick was a highwayman, that he had forced upon her the
insult of his kiss; already she suspected him of being the man who had
murdered Bill Varney, who had committed crime upon crime. But she knew,
too, and with as clear a knowledge, that she must give no slightest sign
of what her thoughts were. And as a result Mrs. Sturgis, watching her,
vowed to herself that "that Win Waverly was a little devil of a flirt!"

It seemed an endlessly long time until midnight. The lunches which had
come in baskets and boxes were spread out upon the benches, coffee was
made outside and brought in in steaming, blackened coffee pots to be
poured into tin cups, and the supper was a noisy, successful affair. The
girl so wanted to slip away, to get back into her own room at Pollard's
house where she might drop all pretence and think, think, think! But she
knew that she must seem to enjoy the dance, she must not let her uncle
guess that the night had grown bitter in her mouth as it had in Buck
Thornton's.

The benches were cleared and pushed back against the walls, the
musicians were at it again, when Pollard came to her.

"Don't you think, Winifred, we'd better be going?" he asked quietly. "It
is late, we've got a good ride ahead of us and I have a lot to do
tomorrow."

But she pleaded for one more dance, and then one more, and finally with
much seeming regretfulness allowed her uncle to slip on her cloak for
her.

"I may be a hypocrite," she told herself a little sternly, as she sat in
the buckboard at her uncle's side. "But they are playing me for a little
fool! And ... and if they knew that I guessed...."

She shivered and Pollard asked if she were cold.

It was a swift drive with few words spoken. Winifred, her chin sunk in
her wraps, seemed to be dozing much of the way, and Henry Pollard had
enough to think about to make the silence grateful. The cream-coloured
mares raced out across the level land of the valley, with little thought
of the light wagon and much thought of the home stable and hay. And,
racing on, they sped at last through the long alley-like street of
Hill's Corners, into the glaring light from the saloons, by many shadows
at the corners of houses, their ears smitten by much noise of loud
voices and the clack of booted feet upon the board sidewalks. When
Pollard jerked in his team at his own front gate, the girl slipped
quickly from the buckboard, saying quietly:

"I think I'll go right up to bed, Uncle Henry. I'm a little tired. Thank
you for taking me."

And when he said, "Good night, Winifred," she called back her good night
to him, and hurried under the old pear trees to the house. In the hall
she found her lamp burning where Mrs. Riddell had left it for her, and
taking it up she climbed the stairs to her room.

At last she was alone and could think! Her door was locked, her light
was out that no one might know she was awake, and she was crouching at
the open window, staring out at the night.

Out of a tangle of many doubts, suspicions and live terrors there were
at first two things which caught the high lights of her understanding,
standing clear of the shadows which obscured the others. Buck Thornton
was absolutely innocent of the thing she had imputed to him, and
unsuspecting of the evidence which was being piled up against him. And
her own uncle was the friend and the actual accomplice of the real
criminal.

Her thoughts harked back to the beginning of the story as she knew it,
reverting to that night when she had first seen Buck Thornton at Poke
Drury's road house. From that she passed in review all that she knew of
him; how he had come in while she was talking with the banker about the
errand which was to carry her over a lonely trail to her uncle. At first
she had been quick to suspect that Thornton had overheard a part of
their conversation, that he had known from the first that she was
carrying the five thousand dollars. Now she realized with a little
twinge of bitter self-accusation that she had been over hasty in judging
the man who had been kind to her.

She remembered how, on the trail from Dry Town, she had seen a man
following her, a man whose face, at the distance he maintained, was
hidden from her by his flapping hat brim, but whom she believed to be
Thornton. Upon what had she founded her belief? Upon the matter of his
being of about the size and form of the cowboy, upon the fact that he
rode a sorrel horse and that his clothes, even to the grey neck
handkerchief, were the same! How easy, how simple a matter for another
man to have a sorrel horse and to wear clothes like Thornton's!

She remembered that the cowboy's surprise had seemed sincere and lively
when she had told him she had seen him; she recalled his courtesy to her
in the Harte cabin, his willingness to walk seven miles carrying his
heavy saddle that she might have a night's rest under a roof with
another woman. Not to be forgotten was the wrath in his eye and voice
when she had come upon him with his limping horse, and now, at last she
knew why his horse had been lamed and by whom! For that seemingly wanton
cruelty had accomplished that which it was planned to do, making her
certain beyond a doubt that Thornton had lied to her, that he had been
the man whom she had seen following her, hence that he it was who had
robbed her and had kissed her into the bargain.

Now, in an altered mood she cast in review all that John Smith and his
wife had told her of him, and she knew that her first judgment there in
the storm-smitten road house, when she had deemed him clean and honest
and manly, had been the right judgment; that he was a man and a
gentleman; that he could be all that his eyes told of him, gentle unto
tenderness or as hard as tempered steel but always ... a man.

But there was so much which she did not grasp yet. She heard Henry
Pollard return from the stable where he had left the horses and enter
the house, passing down the hallway to his room. Still she sat, never
stirring save for the little involuntary shiver which ran over her from
head to foot, as her uncle came into the house. And still she worked at
the patchwork of her puzzle, putting it together piece by piece.

"Buck Thornton didn't do it," she whispered to herself, looking up at
the stars flung across the sky above the ugly little town. "Ben
Broderick did do it. He robbed me of Uncle's money. And Uncle knows! I
don't understand!"

But at last she thought that she did understand. Thornton was buying the
Poison Hole ranch from Pollard. Already he had paid fifteen thousand
dollars into the deal. Now, what would happen if it were proven that
Thornton had stolen back from Pollard's emissary five thousand of that
money? Thornton would go to jail and for a long time, and then....

But why was Pollard waiting? Why was Broderick waiting, urging
the sheriff to wait? She saw it all in a flash then! They would
prove ... they thought that they were sure of proof through her! ... that
Buck Thornton had robbed her of the five thousand dollars. They would
prove that Buck Thornton had killed Bill Varney; that he had robbed Hap
Smith at Poke Drury's road house; they would prove that Buck Thornton was
the man the whole country wanted, the man who had committed crime upon
crime! She knew that he was a new man here, that he had lived on the
Poison Hole ranch for only a year and that the evidence of which her own
word was to have been a part, would be sufficient to prove to the
countryside that Buck Thornton was the daredevil marauder they sought.
And how undeniably strong would that evidence be if all crime ceased
abruptly upon the arrest of this one man!

"It would not be the penitentiary for Buck Thornton," she thought
suddenly, her face whiter than it had been when she had overheard
Pollard and Broderick. "The ranch would come back into Henry Pollard's
hands, the men who have committed these crimes would be able to keep the
thousands and thousands of dollars they have taken from stages and
stolen cattle, and Buck Thornton would go to the gallows!"

It was unbelievable, it was unthinkable, it was impossible! And yet....

"And yet," she whispered through her white lips, "it is the truth!"

She sprang to her feet, her hands clenched at her sides, her eyes
blazing. Buck Thornton had been good to her and in return she had done
much to give him over into their hands, she had insulted and reviled
him, she had sworn to the sheriff that he had robbed her. Now suddenly
she felt that she could never sleep again if she did not atone to him.

She was already at the door, her hat and gloves in her hand, ready to
run down stairs, to saddle her horse, to ride to Thornton with word of
warning, when a new thought came to her.

They were waiting, they were going to wait ten days; that much she had
overheard. Waiting for what? For some new crime, for the monster crime
of all, for the last play for the last and biggest stake?

She, too, would wait. Not ten days but until she might slip away without
this danger of being seen, of her errand being guessed. In the meantime
she would learn what she could.

She had not forgotten that Henry Pollard was her uncle. The thought
added its bitterness. But she remembered, too, the look she had seen
upon Pollard's face when she had told him that Thornton had robbed her,
she remembered the look of cruel satisfaction she had surprised there
more than once, and she knew that were he more than uncle, closer than
uncle, she could not act otherwise than she must act now.

Then, suddenly, she sank down upon her bed, alone and lonely in the
thick darkness, weary and vaguely afraid.

"Buck Thornton," she whispered, "I am afraid I need your help as much as
you need mine now!"



CHAPTER XXII

THE YELLOW ENVELOPE AGAIN!


Old man King, red eyed with wrath, had gone out after the cattle
rustlers in his own direct fashion, seeking to follow the trail of
running steers through the mountain passes, his eye hard, his rifle
ready, his mind eager to suspect any man to whom that trail might lead.
But he found only confused tracks which ran toward the state border line
and which vanished before even his sharp eyes, leading nowhere.

Young Bud King, his own anger little less than his father's, went forth
on another trail, not after the running steers but after a man. And he
went to the town of Dead Man's Alley. Mentally he had made his list of
the men to whom one might look to for the commission of the crime which
had driven the Bar X outfit to action. Being no man's fool, young King
planned to go first to the source of the stream, as it were, and thence
to travel downward seeking to see who had muddied the waters. And his
"one chief bet" was that the source was in Hill's Corners.

The result of Bud King's investigations, so far as he was concerned, was
little different from that of his father's and negligible. But his
journey to the town of the bad name was of vast importance to others.

Winifred Waverly, upon the morning after the dance, came down late to
her breakfast, and found that Pollard had waited for her. Although he
was not in the habit of offering her this little courtesy, she thought
nothing of it at first, having enough of other matters in her brain,
perplexing her. But before the meal was over she knew why Henry Pollard
had waited for her.

It was plain to her that he realized that some real importance might be
attached to the matter of her having seen Buck Thornton last night, of
having danced and talked with him. On the ride home he had not referred
to the cattle man nor had she. Now, in great seeming carelessness but
with his eyes keen upon her, he spoke lightly of the dance, mentioned
that he had seen Thornton talking to one of the men at the schoolhouse
door and wondered why he had gone so early.

She managed to look at him innocently and to say carelessly as he had
spoken:

"I had a dance with him. He didn't say anything about leaving so soon."
She even achieved a little laugh which sounded quite natural, ending,
"He seemed rather put out that I did not receive him like an old
friend!"

"You did not accuse him of having robbed you?"

"Not in so many words," quietly. "But I was certainly not polite to him!
For a little I thought that he was going to return your money to me."

"Why?" Pollard asked sharply, and now she was sure of his readiness to
suspect her of holding back something from him.

"He said," she went on, her interest seeming chiefly for her bacon and
eggs, "that he was returning something to me I had left at the cabin at
Harte's place. I couldn't think of anything but your money."

"What was it?"

"A spur rowel. It had been loose for several days, and dropped out in
the cabin. He brought it back to me."

From this they passed on to speak of other incidents of the dance and of
other people, but the girl saw that her uncle's interest waned with the
change of topic. Then, her heart fluttering in spite of her, but her
voice steady enough, Winifred said lightly:

"I think I'll go for a little ride after breakfast. My horse needs the
exercise, and," she added laughingly, "so do I."

"Good idea," he returned, nodding his approval. But then he asked which
way she was riding, and finally volunteered to go with her, assuring her
smilingly that he had nothing of importance to do, and adding gravely,
that he would feel safer if she were not out alone in this rough
country.

So he rode with her and after an hour of swift galloping out toward the
mountains, for the most part in silence, they came back to the town.
Pollard left her at his own gate and rode back through the street, "to
see a man." But he returned almost immediately and for the rest of the
day did not leave the house. It was a long day for the girl, filled with
restlessness and a sense of being spied upon, of being watched almost
every moment by her uncle. And before the day was done, there had come
with the other emotions a little thrill of positive, personal fear.

It was midafternoon. The silence here at this far end of the street hung
heavy and oppressive. She had gone up and down stairs half a dozen
aimless times, eager for something to do. The long hours had been hers
for reflection, and after weighing the hundred little incidents of these
last few weeks, now there was no faintest shadow of a doubt that Henry
Pollard was at least guilty of criminal complicity in a scheme to send
an innocent man to the penitentiary if not to the gallows; she was more
than half persuaded that Pollard was in some way seeking to shield
himself by using Thornton as a scapegoat; she had got to the point where
she began to wonder if Henry Pollard and Ben Broderick shared share and
share alike both in the profits of these crimes and in their actual
commission.

She came down stairs for a book, having at last finished the one in her
room, resigned to inactivity for another day, perhaps for two or three
days, until her uncle's watch upon her movements was less keen and
suspicious. She reflected that if she read something she might coax her
thoughts away from considerations which he could not understand in
their entirety, and which terrified her when she thought that she did
understand.

In her quest she passed down the hall and to Pollard's office at the
front of the house. The room was by no means private; she had gone into
it many times before; sometimes it was used as a sitting room. She had
thought that her uncle was in it, but when she came to the open door she
saw that it was empty.

She went to the long table at which Pollard wrote his few letters. Upon
one end of it, at the far end from the pen and ink, were some books and
old magazines, piled carelessly. Yesterday she had seen here a fairly
recent novel the title of which promised her an interesting story. A
glance showed her the book, lying open, where Pollard had evidently been
reading it. And in the same careless glance she saw something else which
sent the blood into her face and made her turn swiftly, apprehensively,
toward the door.

There, beside Pollard's chair, was his waste paper basket, filled to
overflowing with crumpled papers. And, thrusting upward through the
papers, catching her eye because the papers were white and it was
another colour, was a long, yellow envelope. An envelope exactly like
the one in which Mr. Templeton had put the bank notes she was to carry
to her uncle!

Obeying her swift impulse she stepped to the basket and drew the
envelope out. It was not only like the one she knew, yellow and cloth
lined, but it was the same one! She knew that beyond a hint of doubt.
For she remembered how, while sealing the thing for her, Mr. Templeton
had laid it down on his table, upon his ink-wet pen, how he had
carelessly blotted it. And here was the blot!

She came swiftly around the table. Her back was toward the open door.
And....

Henry Pollard was standing behind her, watching her! She did not see
him, she could not be sure that she had heard his soft step on the hall
carpet, but she knew that he was there. She seemed to sense his presence
with the subtle sixth sense.



CHAPTER XXIII

WARNING


She felt her heart beating wildly ... if at that second he had spoken to
her she could not have found immediate voice in answer were it to save
her life. But further, she knew that if he gave her one second longer
she could control herself. For the first time it came upon her in a
flash that she had a personal interest in what these men did. They
sought to play her for their dupe, their fool; they counted upon making
her a sort of innocent accomplice, they dared to count upon her to help
them. To make their own positions safe they were dragging her into the
dirty mess that they had made.

Her anger steadied her. Her brain had gone hot with it; now it went
cool, cold. She was holding the envelope in her hands when Pollard came
to the door; now she tossed it back to the basket carelessly and still
kept her back to the door. She was humming a little song softly when she
picked up the book she had come for and turned with it in her hand as
though to leave the room.

But in spite of her second of preparation she started when she saw Henry
Pollard's face. She had known that it could look hard and cruel, that it
could grow dark and threatening. But she saw now a look in the hard
eyes, about the sinister mouth, which sent a spurt of terror up into her
heart. Here was a man who could kill, would kill if he were driven to
it. She read it in his eyes in that flash of a glance as she might have
read it in big printed letters. If he came to believe that there was
actual danger to him from her knowledge he would find a way to keep her
silent.

"Well?" Pollard said steadily.

He came into the room and closed the door softly behind him. Now there
was no tell-tale expression in his tone and all expression had gone out
of his eyes.

Even then, though her heart beat quickly and the colour wavered in her
cheeks, she managed to look at him steadily and to answer collectedly:

"It looks like I'd been playing Paul Pry, and that you'd caught me,
doesn't it?"

She even laughed softly, and went on:

"I came down for a book. Then I noticed this." She picked up the
envelope again, holding it out toward him. "You see I recognized it!"

"There are lots of yellow envelopes," he answered colourlessly, his eyes
sharp points of light upon hers. "What about it?"

"I am not a lady detective," she smiled back, taking a sudden keen
delight in the knowledge that she had taken the right tack, and that she
was puzzling Pollard. "But it is quite obvious that you've got your
money back! Why didn't you tell me?"

"There are lots of yellow envelopes," he repeated, speaking slowly, and
she knew that his brain was as busy as her own. If the moment held
danger for her, then it held danger no less for him. "They are common
enough. What makes you think that this one..."

"Oh, but I know," she broke in lightly. "You see I remembered Mr.
Templeton getting this smudge of ink on it. He called my attention to
it, the dear, precise old banker that he is, and wanted to give me a
clean one. Did Mr. Thornton get frightened and bring your money back?"

For a moment he did not answer. She knew that he was measuring her with
those shrewd eyes of his, looking for a false sign, just the twitch of a
muscle to tell him that she was playing a part. And she gave no sign.

"No," he said at last. "Thornton did not bring it back. And even if you
were a lady detective you might make a mistake now. I haven't seen a
cent of the money."

She lifted her eyebrows in well simulated surprise.

"But the envelope?"

Now he spoke swiftly and she knew that he had made up his mind that she
was hiding nothing, that she knew nothing, for there was a note of
relief in his words.

"I had his cabin searched last night, while we all were at the dance. It
was found there. There was no sign of the money!"

Again she tossed away the envelope as though it no longer had any
interest for her.

"A man," she said contemptuously, "who would not destroy a piece of
evidence like that, is a fool!"

The matter was dropped there; one would have said it was forgotten by
both of them. For the rest of the day Winifred Waverly appeared to be
much interested in her book, Pollard seemed busy in his office or upon
the street. But the girl realized that the man was taking no chances and
that there was going to be little chance of her riding the twenty miles
to the Poison Hole without his knowing of it. She let the day go with no
thought of making the trip, satisfying herself with the knowledge which
she had gleaned from the conversation she had overheard at the
schoolhouse, and with the comforting thought that she had ten days yet.

Upon the second day following the dance she saw Broderick and Pollard
talking earnestly out under the pear trees. Broderick, at his boots
whipping impatiently with his riding whip, did not come to the house as
was his custom, but going back to the gate flung himself upon his horse
and rode away. That same afternoon he came again, and this time Cole
Dalton, the sheriff, was with him. They were met by Pollard at the front
door, and for an hour the girl in her room could hear their low voices
in the room below her.

The third day came and went and she saw no one but Pollard and Mrs.
Riddell. Pollard was unusually silent, and again and again she saw that
his eyes were hard, his mouth cruel. She began to forget that he was
kin to her; she began to see only that here was a man playing his game
with high, very high, stakes, that he was watchful and determined, that
he was not the sort to let anything, no matter what, stand between him
and the thing he had made up his mind to do. She saw that he was growing
nervous and sensed that he was in that frame of mind when men act
swiftly and unscrupulously. She took no step about the house that
Pollard did not know of it.

The fourth day came, and her own nerves were strained to snapping. If
she could only do something! She must do something. But what? If
Broderick were the guilty man, and from a score of little things, she
knew that he was, then Henry Pollard was no less guilty. If Pollard were
a part of the horrible scheme, how about Cole Dalton, the sheriff? She
began to think that she saw why the months had gone by and Dalton had
made no arrests! If he was one of them, if the man paid by the county to
defend the county against outlawry were hand and glove with the outlaws,
to whom then could she turn?

But at last, upon the evening of the fourth day, when her spirit was
ready for some desperate measure unless fate came to help her, fate did
help and young Bud King called. He had spent the day in Hill's Corners
upon the quest of any information which might tell him who the man was
who had run off his father's cattle. Having learned nothing, and being a
wise young man after his fashion, he had determined not to go home
entirely profitless, and so came to see Pollard's niece.

She saw him as he rode slowly down the street. In a flash she guessed
that he came to see her, divined too that Pollard would give her little
opportunity of talking to young King or any other man, alone. She was at
her window where she sat so often. Before Bud King's horse had been tied
at the gate she had written a hasty note, had thrust it into an
envelope, and had scrawled on the outside:

"Please carry this right away to Buck Thornton. Don't let any one see.
It is very important."

Then she ran down stairs, slipping the note into the bosom of her dress,
hastening to be at the door when the Bar X man knocked lest Henry
Pollard turn him away, saying that she was not at home.

As she opened the door, and Bud entered, hat in hand and flushed of
face, Pollard came to the door of his office. Winifred, shaking hands
warmly, asked King in, and remarking that her uncle was only reading,
invited him into the office. Pollard, she knew, had no reason to suspect
what she had in mind, and she would give him no reason. Before Bud left
she would find a way to give him the note.

The three sat down, and Bud, never letting his wide hat out of his
hands, sat twirling it and shifting his boots and looking and talking
for the most of the time at Pollard. He was a young man, was Bud; girls
had been few in his life, and this calling upon a young woman in broad
daylight was a daring if not quite a devilish thing.

Winifred found room here for smiling amusement. Pollard did not want to
be bothered with King and showed it so plainly that had King not been so
alive to the presence of the girl at whom he looked with the tail of his
eye and so nearly oblivious of the presence of the man whom he sat
facing, he must have noted it before he had been in the room five
minutes. Bud did not care to talk with Pollard, whom he agreed perfectly
with Buck Thornton in calling a rattlesnake, and yet he talked rather
wildly to him of branding and fence building and stray horses and
hold-up men and the weather and last year's politics. And Winifred, for
a little, watched both men with mirthful understanding.

But as the minutes slipped by and Pollard gave no sign of leaving the
room, as silences fell which were too awkward to go unnoticed and which
the girl had to fill, she began to be afraid that Pollard's watchfulness
was going to prove too much for her and that she would fail in the plan
which had seemed so simple. But she must not fail! Four days of the ten
had gone. She must find some way to keep Bud King here until something
carried Pollard out of the room if only for a moment, and during that
moment she must give the note to King.

She was sure that Pollard did not, could not suspect that she meant to
say anything to King, or that she counted on having him carry a message
for her. But she knew, too, that Henry Pollard was taking no chances he
did not have to take. He was a man to play close to the table.

She had time to determine that she _would_ succeed in this one vital
point, time to hope, to fear, to lose hope a dozen times, before her
chance came. She heard a step on the walk under the pear trees,
Broderick's step, she thought swiftly, despairingly. Usually Pollard
kept the front door locked; she had not locked it after she had let Bud
King in. Pollard would know it was Broderick and would merely call,
"Come in," not even leaving the room for the one necessary moment.
Broderick would come in, Bud King would go soon and she would have no
chance of doing the thing she had sworn to herself that she would do.

Her one hope was that she had mistaken the step and that it was not
Broderick. When the man outside came up the steps, she heard his spurs
jingle on the porch and saw that Pollard too was listening intently.

"Come in," called Pollard. "The door's open, Ben."

Why, why hadn't she locked the door? Now there would be two men to watch
her, now it would be impossible...

But fresh hope leaped up into her heart, though she could scarce believe
her ears when Broderick's voice in answer was like the snarl of a beast,
harsh with anger, snapping out his words fiercely:

"Come out here. I want to talk with you outside. And, for God's sake,
man, hurry!"

Pollard, too, started. Bud King looked up with wondering eyes from his
swinging hat. Pollard, with the briefest sign of hesitation, went out of
the room and to the front door.

No sooner had he gone than the girl, her face flushed, her eyes
brilliant with the excitement in them, snatched the paper from the bosom
of her dress and, tiptoeing to King, forced it into his big hand. Not a
word did she speak, not so much as a whisper. But she laid her finger
upon her lips, glanced from him toward the door, and tiptoed back to her
seat. And Bud King understood in part while he could not understand in
full, and thrust the note into his pocket.

When a moment later King rose to go she went with him to the door. She
caught a glimpse of Ben Broderick's face, though he hid it from her
instantly, whirling about upon his heel; she felt sick and dizzy with a
sudden dread of she knew not what. For his face was dead white and
horribly drawn with the rage that blazed in his eyes and distorted his
mouth, and she saw, standing up in his soul, that thing which one may
not look upon and misread: that rage that drives a man to kill. And she
saw, too, that a white bandage was tied about his head, under his hat
brim, and that the bandage was red with blood.



CHAPTER XXIV

THE GENTLEMAN FROM NEW MEXICO


Thornton returned rather early that night to the ranch cabin. That he
came in at all, instead of remaining far out upon the range border as
his men were doing, was because tomorrow he planned on riding to Dry
Town where he would raise the four thousand five hundred dollars for
Henry Pollard, and he wanted to make an early start.

He left his horse at the barn, passed the bunk house and was crossing
the little footbridge which spanned Big Little River, going straight to
his cabin upon the knoll, when he saw that while the bunk house was dark
there shone a light from his cabin window. Wondering who his guest might
prove to be he strode up the knoll. The cabin door was open, he could
see his lamp burning upon the table, and sitting upon his chair, hands
clasped behind head and cigar smoking lazily, was a man he had never
seen before.

He came on, still wondering, until his tall form passed through the
doorway and stood over the smoker. The man turned a little, watching him
as he drew near.

"Howdy, Stranger," Thornton said quietly.

"Mr. Thornton?" smiled the other. "You see I've been making myself at
home."

He rose and put out a hand, a small, hard, brown hand which the cowboy
accepted carelessly and released marvelling. Its grip was as strong as
his own, the muscles like rock.

The man was of medium stature, looking small beside the towering form of
his host. He was dressed quietly and well, trousers still preserving the
lines left by the tailor's iron, his coat fitting closely about the
compact muscular shoulders, his soft shirt white and clean. He was a
sandy haired man of forty, perhaps, clean shaven, square jawed, with
very bright, very clear brown eyes.

All this Thornton saw at one swift glance. He tossed his hat to the
table, pulled another chair toward him, and sat down.

"Glad you made yourself at home," he said then, "Find anything to eat?"

The stranger nodded.

"I've been here three hours, and I was hungry. So I raided the bunk
house."

"That's right." He brought out his paper and tobacco, making his
cigarette slowly, his eyes alone asking the other his business.

"I want a little talk with you, Mr. Thornton. But maybe I'd better wait
until you've eaten?"

"Had my supper an hour ago," Thornton replied. "Made camp with the boys
before I came in. Fire away, Stranger."

"All right. First thing, my name's Comstock."

The keen eyes which had measured the cowboy as he came through the door
were very bright upon him now. Thornton nodded. The name meant nothing
to him.

"Don't get me?" laughed Comstock. "Well, well, it's a shock to vanity,
but after all one's fame is a poor crippled bird that doesn't fly far."
He paused a moment, then added quietly, as though this other information
might help his bird "to fly." "My stamping ground's New Mexico."

Thornton's look showed nothing beyond a faint curiosity; one would have
said that he was as little interested in this man's stamping ground as
in his name.

"One more try," laughed Comstock easily, "and I'll give up. Two-Hand
Billy Comstock.... Aha, I get you now!"

For now Buck Thornton started and his eyes did show interest and a
sudden flash of surprise. For fifteen years Two-Hand Billy Comstock,
United States Deputy Marshal, had been widely known throughout the great
South-west, a man who asked no odds and gave no quarter, one whose name
sent as chill a shiver through the hard hearts of the lawless as a sight
of the gallows would have done. And this man, small, well dressed, quiet
mannered, as dapper as a tailor's dummy....

"If you are Billy Comstock," grunted Thornton, "well, I'm damn' glad to
know you, sir!"

"If I am?" grinned Comstock. "And why should I lie to you?"

"I'm not saying that you are lying," returned the cowboy coolly. "But
I'm getting in the habit these days of being suspicious, I guess. But if
you are that Comstock and want to see me, I'd come mighty close to
guessing what you want. But before I do any talking I want to know."

"Sure," Comstock nodded. And then, smiling again "Only, Mr. Thornton,
I'm not in the habit of carrying around a trunk full of
identifications."

"You don't need them."

Billy Comstock's name he had made himself, and it had carried far. There
were few men in half a dozen States in this corner of the country who
did not know why he was called "Two-Hand Billy" and how he had earned
his right to the nickname. His fame was that of a man who was absolutely
fearless, and who carried the law where other men could not or would not
carry it. To him had come the dangers, the sharp fights against odds
that had seemed overwhelming, and always he had shot his way out with a
gun in each hand, and no waste lead.

"I never saw the man who could beat me to my gun," went on Thornton
quietly, no boastfulness in his tone, merely the plain statement of a
fact. "If you are 'Two-Hand Billy Comstock' you ought to do it."

The two men were sitting loosely in their chairs at opposite sides of
the room, the table with the lamp between them. Comstock's hands were
again clasped behind his head. Thornton lifted his arms, clasping his
own hands behind his head.

Comstock smiled suddenly, brightly, seeming to understand and to be as
pleased as a child with anew game.

"I'll count three," said Thornton. "We'll both go for our guns. If I get
the drop on you first," with a smile which reflected the other's, "I've
a notion to shoot you up for an impostor!"

"If you get the drop on me first," grinned Comstock, "and don't shoot me
up, I'll make you a present of the best gun you ever saw."

Thornton counted slowly, with regular intervals between the words.
"One," and neither man moved, both sitting in seeming carelessness,
their hands behind their heads. "Two," and only their eyes showed that
every lax muscle in each body grew taut. "Three," and then they moved,
the two men like two pieces of the same machine driven unerringly by the
same motive power.

Not the hands alone but the entire bodies, every muscle leaping into
action in a swiftness too great, too accurate for it to have been fully
appreciated had there been a third man to see. Thornton slipped sideways
from his chair, dropping to his knees upon the floor, and his two hands
flashed downward. The left hand sped to the opening at the left hip of
his chaps, and to the pocket beneath; the right hand into the loose band
at his stomach. And the hands seemed not to have disappeared for a
fraction of a second when they were flung out in front of him, and two
heavy double action revolvers looked squarely into Comstock's smiling
face.

Comstock had scarcely seemed to move. He still sat loosely in his chair,
its front legs tilted back supported by his heels. But his hands had
gone their swift, unerring way to the pockets of his coat, and into the
barrels of the revolvers looked the blue steel barrels of two big
automatics. And both men knew that, had this been no play, but deadly
earnest, there would not have been the tenth of a second between the
pistol shots.

"Pretty nearly an even break," laughed Comstock, dropping his guns back
into his pockets.

Thornton rose and stood frowning down into the uplifted eyes of his
visitor.

"It doesn't take a bullet long to go ten feet," he said a little
sternly. "One man doesn't have to get his gun working half an hour
before the other fellow." He came around the table and put out his hand.
"Shake," he said. "You could have got me. And I guess you're Two-Hand
Billy, all right."

Comstock's eyes were bright with frank admiration.

"I don't know so well about getting you," he answered. "I played you to
slip out on the other side of your chair. And," with his frank laugh, "I
wouldn't care for the job of going out for you, Mr. Thornton."

"Real name, Buck," laughed the cowboy. "And now, let's talk."

"First name, Billy," returned Comstock. "And we'll talk in a minute.
First thing though, there's some mail for you!"

Thornton's eyes went the way of Comstock's, and saw a piece of folded
notepaper upon the table, held in place by the lamp. He took it up,
wondering, and read the few words swiftly. As he read the blood raced up
into his face and Comstock smiled.

"I must see you," were the hastily written words. "I have wronged you
all along. I haven't time to write, I am afraid to put it on paper. But
there is great danger to you. Come tonight. I will be under the pear
trees in the front yard, at twelve o'clock.

"WINIFRED WAVERLY."

Thornton whirled about, confronting Comstock.

"Where'd this come from?" he demanded sharply.

"Special delivery," smiled Comstock. "A young fellow, calling himself
Bud King from the Bar X, brought it."

"When?"

"About an hour ago. He said he couldn't wait and couldn't take time to
look you up, and I told him that I'd see that you got it."

Thornton read the short note again, frowning. This girl, only a few
nights ago, had called him a liar, had angered him as thoroughly as she
knew how, had sent him from her vowing that he was a fool to have ever
thought of her, and that he'd die before he'd be fool to seek again to
see the niece of Henry Pollard. And now this note, speaking of having
wronged him, telling him that she was afraid to write all that she
wanted to tell him, warning him of danger to him, asking him to meet her
in Hill's Corners ... at her uncle's house ... at midnight!

He knew nothing of the danger to which she referred, but he did know
that for him there was danger in going into Dead Man's Alley even in
broad daylight. There came to him a swift suspicion that this note had
never been written by the girl whose signature it bore, that it had been
dictated by a man who sought to lure him to a spot where it would be an
easy matter to put a bullet in him in safe, cowardly fashion. Suppose
that he went, that he entered Pollard's place, and at such an hour?
Pollard, himself, could kill him, admit the deed and claim that he was
but protecting his own premises. Any one of the Bedloe boys could shoot
him and who would know?

Another suspicion, allied to this one, came and darkened the frown in
his eyes. Was it possible that Winifred Waverly had written it, acting
at Pollard's command? that she was but doing the sort of thing he should
look to one of Pollard's blood to do?

Comstock, saying nothing further, now seemed entirely engrossed in his
cigar. Thornton, the note in his fingers, hesitated. A third time he
read the pencilled words. Then he folded the paper and slipped it into
his pocket.

"If a man wants to know anything real bad," he said at last, "it's up
to him to go and find out, huh, Billy Comstock?"

Comstock, turning his cigar thoughtfully, answered:

"That's right, Buck."

Thornton glanced at his little alarm clock. It was not yet half past
eight.

"I've got to be in the Corners by twelve o'clock," he said as he went
back to his chair. "I'll ride Comet, though, and can make it handily in
two hours. Now, what's the line of talk?"

Comstock's look trailed back to his cigar.

"I'm after a man," he volunteered.

"That's a safe bet. What man?"

"Not poor little Jimmie Clayton," smiled Comstock. "He's only a weak
little fool at the worst, and wouldn't be a bad sort if he had somebody
around all the time to steer him right."

"Who is he?" retorted Thornton steadily ... remembering.

"He's the man you owe a debt of gratitude to," laughed Comstock. "He put
some bullets through you one night down Texas way, found that he'd
slipped up and that you'd put your money into a check, and then played
safe by nursing you through it! The man who broke jail a month or so
ago, and beat it up here to you to see him through. I'm _not_ after
him."

"You seem to know a whole lot," answered Thornton noncommittally neither
voice nor face nor eye showing a hint of surprise or other emotion. And
yet he was thinking swiftly, that if this man spoke the truth he had a
score to settle with Jimmie Clayton.

"Oh, it's my business to know a whole lot," resumed Comstock, answering
the look in Thornton's eyes. "I just say that I'm not after Jimmie
Clayton as I don't want you to think that you'll be giving away anything
on a friend. The man I want," and he tilted his chair back a little
farther, drew up his carefully creased trousers with thumb and
forefinger and crossed one leg over the other, "is a man who got away
from me seven years ago. Down in New Mexico."

"Name?" asked Thornton bluntly.

"His name doesn't matter, I guess. He had three during the time that I
knew him, and I suppose he's had half a dozen since."

"Before you go any further," interrupted Thornton, "tell me why you came
to me at all?"

"Banker Templeton of Dry Town is a friend of mine. We went to school
together. He's the man who led me to believe, to hope," he added softly,
"that the man I want is working this country now. I told Templeton that
I wanted to make a little visit to this neck of the woods. And he gave
me your name."

"I see. Now, about your man?"

"I'm going to ask you a string of questions, Thornton. We haven't over
much time and any way there wouldn't be any use now in my stopping to
explain just what I'm driving at and why I want to know this and that.
If you'll just answer what I ask..."

"Fire away."

For a little they smoked on in silence, Two-Hand Billy Comstock's
expression suggesting that he was planning precisely the course his
inquiries were to take before beginning.

"Let's start in this way!" he said at last. "What men around here do you
know real well, well enough to call friends?"

"I've been here only a year," Thornton told him. "I don't know many men
here real well. Friends? Outside Bud King and the boys working for me I
don't know any I'd call friend."

"Then," placidly suggested, "how about enemies? A man can make a good
many enemies in a year and not half try."

"If you'll change that to men I know pretty well and don't like, and who
don't like me, I can name a name or two."

"Let's have 'em."

"There's Henry Pollard, to begin with."

"The man you're buying from. First, how old a man is he and what does he
look like? Next, what do you know about him?"

Thornton described the man, guessed at his age, and told what he knew of
"Rattlesnake" Pollard. Comstock seemed interested in a mild sort of a
way, but neither now nor later, as Thornton spoke of other men, did he
give any sign of more than mild interest.

"Who are Pollard's friends?" was the next question.

Thornton named Ben Broderick, two other men who do not come into the
story, and Cole Dalton, the sheriff. And as he named them, Comstock
asked him to give an estimate at their ages, to tell what he knew of
them and to give as close a personal description as he could.

Having finished with Pollard and his friends he spoke of the Bedloe
boys. And United States Deputy Marshal Comstock listened throughout with
the same mild interest, merely asking questions, offering no opinions.

"One last question," he said finally. "If you had a guess who'd you say
was the bad man this county wants?"

"If any stock's missing from my range," was the blunt answer, "I'd look
up the Bedloe outfit."

Comstock, offering no opinion, smiled and sank into a thoughtful
silence.

At half past nine o'clock Thornton got to his feet and took up his hat.

"I'd better be riding," he said, putting out his hand. "Make yourself at
home."

But Comstock came to the door with him.

"If you don't mind I'll ride along," he offered carelessly. "I think my
trail runs into Dead Man's, too. And by the way, Thornton," he added a
little sharply, "my name's just plain Richard Hampton for the present.
And my business right now is ... my business!"

Thornton nodded that he understood and together they left the cabin.



CHAPTER XXV

IN THE DARK


It was a pitch black night, the stars hidden by dense drifting clouds,
and intensely still. Buck Thornton and Two-Hand Billy Comstock, riding
side by side with few words, turned straight out across the fields, the
marshal reining his horse close in to that other horse he could scarcely
see and leaving to the cowboy the task of finding their way.

They rode slowly until they turned into the level county road and then
swifter that they might come into Hill's Corners before it was midnight.
When at last the twinkling lights of Dead Man's Alley winked at them
Comstock struck a match and looked at his watch.

"Fifteen minutes of twelve," he said. "You're on time. And I guess you
can do the rest of your riding alone? So long. I'm apt to drop in on you
at the ranch any day."

Comstock had planned to ride straight to the Brown Bear saloon, to
invest in a stack of chips, and to spend the evening "seeing the town."
And Thornton, understanding that if the note from Winifred Waverly were
truthful in all that it said and in all that it suggested, it would be
as well if he were not seen tonight, turned out along the outskirts of
the village to come to Pollard's house without riding through the main
street.

"Easy, Comet, easy," he muttered to his horse, having no desire to come
to the appointed place before the appointed hour. "We've got fifteen
minutes and then won't have to keep the lady waiting. If she's there,
Comet!"

For even yet his suspicions were not all at rest, already he rode with
reins and quirt in the grip of his left hand, the right caught in the
loose band of his chaps. It lacked but a few minutes of midnight when he
entered the dark, silent street in which was Henry Pollard's house.

Here were a few straggling houses with many vacant lots between and no
single light to show that any were awake, no gleam from a window to cut
through the darkness which was absolute. Thornton drew his horse to the
side of the road where the grass had not been worn away by the wheels of
wagons and where the animal's footfalls were muffled, hardly to be heard
a score of paces away. Twice he stopped, frowning into the gloom about
him, seeking to force his eyes to penetrate the impenetrable wall of the
dark, straining his ears to catch some little sound through the silence.
But there was nothing to see save the black forms of houses and the pear
trees in Pollard's yard, shapeless, sinister shadows something darker
than the emptiness against which they stood; no sound save his horse's
breathing, the faint creak of his own saddle leather, the low jingle of
bridle and spur chain.

"Almost too still to be true," he told himself. "But," with a grim
tightening of his lips, "too infernally dark for a man to pick me off
with a shotgun if he wanted to!"

Fifty yards from Pollard's front gate he stopped his horse, swung down
noiselessly from the saddle and tied Comet to a tree standing at the
edge of the road; his jingling spurs he removed to hang them over the
horn of his saddle. Then he went forward on foot, walking guardedly, his
tread upon the grass making no sound to reach his own ears, and came to
Pollard's gate.

It was so dark under the pear trees that the obscurity was without
detail; he must guess rather than know where the tree trunks were; it
was hard to judge if they were ten feet or fifty feet from him. There
might be no one here to keep tryst with him, while on the other hand a
dozen men might be waiting.

For perhaps two or three minutes he waited, standing motionless at the
gate. No faint noise came to him, no hint of a shadow stirring among
those other shadows as motionless as they were formless. The night
seemed not to breathe, no sound even of rustling branches coming to his
ears from the old pear trees.

"It's twelve o'clock, and after," he thought. "If she's coming she ought
to be here now."

Still he waited. And then when he knew it must be ten or fifteen minutes
after the time Winifred had set, and remembering that she said
specifically "under the pear trees," he moved forward suddenly, jerked
the gate open and stood in Pollard's yard.

The little noise of the gate whining upon its worn hinges sounded
unnaturally loud. His footfall upon the warped board walk which led to
the front door snapped through the silence like a pistol shot.

"If there's anybody laying for me here he knows now that I've come," he
told himself. And with no hesitation now, yet with no lessening of his
watchfulness, he came on swiftly until he stood under the pear trees and
within ten feet of the front porch.

It was still about him, intensely still, and black-dark. He stood
leaning forward a little, peering into the darkness, listening for a
sound, any sound. He knew that it must be half past twelve, that for
close upon half an hour he had waited here. Half an hour filled with
quick, conflicting thoughts, suggesting a dozen explanations. Was the
note really from Miss Waverly? Had she acted in good faith in sending
it? What was the danger of which she spoke? Why had she not come, and
why had she set an hour like this? Was it a mere hoax?

"If I could only have a smoke," he muttered, "it wouldn't be so bad
waiting to see what the play is."

But still he waited, determined not to leave until possessed of the
certainty of there being no need of staying longer. Cautiously he
approached the house until he could have put out his foot to the first
of the steps leading up to the little porch. There he stopped, telling
himself that doubtless he was just playing Tom-fool here in his enemy's
garden. Less and less did he like the idea of prowling about the place
of Henry Pollard at this time of night.

But now at last there was a sound to vibrate against the empty silence
in his ears, a little sound which at first he could not analyse and
could not locate. He could hardly be sure whether his senses had tricked
him or if he actually heard it. It seemed rather that he had _felt_ it.
His body grew very tense as he tried to know where it was, what it was.
But again the silence was heavier and more oppressive than before.

At last, through the void of the absolute stillness, it came again. Now
he knew what it was although not even yet could he be certain whence it
came. It was a cautious step ... it might have been a man's step or a
woman's. No muscle of his rigid body moved save alone the muscles which
turned his eyes to right and left.

At first he thought that there was some one moving toward him from
behind, some one who had perhaps just come in through the gate or had
been hidden in the straggling shrubbery. And the next instant he knew
that the sounds were in front of him, that what he heard was some one
walking in the house, tiptoeing cautiously, and yet not silently because
the old boards of the floor whined and creaked under the slow tread. Had
the night been less still, had his ears been less ready for any sound
the faint creak-creak would not have reached him.

"Woman or man?" was his problem. "Winifred Waverly or Henry Pollard?"

There came a second sound and this he recognized; the scraping of dry
wood against dry wood, the moving of the bars which the countryside knew
that Henry Pollard used as the nightlock upon his doors. Thornton drew
back a little, step by step, slowly, silently, and stopped under the
pear trees. Now he was ten feet from the first of the front steps, ten
feet from the board walk.

When a man must trust everything to his ears for guidance his ears
may tell him much. Thornton knew when the bars were down and when the
door was opening very slowly. And then, suddenly, he knew that there
was a third person out here in the garden close to him, and that this
person ... man or woman? ... was moving with as great a slow caution as
himself and the other some one in the house. There was the crack of a
twig snapping underfoot ... silence ... slow cautious steps again.

The cowboy moved again, a bare two steps now, and stopped, his back
against the trunk of the largest of the pear trees, his eyes running
back and forth between the door he could not see and the moving some one
he could not see at the corner of the house. His widened nostrils had
stiffened, as though he would scent out these beings, and his eyes were
the alert eyes of an animal in the forest seeking its enemy through the
denseness of a black undergrowth.

The door was open, the soft step was at the threshold. The other step at
the corner of the house had stopped. In the new silence the cowboy could
hear his own deep, regular breathing. He could see nothing, he knew that
his body pressed against the tree trunk could not be seen, and his hands
were ready. He began to long for a pistol shot, for the spurt of red
fire, for anything that would mean certainty and would release the
coiled springs of his tense muscles.

But the still minutes dragged by and there was no certainty of anything
save that the some one at the door and the some one at the corner of the
house at Thornton's right were standing as still, as tense, as himself.
A little sense of the grim humour of this game three people were playing
in the dark, this Blind Man's Buff which he was waiting to understand,
drew his lips into a quick, fleeting smile.

Now at last came the first bit of certainty. The some one at the door
moved again, came to the steps and down into the garden, taking the
steps slowly, with long pauses between. This some one was a man. Dimly
Thornton saw the blur of the form, but more than his eyes his ears told
him that this tread, though guarded, was too heavy for a girl like
Winifred Waverly.

"Pollard," he told himself swiftly. "Not ten feet away. And if he comes
this way ..."

The man at the steps stopped and in the long silence Thornton knew that
the two other people playing this grim game with him were listening even
as he was, trying to force their eyes to see through the shadows. Then
the heavy tread again, and Thornton thought that it was coming nearer.
Then a pause, the step once more, and Pollard, if Pollard it were, had
turned the other way and keeping close to the house was moving toward
the far corner. The steps grew fainter as they drew farther away, and he
knew that the man had gone around the corner of the building.

That other person at the other corner of the house, at Thornton's right,
had heard and understood, too. The cowboy heard steps there again, quick
steps, almost running, soft, quick breathing not a yard away, and
bending forward a little, knew that Winifred Waverly had come to keep
her tryst with him.

"Miss Waverly?" he whispered softly.

She was at his side, close to him, so close that he could feel the sweep
of her skirts against his boots. She, too, had leaned forward, her face
lifted up to his, her eyes seeking to make sure who this man was.

"Buck Thornton?" she whispered back.

"Yes. What is it?"

"Here. Quick!" She had thrust a folded paper into his fingers, closing
them tightly upon it. "Now, go! Do what I tell you in it. Henry Pollard
suspects something; he is looking for me. Go quickly!"

She was already passing him, hastening toward the steps and the front
door.

"Wait!" he commanded, his hand hard upon her arm. "I don't
understand...."

"For God's sake let me go!" Only a whisper, but he thought he heard a
quiver of terror in it, he knew that her arm was trembling violently.
"He'd kill me. ... Oh, my God, go!"

"If there is danger for you..."

"There is none if you go now ... if he doesn't find me here. Please,
Buck...."

She jerked away from him and went swiftly to the steps. He could hear
her every step now so plainly his heart stood still with fear that
Pollard must hear, too. He heard her go to the door; she passed on, and
so became one with the blot of darkness within the house. Then he drew
back, slowly, half regretfully, back toward the gate, stopping for a
last time under the trees there. And after a very long time he heard
Pollard's steps again. The man had made a tour of his grounds, keeping
rather close to the house, and now mounted the steps with no effort at
silence, slammed the door and dropped the bars into place. It was as
though he had flung them angrily into their sockets. Thornton went out
of the yard and to his waiting horse.

"She says to go away, to leave her there alone with Pollard," he
muttered dully. "And something's up. She said he'd kill her if he knew
that she was talking to me..."

He hesitated, his horse's tie rope in his hand, of half a mind to go
back, to force his way into Henry Pollard's house, to demand to know
what was wrong, to take the girl away if there were real danger to her.
But then the urgent pleading in her voice came back to him, her
insistence that he go, that with him gone there would no longer be any
danger for her. Slowly, regretfully, he swung into the saddle. He had
made up his mind. He would obey her at least in part, he would go where
he could read the paper she had given him, and then perhaps he would
understand.

"Any way," he said under his breath, "she's a real girl for you."

He rode swiftly the five hundred yards through the dark street which ran
as nearly parallel with the main street as two such crooked streets
could approximate parallelism, until he was behind the Here's How
Saloon. Here he dismounted and, leaving his horse with reins thrown over
his head to the ground, strode off toward the side door of the saloon.

Under the window he glanced in swiftly. Chance had it that the cover was
off of the little used billiard table and that two men, in shirt-sleeved
comfort, were playing. Both men he knew. They were Charley Bedloe and
his brother, the Kid.

The Bedloe boys were intent upon their game, the Kid laughing softly at
a miscue Charley had made. Charley was chalking his cue angrily and
cursing his luck and neither of them glanced toward the window.
Thornton, drawing back a little so that he would not be seen did they
happen to look his way, unfolded the paper Winifred had given him.

"Watch me play out my string, Charley!" he heard the Kid call
banteringly. Then he heard nothing more from the room, nothing to tell
him of another man not ten steps from him in the darkness, for his whole
mind had been caught by Winifred's first words.

"I have wronged you from the beginning," she had written. "I thought
that I had seen you that day on the trail behind me. You denied it. I
thought that you were lying to me. While you were out after the horses a
man, masked, came into the cabin and robbed me of the five thousand
dollars I was taking to Henry Pollard. I _thought that it was you_! The
man was dressed as you were dressed, his grey handkerchief even was like
yours. Now I know it was a man named Ben Broderick who robbed me, and
that he wanted me to think that it was you.

"Can't you see the whole scheme? Broderick and the men who are with him,
have been committing these crimes. And pretty soon, in a few days, in
five days I think, they will be ready to make the evidence show that you
are the man who has done it all."

There was more; there were several sheets of paper, closely written.
Thornton saw the names of Henry Pollard, of Cole Dalton. But he read no
further. In one instant the mind which had been so intent upon these
things a girl's writing was telling him forgot Winifred Waverly, Henry
Pollard, Broderick--everything except that which was happening at his
side.

For, while he read, there had been the sharp crack of a revolver, he saw
the spit of angry reddish flame almost at his side, and as he saw he
dropped to his knee, Winifred's note in his left hand, his right
flashing to his own revolver. For his first thought was that a man had
crept up behind him, that it was Pollard, that he was shooting at him.

But almost with the flash and the report of the gun he knew that this
man was not shooting at him. There came the crash and tinkle of broken
glass, one of the small panes of the window beside which Thornton had
been reading dropped out, and almost before the falling pieces had
ceased to rattle against the bare floor he heard the sound of running
footsteps behind him. The man who had fired had made sure with one shot.

Then Thornton heard the Kid cry out, his voice hoarse and inarticulate,
and with the cry came a moan from Charley Bedloe. Charley staggered half
across the room, his two big hands going automatically to his hips. He
had come close to his younger brother, staring at him with wide eyes,
and then slipped forward and down, quiet and limp and dead.

Thornton's one first emotion, one so natural to a man who takes his
fight in the open, was a boundless rage toward the man who had murdered
another man in this cold blooded fashion, taking his grim toll from the
darkness and without warning. He whirled about, his own gun blazing in
his hand, and as fast as his finger could work the trigger sent six
shots after the flying footsteps.

The footsteps were gone. Again the cowboy looked swiftly in at the
window. He saw that Charley Bedloe was dead; the Kid, his face
contorted, hideously twisted to his blended rage and grief, stood
staring about him helplessly. Then, the moment of paralysis gone, the
Kid suddenly leaped over his brother's body and ran to the window.

"It's Buck Thornton!" roared the Kid. Both of his big guns were already
in his hands. "Take that, you...."

Then Buck Thornton, making most of an unforeseen situation, did a thing
that he had never done before in his life, which he never would do
again. He turned and ran, stumbling through the darkness into which one
leap carried him.

For he knew that the Kid had no shadow of a shred of doubt that he had
killed Charley Bedloe, he knew that if he did not run for it, run like a
scared rabbit now, why then he'd have to kill the Kid or the Kid would
kill him. He had no wish to meet his death for the cowardly act of
another man and he had no wish to kill Kid Bedloe because another man
had murdered his brother. If there were anything left to him but to run
for it, he did not know what it was.

He found his horse, leaped into the saddle and turned out toward the
north.

"The Kid sure had his nerve, running right up to the window after
Charley dropped," he muttered, with the abrupt beginning of the first
bit of admiration he had ever felt for a man whom he had appraised as
even lower in the scale than "Rattlesnake" Pollard. "The boy is game!
And now he's going to come out after me, and there won't be any talking
done and it's going to be Kid Bedloe or me. And," with much certainty,
but with a little sigh, half regretful, "the Kid is just a shade slow on
the draw. Sure as two and two I've got to kill him. Oh, hell," he
concluded disgustedly. "Why did this have to happen? Haven't I got
enough on my hands already?"



CHAPTER XXVI

THE FRAME-UP


Thornton returned to his cabin long before the first faint streak of
daylight, and not once during the night did he think of sleep. At his
little table in the light of his coal-oil lamp he read over and over the
hurried words which Winifred Waverly had been driven to put on paper for
him. At first his look was merely charged with perplexity; then there
came into it incredulity and finally sheer amazement.

"The pack of hounds!" he cried softly when he had done, his fist
striking hard upon his table. "The pack of low down, dirty hounds!"

For now, in a flash, he saw and understood beyond the limits to which
the girl's vision had gone, grasping explanations denied to her. She had
told him everything which she knew or suspected, saying somewhere in her
account, "I know now that my first judgment of you, before I was
deceived into thinking Ben Broderick you, was right. I know that you are
a man and a gentleman. I know that you are 'square.' So now, if you
think that you owe me anything for what I am doing for you, I want you
to remember that Henry Pollard is my uncle, my dead mother's brother,
and to make things no harder for him than he has made them for
himself."

With no other reference to her relation to the man, with no further hint
of a plea for herself, she went on to tell what she knew of Pollard and
Broderick, of their meetings with Dalton whom, she thought, they had
completely deceived, of the talk she had overheard that night at the
schoolhouse. She said nothing of her own precarious position at
Pollard's house. When he finished reading Buck Thornton's eyes were very
bright.

"A real woman," he muttered. "A real man's sort of girl! I doped her up
right at the first jump, and then I went and insulted her by thinking
that she was like 'Rattlesnake' Pollard! Lord, Lordy! What a
difference!" And then, very gently, his eyes clouding a little, he
muttered over and over, under his breath: "Poor little kid!"

But ever his thoughts came back to the tangle into which day by day he
himself had been moving deeper and deeper. He saw how simple the whole
matter had been, how seemingly sure of success. Broderick was close
enough to him in size and form to make the scheme eminently practicable.
It was easy for Broderick to dress himself as Thornton dressed, boots,
chaps old and worn, big black hat and grey neck handkerchief. It was
simple enough for Broderick, here in this land of cattle and horses, to
find a horse that would be a fair match for any horse which Thornton
rode. He would allow himself to be seen only at a distance, as upon the
day Winifred Waverly had seen him, or indistinctly at night, and when
the time came and the arrest was made there would rise up many men to
swear to Buck Thornton.... Broderick himself had already said that he
had been robbed of a can of gold dust. He would be ready to swear that
Thornton had robbed him. Pollard would add his word....

One by one he remembered episodes which until now had meant nothing.
Cattle had been stolen from the ranges all about him; no single cow was
missing from the Poison Hole. He had thought that this had been because
of his own great vigilance, his night-riding over his herds. But what
would a jury say? He remembered that the last time he had seen old man
King, just a few days ago, when King had remarked drily upon the fact
that no cattle were missing from Thornton's range, there had been a
swift look of suspicion in the old cattle man's shrewd eyes. Already he
was suspected. How many men besides King were ready to believe the worst
of Buck Thornton, a man who had been in their midst only a year?

There were many days in the life of Buck Thornton as in the lives of
other cattle men hereabouts when he was absolutely alone with his horse,
when he rode far out day and night upon some range errand, when,
perhaps, he went two or three days together and saw no other man.
Thornton remembered suddenly that when he had first heard of the murder
of Bill Varney, the stage driver, he had just returned from such a
lonely ride, a three days' trip into the mountains to look for new
pasture lands. If these men planned to commit these crimes and then to
throw the burden upon him, he saw how simple a matter it would be for
them to select some such occasion as this when he could not prove an
alibi.

"They've come mighty close to getting me," he muttered sternly. "Mighty
damned uncomfortably close!"

He saw further. Winifred Waverly had said frankly that she had sworn to
the sheriff that she knew it was Buck Thornton who had robbed her. They
were managing to hold Cole Dalton off, and they had a reason. What?
Perhaps to work their game as long as they dared, to make a last big
haul, or to have their chain of evidence welded so strongly link by link
that Thornton could not free himself from it and that no faintest breath
of suspicion might reach them. Pollard would be in a position to prove
that Thornton had paid him this five thousand only to take it back; it
would give him a chance to break the contract, to regain possession of
the Poison Hole and to keep the other ten thousand dollars already paid
in as forfeited....

Why had they chosen him to bear the brunt of their manifold crimes?
That, too, was clear to him. With him in the penitentiary or gone to the
gallows the whole episode would be closed, the men who had put through
the monumental scheme would be in a position to enjoy their boldly
acquired profits with no fear of the law so much as searching for them.
It was necessary to them that some man suffer for their wrong doing.
Now: why Buck Thornton in particular? The reasons were forthcoming,
logical and in order: he was a man whom Pollard hated; already Pollard
regretted having sold the Poison Hole ranch for twenty thousand dollars;
he wanted it back; Thornton happened to be a new man in the country and
new men are always open to suspicion; he happened to be close enough to
Ben Broderick in size and form and carriage to make the deception easy.
And, thought Thornton, there was one other reason:

The undertaking of these men had already grown too big, the work too
extensive, for it to be handled by two men alone. They had confederates;
that was inevitable. Blackie, the saloon keeper in Dry Town, was one of
them, he felt sure. The Bedloe boys, always ready for deeds of wildness
and lawlessness, were others. The Bedloe boys hated him as keenly as did
Pollard, and they were not the kind to miss an opportunity like this to
"break even" with him. It was noteworthy that he had had no trouble with
them since he had shot the Kid's revolvers out of his hands at John
Smith's place last winter; they had left him entirely unmolested; the
three of them who he knew were fearless and hard and vengeful, had not
sought in any way to punish him. Here was the reason.

He went back to Winifred Waverly's letter. She had ended by saying,

"I know that Henry Pollard suspects me of knowing more than I have
admitted to him; I suppose I did not entirely deceive him about that
yellow envelope. He is watching me all the time. That is why I have
written this to be ready to give it to you if I get the chance, if I
dare not talk with you. Don't try to see me. I am in no danger now, but
if you came, if he knew that we were seeing each other.... I don't
know."

At last when Thornton got up and went to his door day was breaking. He
returned to his table where his lamplight was growing a sickly, pale
yellow in the dawn, and holding Winifred's letter over the chimney
burned it. He took her other little note from his pocket and let the
yellow flame lick it up. Then, grinding the ashes under his heel, he put
out the light and went again to the door.

The recent shooting at the Here's How Saloon by some man who had stood
almost at the cowboy's elbow, he had for a little forgotten as he
pondered on his own personal danger and admitted that the case was going
to look bad against him in spite of what he might do. But now, for a
moment, he forgot his own predicament to become lost in frowning
speculation upon the night's crime.

He knew that men like the Bedloes, hard men living hard lives, have many
enemies. There were the men whom they had cheated at cards, and who had
cheated them, with whom they had drunk and quarrelled. It was clear to
him that any one of a dozen men, bearing a grudge against Charley
Bedloe, but afraid to attack in the open any one of these three brothers
who fought like tigers and who took up one another's quarrels with no
thought of the right and the wrong of it, might have chosen this method.

Yes, this was clear. But one thing was not. The night had passed and
neither the Kid nor Ed Bedloe had called to square with him. He did not
understand this. For he did not believe that even their affiliation with
Broderick and Pollard would have held the Kid and Ed back from their
vengeance now. It was patent that the Kid had leaped to the natural
conclusion that he had killed Charley Bedloe; he understood the emotion
which he had seen depicted in the Kid's twisted face as Charley
staggered and fell at his brother's feet. It was a great, blind grief,
unutterable, wrathful, terrible, like the unreasoning, tempestuous grief
of a wild thing, of a mother bear whose cubs had been shot before her
eyes. For the one thing which it seemed God had put into the natures of
these men was love, the love which led them to seek no wife, no friend,
no confidante outside their own close fraternity. And yet the night had
passed and neither the Kid nor Ed had come.

"Something happened to stop them," mused Thornton. "For a few hours
only. They'll come. And I'd give a hundred dollars to know who the
jasper was that put that bullet into Charley."

He went back into his cabin, put his two guns on the table, threw out
the cartridges, and for fifteen minutes oiled and cleaned. Then, with a
careful eye to every shell, he loaded them again. When he once more
threw his door open and went outside his eyes were a little regretful
but very, very hard.

He was inclined to believe that Winifred was mistaken in judging Ben
Broderick's to be the brains of this thing. He thought that he saw
Pollard's hand directing. Until now he had fully expected to go to Dry
Town, to raise the four thousand five hundred dollars with which to make
his last payment upon the Poison Hole ranch. Now he more than suspected
that this was but a play of Pollard's to get him out of the way while
the last crime be perpetrated, to have him out upon one of his lonely
rides so that he could prove no alibi, perhaps even to rob him of the
four thousand five hundred dollars before he could come with it to
Hill's Corners. Now he made up his mind that he was not going to give
Pollard this one last chance he wanted. For, he felt convinced, if he
did succeed in getting through with the money without a bullet in the
back, and if he actually brought it to Pollard the latter would tell him
that he had changed his mind, and so the rash act would have been done
uselessly. Having no way of holding Pollard to his bargain he had little
wish to make the long ride to Dry Town and back.

Thornton for several days had planned to ride out to the borders of his
range and see his cowboys, giving them full instructions for work to be
done during the week which followed in case he should not be able to
give more time to them. Now, with a great deal to think about, he was
not averse to a solitary day in the saddle.

Of late he had noted how the cinch of his working saddle was weakening;
some of the strands had parted even. He should mend it now, but he had
no time to lose, and he did have another saddle, which he did not use
twice during the year and which for months now he had not even seen. He
had put it out of the way, high up in the loft. He went down to the barn
meaning to get it and make the exchange. If he was going to have some
hard riding during the coming days it was as well if he used this
saddle, the best he had ever seen. Rather too ornate with its profuse
silver chasings and carved leather for every day's use, a heavy Mexican
affair which he had won in a bronco "busting" competition down in Texas
four years ago.

He came up into the loft, half filled with hay, and went to the far end
where the saddle had hung upon its peg. It was gone. He stood staring at
the peg in surprise. Surely he had left it here, surely he had not
removed it. He tried to think when he had seen it last. And he
remembered. It had been two or three months ago, and he knew that he had
left it here, he even remembered the trouble he had had in drawing it up
after him through the small trap door. Now where was it?

His first suspicion was that one of his men had been using it. But he
knew that that was impossible. He would have seen it, and moreover one
man does not take another man's saddle without saying by your leave.

"The thing is worth three hundred dollars, easy," he muttered. "It would
be funny...."

He went to the loose hay heaped at the wall and began to kick it about,
half expecting to have his boot strike against the silver tipped horn or
the heavy tapaderos. And then at last did the swift, certain suspicion
of the truth flash upon him. He came upon a small soap box hidden far
under the loose hay. He drew it out, whisking away the straw which half
filled it. After the first start of amazement and a swift examination of
the contents, he understood.

"A plant!" he cried angrily. "A damned cowardly plant! Lord, Lordy, but
they're making a clean job of this!"

Upon the top of the pile, the first thing he took into his hands, was a
heavy silver watch. It bore a name, scratched within the case, and the
name was that of Jed MacIntosh, the man who, Blackie had told him, had
been "cleaned out" in Dry Town. There were two bank notes, one for ten
dollars, one for twenty, and both were soiled with dark smears that told
of dry blood. There was a little, much worn memorandum book, with many
pencil-scribbled entries in it, and upon the fly leaf it bore the name
of Seth Powers, the man who had been robbed in Gold Run and who had been
found beaten into unconsciousness. There was a small tin can; in the
bottom of it some pine pitch, and adhering to the pitch a fine sifting
of gold dust. A can, he knew, Ben Broderick would identify as the one
of which he had been robbed! There were other articles, two more
watches, a revolver, an empty purse, which he could not identify but
which he realized keenly would be identified when the time came.

Suppose that the time came now! Suppose that he should hear the
sheriff's voice calling upon him, that a posse should come upon him and
find him with this box in his possession! What chance would he have?

His face went white with the anger which surged up within him and the
desire leaped up, strong and bitter, to get in his two hands the man who
had framed him and to choke the treacherous life out of him. Then,
suddenly, he was cool again, seeing the present danger and the urgent
need of prompt action.

First he made certain that there was no other damning bit of false
evidence concealed in the hay or any where in the loft. Then, taking the
box under his arm, he went down into the stable. Here again he made
careful search, spending an hour in a stubborn search. Then leaving the
box in a manger, straw-covered, he went back to the cabin on the top of
the knoll. His eyes, running to the four points of the compass, told him
that there was no other man within sight.

Taking off his boots and socks he waded out into the middle of Big
Little River, carrying a shovel and the box. In the soft, sandy soil he
made a hole deep enough to hold the box which he put into it. Swiftly he
filled it with stones, placed a big, flat rock over it, saw that there
was no sign of his work as the sand and mud drifted in to fill the
little hollow, and then went back for his boots. The shovel he put again
against the bunk house wall.

When, at last, he had mended his cinch and rode Comet out towards the
east and the mountains upon the flank of the Poison Hole, he had made up
his mind what he was going to do.

"It's a gamble," he told himself coolly. "But I guess I've got to gamble
now. And I'm going to play it heavy."



CHAPTER XXVII

JIMMIE SQUARES HIMSELF


A horseman was riding toward him upon the far bank of the Big Little
River where it straightened out beyond the cabin. He recognized the
horse and a moment later the rider now waving his hat to him, and knew
that it was Two-Hand Billy Comstock returning. He turned and rode slowly
to meet the officer.

"Back already, Comstock?" he called carelessly. "What luck?"

"Bully luck," grinned Comstock, replacing his hat and looking as fresh
and well groomed as though he were but this minute up from bed and a
long sleep. "First let me tell you the news." He slipped his hand into
his breast pocket and took out an envelope. "More mail for you,
Thornton! You're doing a big correspondence, it seems to me!"

In spite of him a quick flush ran up to Thornton's brow. For his first
thought was that Winifred Waverly....

"Wrong guess, Buck," chuckled Comstock, his good humour seemingly
flowing from an inexhaustible source. "It's from a man."

"Who?" demanded Thornton sharply, putting out his hand.

Comstock's amusement welled up into open laughter.

"It's a prime joke of the Fates," he cried cheerfully. "Here is William
Comstock, United States Deputy Marshal, carrying a message from no less
a person than Jimmie Clayton, jail bird, crook and murderer! A man
wanted in two states!"

"Clayton!" said Thornton in amazement. "You don't mean to tell me...."

"Oh, he'd never seen me, you know. Nor I him. But then I've seen his
picture more than once and I know all about him. He's keeping low but he
took a chance on me. I was just a whiskey drummer last night, you know,
and happened to let it out that I was riding this way this morning on my
way to Dry Town. So Jimmie slipped me the letter! Read it."

Thornton took it, wondering. The envelope was sealed and much soiled
where Jimmie Clayton's hand had closed the mucilaged flap. He tore it
open and read almost at a glance:

Deere buck come the same place tonight I want to put you wise. Theare is
sum danger to you buck. Keap your eyes open on the way. I will be there
late tonight.

j.C.

Thornton looked up to see the twinkling eyes of Two-Hand Billy Comstock
watching him.

"You had better tell me what he says," said Comstock coolly. "I don't
know but that I should have been well within my rights to open it, eh?
But I hate to open another man's private mail."

Thornton hesitated.

He must not forget that Comstock was an officer--that even now he was
upon a state errand--that it was his duty to bring such men as Jimmie
Clayton to justice. He must not forget that Clayton had been a friend to
him--or, at least, that he had credited the crook with a feeling of
friendship and the care of a friend.

True, Comstock, who seemed to know everything, had said in a
matter-of-fact way that it had been Jimmie Clayton who had shot him that
night between Juarez and El Paso. But nothing was proven. He had long
thought of Clayton as a man to whom he owed a debt of gratitude, and now
with the man, hunted as he was, his sympathy naturally went out to him,
evil-doer as he knew him to be.

Evidently Comstock read what was passing in the cowboy's mind.

"I'm not asking you to squeal on him, Buck," he said quietly. "Look
here, I could have taken him in last night if I had wanted to. I could
have got him a week ago if I had wanted him. But I didn't want him--I
don't want him now. I'm hunting bigger game."

Still Thornton hesitated, but now his hesitation was brief. He swung his
horse around toward the cabin.

"Let's ride back, Comstock," he said shortly. "I want a good long talk
with you."

Not another word about the matter did either man say as they unsaddled
or as they went up the knoll to the cabin. Not a word until the
fragrance of boiling coffee and frying bacon went out to mingle with the
freshness of the new day. Then as they sat at table and Comstock began
to soak the biscuits Thornton had made in the bacon gravy, they looked
at each other, and their eyes were alike grave and equally stern.

"First thing," began Comstock, "let me finish my news. Charley Bedloe
was murdered last night."

"I know."

"The devil you do? All right. Then here's something else. His brother,
the Kid, they call him, swears that you killed him."

"I know," nodded Thornton as quietly as before.

Comstock made no pretence of hiding his surprise.

"I thought you had left before the shooting happened. I was all over
town; no one saw you...."

"Except the Kid. He did. He saw me outside the window through which
somebody shot Charley."

Comstock returned his attention to his biscuit and gravy.

"I'm a failure as a news monger," he grunted. "Go on. You tell _me_."

And Thornton told him. Before he had finished Comstock had pushed back
his chair and was letting his coffee go cold. For Thornton had told him
not alone of what had happened at the Here's How Saloon last night, but
of the work that Broderick and Pollard were doing, of all of his
certainties and his suspicions, of the "planted" evidence he had found
in the hay loft, of the missing saddle. Only he did not mention the name
of a girl, and he remembered that Pollard was her uncle and spared him
where he could.

"What a game! By high heaven, what a game!" Comstock pursed his lips
into a long whistle. Then he banged his first down upon the table, his
eyes grown wonderfully bright and keen, crying softly, "I've got him,
I've got him at last, and he's going to pay to the uttermost for all he
has done in the last seven years ... and before! Got him--by thunder!"

"Pollard?" asked the cowboy quickly.

"No. Not Pollard."

"Then Broderick?"

"Not Broderick."

"Bedloe?... The Kid?"

"What does his name matter? I'll give him a dozen names when the time
comes, and by heaven he's got a crime to pay for for every name he ever
wore!"

He grew suddenly silent and sat staring out through the open door at the
distant mountains. At last he turned back toward Thornton, his eyes very
clear, his expression placid.

"Guess why they are waiting five days more before springing their mine?"
he asked abruptly.

"Yes. I figured it out a little while ago, after I found the truck in my
loft. In five days it'll be the first of the month. On the first of the
month the stage from the Rock Creek Mines will be worth holding up. It
carried in ten thousand dollars last month. At times, there has been a
lot more. Just as sure as a hen lays eggs, it is due to be robbed on the
first; they'll find something here to prove I was the hold up man, and
I...."

"And you go over the road for life or take a drop at the end of a rope?
And they quit being badmen and buy ranches? That it?"

"That's it. It's a gamble, but...."

"But it's a damned good gamble," laughed Comstock softly. "You ought to
be sheriff, Buck."

But Buck, thinking of how blind to all this he had been so long, how not
even now would he have his eyes open were it not for a girl, longed with
an intense longing for the end of this thing when she might be free to
go from the house of a man like Henry Pollard, when he might be free to
go to her and...

"How does it happen," he asked suddenly, "that you are not after Jimmie
Clayton?"

"When I'm out for a big grizzily," returned Comstock, "I can't waste my
time on little brown bears! That's one thing. Another is that Jimmie
Clayton never had a chance of getting away. If he lives ten days he'll
be nabbed, and he won't live ten days. He's shot to pieces and he's sick
on top of it. I told you last night the poor devil is a fool and a tool
rather than a real badman. If he's got a chance to die quietly, why let
him die outside of jail. It's all one in the end."

Thornton had always felt a sort of pity for Jimmie Clayton; it had
always seemed to him that the poor devil was merely one of the weaker
vessels that go down the stream of life, borne this way and that by the
current that sweeps them on, with little enough chance from the
beginning, having come warped and misshapen from the hands of the
potter. And now Jimmie was about to die. Well, whether it had been
Jimmie Clayton or another who had shot him that night down in Texas, he
would heed the entreaty of the letter and go to him for the last time.

So that night, when darkness came, Thornton left Comstock at the cabin
and rode out towards the mountains, towards the Poison Hole and the
dugout at its side.

It was dark, but not so dark as last night, there being no clouds to
blot out the stars. And the moon was slipping upward through the trees
upon the mountain top when Thornton came at last to the lake. As before,
he was watchful and alert. Clayton was Kid Bedloe's friend, and Clayton
had always struck him as a man in whom one could put little faith. It
was quite in keeping with what he knew that Jimmie's note had been
written at the instigation of Kid Bedloe himself and that he was to be
led out here where Kid Bedloe and Ed might be in waiting for him. It was
quite possible, even probable. But he thought it more than likely that
for once Jimmie Clayton was acting in good faith.

The Jimmie Clayton whom he found alone a little after moonrise was very
much as he had found him that other night. The fugitive lay upon the
bunk in the darkness of the dugout, and only when he was assured that it
was Buck Thornton come to him did he light his stub of candle. As before
Thornton entered and closed the door after him to look down on the man
with a sharp twinge of pity.

"How're they coming, Jimmie?" he asked gently.

"Can't you see?" replied Clayton with a nervous laugh. "I'm all in,
Buck. All in."

If ever a man looked to be "all in" it was poor little Jimmie Clayton.
He threw back his coat for Thornton to see. There upon the side was the
stain of blood hardly dry upon the shirt. His eyes were hollow, sunken,
fever-filled, his cheeks unthinkably drawn, yellow-white and sickly, the
hand which fell back weakly from the exertion of opening his coat showed
the bones thrust up as though they would pierce the skin.

"You've been shot again?" demanded the cowboy.

Jimmie shook his head.

"The same ol' hole, Buck; Colt forty-five. It won't heal up, it breaks
out all the time. I can't sleep with it, I can't eat, I can't set
still." He had begun manfully, but now the little whimper came back
into his voice, his shaking hand gripped Thornton's arm feebly, and he
cried tremulously, "I wisht I was dead, Buck. Hones' to Gawd, I wisht I
was dead!"

"Poor little old Jimmie," Thornton muttered just as he had muttered the
words once before, gently, pityingly. "Is there anything I can do,
Jimmie."

Jimmie drew back his hand and lay still for a little, his eyes seeming
unnaturally large as he turned them upwards, filled at once with a sort
of defiance and an abject, cringing terror.

"Nothin'," he said a little sullenly. His eyes dropped and ran to the
fingers of his hand which were plucking nervously at his coat. He parted
his lips as though he would say something else and then closed them
tightly; even his eyes shut tight for a moment. Thornton watched him,
waiting. It was easy to see that Jimmie Clayton had upon the tip of his
tongue something he wished to say, and that he hesitated ... through
fear?

"What is it, Jimmie?" Thornton asked after a while.

Jimmie lifted his head quickly, his eyes flew open with a look in them
almost of defiance as he blurted out:

"Do you know who shot you ... that time down in Juarez?"

"Was it you, Jimmie?" asked Thornton.

Jimmie's eyes grew larger; all defiance fled from them and the terror
came back.

"You ... you think ..." he faltered. "You thought all along...."

"Was it you, Jimmie?"

The voice was soft, the eyes gentle and now a little smile accompanied
the words. It was so easy to forget what had happened so long ago, to
disregard it when one looked into this man's eyes and saw there the end
of the earthly story of a man who had not been a good man because he had
never had a chance, who had never really earned his spurs as a Western
badman, because he was of too small calibre, who was after all a vessel
that had come imperfect from the hands of the potter. Now Jimmie
answered, his voice hushed, his eyes wide, his soul filled with
wonderment:

"It was ... me, Buck!"

"Well, Jimmie, I'm sorry. But it can't be helped now, can it? And I'll
forget it if you will." He looked at the worn, frail form, and knew that
Comstock was right and that little Jimmie Clayton was lying in the
valley of the shadow of death. So he added, his voice very low and very
gentle, "I'll even shake hands if you will, Jimmie."

Jimmie closed his eyes but not quick enough to hide the mistiness which
had rushed into them. His breathing was irregular and heavy, its sound
being the only sound in the dugout. He did not put out his hand.
Finally, his voice steadier than it had been before, he spoke again.

"You've been square with me, Buck. I want to be square with
you.... There's a frame-up to get you. Now don't stop me an' I'll talk
as fast as I can. It hurts me to talk much." He pressed a thin hand upon
his side, paused a moment, and then went on.

"I think Broderick's the man as has been putting over most of the
stick-ups around here for quite some time. Him and Pollard in together.
I ain't squealin' on a pal when I tell you this, neither," with a little
flash of his old defiance. "Broderick's no pal of mine. The dirty cur.
He could of got me clear.... He wanted to make 'em give me up, to git
the reward.... Their game is to make folks think you been doing these
things, and to send you up for 'em."

He stopped to rest, but even now did not look to see what effect his
words had upon his hearer.

"I don't know much about it," he went on after a moment. "You can find
out. But I do know they stole a saddle of yours, and a horse. They're
going to stick up the stage out of Rock Creek Mines next week; there's
going to be some shooting, and a horse is going to get killed. That'll
be your horse, Buck. An' it'll have your saddle on."

He had told his story. He told nothing of how he knew, and Thornton did
not press him, for he guessed swiftly that somehow the telling would
implicate Kid Bedloe, who was a pal... and little Jimmie Clayton was not
going to squeal on a pal.

Half an hour after he had come to the dugout Thornton left it. For
Clayton would not talk further and would not let him stay.

"I got a horse out there," he had said irritably. "I can get along. I'm
going to move on in the morning. So long, Buck."

So Thornton went back to his horse, wondering if, when tomorrow came,
Jimmie Clayton would not indeed be moving on, moving on like little Jo
to the land where men will be given an even break, where they will be
"given their chance." His foot was in the stirrup when he heard
Clayton's voice calling. He went back into the dugout. The light was out
and it was very dark.

"What is it, Jimmie?" he asked.

"I was thinking, Buck," came the halting answer, "that ... if you don't
care ... I _will_ shake hands."

Thornton put out his hand a little eagerly and his strong fingers closed
tightly upon the thin nervous fingers of Jimmie Clayton. Then he went
out without speaking.



CHAPTER XXVIII

THE SHOW DOWN


Upon the first day of the month the stage leaving the Rock Creek Mines
in the early morning carried a certain long, narrow lock-box carefully
bestowed under the seat whereon sat Hap Smith and the guard. Also a
single passenger: a swarthy little man with ink-black hair plastered
down close upon a low, atavistic forehead and with small ink-black eyes.
In Dry Town beyond the mountains, to which he was evidently now
returning from the mines, he was known as Blackie, bartender of the Last
Chance saloon. This morning he had been abroad as early as the earliest;
he seemed to take a bright interest in everything, from the harnessing
of the four horses to the taking on of mail bags and boxes. In a moment
when Hap Smith, before the mine superintendent's cabin, was rolling a
cigarette preparatory to the long drive, Blackie even stepped forward
briskly and gave the guard a hand with the long, narrow lock-box.

Keen eyed and watchful as Blackie was he failed to see a man who never
lost sight of him or of the stage until it rolled out of the mining camp
through the early morning. The man, unusually tall, wearing black shaggy
chaps, grey soft shirt and neck-handkerchief and a large black hat,
kept the stage in view from around the corner of the wood shed standing
back of the superintendent's cabin. Then, swinging up to the back of a
rangy granite-coloured roan, he turned into the road.

"We're playing to win this time, Comet," he said softly. "And, as we
said all along, Blackie's the capper for their game. Shake a foot,
Comet, old boy. Maybe at the end of a hard day's work we'll look in
on ... her."

When, an hour later, the stage made its brief stop in Miller's Flat to
take on mail bags Blackie was leaning out smoking a cigar and looking
about him alertly. A lounger near the post-office door turned to watch in
great seeming idleness. His eyes met the bartender's for a second and he
nodded casually.

"How's everything?" he asked in the customary inconsequential manner of
casual acquaintanceship.

"Fine," said Blackie in a tone of equal casualness. "Couldn't be
better."

The stranger slouched on his way, climbed into the saddle of the horse
he had left by the door, and rode off.... And Buck Thornton, from the
bend in the road where he had halted Comet under a big live oak tree,
noted how the horseman rode on his spurs when once he had passed from
the sight of the stage driver.

"Taking the Red Cañon trail," he marked with satisfaction. "Carrying the
word to Broderick and Pollard that there's been no slip-up and that the
box is really aboard. And now.... Shake a foot, Comet; here's where we
put one over on Blackie."

The man who had passed the time of day with the saloon man had
disappeared over a ridge and out of sight; Thornton consequently rode
swiftly to overtake the stage. Before the four running horses had drawn
the creaking wagon after them a half mile Hap Smith stopped his horses
in answer to the shout from behind him and stared over his shoulder
wonderingly.

"What the hell ..." he began. And then with a shade of relief in his
tone and yet half hesitatingly, the frown still on his face as Thornton
rode close up, "It's you, is it? I thought for a minute...."

"That it was Broderick?" laughed Thornton. "You didn't think so, did
you, Blackie?"

Blackie drew back and slipped his hand covertly into his coat pocket.
Thornton, giving no sign that he had seen, said briefly to Hap Smith:

"You've talked things over with Banker Templeton? And with Comstock?"

"Yes," said Hap Smith, his thick, squat figure growing tense where he
sat as though with a sudden nervous bracing within. "Yes."

"And you expected me here? You will give me a free hand?"

"Yes," cried Smith ringingly. "Damn 'em, yes. Go to it, Buck!"

Thornton turned stern eyes upon Blackie.

"I can shoot twelve holes through you before you get your hand out of
your pocket," he said crisply. "You damned stool-pigeon! Now, suppose
you pull your hand out ... _empty_! ... and stick it up high above your
head. Think it over, Blackie, before you take any fool chances."

His left hand held Comet's reins gathered up close as he spoke; his
right rested lightly on the horn of his saddle. Blackie plainly
hesitated; a tinge of red warmed his swarthy cheek; his eyes glittered
evilly.... Then suddenly he whipped out his hand, a revolver in it....

But Thornton, for all of the handicap, fired first. His own right hand
went its swift, sure way to the gun swinging loose in its holster under
his left arm pit; he jabbed it forward even as he swung himself to one
side in the saddle, and fired. The revolver slipped from Blackie's hand
and clattered down to the bed of the wagon while Blackie, crying out
chokingly, his face going white with fear, clutched at his shoulder and
gave up the fight.

With scant time allowed in their plans to waste on such as Blackie he
was made to lie down in the bottom of the wagon, his wrists bound, his
wound very rudely bandaged, his body screened from any chance view by
the boxes and mail bags and a handkerchief jammed into his mouth. Within
ten minutes Hap Smith was clattering on, his and the guard's mouths and
eyes grim and hard, and Thornton had again dropped behind, just out of
sight around the first bend in the road.

"And now, my boy," muttered Hap Smith to his friend the guard, "keep
both eyes peeled and your trigger-finger free. Hell's goin' to pop in
considerable less'n no time."

Nor was the stage driver unduly pessimistic. Half an hour after Blackie
had gone down among boxes and bags the lumbering vehicle thundered into
one of the many deep gorges through which the narrow road wound. Here
was a sharp turn and a bit of steep grade to take on the run if the
stage were to keep to schedule time. But suddenly and with a curse from
Smith and a sharp exclamation from the guard, Hap slammed on his brake.
A newly fallen pine tree, three feet thick, lay across the road.

The guard's rifle was ready in his hands; in a flash Hap Smith had
dropped his reins so that they were held only by the ring caught over
the little hook at the back of the seat and had whipped out his own big
ugly revolver. His eyes ran this way and that; in his soul he knew well
enough that no mere bit of chance had thrown the obstruction across his
way. But never a head nor an arm nor a rifle barrel rewarded his look.
Until, suddenly, heralded by a curt shouted command, a man rode out into
the open road from the mouth of a cañon.

"Don't be a fool, Smith! Take a little look-around first!"

It was a voice eminently cool and steady and insolent. Though his gun
rose slowly Hap Smith heeded the note of arrogance and, with a hard
finger crooking to the trigger, looked about him again. And this time
not in vain. Yonder, from across the top of a boulder, a rifle barrel
bore unwaveringly upon the breadth of his chest; ten feet higher up on
the mountainside where there was a pile of granite rocks and a handful
of scrub brush, a second rifle gave its sinister silent warning; two
other guns looked forth from the other side of the road ... in all, at
least five armed men....

Hap Smith's eyes went back to the man sitting his horse in the middle of
the road, just across the fallen pine tree. A tall, powerfully built man
dressed quite as Hap Smith and the guard had been told to expect: black,
shaggy chaps, grey shirt and neck-handkerchief; broad black hat; red
bandana across his face with wide slits for the eyes. And yet both of
the men in the stage stared and were on the verge of uncertainty; had
they not been prepared both would have sworn that it was Buck Thornton
on Buck Thornton's horse; and later they would, no doubt, have sworn to
Buck Thornton's saddle.

Five to two, seemed the odds, with all of the highwaymen saving the one
bold figure screened from view and so holding the advantage of position.
And yet, for once, the odds were not what they seemed.

For now there came abruptly, and utterly with no sign of warning, the
answer to the last big play of Ben Broderick and Henry Pollard and the
rest. Into the road out of the same cañon from which the masked man on
the horse had come now rode two more men, side by side and with a
thunderous racket of pounding hoofs beating at rocky soil, their heads
up, their faces unhidden, their eyes hard and bright and their right
hands lifted a little. Two-Hand Billy Comstock and Buck Thornton, come
at the top speed of a swinging gallop to alter the odds and take a hand.
And as Thornton's horse's hoofs struck in the dust of the road and the
masked rider swung about, startled in the moment of his supreme arrogant
confidence, it looked to those who saw as if there came Buck Thornton on
one big grey horse racing down upon another Buck Thornton on that big
grey's mate. With but a hundred yards between them....

"Pull the rag off your face, Broderick!" shouted Thornton savagely.

And oddly enough Ben Broderick, with a swift realization that a bandana
hiding his face now could no longer befriend him and might flap across
his eyes at a time when he should see straight and quick, yanked it
away. And with the same gesture, he jerked his lifted gun down and
started firing, straight at Thornton.

Of the five rifles trained upon those in the stage not a one was silent
now. Hap Smith jumped to his feet and fired as fast as he could work the
trigger; the man at his side leaped down into the road, crouched at the
wagon wheel and poured shot after shot into the brush whence he had seen
the muzzles of two guns. Before Ben Broderick's pistol had broken the
silence Buck Thornton had fired from the hip; and Two-Hand Billy
Comstock, his reins on his saddle horn, was freshening his right to his
title, firing with one gun after the other in regular, mechanical
fashion.

Hap Smith was the first man down; he toppled, steadied himself, fired
again and collapsed, sliding down against the dash board and thence to
the ground. His horses had plunged, leaped and in a tangle of straining
harness tugged this way and that a moment and then with the stage
jerking and toppling after them went down over a six-foot bank and into
the thicket of willows along the creek bed. With them went Blackie, his
face showing a moment, grey with fear....

Hap Smith, alive simply because the trampling horses had whirled the
other way, lifted himself a half dozen inches from the road bed,
struggled with his gun and fainted.... The guard saw a head exposed from
behind a tree and sent a 30-30 rifle ball crashing through it; on the
instant another bullet from another quarter compacted with his own body
and he went down, shot through the shoulder....

Thornton's eyes were for Ben Broderick alone. And, it would seem,
Broderick's for Thornton. But in their expressions there was nothing of
similarity; in Thornton's was a stern readiness to mete out punishment
while from Broderick's there looked forth a sudden furtiveness, a
feverish desire for escape.

Broderick had never drawn to himself the epithet of coward. But now he
knew what he was doing, where wisdom pointed and what was his one
chance. There was still a good fifty yards between him and the man who
rode down upon him, a long shot for a revolver when the horses which
both men bestrode were rearing and plunging wildly. Broderick bent
forward suddenly, whirled his horse, drove his spurs deep into the
grey's sides and in a flash had cleared the fallen log, shot around the
bend in the road and, taking his desperate chance with all of the cool
defiance of danger which was a part of the man, sent his mount leaping
down the steepening bank, into the willow thicket and on across.
Shouting mightily and wrathfully, after him came Buck Thornton. But
Broderick had the few yards' headstart and, for the moment his destiny
was with him. Thornton saw only a thicket of willows wildly disturbed as
Broderick went threshing through them and knew that for the present at
least Broderick was beyond pursuit.

Swinging about angrily he rode back to join Comstock. Already the battle
there in the cañon was over, the smell of powder was gone from the still
air, the last reverberating echo of a shot had died away. And in the
road lay three men, two of them severely wounded while the other was
already dead. Stooping over this man, a queer look in his eyes, stood
Comstock.

"I hankered to bring him in alive," he muttered. "But, after all it's
just as well. And it had to be him or me."

"Pollard?" asked Thornton quickly. But Comstock shook his head. Then
Thornton, riding close, looking down from the saddle, saw the white
upturned face. This time as his eyes came back to Comstock, Comstock
nodded.

"Cole Dalton, sheriff," he said gravely. "Yes. And he's the man I came
all this way to gather in, Buck. I've been after him for seven years,
never guessing until lately that he was out here working the old Henry
Plummer game of sheriff and badman at the same time. He's kept under
cover, that being always his way; you'd never have thought that Pollard,
Broderick, Bedloe were all tools.... But, I got him, Buck. At last."

A moment only Thornton stared incredulously. Then his shoulders twitched
as though this was a matter which could not concern him at present and
he had other things to think of.

"Pollard?" he asked shortly.

"Over yonder." Comstock nodded toward the patch of brush on the
mountainside. "Shot through the head."

"And the others? One was the Kid, wasn't it?..."

But now the Kid answered for himself. He rose to his knees among the
stunted manzanita bushes not twenty steps from them and for a moment
knelt there, his big bulky body wavering as he tried to bring his rifle
to rest at his shoulder, his eyes peering out wildly from a blood
smeared face. But his gesture was awkward and slow and uncertain; he
was too badly hurt to shoot straight or quick, and Thornton, swift and
sure and yet merciful withal, was before him. The Kid's rifle clattered
to the ground; the Kid's left arm, the bone broken, dropped uselessly to
his side. He tried to steady the gun with his one good arm alone, but it
shook hopelessly. He dropped it and turned bloodshot eyes on Thornton.

"Damn you," he said tonelessly. "Better do a clean job, you
white-livered coward, or I'll see you hang yet for killin' Charlie...."

"I was outside when he was shot," said Thornton coolly. "I saw just as
much as you did. Somebody shot him from behind me."

"Liar!" jeered Bedloe. "An'..."

"Don't be a fool, Bedloe," snapped Comstock. "The man you want is the
same man we want; only the other day he had a quarrel with Charlie and
got a bullet alongside the head...."

"Not Ben Broderick!" gasped the Kid stupidly. "Not him!"

"I think your little friend Jimmie Clayton knew," said Comstock. "And
you ought to know that Thornton isn't that kind."

With widening eyes the Kid stared at him. At last he got again to his
knees; finally and shakily to his feet.

"Jimmie tol' me to watch him," he muttered thickly. "An' him an' Charlie
did have words...."

He stared at them stupidly, hesitated, pondered the matter. Then he
turned and went lumbering down the road. Comstock, stepping forward
swiftly, called out:

"I say, Bedloe! None of that...."

But Bedloe neither turned again nor paused. Thornton's hand shut down
hard on Comstock's arm.

"He's going after Broderick," he said sharply. "Don't you see? He'll
know where Broderick is. And we don't. Besides ... I don't know just why
we should stop him.... If Broderick did kill Charlie...."

Comstock went back to administer to Hap Smith and the guard. Thornton
watched the Kid go to a horse hidden in a clump of trees; then as Bedloe
rode down into the road and passed on whither it led, sitting
slumped-forward and seeming at each step about to fall, Thornton rode
after him. The Kid did not so much as look around; perhaps it mattered
to him not in the least just then who followed or how many ... so that
they left him to ride on ahead....

It was straight into the town of Dead Man's Alley that the Kid's way
led. The high sun glared down into a deserted street when he and Buck
Thornton, a hundred yards behind him, passed by the Here's How saloon
and the Brown Bear and at last drew rein at Henry Pollard's gate. A
couple of men at the lunch counter stared curiously after the Kid; they
even got down hastily from their high stools and stared more curiously
still when they saw who it was who followed.

"They've rode hard, them two," said one of the men thoughtfully. "Their
horses is all in."

"The Kid ahead an' Buck Thornton followin'!" grunted the other musingly.
"An' the Kid never lookin' around!"

He shook his head and, long after both of the riders had passed out of
sight down the crooked street these two men looked after them
wonderingly.

At Pollard's gate the Kid dismounted stiffly. Now for the first time
Thornton came up to him.

"If you think Broderick's in there," he said sharply, "you'd better let
me go ahead. You're in no shape, Bedloe...."

"You go to hell," said Bedloe heavily. "He's mine."

He stepped forward and pulled open the gate. Here he paused just long
enough to drag his revolver from the holster at his hip. With the weapon
in his hand, swaying in his long-strided walk, he went to Pollard's
front door. Just behind him, almost at his heels, came Thornton.

As he tried the door cautiously the Kid looked over his shoulder with a
show of teeth.

"He's mine," he snarled again. "You keep your hands off."

Thornton offered no answer. The Kid, having ascertained that the door
was locked, drew back, steadied himself with his hand against the wall,
lifted his foot and with all of the power in him drove his heavy boot
against the lock. Something broke; the panel splintered; the door gave
a little. But only a little; the heavy bar which Henry Pollard used was
in its place.

"Again," said Thornton. "Together!... Quick!"

So together Buck Thornton and Kid Bedloe, two men who had long hated
each other, struck savagely at Pollard's barricade. And such was the
weight of the two men, such the power resident in the two big bodies,
that a hinge gave and after it an iron socket screwed to the wall was
torn away from the woodwork, and the door went down.

Gathering all there was of strength left in him Kid Bedloe pushed to the
fore and went down the hall; and Thornton followed at his heels. In this
fashion they came to the door of Pollard's study and saw through it,
since it had been flung wide open and so left.

In a far corner of the room was Winifred Waverly, her face dead white,
her body pressed tight into the angle of the walls, her hands twisting
before her, her eyes going swiftly to the two entering figures from that
other figure which had held her fascinated. Upon the floor, just rising,
knelt Ben Broderick. He had tossed a rug aside and had lifted out the
short sections of half a dozen strips of flooring, disclosing a rude
wooden vault below. Here was the accumulation of loot, here where the
Kid had known Broderick was to be found.

For a very brief yet electrically vital and vivid moment there was no
sound in the room, wherein never a single muscle twitched. And then
there were no words and only three sharp pistol shots. Broderick had
seen what lay in the Kid's eye, a look to be read by any man; he had
snatched his gun up from the floor beside him and had fired, point
blank. There is no name for the brief fragment of time between his shot
and the Kid's. But Ben Broderick had shot true to the mark, and the Kid
was sinking; Bedloe's bullet had gone wide.... And then the third shot,
Thornton's ... and as the two men fell, Kid Bedloe and Ben Broderick,
they pitched forward toward the centre of the room and the big body of
the Kid lay across the body of Ben Broderick. As the Kid died his eyes
were upon Thornton, and in them was a look of content and of gratitude!

"Again he tried to kiss me.... He is all brute. He ... he told me you
were dead.... Oh, dear God, dear God!" cried the girl, shrinking back,
covering her face with her hands.

Thornton, his face set and white and grave, came to her. She was
trembling so that he put his arm about her. She sobbed and caught at him
as a child might have done. His arm tightened, holding her closer.

"Let me take you away," he said gently.

With never a look back to see what long hoarded booty there in the hole
in the floor had drawn Ben Broderick back to Pollard's house, he turned
and with his arm still about her, led the girl from the room, from the
house and out to his horse at the fence. She moaned again and drooped
against him. He gathered her up into his arms tenderly. And with a
tenderness which was to become part of the man, he held her close while
he swung slowly into the saddle.

"Winifred Waverly...." he began.

There he stopped, looking with puzzled eyes down into her white face.
God knew how much she had gone through, what fear Ben Broderick had put
into her heart. But at the least now she had fainted.

"She's all alone," muttered the cowboy. "All alone. And somebody's got
to look out for her...."

He turned slowly and rode down the crooked street, carrying her lightly
in his arms. And now, more than ever, did the two men at the lunch
counter stare.

THE END





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