The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV

THE END OF A TRAIL

JOHNNY ducked down behind a bowlder, for a horseman, sharply silhouetted against the crimson glow of the sunset, rode parallel to the edge of the cliff; and, judging from the way he was scrutinizing the ground, he was looking for tracks. While he searched, another horseman rode from the north and joined him. They made a splendid picture, rugged, lean, hard; their sharply-cut profiles, the jaunty set of the big sombreros, their alert and wiry cow-ponies, silhouetted against the crimson and gold sky; but to the hidden watcher there was no poetry, no art, in the picture, for to him it was a thing of danger, a menace. Their voices, carelessly raised, floated to him distinctly.

"Find anythin'?" asked Ben Gates ironically.

"Just what I reckoned I'd find, which was nothin'," answered Harrison. "Ackerman's loco. But I reckon it's better than loafin' around down below. I was gettin' plumb fed up on that."

"It's all cussed nonsense. Nelson's cleared out for good. He ain't no fool; an' there's too many of us."

"Seen th' others?"

"Only when they left. They ought to be ridin' back purty soon I reckon. This finishes this side, don't it?"

"Yes; they'll comb th' west side tomorrow; an' then take th' north end. Ridin' in daylight ain't so bad; but I got a fine chance seein' anythin' at night. An' I hope he has cleared out; a man on a bronc looks as big as a house."

"Don't ride at all; lay up somewhere near th' canyon trail an' let him do th' movin'. But, h—l! He's gone out of this country."

"That's just what I was aimin' to do. I could ride within ten feet of a man in th' dark, with all th' cover there is up here, an' not see him. Don't you worry about yore Uncle Nat; he's shore growed up. But it's all fool nonsense, just th' same."

"Oh, well; it'll make things pleasanter down below," grinned Gates. "It'll stop th' arguin'. Quigley's gettin' near as nervous as Ackerman. He's gettin' scared of shadows since Jim laced it into him. Well, I'm goin' on; if I meets Holbrook I'll tell him to take th' south end. So long."

They separated and went their respective ways, and while Johnny watched them he suddenly heard a murmur of voices below him, and he squirmed between two big bowlders as the sounds came nearer.

"Well, we've shore combed this side," said one of the newcomers. "An' that ends part of a fool's errand."

"We shore have," grunted another. "An' it did us good, too. We all have been gettin' too cussed lazy for any account. I reckon a certain amount of work is th' best friend a man has got."

"Mebby; anyhow, I know that my appetite is standin' on its hind laigs yellin' for help," laughed the third. "An' we have th' satisfaction of knowin' everythin' is all right out here. Cussed if I couldn't eat a raw skunk!"

"But that ain't what I'm drivin' at," said the first speaker, his voice growing fainter as they rode on. "I claims if he is workin' for th' CL he only has to get one look in our valley to tell him all he wants to know. If he's up here, or has been up here, that would be enough. He wouldn't stay here day after day like a dead dog in a well."

As the words died out in the distance Johnny started to slip out from between the bowlders, when a sharp spang! rang out at a rock near his waist, and a whining scream soared skyward. An opening made by a split in the bowlder had partly revealed his moving body to a pair of very keen eyes on the lookout for just such a sign. A second later the flat report of the shot cracked against his ears, but he was on the other side of the bowlders and leaping down the seep hillside when he heard it. As he cleared a big rock he landed almost upon a slinking coyote, which instantly destroyed distance at an unbelievable speed. It shot up the hill, over the crest, and sped like an arrow of haze across the open table-land. Another shot rang out and a laughing voice shouted greeting.

"Hi-yi! Who-o-p-e-e-e! Scoot, you streak of lightnin'! Cookie's layin' for you with nine buckshot in each barrel. But I'm a drunk Injun if you didn't fool me."

A peeved voice raised loudly in the twilight. "Hey! D—n you! Look out where yo're shootin'! That slug ricochetted plumb between our heads! Ain't you got no sense a-tall?"

"That's right! Start kickin'!" retorted Gates at the top of his voice. "Didn't you ever hear a slug before? Don't you know that th' slug you can hear is past you?"

"That so? How'd you like to listen to one now?" angrily shouted the objector. "How do I know that th' next one is goin' past?"

"Ah, go to h—l!" jeered Gates. "Little things make big bumps on you, you sage hen!"

"Little things!" roared a second voice. "Little things! Would you lissen to him? It sounded like a train of cars to me, d—d if it didn't!"

"Thinks he's treed another cougar," laughed a third voice.

The three appeared upon the plateau and rode toward the disgruntled marksman, their hands up over their heads in mock anxiety and surrender. Down from the north rolled a swift, rhythmic drumming, and Harrison, eagerly alert, his rifle balanced in his hands, slid to a dusty stop.

"What is it?" he demanded.

"Reckon it was Cookie's pet ki-yote," grinned Gates. "There ain't nothin' with wings, even, can beat 'em. He just melted."

"Yo're a d—d fool!" swore Harrison angrily.

"Huh! I could 'a' told you that long ago," observed Purdy. "You just catchin' on?"

"I saw somethin' move," retorted Gates. "It slid past that crack an' th' sun caught it purty fair, so I let drive. How th' devil do you suppose I knowed it was a ki-yote? Think I'm one of them mejums an' has second sight?"

"Never!" chuckled Fleming. "People make mistakes, but th' man don't live, free an' unrestrained, that would think you had second sight. He might even be doubtful about th' first sight. You want to practice second look. Look twice, pray, an' then count ten, Dan'l, old trapper."

"He oughta be penned up nights," growled Sanford. "He's a cussed sight more dangerous than a plague."

Another rider joined them from the south. "Dan'l Boone at it again?" he asked, grinning.

"He is!" snapped Purdy.

Harrison quieted his horse. "You fellers take him home with you, an' keep him there. He shoots at anythin' that moves! I'm goin' to take root right here till he gets down below. Mebby he might take me for somethin' suspicious."

"If I'd 'a' got that chicken-thief," placidly remarked Gates, "I'd 'a' slipped it into Cookie's coop tonight, cussed if I wouldn't!"

"You keep away from his coop," warned Fleming, with a solemn shake of his head. "He's another that shoots at anythin' that moves."

Holbrook looked at Harrison. "You takin' th' north end tonight?"

"Yes; but I'm stayin' right here till Davy Crockett gets down on th' range. Don't you move, Frank; he'll likely blow you apart if you do."

"Glad he ain't ridin' in yore place. Good night, fellers."

The group split up and four of the riders rode toward the canyon trail.

"Take th' lead, Art," said Purdy. "You know that ledge better'n we do."

Holbrook and Harrison watched them disappear, consulted a few moments and then separated.

At the bottom of the steep eastern bank of the plateau, Johnny, a vague blur in the fading light, hastened stealthily into the brush. When assured that he was safe from observation he swung north and made the best time possible in the darkness over such ground, eager to reach his horse, which was picketed more than a mile away.

"Huh!" he grunted. "So they're combin' th' country an' patrolin'. Hereafter an' henceforth I've got to play Injun for all I'm worth. An' if they comb th' west side tomorrow I've got to move my camp at daylight."

To the southwest of the rustlers' ranch Ackerman and his new friend had sworn day after day, for they found no tracks to follow. After riding up several creeks to their head-waters they gave up such careful searching and went blindly ahead in the direction Ackerman thought their enemy would take; and the ashes of dead camp-fires from time to time told them that they had decided right.

At last they came to a point due west of the little valley of the burned cabin, and Ackerman did not choose to pass the stream which flowed from that direction. As the day was about done they camped on the bank of the little tributary and planned the next day's work. Arising early the following morning Ackerman divided the supplies and gave part of them to Long Pete.

"Well," he said, smiling grimly; "here's where we separate. We're north of Twin Buttes, an' that means we are about even with th' south end of our ranch. He could 'a' turned off any place from here on because when he got this far he had just about arrived.

"Now I reckon I better keep on follerin' th' big creek, for I got a feelin' that I know purty well just about where he's located. But we can't overlook no bets. You foller this crick to th' end, or till you see where he left it. An' you meet me tonight, if you can, at th' south end of that big butte up there, th' one with th' humpback.

"I've told you he's dangerous, chain-lightnin' with his guns; an' I'm tellin' you now to make shore you won't forget it. If you run across him, shoot first, as soon as you see him. You can't beat him on th' draw; an' while I don't like to shoot a man that way, I'm swallerin' my pride in this case because he's a spy, or else he'd never ride up th' cricks for forty miles. I never heard of anybody bein' so cautious an' patient all th' time. We got to get him; if we don't there'll be h—l to pay."

"Don't you get no gray hair about me," growled Long Pete. "I know what it means, d—n him!" A smile flitted across his face. "But I shore has to laugh at th' son-of-a-gun! An' me thinkin' he was a prospector, an' loco! I'd feel ashamed of myself if I really did think he was a prospector. You see, I've seen prospectors before. You mustn't mind me makin' a break like that once in a while; I've had to fool so many folks I can't sort of get my bearin's now. I'd be prouder of gettin' a man like him than anythin' I ever done. Did you gimme plenty of grub? All right; I'm movin' on now. So long."

"So long; an' good luck," replied Ackerman, going north along the creek.

Long Pete rode carefully up his own watery way, thoroughly alert and closely scrutinizing both banks.

"Settin' on a cayuse, out here, don't set well on my stummick," he muttered uneasily. "I'd mebby be more prominent cavortin' around on a mountain top, or ridin' upside down on th' under side of a cloud, but I ain't hankerin' after no prominence. Nope; I'm a shrinkin' wiolet. An' splash! splash! says th' bronc. Splash! splash! reg'lar as a watch, for th' whole wide world to hear, observe, an' think about. Long Pete, yo're a fool. Long Pete, yo're several, all kinds of fools. What you should oughta do is picket th' bronc an' perceed with more caution, on yore belly like a silent worm, or at least on yore kneecaps an' han's, like a like a—a—who th' h—l cares what? Day after day we been temptin' Providence. 'Hurry up!' says he. 'Hurry be d—d!' thought I. But we hurried. Yes sir. But it must be did. D—n th' must. All my sinful life there was a must or a mustn't. It's a must-y world. He-he! That ain't a bad one, or I'm a liar!

"All serene. Both banks lovely. Lush grass an' mosquitoes an' flies. Splash! Splash! Ker-splash! Ker-splash! Slop inter it, bronc. Don't mind my stummick. Keep lungin' on, pluggin' right ahead, stubborn as th' workin's of hell. Long Pete! Long Pete! Ker-splash! Here's Long Pete! Tell him, bronc; grease th' chute for yore boss. Even th' frogs got more sense; they shut up when they hears us. It's a gamble, bronc; a toss-up. Our friend, Mr. James Ackerman, says: 'Here, Long Pete. We done reached th' partin' of th' ways. He could 'a' left th' crick any place, now. Over east yonder is where he was burned out. You take that way, an' I'll go on north where I reckon I know mebby where he oughta be.' That's what he said, bronc. But what he kept a damp, dark, deep secret was: 'But I know he ain't. He's east, where he knows th' lay of th' land. Where he feels at home. An' anyhow, Long Pete, you know too d—d much about our affairs.' He's a friend of ours, bronc; we know that—but he's a better friend of hisself.

"We must watch both banks, bronc; watch 'em close. All right; but this time we'll just bust h—l out of Mr. Must. We'll square up, right now, for th' way Mr. Must has horned inter our affairs all our fool life. Come on; get out of this! That's right. Now you stand there an' drip. I'm going to travel humble an' quiet. I don't want no fife an' drum to lead me to war; no ma'am; not a-tall."

Long Pete's low, muttered chatter ceased as he wriggled through the cover. Minutes passed as he went ahead, glancing continually at the banks of the small creek for the telltale signs. He wormed around some scattered bowlders and came to the edge of a small, rock-floored clearing, where he paused.

A movement half-way up on a mesa close by caught his eye, and he backed over his trail, wriggled around the little clearing and began to stalk that particular mesa ledge. Yard after yard was put behind him, nearer and nearer he approached the ledge and a nest of bowlders three hundred yards from it. The bowlders were his objective, for, once among them, he would have the view he wished. Leading to them was a brush-covered ridge and toward this he cautiously advanced, rifle at the ready and every sense alert. But he never reached it.

Behind him and two hundred yards to his right a man slowly arose from behind a rock and, resting a rifle on the bulwark, took slow and careful aim at the gray shirt crawling close to the ridge. There was a flash, a puff of smoke, a sharp report. Pete, a look of great surprise on his face, tried to rise and turn to pay his debt, crumpled suddenly and lay inert, sprawled grotesquely on the ground.

The man behind the rock mechanically reloaded and walked slowly toward his victim, waving his sombrero in a short arc. On his face was an expression of triumphant joy. Up on the ledge of the mesa wall another man arose, acknowledged the signal and began to climb down the wall as hurriedly as safety would permit. When he reached the prostrate figure he found the successful marksman standing like a man in a trance, a look of blank wonderment on his face, his lower jaw sagging loosely.

"Good for you!" said the man from above; and then he paused. "What's th' matter?" A ghastly suspicion flashed into his mind and he leaped forward to see who the victim was. He arose relieved, but as surprised as his companion. "Lord! I was scared you'd got one of th' boys, from th' way you looked! Who th' devil is this feller? An' what's he doin' up here? I've seen him before; who th' devil is he?"

The other drew a long breath. "It's Long Pete, of th' Circle S; but what he's doin' up here is past me. Look at his shirt, his hat, an' say he don't look like Nelson from th' back! He only wears one gun, but I couldn't see that; th' grass an' brush hid it. But, just th' same, he was stalkin' you! If you'd 'a' shoved up yore head, he'd 'a' drilled it, shore!"

"But why should he stalk me?" demanded Harrison. "He didn't have no business up here; he didn't have no reason to sneak along, an' he didn't have no call to stalk me! Say! Mebby he's throwed in with Nelson! If he has, mebby his outfit has throwed in, too! Mebby they're up here strong, an' closin' in from all directions, for a show-down! We better warn th' boys, an' get back to Quigley; an' d—d quick!"

"Go ahead," said Gates. "I'll get his cayuse an' foller close. Where's Art an' Frank?"

"They went on north—I'm off after 'em," snapped Harrison. "Let his cayuse be. You hot-foot it to Quigley!"

"Come on!" growled Gates, wheeling. "They may be on both sides of th' ranch!"

Jim Ackerman, riding slowly along the bank of the main creek, saw everything that could be seen by a man with keen eyes; and he felt nervous. There was cover all about him, good cover; and any of it might be sheltering the man he was hunting. There was no sense for him to ride along the bank, an inviting target that a boy hardly could miss; there was no sense in riding at all; so he picketed his horse and went ahead on foot.

Gaining Humpback Butte, the meeting place he had mentioned to Long Pete, he worked along its eastern base, noiselessly, cautiously, alertly; and he stopped suddenly as he caught sight of the ashes of a dead fire; stopped and looked and listened and sniffed. It did not smell like a fire that had been dead very long, he thought; and then a playful little whirlwind, simulating ferocity, spun across the partly covered ashes and caught up a bit of charcoal which glowed suddenly as if winking about what it knew and could tell.

Ackerman flitted back into the brush and when he again reached the side of the butte he was north of the camp, and had viewed it from all angles. Pausing for a moment he started back again, on a longer radius, and soon found Pepper's newly made tracks in a moist patch of sand, and hurried along the trail until he saw where it entered the creek. No need for him to wonder which way the submerged and obliterated trail led; for it must lead north. Otherwise he would have met his enemy. Swearing in sudden exultation he whirled and ran at top speed to gain his horse.

Ackerman knew Humpback Butte and its surrounding valley and canyons as he knew the QE ranch, for he had spent days hunting all over that country; and he knew that the great slopes of the valley grew steadily steeper as they reached northward until they became sheer cliffs without a single way up their walls that a horse could master. A mile above Humpback Butte the walls curved inward until only a scant six hundred yards lay between them; and on the southern side of the eastern cliff, which jutted out into the valley, hidden behind an out-thrust point, was a narrow canyon leading into the valley which formed the northwestern outlet of the QE ranch. For nearly five miles north of Humpback Butte extended the valley, now a great, wide canyon; and not one of the several blind canyons in its great walls gave a way out. Anyone passing the hidden canyon would hunt in vain for an exit and have to return again.

Reaching his horse, Ackerman mounted and rode north at top speed, guiding the animal over grass as he threaded his way in and out among the obstructions. Speed was the pressing need now, for if he could gain the hidden canyon before his enemy found it on his return, he had him trapped. There was an up-thrust mass of rock, covered with brush and scrub timber, which lay before the entrance of the canyon; once up on that he could command both the canyon and the valley, the greatest range not over five hundred yards.

Dismounting in a thicket close to the entrance, he slipped to the canyon and looked for tracks. Finding none he clambered up on the mass of rock and searched the valley for sight of Nelson. For a quarter of a mile he could follow the winding creek and he watched for a few minutes, studying the whole width of the valley.

"I've beat him; an' he ain't come back yet," he chuckled grimly. "I got five minutes to look in th' canyon an' be dead shore!"

For a hundred yards the little creek flowed along the north wall of the canyon and he wasted no time on it; any man who would ride for forty miles in creeks would not forsake the water for a mere hundred yards. Running at top speed he dashed around a bend, eager for what he would find. There was a six-foot drop in the bottom of the canyon, and a small waterfall, where a rider would be forced to forsake the creek to climb the ridge. A quick glance at a wide belt of sand running out from the ledge at a place where it had crumbled into a steep slope told him that no one had passed that way, and he wheeled and ran back to gain the great pile of rock outside.

"Got you!" he panted triumphantly. "Yo're a clever man, Mr. Nelson; but you can't beat a stacked deck. Here's where I pay for a certain day in Hastings!"

As he reached the mouth of the canyon he heard a crashing in the brush near where he had left his horse and he dove into cover like a frightened rabbit. The crashing continued and then he heard the animal tearing off leaves, and the swish of the released branches. As he slipped forward, cursing under his breath, the horse emerged and walked slowly up on a ridge, where it paused to look calmly around.

"D—n you!" raged Ackerman, leaping forward. "I'll learn you to stay where I put you! H—l of a cow-pony you are!"

Grabbing the reins he kicked the horse on the ribs and dragged it back into the thicket, where he tied it short to a tree. As soon as the knots were drawn tight he scurried along the ridge, slipped through a clump of scattered brush and climbed frantically up the side of the mass of rock. A swift glance about reassured him, and, settling behind a rock, he patted his rifle and softly laughed.

An hour passed, and then suddenly he heard a plunging in the thicket below him. Pivoting like a flash, he faced about and threw himself flat on the ground, his rifle cuddled against his cheek. To his utter amazement his own horse walked into view again, the broken reins dangling and dragging along the ground. A gust of rage swept over him and he came within a hair of shooting the animal; only the need for silence kept his tightening trigger-finger from pressing that last hundredth of an inch. White with rage, choking with curses, he writhed behind his breastwork, for the horse was on the ridge again, a bold, skyline target for any eye within a mile.

"Th' journey home will be yore last!" he gritted furiously, slipping down the steep incline as rapidly as he dared. "We'll see if you can bust my rope, doubled twice! If you strain at th' rig I'm goin' to fix, you'll choke yoreself to death, d—n you!"

Driving it back into the thicket he fastened it to a sapling with the lariat, doubled twice; and the noose around the animal's neck was a cleverly tied slip-knot.

"Now, d—n you!" he blazed, kicking the horse savagely. "Take that, an' that, an' that!"

Reaching up to readjust the rope he suddenly froze in his tracks as a crisp voice hailed him.

"Keep 'em up!" said Johnny, stepping into view. "Turn around—keep 'em up!"

Cool as ice and perfectly composed, Ackerman slowly obeyed and scowled into the muzzle of a leveled Colt, waiting for his chance.

"A man that treats a cayuse like that ain't hardly worth a bullet," said Johnny. "If you'd 'a' looked at them reins you'd 'a' seen th' knife-pricks."

Ackerman smiled grimly with understanding, but made no answer.

"Sorry that human ramrod ain't with you," continued Johnny. "If I'd knowed he was a friend of yourn I'd 'a' stopped him cold down south of Hastings."

Ackerman scowled. "Talk's cheap. Th' man with th' drop can find a lot to say, if he's a tin-horn."

Johnny slipped the Colt into its holster and slowly raised his hands even with his shoulders. "I want you to have an even break," he muttered. "But I ain't goin' to stay here till that Circle S puncher blunders onto us. I'll wait one minute. It's yore play."

"I've been waitin' for a chance like this," said Ackerman. "Remember how you kicked me? I allus pay my debts. Th' next time—" He sprang aside with pantherish speed and the heavy Colt glinted as it leaped from his holster and flashed in an eye-baffling arc. A spurt of flame flashed from his hip and a rolling cloud of smoke half hid him as he pitched forward on his face.

Johnny staggered and stepped back out of the smoke-cloud which swirled around him and fogged his vision, A trickle of blood oozed down his cheek and gathered in his three-days beard. Peering at the huddled figure, he pushed his gun back into its holster and wiped the blood from his face.

"There ain't many as good as you with a gun, Ackerman," he muttered. "Well, I got to get out of here. Them shots will shore call some of th' others; an' I'd rather let 'em guess than know."

He sprinted to Ackerman's horse, released it and stripped it of saddle and bridle, turning it loose to freedom and good grass; and then, slinging the pack of supplies on his back, hastened to his own horse and rode away.

All day long Pepper moved ahead as fast as the country would permit, first north, then east, and finally south; and when she was stopped in mid-afternoon she was under the frowning wall of the southern Twin, three miles east of Quigley's stone houses and less than half a mile from the trail used by the rustlers when they rode abroad.

The very audacity of his choice of a camp site tended to make it secure; and it was in the section combed by the rustlers only the day before; it was under the most prominent landmark for miles around and practically under the nose of the QE outfit. His camp-fire and its almost invisible streamer of smoke from carefully selected dry wood was screened on the south and east by the great side of the southern Twin, and on the north and west by the bulk of the northern Twin; and by the time the filmy vapor reached the tops of those towering walls it would have become as invisible as the air of which it was a part. And because of the tumbled chaos of rock, ridge, arroyos, bowlders, shrubs, and trees, the little tent easily could be overlooked by anyone passing within twenty feet.

It had been his intention the day before to watch that out-bound trail in hope of following the next raiding party and learning what Logan wanted to know; but now he was forced to change his plans.

"All right," he muttered as he finished putting the new camp to rights. "As long as you know I'm here, an' are huntin' me down, it's time I showed my teeth. I'm goin' gunnin': it's a game two can play."

Having had his supper and lashed a small pack of food and ammunition on his back, he led Pepper farther down the chasm between the two buttes and let her graze where she pleased, knowing that she would not stray far. Then he plunged into the tangled cover and headed toward the entrance canyon of the QE ranch.