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NORBERT DAVIS

THEIR GUARDIAN FROM HELL

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First published in Star Western Magazine, March 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-06
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Star Western Magazine, March 1937, with "Their Guardian From Hell"



Illustration



A fresh-dug grave, a grief-stricken, kneeling kid with a hog-leg in his grimy fist, and the tearful, sweet smile of a girl—those things sent Roy Falk, broken, discouraged drifter, into Wolfville—to show a townful of blood-mad killers that no real man is ever licked, this side Boot Hill!


TABLE OF CONTENTS



CHAPTER ONE
[Untitled]

ROY FALK woke up with the ring of a million hammers beating in his brain. The skin on his face felt stiff and hot and dry. His eyes were like red-hot balls of fire. His mouth was bitter with the aftertaste of bad whiskey.

He wasn't surprised, this feeling nothing new to him. He opened his eyes and stared up at a ceiling that was streaked and smeared.

Slowly be sat up, swung his still-booted feet on to the floor. The movement started the ringing hammers in his brain again, and he held his head in his hands, waiting for the ache to subside. When it did, he reached shakily for the cracked crockery pitcher on the stand beside the bed, poured water into a chipped glass. He drank thirstily, poured the glass full, drank again.

Now he felt a little better. He looked around the room. It was small and square. There was a ragged, scuffed carpet on the floor, a couple of rickety chairs, a scarred bureau with a mirror hanging askew over it.

Falk knew that he was in a hotel. He didn't know what hotel, or where it was. He didn't much care. It made no difference. He remembered, vaguely, riding into a town, stopping at the first saloon he saw. After that, things were only a procession of hazily distorted incidents, but he knew from former experiences and from the way he felt now that they must have taken place over quite an extended period.

Yes, he had been drunk for at least a week. But he was dead, cold sober now. It happened that way. He went on and on, drinking more and more, until finally something snapped under the strain and he woke up right back where he had started. It was time to move, then. Time to pack up his few possessions, ride on, until he came across a place where he could start it all over again.

He got up and stretched, groaning at the sodden stiffness in his muscles. He walked over to the tilted mirror, examined his own reflection in its wavy surface. He saw a thin, tanned face shaded with black stubble on the cheeks. The eyes were gray and wide-set, shot darkly with blood It wis a clean-cut face that should have been strong, determined. But now its outlines were blurred and a little loose. The strength that should have been there was lacking. Falk shrugged at the image, and his thin lips twisted wryly.

He walked over to the window and stared down into a typical cowtown main street. Grayish dust as spread over everything in a soft, thick layer. There was a jaggedly uneven row of false-fronted buildings. A few people moved aimlessly along the street, loafed in the shade of wooden awnings that stretched across board sidewalks. A couple of dusty cow-ponies dozed, beads drooping, next to the long hitching-rail across the street.

Falk shook his head blankly. As far as he could remember, he had never even seen the place before, although he had seen scores of others that looked just about like it.

There was the clop-clop of trotting hoofs in the thick dust, the thin metallic jingle of harness, the rattle of wooden wheels. A rickety buckboard swept down the street into his line of vision, and Falk stared at it curiously.


THE driver was a gauntly tall man with high, stooped shoulders and long bony arms. He wore a rusty black suit, a long black coat, and a high-crowned black hat. Falk tagged him for a pilgrim instantly. There was something about the way he handled the reins, about the way be sat in the seat, as though he were unfamiliar with such things. And there was a gentle, courtly air of dignity about him that was unmistakable even at this distance.

There was another person in the buckboard: a small boy that hunched down close on the seat beside the tall man, He wore a floppy old straw hat, a ragged blue shirt and jeans.

The tall man pulled the buckboard up at the side of the street directly below Falk's window. He handed the reins to the boy, climbed clumsily down from the seat. Straightening his long coat with a little jerk, he started across the street toward a building with a big sign across it that said: General Store, in ragged, rain-streaked letters.

Two men stood talking on the sidewalk in front of the store. One was in the deep shadow of the wooden awning, and Falk could see only the highly polished sheen of his boots. The other man had his back toward the street. He was short and thick-set, with long arms that hung loosely relaxed, fingers almost touching his knees.

The tall man reached the sidewalk, started to step up. In that second, the thick man moved sideways, bumped into him hard with a thrusting shoulder. He turned his head, snarling, and Falk caught a glimpse of his flat, sullenly malignant features, His voice sounded out clearly in the thin, clean air.

"Watch where you're goin', you damned fool!"

The tall man had staggered back two steps under the force of the thrusting shoulder. He bowed a little now, still keeping his air of courtly dignity. Then he started to step up on the boardwalk again.

The thick man pushed him back this a straight-armed shove. He was crouched now, blunt head thrust forward. The fingers on his right hand were hooked, not quite touching the black butt of a six-gun tied down low on his right thigh.

"Heard what I said, didn't you, you old fool?"

"I apologized for bumping into you," the tall man said, still courteous. "Now, if you don't mind, I have business in the store behind you."

The thick man laughed in an ugly sneer of sound. "You just think so! This is what I give old buzzards that talk out of turn!" He reached forward and flicked the fingers of his left hand across the tall man's face.

There was an instant's crackling pause when all life and motion in the street seemed to cease. The tall man stiffened his gaunt body in incredulous indignation.

"Dad!" the boy shouted from the buckboard with a tense, thin note of fear in his voice. "Dad!"

"Well?" said the thick man nastily. "Well? What're you gonna do about if, huh?'

"I'm going in that store," the tall man said clearly.

He stepped forward, and the thick man deliberately spat in his face. Automatically, instinctively, the tall man reached into the pocket of his long coat.

"Dad!" the boy screamed frantically from the buckboard. The thick man drew his gun with a quick, practiced flip of his hairy wrist. He fired with the muzzle almost touching the tall man's chest.

The report was a flat bump of sound that echoed like quick spattering hand-claps in the narrow street. Blue powder-smoke drifted in a thin little swirl. The tall man staggered backwards on legs that wavered loosely under him. He slipped and went down in an awkward sprawl, long arms flung wide. Gray dust rose in a quick puff, and then he was lying stretched out flat in the street. His right hand still clutched the handkerchief he had been reaching for in his coat pocket when he had been shot. He didn't move.

The thick man stepped forward off the sidewalk, touched one thin, outflung arm with a questing boot, then shrugged his widely sloping shoulders casually.

Falk swallowed hard, staring. It had happened so incredibly quick. Right there in the street, in the hot, clear brightness of the sun. That old gunman's trick!

The shining boots under the wooden awning moved a little. They belonged to the man the thick gunman had been talking to just before the shooting.

Falk saw the booted man's right hand slide slyly down his leg. He was holding a six-shooter. As Falk stared, he dropped the gun, caught it cleverly on the toe of his shining boot, and kicked. The gun sailed in a quick, glinting arc, spun in the dust beside the tall man's outflung hand.


PEOPLE came running now, gathering in a tight-packed gesticulating knot in the middle of the street, Falk saw the boy on the buckboard jump down over the wheel, fight his way through to the fallen man.

Falk swore to himself in a tight, thick whisper. He whirled away from the window, jerked open the door of the room. He pounded down a narrow, shadowed hall, down a gloomy flight of stairs. The small, cluttered lobby was deserted, and Falk ran across it, out through the smeared glass door into the street.

There were more people gathered in the dusty street now, yelling questions, milling in excitement. Over the noise, Falk heard the thick man's snarling voice.

"You all seen it—it was self defense! The old fool tried to pull a gun on me! There it is, lyin' right beside him."

Falk elbowed his way through the ring of people. The boy was kneeling there in the dust beside the tall man's sprawled body. "He's dead," the boy said. He was a small, hunched figure in the big straw hat, the tattered jeans.

Voices quieted to a thick, uneasy muttering. Feet shifted in the soft dust.

The boy stood up. His face looked white and thin and tense under its tan. He wasn't crying, and his wide blue eyes were glittering, brightly defiant. He pointed his finger squarely at the thick man.

"You murderer!" he said. "You dirty-sneaking murderer!"

The thick man scowled at him "Shut up, you little rat. He started for his gun first. I had—"

"He didn't have a gun," the boy said. "He never carried a gun. You planted that one." He turned slowly on the crowd. "Everybody here knows you did."

There were angrily sullen mutters.

"The kid's loco."

"He's as big a liar as his old man was."

"Somebody oughta—"

Another man pushed his way through the crowd. He was pudgily fat, with dull, expressionless eyes and a thick, white-lipped mouth that he held a little open in a pouting expression. He wore a brightly nickeled star on the left pocket of his blue shirt.

"Now," he said in an aimlessly, ineffectual way. "Now, now. What's goin' on here, huh' Who got shot?"

"My father did," the boy answered, swallowing with a dry little gulp.

"Huh?" said the fat man. "Oh. Your father, huh? And who're you?"

"You know who I am," the boy snapped. "You all do—you set of dirty, thieving bushwackers, My name is Peter Jacob Jennings. My father's name is—was—Carl Jennings. What are you standing there for? You're the sheriff. Arrest that man. He killed my father!"

"Well, now," said the fat man. "How about it, Dan?"

The thick man shrugged in his casual way, "The old fool bumped into me, Sloggins. And then he got mad and started to pull a gun. There wasn't nothing I could do but let him have it. Everybody here'll back me up that she happened that way."

To Folk's incredulous amazement there were concurring mutters from the members of the crowd.

"There you are, sonny," said the fat man, nodding at the boy. "You see how it is. Your old man was just sort of lookin' for trouble, and darned if he didn't get it."

"You fat, greasy slob," said the boy plainly.

The fat man reared back on his heels. "You watch out how you talk, young 'un. I'm an officer of the law—"

"You're a crook," said the boy, "You're a crook like everybody else here. You're all in together. This whole town is just full of crooks. But you wait. You just wait..." He stood there for an instant, his small body quivering from the effort of suppressing his rage and sorrow. Slowly he leaned down over his father. He put his hands under the gaunt shoulders, tugged ineffectually at the limp body.

Nobody offered to help him. Not one of the men in the crowd stepped forward.

Falk felt a queer, nightmare sense of horror and loathing. He broke the spell that had held him motionless in amazement, stepped up beside the boy.

"I'll carry him, son," he said gently

The boy jerked his head around. "You get away! Don't you dare lay your dirty hands—" He stopped short, taking another look at Falk's face. "Thanks, mister," he said then in a low voice. "I'd appreciate it."

The gaunt body of the tall man seemed strangely light and fragile in Falk's arms. Carrying it, he walked slowly across the street toward the rickety buckboard. The lowering faces of the men in the crowd moved slowly in front of him. The boy followed close behind, carrying his father's dusty black hat.

Falk arranged the body carefully in the back of the buckboard. He stepped back, looking down at the boy.

"If I can help you any more, son..."

The boy shook his head. "No thanks, mister. I'll make it out alone. I'll remember what you did." He climbed up on the seat, picked up the reins. "I'll remember what you did, too, Meter," he said in a low voice, looking straight at the thick man that had shot his father. "I'll remember you—and all the rest of you." He raised the reins, and the buckboard spun down the street in a rising cloud of gray dust.

Falk turned around. The crowd was gathered in small, whispering knots now, and every face was turned in his direction.

"Stayin' long, mister?" a voice asked softly.

Falk looked sideways into the flat, brutal countenance of the thick man the boy had called Meter. "Nope," he said truthfully, "I was figurin' on pullin' out this morning."

Meter nodded his blunt head slowly. "I would if I was you. I'd do that very thing. I'd start haulin' freight right about now."

"I will," Falk said,

"So long," said Meter.


CHAPTER TWO
Boot-Hill for Two

FALK went straight back to his room. He closed the door behind him, leaned against it for a second. Then he straightened up with a jerk, walked over to the chair where his saddle-bags were thrown carelessly. He fished around in them, brought out two short-barreled six-shooters. He shifted them thoughtfully from one hand to the other, weighing their cool, balanced deadliness. They were beautiful guns, exactly matched, as alike as two peas.

They looked now as though they had been long neglected. They were thick with a coat of dust and grime, and rust spots dappled the burnished bluing of the cylinders and barrels.

Falk laid them down on the bed, fished in the bags again. He uncovered a rolled up double gun-rig. There were two cartridge belts, two leather holsters, all riveted together to make one piece. The leather of the belts and holsters was elaborately carved—a beautiful job of hand tooling. There were no cartridges in the loops on the belts. Falk remembered vaguely that he had taken them out long ago and thrown them away because they made the rig too bulky and heavy to carry.

Moving slowly and leisurely, he shaved, washed himself up as best he could, put on his spare set of underclothes, shirt, and socks.

"Might as well look as good as possible for my own funeral," he said, examining himself in the mirror. He dusted his battered white sombrero, pulled it down to a jaunty angle over one eye.

He rubbed up and cleaned the two Colts, then put them in their holsters and then went on down to the lobby, carrying the gun-rig over his arm. There was no one in sight but an old man with a seamed, leather face standing behind the battered desk beside the doors. He was leaning over the desk, writing with a pen that scratched and sputtered.

"Howdy," Falk said. "You own this joint?"

The man stopped writing and looked up, his face dour and gloomy. He put the frayed end of the pen into his mouth and chewed on it thoughtfully. He had china-blue eyes as wide and innocent and expressionless as a child's. He wore a blue- and white-striped shirt with no collar on it.

The old man nodded once. "Yup," he said at last.

"Give me the bad news, then. How much do I owe you?"

The old man shook his head from side to side. "Nothin'."

Falk grinned in a pleased way. "Well! That's a good thing. I didn't seem to find any money when I was prospectin' around in my pockets this morning."

"You ain't got none," said the old man. "I looked."

"Oh," said Falk. "Well, when did I pay you?"

"This mornin'," said the old man, "This mornin' when you picked up a man off the street. You was probably still drunk and didn't savvy what you was doin', but you did it, anyway. That wiped out anything you ever owed me."

Falk stared at him soberly. "Friend of yours?"

"Nope. Not particular. But he was a good man, son, and they come few and far between in this sizzling corner of hell."

"Yeah," said Falk. "Or anyplace else. It was the button with him that got to me. There's a pretty man-sized kid."

"He is. If you're hungry, son, I'll see what I can pick up."

"Thanks," Falk said gratefully. "What's your handle?"

"Hawkins. Ephriam Hawkins. You been askin' me that regular every time you come in for the last six days. Think you'll remember it this timer?"

"I think so. Mine's Falk."

"I know. Sit."

Falk sat down in a creaking leather chair. Hawkins came limping around the desk, grunting to himself with every step, and went through a door in the back of the lobby. Falk heard the tinny rattle of pans from that direction, and then the sizzling spatter of bacon and eggs. He took a deep breath and pulled up his wide belt a couple of notches.

Hawkins was back again in a surprisingly short time, carrying a big white platter in one hand, salt and pepper shakers and knife and fork in the other. "You'll have to eat standin' here at the desk," Hawkins said. "Ain't no other place to put the stuff."

"I could eat hangin' from the ceiling!" Falk assured him enthusiastically. He tied into the contents of the platter with a long, gusty sigh of relief.

"Did you know you sold your horse?" Hawkins asked.

Falk swallowed with a gulp, "No. Did I?"

"Yup. The bartender at the Four Aces gave you two quarts of whiskey for him. I think you got the best of the deal, at that."

"He wasn't much of a horse," Falk admitted, "but be had four legs. Well, I won't be needin' him on my next job, anyway."

"Job?" Hawkins repeated. "Doin' what?"

Falk pointed with his fork at the guns lying beside him on the desk. "Skunk-huntin'."

Hawkins watched him for quite a while. "You sobered up mighty quick, son," he observed at last.

Falk nodded. "I do that. I'm not much of a drinkin' man, I guess."

"You sure looked good to me all last week. What was you tryin' to do—raise the price of whiskey?"

"No," said Falk, suddenly bitter. "I just don't like to associate with myself sometimes. That's all."

"Ummm," Hawkins said, not questioning him further,

Falk finished up the last of the platter. He loosened his belt again and breathed deeply. "Thanks, old timer. You can tell 'em that the condemned man ate a hearty breakfast. So long."

"Wait!" Hawkins commanded. "Where you goin'?"

"Why, I was sorta in the mind to look up a hairpin by the name of Meter."

"Uh-huh," Hawkins said. "That's what I figured." He touched Falk's gun-rig. "Those .45's? Kinda rusty, aint they?"

"Yeah."

"Fill up with these." Hawkins placed an unopened box of cartridges on the desk.

Falk looked at him narrowly. "What's the answer?"


HAWKINS moved his shoulders casually. "I'm sort of old for skunk huntin', son. Sort of old and rusty in the hinges. But that don't mean that I can't take a peek over somebody else's shoulder. I didn't figure you was much good, son. I figured you was about useless a specimen as I ever seen come crawlin' through that door. But just since this mornin' I'm beginnin' to sort of like the way you look. You got a lot of guts, aside from all the things you ain't got—includin' brains."

"Thanks," Falk said dryly.

Hawkins nodded at him. "And you ain't got the chance of a celluloid collar on a griddle against Dan Meter. He wasn't hurryin' this mornin' when he downed old Jennings. He knew he didn't have to. He's a lot faster than that when he's pushed."

"So am I," said Falk. "Or anyway, I was once."

He flipped open the loading gate on one of the two Colts, ejected the corroded cartridges one after the other.

"Two guns," Hawkins observed. "A matched pair, too. Maybe you're a real curly wolf, and I don't know it."

"Nope," Falk said absently. "I'm ambidexterous."

"You're what?" Hawkins asked, puzzled.

"Ambidexterous. It means both right- and left-handed. See, when I was a little trotter, I was left-handed. Nobody paid much mind to it until I went to school. Then my teacher spotted it, and she got my folks on the prod, too. They was bound and determined I was goin' to change to be a right-hander like ever'body else. So what happened was that I used my right hand when anybody was watchin' me and my left when they wasn't. Pretty soon it got so it didn't make any difference which I used."

"Ding me," said Hawkins, interested. "You mean you can write with both hands?"

"Sure, Either, or both at once."

"You shoulda been a pen-pusher. You could draw double wages. Here I have the devil's own time writin' with one."

Falk finished one gun, loaded it from the box of cartridges, started on the other. While Hawkins watched in silence, he finished with it, loaded it. He put some of the oil which Hawkins offered him on the holsters and the belts, kneaded them with his fingers. The leather soaked up the oil, softened, began to gleam richly.

"Better take the rest of them cartridges," Hawkins said. "I wont be needin' 'em."

"Thanks," Falk said. He slid the blunt yellow cartridges in the loops on the double belts. He adjusted the belts carefully around his waist. He didn't tie the holsters down. They fitted tight, high on his flat hips.

"Just what was you figurin' on doin'?" Hawkins asked.

"Just, droppin' around and sayin' hello to this Meter gent wherever I find him."

"And then what?"

"Why, hadn't got past that," said Falk.

Hawkins nodded. "Better start thinkin' now, then. Listen, son, you ain't got a chance with Meter. And even if you did, you wouldn't last ten minutes after you downed him."

"Why not?" Falk asked. "Is he the head man around here?"

"Nope, But he's Sim Carson's left-hand bower. An' Sim Carson is Dodd's manager."

Falk nodded. "All right. Who's Dodd?"

Hawkins raised his eyebrows. "Don't you know where you are?"

Falk shook his head. "Nope. Where am?"

"You're in Wolfville, son. It's plumb owned by Dodd. It's in the middle of Dodd Valley. And the Dodd Land and Water Company owns the whole damned shebang from one end to the other. Joseph V. Dodd owns the Dodd Land and Water Company. Yes sir, Joseph V. Dodd, that mangy old pack-rat, owns everything. Even the land this town sets on."

"The town?" Falk said incredulously. "A man can't own a town!"

"Uh-huh," Hawkins agreed, nodding. "That's Just what Carl Jennings said. You saw what happened to him this morning. This here is one town that a man can own—and does. All of it. Even the streets. Everything in Wolfville belongs to Joseph V. Dodd. Jennings sure learned—the tough way."

"How did Jennings cross up with him?" Falk asked.

"He was a pilgrim," Hawkins said slowly. "He couldn't seem to savvy how things was around here. He come from back East somewhere. He was a lawyer. His wife died, and I guess it kinda took all the dander out of him. He come driftin' through with his kid; stayed right here at the hotel. He had a little money and was lookin' for a place to settle. I told him how it was here, just like I was tellin' you. He couldn't believe it. He went down to the courthouse to look up the land records. He found out I was right, but he found somethin' else, too."

"What?"

"He found out there was a gap in a couple of survey lines. Somebody made a mistake, There was a three-cornered spot right in the center of the valley that wasn't covered in any of the recorded deeds. Jennings filed on it. I tried to tell him not to, but he wouldn't listen. That's why they killed him. The land he filed on wasn't worth nothin' much. Has a little spring that's never been used. But Joseph V. Dodd don't want nobody in this valley that don't have to bow to him."

"Do you?" Falk queried shrewdly.


HAWKINS' blue eyes gleamed suddenly with little flicking pin-points of light "Not any! That's what I'm waitin' for, son. Just a chance at that skinflint old hellion. Just one. I'll pay him back for all the misery he's been causin'."

"Doesn't Dodd live here?"

"You can bet he doesn't. He ain't ever been near the place, far as I know. He leaves all his dirty work to Judge Potter and Sim Carson. Judge Potter handles the legal end. Them two are as pretty a pair of crooks as you'd ever want to see workin' in tandem."

"I saw what happened this morning," Falk said slowly. "I saw it all. If I walked away without cuttin' myself in on that deal, I could never forget it if I drank enough whiskey to float a warship." He turned away. "So long."

Hawkins let him get to the door, and then he said softly: "Son."

Falk stopped. "Yeah?"

"You'll find Meter at the Four Aces. That place has a side door in the back opposite the bar. It lets out on an alley that runs alongside the building. If you make it through, son, head for that door and down the alley. There'll be a horse waitin' right around the corner. Watch your back, and keep an eye out for Jed Salto."

"Salto?" Falk said questioningly.

"Yeah. He's Sim Carson's right-hand man. He's as cold as ice and as slimy as a snake."

"Does he wear shiny boots?"

"Yeah."

"I'll watch," Falk said softly. "Yeah, I'll watch real careful for him." He pushed the glass doors open.

"Son," said Ephriam Hawkins in a thickly strained voice. "Son, good luck to you. If you don't make it, sort of hold a place for me on the other side. I think maybe I'll be joinin' you."


CHAPTER THREE
Friendly Renegade

THE main street angled a little toward the west about half way along its length. The Four Aces was just around the corner on the inside of the angle. There were two flat wooden steps in front of the swinging doors.

Falk stopped with his foot on the first step. He looked all around him carefully, as though he were trying to memorizes what he saw. The sun was bright, softly warm on his face, and the sky was a clear pale blue. Falk took one last look at it all, and then he shrugged casually to himself, went up the two steps, pushed the doors open.

It was a low, square room with a beam-raftered ceiling, Bright sunlight coming through the narrow windows cut in yellow gold shafts through the dim drift of blue tobacco smoke. A long bar ran along the side of the room at Falk's right.

Falk let the doors flick shut softly behind him and stepped away from them, putting his back against the wall. There were only two men at the bar. One had his back turned, and Falk recognized instantly the long, sloping shoulder, the loosely dangling arms of the man called Dan Meter. He was talking in a low voice to the fat, stupid-looking sheriff, Sloggins.

For a second Falk thought they and the bartender were the only people in the place. And then he caught a faint sheen of polished leather close to the floor, back in the corner on the far side of the room. The man was sitting in the deep shadow beside a window. He was dressed in black, and Falk could see his face only as a dull, indistinct smear.

Sloggins saw Falk, and his fish mouth opened. Meter turned his head to look over one shoulder.

"Howdy," said Falk pleasantly.

Meter watched him silently for a second, and then slowly turned around. "Thought I heard you say you was pullin' out."

Falk nodded. "You did, and I am."

"Get," said Meter levelly.


SLOGGINS swallowed with a noisy gulp and began to move very slowly and cautiously away from Meter. The bar-tender slid down behind the bar inch by inch in nervous little jerks. The last jerk took him clear out of sight, and his hands and knees made a hurried scrambling noise on the floor as he crawled for cover.

"Don't hurry me," Falk said calmly "Don't rush me. I'm a poor lone cowboy from the hills. I gotta take things slow and easy. I'm goin', but I just had to come back and take one more look. It ain't often I get to see a real, first-class yellow-bellied coyote runnin' around and makin' motions like he's a man. I wanta take a good look before I go, so I can tell people all about it."

Meter's wide shoulder stiffened a little, and his snarling mouth jerked at one corner. He didn't make any other move.

"This is it, Meter," Falk said tightly, "You don't have to spit in my face to start it, and when I reach it won't be for a handkerchief. I'm watchin' your friend back there in the corner just to see if be wants to join us."

The man with the polished boots spoke in a low, soft voice. "I'll sit this one out."

Meter moved in the same instant the other man spoke. His left hand was still resting on the bar, thick fingers wrapped around a full glass of whiskey. With a flip of his wrist, he flung the whiskey, glass and all straight at Falk's face, and at the same time his right palm made a slapping sound as it hit the butt of his six-shooter. The gun came up and out in a smooth arc.

Falk's shoulders jerked in a quick hitching motion, like a violent shrug. He didn't move his head or try to duck, although the whiskey glass smashed into the wall about six inches from his face.

There was a smashing thunder of sound that seemed to push at the flimsy walls. Meter turned half around, and then tried to turn back. He didn't make it. His knees folded, he fell against the bar, and slid down in a loose, clattering heap. There was a little blue hole squarely between his close-set eyes and another punched in the blue of his shirt with a spreading red stain growing slowly around it.

Falk stood still against the wall, the two guns balanced easily in his hands. "He was just full of tricks, wasn't he?" he asked softly. "He oughta spent less time thinkin' them up and more time learnin' how to shoot."

Falk turned his head slowly to look at Sloggins. "Saw it all, didn't you, sheriff? It was self-defense, wasn't it?"

Sloggins moved his head in a nod that was as stiff as that of a mechanical toy. "Yes," he said in a whisper. "It was—self-defense..."

"You, in the corner with the boots," Falk said. "Step out and let's look at you."


THE man with the polished boots got up easily and stepped out into the light. He was tall and thin, very erect. His face was a pale oval, expressionless, except for a faintly disdainful twist of his lips. He had a deck of cards in his hands. His eyes were a deeply soft, liquid black.

"Salto?" Falk queried.

The man nodded without speaking.

"You won't need to plant any guns this time," Falk said. "Your pal's got one already, right in his hand. In fact," said Falk, "you wasn't such a big help to him right now, was you?"

"He was draggin' his loop," Sal to said in his soft voice. "He was gittin' a little too high and mighty. You just saved me a job."

People were gathering cautiously in the street outside the saloon. Falk could hear the growling mutter of their voices.

"You two just stand steady right here," he said. "I'm leavin' by the back. Don't crowd me. I'm a man that likes lots of room on all sides."

He backed slowly the length of the room, kicked the side door open behind him with his heel.

"Good-by," said Salto, with a little mocking note in his soft voice.

Falk jumped backwards through the door, spun tightly around. There was a group of staring onlookers gathered at the mouth of the alley. Folk fired twice over their heads, and they scurried right and left like a covey of quail suddenly bursting into startled flight.

Falk ran down the alley the other way. He spun around the corner and stopped short, digging high heels into the dust. The horse was there, waiting close in the shadow under the eaves of a building.

There was a little jerk of motion from around the corner of another building fifty yards away. Falk saw Ephriam Hawkins' seamed, dour face poke into view, suddenly split into a savagely triumphant grin. Hawkins' hand flipped in a quick motion of farewell, and then he was gone.

Falk swung up into the saddle, heeled the horse around in a tight circle. He was away, down the narrow, crooked side-street, in a sudden rattling pound of hoofs. The horse was a high, free-striding roan, and Falk settled himself in the saddle with a little grunt of pleasure.

At the edge of town, where the valley began to dip down in a welter of scrub-timber and thickly concealing brush, be pulled up for a second. There was a swelling, sullen mutter from the town behind him, but no signs of any pursuit.

A short rifle hung in the scabbard under Falk's leg, and he pulled it out now and looked at it. It was a .30-40 carbine, a new box-magazine model It had been polished until it gleamed beautifully. Falk noticed a folded slip of paper caught under the hammer. He pulled it out, opened it up. It was a note in crabbed, spidery hand writing.


The hors is the best one I cud get. The rifel is a .30-40. It shoots dead center at one fifty yards. Under that, hold her low. Ther is cartridges in the saddlebags. The Jennings place is about fore mile due west of town.

Ephriam Hawkins.


Falk chuckled softly. "That old hellion!" he said. He turned the roan, rode into the brush, circling toward the west.


CHAPTER FOUR
Gun-Guardian's Deadline

FALK came cautiously out of the mouth of a draw. The Jennings place was down on the flat below him. It consisted of nothing but a bare board shack, unpainted, brown, and dry-looking, an old shed that served as a barn, and a corral. Rusty barb-wire was strung around an odd-cornered lot on wobbly loose-set poles to make a pasture, A little tangle of brightly lush greenery marked the location of the spring to the left of the house.

Falk let the roan pick its way slowly down the slope toward the two figures that were digging slowly and laboriously in the little square of green grass at the side of the house. They stopped and stood up, watching him, when they heard the click of the roan's hoofs.

The small boy—Peter Jacob Jennings he had called himself—had discarded his floppy straw hat now. His thin, tanned face was streaked with sweat, and his sandy hair rumpled loosely. He looked small and staunchly determined, holding a spade about six sizes too big For him.

"Howdy," Falk said, nodding soberly.

"Hello, mister," the boy said, cautious but not unfriendly.

Falk took off his hat, looking at the boy's companion. "Ma'am," he said politely.

The girl was holding a spade, too. Holding it familiarly, as though she knew what to do with it. She was small and slight; not very much taller than the boy, but her slimly rounded body had erect strength and vigor. Her hair was a smooth, deep black, her eyes wide-set and gray. Her soft lips were drawn into a tight, straight line now.

She stared directly into Falk's face. "Who is this man, Pete?" she asked.

"Oh, he's all right, Miss Linda," the hoy said quickly. "He's the one I told you about. The one that helped me with dad, this morning."

Her lips softened a little. "Oh. My name is Linda Travers. I'm Pete's school teacher."

Falk ducked his bead. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am, I'm Roy Falk. Will—will you let me help?"

Pete nodded, "Sure, mister. Dad—Dad's in there...." He pointed to the crudely-made pine coffin beside the partially dug grave. "I was wonderin' how we was gonna—put—put him away. Miss Linda and I couldn't hardly lift...."

Linda Travers turned her bead away suddenly, and the muscles in her soft throat tensed as she choked back a sob.

"Sure," Falk said gently. "Sure, son. Just a minute." He swung off the roan, walked it to the corral fence, tied it there. He came back to the grave. "If I could take your spade, miss...."

She handed it to him. For a while, then, there was no sound but the bite of steel into the hard-packed earth, the quiet thump of clods on the growing pile beside the grave.

"That's—deep enough, mister," Pete said at last.

There was a short length of tie-rope under the coffin. Falk held up one side while Linda Travers and the boy managed the other. They lowered the coffin gently into the grave.

Pete stood up straight and looked at the two of them. "Would—would you mind if I sort of stayed here alone just a minute before—we did anything else?"

"Sure not," Falk said softly.

Linda Travers and Falk walked slowly back to the corral. They slopped there and looked back. Pete was kneeling beside the grave—a small, bent figure, all alone.

Linda Travers sobbed suddenly and put both her hands up over her face. "Oh I can't—bear to think.... That child—all alone—with his father murdered. No one offering to help him. It's horrible! It's something no one could think of—"

"I know," Falk said. "I thought the same way when I saw—that this morning."


SHE brought her hands clown from her face, clenched them into fists. "This valley! This—this place... It's—sickening to any decent person! That men like Dan Meter, cowardly murderers, can go free and untouched after this—"

Falk was shaking his head slowly. "No more, ma'am. Not Dan Meter, anyway."

She stared at him. "What—"

"He and me had an argument about this matter, ma'am. He's dead."

"You—you killed him?"

"Yes, ma'am, It was all fair and square. He had his chance, but he just couldn't cut it."

"Oh!" She watched him wide-eyed for a long second. "Who—are you?"

Falk smiled bitterly. "Just a fool, that's all. You see, I was a real ambitious cuss once—a long time ago. I come across a spot, just about like this one, and I figured what a swell place it would be for a little outfit of my own. For ten years I worked and saved and scrimped. Finally I got enough to cut loose and try her. Every cent I had and all I could borrow went into the place. The first year the black-leg wiped out my cows, the drought got my grass, fire burned out my buildings, and the bank took my land back on the mortgage.

"It got me. I give up. I started driftin'. When I woke up in the hotel in town this mornin' my trail had about petered out in the bush. And then I saw the kid, there. I saw what happened to him. Why, that was ninety times worse than what I took! And did he give up? Did he quit? No, sir! That little kid, he stood right up, and he faced that whole crowd, that whole town. Never a whimper out of him!"

"I know," she said softly.

"I tell you it made me feel like a pretty low sort of skunk. Me runnin' like a rabbit from what happened to me, and that kid takin' what he did and never backin' away an inch. I ain't got much left, but my guns. But I'm throwin' them in with the kid."

She put her hand on his arm. "You've got a lot more than your guns, Roy Falk, to help bin with. Yes—a lot more."

Pete stood up beside the grave and turned toward them. "Miss Linda, would you sort of say a little prayer for dad? I was tryin' my best—but it don't seem like I can find words...."

The three of them stood with bowed heads around the grave, and Linda Travers recited the Lord's Prayer in a choked, low voice. Slowly, then, Falk filled the grave and set in the rough board that would serve as a head-stone.

He had just finished when Pete said tightly: "Somebody comin'"

There was a trailing cloud of dust on the flat loop of the winding road that meandered crookedly across the valley from the direction of the town.

"It's a buckboard," Falk said, staring at it. He walked across to the roan, pulled the carbine from the raddle scabbard, jacked a cartridge into the barrel.

The rig was closer now. There were two men riding in the front seat.

"Judge Potter and Sim Carson," Linda Travers said.

"Which is which?" Falk asked,

"The tall one is Carson, The fat one is Judge Potter."

The backboard rattled into the yard, pulled up. The three of them walked slowly toward it.


JUDGE POTTER held the reins in his white pudgy hands. He was a fat, bulgy little man with an enormous paunch. His pink cheeks were round and soft and dimpled. His close-set, blue eyes twinkled merrily, almost hidden in puffy rolls of fat. His wide and cordial smile showed glinting white teeth.

"Ah!" he said in rounded, oratorical tones. "Miss Travers, it is always a pleasure to see you. Master Jennings, as legal representative of the Dodd Land and Water Company, I have come to offer the sympathies of the company and my own deep personal regrets in this moment of terrible bereavement. Believe me, I'm sorry. I speak from the depths of a grieving heart. Carl Jennings followed the same profession that I do, and for that reason—"

"My dad was never a crook, like you!" Pete Jennings said.

Potter shook his head chidingly. "Now, now, my child. Let us not say in haste and sorrow things which we will later—"

Sim Carson made a harshly impatient sound. He was tall, thick, broad-shouldered. His face was like a square block chopped out of granite. His eyes were a light, flinty gray under the black bar of his eyebrows. He had an air of sullen, repressed violence.

"That's the one that downed Meter," he said to Potter, staring at Falk.

Potter raised his eyebrows in simulated horror. "A criminal! A fugitive from justice—here? In this place?"

"Not quite," Falk said evenly. "As I remember, I shot in self-defense. The sheriff saw it and let her ride that way."

"That, sir," said Potter, "was due to Sheriff Sloggins' lamentable lack of knowledge of the statutory law in effect in our commonwealth, subsequently, on consulting me, he learned of his error, and I have since issued a warrant authorizing your arrest. I advise you, for your own safety and best interests, to surrender yourself at once to some duly constituted authority."

"Thanks," Falk said. "I'll think it over."

"And Miss Travers," Potter said, "I would be very interested, as president of the Board of School Trustees, in hearing any explanation you may have to offer of your presence here in such company."

"I'm here," Linda Travers said coldly, "because I haven't lived long enough in this valley to lose all my decency and humanity."

"You leave Linda and the man alone," Pete Jennings said flatly. "They're my friends, and they're here because they're helpin' me. You got anything else to say?"

"Yeah," said Falk, shifting the rifle in the crook of his arm. "Sorry you have to leave so quick."

"Well," said Potter, all ruffled dignity. "We have—"

"Shut up!" Sim Carson said in his flat, harsh voice. "You use too damned many words. Listen, kid, we come to make you a cash offer for this land. You ain't got no right to be on it, and neither had your old man, but just because of what happened, we'll offer you a thousand dollars for a quit-claim deed."

"No!" said Pete Jennings. "No!"

"Two thousand," Carson said. "It ain't worth that, and if you got any sense, you know it ain't."

"No!" Pete cried emphatically. "No, no! You'll never get it! Never!"

"I warn you," Potter said. "We were just seeking a peaceful settlement of our own rightful claim to the land in a purely charitable spirit. Our only alternative, if you refuse to listen to reason, is to take the proper legal steps to have you ejected."

"Try it," said Pete. "Go ahead. Try it!"

"Better not—just now," Falk advised lazily. "In fact, I think you've about talked yourselves out. So long."

Potter jerked the reins. "I warn you, sir, you'll regret this unwarranted interference! And you, Miss Travers, I'm sure you'll deeply regret this association with unlawful and violent elements, in our community—"

"Mister," said Falk, "I'm gettin' tired of tellin' you, but I'll give it one more try. Get!"

Potter sputtered wordlessly. He hauled on the reins. The horses spun the buckboard around, and it rattled away in a rising swirl of dust.

"Sorry, ma'am," Falk said, watching it go. "Looks like I got you in wrong."

"Those beasts!" she said in a low, tense voice. "That they come here and—and talk—that way."

"Snakes," Falk observed, "are just born snakes, and they got to act like snakes until somebody tramps on their head." He paused thoughtfully. "And that ain't altogether impossible, either."

She watched him. "Don't surrender to them! Don't give yourself up! They'd never give you a trial! They'd—they'd kill you!"

"Sure," said Falk gently. "Sure, ma'am. I know. I'll play her out on this side of the fence."


CHAPTER FIVE
Wolfville on the Prod

THE sun was a fuzzy red ball low over the string of saw-tooth mountains that closed in the valley on the west. Falk and Pete were sitting on the battered front stoop of the little shack. Linda Travers bad gone back to the place where she roomed in the town.

"Reckon," said Pete slowly, "reckon you'll be leavin' pretty quick now, huh?"

Falk watched him out of the corners of his eyes. "Well now, I dunno. Seems like I'm a mite tired of humpin' and bumpin' up and down and skitterin' here and yonder."

"You—you mean—" Pete said in an incredulous, dazedly happy voice, "You're gonna stay?"

Falk shook his head thoughtfully, "Dunno, now. Seems like I'm pretty bad company for a young 'un like you. Me bein' a criminal and all."

"No! No, no!"

"I dunno," said Falk. "Seems like I might bring you a lot of trouble, what with posses and sheriffs and such after me."

Pete's fists clenched. "Damn 'em! Oh, damn 'em all!" Suddenly he sobbed, a dry, rasping gulp that shook his small body.

"My dad! He's—he's gone! They shot him, and—he was layin' there in the street...." All the sorrow inside him broke loose then, and he cried in stifled broken little gasps.

Falk put his arm around the thin shoulders.

"Never mind, son," he whispered. "Just never you mind. Well fix 'em. You and me."

He held the boy close against him, staring out over the valley. The fading light reflected the bleak, steely color of his eyes.

ROY FALK woke up, without a start, without moving at all. He opened his eyes and looked up at a sky that was a blue-black blanket with little pin-pricks in it. Pete Jennings was a small, blanket-jumbled bundle beside him, breathing slowly and evenly.

They were sleeping out in the open on the little bluff above and directly in back of the ranch shack. Falk wiggled quietly out from under his bedding, reached for the rifle that lay on the ground beside him. He crawled slowly and noiselessly through the brush to the edge of the bluff, looked down on the dark, forlorn huddle of buildings.

For a moment he saw nothing at all, and he thought his senses had tricked him. Then a flitting, bat-like figure sprinted across an open space from one deep shadow to another. Falk caught the faint, dull gleam of a rifle barrel.

Folk crawled back to Pete, touched his shoulder softly. Pete's deep breathing choked off in a startled gurgle. He sat up with a jerk.

"Quiet," Falk whispered. "We got visitors down below."

They crawled slowly back to the edge of the bluff.

There were faint, sly stirrings in the darkness now all around the ranch shack. Indistinct forms moved and blended with the darkness. The shack was ringed around with the dark figures, crawling cautiously closer to it.

"A posse," Falk whispered in Pete's ear. "Lucky we decided not to sleep in the house. They're after me."

"All right!" a voice shouted suddenly from below. "Shoot low and watch your cross-fire!"

A sudden rattle of rifle fire swept away the night's silence. Angling orange streaks shoot toward the ranch-house. Falk and Pete could hear the snick of bullets boring through the flimsy walls.

Pete drew a deep breath. "They never gave no warning! They never asked you to give up!"

"No," Falk said tonelessly. "And they didn't give you any chance, either. If we was in there, we'd both be punched as full of holes as a sprinkling can by this time. Come on. It's time to move. They'll savvy we ain't there in a minute and start scoutin' around."

They moved cautiously back across the top of the bluff, down into a deeply shadowed draw. There was a startled snort, and horses loomed up before them, shifting nervously in the brush. There were two of them—Falk's tall roan and one of the bony nags that belonged on the Jennings' place.

Falk and Pete saddled silently. The rattling drum of rifle-fire near the ranch shack subsided little by little and finally died out. There was a series of yipping yells, and then the thrusting crash of rifle-butts on wood.

"Breakin' in the house," Falk said tightly, swinging up on the roan. "Come on, son. We're movin' out."


DAWN was breaking in a bursting red glow through the night mist when Falk pulled the roan up on a steep side hill and signaled for Pete to come up beside him.

"See that gap over there in the mountains?" he said, pointing.

"Sure," Pete said blankly.

"If I got my directions right, that's where the B and R comes through."

"You—you mean the railroad?" Pete asked, staring wide-eyed. "You ain't—ain't gonna leave here—are you?"

"Nope," said Falk. "I ain't, but you are. You head straight out for that pass. Haskinville is about ten mile on the other side. Just follow the tracks, and you'll find it."

"But—but I don't want—"

"You got to, son," Falk said gravely. "You seen what happened last night. They was after me, and they didn't care who they stomped on in the rush. In fact, I think maybe they was hopin' they'd stomp on you."

"But I don't care! I want to help you! I want—"

"You'll help me more'n any other way by goin'. See, my life ain't worth much to anybody—includin' me. I can go pokin' around without worryin'. But when you're with me—she's a different proposition."

"I won't bother you! I won't—"

Falk shook his head slowly. "I want you to go, son."

Pete swallowed hard. "All—all right, I will."

Falk fumbled in hid pocket, brought out one crumpled, dirty bill and handed it to Pete, "Here—It ain't much to go on, but it's all I got. Soon as you get in Haskinville, you use it to send a telegram to Ephriam Hawkins, Wolfville Hotel. He'll see you get taken care of until I get there. Got it straight, now?"

Pete watched him with wide, tragic eyes for a long moment. Then he turned the old nag and angled it slowly down the hillside, a discouraged lonely little figure with shoulders hunched and straw-hat flopping a little with each step the horse took.

Falk swallowed hard, watching him. He reined the roan around and rode slowly back up over the hill toward the valley....


EVEN in the early evening the little alley that ran alongside the Wolfville Hotel was as black as pitch. Falk couldn't see three inches in front of his face. He moved along cautiously, feeling for obstructions with his feet, guiding himself by his right hand held flat against the rough board wall. He was holding one of his twin Colts balanced carefully in his left hand. A lighted window made a bright, slanting oblong ahead of him. He crouched low, removed his hat. Inch by inch he brought his head up even with the sill. He was looking into the small, cluttered lobby of the hotel.

Old Ephriam Hawkins was sitting in a big leather chair on the other side of the room. He was all alone. There was a shotgun resting beside his chair, and he was slowly and carefully cleaning a rifle.

Falk tapped on the window-pane with his fingernail. Hawkins raised his head slowly and looked at him. Falk nodded meaningly, Hawkins glanced cautiously toward the door, then got up, putting the rifle down, and wandered over to the window. He opened it. leaned forward as though he were looking casually outside into the darkness.

"Where the devil you been the last three days?" he whispered tensely.

"Just snoopin' around in the hills," Falk answered in a low voice. "I was figurin' on startin' myself a little trouble, and I wanted to find the best place to let her rip."

"You don't need to look no further. You found it, right here. In fact, you don't need to start nothing. It's already started and blazin' like hell."

"What?" Falk asked.

"Linda Travers. They got her in jail."

Falk stiffened in the darkness. "In jail?" he repeated, blankly incredulous. "What for?"

"For harborin' and abettin' a fugitive from justice—you!"

Falk stared at him, "Why—I haven't been near her since that day out at Jennings. I stayed away on purpose. I didn't want to make her trouble."

"You done it, though," Hawkins said. "Plenty. Jail's just the least of it. They don't want to bring her to trial—no more'n they do you. Sim Carson is out gatherin' a crowd now. They're gonna tar and feather her and ride her outa town on a rail."

"Good God!" Falk exclaimed tensely. "They wouldn't! They couldn't do that—"

"They're gonna," said Hawkins, "unless somebody stops 'em. Me. I was figurin' on tossin' up a little opposition myself. They got it all fixed. They're gonna pretend to bust in the jail and get her. Of course, they ain't gonna have to work very hard bustin' in. Sloggins ain't gonna stop 'em, not so's you could notice. But they got to make it look good."

Falk was silent for a long moment, thinking with frantic intensity. "Where's Judge Potter?" he asked suddenly.

Hawkins snorted, "Him? I hope you ain't figurin' he's goin' to help you. He's probably the skunk that figured this out. He'll be settin' at home, nice and peaceful; he's a judge, you savvy, and ain't supposed to be mixin' up in any unlawful doin's. Tomorrow he'll hear what happened and be terrible shocked about it all."

"He'll be shocked before tomorrow," Talk said thinly. "You stay here. I'll be right back."

"Better hurry," Hawkins warned, "You ain't got so long, They're about ready to try that jail."


CHAPTER SIX
Hang-Tree Madness

JUDGE POTTER did nicely for himself. He lived in a big two-story house gleaming white, set on the top of a knoll overlooking the town and the valley. Water was none too plentiful, but that didn't bother him. He used plenty to make a wide green strip of lawn, to coax ornamental shrubs to grow thick and cool close to the house.

He was sitting now under the soft greenish glow of a reading lamp in his study. A thick law book rested on his fat knees, and he was leafing idly through it, pudgy fingers fluttering the pages. A crystal decanter of brandy sat on the little stand beside his chair. He felt warm and pleasant and comfortable, and a self-satisfied little smirk twisted his lips.

There was a sudden tinkling smash.

Potter jerked his bald head up, startled, staring at the window across the room. One of the small diamond-shaped panes had been knocked out, and the gleaming muzzle of a .45 revolver peered through it at him like a round, blank eye.

"Come here," Falk's voice said coldly.

Potter jerked his big body out of the chair. His knees were like rubber under him, and he staggered weakly, quaking all over, as he walked toward the window.

"Unlock it and step outside," Falk ordered.

Potter fumbled numbly with the catch, pulled the hinged sash back, squeezed his bulk through into the darkness. The hard muzzle of the .45 dug into his paunch.

"Turn around and march."

Potter flopped his hands, suddenly regained the use of his voice. "What—You can't do—I warn you—"

Falk raised the big revolver until it was on the level with Potter's bulging eyes. Potter could see Falk's thumb holding the hammer back at full cock.

"Git," said Falk.

Potter swallowed with a noisy gulp. He turned around and blundered down the slope, crashing heedlessly through his prized, expensive shrubs. The gun muzzle herded him along from behind, punching him at every step.

As they came closer to the center of the town they could hear a low, rolling mutter of sound. One sullenly angry voice made up of scores of voices—the inhuman, unfeeling voice of the mob. It was repressed now, sullen and waiting, but ready to flare into screeching insane fury at the slightest touch.

Ii grew louder, angrier, more threatening, as Falk herded Potter down the little black passageway into the side door of the hotel.

"Stop," Falk said. He leaned forward and rapped on the door with the butt of his gun.

It opened instantly, and Ephriam Hawkins loomed up in the doorway, his shotgun held ready across his arm.

"Ah!" he said, "Why, it's Judge Potter! What a pleasure it is to see you this evening, Judge!"

"Inside," Falk ordered.

Potter slid inside the room and stood there, crowded close against the wall, staring fearfully from one to the other.

"What—what's the meaning—this outrage? I warn you—kidnapping is a serious offence. You—you—"

"Listen," Falk said tightly. "Do you hear them outside? Do you? Do you know what that means?"

Potter stuttered in white-lipped terror. No! No. I don't! Unlawful assembly! I don't know—

"They're going to break in the jail," Falk said, "They're going to take Linda Travers out and—and tar and feather her. They're going to do that—if you don't stop them!"

Potter flopped his arms. "I—can't—no control over—"

"You will," said Falk. "Hawkins here is going to take you up on the roof of this hotel. It isn't very high, but it's high enough. He's going to tie a rope around your neck and the other end of it To something real solid. He's going to walk you to the edge of the roof. You can see it all from there. And when the jail door goes down, that's the last you'll see, because when it does, Hawkins is going to push you off the edge."

"No!" Potter shrieked in horror. "No! You can't—"

"Haw!" said Hawkins, savagely triumphant; "Can't I, though!'

"You'll have your chance to talk to that mob," Falk said coldly. "And you better talk fast. It they so much as touch that girl—you won't be here to see it."

"You don't dare!" Potter wailed. "You can't—"

Hawkins punched him with the shot-gun, "Up them stairs, you fat wind-bag!"

"Give me five minutes before you start him off," Falk said tensely.


FALK crept around from the back of the jail, deep in the shadow. It was a square, one-storied building built of thick, rough timber, facing the head of the main street at a slight angle. From the corner Falk could look straight down toward the Four Aces at the turn in the street.

The mob was gathering there—a loose, shadowy group of figures that churned and yelled with a sort of maniac, senseless fury. A sea of white, tense faces and uplifted jerking arms. Someone had started a rough bonfire in the square in the center of the street intersection. It crackled in bright, hungry little fingers, growing slowly. There was the faint rip and crash of wood as members of the mob hunted for more fuel for it.

Sim Carson's tall, square figure was faintly discernible in the center of the milling group. Falk could hear the harsh, wordless bellow of his voice.

There was more wood piled on the bonfire, and the flames reached eagerly toward the dark sky like great red-dripping hands.

Falk stared hard in it eerie light at the roof of the hotel.

He could see faint, shadowy movement there. Then the flame of the bonfire shot suddenly higher, revealing the whole building plainly. Ephriam Hawkins and Judge Potter were standing side-by-side on the very edge of the roof. As Falk watched, Hawkins ducked back out of sight behind the parapet, and Potter shouted at the men below him—a wailing unearthly screech with the terror a damned soul bubbling up through it.

Every man in the street turned and looked up at him.

"Men!" Potter shrieked at them. "You can't do this awful thing! You can't thrust aside the forces of law and order in this violent manner! You can't—"

His voice raved at them, cracked and incoherent with fear, but Falk didn't wait to hear more. He slid around to the front of the jail, full in the light of the bonfire, rapped loudly on the iron-studded panels of the door with the barrel of his six-gun.

"Sloggins," he said hoarsely. "Quick! Open up!"

There was a clank of heavy bolts. The door inched back cautiously, and Sloggins' white, blank face peered through the opening.

"What—"

Falk snapped the six-gun forward in a short, vicious arc. The barrel cut into Sloggins' soft face with a soggy thud. He gave one scream of pain and crashed backwards. Falk pushed through the door, slammed it behind him.

Falk leaned over him, jerked a big ring of keys from a snap-catch on his belt, slid cautiously and quietly through the door at the back of the office that led to the cell corridor.

It was dark in here, close, thick with the heavily-penetrating sour odor of disinfectant. The flames outside reflected in ruddy little gleams from the polished steel of thick bars. Faintly Falk could hear Potter's voice howling at the mob.

"Linda," he whispered softly. "Linda Travers."

There was a slight movement, a stir in the deep shadow of one of the cells, and then he could see That pale oval of her face peering through the bars at him.

"Roy Falk," she said in a soft, unbelieving whisper. "You came for me...?"

Falk fumbled with Sloggins' keys, jerked the heavily-barred door open. He caught the faint, fresh odor of her hair, and then she was close to him, clinging tightly.

"They—they were going to—... Sloggins told me. He was laughing. That mob out there—"

"I know," Falk said tensely, "Come. We've got to get out of here. Potter can't hold them much longer. Hurry!"


THEY ran blindly down the dim corridor out into the dusty little office. Sloggins still lay limply quiet on the floor. Falk jerked the big door open, looked out. In that second, Judge Potter's voice rose to a crescendo of screaming terror.

"Slim! No! Don't—You—"

Falk saw Slim Carson in the street directly in front of the hotel. His arm, raised upward, made a straight bar in the flickering light of the bonfire, ending in the glitter of a gun-barrel. The revolver jerked a little in his hand. Its report was a flat pop.

Potter screamed again, horribly, and fell forward off the roof. He fell only about ten feet, and then the invisible rope around his neck jerked him up short. His bulky body bumped and spun and twisted against the building.

"The jail!" Carson yelled. "Come on! Get her!"

The mob had its foretaste of blood now, and its members swept down the street toward the jail in a hooting, howling maelstrom. Falk jumped backwards into the jail office and slammed the door, shooting the big bolts to hold it firm.

"Too late!" he said to Linda Travers. "They'd catch us if we tried to run for it. There's no back door to this place. We'll have to fight it out from here."

He seized a carbine from the rack against the wall, poked the stubby barrel through the window. He fired as fast as he could work the lever. He saw one dim figure flop down, squirming in the dust, saw another twirl in an crazy dance, stagger into the cover of the shadows. The mob split right and left, rolling back on itself, fighting to find cover.

"Sloggins!" Carson's harsh voice bellowed from the darkness. "You lunk-headed fool! Are you crazy?"

"I warn you!" Falk shouted through the window. "Stay back! All of you!"

There was an instant's dead pause while the street seemed to writhe and move with shadows that were alive.

"It's Falk!" Carson yelled. "That murdering killer! He's done for Sloggins! Roust him out, men!"

There was an incoherent, mingled yell of fury, and then gun-fire crashed in a rolling wave of sound. Falk seized Linda Travers, forced her down close to the door against one wall. Bullets snapped and thudded against the thick walls, careened off steel bars with ugly little screams. Falk knelt at the corner of a window, firing back blindly at the streaks of flame that spat out of every shadow.

Falk emptied the carbine, reached for another. Linda Travers pushed it into his hand. She was crouched close to him beside the window. Her eyes were like wide, shining, dark pools. Her lips moved soundlessly in the uproar.

Carson's voice began to bellow from a new direction in the darkness. It beat down the sound of the gunfire, sounded out clearly.

"Wait, men! Wait! I've got the medicine that'll fix him!"

Falk had no warning of what it was until he saw a fizzing twirling streak shoot out of the darkness, curve toward the jail in a long arc. There was a blasting concussion that knocked him reeling backwards, started a furious, numb ringing in his ears. His eyes were blinded with the great purplish glare of the explosion. The jail seemed to rock and heave on its foundations.

"Linda!" Falk said. He could feel his lips move, but he couldn't hear his own voice. "Linda!"

She touched his arm reassuringly. Falk staggered blindly to the window, and emptied both six-guns into the night. The sound of their heavy reports was like a far-away ticking in his ears. The ability to hear came back a little, and he could distinguish Carson's commanding voice, faint, thin and distant:

"Wait! Wait! We'll give him some more!"

Falk sank down on his knees beside Linda Travers. "Dynamite," he said breathlessly. "That one—didn't quite hit building. Next one—will."

She smiled at him gently, unafraid. "I know. It—it's all right now—with you here..." Then, very softly, she said: "I love you."

Falk tried to get to his feet. "If they'd only wait! I could get you out—"

She held him back. "No. I'd rather stay—with you."

A new voice yelled from the darkness outside: "Me! Men! Damn you—you pack of murdering idiots! What're you doing?"


CHAPTER SEVEN
Boss of Wolfville

FALK rose to his feet with Linda Travers held close against him, peered through the window. Unnoticed in the noise, a light open-bodied wagon had come into the main street, pulled up beside the still roaring bonfire. A man was standing up on the seat. He was gauntly thin, tall. He wore no hat, and his gray hair tumbled down over his forehead like the angrily rumpled mane of a lion.

"Carson!" he shouted. "Where are you, damn you! Answer me! I know you're here! I heard you!"

Carson's voice came from the darkness. "Yeah. I'm here. What do you want, Dodd?"

"Dodd!" Falk whispered to Linda Travers. "It's Joseph V. Dodd! And look beside him! It's Pete!"

There was a hunched little figure in a straw hat sitting on the seat of the wagon, holding the reins of the horses. It was Pete Jennings.

"Carson!" Dodd yelled. "You insane fool! Stop this madness at once! You're through, you hear? You're done with! You're fired!"

Carson laughed jeeringly. "Thanks. You saved me the trouble of quittin'. And now since we're breakin' off relations—get off my property. You're trespassin'!

"Trespassing!" Dodd repeated incredulously. "Why, you idiot, I own every foot of this valley.

"Hah!" Carson answered. "Do you now? That's where you're mistaken! You stayed away a little too long, Dodd. Every deed to every piece of property in this valley is registered in the name of the Todd Land and Water Company. Get it? Not Dodd, but Todd! Judge Potter arranged it all. Yeah, he fixed it, and I just fixed him! Now I'm the sole owner of the Todd Land and Water Company! You're out!

"You crook!" Dodd shouted. "You can't get away with a steal like that! Ill show—"

There was a little spit of flame from the darkened corner of a building in the direction from which Carson's voice had come. Dodd's roaring voice choked off in mid-sentence, and his gaunt body tumbled stiffly backwards. In falling, he struck against Pete Jennings, and they both rolled headlong into the street.

"That fixed him!" Carson yelled. "Come on, now! We'll wipe out the whole bunch! We'll see who runs this valley!"

Falk called out the window. "Carson! Listen to me! Let's settle this thing now! Just between the two of us! I'll step out of here and meet you face to face!"

Carson's voice roared with mocking laughter. "Listen to him squeal! He didn't like the medicine I fixed for him! But you're gonna get some more of it, murderer! You and that nosey school-ma'am! I'll show—"

There was a screeching wail as weirdly penetrating as the howl of a lobo wolf. It was Ephriam Hawkins. He was sitting on the roof of his hotel, plainly in sight of the light of the bonfire below him, with his legs dangling over the edge. He was smoking a big cigar, and in his lap he held a bundle of yellow sticks as big around as a man could reach with one arm.

"Carson!" he hooted, leaning over to look down into the street. "You give me an idea with your fireworks! Now take a look at this! I collected every stick of dynamite I could find in town! She's all here—capped and ready to go!"

THERE was not a sound, not a murmur, from the men hidden in the darkness all around him in the street below.

Hawkins chuckled gleefully, "Well? Here I am! As pretty a target as you'd care to see. Why don't you shoot? You'll sure know it quick if you hit me!"

There was a low, tense mutter from the hidden men.

Hawkins raised the length of fuse that was fastened to the yellow sticks and held it a half inch from the glowing end of his cigar.

"Listen to me, all of you. There are a bunch of honest men mixed up among you. Those who are honest had better get out. But the others will do just what I say, or I'll light this fuse and hop off the roof. There won't be enough left of this town to make a good-sized toothpick, and nobody left here to pick their teeth with it. There's enough dynamite here to blow this whole town clean out of the valley!"

Carson's voice sounded thickly terse: "What do you want, you crazy fool?"

"You heard Falk," Hawkins answered. "He made you an offer, and you're gonna take him up. Just step out into the middle of the street and meet him. I'll be the referee. And there better not be any spectators takin' a hand, either, or we all blow up together!"

Falk frantically clicked fresh cartridges into his six-guns. He jerked open the big door, and then Linda Travers caught him by the arm.

"No! Yon can't—"

"I've got to!" Falk said tightly, "It's our only chance!"

He thrust her back into the office, slammed the door.

The bonfire was dying down now, and its failing flames threw snaky black shadows that danced and twisted weirdly. Falk walked slowly down the steps, into the soft dust of the street.

"There he is!" Hawkins shouted. "Come on out of cover, Carson, you sneaking sidewinder, or we'll all go up in smoke!"

Falk was walking steadily down the street. The shadows boiled and squirmed with motion around him. His head still rang numbly from the effects of the first explosion of dynamite. His body felt stiff and clumsy, and his legs were like sticks under him. Each step seemed to jar the base of his brain.

Carson suddenly stepped out of the shadows ahead of him. His big, blocky body was crouched a little, and even as he came into sight, his right arm swept up and leveled. Flame shot at Falk.

Falk felt his own palms slap the butts of his holstered guns, slide them up in a quick, hitching jerk. The guns jumped and roared in his hands. Something smashed into his side with a breath-taking jar, and he felt himself spinning helplessly, falling. He steadied himself with a tremendous effort, then slid down weakly on one knee.

Carson was falling stiffly sideways, both hands held up empty, clawing at the air. But there was another flat report, and Falk felt the breath of the bullet fresh in his face. He half turned, sagging as the pain bit into his side. There in a darkened doorway, the flames jumped momentarily from the remnants of the bonfire, gleamed on the polished smoothness of leather. Falk's guns swept around, seemed to fire of their own accord. Jed Salto staggered forward into sight, sprawled loosely, rolling in the dust.

Falk tried to stand up, and the pain rolled over his eyes in a black, dense curtain. He fell forward. The jar seemed to clear away the darkness a little, and he knew Linda Travers was kneeling beside him, cradling his head in her arms, crying in soft, breathless sobs.

Pete Jennings' voice sounded shrilly: "Miss Linda! Miss Linda! Is—is he...?

"No," she said. "No, thank God! Oh, thank God!"

And then, strangely enough, Falk heard the roaring voice of Joseph V. Dodd, He fought to open his burning eyes a little. Dodd was standing on the wagon-box again, a gauntly terrible, dust-streaked figure with blood in a bright smear on his cheek.

"Yon Carson men!" he yelled hoarsely. "You set of sneaking, murdering thieves! Don't let the sun rise on you in this valley! I'll hound every one of you with every dollar and man I've got, and there are plenty of good citizens right here who'll join me."

"Pete," Falk said in a weak, whispering voice. "Dodd, how did you—"

Pete swallowed, shame-faced. "Well—I went and looked him up. I was gonna—gonna shoot him. Only I talked to him first, kinda. And—and he didn't know no more about what Potter and Carson was doin' than anybody. Boy, was he mad when I told him! We came r'arin' right down here as fast as we could."

Ephriam Hawkins came wandering out of the hotel. He had the bundle of yellow sticks tucked carelessly under one arm. He glowered sourly at Joseph V. Dodd.

"So you're the old hellion I spent all my spare time cussin'. Well, you look kinda human after all. I suspected you'd have a couple horns and a ting-tang tail."

"Put that dynamite down, you fool!" Dodd yelled at him, "Do you want to blow us all up?"

"Don't get so heckled up," Hawkins advised calmly. "This ain't dynamite. I couldn't find none. It's just a bunch of old wax candles I had in the hotel. I'd sure looked funny tryin' to blow up anything with 'em." He stared anxiously down at Falk "You all right, son?"

Falk nodded.

"Why, sure he is!" Joseph V. Dodd shouted violently. "He has to be! He's the new boss of Dodd Valley! Steal my valley with their phony deeds, will they? Huh! A fat chance!"

"Looks to me," said Hawkins, staring down at Linda Travers and Falk, "looks to me, just off hand, like that new boas of Dodd Valley has gone and got himself a private boss all of his own. Ma'am, if you could sort of persuade yourself to let loose of him for a minute, we'll take him inside and patch him together."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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