The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 1

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Chapter I
Dingwell Gives Three Cheers

DAVE DINGWELL had been in the saddle almost since daylight had wakened him to the magic sunshine of a world washed cool and miraculously clean by the soft breath of the hills. Steadily he had jogged across the desert toward the range. Afternoon had brought him to the foothills, where a fine rain blotted out the peaks and softened the sharp outlines of the landscape to a gentle blur of green loveliness.

The rider untied his slicker from the rear of the saddle and slipped into it. He had lived too long in sun-and-wind-parched New Mexico to resent a shower. Yet he realized that it might seriously affect the success of what he had undertaken.

If there had been any one to observe this solitary traveler, he would have said that the man gave no heed to the beauty of the day. Since he had broken camp his impassive gaze had been fixed for the most part on the ground in front of him. Occasionally he swung his long leg across the rump of the horse and dismounted to stoop down for a closer examination of the hoofprints he was following. They were not recent tracks. He happened to know that they were about three days old. Plain as a printed book was the story they told him.

The horses that had made these tracks had been ridden by men in a desperate hurry. They had walked little and galloped much. Not once had they fallen into the easy Spanish jog-trot used so much in the casual travel of the South-west. The spur of some compelling motive had driven this party at top speed.

Since Dingwell knew the reason for such haste he rode warily. His alert caution suggested the panther. The eye of the man pounced surely upon every bit of cactus or greasewood behind which a possible foe might be hidden. His lean, sun-tanned face was an open letter of recommendation as to his ability to take care of himself in a world that had often glared at him wolfishly. A man in a temper to pick a quarrel would have looked twice at Dave Dingwell before choosing him as the object of it—and then would have passed on to a less competent citizen.

The trail grew stiffer. It circled into a draw down which tumbled a jocund little stream. Trout, it might be safely guessed, lurked here in the riffles and behind the big stones. An ideal camping-ground this, but the rider rejected it apparently without consideration. He passed into the cañon beyond, and so by a long uphill climb came to the higher reaches of the hills.

He rode patiently, without any hurry, without any hesitation. Here again a reader of character might have found something significant in the steadiness of the man. Once on the trail, it would not be easy to shake him off.

By the count of years Dingwell might be in the early forties. Many little wrinkles radiated fanlike from the corners of his eyes. But whatever his age time had not tamed him. In the cock of those same steel-blue eyes was something jaunty, something almost debonair, that carried one back to a youth of care-free rioting in a land of sunshine. Not that Mr. Dingwell was given to futile dissipations. He had the reputation of a responsible ranchman. But it is not to be denied that little devils of mischief at times danced in those orbs.

Into the hills the trail wound across gulches and along the shoulders of elephant humps. It brought him into a country of stunted pines and red sandstone, and so to the summit of a ridge which formed part of the rim of a saucer-shaped basin. He looked down into an open park hedged in on the far side by mountains. Scrubby pines straggled up the slopes from arroyos that cleft the hills. By divers unknown paths these led into the range beyond.

A clump of quaking aspens was the chief landmark in the bed of the park. Though this was the immediate destination of Mr. Dingwell, since the hoofprints he was following plunged straight down toward the grove, yet he took certain precautions before venturing nearer. He made sure that the 45-70 Winchester that lay across the saddle was in working order. Also he kept along the rim of the saucer-shaped park till he came to a break where a creek tumbled down in a white foam through a ravine.

"It's a heap better to be safe than to be sorry," he explained to himself cheerfully. "They call this Lonesome Park, and maybe so it deserves its name to-day. But you never can tell, Dave. We 'll make haste slowly if you don't mind."

Along the bank of the creek he descended, letting his sure-footed cowpony pick its own way while he gave strict attention to the scenery. At a bend of the stream he struck again the trail of the riders he had been following and came from there directly to the edge of the aspen clump.

Apparently his precautions were unnecessary. He was alone. There could be no doubt of that. Only the tracks of feet and the ashes of a dead fire showed that within a few days a party had camped here.

Dingwell threw his bridle to the ground and with his rifle tucked under his arm examined the tracks carefully. Sometimes he was down on hands and knees peering at the faint marks of which he was reading the story. Foot by foot he quartered over the sand, entirely circling the grove before he returned to the ashes of the dead fire. Certain facts he had discovered. One was that the party which had camped here had split up and taken to the hills by different trails instead of as a unit. Still another was that so far as he could see there had been no digging in or near the grove.

It was raining more definitely now, so that the distant peaks were hidden in a mist. In the lee of the aspens it was still dry. Dingwell stood there frowning at the ashes of the dead campfire. He had had a theory, and it was not working out quite as he had hoped. For the moment he was at a mental impasse. Part of what had happened he could guess almost as well as if he had been present to see it. Sweeney's posse had given the fugitives a scare at Dry Gap and driven them back into the desert. In the early morning they had tried the hills again and had reached Lonesome Park. But they could not be sure that Sweeney or some one of the posses sent out by the railroad was not close at hand. Somewhere in the range back of them the pursuers were combing the hills, and into those very hills the bandits had to go to disappear in their mountain haunts.

Even before reaching the park Dingwell had guessed the robbers would separate here and strike each for individual safety. But what had they done with the loot? That was the thing that puzzled him.

They had divided the gold here. Or one of them had taken it with him to an appointed rendezvous in the hills. Or they had cached it, One of these three plans had been followed. But which?

Dingwell rubbed the open fingers of one hand slowly through his sunburnt thatch of hair. "Doggone my hide, if it don't look like they took it with them," he murmured. "But that ain't reasonable, Dave. The man in charge of this hold-up knew his business. It was smooth work all the way through. If it had n't been for bad luck he would have got away with the whole thing fine. They still had the loot with them when they got here. No doubt about that. Well, then! He would n't divvy up here, because, if they separated, and any one of them got caught with the gold on him, it would be a give-away. But if they did n't have the dough on them, it would not matter if some of the boys were caught. You can't do anything with a man riding peaceable through the hills looking for strays, no matter how loaded to the guards with suspicions you may be. So they would cache the loot. Would n't they? Sure they would if they had any sense. But tell me where, Dave."

His thoughtful eyes had for some moments been resting on something that held them. He stooped and picked up a little chip of sealing-wax. Instantly he knew how it had come here. The gold sacks had been sealed by the express company with wax. At least one of the sacks had been opened here by the robbers.

Did this mean they had divided their treasure here? It might mean that. Or it might mean that before they cached it they had opened one sack to see how much it held. Dingwell clung to the opinion that the latter was the truth, partly because this marched with his hopes and partly because it seemed to him more likely. There would be a big risk in taking their haul with them farther. There was none at all in caching it.

It was odd how that little heap of ashes in the center of the camp-fire drew his eye. Ashes did not arrange themselves that way naturally. Some one had raked these into a pile. Why? And who?

He could not answer those questions offhand. But he had a large bump of curiosity about some things. Otherwise he would not have been where he was that afternoon. With his boot he swept the ashes aside. The ground beneath them was a little higher than it was in the immediate neighborhood. Why should the bandits have built their fire on a small hillock when there was level ground adjacent? There might be a reason underneath that little rise of ground or there might not. Mr. Dingwell got out his long hunting-knife, fell on his knees, and began to dig at the center of the spot where the campfire had been.

The dirt flew. With his left hand he scooped it from the hole he was making. Presently the point of his knife struck metal. Three minutes later he unearthed a heavy gunnysack. Inside of it were a lot of smaller sacks bearing the seal of the Western Express Company. He had found the gold stolen by the Rutherford gang from the Pacific Flyer.

Dave was pleased with himself. It had been a good day's work. He admitted cheerfully that there was not another man in New Mexico who could have pulled off successfully the thing he had just done. The loot had been well hidden. It had been a stroke of genius to cache it in the spot where the camp-fire was afterward built. But he had outguessed Jess Tighe that time. His luck had sure stood up fine. The occasion called for a demonstration.

He took off his broad-rimmed gray hat. "Three rousing cheers, Mr. Dingwell," he announced ceremoniously. "Now, all together."

Rising to his toes, he waved his hat joyously, worked his shoulders like a college cheer leader, and gave a dumb pantomime of yelling. He had intended to finish off with a short solo dance step, for it is not every day that a man finds twenty thousand dollars in gold bars buried in the sand.

But he changed his mind. As he let himself slowly down to his heels there was a sardonic grin on his brown face. In outguessing Tighe he had slipped one little mental cog, after all, and the chances were that he would pay high for his error. A man had been lying in the mesquite close to the creek watching him all the time. He knew it because he had caught the flash of light on the rifle barrel that covered him.

The gold-digger beckoned with his hat as he called out. "Come right along to the party. You 're welcome as a frost in June."

A head raised itself cautiously out of the brush. "Don't you move, or I 'll plug lead into you."

"I'm hog-tied," answered Dingwell promptly.

His mind worked swiftly. The man with the drop on him was Chet Fox, a hanger-on of the Rutherford gang, just as he had been seventeen years before when he betrayed John Beaudry to death. Fox was shrewd and wily, but no gunman. If Chet was alone, his prisoner did not propose to remain one. Dave did not intend to make any fool breaks, but it would be hard luck if he could not contrive a chance to turn the tables.

"Reach for the roof."

Dingwell obeyed orders.

Fox came forward very cautiously. Not for an instant did his beady eyes lift from the man he covered.

"Turn your back to me."

The other man did as he was told.

Gingerly Fox transferred the rifle to his left hand, then drew a revolver. He placed the rifle against the fork of a young aspen and the barrel of the six-gun against the small of Dingwell's back.

"Make just one break and you 're a goner," he threatened.

With deft fingers he slid the revolver of the cattleman from its holster. Then, having collected Dingwell's rifle, he fell back a few steps.

"Now you can go on with those health exercises I interrupted if you 've a mind to," Fox suggested with a sneer.

His prisoner turned dejected eyes upon him. "That's right. Rub it in, Chet. Don't you reckon I know what a long-eared jackass I am?"

"There's two of us know it then," said Fox dryly. "Now, lift that gunnysack to your saddle and tie it on behind."

This done, Fox pulled himself to the saddle, still with a wary eye on his captive.

"Hit the trail along the creek," he ordered.

Dingwell moved forward reluctantly. It was easy to read chagrin and depression in the sag of his shoulders and the drag of his feet.

The pig eyes of the fat little man on horseback shone with triumph. He was enjoying himself hugely. It was worth something to have tamed so debonair a dare-devil as Dingwell had the reputation of being. He had the fellow so meek that he would eat out of his hand.