The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 13
THEY felt their way up in the darkness. The path was rough and at first pitch-black. After a time they emerged from the aspens into more open travel. Here were occasional gleams of light, as if the moon stood tip-toe and peered down between the sheer walls of Chicito to the obscure depths below.
Beulah led. Mountain-born and bred, she was active as a bighorn. Her slenderness was deceptive. It concealed the pack of her long rippling muscles, the deep-breasted strength of her torso. One might have marched a long day's journey without finding a young woman more perfectly modeled for grace and for endurance.
"What are you going to try to do?" Beaudry asked of her timidly.
She turned on him with a burst of feminine ferocity. "Is that any of your business? I did n't ask you to come with me, did I? Go down to the horse ranch and ask dad to help you out of the park. Then, when you 're safe with your friends, you can set the officers on him. Tell them he is a criminal—just as you told me."
Her biting tongue made him wince. "If I told you that I'm sorry. I had no right. You 've saved my life. Do you think it likely I would betray your people after that?"
"How do I know what a spy would do? Thank God, I can't put myself in the place of such people," she answered disdainfully.
He smiled ruefully. She was unjust, of course. But that did not matter. Roy knew that she was wrought up by what he had told her. Pride and shame and hatred and distrust spoke in her sharp words. Was it not natural that a high-spirited girl should resent such a charge against her people and should flame out against the man who had wounded her? Even though she disapproved of what they had done, she would fly to their defense when attacked.
From the dark gash of the ravine they came at last to the opening where Meldrum lived.
The young woman turned to Beaudry. "Give me your revolver belt."
He hesitated. "What are you going to do?"
Plainly she would have liked to rebuff him, but just now he had the whip hand. Her sullen answer came slowly.
"I'm going to tell my brother that father needs him. When he has gone, I 'll see what I can do."
"And what am I to do while you are inside?"
"Whatever you like." She held out her hand for his belt.
Not at all willingly he unbuckled it. "You 'll be careful," he urged. "Meldrum is a bad man. Don't try any tricks with him."
"He knows better than to touch a hair of my head," she assured him with proud carelessness. Then, "Hide in those trees," she ordered.
Ned Rutherford answered her knock on the door of the jacal. At sight of her he exclaimed:—
"What are you doing here, Boots? At this time of night? Anything wrong?"
"Dad needs you, Ned. It seems there is trouble about that young man Street. Jess Tighe has sworn to kill him and dad won't have it. There's trouble in the air. You 're to come straight home."
"Why did n't he send Jeff?"
"He needed him. You 're to keep on down through the cañon to the mouth. Jess has the mouth of the arroyo guarded to head off Street."
"But—what's broke? Why should Tighe be so keen on bumping off this pink-ear when dad says no?"
"They 've found out who he is. It seems Street is an alias. He is really Royal Beaudry, the son of the man who used to be sheriff of the county, the one who crippled Jess the day he was killed."
The slim youth in the high-heeled boots whistled. He understood now why Tighe dared to defy his father.
"All right, Boots. With you in a minute, soon as I get my hat and let Dan know."
"No. I'm to stay here till dad sends for me. He does n't want me near the trouble."
"You mean you 're to stay at Rothgerber's."
"No, here. Tighe may attack Rothgerber's any time to get this young Beaudry. I heard shooting as I came up."
"But—you can't stay here. What's dad thinking about?" he frowned.
"If you mean because of Mr. Dingwell, I know all about that."
"Who told you?" he demanded.
"Dad can't keep secrets from me. There's no use his trying."
"Hm! I notice he loaded us with a heap of instructions not to let you know anything. He'd better learn to padlock his own tongue."
"Is n't there a room where I can sleep here?" Beulah asked.
"There's a cot in the back room," he admitted sulkily. "But you can't—"
"That's another thing," she broke in. "Dad does n't want Dan left alone with Mr. Dingwell."
"Who's that out there, Ned?" growled a heavy voice from inside.
Beulah followed her brother into the hut. Two men stared at her in amazement. One sat on the bed with a leg tied to the post. The other was at the table playing solitaire, a revolver lying beside the cards. The card-player was Meldrum. He jumped up with an oath.
"Goddlemighty! What's she doing here?" he demanded in his hoarse raucous bass.
"That's her business and mine," Rutherford answered haughtily.
"It's mine too, by God! My neck's in the noose, ain't it?" screamed the former convict. "Has everybody in the park got to know we 're hiding Dingwell here? Better put it in the paper. Better—"
"Enough of that, Dan. Dad is running this show. Obey orders, and that lets you out," retorted the young man curtly. "You 've met my sister, have n't you, Dave?"
The cattleman smiled at the girl. "Sure. We had a little ride together not long since. I owe you a new raincoat. Don't I, Miss Beulah?"
She blushed a little. "No, you don't, Mr. Dingwell. The mud came off after it dried."
"That's good." Dave turned to Rutherford. The little devils of mischief were in his eyes. "Chet Fox was with us, but he did n't stay—had an engagement, he said. He was in some hurry to keep it, too."
But though he chatted with them gayly, the ranchman's mind was subconsciously busy with the new factor that had entered into the problem of his captivity. Why had Rutherford allowed her to come? He could not understand that. Every added one who knew that he was here increased the danger to his abductors. He knew how fond the owner of the horse ranch was of this girl. It was odd that he had let her become incriminated in his lawless plans. Somehow that did not seem like Hal Rutherford. One point that stood out like the Map of Texas brand was the effect of her coming upon his chances. To secure their safety neither Tighe nor Meldrum would stick at murder. Ten minutes ago the prudent way out of the difficulty would have been for them to arrange his death by accident. Now this was no longer feasible. When the Rutherford girl had stepped into the conspiracy, it became one of finesse and not bloodshed. Was this the reason that her father had sent her—to stay the hands of his associates already reaching toward the prisoner? There was no question that Meldrum's finger had been itching on the trigger of his revolver for a week. One of the young Rutherfords had been beside him day and night to restrain the man.
Dave was due for another surprise when Ned presently departed after a whispered conference with Meldrum and left his sister in the hut. Evidently something important was taking place in another part of the park. Had it to do with young Beaudry?
From his reflections the cattleman came to an alert attention. Miss Rutherford was giving Meldrum instructions to arrange her bed in the back room.
The convict hesitated. "I can't leave him here alone with you," he remonstrated surlily.
"Why can't you?" demanded Beulah incisively. "He's tied to the bedpost and I have my gun. I can shoot as straight as you can. What harm can he do me in five minutes? Don't be an idiot, Dan."
Meldrum, grumbling, passed into the back room.
In an instant Beulah was at the table, had drawn out a drawer, and had seized a carving knife. She turned on Dingwell, eyes flashing.
"If I help you to escape, will you swear to say nothing that will hurt my father or anybody else in the park?" she demanded in a low voice.
"Yes—if young Beaudry has not been hurt."
"You swear it."
She tossed him the knife, and moved swiftly back to the place where she had been standing. "Whatever my father wants you to do you'd better do," she said out loud for the benefit of Meldrum.
Dingwell cut the ropes that bound his leg. "I'm liable to be Dan's guest quite awhile yet. Rutherford and I don't quite agree on the terms," he drawled aloud.
Beulah tossed him her revolver. "I 'll call Dan, but you 're not to hurt him," she whispered.
When Meldrum came in answer to her summons, he met the shock of his life. In Dingwell's competent hand was a revolver aimed at his heart.
The man turned savagely to Beulah. "So I'm the goat," he said with a curse. "Rutherford is going to frame me, is he? I'm to go to the pen in place of the whole bunch. Is that it?"
"No, you 've guessed wrong. Yore hide is safe this time, Meldrum," the cattleman explained. "Reach for the roof. No, don't do that. … Now, turn yore face to the wall."
Dave stepped forward and gathered in the forty-four of the enemy. He also relieved him of his "skinning" knife. With the deft hands of an old roper he tied the man up and flung him on the bed.
This done, Dingwell made straight for the larder. Though he was ravenous, the cattleman ate with discretion. Into his pockets he packed all the sandwiches they would hold.
"Is it true that you—that they did n't give you anything to eat?" asked Beulah.
He looked at her—and lied cheerfully.
"Sho, I got cranky and would n't eat. Yore folks treated me fine. I got my neck bowed. Can't blame them for that, can I?"
"We must be going," she told him. "If you don't get over the pass before morning, Tighe might catch you."
He nodded agreement. "You 're right, but I 've got to look out for young Beaudry. Do you know where he is?"
"He is waiting outside," the girl said stiffly. "Take him away with you. I 'll not be responsible for him if he comes back. We don't like spies here."
They found Roy lying against the wall of the hut, his white face shining in the moonlight.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded Miss Rutherford sharply.
"I'm all right." Roy managed to rise and lean against the jacal. "I see you made it. Mr. Dingwell, my name is Beaudry."
"Glad to know you." The cattleman's strong hand gripped his limp one. "Yore father was the gamest man I ever knew and one of my best friends."
The keen eyes of Beulah had been fastened on Roy. She recalled what she had heard the man say in the orchard. In her direct fashion she flung a question at the young man.
"Are you wounded? Did that man hit you when he fired?"
"It's in my shoulder—just a flesh wound. The bleeding has stopped except when I move."
"Why did n't you say something about it?" she asked impatiently. "Do you think we 're clairvoyants? We'd better get him into the house and look at it, Mr. Dingwell."
They did as she suggested. A bullet had ploughed a furrow across the shoulder. Except for the loss of blood, the wound was not serious. With the help of Miss Rutherford, which was given as a matter of course and quite without embarrassment, Dave dressed and bandaged the hurt like an expert. In his adventurous life he had looked after many men who had been shot, and had given first aid to a dozen with broken bones.
Roy winced a little at the pain, but he made no outcry. He was not a baby about suffering. That he could stand as well as another. What shook his nerve was the fear of anticipation, the dread of an impending disaster which his imagination magnified.
"You'd better hurry," he urged two or three times. "Some one might come any minute."
Dave looked at him, a little surprised. "What's the urge, son? We 've got two six-guns with us if anybody gets too neighborly."
But Beulah was as keen for the start as Beaudry. She did not want the men escaping from the park to meet with her people. To avoid this, rapid travel was necessary.
As soon as Roy was patched up they started.