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MAX BRAND
(WRITING AS DAVID MANNING)

IN THE RIVER BOTTOM'S GRIP

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First published in Western Story Magazine, April 11, 1925
Collected in The Black Signal, Chelsea House, New York, 1925

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2015
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Western Story Magazine, April 11, 1925, with "In the Grip of the River's Bottom"



TABLE OF CONTENTS



Title Graphic


I. — THE AZATLANS.

LOOK, first, into the office of Cordoba, money lender of Barneytown; let me show him to you in his office, seated on a broad bench with his back to the wall and his table in front of him. But why should the rich man sit on a bench? Because he changed his position from time to time. Sometimes he sat erect upon the bench, but that was not the posture which pleased him most. He was erect now; in fact, there was a dent in his fat back, he was so erect. And his black eyes, ordinarily dull and not overlarge, were glancing brightly into the face of his visitor.

It was Seņor Don Mateo Valdez who lounged in the other chair, son of the rich Valdez who owned the great cattle ranch at the mouth of Barney Valley. Outside the house, hitched to the light buggy in which young Valdez had driven to town, stood two fine-limbed horses, still sweating and trembling from the merciless fury of their trip north. He was dressed in full Mexican regalia, was Don Mateo, and his delicate fingers held the cigarette gracefully and waved away the smoke which dribbled from his lips.

"It is only last month that you came to me last," said the money lender.

"A month is a long time," said the spendthrift, "because it has thirty days, and money leaves me on every day!"

"That is true, then," admitted Cordoba. "However—five thousand dollars—"

"What is that to me?" said Don Mateo. "Considering what security I have to offer—"

"Ah, but what security have you?"

''Seņor!" cried Mateo, lifting his handsome, languid eyes.

"What security?" repeated the money lender.

"My father's ranch—"

"The ranch is your father's, however—pardon me—and not yours."

"It will soon be mine!"

"God forbid!" exclaimed Cordoba.

"Seņor?"

"I trust that your father has a long life before him."

"He is ill."

"That I know."

"Then read this." He offered a letter signed by a doctor." It read:


My Dear Don Mateo: It is true that your father has not a month to live. However, this news must be kept secret. No one must know it. For if it comes to his ears, the shock will surely kill him at once!


The money lender lifted his eyes slowly. "He has been a great man," sighed he. "And this, letter is to be kept a secret?"

"To a man like you—full of honor—tight-mouthed—what harm is there in showing it?"

"Well," answered the money lender, "we each have different ways of thought. If this seems good to you, it is good. And I admit that it makes you good security. What sum will you have?"

"Ten thousand," said Don Mateo, his eyes snapping with pleasure.

"You must be careful," said Cordoba with an odd smile, "that your entire estate does not run into my hands—at this rate."

"I? Careful? I shall be careful in time! But one must have money—to live like a gentleman."

"This will cost you twelve per cent."

"Ha? That is a double rate, Cordoba!"

"That is true, but it is a double risk."

"In what way, then?"

"Suppose that your father should change his will and leave you nothing."

"Tush! He loves me! Besides, what would make him?"

"The knowledge that you are showing me this letter, perhaps."

"Well," said Don Mateo, "let me have the money at any rate. I have no time."

What does it cost to scratch one's name upon a piece of paper? And bebold, the fat money lender waddled across his office, taking with him a short-barreled shotgun of large bore. He opened his safe. From a drawer he selected a parcel of money and returned with it.

"How much does that safe contain, then?" asked Mateo, his eyes glistening with hunger.

"You have almost exhausted the contents." said Cordoba.

"Shall I believe that? Adios, seņor!"

Don Mateo was gone, but there was another instantly in his place—an old man with a rigid back which crumpled over as he sat down in the chair. He was bent so that his chin was thrust out, and he peered earnestly at Cordoba through his spectacles. Cordoba, straightway, leaned back and tucked his feet beneath him. He sat cross-legged to do business with this customer.

"The interest was due me yesterday," said Cordoba.

"Ah, yes, God knows!" said the old man.

"And I know," said Cordoba sternly. "What has happened?"

"I have brought you in—only half the money."

"So?"

"Ah, Seņor Cordoba—you are great in wisdom," said the old Mexican. "You know how the blackleg struck on my little ranch, and the cattle died like flies! I have been stripped. I have been beggared. I bring you this money. You may take a larger mortgage on my ranch for the rest of your money."

"You have three sons," said Cordoba, more coldly than ever.

"By the mercy of God, I have three sons. It is true."

"They have left you, I suppose, now that your little ranch is like a poor-house?"

"Left me? No, no, no! They stand beside me; they work like three dogs. My eldest boy said this morning: 'You shall not be shamed by going to confess to Cordoba. Let me go and take the brunt of his tongue!'"

"Ha!" said Cordoba. "Did he say that?"

"Ten thousand, thousand pardons! You are angry, then?"

"I am very angry—that people should think I would use my tongue like a whip. Well, my friend, cattle are cheap, now, since the drought has made them so lean."

"They are like dirt. One names a price—the cow is yours! But mine are not lean. I have pasture enough!"

"That is true. How many could you fatten of those lean ones? Ah, three hundred, at least.

"Here is a note from me. Show it where you please. Go buy, and send them to Cordoba for their money. When you have bought two hundred, come back to me and I shall take your note for the money which I have loaned you. As for this other interest money—it is forgotten. Take it back to your three sons, Santiago, and tell them that you surely will not starve for this winter!"

Then he jumped from his bench and rushed Santiago from the room before the rancher could shower him with thanks. He had barely returned to his bench—with the shotgun beside him, when a third man entered, very different from the other two—a broad-shouldered, brown-faced Yankee, wreathed in an immense smile.

"Well, Fatty," said he, "I knew that I could not lose if I got you into the game with me, and I was right. I hit it quick. It come off like cream off the top of the bottle. Then a sucker offered me twelve thousand for the claim. I'd taken out three thousand. I grabbed the twelve; and here I am with the hard cash. Well, Fatty, your grubstake gives you seventy-five hundred! Count it out!" And he slammed down a potbellied waliet on the table.

The Mexican opened it without a word. He counted out a thin sheaf of bills.

"The horse, the tools—everything, cost me only five hundred," said he. "I shall take two thousand. And the rest is yours."

"Hey!" barked out the American. "Are you gunna cheat yourself out of fifty-five hundred that belongs to you?"

"I have four hundred per cent. It is very much," said Cordoba, "And adios, friend."

"Is that all? Why, Cordoba, this ain't right—and—"

A panting youth ran through the door.

"Don Luis—" he gasped out in a trembling voice.

Cordoba rolled with surprising rapidity to his feet. "What of Don Luis?" he cried. "Adios, adios, seņor! I am very busy, as you see!"

And the prospector, feeling that he had just been in the midst of a happy dream, hurried out into the day to make sure that this generosity was not in fact the stuff that dreams are made of.

"Now you speak of my son, of Don Luis?" cried the money lender to the youngster. "What is there to say of him?"

"May he always be fortunate," gasped out the boy, recovering his breath as fast as he might. "But I have just heard through my cousin that Miguel and Cristobal Azatlan—"

"What are they?"

"It was a year ago, seņor, that Don Luis met with their brother, a very famous fighter from Mexico—"

"And killed that man?"

"Yes."

"Quick, boy! And tell me if they have come to revenge his death?"

"It is that—yes!"

Cordoba wrung his fat hands. "The Lord bring them to a wicked end!" cried he. "But now, boy, do not let a word of this come to the ears of Seņor Don Luis Melody."

"Seņor Cordoba!. Will you not warn him?"

"Warn him?" echoed Cordoba. "Name of heaven, no!"

"But they are dreadful fighters! Miguel Azatlan on a day in Juarez—"

"Do not tell me! Do not tell me! Foolish boy, do you not know that the more dreadful they are, the more my son will wish to meet them?"


II. — LEW, A MEXICAN GALLANT.

CORDOBA straightway locked his office securely and mounted a horse strong enough to bear up his weight, but passive enough to suit his rather timorous temper; it was a sort of rough plow horse which jogged with him through the twisting alleys of the Mexican quarter, and over the rickety bridge, which was known as the danger line, and so arching above the waters of the yellow Barney River into the American section of the village on the eastern bank. He went straight to the jail, and there he found Sheriff Joe Crockett. He tumbled at once into his story.

"Seņor Crockett, you are a good friend to my Don Luis."

"D'you mean Lew Melody?" barked out the sheriff, who was in a rough humor. "And why in the devil should I be a good friend to him—me with my right arm workin' like a rusty gate since he sent that slug of lead through my shoulder?"

Cordoba blinked at him, and then made out the note of friendly railery which had underlain the speech.

"A bullet or two will not make a difference between two American friends said he," grinning. "But you pour out a little blood as we would pour out a little wine. Is it not so?"

'"Aw," said the sheriff, "I dunno about that. What's eating you to-day?"

"Your good friend, and my son, Don Luis—"

"Hey! Has he married Juanita?"

"Not yet—the next week—"

"Then don't call him your son until after the marriage. Go on!"

'"Two cruel fighting demons have come up from Mexico. It happens that they had a wicked brother who met Seņor Melody a year ago, and they have kept a vengeance in their hearts all this time. Now they have come to Barneytown—they, have arrived to-day—"

"Well," said Joe Crockett, "what of that?"

"What of that, seņor? You do not wish the murder of your friend?"

Joe Crockett merely smiled, and there was a great deal of sourness in it. "I could go to that pair—what's their name?"

"Miguel and Cristobal Azatlan."

"I could go to 'em if they'd listen to reason and give ''em some ripping good advice to get back to Mexico while they still got whole skins. But if they've come all this way, it'll take more'n talk to turn 'em back. There ain't a thing that I can do except to let Lew Melody go ahead and put on his specialty show—which is outshooting the shooters, you might say! That's all I can do, Cordoba. How's other things on the far side of the river?"

"The drought has been a sad thing to my poor people."

"But it'll bring coin into the Cordoba pockets, eh?"

"What is a little money to me, compared with the sorrows of my friends?" said Cordoba.

And Joe Crockett did not smile. I think that if there was one man in the. valley whose honesty and simplicity could be trusted without cavil, it was none other than this old Mexican money lender. But Cordoba went back across the river with his worries, and Joe Crockett came to tell me the news.

"They ain't had their lesson yet," was his way of phrasing it. "They're still drifting up the valley to get Lew Melody. Well, in a couple of days there'll be another funeral on "the far side of the danger line."

I asked him what he meant, and he explained. I was shocked, naturally.

"Can't you do something?" I asked him. "Isn't it your duty to do something?"

"The trouble with all of you ministers," said Crockett, "is that you figger all men ought to do their business the way you do yours, and that we ought to have the same kind of business. But my job is different. Besides, I can't protect Melody unless I put him in jail. He ain't the kind that wants protecting; he's the kind that lives on trouble!"

"He is about to settle down," said I, speaking my hopes rather than my beliefs. "And after he has settled down, there will be no more trouble; When he is the father of a family—"

"The devil!" said Joe Crockett. "How come you talk nonsense like that?"

I tried to stare him down, being very much offended, but the sheriff was in a stubborn mood.

"Marriage is about the only thing that would save him, I admit," said he, "but not a marriage with a girl that he doesn't love."

I tried my best to defend Lew Melody. "What else could he do?" said I. "Juanita had risked her life and her reputation to take help to him; he had to offer to marry her to keep fools from talking about the poor girl, and they've been talking about her in spite of the marriage that's to take place. Besides, old Cordoba has treated him like a son. It was Cordoba who settled the bank robbery trouble, as you very well know."

"Why, man," said the sheriff, "I don't think that Lew could have done anything else. I don't see how he could, bein' an honorable boy. Besides, that ain't my business. If I was a minister," he added with bitter point, "and had my hands mixed up in things like that all of the time, maybe I'd have been able to work out something different for him. But the way it is, he done the only straight thing. He had to offer to marry the girl."

"And why shouldn't he, for every reason?" I asked.

"She's a Mexican," said he.

"She's a lovely and a charming and a simple girl," said I with heat. "Besides, there are Mexicans as good as any people in the world!"

"I ain't arguin'," said Joe Crockett in some disgust, "I'm just sayin'!"

"Can you deny that she's lovely?"

"I deny that she's lovely like Sandy Furnival," said he.

I stamped. "Can you deny that she's wildly in love with Lew?" I asked him.

"I don't deny that. But she ain't no more wilder about him than Sandy is."

"They will have a magnificent establishment from Cordoba," said I, still talking against my better reason.

The sheriff raised his full height above me and laid a hand upon my shoulder. For the thousandth time I hated him because of his superior size. "Look here, Tom," said he. "You know that this here is wrong. You know that he loves Sandy, and that Sandy loves him. You know that it's wrong for him to marry Juanita, no matter how much looks and how much money she's got!"

"There is reason behind everything," said I. "I would never jump at conclusions, because on the whole—"

"Aw, the devil," said Joe Crockett. "You argue like a woman!"

And he turned on his heel, rudely, and strode away from me. I was-too speechless with indignation to make the least retort. I was all the more angry because I knew that he was right, and because in my heart of hearts I understood that it would have been better for me to have had his side of the argument while he took mine, as a practical man. However, there was nothing to be done about it.

I had turned this question back and forth through my mind so many times, that I ached at the mere rising of it into my thoughts. As for the rest of Barneytown, the matter had been so well known for so many days, that most of 'the talk had subsided. There was only a quiet expectation—I might say, an evil expectation. On the one hand, was Juanita, darkly beautiful, filled with grace, and burning with love for Lew Melody. On the other hand was Sandy, growing more quiet, growing more pale as the time for the marriage came nearer, but never losing her courage or her ability to keep smiling. We had made the amazing discovery that, having decided that Lew owed a great deal to the Mexican girl and that he had no other Way of repaying her than through marriage, Sandy had reconciled herself completely to the affair and looked upon Juanita without the slightest bitterness.

Now, between these two was the wildest, the strongest, and the freest spirit that ever stepped in shoe leather in Barney Valley—or in the whole world, for all I know of it! Between them was Lew Melody. And the vital question was:

Will Lew Melody go through with the marriage? Or will he smash through everything, scoop Sandy up in his arms at the last minute, turn his back upon the Cordobas, and ride away to marry the girl he loves?

It was a very uneasy question to solve or to answer in any way, for the possibilities of Lew were the possibilities of a thunderbolt. Indeed, although I searched my mind a thousand times, I did not know which way he ought to move. On the one hand, his love was for Sandy as the whole valley, with the exception of the Cordobas, very well knew. On the other hand, his duty and his promise was to Juanita. And the Lord in heaven alone could tell what that passionate girl would do if he deserted her—particularly after the matter had gone so far as this!

For my part, I would have been unable to advise him. I felt simply helpless, and so did every one else. But, in the meantime, the suspense grew more tremendous every day, for by a common concurrence of opinion, every one agreed that something was sure to happen before the marriage took place—and now the marriage was less than a week away!

I had barely turned from the gate where the sheriff had spoken to me, when I saw, coming up the street, the man who had filled most of my thoughts for so many weeks. It was Lew Melody himself, but so changed in his costume that I could hardly recognize him at first, in spite of the fact that Lew and only Lew could be riding on the back of the Gray Pacer.

But as that glorious creature, made of modeled silver and shining light, came gliding up the street, turning his beautiful head from side to side to observe and scorn the people he passed, I saw that his rider had transformed himself, in all respects, into a typical Mexican gallant. And I knew that the first chapter of the final drama had been already written!


III. — A WARNING GOES UNHEEDED.

NO one other than Lew Melody would have had the courage to conceive of such a thing, let alone the daring and the sublime scorn of public opinion to execute it. He had been famous through most of his life for the ragamuffin carelessness with which he dressed. A hat or no hat; old rusty boots, blue jeans, a flannel shirt with half the buttons missing, open at the throat, and a ragged pair of gloves—such had been the attire of the Lew Melody who had grown up terrible and careless and gay and wonderful in Barney Valley.

But behold him now, clad in the peaked sombrero of a Mexican youth, with a great band of glittering open gold work surrounding the crown—an open jacket which blazed with gold and silver lace—a shirt of brilliant blue silk—a great crimson sash with great hanging fringes about his waist, and tight trousers buttoned down his leg with immense silver conchos to ornament them. The saddle was a mass of heavy metal-work, a staggering cost—the bridle was a jeweler's masterpiece!

But oh, how my heart sank when I saw it! For I could see, I thought, something of the things which had passed in the mind of poor Lew Melody before he made this decision.

When he saw me, he waved his hand to me and dismounted. Gray Pacer followed behind his master and stood looking over the shoulder of Lew at me with glittering eyes such as only a stallion, of all the Lord's creatures, possesses.

But here was Lew Melody, not so greatly changed that he would not do as he had always done out of respect to me—that is, take off his sombrero and stand with it in his hand while he talked. It was a little thing, I suppose, but from this famous youth, it caused a tingle to pass through my blood, without fail.

I could not help saying, at once: "Ah, Lew, you are going masquerading, are you?"

"I look like it, don't I?" said Melody. "But no—I'm simply stepping into a new name!"

"A new name?" said I.

"Yes, of course. You used to know a devil-may-care fellow, called Lew Melody. I think his front name may really have been Lewis. I'm not sure. At any rate, you see another creature, now. I am a don, sir!"

And he tilted back his head and looked at me with that familiar smile—the mirth about the lips only, and the eyes made grave by the scar between his eyes which drew the flesh a little.

"Will you tell me what in the world you mean, Lewis?" said I, trying to smile in turn and making a sad job of it.

"Don Luis, if you please," said he. "Don Luis Melody—the names go with a sort of hitch, though, don't they?" And he laughed. It was an ugly sound, I thought.

"It makes no difference to me," said I. "I am your friend always, my dear boy. But other people will talk, you know!"

"Other people have always talked about me," said Lew Melody. "I wouldn't take that pleasure away from them. That's one reason I'm glad to do. it. It gives them a better chance to talk. They can say that I've turned greaser, now!"

"They will not dare do that!" said I.

"Oh, I'm peaceful now," said he. "I make no more trouble. You can put me down, now, as one of the people who keep the law by force of habit. Besides, I'm afraid. When a man has been in trouble and then has to be bought out of it—it makes him afraid, you see! And Cordoba had to buy me out!" I didn't like this sort of talk; the bitterness was too close to the surface in spite of his smiling.

He rambled on, talking rather loudly, as though he invited my neighbors to hear, and in fact, I espied the shadow of Mrs. Cheswick near her window, drinking it all in, greedily.

"But I couldn't go on being plain Lew Melody," said he. "Not while my father-in-law-to-be is spending so much money to set me up as a gentleman. I suppose that you've heard about the ranch he's bought for me?"

"Of course I've heard that. It's a splendid place, I understand. I congratulate you, Lewis."

"Don Luis," he corrected again. "Or Luis, at least. Well, it's a very fine place, of course. How many hundreds of acres there are in it, I don't know. And how much the timber alone is worth is hard to calculate. But there are three little streams running through it, so that we'll never be bothered by droughts such as this year. I'll be entirely secure there!"

There was an undercurrent of scorn and self-contempt in all of this which I pretended not to see.

"It must have cost a great deal," said I.

"More money than I dare to guess," said Lew Melody. "But Seņor Cordoba seems to think nothing of it. The fortune of that man seems to be a staggering thing. He has rivers of gold running into his coffers every day. He simply emptied a few gallons out of his reservoir, and the place was his. But that's not the end of his spending. It's hardly the beginning of it, as a matter of fact. There is the house, too! Nothing but hewn stone for that house, sir!"

"So I have heard."

"The architect is plundering him for a small fortune. He suggests nothing that does not please my father. Beautiful furniture—and a floor plan that that looks like a castle. Every day twenty more men are added to work on the place. It is a great sorrow to Seņor Cordoba that the house will not be ready when the marriage is ended. But by the time we have come back from the honeymoon, the house will be open."

"And where do you go for a honeymoon?" I asked rather faintly.

"Where could the son of a rich man like Cordoba go? To Paris, of course. You surely will have guessed that, sir!"

"I suppose so," said I. "I suppose so. Why are you so infernally snappy, Lewis?"

"Ah," said he, "I don't know. Forgive me!"

It was too much for me. I could see in this real glance at his heart, how thoroughly the boy was broken up by the whole affair. And I could not help crying: "If you feel in this way about the whole thing, in the name of heaven, break it off, Lewis!"

"Break away from Cordoba—after he has bought the ranch and built the house and after his wife has planned the wedding? Of course, I don't know what you mean!"

The misery of it closed like a wave over my head. I could understand the set and sneering expression which he wore. It was the sheerest agony.

"Juanita is to be like the fairy princess, out of the storybook," he went on. "There are so many yards of lace that it seems to me all the hands in the world, working forever, could never have contrived the stuff. But that's not all. The jewels, sir! It blinds me only to think of them! It really does! Emeralds—rubies—diamonds—what would a marriage be without jewels? And then the pearls! Oh, ropes and strings and heaps of them. Why, I could talk to you about these things through the entire day."

"I wish you would, Lewis," said I gravely. "I wish you would. Because it might ease your heart a little to talk—but not out here—and no so loudly."

He laughed in my face. "Why should I care if the whole world knows about my happiness? Let the whole town gather, and I'll make a speech to them about it! The church is to be one blaze of candles—a fortune spent in the purest wax. Every saint on the calendar will have an offering. There will be so much incense that I expect to sneeze for a month afterward. And there will be flowers—yes, expect to see Barneytown drenched with flowers for that occasion."

"I'm glad it's to be such a grand affair," said I. "But not so loudly, Lewis."

"I want the people to know what is coming. The fairy princess will be the center of the show, you see. Then I step out as the prince. Don't I look like a fairy prince, sir? Give me your honest opinion!"

And he stepped back a little so that I could survey him from head to foot. He turned slowly around so that I could see the heavy brocading on the back of his short jacket.

"Yes," said I slowly, "you will be like a prince, Lewis."

"Or a bull fighter," said he, with equal gravity. "I can't tell which. However, it will be a great, show, I am parading a little to-day so that people may know what to expect. I hope that you'll spread the news around a little." I could not answer.

"Or tell everything to Mrs. Travis," laid he. "I'm sure that she'd be glad to do a little talking."

I bit my lip. This shaft of irony had indeed struck home at the most vital spot of weakness in my dear Lydia. But the next word from him was a sudden whisper.

"Have you seen her lately, sir?"

I did not have to ask whom he meant. "I've seen her," said I.

"Is she well?" asked Lew Melody huskily.

"I think—quite well," I managed to stammer.

"I rode out like a thief in the night," said Melody, "and I peeked through the window at her. I thought she was a little pale. But she is not ill?"

"No, Lewis, not ill."

"Sometimes I wonder—" he began, and then stopped.

I did not ask him to continue, but, as quickly, as I could, I changed the subject back to himself.

"A year ago you fought with a Mexican named Azatlan."

"Did I?" said he carelessly. "Yes, I think I did. A dog who tried to knife me in the back."

"You killed him, Lewis."

"I'm glad I was lucky enough to!"

"Two of his brothers are across the danger line, waiting to find you. Will you promise me to be careful?"

"Careful of the life of the son of Seņor Cordoba, the rich money lender?" said he. "Can you ask me such a question? If I did not trouble about myself, I should at least have to take care of such clothes as these, should I not?" But when he leaped onto the back of Gray Pacer, the direction in which he rode was straight back toward the river, and I knew, then, how well he would heed my warning!


IV. — IN THE CANTINA.

HE was not two blocks down the street when a rider on a foaming horse rushed up to him.

"Don Luis!"

"Well?."

"I come from Seņor Cordoba!"

"Heaven be with him," said Lew Melody in solemn mockery.

"He sends me to warn you that two men—"

"Are playing mumble-the-peg?"

"Are in Barneytown hunting for you—brothers of—"

"I know them," said Melody, "if they look like their third brother."

"You have heard, then?" said the fellow, much disappointed.

"I am glad to hear it over again, however," said Melody. And he gave the man a piece of gold.

"You are to ride straight back to the house of Seņor Cordoba," said the messenger.

"I am? Is that the order?" asked Melody, swallowing a lump of scorn in his throat.

"The seņor begs you to come at once!"

"I shall do my best," said Luis. "But tell Seņor Cordoba that the Gray Pacer has turned lame and that I may have to go slowly on the way home!"

The other eyed the flawless beauty of the stallion. "Ah, well, seņor," said he, flashing a glance of admiration at the calm face of Melody, "I trust that fortune will be with you again. But they are known men, both of them."

"Which means that they are known scoundrels, eh?"

"By all means!"

"Where were they last seen?"

"In a place where—you must not go, seņor. Those are my orders."

"You are not telling me—it is a bird in the air," said Melody, and gave him another heavy yellow coin.

The other bit his lip, looked guiltily askance, and then: "In the old saloon—"

"Which Seņora Alicia keeps?"

"Yes!"

"A thousand thanks!"

And the Gray Pacer turned into a flash of silver as it shot down the street, and carried Lew Melody over the staggering bridge which arched the Barney River, and across the danger line into the disheveled Mexican quarter. There he still shot forward at a round gait—the swimming pace which only a race horse could follow at full gallop. The dust cloud which he raised was towering far behind when the Pacer was stopped in front of a low-fronted dobe building which was set back behind an open shed in which horses could be tethered in the shade and where they could be watered. Here Melody left his animal and stalked straight to the door of the cantina.

At the door, he paused. The very suddenness of his approach had made it impossible for two or three ragged peons who were watching him askance with eyes of awe and suspicion, to carry warning of his coming into the interior. As he listened, he could hear a quick humming of gay voices. But there was no conversation which he found important, so he threw open the door, and stepped in. He found half a dozen men seated at tables in the big room. At the back of the room, Seņora Alicia's assistant was keeping bank while two men shook dice against the house. Prohibition had not fallen heavily upon this cantina. For though the good lady's husband had been shot down, yet she chose to open the same place, and it was said that there was more evil connected with the place during her regime than there had ever been in the days of her fat husband.

She was behind the bar, and it was from her that a warning hiss came the instant that Lew Melody appeared. He remained by the door, for a moment, looking calmly from one face to another. At the hiss of the seņora, every eye had glanced up with a sharp flash at him, and every eye had looked down again with an equal haste, as though each feared a discovery.

So he went to the bar. It was after the American style, with a great mirror extending down the wall. Melody turned his back upon the room and leaned an elbow on the bar. He asked for soda water, and while the seņora opened the bottle, she said:

"You are drinking with care, to-day, Seņor Melody."

"I always drink with care in hot weather," said Melody. "It is a wise man's way. Liquor heats the brain—and makes a shaky hand. It is one thing to stumble with the tongue, is it not, and quite another to stumble with the hand?"

She smiled with hate as she put glass and bottle before him; a certain dear cousin of the seņora's had fallen with the accurately flung knife of Melody sticking in his throat. That was a full five years before, but it was not hard for her to remember. There had been other actions since that time to keep her memory refreshed.

Now one of the men at the tables stealthily rose, reaching a hand behind him as he did so, until he saw his clear image rising, also, in the broad, polished surface of the mirror behind the bar. Seņor Melody could see that reflection, if he were not blind, and no one had ever suspected him of dull eyes. The man sat down again, with suddenness!

"I saw the pretty seņorita this morning," muttered old Alicia with a malicious side glance at Melody.

"But have you seen no handsome men?" said Melody casually. "I have heard that two fine fellows came to Barneytown this morning. You have not seen them, of course?"

"I cannot tell what you mean," said she, looking down steadfastly, nevertheless.

"You could not, of course," answered he, smilingly.

He turned his back upon her suddenly and faced the rest of the room.

Seņora Alicia took advantage of this respite to allow her face to wrinkle with hate until her yellow fangs showed.

"Do you hear me, my dear friends?" said Melody.

Not a head was lifted in response. "I speak to you, among the rest," said Melody. "I speak to you with the black mustaches—not much of them—like the whiskers of a Chinaman! Do you hear me?"

I do not excuse the language of Lew Melody; but other things must be taken into consideration—all that was burning in his mind on this day, and a thousand agonies in his heart—and, in addition, the frightful odds which he was facing at this moment. For who could tell, for instance, if the old witch behind the bar might not have the courage to make her strength equal her hate and catch up a knife to plunge it in the back of Melody as he turned from her? Perhaps that very thought was in her mind, helping to wrinkle her face into a caricature of humanity. Yet his easy poise disconcerted her. He seemed so sure of himself that I presume she felt the young demon had eyes in the back of his head, capable of watching her every moment of the time,

In the meantime, the Mexican who had been addressed in this cruel manner, lifted his head, perforce. He was an ugly chap of middle age, with a heavily marked face, and mustaches which consisted of a few black bristles, just as Melody had described them. He stared at Melody, now, with a brutal fury; but though he set his teeth, he did not speak a word.

"Good," said Melody. "Now continue to look at me, if you please. This gold-laced jacket is worth a glance, is it not? In the meantime, I wish to speak, and I wish you, and the others, to hear."

No other heads were turned toward him, but a little shudder ran through that room. They pretended to go on with their card game, and with their dicing, but not a sound was made, and those bent heads were attending with a religious ardor to every syllable that Lew Melody had to say.

"I have learned," said he, "of two brave men who have come to our town from Mexico, the land of warriors."

He paused to tilt back his head and smile as he said this. And then he repeated, turning the words slowly over his tongue: "From Mexico—the nation of warriors—two brave hearts have ridden up the north trail until they have come to Barneytown. And they carry the name of Azatlan!"

Here he paused and leaned forward a little, scanning every face in that room with a tigerish intentness; but every man started, and one no more than another. A shadow of disappointment passed over the face of Melody, arid he went on:

"They came to inquire after another gentleman who rode to this town a year ago. His name, also, was Azatlan. He was, in fact, their brother. And it occurs to me that perhaps they may be hunting for this man. Do you not think so, seņor?"

The man with the bristling mustaches made no answer.

"Speak, rat!" said Melody.

It brought a savage convulsion of rage to the features of him of the meager mustaches; for an instant it seemed that he would leap from his chair and fling himself at the throat of his tormentor. But he recovered himself at once.

"I cannot tell," muttered he, in an inaudible voice.

"You cannot tell?" echoed Melody. "Ah, well, still I believe that that is why they have come. And that is why I have ridden down to the cantina of my dear friend, the Seņora Alicia. We are old friends, are we not, seņora?"

A gasping snarl was her only answer.

"I have come to my friend's house in the hope that I might find them here, because I wish to tell them what became of the other Azatlan. Is there no one among you by that name?"

Not a head stirred, not a voice spoke.

"Then hear me and repeat it to the two good brothers: Pedro Azatlan has left this weary world. Do, you understand? I, who tell you, know. Because it was my privilege to open the door for him. And I showed him through into his new life. I know that the two brave brothers will be interested. Tell them, also, that I called here in the hope of having a pleasant word with them—about their brother's journey."

He tossed off his soda and then backed to the door.

"Adios, amigos!"

And he was gone.


V. — RETURNING TO THE CORDOBAS.

IF you think that Lew Melody was exceedingly brutal in this matter, I must explain a little: First, that he had recognized one of the precious pair by a resemblance to the brute face of the man he had killed the year before. For, the moment he had left the cantina, there was a great bustle and stir behind him, and the middle-aged man with the bristling mustaches, who was none other than Cristobal Azatlan, rushed from his chair toward the door like a bull. A taller and younger man sprang after him, overtook him, and dragged him back.

"No, brother," said he. "You were wise not to draw a knife or a gun. It was far better to let him go. We have not come here to fight like two fools, eager to throw our lives away. We have come here only to exact a vengeance, which is a holy thing, is it not?"

"Ah, gasped out Cristobal, well-nigh strangled with rage and with shame, "God must have sustained me, for otherwise I should not have been able to control myself. I should have rushed at him and torn him to pieces. Ah, Miguel, did you not hear it? It was he who opened the door, and sent our brother out of this life. Ah, dog of a gringo! Ah, the devil take and burn him little by little, forever! It must be to-day, Miguel—or I shall die! There is a fire in me! I shall die of hate if I do not kill him to-day!"

They led him back to a chair. Seņora Alicia, full of solicitude, brought wine.

"Do not think, Seņor Azatlan, that we suspect your brave heart. But is the bull as wise as the wild cat? No, no! It is fatal to rush at this Don Luis. He is a devil with ten hands, and each hand strikes deadly blows. I—your friend, who stand now before you—I have seen three bold and strong men rush upon him in this place. And that was in long years ago, when he was still a boy. Two of those men we kept in bed until their wounds healed slowly. And the third man was buried. It was sad and terrible. But all the men of the valley know that what I say is only the truth. It is the small shadow of the truth. Believe me, there is no shame for you. Tell him, amigos, if I have lied?"

Others came around Cristobal. He was to congratulate him for the patience with which he had endured the dreadful baiting of Don Luis.

"But it delivers him into your hands," said they. "Before, he thought he knew your face, and he was right. But now he cannot be sure that you are Pedro's brother. He is already a dead man, and you and Miguel will succeed where so many have failed. But do not meet him face to face. It is deadly and unescapable! It is better to face poison. He works by enchantment!"

In this manner they soothed the injured pride of Cristobal, and more wine was poured for them, but not too much. For the advice of Melody himself was still in their ears—a stumbling tongue is bad, but a stumbling hand is a fatal disaster.

Lew Melody had ridden slowly away from the cantina, with his head turned over his shoulder, for he half expected that some maddened man might lurch put through the door, in the hope of putting a bullet in the back of the rider; for such an eager enemy, Melody was prepared. I myself have seen him whirl in the saddle while galloping at full speed and split the head of a jack rabbit with his bullet!

However, his skill had been known for eight years in the valley; men shunned him as they were fabled to have shunned the swords of Tristram and Lamorak and Lancelot in the old days of King Arthur. And I have often wondered if the heroes of the days of armor were not much like this man? Not bulky giants, as we are so apt to imagine them, but graceful, agile, sure-handed men, with quick feet and unerring eyes. For it is not hard for my imagination to dress Lew Melody from head to foot in complete mail and set in his hand a long lance with a pennon fluttering from the base of its point.

At any rate, having made sure that there was to be no sudden rushing out against him, he let the Gray Pacer glide away through the dusty streets until he came to the house of the money lender. There he rode into the court and gave the reins of the stallion to a servant. He entered by the back stairs—down which Juanita had told him she had gone when she stole out through the night to carry him a wealth of jewels and so buy his safety from the hand of the law. Melody, going slowly up the stairs, could picture her descending, frightened of every whisper through the old house, clad in her man's clothes, with her hair shorn to disguise her the better.

Well, she was a soul of fire! How little he had expected such a strength in this girl! How little he knew her—or any woman, for that matter!

But, in the meantime, the adventure which was just behind him had so soothed his soul, and the thought of the courage of Juanita had so raised his heart, that he came into the living rooms of the old house with the vital picture of Sandy, which had never left his mind, now grown dim and pale. As for Seņor Cordoba and his wife, I don't suppose that they were able to notice anything except the prime fact that "Don Luis" had come back to them, and that he was safe in body. But Juanita saw something more. A haunted look had begun to come upon the face of this girl in the last days—almost since a date for her wedding with Lew Melody was announced. Not that she suspected the feeling of Lew toward Sandy; for though she had known about that affair, she considered it more or less as a sort of foolish fling, on the part of Lew Melody. His real love was for her, and for her only, she told herself. And yet she knew that there was a shadow in the soul of Melody. She tried with all her might to find what that shadow might be, but she could not. And she had no one with whom she could talk this thing over.

At last, she struck upon a solution, and with the passing of every day, she felt that she must indeed have struck the truth. The shadow in the mind of Lew Melody was old Cordoba himself. For was not Melody the fiery soul of pride, and was not this father of hers no more than a peon? This, she told herself sadly, was the cause behind the gloom which she felt in Melody, though her mother and father seemed unable, to detect anything wrong in him.

At this very moment, as he came in, singing and tossing his hat at a chair, she found his eye so lighted and, his head so high that she could have, cried out with joy. It was like the Lew Melody she had known of old.

"Did no messenger come to you from me?" cried Cordoba, when he saw the young American.

"Yes."

"Ah, you were so long—I had a fear that—well, here you are; and you are safe! Luis, you must not move from the house for a few days, until I have found a way of disposing of—never mind!"

"Of Miguel and Cristobal Azatlan? Do you mean them?" asked Lew Melody.

"The devil has told you their names!" cried poor Cordoba, "How have you learned?"

"I have been to see them!"

"You!" cried all three, frozen with astonishment and with dread.

"But I could only find one," said Melody, hastening to relieve their minds of all dread. "I found only one—that is, only one that I could recognize, and there was no bloodshed—nothing but words. I scolded him, my dear friends, and then I came back to you."

"Were there others there?" asked Cordoba.

"There were; and that's why I tell you about it, because I know that you'd hear very soon whether I spoke or not. But there is no harm done."

"Except that you have insulted one of them in public. And now he cannot exist in happiness until he has—ah, well, Luis, if you were not so terrible, we would not love you so much, I suppose. But now you must not stir out of the house. Promise me that, until I have had a chance to find these men and deal with them?"

"But how would you deal with them?" asked Lew Melody.

The money lender winked broadly at him. "There are ways!" said he.

"You will bribe him to leave the valley?" asked Lew. "But they would come back again. You cannot handle such nettles with a light touch; you must crush them. Leave them to me. It is all in the knack of the thing—very simple, and no danger. I only talk of it to-day, because I know that you will worry."

He was stopped by the expression of Cordoba. The poor man was in a complete panic. It had been one thing to hear of the fierce exploits of this youth, when he was no more than a gay visitor in the house of Cordoba now and again; but as the future husband of Juanita—yes, with that marriage barely around the corner of to-morrow, so to speak, it was absolutely necessary that they should find some means of curbing this creature of fire. But how put a harness on a comet? With despair, then, and with love, and with a sort of futile rage, the money lender gazed at the youngster. Then he turned to his wife.

"Speak to him!" he entreated.

The seņora had watched all of this scene with a keen and patient eye, with an interest neither feminine nor masculine; nothing existed in her except the mother afraid for her daughter's happiness, and in this moment she was seeing terrible ordeals in the long years which stretched ahead for Juanita if she married such a man. And, by a sort of premonition, a foreknowledge, she knew that this marriage should not be. So she made no answer to her frantic husband.

It was Juanita who spoke, and in such a tone as neither her father nor her mother had ever heard from her before.

She simply said: "We have talked too much of what Luis should do. I suppose that he'll decide for himself in the end!"

It was as though she had said: "What are we, that we should prescribe?"

So that matter ended for the moment, but a strange chill had come over the household and would not leave them. They sat about fumbling for something to say, or something to do, conscious that the silence was more tense every instant, but unable to murmur a word. And Lew Melody? For the first time, really, he saw that in marrying Juanita he would be marrying her father and her mother also. They would become a part of his family and of his life, and he would be held by three anchors, and not one.

But three anchors make a moveless ship—and he was Lew Melody!


VI. — A LOAN IS SUGGESTED.

IT was Cordoba himself who, at last, broke the silence that had gathered so heavily in the room. It seemed as though serious thoughts rolled very easily off his fat, round back; or perhaps it was the sense of his own trouble that brought to his mind the trouble of another.

He said suddenly: "It is the end of that poor Seņor Furnival!"

The glance of Juanita flashed whiplike to the face of Lew Melody; if she spoke never of the passion which had taken her lover from her side to that of Sandy Furnival, not so many weeks before, it was not because she did not think of it constantly. Think she did, and now her look probed at the face of Lew Melody. If it had been I, she would have surprised me, I know, in the midst of an expression of dismay which would have told a great deal. But I have noticed that men who are quick with their hands are, also, usually quick with their minds. So that the instant that Lew heard that word, he felt the prick of the spur and then banished all semblance of pain from his face and presented an unruffled brow to Juanita's searching eyes. The seņora, too, had looked askance at him; but she discovered no more than did her daughter.

"What's happened to Furnival?" asked Melody, in a matter-of-fact voice.

"He is sick?" asked Juanita.

"He is sick in the purse," said the, money lender, and he could not help smiling a little when he thought of his own comfortable thousands in the bank.

"That's odd," said Melody cheerfully, "because he seemed to be a thrifty man."

"Ah, yes, very thrifty," said the money lender. "But these thrifty men sometimes forget one little thing—cash, cash, cash! That is it!" He rubbed his hands together and chuckled with self-satisfaction.

"But he has a good ranch," said Lew.

"So-so. It is a good ranch, stocked with good cattle. But there is a mortgage, eh?"

"It is worth more than the mortgage, surely.'" said the seņora. "I have seen that place. It is good."

"Buying and selling,", said the man of money, "is a beautiful thing. Do you know what the generals say? There is a time to fight and a time not to fight. And there is also a time to sell and a time to buy. Well, my children, this is not the time for Seņor Furnival to sell. It is very wrong! But he needs cash—cash—cash!"

"The bank—" began the seņora.

"It is the bank that holds the mortgage. It is the bank that wants the ranch. You see how beautiful it is?"

"Is the Barneytown bank the only one in the valley?"

"They are all allies," said Cordoba. "And the Barneytown bank has said to the others: Let us alone. We want this thing. Another time, we will keep our hands off when you wish a thing. So it goes, do you see? Seņor Furnival gets no money; he must sell; and the bank is the buyer—oh, very cheap! Because no one outside of the banks have the cash—not one except Cordoba!"

"Then why does he not come to you?" asked the wife.

"Who can tell?" said Cordoba, with a grin of satisfaction. "To some, I am only a greaser dog!"

"Father!" cried Juanita, turning crimson.

"Oh, do not look at Luis," said the money lender. "He knows what fools say of me! But when Furnival does not come to me, should I go to him?"

Juanita glanced again at Lew Melody; he was merely rolling one of his incessant cigarettes, and his face was as calm as the face of a sphinx.

"Ah, Luis," said the girl, "can you be so heartless, when those people were once your friends? Can you see them go down to a great poverty, perhaps, when a word from you would persuade my father?"

Heaven can tell how the heart of Lew Melody must have leaped when he heard this suggestion, but he knew his part, and he merely said: "They are nothing to me. Let these business men take care of their business. Why should your father lose money to help this rancher?"

"Ah, well," said Cordoba, cocking his head upon one side as another phase of the thing entered his mind. "It would be a good loan. It would be—let me see—twelve—perhaps fifteen thousand dollars. One cannot place such loans—at a right interest—every day. But—should I go to him? No. I would lose two per cent simply by asking him for his business. That would be a fool's trick. I am growing old; but I have not grown foolish. No, no!"

I have always seen a fate in this thing—that Juanita should have urged on a matter which ended in her own destruction. But at that moment there was nothing in her saving a great gentleness. And when she looked at Lew Melody and considered her great happiness, she had a consuming pity for all who might be sad in this world.

She said: "Let Luis go to them and talk for you. It would be business from you; it would seem mere friendship from him!"

The money lender, not displeased, grinned broadly upon his wife. "Is she not my daughter?" said he. "Yes, and she has a head. She has understanding, I tell you! Well, Luis, will you go to him from me? Will you go to him as a friend?"

I suppose that Lew Melody felt this thing was a gift from heaven, but he pretended to be disinclined.

"It is a long ride, and a hot day," said he. "I should think that a letter would do well enough."

"Luis!" cried Juanita. "Do you mean it?"

"Well," said he, "will it please you if I go?"

"Ah, yes!"

"These good people," said the artful Melody, with a sigh, "make us bad ones work hard to please them. I'll ride to the Furnival ranch if you wish, Juanita."

"Dear Luis!"

"Tush!" said the money lender. "This may be a good business stroke for me. But look—because it is the wish of Juanita, I shall be generous. There happens to be much money lying idle in my safe. Why should it not work? So I will give them a banker's rate—at six per cent. Now, there is generosity, Luis!"

"Foolish generosity!" said Melody.

"Well, I shall be soft-hearted for once. But go quickly, Luis. I am eager to learn what he says. Unless he is a madman—go quickly! There is much money idle in my safe! Tell him—it can be arranged by mail, if he can not take this trip to see me."

It was in this manner that Melody was persuaded to do the thing which lay the nearest to his heart—by the girl and by her father. In the light, of things to come, you will see if this was not the work of a controlling Providence which had a care for the sorrows of poor Sandy Furnival.

So, sauntering idly, for fear lest haste on his part might excite the suspicions of the Cordobas, after all, Lew Melody went down the street to the Gray Pacer and there he found a down-headed roan mustang with both ears dropping lazily-forward, enjoying a sun bath. And, in the meager shadow of his neck, sitting cross-legged in the dust, his back reclining against the forelegs of the little beast, sat a bareheaded boy of fifteen with a young-old face—a philosopher above, a young satyr below. He was blowing on a harmonica, his eyes half closed in enjoyment of the weird strains which he brought forth.

"Slim!" said Lew Melody, and ran for him.

But Slim held up one restraining hand. "Listen here," said Slim, with a corner of the instrument still in his mouth. "If this ain't swell harmony, I'm a goat!" And he repeated the last strain.

"You'll be a violinist," said Lew Melody. "That's fine!"

At this, a gleam of satisfaction crossed the features of the ragged, dusty boy. He stood up and held out his hand.

"Hello, Lew," said he. "How's things?"

"Where the devil have you been?" asked Lew Melody. "And why haven't I heard from, you? And what became of the last suit of clothes I got for you?"

"I was rollin' the bones with Arkansas Joe down to El Paso," said the boy, "and he had the dog-gonedest run of luck that you ever seen. He got his point five times runnin', and when I doubled my bets and stakes my new clothes along with the rest of my pile, darned if he didn't crap and get the whole lot! That was luck! What?"

"That was luck," grinned Lew Melody. He thrust a forefinger into the lean paunch of the boy. "When did you eat last, Slim?"

"Leave me be!" said Slim angrily. "My last meal was a fine breakfast."

"What did you have?"

"Roast chicken," said Slim. "Roast chicken done brown, and roast potaters in the ashes, and coffee that would make you roll your eyes!"

"That sounds enough," said Melody. "Where did you swipe the chickens?"

"Aw, down the line."

"When was it? Yesterday?"

"Naw. The day before."

"Here's a ten-spot. Blow yourself to a real meal again."

"Thanks," said Slim, stowing the coin with a dexterous palm.

"Why did you fade away, Slim? I thought that you'd stay around with me for a while."

"A hand-out once in a while is all right," declared Slim, "but mooching steady all the time is beggin'. D'you think that I'd be a beggar, Lew?"

"Of course not. How have you been making any money, though? Riding herd a little?"

"Work," explained Slim, "don't agree with me none. It sort of riles up my blood and gets my head to achin'. When I start to workin' I begin to see pictures, and all the pictures is of some place where I ain't. Funny, ain't it?"

"Very queer," said Lew. "But what brought you back just now?"

"I thought I'd blow in for the wedding and the big eats. There'll be big eats, I guess?"

"Oh, yes. More than you can hold."

"I dunno," said Slim. "When I lay myself out to really eat, I can wrap myself around a whole grocery store, pretty near" He stepped closer to Melody. "A bo down the line," said he, "told me about a couple of birds that come up to scalp you. Name of Azatlan. They ought to be in Barneytown right now."

"I've seen one of them," said Lew Melody. "But thanks for letting me know. That's friendly, Slim."

"Aw, it ain't nothin'," said Slim. "Speakin' personal, I been sort of achin' for a scrap. I been practicin' with this right along. Watch!"

With a lightning gesture he conjured a revolver from his clothes and made it disappear on the opposite side of his body. There had been hardly more than a flash of steel in the sun.

"Fine," said Melody. "That's the real stuff. How much time every day?"

"Two or three hours," said Slim. "And then another hour, pullin' and shooting quick." He added with a sigh: "But I ain't so very sure of my stuff yet, Lew. Well, it's comin', though. I remember what you taught me, pretty well. But I get to pulling with the forefinger instead of squeezing with the whole hand, the way you said!"

So, when Lew Melody slipped into the saddle on the great, gray stallion, the boy jumped onto the back of the roan mustang and they started off together, the pacer sliding along like flowing water, and the mustang pounding hard to keep up. They twisted out through the narrow streets of the Mexican quarter of Barneytown, and across the staggering old bridge across the river, and so on through the broader streets of the eastern town. Then up the hills beyond toward the Furnival ranch they went, until the sharply flashing eyes of the boy detected something moving in a course parallel with theirs, on the farther side of the hill up which they rode that moment.

"Lew," said he, "there's a slick bird trailin' us on the far side of the hill!"


VII — LEW RIDES TO THE FURNIVAL RANCH.

DID you have a glimpse of him?"

"Only the peak of a hat."

"Broad or sharp?"

"A Mexican peak, Lew. Might it be—"

"I'll see," said Lew Melody, and, twitching the stallion to the right, he turned the fine creature into a silver flash of light that drove up the hillside, leaped a fence on the crest, and shot on like a winged thing floating near the ground, to the farther side of the hill, with poor Slim flogging its best speed out of the mustang but falling more and more hopelessly to the rear with every stride.

So sudden was that charge that the rider on the farther hillside was taken quite from the rear and most wholly by surprise. When he jerked his head around, it was only to see Lew Melody already almost upon him and within point-blank range for pistol shooting.

At that range, men took no liberties with Lew Melody, from the Rio Grande to the Cascade Mountains. His work was too swift and far too sure for any comfort. So the man, a lean-faced individual with very long, Indian-straight black hair that jutted out beneath the band of his hat, stopped his horse and waited for Melody to come up. The Gray Pacer was brought to a swerving halt that made him face the other directly. Melody hooked a thumb over his shoulders.

"The road is yonder," said he. "There is no trail here, my friend." He spoke in Spanish, and the other answered sullenly:

"I ride where I choose to ride, seņor."

"We do not find men by riding crosscountry for them," said Melody. "When we wish to meet them, we ride down the roads. Or, better still, we go to their houses and call them to the door and say: 'Defend yourself!'"

"Seņor!" exclaimed the Mexican, with a glitter of danger in his eyes.

"Yes, seņor," said Melody. "Yes, Miguel Azatlan!"

The guess struck home so sharply, that the other turned a pale yellow with the shock of it.

"You have my name, then?" muttered he.

"I have your name," said Melody. "But you are not a full blood brother to those bull-faced fools—Pedro and Cristobal. You are not?"

"Their father was my father," said the other, more sullen than ever, but more afraid than sullen.

"You have come up here to talk with me concerning the death of Pedro a year ago?" asked Melody.

"I did not say so."

"But I know your thoughts. It must be that we have mutual friends. And now look around you, Miguel. Here are open fields. There is no one near us except the boy, yonder, and he will report the matter fairly and say that it was a fair fight, no matter which of us drops. Why should you not say what you have to say now?"

"I do not know what you mean," said Miguel, a little more yellow than ever. "I have nothing to say."

"Not even six words?" asked Melody contemptuously. And he pointed to the holster at the hip of the Mexican. But Azatlan regarded him in a glowering silence.

"Very well," said Melody. "It is to be in the dark, then, after all." And, turning his horse fairly around, he presented his back to the Mexican and rode away.

At this tempting target, Azatlan gripped his revolver butt. But still his hand brought it only half out. There was something so light in the carriage of Melody, so suggestive of an animal readiness to whirl and shoot and not miss, that he changed his mind and jammed the gun back into the leather cover.

At the hilltop, Slim rejoined his friend, grinning broadly. "I didn't hear nothin'," said Slim, "but I seen plenty. That sap is gunna dream about you, Lew!"

"The rat is a night worker, it seems," said Lew Melody. "He'll try his hand with me when the lights are out. Over yonder is the Furnival ranch, kid. I have to go there by myself. I suppose that you won't be lonely?"

"Me? I keep my company with me," said Slim, and, turning the mustang under the shade of a tree, he slid off and lay flat in the pale-brown grass; the outlandish strains of the harmonica followed Lew Melody down the road a step or two.

He went straight up to the ranch house, but when he rapped and waited, his heart in his mouth, it was not the familiar light step of Sandy Furnival that came up to the door, but a trailing noise of slippers. The Chinese cook opened to Lew.

From the pidgin English of the cook, Melody learned that Furnival was superintending the building of a stack of straw behind the winter sheds for the cattle. So, to the sheds went Lew and found Furnival himself on top of the stack, taking two corners of the great square stack, while a hired man labored on the other side of the rising pyramid, and a Jackson fork dumped a quarter of a wagon load at a time on top of the pile. It was well sun faded, this straw, and it rose, now, like a rough mound of ivory against a pale sky. On top, half obscured through the smoke of chaff and dust, Lew saw the grim face of Furnival, set with labor and enjoying his task. He thought it characteristic of the man that, with ruin just around the corner of his life, Furnival should be carrying on the routine work of the ranch with such methodical pains.

A little shudder passed through the body of Lew Melody and set all his lean muscles twitching. For the only thing in the world that he feared, I am sorry to say, was hard work!

The business ended as he approached. The derrick boy turned to stare at him; the teamster on top of his load paused with the ponderous Jackson fork raised in his hands; and Furnival himself advanced to the edge of the stack and shouted down:

"What you want, Melody?"

"I want to talk to you."

"About what?" asked Furnival coldly.

It was very irritating to Lew Melody. He came there intent upon being his mildest self, but when one wishes to have a quiet bull terrier, it is not well to bring it near to a growling dog.

"About your own business," snapped out Lew, "if that interests you."

Now, Furnival was a somber fellow, and I suppose that of all the people in the world, the one he was least fond of was this tall, graceful, handsome young man who sat on the back of the famous Gray Pacer and looked up to him from beneath a gaudy Mexican sombrero. However, after he had paused for a moment, he seemed to decide that it would be better to talk than to explode. So he waded over the loose top of the stack, gripped a derrick rope, and slid down.

He came to Melody, wiping the perspiration and the dust out of his eyes and shouting over his shoulder: "Keep on! This ain't no half holiday!"

The derrick-horse driver came to life with a start, the big Jackson fork was fixed and then went groaning up into the air with its dripping load of straw.

Melody was now standing at the head of the stallion.

"What'll you have?" asked Furnival.

"You're in trouble," said Melody, with an equal sharpness.

"I ain't called for a doctor," said the rancher.

"You're about to be broken up small," said Lew, as coldly as ever. "And you know it."

"What might that have to do with you?"

"I haven't come here for your sake. I suppose that you can guess that."

"We ain't gunna argue that point," said Furnival darkly. "Now lemme hear what you got to say. I'm a busy man."

"I've come to find out what money you need to float you through," said Lew Melody, "and offer you a loan—"

I suppose it was a staggering blow to the rancher. In his hard life, he had never received gifts, he had never taken help. But he had moiled and toiled his way to the possession of all that he owned. Help from any one would have been an absolute novelty to him. But help from a man like Melody, whom he considered an enemy, was very strange!

If he felt a shock of surprise at first, it was followed at once by a total suspicion. Things which are too good cannot be real.

"You want to offer me a loan?" he asked gravely.

"From Cordoba."

"Ah," grunted Furnival. "From the greaser, eh?"

It was a rough and a pointless insult—seeing that he and the entire valley knew that Lew Melody was contracted to the daughter of the Mexican.

But if the eye of Melody turned to fire, he controlled his anger at once. And Furnival, seeing that effort at self-control, marveled more than ever. For certainly Lew had no saintly repute for patience.

"From Cordoba," said Melody coldly. "I suppose that money from him would help you as much as money from any one?"

"I dunno," muttered Furnival, still peering intently at the younger man to make out some hidden meaning. "I dunno that I foller your drift, son."

"Open your eyes, then, and look sharp. Is there anything that you can't understand? The bank has cornered you—"

"How did you find that out?"

"From Cordoba."

"And now Cordoba wants to corner me the same way? No, Melody; if I'm gunna go bust, I'll let white robbers pick my bones. Thank you!"

A veritable saint would have begun to show some emotion by this time, I believe. As for Lew Melody, he was in a white heat.

"I'm making the offer for the last time!" he cried. "Will you take Cordoba's money at six per cent interest, or will you not?"


VIII. — EXQUISITE AGONY.

IT was the crowning shock to Furnival.

Naturally it was not the first time he had taken a loan; that was the direct cause of his downfall. But when a rancher borrows, he usually pays very dearly for it. The cattle business is too uncertain to make banks lend gladly. A famine season may ruin the most prosperous rancher; and so the rates run high on cattle money. Now, of all times Furnival having his back against the wall, money at six per cent was like money donated freely. He glared at Melody, hunting for the joke behind this suggestion, but when he found the eye of the younger man bright and steady, he looked wildly around him, then back again to this minister of grace.

"Lew," said he finally, "this is a funny thing that you're talkin' about. I'm about down and done for. I suppose that you ain't meaning it when you talk six per cent?"

"Exactly that! You can have what you want at that rate."

"Young feller," said Furnival with a rising voice, "d'you know what I'm in the hole?"

"Only vaguely."

"I need eighteen thousand dollars before I can hold up my head!"

"Eighteen thousand dollars," said Lew Melody, "is exactly what you may have!" He added: "Or call it twenty thousand, which will leave you some spare money in the bank to work on."

The sun was burning hot, but Furnival took off his hat and exposed his face as though to a cooling breeze.

"Say it once more—slow and careful!" said he.

And Lew Melody repeated the offer.

"But why in Heaven's name will he do it?" cried the rancher.

"He knows that your ranch is worth it:"

"Ay—it is!" exclaimed Furnival. "And more, too. And if I can meet the bank, I'll be so far ahead by the end of the season that I could pay off the whole eighteen thousand. I got my hands on gold—a regular mine—everything is busting my way—except for cash, and the lack of cash was killing me! But now—why, I'd be free, Melody!"

"Cordoba is not a fool," said Lew. "He wouldn't lend the money if he didn't know that you were worth it."

"It ain't him," said Furnival. "It's you, Melody, that's doin' this for me!"

"I tell you, it's not, Furnival. I give you my word—"

"You're lyin' to me," snapped out the rancher. "It's you that persuaded him. Whoever heard tell of a money lender sending out beggin' to make a loan—and at six per cent! Why, it's not more than charity, Melody!"

Nothing else could have torn through the outer shell of his strength so effectually, for there was nothing else that Furnival so understood as he understood money and money matters. This was an eloquence of dollars and cents that went to his soul.

And, while Lew Melody persisted that there was no charity in it, and that it was a matter of the sheerest business, Furnival took him by the arm and said: "We're gunna walk into the house where we can talk more comfortable."

He fairly dragged Lew to the house and up the steps of the veranda through the door. The same door where, not long before, he had met Lew with a shotgun in his hands and a sharp command never to show his face again in the Furnival house. But that was forgotten, now. No, as they entered the living room, he turned about and gripped the hand of Melody.

"I said once that I'd never see you inside my house again, Lew. Well, I was a fool. I didn't know you. I was blind to you!. But when a man gives back good for bad, the way you're doin' now—why, it makes me want to stand on top of the house and talk to the world about it."

"You'll not tell a soul," said Melody.

"But I shall."

"Furnival, you'd embarrass me."

"Hey, Sandy!"

"For Heaven's sake!" breathed Lew, when he heard the name of the girl he loved.

And then her sweet voice from the upper part of the house made answer, and he heard the quick, light step come through the upper hall.

"I can't stay. You mustn't tell her about it," said Lew, completely miserable. "I'm going now. Let me go, Furnival!"

"Let you go? I'll see you damned first!" He laid a gigantic grip upon the arm of Furnival. "Hey, Sandy! Will you hurry up?"

Sandy came in a breathless whirl to the open door, and there she stopped short and threw her hand up before her face. For it was a cruel thing to bring her so suddenly into sight of the man she loved.

But Furnival was in the midst of a speech-making effort, the first in his life, and the glow of his enthusiasm did not permit him to see the pain and the white shock in the face of his daughter.

"I dragged Lew into the house," said the rancher, "because you got the lingo to talk, right to him, and I ain't! I dragged him in here first to tell you that he's saved us, Sandy. Why he done it, I dunno, except that he's naturally white. But here's the work of my life—this here house—that chair and that table—and everything beyond that window, from the straw to the cows—the whole work of my life was gunna go up in smoke, Sandy. And now Lew comes in to save me, after I've treated him like a mangy dog. I say that it warms my heart!"

"No, Sandy," broke in Lew Melody. "I have no money. I could not do it. It is the money of Cordoba, and he deserves the praise."

"You hear him?" laughed the rancher, swelling with joy. "Why, he's modest, too. Darned if I ain't seein' him for the first time. Sandy, are you struck dumb? Ain't you got a word?"

"Bless you, Lew," said Sandy, and went up to him and smiled in his face.

"I'll go see Cordoba and arrange things with him," said Furnival. "You might fix up a snack or something for Lew, Sandy. I'm not gunna be back till the middle of the afternoon at the earliest. So long!"

He was through the door with a rush like the rush of a happy boy. His daughter and her lover remained gravely behind, like old people indeed.

"As soon as he has gone, I'll go," said Lew. "As soon as we hear his horse."

She shook her head. "There's no need of that," said she.

And a heavy silence fell between them, until the rapid clattering of the hoofs of the rancher's horse began and died off down the road. Then Lew Melody picked up his hat and turned toward the door.

He had almost passed through it when a low cry from Sandy stopped him; I dare not think the future might have been for them if that cry had not been uttered. But Melody turned and saw Sandy leaning against the wall very pale and very drawn about the mouth.

"What is it, Sandy?" said he.

"I don't want you to go," said she. "I'm too weak to let you go just now!"

He went back to her and took her cold face between his hands; "Do you think it's right?" said he.

"I don't know," said Sandy. "Is it wrong?"

They were both trembling; they were both pinched of face and great of eye.

"Only I thought—" said Sandy.

"Tell me," said he.

"That it was our last chance for a little happiness together, Lew."

"It is our last chance," said he.

I don't like to repeat what was said then by Sandy, but all her heroism and that touch of saintliness which I think most good women possess—for a few great moments in their lives—vanished from Sandy and left her weak and all too human. But she cried out: "Ah, my dear, why should she have you? Is it only because she rode a horse up into the hills to find you? Is it that, which gives her the right to have you? But I wont submit to it. I'll fight; because it's my life and my happiness that I fight for! And I love you; and you love me; tell me if you do!"

I am glad that I never had to feel such an agony as went thrilling through the body and through the soul of Lew Melody as he listened to her and stared drearily before him at the wall.


IX. — SLIM OVERHEARS.

SLIM had not lain under his tree long when he heard something behind him, no louder than the rushing of a bird's wing through the air, but it made him drop the harmonica and whirl over on his belly with his revolver slipped into his hand by a gesture of wonderful speed such as Lew Melody himself had seen and approved. And when Slim had turned upon his stomach, he found that the barrel of the gun was pointed straight at the piratical form of Miguel Azatlan, who was just half a step from the far side of the tree, sneaking along stealthily with a sort of congealed malice in his face. He stopped with a shock at the sudden change in the posture of the boy. But, after the first start, he was inclined to regard the leveled revolver, in such young hands, as little more than a poor joke. So he grinned at Slim.

"Be careful, my son," said he in Spanish. "There might be a bullet in that!"

"Might there be?" said Slim, showing his teeth as he smiled. "And there might be a pair of 'em—and there might be three pairs, too. And every pair might be meant for you—you yaller skinned, rat-eyed, long-drawn-out, blue-mouthed alligator!"

"I shall make you yell for that!" said Miguel, turning into a demon at once. "I shall teach one young gringo—"

"Say, greaser," said the boy, "you got a tassel on the side of your hat that you don't need. So I'm gunna take it off for you."

He had his aim on the tassel, well enough, but that aim was a little too close. He clipped off the tassel, but the big-faced bullet tore into the body of the sombrero itself and ripped through the tough felt and sliced away the hatband, and in short, knocked the sombrero so neatly off the head of the Mexican, that it spun away through the air and left him suddenly bareheaded.

He clapped his hand to his bare sconce with a shout of surprise. And then he snatched out a gun only to hear the sharp voice of this evil young American ripping at his ear:

"Drop that gun, greaser! Drop that gun, or I'll salt you, sure!"

Miguel hesitated; then, being lost in fact, he dropped the gun in all obedience and glowered at Slim.

"Young murderer!" he gasped.

A lie began to expand in the fertile brain of Slim, and grow into a rosy dream of fiction. He began to narrate:

"Sometimes I lay down by the old Rio and snooze in the bushes. Pretty soon, I hear some sap comin' down for water on the far side of the river. Then I up and draw a bead on him and give him a yell. And when he looked up, he got it."

"Son of a devil!" snarled Miguel. "You will be buzzard food before many days—you and Seņor Melody. I spit on you and scorn you!"

So he turned himself about and walked away with as much dignity as he could muster. Slim, however, picked up the revolver and gloated over it. It was of a new make, in perfect condition, and all of the six chambers were loaded. The armament of Slim was, in this fashion, doubled on the spot.

However, it was no time for him to linger. Since Miguel had been affronted in this fashion, there was not much which he would not attempt, and there were too many ways of getting, unperceived, within at least rifle range of this tree. So Slim gathered up the reins of Sam, the mustang, and jumped on his back to find a new resting place.

But, as he did so, he heard a clattering of hoofs. He knew that it was not Lew Melody coming down the road, for the sound of the pacer's rhythmic tread was unmistakable to his sharp ears, so he waited with some curiosity.

What he saw, breaking around the bend of the hill and beating up a cloud of dust from the road, was none other than Furnival himself. The rancher was riding hard, and though he was on a willing horse, yet its pace did not suit him, and he mended it from time to time with a stinging cut from a quirt, so that the wind of that gallop made the brim of his hat furl up stiffly in front.

That was enough for Slim. He considered that flying figure for one instant and, comparing its gait with the best pace which he could get out of old Sam, he knew that he could never overtake the flying horseman to ask any questions. Yet he was greatly alarmed. He was too well acquainted with the habits of Lew Melody to be surprised by a disaster of any kind worked by his hands.

What first leaped through the brain of Slim was that Melody might have had trouble with one of the men at the Furnival ranch and that he had shot the man down. Now Furnival himself was rushing for the nearest doctor; that was the meaning, he thought, of such ardent riding on the part of such an elderly and sedate man.

With Slim, as the saying goes, to think was to act. If his idol, Lew Melody, had recently shot down a man, then Lew himself was now in very real trouble. And a man in trouble needs his friends. This was thinking enough for Slim. He turned the roan mustang toward the ranch of Furnival and rode thither at full speed.

But the very first thing that he saw disarmed the greater part of his suspicions. For he discovered that the derrick behind the cattle sheds was still working busily, lifting forkful after forkful of straw to the top of the growing stack, from which a faint smoke of dust and chaff was rising. If there had been a shooting scrape on the place, it seemed most unlikely indeed that the men would be working on in this fashion. If they remained at the stack, it would be to sit in a cluster and talk over similar affairs which had occurred in the valley—particularly if such a person as famous Lew Melody were concerned in the matter.

So Slim paused and took patient thought before he decided upon his next step. It even occurred to him that he might return to the vicinity of the tree where Lew had left him, but when a boy of Slim's age has decided that something may be wrong, and that it concerns the welfare of a friend, he cannot sit down and fold his hands. In another moment Slim had started for the house of Furnival.

He went to the front veranda, dismounted, and stood a moment at the front door. There was not a sound from the house. And yet Lew Melody was not with the working men, and had not returned to the oak, and was certainly riot with Furnival himself, who had ridden so hard in the direction of Barneytown. It began to seem like an exciting mystery to Slim when, far and faint in the house, he heard the sound of a girl's voice, and, a moment later, the familiar murmur of Lew Melody.

It was such an immense relief to Slim, that he was about to turn away with a sigh; and then he grew interested, not to eavesdrop, upon the pair, but in the nice experiment of seeing how sharply he could attune his ears to those light sounds.

There are ways and ways of listening, but few have the power to throw their attention in a definitely concentrated direction. Yet, from the wide and circling horizon of noises around him, Slim shut out from his consciousness the yelping of a far-off coyote—a mere pulse in the air—the sharper conversations from the hen yard behind the house, the dreary squeaking of the derrick pulley, the lowing of a cow like a doleful horn in the distance—all of these noises were closed out of the ear of Slim, and he heard, only, the delicate stir of voices within the house itself. Then, having shut out all else, as a burning glass focuses the sun to a point of fire, so Slim centered his attention and received reward. For, at once, he could distinguish the thread of the conversation. The merest puff of wind would have shattered that dainty web of sound, but no wind came, and presently Slim was fascinated by the picture which those voices were painting for him—a picture so startling and so grim that he could not believe the ears with which he heard it. For he had looked upon Lew Melody as the happiest man in the world; and now he could peek behind the curtain and see the truth! Only a brief glimpse of the truth, but that was enough.

"I shall manage in some way," was the first thing Slim heard Sandy saying.

"Ah. Sandy," said Lew Melody, "I wondered why I should be punished like this, but now I can understand. It's because I've lived for myself and hunted for nothing but my own fun—and my fun was making trouble for other people. I've lived by the gun; and now I'm punished for it."

"You'll be happy, Lew."

"I shall be?"

"She is very pretty; and she loves you. And so do all the Cordobas, But how could they help it? And you'll have money. That helps to smooth out life, I know."

"When she came to me like that in the mountains—I had to do something to save her name. Was there anything else?"

"You had to marry her, Lew. It was the only right thing. Do you think that I shall ever reproach you for it?"

"I know that. And it only makes the pain harder to bear."

"Besides, perhaps I shall be happy, too, after a while. There are things for one to do. And my father needs me. I shall find some sort of happiness. But oh, how I wish that I had never broken out at you to-day! It was only because father brought you in so suddenly—and said so many kind things about you—just for a moment I thought that my heart would break. Because I love you so! Do you forgive me?"

Slim tiptoed from the veranda with a white face.

It was much more to him than if he had looked in upon a frightful murder. He was fifteen; and at fifteen the ideals are as rigidly established as lofty walls of steel. So it was with Slim. Here was his pleasant picture of the future life of Lew Melody pulled down around his ears. He had seen him as the husband of a lovely girl, the son-in-law of a rich man; trouble seemed annihilated for Melody. But here was the truth! And that a man should marry a woman he did not love, even from a sense of duty, seemed to Slim—thief, vagabond, and incipient gun fighter as he was—the most deadly and blasting of sins.

"Something has got to be done!" said Slim.


X. — "A VERY GREAT CRIME."

SUCH a decision as Slim had come to was proper enough; but what under heaven could be accomplished, he did not see so clearly. What he was determined upon, however, was that this false marriage should not take place. It was true that he knew Juanita and liked her very well; but he had seen Sandy also, and to see her, as the poet says, was to love her. Moreover, he felt that this project of Melody, to marry one woman while he truly cared for another, was a crime so dreadful that anything was permissible to prevent it. Therefore means, no matter how brutal, did not appeal to Slim as things to be rejected. His only difficulty was to find the way in which the thing could be done.

In the first place, he decided that he could not endure to meet Melody face to face at once. There would be too great a danger of his tongue running away with his discretion, and Melody must not now suspect what was in his mind; for nothing he could say, he very well knew, could alter the mind of Lew.

So he rode the roan mustang straight back toward Barneytown, but at a slow gait; and slowly he was passing through the streets when he came past my house just as I was busy in the garden watering Lydia's hedge of sweet peas, which is the joy of her life, I think, beyond anything else in the world. Well, it is a pretty thing, that hedge, and I think that when it calls the eyes of the townsmen toward our house, it sends them by with a happy thought of their clergyman.

However, the sun was very hot, and when I saw Slim, I was glad to retreat to a corner of the garden under the shade of a tree and turn the hose into the trench to run as it pleased—a thing which Lydia greatly objects to. I waved to Slim, and he rode his horse up close to the fence. He was proud of his ability to talk with men like a man would, and now he drew himself up in the saddle and looked in a patronizing fashion over the brilliant wall of the fragrant color which the sweet-pea hedge raised into the sun. The aroma of it went like a secret blessing half a block away, when the wind was blowing softly.

"That ain't a half-bad garden," said Slim. "But, Jiminy Christmas! Mr. Travis, what a pile of work you and Mrs. Travis must put in on it!"

"Quite a bit," said I. "Quite a bit, but it's worth it. Don't you think so?"

"Well," said this imp, "we all got our own tastes, you know. Speakin' personal, I'd say that these here sweet peas smell pretty sweet, but they smell like work, too, and I dunno that I care for the smell of work."

"Work," said I, a little sententiously, I fear, "is the only great happiness in life."

The eyes of Slim opened at me. "Might that be a joke?" he asked, with a frown of wonder on his young-old face.

"Not at all a joke," said I. "Because, you see, man is intended to labor."

Slim blinked. "I dunno that I see that very clear," he admitted.

I am always glad of an argument, even with a youngster, because an argument will open the mind. I have noticed that I am always more violent about a matter of which I am only half convinced. And one never half persuades the other fellow without becoming half unpersuaded one's self. However, there are certain things about which one feels a calm conviction. When they are challenged, one merely smiles down at the challenger, very much as I now smiled down at Slim.

"I'll explain," said I. Do you know really anything in the world that is happy without work? Consider the squirrels and how hard they labor almost all the year!"

"H'm!"said Slim, and looked restlessly about him.

Presently he pointed. "How much work does that do?" said he.

It was a rascally blue jay perched on the top of a sapling, which flaunted it back and forth, in the sun, making it look like a rare jewel.

"Ah, that is a pirate, a marauder!" said I.

"What I ask is: Is it happy?" said Slim calmly.

"Why, one can never judge entirely from appearances," said I rather feebly. "I admit that it looks rather pleased with itself; but that's probably because it's thinking of the last bird's nest it robbed—the scoundrel!"

"All right," said Slim patiently; he made his point. "It's happy. And does it work?"

"I don't suppose it does, a great deal," said I.

I was immensely embarrassed, but for a moment I could not think of a favorable direction in which to turn the conversation.

"But after all," said I, "birds and beasts cannot be judged by the same standards that we use for men."

"I dunno," said Slim. "They ain't so different. They're born, the same as us; they live and eat and sleep and drink and die, the same as us. They get mad and they get glad, the same as us. They got their friends and they got their enemies. Ain't they a good deal like us, maybe, after all?"

"My dear child," said I, taking on a more, pulpitlike manner, "do you not see the great difference? No, perhaps you do not, because it is not apparent to the naked eye—only to the inward glance which rests upon the spirit!"

"I dunno that I foller you," said Slim, and he politely stifled a yawn.

I grew a little angry, I admit. "Slim," said I, "have" animals souls!"

"I dunno," said Slim. "Why not?"

It was staggering. I stared at that young pagan for a mute moment, and then I said: "Why—er—isn't it apparent?"

"I dunno that it is," said Slim. "How d'you make it out?"

"Do you dream," said I, "that there is a heaven for dumb beasts?"

"I dunno," said Slim. "Why not?"

"Because, they have no souls to go there!"

"That's what you said, before," remarked Slim dryly.

"Can they speak? Can they reason?"

"I dunno that a lot of talk is much good," said Slim. "I never heard no talkin', and I never done none that said half of the things that was inside of me. Did you?"

I could not help biting my lip.

"Slim," said I, "could your horse, yonder, reason and talk as we are talking now?"

"Can you smell what's in the wind the way he can?" said Slim. "Can you see as far? Can you hear as well?"

"Physical properties only!" said I. "What is the soul and the heart of a beast compared with that of a man, Slim?"

"I dunno what you mean," said this irritatingly blunt child.

"Consider, for instance, the affections," said I. "What is so beautiful in the world as love! And can a beast really love, Slim?"

"Well," said he, "how many folks is there in the world that you'd die for?"

"Is that to the point?" said I. "However, perhaps there are some. Death is a good deal, however!"

"Could you name one gent that you would die for—I mean, step right out and die, for the sake of doin' what he wanted you to do?"

I countered rather adroitly by saying: "Of course a man who asked me to die for him would not be—"

But Slim struck brutally across the fine current of my ideas.

"Well," said he, "Sammy, here, would die for me. He's pretty near done it a couple of times. He'd run till he dropped."

"A mere instinct!" cried I. "Of course, being trained to that work, the poor creature does not understand anything except to run as long as the spurs tickle his ribs."

"You get into this here saddle and ask him to run for you," said Slim. "Only, you better ride him where the ground is soft!"

I flushed a little at this insinuation cast upon my horsemanship, but I was not tempted to mount the little brute.

"Ah, Slim," said I, "who is guilty of giving you an education without any religion?"

"I dunno," said Slim, "whoever done any educating of me, except Lew Melody, with a gun. Maybe he ain't good enough for you?"

He said this with the cold smile of one who names a perfect man and dares criticism to show its face. But I was not in a humor to assail Lew Melody.

"Ah, well," said I, "I would need a great deal of time to convince you. Life will teach you, however. The trouble is that life is a painful schoolmaster. And religion comes easily into the mind of man at two times only—his childhood and his death bed."

"I'd like to know one thing," said Slim, "and that's this talk about hell. How much real stuff is there in it?"

I could only say: "I don't know. But some of us feel that there must be some punishment hereafter for sins which are not punished on earth. Just as we hope that there is a reward for the good that is done."

"What would you say," said Slim, "is the worst thing a man could do?"

"Murder, I suppose."

"Aw, I dunno," said Slim. "I've seen murder. It ain't so bad. It's over quick, anyways. But what about a gent that loves a girl and marries the wrong woman. Ain't that about as bad as you can think?"

I did not know, at that time, what Slim had overheard. I was inclined to smile, but this touch of idealism in the boy sobered me.

"It is a very great crime," said I, and the thought of Lew Melody and Sandy Furnival did not enter my stupid head! That I had confirmed Slim in his secret thoughts never occurred to me; but his determination was simply that he must save his friend from the dark of hell itself by preventing this marriage with the daughter of Cordoba.


XI. — IN THE RIVER BOTTOM.

FROM a secret coign of vantage, Slim watched the return of Lew Melody to the house of Cordoba. And he saw enough in the manner of Lew to convince him that what he had heard at the door of the house of Furnival was not an illusion, but a gloomy fact. For Melody did not sweep down the street at the full and reckless speed of the Gray Pacer, whirling a cloud of dust behind him, but at a dreary and a trudging gait, as though the horse beneath him were exhausted with much work. And yet the Pacer was fairly dancing to be off and away at the full of his stride.

Something had happened in the mind of Melody like the drawing of a curtain which darkens a room. From the window of the Cordoba house, a silvery voice called, and Lew Melody looked up with a smile to Juanita. But it was a forced smile, and an observer as keen as the hidden boy could not fail to note the difference.

All that he saw convinced him more and more.

He decided that there was new and perhaps greater trouble coming, which inspired him to do two things. The first was to run to a Mexican restaurant and there eat the quickest and most filling meal he could get—which was a few tortillas wrapped around cold frijoles. That meal would, have been lead in the stomach of any other than Slim, but he returned untroubled to his post from which he could survey comfortably the whole front of the Cordoba house, without being seen in return. There he curled up and fell into a semi-sleep, for this young animal, like any fox, could sleep with his eyes partly open—as one might say. At least, he was perfectly capable of doing all but lose consciousness while he kept his observance upon one point. That point was the house of Cordoba.

He had an animal patience, too. No cat ever starved and waited by the hole of a mouse with more equanimity, apparently, than did young Slim. For one thing, he was very tired, and therefore he remained in that semi-sleep the more easily. His place was the flat top of a roof, sheltered from view from the street by another projecting and overlapping eaves above him. Here he remained for long hours. Sometimes he roused enough to change, sides and curl into a new position of comfort. Otherwise there was no change. But his skinny body was drinking up rest as the desert drinks up rain.

At length he saw the form of the person for whom he was waiting slip out from the patio gate of the Cordoba house. Slim was instantly wide awake. What he had seen was no more than a dull silhouette, for it was now late at night, and there was nothing but the shining of the bright mountain, stars and an occasional yellow bar of lamplight that struck softly across the street. He was very cold as he sat up on the housetop and yawned and stretched the sleep from his body.

But, in the meantime, he was using his eyes industriously. There was no room for doubt. Even if the outline of the man had not been familiar to him, he would have known the furtive lightness of step with which the other now turned down the street—he would have known the very speed of that walk.

Instantly Slim was out of his spy's nest. He dropped down the face of that house like a wild mountain goat jumping from ledge to ledge. So Slim lowered himself to the ground in an unbroken streak. And he set off in pursuit of his friend,. Lew Melody, for it was he.

Never was there such anxious caution as that of Slim at this moment, for he knew by the very manner of Melody that, no matter what his goal, it was one to which he wished to go unaccompanied. And when one is shadowing a fox, there is need of more than foxlike cunning. If Lew Melody was a drifting shadow that went rapidly down the street, Slim was a shadow also. His bare feet gave him a great advantage. There was no possibility of striking out a noise as his heel dislodged a small stone. It was as though he were equipped with another pair of eyes in his toes, that told him beforehand the nature of the ground over which he was passing.

They were out of the skirts of the town before Slim had the least idea to what the trail might lead him. For when they were clear of the house, Lew Melody went straight for the heavily-wooded river bottom.

Slim, crouched behind the corner of a fence, took counsel with himself, and he was quaking in every fiber of his being. He understood now. For he was not ignorant of the stories which had been alive in Barney Valley during the last eight years, of how Lew Melody rescued himself from ennui by hunting trouble in the "jungles" of the Barney River bottom lands. In those tangles of willow, the floating life of crime that moved up and down the valley on the trail to Mexico and out again, paused to recruit itself. From those darkly forested places, there issued the covert figures which stole into the town to pilfer what they could lay their hands on.

It was on that account that every yard in Barneytown contained a dog as fierce and as formidable as the pocketbook of the house owner could afford to buy. It was on that account that the streets of the town were deserted at night. Nothing but petty crimes were to be feared, to be sure, for the criminals with greater thoughts in their hearts postponed the execution of them until they came to more favorable sections of the country. It was the fear of this same night prowler who advanced in front of Slim that restrained them. Time was when they had come up out of the tramp "jungles" of the bottom lands and committed wild and nameless crimes in the little village. But that time was gone. The fear of the law had been impressed upon them by a man more wild and more tigerish than they themselves—Lew Melody!

I, of course, have never seen him in his element—in his glory, I had almost said. And yet even a minister could be forgiven if he pointed out the majesty of this man's courage, no matter how it was linked with savagery. Here he was stalking through the night toward a place where there might be a dozen bold, strong, cunning men, all bound to be turned into mortal enemies of his the instant he was seen. For when he was seen, he would be recognized. Certainly no hurrying exile ever passed down the Barney Valley without receiving, beforehand, some warning from his peers of the man-slayer who would lie in his path at Barneytown!

And how much would I not have given to have seen him that night, as Slim saw him, gliding on without sound, scanning all things around him with piercing glances, and never knowing what dark alley mouth, or what fence corner, or what copse of trees, or what thicket of brush contained enemies on the lookout for him and as ready to shoot—if they could do so in safety—as you or I would be ready to set heels upon a loathsome, poisonous spider!

It was very long after this that Slim told me all the thoughts that passed through his mind as he lay there at the corner of the fence, watching his hero pass on down toward the darkness of the bottom lands; and I, hearing them could understand and sympathize. It was like stepping of one's own free will into the region of a nightmare! And, for a time, Slim hesitated, while the form in front of him first faded and then was lost in the dark of the first trees.

But the instant his eyes lost sight of the man, Slim knew that he could not let him go on alone. He started out at once and ran fast through the dark—fast but softly, as only Slim knew how to run. He wound through the blackness of the copse into which Lew Melody had run—until something sprang on him from behind like a beast of prey, and struck him to the earth.

There had never been a time when Slim had been handled like this. Not even the brutal force of Stan Geary, when that monster used him like a slave, had so paralyzed Slim. He was caught in hands that bit through flesh to the bone with the strength of their hold. And, in an instant, Slim was helpless, pinned down upon his face. He had only one thought—of Miguel Azatlan.

And then he heard the voice of Lew Melody, turned to iron: "Slim!"

He was too shocked to make any reply, and so he found himself picked up by the back of the neck and dragged into the dim starlight of a clearing. He was set upon his feet and stood, wavering, before this changed man.

Be sure that this was not that Lew Melody who had been saved from great peril, on a day, by the testimony of Slim in a courtroom. It was not that man, but quite another—an animal of glistening eyes and stern face, a pantherlike creature with no human tenderness in his soul.

"You've followed me, Slim," said Melody.

"I follered you," admitted Slim, shaking.

"D'you know what I came within an ace of doing?" asked Melody, towering above the youngster. "I came within an ace of putting a bullet in you and letting you lie."

"Lew," said the boy, "I didn't mean no harm."

"But I did," answered Melody. "I had the knife ready when I jumped at you, Slim. And only by the grace of God I knew when my hand gripped you that you were a boy and not a man. Otherwise you'd be lying back yonder with your throat cut and a few heaps of dead leaves kicked over you. What do you mean by trailing me?"

"I meant nothing wrong,'- muttered poor Slim.

"You meant nothing wrong!" snarled out Lew Melody. "You meant nothing wrong! Why, you young fool, I knew that I was being shadowed the moment that I left the town, and before that. I knew that I was being followed from the gate of Cordoba's house, and I waited until I could hunt the hunter."

A chill struck through the body of Slim.

"How could you tell, Lew?" he faltered. For he was certain that he had not been seen.

"How can you tell when there's a cold wind blowing on your back?" asked Lew Melody.

"I didn't know," said Slim. "But I thought that you was heading for trouble. That's why I—"

"Why did you think that? Why did you watch the Cordoba house?"

"Who said that I watched it?"

"For hours—or you wouldn't have seen me leave it."

"I only happened along—"

"You lie. And what made you think that I was started for trouble? Slim, I think that you've done a worse thing than lie to me to-day! And if you have—" He paused, breathing hard. "Go back from the river bottom," said Lew Melody. "Don't try to trail me again. Because if you do, I'll, make you wish that you were never born. Now, run for it!"

And Slim turned and ran—ran as if a ghost were pursuing him.


XII. — SIX BAD MEN.

LOOK in with me upon a little domestic scene in the river bottom near our town, on this night when Lew Melody went on his last man hunt.

It was a clearing on the bank of the river, which runs broad and smooth around a bend, at this point, with its quiet shallows at the edges, dotted with stars. There had been a big and cheerful fire earlier in the night—a fire which tossed armfuls of leaping flames far higher than the tops of the big trees around the clearing. That flaring light made every tree stand out as cold and bright as the sun on a stormy day when the clouds are herded fitfully across its face. But now the great fire had fallen away to an extensive bed of coals which cast a soft light through the clearing, and the trees were solid with shadow. Still, in the center of the open space, near the fire, there was warmth enough, and there was light enough for men to sit in comfort and talk, smoke, and play cards. And that is what they were doing, the six men of this party.

First there was a long, lean man with a grave and thoughtful face, smoking a cigarette with half-shut eyes, as though he were seeing, in his dreams, another scene than this; and beside him a bull-necked fellow had spread out a little sewing kit and was busily mending a rent in his coat, which he had taken off and held in his lap. From time to time, he lifted the coat and examined his work with a careful scrutiny, to see whether he was mending smoothly enough. Just beyond them was a jovial face—a very youthful face with gray hair in odd contrast above it. He had his arms locked around his knees, and he was talking softly—telling his yarn in such a quiet voice that he would not disturb the game of blackjack which continued near by.

At this game, which was played upon a spread-out slicker—sat two people whom you have seen before—Miguel and Cristobal Azatlan. But with them was an American who wore a derby hat, oddly out of keeping in such surroundings as these. He was a pale, sickly-looking youth with the long fingers of an artist.

It was a very quiet scene, and there was no noise except the voice of the narrator, just raised above the silky flow of Barney River.

Let me introduce you to these men again, by name and nature. The grave gentleman with the lean face was Doc Ransom, a confidence man of the old school, and what he dreamed of was the palmy height of his career, when he sat in far other company than this, and spent the money which he had cheated out of the pockets of better men than himself. The bull-necked individual was Tony Mack, who not only understood how to use a needle as well as any housewife, but who was also expert in certain devices which would lift the door from a safe. He had performed these operations in many of the largest cities in the country, and he was now destined, after a streak of bad luck, for the flourishing city of El Paso, where luck and dollars would flow back upon him again. The third of this trio in the foreground was also a known man, for he of the rubicund face and the gray hair was none other than "Smiling" Dan Harper, whose greatest accomplishment was his ability to get his gun out of the holster before the other man, and then shoot quicker and straighter. He had demonstrated his ability in so many lands that sundry sheriffs all over the West were very tired of his exploits in self-defense. He dared not kill again without risking his neck at the end of a hangman's rope. But still, behind those pleasant, smiling eyes, there was the consuming passion—the same passion, in a way, that was now leading Lew Melody toward this very spot!

The Azatlan brothers are already known to you, and he who was playing with them, the sickly youth with the hands of an artist, was a boy from great New York, two thousand miles away. He was a talented youngster who began in a small way as a sneak thief, but while he was still in his teens, he formed the more exciting habit of walking into small stores in outlying districts of the great town and presenting his gun under the nose of the fear-stricken clerk while he demanded the proceeds of the cash drawer. But, having served a sentence—abbreviated for good behavior—he reverted to his earlier talents in a modified form and became a second-story man, able to open a window without sound, and able to smell out the hidden treasures of a home in their most secret places. He, also, had had a streak of bad luck, but he was turning his face toward more southern and more profitable scenes.

This was the sextet who waited in the hollow clearing for the coming of Lew Melody—though, if they knew that he was at hand—if they knew that he was at this moment lurking at the edge of the forest, watching and weighing them one by one with an unerring instinct—you may be sure that they would not sit so quietly, but would scatter to the trees, like so many frightened rabbits.

But let us pick up the tale which our friend, Smiling Dan-Harper, was telling. It may lead us into some amusement.

"When I hit the inside of that box car, I sat down and eased up a mite, and pretty soon I heard some one come along and drop the lock, on the outside of the door. But I was too fagged to worry about that. The train started up in another minute and I went to sleep, with the car swaggerin' and swayin' along" that jerkwater line. We kept on moseyin' along I dunno how long. I was dead to the world. Finally there was a lot of jammin' around, and then I felt that box car go, rambling smooth as silk onto a sidin'. The brakes come on and we squeezed to a stop.

"'In the mornin'', says I to myself, 'they'll open up this here car to shove a load aboard, and they'll laugh when they find that there's a carload already aboard her!'

"So I went back to sleep and slept for a long time. When I woke up, the sun was shining through the cracks of that old car. I peeled my eye through one of the cracks, and all I could see was trees that was walkin' down to the side of the track. Then I peeled my eye on the other side, and all I seen was trees walkin' down to the side of the track, just, the same way!

"Well, I wait for a couple of hours till my empty belly begins to bother me. Then I up and make a racket. I just hollered, at first, and then I started kickin' the sides of that car and yappin' real loud. I kept that up for pretty near an hour. Seemed like I was making enough noise to be heard right over the top of the mountains, but when I got through I listened and didn't hear nothin' but a sort of an echo of the noise I'd made, rollin' and roarin' through my ears.

"I sits down and has a think. By the sun and the warmth in that car, I know that it's pretty well along toward noon, and so the station agent is reasonable sure to have been around. I take a long rest and try to figger it all out, but it sort of puzzles me.

"Well, as I was sayin' before, I hadn't done much sleepin' since the posse started after me, so instead of worryin' none I took the kinks out of my belly by tightenin' my belt, and then I curled up and went to sleep again. When I woke up, there was a sound of a shufflin' step outside the car.

"'Some lazy bum of a shack,' says I to myself, and then I hollers out:

"'Hello, pal! Gimme a lift out of this, will you?'"

"That shufflin' noise stopped, and then it went scamperin' away toward the trees; I never heard the sound of no man runnin' that was just like it. And, the next minute, while I was tryin' to peel my eye through a crack in the side of the car, I smelled bear as plain as you ever smelled bacon in the mornin'.

"Bear was what it was! There ain't no mistakin' that smell. And that showed me where I was. No bear would come wanderin' around the sidin' of a real town or even of a real station. No bear would come inside of ten mile of a place full of switchmen and what not.

"What had happened was that the train had sided that car in the middle of the mountains. I could remember seein' cars that had stood out on little sidin's like that one for half a year, till their wheels was froze to the rails with rust. And how long would it be before they come to get that car again?

"I sat thinkin' it over, and feelin' my face get cold with sweat. But there was no use just settin' and waitin'. I got out my knife and started to work on the side boards of that car. Dog-gone me if that wood wasn't like iron! It pretty near turned the point of the knife. It was an old car, but it looked like it had been boarded up new all around pretty recent. So I got sort of peeved, and gave the knife an extra hard jab. And the blade busted right off!

"Well, there I was, pretty well strapped, you might say, and feelin' pretty sick, inside and outside. All that I had in my hand for a tool was a doggone bit of a busted-off blade of a knife, and it looked like there wasn't much more use in tryin' to work with a tool like that than there was to start in scratchin' that hard wood with my nails.

"But there wasn't any use in settin' still. I had to do something, or else go mad. I got to work and I walked around that car, and every plank I tested out by punchin' at it with the blade of that knife. And, finally, I got hold of a plank that seemed a lot softer than the rest of 'em. So I got to work on it right away.

"Well, sir, it was just scratchin' and nothing better! After about an hour, with my hands sore and my arms tired, I'd only made a couple of rough white streaks across that plank.

"I sat down to take a breath and think it over again. I could do a long turn without food, I knew, but without water, nobody can last very long. And there was a hot sun over the top of that car, and the inside of it was like an oven. I needed water awful bad. Seemed like I'd been dry for a week already. And I knew by what I'd heard that a gent can go only about three days without a drink. I asked myself how many days would it take me to cut through the wall of that car?

"Just thinkin' about it throwed such a scare into me that I knew that I'd have to keep to work if I didn't want to bust down with the shakes.

"I grabbed up that knife again and set my teeth and sailed into the plank."

"Psst!" came the warning hiss of one of the gamblers.

And, at the same moment, a light-stepping shadowy form of a man came out from the trees and approached the glow of the fire.


XIII. — THE FINAL BLOW.

MIGUEL AZATLAN, having seen him most recently, knew him first and gave his brother the tidings in a murmur which was nevertheless heard plainly by all the rest:

"Be ready, Cristobal! That is Seņor Melody!"

Tod Gresham, the boyish second-story man and nimble-fingered thief, was so filled with alarm that he jumped half to his feet and prepared to bolt for the woods. It was the long arm of Doc Ransom, the confidence man, that darted out and caught him and dragged him back to the ground.

"It's Melody!" gasped out the robber.

"Maybe it is. But here are six of us." said Doc Ransom. "Sit tight, my boy. We may need one another, but we don't need to run. Sit still, and watch, and shake your gun loose, so you can get it quick!"

This admirable advice was received by the youthful thief with a shudder of distaste. It was true that he went armed, and that he had worked with the trigger of a gun as much as most men of his profession. And yet he had no liking for this work which seemed about to lie ahead of them.

"Guys like you," he snarled softly to Doc, "are just the sort that he uses for his meat—leave your hands off that kale!"

The last was directed to Cristobal Azatlan who, seeing that there was a momentary disturbance, decided to profit by raking in all the stakes which were on the slicker and pocketing them. At the bark of Tod Gresham, he refrained, with a rolling up of his eyes like the glare of a bull before it charges.

In the meantime, Lew Melody had advanced into the rich circle of the firelight and hailed them with a sort of quiet cordiality: "Hello, boys!"

"How's things?" said the white men.

And: "Seņor ," murmured the two Mexicans.

They were sitting close together, these two dark-eyed sons of trouble, and lean Miguel whispered at the ear of his half brother:

"Why not now, brother?"

"Is your gun ready?"

"I shall use a knife. I trust it more."

"No! While you draw back your arm to throw the knife—even if you are quicker than a striking snake, he will have his revolver out and he will kill us both! We must work with guns only."

"As you please. But quickly. I am nervous, brother."

"Not yet! See how cool the devil is! Perhaps he has friends yonder in the brush. If he did not have them there, how would he dare to come in this way to six of us?"

"True!"

"One of us must try to come behind him—or else, one on either side of him. Then watch me—when I start my hand, start yours. One of us he is sure to kill. I hope it is I, not you, my brother!"

"As God wills, so must it be. Farewell!"

"Farewell, brother. We shall never speak to one another again in this world!"

So, in whispers inaudible a foot away, quickly, with the resignation of stoics, they determined to kill or be killed.

Lew Melody, in the meantime, had entered into a cheerful conversation with the others.

Smiling Dan Harper led the talk with: "We hear that you aim to settle down, Melody?"

"Is that what marriage means?" said Melody.

"I suppose so."

"Well, you ought to know, Harper!"

"You know me?" cried Dan Harper in surprise, and in alarm also.

"Oh, yes."

"How does that happen?"

"I knew Sam Arnold."

"Was he a friend of yours?" asked Harper, his voice becoming a little strained.

"We used to have fist fights when I was a kid. Well, I don't think that I could call him a friend. Did he put up a real fight with you?"

Dan Harper hesitated an instant. It was two years ago that he had killed Sam Arnold. The face and the voice of that unlucky boy floated back upon his memory too vividly.

"It was a bad evening's work for me," said Harper, watching the face of his inquisitor with a sort of critical anxiety. "We'd been drinking, and then we started playing cards. I thought that Sam had too much luck. And he said that it was just the swing of the cards. But when a feller wins seven hands running—well, you know, Melody."

"Sure," said Melody, with the utmost good nature. "Some one said that you shot him under the table."

The face of Dan Harper contracted. "As I was jumpin' the gun out of the leather, the darn thing went off—"

"I understand," said Lew Melody, and smiled. "They tell me that you got two more slugs into Arnold as he was droppin' to the floor."

"That's a lie, and a loud lie! I'd like to get the dirty dog that told it!"

"Maybe it is. It's a queer thing how facts are lost when a story has been told a few times, isn't it, Dan?"

"You're right," declared Dan, welcoming this friendly tone.

And he felt that there might well be a reason behind this friendliness. If Lew Melody had come into the jungle bent on action, he certainly could not wish to attack all six of them at the same time. He must establish a friendship with a few of them—or a state of neutrality, at least.

"To say that I'd shoot a man that was down!" cried Harper. "That's a rotten thing to spread around. I'd like to get the rat who said it."

"I've forgotten," said Lew, "It was some fellow from Montana. "He told us quite a lot about you."

"What else?"

"Why, I remember that he said that Shep McArthur was a friend of yours."

Here Tony Mack, whose glittering eyes had never left the face of the young gun fighter, broke in: "Well, that was the truth. You and Shep was bunkies, Dan. Ain't that right?".

"We was," admitted Harper. "He was my best friend in the world. He left me one summer. Heaven knows whatever became of him!"

"I can tell you," said Lew Melody, "one part of the story. I met him right here. There was a fire that night a good deal like this one to-night. I remember that Shep McArthur was boss of the fire and was telling the boys what to do. He told me to get some wood for the fire, and he spoke very sharply. I'm a very sensitive, nervous sort of a chap, Harper. When he spoke to me that way, I couldn't help objecting. And in another moment—you know how it is—we had our guns out. I was unlucky enough to hit him with the first shot."

He was speaking with an oiled gentleness, but the eyes which he fastened upon Dan Harper were the eyes of a tiger. He held the entire group fascinated.

"That bullet went through his leg, Dan. He shouted that he had enough as he dropped, and I stopped shooting, of course. But the minute he saw me lower my gat, he raised his and started pumping lead at me as he lay on the ground. His bullet nicked my ear. I'll always remember McArthur because of the chip on the rim of this ear." He touched the place gently with his fingers.

"So you understand, Dan, why I had to kill him?"

"I understand," said Dan Harper huskily. And all the muscles in his throat were distended by the grip of his teeth as he ground them together.

"I'll sit down by you, Mack," said Melody, "if you don't mind." And he made himself comfortable by the fire— sitting at the extreme point of the arc—of which Cristobal Azatlan made the other tip.

"You know me, too?" said the yegg.

"I know that Dan Harper and Tony Mack often travel together," said Lew, "That's why I suppose that you're Tony Mack."

"Our friend seems to be a mind reader!" exclaimed Doc Ransom, who had been using the last conversational interval to shift his gun to a more convenient pocket. "He seems to be able to select names for all of us! What about our two friends on the left? Could you name them?" said Doc Ransom.

"Miguel and Cristobal Azatlan," said Lew Melody. "We have met before. I might almost say that we are old friends. I knew their brother a year ago!"

The deadly irony of this remark caused even the calm of Doc Ransom to break a little, and he flashed a side glance at the two Mexicans. But they sat with faces of stone, smoking and hearing nothing.

"And here is another," said Ransom, pointing to Tod, the sneak thief and burglar. "You have given four names out of six, and I suppose that you could name this gentleman, also?"

Perhaps I have pointed out that Lew Melody had, one by one, created enemies out of four of the six men in the circle around the fire. It was impossible, surely, that he could intend to throw down the glove to the entire six! But now he lighted a cigarette, and waved an open path through the mist of his first expelled breath so that he might study Tod Gresham more intently.

"I don't know your name, partner," said the gentle voice of Lew Melody, "but I can tell how you make your living."

Tod started nervously. "Tell me, then!" said he, filled with defiance.

"Why, that's easy enough. You make your living with your hands—and yet you don't work."

The sneak thief clenched his fists and glared at the other, but after a moment's reflection, he decided that if such a formidable warrior as Dan Harper had decided to pocket up a cause for battle, certainly he, Tod Gresham, could afford to follow that example.

"You have named four and the occupation of a fifth," said Doc Ransom, turning his cool glance straight upon Melody. "And what about me?"

"You're another who hates work," said Lew Melody. "Talk is enough for you, is it not? You can talk money out of the purses of other men, I suppose!"

It was the final blow. One by one, he had slapped each of the six in the face!'


XIV. — JUANITA TO THE RESCUE.

WHEN Slim, bolted away from Lew Melody, he had no thoughts of turning back, after a little time, and attempting to resume the trail. For he felt very much as though he had walked after a tamed house cat and found it transformed, suddenly into a panther. The thought of that stalking panther drove him on until his breath failed and then he slowed to a walk. His feet were now in the velvet dust of the old town, and that softness was grateful to them, for as the ecstasy of fear subsided in him, he was aware that they were cut and bleeding and tingling with pain—with such abandon, had he raced through the dark of the night.

He paused, finally, to take stock of possibilities. What he was convinced of was that Lew Melody had gone out to throw away his life because life had become a burden to him; and, in some way, this thing must be avoided. All that he could think of on the spur of the moment was to go to the house of Cordoba—not that Cordoba himself was a fighting man who could rescue Slim's hero, but Cordoba was rich, and Slim knew that money works with a thousand strong hands.

So he went to the black-faced house of the money lender, where the stars struck out a few high lights out of the blank windows. He knocked at the front door, first, but he got no response. Then he clambered to the balcony and tapped again, loudly, at the upper door which opened upon that balcony.

Finally he heard muffled voices. Then a light gleamed inside the room and the voice of Cordoba, shaken with excitement, called:

"Who's there?"

"Slim!" said the boy.

A lamp was suddenly interposed between the curtain and the window of the door, so that a strong shaft of light struck out upon Slim, leaving the holder of the lamp in darkness. Then the door was unfastened and opened.

"What do you wish, young man?" said Cordoba, repressing stronger language because he knew that Slim was a close friend to Lew Melody.

"I want help for Lew," said the boy. "He—"

"What sort of help for a man soundly asleep—too soundly asleep to hear your rapping?" growled out Cordoba, yawning.

"Go look in his room, if you don't believe me," said Slim, furious at every delay.

Cordoba scanned him once again—cast an anxious glance around the room to make sure that there was nothing this young vagabond could steal when his back was turned, and then hurried to the room of Melody. He opened the door and then came hurrying back, this time with a pale face.

"He is not here!" muttered Cordoba. "He is not here. But I saw him go to his room—how—"

"He's in the river bottom!"

"No, no!" groaned Cordoba. "He vowed that he would give up such—how can you know that he is there?"

"I follered him till he found me out and sent me back. He's bound for the river bottom, and to raise the devil there!"

"Ah," groaned the unhappy man, "why should he do such a thing as that —now!"

"Because he ain't happy," said Slim, trembling with emotion.

"We saw that he was moody to-night—all young men will be that way. They are like calves or colts! They have whims. But—boy, do you know that his marriage is less than a week away?"

"And ain't that the thing that's eatin' him now?" cried Slim.

"Diablo!" gasped out Cordoba, and could say no more while he stared at Slim as at a ghost.

"Where was he to-day?" went on Slim bitterly. "Where did he go today?"

"To Seņor Furnival, yes. But what of that?"

"To Furnival? The devil, no! Maybe he seen Furnival—but the one he stayed to talk to was Sandy!"

Cordoba put down the lamp because his hand had begun to shake so that he dared not continue holding it.

"You are talking of something that means more than your words," said the money lender. "Ah, may we keep sorrow from Juanita's life! A blow is about to fall; I have felt it, and I have dreaded its coming! Boy, tell me whatever you know!"

"I know that Lew Melody is eatin' his heart out because he's got to marry Juanita," said Slim.

There is little tact in boys. Besides, Slim was desperate. It was the picture of Lew Melody's peril that crushed him, not the troubles of the old money lender. And when Cordoba stretched out his hands in appeal and cried: "How can that be?" the answer of Slim was brutally to the point:

"Because it's Sandy that he loves—don't everybody love her? And ain't Lew the only gent that she ever looked at?"

In this great crisis, Cordoba gathered all his strength and became calm. "Speak softly," said he. "If there is any truth in what you say—but there cannot be! But not a whisper of it must be heard in this house—or it would turn my home into a hell! Now tell me how you could know this? But you could not know! It is a guess—a dream!"

"Cordoba," said Slim fiercely, "I heard 'em talkin'. I stood at the door when they thought that I was a mile away, and I heard 'em talkin'."

Cordoba sank into a chair and supported his face in both uncertain hands.

"It is the end!" groaned he. "It is the black day of our three lives! What is my sin that this should be done to me now? But he—treacherous devil! He has crept like a snake into the heart of my girl!"

"He done the right thing as he seen it," said Slim. "When Juanita rode up to him in the mountains he had to try to keep her from bein' talked about. He wants to go through with it, but I tell you that after he seen Sandy to-day, he'd rather die than marry anybody else. I tell you that I stood there and heard 'em talk like they was both gunna die the next minute. And now Lew is down in the river bottom huntin' for trouble—and God knows that he'll find it! Them Azatlans are there, and I know that Tony Mack and Smilin' Dan blew into Barneytown to-day. He'll run amuck with the whole gang of 'em—unless you do something to stop him!"

"He must be stopped," gasped out Cordoba, staring wildly about him. "Think for me, my boy! Find a way! How shall I do it?"

"Ain't you got a house full of servants? Ain't you got friends? Get half a dozen gents with guns and send 'em for the bottom lands. They'll find him there, and I'll be one of the gang. I'll do as big a share as any other man—only, by myself, I couldn't handle Lew to-night. He's gone sort of crazy. I thought he was gunna kill me for follerin him."

The door into the room of Juanita had opened some moments before, and now she ran out at them, a slender white form.

"It is too late already!" cried she. "Do you hear?"

Up from the river bottom, in the breath of silence that followed, they heard the sudden chattering of guns—many guns in rapid action like a mutter of musketry in the distance. But Cordoba forgot everything else. He ran to his daughter and caught her by the shoulders, and turned her so that the light struck across her face.

"What have you heard, Juanita?" groaned he.

"I have heard everything," said she.

"It is all a lie!" moaned Cordoba. "There is no truth in it. You shall not believe, my sweet girl!"

She tore herself away from him. "Why do you speak of me, always!" cried she. "Don Luis is being murdered in the river bottom! Raise the town. Do not wait to saddle the horses. Ride bareback. Ride, ride! I shall come as I can—will you go? Will you stand still and drive me all mad!"

And she rushed back into her room:

Her mother came hurrying in as Juanita tore off her nightclothes and began to dress haphazard. In the distance there was the voice of Cordoba thundering to his neighbors—the sound of other windows opening, with a slam—other voices shouted in reply.

"What are you doing?" sobbed the seņora. "Where are you going, Juanita?"

"I am going where I may help him for the last time," said the girl.

"God pity us!"

"Have you heard, too?"

"Everything! But it must be a lie!"

"A lie? I heard the guns in the hollow. And I know that he is dying now."

"You must not go. Juanita—"

The girl knocked away the hands of her mother with a furious strength. "Do not touch me. I must go. If I may hear his last words—perhaps he will see my face—the last face in his life—"

"Juanita, it will kill you—it will break your heart! You will die of it!"

"What is my life?"

"He has lied and pretended to you—"

"Ah," cried the girl savagely, "if you say such things of him, I could kill you!"'

She had dressed while she talked, flinging her clothes upon her body and now, stamping her slender feet into her boots, her short black hair whirling about her head, she rushed past the seņora and across the big room, and past the piano where her mother had played while she taught Lew Melody to dance—and to dance his way, so, into the heart of Sandy Furnival.

She thought of these things as she fled down the back stairs of the house. And when she reached the courtyard, she found a swirl of men and horses there—saddling—arming, shouting.

"Don't wait for saddles!" cried Juanita. "There is no time! There are men dying in the river bottom! God reward you if you hurry!"

But, fast as they fled down the road, she was up with the leaders, before they reached the woods. She was up with them, flashing along on the bare back of the pinto mare, which had been given to her by Melody himself.

A reward because she had taught him to dance!


XV. — THE DOCTOR'S STRANGE VERDICT.

WHEN Lew Melody had, in his own fashion, insulted the half dozen grim fighters who sat around him, a little pause followed, and during that pause his hand went slowly to his lips and down again, as he puffed at the cigarette.

And all were fascinated by that hand. It was as slender, almost, as the hand of a woman, but the square-tipped fingers and the round wrist, in which the cords thrust out at every movement, told of the gripping strength which was there.

It was neither grace nor beauty in that hand, however, which so charmed the watchers, but the peculiar steadiness with which it moved and, every moment or so, flicked the ashes from the fuming end of the cigarette. For, very obviously, he now stood in danger of his life from six men, and each one of them was capable of struggling like a tiger. Yet he continued his smoking with the same deliberation—even when Miguel Azatlan, rising to put a fresh clump of brush upon the fire, moved to another part of the circle, a point at which he was just opposite to his brother.

But Lew Melody did not appear to see. Neither did he seem to care when the heat of the glowing embers of the fire ignited the dry brush and sent a hissing column of flame aloft in the air, where it stood like an orange pillar, wagging its head and snapping off wild arms of brightness that vanished instantly in the black of the night.

Yet he was now at a greater disadvantage than ever. Only a gunman of such uncanny expertness as himself could have shot with any certainty in the dull light of a moment before, but in the full flare of the fire, each of the six would have immensely improved chances.

No one spoke. And yet the loudest speeches, the most blasphemous insults could not have filled the air with such a tensity of excitement.

Then, from the town, an excited dog began to bark, the noise coming in sharp little pulses through the air and dropping into the clearing.

"Darn that dog!" said Tony Mack.

"I'd like to kill all dogs in the world!" snarled Smiling Dan Harper. "I've had their teeth in my legs too often!

"Then start right in close to home," muttered Tod Gresham, who was trembling and gasping in a nervous frenzy of excitement.

"Start where?" asked Tony Mack, who was slow of wit.

"Here!" screamed the boy, and snatched at his gun.

When he leveled it, he found that he was covering not Lew Melody, but the squat form of Tony Mack, for at the voice of the boy, Melody had dropped his cigarette and flung himself at the yegg. Even that stoutly muscled body was helpless under his handling. They whirled—and Tony Mack staggered helplessly back toward the fire as Melody leaped for the trees.

The first bullet to follow him was that of Tod Gresham. It clipped his coat at the point of the shoulder. The second was from the gun of Miguel Azatlan; and his brother's bullet whirred past the ear of the retreating fighter. But before there was a chance for more action, Tony Mack pitched back into the midst of the fire, beat down the flames, scattered the flaring brush far and wide, and threw the whole group into confusion. Tony Mack himself rolled with a scream from that terrible bed and started, still yelling with agony, toward the broad, black coldness of the water.

Lew Melody had turned from his flight toward the trees and dropped flat on the ground with two guns stretched out before him.

His first shot caught the tall body of Miguel Azatlan squarely in the stomach and, plowing through his flesh, broke the backbone. He died without a groan. His second shot, landed below the hips of Tod Gresham and passed through both thighs. He fell with a shriek of pain, for his flesh was frightfully torn. Then Melody was up and flying toward the trees again. For there was no other easy target before him. The remaining three, Smiling Dan Harper and Doe Ransom and burly Cristobal Azatlan, had sought better cover by throwing themselves upon the ground in imitation of his own maneuver.

As. he ran, he swerved like a football player running through a broken field, and though the bullets sang wickedly around him, he reached the very border of the trees before he was struck.

He did not know where the shot landed. But from head to feet he went numb, while the heavy blow knocked him forward upon his face.

The wild, three-throated yell of the enemy called back his senses from a fog of pain and shock. He turned on the ground and fired at a leaping form which ran toward him, gigantically big and black against the firelight.

That grotesque figure seemed to be snuffed into nothingness! In reality, Smiling Dan Harper had gone to the ground with a bullet through his head.

But there were two other points of rapidly jetting fire—the weapons of Azatlan and Doc Ransom. Twice, long ripping thrills of flame passed through the flesh of Lew Melody, before the sheer ecstasy of pain enabled him to roll into the covering shadows of the trees. He managed to gain hands and knees and so to drag himself behind a trunk.

There he lay with his back to the firelight in the clearing and his face turned toward the heart of the woods, for he had a feeling that if they came at him, it would be from the trees.

Presently he heard a crackling farther into the woods. They were searching for him there, not dreaming that the extent of his wounds had chained him to the place to which he had first forced himself.

Somewhere in his body there was a painful pulse, every throb of which was driving life from his body, and he knew that he was fast bleeding to death. He was not sorry for it. It seemed to Lew Melody, as he lay there in the dark, that it was the only way to extricate himself from the frightful tangle of his life; the knot could only be cut. If he had one desire, it was to see the forms of his two last enemies in the sextet come into view and range of his gun.

But that was too much to pray for. Here, in his last and greatest battle, he felt himself dying, and he could not help a certain boyish thrill in the knowledge that the world would talk of this deed long after it had forgotten the better work of better men than himself. He had snuffed out two lives and laid another low and held off three more. It was a comfortable night's work even for Lew Melody!

Another crackling in the brush told him that the pair of hunters had turned back toward the edge of the fire. Hunting as they were hunting, stealthily, with a deadly caution, there was little chance that they would fail to see him before he saw them. He made himself ready to accept a bullet; and, in return, he steadied himself and quickened his nerve to drive an answering bullet back at the jet of fire. A little below the tongue of flame he would direct his own aim, for they would doubtless be stretched along the ground.

So he waited, with the life ebbing from him at every moment. And a lifetime, I suppose, whirled through his brain with the passage of each second.

Then he heard the noise of Tony Mack—frightfully burned, to judge by his groans—as he dragged himself from the water back toward the dry land—a groan for every breath he drew. Perhaps that rascal had been injured enough to end him with the others. There was a grim satisfaction to Lew Melody in that thought.

There was a new sound, now, a distant muttering like soft thunder which rattles beyond the edge of the horizon. But this grew faster than the noise of any thunderstorm sweeping across the face of the sky. It swelled and whirled closer—the pounding of the hoofs of many horses.

Then, with a great crashing, the cavalcade struck the outskirts of the woods.

"Slim!" said Melody to himself. "But it's too late!"

The meaning of that noise was not lost upon the two hunters in the dark. There began a brisk crackling as they rushed from the brush covert in an opposite direction, and at the same time, the first riders lunged into the dull glow of the firelight which filled the clearing. Lew Melody, turning himself with an infinite labor, saw Juanita—the first rider, on the pinto mare which he had given to her.

"Luis!" she cried.

It was not she whom he wished, but since she had come, he answered faintly: "Here!"

She was at his side in a flash, and men thronging after her—a great dismounting, snorting of horses, creaking of leather, jingling of spurs. He was pleased with these sounds. They came to him as out of a sleepy distance, for a black burden of rest was falling upon his eyes.

The face of Juanita, as she leaned above him, was a dull blur. Only her voice had life and light as she spoke to him. And then her sharp cry of agony.

"Help! He is dying!"

Professional hands took charge of him. Vaguely he recognized the voice of the Mexican doctor. Lights flared up around him. No, he was being carried into the clearing and now he was put down by the fire, which was freshened until it filled the eyes of Lew Melody with yellow lightnings.

Then, from Juanita: "He will live, doctor?"

"I cannot tell," said the doctor. "If he wants to live—perhaps!"

Lew Melody heard no more. He had fallen into a blissful sleep, so it seemed to him—or was it death toward which he sank? No, for he was called back by burning pains. The doctor, with two assistants, was hastily drawing wide, gripping bandages about his wounds. That pain gathered like a great crescendo of music, and crashed upon his brain.

And he fell into darkness again.


XVI. — MELODY LIVES.

JUANITA was not in the clearing. She had remounted the pinto mare and now she was flying up from the river bottom, and twisting through the thick shadows of the Mexican town, and then the hoofs of her horse struck out an echoing roar from the old bridge that staggered across the Barney River. Before her glowed the lights of the American section, with its broader streets, and now she was passing through it with the scent of freshly watered lawns coming cool and fragrant upon either side. And now she was beyond those lights of the town and stretching up the weary rise of hills to the east.

The pinto mare, laboring with all her might, seemed to be standing still, and the girl flogged her onward remorselessly. So, reeling with weakness, completely run out, the pinto reached the house of Furnival, and the shrilling voice of the girl reached the ears of the sleepers in the house; yes, it passed behind the house and, needlelike, pierced the heavy sleep of the men in the bunk house beyond the main building.

A moment later and Furnival was at the front door. He opened it upon a wild-eyed creature, trembling, and crying to him: "I must see the Seņorita Furnival—quickly, oh quickly! It is the life of Don Luis!"

And here was Sandy herself flying down the stairs, already half dressed, and drawing on the last of her clothes and doing buttons with flying fingers.

"They have killed Don Luis—in the river bottom! Six men—and they have killed him, but he will want to see you before he closes his eyes. He is dying, seņorita!"

Here were two races and two differing souls face to face, and Sandy was as white and as cool as the Mexican girl was shaken and wailing!

"Will you help me saddle a horse, father?" said she, and was through the door at once.

Furnival, in his nightclothes, followed. It was he who flung the rope that captured the horse; it was she who dragged out saddle and bridle. Between them the animal was instantly ready. And then she was off—no, with the spurs ready to thrust into the flanks of her mount, she stooped to Juanita, standing at her side.

"I understand," said she. "It is more than I could have done for you! God bless you for it!"

Then she was gone.

How she rode that night! I was an eyewitness, for the news from the river bottom had come back on wings to the town, and half of Barneytown was in the saddle, I think—myself among the rest—when a foaming horse flew down the street and some one cried: "Sandy Furnival!"

Like a bolt from the sky, she was past us. I rode as hard as I could, but the thundering hoofs of her horse were on the bridge long before I was there.

I cannot tell how she found her way so straight to the clearing. Perhaps there were other hurrying horsemen already streaming in the same direction, for the whole valley would burn to-morrow with the tale of how Lew Melody had fought six men hand to hand.

But when she stormed into the hollow, she was met by a deadly silence.

"It is death! I am too late!" said Sandy to her own sick heart.

So she slipped from the saddle and ran to the quiet form beside the towering fire, all of whose ruddiness could not relieve the pallor of his face.

His eyes were closed.

"It is death?" whispered Sandy.

"I cannot tell," said the Mexican doctor. "I cannot get the pulse—but there still seems to be a little trace of breath—"

He held the mirror again at the nostrils of Melody.

"Lewis!" said the girl.

And all those who leaned to watch, swore to me afterward that he came far enough back from death in answer to her voice to open his eyes and smile at her.

Of course Lew Melody lived. If he had not, I should never have been able to draw from him more than half of the odd little details with which I have been able to adorn his history. Of course Lew Melody lived, and Sandy married him.

She is coming in this afternoon, for since the death of Mrs. Cheswick, she has led the singing.

But now, as I come toward the end, I wonder what is balanced in this narrative—sorrow or happiness? And has the happiness of the Melodys been great enough to counterbalance the anguish which uprooted the Cordobas from their home and sent their three lives south to Mexico?

Sandy still writes to Juanita and hears from her from time to time. Mrs. Cordoba did not live long in Mexico City. And Cordoba himself has failed rapidly. As for the girl herself, twice it seems that she has been prepared for a marriage, and twice something has happened to break off the match. And, though Juanita does not confess what it is, I suppose that by this time we all know.

We look at Lew Melody, grown more brown and prosperous than any of us dreamed possible, and we understand.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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