Get Your Man
Get Your Man
By B. M. Bower and Buck Connor.
Authors of “Five Hundred Head for a Ranger,” Etc.
Like the man without a country is the man in this story who was dismissed from the Texas Rangers after a love affair that blinded him to duty. To get back into the service becomes an obsession with him. There is a terrific fight between two men in the tale—one fighting for his life, and the other for what makes life worth while.
IN the gray of a windy afternoon, when the leaden clouds were more sand than vapor, Captain Oakes, of the Texas Ranger force, jerked open the door of his office and looked out just as Bill Gillis was passing.
“Tell Marshall to report to me at once,” the captain hailed Bill, and turned back as though the thing was done.
“Marshall ain’t here.” Bill grabbed for his hat, which the wind had all but swooped from his head, and blinked into the wind and sand while he faced his captain.
“Ain't here? Where is he?” The captain pulled the door shut because the wind was stirring up the papers on his desk, and turned a sharp glance toward the corral and stable.
“Went to town, a little while ago,” Bill said reluctantly, torn between Ranger discipline and his personal sense of loyalty to Marshall.
“You go after him.” The captain went in, and the wind slammed the door shut. Bill, hanging to his big-four Stetson with both hands, went staggering down to the stable, cursing his vile luck for bringing him past the door at the moment when the captain opened it. Why couldn’t it have been Vaughan or Kent or Charlie Horn?
Going after King Marshall did not sound very difficult, since there was only a mile or so to ride; but Bill would gladly have exchanged that errand for a fifty-mile trip in some other direction, nevertheless. Still, when the captain says “Go,” there is nothing to be gained by loitering, so within five minutes Bill was mounted on the horse that day assigned to his use, and was leaning into the wind and riding with his eyes two—thirds closed, so that his lashes might strain the dust that half blinded him.
“It's shore a ticklish job, dragging a fellow away from his girl—and that right after you’ve told him plain and forcible that he’d better cut out running with her,” Bill mused uncomfortably. "King’s liable to forget who he's speaking to, and tell me to mind my own business; and then,” Bill finished, with a quirk of his lips, “the dust’ll shore be stirred up along the trouble trail, ’cause I won’t take anything like that off’n King Marshall, or no other man.”
On the chance that King had met an acquaintance and had loitered in the post office for a few minutes, Bill swung oft his horse at the platform, and went in, spitting grit as he went. Perhaps he was secretly postponing his disagreeable errand—but that could not he for long, because the captain wanted King, and the captain was not one to wait patiently when he had called a man to report for duty. At any rate, King was not in the post office; and Bill, glancing through the glass front of lock box No. 200, saw that he had not been there. Bill opened the box and took out the mail, and returned to his horse.
On the extreme edge of the town lived the girl. Half Mexican in blood, and the traditions of women born to be petted, full American in speech and in a certain careless freedom of the restraining conventions of the better class across the border, Lisa Gonzales had lovers in plenty—yet not so many but she resented fiercely any influence that would take one from her. Bill Gillis she recognized—trust a woman for sensing antagonism a mile off!—as such an influence.
Bill was in no mood for subterfuge or diplomacy. Since he must get King to the captain, he meant to do it as soon as possible. So he rode straight to the flat~roofed adobe house where Lisa lived with her father and a half-grown sister, and struck his knuckles imperatively against the blue-painted door panels.
Lisa herself opened the door six inches, and looked out at him with unreadable, unfriendly black eyes.
Bill tilted his hat in a perfunctory salute—since he recognized and returned in full the antagonism—and wasted no words in preamble. “I’d like to speak to King Marshall,” he said straightforwardly.
“You would?” Lisa smiled guilefully. “Well, I’ll tell him so—when he comes.” And she added, by way of apology, perhaps, “Oh, it is so windy to-day!” and pressed the door shut in the face of Bill Gillis and the swirling clouds of dust.
Bill hesitated, glaring at the blank, light-blue panels so affected by Mexicans. He believed that King was in there, beyond that door—but he wanted to be absolutely sure of it before he forced an entrance. What ailed the man, anyway? he thought angrily, as he swung up into the saddle. He turned his horse and stared for another minute at the house.
He did not go back into the town; instead, he went straight to the little adobe shed where Lisa’s father sheltered a cow and a meager little pony when the winds were too piercing outside. Without leaving the saddle, Bill rode close to the sagging door, reached out, and pulled it open so that he could look within. There, resting on three legs, half asleep under the saddle, stood the horse King had ridden to town.
“The lyin’ little hussy!” Bill snorted unchivalrously. “And I knew she lied, too.”
He rode back to the house, swung off his horse on the sheltered side, where the wall was unbroken by windows, and went around to the back door. He did not know for sure, but he suspected that Lisa had been sharp-witted enough to lock the front door when she shut it in his face. At any rate, he did not intend to expose himself to the humiliation of trying to open a door that was locked against him.
He opened the back door deliberately, as though he had a perfect right to walk in where he pleased to go. He went into the kitchen—and faced King Marshall, seated at a table spread with a red—and-blue-checked cloth and filled with savory Mexican dishes. The arms of Lisa were just drawing away from King’s shoulders when Bill went in; her black eyes spat hate at him over King’s brown bead. Bill paid her no attention whatever; he looked full at King, and he tried to keep his face free of all emotion.
“Captain wants you right away, King,” he announced casually. “He sent me in to tell you.”
“What does he want?” snapped King, lowering a forkful of frijoles to his plate. “I’m not on duty——”
“A Ranger’s always on duty, King,” Bill corrected mildly. He did not so much blame King—a woman’s spell can work an unbelievable change in a man.
“Well—you can tell him I’ll be along after a little.” The soft fingers of Lisa were tapping, tapping on King’s shoulders. His left hand went up defiantly, and prisoned them in his palm. “And, Bill, you’re kinda butting in on another man’s private affairs, don't yuh think?”
“Captain sent me after you, King. You'd better come.” Bill stood just inside the door, with his hat pushed back on his head—ignoring, in the face of bigger things, the little courtesy of removing it in Lisa’s presence—and his voice stopped just short of being apologetic. He hated this situation into which he had been forced—hated it worse than did those two across the table—but it never occurred to him to shirk his duty.
King Marshall flushed. It was Lisa, however, who answered Bill with a spiteful little smile and a barbed meaning that made the blood beat in the temples of the two men.
“You just want to take him from me!” she cried, her arms slipping around King’s neck. “You’re mad because—I know why—if I wanted to tell! You followed him here, and you want to get him away. Bah! I know how much the captain wants him! You can’t fool nobody—but yourself,” was what she said.
Now, every one knows that a man violently in love is in an abnormal state where truth looks trivial, and the things that are false look true and fine and big. King Marshall was suffering from the infatuation which sometimes seizes a strong man who does not know women very well; and the moment Lisa put the lie into speech, punctuated by little, caressing movements, King, who was in a highly abnormal condition, believed she spoke the truth.
“You keep your hands off my affairs, Bill,” he said harshly, forgetting how they two had been friends when Lisa was an untidy schoolgirl in short dresses and long braids. “I’ve had enough of this spying and interfering in my business. I'll go when I get good and ready!”
“You’ll go now, King. The captain told me to bring you.” Bill’s voice was still soft, but his eyes were not. He wanted to tear those clinging arms from King’s neck; perhaps without their insidious influence King would have sense enough to see that he must come when the captain called.
“You’ve delivered your message—and that lets you out,” King parried, reaching with ostentatious ease for the flat, little tortillas Lisa had baked for him. He did not look at Bill—perhaps, in spite of the perverse spirit that rode him hard, he was ashamed of himself. “I’ll settle with the captain,” he added, lifting his forkful of frijoles again to his mouth. “Lisa, where’s that good coffee I smell?”
“Right now I bring it!” Lisa cried eagerly, and sent Bill Gillis a triumphant glance. Duty pitted against love's desire—and love had won, just as it always does win if it is greater than a man’s soul. She hurried back to stand close behind King Marshall after she had filled his cup. Her fingers returned to their little, caressing taps on his shoulders. “The beans, are they are plenty full of chili?”
“King, you’ve got to come now!” Bill, feeling dimly that this was not the real King Marshall, who sat there openly mutinous, was patient even when he wanted to tear those two apart by force.
“Aw, clear out, Bill! You give me a pain. I’ll settle with the captain, I told you once.” King sent him an ugly look. “You’re about as welcome here right now as——”
“Get up from there, and come with me!” Bill’s patience snapped all at once. King was no longer a fellow Ranger who was out of his mind with love of a girl, but a man whom the captain had told Bill to bring to headquarters. Putting it on that basis, Bill knew exactly what to do, and how to do it. He had brought reluctant men to headquarters before now.
King looked up into the muzzle of Bill’s six-shooter, and caught his breath in sheer amazement. “Why, you——”
“I'll take you to the captain, by gosh, if I have to take you in irons!” snapped Bill. “You lunatic—to let a little snip of a fool girl ruin you with the force like that! For half an hour longer to spoon with her, you’d refuse to obey an order, would you? Well, I’m not built that way myself. Captain told me to bring you—and you’ll go!”
Bill Gillis was little, as height went—but at that minute he towered above King at the table. Also, the gun, in his hand was an argument not to be overlooked even by a love-crazed man. King got up because he knew he must, if he wanted to live any longer. Never for one second did he doubt that Bill would shoot him if he refused. He could not doubt—because he knew.
“Lisa, you go in that next room, and shut the door behind you!”
Whimpering, her chin drawn down, and her shoulders drawn up like a child waiting for a blow, Lisa went.
“Turn your back!”
King did it sullenly.
Bill took King’s six-shooter from its holster at his hip and slipped it into his own. Knowing King’s habits, he reached into King’s coat pocket and got the small automatic which King always carried there against emergencies.
“Go on out!” Bill ordered; and, when they were outside, he made King turn his back while Bill mounted, and then Bill followed King to the shed and watched him grimly while he led out his own horse and mounted. “Lead out,” he said, when King settled into the saddle, “and do some going. Captain’s waited too long as it is.”
King, the color wiped from his face with the rage that held him because he was so helpless, looked at Bill furiously and swore by all the gods men use to cover the puny ineffectiveness of their oaths, how he would get even with Bill Gillis for this.
Bill did not make any reply whatever. As they galloped before the wind, that howled and sent clouds of dust after them, Bill’s anger against King cooled to a half-amused sympathy.
When they neared the corral, Bill rode alongside, and held out King’s two guns to him. “Here,” he said whimsically. “I’m sorry the play came up like it did, but I had to do it, King. Captain said to bring you—and you know what a fool I am about obeying orders. But I want to tell yuh right now, King, that I consider I’ve done you a big kindness—and I don’t care a cuss how you look at it. Far as I’m concerned, this thing ends right here. I'm your friend.” He rode on and dismounted at the corral gate.
King looked at him with his lips turned down at the corners, gave his horse a kick, and went on to the office, sour and sore and feeling that his world was against him. Which was, of course, merely one phase of his abnormal condition. He went in and stood, with the stiff back that expressed a dogged defiance of censure, just inside the door. It did not help his mood any that Captain Oakes looked up at him over his reading glasses for a minute-long inspection before he spoke.
“Marshall, you’re taking altogether too many liberties around here lately,” the captain said, at last, with the cold terseness that his men always dreaded. “Hereafter you will ask permission before you ride off to town—since you have formed the habit of forgetting to tell me that you are going, and why. You should have been started an hour ago on the job I have assigned you. In the Ranger service an hour may measure the difference between success and failure.
“Go upto Tobin and look into this horse stealing, that seems to be an epidemic in that country. Here are all the details that have been sent in. Get started as soon as you can—and try and make up the time that has been wasted in getting hold of you. Take the horse you rode to town. You’ll be close to the branch line all the way, and you probably won’t need a pack horse. That’s all."
Many a time King Marshall had gone off whistling on harder, longer trips than this one promised to be—but to-day he passed Vaughan with a scowl, and did not answer the cheerful hail of Charlie Horne. Under the friendliness he imagined an ironical gloating over him.
He took his carbine and hung it under his right-leg fender, and mounted his horse and rode away, glowering at the familiar, wind-buffeted little adobe buildings that formed the Ranger headquarters. The captain’s reprimand repeated itself over and over in his mind, and bit deeper with every repetition, as an acid eats into a sore. From being a mere reprimand because of a small breach of discipline, it became an unjust accusation, Wholly undeserved; then an insult which no man should bear in silence. So that he neared Ysleta in the mood for further revolt.
His eyes went toward the adobe where Lisa lived. It would be no more than an act of common kindness to stop and tell her where he was going, and when she might expect him back—and to comfort her with a kiss before he rode on. It was very easy for King to persuade himself that his loyalty to Lisa was a bigger, finer thing than obeying to the letter his captain’s command that he make all possible haste to Tobin. He swung toward the adobe, and, careless whether he were seen stopping there, dropped reins before the door, and went in.
He really meant to stay but a minute. He had no intention of loitering there. But, with Lisa’s arms around his neck, and with her cheek pressed against his shoulder, while her big, black eyes looked up into his gray ones, minutes were not easily reckoned. Lisa was telling him what a brute Bill Gillis had proven himself; what a thankless task it was to be a Ranger—a dog of the law, to be harried here and there, and never a word of approval for the risks he took, the hardships he endured.
He stopped her tirade with kisses. Under the delirium of his infatuation there still held firm the ingrained loyalty of the man for his chosen calling. Too long had he been proud to wear the Ranger star, too often had he fought to maintain its integrity, to hear it spoken of slightingly now. When Lisa’s fingers twitched petulantly at the star, he laid his hand over hers and pulled her fingers gently away, vaguely hurt because she hated his profession and said so.
“It's a good old star, little girl, and it takes a good man to wear it,” he told her lightly. “Kiss me now, so I can go. I’ll be back just as soon as ever I can——”
She struck the star with her fist. “I hate it!” she cried, with the fierceness of her father’s blood. “It takes you away from me always, just when I have almost made up my mind to promise——” She looked up at him, tempting him with her lips and her eyes. “Give me the star—and I’ll promise-what you want me to promise,” she whispered in his ear, standing on her toes and leaning against him. “I think that old tin thing means more to you than I do! You let it take you away from me—and there are plenty of others to go, if you didn't. Give me the star, King—king of my heart!” She began fumbling it again, tentatively pressing the pin out of its fastening.
King’s hand closed over her fingers again arrestingly. “Don't do that, sweetheart,” he muttered reprovingly, impelled by a glimmer of sanity. “Kiss me now—I must go.”
It was just at that moment that Captain Cakes opened the door and walked in, his face gray with anger. The reason for his being there was simple enough, though King's jaw dropped with astonishment. He had started for town soon after King had left headquarters, and his sharp eyes had seen and recognized King’s horse standing tail to the wind before this place. The rest was inevitable, since Captain Oakes knew who lived there and what errand it was that took King there.
“Marshall, you needn’t trouble to make that trip to Tobin,” he said sternly, standing just within the room. “Ranger business is too important to trust to a lovesick calf like you. You may take your choice, here and now; you may resign from the service, or I shall dismiss you.” He looked at King with narrowed eyes, and added grimly: “It will look better for both of us on the records if you resign.”
“I reckon I can thank Bill Gillis for this,” King blurted hotly. “It’s easy to guess he told you I’d be here. And I’ll sure settle with him!” he finished savagely.
“Marshall, you act and talk like a crazy man. I strongly suspect Gillis of straining a point more than once to shield you. If he knows of your frequenting this place, he has never hinted it to me. Your horse, out there, is plain-enough evidence to any one but a blind man.”
“ ‘Frequenting this place!’ ” Lisa repeated the phrase shrewishly. “You talk like this was a—saloon!”
“I’d rather find Marshall in a saloon than here! I’d have more hope of him!” snapped the captain. As though that placed the limit on his staying longer in the house, he pulled open the door. “I shall expect to receive your written resignation before dark,” he said to King, “so I can enter it on record and report a vacancy.”
He went out with his neck stiff and his back very straight—but he rode back to headquarters without attending to the errand which had brought him out in the wind, and he rode with his shoulders drooped and his eyes bent moodily upon the ground. Discipline sometimes is as hard for the master as it is for the men he commands.
A shock sometimes does more for a man than months of reasoning. King went to the post office, stood before the ink-spattered desk, chose a sputtering stub pen, curled his lip contemptuously, and began to write his resignation from the Texas Ranger force. Two lines down from the top he stopped and cursed the pen for dropping a blot on the words “Unavoidable circumstances.” That is how he was going to put it, and he hoped that the captain would get the inner meaning of the phrase and feel ashamed of his picayunish interpretation of discipline. The captain had known well enough that King would go to Tobin—and bring back his man or men if it were humanly possible to do so. Five minutes to say good—by to Lisa—fiddlesticks! That wasn’t it; the captain had it in for him, and took this as an excuse to get rid of him. King understood that very well; and, without bawling out the captain or any one else, he meant to word that resignation so that the captain would read his real meaning between the lines.
Kicked out of the service—that was what it practically amounted to. A woman—even the sweetest little girl in the world, he made haste to pay mental tribute—surely does play hob with a man’s life. If she would marry him, he’d take her away. What did it amount to, after all, if she were half “greaser?” There wasn’t a girl in Texas to compare with her in looks—— He was going to say disposition, also, but his natural honesty stopped him. Her disposition. he had to confess, was no milder than the chili which she ground for the frijoles.
King borrowed another sheet of paper, took the other pen off the desk, and started again. This time he did not write "unavoidable circumstances” at all, and he did not curl his lip. Instead, his eyebrows were pinched together and his nostrils were white, and when he signed his name at the bottom, the letters were quavery as though an old man had written them. It was a hard document to write.
At headquarters, whither he rode in haste to present his resignation and have it over with before the captain could accuse him of reluctance, he packed his few belongings, presented his resignation to the captain without a salute and with no speech on the subject, and left while the captain was still leaning forward to pick up the letter from the corner of the desk where King had dropped it. The boys, scenting trouble in his return and guessing shrewdly what it was, tactfully avoided meeting him. King set that down to ostracism, and resented it—just as he would have resented their friendliness had they been stupid enough to show any.
For the first time since she had smiled invitingly with a droopy-lashed, sidelong glance that tingled his blood, King went without eagerness to see Lisa that evening. He was going away somewhere—anywhere. To stay in Ysleta, and meet the boys and the curious looks of the townspeople was not to be considered at all; not even to be near Lisa would he stay—and that morning he had believed that no power on earth was strong enough to drive him from her!
Her viperish denunciation of Bill Gillis and Captain Oakes and the whole Ranger force grated upon him. Her arms around his neck were more clinging than sweet, and, when she wept, with her face against his breast, he noticed that weeping made her eyelids red. She had wept before now, and he had comforted her without ever seeing the disfigurement of red lids.
“I’m all outa sorts, little girl,” he said finally, puzzled because her presence could not soothe his hurt; puzzled, also, because his tongue would not say what he had intended to say to her; would not ask her to marry him on the morrow, and go away with him somewhere. “I guess this upheaval has upset me, somehow. I hate to inflict such a mood on you—so I’ll go and cuss it off, and then we’ll talk things over. Good night, sweetheart—I’ll see you to-morrow, early.”
She did not want him to go, and she pouted and cried a few more tears. But King went, just the same, which should have been more enlightening to him than it was. He did not realize that Lisa was already beginning to lose her spell over him.
The next day the perverse mood still held him to a degree. He had not slept at all, though he went early to his room in the little hotel where he had left his “war bag.” All through the night memory had ridden him hard. Trails he had taken with his fellow Rangers—nights when he had crouched on guard, straining his eyes into the blackness, not daring to move lest some little noise betray his presence there and bring a questing bullet that way; summer scenes, wherein laughter had mingled with the smoke of many cigarettes, and life had seemed clean and good and worth the living.
King did not know what ailed him that he must remember all these things just when he least wanted to recall them. He would rather think of Lisa—but his mind kept drifting away from her. He would picture her in some desireful pose—and, the first he knew, her image would fade like a “dissolve” scene in motion pictures, and the face of Bill Gillis or Kent or little Charlie Horne would look out at him. So he had lain until daybreak.
He drew his savings from the bank. He even made a purposeless trip to El Paso before he went to see Lisa; that is, it proved purposeless. He went to buy Lisa a ring, but he got no farther with the buying than a half-hearted inspection of a jeweler’s window. None of the rings on display seemed to hit his fancy, so he turned away, without looking farther.
Because he had no ring, in the last minutes of good-by, when his infatuation flamed up again while he held her in his arms and muttered promises and love words in her ear, King took from his watch chain the charm he had worn ever since he joined the service, and pressed it into her little, warm palm for a keepsake. It was not of much value, but she had often taken it in her fingers and admired the queer streakings of red in the dull-green stone inclosed in a horseshoe band of gold.
“When I come back,” said King dully, “I’ll bring you something else. Will you go with me when I come back after you, sweetheart?”
“When will that be?" Lisa was turning the trinket in her hand and staring, as she had stared so many times, at the tiny initials, K. A. M., which King had filed in the edge of the horseshoe band. She did not look up at him.
“When I’ve got a place fixed for you. I don’t know when that will be, but it will be just as quick as I can make it. I’m going to leave town to-day. I hate the place.”
“You hate it—and I will be here all the while?” Lisa showed a dimple. “You men say the craziest things——”
The gawky, half-grown sister interrupted them then, and in a few minutes King left. Lisa had not said in so many words that she would go with him, but at the door, as he was leaving, she lifted the watch charm to her lips and looked at him with deep, tragic eyes. That last glimpse of her stayed vividly with King, and did a great deal toward fusing the hot, passing emotion he called love into the deep, lasting attachment which is love’s real self.
After that, King wandered here and there for a while. He worked for the Tijana China outfit on their beef round-up, thrashed a man who had been so unwise as to refer banteringly to King as “the famous ex-Ranger,” and took his saddle and rifle and bedding roll elsewhere. King was extremely touchy on the subject of Texas Rangers.
He bought a horse and a burro and went down into the wilderness of Brewster County, wandering alone in the hills on the pretense that he was prospecting—not for gold, but for a piece of fertile land, where he could get water on the soil and build a ranch for Lisa and himself. He clung with a persistence that was almost dogged to the idea of making a home for Lisa.
He could have gone back to see her, but the desire for her presence was not too great to be borne with fortitude; not half as great, for instance, as the nagging hunger that filled him for “the boys”—Bill and Vaughan and Kent and Charlie Horne.
He used to sit by his camp fire in the hills, and smoke and stare into the shadows, and relive his days and nights with them. Sometimes he dreamed of Lisa, but not as often as you might think. Primarily King Marshall was a man’s man. The image of Lisa grew hazy, and the thought of her more a sense of responsibility for her future than a poignant longing for her immediate presence; whereas the thought of the boys became a growing hunger to have speech with them.
When the nights grew frosty, he drifted into Chico, which is a little “brush town,” a day’s ride from the railroad. He had no particular reason for stopping there, but he was so dismally adrift and without any definite purpose that he stayed.
"Why don’t you buy me out, King, so I can quit this dang place?” the dissatisfied owner of the one little livery stable suggested to him one day, when King was sunning himself apathetically on the bench by the stable door. Without consciously deciding to change his name, he had given it as King when he arrived, and let the Marshall slide into oblivion.
“What you got against me, Murphy?” King retorted, grinning.
“Not a thing. You could have worse things wished on yuh than this here livery business. Ain’t nothing the matter with it—not a thing. But I don’t want it no longer. I want to go to Californy and live.” Murphy nursed his knees and stared down the street as far as the first crook. “I’d sell it cheap,” he added wistfully.
“How cheap—just as she stands?” It occurred to King that Lisa, being half Mexican, would probably not object to Chico. But he had no great enthusiasm for the idea—or for anything else, for that matter.
“Just as she stands? King, I’ll put on my coat and walk out uh here fer four hundred and fifty dollars. And I own the stable and the house and ground as far back as the crick. You know the horses I've got—nothin’ fancy, but they make me a livin’—the burros and the rigs I'll make yuh a present of. Four hundred and fifty cash—that’s how bad I want to leave!”
A gift, almost. King said he would take it. He would have fifty dollars or so left—enough to send for Lisa. And the stable was earning a little money every day in the year. The stage that came three times a week from the railroad kept a team here always, which was a steady income, even though it was small. King paid Murphy the money that day, and that is how he came to settle down in Chico.
It was on the very next mail day, when the little store post office was crowded, that King received his second shock. He had a letter from Lisa—forwarded from Marfa, where she had written her last; a tender, misspelled affair with six crosses after her name to signify that she sent him six kisses. King's heart warmed toward her when he read the letter, and he made up his mind that he would send a letter back on the stage next day, with fifty dollars for her fare. and ask her to come at once and take charge of the tidy little place which Murphy’s wife was leaving so eagerly.
Beside him a big, fat-checked Mexican was reading a letter avidly, with little exclamations of delight now and then. King glanced at him carelessly, and caught the Ysleta postmark on the envelope which the Mexican—one Pancho Mazon—held face out in one hand while he read his letter. King glanced again, to make sure, for the envelope looked very much like the one he had stuffed in his own pocket. just then Pancho looked up, showing his teeth in a broad smile.
“Look, fellows!—what I gets for my birthday!” he cried jubilantly. “My little sweetheart, she sends.” He held up the gift for all to see—he seemed a jovial fellow who must share his joys and his griefs with all his world.
King looked and chilled with the curious sensation that comes when one has felt the treachery of a friend.
A watch charm with a quaintly marked cornelian set in a horseshoe band of plain gold—he knew it as he knew the look of his two hands. He knew—and yet he reached out and took the dangling trinket from the amazed Pancho, turned it over, and saw the tiny initials he had painstakingly filed there during one bored afternoon when he had been left in charge of the Ranger office.
He laughed—because there seemed nothing in the world to say—gave the charm back to Pancho, and walked out, tearing Lisa’s letter into little bits and scattering the pieces for the wind to play with. By sheer coincidence, he unconsciously quoted Bill Gillis in the only sentence he spoke. “The lyin’ little hussy!” he said, and that was all.
He went back to his livery stable. He took a basin and a sponge and began bathing the saddle galls on one of his horses, and, whenever he thought of Lisa Gonzales, and her six cross kisses at the bottom of the letter she had written him, he called her the name he had called her before—the name Bill Gillis had called her. He tried not to think of her, however; and, after a while, he succeeded.
But there he was, settled in Chico—which he did not like as a town—with a livery stable he did not want on his hands. Had he been free of it, he would have drifted God knows where. But he was not free. No one else seemed to hanker for the livery business, especially now that winter was with them.
One day in late spring the stage came in from the railroad, loaded with passengers and camp outfit, and stopped at King’s stable to dump three sacked saddles off there. King was used to that sort of thing, and he did not leave his work in the dim-lighted stall at the far end when he heard the arrival in front. Juan, his stableboy, was out there and would see to things, and if any one wanted the boss, why, Juan had but to lift his voice a little. King had fallen into a passive kind of devotion to his horses, and in the same ratio he had come to feel no interest whatever in men. If a man came to hire a horse, King would look at him, make a swift appraisement, and choose the horse according to his opinion of the man. Beyond that and collecting payment, his interest did not go.
Juan did not call him, so King went on trimming the mane of a horse he had just bought. Even when he heard footsteps coming down the stable, he did not leave the stall to see who was coming—because no inkling of the immediate future did fate permit him.
“He’s back, somewhere—I dunno; you will find, all righ’,” he heard Juan’s voice announcing cheerfully near the door.
King frowned a little, and moved down to the horse’s rump—saw who was coming, and retreated precipitately into the shadow. He was not quite quick enough; for Bill Gillis, coming toward him, glimpsed his face and his hat above it, and knew him at the first glance. Bill dove into the stall and grabbed King by the shoulders and shook him a little, and laughed.
“Dog-gone you, King, I’m so tickled I can’t say ‘howdy!’ ” Bill said, and laughed again. “I kinda wondered if the King that owns this stable was you—don’t know what gave me the notion, but I just naturally had to hunt you up to make sure. How are yuh, anyway? Darn it, are yuh dumb?”
“just about,” King confessed, in a queer, shaky voice, and bit his under lip sharply. He laid one arm over Bill’s shoulder and looked out over his head and winked very fast for a minute.
“You popped in on me kinda sudden, Bill,” he remarked, when he was sure of his voice. “Give a feller time to get used to the notion.” His hand tightened on Bill’s shoulder, and he pushed him back a little and looked down at him avidly. “You blamed little, sawed-off runt, I sure am glad to see yuh,” he added, in the tone that Bill knew of old. “Down here alone?"
“Captain and Vaughan are here,” Bill said, still grinning for the simple reason that his face refused to do anything else just then. “We came down to ride the big pastures—and I guess I might as well start pickin’ out the horses we’ll want from you, King.”
“Fly at it,” King agreed absently, trying to adjust himself to this unexpected turn; trying, also, to decide whether he really was glad or sorry to have Bill there, for sometimes it is better not to have a happier past recalled. “I’ve got some good ones, Bill—and you’re dead welcome to the best I got.”
Bill covertly eyed King, while he chose what horses they would need, and told as much of the Ysleta news as was tactful. He did not, for instance, say anything about Lisa Gonzales marrying a Mexican—one Pancho Mazon, who had started a new cantina, that had already acquired a reputation of its own. He thought of it, and wondered how King would take the news if he were to tell him.
King stood in the wide doorway, with his hands in his pockets, and watched Bill go off up the street in search of the captain and Vaughan. He watched Bill, and his eyes were wistful and his mouth had a twist of bitterness. He saw the captain, broad-shouldered, straight, and purposeful in his movements, come out of the post, office, with Vaughan at his heels. He saw Bill hurrying to meet them—and King turned back into the stable and took down his saddle from its rusty spike.
“Clean up Mouse and Faro and Come Again,” he called to Juan. “And clean ’em good, or I’ll just about break yuh in two. They’re for them three that come in on the stage.” He slapped the saddle on his big black, Noches, cinched it hurriedly, and dropped the stirrups into place. “If anybody asks for me,” he told Juan, as he led the horse to the doorway, “just say I’ll be back muy pronto.”
It would have been unjust to accuse King of running away from the Rangers. As a matter of fact, he was attempting something a great deal more foolish than that, for he was trying to run away from himself. He rode out into the hills until they were piled high all around him, and then he let the reins lie loose on Noches’ neck, and wandered aimlessly, not caring where the horse took him, so he headed into further wildness.
He returned after dark, and his black horse showed dust-colored streaks where the sweat had dried on his hips and legs, and his neck shone wet to show that his homeward pace had not been slow. Supper time was past, but King waved Juan's solicitious anxiety to help, and himself rubbed down Noches and loosened the hay in his manger and kicked the bedding into a softer pile.
The little man who had come on the stage, Juan informed King deprecatingly, had come with two others, and asked for King. They had waited a little, and gone off to their camping place by the high bank next the arroyo where was the little spring. At sundown the little man had come again, and had waited on the bench. He had gone not ten minutes ago. He left word that the three horses be brought to their camp at sunrise.
“All right. You go to bed. I’ll lock up,” King told him shortly, and stood in the doorway, rolling a cigarette, while he watched Juan disappear up the crooked street that lay quiet and dark under the starlight. He sat down on the bench and stared at the bluffs beyond the town. After a while he got up and went to the corner of the stable nearest the arroyo, and stood there, leaning one shoulder against the adobe wall, while he stared hard at the glow on the opposite bank from a camp fire. In his eyes there was again a great hunger, and his lips had a twist of bitterness.
He walked slowly down toward the glow. When he was close enough to see the little, licking flames, and could hear the cheerful snapping, he stopped and stood hesitating over whether he should go on. Forms in the firelight he did not see—since this was a Ranger camp, and since Rangers are rather particular about revealing themselves unnecessarily in the light of their camp fires. He waited for a minute and went back and sat hunched together on the bench beside the stable door.
He was very quiet, and very, very bitter toward life.
When Juan came swiftly down the street, just before daylight, to feed the horses that were ordered for sunrise, he found them munching contentedly, heads buried to the eyes in fresh piles of secate. Also they were sleek from long brushing, and King was settling the saddle of Captain Oakes upon the back of Come Again. the best horse in the stable barring King’s own private horse, Noches. Whereupon Juan immediately became abjectly apologetic for being so late—though he really had come early.
When King himself led the horses out and swung into Vaughan’s saddle with the lead ropes of the other two in his hand, Juan felt that he trembled—literally—upon the brink of dismissal. Señor King must be very mad, indeed, when he would not let Juan take the horses to camp. He looked after King, and got no encouragement from the gloomy face of his master. Something was very wrong—and yet in his heart Juan knew that he had come early enough.
King rode slowly down the arroyo to where the Rangers had made camp. Every step that the horses took, King cursed himself for coming. Yet his eyes went searching eagerly for the camp and for sight of the men who had for three years and more been his close comrades. When he saw them, however, he sat a little stiffer in the saddle; and when he reached their breakfast fire, and dismounted just outside its zone of heat, his manner was carefully neutral, as though he were delivering the horses to strangers; Bill was down at the little stream.
“Why, hello, King!” Vaughan hurried forward and took his hand and pumped it up and down. “You old sun of a gun, you’re lookin’ fine!”
“Howdy, King,” the captain greeted him easily—with a warmth in his manner that King had never expected to see again. “Good horses you’ve brought us,” he added, while he shook hands, his keen little eyes taking in line by line the trimness of the mount King had chosen for his use. “You haven't forgotten my fancy for a long—legged animal under me, I see. I rode a burro once for two hundred miles—since then I want to know that my feet aren’t going to drag on the ground every time I straighten my legs.”
“He’s a good horse,” King said simply, turning to pat the hard-muscled neck and to hide a sudden mistiness in his eyes. “He’l1 carry you all day and all night, and then some. I’ve named him Come Again. After you’ve rode—him, you’ll know why.”
“What’s the pedigree uh that there critter under my saddle?” Vaughan looked up from the skillet of sputtering eggs to demand. “What’s his name?”
“Him? Faro—and you don’t go up against any brace game when you crawl in his middle, either.” King had himself in hand now, and he faced Vaughan with a smile that reached his eyes. “He’s a right true little caballo—and he’s a cat for climbing, if you want to know. He’ll take yuh anywhere you point him, Vaughan. Bill picked ’em out of a dozen or so I’ve got down there.”
The captain, rubbing the nose of Come Again, gave King a keen glance. “So you’ve branched out into the livery business,” he remarked. “Doing pretty well?" Casual as the question was on its surface, King felt an underlying anxiety for his welfare; knew, too, that Vaughan had looked up and was waiting for the answer.
“Oh—all right, I guess,” he said indifferently. “Making money, far as that goes.”
Then Bill came and slapped King on the back just as he used to do in the old days. King stayed and ate breakfast with them, and was afterward surprised to remember how matter of course it had seemed.
Having lived for several months in that part of the country, and being engaged in a business that brought him into contact with the riders thereof, King knew a good deal about the fence troubles and the gossip of altered brands and the like. What he knew told them freely, just as though it was his business to help them. He advised them as to short cuts through the hills, and he offered to keep an eye on the camp while the three were out riding. Juan was astonished to hear his master come whistling back to the stable that morning.
The cheerfulness, however, fluctuated a good deal in the next three days. Mixed with King’s pleasure in renewing old friendships was the bitterness of knowing that he was, after all, an outsider; that when the captain assigned certain tasks to his men, he must sit apart and never be ordered anywhere because he had forfeited his right to wear the Ranger star. He did not feel like whistling when that fact was forced coldly in upon his consciousness.
Then, one evening Come Again came hobbling painfully to the stable, with Captain Oakes, riding slack in the saddle, hurt so badly that King had to steady him to the bench beside the stable door. Juan produced a bottle of whisky from somewhere, and, with the temporary strength lent by a swallow or two, the captain got to his camp bed and let King bathe his bruised leg and the strained tendons of his knee, and afterward make him a comforting cup of coffee.
Accident had befallen Come Again, the best “rope horse” in that part of the country. The captain had wanted to inspect more closely a doubtful brand on a particularly wild steer, and had roped it. But the ground was broken into treacherous, small ridges and water-deepened ruts, and when the steer bolted around Come Again, the horse was jerked backward into a ditch, and thrown, and the captain had not been able to jump free because of the rope. The wonder was, he admitted to King, that neither had broken a bone or two.
The next day King spent with the captain, leaving Juan to tend the stable and doctor Come Again. That is why King was in camp when a Mexican brought Captain Oakes a message which had been sent from El Paso, and was permitted by fate to have another chance at the thing he wanted most in his life.
In effect, the telegram said that one Bull Dawson, who had been an outlaw so long that he had almost become an institution in southwestern Texas, had murdered and robbed two men under peculiarly brutal circumstances—even for Bull Dawson. He was somewhere in Brewster County, according to last reports. And, while a sheriff and posse were scouring the northern part, the Rangers were asked to head him off if he got as far down as the hills around Chico.
“I don’t see how we can do anything about it,” Captain Oakes grumbled, handing the telegram to King—so nearly had the gap between them been bridged. "I can’t call Gillis and Vaughan off their work, and I can’t go out after him myself, crippled like this. Bull’s the kind of man it takes a Gatlin gun to make any impression_on. He’s been shot so often he don’t think anything of a bullet or two under his skin.”
King flicked the ashes thoughtfully off his cigarette. “What kinda lookin’ fellow is he?” he wanted to know. He had heard of Bull Dawson often enough, but always in a general way—the name standing for the ultimate depths of depravity and the ultimate heights of strength and ferocity and animal cunning.
“Big—over six foot. Weighs about two hundred. He’s a fighter, of course —but he’d just as soon shoot a man in the back. Had a black beard last time his description came in to the office, and hair streaked with gray. Eyes are black, too—the snaky kind.”
King got up and stood looking across the arroyo. His fingers kept flicking absently at the end of his cigarette, which was cold by now. “I—if you’d let me do it, I’d like to go after him,” he said, while the red rose steadily from his collar to the hair line on his forehead. “Uh course, if yuh don’t feel like?”
The captain gave a grunt and heaved himself stiffly up on his good leg, steadying himself against a rock. He looked at King a minute.
“Marshall, I was pretty hard on you last fall.” he said. “You made a fool of yourself—but I was pretty hard on you. If you really want to take this special job——”
“Want to!” King’s voice shook a little. “You know well enough—you know I’d give anything I've got in the world to wipe out last fall and be back in the service!”
The captain cleared his throat. “If you feel that way about it, Marshall, here's your chance. There happens to be a vacancy right now; Barrett resigned. I'll swear you in for special duty, to go after Bull Dawson. Here’s my star—I’ll lend it to you for the trip. And, Marshall, if you get your man you can keep that star. I’ll reënlist you to fill Barret’s place. Hold up your right hand.”
Trembling a little, King raised his hand and took the oath. He drew a long breath when his hand dropped slowly from pinning the star on the lining of his coat.
“I’ll send Juan up to look after you,” he said. “He’s a good boy, and you can trust him as far as you would any outsider. I’m going to get out on the trail. And, captain—I’m going to get him!”
Once last fall when King was riding through the country, half-heartedly looking for a likable location for a ranch, he had come upon a place that looked very much like a permanent camp. A deep, hidden depression in a sandstone ledge, where the sun shone in during the morning, had been fitted up with a crude stove made of rocks, and a flattened coal—oil can for a top. In a dark corner a small roll of blankets was suspended from the roof with a piece of wire, and beside it hung a bag with brown beans and a square of salt pork and a little corn meal.
There were no signs, however, of recent occupation. It may have been a month or two, perhaps longer, since the cave had been used. But there was dry wood piled in a corner where beating storms never reached, and King judged that whoever had camped there meant at some time to return, and had provided food and fire and a bed for himself when he did come.
Now, as it happened, while he had been riding at random through the hills, trying to fight off the black mood of vain regrets which the sight of Bill Gillis had brought him, he had met, just before dusk, a horseman riding on a narrow trail which led farther into the hills; a man bigger than the average, judging by the length of his stirrups and the breadth of his shoulders; a man with a black stubble of a beard that had lately been cut short and afterward neglected, and with little, black eyes of the kind called snaky. King had turned out to let the man pass, and had nodded to him in the cursory greeting which men of the open give each passing stranger. The man had nodded in reply, and had ridden on—but King, having the trick of seeing things behind him without turning his head, caught the stranger watching him with his head turned over his shoulder.
Now, however, his Ranger training carried his mind to those two isolated incidents—impelled, perhaps, by the captain’s description of Bull Dawson. The man he had met that night might not be Dawson, and he might not have been on his way to that snug little camp hidden away under the sandstone ledge, but there was no reason why it could not have been he. The description tallied well enough, and the man had certainly been traveling into the hills, in the direction of that camp,although it is true that he was a day’s ride away from it. He had been traveling light, with just a blanket roll and a slicker tied behind the saddle, which proved that he must have grub within riding distance.
King considered his guess as good as any he could make, and he took a blanket and his rifle and a little flour and bacon and coffee, and ground feed for his horse, and started out with Noches. He knew the country, and he rode straight toward the camp under the ledge. Ten miles out, he camped until morning: He meant to ride by daylight, so that he could pick up the trail of the man he believed was Bull Dawson.
He was so confident of finding the cave camp occupied that he left Noches hidden in a thicket at dusk, and traveled the last two miles on foot. Bull Dawson was noted for his animal-like cunning, and like an animal King hunted him. He did not approach the place by the most direct route up the cañon that held it. Instead, he climbed the ridge at the cañon’s mouth, and followed the top until he knew he must be above the place where the camp lay. He had noticed, last fall, that just beyond the camp the ledge ended in a bank of earth, scattered over with scrubby little bushes, such as make shift somehow to live in barren soil, and, by the light of the stars, he watched for the upper rim of that bank.
He found it without much trouble, and, pushing his six-shooter forward, so that his hand could drop to it easily, he began to climb down; slowly, bush by bush, feeling with his feet for soft soil that would take his weight without sound. Bull Dawson, if he were in camp, would watch the cañon; the bluff above him must give forth some sound of footsteps, some sign of movement, before it would draw his attention from the easier approach below. So King reasoned, and took his time.
It took him a long time, but he reached the base where the bank joined the wide shelf at the bottom of the ledge, and he had not made a sound that could have been heard above the faint rustling of the little night breeze that brushed the cañon sides. Nor had he heard a sound under the ledge. He sniffed the air for the smell of smoke, but the wind was in the wrong direction, and he could not tell. He felt in his coat pocket for the handcuffs the captain had given him, so that there should be no slip-up if his man was there. Bull Dawson meant so much to him that King stood there and thought of every little contingency, as an anxious, unaccustomed traveler feels for ticket and baggage checks, purse, and parcels.
Like a cougar stalking a deer, he crept inch by inch along the ledge to where the cavelike opening showed black at the rim. His hand was gripping his six-shooter now; he did not mean to take any chances at all. He reached the opening and stopped there, peering into the blackness. It was like looking into a great blot of ink—he might as well have shut his eyes, for all he could see. But that instinct we cannot name told him that something was in there; something alive, be it man or beast. He strained his ears—and it may have been breathing that he heard, or it may have been a throbbing of the blood in his own veins.
He drew back his head, fearing that he might be seen against the clear starlight. And at that instant a gun roared deafeningly. King remembered afterward that he had felt the bullet fan his face as it hurtled past. At that moment, however, he was grappling and fighting a huge body, that launched itself full at him from the black cave mouth, and trying to keep big, hard-knuckled fingers from gripping his throat.
Like two great dogs they fought and rolled before the cave. They did not speak—they needed their breath for something more vital than words. There was no question of motive or object; each man fought for something precious—for one man fought for his life and the other fought for what made life worth while.
Gripping and twisting bodies and interlocked legs, they toppled over the edge of the shelf and began to roll and slide down the steep slope to the bottom of the cañon. As they went, King heard something clink in his pocket, and set his mind and all his energy toward accomplishing one certain thing. Just one thing—let him do that one thing.
They landed with a jolt, and, by the mercy of fate, it was King who lay for one stunned minute on top. One arm, his left one, was pinned under the man, but his right arm was free. He slipped his hand into his pocket as instinctively as one raises an elbow to ward off a blow, and got the handcuffs. The man beneath him heaved himself up, but King caught his right arm and snapped on one iron, jerked his own left arm from under the man, and ironed that one also.
The man sat up dazedly and stared down at their two arms locked together with steel bands that shone bright in the starlight. King was feeling the other’s body with quick, practiced movements for weapons. A knife he found and sent spinning away among the bushes. A six-shooter hidden inside the fellow’s shirt he sent after the knife. The other one, that had been fired at King from the cave mouth, was back there, somewhere on the shelf.
“Get up, Bull Dawson!” King commanded, with an exultant note in his voice. “I’m a Ranger—and you know the rest.”
“You’re a ——!” Several things which were the worst he could think of the prisoner spat out venomously.
“It’s a long way to camp, Bull,” King remarked cheerfully. “We better be starting—’cause we’ll have to walk.”
“I got a horse.” Bull whined, as he stumbled along. “That damn’ fall hurt my leg. Why’n't you iron both my hands, an’ let me ride? I ain’t able to walk—what yuh ’fraid of?”
What King was afraid of he kept to himself. He was hurt—he thought he must have broken a rib or two. There was a salty taste in his mouth that he knew for blood, and, when he turned his head, there was a grinding pain at the top of his shoulder. But he had his man—had him fast to him, so that where one went the other must go. The tug at his wrist whenever Bull Dawson stumbled sent a thrill over King keen as a pain and delicious as the kiss of a loved woman.
“Afraid? Why, Bull, I just want to walk with yuh, that’s all. We can stroll along comfortable enough——”
Bull Dawson whirled suddenly, his left hand doubled to a fist, and shooting out to get King under the ear. King ducked his head forward, and saw stars with the blow that glanced off his skull. He poked the barrel of his six-shooter into Bull’s side suggestively, and Bull wilted into meek plodding again.
“I thought you’d try that, Bull—but it won’t work. Now, let this sink into your mind: Every low-down trick you think of, I’ve thought of it first. And there’s another thing I don’t believe has come into your mind yet, so I’m going to plant it there. If you try any of the tricks you think of, I’m going to shoot your left wrist so I’ll break both bones. Figure for yourself how dangerous you’ll be then!”
In the dark Bull Dawson gulped and turned a sallow shade. “You wouldn’t do a thing like that?” he protested nervously. “Why—why, that would be plain brutal! Why, I wouldn’t do a thing like——”
King laughed. “All the difference between us is, you’d do it first, if you could, before I had a chance to try anything; or maybe you’d do worse. I’ll give you a chance to come along like a white man.”
Bull walked along for a time, and said nothing. He did not attempt any further treachery—indeed, he seemed inclined to steady King over rough places, and to lend the help of his greater strength. He seemed to take King’s statement as truth beyond argument. King walked steadily, but the pain in his side grew worse. He no longer had the salty taste in his mouth, however, and he took courage from that. But his neck was getting stiff and sore—terribly stiff and sore. He could not take a long breath at all, and resorted to a quick, shallow breathing to supply his lungs with air.
They came to where Noches was tied, and King compelled Bull Dawson to slip the bridle off the horse and hang it on the saddle horn. He was tempted to cuff Dawson’s two hands together and make him walk ahead, while King rode behind; that would be safe enough ordinarily. But King was afraid of that pain in his side, that grew constantly a little worse. What if he could not bear the jolt of riding? What if he should faint?
Noches, free to go where he would, chose to follow docilely at his master’s heels, until King drove him ahead and urged him with his voice to a shuffling trot. And the two men, walking side by side when the trail was wide enough, King an awkward step behind when they could not go abreast, plodded on through the night.
When daylight came, King left the trail and struck off on a short cut that was not quite passable for a horse because of one ledge along a cañon wall. A man going carefully afoot could negotiate it safely enough, and thereby save several miles of travel. King figured that if he took that short cut they might, with steady walking, reach Chico by sundown.
“We’re coming to a kinda ticklish spot, Bull,” he announced, when they entered the cañon. “You’re remembering what I said when we started out, I hope, and you’ll watch where you set your feet. I hope guns don’t make you nervous, Bull—you’re going to travel quite a piece now with mine cuddlin’ your ribs.”
“Aw, can't ye see I ain’t goin' to try nothin’?” Bull expostulated grievedly. “I was mad when I started out—— I hit out without thinkin’. But I ain’t a fool. You’ve got me, and I know it. And,” he finished virtuously, “whatever else they tell on me, they can't say ’t Bull Dawson cain’t take his medicine.”
“Fine,” King approved colorlessly, and pushed Bull out along the ledge. “I’m sure glad I can—trust you, Bull.”
Midway across, where they had a jagged-edged shelf of a rock a foot wide to walk on, King stumbled. A dizziness had caught him unawares when he glanced down at the thread of water in the arroyo below. Bull, looking over his shoulder, stopped and eyed King intently.
“Sick, ain’t yuh?” he asked, in what he meant to be a sympathetic tone. "This here’s a little too much for ye, mebby. Jest——”
“Remember what I said about your left wrist, Bull?" King pulled himself together and looked back steadily into Bull’s wolfishly greedy eyes.
Bull grunted, and went on, stepping carefully. King, with his lips pressed tightly together, edged carefully after.
When they reached safer footing—a loose, sandy slope that led down to a wider gulch, where they could walk side by side, King stopped suddenly and looked back at the ledge, and down, away down, to the thread of water they could not reach by any means at hand. He grinned a little, and, with a flip of an outward heave, he sent his gun spinning down the cliff. The effort made him catch his breath sharply.
“I—don’t need the darn thing,” he said, with another little gasp. “I can trust you.”
Bull Dawson smiled a great, gashlike smile, that parted his black stubble of beard unpleasantly. “Why, shore you kin trust me!” he cried eagerly.
“That’s what I bin tellin’ ye all along. Shore ye kin!”
“Over she goes,” King said cheerfully—too cheerfully, and flung his arm outward again melodramatically. “Didn’t need the darned thing—just so much weight to pack. I know I can bank on you.”
“Shore ye kin! Say what they will, they cain’t say Bull Dawson ain’t t’ be trusted.” His tone was fawningly friendly.
“Come on,” said King. “We’ll pike along, and get this over with.”
“Shore! Git it over with is what I says.” Bull smiled again, and then fell silent.
Down that steep bluff they went, Bull Dawson limping a little, King with his lips shut tight and taking little, quick breaths through his nose. Instead of turning his head now, he rolled his eyes when he wanted to look sidewise. And the pain in his side was a consuming fire, that burned and licked along the nerves to his shoulder and down to his thigh.
They went down that gulch, turned into another, and followed that also. They came to a tiny stream of tepid water, and the two knelt together and drank, scooping up the water in their free hands—King with his right hand, Bull with his left. They laved their bruised faces, they sopped water on their hair because the sun was hot and high above them; but they did not talk much.
When King gave the signal to rise, Bull lurched heavily against him, and bore him to the ground. His little snaky eyes sought here and there, while his body pinned King down, helpless. He leaned and picked up a rock that was all his left hand could lift, and poised it, grinning venomously, over King’s head.
“I’m goin’ to smash your brains out,” he stated gleefully. “I guess you wisht now you’d broke my wrist ’fore I thought uh this here little trick, hey?”
King looked up at him, grinning sardonically. “I thought you’d try it,” he said, speaking jerkily because of the pain in his side. “That’s why I throwed the handcuff key after my six-gun. Go ahead—you’ll sure have one sweet time of it—shackled to a dead man!”
Bul1’s jaw dropped. Also, he lowered the rock to the ground, though he kept his hand upon it.
“You lie!” he screamed. “You never throwed away the key! You lie! You never throwed it away!”
“I did, too. I knew you'd try something like this, and I blocked your play five miles back. You better be sure of that key, Bull, before you go caving my head in!”
Bull looked, swearing horribly while he turned King’s pockets wrongside out, hunting in every crease and every wrinkle of King’s clothing. He sat back on his haunches finally, and stared at King like a beaten animal in a cage—snarling, lustful to kill, but shaking with fear.
“Ironed to a dead man! Keep that in your mind, Bull, when you want to try something else. And there’s no grub in camp, remember, and no gun and no knife—nothing, you swine, but our two legs to get us out of here. And if you don’t help me get out, you’re here to stay—with a dead man hobbled to you. Help me up, Bull. My side’s a fright, and we’ve got to get to Chico to-night.”
Bull called down curses to wither the earth with their blasphemy, had they carried farther than his bellowing voice. Tears of rage rolled down his lined, grimy cheeks into the stubble of his beard. He raised the rock again, quailed before that mirthless grin on the lips of King Marshall, and threw the rock as far away as his strength would send it. With his free hand he worried King’s boots off his feet, thinking the key might have been hidden there. He searched King’s pockets again. He tugged and pulled and twisted at King’s wrist, trying to free it of the steel band that held those two together.
King fainted with the pain of that last performance. He looked so like a dead man lying there that Bull Dawson was scared into acceptance of his defeat. Without food or weapons there in the wilderness, shackled to a dead man—Bull Dawson was baffled, beaten to a stark terror lest his anger had brought upon him that horrid fate which King had named.
He scooped up water, and bathed King’s face, watching anxiously for some sign of returning life. He eased the strained wrist as much as he could, and, when King finally opened his eyes, Bull Dawson shielded him with his own big body from the glare of the sun until King was able to stagger to his feet and go on.
At dusk that night, just when the firelight was beginning to cast a dancing glow upon the bank beyond the spring, these two staggered into the Ranger camp. King’s face was like a dead man, except that all his intrepid soul looked dauntlessly out from his hollow eyes. He moved slowly, helped along by Bull Dawson, who limped and gazed furtively this way and that as he came.
“What the devil—Marshall, is that you?" Captain Oakes, for once in his life, was startled out of his self-contained dignity.
King’s knees bent under him, and he sagged down to the ground just as his hand went weakly up to salute. His lips stretched in a grin that was startling, in that drawn face of his.
“Captain—I—got my man!” he said, and fainted.