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Title: The Bar-20 Three
Author: Mulford, Clarence Edward
Language: English
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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.

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                   [Illustration: THE BAR-20 THREE]



                                  THE
                             BAR-20 THREE

                        BY CLARENCE E. MULFORD

                               AUTHOR OF

         _"Johnny Nelson," "Hopalong Cassidy," "Bar-20 Days,"
            "Buck Peters, Ranchman," "The Man from Bar-20,"
               "Bar-20," "The Coming of Cassidy," etc._

                            [Illustration]

                       FRONTISPIECE BY
                          FRANK E. SCHOONOVER

                          A. L. BURT COMPANY
                       Publishers      New York

           Published by arrangement with A. C. McClurg & Co.



                               Copyright
                          A. C. McClurg & Co.
                                 1921

                         Published April, 1921

                    _Copyrighted in Great Britain_



CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                  PAGE

      I "Put a 'T' in It"                     1

     II Well-Known Strangers                 17

    III A Question of Identity               28

     IV A Journey Continued                  49

      V What the Storm Hid                   66

     VI The Writing on the Wall              82

    VII The Third Man                        89

   VIII Notes Compared                      103

     IX Ways of Serving Notice              114

      X Twice in the Same Place             126

     XI A Job Well Done                     133

    XII Friends on the Outside              140

   XIII Out and Away                        160

    XIV The Staked Plain                    178

     XV Discoveries                         198

    XVI A Vigil Rewarded                    223

   XVII A Well-Planned Raid                 242

  XVIII The Trail-Boss Tries His Way        254

    XIX A Desert Secret                     260

     XX The Redoubt Falls                   277

    XXI All Wrapped Up                      287

   XXII The Bonfire                         310

  XXIII Surprise Valley                     324

   XXIV Squared Up All Around               344



                           The Bar-20 Three



                               CHAPTER I

                           "PUT A 'T' IN IT"


Idaho Norton, laughing heartily, backed out of the barroom of Quayle's
hotel and trod firmly on the foot of Ward Corwin, sheriff of the
county, who was about to pass the door. Idaho wheeled, a casual apology
trembling on his lips, to hear a biting, sarcastic flow of words,
full of profanity, and out of all proportion to the careless injury.
The sheriff's coppery face was a deeper color than usual and bore an
expression not pleasant to see. The puncher stepped back a pace, alert,
lithe, balanced, the apology forgotten, and gazed insolently into the
peace officer's wrathful eyes.

"--an' why don't you look where yo're steppin'? Don't you know how to
act when you come to town?" snarled the sheriff, finishing his remarks.

Idaho looked him over coolly. "I know how to act in any company, even
yourn. Just now I ain't actin'--I'm waitin'."

The sheriff's eyes glinted. "I got a good mind----"

"You ain't got nothin' of th' sort," cut in the puncher,
contemptuously. "You ain't got nothin' good, except, mebby, yore
reg'lar plea of self-defense. I'm sayin' out loud that _that_ ain't no
good, here an' now; an' I'm waitin' to take it away from you an' use it
myself. You been trustin' too cussed much to that nickel badge."

Bill Trask, deputy, who had a reputation not to be overlooked, now took
a hand from the rear, eager to add to his list of victims from any of
that outfit. The puncher was between him and the sheriff, and hardly
could watch them both. Trask gently shook his belt and said three
unprintable words which usually started a fight, and then glared over
his shoulder at a sudden interruption, tense and angry.

"Shut up, you!" said the voice, and he saw a two-gun stranger slouching
away from the hotel wall. The deputy took him in with one quick glance
and then his eyes returned to those of the stranger and rested there
while a slight prickling sensation ran up his spine. He had looked into
many angry eyes, and in many kinds of circumstances, but never before
had his back given him a warning quite so plainly. He grew restless and
wanted to look away, but dared not; and while he hung in the balance of
hesitation the stranger spoke again. "Two to one ain't fair, 'specially
with the lone man in th' middle; but I'll make th' odds even, for
I'm honin' to claim self-defense, myself. It's right popular. I saw
it all--an' I'm sayin' you are three chumps to get all het up over a
little thing like that. Mebby his toes _are_ tender--but what of it? He
ain't no baby, leastawise he don't look like one. An' I'm tellin' you,
an' yore badge-totin' friend, that _I_ know how to act, too." A twinkle
came into the hard, blue eyes. "But what's th' use of actin' like four
strange dogs?"

Somewhere in the little crowd a man laughed, others joined in and
pushed between the belligerents; and in a minute the peace officers had
turned the corner, Idaho was slowly walking toward the two-gun stranger
and the crowd was going about its business.

"Have a drink?" asked the puncher, grinning as he pushed back his hat.

"Didn't I just say that I knowed how to act?" chuckled the stranger,
turning on his heel and following his companion through the door. "You
must 'a' met them two before."

"Too cussed often. What'll you have? Make mine a cigar, too, Ed. No
more liquor for me today--Corwin don't forget."

The bartender closed the box and slid it onto the backbar again.
"No, he don't," he said. "An' Trask is worse," he added, looking
significantly at the stranger, whose cigar was now going to his
satisfaction and who was smilingly regarding Idaho, and who seemed to
be pleased by the frank return scrutiny.

"You ain't a stranger here no longer," said Idaho, blowing out a cloud
of smoke. "You got two good enemies, an' a one-hoss friend. Stayin'
long?"

"About half an hour. I got a little bunch of cows on th' drive west of
here, an' they ought to be at Twitchell an' Carpenter's corrals about
now. Havin' rid in to fix up bed an' board for my little outfit, I'm
now on my way to finish deliverin' th' herd. See you later if yo're in
town tonight."

"I don't aim to go back to th' ranch till tomorrow," replied Idaho, and
he hesitated. "I'm sorry you horned in on that ruckus--there's mebby
trouble bloomin' out of that for you. Don't you get careless till yo're
a day's ride away from this town. Here, before you go, meet Ed Doane.
He's one of th' few white men in this runt of a town."

The bartender shook hands across the bar. "Pleased to meet up with you,
Mr.--Mr.----?"

"Nelson," prompted the stranger. "How do you do, Mr. Doane?"

"Half an' half," answered the dispenser of liquids, and then waved a
large hand at the smiling youth. "Shake han's with Idaho Norton, who
was never closer to Idaho than Parsons Corners, thirty miles northwest
of here. Idaho's a good boy, but shore impulsive. He's spent most of
his life practicin' th' draw, et cetery; an' most of his money has went
for ca'tridges. Some folks say it ain't been wasted. Will you gents
smoke a cigar with me?"

After a little more careless conversation Johnny nodded his adieus,
mounted and rode south. Not long thereafter he came within sight of the
Question-Mark, Twitchell and Carpenter's local ranch.

Its valley sloped eastward, following the stream winding down its
middle between tall cottonwoods, and the horizon was limited by the
tops of the flanking hills, which dipped and climbed and zigzagged into
the gray of the east, where great sand hills reared their glistening
tops and the hopeful little creek sank out of sight into the dried,
salty bed of a one-time lake. Near the trail were two buildings, a
small stockaded corral and a wire-fenced pasture of twenty acres; and
the Question-Mark brand, known wherever cattlemen congregated, even
beyond the Canadian line, had been splashed with red paint on the
wall of the larger building. The glaring, silent interrogation-mark
challenged every passing eye and had started many curious, grim, and
cynical trains of thought in the minds of tired and thirsty wayfarers
along the trail. To the north of the twenty-acre pasture a herd of SV
cattle grazed, spread out widely, too tired, too content with their
feeding to need much attention.

Johnny saw the great, red question-mark and instantly drew rein,
staring at it. "Why?" he muttered, and then grew silent for a moment.
Shaking his head savagely he urged the horse on again, and again
glanced at the crimson interrogation. "D--n you!" he growled. "There
ain't no man livin' can answer."

He passed the herd at a distance and rode up to the larger building,
where a figure suddenly appeared in the doorway, looked out from under
a shielding hand and quickly stepped forward to meet him.

"Hello, Nelson!" came the cheery greeting.

"Hello, Ridley!" replied Johnny. "Glad to see you again. Thought I'd
bring 'em down to you, an' save you goin' up th' trail after 'em. Why
don't you paint out that glarin' question-mark on th' side of th'
house?"

Ridley slapped his hands together and let out a roar of laughter. "Has
it got you, too?" he demanded in unfeigned delight.

"Not as much as it would before I got married," replied Johnny. "I'm
beginnin' to see a reason for livin'."

"Good!" exclaimed Ridley. "If I ever meet yore wife I'll tell her
somethin' that'll make her dreams sweet." The expression of his face
changed swiftly. "Do you know--" he considered, and changed the form
of his words. "You'd be surprised if you knew th' number of people hit
by that painted question-mark. I've had 'em ride in here an' start all
kinds of conversations with me; th' gospel sharps are th' worst. One
man blew his brains out in Quayle's hotel because of what that sign
started workin' in his mind. Go look at it: it's full of bullet holes!"

"I don't have to," replied Johnny, and quickly answered his companion's
unspoken challenge. "An' I can sleep under it, an' smile, cuss you!" He
glanced at the distant cattle. "Have you looked 'em over?"

Ridley nodded. "They're in good shape. Ready to count 'em now?"

"Be glad to, an' get 'em off my han's."

"Bring 'em up in front of th' pasture, an' I'll wait for you there,"
said Ridley.

Johnny wheeled and then checked his horse. "What kind of fellers are
Corwin an' Trask?" he asked.

Ridley looked up at him, a curious expression on his face. "Why?"

"Oh, nothin'; I was just wonderin'."

"As long as you ain't aimin' to stop around these parts for long, th'
less you know about 'em th' better. I'll be waitin' at th' pasture."

Johnny rode off and started the herd again, and when it stopped it was
compacted into a long V, with the point facing the pasture gate, and
it poured its units from this point in a steady stream between the two
horsemen at the open gate, who faced each other across the hurrying
procession and built up another herd on the other side, one which
spread out and grazed without restraint, unless it be that of a wire
fence. And with the shrinking of the first and the expanding of the
second the SV ownership changed into that of the Question-Mark.

The shrewd, keen-eyed buyer for Twitchell and Carpenter looked up as
the gate closed after the last steer and smiled across the gap at the
SV foreman as he announced his count.

Johnny nodded. "My figgers, to a T," he said. "That 2-Star steer don't
belong to us. Joined up with us some where along th' trail. You know
'em?"

"Belongs to Dawson, up on th' north fork of th' Bear. I'll drop him a
check in a couple of days. This feller must 'a' wandered some to get in
with yourn. Well, yourn is a good bunch of four-year-olds. You'll have
to wait till I get to town, for I ain't got a blank check left, an' I
shore ain't got no one thousand one hundred and forty-three dollars
layin' around down here. Want cash or a check?"

"If I took a check I'd have to send somebody up to Sherman with it,"
replied Johnny. "I might take it at that, if I was goin' right back.
Better make it cash, Ridley."

Ridley grinned. "I've swept up this part of th' country purty good."

Johnny shook his head. "I'm lookin' for weaners--an' not in this part
of th' country. I'll see you in town."

"Before supper," said Ridley. "You puttin' up at Quayle's?"

"You called it," answered Johnny, wheeling. He rode off, picked up his
small outfit and led the way to Mesquite, where he hoped to spend but
one night. The little SV group cantered over the thin trail in the wake
of their bobbing chuck wagon, several miles ahead of them, and reached
the town well ahead of it, much to the cook's vexation. As they neared
Quayle's hotel Johnny pulled up.

"This is our stable," he said. "Go easy, boys. We leave at daylight.
See you at supper."

They answered him laughingly and swept on to Kane's place, which they
seemed to sense, each for his favorite, drink and game.

The afternoon shadows were long when Ridley, just from the bank, left
his rangy bay in front of the hotel and entered the office, nodding to
several men he knew. He went on through and stopped at the bar.

"Howd'y, Ed," he grunted. "That SV foreman around? Nelson's his name."

Ed Doane mopped up the bar mechanically and bobbed his head toward the
door. "Here he comes now. Make a deal?"

Ridley nodded as he turned. "Hello, Nelson! Read this over. If it's all
right, sign it, an' we'll let Ed disfigure it as a witness. I allus
like a witness."

Johnny signed it with the pen the bartender provided and then the
bartender labored with it and blew on it to dry the ink.

"Disfigure it, hey?" chuckled Ed, pointing to his signature, which was
beautifully written but very much over-done. "That bill of sale's worth
somethin' now."

Johnny admired it frankly and openly. "I allus did like shadin', an'
them flourishes are plumb fetchin'. Me, now; I write like a cow."

"I'm worse," admitted Ridley, chuckling and giving Johnny a roll of
bills. "Count 'em, Nelson. Folks usually turn my writin' upside down
for th' first try. Speakin' of witnesses, there's another little thing
I like. I allus seal documents, Ed. Take 'em out of that bottle you
hide under th' bar. Three of 'em. Somehow, Ed, I allus like to see you
stoop like that. Well, Nelson; does it count up right? Then, business
bein' over, here's to th' end of th' drought."

It went the rounds, Ed accumulating three cigars as his favorite
beverage, and as the glasses clicked down on the bar Ridley felt for
the makings. "Sorry th' bank's closed, Nelson. It might be safer there
over night."

"Mebby but it's safe enough, anyhow," smiled Johnny, shrugging his
shoulders. "Anyhow th' bank wouldn't be open early enough in th'
mornin' for us. Which reminds me that I better go out an' look around.
My four-man outfit's got to leave at daylight."

"I'll go with you as far as th' street," said Ridley. As they neared
the door Johnny hung back to let his companion pass through first and
as he did so he heard a soft call from the bartender, and half turned.

"Come here a minute," said Doane, leaning over the bar. "It ain't none
of my business, Nelson, but I'm sayin' _I_ wouldn't go into Kane's with
th' wad of money you got on you; an' if I did I shore wouldn't show it
nor get in no game. You don't have to remember that I said anythin'
about this."

"I never gamble with money that don't belong to me," replied Johnny,
"nor not even while I've got it on me; an' already I've forgot you said
anythin'. That place must be a sort of 'sink of iniquity,' as that
sanctified parson called Abilene."

"Huh!" grunted Doane. "You can put a 'T' in that 'sink,' an' there's
only one place where a 'T' will fit. Th' money would be enough, but in
yore case there's more. Idaho said it."

"He's only a kid," deprecated Johnny.

"'Out of th' mouths of babes--'" replied Doane. "I'm tellin'
you--that's all."

Ridley stuck his head in at the door. "So-long, fellers," he said.

"Hey, Ridley!" called the bartender hurriedly. "Would you go into
Kane's if you had Nelson's roll on you?"

"Not knowin' what I might do under th' infloonce of likker, I can't
say," answered Ridley; "but if I did I wouldn't drink in there.
So-long, an' I mean it, this time," and he did.

Johnny left soon afterward and wandered along the street toward the
building on the northern outskirts of the town where Pecos Kane ran
a gambling-house and hotel. Johnny ignored the hotel half and lolled
against the door as he sized up the interior of the gambling-hall, and
instantly became the center of well-disguised interest. While he paused
inside the threshold a lean, tall man arose from a chair against the
wall and sauntered carelessly out of sight through a narrow doorway
leading to a passage in the rear. Kit Thorpe was not a man to loaf on
his job when a two-gun stranger entered the place, especially when the
stranger appeared to be looking for someone. Otherwise there was no
change in the room, the bartender polishing his glasses without pause,
the card players silently intent on their games and the man at the
deserted roulette table who held a cloth against the ornate spinning
wheel kept on polishing it. They seemed to draw reassurance from
Thorpe's disappearance.

One slow look was enough to satisfy Johnny's curiosity. The room was
about sixty feet long by half as wide and on his left-hand side lay
the bar, built solidly from the floor by close-fitting planks running
vertically, which appeared to be of hardwood and quite thick, and the
top was of the same material. Several sand-box cuspidors lay before it.
The backbar was a shelf backed by a narrow mirror running well past
the middle half, and no higher than necessary to give the bartender
a view of the room when he turned around, which he did but seldom.
Round card-tables, heavy and crude, were scattered about the room and
a row of chairs ran the full length along the other side wall. Several
loungers sat at the tables, one of them an eastern tough, judging from
his clothes, his peaked cap pulled well down over his eyes. At the
farther end was a solid partition painted like a checkerboard and the
few black squares which cunningly hid several peep-holes were not to
be singled out by casual observation. Those who knew said that they
were closed on their inner side by black steel plates which hung on
oiled pivots and were locked shut by a pin. At a table in front of the
checkerboard were four men, one flung forward on it, his head resting
on his crossed arms; another had slumped down on the edge of his chair,
his chin on his chest, while the other two carried on a grunted,
pessimistic conversation across their empty glasses.

Johnny's face flickered with a faint smile and he walked toward them,
nodding carelessly at the man behind the bar.

Arch Wiggins looked up, a sickly grin on his flushed face. "Hullo," he
grunted, foolishly.

"Not havin' nothin' else to do I reckoned I'd look you up," said
Johnny. "Fed yet?"

Arch shrugged his shoulders and Sam Gardner sighed expressively, and
then prodded the slumped individual into semblance of intelligence and
erectness. This done he kicked the shins of the prostrate cook until
that unfortunate raised an owlish, agonized, and protesting countenance
to stare at his foreman.

"Nelson wants to know if yo're hungry," prompted Sam, grinning.

"Take it--away!" mumbled the indignant cook. "I _won't_ eat! Who's
goin' to make me?" he demanded with a show of pugnacity. "I won't!"

Joe Reilly, painfully erect in his chair, blinked and focussed his
eyes on the speaker. "Then don't!" he said. "Shut yore face--others
kin eat!" He turned his whole body, stiff as a ramrod, and looked at
each of the others in turn. "Don't pay no 'tention to him. I kin--eat
th'--d--d harness," he asserted, thereby proving that his stomach
preserved family traditions.

Johnny laughed at them. "Yo're a h--l of an outfit," he said without
conviction. "What do you say about goin' up to th' hotel an' gettin'
somethin' to eat? It's past grubtime, but let's see if they'll have
th' nerve to try to tell us to get out. Broke?" he inquired, and as
they silently arose to their feet, which seemed to take a great deal
of concentration, he chuckled. Then his face hardened. "Where's yore
guns?" he demanded.

Arch waved elaborately at the disinterested bartender. "That gent
loaned us ten apiece on 'em," he said. "'Bligin' feller. Thank you,
friend."

"Yo're a'right," said the cook, nodding at the dispenser of fluids.

"An' yo're a fine, locoed bunch, partin' with yore guns in a strange
town," snapped Johnny. "You head for th' hotel, _pronto_! G'wan!"

The cook turned and waved a hand at the solemn bartender. "Goo'-bye!"
he called. "I _won't_ eat! Goo'-bye."

Seeing them started in the right direction, Johnny went in and up to
the bar. "Them infants don't need guns," he asserted, digging into a
pocket, "but as long as they ain't shot themselves, yet, I'm takin' a
chance. How much?"

The bartender, typical of his kind, looked wise when it was not
necessary, finished polishing the glass in his hand and then slowly
faced his inquisitor, bored and aloof. He had the condescending air
of one who held himself to be mentally and physically superior to
any man in town, and his air of preoccupation was so heavy that it
was ludicrous. "Ten apiece," he answered nonchalantly, as behove the
referee of drunken disputes, the adviser of sodden men, the student
of humanity's dregs, whose philosophy of life was rotten to the core
because it was based purely on the vicious and the weak, and whose
knowledge, adjudged abysmal and cyclopedic by an admiring riffraff of
stupefied mentality, was as shallow, warped, and perverted as the
human derelicts upon which his observations were based. As Johnny's
hand came up with the roll of bills the man of liquor kept his face
passive by an act of will, but there crept into the ratlike eyes a
strange gleam, which swiftly faded. "Put it way," he said heartily, a
jovial, free-handed good fellow on the instant. "We got it back, an'
more. It was worth th' money to have these where they wouldn't be too
handy. We allus stake a good loser--it's th' policy of th' house. Take
these instead of th' stake." He slid the heavy weapons across the bar.
"What'll you have?"

"Same as you," replied Johnny, and he slowly put the cigar into a
pocket. "Purty quiet in here," he observed, laying two twenty-dollar
bills on the bar.

"Yeah," said the bartender, pushing the money back again; "but it's a
cheerful ol' beehive at night. Better put that in yore pocket an' drop
in after dark, when things are movin'. I know a blonde that'll tickle
you 'most to death. Come in an' meet her."

"Tell you what," said Johnny, grinning to conceal his feelings. "You
keep them bills. If I keep 'em I'll have to let them fools have their
guns back for nothin'. I'm aimin' to take ten apiece out of their
pay. If you don't want it, give it to th' blonde, with Mr. Nelson's
compliments. It won't be so hard for me to get acquainted with her,
then."

The bartender chuckled and put the bills in the drawer. "Yo're no
child, I'm admittin'. Reckon you been usin' yore head quite some since
you was weaned."

One of the card players at the nearest table said something to his
two companions and one of them leaned back stretched and arose. "I'm
tired. Get somebody to take my place."

The sagacious observer of the roll of bills started to object to the
game being broken up, glanced at Johnny and smiled. "All right; mebby
this gent will sit in an' kill a little time. How 'bout it, stranger?"

Johnny smiled at him. "My four-man outfit ain't leavin' me no time to
kill," he answered. "I got to trail along behind 'em an' pick up th'
strays."

The gambler grinned sympathetically. "Turn 'em loose tonight. What's
th' use of herdin' with yearlin's, anyhow? If you get tired of their
company an' feel like tryin' yore luck, come in an' join us."

"If I find that I got any heavy time on my han's I'll spend a couple
of hours with you," replied Johnny. As he turned toward the door he
glanced at the bartender. "Don't forget th' name when you give her th'
forty," he laughed.

The bartender chuckled. "I got th' best mem'ry of any man in this
section. See you later, mebby."

Johnny nodded and departed, his hands full of guns, and as he vanished
through the front door Kit Thorpe reappeared from behind the partition,
grinned cynically at the bartender and received a wise, very wise look
in return.

Reaching the hotel Johnny entered it by the nearest door, that of the
barroom, walked swiftly through with the redeemed guns dangling from
his swinging hands and without pausing in his stride, flung a brief
remark over his shoulder to the man behind the bar, who was the only
person, besides himself, in the room: "You was shore right. It should
ought to have a 'T' in it," and passed through the other door, across
the office and into the dining-room, where his four men were having an
argument with a sullen waiter and a wrathy cook.

Ed Doane straightened up, his ears preserving the words, his eyes
retaining the picture of an angry, hurrying two-gun man from whose
hands swung four more guns. He cogitated, and then the possible
significance of the numerous weapons sprang into his mind. Ed did not
go around the bar. He vaulted it and leaped to the door, out of which
he hopefully gazed at the tranquil place of business of Pecos Kane.
Slowly the look of hope faded and he returned to his place behind the
bar, scratching his frowsy head in frank energy, his imagination busy
with many things.



                              CHAPTER II

                         WELL-KNOWN STRANGERS


The desert and a paling eastern sky. The penetrating cold of the dark
hours was soon to die and give place to a punishing heat well above
the hundred mark. Spectral agaves, flinging their tent-shaped crowns
heavenward, seemed to spring bodily from the radiating circlet of spiny
swords at their bases, their slender stems still lost in the weakening
darkness. Pale spots near the ground showed where flower-massed yuccas
thrust up, lancelike, from their slender, prickly leaves. Giant
cacti, ghostly, bulky, indistinct, grotesque in their erect, parallel
columns reached upward to a height seven times that of a tall man.
They are the only growing things unmoved by winds. The sage, lost in
the ground-hugging darkness, formed a dark carpet, mottled by lighter
patches of sand. There were quick rustlings over the earth as swift
lizards scurried hither and yon and a faint whirring told of some
"side-winder" vibrating its rattles in emphatic warning against some
encroachment. Tragedies were occurring in the sage, and the sudden
squeak of a desert rat was its swan song.

In the east a silvery glow trembled above the horizon and to the magic
of its touch silhouettes sprang suddenly from vague, blurred masses.
The agave, known to most as the century plant, showed the delicate
slenderness of its arrowy stem and marked its conical head with
feathery detail. The flower-covered spikes of the Spanish bayonets
became studies in ivory, with the black shadows on their thorny spikes
deep as charcoal. The giant cacti, boldly thrown against the silver
curtain, sprang from their joining bases like huge, thick telegraph
poles of ebony, their thorns not yet clearly revealed. The squat sage,
now resolved into tufted masses, might have been the purplish-leaden
hollows of a great sea. The swift rustlings became swift movements and
the "side-winder" uncoiled his graceful length to round a nearby sage
bush. The quaking of a small lump of sand grew violent and a long,
round snoot pushed up inquiringly, the cold, beady eyes peering forth
as the veined lids parted, and a Gila monster sluggishly emerged,
eager for the promised warmth. To the northeast a rugged spur of
mountains flashed suddenly white along its saw-toothed edge, where
persistent snows crowned each thrusting peak. A moment more, and
dazzling heliographic signals flashed from the snowy caps, the first of
all earthly things to catch the rays of the rising sun, as yet below
the far horizon. On all sides as far as eye could pierce through the
morning twilight not a leaf stirred, not a stem moved, but everywhere
was rigidity, unreal, uncanny, even terrifying to an imaginative
mind. But wait! Was there movement in the fogging dark of the north?
Rhythmic, swaying movement, rising and falling, vague and mystical? And
the ghostly silence of this griddle-void was broken by strange, alien
sounds, magnified by contrast with the terror-inspiring silence. A soft
creaking, as of gently protesting saddle leather, interspersed with
the frequent and not unmusical tinkle of metal, sounded timidly, almost
hesitatingly out of the dark along the ground.

Silver turned into pink, pink into gold, and gold into crimson in
almost a breath, and long crimson ribbons became lavender high in the
upper air, surely too beautiful to be a portent of evil and death. Yet
the desert hush tightened, constricted, tensed as if waiting in rigid
suspense for a lethal stroke. Almost without further warning a flaming,
molten arc pushed up over the far horizon and grew with amazing bulk
and swiftness, dispelling the chill of the night, destroying the beauty
of the silhouettes, revealing the purple sage as a mangy, leaden
coverlet, riddled and thin, squatting tightly against the tawny sand,
across which had sprung with instant speed long, vague shadows from
the base of every object which raised above the plain. The still air
shuddered into a slow dance, waving and quivering, faster and faster
like some mad dance of death, the rising heat waves distorting with
their evil magic giant cacti until their fluted, thorny columns weaved
like strange, slowly undulating snakes standing erect on curving tails.
And in the distance but a few leagues off blazed the white mockery
of the crystal snow, serene and secure on its lofty heights, a taunt
far-flung to madden the heat-crazed brain of some swollen, clawing
thing in distorted human form slowly dying on the baking sands.

The movement was there, for the sudden flare of light magically
whisked it out of the void like a rabbit out of a conjurer's hat. Two
men, browned, leather-skinned, erect, silent, and every line of them
bespeaking reliance with a certainty not to be denied, were slowly
riding southward. Their horses, typical of their cow-herding type,
were loaded down with large canteens, and suggested itinerant water
peddlers. Two gallons each they held, and there were four to the horse.
One could imagine these men counted on taking daily baths--but they
were only double-riveting a security against the hell-fires of thirst,
which each of them had known intimately and too well. The first rider,
as erect in his saddle as if he had just swung into it, had a face
scored with a sorrow which only an iron will held back; his squinting
eyes were cold and hard, and his hair, where it showed beneath the
soiled, gray sombrero, was a sandy color, all of what was left of the
flaming crimson of its youth. He rode doggedly without a glance to
right or left, silent, sullen, inscrutable. When the glorious happiness
of a man's life has gone out there is but little left, often even to a
man of strength. Behind him rode his companion, five paces to the rear
and exactly in his trail, but his wandering glances flashed far afield,
searching, appraising, never still. Younger in years than his friend,
and so very much younger in spirit, there was an air of nonchalant
recklessness about him, occasionally swiftly mellowed by pity as his
eyes rested on the man ahead. Now, glancing at the sun-cowed east, his
desert cunning prompted him and he pushed forward, silently took the
lead and rode to a thicket of mesquite, whose sensitive leaves, hung
on delicate stems, gave the most cooling shade of any desert plant.
Dismounting, he picketed his horse and then added a side-line hobble as
double security against being left on foot on the scorching sands. Not
satisfied with that, he unfastened the three full canteens, swiftly
examined them for leaks and placed them under the bush. Six gallons of
water, but if need should arise he would fight to the death for it. Out
of the corner of his eye he watched his companion, who mechanically was
doing the same thing. Red Connors yawned, drank sparingly and then,
hesitating, grinned foolishly and fastened one end of his lariat to his
wrist.

"That dessicated hunk of meanness don't leave this hombre afoot, not
nohow," said Red, looking at his friend; but Hopalong only stared into
the bush and made no reply.

Nothing abashed at his companion's silence, Red stretched out at full
length under the scant shade, his Colt at his hand in case some Gila
monster should be curious as to what flavor these men would reveal to
an inquisitive bite. Red's ideas of Gilas were romantic and had no
scientific warrant whatever. And it was possible that a "side-winder"
might blunder his way.

"It's better than a lava desert, anyhow," he remarked as he settled
down, having in mind the softness of the loose sand. "One whole day of
hell-to-leather fryin', an' one more shiverin' night, an' this stretch
of misery will be behind, but it shore saves a lot of ridin', it does.
I'll bet I'm honin' for a swim in th' Rio Placer--an' I ain't carin'
how much mud there is, neither. Ah, th' devil;" he growled in great
disgust, slowly arising. "I done forgot to sprinkle them cayuses'
insides. One apiece, they get, which is only insultin' 'em."

Hopalong tried to smile, arose and filled his hat, which his thirsty
horse frantically emptied. When the canteen was also empty he went back
to the sandy couch, to lay awake in the scorching heat, fighting back
memories which tortured him near to madness, his mental torments making
him apathetic to physical ones. And so dragged the weary, trying day
until the cooling night let them go on again.

Three days later they rode into Gunsight, made careless inquiries and
soon thereafter drew rein before the open door of the SV, unconscious
of the excited conjectures rioting in the curious town.

Margaret Nelson went to the door, her brother trying to push past her,
and looked wonderingly up at the two smiling strangers.

Red bowed and removed his hat with a flourish. "Mrs. Johnny?" he asked,
and at the nodded assent smiled broadly. "My name's Red Connors, an'
my friend is Hopalong Cassidy. He is th' very best friend yore fool
husband ever had. We came down to make Johnny's life miserable for a
little while, an' to give you a hand with his trainin', if you need it."

Margaret's breath came with a rush and she held out both hands with
impulsive friendliness. "Oh!" she cried. "Come in. You must be tired
and hungry--let Charley turn your horses into the corral."

Charley wriggled past the barrier and jumped for Hopalong, his shrill
whoop of delighted welcome bringing a smile to the stern face of the
mounted man. A swoop of the rider's arm, a writhing twist of the boy's
body, coming a little too late to avoid the grip of that iron hand, and
Charley shot up and landed in front of the pommel, where he exchanged
grins at close range with his captor.

"I knowed you first look," asserted the boy as the grip was released.
"My, but I've heard a lot about you! Yo're goin' to stay here, ain't
you? I know where there's some black bear, up on th' hills--want to go
huntin' with me?"

Hopalong's tense, wistful look broke into a smile, the first sincere,
honest smile his face had known for a month. Gulping, he nodded, and
turned to face his friend's wife. "Looks like I'm adopted," he said.
"If you don't mind, Mrs. Johnny, Charley an' me will take care of th'
cayuses while Red helps you fix up th' table." He reached out, grasped
the bridle of Red's horse as its rider dismounted, and rode to the
corral, Charley's excited chatter bringing an anxious smile to his
sister, but a heartfelt, prayerful smile to Red Connors. He had great
hopes.

Red paused just inside the door. "Mrs. Johnny," he said quietly,
quickly, "I got to talk fast before Hoppy comes back. He lost his wife
an' boy a month ago--fever--in four days. He's all broke up. Went loco
a little, an' even came near shootin' me because I wouldn't let him
go off by hisself. I've had one gosh-awful time with him, but finally
managed to get him headed this way by talkin' about Johnny a-plenty.
That got him, for th' kid allus was a sort of son to him. I'm figgerin'
he'll be a lot better off down here on this south range for awhile.
Even crossin' that blasted desert seemed to help--he loosened up his
talk considerable since then. An' from th' way he grabbed that kid, I'm
sayin' I'm right. Where is Johnny?"

"Oh!" Margaret's breathed exclamation did not need the sudden moisture
in her eyes to interpret it, and in that instant Red Connors became
her firm, unswerving friend. "We'll do our best--and I think he should
stay here, always. And Johnny will be delighted to have him with us,
and you, too--Red."

"Here he comes," warned her companion. "Where is Johnny? When will he
get here?"

"Why, he took a herd down to Mesquite," she replied, smiling at
Hopalong, who limped slowly into the room with Charley slung under his
arm like a sack of flour. "He should be back any day now. And won't he
be wild with delight when he finds you two boys here! You have no idea
how he talks about you, even in his sleep--oh, if I were inclined to
jealousy you might not be so welcome!"

"Ma'am," grinned Red, tickled as a boy with a new gun, "you don't
never want to go an' get jealous of a couple of old horned toads like
us--well, like Hoppy, anyhow. We'll sort of ride herd on him, too,
every time he goes to town. Talk about revenge! Oh, you wait! So he
went off an' left you all alone? Didn't he write about some trouble
that was loose down here?"

"It was--but it's cleaned up. He didn't leave me in any danger--every
man down here is our friend," Margaret replied, quick to sense the
carefully hidden thought which had prompted his words, and to defend
her husband.

"Well, two more won't hurt, nohow," grunted Red. "You say he ought to
get here any day?"

"I'm spending more time at the south windows every day," she smiled. "I
don't know what will happen to the housework if it lasts much longer!"

"South windows?" queried Hopalong, standing Charley on his head before
letting loose of him. "Th' trail is west, ain't it?" he demanded, which
caused Red to chuckle inwardly at how his friend was becoming observant
again.

"The idea!" retorted Margaret. "Do you think my boy will care anything
about any trail that leads roundabout? He'll leave the trail at the
Triangle and come straight for this house! What are hills and brush and
a miserable little creek to _him_, when he's coming home? I thought you
knew my boy."

"We did, an' we do," laughed Red. "I'm bettin' yore way--I hope he's
got a good horse--it'll be a dead one if it ain't."

"He's saving Pepper for the homestretch--if you know what _that_ means!"

"Hey, Red," said Charley, slyly. "Yore gun works, don't it?"

"Shore thing. Why?"

"Well, mine don't," sighed the boy. "Wonder if yourn is too heavy, an'
strong, for a boy like me to shoot? _Bet_ it ain't."

Margaret's low reproof was lost in Red's burst of laughter, and again a
smile crept to Hopalong's face, a smile full of heartache. This eager
boy made his memories painfully alive.

"You an' me an' Hoppy will shore go out an' see," promised Red. "Mrs.
Johnny will trust you with us, I bet. Hello! Here's somebody comin',"
he announced, looking out of the door.

"That's my dad!" cried Charley, bolting from the house so as to be the
first one to give his father the good news.

Arnold rode up laughing, dismounted and entered the house with an
agility rare to him. And he was vastly relieved. "Well! Well! Well!"
he shouted, shaking hands like a pump handle. "I saw you ride over the
hill an' got here as fast as Lazy would bring me. Red an' Hopalong! Our
household gods with us in the flesh! And that scalawag off seeing the
sights of strange towns when his old friends come to visit him. I'm
glad to see you boys! The place is yours. Red and Hopalong! I'm not
a drinkin' man, but there are times when--follow me while Peggy gets
supper!"

"Can I go with you, Dad?" demanded Charley.

"You help Peggy set the table."

"Huh! _I_ don't care! Me an' Hoppy an' Red are goin' after bear, an'
I'm goin' to use Red's gun."

"Seems to me, Charley," reproved Arnold, "that you are pretty familiar,
for a boy; and especially on such short acquaintance. You might begin
practicing the use of the word 'Mister.'"

"Or say 'Uncle Red' and 'Uncle Hopalong,'" suggested Margaret.

"'Red' is my name, an' I'm shore 'Red' to him," defended that person.

"Which goes for me," spoke up his companion. "I'm Hopalong, or Hoppy to
anybody in this family--though 'Uncle' suits me fine."

"Then we'll have a fair exchange," retorted Margaret, smiling. "The
family circle calls me 'Margaret' or 'Peggy.'"

"If you want to rile her, call her Maggie," said Charley. "She goes
right on th' prod!"

"I'm plumb peaceful," laughed Red, turning to follow his host. "You
help Mrs.--Margaret, an' when I come back you an' me'll figger on goin'
after bear as soon as we can."



                              CHAPTER III

                        A QUESTION OF IDENTITY


Johnny sauntered into Quayle's barroom and leaned against the bar,
talking to Ed Doane. An hour or two before he had finished his dinner,
warned his outfit again about the early start on the morrow, advanced
them some money, and watched them leave the hotel for one more look at
the town, and now he was killing time.

"What do you think about Kane's?" asked Ed carelessly, and then looked
up as a customer entered. When the man went out he repeated the
question.

Johnny cogitated and shrugged his shoulders. "Same as you. Reg'lar
cow-town gamblin'-hall, with th' same fixin's, wimmin', crooked games,
an' wise bums hangin' 'round. Am I right?"

A group entered, and when they had been served they went into the hotel
office, the bartender's eyes on them as long as they were in sight. He
turned and frowned. "Purty near. You left a couple of things out. I'm
not sayin' what they are, but I _am_ sayin' this: Don't you ever pull
no gun in there if you should have any trouble. Wait till you get yore
man outside. Funny thing about that--sort of a spell, I reckon--but no
stranger ever got a gun out an' workin' in Kane's place. They died too
quick, or was put out of workin' order."

Johnny raised his eyebrows: "Mebby no good man ever tried to get one
out, an' workin'."

"You lose," retorted Ed emphatically. "Some of 'em was shore to be
good. It's a cold deck--with a sharpshooter. There I go again!" he
snorted. "I'm certainly shootin' off my mouth today. I must be loco!"

"Then don't let that worry you. I ain't shootin' mine off," Johnny
reassured him. "I'm tryin' to figger----"

A voice from the street interrupted him. "Hey, stranger! Yore outfit's
in trouble down in Red Frank's!"

Johnny swung from the bar. "Where's _his_ place?" he asked.

"One street back," nodded the bartender, indicating the rear of the
room. "Turn to yore right--third door. It's a Greaser dive--look sharp!"

Johnny grunted and turned to obey the call. Walking out of the door, he
went to the corner, turned it, and soon turned the second corner. As he
rounded it he saw stars, reached for his guns by instinct, and dropped
senseless. Two shadowy figures pounced upon him, rolled him over, and
deftly searched him.

Back in the hotel Idaho stuck his head into the barroom. "Seen Nelson?"
he asked.

"Just went to Red Frank's this minute--his gang's in trouble there!"
quickly replied Ed.

"I'll go 'round an' be handy, anyhow," said Idaho, loosening his gun as
he went through the door. Rounding the first corner, he saw a figure
flit into the darkness across the street and disappear, and as he
turned the second corner he tripped and fell over a prostrate man. One
glance and his match went out. Jumping around the corner, he saw a
second man run across an open space between two clumps of brush, and
his quick hand chopped down, a finger of flame spitting into the night.
A curse of pain answered it and he leaped forward, hot and vengeful;
but his search was in vain, and he soon gave it up and hastened back to
his prostrate friend, whom he found sitting up against the wall with an
open jackknife in his hand.

"What happened?" demanded Idaho, stopping and bending down. "Where'd he
get you?"

"Somethin' fell on my head--an' my guns are gone," mumbled Johnny.
"I--bet I've been robbed!" His slow, fumbling search revealed the
bitter truth, and he grunted. "Clean! Clean!"

"I shoved a hunk of lead under th' skin of somebody runnin'--heard him
yelp," Idaho said. "Lost him in th' dark. Here, grab holt of me. I'll
take you to my room in th' hotel. Able to toddle?"

"Able to kill th' skunk with my bare han's," growled the unfortunate,
staggering to his feet. "I'm goin' to Kane's!" he asserted, and Idaho's
arguments were exhausted before he was able to have his own way.

"You come along with me--I want to look at yore head. An', besides,
you ought to have a gun before you go huntin'. Come, on. We'll go in
through th' kitchen--that's th' nearest way. It's empty now, but th'
door's never locked."

"You gimme a gun, an' I'll know where to go!" blazed Johnny, trembling
with weakness. "I showed my roll in there, like a fool. Eleven
hundred--h--l of a foreman _I_ am!"

"You can't just walk into a place an' start shootin'!" retorted
Idaho, angrily. "_Will_ you listen to sense? Come on, now. After you
get sensible you can do what you want, an' I'll go along an' help you
do it. That's fair, ain't it? How do you know that feller belongs to
Kane's crowd? May be a Greaser, an' a mile away by now. Come on--be
sensible!"

"Th' SV can't afford to lose that money--oh, well," sighed Johnny,
"yo're right. Go ahead. I'll wash off th' blood, anyhow. I must be a
holy show."

They got to Idaho's room without arousing any unusual interest and
Idaho examined the throbbing bump with clumsy fingers, receiving frank
statements for his awkwardness.

"Shucks," he grinned, straightening up. "It's as big as an egg, but
besides th' skin bein' broke an' a lot of blood, there ain't nothin'
th' matter. I'll wash it off--an' if you keep yore hat on, nobody'll
know it. I reckon that hat just about saved that thick skull of yourn."

"What did you see when you found me?" asked Johnny when his friend had
finished the job.

Idaho told him and added: "Hoped I could tell him by th' yelp, but I
can't, unless, mebby, I go around an' make everybody in this part of
th' country yelp for me. But I don't reckon that's hardly reasonable."

"Yo're right," grinned Johnny. "Well," he said, after a moment's
thought, "I don't go back home without eleven hundred dollars, U. S.,
an' my guns; but I got to send th' boys back. They can't help me none,
bein' known as my friends. Besides, we're all broke, an' they're needed
on th' ranch. If I _knowed_ that Kane had a hand in this, I'd cussed
soon get that money back!"

"Yo're shore plumb set on that Kane idear."

"I showed that wad of bills in just two places: Ed's bar, an' Kane's
joint."

"Ed's bar is out of it if nobody else was in there at th' time."

"Only Ridley, Ed, an' myself."

"Somebody could 'a' looked in th' window," suggested Idaho.

"Nobody did, because I was lookin' around."

"If you go in Kane's an' make a gunplay, you'll never know how it
happened or who done it; an' if you go in, without a gunplay, an' let
'em know what you think, some Greaser'll hide a knife in you. Then
you'll never get it back."

"Just th' same, that's th' place to start from," persisted Johnny
doggedly. "An' from th' inside, too."

Idaho frowned. "That may be so, but startin' it from there means to
end it there an' then. You can't buck Kane in his own place. It's been
tried more'n once. I ain't shore you can buck him in this town, or part
of th' country. Bigger people than you are suspected of payin' him
money to let 'em alone. You'd be surprised if I named names. Look here:
I better speak a little piece about this part of th' country. This
county is unorganized an' ain't got no courts, nor nothin' else except
a peace officer which we calls sheriff. It's big, but it ain't got
many votes, an' what it has is one-third Greaser. Most Greasers don't
amount to much in a stand-up fight, but their votes count. They are all
for Kane. We've only had one election for sheriff, an' although Corwin
is purty well known, he won easy. Kane did it, an' when anybody says
'Corwin,' they might as well say 'Kane.' He is boss of this section.
His gamblin'-joint is his headquarters, an' it's guarded forty ways
from th' jack. His gang is made up of all kinds, from th' near decent
down to th' night killer. When Kane wants a man killed, that man don't
live long. Corwin takes his orders before an' after a play like this
one. Yo're expected to report it to him. Comin' down to cases, th' pack
has got to be fed, an' they have got to make a killin' once in a while.
Even if Kane ain't in on it direct, he'll get most of that money across
his bar or tables. To wind up a long speech, you better go home with
yore men, for that ain't enough money to get killed over."

"Mebby not if it was mine!" snapped Johnny. "An' I ain't shore about
that, neither. An' there's more'n money in this, an' more than th' way
I was handled. Somebody in this wart of a town has got Johnny Nelson's
two guns--an' nobody steals _them_ an' keeps 'em! I got friends, lots
of 'em, in Montanny, that would lend me th' money quick; but there
ain't nobody can give me them six-guns but th' thief that's got 'em.
I'm rooted--solid."

"All right," said Idaho. "Yo're talkin' foolish, but cussed if I don't
like to hear it. So me an' you are goin' to hog-tie that gang. If I get
Corwin in th' ruckus, I'll be satisfied."

"Yo're th' one that's talkin' foolish," retorted Johnny, fighting back
his grin. "An I'm cussed if _I_ don't like to hear it. But there's this
correction: Me an' you ain't goin' to bulldog that gang at all. _I_
am. Yo're goin' to sprawl on yore saddle an' light out for wherever
you belong, an' stay there. Yo're a marked man an' wouldn't last th'
swish of a longhorn's tail. Yore brand is registered--they got you in
their brand books; but they ain't got mine. I'm not wearin' no brand. I
ain't even ear-notched, 'though I must 'a' been a 'sleeper' when I let
'em put this walnut on my head. I'm a plain, ornery maverick. Think I'm
comin' out in th' open? I don't want no brass band playin' when I go to
war. I'm a Injun."

"Yo're a little striped animal in this town--one of them kind that's
onpleasant up-wind from a feller," snorted Idaho. "How can you play
Injun when they know yo're hangin' 'round here lookin' for yore money?
Answer me that, maverick!"

"I'm comin' to that. Can you get me an old hat? One that's plumb wore
out?"

"Reckon so," grunted Idaho, in surprise. "Th' clerk might be able to
dig one up."

"No, not th' clerk; but Ed Doane," corrected Johnny. "Now you think
hard before you answer this one: Could you see my face plain when you
found me? Could _they_ have seen it plain enough to be shore it was me?"

Idaho stared at him and a cheerful expression drifted across his
face. "I'm gettin' th' drift of this Injun business," he muttered.
"Mebby--mebby--cuss it, it _will_ work! I couldn't see nothin' but a
bump on th' ground along that wall till I lit a match. I'll get you a
hat an' I'll plant it, too."

Johnny nodded. "Plant anythin' else you want that don't look like
anythin' I own. Be shore that hat ain't like mine."

Idaho raised his hand as a sudden tramping sounded on the stairs.
"That yore outfit?" he asked as a loud, querulous voice was heard.

Johnny went to the door and called, whereupon Arch waved his companions
toward their quarters and answered the summons, following his foreman
into the room. Johnny was about to close the door when Idaho arose and
pushed past him.

"We been talkin' too loud," whispered the departing puncher. "You never
can tell. I'm goin' out to sit on th' top step where there's more air,"
and he went on again, the door closing after him.

Johnny turned and smiled at Arch's expression. "You boys leave at
daylight on th' jump. I got to stay here. You can say I'm waitin' for
th' chance to pick up some money--buyin' a herd of yearlin's cheap, or
anythin' you can think of. Anythin' that'll stick. You'll have plenty
of time to smooth it out before you get back home. I want you boys to
scratch up every cent you've got an' turn it over to me. Any left of
that I gave you after supper?"

"Shore--quite some," grinned Arch. "We had better luck, down th'
street. You must be aimin' to get a-plenty yearlin's, with that roll
you got. What are _we_ goin' to do, busted?"

"I want a couple of Colts, too," continued Johnny. "You won't need any
money. Th' waggin is well stocked--an' when you get back you can draw
on Arnold."

"We was goin' to stop at Highbank for a good time," protested Arch.

"Have it in yore old man's hotel an' owe it to him," suggested Johnny.

"Have a good time in my old man's place!" exclaimed Arch. "Oh, _h--l_!"
He burst out laughing. "That'll tickle th' boys, _that_ will!" The
puncher looked searchingly at his foreman. "Hey, what's all th'
trouble?"

Johnny thought it would be wiser to post his companion and crisply told
what had happened.

Arch cleared his throat, hitched up his belt, and looked foolish but
determined. "It's been comin' rapid, but I got it all. Yo're talkin' to
th' wrong man. You want to fix up that story for th' ranch with some
soft-belly that's ridin' that way. Better send a letter. We're all
stayin' here. _Fine_ bunch of----"

"You can help me more by goin' back like nothin's happened,"
interrupted Johnny. "Th' ranch won't be worryin' me then, an' if you
stayed here it might give th' game away. Besides, one man can live
longer on th' money we got than four can, only have a quarter of th'
chance to drink too much, an' only talk a fourth as much. That's th'
natural play, an' everythin' has _got_ to be natural."

"That's th' worst of havin' a smooth face," grumbled Arch, ruefully
rubbing his chin. "If I only had whiskers, I could shave 'em off an' be
a total stranger; but I don't reckon I could grow a good enough bunch
to get back here in time."

Johnny laughed, his heart warming to the puncher. "Take _you_ a year
or two; an' there's more'n whiskers needed to hide from a _good_ man.
There's little motions, gait, voice--oh, lots of things. You can help
me more if you go north. See Dave Green, tell him on th' quiet, an' ask
him to send me down a couple hundred dollars. He can buy a check from
th' Doc, payable to George Norton. There's a bank in this town. He's to
send it to George Norton, general delivery."

"Dave will spread it far an' wide," objected Arch. "He tells all he
knows."

"If he did," smiled Johnny, "it shore would be an eddication for th'
man that heard it. He talks a lot--an' says nothin'. If he told all he
knew, h--l would 'a' popped long ago on them ranges. I'm only wishin'
he could get a job in Kane's!"

"Gosh!" exclaimed Arch. "Mebby he can. He's a bang-up bartender."

Johnny shook his head and laughed.

"Well, I reckon you know best," said Arch. "If you say so, we'll go
home--but it hurts bad as a toothache. An' as long as we're goin', we
can start tonight--this minute."

"You'll start at daylight, like honest folks," chuckled Johnny. "Think
I want Kane to sit down an' figger why a lazy outfit got ambitious all
at once? An' th' two boys that lend me their guns want to be ridin'
close to th' waggin, on its left side, until they get out of town. I
don't want anybody noticin' they ain't got their guns. Mebby their
coats'll hide 'em, anyhow. But before you do anythin' else, get me a
copy of that weekly newspaper downstairs. There's some layin' around
th' office. Shore you got it all?"

Arch nodded, and his foreman opened the door. Idaho glanced around
and then went down the stairs and through the office, stopping at the
bar, where he held a low-voiced conversation with the man behind it.
Ed looked a little surprised at the unusual request, but Idaho's
earnestness and anxiety told him enough and he asked no questions. A
few minutes later, after Idaho had disappeared into the kitchen, Ed
told the clerk to watch the bar, and went up to his room, and dropped
several articles out of the window before he left it again.

When Idaho had finished scouting and planting the sombrero, a broken
spur, and a piece torn from a red kerchief, he went into the barroom
and grinned at his friend Nelson, who leaned carelessly back against
the wall; and then his eyes opened wide as he saw the size of the roll
of bills from which Johnny was peeling the outer layer. For two hours
they sat and played California Jack in plain sight of the street as
though nothing unusual had occurred, Johnny's sombrero pushed back on
his head, the walnut handle of one of his guns in plain sight, his
boots not only guiltless of spurs, but showing that they never had
borne them, and his faded, soiled, blue neckerchief was as it had been
all day. His mood was cheerful and his laughter rang out from time
to time as his friend's witticisms gave excuse. To test his roll, he
pulled it out again under his friend's eyes and thumbed off a bill,
changed his mind, rolled it back again, and carelessly shoved the
handful into his pocket.

Idaho leaned forward. "Who th' devil did _you_ slug?" he softly asked.

"Tell you later--deal 'em up," grunted Johnny, a sigh of satisfaction
slipping from him. It had been one of Tex Ewalt's maxims never to be
broke, even if carefully trimmed newspapers had to serve as padding,
and in this instance, at least, Johnny believed his old friend to be
right. The world finds bluff very useful, and opulence seldom receives
a cold shoulder.

At daylight three horsemen and a wagon went slowly up the little
street, two men sticking close to each other and the vehicle, and soon
became lost to sight. Two or three nighthawks paused and watched the
outfit, and one of them went swiftly into Kane's side door. Idaho drew
back from the corner of the hotel where he had been watching, nodded
wisely to himself, and went into the stable to look after his horse.

The little outfit of the SV stopped when a dozen miles had been put
behind and prepared and ate a hurried breakfast. As he gulped the last
swallow of coffee, Arch arose and went to his horse.

"Thirty miles a day with a waggin takes too long," he said. "One of you
boys ride in th' waggin an' gimme a lead hoss. Nelson's a good man,
an' it's our job to help him all we can. I can do it that way between
sleeps, if I can keep my eyes open to th' end of it. By gettin' a fresh
cayuse from my old man at Highbank, I'll set a record for these parts."

Gardner nodded. "Take my cayuse, Arch. I'm crucifyin' myself on th'
cross of friendship. Cook, give him some grub."

Ten minutes later Arch left them in a cloud of dust, glad to get away
from the wagon and keen to make a ride that would go down in local
history.

After breakfast Johnny sauntered into the barroom, nodded carelessly to
the few men there, and seated himself in his favorite chair.

"Thought mebby you might be among th' dear departed this mornin',"
remarked Ed carelessly. "Heard a shot soon after you left last night,
but they're so common 'round here that I didn't get none excited. Have
any trouble in Red Frank's?"

"You better pinch yoreself," retorted Johnny. "You saw me an' Idaho
settin' right in this room, playin' cards long after that shot. I
was upstairs when I heard it. Didn't go to Red Frank's. Changed my
mind when I got around at th' side of th' hotel, an' went through th'
kitchen, upstairs lookin' for Idaho. What business I got playin' nurse
to four growed-up men? A lot they'd thank me for cuttin' in on their
play."

"Did they have any trouble?"

"No; they wasn't in Red Frank's at all--anyhow, that's what they said.
Somebody playin' a joke, or seein' things, I reckon. Seen Idaho this
mornin'?"

"No, I ain't," answered Ed sleepily. "Reckon he's still abed. Say,
was that yore outfit under my winder before dawn? I come cussed near
shootin' th' loud-mouthed fool that couldn't talk without shoutin'."

Johnny laughed. "I reckon it was. They was sore about havin' to go
home. Know of any good yearlin's I can buy cheap?"

Ed yawned, rubbed his eyes, and slowly shook his head. "Too close to
Ridley. Folks down here mostly let 'em grow up an' sell 'em to him.
Prices would be too high, anyhow, I reckon. Better hunt for 'em nearer
home."

"That's what I been doin'," growled Johnny. "Well, mebby yo're right
about local prices an' conditions; but I'm goin' to poke around an' ask
questions, anyhow. To tell you th' truth, a town looks good to me for
a change, 'though I'm admittin' this ain't much of a town, at that.
Sorta dead--nothin' happens, at all."

"That's th' fault of th' visitor, then," retorted Ed, another yawn
nearly disrupting his face. "Ho-hum! Some day I'm goin' out an' find me
a cave, crawl in it, close it up behind me, an' sleep for a whole week.
An' from th' looks of you, it wouldn't do you no harm to do th' same
thing." He nodded heavily to the other customers as they went out.

"I'll have plenty of time for sleep when I get home," grinned Johnny.
"I got to get some easy money out of this town before I think of
sleepin'. Kane's don't get lively till dark, does it?"

Ed snorted. "Was you sayin' easy money?" he demanded with heavy sarcasm.

"I was."

"Oh, well; if you must, I reckon you must," grunted the bartender,
shrugging his shoulders.

"A new man, playin' careful, allus wins in a place like Kane's, if he's
got a wad of money as big as mine," chuckled Johnny, voicing another
maxim of his friend Tex, and patting the bulging roll in his pocket.

Ed looked at the pocket, and frowned. "Huh! Lord help that wad!" he
mourned.

"It's got all th' help it needs," countered Johnny. "I'm its guardian.
I might change it for bigger bills, for it's purty prominent now.
However, that can wait till it grows some more." He burst out laughing.
"Big as it is, there's room for more."

"Better keep some real little ones on th' outside," suggested Ed
wisely. "You show it too cussed much."

"Do you know there's allus a right an' a wrong way of doin'
everythin'?" asked his companion. "A man that's got a lot of money will
play safe an' stick a few little ones on th' outside; but a man that's
got only little bills will try to get a big one for th' cover. One is
tryin' to hide his money; th' other to run a bluff. Wise gamblers know
that. I got little bills on th' outside of mine. You watch 'em welcome
me."

Despite his boasts, he did not spend much time in Kane's, but slept
late and hung around the hotel for a day or two, and then, one morning,
he got a nibble on his bait. He was loafing on the hotel steps when he
caught sight of the sheriff coming up the street. Corwin had been out
of town and had returned only the night before. Seeing the lone man on
the steps, the peace officer lengthened his rolling stride and headed
straight for the hotel, his eyes fixed on the hat, guns, kerchief, and
boots.

"Mornin'," he said, nodding and stopping.

"Mornin'," replied Johnny cheerily. "Bright an' cool, but a little
mite too windy for this hour of th' day," he observed, watching a
vicious little whirlwind of dust racing up the middle of the street. It
suddenly swerved in its course, struck the sheriff, and broke, covering
them with bits of paper and hurling dust and sand in their faces and
mouths. Other furious little gusts sent the light débris of the street
high in the air to be tossed about wildly before settling back to earth
again.

"Yo're shore shoutin'," growled Corwin, spitting violently and rubbing
his lips. "Don't like th' looks of it. Ain't got no love for a sand
storm." He let his blinking eyes rest for a moment on his companion's
boots, noted an entire absence of any signs of spur straps, glanced at
the guns and at the opulent bump in one of the trouser pockets, noted
the blue neckerchief, and gazed into the light blue eyes, which were
twinkling at his expression of disgust. "D--n th' sand," he grunted,
spitting again. "How do you like this town of ourn, outside of th'
dust, now that you've seen more of it?"

Johnny smiled broadly. "Leavin' out a few things besides th' dust--such
as bein' too quiet, dead, an' lackin' 'most everythin' a town should
have--I'd say it is a purty fair town for its kind. But, bad as it is,
it ain't near as bad as that bed I've been sleepin' in. It reminds
me of some of th' country I've rid over. It's full of mesas, ridges,
canyons, an' valleys, an' all of 'em run th' wrong way. Cuss such a
bed. I gave it up after awhile, th' first night, an' played Idaho cards
till I was so sleepy I could 'a' slept on a cactus. After that, though,
it ain't been so bad. It's all in gettin' used to it, I reckon."

The sheriff laughed politely. "Well, I reckon there ain't no bed like
a feller's own. Speakin' of th' town bein' dead, that is yore fault;
you shouldn't stay so close to th' hotel. Wander around a little an'
you'll find it plumb lively. There's Red Frank's an' Kane's--they are
high-strung enough for 'most anybody." The momentary gleam in his eyes
was not lost on his companion.

"Red Frank's," cogitated Johnny. Then he laughed. "I come near goin' in
there, at that. Anyhow, I shore started."

"Why didn't you go on?" inquired the sheriff, speaking as if from
polite, idle curiosity. "You might 'a' seen some excitement in there."

"Somebody tried to play a joke on me," grinned Johnny, "but I fooled
'em. My boys are shore growed up."

"How'd yore boys make out?"

"They said they wasn't in there at all. Reckon somebody got excited
or drunk if they wasn't tryin' to make a fool out of me. But, come to
think of it, I _did_ hear a shot."

"They're not as rare as they're goin' to be," growled the sheriff. "But
it's hard to stop th' shootin'. Takes time."

Johnny nodded. "Reckon so. You got a bad crowd of Greasers here, too,
which makes it harder--though they're generally strong on knifeplay.
Mexicans, monte, an' mescal are a bad combination."

"Better tell yore boys to look sharp in Red Frank's. It's a bad place,
'specially if a man's got likker in him. An' they'll steal him blind."

"Don't have to tell 'em, for I sent 'em home," replied Johnny, and
then he grinned. "An' there ain't no man livin' can rob 'em, neither,
for I wouldn't let 'em draw any of their pay. Bein' broke, they didn't
kick up as much of a fuss as they might have. I know how to handle my
outfit. Say!" he exclaimed. "Yo're th' very man I been lookin' for, an'
I didn't know it till just this minute. Do you know where I can pick up
a herd of a couple or three hundred yearlin's at a fair figger?"

Corwin shook his head. "You might get a few here an' there, but they
ain't worth botherin' about. Anyhow, prices are too high. Better look
around on yore way back, up on some of them God-forsaken ranges north
of here. But how'll you handle a herd with yore outfit gone?"

His companion grinned and winked knowingly. "I'll handle it by buyin'
subject to delivery. Let somebody else have th' fun of drivin' a lot
of crazy-headed yearlin's all that distance. Growed-up steers are bad
enough, an' I've had all I want of them for awhile. Well," he chuckled,
"not havin' no yearlin's to buy, I reckon I've got time to wander
around nights. Six months in a ranchhouse is shore confinin'. I need a
change. What do you say to a little drink?"

Corwin wiped more sand from his lips. "It's a little early in th' day
for me, but I'm with you. This blasted wind looks like it's gettin'
worse," he growled, scowling as he glanced about.

"It's only addin' to th' liveliness of yore little town," chuckled
Johnny, leading the way.

"We ain't had a sand storm in three years," boasted the sheriff, hard
on his companion's heels. "I see you know th' way," he commented.

Johnny set down his empty glass and brought up the roll of bills,
peeled the outer from its companions, and tossed it on the bar. "You
got to take somethin' with us, Ed," he reproved.

Ed shrugged his shoulders, slid the change across the counter, and
became thoughtfully busy with the arrangement of the various articles
on the backbar.

Corwin treated, talked a few moments, and then departed, his busy brain
asking many questions and becoming steadily more puzzled.

Ed mopped the bar without knowing he was doing it, and looked at his
new friend. "Where'd you pick _that_ up?" he asked.

"Meanin'?" queried Johnny, glancing at the windows, where sand was
beating at the glass and pushing in through every crack in the woodwork.

"Corwin."

"Oh, he rambled up an' got talkin'. Reckon I'll go out, sand or no
sand, an' see if I can get track of any yearlin's, just to prove that
you don't know any thin' about th' cow business."

"Nobody but a fool would go out into that unless they shore had to,"
retorted Ed. "It's goin' to get worse, shore as shootin'. I know 'em.
Lord help anybody that has to go very far through it!"

Johnny opened the door, stuck his head out and ducked back in again.
Tying his neckerchief over his mouth and nose, he went to the rear
door, closed his eyes, and plunged out into the storm, heading for the
stable to look to the comfort of his horse. Pepper rubbed her nozzle
against him, accepted the sugar with dignity, and followed his every
move with her great, black eyes. He hung a sack over the window and,
finding nails on a shelf, secured it against the assaults of the wind.

"There, Pepper Girl--reckon you'll be right snug; but don't you go an'
butt it out to see what's goin' on outside. I'm glad this ain't no
common shed. Four walls are a heap better than three today."

"That you, Nelson?" came a voice from the door. Idaho slid in, closed
the door behind him with a bang, and dropped his gun into the holster.
"This is shore a reg'lar storm; an' that's shore a reg'lar hoss!" he
exclaimed, spitting and blowing. He stepped toward the object of his
admiration.

"Look out!" warned Johnny. "She's likely to brain a stranger. Trained
her that way. She'll mebby kill anybody that comes in here; but not
hardly while I'm around, I reckon. Teeth an' hoofs--she's a bad one if
she don't know you. That's why I try to get her a stable of her own.
What was you doin' with th' six-gun?"

"Keepin' th' sand out of it," lied Idaho. "Thief-proof, huh?" he
chuckled. "I'm sayin' it's a good thing. Ever been tried?"

"Twice," answered Johnny. "She killed th' first one." He lowered his
voice. "I'm figgerin' Corwin knows about that little fracas of th'
other night. Did you tell anybody?"

"Not a word. What about yore outfit?"

"Tight as fresh-water clams, an', besides, they didn't have no chance
to. They even left without their breakfast. But I'm dead shore he
knows. How did he find it out?"

"Looks like you might be right, after all," admitted Idaho. "I kept
a lookout that mornin', like I told you, an' th' news of yore outfit
leavin' was shore carried, which means that somebody in Kane's gang was
plumb interested. How much do you think Corwin knows about it?"

"Don't know; but not as much now as he did before he saw me this
mornin'," answered Johnny. "When he sized me up, his eyes gave him
away--just a little flash. But now he may be wonderin' who th' devil it
was that got clubbed that night. An' he showed more signs when he saw
my money. Say: How much does Ed know?"

"Not a thing," answered Idaho. "He's one of my best friends, an' none
of my best friends ask me questions when I tell 'em not to. An' now I'm
glad I told him not to, because, of course, you don't know anythin'
about him. No, sir," he emphatically declared; "anythin' that Corwin
knows come from th' other side. What you goin' to do?"

"I don't know," admitted Johnny. "I got to wrastle that out; but I _do_
know that I ain't goin' out of th' hotel today. It looks like Californy
Jack for us till this blows over. Yore cayuse fixed all right?"

"Shore; good as I can. Come on, if yo're ready."

"Hadn't you better carry yore gun in yore hand, so th' sand won't get
in it?" asked Johnny gravely.

Idaho looked at him and laughed. "Come on--I'm startin'," he said, and
he dashed out of the building, Johnny close at his heels.



                              CHAPTER IV

                          A JOURNEY CONTINUED


Pounding into Highbank from the south, Arch turned the two fagged-out
horses into his father's little corral, roped the better of the two he
found there, saddled it, and rode around to the front of the hotel,
where he called loudly.

Pete Wiggins went to the door and scowled at his son. "What you doin'
with that hoss?" he demanded in no friendly tone.

"Breakin' records," impudently answered his young hopeful. "Left Big
Creek, north of Mesquite, at six-twenty this mornin', an' I'm due in
Gunsight before dark. Left you two cayuses for this one but don't ride
'em too hard. So-long!" and he was off in a cloud of dust.

Pete Wiggins stepped forward galvanically and called, shaking his
first. "Come back here! Don't you kill _that_ hoss!"

His beloved son's reply was anything but filial, but as long as his
wrathful father did not hear it, perhaps it may better be left out of
the record.

The shadows were long when Arch drew up in front of the "Palace" in
Gunsight, and dismounted almost in the door. He looked at his watch
and proudly shouted the miles and the time of the ride before looking
to see who was there to hear it. As he raised his head and saw Dave
Green, Arnold, and two strangers staring at him, he called himself a
fool, walked stiffly to a chair, and lowered himself gently into it.

"That's shore some ridin'," remarked Dave, surprised. "What's wrong?
What's th' reason for killin' cayuses?"

"Wanted to paste somethin' up for others to shoot at," grinned Arch,
making the best of the situation.

"How'd you come to leave ahead of Nelson?" demanded Arnold, his
easy-going boss. "Where is he? An' where's th' rest of th' boys?" The
SV owner was fast falling into the vernacular, which made him fit
better into the country.

"Oh, he's tryin' to make a fortune buyin' up a herd of fine yearlin's,"
answered the record-maker with confident assurance. "It ain't nothin'
to him that th' owner don't want to sell 'em. I near busted laughin'
at 'em wranglin'. They was near fightin' when I left. You should 'a'
heard 'em! Anybody'd think that man didn't own his own cattle. But
I'm bettin' on Nelson, just th' same, for when I left they had got to
wranglin' about th' price, an' that's allus a hopeful sign. He shore
will tire that man out. I used a lead hoss as far as Highbank, changin'
frequent', an' got a fresh off th' old man. Nelson told us all to go
home, where we're needed--but he'll be surprised when he knows how
quick _I_ got there. Sam an' th' others are with th' waggin, comin'
slower."

"I should hope so!" snorted Arnold. "An' you ain't home yet. What's th'
real reason for all this speed, an' for headin' here instead of goin'
to th' ranch? A man that's born truthful makes a poor liar; but I'll
say this for you, Arch--with a little practice you'll be near as good
as Dave, here. Come on; tell it!"

Arch looked wonderingly at his employer, grinned at Dave, and then
considered the two strangers. "I've done told it already," he affirmed,
stiffly.

"Shake hands with Red Connors an' Hopalong Cassidy," said Arnold.
"You've heard of them, haven't you?"

"Holy cats! I _have_!" exclaimed Arch, gripping the hands of the two
in turn. "I certainly have. Have you two ever been in Mesquite?" he
demanded, eagerly. "Good! Now, wait a minute; I want to think," and he
went into silent consultation with himself.

"Mebby he's aimin' to improve on me," said Dave. "Judgin' from th'
studyin', I figger he's trying to bust in yore class, Arnold."

Arch grinned from one to the other. "Seein' as how we're all friends of
Nelson, an' his wife ought to be kept calm, I reckon I ought to spit
it out straight. Here, you listen," and he told the truth as fully and
completely as he knew it.

Arnold shook his head at the end of the recital. The loss of the herd
money was a hard blow, but he was too much of a man to make it his
chief concern. "Arch," he said slowly, "yo're so fond of breakin'
records that yo're goin' to sleep in town, get another horse at
daylight, an' break yore own record gettin' back to Mesquite. Tell that
son-in-law of mine to come home right away, before Peggy is left a
widow. It's no fault of his that he lost it--it's to his credit, goin'
to the aid of his men. I wouldn't 'a' had it to lose if it wasn't for
what he's done for th' SV. He earned it for me; an' if he's lost it,
all right."

"Most generally th' East sends us purty poor specimens," observed Dave.
"Once in awhile we get a thoroughbred. Gunsight's proud of th' one it
got."

"Arnold," said Arch eagerly, "I'll get to Mesquite tomorrow if it's
moved to th' other side of h--l!"

Hopalong took the cigar from his mouth. "Wait a minute," he said.
He slowly knocked the ashes from it and looked around. "While I'm
appreciatin' what you just said, Arnold, I don't agree with it."
He thought for a moment and then continued. "You don't know that
son-in-law of yourn like I do. Somebody knocked him on th' head, stole
his money an' his guns. Don't forget th' guns. Bein' an easterner,
that mebby don't mean anythin' to you; but bein' an old Bar-20 man, it
means a heap to me. He won't leave till he's squared up, all around.
I _know_ it. Seein' how it is, we got to accept it; an' figger out
some way to make his wife take it easy, an' not do no worryin'. Here!"
he exclaimed, leaning forward. "Arnold, you sit down an' write him a
letter. Write it now. Tell him to stay down there until he gets a good
herd of yearlin's. Then Arch has got to start back in th' mornin' an'
join th' waggin, an' come home like he ought to. He stays here tonight,
an' nobody has seen him, at all."

"An' Dave don't need to bother with any check," said Red. "Hoppy an' me
has plenty of money. We'll start for Mesquite at daylight, Arch, here,
ridin' with us till we meet th' waggin. Of course, Hoppy don't mean
that yo're really goin' to write a letter, Arnold," he explained.

"That's just what I _do_ mean," said Hopalong. "He's goin' to write th'
letter, but he ain't goin' to send it. He'll give it to Arch, an' then
it can be torn up. What's th' use of lyin' when it's so easy to tell
th' truth? 'Though I'm admittin' I wasn't thinkin' of that so much as
I was that a man can allus tell th' truth better'n he can lie. When he
tells about th' letter, he's goin' to be talkin' about a real letter,
what won't get to changin' around in a day or two, or when he gets
rattled. Mrs. Johnny is mebby goin' to ask a lot of questions."

"I'll give odds that she does," chuckled Dave, looking under the
backbar. "Here's pen an' ink," he said, pushing the articles across the
counter. "There's paper an' envelopes around here some--here it is. Go
ahead, now: 'Dear Johnny: I take my----'"

"Shut up!" barked Arnold, glaring at him. "I guess I know how to write
a letter! Besides, I don't take my pen in hand. It's your pen, you
grinnin' chump! As long as we're ridin' on th' tail of Truth, let's
stick to it, all th' way. Shut up, now, an' gimme a chance!" He glared
around at the grinning faces, jabbed the pen in the ink, and went to
work. When he had finished, he read it aloud, and handed it to Arch,
who tore it up and threw the pieces on the floor.

Hopalong reached down, picked up the pieces, and gravely, silently put
them on the bar. Dave raked them into his hand, dropped them into a tin
dish, and put a match to them. Arnold looked around the little group
and snorted.

"Huh! You an' Dave must 'a' gone to th' same school!"

Dave nodded. "We have, I reckon. Experience is a good school, too."

"Th' lessons stick," said Hopalong, looking at Dave with a new interest.

Arch chuckled. "Cuss it! I'll shore hate to stop at that waggin. I'm
sayin' Mesquite is goin' to be terrible upset some day soon. Why
_ain't_ I got whiskers? I'd like to see his face when he sets eyes on
you fellers. Bet he'll jump up an' down an' yell!"

"Mebby," said Hopalong, "for if there's any yellin', he'll shore have
to start it. He sent you fellers away because you was known to be
friends of his, didn't he?"

Dave slapped the bar and laughed outright. "If I wasn't so fat, I'd go
with you! I'm beginnin' to see why he thought so much of you fellers.
Here--it's time for a drink."

"What are we goin' to tell Margaret?" asked Arnold. "She may get
suspicious if you leave so suddenly."

"You just keep repeatin' that letter to yoreself," laughed Red, "an'
leave th' rest to better liars. Yo're as bad a liar as Arch, here. Me
an' Hoppy may 'a' been born truthful, but we was plumb spoiled in our
bringin' up. Reckon we better be leavin' now. Arch, where'll we meet
you about two hours after daylight tomorrow?"

Arch groaned. "Shucks! About daylight it'll take Fanning that long to
get me out of bed--oh, well," he sighed, resignedly. "I'll be at th'
ford, waitin' for you to come along. Come easy, in case I'm asleep."

"South of here, on this trail?" asked Red. "Thought so. All right.
So-long," and he followed his slightly limping friend out to the
horses.

Dave hurried to the door. "Hey!" he shouted. "Hadn't I better send him
that check, anyhow? He may need it before you get there."

A roar of laughter from behind answered him, and he wheeled to face
Arch. "When does th' mail leave?" asked the puncher.

"Day after tomorrow," answered Dave, and swung around as a voice from
the street rubbed it in.

"You must 'a' played hookey from that school, Dave," jeered Arnold.

"He's fat clean to th' bald spot," shouted Arch. "Come on in, Dave. We
ain't got time to hold back for no mail to get there first." He stuck
his head out of the window. "So-long, fellers! See you at th' ford."

Dave watched the three until they were well along the trail and then he
turned slowly. "I never did really doubt th' stories Nelson told about
that old outfit, but if I had any doubts I ain't got them no more. Did
you see th' looks in their eyes when you was tellin' about Nelson?"

"I did!" snapped Arch. "Why in h--l ain't I got whiskers?"

Reaching the SV, Arnold and his companions put up the horses and walked
slowly toward the house, seeing a flurry of white through the kitchen
door.

"Think it'll reach him in time?" asked Red, waiting outside the door
for Arnold to enter first.

"Ought to. Slim said he would mail it at Highbank as soon as he got
there," answered Arnold.

"I shore hope so," said Red. "I'd hate to have that ride for nothin'
an' it would just be our luck to pass him somewhere on th' way, an' get
there after he left."

"He'd likely foller th' reg'lar trail up, anyhow," said Hopalong. "It
ain't likely we'll miss him."

Margaret put down the dish and looked at them accusingly. "What are you
boys talking about?" she demanded.

"Only wonderin' if yore father's letter will get to Johnny in time to
catch him before he leaves," said Hopalong. "Dave says it will as long
as that Slim feller is takin' it to Highbank with him. Slim live down
there?" he asked his host.

"No; goin' down for th' Double X, I suppose," replied Arnold. "Supper
ready, Peggy?"

"Not until I learn more about this," retorted Margaret, determinedly.
"What letter are you talking about?"

"Oh, I told Johnny to look around and see if he could pick up a good
herd of yearlings cheap," answered her father, going into the next room.

Margaret compressed her lips, but said nothing about it, whereupon Red
silently swore a stronger oath of allegiance. "The table is waiting for
you. I've had to keep the supper warm," she said.

Red nodded understandingly. "Men-folks are shore a trial an'
tribulation," he said, passing through the door.

"Hadn't ought to take him very long, I suppose?" queried Arnold,
passing the meat one way and the potatoes the other.

Red laughed. "You don't know him very well, yet," he replied. "Give him
a chance to dicker over a herd an' he's happy for a week or more. He
shore does like to dicker."

"I never saw anything in his nature which would indicate anything like
that," said Margaret, tartly. "He always has impressed me with being
quite direct. Perhaps I did not understand you correctly?"

"Peggy! Peggy!" reproved her father. "It means bread and butter for us."

"I can eat my bread without butter," she retorted. "As a matter of fact
I've seen very little butter out in this country."

Red screwed his face up a little and wriggled his foot. "I don't reckon
you've ever seen him buyin' a herd, ma'am?"

"You are quite right, Mr. Connors. I never have."

Red did not take the trouble to inform her that _he_ never had seen her
husband buy a herd. "I reckon it's his love for gamblin'," he said,
carelessly, and instantly regretted it.

"Gambling?" snapped Margaret, her eyes sparking. "Did you say gambling?"

Hopalong flashed one eloquent look at his friend, whose hair now was
not the only red thing about him, and removed the last of the peel from
the potato. "Red is referrin', I reckon, to th' love of gamblin' that
was born in yore husband, Margaret. It allus has been one of his, an'
our, fears that it would get th' best of him. But," he said, proudly
and firmly, "it never did. Johnny is gettin' past th' age, now, when a
deck of cards acts strong on him. An' it's all due to Red. He used to
whale him good every time he caught th' Kid playin'."

Red's sanctimonious expression made Hopalong itch to smear the hot
potato over it, and the heel of his boot on Red's shin put a look of
sorrow on that person's face which was not in the least simulated.

"We all had a hand in that, Margaret," generously remarked the man
with the shuddering shin. "Tex Ewalt watched him closest. But, as I
was sayin', out at th' corral, I don't believe he's got men enough to
handle no herd of yearlin's. Them youngsters are plumb skittish, an'
hard to keep on th' trail. Me an' Hoppy are aimin' to go down an' help
him--an' see him all th' sooner, to tell you th' truth."

"That will please him," smiled Margaret. She looked at her father,
whose appetite seemed to be ravenous, judging by the attention he was
giving to the meal. "What did you write, Dad?"

Arnold washed down a refractory mouthful of potato, which suffered
from insufficient salivation, and looked up. He repeated the letter
carelessly and reached for another swallow of coffee, silently thanking
Hopalong for insisting that the letter actually be written.

The meal over they sat and chatted until after dark, Margaret doing
up a bundle of things which she thought her husband might need. When
morning came she had breakfast on the table at daylight for her
departing friends, and she also had a fat letter for her husband,
which she entrusted to Red, the sterling molder of her husband's manly
character.

When they had ridden well beyond sight of the house Hopalong
thoughtfully dropped the bundle to the ground, turned in the saddle and
looked with scorn at his friend. "You shore are a hard-boiled jackass!
For two bits I'd 'a' choked you last night. How'd you like to have
somebody shoot off his mouth to yore wife about your gamblin'?"

"I've reformed, an' she knows it!"

"Yes, you've reformed! You've reformed a lot, you have!"

"You ain't got no business pickin' on th' man that taught th' Kid most
all he knows about poker!" tartly retorted Red.

"Cussed little you ever taught him," rejoined Hopalong. "It was me an'
Tex that eddicated his brain, an' fingers. He only used you to practice
on."

And so they rode, both secretly pleased by this auspicious beginning of
a new day, for the day that started without a squabble usually ended
wrong, somehow. Picking up Arch, who yawningly met them at the ford,
they pushed southward at a hard pace, relying on the relay which their
guide promised to get at Highbank. Reaching this town Arch led them
to his father's little corral, and exulted over the four fresh horses
which he found there. Saddles were changed with celerity and they
rolled on southward again.

       *       *       *       *       *

Peter Wiggins in the hotel office held the jack of hearts over the ten
of the same suit and cocked an ear to listen. Slowly making the play
he drew another card from the deck in his hand, and listened again.
Reluctant to bestir himself, but a little suspicious, he debated the
matter while he played several cards mechanically. Then he arose and
walked through the building, emerging from the kitchen door. Three
swiftly moving riders, his son in the middle, were taking the long,
gentle slope just south of town. Pete's laziness disappeared and he
made good time to the corral. One look was enough and he shook a
vengeful fist at his heir and pride.

"Twice!" he roared, kicking an inoffensive tomato can over the corral
wall. "Twice! Mebby you'll try it again! All right; _I_'m willin'. I
never heard of anybody around here thraskin' a twenty-three-year-old
son, but as long as yo're bustin' records an' makin' th' Wigginses
famous, I ought to do _my_ share. Yo're bustin' ridin' records--I'm
aimin' to bust th' hidin' records, if you don't smash th' sprintin'
records, you grinnin' monkey!"

Pete went into the hotel, soon returning with the cards and a box; and
for the rest of the morning played solitaire with the steadily rising
sun beating on his back, and swarms of flies exploring his perspiring
person.

The three riders were going on, hour after hour, their speed entirely
controlled by what they knew of horseflesh, and when they espied the
wagon Arch suggested another change of mounts, which was instantly
overruled by Hopalong.

"Some of them Mesquite hombres will be rememberin' them cayuses," he
said. "We're doin' good enough as we are."

When they reached the wagon and drew rein to breathe their mounts,
Joe Reilly grinned a welcome. "Thought you was goin' to Gunsight!" he
jeered.

Arch laughed triumphantly. "I've done been there, but got afraid you
fellers might get lost. Meet Hopalong Cassidy an' Red Conners, friends
of th' foreman."

"Why'n h--l didn't you bring my hoss with you, you locoed cow?" blazed
Sam Gardner from the wagon seat. "You never got to Gunsight. You must
'a' hit a cushion an' bounced back."

"Forgot all about yore piebald," retorted Arch. "But if you must have
a cayuse you can ask my old man for one when you get to Highbank. I'd
do it for you, only me an' him ain't on th' best of terms right now."
He turned to his two new friends. "All you got to do now is foller th'
wagon tracks to town."

"So-long," said the two, and whirled away.

They spent the night not many miles north of Big Creek and were riding
again at dawn. As they drew nearer to their objective the frisking wind
sent clouds of dust whirling around them to their discomfort.

"That must be th' town," grunted Red through his kerchief as his eyes,
squinting between nearly closed lids, caught sight of Mesquite through
a momentary opening in the dust-filled air to the southeast.

"Hope so," growled his companion. "Cussed glad of it. This is goin' to
be a whizzer. Look at th' tops of them sand hills yonder--streamin'
into th' air like smoke from a roarin' prairie fire. Here's where we
separate. I'm takin' to th' first shack I find. Don't forget our names,
an' that we're strangers, for awhile, anyhow."

Red nodded. "Bill Long an' Red Thompson," he muttered as they parted.

Not long thereafter Hopalong dismounted in the rear of Kane's and put
his horse in the nearer of the two stables, doing what he could for the
animal's comfort, and then stepped to the door. He paused, glanced back
at the "P. W." brand on the horse and smiled. "Red's is a Horseshoe
cayuse. That's what I call luck!" and plunged into the sand blasts.
Bumping into the wall of Kane's big building he followed it, turned the
corner, and groped his way through the front door.

At the sudden gust the bartender looked around and growled. "Close that
door! _Pronto!_"

The newcomer slammed it shut and leaned against the wall, rubbing at
his eyelids and face, and shed sand at every movement.

The bartender slid a glass of water across the bar. "Here; wash it
out. You'll only make 'em worse, rubbin'," he said as the other began
rubbing his lips and spitting energetically.

Bill Long obeyed, nodded his thanks and glanced furtively at the door,
and became less alert. "Much obliged. I didn't get all there was
flyin', but I got a-plenty."

The dispenser of drinks smiled. "Lucky gettin' in out of it when you
did."

"Yes," replied Bill, nervously. "Yes; plumb lucky. This will raise th'
devil with th' scenery."

"Won't be a trail left," suggested the bartender, watching closely.

Bill glanced up quickly, sighed with satisfaction and then glanced
hurriedly around the room. "Whose place is this?" he whispered out of
the corner of his mouth.

"Pecos Kane's," grunted the bartender, greatly pleased about something.
His pleasure was increased by the quick look of relief which flashed
across the other's face, and he chuckled. "Yo're all right in here."

"Yes," said Bill, and motioned toward a bottle. Gulping the drink
he paid for it and then leaned over the counter. "Say, friend," he
whispered anxiously, "if anybody comes around askin' for Bill Long, you
ain't seen him, savvy?"

"Never even heard of th' gent," smiled the other. "Here's where you
should ought to lose yo're name," he suggested.

Bill winked at him and slouched away to become mixed up in the crowd.
The checkerboard rear wall obtruded itself upon his vision and he went
back and found a seat not far from it and from Kit Thorpe, bodyguard of
the invisible proprietor, who sat against the door leading through the
partition. Thorpe coldly acknowledged the stranger's nod and continued
to keep keen watch over the crowd and the distant front door.

The day was very dull, the sun's rays baffled by the swirling sand, and
the hanging kerosene lamps were lit, and as an occasional thundering
gust struck the building and created air disturbances inside of it
the lamps moved slightly to and fro and added a little more soot to
the coating on their chimneys. Bill's natural glance at the unusual
design of the rear wall caught something not usual about it and caused
an unusual activity to arise in his mind. He knew that his eyes were
sore and inflamed, but that did not entirely account for the persistent
illusion which they saw when his roving glance, occasionally returning
to the wall, swept quickly over it. There were several places where
the black was a little blacker, and these spots moved on their edges,
contracting and lengthening as the lamps swung gently. Pulling the brim
of his hat over his eyes, he faced away from the wall and closed his
burning eyelids, but his racing thoughts were keen to solve any riddle
which would help to pass the monotonous time. Another veiled glance as
he shifted to a more comfortable position gave him the explanation he
sought. Those few black squares had been cut out, and the moving strips
of black which had puzzled him were the shadows of the edges, moving
across a black board which, set back the thickness of the partition,
closed them.

"Peekholes," he thought, and then wondered anew. Why the lower row,
then, so low that a man would have to kneel to look through the
openings? "Peekholes," persisted hide-bound Experience, grabbing at the
obvious. "Perhaps," doubted Suspicion; "but then, why that lower row?"
Suddenly his gunman's mind exulted. "Peekholes above, an' loopholes
below." A good gunman would not try to look through such small
openings, nearly closed by the barrel of a rifle. But why a rifle, for
a _good_ gunman? "He'd need all of a hole to look through, an' a _good_
gunman likes a hip shot. That's it: Eyes to th' upper, six-gun at th'
lower, for a range too short to allow a miss."

He stirred, blinked at the gambling crowd and closed his eyes again.
The sudden, gusty opening of the front door sent jets of soot spouting
from the lamp chimneys and bits of rubbish skittering across the floor;
and it also sent his hand to a gun-butt. He grunted as Red Thompson
entered, folded his arms anew and dozed again, as a cynical smile
flickered to Thorpe's face and quickly died. Bill shifted slightly.
"Any place as careful in thinkin' out things as _this_ place is will
stand a lot of lookin' over," he thought. "Th' Lord help anybody that
pulls a gun in this room. An' I'll bet a man like Kane has got more'n
loopholes. I'm shore goin' to like his place."

Kit Thorpe had not missed the stranger's alert interest and motion
at the opening of the door, but for awhile he did not move. Finally,
however, he yawned, stretched, moved restlessly on his chair and
then noisily arose and disappeared behind the partition, closing the
checkered door after him. It was not his intention to sit so close to
anyone who gave signs which indicated that he might be engaged in a
shooting match at any moment. It would be better to keep watch from the
side, well out of the line of fire.

Bill Long did not make the mistake of looking at the holes again,
but dozed fitfully, starting at each gust which was strong enough to
suggest the opening of the door. "I got to find th' way, an' that's
all there is to it," he muttered. "How am I goin' to be welcome around
here?"



                               CHAPTER V

                          WHAT THE STORM HID


The squeaking of the door wakened Johnny and his gun swung toward the
sound as a familiar face emerged from the dusk of the hall and smiled a
little.

"Reckon it ain't no shootin' matter," said the sheriff, slowly
entering. He walked over to a chair and sat down. "Just a little call
in th' line of duty," he explained.

"Sorry there wasn't a bell hangin' on th' door, or a club, or
somethin'," replied Johnny ironically. "Then you could 'a' waited till
I asked you to come in."

"That wouldn't 'a' been in th' line of duty," chuckled Corwin, his eyes
darting from one piece of wearing apparel to another. "I'm lookin'
around for th' fellers that robbed th' bank last night. Yore clothes
don't hardly look dusty enough, though. Where was you last night, up to
about one o'clock?"

"Down in th' barroom, playin' cards. Why?"

"That's what Ed says, too. That accounts for you durin' an' after th'
robbery. I've got to look around, anyhow, for them coyotes."

"You'd show more sense if you was lookin' around for hoss tracks
instead of wastin' time in here," retorted Johnny, keeping his head
turned so the peace officer could not see what was left of the bump.

"There ain't none," growled Corwin, arising. "She's still blowin' sand
a-plenty--a couple of shacks are buried to their chimneys. I'm tellin'
you this is th' worst sand storm that ever hit this town, but it looks
like it's easin' up now. There won't be a trail left, an' th' scenery
has shifted enough by this time to look like some place else. Idaho
turn in when you did?"

"He did. Here he is now," replied Johnny, for the first time really
conscious of the sand blasts which rasped against the windows.

Idaho peered around the door, nodded at Corwin and looked curious, and
suspicious. "If I ain't wanted, throw me out," he said, holding up
his trousers with one hand, the other held behind his back. "Hearin'
voices, I thought mebby somebody was openin' a private flask an', bein'
thirsty, I come over to help. My throat is shore dusty. An' would you
listen to that wind? It shore rocked this old hotel last night. Th'
floor of my room is near ankle deep in places."

"Th' bank was robbed last night," blurted Corwin, watching keenly from
under his hat brim. "Whoever done it is still in town, unless he was a
d--d fool!"

Idaho grunted his surprise. "That so? Gee, they shore couldn't 'a'
picked a better time," he declared. "Gosh, there's sand in my hair,
even!"

Johnny rubbed his scalp, looked mildly surprised and slammed his
sombrero on his head. "It ain't polite," he grinned, "but I got enough
of it now." He sat up, crossed his legs under the sand-covered blankets
and faced his visitors. "Tell us about it, Sheriff," he suggested.

"Wait till I get a belt," said Idaho, backing out of the door. When he
returned he carried the rest of his clothes and started getting into
them as the sheriff began his recital.

"John Reddy, th' bank watchman, says he was a little careless last
night, which nobody can hardly blame him for. He sat in his chair
agin' the rear wall, th' whole place under his eyes, an' listened to
th' storm. To kill time he got to makin' bets with hisself about how
soon th' second crack in th' floor would be covered over, an' then th'
third, an' so on. 'Long about a little after twelve he says he hears
a moan at th' back door. He pulls his gun an' listens close, down
at th' crack just above th' sand drift. Then he hears it again, an'
a scratchin' an clawin'. There's only one thing he's thinkin' about
then--how he'd feel if he was th' poor devil out there, lost an' near
dead. I allus said a watchman should ought to have no feelin's, an' a
cussed strong imagination. John ain't fillin' th' bill either way. He
cleared away th' drift on his side of th' door an' opens it--an' beyond
rememberin' somethin' sandy jumpin' for him, that's all he knows till
he come to later on an' found hisself tied up, with a welt on th' head
that felt big as a doorknob."

If the sheriff expected to detect any interchange of glances between
his auditors at his reference to the watchman's bump on the head he was
disappointed. Johnny was looking at him with a frank interest seconded
by that of Idaho, and neither did anything else during the short pause.

"John got his senses back enough to know what had happened, an' one
glance around told him that he was right," continued Corwin. "Finally
he managed to get his legs loose enough to hobble, an' he butted out
into th' flyin' sand with his eyes shut an' his nose buried agin' his
shoulder so he could breathe; an' somehow he managed to hit a buildin'
in his blind driftin'. It was McNeil's, an' by throwin' his weight
agin' th' door an' buttin' it with his shoulders an' elbows, he woke up
Sam, who let him in, untied his arms an' th' rest of him, fixed him up
as well as he could in a hurry an' then left him there. Sam got Pete
Jennings, next door, sent Pete an' a scatter-gun to watch over what was
left in th' bank, an' then started out to find me. He had to give it up
till it got light, so he waited in th' bank with Pete. Th' bank fellers
are there now, checkin' up. Th' big, burglar-proof safe was blowed
open neat as a whistle--but they plumb ruined th' little one. They
overlooked th' biggest of all, down in th' cellar. Well," he sighed,
arising, "I got to go on with my callin'--an' it's one fine day to be
wanderin' all over town."

"If I was sheriff I wouldn't have to do much wanderin'," said Idaho.
"But, anyhow, it can't last," he grinned.

Johnny nodded endorsement. "Th' harder, th' shorter. It's gettin'
less all th' time," he said, pivoting and sitting on the edge of the
bed. "But, just th' same," he yawned, stretching ecstatically, "I'm
shore-e-e--g-l-a-d _I_ can stay indoors till she peters out. Yo're
plumb right, Corwin; them fellers never left town last night. An' if
I was you I'd be cussed suspicious of anybody that seemed anxious to
leave any time today."

"They never did leave town last night," said Idaho, a strange glint
showing in his eyes.

"An' nobody can leave today, neither," said Corwin. "If they try it
they will be stopped," he added, pointedly. "I've got a deputy coverin'
every way out, sand or no sand. So-long," and he tramped down the bare
stairs, grumbling at every step.

Johnny removed his hat to put on his shirt, and then replaced it. "You
speakin' about sand in yore hair gave me what I needed," he grinned.

"That's why I said it," laughed his companion. "I saw that yore neck
was stiff an' felt sorry for you. Now what th' devil do you think about
that bank?"

"Kane," grunted Johnny, pouring sand from a boot.

"That name must 'a' been cut on th' butt of th' gun that hit you,"
chuckled Idaho. "It's been drove in solid. Get a rustle on; I'm hungry,
an' my teeth are full of sand. I'm anxious to hear what Ed knows."

An unpleasant and gritty breakfast out of the way, they went in to
visit with the bartender and to while away a few hours at California
Jack.

"Hello," grunted Ed. "Sheriff come pokin' his face in _yore_ room?" he
asked.

"He did," answered Johnny; "an' he'll never know how close he come to
pokin' it into h--l."

"My boot just missed him," regretted Ed. "He sung out right prompt when
he felt th' wind of it. D--d four-flush."

"I'm among friends an' sympathizers," chuckled Idaho. "He says as how
he's goin' wanderin' around in th' sand blasts doin' his duty. Duty
nothin'! I'm bettin' he's settin' in Kane's, right now, takin' it easy."

"Then he can't get much closer to 'em," snorted Ed. "He can near touch
th' men that did it." He paused as Johnny laughed in Idaho's face
and, shrugging his shoulders, turned and rearranged the glasses on the
backbar: "All right; laugh an' be d--d!" he snorted; "but would you
look at that shelf an' them glasses? Cuss any country that moves around
like that. I bet I got some of them Dry Arroyo sand hills in them
glasses!"

"There was plenty in th' hash this mornin'," said Idaho; "but it didn't
taste like that Dry Arroyo sand. It wasn't salty enough. Gimme a taste
of that."

"Just because you'll make a han'some corpse ain't no reason why you
should be in any hurry," retorted Ed. "Here!" he snorted, tossing
a pack of cards on the bar. "Go over an' begin th' wranglin'
agin--'though th' Lord knows I ain't got nothin' agin' Nelson." He
glanced out of the window. "Purty near blowed out. It'll be ca'm in
another half-hour; an' then you get to blazes out of here, an' stay out
till dark!"

"I wish I had yore happy disposition," said Idaho. "I'd shore blow my
brains out."

"There wouldn't be anythin' to clean up, anyhow!" retorted Ed. "Lord
help us, here comes Silent Lewis!"

"Hello, fellers!" cried the newcomer. "Gee but it's been some storm.
Sand's all over everythin'. Hear about th' bank robbery?"

"Bank robbery?" queried Ed, innocently. "What bank robbery? Sand bank?"
he asked, sarcastically.

"Sand bank! Sand bank nothin'!" blurted Silent. "Ain't you heard it
yet? Why, I live ten miles out of town, an' I know all about it."

"I believe every word you say," said Ed. "Tell us about it."

"Gee, where have you-all been?" demanded Silent "Why, John Reddy,
settin' on his chair, watchin' th' safe, hears a moanin', so he opened
th' door----"

"Of th' safe?" asked Idaho, curiously.

"No, no; of th' bank. Th' bank door, th' rear one. He hears a moan----"

"Which moan; first, or second?" queried Ed, anxiously.

"Th' first--th' second didn't come till--hey, I thought you didn't hear
about it?" he accused.

"I didn't; but you mentions two moans, separate an' distinct," defended
Ed.

"You shore did," said Idaho, firmly.

Johnny nodded emphatically. "Yessir; you shore did. Two moans, one at
each end."

"But I didn't get to th' second moan at all!"

"Now, what's th' use of tellin' us that?" flared the bartender. "Don't
you think we got ears?"

"If you can't tell it right, shut up," said Idaho.

"I can tell it right if you'll shut up!" retorted Silent. "As I said,
he hears a moan, so he leaves th' safe an' goes to th' door. Then he
hears a second moan, scratching', an'----"

"Hey!" growled Ed indignantly. "What you talkin' about? Who in h--l
ever heard of a second moan scratchin'----"

"It was th' first that scratched," corrected Idaho. "He said it plain.
You must be listenin' with yore feet."

"If you'd gimme a chance to tell it--" began Silent, bridling.

"Never mind my hearin' you," snapped Ed at Idaho. "I know what I
heard. An' lemme tell you, Silent, you can't cram nothin' like that
down my throat. Before you go any further, just explain to me how
a moan can scratch! I'm allus willin' to learn, but I want things
explained careful an' full."

"He ain't quick-witted, like you an' me," said Johnny. "We understand
how a scratch moans, but he's too dumb. Go on an' tell th' ignoramus."

"If yo're so cussed quick-witted, will you please tell me what'n blazes
you are talkin' about?" demanded Silent, truculently. "What do you mean
by a scratch moans?"

"That's what I want to know," growled Idaho. "You can't scratch moans.
Cuss it, I reckon I ought to know, for I've tried to do it, more'n
once, too."

"Yo're dumber than Nelson," jeered Ed. "It's all plain to me."

"What is?" snapped Idaho.

"Moanin' scratches, that's what!"

"Of a safe?" asked Johnny. "Then why didn't you say so? How'd _I_ know
that you meant that. Go on, Silent."

"You was at th' second moan," prompted Ed.

"He scratched that," said Idaho. "He got as far as leavin' th' safe,
'though what he was doin' in there with it, I'd like to know. Reddy let
you in?"

"Look here, Idaho," scowled Silent. "I wasn't in there at all. You'll
get me inter trouble, sayin' things like that. I was ten miles away
when it happened."

"Then why didn't you say so, at th' beginnin'?" asked Ed.

"Ah!" triumphantly exclaimed Johnny. "Then you tell us how you could
hear th' scratchin' an' moanin'; tell us that!"

"That's all right, Nelson," said Idaho, soothingly. "He can hear more
things when he's ten miles away than any man you ever knowed. Go ahead,
Silent."

"You go to h--l!" roared Silent, glaring. "You think yo're smart, don't
you, _all_ of you? I was goin' to tell you about th' robbery, but now
you can cussed well find it out for yoreselves! An' don't let me hear
about any of you sayin' I was in that bank last night, neither! D--d
fools!" and he stamped out, slamming the door behind him. "Blow an' be
d--d!" he growled at the storm. "I'd ruther eat sand than waste time
with them ijuts. 'Scratch moans!' Scratch _h--l_!"

Silent's departure left a more cheerful atmosphere in the barroom.
The three men he had forsaken were grinning at each other, the petty
annoyances of the storm forgotten, and the next hour passed quickly. At
its expiration the wind had died down and the storm-bound town was free
again. Ed finished cleaning the bar and the glassware about the time
that his two friends had swept the last of the sand into the street and
cleared away a drift which blocked the rear door. They were taking a
congratulatory drink when Ridley, coming to town for the mail himself
because he would not ask any of his men to face the discomforts of that
ride, stamped in, and his face was like a thunder cloud.

"Gimme a drink!" he demanded, and when he had had it he swung around
and glared at Idaho. "Lukins have any money in that bank? Yes? You
better be off to let him know about it. H--l of a note: Thirty
thousand stole! An' Jud Hill holdin' a gun on _me_ when I rode into
town, askin' fool questions! An' let me tell you somethin'--judgin'
from th' tools they forgot to take with 'em, it wasn't no amatachures
that did that job. Diamond drills an' cow-country crooks don't know
each other. An' that Jud Hill, a-stoppin' _me_!"

"Mebby he won't let you leave town," suggested Idaho. "Corwin's given
orders like that."

Ridley crashed his fist on the bar, and then to better express his
feelings he leaned over and stuck out his jaw. "Y-a-a-s? Then I'm
invitin' you-all to Hill's funeral, an' Corwin's, too, if he cuts in!
_Thirty thousand!_ Great land of cows!"

"Corwin's out now, huntin' for 'em," said Ed.

"Is he?" sneered Ridley. "Then he wants to find 'em! Th' firm of
Twitchell an' Carpenter owns near half of that bank--every dollar th'
Question-Mark has was in it. There's a change comin' to this part of
th' country!" and he stamped out, mounted his horse and whirled down
the trail. When he reached the sentry he rode so close to him that
their legs rubbed and Hill's horse began to give ground.

"Do I go on?" snapped Ridley.

Jud Hill nodded pleasantly. "Shore. Seein' as how you come in this
mornin' I reckon you do."

Ridley urged his horse forward without replying, reached the
ranchhouse, wrote a letter which was a masterpiece of its kind and gave
it to one of his men to post in Larkinville, twenty miles to the south.
That done, all he could do was impatiently to await the reply.

After Ridley had left, Johnny went out to look after Pepper, found her
all right, cleaned the sand out of the feed box and then went down to
look at the bank. Four men with rifles were posted around it and waved
him away. He could see several other men busy in the building, but
beyond that there was nothing to claim his attention. Joining the small
crowd of idlers across the street he listened to their conjectures,
which were entirely vague and colorless, and then wandered back to
look for Idaho in Quayle's. His friend was not to be seen and after
exchanging a few words with the jovial proprietor he went in to talk
with the bartender.

"No wind now, but my throat's dry. Gimme a drink, half water," and
holding it untasted for the moment he jerked his head backward in the
direction of the bank. "Nothin' to see, except some fellers inside
lookin' for 'most anythin', an' four men with Winchesters on th'
outside."

While he was speaking a man had entered and seated himself in the rear
of the room. Johnny glanced carelessly at him, and the glass cracked
sharply in his convulsive grip, the liquor squirting through his
fingers and gathering a deeper color as it passed. A thin trickle of
blood ran down his hand and wrist.

Ed had started at the sound and his head was bent forward, his
unbelieving eyes staring at the dripping hand.

Johnny opened it slowly, shook the fragments from it and let it fall to
his side, mechanically shaking off blood and liquor. "Cuss it, Ed," he
gently reproved, looking calmly into the bartender's questioning face,
"you should ought to pick out th' bad ones an' throw 'em away--yes, an'
bust 'em first."

Ed picked up the bottom of the glass and critically examined it,
noting a discolored strip along one of the sharp edges, where dirt had
accumulated from numberless washings. The largest fragment showed the
greasy line to the rounded brim. "I usually do," he growled. "Thought I
had this one, too. Must 'a' got back somehow. Hurt bad?"

"Nothin' fatal, I reckon," answered Johnny, drawing the injured member
up his trousers leg. "But I'm sayin' you owe me another drink; an'
leave th' water out, this time. Water in whisky never does bring good
luck, nohow."

Ed smiled, pushing out bottle and glass. "We might say _that_ one was
on th' house--all that didn't get on you." He instinctively reached
for and used the bar cloth as he looked over at the stranger. "I can
promise you one that ain't cracked," he smiled.

"I'll take mine straight," said Bill Long. "I don't want no more hard
luck."

"Wonder where Idaho is?" asked Johnny. "Well, if he comes in, tell him
I'm exercisin' my cayuse. Reckon I'll go down an' chin with Ridley this
afternoon. Th' south trail is less sandy than th' north one."

"An' give Corwin a chance to say things about you?" asked Ed,
significantly. "He'll be lookin' for a peg to hang things on."

"Then mebby he won't never look for any more."

"That may be true; but what's th' use?"

"Reckon yo're right," reluctantly admitted Johnny. "Guess I'll go up to
Kane's an' see what's happenin'. If Idaho comes in, or any more of my
numerous friends," he grinned, "send 'em up there if they're askin'
for me. I'll mebby be glad to see 'em," and he sauntered out.

Ed smiled pleasantly at the other customer. "Bad thing, a glass
breakin' like that," he remarked.

Bill Long looked at him without interest. "Serves him right," he
grunted, "for holdin' it so tight. Nobody was aimin' to take it away
from him, was they?"

Johnny entered Kane's too busy thinking to give much notice to the
room and the suppressed excitement occasioned by the robbery, and sat
down at a table. As he leaned back in the chair he caught sight of a
red-headed puncher talking to one of Kane's card-sharps and he got
another shock. "Holy maverick!" he muttered, and looked carelessly
around to see if any more of his Montana friends had dropped into town.
Then he smiled as the card-sharp looking up, beckoned to him. As he
passed down the room he noticed the quiet easterner hunched up in a
corner, his cap well down over his eyes, and Johnny wondered if the
man ever wore it any other way. He was out of place in his cow-town
surroundings--perhaps that was why he had not been seen outside of
Kane's building. Ridley's remark about the tools came to him and he
hesitated, considered, and then went on again. He had no reason to do
Corwin's work for him. Dropping into a vacant chair at the gambler's
table he grunted the customary greeting.

"Howd'y," replied the card-sharp, nodding pleasantly.

"No use bein' lonesome. Meet Red Thompson," he said, waving.

"Glad to meet you," said Johnny, truthfully, but hiding as well as he
could the pleasure it gave him. "I once knowed a Thompson--short, fat
feller. Worked up on a mountain range in Colorado. Know him?"

Red shook his head. "Th' world's full of Thompsons," he explained. "You
punchin'?"

"Got a job on th' SV, couple of days' ride north of here. Just come
down with a little beef herd for Twitchell an' Carpenter. Ain't seen no
good bunch of yearlin's that can be got cheap, have you?"

Red shook his head: "No, I ain't."

The gambler laughed and poked a lean thumb at the SV puncher. "Modest
feller, _he_ is," he said. "He's foreman, up there."

Red's mild interest grew a little. "That so? I passed yore ranch comin'
down. Need another man?"

The SV foreman shook his head. "I could do with one less. Them bank
fellers picked a good time for it, didn't they?"

"They shore did," agreed the gambler. "Couldn't 'a' picked a better.
Kane loses a lot by that, I reckon. Well, what do you gents say to a
little game? Small enough not to cause no calamities; large enough to
be interestin'? Nothin' else to do that I can see."

Red nodded and, the limit soon agreed upon, the game began. As the
second hand was being dealt Bill Long wandered in, talked for a few
moments with the bartender and then went over to a chair. Tipping it
back against the wall he pulled down his hat brim, let his chin sink on
his chest and prepared to enjoy a nap. Naturally a man wishing to doze
would choose the darkest corner, and if he was not successful who could
tell that the narrow slit between his lids let his keen eyes watch
everything worth seeing? His attention was centered mostly on the
tenderfoot stranger with the low-pulled cap and the cut-out squares in
the great checkerboard partition at the rear of the room.

The poker game was largely a skirmish, a preliminary feeling out for
a game which was among the strong probabilities of the future. Johnny
and the gambler were about even with each other at the breaking up of
the play, but Red Thompson had lost four really worth-while jack pots
to the pleasant SV foreman. As they roughly pushed back their chairs
Bill Long stirred, opened his eyes, blinked around, frowned slightly
at being disturbed and settled back again. "Red couldn't 'a' got that
money to him in no better way," he thought, contentedly.

The three players separated, Johnny going to the hotel, Red seeking a
chair by the wall and the gambler loafing at the bar.

"An' how'd you find 'em?" softly asked the wise bartender. "Goin' after
that foreman's roll?"

The gambler grunted and shifted his weight to the other leg. "Thompson
ain't very much; but I dunno about th' other feller. Sometimes I think
one thing; sometimes, another. Either he's cussed innocent, or too
slick for me to figger. Reckon mebby Fisher ought to go agin' him, an'
find out, for shore."

"How'd you make out, last night, with Long?"

"There's a man th' boss ought to grab," replied the gambler. "He didn't
win much from me--but it's his first, an' last, chance with me. I don't
play him no more. I'd like to see him an' Fisher go at it, with no
limit. Fisher would have th' best of it on th' money end, havin' th'
house behind him in case he had to weather a run of hard luck; but
mebby he'd need it."

As the gambler walked away the easterner arose, slouched to the bar and
held a short whispered conversation with the man behind it.

The bartender frowned. "You can't get away before night. Sandy Woods
will take care of you before mornin', I reckon. Go upstairs an' quit
fussin'. Yo're safe as h--l!"

The bartender's prophecy came true after dark, when Sandy Woods and
the anxious stranger quietly left town together; but the stranger had
good reason to be anxious, for at dawn he was careless for a moment and
found himself looking into his escort's gun. He had more courage than
good sense and refused to be robbed, and he died for it. Sandy dragged
the body into a clump of bushes away from the trail and then rode on
to kill the necessary time, leading the other's horse. He was five
thousand dollars richer, and had proved wrong the old adage about honor
among thieves.



                              CHAPTER VI

                        THE WRITING ON THE WALL


When the senior member of the firm of Twitchell and Carpenter read
Ridley's letter things began to happen. It was the last straw, for
besides being half-owners in the bank the firm had for several years
been annoyed by depredations committed by Mesquite citizens on its
herds. The depredations had ceased upon payment of "campaign funds"
to the Mesquite political ring, but the blackmail levy had galled the
senior member, who was not as prone as Carpenter was to buy peace.
Orders flew from the firm's office and the little printing-plant at
Sandy Bend broke all its hazy precedents, with the result that a
hard-riding courier, relaying twice, carried the work of the job-print
toward Mesquite. Reaching Ridley's domain he turned the package over to
the local superintendent, who joyously mounted and carried it to town.

Tim Quayle welcomed his old friend, listened intently to what Ridley
had to say and handed over an assortment of tacks and nails, and a
chipped hammer. "'Tis time, Tom," he said, simply.

Ridley went out and selected a spot on the hotel wall, and the sound of
the hammer and the sight of his unusual occupation caused a small crowd
of curious idlers to gather around him. When the poster was unrolled
there were sibilant whispers, soft curses, frank prophesies, and some
commendations, which was entirely a matter of the personal viewpoint.
Half an hour later, the last poster placed, Ridley took a short cut,
entered the hotel through the kitchen and went into the barroom. What
he had published for the enlightenment, edification, or disapprobation
of his fellow-citizens was pointed and business-like, and read as
follows:

                          =$2,500.00 REWARD!=

                For Information Leading to the Capture
                 and Conviction of the Men Who Robbed
                          the Mesquite Bank.

                        =STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL=

                         TWITCHELL & CARPENTER

                Sandy Bend      TOM RIDLEY, Local Supt.

Quayle turned and smiled at the T & C man. "Ye've slapped their faces,
Tom. Mind yore eye!"

"They've prodded th' old mosshead once too often," growled Ridley,
looking around at Johnny, Idaho, and the others. "I reckon this stops
th' blackmail to th' gang. When I wrote my letter I expected somethin'
would happen, an' th' letter I got in return near curled my hair.
Twitchell's fightin' mad."

"Th' reward's too big," criticized Idaho.

"I'm fearin' it ain't big enough," said Ed Doane, shaking his head.

Ridley laughed contentedly. "It's more than enough. There's men in
this town, an' that gang, who would knife anybody for half of that.
When they can get twenty-five hundred by simply openin' their mouths,
without bein' known, they'll do it. Loyalty is fine to listen about,
but there's few men in th' gang we're after that have any twenty-five
hundred dollars' worth. This is th' beginnin' of th' end. Mark my
words."

"A lot depends on how many were in on it," suggested Johnny, "an' how
many of th' others know about it."

"He's throwin' money away," doggedly persisted Idaho. "A thousand would
buy any of 'em, that an' secrecy."

"He ain't throwin' it away," retorted Ridley, "considerin' his letter.
He's after results, amazin' results, an' he shore knows how to get 'em.
It'll be sort of more pleasant if th' gang is sold out. He figgers a
reward like that will save time an' be self-actin', for my orders are
to stay in th' ranchhouse an' wait. That's what I'm goin' to do, too;
an' I'll be settin' there with all guns loaded. No tellin' what'll
happen now an', not bein' able to say how soon it will happen, I'm
leavin' you boys. So-long."

He walked out to his horse and mounted. As he settled into the saddle
there was a flat report, his hat flew from his head and he toppled from
the horse, dead before he struck the ground.

Quayle swiftly reached over the desk and took a Winchester from its
pegs, Irish tears in his eyes; and waited hopefully, Irish rage in his
heart, watching the dirty windows and the open door. "It's to a finish,
byes," he grated in a brogue thickened by his emotions, the veins of
his forehead and neck swelling into serpentine ridges. "They read th'
writin' on th' wall, an' they read ut plain. D'ye mind what some of
thim divils would be after doin' for all that money? They'd cut their
own mither's throat--an' Kane knows ut! An' I'm thinkin' they'll be
careful now--Kane has served his notice."

The idlers in the street stood as if frozen, gaping, not one of them
daring to approach the body, nor even to stop the horse as it kicked
up its heels and trotted down the street. Ed Doane was the third man
through the door and he brought in the dead man's hat as Johnny and
Idaho placed the warm body on the floor of the office. They hardly had
stepped back when hurried footsteps neared the door and the sheriff,
with two of his deputies, entered the office, paused instinctively at
sight of the rifle in Quayle's hands, and then slowly, carefully bent
over to examine the body. The sheriff reached forth a hand to turn it
over, but stopped instantly and froze in his stooped position, his arm
outstretched.

"Kape ut off him!" roared Quayle, his eyes blazing. "What more d'ye
want to see?"

"From behind?" asked Corwin, slowly straightening up, but his eyes
fixed on the proprietor.

"An' where'd ye be thinkin' 'twas from?" snarled Quayle, the veins
standing out anew. "No dirty pup of that pack would dare try ut from
th' front, an' ye know ut! An' need ye look twice to see where th' slug
av a buffalo-gun came out? Don't touch him, anny av ye! Kape yore paws
off Tom Ridley! An' _I_'m buryin' him, mesilf."

"But, as sheriff--" began Corwin.

"Aye, _but_!" snapped Quayle. "We'll be after callin' things be
their right names. Ye are no sheriff. Ye was choosed by th' majority
av votes cast by th' citizens av an unorganized county, like byes
choose a captain av their gangs. There's no laws to back ye up, an'
ye took no oath. As long as th' majority will it, yore th' keeper
av th' peace--an' no longer. Sheriff?" he sneered. "An' 'tis a fine
sheriff ye'll be makin', runnin' in circles like a locoed cow since th'
robbery, questionin' every innocent man in town, an' hopin' 'twould
blow over, an' die a natural death. But it's got th' breath av life in
it now! What do ye think old Twitchell will be sayin' to _this_?" he
thundered, his rigid arm pointing to the body on the floor. "Clear out,
th' pack av ye! Ye've seen all ye need to!"

Corwin glanced at the body again, from it around the ring of set and
angry faces, shrugged his shoulders and motioned to his deputies to
leave. "We'll hold th' inquest here," he said, turning away.

"Ye'll hold no inquest!" roared Quayle. "Show me yore coroner! Inquest,
is ut? I've held yore inquest already. There's plenty av us here
an' we say, so help us God, Tom Ridley was murdered, an' by persons
unknown. There's yer inquest, an' yer findin's. What do ye say, byes?"
he demanded. A low growl replied to him and he sneered again. "There!
There's yer inquest! As long as yer playin' sheriff, go out an' do yer
duty; but look out ye don't put yer han's on a friend! Clear out, an'
run yer bluff!"

Corwin's eyes glinted as he looked at the fearless speaker, but with
Idaho straining at a moral leash, Johnny's intent eagerness and the
sight of the rifle in the proprietor's hands, he let discretion mold
his course and slouched out to the street, where another quiet crowd
opened silently to let him through.

Johnny passed close to Idaho. "Go to your ranch for a few days, or
they'll couple you to me!" he whispered.

       *       *       *       *       *

Bill Long, feeding his borrowed Highbank horse in the northernmost of
the two stables at the rear of Kane's, heard the jarring crash of a
heavy rifle so loud and near that he dropped instantly to hands and
knees and crawled to a crack in the south wall. As he peered out he
got a good, clear view of a pock-marked Mexican with a crescent-shaped
scar over one eye and who, Sharp's in hand, wriggled out of the north
window of the adjoining stable, dropped sprawling within five feet of
the watcher's eyes, scrambled to his feet and fled close along the
rear of Bill's stable. The watcher sprang erect, sped silently back
to his horse and stirred the grain in the feed box with one hand,
while the other rested on a six-gun in case the Mexican should be of
an inquisitive and belligerent frame of mind. His view of the street
had been shut off by the corner of the southern stable and he had not
seen the result of the shot. Wishing to show no undue curiosity he did
not go down the street, but returned to the gambling-hall. He had not
been seated more than a few minutes when one of Kane's retainers ran
in from the street with the news of Ridley's death. There was a flurry
of excitement, which quickly died down, but under the rippling surface
Bill sensed the deeper, more powerful currents.

"This man Kane, whoever an' wherever he is," he thought, "has shore
trained this bunch of scourin's. I'm gettin' plumb curious for a look
at him. Huh!" he muttered, as the window-wriggling, pock-marked
Mexican emerged from behind the partition, bent swiftly over Kit Thorpe
and betook his tense and nervous self to the roulette table. "I've got
yore ugly face carved deep in my mem'ry, you Greaser snake!" he growled
under his breath. "If it wasn't for loosin' bigger game I'd turn you
over to Ridley's friends before night. You can wait."

Not long after the appearance of the Mexican, the sheriff came in
by the front door, pushed through the crowd near the bar and walked
swiftly toward the rear of the room. Speaking shortly to Kit Thorpe in
a low voice he passed through the door of the checkerboard partition.

"I'm learnin'," muttered Bill. "I don't know who Kane is, but I'm dead
shore I know _where_ he is. An' I'm gettin' a better line on this
killin'. I'll shore have to get a look behind that door, somehow."

Suddenly the doorkeeper arose and stuck his head around behind the
partition and then, straightening up, closed the door, went up to the
bar, spoke to several men there and led them to the rear. Opening the
door again he let them through and resumed his vigil; and none of them
reappeared before Bill went into the north building to eat his supper.



                              CHAPTER VII

                             THE THIRD MAN


Kane's gambling-hall was in full blast, reeking with the composite
odor of liquor, kerosene lamps, rank tobacco, and human bodies, the
tables well filled, the faro and roulette layouts crowded by eager
devotees. The tenseness of the afternoon was forgotten and curses
and laughter arose in all parts of the big room. The two-man Mexican
orchestra strumming its guitars and the extra bartenders were earning
their pay. Punchers, gamblers, storekeepers, two traveling men, a squad
of cavalrymen on leave from the nearest post, Mexicans, and bums of
several races made up the noisy crowd as Johnny Nelson pushed into the
room and nodded to the head bartender.

"Well, well," smiled the busy barman without stopping his work. "Here's
our SV foreman, out at night. Thought mebby you'd heard of some
yearlin's an' hit th' trail after 'em."

"I don't reckon there was ever a yearlin' in this section," grinned
Johnny.

"That so? There's several down at th' other end of th' bar," chuckled
the man of liquor. "That blonde you left th' forty dollars for has
shore been strainin' her eyes lookin' for you. Says she knows she's
goin' to like you. Go back an' sooth her. Gin is her favorite."

"I ain't lookin' for her yet," replied Johnny. "That's somethin' you
never want to do. It's th' wrong system. Don't pay no attention to 'em
if you want 'em to pay attention to you. Let her wait a little longer.
Where's that Thompson feller? I like th' way he plays draw, seein' as
how I won some of his money. Seen him tonight?"

"Shore; he's around somewhere. Saw him a little while ago."

Johnny noticed a quiet, interested crowd in a far corner and joined it,
working through until he saw two men playing poker in the middle. One
was Bill Long and the other was Kane's best card-sharp, Mr. Fisher, and
they were playing so intently as to be nearly oblivious of the crowd.
On the other side of the ring, sitting on a table, was Red Thompson,
his mouth partly open and his eyes riveted on the game.

The play was getting stiff and Fisher's eyes had a look in them that
Johnny did not like. The gambler reached for the cards and began
shuffling them with a speed and dexterity which bespoke weary hours of
earnest practice. As he pushed them out for the cut his opponent leaned
back, relaxed and smiled pleasantly.

"I allus like to play th' other fellow's game," Bill observed. "If he
plays fast _I_ like to play fast; if he plays 'em close, _I_ like to
play 'em close; if he plays reckless, _I_ like to play reckless; if he
plays 'em with flourishes, _I_ like to play 'em with flourishes. I'm
not what you might call original. I'm a imitator." He slowly reached
out his hand, held it poised over the deck, changed his mind and
withdrew it. "Reckon I'll not cut this time. They're good as they are.
I like yore dealin'."

Fisher yanked the deck to him and dealt swiftly. "I'm not very bright,"
he remarked as he glanced at his hand, "so I'm gropin' about yore
meanin'. Or didn't it have none?"

"Nothin', only to show that I'm so polite I allus let th' other feller
set th' pace," smiled Bill. "As he plays, I play." He picked up the
cards, squared them into exact alignment and slid them from the table
and close against his vest, where a deft touch spread them for a quick
glance at the pips. "They look good; but, I wonder?" he muttered.
"Reckon that's best, after all. Gimme two cards when you get time."

Fisher gave him two and took the same number.

"I find I'm gettin' tired," growled Bill, "an' it shore is hot an'
stiflin' in here. As it stands I'm a little ahead--not more'n fifty
dollars. That bein' so, I quit after this hand and two more. There
ain't much action, anyhow."

"If yo're lookin' for action mebby you feel like takin' off th'
hobbles," suggested Fisher, carelessly.

"Hobbles, saddles an' anythin' else you can think of," nodded Bill. "Do
we start now?"

Fisher nodded, saw the modest bet and doubled it.

Bill tossed his four queens and the ace of hearts face down in the
discard and smiled. "Didn't get what I was lookin' for," he grinned
into the set face across from him. "Got to have 'em before I can play
'em."

Fisher hid his surprise and carelessly tossed his four kings and the
six of diamonds, also face down, into the discard, fumbled the deck
as he went to pass it over and spilled it on top of the cards on the
table. Cursing at his clumsiness, he scrambled the cards together and
pushed them toward his opponent. "My fingers must be gettin' all
thumbs," he growled as he raked in the money. What had happened? Had he
bungled the deal, or wasn't four queens big enough for the talkative
fool across from him?

Bill smilingly agreed. "They do get that way at times," he remarked,
shuffling with a swift flourish which made Johnny hide a smile. He
pushed the pack out, Fisher cut it, and the flying cards dropped
swiftly into two neat piles almost flush on their edges, which seemed
to merit a murmur of appreciation from the crowd. Johnny shifted his
weight to the other leg and prepared to enjoy the game.

Fisher glanced at his hand and became instant prey to a turmoil of
thoughts. Four queens, with an eight of clubs! He looked across at the
calm, reflective dealer who was rubbing the disgraceful stubble on his
chin while he drew two cards partly from his hand and considered them
seriously. He seemed to be perplexed.

"I been playin' this game for more years than I feel like tellin',"
Bill grumbled, whimsically; "but I ain't never been able really to
decide one little thing." Becoming conscious that he might be delaying
the game he looked up suddenly. "Have patience, friend. _Oh_, then it's
all right! You ain't discarded yet," he finished cheerfully. Throwing
away the two cards he waited.

"Gimme one," grunted Fisher, discarding, "an' I'm sayin' fifty
dollars," he continued, shoving the money out without glancing at the
card on the table. "How many you takin'?" he asked.

"Two," answered Bill, looking at him keenly. He glanced down at the
single back showing on the table before him and grinned. "Th' other's
under it," he explained needlessly. "Well, I'm still an imitator," he
chuckled. "Here's yore fifty, and fifty more. I'm sorry I ain't playin'
in my own town, so I could borrow when it all gets up."

Whatever Fisher's thoughts were he hid them well, and he was not to
be the first one to weaken and look at the draw. He had a reputation
to maintain, and he saw the raise and returned it. Bill pushed out a
hundred dollars and Fisher came back, but his tenseness was growing.

Bill considered, looked down at his unknown draw, shook his head and
picked up one card. "I'm feelin' the strain," he growled, seeing the
raise and repeating it. He glanced up at the crowd, which had grown
considerably, and smiled grimly.

Fisher evened up and raised again, watching his worried opponent, who
scowled, sucked his lips, shook his head and then, with swift decision,
picked up the other card. "I can't afford to quit now," he muttered.
"Here goes for another boost!"

His opponent having wilted first and saved the gambler's face, Fisher
picked up his own draw and when he saw it he stiffened, his thoughts
racing again. It was no coincidence, he decided. In all of his
experience he had known but two men who could do that, and here was
a third! But still there was a hope that there was no third, that it
was a coincidence. And there was quite a sum of money on the table.
The doubt must be removed and the truth known, and another fifty, sent
after its brothers was not too big a price to pay for such knowledge.
He pushed the money out onto the table. "I calls," he grunted.

Bill dropped his little block of cards and spread them with a sweep of
one hand, while the other was ready to make the baffling draw which
had made him famous in other parts of the country. Fisher glanced at
the four kings and nodded, all doubts laid to rest--the third man sat
across from him.

He slowly pushed back as the crowd, not knowing just what to expect,
scattered. "I'm tired. Shall we call it off for tonight?" he asked.

Without relaxing Bill nodded. "Suits me. I'm tired, too; an' near
suffocated. See you tomorrow?"

Fisher grunted something as he arose and, turning abruptly, pushed
through the thinning crowd to get a bracer at the bar, while the winner
slowly hauled in the money. Gulping down the fiery liquor the gambler
wheeled to go into the dark and deserted dining-room where he could sit
in quiet and go over the problem again, and looked up to see the other
gambler in his way.

"What did you find out?" asked the other in a low voice.

"I found th' devil has come up out of h--l!" growled Fisher. "Come
along an' I'll tell you about it. He's th' third man! Old Parson Davies
was th' first, but he's dead; Tex Ewalt was th' second, an' I ain't
seen him in years--cuss it! I wondered why this man's play seemed
familiar! He's got some of Tex's tricks of handlin' th' cards."

"Shore he ain't Tex?"

"As shore as I am that you ain't," retorted Fisher; "but I'm willin' to
bet he knows Tex. Come on--let's get out of this hullabaloo. He's got a
nerve, pickin' _my_ cards, an' dealin' 'em alternate off th' top an'
bottom, with _me_ watchin' him!"

"We got to figger how to get it back," thoughtfully muttered the other,
following closely. "Everythin's goin' wrong. They went after Nelson an'
got somebody else; they stirred up th' T & C by robbin' th' bank, an'
then had to go an' make it worse by gettin' Ridley! I'm admittin' I'm
walkin' soft, an' ready to jump th' country right quick."

Fisher sank into a chair in the dining-room. "An' if Long hangs around
here much longer Kane'll ditch me like a wore-out boot. A couple more
losses like tonight an' he'll plumb forget my winnin's for th' past two
years. An' me gettin' all cocked to strike him for a bigger percentage!"

Out in the reeking gambling-hall Bill put his empty glass on the bar
and slid a gold piece at the smiling head man behind the counter.
"Spend th' change on th' ladies in th' corner," he said. "It allus
gives me luck; an' I had such luck tonight that I ain't aimin' to take
no chances losin' it. Reckon I'll horn in on th' faro layout," and he
did, where he managed to lose a part of his poker winnings before he
turned in for the night.

Up late the next morning he hastened into the dining-room to beat
the closing of the doors and saw the head bartender eating a lonely
breakfast. The dispenser of liquors beckoned and pushed back a chair at
his table.

Bill accepted the invitation and gave his order. "Well," he remarked,
"yo're lookin' purty bright this mornin'."

"I'm gettin' so I don't need much sleep, I reckon," replied the
bartender. "Did yore folks use a poker deck to cut yore teeth on?"

Bill laughed heartily. "My luck turned, an' Fisher happened to be th'
one that got in th' way."

"He says you play a lot like a feller he used to know."

"That so? Who was he?"

"Tex Ewalt."

"Well, I ought to, for me an' Tex played a lot together, some years
back. Wonder what ever happened to Tex? He ain't been down this way
lately, has he?"

"No. I never saw him. Fisher knew him. He says Tex was th' greatest
poker player that ever lived."

"I reckon he's right," replied Bill. "I'm plumb grateful to Tex. It
ain't his fault that I don't play a better game. But I got an idea
playin' like his has got to be born in a man." He ate silently for a
moment. "Now that I'm spotted I reckon my poker playin' is over in
here. Oh, well, I ain't complainin'. I can eat an' sleep here, an' find
enough around town to keep me goin' for a little while, anyhow. Then
I'll drift."

"Unless, mebby, you play for th' house," suggested the bartender. "What
kind of a game does that SV foreman play?"

"I never like to size a man up till I play with him," answered Bill.
"I was sort of savin' him for myself, for he's got a fat roll. Now I
reckon I'll have to let somebody else do th' brandin'." He sighed and
went on with his breakfast.

"Get him into a little game an' see how good he is," suggested the
other, arising. "Goin' to leave you now." He turned away and then
stopped suddenly, facing around again. "Huh! I near forgot. Th' boss
wants to see you."

"Who? Kane? What about?"

"He'll tell you that, I reckon."

"All right. Tell him I'm in here."

The other grinned. "I said th' _boss_ wants to see _you_."

"Shore; I heard you."

"People he wants to see go to him."

"Oh, all right; why didn't you say so first off? Where is he?"

"Thorpe will show you th' way. Whatever th' boss says, don't you go on
th' prod. If yore feelin's get hurt, don't relieve 'em till you get out
of his sight."

"I've played poker too long to act sudden," grinned Bill, easily.

His breakfast over, he sauntered into the gambling-room and stopped in
front of Kit Thorpe, whose welcoming grin was quite a change from his
attitude of the day before. "I've been told Kane wants to see me. Here
I am."

Thorpe opened the door, followed his companion through it and paused to
close and bolt it, after which he kept close to the other's heels and
gave terse, grunted directions. "Straight ahead--to th' left--to th'
right--straight ahead. Don't make no false moves after you open that
door. Go ahead--push it open."

Bill obeyed and found himself in an oblong room which ran up to the
opaque glass of a skylight fifteen feet above the floor, and five feet
below the second skylight on the roof, in both of which the small panes
were set in heavy metal bars. The room was cool and well ventilated.
Before him, seated at the far side of a flat-topped, walnut desk of
ancient vintage sat a tall, lean, white-haired man of indeterminate
age, who leaned slightly forward and whose hands were not in sight.

"Sit down," said Kane, in a voice of singular sweetness and penetrating
timbre. For several minutes he looked at his visitor as a buyer might
look at a horse, silent, thoughtful, his deeply-lined face devoid of
any change in its austere expression.

"Why did you come here?" he suddenly snapped.

"To get out of th' storm," answered Bill.

"Why else?"

Bill looked around, up at the graven Thorpe and back again at his
inquisitor, and shrugged his shoulders. "Mebby you can tell me," he
answered before he remembered to be less independent.

"I think I can. Anyone who plays poker as well as you do has a very
good reason for visiting strange towns. What is your name?"

"Bill Long."

"I know that. I asked, what is your name?"

Bill looked around again and then sat up stiffly. "That ain't
interestin' us."

"Where are you from?"

Bill shrugged his shoulders and remained silent.

"You are not very talkative today. How did you get that Highbank horse?"

Bill acted a little surprised and anxious. "I--I don't know," he
answered foolishly.

"Very well. When you make up your mind to answer my questions I
have a proposition to offer you which you may find to be mutually
advantageous. In the meanwhile, do not play poker in this house. That's
all."

Thorpe coughed and opened the door, and swiftly placed a hand on the
shoulder of the visitor. "Time to go," he said.

Bill hesitated and then slowly turned and led the way, saying nothing
until he was back in the gambling-hall and Thorpe again kept his
faithful vigil over the checkered door.

"Cuss it," snorted Bill, remembering that in the part he was playing
he had determined to be loquacious. "If I told him all he wanted to
know I'd be puttin' a rope around my neck an' givin' him th' loose end!
So he's got a proposition to make, has he? Th' devil with him an' his
propositions. I don't have to play poker in his place--there's plenty
of it bein' played outside this buildin', I reckon. For two-bits I'd
'a' busted his neck then an' there!"

"You'd 'a' been spattered all over th' room if you'd made a play,"
replied Thorpe, a little contempt in his voice for such boasting words
from a man who had acted far from them when in the presence of Kane. He
had this stranger's measure. "An' you mind what he said about playin'
in here, or I'll make you climb up th' wall, you'll be that eager to
get out. You think over what he said, an' drift along. I'm busy."

Bill, his frown hiding inner smiles, slowly turned and walked defiantly
away, his swagger increasing with the distance covered; and when
he reached the street he was exhaling dignity, and chuckled with
satisfaction--he had seen behind the partition and met Kane. He passed
the bank, once more normal, except for the armed guards, and bumped
into Fisher, who frowned at him and kept on going.

"Hey!" called Bill. "I want to ask you somethin'."

Fisher stopped and turned. "Well?" he growled, truculently.

Bill went up close to him. "Just saw Kane. He says he has got somethin'
to offer me. What is it?"

"My job, I reckon!" snapped the gambler.

"Yore job?" exclaimed his companion. "I don't want yore job. If I'd 'a'
knowed that was it I'd 'a' told him so, flat. I'm playin' for myself.
An' say: He orders me not to play no more poker in his place. Wouldn't
that gall you?"

"Then I wouldn't do it," said the gambler, taking his arm. "Come in an'
have a drink. What else did he say?"

Bill told him and wound up with a curse. "An' that Thorpe said he'd
make me climb up th' wall! Wonder who he thinks he is--Bill Hickok?"

Fisher laughed. "Oh, he don't mean nothin'. He's a lookin'-glass.
When Kane laughs, _he_ laughs; when Kane has a sore toe, _he's_ plumb
crippled. But, just th' same I'm tellin' you Thorpe's a bad man with a
gun. Don't rile him too much. Say, was you ever paired up with Ewalt?"

Bill put down his glass with deliberate slowness. "Look here!" he
growled. "I'm plumb tired of answerin' personal questions. Not meanin'
to hurt yore feelin's none, I'm sayin' it's my own cussed business what
my name is, where I come from, who my aunt was, an' how old I was when
I was born. I never saw such an' old-woman's town!"

Fisher laughed and slapped his shoulder. "Keep all four feet on th'
ground, Long; but it _is_ funny, now ain't it?"

Bill grinned sheepishly. "Mebby--but for a little while I couldn't
see it that way. Have one with me, after which I'm goin' up an' skin
that SV man before you can get a crack at him. He's fair lopsided with
money. If I can't play poker in Kane's, I shore can send a lot of folks
to his place with nothin' left but their pants an' socks!"

"Don't overdo it," warned Fisher. "Come on--I'm headin' back an' I'll
leave you at Quayle's."

"How'd you ever come to let that yearlin'-mad foreman keep away from
yore game?" asked Bill as they started up the street. "Strikes me you
shore overlooked somethin'."

"Does look like it, from a distance," admitted Fisher, grinning.
"Reckon we was goin' too easy with him; but we didn't know you was
goin' to turn up an' horn in. We never like to stampede a good prospect
by bein' hasty. We felt him out a little an' I was figgerin' on amusin'
him right soon. There's somethin' cussed queer about him. We're all
guessin', an' guessin' different."

"Yes?" inquired Bill carelessly. "I didn't notice nothin' queer about
him. He acts a little too shore of hisself, which is how I like 'em.
You ain't got a chance to get him now, for I'm goin' to set on his fool
head an' burn a nice, big BL on his flank. So any little thing that you
know shore will come in handy. I'd do th' same for you. I'm through
spoilin' yore game in Kane's, an' I didn't take yore job. What's so
queer about him?"

Fisher glanced at his companion and shook his head. "It ain't nothin'
about cards. He figgered in a mistake that was made, an' don't know how
lucky he was. Th' boss don't often slip up--an' there's a white man an'
some Greasers in this town that are cussed lucky too. They blundered,
but they got what they went after. An' nobody's heard a word about th'
gent that was _un_lucky, which makes me suspicious. I got a headache
tryin' to figger it." He shook his head again and then exclaimed in
sudden anger: "An' I've quit tryin'! Kane was all set to throw me into
th' discard as soon as you come along. He can think what he wants to,
for all I care. But let me tell you this: If you win a big roll in this
town, an' th' one you got now is plenty big enough, be careful how you
wander around after dark. I reckon I owe you that much, anyhow."

Bill stopped in front of the hotel. "I don't know what yo're talkin'
about, but that don't make no difference. Th' last part was plain. Come
in an' have somethin'."

Fisher looked at him and smiled. "Friend, I'd just as soon be seen
goin' in there _now_ as I would be seen rustlin' a herd; an' it
might even be worse for me. Let it go till you come up to our place.
_Adios._"



                             CHAPTER VIII

                            NOTES COMPARED


Entering the barroom of the hotel Bill bought a cigar, talked aimlessly
for a few minutes with Ed Doane and then wandered into the office,
where Johnny was seated in a chair tipped back against the wall and
talking to the proprietor. Bill nodded, took a seat and let himself
into the conversation by easy stages, until Quayle was talking to him
as much as he was to Johnny, and the burden of his words was Ridley's
death.

Bill spat in disgust. "_That_ ain't th' way to get a man!" he
exclaimed. "Looks like some Greaser had a grudge agin' him--somebody
he's mebby fired off his payroll, or suspected of cattle-liftin'."

"You're a stranger here," replied the proprietor. "I can tell ut aisy."

"I am, an' glad of it," replied Bill, smiling; "but I'm learnin' th'
ways of yore town rapid. I already know Fisher's poker game, Thorpe's
nature, an' Pecos Kane's looks an' disposition. I cleaned Fisher at
poker, Thorpe has threatened to make me climb up a wall, an' Kane told
me, cold an' personal, to quit playin' poker in his place. I also
learned that a white man an' some Greasers made a big mistake, but
got what they went after; that Fisher figgers different from Kane an'
th' others; an' that Kane won't slip up th' next time, after dark,
'specially if he don't use th' same fellers. All that I heard; but what
it's about I don't know, or care."

Johnny was laughing at the humor of the newcomer, and waved from Bill
to Quayle. "Tim, this is Bill Long, that we heard about, for I saw him
clean out Fisher. Long, this is Quayle, an' my name's Nelson. Cuss it,
man! _I_'d say you was gettin' acquainted fast. What was that you was
sayin' about th' white man an' th' Greasers, an' some mistake? It was
sort of riled up."

"It _is_ riled up," chuckled Bill, crossing his legs. "I gave it out
just like I got it. As I says to Fisher last night, I'm a imitator. Any
news about th' robbery?"

Quayle snorted. "Fine chance! An' d'ye think they'd be after tellin' on
thimselves? That's th' only way for any news to be heard."

"I may be a stranger," replied Bill; "but I'm no stranger to human
nature, which is about th' same in one place as it is in another. If
that reward don't pan out some news, then I'm loco."

Quayle listened to a call from the kitchen. "It's th' only chance,
then," he flung over his shoulder as he left them. "It's that d--d
Mick. I'll be back soon."

Johnny, with a glance at the barroom door, leaned slightly forward and
whispered one word, his eyes moist: "_Hoppy!_"

Bill Long squirmed and grinned. "_You flat-headed sage-hen!_" he
breathed. "_I want to see you in secret._"

Johnny nodded. "I reckon th' reward might start somethin' out in th'
open, but I wouldn't want to be th' man that tried for it." His voice
dropped to a whisper. "_We'll take a ride this afternoon from Kane's,
plain an' open._" In his natural voice he continued. "But, Twitchell
an' Carpenter are shore powerful. An' they've got th' men an' th'
money."

"Do you reckon anybody had a personal grudge?" asked Bill. "_I'll fix
it._"

"I'm near as much a stranger here as you are," answered Johnny, "though
I sold Ridley some cattle. I met him before, on th' range around
Gunsight. Nice feller, he was. _What time?_"

"He must 'a' been a good man, to work for th' T & C," replied Bill.
"_After dinner._"

"He was."

"Oh, well; it ain't _my_ funeral. Feel like a little game?"

"I used to think I could play poker," chuckled Johnny; "but I woke up
last night. Seein' as how I still got them yearlin's to buy, I don't
feel like playin'."

Quayle's voice boomed out suddenly from the kitchen. "If yer fingers
was feet ye'd be as good! _Hould_ it, now--if ut slips this time I'll
be after bustin' yer head. I've showed ye a dozen times how to put
it back, an' still ye yell fer me. _There_, now--_hould_ it! Hand me
th' wire--annybody'd think--blast th' blasted man that made ut! Some
Dootchman, I'll wager."

"Shure an' we ought to get a new wan--it's warped crooked, an'
cracked----"

"We should, should we?" roared the proprietor. "An' who are 'we'? Only
tin years old, an' it's a new wan we'd be gettin', is ut? What we ought
to be gettin' is a new cook, an' wan that's _not_ cracked. Now, th'
nixt time ye poke ut, poke gently--ye ain't makin' post holes with
that poker. An' _now_ look at me."--A door slammed and a washbasin
sounded like tin.

Ed Doane's laugh sounded from the barroom and he appeared in the
doorway, where he grinned. "I hear it frequent, but it's allus funny.
Sometimes they near come to blows."

"Stove?" queried Bill.

"Shore th'--grate's buckled out of shape, an' it's a little short.
Murphy gets mad at th' fire an' prods it good--an' then th' show starts
all over again. It's funnier than th' devil when th' old man gets a
blister from it, for he talks so that nobody but Murphy can understand
one word in ten. Easy! Here he comes."

"Buy a new wan, is ut?" muttered the proprietor, his red face bearing a
diagonal streak of soot. "Shure--for him to spile, like he spiled this
wan. Ah, byes, I'm tellin' ye th' hotel business ain't what it used to
be."

"Yore face looks funny," said Ed.

Quayle turned on him. "Oh, it does, does ut? Well, if my face don't
suit ye--now would ye look at that?" he demanded as he caught sight of
his reflection in the dingy mirror over the desk. "But it ain't so bad,
at that; th' black's above th' red!"

"Hey, Tim!" came from the kitchen. "Thought ye said ye fixed ut? Ut's
down agin!"

"I--I--I!" sputtered Quayle wildly. He spread the soot over his face
with a despairing sweep of his sleeve, leaped into the air and started
on a lumbering run for the kitchen. "You--I--_d--n_ it!" he yelled, and
the kitchen resounded to his bellowing demands for the cook.

Ed Doane wiped his eyes, looked around--and shouted, his out-thrust
hand pointing to a window, where a red face peered into the room.

"Shure," said the cook, apologetically, "he's the divvil himself. If
I stay here wan more day me name ain't Murphy. Will wan av yez, that
ain't go no interest in th' dommed stove, tell that Mick to buy a new
grate? An' would ye listen to him, _now_?"

When he was able to Bill arose. "Well, I reckon I'll go up an' look in
at Kane's. If I run this way, don't stop me."

Sauntering up the street he came to the south side of the gambling-hall
and went along it, and when a certain number of paces beyond the fifth
high window, the sill of which was above his head, he stumbled and
fell. Swearing under his breath he picked up a Colt which had slipped
from its holster and, arising to hands and knees, looked around and
then stood up. He could see under the entire building except at the
point where he had fallen, and there he saw that under Kane's private
room the walls went down into the earth. When he reached the stables
he entered the one which sheltered his horse, closed the door behind
him and made a hasty examination of the building, but found nothing
which made him suspect a secret exit. He came to the opinion that the
boards went down to the earth below Kane's quarters for the purpose
of not allowing anyone to crawl under his rooms. In a few minutes he
led his horse outside, mounted and rode around to the front of the
gambling-hall, where he dismounted and went in for a drink, scowling
slightly at the vigilant and militant Mr. Thorpe, who returned the look
with interest.

"Got a cayuse?" he asked the bartender.

The other shook his head. "No, why?"

"Thought mebby you'd like to ride along with me. That one of mine will
be better for a little exercise. What's east of here?"

"Sand hills, dried lakes, an' th' desert."

"Then I'll go west," grinned Bill. "But mebby it's th' same?"

"It ain't bad over that way; but why don't you ride south? There's real
good country down in them valleys."

"Ain't that where th' T & C is?"

The bartender nodded.

"West is good enough for me. Better get a cayuse an' come along."

"Can't do it, an' I ain't set a saddle in two years. I'd be a cripple
if I stuck to you. Why don't you hunt up that Nelson feller? He ain't
got nothin' to do."

"Just left him. Don't reckon he'd care to go. Huh!" he muttered,
looking at the clock. "I reckon I'll eat first, an' ride after."

Shortly after dinner Johnny strolled in and nodded to the bartender,
who immediately called to Bill Long.

"Here's Nelson now; mebby he'll go with you," he said.

"Go where?" asked Johnny, pausing.

"Ridin'."

"What for?"

"Exercise. He wants to take th' devilishness out of his horse. You got
one, too, ain't you?"

"Shore have," answered Johnny. "An' she's gettin' mean, too. It ain't a
bad idea. Where are you goin', Long?"

"Anywhere, everywhere, or nowhere," answered Bill carelessly. "I'm
aiming to ride him to a frazzle, an' I got to cut down his feed more."

"All right, if you says so," agreed Johnny, joining the group.

Red Thompson rode up to the door and came in. "Hey, anybody that's
goin' down th' trail wants to ride easy. That T & C gang are so
suspicious that they're insultin'. Got four men ridin' along their
wire, with rifles across their pommels. Looks like they was goin' on
th' prod."

Thorpe silently withdrew, to reappear in a few minutes and resume his
watch.

Bill arose and nodded to Johnny as he went out. "Ready, Nelson?" he
asked.

In a few minutes they met in front of the gambling-hall, and the SV
foreman's black caused admiring and covetous looks to show on the faces
of the idle group.

"Foller th' trail leadin' to Lukins' ranch, over west," suggested
Fisher. "It's better than cross-country. You'll strike it half a mile
above."

Long nodded and led the way, both animals prancing and bucking mildly
to work off some of their accumulated energy. Reaching the cross trail
they swung along it at a distance-eating lope.

"Tell me about everythin'," suggested Johnny. "How'd you come to ride
south?"

"Kid," said Hopalong, "you got th' best cayuse ever raised in
Montanny. That Englishman was shore right: it pays to cross 'em with
thoroughbreds." Moodily silent for a moment, he slowly continued. "Kid,
I've lost Mary, an' William, Junior. Fever took 'em in four days, an'
never even touched _me_! I'm all alone. Either you move up north, or I
stay with you till I die. An' if I do that I'll miss Red an' th' others
like th' devil. I'm goin' to have a good look at that Bar-H, that you
chased them thieves off of. Montanny is too far north, an' I'm feelin'
th' winters too hard. An' it's gettin' settled too fast, an' bein'
ploughed up more every year. But all of this can wait: what's goin' on
down here that I don't know?"

Johnny told him and when he had finished and listened to what his
friend knew they spent the rest of the time discussing the situation
from every angle and arranged a few simple signals, resurrected
from the past, to serve in the press of any sudden need. They met
two punchers riding in from Lukins' ranch, exchanged nods and then
turned south into the cattle trail, crossed a crescent arroyo and
turned again, when below the town, under the suspicious eyes of a
Question-Mark sentry hidden in a thicket. Following the main trail
north they entered the town and parted at Quayle's.

The evening passed uneventfully in Kane's and when the group began
to break up Bill Long went up to his room. Gradually man after man
deserted the gambling-hall, until only Johnny and the head bartender
were left, and after half an hour's dragging conversation the dispenser
of liquids yawned and nodded decisively.

"Nelson, I'm goin' to lock up after you. See you tomorrow."

"Most sensible words said tonight," replied Johnny, and he stepped out,
the door closing behind him. The lights went out, one by one, with a
tardiness due to their height from the floor, and he stood quietly for
a moment, scrutinizing the sky and enjoying the refreshing coolness.
Moving out into the middle of the street he sauntered toward the dark
hotel, every sense alert as a previous experience came back to him.
Suddenly a barely audible sound, like the cracking of a toe joint,
caused him to leap aside. An indistinct figure plunged past him, so
close that he felt the wind of it. His gun roared while he was in
the air and when he alighted he was crouched, facing the rear, where
another figure blundered into the second shot and dropped. Swiftly
padding feet came nearer and he slipped further to the side, letting
the sound pass without hindrance. Moving softly forward he turned and
crept along the wall of a building, smiling grimly at the low Spanish
curses behind him on the street. Again the kitchen door served him well
and the deeper blackness of the interior silently engulfed him.

Up at Kane's, Red Thompson, who was awake and waiting until the
building should be wrapped in sleep, heard the shots and crept to the
window. He could see nothing, but he heard whispers and heavy, slow and
shuffling steps, which drew steadily nearer. The Mexican tongue was no
puzzle to Red, whose years largely had been spent in a country where
it was constantly used and his fears, instantly aroused, were soon
followed by a savage grin.

"That Nelson, he is a devil," floated up to him, the words a low growl.

"Again he got away. I will not face the Big Boss. It is the second
failure, and with Anton dead, an' Juan's arm broken, I shall leave this
town. Put him here, at the door. May God forgive his sins! _Adios!_"

"Wait, Sanchez!" called a companion. "We will all go, even Juan, for
he'd better ride than remain. There will be trouble."

"What's all th' hellabaloo?" came Thorpe's truculent voice in English
from the corner of the building, where he stood, clad only in boots
and underwear, a six-shooter in his upraised hand. At the sudden soft
scurrying of feet he started forward, and then checked himself.

"If them Greasers bungled it _this_ time, may th' Lord help 'em.
They'll shore get a-plenty. I wouldn't be--" he stopped and stared at
the door, and then moved closer to it. "By G--d, they _got_ him!" he
whispered, and bent down, his hand passing over the indistinct figure.
"Huh! I take it all back," he muttered in disgust. "That's a Greaser,
by feel an' smell. They made more of a mess of it this time than
they did before. Well, you ain't no fit ornament for th' front door.
Might as well move you myself," and, grumbling, he grabbed hold of
the collar and dragged the unresisting bulk around to the rear, where
he carelessly dropped it and went back into the building. Soon two
Mexicans, rubbing sleepy eyes, emerged with shovel and spade, that the
dawn should find nothing more than a carefully hidden grave.

Red waited a little longer and then, knowing better than to go on his
feet along the old floor of the hall, inched slowly over it on his
stomach, careful to let each board take his weight gradually. Reaching
the second door on his left he slowly pushed it open, chuckling with
pride at his friend's forethought in oiling the one squeaking hinge.
Closing it gently he scratched on the floor twice and then went on
again toward the answering scratch. An hour passed in the softest
of whispering and when he at last entered his own room again and
carefully stood up, the darkness hid a rare smile on his tanned and
leathery face, which an exultant thought had lighted.

"Th' Old Days: They're comin' back again!" he gloated. "Me, an' Hoppy,
an' the Kid! Glory be!" and the smile persisted until he awakened at
dawn, when it moved from the wrinkled face to the secrecy of his heart.



                              CHAPTER IX

                        WAYS OF SERVING NOTICE


If Sandy Bend had been seized with a local spasm when the senior member
of the T & C had learned of the robbery of the Mesquite bank, it now
was having a very creditable fit. The little printing-shop was the
scene of bustling activities and soon a small bundle of handbills was
on its way to the office of the cattle king. McCullough, drive-boss
_par excellence_ and one of the surviving frontiersmen who not only had
made history in several localities, but had helped to wear the ruts in
the old Santa Fe Trail until the creeping roadbed of the railroad had
put the trail with other interesting relics of the past, was rudely
torn from his seven-up game with his cronies by one of the several
couriers who lathered horses at the snapping behest of the senior
partner. He hastened to the office, rumbled across the outer room and
pushed open the door of the holy of holies without even the semblance
of a knock. He was blunt, direct, and no respecter of persons.

"Hello, Charley!" he grunted. "What's loose now?"

"H--l's loose!" snapped Twitchell. "Ridley's been murdered by one of
Kane's gang. Shot in th' back--head near blowed off. There's only four
men up there now, an' they may be dead by this time. Take as many
men as you need an' go up there--we just bought a herd of SV cows, if
there's any left. But I want th' man that killed Ridley. That's first.
I want th' man who robbed th' bank--that's second. An' I want Pecos
Kane--that's first, second, an' third. D--n it! I growed up with Tom
Ridley!"

"I'll take twenty men an' bring you th' whole gang--but some of 'em
will shore spoil before we can get 'em here, this kind of weather. Do I
burn that end of th' town?"

"You'll burn nothin'," retorted Twitchell. "You'll not risk a man until
you have to. You'll stay on th' ranch an' watch th' cattle. I've lost
one good man now, an' I'm spendin' money before I risk losin' any more.
There's a bundle of handbills. When they've been digested by that bunch
of assassins you can sit in th' bunkhouse an' have yore game delivered
to you, all tied up, an' tagged."

"Orders is orders," growled McCullough; "but some are d--d fool orders.
If you want somebody to set on th' front porch an' whittle, why'n h--l
are you cuttin' _me_ out of th' herd for th' job?"

"I'm cuttin' you out because I want my best man out there!" retorted
the senior member heatedly. "You may find it lively settin', an' have
to do yore whittlin' with rifles an' six-guns. Look out that somebody
don't whittle you at eight hundred while yo're settin' on th' front
porch! You talk like you think yo're goin' to a prayer meetin'!"

"I'm hopin' they come that close," said McCullough, picking up the
package of bills. "So Tom's gone, huh? Charley, there ain't many of
us left no more. Remember how you an' Ridley an' me used to go off
trappin' them winters, hundreds of miles into th' mountains, with only
what we could easy carry on our backs? That was livin'."

"You get out of here, you old fraud!" roared Twitchell. "Ain't I got
enough to bother me now? Take care of yoreself, Mac; an' my way's worth
tryin', an' tryin' good. If it don't work, then we'll have to try yore
way."

"All right; I'll give it a fair ride, Charley; but it will be time
wasted," replied the trail-boss. "In that case I'm takin' a dozen men.
We relay at th' Squaw Creek corrals, an' again at Sweetwater Bottoms.
Send a wagon after us--you'll know what we'll need. You send a new boss
to th' Sweetwater, for I'm pickin' up Waffles. He's one of th' best men
you got, an' he's been picketed at that two-bits station long enough."

"Good luck, Mac. Take who you want. Yo're th' boss. Any play you make
will be backed to th' limit by th' T & C."

When McCullough got outside he found a crowd of men which the
hard-riding couriers had sent in from all parts of the town. They
shouted questions and got terse answers as he picked his dozen, the
twelve best out of a crowd of good men, all known to him in person
and by deeds. The lucky dozen smiled exultantly at the scowling
unfortunates and dashed up the street in a bunch after their grizzled
pacemaker. One of the last, glancing behind him, saw a stern-faced,
sorrowful man in a black store suit standing in the office door looking
wistfully after them; and the rider, gifted with understanding, raised
his hand to his hat brim and faced around.

"Th' old man's sorry he's boss," he confided to his nearest companion.

"An' there's plenty up in Mesquite that will be th' same," came the
reply.

Despite his years McCullough held his lead without crowding from
the rear, for he was of the hard-riding breed and toughened to the
work. When the first relay was obtained at Squaw Creek that evening
there were several who felt the strain more than the leader. A hasty
supper and they were gone again, pounding into the gathering dusk of
the northwest. All night they rode along a fair trail, strung out
behind a man who kept to it with uncanny certainty. Dawn found them
changing mounts in Sweetwater Bottoms, but without the snap displayed
at the Squaw. Waffles, one-time foreman of the O-Bar-O, needed all his
habitual repression to keep from favoring them with a war dance when he
heard his luck. Impatiently waiting for the surprised but enthusiastic
cook to prepare their breakfasts, they made short work of the meal
when it appeared and rolled on again, silent, grim, heavy-lidded,
but cheerful. They gladly would do more than that for McCullough,
Twitchell--and Tom Ridley. The second evening found them riding up to
the buildings of the Question-Mark, guns across their pommels, and they
were thankfully received.

Mesquite awakened the next morning to a surprise, for handbills were
scattered on its few streets and had been pushed under doors, one of
them under the front door of Kane's gambling-hall. When Johnny came
down to breakfast the proprietor handed him the sheet, pointing to its
flaming headline.

"Read that, me bye!" cried Quayle.

Johnny obeyed:

                          =$2,500.00 REWARD!=

              For Information Leading to the Capture and
               Conviction of the Murderer of Tom Ridley

                        =STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL=

                   TWITCHELL & CARPENTER, Sandy Bend
                JOHN McCULLOUGH, Gen'l. Supt., Mesquite

He thoughtlessly shoved it into his pocket and shrugged his shoulders.
"That man Twitchell thinks a lot of his money," he said. "But, if it's
his way, it's his way. I'm glad to say it ain't mine."

Quayle looked at him from under heavy brows and smiled faintly. "Mac's
here, hisself," he said. "They've raised th' ante, an' if I was as
young as you I'd have a try at th' game. An', me bye, it isn't only th'
money; 'tis a duty, an' a pleasure. Go in an' eat, now, before that
wild Mick av a cook scalps ye."

Hoofbeats pounded up the street from the south and a Mexican galloped
past towards Kane's, followed on foot by several idlers.

"There ye go!" savagely growled the proprietor; "an' I hope ye saw
a-plenty, ye Greaser dog!"

After a hurried breakfast Johnny went up to Kane's and found an air of
tension and suspicion. Men were going in and out of the door through
the partition and the half-friendly smiles which he had received
the night before were everywhere missing. Feeling the chill of his
reception did not blunt his powers of observation, for he saw that
both Red Thompson and Bill Long, being unaccredited strangers, drew
an occasional suspicious glance. The former was seated in a chair at
the lower end of the bar, his back to the wall and only a step from the
dining-room door. Bill Long was leaning against the upper end of the
counter, where it turned at right angles to meet the wall behind it.
At Bill's back and only two steps away was the front door. His chin
was in his hand and his elbow rested on the bar, where he appeared
to be moodily studying the floor behind the counter, but in reality
his keen, narrowed eyes were watching Thorpe and the loopholes in the
checkerboard. From his position he caught the light on them at just
the right angle to see the backing plates. He let Johnny go past him
without more than a casual glance and nod.

Thorpe moved forward, cleaving a straight path through the restless
crowd and stopped in front of the newcomer. "Nelson," he said, tartly;
"th' boss wants to see you, _pronto_!" As he spoke he let his swinging
hand rest against the butt of his gun.

Johnny took plenty of time for his answer, his mind working at top
speed. If Kane had caused inquiries to be made around Gunsight
concerning him he knew that the report hardly would please any man who
was against law and order; and he knew that Kane had had plenty of time
to make the inquiries. The thinly veiled hostility and suspicions on
the faces around him settled that question in his mind. He slouched
sidewise until he had Thorpe in a better position between him and the
partition.

"You shore made a mistake," he drawled. "Th' boss never even heard of
me."

"I said _pronto_!" snapped Thorpe.

"Well, as long as yo're so pressin'," came the slow, acquiescent reply,
"you can _go to h--l_!"

Thorpe's gun got halfway out, and stopped as a heavy Colt jabbed into
his stomach with a force which knocked the breath out of him and
doubled him up. Johnny's other gun, deftly balanced between his palm
and the thumb on its hammer, freezing the expressions as it had found
them on the faces of the crowd. "Stick up yore han's! All of you! You,
in the chair!" he roared. "Stick 'em up!" and Red lost no time in
making up for his delinquency. Bill Long, being out of the angry man's
sight, raised his only halfway.

"I was welcome enough last night," snapped Johnny; "but somethin's
wrong today. If Kane wants to see me, he can send somebody that can
talk without insultin' me. An' as for this sick cow, I'm warnin' him
fair that I shoot at th' first move, _his_ move or anybody _else's_.
Stand up, _you_!" he shouted; "an' foller me outside. Keep close, an'
plumb in front of me. I'll turn you loose when I get to cover. _Come
on!_"

As he backed toward the door, Thorpe following, Bill Long, seeing that
Johnny was master of the situation, got his hands all the way up, but
the motion was observed and Johnny's gun left Thorpe long enough to
swing aside and cover the tardy one. "You keep 'em there!" he gritted.
"You can rest 'em later!" and he cautiously backed against the door,
moved along it the few inches necessary to gain the opening, and felt
his way to the street. "Don't you gamble, Thorpe!" he warned. "Stick
closer!"

Being furthest from the front door and soonest out of Johnny's sight,
Red Thompson let his hands fall to his hips and cautiously peered over
the top of the bar, ready to cover the crowd until Bill Long could drop
his upraised hands.

Bill was unfortunate, since he would have to be the last man to assume
a more natural position; but he was growing tired and suddenly flung
himself sidewise beyond the door opening. As he left the bar there came
a heavy report from the street and the bullet, striking the edge of the
counter where he had stood, glanced upward and entered the ceiling, a
generous cloud of dust moving slowly downward.

"He's a mad dog," muttered Bill, shrinking against the wall. "An' he
can shoot like h--l! I reckon he's itchin' to get me on sight, _now_.
Somebody look out an' see where he is. But what'n blazes is it all
about, anyhow?"

The chief bartender's head reappeared further down, the counter. "You
fool!" he yelled. "Why didn't you let me know what you was goin' to do?
Don't you never think of nobody but yourself? That parted my hair!"

Fisher swore disgustedly. "Look out, yourself, Long, if yo're curious!
But why didn't you get him?" he demanded. "You was behind him!"

"I wasn't neither behind him; I was on th' side!" retorted Bill. "He
was watchin' me out of th' corner of his eye, like th' d--d rattler he
is! I could see it plain, I tell you!"

"You can see lots of things when yo're scared stiff, can't you?"
sneered a voice in the crowd.

"I wasn't scared," defended Bill. "But I wasn't takin' no chances for
th' glory of it. He never done nothin' to me, an' I ain't on Kane's
payroll--yet."

"An' you ain't goin' to be, I reckon," laughed another.

Fisher's face proclaimed that he had solved whatever problem there
might be in Bill's lack of action. "Ain't had a chance to get it from
him yet, huh?" he asked. Sneering, he gave a warning as he turned away.
"An' don't you try for it, neither. If he won't come back here no more,
I can get him playin' somewhere else."

Red arose fully and stretched, hearing a slight grating noise at a
loophole in the partition behind him, where the slide dropped into
place. "I'm dry; bone dry," he announced. "I never was so dry before.
All in favor of a drink, step up. I'm payin' for _this_ round."

All were in favor of it, and the bartender moved slowly behind the
counter toward the front door, his head bent over far to the right.
"Don't see him; but we better wait till Thorpe comes back. Great guns!
Did you _see_ it!" he marveled.

"I can see it better now than I could then," said Red, leaning against
the bar. "Come on, boys; he's done gone. This means you, too, Long;
'though I ain't sayin' you hardly earned it. If he saw you before he
backed up, I says he's got eyes in his ears. Why, cuss it, he was
lookin' plumb at _me_ all th' time. You got too hefty an imagination,
Long."

Out in the street Johnny, backing swiftly from the building, saw Bill
Long's sudden leap and fired, for moral effect, at the place vacated.
Yanking his captive's gun from its holster, he was about to toss it
aside when his fingers gripped the telltale butt and a colder look
gleamed in his eyes. Slipping his right-hand gun into its holster he
gripped the captured weapon affectionately, and then hazarded a quick
glance around him. Someone was riding rapidly down the trail from the
north, and a second sidewise glance told him that it was Idaho.

"Faster, you!" he growled to the doorkeeper. "Keep a-comin'--keep
a-comin'. One false move an' Kane'll need another sentry. You may be
able to make Bill Long climb up a wall, but I ain't in his class."

Idaho, who was riding in to appease his burning curiosity, felt its
flames lick instantly higher as he saw his friend back swiftly from
Kane's front door, with Thorpe apparently hooked on the sight of
the six-gun. Drawing rein instantly in his astonishment, he at once
loosened them and whirled into the scanty and scrawny vegetation on the
far side of the trail. Going at a dead run he sent the wiry little pony
over piles of cans, around cacti and other larger obstructions until
he reached the rear of Red Frank's, facing on the next street. Here
he pulled up and drew the Winchester from its scabbard, feeling that
Johnny was capable of taking care of Kane's if not interfered with from
behind.

Johnny, reaching the rear of the building which he had sought the night
before, leaped back and to one side as he came to the end of the wall,
glanced along the rear end and then curtly ordered Thorpe back to his
friends.

"There'll be more to this," snarled Thorpe, white from anger, his face
working. His courage was not of the fineness necessary to let him
yield to the mad impulse which surged over him and urged him to throw
himself, hands, feet and teeth, in a blind and hopeless attack upon the
certain death which balanced itself in the gun in Johnny's hand. His
blazing eyes fixed full on his enemy's, he let discretion be his tutor
and slowly, grudgingly stepped back, his dragging feet moving only
inches at each shuffle, while their owner, poised and tense and ready
to take advantage of any slip on Johnny's part, backed toward the sandy
street and the scene of his discomfiture. At last reaching the front of
the building he paused, stood slowly erect and then wheeled about and
strode toward Kane's. At the door he glanced once more at his waiting
adversary and then plunged into the room, striding straight for the
partition door without a single sidewise glance.

Idaho's voice broke the spell. "I thought he was goin' to risk it," he
muttered, a deep sigh of relief following the words. "He was near loco,
but he just about had enough sense left to save his worthless life. You
would 'a' blowed him apart at that distance."

"I'd 'a' smashed his pointed jaw!" growled Johnny. "I ain't shootin'
nobody that don't reach for a gun. An' if I'd had any sense I'd 'a'
chucked th' guns to you an' let him have his beatin'. Next time, I
will. Fine sort of a dog he is, tellin' me what I'm goin' to do, an'
when I'm goin' to do it!"

"Wait till pay day, when I'll have more money," chuckled Idaho. "I can
easy get three to two around here. He's th' champeen rough-an'-tumble
fighter for near a hundred miles, but I'm sayin' any man with th'
everlastin' nerve to pull Kit Thorpe out from his own kennel an' pack
ain't got sense enough to know when he's licked. An' that bein' so,
I'm bettin' on yore condition to win. He's gettin' fat an' shortwinded
from doin' nothin'. Besides, I'm one of them fools that allus bets on
a friend." He laughed as certain memories passed before him. "I've done
had a treat--come on, an' let me treat you. How many was in there when
you pulled him out? An' why didn't th' partition work like it allus did
before?"

"Because th' man that worked it was out in front," answered Johnny.
"Things went too fast for anybody else to get behind it." A sudden
grin slipped to his face. "Hey, I got one of my pet guns back! He was
wearin' it. I knowed it as soon as my fingers closed around th' butt,
for I shaped it to fit my hand several years ago. Did you see th'
handbills? Twitchell's put up another reward, this one for Ridley; an'
McCullough is down on th' Question-Mark. Things ought to step fast,
now."



                               CHAPTER X

                        TWICE IN THE SAME PLACE


Thorpe reappeared through the partition door armed anew with the mate
to the gun he had lost, too enraged to notice that it was better suited
to a left than to a right hand. An ordinary man hardly would have
noticed it, but a gunman of his years and experience should have sensed
the ill-fitting grip at once. He glared over the room, suspiciously
eager to catch some unfortunate indulging in a grin, for he had been
so shamed and humiliated that it was almost necessary to his future
safety that he redeem himself and put his shattered reputation back on
its pedestal of fear. There were no grins, for however much any of his
acquaintances might have enjoyed his discomfiture they had no lessened
respect for his ability with either six-guns or fists; and there was a
restlessness in the crowd, for no man knew what was coming.

Fisher conveyed the collective opinion and broke the tension. "_Any_
man would 'a' been fooled," he said to the head bartender, but loud
enough for all to hear it. His voice indicated vexation at the success
of so shabby a trick. "When he answered Thorpe I shore thought he was
goin' prompt an' peaceful--why, he even _started_! Nobody reckoned he
was aimin' to make a gunplay. How could they? An' I'm sayin' that it's
cussed lucky for him that _Thorpe_ didn't!"

"Anybody can be fooled th' _first_ time," replied the man of liquor.
He looked over at the partition door and nodded. "Come over an' have a
drink, Thorpe, an' forget it. I got money that says there ain't no man
alive can beat you on th' draw. He tricked you, actin' that way."

"He's th' first man on earth ever shoved a gun into me like that,"
growled Thorpe, slowly moving forward. "An' he's th' last! Seein' as
there's some here that mebby ain't shore about it, I'll show 'em that
I was tricked!" He stopped in front of Bill Long and regarded that
surprised individual with a look as malevolent as it was sincere. "Any
squaw dog can tote _two_ guns," he said, his still raging anger putting
a keener edge to the words. "When he does he tells everybody that he's
shore bad. If he ain't, that's _his_ fault. I tote one--an' yo're not
goin' to swagger around these parts with any more than I got. Which one
are you goin' to throw away?"

Bill blinked at him with owlish stupidity. "What you say?" he asked, as
though doubting the reliability of his ears.

"Oh," sneered Thorpe, his rage climbing anew; "you didn't hear me th'
first time, huh? Well, you want to be listenin' _this_ time! I asked,
which gun are you goin' to throw away, you card-skinnin' four-flush?"

"Why," faltered Bill, doing his very best to play the part he had
chosen. "I--I dunno--I ain't goin' to--to throw any of 'em away. What
you mean?"

"Throw one away!" snapped Thorpe, his animal cunning telling him that
the obeyance of the order might possibly be accepted by the crowd as
grounds for justification, if any should be needed.

Bill changed subtly as he reflected that the crowd had excused Thorpe's
humiliation because he had been tricked, and determined that no such
excuse should be used again. He looked the enraged man in the eyes and
a contemptuous smile crept around his thin lips. "Thorpe," he drawled,
"if yo're lookin' for props to hold up yore reputation, you got th'
wrong timber. Better look for a sick cow, or----"

The crowd gasped as it realized that its friend's fingers were again
relaxing from the butt of his half-drawn gun and that three pounds
of steel, concentrated on the small circumference of the barrel of a
six-gun had been jabbed into the pit of his stomach with such speed
that they had not seen it, and with such force that the victim of the
blow was sick, racked with pain and scarcely able to stand, momentarily
paralyzed by the second assault on the abused stomach, which caved,
quivered, and retched from the impact. Again he had failed, this
time after cold, calm warning; again the astonished crowd froze in
ridiculous postures, with ludicrous expressions graven on their
faces, their automatic arms leaping skyward as they gaped stupidly,
unbelievingly at the second gun. Before they could collect their
numbed senses the master of the situation had backed swiftly against
the wall near the front door, thereby blasting the budding hopes of
the bartender, whose wits and power of movement, returning at equal
pace, were well ahead of those of his friends. It also saved the man of
liquor from being dropped behind his own bar by the gun of the alert
Mr. Thompson, who felt relieved when the crisis had passed without
calling forth any effort on his part which would couple him with the
capable Mr. Long.

"Climb that wall!" said Bill Long, his voice vibrating with the sudden
outpouring of accumulated repression. "I'm lookin' for a chance to kill
you, so I ain't askin' you to throw away no gun. This is between you
an' me--anybody takin' cards will drop cold. You got it comin', an'
comin' fair. Climb that wall!"

Thorpe, gasping and agonized, fought off the sickness which had held
him rigid and stared open-eyed, open-mouthed at glinting ferocity in
the narrowed eyes of the two-gun man.

"Climb that wall!" came the order, this time almost a whisper, but
sharp and cutting as the edge of a knife, and there was a certainty in
the voice and eyes which was not to be disregarded. Thorpe straightened
up a little, turned slowly and slowly made his way through the opening
crowd to the wall, and leaned against it. He had no thought of using
the gun at his hip, no idea of resistance, for the spirit of the bully
within him had been utterly crushed. He was a broken man, groping for
bearings in the fog of the shifting readjustments going on in his soul.

"_Climb!_" said Bill Long's voice like the cracking of a bull-whacker's
whip, and Thorpe mechanically obeyed, his finger-nails and boot toes
scraping over the smooth boards in senseless effort. He had not yet had
time to realize what he had lost, to feel the worthlessness which would
be his to the end of his days.

The two-gun man nodded. "I told you boys I was a imitator," he said,
smiling; "an' I am. I imitated him in his play to kill me. I imitated
that SV foreman, an' now I'm imitatin' Thorpe again. It's his own idea,
climbin' walls."

Fisher, watching the still-climbing Thorpe, was using his nimble wits
for a way out of a situation which easily might turn into anything,
from a joke to a sudden shambles. He now had no doubts about the real
quality of Bill Long, and he secretly congratulated himself that he had
not yielded to certain temptations he had felt. Besides, his arms were
growing heavy and numb. There came to his mind the further thought that
this two-gun, card-playing wizard would be a very good partner for a
tour of the country, a tour which should be lucrative and safe enough
to satisfy anyone.

"Huh," he laughed. "We're imitatin', too; only we're imitatin'
ourselves, an' we're gettin' tired of holdin' 'em up. I'm sayin', fair
an' square, that I ain't aimin' to draw no cards in any game that is
two-handed. I reckon th' rest of th' boys feel th' same as I do. How
'bout it, boys?"

Affirmation came slowly or explosively, according to the individual
natures, and the two-gun man was confident enough in his ability to
judge character to accept the words. He slowly dropped his guns back in
the holsters and smiled broadly. Even the lower class of men is capable
of feeling a real liking, when it is based on audacious courage, for
anyone who deserves it; and he knew that the now shifting crowd had
been caught in the momentum of such a feeling. There was also another
consideration to which more than one man present gave grave heed: They
scarcely had quit marveling at the wizardy of one two-gun man when the
second had appeared and made them marvel anew.

"All right, boys," he said. "Thorpe, you can quit climbin', seein'
that you ain't gettin' nowhere. Come over here an' gimme that gun. I'm
still imitatin'. This ain't been no lucky day for you, an' just to
show you that you can make it onluckier," he said as he took the Colt,
"I'm goin' to impress somethin' on yore mind." He threw the barrel up
and carelessly emptied the weapon into the checkerboard partition with
a rapidity which left nothing to be desired. The distance was nearly
sixty feet. "Reckon you can cover 'em all with th' palm of one hand,"
he remarked as he shifted the empty gun to his left hand, where he
thought it would fit better. He looked at it and turned it over. Three
small dots, driven into the side of the frame, made him repress a
smile. His own guns had two, while Red Thompson's lone Colt had four.
He opened the flange and shoved the gun down behind the backstrap of
his trousers, where a left-handed man often finds it convenient to
carry a weapon, since the butt points that way. Letting his coat fall
back into place he walked slowly to the door and out onto the street,
the conversation in the room buzzing high after he left.

He next appeared in Quayle's, where he grinned at Idaho, Quayle,
Johnny, and Ed Doane.

"I just made Thorpe climb th' wall," he said. "He looked like a pinned
toad. Do you ever like to split up a pair of aces, Nelson?"

Johnny considered a moment and then slowly shook his head.

"Neither do I," replied the newcomer. His left hand went slowly around
under his coat and brought out the captured Colt. "An' I ain't goin' to
begin doin' it now. Here," and he handed the weapon to Johnny.

Johnny took it mechanically and then quickly turned it over and glanced
at the frame. Weighing it judicially he looked up. "Th' feel an'
balance of this Colt just suits me," he said. "Want to sell it?"

"I don't hardly own it enough to _sell_ it," answered Bill; "but I
reckon I can give it away, seein' that Thorpe set th' fashion. I'm
warnin' you that he _might_ want it back. But you should 'a' seen him
a-climbin' that wall!" and he burst into laughter.

"I'll gamble," grinned Johnny. "I'll get you a new one for it."

"No, you won't," replied Bill, still laughing. "I got more'n th' value
of a wore-out six-gun watchin' yore show up there. Besides, if it was
better'n mine I would 'a' kept it myself. I ain't expectin' you'll be
there, tonight," he finished.

"Suits me right here," replied Johnny. "Much obliged for th' gun."
He looked at Idaho and grinned. "I aim to clean out this sage-hen at
Californy Jack, tonight."

"Which same you might do," admitted Idaho, slowly looking at the Colt
in his friend's hand; "for you shore are a fool for luck."



                              CHAPTER XI

                            A JOB WELL DONE


Pecos Kane looked up at the sound of shooting and signaled for the
doorkeeper. Getting no response he pulled another cord and waited
impatiently for the man who answered it.

"What was that shooting, and who did it?" demanded the boss. He cut the
wordy recital short. "Tell Bill Trask to assume Thorpe's duties and
send Thorpe to me."

Thorpe soon appeared, slowly closed the door behind him and faced the
boss, who studied him for a silent interval, the object of the keen
scrutiny squirming at the close of it.

"You are no longer suited for my doortender," said Kane's hard voice.
"Report to the dining-room, or kitchen, or leave the hotel entirely.
But first find Corwin and send him to me. That is all."

Thorpe gulped and shuffled out and in a few minutes the sheriff
appeared.

"Sit down, Corwin," said Kane, pleasantly. "Trask has Thorpe's job now.
Wait a moment until I think something out," and he sat back in his
chair, his eyes closing. In a few moments he opened them and leaned
forward. "I have come to a decision regarding some strangers in this
town. I have reason to believe that Long and Thompson know each other a
great deal better than they pretend. I want to know more about Nelson,
so you will send a good man up to his country to get me a report on
him. Do it as soon as you leave me, and tell him to waste no time. That
clear?"

Corwin nodded.

"Very well," continued the boss. "I want you to arrest both Long and
Thompson before tomorrow, and throw them into jail. Since Long's
exhibition today it will be well to go about it in a manner calculated
to avoid bloodshed. There is no use of throwing men away by sending
them against such gunplay. You are to arrest them without a shot being
fired on _either_ side. It is only a matter of figuring it out, and I
will give you this much to start on: Whatever suspicions may have been
aroused in their minds about their welcome here not being cordial must
be removed. Because of that there should be no ill-advised speed in
carrying out the arrests. They could be shot down from behind, but I
want them alive; and it suits my purpose better if they are taken right
here in this building. They are worth money, and a great deal more than
money to me, to you, and to all of us. Twitchell and Carpenter are very
powerful and they must be placated if it can be done in such a way
as not to jeopardize us. I think it may be done in a way which will
strengthen us. You follow me closely?"

The sheriff nodded again.

"All right," said Kane. "Now then, tell me where each of the three men,
Nelson, Long, and Thompson, were on the occasions of the robbery of the
bank and the death of Ridley. Think carefully."

Corwin gazed at the floor thoughtfully. "When th' bank was robbed
Nelson was playin' cards with Idaho Norton in Quayle's saloon. Quayle
an' Doane were in there with 'em. Long an' Thompson were here,
upstairs, asleep."

"Very good, so far," commented Kane; "go on."

"When Ridley was shot Nelson was with Idaho Norton in Quayle's hotel,
for both of them rustled into th' street an' carried him indoors.
Thompson was in th' front room, here, an' Long come in soon after the
shot was fired."

"Excellent. Which way did he come?"

"Through th' front door."

"Before that?" demanded the boss impatiently.

"I don't know."

"Why don't you?" blazed Kane. "Have I got to do _all_ th' thinking for
this crowd of dumbheads?"

"Why, why should I know?" Corwin asked in surprise.

"If you don't know the answer to your own question it is only wasting
my time to tell it to you. Now, listen: You are to send four men in to
me--but not Mexicans, for the testimony of Mexicans in this country is
not taken any too seriously by juries. The four are not all to come
the same way nor at the same time. The dumbheads I have around me
necessitate that each be instructed separate and apart from the others,
else they wouldn't know, or keep separate their own part. Is this
plain?"

"Yes," answered the arm of the law.

"Very well. Now you will go out and arrange to arrest and jail those
two men. And after you have arranged it you will _do_ it. Not a shot is
to be fired. When they are in jail report to me. That is all."

Corwin departed and did not scratch his head until the door closed
after him, and then he showed great signs of perplexity. As he went up
the next corridor he caught sight of a friend leaning against the back
of the partition, and just beyond was Bill Trask at his new post. He
beckoned to them both.

"Sandy, you are to report to th' boss, right away," ordered the
sheriff. "He wants four white men, an' yo're near white. Trask, send in
three more white men, one at a time, after Woods comes out. An' let me
impress _this_ on yore mind: It is strict orders that you ain't to fire
a shot tonight, when somethin' happens that's goin' to happen; you, nor
nobody else. Got that good?"

"What do you mean?" asked the sentry, grinning.

"Good G--d!" snorted the sheriff. "Do I have to do _all_ th' thinkin'
for this crowd of dumbheads?"

"Yo're a parrot," retorted Trask. "I know that by heart. You _don't_
have to. You don't even do yore _own_. You may go!"

Corwin grunted and joined the crowd in the big room and when Bill Long
wandered in and settled down to watch a game the sheriff in due time
found a seat at his side. His conversation was natural, not too steady
and not too friendly and neither did he tarry too long, for when he
thought that he had remained long enough he wandered up to the bar,
joked with the chief dispenser, and mixed with the crowd. After awhile
he went out and strolled over to the jail, where a dozen men were
waiting for him. His lecture to them was painfully simple, in the
simplest words of his simple vocabulary, and when he at last returned
to the gambling-hall he was certain that his pupils were letter-perfect.

Meanwhile Kane had been busy and when the first of the four appeared
the clear-thinking boss drove straight to his point. He looked intently
at the caller and asked: "Where were you on the night of the storm, at
the time the bank was robbed?"

"Upstairs playin' cards with Harry."

"Do you know where Long and Thompson were at that time?"

"Shore; they was upstairs."

"I am going to surprise you," said Kane, smiling, and he did, for he
told his listener where he had been on that night, what he had seen,
and what he had found in the morning in front of the door of Bill
Long's door. He did it so well that the listener began to believe that
it was so, and said as much.

"That's just what you must believe," exclaimed Kane. "Go over it again
and again. Picture it, with natural details, over and over again. Live
every minute, every step of it. If you forget anything about it come
to me and I'll refresh your memory. I'll do so anyway, when the time
comes. You may go."

The second and third man came, learned their lessons and departed. The
fourth, a grade higher in intelligence, was given a more difficult task
and before he was dismissed Kane went to a safe, took out a bundle of
large bills and handed two of them to his visitor, who nodded, pocketed
them and departed. He was to plant them, find them again and return
them so that the latter part of the operation would be clear in his
memory.

Supper was over and the big room crowded. Jokes and laughter sounded
over the quiet curses of the losers. Bill Long, straddling a chair,
with his arms crossed on its back, watched a game and exchanged banter
with the players during the deals. Red Thompson, playing in another
game not far away, was winning slowly but consistently. Somebody
started a night-herding song and others joined in, making the ceiling
ring. Busy bartenders were endeavoring to supply the demand. The song
roared through the first verse and the second, and in the middle of
the following chorus, at the first word of the second line there was a
sudden, concerted movement, and chaos reigned.

Unexpectedly attacked by half a dozen men each Bill and Red fought
valiantly but vainly. In Bill's group two men had been told off to go
for his guns, one to each weapon, and they had dived head-first at the
signal. Red's single gun had been obtained in the same way. Stamping
feet, curses, grunts, groans, the soft sound of fist on flesh, the
scraping of squirming masses of men going this way and that, the heavy
breathing and other sounds of conflict filled the dusty, smoky air.
Chairs crashed, tables toppled and were wrecked by the surging groups
and then, suddenly, the turmoil ceased and the two bound, battered,
and exhausted men swayed dizzily in the hands of their captors, their
chests rising and falling convulsively beneath their ragged shirts as
they gulped the foul air.

Two men rocked on the floor, slobbering over cracked shins, another
lay face down across the wreck of a chair, his gory face torn from
mouth to cheekbone; another held a limp and dangling arm, cursing with
monotonous regularity; a fifth, blood pouring from his torn scalp and
blinding him, groped aimlessly around the room.

Corwin glanced around, shook his head and looked at his two prisoners
in frank admiration. "You fellers shore can lick h--l out of th' man
that invented fightin'!"

Bill Long glared at him. "I didn't see--you--nowhere near!" he
panted. "Turn us--loose--an' we'll clean--out th' place. We
was--two-thirds--licked before we--knew it was comin'."

"Don't waste yore--breath on th'--d--d -- --" snarled Red. "There's a
few I'm aimin' to--kill when I--get th' chance!"

"What's th' meanin' of--this surprise party?" asked Bill Long.

"It means that you an' Thompson are under arrest for robbin' th' bank;
an' you for th' murder of Ridley," answered the peace officer, frowning
at the ripple of laughter which arose. A pock-marked Mexican, whose
forehead bore a crescent-shaped scar, seemed to be unduly hilarious and
vastly relieved about something.

Thorpe came swiftly across the room toward Bill Long, snarled a curse,
and struck with vicious energy at the bruised face. Bill rolled his
head and the blow missed. Before the assailant could recover his
balance and strike again a brawny, red-haired giant, whose one good eye
glared over a battered nose, lunged swiftly forward and knocked Thorpe
backwards over a smashed chair and overturned table. The prostrate man
groped and half arose, to look dazedly into the giant's gun and hear
the holder of it give angry warning.

"Any more of that an' I'll blow you apart!" roared the giant. "An'
that goes for any other skunk in th' room. Bear-baitin' is barred." He
looked at Corwin. "You've got 'em--now get 'em out of here an' into
jail, before I has to kill somebody!"

Corwin called to his men and with the prisoners in the middle the
little procession started for the old adobe jail on the next street,
the pleased sheriff bringing up the rear, his Colt swinging in his
hand. When the prisoners had been locked up behind its thick walls he
sighed with relief, posted two guards, front and rear, and went back to
report to Kane that a good job had been well done.

The boss nodded and bestowed one of his rare compliments. "That was
well handled, Sheriff," he said. "I am sorry your work is not yet
finished. A zealous peace officer like you should be proud enough
of such a capture as to be anxious to inform those most interested.
Also," he smiled, "you naturally would be anxious to put in a claim
for the reward. Therefore you should go right down to McCullough and
lay the entire matter before him, as I shall now instruct you," and
the instructions were as brief as thoroughness would allow. "Is that
clear?" asked the boss at the end of the lesson.

"It ain't only clear," enthused Corwin; "but it's gilt-edged; I'm on my
way, now!"

"Report to me before morning," said Kane.

Hurrying from the room and the building the sheriff saddled his
horse and rode briskly down the trail. Not far from town he began to
whistle and he kept it up purposely as a notification of peaceful and
honorable intentions, until the sharp challenge of a hidden sentry
checked both it and his horse.

"Sheriff Corwin," he answered. "What you holdin' _me_ up for?"

A man stepped out of the cover at the edge of the trail. "Got a match?"
he pleasantly asked, the rifle hanging from the crook of his arm, both
himself and the weapon hidden from the sheriff by the darkness. "Where
you goin' so late? Thought everybody was asleep but me."

Corwin handed him the match. "Just ridin' down to see McCullough.
Got important business with him, an' reckoned it shouldn't wait 'til
mornin'."

The sentry rolled a cigarette and lit it with the borrowed match in
such a way that the sheriff's face was well lighted for the moment, but
he did not look up. "That's good," he said. "Reckon I'll go along with
you. No use hangin' 'round up here, an' I'm shore sleepy. Wait till
I get my cayuse," and he disappeared, soon returning in the saddle.
His quiet friend in the brush settled back to resume the watch and to
speculate on how long it would take his companion to return.

McCullough, half undressed, balanced himself as he heard approaching
voices, growled profanely and put the freed leg in the trousers. He was
ready for company when one of the night shift stuck his head in at the
door.

"Sheriff Corwin wants to see you," said the puncher. "His business is
so delicate it might die before mornin'."

"All right," grumbled the trail-boss. "If you get out of his way mebby
he can come in."

Corwin stood in the vacated door, smiling, but too wise to offer his
hand to the blunt, grim host. "Got good news," he said, "for you, me,
an' th' T & C."

"Ya-as?" drawled McCullough, peering out beneath his bushy, gray
eyebrows. "Pecos Kane shoot hisself?"

"We got th' fellers that robbed th' bank an' shot Ridley," said the
sheriff.

"The h--l you say!" exclaimed McCullough. "Come in an' set down. Who
are they? How'd you get 'em?"

"That reward stick?" asked Corwin anxiously.

"Tighter'n a tick to a cow!" emphatically replied the trail-boss. "Who
are they?"

"I got a piece of paper here," said the sheriff, proving his words.
He stepped inside and placed it on the table. "Read it over an' sign
it. Then I'll fill in th' blanks with th' names of th' men. If they're
guilty, I'm protected; if I've made a mistake, then there's no harm
done."

McCullough slowly read it aloud:

  "'Sheriff Corwin was the first man to tell me that ---- and ----
  robbed the Mesquite bank, and that ---- killed Tom Ridley. He will
  produce the prisoners, with the witnesses and other proof in Sandy
  Bend upon demand. If they are found guilty of the crime named the
  rewards belong to him.'"

The trail-boss considered it thoughtfully. "It looks fair; but there's
one thing I don't like, Sheriff," he said, putting his finger on the
objectionable words and looking up. "I don't like 'Sandy Bend.' I'm
takin' no chances with them fellers. I'll just scratch that out, an'
write in, 'to me' How 'bout it?"

"They've got to have a fair trial," replied Corwin. "I'm standin' for
no lynchin'. I can't do it."

"Yo're shore right they're goin' to have a fair trial!" retorted the
trail-boss. "Twitchell ain't just lookin' for two men--he wants th'
ones that robbed th' bank an' killed Ridley. You don't suppose he's
payin' five thousan' out of his pocket for somebody that ain't guilty,
do you? Why, they're goin' to have such a fair trial that you'll need
all th' evidence you can get to convict 'em. Lynch 'em?" He laughed
sarcastically. "They won't even be jailed in Sandy Bend, where they
shore _would_ be lynched. You take 'em to Sandy Bend an' you'll be
lynched out of yore reward. You know how it reads."

Corwin scratched his head and a slow grin spread over his face. "Cuss
it, I never saw it that way," he admitted. "I guess yo're shoutin'
gospel, Mac; but, cuss it, it ain't reg'lar."

"You know me; an' I know you," replied the trail-boss, smiling.
"There's lots of little things done that ain't exactly reg'lar; but
they're plumb sensible. Suppose I change this here paper like I said,
an' sign it. Then you write in th' names an' let me read 'em. Then you
let me know what proof you got, an' bring down th' prisoners, an' I'll
sign a receipt for 'em."

"Yes!" exclaimed Corwin. "I'll deputize you, an' give 'em into yore
custody, with orders to take 'em to Sandy Bend, or any other jail which
you think best. That makes it more reg'lar, don't it?" he smiled.

McCullough laughed heartily and slapped his thigh. "That's shore more
reg'lar. I'm beginnin' to learn why they elected you sheriff. All
right, then; I'm signin' my name." He took pen and ink from a shelf,
made the change in the paper, sprawled his heavy-handed signature
across the bottom and handed the pen to Corwin. "Now, d--n it: Who are
they?"

The sheriff carefully filled in the three blanks, McCullough peering
over his shoulder and noticing that the form had been made out by
another hand.

"There," said Corwin. "I'm spendin' that five thousand right now."

"'Bill Long'--'Red Thompson'--'Bill Long' again," growled the
trail-boss. "Never heard of 'em. Live around here?"

Corwin shook his head. "No."

"All right," grunted McCullough. "Now, then; what proof you got? You'll
never spend a cent of it if you ain't got 'em cold."

Corwin sat on the edge of the table, handed a cigar to his host and
lit his own. "I got a man who was in th' north stable, behind Kane's,
when th' shot that killed Ridley was fired from th' other stable. He
was feedin' his hoss an' looked out through a crack, seein' Long sneak
out of th' other buildin', Sharp's in hand, an' rustle for cover around
to th' gamblin'-hall. Another man was standin' in th' kitchen, gazin'
out of th' winder, an' saw Long turn th' corner of th' north stable an'
dash for th' hotel buildin'. He says he laughed because Long's slight
limp made him sort of bob sideways. An' we know why Long done it, but
we're holdin' that back. That's for th' killin'."

"Now for th' robbery: I got th' man that saw Long an' Thompson sneak
out of th' front door of th' dinin'-room hall into that roarin' sand
storm between eleven an' twelve o'clock on th' night of th' robbery. He
says he remembers it plain because he was plumb surprised to see sane
men do a fool thing like that. He didn't say nothin' to 'em because
if they wanted to commit suicide it was their own business. Besides,
they was strangers to him. After awhile he went up to bed, but couldn't
sleep because of th' storm makin' such a racket. Kane's upstairs rocked
a little that night. I know, because I was up there, tryin' to sleep."

"Go on," said the trail-boss, eagerly and impatiently, his squinting
eyes not leaving the sheriff's face.

"Well, quite some time later he heard th' door next to his'n open
cautious, but a draft caught it an' slammed it shut. Then Bill Long's
voice said, angry an' sharp: 'What th' h--l you doin', Red? Tellin'
creation about it?' In th' mornin', th' cook, who gets up ahead of
everybody else, of course, was goin' along th' hall toward th' stairs
an' he kicks somethin' close to Long's door. It rustles an' he gropes
for it, curious-like, an' took it downstairs with him for a look at it,
where it wasn't so dark. It was a strip of paper that th' bank puts
around packages of bills, an' there was some figgers on it. He chucks
it in a corner, where it fell down behind some stuff that had been
there a long time, an' don't think no more about it till he hears about
th' bank bein' robbed. Then he fishes it out an' brings it to me. I
knowed what it was, first glance."

"Any more?" urged McCullough. "It's _good_; but, you got any more?"

"I shore have. What you think I'm sheriff for? I got two of th' bills,
an' their numbers tally with th' bank's numbers of th' missin' money.
You can compare 'em with yore own list later. I sent a deputy to their
rooms as soon as I had 'em in jail, an' he found th' bills sewed up
in their saddle pads. Reckon they was keepin' one apiece in case they
needed money quick. An' when th' sand was swept off th' step in front
of that hall door, a gold piece was picked up out of it."

"When were you told about all this by these fellers?" demanded the
trail-boss.

"As soon as th' robbery was known, an' as soon as th' shootin' of
Ridley was known!"

"When did you arrest them?"

"Last night; an' it was shore one big job. They can fight like a passel
of cougars. Don't take no chances with 'em, Mac."

"Why did you wait till last night?" demanded McCullough. "Wasn't you
scared they'd get away?"

"No. I had 'em trailed every place they went. They wasn't either of
'em out of our sight for a minute; an' when they slept there was men
watchin' th' stairs an' their winders. You see, Kane lost a lot of
money in that robbery, bein' a director; an' I was hopin' they'd try to
sneak off to where they cached it an' give us a chance to locate it.
They was too wise. I got more witnesses, too; but they're Greasers, an'
I ain't puttin' no stock in 'em. A Greaser'd lie his own mother into
her grave for ten dollars; anyhow, most juries down here think so, so
it's all th' same."

"Yes; lyin' for pay is shore a Greaser trick," said McCullough,
nodding. "Well, I reckon it's only a case of waitin' for th' reward,
Sheriff. Tell you what I wish you'd do: Gimme everythin' they own when
you send 'em down to me, or when I come up for 'em, whichever suits you
best. Everythin' has got to be collected now before it gets lost, an'
it's got to be ready for court in case it's needed."

"All right; I'll get back what I can use, after th' trial," replied
Corwin. "I'll throw their saddles on their cayuses, an' let 'em ride
'em down. How soon do you want 'em? Right away?"

"First thing in th' mornin'!" snapped McCullough. "Th' sooner th'
better. I'll send up some of th' boys to give you a hand with 'em, or
I'll take 'em off yore hands entirely at th' jail. Which suits you?"

"Send up a couple of yore men, if you want to. It'll look better in
town if I deliver 'em to you here. Why, you ain't smoked yore cigar!"

McCullough looked at him and then at his own hand, staring at the
crushed mass of tobacco in it. "Shucks!" he grunted, apologetically,
and forthwith lied a little himself. "Funny how a man forgets when he's
excited. I bet that cigar thought it was in a vise--my hand's tired
from squeezin'."

"Sorry I ain't got another, Mac," said Corwin, grinning, as he paused
in the door. "I'll be lookin' for yore boys early. _Adios._"

"_Adios_," replied McCullough from the door, listening to the dying
hoofbeats going rapidly toward town. Then he shut the door, hurled the
remains of the cigar on the floor and stepped on them. "He's got 'em,
huh? An' strangers, too! He's got 'em too d--d pat for me. It takes
a good man to plaster a lie on me an' make it stick--an' he ain't
no good, at all. He was sweatin' before he got through!" Again the
trousers came off, all the way this time, and the lamp was turned down.
As he settled into his bunk he growled again. "Well, I'll have a look
at 'em, anyhow, an' send 'em down for Twitchell to look at," and in
another moment he was asleep.



                              CHAPTER XII

                        FRIENDS ON THE OUTSIDE


While events were working out smoothly for the arrest of the two men
in Kane's gambling-hall, four friends were passing a quiet evening in
Quayle's barroom, but the quiet was not to endure.

With lagging interest in the game Idaho picked up his cards, ruffled
them and listened. "Reckon that's singin'," he said in response to the
noise floating down from the gambling-hall. "Sounds more like a bunch
of cows bawlin' for their calves. Kane's comin' to life later'n usual.
Wonder if Thorpe's joinin' in?" he asked, and burst out laughing. "Next
to our hard-workin' sheriff there ain't nobody in town that I'd rather
see eat dirt than him. Wish I could 'a' seen him a-climbin' that wall!"

"Annybody that works for Kane eats dirt," commented Quayle. "They has
to. He'll learn how to eat it, too, th' blackguard."

"There goes _somethin'_," said Ed Doane as the distant roaring ceased
abruptly. "Reckon Thorpe's makin' another try at th' wall." He laughed
softly. "They're startin' a fandango, by th' sound of it."

"'Tis nothin' to th' noise av a good Irish reel," deprecated the
proprietor.

"I'm claimin' low this hand," grunted Idaho. "Look out for yore jack."

Johnny smiled, played and soon a new deal was begun.

"Th' dance is over, too," said Doane, mopping off the bar for the third
time in ten minutes. "Must 'a' been a short one."

"Some of them _hombres_ will dance shorter than that, an' harder,"
grunted Idaho, "th' next time they pay _us_ a visit. They didn't get
many head th' last time, an' I'm sayin' they'll get none at all th'
next time. Where they take 'em to is more'n we can guess: th' tracks
just die. Not bein' able to track 'em, we're aimin' to stop it at th'
beginnin'. You fellers wait, an' you'll see."

Quayle grunted expressively. "I been waitin' too long now. Wonder why
nobody ever set fire to Kane's. 'Twould be a fine sight."

"You'll mebby see that, too, one of these nights," growled the puncher.

"Then pick out wan when th' wind is blowin' _up_ th' street," chuckled
Quayle. "This buildin' is so dry it itches to burn. I'm surprised
it ain't happened long ago, with that Mick in th' kitchen raisin'
th' divvil with th' stove. If I didn't have a place av me own I'd be
tempted to do it meself."

The bartender laughed shortly. "If McCullough happens to think of it I
reckon it'll be done." He shook out the bar cloth and bunched it again.
"Funny he ain't cut loose yet. That ain't like him, at all."

"Waitin' for th' rewards to start workin', I reckon," said Johnny.

Idaho scraped up the cards, shaped them into a sheersided deck and
pushed it aside. "I'm tired of this game; it's too even. Reckon I'll
go up an' take a look at Kane's." He arose and sauntered out, paused,
and looked up the street. "Cussed if they ain't havin' a pe-rade," he
called. "This ain't th' Fourth of July, is it? I'm goin' up an' sidle
around for a closer look. Be back soon."

Johnny was vaguely perturbed. The sudden cessation of the song bothered
him, and the uproar which instantly followed it only served to increase
his uneasiness. Ordinarily he would not have been affected, but the
day's events might have led to almost anything. Had a shot been fired
he swiftly would have investigated, but the lack of all shooting
quieted his unfounded suspicions. Idaho's remark about the parade
renewed them and after a short, silent argument with himself he arose,
went to the door and looked up the street, seeing the faint, yellow
patch on the sand where Kane's lamps shown through the open door and
struggled against the surrounding darkness, and hearing the faint
rumble of voices above which rang out frequent laughter. He grimly told
himself that there would be no laughter in Kane's if his two friends
had come to any harm, and there would have been plenty of shooting.

"Annythin' to see?" asked Quayle, poking his head out of the door.

"No," answered Johnny, turning to reenter the building. "Just feelin'
their oats, I reckon."

"'Tis feelin' their _ropes_ they should be doin'," replied Quayle,
stepping back to let his guest pass through. "An' 'twould be fine
humor to swing 'em from their own. Hist!" he warned, listening to the
immoderate laughter which came rapidly nearer. "Here's Idaho; he'll
know it all."

Idaho popped in and in joyous abandon threw his sombrero against the
ceiling. "Funniest thing you ever heard!" he panted. "Corwin's arrested
that Bill Long an' Red Thompson. Took a full dozen to do it, an' half
of 'em are cripples now. Th' pe-rade I saw was Corwin an' a bunch
escortin' 'em over to th' jail. Ain't we got a rip-snortin' fool for a
sheriff?" His levity died swiftly, to give way to slowly rising anger.
"With this country fair crowded with crooks he can't find nobody to
throw in jail except two friendless strangers! D--n his hide, I got a
notion to pry 'em out and turn 'em loose before mornin', just to make
things right, an' take some of th' swellin' out of his flat head. It's
a cussed shame."

The low-pulled brim of Johnny's sombrero hid the glint in his eyes
and the narrowed lids. He relaxed and sat carelessly on the edge
of a table, one leg swinging easily to and fro as conjecture after
conjecture rioted through his mind.

"They must 'a' stepped on Kane's toes," said Ed, vigorously wiping off
the backbar.

Idaho scooped up his hat and flung it on the table at Johnny's side.
"You'd never guess it, Ed. Even th' rest of th' gang was laughin' about
it, all but th' cripples. I been waitin' for them rewards to start
workin,' but I never reckoned they'd work out like this. Long an'
Thompson are holdin' th' sack. They're scapegoats for th' whole cussed
gang. Corwin took 'em in for robbin' th' bank, an' gettin' Ridley!"

Ed Doane dropped the bar cloth and stared at the speaker and a red
tide crept slowly up his throat and spread across his face. Johnny slid
from the table and disappeared in the direction of his room. He came
down again with the two extra Colts in his hands, slipped through the
kitchen and ran toward the jail. Quayle's mouth slowly closed and then
let out an explosive curse. The bartender brought his fist down on the
bar with a smash.

"Scapegoats? Yo're right! It's a cold deck--an' you bet Kane never
would 'a' dealt from it if he wasn't dead shore he could make th' play
stick. Every man in th' pack will swear accordin' to orders, an' who
can swear th' other way? It'll be a strange jury, down in Sandy Bend,
every man jack of it a friend of Ridley an' th' T & C. Well, I'm a
peaceable man, but this is too much. I never saw them fellers before
in my life; but on th' day when Corwin starts south with 'em I'll be
peaceable no longer--an' I've got friends! There's no tellin' who'll be
next if he makes this stick. Who's with me?"

"_I_ am," said Quayle; "an' _I_ got friends."

"Me, too," cried Idaho. "There's a dozen hickory knots out on th' ranch
that hate Corwin near as much as I do. They'll be with us, mebby even
Lukins, hisself. Hey! Where'd Nelson go?" he excitedly demanded. "Mebby
he's out playin' a lone hand!" and he darted for the kitchen.

Johnny, hidden in the darkness not far from the jail, was waiting.
The escort, judging from the talk and the glowing ends of cigarettes,
was bunched near the front of the building, little dreaming how close
they stood to a man who held four Colts and was fighting down a rage
which urged their use. At last, thoroughly master of itself, Johnny's
mind turned to craftiness rather than to blind action and formulated
a sketchy plan. But while the plan was being carried through he would
not allow his two old friends to be entirely helpless. Slipping off his
boots he crept up behind the jail and with his kerchief lowered the two
extra guns through the window, softly calling attention to them, which
redoubled the prisoners' efforts to untie each other. Satisfied now
that they were in no immediate danger he slipped back to his boots, put
them on and waited to see what would happen, and to listen further.

"There ain't no use watchin' th' jail," said a voice, louder than the
rest. "They're tied up proper, an' nobody ever got out of it before."

"Just th' same, you an' Harry will watch it," said Corwin. "Winder an'
door. I ain't takin' no chances with this pair."

A thickening on the dark ground moved forward slowly and a low voice
called Johnny's name. He replied cautiously and soon Idaho crawled to
his side, whispering questions.

"Go back where there ain't no chance of anybody hearin' us, or
stumblin' over us," said Johnny. "When that gang leaves there won't be
so much noise, an' then they may hear us."

At last reaching an old wagon they stood up and leaned against it, and
Johnny unburdened his heart to a man he knew he could trust.

"Idaho," he said, quietly, "them fellers are th' best friends I ever
had. They cussed near raised me, an' they risked their lives more'n
once to save mine. 'Most everythin' I know I got from them, an' they
ain't goin' to stay in that mud hut till mornin', not if I die for it.
They come down here to help me, an' I'm goin' to get 'em out. Did you
ever hear of th' old Bar-20, over in th' Pecos Valley?"

"I shore did," answered Idaho. "Why?"

"I was near raised on it. Bill Long is Hopalong Cassidy, an' Red
Thompson is Red Connors, th' whitest men that ever set a saddle. Rob a
bank, an' shoot a man from _behind_! Did Bill Long act like a man that
had to shoot in th' back when he made Thorpe climb his own wall, with
his own crowd lookin' on? Most of their lives has been spent fightin'
Kane's kind; an' no breed of pups can hold 'em while I'm drawin' my
breath. It's only how to do it th' best way that's botherin' me. I've
slipped 'em a pair of guns, so I got a little time to think. Why, cuss
it: Hoppy knows th' skunk that got Ridley! An' before we're through
we'll know who robbed th' bank, an' hand 'em over to Mac. That's what's
keepin' th' three of us here!"

"Bless my gran'mother's old gray cat!" breathed Idaho. "No wonder they
pulled th' string! I'm sayin' Kane's got hard ridin' ahead. Say, can I
tell th' boys at th' ranch?"

"Tell 'em nothin' that you wouldn't know except for me tellin' you,"
replied Johnny. "I know they're good boys; but they might let it slip.
Me an' Hoppy an' Red are aimin' for them rewards--an' we're goin' to
get 'em both."

"It's a plumb lovely night," muttered Idaho. "Nicest night I think I
ever saw. I don't want no rewards, but I just got to get my itchin'
paws into what's goin' on around this town. An' it's a lovely town.
Nicest town I think I ever was in. That 'dobe shack ain't what it once
was. I know, because, not bein' friendly with th' sheriff, an' not
bein' able to look all directions at once, I figgered I might be in
it, myself, some day. So I've looked it over good, inside an' out. Th'
walls are crumbly, an' th' bars in th' window are old. There's a waggin
tongue in Pete Jarvis' freight waggin that's near twelve foot long, an'
a-plenty thick. Ash, I think it is; that or oak. Either's good enough.
If it was shoved between th' bars an' then pushed sideways that jail
wouldn't be a jail no more. If Pete ain't taken th' waggin to bed with
him, bein' so proud of it, we can crack that little hazelnut. I'm goin'
back an' see how many are still hangin' around."

"I'm goin' back to th' hotel, so I'll be seen there," said Johnny.

"I'll do th' same, later," replied his friend as they separated.

Quayle was getting rid of some of his accumulated anger, which
reflection had caused to soar up near the danger point. "Tom Ridley
wasn't killed by no strangers!" he growled, banging the table with his
fist. "I can name th' man that done it by callin' th' roll av Kane's
litter; an' I'll be namin' th' bank robbers in th' same breath." He
looked around as Johnny entered the room. "An' what did ye find, lad?"

"Idaho was right. They've got 'em in th' jail."

"An' if I was as young a man as you," said the proprietor, "they
wouldn't kape 'em there. As ut is I'm timpted to go up an' bust in th'
dommed door, before th' sheriff comes back from his ride. Tom Ridley's
murderer? Bah!"

"Back from his ride?" questioned Johnny, quickly and eagerly.

"Shure. He just wint down th' trail. Tellin' Mac, I don't doubt that
he's got th' men Twitchell wants. I was lookin' around when he wint
past. This is th' time, lad. I'll help ye by settin' fire to Red
Frank's corral if th' jail's watched. It'll take their attention. Or
I'll lug me rifle up an' cover ye while ye work." He arose and went
into the office for the weapon, Johnny following him. "There she
is--full to th' ind. An' I know her purty ways."

"Tim," said Johnny's low voice over his shoulder. "Yo're white, clean
through. I don't need yore help, anyhow, not right now. An' because you
are white I'm goin' to tell you somethin' that'll please you, an' give
me one more good friend in this rotten town. Bill Long an' Red Thompson
are friends of mine. They did not rob th' bank, nor shoot Ridley; but
Bill knows who _did_ shoot Ridley. He saw him climbin' out of Kane's
south stable while th' smoke was still comin' from th' gun that shot
yore friend. I can put my hand on th' coyote in five minutes. Th' three
of us are stayin' here to get that man, th' man who robbed th' bank,
an' Pecos Kane. I'm tellin' you this because I may need a good friend
in Mesquite before we're through."

Quayle had wheeled and gripped his shoulder with convulsive force.
"Ah!" he breathed. "Come on, lad; point him out! Point him out for Tim
Quayle, like th' good lad ye are!"

"Do you want him so bad that yo're willin' to let th' real killer get
away?" asked Johnny. "You only have to wait an' we'll get both."

"What d'ye mean?"

"You don't believe he shot Ridley without bein' told to do it, do you?"

"Kane told him; I know it as plain as I know my name."

"Knowin' ain't provin' it, an' provin' it is what we got to do."

"'Tis th' curse av th' Irish, jumpin' first an' thinkin' after,"
growled Quayle. "Go wan!"

"Yo're friends with McCullough," said Johnny. "Mac knows a little; an'
I'm near certain he's heard of Hopalong Cassidy an' Red Connors, of th'
Bar-20. Don't forget th' names: Hopalong Cassidy an' Red Connors, of
th' old Bar-20 in th' Pecos Valley. Buck Peters was foreman. I want you
to go down an' pay him a friendly visit, and tell him this," and Quayle
listened intently to the message.

"Bye," chuckled the proprietor, "ye leave Mac to me. We been friends
for years, an' Tom Ridley was th' friend of us both. But, lad, ye may
die; an' Bill Long may die--life is uncertain annywhere, an' more so in
Mesquite, these days. If yer a friend av Tim Quayle, slip me th' name
av th' man that murdered Ridley. I promise ye to kape han's off--an' I
want no reward. But it fair sickens me to think his name may be lost.
Tom was like a brother."

"If you knew th' man you couldn't hold back," replied Johnny. "Here:
I'll tell Idaho, an' Ed Doane. If Bill an' I go under they'll give you
his description. I don't know his name."

"Th' offer is a good wan; but Tim Quayle never broke his word to anny
man an' there's nothin' on earth or in hiven I want so much as to
know who murdered Tom Ridley. I pass ye my word with th' sign av th'
cross, on th' witness of th' Holy Virgin, an' on th' mem'ry av Tom
Ridley--I'll stay me hand accordin' to me promise."

Johnny looked deeply into the faded blue eyes through the tears which
filmed them. He gripped the proprietor's hand and leaned closer. "A
Greaser with a pock-marked face, an' a crescent-shaped scar over his
right eye. He is about my height an' drags one foot slightly when he
walks."

"Aye, from th' ball an' chain!" muttered Quayle. "I know th' scut!
Thank ye, lad: I can sleep better nights. An' I can wait as no Irishman
ever waited before. Annythin' Tim Quayle has is yourn; yourn an' yore
friends. I'll see Mac tomorrow. Good night." He cuddled the rifle and
went toward the stairs, but as he put his foot on the first step he
stopped, turned, and went to a chair in a corner. "I'm forgettin'," he
said, simply. "Ye may need me," and he leaned back against the wall,
closing his eyes, an expression of peace on his wrinkled face.



                             CHAPTER XIII

                             OUT AND AWAY


Idaho slipped out of the darkness of the kitchen and appeared in the
door. "All right, Nelson," he called. "There's two on guard an' th'
rest have left. They ain't takin' their job any too serious, neither.
Just one apiece," he chuckled.

Johnny looked at the proprietor. "Got any rope, Tim?" he asked.

"Plenty," answered Quayle, arising hastily and leading the way toward
the kitchen. Supplying their need he stood in the door and peered into
the darkness after them. "Good luck, byes," he muttered.

Pete Jarvis was proud of his new sixteen-foot freighter and he must
have turned in his sleep when two figures, masked to the eyes by
handkerchiefs, stole into his yard and went off with the heavy wagon
tongue. They carried it up to the old wagon near the jail, where they
put it down, removed their boots, and went on without it, reaching the
rear wall of the jail without incident, where they crouched, one at
each corner, and smiled at the conversation going on.

"I'm hopin' for a look at yore faces," said Red's voice, "to see what
they looked like before I get through with 'em, if I ever get my
chance. Come in, an' be sociable."

"Yo're doin' a lot of talkin' _now_, you red-headed coyote," came the
jeering reply. "But how are you goin' to talk to th' judge?"

"Bring some clean straw in th' mornin'," said Bill Long, "or we'll bust
yore necks. Manure's all right for Greasers, an' you, but we're white
men. Hear me chirp, you mangy pups?"

"It's good enough for you!" snapped a guard. "I was goin' to get you
some, but now you can rot, for all I care!"

Johnny backed under the window, raised up and pressed his face against
the rusty bars. "It's th' Kid," he whispered. "Are you untied yet?"

The soft answer pleased him and he went back to his corner of the
wall, where he grudged every passing minute. He had decided to wait
no longer, but to risk the noise of a shot if the unsuspecting guards
could get a gun out quickly enough, and he was about to tell Idaho of
the change in the plans when the words of a guard checked him.

"Guess I'll walk around again," said one of them, arising slowly.
"Gettin' cramped, an' sleepy, settin' here."

"You spit in that window again an' I'll bust yore neck!" said Red's
angry voice, whereupon Johnny found a new pleasure in doing his duty.

"You ain't bustin' nobody, or nothin'," jeered the guard, "'less it's
th' rope yo're goin' to drop on." He yawned and stretched and sauntered
along the side of the building, turned the corner and then raised his
hands with a jerk as a Colt pushed into his stomach and a hard voice
whispered terse instructions, which he instantly obeyed. "You fellers
ain't so bad, at that," he said, with only a slight change in his
voice; "but yo're shore playin' in hard luck."

"Keep yore sympathy to yoreself!" angrily retorted Bill Long.

Idaho, having unbuckled the gun-belt and laid it gently on the ground,
swiftly pulled the victim's arms down behind his back and tied the
crossed wrists. Johnny now got busy with ropes for his feet, and a gag,
and they soon laid him close to the base of the wall, and crept toward
the front of the building, one to each wall. Johnny tensed himself as
Idaho sauntered around the other corner.

"Makin' up with 'em?" asked the guard, ironically. "You don't want to
let 'em throw a scare into you. They'll never harm nobody no more." He
lazily arose to stretch his legs on a turn around the building. "You
listen to what _I_'m goin' to tell 'em," he said. Then he squawked and
went down with Johnny on his back, Idaho's dive coming a second later.
A blow on his head caused him to lose any impertinent interest which
he might have had in subsequent events and soon he, too, lay along the
base of the rear wall, bound, gagged, and helpless.

"I near could feel th' jar of that in here," said Red's cheerful voice.
"I'm hopin' it was th' coyote that spit through th' window. What's
next?" he asked, on his feet and pulling at bars. He received no answer
and commented upon that fact frankly and profusely.

"Shut yore face," growled Bill, working at his side. "He's hatchin'
somethin' under his hat."

"Somethin' hatchin' all over me," grunted Red, stirring restlessly.
"I'm a heap surprised this old mud hut ain't walkin' off some'ers."

Bill squirmed. "You ain't got no call to put on no airs," he retorted.
"Mine's been hatched a long time. I wouldn't let a dog lay on straw as
rotten as that stuff. Oh!" he gloated. "Somebody's shore goin' to pay
for this little party!"

"Wish th' sheriff would open that outside door about now," chuckled
Red, balancing his six-chambered gift "I'd make him pop-eyed."

Hurrying feet, booted now, came rapidly nearer and soon the
square-cornered end of a seasoned wagon tongue scraped on the adobe
window ledge. Bill Long grabbed it and drew it between two of the bars.

"Go toward th' south," he said. "That's th' boy! Listen to 'em
scrape!" he exulted. "Go ahead--she's startin'. I can feel th' 'dobe
crackin' between th' bars. Come back an' take th' next--you'll have a
little better swing because it's further from th' edge of th' window.
Go ahead! It's bendin' an' pullin' out at both ends. Go on! Whoop!
There goes th' 'dobe. Come back to th' middle an' use that pry as a
batterin'-ram on this bar. Steady; we'll do th' guidin'. All ready?
Then let her _go_! Fine! Try again. That's th' stuff--she's gone! Take
th' next. Ready? Let her _go_! There goes more 'dobe, on _this_ side.
Once more: Ready? Let her _go_! Good enough: Here we come."

"Wait," said Johnny. "We'll pass one of these fellers in to you. If
we leave 'em both together they'll mebby roll together an' untie each
other."

"Like we did," chuckled Red.

"Give us th' first one you got," said Bill. "He's th' one that spit
through th' window. I want him to lay on this straw, too. He's tied,
an' can't scratch."

The guard was raised to the window, pushed and pulled through it and
carelessly dumped on Red's bed, after which it did not take long for
the two prisoners to gain their freedom.

"Good Kid!" said Bill, gripping his friend's hand. "An' you, too,
whoever you are!"

"Don't mention no names," whispered Idaho. "We couldn't find no ear
plugs," he chuckled, shaking hands with Red. "I'm too well known in
this town. What'll we do with this coyote? Let him lay here?"

"No," answered Johnny. "He might roll over to Red Frank's an' get help.
Picket him to a bush or cactus. Here, gimme a hand with him. I reckon
he's come to, by th' way he's bracin' hisself. Little faster--time's
flyin'. All right, put him down." Johnny busied himself with the last
piece of rope and stood up. "Come on--Kane's stables, next."

As they crossed the street above the gambling-house, where in reality
it was a trail, Bill Long took a hand in the evening's plans.

"Red," he said, "you go an' get our cayuses. Bring 'em right here,
where we are now, an' wait for us. Idaho, you an' Johnny come with me
an' stand under th' window of my room to take th' things I let down,
an' free th' rope from 'em. I'm cussed shore we ain't goin' to leave
all of our traps behind, not unless they been stole."

"I like yore cussed nerve!" chuckled Idaho. "Don't blame you, though.
I'm ready."

"His nerve's just plain gall!" snapped Red, turning to Hopalong. "Think
yo're sendin' me off to get a couple of cayuses, while yo're runnin'
that risk in there? Get th' cayuses yoreself; _I_'ll get th' fixin's!"

"Don't waste time like this!" growled Johnny. "Do as yo're told, you
red-headed wart! Corwin will shore go to th' jail before he turns in.
Come on, Hoppy."

"That name sounds good again," chuckled Hopalong, giving Red a shove
toward the stables. "Get them cayuses, Carrot-Top!"

Red obeyed, but took it out in talking to himself as he went along,
and as he entered the north stable he stepped on something large and
soft, which instantly went into action. Red dropped to his knees and
clinched, getting both wrists in his hands. Being in a hurry, and
afraid of any outcry, he could not indulge in niceties, so he brought
one knee up and planted it forcefully in his enemy's stomach, threw
his weight on it and jumped up and down. Sliding his hands down the
wrists, one at a time, he found the knife and took it from the relaxing
fingers. Then he felt for the victim's jaw with one hand and hit it
with the other. Arising, he hummed a tune and soon led out the two
horses.

"Don't like to leave th' others for them fellers to use," he growled,
and forthwith decided not to leave them. He drove them out of both
stables, mounted his own, led Hopalong's, and slowly herded the other
dozen ahead of him over the soft sand and away. When he finally reached
the agreed-upon meeting place he reflected with pleasure that anyone
wishing to use those horses for the purpose of pursuit, or any other
purpose, would first have to find, and then catch them. They were
going strong when he had last heard them.

Idaho had stopped under the window pointed out to him, and his two
companions, leaving their boots in his tender care, were swallowed
up in the darkness. They opened the squeaking front door, cautiously
climbed the squeaking stairs and fairly oozed over the floor of the
upper hall, which wanted to squeak, and did so a very little. Hopalong
slowly opened the door of his room, thankful that he had oiled its
one musical hinge, and felt cautiously over the bed. It was empty,
and his sigh of relief was audible. And he was further relieved when
his groping hand found his possessions where he had left them. He was
stooping to loosen the coil of rope at the pommel of his saddle when he
heard a sleepy, inquiring voice and a soft thud, and anxiously slipped
to the door.

"Kid!" he whispered. "_Kid!_"

"Shut yore fool face," replied the object of his solicitude, striking
a match for one quick glance around. The room was strange to him,
since he never had been in it before, and he had to get his bearings.
The inert man on the bed did not get a second glance, for the sound
and weight of the blow had reassured Johnny. There were two saddles,
two rifles, two of everything, which was distressing under the
circumstances.

Hopalong had just lowered his own saddle to the waiting Idaho when the
catlike Johnny entered the room with a saddle and a rifle. He placed
them on the bed, where they would make no noise, and departed, catlike.
Soon returning he placed another saddle and rifle on the bed and
departed once more.

Hopalong, having sent down both of Johnny's first offerings, felt over
the bed for the rest of Red's belongings, if there were any more, and
became profanely indignant as his hand caressed another rifle and then
bumped against another saddle.

"What'n h--l is he doin'?" he demanded. "My G--d! There's more'n a
_dozen_ rooms on this floor, an' men in all of 'em! Hey, Kid!" he
whispered as breathing sounded suddenly close to him.

"What?" asked Johnny, holding two slicker rolls, a sombrero, a pair of
boots, and a suit of clothes. Two belts with their six-guns were slung
around his neck, but the darkness mercifully hid the sight from his
friend.

"D--n it! We ain't _movin'_ this hotel," said Hopalong with biting
sarcasm. "It don't _belong_ to us, you know. An' what was that whack I
heard when you first went in?"

"Somebody jumped Red's bed, an' wanted to know some fool thing, or
somethin', an' I had to quiet him. An' what'n blazes are _you_ kickin'
about? I've moved _twice_ as much as you have, more'n twice as _far_.
Grab holt of some of this stuff an' send it down to Idaho. He'll think
you've went to sleep."

"You locoed tumble-bug!" said Hopalong. "Aimin' to send down th' bed,
with th' feller in it, too?"

A door creaked suddenly and they froze.

"Quit yore d--d noise an' go to sleep!" growled a sleepy, truculent
voice, and the door creaked shut again.

After a short wait in silence Hopalong put out an inquiring hand. "Come
on," he whispered. "What you got there?"

Johnny told him, and Hopalong dropped the articles out of the window,
all but the hat, boots, and clothes. "Don't you know Red's wearin' his
clothes, boots an' hat, you chump?" he said, gratis. "Leave them things
here an' foller me," and he started for the head of the stairs.

They were halfway down when they heard a horse galloping toward the
hotel. It was coming from the direction of the jail and they nudged
each other.

Sheriff Corwin, feeling like he was master of all he surveyed, had
ridden to the jail before going to report to Kane for the purpose of
cautioning the guards not to relax their vigil. Not being able to
see them in the darkness meant nothing to him, for they should have
challenged him, and had not. He swept up to the door, angrily calling
them by name and, receiving no reply, dismounted in hot haste, shook
the door and then went hurriedly around the building to feel of the
bars. One sweep of his hand was enough and as he wheeled he tripped
over the wagon tongue and fell sprawling, his gun flying out of his
hand. Groping around he found it, jammed it back into the holster,
darted back to his horse and dashed off at top speed for Kane's to
spread the alarm and collect a posse.

There never had been any need for caution in opening the hotel door
and his present frame of mind would not have heeded it if there had
been. Flinging it back he dashed through and opened his mouth to emit a
bellow calculated almost to raise the dead. The intended shout turned
to a choking gasp as two lean, strong hands gripped his throat, and
then his mental sky was filled with lightning as a gun-butt fell on
his head. His limp body was carried out and dropped at the feet of the
cheerful Idaho, who helped tear up portions of the sheriff's clothing
for his friends to use on the officer's hands, feet, and mouth.

"Every time I hit a head I shore gloat," growled Johnny, his thoughts
flashing back to his first night in town.

"Couldn't you send _him_ down, _too_?" Idaho asked of Hopalong. "An'
how many saddles do you an' Red use generally?"

"He wasn't up there," answered Hopalong. "We run into him as we was
comin' out."

Johnny's match flashed up and out in one swift movement. "Corwin!" he
exulted. "An' I'm glad it was _me_ that hit him!"

Idaho rolled over on the ground and made strange noises. Sitting up he
gasped: "Didn't I _say_ it was a lovely night? Holy mavericks!"

"You fellers aim to claim squatter sovereignty?" whispered Red from the
darkness. "If I'd 'a' knowed it I'd 'a' tied up somethin' I left layin'
loose."

"We got to get a rustle on," said Hopalong. "Some cusses come to right
quick. That gent in Red's bed is due to ask a lot of questions at th'
top of his voice. Come on--grab this stuff, _pronto_!"

"I left another in th' stable that's goin' to do some yellin' purty
soon," said Red. "Reckon he's a Greaser."

They picked up the things and went off to find the horses and as they
dropped the equipment Red felt for his saddle. "Hey! Where's _mine_?"
he demanded.

"Here, at my feet," said Johnny.

Red passed his hand over it and swore heartily. "This ain't it, you
blunderin' jackass! Why didn't you get _mine_?" he growled.

"Feel of this one," grunted Johnny, kicking the other saddle.

Red did so. "That's it. Who's th' other belong to?"

"_I_ don't know," answered Johnny, growing peeved. "Yo're cussed
particular, you are! Here's two rifles, two six-guns, an' two belts.
Take 'em with you an' pick out yore own when it gets light. _I_ don't
want 'em."

Red finished cinching up and slipped a hand over the rifles. He dropped
one of them into its scabbard. "Got mine. Chuck th' other away."

"Take it along an' chuck it in th' crick," said Idaho. "Now you fellers
listen: If you ride up th' middle of Big Crick till you come to that
rocky ground west of our place you can leave th' water there, an' yore
trail will be lost. It runs southwest an' northeast for miles, an' is
plenty wide an' wild. If you need any thin' ride in to our place any
night after dark. I'll post th' boys."

"We ain't got a bit of grub," growled Red. "Well, it ain't th' first
time," he added, cheerfully.

"We're not goin' up Big Crick," said Hopalong, decisively. "We're
ridin' like we wanted to get plumb out of this country, which is just
what Bill Long an' Red Thompson would do. When fur enough away we're
circlin' back east of town, on th' edge of th' desert, where nobody
will hardly think we'd go. They'll suspect that hard ground over yore
way before they will th' desert. Where'll we meet you, Kid, if there's
any thin' to be told; an' when?"

Johnny considered and appealed to Idaho, whose knowledge of the country
qualified him to speak. In a few moments the place had been chosen and
well described, and the two horsemen pulled their mounts around and
faced northward.

"Get a-goin'," growled Johnny. "Anybody'd reckon you thought a night
was a week long."

"Don't like to leave you two boys alone in this town, after tonight's
plays," said Hopalong, uneasily. "Nobody is dumb enough to figger that
we didn't have outside help. Keep yore eyes open!"

"Pull out!" snapped Johnny. "It'll be light in two hours more!"

"So-long, you piruts," softly called Idaho. "Yessir," he muttered,
joyously; "it's been one plumb lovely night!"

Not long after the noise of galloping had died in the north a Mexican
staggered from the stable, groping in the darkness as he made his
erratic way toward the front of the gambling-hall, his dazed wits
returning slowly. Leaning against the wall of the building for a short
rest, he went on again, both hands gripping his jaw. Too dazed to be
aware of the disappearance of the horses and attentive only to his own
woes, he blundered against the bound and gagged sheriff, went down,
crawled a few yards and then, arising again to his feet, groped around
the corner of the building and sat down against it to collect his
bewildering thoughts.

Upstairs in the room Red had used, the restless figure on the bed moved
more and more, finally sitting up, moaning softly. Then, stiffening
as memory brought something back to him, he groped about for matches,
blundering against the walls and the scanty furniture, and called
forth profane language from the room adjoining, whose occupant, again
disturbed, arose and yanked open his door.

"What you think yo're doin', raisin' all this racket?" he demanded.

"Somebody near busted my head," moaned the other. "I been robbed!" he
shouted as the lack of impedimenta at last sank into his mind.

"Say!" exclaimed his visitor, remembering an earlier nocturnal
disturbance. "Wait here till I get some matches!"

He returned with a lighted lamp, instead, which revealed the truth, and
its bearer swiftly led the way into the second room down the hall. A
pair of boots which should not have been there and the absence of the
equipment which should have been there confirmed their fears. The man
with the lamp held it out of the window and swore under his breath as a
bound figure below him gurgled and writhed.

"Looks like Corwin!" he muttered, and hastened down to make sure,
taking no time to dress. The swearing Mexican received no attention
until the sheriff staggered back with the investigator, and then the
vague tale was listened to.

A bellowing voice awakened the sleepers in the big building and an
impromptu conference of irate men, mostly undressed, was held in the
hall. Sandy Woods returned from the stables, reporting them bare of
horses; the investigator from the jail came back with the angry guards,
one of whom was too shaky to walk with directness. Others came from a
visit to Red Frank's corral, leading half a dozen borrowed horses, and,
a hasty, cold breakfast eaten, the posse, led by a sick, vindictive
sheriff, pounded northward along a plain trail.

Those who were not able to go along stood and peered through the paling
darkness and two deputies left to take up positions in the front and
rear of Quayle's hotel where they could see without being seen, while a
third man crept into the stable to look for a Tincup horse. Had he been
content with looking he would have been more fortunate, but thinking
that the master would have no further use for the animal, he decided to
take it for himself, trusting that possession would give him a better
claim when the new ownership was finally decided by Kane. Reassured by
the earliness of the hour and by the presence of the hidden deputy, he
went ahead with his plans.

Pepper's flattened ears meant nothing to the exultant thief, for it had
been his experience that all horses flattened their ears whenever he
approached them, especially if they had reason to know him; so, with a
wary eye on the trim, black hoofs, he slipped along the stable wall to
gain her head. He had just untied the rope and started back with the
end of it in his hand when there was a sudden, sidewise, curving swerve
of the silky black body, a grunt of surprise and pain from the thief,
pinned against the wall by the impact, and then, curving back again and
wheeling almost as though on a pivot, Pepper's teeth crunched flesh and
bone and the sickened thief, by a miracle escaping the outflung front
hoofs, staggered outside the stable and fell as the whizzing hind feet
took the half-open door from its flimsy hinges. Rolling around the
corner, the thief crawled under a wagon and sank down unconscious, his
crushed shoulder staining darkly through his torn shirt.

The watching deputy arose to go to his friend's assistance, but looked
up and stopped as a growled question came from Ed Doane's window.

"Jim's hurt," he explained to the face behind the rifle. "Went in to
see if his cayuse had wandered in there, an' th' black near killed him.
Gimme a hand with him, will you?"

Quayle had nearly fallen off the chair he had spent the night on when
the crash and the scream of the enraged horse awakened him. He ran to
the kitchen door, rifle in hand, and looked out, hearing the deputy's
words.

"I'll give ye a hand," he said; "but more cheerful if it's to dig a
grave. _Mother av G--d!_" he breathed as he reached the wagon. "I'm
thinkin' it's a priest ye want, an' there's none within twinty miles."
He looked around at the forming crowd. "Get a plank," he ordered, "an'
get Doc Sharpe."

Ed Doane, followed by Johnny and Idaho, ran from the kitchen and joined
the group. One glance and Johnny went into the stable, calling as he
entered. Patting the quivering nozzle of the black he looked at the
rope and came out again.

"That man-killer has got to be shot," said the deputy to Ed Doane.

"I'll kill th' man that tries it," came a quiet reply, and "the deputy
wheeled to look into a pair of frosty blue eyes. "Th' knot I tie in
halter ropes don't come loose, for Pepper will untie any common knot
an' go off huntin' for me. It was untied. If you want to back up a hoss
thief, an' mebby prove yore part in it, say that again."

"Yo're plumb mistaken, Nelson," said the deputy. "Jim was huntin' his
own cayuse, which Long an' Thompson stampeded out of th' stable last
night. He was goin' over th' town first before he went out to look for
it on th' plain."

"That's _good_!" sneered Johnny. "Long an' Thompson are in jail. I'm
standin' to what th' knot showed. Do you still reckon Pepper's got to
be shot?"

"They broke out an' got away," retorted the deputy; "an' they shore as
h--l had outside help." He looked knowingly into Johnny's eyes. "Nobody
that belongs to this town would 'a' done it."

"That's a lie," said Quayle, his rifle swinging up carelessly. "I
belong to this town, an' I'd 'a' done it, mesilf, if I'd thought av it.
Seein' that I didn't, I'm cussed glad that somewan had better wits than
me own."

"I was aimin' to do it," said Idaho, smiling. "I was goin' out to get
th' boys, an' bust th' jail tonight. I was holdin' back a little,
though, because I was scared th' boys might get a little rough an'
lynch a few deputies. They're on set triggers these days."

The cook started to roll up his sleeves. "I'll lick th' daylight out
av anny man that goes to harm that horse, or me name's not Murphy," he
declared, spitting. "I feed her near every mornin', an' she's gintle as
a baby lamb. But she's got a keen nose for blackguards!"

Dr. Sharpe arrived, gave his orders and followed the bearers of the
improvised stretcher toward his house. As the crowd started to break up
Johnny looked coldly at the deputy. "You heard me," he said. "Pass th'
word along. An' if she don't kill th' next one, _I_ will!"

       *       *       *       *       *

North of town the posse reached Big Creek and exulted as it saw the
plain prints going on from the further bank. Corwin, sitting his saddle
with a false ease, stifled a moan at every rise and fall, his head
seeming about to split under the pulsing hammer blows. When he caught
sight of the trail leading from the creek he nodded dully and spoke to
his nearest companion.

"Leavin' th' country by th' straightest way," he growled. "It'll mebby
be a long chase, d--n 'em!"

"They ain't got much of a start," came the hopeful reply. "We ought to
catch sight of 'em from th' top of th' divide beyond Sand Creek. It's
fair level plain for miles north of that. Their cayuses ain't no better
than ourn, an' _some_ of ourn will run theirs off their feet."

Sand Creek came into sight before noon and when it was reached there
were no tracks on the further side. The posse was prepared for this and
split without hesitation, Corwin leading half of it west along the bank
and the other half going east. Five minutes later an exclamation caused
the sheriff to pull up and look where one of his men was pointing. A
rifle barrel projected a scant two inches from the water and the man
who rode over to it laughed as he leaned down from the saddle.

"It lit on a ridge of gravel an' didn't slide down quite fur enough,"
he called. "An' it shore is busted proper."

"Bring it here," ordered Corwin. He took it, examined it and handed it
to the next man, whose head ached as much as his own and who would not
have been along except that his wish for revenge over-rode his good
sense.

"That yourn?" asked the sheriff.

The owner of the broken weapon growled. "They've plumb ruined it. It's
one more score they'll pay. Come on!" and he whirled westward. Corwin
drew his Colt and fired into the air three times at counted intervals,
and galloped after his companions when faint, answering shots sounded
from the east.

"They're makin' for that rocky stretch," he muttered; "an' if they get
there in time they're purty safe."

Not long after he had rejoined his friends the second part of the posse
whirled along the bank, following the trail of the first, eager to
overtake it and learn what had been discovered.

Well to the east Hopalong and Red rode at the best pace possible in
the water of the creek, now and then turning in the saddle to look
searchingly behind them. Following the great bend of the stream they
went more and more to the south and when the shadows were long they
rode around a ridge and drew rein. Red dismounted and climbed it,
peering over its rocky backbone for minutes. Returning to his companion
he grinned cheerfully.

"No coyotes in sight," he said. "Some went west, I reckon, an' found
that busted rifle where we planted it. No coyotes, at all; but there's
a black bear down in that little strip of timber."

"I can eat near all of it, myself," chuckled Hopalong. "Let's camp
where we drop it. A dry wood fire won't show up strong till dark. Come
on!"



                              CHAPTER XIV

                           THE STAKED PLAIN


Pecos Kane sat behind his old desk in the inner room and listened to
the reports of the night's activities, his anger steadily mounting
until ghostly flames seemed to be licking their thin tongues back
in his eyes. The jail guards had come and departed, speaking simply
and truthfully, suggesting various reasons to excuse the laxity of
their watch. The Mexican told with painful effort about the loss of
the horses, growing steadily more incoherent from the condition of
his jaw and from his own rising rage. Men came, and went out again on
various duties, one of them closely interrogating the owner of the
freight wagon, whose anger had died swiftly by the recovery of the
great tongue, which was none the worse for its usage except for certain
indentations of no moment. A friend of Quayle and hostile to Kane
and for what Kane stood for, the wagon owner allowed his replies to
be short, and yet express a proper indignation, which did not exist,
about the whole affair. When again alone in the sanctity of his home he
allowed himself the luxury of low-voiced laughter and determined to put
his crowbar where any needy individual of the future could readily find
it.

Bill Trask, because of his short-gun expertness temporarily relieved
of guarding the partition door, led three companions toward Quayle's
hotel, his face and the faces of the others tense and determined. Two
went around to the stable, via Red Frank's and the rear street and
one of them stopped near it while the other slipped along the kitchen
wall and crouched at the edge of the kitchen door. The third man went
silently into the hotel office as Trask sauntered carelessly into the
barroom and nodded at its inmates.

"Them fellers shore raised h--l," he announced to Ed Doane as he
motioned for a drink.

"They did," replied Doane, spinning a glass after the sliding bottle,
after which he flung the coin into the old cigar box and assiduously
polished the bar, wondering why Trask patronized him instead of Kane's.

"They shore had nerve," persisted the newcomer, looking at Johnny.

"They shore did," acquiesced the man at the table, who then returned to
his idle occupation of trying to decipher the pattern of the faded-out
wall paper. Wall paper was a rarity in the town and deserved some
attention.

"Them guards was plumb careless," said Kane's hired man. Not knowing to
whom he was speaking there was no reply, and he tried again, addressing
the bartender.

"They was careless," replied Doane, without interest.

Johnny was alert now, the persistent remarks awakening suspicion in his
mind, and a slight sound from the wall at his back caused him to push
his chair from the table and assume a more relaxed posture. His glance
at the lower and nearer corner of the window let him memorize its exact
position and he waited, expectant, for whatever might happen. The
surprise and capture of his two friends had worked, but that had been
the first time; there would be no second, he told himself, especially
as far as he was concerned.

"Is th' boss in?" asked the visitor.

"Th' boss ain't in," answered Ed Doane as Johnny glanced at the front
door, the front window and the door of the office, which the bartender
noticed. "Too dusty," said Doane, going around the bar to the front
wall and closing the window.

"When will he be in?"

"Dunno," grunted the bartender, once more in his accustomed place.

"I got to see him."

"I handle things when he ain't here," said Doane. "See me," he
suggested, looking through the door leading to the office, where he
fancied he had heard a creak.

"Got to see him, an' _pronto_," replied the visitor. "He made some
remarks this mornin' about gettin' them fellers out. We know it was
done by somebody on th' outside, an' we got a purty good idea of who
it was since Quayle shot off his mouth. He's been gettin' too swelled
up lately. If he don't come in purty quick I'm aimin' to dig him out,
myself."

Johnny was waiting for him to utter the cue word and knew that there
would be a slight change in facial expression, enunciation, or body
posture just before it came. He was not swallowing the suggestions that
it was Quayle who was wanted.

"You shore picked out a real job to handle all alone," said Doane, not
letting his attention wander from the hotel office. "Any dog can dig
out a badger, but that's only th' beginnin'," he said pleasantly, his
hand on the gun which always lay under the bar. He expected a retort
to his insult, and when none came it put a keener edge to his growing
suspicions.

"I'm diggin' him out, just th' same," said Trask. "There's law in this
town, an' everybody's on one side or th' other. Bein' a deputy it's my
job to see about them that's on th' other side. Gettin' arrested men
out of jail is serious an' I got to ask questions about it. Of course,
Quayle don't allus say what he means--we none of us do. We all like
to have our jokes; but I got to do my duty, even if it's only askin'
questions. Is he out, or layin' low?"

"He's out," grunted Doane, "but he'll be back any minute, I reckon."

"All right; I'll wait," said Trask, carelessly, but he tensed himself.
"How's business?" and at the words he flashed into action.

A chair crashed and a figure leaped back from it, two guns belching
at its hips. The face and hand which popped up into the rear window
disappeared again as the smoking Colt swung past the opening and across
Johnny's body to send its second through the office doorway, and curses
answered both shots. Trask, bent over, held his right arm with his left
hand, his gun against the wall near the front door. The first shot of
Johnny's right-hand Colt had torn it from Trask's hand as it left the
holster and the second had rendered the arm useless for the moment. A
shot from the corner of the stable sang through the window and barely
missed its mark as Johnny leaned forward, but his instant reply ended
all danger from that point.

"Trask," he said, "I'm leavin' town. I ain't got a chance among
buildin's again' pot-shooters. I'm leavin'--but th' Lord help Kane an'
his gang when I come back. You can tell him I'm comin' a-shootin'. An'
you can tell him this: I'm goin' to get him, Pecos Kane, if I has to
pull him out of his hell-hole like I pulled Thorpe. Go ahead of me to
th' stable--I'll blow you apart if any pot-shooter tries at me. G'wan!"

Trask obeyed, the gun against his spine too eloquent a persuader to
be ignored. He knew that there were no pot-shooters yet, and he was
glad of it, for if there had been one, and his captor was killed, the
relaxation of the tense thumb holding back the hammer of a gun whose
trigger was tied back would fire the weapon. The man who held it would
fire one shot after his own death, however instantaneous it might be.

Passing through the kitchen Johnny picked up his saddle and ordered
his captive to carry the rifle and slicker roll. They disappeared into
the stable and when they came out again Johnny ordered Trask into the
saddle, mounted behind him and rode for the arroyo which lay not far
from the hotel. At last away from the buildings he made Trask dismount,
climbed over the cantle and settled himself in the vacated saddle.

"I'm goin' down to offer myself to McCullough," he said. "You can tell
Kane that, too. They'll need men down there, an' I'll be th' maddest
man they got. An' th' next time me an' you have any gun talk, I'm
shootin' to kill. _Adios!_"

He left the cursing deputy and went straight for the trail, where the
rising wind played with the dust, and along it until stopped by a voice
in a barranca.

"I'm puttin' 'em up," he called. "My name's Nelson an' I'm mad clean
through. Get a rustle on; I want to see Mac."

"Go ahead, Bar-20," drawled the voice. "I wasn't dead shore. There's a
good friend of yourn down there."

"Quayle?" asked Johnny.

"There's another: Waffles, of th' O-Bar-O," came the reply, and a verse
of a nearly forgotten song arose on the breeze.

    _I've swum th' Colorado where she runs down clost to hell,_
        _I've braced th' faro layouts in Cheyenne;_
    _I've fought for muddy water with a howlin' bunch of Sioux,_
        _An' swallered hot tamales, an' cayenne._

"There's more, but I've done forgot most of it," apologized the singer.

Johnny laughed with delight. "Why, that's Lefty Allen's old song.
Here's th' second verse:"

    _I've rid a pitchin' broncho till th' sky was underneath,_
        _I've tackled every desert in th' land;_
    _I've sampled Four-X whisky till I couldn't hardly see,_
        _An' dallied with th' quicksands of th' Grande._

"That's shore O-Bar-O. Lefty made it up hisself, an' that boy could
sing it. It all comes back to me now--he called it 'Th' Insult.'
Why--here, _you_!" he chuckled. "I said I was mad an' in a hurry. I
ain't mad no more, but I _am_ in a hurry. See you tonight, mebby.
So-long."

Riding on again he soon reached the Question-Mark bunkhouse and
dismounted as a puncher turned the corner of the house. They grinned at
each other, these good, old-time friends.

"You son-of-a-gun!" chuckled Johnny, holding out his hand.

"You son-of-a-gun!" echoed Waffles, gripping it, and so they stood,
silent, exchanging grins. It had been a long time since they last had
seen each other.

McCullough loomed up in the doorway and grinned at them both.

"Hear yo're married," said Waffles.

"Shore!" bragged Johnny.

"It ain't spoiled you, _yet_. How's Hoppy an' Red?"

"Fine, now they're out of jail."

Waffles threw his head back and laughed heartily. "I near laughed till
I busted when Quayle told us who they was. Hoppy an' Red in _jail_! It
was _funny_!"

"Hello, Nelson," said McCullough. "What are you doin' down here?"

"Had to leave town; too many corners, an' too much cover. I'm lookin'
for a job, if it don't cut me out of th' rewards."

"She's yourn."

"Wait a minute," said Johnny. "I can't take it. I got to be free to do
what I want; but I'll hang out here for awhile."

"You've got th' job instanter," said the appreciative trail-boss
smiling broadly. "It's steady work of bossin' yoreself. I've heard of
yore work, up Gunsight way. Feed yet? Then come on."

"Shore will. Where's Quayle?"

"Rode back, roundabout; him not courtin' bein' seen; but I reckon
everybody in town knows he's been here. He swears by you."

       *       *       *       *       *

Despite Idaho's boasts to the contrary his ranch again had nocturnal
visitors, and there was no lead-flying welcome accorded them. Having
spied out the distribution of Lukins' riders the visitors chose a
locality free from guards and with the coming of night drifted a
sizable herd of Diamond L cattle across an outlying section of the
range and with practiced art and uncanny instinct drove the compacted
herd onto and over the rocky plateau, where the chief of the raiders
obtained a speed with the cattle which always bordered upon a panicky
flight, but never quite reached it. All that night they rumbled over
the rocky stretch and as dawn brightened the eastern sky the running
herd passed down a gentle slope, picked up the waiting caviya and not
long thereafter moved over the hard bottom of a steep-walled ravine
which could have been called a canyon without unduly stretching the
meaning of the word.

The chief of the raiding party cared nothing for the fatness of
the animals, or other conditions which might operate against the
possibilities of a lucrative sale. There later would be time for
improving their condition, plenty of time in a valley rich with grass.
All he cared for now was to put miles speedily behind him, and this
he was accomplishing like the master cattleman he was. After a mid-day
breathing space they went on again, alternately walking and running,
and well into the second night, stopping at a water-hole known only to
a few men other than these. Some miles north of this water-hole was
another, and very much smaller one, being only a few feet across, and
there also was a difference between the waters of the two. The larger
was of a nature to be expected in such a locality, but much better
than most such holes, for the water was only slightly alkaline and the
cattle drank it eagerly. The other was sweet and pure and cold, but
rather than to cover the distance to it and back again, it was ignored
by all but one man, for the other stayed with the herd. There was grass
around both; not enough to feed a herd thoroughly, but enough to keep
it busy hunting over the scanty growth. With more than characteristic
thought these holes had been named in a manner to couple and yet to
keep them separate, and to Kane's drive crew they were known as "Sweet"
and "Bitter."

Again on the trail before the sun had risen above the horizon, the herd
was sent forth on another day's hard drive, which carried it, with the
constantly growing tail herd of stragglers, far into the following
night, despite all dumb remonstrances. No mercy was shown to it, but
only a canny urging, and if no mercy was shown the cattle none was
accepted by the drivers, who rode and worked, swore and panted on wiry
ponies which, despite frequent changing, began to show the marks of
their efforts under the pitiless sun and through the yielding sands.
Both cattle and horses had about reached their limits when the late
afternoon of the next day brought them to a rocky ledge sticking up out
of the desert's floor, which now was hard and stony; and upon turning
the south end of the ridge an emerald valley suddenly lay before their
eyes, from whence the scent of water had put a new spirit into cattle
and horses for the last few miles; and now it nearly caused a fatal
stampede at the entrance to the narrow ledge which slanted down the
steep, rock walls.

To a stranger such a sight would have awakened amazed incredulity,
and strong suspicion that his sanity had been undermined by the
heat-cursed, horror-laden desert miles; or he might have sneered wisely
at so palpable a mirage, scorned to be tricked by it in any attempt
to prove it otherwise and staggered on with contemptuous curses. But
Miguel and the men he so autocratically bossed knew it to be no vision,
no trick of air or mind, and sighed with relief when it finally lay
before them. While they all knew it was there and had visited it
before, none of them, except Miguel, had ever learned the way, try
as they might, for until the high ledge of rock, hidden on the west
by a great, upslanting billow of sand, came into sight there were no
landmarks to show them the way. Each new journey across the simmering,
shimmering plateau found fears in every heart but the guide's that he
would lose his way. That their fears may be justified and to show them
blameless in everything but their lack of confidence in him, it may be
well to have a better understanding of this desert and what it meant;
and to show why men should hold as preposterous any claim that a cattle
herd could safely cross it. Some went even further and said no man,
mounted or not, could make that journey, and confessed to themselves a
superstitious fear and horror for it and everything pertaining to it.

Before the deep ruts had been cut in the old Santa Fe Trail in that
year of excessive rains; before the first wheel had rolled over the
prairie soil to prove that wagons could safely make the long and
tiresome trip; before even the first pack trains of heavily laden
mules plodded to or from the Missouri frontier, and even before the
pelt-loaded mules of the great fur companies crossed Kansas soil to the
trading posts of the East, Mexican hunters rode from the valley of Taos
and Santa Fe to procure their winter meat from the vast brown herds of
buffalo migrating over their curious, crescent-shaped course to and
from the regions of the Arkansas, Canadian, and Cimarron. They dried
the strips of succulent meat in the sun or over fires, the fuel for
the latter having been supplied by the buffalo themselves on previous
migrations; they stripped the hides from the prostrate bodies and cured
them, and trafficked with the bands of Indians which followed the herds
as persistently as did the great, gray wolves. Of these _ciboleros_,
swarthy-skinned hunters of Mexico, some more hardy and courageous than
their fellows, or by avarice turned trader, ventured further afield and
were not balked by the high, beetling cliffs which bordered a great,
forbidding plateau lying along and below the capricious Cimarron, in
places a river of hide-and-seek in the sands, wet one day and dry the
next.

From the mesa-like northern edge, along the warning arroyos of the
Cimarron, where erosion, Nature's patient sculptor, carved miracles of
artistry in the towering clays, shales, and sandstones, to the great
sand hills billowing along its far-flung other edges, this barren
waste of dreary sand and grisly alkali was a vast, simmering playground
for dancing heat waves and fantastic mirage, and its treacherous pools
of nauseous, alkaline waters shrunk daily from their encrusted edges
and gleamed malignantly under a glowering, molten sun. Arroyos, level
plain, shifting sand, and imponderable dust, with a scrawny, scanty,
hopeless vegetation which the whimsical winds buried and then dug up
again, this high desert plateau lay like a thing of death, cursing and
accursed. It sloped imperceptibly southward, its dusty soil gradually
breaking into billowy ridges constantly more marked and with deeper
troughs, by insensible gradations becoming low sand hills, ever growing
more separate and higher until at last they were beaten down and
strewn broadcast by more persistent winds, and limited by the firmer
soils which were blessed with more frequent rains to coax forth a thin
cover of protecting, anchoring vegetation. To the west they intruded
nearly to the Rio Pecos, a stream which in almost any other part of the
country would have been regarded as insignificant, but here was given
greatness because its liquid treasure was beyond price and because it
was permanent, though timid.

Of the first of the Mexicans to push out over this great desolation
perhaps none returned, except by happy chance, to tell of its tortures
and of the few serviceable water-holes leagues apart, the permanency
of which none could foretell. But return some eventually did, and
perhaps deprecated the miseries suffered, in view of the saving in
miles; but their experience had been such as to impel them to drive a
line of stakes along the happily chosen course to mark in this manner
the way from each more trustworthy water-hole to the next, be they
reservoirs or furtive streams which bubbled up and crept along to die
not far from their hopeful springs, sucked up by palpitant air and
swallowed by greedy sands, their burial places marked by a shroud of
encrusted salts. In the winter and spring an occasional rain filled
hollows, ofttimes coming as a cloudburst and making a brave showing
as it tumultuously deepened some arroyo and roared valiantly down it
toward swift effacement. The trail was staked, if not by the swarthy
traders, then by their red-skinned brothers, and from this line of
stakes the tableland derived its name, and became known to men as the
Lano Estacada, or Staked Plain.

Of this accursed desert no one man had full knowledge, nor thirsted for
it if it were to be had only through his own efforts. There were great
stretches unknown to any man, and there were other regions known to
men who had not brought their knowledge out again; and what knowledge
there was of its south-central portions was not to be found in men with
white skins, but in certain marauding redmen fitted by survival to cope
with problems such as it presented, and to live despite them. One other
class knew something of its mysteries, for among the Mexicans there
were some who had learned by bitter pilgrimages, but mostly from the
mouths of men long dead who had passed the knowledge down successive
generations, each increment a little larger when it left than when it
came, who had a more comprehensive, embracing knowledge of the baking
tableland; and these few, because what they knew could best be used in
furtive, secretive pursuits bearing a swift penalty for those caught
in them, hugged that knowledge closely and kept it to themselves. A
man who has that which another badly needs can drive shrewd bargains.
And of the few Mexicans who were enriched by the possession of this
knowledge, those who knew most about it had mixed blood flowing through
their veins, for the vast grisly plateau had been a short cut and place
of refuge for marauding bands of Apaches, Utes, and Comanches while
civilization crawled wonderingly in swaddling clothes.

Of the knowing few Pecos Kane owned two, owned them body and soul, and
to make his title firmer than even proof of murder could assure, he
threw golden sops to the wise ones' avarice and allowed them seats in
the sun and privileges denied to their fellows. One of them, by name
Miguel, a small part Spaniard and the rest Mescalero Apache, was a
privileged man, for he knew not only the main trails across the plain
but certain devious ways twisting in from the edges, one of which
wandered for accursed miles, first across rock, then over sand and
again over rock and unexpectedly turned a high, sharp ridge to look
upon his Valle de Sorprendido, deep and green, whose crystal spring
wandered musically along its gravelly bed from the graying western end
of the canyon-like ravine to sink silently into the thirsty sands to
the east and be seen no more. Manuel, also, knew this way.

Surprise Valley was no terminal, but a place for tongue-lolling,
wild-eyed cattle to pause and rest, drink and eat before the fearful
journey called anew. No need for corral, fence, or herders here to keep
them from straying, but an urgent need for pressing riders to throw the
herd back on the trail again, to start the dumbly protesting animals
on the thirty-six-hour drive to the next unfailing water, against the
instinct which bade them stay. A valley of delight it was, a jewel,
verdant and peaceful, forced by man to serve a vicious purpose; but as
if in punishment for its perversion the glistening sand hills crept
slowly nearer, each receding tide of their slow advance encroaching
more and more each year until now the valley had shrunk by half and a
stealthy grayness crept insidiously into its velvety freshness like the
mark of sin across a harlot's cheek.

Near the fenced-in spring was an adobe building, deserted except
when a drive crew sought its shelter, and it served principally as a
storehouse should a place of refuge suddenly be needed. It lay not far
from the sloping banks of detritus which now ran halfway up the sheer,
smooth stone walls enclosing the valley. Across from it on the southern
side of the depressed pasture a broad trail slanted up the rock cliffs
to the desert above. The cabin, the trail, and the valley itself long
ago would have been obliterated by sand but for the miles of rocks,
large and small, which lay around it like a great, flat collar. Should
some terrific sand storm sweep over it with a momentum great enough to
bridge the rocky floor the valley would cease to be; and smaller storms
raging far out on the encircling desert carried their sands farther and
farther across the stubborn rock, until now its outer edge was closer
by miles. Already each rushing wind retained sand enough to drop it
into the valley and powder everything.

The pock-marked guide, disdaining the precarious labors of getting the
herd down the ledge with no fatalities among the maddened beasts,
lolled in his saddle on the brink of the precipice and watched the
struggle on the plain behind him, where hard-riding, loudly yelling
herders were dashing across the front of the weaving, shifting,
stubborn mass of tortured animals, letting them through the frantic
restraining barrier in small groups, which constantly grew larger. Here
and there a more determined animal slipped through and galloped to the
descending ledge, head down and tail up. The cracking of revolvers
fired across the noses of the front rank grew steadily and Miguel
deemed it safer to leave the brim of the cliff. It was possible that
the maddened herd might break through the desperate riders and plunge
to its destruction. Had the trail been a few hours longer nothing could
have held them.

"Give a hand here!" shouted the trail-boss as the guide rode
complacently out of danger. "Ride in there an' help split 'em!"

"I weel be needed w'en we leeve again," replied Miguel. "To run a reesk
eet ees foolish. I tol' you to stop 'em a mile away an' spleet 'em
there. Eet ees no beesness of Miguel's, theese. You deed not wan' to
tak' the time? Then tak' w'at you call the consequence."

Eventually the last of the herd which mercifully was composed of
stragglers whose lack of strength made them more tractable, were
successfully led to the ledge and stumbled down it to join their
brothers standing or lying in the little brook as if to appease their
thirst by absorption before drinking deeply. The frantic, angry bawling
of an hour ago was heard no more, for now a contented lowing sounded
along the stream, where the quiet animals often waited half an hour
before attempting to drink. They stood thus for hours, reluctant to
leave even to graze and after leaving, left the grass and returned time
after time to drink. There were a few half-blinded animals among the
weaklings, but water, grass, and rest would restore their sight. Here
they would stay until fit for the second and lesser ordeal, and the
others in turn.

The weary riders, turning their mounts loose to join the rest of the
horse herd, piled their saddles against the wall of the hut and waited
for the cook to call them to fill their tin plates and cups. One of
them, more energetic and perhaps hungrier than the rest, unpacked the
load of firewood from a spiritless horse and carried it to the hut.

The perspiring Thorpe looked his thanks and went on with his labors
and in due time a well-fed, lazy group sprawled near the hut, swapping
tales or smoking in satisfied silence. At the other side of the
building Miguel sat with those of his own kind, boasting of his desert
achievements and in reply to a sneering remark from the other group
he showed his teeth in a mocking smile, raised his eyebrows until the
crescent scar reached his sombrero and shrugged his shoulders.

"Eet ees not good to say sooch theengs to Miguel," he complacently
observed. "Eef he should get ver' angree an' leeve een the night eet
would be ver' onluckie for Greengos. _Quien sabe?_"

"He got you there, Jud," growled a low voice. "He shore hurts me
worse'n a blister, but I'm totin' my grudge silent."

"Huh," muttered another thoughtfully. "A man can travel fast without no
cattle to set th' pace. He shore can 'leeve' an' be d--d, for all _I_
care. An' I'm sayin' that if he does there'll be a d--d dead Greaser in
Mesquite right soon after I get back. Th' place for him to 'leeve' us
is at Three Ponds--for then we shore would be in one bad fix."

"I ain't shore I'd try to get away," said Sandy Woods slowly. "There's
good grass an' water here, no herdin', no strayin', nobody to bother a
feller. A man can live a long time on one steer out here, jerkin' th'
meat. Th' herd would grow, an' when it came time to turn 'em into money
he'd only have to drive plumb west. It wouldn't be like tryin' to find
a little place like this. Just aim at th' sunset an' keep goin'."

"How long would this valley feed a herd like th' one here now?"
ironically demanded the trail-boss. "You can tell th' difference in th'
grass plain at th' end of a week. Yo're full of loco weed."

"Eef you say sooch things to me I may leeve in the night," chuckled the
other. "Wish they'd stampeded an' knocked him over th' eege! One of
these days some of us may be quittin' Kane, an' then there'll be one
struttin' half-breed less in Mesquite. Tell you one thing: I won't make
this drive many more times before I know th' way as well as he does;
an' from here on we could stake it out."

Soft, derisive laughter replied to him and the trail-boss thoughtfully
repacked his pipe. "It ain't in you," he said. "You got to be born with
it."

"You holdin' that a white man ain't got as much brains as a mongrel
with nobody knows how many different kinds of blood in him?"
indignantly demanded Sandy.

"He's got generations behind him, like a setter or a pointer, an' it
ain't a question of brains. It's instinct, an' th' lower down yore
stock runs th' better it'll be. There ain't no human brains can equal
an animal's in things like that. I doubt if you could leave here an'
get off this desert, plumb west or not. You got a big target, for it's
all around you behind th' horizon; but I don't think you'd live till
you hit it at th' right place. Don't forget that th' horizon moves with
you. If there wasn't no tracks showin' you th' way you'd die out on
this fryin' pan."

"An' th' wind'll wipe them out before mornin'," said one of the others.

The doubter laughed outright. "Wait till we come back. I'll give you a
chance to back up yore convictions. Don't forget that I ain't sayin'
that I'd try it afoot. I'd ride an' give th' horse it's head. There
ain't nothin' to be gained arguin' about it now. An' I'm free to admit
that I'm cussed glad to be settin' here lookin' out instead of out
there some'ers tryin' to get here to look in. Gimme a match, Jud."

The trail-boss snorted. "Now yo're takin' _my_ end," he asserted. "If
you ride a cayuse an' give it its head it ain't a white man's brains
that yo're dependin' on. That ain't yore argument, a-tall. I'll bet
you, cayuse or no cayuse, you can't leave Three Ponds an' make it. A
cayuse has to drink once in awhile or he'll drop under you an' you'll
lose yore instinct-compass."

"I'll take that when we start back," retorted Sandy, "if you'll give me
a fair number of canteens. I'm figgerin' on outfittin' right."

"Take all you want at Cimarron corrals," rejoined the trail-boss.
"After we leave there I'm bettin' nobody will part with any of theirs."
He looked keenly at the boaster and took no further part in the
conversation, his mind busy with a new problem; the grudge he already
had.



                              CHAPTER XV

                              DISCOVERIES


Hopalong and Red liked their camp and were pleased that they could
stay in it another day and night. They jerked the bear meat in the sun
and smoke and took a much-needed bath in the creek, where the gentle
application of sand freed them from the unwelcome guests which the jail
had given them. Clothing washed and inspected quickly dried in the sun
and wind. Neither of them had anything on but a sombrero and the effect
was somewhat startling. Red picked up his saddle pad to fling it over a
rock for a sun bath and was about to let go of it when he looked closer.

"Hey, did you rip open this pad?" he asked, eying his friend
speculatively.

Hopalong added his armful of fuel to the pile near the fire and
eyed his friend. "For a growed man you shore do ask some childish
questions," he retorted. "Of course I did. I allus rip open saddle
pads. All my life I been rippin' open every saddle pad I saw. Many a
time I got mad when I found a folded blanket instead of a pad. I've got
up nights an' gone wanderin' around looking for pads to rip open. You
look like you had sense, but looks shore is deceivin'. Why'n blazes
would I rip open yore saddle pad? I reckon it's plumb wore out an' just
nat'rally come apart. You've had it since Adam made th' sun stand
still."

"You must 'a' listened to some sky pilot with yore feet!" retorted Red.
"Adam didn't make th' sun stand still. That was Moses, so they'd have
longer light for to hunt for him in. An' you needn't get steamed up,
neither. Somebody ripped this pad, with a knife, too. Seein' that it
was in th' same camp all night with you, I nat'rally asked. I'm shore
_I_ didn't do it. Then _who_ did?" He swaggered off to get his friend's
pad and picked it up. "Of course you wouldn't rip yore own. That--" he
held it closer to his eyes and stared at it. "Cussed if you _didn't_,
though! It's ripped just like mine. I reckon you'll be startin' on th'
saddles, next!"

Hopalong's amusement at the ripping of his companion's pad faded out as
he grabbed his own and looked at it. "Well, I'm cussed!" he muttered.
"It shore was ripped, all right. It never come apart by itself. _Both_
of 'em, huh?" He pondered as he turned the pad over and over.

"They didn't play no favorites, anyhow," growled Red. "Wonder what they
thought they'd find? Jewels?"

Hopalong pushed back his hat and gently scratched a scalp somewhat
tender from the sand treatment. "Things like that don't just happen,"
he said, reflectively. "There's allus a reason for things." He grew
thoughtful again and studied the pad. "Mebby they wasn't lookin' for
anythin'," he muttered, suspiciously.

Red snorted. "Just doin' it for practice, mebby?" he asked,
sarcastically. "Not havin' nothin' else _to_ do, somebody went up to
our rooms an' amused themselves by rippin' open our pads. You got a
head like a calf, only it's a hull lot smaller."

"We was accused of robbin' th' bank, Reddie," said Hopalong in patient
explanation. "They knowed we didn't do it--so they must 'a' wanted us
to be blamed for it. Th' best proof they could have, not seein' us do
it, was to plant somethin' to be found on us. This is past yore A B C
eddication, but I'll try to hammer it into you. If it makes you dizzy,
hold up yore hand. What does a bank have that everybody wants? Money!
Why do people rob banks? To get money, you sage-hen! What would bank
robbers have after they robbed a bank? Money, you locoed cow! Now,
Reddie, there's _two_ kinds of money. One is hard, an' th' other is
soft like yore head. Th' soft has pretty pictures on it an' smells
powerful. It also has numbers. Th' numbers are different, Reddie, on
each bill. Some banks keep a list of th' numbers of the biggest bills.
Reckon I better wait an' let you rest up."

"Too bad they got us out of jail--_both_ of us," said Red. "I should
'a' stayed behind. It wouldn't 'a' been half as bad as hangin' 'round
with you."

"Now," continued his companion, looking into the pad, "if some of them
numbered bills was found on us they'd have us, wouldn't they? We wasn't
supposed to have no friends. An' where would a couple of robbers be
likely to carry dangerous money? On their hats? No, Reddie; _not_ on
their hats. In their pockets, where they might get dragged out at th'
wrong time? Mebby; but not hardly. Saddle pads, says th' little boy in
th' rear of the room. Right you are, sonny. Saddle pads, Reddie, is
a real good place. While you go all over it again so you can get th'
drift of it I'll put on some clothes. I'm near baked."

"It started some time ago," said Red innocently.

"What did?"

"Th' bakin'. You didn't get that hat on quick enough," his friend
jeered. "I've heard of people eatin' cooked calves' brains, but they'd
get little nourishment an' only a moldy flavor out of yourn. An' you'd
shore look better with _all_ yore clothes on. I can see th' places
where you've stopped washin' yore hands, feet, an' neck all these
years."

Hopalong mumbled something and slid into his underwear. "Gee!" he
exulted. "These clean clothes shore do feel good!"

"_You'd_ nat'rally notice it a whole lot more than I would," said Red,
following suit. As his head came into sight again he let his eyes
wander along the eastern and southeastern horizon. "You know, them
bluffs off yonder remind me a hull lot of parts of th' Staked Plain,"
he observed. "We hadn't ought to be very far away from it, down here."

"They're its edge," grunted Hopalong, rearranging the strips of meat
over the fire. Both became silent, going back in their memories to the
events of years before, when the Staked Plain had been very real and
threatening to them.

At daylight the following morning they arose and not much later were
riding slowly southward and as near the creek as the nature of its
banks would allow. When the noon sun blazed down on them they found the
creek dwindling rapidly and, glancing ahead down the sandy valley they
could make out the dark, moist place where the last of it disappeared
in the sands. They watered their horses, drank their fill and went
on again toward the place where they were to meet Johnny, riding on
a curving course which led them closer and closer to the forbidding
hills. In mid-afternoon they came to a salt pond and instead of arguing
about the matter with their thirsty mounts, let them go up to it and
smell it. The animals turned away and went on again without protest.
A little later Red squinted eastward and nodded in answer to his own
unspoken question.

"Shore it is," he muttered.

Hopalong followed his gaze and grunted. "Shore." He regarded the
distant bulk thoughtfully. "Strikes me no sane cow ever would go out
there, unless it was drove. It's our business to look into everythin'.
Comin'?"

"I shore am. Nobody can buffalo me an' chuck me into jail without a
comeback. I'm lookin' for things to fatten it."

"It can't get too fat for me," replied his friend. "Helpin' th' Kid get
his money back was enough to set me after some of that reward money;
but when I sized up Kane an' his gang it promised to be a pleasure;
now, after that jailin', it's a yelpin' joy. If there's no other way
I'm aimin' to ride into Mesquite an' smoke up with both guns."

As they neared the carcass Red glanced at his cheerful friend. "Head's
swelled up like a keg," he said. "Struck by a rattler."

"Reckon so; but cows dead from snakebite ain't common."

They pulled up and looked at it at close range.

"Shot," grunted Hopalong.

"Then somebody was out here with it," said Red swinging down. "He was
tender-hearted, _he_ was. Gimme a hand. We'll turn it over an' look at
th' brand."

Hopalong complied, and then they looked at each other and back to the
carcass, where a large piece of hide had been neatly trimmed around and
skinned off.

"Didn't dare let it wander, an' they plugged it after it got struck,"
said Red.

"Careful, they was," commented his companion. "They was too careful.
If they'd let it wander it wouldn't 'a' told nothin', 'specially if it
wandered toward home. But shootin' it, an' then doin' _this_--I reckon
our comeback is takin' on weight."

"It shore is," emphatically said Red. "Cuss this hard ground! It don't
tell nothin'. They went north or south--an' not long ago, neither.
Which way are you ridin'?"

Hopalong considered. "If they went either way they'd be seen. I got
a feelin' they went right across. Greasers an' Injuns know that
desert, an' there's both kinds workin' for Kane. It allus has been a
shore-thing way for 'em. Remember what Idaho said?"

"It can't be done," said Red.

"Slippery Trendly an' Deacon Rankin did it."

"But they only crossed one corner," argued Red.

"McLeod's Texans did it!"

"They didn't cross much more'n a corner," retorted Red. "An' look what
it _did_ to 'em!"

"It's a straight drive for them valleys along th' Cimarron," mused
Hopalong. "Nobody to see 'em come or go, good grass to fatten 'em up
after they got there, an' plenty of time for blottin' th' brands. I'll
bet Kane's got men that knows how to get 'em over. There's water-holes
if you only know where to look, an' how to head for 'em; an' some of
these half-breeds down here know all of that. If they went north or
south on a course far enough east to keep many folks from seein' 'em
they'd find it near as dry. Well, we better go down an' meet th' Kid
before we do anythin' else. We got our bearin's an' can find th' way
back again. What you say?"

Red mounted and led the way. "If I'm goin' to ride around out here
I'm goin' to have plenty of water, an' that means canteens. I'm near
chokin' for a drink; an' this cayuse is gettin' mean. Come on."

"We might pick up some tracks if we hunt right now," said Hopalong.
"If we wait longer this wind'll blot 'em out. I ain't thirsty," he
lied. "You go down an' meet th' Kid an' I'll look around east of here.
We can't gamble with this: if I find tracks they'll save us a lot of
ridin' an' guessin'. Go ahead."

"If you stay I stay," growled Red.

"Listen, you chump," retorted Hopalong. "It's only a few hours more if
I stay out here than if I go with you. Get canteens an' supplies. Th'
Kid can bring us more tomorrow. I'm backin' my guess: get a-goin'."

Red saw the wisdom of the suggestion and wheeled, riding at good speed
to the southwest while his friend went eastward, his eyes searching the
desert plain. It was night when Red returned, picking his way with a
plainsman's instinct to the carcass of the cow, and he softly replied
to a low call which came from behind a billow of sand.

Hopalong arose. "You made good time," he said.

"Reckon so," replied Red, riding toward him. "I only got two canteens
an' not much grub. Th' Kid'll be ready for us tomorrow. What about yore
cayuse?"

"Don't worry," chuckled Hopalong. "It's th' cayuses that's been
botherin' me most. They're all right now. I found a little hole with
cold, sweeet water, an' there's grass around it for th' cayuses. There
ain't much, but enough for these two goats. Th' water-hole ain't more'n
three feet across an' a foot deep, but it fills up good an' has wet
quite a spot around it. An' Red, I found somethin' else!"

"Good; what is it?"

"There's clay around it an' a thin layer of sand over th' clay,"
replied Hopalong. "I found th' prints of a cayuse an' a man, an' they
was fresh not more'n twenty-four hours old if I'm any judge. I cast
around on widenin' circles, but couldn't pick up th' trail any distance
from th' hole. Th' wind that's been blowin' all day wiped 'em out; but
it didn't wipe out much at th' edge of th' water. I could even make it
out where he knelt to drink. There you are: a dead cow, with th' brand
skinned off; tracks of a man an' a cayuse at that water-hole; no herd
tracks, no other cayuse tracks--just them two, an' our suspicions. What
you think?"

Red chuckled. "I think we're gettin' somewhere, cussed slow an' I don't
know where; but I'm playin' up that skinned cow. If it was all skinned
I'd say a hide hunter might 'a' done it, an' that he made th' tracks
you saw; but it wasn't. You should 'a' looked better near th' carcass
instead of huntin' up th' water-hole. You might 'a' seen th' tracks of
a herd, or what th' wind left of 'em, 'though I reckon they drove that
cow off quite a ways before they dropped it."

"Did you cross any herd tracks after you left me?" asked Hopalong.

"No; why?"

"An' we didn't cross any before you left," said Hopalong. "If there's
been any to see runnin' east an' west we'd 'a' found 'em. That was all
hard ground; an' there was th' wind. There wasn't none to find."

"Huh!" snorted Red, and after a moment's thought he looked up. "Mebby
that feller found th' cow all swelled up with snakebite, away off from
water as he thought, an' just put an end to its misery?"

"Then why did he cut out th' brand?" snapped Hopalong.

"What are you askin' _me_ for?" demanded Red, truculently. "How'd _I_
know? You shore can ask some d--n fool questions!"

"Yo're half-baked," growled his companion. "I will be, too, before I
get any answer to what I'm askin' myself. I'm aimin' to squat behind
a rise north of that water-hole an' wait for my answer if it takes a
month. I can get a good view from up there."

Red, whose hatred for deserts was whole-hearted, looked through the
darkness in disgust at his friend. "You've picked out a fine job for
us!" he retorted. "If yo're right an' they did drive a herd across to
th' other side it'll shore be a wait. Be more'n a week, an' mebby two."

"They've got to drive hard between waters," replied Hopalong. "They'll
waste no time; an' they won't waste time comin' back again, when they
won't have th' cows to hold 'em down. There's one thing shore: They
won't be back tomorrow or th' next day, an' we both can ride down an'
see th' Kid, an' mebby McCullough. It's too good a lead to throw away.
But before we meet Johnny we're goin' to have a better look around,
'specially south an' east."

"All right," agreed Red. "How'd you come to find th' hole?"

"Rode up on a ridge an' saw somethin' green, an' knowin' it wasn't you
I went for it," answered his friend. "If it had been made for us it
couldn't be better. With water, an' grass enough for night grazin', an
a good ridge to look from, it's a fine place for us. We'll take turns
at it, for it won't feed two cayuses steady. Th' off man can ride west
to grass, mebby back to our camp, an' by takin' shifts at it we can
mebby save most of th' grass at th' hole."

"An' mebby get spotted while we're ridin' back an' forth?"

"Th' ridge will take care of that, an' I reckon when it peters out
there'll be others to hide us. I'm dead set on this: I'm so set that
I'll stick it out all alone rather than pass it by. I tell you I got a
_feelin'_."

"I ain't quittin'," growled Red; "I ain't got sense enough to quit.
Desert or _no_ desert I'm aimin' to do my little gilt-edged damndest;
but I'm admittin' I'll be plumb happy when it's my time off. We'll
get supplies an' more canteens from th' Kid tomorrow, an' be fixed so
we can foller any other lead that sticks up its head. I shore can
stand more than ridin' over a desert if it'll give us anythin' on them
fellers."

"Here we are," grunted his companion, swinging from the saddle.
"Finest, coldest water you ever drunk. I'm puttin' double hobbles on my
cayuse tonight, just to make shore."

"Me, too," said Red, dismounting.

In the morning they rode up for a look along the ledge, found that
it would answer their requirements and then went southeast, curving
further into the desert, and it was not long before Red's roving glance
caught something which aroused his interest and he silently rode off
to investigate, his companion going slowly ahead. When he returned it
was by another way and he rode with his eager eyes searching the desert
beneath and ahead of him. Reaching his friend, who had stopped and also
was scanning the desert floor with great intentness, he nodded in quiet
satisfaction.

"Think you see 'em, too?" he smilingly inquired. "They're so faint they
can't hardly be seen, not till you look ahead, an' then it's only th'
difference between this strip of sand that we're on an' th' rest of th'
desert. It's a cattle trail, Hoppy; I just found another water-hole,
a big one. Th' bank was crowded with hoof marks, cattle an' cayuses.
Looks like they come from th' west, bearin' a little north. Th' only
reason we didn't see 'em when we rode down was because they was on hard
ground. That shore explains th' dead cow."

"An' in a few hours more," said his companion, "this powdery dust will
blot 'em out. If they was clearer I'd risk follerin' them, even if we
only had a canteen apiece. We can ride as far between waters as they
can drive a herd, an' a whole lot farther. It's only fearin' that th'
trail will disappear that holds me back."

"We don't have to risk it yet," said Red, grimly. "We've found out
where they cut in an' how they start across; an' all we got to do is to
lay low up there an' wait for 'em to come back, or start another herd
across, to learn who they are."

"If we wait for their next drive we can foller 'em on a fresh, plain
trail, an' be a lot better prepared," supplemented Hopalong. "I reckon
we're shore goin' to fatten our comeback!"

"It's pickin' up fast," gloated his friend. "All we got to do is watch
that big water-hole an' we got 'em. There ain't so many water-holes out
on this skillet that they can drive any way they like. We'll camp at
th' little one, of course, but we can lay closer to th' big one nights."

"An' from th' ridge up yonder th' man on day watch can see for miles."

"Yes; an' fry, an' broil, an' sizzle, an' melt!" muttered Red. "D--n
'em!"

Hopalong had wheeled and was leading the way into the southwest as
straight as he could go for the meeting with Johnny, and Red pushed up
past him and bore a little more to the west. They had seen all they
needed to see for the day, and they had made up their minds.

At last after a long, hot ride they reached the bluffs marking the
side of the plateau and soon were winding down a steep-walled arroyo
which led to the plain below, and the country began to change with such
insensible gradations that they hardly noticed it. Sage and greasewood
became more plentiful and after an hour had passed an occasional low
bush was to be seen and the ground sloped more and more in front of
them. A low fringe of greenery lay along the distant bottom, where
Sand Creek or some other hidden stream came close to the top of the
soil, later to issue forth and become the stream into which the
Question-Mark's creek later emptied. They crossed this and breasted an
opposing slope, followed around the base of a low ridge of hills and at
last stopped under a clump of live-oak and cotton woods in the extreme
east end of the Question-Mark valley.

While the two friends were riding toward the little clump of trees
west of the Question-Mark ranch visitors rode slowly up to the door of
the ranchhouse and one of them dismounted. The shield he wore on his
open vest shone in the sun with nickel brightness, but his face was
anything but bright. The job which had been cut out for him was not to
his liking and had destroyed his peace of mind, and the peace of mind
of the two deputies, who needed no reflection upon their subordinate
positions to keep them in the sheriff's rear. What little assurance
they might have started with received a jolt soon after they had left
town, when a gruff and unmistakably unfriendly voice had asked, with
inconsiderate harshness and profanity, their intended destination and
their business. At last allowed to pass on after quite some humiliation
from the hidden sentries, they now were entering upon the dangerous
part of their mission.

Corwin stepped up to the door and knocked, a formality which he never
dispensed with on the Question-Mark. Other visitors usually walked
right in and found a chair or sat on the table, but it never should
be said to Corwin's discredit that an officer of the law was rude and
ignorant in such a well-known and long-established form of etiquette.
So Sheriff Corwin knocked.

"Come in!" impatiently bawled a loud and rude voice.

The sheriff obeyed and looked around the door casing. "Ah, hello, Mac,"
he said in cheery greeting.

"Mac _who_?" roared the man at the table.

"McCullough," said the man at the door, correcting himself. "How are
you?"

"Yo're one full-blooded d--n fool of a sheriff," sneered the
trail-boss. "Where's them two prisoners I been waitin' for?"

"They got away. Somebody helped 'em bust th' jail. I sent word back to
you by yore own men."

"Shore, I got it; I know that. That's no excuse a-tall!" retorted the
trail-boss. "I went an' sent word down to Twitchell on th' jump that
his fool way worked an' that I was goin' to send him th' men he wanted.
Then you let 'em bust out of jail! Fine sort of a fool you made of me!
Where's yore reward now, that you was spendin' so fast? An' what'll
Twitchell say, an' _do_? He wants th' bank robbers, not excuses; an'
more'n all he wanted th' man that shot Ridley. It ain't only a question
of pertectin' th' men workin' for him, but it's personal, too. Ridley
was an old friend of his'n--an' he'll raise h--l till he gets th' man
that killed him. What about it? What have you done since they got away?"

"We trailed 'em, but they lost us," growled Corwin. "Reckon they got up
on that hard ground an' then lit out, jumpin' th' country as fast as
they could. Kane had it on 'em, cold an' proper--but I had my doubts,
somehow. I ain't quittin'; I'm watchin' an' layin' back, an' I'm
figgerin' on deliverin' th' man that got Ridley."

"You mean Long an' Thompson are innocent?" demanded McCullough with a
throaty growl. "Yo're sayin' it yoreself! What was you tryin' to run on
me, then?"

"They must 'a' robbed th' bank," replied the sheriff; "but I got my own
ideas about who killed yore friend. This is between us. I'm waitin'
till I get th' proof; an' after I get it, an' th' man, I'll mebby have
to leave th' country between sunset an' dawn. I ain't no dog, an' I'm
gettin' riled."

"Then it was Kane who cold-decked them two fellers?" demanded
McCullough.

"I ain't sayin' a word, now," replied the sheriff. "Not yet, I ain't,
but I'm aimin' to get th' killer. Where's that Nelson?"

"What you want with him?" asked the trail-boss. "Reckon he done it?"

"No; he didn't," answered Corwin. "He only helped them fellers out of
jail, an' I'm goin' to take him in."

"What?" shouted McCullough, and then burst out laughing. "I'm repeatin'
what I said about you bein' full-blooded! Say, if you can turn that
trick I won't raise a hand--not till he's in jail; an' then I'll get
him out cussed quick. He's workin' for me, an' he didn't do no crime,
gettin' a couple of innocent men out of that mud hut; an', besides, I
don't know that he did get 'em out. Go after him, Corwin; go right out
after him." He glanced out of the window again and chuckled. "I see you
brought some of yore official fam'bly along. Shucks! That ain't no way
to do, three agin' one. An' I heard you was a bad hombre with a short
gun!"

"It ain't no question of how bad I am!" retorted the sheriff. "We want
him alive."

"Oh, I see; aim to scare him, bein' three to one. All right; go
ahead--but there ain't goin' to be no pot-shootin'. Tell yore fam'bly
that. I mean it, an' I cut in sudden th' minute any of it starts."

"There won't be no pot-shootin'," growled the sheriff, and to make
sure that there wouldn't be any he stepped out and gave explicit
instructions to his companions before going toward the smaller corral.
When part way there he heard whistling, wheeled in his tracks and went
back to the bunkhouse, hugging the wall as he slipped along it, his gun
raised and ready for action.

Johnny turned the corner, caught sight of the two deputies, who held
his suspicious attention, and had gone too far to leap back when he saw
Corwin flattened against the wall and the sheriff's gun covering him.
Presumably safe on a friendly ranch, he had given no thought to any
imminent danger, and now he stood and stared at the unexpected menace,
the whistling almost dying on his pursed lips.

"Nelson!" snapped the sheriff, "yo're under arrest for helpin' in that
jail delivery. I'll shoot at th' first hostile move! Put up yore hands
an' turn 'round!"

Johnny glanced from him to the deputies and thought swiftly. Three to
one, and he was covered. He leaned against the wall and laughed until
he was limp. When he regained control of himself he blinked at the
sheriff and drew a long breath, which nearly caused Corwin to pull the
trigger; but the sheriff found it to be a false alarm.

"What th' devil makes you think _I_ was mixed up in that?" he asked,
laughing again. He drew another long breath with unexpected suddenness,
and again the nervous sheriff and the two deputies nearly pulled
trigger; and again it was a false alarm.

"I've done my thinkin'!" snapped Corwin. "Watch him, boys!" he said out
of the corner of his mouth. "An' if you wasn't mixed up in it you won't
come to no harm."

"No; not in a decent town," rejoined Johnny, leaning against the wall
again, where Corwin's body somewhat sheltered him from the deputies.
The sheriff tensed again at the movement. "But Mesquite's plumb full
of liars," drawled Johnny, "trained by Kane. How do I know I'll get a
square deal?"

"You'll get it! Put 'em up!" snapped Corwin, raising his gun to give
the command emphasis, and it now pointed at the other's head.

"Long an' Thompson--" began Johnny, and like a flash he twisted
sidewise and jerked his head out of the line of fire, the bullet
passing his ear and the powder scorching his hair. As he twisted he
slipped in close, his left hand flashing to Corwin's gun-wrist and the
right, across his body, tore the weapon from its owner's hand. The
movement had been done so quickly that the sheriff did not realize what
had occurred until he found himself disarmed and pressing against his
own weapon, which was jammed into his groin. Johnny's left-hand gun had
leaped into the surprised deputies' sight at the sheriff's hip and they
lost no time in letting their own guns drop to the ground in instant
answer to the snapped command. Corwin's momentary surprise died out
nearly as quickly as it was born and, scorning the menace of the muzzle
of his own gun, he grabbed Johnny. As he shifted his foot Johnny's leg
slipped behind it and a sudden heave turned the sheriff over it, almost
end over end, and he struck the ground with a resounding thump. Johnny
sprang back, one gun on the sheriff, the other on the deputies.

"Get off them cayuses," he ordered and the two men slowly complied.
"Go over near th' corral, an' stay there." In a moment he gave all his
attention to the slowly arising officer.

"All this was unnecessary," he said. "You put us all in danger of bein'
killed. Don't you _never_ again try to take me in till you _know_ why
yo're doin' it! My head might 'a' been blowed off, an' all for nothin'!
You don't know who busted that jail, judgin' by yore fool actions, an'
you cussed well know it. You got plenty of gall, comin' down here an'
throwin' a gun on me, for that! I'm sayin', frank, that whoever done
that trick did th' right thing; but that ain't sayin' that _I_ did
it. Hope I didn't hurt you, Corwin; but I had to act sudden when you
grabbed me."

"Don't you do no worryin' on my account!" snapped the sheriff.

"I ain't blamin' you for doin' yore duty, if you was doin' it honest,"
said Johnny; "but you ain't got no business jumpin' before yo're shore.
I ain't holdin' th' sack for nobody, Corwin; Kane or nobody else. Now
then: you can tell what proof you got that it was me that busted th'
jail."

Corwin was watching the smiling face and the accusing eyes and he saw
no enmity in either. "Then who did?" he demanded.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. "_Quien sabe?_" he asked. "There's a
lot of people down here that would have more reason to do a thing like
that, even for strangers, than _I_ would. You ain't loved very much,
from what I've heard. I don't want any more enemies than I got; but
I'm tellin' you, flat, that I ain't goin' back with you; an' neither
would you, if you was in my place, in a strange town. Here," he said,
letting the hammer down and tossing the gun at the sheriff's feet,
"take your gun. I'm glad you ain't hurt; an' I'm cussed glad _I_ ain't.
But somebody's shore goin' to be th' next time you pull a gun on me on
a guess. You want to be _dead shore_, Corwin. We've had enough of this.
Did you get any trace of them two?"

The sheriff watched his opponent's gun go back into its holster and
slowly picked up his own. "No; I ain't," he admitted, and considered
a moment as he sheathed the weapon with great care. "I _ain't_ got
nothin' flat agin' you," he said; "but I still think you had a hand in
it. That's a good trick you worked, Nelson; I'm rememberin' it. All
right; th' next time I come for you I'll _have_ it cold; an' I'm shore
expectin' to come for you, an' Idaho, too."

"That's fair enough," replied Johnny, smiling; "but I don't see why you
want to drag Idaho in it for. He didn't have no more to do with it than
_I_ did."

"I'm believin' that, too," retorted the sheriff; "since you put it just
that way. I haven't heard you say that you _didn't_ do it. Before I go
I want to ask you a question: Where was you th' night th' Diamond L
lost them cows?"

"Right here with Mac an' th' boys."

"He was," said McCullough. "Yo're ridin' wide of th' trail, Corwin."

"Mebby," grunted the sheriff. "There's two trails. I mebby am plumb off
of _one_ of 'em, as long as you know he was down here that night; but
I'm ridin' right down th' middle of th' other. When did you meet Long
an' Thompson first?" he asked, wheeling suddenly and facing Johnny.

"Thinkin' what you do about me," replied Johnny, "I'd be a fool to
tell you anythin', no matter what. So, as long as yo're ridin' down
th' middle you'll have to read th' signs yoreself. Some of 'em must be
plumb faint, th' way yo're guessin', an' castin' 'round. Get any news
about them rustlers?"

"What's th' use of makin' trouble for yoreself by bein' stubborn?"
asked McCullough. He looked at Corwin. "Sheriff, I know for shore that
he never knowed any Bill Long or Red Thompson until after he come to
Mesquite. What news did you get about th' rustlers?"

"Huh!" muttered Corwin, searching the face of the trail-boss, whose
reputation for veracity was unquestioned. "I ain't got any news about
'em. Once they got on th' hard stretch they could go for miles an' not
leave no trail. I'm figgerin' on spendin' quite some time north of
where Lukins' boys quit an' turned back. There's three cows missin'
that are marked so different from any I've ever seen that I'll know
'em in a herd of ten thousan' head; an' when they're cut out for me to
look at there's some marks on horns an' hoofs that'll prove whose cows
they are. I'm takin' a couple of his boys with me when I go, to make
shore. Of course, I don't know that we'll ever see 'em, at all. Well,"
he said, turning toward his horse, "reckon I'll be goin'." He waved to
the deputies, who approached, picked up their guns under Johnny's alert
and suspicious scrutiny, and mounted. "As for you, Nelson, _next_ time
I'll be dead shore; an' I'll mebby shoot first, on a gamble, an' talk
afterward. So-long."

Watching the three arms of the law ride away and out of sight, Johnny
swung around and faced the grinning trail-boss. "You told th' truth,
Mac; but I wonder if Corwin heard it like I did?"

McCullough shrugged his shoulders. "Who cares? I'm thankin' you for an
interestin' lesson in how to beat th' drop; but I reckon I'm gettin'
too old to be quick enough to use it. I reckon Waffles has been tellin'
th' truth about yore Bar-20 outfit. Where you goin' now?"

"Off to see a couple of better men from that same outfit," grinned
Johnny.

He went on with his preparations and soon rode Pepper toward a gap in
the southern chain of hills, leading a loaded pack horse behind him.
Emerging on the other side of the pass he followed the chain westward
and in due time rounded the last hill and headed for the little clump
of trees where he saw his two friends waiting. They waved to him and he
replied, chuckling with pleasure.

Red looked critically at the pack animal. "Huh! From th' looks of that
cayuse I reckon he figgers we're goin' to be gone some months, like a
prospector holin' up for th' winter."

"He never underplays a hand," grunted Hopalong, a warm light coming
into his eyes. "Desert or no desert, it's shore good to be with him
again. He never should 'a' left Montanny."

Johnny soon joined them, dismounted, picketed the pack horse, pushed
back his sombrero and rolled a cigarette, grinning cheerfully. "If you
want any more canteens you can have th' pair on my cayuse," he said.
"Find anythin'?"

They told him and he nodded in quiet satisfaction. "You shore ain't
been asleep," he chuckled. "You've just about found out somethin'
that's been puzzlin' a lot of folks down here for some years. I wonder
how close they ever come to them water-holes when they was scoutin'
around? But mebby they never scouted over that way much--everybody was
bankin' on 'em stayin' on th' hard stretch over Lukins' way, instead of
crossin' it so close to town. You'd never thought of lookin' for 'em
over east if you hadn't remembered Slippery Trendly, now would you?"

"We wasn't lookin' for nothin' nor nobody except you," admitted
Hopalong. "But when Red saw a dead cow as far out on th' desert as _it_
was, we just had to take a look at it. An' when we saw it had been shot
we couldn't do nothin' else but look for th' brand. That bein' cut out
made us plumb suspicious. One thing just nat'rally led to th' next, as
th' mule said when its tail was pulled."

"What you bet that missin' brand wasn't a Diamond L?" Johnny asked.

"Ain't that th' ranch Idaho works for?" queried Red.

Johnny nodded. "They raided Lukins th' night of th' day you an' Hoppy
left town. That outfit put in two days ridin' along th' hard ground,
half of 'em up an' half of 'em down. They lost over a hundred head."

His friends exchanged looks, each trying to visualize the all but
obliterated trail, and both nodded.

"Mebby it _was_ a Diamond L," said Hopalong, and he explained their
plans to some length.

"That's goin' to win if you can stick it out," said Johnny.
"McCullough's steamin' a little, but he's still carryin' out
Twitchell's wishes; an' I been arguin' with him, too, to give you
fellers a chance. Hey!" he exclaimed, grinning. "I allus knowed I'd get
a bad name for hangin' out with you two coyotes; an' I done got it. I'm
suspected strong of bein' a criminal, like you fellers, an' I'll mebby
be an outlaw, too. Sheriff Corwin just said so, an' he ought to know
if anybody does. He arrested me for helpin' to get you fellers out of
jail, but he didn't say how he aimed to keep me in it, busted like it
is."

"How'd you get away?" asked Red. "Wouldn't you go with him?"

"Mebby he didn't have th' rest of th' dozen," suggested Hopalong.

"Oh, he wasn't real shore about it really bein' me he wanted, so he
turned me loose," replied Johnny. "Anyhow, I couldn't 'a' gone with
him: I had to get this stuff out to you fellers. An' besides, I knowed
if I got in that 'dobe hut you wouldn't have th' nerve to bust me out
again."

"I'm honin' to bust Corwin's 'dobe head," growled Red.

"There's four canteens an' plenty of grub, with Mac's compliments,"
said Johnny, waving at the pack horse. "When am I to meet you again?"

Hopalong considered a moment. "There's too much ridin', comin' down
here unless we has to," he said. "Tell you what: We'll find a hill, or
a ridge up on th' plateau where a fire can be lit that won't show to
nobody north of them hills you just come around. Take that white patch
up yonder: we can see it plain for miles. You ride up to it every day
about two hours after sun-up; an' every night just after dark. If you
see smoke puffs in daylight, or a winkin' fire at night, ride toward
that split bluff behind us. We'll meet you there. If you get news for
us, do th' same thing on th' other slope, so it can't be seen from
across this valley. As long as it can be seen on a line with th' split
bluff we won't miss it."

Johnny scratched his head. "Strings of six puffs or six winks means
trouble: come a-latherin'," he suggested. "Strings of three means news,
an' take yore time. Better have a signal for grub an' supplies: it'll
mebby save ridin'. Say groups of two an' five, alternate?"

Hopalong nodded and repeated the signals to make certain that he had
them right. "Two an' five, alternate, for supplies; strings of six,
come a-runnin'; strings of three, news, an' take our time. Couple of
hours after sun-up an' just after dark. All right, Kid."

"Mac's got an old spyglass. Want it, if I can get it?" asked Johnny.

"Shore!" grunted Red.

"Bring it next time you come," said Hopalong.

"All right. Where you goin' now?"

"Up on Sand Creek, where we're camped," answered Red. "We got a couple
of days before we move out on th' fryin' pan, an' we're aimin' to make
th' most of it."

"Wait till I get th' glass, an' I'll go along," suggested Johnny,
eagerly.

"Get a rustle on--an' take this pack animal back with you," smiled
Hopalong as Johnny started without it. "We'll empty out th' canteens,
an' we can tote th' supplies without it."



                              CHAPTER XVI

                           A VIGIL REWARDED


The days passed quietly for the two watchers after Johnny had gone back
to the Question-Mark, the hours dragging in monotonous succession.
In the Sand Creek camp time passed pleasantly enough, but out on
the great, upslanting billow of sand north of Sweet Spring, devoid
of shelter from the blazing sun and from the reflected glare of the
gray-white desert around it, was another matter. Prone on his stomach
lay Hopalong on the northward slope, his face barely level with the
crest of the ridge. Down in the hollow behind him was his horse,
picketed and hobbled as well, and at his side on his blanket to keep
the cutting sand and clogging dust from barrels and actions lay his
rifle and his six-guns, so hot that their metal parts could not be
touched without a grimace of discomfort coming to his face. The
telescope at intervals swung around the shimmering horizon, magnifying
the dancing heat waves until the distortion of their wavering,
streaming currents at times rendered the view chaotic and baffling.
Strange sights were to be seen in the air and knowing what they were
he watched them as his only source of amusement. A tree-bordered lake
appeared, its waters sparkling, arose into the air, became vague and
slowly dissolved from view, calling from him caustic comment. Inverted
mountains reached down from the heavens, standing on snow-covered tops,
writhed more and more from their outer edges and melted down from
the up-flung bases, slowly fading from view. They were followed by a
silvery, winding river, certain features which caused him to think
that he recognized it and while he studied it a herd of cattle upside
down, and greatly magnified, pushed through into sight as the river
scene faded away. Another hour passed and then a steep-walled, green
valley inverted itself before his gaze. He could make out a hut and a
few trees and then as mounted men began to ride up its slanting bluff
trail his attention became riveted on it and he reached for the hot
telescope. One look through the instrument made him grunt with disgust,
for the figures danced and shrunk and expanded, weaved and became like
shadows, through which he looked as though through a rare, discolored
vapor. He was mildly excited and tried in vain to search his visual
image of the sight for the faces of the men; but it was in vain, and
he opened his eyes as the image faded and then closed them again to
better search the memory picture. This, too, availed him nothing and he
realized that he had not really seen the faces. He was perplexed and
vexed, for there was something familiar about some of those riders.
About to move for a look around through the telescope, he yielded to
a humorous warning and lay quiet for awhile. Was it possible that the
mirage had been double-acting, and had revealed each to the other?

"Mebby they won't put as much stock in theirs as I did in mine," he
said, and slowly picked up the telescope for a final look all around
the horizon before Red should relieve him. East, south, west he looked
and saw nothing. Swinging it toward the Sand Creek camp he grunted
in satisfaction as a figure very much like Red wavered and danced
as it emerged over a ridge of sand. Further north he swung it and
slowly swept the northern horizon. Swearing suddenly he stopped its
slow progress and brought it back searchingly over ground it had just
covered. Rigid he held it and looked with unbelieving eyes.

"Mirage?" he growled, questioningly: "It's too solid for that--I'm
goin' up to see."

Getting his horse he gingerly slipped the hot rifle into its scabbard,
hastily dropped the six-guns into their holsters and, mounting, rode to
meet his nearing friend.

"Cooked?" queried Red, grinning. "You shore didn't lose no time gettin'
started after you saw me! Ain't it h--l out here?"

"H--l is right," answered Hopalong, handing over the telescope. "But
we got cayuses, full canteens, an' know where we are. Swing that
blisterin' tube over yonder," pointing, "an' tell me what you see?"

Red obeyed and the moving glass suddenly stopped and swung back a
little. After long scrutiny he raised his head and gazed steadily over
the rigid tube as though along a rifle barrel. "I see him, now, without
it," he said. "A-foot, he is, staggerin' every-which way. Comin'?"

His companion replied by pushing into the lead and setting a stiff pace
through the soft sand and alkali dust. As they drew near they both
shivered at the sight which steadily was being better revealed.

The figure of a man, and scarcely more than figure, stumbled crazily
across the sand, hatless, his bare feet covered with dust which had
become pasty with the blood exuding through the deepening clefts in the
skin and flesh. Progress on such feet would have made him mad from pain
if he had not already become so from other causes. His trousers were
ripped and frayed to the swollen, dust-plastered knees, the crimson
fissures running up and down his swollen legs. Shirt he had none, save
the strip which hung stiff and crimson from his belt. His upper body
was a thing of horror, swollen, matted with crusts of dried blood, from
beneath which more oozed out to in turn coagulate. His burning eyes
peered through slits in the puffed face and his tongue, blackened and
purplish, stuck out of his mouth.

"G--d!" muttered Red, glancing awesomely at the tense face of his
companion.

"He's gone," said Hopalong, softly. "Nothing can save him. It would be
a mercy--" but he checked the words, searching Red's acquiescent eyes.

"Can't do it," said Red. "Can you?"

Hopalong drew in a deep breath and shook his head. "We got to try th'
other first," he said. "It's wrong--but there's nothin' else. We ain't
doctors, an' there may be a fightin' chance. Hobble th' cayuses. We'll
both tackle him--one alone might have to be too rough, for he'll mebby
fight."

"He's down," said Red as he swung from his saddle. "Lookin' right at
us, too, an' don't see us."

The figure groveled in the sand, digging with blundering fingers worn
to the bone by previous digging, and choked sounds came from the
swollen throat. Red talked to himself as he hobbled his horse and
pushed down the picket pin.

"Lost his cayuse, somehow, or went crazy an' chased it away. Used
up his last water an' then threw away everythin' he had. Tore off
his shirt because th' neckband got too tight, an' th' cloth stuck to
th' blood clots an' pulled at 'em. I've seen others, but they warn't
none of 'em as bad as him," growled Red more to himself than to his
companion.

Hopalong pushed home his own picket pin and stood up. "Comin'?" he
asked, starting slowly for the groveling, digging thing on the sand.

They stepped up to him and lifted the unfortunate from the ground.
Dazed and without understanding, the pitiful object of their assistance
suddenly snarled and reached its bleeding fingers for Red's throat, and
for the next few minutes two rational, strong men had as hard a fight
on their hands as they ever had experienced; and when it was over and
the enraged unfortunate became docile from exhaustion they were covered
with blood. Letting a few drops of water trickle down the side of the
protruding tongue, which they forced to one side when the drops were
stopped by it, they worked over the dying man as long as they dared
in the sun and then, carrying him to Hopalong's horse they put him
across the saddle, lashing him securely, and covered him with a doubled
blanket to cheat the leering sun.

"Go ahead to th' water-hole," said Hopalong, straightening up from
tying the last knot. "I'll take him to camp an' do what I can. There
won't be no trouble handlin' him, tied like he is. Got to try to save
him--'though I hope somebody puts a bullet through my head if I ever
get like him."

"Bein' crazy, he mebby ain't feelin' it as much as he might," replied
Red. "Seems to me he's the one they called Sandy Woods; but he's so
plumb changed I ain't shore."

Hopalong thought of the last mirage he had seen, was about to speak of
it, but abruptly changed his mind. He conveyed his warning in another
way. "Keep a-lookin' sharp, Red," he said. "Th' poor devil shore was
one of them rustlers; an' they mebby ain't far behind him. It's gettin'
nearer an' nearer th' time they ought to come back. I'll stay with him
in camp an' let th' Kid's signal go, if he makes one. This feller ain't
got long to live, I'm figgerin'."

"It's a wonder he lived this long," said Red, riding off to take up the
vigil.

Hopalong swung his belts and guns over the pommel of the saddle to
lighten him, drank sparingly from a canteen and started on foot for
the camp, leading his dispirited horse. After a walk through the hot,
yielding sand which became a punishment during the last mile he sighed
with relief as he stopped the horse on the bank of Sand Creek and
tenderly placed its burden on the ground in the shade of a tree. More
water, in judicious quantities, and at increasingly frequent intervals
brought no apparent relief to the sufferer, and in mid-afternoon Sandy
Woods lost all need of earthly care. Kane's thieving trail-boss had won
his bet.

Hopalong looked down at the body freed of its suffering and slowly
shook his head. "Th' other way would 'a' been th' best," he said. "_I_
knowed it; _Red_ knowed it--yet, both plumb shore, an' _knowin'_ it was
better, we just couldn't do it. A man's trainin' is a funny thing."

He looked around the little depression and walked toward a patch of
sand lying near a mass of stones which had rolled down the slope;
and before the evening shadows had reached across the little creek,
a heaped-up pile of rocks marked the place of rest of one more weary
traveler. At the head, lying on the ground, was a cross made of stones.
Why he had placed it there Hopalong could hardly have told, but
something within him had stirred through the sleep of busy and heedless
years, and he had unthinkingly obeyed it.

He looked up at the sun and found it was time to go on watch again.
He had been given no opportunity to sleep, but did not complain,
carelessly accepting it as one of the breaks in the game. When he
reached his friend, ready to go on duty again, Red looked up at him and
scrutinized his face.

"Lots of sleep you must 'a' got," said Red. "How's our patient?"

"Gettin' all th' sleep there is," came the reply. "We was right--both
ways."

"Spread yore blanket here," said Red. "I'm stickin' to th' job till you
have a snooze. Anyhow, somethin' tells me that two won't be more'n we
need out here at night, from now on."

"It's my trick," replied Hopalong, decisively. "Spread yore own
blanket."

"Him turnin' up like he did was an accident," retorted Red, "an'
accidents are shared between us both. Anyhow, I ain't sleepy--an' th'
next few hours are pleasant. Get some sleep, you chump!"

"Well, as long as we're both handy, it don't make much difference,"
replied Hopalong, spreading the blanket. "We can spell each other any
time we need to. Hope th' Kid ain't tryin' to signal nothin'."

"We got more to signal than he has," growled Red. "Shut up, now; an' go
to sleep," and his companion, blessed by one of the prized acquirements
of the plainsman, promptly obeyed; but it seemed to him that he
scarcely had dozed off when he felt his friend's thrusting hand, and he
opened his eyes in the darkness, staring up at the blazing stars, in
surprise.

"Yes?" whispered Hopalong, without moving or making any other sound,
again true to his training.

His companion's whisper, a whisper by force of habit rather than for
any good reason, reached him: "Turn over, an' look over th' ridge."

Hopalong obeyed, threw off the blanket which Red had spread over him
when the chill of the desert night descended, and became all eyes as
he saw the faint glow of a distant fire, which rapidly grew and became
brighter. "It's them, down at th' other water-hole," he said, arising
and feeling to see if his Colts had slid out of their holsters while
he slept. "I'm goin' down for a better look," and he glanced at the
northern sky just above the horizon, memorized a group of stars and
disappeared noiselessly into the night.

Nearing the larger water-hole he went more slowly and finished by
wriggling up to the crest of a sand billow, his head behind a lone sage
bush, and his eyelids closed to a thin crack, lest the light of the
fire should reflect from his eyes and reveal him to some keen, roving
glance.

The greasewood fire blazed under a pair of skillets, while a coffeepot
imitated the Tower of Pisa on the glowing coals at one edge. Around it,
reclining on the powdery clay, or squatting in the more characteristic
attitude of men of the saddle, were a half-dozen of Kane's pets, Miguel
and his cronies well to one side. The hidden watcher knew them all by
sight and saw several men who had helped the sheriff trick him and Red.
In the darkness behind the group he heard their horses moving about as
they grazed.

"Do you reckon he made it, Miguel?" asked the trail-boss, apropos of
the conversation around the fire.

Miguel turned his face to the light, the scar over his eye glistening
against the duller skin around it. "I say no," he drawled. "He change
hees horrse at the corrals, no? The-e horrse he took was born at the-e
Cimarron corral an' foaled eet's firrst colt there. I would not lak'
sooch a horrse eef I did not know my way. But, _quien sabe_?"

The trail-boss looked at him searchingly, wondering how much the
half-breed knew about Sandy's reasons for making the change. Kane would
not allow fighting in the ranks, and grudges live long in some men.
Besides, to lose the bet was to lose his share of the drive profits to
a man he secretly hated, and this did not suit the trail-boss.

Miguel smiled grimly into the cold, searching eyes and shrugged his
shoulders, his soft laugh turning the cold stare into something warmer.
"Eef he deed, then eet ees ver' good," he said; "eef he deed not, then
eet hees own fault. But he should not change hees horrse."

"We'll know tomorrow night, anyhow," said a voice well back from the
fire. "Get a rustle on you, Thorpe," it growled. "You move around like
an old woman."

"Ain't no walls to climb," said another, laughing.

The red-faced cook did not raise his head or retort, but in his memory
another name was deeply carved, to replace the one he was certain would
be erased when they reached Mesquite. Sandy Woods' dislike for the
horse given to him at the corrals had been overcome by the smooth words
of the unforgiving cook, who also had a score to pay.

"When do we rustle next?" asked a squatting figure. "We been layin' low
too long, an' my pile has done faded; I wasn't lucky, like you, Trask,
an' the sheriff," he said, looking at the trail-boss. "Next time a bank
is busted _I_ aim to be in on it. You fellers can't hog _all_ th' good
things."

"Don't do no good to talk about it," snapped the trail-boss. "Kane
names them he wants. Trask an' me was robbed of half of our share--I
ain't forgettin' it, neither. An' as for th' next raid, that's settled.
As long as all of us are in it, you might as well know. We're cleanin'
up on McCullough's west range, an' there won't be much of a wait."
Neither the speaker, his companions, nor the man behind the sage brush
knew that Kane already had changed his mind, and because of Lukins'
activity had decided to raid McCullough's east range.

"_How_ soon?" demanded the questioner.

"Some night this week, I reckon," came the answer. "If we get a good
bunch we'll sit back an' take things easy for awhile. Too many drives
may cut a trail that'll show, an' we can't risk _that_."

"Too bad we have to drive west an' north before we hit for the plain,"
said Jud Hill. "Takes two days more, that way."

The trail-boss smiled. "I know a way that would suit you, Jud," he
said. "So does Miguel--but we've been savin' it till th' old route gets
too risky. It joins th' regular trail right here. Well, at last th'
cook has really cooked--pass it this way, Thorpe. I'm eatin' fast an'
I'm turnin' in faster. Th' more we beat th' sun gettin' away from here,
th' less it'll beat on us. We're leavin' an hour ahead of it."

Not waiting until the camp should become silent, when any noise he
might make would be more likely to be heard, Hopalong crept away while
the rustlers ate and returned to his friend, who waited under a certain
group of stars.

Red cocked his head at the soft sound, his Colt swinging to cover it,
when he heard his name called in his friend's voice, and he replied.

Hopalong sat down on the blanket and related what he had seen and heard
without comment from his listener until the end of the narrative.

"Huh!" said Red. "You learned a-plenty. An' I'm glad they reached that
water-hole after dark, an' are goin' to go on again before it gets
light. They missed our tracks. I call that luck," he said in great
satisfaction. "We wasn't doin' much guessin'. That's shore their drive
trail, an' th' best thing about it is that it's th' bottom of th' Y.
They've got two ways of leavin' th' ranges without showin' tracks, but
they both come together down yonder. I reckon mebby we'll have a piece
to speak when they come this way again. Goin' to tell McCullough what's
bein' hatched?"

"We ought to," answered his companion, slowly. "We'll tell th' Kid
an' leave it to him. They must be purty shore of themselves to rustle
Question-Mark cattle at _this_ time. If th' Kid tells Mac, an' they try
it, Mesquite shore is goin' to be a busy little town. I think I know
his breed."

"They ain't takin' much of a chance, at that, if they try it,"
said Red. "They don't know that we know anythin' about it an' that
McCullough will know it, if th' Kid tells him. Mebby they figger that
by springin' it right now when th' feelin' is so strong agin' 'em, that
it would make folks think they didn't do it, because they oughten't
to--oh, pshaw! _You_ know what I'm gettin' at!"

"Shore," grunted Hopalong. He was silent a moment and then stirred. "We
ain't got no reason to stay out here for a day or two. Let's pull out
an' go down where we can signal th' Kid after sun-up. We'll ride well
to th' east past their camp. What wind is stirrin' is comin' from th'
other way, an' there's no use makin' any fresh tracks in front of 'em."

An hour or so after daylight a small fire sent a column of smoke
straight up, the explanation of its smoking qualities suggested by
the canteen lying near it. Hopalong and Red slid a blanket over the
fire and drew it suddenly aside, performing this operation three
times in succession before letting the column mount unmolested for
brief intervals. In the west, above and behind a bare spot on a ridge
of hills an answering column climbed upward, and then a series of
triple puffs took its place. Scattering the fire over the ground the
two friends absent-mindedly kicked sand over the embers, and suddenly
grinned at each other at the foolishness of their precautions.

When they reached the little grove they found Johnny waiting for them,
his horse well loaded with more provisions. As they transferred the
supplies to their own mounts they told him what had occurred and he
decided that McCullough should be informed of the forthcoming raid,
whether or not it would in any way jeopardize the winning of the
rewards.

"It's a toss-up whether Mac will wait for them to run it off," he said,
"when I tell him. He's gettin' more riled every minute, but he seemed
to calm down a little after Corwin visited him. Somethin' sort of pulls
him back when he gets to climbin' onto his hind legs, an' he ends up by
leanin' agin' th' wall an' swearin'. I'm not tellin' him nothin' about
anythin' but th' raid. You aimin' to go back to that water-hole?"

Hopalong shook his head. "No, sir," he answered. "There ain't no reason
to till th' raid happens. We're campin' on Sand Creek till you signal
that it's been run off. Time enough then for us to watch on that cussed
griddle."

"Have special signal for that?" suggested Red. "Say two, two an' three,
repeated. Mebby won't have time to hear what th' news is. When you get
our answer don't bother ridin' down here to tell us anythin'--we'll be
makin' tracks _pronto_."

Johnny nodded. "Two, two an' three is O. K. I'll be ridin' back to
tell Mac there's goin' to be a party on his west range some night soon.
I'm bettin' it'll be a bloody party, too. Say," he exclaimed, pulling
up, "Lukins an' Idaho was down last night. They're mad as h--l, an'
they're throwin' a cordon of riders plumb across th' hard stretch every
night. Lukins an' Mac are joinin' forces, an' from now on th' two
ranches are workin' together as one. With us scoutin' around east of
town somethin' shore ought to drop." He pressed Pepper's sleek sides
and started back to the sheltering hills.

"Somethin's _goin'_ to drop," growled Red, the memory of the jailing
burning strongly within him. "Don't forget, Kid--two, two an' three."

Johnny turned in his saddle, waved a hand and kept on going. Rounding
the westernmost hill he rode steadily until opposite the white patch of
sand on the northern slope and then, dismounting, collected firewood,
and built it up on the dead ashes of his signal fire, ready for the
match. Going on again he rode steadily until he reached the place in
the arroyo which lay directly behind the ranchhouse.

McCullough returned from a ride over the range to find his cheerful
friend smoking some of his tobacco.

"Want a job, Nelson?" asked the trail-boss, swinging from the saddle
with an easy agility belying his age and weight.

Johnny smiled at him. "Anythin', that don't take me away from th' ranch
too far or too long. Call it."

"One of th' boys, ridin' south of th' hills on a fool's errand, this
mornin', thought he saw smoke signals back of White Face," said
McCullough. "He says he reckons he's loco. I ain't goin' that far.
Think you could find out anythin' about 'em?"

Johnny considered, and chuckled. "Huh!" he snorted. "He's plumb late.
_I_ saw them before he did, an' know all about 'em. You stuck a couple
of jabs into me about bein' lazy, an' likin' to set around all day
doin' nothin'. Any chump can wear out cayuses ridin' around discoverin'
things, but th' wise man is th' feller that can set around all day,
lazy an' no-account, an' figger things out. I don't have to go prowlin'
around to find out things. I just set in th' shade of th' house, roll
cigarettes an' hold pow-wows with my medicine bag. You'd be surprised
if you knowed what I got in that bag, an' what I can get _out_ of it.
You shore would."

McCullough looked at him with an expression which tried to express
so many uncomplimentary things at once that the composite was almost
neutral; at least, it was somewhat blank.

"Ye-ah?" he drawled, his inflection in no way suggesting anything to
Johnny's credit.

"Ye-ah," repeated the medicine man somewhat belligerently.

"Oh," said the trail-boss, eyeing his victim speculatively. "You know
all about 'em, huh?"

"Everythin'," placidly replied Johnny, rolling another cigarette.

"I wish to heaven you'd quit smokin' them cussed things around here,"
said McCullough plaintively. "Yo're growed up now, purty near; an' you
_ain't_ no Greaser. I'll buy you a pipe if you'll promise to smoke it."

"Pipes, judgin' from yourn," sweetly replied Johnny, calmly lighting
the cigarette, "are dangerous, unless a man hangs around th' house
_all_ th' time. When I used to go off scoutin', I allus wished th'
other fellers smoked pipes, corncob pipes, like Mister McCullough
carries around. Why, cuss it, I could smell 'em out, _up_-wind, if they
did. It would 'a' saved me a lot of crawlin' an' worryin'. I knowed you
was comin' back ten minutes before I saw you. Now, you can't blame a
skunk--he was born that way, an' he's got good reasons for keepin' on
th' way he was born. But a human, goin' out of his way, to smell like
_some_ I knows of," he broke off, shrugging his shoulders expressively.

McCullough slowly produced the corncob, blew through the stem with
unnecessary violence, gravely filled and lit it, his eyes twinkling.
"Takes a _man_, I reckon, to enjoy it's aromer," he observed. "Goin'
back to yore medicine bag, let's see what you can get out of it," he
challenged.

Johnny drew out his buckskin tobacco pouch, placed it on the floor,
covered it with his sombrero and chanted softly, his eyes fixed on the
hat. "I smell a trail-boss an' his pipe. They went to th' bend of th'
crick, an' they says to Pete Holbrook, who rides that section, that
he ought to ride on th' other side of th' crick after dark." He was
repeating information which he had chanced to overhear near the small
corral the night before; when he had passed unobserved in the darkness.

McCullough favored the hat with a glance of surprise and Johnny with a
keen, prolonged stare.

"Pete, he said that wouldn't do no good unless he went far enough north
to leave his section unprotected. He borrowed a chew of tobacco before
th' man an' th' pipe went away an' let th' air get pure again." The
medicine man knew Pete's thrifty nature by experience.

"Yo're shore a good guesser," grunted McCullough. "What about them
smoke signals, that you know all about?"

Johnny readjusted the hat a hair's breadth, passed his hands over
it and closed his eyes. "I see smoke signals," he chanted. "There's
palefaces in 'em, ridin' cautious at night over a hard plain. They're
driftin' cows into a herd. Th' herd is growin' fast, an' it drifts
toward th' hard ground. Now it's goin' faster. Th' brands are Diamond
L. I see more smoke signals an' more ridin' in th' dark. Another herd,
bigger this time, is runnin' hard over that same plain. Th' brands are
SV, vented; an' plain Question-Mark. It seems near--within a week--an'
it's on yore west range." He opened his eyes, kicked the hat across the
room and pocketed the tobacco pouch.

"Mac," he said, gravely. "That's a shore-enough prophecy. Leavin' out
all jokin', it's true. Hoppy an' Red told me, a little while ago, that
they overheard some of Kane's gang talkin'. They're goin' to raid you
like I said. Th' smoke signals was me answerin' theirs. They say Sandy
Woods is dead. They ought to know because they buried him. They know
three of th' men that robbed th' bank an' they've knowed ever since
Ridley was shot, who killed him. They've seen Kane's drive trail crew
an' they know a whole lot that I ain't goin' to tell you now; mebby
I'll not tell you till we get th' rewards; but if it'll make you feel
any better, I'm saying' that we're goin' to get them rewards right
soon. When Kane raids you he springs th' trap that'll clear a lot of
vermin off this range."

"How much of all that do you mean?" demanded the trail-boss, his
odorous pipe out and reeking more than ever. He was looking into his
companion's eyes with a searching, appraising directness which many men
would have found uncomfortable.

"All of it," complacently answered the medicine man, rolling a new
cigarette. "There's only one thing I'm doubtful about, 'though it was
what Hoppy overheard, so I gave it to you that way. They said yore west
range. If Kane learns how th' Diamond L riders are spread out, an' I'm
bettin' he knew it near as soon as Lukins did, he'll be a fool to drive
that way. If it was me, I'd split my outfit an' put half of 'em on th'
east end! but I'm a gambler."

McCullough considered the matter. "They'll leave a plain trail if they
raid th' east section," he muttered; "an' th' desert'll hold 'em to
a narrow strip north _or_ south. There's water up th' north way, but
there's people scattered all around, an' they're nat'rally near th'
water. South, there's less water, an' more people th' further they go.
They might tackle th' desert, but Lukins an' me figger they go west
from th' hard ground. I ain't agin' gamblin', but I don't gamble with
anythin' _I_ don't own. If yore friends heard them coyotes say 'west,'
I'm playin' my cards accordin' to their case-rack. I may call it wrong,
I may get a split, or I may win--but I'm backin' the' case-keepers,
'specially when they're keepin' th' rack for _me_. West it is--an' west
is where h--l will pop when they pay their visit. An' lemme tell you
this, Nelson: Win, lose, or split on th' raid, if it comes off within
a week, I'll be dead shore who's behind it, an' there's a cyclone due
in Mesquite right soon after. Twitchell had his chance. His game's no
good--I'm playin' th' cards I've drawn in my own way when they show
their hand in this raid. I'm bein' cold-decked by Corwin--but I'll warm
it a-plenty. You hang around an' see th' fireworks!"

Johnny stretched, relaxed, and grinned. "I'm aimin' to touch some
off, myself," he replied, "an' I reckon Hoppy an' Red will send up a
couple of rockets on their own account. Rockets?" He grinned. "No;
not rockets--there's allus burned sticks comin' down from rockets.
Besides, they're too smooth an' easy. Reckon they'll touch off some
pinwheels. Whizzin', tail-chasin' pinwheels; or mebby nigger-chasers.
Most likely they'll be nigger-chasers, th' way some folks'll be
steppin' lively to get out of th' way. Don't you bank on this bein'
_yore_ celebration--you'll only own th' lot an' make th' noise. Th'
grand display, th' glorious finish is Bar-20. Just plain, old-fashioned
Bar-20. Gee, Mac, it makes me a kid again!"

"It's got an easy job, then!" snorted the trail-boss.



                             CHAPTER XVII

                          A WELL-PLANNED RAID


On night shift again Pete Holbrook reached the end of his beat,
waited until his fellow-watcher on the east bulked suddenly out of
the darkness, exchanged a few words with him and turned back under
the star-filled sky, his horse having no difficulty in avoiding
obstructions, but picking its way with ease around scattered thickets,
grass-tufted hummocks, and across shallow ravines and hollows. Objects
close at hand were discernible to eyes accustomed to the darkness and
Pete's range of vision attained the enviable limits enjoyed by those
who live out-of-doors and look over long distances. An occasional patch
of sand moved slowly into his circumscribed horizon as he rode on;
vague, squatting bulks gradually revealed their vegetative nature and
an occasional more regular bulk told him where a cow was lying. These
latter more often were catalogued by his ears before his eyes defined
them and from the contentment in the sounds he nodded in satisfaction.
Soon he felt the gentle rise which swept up to the breeze-caressed
ridge which projected northward and forced the little creek to follow
it for nearly a mile before the rocky obstruction could be passed.

There had been a time when the ridge had forced the creek again as far
out of its course, but on quiet nights a fanciful listener could hear
the petulant grumblings of the stream and its constant boast. Placid
and slow above the ridge, the waters narrowed and deepened when they
reached the insolent bulk as in concentrating for the never-ending
assault. They had cut through softer resistance along the edges and
now gnawed noisily at the stone itself. Narrower grew the stream and
deeper, the pools clear and with clean rock bottoms and sides where
the hurrying water, now free from the last vestige of color imposed
by the banks further up, became crystal in the light of day. Hurrying
from pool to pool, singing around bowlders it ran faster and faster
as if eager for the final attempt against its bulky enemy, and hissed
and growled as it sped along the abrupt rock face. Loath to leave the
fight, it followed tenaciously along the other side of the ridge and at
last gave up the struggle to turn sharply south again and flow placidly
down the valley on a continuation of the line it had followed above.

This forced detour made the U-Bend, so called by Question-Mark riders,
and the sloping ground of the ridge was as much a favorite with the
cattle as were its bordering pools with the men. Here could be felt
every vagrant breeze, and while the grass was scantier than that found
on the more level pastures round about, and cropped closer, the cattle
turned toward it when darkness came. It was the best bed-ground on the
ranch.

The grunting, cud-chewing, or blowing blots grew more numerous as
Holbrook went on and when he had reached the crest of the ridge his
horse began to pick its way more and more to avoid them, the rider
chanting a mournful lay and then followed it with a song which, had
it been rightfully expurged, would have had little left to sing about.
Like another serenade it had been composed in a barroom, but the
barroom atmosphere was strongly in evidence. It suddenly ceased.

Holbrook stopped the song and his horse at the same instant and his
roving glances roved no more, but settled into a fixed stare which drew
upon itself his earnest concentration, as if the darkness could better
be pierced by an act of will.

"Did I, or didn't I?" he growled, and looked around to see if his eyes
would show him other lights. Deciding that they were normal he focussed
them again in the direction of the sight which had stopped the song.
"Bronch, I shore saw it," he muttered. "It was plain as it was short."
He glanced down at the horse, saw its ears thrust rigidly forward and
nodded his head emphatically. "An' so did you, or I'm a liar!"

He was no liar, for a second flash appeared, and it acted on him like a
spur. The horse obeyed the sudden order and leaped forward, careening
on its erratic course as it avoided swiftly appearing obstacles.

"Seems to me like it was further west th' last time," muttered
Holbrook. "What th' devil it is, I don't know; but I'm goin' to show
th' fambly curiosity. Can't be Kane's coyotes--folks don't usually show
lights when they're stealin' cows. An' it's on Charley's section, but
we'll have a look anyhow. Cuss th' wind."

The light proved to be of will-o'-the-wisp nature, but he pursued
doggedly and after a time he heard sounds which suggested that he was
not alone on the range. He drew his six-gun in case his welcome should
take that course and swung a little to the left to investigate the
sounds.

"Must be Charley," he soliloquized, but raised the Colt to a better
position. One would have thought Charley to be no friend of his. The
Colt went up a little higher, the horse stopped suddenly and its rider
gave the night's hailing signal, so well imitated that it might easily
have fooled the little animal to whom Nature had given it. It came back
like a double echo and soon Charley bulked out of the dark.

"You follerin' that, too?" he asked, entirely reassured now that his
eyes were all right, for he had had the same doubts as his friend.

"Yes; what you reckon it is?"

"Dunno," growled Charley. "Thought mebby it was some fool puncher
lightin' a cigarette. It wasn't very bright, an' it didn't last long."

"Reckon you called it," replied Holbrook. "Well, th' only animal that
lights them is humans; an' no human workin' for this ranch is lightin'
cigarettes at night, _these_ nights. Bein' a strange human where
strange humans shouldn't ought to be, I'm plumb curious. All of which
means I'm goin' to have a closer look."

"I'm with you," said Charley. "We better stick together or we'll mebby
get to shootin' each other; an' I'm frank in sayin' I'm shootin'
quick tonight, an' by ear. There ain't no honest human ridin' around
out here, day _or_ night, that don't belong here; an' them that does
belong ain't over there, lightin' cigarettes nor nothin' else. That
lightnin' bug don't belong, but he may _stay_ here. Look! There she is
again--_this_ side of where I saw it last!"

"Same place," contradicted Holbrook, pushing on.

"Same place yore hat!"

"Bet you five it is."

"Yo're on; make it ten?"

"It is. Shut yore face an' keep goin'. Somethin's happenin' over there."

Minute after minute passed and then they swore in the same breath.

"It's south!" exulted Charley. "You lose."

"He crossed in front of us, cuss him," said Holbrook.

As he spoke an answering light flashed where the first ones had been
seen and Holbrook grunted with satisfaction. "_You_ lose; there's two
of 'em. We was bettin' on th' other."

"They're signalin', an' there's mebby more'n two. What's th'
difference? Come on, Pete! We'll bust up this little party before it
starts. But what are they lightin' lights for if they're rustlin'? An'
if they ain't rustlin' what'n blazes _are_ they doin'?"

"Head over a little," said his companion, forcing his horse against his
friend's. "We'll ride between th' flashes first, an' if there's a herd
bein' collected we'll mebby hit it. Don't ask no questions; just shoot
an' jump yore cayuse sideways."

South of them another puncher was riding at reckless speed along the
chord of a great arc and although his section lay beyond Holbrook's, he
was now even with them. When they changed their course they drew closer
to him and some minutes later, stopping for a moment's silence so they
could listen for sounds of the enemy, they heard his faint, far-off
signal and answered it. He announced his arrival with a curse and a
question and the answer did not answer much. They went on together,
eager and alert.

"Heard you drummin' down th' ridge--you know that rocky ground rolls
'em out," the newcomer explained. "Knowed somethin' was wrong th' way
you was poundin', an' follered on a gamble till I saw th' lights.
Reckon Walt ain't far behind me. I'm tellin' you so you'll signal
before you shoot. He's loose out here somewhere."

When the light came again it was much further west and the answering
flash was north. The three pulled up and looked at each other.

"There ain't no cayuse livin' can cover ground like that second
feller," growled Holbrook. "He was plumb south only a few minutes ago,
an' _now_ will you look where he is!"

"Mebby they're ghostes, Bob," suggested Charley, who harbored a
tingling belief in things supernatural.

"'Ghostes'!" chuckled Holbrook. "Ghosts, you means! Th' same as
'posts!' Th' 'es' is silent, like in 'cows.' I never believed in 'em;
but I shore don't claim to know it all. There's plenty of things _I_
don't understand--an' this is shore one of 'em. My hair's gettin'
stiff!"

"Yo're a couple of old wimmin!" snorted Bob. "There's only one kind of
a ghost that'll slow me up--that's th' kind that packs hardware. Seein'
as they ain't supposed to tote guns, I'm goin' for that coyote west of
here. He don't swap ends so fast. Mebby I can turn him into a _real_
ghost. Look out where you shoot. So-long!"

"We'll assay his jumpin' friend," called Charley.

Again the flashes showed, one to the south, the other to the north, and
while the punchers marveled, the third appeared in the southwest.

"One apiece!" shouted Holbrook. "I'll take th' last. Go to 'em!" and
drumming hoofbeats rolled into silence in three directions.

Soon spitting flashes in the north were answered in kind, the reports
announcing six-guns in action; in the west a thinner tongue of flame
and a different kind of report was answered by rapid bursts of fire
and the jarring crashes of a Colt. Far to the south three stabbing
flashes went upward, Walt's signal that he was coming. From beyond
the U-Bend, far to the east, the triple signal came twice, flat and
low. Beyond them a yellow glow sprang from the black void and marked
the ranchhouse, where six sleeping men piled from their bunks and,
finishing their dressing as they ran, chased the cursing trail-boss
to the saddled, waiting horses, their tingling blood in an instant
sweeping the cobwebs of sleep from their conjecturing brains. There was
a creaking of leather, a soft, musical jingling of metal and a sudden
thunderous rolling of hoofbeats as seven bunched horses leaped at
breakneck speed into the darkness, the tight-lipped riders eager, grim,
and tense.

Through a bushy arroyo leading to Mesquite three Mexicans rode as
rapidly as they dared, laughing and carrying on a jerky, exultant
conversation. A mile behind them came a fourth, his horse running like
a frightened jack rabbit as it avoided the obstructions which seemed
to leap at them. A bandage around the rider's head perhaps accounted
for his sullenness. The four were racing to get to Red Frank's, and
safety. Out on the plain the fifth, and as Fate willed it, the only
one of the group openly allied to Kane, lay under his dead horse,
his career of thieving and murder at an end. Close to him was a dead
Question-Mark horse, and the wounded rider, wounded again by his sudden
pitch from the saddle as the horse dropped under him, lay huddled on
the ground. Slowly recovering his senses he stirred, groped and sat up,
his strained, good arm throbbing as he shakily drew his Colt, reloaded
it and fired into the air twice, and then twice more. A burst of firing
answered him and he smiled grimly and settled back as the low rumbling
grew rapidly louder. It threatened to pass by him, but his single shot
caused a quick turn and soon his friends drew up and stopped.

"Who is it?" demanded McCullough, dismounting at his side.

"Holbrook," came the answer, shaky and faint. "They got me twice, an'
my cayuse, too. Reckon I busted my leg when he went down--I shore
sailed a-plenty afore I lit."

"You got one!" called an exultant voice. A match flared and in a moment
the cheerful discoverer called again. "Sanchez, that Greaser monte
dealer of Kane's. Plumb through th' mouth an' neck, Pete! I call that
_shootin'_, with th' dark an' all----" his voice trailed off in profane
envy of the accomplishment.

But Pete, hardy soul that he was, had fainted, a fractured leg, the
impact from his flying fall and three bullet holes excuse enough for
any man.

The flaring of the match brought a distant report and a bullet whined
above the discoverer's head. Someone hurriedly fired into the air and
a little later the group heard hoofbeats, which stopped abruptly when
still some distance away. A signal reassured the cautious rider and
soon Walt joined the group, Bob and Charley coming up later. Two of the
men started back to the ranchhouse with Holbrook, the rest of the group
riding off to search the plain for the two riders who had not put in
an appearance, and to see what devilment they might discover. Both of
the missing men were found on the remote part of the western range, one
plodding stolidly toward the ranchhouse, his saddle and equipment on
his shoulders; the other lay pinned under his dead horse, not much the
worse, as it luckily happened, for his experience.

While the outfit concentrated on the western part of the ranch, events
of another concentration were working smoothly and swiftly east
of the ranchhouse, where mounted men, now free from interference,
thanks to their Mexican friends, rode unerringly in the darkness, and
drifted cattle into a herd with a certainty and dispatch born of long
experience. Steadily the restless nucleus grew in size and numbers,
the few riders who held it together chanting in low tones to keep the
nervous cattle within bounds. The efficiency of these night raiders
merited praise, nefarious as their occupation was, and the director of
the harmonious efforts showed an uncanny understanding of the cattle,
the men, and the whole affair which belongs to genius. Not a step was
taken in uncertainty, not an effort wasted. Speed was obtained which
in less experienced hands would have resulted in panic and a stampede.
Steadily the circle of riders grew shorter and shorter; steadily,
surprisingly, the shadowy herd grew, and as it grew, became more and
more compact. Further down the creek a second and smaller herd was
built up at the same time and with nearly the same smoothness, and
waited for the larger aggregate to drift down upon it and swallow it
up. The augmented trail herd kept going faster and faster, the guarding
and directing riders in their alloted places and, crossing the creek,
it swung northeast at a steadily increasing pace. The cattle had fed
heavily and drunk their fill and to this could be ascribed the evenness
of their tempers. Almost without realizing it they passed from the
Question-Mark range and streamed across the guarding hills, flowing
rapidly along the northern side. Gradually their speed was increased
and they accepted it obediently, and with a docility which in itself
was a compliment to the brains of the trail-boss. Compacted within the
close cordon of the alert riders it maintained a speed on the very edge
of panic, but went no further. Shortly before dawn two hard-riding
rustlers pounded up from the rear, reported all clear, and fell back
again, to renew their watch far back on the trail. For three hours the
herd had crossed hard ground and as it passed over a high, dividing
ridge and down the eastern slope the trail-boss sighed with relief, for
now dawn held no terrors for him. He had passed the eastern horizon
of any keen-eyed watchers of the pillaged range. On went cattle and
riders, and the paling dawn saw them following the hard bottom of a
valley which led to others ahead, and kept them from dangerous sky
lines. When the last hard-floored valley lay behind and sloping hollows
of sand lay ahead, the trail-boss dropped back, uncorked his canteen
of black coffee tempered with brandy, and drank long and deep. It was
interpreted by his men to mean that the danger zone had been left in
the rear, and they smilingly followed his example, and then leisurely
and more critically looked over the herd to see what they had gained.
The entire SV trail herd was there, a large number of Question-Mark
cattle and a score or more miscellaneous brands, which Ridley from
time to time had purchased at bargain prices from needy owners. The
trail-boss grinned broadly and waved his hand. It was a raid which
would go down the annals of rustler history and challenge strongly for
first honors. At noon the waiting caviya was picked up, and Miguel and
his three friends added four more riders to the ranks. He took his
place well ahead of the hurrying cattle, and remained there until the
first, and seldom visited, water-hole was reached, where a short rest
was taken. Then he led the way again, abruptly changing the direction
of the herd's course and, following depressions in the desert floor,
struck for Bitter Spring, which would be reached in the early morning
hours. By now the raid was a successful, accomplished fact, according
to all experience, and the matter of speed was now decided purely
upon the questions of water and food, which, however, did not let it
diminish much.

The trail-boss dropped back to his _segundo_ and smiled. "Old
Twitchell's got somethin' to put up a holler over _now_."

The other grinned expansively. "He'll mebby ante up another reward--he
shore is fond of 'em."

Back on the Question-Mark a sleepy rider jogged along the creek, idly
looking here and there. Suddenly he stiffened in the saddle, looked
searchingly along the banks of the little stream, glanced over a
strangely deserted range and ripped out an oath as he wheeled to race
back to the ranchhouse. His vociferous arrival caused a flurry, out
of which emerged Johnny Nelson, who ran to the corral, caught and
saddled his restive black, and scorning such a thing as a signal fire,
especially when he feared that he could not start it within the limits
of the time specified, raced across the valley, climbed the hills at
a more sedate pace, dropped down the further slopes like a stone, and
raced on again for the little camp on Sand Creek.



                             CHAPTER XVIII

                     THE TRAIL-BOSS TRIES HIS WAY


McCullough watched the racing horseman for a moment, a gleam of envious
appreciation in his eyes at the beautiful action of the black horse,
nodded in understanding of the rider's journey and wheeled abruptly to
give terse orders.

Charley swung into the saddle and started in a cloud of dust for the
Diamond L, to carry important news to Lukins and his outfit; two men
sullenly received their orders to stay behind for the protection of the
ranch and the care of Pete Holbrook, their feelings in no way relieved
by the remark of the trail-boss, prophesying that Kane and his gang
would be too busy in town to disturb the serenity of the Question-Mark.
The rest of the outfit, procuring certain necessaries for the visit to
Kane's headquarters, climbed into their saddles and followed their grim
and taciturn leader over the shortest way to town.

Far back on the west end of the northern chain of hills a Mexican
collapsed his telescope, hazarded a long-range shot at the hard-riding
Charley and, mounting in haste, sped to carry disturbing news to his
employer. The courier looked around as the singing lead raised a
puff of dust in front of him, snarled in the direction from whence
he thought it had come and, having no time for personal grievances,
leaned forward and quirted the horse to greater speed. Whirring across
the Diamond L range Charley caused another Mexican, watching from a
ridge overlooking the ranch buildings, to run to the waiting horse and
mount it, after which he delayed his departure until he saw the Diamond
L outfit string out into a race for town, whereupon he set a pace which
promised to hold him his generous lead.

In Mesquite a Mexican quirted a lathered horse for a final burst of
speed up the quiet street, flung himself through Kane's front door,
shouted a warning as he scrambled to his feet and dashed through the
partition door to make his report direct to his boss. As he bolted
out of sight behind the partition, other men popped from the building
like weasel-pursued rabbits from a warren and scurried over the town
to spread the alarm to those who were most vitally concerned by it.
Two streams forthwith flowed over their trails, the first and larger
heading for Kane's; the other, composed entirely of Mexicans, flowed
toward Red Frank's, which had been allotted the rôle of outlying
redoubt, to help keep harmless the broken ground between it and Kane's
front wall, and was now being put in shape to withstand a siege.

Around Kane's was the noisy activity of a beehive. Hurrying men pulled
thick planks from the piles under the floor and hauled them, on the
jump, to windows and doors, feeding them into eager hands inside the
building. Numbers of empty sacks grew amazingly bulky from the efforts
of sand shovelers and were carried, shoulder high, in an unending
line into the building. Great shutters were unfastened and swung away
from the outer walls, their cobwebbed loopholes soon to play their
ordained parts. A feverish squad emptied the stables of horses and
food, taking both into the dining-room, and returned, posthaste, to
remove doors and certain planks which turned the stables into sieves of
small use to an attacking force, even if they were won. That the need
for haste was pressing was proved by the sound of a handbell on the
roof, where a selected group of riflemen lay behind the double-planked
parapet to give warning, and exhibitions of long-range shooting. The
shovelers hurled their tools through open windows, the plank carriers
shoved the last board into the building and leaped to the shutters,
slamming them shut as they hastened along the side of the building,
and poured hastily through the front door, which now was protected
by a great, outer door of planks, mortised, bolted, and braced in
workman-like manner. From the roof sounded two heavy reports, and grim
iron tubes slid into loopholes along the walls. The bartenders carried
boxes of ammunition and spare weapons, leaving their offerings below
every oblong hole. To threaten Kane was one thing; to carry it to a
successful end, another.

Puffs of gray-white smoke broke unexpectedly from points around the
building, to thin out as they spread and drifted into oblivion. The
cracking of rifles and the echo-awakening, jarring reports of heavy
six-guns, were punctuated at intervals by the booming roar of old-time
buffalo guns, of caliber prodigious. Punchers, guns in their hands,
made the rounds of the town, going from building to building to pick
up any of Kane's men who might have loitered, or who planned to hide
out and open fire from the rear. Their efforts were not entirely
wasted, for although Kane's brood had flocked to its nest, there were
certain of the town's inhabitants who were neither flesh nor fish and
might become one or the other as expediency urged. These doubtful ones
were weeded out, disarmed, and escorted to their horses with stern
injunctions as to the speed of their departure and their continued
absence. Some of the neutrals, seeing that the mastery of the town at
present lay with the ranchmen, trimmed their sails for this wind and
numbered themselves with the offense in spirit if not in deeds. Of
these human pendulums Quayle had a fair mental list and the owners of
certain names were well watched.

The first day passed in perfecting plans, assigning men to strategic
stations, several of these vantage-points remaining tenantless during
the daylight hours because of the alertness and straight shooting
of the squad on Kane's roof, who speedily made themselves obnoxious
to the attackers. The owner of the freight wagon, remembering a
smooth-bore iron cannon of more than an inch caliber, a relic of the
prairie caravans which had followed the old Santa Fe and other trails a
generation past, exulted as he dragged it from its obscurity and spent
a busy hour scaling the rust from bore and touch-hole. Here was the
key to the situation, he boasted, and rammed home a generous charge
of rifle powder. To find a suitable missile was another question, but
he solved it by falling upon bar-lead with ax and hammer. Wheeled
into position, its rusty length protruding beyond the corner of an
adobe building, it was sighted by spasmodic glances, an occupation
not without danger, for which blame could be given to the argus-eyed
riflemen on the roof of the target. Consternation seized the defenders,
who had not allowed for artillery, and they awaited its thundering
début with palpitant interest.

The discoverer and groom of the relic was unanimously elected gunner,
not a dissenting voice denying his right to the honor, a right which
he failed either to mention or press. The powder heaped over the
touch-hole was jarred off by the impact of a Sharp's bullet and to
replace it required a kitchen spoon fastened to a stick, which was
an alluring if small target to the anxious aerial riflemen. At last
heaped up again, the gunner declined methods in vogue for the firing
of such ancient muzzle-loaders and used a bundle of kerosene-soaked
paper swinging by a wire from the end of the spoon. A few practice
swings were held to be fitting preliminaries to an event of such
importance, and then the nervous cannoneer, screwing his courage to
the sticking-point, swept the blazing mass across the scaly breach and
shrunk behind the sheltering corner. He escaped thunderous destruction
by an eyelash, for what he afterward found was a third of the doughty
weapon whizzed past his corner, taking a large chunk of sun-dried brick
with it. From the besiegers arose guffaws; from the defenders, howls
of derision; and from the owner of the adobe hut, imprecation and
denouncement in fluent Spanish. The wall of his habitation closest to
the fieldpiece justified all he said and even all he thought.

"You should ought 'a run it under Kane's before you touched her off,"
bawled a hilarious voice from cover. "Got another?" he demanded. "Tie
it together an' try again."

The cannoneer without a job affected gaiety, drew inspiration from the
taunts and hastened home to fashion bombs out of anything he could
which would answer his purpose, finally deciding upon a tomato can and
baling wire, and soon had a task to occupy the flaming fires of his
genius.

Red Frank's, being the weaker of the two defenses and only point-blank
range from the old adobe jail whose walls, poor as they were, could be
relied upon to stop bullets, formed the favorite point of attack while
the offense settled down into better-ordered channels. Idaho and others
of his exuberant youth decided that it was their "pudding" and favored
it with attentions which were as barren of results as they were full of
enthusiasm. Discovering that their bullets passed entirely through the
frame second-story and whirred, slobbered, and screamed into the air,
they wasted ammunition lavishly, ignorant that for three feet above
the second-story floor the walls were reinforced with double planking
of hard wood, each layer two inches thick. They might turn the upper
two-thirds of walls into a bird cage and do no one any material damage.
And so passed the first day, McCullough's efforts unavailing in face
of the careless enthusiasm of his men, caused by the novelty of the
situation; and not until one man had died and several others received
serious wounds did the larking punchers come fully to realize that the
game was deadly, and due to become more so.



                              CHAPTER XIX

                            A DESERT SECRET


While McCullough argued and swore and waited for sanity to return to
his frisking men, three punchers lay on the desert sands north of
Sweet Spring, and baked. The telescope occasionally swept the southern
horizon and went back between the folds of the blanket, which also
hid the guns from the rays of the molten sun. The situation and most
of the possible variations had been gone over from every angle and a
course of action yet had to be agreed upon. Knowing that a fight in
town was imminent, each feared he would miss it and that the reward
would be lost to them. From their knowledge of deserts in general they
did not wish to assume the labors of driving a herd back across it,
even if they were able to capture it; but neither did they wish to let
it get entirely away and be lost to McCullough. And so they continued
to discuss the problem, jerkily and without enthusiasm, writhing under
the sun like frogs on a gridiron. The afternoon dragged into evening
and with the coming of twilight came quick relief from the heat, soon
to be followed by a cold undreamed of by the inexperienced. The stars
appeared swiftly and blazed with glittering brilliance through the
chill air and the three watchers sought their blanket rolls for relief.

Hopalong unrolled from his covering and arose. "Dark enough, now," he
said. "I'm goin' down to th' other water-hole to wait for 'em. May
learn somethin' worth while." He rolled his rifle in the blanket to
protect it from sand and stretched gratefully.

"I'm goin' with you," said Johnny, covering his own rifle.

"I reckon I'll have to lay up here an' hold th' sack, like a fool,"
growled Red, who longed for action, even if it were no more than a
tramp through the sand.

"You shore called it, Reddie," chuckled Johnny. "Somebody has got to
stay with th' cayuses; an' I don't know anybody as reliable as you.
Don't forget, an' build a camp fire while we're gone," and with this
parting insult Johnny melted into the darkness after his leader and
plodded silently behind him until Hopalong stopped and muttered a
command.

"We're not far away now," he said. "Reckon we oughtn't get too close
till they come to th' hole an' get settled down. Some of 'em may have
to ride far an' wide if th' herd's ornery, an' run onto us. We've got
th' trumps, an' they're worth twice as much if they don't know we got
'em. They shoot off their mouths regardless out here."

Johnny grunted his acquiescence and squatted comfortably on his
haunches, the tips of the fingers of one hand in the sand. "Never felt
more like smokin' than I do now," he chuckled. "Got any chewin'?"

His friend passed over the desired article and Johnny worried off a
generous mouthful. "It's got too many stems in it; but bein' th' first
chew I've had since I got married I ain't kickin'," he complacently
remarked. "Margaret says it sticks to me for hours."

Hopalong grunted. "Gettin' to be real lady-like, ain't you?" he jeered.
"Put perfumery on yore shirt bosom?"

"I would if she wanted me to," retorted his companion. "I don't just
know what I wouldn't do if _she_ wanted me to."

Hopalong snorted. "That so?" he demanded, pugnaciously. "Reckon she
might like to know what yo're doin' down here, how much longer you aim
to stay, an' if yo're still alive--an' other little foolish things like
that. Let me tell you, Kid, you don't know how big a woman fills up
yore life till you've lost her."

"I can imagine what it would be without her," said Johnny, slowly and
reverently, his heart aching for his friend's loss. "She knows all
about it; nearly all, anyhow. I've writ to her every third day, when
I could, an' sometimes oftener. She may be worryin', but I'm bettin'
every cent I'll ever have that she ain't doin' no cryin'! There ain't
many wimmen like her, even in this kind of country."

"Then she's shore got Red an' me figgered for a fine pair of liars,"
murmured Hopalong; "but just th' same I'm feelin' warmer toward you
than I have for a week," he announced. "When did you tell her all about
this scrambled mess?"

"When I found that I couldn't tell how much longer I'd have to stay
here," confessed Johnny. "I couldn't write letters an' lie good enough
to fool her; an' I had to write letters, didn't I?"

"I'll take everythin' back, Kid," said his companion, grinning in the
dark.

Johnny grunted and the silence began again, a silence which endured for
several hours, such a silence that can exist between two real friends
and be full of understanding. It endured between them and was not
even broken by the distant, dim flare of a match, nor when low sounds
floated up to them and gradually grew into the clicking and rattle of
horns against horns, and the low rumble of many hurrying hoofs--hoofs
hurrying toward the water which bovine nostrils had long since scented.
The rumble grew rapidly as the thirst-tortured herd stampeded for
Bitter Spring. A revolver flashed here and there on the edges of the
animated avalanche and then a sweet silence came to the desert, soon
to be tunefully and pleasantly broken by the soft lowing of cattle leg
deep in the saving water.

    _Let th' air blow in up-on m-e-e,_
      _Let me see th' mid-night s-k-y;_
    _Stand back, Sisters, from a-round m-e-e:_
      _God, it i-s s-o-o h-a-r-d to d-i-e,_

wailed a cracked voice, the owner relieving his feelings. "Thorpe, if
you don't wrastle a hot snack d--d quick, I'll eat yore ears!"

"Give him anythin' to stop that yowlin'," bellowed another. "Can't he
learn nothin' but 'Th' Dyin' Nun'? Thank heaven he never learned no
more of it. A sick calf ain't no cheerfuller than him."

"You'll have to eat lively, boys," sang out the trail-boss. "Everythin'
is on th' move in an hour. If yo're in such a cussed hurry, Jud, get
some wood for him. Take it from that lame pack horse. Reckon we'll
have to shoot him if he don't get better in a hurry."

    _Up to my knees in mud I go_
      _An' water to my middle;_
    _Whenever firewood's to be got_
      _I'm Cookie's sec-ond fid-dle,_

chanted Jud, splashing out to where the lame pack horse conducted
an experiment in saturation. "Hot, cussed hot," he enlightened the
cheerful, but tired group on the bank. "Hot _an'_ oozy. Hello, hoss,"
he greeted, slapping the shrinking shoulder. "You heard what th'
boss said about you? Pick up, Ol' Timer; pick up or you'll get shot.
What? Don't blame you a bit, not a cussed bit. _I_'d ruther be shot,
too, than tote wood over this part of h--l. Oh, well; life's plumb
funny. You'll fry if you do, an' you'll die if you don't. What's th'
difference, anyhow, Ol' Timer?"

"Hey, Jud," called a voice. "Got a new bunkie?"

"I could have worse than a cayuse," replied Jud. "A cussed sight worse."

"There's mocassins, rattlers, copperheads, tarantulas, an' scorpions in
that pond!" warned another.

"You done forgot Gila monsters, tigers an'--an'--Injuns," retorted
Jud. "Now comes a job. With both arms full of slippin', criss-crossin'
firewood, th' rest slidin' from th' pack, I got to hang on to what
I got, put th' rest back like it ought to go an' make everythin'
tight. Come out here, some d--d fool, an' gimme a hand. Better move
lively--only got four arms an' six hands. There!" he exploded. "There
goes th' shootin'-match off th' hoss. Th' wind'll blow 'em ashore an'
we can pick up th' whole caboodle."

"Wind?" jeered the snake-enumerator. "Where's th' wind? Yo're a fool!"

"On th' bank, where yo're settin', you thick-headed ass!" yelled Jud.
"You got so cussed much to say, suppose you muddy yore lily-white pants
an' do somethin' besides bray!"

"Did you spill any of 'em, Jud?" anxiously asked a voice. "I heard a
splash."

Jud's reply was such that the trail-boss snapped a warning which
checked some of the conversation, and promised his help. "Wait for me,
Jud; I'm comin'," he said.

"Why don't you send that white-washed idol?" asked Jud. "I'll show him
who's th' fool; an' what a splash sounds like!"

Hopalong nudged his companion and they crept forward, feeling before
them for anything which might make a sound if stepped on. A vibrant
_whirl_ made them spring back and go around the warning snake, and soon
they reached the little, sandy ridge which had sheltered Hopalong on
his other visit.

"I'm glad you hung on to what you had, Jud," came Thorpe's thankful
voice as his match caught the sun-baked wood and sent a tiny flame
licking upward among the shavings whittled by his knife. "What you do
you allus do right. It's dry as a bone."

"An' so am I," grunted the horse wrangler. "Who's got their canteen?"

"He's askin' for a canteen, with th' whole pond in front of him!"
laughed a squatting rustler. "Here; take mine."

The fire grew quickly and a coffeepot, staunch friend of weary
travelers, was placed in the flame, no one caring what it looked like
or how hot the handle got. Time passed swiftly in talking of the raid
and in consuming the light, hurried meal and soon the wrangler argued
to his charges from the bank, and then waded in for his own horse,
after which the matter was much simplified. He had them bunched, the
next change of horses had been cut out by the men and they were ready
to resume the drive when a distant voice hailed them. Soon a lathered
horse glistened in the outer circle of light, and the hard-riding
courier dashed up to the fire.

"They've hit th' town, boys!" he shouted. "Th' Question-Mark an' th'
Diamond L have joined hands agin' us. Their friends in town are backin'
'em. Kane says to drive this herd hell-to-leather to th' valley, leave
it there an' burn th' trail back. Where's Hugh Roberts?"

"Here," answered the trail-boss, stepping forward. "Hello, Vic."

"Got strict orders from th' boss," said Vic, leaning over and
whispering in the ear of the trail-boss.

Roberts stiffened and swore angrily. "Is _that_ all he says for us to
do?" he sneered. "I got a notion to tell him to go to h--l!"

Eager questions assailed him from the pressing group and he pushed
himself free. "He says we are to take Quayle's hotel, their
headquarters, from th' rear at dawn of th' day we get back--an' _hold_
it! _That's_ all!"

An angry chorus greeted the announcement and the shouting courier had
a hard time to make himself heard, "That's wins for us!" he yelled.
"You get their leaders, you split 'em in two--an' Kane'll turn his
boys loose to hit 'em during th' confusion. He's got a wise head, I'm
shoutin'. Red Frank's gang smashes from th' west end, an' they'll never
know what happened. We'll have 'em split three ways, leaderless, not
knowin' what's happened. It'll be a stampede an' a slaughter. Cuss it,
_I_'ll be with you! That shows what _I_ think of it!"

"Throw th' herd back on th' trail," ordered the boss. "We'll drive
hard, an' turn th' rest of it over in our minds as we go. So we can
have yore valuable assistance yo're goin' with us. Get a fresh cayuse
from th' caviya. I say, _yo're goin' with us_, savvy?"

Covered by the noise of the renewed drive Hopalong and Johnny wriggled
back until they could with safety arise to their feet, when they
hastened back to Red and tersely reported what they had learned. Red's
reply was instant.

"One of us has got to learn where that herd is kept; th' others light
out for McCullough. Th' herd trailer can go to town when he gets it
located. We can't lose them cattle, now."

"Right!" said Hopalong. "I'm puttin' cartridges in my hand. Th' worst
guesser goes after th' herd. Odd or even. Red, you first," and he
placed his clenched fist in Red's hand.

"Even," said Red, and then he opened the fist, felt of the cylinders
and chuckled. There were two.

Hopalong fumbled at his belt and placed his fist in Johnny's hand.
"Call it, Kid," he said.

"Even," said Johnny, carelessly. He felt the closed hand slowly open
and cast his fingers over its palm, finding two cartridges, and he
grunted. "Better take th' extra canteens, Hoppy; an' that spyglass.
It'll mebby come in handy. Want Pepper?"

"Just 'cause she's a good cayuse for you don't say that she is for me,"
chuckled the loser. "She knows you; I'm a stranger," and he led the
way to the picketed and hobbled horses. In a few minutes he swung into
the saddle, the telescope under his arm, cheerily said his good-byes
and melted into the darkness, bound further into the desert, where or
how far he did not know. Passing the southern water-hole he drew two
cartridges from his belt, placed one in the palm of his right hand and
held the other between his fingers. Slowly opening the clenched fist he
relaxed the fingers and the second cartridge dropped onto its mate with
a little click. There was no need to cough now and hide that slight,
metallic noise, so he grinned instead and slowly pushed them back into
the vacant loops.

"Fine job, lettin' th' Kid go out on this skillet," he snorted,
indignant at the thought. "Me, now--it don't matter a whole lot what
happens to me these days; but th' Kid's got a wife, an' a darned fine
one, too. Go on, you lazy cow--yo're work's just _startin'_."

It was not long before he caught the noise of the hard-driven herd well
off to his right and he followed by sound until dawn threatened. Then,
slowing his horse, he rode off at an angle and hunted for low places
in the desert floor, where he went along a course parallel to that
followed by the herd. Persistently keeping from sky lines, although
added miles of twisting detours was the price, and keeping so far from
his quarry that he barely could pick out the small, dark mass with the
aid of the glass, he feared no discovery. So he rode hour after weary
hour under the pitiless sun, stopping only once to turn his sombrero
into a bucket, from which his horse eagerly drank the contents of one
huge canteen, its two gallons of water filling the hat several times.

"Got to go easy with it for awhile, bronch," he told it. "Water can't
be so terrible far ahead, judgin' from that herd pushin' boldlike
across this strip of h--l--but cows can go a long time without it
when they has to; an' out here they shore has to. I'm not cheatin'
you--there's four for you an' one for me, an' we won't change it."

Mile upon burning mile passed in endless procession as they plodded
through hard sand, soft sand, powdery dust, and over stretches of
rocky floor blasted smooth and slippery by the cutting sands driven
against it by every wind for centuries. An occasional polished bowlder
loomed up, its coat of "desert-varnish" glistening brown under the
pale, molten sun. He knew what the varnish was, how it had been drawn
from the rock and the mineral contents left behind on the surface as
its moisture evaporated into the air. An occasional "side-winder,"
diminutive when compared to the rattlesnakes of other localities, slid
curiously across the sand, its beady, glittering eyes cold and vicious
as it watched this strange invader of its desert fastness.

Warned at last by the fading light after what had seemed an eternity
of glare, he gave the dejected horse another canteen of water and then
urged it into brisker pace, to be within earshot of the fleeing herd
when darkness should make safe a nearer approach.

With the coming of twilight came a falling of temperature and when the
afterglow bathed the desert with magic light and then faded as swiftly
as though a great curtain had been dropped the creeping chill took
bold, sudden possession of the desert air to a degree unbelievable. So
passed the night, weary hour after cold, weary hour; but the change
was priceless to man and beast. The magic metamorphosis emphasized the
many-sided nature of the desert, at one time a blazing, glaring thing
of sinister aspect and death-dealing heat; at another cold, almost
freezing, its considerable altitude being good reason for the night's
penetrating chill. The expanse of dim gray carpet, broken by occasional
dark blots where the scrawny, scattered vegetation arose from the
sands, stretched away into the veiling dark, allowing keen eyes to
distinguish objects at surprising distances. Overhead blazed the
brilliant stars, blazed as only stars in desert heavens can, seeming
magnified and brought nearer by the dry, clear air. His eyes at last
free from the blinding glare of quivering air and glittering crystals
of salts in the sand; his dry, parched, burning skin free from the
baking heat, which sucked moisture from the pores before perspiration
could form on the surface; he sucked in great gulps of the vitalizing,
cold air and found the night so refreshing, so restful as to almost
compensate for the loss of sleep.

The increased pace of his mount at last brought reward, for there now
came from ahead and from the right the low, confused noise of hurrying
cattle, as continuous, unobtrusive, and restful as the soft roar of
a distant surf. So passed the dark hours, and then a warning, silver
glow on the eastern horizon caused him to pull up and find a sandy
depression, there to wait until the proper distance was put behind it
by the thirsty herd, still reeling off the miles as though it were
immune to fatigue. The silver band widened swiftly, changed to warmer
tints, became suffused with crimson and cast long, thin, vague, warning
shadows from sage bush and greasewood--and then a molten, quivering orb
pushed up over the prostrate horizon and bathed the shrinking sands
with its light.

The cold, heavy-lidded rider glowered at it and removed the blanket
which had been wrapped around him, rolling it tightly with stiff
fingers and fumblingly made it secure in the straps behind the cantle
of his saddle.

"There it is again, bronch," he growled. "We'll soon wonder if th' cold
was all a dream."

He stood up in the stirrups and peered cautiously over the bank of the
depression, making out the herd with unaided eyes.

"They can't go on another day," he muttered. "This ain't just dry trail
it's a chunk out of h--l. They can't stand much more of it without
goin' blind, an' that's th' beginnin' of th' end on a place like this.
I'm bettin' they get to water by noon--an' then _we_ got to wait till
th' coast is clear." He shook the canteen he had allotted himself and
growled again. "About a quart, an' I could drink a gallon! All right,
bronch; get a-goin'," and on they plodded, keeping to the hollows
and again avoiding all elevations, to face the torments of another
murderous day. Again the accursed hours dragged, again the horse had
a canteen of water, a sop which hardly dulled the edge of its raging
thirst. Earth, air, and sky quivered, writhed and danced under the
jelly-like sun and the few, soft night noises of the desert were heard
no more. The leveled telescope kept the herd in sight as mile followed
mile across the scorched and scorching sand.

The sun had passed the meridian only half an hour when the sweeping
spyglass revealed no herd, but only a distant ridge of rock, like a
tiny island on a stilled sea.

"It shore is time," muttered the rider, dismounting. "Seein' as how
we're nearly there, I reckon you can have th' last canteen. You shore
deserve it, you game old plodder. An' I'm shore glad them rustlin'
snakes have their orders to get back _pronto_; but it would just be our
luck if that bull-headed trail-boss held a powpow in that valley of
theirs. His name's Roberts, bronch; Hugh Roberts, it is. We'll remember
his name an' face if he makes us stay out here till night. You an' me
have got to get to that water before another sunrise if all th' thieves
in th' country are campin' on it--we _got_ to, that's all."

An hour passed and then the busy telescope showed a diminutive
something moving out past the far end of the distant ridge. Despite
the dancing of the heat-distorted image on the object-glass the grim
watcher knew it for what it was. Another and another followed it and
soon the moving spots strung out against the horizon like a crawling
line of grotesque, fantastic insects, silhouetted against the sky.

"There they go back to Mesquite to capture Quayle's hotel an' win th'
fight," sneered Hopalong. "I could tell 'em somethin' that would send
them th' other way--but we'll let 'em ride with Fate; an' get to that
water as quick as yore weary legs can take us. Th' herd is there,
bronch; all alone, waitin' for us. It's our herd now, if we want it,
which we don't. Huh! Mebby they left a guard! All right, then; he's got
a big job on his hands. Come on; get a-goin'!"

Swinging more and more to the south he soon forsook the windings of
the hollows and struck boldly for the eastern end of the valley, and
when he reached it he hobbled and picketed the horse, frantic with
the heavy scent of water in its crimson, flaring nostrils, and went
ahead on foot, the hot Sharp's in his hands full cocked and poised for
instant action. Crawling to the edge of the valley he inched forward
on his stomach and peered over the rim. An exclamation of surprise and
incredulity died in his throat as the valley lay under his eyes, for it
was the valley he had seen in the mirage only a few days before.

The stolen herd filled the small creek, standing like statues, soaking
in the life-giving fluid and nosing it gently. One or two, moving
restlessly, blundered against those nearest them and the watcher knew
that they had gone blind. The sharpest scrutiny failed to discover
any guard, and he knew that his uncertain count of the kaleidoscopic
riders had been correct. Hastening back to the restless horse he soon
found that it had in reserve a strength which sent it flashing to the
trail's edge and down the dangerous ledge at reckless speed. At last in
the creek it, too, stood as though dazed and nosed the water a little
before drinking.

Hopalong swung into the stream, removed saddle and bridle and then
splashed across to the hut, dumping his load, canteens, and all against
the front wall. To make assurance doubly sure he scouted hurriedly down
one side of the little valley, crossed the creek and went back along
the other wall.

Thorpe's carefully stacked firewood provided fuel for a cunningly
built-up fire; one of Thorpe's discarded tomato cans, washed and filled
in the spring near the hut's walls sizzled and sputtered in the blazing
fire and soon boiled madly. Picking it out of the blaze with the aid of
two longer sticks the hungry cook set it to one side, threw in a double
handful of Thorpe's coffee, covered it with another washed can and then
placed Thorpe's extra frying pan on the coals, filling it with some
of Thorpe's bacon. A large can of Thorpe's beans landed close to the
fire and rolled a few feet, and the cheerful explorer emerged from the
hut with a sack of sour-dough biscuits which the careless Thorpe had
forgotten.

"Bless Thorpe," chuckled Hopalong. "I'll never make him climb no more
walls. I wouldn't 'a' made him climb that one, mebby, if I'd knowed
about this."

Looking around as a matter of caution, his glance embracing the stolid
herd and his own horse grazing with the jaded animals left behind by
the rustlers, he fell to work turning the bacon and soon feasted until
he could eat no more. Rolling a cigarette he inhaled a few puffs and
then, picking up telescope and rifle, he grunted his lazy way up the
steep trail and mounted the ridge, sweeping the western horizon first
with the glass and then completed the circle. Satisfied and drowsy he
returned to the valley, spread his folded blanket behind the hut,
placed the saddle on one end of it for a pillow and lay down to fall
asleep in an instant.

When he awakened he stretched out the kinks and looked around in the
dim light. He felt unaccountably cold and he looked at the blanket
which he had pulled over him some time during his sleep, wondering why
he had felt the need for it during the daylight hours in such a place
as this.

"Well, I'll cook me some more bacon before it gets dark, an' then set
up with a nice little fire, with a 'dobe wall at my back. It'll be a
treat just to set an' smoke an' plan, th' night chill licked by th'
fire an' my happy stomach full of bacon, beans, an' biscuits--an'
coffee, cans an' cans of coffee."

It suddenly came to him that the light was growing stronger instead of
weaker, that it was not the afterglow, and that the chill was dying
instead of increasing. Shocked by a sudden suspicion he glanced into
the eastern sky and stared stupidly, surprised that he had not noticed
it before.

"I was so dumb with sleep that I didn't savvy east from west," he
muttered. "It's daylight, 'stead of evenin'--I've slept all afternoon
an' night! Well, I don't see how that changes th' eatin' part, anyhow.
No wonder I pulled th' blanket over me, an' no wonder I was stiff."

With the coming of the sun a disagreeable journey loomed nearer and
nearer but, as he told the horse when cinching the saddle on its back,
the return trip would not be one of uncertainty; nor would they be held
down to such a slow pace by any clumsy herd. A further thought hastened
his movements: there was a big fight going on in Mesquite, and his
two friends were in it without him. Looking around he saw that he had
cleaned up and effaced all signs of his visit and, filling the canteens
and fastening them into place, he mounted and rode up the steep slope,
turned his back to the threatening sun and loped westward along a plain
and straight trail, a grim smile on his face.



                              CHAPTER XX

                           THE REDOUBT FALLS


After Hopalong had ridden off on his desert trailing, Johnny and Red
rode to the Question-Mark, reaching it a little after daylight and
were promptly challenged when near the smaller corral. The sharp voice
changed to a friendly tone when the sentry had a better look at the
pair.

"Thought you'd be up with th' circus," said the Question-Mark puncher.

"On our way now," replied Johnny. "Come down here to learn what was
happenin'. Meet Red Connors, an old friend of Waffles."

"Howd'y," grunted the puncher, looking at Red with a keener interest.
"You fellers are lucky--_we_ got to stay here an' miss it all. Walt
come down last night an' said Kane's goin' to be a hard nut to crack.
He's fixed up like a fort."

"Reckon we'll take a look at it," said Johnny, wheeling.

"Hey! If you want to find Mac, he's hangin' out at Quayle's."

Johnny waved his thanks and rode on with his cheerful companion.
In due time they heard the distant firing and not much later rode
up to Quayle's back door and went in. McCullough was raging at the
effectiveness of the sharpshooters on Kane's roof who had succeeded
in keeping the fight at long range and who dominated certain strategic
positions which the trail-boss earnestly desired to make use of; all of
which made him irritable and unusually gruff.

"Where _you_ been?" he demanded as Johnny entered.

"Locatin' a missin' herd of yore cattle," retorted Johnny, nettled by
the tone. "They're waitin' for you when you get time to go after 'em.
Now we'll locate them sharpshooters. Anythin' else you can't do, let us
know. Come on, Red," and he went out again, his grinning friend at his
heels. At the door Red checked him.

"Looks like a long-range job, Kid. My gun's all right for closer work,
but I ought to have a Sharp's for this game."

Johnny wheeled and went back. "Gimme a Sharp's," he demanded.

"Take Wilson's--they got him yesterday," growled the trail-boss,
pointing.

Johnny took the gun and the cartridge belt hanging on it, joined Red
and led the way to a place he had in mind. Reaching the selected spot,
an adobe hut on the remote outskirts of the sprawled town, he stopped.
"This is good enough for me," he grunted, "except th' range is too
cussed long. Well, we'll try it from here, anyhow."

"I'm goin' to th' next shack," replied Red, moving on. "We'll use our
old follow-shootin'--an' make 'em sick. Ready? I'm goin' to cross th'
open." At his friend's affirmative grunt Red leaned over and dashed for
the other adobe. A bullet whined in front of him, barely heard above
the roar of Johnny's rifle. He settled down, adjusted the sights and
proceeded to prove title to his widely known reputation on other ranges
of being the best rifle-shot of many square miles. "Make a hit, Kid?"
he called. "It's mebby further than you figger."

"It is," answered Johnny. "Like old times, huh? Lord help 'em when you
get started! Are you all set? I'm ready to draw 'em."

"Wind gentle, from th' east," mumbled Red. "Dirty gun--got to shoot
higher. All right," he called, nestling the heavy stock.

Johnny pushed his rifle around the corner of the building, aimed
quickly and fired. A hatted head arose above Kane's roof and a puff of
smoke spurted into the air above it as Red's Sharp's roared. The hat
flew backward and the head ducked down again, its owner surprised by
the luck of the shot.

Johnny laughed outright. "For a trial shot I'm admittin' that was a
whizzer. I ain't no slouch with a Sharp's--but how th' devil you can
make one behave like _you_ do is a puzzle to me."

"I'm still starin'," said a humorous, envious voice behind them and
they looked around to see Waffles hugging the end of the building. "If
I can get over on Red's right I'll help make targets for him."

"Walk right over to that other shack," called Johnny. "Yo're safe as if
you was home in yore bunk. Cover him, Red."

Waffles' mind flashed back into the past and what it presented to him
greatly reassured him, but to walk was tempting Providence; he ran
across the open and again Red's rifle roared.

"Got him!" yelled Johnny, staring at the body lying over the distant
parapet. It was swiftly pulled back out of sight. The rest of Johnny's
words were profanely eulogistic.

"Shut yore face," growled Red. "It was plumb luck."

"_Shore_ it was," laughed his friend in joyous irony; "but yo're allus
makin' 'em. That's what counts."

Waffles, having gained the shelter he coveted, looked around. "Heads
was plentiful up there yesterday. There was allus one or two bobbin'
up. I'm bettin' they'll be scarcer today."

"They'll be scarcer tomorrow, when we are behind them other shacks,"
replied Red. "They're easy three hundred paces nearer, an' that's a lot
sometimes."

"An' twice as much to them," rejoined Johnny. "Th' nearer you get th'
more you make it even terms. You stay where you are--me an' Waffles'll
go out there tonight."

When the afternoon dragged to an end Red had another sharpshooter
to his credit, and the dominating group on the roof were much less
dominant. They cursed the long-range genius who shot hats off of heads,
clipped ears, and had killed two men. The shooting, with a rest and
plenty of time to aim, would have been creditable enough; but to hit a
bobbing head meant quick handling. They were properly indignant, for
it was a toss-up with Death to show enough of their heads to sight a
slanting rifle. One of their number, whose mangled ear was bound up
with a generous amount of bandage, savagely hammered the chisel with
which he was cutting a loophole through four inches of seasoned wood,
vowing vengeance on the man who had ruined his looks.

The light failing for close shooting, the three friends left their
positions and went to the hotel for a late supper, Red receiving
envious, grinning looks as he entered the dining-room. Idaho promptly
forsook his bosom friends and went over to finish his meal at the table
of the newcomers.

"We got Red Frank's place plumb full of holes--you can see daylight
through th' second floor," he announced; "but it don't seem to do no
good. If I could get close enough to use a bomb I got, we might clean
'em up."

"Crawl up in th' dark," suggested Waffles.

"Can't; they spread flour all around th' place, an' th' minute a man
crosses it he shows up plain. Two of us found out _all_ about _that_!"

"Go through or over th' buildin's this side of th' place," said Johnny,
visualizing the street. "They lead up close to Red Frank's."

Idaho stared, and slapped his thigh in enthusiastic endorsement. "I
reckon you called it!" he gloated. "Wait till I tell th' boys," and he
hastened back to his friends. Judging from the sudden noise coming from
the table, his friends were of the same opinion and, bolting the rest
of the meal, they hastened away to forthwith try the plan.

McCullough entered the dining-room and strode straight to Johnny. "Did
I hear you say you know where my cattle are?" he asked, sitting down.

Johnny nodded, chewed hurriedly and replied. "I didn't finish it. _I_
don't know where they are, but Hopalong is trailin' 'em, an' _he_'ll
know when he comes back. Pay us them rewards now, instead of later, an'
I'll do some high an' mighty guessin' about yore head--an' bet you th'
rewards that I guess right."

The trail-boss laughed. "You've shore got plenty of nerve," he
retorted. "When this fight is over there won't be no rewards paid. We
got th' whole gang in them two buildin's, an' we got 'em good. You've
had yore trouble for nothin', Nelson."

"How 'bout th' gang that are with th' herd?" asked Johnny, a note of
anger edging his words.

McCullough shrugged his shoulders. "I ain't worryin' about
them--they'll never come back to Mesquite."

"That so?" queried Johnny, sarcastically. "I ought to keep my mouth
shut, th' way yo're talkin', but I hate to see good men killed. I'll
bet you they'll come back just at dawn, some time in th' next five
days. An' I'll bet you they'll sneak up on this hotel an' raise th'
devil, while Kane starts a bunch from his place and Red Frank's, to
help 'em. Th' minute they start shootin' in here their friends'll
sortie out an' carry th' fight to you. Want to bet on it?"

McCullough regarded the speaker through narrowed lids. "How do you
figger that?" he demanded suspiciously. "You gettin' that out of yore
medicine bag, too?" and then he eagerly drank in every word of the
explanation. After a moment's thought he looked around the room and
then back to the smiling Johnny. "Much obliged, Nelson. I'm beginnin'
to see that I owe you fellers somethin', after all. If them fellers we
want were loose an' you got 'em, then of course th' reward would stand;
but you can't win it very well when we've got 'em corraled. Who-all is
in that bunch with th' herd?"

Johnny smiled but shook his head.

"Didn't you say you knowed who killed Ridley?" persisted the trail-boss.

"I know him, an' how he did it. Hopalong saw him while his gun was
smokin', but didn't know what he had shot at till later."

"Why didn't you tell me, an' earn that reward right away?"

"That's only half of th' rewards," replied Johnny. "There's money up
for th' fellers that robbed th' bank. If we got Ridley's murderer th'
others might 'a' smelled out what we was after. You see, I was robbed
of more than eleven hundred dollars th' first night I was in town.
Th' money belonged to th' ranch. Th' only chance I had of gettin' it
back was to make th' rewards big enough to stand three splits that
would be large enough to cover it. An' I'm still goin' to do that,
Mac. Pay it now an' we'll stick with you till you get th' men an' yore
herd. Of course, yo're going to get th' herd, anyhow, as far as we are
concerned. I ain't holdin' that over yore head; I'm only tryin' to show
you why I can't be open an' free with you."

"I couldn't pay th' rewards now even if I wanted to," said the
trail-boss.

"I know that, an' I didn't think you would. I was only showin' you how
things are with us."

McCullough nodded, placed a hand on the speaker's shoulder and arose,
turning to Red. "Connors," he said, "yo're a howlin' wonder with a
Sharp's. Much obliged for holdin' down that roof. If you can clean 'em
up there this fight'll go on a cussed sight faster. Th' cover on th'
north side of Kane's is so poor that we can't do much out there, but we
can do a little better when them sharpshooters are driven down. From
what I know of you two, yore friend Cassidy is shore able to trail that
herd. I've quit worryin' about everythin' but th' fight here in town.
An' lemme make a long speech a little longer: If you fellers can earn
them rewards I won't waste no time in payin' up; but there ain't a
chance for you. We got 'em under our guns."

"Who was right about where that raid on you was goin' to take place?"
asked Johnny. "You was purty shore about that, too, wasn't you?"

The trail-boss smiled and shook his head. "Yo're a good guesser," he
admitted, and went out to consult with Lukins.

The next day found the line a little tighter around the stronghold,
thanks to Red's shooting, which increased in accuracy after he had
decided to use closer cover and cut three hundred paces out of the
range. Better positions had been gained by the attackers during the
night, some of the more daring men now being not far from point-blank
range, which enabled them to make the use of Kane's loopholes
hazardous. To the north another rifleman lay in a hollow of the sandy
plain, but too far away to do much damage. The north parapet of the
building was hidden from Red by the one on the south and the aerial
marksmen made free use of it.

Red Frank's place was in jeopardy, for Idaho and his enthusiastic
companions were in the building next on the south, separated from the
Mexican's house by less than twenty feet. There was an open window
facing the gambling-house and Idaho, chancing quick glances through
it, noticed that one of the heavy, board shutters of a window of the
upper floor sagged out a little from the top. Signaling the men behind
the jail to increase their fire, he coiled his rope and cast it through
the window. It struck the upper edge of the shutter, dropped behind it
and grew swiftly taut. Two of his companions added their strength to
his, while the other two covered them by pouring a heavy revolver fire
at the two threatening loopholes. The shutter creaked, twisted, and
then slowly gave way, finally breaking the lower hinge and sailing over
against the other house to a cheer from the jail. Heavy firing came
through the uncovered window, the bullets passing through the opposing
wall and driving the Diamond L men to other shelter. Here they waited
until it died down and then, picking up the bomb made by the owner of
the new freight wagon, Idaho lit the jumpy, uncertain fuse, waited as
long as he dared and hurled it across the intervening space and through
the shutterless window as the opening was being boarded up. There was a
roar, jets of smoke spurt from windows and holes and the wild cursing
of injured men rang out loudly. A tongue of flame leaped through a
trapdoor on the roof and grew rapidly brighter. At intervals the smoke
pouring up became suddenly heavy and thick, but cleared quickly between
the onslaughts of the water buckets. Fire now crept through the side of
the frame structure and mounted rapidly, and such a hail of lead poured
through the smoke-spurting, upper loopholes that it became impossible
for the buckets to be properly used. It was only a matter of time
before the blazing roof and floor would fall on the defenders in the
adobe-walled structure below, and through a loophole Red Frank suddenly
shoved out a soiled towel fastened on the end of a rifle barrel.

"Come ahead, with yore hands up!" shouted a stentorian voice from the
jail. "Quit firin', boys; they're surrenderin'." Almost on the tail of
his words a hurrying line of choking Mexicans, bearing their wounded,
streamed from the front door. They were promptly and proudly escorted
by the hilarious attackers to safe quarters on the southern outskirts
of the town.



                              CHAPTER XXI

                            ALL WRAPPED UP


McCullough and Lukins drew men from the cordon around the gambling-hall
until the line was thinned and stretched as much as prudence allowed,
covering only the more strategic positions, while the men taken from
it were placed in an ambuscade at the rear of Quayle's hotel. Both
leaders would have preferred to have placed their reception committee
nearer the outskirts of the rambling town but, not knowing from which
direction the attack would come and not being able to spare men enough
for outposts around the town, they were forced to concentrate at the
object of the attack. When night fell and darkness hid the movement
they set the trap, gave strict orders for no one to approach the rear
of the hotel during the dark hours, and waited expectantly.

The first night passed in quiet and the following day found the cordon
reenforced until it contained its original numbers. By nightfall of
the second day Red, Johnny, and Waffles had cleared the parapet and
made it useless during daylight, and as the moon increased in size
and brightness the parapet steadily became a more perilous position
at night for the defenders. All three marksmen, now ensconced within
three hundred yards of the gambling-house and out of the line of sight
of every lower loophole, had the range worked out to a foot. Red and
Waffles had discarded their borrowed Sharp's and were now using their
own familiar Winchesters, and it was certain death to any man who tried
to shoot from Kane's roof on any side but the north one.

Evening came and with it came a hair-brained attempt by Idaho and his
irrepressibles to capture and use the stables. Despite McCullough's
orders to the contrary the group of youngsters, elated by their
success against Red Frank's, made the attempt as soon as darkness
fell; and learned with cost that the stables were stacked decks. One
man was killed and all the others wounded, most of them so badly as to
remove them from the rôle of combatants; but one dogged, persistent,
and vindictive unit of the foolish attack managed to set fire to the
sun-dried structures before crawling away.

The baked wood burned like tinder and became a mass of flames almost in
an instant, and for a few minutes it looked as though they would take
the gambling-hall with them. It was a narrow squeak and missed only
because of a slight shift of the wind. The scattered line of punchers
to the north of the building, not expecting the sudden conflagration,
had crawled nearer to the gambling-hall in the encroaching darkness,
only to find themselves suddenly revealed to their enemies by the
towering sheets of flame. They got off with minor injuries only because
the north side of the building was not well manned and because the
stables were holding the attention of most of the besieged. When the
flames died down almost as swiftly as they had grown, the smouldering
ashes gave a longer and less obstructed view to the guards of
Kane's east wall and rendered useless certain positions cherished by
McCullough.

The trail-boss, seething with anger, stamped up to Lukins and roared
his demands, with the result that Idaho and the less injured of his
companions were sent to take the places of cooler heads in the ambush
party and were ordered to stay in Quayle's stable until after the
expected attack.

In Quayle's kitchen four men waited through the dragging hours,
breaking the silence by occasional whispers as they watched the
faintly lighted open spaces and the walls of certain buildings newly
powdered with flour so as to serve as backgrounds and to silhouette
any man passing in front of them. Only the north walls had been dusted
and there was nothing to reveal their freshly acquired whiteness to
unsuspecting strangers coming up from the south. In the stable Idaho
and his restless friends grumbled in low tones and cursed their
inactivity. Three men at the darkened office windows, and two more on
the floor above watched silently. Outside an occasional shot called
forth distant comment, and laughter arose here and there along the
alert line.

On the east end of the line a Diamond L puncher, stretched out on his
stomach in a little depression he had scooped in the sand during the
darker hours of the second night, stuck the end of his little finger
in a bullet hole in his canteen and rimmed the hole abstractedly, the
water soaking his clothes making him squirm.

"Cuss his hide," he growled. "Now I got to stay thirsty." He slid a
hand down his body and lifted the clinging clothing from the small of
his back. "If it was only as cold as that when I _drink_ it, I wouldn't
grumble. An' I wasn't thirsty till he spilled it," he added in petulant
afterthought.

To his right two friends crouched behind the aged ruins of an adobe
house, paired off because one of them shot left-handed, which fitted
each to his own corner. "Got any chewin'?" asked Righthand. "Chuck it
over. Seems to me that they--" he set his teeth into the tobacco, tore
off a generous quantity and tossed the plug back to its owner--"ain't
answerin' as strong as they was this afternoon."

"No?" grunted Lefthand, brushing sand from the plug. He shoved it back
into a pocket and reflected a moment. "It was good shootin' while th'
stable burned." Another pause, and then: "Did you hear Billy yell when
them fools started th' fire?"

Righthand laughed, stiffened, fired, and pumped the lever of the gun.
"I'm gettin' so I can put every one through that loophole. Hear him
squawk?" He dropped to his knees to rest his back, and chuckled. "Shore
did. Billy, he was boastin' how near he could crawl to them stables.
I reckon he done crawled _too_ close. Lukins ought to send them kids
home."

In a sloping, shallow arroyo to their right Walt and Bob of the
Question-Mark lay side by side. Behind them two shots roared in quick
succession. Walt lazily turned his head from the direction of the
sounds and peeped over the edge of the bank.

"I reckon some coyote took a look over th' edge of th' roof," he
remarked.

"Uh-huh," replied Bob without interest and without relaxing his vigil.

"I don't lay out here one little minute after Connors leaves that
'dobe," said Walt. He spat noisily and turned the cud. "I'm sayin'
shootin' like his is a gift. I'm some shot, myself, but h--l----"

"You'd shore a thought so," replied Bob, grinning as he reviewed
something, "if you'd seen that sharpshooter flop over th' edge of th'
roof th' other day. I'd guess it was close to fifteen hundred." He
changed his position, grunted in complacent satisfaction and continued.
"Some folks can't see a man's forehead at that distance, let alone
_hit_ it. Of course, th' sky was behind it."

"Which made it plainer, but harder to figger right," observed Walt.
"Waffles says Connors can drive a dime into a plank with th' first, an'
push it through with th' second, as far away as he can see th' dime.
When it's too far away to be seen, he puts it in th' middle of a black
circle, an' aims for th' middle of th' circle. But I put plenty of salt
on th' tails of _his_ stories."

"Which holds 'em down," grunted Bob. "Who's that over there, movin'
around that shack?"

Walt looked and cogitated. "Charley was there when I came out," he
answered. "Cussed fool--showin' hisself like that." He swore at a thin
pencil of flame which stabbed out from a loophole, and fired. "Told you
so!" he growled. "Charley is down!"

Both fired at the loophole and hazarded a quick look at the foolish
unfortunate, who had dragged himself behind a hummock of sand. Rapid
firing broke out behind them and, sensing what it meant, they joined
in. A crouched figure darted from a building, sprinted to the hummock,
swung the wounded man on its back, and staggered and zigzagged to cover.

"That was Waffles," said Walt, reloading the magazine of his rifle.
"It's a cussed shame to make a man take chances like that by bein' a
fool."

Behind the building Waffles lowered his burden to the ground, ripped
off the wet shirt and became busy. He fastened the end of the bandage
and stood up. "Fools _are_ lucky sometimes," he growled; "an' I says
you are lucky to only have a smashed collar bone. You try a fool trick
like that again an' I'll bust yore head. Ain't you got no sense?"

"Don't _you_ go to put on no airs, Waffles," said Red Connors. "I can
tell a few things on _you_. I _know_ you."

Johnny chuckled. "Tread easy," he warned. "We _both_ know you."

"Go to h--l!" grunted the ex-foreman of the O-Bar-O, grinning. "Fine
pair of sage-hens _you_ are to tell tales on me! I got you throwed and
hog-tied before you even start." He wheeled at a noise behind him, and
glared at the wounded man. "Where'n h--l are _you_ goin'?" he demanded,
truculently.

"Without admittin' yore right to ask fool questions," groaned Charley,
still moving, "I'll say I'm goin' to join th' ambush party at Quayle's,
an' relieve somebody else." He gritted his teeth and stood erect. I can
use a Colt, can't I?" he demanded.

"Yo're so shaky you can't hit a house," retorted Waffles.

"Which I ain't aimin' to do," rejoined the white-faced man. "You'll
show more sense if you'll tie my left arm like it ought to be, instead
of standin' with yore mouth open. You'll shore catch a cold if you
don't shut it purty soon."

"You stubborn fool!" growled Waffles, but he fixed the arm to its
owner's satisfaction.

"If he gets smart, Charley," suggested Johnny, "pull his nose. He allus
_was_ an old woman, anyhow."

With the coming of midnight the cordon became doubled in numbers as
growling men rubbed the sleep from their eyes and took up positions
for the meeting of Kane's sortie in case the hotel was attacked by his
expected drive outfit.

The hours dragged on, the silence of the night infrequently broken
by bits of querulous cursing by some wounded puncher, an occasional
taunt from besieger or besieged and sporadic bursts of firing which
served more for notifications of defiance and watchfulness than for
any grimmer purpose. Patches of clouds now and then drifted before
the moon and sailed slowly on. Nature's denizens of the dark were in
active swing and filled the night with their soft orchestration. The
besiegers, paired for night work, which let one man doze while his
companion watched, hummed, grumbled, or snored; in the gambling-hall
fortress weary men slept beside the loopholes, the disheartened for
a few hours relieved of their fears or carrying them across the
borderland of sleep to make their slumbers restless and broken, while
scowling, disheartened sentries kept a keener watch, alert for the rush
hourly expected.

South of town a group of horsemen pulled up, dismounted, tied their
mounts to convenient brush and slipped like shadows toward the nearest
house, approaching it roundabout and with animal wariness. From house
to house, corral to corral, cover to cover they crept, spread out
in a fan-shaped line, silent, grim, vindictive and desperate. Not a
shadow passed unsearched and unused, not a bowlder or thicket was above
suspicion nor below being utilized. Nearer and nearer they worked
their way, eyes straining, ears tuned for every sound, high-strung
with nerves quivering, keyed to swift reflex and instant decision. The
scattered, infrequent firing grew steadily nearer, every flat report
was searched for secret meanings and the sharp squeak of a gyrating bat
overhead sent every man flat to the earth. The last in the group became
cannily slower as opportunity offered and soon managed to be so far
behind that his quick, furtive desertion was unnoticed in the tenseness
of conjecture as to what lay immediately ahead.

Kane's trail-boss slanted his watch under the moon's rays and gave a
low, natural signal, whereupon to right and left a man detached himself
and left the waiting group. Minutes passed, their passing marked on
nervous foreheads by the thin trickle of cold sweat. Any instant might
a challenge, a shot, a volley ring out on any side; hostile eyes
might be watching every movement, hostile guns waiting for the right
moment, like ravenous hounds in leash. The scouts returned as silently
as they had departed and breathed their reassuring words in Roberts'
ear. The town lay unsuspecting, every waking eye bent on the bulking
gambling-hall. Not a hidden outpost, not a pacing sentry to watch the
harmless rear. To the right showed the roof of a two-story building,
bulking above the low, thick roofs of scattered, helter-skelter adobes,
in any one of which Death might be poised.

Again the slow advance, and breathed maledictions on the head of any
unfortunate who trod carelessly or let his swinging six-gun click
against buckle or button. Roberts, peering around the end of an adobe
wall, held his elbows from his sides, and progress ceased while a
softly whistling figure strode across the street and became lost to
sight. This was the jumping-off place, the edge of a black precipice
of fate, unknown as to depth or what lay below. The savage, thankful
elation which had possessed every man at his success in making this
border line of life and death faded swiftly as his mind projected
itself into the unknown on the other side of the house. Roberts knew
what might follow if hesitation were allowed here, and that the
conjecturing minds might have scant time to waver he nerved himself and
snapped his fingers, leaping around the corner for Quayle's kitchen
door, his men piling after him, still silent and much more tense, yet
tortured to shout and to shoot. Ten steps more and the goal would
have been reached, but even as the leaping group exulted there came a
shredded sheet of flame and the deafening crash of spurting six-guns
worked at top speed at point-blank range. The charging line crumpled
in mid-stride, plunged headlong to the silvered sands and rolled or
flopped or lay instantly still. At the head of his men the rustler
trail-boss offered a target beyond the waiting punchers' fondest hopes,
yet he bounded on unscathed, flashed around the hotel corner, turned
again, doubling back behind the smoke-filled stable and scurried like
a panic-stricken rabbit for the brush-filled arroyo, while hot and
savage hunters searched the street for him until a hail of lead from
Kane's drove them to any shelter which might serve.

When the sheltering arroyo led him from his chosen course Roberts
forsook it and ran with undiminished speed toward where the horses
waited. At last he reached them and as he stretched out his arm his
last measure of energy left him and he plunged forward, rolling across
the sand. But a will like his was not to be baffled and in a few
moments he stirred, crawled forward, clawed himself into a saddle,
jerked loose the restraining rope and rode for safety, hunched over and
but half conscious. Gradually his pounding heart caught up with the
demand, his burning lungs and spasmodic breathing became more normal,
his head steadied and became a little clearer and he looked around to
find out just where he was. When sure of his location he turned the
horse's head toward Bitter Spring, and beyond it, to follow the tracks
he knew were still there to the only safe place left for him in all the
country.

He seemed to have been riding for days when he caught sight of
something moving over a ridge far ahead of him and he closed his eyes
in hope that the momentary rest would clear his vision. After awhile he
saw it push up over another low ridge and he knew it to be a horseman
riding in the same direction as himself. Again he closed his eyes and
unmercifully quirted the tired and unwilling horse into a pace it could
not hold for long. Another look ahead showed him that the horseman
was a Mexican, which meant that he was hardly a foe even if not a
friend. And he sneered as he thought how little it mattered whether
the Mexican was an enemy or not, for one enemy ahead and a Greaser at
that was greatly to be preferred to those who might be following him.
Soon he frowned in slowly dawning recognition. It was Miguel and he
had obtained quite a start. Conjecturing about how he had managed to
be so far in the lead stirred up again the vague suspicions which had
been intruding themselves upon him while he had been unable to think
clearly; but he was thinking clearly now, he told himself, and his eyes
glinted the sudden anger.

He thought he now knew why the town had been entered so easily, why
they had been allowed to penetrate unopposed to its center. It was
plain enough why they had been permitted to get within a few feet of
Quayle's back door, and then be stopped with a volley at a murderously
short range. As he reviewed it he almost was stunned by the thought of
his own escape and he tried to puzzle it out. It might be that every
waiting puncher thought that others were covering him--and in this he
was right. The compact group behind him had drawn every eye. It had
been one of those freakish tricks of fate which might not occur again
in a hundred fights; and it turned cold, practical Hugh Roberts into a
slave of superstition.

On the way to town he had sneered when Miguel had pointed out a
chaparral cock which raced with them for several miles and claimed that
it was an omen of good luck; but from this time on no "roadrunner" ever
would hear the angry whine of his bullets. Thinking of Miguel brought
him back to his suspicions and he looked at the distant rider with
an expression on his face which would have caused chills to race up
and down the Mexican's back, could he have seen them. Miguel, unhurt,
riding leisurely back to the herd, with a head-start great enough to be
in itself incriminating. And then the Mexican turned in his saddle and
looked back, and Roberts let his horse fall into a saner pace.

The effect upon Miguel was galvanic. He reined in, flung himself off
on the far side of his horse and cautiously slid the rifle from its
scabbard while he pretended to be tightening the cinch. His swarthy
face became a pasty yellow and then resumed its natural color, a little
darker, perhaps, by the sudden inrush of blood. After what he had done
in town Hugh Roberts would be on his trail for only one thing. Miguel's
racing imagination and his sudden feeling of guilt for his deliberate,
planned desertion found a sufficient reason for the pursuing horseman.
Sliding the rifle under his arm he waited until the man came nearer,
where a hit would be less of a gamble. The Mexican knew what had
happened, for he had delayed until he heard that crashing volley, and
knew it to be a volley. Knowing this he knew what it meant and had fled
for Surprise Valley and the big herd waiting there. That Roberts should
have escaped was a puzzle and he wrestled with it while the range was
steadily shortened, and the more he wrestled the more undecided he
became. Finally he slipped the gun back, mounted, and waited for the
other to come up. He had a plausible answer for every question.

Roberts slowed to a walk and searched the Mexican's eyes as he pulled
up at his side. "How'd you get out here so far ahead of _me_?" he
demanded, his eyes cold and threatening.

Miguel shrugged his shoulders, but did not take his hand from his belt.
"Ah, eet ees a miracle," he breathed. "The good Virgin, she watch over
Miguel. An' _paisano_, the roadrunner--deed I not tell you eet was good
luck? An' you, too, was saved! How deed eet happen, that you are save?"

"They none of them looked at me, I reckon," replied Roberts. "They got
everybody but me--an' _you_. How is it that yo're out here, so far
ahead of me?"

"Jus' before the firs' shootin'--the what you call volley--I stoomble
as I try not to step on Thorpe. I go down--the volley, eet come--I roll
away--they do not see me--an' here I am, like you, save."

"Is that so?" snapped Roberts.

"Eet ees jus' so, so much as eet ees that somewan tell we are comin' to
Quayle's," answered Miguel. "For why they do not see us, in the town,
when we come in? For why that volley, lak one shot? Sometheeng there
ees that Miguel he don' understan'. An' theese, please: Why ees there
no sortie wen we come in? We was on the ver' minute--eet ees so?"

"Right on th' dot!" snarled Roberts, his thoughts racing along other
trails. "Huh!" he growled. "Our shares of th' herd money comes to quite
a sizable pile--mebby that's it. Take th' shares of _all_ of us, an'
it's more'n half. Well, I don't know, an' I ain't carin' a whole lot
now. Think we can swing that herd, Miguel, an' split _all_ th' money,
even shares?"

The Mexican showed his teeth in a sudden, expansive smile. "For why
not? Theese hor-rses are ver' tired; but the others--they are res' now.
We can wait at Bitter Spring tonight, an' go on tomorrow. There ees no
hurry now."

"We don't hang out at Bitter Spring all night," contradicted Roberts
flatly. "We'll water 'em an' breath 'em a spell, an' push right on. Th'
further I get away from Mesquite th' better I'm goin' to like it. Come
on, let's get goin'."

"There ees no hurry from Bitter Spring," murmured the Mexican. "They
ees only one who know beyond; an' Manuel, he ees weeth Kane."

"I don't care a d--n!" growled his companion, stubbornly. "I'm not
layin' around Bitter Spring any longer than I has to."

Neither believed the other's story, but neither cared, only each
determined to be alert when the drive across the desert was completed.
Before that there was hardly need to let their mutual suspicions have
full play. Each was necessary to the success of the drive--but after?
That would be another matter. Fate was again kind to them both, for as
they hurried east Hopalong Cassidy hastened west along his favorite
trail, the rolling sand between hiding them from him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Back in the town the elated ambushers buried the bodies, marveled at
the escape of Roberts and drifted away to take places on the firing
line, which soon showed increased activity. Here and there a more
daring puncher took chances, some regretting it and others gaining
better positions. Red, Johnny, and Waffles attended strictly to the
roof, which now had been abandoned on all sides but the north, where
lack of cover prohibited McCullough's men from getting close enough to
do any considerable damage. The few punchers lying far off on the north
were there principally to stop a sortie or an attempt at escape. As the
day passed the defenders' fire grew a little less and the Question-Mark
foreman was content to wait it out rather than risk unnecessary
casualties in pushing the fighting any more briskly.

Evening came, and with it came Hopalong, tired, hungry, thirsty, and
hot, which did not add sweetness to his disposition. Eager to get the
men he wanted and to return for the herd, he listened impatiently to
his friends' account of the fight, his mind busy on his own account.
When the tale had been told and McCullough's changing attitude touched
upon he shoved his hat back on his head, spread his feet and ripped out
an oath.

"-- --!" he growled. "All these men, all this time, to clean up a shack
like that?"

"Mac's playin' safe--it's only a matter of time, now," apologized
Waffles, glaring at his two companions, who already had worn his nerves
ragged by the same kind of remarks.

"H--l!" snorted Hopalong impatiently. "We'll all grow whiskers at
this rate, before it's over!" He turned to Johnny and regarded him
speculatively. "Kid, let Red an' Waffles handle that roof an' come
along with me. I'm goin' to start things movin'."

"You'll find Mac plumb set on goin' easy," warned Waffles.

"Th' h--l with Mac, an' Lukins, an' you, an' everybody else," retorted
Hopalong. "We're not workin' for nobody but ourselves. All I got to do
is keep my mouth shut an' Mac loses a plumb fine herd. Let me hear him
talk to me! Come on, Kid."

Johnny deserted his companions as though they were lepers and showed
his delight in every swaggering movement. A whining bullet over
his head sent his fingers to his nose in contemptuous reply, but
nevertheless he went on more carefully thereafter. As they reached the
rear of a deserted adobe Hopalong pulled him to a stop.

"I'm tired of this blasted country, an' you ought to be, for you've
got a wife that's havin' dull days an' sleepless nights. I'm goin' to
touch somethin' off that'll put an end to this fool quiltin' party,
an' let us get our money an' go home. By that I'm meanin' th' SV, for
it's goin' to be home for me. Besides, it's our best chance of gettin'
them rewards. So he's aimin' on cuttin' us out of 'em, huh? All right;
I'm goin' to Quayle's, an' while I'm holdin' their interest you fill a
canteen with kerosene an' smuggle it into th' stable."

"What you goin' to do?" demanded his companion with poorly repressed
eagerness.

"I'm goin' to set fire to that gamblin'-joint an' drive 'em out, that's
what!"

"Th' moon won't let you," objected Johnny, but as he looked up at the
drifting clouds he hesitated and qualified his remark. "You'll have
times when it won't be so light, but it'll be too light for that."

"When I start for th' hotel gamblin'-joint I go agin' th' northeast
corner, where there ain't but one loophole that covers that angle. I
got it figgered out. When I start, you an' Red won't be loafin' back
there where I found you, target-practicin' at th' roof."

Reaching the hotel they found a self-satisfied group complacently
discussing the fight. Quayle looked up at their entry, sprang to his
feet and heartily shook hands with both.

"Welcome to Mesquite, Cassidy," he beamed. "Tis different now than whin
ye left, an' it won't be long before honest men have their say-so in
this town."

"Couple of weeks, I reckon, th' way things are driftin'," replied
Hopalong, smiling as Johnny left the office to invade the kitchen,
where Murphy gave a grinning welcome and looked curiously at the huge
canteen held out to him.

"Couple of days," corrected Quayle.

McCullough arose and shook hands with the newcomer. "Hear you been
trailin' my herd," he said. "Locate 'em?"

"They're hobbled, and' waitin' for yore boys to drive 'em home. Wish
you'd tell yore outfit an' th' others not to shoot at th' feller that
heads for Kane's northeast corner tonight, but to cut loose at th'
loopholes instead. I'm honin' to get back home, an' so I'm aimin' to
bust up this little party tonight. To do that I got to get close."

"That's plumb reckless," replied the trail-boss. "We got this all
wrapped up now, an' it'll tie its own knots in a day or two. What's th'
use of takin' a chance like that?"

"To show that bunch just who they throwed in jail! Somebody else might
feel like tryin' it some day, an' I'm aimin' to make that 'some day' a
long way off."

"Can't say I'm blamin' you for that. Whereabouts did you leave th'
herd?"

"Where nobody but me an' my friends, on this side of th' fence, knows
about," answered Hopalong. "I'll tell you when I see you again--ain't
got time now." He nodded to the others, went out the way he had come in
and walked off with Johnny, who carried the innocent canteen instead of
putting it into the stable.

As they started for the place where Hopalong had left his horse, not
daring to ride it into town, they chose a short-cut and after a few
minutes' brisk walking Hopalong pointed to a bunch of horses tied to
some bushes.

"Th' fellers that owned them played safer than I did," he said,
"leavin' 'em out here. I reckon they're all Question-Mark."

Johnny put a hand on his friend's arm and stopped him. "I got a better
guess," he said. "I know where all their cayuses are. Hoppy, that
rustlin' drive crew must 'a' come in this way. What you bet?"

"I ain't bettin'," grunted his companion, starting toward the little
herd, "I'm lookin'. I don't hanker to lose that cayuse of mine, an'
they'll mebby get th' hoss I ride after I start for their buildin'
tonight. He's so mean I sort of cotton to him. An' he's got some
thoroughbred blood in his carcass, judgin' from what Arch said. In a
case like this it's only fair to use theirs. Besides, they're fresh;
mine ain't."

Johnny pushed ahead, stopped at the tethered group and laughed. "Good
thing you didn't bet," he called over his shoulder.

Hopalong untied a wicked-looking animal. "He looks like he'd burn th'
ground over a short distance, an' that's what I'm interested in. I'm
goin' down an' turn mine loose. If things break like I figger they will
there's no tellin' when I'll see him again, an' I don't want him to
starve tied up to a tree. He's so thirsty about now that he'll head for
McCullough's crick on a bee line."

Johnny nodded, considered a moment and went toward the tie ropes.
"Shore, an' not stray far from that grass, neither." He released the
horses except the one he mounted and then rode up so close to his
friend that their knees rubbed. "No tellin' when anybody will be comin'
this way or when they'll get a drink. You look like you been hit by an
idea. That's so rare, suppose you uncork it?"

"It's one I've been turnin' over," replied his friend, "an' it looks
th' same on both sides, too."

"Turn it over for me an' lemme look."

"Kid, I'm lookin' for somethin' to happen that shore will bother Mr.
McCullough a whole lot if he happens to think of it. When that buildin'
starts burnin' it's shore goin' to burn fast. They can't fight th' fire
like they should with them punchers pourin' lead into them lighted
loopholes. Once it starts nothin' can stop it; an' I'm tellin' you it's
shore goin' to start right. Th' south side is goin' first. They know
there's only a few men watchin' th' north side, an' them few are layin'
too far back. It won't take a man like Kane very long to learn that
he's got to jump, an' jump quick; an' when he does he'll jump right.
Right for him an' right for us. He can't do nothin' else. You said they
got their cayuses in there with 'em?"

Johnny nodded. "So I was told. I'm seein' yore drift, Hoppy; an' when
Kane an' his friends jump me an' Red shore will have jammed guns an'
not be able to shoot at 'em."

"Marriage ain't spoiled yore head," chuckled his companion. "Kane
havin' us jailed that way riled me; an' McCullough tryin' to slip out
of payin' them rewards has riled me some more. I'm washin' one hand
with th' other. Do you think you an' Red could get yore cayuses an' an
extra one for me, in case they get this one, around west somewhere back
of where yo're goin'?"

"How'll this one do for you?" asked his companion, slapping the horse
he was on.

"Plenty good enough."

"Then he'll be there, ready to foller th' jumpers," laughed Johnny.

"Good for you, Kid. You shore have got th' drift. Now, seein' that I
may get into trouble an' be too late to go after 'em when they jump,
you listen close while I tell you where to ride, an' all about it,"
and the description of the desert trail and the valley was as meaty as
it was terse. He told his friend where to take the horses and where
to look for him before the night's work began, and then went back to
Kane and his men. "They're bound to head for that valley. There ain't
no place else for 'em to go. I'll bet they've had that figgered for a
refuge ever since they learned about it."

Johnny laughed contentedly. "An' Mac tellin' me that he's got 'em all
tied up an' ain't aimin' to pay no rewards! But," he said, becoming
instantly grave, "there's one thin' I don't like. I'm admittin' it's
yore scheme, but we ought to draw lots to see who's goin' to use that
kerosene. After all, yo're down here to help me out of a hole. Dig up
some more cartridges, you maverick!"

"Don't you reckon I got brains enough to run it off?" demanded his
friend.

"An' some to spare," replied Johnny; "but I ain't no idjut, myself.
Here; call yore choice," and he reached for his belt.

"Yo're slow, Kid," chuckled Hopalong, holding out his hand. "Call it
yourself."

Johnny hesitated, pushed back the cartridges and placed his hand on
those of his friend. "You went at that like you was pullin' a gun: an'
I can't say nothin' that means anythin' faster. Why th' hurry?"

"Habit, I reckon," gravely replied his friend. "Savin' time, mebby; _I_
dunno why, you chump!"

"It's a good habit; an' I'm shore you saved considerable time, which
same I'm aimin' to waste," replied Johnny. He thought swiftly. Last
time he had called "even," and lost. He was certain that Hopalong
wanted the task. How would his friend figure? The natural impulse of
a slow-witted man would be to change the number. Hopalong was not
slow-witted; on the contrary so far from slow-witted that he very
likely would be suspicious of the next step in reasoning and go a step
further, which would take him back to the act of the slow-witted, for
he knew that the cogitating man in front of him was no simpleton.
Odd or even: a simple choice; but in this instance it was a battle
of keen wits. Johnny raised his own hand and looked down at his
friend's, the upper one clasping and covering the lower; and then into
the night-hidden eyes, which were squinting between narrowed lids to
make their reading hopeless. Being something of a gambler Johnny had
the gambler's way of figuring, and this endorsed the other line of
reasoning: he believed the chances were not in favor of a repetition.

"Cuss yore grinnin' face," he growled. "I said 'even' last time, an'
was wrong. Now I'm sayin' 'odd.' Open up!"

Hopalong opened the closed hands and his squinting eyes at the same
instant and laughed heartily. "Kid, I cussed near raised you, an'
I know yore ways. Mebby it ain't fair, but you was tryin' hard to
outguess me. There they are--pair of aces. Count 'em, sonny; count 'em."

"Count 'em yourself," growled Johnny; "if you can count that far!" He
peered into the laughing eyes and thrust out his jaw. "You know my
ways, do you? Well, when we get back to th' SV, me an' you are goin' in
to Dave's, get a big stack of two-bit pieces an' go at it. I'll cussed
soon show you how much you know my ways! G'wan! Get out of here before
I get rough!"

"He's too old to spank," mused Hopalong, kneeing the horse, "an' too
young to fight with--reckon I'll have to pull my stakes an' move
along." Chuckling, he looked around. "Ain't forgot nothin' about
tonight, have you, child?"

"No!" thundered Johnny. "But for two-bits I _would!_" Hopalong's laugh
came back to him and sent a smile over his face. "There ain't many like
you, you old son-of-a-gun!" he muttered, and wheeled to return to the
town and to Red.

His departing friend grinned at the horse. "Bronch," he said,
confidently, "he shore had me again. I'm gettin' so cheatin's second
nature; an' worse'n that, I'm cheatin' my best friends, an' likin' it.
Yessir, _likin'_ it! Ain't you ashamed of me? You nod that ugly head
of yourn again an' I'll knock it off you! G'wan: This ain't no funeral
_yet_!"



                             CHAPTER XXII

                              THE BONFIRE


Johnny rode up to the hotel, got a Winchester and ammunition for it
from the stack of guns in the kitchen and then went to the stable
for Red's horse and Pepper. As he led them out he stopped to answer
a pertinent question from the upper window of the hotel and rode off
again, leading the extra mounts.

Ed Doane lowered the rifle and scratched his head. "Goin' for
a moonlight ride," he repeated in disgust as he drew back from
the window. "Cussed if punchers ain't gettin' more locoed every
day. Moonlight ride! Shore--go out an' look at th' scenery. Looks
different in th' moonlight--bah! To me a pancake looks like a pancake
by kerosene, daylight, wood fire or--or moonlight. I suppose th'
moonlight'll get into 'em an' they'll be singin' love-songs an'
harmonizin'; but thank th' Lord I don't have to go along!" He glanced
around at a sudden _thap!_ grinned in the darkness at the double
planking on that side wall and sat down again. "Shoot!" he growled.
"Shoot twice! Shoot an' be d--d! Waste 'em! Reckon th' moonlight's got
into you, you cow-stealin', murderin' pup." Filling his pipe he packed
and lit it, blew several clouds through nose and mouth and scratched
his head again. "Goin' for a moonlight ride, huh? Well, mebby you are,
Johnny, my lad; but Ed Doane's bettin' there's more'n a ride in it.
You didn't go for no moonlight rides before that missin' friend of
yourn turned up; an' then, right away, you ride up on one hoss, collect
two more an' go gallivantin' off under th' moon. I'm guessin' close.
Eddie Doane, I'll bet you a tenspot them three grizzlies are out for to
put their ropes on them rewards. An' I hope they collect, cussed if I
don't. That Scotch trail-boss is puttin' on too many airs for me--an'
he's rilin' Nelson slow but shore. Go get it, Bar-20: I'm bettin' on
you."

There came steps to his door. "Ar-re ye there, Ed?" called a voice.

"Shore; come in, Murphy."

The door opened and closed as the cook entered. "Have ye a pipeful?
Mine's all gone."

"Help yourself," answered Doane, tossing the sack. "There it is, by
yore County Cork feet."

"I have ut," grunted Murphy. "An' who was th' lad ye was talkin' to
from th' windy just now?"

"Nelson. He's goin' ridin' in th' moonlight. Must aim to go far, for
he's got three horses."

"Has he, now?" Murphy puffed in quiet satisfaction for a moment. "He's
a good la-ad, Ed. Goin' ridin', is he? Well, ridin' is fine for them as
likes it. But I'm wonderin' what he's doin' with th' kerosene I gave
him?"

"Kerosene? When?"

"Whin he come in with his friend Cassidy--an' a fine bye _that_ man is,
too. Shure: a hull canteen av it. Two gallons. He says for me to kape
it quiet: as if I'd be tellin'! Quayle would have me scalp if he knowed
it--givin' away his ile like that. Now where ye goin' so fast?"

"For a walk, under th' moonlight!" answered Doane. "Yo're goin', too
an' we're goin' with our mouths shut. Not a word about th' hosses or
th' kerosene. You remember what Cassidy said about goin' agin' Kane's
northeast corner? Come on--an' see th' bonfire!"

"Shure, an' who's fool enough to have anny bonfires now?"

"Murphy, I said _with our mouths shut_. Come on, up near th' jail!"

The cook scratched his head and favored his companion with a sidewise
glance, which revealed nothing because of the darkness of the room.
"Th' jail?" he muttered. "He's crazy, he is. Th' jail won't make no
bonfire. It's mud. But as long as he has th' 'baccy, I'll go wid him.
_Whist!_" he exclaimed as another _thap!_ sounded on the wall. "An'
what's that?"

"This room's haunted," explained Ed.

"Lead th' way, thin; or let me," said Murphy in great haste. "I'll
watch yore mud bonfire."

After leaving the hotel Johnny kept it between himself and Kane's
building, rode to the arroyo which Roberts had found so useful and
followed it until out of sight of anyone in town. When he left it he
turned east, crossed the main trail and dismounted east of the place
where he and Red had kept watch on the gambling-house roof. Working
his way on foot to his sharpshooting friends he lay down at Red's side
and commented casually on several subjects, finally nudging the Bar-20
rifleman.

"I'm growin' tired of this spot an' this game," he grumbled. "They know
where we are now, an' that roof's plumb tame."

Red stirred restlessly. "You must 'a' read my mind," he observed.
"You've had a spell off--stay here while I take a rest."

"Stay nothin'!" retorted Johnny. "This ain't our fight, anyhow."

"Somebody's got to stay," objected Red.

"Let Waffles, then," rejoined Johnny. "You don't care if we look
around?"

"I'd just as soon stay here as go any place else," said the ex-foreman
of the O-Bar-O. "Where you fellers aimin' to go?"

"Over west to cover Hoppy," answered Johnny, remembering that this much
was generally known. "He aims to make a dash for th' hotel, an' he's
so stubborn nobody can stop him. He says th' fight's been goin' on too
long; an' you know how he can use six-guns. To use 'em right he'll have
to get plumb close."

"Cussed fool!" snorted Red, arising to his knees. "How can he end it by
makin' a dash, an' usin' his short guns? Mebby he's aimin' to put his
rope on it an' pull it over, shootin' as they pop out from under!" he
sarcastically suggested.

"Mebby; better ask him," replied Johnny. "_I_ did. Mebby you can get it
out of him. When he wants to keep his mouth shut, he shore can keep it
shut tight. There's no use wastin' our breath on it. He's got some fool
scheme in his head an' he's set solid. All we can do is to try to save
his fool skin. Waffles can hold down this place till we come back. Come
on, Red."

Red grumbled and stretched. "All right. See you later mebby, Waffles."

Johnny turned. "Don't forget an' shoot at th' feller runnin' for th'
east end of th' buildin'," he warned.

"Mac sent th' word along a couple of hours ago," replied Waffles,
settling down in the place vacated by Red to resume the watch on the
hotel roof, which was fairly well revealed at times by the moon. He
seemed to be turning something over in his mind, but finally shrugged
his shoulders and gave his attention to the roof. "They've got
somethin' better'n six-guns at close range," he muttered. "Well, a man
owes his friends somethin', so I'm holdin' my tongue."

Reaching the horses Johnny and his companion mounted and rode
northward, leading the spare mount.

"What's he up to?" demanded Red.

"Goin' to set fire to th' shack," answered Johnny, and he forthwith
explained the whole affair.

"Huh!" grunted Red. "There ain't no doubt in my mind that it'll work if
he can get there an' get th' fire started." He was silent for a moment
and then pulled his hat more firmly down on his head. "If he don't get
there, I'll give it a whirl. Anyhow, I'd have to leave cover to get to
him if he went down so it ain't much worse goin' th' rest of th' way.
An' I'm tellin' you this: That lone loophole is shore goin' to be bad
medicine for anybody tryin' to use it after he starts. I'll put 'em
through it so fast they'll be crowdin' each other."

"An' while yo're reloadin' I'll keep 'em goin'," said Johnny, patting
his borrowed Winchester. "They'll shore think somebody's squirtin' 'em
out of a hose."

Some time later he stopped his horse and peered around in the faint
light.

Red stopped, also. "This th' place?"

"Looks like it--we ought to get some sign of Hoppy purty soon. Anyhow,
we'll wait awhile. Glad that moon ain't very bright."

"An' cussed glad for th' clouds," added Red. "Clouds like them ain't
th' rule in this part of the country." He leaned over and looked down
at the sand. "Tracks, Kid," he said. "Follow 'em?"

"No," answered his companion slowly. "I'm bettin' they're Hoppy's. Stay
with th' cayuses--I'm goin' to look around," and as he dismounted they
heard a hail. Red swung to the ground as their friend appeared.

"You made good time," said Hopalong, advancing. "I been off lookin'
things over. We can leave th' cayuses in a little hollow about long
rifle-shot from th' buildin'. From there you two can get real close by
travelin' on yore bellies from bush to bush. Th' cover's no good in day
light, but on a night like this, by waitin' for th' clouds, it'll be
plenty good enough."

"How close did you get?" asked Johnny.

"Close enough to send every shot through that loophole, if I wanted to."

"Did they see you? Did you draw a shot?"

"No. They ain't watchin' that loophole very close. Ain't had no reason
to since th' stables burned. There ain't nobody been layin' off in this
direction. Th' cover wasn't good enough to risk it, with only a blank
wall to watch, an' with them fellers on th' roof to shoot down. Red
couldn't cover th' north part of it from where he was. I been wonderin'
if I ought to use a cayuse at all."

"There's argument agin' usin' one," mused Johnny.

"Th' noise, an' a bigger object to catch attention," remarked Red. "If
you walked th' cayuse to soften its steps, it still looms up purty big;
an' if you cut loose an' dash in, th' noise shore will bring a shot. Me
an' th' Kid would have to start shootin' early an' keep it up a long
while--an' we're near certain to leave gaps in th' string."

"What moonlight there is shines on this end of th' buildin'," observed
Johnny. "That loophole show up plain?" he asked.

"You can't see nothin' else," chuckled Hopalong. "It's so black it fair
hollers."

Red drew the Winchester from its sheath and turned the front sight on
its pivot, which then showed a thin white line. He never had regretted
having it made, for since it had been put on he had not suffered the
annoyance of losing sight of it against a dark target in poor light.
"Bein' bull-headed," he remarked, "you chumps has to guess; but little
Reddie ain't doin' none of it. I told you long ago to have one put on."

"Shut up!" growled Johnny, turning his own Winchester over in his hands.

"I reckon I'm travelin' flat on my stomach," said Hopalong, slinging
the big canteen over his head. "I'll go with you till we has to stop,
let you get set an' then make a run for it. Seein' that th' Kid has
got a repeater, too, you'll be able to keep lead flyin' most of th'
time I'm in th' open if you don't pull too fast; an' when you run out
of cartridges I'll start with my Colts. I'll be close enough, then, to
use 'em right. When you see that I'm under th' buildin' go back quite
a ways so th' fire won't show you up too plain, an' _watch th' roof_.
I'll start a fire under that loophole before I leave, an' that'll
spoil their view through it; an' I ain't leavin' before I've fixed
things so them fellers will have so much to do they won't have much
time for sharpshootin'. That buildin' will burn like a pine knot."

"Then yo're comin' back th' way you go in?" asked Red.

"Shore," answered Hopalong. "Everythin' plain?"

"Watch me," ordered Red, his hand rising and falling. "If we space
our shots like this we ought to be able to reload while th' other is
emptyin' his gun. Is it too slow?"

"No," said Johnny, considering.

"No," said the man with the canteen, watching closely. "It'll take that
long to throw a gun into th' loophole an' line it up, in this light."

"Not bein' used to a repeater like Red is," suggested Johnny, "I'd
better shoot th' second string--that'll give us three of 'em before
it's my time to reload. Red can slide 'em in as fast as I can shoot 'em
out, timin' 'em like that."

"You can put 'em through that hole as good as I can," said Red. "It's
near point-blank shootin'. You do th' shootin' an' I'll take care of
loadin' both guns. We can't make no blunders, with Hoppy out there
runnin' for his life."

"That's why I ought to do th' runnin'," growled Johnny. "I can make
three feet to his two."

"It's all settled," said Hopalong, decisively. "I got th' kerosene, an'
I'm keepin' it. Come on. No more talkin'."

They followed him over the course he had picked out and with a caution
which steadily increased as they advanced until at length they went
ahead only when the crescent moon was obscured by drifting clouds.
Ahead loomed the two-story gambling-hall, its windowless rear wall of
bleached lumber leaden in the faint light. An occasional finger of fire
stabbed from its south wall to be answered by fainter stabs from the
open, the reports flat and echoless. A distant voice sang a fragment of
song and a softened laugh replied to a ribald jest. A horse neighed and
out of the north came quaveringly the faint howl of a moon-worshiping
coyote.

The three friends, face down on the sand, now each behind a squat bush,
wriggled forward silently but swiftly, and gained new and nearer cover.
Again a cloud passed before the moon and again they wriggled forward,
their eyes fixed on the top of the roof ahead, two of them heading
for the same bush and the other for a shallow gully. The pair met and
settled themselves to their satisfaction, heads close together as they
consulted about the proper setting of the rear sights. One of them
knelt, the rifle at his shoulder reaching out over the top of the bush,
his companion sitting cross-legged at his side, a pile of dull brass
cartridges in the sombrero on the ground between his knees to keep the
grease on the bullets free from sand.

The kneeling man bent his head and let his cheek press against the
stock of the heavy weapon, whispered a single word and waited. Twice
there came the squeak of a frightened rat from his companion and
instantly from the right came an answering squeak as the figure of a
man leaped up from the gully and sprinted for the lead-colored wall,
the heavy, jarring crash of a Winchester roaring from the bush, to
be repeated at close intervals which were as regular as the swing of
a pendulum. A round, dark object popped up over the flat roof line
and the cross-legged man on the ground threw a gun to his shoulder
and fired, almost in one motion. The head dropped from sight as the
marksman slid another cartridge into the magazine and waited, ready to
shoot again or to exchange weapons with his kneeling friend.

The runner leaped on at top speed, but he automatically counted the
reports behind him and a smile flashed over his face when the count
told him that the second rifle was being used. He would have known it
in no other way, for the spacing of the shots had not varied. Again
the count told of the second change and a moment later another extra
report confirmed his belief that the roof was being closely watched by
his friends. A muffled shout came from the building and a spurt of fire
flashed from the loophole, but toward the sky and he fancied he heard
the sound of a falling body. Far to his left jets of flame winked along
a straggling line, the reports at times bunched until they sounded like
a short tattoo, while behind him the regular crashing of an unceasing
Winchester grew steadily more distant and flatter.

His breath was coming in gulps now for he had set himself a pace out of
keeping with the habits of years and the treacherous sand made running
a punishment. During the last hundred feet it was indeed well for him
that Johnny shot fast and true, that the five-hundred grain bullets
which now sang over his aching head were going straight to the mark.
He suddenly, vaguely realized that he heard wrangling voices and then
he threw himself down onto the sand and rolled and clawed under the
building, safe for the time.

Gradually the jumble of footsteps over his head impressed themselves
upon him and he mechanically drew a Colt as he raised his head from the
earth. Suddenly the roaring steps all went one way, which instantly
aroused his suspicions, and he crawled hurriedly to the black darkness
of a pile of sand near the bottom of the south wall, which he reached
as the steps ceased. No longer silhouetted against the faint light
of the open ground around the building, a light which was bright by
contrast with the darkness under the floor, he placed the canteen on
the ground and felt for chips and odds and ends of wood with one hand
while the other held a ready gun.

There came the sharp, plaintive squeaking of seldom-used hinges, which
continued for nearly a minute and then a few unclassified noises. They
were followed by the head of a brave man, plainly silhouetted against
the open sand. It turned slowly this way and that and then became still.

"See anythin'?" came a hoarse whisper through the open trap.

There was no reply from the hanging head, but if thoughts could have
killed, the curious whisperer would have astonished St. Peter by his
jack-in-the-box appearance before the Gates.

"If he did, we'd know by now, you fool," whispered another, who
instantly would have furnished St. Peter with another shock.

"He'd more likely feel somethin', rather than see it," snickered a
third, who thereupon had a thrashing coming his way, but did not know
it as yet.

The head popped back into the darkness above it, the trapdoor fell with
a bang, and sudden stamping was followed by the fall of a heavy body.
Furious, high-pitched cursing roared in the room above until lost in a
bedlam of stamping feet and shouting voices.

"He ought to kill them three fools," growled Hopalong, indignant for
the moment; and then he shook with silent laughter. Wiping his eyes,
he fell to gathering more wood for his fire, careless as to noise in
view of the free-for-all going on over his head. Removing the plug
from the canteen he poured part of the oil over the piled-up wood, on
posts, along beams and then, saturating his neckerchief, he rubbed it
over the floor boards. Wriggling around the pile of sand he wet the
outer wall as far up as his arm would reach, soaked two more posts and
another pile of shavings and chips and then, corking the nearly empty
vessel, he felt for a match with his left hand, which was comparatively
free from the kerosene, struck it on his heel and touched it here and
there, and a rattling volley from the besiegers answered the flaming
signal. Backing under the floor he touched the other pile and wriggled
to the wall directly under the loophole. Again and again the canteen
soaked the kerchief and the kerchief spread the oil, again a pile of
shavings leaned against a wetted post, and another match leaped from
a mere spot of fire into a climbing sheet of flame, which swept up
over the loophole and made it useless. As he turned to watch the now
well-lighted trapdoor, there came from the east, barely audible above
the sudden roaring of the flame, the reports of the rifles of his two
friends, the irregular timing of the shots leading him to think that
they were shooting at animated targets, perhaps on the roof.

The trapdoor went up swiftly and he fired at the head of a man who
looked through it. The toppling body was grabbed and pulled back and
the door fell with a slam which shook the building. Hopalong's position
was now too hot for comfort and getting more dangerous every second
and with a final glance at the closed trapdoor he scrambled from under
the building, slapped sparks from his neck and shoulders and sprinted
toward his waiting, anxious friends, where a rifle automatically began
the timed firing again, although there now was no need for it. Slowing
as he left the building further and further behind he soon dropped into
a walk and the rifle grew silent.

"Here we are," called Johnny's cheery voice. "I'm admittin' you did a
good job!"

"An' _I_'m sayin' you did a good one," replied Hopalong. "Them shots
came as reg'lar as th' tickin' of a clock."

"Quite some slower," said Red. "That gang can't stay in there much
longer. Notice how Mac's firin' has died down?"

"They're waitin' for 'em to come out an' surrender," chuckled Hopalong.
"Keep a sharp watch an' you'll see 'em come out an' make a run for it."

"Better get back to th' cayuses, an' be ready to foller," suggested Red.

"No," said Johnny. "Let 'em get a good start. If we stop 'em here Mac
may get a chance to cut in."

"An' we'll mebby have to kill some of th' men we want alive," said
Hopalong. "Let 'em get to that valley an' think they're safe. We can
catch 'em asleep th' first night."

The gambling-hall was a towering mass of flames on the south and east
walls and they were eating rapidly along the other two sides. Suddenly
a hurrying line of men emerged from the north door of the doomed
structure, carrying wounded companions to places of safety from the
flames. Dumping these unfortunates on the ground, the line charged
back into the building again and soon appeared leading blind-folded
horses, which bit and kicked and struggled, and turned the line into a
fighting turmoil. The few shots coming from the front of the building
increased suddenly as McCullough led a running group of his men to
cover the north wall. A few horses and a man or two dropped under the
leaden hail, the accuracy of which suffered severely from the shortness
of breath of the marksmen. The group expanded, grew close at one place
and with quirts rising and falling, dashed from the building, pressing
closely upon the four leaders, and became rapidly smaller before the
steadying rifles of its enemies took much heavier toll. Before it
had passed beyond the space lighted by the great fire only four men
remained mounted, and these were swiftly swallowed up by the dim light
on the outer plain.

McCullough and most of his constantly growing force left cover and
charged toward the building to make certain that no more of their
enemies escaped, while the rest of his men hurried back to get horses
and form a pursuing party.



                             CHAPTER XXIII

                            SURPRISE VALLEY


Hopalong turned and crawled away from the lurid scene, his friends
following him closely. As soon as they dared they arose to their feet
and jogged toward where their horses waited, and soon rode slowly
northeastward, heading on a roundabout course for Sweet Spring.

"Take it easy," cautioned Hopalong. "We don't want to get ahead of 'em
yet. If my eyes are any good th' four that got away are Kane, Corwin,
Trask, an' a Greaser. What you say?"

Reaching the arid valley through which Sand Creek would have flowed had
it not been swallowed up by the sands, they drew on their knowledge
of it and crossed on hard ground, riding at a walk and cutting
northeastward so as to be well above the course of the fleeing four,
after which they turned to the southeast and approached the spring from
the north. Reaching the place of their former vigil they dismounted,
picketed the horses in the sandy hollow and lay down behind the crest
of the ridge. Half an hour passed and then Johnny's roving eyes caught
sight of a small group of horsemen as it popped up over a rise in the
desert floor. A moment later and the group strung out in single file to
round a cactus chaparral and revealed four horsemen, riding hard. The
fugitives raced up to Bitter Spring, tarried a few moments, and went on
again, slowly growing smaller and smaller, and then a great slope of
sand hid them from sight.

Hopalong grunted and arose, scanning their back trail. "They've been so
long gettin' out here that I'm bettin' they did a god job hidin' their
trail. I can see Mac an' his gang ridin' circles an' gettin' madder
every minute. Well, we can go on, now. By goin' th' way I went before
we won't be seen."

"How long will it take us?" asked Red, brushing sand from his clothes
as he stood up.

"Followin' th' pace they're settin' we ought to be there tonight,"
answered Hopalong. "Give th' cayuses all they can drink. If them
fellers hold us off out there we'll have to run big risks gettin' our
water from that crick. Well, let's get started."

The hot, monotonous ride over the desert need not be detailed. They
simply followed the tracks made by Hopalong on his previous visit and
paid scanty attention to the main trail south of them, contenting
themselves by keeping to the lowest levels mile after burning mile.
It was evening when they stopped where their guide had stopped before
and after waiting for nightfall they went on again in the moonlight,
circling as Hopalong had circled and when they stopped again it was
to dismount where he had dismounted behind a ridge. They picketed and
hobbled the weary, thirsty horses and went ahead on foot. Following
instructions Red left them and circled to the south to scout around
the great ridge of rock before taking up his position at the head of
the slanting trail from the valley. His companions kept on and soon
crawled to the rim of the valley, removed their sombreros and peered
cautiously over the edge. The faint glow of the fire behind the adobe
hut in the west end of the sink shone in the shadows of the great
rock walls and reflected its light from bowlders and brush. Below
them cattle and the horses of the caviya grazed over the well-cropped
pasture and a strip of silver told where the little creek wandered
toward its effacement. Moving back from the rim they went on again,
looking over from time to time and eventually reached the point nearly
over the fire, where they could hear part of the conversation going on
around it, when the voices raised above the ordinary tones.

"You haven't a word to say!" declared Kane, his outstretched hand
leveled at Trask, the once-favored deputy-sheriff. "If it wasn't for
your personal spite, and your d--d avarice, we wouldn't be in this mess
tonight! You had no orders to do that."

Trask's reply was inaudible, but Corwin's voice reached them.

"I told him to let Nelson alone," said the sheriff. "He was dead set to
get square for him cuttin' into th' argument with Idaho. But as far as
avarice is concerned, you got yore part of th' eleven hundred."

"Might as well, seeing that the hand had been played!" retorted Kane.
"What's more, I'm going to keep it. Anybody here think he's big enough
to get any part of it?"

"Nobody here wants it," said Roberts. "Th' boys I had with me,
an' Miguel, an' myself have reasons to turn this camp fire into a
slaughter, but we're sinkin' our grievances because this ain't no time
to air 'em. I'm votin' for less squabblin'. We ain't out of this yet,
an' we got four hundred head to get across th' desert. Time enough,
later, to start fightin'. I'm goin' off to turn in where there ain't so
much fool noise. I've near slept on my feet an' in th' saddle. Fight
an' be d--d!" and he strode from the fire, keen eyes above watching his
progress and where it ended.

The hum around the fire suffered no diminution by his departure, but
the words were not audible to the listeners above. Soon Corwin angrily
arose and left the circle, his blankets under his arm. His course also
was marked. Then the two Mexicans went off, and the eager watchers
chuckled softly as they saw the precious pair take lariats from the
saddles of two picketed horses and slip noiselessly toward the feeding
caviya. Roping fresh mounts, and the pick of the lot, they made the
ropes fast and went back to the other horses. Soon they returned with
their riding equipment and blankets, saddled the fresh mounts and,
spreading the blankets a few feet beyond the radius of the picket
ropes, they rolled up and soon were asleep.

"Sensitive to danger as hounds," muttered Johnny.

"Cunnin' as coyotes," growled Hopalong, glancing at the clear-cut,
rocky rim across the valley, where Red by this time lay ensconced. "I
hope he remembers to drop their cayuses first--Miguel's worth more to
us alive."

"An' easier to take back," whispered Johnny. "We want 'em _all_
alive--an' we'd never get 'em that way if they wasn't so played out.
They'll sleep like they are dead--luck is with us."

Down at the dying camp fire Kane, his back to the hut, talked with
Trask in tones which seemed more friendly, but the deputy was in no
way lulled by the change. He sensed a flaming animosity in the fallen
boss, who blamed him for the wreck of his plans and the organization.
Muttering a careless good night, Trask picked up his blankets and went
off, leaving the bitter man alone with his bitterness.

Tired to the marrow of his bones, so sleepy that to remain awake was a
torture, the boss dared not sleep. In the company of five men who were
no longer loyal, whose greed exceeded his own, and each of whom nursed
a real or fancied grudge against him and who searched into the past,
into the days of his contemptuous treatment of them for fuel and yet
more fuel to feed the fires of their resentment, he dared not close his
eyes. On his person was a modest fortune compacted by the size of the
bills and so well distributed that unknowing eyes would not suspect its
presence; but these men knew that he would not leave his wealth behind
him, to be perhaps salvaged from a hot and warped safe in the smoking
ruins of his gambling-house.

He stirred and gazed at the glowing embers and an up-shooting tongue of
flame lighted up the small space so vividly that its portent shocked
through to his dulled brain and sent him to his feet with the speed
and silence of a frightened cat. He was too plain a target and too
defenseless in the lighted open, and like a ghost he crept away into
the darker shadows under the great stone cliff, to pace to and fro in
an agonizing struggle against sleep. Back and forth he strode, his
course at times erratic as his enemy gained a momentary victory; but
his indomitable will shook him free again and again; and such a will it
was that when sleep finally mastered him it did not master his legs,
for he kept walking in a circular course like a blind horse at a ginny.

When he had leaped to his feet and left the hut the watchers above kept
him in sight and after the first few moments of his pacing they worked
back from the valley's rim and slipped eastward.

"Here's th' best place," said Hopalong, turning toward the rim again.
They looked over and down a furrow in the rock wall. "We'll need two
ropes. It'll take one, nearly, to reach from here to that knob of rock
an' go around it. Red's got a new hemp rope--bring that, too. If he
squawks about us cuttin' it, I'll buy him a new one. Got to have tie
ropes."

Johnny hastened away and when he returned he threw Red's lariat on the
ground, and joined the other two. Fastening one end around the knob of
rock he dropped the other over the wall and shook it until he could see
that it reached the steep pile of detritus. Picking up the hemp rope
he was about to drop it, too, when caution told him it would make less
noise if carried down. Slinging it over his shoulder he crept to the
edge, slid over, grasped the rope and let himself down. Seeing he was
down his companion was about to follow when Johnny's whisper checked
him.

"Canteens--better fill 'em while it's easy."

Hopalong drew his head back and disappeared and it was not much of
a wait before the rope was jerking up the wall and returned with a
canteen. To send down more than one at a time would be to risk them
banging together. When they all were down Johnny took them and slipped
among the bowlders, Hopalong watching his progress. For caution's sake
the water carrier took two trips from the creek and sent them up again
one at a time. Soon his friend slid down, glanced around, took the hemp
rope and cut it into suitable lengths, giving half of the pieces to
Johnny and then without a word started for the west end of the valley,
treading carefully, Johnny at his heels.

Roberts, sleeping the sleep of the exhausted, awoke in a panic, a
great weight on his legs, arms, and body, and a pair of sinewy thumbs
pressing into his throat. His struggles were as brief as they were
violent and when they ceased Hopalong arose from the quiet legs and
released the limp arms while his companion released the throat hold
and took his knees from the prostrate chest. In a few minutes a quiet
figure lay under the side of a rock, its mouth gagged with a soiled
neckerchief and the new hemp rope gleaming from ankles, knees, and
wrists.

Corwin, his open mouth sonorously announcing the quality of his
fatigue, lay peacefully on his back, tightly rolled up in his blankets.
Two faint shadows fell across him and then as Johnny landed on his
chest and sunk the capable thumbs deep into the bronzed throat on
each side of the windpipe, Hopalong dropped onto the blanket-swathed
legs and gripped the encumbered arms. This task was easy and in a few
minutes the sheriff, wrapped in his own blankets like a mummy, also
wore a gag and several pieces of new hemp rope, two strands of which
passed around his body to keep the blanket rolled.

The two punchers carried him between two bowlders, chuckled as they put
him down and stood up to grin at each other. The blanket-rolled figure
amused them and Johnny could not help but wish Idaho was there to
enjoy the sight. He moved over against his companion and whispered.

"Shore," answered Hopalong, smiling. "Go ahead. It's only fair. He
knocked you on th' head. I'll go up an' spot Kane. Did it strike you
that he must have a lot of money on him to be so h--l-bent to stay
awake? I don't like him pacin' back an' forth like that. It may mean a
lot of trouble for us; an' them Greasers are too nervous to suit me.
When yo're through with Trask slip off an' watch them Mexicans. Don't
pay no attention to me no matter what happens. Stick close to them two.
I'll give you a hand with 'em as soon as I can get back. If you have to
shoot, don't kill 'em," and the speaker went cautiously toward the hut.

Johnny removed his boots and, carrying them, went toward the place
where he had seen the deputy bed down; but when he reached the spot
Trask was not there. Thanking his ever-working bump of caution for
his silent and slow approach he drew back from the little opening
among the rocks and tackled the problem in savage haste. There was no
time to be lost, for Hopalong was not aware that any of the gang was
roaming around and might not be as cautious as he knew how to be. Why
had Trask forsaken his bed-ground, and when? Where had he gone and
what was he doing? Cursing under his breath Johnny wriggled toward the
creek where he could get a good view of the horses. Besides the two
picketed near the sleeping Mexicans none were saddled nor appeared to
be doing anything but grazing. Going back again Johnny searched among
the bowlders in frantic haste and then decided that there was only
one thing to do, and that was to head for the hut and get within sight
of his friend. Furious because of the time he had lost he started for
the new point and finally reached the hut. If Trask was inside he had
to know it and he crept along the wall, pausing only to put his ear
against it, turned the corner and leaped silently through the door, his
arms going out like those of a swimmer. The hut was empty. Relieved for
the moment he slipped out again and started to go toward Kane.

"I'll bet a month's pay--" he muttered and then stopped, his mind
racing along the trail pointed out by the word. Pay! That was money.
Money? As Hopalong had said, Kane must have plenty of it on him--money?
Like a flash a possible solution sprang into his mind. Kane's money!
Trask was a thief, and what would a thief do if he suspected that the
life savings of a man like Kane might easily be stolen? And especially
when he had been so angered by the possessor of the wealth?

"I got to move _pronto_!" he growled. "I'm no friend of Kane's but I
ain't goin' to have him killed--not by a coyote like Trask, anyhow. We
got to have him alive, too. An' Hoppy?" His reflections were such that
by the time he came in sight of Kane his feelings were a cross between
a mad mountain lion and an active volcano. He stopped again and looked,
his mind slowly forsaking rage in favor of suspicion. Kane was walking
around in a circle, his eyes closed; his feet were rising and falling
mechanically and with an exaggerated motion.

"War dancin'?" thought Johnny. "What would he do that for? He ain't
no Injun. I'm sayin' he's loco. Kane loco? Like h--l! Fellers like
him don't get loco. Makin' medicine? I just said he ain't no Injun.
Prancin' around in th' moonlight, liftin' his feet like they had
ropes to 'em to jerk 'em. An' with his eyes close shut! I'm gettin'
a headache an' I'm settin' tight till I get th' hang of this walkin'
Willy. Mebby he thinks he's workin' a charm; but if he is he ain't
goin' to run it on me!"

He pressed closer against the bowlder which sheltered him and searched
the surroundings again, slowly, painstakingly. Then there came a low
rustling sound, as though a body were being dragged across dried grass.
It was to his left and not far away. If it is possible to endow one
sense with the total strength of all the others, then his ears were so
endowed. Whether or not they were strengthened to an unusual degree
they nevertheless heard the rubbing of soft leather on the bowlder he
lay against, and he held his breath as he reversed his grip on the Colt.

"Hoppy, or Trask?" he wondered, glad that his head did not project
beyond the rock. A quick glance at the milling Kane showed no change
in that person's antics and he felt certain that he had not been
detected by the boss. He froze tighter if it is possible to improve on
perfection, for his ears caught a renewal of the sounds. Then his eyes
detected a slow movement and focussed on a shadowy hand which fairly
seemed to ooze out beyond the rock. When he discerned a ring on one of
the fingers he knew it was not Hopalong, for his friend wore no ring.
That being so, it only could be Trask who was creeping along the other
side of the rock. Johnny glanced again at the peripatetic gang leader
and back to the creeping hand, and wondered how high in the air its
owner would jump if it were suddenly grabbed. Then he mentally cursed
himself, for his independent imagination threatened to make him laugh.
He could feel the tickle of mirth slyly pervading him and he bit his
lip with an earnestness which cut short the mirth. The hand stopped and
the heel of it went down tightly against the earth as though bearing
a gradual strain. Johnny was reassured again, for Trask never would
be stalking Kane if he had the slightest suspicion that enemies, or
strangers, were in the valley, and he hazarded another glance at Kane.

The mechanical walker was drawing near the rock again and in a few
steps more would turn his back to it and start away. By this time
Johnny had solved the riddle, for although such a thing was beyond any
experience of his, his wild guess began to be accepted by him: Kane was
walking in his sleep. Where was Hopalong? He hoped his friend would not
try to capture the boss until he, himself, had taken care of Trask.
This must be his first duty, and knowing what Trask would do very
shortly he prepared to do it.

He got into position to act, moving only when the slight sound of
Kane's footfalls would cover the barely audible noise of his own
movements. Kane's rounding course brought him nearer and then several
things happened at once. The owner of the hand leaped from behind the
rock and as his head popped out into sight a Colt struck it, and then
Johnny started for Kane; but as he reached his feet something hurtled
out of the shadows to his right and bore the boss to the ground. Then
came the sound of another gun-butt meeting another head and the swiftly
moving figure seemed to rebound from the boss and sail toward Johnny,
who had started to meet it. He swerved suddenly and muttered one word,
just as Hopalong swerved from his own course. They both had turned in
the same direction and came together with a force which nearly knocked
them out. Holding to each other to keep their feet, they recovered
their breath and without a word separated at a run, Hopalong going to
Kane and Johnny to Trask. Less dazed by the collision than his friend
was, Johnny finished his work first and then helped Hopalong carry Kane
to the shelter of the rock.

"Good thing you forgot what I said about watchin' them Greasers,"
grunted Hopalong. "It's them next, if--" his words were cut short by
two quick shots, which reverberated throughout the valley, and without
another word he followed his running companion, and scorned cover for
the first few hundred yards.

When they got close to the trail they saw two bulks on it, which the
moonlight showed to be prostrate horses.

"Where are they, Red?" shouted Johnny. "They're th' only ones free!"

"Down near you somewhere," answered the man above, and his words were
proved true by a bullet which hummed past Johnny's ear. He dropped to
his stomach and began to wriggle toward the flash of the gun, Hopalong
already on the way.

Cut off from escape up the trail the two Mexicans tried to work toward
the hut, from which they could put up a good fight; but their enemies
had guessed their purpose and strove to drive them off at a tangent.

Red, watching from the top of the cliff, noticed that the occasional
gun flashes were moving steadily northwestward and believed it safe to
leave his position and take an active hand in the events below. After
their experience on the up-slanting trail the Mexicans would hardly
attempt it again, even though they managed to get back to the foot of
it, which seemed very improbable. The thought became action and the
trail guard started to wriggle down the declivity, keeping close to
the bottom of the wall, where the shadows were darkest. Because of
the necessity for not being seen his progress was slow and quite some
time elapsed before he reached the bottom and obtained cover among the
scattered rocks. The infrequent reports were further away now, and
they seemed to be getting further eastward. This meant that they were
nearer to the hut, and his decision was made in a flash. The hut must
not be won by the fugitives, and he arose and ran for it, bent over
and risking safety for speed. After what seemed to be a long time he
reached the little cleared space among the rocks, bounded across it,
and leaped into the black interior of the hut. Wheeling, he leaned
against the rear wall to recover his breath, watching the open door, a
grim smile on his face. While keeping his weary watch up on the rim he
had craved action, and congratulated himself that he now was a great
deal nearer to it than he was before.

Meanwhile the two fugitives, not stomaching a real stand against the
men whom they had seen exhibit their abilities in Kane's gambling-hall,
had managed to work on a circular course until they were northwest of
the hut and not far from it. This they were enabled to do because they
were not held to a slow and cautious advance by enemies ahead of them,
as were the old Bar-20 pair. They were moving toward the hut, not far
from the north wall of the valley, when they blundered upon Trask. In
a moment he was released and began a frantic search for his gun, which
he found among the rocks not far away. Losing no time he hurried off to
release the man he would have robbed, glad to have his assistance. Kane
went into action like a spring released and began a hot search for his
Colt. When he found it, the cylinder was missing and suspicious noises
not far away from him forced him to abandon the search and seek better
cover, armed only with a deadly and efficient steel club.

Hopalong and Johnny, guided entirely by hearing, followed the
infrequent low sounds in front of them, thinking that they were made
by the Mexicans, and drew steadily away from the hut. The Mexicans,
motionless in their cover, exulted as their scheme worked out and
finally went on again with no one to oppose them. Reaching the last of
the rocky cover they arose and ran across the open, leaped into the hut
and turned, chuckling, to close the door, leaving Trask to his fate.

Warned by instinct they faced about as Red leaped. Miguel dropped under
a clubbed gun, but Manuel, writhing sidewise, raised his Colt only to
have it wrenched from his hand by his shifty opponent. Clinching, he
drew a knife and strove desperately to use it as he wrestled with his
sinewy enemy. At last he managed to force the tip of it against Red's
side, barely cutting the flesh; and turned Red into a raging fury. With
one hand around Manuel's neck and the other gripping the wrist of the
knife-hand, Red smashed his head again and again into the Mexican's
face, his knee pressing against the knifeman's stomach. Suddenly
releasing his neck hold Red twisted, got the knife-arm under his
armpit, gripped the elbow with his other hand and exerted his strength
in a twisting heave. The Mexican screamed with pain, sobbed as Red's
knee smashed into his stomach and dropped senseless, his arm broken and
useless. Red dropped with him and hastily bound him as well as possible
in the poor light from the partly opened door.

He had just finished the knot in the neckerchief when a soft, swift
rustling appraised him of danger and he moved just in time. Miguel's
knife passed through his vest and shirt and pinned him to the
hard-packed floor. Before either could make another move the door
crashed back against the wall and Kane hurtled into the hut, landing
feet first on the wriggling Mexican. He put the knife user out of the
fight and pitched sprawling. His exclamation of surprise told Red that
he was no friend and now, free from the pinning knife, Red pounced on
the scrambling boss.

The other struggles of the crowded night paled into insignificance when
compared to this one. Red's superior strength and weight was offset by
the fatigue of previous efforts, and Kane's catlike speed. They rolled
from one wall to another, pounding and strangling, Kane as innocent of
the ethics of civilized combat as a maddened bobcat, and he began to
fight in much the same way, using his finger-nails and teeth as fast as
he could find a place for them. Red wanted excitement and was getting
it. Torn and bleeding from nails and teeth, his blows lacking power
because of the closeness of the target and his own fatigue, Red shed
his veneer of civilization and fought like a gorilla. Planting his
useful and well-trained knee in the pit of his adversary's stomach,
he gripped the lean throat with both hands and hammered Kane's head
ceaselessly against the hard earth floor, while his thumbs sank deeply
on each side of the gang leader's windpipe. Too enraged to sense the
weakening opposition, he choked and hammered until Kane was limp and,
writhing from his victim's body, he knelt, grabbed Kane in his brawny
arms, staggered to his feet and with one last surge of energy, hurled
him across the hut. Kane struck the wall and dropped like a bag of
meal, his fighting over for the rest of the night.

Red stumbled over the Mexicans, fell, picked himself up, and reeled
outside, fighting for breath, his vision blurred and kaleidoscopic,
staring directly at two men among the rocks but seeing nothing. "Come
one, come all--d--d you!" he gasped.

Trask, thrice wounded, hunted, desperate, fleeing from a man who
seemed to be the devil himself with a six-gun, froze instantly as Red
appeared. Enraged by this unexpected enemy and sudden opposition where
he fondly expected to find none, Trask threw caution to the winds and
raised the muzzle of the Colt. As he pulled the trigger a soaring bulk
landed on his shoulders, knocking the exploding weapon from his hand
and sending him sprawling. Snarling like an animal he twisted around,
wriggled from under and grabbed Johnny's other Colt from its holster.
Before he could use it Johnny's knee pinned it and the hand holding
it to the ground. A clubbed six-gun did the rest and Johnny, calling
to Red to watch Trask, hurried away to see if Roberts and Corwin were
loose. The latter was helpless in the blanket, but Roberts had freed
his feet and was doing well with the knots on his wrists when Johnny's
appearance and growled command put an end to his efforts. He put the
rope back on the kicking feet and arose as Hopalong limped up.

"Phew!" exclaimed Johnny. "This has been a reg'lar night! Here, you
stay with Corwin while I tote this coyote to th' hut." He got Roberts
onto his back and staggered away, soon returning for the sheriff.

Dawn found six bound men in varying physical condition sitting with
their backs to the hut, their wounds crudely dressed and their bounds
readjusted and calculated to stay fixed. Kane was vindictive, his
eyes snapping, and he seethed with futile energy, notwithstanding
the mauling he had received. His lean face, puffed, discolored and
wolfishly cruel, worked with a steadily mounting rage, which found
vent at intervals in scathing vituperative comments about Trask, whom
he still blamed for the predicament in which he found himself. Corwin,
sullen and fearful, kept silent, his fingers picking nervously at the
buckle and strap on the back of his vest. Roberts was angry and defiant
and sneered at his erstwhile boss, sending occasional verbal shafts
into him in justification of Trask. The two Mexicans had sunk into the
black depths of despair and acted as though they were stunned. Trask, a
bitter sneer on his face, glared unflinchingly at the storming boss and
showed his teeth in grim, ironical smiles.

"Th' crossbreed shows th' cur dog when th' wolf is licked," he sneered
in reply to a particularly vicious attack of Kane's. "What you blamin'
me for? You took yore share of Nelson's money, an' took it eager. _You_
heard me!" he snarled. "I don't care who knows it--I got it, an' you
took yore part of it. It was all right _then_, wasn't it? An' you
didn't _know_ it was his--you let him make a fool of you an' wouldn't
listen to me. But as long as you got yourn you didn't care a whole lot
_who_ lost it. Serves you right."

"Shut up!" muttered Roberts.

"Shut up nothin'," jeered Trask. "Think I'm goin' to swing to save a
mad dog like him? Look at him! Look at th' dog breakin' through th'
wolf! _Wolf?_ Huh! Coyote would be more like it. Don't talk to me!" He
looked at the camp fire and at the man busy over it. "I can eat some of
that, Nelson," he said.

Johnny nodded and went on with the cooking.

Sounds of horses clattering down the steep trail suddenly were heard
and not much later Red rode up on a horse he had captured from the
rustlers' caviya and dismounted near the fire. His face was a sight,
but the grin which tried to struggle through the bruises was sincere.
He dropped two saddles to the ground, the saddles belonging to the
Mexicans, which he had stopped to strip from the dead horses on the
trail up the wall.

"Our cayuses went loco near th' crick," he said. "I left Hoppy to take
off th' saddles an' let 'em soak themselves," referring to the three
animals they had left up on the desert the evening before. "I'm all
ready to eat, Kid. How's it shapin' up?"

"Grab yore holt," grunted Johnny. He stood up to rest his back. "Mebby
it would be more polite to feed our guests first," he grinned.

Red looked at the line-up. "We'll _have_ to feed 'em, I reckon. I
ain't aimin' to untie no hands. Who's first?"

"Don't play no favorites," answered Johnny. "Go up an' down th' line
an' give 'em all a chance." He faced the prisoners. "You fellers like
yore coffee smokin'?" Only two men answered, Roberts and Trask, and
they did not like it smoking hot. "Let it cool a little, Red; no use
scaldin' anybody."

The prisoners had all been fed when Hopalong appeared on another horse
from the rustlers' caviya and swung down. "Smells good, Kid! an' looks
good," he said. "I got all th' saddles on fresh cayuses, waitin'--all
but these here. We'll lead our own cayuses. That Pepper-hoss of yourn
acts lonesome. She ain't lookin' at th' grass, at all." He sat down,
arose part way and felt in his hip pocket, bringing out the cylinder of
a six-gun. Glancing at Kane, to whom it belonged, he tossed it into the
brush and resumed his seat.

Johnny's face broke into a smile and he whistled shrilly. Quick hoof
beats replied and Pepper, her neck arched, stepped daintily across the
little level patch of ground and nosed her master.

"Ha!" grunted Trask. "That's a _hoss_!" A malignant grin spread over
his face and he turned his head to look at Kane. "Kane, how much money,
that money you got on you now, would you give to be on that black back,
up on th' edge of th' valley? _All_ of it, I bet!"

"Shut up!" snapped Roberts, angrily.

"Go to h--l," sneered Trask, and he laughed nastily. "You wait till I
speak my little piece before you tell me to shut up! No dog is goin' to
ride me to a frazzle, blamin' me for this wind-up, without me havin'
somethin' to say about it!" He looked at Red. "What was them two shots
I heard, up there on top? They was th' first fired last night."

"That was me droppin' th' Greasers' cayuses from under 'em on th'
ledge," Red answered. "They was pullin' stakes for th' desert."

"Leavin' us to do th' dancin', huh?" snapped Trask. "All right; I know
another little piece to speak. Where you fellers takin' us?"

Red shrugged his shoulders and went off to get horses for the crowd.

A straggling line of mounted men climbed the cliff trail, the horses of
the inner six fastened by lariats to each other, and three saddleless
animals brought up the rear. They pushed up against the sky line in
successive bumps and started westward across the desert.



                             CHAPTER XXIV

                         SQUARED UP ALL AROUND


Mesquite, still humming from the tension of the past week felt its
excitement grow as Bill Trask, bound securely and guarded by Hopalong,
rode down the street and stopped in front of Quayle's, where the noise
made by the gathering crowd brought Idaho to the door.

"Hey!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Look at this!" Then he ran out
and helped Hopalong with the prisoner.

Quayle, Lukins, Waffles, McCullough, and Ed Doane fell back from the
door and let the newcomers enter, Idaho slamming it shut in the face of
the crowd. Then Ed Doane had his hands full as the crowd surged into
the barroom.

"Upstairs!" said Hopalong, steering the prisoner ahead of him. In a
few minutes they all were in Johnny's old room, where Trask, his ropes
eased, began a talk which held the interest of his auditors. At its
conclusion McCullough nodded and turned to Hopalong.

"All this may be true," he said; "but what does it all amount to
without th' fellers he names? If you'd kept out of th' fight an' hadn't
set fire to that buildin' we would 'a' got every one of them he names.
Gimme Kane an' th' others an' better proof than his story an' you got a
claim to that reward that's double sewed."

Hopalong seemed contrite and downcast. He looked around the group and
let his eyes return to those of the trail-boss. "I reckon so," he
growled. "But have you got th' numbers of th' missin' bills?" he asked,
skeptically.

"Yes, I have; an' a lot of good it'll do me, _now_!" snapped
McCullough. "We was countin' on them for th' real proof, but that fool
play of yourn threw 'em into th' discard! What'n h--l made you set that
place afire?"

Hopalong shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno," he muttered. "Was you
aimin' to find th' missin' bills on them fellers?" he asked. "Would
that 'a' satisfied you?"

"Of course!" snorted the trail-boss. "An' with Trask, here, turnin'
agin' 'em like he has it would be more than enough. Any fool knows
that!"

Hopalong arose. "I'm glad to hear you come right out an' say that, for
that's what I wanted to know. I've been bothered a heap about what you
might ask in th' line of proof. You shore relieve my mind, Mac. If you
fellers will straddle leather we'll ride out where Kane an' th' others
Trask named are waitin' for visitors. I don't reckon they none of them
got away from Johnny an' Red."

"What are you talkin' about?" demanded McCullough, his mouth open from
surprise.

"I mean we've got Kane, Roberts, Corwin, Miguel, an' another Greaser
all tied up, waitin' to turn 'em over to you an' collect them rewards.
As long as we know just what you want, an' can give it to you, I don't
see no use of waitin'. I'm invitin' Lukins an' th' rest along to see
th' finish. What you goin' to do with Trask?"

McCullough was looking at him through squinting eyes, his face a more
ruddy color. Glancing around the group he let his eyes rest on Trask.
Shrugging his shoulders he faced Hopalong. "Take him south, I reckon,
with th' others. If he talks before a jury like he's talked up here I
reckon he won't be sorry for it." He walked to a window and looked down
into the street. "Hey!" he called. "Walt, get a couple of th' boys an'
come up here right away. We got somebody for you to stay with," and in
a few minutes he and the others left Walt and his companions to guard
and protect the prisoner.

The sun was at the meridian when Hopalong led his companions into the
Sand Creek camp and dismounted in front of Red, who was watching the
prisoners.

"Where's th' Kid?" he asked curiously.

"Don't you do no worryin'," answered Red. He lowered his voice and put
his mouth close to his friend's ear. "Th' Greaser on th' end is goin'
to pieces. Pound him hard an' he'll show his cards."

The information was conveyed to McCullough, who stood looking at the
downcast group. He strode over to Miguel, grabbed his shoulders and
jerked him to his feet. Running his hands into the Mexican's pockets he
brought out a roll of bills. Swiftly running through them he drew out
a bill, compared it with a slip which he produced from his own pocket,
whirled the bound man around and glared into the frightened eyes.

"Where'd you get this?" he shouted, shaking his captive.

"Kane geeve eet to me--he owe me money," answered the Mexican.

"What for?" demanded McCullough, shaking him again.

"I lend heem eet."

"You loaned _him_ money?" roared the trail-boss. "That's likely! Why
did he give it to you?"

Miguel shrugged his shoulders and did not answer.

McCullough jerked him half around and pointed to Hopalong. "This man
here saw you sneakin' from Kane's south stable with a smokin' Sharp's
in yore hand after you shot Ridley. Trask says you did it. Is _this_
all Kane gave you for that killin'?"

"I could no help," protested Miguel, squirming in the trail-boss' grip.
"W'en Kane he say do theese or that theeng, I mus' do eet. I no want to
but I mus'."

McCullough whirled around and faced Corwin. "That story you told me
down in th' bunkhouse that night about how Bill Long shot Ridley is
near word for word what Bill says about th' Greaser, an' Trask's story
backs him up. How did you come to know so much about it? Come on,
you coyote; spit it out! Who told you what to say?" Corwin's silence
angered him and he showed his teeth. "There's a lynchin' waitin' for
you in town, Corwin, if you don't stop it by speakin' up. Who told you
that?"

Corwin looked away. "Miguel," he muttered. "I told you I was hopin' to
get th' real one."

"He lie! I never say to heem one word!" shouted the Mexican. "He lie!
Kane, he was the only one who know like that beside me!"

"Stand up, _Sheriff_!" snapped McCullough. He searched the sullen
prisoner and found two rolls of bills. Going quickly over them he
removed and grouped certain of them, and then compared them with his
list. "There's five here that tally with th' bank's numbers," he said,
looking up. "Where'd you get 'em?"

"Won 'em at faro-bank."

"Won five five-hundred-dollar bills at faro, when everybody knows yo're
a two-bit gambler?" shouted the trail-boss. "I'm no d--d fool! Don't
you forget what I said about th' lynchin', Corwin. I'm all that stands
between you an' it. Where'd you get 'em? Like Trask said?"

Corwin's hunted look flashed despairingly around the group. "No," he
said. "Kane gave 'em to me, to get changed into smaller bills!"

"Reckon Kane must 'a' robbed that bank all by hisself," sneered
McCullough. "I never knowed he had diamond drills an' could bust
safes. Didn't you go along to protect an' keep an eye on that eastern
safe-blower that Kane had come to do th' job? _Pronto!_ Didn't you?"

"I had to," growled Corwin, in a voice so low that the answer was lost
to all but the man to whom he was talking.

McCullough gave him a contemptuous shove and wheeled to question
Roberts. "Get up," he ordered, and searched the rustler trail-boss. "By
G--d!" he exclaimed when he saw the size of the roll. "You coyotes was
makin' money fast! There's near three thousand here! Let's see how they
compare with my list." In a few moments he nodded. "How'd you get these
five-hundred-dollar bills? Kane give 'em to you, too?"

"No, Kane didn't give 'em to me!" snapped Roberts in angry contempt.
"I earned 'em as my share of th' bank robbery, along with Corwin, th'
white-livered snake! Kane didn't give 'em to either of us." He glared
at the one-time sheriff. "I'm sayin' plain that if I ever get a chance
I'm aimin' to shoot this skunk, along with Trask. You hear me?"

"If you ain't got a gun, hunt me up an' I'll lend you one," offered
Idaho.

"Shut up!" snapped McCullough, glaring at the puncher. Whirling he
pushed Roberts away. "It'll be a long time before you shoot anybody or
anythin'. Now, then," he said, stepping up in front of Kane: "Get up!"

Kane arose slowly, his eyes burning with rage. He submitted to the
exploring fingers of the trail-boss and maintained a contemptuous
silence as his shirt was whipped up out of his trousers and the two
money belts removed from around his waist.

McCullough opened the belts and his eyes at the same time. Neatly
folded bunches of greenbacks followed each other in swift succession
from the pockets of the belts and, scattering as they were tossed into
a pile, made quite an imposing sight. Staring eyes regarded them and
more than one observer's mouth gaped widely.

"Seven thousand," announced McCullough, reaching for another handful.
"I'm sayin' you wasn't leavin' nothin' behind." He looked up again
after a moment. "Eighteen thousand five hundred," he growled and picked
up another handful. "Holy mavericks!" he breathed as the last bill was
counted and placed on the new pile. "Forty-nine thousand eight hundred
and seventy! You was takin' chances, totin' all that with this gang of
thieves! Fifty thousand dollars, U. S.!"

Handing his written list to Quayle, he selected the
five-hundred-dollar bills and called off the numbers laboriously,
Quayle as laboriously hunting through the list. It took considerable
time before they were checked off and put to one side, and then he
looked up.

"There's still a-plenty of them bills missin'," he announced. "Where
did _they_ get to?"

Hopalong stepped forward and drew a roll from his pocket. "Here's what
I found on Sandy Woods when he died in this camp," he said, offering it
to the astonished trail-boss.

McCullough took it, opened and counted it and called the numbers off to
the excited holder of the list.

"They're all on th' list--th' Lord be praised!" said Quayle.

"Where'd Sandy Woods come in this?" demanded McCullough, looking around
from face to face.

Roberts sneered. "Huh! He was th' man that took th' safe-blower out of
th' country. He didn't have no hand in th' bank job. I'm glad th' skunk
died, an' I'm glad it was me that planned his finish. He shore must 'a'
held up that feller. How much is there, in th' bank's bills?"

"Five thousand," answered the trail-boss.

"He got it all, cuss him!" snorted Roberts.

McCullough looked at Kane. "I never hoped to meet you like this," he
said. "I ain't goin' to ask you no questions--you can talk in court,
an' explain how you came to have so many of th' registered bills; an'
there's other little things you can tell about, if somebody don't tell
it all first." He turned to Hopalong. "We'll be takin' these fellers to
th' ranch now."

"Better take th' reward money out of that bundle," replied Hopalong,
nodding at the money in the hands of the trail-boss. "We've dealt 'em
like you asked, an' gave you th' cards you want. Our part is finished."

McCullough looked from him to the prisoners and then at his friends.
"How can I hand it to _you_?" he asked. "Where's Nelson? He's settin'
in this."

"He'll show up after th' money's paid," said Red innocently as he arose.

McCullough hesitated and looked around again. As he did so Idaho
carelessly walked over to Red, smoothing out a cigarette paper, and
took hold of a paper tag hanging out of Red's pocket and pulled it.
Carelessly rolling a cigarette he shoved the tobacco sack back where
he had found it, but he did not leave Red's side. Blowing a lungful of
smoke into the air he smiled at McCullough.

"Shucks, Mac," he said. "You shouldn't ought to have no trouble findin'
them rewards in that unholy wad. An' mebby you could find Nelson's
missin' eleven hundred on Trask, if you looked real hard. I like a man
that goes through with his play."

"I'm not lookin' for no eleven hundred at all!" snapped McCullough.
"An' I ain't shore that they've earned th' reward, burnin' that
buildin' like they did! They let these fellers get away, first!"

"I just handed you th' money I found on Sandy Woods," said Hopalong.
"That's like givin' it to you to pay us with. H--l! You act like you
hated to make good Twitchell's bargain. Well, of course, you don't have
to take this bunch, nor th' money, neither; but I'm sayin' they don't
go separate. Suits us, Mac--we'll keep th' whole show--money an' all,
if you say so."

"Fine chance you got!" retorted the trail-boss, bridling. "They're
here--an' I'm takin' 'em, _with_ th' money."

"There ain't nobody takin' nothin'," rejoined Hopalong calmly, "until
th' bargain's finished. Don't rile Johnny, off there in th' brush;
he's plumb touchy." His drawling voice changed swiftly. "Come on--a
bargain's a bargain. Five thousand, _now_!"

"Mac!" said Quayle's accusing voice.

The trail-boss looked at the money in his hand and slowly counted out
the reward amount, careful not to include any of the registered bills.
"Here," he said, handing them to Hopalong. "You give us a hand gettin'
'em to th' ranch?"

"If three of us could catch 'em, an' bring 'em here," said Hopalong,
coldly, "I reckon you got enough help to take 'em th' rest of th'
way--if you steer clear of town."

"Don't worry, Mac," said Idaho, cheerfully. "_I_'ll go along with you."

The trail-boss growled in his throat and began, with Lukins, Waffles,
and Quayle, to get the prisoners on the horses. This soon was
accomplished and he headed them south, Lukins on the other side, Quayle
and Waffles and Idaho bringing up the rear.

"Better come to town for a celebration," called the proprietor,
disappointment in his voice. "Ye can leave at dawn."

Johnny shook his head. "There's a celebration waitin' at th' ranch,"
he shouted, and turned to find his two companions mounted and his
black horse waiting impatiently for him. Mounting, he wheeled to face
northward, but checked the horse and turned to look back in answer to
a faint hail from Idaho, and grinned at the insulting gesture of the
distant puncher.

He replied in kind, chuckled, and dashed forward to overtake his moving
friends.

"Home!" he exulted. "Home--an' _Peggy_!"



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=Are All Men Alike, and The Lost Titian.= By Arthur Stringer.

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=Bar 20=. By Clarence E. Mulford.

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=Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale.= By Frank L. Packard.


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=Golden Scorpion, The.= By Sax Rohmer.

=Golden Slipper, The.= By Anna Katharine Green.

=Golden Woman, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=Good References.= By E. J. Rath.

=Gorgeous Girl, The.= By Nalbro Bartley.

=Gray Angels, The.= By Nalbro Bartley.

=Great Impersonation, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Greater Love Hath No Man.= By Frank L. Packard.

=Green Eyes of Bast, The.= By Sax Rohmer.

=Greyfriars Bobby.= By Eleanor Atkinson.

=Gun Brand, The.= By James B. Hendryx.


=Hand of Fu-Manchu, The.= By Sax Rohmer.

=Happy House.= By Baroness Von Hutten.

=Harbor Road, The.= By Sara Ware Bassett.

=Havoc.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Heart of the Desert, The.= By Honorè Willsie.

=Heart of the Hills, The.= By John Fox, Jr.

=Heart of the Sunset.= By Rex Beach.

=Heart of Thunder Mountain, The.= By Edfrid A. Bingham.

=Heart of Unaga, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=Hidden Children, The.= By Robert W. Chambers.

=Hidden Trails.= By William Patterson White.

=Highflyers, The.= By Clarence B. Kelland.

=Hillman, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Hills of Refuge, The.= By Will N. Harben.

=His Last Bow.= By A. Conan Doyle.

=His Official Fiancee.= By Berta Ruck.

=Honor of the Big Snows.= By James Oliver Curwood.

=Hopalong Cassidy.= By Clarence E. Mulford.

=Hound from the North, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=House of the Whispering Pines, The.= By Anna Katharine Green.

=Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker.= By S. Weir Mitchell, M.D.

=Humoresque.= By Fannie Hurst.


=I Conquered.= By Harold Titus.

=Illustrious Prince, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=In Another Girl's Shoes.= By Berta Ruck.

=Indifference of Juliet, The.= By Grace S. Richmond.

=Inez.= (Ill. Ed.) By Augusta J. Evans.

=Infelice.= By Augusta Evans Wilson.

=Initials Only.= By Anna Katharine Green.

=Inner Law, The.= By Will N. Harben.

=Innocent.= By Marie Corelli.

=In Red and Gold.= By Samuel Merwin.

=Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, The.= By Sax Rohmer.

=In the Brooding Wild.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=Intriguers, The.= By William Le Queux.

=Iron Furrow, The.= By George C. Shedd.

=Iron Trail, The.= By Rex Beach.

=Iron Woman, The.= By Margaret Deland.

=Ishmael.= (Ill.) By Mrs. Southworth.

=Island of Surprise.= By Cyrus Townsend Brady.

=I Spy.= By Natalie Sumner Lincoln.

=It Pays to Smile.= By Nina Wilcox Putnam.

=I've Married Marjorie.= By Margaret Widdemer.


=Jean of the Lazy A.= By B. M. Bower.

=Jeanne of the Marshes.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Jennie Gerhardt.= By Theodore Dreiser.

=Johnny Nelson.= By Clarence E. Mulford.

=Judgment House, The.= By Gilbert Parker.


=Keeper of the Door, The.= By Ethel M. Dell.

=Keith of the Border.= By Randall Parrish.

=Kent Knowles: Quahaug.= By Joseph C. Lincoln.

=Kingdom of the Blind, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=King Spruce.= By Holman Day.

=Knave of Diamonds, The.= By Ethel M. Dell.


=La Chance Mine Mystery, The.= By S. Carleton.

=Lady Doc, The.= By Caroline Lockhart.

=Land-Girl's Love Story, A.= By Berta Ruck.

=Land of Strong Men, The.= By A. M. Chisholm.

=Last Straw, The.= By Harold Titus.

=Last Trail, The.= By Zane Grey.

=Laughing Bill Hyde.= By Rex Beach.

=Laughing Girl, The.= By Robert W. Chambers.

=Law Breakers, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=Law of the Gun, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=League of the Scarlet Pimpernel.= By Baroness Orczy.

=Lifted Veil, The.= By Basil King.

=Lighted Way, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Lin McLean.= By Owen Wister.

=Little Moment of Happiness, The.= By Clarence Budington Kelland.

=Lion's Mouse, The.= By C. N. & A. M. Williamson.

=Lonesome Land.= By B. M. Bower.

=Lone Wolf, The.= By Louis Joseph Vance.

=Lonely Stronghold, The.= By Mrs. Baillie Reynolds.

=Long Live the King.= By Mary Roberts Rinehart.

=Lost Ambassador.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Lost Prince, The.= By Frances Hodgson Burnett.

=Lydia of the Pines.= By Honorè Willsie.

=Lynch Lawyers.= By William Patterson White.


=Macaria.= (Ill. Ed.) By Augusta J. Evans.

=Maid of the Forest, The.= By Randall Parrish.

=Maid of Mirabelle, The.= By Eliot H. Robinson.

=Maid of the Whispering Hills, The.= By Vingie E. Roe.

=Major, The.= By Ralph Connor.

=Maker of History, A.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Malefactor, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Man from Bar 20, The.= By Clarence E. Mulford.

=Man from Bitter Roots, The.= By Caroline Lockhart.

=Man from Tall Timber, The.= By Thomas K. Holmes.

=Man an the Jury Box, The.= By Robert Orr Chipperfield.

=Man-Killers, The.= By Dane Coolidge.

=Man Proposes.= By Eliot H. Robinson, author of "Smiles."

=Man Trail, The.= By Henry Oyen.

=Man Who Couldn't Sleep, The.= By Arthur Stringer.

=Marqueray's Duel.= By Anthony Pryde.

=Mary 'Gusta.= By Joseph C. Lincoln.

=Mary Wollaston.= By Henry Kitchell Webster.

=Mason of Bar X Ranch.= By E. Bennett.

=Master Christian, The.= By Marie Corelli.

=Master Mummer, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.= By A. Conan Doyle.

=Men Who Wrought, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=Midnight of the Ranges.= By George Gilbert.

=Mischief Maker, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Missioner, The.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Miss Million's Maid.= By Berta Ruck.

=Money Master, The.= By Gilbert Parker.

=Money Moon, The.= By Jeffery Farnol.

=Moonlit Way, The.= By Robert W. Chambers.

=More Tish.= By Mary Roberts Rinehart.

=Mountain Girl, The.= By Payne Erskine.

=Mr. Bingle.= By George Barr McCutcheon.

=Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo.= By E. Phillips Oppenheim.

=Mr. Pratt.= By Joseph C. Lincoln.

=Mr. Pratt's Patients.= By Joseph C. Lincoln.

=Mr. Wu.= By Louise Jordan Miln.

=Mrs. Balfame.= By Gertrude Atherton.

=Mrs. Red Pepper.= By Grace S. Richmond.

=My Lady of the North.= By Randall Parrish.

=My Lady of the South.= By Randall Parrish.

=Mystery of the Hasty Arrow, The.= By Anna K. Green.

=Mystery of the Silver Dagger, The.= By Randall Parrish.

=Mystery of the 13th Floor, The.= By Lee Thayer.


=Nameless Man, The.= By Natalie Sumner Lincoln.

=Ne'er-Do-Well, The.= By Rex Beach.

=Net, The.= By Rex Beach.

=New Clarion.= By Will N. Harben.

=Night Horseman, The.= By Max Brand.

=Night Operator, The.= By Frank L. Packard.

=Night Riders, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=North of the Law.= By Samuel Alexander White.


=One Way Trail, The.= By Ridgwell Cullum.

=Outlaw, The.= By Jackson Gregory.

=Owner of the Lazy D.= By William Patterson White.


=Painted Meadows.= By Sophie Kerr.

=Palmetto.= By Stella G. S. Perry.

=Paradise Bend.= By William Patterson White.

=Pardners.= By Rex Beach.

=Parrot & Co.= By Harold MacGrath.

=Partners of the Night.= By Leroy Scott.





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