The coming of the railroad had changed Elkhead from a mere crossing of the ways to a rather important cattle shipping point. Once a year it became a bustling town whose two streets thronged with cattlemen with pockets burdened with gold which fairly burned its way out to the open air. At other times Elkhead dropped back into a leaden-eyed sleep.
The most important citizen was Lee Hardy, the Wells Fargo agent. Office jobs are hard to find in the mountain-desert, and those who hold them win respect. The owner of a swivel-chair is more lordly than the possessor of five thousand "doggies." Lee Hardy had such a swivel-chair. Moreover, since large shipments of cash were often directed by Wells Fargo to Elkhead, Hardy's position was really more significant than the size of the village suggested. As a crowning stamp upon his dignity he had a clerk who handled the ordinary routine of work in the front room, while Hardy set himself up in state in a little rear office whose walls were decorated by two brilliant calendars and the coloured photograph of a blond beauty advertising a toilet soap.
To this sanctuary he retreated during the heat of the day, while in the morning and evening he loitered on the small porch, chatting with passers-by. Except in the hottest part of the year he affected a soft white collar with a permanent bow tie. The leanness of his features, and his crooked neck with the prominent Adam's apple which stirred when he spoke, suggested a Yankee ancestry, but the faded blue eyes, pathetically misted, could only be found in the mountain-desert.
One morning into the inner sanctum of this dignitary stepped a man built in rectangles, a square face, square, ponderous shoulders, and even square-tipped fingers. Into the smiling haze of Hardy's face his own keen black eye sparkled like an electric lantern flashed into a dark room. He was dressed in the cowboy's costume, but there was no Western languor in his make-up. Everything about him was clear cut and precise. He had a habit of clicking his teeth as he finished a sentence. In a word, when he appeared in the doorway Lee Hardy woke up, and before the stranger had spoken a dozen words the agent was leaning forward to be sure that he would not miss a syllable.
"You're Lee Hardy, aren't you?" said he, and his eyes gave the impression of a smile, though his lips did not stir after speaking.
"I am," said the agent.
"Then you're the man I want to see. If you don't mind——"
He closed the door, pulled a chair against it, and then sat down, and folded his arms. Very obviously he meant business. Hardy switched his position in his chair, sitting a little more to the right, so that the edge of the seat would not obstruct the movement of his hand towards the holster on his right thigh.
"Well," he said good naturedly, "I'm waitin'."
"Good," said the stranger, "I won't keep you here any longer than is necessary. In the first place my name is Tex Calder."
Hardy changed as if a slight layer of dust had been sifted over his face. He stretched out his hand.
"It's great to see you, Calder," he said, "of course I've heard about you. Everyone has. Here! I'll send over to the saloon for some red-eye. Are you dry?"
He rose, but Calder waved him back to the swivel-chair.
"Not dry a bit," he said cheerily. "Not five minutes ago I had a drink of—water."
"All right," said Hardy, and settled back into his chair.
"Hardy, there's been crooked work around here."
"What in hell——"
"Get your hand away from that gun, friend."
"What the devil's the meaning of all this?"
"That's very well done," said Calder. "But this isn't the stage. Are we going to talk business like friends?"
"I've got nothing agin you," said Hardy testily, and his eyes followed Calder's right hand as if fascinated. "What do you want to say? I'll listen. I'm not very busy."
"That's exactly it," smiled Tex Calder, "I want you to get busier."
"In the first place I'll be straight with you. Wells Fargo hasn't sent me here."
"I don't get your drift."
Through a moment of pause Calder's eyes searched the face of Hardy.
"You've been pretty flush for some time."
"I ain't been starvin'."
"There are several easy ways for you to pick up extra money."
"For instance, you know all about the Wells Fargo money shipments, and there are men around here who'd pay big for what you could tell them."
The prominent Adam's apple rose and fell in Hardy's throat.
"You're quite a joker, ain't you Calder? Who, for instance?"
"This is like a story in a book," grinned Hardy. "Go on. I suppose I've been takin' Silent's money?"
The answer came like the click of a cocked revolver.
"By God, Calder——"
"Steady! I have some promising evidence, partner. Would you like to hear part of it?"
"This country has its share of the world's greatest liars," said Hardy, "I don't care what you've heard."
"That saves my time. Understand me straight. I can slap you into a lock-up, if I want to, and then bring in that evidence. I'm not going to do it. I'm going to use you as a trap and through you get some of the worst of the lone riders."
"There's nothin' like puttin' your hand on the table."
"No, there isn't. I'll tell you what you're to do."
The marshal drove straight on.
"I've got four good men in this town. Two of them will always be hanging around your office. Maybe you can get a job for them here, eh? I'll pay the salaries. You simply tip them off when your visitors are riders the government wants, see? You don't have to lift a hand. You just go to the door as the visitor leaves, and if he's all right you say: 'So long, we'll be meeting again before long.' But if he's a man I want, you say 'Good-bye.' That's all. My boys will see that it is good-bye."
"Go on," said the agent, "and tell the rest of the story. It starts well."
"Doesn't it?" agreed Calder, "and the way it concludes is with you reaching over and shaking hands with me and saying 'yes'!"
He leaned forward. The twinkle was gone from his eyes and he extended his hand to Hardy. The latter reached out with an impulsive gesture, wrung the proffered hand, and then slipping back into his chair broke into hysterical laughter.
"The real laugh," said Calder, watching his man narrowly, "will be on the lone riders."
"Tex," said the agent. "I guess you have the dope. I won't say anything except that I'm glad as hell to be out of the rotten business at last. Once started I couldn't stop. I did one 'favour' for these devils, and after that they had me in their power. I haven't slept for months as I'm going to sleep tonight!"
He wiped his face with an agitated hand.
"A week ago," he went on, "I knew you were detailed on this work. I've been sweating ever since. Now that you've come—why, I'm glad of it!"
A faint sneer touched Calder's mouth and was gone.
"You're a wise man," he said. "Have you seen much of Jim Silent lately?"
Hardy hesitated. The rôle of informer was new.
"Now put me right if I go off the track. The way I understand it, Jim Silent has about twenty gun fighters and lone riders working in gangs under him and combining for big jobs."
"That's about it."
"The inside circle consists of Silent; Lee Haines, a man who went wrong because the law did him wrong; Hal Purvis, a cunning devil; and Bill Kilduff, a born fighter who loves blood for its own sake."
"Here's something more. For Jim Silent, dead or alive, the government will pay ten thousand dollars. For each of the other three it pays five thousand. The notices aren't out yet, but they will be in a few days. Hardy, if you help me bag these men, you'll get fifty per cent of the profits. Are you on?"
The hesitancy of Hardy changed to downright enthusiasm.
"Easy money, Tex. I'm your man, hand and glove."
"Don't get optimistic. This game isn't played yet, and unless I make the biggest mistake of my life we'll be guessing again before we land Silent. I've trailed some fast gunmen in my day, and I have an idea that Silent will be the hardest of the lot; but if you play your end of the game we may land him. I have a tip that he's lying out in the country near Elkhead. I'm riding out alone to get track of him. As I go out I'll tell my men that you're O.K. for this business."
He hesitated a moment with his hand on the door knob.
"Just one thing more, Hardy. I heard a queer tale this morning about a fight in a saloon run by a man named Morgan. Do you know anything about it?"
"I was told of a fellow who chipped four dollars thrown into the air at twenty yards."
"That's a lie."
"The man who talked to me had a nicked dollar to prove his yarn."
"The devil he did!"
"And after the shooting this chap got into a fight with a tall man twice his size and fairly mopped up the floor with him. They say it wasn't a nice thing to watch. He is a frail man, but when the fight started he turned into a tiger."
"Wish I'd seen it."
"The tall man tallies to a hair with my description of Silent."
"You're wrong. I know what Silent can do with his hands. No one could beat him up. What's the name of the other?"
"Barry. Whistling Dan Barry."
"Right or wrong, I'd like to have this Barry with me. So long."
He was gone as he had come, with a nod and a flash of the keen, black eyes. Lee Hardy stared at the door for some moments, and then went outside. The warm light of the sun had never been more welcome to him. Under that cheering influence he began to feel that with Tex Calder behind him he could safely defy the world.
His confidence received a shock that afternoon when a heavy step crossed the outside room, and his door opening without a preliminary knock, he looked up into the solemn eyes of Jim Silent. The outlaw shook his head when Hardy offered him a chair.
"What's the main idea of them two new men out in your front room, Lee?" he asked.
"Two cowpunchers that was down on their luck. I got to stand in with the boys now and then."
"I s'pose so. Shorty Rhinehart in here to see you, Lee?"
"You told him that the town was gettin' pretty hot."
"You said you had no dope on when that delayed shipment was comin' through?"
Hardy made lightning calculations. A half truth would be the best way out.
"I've just got the word you want. It come this morning."
Silent's expression changed and he leaned a little closer.
"It's the nineteenth. Train number 89. Savvy? Seven o'clock at Elkhead!"
"How much? Same bunch of coin?"
"That's ten more."
"Yep. A new shipment rolled in with the old one. No objections?"
"Any other news, Lee?"
"Shorty told you about Tex Calder?"
"He did. Seen him around here?"
The slightest fraction of a second in hesitation.
"Was that the straight dope you give Shorty?"
"Straighter'n hell. They're beginnin' to talk, but I guess I was jest sort of panicky when I talked with Shorty."
"This Tex Calder——"
"What about him?" This with a trace of suspicion.
"He's got a long record."
"So've you, Jim."
Once more that wolflike grin which had no mirth.
"So long, Lee. I'll be on the job. Lay to that."
He turned towards the door. Hardy followed him. A moment more, in a single word, and the job would be done. Five thousand dollars for a single word! It warmed the very heart of Lee Hardy.
Silent, as he moved away, seemed singularly thoughtful. He hesitated a moment with bowed head at the door—then whirled and shoved a six-gun under the nose of Hardy. The latter leaped back with his arms thrust above his head, straining at his hands to get them higher.
"My God, Jim!"
"You're a low-down, lyin' hound!"
Hardy's tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.
"Damn you, d'you hear me?"
"Yes! For God's sake, Jim, don't shoot!"
"Your life ain't worth a dime!"
"Give me one more chance an' I'll play square!"
A swift change came over the face of Silent, and then Hardy went hot with terror and anger. The lone rider had known nothing. The gun play had been a mere bluff, but he had played into the hands of Silent, and now his life was truly worth nothing.
"You poor fool," went on Silent, his voice purring with controlled rage. "You damn blind fool! D'you think you could double cross me an' get by with it?"
"Give me a chance, Jim. One more chance, one more chance!"
Even in his terror he remembered to keep his voice low lest those in the front room should hear.
"Out with it, if you love livin'!"
"I—I can't talk while you got that gun on me!"
Silent not only lowered his gun, but actually returned it to the holster. Nothing could more clearly indicate his contempt, and Hardy, in spite of his fear, crimsoned with shame.
"It was Tex Calder," he said at last.
Silent started a little and his eyes narrowed again.
"What of him?"
"He came here a while ago an' tried to make a deal with me."
"An' made it!" said Silent ominously.
No gun pointed at him this time, but Hardy jerked his hands once more above his head and cowered against the wall.
"So help me God he didn't, Jim."
"Get your hands down."
He lowered his hands slowly.
"I told him I didn't know nothin' about you."
"What about that train? What about that shipment?"
"It's jest the way I told you, except that it's on the eighteenth instead of the nineteenth."
"I'm goin' to believe you. If you double cross me I'll have your hide. Maybe they'll get me, but there'll be enough of my boys left to get you. You can lay to that. How much did they offer you, Lee? How much am I worth to the little old U. S. A.?"
"I—I—it wasn't the money. I was afraid to stick with my game any longer."
The lone rider had already turned towards the door, making no effort to keep his face to the agent. The latter, flushing again, moved his hand towards his hip, but stopped the movement. The last threat of Silent carried a deep conviction with it. He knew that the faith of lone riders to each other was an inviolable bond. Accordingly he followed at the heels of the other man into the outside room.
"So long, old timer," he called, slapping Silent on the shoulder, "I'll be seein' you agin before long."
Calder's men looked up with curious eyes. Hardy watched Silent swing onto his horse and gallop down the street. Then he went hurriedly back to his office. Once inside he dropped into the big swivel-chair, buried his face in his arms, and wept like a child.