"My God, I wish he'd been born dead. He'll pour shame over ten generations of honest men"—declared Sheriff Weller of his desperado son.
THE sheriff said: "There was a Weller at sea when the Constitution sunk the Guerrière. There was a Weller at the taking of Mexico City. There was a Weller under Sheridan and another under Mosby. There was a Weller that died with Custer. And I've been sheriff of this country for twenty years. Not that I rank with the rest of the family. But I've kept on riding, and I've never turned my back. And now the Wellers come down to you—to you—and there's not another man in the family. You're the last. And you spend your time playing cards, thrumming on a damned guitar, making love to girls, and lazying around the ranch smoking cigarettes."
He pulled a long, sleek Colt forty-five with an eight-inch barrel from the holster. "Take this!" he directed.
Young Dick Weller took the revolver without rising from his position of perfect leisure in the veranda hammock. He had the long, sleek, easy lines of a mountain lion and a smile which was the most good natured and disarming that a man could wear. He used that smile on his father now, but it had no effect on the iron-gray sheriff. Thomas Weller had become a sheriff twenty years before, in order to carry on the bold tradition of public service in the Weller family and also because his huge holdings of land and cattle made it necessary for him to keep a close eye upon law and order. For twenty years he had struggled, and after all his ten wounds and his many battles he could only say that he had succeeded in part. Five years before, Papa Lermond, that prematurely bald young son of a lightning flash and the devil, had appeared on the horizon, and since that day the rustling of cattle had increased, to say nothing of stage and even train holdups. Ranches were raided constantly. In the three big towns there had been three big bank robberies. And the people who had looked up to Sheriff Tom Weller for twenty years were beginning to murmur against him more than a little.
"This gun," said the idle son who was to inherit all the wealth of the family—and the family's unstained name—dandled the long Colt for a moment and then said: "Has a good feel. Nice balance to this gun, dad."
"Look yonder," said the sheriff. "You see that pair of crows on the fence, there? Knock them off it. Sit up and try your luck!"
"I'll try my luck lying down," said Dick Weller, and swaying the gun to the side he flicked the hammer twice with his thumb. One crow disappeared from the top of its post, leaving a puff of black feathers hanging in the air.
The other shining bird left some feathers behind it, also, but rose with a startled squawking, then dipped towards the ground to gather more speed, quickly.
It kept on dipping, however. The revolver spoke the third time from the leisurely hand of Dick Weller, and the black crow skidded along the ground, turning over and over. It lay still. Only the wind fluttered the red-stained feathers.
"Shoots high and to the right," said young Dick Weller. "I wouldn't have it for a gift."
The sheriff narrowed his eyes. He was still staring at the two dead birds, but he seemed to be seeing his own thoughts, farther away than the dim horizon.
"Get your own guns, then," he said. "Saddle your own horse, the best you've got, and go get Harry Sanford for me. I appoint you deputy sheriff for this job."
"All right," said the son. "But who's Harry Sanford?"
"He's the right-hand man of Papa Lermond."
"Why go after Lermond's right hand? Why not go after Lermond himself?" asked the son.
"Why not go after the blue in the sky?" demanded the sheriff. "What I been doing for five years except trying to get Lermond? Do what I tell you, and do it fast!"
"Yeah. But tell me where this Sanford hangs out, and what sort of a looking hombre he is," answered Dick Weller.
"He's big. Dark as a Mexican. Last seen down near San Jacinto on the river."
"What's he done, recently?"
"Raised hell all over the map. Some crooks run off the cattle from his ranch and now he seems to think that the world owes him a livin'."
"Dad," said Dick Weller, "you know where he is and what he looks like. Why don't you give this job to Hughie Jacobs or Walt Miller, or one of the other deputies that's all set to make himself a big reputation?"
"You—" said the sheriff, "you don't need any reputation, eh?"
"I'd rather take it easy till there's some excitement around," answered Dick Weller.
"You know what you're going to be?" said the sheriff. "You're going to be a disgrace to the family name. There's plenty of people right now that say you haven't the nerve to be a man!"
"People will always be talking," said Dick Weller.
"Get up and out of that hammock and go get your horse and guns!" shouted the older Weller. "I don't want to see you back under my roof till you've put young Sanford in jail! Understand?"
"Well," answered Dick Weller, "that sounds pretty serious, I must say."
He sat up, slowly, in the hammock.
"I don't come back till I'm carrying the bear-meat. Is that it? I come back with blood on my hands or I don't come at all?"
"Say it any way you please," said the sheriff. "I'd rather see you dead than talked about the way people do now."
"All right," said Dick Weller. "I'd better go and make a reputation for myself."
SAN JACINTO was a mere junk heap of a town—mud walls with whitewash daubed over the dobe bricks. The white rubbed off near the ground and the occasional rains washed away small portions of the walls. The streets were deep in dust, which made them comfortable resting places for the pigs, dusting baths for the chickens and playgrounds for the children. The back yards of the little houses contained grave vines; the front yards contained hitching racks. San Jacinto produced, every evening, a certain number of tortillas and frijoles, a certain amount of wretchedly empty bellies, and a certain amount of song.
Dick Weller, riding down the street with his guitar, thrummed the instrument and made a contribution to the song. People came to the doorways and gave him their Mexican smiles, which are the most brilliant in the world—more white and less pink than the smile of the Negro.
He waited until he saw a girl in one of those doorways, the young body silhouetted slenderly against the lamp-shine from inside the hut. Then he stopped his horse, lifted his sombrero, swept it through a liberal arc in the greatness of his courtesy.
"Señorita," he said, "I am looking for a compadre of mine, Harry Sanford. Where shall I find him?"
The gruff voice of a man growled: "Maria, be still!"
But she answered: "What harm could come from such a caballero? Señor, you will find him in the cabin there on that side, in the house at the far end of the street, against the river."
"And where shall I find you, my lady?" asked he. "In the heart of what song, lovely Maria?"
Dick Weller rode on, while the girl in fact sent her pretty laughter after him, and he heard a man growling: "That music is smooth enough; I could sharpen a knife on it!"
Down to the end of the village passed Dick Weller before he dismounted and went on foot to the little house at the edge of the river.
The sunset lay like bright, flowing oils on the slack of the river; and the damp coolness passed gratefully into the air. Climbing vines shrouded the small house, to distinguish it from all the rest in the adjoining town; one light shone through a window, but the man of the place still sat outside to enjoy the evening, his chair tipped back against the wall as tall Dick Weller stepped around the corner of the house.
"Mr. Harry Sanford, I presume?" said Dick Weller, a gun in his hand.
But the gun was held low, hardly higher than the hip, and perhaps it was this casual position of the revolver that made Harry Sanford try his luck in a desperate chance. He leaned slightly to the left and snatched a sawed-off shotgun which stood against the wall beside him.
The thumb of Weller caressed the hammer of his gun without actually firing the shot. Instead, he stepped a little closer and with a whip-snap movement of his left arm drove the hard fist against the chin of Sanford. The other spilled loosely back against the wall. He would have fallen from the chair if Weller had not clicked a pair of handcuffs over his wrists and held him up by the chain which linked them.
Sanford, recovering himself, groaned heavily. Flying footfalls and the whishing of skirts brought a dark beauty of a girl into the doorway, exclaiming: "Harry? Anything wrong?"
Then the sight of the gun and the handcuffs stopped her, staggered her against the side of the door.
"Wife?" said Weller.
"Sister," said Sanford. "What are you?"
"Hm!" murmured Weller. "Sister? Get up and go inside." Sanford rose.
"You could have drilled me clean!" he commented. "Who are you?"
"Dick Weller. Come along, Harry."
They passed into the shack. There were only two rooms. A mist and hissing of cookery came from the kitchen door, and by the table, on which plates were laid out and knives and forks, stood the girl. Her face was sun-darkened with fear.
"Listen, sister," said Dick Weller, "why not lay the table for three?" And he took from his pocket the key that unlocked the handcuffs.
BACK in the little moldy hotel of San Jacinto, that night, Dick Weller wrote what was for him a long, carefully written letter:
Bad luck! Harry Sanford got away, the pair of handcuffs I have with me are still empty. all I can give you is a description of the sister of the criminal.
Name: Muriel. Height: about five feet six. Weight: about right. Eyes: blue. Hair: black as a crow's wing. N.B. with the same shine in it. Forehead: broad. Nose: straight and small. Mouth: delightful. Cheeks: dimpled. Chin: perfect. Throat: divine. Voice: like a song. Should she be arrested for complicity, malice aforethought, or anything like that?
I wait here in San Jacinto for your orders respecting her.
Your obedient son,
As Dick Weller was finishing this careful report in his room at the hotel he heard the trampling of many hoofs down the street, the sounds muffled by the deep, soft dust; he heard the jingle of spurs and went to the window in the hope of beholding an array of bright Mexican caballeros, always a sight to fill any eyes. But what he saw, instead, was a procession of four riders who guarded a handcuffed prisoner with naked guns. The leader of the procession was that human bloodhound, Hugh Jacobs. The sight of his starved face—for famine seemed to live in the heart of the man—sent a shudder through Dick Weller. There was only one reason why Hugh Jacobs served the law. It was because he liked to shoot at bigger game than bear and deer.
The same ray of broad, soft, yellow lamplight that had struck on the face of Hugh Jacobs drifted, in turn, over the features of the prisoner, and Weller saw the dark, handsome fellow he had met that evening at sunset—Harry Sanford!
The trail that Hugh Jacobs followed with his prisoner and the escort led up from the river bottom through a rough trail which was thickly bordered, here and there, by growths of tall brush. The horses went rather slowly because they had covered a good deal of ground on this day, and because the night was still and hot. When they reached the height of the trail among the hills, a movement of air was sure to make breathing more easy. In the meantime, the unseen dust rose in clouds and turned their throats dry.
Harry Sanford was saying: "The sheriff's been after me for a long time. He'll be proud of you, Jacobs. What sort of a fellow is the sheriff?"
"He's all right," said Jacobs.
"He has a son. What about Dick Weller?"
"No good," said the blunt Jacobs.
"I've heard he's quite a man," answered the prisoner.
"You've heard wrong. Shut up now. I've done enough talkin' to last me."
They toiled up another bend of the trail, the formidable Hugh Jacobs always in the lead with a rifle balanced across his saddle-bow, and then two men riding side by side with the prisoner. The fourth member of the group formed the rearguard. They were urging their horses a little more rapidly, now, in the hope of coming suddenly on the better air; and they had a thin sickle of a moon to give them light.
It painted black shadows under the rocks, but that light did not penetrate a thick copse at the right of the trail. Hugh Jacobs was just beside this thicket when a rider burst out from it with his horse on the spur, as suddenly as a bird from a cloud. The length of revolver-barrel clanged on the hard side of the head of Jacobs; but as he pitched from the saddle he yelled: "Dick Weller—turned crook—"
HUGH JACOBS, landing half stunned, picked up his fallen rifle and was about to use it when he saw that the rider who had dropped on them so suddenly had tumbled all three of his chosen men aside and was now fleeing at full speed, with the rescued prisoner beside him.
The deputy sheriff, waiting until he had a chance to shoot without endangering one of his own men, opened up a fusillade. But his hand was just a trifle unsteady and the moonlight was more than a trifle obscure. The result was that he was pumping lead into thin air, and very well knew it. His three men, following the example of their leader, did not pursue the fugitives. They merely sat still in their saddles and emptied their rifles.
And then the pair had disappeared among the big rocks of the lower valley and only the heat and ring of distant hoofs floated vaguely back to the ears of Hugh Jacobs.
Pursuit was not a useful thing. The horses of his own men were tired out; those of the fugitives were comparatively fresh and of a good quality, also. Rage burned the heart of Jacobs till his whole soul was dry.
"Did I hear you sing out that that crook was the sheriff's son?" asked one of the men.
"You heard right," said Jacobs.
"He wore a black mask, Hughie," said another.
"The jump of his hoss moved the mask up; I see him fair and square as he come bustin' at me out of the trees. It was the son of Weller, right enough. And—by God, I hope he hangs for it! I hope I have the pleasure of pullin' on the rope that chokes him!"
"But wait a minute, Hughie. Why would a gent like that want to spoil his old man's work?"
"Because he's a damned worthless, useless good-for-nothing, and that kind, they always take more pleasure out of doin' one wrong than out of doin' ten rights."
IT was on the next day that the sheriff sat in his office glowering at a letter which informed him that Muriel Sanford, sister of the criminal, was five feet six, her weight about right, her eyes blue, hair black and shining as a crow's wing, mouth delightful, cheeks dimpled, throat divine, and voice like a song. He had just said "Bah!" two or three times and crumpled the paper to hurl it into the waste basket beside his spur-scarred desk when his leading deputy, the formidable Hugh Jacobs, burst into the room with a purple lump on his forehead.
"Where's Sanford?" demanded the sheriff.
"I had him, and he's gone," said Jacobs. "Your fine, high- priced son that got all the book education, he jumped us on the trail and set Sanford loose!"
"Hold on—" gasped the sheriff. "Jumped you on the trail—but there were four of you, Jacobs!"
Hugh Jacobs swallowed. He took a long breath and blew it out again with an audible wheeze before he was able to say:
"Was I gunna shoot your own son, Weller?"
"You'd shoot the two of us, or the two of anybody, if you had a safe chance," said the sheriff truthfully. "What happened?"
"I been to the paper and told them all about it. I reckon that you'll be able to read it this evenin'," said Jacobs.
He raised a long, bony forefinger.
"I'm gunna foller him till I have it out with him!" he said.
"You won't have far to go," said the sheriff. And he spoke with a white and hard-set face. "It's the first disgrace to the Weller name, and it's going to be the last one. Find San-ford's sister; Dick won't be far away."
"If I go hunting him, I go with guns," said the deputy savagely.
"Yes," said the sheriff, whiter than ever, but his eyes burning. "There's only one law in this country and it goes for everybody in the land. My God, I wish he'd been born dead. He'll pour shame over ten generations of honest men that wore the name before him!"
THE papers did the thing justice, if not honor, by devoting big headlines to the tale. The three leading papers of the three leading towns in the county had not handled news as hot as this for a long time and they spread themselves.
Some of the space was taken up at the expense of Deputy Sheriff Jacobs, who was very well known and cordially hated. And the outstanding fact was that Jacobs and three of his picked men had been swept aside so that the prisoner could be free.
Instantly, young Weller became "the notorious desperado, Dick Weller."
Motives had to be found for this delivery, and of course the deep editorial brains surmised that there must have been a long connection between the two men.
"Dick Weller was probably desperate. A hidden career of crime was about to be exposed. He dared not wait for the moment when Sanford was compelled to answer the questioning of a district attorney. The result was the onslaught which overpowered Deputy Sheriff Jacobs and three picked men."
There was the usual dripping verbiage on the editorial pages: "Dishonorable son of an honest father—an old and esteemed name smudged forever."
But Dick Weller, as he rode down a mountain trail thrumming his guitar, lifted his head and sang with a cheerfulness that set the valley ringing. He had read those newspapers and laughed at them because he could not help feeling that a man's act is no worse than the purpose that inspired it, and if it was evil to love such a girl as Muriel Sanford, this was too strange a world for his understanding. As for the depth of trouble to which he had committed himself, it never entered his mind. That was why he sang so loudly and so long as he descended the mountain trail.
The cabin, when he saw it, was to him like a smiling face, and the bright flash of the stream that curved about it, whitening with speed along the mountainside, made him laugh aloud, interrupting his singing.
For Muriel Sanford was in that cabin, he was sure. He sent his mustang ahead at a strong gallop, with never a glance behind him; but even if he had paused to scan every boulder, every shrub, he hardly could have spotted the cadaverous face of Deputy Sheriff Hugh Jacobs or the dozen men who received his covert signal to close in on the little house.
WHEN Dick Weller came closer to the cabin he began to sing a song about the foolish world which built roads to Rome, whereas for him all roads led to Muriel. The girl came laughing into the doorway to greet him. The wind gave the old blue calico dress line and grace about her. Dick Weller dismounted, stripped bridle and saddle from the mustang, and picked from the saddle the limp bodies of four long-legged jackrabbits.
"But you had no rifle!" exclaimed the girl, taking that solid weight of fresh meat.
"No rifle?" exclaimed a big man, who loomed inside the shack. "Shootin' rabbits with a Colt?"
He came glaring at Weller as though at a liar.
"This is Martin Tully," said the girl. "He knows that you're Dick Weller."
"How are you, Martin?" said Weller, shaking hands. "I've heard a lot about you."
"Have you?" said Martin Tully, still staring from the dead rabbits to the hunter who carried no rifle.
"Oh, I've heard quite a lot," went on Weller. "You're Papa Lermond's right-hand man, aren't you?"
"Pa Lermond and I get along pretty good," growled Tully. "What else you heard about me?"
He stood leering with vanity. The girl had gone towards the stove and with swift hands began to cut up the rabbits.
"I've heard about the killing of Porky Morgan, and the cutting up of the Donald brothers, and the stealing of the Crispin horse, and the murder of those two fellows in the Second National the other day at Buffalo Crossing—"
"Murder?" said Martin Tully.
The girl started and whirled half around. Dick Weller continued to smile.
"What else would you call it?" he asked.
He hung his hat on a nail, poured some water into a basin, and began to wash his face and hands thoroughly. But he still wore his guns.
"Murder you call it, eh?" said Martin Tully. "What would you do if a fool stood up and sassed you back? You with no time on your hands? But—how'd you get to these rabbits? You never hit four jackrabbits in one morning with a Colt!"
"I tell you how I do it," said Dick Weller. "I sing them a song first, and when they hear me sing they have to stick their ears up and listen, and while they're listening I just walk up and shoot them through the head."
"The head?" growled Martin.
"Otherwise, a forty-five caliber slug wastes too much meat," said Weller.
Martin Tully, staring at the rabbits, saw that in fact each of them was shot through the head, the big slugs making frightful wounds.
"You sing to 'em, do you?" he murmured.
"I always sing before I shoot," said Dick Weller. "It makes things die happy."
"Men, for instance?" growled Tully.
"Why not?" asked Weller, with his bright smile. "Look at little Tommy Tucker, who sang for his supper!"
"What?" exclaimed Tully, suspiciously.
"Dick," ordered the girl, "you be good."
"And bring in a pail of water? I shall," said he.
He took the pail and held it over the wash basin which he had just emptied, and said:
"There's enough water here to wash one side of your face, Tully. You want it, don't you?"
"Hey, what you mean by that?" asked Tully, making a stride forward.
"I mean that Muriel will lend you the soap. She's a big- hearted girl!"
HE emptied the water into the basin and went singing through the doorway. Down to the spring he went, unknowing of six rifles which levelled at him from convenient range. But the range was not close enough to suit Deputy Sheriff Hugh Jacobs, who already had the smack and taste of sweet death against his palate. He held fire, and the others did not dare to shoot first. Hugh Jacobs was waiting hungrily for the day when he would be able to walk into the office of Sheriff Weller and say: "I put in a good week's work. I've just killed your son." He could say that safely and gloat in silence.
That moment, he felt, would feed in him the malice of a lifetime.
So Hugh Jacobs held his fire and Dick Weller returned safely to the cabin. As he neared it he heard the growling voice of Martin Tully saying: "I dunno that I'll stand it."
Weller went in.
"Here's enough water for both sides of your face and half your neck, Martin. Help yourself. I love to carry water in a good cause."
Martin Tully had a face which was almost exactly square. A slit of a mouth divided it almost exactly in half, because the chin of Martin was very large and his forehead was very low. This slit widened to the ears in a grin of rage.
"Are you maybe kidding me?" he demanded. "And what was that about murder, a while back? Murder was the word you used, kid!"
"It's a term that means, for instance, walking up behind a man, leveling a gun, and shooting, him through the back. You've done that, Mr. Murderer Martin."
"Martin! Dick!" exclaimed the frightened girl.
But Dick, standing cheerfully erect near the door, began to sing, very softly:
A crop-eared mule
And a one-legged stool;
An unpainted shack,
A chimney up the back...
Martin Tully, leaning his wide shoulders forward, stood in a perfect attitude to charge with his fists, or to snatch out a gun. But the song seemed to charm him. His face, which had altered in color a trifle, relaxed some of its fierceness. He ran the red tip of his tongue across his dry lips and then straightened.
"You're one of these funny kind of birds, eh?" said he. "Well, I guess you're all right. And I'm bringin' word to you from the chief—from Pa Lermond. He thinks that maybe he could use you, and he's willin' to see you."
"Tell Lermond," said Dick Weller, "that when I see him it will be with a gun in my hand. I hope he lasts till I get my own bullets in him."
"Tell him what?" gaped Martin Tully.
"Tell him I hope to sing the last song he'll ever hear."
"I'll tell him that, by God, and I'll start for him now!" exclaimed Tully in a rage. "You may be drunk and you may be crazy, but Lermond is gunna hear the words exactly the way you spoke them!"
"Thanks," said Weller, and watched the big fellow catch up a sombrero and stamp out of the shack.
"Wait—Dick, you can't send a message like that to Lermond!" exclaimed the girl. "I'll call him back!"
"Don't do it," commanded Weller. "I've seen all that I can stand of him. I may be living outside the law, but I'm not rubbing elbows with murder."
The pounding of the hoofs of a horse began near the cabin and rushed away from it.
The girl, from the doorway, looked anxiously after the rider. Neither she nor big Tully could realize how many trigger fingers were itching to shoot at the fugitive, waiting in vain for the deputy sheriff to commence the firing. But Hugh Jacobs was not wasting ammunition.
There was only one target at which he cared to shoot, on this day, and his gun was consecrated to that high purpose alone.
INSIDE the shack the girl turned back to her cookery. She was very worried.
"Suppose that Lermond gets this news," she said. "He'll never rest until he has you at some advantage, Dick."
He merely answered: "If I thought that Lermond didn't hate me I'd hate myself. Where's Harry?"
"He rode over to Crystal Creek."
She drew a great breath.
"I don't know," she said.
"You're doing a lot of fast guessing, though," said Weller. "Has he gone because we're broke again?"
"I don't dare to think, Dick," answered the girl.
"If we have to have more money," said Dick Weller, "it's time for me to contribute my share."
"You must not!" she exclaimed. "You've never broken the law, yet. You can't begin. If you do a single wrong thing it will break my heart, Dick!"
"I've done enough to make them want me—wearing guns while they come!" he told her.
"That was for the sake of poor Harry!" said the girl. "When I think what we've drawn you down to—"
"Hush," said Weller. "I did it for myself. And I'm proud of it, not ashamed. I'm not worrying about Dick Weller. I'm worrying about you. What's becoming of your life, out here in calico and cooking jackrabbit and canned tomatoes for a pair of tramps like Harry and me?
"You ought to be trying on engagement rings and refusing them because the diamonds are too small."
"Sit down here, Dick," said the girl, smiling up at him. "While you're eating you can't say so many foolish things."
"There's one foolish thing that I've been planning to say to you," said Weller, as he pulled back a chair and sat down.
He leaned forward eagerly. "Know what it is, Muriel?" he asked.
"I know what it is," she answered. She shook her head at him. "I'm the hundredth girl, I suppose."
"Hundredth? What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean that. Why, Dick, you're famous for loving girls and leaving them. I do love you, but not that way. You're the straightest and the cleanest fellow I've ever known, but—"
He had jumped up to protest, and as he moved a rifle clanged close to the house.
Deputy Sheriff Hugh Jacobs had drawn a sure bead on a man seated quietly in a chair.
He could not believe the trigger finger and the sure eye that told him the target suddenly had jumped away from his shot; and now he raised his voice with a great shout: "Close in! Close in!"
Answering voices ringed the cabin around on every side.
LISTENING to those shouts, tall Dick Weller said: "That's old Sawdust Jacobs come for me. So long, Muriel. I'm going out to have a talk with him."
She used both hands to catch one of his.
"If you move a step from the door I'll go with you! Listen, Dick—if they hurt you they've hurt you for my sake and Harry's. Wait till he comes back. He'll be here by the evening!"
"There are a dozen of them, at least," answered Weller, calmly. "Harry couldn't raise this siege."
"Hey! Weller!" sang out a long-drawn, nasal voice.
"Hello, Hughie," answered Dick Weller. "I've been missing you, old Sawdust! How's the place where your marrow ought to be, old buzzard?"
He stood close to the door, smiling as he talked. And the girl, throwing herself into a chair, buried her face in her arms.
"I hear you, Weller!" called Hugh Jacobs. "Are you gunna come out and surrender?"
"I could surrender to anybody but you, Hughie. I couldn't knuckle under to a carrion-eater like you."
A brief, wild yell of rage answered this taunt, but a dim sound of laughter came from other places near the shack.
"If you don't surrender, send the gal out of that shack," shouted Jacobs.
"You hear that, beautiful?" asked Weller. "You've got to leave the shack."
"I won't stir from it. They can't drag me away from you," she answered.
"She says that she won't go, Hughie. Will you send in a man to take her away by force? I'll promise not to salt him down with lead while he's doing the job."
"You think that I'd trust the word of a thing like you?" asked the deputy sheriff. "If she won't come out, and come quick, I'm gonna have the boys open up, and we'll comb that shack high and low, Weller."
"You hear me, Hughie? Are you half the man that people think you are, or do you really prefer, as most of us know, to shoot your game from behind?"
"Who says that I shoot from behind?" yelled the deputy.
"We all know about the case of Tim Hoolihan in El Paso," said Weller.
"You lie!" shouted Jacobs. "He turned to run. I couldn't help shootin' as he turned to run!"
"Is that so? What about Jake Mar-berry, down on the Little Big Horn?"
"I never shot him from behind!"
"That's what you say. The rest of us know the truth."
"You lie, and lie, and lie!" yelled the deputy.
"There was Stan Wilder, too; and Vince Gresham. All shot in the back, you murdering crow!"
"I tell you—by God!" cried the deputy, choked with wrath and with virtue, "I shot them all fair and square, fightin'. Nobody can say—"
"You old Sawdust liar," said Dick Weller. "You know that you were never in your life in a fair fight."
"Are you gone clean crazy?" shouted the deputy. "Didn't a hundred men see me face Jack Western?"
"After you got the bartender to put dope in his beer," said Dick Weller.
"If you stand out here, fair and square, I'll prove what I can do on you!" screamed the maddened deputy.
"You wouldn't dare. The moment that I stepped out you'd tip the wink and have one of your own men shoot me from behind. That's all you understand—murder! Murder!"
But, turning towards the girl, Dick Weller laughed a little, silently. And the girl stared at him with eyes which were empty of everything but wonder.
"I swear to God A'mighty!" raved the deputy, "that if you step out of that door I'll meet you fair and square and we'll shoot when somebody hollers a signal. Dick Weller, if you got half the makin's of a man in you you'll come out here and take your chance with me!"
"I'm coming now!" called Weller.
And before the girl could cry out he had issued boldly from the doorway.
In fact, she tried to follow, but utter terror made her knees fail under her.
DICK WELLER was walking calmly from the house, smiling, his hat well on the back of his head.
"Where are you, Sawdust?" he asked. "Where are you, old August heat? Where's Cactus Hughie? Where's the king snake? Where's Mr. Shot-in-the-back Jacobs?"
The deputy sheriff appeared suddenly from beside a great rock near the well. He had jammed his sombrero far down over his head, and he stood like a blue crane, his shoulders bunched and his head thrusting forward at the end of his long neck.
"All right, Hughie," said Weller, walking steadily towards him. "What sort of a trick is there in this job? How many of your men have been tipped to sink lead in me?"
"Not one—you rotten liar!" screamed Hughie Jacobs. "There ain't a man of them that don't know, if he shoots on his own account, he's gunna have it out with me afterwards."
"And what would that mean to any of them?" asked Weller. "They all laugh at you, Hughie, just as I laugh."
He began to sing, actually laughing through the words:
Here is the beanstalk and castle, alack!
Where shall I find my bonny boy, Jack?
"Take this to hell with you!" yelled Jacobs, and snatched out his gun.
Weller leaped sidewise like a frightened cat and fired at the flash of the steel in the sunlight. His own draw was so lightning fast that the advantage of the first move was quite stolen from the deputy sheriff. And the bullet, striking true by something far more than chance, knocked the heavy Colt out of the hand of Jacobs and flung it back against his body.
The deputy stared for an instant at his numbed, empty fingers, then snatched up the fallen weapon with his left hand.
He should have been dead long before he leaned for the gun, and he knew it. He was expecting the shock of a forty-five caliber slug through flesh and bones, tearing its way, every split second of this time of expectation. But the bullet did not come; the gun did not speak. Instead, a shadow flashed past him, skidding rapidly over the ground, and as he half straightened, the gun in his hand, he saw tall Dick Weller, racing like a deer, dodging from sight among the great boulders down the gulley.
The whole of the posse was up now, and firing at the fugitive, shouting with excitement. But the deputy cried: "The hosses! He'll get to the hosses! Run, for God's sake! And shoot straight—straight—"
He himself set the example. But it was not because he had any hope of overtaking the flying feet of the fugitive; it was merely that he hoped, running to this side and then to that, that he might get a clean chance at Weller.
Twice and again he had a glimpse and used it for a shot, but each time he knew, with the instinct of the perfect marksman, that he had missed his target by a scant inch or two.
THERE was another hope—that Chuck Thomas, worthy and proven fighter who had been left behind the shoulder of the hill in charge of the horses a mile away, might hear the rattling of the guns and come out to meet the runner, rifle in hand. Chuck was not a fellow to miss his shot. He was not a fellow to give up a chance at a fight for money or for fun.
In fact, Chuck did finally hear that distant uproar, and, coming up from behind the tree where he held the long line of the horses, their reins all tied together, he got on top of a low rock and shaded his eyes with his hands to stare.
He could make out figures swarming down the gulley; he could see the quick flashing of the sun on naked weapons; but he failed to look much nearer at hand, where a man ducked in behind some screening boulders and slipped swiftly down upon him. All that Chuck knew was, at last, a leaping shadow behind him, and as he whirled he received a crushing blow that sent him staggering.
He was not actually put down, but he discovered, as his senses cleared, that his rifle had been caught from the ground, his revolver had been snatched from its holster.
He, with empty hands, while the rest of his comrades came up beside him, heard the slow drumming of hoofs, increasing rapidly in cadence. And then, sweeping rapidly up the slope beyond, he saw the whole line of the posse's horses being led away at full gallop by a single rider.
ON the whole, we can stand anything but laughter; and Hugh Jacobs could endure mirth less than any other man. When he saw, in the little four-page newspapers of those country towns, the full details of the escape of "Desperado Dick Weller," when he discovered that the entire countryside was laughing heartily, even editorially, at the discomfiture of the celebrated man-hunter, Hugh Jacobs, the heart of the deputy was consumed by fire.
He was pursued by only one dream—the lovely vision of tall Dick Weller staggering while the bullets of Jacobs smashed into that young body.
Some of his posse had pointed out that it was strange that Weller had taken such a chance as to run by the deputy instead of shooting him down and making the break through the cordon sure. As it was, Weller had played tag with death—and had almost been caught!
Jacobs would answer to this: "Weller is a cool kind of a rat; but that day he was rattled. He didn't do no thinkin'. He just started to run for his life when he seen me reach for my gun, because he knew that I was as good with the left hand as with the right, pretty nigh. That's the reason of it."
But, in his soul, he knew that this was not true. It had been on the part of Weller the magnanimity of the truly chivalrous spirit which will not strike at a disarmed and helpless figure.
And this thought, instead of easing the burning pain of the sheriff, made his heart ache all the more and made him yearn more than ever to cast his coils about the fugitive.
And even terrible Papa Lermond no longer received the attention that followed this new and startling outlaw. People spoke of him everywhere, and when they spoke they laughed. They always laughed! And why not?
The stories came in by the score. Here he had stopped for breakfast and scrupulously paid down fifty cents for ham and eggs. There he had appeared and courteously begged of an old rancher for a look at the last newspaper. Yonder he showed his head again at a school picnic high in the hills and played leapfrog with the youngsters. A harmless man, it seemed, except when he encountered Barney Ginnis.
Barney was a celebrity in his own right, and had built up as black a reputation as any two men would need to get them through life. Behind him were clustered strange tales of dead men and the plunder of mines; to him were attributed half a dozen holdups of stages, and on his list were a dozen dead men. But there was never the actual damning proof which the law demands.
Then the story came in that Barney Ginnis, badly wounded, had been brought to the door of a doctor's house in a small village and left in the doctor's hands by a tall man who answered the description of Dick Weller, and who borrowed the doctor's guitar and sang to his own accompaniment before he left. Men said that this surely had been Dick Weller, but Barney Ginnis lay on his back, slowly recovering his life and strength and would not speak a word to explain his "accident."
What actually had happened was as follows:
Barney Ginnis sat in front of his shack smoking a pipe and content with the world because he had in his pantry a saddle of venison, in his locker plenty of guns and ammunition, and in his heart the consciousness that he would never have to lift a hand again in labor so long as he lived. He looked upon the world with a grim amusement when he thought of how he had plundered it and yet the clumsy hand of the law had allowed him to slip from its vengeance time after time.
The brain of Barney Ginnis was as swift, direct, unhesitating as the fore-paw of a wildcat. He could not appreciate subtleties which led to the loss of advantages.
DOWN the trail just above him came a rider who thrummed a guitar and whose gay voice proclaimed in song that kings have their thrones and misers their gold, the sky has its sun and rivers their sunlight, but he scorned them all because his lady filled his heart.
The tall rider with smiling eyes and a sun-browned face halted near Ginnis and said, cheerfully: "How are things, Barney?"
Barney looked at the stranger and said nothing. He was not unpleased by the young stranger, but he was so in the habit of being a churl that he could not change on the spur of the moment. He merely pulled on his pipe and looked away from the stranger towards a broad, flat-topped rock which lay near the spring that bubbled from the ground not far from the cabin.
"No news is always good news," said the stranger, cheerfully. "And as long as things are like this with you, I'd as soon tell you why I came. I want to borrow five or ten thousand dollars from you, Barney."
Even the rock-like calm of Barney was shaken by this remark. First he fingered the sawed-off shotgun, best of friends, which stood beside him; but then his wonder burst forth in the words: "Hey, whaddya mean?"
"Why," said the stranger, "you know how it is."
And then he sang in his pleasant voice:
Sharper than the tiger's eye
In the tooth of poverty;
Poverty is colder thrice
Than the winter's face of ice.
Barney Ginnis said nothing.
The man was not mad, he decided. But speech was not Barney's habit.
"That's why," explained the rider, "I've come to ask you for a loan."
"What sort of security?" asked Barney, finally. Not because he expected to have any faith in the answer, but because he wanted to prolong this queer conversation, the queerest in which he had ever been a partner.
The stranger answered, thrumming his guitar and singing:
Craven hearts are never loath
To give lying words and oath;
Singing birds are in the hedge
And their music is my pledge.
"Take your blather down the trail," said Barney. "I've had enough of it."
"If I can't sing money out of you," said the other, "I'll have to shoot it out."
And he slung the guitar behind his saddle.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Barney, frankly.
He caught, not at the shotgun, but at the revolver which was to him as important as life and soul. But the hand of the rider flashed sudden steel and a heavy bullet smashed into the body of Barney. The impact knocked him backwards against the wall of the shack. Still there was fight in him, but instead of shooting into the sprawling body, the stranger leaped from his horse like a cat, kicked the gun out of the hand with which Barney was trying to lift it, and then stood back, thoughtfully.
"Sorry, Barney," he said. "I sang for my supper and you should have been generous."
"What's your name?" asked Barney.
"Ah? You're him?" said Barney.
And he was comforted. He had dreamed, for a moment, that he was dying at the hand of a nameless man.
"Now, Barney," said Weller, "we can make a bargain."
"Yeah? Can we?" answered Barney Ginnis.
"I can leave you here to bleed to death," said Weller, calmly, "and bleeding to death is an easy way for you to die. And while you're dying I can hunt for your hidden money. Or else you can tell me where the money is, and then I'll pack you to the town and leave you on the doctor's front porch. How does that sound to you?"
BARNEY looked down to the blood that pulsed from his body. He was not afraid of death, and neither did he wish to throw away life.
"How would I be able to trust you?" he said.
"Look twice at me and you'll know that I do what I say."
"You'll find the money under the bread box inside," said Barney.
"Thanks," said the other, and stepped into the shack.
Everything was very neat, for no old maid is as precise as an old sourdough.
There was a tin box to keep bread fresh and moist. Under it Weller found a thin sheaf of greenbacks—a hundred or more dollars. He put this in his pocket and came outside again.
"That's a starter," he said. "Where's the rest?"
"There ain't any more," said Barney.
"All right," remarked Weller, and sat down to roll and light a cigarette. "There's no great hurry, except that you're bleeding to death."
Barney Ginnis looked again at the blood that pulsed out of his breast.
"Lift the flat stone by the spring."
So Weller went to the spring and heaved until he had raised up the big, flat stone. Under it he found a small hollow, filled by a package which was wrapped in tarpaulin. He took the tarpaulin by the edge and as he lifted the package unrolled and spilled on the ground—four thick sheaves of paper money in brown wrappers.
"Good boy, Barney," said Dick Weller. "I knew that you and I would get on together."
One blink of your bonny blue een,
One sound of the lark in your voice;
Of all that I ever had seen,
There was Barney alone for my choice.
"I hope you rot half a grain a day in hellfire," said Barney Ginnis, and coughed red.
"We'll have to look into this," said Weller. "If doctors can save you, they're going to have their chance."
He got cloth from the house, made a packing of powder-dry dust to stop the bleeding, and bandaged the breast of Barney.
"How do you feel, old son?" asked Weller when he had lifted Barney to the saddle of his horse.
"Shut your mug, and get on," gasped Barney.
They went on, slowly, towards the village. Even when the lights of it gleamed in the distance, Barney was sure that the life would all have run out of him before ever he came to the town. And still he kept his grip on the pommel of the saddle and set his teeth hard against the black poison of despair.
And so he was surprised when, actually, Dick Weller helped him from the saddle and then, with astonishing strength, carried the bulk of Ginnis up the path to the porch of the doctor's house and knocked at the door.
Footfalls came at once, and Weller, leaning over the wounded man, said: "There they come, old-timer. They'll fix you up. You're a pretty game old devil, and when I ride past your shack again, I'm going to put back half of what I've taken under the big flat stone by the spring."
Perhaps that was why Barney, when they found him lying bleeding and silent, nevertheless wore a faint ghost of a grin on his iron face.
DICK WELLER knew where to find Harry and Muriel Sanford, but the way to them was not easy. Outraged authorities had put a price on his head by this time, not because of things he had done, but because of crimes which could not be traced to malefactors and which were, therefore, shifted in blame to the head of that singing, careless, laughing desperado.
Besides, Dick Weller was in no great rush. It was true that he wanted to get Muriel and Harry out of the country and that he now had over forty thousand dollars in his pocket to foot the bill, even after restoring half the loot to the tarpaulin under the big flat rock; but since he had no means of accomplishing his purpose it was pleasant to loiter along the way.
Also, to gain the reward in cash and the greater reward of having put down such a famous man, posses had started out from all sorts of towns and were combing the range for him. No less than three times he almost ran into the toils.
And that gave the indefatigable deputy sheriff, Hugh Jacobs, the time necessary to prepare to strike again. It was not for Weller that he struck, directly, but, as he confided to the gray- faced sheriff: "I've spotted Harry Sanford and his sister again, I think; and if I can grab them I'll have Dick dead before long!"
The sheriff said nothing, because there was nothing for him to say. If some people were a little sorry for the terrible plight in which he found himself with a wifeless and a childless life stretching ahead of him, there were always others to say, with the poisonous cruelty of the casual man: "It must be Weller's own son. A man gets out of his family what he puts into it. If you put nothing but cash into the raising of your son you'll reap nothing but trouble in the long run."
And so Hugh Jacobs went across country with his dozen picked men, all of them fellows who had been made fools of in that first great attempt to capture Dick Weller, three of them men who had twice before been baffled by the outlaw. For Hugh Jacobs knew perfectly well that there is only one way to use a beaten man, and that is to give him a chance to take his revenge. The result was that his dozen followers were ready to lay down their lives, if they could have a chance to strike one hard blow at famous Dick Weller.
The hint which had reached the ears of the deputy sheriff was that Harry Sanford and his sister, who so devotedly refused to leave the outlaw, were somewhere on the bank of the Tulomay River. So he went up the river as cautiously as a hunting cat and there, sure enough, he found Sanford and Muriel. They had the two covered with a dozen rifles in no time, while Sanford was busily cutting up a fat stag which he had just brought into camp. With the red unwashed from his hands he was tied against a tree and gagged. Muriel Sanford was tied also.
Deputy Sheriff Jacobs, licking his dry lips with savory satisfaction, said: "They've seen Dick Weller hither, and they've seen him yon, but we'll sure find him dodgin' into this here camp before long. So set tight and don't you make no noise."
However, as the hours of that afternoon wore on, and the evening came, Sanford was ungagged for a time, allowed to eat, and then fastened once more in his place.
The deputy said to him: "When he comes nigh the camp is he likely to holler out to make sure that everything's all right?"
But the other said nothing.
"He's sure likely to send in a holler," said the deputy. "And if you'll sing out that everything is all right I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll turn you and your sister loose. The point is, Sanford, that the law wants you pretty bad, but not the way it aches to lay hold of that rat of a Dick Weller."
Sanford laughed in his face; and the deputy, in a fury, struck Sanford a back-handed blow across the mouth that brought a stream of blood.
It was too bad that the deputy had drawn that blood. It was a thing which he would live to think about in other days.
HOWEVER, before he had the man gagged again he said to him: "You oughta see that your partner can't last it out. It ain't only the law that's agin him, but it's your own people. You know how I got the tip that I might find you here? Right through the men of Papa Lermond. Know that? They figgered that they didn't want to hurt you, but they sure wanted to get rid of that Dick Weller. There ain't but few that wouldn't be happy if that varmint was dead!"
However, since the prisoner would not make conversation even on this point, Jacobs gloomily gave him up as a bad cause and had him well gagged again.
He could trust to fear to keep the mouth of the girl closed, he felt. He had said to her: "If a sound comes and you yell out, I'm gunna bash your face in with the heel of my gun. Understand? I'm gunna spoil the pretty face for you!"
This was enough, thought the deputy, to close the throat of any girl with a handsome face.
And now the camp grew very still, for with the sunset, instead of turning in, the thirteen watchers sharpened their eyes and prayed for the moonlight to brighten. And the moon was in fact not far above the tops of the trees when, from the black bluff on the farther side of the little river, a singing voice and the thrumming of a guitar floated down to the hushed camp.
The boulevards are pretty gay
But I prefer the homeward way;
The city lights are sort of pale,
But stars are on the old mule trail.
The tree tops thickly fenced away the view of the top of the bluff, but to every mind that listened to the song came the picture of the tall, familiar figure, with the guitar held in the cradle of one arm.
And then the needle-sharp voice of the girl screamed: "Dick, keep—"
The leather-hard palm of the deputy sheriff was clapped over her mouth so hard that her head was struck violently back against the tree on which her shoulders rested. She turned limp.
"I gotta mind "—said the whisper of Hughie Jacobs—"I gotta mind to wring your damn little neck for you—I gotta mind to—"
There was a soft rustling of the brush and Hal Perkins loomed, panting: "I seen him clear, right up agin the moonlight in the sky. I seen him as clear as a lamp. I might of brung him down with one shot, but moonlight makes mean shootin'."
"The question is: has the gal scared him away?" asked the deputy sheriff. "Damn her, has she scared him off?"
"No, after she sung out he waited there a minute and then rode up the bluff. He didn't ride back into the back-lands; he didn't start away fast."
"He's comin' down to investigate," said the deputy sheriff. "Where can a hoss cross this here man's river?"
"Fifty yards up is the ford," said Perkins.
"Hal, you gunna be worth your weight in gold to all of us. There ain't no other ford?"
"Not a one."
"I mean to say, you sure they ain't no place where a hoss could get across inside of a coupla miles of here?"
"Listen, chief," said Hal Perkins, "I been raised around here, and I know. The old Tulomay, she runs like a flight of arrows all the way, inside of steep banks, like there is down here. But up there fifty yards she pools out, like you seen her. She's four times as broad and as shallow there, and she don't run her current so fast. There ain't no other place where a hoss can cross her. No, not inside of ten miles!"
"Good!" said the deputy sheriff. "Then he's comin' down the far bluff, and he's sure gonna cross at that ford. Now, I ask you, how could that hombre get away from the thirteen of us, when he comes across that there ford in the full moonlight, him ridin' slow on a hoss and our rifles ready? I ask you, how?"
"THERE ain't no way," agreed several thoughtful voices.
"Hal, you done fine," said the sheriff. "Now, you stay on here and see that this couple don't get the gags out of their mouths. I put a mean one inside the jaws of that girl; I half hope that it'll choke her, and maybe it will. Mind that the hosses don't start to neighin', neither. If they start up a chorus he'll sure know that there's a crowd on hand waitin' for him."
Hal Perkins was so eager to be in on the keener "fun" of ambushing the lone rider that it required a stiff word or two from Hughie Jacobs to quiet him, and then the party of a dozen men went up the bank of the stream.
Before them the ford stretched wide, the water fairly quiet except for the shadowy current that swept through the center of it. And overhead the moon showered a deadly brightness, throwing out the black images of the trees only a little distance on the silver of the Tulomay.
Deputy Sheriff Jacobs, putting each man securely inside covert, rubbed his hands as he sank into his own chosen place. He had, at last, set a trap from which there could be no escaping. And now, clearly in view for an instant, a rider appeared against the skyline at the top of the opposite bluff.
He was only in view for a single instant, since the horse pitched at once down the steep slope and against the darkness of that background was practically invisible.
They heard, also, the thrumming of the guitar, and then the voice of the singer as he raised his song even on the steepness of that slope.
"He don't suspect nothin'," murmured the sheriff to his nearest companion.
"He didn't understand nothin'," said the other. "There wasn't enough words for him to find out. That's all there was to it."
"Ay, that's all there was to it," said the deputy. "My hand it sure worked fast on that mouth of hers; and it sure worked hard, too. Doggone her, I wished I'd broke her neck."
After a time the deputy muttered: "But seems to me like we'd oughta see him comin' out through the trees before this."
"Likely, he's got down and tightened up his cinches before he takes his hoss into the ford. A lot of hosses get kind of tricky in cold water, like this here."
"Ay," said Hugh Jacobs. "Ay, and that's likely. But still—by this time it looks to me like there was time for him to of come through the brush and cinch up his saddle, too."
"Time always seems slow when you're watchin' something," answered his companion.
High above them an owl checked its stoop and shot up into the sky again.
ON the farther shore, a little back from the bank, Dick Weller stood in the stirrups and looked through a gap in the brush.
The outcry he had heard from the girl had not gone unheeded. It had startled him like a knife thrust—that broken cry and then the silence. He had to get back to the camp quickly, because there was a riot of fear in his thoughts. And there seemed only one way of going. That was why he had ridden straight over the bluff and down towards the ford. If men were watching for him they would look in that direction. If they saw him once against the sky they would certainly wait a long time before they grew suspicious.
As he stared across the dazzling white of the stream towards the mysterious darkness of the trees on the farther bank, he saw an owl stoop, then veer up suddenly, swing to the side, and finally slide away on hurrying wings across the tree tops.
It had seen something which interrupted the entire course of its intended hunting. And that was enough for the hair-trigger wits of Dick Weller. He smiled a little, and instantly tethered his mustang and left it.
The guitar was what he hated to desert. He touched it with a caressing hand before he laid it away in the branches of a tall bush. Then he took off his boots, tied them and his revolver around his neck, and slid instantly into the current.
A horse could not ford that darting stream with a man's weight on its back. And even Dick Weller, swimming like a fish, found himself unable to make headway in the middle of the stream. He had to abandon gun and boots before he could bite into the shadowy rough middle of the Tulomay. But once past that icy center of danger, he was quickly on the farther side, and waded up the bank.
He paused to wring or slick the water out of his clothes. Then, in bare feet which served him as well as eyes could serve another man, he made his way soundlessly up the bank. There was no camp fire to greet him with its yellow eye glancing through the brush, and that was strange, also, because certainly his song from the edge of the bluff had been heard.
Like a cat he went testing the ground with his bare toes before he entrusted his weight to it. And so, brushing gently through the trees, he came upon that long-remembered scene of two figures tightly bound against trees, their mouths stuffed with gags, while a tall fellow slouched back and forth with a rifle over his arm, and spurs jangling faintly on his heels.
Now and again Hal Perkins stopped and erected his head a trifle. He had turned, his back to the place where Dick Weller waited, when he repeated this attitude of intent listening; but his ears were not good enough to tell him of the leap of the barefooted man. The crook of Weller's right arm clamped around the throat of Perkins and jerked him flat on his back. By the time he staggered to his feet again the muzzle of his own rifle was against his breast. And before him there was a dripping figure with very bright eyes and a smile.
Gradually he realized that it was Dick Weller.
"Cut the two of them loose," said Dick Weller. "I'll watch you, partner, while you do the work."
And Hal Jenkins, in a trance of fear, obeyed. Afterwards he sat obediently while a rope was wound about him and he was gagged and bound in the place of Harry Sanford.
Still, enchanted by fear as he was, he was able to remember, afterwards, certain valuable details.
For one thing, he remembered that the girl, when she was free from her bonds, began to cry a little and then stamped her foot and gripped her hands to make herself stop.
He remembered that Dick Weller leaned as though to kiss her and that she said: "No, Dick!" after which he straightened again without a word.
He remembered that Dick Weller said to Sanford: "How did that blood come on your face?"
"Hughie Jacobs whacked me," said Sanford.
And Weller said, quietly: "I thought that I'd have to kill Jacobs. I know it, now. I swear to God—"
"Stop it, Dick!" broke in the girl. "And quickly, quickly, before they come back—"
They got the horses together.
Then, after they had mounted—counting the extras there were nearly twenty horses in that long line!—Weller said: "I've had to give up another banjo, and I'm damned mad about that. Muriel, help me with that song about the sorrel horse and the old grey mare, will you?"
The girl laughed a little, softly.
But, when the song was raised, she carried a part of it, still laughing, and a pretty picture she made with her laughter and her singing in the moonlight.
It was this song that came like a disaster to the ears of Hughie Jacobs and his men.
I'm gunna leave my home;
I'm goin' to love to roam;
I'm goin' away-ay-ay;
I've found my day-ay-ay!
TWO blows are better than ten—two that land on the same spot. And Hughie Jacobs had been hit twice on the same spot—hard. He had gone out by himself alone, many a time, and brought back his man. Now he had gone out twice with numbers and failed. And his lean face was convulsed with agony when he read the comments in the county newspapers.
AMUSEMENT OR HABIT?
DEPUTY SHERIFF MISSES MAN
LOSES ALL HORSES AGAIN.
The account that followed had its stinging moments, also. It said, in one portion:
"When Desperado Dick Weller is out of horseflesh and doesn't feel like paying good money for new mounts, he never worries a great deal. He simply waits for Deputy Sheriff Hugh Jacobs and a strong posse to overtake him. Then he laughs at the deputy sheriff, takes possession of the horses, and rides happily on his way.
"When asked about this, Mr. Jacobs could say nothing. We agree with him that there is hardly anything to say."
So ran the newspapers.
But Sheriff Tom Weller had something else to say. He announced it in print.
"Various attempts have been made to apprehend the well-known criminal, Richard Weller. I have made up my mind to go out and take him or never to return."
When people read that comment, they looked at one another. Then Charlie Street, one of the most prosperous ranchers of the county, stopped the sheriff on the street and said: "Tom, are you gunna light out after your own son?"
"I've swore an oath to uphold the law," said the pale sheriff.
"God A'mighty won't encourage you none," said Charlie Street, and went on his way.
In fact, most men felt that there were frightful calamities in the air when blood was ready to fight against itself. But the grim sheriff rode out with six chosen men and struck for the trail of his son.
That was the time when Papa Lermond came down on the Western Limited, stopped the train, overturned the first two coaches, caused the death of eleven passengers, and escaped with a quarter of a million. Other posses quickly started on that trail; but the sheriff remained quietly at work of the task in hand.
He set a trap at Bison City and it barely failed to close on Dick Weller. He prepared his meshes on the trail between Haley and Four Rivers, but was eluded again. He rode at night into the cow-camp of Steve Marshal only to find that the man he wanted had ridden away half an hour before.
Commenting on these failures, the county newspapers said: "Sheriff Tom Weller has failed again in his pursuit of his son, while Papa Lermond runs loose and free. Sheriff Weller only misses his son by a few minutes each time. But he keeps on missing. This is very strange. Perhaps the voters of this county will notice the strangeness of it at the next election."
This was the talk which was in the air far and wide, as well as in the newspapers, when Dick Weller sat over his portion of a saddle of venison which had been roasted in a Dutch oven and said to Muriel Sanford: "You know, Muriel, that I've been riding this trail for quite a while, but now my father is on it. What about cutting all of this and going away with me? What about marriage?"
BUT the girl said: "Dick, you're the best I've ever known. You're so good that you even can persuade yourself that you want me."
"You mean that I don't mean it?" asked Dick Weller.
She smiled at him curiously, sadly.
"You know you don't," she said. "But you've saved the San fords so many times that you begin to think that they must be worth saving."
"Wait a minute," said Dick Weller. "Does that mean you really are not interested? Does that mean I'm barking up the wrong tree?"
"I'll never marry a man outside the law," she said.
"I'm glad to know it," said Weller, soberly, and said no more on the subject.
"Muriel, you're talking through your hat," said dark, handsome Harry Sanford. "Do you realize what you're saying? This is Dick that's talking to you."
"I realize everything," she said.
She realized it so well that she was awake, late that night, when she heard a little crackling of twigs, as though underfoot, and instantly roused herself. Then, far off against the dimness of the moonlit sky, she saw the faint outline of a rider who sat singularly straight in the saddle.
The moment she saw that figure, she recognized it, and started running in pursuit, crying out: "Dick! Dick!" But the rider went on, far beyond earshot.
When she came back within the range of the ghostly light of the red embers of the campfire, she saw a tag of paper pinned under a splinter of a log by the place, and when she took the paper she read:
If I can't interest you outside the law, I'm going back inside.
Under the note, pinned by the same strong splinter, there was a thick stack of greenbacks.
And on that same night, just as the light of the dawn was beginning, the man who mounted watch at the mountain camp of Sheriff Tom Weller saw a rider come vaguely out of the horizon and head towards the camp.
"Who goes there?" he challenged.
"What's this? Part of the United States Army?" came the answer.
To which the sheriff's man very properly answered: "A damned sight better than the best part of that army. Who are you, hombre?"
"Looking for Sheriff Weller."
"Who's been stealin' your cows?" asked the sentinel.
Then he saw, by firelight more than the radiance of dawn, the face of the rider who was approaching him. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder.
But Dick Weller merely said: "Don't be a damn fool," and rode on in to the fire. There he dismounted, threw the reins of his horse, and kicked together the embers of the fire.
"Got any chuck around here?" he asked. "I'm hungry. By the way," he added, "do something more for me, will you?"
"What's that?" asked the sentinel, staring hard at the fugitive, but still looking down the sights of his rifle.
"You might wake the sheriff up and tell him that he's captured that desperado—you know the one that I mean—that desperado, Dick Weller."
THE sheriff travelled for three days, slowly, carefully, through the mountains, with handcuffs on the wrists of his son. And for three days the sheriff's chief deputy, Hughie Jacobs, never took his eyes from the prisoner, never left his side by day or by night. Hughie Jacobs was perfectly silent most of the time, because he was receiving more through the eyes than his ears could ever tell him. He was seeing, daily, hourly, momently, the perfect vision of his greatest enemy, the man who had disgraced him, locked inside handcuffs, helpless. He had been present at the surrender of Dick Weller; that was enough to wipe out the blots on his record. There was only one ghost to spoil his happiness and that was the question: Why had Dick Weller surrendered?
The question grew always more and more important.
Now when the sheriff found his son in his hands, he could remember old formulas according to which he had handled other cases of captured criminals in the past, and according to these formulas he tried to handle the case of Dick.
For instance, when he sat down beside his son and said: "Now, Dick, whatever you say is likely to be used against you, but I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Blaze away!" said the son.
And he turned his bright, thoughtful eyes on his father.
"On the eleventh of August, were you in Tucson?"
"Yes," answered Dick.
"Were you in Tucson, and present at the death of Doc Manly and Joe Price?"
"Oh, sure," said Dick Weller. The sheriff closed his eyes for an instant.
Then he said: "Is it true that on that day and date, seeing the two men, you walked up behind them and fired a bullet into the back of each, because of which wounds they died instantly?"
"Why should I have killed a pair of fellows I never saw before?" asked the prisoner.
"I ask you the question."
"All right. Write down that I killed them."
The sheriff closed his eyes again for a moment. Then he nodded and wrote down the answer which meant that his son would hang.
He consulted a list and asked: "Did you meet Stewart Liscomb on the trail between Pine Wood and Red Stone and shoot him dead?"
"Stewart Liscomb? What did he look like?"
"I don't know," said the sheriff.
"Neither do I. But I suppose I may have killed him."
"Did you, on August nineteenth," said the sheriff, "feloniously and with purpose to kill, attack Jim Stevens in the Bar One Saloon in Little Bank?"
"I suppose so," said the son.
The sheriff jerked up his head.
"How did you get from Pine Wood to Little Bank inside of two days," he asked, "without a bird big enough to carry you?" asked the older Weller.
"I don't know," said the son.
"Are you telling me the truth or are you lying?" asked the sheriff.
"I'm making things easier for the law," said Dick Weller. "I never killed a man in my life."
At this, the sheriff shut up his notebook with a slam and growled: "Why don't you say so, then?"
"Why should I say so?" said Dick. "Nothing I say will be believed unless I 'confess.' You and the rest have made up your minds that I'm no good."
"I never made up my mind to that," said the sheriff. "You've thought so for years," said Dick Weller. "You tried me at cow- punching and fence-building and mining and timbering, before you washed your hands of me."
"I never washed my hands of you."
"That's not true. From the day I came back from school, you were ready to suspect me of everything. I'd looked inside a few books, and you knew that they must have ruined me—so you said!"
"Dick, you can say what you please and I'm not able to contradict you."
"The truth is always hard to contradict. Let me tell you another thing. The reason that I never wanted to lift a hand was because you kept the doubt in your eyes whenever you looked at me."
"You are the last of the Wellers," said the sheriff.
"Damn the Wellers," said the son. "I'm sick of hearing about them. Because you're proud of the family you would have sent me to hell. I was too lazy to suit you. The only reason you wanted me on earth was because you didn't want the straight line of the old blood to die out!"
"Nonsense," said the sheriff.
"Be honest. I'm telling the truth."
"You've shown your blood," said the sheriff, slowly. "You showed it the moment that you got off by yourself. I sent you to arrest a criminal. You preferred to rescue him from the hands of honest men."
"Honest like Hughie Jacobs, you mean?"
"I mean that."
"I haven't any regrets," said the son.
"I know that," said the father, bitterly. "I can see the happiness in your face, Dick. Danger for its own sake or for the sake of the money you can get out of it. And that's why it's better to put you in jail. Better to keep you behind the bars for life than to have you endanger the lives of other people with your freedom."
"I'm not asking for your pity," said Dick Weller.
The sheriff turned away and his heart was ashes in him. He had no other children, no other relatives. He could see his estate dissolving among the hands of many men and the name of the Wellers clouded and lost in a final disgrace.
THEY entered Rifle Pass, which, straight as the barrel of a gun, cleaves through the mountains, a chasm so long and so narrow that from one end the gap at the farther side appears hardly larger than the spot of brilliancy seen through the sights of a rifle. The rocks seemed as hard as metal. They have a steel sheen, and the cliffs rise to such a height that one feels a nervous sense of being shut away from the sky, a half-buried feeling. The bottom of this gorge is somewhat furrowed by the action of the water which cut the entire gap, working at leisure for a few million years. But that soft chiseling has ended. There is no water at all in Rifle Pass except the few pools which remain standing for a time after melting snow has trickled down into the gorge. And on this hot day the rocks glowed as though they had been through a furnace and there was not a sign of a drop of water anywhere.
However, Rifle Pass was a convenience because in its short length it carried one through the mountains without having to spend weary leagues of effort among the rough lands above timberline, and the hoofs of the horses, as though they wanted to escape quickly from this sleek piece of hellfire and hot rock, began to jangle the echoes with redoubled speed as they pushed on down the gap. They were well past the center of the gorge when something spatted and hissed on the polished face of a rock near Dick Weller.
He saw, or thought he saw, a thin streak of light appear on the stone. Then the long, distant ringing of a rifle report came swinging down, dim in the thinness of the mountain air.
A sudden fusillade followed. The air was alive with bullets. A swift knife-cut, a slash with a red-hot knife slithered across the ribs of Dick Weller beside his heart. But he was the only one hit as the party made for the only shelter. That was a single cluster of great boulders which lay in a heaped circle of confusion near the center of Rifle Pass. Looking up, one could see a great section bitten out of the south wall of the pass; and here the monstrous fragment has loosened and fallen into the gorge. The cliff was so high that the niche in it did not appear very huge, but in fact the individual boulders were tons of weight. And the sheriff's party quickly scattered here and flung themselves out of the saddle.
The place was intolerable, instantly. That heat which was bad enough in the open was now frightful. The boulders, offering more surface to the sun, had soaked up its heat and now were giving it back into the frightful strength of the noonday. The air quivered with the hot radiations. Instantly, sweat sprang out on the bodies of the tough mustangs and thirst struck the roof of every man's throat.
And from the edge of the lip-rock, down the valley, a thin sound of cheering reached them. It was echoed from the west end of Rifle Pass, a certain proof that both ends of the gorge were blocked. And there the posse would have to stick like so many fish in an oven.
There had been no water on the upgrade leading to the pass. Canteens were nearly all empty—except that of lean Hugh Jacobs.
And the heat sucked moisture with terrible suddenness out of the bodies of the men.
The great red blotch that stained the side of Dick Weller seemed a trifling thing. The pain from the wound was nothing compared to the torment which he suffered instantly from the oven in which they were placed. It was the concentrated essence of a Death Valley. The men began to fumble at their throats at once and look wildly at one another.
And even the wise sheriff could give them no comfort.
They knew and he knew what had happened. He had hunted men for twenty years, and now men were hunting him and they had him cornered. He was as good as dead, and the rest would go down with him. This, in silence, stared out of the eyes of them all.
THE sheriff went to Dick Weller and bent to examine the wound, but Dick said, coldly: "It's a scratch. The bleeding won't be bad. And we'll all be cooked brown before I die of the bullet, father." It seemed true enough. And after sunset the light of a high moon would gild that valley with silver and expose the fugitives to rifle fire, if they attempted to escape. They were as thoroughly caught in the trap as though chains held them.
They could live through this day. On the morrow they would begin to go insane with thirst.
Dick Weller sang, softly:
Oh, were you ever in Lonesome Town,
Where the men are red and the gals are brown,
And sow-belly's all that they will cook,
And every day has a Sunday look?
"Quit your damn noise," said Deputy Hugh Jacobs.
"All right," said Dick Weller, "but I'll tell you what, old son. I'm the only man who can show you fellows the one way out of this corner."
THE sheriff, rebuffed by his son, had stepped back and looked at Dick with a singular sadness. But now he said: "You have a brain, Dick. What's your scheme?"
"Take the handcuffs off me," said Dick Weller.
"Yeah, I thought that would be the first part of the idea," sneered Hughie Jacobs, thrusting out his head on his long crane's neck.
"Then put me on my horse," said Dick Weller, "and let me cut loose out of this. I'll go down the valley like a rocket and the rest of you filling the air with bullets as though you didn't want me to escape."
"I wouldn't be wasting bullets on the air," said Hugh Jacobs.
"Be still!" commanded the sheriff. "Let him talk out his idea. What next, Dick?"
"Why, the crooks down there, whoever they are, will be glad to see another crook who's managed to slip away from the sheriff. They'll see the blood on my side to prove that you fellows really were shooting to kill. Isn't that easy?"
"Yeah, easy for you," said the deputy sheriff. "But what does it do for us?"
"When I get my chance I start a ruction down there among them. I get into a fight with somebody, say. And while that fight lasts there won't be much attention put on the rest of you, here. Understand? Then you can make a straight charge to get out of the valley. Isn't that clear?"
"You'd start a fight with a whole gang like that? Even you ain't that kind of a fool," declared the deputy.
"All right," said Dick Weller. "Vote on it, you hombres. You're all dead men, anyway. I know I'm offering you a damned thin chance, but isn't it better than nothing at all?"
Hugh Jacobs said: "Sheriff, you ain't gonna let this kind of a crooked deal go through, are you?"
"I'm going to ask for votes," said the sheriff. "Speak up, men."
There was perfectly equal division. Hugh Jacobs expressed the opinion of the dissenters when he said: "It would sure eat the heart out of me to think of this here crook gettin' off free while the rest of us stay here and stew in the hell-broth that he led us into!"
With that equal vote announced, the sheriff had the decision in his own hands. He sat on one of those burning rocks with the sweat pouring down his reddened face and thought making his eyes dim. At last he said: "Dick, there's one chance in a hundred that you're a real Weller down in your heart. There's one chance in a thousand that you might do what you promise. There's one chance in ten thousand that we might be able to use you, and get away. Well—even a small chance like that ought not to be thrown away. I'm going to set you free."
A howl came from the deputy sheriff, at this, but the other men agreed that it was probably the best thing to do. So the handcuffs were unlocked and the sheriff stood beside the horse on which his son was sitting.
"Dick," he said, "I'm beaten. I can't understand you or the things you've done, but it's not likely that we'll see each other again, after this. Will you shake hands?"
Dick Weller, looking down into that grim face, burst into a sudden rage. "Not till there's been more blood," he said. "Not until there's been enough blood spilled to wash our hands clean. So long, everybody. Remember to raise a yell and start shooting."
Hugh Jacobs began to shout: "It's against the law. It's against everything. It's a damned outrage and—"
But Dick, with a wave of his hand, suddenly spurred the dripping mustang out of that oven-like enclosure and sent it darting down the floor of the pass.
Two or three rifles crackled, Instantly from the eastern end of Rifle Pass. But this shooting ceased as a yell went up from the rock heap and the guns of the posse commenced their clangor.
THE noise of the shooting was real enough, but none of the bullets at first came anywhere near Dick Weller. It was only after a moment, the horse running at full speed, that he heard and almost felt the whiff of a bullet past his head. Another bullet almost brushed his right shoulder. Then the hat was twitched at lightly, and he knew that a slug had clicked through the crown.
He understood. Hughie Jacobs, in an agony as the man he hated began to escape, could not help shooting near the mark, snuffing the candle, as it were. It was beautiful and delicate shooting that he did, and if perhaps his rifle actually hit the bull's- eye—well, it would just be one of those accidents!
But the sprinting horse swept Dick Weller rapidly out of easy range; and he made the mustang dash up the steep slope towards that low, out jutting shoulder of rock which commanded the length of Rifle Pass. Here were the men who had bottled up the sheriff.
Weller, rounding the top of the shoulder and bursting through the broken rocks of the ledge, saw, on the narrow plateau, a dozen men who were waving their hands and shouting for him. But among them he spotted two at the first glance that chilled his blood. One was the wide, evil face of Martin Tully. One was the sleek bald head of a fellow who had prematurely lost his hair.
He had fallen into the midst of brigands, indeed, for he had come upon the band of the coldest-blooded slayer of them all—Papa Lermond and his crew of evil-doers. He saw all of this at the first glance, and one single note of hope and of happiness—that was big Harry Sanford, who came running to him, shouting with joy.
They were still yelling down there in the nest of rocks as Dick Weller dismounted. He shook hands with Harry Sanford heartily and heard Sanford murmur: "It's Lermond. Look out. He's poison. But I had to get him on this job. There was nobody else to turn the trick for us!"
Sanford, then, was the man who had brought so many of the law- abiding into terrible danger? And for the sake of Dick Weller, who had freely given himself up?
There was no time to ponder the thing in detail. Martin Tully and the great Papa Lermond were both coming up to him.
"You're Dick Weller, eh?" said the outlaw. "Nicked bad in the side, there?"
"Scratch," said Weller.
The other made no offer to shake hands. But the rest of the crowd gathered around with great interest to stare at the newcomer. They were men of all kinds, and their clothes were as various as their faces. There was even a pale-faced fellow with a derby hat on his head and the tip of his nose fried crimson by that Western sun. And the rest of his outfit, horribly grease- stained and soiled, was a blue suit that had once appeared natty enough, no doubt. He must have been a new recruit. He was not more than eighteen and in profile looked like a stub-nosed, smiling, cheerful boy. Only in the full-face was the danger seen in him, a callous cruelty glittering out of his eyes.
He was merely an outstanding element in that group of the followers of Papa Lermond. For all were dangerous, and all were a little strange, down to the short, bow-legged man who walked with a limp and carried on his hip not a revolver, but a rifle with the barrel sawed off until it was little longer than the barrel of a revolver. A terrible rifle that was, a repeater which hurled a forty-four caliber bullet, a thing to smash in the forehead of an elephant.
THESE were the men who blocked the end of the valley.
And what hope could the man with the sheriff have against such enemies as these? No hope whatever, to be sure! No hope, because one of these scoundrels was equal to any two men in the posse, except the sheriff and that dried-up buzzard of a fighting man, Hugh Jacobs. But one thing made the little blockaded group in Rifle Pass a danger, and that was the reputation of the sheriff for twenty years of success and because he wore that invincible name of Weller.
Papa Lermond said: "Your old man is going to catch hell, it looks like."
"He's already in hell," answered the son.
"Yeah, and maybe he is," grinned Lermond. "Now I wanta tie myself to some facts about you, kid. I've been hearing things from a lot of people about you, and the things I hear from Sanford are fine, and the things I hear from big Tully, here, ain't no good. Which can I believe?"
"How can anything but a lot of noise come out of a mug like Tully's?" asked Dick Weller.
He laughed as he spoke, and all the while he watched the right hand of Tully, which shuddered to get at a gun, but which did not quite dare to make the final gesture.
"What's the matter?" asked Lermond of Tully. "Has this kid got you bluffed, Tully?"
"I could swaller ten like him," declared Tully.
"Yeah? I guess you're afraid that he'd stick in your throat," remarked the great Lermond.
He smiled on Dick Weller. He had the strangest face that Weller had ever seen. It was like the face of a Negro, with a white skin drawn over it. The features were gross as the African; the nose was blunted and rounded over; the pull of the lips was very wide when he smiled. He had a sallow complexion and there were a million small holes, like needle scars, stuck into his face.
Yet he was not as repulsive as an accurate addition of all his features might indicate. There was a strange sort of good nature about his expression, and he seemed always smiling or about to smile. Only a knowledge of the things he had done could finish the picture, and Dick Weller knew enough to turn even his flesh cold.
"The main thing that I want to know," said Lermond, "is what my friend here, my old friend Tully, tells me—that you said you'd rather be damned than join up with Papa Lermond. Is that the straight of it?"
Weller took in a good breath. He had the lie ready on his lips, and the smile to go with it. To fight Tully—oh, that was one thing, but to fight Papa Lermond, that was quite another. He would have to get out of this crisis unless he wished to die, because no man of all those who had faced Lermond in combat ever had succeeded in putting him down with a bullet.
It was a lie, therefore, that was forming on the lips of Dick Weller, but before it could be uttered a great spirit of detestation and scorn rushed over him and forced from his lips: "I'd rather be tied to a mangy dog than tied to you, Lermond!"
THE mere sense that those words had been spoken worked like lightning in the brain of Weller, dazzling his eyes. He noted that the smile of Lermond had not faltered, and then he was aware that it was not a smile at all, but simply a savage grin like that of a hunting cat. There was no more than a cat's mercy in it.
He shifted his glance a little from the face of the great outlaw, and as his eye roved down the valley he was amazed to see a small and compact body of riders going up Rifle Pass—at a walk!
He could not believe what he saw—and then he understood.
The wise sheriff, hoping that the arrival of his son might absorb all the attention of the outlaws for a time, had chosen the moment of that arrival to lead his men out from the rocks and advance—without noise, in the hope that thus he might be able to come within charging distance.
Well, that was because he did not know that Papa Lermond was up here. Papa Lermond and all the rest of these hand-picked murderers! And yet a grim admiration for the rancher and sheriff came over his mind, and with that admiration there was a sudden, fierce warming of all his blood with pride. That man, yonder, was his father. Their blood was identical. And only a few moments before he had refused, savagely, to shake the hand of Sheriff Weller—
Lermond was saying: "All right, kid. You have to get it in the eye, eh?"
"I get it!" exclaimed Dick Weller, in a transport of the enthusiasm which had just come over him. "I get it! Lermond, I'm going to blot you out if you ever lift a hand at me!"
The boy in the derby hat laughed aloud.
"Listen to him!" he said. "Buck up, chief, and let me have him. I want him. I need him!"
He began to curse Dick Weller with a soft persuasiveness of voice, inviting him to go to any number of strange regions. And the chief cut suddenly through this tirade.
"Shut up, Banjo," he said.
The boy was instantly still, but the green devil remained in his eyes.
"I'm glad it's this way," said Lermond. "I want to get the taste of the Wellers right deep down in my throat. I wouldn't make a meal of the two of them in one bite. I'd rather have them in two swallers."
He raised his left hand. The enchanted circle of his men stood in a frozen attitude of suspense. And then Dick Weller took stock of the things around him.
There was poor Sanford, first of all.
Harry Sanford was a good fellow. He was white with the agony of the moment, but would he have the courage to come to the help of his friend in such a crisis? To expect that was to expect the superhuman. No. Sanford's hand would be held by terrible fear.
And what other escape was there?
A mere jumble of small rock lay scattered, here single stones and there ragged heaps of them which had rolled down from the higher section of the cliff and, in fact, were overlooked by that height. But if Dick Weller could get to one of those heaps he might be able to keep up the battle until his father and his men came charging to the sound of the guns and, so, manage to turn the tide of the fighting-Well, it was not a real summing up of chances. It was merely the last ghost of a chance.
Lermond was saying: "This ain't gunna be any murder. Ready, kid?"
"Ready," said Dick Weller.
"When you want to, just say 'Shoot,' Lin, will you?"
"Sure," said big, hairy-faced Lin.
So Weller faced the great man and waited. He knew, instantly, that the signal would not be given at once. No, Lin and the rest would want to see him reacting under the acid test.
The silence dragged out. And those seconds were priceless to the group of men who, now out of the sight of Dick, were still pressing on towards the east end of the valley.
It seemed to Weller that the knowledge of their coming was a sort of inward strength. And if he died—well, he would be dying in a cause which was not yet quite lost.
He looked steadily at the great Lermond.
THERE was nothing extraordinary about the fellow's appearance except that negroid face—and the hands. Such hands Dick had never seen, the fingers long and thin as the claws of a bird. They were flexing and extending slowly now.
And the sight of them, for some reason, convinced Weller that he had not a mortal chance. In those lean fingers there was lodged an inhuman speed which he was certain he could not rival. The battle was lost before it began, unless he could think of some counter measure.
What counter measure could there be? What could conquer speed in such a battle as this?
Surety! That was the only way. To whip out his gun fast enough but not with any attempt at a lightning draw which might enable the fast performer to throw in the first shot but generally prevented him from striking a vital place. He, Weller, must take no chance of sending his bullet wrong. He must shoot straight into that body.
And that meant that, first, he must stand fire. It was a horrible prospect. The heavy forty-five caliber slug of lead, fired point blank, was capable of knocking a man flat if it struck his body a solid blow. But he, Weller, must not be knocked flat. He must endure, and then shoot.
"Shoot!" shouted the sudden voice of Lin.
The hand of Lermond convulsed. It disappeared with the speed of the draw. There was only the flash of the appearing Colt, like a glint of sunshine on water.
And then a roaring explosion and a sledge hammer stroke through the left shoulder of Weller, jerking him around.
It pulled him sidewise, but it did not even stagger his prepared and stiffened body. His own gun, held just above the height of his hip, spat fire. Lermond, still pouring bullets from his weapon, but pouring them blindly, pitched side-wise to the ground, and in the stunned instant of paralysis that followed among the gang, Weller turned and leaped for the rocks.
One figure moved after him, swift as thought. In his haste he tripped and rolled on a loose stone, pitching forward. But powerful hands seized him and jerked him ahead into the shelter of the nearest heap of rocks.
The first bullets came flying at the same instant, a humming shower, spattering on the faces of the stones; and then Weller was aware that it was Harry Sanford who crouched beside him, not idle, but lifting weighty rocks and piling them to increase the strength of their breastwork. And behind the bullets there arose a storm of wild, savage yelling.
"Are you done in, Dick?" asked Sanford, as he worked.
The left arm of Weller lay helplessly beneath him. The numbness of the shock had prevented pain, for the moment, but that agony was commencing, now. And yet he could have laughed at the pain. Dying was the simplest thing in the world, when there was a proved friend at his side, a greater friend than ever his expectations had hoped. Dying was simple, also, if a man were a Weller, fighting on the right side of the law.
"Harry!" he exclaimed. "I feel good enough to dance."
Then he heard the voice of the great Lermond yelling out orders.
"Lin and Tom, get over there to the left and flank 'em. Josh—Parkin—Danny—crawl down that hollow and blast hell out of 'em from behind."
THERE was a steady fire maintained, all this while. Two big slugs, hitting the last stone which Sanford was putting in place, knocked it right out of his hands and dropped it on the ground. The gang yelled with delight and redoubled their fire.
Would any of them take the trouble to turn and look into Rifle Pass, while all of this was going on?
Weller, edging to the side, wriggling like a snake because he could put the weight of his body on his knees and right elbow only, gained the side of the little breastwork which Sanford was piling. Behind the rocks that lay just ahead, as he peered through a chink, he saw just the humped back of a man running with head down from cover to cover.
Weller put a bullet neatly through the hump and saw the man straighten suddenly, flinging out both arms.
That was Lin. He would never give a signal for another gun fight. He would never have a chance to clean that hairy face of his with a razor. Standing there like that, other men of the gang yelled to him to get down, but Lin, silent, his arms still extended, swayed slowly back, then snapped, it seemed, like an overweighted bough of a fruit tree and fell over the edge of the boulder, where he lay motionless. His back had been broken by the bullet, perhaps.
Lermond was crying: "They've got Lin. They're going to sweat in hell for that. Here—carry me up that rock so that I can get a shot or two in. Buff and Charlie, carry me up there!"
Sanford, ceasing his building work which was raising a rude protection all around them, suddenly began to fire, rapidly. A wild, howling screech came out of the valley beneath them in answer, a terrible and endless cry of agony.
"Where?" said Weller.
"Through the belly," said Sanford.
"My God—the poor devil!" said Weller.
"Ay," said Sanford. "I wish that I'd put the slug through his heart instead. Look out!"
For a bullet cut through a small gap in the wall and slashed Sanford's shirt sleeve open, just drawing one pinpoint of blood from the flesh.
Another shot crunched through a barely visible crack and whirred past the face of Weller.
"That's Lermond," said Sanford. "Nobody on God's earth but Lermond could shoot like that! And God help us now!"
Peering through the crevices between the rocks, Weller made out a spitting revolver that played from between two boulders up the slope, from such an angle that the weapon raked down over the breastwork of Sanford. The next shot knocked the heel off the boot of Weller's right foot.
Sanford began to fire towards the hollow again. "Missed! Missed! Missed!" he kept grunting with every shot. And then: "Winged him that time."
From the left more guns opened suddenly. It was the weakest part of the breastwork, and the bullets were sure to find a mark sooner or later, but still Weller gave no heed to the marksmen in that direction. Instead, he concentrated on those two boulders up the hills and the gun that flashed from behind them now and then. It did not appear in the same place each time. The wounded man was lifting his weapon now to the right and now to the left, showing never any more than his hand and wrists, and these only for the barest instant.
AND Weller, waiting, holding his fire, trained his revolver patiently on the spot to the right where the gun of Lermond had appeared before.
Small black spots began to dance before the eyes of Weller. There was a hollow nausea of agony filling his body. But he told himself that he could not miss because he dared not miss.
Distinctly, beside him, he heard the heavy thud of a bullet smashing into die flesh of Sanford; he heard the crunch of the slug against a bone. But he would not relax his fixed vigil.
There—it winked again, the quick gun of Lermond, and Weller tried that delicate target instantly.
The answer was amazing. Up from behind the rock sprang Lermond with crimson from his body wound plainly visible all over his breast. His right arm dangled, scattering blood. But in his left hand he carried a revolver and with it he charged straight down the slope towards the breastwork!
Another very strange thing happened then. From behind the boulders leaped the half comical figure of Banjo, with the derby hat atilt on his head, and rushed after his chief, shouting out to Lermond to come back—to drop to the ground—
And Lermond dropped, with a bullet from Weller's gun straight between his eyes.
Once, twice, and again, with his second gun Weller fired and emptied the weapon. He knew that all those bullets must have driven into the body of Banjo in vital places; but still he came on.
And now, his revolver emptied, Weller groaned to Sanford, "Pass me a gun—or stop that devil—"
And then he saw that Sanford lay flat on his face, still, and his gun must have fallen under his body.
There was no help from that true partner; there was no time to roll the inert body of Sanford over and try to get at a weapon, for now the insanely contorted face of Banjo was close to the breastwork.
He was leaping over it. He was screeching out insults, as he aimed his gun down at Weller.
Once and again he fired—and neither of the shots reached home. For Banjo was staggering. The lips were still stretched for screaming, but no sound came from them. His head fell over on his shoulder and he sank gradually to the ground.
He must have been dead before he reached it, his whole body slumping suddenly forward at the end; and now he lay crumpled and small and still. He had died as he had lived, half beast and half hero.
From all sides the firing had stopped, for the moment. There was a wild shouting of despair and rage as the crew of the great Lermond realized that their chief was dead at last.
Bullets would follow again, before long. And Weller, picking up the fallen gun of Banjo, gritted his teeth as he saw that it was empty.
This was the end.
He shook Sanford by the shoulder. "Wake up—Harry!" he called. The wounded man lifted a wild face from the ground.
"Coming, coming, Dick!" he whispered.
"Wake up," said Dick Weller. "We've lived together and now it's time for us to die together. We're done for. Stand up with me, and we'll take it like men instead of being chewed up piecemeal while we lie here."
He had barely said that when he heard a sudden ringing of hoofs and over the edge of the slope he saw sombreroed heads and shoulders, and then horses and armed riders sweeping over the crest. They looked gigantically large to Weller as he watched that charge, with the gallant sheriff in the forefront. No, not actually in the lead. For a long, lean, dry figure, bent far forward over the saddle, holding the reins in his teeth and a gun in either hand, was pushing his mustang past that of the older sheriff.
That was strange Hugh Jacobs. And when he saw that wild figure Weller closed his eyes. "It's going to be all right, Harry," he said, and let his tormented body and brain sink into unconsciousness.
IT was, in fact, very much all right. Lermond's men had lost their leader and the cream of their fighting force. And now a rush of equal numbers charging in on their flank with all the advantage of the ground was too much for them. They got up and tried to run for their horses; and that was how they were shot down until the remnant fell on their knees and howled for mercy.
Dick Weller knew all of this later, a great deal later.
He did not recall anything of the trip back to town, when he was carried on a stretcher between two horses. He remembered nothing of the jolts and the jars along the way. He knew nothing at all until, a number of days later, he found himself looking up at the high, white, cool ceiling of a room and turned his head, bewildered, to find that he was at home.
When he looked again he saw the rigid profile of Harry Sanford in an adjoining bed, his eyes closed, but the folded sheet lifted above his breast by a regular breathing, and between the beds sat Muriel Sanford with her weary head fallen upon one shoulder, asleep also, but smiling in her sleep. One of her hands lay on the bed of Dick, palm up.
She seemed to Dick more beautiful than an angel from heaven, and more merciful.
She was not the only watcher by the beds of the wounded. On the other side sat a man with a gray, stern face and relentless eyes. It was Hugh Jacobs.
When Dick looked up at him, Jacobs attempted to smile, and his face seemed to crack to pieces. He leaned far forward.
"Know me, kid?" he whispered.
"Yes," murmured Dick Weller. "I remember you sailing into the Lermond gang as though they had only paper bullets in their guns."
"You remember that?" said Jacobs. "Well, kid, I remember you lyin' like dead with the dead men in front of you. I remember that I was a fool of a man-killin' crook that—"
"Hush!" said Dick Weller, smiling. "You'll wake up Muriel."
"Ay," grinned Jacobs, "and I wouldn't do that. It's her that pulled you through. No man could of done it. No man could of picked up what was left of your life; there was so damn little of it! But she found it and kept it and made it grow. Wait a minute—here's the sheriff!"
He rose and slipped softly from the room, with only a faint, faint jingling of his spurs like the chiming of very distant bells, and the sheriff came in and sat down by the bed. He looked at the girl; then he stared into the open eyes of his son and saw the recognition in them.
"I've been down town," said the sheriff, "talking to a lot of men who want to put up a statue or something to you. I told them that they were a pack of fools. I told them that you only had done your duty. Because no Weller," he added, "can do more than that."
The son, still staring fixedly into eyes of his father, suddenly smiled.
"Thanks," he said.
"You understand?" whispered the sheriff, leaning closer.
"Ay," said Dick Weller. "I understand, at last."
There was a moment of pause. And after that Dick put out his hand. It was not a good hand to look at, for sickness had blanched it; and the lack of blood showed in the blueness about the tips of the fingers, but the sheriff took that hand with a gentle reverence and held it for a long time. They did not need to talk. In their the silence the souls of the two were being welded together at last.