Flames of the Storm
FLAMES OF THE
By W. C. Tuttle
A Complete Novelette
Author of “Ajax for Example,” “The Range-Boomer,” etc.
IT WAS the year of the big in the valley of Moon River; a season when every blade of grass was worth its weight in gold to the cattlemen, who watched with jealous care over their unstaked portions of the range and guarded closely their almost dry water-holes.
Day after day through the long Summer the merciless sun had baked the grass-roots; browning the-land; burning below the surface, until a puff of wind would drift the soil, as a wind drifts dry snow. Even the sage and greasewood turned from purple to brownish-gray.
Along the river, which wound its way through this crescent-shaped valley, the leaves of willow and cottonwood hummed paper-dry in the hot winds, while the river, itself, was shrunken to half its normal Summer stage.
The range cattle were red-eyed, hollow of flank and dust-colored and when they stopped to graze their panting nostrils would send up tiny puffs of smoke-like dust. In all that valley of rolling hills, which sloped upward on both sides to the hazy heights of the Shoshone Mountains, there was no sign of green vegetation.
Riding down the slope of one of these hills, heading toward the river, came a tall, thin cowboy, unshaven and unshorn. The expression of his thin face was serious as he squinted into the hazy distance and spoke softly to his rangy bay horse—
“Bronc, 'f this ain't the best place I ever seen t' commit murder in, then my name ain't 'Skeeter Bill' Sarg.”
The horse sniffed suspiciously at the dry grass, but did not crop at it.
“Ain't much juice left in that kinda feed,” declared Skeeter Bill, removing his sombrero and wiping his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. For a few minutes he surveyed the country before riding on.
Suddenly he drew rein and sniffed at the breeze. His rather long nose quivered, and he shook his head. Beyond him a cloud of dust floated over the skyline of a ridge, growing more dense. It was impossible to see what was making the dust-cloud, but whatever it was, it came over the ridge toward Skeeter Bill and dipped down into the depression beyond.
“Sheep!” snorted Skeeter Bill with the true cowman's disgust of such animals. “We shore poked into one fine country t' poke right out of ag'in, bronc.”
Skeeter Bill turned and rode angling along the side of the hill, going through a heavy thicket of greasewood. Suddenly his horse jerked ahead and went to its knees, and Skeeter fell head first into a thick clump of brush. As he fell he heard the whip-like snap of a rifle, and he knew that some one had shot his horse from under him.
He backed out of the tangle and investigated. His bay had crashed into some brush farther down the hill, and Skeeter could see that it was dead. He swore softly and held his gun ready.
The bullet had torn through Skeeter's chaps, along his thigh, missing the flesh by a narrow margin, and had broken the back of the tall bay horse. Skeeter had no idea why he had been shot at, nor how many men might be ready to shoot at him again. It was a ticklish situation, but Skeeter smiled grimly and waited.
Far away he could hear the soft bawling of sheep and the tiny tinkle of a bell. A blue jay screeched harshly from down the cañon. Suddenly the brush crashed as if some one had stumbled into it. Skeeter glanced keenly in that direction, but did not move.
In a few moments the brush crashed again, and Skeeter grinned widely. He knew that some one was tossing rocks into the dry brush to try to get him to investigate. He snuggled a trifle lower and peered low through the tangle of brush above him. Whoever it was, they were moving very cautiously, for no sound of footsteps had come to his ears.
Suddenly his eyes focused on something. It might be part of the brush, and again it might be the legs of a man; a man whose body was completely screened by the heavy foliage. Skeeter considered these leg-like things very closely. Then came a dry cough—more like a wheezing chuckle; as if the man had tried to choke it and merely strangled. It came from above the legs.
“Pardner,” said Skeeter distinctly, “I've got yore legs in trouble. 'F yuh don't toss yore gun over toward me, I'm shore goin't' interest yuh in a pair of crutches.”
The legs remained motionless, but from their owner came another wheezing cough. In fact, the man coughed for quite a while, and the visible legs shook weakly at the finish.
“Now, throw over the gun,” ordered Skeeter, and a moment later a Winchester rifle crashed into the brush and hung up in view of Skeeter.
“C'm on out, pardner,” said Skeeter. “Walk right down past where the rifle hangs, and I'll kinda look yuh over.”
The man was coming down through the brush before Skeeter had finished, and broke his way out into the open a moment later.
“Keep yore hands above yore waist,” ordered Skeeter meaningly, “while I look yuh over.”
The man was possibly not more than thirty years of age, yet looked much older. A stubbly beard covered the lower part of his face, and a pair of weary-looking eyes seemed to consider Skeeter closely.
The man was not evil-looking, in spite of his unkempt appearance. His torn shirt was clean, as were the worn overalls. He coughed softly again, and a flush crept across his thin cheeks.
“Shucks!” muttered Skeeter softly. “Whatcha tryin' t' kill me for, pardner?”
The man shook his head slowly, wearily.
“What's the use of arguing about it? I'm willing to take what's coming to me. I got tired of being shot at, that's all.”
“Well,” grinned Skeeter, “that's a-plenty, 'f yuh stop t' ask me. C'm here and set down.”
The man obeyed wonderingly.
“Yuh got a bad cough,” observed Skeeter.
“Go ahead,” said the man bitterly. “It's my cough—not yours.”
“Aw, ——!” grunted Skeeter. “I beg yore pardon. I'm always sayin' the wrong thing.”
He studied the man for several moments, and then:
“Mind tellin' me somethin'? Honest t' goodness, I don't know a danged thing about this here country. I just rode in. When a feller gets his bronc shot out from under him he kinda wants t' know why.”
The man's eyes expressed his unbelief. Skeeter laid his six-shooter across his lap and rolled a cigaret while he waited for the man to explain.
“Well,” began the man slowly,” you've got me dead to rights; so it don't make much difference now. If you're one of the cattle-men I'll likely get lynched for killing the horse.”
“Likely,” nodded Skeeter dryly. “'F yuh don't get lynched, you'll figger out that I've told yuh the truth.”
Skeeter leaned a little closer and tapped the man on the knee with his finger.
“Pardner, 'f there's anythin' yuh don't want t' tell me the truth about—don't tell anythin'. Sabe what I mean?”
“Afraid I'll lie to you?”
“Tellin' yuh not to. I don't care who yuh are, nor what yuh are, pardner. I reckon the killin' of my bronc was a mistake, but that's all past. I don't lie, and I won't stand for no man lyin' t' me.”
The man looked curiously at him wondering if this lanky cowboy was joking or not. No, he decided that Skeeter Bill was not joking. A man who would not lie and would not stand for a liar was a novelty in the range-land. The man decided against prevarication.
“My name is Kirk,” he stated; “Jim Kirk.”
“Mine's Sarg,” grinned Skeeter. “Mostly always, folks calls me Skeeter Bill.”
“I'm a sheepherder,” stated Kirk.
“I'm not!” snapped Skeeter. “I hate the-things.”
Kirk nodded and dug into the hard soil with the heel of his boot.
“I don't love 'em,” he admitted softly, shaking his head. “Nobody does, I guess. Still—” Kirk lifted his head and gazed off across the tangle of brush—“still, they have made it possible for me to live out here.”
“If it wasn't for the sheep I would probably have to live in a city.”
Skeeter cleared his throat softly.
“Well, under them circumstances sheep ain't so danged bad, I reckon. Feller does feel better, livin' out here in the old hills. Mebbe I'd herd sheep, too.”
“Yes, you'd do anything to keep living.”
“I come danged near shufflin' off a while ago,” reminded Skeeter seriously. “That bronc was worth a lot t' me.”
The cough came again and occupied Kirk's attention for a period.
“I'm awful sorry about the horse,” he panted hoarsely. “I thought you might be gunning for me, and I wanted to beat you to it,”
“You shore had the proper idea,” grinned Skeeter.
“The idea was all right,” admitted Kirk, “and, as I said before, I got tired of being shot at.”
“Cows and sheep kinda warrin' round?” queried Skeeter Bill.
Kirk nodded slowly.
“Yes. In a way I don't blame the cow-men. This range has belonged to them ever since the first cow came in over the hill. The sheep will ruin it for anything but sheep, but the law says that sheep and cows have equal rights.”
Skeeter Bill snorted. The law had never meant much to him.
“And so the cow-men takes things in their own hands, eh?”
“It seems that way,” smiled Kirk.
“You own the sheep?” queried Skeeter.
Kirk shook his head.
“Nope,” he denied. “I'm just a hired sheepherder.”
Skeeter considered Kirk's humped figure for a space of time, and then—
“You ain't no hired killer, Kirk; so why take a chance on killin' or gittin' killed?”
Kirk coughed softly and got to his feet. The sun was yet an hour high, but the cañons were already blocky with purple shadows. From farther down the hill came the bleating of sheep; the everlasting, meaningless “baa, baa, baa, baa” from hundreds of throats.
Kirk turned and looked at Skeeter.
“No, I am not a killer. I never shot at a man before.”
He pointed down across the brush toward the sheep.
“Do you think I love those things? Sarg, I am not physically fit to do a man's work, and I can't live inside a house. Out here in the hills I have a fighting chance to live, and there is nothing I can get to do, that I can do, except herd sheep.”
“Well,” drawled Skeeter, “I reckon we better give three cheers for the sheep. But I'm still a li'l hazy as t' why yuh tried t' bump me off, pardner.”
“Self-defense. I thought 'you was one of the gang that left the warning it my camp yesterday. They ordered me to pack up and get out—my wife and me.”
“Oh!” grunted Skeeter softly. “You've got a wife with yuh?”
Kirk nodded, and a deep crease appeared between his eyes as he frowned over his own thoughts. Suddenly he shook his head and looked down toward the sheep.
“It's time to take them back, I guess,” he remarked. “You might come down to camp with me and have something to eat.”
“I'll take yuh up on that, pardner; but I'll get m' saddle first.”
It was only a few moments' work to strip the saddle from the dead horse and to remove the bridle. Skeeter made no more comments about the dead horse. The tall bay had served him well; but Skeeter in his time had ridden many horses, and this was not the first one to perish under him.
CARRYING the heavy saddle, he helped Kirk round up the herd of sheep and head them in the direction of the bed-ground. Through a filmy cloud of dust they followed the bleating herd along the side of the cañon, until of their own accord the sheep headed down on to a flat, where Skeeter could see an old tumbledown shack and part of an old pole-corral.
Smoke was issuing from the crooked old chimney, and as they drew nearer a woman came to the open doorway and looked at them. She was dressed in faded calico and coarse shoes, but Skeeter thought he had never seen a more beautiful face.
After a searching glance at him the woman darted from the doorway and ran to Kirk, as if partly for protection and partly to find out if he was all right. Kirk put an arm around her shoulders and turned to Skeeter.
“Sarg, that is my wife.”
“Glad t' meetcha,” muttered Skeeter as he placed the saddle on the ground and held out his hand.
The woman glanced at Kirk before she shook hands with Skeeter Bill.
“I killed his horse,” said Kirk slowly. “I thought he was one of the cowboys.”
“Tha's all right,” grinned Skeeter. “Mistakes'll happen in the best of families. I've been mistaken f'r the same thing before.”
“Then you're not a cowboy?” queried Mrs. Kirk.
“I dunno.” Skeeter Bill shook his head. “I've been a lot of things, ma'am, and I dunno which one took the most. I'm just kinda pesticatin' around, yuh see. I poked into this here country, and unless I'm misreadin' the signs I'm goin' t' poke right out again.”
“You'll have to get another horse,” reminded Kirk.
“Uh-huh. But that's a cinch in a cow-country. I've got a rope left.”
Mrs. Kirk turned to the doorway, as she said—
“Supper is almost ready, Jim, and I know you must be starved—you and Mr. Sarg.”
“Yes, ma'am,” said Skeeter seriously. “I sure could fold up quite a parcel of food right now, thank yuh kindly.”
Skeeter and Kirk washed at the little spring, where a little fence had been built to block out the sheep.
“Does yore wife like this kind of a life?” queried Skeeter.
Kirk shook his head as he squatted on his heels at the side of the spring.
“I don't think so, Sarg, but she is willing to do it for my sake.”
Skeeter rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a while and shook his head.
“I dunno much about women, Kirk—the right kind. You ain't much t' look at. She's mighty pretty and sweet; but she's willin' t' live out here, alongside of a bunch of blattin' woollies, just cause it's goin' t' help you.”
“That's love, Sarg.”
Skeeter Bill squinted closely at Kirk's face and looked back toward the cabin door.
“Love—eh? Heat and dirt and the smell of sheep! Old rickety cabin, canned food and swappin' lead with the cattlemen. No other women; lonesome as ——!”
Skeeter looked down at Kirk and nodded slowly.
“Yeah, I reckon it must be love, pardner,” he went on. “I ain't never seen it in that kind of a package before, so I didn't sabe it on sight.”
“She's my pal—my bunkie,” said Kirk slowly. “She's willing to go fifty-fifty with me in everything.”
“Thasso? About bein' a pal—I didn't know that a woman could be thataway. Women, t' me, have always been kinda—mebbe I didn't look at 'em right, Kirk. I kinda like that bunkie idea, y'betcha.”
“She's the best in the world,” said Kirk softly as they neared the house.
“I s'pose,” nodded Skeeter. “I s'pose that's right.”
The supper was meager in variety as well as in quantity, but it was well cooked.
“I've got to go to town tomorrow,” stated Kirk. “We are out of food. I've been putting it off for several days, but it has become an absolute necessity.”
“I hate to have you go to town, Jim,” said Mrs. Kirk. “Under the circumstances it is hard to tell what might happen.”
“Don't you worry, honey.”
Kirk leaned across the table and patted her on the shoulder.
“I'll hitch up the old horse to the old wagon in the morning,” he continued, “and be back here in two hours with a load of food.”
“I've got a better scheme than that,” grinned Skeeter. “I'll go after yore grub for yuh.”
Kirk shook his head.
“No, I can't let you get into any trouble on our account. They would recognize that horse and wagon, and you can't tell what would happen.”
“I'd shore like t' see what would happen,” said Skeeter slowly, rolling a cigaret. “I'm willin', 'f the town is, and I ain't got nobody waitin' f'r me t' come back all in one chunk.”
“But why should you do this for us?” asked Kirk. “I killed your horse and nearly killed you.”
“I dunno why,” said Skeeter honestly. “'F I stopped t' ask m'self, 'Why?' all the time, I'd never do anythin'. Tell me somethin' about this sheep and cattle trouble.”
“We are from Chicago,” said Kirk. “I was a telegraph operator in a brokerage office until a specialist told me that I must live in the hills or quit living entirely. Then we came West with no place in mind and very little money to start with.
“Somehow we came to Wheeler City and met the man who offered me this job. He was sending in a lot of sheep, which were to be driven in through Table Rock Pass and then broken up into several bands.
“We didn't have a dollar left when this offer came to us, and we accepted it quickly. It was a mighty hard trip for us, because neither of us had ever roughed it before. On this side of the pass the herd was split into four parts and a man led us to this spot.
“Nothing was said to us about trouble with the cattle-men. We were given a rifle and a shotgun and plenty of ammunition. The shotgun is over there in the corner. I have never fired it.”
“How long have yuh been in here?” asked Skeeter.
“Two weeks. Three men were killed in the next camp to us on the first day—two sheep-men and one cowboy. The man who brought us in was arrested, although he had nothing to do with the shooting. The judge turned him loose and notified the cattle-men that the sheep-men were not to be molested until it could be fought out in the courts. The cattle-men know that it will take months to get a decision, and in the meantime the sheep are wearing out the range.”
“Who owns the sheep?”
Kirk shook his head.
“I don't know. The man who hired me is named McClelland. He did not admit ownership in court, but stated that he was responsible for the sheep.”
“You been shot at?”
“Five times,” said Kirk. “Anyway I think they shot at me; Perhaps they merely tried to frighten me. At least a dozen of my sheep have been killed at long range.”
“Yuh spoke about a warnin',” reminded Skeeter.
Kirk got up and took a piece of paper from a shelf above the table. It was crudely printed with a lead pencil, and read:
GIT OUT AND KEEP GOING.
WE DON'T LIKE SHEEP BUT
WE DO LIKE PURTY WIMIN.
THE LAW AIN'T GOING TO
HELP YOU NONE IN THIS
CASE. YOU BETTER HEED.
There was no name signed to this missive, but its meaning was very plain. Skeeter squinted up at Kirk and handed him the paper.
“You ain't goin' t' heed?”
“They wouldn't dare harm my wife, Sarg.”
Skeeter looked at Mrs. Kirk and back to Kirk.
“Pardner, yo're a long, long ways from Chicago. Folks say that men are big-minded, big-hearted in the West, but it takes all kinds of folks t' make up the West, just like it does the East. Some of these cattle-men hate a sheepherder, and 'f that sheepherder had a danged purty wife— Still, they was honest enough t' give yuh a warnin'.”
“Would you heed it?” demanded Kirk.
Skeeter rubbed his chin and glanced at Mrs. Kirk, who was watching him intently.
“If you were sick and needed the work, and your wife was willing to stay with you?” added Kirk softly.
“No, by ——!” exploded Skeeter Bill. “Not as long as I had a shell left f'r m' gun, or one arm able t' throw rocks.”
“That's how I feel,” said Kirk.
“But what protection has your wife got? You have t' leave her here alone, don'tcha?”
“Not all the time,” said Mrs. Kirk. “I go out with him quite a lot, and when I am here I have the shotgun, you see.”
Skeeter Bill crossed the room and picked up the shotgun. It was a sawed-off Winchester, with a magazine full of buckshot-loaded shells. Skeeter grinned at Mrs. Kirk.
“Didja ever shoot this, ma'am?”
“No, I never have; but I know I could.”
Skeeter placed the gun back in the corner.
“Perhaps we ought to try it,” said Kirk. “I don't know how it shoots.”
“Oh, it'll shoot,” said Skeeter. “Don'tcha worry about that; but it ain't nothin' t' practise with. When the right time comes, just squeeze the trigger.”
“I hope I shall never have to use it,” said Mr3. Kirk.
“I hope not,” agreed Skeeter; “but 'f yuh ever do have to—don't hesitate, ma'am.”
“I do not think I shall.”
Mrs. Kirk shook her head.
“Jim and I came out here to stay, you know,” she added.
“That's shore the way t' look at it, ma'am.”
“Do you intend to locate in this country?” asked Kirk.
Skeeter grinned widely.
“No-o-o,” he said, “I can't say I am. I ain't much of a locator, Kirk. I'm jist kinda driftin' along—mostly. I ain't got nobody t' care where I wind up m' li'l ball of yarn. M' pardner got killed in Sunbeam, and since then I've kinda moseyed along.”
“We heard' of Sunbeam,” said Mrs. Kirk. “A new mining-country, isn't it? We thought perhaps we might go there, but there is no railroad and they told us that it was a long desert trip.”
“I guess it's a tough place,” added Kirk.
“It was,” agreed Skeeter thoughtfully. “But there ain't an outlaw left in the town now.”
“What became of them?” asked Kirk.
“Well—” Skeeter rubbed his chin slowly—“well, he rode away.”
“He rode away? Was there only one?”
“Uh-huh—only one left. The rest cashed in one night. I dunno who's moved in since he left.”
“You don't mean to say that you——”
Skeeter got slowly to his feet and hitched up his belt.
“'F you folks don't mind I'll spread m' blankets out by the li'l corral,” he said.
“There's room in here,” said Mrs. Kirk.
Skeeter shook his head and went out to his saddle, where he untied his blanket-roll and took it up by the little tumble-down corral.
Moonlight silvered the hills, and the moon itself was stereoscopic, hanging like a huge ball in the sky, instead of showing as a flat plane. From the bed-ground came the soft bleating of sheep, while farther back in the hills a coyote barked snappily for a moment and wailed out his dismal howl.
Skeeter wrapped up in his blanket and puffed slowly on a cigaret. He was thinking of Sunbeam and of Mary Leeds, who had come seeking her father. Skeeter had ridden away the night he had been instrumental in cleaning up the outlaws of Sunbeam the night that Mary Leeds' father had been killed.
Skeeter's partner, Judge Tareyton, was Mary's father, but no one knew it until after the judge had died, and Skeeter, broken-hearted over the death of his old partner, had ridden away in the night; ridden away, so that with his going, Sunbeam might be entirely rid of outlaws.
He wondered what had become of Mary Leeds. He knew that the good people would take care of her. He could still hear her voice calling, “Skeeter Bill” to him, as he rode away in the night, and for the first time since that night he wondered why she called to him.
He found himself comparing her to Mrs. Kirk. No, she was not as pretty as Mrs. Kirk, but they were alike in some ways. Finally he snuggled deeper in his blankets and threw away his cigaret. The words of old Judge Tareyton come back to him—
“Keep smilin', son, and don't forget that God put a spark in you—a spark that will flare up and build a big flame for you—if you'll let it.”
Skeeter smiled seriously at the memory picture of his old drunken lawyer partner and eased himself to a comfortable sleeping position.
CRESCENT CITY was the county seat of Moon River County, and a typical cattle town. The branch line of the N. W. Railroad came in out of the desert, dropped down through a winding pass, traversed nearly the entire length of the valley and wound its way eastward through the Southern Pass.
Just now Crescent City was the seat of much agitation, due to the invasion of sheep. Bearded cattle owners and hard-faced cowboys thronged the town, arguing, prophesying, swearing at the law, which gave a sheep the same rights as a cow. The saloons were doing a big business, as were the gambling-halls, and fights were plentiful and easy to start.
Judge Grayson, following his decision in the matter, had remained religiously at home. He was a married man, small of physique, and abhorred violence. Several reckless cowboys had openly sworn to scalp the judge and tie the scalp on a bald-headed sheep.
Ben Freel, the sheriff, was another object of wrath with the cattle-men. None of them considered the duty of a sheriff in this case. Freel was a gun-man, cold as ice, and heartless in matters concerning his sworn duty, and he remained unmoved under the vitriolic criticism hurled at his back.
With the cattle-men it was a case of ousting the sheep or quitting the cattle business. It was true that only a small part of the range was being sheeped out; but if the sheep once gained a foot-hold in the valley of Moon River it would only be a question of a short time until more sheep would come pouring in through Table Rock Pass.
Cleve Hart owned the Lazy H outfit, which was the largest in the Moon River range, with the home ranch within two miles of Crescent City. It was a combined horse and cow outfit and employed many cowboys.
And in all that range land there was no man more bitter toward sheep than Cleve Hart. He was a big man, hard of face, hard-riding, hard-drinking, and a hard fighter. And he hated Ben Freel.
As far as that was concerned, there was no love lost between them, for Freel hated Cleve Hart with all his soul. Hart also hated Judge Grayson—not because he was a judge, but because he was a friend to Ben Freel.
It was Hart's cowboys who killed off the two sheep-herders, losing one of their number at the same time; and it was Hart who declared openly to wipe out all the sheep and sheep-herders, but was stopped by Ben Freel and later restrained by the law.
It was fairly early in the morning when Skeeter Bill drove down the main street of Crescent City; but the hitch-racks were already well filled with saddle-horses, and a large number of cowboys were in evidence.
Skeeter's equipage was fairly noticeable. The horse was an ancient gray, uncurried, patchy of hair and moth-eaten of mane and tail. The wagon was even more ancient than the horse, with wheels which did not track and threatened at any time to wrench loose from the hubs.
The seat springs were broken down on one side, causing Skeeter to sit sidewise with his feet braced against the opposite side of the wagon-box, where he looked entirely out of proportion to the rest of the outfit.
Several cowboys stopped at the edge of the board sidewalk to size him up as he drove up in front of a general merchandise store. There was no doubt in their minds but that this was a sheep-wagon, and the news spread rapidly.
Skeeter appeared oblivious of all this. He rolled and lighted a cigaret before dismounting, which gave the cowboys plenty of time to make closer observations. Several of them went past him and into the store, while others gathered around him and seemed to marvel greatly at his equipage.
“Ba-a-a-a?” queried a skinny cowboy seriously, looking up at Skeeter.
“Yea-a-a-a-ah,” said Skeeter' just as seriously.
The skinny one colored slightly under his tan, as his lips quivered in another question.
“Naa-a-a-a-a-a-a,” bleated Skeeter seriously.
One of the cowboys laughed nervously, but the bleating one's eyes did not waver from Skeeter's face.
“You think you're—smart, don't yuh?” he asked.
“Smart enough t' talk yore language,” said Skeeter.
The cowboy's hand jerked nervously along his thigh, but Skeeter did not move. His eyes narrowed slightly, and he nodded slowly.
“Hop to it, pardner. I don't know who yuh are, but I ain't lookin' for no cinch.”
The cowboy relaxed slightly and seemed undecided. He had not expected this from a sheep-herder, and he wanted to back out gracefully.
“You jist toddle along,” smiled Skeeter. “You don't need t' be afraid t' turn yore back t' me.”
“You can't run no blazer on me!” snapped the cowboy, as if trying to bolster up his courage with the sound of his own voice.
“I betcha yo're' right,” agreed Skeeter. “I ain't never goin' t' try it, pardner. When I talk t' you, I mean every —— word I say.”
The cowboy growled something under his breath and turned back across the street toward a saloon. The rest of the cowboys sauntered on, talking softly among themselves and glancing back toward the saloon. Skeeter made a bet with himself that this loud-talking cowboy had disrated himself in their minds. He climbed down, tied his horse and went into the store.
Some of the cowboys were sitting on a counter when Skeeter came in, but paid no attention to him. The storekeeper, who was behind a counter arranging some goods, also paid no attention to Skeeter as he leaned negligently against the counter and whistled unmusically between his teeth.
The cowboys had ceased their conversation, and the place was quiet except for Skeeter's tuneless whistle. Finally the storekeeper turned and looked at Skeeter, who slid a penciled list of the necessary groceries across the counter to him.
The storekeeper glanced down at the sizable list for a moment and then at Skeeter.
“Sheep outfit?” he asked.
Skeeter nodded, and the man shoved the list back to Skeeter.
“I'm out of all them articles,” he stated and turned back to his work.
Skeeter Bill turned slowly and looked around. One of the largest articles on the list was flour, and on a central counter were at least ten sacks. His eyes turned to shelving behind the storekeeper, where there were canned goods, baking-powder, salt. On the counter beside him were several strips of bacon.
Skeeter Bill considered his list carefully, checking off the goods in sight. He knew that the store had declared an embargo on the sheep-men. It was a mean move and might be very effective, as Crescent City was the nearest supply point by at least thirty miles.
The storekeeper turned his head and favored Skeeter Bill with an ugly look.
“I told you once that I'm all out of them goods,” he repeated heatedly.
“I heard yuh,” grinned Skeeter, “but I thought I'd kinda hang around until yuh got a new supply.”
“Then you'll have a —— long time, feller.”
“Oh!” grunted Skeeter. “I've got a mind not t' trade with you a-tall. You look somethin' like a storekeeper I knowed in Oklahoma, but I know you ain't the same one, 'cause he got hung f'r givin' short weight to a widder woman. I'll leave the list with yuh, and I'm goin' t' weigh everythin' before I pay yuh for it.”
Skeeter turned on his heel and walked out of the door, while the irate storekeeper sprawled across the counter and tried to swear. The cowboys, who had suggested the embargo, went out slowly, solemnly, choking back their unholy glee at the discomfiture of the storekeeper.
SKEETER soon found that emissaries of the cattle-men had preceded him to every store, and in each place he was given to understand that they were out of all staple and fancy groceries. It was the first time that the cattle interests had thought of such a move, and they were jubilant over its success.
No one made any move to interfere with Skeeter Bill. He did not look like a sheep-herder. His faded clothes, high-crowned hat and high-heeled boots proclaimed the cow-puncher. The hang of his well-filled cartridge belt and the angle of his heavy, black-handled Colt were readable signs to the cattle-men.
Skeeter loafed along the street, cogitating deeply over just what to do, when a man rode into town and headed for the sheriff's office, in front of which Skeeter was standing.
The man was Ben Freel, the sheriff. One side of his head was a welter of gore. Several cowboys crowded around him, as he dismounted heavily and leaned wearily against the short hitch-rack.
“Wha'sa matter, Ben?” asked a cowboy. “Didja get bushwhacked?”
“Shepherd?” queried another cowboy anxiously.
“How in —— do I know?” snapped Freel. “Somebody bushed me, that's a cinch, and I want to say right now that this bush warfare has got to quit.”
Freel went into his office, slamming the door behind him. Skeeter decided that Freel was decidedly more mad than injured. The cowboys showed little sympathy for Freel, but it gave them another talking point. Skeeter walked away from the group and went back toward the first store he had entered.
The storekeeper was alone this time. He seemed greatly peeved at the sight of Skeeter Bill.
“Yore stock of goods arrived yet?” queried Skeeter.
“No, by ——!” yelped the grocer. “You git out of here and stay out!”
He snatched Skeeter's list off the counter and shoved it under Skeeter's nose.
“You take your —— list and vamoose!”
Skeeter took the list and looked it over carefully, after which he picked up a sack of flour in his left hand and again looked at his list.
“Leggo that flour!” howled the storekeeper. “Leggo——”
He grabbed the flour in one hand and took a long swing at Skeeter's chin with the other. The fist described an arc, met no resistance and swung its owner half-around, causing him to let loose of the sack.
Skeeter swung up the sack in both hands and brought it down upon the unprotected head of the staggering storekeeper, knocking him to the floor in a smother of flour from the burst sack.
On the floor near him was a great coil of new, half-inch Manila rope. As the storekeeper struggled to his feet Skeeter back-heeled him neatly and broke all records for hog-tying a human being.
The storekeeper let out a yelp for assistance, but Skeeter shook the rest of the flour out of the sack and used the sack to gag his victim. Then Skeeter proceeded to stack up his list of necessities, working swiftly.
Estimating at a top figure, he placed the money on the counter and began carrying his purchases out to the wagon. Luckily no one was paying any attention to him, as most of the inquisitive ones were down at the sheriff's office trying to find out just what had happened to him.
The ancient gray looked upon Skeeter with disapproving eyes as it noted the amount of weight which was to be drawn back to the sheep-camp; but Skeeter's one big idea was to get out of Crescent City as fast as possible.
He climbed to the rickety seat, almost upset the wagon on a short turn, and rattled out of town. Several cowboys had come out of the saloon across the street and watched him drive away.
Skeeter caught a glimpse of one of these cowboys waving his arms wildly as he started across toward the store, and Skeeter knew that the cowboy had seen the half-loaded wagon and was going to find out what had happened to the storekeeper.
It was nearly three miles to the sheep-camp—three miles of crooked, rutty road; and it was like riding a bucking broncho to stay on that wagon-seat. Skeeter lashed the old gray into a gallop—or rather what resembled a gallop—and urged it to further speed with whip and voice.
As they topped the crest of a hill Skeeter looked back, but the pursuit had not started yet; so he yelled threateningly at the old gray, and they lurched off down the grade in a cloud of alkali dust.
Skeeter knew that the cowboys would probably follow him and try to recover the supplies, but he also knew that they would not get them without a fight. He had promised the Kirks that he would bring back the supplies, and Skeeter Bill meant to keep his word.
The old gray looked like an advertisement for a popular soap-suds powder when they skidded, slewed and lurched down on to the sheep-ranch flat and stopped at the door of the little cabin. Skeeter yelped loudly, but no one answered his hail; so he fell off the rickety seat and began gathering up packages from the rear of the wagon, while the ancient gray spread its legs wide apart and heaved like a bellows.
“Maud S,” said Skeeter, “you ain't —— for speed, but yuh shore can lather a-plenty. 'F I had a razor I'd give yuh a shave.”
He started for the half-open door with his arms full of plunder, when he happened to look down at the ground near the low step, where the pump shotgun was leaning against the house, with its muzzle in the dirt.
Skeeter kicked the door open, placed the food inside and came back to the gun. He looked it over and pumped out an empty shell. The gun had been fired recently, and a grin overspread Skeeter's face as he visualized Mrs. Kirk shooting at a target to try the gun.
“Kicked her so danged hard that she dropped it and busted off across country for fear it might go off ag'in,” mused Skeeter; but as his eyes searched for a possible target he stared at the fringe of the old dry-wash, about fifty feet away.
Taking a deep breath, he walked straight out there and looked down at the body of a man. Skeeter did not know him. He was a big man with a deeply lined face, and his hair, was slightly gray. He wore a faded blue shirt, nondescript vest, overalls and bat-winged chaps. One of his arms was doubled under him, and that hand evidently held a six-shooter, the barrel of which protruded out past his hip.
Skeeter turned him over and felt of his heart. The man had evidently received the whole charge of buck-shot between his waist and shoulders, and there was no question but that he was dead.
Skeeter squatted down beside the dead man with the shotgun across his lap. There was no question in his mind but that either Kirk or his wife had fired the fatal shot. Which one, it did not matter. They had only been protecting their rights; but would the law look at it in the right way?
Skeeter had become so engrossed in the problem that he forgot his wild ride from town. He knew that he must dispose of this body at once—wipe out all evidence of this tragedy—anything to get it away from the sheep-camp and out of the light of day.
The brushy bottom of the old dry-wash suggested the handiest spot, and without a moment's delay he swung the body around, climbed partly down the bank and hoisted the body to his shoulder. The loose dirt gave way with him, and he almost fell to his knees at the bottom, but managed to right himself. As he plunged ahead into the brush he seemed to be surrounded by horsemen, some of them almost crashing into him.
He swung the body aside into a bush and reached for his gun, but looked up into the muzzles of four guns, and one of them was in the hand of Ben Freel, the sheriff. Two other cowboys came riding through the brush and stopped near them.
Freel spurred his horse ahead and looked down at the dead man.
“By ——!” he grunted. “Cleve Hart!”
Skeeter did not look up. The name meant nothing to him; he was thinking rapidly. He still had his gun. It was true that at least three six-shooters were leveled at him, but he might last long enough to make them sorry they had followed him.
“Take his gun, Slim,” ordered the sheriff, and one of the cowboys swung down and deftly yanked Skeeter's gun from its holster.
Skeeter glanced up at Freel and smiled wearily!
“I'm glad your man took m' gun, sheriff. I feel better now.”
Freel took the gun from the cowboy and dropped it into his pocket as he turned to Skeeter.
“Mind tellin' us about it?”
Skeeter glanced at the dead man and around at the circle of cowboys.
“No-o-o, I don't reckon I will, sheriff.”
“What did yuh shoot him for?”
This from one of the cowboys, who was riding a Lazy H horse.
Skeeter shut his lips tight and shook his head. Freel dismounted and examined the body carefully.
“Buckshot,” he said finally. “Riddled him.”
“The gun's up there on the bank,” said Skeeter, jerking his head in that direction. “The empty shell is over in front of the shack.”
“You're a —— of a cool customer,” declared the one called Slim.
“Ancestors was Eskimos,” said Skeeter seriously.
“If yuh ask me, I'd say he's as crazy as a loon,” said another cowboy, who wore long hair and a chin-strap. “They say that's what happens to sheep-herders.”
Freel sent two of the cowboys to get the shotgun and empty cartridge shell, to be used as evidence, while he dismounted and slipped a pair of handcuffs on Skeeter Bill and ordered him to mount one of the horses.
“Mind doin' me a li'l favor, sheriff?” asked Skeeter.
“Mebbe not,” growled Freel. “Whatcha want?”
“Ask the boys t' leave that bunch of grub alone. Yuh came out here t' take it away from me, but yuh landed bigger game than tryin' t' starve a shepherd.”
“No, by ——!” interrupted the one called Slim. “We aim to bust up this-sheep business, and starvation is better than bullets.”
“There's a woman t' starve,” Skeeter Bill reminded him.
Slim hesitated and shrugged his shoulders.
“We'll let the grub alone,” nodded Freel. “A few days more or less won't ruin the cow-business, I reckon.”
Slim favored Freel with a black look, but at this moment the two cowboys came back with the evidence and gave it to Freel.
“My bronc will pack double, Andy,” said Freel to one of the cow-punchers. “You ride behind me, and the prisoner will ride your horse.”
Andy did not relish this arrangement, but swung up behind the sheriff, and the cavalcade moved back toward town.
Skeeter glanced back toward the shack, where the ancient gray was still standing wearily before the open door, waiting for some one to unhitch him.
CRESCENT CITY was deeply stirred over the killing of Cleve Hart, who, although not exactly popular, was the biggest cattle owner in the valley. The guilt of Skeeter Bill was unquestioned, as he had been caught with the goods. Unluckily for him the sheriff and posse had lingered a few minutes before giving chase to recover the sheep-herder's grub-stake, and this lapse of time had been sufficient for Skeeter to have killed Cleve Hart.
There was much talk of a lynching, headed by the boys from the Lazy H, but wiser counsel had pointed out the fact that the law would make no mistake in this case, and that Skeeter Bill would pay the supreme penalty.
Skeeter Bill himself seemed indifferent. He refused to talk to the lawyer who had been appointed by the court to defend him, and the lawyer did not argue the point to any great extent. He was the son of a cattle-man, and to save the life of a sheep-herder would not react to his credit. Therefore he became counsel with the defense, rather than for it.
It was a week from the time of Skeeter Bill's arrest until the day of his trial, and he had had plenty of time to think over his predicament. Of Kirk and his wife he had seen nothing; which was not strange, because Crescent City was no place for sheep-herders to visit. Only a voluntary confession from them would exonerate him, for it would do Skeeter no good to try to pass the guilt to them—even if he had been so inclined.
Crescent City was crowded on the opening day of the trial, and the little courtroom was filled to suffocation. Never was a trial jury selected with less argument. The counsel with the defense used no challenges, and the prosecuting attorney passed each juror with few questions. Skeeter Bill smiled softly, as he studied the faces of the twelve men. They were all cattlemen.
“I've got about as much chance as a snowball in ——,” he told his lawyer in an undertone.
“It's your own fault,” the lawyer reminded him sourly. “You wouldn't talk to me about the case.”
“Well, everybody else did, I reckon—and they likely told the truth, as far as they could see.”
The evidence was overwhelming. Every cowboy who had been with the sheriff on the day of the arrest took the stand and swore to the same story. There was no cause for any delay in presenting the case to the jury, and the prosecutor, supreme in his knowledge that the prisoner was already convicted, opened his vials of righteous wrath and hinted that Skeeter Bill was guilty of every known crime against humanity.
At the height of his vituperative oratory he suddenly crashed to earth when Skeeter Bill, handcuffed, threw the sheriff aside, grasped the prosecutor with both hands, kicked his feet from under him, and hurled him over the railing into the front row of sight-seeing humanity.
In an instant the courtroom was in an uproar, but Skeeter Bill backed up against the judge's desk and made no further move. The prosecutor crawled back to his seat, torn of raiment and dazed of mind.
“All I ask for is a square deal,” stated Skeeter to the court. “That lawyer, is a —— liar, tha'sall.”
“You'll get a square deal,” declared the judge nervously, rapping on his desk. “Sit down, Sarg.”
“Where and when do I get this here square deal?” queried Skeeter Bill. “With all the witnesses ag'in' me and a jury of cow-punchers, where do I get off? You've got me cinched f'r murder, judge—why let that ganglin', horse-faced lawyer add t' my crimes?”
The prosecutor got quickly to his feet and wailed an objection, but the judge ordered him to sit down.
“I do not think there is any use of reviling the prisoner,” declared the judge. “The evidence is plain enough, I think.”
Skeeter Bill got to his feet and faced the court.
“Just a moment, judge. I reckon yuh got me cinched f'r this killin', but I'd like t' ask a question before that jury decides t' hang me, 'f I can.”
“I think you have that right, Sarg,” admitted the judge.
Skeeter turned to Freel.
“Mind swearin't' tell the truth, sheriff?”
Freel walked to the witness chair, while his deputy edged in beside Skeeter Bill.
“Sheriff,” said Skeeter Bill slowly, “Cleve Hart had a six-gun in his hand when he died. Did you see that gun?”
“Had it been fired?”
“Once,” nodded Freel. “There was one empty shell.”
“Tha's all,” said Skeeter, and turned to the judge. “Yuh can only hang a man f'r murder, judge; and it ain't exactly murder when the other feller shoots too. Ain't it sort of a question as t' who shot first?”
The prosecutor jumped to his feet and objected at the top of his voice, but the judge turned a deaf ear to him as he instructed the jury.
Skeeter Bill expected little from those twelve hard-faced cattle-men as they filed out into the jury room to decide his fate. The judge had explained the difference between first and second degree murder, and had dwelt upon the possibility of self-defense, but Skeeter felt that the jury were in no mood to argue among themselves.
Fifteen minutes later they returned their verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. For several moments there was intense silence in the courtroom; broken only by the voice of Judge Grayson—
“William Sarg, stand up.”
Skeeter got to his feet and faced the judge, who said:
“You have been found guilty of murder in the first degree. Is there any reason why the sentence of the court should not be passed upon you?”
Skeeter shook his head slowly. The jury had taken no cognizance of the fact that Cleve Hart might have shot first—had given him no benefit of any doubt.
“Go ahead, judge,” said Skeeter softly. “There ain't nothin' else yuh can do.”
Judge Grayson's eyes searched the courtroom, passed over the stony-faced jury and came back to Skeeter Bill.
“William Sarg, I sentence you to life imprisonment at Red Lodge.”
Life imprisonment! Skeeter took a deep breath. He had expected a death sentence. The courtroom buzzed with excitement, and one of the jurymen swore openly. Skeeter felt a pressure on his arm and turned to find Freel looking him square in the eyes and saying—
“Sarg, I'm —— glad.”
Skeeter smiled at the irony of it all. Congratulating him on a life sentence! The judge was leaving the bench, and the jury had been discharged. The room still buzzed with conversation, and Skeeter heard one man say:
“—— such a judge! He ain't got guts enough to hang a sheep-herder!”
Skeeter turned and looked at this man. He was a small, thin-faced, almost chinless person with close-set eyes and a broken nose. His eyes dropped under Skeeter's stare, and he turned away, walking with arms bent stiffly at the elbow and with a peculiar swaying motion.
“That's Kales,” said Freel as Skeeter turned back. “He's a gun-man. I think he is working for some of the cattle outfits.”
“I've heard of him. Feller told me that Kales never missed his man. He will—some day. They all do.”
Freel took Skeeter back to his cell and locked him in.
“When do we make the trip?” asked Skeeter.
Freel shook his head.
“Soon, I reckon,” he added.
Freel went up the street and mingled with the crowds. There was no question that the sentence was unpopular among the cattle-men. Their tempers were worn to a frazzle over the drouth, the continuous heat and the sheep trouble, and a hanging might act as a safety valve. Freel caught the gist of a remark between Kales and one of the Lazy H cowboys, which hinted at a lynching.
There were open remarks about Judge Grayson being chicken-hearted, and some of them seemed even to blame Freel for what they considered a miscarriage of justice.
Alone in his small cell, Skeeter Bill sat down and contemplated his future. He was thirty-five years of age, and in all probabilities he would live thirty-five years longer. His mind traveled back over the years he could remember as he tried to visualize the long years to come—years of being only a number, a caged atom.
“I laid down on the job,” he told himself bitterly as he thought of his capture. “Why didn't I take a chance of shootin' m'self loose from that gang? All they could 'a' done was t' kill me. Or why in —— didn't I let that dead man alone?”
He shook his head sadly.
“I swore at that horse 'cause it didn't have no speed; and t' think of how it could 'a' saved me by dyin' half-way out there.”
But again Skeeter Bill shook his head. If it hadn't been for him, Kirk or his wife would now be sharing this cell.
“Pals,” said Skeeter. “Bunkies—and him fightin' f'r life. Livin' and lovin' thataway. ——! They deserve a chance, I reckon. But—” Skeeter lifted his head and spoke to the barred door—“I didn't take their crime jist t' save them. Nope, I wasn't doin' that—I was jist tryin' t' give 'em a chance t' git away, tha's all. I ain't no —— hero; I'm jist unlucky, I am.”
Freel came back into his office, and in a few minutes he came back to the cell door.
“I dunno when we'll make the trip, Sarg. There's lots of wild talkin' bein' done, and we may have to sneak out of Crescent City.”.
Skeeter grinned seriously.
“Seems kinda funny f'r me t' have t' sneak to the penitentiary, Freel.”
Freel laughed shortly.
“Is kinda queer. I don't reckon they'll try to take yuh out of here.”
“First time I ever was in a jail that I didn't want t' leave,” grinned Skeeter Bill.
Freel turned and walked back to his office. He seemed nervous over the outcome of it all; but Skeeter Bill, if he was perturbed in the least, did not show it. He wondered whether any of his acquaintances outside the valley had heard of his arrest. News did not travel fast in that country.
His thoughts turned back to Mary Leeds and the town of Sunbeam. Would she ever know? Somehow he hoped she would never find out. Mary Leeds was nothing to him, he told himself. She knew him as an outlaw. Sunbeam knew him as a gun-fighting law-breaker—even if he had been instrumental in cleaning up the place. No, she would not be at all interested in his future.
Skeeter shook his head sadly over it all. He was making a fitting finish, but there was little glory in it.
“I wonder where m' spark is?” he mused. “I've got a fine chance t' build it into a flame where I'm goin'. Yet I wonder why Mary Leeds called, 'Skeeter Bill!' when I rode away. Anyway I won't need t' worry about gittin' a hair-cut no more, and a number ain't no worse than a name.”
SUNBEAM had been good to Mary Leeds. On the night that her father had been killed, several wealthy bad-men had died intestate, and Sunbeam settled their estates without recourse to law.
But the life of the border mining-town palled upon her. She did not fit in somehow. The estimable Mrs. Porter had taken her into their home and had grown rather refined in her language, due to the instructive criticism of Mary Leeds.
“My ——!” exclaimed Mrs. Porter.
“Ever since Jim Porter flirted openly with a stick of dynamite I've had t' do everythin' 'cept chaw tobacco; but now I reckon I've got t' curry m' finger-nails, wear stockin's and say, 'Yessir' t' every hard-headed son-of-a-rooster that comes after his laundry.”
“But,” explained Mary, “you are' a woman.”
“Tha's so,” agreed Mrs. Porter dubiously. “I s'pose I am. I've got them charact'ristics. I kinda wish you'd stay here in Sunbeam. Me 'n' you git along sweet and pretty, but after you're gone I'll be the only reefined female in this whole —— town. Mebbe I'll forgit everythin' you learned me, and start in swearin' like ——.”
“I hope not,” sighed Mary. “You have been lovely to me, Mrs. Porter. I don't know what I would have done without you and——”
Mrs. Porter lifted her homely face and looked closely at Mary, who was staring out of the half-open window. The rumble of a series of blasts shook the ground, and from over on the street came the bumping and rattling of a heavy freight wagon.
Mary Leeds was not beautiful, though not far from it. Her face was appealing in its delicate lines, and a pair of wistful, blue eyes looked out into the world from below a tangle of soft brown hair.
Mary turned and saw Mrs. Porter looking at her.
“You didn't quite finish your statement, Mary,” said Mrs. Porter softly.
Mary's eyes switched back to the window, but she did not reply.
“You kinda meant t' say a man's name, didn't you?”
Mary did not turn her head.
“Yeah, a man; Skeeter Bill Sarg.”
Mary turned and looked straight at Mrs. Porter.
“Skeeter Bill? Why should I mention him?”
Mrs. Porter turned back to her wash-tub and thoughtfully lifted a dripping garment.
“I dunno why.”
She shook her head.
“'Course he didn't do nothin' for you,” she added.
Mary continued the stare out of the window.
“Funny sort of a feller, was Skeeter Bill,” mused Mrs. Porter. “I 'member that he killed Jeff Billings 'cause Jeff lied to him. And Jeff had some laundry with me which wasn't paid for, and Skeeter paid for it. I offered it to him, but he wouldn't take it.
“'Member how he saved you and the preacher at the Poplar Springs, after Tug Leeds and his gang had shot up the outfit to steal the horses? He brought yuh both back here, and backed the preacher t' clean up Sunbeam.
“And Tug Leeds lied to you and the preacher about Skeeter, and made yuh think he was a awful bum. 'Member that, do you?
“And then mebbe yuh 'member how Tug Leeds framed it to have the preacher hold church in his danged honkatonk t' disgust both of yuh, and how Skeeter Bill raised —— with the whole gang and saved yuh from bein' stole by Leeds and his gang?
“'Member that some of that lousy outfit shot old Judge Tareyton, through the winder, and the old judge, with his dyin' muscles, pulled the trigger that sent Tug Leeds t' ——?
“And Judge Tareyton was your own pa, and Tug Leeds was the man who had sent him to the penitentiary and stole his name. 'Member all that, don't yuh? Skeeter Bill was the man who engineered all that.”
Mary turned slowly and nodded dumbly.
“I know. I owe him everything, Mrs. Porter. He—he had been awful good to my old daddy, they say. He saved my life, I think. But he said he was a horse-thief and——”
“Y'betcha he did! Honest? Whooee, that ganglin' outlaw sure was honest. If he'd 'a' got killed in that entertainment they'd put up a monyment to him; but as it is I suppose some of these snake-hunters would kill him on sight.
“Human nature is kinda like that, Mary. Folks that pack a sawed-off shotgun for yuh when you're alive, will chip in t' give yuh a fancy tombstone and shed tears over yuh when you're dead.
“Folks cuss me for wearin' out their shirts on a old wash-board; but I'll betcha if I died they'd all chip in and put me up a tombstone, real finicky, with a marble angel humped over a wash-tub, lookin' at a marble shirt, and on it they'd engrave, 'Not worn out, but —— near it.'”
Mary Leeds laughed at Mrs. Porter's serious expression and dejected position over the wash-board as she held the dripping shirt in both hands and gazed at the ceiling.
“'F I go to heaven,” continued Mrs. Porter, “and they tell me that angels wear shirts, I'm sure goin' to tell 'em that I know of a lot of preachers that have got the wrong dope on things down here.”
Mrs. Porter slapped the shirt back into the sudsy water and sank down in a broken-backed chair.
“Aw, I'm sick of it all, so I am. Scrub, scrub, scrub, all the time 'cept when I'm ridin' sign on a —— flat-iron! Miners bring in their flannel shirts so danged dirty that yuh can't wash 'em—yuh have t' cultivate 'em. Their socks has been worn so long that I have t' picket 'em out, 'stead of hangin' 'em on the line.
“Feller brought me six suits of under-clothes last week, and I let 'em fall off the table. Know what they done? Three suits broke all t' ——, and the other three was so badly cracked that he made me pay for 'em. I tell yuh I'm sick of it. How in —— can I git refined under them conditions, I ask yuh?”
Mrs. Porter gathered up her apron in both hands and buried her face within its damp folds while her shoulders shook withemotion. Mary went to her quickly and threw both arms around her shoulder.
“Oh, I'm so sorry! It is too hard. Do you really have to stay here, Mrs. Porter? Couldn't you live just as well in some other town?”
“I s'pose so.”
Mrs. Porter's voice was muffled.
“Goodness knows there ain't many towns where men don't git their shirts dirty,” she added.
“I didn't mean that,” explained Mary softly. “Perhaps you could get into something else. Suppose you go back East with me?”
Mrs. Porter lifted her head quickly and stared wide-eyed at Mary.
“Go East with you?”
“Where there are lots of folks and——”
“Lots of shirts?” supplied Mrs. Porter. “Lord bless you, child, I ain't got but eighty dollars t' my name.”
“I have,” said Mary; “I have enough for us both.”
Mrs. Porter shifted her eyes and looked around the room. There was nothing attractive about the rough shack interior. Outside, a mule-skinner spoke in the only language known to mules, and a heavy wagon lurched past through the dust. Mrs. Porter shoved the hair back from her face and got slowly to her feet.
She lifted up the sodden shirt and slapped it against the wash-board.
“This here shirt belongs t' Doc Sykes, the coroner. Kinda prophetic-like, so it is, 'cause I've told him that he was the last person I ever expected t' do business with. Gimme room t' wring, young woman, 'cause I'm sure goin't' wind up m' career in a big splash. You sure got somethin' wished on to you when you issued a invite t' me to go where men change their shirts once per week. Whooee!”
Mary Leeds laughed joyously and gave Mrs. Porter plenty of room for her last appearance as a laundress in a mining-camp.
WHILE Mary Leeds and Mrs. Porter prepared to leave Sunbeam, and while Skeeter Bill Sarg smoked innumerable cigarets and waited for the sheriff to take him to the penitentiary at Red Lodge, a disgruntled crew of cowboys and paid gunmen loafed around the Lazy H ranch.
It had developed that Cleve Hart was not sole owner of the Lazy H, and that the other owners, who were Eastern capitalists, were disgruntled over their investment, and ordered an immediate sale of the property and the discharge of all employees forthwith.
Nick Kales had sold his services to Cleve Hart without any agreement from the other owners; with the result that he was forced to look forward to about two weeks' pay at the rate of forty dollars a month, instead of the generous bonus due him as a professional gunman.
“Dutch” Van Cleve, aof Nick Kales, was also a bit disgruntled over the outcome. The rest of the remaining cowpunchers, “Red” Bowen, “Swede” Sorenson, “Roper” Bates and “Boots” Orson, faced a lean year, as none of them saved more than tobacco money out of their monthly salary.
The killing of Cleve Hart and the arrest and conviction of Skeeter Bill had quieted things to some extent, but it was only an armed truce. Cowboys rode dead-lines and managed to keep the sheep within a well-defined area; but the cattle-men knew that an adverse court decision would wipe out dead-lines, and with it the cattle business.
Swede Sorenson had just ridden in from Crescent City, bringing the mail; and among it was a letter for Nick Kales, postmarked from the town of Wheeler.
Kales looked it over gloomily and put it unopened into his pocket. He exchanged a word or two with Dutch Van Cleve aside, and a little later they both approached Roper Bates, a saturnine, narrow-between-the-eyes sort of a puncher.
“Can yuh read?” queried Kales.
“Well,” grinned Roper, “I ain't no —— professional reader, as yuh might say; but I sabe some of the alphabet.”
“Yuh know how to keep your mouth shut, don't yuh?”
“Now,” said Roper seriously, “you're guessin' me dead center. Shoot the piece, Kales.”
Kales took out the letter and handed it to Roper, who looked at it curiously.
“It ain't never been opened,” he remarked.
“Me 'n' Dutch can't read,” explained Kales. “We're askin' yuh to decipher it for us; sabe?”
Roper took out the letter and laboriously spelled out the pencil-written message.
“It says,” began Roper:
“Dear Nick: All set for a big one on Thursday the eighteenth. Make it look good. Number 16. Hits there about nine o'clock. Burn this up right away.
Very truly yours,
Roper finished and looked up at Kales, who was staring intently at him.
“What'sa idea?” queried Roper seriously.
Kales watched Roper's face closely for several seconds and then took the letter from him. He touched a lighted match to one corner of the letter and envelop and watched them burn to a flimsy cinder.
“You know somethin' now,” said Kales meaningly, “and there ain't no use tellin' yuh to keep your mouth shut.”
“Aw, ——!” grunted Roper. “You make me tired. If the deal's any good I want in on it.”
Kales and Dutch exchanged glances. Dutch was long of face, crooked of nose and with a pair of round eyes which seemed to film over, instead of blinking.
“Whatcha think, Dutch?” queried Kales.
“Aw'right,” nodded Dutch. “I don't care.”
“What about the rest—Red, Swede, Boots?” asked Kales. “This job is big enough for all.”
“All square,” declared Roper. “All square, and all broke. Put it up to 'em, Kales.”
The three men drifted down to the bunk-house, where the other three were playing seven-up, and Kales lost no time in feeling out the other cowboys.
“What are you fellers goin' to do?” asked Kales. “She's a long ways to the next range.”
“That's the —— of it,” growled Red disgustedly. “I'm broke—flat.”
“You ain't got nothin' on me,” grunted Swede. “I don't even own the saddle I'm ridin'.”
“What's the answer to your question, Kales?” queried Boots Orson, who was a trifle more intelligent than the rest and felt that Kales' question was not idle curiosity.
“A certain job,” stated Kales bluntly, “might mean a big stake or it might mean the penitentiary. Takes a lot of guts.”
“You're talkin',” reminded Orson softly.
Kales' eyes swept the circle of cowboys, but read only interest in their faces.
“You—show—us,” said Red slowly, spacing his words widely. “I'm game.”
“—— right!” breathed Swede. “Shoot.”
“Did yuh ever hear of Sunbeam?” asked Kales.
“Yeah,” nodded Swede. “Minin'-town, about fifty miles from Wheeler.”
“Gold-minin' town,” said Kales as if disputing Swede. “Lot of the yaller stuff shipped out of there, but nobody knows when.”
“There ain't a —— mind-reader among us,” grinned Red.
“That part's all fixed,” explained Kales, nodding toward Roper. “He read the letter.”
“I read a letter,” agreed Roper, looking up from the manufacture of a cigaret. “It didn't fix nothin' for me.”
“Lemme tell yuh about that letter,” urged Kales. “That feller who wrote it is Pat Wheat, and an old bunkie of mine. He works for the express company as a shotgun messenger. That's how he knows things, I reckon.
“Me and him have been workin' for a big stake, and he knowed I was here; so he tips me off. Pat will be ridin' shotgun on this shipment, and she's a cinch that we'll crack out of here with a lot of dinero.”
“Hold up the train?” queried Red.
“You're —— right. Cut off the baggage-car and take it a few miles. Won't have nobody to handle except the engine crew. Pat'll take care of the messenger.”
“I sabe the place,” grinned Roper joyously. “We can flag her down jist short of the S bridge, cut off the money-car and run down to the mouth of San Gregorio Cañon. She's a dinger of a place to make a getaway.
“Have the horses planted there, and we can ride the rocky bottom of that dry creek for a mile. Never leave a track.”
“How about the rest of the train?” queried Boots. “There's six of us. Passengers pack money and jewelry.”
Kales nodded slowly and stared at the ceiling for a while before he said:
“Yeah, that might be a good scheme, at that. We'll cut the telegraph wire. Won't be a —— of a lot of passengers, but it might pay to do it. If it was a reg'lar main-line train with sleepers, I'd say it wouldn't pay, but on a branch line like this it's a cinch to pile out or into them old cars.”
“When do we git action?” queried Roper. “Did that letter say, 'Thursday'?”
“It did,” nodded Kales; “and this is Tuesday. We'll work out the details later.”
“Can't come too soon to suit me,” yawned Red. “Since Cleve Hart got bumped off it's been kinda slow around here.”
“Hart was a —— fool,” declared Kales. “Any old time yuh start monkeyin' with women, you're a fool.”
“Do yuh think that's why he got his?” asked Red.
“Cinch. He thought he'd run a blazer on that shepherd and take his woman, but he got his shirt filled with buckshot.”
“Where'd this Sarg person figure in on the deal anyway?” queried Boots, who was with the sheriff when they arrested Skeeter Bill.
Kales grinned, showing some very bad-shaped teeth.
“Sarg never shot Hart. I know a few things about that long hombre, y'betcha. He's a pistol fighter, Sarg is; and a —— good shot. Do yuh think he'd pick up a shotgun when he had a loaded six-gun in his holster?
“Sarg pistol-whipped Sunbeam town, so they tells me, and pulled out without a scratch. I don't sabe what he's doin' down here, 'less he hired out his gun to the sheep outfits.”
“Do yuh reckon the woman killed Hart?” queried Roper interestedly.
“She shore did, pardner.”
Kales was emphatic.
“Hm-m-m,” mused Roper.
He had seen Mrs. Kirk, and Roper was not overloaded with scruples.
“Freel's scared,” observed Swede. “He ain't made no move to take Sarg to the penitentiary yet.”
“Them boys from the Tin-Cup outfit swore they'd hang Sarg if they got a chance,” stated Red, “and Freel ain't takin' no chances. They're sore at the judge for not hangin' Sarg.
“'Course the sheep are closer to the Tin-Cup than to any of the other outfits, and if the law decides in favor of sheep—blooey! They'll swarm plumb into Tin-Cup range. 'Course the law'll only give 'em an even break with the cattle; but the —— law don't stop to figure that cattle can't live on an even break with sheep.”
“After that there sermon,” stated Roper piously, “the choir will rise and sing. What in —— do we care what the sheep do to Moon Valley? We're leavin' here; sabe?”
“And with freight all paid,” added Kales, grinning. “Tomorrow we all pull out, eh? Me and Dutch'll pull out from Crescent City after we've planted the fact that we're leavin' for good. We'll spring it that Roper and Swede left over Table Rock Pass t'day.
“Mebbe Red and Boots better stay here at the ranch. Might look bad if we all drifted at the same time, eh?
“And suppose we all meet in San Gregario Cañon, down near the mouth of it, about dark on Thursday? Me and Dutch'll have things framed, wires cut and all that.”
The rest of the gang nodded in agreement, except Roper, who said:
“Let Boots pull out with Swede, and I'll stay here. I owe a few dollars in Crescent City, and I might want to come back here some day. I'll ride down with you and Dutch and then come back here.”
“Well, that's all right,” grunted Kales. “Fix it any old way yuh want to.”
And thus are honest men drawn into evil paths through the need of a few dollars. But the question still remains: Who is an honest man, who is broke, with easy money in sight?
ROPER BATES had little stomach for a train-robbery, but he did have a little plan of his own. Money did not mean so much to Roper as a pretty face. He had seen Mrs. Kirk, and the memory of her caused him to calculate deeply.
Roper was not an ignorant person, but a queer kink in his mental make-up caused him to believe that it was inconsistent that this pretty woman should be the wife of a despised sheep-herder. To him it was very unreasonable; a condition to be remedied at once. He did not take the woman's position into consideration at all.
Roper was no handsome hero; rather he was a homely cow-puncher; but his mirror, if he ever used one, only reflected Roper Bates, which was sufficient for Roper Bates. He was a top-hand, a good pistol-shot and took a bath in the Summer. All of which raised him far above the level of sheep-herders.
He had no intentions of being at the mouth of San Gregario Cañon at dark; but he did not mention this fact, as it was nobody's business except his own. He was free, white and well past twenty-one. Also, on this particular Thursday he had imbibed freely of the juice that cheers, and the world was made up of pastel shades.
He lounged past the jail and almost ran into one of the Tin Cup punchers, known as “Jimmy Longhair,” who seemed to be making an indifferent getaway from the rear of the jail. Jimmy was the long-haired puncher who had been with the sheriff at the capture of Skeeter Bill.
“Hyah, Hair,” greeted Roper jovially. “How'sa dandruff?”
Jimmy Longhair glared evilly from under the floppy brim of his sombrero, but made no reply. He was a trifle touchy about his hair, but did not want to get tough with Roper Bates.
“Whatcha tryin' to do—break in the back door?” continued Roper, grinning.
“None of yore —— business!” growled Jimmy.
“Go to the head of the class,” gulped Roper. “I betcha I know what yuh was tryin' to do. You Tin Cup snake-hunters want to lynch Sarg, and when yuh find that Freel won't let yuh, yuh sneak around tryin' to shoot him through the back winder.”
“Aw-w-w, ——!” disgustedly. “No such a —— thing.”
Roper rocked on his heels and considered Jimmy Longhair appraisingly.
Jimmy proceeded to roll a cigaret, which gave him an alibi to neglect an answer. Then the door of the sheriff's office opened and shut, and Freel came past them. He barely looked at them, but neither gave him more than a passing glance.
“Listenin',” declared Roper again. “Jist like a —— cholo. I'd be 'shamed.”
“You go to ——!” growled Jimmy.
“I betcha,” nodded Roper soberly. “I betcha m' life.”
Whether Roper was willing to bet his life on the truth of his statement or in agreement with Jimmy Longhair's order, made no difference to either of them. Roper turned on his heel and went after more bottled cheer, while Jimmy Longhair secured his bronco and hit the dusty road toward the Tin Cup ranch-house.
WHILE the rest of the Valley of the Moon folks moved along in their own dumb way, Skeeter Bill chafed in the confines of his small cell. Old Solitaire had beaten him something over two hundred times, which also got on his nerves to a certain extent. Freel had told him that his stay was not to be much longer, which did not serve to brace his spirits to any extent.
Skeeter Bill had gone over every inch of his cell, trying to dope out a scheme to escape; but that jail was not built for any such hope. Skeeter knew that he did not have one chance in a thousand to miss the wide doors of the penitentiary.
Freel brought in his supper, but did not seem in any mood for conversation.
“Anybody'd think you was the one goin' t' prison,” observed Skeeter. “My gosh, yo're gloomy, Freel.”
“Yeah? I hadn't noticed it, Sarg.”
Freel sat and watched Skeeter eat his supper, and took away the dishes without a word. There was no question in Skeeter Bill's mind that Freel was worried over something.
Perhaps, he thought, there was danger of a lynching. Freel had told him of the threats that had emanated from the Tin Cup ranch, and Skeeter had heard enough about the Tin Cup gang to know that they were not given to idle gossip. Their immediate range was almost in smelling distance of the sheep outfits.
The Tin Cup gang had declared openly that a prison sentence was far too lenient for a sheep-herder who had killed a cattle-man, and that they were willing to go on record as saying that Skeeter Bill would never serve one day in the penitentiary for this crime.
Because of this threat Freel had delayed taking Skeeter to the penitentiary. He did not want to lose his prisoner to a mob of lynchers, and he knew, that a battle might result in dire calamity for the house of Freel.
As long as Skeeter Bill was behind the strong walls of the jail he knew that the Tin Cup outfit would not try to take him. They were no fools, and knew that the jail was built to withstand a heavy assault.
Skeeter Bill had stretched out on his bunk for the night, when Freel came to the cell door without a light and spoke to him. Skeeter got up, and Freel ordered him to dress.
From without came the dull rumble of thunder, and a weak flash seemed to light up the room a trifle.
“Goin' t' rain?” asked Skeeter.
“Hope to —— it rips things loose,” said Freel softly. “Suits me fine. Dressed? Put this on.”
He handed Skeeter a full-length slicker coat, which he put on.
“Gimme your right hand,” whispered Freel, and Skeeter felt the circle of steel click around his wrist as Freel snapped the handcuff.
Another click showed that Freel had locked the other cuff to his own left wrist.
“Come on, easy,” ordered Freel, and they went softly to the back door, which Freel unbarred, and they passed out into the night, which was as black as the proverbial black cat.
Gusts of wind filled the air with clouds of dust, and from the western range came the thudding roll of heavy thunder. The drouth of the valley of the Moon River was about to be broken.
Freel led Skeeter Bill wide of the town, the lights of which were blotted out in the dust-clouds and dark. They stumbled across the railroad track and swung back toward the depot, where Freel led Skeeter in behind a pile of old ties.
Lightning flashed across the sky, but even its light came to them in murky flares, owing to the dust.
“I reckon that —— is about to bust,” said Freel.
“Let her bust,” grunted Skeeter. “This is the first time I never was timid about —— bustin'.”
“Couldn't have picked a better night,” declared Freel with much satisfaction.
“That's right,” agreed Skeeter. “I allus said it would be a wet night when I went to the penitentiary. I don't mind sneakin' out of the pen, but I hate like —— to have t' sneak into one.”
“Rather be lynched?”
“Danged 'f I know. That's kind of a foolish question, don'tcha think? I ain't never talked with no folks after they've stretched hemp. It may be a —— of a lot of fun, but I wasn't raised t' look upon it as a pastime.”
“Train comin',” grunted Freel as the headlight glowed far down the hazy distance and to their ears came the faint whistle of a locomotive.
Slowly the train ground to a stop at the station, and Freel led his prisoner to the front one of the two coaches. These cars were not vestibuled, but had open steps. Forty miles farther on, at the town of Cinnabar, they would connect with the main line, where the passengers might secure sleeping-car accommodations for the trip Eastward.
Through a whirl of wind and dust Freel and Skeeter Bill entered the smoking-car, where even the swinging oil lamps were dimmed by the dust, which seeped in through the window-casings and doors.
With a lurch the train started ahead again; but Freel seemed undecided about sitting down. Not over half a dozen men were in the smoker, and none of them paid any attention to Freel and Skeeter Bill.
“—— the dust!” choked Freel. “Let's try the rear car; it can't be any worse than this one.”
The wind fairly tore the door-knob from Freel's hand, and they groped their way across the connecting platforms, a roaring, creaking, clattering maelstrom of wild elements and protesting wood and metal.
Into the door of the rear car they went while the door crashed shut behind them and weaved their way down the narrow aisle. A heavy lurch threw Skeeter almost into an occupied seat, and the jerk of the handcuffs swung Freel with him.
For a moment Skeeter balanced with his one free hand against the back of the seat, almost circling the neck of one of the occupants; and the face that stared up at him was the face of Mary Leeds.
AT THE approach to the S bridge, about two miles from Crescent City, four men—Kales, Bowen, Van Cleve and Orson—crouched near the track. Swede Sorenson had been left with the horses at San Gregario Cañon, and Roper Bates had never shown up.
A swirl of wind and rain caused them to hug the side of the fill, while overhead the lightning crackled wickedly. The great mass of storm-clouds seemed fairly to press against the earth, and the flashes of lightning seemed to bring only a gleam from the glistening rails.
“——'s recess!” swore Kales as he shielded a lantern inside his slicker, trying to light it.
The others crowded around him as he managed to get it lighted, and Van Cleve gave him a red handkerchief to tie around the chimney.
Kales braced himself against the wind and fought his way on to the track, where he placed the danger signal; but before he could get back to the rest, the wind hurled the lantern upside down, smashing the chimney.
“What'll we do now?” yelled Bowen into Kale's ear. “We can't light it ag'in!”
“Build a fire on the track!” yelled Van Cleve.
“Try it!” replied Kales bitterly. “You'd have a —— of a sweet time. Looks like we'd have to pass it up, boys.”
“They'd never see a lantern in this storm anyway,” cried Orson.
For several moments there was silence as each man tried to figure out some scheme for stopping the train. Suddenly the figure of a man almost brushed Kales' arm and climbed past him on to the road-bed. Several other men followed him closely—bulky, indistinct figures in the pall of rain, their footsteps drowned out in the roar of the elements. A few feet past, and they were blotted out.
“Who in —— was that?” roared Kales into Bowen's ear.
Bowen had no more idea than Kales had, and the other two added their questions.
“Sheriff and some men, do yuh think?” asked Kales.
“Mebbe Bates got drunk and talked too much,” volunteered Van Cleve. “—— him, he never showed up!”
“I betcha he's got a gang to double-cross us!” yelled Orson. “Roper'd do that.”
“—— 'em, they've got a light,” swore Kales. “Look!”
Like a tiny pin-point of red, a light glowed down nearer the end of the bridge. It flickered as the storm beat down, and at times it disappeared entirely when the heavy wind howled out of the depths of Moon River.
“Roper must 'a' told!” declared Van Cleve.
“But the —— fool knowed we'd be here,” argued Red at the top of his voice. “Mebbe he talked too much, but didn't tell about us goin' after the stuff.”
That seemed more reasonable to Kales, and it began to look as if there might be a battle over the treasure.
“What's our move, Kales?” yelled Orson. “It's goin' to mean a battle, and the sheriff might ask questions of wounded men.”
Kales had slid a Winchester carbine from under his slicker, and now he humped forward, resting it across the wet rail. For an instant the red light seemed to glow brighter, and the rifle report seemed weak in all that roaring world; but the red light glowed no more. It is doubtful if the report of the rifle could be heard fifty feet away.
Suddenly the elements seemed to combine in one mighty, roaring crash; and Kales and his men were flung against the bank of the fill, as if hurled and held by a mighty hand, and a solid wall of rain descended upon them.
For a moment they were stifled; but after the mighty deluge and roar there came a space of silence, as if the storm were preparing for another mighty onslaught; and in that brief space of silence, while the world seemed white from the lightning's glow, there came the splintering grind of tearing timbers and the hiss and roar of wild waters.
Kale's voice was a scream.
“The bridge! It's goin' out!”
“To —— with it!” yelled Bowen. “That old cloud——”
But the rest of his voice was swept away in the rush of wind, and the four men huddled low under the meager protection of the fill.
But Kales managed to grasp Bowen by the arm and yell into his ear:
“The train, you —— fool! It'll go into the river; don't yuh understand? Nothin' can stop it!”
Kales sprang to his feet and staggered on to the track just as two indistinct figures appeared out of the murk, coming from toward the bridge. They had discovered their shattered lantern and had come to investigate.
One of them fired at Kales, and the report of the gun sounded like the weak pop of a toy pistol. Kales staggered back as he swung up his carbine and fired. More men were coming out of the gloom, and Kales' men began shooting blindly.
Kales had been hit through the shoulder. After firing one shot his heel caught in the rail and he fell backward off the road-bed. Another whirl of rain blotted out the world, except for short, orange-colored flashes which seemed to dart here and there.
Kales got back to his feet, dizzy and sick, fighting to stay upright. He was a gunman, an outlaw, a man without a conscience; but the thought of that train running off the rail-ends of that ruined bridge, plunging into the swollen torrent, was as a nightmare to him.
Blindly he started down the track toward town, stumbling, weaving in the wind, which tore at his slicker with the tenacity of a bulldog. His left arm was useless, but with his right hand he clutched his six-shooter, while his lips repeated continually, as if he was afraid he might forget—
“One shot—close to trucks.”
IT WAS as a dream to Skeeter Bill—this looking into the eyes of Mary Leeds; and the awakening came when Freel yanked sharply on the handcuff. It was then that Mary Leeds shifted her eyes and saw that Skeeter Bill was linked to this other man. His eyes shifted to the other occupant of the seat and looked into the face of Mrs. Porter, erstwhile washer of shirts for Sunbeam town.
“Skeeter Bill Sarg!” exploded Mrs. Porter. “Well, I'll be everlastin'ly hornswoggled!”
“Yes'm,” said Skeeter foolishly; “me and you both.”
“Skeeter Bill,” parroted Mary, reaching out to him as if not believing her eyes.
“The same,” nodded Skeeter. “I—I——”
“C'm on,” ordered Freel, pulling on the handcuff.
Mary looked wonderingly at Freel and up at Skeeter.
“Me 'n' him are kinda close pals,” said Skeeter with a smile. “There's a tie that kinda binds us to each other.”
“I—I don't understand,” faltered Mary.
“F'r ——'s sake, whatcha handcuffed for?” demanded Mrs. Porter.
“Well—” Skeeter squinted at the storm-drenched window—“well, I'm takin' a long trip f'r murderin' a man.”
“You never did!”
Mrs. Porter got to her feet and turned on Freel, who did not understand what it was all about.
“You never murdered nobody!”
Mrs. Porter fairly snorted her unbelief.
“Yuh might 'a' killed a man, but he had an even break with yuh, boy.”
Skeeter smiled and shook his head.
“Anyway, it's too late t' argue it, Mrs. Porter. How's everybody in Sunbeam?”
Mrs. Porter did not seem interested in that question, for at that moment the shrill warning shriek of the locomotive whistle came to them, and they were all hurled into confusion, when the engineer threw his engine into reverse and opened the sand-box.
Mary Leeds and Mrs. Porter were thrown forward into the rear of the forward seat, while Skeeter Bill and Freel sprawled into each other in the aisle. There came a series of lurching jars which threatened to splinter the old coaches, and the train jerked to a standstill.
Freel and Skeeter were clawing blindly to get back on their feet when the rear door was flung open and two men came in—two masked men, carrying six-shooters. Freel lurched sidewise against the arm of a seat and whipped out a gun from his shoulder holster. One of the masked men fired at him, and the shot swung Freel back a trifle; but he fired deliberately, and the man who had shot him went down.
Another shot thudded into Freel; but he was shooting calmly, slowly; and the other man lurched back against the rear door, dropping his gun. His hat fell off, disclosing the long locks of Jimmy Longhair.
A shot was fired from the other door, and the bullet smashed into a basket of firebombs near the rear door.
“Tin Cup gang,” said Freel hoarsely. “They—got—me.”
He swayed back into Skeeter, who caught him in both arms, swung him up off the floor and lurched for the back door, which had swung open, letting in a flood of rain and wind. Jimmy Longhair swayed into him as he went past; but Skeeter Bill hurled him aside, sprang on to the platform, kicked at another man who was coming up the left-hand steps and sprang out into the darkness just as another bullet buzzed past his head.
Skeeter Bill had expected to strike solid ground within a short distance; but he seemed to be falling through great space, whirling in a pall of wind and rain.
Suddenly he shot feet first into the whirling river and seemed to go to a great depth—down—down—down until his lungs shrieked with the pain of it all; but he still kept both arms locked around the unconscious sheriff.
Then they seemed fairly to shoot out of the depths and were into the air again; out in a whirling world of floating bush, stumps, trees. It was impossible for him to see where they were or where they were going; but he realized that the train had stopped on the bridge, and that he had deliberately jumped into the Moon River.
Then something drove him sidewise, fairly hurling him through the water, and the roots of a tree whipped him across the face. Skeeter tried to grasp it with his free hand; but it eluded him, and in floundering for it his feet touched bottom and he felt a slackening of the rush of water.
“That danged tree shoved me out of the current,” he told himself. “Whatcha know about that?”
Holding the sheriff tightly to himself, he moved carefully to the left, feeling with each foot. They were still neck-deep in the flood, but there was no longer any pressure against him.
Once he went into a hole over their heads, but got out quickly and felt the willows on the bank brush against his face. The bank was fairly high; but he managed to get Freel up ahead of him, after which he crawled out and lay flat on his face for several minutes, trying to collect himself.
Bill turned Freel over on his back and felt of his heart. It was still beating, but jerky.
“Pardner, I betcha yo're water-logged quite a lot,” gurgled Skeeter. “I know —— well that I am. But you've likely got enough holes in yore carcass to drain yuh pretty quick.”
Carefully he searched the sheriff's pockets until he found the key to the handcuffs. His wrist was cut and torn, but he chuckled with joy as the cuff opened easily and he was free once more.
“Now let 'em take me,” he grunted wearily as he searched the sheriff for a gun; but there was none.
He had lost the gun in the car.
Skeeter got to his feet and tried to figure out which way to go. He was going back to see Kirk and get a gun. That was the least Kirk could do for him. He was going to win free; going to get a horse and a gun and the valley of Moon River would see him no more.
He moved slowly away into the brush, feeling his way carefully. Suddenly he stopped. The idea had just struck him that he might make folks think he was dead.
If he removed the handcuff from Freel and threw him in the river, who would know that they had ever been linked together? Mary Leeds and Mrs. Porter would in all probability never be questioned. And if they, did, they would, or possibly might, tell a white lie to help him out. It was worth chancing.
He felt his way back to Freel and started to lift him up. It would be a simple matter to drop him over the bank. Freel would never suffer—never realize, because he was already unconscious, perhaps dying.
But suddenly the words of old Judge Tareyton came back to him:
“I know how yuh feel, Skeeter Bill. God put a spark of something into all of us—a spark that flares up once in a while. It will build a big flame for you—if you'll let it.”
“That's right, judge,” said Skeeter, staring into the darkness and rain, speaking aloud, but all unconscious of it. “Mebbe this is my spark workin'. Bein' a murderer don't set me free, old-timer. Yuh can't lie to yourself and get away with it.”
Swinging the sheriff's unconscious body up in his arms, he stumbled away through the brush, going by instinct for the higher ground, while behind him the river roared as if in anger at being cheated.
KALES' men did not long dispute with the Tin Cup gang. The game was not worth the candle to them, as they did not intend to battle for a chance to hold up the train, and also they did not know who the Tin Cup gang were.
While they believed that Roper Bates had talked too much and had given away the secret of the big gold shipment, the Tin Cup gang fought to keep any one from stopping them from taking Skeeter Bill off the train. Jimmy Longhair had heard the sheriff tell Skeeter that he was to leave very soon, and, with the gang planted near the bridge, Jimmy had watched the back door of the jail and had seen Skeeter and Freel come out.
“Monk” Clark, the owner of the Tin Cup, had sworn to “get” Skeeter Bill, and Monk was no idle boaster; but he did not reckon on interference.
The train was into them and lurching back against the reversed engine before they knew just what damage they had suffered; but Monk rallied his men and swung into the train, as it stopped on the last remaining arch of the bridge, with the pilot of the engine almost hanging out over the flood.
When Monk boarded the rear car, it was only to find that Skeeter Bill and the sheriff had gone overboard and that Jimmy Longhair and Benny Harper were down and out from the sheriff's six-shooter.
Things were looking extremely bad for the Tin Cup gang, and Monk lost no time in herding his men off the train, leaving their wounded. The train backed off the bridge and stopped, but the Tin Cup gang were already mounting and riding away. There was no question in the mind of Monk Clark that Skeeter Bill and Freel had died in the flood.
He gathered his men to him and delivered his orders:
“Boys, I don't know how many people seen or recognized us, nor how much we're goin' to be blamed for this; but we might as well be hung for goats as for sheep. Let's finish the business by wiping out every sheep-camp in the country. Make it one big night, and to —— with tomorrow.”
Without a reply his men spurred ahead with him. They were already in bad and were willing to go the limit now.
Inside the train, all was confusion. No one seemed to know just what had happened; but the engine-crew knew that a warning torpedo had exploded just in time to prevent diem from going into the river.
When the train backed off the bridge and stopped, Mrs. Porter and Mary Leeds got off the rear steps. They were both dazed over the swift succession of events, and Mrs. Porter swore piously when they heard some one say that the sheriff and his prisoner had jumped into the river.
Without knowing why they did it, both of them clawed their way alongside the train, trying to get back to the bridge; and when half-way the length of the train it started backing toward Crescent City, leaving them alone in the rain.
The beams of the receding headlight faded out in the storm, leaving them in total darkness. Neither was dressed for wet weather, and the drifting rain drenched them in a few minutes.
“Oh, why did he jump?” queried Mary Leeds, staring into the distance, where the waters hissed against the piling of the bridge.
“He took a chance, child,” soothed Mrs. Porter. “When yuh look at it ca'm-like, the river ain't no worse than livin' out your life in the penitentiary.”
“But he couldn't have been guilty,” insisted Mary.
“Not of murder,” agreed Mrs. Porter wearily; “but mebbe things broke so he couldn't prove it. Skeeter Bill would shoot, y' betcha. Prob'ly looked like murder to the law. You kinda liked Skeeter, didn't yuh, Mary?”
“I don't know,” said Mary wistfully. “He is only a big, rough man, who does not deny that he is a lawbreaker, but he is honest and—when he smiles——”
“I know what yuh mean,” said Mrs. Porter softly when Mary hesitated. “Bill was all right, y'betcha. Why, he never wore a shirt over a week, and he allus took off his hat t' me. I've seen him take off his hat t' honkatonk girls, too. Seems like he respected women—all of 'em—thataway.”
Together they stood in the drenching rain and thought of Skeeter Bill. Finally Mrs. Porter said:
“Well, we ain't doin' poor Skeeter any good out here. God rest his soul, and that's about all I can say. I wonder how far it is back to a town.”
Mary shook her head.
“I don't know. Somehow I have no desire to go anywhere. I feel so tired now.”
“You need a good shot of booze,” declared the practical, Mrs. Porter. “We'll both catch a dandy cold in this rain. Come on, let's slop back to some town.”
They started slowly down the railroad track, picking their way over the ties, which seemed to rise up and catch their feet. They could only see a few feet beyond them; but the storm seemed to be breaking, and already there were rifts in the clouds, where light strips hinted at a moonlight soon to come.
They had gone only about a hundred yards when they heard the crunching of gravel ahead of them, and a huge, misshapen thing seemed to rise up out of the brush beside the track and flounder out in front of them.
The two women clutched at each other in fear until a voice came to them—
“Pardner, you're harder t' handle than a salamander, and yuh weigh a ton.”
“Skeeter!” called Mary wildly. “Skeeter Bill!”
“Huh!” grunted Skeeter and turned to meet Mary, who was stumbling down the track to him.
“You!” he panted. “You!”
And then wonderingly—
“Don't we meet in the dangdest places, ma'am?”
“You're not drowned?” asked Mary half-hysterically.
“No'm, I don't reckon so—not yet. Howdy, Mrs. Porter.”
“Well, Bill Sarg!”
Mrs. Porter was half-crying.
“What'sa matter?” queried Skeeter. “And what are you folks doin' out here in the wet? Where's the train?”
“It went,” said Mrs. Porter, waving one arm down the track. “We—we went to look into the river, I guess.”
“Well,” laughed Skeeter, shifting the weight of Freel's body, “I had all the looks I wanted. I jumped into the darned thing—me 'n' the sheriff. I dunno how he liked it. Reckon it was all right, 'cause he slept through it all.”
“Wasn't he shot?” asked Mrs. Porter. “Them two men was shootin'——”
“Hit him twice, I think.”
“But what was it all about?” asked Mary.
“Me,” chuckled Skeeter. “Them fellers wanted t' take me away from the sheriff and make a tree decoration out of me.”
“Hang yuh?” exclaimed Mrs. Porter.
“Yes'm, I suppose they had that in mind. They kinda hate sheep-herders.”
“Was you herdin' sheep, Skeeter Bill?”
“Nope. It was just a case of bein' nice and handy to a sheep outfit, and no way t' prove a alibi. Of course them fellers ain't particular, Mrs. Porter. 'F they hated a laundry and caught me washin' m' shirt——”
“Whop!” exploded Mrs. Porter. “Don't drag the dirty shirts into this, Skeeter Bill. Whatcha goin' to do with the sheriff? 'F they catch yuh ag'in, won't they send yuh to the penitentiary?”
“Yes'm—'f they don't lynch me first; but I've gotta get help for the sheriff.”
“Well, yuh ain't goin' back to town,” declared Mrs. Porter. “You never murdered nobody, and you're a fool to shove your neck into a handy rope. Vamoose while the travelin' is wide open.”
Skeeter considered the idea thoughtfully.
“You can go to another country,” added Mary Leeds.
“Well, I've gotta get this sheriff—I know what I can do. By cripes, I'll pack him to Kirk's camp and let him haul Freel t' Crescent City. 'F I ain't mistaken, I can travel to the right and hit that sheep outfit dead center. You folks keep straight down the railroad, and you'll hit Crescent City.”
“Not me!” declared Mrs. Porter. “If you're goin' huntin' for a sheep-camp in the dark, I'm goin' along.”
“I shall go too,” said Mary firmly.
“Whatcha goin' to do?” grumbled Skeeter. “Two t' one, and I'm loaded down. It ain't reasonable—not any; but mebbe yo're just as well off. It's a —— of a trip, any old way yuh take it. C'm on. We've gotta get out of this cut before we can start across-country.”
It was at least two hundred yards to where the cut opened into more level country. Just before they reached the end of the cut a bulky object seemed to drag itself across the rails and halted in the center of the track.
The two women hung back, not realizing that it was a man; but Skeeter Bill plodded on with his burden until he reached the prone figure stretched between the rails.
“More danged cripples around here!” exclaimed Skeeter Bill, peering down at the man. “Who are you, pardner?”
“I'm Kales,” panted the man. “Nick Kales.”
Skeeter eased his burden to the ground.
“Kales, eh? I 'member you, Kales. You said that the judge didn't have any guts, 'cause he didn't hang me.”
But Kales had collapsed again and did not answer.
“Must 'a' been one of the gang who tried to hold up the train,” said Skeeter. “Got plugged for his trouble.”
Skeeter dug into Kales' pockets and secured matches, which he proceeded to light in order to examine Kales' hurts.
“He sure got plugged,” nodded Skeeter. “I dunno how many times he got hit, but it looks like his gun busted and tore his right hand all to thunder. Hm-m-m!”
“Almost got enough to start a hospital,” observed Mrs. Porter.
Skeeter was searching Kales' pockets again. In the outside pocket of the slicker he found a full bottle of whisky. He drew out the cork and forced some of it into the outlaw's mouth. Kales strangled and tried to sit up.
“Here, take a drink,” urged Skeeter, and succeeded in getting a fair-sized drink down Kales' throat.
Kales coughed and tried to get to his feet.
“Hang on to yourself,"' advised Skeeter. “Take it easy until yuh feel better.”
But Kales got to his feet and clung to Skeeter, talking incoherently.
“Can yuh walk?” asked Skeeter.
“Walk?” muttered Kales. “Walk?”
“Yeah—move your feet for'ard and back and carry yore body along at the same time. I betcha he can,” continued Skeeter; and then to Mrs. Porter: “Can yuh kindly help hang on to him? I reckon we'll add him to our collection.”
“He came here to lynch you.”
Mrs. Porter was a trifle indignant at the idea of taking Kales along.
“Yeah, tha's a fact,” admitted Skeeter Bill; “but he fell down on the job. Let's go.”
He swung the inert Freel back across his shoulder and started off down the track, with the stumbling Kales hanging to the sleeve of his coat and being assisted to some extent by Mrs. Porter. Bringing up the rear came Mary Leeds, wanting to be of help to some one, but unable to decide just where to begin.
ROPER BATES had consumed considerable whisky that day, but had not succeeded in getting so drunk that he forgot his plans. It was after dark when he rode away from Crescent City, heading toward Kirk's sheep-camp.
The fact that a big storm was coming did not bother Roper Bates. His mind still carried a picture of the pretty woman at the sheep-camp, and he was sufficiently filled with liquor actually to believe that he was going to do her a real favor by taking her away from her plebeian husband.
The last quarter of a mile he rode in a whirl of dust while the thunder jarred the world about him; but he was storm-proof. He dismounted near the door, and his horse immediately moved into the shelter of the cabin wall.
The door was not barred; so Roper Bates surged inside and shut the door behind him. The cabin was lighted with a single lantern, which swayed from a rafter, and it took him several moments to get his dust-filled eyes accustomed to the dim light.
The pretty woman was sitting on the edge of the built-in bunk, staring at him. There was some one in the bunk, who moved restlessly and coughed dryly.
“What do you want here?” asked the woman hoarsely.
Roper Bates wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He did not know what to say just then. From overhead came a crashing snap of thunder, and the woman seemed to crouch lower on the bunk. Successive flashes of lightning made the room bright with a white glare.
Roper moved in a little closer and stared at the man in the bunk. He could see the man's face now; it was very pale.
“What'sa matter—sick?” asked Roper thickly.
The woman nodded dumbly, and turned to put her hand on the sick man's forehead. She turned back and repeated her question—
“What do you want here?”
Roper Bates really did not know. Somehow he seemed to forget just why he had come there.
“Been sick long?”
Roper jerked his head toward the sick man.
“Three days and nights,” nodded the woman. “I haven't had any sleep, and no one comes here.”
“Three days and nights,” parroted Roper. “You been settin' there all that time?”
“I haven't slept,” she corrected him wearily.
“Nobody to help yuh?”
Roper shook his head, as if answering his own question.
“Nobody? For ——'s sake!”
He moved in close to the side of the bed and looked down at Kirk.
“He's the sheep-herder, ain't he?”
“Yes—and my husband,” defiantly.
“Uh-huh—your husband,” agreed Roper thoughtfully. “A sheep-herder for a husband.”
Mrs. Kirk got up from the bunk and faced Roper Bates.
“What difference does that make?” she demanded. “We took this job together. If he's a sheep-herder, so am I. No matter if he does herd sheep—he's as good as you are.”
“Good as I am,” parroted Roper thoughtfully.
“He had to live in the hills, and there was nothing else for him to do. We had to live.”
“Had to,” agreed Roper slowly.
“And he's my husband,” repeated Mrs. Kirk, very near to the verge of a breakdown, “and I love him more than anything in the world.”
Roper peered closely at her and looked at the man in the bunk.
“More'n anythin'—in—the—world! Well, I'll be eternally ——!” blurted Roper.
It was beyond his comprehension; yet he could get a glimmering of the idea.
“And nobody ever comes here,” said Mrs. Kirk bitterly. “They hate a sheep-herder so much that nobody cares what becomes of us.”
“Ain't it ——?” agreed Roper. “Now, ain't it, though?”
The little cabin shook in the heavy wind, and the rain beat in through the walls and the patched window-panes.
“Stormin' outside,” observed Roper vacantly, and grinned at his own wit as he added, “and some of it's comin' in out of the wet.”
Suddenly he turned to Mrs. Kirk.
“You ain't scared of me, are yuh?”
“No, I am not afraid of you. Why should I be?”
Roper did not say, but studied the face of the sick man for a while before he looked up at Mrs. Kirk.
“Yuh say yuh love him—more 'n—anythin'—even if he is a sheep-herder?”
“God knows I do. Why do you ask me that question?”
“And yuh ain't afraid of me?”
“Not one bit,” declared Mrs. Kirk. “*What'are you going to do about it?”
“Stay and help yuh all I can, ma'am. I ain't one of them lousy persons which looks down upon a sheep-herder. I reckon yore husband is quite some top-hand, when he's up and doin' his stuff.”
“Jim is my pal.”
“Whatcha know?” grunted Roper. “Whatcha know? Ma'am, you lay down and take a nap, and I'll take care of him.”
There was one home-made rocking-chair in the room, and Mrs. Kirk sat down in it.
“I can not sleep, but it is a godsend to have some one here to talk with,” she said wearily.
“Yes'm,” nodded Roper slowly. “Nobody ever called me that name before, but it's all right, I reckon.”
He slowly rolled a cigaret, and as he drew his lips across the edge of the paper he glanced at Mrs. Kirk. She had fallen asleep, with her head pillowed in her arm.
For a long time Roper stared at the floor, with the unlighted cigaret between his lips. He was trying to solve a problem which has never been answered; nor will it ever be, “Why does this woman love this man?”
Roper studied the face of the sick man. Kirk was a very ordinary-looking man. He was not big. Roper shook his head. It was a problem far beyond his ken.
He sifted the tobacco out of his cigaret paper and humped over with his chin in his hands. He had come there to take that woman away from her undeserving husband; and here he was, acting as nurse to that very husband.
For the better part of an hour he sat there like a statue, thinking of things that had never entered his head before. He did not want that woman now, and he wondered why he had ever wanted her. Where did he ever get the idea of taking her away from her husband?
Suddenly he heard the thudding of horses' hoofs as a body of horsemen drew rein at the doorway. A man's voice cursed openly—
“Git out of this, you —— sheep-herders!”
The voice aroused Mrs. Kirk, and she sat up, staring around. Somebody stumbled over the step and grasped the door. Roper Bates knew what it meant. The cattle-men had come to clean up the sheep-camps.
Suddenly the door was flung open, and three men filled the doorway. Quick as a flash Roper Bates, threw up his six-shooter and fired at the lead man, who had a Winchester rifle leveled from his shoulder.
The man seemed to spin on his heel, and the rifle discharged into the ceiling, while the other men shot back with him as they jerked him out of the doorway. The door swung shut behind them, and Roper Bates' last shot splintered the edge of it as it closed.
The room was full of powder-smoke. Mrs. Kirk had darted to the bunk as if to try to protect her husband, while Roper Bates was half-kneeling in the middle of the room, stuffing cartridges into his six-shooter.
“Got me in the leg,” he grunted; “but I made 'em pay for comin' in without knockin'.”
He got carefully to his feet, yanked a blanket off the bed and managed to stumble over to the window, where he flung the blanket across the rough frame, cutting out the view from outside.
A bullet flicked in through the window and tore a slash in the blanket, but the latter remained in place. Roper was hopping on one foot along the wall, getting close to the door, when a man called from without—
“—— you, we're comin' after yuh!”
“Come on!” challenged Roper. “Open that door and grab a harp.”
Several bullets splintered through the door following his defiance, and one of them bit deeply into Roper's ribs. He swayed closer to the door, but did not waste lead in reply.
Mrs. Kirk saw that Roper had been hit hard and started toward him, but he waved her back.
“Oh, why don't you let them in?” she begged. “They will not hurt you. Why do you fight for us?”
“This ain't no job for a woman and a sick man,” he stated hoarsely, “and it's 'bout all I'm good fer.”
“Why did we ever come here?” said Mrs. Kirk weakly.
Roper turned his white face toward her and shook his head.
“Ma'am, I've asked m'self that same question. Down in Indiany, they farm with a plow instead of a six-gun. But I never left there of my own accord. I was only three year old, and m' folks kinda hoodled me along with them.”
Roper was deadly serious. He was bleeding badly and barely able to brace himself against the log wall.
“If you don't come out of there you'll wish to —— yuh had!” yelled a voice.
“And if you come in here you'll wish t' —— yuh hadn't,” answered Roper.
Another bullet splintered the door near the latch and thudded harmlessly into the wall.
From without came the sound of earnest conversation, and a voice called again.
“We're goin' to stampede your sheep, and if you ain't out of there when we come back we'll dynamite your shack.”
There came the sound of horses speeding away over the wet ground. Roper walked dizzily back to the table, where he sat down heavily in the rocking-chair.
“We must get out of here.”
Mrs. Kirk was nervously looking around the room, as if debating just what to save from the promised dynamiting.
“Tha's all right,” grunted Roper dazedly. “Don'tcha worry. Them jaspers ain't got no dynamite; but I'm bettin' they've got some respect for a sheep-herder now.”
“But we must get to a doctor—for—you.”
“Never mind me, ma'am. Ain't nobody worryin' about me. I'm jist Roper Bates, cow-puncher. Got a hole in m' leg and one in m' bellows, but I'm feelin' fine, y' betcha—betcha.”
Roper Bates sank lower in his chair, and the heavy six-shooter fell to the floor.
IT WAS a sadly bedraggled party which picked its way through the dark. There were no lights to guide them, no trail nor road. Skeeter Bill, under the double burden of Kales and Freel, traveled by instinct. Kales babbled meaningless things and wanted to lie down, but Skeeter doled out bad whisky to him and steadied him on one side, while Mrs. Porter guided him from the opposite side.
Through mesquite and sage they blundered along, sliding into washouts partly filled with muddy water, falling over rocks, crashing into brier patches, where the women left sections of their clothes.
As in a dream Mary Leeds followed. She had no sense of direction, and her feet had long since lost any sense of feeling. She was reduced to a mere dumb creature, following the man she loved. Ahead of her he struggled; a huge, queer-shaped hulk, uncomplaining, patient.
“Ain't you tired, Skeeter Bill?” asked Mrs. Porter.
“Years and years ago,” laughed Skeeter; “but I'm sure paralyzed now. Mr. Kales, I wish you'd watch where yo're puttin' yore feet. I don't mind walkin' on m' feet, but I hate like —— t' have you doin' it.”
From afar came the sound of firing as the Tin Cup gang rounded up and stampeded the sheep. Skeeter stopped and listened for a moment and hurried on.
“I'm scared,” admitted Skeeter. “Scared that somethin' is happenin' to the pals.”
“Who are the pals?” panted Mrs. Porter.
“Man and his wife. He's sick and she's stickin' to him. Sheep-herder.”
Skeeter shifted his burden slightly.
“They ain't jist husband and wife—they're pals—bunkies,” he went on. “Sabe what I mean, Mrs. Porter?”
“I think so, Skeeter Bill.”
“Dangdest thing I ever seen,” said Skeeter. “Kinda gives a feller a new idea of a wife. 'F a feller had a wife that was a pal t' him— Say, by cripes, we found the shack!”
Just beyond them loomed the outlines of the little sheep cabin, but without a light showing.
“Lemme do the talkin',” said Skeeter. “It ain't safe to be a stranger around here.”
Skeeter went close to the door and called:
“Mrs. Kirk! Yoohoo! Mrs. Kirk!”
For several moments there was silence, and then—
“Who is it?”
Mrs. Kirk's voice sounded very weak.
“Skeeter Bill Sarg, who went after groceries.”
The splintered door creaked, and a faint light came from the interior.
“Why, I—I—” stammered Mrs. Kirk, astonished beyond measure to hear his voice.
She stepped aside and stared white-faced at Skeeter and his burden and at the others with him. Skeeter stared at Roper Bates, asprawl in the chair, and at the form under the blankets on the bed.
He lowered Freel to the floor and propped Kales up between the table and the wall. Mary Leeds and Mrs. Porter were staring at Mrs. Kirk while Skeeter Bill chafed his benumbed arms and neck and haltingly introduced them.
“What's he doin' here?” asked Skeeter, pointing at Roper Bates.
Haltingly Mrs. Kirk told of what had happened a short time before, while Roper Bates roused up sufficiently to look around dazedly. He looked from Mrs. Kirk to Skeeter Bill and nodded weakly.
“Pals,” he whispered. “Him—and—her.”
“Y'betcha, pardner,” nodded Skeeter, and walked over to the bunk, where he looked down at Kirk.
Bill went back to Freel and examined him. The sheriff was still alive, but unconscious. Kales was still mumbling incoherent things, but was too weak to do more than hold up his head.
“Kirk's better off here than anywhere else,” stated Skeeter Bill; “but I've gotta git the rest of the cripples to a doctor pretty danged quick. Yuh still got the old horse and the wagon, Mrs. Kirk?”
Mrs. Kirk nodded, and Skeeter turned to Mrs. Porter.
“You keep house here while I hitch up.”
“But you can't go back to town,” declared Mrs. Porter. “They'll——”
“I betcha they will,” smiled Skeeter; “but it's a case of three t' one. 'F I don't hand these three men over to a doctor they'll all die.”
Skeeter patted Mrs. Porter on the shoulder as he started for the door.
“Mebbe they'll only send me to the penitentiary, yuh see.”
It was only a few minutes' work for Skeeter to hitch up the old horse and drive up to the door. He carried the three men out of the house and placed them in the wagon-box on an old quilt.
“You and Mary stay here with Mrs. Kirk,” said Skeeter to Mrs. Porter. “I'll see that somebody comes after yuh in the mornin'.”
He turned to Mrs. Kirk and held out his hand.
“'F I don't see yuh ag'in—good luck t' you and yore pal.”
“Well, we'll sure see yuh, won't we?” queried Mrs. Porter quickly.
“I shore hope so, but yuh can't sometimes always tell. Mebbe I better tell you folks good-by, too.”
“Aw, ——!” blurted Mrs. Porter inelegantly and turned back into the shack, while Mary Leeds came slowly up to Skeeter and took hold of his sleeve.
“Skeeter Bill, can't I go with you?”
“I— Mebbe yuh better not,” softly. “She's a rough old road, and yuh can't tell what might——”
“Does a pal mind rough old roads, Skeeter Bill?”
Mary was looking up into his face, a world of yearning in her eyes. Skeeter's hand came up and touched her drenched, wind blown hair for a moment, and he shook his head.
“There are no rough roads to a pal,” said Mary; and without a word Skeeter Bill helped her on to the rickety seat.
CRESCENT CITY was greatly excited over the events of the evening. The storm had taken a great toll in property, and the town was filled with ranchers whose places had been flooded in the big cloud-burst.
The train had backed into town, bringing two badly wounded men and a tale of a narrow escape from going into the river and of a mysterious hold-up, in which the sheriff and his prisoner had perished in the river. And to cap it all, a wounded sheep-herder had ridden into town and told of a gang of raiders who had destroyed his camp and herd.
Jimmy Longhair and Bennie Harper, the two men who had been shot by the sheriff, were stretched out in the Moon River saloon and gambling-house while a doctor worked over them. The place was filled with hard-faced cattle-men who argued and declared pro and con.
Among those present were Bowen, Van Cleve and Orson. Swede Sorenson was still in San Gregario Cañon, unable to cross the river back to the Lazy H, and not knowing what had happened to their well-laid plans.
None of the three had been hurt in the skirmish with the Tin Cup gang, and had walked back to Crescent City. None of them had the slightest idea where Kales was; but they were under the impression that Kales had been shot. They did not know whether to stay in town or to make a getaway while the going was good.
Judge Grayson, who had been summoned, was greatly affected over the news of Freel's death. He tried to get some kind of a statement from Longhair or Harper, but both of them refused to talk. They were both from the Tin Cup ranch, but they would say nothing to implicate any more of their outfit.
The train crew were in the saloon, adding their voices to the general hum of conversation. It had been a narrow escape for them, and they were willing to admit that they were very fortunate to be alive.
“I heard that torpedo,” stated the engineer, a grizzled old veteran, “and I hossed over the old Johnson-bar. The wind usually blows away the sand, but I guess the Lord was with us this time, 'cause it stayed on the rail. We sure upset folks a-plenty, but stopped with the pilot hangin' out over the water. Wouldn't have been a chance in the world except for that torpedo.”
“Who placed the torpedo?” queried the judge. “And what do you mean by a torpedo?”
“It's a little metal case which is fastened to the rail,” explained the engineer. “It's flat on each end and high in the center, with lead straps to clamp onto the rail. When the engine wheel hits it, the thing pops loud. Two of 'em is a slow-signal, ordering you to go cautious, but when only one pops, you better stop quick.”
“I understand,” nodded the judge. “But who placed that one on the rail?”
No one seemed to know.
“I don't know who put it there—” the engineer shook bis head—“but I do know that he saved a lot of us this night.”
“Amen to that,” agreed the judge.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the door, excited voices, the scrape of footsteps; and in came Skeeter Bill, carrying the sheriff in his arms. The crowd parted and let him through. He placed the sheriff on the floor, turned, and went back out of the door, while men crowded around and looked down at Freel, who was still alive.
Before any one had time to call the doctor from his labors with the other two men Skeeter came back in with Kales. He placed him with Freel and went back without a word.
“My God!” exclaimed the judge piously. “What next?”
Back came Skeeter Bill again. This time he was carrying Roper Bates, and following him was Mary Leeds. Skeeter placed Roper on the floor and stood aside as the doctor came bustling through the crowd, answering some one's hail.
Men looked queerly at Skeeter, but no one made any move to interfere with his freedom. Swiftly the doctor worked in his examination. Bowen, Orson and Van Cleve moved close together and watched closely, hoping against hope that Kales had not, and would not, tell what he knew.
“Any chance for them, doctor?” asked the judge.
“Yes, I think so. Freel is badly hurt, but is suffering mostly from loss of blood. This other man—” indicating Bates—“has been hit twice, but I think he will recover. This third man has a nasty hole in his shoulder, and he appears to have lost nearly all the fingers on his right hand. Perhaps his pistol exploded. Who is he?”
“Name's Kales,” said a bystander. “Hired gunman.”
Kales stirred and opened his eyes, looking curiously up at the circle of faces.
“Did it stop?” he whispered weakly. “The train?”
“It stopped in time,” said the judge.
Kales spaced his words widely, and frowned heavily as if in deep thought.
“I knowed that it took one torpedo to stop the train.”
He stopped and took a deep breath.
“Women and children—men—the—bridge—gone. No—gun—so—I——”
Kales tried to smile but only succeeded in contorting his homely face.
“The wind was too strong—blew—the—cartridge—off—the—rail—so—I——”
He licked his lips and tried to lift his injured hand, but the effort was too great.
“I—I held it on the rail.”
“God!” cried the engineer wonderingly. “He lost his hand from holding a cartridge on the track.”
“A hired gunman,” said Skeeter Bill softly. “A paid killer.”
“Where did Roper Bates come in on this?” demanded a bearded cow-man.
Roper Bates was trying to sit up, and one of the crowd assisted him while another gave him a drink of liquor.
More men were coming into the door, clumping heavily in their wet boots. They shoved to the front—the Tin Cup outfit, with Monk Clark at their head. He looked at Skeeter Bill and blinked his eyes rapidly. It was like looking at a ghost. His eyes switched to the three men on the floor, and Roper Bates was looking up at him.
Clark's men had halted behind him. One of them pointed at Skeeter and said:
“There's the —— murderin' sheep-herder, Monk! He didn't drown.”
Mary Leeds moved in closer to Skeeter, and he put an arm around her.
“Murderin' ——!” gasped Roper Bates. “He only killed a man, Monk. You and your gang tried to kill a woman. If I hadn't been there you'd 'a' done it, too.”
The man who had given Roper Bates the drink was forcing a drink between Freel's lips, and Freel choked over the fiery liquor. The man lifted Freel's head a little higher, and Freel's eyes slowly opened.
For a full minute he studied the crowd, and his eyes shifted to Skeeter Bill.
“What —— happened?” he muttered. “They—shot——”
“I jumped into the river with yuh,” smiled Skeeter, “and then I packed yuh plumb over to the sheep-herder's shack and then brought yuh here.”
Freel digested this as he studied Skeeter closely.
“You unlocked the handcuffs—when?”
“After I got yuh out of the river.”
Skeeter's mind flashed back to the bank of the river, in the drenching storm and darkness, when he started to toss the sheriff back into the flood.
“Yeah,” said Skeeter slowly. “I stayed.”
“You—had—your—chance,” said Freel painfully.
“I know I did.”
Skeeter's voice held no regrets.
“I could 'a' got away, Freel.” he went on. “But you wasn't to blame for what was bein' done t' me. You was only doin' your duty.”
Freel motioned for another drink, and the man gave him a generous portion.
Freel's voice was so low that the crowd shifted in closer to hear what he was saying.
“I was doin' my duty, Sarg? No, I wasn't. I was glad the judge gave you life, instead of the rope. I'll tell you why.”
Freel's eyes shifted around the crowd, and he nodded.
“Remember the day Cleve Hart was killed? I got shot that day—just a scratch. I was in that sheep-herder's cabin when Cleve Hart came. He—they told me he had said things about the woman who lived there.
“I picked up the shotgun and came out. Maybe he didn't recognize me, but he shot. I killed him and rode away.”
“You killed him!” exclaimed the judge. “You?”
“Me,” admitted the sheriff. “I—got—scared—afterwards. I'm—a—coward, judge.”
Men looked at each other in amazement, and many of them looked at Skeeter Bill, who had his arms around Mary Leeds and was staring into space.
“Judge,” called Freel softly. “Listen to me, judge. Will you find McClelland? I think he's in Cinnibar now. Tell him I said to take these —— sheep out of the valley of Moon River right away.”
“Why, how can you order them out?” asked the judge.
“They—belong—to—me, judge. I—I—didn't—know—they'd—start—so—much—trouble.”
Skeeter Bill moved slowly toward the door with his arm around Mary Leeds, and the Tin Cup gang, yet to pay for their misdeeds, removed their hats as the lanky cow-puncher and the girl went past, paying no heed to any one.
Outside, they climbed on to the rickety seat, turned the old gray horse around and started back toward the sheep-camp. The old wagon creaked in every joint, protesting against such continuous service; and the old gray horse shuffled along over the wet, misty road, taking its own gait, while two figures sat very close together on the lop-sided seat—two pals who found each other in the storm.
Copyright, 1922, by The Ridgway Company, in the United States and Great Britain. All rights reserved