Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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It was a long chance that Max Kurtt played in his search for old treasure on the parched plains of Arizona—and as perilous a quest as treacherous Chotty Bedell could make it. It was lucky for Max that Bill Halliday was searching for treasure, too—and lucky for Halliday that little Max didn't know when he was licked.
THE most far sighted buzzard that scanned the southern reaches of La Abra Plain, Arizona, must have missed Bill Halliday. Bill had started for Singapore by the most direct and geometric route, that is, straight through the earth. At the rate of nine inches an hour for the whole of his excavation, Bill had progressed nearly ten feet two inches toward Penang. As he was bunched from delving with a pick and spade, even when he stood on the high slope of the side of the hole, the knobby lankness of his six feet three did not raise itself above the brink of alkaline-sprinkled gumbo.
Bill had a precious secret. It did not concern gold directly, though many desert rats knew that gold was to be found in the ancient river wash of La Abra. Bill, prospecting during his collegiate vacation the previous year, had dug into the trickle of a spring only faintly alkaline. In La Abra that was a treasure, indeed. There was no more water than could be consumed by one prospector and a single burro; yet it gave leeway for a time of delving untrammeled by the limits of casks and canteens. Bill Halliday had brought to the plain which lies below the Sierra of Quitobaquita, bacon and beans for two whole months, together with ammunition sufficient both for his inherited Remington frontier single actions, and his own Spanish War Springfield.
Two days had passed. Bill, in spite of gold fever, was wise enough not to dig under La Abra's grossest heat. Early morning, and evenings until late, he worked, smiling rather ruefully at the shovelfuls of grating dirt he threw into the circling dump. All that mud and gravel and alkali held some gold, as he knew. This time he was going deeper, instead of panning out a pittance as he had done each earlier vacation. He was confident that below soil which bore flake and grain gold, as did this, he must discover either placer pockets or ore.
A MAN who that moment lay with blackened tongue extending his blackened lips, a man who breathed with difficulty, could have told Bill Halliday much. He could have said that this silt gold meant nothing beyond; that in order to find the bed rock of the river which once had made a broad bed through this desert, a prospector would have to dig more than sixty feet. And even then he would glean little.
But little Max could not tell. He had reached the end, or near to that. Two days he had wandered, after his water had given out, and he had conic again to the marks in the alkali which he recognized as his permanent camp, just deserted!
THE strange contraption skittered jerkily across the desert. Sometimes it slid along the level white ground like a knotted finger creasing its dividing mark. Then it halted. What seemed a fine string slanting upward from one end, sagged, then tautened again. The contraption's skidding, jerky progress continued. Back along, fleeing from westering sun and the rise of the sterile sierra, the queer, skipping track wended backward. At times, when the wind had blown fiercer than usual, the track was missing, though not sanded over!
Skip. Sliz-z-zip. A pause. A tugging as a sparse upthrust of greasewood tried to halt the skittering thing's advance. Logy at first, then hastening quicker and quicker across the bleached alkali until it plowed up the fine white dust as the prow of a speed-cruiser curls foam of the sea, the queer ship of the desert, heavy, yet speeding at the end of the line that slanted upward, zigzagged onward.
It was not aimed at that mesquite-screened hole in the ground where a man shoveled, tossing up the soil in his search for greater gold. It almost passed, but then veered suddenly as a changing breeze played in the sky.
Bill straightened. Not to his full height, for that was impossible. After hours of digging his untrained back was warped like case-hardened siding. Hours of sleep on the bare, straight ground would be required to bring it back to military set-up.
He wiped his brow, and grinned at the trickle of water which was his desert secret. There was a whole bowl of tepid water waiting now. He would drink a little and lave his face, neck and arms with the rest, after refilling the empty canteen.
That instant something skipping fast reached the crumbled brink of the twenty-foot-wide hole. It fell, the light end strangely upheld while the bulging heavy end swung like a club in downward sweep, striking the unsuspecting man bruisingly upon the ear and temple.
Bill went down, grappling with nothing, seeing red splinters and swelling stars. The weighted bludgeon hit him and stopped, sank to the bottom of the rude shaft, jiggled across the roughness there, and hung up against the pick. It would go no further despite the jerking and pull upon it.
Bill wasn't out. He never lost consciousness. It took him a time to lurch to his knees, however, and blink about the cone shaped excavation for a possible enemy. The single Colt still hung at his right hip. The other gun with the spare belt was in sight on top of his grub pack, undisturbed. And the canteens were there; they gurgled with fullness when shaken.
All right, what then? Had it been a falling rock, precursor of a cave-in? Bill believed not. He searched for an adversary, and finding none, looked for the weapon which had felled him.
He found it, and stared in frank bewilderment; lifting, tugging at a taut cord which stretched upward and angled over the edge of the rough stope. The weapon was one of the queerest with which a man ever was felled. It was a composite of mesquite branches tightly bound together; a slab of twisted root at the heaviest end. About and above this, making the business end of the club, was wound and buckled a filled cartridge belt of webbing holding twenty-six unused .44's! Above this two rawhide shoelaces held together the strange knobkerrie!
Bill Halliday was jerking at the cord, however. It pulled steadily! Could this be some practical joker, or worse, an outlaw harpy of the desert taking this outlandish means to attempt murder? The notion was too fantastic, and Bill knew it; yet as he climbed to the brink he held ready his six-gun.
A moment later an astonished grin quirked the corners of his generous mouth. He was staring at an angle of thirty degrees toward the northeast sky, along the string of a bobbing, ragtailed kite!
There was no doubt about it! Up there, flying strongly in the brisk, hot desert wind, was just such a six-sided toy as he had made for himself often as a boy! This, perchance, was larger, and not perfectly balanced. Wonderingly, Bill set down the affair he had thought a club. Immediately the kite, able now to pull its drag, started away on its slithering way to the northeast, toward the far blue shaded peaks of the Nariz Range.
But Bill was not ready to let it go; the thing was too astounding. As far as he knew, he was the only human being within a radius of forty-five miles, alone, save for a couple or three dirty little adobe villages beyond the sierra, in more than one hundred and twenty miles of land avoided even by the swift-footed lobo. He dashed the perspiration from his eyes with the back of one grimy forearm, and strode after the drag. Jerking experimentally at the kite, which soared in response, he brought the ensemble back to the mouth of his hole in the ground. There he cut the cord, tying it to the handle of a spade thrust to the depth of half its blade into the grating clay.
"What do you make of this, Watson?" he demanded half jokingly, addressing the one sleepy, shabby-coated burro who stood in the patchy shade of a discouraged clump of mesquite, waiting only for his tri-daily pan of water and dole of frijoles.
The burro opened one somnolent, infinitely sophisticated eye a thirty-second of an inch more, then closed it. The blood of his blood had known and yawned at every happenstance of the desert five, eight, ten burro burden-carrier generations before he was born. And really, his name was not Watson; whenever scoff was ready the master called him Jethro Jason Theophilus Jorkins, Junior.
But Bill simply had to spout at something. He had formed the habit of apostrophizing Jethro. "I've more'n half a mind...." he began, with that sonorous decisiveness certain very bashful platform speakers affect in private, especially when they have no idea what they are talking about.
He broke off suddenly. Bound beneath one of the tight rawhide laces was a tight wound quill of linen. Bill drew it forth; and even before he had that twenty inch square of handkerchief smoothed out his own heart was pumping in the excitement of premonition.
Written lightly and carefully in ink with a stylographic, scarcely blotted at all, was this terse, tragic message:
I am dying of thirst here at the eastern foot of Sierra Quitobaquita, before the blockhouse of stone. Who finds and buries my body, and sends word to the faculty of U. of C., will own the gleaming treasure of Itimixtl, of the Spaniard, Mendez!
BILL'S preparations were swift. Urged to the utmost of action by that grimly tragic message, he slung a pair of filled canteens from a web sling from shoulder to hip, made a light pack of provisions and cooking utensils, and saw to it that both six-guns were oiled. One of the latter was buttoned down tightly in a "suicide flap" holster, a protection against the swirling grit which the stiff breezes of La Abra drive into every corner of a man's outfit, while the other weapon swung in the pivoted "half-breed" sheath at his right thigh.
His rifle he cached with his provisions in a tarpaulin covered with rocks too heavy for the paws of prowling coyotes. Turning loose the burro, so the wise little beast could drink at the spring trickle as soon as that artificial basin below was replenished, he jerked down the lid of his sombrero against the blaze of the dropping sun, and strode out southwestward. There probably was no chance now to help the sufferer who had sent the message, yet Bill, grim faced at the horror he expected to find there at the rock battlements, would cut every corner and shave every instant that Maxwell Kurtt, whoever he proved to be, might have his chance for life.
"Blockhouse?" Bill muttered in reflection, as he swung into that easy, hip-swinging, apparently loose jointed stride which desert dwellers acquire. "Must mean those honeycombed straight-up stone walls—"
Bill once had passed the eastern end of Quitobaquita, but at a distance. He was certain, however, that there could be no fort or other edifice in the region, though possibly the ruins of some ancient pueblo or Indian sun-dance shrine.
For a time now, as the light waned, he followed at a rapid pace the skipping, partially obliterated track made by the kite drag. This did not pursue an absolutely straight course, but bent in long sweeps to north or south—always returning to the general southwesterly direction. With the far distant line of Quitobaquita showing as a waved, black silhouette in the west, and the promise of a half moon at an early hour, Bill finally deserted the scarcely distinguishable trail, and made for the sierra, hoping later to cross the sign.
The wind was subsiding, now, as always with even fall, and the quick coolness of shadow also aided his progress. With the straight away shuff-shuff of his boot-heels in the grit, the miles trailed away into the gathering night. Over his left shoulder Bill saw the evening star, and for a time, roughly keeping this in the same position, he had a bearing by which to reckon the whereabouts of his objective.
Eighteen miles of malpais cannot be traversed in a hurry, even by a lanky, earnest giant who improves every minute with a hundred or more forty-inch strides. On the most level stretches Bill bettered four miles an hour, There were broken, miniature mesas, however, and shallow arroyos and bare rock barriers like denuded bunkers—miles through which it seemed impossible that the kite drag could have passed without hanging up even as it had done in the stope of his mine. Here progress was more difficult.
Somehow the contraption had come this way, though; and somehow Bill shuffled, climbed, slid and dogtrotted the declivities and broken harriers. He once had seen the body of a man who had died of thirst, and the thought of that worst of all fates now confronting a fellow creature set his usually pleasant if homely features in a mask upon which two curling, dust whitened eyebrows met in a line above the bridge of a big, bony nose. Though himself partly a product of city knowledges and customs, Bill had turned to the stretches of harsh nature unadorned when he had weeks which could be given to venturing on his own. All the more, too, when in the completion of his war-delayed college course he had been swept by that burning urge of mystery which less shy men openly proclaimed as adoration, love.
The girl—well, for this tale of La Abra she need not appear. Suffice it to say that she smiled at Bill's ungainly strength and awkwardness, still smiled when in perspiring, shivering solemnity he encircled her slender waist with a forearm which could have pulped a sack of potatoes, and waltzed like a great, precise Golem. There was a world of understanding behind the amusement in those gray eyes, too. She was real, and Bill knew that, but didn't reckon it as any advantage to himself.
Dapper men, rich men, men who came in racing sulkies behind horses alleged to be blood cousins of Star Pointer or Salvator—and men who even could schottische with ease!—realized as well as Bill the one great, outstanding truth; namely, that in this daughter of a great railway president was the prettiest, decentest to a fellow, and altogether the most lovable bit of femininity between the High Sierras and the Golden Gate.
She might have let Bill know something that had occurred to her more than once; and yet who may fathom gray eyes that have warmth as well as common sense? She let him go back to his beloved desert where he said gold was. And if the smile that remained after his stiff, stammering half agonized farewell, seemed a little wistful during ensuing days and evenings, the strutting swains who imagined themselves in favor simply conceded by a unanimous, tacit vote that Dorrie Richmond became more beautiful every day she lived. And since she lacked a month of her twenty-first birthday, that was even probable.
The desert moon rose. It was not the full silver dollar of a few nights back, yet even its waning half-face threw a light over La Abra which seemed unearthly. Every greasewood clump and higher clustering of chaparral loomed up in magic. The great sierra, nearing now, seemed to Bill a silvered wall.
The rescuer had run when he had not walked at the limit of his stride True, the run was little more than a doubling of the long paces combined with a shortening of their length. Yet he had made unbelievable time. The fourth hour of his journey was not expended, and he was almost before the honeycombed walls which flank the desert.
Here he would have to trust to the moonlight, and cast about until he discovered the tracks of the drag. Any attempt to guess the particular involution of the rock walls called The Blockhouse by the dying man, would be well-nigh hopeless. Bill had reached the formation he supposed to be the one named, but there was no sign of a camp or a human body. The wind had died completely, so he could not use even the unsure method of tracing back the source from which the kite must have flown. At this point the Sierra, ravaged by the age-long assault of sand and dust, was cut into sterile bayous and canyons of rock. And somewhere in here a man lay dying, or was dead.
Bill took his third drink from the first canteen, a long, gurgling, throaty swallow.
He had earned it by abstemiousness. Then, capping the felt covered retainer, he began a thorough scanning of the parched soil, a search which took him first a half mile to the north, then, more slowly, more than that distance to the south of the place he had stopped.
The moonlight was excellent, yet it did not show up the sign of the drag. Perhaps that trail had been drifted under long since. At any rate Bill snorted as if in pain. He suddenly straightened. "I'm not asking anything for myself I don't deserve," he began abruptly, "but if there's a poor devil out here—"
He had been walking as he talked. And he broke off short. Of what use is prayer to an Almighty, if that Great One cannot guess its full import before it is phrased?
Bill's eyes caught the reflected nicker of a fire. It was a tiny fire, and well hidden in a one hundred yard break in the rocks; yet Bill's eyes, used to the flooding of silver, caught the red-yellow twice reflected. He started, stopped in his tracks. In a moment he was loping speedily for a part of the sierra more than a half-mile distant.
He came upon the scene with startling suddenness. Rounding a turn of the rock he stopped suddenly. Ahead was the hand-wide blaze of twigs used by desert wanderers. Crouching there, short necked like a buzzard in the queer flare of light and shadow, was the figure of a man whom Bill stared at and found oddly familiar. It was not more than a fugitive sense of something wrong that stirred in him, yet it called for caution; and Bill respected the desert and its messages so greatly that he would not knowingly disregard a single one of its occult waves. Hunches, some men called them. Well, they often were right.
He abandoned his forthright stride. He bent, tying the rawhide strings which bound his right, pivoted holster, to his thigh. Silently, as his eyes searched that bent, scavenger-like figure near the fire, he transferred the protected six-gun from its sheath at the left. And he allowed the butt of the discarded gun to remain outside the hampering flap.
There was something here he had not expected to find; that was sure. He crept forward silently. That man crouched, apparently searching through a pack. That was not one dying of thirst!
Had Bill not seen something sinisterly familiar in that neckless crouch, he doubtless would have strode to the fire and paid the penalty for his rashness. As it was he looked upon "Chotty" Bedell, fugitive rustler, supposed murderer, cowardly gunman, with only a straining of memory, and caution finally confirmed itself. Bill caught a glimpse of the features of the human vulture, and remembered. Two years before Bill had seen the man in Ajo. At that time several drinkers at the bar had been able to whisper guardedly of the outlaw, though none thought it his business to kill, or inform upon the man.
The big fact stuck upright now; if Chotty Bedell had sent that kite—But of course he had not. His low-caliber, piggish brain, for all its cunning, was not capable of such imagination.
What then, was the answer?
Bill found it moments later. Creeping up as silently as an Apache, and entirely unsuspected by Chotty, who thought himself alone, save for the poor fool now unconscious and dying to whom this outfit belonged, Bill saw the ravaging of another's possessions even before he glimpsed the limp, tragic huddle of dried-out human that was Maxwell Kurtt. Chotty had wasted only a second upon the man—a glance which determined that while not quite dead yet, the venturer into this desert never would regain consciousness unless helped. And Chotty was callous. He could use some of these supplies. He only failed to figure the help that Max had summoned as he lay there dying from lack of water.
"PUT 'em up!"
The words grated out harshly. The crouching figure of Chotty Bedell straightened, leapt upward. A squeaky sound was wrung from his own dry, greed-tightened throat, yet this involuntary reaction ceased almost as soon as it began. He knew the desert and its men of violence; only too well he knew them! With the steady, unyielding prod of a six-gun muzzle against the small of his back, he lost not an instant in complying with the curt demand.
"Wh-wha-a-at?" he gasped in sudden terror.
Bill Halliday was in no mood for explanations. Back there in the darkness, just an instant before he had flushed this ghoul of the wastes, Bill had heard a faint sound—the gasping, faint croak of a sufferer almost beyond help. It was the one who lay there untended, the man left to die while Chotty Bedell rummaged in his pack for valuables!
With one hand Bill emptied the outlaw's holsters, thrusting the long, butt-notched irons into his own belt. Then, after a quick slapping search, he drew a keen bowie from its special sheath in Chotty's right boot-seam.
"Take that canteen—yours. Come here!" The command was uncompromising, gritty with a revolt of anger that anyone could be so lacking in common, human sympathy.
Chotty spat, made another queer sound, but complied without argument. In his heart he was quaking, but already scheming, seeking a possible way of avoiding the censure which must follow this revelation. Oddly, he feared the accusation of utter heartlessness, blame given for breaking the first and greatest tenet of all waterless lands—that anyone in need of water shall be supplied immediately—more than he worried over possible retribution for his previous more open crimes.
"The guy cashed in afore I come," he offered. "Musta—"
"Liar!" The word was a knife edge of only half repressed fury. Chotty's lowering brows raised suddenly. He clumped down to his knees, unscrewed the canteen cap, sloshed it appraisingly, shook his head. "I ain't got much water left—"
A sudden glint of recognition came into Chotty's eyes. This was the damned dude tenderfoot he had made dance to the spitting of his guns in the saloon at Ajo, the previous spring!
"If that man dies I shall shoot your head off!
"Yuh go to hell!" snarled Chotty in sudden defiance. He dropped his hands, forgetting the empty holsters.
The lobe of Chotty's right ear splashed a faint streak of red lead through the moonlight, and was gone. In its place remained a dribble of warm fluid and a stinging.
Chotty caved. He did not know for certain that the man had not aimed at his head and missed by that inch margin. It looked far more like shooting such as he could do when completely sober? And an unwavering Colt with the hammer thumbed back admits no argument, anyway. Somewhere, somehow, this despised tenderfoot dude had learned things which newcomers to the La Abra wastes often take years or decades to make their own.
Under Bill's snapped directions, the sufferer's head was raised, has face bathed with precious water, a trickle passed back of the caked and swollen tongue. For a moment it seemed that the man was too far gone even to swallow the life-giving fluid; but then came a bubble, a choking. The first small mouthful choked down the man's throat.
Chotty's hands were shaking, now, but he was parsimonious with the water. Since much of the liquid would have been nearly as disastrous as none at all, Bill made no objection. Little by little, with long pauses between each two mouthfuls, a pint or thereabouts was administered. Then, as Maxwell Kurtt's eyes came open and he croaked hoarsely for more water, trying to snatch the canteen, Bill made Chotty screw up the container and then carry the man over to the dying blaze.
When this fire was replenished, Bill forced Chotty to lie flat on his back at the farther side of the fire. The outlaw whined, obviously becoming more and more frightened of what was due to happen to him. "Gimme back my guns an' I'll git," he offered. "I ain't done nothin—"
"Correct," said Bill with quiet deadliness. "You simply didn't do anything. Until dawn, you'll stay right there. Then we'll see."
The job of resuscitating Kurtt was by no means finished, but now Bill took it over. Allowing Chotty to get up only at times when the fire needed more mesquite branches, Bill made a small pot of coffee. The aroma of the boiling; liquid reached Kurtt's nostrils and appeared to give him a trifle of strength. He rolled over to his elbow and raised his gaunt, wizened visage. "Thank you, friend." he managed to articulate. Thus far he had not noticed Chotty.
Bill grinned. "I was struck by your novel met hex I of sending a message, old timer," he replied. "Fairly bowled over."
"Yep. Don't talk much now. Try a cup of this. We'll have plenty time to chin later. When you feel up to it, I'll stir a mess of biscuits and fixin's."
The little chap smiled weakly.
"I—all I think I ever shall want is water."
He tried to lift a hand and take the tin cup of steaming liquid proffered, but Bill pushed it away. Sheathing his six-gun.
Bill thrust an arm behind Kurtt and helped him drink.
Whatever Chotty Bedell may have imagined would happen to him at dawn only may be surmised. Probably he envisioned a return to Ajo under guard, a mob of enraged citizens all too ready to believe anything of which this scarcely tolerated holdover from the quick-triggered nineties might be accused, a rope from that convenient beam stretching streetward from the ridge of the blacksmith shop—
At any rate he had been watching Bill. The hot rage which caused his piggish little eyes to glitter with more than the reflection of the firelight, crisscrossed each second with questioning. At the first false move or lapse of attention on the part of his captor Chotty meant to regain control of the situation. He looked at this tall, bony youth with the contempt that chunky, muscle bound men often feel toward a rangy capability far beyond their own. City dude! Sure, the guy could shoot, but that didn't mean nothin'. Give Chotty just one chance to get his knotty, short-fingered hands on that long piece of string, and he'd show him! He'd—
Then, unbelievably, came the awaited chance! With Bill's two hands occupied, his revolver back in its holster, and no more than eight feet separating him from Chotty, what more could the latter ask? With a suddenness next to incredible in one of his stodgy proportions, Chotty leapt to his feet, bunched and sprang, a wild, throaty scream of combined hatred and fear making audibly terrible the contorted visage and outreaching, crooked arms.
Straight over the fire he came, flopping in a plunge like some ungainly toad.
Bill had not relaxed vigilance, yet he had not counted on such surprising agility in a man of Chotty's stature. With one powerful shove he tossed the wisplike body of Kurtt to one side, threw the hot coffee as ineffectual spray, and himself leapt in the opposite direction. For the split of a second the stubby, clawing talons raked his shoulder. They almost held, but shifted suddenly to an iron grip on Bill's ankle.
"Arrhr!" The throaty sound told of triumph; but it was shortlived. Realizing to the full that encumbered as he was by the weight of four guns, he was handicapped badly, Bill acted so speedily that his backflung boot seemed merely a continuation of his leap.
The heavy leather caught Chotty full on the breast bone, and while it did not deprive him of wind, it brought forth a grunt of beastlike acknowledgment. His hands loosened imperceptibly.
It was enough. With a sudden twist Bill freed himself, rolled over like a flash, and gained his feet in a backward leap. His eyes, often a smiling blue, were hard and glittering with the joy of combat and recklessness. He detested this chunky scoundrel, loathed him as he loathed Gila monsters and the scaly, legless things that slithered into the warmth of a man's blankets at night.
With a swift motion he unbuckled the heavy belt, tossing it with the knife and the two loose revolvers, sidewise toward Kurtt, who now had hunched up, his eyes widened in misery and terror.
"If he gets me, protect—yourself!" cried Bill. The pause came as he ducked beneath the spreading arms of Chotty's headlong rush, instantly hooking back a rabbit punch to Chotty's short, columnar neck, a blow which surely would have broken Bill's own, but which had no more effect upon the outlaw than to make him stagger slightly and mouth horrible curses as he wheeled, again threw down his head and rushed.
Except for the man's astounding speed and desperate anxiety to rend, tear, destroy, Bill might have found him ludicrous. As matters stood the prospector had no difficulty hitting Chotty Bedell. He did so, delivering solid, foot-long smashes and twisting uppercuts that smashed into the solid midriff, that broke a wide flap of skin from one side of the outlaw's mouth, made him spit fragments of blackened teeth, yet which did not stop or even appreciably slow him!
Grunt, curse, dash, grab. Bill did not escape unscathed or easily. At each meeting of those two fighting men the clutching fingers nearly got their hold. They tore Bill's flannel shirt to shreds, gouged across his arms and right cheek deep nail wounds that welled blood. And once, as Bill inadvertently stepped in the fire while dodging, Chotty grasped a small handful of hair and ripped it out.
Bill grimaced with the pain. His reflex was instant. Leaping forward this time to meet the attack instead of dodging or sidestepping, he planted a straight right to the bent forehead which almost caved the brute's skull and actually stopped him in his tracks! The piggish eyes blinked redly. Chotty swayed. That second a stinging, terrible left cross slammed into Chotty's wounded ear.
Without impetus or a good clutch on balance, it sent him spinning like a stick of bowling alley wood struck by a heavy ball. Bill was after him like a cat, striking, plugging home short lefts and rights of punishment the instant Chotty reeled upward from his knees.
Down he went again, and this time inertly, although no other blow had been of knockout quality. Bill failed to realize this, and was satisfied. Breathing in great gulps he stood with arms hanging an instant, then backed away. "A—rope!" he managed to gasp. "Tie him—this time."
But Chotty was not quite finished. Driven by desperation, and actually not unconscious for as much as a second, he struggled back to his feet, intending one last rush.
That instant there came a stunning report from Bill's side, and an answering scream from Chotty. Kurtt, evidently viewing the combat far differently than had Bill, had decided to take a hand.
"Oh!" he gasped, looking at the smoking Colt and then at the man he had hit. "I didn't—mean to—"
But whatever he had intended, he had creased Chotty Bedell most painfully. The heavy slug caromed from his shinbone midway between ankle and knee, inflicting a wound agonizing though not at all dangerous.
In a whisk Bill had the weapons again, and was reproving his unwanted ally in no uncertain terms. Kurtt, summoning all his strength, as it seemed, burst forth in shaky explanations that he had meant only to frighten Chotty; that the gun had been aimed far to the left but had swerved with the trigger pull, as doubtless was the case.
Bill paid little attention. He had run to Chotty, who now was on the ground, cursing and moaning as he clutched his leg. Considering the extent of his facial damage the wound really was not worth such a powwow; yet it is doubtful that the outlaw quite understood that his temporarily paralyzed leg ever would be fit for service again.
"Well, you had all that coming," decided Bill briefly when he saw the gouge. "That, and a hell of a lot more! We'll let you get away this time, though. Lie there and don't make any funny moves. It's a couple or three hours till dawn, and that's when you're going to be well enough to travel!"
SO it was done. The first red edge of desert sun saw Chotty Bedell limping, packless, weaponless, on the long, arid trail to Sediente, nearest of the adobe towns on this, the Mexican side of the line. Chotty had his own canteen, one quarter full. For a tenderfoot this would have been a ration insufficient, but Chotty, with one cupful tendered him following the fight, would win through.
Perhaps he would not have much to spare, traveling in the day; yet Bill calculated just exactly how much he himself would need as a minimum, and had given the outlaw exactly that amount. All Chotty's whining and pleading moved Bill not a jot. He and the little man had none too much water as it was. Unless Max Kurtt perked up enough to travel during this day, it would mean that Bill would be forced to a round trip back to his own dig.
Chotty's swollen, distorted face inclined toward the ground. Hate unmentionable held him in its searing grip, yet now had come something near to a sane appraisal of his predicament. He had less than a quart of water, and more than thirty miles of trudging, part of which could not be done in of the day. So he emitted no sounds save an occasional gritting moan, and kept to his elliptical course about the sierra.
Oh, there would be a reckoning! Though for all his bullying brutality and bestial code Chotty did not lack one whit of a killer's courage, something approaching a total loss in morale kept him now from contemplating any open revenge upon that blaze-eyed knotty youngster whom he had decried as an unruly dude. Bill Halliday was pizen, and Chotty had found out the fact. As long as he lived he would carry the scars of that epic combat. And he would kill the man who dared to joke.
First need that Chotty mulled over was, of course, water. He would swash down untold gallons of the bitter hogwash that passed for water, at Sediente. He even might douse himself in old Ramon's horse trough! Three years before, following a prolonged carouse, he had done that, as a nerve tonic, when he learned that a rival gunman had come to town, boasting of conquests greater even than those accredited to Chotty Bedell. Since then he had not thought of battling. Right now, as he grudgingly wet his bruised and swollen tongue from the tepid canteen, Chotty pictured himself lying full length in the trough, luxuriating, drinking in moisture through every pore as once in the memory of man had the desert lava in the astounding cloudburst of '95.
No, Chotty was not thinking of what he would do to Bill Halliday. After water would come a jug of Old Ramon's twice distilled maguey juice, a beverage three lusty swigs of which would make a sand tortoise stand up on its hind legs and make passes at a sidewinder.
With mescal or tequila sufficient, Chotty could think and plan. Meanwhile, even his rudimentary brain could envision six or seven satisfying things to do to that half-dead little tenderfoot Kurtt, whose rich stores almost had provided Chotty with a grubstake. Not that he would have used the grubstake himself. Far from it. With that much to offer, though, he could have gone to Ajo or any other town peopled by unfortunate prospectors, and bought a half share in a whole season of gold seeking. Chotty rather liked that sort of thing. He didn't object at all to the desert, or to the arid crags where men sought flecked white quartz or veins of knife-soft silver; but the pick and drill, or even the circling pan of the placer hunter, did not appeal. As all the deluded or wise old rats who made their home where nature's skull is bare to the fangs, he loved gold and desired it.
That little hombre, Kurtt, would be alone sometime! That day would he a time of sordid horror in the Kurtt family. Damn him! He'd rue that shot, and even the moment when he had struggled back to life! Chotty, his alkali-dusted, lashless lids nearly closing, saw clear and stark the little scientist pegged out in the manner of the Digger Indians of California, suffering untold agony.
There were no ants here, worse luck. There was alkali, though. Some of that, with sand, poured into the eyes was a torment—well, a first notion, anyway. Then—
Chotty's thoughts and lusts may be forgotten. He dismembered little Kurtt by degrees, the saliva coming to even his thirsty mouth when he gloated over the precise moment the little man would die from the multiplied agonies.
And before ten o'clock of the next morning the outlaw had his trough of water, and likewise his jug of tequila and a full sack of strong, sweetened cigarette tobacco. His thoughts had shifted to the greater hate.
When he embarked upon even the lesser of the two ventures, however, he met an obstacle. Two days later, sneaking upon the spot where that tiny campfire had blazed, Chotty found the spot deserted and the sifting grains of white and yellow unwilling to tell of the direction in which Bill Halliday and his charge had disappeared.
WHEN Bill looked upon the figure of his conquered enemy receding, he dismissed Chotty Bedell for the time being, and gave sole attention to the little man whose life he had saved.
Max Kurtt was an odd figure for La Abra. He was a man no more than five feet four inches in height, slight of bone and slighter still of flesh. Much poring over pestles and microscopes and classroom desks had given him a premature stoop of both shoulders and spine. His skin, on his face and the back of his hands, was the color of weak tea, rather muddy tea, with milk. Below his collar, above the wrists of his cambric shirt, and over the rest of the skimpy, rather pitiful body, however, it was the dead white of the blond Germanic races.
His hair remained only as a ring of spiritless, grayed straw above the prominent cars which bore the marks of heavy spectacles. The forehead was a vertical expanse of buff seamed by squinting during the time he did not wear the spectacles. He was fifty-one, a bachelor who still could blush and quaver in speaking if any woman smiled and spoke to him.
Oddly enough. Bill did not discount the man even in his present role of desert wanderer. It was not exactly coincidence, for in certain circles the name of Kurtt was looked at quite as, in that same day, electrical specialists regarded the signature of Steinmetz, the terse and marvelous, hunchbacked wizard of Schenectady.
It had come to Bill on his long, rapid hike. His dog-eared textbook on geology had been written by Kurtt and Bradley. Also, a folio tome with many colored plates in his course of study called "Archaeology 6" had borne the name of Kurtt alone I And these were standard books, conned by many hundreds of students, from Bowdoin to Southern California!
So this was Maxwell Kurtt! The hold of the college still was strong on Bill Halliday. He took care of the little scientist with all the meticulous assiduity a turfman of that day would have expended had he come upon a blood-son of Dan Patch screaming and neighing from an enmeshment of barbed wire, and felt as though he were performing in a righteous cause.
"My glasses," said Kurtt, reaching his feet for the first time. He wobbled. "Well, no matter. I fear they were broken. In my pack are two more pair." But Bill had started the search. He found both reserve pair, fortunately uninjured. "Here you are, Professor."
Kurtt donned the horned spectacles, duplicates of those lost in the mad delirium of thirst. He took his time. Then he scanned his rescuer from head to foot, taking full advantage of his first opportunity to get a clear-sighted look at his deliverer.
And then they talked—and hadn't been talking two minutes before they were started on the subjects that were of such deep interest to each of them—the subjects of this little old world's make-up and antiquities. Bill had seen to this.
"And you still study geology—at college," asked the professor.
Bill grinned and shook his head. "Nope. I cleaned up on my college degree last June. This is my last vacation. Maybe I shouldn't take it, but I think I'm right. I've got to have gold—or something like—
"Something like it," repeated the little man. A crinkle, inscrutable, came into the eyes behind the glasses. "Ah, yes. Your school?" He seemed to be enjoying a joke which Bill did not share.
"U. of M."
"Michigan!" explained Bill explosively, not without a remembered pride.
"Oh, yes. I thought you meant something else. I am from the U. of P.—Pennsylvania. And you know me?"
"I think you're damned well wrong in your chapter on Mound-builders!" was Bill's surprising, half-belligerent reply. "I've been into three mounds myself, and I've—"
"Say no more!" snapped little Max Kurtt, surprisingly. "I was a little bit in error, but I didn't think—oh, good for you! Ill tell you I have revised the third edition of that book. It'll be out in two months more. You referred to the fool notion I got concerning certain fragments of bronze I tried to correlate with the waved-blade Malay kris? Was that it, sir?" Unconsciously the little man, tightening his spectacles across the bridge of his dented nose, was again the lecturist, striding his board dais in front of an irreverent class. And loving it.
"It was," grinned Bill, and extended a huge palm. When the scientist looked down, frowned to collect his far distant thoughts, and then smacked down his own frail hand, Bill did not squeeze very hard. But a trifle of the new, combative color drained from the face of Maxwell Kurtt, nevertheless.
Another twenty-four hours passed before Max Kurtt could try the slow, seven-hour trip which Bill had traversed in little more than half that time. They had been on strict water rations, however, and the trip for one or both was necessary. They started. And then, oddly enough, Bill found that if he talked to Kurtt, half-disputed with him, or even discussed points of the two subjects upon which they hitherto had touched minds through the medium of books, the scientist forgot thirst, forgot everything and kept going, strengthening rather than weakening as the miles passed. Bill was a positive sort, especially where his hunches were concerned. And little Max, trained by long experience to encourage youths to think for themselves, qualified his replies and smiled even when Bill Halliday asserted things scientifically difficult of credence.
In those miles came to each an understanding of the other. Bill needed gold; or thought he did. He was not aiming to dodge a life work, in any sense of the term. The big actuating force now was that with every fiber of him he loved a girl. That girl could not wait, or Bill thought she couldn't. The job that Bill wanted would pay him only twelve dollars a week to start, a fair enough price in that early year of the twentieth century.
In order even to stand his little chance in the graces of Dorrie Richmond, a chance homely, awkwardly strong Bill Halliday counted something less than one hundred to one even if he became a millionaire within the year, he simply had to have invested capital to supplement that income for the first few years! This was his last chance, and the days were precious. He believed gold was here in quantities that really would pay.
The next day, after reaching the seeping spring and the deep hole, Bill Halliday showed the working to little Max. The latter saw a pan of the deep silt washed, regarded owlishly and without saying much the tiny yellow flakes which remained. About three hundred of the pans would make an ounce of dust. With the amount of water required for washing—water that seeped out of the soil so reluctantly that little more than that required for drinking could be secured—a washed ounce apparently would take Bill Halliday weeks or months to secure.
The young prospector, however, was looking for something more. There was no chance here for panning out a fortune, or even for sluicing it in case some outside chance gave the requisite water supply. He was looking toward the gravely bed of this ancient stream, toward a spot deep below this silt, where pockets of the heavier gold might lie. Max Kurtt frowned a little deeper at that. He, too, was seeking treasure, and more than likely his search was fully as harebrained, though he did not think that.
A quick survey of the surrounding formations of this old stream bed, once wider than the Platte at flood, convinced him that his enthusiastic friend was wrong; that even if his guess concerning the gold of that ancient river bed was correct, the pockets would not be reached until Bill had delved fifty or sixty feet below the surface. One man, digging with pick, shovel and spade, could not hope to accomplish such a thing short of a fairish lifetime. Even now Bill had to lift out his dirt in buckets. Soon he would need a ladder.
"BACK there where you hid my effects, Bill." said Max Kurtt, dropping all hint of the dictatorial in the free and easy comradeship now established, "I, too, have the key to a treasure, one I think far less problematical. It is a little case of beaten gold, much the same size and shape as a modern cigarette case. Once it may have held the royal seal of the Montezumas, or so the inscription says."
He proceeded to relate to the vastly interested prospector the tale of this case and certain other relics which he had discovered in a dry cave deeper in the Quitobaquita rocks at a point some miles from the spot at which Bill had found him. There had been a mouldered arquebus, and thin sheets of metal that powdered into dust when touched. The latter probably had been parts of the armor of a Spanish knight in some day long past.
Fortunately Max had more to rely upon than mere supposition.
Within the golden case had been two small rectangles of parchment, yellowed, yet legible still. The first, written in archaic Spanish, seemed to be little more than an inventory of some trifling articles in gold and silver, of which no description was given. At the last, however, was an entry of possibly greater interest. Max quoted. "'The burdens of four and twenty heathen slaves!' That may have meant a summary of what has gone before. Yet I doubt that very much," he said. "The other sheet is a hasty map. It designates the so-called 'blockhouse of stone' which I am certain is that honeycombed cliff near the spot you found me. At the top of this sheet are scrawled the Spanish words, 'Treasure of Itimixtl!'"
"The dickens you say!" Bill was half inclined to scoff, for he had not glimpsed either of these inciting parchments. Yet the age old thrill to hidden treasure even now raced in his blood. "And you were hunting for that, eh? Did you find any trace that would make you believe that this treasure had not been discovered long ago? What was it, anyway? Gold?"
"The last I do not know." responded Max, smiling gravely. "Itimixtl was not an Aztec deity, but a small city beyond Tehuantepec occupied for a time by the fleeing followers of Cortez. It is a matter of record that one of these knights, against the will of his commander, took back to Spain with him a weight of base metal found at this town, dunking it of value, and stubborn in his belief. For this poor judgment the knight, one Don Sebastian Vicente Mendez, was exiled by his Most Gracious Majesty the King of Spain, and was said to have joined then an expedition to Black Cathay in search of the fabled court of the Christian monarch, Prestcr John. No record remains of the fate of this expedition.
"It is mere supposition now, yet it would not surprise me to find that one or another of those doughty conquisitadores had ideas of his own. In one of the days of defeat, seeing a way, as he thought, to separate himself from a tragedy which must have seemed inevitable, he took the opportunity for individual flight. Perhaps he had a few retainers. Certainly he then came North with some burden bearers, who probably were members of a subject tribe gathered in as servants by the thinning Spaniards.
"We may guess at what happened then. He reached this land of no water. His Indians deserted. With his companions, if he had any, he cached the treasure in a place deemed secure, made a map, then started to find water and possible assistance. His armor would explain why he did not travel far upon the Quitobaquita Sierra!"
"You're a plausible cuss, Max," breathed Bill. His eyes had caught a gleam of the little man's fervor, and the beginnings of a smile, which was all for a girl far across the wastes, tugged at the corners of his wide mouth. "Well, did you get it?"
"Not as yet, my friend," answered Max quietly, "but it is there, I think. I have studied the rock, and the age of exposure changes as one ascends."
"Huh?" asked Bill curiously, excitedly withal. "What's that got to do with it?"
Max smiled. "You are my partner now, so I shall tell you. If we discover the treasure of Itimixtl, I shall take my half and equip a private laboratory where I may putter through my old age in happiness; for that is my great dream, friend of mine! You—you will take your portion, and with it you will go to a city where dwells a girl you love. Also, however, you will carry with the treasure what I might term an agent for happiness—an old man's advice!"
"Shoot!" grinned Bill, albeit he waited anxiously for the deliberate narrator to reach his point.
"Now, at the university from which I come, there is an instructorship in geology vacant for the fall. I offer it to you! The salary is nearly thrice that of the job of which you spoke. But do not interrupt! I have not finished. If you discover with me this treasure, you then will go to the girl of whom you spoke to me. Say nothing of more money than a pittance. Tell her only this, 'Beloved, I am offered a place in a great university which pays sufficient so that we may live. I love you!' Say no more until you have her answer. If an old man's observation counts at all, it is the painful truth that no marriages made for money yield permanent happiness. Of course if this young woman loves you she will take you. If she does not, the wealth that you may find will no more than cloud the findings of her heart. And Hill, there are just three things in the world which every true man must seek, or be less than a true man! One is the handclasp such as you offered me back there." Max nodded and gestured in the general direction of the sierra. "The second is accomplishment, for which money sometimes is a symbol and sometimes is not. The last, and greatest by far, is reciprocated love!"
His face an odd mixture of exaltation and pathos, the little scientist stood there a space of seconds. Then he sat down abruptly and dipped out from the basin four cups of water which he spilled into a pan and took to the sleepy burro. The animal opened one eye in surprise at this unusual offering, but drank.
"You're right enough, old timer," said Bill lightly, coming over to him. "I'll never forget that; but I'll likely enough never follow the advice, either. I've gambled too much. If I don't put down my stack all on this one whirl of the wheel, I'd feel as though I was piking! But weren't you saying something about the—Dr—exposure of the rocks?"
"Oh, yes." Max straightened up and was all business now. "You remember the kite with which I sent my message? Well, I was using that kite in the endeavor to get a string, and then a rope drawn by the string, across the blockhouse of stone. There are caves up there. I am quite certain that more than three hundred years ago less than half of this cliff projected from the sand. The treasure actually was hidden there, as I firmly believe, and now is twenty or thirty feet above the level on which we stand!"
Bill looked at Max the half of a minute, his blue eyes crinkling in admiration. Then he slapped his thigh.
"Tomorrow we go back!" he decided heartily. "Darned if I believe in most of these treasure tales, but in this case I'm with you! The treasure of Itimixtl!"
ALMOST the first task, once Max was furnished with a rope knotted for scaling the sheer cliffs, was a round trip to Ajo, and at that pining settlement an arrangement whereby a Mexican youth would bring each week two sixteen gallon kegs of water on his burros. The first keg and some additional provisions Bill brought with him.
On the out trip he was consumed by the seeker's fever—but now, after long, lonely thought, a worm of unease had squirmed into his consciousness. After all, this search for an ancient treasure of gold or other metal left there through the centuries was worse than foolish, without much doubt. For two or three generations the Indians of this sierra and plain had known the many things good and evil which gold could buy. Had none of them discovered the cache, even supposing that none of the Spaniards or Indians had come back to claim it in the first place?
Despite his real respect for little Max in the latter's professorial aspect, Bill took leave to doubt much concerning the scientist's latest trip to La Abra. On rock formations and the like he doubtless knew his stuff, none better. On treasure trove, though—
Well, Bill himself had been thrilled by the two parchments. That they were genuine he had not the shadow of a doubt. He had helped Max scramble like a human ant to the first level of those queer, worm holes in the rock which Max claimed to be the domiciles of an ancient, dwarfed people existing even before the Mound-builders, or possibly contemporaneously with them.
And Max had discovered exactly nothing. The treasure might have been here once. If so, it was gone from the eight shallow caves they found. These caves contained nothing whatever indicative of man.
The scientist, though, refused to admit any such conclusion. Faced by barren failure, he traced back through his own premises, and built up so convincing a structure of theory, that Bill Halliday, though doubting still more strongly, was fain to allow Max Kurtt another go at the ancient hiding place. Therefore the new water stake and additional grub.
The long trip to and from Ajo, however, instilled another notion. At his own diggings he had some gold, fine stuff which could be panned out of the dried soil. And he had a theory concerning what must lie deep down below this surface silt, when once he had excavated to a sufficient depth. It simply stood to reason that in a river bed the heavier bits of gold had gone to the bottom. When once he reached the gravel and rock he would have rich placer pockets, a fortune, and—Dorrie Richmond! Four of her letters had awaited him at the town. So, on his way back from Ajo Bill made a decision. In spite of the allure of these maps, he would spend only one more week with little Max.
If in Bill's absence, or after another week of the younger partner's cooperation the scientist failed to discover the whereabouts of his half-mythical treasure trove. Bill would surrender his share and go back to the more prosaic job in which he put more faith, his work of muscle, sweat and persistence.
Max greeted him with undiminished excitement and enthusiasm, but with a forced admission of failure for the period of Bill's absence. Max had two other rock face possibilities now, laving explored his first bet to the uttermost without finding even a trace of corroboration. Sooner or later they must come across the cave in which this cryptic treasure was stored, he swore. Perhaps a greater understanding of the meaning of the map only would come to them after great labor and exploration of the terrain.
Bill grinned, but rather wryly. He was thinking in the perfect confidence for his success expressed by Dorrie Richmond—bless her!—and said nothing much, but cooked supper that night. Max had been subsisting upon tepid water and canned beans. Bill told him of the arrangement made for water supplies and food rations, but voiced nothing that night of his own decision.
But ten days of the greatest striving, optimistic always, though fruitless, followed. Even Max looked somber. And then Bill said his piece.
"Max, old man, I'm sorry. I don't believe in your treasure any more. You don't think I have a chance for mine. Well, call it a day! I'm going back. So long!"
And Max Kurtt, though his eyes widened, and his small mouth quivered as though he were about to voice many protests, spoke no word of argument. There was in him a shining loyalty which even Bill would have to learn.
"To the death—my partner!" he whispered huskily, extending his hand. And meant just that.
BILL toiled back, with his own burro and a portion of the food supplies. After the dreams and promising realities of Quitobaquita the drab hole in the desert ground which was his own, loomed discouragingly. Yet he set to work. Occasionally during his rest periods he lay on one elbow in the scant shade of chaparral or manzanita, and panned a heaping double handful of his last excavation; though without real hope, for this was not particularly promising stuff. For him the way lay downward, though how far downward he only could guess—and hope that Max Kurtt's estimate was far shy of the truth.
Days of toil went onward. Weeks. A month and one-half. And at last, with thirty-two feet of excavation which he had been forced to widen at the mouth many times, Bill sat down at one eventide, mopped his brow, and admitted failure. His provisions were gone. The last evening he had boiled the canvas sack which once had held his coffee. Two handfuls of dried beans now soaking for the night, constituted his whole food supply. Breakfast would sec them devoured, for he was ravenous, lean and hungry from a week of stinted rations.
Only water he and the burro had possessed in fair measure. On that these two would have to make it more than fifty-five miles across the desert, landing nearly destitute.
Not since he had parted with Maxwell Kurtt had Bill spoken to any animate thing save his pack animal. Now he turned a little north of the sunset, the hard self-understanding smile on his features which distinguishes those of the Nordic tribes who fight to the brink of death without encouragement, fools in chase of their own vindication, perhaps, but men in spite of all. "Girl," he said simply, "I've done my durndest to back a fool hunch. Now I'll back the old fashioned maxims! Pray God you wait!"
That was all. Bill Halliday, as much in love as any of the men over whom history and poetry have raved, said and thought just that. In his mind there was no compromise, and never could be. For the girl there would have to be an offering of success. Otherwise even the delirious happiness of her love would always be tinged for him with the bitter of self contempt—self destroying love, better never admitted to the forge blast of a full flame! Such men ever have been the despair of girls born to riches; yet how many of the latter would have had that barrier of self respect unrecognized?
AN occasionally honest game of three card monte was run in Sediente. Chotty Bedell, flushed and belligerent from some days' acquaintance with Old Ramon's jugs of yellow-white fluid dynamite, thrust down ten dollars Mexican on his guess at the flipping shuffle and spread of Pedro Meanix, the crosseyed half breed dealer. He won. He fixed the shifty Pedro with a cold stare—and won again.
Two hours later Chotty owned the game and the entire gambling bank roll. Instead of continuing Pedro at his task, Chotty sat himself at a table of burned baize, and awkwardly thumbed a full deck of pasteboards. To play here at any game one must give the house one white chip on every deal.
Always Chotty had loved poker, but had hated to give up the house percentage. Now, entirely disregarding Old Ramon who dared not interfere, Chotty was the house and the bank. He could stay out of pots and make money just the same. He enticed customers and played, but with great conservativeness. And he drank little while he played. He made money; for though these Mexicans and stray white men customers feared his guns, they looked upon him as too awkward to cheat at cards. They were right in a measure—except for two or three simple tricks. Still Chotty won. In eleven days he had increased his bank roll by more than one half.
Then the inextinguishable urge for tequila struck to his marrow again. It was not possible for him to keep more than two thousand pesos in his corduroys, and not drink. At least not indefinitely. With many lurid threats then he re-employed Pedro for the monte, handed over half the hank roll, and went out with two one-gallon stone jugs, receptacles an eighth full of sand and dirt, never cleaned during years of use.
A half hour later, forgetful of all else, he recalled his uncompleted vengeances. "Diablo!" he yelled, straightening suddenly from the heel-squatting position he had learned from his years about the desert camp fires.
The half emptied jug fell, struck a rock, and splintered, which caused an additional curse. A sleeping mozo suddenly wakened from his siesta, and ran for shelter from the bullets he thought must fly. For the first time in some days Chotty Bedell clearly recalled his humiliation at the hand of that accursed tenderfoot, Bill Halliday. And, inspired by much of the acrid liquor, Chotty outdid his best in the matter of language.
Chotty's brain was working again. He wondered at his period of spineless quiescence. Why had he not inquired, done something against the day when Bill Halliday would foot the long score of indebtedness? Foot it involuntarily, of course. Chotty still recalled the resolution he had made, which was, in short, to creep upon that lanky tenderfoot from the rear, and shoot. If the young man was not quite dead when Chotty crept upon him afterward, so much the better; Chotty would take no big chance there, however! Even the delights of Injun torture paled before the stern necessity for precaution. Bill Halliday was pizen.
So it came about that Chotty, imagining that his arch enemy must be prospecting northward, near Six Bones in Quitobaquita, a place many another tenderfoot had tried to his sorrow, started on a long detour in search of Bill Halliday. Chotty reached the arsenic spring of Six Bones, which he knew right well, even as Bill Halliday was throwing the shovelfuls from his hopeless diggings far away on the plain of La A bra-Then, hazing his lone burro, liquor reddened eyes ever searching the horizon for signs of either of the men he wished to destroy, Chotty skirted the arid sierra and came again to the site of that old camp of Maxwell Kurtt which Chotty had stalked and entered—to his sorrow.
There was nothing here save signs of a later visitation, the smudges of a dozen fires, yet Chotty looked at it with malign interest. Two men had been here after the day upon which he had come, intending revenge upon Maxwell Kurtt! He thought he knew the answer—water. They had gone away, and come back with a drinking supply. Why? And where had they gone?
The sign was impossible to read, but Chotty found a clue much more exciting than any tracks in the shifting alkali. He sniffed. To his corroded nostrils came the waftings of a faint fragrance which he could not help but recognize—burning piñón branches! Somewhere within a mile or two, a man had a cooking fire!
After an hour of careful reconnoitering, Chotty discovered that heap of hot ashes upon which a meal had been cooked. That was all he found. Footprints, yes. The trail led to a blank wall of rock more than fifty feet in height, and ended there! Around the camp site was not so much as an empty canteen or a crust of bread. Whoever had built this fire had decamped, apparently over the cliff, without leaving a sensible trace.
Chotty was confounded, angry. He had a ripping headache, and could not concentrate satisfactorily upon the puzzle. After an hour of casting about, much as does a hound at the inexplicable end of a hot trail, he growled his anger and set out for Sediente. This was no place for a man and burro to linger. In addition to its lack of water, the place had spooky qualities.
For fifteen miles the open desert stretched in every direction save over this cliff of rock—and in the direction Chotty himself had traveled from Six Bones. To get away a man would need wings, or two-three hours in which to travel. Chotty failed to estimate the fact that from the top of the rock cliff there before him, a watcher could scan a score of miles, and two hundred degrees of a circle. Max Kurtt had seen and focused binoculars upon the newcomer when Chotty and his burro were mere dust wisps on the horizon.
THE meaner the dog, under some circumstances, the quicker he has his day, however. While Bill toiled in his widening and deepening hole in the ground, and little Max with patience infinite climbed one after another of the rocky involutions of Quitobaquita. Chotty Bedell drank and gamed. His money melted, particularly after he killed the man at Sediente who made fun of the scars and toothless gaps in Chotty's face. For then Chotty had to recross the line, and take his chances that Ajo had forgotten his looks and character.
Ajo had not; yet, such was the somnolence of summer heat, that when Chotty came in without ostentation and paid cash for his liquor—forthwith taking plenty of the stuff to kill a den of rattlesnakes, for his next day's consumption—Ajo yawned and said that heat and tequila would finish Chotty Bedell. Good riddance, and simpler than a trial, by far.
They would have done so, too, except for gambling. In one night at draw poker with three seeming tender feet, Chotty lost two-thirds of his remaining wealth. The next day he was grumpy and venomous without imbibing a single pint.
Through forty dull hours he glowered at the world, meditating crimes varying in character from stage robbery to plain murder. And then his reddened eyes blinked open to gaze upon a figure somehow familiar, a little man who wore spectacles. Maxwell Kurtt!
It was the truth! Kurtt, spurred by the immense and joyous news he held contained within his modicum of inches, two weeks earlier had come to Ajo—because he believed Chotty Bedell hung out at one of the Mexican towns the other side of the line.
Kurtt on that earlier day had many fussy little errands. First he did some inquiring, and found out right away that Chotty, his arch enemy, had been in town—and probably would be back! Max's eyes popped open at that and he looked sick. He did no more than write two letters, though, and then he asked more questions. Could a man take gold or silver or precious stones from Mexico into the United States without paying duty? Bullion, yes; precious stones, no. The trouble with dust or bullion was the fact that if the Mexican petty officials knew of the transportation the lucky prospector was all too apt to find that special laws limiting mineral rights on his particular district were passed overnight; that in addition to losing all of his gleanings, he was barred from entering Mexico, and some gold braided official took over the claim from which the wealth had come.
Kurtt thought long over that. He was still thinking as he instituted widespread inquiries for Bill Halliday, and hired two destitute prospectors to search for the young man. Each of the prospectors bore a letter—a cryptic message to all but the addressee—and one of the letters was destined safely to reach its goal.
CHOTTY BEDELL laid eyes upon Maxwell Kurtt nearly two weeks later. In the meantime the little professor had sent an urgent message by stage, and had received in return four queer oblong boxes and t w o small but heavy buckskin bags which he cared for gingerly. On each box was a flaring red label,
HANDLE WITH CARE!
Beside these there were two heavy packs of canvas and buckskin.
With his hands shaking, and his little red eyes glinting long repressed fury. Chotty staggered into the nearest bar. He drank whisky straight this time, three brimming glasses. Ten minutes later he sat down involuntarily in the sawdust and remained there, muttering incoherently. The mixture with his sodden hangover from tequila had done something to him; had temporarily incapacitated him for walking or shooting.
He finally surged erect, ami then he was shaking, but deadlier than a sidewinder with a broken tail. He spoke no more, but weaved a way outside. In the course of an hour, sobering and becoming steadily uglier, he found that Maxwell Kurtt, with a half-breed boy and six rented pack animals, had taken the southward trail.
Chotty raged. Still he did not lose his head entirely. He would follow, of a certainty. To venture into the Quitobaquitas again demanded plenty of water, when one took into consideration his long debauch and its demands, however. He had to have a burro, at least. Four hours and nearly all of his remaining money went for this final grubstake and carrier rental. And that time was just sufficient to give Maxwell Kurtt a chance for life.
The following morning Chotty met the mozo returning. Beset by a crazed gringo, the lad lost nearly all his wit. Finally, under cuffs and bloodcurdling threats of abuse, he managed to blubber out the news that he had left the four-eyed Americano there just a little way beyond the abutments of the sierra—two miles, no more, from the spot at which Chotty had surprised his camp that first time!
What were the boxes? Por Dios, the boy did not know. He had left them there with the señor.
Chotty dismissed him with a kick, and made for Sierra Quitobaquita.
This time Chotty was more lucky. He found the camp. As before, the bird had flown, but this time much remained to testify to the truth. One of the water kegs and a single pack of the provisions had vanished. Likewise a small case containing binoculars. All the rest of the load which had been distributed upon six pack animals lay here in a heap, however. Mostly clothes and food. Chotty sniffed at it. The clothes he could not wear, and he had enough food of his own to last a week.
Where had the damn' little tenderfoot flown?
Sober now and vengeful beyond all limits, Chotty read the sign. As before it led to a rocky cliff ordinarily unscalable. "Up there, huh?" snarled the pursuer. "Well, yuh gotta come down sometime!"
And that night he saw, thirty-five feet up in the honeycombed rock, the yellow flicker of a fire, a fire that was blown to excessive heat by blasts of a skin bellows, hand operated. Right then little Max was engaged in a task which made him chuckle over and over again. For the time he had quite forgotten the existence of Chotty Bedell. But the outlaw, unable to solve the mystery of cliff-climbing, made a pretense of leaving. With his own burro and effects cached in a neighboring gulch, he crept back to watch and wait. Sooner or later that damn' little stiff would have to come down. When that event occurred, Chotty would be waiting, like a pudgy, evil spider on the edge of his stretched web.
And in the course of two days' time Chotty Bedell was right. The quarters up there in the narrow treasure cave were none too good. Max Kurtt withstood them and the heat of the fire through two full days. Looking down he saw the water butt and the remnants of his outfit. Apparently Chotty Bedell, fearing Bill Halliday's stern retribution, had hesitated to molest anything this time, and had gone away. Max heaved a sigh of infinite relief, for he dreaded the sinister bully with all his heart. Using the rope with which he had climbed—and which, fastened only by a hempen cord hard to discern from the ground, and a rock for weight, had been thrown over the upward eight feet, while Max was in the cave—little Max first lowered some bulging, heavy sacks, and then came down slowly and painfully, his feet against the rock and every sinew strained.
He was tired. As he neared the ground he almost slipped, but held, grinning at the knowledge that now he had prepared a riddle which none of the curious, nosey ones at Ajo or beyond could solve out of hand.
He lowered himself another foot, another—and fell into the waiting arms of the one man on earth whom he feared, Chotty Bedell!
THE work was done with savage dispatch. Straining Max's arms behind his back until the joints cracked, Chotty lashed the wrists cruelly, then tied the ankles in a way which soon would stop the circulation. He uttered no articulate words, but from his thick lips issued smackings and grunts of animal satisfaction. All he wanted was time to gloat over his prey, to think, and drink tequila. Then a program of hellishness sufficient even to sate his burning desire for vengeance would formulate in the slant roofed, cunning brain. This was one of the two men he thirsted to destroy.
Flinging the fright stiffened scientist aside as he might have tossed a fagot, Chotty made certain first of all that he was alone for all of the horizon hounded desert miles. This time no dude tenderfoot would come to interrupt his enjoyment or his takings. Then, totally disregarding the first stammered whispers Max was able to enunciate, Chotty pounced upon the boxes and lashed sacks—the latter eleven in number. These were not the buckskin and canvas containers which the scientist had brought from the railroad; and they were not the four mysterious cases, though the bags and the cases were there, the latter filled with heavy jars that held colored liquids and crystalline substances, the Latin names on the labels of which looked like queer, outlandish swear words to him.
He had no use for the boxes, but the sacks were another proposition. When first he bent to lift one, a cry of greed and exultation sped his lips. The little, cubical sack, stuffed and bulging through its sides of nine ounce duck, weighed at least ninety or one hundred pounds, perhaps more! He could lift it all right with one arm, and did, though not without red lights of anticipation starting to his small eyes, and the enormous arm and shoulder muscles bulging with the strain. How little Max had managed to lower it from the cliff, was inexplicable.
"Gold!" shouted Chotty in a sudden frenzy of exultation. He danced three steps lumberingly, weighted down by the sack. "Gold!" This hoarsely. Then suddenly he squatted, jerking out his jack-knife and pulling at the single big blade with the blackened snags of teeth. He failed to see a faint, derisive smile which permeated the drawn lines of suffering on Max's face.
The apish outlaw cut the strings and tore at the neat folds with hands that shook with excitement. He peered, blinked, plunged in one hand—and came up with a broad fistful of grayish black stuff resembling nothing more than the screenings of coke! Some of the stuff was sooty black, but there were enough gray particles and slaglike lumps of the same color, so that the general tinge was several shades lighter than a dead black.
"Arrh!" snarled Chotty Bedell, stricken by an awful disappointment. "What t'hell? What's this-here, huh? Hey you!" He half rose from his haunches, grimacing, threatening, his ham-like fists clenched, one about the valueless dirt he had found where he expected the dull glint of nuggets and dust of gold.
"That's—that's—" Max cleared his throat and seemed to be trying to answer. In truth he was sparring for something, the name of some substance which would sound plausible. Something—anything—
"Yeah, what? Talk quick, or I'll—"
Max saw him leap upright, and terror sped the little man's tongue. "It's—I think it's hydrogen peroxide—nearly pure ore! Immensely valuable deposit. The treasure of Itimixtl! At New York it's worth about a hundred dollars a pound, I think. I know jewelers who use it—oh, all the time! If I could get it back there—w-with you for my partner, I think we both would make a lot of money."
"Mph!" Chotty's enthusiasm had waned suddenly. He frowned suspiciously at his bound prisoner. "I never seen nothin' like it," he growled. "It's heavy like gold. What—"
"Yes, and it's valuable, too!" broke in Max, whose brain just now had envisioned the slightest of possibilities for escape. "Of course it isn't gold, or anything like that, and it can't be sold at a bank—only jewelers and big chemical jobbing firms handle it—but because of its—ah—extreme rarity a man who knows the ropes might get as much as ten thousand dollars. I could!"
Max, tense, and well aware that he was playing a bobtailcd flush against a strong hand, and for a stake that was his life, resolutely thrust from his voice all the quivering and terror which had invaded the sensitive body.
"Uh!" growled Chotty. He still was under the sting of disappointment. Still, ten thousand dollars! That was more money than he ever had owned at one time. If these sacks had held a thousand pounds of ninety per cent, gold, now, the thing would be different. Chotty knew just how to run gold out of Mexico, sneak it into one of the many border back doors at this time practically unnoticed, and sell it through me teller's grill of a national bank.
But then, even if "this was not gold, it was stuff that was worth a lot. Ten thousand simoleons, five hundred great big yellow boys, more than he could carry in a half dozen money belts, would put him on easy street for life! Even in this instant, as his brain was envisioning some plan for duping the little man into telling him the methods of marketing the lesser treasure, Chotty did not dream of letting Max Kurtt escape. The situation called for a little more guile than usual, that was all. His vengeance might be delayed a few hours, no more.
"I getcha." he said slowly, deserting the one sack and going over, prodding each of the other ten in turn. "If I took this stuff in, I'd probably get stuck, huh? Mebbe couldn't get rid of it?"
"You'd be left with it on your hands!" stared Max with conviction. "I am a geologist and chemist, and I am known. I'd get the very best price, perhaps even as much as twelve or thirteen thousand!"
"Yuh don't say!" Chotty's tone suddenly had become unctuous. "Well, mebbe I kin forget lots of things, if it's thataway—and you'll go halvers. Is that O.K.?"
"Absolutely!" breathed Max Kurtt fervently. "You come back with me, well sell the—er—ore, and I'll give you a full half! Honestly I will. You'll get from five to seven thousand dollars!"
One side of the sagging mouth twitched sneeringly, but Chotty managed something of a smile. "Cracked down!" he bellowed heartily, and yanked open his knife. He strode to the captive, and though Max shivered, half expecting the blade in his flesh, Chotty cut the bonds with two jerking sweeps, and then lifted Max to his feet.
"And now, little-feller-pardner," he said with a noisy, forced joviality. "You an' me'll run this stuff into the old U.S., so as the Greasers won't take it away from us. And on the way—guess we'll have to make five-six trips with only one burro to carry—yuh can tell me all about how a city guy'd go about sellin' the stuff."
Chotty's purpose became glaringly apparent in a few minutes thereafter, but Max was helpless. He still had a pint whisky-flask full of water on his hip—all that had been left of the water he had taken to the high cave—but was unarmed. Chotty took charge of all the provisions, and forced Max to make a cache of stones to protect those which would be left behind on the first trip northward. Sudden flight into the desert could avail Max nothing.
From the start, when a pair of the heavy sacks—too much of a load for any burro to carry handily—were loaded on, and Max was weighted down with all the non-essentials of camp equipment while Chotty took care of the canteens and food, it was a barely disguised inquisition. Chotty intended to find out minute details concerning the method of marketing the valuable ore, "hydrogen peroxide," for he intended to do that marketing himself. While Max was valuable to him as a pack animal, and until that necessary information was in the outlaw's possession, Max would live. That is, possibly he would live; that depended. On the pretext that he did not trust the scientist at all, Chotty demanded the imaginative details of the selling, from Max. And, little by little, despite the latter's squirmings and evasions, desperate now, got an imaginative version of them. Even before they departed this edge of Quitobaquita. Max knew his fate was sealed.
But he could not envision in cold blood the crafty, devilish scheme which had come to the other. Chotty successively, while he drank two thirds of his lone remaining bottle of liquor, had thought of roasting Max's feet in a slow fire, slicing him to bits, and even the quicker and more merciful process of strangulation. But a better thought, one bound to give all the excitement and anticipation of a delayed game, occurred. Chotty had remembered the placard and the six grinning skulls set near the beautiful-seeming water hole of Six
From that moment on the searing, thirsty northward trip, he saw to it that Max got no water from the canteens and marched ahead, stricken by the full enmity of the broiling sun. No water now, no water for twenty miles of day travel!
Chotty grinned to himself as he drank from the gurgling canteen. How good that gushing spring of deadly quality would look to this little man he hated!
"We gotta keep what water we got, till we get back to the keg," he stated, when six miles had passed. And grinned again at Max's woebegone face. "Yuh kin fill up, though, at the spring ahead. There's where we'll cache this stuff. It's inside the U. S. line, and we kin come down after it with six-seven reg'lar mules what kin carry somep'n. Great water at the spring ahead, cool and sweet like sody! Once yuh try it yuh'll never want no other, like the travelin' show medicos say!"
All at once a grimace of horror contorted the face of Maxwell Kurtt. He had remembered something Bill Halliday had told him—good, mistaken old Bill! The prospector had been talking about the country roundabout, and had warned especially concerning this enticing water hole on the northward route! Arsenic!
But Max gave no further outward sign. It was noticeable, however, that in spite of the terrific thirst which obsessed him that day, he made no move to broach the pint bottle on his hip.
CHOTTY'S banter, hellish when one knew the key, went on unceasingly. He drank at will from the canteens, seeming to take pleasure, as indeed was the case, in the scientist's drawn and anguished countenance.
For some reason a strange light of courage and desperation had come into the little man's washed out eyes. Physically he dreaded this brute of a companion far more than he feared death. So far as Chotty's evident plan was concerned no flaw appeared. But, in heaven's name, was there no way out? It seemed not. Yet, on the long, long trail, weighted with his sacks and beaten by what seemed a shaft of white hot steel from the heavens, the face of Maxwell Kurtt took on a queer expression of abstraction, of preoccupation. It might have been that he forgot the taunts and half-veiled innuendoes of the outlaw, and even the discomfort of thirst and heat, for Kurtt could concentrate.
At any rate, an odd, uncompromising half-smile twisted his blackening lips—just once. It was strange enough, but immediately thereafter, though he had not seemed to notice his thirst before, he began pleading for water. Chotty taunted with renewed enjoyment. He drank, even more than the allotment he had made for this journey, just to see that little man writhe.
And Max satisfied all expectations. He seemed to cast aside restraints, and begged. He seemed not to understand at all the hideous trap being prepared for him. He went down on his knees, emitting piteous cries, and Chotty cuffed him erect, cursing. Thereafter, staggering more and more—and little of this on Max's part had to be feigned!—the two and the overloaded burro covered the last hours of travel beneath a westering sun.
Within sight of the grotesque barrel cacti which formed a sparse line of outposts about Six Bones, Chotty pointed. He begin again an extolment of the virtues of that bubbling, crystal cold water for which his "pardner" had waited so long.
But he was deserted suddenly. Max, a dry, horrid sound of water appetite and longing breaking from his caked throat, stumbled into a run. Once he fell headlong, whimpering the extremity of his thirst, but got up, paying no attention to Chotty's commands to stop, and even ignoring a bullet which came dusting by his feet. Water was ahead!
Well, Chotty himself could not desert the burro here, lest the animal follow Max's example; Chotty needed the burro. He made the beast hasten to its plodding limit, however, and kept his eyes fastened upon Max.
The scientist apparently was a creature of but one idea. Stumbling, mouthing queer, dry sounds of extremity, he went straight for the scintillating green pool there at the base of the honeycombed rocks. He splashed through the encircling, white-crusted greenish slime which would have warned any true desert rat, and threw himself headlong, burying his face in the chill water! His shoulders worked convulsively, as if in the effort of swallowing great draughts. Chotty came. For an instant he stopped, jerking out his six-gun. A frown creased his brows. For a second he even contemplated a murder of mercy.
Then with a short, ugly laugh he slapped back the weapon into its holster. None of that pity stuff; this was going to be good!
It was just that. Max came up to his knees, then tottering to his feet. He was breathing great gulps. "Fine—stuff!" he gasped, and then wiped his lips with the back of his sleeve. "I don't know that I ever enjoyed—"
Of a sudden he stopped. A blank expression, then a spasm of pain contorted his drawn countenance. "My gracious!" he gasped. "Maybe I drank too much—ah!—of a sudden. Bill—Owww!"
The last was a piercing howl. He clasped both hands to his stomach, ran a few paces, howled again and again as if in the most terrible agony, and then fell squirming.
Chotty Bedell laughed long and hoarsely, reaching deliberately for the canteen at his hip. He quaffed in deep measure, grinning.
DURING the next few hours much happened which is pertinent to the enigma of Six Bones, and of the black treasure. Bill Halliday, convinced that he had wasted valuable months of his time, had reached Ajo. There, with less than two ounces of dust to his credit, he sold Jethro Jason, the burro, and all the rest of his equipment except his cartridge belt and six-guns, at a bargain. He went in for a drink. At the saloon bar a weak-mouthed, broken down desert rat wobbled up to him. Bill disgustedly signed for the barkeep to set up another whisky. Why try to save pennies?
This was not all the bar-fly seemed to want, however. Tremblingly he inquired Bill's name, the while thumbing out an old wallet containing a few photographs, some dirtied papers—and a letter. The letter was addressed to Bill. He recognized Bill from some past visit.
Wonderingly Bill Halliday tore it open, glanced at the signature, and then signaled for the barkeep to leave the half emptied whisky bottle in front of this strange messenger. Freckie Pinkham took advantage of the tacit invitation.
A few seconds later a wild yell burst from the lips of Bill Halliday! He stared at the precisely written lines, and whooped again! Everyone in the saloon turned to gaze. All saw a man transformed. No longer a dejected, dusty prospector, returned with nothing to show for his greatest hopes. Bill had torn off his sombrero and was dancing a wild fandango of joy, and whooping as often as he could get breath for more noise!
Of a sudden he crouched, then leapt upward mightily. His boots landed full upon the scratched cherry bar. "Yowww-eeee!" he yelled, and yanked out the slim poke which represented his whole summer of striving. Planking this down on the bar he made circling, inarticulate invitations with his arms, and grabbed up the whisky bottle, but not to drink. Bending, seizing dazed and shaky Freckie Pinkham by the latter's thin locks, he treated that scandalized but unresisting oldster to a generous and whole-souled whisky shampoo.
"What is it? Struck gold?" yelled a snoop-eyed faro dealer who had lip-licking memories of Goldfield.
A glimmer of sense flashed through Bill's delight. "No!" he bellowed in return. "My stepmother's got the mumps!"
AT that exact moment Chotty Bedell was fumbling about the convulsive body of his "pardner," as the little man lay stretched on the sand. Max had some money, a trifle over two hundred dollars, and that went. He had a small case containing utensils such as men use in the care of their finger nails; with a curse of disgust Chotty tossed this into the arsenic spring. Every item from the clothes that could be used went into Chotty's voluminous pockets.
The only important fact to this story which must be noted, however, was that even though Chotty emptied the handkerchief and the folded checkbook from Max's hip pockets, he saw nothing whatever of a pint flask full of water! At that moment the flask was under two inches of hurriedly scraped soil, which the little man, lying with his back to Chotty, had barely found time to scoop out while Chotty had been tantalizingly quaffing from his canteen. And Max's body lay prone atop the small mound of replaced earth.
Having completed his rifling, Chotty moved away, but continued to watch Max until presently he saw the professor's body become motionless—and stiffen. Some suddenly born superstitious fear kept Chotty from going near the body of his erstwhile partner, either then or later.
Well satisfied with his work, however, and tired, Chotty then moved back to the spot where he had tethered the still loaded burro. He unhitched his belts, then removed the animal's weighted packs. In the morning he would have to cache them in a certain hole he knew in the rocks beyond the poison spring, a regular feet-first hideout he had used once when chased too strenuously by a pair of deputies.
For now there was one necessary job. Water was scarce, so Chotty chopped off a big section of a barrel cactus, and placed strips from this in front of the straining animal. They would have to do, and burros were tough. Chotty himself bad drunk more water than he should have drunk, using it time and again as tantalization. Now he would be forced to go carefully. Not so much was left in that keg back at Quitobaquita, considering the number of trips that would be necessary before the valuable "hydrogen peroxide ore" was transferred safely to United States soil.
Chotty made camp, but because of water lack did not bother with supper. He finished the last two drinks of his tequila, and then rolled in a single greasy blanket. Within five minutes, completely at peace with accomplishment and conscience, he snored in raucous cadence.
NEXT morning with the sun, cold sober for the first time in weeks, he frowned over at the body of Max Kurtt, and then looked at it no more. He was hungry, and thirsty. He drank no more than the single swallow remaining in one canteen, however, and ate a tin of beans.
Then, chewing on a strip of the water bearing cactus to assuage a greater thirst, he got up and away, ahead of the sun at its broiling power. He had cached the sacks and was four miles to the south before he discovered that the second canteen, which he supposed to hold two full quarts untouched, barely sloshed when he shook it! A hurried examination disclosed that it held now less than one pint!
But Chotty merely cursed his own over-anxiety to tempt the four-eyed fool the arsenic spring had killed. Probably he had reached for the wrong canteen. He did not suspect for a moment that any lips but his own had touched that felt covered receptacle. Anyway, the discrepancy did not matter much. That keg down there had four-five gallons of water remaining. Coming tack, he'd take one of the sacks himself, and that way save some of the trips.
MAX'S ears had served him well during the thirsty time he had lain doggo. He knew within a yard the spot where Chotty had hidden the sacks of "hydrogen peroxide," and found it quickly. The outlaw's cache showed up easily to the eyes of one who knew approximately where to look. At a four foot height there was an irregular opening leading backward and downward. A chunk of paper thin shale fitted that aperture fairly well, but came away at the first pull.
Max climbed in. His reaching arms found the sacks without difficulty, and also found something else, as it seemed, for instead of backing out of the nearly horizontal shaft, he inched inward! His feet scruffed a little, then disappeared!
TEN minutes, twenty, a half-hour passed. Then he crawled out, head first, and with a smile upon his lips! For a moment after reaching the ground he dusted his garments. Then he took the slightest of swallows from his pint bottle—he really did not need any more water just then, but this was something in the nature of a toast of rejoicing—and gazed up at the sinister exhibit of skulls ami the plain warning placard above, the stop, look, desist from drinking sign which the Geological Survey had posted at this rendezvous of death.
"Seven Skulls! Seven Bones!" he breathed sibilantly, but said nothing more to explain this cryptic comment—or was it prophecy? Thus far only six of the grinning, jawless relics rested upon the ledge.
There were more about, however. Max picked up the first two ancient, shattered relics he came across, and went on in a wider circling to the far side of the hellish spring. Out there he found a whole skeleton, one to which tatters of cloth still clung. The coyotes had disarticulated some of the joints, yet with his scientist's skill the rearranging in an attitude would be simple. "Larger skull than mine," he commented aloud. "Chotty never will see the difference, though."
First dropping to his knees and offering; a single sentence of prayer for this unknown one who had died so terribly. Max lifted the bones in small armfuls and carried them back to the spot where he had lain with his thirsty mouth pressed against the ground.
When all the whitened framework had been transported, he took off his own shoes, his trousers and his shirt, and carefully ripped them in a way that resembled the tearing of sharp eager teeth. Then he left them with the pitiable, disarranged bones. That story was for the eyes of his lying partner, Chotty Bedell. Carefully at the last, obeying a new knowledge of the desert places, Max smoothed and dusted over his own knee- and hand-prints.
ONCE started out of Ajo, as a result of the letter he had received, Bill Halliday lost little time on the way.
And now to exist until the outlaw gunman came again! Max ran over to the same barrel cactus which Chotty had chopped in half for the use of his burro. The pulp had not hardened too much. Max delved, and found the juicy, water-bearing stuff just what he needed. Perhaps the rasping roughage of it contained no real nourishment, yet it would enable him to stave off the immediate pangs of hunger and thirst until Chotty came again. And after this next visitation Max either would be alive and alone, or dead and uncaring. He had not been able to plan a whole campaign while lying there immobile, but now a true reprisal was clear in his mind.
When at last he tramped into Six Bones and threw down his canteens and pack, he made direct for one of the cacti. He knew better than to use his precious store of water when anything else was available. His knife was drawn. He saw that one of the barrel stemmed giants had been cut not long since, so he went to it. He was peering toward the juicy pith of the center, a part scooped out by an eager hand, when of a sudden he straightened with a jerk. A cold round circle seemed to press into the small of his back!
Such is the power of ready imagination.
Actually it was the stiffened forefinger of Max Kurtt.
"Put 'em up!" commanded a husky voice, one which nevertheless held a quaver of what inexplicably seemed to be joy.
Bill looked as far as he dared from the corners of his eyes, but failed to see. He obeyed without hesitation.
"Put 'em down!" came the next curious command.
"Eh?" But Bill obeyed, wondering.
"Put 'em there!"
With this a thin hand grabbed at the prospector's shoulder and spun him about. Facing Bill, grinning, extending a hand consisting of little more than small bones and skin for a shake of comradeship, was a thinned, grotesque caricature of the little man, Maxwell Kurtt, with whom Bill had sought the treasure of Itimixtl!
"You!" breathed Bill in gladness and infinite relief. "Gosh, compadre, I thought it was that chunky monkey, Chotty Bedell. Fella, c'mere!" He seized the frail little man by the shoulders. "I got your letter—about the treasure. Is it so?"
"It is so, my friend. So—so—so—so— SO!" Max grinned, delighted beyond measure at what he saw in the face of the younger man.
"YOWWWWEEEE!" Bill's yell of delight echoed and re-echoed, but none beside Max heard it. "Well, pardner, I'm sure rooting for gold plated test tubes in that research laboratory of yours!"
"Bill," chuckled Max, who knew far better than Bill could guess, the extent of the treasure represented by the sacks of "hydrogen peroxide," "to you belongs fifty per cent, of the treasure. Yet it is in my mind that a full forty per cent, of that still is to be earned! Will you listen?"
"Dr. Kurtt," responded Bill Halliday, "according to what your letter hinted, I'm yours. What is it? Arson? Murder?"
The little man did not respond to that lightness of tone. In the searing forge of that terrible trip northward something had been taken from him, and possibly it was his Germanic ability to sustain a joke. Now his eyes seemed suddenly to pale almost to whiteness. They flashed, and his body became rigid.
"Eh, what—I think I'm in wrong, my friend!" said Bill, with a catch of breath. "What is it? Has that skunk Chotty Bedell been bothering you again?"
"Come here," bade Max. He led the way to the pathetic heap of bones near the spring. "You had not noticed how I was clad?"
"Why—Dr—no, I hadn't. Gosh! You're going kind of light! What—"
"There lies Dr. Maxwell Kurtt," said the other, with a simple yet somehow dramatic gesture. "He was murdered by Chotty Bedell. And, if I mistake not, tomorrow evening will see Chotty back here again. Come, I shall show you our task!"
CHOTTY was superstitious enough. He wore what decades since had become a mummified bag about his neck suspended by a thong long since black from sweat and dirt. The bag was made from the check cuticle of a stillborn Apache girl babe. The contents were unknown even to the wearer; only the old medicine man who taught Geronimo his wiles and the powers of chieftainship, could have told what weird gleanings went into that fetish made to ward off perils of the musket ball, the arrow and the spear.
Chotty gave no thought to the pendent bag, now. He wished heartily that he had not left those first bags of ore at-the poison spring. Something indefinite—though not a fear of that sprawled body left where it had fallen—urged him not to return to Six Bones.
It was a genuine hunch, an intuition—let anyone call it as he wills. Desert wanderers feel it strongly and quite often. Most pay some attention to it, though scoffing as they obey. It seldom is wrong. It may be an occult sense of self preservation such as many of the large carnivori and the vultures possess. At any rate, Chotty Bedell was uneasy; yet he went forward. Perhaps he attributed the state of nerves to the fact that he was without liquor, and faced a long dry spell while he brought up the sacks of "hydrogen peroxide" to their cache on the United States side of the line.
"I wish t'God at first I'd gone the other way!" he exclaimed aloud. "But what t'hell? There ain't a thing—unless I see that there Bill Halliday—" And at the subconscious suggestion his stubby right gun hand flashed to the notched butt of a Colt. The next time he met Bill Halliday in the desert there would be no parley, no monkey business. Chotty would shoot on sight, and to kill.
In spite of everything, he went on toward the poison spring. He had cut himself down to a minimum of water this time, and was carrying one of the heavily loaded sacks, in addition to the pair on the back of his tired burro.
When he saw ahead the stubby thumbs of the barrel cacti which surrounded the spring, however, a croak of rejoicing sounded in his throat. Already he had drunk more than half his water allowance. He would make up for that by subsisting on the cactus, though. It would do for him at a pinch as well as for the animal.
Men and beasts that can do so avoid this spot with reason. At first sight that seems queer, for on the northernmost declivities of the honeycombed, sun-baked Sierra Quitobaquita, Six Bones appears a green oasis in a hell of reds, yellows and alkaline white. To the east is the thirsty plain of La Abra. Six shots from a rifle, such as Chotty Bedell carried, would take one from this fag-end of Pima County, Arizona, into Mexico. To the west and to the south, arise the craggy nakedness of Quitobaquita,
A bubbling spring, sufficient water to start the first trickle of a Mississippi or a Red River if brought to light in other soil, splashes and gurgles down a face of worn granite. The granite is stained curiously. This water, chill as a breath from the vaulted caves from which it issues, looks innocent and inviting enough as it splashes away nine feet, forming a brimming, two-yard wide pool that spills a steady rivulet into the absorbing alkali beyond.
Yet around this pool for a radius of many yards, are skeletons and old bone fragments near to dust, half dust. The spine of a coyote. Two heaps of flaking, disordered things that once were the rib frameworks of steers wandered far from the range.
On a shelf of granite, white topped with sifted alkali, just to the north of the spring, on this evening rested a pair of grim warnings. High above the main exhibit, angled down so that all coming to the spring might read, was the terrible placard of the Survey.
THIS IS AN ARSENIC SPRING!
DO NOT DRINK! POISON WATER!
And just below that sign, on the shelf within tiptoe reach of a man on the ground, were the six grim relics which had given the place of death its name with the Government cartographers. Six Bones!
They were human skulls, of course.
Rather pathetic, lonely, downward-ogling things, for not one had a lower jaw or teeth. Each represented a desert tragedy, as none of the original six presumably had come with a tillicum. At least, no two skulls had been found together. Men died thus in the sun madness and arsenic agony, staggering alone. Some perhaps had read the sign but did not care. Most, without doubt, had sighted the water, or their mounts had smelled it, and had come madly athirst. Their terrible fate was the same as that of the many desert animals who had left the arches of their ribs half in the sand for rods about the sinister lore. Animals wounded or aged and unable to struggle further against the wiles of thirst.
Thirst. Arsenic in the bubbling water. Six morosely staring skulls upon a rock shelf below a placard. White sifted mesquite, scrubby piñon and gaunt cactus. These were the lures of the shunned oasis, Six Bones!
CHOTTY BEDELL came with one heavily loaded burro; came from a toilsome circuit of the Chitobaquitas which extended leagues into the plain La Abra, and on which baking heat is the only unflinching constant, the only thing not called queer.
Chotty snickered dryly and without more than a sniffing sound as he saw the water. He took precaution as usual that the burro did not reach it; but that was the only real care he gave the animal. True, as before, he sliced down a barrel cactus and chopped long, white slices of the water-bearing pulp for the beast, which chewed resignedly, slaking its thirst in small part. It knew from past trips that no water was to be expected until it came to Le Clare's Well or the town of Ajo, many miles to the north.
The man sloshed the contents of his one remaining canteen. He listened. Three quarters full. Well, that was enough, though not quite as much as he figured to have by the time he reached Six Bones. Enough to make out, though, particularly since the burro would be freed from the heavy weight it had been forced to carry.
Chotty lifted off the heavy sacks one at a time. He carried the three sacks to the cache and stowed Them away. On the way back, he stopped to look at the half dozen morose and ominous relics facing him from the rock shelf.
"What d'yuh think now, old timers?" he queried with rasping facetiousness, exposing his snaggled, stained teeth in a tobacco juice grin.
Chotty found something of humor in regarding these skulls, the last of these which he meant to replace, however. He paid no more attention to the other five mementos than he gave to the human coyote and vulture bones which fringed the poison spring; but skull number six meant something to his shrewd low mentality.
For a moment he sank to a seat made in the rock shade. He unhitched the big canteen from his hip, sloshed it gaugingly, then unscrewed the top. A short swallow. Ah! He held the ounce of liquid in his parched mouth, rinsed it back and forth between his broken teeth, enjoyed it to the full. Soon there would be no need of such parsimony. Instead of water he would drink good, heavy dark beer—champagne, even, if he wanted it!
Well, ten thou wasn't a real big fortune, at that. Beer would be good enough for Chotty as an everyday drink, however. Big, long, cool-sweating porcelain steins of it like Max used to describe. Sharp and yet smooth, a real drink. Plenty of high-proof, aged liquors, too; none of this hog-wash he got in Sediente and Ajo. Absently his left hand strayed toward the felt-covered canteen, strayed—and circled without touching anything. Circled, suddenly grabbed. It met vacancy!
He looked about sharply. He stared, goggled unbelievingly. He had leaned it against the rock face no more than a yard away. The canteen was gone!
There was no doubt about it. Chotty staggered erect. He stared. After a full minute his gaze fastened upon a perfectly unresponsive jutting of the rock. Then, inch by inch, his horror stricken eyes raised to the skull, to number six, the skull he meant to replace with that of Max which was lying out there. Did the damned thing grin? Did it know what had happened?
For minutes he stared, leapt about, scanned the stretches of sifted white for the footprints of one who had come and gone. There were no footprints! No one had come or left. Chotty and the burro were alone; not even the vegetation, sparse as it was, could have harbored as much as a lizard when he finished searching!
"A pack rat! The damn' thief!" he muttered in a dry, anguished croak. But he knew the habits of these rodents too well. For every article stolen they invariably left something in exchange—always a bone, a chip, something! The spot where the indentation of his canteen showed was bare. The canteen simply had vanished!
Or had he picked it up absentmindedly, and done something else with it? The thought seared across Chotty's mind, and suddenly he laughed. The cache! Somehow he had thrust the canteen in among one of the treasure sacks when he had put them away. Darn' fool! Still, it was almost certain. Any alternative was crazy to consider. There weren't any such things as spooks. A dead man was dead! His skull and bleaching skeleton out there couldn't even see or hear the taunts Chotty had been throwing out toward the immensity of the desert for the last weeks!
Quickly, almost feverishly, the broad, bent-shouldered man ran to the walled mouth of the niche ordinarily approached with such excessive care. He fumbled with fingers that scratched at the outcropping of shale of the sort which was hollowed for the honeycombed caves beneath the granite of Quitobaquita. He jerked. The paper thin shell of rock came away, small fragments dropping with a rattle of brittleness.
Before him loomed the shallow hole of the cache, an irregular tunnel not more than twelve feet deep and approximately large enough for a full grown desert wolf to enter upright ami crawl downward. It was dark there. Chotty, shaking now with an anxiety his dim cunning could not have interpreted, with fine cold beads of perspiration on a brow long baked by the desert sun, thrust in a hand, clutching for the last sack he had thrust into the cache. Clutching, circling in the dark. He did not stop to make a light, deeming none necessary.
It was not. His hand struck something—something cool, that moved! His mouth opening soundlessly as his eyes widened in a sudden, stark terror, he closed down a convulsive grip. Then a piercing shriek split the cynical desert silence. He leapt backward, fell to his shoulders. He squirmed, reached his knees. A—h-h-h-o-w-w!" The breath left his lungs in a sheer, indescribable gibbering of undiluted terror. Grasped crushingly in his paw were the dried, brown-tendoned bones of a skeleton's hand and wrist!
Not in vain had Chotty Bedell spent more than two decades in the desert, fruitless decades, in which the acme of accomplishment was this despoiling of that shriveled, bald-tufted, queer little rock-cracking sharp who had not even known enough to pack a gun. Now, however, with a staring panic of things he only half believed surging his heart at double beat against the walls of alkali salted arteries, Chotty still kept his senses to a degree. He was stricken to the marrow with cold, unanalyzable fear. Yet one gun was out, wavering to take in a huge sector of the unresponsive landscape, ready to throw down with iron precision, nevertheless, did anything move.
He had backed into the spines of one of the remaining barrel cactuses, the mute friends of the thirsty who came to the supposed spring, friends that for most part went unrecognized by those desperate ones or tenderfeet who fell victim to the poison water.
There Chotty Bedell was at bay; but nothing happened. Even the single black speck which was a buzzard sailing high in the darkling sky came no nearer. Wise, content to wait, perchance. The bird of ghoulish prescience.
The scare ebbed slowly from Chotty's mind and limbs. His wide eyes kept a focus, half hypnotized, upon that black blotch which was the entrance to his stolen treasure horde. All the sacks were there. Also there was a skeleton. Whose skeleton? Through his mind only one thought could get right of way. In the weeks now past he had clasped hands with one man whose bones were thin—like those that lay trampled in the alkali. Max!
But Max, the partner, was dead, and his bones lay out there, scattered by the winged and quiet footed scavengers!
Time ebbed. Chotty had planned to wait, to rest in the shade. He had not thought to crouch against a cactus, gun in hand, unshaded even at sunset, staring at the sun-burned rock as if he expected it to belch forth an army of malignant specters. He was thirsty now. His mouth and throat caught and grated as he tried to swallow. He suddenly remembered and shut his broad mouth through which he had been breathing. A suicidal failing that; one that a desert man such as Chotty ought never to allow; for always at the elbow of those who venture into or through the wastes is the gaunt, greedy hellion of thirst, waiting, sneering. What man of the alkali has not lived to see the day when the thirst devil has come upon him, altering deep laid plans, forcing a quick retreat or a flight, or worse?
Simply nothing at all happened. Chotty and his burro alone were there, night fell, and no one else was within sight, or appeared. After an hour Chotty allowed the gun to drop from his aching wrist. He sheathed it. Still, as the light failed, shifting position to take a final look behind, a fleeting look as had been all the others, he did not go nearer the gaping black irregularity from which he had plucked the skeleton hand.
There wasn't any sense in acting like a damn' fool, even if he wasn't afeared.
That canteen—A-course the skeleton just somehow had been in the niche, and he hadn't seen it. A spooky thing, a-course, but nothing much if it had been out in plain sight at the poison spring. Lots of them around.
Chotty talked aloud in a dry, grating voice. He was making preparations now for the long trip across the night stretches of alkali; and he was doing the job well, hacking down the last two of the cacti, stripping off pieces to chew, to assuage his brain, swollen tongue and throat. Even with the half-dry stuff to yield him a modicum of water, he would he a thirsty man by the time he reached the destination, which would be elsewhere, this time than the cache back on the other side of Quitobaquita. But he would reach it! With unburdened burro which he would ride a while before he slew it, he would win across at least eight or ten miles. The rest on foot. He had done more than this before. He would make it. The treasure?
Well, he had taken that with something of a grain of salt, anyway. After a time, if his small sample proved up to be anything, he would come back. Not too soon, though. Nobody came to Six Bones! His caches here and hack around the other side of Quitobaquita were almost as safe as if he had closed the thin shale cover to the niche and had never seen the down-swinging rope of Maxwell Kurtt. Anyway, if this cache was emptied when his buyer came to delve—for Chotty never would summon nerve to thrust his hand inside that blackness again—it probably would be small loss.
Dirty, gray-black stuff like slag; that's all it seemed to be! Chotty knew just enough to trust to some extent his chemist partner's enthusiasm, and to distrust his own scoffing. The stuff was almost heavy enough to be gold, but it certainly was not gold, or silver, or any other rich natural ore that Chotty recognized. Max, whose secrets the old map and the treasure had been in the beginning, never had explained.
But night was here. Chotty shivered. For the first time in some years he glanced about him fearfully, and then touched the bag which dangled above his breast bone. "I ain't scared. I ain't scared!" he assured himself in a mounting voice. But he was, and for no tangible reason beyond those which exuded from intuition or from conscience, two sources which may be the same. He had seen the tattered fragments of cloth, and the scattered bones which lay upon the spot where his partner had died of the arsenic poison. In daylight these did not now mean much more than a remembered satisfaction to Chotty. At night—well, he did not care to camp too near. Chewing on the watery cactus strips, lapping at his wrists when the juice ran down, he mumbled scaredly back to his blankets. Before seeking out the wherewithal for a fire and his supper, which he suddenly remembered, he gave one last look around. The sun had sunk, but twilight still clung on the peaks of Quitobaquita. Down here it was darkening, but up there, almost vertical from his position, the Sierra, rocky here as in several places southward, was tinged with a golden, mocking luster. Treasure!
Chotty banished his instinctive fears. He still was nervous, even after eating the viands he prepared from Max Kurtt's stores. Perhaps the jumpiness was due to some extent to the fact that he had not possessed a drink this day. Perhaps it only was lack of coffee; a low supply of water kept Chotty from making a pot of coffee, though he yearned for it as only a confirmed desert rat can wish. This time, though, the sacks of ore must take precedence.
Chotty, still chewing on a strip of cactus, lay down and rolled in his blanket.
HOURS passed. With the first gray finger of dawn stirring the murk of the zenith came that hour when nerves surrender, when outdoor men in the grip of fatigue sleep as in death.
Chotty had dreamed, had tossed, had wakened in a perspiration, gripping for his six-guns. But all that was past. He snored in long, deep measure, attaining a stridence and an enthusiasm in the cadenced sounds which would have done credit to a man of God, straight from a dole of Christian charity.
Now a stealthy shadow came in the pale light, came from nowhere, seemingly! It crept upon the recumbent man, not wasting time yet not hurrying. It reached the dark body in the blankets, felt stealthily here and there, drew forth two weapons. A few moments later it was at the packs, where it stayed a longer time. Then back through the darkness it went, inching backward like a crab, doing strange things to the surface of the ground, erasing the sign of its visitation as no true specter would have bothered to do.
"He had no other canteen!" reported Bill Halliday in a whisper. "I got all his cartridges."
FORTY minutes before the sun Chotty awoke. At first he regarded his surroundings dully, and pottered into the first details of breakfast making without as much as recalling his fears. Things were wrong, however. He could not find his canteen. Great heavens, it was not there!
In a rush all recurred to him. He snatched out a gun. Thereafter, even while he rushed madly hither and thither in the panic of deadly fear, he did not relinquish the weapon for an instant.
Without water he could not make coffee; and he had no more liquor. He could not eat, for that only would increase his thirst. He scarcely dared attempt the backward trip to his erstwhile partner's cache—and certainly not onward to Ajo through the burning heat of the day. Sediente now lay almost fifty miles distant.
Of course the stumps of the last cacti would yield some moisture, enough for himself, probably. The burro did not cross his thoughts any more than did the sooty treasure, the value of which he now doubted. Probably that little shrimp had been crazy as well as foolish; had dug up some worthless rock just because of its peculiar color.
Stern and swift was the reckoning dealt out to him. Before he could touch a knife to the cactus which was to yield him a water supply for this day on which he already was consumed by a maddening thirst, a long drawn, reverberating howl sounded, apparently coming from the depths of the narrow cave in which he had cached the five bags of treasure!
The skeleton! Chotty remembered, with rising hair, the hand and wrist of bone he had plucked from that supposedly empty chamber! It—
But It was running the show! "He has taken my ha-a-a-and!" bewailed the horrific voice in a tone of awesome despair. "What shall I do-o-o? My right ha-a-nd!"
"Take his-s-s!" counseled a shrilled, still more terrible voice in answer. "Take both of his—and then you'll have a spa-a-are! Take his skull-l-l too-o-o! Put it up there!"
In narrative there can be no true appraisal of the fright that gripped Chotty Bedell. All his life a victim of superstitions, he listened now to vengeful voices which proceeded from the bowels of a rock—and on the scene of a murder he himself had committed! He clasped the fetish bag. His eyes fairly started from their sockets, and he drew in great gasps of the dry air, paying no attention to thirst or the future perils thereof. The spirits were after him, were planning to cut off his hands and his head! For some seconds Chotty was paralyzed, frozen to the spot.
Queer, choked sounds came from his throat. Without aiming, without even being conscious of the fact that his finger was on the trigger, he snapped the hammer of one gun. It fell with a click, but no shot resulted. He did not hear it or know. With a sudden, choked scream he recovered use of his leg muscles and dashed for the thirsty burro tied there beyond the cacti, yanked loose the tether, and vaulted astride.
That second a hollow zoomp! like the noise of a firecracker exploding inside a very large, covered can, sounded. Chotty was breathing loud, stertorously, and barely heard it. He did not need to hear, however. The faithful, over-tired and thirsty animal between his shaking knees stopped, reared spasmodically upward, then dropped backward to the ground, stone dead. A red hole showed squarely between its eyes!
Chotty had not got out of the way in spite of the fact that he had not been using stirrups. The dead burro fell upon his left leg, but did no particular damage. Chotty was up, limping, in an instant. He cursed loudly, and with a break in his voice. Above everything else, above every thought for his own comfort, rose the hideous fear of that Thing concealed lack there in the cave cache! The skeleton had shot at him!
"Oh Chotty! Chotty! Give me back my hand!"
The beseeching, eerie cry cut through the moiled fog of his consciousness. He swung about, screaming an oath. He recognized that voice!
From a shoulder of the rock, walking in stiff, somber strides, and holding out a right sleeve from which no hand extended, came a ghastly, stiff-haired likeness of his dead partner, Maxwell Kurtt!
That was all Chotty could stand. He tried to fire at the Thing. Both his revolvers clicked unavailingly. Then Chotty shrieked in the extremity of terror. Flinging away his guns he swung about, and dashed on shaking, palsied limbs out past the spring, beyond straight into the desert where its arid width bleaches the long slopes of the sierra.
"Very good," said Bill Halliday grimly, stepping from the fissure which had given them access to Chotty's cache from a greater cave behind. "You're an actor as well as a scientist. I hope they try you out as Banquo's ghost, sometime."
"He's still going," said Max, who had not taken his eyes from the fleeing figure of his enemy.
"Yes, and he's got a darned long way to go—in that direction," assented Bill. "A good hundred miles before he comes to water. I think, little tillicum, that we may write off Chotty Bedell's many sins as expiated! Now—" and Bill Halliday changed the subject abruptly because he detected signs of weakening in the countenance of Max—"won't you give me the lowdown on this mysterious treasure. Gosh, I'm aching to have a look at it. Is it in those sacks back there in the cave?"
"Yes, part of it. Come with me," said Max. "Do you know, I kind of wish we'd let him off with his life?"
"A rattler's fangs fill up with poison overnight," responded Bill Halliday tersely. "When one tries to bite you, squash it!"
When the professor had pulled out and opened one of the cached sacks, Bill touched the dirty gray black stuff which Max called treasure, sifted some of it through his fingers. He looked up, not at all sure that the savagery of desert experience had not turned the brain of his little comrade. "This is worth a lot, you claim?" Bill asked doubtfully. "It sure looks like coke and slag to me. What about it, anyway?"
Max smiled. "Platinum black, my friend!" he said. "The treasure of Itimixtl was of pure platinum, carried away by the conquistador Mendez. I discovered it at length, as I wrote to you. Knowing that I should have great difficulty bringing in such a treasure—over half a million dollars' worth of it, I believe—"
"Wow!" interjected Bill truly astonished, his eyes boggling down at the uninviting looking metal. "A half million? Impossible!"
"It's not all here yet," Kurtt hastened on to explain. "All of it I changed over into platinum black, while I was back at the place I called the Blockhouse of Stone. It will be easy to transport it across the line to this point, and then bring down a mule train for the carry to the express company. Once we have it in a laboratory again, the reclamation of the pure platinum will be child's play. We have some work to do, and a little more hardship to face, yet—"
He stopped, the smile fading.
"Yet you get your research laboratory, and I—I—well, I have a chance, maybe—to—oh well, you understand!"
"I do, my friend," responded Max, offering his hand for a firm clasp. "If now I only could bring it about that Chotty would not perish out theremdash;" He stopped to gesture at the arid waste beyond. "Then I should be perfectly happy!"
Ever to remain unknown to the pair, Max's merciful wish was granted. Late the same day four Mexicans from Sediente, temporarily fleeing the town because of a visit of the rurales, came upon a staggering, mumbling things out in the wastes. They recognized Chotty Bedell, but Chotty did not recognize them—and never would. Listening to him, crossing themselves as do those of some Indian blood in the presence of insanity, they cared for his wants and took him with them. A year later a dull-eyed Chotty who mumbled, and who was denied his guns of sweeping death, rinsed glasses behind Old Ramon's scarred makeshift of a bar, in Mexico.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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