The Man from Bar-20/Chapter 21

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QUIGLEY, favoring his injured arm, led the way toward Twin Buttes to relieve the men on guard, Purdy close behind him; and he did not stick to the trail, but cut straight for his objective along a way well known to both. He was not in good shape for hard work or hard fighting, but he felt that his place was on the scene of action, as befitted a chief; and he had stubbornly battered down all the reasons advanced by his companions at the ranch by which they sought to dissuade him. It had to be either him or the cook, for he was not as seriously wounded as Gates.

The chief was the best man for leader that the outfit contained, and if he had erred in being slack and over-confident it was only because they never had been molested seriously since they had taken to the Twin Buttes country, and, with the exception of Ackerman, he secretly felt less security than any of the others. Thanks to his earlier activities and clever distortion of facts as to why he had crossed the Deepwater to live in the Buttes, the outfit had not been bothered; and the Twin Buttes section had become taboo, in recent years, to everyone, no man caring to risk his life in penetrating that locality until Johnny Nelson appeared. And although Ackerman had preached disaster, he had preached it so long and so much that he was regarded as a calamity howler.

There were two comparatively safe ways to reach the Buttes, when once the last high, intervening ridge was attained. One led to the far side of the northern Twin and was hidden by it from the sight of anyone on the other butte; the second course swept to the south, running through arroyos and draws, and sheltered by the dense growths of pine; and it not only was a shorter and easier course, but allowed an occasional glimpse of the way Johnny had scaled the great southern wall.

Reaching the ridge, Quigley paused to rest, and weighed the merits of the two approaches. He could be as clever and cautious as the next man when he felt that the occasion demanded it; and the events of the last few days told him that such an occasion had arrived. Easing the bandages, he chose the southern course and led the way again.

"There's his smoke," grunted Purdy, trudging along in the rear. "Wonder how much grub that ki-yote's got?"

"Don't know; an' don't care much," replied Quigley. "It don't make no difference. Th' time will come when he's got to come down, an' bein' there when he does is our job. If I was plumb shore he was workin' on his own hook my worries would simmer down a whole lot; an' until I am shore, I ain't overlookin' nothin'."

"You ain't got no business comin' out here with an arm like that," growled Purdy. "Three of us are enough."

"I ain't got no business bein' nowhere else," retorted Quigley. "An' as long as yo're ridin' that subject again, lemme tell you that from now on till we get him, I'm goin' to stay right there. My eyes are all right, an' my Colt arm is th' same as ever. Bend low here an' foller my steps close—on th' jump, now!"

Reaching the end of the wide valley they came to a great widening of the lower levels, where the canyon emerged from between the Buttes and became lost in the great sink which surrounded the Twins. Quigley knew the sink from former explorations, and he chose ridges and draws without hesitation and kept well hidden at all times from anyone up on the butte. In order to continue in this security it was necessary to go almost to the eastern wall of the sink in a wide detour, and the chief unhesitatingly chose that route.

Because of an instinct born from years of woodcraft, Quigley's eyes missed nothing. Had he been riding down Hastings' single street he unconsciously would have observed every tin can, every old boot, and his memory, automatically photographing than with remarkable fidelity, would have filed the pictures away for future reference. Crossing a sage hen's track he unconsciously observed it minutely, and he could have told quite an interesting and intimate tale of what the bird had been doing.

Plunging into a deep gully, he swung up the opposite slope on a diagonal, and stopped suddenly, his busy mind instantly sidetracking its cogitations to take care of a matter immediately under his eyes. Three small stones lay, dark and damp, against the sun-dried, whitish rock stratum which formed the surface of the ridge. Above the level of his shoulders several green twigs were well chewed, two of them bitten clean off, and a dried lather still clung to them. Shoving his elbows out from his side to check his companion, he looked closely at both signs, and then, bending over, hurried along the slope searching the ground and swiftly disappeared around a bowlder. Purdy followed and bent over beside him. In a small patch of sand and clay which filled a hollow in the rock floor was the print of a hoof, and extending in front of it lay the imprint of the forward half of a moccasin.

Quigley glanced up quickly at his companion. "Fresh made!" he grunted. "Leads away from th' butte. Might be two men, one of 'em ridin'. Wait here, an' lay low!"

Going on a few steps he shook his head slowly and disappeared around a thicket. Ahead of him was a wide streak of sand and gravel and he hurried to it

"Two men on foot, leadin' a hoss!" he growled. "Wish I had time to foller these tracks; but there's no tellin' how far they go." He paused a moment in indecision, tempted to go on, but shaking his head he wheeled and ran back to Purdy, cursing the increased throbbing of his arm.

"Purdy!" he whispered incisively; "somethin's rotten! One cayuse; two men. Wait a minute!" and he sent his thoughts racing over every possibility. "They can be strangers that blundered through here; or friends of Nelson's. If they was strangers, an' passed th' Buttes, as that back trail indicates, they wouldn't try to keep hidden, an' either Art or Frank would 'a' seen them, an' follered them. If they was friends of his—d—n it! Wish I had taken th' trouble to hunt up th' tracks of that black cayuse some place where they showed up plain an' deep!"

Purdy thoughtfully rubbed his head. "Mebby that cayuse wandered down, an' th' boys led it off to hide it."

"Both of 'em?" snapped Quigley. "One had to stay on guard. An' they can't turn boots into moccasins. Cuss it! Why would innercent strangers wear moccasins in this kind of country? They wouldn't, unless they was up to some deviltry. Purdy, we got a job on our hands. First, we'll see Art an' Frank—no we won't: I will. You foller these tracks an' find out what you can. Don't foller 'em longer than an hour. We'll meet right here. If you hear three shots so close together that they sound like a ripple, you cut h—l-bent for th' ranch, by a roundabout way," and he was gone before Purdy could answer him.

Purdy ran forward, his gaze on the ground, and every time the trail became lost on clean, hard rock, he swore impatiently and ran in ever-widening circles until he found it again. Suddenly he crouched low and froze in his tracks. In an opening at the bottom of a deep, heavily wooded draw lying just ahead of him he caught sight of a black horse, saddled, cropping grass. The animal threw up its head, looked at him, flattened its ears and backed away, ready to bolt. And under his eyes lay four pairs of moccasin prints, two of them pointing back toward the Buttes.

"It's his bronc!" growled Purdy under his breath. "How th' devil—!" Wild conjectures filed into his mind in swift confusion, and, wrestling with them, he wheeled sharply and dashed back the way he had come, his Colt ready for action.

Quigley, calling into play every trick of woodcraft that he knew, kept on toward the Twin Buttes canyon, silent, alert, never once leaving cover. The smoke of the fire up on the butte was barely discernible now and the smoke from the rustlers' fire at the foot of the trail could not be seen at all. Eagerly he scrutinized the tops of the two buttes, but in vain.

Working steadily forward with the caution of an Indian, he followed and kept close to the eastern wall of the sink until directly back of the place where the trail guard should be, and in line with that and the lower end of the trail. His progress now became slow, and he exercised an infinite caution and patience. Cover followed cover, and every few yards he stopped and waited, his senses at the top pitch of their efficiency. Drawing near the position used by him and his men in guarding the mesa trail he passed within fifty feet of Luke Tedrue, and neither knew of it. Had he gone ten feet farther forward he would have died in his tracks.

He stopped. It was now Art's or Frank's turn to show some sign of life. Neither of them had any need to remain quiet, and he knew that under such circumstances a man is almost certain to make some kind of a noise within a reasonable length of time.

The minutes passed in absolute silence, and finally he could wait no longer, for each passing minute was precious to him, and he silently backed away, to approach from another direction. As he crept past a bowlder, avoiding every growing thing and every twig or loose pebble, he glanced along a narrow opening between some rocks and a thinning of the brush, and saw two sock-covered feet, toes up. It took him a long time to maneuver so that he could see enough of the body to be sure of its identity, and when he was sure he choked back a curse.

"Fleming!" he breathed. "Knifed through th' throat! An' they took his pants an' left a pair of blue ones. Nelson wore black! An' Frank, up there on th' other butte—I can't get up there without bein' seen. Frank, my boy; if yo're alive, you'll have to look out for yoreself!"

As he crawled and wriggled and dashed back over his trail his racing thoughts threw picture after picture on his mental screen, until every possible solution was eliminated and only the probable ones remained; and from these two there loomed up one which almost bore the stamp of certainty. The CL outfit, either wholly or in part, had arrived on the scene, and even now might be attacking the ranch-houses. Dashing around a pinnacle of granite, he sped down the slope of the draw where Purdy, behind a thicket, awaited him.

"Here, Tom!" softly called the waiting man, arising.

"Quick!" panted Quiglcy. "H—l's broke loose with all th' gates open! What you find?"

"Nelson's bronc. Th' two men that led it cached it in a draw an' went back again towards th' Buttes. What's up?"

"Everything, I reckon. Fleming's dead—knifed," panted Quigley, leading the way westward. "Frank—I don't know—about him. Never—had a chance—Art didn't. Good thing—I reckon we come—th' way we did. There—ain't no tellin'—what we might 'a' run—up ag'in. D—n 'em! I'll never leave—th' hills! Dead or—alive, I stays!"

"I've located—here permanent myself," growled Purdy. "Fleming knifed, huh? Mebby—mebby they're Injuns! Knife-play an' moccasins! I—betcha!"

"D—n fool!" gritted Quigley savagely; and then, remembering his companion's declaration of permanent location, he relented. "He wasn't—scalped!"

"Apaches—don't scalp!" grunted Purdy doggedly.

"But they make—tracks, don't they?" blazed Quigley. "I tell you—I know Injun tracks—like I know my name. They're—white men!"