NO writer of "cowboy" stories can equal B. M. Bower. Ever since "Chip" of immortal memory Bower has been easily first among the writers who stage their dramas in the wide spaces of the cattle country. There is something new about this novel. It has to do with the cow-puncher, but also it holds a mystery, one of those intangible, eerie things that savor of ghostly visitations. The mountains held the secret, and holding it, they were re-christened the "Spook Hills." It took a stranger in the West to fathom the mystery. A fine story.
SINCE every story must begin somewhere, suppose we start with the muggy evening when Shelton C. Sherman arrived at the Sunbeam, convoyed thither in a somewhat wilted and deprecatory condition by one called Spooky. Shelton C. Sherman was handicapped by his name, over which unaccustomed tongues tripped most irritatingly, and by his complete ignorance of things Western; and by a certain frail prettiness; and by a trusting disposition which he was soon to lose. But he was wise, with a wisdom learned in school fights, and he did what he could toward getting a fair running start when he landed. He said his name was Sherman, and let the rest go for the present. He was amiable along with his prettiness, and he listened with avidity to Spooky's rambling tales of that wonderland to which anxious kinsfolk had sent him.
This, as a beginning, may sound a bit hackneyed. Since the first story was told of the West, innocent young males have arrived in first chapters and have been lied to by seasoned old reprobates of the range, and have attained sophistication by devious paths not always unmarked with violence. But when you stop to consider, life itself is a bit hackneyed.
Never mind then how many trustful youths had looked wide-eyed upon the sage before ever Shelton C. Sherman stared solemn-eyed up into the face of his mother. This was his turn, and this is his story, partly. And it was Spooky's pleasing privilege to tell him a good deal that was true and more that was not—about the Sunbeam outfit and the sagebrush country that wrapped it close.
"Yuh don't want to let Burney put you on the fence first thing," Spooky coached when they were within five miles of the ranch. "Burney's all right, you bet, oncet you git to know him right well. There ain't a straighter, whiter man in Idaho than what Aleck Burney is, you take it from me."
"Well, what's queer about him? Does he really try to put people on the fence? And if so, why?" You see how green the fellow was! "I don't quite get the point."
"Oh, I meant throw a scare into yuh." Spooky explained with some patience because the very frankness of Shelton's ignorance disarmed him. Spooky was not such a bad sort. "He scares kids until they git used to him. But if you go at him right he'll be all right."
"Do I have to go at him?" Shelton laid hand upon his thigh, and stretched a long, lean leg over the broken dashboard to relieve a cramped muscle. Spooky reserved his pitying reply while he took a more careful inventory of his passenger.
"Say, you're all there when it comes to measuring lengthways, ain't yuh?" he observed. "About how high do you stack up alongside a hole in the ground, anyway? Over six feet, ain't yuh?"
"Two inches over," Shelton admitted reluctantly. "The folks sent me out here to get some width to go with my length: Dad's an architect. He said he'd have to use me for a straight edge if something wasn't done pretty soon."
"Unh-hunh! Well, she's shore a great country—I reckon maybe you'll widen out some if you stay long enough. What's your age?"
"Twenty-one," with more reluctance. "Time will help that, of course. If it will also put some meat on my bones and take off this pretty-pretty complexion I'll be willing to stay ten years."
Spooky touched up the off horse, which was inclined to "soldier" on the up-grade pull through a stretch of sand. "Oh, you'll make out all right," he said finally in a tone of encouragement. "Once you git out after stock—can you ride, any?"
"You mean on a horse?"
"I mean—on a horse, yes." Spooky sighed in sheer sympathy with such absolute benightment.
"I never was on one except once. I fell off that time," Shelton confessed cheerfully. "If it was a bike—but this doesn't look like much of a wheel country. Too rough."
Spooky made no reply whatever. He drove on for some minutes in deep thought, his eyes upon the trail ahead.
"You were going to say something when I get out after stock," prompted Shelton C. Sherman, after a silence.
"I changed my mind. In order to git tanned and looking more humanlike, I guess yuh better set on the sunny side of the corral a couple or three hours a day—till your nose peels."
"I'd rather sit on a horse, if it's all the same to you," Shelton objected. "I could learn to ride, don't you think?"
"Oh, I guess—maybe you could." Spooky spoke guardedly. "You're purty old to start in, but—maybe you could learn."
"Gee! I was afraid I'd be too young for all the things I wanted to learn. It's a relief to hear I'm too old for something. What's that line of hills called over there?"
"Them! Us Sunbeamers call them the Spook Hills. That's where—"
Spooky stopped, spat over the wheel into the sand, and neglected to finish the sentence. He stared morosely at the jagged black sky line, and touched up old Blinker again more viciously than was needful.
"Why are they called Spook Hills? Are there spooks?" Shelton C. Sherman was gifted—or afflicted, as you choose to consider it—with the frank curiosity of a child.
Spooky meditated upon the advisability of answering the young man truthfully. After a space of silence he said seriously: "There is; leastways they's one. They're called that, same as I'm called it. All over the country they call me Spooky, and them the Spook Hills. Do you believe in 'em?"
Shelton stuck both legs out over the dashboard, gazed at the hills, and thought a minute. "I never have," he said simply. "But I expect I could. I came out here into this country prepared to believe almost anything."
Whereupon Spooky regarded him warily, gave a snort, and topped it off with a chuckle. He was not a bad sort, though he was an awful liar when the mood seized him and he could find a pair of credulous ears. Again he spat over the wheel, pointed with his whip toward a certain low ridge blocked at either end by high buttes, and by devious conversational bypaths he proceeded to tell a very creditable ghost story.
"Gee!" was Shelton's tribute, and turned to stare with a new interest at the jagged peaks and gloomy hollows. "I wonder if I could get a sight of it some time? You say it sank into the ground with a low, pitiful moan?"
Spooky squinted at him sidewise. "It went into the ground, yes. I never said it done any moaning. The danged thing hollered so my back hair never settled for four days." He went at Blinker with the whip, set him into a gallop, and then slowed the horses into a heavy-footed trot again. "Maybe you got your doubts about it being true?" he challenged. "Lemme tell you something, young feller. You ain't the first to doubt it. Spider, he didn't believe it, either, when I told about it at the ranch. 'N' about two months back, Spider he was prognosticating around over there, trailin' a mountain lion, and he heard it. And he was so danged scairt he dropped his rifle and come foggin' home without it. That's a fact. You can ask any of the Sunbeam boys. You ask Spider what he seen over in Spook Hills. That's all—you ask him."
"I will," Shelton promised obligingly. "I wonder if it would scare me if I saw it."
"Hunh!" grunted Spooky. "Don't yuh know?"
"No," averred the newcomer. "You see, I've never been scared. I was in a train wreck once—when two elevated trains smashed together—and that didn't scare me. And I was in a theatre panic, and I stood upon a seat and watched the people fighting like wild cats to get to the door, and that didn't scare me. And I've been held up and robbed, and upset in a canoe before I'd learned to swim very well. And I was hazed good and plenty at school, of course—but I've never been scared. Not scared like some fellows get, you know. I was wondering—"
Spooky twisted his body around in the seat and looked Shelton C. Sherman over carefully. Shelton took in his legs, gave two perfectly unconscious pulls at his trousers—after the manner of a man who hates baggy knees—and returned the stare with clear-eyed candor.
"I was wondering if that spook thing could scare me," he finished deprecating.
"I—Blinker! I'll cut the everlastin' hide offen you if you don't straighten out them trace chains!"
"Was it the looks of it, or do you think it was the noise that scared you?"
Spooky shifted uncomfortably on the seat. "I dunno. I'll take you over there some day and let yuh find out for yourself."
"Oh, would you? Thanks!" The tone of him was so absolutely honest that Spooky withdrew into his shell of taciturnity, and gave over his half-formed plan of mental bedevilment, and drove on in silence save when common decency wrung from him a yes or a no, or his one safe bet, "I dunno."
He took the young man to the house and left him standing there in the heavy dusk with his baggage stacked beside him and bewilderment in his eyes. The Sunbeam, like many another ranch, did not run to artistic housing, and it is very probable that the young man experienced a keen sensation of disappointment when he stood before the low, dirt-roofed cabin that sprawled upon a sun- baked area of sand, and realized that this was the official headquarters of the Sunbeam Ranch.
Spooky lifted up his head and yelled a summons, and a door opened to let out a huge figure that loomed monsterlike in the dusk. Spooky went to the head of Blinker and stood there fumbling with the harness—which was his way of masking the curious stare he fixed upon Shelton C. Sherman.
The gigantic figure came closer and closer until he towered above his visitor; towered, though Shelton owned to six feet two. Spooky grinned in anticipation, and moved closer in the pretense of looping up Blinker's line.
Shelton C. gave one surprised look and went forward, smiling.
"Are you Mr. Burney? I'm Shelt Sherman. I think you expected me—unless mother's letter went astray somewhere."
The giant took the hand of Shelton C. Sherman and crushed the bones in an excruciating grip. Spooky watched the face of Shelton C.—watched and saw him smile wryly, and heard him make the amazing statement that he was pleased to meet Mr. Burney. Under his breath Spooky named the place where little boys who steal watermelons must go when they die, and led the team away to the stable.
He met Spider on the way, and he stopped long enough to announce that he had brought a pilgrim home with him. "He's a purty-purty, and he ain't never been scairt in his life, and he ain't never been on a hoss in his life but once, and he laid his trustin' little hand in Burney's and said he was happy to meet him. You know how Burney shakes hands!"
"Huh!" said Spider, picturing mentally the incident. "'S he going to stay?"
"I dunno. He thinks he is." Spooky was stripping the harness off the horses. "He's got a banjo. He ain't so worse—but he sure is tender!"
"He'll get over it," Spider stated wisely. "If he stays long enough."
"Yeah—if! Wonder what Burney wanted him out here fur? Looks like he's got his hands full enough without takin' no kid to raise."
IN that part of Idaho which lies south of the Snake, the land is spotted with forest, sage flats, lava beds, and grassland. You can find anything there—anything in the shape of wild desolation. In the days when the Sunbeam held by right of possession the range which lay east and south of Spook Hills, you could find more of the desolation, more of the forbidding wilderness than the land holds now. The Sunbeam Ranch—which means that bit of fertile land where stood the Sunbeam buildings—was tucked away in a coulee so hidden that one might ride to the very rim of it before suspecting its nearness.
Idaho is full of such coulees. You ride through miles and miles of bleak desert with nothing to break the monotony save a distant pile of rock-crowned hills. You enter a nest of thick- strewn bowlders, perhaps, and turn and twist this way and that to avoid the biggest of them. Then you find yourself on the brink of a steep hill—when it is not a cliff—and just below is a green little valley with trees; or a gray little valley with sagebrush crowding upon the narrow strip of grass which borders the stream; or a black hole of a valley that looks like the mouth of hell itself, with gleaming ledges of lava interspersed with sharp-cornered rocks the size of your head, and stunted sage and greasewood and no water anywhere. If you go down there you will hear the buzz of a rattler before you find your way out, and you will see horned toads scuttling out of sight in little crevices, and lizards darting over bowlders into hiding beyond. You will see the bluest sky in the whole world—or perhaps it only seems so when it bends above so much that is black and utterly desolate.
It was in a gray little valley that the Sunbeam cabins stood. Farther along there was a meadow, to be sure, where hay was cut for the saddle horses to feed upon in winter. But that was around a black elbow of lava that thrust out toward the stream like the crook of a witch's arm hiding jealously the green little nook she had found for herself. The cabins were built upon barren sand—perhaps because the green places were too precious to be used improvidently for mere comfort in living.
The cabin was low and gloomy for want of windows. Burney bent his head level with his chest every time he entered or left his own door, and never thought of building a house to match the immensity of his frame. Burney was six feet and eleven inches tall when he stood barefooted. His cabin was a little more than seven feet to the ceiling inside; so Burney, desert bred though he was, never wore his hat in the house; bareheaded he did not scrape the ceiling when he walked about, unless he went close to the wall; when he did that he ducked unconsciously.
Shelton C. Sherman spent the whole of the first evening in watching Burney with something of the incredulity which marks the gaze of a small country boy when confronted unexpectedly by an elephant. When Burney rose from his chair—it was made of planks spiked together so that it formed a square stool that would have borne the weight of a horse—Shelton glanced involuntarily upward to see how close he came to the roof. When Burney turned his back, Shelton C. measured mentally the breadth of his shoulders, and fought with his disbelief at the figures his mind named for him. When Burney sat down before the fire, Shelton stared at the huge boots thrust forward to the heat, half expecting that Burney would presently call out: "Wife, bring me my hen!" If you have never heard the story of Jack the Giant Killer you will not see any sense in that. When Burney filled his pipe Shelton wondered how he managed to avoid crushing the bowl of it in his fingers. Shelton C. Sherman caressed the swollen knuckles of his right hand and stared astonished at the light touch of Burney when he picked a coal from the fire and dropped it neatly into the center of the pipe bowl.
There were two things small about Burney. They were his eyes, which in the firelight looked like little, twinkling, blue sparks, and his voice, which, when he spoke, was high and thin and almost womanish. Only he seldom spoke.
At the bunk house the boys discussed the newcomer and wondered how he felt, shut up alone with Burney. Spooky's curiosity led him as far as the window of the cabin. He peeked in, with Spider looking over his shoulder. The scene within was disappointing in its tranquillity. Shelton C. Sherman was sitting on an upturned nail keg, smoking a pipe and staring meditatively into the fire. Three feet away, Burney sat upon his plank stool with his great made-to-order riding boots thrust away out toward the blaze, also smoking his pipe and staring meditatively into the fire.
Spider craned for a good look at the pilgrim, saw him lift his right hand, after a quiet moment, and run finger tips gingerly over his knuckles; he glanced afterward inquiringly toward Burney, and Spider snickered and nudged Spooky in the ribs.
"Looka that?" he whispered. "Bet he carries that paw in a sling to-morra."
"Unh-hunh—but he stood for it like a little major, and said he was pleased to meet him," Spooky testified, also in a whisper.
"Huh!" murmured Spider, and led the way back to the bunk house.
Breed Jim was there, having just put up his horse after a late ride from over toward Pillar Butte. That in itself was not far enough away from the commonplace to be interesting. But the look on Breed Jim's face as he glanced up at the two caught their attention and drew their speech away from the visitor.
"Say," Jim began, without prelude of any sort, "where was it you seen that there ghost of yourn, Spooky?"
"Ghost uh mine! I ain't paying taxes on no ghost," Spooky denied indignantly. "What you driving at, anyhow? Come in at this time-a night and begin on me about—"
"Oh, I ain't beginning on nobody." Jim pried off the corner of a fresh plug of tobacco and spoke around the lump. "I seen something out on the aidge of the lava bed. Follered me for about a mile. I couldn't ride away from it and I couldn't git within shootin' distance. 'S too dark to make out what the thing was—but it was something. Scared m' horse so I couldn't hold him hardly."
"Whereabouts on the lava bed?" Spider wanted to know. "Up next the hills? That's where I seen something last winter."
"It wasn't there—I was away over on the fur side-a that black coulee. You know the one I mean—the one that heads up into the big butte. I hit the coulee just about dusk—she got dark quick to-night—and I was driftin' along to-ward the Injun trail to come across and on home when I first felt the thing a-follering."
"Yeah—I felt it. Something told me I was bein' follered, and I looked back. First I didn't see nothing. I was comin' along through the rocks and I couldn't a seen a hull army of soldiers. I went on a little piece further and looked back again; and I never seen nothing that time neither. But there was something—I could feel my back crawl cold. More'n that, m' horse got to actin' on-easylike, and lookin' back. It went along like that till I come to the Injun trail—and then I seen something back a piece behind me, jest duckin' behind a big rock."
"Do ghosts ever duck?" Shelton was standing by the half-open door listening fascinatedly. Now that he had spoken, he entered the room, his hat in his hand. "Pardon me for listening. I didn't mean to, but I arrived just at the point where your back crawled cold. That sounded interesting, so I waited for the rest of it. Sherman is my name, fellows. I'm just as green as they make them in stories; possibly a shade greener. But Mr. Burney sent me down here to sleep, so I've just about got to force myself on you and crawl into some corner where I won't be too awfully conspicuous." He grinned down at Jim with that cheerful candor which had disarmed Spooky. "Won't you please go on with your story?" he begged. "I didn't mean to interrupt, honest. But I was so interested I forgot my manners."
"Hunh!" grunted Jim from behind the mask of stolidity which he wore before strangers, and comforted himself with more tobacco. He made no attempt to go on with his story, however.
"This is only the young feller I brung out from town," Spooky explained. "Burney's took him to raise; name of Shep—or something like that. You don't want to mind him, Jim. Go on and tell us."
"What did it look like? A man?" Spider sat down on the end of a bunk and leaned forward interestedly.
Jim shook his head, with a quick glance at Shelton from under his black eyebrows. "I d'no what it was like."
"Didn't yuh see it ag'in?"
"Nh-hn!" Jim rose and went to the door and looked out, mumbled something about his horse, and disappeared.
"Oh, say! I'm afraid I spoiled the whole story," Shelton protested remorsefully. "I didn't mean to do that. What was it all about, anyway? Did he really see something?"
"I dunno," Spooky answered him tonelessly. "You can sleep in that bed over there, Shep. Nobody lays any claim to it. The feller that owned it blowed his brains out right in that there bed last fall."
"Oh, it'll do all right for to-night," Shelton C. assured him amiably. "I'm tired enough to sleep any old place. Don't bother about me—I'll be all right."
"We ain't bothering about you, Shep," smiled Spooky deceitfully. "Not a-tall, we ain't bothering."
He watched covertly while Shelton C., having brought in his suit cases, robed himself in a nightshirt and went to bed. He sent a meaning glance toward Spider because of the nightshirt, which to Spooky seemed absolutely ridiculous. And after that he lifted his eyebrows inquiringly toward Spider when Shelton C. turned back the blankets and with a long sigh of animal comfort stretched himself out in the bed where a man had blowed his brains out. Spooky was suspicious of Shelton C.'s seeming indifference to the gruesome history of that bed. He picked up a deck of cards, shuffled them absently, and made a "spread" for that game of solitaire which he called Mex.
"You don't want to git to dreaming about pore old Mike," he warned Shelton by way of reopening the subject. "The only feller that tried to sleep there after it happened woke us all up screaming and fightin' the air. He was foaming at the mouth something fierce when we got the lamp lit. Took four of us to hold 'm down. I dunno what got aholt of 'im, but next day he blowed his brains out." He glanced at Spider for the grin of approval he felt he had earned.
Shelton C. yawned widely and involuntarily, and turned over on his back. "Say, you fellows out here must have all kinds of brains to waste," he observed sleepily, and yawned again. "This cabin must have a very brainy atmosphere; maybe—I'll—catch some if I sleep—" He trailed off into mumbling. Presently he opened his eyes with a start and looked toward Spooky. "Good night, fellows," he muttered. "Hit me a punch if I—bother you with—sn-snoring." Then he went to sleep in earnest, and breathed long and deep.
Spooky played in silence until the game was hopelessly blocked. He dropped the remainder of the deck upon the table, got up, took the lamp, and went over and held the light close to the sleep-locked eyes of Shelton C. Sherman. He waved the lamp back and forth twice, saw the sleeper move restlessly away from the glare without waking, and stood up and looked at Spider.
"I'm a son of a gun!" he stated flatly. “Whadda yuh know about a kid like that?"
Breed Jim went into the cabin where Burney still bulked before the dying embers, his pipe held loosely in his great fingers, his little blue eyes fixed abstractedly upon the filming coals. Jim went over and leaned an elbow on the rough mantel, and stared down reflectively into the fire, the Indian in him being strong enough to induce a certain deliberateness in beginning what he had come to say.
There was no Indian blood in Burney; yet he sat perhaps five minutes before he stirred. At last he shifted his feet, gave a great sigh as if he were dismissing thoughts that were somber, and looked up.
"Well, what did you find out, Jim?"
"They're back, all right," Jim said, without moving his gaze from the fire. "Been back a month or so. They're runnin' three big bands—mostly eyes. Lambin's on full blast. They ain't worked over this side Pillar Butte jet, but they're workin' this way, all right. Feed ain't so good over there and they got to cover lots of ground. They'll be crowdin' up on us purty soon."
"Talk with any of 'em?"
"Nh-hn! I kept back on the ridges and sized things up. Don't think any of the bunch spotted me. I didn't know what yuh might want to do about 'em, so I left the game plumb open."
Burney got up and stretched his arms out full length from his body—and he had a most amazing reach for any human outside a circus. "They needn't think I'll buy 'em out again," he remarked half to himself.
Jim grinned approvingly. "They made good money off'n you last time," he twitted tactlessly. "You can't blame 'em for bringing in another outfit to unload on yuh. I guess they made more on the deal than what you done."
Burney turned and scowled down at him, and Jim pulled the grin from his lips and backed a step. Sometimes Burney would stand for joshing, Jim remembered, and sometimes he wouldn't; and when he wouldn't silence was a man's best friend.
He waited a minute or so longer, decided that Burney was not going to say any more-—or that if he did, what he said would not be pleasant to hear, and went out without a word of explanation or adieu.
Burney walked twice the length of the cabin, hesitated, and then busied himself in his little storeroom, and came out with a bundle under his arm. He went outside, stood upon the doorstep, and stared hard at the bunk house. When he saw the lighted square of the window wink dark and open its eye no more he moved away toward the stable, and for all his bulk he moved swiftly and quietly. In the corral a big, brown horse nickered and came forward expectantly. Burney reached out a hamlike paw and the horse nuzzled it like a pet dog. He went over to where his saddle, a huge, heavy thing made especially for him, hung by one stirrup from the end of a top rail; and the horse followed at his shoulder. He did not speak once to the animal while he put on the saddle and the bridle, but every touch was the touch of affection.
Presently he rode quietly away through the sagebrush, across the little flat, and up the steep hill to the east. In the starlight he looked like the magnified shadow of a horseman moving slowly up toward the stars. Frequently he stopped to breathe his mount, for the hill was steep, and though the horse was big like his master and heavy-boned and well-muscled, Burney was a load for him. At the top Burney turned and rode forward on the trail which Breed Jim had lately followed, and went forward at a slow, easy trot that slid the miles behind him with the least effort.
At the Sunbeam the men slept heavily in the stuffy darkness of the bunk house. But Burney, their boss, rode and rode through the sage and the lava, and crossed steep gullies, and skirted ledges that no four-footed thing could scale—unless we except the lizards that lived there—and still he went on. The Great Dipper tilted more and more, and the wind rose and blew chill across the uplands. A thin rind of moon rose and slid behind a flock of woolly clouds that reminded Burney disagreeably of sheep; and after a while the wind grew tired and blew long, sighing gusts, and then forgot to blow at all. And still Burney was in the saddle, riding alone with no trail to guide him, and yet not aimlessly.
When daylight was close behind the deeper gloom of the fading stars he rode slowly down the hill and back across the little barren flat and stopped at the corral gate.
In the dark he hunted for an old gunny sack in the grain shed, and when he had found one he unsaddled his horse, and with the sack he rubbed and rubbed until he felt certain that the animal betrayed no sign of having been ridden that night. Then he hung saddle and bridle back upon the rail end, closed the gate, and went up to the cabin and got into bed.
In the bunk house Spider and Jim and Spooky were sleeping still, with an occasional snort or a mumble of half-formed words to show that Spooky was dreaming again. Shelton C. Sherman snored rhythmically on the bed of horrible history. And then the window brightened with the first flush of dawn—and the Sunbeam Ranch faced the beginning of a new era of its little, personal history.
IT took Shelton C. Sherman a week or so to get used to Sunbeam ways, and to Burney, and to the blunt "joshing" of the cow-punchers who called Burney their boss. He learned to accept their sudden disappearances and their unexplained absences and their unexpected arrivals as the routine of a cattle ranch. He learned also to accept Burney as a reality, and gave over the fantastic idea that he was part of some fairy tale projected into the sage country. He learned to answer when some one shouted for "Shep"—for that was the way they twisted his self-confessed nickname of Shelt.
He learned that he must not believe all that they told him, however serious might be their tones and their countenances. He learned to look for an eyelid lowered slyly and to recognize that particular muscular contraction as a warning signal, and to doubt whatever assertion the winker might make thereafter. He learned a good many things, as a matter of fact. And since he was young and of a cheerful temperament and much given to fun, he learned faster than one might suppose. In a week he acquired a doubtful smile and a look of inquiry; in two weeks he had forsworn all faith in his fellows and refused to believe anything he was told; which piece of radicalism was almost as bad in its way as was his too-confiding tendency.
Burney drove the first nail into the coffin of his faith, and he did it the first forenoon of Shelton's sojourn at the Sunbeam. He found Shelton hanging blankets and quilts on the sagging barbed-wire fence that inclosed the grave of some gardener's hopes. He stood and watched Shelton examine a calico-covered pillow, and finally he asked what was wrong with it.
"Why, you see," said Shelton cheerfully, "the fellows seemed to think the bedding hadn't been thoroughly cleaned after that man committed suicide in them, so I thought it might not be healthy to sleep in them without a good airing. They told me it was on this pillow he blew out his brains—"
"They lied to you," Burney said flatly. "Nobody ever died on this ranch yet."
Shelton dropped the pillow, and stared at the giant. "Oh, they lied to me!" he repeated disappointedly. "I don't see why they'd want to do that—do you?" He looked undecidedly at the flapping blankets, and began to pull them off the fence. "I suppose they'd think it a great joke if they saw all this bedding outside," he explained. "I guess I'd better put it back on the bed and wait for the next move. It wouldn't do to say I'd found out, would it?" He stopped, and faced Burney, his candid blue eyes looking up at the big man. "I wonder if they did it to scare me?"
"Chances are," said Burney dispassionately, and went on to the cabin.
After that faith died quickly. Shelton came to that mental attitude of general distrust which demands absolute proof before he would accept anything as fact.
You can see how that would work out in a country where everything was strange and where ignorance must perforce be warned of many things by experience or suffer the penalty.
"What are those hills over there called?" he asked Burney guilefully one day, and pointed toward the east.
"Them?" Burney turned his head slowly toward the high, broken ridge standing stark and barren against the sky. "Them's the Piute Hills over there."
"The fellows call them the Spook Hills," said Shelton in the tone of one who has once again suffered disillusionment.
"They may call 'em that," said Burney, "but that ain't saying it's their name."
"Spooky says he saw a ghost over there."
"Ed's always seein' things."
"I'd like to ride over there, if you don't want me for anything." Shelton was beginning to find little duties around the place, so that he felt that he was not altogether his own master. "Could I take old Dutch and a lunch and do a little exploring to- day?"
"There ain't nothing over there," Burney said, with a shade too much of emphasis. "Better ride over to the river if you want to go somewhere."
"I'd rather go to those hills, if it's all the same to you. I've heard so much about them—"
"You'd git lost," Burney scowled down at him.
"Oh, no, I won't. I've got a compass." And Shelton produced a compass the size of a dollar watch, and dangled it by its buckskin string before Burney. "Ought I to take water along, or are there streams and springs?" He was smiling in anticipation of the explorer's thrills, until he tilted back his head, and looked up into Burney's face; the smile gave place then to plain puzzlement. "Why don't you want me to go?" he asked straightforwardly, like a child. "Don't you want me to use old Dutch? You told me I could ride him whenever I wanted to, so I took it for granted—"
"I don't care how much you ride him." Burney was plainly ill at ease.
"Then why don't you want—"
"Oh, I don't care. Go where you want to. Only—there ain't anything to see." He pulled out his pipe and began to fill it nervously.
"Maybe I'll see Spooky's ghost," laughed Shelton, and stopped short when he looked up at Burney.
"Ed's a fool. They ain't any such thing." Burney spilled tobacco into the wrinkles of his ill-fitting vest.
"Well, I can go, can't I?" Shelton did not attempt to understand this big man. He looked so different from other men that one would not expect him to act like others, he reflected. In the week of their acquaintance he had observed many peculiar traits in Burney. He slept sometimes for hours during the middle of the day for one thing. And he had long fits of silence that were almost sullen, and was sometimes querulous afterward with the men, so that they avoided him quite openly as the simplest means of dodging trouble. Shelton thought that Burney was in one of his unpleasant moods this morning.
"You can do as yuh please, I reckon—" And Burney spoke even that qualified consent grudgingly.
So Shelton took long steps to the stable, having spied Spooky there. He wanted Spooky to help him get the saddle and bridle on Dutch—the proper tying of a latigo being still a baffling mystery to him; also, he could not, for the life of him, tell which was the front of the bridle.
He went grinning up to Spooky, and clapped that individual on the shoulder. "I'm going spook hunting," he announced gleefully. "Want to go along?"
"No, I don't want to go along," Spooky retorted, mimicking Shelton's tone. "Spooks don't travel by daylight, Shep. Better wait till toward night."
"I'm going to stay till night," Shelton told him calmly. "I'll take a lunch along. And I've got a compass, and I can travel by the North Star."
"You'll want to travel by lightning if you hear that thing that I heard," Spooky fleered. "Wait till you git out there in them lava hills and it commences to git darkish! Honest to gollies, Shep, they is something out in them hills! I wasn't lying to yuh about that. They's three of us now that's saw it and heard it. It ain't human, and it ain't no animal. It—say, I'll bet four bits you'll come home scairt plumb simple—if yuh come. You wouldn't git me out there after sundown—not fer this hull outfit."
"Say, that sounds interesting!" Shelton declared, trying to put the chin strap over old Dutch's nose, and wondering what was the matter. "I'll have something to write home to the folks about. Whoa, old boy! Open your mouth like a good sport."
Spooky came up and took the bridle away from Shelton with an air of weary tolerance. "Chances are we'll do the writin' home to your folks, if yuh go prognosticatin' around over in them breaks," he predicted ominously. "Yuh better keep away from there—that's straight goods, Shep," he added seriously. "On the dead, it ain't no place for a man to go prowling around alone unless he has to."
"That's the kind of place little me has been looking for. I'm tired to death of nice safe places that you can pet. I came out here to be real wild and woolly, and Spook Hills keep a calling, and it's there that I would be—hunting ghosts that scare our Spooky soon as it's too dark to see!" He sang the paraphrase, and, like the cheerful young reprobate he was, he went blandly around to the "Injun side" of Dutch and would have climbed into the saddle if Spooky had not grabbed him by the coat and pulled him back.
"Learn to git onto a horse right, why don't yuh?" Spooky protested disgustedly. "Don't go and insult pore old Dutch by mountin' like a squaw."
Spooky watched him go bobbing up the hill and out of sight over the rim, and his eyes were friendly while he made disparaging remarks about the departing one. He liked Shelton C. Sherman with a patronizing, tolerant kind of affection, even though he did lie to him and tease him and bully him.
Shelton went joyously on his way through pungent sage and over hot, barren spaces where was nothing alive except the lizards.. Spooky had been human enough to give Shelton C. some really good advice about riding alone. Part of it was to let Dutch use his own judgment and take his own pace in rough country; for Dutch had grown old in the sagebrush, and he was wise with the wisdom of range cayuses. Therefore, having headed for Spook Hills, he left the rest to Dutch and the god Chance, and rode with his mind at ease.
Barrenness he found, and heat and desolation; and a certain eerie grandeur such as he had never dreamed the land could compass. He did not find anything ghostly about the place, however, and he was disappointed at the prospect of an uneventful day in a wilderness where the stage was set for bold adventure. He was hot, and the canteen he carried dried on the outside and let the water turn sickeningly warm. He did not feel like eating the coarse sandwiches of sour-dough bread and cold bacon, and there did not seem to be any place where he could make Dutch comfortable while he rested in the shade of a black ledge.
He shot a jack rabbit at forty paces with his nice, new thirty-eight revolver, and was astonished to find himself spread- eagling into a sandy space between two thick clumps of sage. It had never occurred to Shelton that Dutch might object to the sudden report of a gun discharged behind his ears—the rabbit had been running before them when Shelton fired.
Shelton got up and dug sand out of his collar, and picked up his hat and laughed at the joke of it. After that he led Dutch to where the rabbit lay kicking in the hot sand. It cried like a frightened baby when he drew near, and Shelton almost cried himself with the pity of it. A shoulder was broken, and the heart of it thumped so hard that its whole body vibrated with the beating; and when Shelton picked it up and stroked it as one strokes the back of a kitten, its eyes fairly popped with fear. He spent ten minutes in bandaging the shoulder with his necktie, and while he worked he talked soothingly to the terrified little animal. He did not want to leave it there in the desert to die, and he could not bear to kill it. He held it in the crook of one arm while he mounted awkwardly and rode on, wondering if he could find a cool, shady little nook where it could stay until its shoulder healed.
After a long while he thought he heard some one shooting, and he turned that way. Not the vicious crack of a large-calibered gun, but the pop of a twenty-two, he thought it was.
Presently he came out from a huddle of great, black bowlders and heard the rifle crack just beyond the next rock huddle. He rode that way, and he came upon a girl sitting at ease upon a flat rock that was shaded by the ledge at her back, staring across a narrow gulch that was a mere rocky gash in the hill. While he stared also she lifted her small rifle, aimed carefully with her elbow resting upon a convenient protuberance in the ledge, and fired. She lowered the rifle, and peered sharply, aimed and fired again. Shelton looked, but he couldn't, for the life of him see what she could be shooting at.
Dutch snorted and backed, and the girl glanced that way and saw Shelton staring curiously, the wounded rabbit held close under one arm.
"Hello!" she said, and turned her attention again to the gulch.
Shelton got out of the saddle without spilling the rabbit, dropped the reins to the ground as Spooky had told him he must do, and came forward with his best making-friends manner. Secretly he was a bit disappointed in the girl because she was not beautiful. You see, he had read a lot of Western stories, and he had become infected with the idea that all range-bred girls are lovely—real, love-story heroines waiting to be discovered.
This one was not true to type—granting that the story girls are typical. Her hair was a sunburned brown, and there was nothing lustrous or sheeny about it—the desert winds saw to that. It seemed abundant enough, and all native to her own head. She had it braided and hanging down her back with the end of the braid merging into two wind-roughened curls. There was no ribbon bow at all, by the way, but a twist or two of what looked suspiciously like common grocery twine. She wore an old felt hat that looked as though it had seen hard usage, and a faded calico shirt waist and skirt of brown denim. Her face was sunburned with a tendency toward peeling, and her hands were brown and rough. For the rest, her eyes were a clear blue-gray that changed color with her moods and the light. Her mouth could not be spoiled by a harsh climate and primitive living, so that it was nice also; red and well shaped, and flexible, and curving easily into a smile.
"How-de-do? What you shooting at?" Shelton began ingratiatingly, smiling down at her while the hot breeze fanned the moist hair off his forehead.
"Rattlesnakes. Put on your hat; you want to get sunstruck?" The girl glanced briefly at him again, then aimed and fired across the gulch.
"Oh, say! Are you really shooting rattlesnakes? My name is Sherman. I'm staying at the Sunbeam Ranch. You don't mind if I stop a few minutes, do you? It's horribly lonesome in these hills."
"Don't I know that?" The girl moved aside to make room for him in the shade, and Shelton accepted the mute invitation and sat down beside her. "I guess I know more about lonesomeness than you do, Mr. Sherman. I'm tickled to death to see somebody that don't smell of sheep."
Shelton turned and looked at her as long as he dared. "That's awfully good of you," he murmured in his week-end tone.
"No, it ain't. It's just human of me. I live right in the middle of 'em. I hear sheep, and smell sheep, and see sheep twenty-four hours a day, except when I saddle up and get out like this for a while—and then the emptiness is just as bad." Her mouth drooped a little. "I go back to the wagon at night tickled to hear the sheep blatting and the dogs yelping—just because they're something alive."
"I didn't know there was a sheep ranch so close," Shelton said, by way of keeping the conversation running along smoothly. "Though I've heard the fellows at the Sunbeam talking about some sheep."
"There isn't any ranch," the girl told him drearily. "I could stand that because I'd have a cabin of some kind to take care of. I live in a sheep wagon with poppy and Uncle Jake. I do the cooking, and that's all there is to do. You can't," she observed dispiritedly, "do much housekeeping in a sheep wagon."
Shelton had learned in the past week to conceal his ignorance, if possible. So now he merely shook his head and said it did seem rather discouraging to try—though he had not the faintest idea of what a sheep wagon looked like.
"There's another snake!" she announced suddenly, and lifted her little rifle. "There must be a regular den over there. I've seen six already—I got four, I think." She fired, and a tiny plop of rock dust told where the bullet had struck. "Missed," she said uninterestedly.
"Where is he? I'll have a whack at him myself." Shelton laid down the rabbit, which was too paralyzed with fear to move. "I haven't practiced any since I came to the ranch," he explained apologetically. "I've always heard what fine shots the cowboys are, and I didn't want them laughing at me. But—"
"But my sample of shooting encourages you to go ahead," finished the girl laconically. "Cowboys don't shoot any better than anybody else," she went on, in the tone of an iconoclast. "It's just the name of it they've got. Why don't you shoot? Can't you see the snake on that ledge just under where I hit? Looks like a crooked stick—there! Now when he quits crawling you shoot at his head." She gave a dry little laugh. "You needn't be afraid to shoot before anybody if you can take his head off from here with that gun."
"Oh, say!" Shelton waited long enough to hug himself farcically. "This is going to be real wild-West sport! Gee! Shooting rattlesnakes in their dens—"
"Well, shoot first and talk about it afterward," advised the girl bluntly. "He'll crawl out of sight in a minute."
Shelton obediently raised his revolver high, brought it down in line, and fired—while the girl watched him curiously now that his attention was diverted from herself. Thus she did not see whether he hit the snake or not, and was startled at the whoop he gave.
"Say, I'm the lucky child! Did you see him wriggle? Stirred up the whole family, too! Gee, look at 'em!"
Now, this is not going to be a snake story. I shall not say how many rattlers those two killed in that gulch, while they sat there in the shade and talked and watched and fired when a snake showed itself. The point is that they became very well acquainted before the girl got stiffly to her feet and said she must go, or poppy would wonder where his supper was coming from.
Shelton, having learned that one pinched the rattles off the snakes one killed and kept them for souvenirs—and for proof of the killing—insisted upon climbing down into the gulch and collecting all he could find. The girl—who finally confessed to the name of Vida, and explained that her mother had gotten it out of the dictionary because it was odd and the feminine of David, and because her mother's father was named David and ought to have a grandchild named after him, anyway—Vida protested and pointed out the danger in vain. Shelton must have rattlers to send to "the folks" at home, to prove the snake story he meant to write. As to the danger—ignorance is frequently mistaken for courage, and he went in spite of her arguments; in spite of her commands, even. And by all the laws of nature he thereby took a long step toward winning her regard. He came back with his nose turned up at the unpleasantness, and with a handful of rattles—no, I shall not say how many—which he insisted upon dividing with her.
He also gave her the wounded rabbit to keep, though she assured him pessimistically that the dogs would kill it first chance they got, and that if they didn't, it would die of the broken shoulder. Womanlike, she was inconsistent enough to carry it home with her in spite of her pessimism, just because he gave it to her, perhaps.
Shelton tried to induce her to promise that she would come again to hunt rattlesnakes on some certain day, and failed. And when they had parted and he was riding home in the early dusk, it occurred to him that he had forgotten all about the spook. It would have been a good story to tell Vida—only they had plenty to talk about without that. He remembered then that she had once spoken of the place as Piute Hills, so she couldn't have heard the spook story. He would tell her next time, sure. He knew she was not the kind of person who believes in ghosts, so it would not scare her. Then he sighed. She seemed to be an awfully nice girl, but it did seem a shame that she was not pretty. Her plainness was the one jarring note in the day's pleasure, and robbed him of the joy of romantic musings as he rode homeward.
SPOOKY had been to town, and had returned with the mail, a fresh supply of tobacco, and a quart bottle of a liquid he called pain killer. It had been full when he started for the ranch; and when he arrived it had been a good three- quarters full. This condition the other boys speedily changed so that the bottle was presently thrown into the discard, empty and therefore useless.
So it transpired that by dark the Sunbeam boys were jollier than usual, and quicker to see a joke—when the joke was on the other fellow. When Spooky remembered the mail and took a bundle of letters from his pocket, the number of those addressed to Shelton C. Sherman caught his attention. Spooky had never before seen the full name written down on paper, and he studied it curiously.
"Shelton She Sherman," he said aloud, and stood the letter up on a shelf. "Shelton, She, Sherman C! C, gal ding it! Shelton She—C. Sherman. Say, that's a peach of a name for a man to pack around for folks to stub their tongue on." He fingered another letter, and stood it beside the first. "Shelton She Sherman," he read again.
"You're boozed up, Spooky," Spider accused, coming up behind and resting an arm heavily on Spooky's shoulder. "I'll gamble you had two bottles when you left town—you swine. Why, anybody can read that right off. Anybody that ain't drunk," he amended.
"You try it," Spooky challenged. "Bet you four bits that you can't say it straight." He stood a third letter up, and after that a fourth. "Now read 'em all—just the names—one after another, and see who's drunk!" he urged. "Bet you four bits you can't do it."
"Shelton—C—Sherman. Shelton She—C—Sherman. Shelton She Sher— Oh, thunder!" surrendered Spider, laughing ruefully. "Come on, Jim. You try it."
So Jim, showing two-thirds of his teeth in a grin, came up and stood beside them, studied the letters for a moment, and fell over the very first C.
"Bet a dollar Shep can't say it himself," he said, and took a big chew of tobacco. "Nobody could—sober. If Spooky hadn't went and swallered that whole bottle, I could do it."
"What-all yuh talkin' about?" A little old man with bent shoulders and a long, graying mustache came trotting up from a far corner, where he had been reading the last Boise paper by a smoky lamp. "When it comes to readin', they ain't a one of yuh that amounts to anything. Yuh can't hardly read a look-out-fer- the-cars sign on a railroad crossin'!" He gummed a wad of tobacco and slid his spectacles farther down toward the end of his high, pointed nose. "What is it yuh want read out to yuh?"
"Read the names on them four letters, Pike—and read 'em fast," invited Spider, with a wicked little twinkle in his eyes. "We're trying to see who can read the fastest."
"Why, can't yuh read plain hand-writin', none of yuh? Shelton She Sher—"
Spider gave a howl and swung Pike back into his corner. "Shelton She Sherman shells sea shells by the sheshore," he stated gravely. "I'll bet a dollar there ain't a man in camp can say that straight."
They all tried it. They were in the middle of hilarious attempts when Shelton walked in among them smiling his disarming smile of guileless good nature.
"Hello, Shelton She Sherman, who shall shell she sells on the sheshore," Spider greeted him joyously. "Come right in, my boy. You're wanted."
"That's good. I'd hate awfully to think I wasn't wanted,'" Shelton retorted. "Supper over, fellows? I'm hungry as a she- bear."
"Shelton She Sherman, the she-bear shays she shall not shell sea sells—" yelled Spooky, rolling over on a bed and kicking his heels into the air and laughing so he could not go on.
"Say, what's the matter with you fellows, anyway?" Shelton demanded. "Can't you take something for it? Say, Spooky, get any mail for your little friend?"
"Make Shep say it, or don't give him his letters," suggested Jim, spitting tobacco juice into the wood box so that he could grin.
Spider went over and stood guard before the shelf. His face was sober except for the lurking little devil of fun in his eyes. "Here's four letters from mamma and Susie and Sister Ann and the little fairy that works in the candy store on the corner," he informed Shelton. "If you can say Shelton She Sherman sells sea shells on the sheshore—say it right, I mean—you can have 'em."
"No, he can't!" interjected Spooky, rising up, recovered from his fit. "He can't have but one for every time he says it—"
"He can't have but one try for every letter," put in Jim, coming up.
Shelton took a minute to grasp just what was expected of him. He made Jim repeat the sentence, and he said it over under his breath for practice while Jim muddled the words.
He peered at the envelopes over Spider's shoulder, and his heart swelled with desire.
"Shelton C. Sherman sells sea shells on the sheshore," he recited confidently and reached out his hand for the first letter.
"Sheshore—yuh can't have it. You done lost that one," declared his tormentor. "Try the second one, Shep."
"Oh, say, fellows! That one's from the only mother I've got," pleaded Shelton; but the three were obdurate. The second one he lost, and the third. The fourth, which he suspected of being a bill from his dentist, he refused to try for, and went off to get something to eat in the cabin, more than half angry; because that was his first mail from home, and he had been fighting homesickness ever since he landed. Shelton C. Sherman loved a joke, but he considered this performance just plain meanness.
However, he practiced faithfully upon the sentence while he ate cold boiled beef, sour-dough bread, and a dish of fried corn, and emptied the teapot of reddish, tannin-charged tea. Burney sat smoking before the fire and said nothing at all. So, fed and feeling more equal to the situation, he hurried back to the bunk house.
"Shelton C. Sherman sells sea shells by the seashore," he recited triumphantly the moment he was inside the door, and grabbed the letter he knew was from his mother. "Aw, I guess you fellows are not so smart," he taunted. "Shelton C. Sherman sells sea shells by the seashore and takes number two—and that's from my best girl, fellers. Shelton C. Sherman continues to sell sea shells by the seashore, and gathers in this tender missive from his big sister. And Shelton C. Sherman doesn't care a hang whether he shall sell sea shells by the seashore at your shervish, because that other letter looks strangely like a gentle reminder of a very painful hour in the torture chamber of one Painless Parks who purports to pull cuspids, bicuspids, or molars without pain to himself or money refunded. Thanks awfully, my dear friends. Anything else before I seat myself to peruse these loving messages from home?"
"No fair greasing your tongue, Shep," Spooky complained. "You ought to be spanked for staying out so late, anyway. Where you been?"
"Hunting spooks. And shooting rattlesnakes and talking to a pretty girl. Don't bother me, fellers."
Spider fidgeted while Shelton seated himself in a chair by the lamp, tilted the chair back comfortably against the wall, and projected himself mentally into the midst of his friends back home. Spider was in the mood to tease some one, and Shelton seemed the logical victim.
"Shooting rattlesnakes, you say?" he inquired banteringly, by way of starting something. He got a grunt of assent from Shelton, and no further notice.
"I used to shoot snakes some myself," Spider observed reminiscently. "It's easy. You see a snake—like it was over there—and you pull your old gat and cut down on him—like this—and bing!" He drew his gun, and, by way of illustration, fired between the feet of Shelton C. Sherman and splintered the chair-round.
"Oh, say! You disturb me!" Shelton reproved mildly, without looking up from the letter.
"And when you see another one—bing!" This time he made a miscalculation and flicked the heel of Shelton's boot.
"Say! Look where you're shooting, why don't you? How do you expect a fellow to read—"
"By jinks, there's another one!" Spider shot again, this time being careful to aim at the floor under Shelton's chair.
"And there's one, right by your ear!" Shelton, roused to action, whipped out his own revolver and sent a bullet humming past Spider's head. "Look out, there's one right behind you!"
Spider's eyes widened perceptibly, and he ducked quite frankly out of range. "Aw, I was only joshing, Shep!" he cried reproachfully. "You don't want to take things too serious. I never meant anything."
"Neither did I," retorted Shelton. "What are you going to do now? Go on playing snakes?"
"Nah." To prove it, Spider broke his gun, emptied the remaining cartridges in his palm, and threw the revolver on his bed. "What are you fellers grinning your heads off about?" he demanded fretfully of Spooky and Jim. "How'd I know the kid could hit where he aimed at? Stands a feller in hand to duck, and duck quick, when a strange hand points a gun at yuh. No telling—"
"I didn't duck, did I?" Shelton cut in shrewdly. "And I didn't know how straight you could shoot, either. I took a chance, same as a fellow has to take if he wants to have any pleasure in life. Same as the girl said I took when I went down into the snakes' den to get the rattles off the dead ones."
"Yes, you did—not!" Spider might be momentarily taken aback, but he was not the one to subside permanently.
"Yes, I did, too!" And Shelton produced several rattles with the pinched-off place still showing fresh. "And that's only half. I divvied with the girl, just to show what a nice, generous boy I can be. Besides, she shot a lot of 'em herself."
"What gyurl was that?" Pike, roused again from his reading by the disturbance, peered at Shelton over his spectacles.
"Oh, a girl named Vida. She lives in a sheep wagon over somewhere near Spook Hills. I don't remember her last name; she keeps house for poppy and Uncle Jake—say, fellows, she's an awfully nice little girl—"
Pike laid down his paper, took the spectacles from his nose, folded down the bows, and produced a long, metal case while he gummed his wad of tobacco thoughtfully. "Which side of Spook Hills is her folks rangin' sheep on?" he asked, quite as if he was a prosecuting attorney examining a witness for the defense. Pike had that portentous manner when he approached anything pertaining to the welfare of the Sunbeam.
"Why, I don't know—somewhere around close, I should judge, because it was after five when she said she must go and get supper for poppy." Shelton looked hungrily at his letters, but he was too polite to say that he would like very much to be left in peace while he read them.
Pike was making ready for another truth-compelling question when Burney opened the door and came stooping in, his little eyes fairly boring through the haze of powder smoke that still hung heavy in the low-ceilinged room.
Spider, Spooky, and Jim looked at one another with a trace of uneasiness. The other two met Burney's sharp glances unmoved—Pike because he could only think of one thing at a time, and his mind happened to be occupied now with other matters, and Shelton because the emotion called fear had yet to be born into his mental life. During the complete silence that fell upon the group, Shelton tore open another letter and unfolded the pages, which crackled sharply.
"What's this shootin' about?" Burney's voice might be high and thin and wholly lacking in the timbre one would expect from a man of his size, but the sentence cut deep, like the whip of tyranny.
"Oh—nothin'; I was just—foolin' with my gun, just—to see how she worked." Spider fumbled with his book of cigarette papers, and found it difficult to single out a leaf.
Pike, still ruminating upon the one idea that filled his mind for the time being, unconsciously relieved the pending unpleasantness.
"Say, Burney, them Williams sheep must be a-crowdin' up on our range," he piped suddenly. "The boy hyar says he seen a gyurl, that b'longs to a sheep outfit, foolin' around Spook Hills. I know ole Sam Williams has got a gyurl, but I didn't know she ever come out 'n' camped with 'im. Still, she's liable to 'a' done it—if the boy here's tellin' the truth about it."
"She's done it irrespective of my telling the truth," Shelton amended, and went on with his letter.
Burney stood a little stooped forward, because of his hat scraping the log-and-dirt roof, and stared hard at Pike and at Shelton and at the three others, who avoided meeting his sharp little eyes. He reached out a great paw and fumbled for the door latch.
"You want to cut out this shooting around here," he said to Spider, in the tone of the master speaking to his man. "Guns ain't made to play with." He pulled open the door and stood hesitating on the threshold. "Come out here, kid; I want to see yuh," he commanded, and went outside.
Shelton sighed and folded up his letter. The one thing he missed most at the Sunbeam, it seemed to him then, was neither companionship nor the creature comforts of life, but privacy. Waking or sleeping, he was never quite sure of being left undisturbed for five minutes together—and that in a land where isolation is the keynote of life. He went out wondering what Burney could possibly want him to do at this time of night, or what he could want to see him about that could not be spoken of before the others. So far as he had observed the Sunbeam inhabitants, not one of the lot—unless it should be Burney himself—ever had a thought he would not share; nor anything else, for that matter, except his saddle horse and riding gear.
Burney was waiting for him outside, and, without a word, he led the way over to the cabin where he lived and where the men all ate together. He went inside, stooping to pass through the doorway, and Shelton followed him. He hoped that whatever business it was that Burney had with him, it would not take many minutes.
The business puzzled Shelton to the extent that he almost forgot his bunch of unread letters. For Burney asked him question after question in his high, shrill voice about his trip, leaning over the smoldering coals in the rough fireplace, his great hands clasped loosely together, his forearms resting upon his huge knees. Where had Shelton gone? How long did he sit there talking to the girl? Just what part of the Piute Hills—Burney never called them by the other name—was it that he visited? Which way did the girl go when she left him? Did he come back the same way he went? Did he see—anybody? These questions and more did Burney ask, and never once looked toward the boy.
To the last question Shelton gave a queer answer. "I tried to see somebody," he said, and laughed a little. "Once I thought I heard some one coming behind me, and I thought Dutch heard something, too. But I didn't see anything."
Burney rolled his little eyes toward him for a quick glance. "You want to keep away from Piute Hills," he said peevishly. "They's—snakes and things. A man's liable to get bit."
Surprised, Shelton looked at him. It was a poor reason to give a man, he thought. "There aren't as many as there was," he returned amusedly. "The girl and I together killed about sixteen. Here are the rattles of half of them."
Burney never glanced toward Shelton's outstretched palm. "It ain't no place for you, over there," he reiterated vaguely. "You better keep away from them hills."
"Well—" Shelton was going to argue the point, to get some better reason from Burney than the one he had given. But Burney turned his back and bent farther over the coals, and gave Shelton to understand by his very posture that the subject was closed. So Shelton went back to the bunk house and read his letters in what one might call peace, since the rambunctious ones were wrangling amicably over a game of solo, and Pike had gone to bed.
OF course, since Shelton had been warned to stay away from Spook Hills, he was crazy to go again as soon as possible. Burney might have known that, if he had stopped to consider the matter at all; for he must surely have known a little bit about human nature. There was another reason—the girl. That also might go without saying. It is true she was not pretty; and back home, or anywhere else where there were other girls to choose from, I don't suppose Shelton would have troubled to speak two sentences to her under any circumstances. But she was a girl, and she was the only one in that part of the country. And Shelton really had nothing much to do at the ranch, and had not learned to ride well enough to be trusted out on the range with the men. Burney was particular about not letting him even attempt to ride any horse save Dutch, who was at least eighteen years old and considered absolutely safe.
Well, Shelton went back to the hills, and while he was yet afar off he saw the girl riding slowly down along a brush-fringed gully. He turned and urged old Dutch into a stiff-legged lope that still did not stumble, however rough the ground—and Shelton in his ignorance had no sense at all about galloping a horse over dangerous places. So he came bouncing along through the rocks and sage and buckbrush, showing daylight between himself and the saddle at every jump, and clinging to the horn with one hand, and looking atrociously pleased and satisfied with himself, and plainly expectant of a glowing welcome.
Shakespeare asserted boldly that welcome ever smiles. He was wrong; this welcome did not smile appreciably. Neither did the girl turn her horse one inch from the way she was going, that she might meet him the sooner. Shelton's grin drew itself in at the corners when he was close enough to see the dead composure of her face. She certainly did seem less impressed at his eager approach than a plain girl ought to seem.
"Hello, Shep," she said uninterestedly, when he was almost alongside. "Why this mad haste? The scenery ain't going to run anywhere and hide; and the snakes ain't, either. And," she added, as an afterthought, "I ain't."
Shelton made wrinkles between his eyebrows. He hated to hear a girl say ain't—unless she was so pretty a fellow could forgive anything. And Vida was even plainer than he had remembered her as being.
"Are you wishing the scenery would run away and hide?" he asked, unconsciously adopting the tone he had always employed toward a pretty girl.
"I don't care what it does. I wish I could hide." Her face settled again into a sullen discontent with life, such as comes sometimes to the lonely.
"Well, the hiding looks good around here," Shelton suggested amiably. "By the way, how is our rabbit?"
"It died," she said indifferently. "I told you it would. I packed it all the way home and got all over fleas from the dirty thing, and it went and died before supper was ready. I gave it to the dogs."
Again Shelton wrinkled his eyebrows and wished that she were different. She had no fine sentiments whatever, judging from her attitude toward the rabbit—after he had bandaged it and carried it in his arms and had given it to her as a special favor! Any other girl would have—
"That great, overgrown Goliath of yours is going to play hob, ain't he?" she demanded abruptly, looking at Shelton resentfully. He felt that here was the key to her ill humor and braced himself mentally to meet her latent antagonism. "He's a peach! The great big bully!"
"Why? How has he managed to win your disfavor? He's stayed right at the ranch all the time—"
"Yes, he has—not! He came over to our camp yesterday and told poppy we were on his range and he'd thank us to get off it pretty darned sudden. Just as if he owns the whole of Idaho! I was in the wagon washing dishes, and I heard him. He couldn't wait—he got there before poppy had left to go carry some grub to the other camps. We'd just had our breakfast. And he acted like he owned us body and soul. I stuck my head out of the wagon and asked him where he got his license to come bossing us around, and why didn't he let his own business keep him busy, and he wilted right down! But he talked awful to poppy—Uncle Jake was out with the sheep, and didn't hear him, or there would have been something doing right then and there.
"Why, he told poppy to move right away from Piute Hills and keep away! And there's better water and better grass, what there is of it, in these hills than anywhere around. He wanted us to go back toward Pillar Butte with our sheep—but he'll find out he ain't running the Williams outfit yet."
Shelton began to look uneasy, as if he were being held responsible in some way for the arrogance of Burney. He hastened to declare his absolute neutrality, and he ended by apologizing for Burney. "You know, he doesn't seem to me to be unjust or dishonorable, or anything of that sort," he went on. "I think there must be some mistake. Perhaps he felt that you were encroaching—"
"He felt that he wanted to hog the range," Vida interrupted hotly. "But he ain't going to make that work, not with us. We've got just as much right here as he has, and we ain't afraid of him just because he's big as all outdoors. Goliath, that's what I call him—and coming around trying to fight with the jawbone of an ass, too! He's a coward. I ain't afraid of him—I'd stand up to forty more just as big as he is."
Shelton laughed. "Vida is the feminine of David, didn't you say? David and Goliath—oh, say, that's rich! I must write that home to the folks. A girl-David at that. Where's your slingshot?"
"You shut up! I ain't in the mood to joke about him. You can stand back' and see how funny it is, and write to your folks about us savages fighting among ourselves out here over a pile of barren hills and a few spears of grass and some old water holes. I guess it'll sound funny to them. But it ain't funny to us, Mr. Prettyboy. It means shoes and flour and bacon to us, if you want to know.
"Do you s'pose I don't like pretty clothes and things?" Her eyes blazed at him from under her old felt hat that her father had cast aside. "Do you think I like to live like a squaw, and tie my hair up with a grocery string, and wear—" She gave an unexpected little sob, wholly feminine and disarming. "I'm living this way so poppy can get ahead of the game enough to afford something better. I hate it! I hate the sight of sheep and I hate old clothes and living away out here away from everything a girl likes. But sheep's the only thing poppy sees good money in; and this is about the only place that ain't overstocked already. And that great, big, whiny-voiced booby can just leave us alone! We ain't hurting him any.
"Poppy sold out to him two years ago, just to keep from having trouble with him, and tried to go into something else. And he lost about half his money and just had to get back into sheep, because they're the only thing he's sure of making good at. And he ain't going to sell out again to please anybody. And he's going to run his sheep in these hills just as long as he wants to, and you Sunbeamers have just got to stand for it. If you don't like it, why, you can lump it. That's all."
"I do like it," Shelton declared placatingly. "You mustn't say we're all against you and wanting you to leave here, because that isn't true. I'm not against you, and I want you to stay around here just as long as I stay." He felt rather proud of that statement, and he was disappointed because Vida was not immediately cheered by it.
"You're mighty small potatoes when it comes to this range business," she reminded him. "Sounds nice, but when you come right down to cases, what you think and want stacks up about as high as a hole in the ground. When I say you have got to stand for our running sheep here, I mean the outfit you're stopping with; you Sunbeamers. And we're going to stay. We've got to, or get out of the sheep business—and poppy ain't going to do that till he gets outa debt. There's going to be good money in sheep this year. The lamb crop was fine."
So she talked, and Shelton presently became bored with the subject. To him it looked like a big enough country for all the people there were in it, and more. Big enough for all the sheep and all the cattle, too.
Far as he could see, the country lay wide open, with never a fence nor a house anywhere. To be sure, most of it was barren country. But certain slopes showed green in the sheltered places where the sage was not too thick. And certain threadlike gulches were also green with woods. And farther up in Spook Hills he could see that there was timber worthy of the name. And there was so much of it! For one lone cattleman and two lone sheep owners to quarrel over this big feeding ground looked foolish.
That day they did not hunt snakes. They rode to the brink of a deep, fearsome-looking cañon, and Vida stopped and stared long all up and down it, looking for caves, she said. She did not seem to care enough about them, however, to go down and explore the rocky walls. She was held fast in the net of circumstances and environment that day, and her mind ran upon the everyday sordidness of her life. She had sent to Pocatello by one of their herders for a pair of shoes, and they didn't fit. She wondered how she was going to manage and exchange—there being no prospect of her getting to town herself for goodness knows when. Meantime, she had to wear her best shoes for every day, which evidently worried her thrifty little soul.
Shelton tried to talk of his home and the things he had seen and done, but Vida kept harking back to the petty details of her own life. The other day she had listened hungrily to his patterings; Shelton could not understand why she should seem so different, so utterly commonplace, to-day. Shelton, you see, had never confronted any of the big problems of life—particularly the big economic problem.
They turned up the cañon, skirting it to the very foot of one of the steeper hills. Shelton was beginning to think of starting home from very boredom—only the Sunbeam Ranch, with its sunbaked area of sand and its little, squalid cabins and no human being on the place, unless Burney were home, spelled a boredom more complete than this.
"This hill's full of caves," Vida informed him apathetically, pointing a grimy hand to a rugged slope. "I used to be around here seven or eight years ago—before Goliath had anything to do with the Sunbeam, or poppy went into sheep. Poppy used to be a prospector, and he prospected all through these hills. It was a claim he sold that put him in the sheep business in the first place. One summer I come with him—the summer after mother died. I could show you all kinds of caves and places, around here."
"Why don't you?" Shelton smiled to make the question more especially adapted to a girl. "Maybe we could land that spook the boys claim is in these hills. Come on—-let's do some exploring!"
"I don't feel like it; and we'd need candles, anyway. Some day we can bring some, and I'll take you through the biggest ones—if I can find them again. I've got to go pretty quick; I'm baking bread to-day."
"Oh, stay and help me hunt spooks!" pleaded Shelton, suddenly realizing that he hated to have her ride off and leave him. "Honest, there's a ghost. Spooky saw it, and Spider, and so did Jim. It follows folks at dusk—but maybe we could rout it out in daytime if we try real hard—and if you turn back and try to run it down, it gives a horrible screech and disappears into the bowels of the earth. Come on. Let's you and me go spook- hunting!" In his eagerness to persuade her, his tone might almost have been called loverlike.
Vida settled her disreputable old hat more firmly on her head because of the wind that had risen, and looked at him unmoved. "What makes you act so silly?" she inquired. "You smiled at me then just the way one of our herders does when he gets about half shot. He always comes around and tries to propose, when he gets about so full, and poppy has to chase him off. The last time, I set old Whimper on him." She turned away to study the bold wall of rocks opposite. "There's lions in these hills—panthers, maybe you'd call 'em—and now and then a black bear; and all kinds of lynx and bobcats and coyotes and things. But there ain't any spooks—I guess it wouldn't take more'n a bobcat to put you Sunbeamers on the run, though! I s'pose maybe they seen a coyote and thought it was a spook."
"After that," sighed Shelton, with exaggerated reproach. "I shall have to leave thee. Farewell, heartless one, until we meet under more auspicious skies."
"There ain't anything the matter with this sky," said Vida. "I wish to goodness you would go, if you've got to be silly. I don't see what's got into you. You was sensible enough the other time." The worst of it was, she meant just what she said; you could not look into her eyes and doubt that.
Shelton considered himself offended, and he turned away and rode back down the cañon wall, with no more adieu than the perfunctory lifting of his hat.
"I'll be up here somewhere day after to-morrow," she called after him when he had ridden fifty yards or so.
"I won't," he retorted, and rode on. After a while he began to wonder if she had heard him. At first he wished that he had spoken louder; later on he was sorry that he spoke so loud.
He found a place where the cañon looked crossable, and rode down into it. Then, the opposite side that had looked almost as if it had a crude trail zigzagging up to the top, showed him a ledge at the bottom that even he knew better than ask Dutch to climb. The way down the cañon was blocked by what must have been a waterfall in the wet times, but was now a sheer jump- off ten feet high. He did not ask Dutch to go down that, either; Shelton was learning a few of the limitations of horses. Perforce, then, he went up the cañon toward the hills—though he disliked that route because Vida might see him from the top and think he was hanging around in her vicinity.
The cañon widened until there was a grassy bottom, with a little creek that kept the place green. Then it narrowed abruptly, with black ledges leaning forward, as if they wanted to see how far they could tilt without losing their balance. It got so gloomy dark down there at last that Shelton looked at his watch to see if it were nearly night. He was not riding now, but plodding along afoot with Dutch following patiently after; and the way in which Dutch negotiated the scattered rocks and deep little washouts proved him the best of his kind.
The cañon walls drew in to hold close a huge thicket of chokecherries, service-berry bushes, and buckbrush, mingled in one glorious tangle. Shelton tried to go through it—he was the kind of persistent idiot that would try anything—and after a few attempts gave it up and started around. The ground was soft and black and rich looking where he skirted the thicket, and somewhere near he heard water gurgling like a newly awakened baby talking to its fists. The sound reminded him that he was thirsty.
He left Dutch standing with dropped reins and went forward, parting the branches before him with both-hands to make easy passing. In a minute he came to a tiny stream, evidently fed by a hidden spring, bordered with mint and dainty little grass flowers and shaded deep with the thicket. He felt the thrill of discovery. He was sure that Vida did not know of this cold little brook, else she would surely have spoken of it. She had looked into the cañon and had not mentioned that there was water down there. Probably no white man had ever drunk from it before, he thought exultingly as he knelt down on the vivid green margin so sharply contrasting with the black barrenness all around.
He leaned far over to drink, and then drew back, staring at something in the soft, black soil at the very edge. A huge imprint in the ooze; a track so fresh that even Shelton, new to the ways of the wild though he was, could not fail to see that it was but minutes old—perhaps seconds, even. He sat back on his heels and looked at it, puzzling over the manner of beast that could have made it. Almost human it was, and huge—big as the great tracks Burney made when he walked abroad—and yet not human.
Little, trampled blades of grass were rising slowly along the edges to show how lately the thing had passed that way. Like the print of a great, bare foot it was, except that the toes were not the toeprints of a man; nor was the track shaped just like a man's foot. Shelton studied it curiously. Even while he stared at it the water pushed the mud back, smoothing out little details and making the whole a big, long, formless depression in the ooze. Looking at it so, Shelton would have called it a man's track and let it go at that. But it was not a man's track; he was sure of that.
"Must have been a bear," he told himself at last, and bent over again and got his drink. "She said there were bears in the hills—but say, he must be a whopper, to make a track the size of that! Too bad the beggar got off without me seeing it."
He got out his gun and examined it. Pretty small caliber to go hunting the bear that made that track—but Shelton did want to kill a bear, now that he knew there was one about. It would be something to write home to the folks; and a bearskin rug that he had killed himself—say! That would be simply great!
Foolhardily he searched beyond the brook, though the tangle was thick and exceedingly favorable to an ambush. He was not scared—he did not know enough of the danger to be scared; he was anxious and elated and filled with the eager expectancy of the novice. He beat about in the bushes and then came crashing out into the open near the northern wall of the cañon; and he stood baffled and disappointed before the emptiness.
Surely the creature could not have climbed that sheer wall—and yet Shelton had a hazy notion that bears did climb trees and things. He was staring up at it and wondering what possible route the beast could have taken—since it did not seem to be anywhere in the cañon—when he noticed the gorgeous purple and crimson of the sky. Sunset so soon? It is astonishing how the hours slide past when one is wholly given up to that primitive emotion, the lust of the chase.
He must start back to the ranch, though he hated the idea of leaving that bear alive. Still he could not hunt a bear in the dark, and he could get lost very easily, and worry the life out of the fellows at the Sunbeam. He went back to where Dutch was waiting impatiently with twitching ears and uneasy tramplings; mounted awkwardly, and started back down the cañon. In the narrowest places the gloom of night was already filling the gorge almost to the brim, and Dutch stepped out briskly wherever the footing was passable.
And then a strange sensation seized Shelton C. Sherman. He looked back without quite knowing why he did so. The cañon yawned stark and empty behind him. Presently he turned again and looked, vaguely expectant. There was nothing. Then it came definitely, the feeling that he was being followed. He stopped Dutch still and waited, watching the gorge behind him. There was no sign of any living thing save himself and a belated bird that flew chirping up to the lighter slopes.
Shelton was not frightened, as the word is commonly understood. He was puzzled, and he felt an eerie prickling of the flesh as the darkness advanced and muffled the farther steps. But mainly he was chagrined because he could not see to shoot—even supposing there was something to shoot at. He thought it would make great stuff to write home to the folks, and he kept all his senses alert for fresh incidents or adventures. On the whole, he rather enjoyed the sensations he got out of it.
Once he heard a rock rattle down and bump somewhere—and the sound was so close behind him that he pulled his six-shooter from its scabbard and turned for a shot at the bear, or whatever it was. But Dutch was pulling hard on the reins and stepping along much faster than was wise, and would not wait till the thing overtook them.
It was Dutch that found the trail up the cañonside, where they had come down. He toiled up through rocks and stunted bushes, stopping when he must to get a breath or two, and listening always for something behind, something that followed them still. Shelton could feel the quivering of the horse's flesh beneath him, and it dawned on him that old Dutch was scared, and that he was climbing the hill faster than he ought to climb if he expected to have any wind left when he reached the top, and that he supposed he really ought to get off and walk. It was a shame, when you think of it, to make good old Dutch carry a great hulk like him up that bluff. Shelton dismounted then, and went ahead.
He wondered if he really felt more comfortable in his mind when Dutch was between him and the bear—or whatever it was. To test his own feeling about the matter, he looped the reins up awkwardly around the saddle horn and let Dutch take the lead for a few rods; but he kept looking back, and he soon decided that Dutch really ought to be led.
At the top he tried to persuade himself that his imagination was playing tricks with him; that there was nothing behind him save the bleak, dark hills and the usual night prowlers abroad on business that concerned him not at all. But there was Dutch, hurrying along with his eyes rolled to watch the trail behind; that did not look like imagination, did it?
Before he had gone a quarter of a mile, Shelton was clinging to the saddle horn while the horse galloped unevenly over the rough ground. It takes a rider with some experience to sit easily in the saddle and ride headlong through the sagebrush country, with a jump here, a quick swerve there, and a longer stride to bridge a cut or avoid one of those bugbears of the range, gopher and badger holes. Shelton had all that to contend with, and he had also the natural roughness of Dutch's gait. So he hung onto the horn and bounded, and more than once was saved from falling by his long legs that instinctively clinched the horse's belly when he jumped sidewise.
Ordinarily the mere feat of riding at a fast gallop was enough to occupy all of Shelton's attention. To-night, however, the weird feeling that he was being followed persisted; increased, even.
Shelton, before he reached the brow of the hill, beneath which winked the welcome lights of the Sunbeam cabins, came as near to being scared as ever he had been in his twenty years of heedless existence. He was riding with his head over his shoulder and his eyes strained into the darkness behind him, the last few miles. For all that, he had not seen anything that need agitate him or goad his imagination into delusions. He would have called it a whim—but there was Dutch, also looking back, and traveling with an unprecedented amount of ambition. Once or twice, from the way Dutch acted, Shelton felt certain that Dutch saw it—whatever it was.
Then, as he dipped over the brow of the bluff, and rode down the trail into the shut-in valley already grown familiar, he heaved a sudden sigh of relief and went on at peace. Whatever it was, the thing was gone; at least he no longer felt its presence, and Dutch settled down to his habitual shamble and went out to the stables as though nothing had ever disturbed his equanimity.
"SAY, fellows, how big is a bear that makes a track that long?" Shelton measured a space with his spread palms and waited for some one to volunteer the information.
"'Bout as big as a good-sized elephant," drawled Spider, after a perceptible pause, holding a lighted match to his cigarette.
"No, but really? You know, I ran across a fresh bear track that was that long. I couldn't find the bear, though. It was in a deep thicket of all kinds of trees and bushes, and I hunted all around—but I never got a glimpse of it. It's strange, too. The track was perfectly fresh—just made, in fact—"
"How d'yuh know?" Spooky demanded, looking up.
"Why, it was right in the edge of a little stream of water, and the water hadn't washed any mud into it yet when I first saw it. And at the heel, the grass was just beginning to stand up straight again after being mashed down. I thought that meant the track was fresh and—"
"Purty good, f'r a kid," Jim observed dryly, shifting his great wad of tobacco to the other cheek and grinning openly.
Shelton spent a few seconds in eying Jim doubtfully, and then he went on with his story, and told the whole of it, even to the conviction that he had been followed to the edge of the bluff that bordered the Sunbeam coulee.
"Shelton She Sherman shays she shaw a she-bear shelling sea sells on the sheshore," Spider commented gravely, with the little twinkle in his eyes.
"Aw, say, fellows!" Shelton protested—for the thing was fresh and very vivid in his memory. "It's a fact, all of it." He went over the whole story again, adding minute details which he had slurred with generalities in the first telling.
Spider got up, threw his cigarette stub into the fire, and turned upon Spooky. "Say, Spooky, you're to blame for this," he accused sternly. "Shep was a nice, innocent, truthful cuss when he come here. And your dog-goned, baneful influence and example has done this!" He indicated Shelton with his outflung hand. "You've lied to him, and you've lied before him, and you've lied behind his back ever since he come. We can't blame Shelton She Sherman. He is more to be pitied than censured. If Shelton She Sherman shays he shees she-bears shelling sea sells on the sea-sore, why, it's your fault and his misfortune. If possible, we must keep this from his folks. And if there's anything we can do to remedy the evil before it becomes virulent and the whole outfit gets infectecated, I for one am ready and willing to do my part. But if it turns out fatal, the blame rests upon you, Spooky."
Spooky laughed. So did Shelton, for that matter, and Jim, and Pike. And Shelton protested so earnestly that he was telling the truth, that they consented at last to believe that he had seen a track which may have looked like a bear's track, also the possibility that he had been followed by something.
"But that wasn't a bear," Spooky insisted, with perfect sincerity. "It was that same spook I felt and seen, and I'll bet money on it. You want to keep away from them hills, Shep. I've got a hunch that thing is fixin' to git somebody. Here's four of us been follered now. There ain't a one of us that wouldn't swear to it. Lemme tell you, Shep, them hills ain't safe."
You know what happened, then, the very next morning. Shelton C. Sherman borrowed Spider's big forty-five revolver and cartridge belt and stuffed it with cartridges; borrowed Spooky's skinning knife, and fastened that in the belt; put up lunch enough to last him two meals, dodged Burney and Burney's coldly questioning eyes, and rode back to Spook Hills to hunt for the bear that made so enormous a track that none of the boys would believe him when he told how big it was. Spider had assured him that his six-gun would sure make it unhealthy for any bear in the country, providing Shep pumped enough lead out of it and into the bear. Shelton had also his own thirty-eight, and he had some skill in shooting—witness the rattles he took home with him after that first expedition.
No one worried much about Shelton's personal welfare. They were not the worrying kind, for one thing, and they trusted to Dutch and that providence which is said to watch over children and fools. I don't know just how they tagged Shelton, but they fitted him out and let him go to hunt his bear, and they helped him avoid Burney, who so strongly disapproved of any Spook Hill trips.
First, Shelton rode straight to where he might hope to meet Vida. He wanted to tell her about the bear; and he thought perhaps she might like to join in the hunt, though he doubted the efficiency of her little twenty-two. He meant to lend her his own revolver, if she wanted to come along.
He met her fair, just as he was topping the high ridge that would give him a wide outlook in the direction of her camp. She urged her horse forward, and her eyes were hard and angry when she came close.
"Say, you Sunbeamers are sure straining yourselves to be neighborly, ain't you?" she demanded truculently, without replying to his gay greeting. "I don't mean you, yourself," she added, in the cause of justice, "but it sure makes me sore at the whole pesky outfit. Do you know what Goliath has done now?"
"Nothing but stay at the ranch and act like a hippopotamus with the toothache," Shelton replied cheerfully. "That's all I know of his doing."
"That ain't all he's done," she retorted sharply. "Where was he last night, for instance?"
"At home, when I got there—and I was late getting in. Smoking in front of the fire till bedtime. Why?"
"Because he wasn't. He was over killin' off about two dozen of our sheep, that's where he was. It couldn't have been anybody but him—the big bully. He twisted their necks like you'd wring the neck of a chicken. Uncle Jake was with that bunch, down there in the foothills behind that butte. He heard the dogs and went out, but it was dark—one of the dogs was killed, too," she added grimly. "Neck twisted just like the sheep. And you know who's the man that done it. You know there ain't any ordinary man could wring a sheep's neck like they was wrung. And the dog musta been just grabbed up and squashed! I seen him this morning, and his ribs are all mashed and his neck broke. It was Laddie, and he wasn't afraid. Uncle Jake says the other dog just crep' under the wagon and whined, when he seen what it was—"
"Oh, say, doesn't that sound more as if an animal had been around?" Shelton cut in eagerly. "You know, I went down in that cañon over there, after I left you, and I saw a bear track. A whopper of a track, that the boys wouldn't believe in when I told them how big it was. Why, it was that long!" Shelton measured the space with his spread palms again, and again he saw frank disbelief in the eyes that looked at him. "Honest," he added, when he saw how she doubted.
"But Uncle Jake did see a little bit, just as he was leaving," Vida said positively. "He seen him go over a little rise, and he was big—Uncle Jake would swear it was Goliath. A bear don't go on its hind legs—"
"It might—if it was carrying something. Don't you suppose it would carry a sheep away with it? I've read about them doing those things, and they go on their hind feet at such times." Shelton leaned toward her, and his cheeks were pink, like a girl's with earnestness. "I'm positive Burney was not away from the ranch last night," he said, to clinch his argument.
Finally Vida's conviction was shaken a bit. She let her eyes waver from his face, and she saw then how he was armed. She pointed to the sagging gun belt and the weapon that hung at his hip. "Is that for the bear?" she asked, with her first smile.
"It certainly is—and I brought mine along for you, if you'll take a hand in the hunt. Come on. Say, he must be a perfect whale of a bear! I'll take you where I saw his track, and maybe we can find some trail to his den—"
Vida threw back her head and laughed musically, but with the unrestrained laughter of one used to wide spaces. "Oh, you're the funniest thing alive!" she told him afterward. "Do you want me to be eaten up? Or do you think you're a match for any bear? What are you driving at? To ask a lady to go bear-hunting with you, and take a chance—"
"Oh, I beg your pardon. It never occurred to me that perhaps there might be some risk attached to it," Shelton declared, so convincingly in earnest that she went off into another fit of laughter. "I wouldn't want you to be hurt, and I'm so horribly green at this bear-hunting that perhaps you wouldn't be quite safe with me. Gee! I'd hate to have anything happen to you." He was just as openly sincere in that last statement as he was in the first, but Vida did not laugh. She only looked at him queerly. "I think perhaps I'd better go alone," he added chivalrously. "It certainly must be a whale of a bear."
"Aren't you afraid, yourself?" Vida studied him.
"Afraid? Why, I never thought of being afraid. Would a man be afraid of a bear with a track that long?" For the third time he measured the space.
"Oh, get along with you and bring me his hide, then!" Vida seemed suddenly to have decided that he was making fun of her. "I'll trail along on high ground, where I can kinda keep tab on you. I don't believe I want to sweep out any bear's den and see if he's got sheep bones cached in it, thank you. But you can if you want to."
An hour or more after that, Shelton dismounted from old Dutch at the little stream that led down from the upper cañon. He thought he had discovered another bear track, but he was too ignorant to be sure. In a narrow strip of loose sand which bordered the stream there was a deep imprint of what looked very much like a heel; a bare heel, he thought it, though. A flat rock just even with the surface of the sand had received the rest of the foot, and left no mark to tell exactly what it was.
Shelton blundered about in that immediate neighborhood for a few minutes, and then went on. At the place in the thicket where he had found the track, there was nothing save a faint depression in the mud. And since that was his only clue to the beast he sought, he was patently discouraged. He beat back and forth through the thicket—not knowing the habits of a bear—and finally gave up hovering around the place where it had been once, but might never be again. He went down again to where he had left Dutch, and turned to ride back whence he had come—at least, to where he had seen that mark.
A narrow gorge that he had overlooked before, thinking it a mere rift in the piled bowlders, he thought he would investigate. He was in no hurry to ride back to the upland and report failure to Vida, who would laugh at him for a greenhorn; besides, he had a vague impression that bears were rather fond of rough places. This was rough enough, in all conscience; even when he pulled upon the reins and clucked encouragingly, Dutch did not want to follow him over some of the worst places. He told himself that the sagacity and sure-footedness of the range horse has been greatly overestimated—but if you should see the places where he coaxed Dutch to risk his poor old bones, you would feel a new respect for that sore-tired animal.
Presently the gorge widened until it was possible to ride instead of scramble over rocks afoot. And then, just as he was coming into another grassy bottom, he saw before him, faintly defined, it is true, but unmistakable, the print of that great foot that still looked weirdly human to his town-trained eyes.
Shelton C. Sherman gave a suppressed whoop and went forward eagerly, triumphantly even. So little did he know of the wild that he fully expected to ride home joyously with the hide of the biggest bear in all Idaho rolled neatly behind the cantle. Later it occurred to him that he should have measured that track, so that he might confound Spooky and Spider, chief doubters at the Sunbeam, with actual figures—a diagram, perhaps, or a sketch. But he was too far. up the cañon before he thought of it, so he did not turn back.
Shelton went on and on—a mile, he guessed it afterward, though in rough country such as that, distance is difficult to estimate correctly. At any rate, he eventually came out upon a crude amphitheater formed by the converging hills. On one side the ascent was almost sheer, with loose shale that made it impossible to climb, even for a bear. Shelton was sure of that after he had tried to go up, and after Dutch had planted both front feet .stiffly before him and refused to attempt it even. He turned his attention, then, to the left wall; for in front of him was a cliff straight and smooth and high.
Here, on the left, were overhanging ledges bordered with bushes evidently watered from some hidden spring. Shelton surveyed the prospect from a little distance, saw deep shadow under one ledge where should be sunlight, and rode over there. It was the first place he had seen that looked as if it might be the den of a bear.
It really did look like a cave of some sort, even when he came close. Though he stood within fifty yards of the spot, and though the sun shone hotly upon that side of the cañon, beneath that jagged, jutting ledge was black shadow. Shelton got down, dropped the reins so that Dutch would stand, and clambered over the loose rocks that had rolled down the slope during the centuries past.
He stopped just where the sunlight stopped also, and stared at the wide mouth that yawned at him blackly. He could look into it for a little way, and see how rough were the walls, with little excrescences of what he took to be stalactites clinging like barnacles to the rock. The floor, once it left the outer edge, was moist sand. Shelton looked down at it, and saw tracks—a good many of them. Some of them were long and uncannily human, and yet not human—the tracks of the bear; and there were tracks also of a man's boots—big boots, that could belong to no one save Burney, of the Sunbeam. Shelton's jaw dropped a little when he saw those, and he stared and stared before he ever thought of going on.
Finally he turned his head and looked back, blinking from gazing long upon the blackness. Dutch stood where he had been left, his ears flopping lazily in the sunlight, the rest of him hidden by the steep declivity up which his rider had climbed. In the open beyond Dutch a hawk was circling slowly with head dropped forward, watching for unwary gophers, perhaps. It was all very quiet and very reassuring—and Shelton, whether he realized it or not, at that moment needed something stolidly matter-of-fact to steady his reeling fancies.
For Burney was at home, he felt certain. And yet these tracks looked fresh—as fresh as the track he had seen in the edge of the little stream. And those other tracks, the huge impression of feet not quite human, they were fresh also; or so he believed, being ignorant of the fact that in moist sand that is sheltered from the weather a track will remain fresh looking for a long while.
He had come prepared to explore a cave if he found one; that is, he had purloined a candle end that he found in the bunk house, and he had matches. He pulled the bit of candle from his pocket, lighted it, and went into the dark, like the foolhardy fellow he was. He did show a little caution, I must confess; for he carried the light in his left hand, and in his right he held, tight-gripped, the big forty-five six-shooter Spider had loaned him. Afraid? No, but tingling with excitement, his senses a-tiptoe with enthusiasm for the adventure.
He stooped a little at first, and even then his hat crown scraped upon the rough-rock ceiling. He thought that Burney, if he really did come in here, must have bent almost double. Just a long tunnel straight into the hill, it seemed; an ancient, subterranean outlet for water or lava or something, he did not quite know what. When he held the light down, he still saw the tracks of the beast and of the man; he did not see any coming out, which did not occur to him as being significant until he had proceeded two hundred feet or so. Then he took a fresh grip on the revolver and went more cautiously. He was not afraid of Burney—though he knew that he had left Burney at the ranch, and therefore could not imagine him as being inside the cave. But the beast—well, he thought it wise to be ready, because a bear of such size might be a pretty nifty proposition if a man failed to kill him with the first shot or two.
So he went on and on. Once or twice his candle failed to reach the rock wall upon one side or the other, and he began to wonder if there might not be branches running in other directions. That made him more cautious still, though it could not dampen his enthusiasm or dull his eager expectancy. He tried to keep always going where the tracks led, which became somewhat difficult, since the floor varied its moist sand covering with a shale rock that left no mark. Still he kept on going.
Finally the tunnel forked, plainly and unmistakably. He could stand before a wedge of sweating rock and look down both fearsome passages, and he hesitated there, flaring the light into one tunnel and then into the other, looking eagerly for some sign of his quarry.
And then, while he stood there undecided, the skin began to creep and prickle at the back of his neck—where the hair of our cave-dwelling ancestors used to rise, perhaps, at the first warning of danger. Shelton did not quite know what ailed him, for the sensation was absolutely new to him. He glanced around involuntarily for some hiding place—and he did not know why. Something was watching him, out there in the blackness beyond the farthest candle gleam. It was like the sense of being followed, the night before, except that this feeling agitated him and alarmed him. Without reasoning the thing out, he dodged precipitately into the left-hand passage, and ran forward a few steps before he pulled himself together.
He stopped then and listened, his eyes straining into the darkness out of which he had come. He heard the rapid thump, thump, thump of his own heart, and he heard that muffled beating punctuated by the thin sound of water dripping somewhere. That was all. The rest was dead, impenetrable blackness like a wall, and silence that was like a curtain hung before that black wall. And yet—
Shelton C. Sherman stood backed against the wall and knew that he was afraid; and that his fear was a blind, unreasoning fear, born perhaps of tricky nerves rebelling against that dark journey into the middle of a mountain. He saw the candle flaring and fading because his hand shook so; he felt his heart beating faster and faster, until it almost choked him. And yet—
The terrible silence was split suddenly by a scream. Human, it sounded, and yet not human, but beastly—horrible. Shelton dropped the candle and clung to the rock beside him. His heart, he thought, stopped absolutely. His very knees buckled under him while he stood there. And then he heard something running, somewhere, even while the cave was playing horribly with the echoes of that scream. Running down that other passage with long leaps, it seemed to him, and the beat of four padded feet upon the rock floor. Then it must have struck the sand, because the sounds became suddenly muffled and scarcely distinguishable. Indeed, had he not been standing in such a horribly still place, he probably would have heard nothing.
Weak, shaking, scared so that the tremor reached the middle of his bones, Shelton pressed his back against the uneven wall behind him and waited; and listened; and glared into the blackness, half expecting to see some terrifying thing take shape before him. He wanted light—and he was afraid to stoop and grope for the candle, afraid to light a match and look for it, afraid to move. There was a quick, suffocating beat, beat, beat in his throat. There was a heavy pounding in his chest, and in his brain was a numbness so that he could not think of anything very clearly. He only knew that he was scared—in mortal, agonizing terror.
Shelton said afterward that it took him at least an hour to pull himself together so that he had the nerve to find his stub of candle and light it. But he did find it, and he lighted it, with furtive glances behind him when the blaze flamed up and drove the heavy darkness back so that it did not seem to be pressing the very life out of him. Finally he made his way back toward the entrance—slowly, furtively, with one side of him scraping the wall so that he could set his back against it at the first alarm. Instincts he had inherited from the centuries behind him took the initiative and drove Shelton toward the light of day.
He was panting when he came out into the sunlight, though he had not run except the last few rods when he saw the light glimmer ahead of him. He sat down where the sun shone hotly upon the yellow soil just out from the ledge, and thanked God for the bright light of day. In a minute he remembered Dutch—and Dutch was gone.
Shelton stood up and searched the whole cañon bottom with his eyes. A horse could scarcely hide there, unless he climbed the almost perpendicular sides so as to get behind the bowlders that jutted out everywhere. Dutch must have gone down the cañon, scared by the thing that came out of the cave. The thought served to hearten Shelton appreciably. There was no shame in being afraid of anything that could scare old Dutch, he told himself. And there was another point: It could not have been Burney, then, that came out of the cave; though Shelton, in spite of the evidence of the fresh boot tracks, had not convinced himself that Burney was ever in that cave. It was queer—the whole thing was almighty queer, he told himself when his pulse became normal and the fear ceased to cloud his intellect. There were a lot of things which he would certainly never have believed if any one had told him about them; Spider, for instance, or Spooky. He wished they were both with him now, so that he could prove a few things which, on the face of them, seemed incredible.
It occurred to Shelton that the tracks coming out of the cave would prove whether it was Burney or the bear—if it really was a bear, which Shelton was beginning to doubt. He had never heard or read of a bear screaming like that. A panther might, perhaps—but a bear? It had been a shriek—a half-human scream that fairly melted one's bones. No, after that scream he was beginning to lose faith in the bear.
He had forgotten to blow out his candle, but when he looked at it he saw that the wind had attended to that for him. He glanced behind him at the wide grin of the cave mouth, debated within himself, and, with a hunch of his shoulders, felt in his pocket for a match.
SHELTON lit his candle, shielding its blaze from the breeze with fingers creditably steady—when you think how terribly he had been scared. He stood looking down over the sunlit hollow beneath him; his candid blue eyes clouded with distaste for what he was going to do. His enthusiasm for caves had left him completely, yet his doggedness of purpose impelled him to go back. There was something. He had seen the tracks, and he had heard it scream and afterward go leaping down the black tunnel. And there were Burney's tracks, which seemed mysterious; and there were those sheep about which Vida had told him, dead with their necks twisted in the most unaccountable manner. He did not see any connection between this cave and the dead sheep, save the one fact of some great beast that could have done the twisting—perhaps. At any rate, he had to see what sort of tracks, save his own, had been left in the sand with their toes pointed toward the opening. He needn't go in very far to discover that much.
He went in again to where the sand was moist and smooth save where feet had pressed into it the imprint of their passing. He saw his own tracks, the toes deep printed to prove how fast he had run, bowed down to avoid the low roof of the tunnel. He shivered a little when he remembered poignantly the stark terror that had driven him forward at the last. Then there were the tracks of those two—the beast and the man—going back into the dark. But save his own there were no tracks coming out. And yet front of his long years of range training. Shelton did not know that, though he did have great faith in Dutch's standing where he was left until one went and got him. To be sure, some one might have ridden Dutch off—but there were no tracks!
Shelton came out again and stood irresolute in the sunshine. Of course, the first thing to do was to find Dutch. He realized that, and set off down the cañon—considerably relieved to be out again in the familiar world of bright blue sky and drifting white clouds, and the grays and browns and blacks of the surrounding hills. When he had gone a little distance, he turned and studied the ledges of that hillside; but he could not see where the cave had any other possible opening, and so he went on, puzzling over the mystery of it. What the deuce was it that had screamed like that? What kind of an animal could run over wet sand and leave not a trace of passing? What would Burney be doing in that cave? And then, who had killed those sheep Vida had told him about, and the dog that had been "squashed"?
He was so engrossed in trying to fit answers to his own questions that he wandered into a branch of the cañon that he knew nothing about. Going up, there had seemed to be no way except the one he traveled; going down, other gorges appeared like the knotted fingers of an open hand. Into one of these he blundered, and thought it strange because he found no trace of Dutch, nor the opening into the larger cañon, nor any rock or turn that looked familiar.
He went a long way before it even occurred to him that this might be a different gorge, and even when he suspected that he was not alarmed. He had his compass, you see. The Sunbeam Ranch lay to the west of Spook Hills, therefore the mere matter of getting home was perfectly simple—to an optimistic young fellow who knew nothing much about traveling in such a junk heap of nature's leftovers from mountain building.
He must have traveled for an hour and more without getting anywhere. He was beginning to wonder where he would be apt to strike that first cañon and overtake Dutch, when he saw something on a rock before him. A heap of old clothes, it looked like to him, and he was struck by the oddity of it. He went on more cautiously, but very curiously. Where were clothes, there should be people also.
He was quite close when the heap moved and a head, muffled in many-grimy folds of .some red stuff, swung round to him. Shelton was astonished to find the thing alive. He was more astonished when he discovered the heap to be not only alive, but a woman. A squaw, he knew from the samples he had seen at the railroad stations during the last few hours of his journey West, old and seamed and shrunken to match the hills.
Shelton went up to her and stood still. She appeared to be blind, for her lids were red and gummed almost shut, so that only the tiniest slits of bleary eyes could be seen. Still she stared at him almost as if she saw him. He did not quite know how to act with a creature like this, but his natural instincts impelled him to speech.
"How-de-do?" he began politely. "Do you live around here?"
She looked at him, and she shook her head. "No see," she muttered, and laid a bony finger to her eyes. "Long time headache—no see." Shelton had read of old crones who muttered and pointed and spoke prophecies in halting sentences like that. It tickled him to have stumbled upon one quite up to his ideas of what they should be like. For this crone certainly looked the part, and she muttered worse than he would have believed possible to the human voice, and she spoke with a perceptible pause between all the words. As to her uttering prophecies, that he still had to determine.
"Blind?" he asked sympathetically, sitting down upon a near-by rock and fanning himself with his hat. He was pretty tired, and it was hot. He looked, as he sat there, like a young man holidaying in the wild, who has stopped to rest and wait for the fellows to come up and join him. "Blind?"
"See-r-walk—lilly bit. Long time headache," she said, with her wizened palm pressed to her forehead. "What yo' name?"
Shelton told her, and he told her also that he was from the Sunbeam. "You know the Sunbeam? You know Mr. Burney's ranch?" he asked her, while he stuffed tobacco into his pipe. His lunch was tied to the saddle on Dutch—wherever that was.
"Burney—Aleck—" she muttered, and stopped, her jaws gumming words soundlessly. "Aleck—"
"Yes, his name's Aleck, too—though I didn't know any one ever called him that. You know him? Big man!"
"Big, big man—fadder—big man. Die long time. I know. I see Aleck—fadder die. Bear—" she waved her skinny hand that was like a mummy's. "Bear kill. I see. Long time. I his woman. I see."
Shelton held his pipe sagging between his knees while he stared at her. Of course, he could only guess at what the old thing really meant, and she might be crazy, at that. But still— "You mean you're Aleck Burney's mother?" he asked her, his incredulity showing plainly in his voice.
She shook her head at that, and muttered some Indian words. "No, no—Aleck—mudder—no," she denied. "His woman—Aleck—fadder."
Whatever she meant by that, it was about all that Shelton could get out of her. Her mind, it seemed to him, was as clouded as her vision; though it might be her Indian stolidity or her Indian taciturnity, or shyness, or any of those qualities which we tack upon the Indian nature.
He talked with her for a few minutes longer and got vague answers that meant to him nothing. For instance, when he asked her about any great bears in that country, she muttered Indian words under her breath until he asked her again and again, and then she told him, "Long time big bear kill—" and that was as much as she spoke intelligibly. Shelton wanted to know if Burney's father was killed in these hills, and she shook her head and pointed an arm to the northward.
"Montana," she said, quite plainly. "Long time Aleck—lilly—boy." Which seemed definite enough surely, as far as it went. If she had seen anything of a bear in this neighborhood, she kept the fact to herself. Also she seemed not to know much about caves. "No see," she would mutter, and point to her eyes. Neither could Shelton discover where she lived, or whether she had any family to take care of her.
So presently he left her sitting there like a bundle of old clothes thrown in a heap upon a rock, and went on down the cañon.
Shelton used his compass freely, and by climbing laboriously over the ridge to his right, he got at last into the cañon he knew. After that he began looking for Dutch without any very cheering prospect of finding him, and he turned his toes toward the Sunbeam and plodded up the bluff to the upland thinking more of his own physical discomfort than of the bear whose hide he claimed for a rug. He had things in plenty to write home to the folks, but he was not caring much about it just then. He had wasted the day to no purpose, and it was growing dusky again, and he was ravenously hungry, with that hunger which the newcomer to the mountain States finds it so hard to appease.
And then he began to feel that he was being watched and followed. He stopped once behind a rock and waited, his jaw set to the point of stubbornness, and his gun leveled upon the way he had come. He waited for several minutes, and went on disgustedly, feeling that he had no time to fool away if he meant to get home before midnight. And when he went on he knew that something else went on cautiously, watchfully, upon his trail.
Curiously enough, he was not afraid; he was filled with a baffled anger because he could neither shake off the feeling nor catch a glimpse of the thing that caused it. He felt, as the dark settled down upon the sageland and left him even more completely isolated than he had been with the near company of the hills, like a child who has been teased to a sulky petulance. I think that Shelton must have owned an unusual amount of native courage, for under it all was forming a grim determination to run the thing to earth in spite of everything. His panic in the cave he called a fluke, a mere trick of the nerves, and he may have been right in that. He intended to go back and make a thorough search, and he debated within himself the advisability of trying to enlist the help of the boys. He did not believe they were really afraid of the spook. He did not believe they were afraid of anything on earth, when you came right down to cases—which goes to prove that Shelton C. Sherman was not, after all, a fool; he was merely a young cub of a man who was growing up faster than he or any one realized, thanks to the rugged life he was leading that threw him more or less upon his own resources.
He dragged his weary bones into the bunk house just when the boys were smoking their last, before-bedtime cigarettes and wondering what had went with Shep—I am using their vernacular, understand, and I realize that it is a long way from being correct English.
"Why, hello, Shep," Spooky greeted him with a very sincere relief in his tone whether he was conscious of it or not. "We was just talking about ketching you up and putting a bell on yuh. You're gifting to be such a little stray lamb—" Spooky saw then that something was wrong, and he neglected to finish his sentence while he eyed Shelton through a haze of smoke.
Shelton had slumped down upon a bench as if he did not care whether he ever moved again or not. His face was pale under the new coat of sunburn, and his eyes were sunken and had purple shadows beneath, and the muscles of his cheeks sagged with complete physical exhaustion. Spider looked, yawned, and stretched his arms with an ostentatious casualness, and got up from the bed which he had been occupying lavishly with sprawled limbs.
"Better come and lay down, Shep," he suggested carelessly. When Shelton made no move he went over and took him by the arm as though he was impressing obedience upon a child. "That bunk's a whole lot more able and willing to hold you up than that pore little bench," he explained, and led the boy to the bed and pushed him gently down upon it. He pulled a pillow under Shelton's inert head, stooped and lifted Shelton's dragging feet, and laid them comfortably, pulled his own hat down nearer his eyebrows, and went out as casually as he had spoke at first.
He was back before Spooky and Jim had fairly begun questioning Shelton as to the cause of his all-in condition, and he carried the coffeepot and a plate of beans and bread, while a tin cup hung by its handle from one finger.
"Here, Shep, put yourself outside-a some grub," he commanded gruffly. "Coffee's cold, but it'll do the biz just the same—seeing you ain't froze."
He poured a cup of black, muddy fluid, and compelled Shelton to rise to an elbow and drink every drop. Then he pulled a box close to the bunk, set the plate upon it within easy reach of Shelton's apathetic hand, and sat down negligently upon the other bunk, flicked the ashes off his cigarette, saw that it was cold, and fumbled for a match. "Go on and eat," he urged lazily. "Then you can tell us how about it."
Shelton ate a little, and he told "how about it." And the three listened attentively and without banter, while Pike snored raucously from a farther corner of the room. He told of the cave and of the tracks, and Spider leaned with an elbow on either knee and his feet swinging over the side of the bunk, and smoked and stared at the floor while he listened. He told of his panic of fright and of the scream and the sound of running in the dark—and Spooky opened his mouth half an inch and let it stay so, and forgot to smoke while he stared at Shelton's haggard face and listened to the tale. Jim sat with his arms folded Indian fashion, and chewed tobacco mechanically, and glanced now and then sidelong at the other two while he listened.
And so Shelton's story came down to the old squaw sitting in a heap on the rock in the cañon and manifesting such acuteness of hearing while her vision seemed pitiably blurred—and he told about her also and what she had said about Burney's father.
"That's right," Jim testified stolidly around his cud. "Burney's father was a squaw man up in Montana. He got clawed up by a bear in the Bitter Root country when Burney was a kid. I thought the old woman was dead long ago. She had a deformed kid by old man Burney. A feller that prospected up in the Bitter Root Mountains told me about it a long time ago. The kid died; it was half-witted or some darn thing. I thought the old woman was dead, too."
"Well, she isn't, it seems; but she's pretty wobbly in her mind," said Shelton, and went on with the story.
"And say, fellows," he said earnestly when he had described his long tramp home and his belief that he had been followed, "there's something behind all this. I don't know what, but I'm going to make it my business to find out. I don't believe Burney killed those sheep—"
"What sheep?" interjected Spider, lifting his head for the first time since Shelton began to talk.
"Why, Williams' sheep. Vida told me. A lot of their sheep were killed last night, over the other side of that long ridge of Spook Hills, where her uncle is camped with a band. And say, fellows, their necks were wrung, she said. And she said that one of the dogs—she called him Laddie—ran out and was killed also. She said it had been 'squashed' so that its ribs were broken, and its neck twisted like the sheep. Can you beat that? She thinks Burney did it. She says he's the only one in the country strong enough—and, of course, that's true as far as it goes. But I think it was that bear I saw the tracks of."
"A bear," Spooky asserted, "wouldn't hardly kill sheep like that. He might come into a band and pack off one or two, and he might go through a band just cuffing 'em right an' left, like that." Spooky illustrated with thrashing arms the cuffing process. "He'd break their necks, I reckon, if he done that—or cave in their ribs or something. But it don't look natural—him grabbin' every sheep separate and wringin' its neck. That looks to me more—human." Spooky spoke with a certain reluctance and a certain inquiring look toward Spider.
"Didn't anybody see—it—or tracks or—" Jim stopped to turn his tobacco cud.
"The sheep would tromp out any tracks," Spider told him shortly, shifting his position a little without looking up. There was a certain warped board in the floor which Spider appeared to find absorbingly interesting.
"Yeah—that's right," assented Jim.
"Why, Vida said her uncle ran out and got a glimpse of him going off over a little hill, where he—where it came right against the sky. And"—Shelton unconsciously lowered his voice and glanced toward the door—"she says her uncle would swear it was Burney. She said a person couldn't make any mistake in a man like him. But still"—his head dropped back wearily on the pillow—"I stick to the bear theory. A bear would go off on its hind legs, wouldn't it, if it were carrying a sheep?"
"It might. Probably it would," Spooky agreed relievedly. "Yes, come to think of it, I guess it would."
"Well, I say it was that bear, fellows. And I'm going to keep on hunting till I get him. They think Burney did it—"
"Burney was home last night, wasn't he?" Spooky asked aggressively of no one in particular. "How could it be him?"
Spider cocked one eye in the direction of Spooky, lifted one eyebrow, and said never a word. How did they know whether Burney was at home? his look asked the other. As a matter of fact, it could be Burney, and each one of the four knew that it could. More than that, they knew that it probably was Burney. Even to Shelton, had he admitted it, the bear theory seemed a little far-fetched. Still—it did not seem quite like Aleck Burney to sneak into a man's band and kill sheep by stealth in that fashion. Burney would fight, as his men knew well; but always he had fought in the open, and had seemed to prefer that the odds should be against him—if there were odds. The very bigness of him and strength of him had always made him slow to take action. And the Williams sheep had not yet injured the Sunbeam range; nor had the Williams men done anything that might be construed as a beginning of hostilities. True, they were crowding close—too close to be welcome neighbors—and Burney had ridden over and told them so. That much was perfectly logical, understandable—right and just, according to range ethics. But to come that same night and kill sheep under the very nose of Jake Williams, and to sneak away afterward in the dark—that was something at which even the Sunbeam partisans balked.
Their talk dwindled after that. Shelton wondered once or twice what could have become of old Dutch, and Spooky told him that they would hunt him up to-morrow. Spider went out and stayed for a long time. When he returned he threw his hat down as if it had displeased him, and had no more than a grunt for Spooky, who showed a disposition to talk.
Shelton lifted his head and looked in Spider's direction for a minute. "Say, Spider, come over here and let me whisper in your ear," he said with his old, boyish tone. "I've got a sweet little message that nobody but you must hear. Come on—I promised her."
Spider paused in the act of pulling off a boot, and eyed Shelton crossly, caught a significant lowering of an eyelid, dropped the boot, and went and bent over Shelton, listening. And Shelton, instead of giving a message, asked one question. Spider's light-blue eyes looked steadily into Shelton's for a second before he answered, and the lurking little devil in them had changed to the gleam of steel.
"Gone!" he whispered, and went back and took off the other boot.
There were two in that cabin who slept little that night, and I think perhaps Spooky was inclined to lie awake and wonder over the mystery of Spook Hills.
VIDA WILLIAMS, hard of eye and lips, hot from hard riding, and looking ready to fight the whole Sunbeam outfit, rode up to the cabin and pulled her right foot out of the stirrup, ready to dismount. But when she saw Spider and Shelton coming toward her from the stable—they having seen her ride by—she stayed in the saddle and waited glumly till they came up.
"Where's Goliath?" she demanded shortly, with never a greeting.
"In the cabin, I guess. Good morning, Miss Vida. Will you meet—well, Spider is all the name I know that belongs to him. This is Miss Williams, Spider."
Miss Williams gave Spider a glance and a nod far from cordial. "I want to see Goliath—and I want to see him quick," she said. "I wish you'd call him out."
Spider went at once to the cabin and opened the door. "There's a lady wants to see you, Burney," he called within, and turned back. Shelton was asking Vida what was the matter, and wouldn't she get off her horse and rest a while. And Vida was giving him short answers that told him nothing except that her mood was villainous and her time limited.
Burney, bending his shoulders forward to save his head a bump, appeared in the doorway, stared at Vida for a minute with his little, deep-set, twinkling eyes, and came up to her. He was so big that Vida's horse was afraid of him, and when he saw that he stopped, and came forward more slowly. When he stood finally within ten feet of her their eyes were nearly on a level.
"You wanted to see me?" he asked her in his high, falsetto voice.
"I wanted to ask you what's your object in killing off our sheep the way you're doing," Vida stated harshly, not one whit abashed by the size of him. "You may have poppy buffaloed, and Uncle Jake, but you can't scare me. And I've come over to tell you, Mr. Goliath, that if you kill another sheep of ours I'm going to watch my chance and plant a bullet where it will do the most good. You ain't easy to miss, you know!"
"I ain't killed any sheep of yours," Burney denied, reddening perceptibly under her angry gaze. "I didn't know there'd been any sheep killed. When was it?"
"Last night and night before last, and you needn't try to make me believe you don't know! Who else could grab up a sheep and wring its neck and break its ribs just by squeezing? Night before last it was Uncle Jake's band, and last night it was ours—and last night you killed twenty before I got out where I could take a shot at you. In the dark I missed—"
"It wasn't me," Burney told her again. "I've never been near your camp except the other day—in the morning. I told your father to keep away from Piute Hills, Miss Williams. If you're sensible you'll get your father to move his sheep back the other way. I can't—"
"We ain't going to move, and you can't make us move!" Vida's voice sharpened almost to shrewishness. "Poppy might get scared out—but I won't let him move. That's open range over there, and we're going to have our share. You needn't think you can hog all the grass in the country, and you needn't think you can come sneaking into our band at night and kill sheep till you're tired, and not get some of your own medicine. I—oh, I wish I could take you and wring your neck just like you done to the sheep!" Tears of rage were in her voice. "Just because you're big as all outdoors, you think you can run us out, but you can't—you've got another thing coming. If you was twice as big—"
Burney took a step nearer. The crimson had left his face, so that he looked actually pale. "Miss Williams, I never killed your sheep. I don't want to have any trouble with your father unless he drives me to it. I ain't a quarrelsome man when I'm left alone. But I can't afford to buy your folks out again—I done that once, and lost money on the deal. I lost a lot of money. And I can't afford to lose no more. Miss Williams, I'm in debt as it is. I've got to make my cattle pull me out, or else I'm liable to go under. And it ain't fair for your father to bring in sheep on me. I need the range for my own stock. I—don't want to act mean about it, Miss Williams, but—you better talk your father into moving back—"
"Sure, I will—not!" Burney's apologetic manner might astonish the boys, but it failed altogether to impress Vida. "We're in just as bad a fix as you are—and there's three of us to think of, and only one of you. We're in debt ourselves, and we've got to make the sheep pull us out. And we need the range. You know just as well as I do that the feed's poor back toward Pillar Butte. We ain't going to back off for you or anybody else. And we ain't going to set down and suck our thumbs while you kill off our sheep just to be mean. I said before, and I'll say it again—and I want you to remember it, all of you: If you kill another single, solitary sheep I'll take a shot at you—in daylight, when I can see where to shoot." She swung her horse away from the giant. "So if you think you're going to make anything off us that way, go to it. I'm taking a hand in this killing game myself. But I ain't like you; I ain't going to sneak up on you after dark; I'll play my hand on top of the table. You kill our sheep, and I'll kill you—and take chances on the jury."
She looked at Shelton, and then at Spider, turned her face away, and then faced them grimly. "You both hear—I mean it," she said defiantly to them. "Maybe it ain't ladylike, but I can't help that; I've got to be human first. And if somebody in our outfit has got to wade in and fight, I'd rather it would be me than poppy or Uncle Jake—I'll stand more show in court if it comes to that."
"Making capital out of your sex?" Shelton reproved mildly. "You wouldn't do that, Miss Vida!"
"Oh—wouldn't I?" Vida curled her lip at him in a way to crimple his vanity. "Why not? Women never do get a square deal anyway. You men don't show any squeamishness about making capital of our sex, do you? You take every advantage of us that you can get. So when we know where to hit your weak points, I believe in aiming for them. And if it came to working a bunch of mutts in the jury box in order to get a square deal, you can bet your hat I'd work them to a fare-you-well. Men are the limit, anyway." She laughed at him in a way to redden his whole face. "Look at you, for instance. You'd like to flirt a little and make me think you were It, just because you're lonesome and I'm the only girl in the country. You wouldn't give a whoop for my feelings, just so you were amused. Isn't that straight? And is it fair? Isn't that making capital out of my sex? And Mr. Burney here—because he's big and strong and can lord it over common men—he thinks I don't count. Just because I'm a girl he passes me up as if I didn't have any interest in them sheep over there. Oh, you all—every darned one of you—think I'm a white chip in the game—less than a white chip. I'm a girl—so all I can do is talk! Well—you go ahead the way you've started out, and see!"
She sent them a cold, gray glance all round, antagonistic, with the bitter antagonism of the consciously weak; gave her head a little, defiant toss, and struck her horse down the rump with her quirt. So she rode away from the Sunbeam, and the three turned and watched her in dead silence.
"She'd shoot, all right—believe me!" Spider commented when she was no more than a bobbing black object against the sunlit sage.
"I never killed their sheep," Burney muttered complainingly. "But if they keep crowding up on my range—"
He turned sullenly, and went back into the cabin and left the two standing there in that passive attitude which is the natural reaction after a high-tensioned incident.
"Well, come on, Shep. Let's go out after Dutch." Spider turned away toward the stables. "Looks like things are beginning to tighten."
"Shall we take candles?" Shelton fell into pace beside him, and found that the pace required long strides and swift.
"Sure, we'll take candles. Might as well make a clean sweep, Shep—if you ain't scared to go back."
"I'd go, whether I'm scared or not," Shelton declared firmly. "But I'm not—as far as I can feel any symptoms—oh, shucks!" he added impatiently. "What's the use of hedging? What do you think of Vida's stand? Pretty nervy for a girl to face Burney that way, don't you think? And she—"
"Yeah—skate a little closer, Shep. What about them sheep?"
Shelton, however, did not care to skate over that particular bit of ice. He said he didn't know, and changed the subject. Whereat Spider grinned to himself and then became much occupied with his own thoughts.
"Well, right over behind that cut-off butte is the cañon where the cave is." Shelton drew up on the east side of a pinnacle and pointed. "We can get down into the big cañon—"
"Yeah—I know that big cañon. I've been in it. That's where I was trailing a lion when—something commenced to foller me." Spider cupped his palms around a match blaze. "Might have been a link," he conceded when his cigarette was lighted and he had blown out the match. "These hills is full of animals a man never sees. I've been thinking maybe it was a link you heard in the cave, or a lion. Didn't you happen to notice any round tracks—like a great big cat? Tracks about that big, say?" With his bent fingers he inclosed a circle larger than a cup, just by way of encouragement.
"No. But I did see a bear's track. And I saw Burney's tracks, too," he added doggedly. "I hate to——"
"I don't know why Burney wouldn't have as much license to go into a cave as you had," Spider cut in dryly.
"Well, I suppose he has got. But he don't want any one to come over here—and then comes himself. And then—there are those sheep Vida claims were killed."
"And that's why," said Spider calmly, "I'm going to ride over that way and take a look. No telling which way Dutch went, seeing he didn't come back to the ranch—and that's mighty funny, too. We're liable to find him over that way. Darn it," Spider went on in a tone of complete bafflement, "there ain't one solitary fact that lines up with any other fact. That's what gets me. You saw bear tracks in that cave—and you heard something scream, you claim; and only a mountain lion or a link would make the kinda noise you say you heard. Vida says Burney killed their sheep—and Burney ain't that kinda man as I know him; and I've worked for him over two years now.
Burney says he never went near their camp except one morning—and he was gone last night somewhere. I got up about one o'clock and his horse and saddle was missing, and I went down again at three and they was there. And he was gone when I went out just before we went to bed. And I can't figure out any errand that would take him out all night. And I never knowed Burney to lie. Gosh! He's so ungodly big he don't have to lie. His say-so comes pretty near going as she lays.
"And to pile the agony up still higher, there's Dutch. There ain't no reason why, if he was scairt off from where you left him, he wouldn't come straight on home—and he never come. Oh, thunder!" said Spider as a brief way of summing up his perplexities. "Come on, Shep. We'll go take a look at them dead sheep for a starter; I know about where old Williams would be camped. And after that we'll take a look at the cave."
To look at the dead sheep was easy. The Williams camp had moved since daylight, but when they saw the white-topped wagon moving in leisurely fashion up nearer the hills, and farther away the moving patch of gray which was the sheep, they swung in on the trail and followed it back to where Spider knew was a spring.
There they found the dead sheep, lately skinned for their pelts, and left to fatten the coyotes. Spider forced his horse close to the fly-blackened carcasses, and sat there looking down with frowning brows. Every sheep had its neck twisted to dislocation, and nearly every sheep had been squeezed flat—squashed, Vida had called it. He raised his head, and studied the low ridges and correspondingly shallow gullies of that vicinity. He scowled down again at the skinned carcasses. He looked across at Shep, who was hovering agitatedly in the immediate background because of his horse's distaste for dead sheep, and he hunched his shoulders and rode away.
"Well, what was it—a bear?" Shelton quizzed him after an expectant silence.
"Ask the sheep," suggested Spider, and added: "They can tell you as much about it as I can."
"But what do you think?" Shelton, remember, was of the persistent type of individual.
"I'm thinkin' damns, right now, mostly," said Spider.
Shelton did not cover himself with honor that day. To begin with, he could not find the cañon that ended in the crude amphitheater where was the cave. He led Spider into two blind pockets in the hills, and in each instance he discovered only, after a prolonged search, that it was not the right cañon. He persisted in riding with too loose a rein in spite of Spider's repeated warnings and profane instructions, and the horse shied unexpectedly and violently and threw Shelton into a patch of brush, and bolted while Shelton thrashed around in there trying to get out. Spider chased the horse a quarter of a mile over some nasty rocks and washouts before he caught him and led him back—and you can judge what his temper was like after that.
Being unable to find the cañon that held the cave, Shelton could not find the gulch in which he had seen the old squaw. He had scraped the skin off one forearm in falling, and had hurt his knee so that he found walking painful, and he was not enthusiastic over riding, either. The sun blazed down upon them more pitilessly than it had done before that spring—there were plenty of reasons for the sulky silence that held the two at last.
And then, just when they were picking their way gingerly across a steep sidehill to where a bare ridge gave promise of a precarious trail into the cañon they must cross if they would reach the Sunbeam without riding an extra ten miles, Spider's sharp eyes caught a glimpse of something moving along the opposite side of the cañon. He pulled up, and stared steadily, shading his eyes with his hand like the pictures of Indian chiefs gazing out to the setting sun.
When Shelton, looking also and seeing far less than did Spider, asked what it was, Spider told him that Shelton could search him, and went on in the same moody silence.
Shelton waited a minute longer.
"It looked to me like a bear," he volunteered when he overtook Spider. "Or else maybe it was a cow. Did you see it go behind those rocks?"
Spider grunted, and let Shelton interpret the sound to please himself. It was not until they descended into the cañon bottom that Spider was surprised into speech. They came full upon Dutch, feeding dispiritedly upon the scanty grass there. Dutch had neither saddle nor bridle, or anything upon him save the marks of hard riding and a twisted rope that hobbled his front feet so that he must hop if he would move forward.
Spider got off his horse and went up and examined closely the hobble. "Well, I'll be—" he began, and, leaving the sentence unfinished, squatted on his heels that he might pick the knots loose and free poor Dutch.
"Did somebody try to steal him?" Shelton was looking on, round-eyed, from a respectful distance. "Why, that isn't rope—what is it?"
Spider stood up with the thing in his hands. "Don't you know what that is?" he demanded, more humanly than he had spoken to Shelton for three hours. "That there is a strip cut from a fresh sheep pelt, with the wool hacked off with a knife."
Shelton had a gleam of understanding. "He couldn't get far with his feet tied together," he said. "Don't you suppose, if we looked all around here, we might find some tracks?"
"I expect we might."
With that encouragement Shelton dismounted awkwardly because of his knee, and went limping back and forth where the soil gave promise of receiving and holding tracks. It was Spider who discovered some trace, and he puzzled over the tracks—there were three, close beside a crumbling washout where the bank was sandy—much longer than Shelton, who limped up, thought was necessary.
"Oh, say!" he jubilated. "That's the bear whose track I saw the other day. If we could just follow it up—"
Spider turned and looked at him sarcastically. "You sure are an observative cuss," he commented dryly. "Take another look at them three tracks. How high do you figure a bear would have to be to step as long as that?" He placed one foot beside the first track and stepped out with the other toward the next track. Spider was not a small man by any means, yet his longest stride fell short of the second bear track.
Shelton watched him, and grasped his meaning. "Then—what the deuce do you think it is if it isn't a bear?" he wanted to know when Spider stood off looking again at the tracks.
Spider looked up at him, and hesitated. "Just between you and me and the gatepost, Shep, I'll tell yuh what it is. It's a man trying to make out like he's a bear. Wearing bear fixin's on his feet, I take it," he explained further, "to hide his own tracks—and making a dern poor stagger at it, if you ask me!"
Shelton looked long at Spider, and then down at the tracks. He followed Spider's example. He placed his foot alongside the first track, and measured the stride with the other. Shelton, you know, was six feet two, and at that he had to step as far as he could reach in order to place his foot alongside that second track. He looked up quickly.
"Well, there's only one—"
Spider stopped him with a gesture and a look. "Some things is better off inside your head," he told Shelton bluntly. "We can't help what we think, but we needn't go around shooting off our faces. Call it a bear track and let it go at that. I ain't going to build up nothing on a few marks in the sand, and you ain't." He glanced moodily toward Dutch. "We've found what we was hunting. Let's be drifting toward home."
He stopped first and scraped the edge of his boot sole carefully over the tracks until they were quite obliterated. Then he took his rope and tied an end around the neck of the brown horse Shelton had been riding. "I guess you might as well ride Dutch back," he observed. "You're a heap safer on him." And he changed the saddle quickly, as if he were in haste to be gone.
Shelton was studying the mystery that had enveloped him in the last week while they rode a mile or so. Then it had to come out—some of it—in speech.
"What I can't see," he said suddenly, "is what object he'd have. Aside from scaring off Williams and his sheep, it looks—well, childish to go around the country—"
"I don't know," quelled Spider, "as you're expected to see any object in it. I don't know as any one is."
That did not settle the other, however. "Well, it doesn't account for my being followed—"
"If you was followed."
"Nor that screaming and running in the cave—"
"If you didn't just imagine it."
"Oh, say!" Shelton protested. "What do you think I—"
"Aw," cried Spider impatiently, "can't you get some kinda gait on that old skate? And if you don't-keep your face shut," he added unkindly, "you're liable to get sunstruck on your insides."
As you may guess, there was little conversation between them after that. Spider seemed to be revolving some intricate puzzle in his mind, and Shelton, I think, was sulking because of Spider's bluntness of speech.
They came slowly down the hill and up to the high pole corral beside the stable. And when they dismounted Burney himself came out of the corral, carrying his saddle in one hand.
"I've got to go to Pocatello," he told them querulously. "I may not be back for three or four days. You kinda keep things moving, Spider—" Then he seemed to notice Dutch for the first time. "Oh, you found him," he said, with feeble interest. "Where was he at?"
"Over in the Spook Hills," said Spider distinctly, looking up into Burney's little twinkling eyes. "In a gulch, hobbled with a strip of sheep hide. We couldn't find the saddle and bridle."
Burney looked down at him sharply before he turned away toward his own horse. "Some of them sheep-herders caught him up, most likely," he said carelessly. "Might as well let the saddle go; didn't amount to much—and we don't want to have any trouble with 'em if we can help it. Don't want any trouble with anybody," he muttered, while he saddled hastily. "The girl thinks I killed their sheep." He mounted, and without farewell or further orders he rode away, while Spider stared after him meditatively.
BURNEY had not yet returned from Pocatello—indeed, he had been gone not much longer than twenty-four hours when Vida Williams came riding again to the Sunbeam; riding a heaving-flanked, sweat-roughened pony, and looking harder of lip and eye than before. Spooky had just called to the boys to "Come and get it"—meaning supper—and he stood now in the cabin doorway with his hands on his hips, waiting for them to appear. Then came Vida, galloping straight down the trail from the hills and never deigning to pull up or turn out when she overtook Shelton and Spider and Jim. The boys ducked out of her way and came on in the cloud of dust kicked up by her pony's flying heels.
Vida swung down from her horse, and walked purposefully toward Spooky in the doorway. Her sunburned braid of hair was roughened in the wind; her denim riding skirt was stained with her pony's sweat; her face was pale under the freckles and tan, and her eyes—well, her eyes held the light of battle. A six-shooter swung at one slim hip, and as she neared the cabin she jerked the gun from its scabbard and held it hanging at her side. Without any more definite reason than that one action, the boys broke into a trot and so came presently up to her.
"Where's Burney?" she asked, more quietly than one would expect from the look of her, though it was the quiet that spells danger.
"Burney's in Pocatello," Shelton volunteered before Spooky had more than opened his mouth. "He went yesterday—early in the afternoon."
"You lie!" Vida turned and flung the words at him as a driver flicks his lash. Her breath was coming quickly and unevenly; she was holding herself to calmness, and it was not easy, as they could see. "Where is he? You might as well produce him," she said, eying them one after the other with that cold antagonism which she could make one feel with a glance.
She met blank surprise in every pair of eyes into which she looked, and she bit her lip and pushed the gun back into its scabbard.
"Well, anyway, he isn't in Pocatello," she asserted defiantly, "because he was over on the east ridge of Piute Hills about three hours ago. He—he killed Uncle Jake!"
"No! You don't—"
"He did! And I'll kill him on sight—so help me! He—boys, that man is a fiend! I—don't blame you boys—I don't believe you had anything to do with it, or know—"
Spider took a step nearer. "You're dead right, Miss Williams," he told her with that quiet earnestness which was Spider's way sometimes. "If you'd tell us—we don't know a thing about it. We—Burney left for Pocatello yesterday."
"Well, it was a blind, then, because this afternoon—I guess it was early—and Uncle Jake was herding a band of ewes and lambs on that long slope from the big hill, and he was killed"—her eyes widened with the horror of it—"just like the sheep have been killed." She caught her breath, and went on as if she were anxious to tell the thing and be done with it. "He was just grabbed—from behind, I guess—and—his neck was twisted—just like the sheep!"
Spider leaned and gripped her by the arm. "Girl, are you sure of that?" And his tone was stern.
"It's the truth! And Uncle Jake's pretty strong himself, and—he didn't have a ghost of a show. I—I saw him. And his head was twisted 'way around—like that." She turned her head far to one side, and Spider shivered and let go her arm.
The four of them stared at her incredulously. The thing was too monstrous for them to grasp all in a minute.
"Killed!" said Shelton, just above his breath. "Are you sure? Maybe he wasn't dead."
Vida turned and eyed him scornfully, and seemed to think the remark too puerile for reply.
"Wasn't there any sign of a scuffle?" asked Spooky. "Didn't anybody see it?"
"He was out alone, with just the one dog," Vida explained, turning toward him. "Poppy and I rode over to see him—because some more of our sheep was killed last night, and we wanted to see if Uncle Jake had been bothered and what he thought we better do about it. Poppy wanted to swear out a warrant. And—we found him—like that. He—he wasn't cold yet.
"No, there wasn't any sign of anything. He just laid there like he'd been grabbed up and then throwed down again. It was on a little rocky ridge. I suppose he was setting on the ridge where he could see the sheep, and Burney just crawled up on him from behind. He could easy enough; it's all little ridges and washouts there where the water has gullied out the sidehill. And Burney—"
"What makes you keep on saying Burney?" Spooky asked her somewhat aggressively. "You want to be kinda careful about saying—"
"Who else but Burney could 'a' done that?" she countered hotly. "Could you grab a man the size of Uncle Jake and twist his neck clear around so you broke it? And him not able to put up a fight even? It ain't easy to do, I should think."
"No," Spider agreed, "it ain't easy to do. At the same time—"
"And who else would want to?" she demanded. "Uncle Jake never had any trouble with anybody around here but Burney. And he's been trying his best to drive us off ever since we came in with our sheep. And that ain't all." She stopped and bit her lips again, and fingered the sagging gun belt. Her blind rage was cooling with speech and the unspoken sympathy of these four, and she seemed almost reluctant to go on. She was growing more normal—more like the Vida Williams whom Shelton had met out on the high stretches of the Piute foothills.
"That ain't all. I ain't the killing kind—but I'd 'a' killed Burney when I rode up if I'd seen him. It would take a lot to make me do that, too. I—I was putting up a bluff the other day," she owned, with a faint flush of embarrassment. "I was mad, a-course; and if I'd been a man I'd 'a' tried to lick him, I reckon. But this is different. I know he killed Uncle Jake. I didn't see him, but I seen his tracks. Down in the gully, right behind where Uncle Jake was. It's plain as print—and there ain't a man in the country that's got feet the size of his. Is there?"
There was no need of her emphatic question. They all knew there was not.
"I guess we better ride over," suggested Spider, after a minute. "If Burney didn't go to Pocatello we can easy find it out; a man like him ain't going to be overlooked. And if he done what you say he done—" Spider stopped short, and when he continued it was from a new angle of thought. "I've knowed him a long while," he said, "and I've never knowed a thing against him. At the same time you never do know all that's in a man." He turned toward Spooky challengingly. "I ain't going to back any low-down play like chokin' a man to death just because he owns a bunch-a sheep," he stated flatly, "whether it's Burney or my own brother."
"Same here, Pete," Jim shifted his cud to say—diffidently, because of the girl.
"Well, come on and eat, seeing's it's ready," urged Spooky, "and then we'll hit the high places to make up. There ain't nothing in startin' out empty. If they's tracks," he said to the girl, "we'll foller 'em up. You better come in and have something to eat."
"I—couldn't," she told him, and looked into the cabin and shuddered
But she sat upon a box near the door and drank a cup of hot coffee which Shelton brought her. "I just can't go in," she apologized to him and Spider, who had lingered outside. "It's like the den of some beast to me. I—I just keep seeing Uncle Jake—and I can just see Burney creeping up the ridge behind him."
"You want to cut that out," said Spider. "You'll get nerves for fair if you don't keep your mind off it. I guess I'll take my coffee outside, too."
Which he did, somewhat to the disgust of Shelton, who felt that Vida was in his especial charge, in spite of her pitiless analysis of his motives; perhaps because of it—for he had certainly thought a great deal about Vida since then.
The sun was low when they rode away from the Sunbeam. Close- grouped and silent they climbed the hill and galloped straight away through the sage and lava rocks toward where Spook Hills hunched their black shoulders against the sky. Grim of lip, somber-eyed they hurried out to look upon the telltale footprints which branded their boss a murderer of the foulest type.
Spooky and Jim, not having seen the things which had planted in Spider's mind the seeds of distrust, were inclined to be incredulous still. They were going to see for themselves before they would believe. As to Shelton, he glanced often at Spider in the hope of meeting his look of understanding, and he was plainly puzzled at Spider's coldly noncommittal glance.
They rode with the girl between them, but they did not talk to her very much; she did not seem to want them to talk. Her eyes were frequently blurred with tears, and her lips were trembling. For she had lived a lonely life, with but few persons who were more to her than strangers, and although Uncle Jake had been an utterly commonplace individual, for whom she felt no definite affection, he was her uncle, and he had helped to fill her life—and she had lately looked upon him dead. So, now that the first shock of horror had passed and she had sensed the sympathy of these men who were logically her enemies, but essentially her friends, she was feeling the sorrow of a personal loss.
"You mustn't mind if poppy talks mean," she said once, when they were nearing the hills. "He's awful worked up over this. He blames the whole Sunbeam outfit. He said he'd shoot the first one of you he got sight of—but he won't. Poppy—just talks like that."
Unconsciously she had revealed where lay the heaviest weight of responsibility for the family welfare. Her own slim shoulders drooped under their burden. Her tone betrayed the fact that she was stronger than her father, who "just talked like that." She would have fought, and fought hard, in defense of their property. Her poppy talked.
Spider, sensing it all, turned and looked at her pityingly. In the dusk his hand went out and clasped briefly her arm.
"Don't you worry," he said, so low that the others could not hear. "I'll see you through with this—if nobody else will."
Vida turned her face toward him, and she did not pull her arm away. "I know you will," she told him simply. "I—don't feel so alone as I did a few hours ago."
Spider's fingers slid down her arm and clasped her hand close, and let it go. In this wise did he take the oath of fealty, and none but Vida knew anything about it, not even Shelton, who was inclined to be watchful of Spider during the last couple of hours.
It was dark long before they reached the gruesome slope where Jake Williams lay as he had been found. A camp fire blazed up into the dark, and beside it the figure of a man flared into distinct outlines and faded into vague shadows. As they rode closer they saw him lift his head and listen, looking their way. He had a rifle, and he pointed it toward them with a menacing gesture. The firelight must have blinded him, however; he stood up and craned, then ducked suddenly back into the shadows beyond the light of the flames. A spurt of fire and the sharp crack of his rifle showed how he had mentally placed the newcomers, but the bullet sang its song of flight high over their heads.
"Quit that shooting! I've just brought the boys—" Vida kicked her horse and plunged ahead, where the firelight touched her and quite enveloped her in its golden glow. "Put down that gun and come in outa the dark!" she commanded impatiently. "There's nothing to be scared of. Has Pete got back yet?"
"No." Her father came slowly forward, his bushy beard quite concealing any emotion his face might otherwise have revealed. "Who are these men?" he challenged.
"They're some boys from the Sunbeam. They came over to do what they can. They want to look around, and try and pick up the tracks, but it's pretty dark for that, unless we can make torches do."
"I don't want no Sunbeamers prowlin' around my camp. I won't have it, neither." But he stood there passive while they dismounted. "The Sunbeam has done about all the damage it needs to do. I ain't going to stand fer no more monkey business now, I can tell yuh!"
Vida had dismounted, and she turned her back upon him as if he were not speaking. "Over here—a couple of you bring torches and you can see for yourselves," she was saying to the boys while her father was still speaking.
"And you can see the tracks, too. I don't want you to take my word for a thing. I told poppy not to move him—we just covered him up is all. We sent Pete out after the sheriff, you know—and the coroner. So be careful about your own tracks till we get a light. You can see from one side, I think—just keep back so things don't get mixed all up."
She was taking the lead quite naturally—one suspected that she had been in the habit of asserting her superior intelligence in every emergency—but her voice was harsh with the repression she had put upon herself. Spider picked a blazing sage branch from the fire and moved up alongside her.
"You needn't come," he said. "You can stay back by the fire."
"No, I'm going to see the thing through," she told him. "I've got to. I stand for our side; and you—you naturally stand for—the other."
Spider knew that she had meant to say Burney, and could not bring herself to mentioning his name.
She stood back a little when he stooped and pulled off the dirty square of canvas that covered the dead man. She did not retreat, but still she stood with her face averted a little and her eyes drooping so that they saw only the rusty, run-down-at- the-heel boots of her Uncle Jake, with the deep, hard creases which time and weather give to cheap footwear. In a minute she looked up at the faces of the four, bent forward while they stared in absolute silence. The flicker of the torch flames upon their faces gave that weird Rembrandt effect which stirs vague savage instincts in one's blood. Their brows were frowning unconsciously, their breath sucked in at the horror they looked upon.
Spider bent closer, put out a reluctant hand, and felt the crushed bones in the neck with his finger tips. He lifted an arm and felt along the ribs.
Then he stood up, drew in his breath sharply, and backed away. It was Spooky, looking true to his nickname, who replaced the grimy canvas.
"Whereabouts are the tracks?" Spider asked the girl, who gave a great sigh of sheer nervous reaction and turned from the still, covered heap.
"Down here. I'll show you." She took his arm and led him around the great, flat outcropping of lava rock upon which her uncle must have been sitting when surprised from behind. "Let me take the torch. We want to keep back ourselves. He came up on these rocks, I guess. There ain't any mark till you get down in the bottom of the gully."
She led Spider down the rocky bank, the other three following. At the bottom she stopped and passed the smoldering brand slowly above the sand, hesitated while she looked back up the bank to get the line fixed in her mind, and went forward again.
Spider caught her hand, and pulled her back protectively.
"Let me look!" He took the torch, whirled it around his head to fan the blaze, and bent forward, searching.
He found it, and stopped; the plain imprint of a boot—long, wide, pressed deep into the soft soil with the weight of the man who trod there—Burney's boot without a shadow of doubt to cloud Spider's certainty. And the toe was pointed up the bank, toward where the dead man lay crumpled upon one side with the bones of his neck crushed and his head twisted horribly upon his shoulder. A long stride down the gully—a long stride for Spider, that is—was another track to match the first.
Spider waited until the others had come up, bent down, and looked upon the tracks. Then, holding Vida by the hand, he picked his way slowly down the gully. Other tracks he found; tracks leading away from the place—leading toward the gloomy scars of the mountain a mile or so away.
Down the gully across the wider depression, and part way up the farther hill they went. There the burning brands died to charred embers, winking sullen, red eyes at them. They stopped, and gave much time to the making of other torches, while Vida sat down on the steep slope and waited, a huddled little figure under the stars; a lonely little figure who gave no response when Shelton tried to lighten the quest with talk.
She sat with her elbows upon her knees and her chin in her cupped palms, and stared at the Great Dipper tilted brim up toward the North Star. Behind her a week-old moon slid out from behind a cloud bank where it had been hiding and stood a moment upon the highest peak of the mountain before it dropped down into the shadow world beyond. In the somber camp across the ridge a sheep dog barked shrilly.
Vida lifted her head, thinking the boys had lighted their torches unknown to her. She turned, looked up the long slope silvered briefly by the moon, gave a little start, and sprang suddenly to her feet.
"Spider, look! Oh, there he is—I saw him on the hill, looking down at us!"
Spider dropped the match he had been nursing between his palms, looked the way she was pointing a shaking finger, and leaped forward, running up the hill. He, too, had seen just for an instant a huge, dark figure outlined against the crescent moon.
At his first move it disappeared, but he ran on, his six- shooter in its scabbard under his hand. Vida ran after him, panting a little toward the last. Behind them came Spooky and Jim and Shelton, who had been slower to start, and, not having seen the figure, were more hazy as to their reasons for running at all.
At the last Spider and Vida climbed side by side more slowly, too breathless to do more than gasp a word now and then. And when they finally reached the top, and stood looking down into the deep, jagged cañon beyond, where the moon could not send a single faint ray, but only made the shadows blacker in contrast to the lightened hilltop, they knew that there was nothing more to be done. For Burney, running downhill with those immense strides of which he was capable, while they panted laboriously up the other side, at that minute could easily be half a mile from there. And a half mile in such a place was just as good as a hundred, so far as their chance of overtaking him was concerned.
THEY went back to camp, looking frequently behind them; fearfully, too, if the truth were known. They offered to relieve Williams from his mournful vigil, and were repulsed with such a tone of finality that they could not well insist. So Spider and Shelton convoyed the girl to her camp wagon and left her there, while Spooky and Jim went back to the Sunbeam.
Spider did not feel like leaving her altogether alone, he told Shelton when they had ridden well away from the wagon. A man who would kill as Jake Williams had been killed, he asserted, might do any horrific thing. And the girl had threatened Burney, and had probably won his enmity even though he had given no sign of it in their presence. For that matter, neither had he given signs of any murderous intent toward the Williams men.
"I'm going to stick around till morning, anyway," said Spider. "And if he does come back it'll just about be a case of shoot first and ask him what he wants afterward. I believe the man's crazy myself."
"You believe he did it, then?" Shelton questioned in an awed tone. "It doesn't seem possible. Burney always acted—"
"Maybe it ain't possible," Spider retorted glumly. "But there's the dead man—you seen him yourself, and you seen how he was killed. And you seen the tracks leading up the hill behind him."
"Say, those tracks—they won't be there to-morrow," Shelton said impulsively. "Spooky scraped them all out with his foot as he went past, like you scraped out the tracks over there where we found old Dutch."
"Hunh!" said Spider. "But all the same, I could swear I seen Burney up on top of the hill looking down at us."
"But if he went to Pocatello, how could he get back so quickly?" Shelton eased his long legs down in a sandy spot where they had stopped in plain sight of the white-topped wagon and yet far enough away to relieve the girl from any sense of being watched.
"If he went to Pocatello," Spider repeated meaningly. "I kinda believe he did go. But if he did he sure didn't stay long. You seen his tracks, didn't you? And a man can't leave his tracks around where he ain't been, can he?" He snuggled down behind a rock, and made himself a cigarette where the glow of it could not be seen at the wagon. "Everything points to Burney," he went on musingly after he had smoked for a time in silence. "I believe it was him done it. At the same time—" He settled his hat more firmly upon his head. "At the same, time I've got a hunch he didn't. There's something in this deal that don't look right to me. Unless you lied or was crazy, there's things that Burney don't seem to fit into."
"I know it," Shelton conceded gloomily. "He doesn't fit into any of it, as I see it; anything except those tracks. And it has occurred to me," he added, moving closer to the other, "that you or I or anybody could put on a pair of Burney's boots and make big tracks, Spider. It would be a clever way of hiding our own tracks, wouldn't it? And if these Williams men had an enemy, it would be a pretty smooth way of shifting suspicion—"
"It would if he could take as long steps as Burney," Spider cut in dryly. "You couldn't step in them tracks, Shep—and you're taller than the average man."
"A fellow could step that far, by—"
A scream—a shrill, woman's scream—brought them both to their feet, their hearts thumping wildly. They ran, leaping long through the sage and rocks. Shelton stumbled over a root and went headlong, and Spider went on. Without knowing why he did so he shouted—and in the faint starlight a great dark form left the wagon and went tearing off along the ridge. Over where the sheep lay huddled the dogs barked and barked, with growlings rumbling between the sharp staccato of their clamor.
Spider reached the wagon out of breath and weak with terror for the girl. "Vida!" he gasped when he could lay hand on the wheel. "Vida—for God sake, girl!"
From over his head she answered him, pushing open the narrow door in the canvas wagon-top. "Oh, I—oh, Spider! He—came!" She crouched in the doorway, her hand reaching out so that she could touch Spider's shoulder for comfort. "How did you happen to be here?" she asked breathlessly, after a minute.
Spider pulled himself together and climbed up beside her. "We never left," he said. "We was standing guard. I was afraid maybe— What did he do?"
Vida shivered. "I was trying to get to sleep, and I couldn't. The whole thing just—haunts me. And then I heard something outside, and I listened—and I was so scared I didn't seem able to move, not even to reach for my gun. And then this door was pushed open, and—I screamed. But he couldn't get through it like anybody else could. He was too—big. He blocked the whole doorway. And then you hollered. And he backed out and I heard him running. "Oh," she shuddered, "it's—horrible! He—might have killed me like he—"
"He's crazy," Spider muttered. "Burney wouldn't hurt anybody in his right mind."
"That don't help any," she retorted sharply. "Oh, he's—horrible!"
She broken down then completely. She sat crouching in the wagon, just inside the narrow doorway, and sobbed hysterically, her arms folded upon the doorsill. Outside, Spider tried to calm her with a diffident pat now and then on her heaving shoulders and with muttered imprecations and sympathy strangely intermingled.
It was too dark to get out after the marauder. In that faint light which the stars gave it was too dark to see anything clearly. From where he stood beside the wagon door, the ridge from which he had run was a vague blotch against the horizon. Shelton he did not see or hear anywhere. At first that did not mean anything to him; he had forgotten Shelton in his fear for the girl and in the reaction from his fright. When he did remember, he expected momentarily to see him appear out of the dark. When he did not come, and Vida's sobs had lessened to quiet weeping, Spider called to him. He waited, called again, and whistled.
He turned to the girl and laid his hand on her arm. "Say, Shep was back there with me," he told her uneasily. "We both started running when we heard you holler, and he ain't showed up yet. I guess I better go back and see what's wrong. And," he added more uneasily, "I guess you better go along with me. I don't like to leave you here."
Vida seemed at first not to hear him, but soon she got up and went back into the vague interior of the wagon. In a minute she returned with her hat and a man's coat—her father's probably—which she was buttoning when she came to the door. In one hand she held her six-shooter. She let Spider help her down, and she closed the door carefully. She was crying still, in a subdued, tired way that went straight to the big, soft heart of Spider. He took her by the arm and led her slowly back toward the ridge.
"Yuh don't want to feel so about it," he said bashfully. "A man's got to go when his time's called. And as for you—why, I reckon we'll take mighty good care you don't get hurt. Anyway, we'll round Burney up to- morrow. He can't git away. He's so ungodly big he can't beat it outa the country and hide anywheres in town, no more than an elephant could hide in a cabbage patch. And if he stays in these hills we'll git him."
"I know it," she assented apologetically. "I ain't a coward, either. I could kill him myself if I had a chance. I—I guess it was just nerves. I don't cry very often. If I cried every time I was unhappy," she said impatiently, "I wouldn't have time for anything else. But—I did get an awful scare. I—I thought I was alone, except for the herder over there with his sheep, and I knew he wouldn't hear anything. They're bedded down out there on the flat, where nothing can't sneak up on 'em so easy after this. So I—I—"
"I know. I'd oughta told you we was going to hang around close. But I was afraid maybe you wouldn't like it. I wasn't so awful much acquainted, and I didn't know—"
At that they came upon Shelton, lying just as he had fallen, face down in the sage. With lighted matches Spider saw what had happened. He had struck his head on a rock, and he was stunned; how badly they had no means of knowing.
Between them they carried him to the wagon and got him inside. By the light of a lantern they bathed and bandaged the purple lump and laid him out comfortably on Vida's bed. After that they sat and talked, and waited for the sun.
SHELTON came to himself in a little while, went through the common stages of mental confusion, and groped his way back to clear thinking. By sunrise he was master of his muscles to the extent that he insisted upon crawling out of the wagon and helping Spider look for tracks. But he owned finally to a roaring headache, and even admitted that he felt "groggy." He was therefore persuaded to stay at the wagon while Vida and Spider went forth upon the man trail; vengefully, determined not to be fooled by any cunning stratagem; ready to kill, even, if they were brought face to face with Burney. They were armed—Spider with an old shotgun which Vida lent him and his own forty-five; and Vida with her revolver and the little twenty-two that seemed ridiculously inadequate in a fight with a giant like Burney. And they were armed also with the fine courage that had been born of sturdy pioneer stock and nurtured by the life each one had lived.
Tracks they found; the great, telltale footprints of a giant's boots marking the length of a giant's stride. Spider's eyes clouded anew when he discovered them in the sandy soil, for he had liked Burney well—and Burney was his boss. He had eaten at the same table with Burney, had slept under the same tent, had used tobacco from the same sack with that democratic freedom which is the true essence of the Western type. He had watched over Burney's cattle; with Burney's money he had paid for the clothes he wore. He was proud of Burney's immensity of frame, of his tremendous strength, of his fairness, and the quiet masterfulness of his manner. Big in every way he had believed Burney to be. Too big, certainly, for petty crime or foul murder; so big that he did not need to defend himself or his rights with the weapons of ordinary men. Burney, in the two or three years that Spider had known him, never had owned or carried a gun. He never hunted animals, for pleasure or profit—and for men he did not need one. That was why he killed with his hands—if he killed at all.
He went forward grimly enough upon the trail, did Spider, but he went with a great bitterness in his heart. He would kill Burney if he came close enough, but he would sorrow always over the memory of Burney's fall.
The trail wound here and there through the sage, and there were times when they lost it altogether, but the general trend of the tracks was toward the hills—rather, toward the highest, roughest peak of the hills—so that Spider, heading for the logical route into the heart of its deep-scarred cañons, picked up the trail twice after several minutes of traveling by guess over rocky ground.
Vida kept beside him or close behind. She seemed tireless as he, yet her face was drawn and colorless from worry and lack of sleep and food; for the breakfast that she cooked hastily for the two men she left untouched herself, except for a few sips of black coffee. Spider tried to save her strength for her, since she seemed to have no care for herself. But she would not have it so. If he sat down to rest after a sharp climb, Vida went on ahead—which brought Spider some fearful moments and made him hurry after her. Once he remonstrated with her for hurrying too fast; her answer then was characteristic.
"When I hear a rattler," she said, "I never quit till I find him and kill him. I'm scared of snakes. And I'm scared of that great big beast of a Burney—and I won't take a long breath till I catch him. While he's free and I don't know where he is, I'm—I just expect every minute he'll sneak up and grab me."
"Not while I can stand on my two feet," Spider interjected, repressing a shiver of horror at the thought. "Only, I don't want you going on ahead. And you've got to save yourself, too. We're a long ways from camp a-ready. I wish we'd brought the horses."
"You don't either," she contradicted flatly. "You knew he'd take to the hills where we couldn't ride. Being afoot, he'd be sure to pick the roughest going he could find. And—it looks like we're up against it right now."
This, because they came to a stand before a bare cliff which shut off the small box cañon which they had entered at its mouth, led on by two of the tracks they were following. These they had found in the loose sand of a dry channel leading up the cañon. The cañon walls had been high, overhanging ledges of rock, unbroken save where slides had ripped off great sections here and there and left the spaces unclimbable because of the banks of shale. The hills were full of such cañons, and sometimes they were passable at the head and gave access either to a higher plateau or to other cañons leading on into the hills. Here, however, the head was cut straight across with a cliff.
"Maybe Burney could get up there," Spider said dubiously, eying the narrow ledge two feet above his highest reach. "But I can't, and you can't. Unless there's some other way outa here we're done for the present."
Vida searched the cliff from wall to wall. She stood back and stared up at the ledge, and puzzled over some means of getting up. She gave up after a little, and consented to go back—at least as far as the cañon's mouth. Perhaps by following the top of the cañon to its head they might pick up the trail beyond, they decided.
They went back, climbed laboriously up the bluff which became the right wall of the cañon, and went on. The way was rough—so rough that Spider began to feel more and more uneasy on account of Vida. But until they reached the point where they could look down the cliff that had halted them in the cañon below she had been deaf to his arguments. Then she saw how fruitless the search was. Like the black cañon they had reached the night before, they faced the fact that Burney might be an impassable mile or two away—absolutely safe from their most eager pursuit—or he might be hiding almost within the reach of his long arm from them.
Certainly he was safe, so far as their presence in the hills might be termed a menace. They rested a while—Spider taking care that they were not exposed to any sudden onslaught—and then they went dispiritedly down to where the land rolled gently out to the arid plains where her father's sheep had foraged among the sage for the grass which the winter snows and spring rains had coaxed into growing there.
When they could look down over the slopes to where the dead man lay still under his canvas covering, Spider's sharp eyes saw movement there, the moving about of various black objects he knew to be men and horses. It might be fellows whom Spooky and Jim had brought or sent. It might as easily be the coroner whom Vida said one of their herders had gone after. Whichever it was, they turned that way and hurried down a long, sloping ridge that would bring them to the camp.
Well, they came to the gruesome spot, and they recognized Spooky and Jim among the group. Spider, after a minute of fast walking, recognized others also: Bell, the sheriff, and also the coroner, whose name was Walters. And there were men whom he had probably brought with him to make up a jury. Spider knew most of them, having lived in that country for more than two years.
But there was one, at sight of whom Vida gave a suppressed scream and gripped Spider by the arm: Burney—huge, quiescent, towering above the others with the patient inaction of a great Newfoundland dog in the midst of a pack of terriers. He was not handcuffed nor under any apparent restraint, and at that Spider wondered.
Vida hung back, for the first time afraid to face the situation. But Spider reassured her with a sentence or two, and she went reluctantly up to the group and sidled close to her father.
Spider went straight to the sheriff, a broad-shouldered, red- faced man with a bull neck, who stood a little to one side filling an age-blackened pipe. The sheriff glanced up at him from under his black hat brim, nodded a greeting, and looked sidelong toward the giant. Spider looked also.
"Where did you git Burney?" he asked in an undertone. And then: "I should think you'd want to chain him up instead of leaving him loose."
The sheriff made two attempts to light a match on his lifted leg, got it going at last, and cuddled the flame in his pipe bowl—"I didn't git him," he said when he was through. "Burney got me. The fellow Williams sent in caught the night train to Pocatello—I was down there on business. He was hunting around for me, and Burney happened to hear about it. So Burney come and told me about it. We got the p'tic'lars from the man, and Burney, he come on up with us. Seems Williams accuses Burney—but you've gotta show me." He jerked his head backward toward the coroner. "It's up to him," he said. "He'll likely be able to place the time of the murder, but if it was yesterday Burney's got a gilt-edged alibi. He was in Pocatello all day—"
"Sure?" Spider plucked Bell by the arm, and drew him farther away. "Last night," he stated deliberately, "Burney came to the wagon where Miss Williams was and tried to git in. She saw him at the door and screamed, and I heard her and run up. Burney beat it when he heard me running—"
Bell had been shaking his beefy head throughout the speech. Now he began to tap Spider impressively on the chest with his forefinger. "Burney was with me last night in Pocatello," he said. "We caught the early train to Corona together. It wasn't him."
"But we saw his tracks," Spider insisted bewilderedly. "We tracked him up into the hills. And earlier in the evening I seen him myself for a minute—"
"Oh, piffle!" exclaimed the sheriff impatiently. "Man, I seen him from nine o'clock till now." He put his pipe back into his mouth, sucked hard on it for a few breaths, and then grinned wryly. "They say you've got a spook out here in the hills," he said. "Maybe that's what yuh seen. You sure didn't see Burney. They's a dozen men—yes, a hundred!—that'll swear to that. Burney ain't a man that's easy mistook."
"No, you're right. He ain't," Spider agreed, and went away and sat down on a rock and rested his elbows on his spread knees and stared hard at the ground. He wanted to think the thing out, and he was too bewildered to think. As he had told Shelton before, not one single, solitary fact seemed to fit in with any other fact. "The things you know for a fact are plumb impossible," he muttered to himself while he made himself a smoke. He glanced up at the stark, frowning hills above them. "I guess it must be spooks, all right," he added. And that was as far toward a solution as Spider could go.
VIDA sidled around Burney at a distance of two rods, and so came up to Spider. She was shaking with nervousness, and she was white and full of wrath.
"What are those men thinking of?" she demanded resentfully. "Why don't they fix Burney so he can't git away? Poppy says he ain't even under arrest."
Spider lifted his head. "I know he ain't. The thing's all balled up and there don't nobody know where they're at. Burney come up from Pocatello this morning with the sheriff. He was there yesterday and las' night. The sheriff says Burney hunted him up and come along with him."
"But how could he? He was trying to git in the wagon last night. I seen him—and I'd swear to that on a stack of Bibles ten feet high. How could he be in Pocatello when he was here?"
"Search me," said Spider glumly.
"What are they fooling around about, doing nothing?" Vida sat down beside him and watched the group as though they were all her enemies.
"Gitting ready for the inquest, I guess. That's the cor'ner monkeying around the body now. And all them other fellows are the jury. You and me and your dad and the herder'll have to testify, I reckon. Maybe they'll want Shep, too—but I guess they can git along without him; there's Spooky and Jim—they'll make out enough."
"I wish to goodness they'd get busy," said Vida peevishly. "I'll break loose and scream if somebody don't do something pretty quick. Say, even yet I can't realize it. It's just like a nightmare. I can't make myself believe it's Uncle Jake under that tarp—"
"You don't have to. Just slide through this deal as easy as you can—if you want my advice. It's pretty tough at that. I can't believe it, either. I can't believe Burney would stand there like that with his hands in his pockets if he—done it."
"Nobody else could do it," Vida pointed out insistently. "And it was done, all right enough."
The coroner raised himself from where he had been kneeling, beckoned to the sheriff, and conferred with him briefly. Informal though it was, the inquest that followed had an atmosphere of grim dignity that served to comfort Vida and reassure her as nothing else had done. The law had taken charge of the matter. She drew a long breath and lifted her shoulders as if the weight of responsibility had been a tangible burden. The sheriff and the coroner and all those other men—they would deal with Burney as he deserved. She no longer felt that hot desire to shoot him down into a heap of inert flesh like her uncle. Though he stood free, a little apart from the others, with his pipe in his mouth and his great hands in his pockets, he was still in the grip of the law. The sheriff would not let him get away. He would shoot him first.
And then, as the inquest proceeded and her father testified, and Pete and Spooky and Spider and Jim, Vida began to feel a vague discomfort. The jury went solemnly down into the little gully to look at the tracks Burney had left, and returned a nonplused group of men. There were tracks enough, but there were no tracks that could possibly have been made by Burney's feet. Vida could not understand that. And then the sheriff was sworn, just like any common man, and declared that Burney had been in Pocatello when the murder was committed.
Vida could not understand that, either. Her father told of the sheep that had been killed and of Burney's visit on the morning when he had ordered them off the range. But that did not offset the sheriff's amazing statement nor the mystery of the tracks that had disappeared.
There was a minute or two of whispered consultation and a question which the foreman asked the coroner concerning the manner of death.
"I find," replied the coroner, "that the deceased undoubtedly came to his death by having his neck broken by twisting. Four ribs were broken also, evidently by crushing. There are no bullet wounds—the only other marks of violence on the body being some scratches on the scalp behind the ear. These, I judge, were made by finger nails, in gripping the head to twist it."
Vida shivered. And then came the most amazing thing of all in her opinion. The jury whispered, and gave their verdict. And the verdict was that her Uncle Jake had met death at the hands of some person unknown to them—with Aleck Burney standing there within twenty feet of them, his great, murderous hands hidden in his pockets!
She sprang to her feet to denounce them all as cowards and fools and liars. But when she stood up and had gone as far as "Oh, you—" things went black, and the whole scene was blotted out of existence as far as she was concerned.
When she came to herself again she was on her bed in the sheep wagon, with a wet towel wadded on her forehead and trickling water down her neck. Her father was scorching the bacon outside, and the coroner was talking to him about free wool.
Vida lay there trying to piece things together and trying also to muster enough energy to call to poppy that the bacon was burning. But neither seemed worth any effort, so presently she went to sleep.
When she awoke it was night, and a cool wind was stirring the sage and flapping a loose bit of canvas in the doorway. She did not know where her father was, bat she supposed he was asleep under the wagon where he made up his bed always when they were together. She wondered if they had buried Uncle Jake—or would they have a funeral to-morrow? Not much of a funeral, with no coffin and no preacher or anything. How could Burney be in Pocatello when he was here in the hills? How could he make tracks where he hadn't been?
She went to sleep again, and dreamed that she was tracking Burney and that the tracks came and went in the sand without any human aid or explanation. Then she dreamed that she was in a blind cañon with no way out except through the mouth where she had entered. She had gone in there looking for Burney. But her dream shifted, as dreams have a fashion of doing: Burney was looking for her, and she was hiding in there. And she saw him creeping up the cañon, a gigantic figure in the deep shadows of the high walls. And suddenly there was no place to hide. And Burney was coming closer and closer, peering this way and that with his little, deep-set, twinkling eyes. He had not yet discovered her where she cowered against the bare wall of the cañon, but he would see her presently. He was so close that she could hear his footsteps crunching—
The wagon tilted six inches, upheaved from below, and woke Vida. She found herself sitting up on the hard bunk, and her heart was not beating at all; then it gave a heavy flop at the base of her neck. She screamed automatically, without any conscious volition; shrilly, without any articulateness.
The wagon heaved again so that she clung to the boarded edge of the bunk. Like a rabbit scared out of its hiding, she darted suddenly away from the bed and down the lurching length of the wagon box to the narrow doorway, jerked the door open, and looked out. She knew then what it was she feared. And she knew that she was afraid for her father, whose bed was always made up under the wagon and who slept heavily, as tired, slow-thinking men do sleep when their lives are spent in the open. The wagon settled down suddenly on its four wheels. There was a scurrying rush of some large object—but it was behind the wagon, where Vida could not see because of the canvas top. She did not know where her gun had been put.
"Poppy!" she called in a perfect frenzy of terror. "Poppy! Where are you, poppy? Oh, poppy!"
From behind the wagon—out in the whispering sage, a hoarse scream answered her. Human—and yet not human—mocking, maniacal, horrible. The most awful sound that Vida had ever heard in her life; a squall, a cry—a shriek she could not find a name for. Her memory flew back to the tales of ghosts and demons that an old Scotch woman had told her years ago. Warlock—that was it! A warlock, such as Maggie MacDonald had told about, that haunted the heath behind the village where strange deaths occurred periodically in the dark of the moon. When men and women were found strangled—and none knew how or why.
Vida crouched down in the wagon box, back in the shadow where the moon—a little later in its dip behind the high peak to- night—could not betray her to the devil that roamed without. She had laughed at those old tales of the warlock—except when she shivered over the actual telling. But now, tonight, the thing seemed real—a tangible menace. She felt its uncanny presence bounding away over the sage; a horrible thing; blue, with horns and a long tail; taking what shape it would; leaving what trail it would for men to puzzle their wits over.
She hid her face in her circling arms and shivered. She saw now why it was that Burney had seemed to be in two places at once; why it was that Shelton and Spider and Spooky had felt some eerie thing following them. They might have been killed! No one was safe from a warlock. No one.
She could not have spent more than a minute crouching there in the grip of superstitious fear, but it seemed to her that she must have cowered in that corner, against the grub box, at least an hour. She heard a stir beneath the wagon, a sound between a grunt and a groan.
"Poppy!" she cried again, and lifted her head. "What was it, poppy? Are you hurt?" The sound of her own voice steadied her wonderfully. She went back, and, in the dim light of the moon shining faintly on the canvas, groped with her fingers along a rough shelf over the bed where she thought her father might have laid her revolver. Her hand struck against the cool barrel of it. She caught it up eagerly and went hurrying back to the door that was open and swung slowly back and forth in the breeze like the pendulum of a clock almost run down for lack of winding. She climbed down over the front of the wagon box—if you are familiar with sheep wagons, you know that they are not very convenient as to getting in and out—and crept between the front wheels, where her father always put the head of his bed.
It was dark there, and the moon had set a black shadow of the wagon top down upon the eastern side. Vida groped with one hand—the other held her revolver. "Poppy! Why don't you answer me? Where are you?" she called sharply.
The vague outline of his squat figure detached itself from the shadow of the wagon, and he stood plainly revealed in the moonlight. "'F I could git a sight of 'im, I'd shoot 'em down like I would a ki-oty," he snarled. "Where be yuh, Vida? Tore m' shirt half off'n me, tryin' to git his hands on m' throat! All saved me was the bigness of him. He got hung up between the wagon wheels, and he didn't know jest how I was layin'. 'F I'd 'a' had m' bed out'n the open he'd 'a' killed me, sure. Man like that'd oughta be hung up by the heels—over a slow fire! Killin's too good f'r 'im. D'you hear'm holler, Vida? Tried to sound like a mount'n lion, so's to fool me—but it didn't work worth a cent. He can't fool me! I seen him when he raised up 'n' turned tail 'n' run. I seen 'im plain as day."
"And was it—Burney, poppy?" Vida had crawled back from under the wagon, and the two stood together just within the shadow, staring off into the moonlit, whispering sage which the breeze moved so that it seemed alive.
"A-course it was Burney! He can't fool me! He got out in the moonlight f'r a minute, and I seen him, plainer 'n' what I see you. A-course it was Burney! He's a cute one—purtendin' t' be in Pocatello, 'n' at home, 'n' everywheres but where he is. But he can't fool me. He ain't cute enough. He crawled out 'n' stood up in the moonlight. 'F I'd 'a' had m' gun in m' hands, then I'd 'a' fixed him! Tried t' murder me in m' sleep! He woulda, too, 'f he hadn't 'a' been so all-fired big he couldn't git under the wagon."
Away off on the flat, where the sheep were bedded down in the care of a herder, a dog barked hysterically, in the sharp staccato of alarm; yelped once, and was still. A few mother sheep blatted, and a man yelled some shrill command; yelled just once, and did not yell again. Vida shuddered and clung to her father.
"I'll bet he went over there, among the sheep," she whispered terrifiedly. Then she took a fresh grip on her courage and her gun, and started to run toward the disturbance. She had forgotten her conviction that a warlock was abroad working his will upon defenseless humans.
"Come on, poppy!" she called back at the man, who still hesitated and grumbled threats in the shadow of the wagon. "Come on and help me get him! Big as he is, a bullet'll stop him—come on!"
"You c'm on back here!" cried her father, with futile authority in his voice, and stayed where he was. "C'm on back! You can't do nothin' in the dark that-a-way."
"He might be killing Walt Smith!" Vida flung the sentence back at him and ran the faster. But her father stayed by the wagon and shouted commands and imprecations after her as she ran.
She topped the last low ridge that marked the edge of the sage-covered flat where the sheep had been held for safety, and stood still for a minute, panting heavily and trying to see what was taking place out there where the band was huddled. The moon silvered softly the plain. She could see as far as Pillar Butte, even—a vague, dark blur against the star-sprinkled purple which was the sky. Then, quite suddenly, the moonlight darkened so that she could not see ten rods. She turned to see why, and a streak of vivid yellow gashed the night through like a flaming sword.
A thunderstorm, common enough in that country, was sweeping up from the southwest. Already it had swallowed the moon so deeply that Vida, staring upward, could not even see where it had gone. And while she stared with her face turned upward, she heard a cry down there below her on the plain, a man's cry for help. It was not so very far away, either. She swung instantly and faced that way, and wished for the lightning that would cut away the darkness.
"This way! Come this way!" she called, as loudly as she could, and with her thumb pulled back the hammer of her gun. It was Walt Smith, the tow-headed Mormon herder. He was running—she could hear him rustling the sage bushes that came in his way.
And then the lightning came—a bright opening in the clouds like a black velvet curtain drawn aside suddenly to give a glimpse of the brilliance behind. The whole plain was lighted more clearly than by the moon. And Vida, standing there with the lightning behind her, saw Walt Smith running toward her like a scurrying rabbit toward its burrow. Saw behind him the huge figure of a man who came on with giant strides, leaping clean over what bushes came in his way.
The darkness dropped and made the night blacker after the glare, so that she could see nothing. The heavy roll of thunder beat down whatever cry might have come from the quarry. But the lightning came again—and Walt was close—so close that she could see he had no hat on, and that his tow hair was bushy with the wind he faced. And that giant who came behind—he was close, too; quite close. In a minute he would overtake Walt.
Involuntarily Vida raised her hand and fired straight at his middle. The big man swerved sharply, and she fired again, and yet again. She saw him whirl and start back—and then it was black dark again. Walt Smith came puffing up the slope, and Vida waited for him. A little contemptuous she was—a little impatient because men ran from Burney instead of shooting as she had done. Walt had a gun—why didn't he use it instead of running like a scared rabbit? Burney would not have come after him if Walt had used his gun rather than his legs. She was beginning to understand that Burney was afraid of a gun. A gun was the only thing more powerful, more dangerous, than he was. He could not fight and overcome a bullet; he could not catch it on its singing flight and twist the neck of it and kill it. Burney was afraid of a gun. And Vida, once she felt that it was so, lost all her fear of him.
So her lips curled in the darkness while Walt came panting up to where she stood, and told breathlessly how Burney had got among the sheep, and how a dog had run out, and Burney had killed the dog. How he had shouted for the other dog, that was off chasing a coyote from the far side of the band, and how Burney had then come at him like a charging elephant.
"And you didn't have sense enough to shoot," she finished for him coldly. "You and poppy make me tired! I'll bet you dropped your gun when you started to run."
"No, I never!" Walt hastened to deny. "I kep' it—but I never had no chancet to use it. He—he was comin' right at me!"
VIDA made her way in the face of the freshening wind to where her father stood guard over the empty sheep wagon and waited impatiently her return. Behind her tagged Walt Smith, puffing and pasty-white from the scare he had gotten.
"Poppy, either you or Walt will have to go and stay with the sheep," she announced firmly, when she came near and the lightning split the darkness and revealed him to her. "Burney killed one of the dogs—but you needn't be scared, either one of you. I put him on the run, shooting at him. He won't bother again to-night—he never has, after he has been shot at."
"He oughta be killed!" snarled her father ineffectively. "A man that'll murder—"
"You can suit yourself which one goes back to the sheep. It's going to storm pretty quick—and storm hard, too. I've got to git me something to eat, and rest up. I'm about done up, as it is." She started to climb up into the wagon, but stopped in the doorway and turned toward the two. "Where's the sheriff at?" she asked. "And what's he going to do about Burney?"
"I ain't runnin' the sheriff," her father retorted, with the petulance of the weak-souled. "How sh'd I know where he's at? Went back to town with the cor'ner, I guess, after we buried Jake. He couldn't do nothing about Burney—not after the cor'ner's jury let him off. Sheriff can't run a man in without a warrant," he explained, in the tone of weary tolerance for a woman's ignorance which some men love to assume. "He didn't have no warrant. Yuh got to git something on Burney 'fore he c'n be 'rested."
"Yes, and he'd run loose a good long while before you ever done anything about it—but talk!" she accused bitterly. "'N it was your own brother, too. And your sheep. Walt Smith, you git back there and look after 'em! What you gitting paid for? You needn't be scared-a Burney. All you gotta do is shoot if he shows up, and he'll run. You seen how quick he headed the other way when I shot? He won't show up, though. He's halfways home by this time."
She waited until she saw Walt turn reluctantly and go off toward the sheep. She upbraided her father again for his weak passivity that spent precious minutes in useless clamor, and told him to keep watch while she slept. In the morning, she declared, she meant to get out after Burney herself, seeing no one else had the nerve to do it.
When she had made her feelings and her intentions perfectly clear to him—and thereby claimed and clarified her own mind—she ate hungrily of cold, fried bacon and some very good bread which she herself had baked, and finished with a dish of stewed, dried apples and a cup of cold tea.
After that she lay down upon her hard bed, with her six- shooter cuddled under her pillow and her fingers touching the cool butt of it, and listened to the grumbling mutter of the storm and watched the searing lightning flash intermittent glares of light upon her bowed, canvas roof.
She fell asleep so. For she was young and healthy and sturdy of spirit, and she had seen Burney, the giant, turn and run from her and her gun—and she had lost her fear of him.
The rain came suddenly, and pelted the sageland with great globes of cold water hurled earthward. Sheets of it, like a gray wall, with the gashing sword-thrusts of the lightning and the splitting crash of thunder—and still she slept. All her life she had known those terrific thunderstorms of the plains country, and the shelter of that twelve-ounce canvas over her head spelled security to her nerves.
Her father pottered peevishly about, piling harness and saddles under the wagon and lifting his blankets up under the canvas top. He muttered querulously to himself at the vileness of fate and the passionate fury of the storm, while he spread his bed upon the floor between the stove and the hinged table, and, with a grunt, laid himself down at last for his belated rest. And Vida slept quietly, heavily, utterly worn out and gathering strength for what was to come.
In the morning came Shelton and Spider to see how she had fared and to learn whether they had seen or heard anything of the murderer of her uncle. That, at least, was their professed errand; probably they merely made that an excuse for riding over.
Spider had been made a deputy before the sheriff left, so that he might feel behind him the authority of the law in case an emergency rose. The sheriff, he explained to Vida apologetically, would have stayed and hunted the hills over—if he had known who, or what, he was to search for.
"He's plumb up ag'inst a mystery," Spider asserted, "and he ain't got the time to turn out and play detective. Shep and me's going to try our hands at that. And if we get anything that looks like a clue, we're to let him know. You see, since Burney's proved he never done it—"
"That'll take a' lot more proof than he's furnished yet," Vida cut in stubbornly. "He tried to kill poppy last night, but he got hung up trying to get under the wagon. He tore poppy's shirt, and then he run. And he went down to the band and killed a dog, and tried to kill Walt Smith. But—"
"How do you know?" Spider moved closer, and his eyes were sharpened while he stared into her face. "How do you know it was Burney?"
"Because I seen him, and poppy seen him. I seen him chasing Walt, and I took a couple of shots at him. He turned and run then, like a scared rabbit."
"You're sure it was Burney?" Spider still stared hard at her.
"Of course I'm sure! Do you think he's easy to mistake? He wasn't more'n fifty yards away when the lightning lit up everything, and I shot at him. He was as plain as you are this minute."
"What time was that? It started in to lightning about half past ten—"
"And it was the first bright flash that showed him up. It was moonlight till then, and then the storm rolled up in front of the moon. Poppy seen him by moonlight—"
Spider turned and looked inquiringly at Shelton. "You know what time Burney came home," he said.
"Then he was gone last night?" Vida stood up, quivering for the hunt. Till then she may have had a subconscious doubt of Burney's guilt in spite of the evidence of her eyes.
"He was gone," stated Shelton mystifiedly, "but he came back just after the storm started. Spider and I were going to follow and see where he went. But we didn't miss him till just before the storm came up, because he'd left a candle burning after we'd all gone to bed. Spider got up and looked, and the light was out. And we went down and found out that his horse was gone—and that was just when it begun to thunder and lightning. And we were going to saddle up and come over here, anyway, when it started to rain like all get-out. We were waiting for it to let up a little, when Burney came back. We saw him ride down the hill—it was lightning something fierce by that time—and we beat it back to the bunk house before he came up. We didn't want him to know we were watching him, you see." Shelton had still a purple-and- green lump on his forehead, but he was otherwise his old, cheerful self.
"You don't know how long he'd been gone?" Vida was plainly puzzled. This might prove another alibi.
"Not more than an hour or two. Because I made an excuse to go to the cabin just about nine o'clock, and Burney was in bed then, reading a novel by candlelight. He'd acted pretty gloomy—didn't he, Spider?—after we all got home. Didn't eat any supper, but sat and smoked and looked at his toes as if he were thinking pretty hard about something. So when I saw him reading in bed, Spider and I kind of made up our minds that he had settled down for the night. So we went to bed. We meant to put in the day looking around, whether Burney liked it or not. And then Spider saw the light go out, and got up to make sure—and Burney was gone. So—"
"How about the other fellows?" Vida was putting bacon sandwiches in a flour sack with the evident intention of spending the day in the hills.
"Oh, they claim that Burney don't know a thing about the—killing. They're off riding the other way today." Spider took it upon himself to explain. "I'm supposed to be, too. I just pulled out with Shep and never said a word to anybody. I'm liable to git my time—but that'll be all right. There's other jobs. I might herd sheep for a change," he said, with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Well, if you're going into the hills, I'm going with you," Vida announced decisively. "I ain't afraid of Burney any more, and"—she gritted her teeth over the thought—"I'd just like to have a hand in rounding him up. I ain't afraid of him. I've found out that a gun is bigger than he is—and he knows it. And I can shoot just as well as either of you. So I'm going."
"It'll be pretty hot," Spider objected weakly. "And it's rough going, too—where we're going."
"It won't be any hotter in the hills than it will be in this wagon," Vida argued. "And I was raised on rough going."
"Well, we'd like to have you with us, all right"—Spider flushed over the admission, which to him sounded extremely significant—"but we ain't going after Burney exactly. We don't know what we're going after. That spook, maybe. Put it any way you like, Miss Williams, it's a cinch Burney never killed your uncle. He couldn't, when he was in Pocatello all that day."
"The sheriff lied, maybe." Vida had a streak of stubbornness that was slow to yield.
"No, he never. And there was the coroner, too. He seen Burney in Pocatello, and talked with him, and they was together. Him and the sheriff was both down there from Shoshone, and your herder went there after 'em, 'stead of waiting at Corona till they come up. He'll tell you himself he seen Burney in Pocatello. No, we got to look for some one else that's hiding out in these hills."
"There's last night, too," Shelton pointed out to her. "How do you suppose Burney could ride twelve or fifteen miles in less than an hour?" This was secondhand wisdom which he had picked up from Spider's deductions on the way over.
"How could there be another man the size of Burney in the country and nobody know it?" Vida came back at him. "Tracks and everything prove—and, besides, didn't I tell you I seen him?"
"At night," said Spider patiently. "Always at night. Why, I could strap a pair of stilts onto my legs and fix to look like Burney—at night. Lord!" he ejaculated. "I believe I've fell onto the answer to the whole blame thing!"
Vida looked at him with her lips parted. Inwardly she was seeing how plausible that solution was, after all. She herself had gone striding over this very country on crude, homemade stilts, just for fun, when she was a child. Still—
"How would stilts make a man so—strong in his hands?" she questioned, with a catch in her voice over the horror her words called up.
"There's tricks to help a man seem a whole lot stronger'n what he is," Spider told her, with something approaching cheerfulness. "There's somebody prowling around these hills trying to git something onto Burney," he declared boldly. "Why, it'd be a cinch, the way he's worked it—only he can't be in two places at once, and he can't watch Burney and do his dirty work all at the same time. So Burney slips alibis over on him now and then, and that kinda spoils his play. Come on, folks!—we'll see what we can figure out on this trail. Anyway, I'll bet money I've got the answer right here—that it's just a common- sized man we want to look for that hates Burney and wants to get him in bad."
"But who'd want to?" Vida persisted in her doubts. "It would take a man half crazy with hate to think up a scheme like killing sheep and—folks—that way, and making big tracks around over the country—" She brought the package of sandwiches and gave it to Spider. "That would take the worst kind of an enemy to do that."
"Well, it don't take much to start some men loping along the hate trail," Spider asserted confidently. "Lots of men hate Burney. He's so ungodly big he's got a cinch in everything but a gun fight, and he's kinda queer in his ways, all right. He don't mix with folks, and he don't try to make friends with nobody. So he ain't got so awful many. Well, I'll go git your pony and we'll drift—if you're bound to come with us."
"Poppy's going to be out with the sheep all day. And that's where I draw the line—at sheep-herding. I'll feel lots safer with you boys."
That, of course, settled any lingering reluctance to take her with them. She mounted the pinto pony which Spider saddled and led up to her, and they rode toward the hills. There was no encouragement to look for tracks, after that heavy, pelting rain; they loped along in silence for the most part until they reached the first real climb and were compelled to go slowly.
Vida was studying the mystery from the new angle which Spider had taken with his theory. For that matter, so was Shelton and Spider himself. Spider pulled a foot free of the stirrup, slid over in the saddle so that he was resting mostly on one thigh for relaxation, and sifted tobacco into a cigarette paper.
"Yes, sir, that accounts for pretty nearly everything," he said, apropos of their thoughts. "If we can locate that cave that Shep went prognosticating around in, I'll bet you money we'll nab the gentleman that's been doing all the mischief. Chances are that's where he hangs out. And between you and me, I've got a notion I could name the man. I won't, because I ain't dead sure, and it's a nasty proposition, tacking a crime like that on a fellow till you're dead certain he done it. But there's one fellow, and only one, that might frame up a deal like this and put it through. He's strong as a bull, pretty middling big, and he hates Burney worse'n a schoolma'am hates a worm down her back. He's on the dodge for a killing he done in Hailey a year ago last winter. It was Burney's evidence that put the diamond hitch on him—and he broke jail and ain't been seen since. He left word he'd git Burney and git him right."
"Would he be afraid of a gun?" Vida put the question quite seriously.
The twinkling devil showed in Spider's eyes when he looked at her.
"My experience is that 'most any man is afraid of a gun when he ain't behind it," he informed her dryly. "Everybody knows that Burney never packs a gun, so he couldn't very well produce one and go on acting the part of Burney—sabe? And he wouldn't be crazy about being shot, either. It would be up to him to drift, unless he wanted to give the whole deal away."
"Is he in this country?" Shelton studied the hills before them with that frank curiosity which was almost childish.
"If he's the man, he sure must be in this country. I don't hardly think he's in South America. Ask another one, Shep."
Shelton flushed, glanced quickly at Vida, and refrained from asking another question.
They worked their way up the more open slopes until they were in the heart of Spook Hills. All about them the steeps rose sheer above cañons whose roughness was hidden beneath the deep green of pines, mottled along the middle with the lighter foliage of cottonwoods that told where flowed the tiny streams which never reached the desert beyond.
"It's a great place to hide out in," Spider observed once when they stopped on a high, bare ridge and gazed out over the jumble. "And it's an almighty poor place to find anybody in. It's just a case of ridin' by guess and by gosh, and taking a chance on runnin' acrost anything."
"What about the cave? Aren't you going to hunt around there?" Vida asked him somewhat diffidently. She might bully Shelton and assert her wider experience and laugh at his ignorance, and she might—and did—order her father about like a hired man; but with Spider she was all woman, who recognized man as the leader. Save when she argued over the guilt of Burney, her deference to Spider's masculinity was perfectly noticeable.
"We are if we can find it. Shep, he went and lost it out of his pocket after he got through playin' with it, and he ain't found it again." Spider was finding it easy to joke over the matter now, since he had a theory that left Burney clear of guilt.
"I'll bet I could find it," Vida declared, quite suddenly. "What kind of a place was it, Shep—on the outside? Did it open out onto a rocky knoll, like that over there?" She pointed with her quirt.
"No, it didn't. It was under a ledge on the side of a cañon. It was down east of that ridge where I left you that day—and it went straight back like a long tunnel, and then there were branches, after one went in quite a long way."
Vida studied the hills frowningly. "Lots of caves are like that," she retorted, her eyes smiling across at Spider in a way that Shelton did not find pleasurable to himself. "I could show you a dozen long tunnels that open under ledges in cañons. The hills are full of them. Wasn't there anything else to remember it by?"
Shelton twisted his lips ruefully. "Several things: I lost old Dutch there, and had to walk home, for one. And I met that old Indian squaw that— By Jove!" He turned to Spider eagerly. "If we could find her again, she might know whether there's anybody else living here in the hills, don't you think?"
"I thought you said she was crazy." Spider's enthusiasm seemed to conserve itself for his own ideas. "And blind."
"Well—yes, she was. But still—"
"If she's blind, she couldn't see him, and if she's crazy, we couldn't depend on anything she said. So what's the use? If you know any caves that might do for a hang out, Vida, let's take a look at 'em. I've got candles."
"I know lots of them. Not on this side, though." Vida examined the nearest bluffs critically. "We'll have to get across this ridge first. It's just like these hills was piled up hot, and before they got cold they crumpled all down on one side and left lumps and hollows all through them. Over on the other side is where 'most all the caves are."
That meant a wide detour, because they were already up so high in the hills that the cañons were not to be crossed except afoot. Shelton wanted to keep straight on, but the other two did not pay much attention to his opinions or his wishes. After all, he was a tenderfoot, and they two were Western to the bone; and, say what you will, there is a certain clannishness among rangefolk, a perfectly natural drawing together of congenial spirits, even when there is no sex attraction to emphasize the partiality. Shelton felt it and became moody, and rode by himself quite pointedly, which did not displease Vida, so far as one could tell by her manner, and which visibly elated Spider, who wanted her to himself, anyway.
Thus they reached again the lower country some distance apart, and, in crossing a series of low ridges, became separated. Shelton did not mind that in the least; in fact, he had assisted the accident by loitering behind a ridge and in letting Dutch climb at a slant that would eventually land him in the home trail. Shelton was sulking as much as it was in his nature to sulk. He had been overlooked in the conversation; he had seen Vida smile at Spider as she had never smiled at himself, and he had been laughed at when he offered suggestions which he considered perfectly good. He had begun to suspect that the quest of the murderer was, after all, secondary in importance to their pleasure in riding through the hills together. A lot they cared about finding clues, so long as they could ride side by side and make eyes at each other, he criticized sharply. He was out to solve the gruesome mystery of these hills, and he could do it a lot easier without those two along making objections to everything he wanted to do. He saw a spooky-looking gorge, all jutting ledges and deep crevices along the sides, off to his right. He turned deliberately into it in spite of the fact that it led straight away from where he had last seen Spider and Vida.
IT is not wise for a party to become separated in the wilderness. Shelton, born to the easy ways of policed streets and cars which may be counted upon to land all wanderers at home in due time, did not know of that unwritten law of the wild which commands a man to keep in touch with his companions. He went calmly about his own business, and felt no compunctions whatever over the separation.
Spider and Vida, however, knew well the law of the wild, and did their best to obey it. They waited on top of the ridge, and talked of many things. After a while they rode back where they could scan the long, bare slope they had just climbed; for Shep was green, and there was no telling what might have happened. They did not see anything of him, for the simple reason that he had crossed the ridge lower down while they stood talking, hidden from him by a straggling growth of alders. They went back to the highest point and waited there, and watched all the slopes. Spider yelled, with his cupped hands for a megaphone, to the four quarters of the earth until he was purple.
They retraced their steps to where they had last seen Shep, and from there they tried to track him. They did track him halfway up the ridge, and then lost all trace of him in a patch of thick, short grass all matted with last year's growth. They called him names, relieving their minds a little. They told each other, over and over, how blameless they had been, and how they had taken it for granted he would have sense enough to follow them and not go wandering off by himself. They went back upon the pinnacle and waited again, and watched the hills and cañons spread all about them as an eagle must watch from his aerie. They repeatedly declared that they ought to go on and leave him—it would serve him right and "learn" him a lesson. But they lingered still, held by that law of the wild that stragglers must be accounted for before a party may continue its journey. Perhaps the law itself might not have held them, had there not been a very real menace to wanderers in those hills. Somewhere this wilderness held concealed a man who would murder, fiendishly and wantonly. They could not go on and leave Shep unaccounted for. He had started out with them, and he had given them no hint that he intended to leave them. And yet he had disappeared completely and without warning.
"Aw," said Spider at last, when the sun hung high and hot over their heads, "there's no sense in waiting here any longer. He'd 'a' showed up long ago if he was coming. We've done our share, and then some. We've waited here, and hunted and watched two good, long hours—and I've hollered my head off. If that other fellow's anywhere within ten mile of us, he knows just where we're located by this time. Let's get on over the other side-a the mountain and take a look at them caves."
"But I don't see where Shep could 'a' went to!" Vida complained nervously. "I guess my nerves are all upset lately; I know it don't take much to worry the life outa me."
"Let's go back to camp." Spider had suggested it four or five times, but he tried it again in the hope that Vida, like all other women, would change her mind. "This ain't no business for a girl, anyway—tracking down a murderer. We'll go back, and I'll get Spooky and Jim, and we'll make a still hunt all through here. I never meant to—"
"Oh, I know all that. But I consider I'm just as good as Spooky or Jim, either one. I can shoot—and that's what will count if we meet him. I don't scare easy—honest, I don't. You mustn't feel as if you've got me on your hands, to take care of. I can take care of myself. I—killed a mountain lion once."
"I don't know of anybody I'd rather have along," said Spider, softening his voice unconsciously. "You've sure got most-a the men skinned for nerve. I never seen a woman as nervy as you are." He paused, and leaned a trifle closer. "'F there's anything I hate, it's a coward," he added guilefully. "All I meant was that I ain't as brave for you as you are for yourself. I d'no' what I'd do if anything was to happen to you."
Vida was not schooled to coquetry. She blushed and looked away from him, across the uneven crests of the hills. She had no pert answer ready; she was acutely conscious of his hand behind her on the high cantle, just as if he had his arm around her, she felt. And she was conscious of her own awkwardness.
"Why, there's Shep, away over there! Ain't it?" She pointed a slim brown finger. "It's a white horse, anyway— I bet he's headed for home."
Spider frowned and took away his hand. Even at two or three miles' distance Shep could be a confounded nuisance, it would seem, and interrupt just when he shouldn't. "It's him, all right," he conceded briefly. "Now you'll quit worrying about him, maybe. What shall we do? Go back, or take a look around them caves?"
"I won't go back." Vida started her pony forward, wondering why she should feel such a sudden depression. "It's awful hot. Let's hunt for a spring, and eat our lunch, first thing. We'll have to go pretty near as far as Shep went to get where there's any caves that I know anything about."
She rode part way down the ridge in silence. "I just can't make myself believe it wasn't Burney," she broke out abruptly. "A man with stilts on could make tracks—I can see how that would be easy enough, but—"
"But what?" Spider looked at her unsmilingly. He had thought her convinced. She had been convinced, so far as he could see; it was like a woman to fly back on an argument and have to go through the whole deal again! "What makes it hard to believe?"
Vida turned in the saddle so that she faced him. Her eyes held a worried look; she did want to please Spider, but she was so uncompromisingly honest that she could not pretend to believe just because he wanted her to do so.
"I hate this talking and talking, and never getting anywhere," she protested impatiently. "But I just can't believe it wasn't Burney. He was big—not just tall, but big. He was so big he couldn't crawl under the wagon like a common man would, to get poppy. He waked me up, tilting the wagon up on one side, trying to crawl under between the wheels. Our brake sticks out quite a ways, but any common man coulda got under easy enough— It was Burney. I know it was. When I seen him chasing Walt Smith, he was big—big every way. We ain't after any common-sized man, and I know it. And he don't live in any cave, either. He lives right at the Sunbeam Ranch. It's all foolishness, hunting through all the caves. If he was there, we couldn't git him. He'd see us coming with our lights."
"Why didn't you say you felt that way about it?" Spider's voice was hard and even.
"A person feels things without knowing it, sometimes. I knew all the time I didn't feel right about it, but—"
"If you don't want to hunt the caves, what's the use of going on?" To prove that it was of no use whatever, Spider pulled his horse to a stand. "I'll take you back to camp, and then I'll have a free hand to look where I want to look. Come on—I'll want a little time before dark."
"Oh, you needn't get mad," Vida told him quickly, her own eyes burning the anger light. "I'll go through the caves, if that's what you want. But—"
"I don't want you to. I told you all along I didn't. It ain't safe for a girl." Then, just because he was a bit angry, he spoiled his last chance of sending her back. "If it was Burney, you'd be dead safe," he said. "It's because it ain't him, and I know it ain't."
"Seems to me it's poor policy to know so much about who it is and who it ain't!" snapped Vida, and sent her pony on down the hill. She did not mean anything by that, except that his positiveness irritated her at that moment.
But Spider, inflamed by his anger and made abnormally sensitive by his growing love for the girl, fancied that she was hinting at a guilty knowledge of the crime. He turned white around the lips and nostrils, and fell back a couple of rods in the rear. Save for the fact that she really was not safe in those hills alone, he would have left her, just as Shelton had left her a few days ago. He compromised by keeping her in sight, and in remaining so far behind that she must stop and wait for him openly before there could be any further speech between them.
Vida looked back once or twice very cautiously, and saw that Spider had no intention of overtaking her. She flamed hot with anger which she tried to believe was directed toward Spider rather than herself. She had been pretty mean, but so had Spider. If he really believed she wasn't safe alone, why did he lag along behind like that? Well, all right, if he wanted to keep his distance—she'd see that it was easy to do!
So she urged her pony down that hill at a shuffling trot, and when he was at the bottom she put him into a lope. She felt hateful, and she meant to act just as hateful as she felt. No Sunbeamer need think he could whistle her to his heels! He wanted to hunt through the caves? Very well, she would lead him to all the caves she knew, and he could hunt through them to his heart's content. Much good it would do him, with the murderer hanging out at the Sunbeam Ranch all the while!
Vida was a girl, and she was given to moods. Though she was accustomed to hard living and to worrying over material things—even to tragedy in a small way—she had been stirred deeply by the outrages upon her family. She could have killed, had the opportunity risen when she was in the killing mood. She had run the gamut of emotions in the past forty-eight hours, from fear and horror and hate to shy, dawning love and the sense of security which love brings to women. But nerves are tricky things at best. Because she became quite absorbed in the tormenting of one called Spider—she did not even know his real name—and she pushed into the background of her mind the real object of their quest. To lead Spider through the hills, to dodge into this cave and that cave ahead of him—always to keep ahead of him—that became a matter of importance. To make him think that he had lost sight of her permanently, and to watch from some hiding place in the rocks while he hunted for her—that raised her spirits immensely.
As to Burney—she thought of him sometimes, in the wildest places, and sent uneasy, seeking glances around her. But then she had her gun safe in its holster at her hip, and the belt sagged with loaded cartridges; and Burney was afraid of a gun. So she put the unwelcome thought of him from her, and went on teasing Spider. Nerves are tricky things, and they take strange whims. But Fate is trickier, and her whims are stranger.
Fate, for instance, sent Shelton C. Sherman straight down a cañon up which Burney was riding slowly, purposefully, saving his big horse deliberately, that he might get from him much in the way of endurance if the need came later. Shelton stopped, a good deal surprised at the meeting. Burney stopped—perhaps surprised also, though that was hard to determine just by looking at him. It was as if Burney, being given the normal amount of human emotions, had to spread them out thin to fill his great self, so that they reached the surface of his face so diluted as to be scarcely discernible. His little eyes twinkled sharply at the young man who was supposed to be somewhere else—but since they always did twinkle sharply, there was no especial meaning to be read into their expression.
There was one thing queer about Burney: he did not ask many questions, and yet he had the knack of squeezing one dry of information. He certainly squeezed Shelton dry, in the ten minutes they stood there talking. Where he had been he told, truthfully and because Burney's eyes impelled the telling. What had happened at the Williams camp, and what Vida thought of it, and her father; where he and Spider and Vida had started for that morning, and why; Spider's theory of the man who wore stilts and a pair of big boots fastened on somehow to look like Burney's tracks; everything, in fact, that Shelton C. Sherman knew about the whole affair he told, just because Burney sat there on his big horse and looked down at him fixedly, with an expectant look in his little eyes, as if they were always saying, "Well, is that all?"
Shelton was not prudent, of course. He should have kept some things to himself—but he did not; not one single thing that he knew or that had been said in his presence.
"Whereabouts was they headed for when you left 'em?" Burney, having gotten the whole story, seemed to desire that certain points should be made exceptionally clear.
"For some caves that Vida knows. They wanted to find the one I was in when I saw the—tracks. The tracks of your boots," he explained, in obedience to Burney's sharp glance, "and the big bear tracks. They think maybe they'll find some clue around there. I tried to find the cave again, to show Spider, and I couldn't." Did Burney look relieved at that? "We looked all over, and we couldn't find it, or the squaw I saw, that said—"
"Said she knew your—father. She said—"
"Did they go straight up from Williams' camp?"
"Straight as they could. I left them climbing that long ridge."
Burney glanced up at the sun. "You better go on home," he said, in his high, querulous voice. "You can work on the corral, so we can throw in some stock I want the boys to bring in to the ranch. I'm going to see Williams. I'll be back in a couple of hours. You can have dinner ready when I git there." He gave Shelton another sharp glance, seemed to hesitate, and rode past without having made up his mind.
So they separated, the one going down the cañon toward the more open country and the other going up into the heart of the roughest part.
Shelton looked back, when he had ridden a few yards; he caught Burney looking back also, and there was something furtive in his posture. Shelton faced confusedly to the front again, and rode on, but his mind was busy with the man behind him. If Burney were going to the Williams camp, what was he doing riding up this cañon? That would make the way longer as well as rougher, without giving any advantage that Shelton could determine. If he were not going to the Williams camp, why should he explain that he was going there? Burney was not in the habit of volunteering information except when it was necessary to do so; it was not necessary to account to Shelton for his riding in the hills.
A qualm of uneasiness struck Shelton. Why had Burney been so particular about wanting to know just where Vida and Spider were going?
What was that to Burney? Shelton rode a few rods farther, thinking hard. He began to wish that he had not told Burney quite so much. What if Burney—
A dryness came into Shelton's throat. He turned impulsively, and rode back up the cañon as quietly as he could, and before him as he rode was a vision of the scattered carcasses of dead sheep killed mysteriously, and the twisted corpse of a man lying cold under the stars; and of Vida and Spider, riding together over the ridge, talking together, careless of what danger they might meet in the hills. He shivered, though the day was hot.
VIDA stopped halfway up a forbiddingly barren gulch and looked inquiringly behind her. She had been riding rather slowly since she turned into this small cañon, and it seemed to her that Spider should have overtaken her ten minutes ago. She was certain that he had seen her turn off from the larger cañon they had been following with a good two hundred yards between them. For an hour she had played hide and seek with him, and in the playing had insensibly recovered her usual calm self-reliance. The horror of the past two days was there still, but Vida felt herself perfectly able to cope with it and any emergency that might arise from it.
She wanted to tell Spider that, after all, it might not be Burney who had done the murder. It had occurred to her that a man with stilts strapped on his legs would find it awkward to crawl under a wagon in the dark—and any strong man, heaving up with his bent back, could tilt their camp wagon. She realized now that the imagination is prone to play tricks upon a person whose nerves are strained to the snapping point. Believing the marauder to be Burney, she would of course imagine that it was Burney whom she saw; given the height, the rest would be quite natural.
She would tell Spider that, and make up with him and behave herself. But she would not ride back to meet him—that would be too abject a surrender. He might say that she went back after him because she was scared, or because her conscience hurt her, and neither would be true, because her conscience was perfectly clear of guilt. She had not run away from him really; he had simply lagged behind. She forgot that she had all but accused him of being an accomplice of Burney in the murder of her Uncle Jake. Her conscience was clear, and she certainly was not scared.
Vida looked behind her, and shivered. She had stopped there to wait for Spider, and she had been looking back expectantly, thinking that she would see him ride around the bend. But now she felt as though something horrible was presently going to come around that very point—something menacing. She kicked her pony in the flanks, and rode on hurriedly, looking this way and that for a way out of the gulch. She felt the blood oozing from her veins, hiding in her heart, and pounding there heavily. Where was Spider? Why didn't he come?
She kept looking over her shoulder, her eyes wide with terror. Vida had never before felt that undefinable fear, though she had ridden alone in these hills at various times since she was a child. She had been scared when she shot the mountain lion, but it had been a perfectly normal, healthy fear lest her bullets should fail to do their work.
She shook herself mentally, and tried to reason with her unreasonable dread of something she neither heard nor saw, but only felt. But all the while she kept thinking of the something that had followed Shelton and Spider and the others—the something they could not name but had felt behind them in the dark. She had not thought much about it before; indeed, save those few minutes of terror in the wagon when she visioned a warlock, she had believed the story to be some obscure joke and so had paid no attention. But—but this was early afternoon!
Had she not been afraid to do so, she would have turned then and ridden back to find Spider. She would have borne any repulse and reproach, and would have been glad just because he was there with her, close enough to scold her and tell her—politely, of course—what a fool she had been to leave him. But she was afraid. Nothing could induce her to turn and ride back down the gulch. She struck her pony sharply with the quirt and went on, clattering over the rocks in a way to rouse the echoes and let them clamor her whereabouts to any one within a quarter of a mile.
Soon she stopped, because she saw how the gulch was drawing together ahead of her. Unless it widened, just around the next point, she would be caught in a pocket. If she could get up the bluff, she reasoned swiftly, she might follow back along the edge until she saw Spider, and then call down to him and have him join her up there. She gazed longingly up at the frowning rock ledges above her. Up there, she believed, she would be safe. Even the scattered fringes of service berry bushes and buckbrush looked comforting, as if they could protect her from something that was creeping up on her from behind. But there was no place along the cañon wall where her pony could climb, and Vida caught herself sobbing hysterically as she rode along seeking a way out.
Then her terror mastered her completely. She pulled up and slid off the horse in a panic, and ran to the shadowed side of the gulch and began to climb. When she had reached a ledge that stood out flat-surfaced from the steeper front of the ravine wall, she stopped and stood panting while she watched with straining eyes the rough trail she had ridden over but a few moments ago. Something was coming stealthily, swiftly, surely upon her trail. She knew it, though she could see nothing but the black, barren rocks and the stunted bushes and the wavering heat lines where the sunlight struck full upon the opposite wall.
And then a huge, black head peered cautiously around a sharp projection of rock; paused motionless for a long minute and moved forward, pushed by the broad shoulders of a figure grown horribly familiar. Even at that distance Vida fancied that she could see the little twinkling eyes that searched the cañon. He was coming on, with swift, stealthy strides that carried him forward with amazing speed; a noiseless, swinging trot that was half a lope and that would, in the long run, outstrip a horse. A few steps so, and he stopped and crouched behind a bowlder so that she could see only the slope of his shoulders.
With a sob suppressed in her throat Vida ducked into a crevice, and began to climb. It was like her dream, except that in her dream the cañon wall was smooth and perpendicular, and now, in reality, it was broken and not too steep, if she chose her way very carefully. For the rest, it was horribly true—with Burney stealing swiftly along, looking here and there for her. In the crevice she was hidden from him, but she dared not stay there. He would come upon her pony and know that she had taken to the cañon side. He would even know which side, because the opposite wall overhung the gulch in a thin shelf that had no hiding place beneath. He would not puzzle one minute over her whereabouts—he would know. And he would climb up after her. And with his long arms and his long legs and his enormous strength to lift him up the bluff, he would climb ten feet while she was toiling five.
She climbed, and cursed the denim riding skirt that caught on sharp points and impeded her progress. She tried to keep her wits and to climb intelligently, and she kept an angle that would take her farther down the cañon. If she reached the top she would be nearer Spider and safety—for she felt that with Spider she would be safe. There was no reason in that, of course, for Burney, if he chose, could kill her and Spider together with his hands. That was the horror—the great, strong hands of Burney, and his powerful, long arms. Even while she climbed she kept glancing over her shoulder, terrifiedly expectant of his huge hands reaching out even then to clutch her.
A rock which she had seized that she might pull herself across a treacherous space of loose earth gave way beneath her fingers and went clattering down the bluff, bouncing off ledges and gathering speed and din as it went. Breathless she watched it. She could not see Burney, but she knew that he was down there and that his little twinkling eyes were seeking, seeking. She knew that he would hear the rock, and would know that she had loosened it in her flight from him.
She shut her eyes, sick with fancying what would happen then. Strangely it would seem to her in calmer moments, she never once thought of using her gun, though it swung heavy on her hip and even hindered her movements when she pressed close against a ledge. That is why I say that nerves are tricky-things. In her nightmare she had not thought of her gun, and now when reality was more horrible than any dream she did not think of it. It was as though she had never heard of such a weapon. Flight, primitive, wild flight—that seemed to her the only possible means of escaping those monstrous, clutching hands.
Spider—where was Spider? Why didn't he come? Her pony, left alone down there, snorted suddenly. She heard the rattle of rocks as he whirled and fled back down the cañon. She opened her eyes and looked, for the sound was almost directly beneath her.
Down below her the pinto came galloping, amazingly sure-footed among the scattered rocks that strewed the bottom. Behind him, running with great leaps that ate up the space between them, came Burney. Bareheaded, evil-faced, intent on the chase. The pony-ran into a jumble of rocks, stumbled, picked himself up, and swerved to find an easier passage. Burney leaped directly in his path. His long arms shot out like the tentacles of some predatory insect. He caught the pony in a close embrace around the neck. He gripped it, leaning, straining his great body against the pinto's shoulder. Vida hid her face against the rock. Her knees sagged under her with the ghastliness of the thing.
Her own danger galvanized her presently to action. She did not look below again—she did not dare. She looked up instead, and took heart when she saw how high she had climbed. Another five minutes and she would be at the top, unless the bluff merely receded and went on up, as sometimes they did. Instinctively she nerved herself for that disappointment—she who had learned well the ways of the hills—and climbed desperately, doggedly, breathlessly. She would get to the top—she would! And she would run and run and run till she found Spider; that was the end and the aim of all her efforts, all her hopes: to find Spider and be safe with him.
She had gone thirty feet perhaps when she heard the half shout, half scream that told her she had been seen. She did not look back—she only climbed the faster. There was something maniacal in the sound; she sensed it even in her fright, and she knew that Burney was crazy—that it was an insane giant who was hunting her down. She knew then that had Burney faced her sane she would not have feared him—not so much. She would have felt that by sheer will power she could dominate over even his bigness. But a crazy man could not be dominated by anything save superior force. She climbed and climbed, and never stopped for breath. And she heard him knocking rocks loose, down there below, as he lunged up the cañon wall after her.
With a dry sob of thankfulness she topped a low, mossy ledge, and stood upon comparatively level ground; rough enough to prevent swift flight, but after that terrible climb looking smooth and safe. She stood still for a moment, straining her eyes to see down the cañon. A narrow tongue of a ridge this was, and she could look down upon either side. The one up which she had ridden lay empty of so much as a rabbit. But when she looked down into the other she gave a cry of relief.
"Oh, Spider! Spider, hurry!" Far down the cañon he was; she could distinguish nothing save the outline of his form and the color of his horse. But she waved her hand and shouted, and started running toward him.
From the bluff side below her came a laugh, and the sound was so close that she glanced that way in fresh terror. She saw the bare head of the giant show briefly over the top of the last ledge, and with a scream she ran on down the ridge, stumbling, tripping over rocks, yet somehow keeping her feet and making little, moaning sounds in her throat.
She did not look again for Spider; she thought that he was too far away—that he could never reach her in time. Perhaps he did not even see her; or, if he did see her, perhaps he did not care—was glad, even, to see her punished for leaving him. The ridge sloped sharply downward toward the point where the cañons had forked. Even as she ran she remembered that she had noticed the bare slope of this dividing ridge, and had even thought of riding up it to get a clear view of the surrounding country. Why hadn't Spider ridden up here instead of keeping to the cañon?
She did not look again behind her. She knew too well what she would see. She knew that if she saw Burney on the level, coming after her with those terrible, long strides and those horrible, twinkling little eyes fixed greedily upon her—she knew that if she saw him like that the sight would paralyze her and place her in his power. So she ran and she did not look back.
WHEN a man has spent nearly all his life in the midst of great, open spaces, certain of his faculties attain a high state of development—unless he is one of those incompetents who never does grow up to the requirements of his vocation. Spider was not an incompetent; he had learned to see a great deal in a short space of time, and to rise instinctively to an emergency. Though he had lost Vida in the cañon it was because he had not suspected her of deliberately trying to evade him and so had kept to the logical course, which was up the main ravine. He had not been greatly concerned over her immediate welfare—he had too great a confidence in her ability to take care of herself, and he believed himself to be within shouting distance of her; indeed, he had been until she turned up the side gulch and so widened the distance between them.
But even if he did not worry very much about her he kept his eyes open and let no living thing move unseen within his range of vision. He saw Vida the instant she came out upon the crest of the ridge, and he saw that she was running from something. Instinctively he knew what that something was, and he dug the spurs into his horse and charged the bluff as if he were leading an army against some puny breastwork. The slope was steep there, and the half sterile soil was baked hard between the grass tufts. His horse went lunging up to where he was stopped by the broken rim of lava rock which tops two-thirds of the desert bluffs and makes hill traveling so laborious.
Spider jumped off and scrambled up the rocks much as Vida had done upon the other side of the ridge, but with better progress. Once, when he was feeling for a handhold above him where the ledge was almost straight above his head, he heard a shout on the level above. It sounded like Burney's high-pitched voice raised in a command to some one. It seemed odd that Burney should be up there with Vida. He had believed that Burney was riding off the other way, toward the river.
He clutched a splinter of rock, pulled himself up half his length, and looked over the ledge upon baked soil that still sloped steeply up to the crest. He drew himself up by sheer muscular strength over the smooth, black rim and ran up the bluff on his toes until another ledge blocked the way and he must climb again, foot by foot, clinging with his hands and his feet to the face of the rock. Had there been time he might have found a crevice and gone up more easily, but there was not time; at least, it was not for him to take for granted anything save the girl's dire need of him.
He was still a few feet from the rim of the ledge when he heard her scream somewhere above him. And close upon the sound of that came the hoarse bellowing cry that once before he had heard and had never been able wholly to forget. His breath caught in his throat, but he went on, climbing now like a madman to reach the girl in time.
It seemed to him hours that he spent on that ledge, toiling upward with Vida's scream and that other horrible cry ringing still in his ears. It seemed to him that he made no headway at all, but climbed and climbed in one spot. Yet he presently found himself somehow on the top, running up the bare crest of the ridge toward a titanic struggle of some sort; what he could not at first determine. He did not see Vida anywhere, and when he realized that she was not a part of the struggle he drew his breath sharply and slowed a little, conscious of his exhaustion.
Then, just when he was steadying a little from that nightmare of fear for the girl, he saw her lying on the stunted grass, all crumpled in a heap where she had fallen. Close beside her they were straining and struggling—two giants of men whose breath came in great gasps while they fought.
Panting, dazed to blank incomprehension, Spider drew near and watched the amazing spectacle. There was Burney fighting doggedly, silently—fighting for his life. And there was another huge human, and yet not all human, fighting with little, harsh snarls of sheer animal rage and the lust for killing—fighting not for his own life, but for the lives of these others. He was dressed in Burney's old clothes—Spider remembered the gray-striped trousers which Burney had worn a year or so ago; tattered now, torn short off at the hairy knees of the giant. He was like Burney in size and general outline of face and figure, and yet his face was the face of an animal, with its protruding jaw and receding forehead and broad, flat nostrils. His eyes were little and twinkling and set deep under his bushy brows. His arms were hairy, his legs were hairy, his feet, which were bare, were huge, misshapen things with queer-looking toes.
While he stared, Spider began to understand many things that had been muffled in mystery. Here was the answer to the puzzle: the thing that had followed them through the desert in the dark; the maker of the "bear" tracks which had so excited Shelton; the killer of sheep and dogs—and of Jake Williams; the monstrous shape that had tried to get in the wagon that night, and could not because the door was too small—a wave of physical nausea swept over Spider at the thought of this great savage trying to get at Vida. It passed, and a spasm of terror seized him as he realized suddenly that she was lying there almost within reach of the Thing, in deadly danger still except for Burney's straining strength.
Spider darted forward, lifted Vida in his arms, and ran with her to a huddle of great bowlders with bushes growing between. In the shade of a buckbush he laid her down, and stood at bay between her and the Thing, his gun in his hand ready to shoot at the first menacing movement.
It came sooner than even his strained nerves expected. For, though Burney's strength was prodigious, the strength of this other was something monstrous. Burney was being beaten back step by step, inch by inch; he was being borne down. Great sweat drops stood on his face. His teeth were clenched in a frozen snarl of supreme physical effort. His knees were bending slowly, slowly—his back was yielding. The huge, hairy hands of the Thing were reaching, reaching—the great talonlike fingers were spread and tensed for the death clutch. The snarl broke suddenly into a scream to freeze one's blood; the scream which Spider had heard behind him in the dark—the scream that had terrified Shelton in the cave. And on the echoes of that scream came a groan, wrenched from Burney in agony.
Spider sprang forward, leveling his big forty-five and pulling the trigger as instinctively as he would have shut his eyes in the face of a blow. The Thing recoiled, swayed on his great, hairy limbs, and sank to his knees; swayed there and toppled over, struggled uncertainly to rise, and then lay still.
Burney removed the gripping hands—relaxed now and harmless—and staggered to his feet, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a trembling palm as he stared stupidly down. He looked up, when the Thing had ceased to move, and took a tottering step toward Spider.
"'S the girl all right?" he mumbled dazedly, his high-pitched voice trembling a little. "I seen 'em—and I run my horse—and got here just—" He looked down at the dead giant, and his face clouded.
"Come over here and sit down," Spider suggested shakily. "You're about all in." He turned back and knelt beside Vida, and felt her small, brown hands and laid his fingers gently against her tanned cheek. She lay as she had lain the day before, lightly breathing, deeply unconscious. He began to chafe her hand, changed his purpose, and put it softly down at her side. She had recovered from the other fainting fit with no permanent ill effect. Better let her remain unconscious for a while—until they could get her away from here, he thought. His eyes, tender and full of pity, dwelt for a minute longer on her face. Then he rose and found himself a level place on the rock and sat down, looking curiously from Burney to that other giant.
"You must 'a' knowed all the time about him," he said abruptly, jerking his head toward the trampled battle scene. "He's got on your pants."
Burney lifted his chin from his heaving chest, and stared somberly at the dead. "Sure, I knowed about him," he admitted dismally. "I never knowed he was dangerous, though—till he commenced killin' sheep. Even then I didn't think he'd—tackle a human being. He's—always been harmless. Just—simple-minded and wantin' to live around in caves like an animal. He never hurt nobody—before. It must 'a' just growed on him, kinda, from killin' them—sheep." He heaved a great sigh, took his handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his face, and then shook it out and went over and spread it over the dead face that was still snarling, and came back and sat down heavily.
"I wisht we could keep this thing quiet," he said gloomily, after a silence. "A-course he wasn't responsible fer what he done, and he wasn't hardly human, but he—" His face flushed darkly. "I s'pose you'd call him a half brother of mine," he said with a certain sullen defiance of the fact. "My dad was a squaw man up in Montana. That was when I was just a kid. Him and his squaw got mixed up with a grizzly—and my old man was hurt so he died. The kid that was born afterward was—him." He nodded toward the inert heap. "He wasn't right from the very first. Soon as he could walk he had the ways of an animal more'n a human. Yuh see his feet—a good deal like a bear's. Old Mary—that's the squaw—she just about worshiped him. And when he growed up and took to the hills, she went with him and lived the way he lived and took care of him."
Spider glanced toward the dead, shuddered, and looked away. It is no light thing to take the life of a human—even a half human such as that Thing was. He looked at Burney strangely, and wondered what were his thoughts, whether he felt any stirring impulse of regret or sorrow or resentment toward the killer of his kin. Burney glanced up and met Spider's eyes, and answered the unspoken questions.
"Maybe I hadn't ought to be, but I'm glad he's gone," he said soberly. "He's always hung over my head like a—a disgrace. A Thing like that oughtn't to be left alive. I always felt that way about it ever since he was born. He couldn't talk—not words you could understand. The squaw, she could understand what he wanted. There was something about him always give me the shivers. But I took as good care of 'em both as I could. I used to send money up to a feller in the Bitter Root that knew where they hung out and used to pack grub and clothes out to 'em. He"—Burney nodded toward the corpse—"never showed up in daytime, so nobody knowed about him except this man that used to be my old man's pardner.
"He died a couple-a years ago, and Mary she struck out with—him—and come on down here. Traveled nights, she said, and there didn't nobody see him. Mary never wanted him seen. It made her sore to have folks know he was—different. She used to hide him like a deer hides her fawn when anybody come around. So they located here in these hills, and I packed grub to 'em myself nights." Burney sighed heavily, as though the burden had taxed all his strength and patience.
"Us fellows would 'a' stood right by yuh if you'd told us about it," Spider said with grave sympathy. "We could 'a' helped, instead of yawping around about a spook. We'd 'a' kept our faces shut if we'd had any idee—"
"I know yuh would. But it wasn't a thing a feller would want to tell unless he was obliged to. I never thought he'd harm any one. I dunno what made him start in killin' sheep fer Williams—he must 'a' got a notion they was enemies. I tried to git Williams to move back, away from here. I s'pose I'd oughta told him why—but I didn't, and so I'm responsible fer a man's death." He humped forward, brooding over the tragedy.
"I tried to git Mary to pull out," he went on as though he was pleading the case with his conscience sitting in judgment. "I told her he was gittin' to act queer—when he commenced follerin' you boys—and wasn't safe. I told her the sheriff'd take 'im and shut him up if he took to botherin' anybody. But she wouldn't budge, and she wouldn't do a thing. Well," he added justly, "there wasn't much she could do. She couldn't keep him from running around nights, and she couldn't foller him and keep him outa mischief. I guess she done all she could do.
"I was in Pocatello to see a doctor and try and find out what could be done fer him—I'd heard about operations on the brain that'd change a person, and I didn't know but what something could be done with him to make him quieter and keep him from wantin' to kill. I got uneasy when he commenced killin' sheep. Well, I didn't go soon enough. I'd oughta had him tended to when I first growed up and seen what he was like. But he seemed so harmless—and it would 'a' been bell to cage him up—and I hated to have folks know about him. It's bad enough," he said doggedly, "to be so big you're pointed at on the streets like you was a side show broke loose; and to feel you're different, and to have folks think you're a whole lot more different than what you are. They don't consider that I'm just a man—just like everybody else—and just being bigger don't make any difference in my feelings. If folks knowed I was related to a Thing like that—they'd think I was some kinda beast myself. I tried to do what was right by him, but I wanted some kinda fair show myself."
"Well, you've sure got it coming, if anybody has," said Spider, after a thoughtful silence. "You'll git it from me. If we could do something with the body," he ventured tentatively without looking at Burney at all, "I don't see why anybody'd need to know there'd ever been such a—person."
Burney lifted his bent head, and looked at Spider almost eagerly. Then his face dulled again. "There's the girl," he said.
"Well—her, maybe. But you can bank on that little girl, Burney. She's the real goods. You needn't be afraid of her. If we can just manage to—to bury him on the quiet."
"His cave's just down below," Burney said. "One of 'em, anyway. We could put him in there. That kid started out to foller me back; I met him down in the foothills. I guess I throwed him off the trail, but I ain't sure. We better hurry if we're going to do anything; if you think we can, and it would be right. There's that murder—"
"Well, there won't be no more. And it won't be the only killin' that never was accounted for. We'll tell the girl about it, so she won't worry no more or be scared. And what the rest of the country don't know about it won't hurt 'em any." He stood up, patently eager to do his part. "How'll we git him down?" he asked, not because he did not know, but with an impulse toward speech that would make the thing less horrible.
"I can carry him. You look after the girl. You better stay here and kinda keep a lookout for the kid. And if Mary—the squaw—shows up, don't try to tell her anything about it. I'll tend to her. She ain't right in her mind, and she packs a knife. She might—" He did not feel that it was necessary to finish that sentence.
Spider stood sober-eyed, and watched Burney gather into his huge arms that monstrous shape of a man, and go staggering to the edge of the rock huddle. He watched him part the bushes in a certain place with one hand, pause a minute there to make sure of his footing, and go down slowly, surely, like a man feeling his way down a crude stairway, bearing the limp Thing with the frozen snarl on its beastlike face.
Then Spider turned and knelt beside Vida, and began to chafe her little, sun-browned hands pityingly, tenderly, and to watch her face for the first quiver of an eyelash that would tell how close she was to returning consciousness.
"AND so yuh see," Spider's voice droned in soft monologue, "it wasn't anything anybody could help. Burney, he done all anybody could do; he'd 'a' prevented it if he could. Burney's a fine man, Vida. He's big—big-hearted as well as big-bodied. I wisht you'd try and like him. He ain't to blame for what that idiot thing done. He feels pretty bad about it. He feels shut off from folks, kinda—as if he didn't have no friends or anything. I wish—"
"My foot hurts something awful," Vida interrupted, groaning a little. She moved her head restlessly in the crook of Spider's arm. "I stepped in a hole when I was running and gave it an awful twist. He—it was coming right after me when I fell. I—I remember I heard a horse, too—and Burney hollering. But I was too scared to look back or think that maybe there was two of 'em. I'm—glad it's dead! I'm glad and thankful. Ain't you?"
"I'm—thankful," said Spider, and pressed his lips tight together. The cold-steel look was in his eyes, and something else. He pressed the girl closer, and bent his head and kissed her with a grave tenderness.
"You mustn't feel bad about it," she told him, comprehending a little of what was in his mind. "You saved my life."
"No, I never," Spider disclaimed quickly. "Burney done that. You've got him to thank for that."
"But you said he would 'a' killed Burney. You said you shot because he was going to kill—"
"I know—let's not talk about it. You owe Burney a whole lot. I want you to remember that, and I want you to be good to him and not treat him any different just because he's big. Where's your horse?"
"Oh!" Vida shivered in his arms. "It—killed my pony. Just the way it—did—"
"Never mind." Spider was pitifully anxious to dodge discussion of the subject. "We'll say it fell, or something, and broke its neck. And that's how you got hurt—sabe? Your horse fell with you. Whereabouts was it? We better go back down that way, I guess, in case Shep comes prowlin' around. You want to be careful what you tell Shep. He's a good kid, but mouthy. He'd let the whole thing out to the first feller he talked with."
"Anyway, he'd write it home to his folks," supplemented Vida, with a pain-twisted smile. "He won't get anything from me."
Spider eased her shoulders gently back against a rock, and stood up, scanning the high-piled ridges and the deep-gashed cañons anxiously. It would be just as well if they got off that ridge before Shep or some other prowler came within sight of them, he was thinking. With that end in view he went around the cluster of bowlders to where the big brown horse of Burney's browsed apathetically upon the tender twigs of a stunted currant bush. He came back to Vida, leading the horse by the bridle.
"I oughta take Burney's horse down off the ridge to where mine is," he explained in a worried tone. "Shep's such an inquisitive kinda cuss he'd want to know what we was doing up here—and you crippled so you can't stand. You see, don't you? It won't do at all for Shep to spot us up here. I won't be gone but a few minutes—you ain't afraid, are yuh?"
Vida was, but she lacked the courage to admit it; instead she dissembled in the most feminine manner and deceived Spider to the extent that his eyes brightened with pride in her.
"You've got them all skinned for nerve," he told her in a whisper, and kissed again the lips that tempted him. "If Burney comes back before I do, you tell him I'll bring both our horses around the point and up the gulch where you—got hurt." He grinned mirthlessly over the stratagem. "He can help you down the bluff—say, you ain't afraid of him, are you, little girl?"
"No," lied Vida faintly, "I ain't afraid."
"You hadn't oughta be. Burney's a prince. I'd like to carry yuh down myself, but you better not wait. We got to think of Burney, and if we're going to keep this thing quiet we can't take any chances—see? So I'll meet you around there just as quick as I can, and if you ain't there," he hurried on, because of her anxious eyes, "I'll come back up here after you pronto." He held her close, hating to let her go even for a few minutes after the terrors of the past hour. "You like me, don't you?" he whispered close to her cheek.
Vida held him tight, and it was not altogether love that strengthened her clasp. She was afraid; horribly afraid. But she was more afraid that Spider would suspect her fear and love her less because of it. She forced herself to laugh a little, and she reached up a brown hand and straightened his hat and pinched his ear, and then pushed him from her.
"I wish my foot didn't hurt so—I'd go with you," she said. "Hurry up, won't you? I ain't afraid of Burney, but—I ain't in love with—him." An artful emphasis she put upon the last word—an emphasis that would make Spider grudge every minute that separated them. So did Vida prove herself wholly feminine in spite of her environment and the things she must do because of it. "Go on," she commanded tenderly, "and don't be a big silly. But—hurry back, kid, if you don't want me to change my mind about—liking you."
He went then because he wanted to help Burney with his trouble. A good deal dazed yet was Spider, what with this miracle of a girl's love that had come to him quite suddenly and the amazing solution of the mystery that had grown so sinister. He looked back frequently while he was yet on the ridge, just to assure himself that Vida was real, and to see her brown hand waving him a message, but he could not make that other gruesome happening seem real—not yet.
As for Vida, she watched Spider with sinking courage. She was afraid, up there on the hilltop alone; horribly afraid. Her foot pained her dreadfully, and she was thirsty. Her head throbbed heavily, and she was lucky to get off so lightly. Surely there are not many women who could have borne what she had suffered and borne it so calmly.
Most of all she dreaded Burney's return. It was foolish, but one's nervous system does not adjust itself automatically to changed conditions, and she had been so certain that it was Burney who pursued her up the bluff—
She heard a rock kicked loose somewhere behind her, and she turned sick with fresh terror. She heard him coming heavily toward where she lay, his great feet crunching the gravelly soil like the tread of a horse. She shut her eyes—and then, when she felt that he was standing close beside her, she opened them wide and stared up at him. There he was, towering miles above her—so her overwrought nerves told her—and his little, twinkling eyes were fixed anxiously upon her face. He had something in his hands, and while she stared at him she saw his face redden with embarrassment. It had been pale.
"I brought up some water from a spring down there," he said in his high, querulous voice. "I thought maybe you'd like a drink."
"Oh, thanks!" Vida sat up and reached for the leaky old tomato can he carried. She had never dreamed of thanking Burney for anything, but the words came rather easily, after all.
"Where's Spider?" he asked, standing aloof while she drank thirstily.
Vida took a last deep swallow, and set down the can. Burney could not have reassured her so much in an hour of friendly protestations as he had done with that one little thoughtful act. Her eyes lost their fear and antagonism, and became almost friendly.
"He took your horse down the hill. He's going to get his and bring them around up the gulch where—mine is," she explained. "He said—he said we were to meet him down there. He's afraid Shep might come, and he'd wonder about our being away up here."
"Well, it's a good idee. We'll go on down, then." Burney still stood fifteen feet away from her, and he spoke with a timid hesitation oddly at variance with his hugeness. Still, they say an elephant is afraid of a mouse.
Vida eyed him queerly. "I—stepped in a hole and gave my foot a twist," she informed him with an amused quirk of the lips. "I—can't walk." Then she watched him. No, she was no longer afraid of him; she was a woman, you see, and he had betrayed the fact that he was afraid of her. It makes a difference.
"Oh, that's too bad—" Burney shifted his weight to the other foot, for all the world like a bashful boy before company.
Vida watched him covertly. "Spider offered to carry me down, but he had to take the horses—" she observed demurely.
"Oh, did he?" Burney looked ready to perspire. His little twinkling eyes wandered to the peaks high over her head.
"He said—maybe you wouldn't mind—helping me—a little." Vida reached down and felt her injured foot, and screwed her face into a grimace at the pain of her lightest touch.
"Oh, I—I'll be glad to—help—"
From collar to hatband Burney was purple with confusion.
"I'm afraid you'll have to—carry me." Vida blushed a little herself, but her lips still had the amused quirk. "If it won't be—too much trouble," she added.
"Oh, no trouble—don't mention it!" Burney grew pale. "I—I hope we can—be friends," he stammered, advancing slowly. "I—"
"Never mind hashing things all over," she interrupted him hastily. "I want to forget things. Be—careful not to joggle my foot—"
Not much of a reconciliation so far as words went, but Burney's breath became uneven with emotion. Did you ever see a man take a butterfly from his net carefully, so as not to brush the bloom from its wings? Just so gently did Burney lift her into his arms and carry her down the bluff. And all the while he did not speak. He could think of nothing to say that would not sound irreverent.
Vida spoke but once when he had carried her with safe gentleness down the steepest ledge. "It must be an awful comfort to be so strong," she said. "I wish I was as big as you are."
Burney did not answer her, but his eyes lightened gratefully.
SINCE this story began with Shelton C. Sherman, I suppose it ought to end with him. And since our editor man thinks that you have heard almost enough about these people of the desert, I may not tell you just what happened after that trip down the bluff, or what Shelton did and thought and wanted to do and couldn't. But I'm going to let you do something rude, just for revenge upon the editor man who refuses to let a story go on and on and never stop: I am going to let you read over the shoulder of Shelton C. Sherman while he writes to "the folks."
He is in the bunk house, writing at one end of the table while Spooky plays solitaire upon the other end. The lamp stands between them, and the chimney is foggy for want of washing, so that the light is none too good and Shelton is hunched over with his nose so close to the end of his fountain pen that you will have to lean close also. Pike—we didn't get very much acquainted with old Pike, did we?—Pike is gumming a wad of tobacco while he reads a half-column article in the Boise paper, telling what has not been done toward apprehending the murderer of the sheepman in the Piute Hills country. Never mind that—we'll just read what Shelton C. Sherman has to say.
Shsh-sh-h—wait now till he takes his fist off the upper half of the page. Well, since he shows no disposition to move his hand—perhaps fearing that Spooky may be rude enough to cast a curious eye over what has been written, and is able to read upside-down writing—we'll begin with that line just below his thumb:
—marry Spider, so I'm all out of girls at present. She wasn't my kind, anyway, so I don't care much. There hasn't been anything more happened, since I wrote last. We had a big bunch of excitement, and then it all fizzled out, like the time the town fireworks all went off in a bunch—remember? Excitement a- plenty while it lasted, only it didn't last. Well, that's the way out here. Everything's at a dead level. I don't even hunt rattlesnakes with the girl any more—seeing she got crippled and couldn't, and then got stuck on Spider and wouldn't. We haven't caught the fellow that killed her uncle, either. Nobody seems trying to catch him. I've ridden Spook Hills till I'm sick of the sight of them, and I can't find so much as a bear track any more. I found a cave or two, but there was nothing in them but rat nests.
Burney found that old squaw, that I told you folks about seeing, wandering around in the hills, and he brought her in to the ranch. I wish you girls could see her. I've taken her picture, and will send you one as soon as I get the roll developed, but I'd give anything if you could hear her mumbling around the ranch. She walks with a crooked stick, and she goes hobbling around, looking for something—nobody knows what. Sometimes she gets wandering off in the desert, and then Burney hunts her up and brings her back. He's good to her—makes me think there's something in that story Jim tells, about Burney's father being a squaw man. There can't be any other reason for Burney taking charge of the old hag. She's almost blind, and plumb nutty. Burney never says anything about it, and, of course, nobody would have the nerve to ask him—not little me, anyhow.
Tell sis I haven't given up hope of getting that bearskin rug yet. It'll be a whopper, if I can find the one that made the tracks I saw. Spider did think it wasn't a bear but a man disguising his tracks. But he admits now that it was a bear, most likely. He says, though, that bears have a habit of changing their range every once in a while, and that this one may be a hundred miles from here by this time. I hope not. I've got my heart set on his hide for a rug—
"For the Lordy sake, Shep, what you writin'? A novel?" asked Spooky just then, sweeping the cards together with his palm and speaking in a tone of deep disgust. It always makes Spooky cross to have the game run consistently against him when he is playing "Mex." The clerical industry of Shelton C. Sherman has always roused within him a futile irritation. "Honest to gollies, I should think the hind side of a picture postcard would hold all that happens in this derned desert, but some folks can write all day and never say nothing. What yuh tellin' 'em? Did yuh put in how Spider went and cut yuh out with the girl?"