CORT swept in his winnings and collected the cards to deal again, when his companion shook his head, pushed back his chair, and stood up with a jingle of spurs.
"I'm busted," he said.
The concern that William Cort showed was entirely professional in its smoothness, but, like many experienced gamblers in the West, although he had not the slightest scruple in palming cards or running up a pack, he made it a practice to return some of the feathers whenever he had stripped a victim bare.
"Flat broke?" asked Cort. "Well then, take a twenty for luck," said Cort, pushing the money across the table.
His victim picked up the money, hesitated, and then put it down again. "My luck's out at cards," he explained, "and twenty dollars' worth of whiskey won't be good for my liver. Keep the coin, brother. I don't mind losing it, but the game was kind of short. That's the only trouble."
Cort picked up the money again with a graceful gesture of regret and glanced over the faces of those who were lingering in the corner of the saloon to watch the game.
"Anybody take a hand?" he asked. "Plenty of you to make up a game of poker," he added.
But Cort's manner was too calm and his hands were too long-fingered and well kept; the air of the professional gambler was clearly stamped upon him, and the men of San Lorenzo, Mexican and white, hesitated and then held back, although most people west of the Mississippi seem to regard an invitation to a card game like an invitation to a fight, something that must necessarily be accepted out of sheer manhood.
However, there was one fellow who accepted now. He was a slender youngster with dark, almost femininely expressive eyes, and he said: "I'll take a hand with you, stranger."
Cort looked up at him with a welcoming smile that turned almost at once into a look that was almost fear. Then he pushed back his own chair. "Matter of fact," he said, "I forgot that I haven't time to tackle a new game. But I'll buy you a drink, stranger, and play with you some other time."
The other went with him to the bar and asked for beer, a small one.
"Still the same old Speedy, eh?" said Cort. "Nothing strong enough to make the head dizzy, eh?"
Speedy did not start. He merely said: "You remember me, Cort, do you?"
"Remember you?" said Cort. "I'd be a fool to forget the hand you dealt yourself and a few more of us in Denver, that time. Oh, I know. You were wearing a slightly different face, Speedy, that evening, but enough of you was showing through. After that night, I don't play with you, Speedy. I make my living out of cards. I don't aim to lose it."
Speedy raised his glass of beer and gravely regarded his companion over its foam. "Happy days," he said.
"And plenty of 'em," replied Cort.
They drank, and Cort went on: "How does it come that everybody in town doesn't follow you around, Speedy, on a day like this, when your man is going to be sentenced to death right here in San Lorenzo? They ought to be making a hero out of you."
"I'm not a hero," said Speedy calmly. "Besides, they've never seen me wearing a white skin, in San Lorenzo. I've always been a peon, when I was here before."
"I remember," remarked Cort. "I remember the whole yarn. You went up disguised with a scar on your face and got into the camp of Dupray and kidnapped that murdering scoundrel. I remember it all. It was a cool play, Speedy. A mighty cool play." From his own superior height, he looked over the smaller man with an air partly of pleasure and partly of admiration. "The judge will be sentencing Dupray in an hour or so, Speedy," he added. "Is that why you came to town?"
"That's one reason," said Speedy. "Not that I want to hear Dupray sentenced to be hanged by the neck until he's dead, dead, dead, but I want to see what happens afterward."
"What will happen?"
"I don't know. I'm just here to look on. It's not my show, now." He shrugged his shoulders. "How have things been using you, Bill?" he asked.
"I've been getting along fairly well," said Cort. "I haven't run into any young Speedy lately. That's one reason why I've had some success." He smiled a wry smile and squinted as he tried to probe the dim, calm shadows in the eyes of the other. "You never play cards except when you find an expert, Speedy. Even then, you never play until you're broke. But how does it happen that you're broke now?"
"Why shouldn't I be broke?" asked Speedy mildly.
"How could you be?" asked Cort. "You collected nearly two hundred thousand dollars' worth of loot out of Dupray, people say. And you let the same chunk of money go to the fellow who was with you. Wilson was his name, wasn't it? You don't mean to say that you've run through that much coin in a month?"
Speedy sighed and shook his head. "Every penny, Bill," he said. "And that's bad luck, isn't it?"
"Bad luck? It's the wildest luck that I've ever heard of, except at a gambling table. And you can't lose at cards and dice. You know how to make them talk French for you."
"Well," Speedy said, sighing again, "I must say, I thought that I'd never have to work again, when I collected that stake. But I was wrong. The luck was against me."
"What happened? Break into the stock market?" asked the gambler, his eyes twinkling with surprise and with an eager curiosity.
"No, not that. But I dropped half of it through a scheme a fellow had to buy up the dumps of some of the old mines and work them with a new process. It had to be done fast... buying up the old dumps, I mean to say. There was somebody else in the field, I was told, and we had to grab the best dumps quickly. So there was a lot of money to be advanced before the new process was put to work. After I'd put in a hundred thousand dollars... well, my man with the great ideas simply disappeared."
"The devil he did!" exclaimed Bill Cort. "And you on his trail, eh?"
"I didn't trail him," Speedy answered with a troubled frown. "After all, it was only money that I lost," he added.
"Only one hundred thousand dollars!" gasped Bill Cort. He hastily refilled his glass with whiskey and tossed off the stiff dram. Still he was blinking as he considered what had just been told him. There were other tales in the air, to be sure, and he had heard them many times—tales of how Speedy had been cheated over and over again by cunning charlatans with all sorts of schemes. But it did not seem credible that the man would let the cheats go free—this youngster who could follow a trail across the face of the world as easily as a hawk in the sky can follow the small birds far down closer to the ground.
"Well," said Bill Cort, "that accounts for half your money, but what became of the last half of it? Another get-rich-quick scheme?"
"Oh, no, not at all. Just a straight business proposition that would pay five or six percent only," Speedy replied. "It would have done some good, too. It was to put up a good hotel in the mountains, back there, where the air is the purest in the whole world, I guess. Then we'd put in a skilled physician and take only consumptives who were too poor to pay big rates. We'd just charge 'em actual expenses and five or six percent over to keep us running. It sounded like a good idea. There are plenty of sick people in towns who'd like to go to a place like that. And we had a good site in mind. My friend was to put in half, and I put in half, but I made my payment first." He paused and shook his head, adding: "You see, we had gone into partnership and either of us could sign checks. So after I'd made my deposit, he signed a check, drew out the whole shooting match, and disappeared. That was only the day before yesterday."
"The day before yesterday, eh?" murmured the gambler. "And you're not burning up the trail behind that hound?"
"Well," said Speedy, "I don't know. It would be a hard job to locate him, the yellow hound. Somehow, I didn't feel like starting out to rush all over the world after him. I might catch him some time."
"Otherwise, he gets off scot-free?"
"I suppose so."
"You beat me, Speedy," said the larger man, pushing his hat back on his head and then wiping his brow. "You beat me complete and entire. Here you are, a fellow who'll ride a thousand miles to get into a brawl of some sort or fight for somebody else, and yet you won't lift a finger to take care of your own affairs?"
"Well, there's a law in the country, isn't there?" asked Speedy. "It's supposed to take care of a man's private affairs, isn't it, Bill?"
There was something plaintive in his voice and the other grunted as though struck by the idea for the first time.
"You have me stopped, Speedy," he said. "I don't understand at all. I should think that you'd be on those slimy cheats like a hawk. You hound other fellows who get on the shady side of the law, now and then. A fellow like me who makes his living out of the cards... we have to watch you, Speedy. It cost me personally ten thousand dollars and more. Yes, more than ten grand for the privilege of sitting in at a game with you for one evening." He groaned. "But where your own business comes in, you let the first fly-by-night little crook get away with it, bag and baggage."
Speedy looked puzzled in turn. "I don't know, Bill," he said. "I simply didn't seem to have any spirit about it... about following the thugs, I mean. I'm going out into the street opposite the courthouse. Coming that way?"
"Sure," said Bill Cort. He paid and went at once down the street with his companion, adding as they went along: "Here you are in San Lorenzo, and everybody in the town would turn out and give you a cheer if they only knew that you're the man who..."
"Listen to me," said Speedy.
"Forget it, will you?" pleaded Speedy.
IF Cort found it hard to forget what he had just been talking about, he was at least able to keep silent on the point, although only at the cost of continually shaking his head. To him, it was as though he had just heard of a lion being struck by a lamb, and submitting to the blow!
When they came near the courthouse, Cort said: "Why don't you go inside, Speedy? Why not step in there and see Dupray take it?"
"And hear the judge sentence him to hang?" Speedy asked with a shudder. "I couldn't do that, Bill. I haven't the nerve to stand it."
"You haven't the nerve?" exclaimed his companion. "But, great Scott, Speedy, there isn't anything in you but nerve... tons of it!"
"I couldn't stand it," repeated Speedy firmly. "To hear one man, in a black cap, say to another... 'I condemn you to be hanged by the neck till you are dead, dead.' No, no, Bill, I couldn't stand that."
"But there was never anybody in the history of the world that needed killing as badly as Dupray does," urged the other. "Why, that devil and his gang have killed scores and scores. You know that, Speedy. You must know all about it."
"I know a good deal about what Dupray and his people have done," said Speedy. "But it makes me sick when I think of one man standing up in cold blood and sentencing another man to be killed. It seems to me like murder, like vicious murder. Let's stand over here and see if anything happens after the sentence is pronounced."
Cort took his place beside Speedy, across the street from the little courthouse of the town. "D'you think that some of Dupray's gang may come down here and try to shoot up the crowd to get their boss away?"
"I don't know," Speedy said, his eyes absently wandering over the steady stream of men and women who were hurrying up the steps of the building.
"I don't think," said the other, "that the gang of Dupray will ever lift a finger for him. Most of 'em are probably glad to be rid of that Gila monster, that frog-faced devil."
"You've seen him, eh?" asked Speedy with interest.
"No, but I've heard how he looks. Like a nightmare, eh?"
"He looks like something not human," Speedy said dreamily. "He looks like something wrong in the brain, something wrong in the soul... or with no soul at all, perhaps, would be the best way to say it."
He shook his head because of the ugly thought, and again William Cort was amazed, for he felt that he was being privileged, on this day, to see a side of Speedy that was rarely, if ever, shown to the world. If he tried to repeat what Speedy had said to him, other men would not believe the tale. It did not fit into the usual conception of that nerveless, keen hawk of a man, who hovered over this world looking for trouble and loving adventure for the sake of the peril that was in it, and for no other reason.
It would appear from his conversation today that he was peculiarly gullible, in fact, easy prey for the first green goods salesman, the first clumsy confidence man. It would appear that his nerves were so finely attuned that he could not endure a brutal speech.
The whole town of San Lorenzo seemed to have emptied itself up the steps of the courthouse and through its double doors. No one appeared in the street except a twelve-mule team that now entered the foot of the street and came slowly onwards, hauling a wagon with wheels as high as the head of a man. A real old-time freighter was that.
In the meantime, a hush settled over that little white town, and the quiet became so intense that finally Cort could hear out of the distance the wavering, shrill sound of a baby, crying. As the silence grew, so did the volume of that complaining sound appear to grow.
The long wait lengthened. They could hear the distant creak and rattle of the big freighter as it drew nearer. They could watch the tall man who walked beside the near wheeler, with a blacksnake draped over his neck and one hand on the jerk-line. He was becoming an important item in the landscape, and William Cort watched with an eye fascinated, like that of a small child on a drowsy, weary afternoon. Then he was aware that Speedy had started suddenly, and, looking down, he saw that the smaller man had actually put his hands over his ears. His head was bowed; there was a wrinkle of pain across his forehead, and it was plain that he was suffering.
What troubled him? Only now did Cort hear, from across the street and through the wide-open double doors of the courthouse, a droning voice that came faintly to his ears, smaller than the humming of a bee, so was it shrunk by distance. He understood suddenly that it was the voice of the judge, pronouncing sentence.
Speedy had drawn back a little, so that he was resting his shoulders against the wall behind him. Still his head was bowed and his shoulders raised. He was for all the world just like a man facing a bitterly cold wind.
"It's over," said Cort, looking curiously at his companion with a little touch of contempt in his eyes. "And right now Dupray can start getting ready to die. He'll have a lot more time to prepare for death than he's given some of his victims. What's the story about what he tried to do to you, Speedy? You and Wilson? Making you hit a half-inch line with a knife at twenty feet, eh? Otherwise, he'd cut your throats? Wasn't that the story?"
Speedy lifted his head with an impatient light in his eyes. "Bill," he said, "do you hold it against a mountain lion when it slaughters a calf?"
"That's the nature of the beast," said Cort. "Of course, that's different."
"Well," said Speedy, "Dupray's a beast, and that's his nature."
"Then he surely ought to die," said Cort.
"I suppose so. But I'd never lift my hand if somebody tried his rescue right here in the open street. I'd rather help him get away, I think," muttered Speedy.
"And let him go gunning for you again, afterward?" suggested the other.
"Perhaps," Speedy said, muttering. "But here they come."
Out through the double doors of the courthouse came the throng. They were talking rapidly, earnestly with one another, nodding their heads without exception, as though they all had heard things with which they were in perfect agreement.
But the sound of their voices could not be heard, for the twelve-mule team was close at hand now, the hoofs stamping into the dust with a deep, muffled sound, the bells ringing above the iron-bound haws, while the great wagon lurched and rattled along behind.
In the doorway of the courthouse, when the throng had passed out, there now appeared a rather small man with a brooding, round, pale face, ugly and featureless even from a distance.
"That's Dupray!" exclaimed big William Cort. "That's the frog-faced devil! I'll know him from today on, if they don't hang him as they ought to."
About the condemned man moved no fewer than six guards, two with rifles in the rear, the others with revolvers. One pair had linked arms with Dupray, while the third pair of guards marched in front with naked guns, as though ready to charge through any attempt at rescue.
"They've got him tight enough," said Cort, pleased at the spectacle. "They'll keep him in spite of the devil and high water. Won't they, Speedy?"
"I don't know," Speedy said, shaking his head. "There are too many of them to please me."
"What's wrong with having six guards?"
"This is wrong with it," said Speedy. "Every one of the six is trusting something to the other fellow. They're sure of their numbers. They won't have their ears and their eyes open as if one guard had him in tow. You never can tell what will happen to a crowd, and six makes up a crowd, I'd say. I'd rather trust one proved guard than six. One guard, or maybe two, seeing that it's Dupray."
"A couple of 'em might be carrying sawed-off shotguns, just to make sure, but otherwise everything looks hunky-dory to me," commented William Cort.
He had hardly finished speaking when there came a yell from some people who were crowding the street. It seemed that the near mule in the lead had become caught by a snarl in the jerk-line that controlled it. At any rate, it was throwing up its head and swerving rapidly to the right, as though obeying the harsh command: "Gee!"
Swiftly it swung over, crowding the off mule of the span, with a great jingling of bells. The driver, a tall man with buckteeth and, therefore, a fixed and mirthless smile on his face, rushed forward and shouted loudly.
"That's Bones, I think," Cort remembered afterward hearing his companion murmur. "Bones. A nervy devil to come down here in broad daylight."
In spite of the shouting of the driver, the near mule in the lead veered more and more uncontrollably, then, as though dreading punishment from the long-legged driver, bolted to the rear.
Six spans of mules, in an instant, were curling back, scattering the crowd as if with a cavalry charge. Straight back toward the armed escort of the prisoner they rushed, and the guards, with yells to one another, started hauling Dupray back from the danger.
But the speeding line of mules came too fast. They dropped their charge and ran for their lives, while Dupray sprinted straight inside that danger and made for the wagon.
Out of it, at the same instant, there came four armed men, who closed around the escaped man and, doubling around behind the wagon, dashed across the street.
Not twenty yards from the place where Speedy and Cort were standing, they headed into the mouth of an alley that led down toward the San Lorenzo River.
Cort had pulled his own revolver instinctively, but Speedy knocked up the muzzle of it.
"He deserves to win today," said Speedy. "Anyone who can induce that many men to risk their lives for him certainly deserves to get away."
Into the mouth of the alley, in pursuit, poured the guards now, screeching with rage, shouting orders to one another, with the whole town behind them.
"A mob," Speedy said calmly, "and a mob will never catch Dupray."
"LEND me a hundred dollars, Bill, will you?" asked Speedy.
"I have to line out as fast as I can pelt. I have a long ride ahead of me now."
"Sure," said Cort. "Two, if you want it."
"Two is better," said Speedy, "because I have to buy a mustang and a saddle and bridle. Listen to them yelping like a hunting pack down there in the distance."
For the hunt already had reached the edge of the river, and they could tell by the peculiar quality of the echoes that floated back through the troubled air of San Lorenzo.
"He'll get off clear," Cort said, shaking his head. "He'll get clear away. If they've planned everything as carefully as all this, they're sure to have a fast boat waiting for him down on the water."
"Of course they have," said Speedy. "Now they're shooting from the shore, and they wish that they had cannon instead of rifles, I suppose. But they'll never get at Dupray that way. He's beaten them. That fox has beaten 'em fair and square."
"He's beat 'em," said Cort, counting out $200, and adding $100 for luck. Then he continued anxiously: "Speedy, when I pulled this gun, I was about to take a snap shot at Dupray as he ran, and he turned his ugly frog-face and marked me with his eyes. I saw him, and I've an idea that I'll hear from him later on."
"He won't forget," agreed Speedy. "You can be sure of that. I'm sorry, Bill. But I couldn't let you shoot him down when he was one step from freedom. Besides, you might have missed. You probably would, at that distance and shooting at a running man."
"I might have missed," muttered Bill Cort, "but he won't miss when he takes his crack at me."
"He doesn't miss," agreed Speedy. "He's one of the people who can't afford to."
"By thunder, Speedy!" exclaimed Cort, sweat standing on his forehead. "I begin to feel a little nervous. What about you?"
"About me? Oh, I've got to catch him if I can. Anyway, I must try to warn some friends of mine. I've got to get the news to them as fast as I can."
"John Wilson... the fellow who was with me when we caught Dupray. Dupray will want my scalp first of all now, and then he is going to want Wilson's," continued Speedy.
"Perhaps he won't want yours at all," replied Cort. "He saw me pull a gun, and he saw you knock the gun up. That ought to wipe out all old scores."
"My score can never be wiped out," answered Speedy, unmoved. "It's too long and too black. The point is that Dupray was a great legend a month ago. Now he's been dragged out into the open sunshine. People know what he looks like. They know that he can be deceived and beaten. They know that he's been caught once, and they know that there's a big reward on his head. They'll try to catch him, now, as they never tried before."
"I suppose you're right. No gratitude in the dog, nothing but a mouthful of teeth and poison," said Cort. "Well, Speedy, you and Wilson refused the reward money, I hear."
"Blood money, you know," said Speedy. "We couldn't take that. We got enough out of the rubies that we lifted off him. But we couldn't collect the reward."
"Look here, Speedy," said the other.
"When you ride out to see the Wilsons, I've an idea that I'd like to go along."
"You?" exclaimed Speedy, surprised.
Cort nodded. "I don't want that frog-faced beast to take after me," argued the gambler. "And I'd rather be with you than with anybody else in the world, when it comes to facing Dupray. Will you take me along?"
Speedy, frowning, drew out the money he had just received and fingered it, his mood impatient.
"It's all right if you don't want me," said Cort frankly. "I know how it is. You don't have much to do with crooks and you know that I'm a crooked gambler. Well, so is every other gambler in the world. You fleece the crooks, and we fleece the honest men, if you want to put it that way. Besides, Speedy, I'm not such a bad bargain. I can ride with most people. I can shoot a good deal better than average, a whole lot better than average. I think my nerves are pretty steady, most of the time. Only, that greasy-gray frog-face is lodged in the back of my mind, and it won't rub out. Let me ride along with you, will you?"
"Why not?" muttered Speedy thoughtfully. "Yes, come along, old son, and we'll try this trail together, though I generally ride alone. Come on."
They bought two good, seasoned mustangs. There were finer-looking animals in the stables, but the gambler, who knew horses and had had to trust his life to their speed and endurance before this day, declared that nothing in the world can outlast a South-western pony in its own habitat. If they wanted speed, the mustangs were the trick.
So, quickly mounting, they loped the horses out of San Lorenzo.
They had the details of the escape some time before they left. Straight down to the edge of the San Lorenzo River, Dupray had been rushed by his escort, just as Speedy suspected, and there a boat was waiting for them, a very long, light craft, with a clumsy-looking triangular sail, ready to hoist upon a short mast, and so to take advantage of the strong wind that was nearly always blowing down the river at this time of the day. Into that long boat the whole gang had leaped and thrust her adrift. They jerked up the sail, and, as they flung themselves down into the shelter of the heavy bulwarks, the wind bellied the sail, made the boat lean over, and shot it out into the stream. A rain of rifle bullets and slugs from wide-mouthed revolvers followed, as a matter of course.
Men said that 1,000 holes must have been knocked in the bottom of the little ship, as it heeled over in the wind. For all that, it did not sink, but safely turned the corner of the next river bend. The townsmen, following in swiftly paddled craft or straining at long oars, reached the bend of the river, rounded it, found the boat stranded and the crew gone, and in their ears beat the noise of pounding hoofs.
So Dupray and his men departed, and the peculiar feature of that eventful day, as men remembered it afterward, was that not a drop of blood had been shed by all the bullets that were aimed at the fugitives.
The townsmen came gloomily, silently back. The six guards were not particularly blamed. It was felt that the entire town of San Lorenzo, the brown population as well as the white, had been fooled and deceived to the utmost. Dupray was gone and there an end of it.
When they got to the big wagon, which had been overturned by the backward rush of the mules and the tongue of the wagon broken, they found that its load consisted of nothing more than heavy rocks, with a few logs placed on top of these. The whole thing had been a sham, effective in its simplicity, wonderfully effective in its perfect timing.
As Speedy said, when he heard the final details: "You see how it is, Bill. In Dupray, yonder, you have a fellow with the brains of a philosopher and the heart of a grizzly bear. No... a bear is a big, warm, affectionate beast compared to that snake of a Dupray."
"And you, Speedy," cried out his companion, "you stood by and looked on, when you might have stopped him! You could have stopped him, if you'd wanted to."
"Not after the rush began," argued Speedy. "There were too many of 'em."
"You could have done it, if your heart had been in the business," insisted Cort. "Instead of that, you've turned the devil loose on the world again."
"Not I," said Speedy. "Six strong-armed guards turned him loose, when a team of mules charged 'em."
"And now that he's free, you are in danger of your life."
They had talked like this as they labored into the dusky, thick light of the evening, up a long slope, their horses fairly staggering beneath them, for they had ridden them out as they approached the end of their journey.
Now, at the top of the hill, they saw a house in the hollow beyond—a wide valley whose shimmer of green was not yet entirely overshadowed by the coming of night. Lights gleamed from the windows, and Speedy murmured: "Bill, I blame myself, but I can't change myself. When I see a hunt, my heart is with the fox, not with the hunters."
"THAT'S peaceful," said William Cort as they rode their horses down the slope.
"It is," agreed Speedy, "but every minute now, you'd better act as though the witches were just around the corner."
"You mean, you think Dupray could get out here as soon as this?"
"I don't know," said Speedy. "Whatever we've done, he can probably do. If we have good horses, he has better ones, and, if we've hurried to help people, he may have hurried all the faster to murder 'em. He's some gunman, that one." Then he added: "I don't know. Of course, he may decide on a few little robberies to make up for lost time before he goes after John Wilson and me. But I doubt it. I imagine that what's nearest and dearest to his heart is the thought of taking our scalps.
That house looks peaceful, as you say, but, for all we know, those lights down there may be shining in dead faces."
"Quit it, Speedy," his companion said, his voice half choked. "You chill my blood and bone to the marrow."
"Dupray would murder a whole household as soon as not," answered Speedy, "and we've got to keep that in mind, partner."
"Back there in San Lorenzo we had him in point-blank shooting distance," groaned Cort.
"I've told you that I couldn't help myself back there," said Speedy. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't."
They came up to the house through a valley road that ran, winding, through several groves of trees and so came to the house itself. As far as could be told, it was like most other ranch houses, being long and low throughout, except for one wing, which was of two stories. It had a hitching rack in front and a dim tangle of corral fencing to the rear, with a few sheds nearby and a great square-shouldered barn.
"Ranching and farming," Speedy said, pointing to a field of grain that swept up almost to the edge of the house on one side. "I didn't know that Wilson would make such a good man in the open."
He tethered his horse at the rack in front of the house, and went to the door, not in front, but in the rear, opening apparently into the kitchen. A woman's voice, singing, came out as if to welcome them on purpose.
Speedy laid a hand on the shoulder of his companion, stopping him to say: "I'd rather hear that voice than opera, Cort. A lot rather. I've been thinking of her lying in a pool of blood and that same throat cut from ear to ear. And now..." He went on again, hastily, and knocked at the door.
"Come in!" cried out the singer, breaking off.
Speedy pushed open the door on a typical ranch kitchen, under a slanting roof, as though the shed that housed this important room had been added to the whole as an afterthought. There was a big range at one side, the sort of stove that is needed when a score of hungry men have to be cooked for at certain seasons of the year.
In the center of the room there was a long, capacious table and, near one end of it, the sink, with a big wooden draining board. It was at that end of the table that Jessica Wilson was standing, rolling out a slab of dough for biscuits. Her face was reddened from the heat; she was covered with flour to the bare elbows, and she dropped the rolling pin to throw up the whitened hands and clap them together.
"Speedy!" she cried, running to him. She drew him in by both hands, released him only for an instant to greet Will Cort, and then caught at the smaller man again. "You've come at last!" she exclaimed. "And for how long, Speedy? A month, a week, a day? Your room is upstairs, ready and waiting. We planned it 'specially when we built the house, you know. No one has ever slept in it. We vowed that it would be kept for you, and you've never been near us. Speedy, how long will you stay?"
"I don't know," he said. "The fact is, Jessica, that I'm just loafing across country with my friend, Cort. We're not in any great hurry. We're just drifting as the fancy moves us."
"Then let your fancy move you to stay here. There's wonderful fishing."
"I never caught a fish in my life," said Speedy.
"There's perfect shooting, though. Deer, Speedy. The woods are full of deer. It's a regular preserve."
"Never shot a deer. I'm no hunter," said Speedy.
She drew back a little and regarded him with a slight cloud on her face. "No, Speedy," she agreed. "I forgot about that. I forgot that you don't hunt dumb animals." Still frowning a little, she added: "Are you on a trail now?"
"No," he said frankly. "I'm on no man trail, if that's what you want to know. But I've got something to talk over with John. Where is he?"
"He's out in the barn. He'll be in, in a moment. He's feeding the horses, the plow team. All the men went off today. The cook, too."
"All quit on you?"
"No, they had a day off, to celebrate. It's the anniversary of our buying of the farm, and we turned all the boys loose with a little extra money. They scooted off this morning, and they won't be back till the morning, I suppose. We're doing our celebrating by having a quiet evening alone. And now you come to make it a real party."
"I'll step out to the barn," said Speedy, "and see John."
"Bring in your pack and come up to look at your room first," she urged. "It's all planned and made for you. Come along, Speedy."
She led the way cheerfully, laughing and chatting, through a big dining room, out into a hall that opened on a flight of stairs, and this they climbed to the second story.
"Here you are," she said, throwing open a door.
They stepped into a long room, with rather a low ceiling. It was divided into three parts, and there were curtains drawn back to the walls, indicating that the sections could be shut off from one another. At a glance, the parts seemed to be the bedroom, a library where the walls were lined with bookshelves, and at the farthest end of the room there was a big fireplace built into the wall, with great easy chairs drawn up before it.
The girl put down the lamp she had been carrying and hurried to draw down a great hanging lamp in the center of the chamber, suspended by chains from the ceiling. "If only I'd known that you were coming!" she cried. "The fire should be going. But a match will remedy that."
She scratched a match and touched it to the tinder under the wood that was corded up on the andirons, ready to burn. As the flames crackled and rose, thrusting up coiling masses of white wood smoke, she stepped back and dusted her hands. "It ought to be dry enough to burn," said Jessica. "It's been waiting there long enough, ready to make its master happy. Look! Look at those pots and kettles at the side. John knows how you love to be alone, a lot of the time, and it was his idea to make this room of yours as complete as a ship, so that you could lock yourself up in the place and stay a year, if you wanted to. You could do all your cooking right here, if you wanted to. Look, here's a whole cupboard let into the wall on this side of the fire. Some of those canned goods ought to be changed, I suppose. They've been there so long, waiting for you."
It was a complete kitchenette, almost as convenient as the contrivances that are put in the most modern apartment houses. There was a sink with running water, and at the sides and back were shelves crowded with all sorts of groceries and cooking utensils.
They had hardly admired this, when she had them examining the other features.
There was a big clothes closet, filled with clothes all cut exactly to the measure of Speedy—boots, hats, gloves, everything complete. There was a study table in the library section, and in the drawers sets of magnifying glasses and fine microscopes, besides a whole battery of test tubes and a thousand little vials of acids, powders, and poisons.
"There's a Bunsen burner, yonder," said the girl, "so that when you want to start experimenting, you can fill the room with as many bad odors as you please. That's not all. When you want to air it out again, you have this." She opened a door onto a balcony that ran half the length of the room, corbelled well out from the wall of the house and set with deep boxes with flowering plants.
"You like to walk under the open sky, Speedy," said the girl, "and here's the place for you to do it. Nobody'll disturb you on this garden walk."
"Jessica," said Speedy, "I never thought that I'd ever find a place where I'd want to sit still to the end of time. But this is the place for me. I'm going to come to it, sometime before I'm too old. This door is heavy, though... wh...?" He tapped the inside of it with his knuckles, and there followed a ringing sound.
The girl laughed, triumphant. "Of course! It's bulletproof steel, and every window shutter and every door in your room is lined with it. When you want to make sure that gunmen can't look in on you, here it's been perfectly arranged for you, Speedy."
He looked at Bill Cort. "Ever hear of anything like it?" he demanded.
"Never," agreed Cort. "You could sit in here and laugh at the world."
"Jessica," said Speedy, "everything's perfect. Nothing's been left out, and I thank you from my heart."
"But," she suggested, "but, of course, you'll never spend more than a day in your whole life here?"
"Slander, Jessica," said Speedy. "But I've got to break away to the barn, now, and give my news to John. Bill, you stay with Jessica in the kitchen."
The girl had picked up her lamp and now she looked hard at Speedy, saying: "There's something wrong... there's something important."
"Something that would be important, if I didn't get the news to John right away," Speedy said, and hurried before them downstairs.
"What is it?" asked the girl of Cort. "Have you any idea?"
"Even if a fellow has an idea," parried Bill Cort, "it's generally a lot better to let Speedy do his own talking."
"I know," said the girl. "Only, I can feel something in the air. Did you see how he went down the stairs?"
"I saw he was hurrying," said Cort.
"Was that all you saw?"
"Well, yes, that's all. He went down the steps pretty fast."
She paused on the landing and turned with the lamp toward Cort as though she doubted what she had just heard and wished to make sure, by examining his face more carefully as he spoke.
"Perhaps you don't know Speedy very well?" she queried.
He was stirred to answer: "I don't suppose that anybody knows him very well, except people who've had a lot of trouble."
She was willing to nod her head gravely, when she heard this. "Yes, that's true. I've had enough trouble and enough need of Speedy's help. And I've seen him in action, enough, to know some of the important signs."
He was curious when he heard her say this. And he asked: "What signs did you notice when you saw him run down the stairs?"
She smiled. "Well, he was running, wasn't he?"
"Tell me, then, did you hear a sound?"
"When he ran down the stairs?"
"No, now that I think of it, I don't think that I did."
"That's it," said Jessica Wilson. "When there's trouble in the air, he moves like a cat, with velvet paws."
OUT to the barn ran Speedy, and, pushing back the sliding door, he heard a man whistling softly, while he pitched down quantities of hay into the long row of mangers.
"It's a musical family," Speedy said gloomily to himself. "I hope that they don't have to howl for it, before long." Then he raised his voice. "John!" he called.
There was a shout of joyful astonishment. Then big John Wilson came climbing down a ladder from the top of the mow and grasped the hand of his friend.
Yet his first question was: "Is there anything wrong?"
"Dupray was sentenced to death today," said Speedy, "and, on the way out of the judge's court, he was rescued and taken safely away from the town."
The head of Wilson went back, and his eyes closed as he groaned in dismay. "That's the worst news of a lifetime," he said. "You came out to warn me. You think that he'll take the trail for this place?"
"I more than think it," said Speedy. "There's more poison in him than in any snake. He's sure to come, John."
"I haven't a man on the place," said Wilson.
"There's yourself and me," said Speedy, "and I've brought a good fighting man along with me. I don't know how far he's to be trusted, but he'll fight."
"I have you," said Wilson, "and that's a lot more to me than to have a whole army of other men. Where's the other fellow?"
"He's at the house with Jessica."
"Have you told her?"
"No, I haven't told her yet. There's no need to torture her until the last minute."
They stood and regarded one another silently for a moment. A rising wind went softly, drearily, through the top of the haymow of the barn.
"You're getting fat and brown," Speedy said, nodding and smiling.
John Wilson made a gesture that banished such small considerations. "We'd better get back to the house," he said.
"Yes, we'd better," Speedy agreed, nodding his head. "The moon's coming up... I saw the glow of it like a fire between the mountains as I came out to the barn. It's better to get back now, before... well, Dupray has men who shoot pretty straight by moonlight, even."
Wilson nodded, and moved a hand back to his hip.
"Still carrying a gun, John?" asked Speedy.
"I've formed the habit," said Wilson. "Even with Dupray in jail, I've had my worries. I've always wondered when some of the Dupray gang would turn loose on me."
"Dupray wouldn't let 'em," said Speedy.
"Wouldn't let 'em? Why not?"
"He wants to save you and me for his own handiwork. I imagine that's what's in him." He pulled back the sliding door of that side of the barn as he spoke.
"How about you?" asked Wilson. "Still carrying no guns?"
"People who carry guns are always tempted to use 'em, sooner or later," answered Speedy rather shortly.
They stepped out into the night, and Wilson, putting out his lantern and hanging it up on a nail, closed the door after them. The moon was up, as Speedy had said, but its softly slanting light gave more shadow than illumination, as it seemed, and the stars were still bright in the center of the sky above them.
They walked past the long watering troughs down the side of the corral, and toward the house, Speedy half a step in the lead, Wilson, with a high head, keeping a look-out on every side.
Yet it was Speedy who said: "Be ready to run for it. There's something yonder in that grain field... now!"
As he finished, several dark forms rose out of the grain, only their heads and shoulders looming, and guns began to chatter. The air about Wilson and Speedy was filled with sounds like the buzzing of wasp wings blown down an incredibly swift wind. The two broke into a run and shot for the house.
A very fast man was big John Wilson, but, despite his length of leg, he saw Speedy drift out ahead of him. Yet the smaller man was not running straight, but wavering from side to side, like a snipe flying from danger.
It looked as if it were going to be impossible for them to gain the safety of the house, when from a back window of the place a revolver commenced barking rapidly. At the first sound of it, the shadowy forms disappeared into the grain from which they had risen.
The two fugitives reached the kitchen door. It was jerked open before them, and they ran in past the white face of Jessica Wilson.
Bill Cort was stepping back from a window in the kitchen and reloading his emptied revolver. He could not help noticing that the girl made no outcry, although her first intimation of the trouble had come from the noise of the guns. She was as steady as a man.
"We have four here," said Cort, "and there's moonlight to keep watch by. One of us must take, each, a side of the house and we'd better have rifles."
"That's the only thing to do," agreed Wilson. "Jessica may not do much shooting, but she can keep watch as well as any of us and give an alarm."
"It's no good," said Speedy.
"What's no good?" asked Wilson.
"It's Dupray's gang?" Jessica said quietly.
"And Dupray with it," said Speedy. "He got away after his condemnation in court today." He went on, having disposed of that subject: "The house is too big to guard all four sides of it."
"The four of us could take your room, Speedy," said the girl. "It's strong as a fort."
"While they touch a match to the house and see us all go up in smoke?" asked Speedy.
All three of the others groaned. "What's to be done then, Speedy?" asked Wilson.
"The wind is carrying from the grain field toward the house," said Speedy. "We can't backfire the ground about it, for that reason. There's nothing to be done."
"Are we to wait here, sitting helpless?" asked Bill Cort, the sweat standing out on his white face.
"There's nothing else to do," said Speedy, "except to break out and try to fight through, but that's no good, either. They have a close circle around the house by this time. And the moon is getting brighter. They'd shoot down a hundred like us, now, if we tried to get away."
"You mean that we're lost, Speedy," said the girl.
"We're lost," said Speedy.
"You mean that there's nothing for us to do!" exclaimed Wilson.
"There's supper to eat," said Speedy, "and we might as well have it in here. It's warmer in here than in the dining room."
The others exchanged stony glances. But each one of them felt that a final judgment had been spoken. While there was hope, Speedy would be the man who would find the way of deliverance. When he surrendered, it meant that nothing could be attempted.
Jessica went to the stove, opened the oven door, and took out a steaming pan of biscuits. She started to lay out food on the long kitchen table, and Speedy assisted her. Wilson and Cort were too stunned to move. All the cold speculations of death were in their eyes.
Then they sat down. Wilson and Cort could not eat. But Speedy and the girl went steadily on with the meal. They talked to one another. He asked about the farm. She told him the story of it cheerfully. Good luck had followed them every moment since the capture of Dupray. The money that Wilson had as his share from the sale of the jewels was lodged safely in a bank. With that as a backlog, their fire of prosperity was burning very cheerfully and promised to last long.
She began to grow enthusiastic as she described the future possibilities. The color came back into her face. But her husband sat as one hewed out of stone, his hands clasped hard together. He would fight, when the time came for it, and so would Cort, but, just now, they were both tasting the full horror of death.
Outside the house a voice called: "Speedy! Oh, Speedy!"
Speedy lifted his head, and frowned a little with critical interest. "Dupray's calling me," he said, and pushed back his chair.
THE mere sound of the voice had made big John Wilson snatch out his revolver, saying: "It's the devil himself."
But Jessica Wilson ran around the table, as Speedy rose, and put herself between him and the door. "You don't mean that you'll go out to him, Speedy, do you?" she asked.
He looked at her in a strange way, as she never had been looked at before, as though she were not a young and pretty woman, as though she were not human, in fact, but merely an obstacle, and his voice was cold when he answered: "John, take charge of your wife, will you?"
"Hold on, Speedy," muttered Wilson. "Are you saying that you would go out there and face Dupray and his killers?"
William Cort, staring with uncomprehending glances at the trio, was aware only that there was a curious hardness in the eyes of Speedy, and a sort of angry impatience, only partially controlled.
"Are you both going to interfere?" asked Speedy. "I'm not saying that I'll go out to them. I'm simply saying that I'll answer Dupray. John, will you keep Jessica in hand?" He glanced fiercely toward Wilson, and the latter laid his hand on the arm of the girl.
"Speedy knows best," said Wilson, although his face was drawn and white as he turned toward his old companion in arms.
"It's all right, John," said the girl. "I won't make a scene. I know that we can't control him... he'll do what he wants. You can take your hand away."
Speedy already had unbolted the rear window's shutter, and now he threw a look over his shoulder. "Put out the lamp, will you?" he commanded.
Cort stepped forward and obeyed.
Through the darkness, only the fire in the stove gleamed with a red eye through little openings.
Then Speedy pushed the window wide open. "Hello, Dupray!" he called.
The voice of the bandit answered, amazingly close at hand: "Glad to hear you so close, Speedy, old son."
"Thanks," said Speedy.
"I saw you today in San Lorenzo," said Dupray. "You and your new friend, Cort, the gambler."
"Yes, we saw you there," said Speedy.
"I saw him try to make the gun play that you stopped," said Dupray. "And he's a good shot, I hear."
"He's a good shot," agreed Speedy.
"I want to know why you played me that good turn," demanded Dupray.
"My sympathy runs with the fox, not the hounds," said Speedy.
"That's a partial answer only," said Dupray. "You must have recognized Bones, driving the team, too, didn't you?"
"Yes, that was easy."
"Why didn't you give the people a warning?"
"It was the business of the law to keep you, Dupray," said Speedy. "I'd never send a man back to wait for the hangman, if I could help it."
"That sounds like talk," said Dupray.
"I don't care what it sounds like," said Speedy.
"You're in my hand, Speedy," said the other.
"I know it," said Speedy. "You scratch a match, and the house burns."
"You have brains," said the other. "Why didn't you think the thing up before you caged yourself in the house?"
"We had to come to the two inside," said Speedy.
"Oh, loyalty, eh?" said Dupray. Then he laughed, his voice ringing with a sneer of contempt. He added: "A crook like you to talk about loyalty, eh?"
"That's what I talk about, just the same," said Speedy.
"You admit you're a crook, eh?"
"I don't admit that. No."
"Why, damn you," said the other, "did you ever do an honest stroke of work in your life? All your jobs have been stealing and crooked gambling."
"I've never stolen from an honest man," said Speedy.
"That's a lie, and a fool's lie," said Dupray.
"Go ahead and scratch your match," said Speedy.
"I won't do that," said Dupray, "for a minute or two. I still want to talk to you for a minute."
"Go ahead, then."
"I'll make a bargain with you, Speedy."
"There's three more beside you in there, eh?"
"Yes, three more."
"All friends of yours?"
"There's Missus Wilson and there's her precious husband, among the rest."
"Yes, they're both here."
"Floating on the crest of the wave, they've been, eh?"
"They've been prosperous, if that's what you mean."
"They won't last prosperous," said the criminal, angry conviction in his voice. "But I'll make a bargain with you for them."
"Swear yourself in as my man for thirty days, and I'll let the lot of them go... for tonight. As long as you're working for me, I'll keep away from 'em. Does that sound to you?"
"No, no, no!" cried Jessica Wilson.
"Be still," Speedy said shortly. He added: "That sounds to me. What sort of work?"
"Any work I choose to give you," said the other.
Speedy paused, and in that pause the snarling, self-satisfied laughter of Dupray began and ended.
Then Dupray went on: "I don't much care. I'd as soon close my hand over the four of you tonight and call it quits."
"The girl, too?" asked Speedy. "You wouldn't let her leave the house?"
"Let her leave, and fill the world with talk afterward? I'm not that much of a fool, Speedy. No, it would be just one of those accidental affairs. Fire catches in the grain, cause unknown. House and four souls in it burn to cinders. That's all. I might set the barn and sheds on fire, too, after we've taken out all the horses that we need to borrow."
"I see your point of view," said Speedy calmly.
"You see my point of view, but what are you going to do about it?"
"If I make the bargain with you and leave the house, I trust your word and honor not to harm anything on the place."
"You trust my honor," said Dupray, laughing brutally again. "That's all that you have to trust, Speedy. Just my word and my honor. The word and the honor of Charley Dupray." He laughed once more, for the unique idea seemed to please him.
"Well," said Speedy, "that makes a fair bargain. I take your word and step out of the house. You may shoot me down as soon as I appear and burn the house afterward. Or perhaps you only want to get your hands on me, because a quick death by bullets or fire is not exactly what you want to give me, eh?"
"That may be it," said Dupray. "You won't know. You'll simply have to take your chance. I whistle, you dog, and you've got to come and lick my hand."
"And afterward," said Speedy, "you'd trust my promise to work for you thirty days?"
"I know the kind of a fool you are, and that your word's safer than steel handcuffs on another man. Yes, I'll trust you that far."
"Very well," said Speedy, "then I'll come out." He closed the shutters of the window and bolted them. "Light the lamp," he said.
Cort lighted the lamp. Jessica Wilson began to cry out, sobbing wildly, her words almost undistinguishable.
Speedy was saying to her sternly: "This is hard enough for everybody, and you're only making it harder. I know what you want to say. You want us to stay together, and all die together in the flames. But we don't choose to do that. I know that Wilson would die fighting with me... so would Cort. They're both brave men. But they see what I see. It may be that this is simply a trap set by Dupray to put his hands on me and work his pleasure. But it also may be that he means what he says, and that he really needs me for some work that's not exactly in his own line. Now, be quiet."
She had fallen on her knees in a paroxysm of despair, but now she stood up. So, mastering herself, she managed to say: "You're right, Speedy. You've always been right. You've saved John for me twice. Now I suppose that you'll risk your life again, but to surrender to that fiend of a Dupray." She slipped into a chair and leaned back against the wall, suddenly very faint.
Speedy said: "You're worth it. You, Jessica, and you fellows, too. Besides, a man has to die sometime." He waved his hand, and turned abruptly to the door, saying casually: "So long, everyone." He was out in the open moonlight before anyone could interfere with his movements.
Even those steel nerves of Speedy were shaken, for an instant, as he stood there in the night, the great white face of the moon seeming to drift rapidly with the wind across the face of the sky, and the heaped shadowy forms of the mountain appearing to tremble and move like waves on a gigantic sea. But he mastered himself in the space of a single breath, and, turning the corner of the house, he walked straight out through the grain field.
He waded slowly through that brittle sea of brown, with the dust rising up into his face. Then, out of the deep grain around him, half a dozen men arose suddenly and seized him, and the noose of a rope flung over his shoulders bound his arms tightly against his sides.
Dupray stepped before him, laughing, sneering, and nodding his frog-face with delight. "Now, you fool," he said, "you're in my hands at last. When will you get out of 'em?"
HE did not wait for an answer, but, turning, he led the way. The captive was to be taken behind a clump of trees and shrubbery that shielded them from the sight of the people of the house, in case any of these should understand what was happening and undertake to interrupt the procedure with a rifle bullet.
"Here, Bones and Sid," said Dupray after he had looked to the way in which the hands of Speedy were bound behind his back, his feet being secured, also. "You've got enough of a grudge to be useful now. You stay here with me. The rest of you boys, spread out and watch the house. Cort's nothing much, I hear, but I know that John Wilson can put up a fight. Watch everything. If you don't like the looks, start in and shoot as much as you please. Pass the word around. I'm pleased with the whole lot of you. We've done things before, together, but nothing that I like as well as this. We're going to write our names on the West in letters a mile high. Don't be forgetting that."
They withdrew. The tall form of Bones and the stockier silhouette of Sid remained close by, while Dupray, as though excess of triumph made it impossible for him to stand still, began to walk up and down in front of his captive.
"A bright fellow, with a brain and a pair of hands, that's what you are, Speedy," he said. "But, after all, Dupray has the poison that puts you down, eh? Charley Dupray is the man to put you down." He laughed again, not loudly, but with a muscular contraction of the throat that almost stifled him. "You're down. You're in my hand. I could only think about you dying a minute ago, but now I can see you die. I can taste the death of you."
He came close to Speedy and stood, swaying a little from side to side, his lips working, as though there were an actual flavor in his mouth.
"You're an ugly looking toad," said Speedy. "What more does it prove? You've got me. Go ahead and use me. I can't help myself, and you've got helpers enough. Start the music, Dupray, and watch me dance. I suppose you'll do enough to make me dance, even with my feet tied together."
"The devil," muttered Dupray. He stepped still closer, and peered into the face of Speedy. "You're an actor. You're a fine actor, Speedy," he said. "Some people might think that you're not even afraid now of what's going to happen to you."
"It will last a certain time, and then it'll finish," answered Speedy.
"You can do some groaning for your friends in the house, Speedy," said the other. "When the flame hits the girl... she's a regular rose of a girl, isn't she?"
"Yes, she's a pretty thing," Speedy said calmly.
"Well, when the flame hits her, she'll die fast. It'll only be ten or fifteen minutes for her, eh?" His eyes worked busily over the face of Speedy, as he strove to read the mind of his captive.
But Speedy answered: "Yes, only ten or fifteen minutes."
"You'll be howling long before that, Speedy," said Dupray.
"I won't howl, partner," Speedy said.
"I won't howl."
"You're sure, are you?"
"I can do things that would bring the music out of a stone, I tell you!" exclaimed Dupray.
"It won't bring the music out of me," insisted Speedy.
"Damn you," said Dupray. "I'll have you screeching if I have to find your nerves one by one and tear 'em out with hot pincers."
"After you start your little game," said Speedy, "you'll never get a whisper out of me."
"You lie!" exclaimed Dupray angrily. He waved in his two assistants. "Look at him, Bones. Look at him, Sid. Look at the smile on him. That's his way of looking down on us. But I'll let you see how he'll change when I'm working on him. I'll have music out of him that'll make the howling of wolves like a fine church choir. I'll have noise out of him that'll curdle the blood of the three in the house. They'll enjoy the party with you, Speedy." He leaned and leered at Speedy again, as he spoke.
And the other said: "It's all right, Dupray. You're a man with ideas that would make a Chinese pirate sick, but you'll never be able to make me curl up in front of you."
"Tell me," said Dupray, "what makes you so infernally sure of yourself?"
"This is what makes me sure," said Speedy. "I'm not the oldest man in the world, but I've spent my life learning how to master my body, and I've learned the trick. My body's my servant, and not my master. Whatever you do to my body, it can't make me squirm or whine, or howl or beg. Start in, Dupray. I've made a fool of you before this, and tonight I'll make a fool of you again."
"Will you?" said Dupray. "Why, damn you!" He caught a deep breath, and exclaimed: "Speedy, you're iron all the way through! I thought that I'd shake you up a little before I pushed the deal through. But tell me, you mind-reading devil you, did you guess from the first that I was only bluffing about the torture business?"
"No, I didn't guess that," said Speedy. "I thought you had all of those pretty little ideas in mind. But I didn't guess as much as that. You mean that you honestly intend to carry out the bargain that you made with me through the window of the house?"
"I mean it. It's a bitter thing to me the way that I have you here in my hand, Speedy," said Dupray. "And yet I can't close my hand on you, because I need you for another job of mine." He waved to his two men. "Back up," the chief said curtly.
"Want some elbow room for the conversation?" demanded Bones. "Damn me, chief, I thought for a minute that I'd have the fun of seeing you stage a party with Speedy, here. Come along, Sid. We'll have to wait for our show."
They moved off together, and Dupray, after staring intently at his prisoner, said: "I've got your word, Speedy?"
"You've got my word," Speedy repeated.
The other drew a knife, touched the cords, and instantly the prisoner was again a free man. Dupray stood a pace and a half back from him. That was all. "You know the town of Clausen?" he asked.
"Yes. I know it."
"Tell me what it looks like, then."
"It's in a ravine wedged between two mountains, with a river running through its back yards. It has one good-size plaza, and its jail is in the center of a fine lawn."
"That's it," said Dupray, "you've hit it. The scoundrels, they wouldn't build a city hall, or some such nonsense. They had to put all of their money into a fine jail, filled with tool-proof steel and such things. Were you ever inside that jail?"
"Ha!" cried Dupray. "You mean to say that you escaped from it?"
"No, not that. I was just jailed as a material witness in a little crime in a saloon. That was all. I was let out the next day, fast enough."
Dupray sighed. "Anyway, you know the inside of the building?"
"Well," said Dupray, "inside of that jail there's a special cell, made extra strong, with a door that weighs two hundred pounds. It would take a shell from a twelve-inch gun to batter in that cell door."
"Yes?" murmured Speedy.
"And behind that door," said Dupray, "there's a nephew of mine."
"Yes?" said Speedy.
"Understand?" said Dupray, his voice growing suddenly fierce. "He's my nephew. He's my blood. He's the only blood I got in the world. He's my heir. Except for him, what would I do with my money, I ask you?"
"That's a good reason for wanting him loose," said Speedy. "What's he in for?"
"Murder," said Dupray.
"Oh, murder?" said Speedy.
"That's what they say," said the other. "But everybody knows that he's my nephew. They'd say anything about him. They'd accuse him of anything. Only because he's a Dupray. You'd think that there was poison in the name, maybe. You'd think that there was poison in the blood of a Dupray." He stamped in the height of his impatience. "They're trying him now," he continued. "It was going to be a pretty close race between us to see which of the pair would hang first. But I seemed to be pushing my nose under the wire first, just by a little."
"That's true," said Speedy. "Only it's odd that I haven't heard any talk about the nephew. It's enough of a coincidence to fill the newspapers."
"You don't read the newspapers," Dupray said bluntly.
"That's true," said Speedy. "How old is this nephew?"
"Twenty-one." Then he explained: "He's the only son of my oldest brother. There were four brothers in the family. The other three of 'em died. They were all older than I. And they all died years ago. There were no children except this nephew. I've got no children. There's no chance for the Duprays, except for this boy. He's the last of the line. He's the last of the blood. If he goes, we're wiped out, because I'll never have a brat of my own. You follow me?"
"If this boy goes," agreed Speedy, "it's the last of the line of Dupray."
"A good thing, you'd say?"
"No. I'm not as swift and bitter as all that."
"Then d'you see the point I'm making?"
"I see it," said Speedy.
"What is it, then?"
"You can't help your nephew. Your face is too well known, and they're looking for you and your men every minute, every day. You're known, and I suppose that most of your best men are known, too. But you think that I might have some luck in getting him out of the jail, before he's sentenced."
"You've put it in a nutshell," said Dupray.
"If I turn the trick, the Wilsons get out from under your hand, is that it?"
"For thirty days," the other said bitterly. "John Wilson worked with you, Speedy, when you ran me into the jail. He has to sweat for it before I die. Cort tried to pistol me when I was breaking clear. He had nothing against me, personally, and he's got to sweat for that job."
"I made the deal. I'll stick to it," said Speedy. "But suppose that you say, if I fail to get the boy loose in the thirty days, you go after everybody. If I succeed, then you forget about 'em, and go after me with knives and guns and as many men as you please. Will that suit you?"
Dupray, through a moment of silence, stared at the other. Then slowly he nodded his head. "You beat me, Speedy," he said, "but then, you're only a freak. You're not like other people. I'll make that deal with you. If you get Al Durpray free, then everything is called off, except between you and me."
"Yes," said Speedy, "that can't be called off till one of us is dead."
"Good," said Dupray, nodding his round head again. "Now about getting you to Clausen and giving you all the help that I can."
Speedy raised his hand.
"I work alone," he said. "Even if I'm working for you, I wouldn't have your help."
OSGOOD had been deputy sheriff in the town of Clausen for six months, and he was maintained in his post by the force of public opinion. Stew, as he was nicknamed, was a big young man with rather a brutal face, but, as a matter of fact, he was both good-natured and charitable, except when he saw a chance for a fight and, above all, when the fighting was with guns. Therefore, he was exactly inside the tradition of the officers who had enforced the law in the town of Clausen for the last half dozen years.
Before that time, Clausen had been a convenient dumping ground for criminals of all sorts. It was the center of a hole-in-the-wall country, and from it, when pursued, fugitives from justice could slip away into the ravines or the forests that cut up the mountains nearby and overspread them.
The people of Clausen were a hardy lot and they endured a long list of riots and gunfights before they decided to take a hand. The original mansion of Clausen, a big frame building standing in the middle of a block of lawns and trees, had just burned down. The town bought the land and built on it a fine, handsome jail with walls of solid stone and some neat cells done in the most expensive and disheartening tool-proof steel. When the jail was built, Clausen elected good officials to see that the jail was kept filled, and after a few years the town became one of the most unpopular places in the world for traveling criminals who were looking for a quiet spot in which to settle down while the police of various cities looked for them. It was no longer a place of refuge for thugs; too keen a wind of investigation was constantly blowing there.
The present sheriff of the county was now flat on his back in the hospital recovering gradually from the effects of a bullet that a certain cattle rustler had put through his body. Deputy Sheriff Stew Osgood had the place in hand, and he proved his capacity at once by going out and getting that same rustler with the accurate rifle. So Stew remained sole occupant of the sheriff's place of importance, for the time being, and everyone was pleased to have him there. The town would put up with a great deal from Stew. It was known that he was a rough and hearty spirit, but Clausen was itself a rough and hearty town.
At this moment, Stew Osgood had turned from the bar of the White Wizard Saloon and was saying: "Look here, Mexico, you've been chasing me around all day. Whacha want anyway?"
"Job, señor," said the other. As he spoke, he took off his tattered straw hat and showed more clearly a young face that would have been strikingly handsome, but for a long, ragged scar that puckered one cheek, pulling hard both on the eye and the mouth, so that the poor fellow had to talk all on one side, as it were.
He stood bowing before the deputy sheriff.
The latter surveyed him with a mixture of contempt and amusement.
"He knows you're a big man in town, Stew," said the bartender. "That's why he's chasing you around."
"Where could I give anybody a job except over in the jail?" demanded Stew Osgood with irritation. "We need a kind of a janitor over there. And a fine thing this would be to have in the jail, wouldn't it?"
"You take greasers," said the bartender with a profound air, "and they don't do much thinking. They just
got hunches. You're the hunch of that kid, now. By thunder, what a mug he's got. But that ain't his fault. Looks like a mountain lion must've clawed him in the sweet days gone by."
"He's all gummed up," observed the deputy sheriff. "I'll bet that he ain't et a square meal in three days."
The man with the scar, who had stood before the pair as though he were incapable of understanding the words, now brightened, and bowed several times, rapidly.
"Sí, señor... sí, señor," he murmured.
"Here's a dollar, anyway," said Stew Osgood, reaching into his pocket.
The man with the scar beamed with a crooked smile and started his bowing all over again. But now a heavy voice from the corner of the barroom boomed out: "That's why the country's goin' to hell!"
"Hold on," said the deputy sheriff. "Why is it goin' that way, brother?"
A mighty youth arose from a little round corner table where he had been sipping beer and eating crackers.
"Why should money be throwed away on foreign dogs?" he demanded. "I'd like to know, when there's a lot of honest men of our own that ain't got a job."
"Honest men like who?" asked the deputy sheriff.
"Like me," said the young giant, jabbing a grimy thumb against his breast by way of further identification.
Stew Osgood started to frown, for there was always plenty of battle spirit in him. However, he controlled himself, and a wicked thought gleamed in his eye. "I promised a dollar to somebody," he said, and flicked the broad-faced coin suddenly high in the air.
It hung, spinning, close to the ceiling for an instant, and then began its descent straight over the heads of the big tramp and the man of the scar.
"Out of the way, runt," said the larger of the pair, and reached up one hand for the dollar, while with the other he swung heavily at the man of the scar.
The latter avoided the swinging fist, slid in close, and with a dexterous pressure of his knee against the leg of the giant, caused the latter to sag suddenly and miss his target.
The big silver dollar fell with a resounding spat into the palm of Mexico.
At this the deputy sheriff exclaimed aloud with pleasure and surprise. "Pretty slick!" he cried out. "Pretty neat, Mexico. What happened to you, brother?"
"The dirty hound, he played a trick on me," said the tramp. "I gotta mind to eat him."
"Have you?" The deputy sheriff chuckled. "I dunno that you could, though." Then he smiled and added: "Here's another dollar for the man that can jump the highest."
As he spun the coin this time, the tramp paid no attention at all to the silver twinkling spot of light above his head, but gave his full eye to his rival. A casual swing had been unavailing to overawe the smaller man, so now he fell on guard and shot a very formidable straight left at the face with the scar.
Mexico swayed in and down; the blow drove over his shoulder, and, stepping closer, he gave the rigid point of his shoulder to the short ribs of the big tramp. The latter grunted, gasped, and staggered. And Mexico stooped and picked up the silver dollar that lay on the floor.
The deputy sheriff whooped with joy.
"Two for you, Mexico!" he cried. "I've got my money on you, fellow, and here's another try."
Once more, he threw a dollar into the air, but the tramp, with a string of oaths twisting out of his snarling mouth, rushed in to batter Mexico to a pulp.
The latter drew back a little, and then waited with alertness in his poise and calm in his eyes. Only at the very last minute, he bowed his body again with the swiftness of a bird as it stoops for a grain on the ground. As he stooped, his incredibly swift hands caught an outflung arm of the tramp, and, twisting himself about, he bore down with a mighty leverage.
The inevitable happened. The hulk of the tramp shot off his feet, and, hurtling over the shoulder of the smaller man, it seemed as though he were purposely diving against the wall of the saloon, which he struck with a great crash.
He fell back, with a soft, thick thud upon the floor, while the man of the scar calmly picked up his third dollar.
"Ah, señor," he said, "I knew the good face the moment my eyes saw it."
The deputy sheriff was much astonished.
"How'd he do that, Jerry?" he demanded of the bartender. "Go and throw some water on that bum and roll him out into the street, unless he's got some broken bones."
The tramp did not need the water, however. He was of a tough substance, and, picking himself up now, he cast dizzy but wrathful glances around him, then staggered out through the swinging doors of the saloon.
"How'd you do that, Mexico?" the deputy sheriff repeated.
Mexico could only answer with a little dumb show of hands and attitudes.
Said Jerry, the bartender: "Ju-jitsu... or something like that. That's what it was, I guess. He looks a greaser, but maybe he's a chink or something. I dunno."
"Whoever heard of a Chinaman talkin' Spanish?" asked the deputy sheriff with a superior air. "This is a greaser, all right, and he can handle himself, is what I mean to say. I dunno but what he'd look pretty good in the jail, too. He'd make some of the boys in the cells think that they had the delirium tremens, maybe, taking a look at this here mug. Look here, Mexico, you want a job?"
"Sí, sí, señor," said the other, with more of his rapid bows.
The deputy sheriff looked him over again. "You ain't much to fill the eye," he said, "but you kind of handle yourself all right, I gotta say. I gotta admit that about you. How cheap you work, son?"
A broad, smiling gesture, made with both arms, the palms of the hands up, indicated that money was no consideration, and that the honor of serving the deputy sheriff was all the happiness that he demanded from this sad world.
Stew Osgood grunted. "We gotta have somebody to tidy up around in the jail. I don't know why the greaser kid wouldn't do. Hey, what's your name?"
"I, Pedro, señor," said the other, with another curtsy.
"You Pedro, eh?" repeated the deputy sheriff. "Well, Pedro, you be a good boy over there in the jail, and everything'll be fine for you, but, if you try any tricks, I'm gonna skin you alive. Savvy?"
"Ah, señor," said Pedro, between sadness and a smile of deprecation, as though such a possibility was forever beyond his thoughts.
THE deputy sheriff had been having a drink in Jerry's saloon because, when he returned to the jail, he knew that a very unpleasant task was waiting for him.
Al Dupray was getting the third degree, and he had been getting it for the last hour now.
The third degree, in Clausen, was bad enough, although it was not the refined torture that was resorted to in larger and more hurried cities. The idea of Stew Osgood was simply to keep his man awake for thirty-six hours and try, by the steady pressure of questions, to make him confess a crime that, Osgood was confident, he had committed.
It was not the sort of thing that Osgood liked. He was a rough fellow. His skin was thick enough to practice most of the brutalities of his office without a qualm. But the third degree was something that revolted him. He had been told that it had to be done. The case was clear and strong against Dupray. There was hardly a doubt that he would be convicted when the case went to trial. But it would cost the county a great deal to prosecute. For the unlucky news had come in that the great and terrible Charles Dupray, the uncle of Al, was again free and roving. He would be certain to pour huge sums of money into the defense, and, when he did that, it meant that he could hire some of the best lawyers in the country to fight out the case. Even if they failed, pressure would be brought to bear upon the prosecuting district attorney. Extra legal help would be required. Besides costing the taxpayers of the town a round sum, the trial would also give Clausen undesired publicity as a wild Western center of gun play and all the rest. The unhappy past would surely be raked up, and the town of Clausen wished at all costs to avoid such a resurrection.
There was one way to preclude all the expense of time and dollars, and that was to secure a confession from Al Dupray. A day and a half before the questioning had started. Now it was about to end, and Deputy Stew Osgood had prepared himself to put on the final pressure.
He strode back to the jail, with the shorter-stepping Pedro hurrying behind him.
When they got to the jail, the mind of the deputy sheriff was not upon his new employee but upon the disagreeable work before him. He simply picked a cap off a nail on the wall and jammed it on the head of Mexico. He picked off a uniform coat and threw it toward him.
"There's your outfit that shows you belong to the jail," he observed. "Now get busy. Grab a broom and a mop or something and start tidying up, Mexico. All you gents south of the Río Grande know how to scrub, or you ought to."
Pedro accepted the broom as though it were the sword conferring knighthood upon him. The deputy sheriff hurried on toward his own office.
He opened the door and stepped into a thick atmosphere of cigarette smoke. Through that mist he saw two hollow-eyed men, one upon either side of a figure that slumped down in a chair between them. The hands of Al Dupray were manacled together, being chained around one arm of the chair. Just as the deputy opened the door, one of the questioners shook Dupray violently by the arm, and he raised his head with a start out of the instant of slumber into which he had fallen.
It was true that he somewhat resembled the great Charley Dupray in appearance. The long vigil had given to his face a pallor like that of his celebrated and infamous uncle, and the face was itself round. But it lacked some of the frog-like hideousness of Charley. There was more of a nose. The mouth was not so wide a slit. There were lips to observe. The forehead was respectably broad, although low.
"You killed Tom Older," croaked the questioner who had shaken the young man by the shoulder. "Why don't you tell the truth and cut short the wait?"
The answer was mere silence. Gloomily the man
looked up at the deputy, who scowled back in return, then went to the window and jerked it open. A long arm of freshness reached from the outer world into that stifling atmosphere.
Then big Stew Osgood took up his place before the prisoner. He spread his legs and beat his fist on the palm of his hand. "We've got you at last, kid," he said.
"Have you?" muttered Dupray, looking up with hollow eyes.
"Yeah. We've got you," the deputy sheriff repeated. "We got your fingerprints. It don't make no difference, now, whether you confess to us or not. We got your fingerprints, all right."
"On what?" asked the young man, frowning.
"You know on what, all right," said Osgood. "We got 'em, and that winds up the case."
"What would my fingerprints be on?" asked Dupray.
"On the handle of the axe that brained poor Tom Older!" cried the deputy. He leaned a little, so as to make out more clearly the effect of this lie upon the prisoner.
Dupray merely shook his head. "I used that axe, but I used it to chop wood," he insisted. "That's all." And his chin fell upon his breast; in an instant he was snoring, open mouthed.
The deputy sheriff looked at the pair. "You been at him all the time?" he muttered.
"All the time," said one of the men. "And a hell of a dirty job it is, too."
"It's a rotten job. I hate it like you do," agreed Osgood. "But it's orders, and we've got to do what we're told. There ain't any doubt that he's the murderer, is there?"
"No," admitted one of the tormentors.
"Then," said Osgood, "it don't make much difference what we do to him, does it?"
"Maybe not," said the first speaker. "Only, it makes me sick to see the way the kid suffers. He may be a Dupray, but he's human, just the same."
"No Dupray's human," declared Osgood. "Wake him up."
They shook him from either side. He opened his eyes with a groan of agony, but he set his teeth at once to shut off complaint and weakness.
"I've got the whole story that'll hang you," declared Osgood.
"You lie," Dupray said wearily.
"I lie, do I?" exclaimed Osgood, pretending to be in a rage. Then he made himself laugh loudly. "We've got it hung on you at last," he said.
"You lie again."
"Do I? Here it is, all wrote out. This is the confession that you can sign, brother, and then go to bed and have a good sleep."
"I won't sign nothing," said Al Dupray.
"You fool," said the sheriff. "You think that you're not going to hang, then?"
"I know that you crooks'll hang me," said Al Dupray. "I know that as sure as I know my name's Dupray, and that Charley Dupray's my uncle. But I ain't gonna sign nothin'."
"You're a fool if you don't sign this," said Stew Osgood. "Listen. We got all the facts here. I leave out the beginning. I cut right into the middle. You're supposed to be talking. And this is what you'd say, if you'd tell the truth."
He began to read aloud: " 'I kept telling Tom Older that it was no good prospecting the Clausen Hills any more, because they'd been gone over with a fine-toothed comb for years. But he kept right on. I pointed out to him that I'd paid for the grubstake, and that I was doing my share of the camp work, too. I was sick of it, and I wanted to try some new ground, where we'd have a chance. But the fool kept right on. Finally, one night in the hills, it came to a showdown, and I told him that I wouldn't stand it any longer.'
"'He told me I could get out, if I didn't like his way of prospecting. I said I'd get out, willing enough, if he'd pay me back the grubstake money that I'd spent. He damned me for that and laughed in my face. He was as mean as a rat. That's what he looked like, an old rat. I couldn't stand it. Something exploded in my mind. I'd been cutting wood for the fire, and I still had the axe in my hand. I gave it a swing and brought it down on his head. He fell on his face. He never moved after I hit him.'"
Osgood stopped reading. "There you are, brother," he said. "All that you have to do is to sign."
"By thunder," said the prisoner hoarsely, "it's almost straight, every line of it."
The sheriff started violently. But he covered up his surprise by exclaiming: "Sure, it's true. We've got everything on you."
"It's almost true, every word of it," Dupray said, still astonished. "It's true that I stood there with a load of wood in one arm, and the axe in my other hand. It's true that I cursed him for an old fool and asked him how many more days we were going to stay there among the rocks and the brush. Then he told me that we'd stay there as long as pleased him, and that he was kind of sorry that he was going to make a worthless, complaining fool like me a rich man.
"When I heard him say that, I was so mad that I heaved up the axe and said that I had half a mind to brain him with it. I did have half a mind to do it. But I recollected soon enough Uncle Charley. He always comes pop into my head, whenever I get a crazy wish to do something wrong. So I threw the axe away, and I went running off into the night, half crazy. That's the true story. That's the whole story. When I come back, there was Tom Older lying dead, and the axe was there with the blood on it, and the trail of a man that had come out of the brush to the fire, and gone away again."
"That was the trail of Pete Simmons, that came along and found the old man lying dead," declared Osgood. "Are you trying to put the blame on an honest man like Simmons? Dupray, you dog, you murdered the old man... and then you went sneaking off. It was only later that you changed your mind and came back to bluff the job out."
"Ain't Simmons staked out the mine that Tom Older found?" shouted the prisoner. "Ain't that a fact? Why wouldn't he've killed Tom, and come rushin' down to Clausen to put the blame for the killing on me and to file his claim? That's what I wanna know."
Osgood looked with sudden weariness and disgust at the wild, white face and the red-rimmed eyes. Then he said tersely: "Take him away and slam him into the cell again. I've done my best, but the fool won't listen to reason."
THE two third-degree tormentors jerked open the door of the sheriff's office and thrust the prisoner in willingly enough, for they hated the dirty work of the long inquisition almost as much as Al Dupray could have hated it.
As they entered the inner corridor, they almost fell over the form of the newly hired janitor, who was down on his knees, industriously scrubbing the floor just outside the door of the sheriff's office. The two guards, looking down at the uniform coat and cap, grunted out a few oaths and went on down the hall to the aisle that led between the rows of cells.
Ten men were in those cells that night, for the deputy sheriff kept himself well occupied in Clausen, and saw to it that crime was kept in check. They pressed against the bars of their cells and looked steadily at the accused murderer, as he passed down toward his own strong place of keeping. They could hear the clanking of the heavy chains that were fastened on him, thus fastening him to the huge steel bolts that were worked into the wall of the prison. Then they could hear the voice of one of the guards, saying, rather too loudly:
"Look a-here, kid, you oughta have more sense. It ain't gonna buy you nothing, to keep your face shut, and lie like this. Everybody knows that you croaked Tom Older. You're gonna hang for it, all right."
"I know that I'm going to hang," said the young man, "but I won't put the rope around my own neck, maybe."
"Blockhead!" said the guard angrily. "Maybe you'd have a good shot at getting off with life, if you turned in the evidence ag'in' yourself. Ain't you gonna have no sense?"
"I stick to what I've said," persisted the other calmly.
"You're a fool, and the biggest fool that I ever heard of," said the guard. "There you are, locked up safe and sound. Stay there and rot, till they come and get you for the rope."
The guards walked out, the door was closed behind them, and the three keys were turned in the three locks. They disappeared. The two larger lights were put out. And there remained only two small, flickering night lamps, to illumine the interior of the jail. They threw into every cell only a confused blur of shadows and faint light, and the eye could make out almost nothing.
Now, down the corridor, came the form of Pedro, the new janitor's assistant, with a bucket of soapy water, a scrubbing brush, and a mop. He fell upon his knees, at the end of the aisle, and began to work.
A few of the prisoners went to the bars of their cells, and, looking out, they scoffed at and reproached the solemn, industrious worker. One of them summed up the opinion of the others.
"What's the good of bein' a free man, if you're gonna work in a jail, kid? There ain't any good in it at all. If you ain't got sense enough to stay clear of a dump like this, you might as well be doin' time yourself."
Pedro returned no answer. He continued to scrub so patiently and so hard that his whole body shook with his movements.
Finally the others turned in on their cots. One or two called good nights to companions up and down the aisle. Some others cursed the brightness of the lights; others cursed their dimness, but by degrees the voices died out, and soft sounds of snoring rose.
Pedro, by this time, had carried his careful scrubbing as far as the door of the cell of Al Dupray.
Now he stood up and walked, carrying his bucket, slowly down the length of the aisle. His feet made no sound. He seemed to look neither to right nor to left, and yet he penetrated through the shadows, and saw every form stretched out under the blankets of the cots.
He returned, as he had gone, with the same soundless steps, and, putting down the bucket and scrubbing brush, he kneeled before the door of the cell of Al Dupray. In his fingers appeared a thin length of steel spring, such as might have come out of the mechanism of a big watch or a clock. With this he began to fumble at the lowest and largest of the locks. Deftly he worked, his ear pressed close to the keyhole, his whole body tense with the effort of perfect concentration.
A number of minutes passed. Then there was a slight but rather prolonged sliding sound. Pedro drew back, and nodded his head with satisfaction.
Across the aisle, behind him, a voice said quietly: "Fine, kid. You done that pretty good. Before you open the next one, you might take a look at my door and see what you can do with it."
Pedro turned his head. He could see the dim silhouette of the prisoner, the pale gleam of the hands that clasped the bars of the cell. He said nothing, but waited.
There was no more snoring, and, looking up and down the aisle, he made out other forms, other hands. A voice said, farther away: "I'll be in on this, or I'll be damned." And another: "We all walk out together."
Pedro listened and sighed.
"Me first," said the man across the aisle, who had spoken first, "or else I'm gonna squeal. I'm gonna raise hell, I tell you... unless you come over here, and open this door. You're a beauty, and you can use some of your good looks on me."
The man with the scar stood up from his work and turned. How did it happen that noiseless work had awakened the prisoners? Well, there are other mysteries of instinct, never so well exemplified as inside the walls of a prison.
Some electric current of sympathy had informed them all that what they wished for themselves was being brought to pass for another, a companion—and that one, the man of the strong room.
Then said Pedro in perfectly good English: "Boys, will you listen to me?"
It was a very soft and quiet voice, and it was so exquisitely gauged that it barely carried to the farther end of the row of cells.
"We'll listen," said someone halfway up the aisle and in a voice pitched like that of the speaker.
"I'm here for Al Dupray. He's here for murder," said Pedro. "And the murder he's here for is a job he didn't do. He's being railroaded because he really didn't do the job that he's accused of. Pete Simmons murdered Tom Older, and Pete threw the blame where people would believe that it ought to rest. None of the rest of you has any such charge hanging over his head. Most of you are in for small things. Let me get Dupray out of his cell, and I'll try to help the rest of you if there's time. Is that fair?"
"Fair or not," said the man across the aisle more loudly, "you start working on my door right now, or I'm gonna raise a holler. You hear me, buddy?"
"I hear you talk," Pedro said slowly. "I don't want to believe what I hear, though. You fellows don't think that I can empty the whole jail, do you? You don't think that I've got the whole night ahead of me? In less than ten minutes, there'll be a guard walking on the rounds."
"Guard or no guard," said the man across the aisle, "you open this lock, Mister Slick, or I holler. You can count to ten. Or I'll do the counting myself."
The new janitor paused before answering, and both his hands contracted.
Then a voice spoke, the same soft voice that had spoken before, halfway up the aisle: "Buck?"
"I hear you, Slim," said the man across the aisle.
"Buck," said Slim, "you know what you are?"
"I know I'm gonna walk free out of this cell in half a minute," said Buck.
"You're a hog, is what you are," said Slim.
"What do I care what you think?" demanded Buck over loudly.
And Slim answered: "Listen to me."
"I'm listening, and be damned to you and your ideas," said Buck. "I wouldn't be in here at all, except for you and some of your fast brain work."
"Buck," said Slim, "you shut up and let the kid go on with his work. If he's got a chance, he'll turn Dupray loose and come back for the rest of us. What we got ahead of us? Maybe thirty days. No more'n that. Thirty days and it's the rope for Dupray, unless he gets loose right pronto."
"You do your own thinkin'," said Buck. "I'll think for myself and do for myself, from now on."
There was a moment of silence. The man of the scar did not speak. Neither did any of the other men in the cells up and down the aisle.
Then the voice of Slim struck in again. "Buck, if you carry on, I'm gonna get hold of you, after I get out of this here jail. I'm gonna follow you and cut your rat's throat." He spoke as softly as ever. But there was all the sincerity of a prayer in his speaking.
No one broke in, but all waited, and, while they waited, they counted seconds—Pedro and all the others within hearing distance. Two, three, four, five, ten counts, and then it became fairly certain that Buck was considering seriously what Slim had said.
Then the voice of Slim went on as quietly and gently as ever: "I'm Slim Malone. The rest of you birds, listen to me pipe up. The one that peeps, I'm gonna remember, and I'm gonna write him down in red. You hear me? Leave the kid a free road. Leave him be. I'm Slim Malone, and I mean what I say."
Still, for another instant, Pedro waited. There was no sound, and, dropping again upon his knees, he fell to work upon the central lock of the three. Rapidly he worked and with wonderful delicacy, also. Presently the slight sliding sound came again, and it was clear that the second lock had been mastered. He rose to his feet and began on the third and last lock. As he did so, he was aware of something like a warning whisper, not so much heard, as felt. He turned and saw that every man had disappeared from the bars of the cells, and down the aisle walked a guard, keys in one hand, a lantern in the other.
THE new janitor removed from his hand the little bit of spring with which he was working—it had that instant turned the bolt of the lock. In its place appeared a rag of cloth, with which he started polishing the outer edge of the door.
It seemed that he had conjured the bit of rag out of the thin air. Intently he worked but aware of the approaching steps, and aware, also, of eyes that watched him intently, like the eyes of hunted things, suffering and hoping for a fellow being, when a beast of prey is stalking.
A great hand fell suddenly upon the shoulder of Pedro. He turned his head with a sudden start and a gasp. "Ah, señor!" he exclaimed.
The great hand lifted him to his feet. He stood agape, the pull of the scar drawing his mouth all awry.
"What's the hell's work you're doing here?" asked the guard.
"Me? Señor, I scrub, I polish all day long. I do it everything right, no?"
The guard scowled fiercely down at him. "It ain't for nothin' that I had a pricklin' in my bones," he said. "You skunk, you're up to something. What you been tryin' on those locks?"
"Señor, and what should poor Pedro try?" said the new janitor. He clasped his hands together and looked with infinite and trembling appeal at the other.
The guard drew back a little, his scowl as black as ever, his brows drawn down in a deep shadow over his eyes.
"By the looks of you," he declared, "you ain't nothin' at all. But I ain't one to go by the looks, only. There's something more than looks, I reckon. Lemme try the key on one of those locks and see if there's been any funny business around here. That's all that I wanna see." He gritted his teeth in the very premonition of rage as he spoke, and, stepping forward, he knocked Pedro back and out of his way with a gesture of his hand.
It seemed to the new janitor that the burning of the eyes from the shadow grew fiercer every moment.
The guard, in the meantime, had fitted one of the keys into the central lock, stooping to do so. As he turned the key, finding that nothing resisted against its pressure, he exclaimed suddenly under his breath.
At that moment, it seemed that Pedro grew taller, stepping almost out of his rags into a majesty of appearance. Moving forward on a noiseless foot, he struck with the edge of his palm, as a butcher might strike with a cleaver, across the back of the guard's neck. The man slumped to the floor.
Up and down the corridor came a sigh like the whisper of wind through an opened door.
The man of the scar paid no heed to it. He knew that it was the sympathetic intake of breath by all of those who covertly and so intensely looked out upon his doings. He regarded not the fallen guard for the moment. It was as though he knew perfectly how long that man would lie still, all his body stunned and benumbed by the impact of the blow, for Pedro now ran lightly as a shadow down the aisle between the cells and passed the bunch of keys through the bars into the cell of Slim Malone.
"All right, Slim," he whispered. "You can reach your hand through, and get at the lock of your door. Don't let the keys jingle. Keep on trying till you find the right one. I'm in a hurry."
He was back at the door of Al Dupray's cell instantly and pulled it open. Then he caught the limp form of the guard under the pits of the arms, dragged him inside, into the darkness, and let him slump to the floor.
Al Dupray had long since risen from his cot; he moved now, with a slight jingling of steel upon steel.
The man of the scar stepped out into the aisle again, brought in the lantern of the fallen guard, and set it on the floor. He spared a half second to look up, fixedly, into the face of Dupray, and that young man saw in those dark eyes a glint of yellow fire like the gleam that will appear on the polished black of a windowpane at night when a lamp is borne past it.
Then Pedro set to work upon the three locks that secured the fetters of the prisoner. As he worked, he spoke in a voice hardly louder than a whisper: "Your uncle sent me up to you. I'm Speedy. You start. That means you know about me from your uncle. We made a deal for you. I'm to work to get you free. He's to leave some friends of mine alone. That's all. If we can get out of the jail, I have horses cached."
The first lock, which was upon the hands, now yielded. At the same time, there was a loud knocking at the front door of the jail, and Speedy leaped to his feet with a muffled exclamation. Only for a moment he hesitated, then he said: "I'll be back. Take charge of this." He hauled the breathing, but still senseless guard within the grip of Al Dupray's hands, then turned and fled down the corridor between the cells.
As he passed the cell of Slim Malone, he could see the hands of the man protruding through the bars, while he patiently but clumsily tried key after key in the lock. No key, so far, had fitted.
Like a ghost, soundlessly, Speedy reached the door of the jail. He pushed back the complicated bolts and opened it a fraction of an inch.
"Who's there?" he asked.
"Telegram, mister," said the voice of a drawling, sleepy boy.
Speedy pulled the door open, took the telegram from the freckle-faced lad, and scrawled a word on the receipt book. Then he closed the door, and, as he closed it, already his supple fingers were preparing to rip the envelope open, when he heard another door open and a brighter shaft of light shone into the hall.
It was Deputy Sheriff Stewart Osgood saying loudly, sternly: "What's going on here?"
The man of the scar began his bowing, as he approached. "A message for you, señor, that has come." He delivered it into the hands of Stew Osgood with another bow.
"Who told you to be moochin' around here at this time of night?" asked Osgood sourly.
"I? Señor, I am to clean the floors and the floors are large."
"Aw, the devil," muttered Osgood, turning away. "Save it for tomorrow. The jail won't rust till tomorrow. Go on and get out of here, will you?"
"I go señor, with thanks," said Speedy. "I go as quickly as my feet will take me. Señor is to Pedro as a father."
"You talk like a fool," said the deputy sheriff bluntly. "Go on and get!" He passed through the door of his office, and closed the door behind him, while Speedy turned and raced back to the open door of the cell of Dupray. Inside, there was a faint sound of scuffling and the subdued, terrible voice of Dupray, saying to the now conscious guard: "Try that ag'in, and I'm certainly gonna throttle you."
Speedy dropped to his knees, and resumed the work that he had left off.
The second lock gave way under the magic of his small bit of wire. The third was more difficult. As he worked, a fine perspiration broke out on his forehead and began to stream down his face. He had to wink his eyes to keep the stinging sweat out of them.
Dupray, just above his shoulder, was whispering: "You're the gamest that I ever seen. I thought you were a demon. But I never seen a finer thing. I don't hardly care what happens to me, after I seen a thing like this, is all I gotta say."
The third lock yielded, and Dupray stepped free from the shackles. "Now this?" he asked, gesturing toward the prostrate body of the guard, and setting his jaw savagely.
"Choke him," Speedy said calmly.
"I'll do it," said Dupray, bending over, his fingers already extending like the talons of a bird.
"Don't do it, fellows," said the guard, in a voice that was a cross between whimper and whisper. "I won't make a sound. I'll lay here like I was dead. I won't blow on you. Don't bump me off, boys. I ain't gonna do a thing to give you away."
"He lies," young Dupray said sternly. "He's a sneak, and all sneaks will lie."
"Let him go," said Speedy. "We'll at least keep our hands clean, this far."
In the meantime, the deputy sheriff had taken the telegram into his office and was in no hurry to open it. He first made himself comfortable in his chair. Then he hoisted his heels to the edge of his desk. Finally he lighted a cigar and turned it in his mouth until it found a comfortable corner to fit into. When all this had been achieved, he at last opened the missive, and read:
DEPUTY SHERIFF STEWART OSGOOD:
WORD JUST RECEIVED THAT HARRISON WILLIAMS, ALIAS THE DOCTOR, ALIAS THE SLIP, ALIAS SPEEDY, HAS UNDERTAKEN TO TRY TO FREE AL DUPRAY. INFORMANT WILLIAM CORT. BE ON GUARD. DISGUISES OF SPEEDY OFTEN OLD MAN WITH WHITE BEARD AND HALT IN ONE LEG, OR DOCTOR WITH LARGE DARKENED GLASSES AND IMPERIAL, OR RAGGED TRAMP, OR MEXICAN PEON WITH SCARRED FACE.
The deputy sheriff, as he came to this portion of his long telegram, felt his eyes thrust out from his head. He rose from his chair, his whole body stiffening. Speedy! He had heard that name, a name of magic. But Speedy was supposed to be the grand enemy of the terrible Charley Dupray. Speedy had caught the outlaw; Speedy had clamped him in jail, there to await the due processes of the law. Yet, this same man was here, in that building, disguised as the Mexican peon with the scarred face.
He caught up a revolver. That choice he changed for a sawed-off shotgun, and lurched for the door of his office.
DOWN the inner corridor of the cells, Speedy and Al Dupray had hardly started moving, when Slim Malone turned a key that opened his door and stepped out into the hallway. As he appeared, with Speedy and Dupray moving rapidly down the corridor, it became apparent to those hungry-eyed watchers in the other cells that they had little chance of being liberated. Now, also, the injured guard in the cell where Dupray had been confined groaned heavily. It was like a signal. From every throat of every prisoner in every cell there rose a howl of rage and envy, and Buck, in particular, leaped up and down like a baboon, screeching and shaking the bars of his cell like an animal.
It was just as the deputy sheriff opened the door of his office that this howling chorus arose and beat like a heavy wave against his brain. He looked wildly up and down as Slim Malone fitted the largest of the keys in the bunch into the lock of the side door of the building.
Three men were there, and plainly the deputy distinguished among them the slender outlines of his man of the scarred face. Speedy! He jerked up the gun and fired as the door swung open. He could have sworn that he heard the impact of the bullet as it struck flesh, but then all three were swept through the door. It slammed heavily behind them and the spring lock clanked home. Direct pursuit on that side of the jail was impossible.
Blinded with rage and with fear, feeling that his whole reputation was hanging on their escape, the deputy raced through the front door of the jail, shouting as he ran.
Down the corridor behind him came the guard, so recently stretched prostrate in the cell of Dupray.
But, as the two ran out into the open of the night, they heard the rattling hoofs of horses at full gallop, and guessed shrewdly enough that their quarry was off to a running start.
The deputy came to a halt. Sudden pursuit would hardly gain anything for the law. As he ran his eye over the ragged outlines of the mountains, he realized that there were 10,000 possible hiding places for the fugitives, one as good as the other. There was no chance of locating them, then, unless he could read the subtle mind of the celebrated Speedy. He could hit upon only one suggestion, and that was the house of Pete Simmons, several miles out of the town.
Again and again, Al Dupray had tried to shift the blame for the killing of Tom Older upon Simmons, who was the man, in fact, who had profited by that strike that Older had made just before his death.
The story was amusing, in spite of its dreadful aftermath. Sam Deacon, riding through the Clausen Hills, had come upon Tom Older making the camp that proved to be his last, and, dismounting to talk with the veteran prospector, Older had told him, with grim amusement, about the furious discontent of his young companion, Al Dupray.
"Al's ready to kill me," Tom Older had said, as Sam Deacon had testified in the courtroom at the trial. "Al's ready to do me up. He says that I'm a fool to play around here where every inch has been prospected a hundred times over. Al's in a terrible stew. He don't know that I've got this in my pocket."
As he spoke, he had pulled out a stone chip, and showed it to the excited eyes of Deacon, with a bright veining of yellow plainly to be seen. So much was known from Sam Deacon.
But Pete Simmons, when he found the dead man and found the chip of stone in his pocket, actually located the rock from which the chip had been taken. That was why a score of men were now moiling and toiling under his direction and in his interest. He bade fair to become a rich man, as a result of that discovery of his.
At any rate, Pete Simmons was an object of hatred to Al Dupray, perhaps simply because the man had taken up the claim that might have belonged to him and to the dead man. Whatever the reasons, it well might be, no matter where the other two went, that Dupray would hunt for Simmons; one murder leads to another, the deputy sheriff was sure. And so he said to the panting guard beside him: "What happened?"
"I seen him working at the lock of the door of Dupray. The greaser, I mean. I seen him working, and he said he was only scrubbing down the steel. I didn't think that the steel needed no scrubbing. I wondered if the fool had been tryin' to pick the locks, maybe? Anyway, I put a key in, and, sure enough, the bolt had been slipped already. Just as I was about to turn and grab him, he socked me with something. I dunno what. It felt like an axe with a dull edge. And not so dog-gone dull, neither. My neck was pretty near broke."
"That's enough yammering," said the deputy sheriff. "Get Collins and Bill Wade. Get Thayer, too, and Millmarch. Tell them to be here in five minutes with their horses and guns. You be on hand, too. We're going to ride, tonight, and there may be some fighting at the far end of the ride, too."
THE house of Pete Simmons was a small shack that stood up high on the side of a hill, with a little rickety verandah built across the front of it and a crooked stovepipe issuing from the top. It looked very much like some of those houses that Negroes build and live in down South.
But there was nothing Negroid about Simmons. He was a big, burly, red-headed fellow with a loud, brawling laugh, considered good company on the range, an excellent shot, a great hunter of deer. He had a little patch of ground that was of no great use to him, and he made his money, or had made it until recently, by hiring out as a cowpuncher or as a worker in the mines.
Now, however, that he was taking gold out of the hard ground of the Clausen Hills and seemed certain of
becoming a rich man before long, he had not changed his mode of living in the least. He did not hire a servant. He did not enlarge or improve the old shack, but remained where he had always been and seemed rather uninterested in the luck he was having with the mine. This caused the entire countryside to respect him more than ever.
On this night, he sat on his verandah, talking to a person who was none other than the editor of the Clausen News and giving forth his ideas on many things, while the editor took notes.
They had an audience of three, who had come upon them, unseen and unknown, by riding to the top of the hill behind the house and so slipping silently down to the side of the verandah. There they crouched in the brush and listened to the voices close over their heads.
The editor was about to leave.
"The main thing, Simmons," he said, "is this talk going around about you building a memorial to Tom Older. What about that? That's news that's worth the front page, and a lot of it, too."
"You see," said Simmons, "it's this way. That mine ain't belonging to me, except you might say by clean accident. It was accident that I come across poor old Tom lyin' dead. It was a lot more of an accident that I happened to look in his pocket and found the chip of rock. You know, I was looking for something that might kind of explain why anybody would have done dirt to Older. And it was a third accident that I happened to stumble right onto the boulder that the chip had been taken off of. By rights, Older should've had that mine... him and the young fellow that murdered him. But Older ain't got any relations to claim his share of it. And I guess that Dupray's claim ain't worth a damn. What am I to do? Put all the money into my pocket like a hog? No. I wanna do something about it and I figger that the best way is to put up something for Clausen that'll be worthwhile. Maybe a hospital. Maybe a courthouse, with the name of Tom Older onto it. Understand?"
"That's the right idea. It shows that you got good stuff in you, Simmons," said the editor. "And that's a thing that none of us ever doubted. Suppose that I say it's a courthouse that you're going to build. What would you spend?"
"Why, a pretty good courthouse could be built for say twenty-five thousand dollars, maybe," suggested Simmons.
"That's mighty public-spirited," said the other. "Twenty-five thousand is a lot of thousands. But it don't look so big in print. Suppose that I push it up a little bigger and say that you're planning a fine courthouse, and that the cost would be around a hundred thousand. That'll give people something to look at and something to talk about, and it'll make you a great man in Clausen."
"Aw, you handle it the way you think is the best," Simmons said carelessly. "I dunno nothing about the way that newspapers handle things at all. You do it your own way, will you?"
"I'll do that. You leave your reputation to me, Simmons, and I'll make it grow in a way that'll surprise you. Out of a thing like that courthouse, state senatorships and all sorts of honors are likely to come eventually. You'll be the Honorable Peter Simmons, one of these days, and before you know it. Leave it all to me."
"I'll leave it all to you, because I really wouldn't know what to do about it," declared Simmons. "Go ahead and do what you please, partner."
"Good night," said the editor.
"Have another drink?"
"No, thanks. I'll get along back. The night's turning
chilly. Do you mind walking down to the gate with me?"
"It's a pleasure," said Simmons.
They came clumping down the front steps, and walked down the path to the gate, beyond which was the horse and buggy of the editor. There were more agreeable messages, more good nights, and then the newspaperman drove back up the little winding trail toward Clausen.
Big Pete Simmons remained for a moment to admire the moon and the stars. His hands were deep in his pockets and his head thrown far back, as he strolled slowly up the path, and, therefore, he did not see the danger until it was just upon him. On either side of him a revolver gleamed, and three men arose out of the shadows of the brush.
Simmons said calmly: "What you want, boys? Money? I'll give you what I've got in the house, if that's it."
"Stick 'em up!" said Al Dupray. The voice staggered Simmons like the blow of a bullet over the heart. He breathed a curse. "Up with your hands!" repeated Al Dupray, through his teeth.
The hands of Simmons went swiftly up in the air. He rose on tiptoe, in his eagerness to grasp at the stars, as it seemed.
"Just walk up the stairs," said Speedy, "and inside the house, Simmons. This'll soon be over. Don't be nervous. I don't think that we'll have to do anything to you. Just a minute, first." Deftly he picked a long-barreled Colt and a big knife out of the clothes of the other, and then Simmons walked awkwardly up the stairs, still holding his hands stiff and high above his head. He had to lower them a little, going through the front door of the house.
Now they gathered in the small front room, where the long arms of Simmons kept the tips of his fingers touching the ceiling. He was pale, but his face was grimly set rather than unnerved and sagging from overmastering fear.
"Sit down, sit down," Speedy said, taking quiet control of the situation. "Sit down, Simmons, and we'll have a little chat together."
"All right," said Simmons. He drew in a breath as he lowered his arms, and then pulled up a chair to the table.
"I'd like to finish him off, right now," Al Dupray said suddenly. "Speedy, give him his gun, and let the two of us have it out."
"Speedy?" exclaimed Simmons. "Are you Speedy?"
"Some people call me by that name," answered Speedy.
"Well"—Simmons sighed—"I'm damned glad of that. You're never mixed up with crooked work. Speedy, what's the deal about?"
"It's about the way you murdered Tom Older and laid the blame on Dupray," replied Speedy.
The shock made Simmons close his eyes. When he opened them, they were dark with desperation. "Is that the kind of a gag that they've talked over to you, Speedy?" he complained.
"That's the gag," said Speedy. "We've got the information, Simmons, but we want your signed confession before we send you to the jail."
"Signed confession?" Simmons said, growing more and more colorless. He looked wildly about him, toward the two faded photographs of his father and mother that hung on the wall. He seemed to study the details of the tattered wallpaper, also, and then he looked down to his own great, brown hands, that lay on the edge of the table.
"Signed confession," repeated Speedy.
"I'll see you dead first!" exploded Simmons.
"I told you that you'd never get it out of him, Speedy," said Al Dupray, shaking his weary head.
"Then we'll hang him in his own house," said Speedy. "We'll hang him up to his own ceiling. And we'll do it now."
"You won't. That's not your line, Speedy," said Simmons. "I know you too well for that. You can't bluff me, boys. You wouldn't do a murder that would outlaw the lot of you."
"Murder?" said Speedy. "It will pass as a suicide. When they find you, they'll find your hands free, and your signed confession lying on the table."
"My signed confession? And how might you be getting that out of me?" asked Simmons, squinting his eyes. "Besides, I never done the job."
"Who did, then?" asked Al Dupray.
"You done it, you rat," said Simmons.
Slim Malone caught the gun hand of the young man barely in time.
Simmons, after wincing, tried to face out the situation again. "The world knows that you done it," he insisted.
"Don't be a fool, Simmons," Speedy said as calmly as ever. "The fact is that you killed Tom Older, and now conscience has got hold of you, and you'll hang yourself, you poor devil, and leave your signed confession lying here on the table."
"You're gonna drive me crazy, are you? Think I'm fool enough to write out a confession?" asked Simmons.
Speedy smiled. "I'll write it for you, brother," he said. "I'm a penman, Simmons. You seem to have heard so much about me, that perhaps you've heard that, too."
Simmons stared long and earnestly. Conviction was dawning slowly in his eyes, and now his mouth dropped open, yet it was a moment before he could speak. "What would you write down in that there confession?" he asked. "Why, nobody would believe it. Everybody knows that I was a good friend of Tom Older."
"That's the point of it," said Speedy. "When you dropped in on Tom at his camp, he was so sure that you were his friend, that he even showed you the sample and the place he chipped it. Then he sat down beside the fire and talked, warmed his hands at it, while you picked up the axe to get more wood, and, while you stood there behind him, it came into your mind that it would be an easy thing to put him out of the way. You remembered how he'd told you of Dupray's discontent. Other people knew that young Al was dissatisfied, also. Therefore, the impulse came over you in a twinkling. You're not a young man. Before long, you'd have begun to get old and stiff. So you lifted the axe and..."
"Stop!" gasped Simmons. "Where were you hiding, Speedy, that you seen it?" He collected himself, instantly. "I mean," he said. "I mean to say that there ain't a word of truth in that lingo."
"You can write out the confession and go to jail," said Speedy, still very calm and steady, "and there you can take your chances with the law, or else we'll hang you up here, man, and leave every sign to make the world sure that you committed suicide out of a guilty conscience." He nodded to Slim Malone. "You have the rope, Slim, I think," he said.
"It's here," said Malone. He looked up toward the ceiling, at the big iron hook projecting downward, from which a lamp had probably once been suspended.
"It's all right," said Speedy. "We won't have to use it, or will we, Simmons?"
The gentleness of his voice caused a shudder of horror to sweep through the big body of Simmons.
Suddenly he said: "I'll write it. It was the damned axe. If only I hadn't laid my hands on it."
"You'd better be drifting, Slim," Speedy said, after a time, while the pen was still scratching.
Slim Malone took off his hat and smoothed his rust-colored hair. Then he grinned. "I suppose they want me more'n ever," he suggested. "More for the jail break, now, than for what I did before, eh?"
"I suppose so," said Speedy. "That was a good turn you did me in the jail, Slim. I'll remember it."
Slim Malone drew up his slender, athletic body to its full height. "Why, Speedy, it was worth it," he said, "just for the pleasure of seein' how you handled that job there in the jail. Will you tell me one thing before I go?"
"Anything I can."
"Then, what did you do to that big stiff back there in the jail? How'd you paralyze him like that?"
"Hold out your hand," said Speedy.
Malone obeyed, and, across his upturned fingers, Speedy struck with the edge of his palm. It was as though a rattan had whipped across the fingers of Malone, and he flinched from the pain.
"Thunder and blazes!" he exclaimed.
"It takes practice, is all," Speedy explained. "Back in Japan, they have fellows who can break a stone bar an inch thick with that sort of a stroke. I didn't give the guard the full weight, at that."
Malone shook hands.
"You call it easy, you call it practice," said Malone. "I call it pretty slick. So long, old son."
"So long," said Speedy. "Remember me, partner. You and I could ride some trail together, one of these days."
"Just say my name out loud whenever you want me," answered Malone, "and I'll manage to hear it and come on the dead run. So long again. Good bye, Dupray. I'm glad you're out of this here mess."
But Dupray was asleep in his chair.
Malone did not waken him. He simply stepped through the door and sped down the steps. A moment later, they heard the snort of his horse, and the thumping of hoofs as it galloped away through the night.
Still the pen of Simmons scratched on and on. He canted his head to one side. He sweated, not with agony at the words that he was forced to write, but with the labor of committing them to the paper. He bit his lip and grunted, strained, and finally looked up with a sigh of relief. "That's about all, I guess," he said, and added: "Wanna read it over?"
"I've read it already," Speedy said, picking it up. "It will do well enough. I read upside down, as you scrawled it."
"You're full of tricks," muttered Simmons. "You'll trick yourself into the hottest part of hell, one of these days." He lifted his head again. Horses had swept up the road and now they stopped in front of the house.
"That's probably the deputy sheriff," said Speedy, "come to catch Dupray and me, but he'll be glad to have you, instead."
NOW, for a moment, silence came over that room. Al Dupray was still sunk in sleep. The hand of Simmons went up to his throat, and his eyes gradually closed as he spoke, breaking the silence: "It's kind of a funny thing... the way I've come into this. I mean, it was the axe, the feel of it in my hand. It was like the axe did the trick, and not my hand that had hold of it. It's kind of funny."
There was a light, crackling sound outside the house.
"They're on the verandah now, and they're going to rush in and surprise us, pretty soon," Speedy warned. He smiled at that, the smile twisting all to one side on account of the pull of the imitation scar that was on his face.
Only a moment more, then through the window came the voice of the young deputy sheriff, Stewart Osgood, saying: "Up with your hands, Speedy. We got you covered from this here window, and from the door of the hall. We got Dupray, too. Up with your hands, or I'll let you have it."
Speedy did not raise his hands. He did not turn his head, even, but said: "That's all right, Osgood. You're going to get enough out of this to make you a full sheriff at the next election, but don't think that you're going to get it out of me. Keep me covered, and send your men in."
There is incalculable force in the power of quiet calm and self-control. Deputy Sheriff Osgood muttered a few orders, and his men stalked into the room, their guns ready. They covered Speedy and Dupray, but Simmons made no move to break away, for he saw that Speedy's eyes were upon him, something as the eyes of a hunting cat might be upon its prey, conveniently near.
Al Dupray was unaware of the intrusion. He simply slumped forward in his chair, and, burying his face in his arms on the top of the table, he continued to sleep the sleep of utter exhaustion.
"Pick up that paper," Speedy said to the first man who had entered, and that was none other than his friend the guard of the jail.
The man obeyed. His voice went slowly over the words of the confession; before it ended, Stewart Osgood was standing in the room, listening with a frown of wonder.
At the end, not one of them was heeding Speedy or Al Dupray, after whom they had ridden so hard and so successfully that night. Their guns were pointing toward Pete Simmons, instead.
He jumped out of his chair at last, and cried out: "It's all a lie!"
"It's wrote in your own hand," Osgood said sternly.
"I had to write it. These two devils made me at the point of a gun," said Simmons. "Speedy, he swore that otherwise they'd hang me, and he'd forge my confession, and go and leave it here, like I was a suicide."
His voice trailed away and stopped. For his own guilt closed over his throat. He could not help feeling that the confession was not more visible in his written words than in his face at that moment.
"Well," said Osgood. "I guess that's about all you wanna say now, Simmons."
"D'you mean that you'll take this serious?" demanded Simmons. "D'you mean that a thug like Speedy, and a killer like Dupray, out of murderous blood...?"
Al Dupray stirred and groaned in his sleep. That sound stopped the voice of Simmons in the midst of his protest, and, looking about him, he saw contempt, disgust, horror, in every face among the posse.
"What I'm thinking of," said Osgood, "is that poor Tom Older was a friend of yours. He was an old bunkie. And yet you'd murder him with an axe. It makes me sick. You're under arrest, Simmons. Anything more that you say may be used ag'in' you in the law courts." He stepped to Simmons, and clamped the handcuffs over his big brown wrists. The man sank back in his chair with a gasping groan.
Even this did not awaken Dupray.
"You and Dupray, Speedy," said Osgood, "will have to come back to the town till I get a court order that frees you. There's gonna be some kind of a charge ag'in' you for breaking jail... well, and turning Slim Malone loose. I reckon that there won't be any charge, though, for makin' a fool of me. That's throwed in free and extra, I guess."
"What else could I do, Osgood, but work on you?" said Speedy. "I had to get into the jail, and how else could I do it?"
"I dunno," said Osgood. "And I ain't so sad about it, neither. I ain't the first ordinary gent that's been buffaloed by you, and I reckon that I won't be the last, neither. I'd take more than that to keep from hanging the wrong man, even if he is a Dupray." He looked down at the sleeping form of the young man and added, with a sudden compassion: "Damn me, but we used him rough. It's the last time that the third degree is ever used in Clausen, and you can believe that, if you want to."
"I believe it," said Speedy.
"Wake him up," ordered the deputy sheriff. "Let him come along with us, Speedy. You've gotta go back."
"Let him stay out on parole with me, till tomorrow," answered Speedy. "I'll promise to bring him back when he's had his sleep."
The sheriff hesitated. Then, nodding, he observed: "They say that your word is enough for any man in your part of the country, and I guess that your part of the country is as good as mine. I'll trust you to show up with him tomorrow by noon, say?"
"Right," answered Speedy.
So it was that Al Dupray slept all through that scene that removed Pete Simmons from the house and started that unhappy man back toward the town of Clausen and a life sentence.
Speedy, when he heard the hoof beats depart, roused Dupray, and got him staggering, like a child, to the bed, saw him topple over, straightened out his legs, pulled off his coat and boots without completely waking him, and then pulled a pair of blankets over him. After that, he went to the top of the hill behind the house, brought the pair of horses down to the shed, and fed them.
For his own part, he was not sleepy. There was in him an ability to store up energy and sleep in quiet times that served him well in days of need, when his reserve strength had to be drawn upon over a considerable period. It served him now, and, coming back to the shack of Simmons, he kindled a fire in the stove, boiled some coffee, fried some bacon, and sat down with this and a cold pone to an appetizing, if small meal.
Later still, he washed and scrubbed from his face, hands, and body the dark stain that had covered it, using laundry soap, hot water in a galvanized iron laundry tub, and a certain chemical that he took out of a small vial in his pocket.
The dawn came before he had finished all of this work, and he went back to look at Dupray, who was still sleeping soundly.
There was no other bed in the place. Speedy, therefore, went to the table at which Simmons had sat to write his confession, kicked off his boots, and, stretching himself on the table, without so much as a blanket under him for cushion or over him for warmth, he closed his eyes and was instantly asleep.
He slept till well on in the morning, and then awoke automatically, as though an alarm had rung in his ears.
Walking back to the other room, he found that Dupray was just waking up, yawning prodigiously as he sat up on the side of his bunk. He leaped to his feet at the sight of Speedy. "You, Speedy...," he began.
"It's all right. Take it easy," said Speedy.
"Where are we, I mean?" he said confusedly.
"We're in Simmons's house. You remember back a ways. He wrote out his confession, signed it, and Osgood and a posse came here for us, and went away with Simmons, instead."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Dupray. "How did I manage to sleep through all of that?"
"An easy conscience, perhaps," suggested Speedy, rather dryly.
Dupray glanced sharply aside at him, but, making no answer, he sat down again to pull on his boots.
Speedy worked up a new fire and cooked a second breakfast. In silence he cooked and in silence they ate, for a great cloud seemed to have enveloped the mind of the boy.
Finally, over his second cup of coffee, he said: "Look here, Speedy, what's on your mind? You're keeping something back."
"Only that you're going back to Clausen with me today," said Speedy.
"Going back?" exclaimed young Dupray. "Why should I go back? I'm free now, if they've got Simmons for that job."
"I promised the sheriff that I'd bring you in," said Speedy.
The sight of his calm face suddenly seemed to madden Al Dupray. He grew ugly; for an instant he looked not like the nephew but the very son of that Charley Dupray who was Speedy's greatest enemy.
"The hell you did!" Al Dupray shouted out. "And who are you to promise the sheriff anything from me? I'll handle myself, thanks!"
Speedy rose from the table and went to the window, through which he stared out over the valley, glistening under the morning sun. There he waited, until presently the voice of the young man said, just at his shoulder: "I'm sorry. I was a fool. I clean forgot."
"Don't be apologizing," said Speedy. "If you're ready to go, we'll start now."
"Only," said Dupray, "I dunno about going back to Clausen. I ain't liked there. I dunno that I'm liked anywhere, but, particular in Clausen, they always hated me."
"Why should they?" asked Speedy.
"My name's Dupray. That's enough," Al said, his face wrinkling at the disagreeable thought.
"You've got a new position now," said Speedy. "They called you a murderer. Now, instead of that, they find out that you're an honest man, with something that means more than honesty."
"What's that?" Dupray asked humbly.
"Money," said Speedy. "You have the mine now. Your claim to it is as clean as a whistle."
"By thunder," said Dupray, "I'd clean forgot about that. But now that I'm gonna be cleared, why, of course, it's mine." He lifted his head with a jerk and laughed. Then he snapped his fingers. "Some of 'em can look up to me now," he said. "I'll snap my whip, and they can jump." He snapped his fingers, in token of the good time to come. Then, changing his mind quickly, he said: "Look here, Speedy."
"All right," said Speedy. "Look at what?"
"Except for you, I'd be closer to hanging by the length of one night, instead of further away from it. I owe it to you."
"You owe it to your uncle," said Speedy. "You don't owe anything to me."
The young man laughed. "You wanna put it that way," he said, "but the fact is, Speedy, that you saved me. Well, I was partners with poor Tom Older... though it's true that I wrangled a good bit with him, I
was fond of him. He was a salty old bird, I can tell you, and honest, too. He was willing to trust a Dupray, for one thing." His face darkened, as he said this, and then he continued slowly: "But with Older out of the picture, there's something remaining, Speedy. Half of that mine belongs to me, but I want the other half to belong to you."
Speedy shook his head. "I can't take it," he said.
"Because you can't take anything from a Dupray, eh?" demanded the youth.
"I didn't say that."
"You meant it, though."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"Al," said Speedy, "it's not because you're a Dupray, but because of two things. The first is there's blood on it... Older's blood. It's a queer freak with me, but I hate blood money. The second thing is you don't owe any gratitude to me. You owe it to your uncle."
Al Dupray blinked, and waited for the explanation. And Speedy went on slowly and solemnly: "If I'd heard of you being in prison before, I would have been glad of it. I would have been glad to know that another Dupray was to die. You see? But your uncle came and caught me off base. Away off base and up in the air. I was in his hand, and three other friends of mine were in his hand, too. He only had to scratch a match in a grain field. And you know that he hates me, Al."
Dupray nodded. His eyes, animal bright and quick, kept playing over the face of Speedy as though trying to find a hidden solution behind his words and expression.
Then he said: "Damn me, Speedy, I can't imagine why he didn't scratch the match, then. I know that he's hated you, all right. What would keep him from bumping you off? What's the answer?" He waited eagerly, hanging upon the answer.
And Speedy said: "Because he loves you, Al, and thought I might be able to help you."
Al Dupray blinked and winced. Still his eyes roved, as though the answer were not entire and satisfying.
At last Speedy said: "About the mine, if you think that anything should be given away, remember Tom Older, your grubstake partner. Even that hound, Simmons, was going to give some money in the name of Older. Why don't you give fifty cents out of every dollar the mine makes for you and invest it in some charity, in Tom Older's name?"
Dupray caught in his breath. Then he gasped: "Jiminy, Speedy, everybody would think I'd gone crazy, wouldn't they? But why not? Just to give 'em a slam in the eye."
THEY rode into the town of Clausen, shoulder to shoulder, and just before noon they entered the long, winding, main street of the town. A whisper and a rumor ran before them. People hurried to windows and doors. Little children appeared by magic and trooped about.
"Look around," Speedy said to his companion. "If those people seemed to hate you before, don't they seem to be changing their minds, just now?"
Al Dupray lifted his head, and breathed more deeply once more. "It looks kind of like a new world, that I never seen before, Speedy," he declared. "You sort of opened the door of it to me."
"Your uncle did," insisted Speedy. "He gave me up. And he'd rather have had the best blood out of my heart than anything in the world. You're the only thing that makes a bigger difference to him."
"Yeah?" murmured the boy, bewildered. "And that's a funny thing, too." He added: "You know how it is... I never heard from Uncle Charley much, except somebody appears in the middle of the night and drops a letter into my hand, then slides off. In the letter there's just a few words that say... 'Here's some of the velvet, so you can spend it fast. Good luck.' That's the way that one of his letters would go. I never seen his face, myself, more'n half a dozen times, and he was never very damn' kind, at that. Look a-here, Speedy, d'you think that I look like him?" There was a world of anxiety in him.
Speedy answered briefly: "You do."
"Do I?" groaned the young man.
"You look like the best part of him," said Speedy.
"Whacha mean by that?" said Al Dupray.
"The Duprays are an old family, and they used to be a good one," said Speedy. "And they ought to be a good one again. They've gone wild, and that's all."
Dupray stared before him with a wretched face. "Bad blood," he muttered.
Or, at least, that was what the words seemed to be to the acute ear of Speedy, who answered: "What d'you mean by bad blood?"
"Like back there in Simmon's shack... after all that you'd done for me," Dupray said gloomily. "But this morning, when I thought that you were sort of ordering me around, why, in another minute I could've killed you."
"Take hold of this idea, partner," said Speedy.
"Yes?" Al said eagerly.
"Listen to me, now. When you see a colt in the corral that drives the rest of the horses around, you may say to yourself that it's not the handsomest of the lot, and it's not the biggest. But you've an idea, as a rule, that that horse has bottom to it. Am I wrong?"
"No, you're dead right," muttered Al.
"Well, when that colt grows up, it's likely to need some handling," said Speedy, "or else it will begin to go wrong, and it'll go wrong as soon as the people that handle it think it's wrong. Because your horse is going to be as bad, or twice as bad, as you let yourself think it is."
"Yes, that's true, and I sort of see what you mean," said Dupray. "I see right through the deal. Oh, Speedy, you've got a brain in your head." His enthusiasm was growing.
"You've grown up thinking that there was bad blood in you," said Speedy. "What does that bad blood amount to?"
"Murder," broke out Al Dupray in a low, choking voice. "Damnable, black murder, and lots of it. That's what's been in my blood, and my father's blood before me, and his father before him." In the exquisite perfection of his pain, he grinned, as though squinting at the sun.
"Murder, you say? There's something else, though," Speedy said.
"What else?" groaned Al Dupray. "There's murder, Speedy, and there's been murder in me. There was murder in me this very morning, and for the only man in the world, about, that's ever tried to do a kind thing for me."
"Besides murder," said Speedy, "there's strength and courage. You, Al, you never cried 'enough' in your life, not even when a bigger boy was thumping you."
"How did you know that?" Al asked, suddenly wide of eye, like a child.
"I know it because I know that you're a Dupray," Speedy answered.
"Do you?" gasped Al.
"Yes. Besides, I know that you never will say 'enough.' No Dupray ever surrenders. Why, an army of a thousand Duprays would conquer the whole world, if they'd fight shoulder to shoulder."
"A thousand Duprays?" repeated the young man. "That'd be an ugly mess, all right." He laughed a little, with excitement in his eyes.
"Then," said Speedy, "every Dupray has endurance. He can handle his body as though it were iron. A Dupray will ride or walk farther, climb higher, stand more heat or cold, fight harder, starve longer, and never say die. The fellow who has the luck to be born a Dupray is born a thoroughbred. Between him and other people, there's the difference that there is between a Kentucky thoroughbred and a plow horse."
"Would you say that?" Al said.
"I would say it, and I am saying it. I'd bet on a Dupray any day."
"You'd bet on a Dupray," the boy said slowly, "to break the law, and to die before he'd let himself be put in prison for it. That's how you'd bet on a Dupray."
"It's true. The whole lot of the Duprays have been too hot under the collar all the time," said Speedy. "That's what they've been. But you, Al, have had a chance to cool off. You'll find that you've a better temper than the rest. You're the sort of diamond that can cut diamond. Use yourself right. Respect yourself as much as I respect you, and you'll surely rule the roost."
Al Dupray said nothing, but his eyes were blazing, and there was on his face such a smile as no man had seen there before.
Suddenly Speedy said: "Who was your mother, Al?"
"Mother? What's she got to do with it?" asked Al Dupray, suddenly angry.
"She's your mother," Speedy said. "That's what she has to do with you. Was a wrong thing ever whispered about her?"
"No!" Al Dupray said with vehemence. "Whacha mean?"
"Then remember that your blood is half hers, and no man ever dared to so much as whisper a wrong thing about your mother. Here's the jail, Al. We turn in here and pay a call, I think. We may even have lunch in a cell, for all I know. I hope they have a good cook."
Al Dupray was suddenly laughing as he swung down from his horse and went up toward the jail, arm in arm with his companion.
Stewart Osgood met them at the door of the jail and brought them straight to his office. "I've got the judge here," he was saying. "I dunno how far I can go, but the judge, he knows. I was watchin' the sun and kind of wondering if you'd be in, right on time, Speedy, and the kid along with you." He heaved a sigh, as though a great weight had just been removed from his mind. Then, leading the way, he opened the door and admitted them to his office, where the gray-headed judge was sitting, a stern, quiet man, with a face that had braved many troubles.
"Here they are," said the deputy sheriff. "I don't want to have you waste much of your time. I know that you're a busy man, Judge Welch... but I'm only wondering, after all, if it was a jail break. It's true that we were holdin' Al Dupray on a wrong charge, but a jail break's a jail break. Then, they let out Malone. We weren't holding Malone for nothing much, but he was turned loose."
"The law can go hang," said the Honorable John J. Welch. "I could have told you last night that you'd be a fool to arrest either of 'em. But I wanted to see Speedy, face to face, and here he is... here he is."
He nodded to Al Dupray. Speedy he gripped by the hand and deliberately turned him toward the window light, as a father might turn the face of his son. Holding the hand of the younger man still, he said: "It was a good thing and a great thing and a brave thing, Speedy... since you won't tell us your true name. No other man in the world, I think, could have done it. I'm glad to have seen your face. I've a boy at home, Speedy, that may grow up to look like you... but if he grows up to be like you in more than looks, may fate help him as much as I'll admire him."
ARRIVING at the house of John Wilson, William Cort flung himself from his horse without tethering it. He paused only long enough to throw the reins, then he ran in through the kitchen door. There he found, not Jessica Wilson, but the amazed cook and, stamping into the front of the house, came at length upon the two Wilsons. They rose up with frightened faces before him.
"He's done it," gasped William Cort, falling exhausted into a chair. "He's freed Al Dupray from the jail. I sent the telegram we agreed on, you know. We thought that it would be a way of heading Speedy off from terrible trouble, but he was already inside the jail. I don't know just how he wangled it, but he did the job, and he's managed to get Al Dupray loose. Not only that, but it turns out that young Al was wrongly accused, and it was proved by Speedy. He found the real killer and made him confess.
"The town of Clausen is burning up with excitement. Young Al Dupray has made a talk to the best men of the town and told 'em that he's giving half the profits of his mine, and it's a rich one, too, to any charity in the place. And why d'you think he's doing it? Because, he says, Speedy has taken a rope from around his neck, but chiefly out of regard for the love and kindness... yes, sir, those are the words... the love and kindness of his uncle, Charley Dupray, who got Speedy interested in the business. It's the darnedest thing that I've ever seen in a newspaper.
"I rode my horse almost into the ground to get out here to you and tell you about it. Besides, I want to be here when we explain to Speedy why we sent a telegram that might have got him into such hot water, instead of saving him from burning his fingers, as we figured it. He ought to be here almost any time, if he rides back this way, and this is the way he's pretty sure to ride. Wilson, Jessica, did you ever hear such a yarn as this in all your life?"
Not three miles away, in a narrow glen coming out of the hills, Speedy at that moment was jogging his mustang sleepily, horse and rider hanging their heads a little, with the heat of the sun pouring down steadily upon them.
But for all the somnolence of his mood, the warmth and sleep that were soaking through his body and his spirit, he was instantly aware of the shadow that moved behind one of the trees. He checked the mustang instantly and was off its back in a flash, its body between him and possible danger.
Then said the harsh, ringing voice of Charley Dupray: "It's all right, Speedy!" Next the great Dupray in person appeared from among the trees, leading after him a lofty thoroughbred with wide, shining forehead, starred with white, and the eye of a deer, ready for flight.
The beauty of the animal and the ugliness of the white frog-face of the man worked strangely in the mind of Speedy. He stepped out in front of his mustang. "Hello, Dupray," he said.
Dupray waved a hand. "Speedy," he said, "we've burned up ten of the thirty-day truce. I'm thinking that I'd like to make it longer."
Speedy shrugged his shoulders. "You think so now," he suggested. "But you'll change your mind, later on. You'll remember a few of the other old days, and they'll burn you up."
"Would you trust me, Speedy, if I gave you my word?" Dupray asked curiously.
"No," Speedy said, "even if you swore on all the Bibles in the world."
"You wouldn't trust me, eh?"
"No," said Speedy.
The other nodded and seemed to take no offense. "Maybe you're right," he said. "I don't know. Just now I think that maybe I could go straight, as far as you're concerned. You've done a pretty big job for me, Speedy."
The latter waved his hand in turn to banish the suggestion of kindness. "All in the day's work," he said.
"There's something else, though, that's not in the day's work," said Charley Dupray.
"This," said Dupray. "And if you're not behind the writing of the best thing that ever came to me, more than gold or diamonds, I'll eat my own heart out with my own teeth. Look at this."
He held out a square of paper and Speedy, unfolding it, read:
Dear Uncle Charley:
By this time you know that Speedy has got me freed and put me right before the world, so right that people here in Clausen seem to think that my name may not be Dupray, after all. But I'm going to teach them that it is Dupray—only, the sort of a Dupray that they don't expect, the sort of a Dupray that you could be, if you hadn't chosen the other way of living. But, whatever I am, I'll owe it to you, and I'll never forget you while there's blood in me.
Your affectionate nephew,