IT was a battered rectangle of steel with the corners chipped off. Undoubtedly it had been enameled, but the enameled surface had been covered with a scroll work, and the uncounted generations in their passing had left it with a strange, half-molded, appearance. Underneath it was a placard which read:
"A Bullet-proof Breastplate of Finest Steel."
Joe Daly passed on to the next object, a stack of murderous halberds and cruel-headed spears, but his eyes were cloyed with seeing, and he closed them. Far away beyond the walls of the museum he heard the murmur of the traffic of New York. He had not been able to escape from that sound since he arrived in Manhattan, and his only true happiness came to him at night in sleep; when he dreamed of the mountain silences which he had left.
He opened his eyes again, and the oppressive load of ancient armor sickened him. The more he saw the more bitterly he longed to be back there, to be out of this thick air, this stifling heat, and in exchange to feel the clean and honest burning of the Western sun!
"Taslet, Chased In Gold. Part of Gold-wrought Suit of Armor Probably Belonging To—" He turned away, shaking his head, and went back to the doors of the great museum and stared out into the street. But when he saw the scurrying drift of automobiles and buses which roared up Fifth Avenue, his heart sank again. Better this retired gloom of the distant ages and their relics, better the strange-smelling atmosphere of the museum and its sense of death than to mingle in a crowd of which he was not a part. A lump grew in his throat. He set his teeth to keep the tears out of his eyes. Self-pity was beginning to unnerve him.
But when he thought of going back to that West for which he yearned, the compelling fear of death stepped in between and warned him back. He saw again the squat and ungraceful form of Pete Burnside, with the long arms hanging at his side. He heard the voice of Pete ringing at his very ear, with a threat of dire things that would happen if he ever came back.
For six mortal months he had remained away. If he returned he must face Pete Burnside. If he wished to be able to hold up his head among his own gang of chosen reprobates, with whom he had plundered society for three years, he must face Pete Burnside, the deputy sheriff, who had crushed him.
He touched his shoulder and winced. The wound had long since healed. It was not the memory of the pain which troubled him; it was the recollection of the magic by which Burnside had conjured his revolver out of its holster—the terrible and uncanny speed with which he had produced and leveled his weapon. How it had been done, Joe Daly could not understand. But he was at least sure that it would never be in his power to rival that speed and accuracy. So far as he was concerned, Burnside was sure death. As long as he was susceptible to wounds—
Here his thoughts came to a sudden and jarring halt. For there had risen in his mind another vision of what he had seen but a few moments before: "Bullet-proof Breastplate of Finest Steel."
And then the fire died out of his eyes. He snapped his fingers and shrugged his shoulders in disgust. Of course this bit of old armor had been bullet proof only in the days when unrifled muskets had belched forth great, blunt bullets, which would thud against armor more like putty out of a sling than a bullet carrying death in its touch.
However he went back to look at it again. It had become fascinating, and he was profoundly grateful, now that the great chamber in which it hung was practically deserted. That loneliness had been driving him distracted a short time before, but now it was a blessing.
Was he alone? He began to perceive a hundred muted little whispers and stifled voices. And yonder was an old, old man, with white hair flowing down to his shoulders. He was bent over before a glass case, either copying inscriptions on the armor exposed there, or else writing a detailed description.
Joe Daly scowled and stepped closer to the plate of armor and touched it between thumb and forefinger. Then a thrill went crawling up his spine and into his vitals. For the steel was thick—very thick! There was a padding of time-eaten velvet on the back of it, but even without the velvet the steel was very thick.
Now, with a heart thumping in his breast, he turned carelessly away and traversed the gallery in some haste. At the farther end he turned and began to retrace his way with even greater speed, pausing now and then, for a last sight of particular relics here and there. When he arrived at the breastplate he did not even look around him, on the theory that there is nothing which calls attention so quickly as the furtive glance of a guilty eye. He picked the breastplate from its peg and dropped it inside his coat, so that the lower part of it touched the upper band of his trousers and was supported there. Then he went on again, with his hands in his pockets, and his thumbs raised to support the weight of the steel.
He had not dreamed that the stuff could be so ponderous. If a little specimen such as this weighed so much, how could a poor devil entirely encased in metal have navigated—how could he ever have got upon a horse, unless a friendly derrick and windlass were used to hoist him?
At the thought Joe Daly smiled and continued down the gallery. Not that he left directly, or in haste. No, he paused from time to time, still examining curiosities. When he reached the farther end he saw a uniformed attendant stride up to the place from which he had taken the breastplate.
Joe waited for no more. He did not pause to learn if the guard had discovered the theft. Instead, one long leap to the side carried him away from the aisle and into a side turning. Here he hastened on briskly. Some one was calling in the great gallery behind him; and he heard the noise of running feet. Joe, turning to the left and then to the right, was presently lost in a maze from which he issued out into the first and main hall of the museum.
It seemed an interminable space to the revolving doors. Presently he stood outside at the head of the long flight of steps. Now he hurried down and stood on the pavement. There were taxicabs nearby. But in the magazine which had diverted him the night before, he had read how criminals are often traced by the taxicabs in which they had ridden. Such a fate should not fall to Joe Daly.
Quickly he turned and started briskly down the avenue, climbed onto a plebeian bus at the next stop, and presently was rocking along on the way downtown to his hotel. In spite of himself he could not help but glance back over his shoulder and down the street. He saw, from time to time, half a dozen automobiles, recklessly violating the speed laws and nosing swiftly through the traffic. Any one of these might be filled with the uniformed men from the museum. How many such men—stuffy and antiquated figures—would be required to capture Joe Daly?
He pondered that question with some pride and a stiffening of his lower jaw. In due time he was back at the hotel. Instantly he snatched the breastplate from beneath his coat and flung it on the bed. It was a thick slab, to be sure, and if it were of a particular quality—He did not pursue this thought. The plate must be tested. There was a loud explosion in the street—a back fire. That gave him his next idea. Instantly he propped the breastplate against the wall on the farther side of the room, with a well-wadded pillow behind it. A breastplate on a human body would not proffer the rigid resistance of a wall. Then he took his stand near the window, so that the sound would not echo through the house, but pass freely into the open air. He drew the revolver which was always with him, leveled it quickly, and fired.
The breastplate shuddered and drew back, as the great forty-five slug struck home. It was a snap shot, but beautifully planted. It had landed in the exact center of the armor. Now he ran forward to see the results of the shot, quivering with anticipation. This was the great moment!
Behold, when he raised the armor, a cruel abrasion in the surface exactly in the center, but the hole did not cut clear through. There was still a solid sheet of steel behind.
Hastily he concealed gun and breastplate, but no one came with inquiries. No doubt those who were near and heard thought it simply another back fire in the street.
"What a cinch," said Joe Daly, "to bump off a gent in this here town and get away with it!"
WHEN the news of Joe Daly's return was first carried to Pete Burnside, the deputy sheriff did not believe it. And there, were good reasons for his incredulity. Through a long life of battle on the Western frontier, he was well-acquainted with what happens to the heart and soul of a man who is once beaten in fight. After the shameful and conclusive beating which Joe Daly had sustained seven months before, Pete Burnside would have sworn that the latter could never return and hold up his head among his, old companions.
To be sure, Pete Burnside knew that there are some men who can be beaten in battle, shot down in the midst of the fight by a fair foe, and then arise at a later time and crush the once-victorious enemy. These are phlegmatic fighters—English warriors, so to speak. But there is another kind, the kind to which Joe Daly belonged. These are men whose muscles are set upon hair-trigger nerves. Their movements in a crisis become blindingly swift. The draw of their gun is like the uncurling of the lash when the whip is snapped. In a tenth part of a second, a single terrible explosion of mental and nervous energy, the bullet is fired, the enemy is dropped, the battle is over. Or, if it is maintained, the battle while it lasts is simply a prolongation of that original conflict.
But when such a man is beaten to the draw, he is very apt to lose his nerve. After one defeat he is of no account. Joe Daly, as Pete knew, was one of that high-strung type. And the reason that Pete knew so well was because he was himself in the very same category.
He knew that he himself conquered in the same spirit in which Daly fought. There was that resistless union of hysteria of nerves and muscles working together in great flashes of effort. His life, it might be said, was composed of a scattered series of such flashes of effort. Daly's was composed of the same thing. The chief difference was the use to which they put their abilities to paralyze the efforts of ordinary men. Daly was, as Burnside was practically confident, the leading member of a gang which rustled cattle and in other ways defied the law. But Burnside was a deputy sheriff.
So well known were Burnside's ability with a gun and his dauntless courage in the pursuit and destruction of outlaws, that he might have been sheriff in half a dozen counties. But he preferred to hold a more or less roving commission, going here and going there, striking at random, as the occasion moved him, and always acting as an invaluable coadjutor of the law.
Burnside had trailed Joe Daly and his gang until Burnside was on the verge of cornering half a dozen of them. On that occasion Joe himself had turned back to face and destroy the destroyer. And in that memorable encounter Joe had, gone down. The bullet of Burnside had crashed through the shoulder of Joe just a fraction of, a second before Joe's own gun had exploded and sent a slug whistling past the head of the deputy sheriff.
But, no matter how close a call it had been, there was never a truer maxim than that a miss is as good as a mile. The burden of victory rested with Pete. Pie lifted the fallen enemy and carried him to town. On the way he assured Joe that the time had come when Joe must hunt for better camping grounds, and if he returned in that direction, after his recovery, he, Pete Burnside, would make it his duty and his pleasure to call upon him and blow him off the only a huge weight of suspicion. Legally speaking the deputy had hot had face of the earth. For Pete Burnside was well convinced that Joe was a rustler of cattle, a horse thief, and other things unspeakable. He would never forget the peculiar expression of horror with which Joe had looked up into his face on that day. And in that instant he had known that Daly would never dare to face him again.
He knew that by consulting his own inner man. And, concerning himself, he was calmly confident that no human being could ever beat him if the chances to draw were equal at the start. If they were not, that was another story, and defeat would be no disgrace—would mean nothing except death, perhaps, and death was meaningless compared to the glory of being the greatest and most dreaded man hunter in the mountain ranges. In the meantime he believed that it was impossible for any other human being to possess that flashing speed with a gun and that deadly certainty in action with which he was blessed—a blessing which he cultivated and improved by constant practice. But if the impossible should ever happen—if another should surpass him in speed and precision—what would happen to that perilously finely organized nervous system?
At the thought he shuddered and felt his pride disintegrate. He could feel himself crumble at the prospect. He would sink as low as he had once been high!
Such was the thought of Pete Burnside. And, knowing what he did, it was no wonder that he blinked and then shook his head when it was told to him that Joe Daly was back in town, more insolent than ever and clamorously announcing that he was ready to meet the terrible deputy sheriff whenever that worthy desired a meeting.
The sheriff himself was worried. He could not send for Pete, because there was no charge against Joe. There was the slightest shadow of a right to command Joe Daly to leave those parts and never to return. But in the eye of the public at large, Pete had every right. And it had been noticed that after the disappearance of Joe Daly the rustling of cattle, the stealing of horses, the occasional holdups through the adjacent hills fell away to nothingness, comparatively speaking.
What could be a more vivid proof that Pete Burnside, as usual, had been right and had solved the problem for the community. They would have voted him a whole flock of gold watches and chains and huge diamond pins. But gifts were not wanted. Pete lived for the pleasure of battle, and he did not wish to be paid for doing his duty. His salary, he often said, represented living expenses, not a reward for service!
And when the distinguished deputy heard that Joe Daly was returned to the town, he shrugged his shoulders, removed his cigarette from his lips, and blew a cloud of smoke at the moon.
"There's sure queer things happening around, these parts," said Pete Burnside and straightway mounted his horse and started for the town.
It was just after twilight when he started. It was eight o'clock when his horse jogged down the main street knocking up a cloud of alkali dust which stung the nostrils of the riders. He knew where to go, but he did not know what he should expect to meet. Strange doubts had been rising in his mind, and he had pushed on his horse until the poor creature was almost exhausted in his eagerness to get at once to his enemy and settle all doubts with the guns. But what had nerved Joe Daly to return?
A chill of terror struck through the deputy sheriff. It was not fear of Joe, to be sure, but it was fear of some power which might be behind Daly. It was fear of fear, one might have said. Something had happened not to the body of Daly, of course, but to his spirit. Something which must have been like a miracle, for he could vividly remember how Daly had cringed before him on the occasion of their last meeting.
Where he would find Joe now was not a matter of question. Daly would be on the hotel veranda. At the coming of the deputy he would rise. They would exchange words, so that both could be said to have received their warning, and then they would go for their weapons of one accord. He who died would be buried. He who survived might be arrested, but in that case he would plead that he saw the hand of his opponent go toward the holster at his side, and that he had shot in self-defense. And not the most prejudiced jury that could be brought together in the mountains would convict where there was a reasonable doubt about that plea of self-defense. For, as the good citizens told themselves and one another, how could they tell when they themselves might be in such an encounter? When they were about to fight for their lives, would they wish to know that the law would hang them, should they happen to escape from the bullets of the enemy?
Straight up to the hotel, then, rode Pete Burnside. How would Joe Daly appear, and what would be his manner? The deputy saw even from a great distance; even from a great distance he heard a ringing and loud laughter. And when he came a little closer he saw Joe Daly tilted far back in a chair on the veranda, with his thumbs hooked into the armholes of his vest, and his hat thrust to the back of his head. And his ugly, square-face was wreathed with grins of confidence and self-satisfaction.
The deputy hesitated a single instant. Then he gritted his teeth and made the nervousness leave him. He swung to the ground and advanced. There, was a gripping chill in his stomach, and his head was light and empty; his lips trembled, his knees were unstrung; his face was white. Now a great coldness of spirit was translated into a physical chill.
It was fear. But, for that matter, he never entered a battle without being in the hold of this same terror. He fought it away and forced himself up the steps to the upper level of the veranda. This, after all, was the great joy of the battle—to feel himself on the verge of collapse through terror, to fight away that weakness, to summon all his faculties for the great effort, to whip out the gun at the opportune moment, to dash the enemy to the ground with his flying bullet—this was a joy compared with which air else was as nothing. The gaming table had no fascination for one who had taken the chances of life and death in his hand.
Suddenly he stood in the full blaze of the big lamp which lighted the veranda. Joe Daly, he noted, had chosen a distant and obscure corner, where the light fell only with half the radiance that shone upon Pete at the head of the steps. But let Joe have that handicap in his favor. He, Pete Burnside, had ever been willing to take the worse portion in the battle. It made the glory of victory all the sweeter.
As he appeared, Daly sprang to his feet.
"Is that mean four-flusher and lying hound that's been spreading talk about me around these parts?" asked Daly. "Is that you, Pete Burnside?"
Pete pushed back his hat, then remembered that he must not expose the utter pallor of his face. Now he jerked his sombrero lower, so that its shadow might protect him from the prying eyes of Daly.
"I allow it's me; all right," he said. "I been hearing that you want to see me, Joe."
"I ain't said a word like that. I just sent out to say I'm back in town. Does that mean anything to you?"
He was working himself into his battle fury, but Pete Burnside hesitated. He had not yet evoked that coldly hostile frame of mind which he liked best before he struck. The fear had been pushed to the back of his mind, but it was still present.
"I ain't going to say 'Welcome home,' if that's what you expect, Joe."
"You know very well what I'm driving at. When I got out of town you said that you'd come with your gun ready and shoot me full of holes, if I came back. Well, here I am, Pete. And how come that your gat is in the leather, still, eh?"
There was no chance to wait after such a direct insult. Pete Burnside reached for his gun. Daly had not waited; no sooner had he hurled his defiance than he jerked out his Colt. And yet the deputy, watching the movements of his antagonist, knew that he had the result of the battle in the hollow of his hand. He could still delay for a thousandth part of a second the convulsive move which would stretch Joe Daly bleeding and dying on the boards of the veranda.
But now was the time. The gun of Daly was clear of the holster. All men must admit, afterward, that he had allowed Daly to have the advantage in the start of the draw. Then he made his own motion. It was an explosion of mind and muscle. The gun was literally thought out of its holster, the heavy butt of the Colt struck the palm of his hand, and he fired. It was a clean death to his credit. For that bullet struck straight over the heart of Daly. There could be no doubt about it. Pete saw Daly stagger under the blow, he could have sworn, and yet Joe did not go down! No, amazing though it seemed, Joe Daly stood! And, before Burnside could fire again, Joe's gun exploded. There was an ocean of darkness poured over the spirit of Pete Burnside, and he pitched forward upon his face.
NO man ever performed in six months a journey as long as the journey which Pete Burnside completed. Men had girdled the globe many times in such a space of months, but Pete Burnside passed from courageous manhood to cowardly and slinking meanness of spirit. He was completely gone. There was nothing left to him.
If it had been a shot fired at a longer range, or if he had shot with a trifle less surety, it might have been well enough for him. But he had seen the bullet drive home, he could have sworn. And having seen that, and, also, how Daly failed to fall, it was all over with Pete.
He himself had been the first to realize it. He had heard other beaten men tell with pitiful eagerness and certainty how they had really won—how their bullets had landed—and how only a miracle had saved the other fellow and enabled him, instead of falling, to strike down the other man instead.
The bullet had struck Daly in the middle of the breast, or a little to the left. And Daly should have died. Instead he had staggered and dropped his man, the bullet grazing Pete's head. Indeed, he was even wrong about the staggering. For it appeared afterward that Daly had been absolutely uninjured, and he had walked away from the spot, whistling, a moment later!
It haunted Pete and pursued him like a living thing, the horror of that moment; And his spirit began to crumble and decay, just as he had known it would do in such a case. Finally, when he was healed of the wound which he had received, there came the showdown which he had dreaded.
A big cow-puncher went wild with moonshine whisky one evening, and Pete was summoned to quell the disturbance. He went with dragging feet to perform the task. He faced the big man and ordered him out of the room. And, instead of going, the puncher had reached for a gun. After that, Pete tried not to remember. For when he thought of it, perspiration rushed out on his forehead, and a wave of sickness poured through him.
But Pete knew that, when the big cow-puncher, Stanton, came at him, and he had tried to get out his own gun, his fingers had been paralyzed, and he had heard the weapon of Stanton explode. The bullet flew wild. The puncher was too drunk to hit the side of a barn at ten paces. But all the strength had run out of Pete's body, and his knees sagged. He cowered in a comer and begged Stanton to let him live!
That had been the nightmare as it actually happened. One thought of it was enough to turn the former deputy to a ghastly gray-green. And most of all he remembered the sick faces of the men who had come to him and raised him and, with voices full of scorn and disgust and pity, bade him go back to his bed, because he still must be sicker than the doctor knew.
And that night he had sneaked out of the town and never went back. He carried with him what possessions he could take conveniently, but he dared not stay to sell what else belonged to him. He dared not meet other men and face their scorn.
First of all he fled straight south. He went as far as San Antonio. Here he lived for a month and established a new circle of friends. Just as he began to make a name for himself, a man came in one day from the north, saw him, recognized him, and told the story. Pete Burnside fled from San Antonio by night, with horror of himself choking him. Then he dipped into Mexico, but it made no difference. Wherever he went, there were men who had seen him in his old home town, men who had watched that awful scene of degradation.
There were two paths open to him. Either he must put an end to his respectable life with a bullet, or else he must put an end to that life by sinking out of sight of all his fellows.
He made the latter choice and became a vagrant. In four months he drifted to the four corners of the country. He saw Vancouver one week and Los Angeles the next. He wandered to New Orleans and thence to New York and from New York to Quebec. But eventually the pull of home will draw men back, as surely as the old instinct guides the carrier pigeon.
Pete dropped off a train in the mountain desert, a scant two hundred miles from his home town. He has left the train just outside a small village, and near the place where he had left it he found a gulley covered with low scrub and brush and with a small stream trickling through it. It was an ideal place for a "jungle," and he began searching through for the assemblage place.
He had not been wrong. He came upon a clearing on the flattened shoulder of a hill. In the midst were half a dozen men in various stages of raggedness and now busily at work on the preparation of a great stew. The huge wash-boiler, which some hobo of another generation had stolen from the village and presented to the jungle—black with a hundred coats of soot on the outside—was a perfectly satisfactory dish to contain enough stew to supply the appetites of twenty voracious eaters. And there is not in the world a set of gourmands equal to the great American hobo. He has a hump like the camel. He has to live a week on nothing, and he makes up for seven days of starvation in one heaven-astounding attack on victuals.
Pete, being broke, sniffed the preparations from afar. Then, as he drew closer, he was asked if he had money to "pony up" for his share. He admitted that he was broke, but he offered to buy his share with some newly purloined cigars. The cigars made the mouth of more than one tramp water, but they were, obdurate. If he had not money, the rule, was that he must procure his share of the edibles. So he turned back toward the town, a mile and a half away. It was dusk when he reached it, and in the dusk he slipped quietly into a hen roost, removed a fat hen from her perch, and with that prize stole back to the charmed circle around the fire.
He was greeted with acclamation. For the meat end of that mulligan was not altogether satisfactory. They had gathered enough potatoes and some cans of corn and tomatoes. They had secured greens. Some one was frying bread over a little adjacent fire. And at another blaze a great can was half filled with seething coffee. There were some bits of pork and a few pounds of beef in the stew, but the chicken was a blessing sent straight from heaven.
There was a breathlessly short interval spent in cleaning and plucking that fat hen. Then it was tossed in to join the rest of the stew. And the hoboes sat back to regard the steaming result of their united thefts. They contemplated one another, too, not with direct and insolent stares—for there is no courtesy so consummate in some respects as the courtesy of derelicts—but with secret and furtive glances. They estimated one another with the greatest cunning.
Pete Burnside, as usual, was wretched so long as he was forced to be in the company of his fellow men. For one among them, even among these tramps, was liable to know what he had been, and how he had fallen. Nay, worse than that, of late he had sunk so low that men had begun to get at the craven truth about him by simply using their observation.
However it seemed that the half dozen worthies whom he had joined on this occasion, were a great deal less formidable than the majority of those whom he had met on his unending pilgrimage. They were all rather old. That is to say, they were past fifty. And when a man on the road reaches the age of fifty, his joints are stiff, his eye is failing, his back begins to stoop. He had crammed too many years into a short space, and he begins to pay up his penalties.
Among such as these, Pete felt himself to be certainly secure. He began to stir around with a slight air of authority, such as might be forgiven in one who had brought in the choicest portion of the evening meal. He fetched some more wood and stood over the fire and fed it with fresh pieces. He looked into the dark and simmering mass of the stew and sniffed its contents—the dozen blending odors which made it so pleasantly attractive. Altogether he bustled about as one who has a little authority and who is anxious to make it appear more.
Not one of them needed to be told when the moment had arrived to serve the stew. They had risen as of one accord and grouped themselves about the caldron. In a moment more the first huge helpings had been ladled forth. And now they sat around in a loose circle and devoured their rations in utter silence. There was only the whispering of the wind and the loud snapping of the fire.
So intent were they on their feast that they suffered themselves to be surprised by the advent of a new arrival.
"Hello-o-oo!" thundered the newcomer. "What sort of gents are you to leave me here starving?"
They looked up in amazement, each crowding an extra bite down his throat for fear that he might not taste the remainder of his meal. What they saw was a towering giant, large enough in fact, but made still larger by the manner in which the shadow and firelight shook in turn across him. A great sombrero, half of whose brim had been torn away, was pushed back to expose a densely curling crop of red hair, hair so flamingly red that it might have seemed on fire. He wore a ragged coat so much too small for him that it was apparent one serious exertion would tear it to bits. Around his hips sagged the cow-puncher's cartridge belt, with a Colt in a battered old holster, and he wore on his feet the cow-puncher's riding boots, though there is no known gear so inconvenient for walking. His huge hands, doubled into fists, were now planted on his hips, and he looked down upon the circle of veteran hoboes very much as a man of ordinary stature might have looked down with surprise and amusement and some mischief upon a circle of fairies dancing in a ring.
Pete Burnside looked up to the intruder with a speechless horror, for he saw in the hairy-handed giant no other than that final instrument of his downfall, "Red" Stanton himself!
YES, it was Red Stanton, sunk at last to the level of a tramp. Indeed he had long been headed in that direction by a love of drink and a detestation for work. He was newly come into the world-old order of vagrants, however, as his cow-puncher attire testified. In another month this would be exchanged for a more comfortable outfit.
The big man looked about him, made sure of his people one by one, and finally rested his steel-blue eyes upon Pete Burnside. He strode straight across the circle. He stood above Pete and, looking down at him, laughed. It was long and loud laughter, and the gorge of Pete rose. Then he dropped his head and submitted. What was the use of resistance? Once before, when he was closer to being a man, he had been beaten by this huge monster of a man. How could he hope to stand before Red, now that he, Pete, had sunk so far into degradation. But the shame which took hold on Pete was less hot and stinging than he had felt a thousand times before. It was at least some mitigation of his misery that those who witnessed his humiliation should be fallen men, though they had not fallen quite as low as he.
Not fallen quite as low as he? He looked around upon those wretched derelicts. He saw their scornful, sneering faces turned toward him. Yes, the worst of these was a better man than he. The worst of these would have made some feeble resistance of words at least, before he would submit to be laughed at.
Red Stanton turned away and stood at the side of the steaming wash-boiler.
"I was thinking that I wasn't to eat to-night," he said, "but I see where I'm wrong. You boys got this all fixed up just in time for me. Gimme something to eat with, Burnside. What are you sitting, there for? Ain't you been stuffing your stomach all this time while I been starving? Ain't you got the manners to lemme have a spoon?"
So saying, he leaned and snatched from the hand of Pete the spoon with which he had been eating. He dashed this through a pot of water which was steaming close by. He seized upon the side of the boiler.
"Well, boys," he said, "looks to me like there ain't any more than one man-sized meal here."
He flashed his glance of defiance around the circle. And Pete Burnside returned that glance with a curious interest. He was seeing in imagination what he would have done in the old days. This loud-mouthed ruffian he would have silenced with a word, and if a word were not sufficient, there would have been the sure speed and accuracy of his gun play to fall back upon. But his gun had been rarely needed in the days of his glory. There had been in his bearing an unconquerable air which imposed upon the most daring. In his eye there had been a straight look which went through and through the heart of a bully and warned him that battle and destruction lay just ahead.
But that day was long since past. His very soul had shriveled in him since the day when he had seen his bullet strike home in the body of Joe Daly—when he could have sworn that he saw Joe stagger in his tracks—and yet Daly had failed to fall! How could a man be sure of anything in such circumstances? The world was in confusion, and the strength of Pete Burnside was sapped at the root.
So Red Stanton reached into the deeps of the pot and brought forth a spoonful of the stew. But at the sight of their food gone to waste on this tyrannical giant, there was a stir of angry feeling in the six tramps. Not a man among those hoboes but had been in his prime a gallant fighter. Many an heroic tale could have been told of their prowess. Now, to be sure, time and hard weather and harder usage had unstrung their muscles and stiffened their joints, but the spirits within them were not altered. They were as keen-edged as ever. They could not attack him in hand-to-hand battle; that was obviously foolish. Their united valor and physical power banded together would not have made enough opposition to give him meager exercise. In those burly hands of his was power enough to have crushed skulls.
Instead of fists they fell back on other weapons. A gray-haired man, stiff, straight—his face red with weather and anger—stood up from the relics of his meal.
"Look here, you double-stomached bull, you can't bust down the fences and get in at our feed like that. Lay off, you!"
Red Stanton looked around at the speaker from behind another heaping spoonful. He grinned, then stowed the contents of the spoon behind a bulging cheek.
"Very good," he said. "That's a good joke! Are you meaning to argufy with me, son?"
"Don't it sound that way?"
"It sounds that way, but you look too plumb sensible to be talking fool talk."
"Boys," said the other, "it looks to me like we got to get rid of this baby. Are you going to gimme a hand?"
His doubts were soon set at rest. Each in turn rose and shook himself. Upon their hard features appeared smiles of joy, as when some stiff-legged war horse hears far off the whining of the battle horns and lifts his head from the rocks of his pasture. So they stood up, and each man reached for the weapon which was most to his choice. One man as he got up took a large, ragged stone in either hand and advanced with these formidable weapons. Another pushed himself to his feet by means of a cudgel with a knotted end, a section, of a small sapling which had been burned off in the fire. The others caught up sticks and stones, or else produced from their pockets long-bladed knives, quite capable of inviting forth the soul of the strongest man from between his ribs.
As they came on, Red Stanton hurriedly stowed another spoonful of the stew in his cheek and then blundered to his feet. Pete Burnside watched him sharply. Even a veritable hero would have been apt to flee from that assortment of rocks and stones and knives. He had a revolver, to be sure, but the first shot, which might drop one man, would be answered with a volley from which he could hardly hope to escape.
Yet Stanton threw out his arms and laughed thunderously in their faces.
"Come on, gents," he said. "I ain't had no exercise but breaking up a couple of shacks to bits to-day. I don't get no pleasure out of food unless I can work for it. Come on, old sons!"
His confidence abashed even their iron hearts, and they paused an instant to permit their only ally to, join them. But though Pete dropped his head under their accusing glances, he did not rise from his place. He dared not.
"No good waiting for him, boys," said the giant. "He ain't going to look for no more trouble with me. He knows me, eh?"
Stanton's laugh rolled and boomed across the clearing. It was the last blow. Surely now the fallen spirit of Pete would rise in him. He felt the first hot pricking of anger stir in him. He waited with joy and thankfulness for that wrath to increase to a hot fury, but the cold wave of fear returned and drowned the last embers of his courage. He could only sit there with his head down like a whipped cur and watch the fight in the distance.
There was a snarl of disgust and rage from the six hoboes. Their glances promised annihilation to Pete, should they have leisure to deal with him a little later. Then they swept suddenly forward to the attack, as though they dared not delay, lest the shame which they had just looked upon might unnerve them.
Forward they plunged, and three ragged rocks shot at Red Stanton. Suddenly he began to move with a celerity which amazed Pete. He was amazed for two reasons: the first being that Red apparently had no desire to use his revolver; and the second reason was that the big man was able to weave about as deftly as a football player or a dodging boxer and so avoid the missiles. Another volley could not be entirely avoided. One rock just grazed his head, and he staggered drunkenly. Before he could straighten, and his brain clear, another big rock knocked him back, gasping for breath.
The six saw their advantage and with a wild whoop rushed in to pull down their victim. But Red Stanton, though badly hurt, still had fight in him. He had staggered back until his shoulders struck against the upper rail of an old fence which extended through the trees down to the edge of the water below. Red, with a roar of satisfaction, caught hold on the board which had arrested his fall. He tore it away from the two posts to which it was nailed. He swung the big timber around his head with as much ease as, in another age, a stout English yeoman might have twirled his quarter staff on thumb and finger.
Into the circle of that swaying engine the six hoboes would not have been eager to run, but they had started forward so fast that they could not stop themselves. And the blow crashed upon them, just as they strove to stop. The result was ruin. One went down headlong under the blow, his knife spinning in a bright arc from his hand. Another stumbled, staggered, and fell flat. Two more dropped to their knees, and only one of the six was left standing.
This worthy jumped forward with a yell which was more fright than battle courage. He was met in mid-air, as he sprang in with his knife poised and murder in his eyes, not by a shooting fist, but by a most unromantic weapon. The great boot of Red Stanton swung out and up. His toe and heel landed at the same moment into the breast and stomach of the veteran. There was a gurgling cry from that fellow, and he shot back, struck the earth with a soft thump, and lay flat, as though with a great weight crushing him down.
In the meantime, however, there remained four men ready and unhurt, capable of getting to close quarters with the big man. As for the fence rail, that cumbersome weapon had been knocked into splinters at the first blow, for it was more than half rotten. Red Stanton was now empty-handed.
Even in this crisis, however, he did not draw his revolver. Moreover he refused to give ground, and with a roar like the bellow of a wounded bull he plunged forward at the vagrants.
Stanton was too much for them. They had tasted the strength of his hand, and it was more than enough for them. They turned their backs and fled at the top of their speed. Yet all their speed was not enough. Three of them were allowed to get away, but the most rearward laggard, limping as he ran, was caught from behind, and, while his shriek rang through the air, he was whirled and then sent hurtling down the slope toward the water.
It seemed to horrify Pete Burnside that the old man was surely no better than dead. He toppled down the slope, hit the water with a crash, and finally dragged himself slowly out on the farther shore. Red laughed until he staggered and amused himself by heaving stones at the battered fugitive.
Luckily none of them hit him, and, under cover of this distraction, the man who had been knocked senseless by the blow of the fence rail, now dragged himself to his feet and crawled away. He had disappeared in the shadows of the distant brush before Red Stanton ceased his laughter and turned back from stoning the last fugitive.
NOW there remained only one of the six. This was the man into whose body the boot of big Stanton had been driven. He lay where he had fallen. He had not stirred so much as a finger in his prostration.
"Hello!" thundered the victor.
Pete Burnside jumped to his feet.
"You through dreaming?" growled Stanton. "Then pick that gent up, throw some water on him, and bring him over here. I got to ask him some questions."
Whereupon he calmly sat down and resumed the meal which had been interrupted by the battle. And down the side of his head, where the rough edge of the stone had grazed him, ran a crimson trickle. It reached his collar and then ran down slowly over his shirt. Pete stared in fascination. This was not courage; this was simply the absence of fear. It made him feel more horror than admiration.
But it was impossible to resist the command. Ah, yes, time had been when he would have smiled to hear such words from any man; time had been when death was nothing, and honor was all. But now he had seen a miracle—he had seen his bullets, he could have sworn, strike a human body at twenty paces and less and do no harm!
Pete went obediently to the fallen man and turned the latter upon his back and brought him to the firelight. The man seemed dead, and dead, Pete Burnside thought him at first glance. But when a handful of water was thrown into his face, he recovered almost at once. He sat up, groaning and grunting, clasping himself around the body with both arms and swaying himself back and forth. At length he managed to gasp back his breath.
"Kick the skunk over this way!" bellowed Red Stanton through a gust of laughter, for the sight of the hobo's, contortions had made him roar with glee.
Accordingly Pete attempted to help the injured man to his feet, but the latter pushed aside such assistance.
"I don't need no help from you, you rat!" he snarled at Pete. "You sat back by the fire and let us do the dirty work. Yaller—you're yaller, you hound! And when I get shut of this here mess I'll find you ag'in and open your carcass for you and let in the sunshine."
Staggering to his feet the man went to the big man.
"Sit down!" barked Red Stanton.
He reinforced his command by hurling a chunk of wood at the head of the tramp. The latter attempted to dodge, but he was much too weak to move with any celerity. The flying missile struck him across the chest and the arm which he had thrown up to protect himself. With a thud he went down and fell flat on his back.
"Sit up!" thundered Red Stanton.
Picking up a coal from the fire at the end of a stick, he tossed it so deftly that it fell near the face of the prostrate man.
Pete Burnside groaned with horror, but the scorching fire quickly brought the unlucky tramp to his senses. Brushing the lump of coal out of harm's way he sat up, but said nothing. He watched his captor in silence. His rat-sharp eyes admitted defeat, admitted that he had endangered his life by the attack in which he had joined upon the giant. Whatever came his way was no more than his due.
"Now, dad," said the giant, "you and me are going to have a little chat—understand?"
The other nodded, but said not a word. And Pete Burnside, watching, tried to moisten his dry lips. What would he have done in the same case? With what courage would he have been able to bear up against such brutality?
Such was the feeling in him, and a base fear set him shaking, for he knew that he would have whined and begged. There was not a courageous fiber left intact in his whole being.
"Now look here," said Red Stanton, "I ain't much of a hand for traveling around and getting the facts about a country. And I want to know what's what in this here range. You've been around here quite a spell, I take it!"
"This is a poor country for a bo," said the tramp. "There ain't any worse. These cow-punchers that ain't got any sense about giving away their time and their money, they sure hate to see anybody around that ain't working steady. They'll ride ten miles and swim a river to rope a bo and get him on the end of a rope, so's they can have some fun with him. And what they call fun is plain torture! Nope, I sure would rather batter the door of jails for hand-outs than try to get anything out the kitchen of a ranch house. They ain't even got any work to do, unless you can ride and rope and such stuff. But I take it that you know all about that as well as me." And he glanced significantly to the cow-puncher's outfit which Red Stanton was wearing.
"Look here," said the latter, "you been around here. Tell me what's what. I ain't much of a hand to ride the freights. I don't get on with the shacks, and the shacks don't get on with me. I've cleaned up on about a dozen of 'em in the last couple of weeks, but before long a dozen of 'em will start to clean up on me. They're getting to know me, and that means the finish. They'll bean me and roll me off a train that's hitting up fifty per. And that's all! So what I want to do is to work in on some graft around here—me and my friend!"
Here he raised his head and stared at Pete, with a brutal grin which promised the latter that he was by no means through with his hard time.
"I don't get your drift," said the tramp.
"Ain't there nothing stirring around these parts?"
"Nothing that a gent could take a hand in," said the hobo. "The only easy money that's loose is for them that know the country and got hosses and kin ride and shoot. There's a gent named Daly that's cleaning up big rustling cows and hosses up yonder."
"Huh?" grunted Red. "Might that be Joe Daly?"
"Yep, his name is Joe. Is he a friend of yours?"
"He's a friend of a friend of mine," said Red, and he grinned again with great meaning to Pete.
"Oh, he's cleaning up big," said the hobo. "He's up yonder, somewhere in them mountains in the third range."
"Around Mount Sumner?"
"I guess that's the name of the mountain—that one with the three heads."
"What this Daly does is pretty rich. He gets his boys together and starts in running cows. He gets a pile of coin ahead. Then he starts working the game both ways. He comes down to the ranchers. He points out that the sheriff ain't been able to do no good—that's a regular hole-in-the-wall country, so's a sheriff and a posse ain't got no chance at all—and he offers to furnish a sort of irregular police—if they'll pay him something tolerable fat!"
"That sounds queer," said Red Stanton.
"Well, the point was that the news got to spreading around that somebody was running off cows in them Sumner Mountains, and a lot of other gents come along and started following the good example. What Daly wanted to do was to get rid of the competition. And he's done it pretty well! He's got a gang of mighty hard riders and hard fighters, and he ain't no slouch himself. I've heard tell that he cleaned up on Pete Burnside himself, but I guess that's just talk."
"Might be that it is," said Red, grinning again.
And Pete, hanging his head, wished that he were dead indeed. Even now his broken spirit could not rally, for Fate had spoken against him once, and it was folly to go against her dictates.
"Go on with Daly."
"What he does is to collect something pretty fat from some of the ranchers, and he keeps them all free and clear. They never loose so much as one calf in a whole season, you see? And every once in a while Daly rounds up some of the smaller gents that are rustling. He gets 'em and hangs 'em in a row on a tree and drives back the cows to the ranch that owns 'em. But some of the ranchers ain't going to pay no money for a tax to a gent like Daly. That's mostly because old Doc Peters keeps his head up and says it's a plumb disgrace, if they got to pay blackmail. Well, those gents have a pretty bad time, because them are the ones that Daly makes his own special picking, and he works 'em right down to the bone. That's the only game that I know around here. If you want to try your hand at something pretty big, you can throw in with Daly. But it sure means a whole pack of hard riding!"
"I hate riding," said Red with a sigh. "I ain't got no comfort in the saddle." And he looked down gloomily at his great bulk. "How long has Daly been running things?" he asked.
"I dunno—three or four months, maybe longer."
"And don't nobody know what he's doing?"
"Everybody guesses that he's robbing some and blackmailing others, but they ain't sure."
"How long will he last?"
"Until the gents up in them parts get together and make an army and clean out the hills. If you want to get a fancy job and a salary, you can go up to old Peters' ranch and hire out as a plain cow-puncher. He can't keep no hands, because Daly just cleans out his men as quick as they come!"
"Lays for 'em in the hills and gives 'em a run whenever they get far away from the ranch house. Tied one gent up in a tree, and he stayed there three days. He was nutty when they cut him down, and he ain't got his sense back yet, they say!"
"What would Peters pay?"
"Well," said the big man, "I guess this talk ain't been wasted. Now—get out!"
The hobo rose.
"And if you sneak around and try to get back at me, I'll tear you in two!"
But that thunderous voice was not needed. The hobo shrank back to the edge of the shrubbery. There he glared at the conqueror, with keen, glittering eyes of fear and hatred. A moment later he had melted into the background.
"Well, Pete?" asked Red Stanton, turning on the latter. "How does it sound to you?"
"What?" gasped Pete, hardly daring to guess what the big man intended.
"How does it sound to you to go up to Peters' ranch and get a job, being a sort of a garrison in the fort, eh?"
Pete Burnside drew a long breath. It was too terrible to have been inspired by any one except the devil himself. Go to the Sumner Mountains? Run the risk of encountering that rock of his destruction, Joe Daly himself? He felt the blood rush out of his brain, and he was sick at heart.
"Red," he said heavily, "I can't go!"
"Can't go?" thundered the giant. "Can't go? Ain't I got to have somebody to go along and take care of me? Sure you're going, and don't forget it."
ONLY a man with a powerful imagination could have looked upon the site of the Peters ranch and seen its possibilities. No part of the ground was level, no part of it was without a surfacing of rocks which grew out of the soil. But, in spite of precipices and rocks and hills and ravines and thundering avalanches and snow slides in the winter and quick-shooting, noisy water courses in the spring season of the melting snows—in spite of all these things, hardy cattle could make a living, and a good living, among the Sumner Mountains. For, among the rocks, the soil was rich, and the grass, where it grew, was thick, long, and nutritious.
But civilization in its westward course had split around the Summer Mountains as around a rock. It was not until Doc Peters came into the Sumner Mountains that any man conceived its possibilities. Doc Peters backed his judgment with his money. In ten years twenty men had followed his example. The Sumner Mountains were filled with odd ranches, in the center of which huge mountains shot up above timber line. But the important thing was that there was plenty of grass for cattle, and cattle multiplied and grew fat.
In ten years Peters had become a wealthy man. He himself did not exactly know how wealthy. What he understood was that when he wanted to buy anything, there was always money with which to buy it; what he understood was that he could give his daughter Miriam all that her heart desired. When the first crash in prices came, Doc Peters was as one bewildered.
Calves which had been selling for fifty-six dollars were suddenly selling for six. On all sides ranchers were ruined in a single season. Then prices began to climb slowly toward normal, and, just as they reached a level at which the ranchers could again make money, rustlers appeared in the Sumner Mountains, There could not have been a better resort for such a business. There were innumerable cuts and cañons, hills and mountains. There were stretches of forest into which ten thousand head might melt and disappear for the time upon Joe Daly with a speed and effectiveness that bewildered that cunning being. And so the rustlers stole here and stole there and waxed fat. If they were pursued, they could generally dodge the pursuers and keep the cattle; at the worst they could abandon their stolen gains and make good their own escape.
That is, they could do all these things until Joe Daly appeared on the scene, as a sort of enforcer extraordinary of the law. Then, to be sure, rustlers were captured right and left, and captured sections of herds were restored to their rightful owners. Every man who was willing to pay tribute—and fat tribute—to Joe Daly, went free. So confident became that gentleman that he actually guaranteed to pay for any loss in stolen cattle out of his own pocket.
Doc Peters, however, preferred to take his losses in cattle rather than to fatten the bank account of that consummate rogue. Rather, it should be said, that Miriam objected. She had left her school to help on the ranch. In the space of a single month she had transformed herself into a cow girl. She had supplied the good will which carried her father cheerfully through that first terrible season of losses. And she was still with him, now that the ranch had begun to climb toward prosperity again, only to be stopped half-way up the ladder by the depredations of the rustlers. Then it was that Joe Daly came, offering his protection. Every one knew his game. He had begun the entire rustling operations in the Sumner Mountains. Now he was choosing this novel means of freezing out his competitors. And he himself would prey on those who refused to pay him tribute for protection. It was a neat game. But, though every one saw through it, no one knew how to avoid the wiles of Joe. While Doc Peters was gravely conferring with this smiling robber, Miriam herself appeared on the scene. She had gone to work ruffian. Every word she spoke was a crushing blow to him.
"Mr. Daly," she had said, "I've heard your talk with dad. You offer to protect us, with your men. I want to be sure that you have men!"
"There ain't any doubt of that," Joe Daly had grinned. "Everybody has seen my boys around. And they're a hardy gang. Eh, doc."
Doc Peters made a wry face and nodded.
"Most of them have been with you ever since you came into the mountains?" asked the girl.
"More or less."
"Then what have they been doing to make a living, Mr. Daly?"
"'Eh?" he grunted at her.
"You haven't a ranch," she answered sharply. "How have you managed to support all those men during these months?"
Joe Daly swallowed hard. "Oh, just doing one thing or another," he had said.
"Hush up, Miriam," her father had said, in pity for the humiliation of Joe.
"I will," she had said, "when I've told him what I think everybody in the Sumner Mountains guesses about him. They all say, Mr. Daly, that you've been making your living by rustling cows. But, whether you have or not, we'll pay no money for protection. We have a sheriff for that job. We'll hire some deputies for him, but you'll get nothing out of us, Mr. Daly."
Joe Daly listened to this outburst with a wicked smile, and when he left the ranch he had vowed to wipe it clean of live stock.
Industriously he set to work to accomplish this object. Time and again droves were herded away. Time and again the men on the Peters place vainly rushed into the mountains or down the canons in pursuit. Once or twice they had come close, but they had been repelled by a rattling volley from half a dozen repeating rifles. One such warning was enough; they fell back and waited until another day. But the day never came when their force to pursue was nearly as great as the force of the thieves in flight to defend themselves. On the whole there could not have been a more hopeless war. And so it was that Doc Peters sent away to the far, far south and brought up a terrible man of battle, Dan Bunder. The price which Dan Bunder charged for his services was high, but he was worth it.
His sharp instinct for trouble led him into it before he had been on the ranch twenty-four hours. He came upon a lone horseman in the hills, challenged him, and was answered with a bullet. That bullet flew wide, for the ample reason that the slug from Dan's own gun had smashed through the body of the other. He took the man to the ranch house where he died from loss of blood, refusing to the last to tell his name, or his errand in the hills, or who, if any one, was connected with him. Nevertheless it was known that he was one of the gang.
After that first signal victory, Dan was not quiet. He scouted abroad again, hunting for scalps with all the joy of any Indian. He came on three of Joe Daly's best men engaged in running off a few young steers for the larder in Daly's camp. There followed a terrific battle. One of Joe's men was mortally wounded; another was shot twice through the body, and he was brought back to Daly's camp to die. The third member of the party had been shot through the left arm and nearly bled to death on the trail.
There was a muster of forces among the rustlers and a review of what had happened. They found that three of their men had been killed and one had been wounded by this man-slaying demon from the south country. Various means of getting rid of him were suggested, but the chief himself made the most appreciated suggestion. He declared that he would ride down to the ranch, wait for the coming out of the new man hunter, and have it out with him, as soon as they were beyond sight of the ranch buildings.
Daly was as good as his word. The next day Dan Bunder was found dead among the hills, near the ranch house of Doc Peters. There was this peculiarity about the affair! It was found that Dan had fired twice before he died, and at an enemy who, according to the prints of the horses' hoofs, had not been far away. And yet they could find no trace of the effects of his bullets. There was no blood trail, nor was there anything to indicate that a wounded man had spurred desperately away from the place. Instead there were ample tokens that he had come up to the dead body, had examined the pockets and wallet of Dan Bunder, and even lingered to smoke a cigarette at the spot. All this was seen, and it was considered a miracle that so deadly a shot as Dan should have actually fired twice without inflicting the least apparent injury upon his opponent!
But there was a greater catastrophe for Doc Peters, following immediately upon the heels of the death of Dan. The tidings of his exploits had made it possible to hire a full quota of cow-punchers for the ranch work. But now the new hands left in a sudden panic. Where Doc Peters should ordinarily have had ten men, his force was limited to five, and these were all such old and decrepit fellows that it was apparent that only the knowledge of their age gave them the courage to stay on the ranch and face the dangers of Joe Daly and Joe's gang.
Such was the situation when, on this dreary night, as Doc Peters sat quietly opposite his silent daughter in the living room of the old ranch house, there came a heavy knocking on the door. When Doc opened it, a red-headed giant was seen standing outside in the night.
"I hear tell," he said, after they had exchanged the usual greeting, "that you want hands?"
"I sure do," said Doc curiously. "Come in and set down."
There entered a monster with intolerably bright and steady blue eyes which roved leisurely around the room; and beside him and a little to the rear was a companion who was quite dwarfed by the comparison, a rather bow-legged man who stood with hanging head.
As Doc Peters said later to his daughter: "A man and a half and half a man makes two men, so the new hands will do pretty good."
"MY idea," said the big man, who by removing his hat had showed a great mop of red hair, "is to get some of the boys together and go hunting Daly and his crew. What d'you say to that, Doc Peters?"
"You won't get a crew around here," asserted Doc Peters. "The boys ain't got any stomach for fighting or trailing Joe Daly. They say that bullets don't even make no dent in him!"
Pete Burnside shuddered.
"Well," declared Red Stanton, "I'm one, and my partner here, Pete, is another that'll take the trail. Eh, Pete?"
Here he clapped Pete on the shoulder, and the latter winced. Pete fought with all his might to stand straight and nod a cheerful answer; he strove with all his force to appear at his best before this bright-eyed girl who was watching so intently. But he could only cringe. The very name of Joe Daly sent water instead of blood through his veins. Sickness took hold of the very heart of him. From the corner of his eye he saw scorn pass like a shadow over the face of the girl.
Suddenly she stepped to Red Stanton and shook his hand. "I have faith in you," she said.
And, it sickened Pete Burnside to see her lift her head and smile up into his companion's brutal face.
"I have faith," she repeated. "I know that you can't lose!"
"Lose?" roared Red Stanton. "I ain't ever started a fight yet that I ain't won. I dunno what it means to get licked. Ask Pete, here. He'll tell you!"
Red winked with brutal meaning at the rancher and his daughter. He could not see the shadow of disgust which darkened their eyes for a moment. But here was an ally too powerful to be turned away simply because he seemed to be a bully and a braggart.
So they sat down with the two newcomers. They placed them at a table where there was more food than even the tremendous capacity of Red was equal to. And, while the two travelers ate, they were given in detail the history of the struggle against Daly, and in particular the feat of Dan Bunder in killing no less than two of the Daly gang, as was known, and three, as was conjectured. But since Dan had been killed in single combat with a man who must have been Joe Daly himself, no one in the mountains could be induced to take service on the Peters Ranch, with the exception of a few half-worthless hands who were shielded from the gunfighters by their great age. It would be a problem of the very first water to get even a handful of willing men together to attack such an enemy as Joe Daly had demonstrated himself to be.
Here Red smashed his great hand upon the table with such force that the dishes chimed.
"Leave that to me!" he said. "Lemme offer 'em money. Lemme go to town to get 'em, and I'll come back with men enough!"
It seemed impossible that he could do as he promised. But the next morning he mounted the only horse on the ranch capable of bearing his tremendous bulk with any ease or speed. On this mount he made the journey to the village on the eastern edge of the mountains. He entered in the late morning. He went straight to the combination general-merchandise store, post office, etc. There he emptied his six-shooter to the accompaniment of a wild whooping that brought every inhabitant out and ready for action. Afterward he harangued the crowd.
It was a good speech. He declared that he had come down for men. They were to get three dollars a day and their keep. They were to get good chuck. And there might be a small ration of moonshine whisky at the end of each day's work, if all went well. Also, their hours were to be short, and their work during those hours was to be light. They were not going to ride the range all the day. There was to be no wearisome wandering along a fence repairing the breaks and lifting the sagging wire. No, all they were to do was to join in a man hunt!
He made this pause and surveyed his audience with a growing enthusiasm. He would himself lead in that man hunt. He would ask no man to go where he, Red Stanton, did not first lead the way. He would ask nothing impossible of any of those who happened to serve under him. Not only did he make these promises, but he also declared that the number he could take was limited. Some men, he knew, would have been glad to take fifty men to do the work which he had in hand. But Red Stanton would admit only an even dozen men to the hunt. And he reserved the right to pick that dozen to suit himself from all those who flocked in to volunteer their services.
It was a master stroke, that limitation of the posse. It did what the promise of fat wages could not do. It put a distinguishing badge upon all who should be so fortunate as to be chosen to take part in the expedition. Money, indeed, could never have induced them to come forward. But, since it was to be a measure of merit, that, to be sure, was quite another thing.
Red Stanton got a room at the hotel and spent two hours there interviewing men who clamored for a place in the ranks. And it was not until he had each man closeted in the room, that he confessed the object of the expedition was to be against no other person than Joe Daly himself.
They heard it with abashed eyes and a scowl, but they would not take a step backward, once they had engaged their honor. Before the two hours were passed, Red Stanton had sifted out twelve of the hardiest men in Casterville. Of all the rough towns in the Sumner Mountains, this was the roughest; and of the toughest inhabitants in Casterville, Red Stanton chose the worst. He chose them by instinct; he recognized his brothers in heart, if not in blood. And, by an odd coincidence, when he had finally chosen all his worthies, it was found that there was not one of the twelve who had not passed some days of his life in a prison.
Such were the men with whom Red Stanton returned to the ranch of Doc Peters. They filled the old bunk house with a thunder of drunken merriment that night, for Red Stanton had lived up to his word and had procured some moonshine whisky of innocent and watery appearance and terrible potency. But when the morning after the revel arrived, these hardy souls merely doused their faces in water, shrugged their shoulders, and prepared for the work of the day.
That work began at once. Red Stanton was thrilled by the praise and the wonder of Doc Peters, when the latter saw the troop of heavy cavalry which had been rallied to his cause by the ruffian. He was thrilled, more than by the words of the rancher, by the smile of Miriam from the background, and he started as soon as they had finished their breakfast. He took with him Josh Tompson, the only one of the cow-punchers then on the place with nerves steady enough to make him of any use. Josh had many ideas about where the headquarters of the rustlers might be, and he was willing to point out what he knew to the warriors, though he warned them every step of the way that they were apt to be shot, to the last man, by a hurricane of rifle bullets which might pour down at them at any moment.
While preparations were making for the start, Red Stanton lingered at the ranch house. He wished to state his self-assurance once more for the delectation of the rancher and the rancher's daughter.
"But they'll get the start on you. Red," said Doc Peters.
"My boss will be ready with the rest of 'em," said the giant. "Pete does my saddling for me."
"Is Pete your slave?" asked Miriam with sudden interest.
"Pete's a no-good one," said the other in a large manner. "He ain't worth much. You'll watch him start out with the rest of us this morning, but he won't keep up with us. Nope, his hoss'll go lame—or something. I know! He'll have to drop behind and—"
"The hound!" snarled Doc Peters.
"Why do you keep such a creature with you?" asked Miriam, shuddering as though she had been hearing of some unclean thing.
"Well," said Red Stanton, "he's pretty handy for saddling the bosses and making the fires and patching the clothes and such like. Besides, I ain't got the heart to turn him loose where other gents can kick him around. I'm sort of used to him and sorry for him, lady!"
Here his horse appeared, saddled and led by Pete Burnside.
"I'm with you, Red," called Doc Peters. "I ain't going to stay behind here!"
"Don't be a fool," growled the giant. "Ain't you going to keep a guard here at the house on all your chuck—and your hoss feed—and your family?"
He leered winningly at Miriam as he spoke. But, no matter how offensive his manner, it was perfectly apparent that he was right. A guard must be kept at the ranch house, and the rancher himself must take up that duty. So, frothing with impatience, Peters watched the expedition take to horse and thunder away down the slope to an accompaniment of yells and curses. In the rear rode Pete Burnside. After him the girl pointed.
"Do you see that?" she cried to her father.
"Yes," he nodded.
"What's wrong with the man they call Pete?"
"I dunno," answered her father. "When a gent is yaller there ain't no way of explaining him. He's just plumb wrong all the way through."
"But that man Pete," said the girl, "I can't explain how he haunts me. He did last night in my sleep, after I had seen his face for the first time. He fascinates me. He seems to be in torment all the time."
"Because he always knows that he's yaller," said her father, "and he's afraid that somebody's going to find it out!"
"I'll wager," she answered after a little interval of silence, "that he finishes the ride with the rest of them to-day. I'll wager that, if there's a fight, he fights as bravely as any of them!"
"Miriam, you're talking foolish. A dog can't act like a lion, and he's just a plain hound with no heart to him."
"Don't say it!" breathed the girl. "It's too horrible!"
"He ain't the only coward in the world, honey."
"But I keep thinking—"
"I keep thinking that he's been a brave man once, and that he's trying to be brave again."
"Miriam, quit your dreaming. Take a ride right over the hill, and you'll find him somewhere pulled up just the way that Red Stanton said you'd find him!"
She followed the impulse which had taken hold on her. In five minutes she was in the saddle and heading into the sharp wind which was blowing out of the northeast. An elbow twist around the pointed shoulder of a hill brought her suddenly in full view of her quarry. Not fifty feet away was Pete Burnside. The wind which blew from him to her cut away his chance of hearing her, and his back was turned, cutting off his chance of seeing her. She jerked her neat-footed pony behind some saplings and peered out curiously into the hollow.
Pete Burnside she had seen in the act of stopping his horse. Now she saw him drop limply out of the saddle. She saw him crouch down on the ground. She saw him take his head between his arms. She saw his body racked and tormented and quivering with pain.
Never had she seen a man act like that before. It was as though a bullet had torn through his vitals. The horse from which he had thrown himself sniffed curiously at the bowed head of his late master and then turned away to pluck at some grass near by. And still Pete was curled up in a knot.
Then she understood, and the understanding sickened her. She had been right in her first guess. Fear, as her father had said, had stopped this poor renegade and made him stay out of the group which was riding toward the mountains. And now the bitterest shame was making him writhe in an agony. She watched with horror and with awe. And then suddenly she turned the head of her horse away, as though she had been eavesdropping where she had no right. And, when she came back to the house of her father, she said not a word to him. She kept what she had seen to herself, as though she had entered upon a part of the shame.
OLD Josh did not content himself with pointing out the way toward what he was sure was the main rendezvous of the rustlers. He stayed with the riders all the day. Fourteen strong, they journeyed deeper and deeper into the Sumner Mountains. And in the late afternoon they started back, fifteen strong for the Peters, ranch house.
They had picked up one man in their journey, and with that man they came to Doc Peters at the close of the day. They described how they had taken him and how they had questioned him. But he would not return an answer. They wanted to know whether or not he had formed a part of the gang which operated under Joe Daly. They demanded to know where the rendezvous of that gang might be. But the prisoner would not speak. In vain they had tried every persuasion on him. They had tried to corner him by showing their knowledge that the very horse which he rode was known to be the favorite horse of Joe Daly, but still he could not be induced to speak.
Then Red Stanton had tried other measures. The muzzle of the unfortunate man's own six-shooter had been heated and pressed into his flesh. He had fainted, but he did not speak. They dragged him down to the ranch house, reeling in the saddle, but with his jaws locked together; the pain of his torture and the weakness which followed it were on his forehead, but his eyes were still strong with defiance. They brought him into the ranch house. When they dropped their hands from his shoulders, he stood swaying from side to side before Peters.
"Now," said Red Stanton, grinding his teeth with fury because the man had held out so long against him, "now it's your chance, Doc. You've got something agin' this gent. You can make him talk out. All you got to do is to make him tell you where we can get at Joe Daly, and your job is finished."
"D'you mean torture it out of him, boys?" asked the rancher slowly.
"Dad!" cried Miriam.
To Red Stanton in the morning it had seemed that nothing was more important than to win the favor of the girl. He could have sworn that the happiest man in the mountains was that man who could make her smile. But since the morning another nature had risen in Red Stanton, his true self. Now he swung around on the girl with his muscular arm outstretched, pointing. But it was almost as though he had struck her down.
"You," he said, "what are you doing in here? Ain't this a man's place to hear man talk? Run along and sit in a corner. You ain't wanted here!"
She shrank away from him, but she kept her head high.
"Dad!" she pleaded. "Do you permit one of your men to talk to me like this?"
"I'm telling her to keep away from this sort of a job," explained Red, a little more mildly to the rancher. "Ain't I right?"
"You are," said Peters. Inwardly he was boiling with rage at the insolence of the big man, but he was forced to admit that Red had been of great service to him already and might be of still more value in the immediate future.
"Miriam, you ain't needed here."
His voice was drowned by a roar of beastlike violence from Red Stanton.
"Look at the yaller-hearted hound!" he thundered. "There's Pete! Look at him, boys! Look at him come creeping in! Why, I got a mind—"
He gave over words for a more direct and effectual expression of his emotions. He caught up the chair which was nearest him. Though the chair was heavy, and though he used only one hand to swing it, yet he sent it whirling across the room with such terrific speed and force that Pete Burnside had not time to dodge. He was struck by the flying missile and sent crashing into a corner. And when he staggered, half stunned, to his feet, he was greeted with a huge burst of laughter. Even Red Stanton dissolved in mirth. He had pacified himself in the joy of seeing poor Pete tumbling head over heels. Now he laughed and laughed again, swaying his great bulk from side to side; but Pete strove to cringe away through the door.
"Stay here!" thundered the bully.
"Come back and stay here till I tell you to go. I dunno, I might have a job for you to do."
Miriam watched the white and working face of Pete, watched it until shame and grief choked her and made her stare down to the floor. It was as though she had herself stood in the flesh of this craven and tormented man.
Suddenly all attention was focused on Peters.
"Red," he said, "if you try a thing like that ag'in, I'm through with you—understand? I don't care what you can do for me, I'm through with you!"
"Sorry, chief," said Stanton, "but when I seen that sneak and remembered how he'd ducked out of the trouble that we'd been hunting all day—when I seen that sneaking face of his—why, I couldn't help sort of busting out." He went on hastily to change the subject. "But there's something to be got out of this gent, boss. Ask him what he's doing with this, will you? We tried to get him to talk, but he wouldn't say a word to us. He wouldn't do no explaining."
As he spoke he drew out of a saddlebag, which he had been carrying, a rectangular object blunted at the corners. It was backed with a heavy quilting, and the upper surface of it was armor steel finely chased and engraved.
"I found this here thing in his saddlebag," said Red. "He wouldn't do no talking, but I figure that maybe this means something. Maybe this scrawling stuff is a code."
"I'm sure I don't know," said the rancher in mild wonder. "I can't figure what—"
Miriam came suddenly forward from the corner where she had remained after the outbreak of Stanton. She took from the ruffian's hand the object he had been holding.
"Dad," she said, turning her back on the rest, "there's no need to ask him what it is. I know."
"Well, Miriam, what is it?"
"A breastplate—an old piece of armor."
"What the deuce would a gent be using armor for? That ain't got sense, Miriam!"
"Don't they still wear it—a regular coat of mail—don't men wear it in Mexico and along the border when they expect that they may get into a knife fight?"
"I know that," replied her father, "but this here thing ain't mail. Who'd wear a thing that heavy to keep from a knife?"
"Why not from bullets then?"
"What you mean?"
"I say, why not wear that old breastplate to turn a bullet?"
"Honey, a rifle bullet would go through that like it was a piece of cheese!"
"Yes, a rifle bullet has penetrating power, but what about a revolver bullet—a big, soft slug of lead? Would that go through?"
"I'll be durned!" gasped the rancher. "I never thought about that."
"It's an idea sure enough," muttered Red Stanton. "We'll try it out!"
Catching the steel plate from the hand of the girl, he propped it against the wall at the side of the room. He stood back, whipped out his Colt, and pumped three shots squarely into the center of his target. Then he ran across, while the echo of the last shot was still humming in all ears, and picked up the little slab of steel.
"Well, dog-gone my hide!" roared Red Stanton. "Not a one of them slugs went through. Look here—I didn't no more'n put a dent in the surface. And here's other places. Look here, partners, and here! There's pretty close onto twenty dents, much like the three I've put into her. I tell you what, this ain't the first time that this here thing has been shot at!"
They crowded around it, clamoring with wonder, and from the farther side of the room arose Pete Burnside. His square jaw was set, and his face was white, and there was an almost maniacal light in his eyes. He was drawn nearer and near to the center of interest. His movements were like those of a sleep walker.
In the meantime the talk turned back to the stranger from whose saddlebag that steel plate, with the quilting down the back, had been taken. The controversy raged hot about him. Should all that he knew be torn out of him? Should they torture him until he was glad to speak? They even forgot about the old breastplate. Pete was allowed to pick it up. He seized it in trembling hands and retired to a corner of the room. There the girl saw him bend over the plate and study it with a wild interest, a passion so consuming that he seemed to be trying to tear a secret out of the very steel.
DURING the night the prisoner stirred and suddenly sat up in his bed. It availed him little to sit up, however, for his wrists were chained together, and one wrist was fastened in turn to one of the posts of the iron bed. They had taken no chance that he might escape, as though there could be strength in his fever-stricken, tormented body to make even the effort!
Now he listened with starting eyes to a faint sound at the door to his room. Could it be that the incarnate devils were coming back? Could it be that Red Stanton, furious because he had not been permitted by the rancher to torture his victim in the evening again, as he had tortured him during the day, was now coming back to claim the helpless man for fresh brutalities? There were many ways of inflicting the most exquisite tortures. One might light a match and hold it close to the flesh of a man who was so bound that he could not move.
Darkness swam before the eyes of the prisoner at the very thought. Yes, he was weak, he was very weak, and his nerves jumped and twitched. He could not endure torture again. He would break down. The secrets would tumble from his lips before he knew it.
Oh, it was true! Some one was opening the door to the room in which he lay. Not that he could see anything, no matter how he strained his eyes, but a strange sixth sense made him aware that they were close to him. Now the door closed with the softest of clicks; and now some one was stealing closer to him. Oh, horror of horrors! Heaven only grant that he might die like a man rather than shame himself! If only he could see the door by the light of the day, but this stifling blackness of the night—He set his teeth and forced away the faintness. His mind was clearing. Presently he heard a whisper from the darkness.
"Partner, there ain't nothing for you to be afraid of. Keep your nerve plumb steady!"
A delirious joy ran through the weak body of the victim. It seemed that he could not stand this sudden thrill of hope which rushed through him.
"Who is it?" he gasped. "Joe Daly, it ain't you yourself?"
There was a little silence, as he turned cold again. Could it be that this was only a trap to trick him into admitting that he knew Daly?
"I ain't Daly," said the whisperer in the blackness, "but I'm one that'll do you no harm. Will you believe that?"
"Yes! But who are you?"
"I'm the gent that they call Pete."
The prisoner sank back on the bed with the faintest of groans. He remembered, now. What could be either feared or hoped for at the hands of such a craven?
"I've come up here to have a talk," went on Pete. "Partner, I want to find out who wore this here breastplate that they got out of your saddlebag."
"What good would it do me to tell you, even if I knowed?" asked the prisoner.
"I got a key to unlock these here locks that are holding you. I swiped it just now from Red Stanton——"
"That devil—I'll tear the heart out of him if I live to get a square chance at him."
"You'll get that chance if you talk to me straight."
"About this here piece of steel?"
"Yes, I want to know who wore it."
"What could that mean to you?"
"I'm just curious."
"Well, I'll tell you. Charlie Burnet got this thing to keep for—"
"That's a lie," said Pete Burnside. "Charlie Burnet ain't the gent that used to wear it."
"If you know, what are you asking me for? And even if I should tell you, how can I be sure that you'll be able to turn me loose?"
"You got my word of honor, and something'll tell you that I mean what I say!"
"How could it mean anything to you to know who used to wear this?"
"It means more to me than a million-dollar gold mine! I been lying awake thinking about it!"
"The devil you have! Well, it's sure queer to me what makes you so interested in it, but I'll tell you the fact and no kidding. Joe Daly himself has been wearing this right around his neck and under his shirt."
"Thank the Lord," broke in Pete Burnside. "Thank the Lord I know that now!"
"And your promise—" cut in the prisoner.
"I'll keep that!"
Instantly the key dropped into the first padlock, and it clicked open. In another moment the prisoner stood on his feet.
"And now Red Stanton!" he snarled softly through the darkness.
"What?" asked Pete Burnside.
"I'm going to get that hound and carve the heart out of him!"
"Wait till you got daylight, and he's awake."
"Did he give me any fair chance when he caught me? No, he mobbed me, and then he tortured me."
His voice choked away to nothing, as he recalled the horror of that long pain.
"You'll start riding now with me," said Burnside.
"You ain't got any call to love him!" exclaimed the man of the gang. "Ain't I seen him talk to you like you was a dog? Ain't I seen him knock you down with a chair?"
"You've seen that," said Pete Burnside. And suddenly he was laughing, but the sound of his laughter made the flesh of the rustler creep. "I'll have a little accounting with him for all that," said Pete, "but I got another job now."
"I got to ride up to see Joe Daly."
"I mean it. You and me got to ride up to see him."
"I'll never show you the way, Pete!"
"Let's get outside, and we'll talk more about it."
He led the way to the window. It was ridiculously easy to get down. Pete tied one end of a blanket around a nail, and then the rustler climbed down. He had scarcely reached the ground, when Pete landed beside him.
"Now we'll get our bosses and start," said Pete, and he led the way to the corral behind the barns.
They secured their mounts. Pete did the roping and then the saddling, for the whole right side of the rustler, including muscles which must be strained if he moved his arm, was terribly inflamed from the manner in which that burning steel had been thrust against his flesh. Nevertheless he was able to climb into his saddle. He fastened his teeth to keep back a groan; then he asked of his companion: "You got to show me a reason why you should be brought up to see Joe Daly. Are you wanting to join his gang?"
"Well, tell me man to man, ain't he got a need for new hands?"
"He sure has. There's three gone that ain't going to come back. And he needs a lot more'n five to do his business."
"Well," said Pete, "he'll be mighty interested to see me."
The other coughed.
"How come you to let Red Stanton walk over you that way, partner?" he asked in a cold voice.
"I had to play a part. I've had to keep after it for month after month till I been sick"—his voice raised a little—"but I'm sure done now. I'm through with that game, and I'm ready for something new."
"I dunno that I understand," growled the rustler, his horror and contempt growing, as he recalled the scene he had witnessed in the Peters house between Stanton and Pete.
"What you understand don't matter a lot," returned Pete. "What amounts to something is that Joe will understand when I meet up with him."
The rustler turned in his saddle and stared at his companion. There was no possible doubt that this was not the same man who had been abused by Red Stanton in the Peters house. His flesh might not have altered, but there was a new and braver spirit in him. The rustler drew his breath in wonder. If ever a man had been changed, this was one.
"Look here," he said. "Let's talk straight. You want me to show you the way up to where Joe Daly is hanging out. Now, how can I tell that you ain't going to—"
"To what?" asked Pete. "D'you think that maybe I'll clean up Joe and his whole gang?"
The rustler laughed.
"Oh, that sure sounds foolish," he chuckled. "But—"
"What d'you think I would do then?"
Again the rustler pondered for a time.
"You've turned me loose," he said at last. "It sure looks like you were a friend of Joe's. I'll take the chance. Come along, partner!"
They started out at a rocking canter, the rustler twisting in his saddle so that the torment of his injured side might be lessened. So they went on until they came to a steeper grade, where it was necessary to bring the horses back to a walk.
"I'd like to know one thing," said the rustler.
"What did it mean to you to know that that breastplate belonged to Joe Daly?"
Pete was silent for a moment, then he answered: "I'll tell you the straight of it, partner. I been up here in the mountains trying to find out something that Joe would be as much interested in as I am. And it wasn't till I heard about him owning that breastplate that I knew. D'you see?"
"Something important, eh?"
"Sure it is, but if you look at it another way you might say that it's nothing but a big joke!" And, as the humor of it seemed to strike him, he broke out into loud and ringing laughter.
THERE was blackest gloom in the gang of Joe Daly, gloom so utter that he himself felt the shadow to some degree. But they made one great mistake in which he did not share. They felt that because three old and trusted members of the gang had recently died, their loss could not be replaced. But Joe knew this was not true. Now that his fame had grown, he had only to give a call, and he could take his pick of a hundred desperate men. In fact he could assemble fellows far more formidable than his present outfit.
But the others could not appreciate this fact. All they knew was that from eight men they had shrunk suddenly to five, and that very day one of the five had been torn away from one of their most secured haunts. It reduced them to four and the chief, Joe Daly himself.
He was now in his most favored and least used retreat, the old mine which had been sunk into the side of the mountain. But, instead of occupying the deserted shaft itself, he had insisted on bringing them this night to the shack which stood at the mouth of the mine, ready to collapse with age and weather. And in this shack he recklessly showed his lanterns, as though there were nothing in the world to fear. To be sure one of the men kept guard before the shack, but it was not because they might be captured. The real danger was simply that this excellent hiding place might be located, and every hiding place which was discovered, narrowed their resources for escape and hiding when they should next be pressed by the man hunters. And it seemed that from now oh they could never have any surety of peace. If one rancher could by his own unassisted efforts cause so much havoc and distress, what could not be done by a league of ranchers, each with his hired posse, and each working with a whole-hearted desire to end the rule of the rustlers?
These thoughts were in the minds of the most careless of the men, but Joe Daly was unperturbed. Perhaps he had come to believe in his destiny. All great criminals come to that point sooner or later. And such good fortune had favored Joe that it was little wonder if he felt that some kindly deity presided over his affairs. He dated his good luck, in fact, from that day in Manhattan when he discovered the bullet-proof breastplate and stole it away to his room. That was the strange foundation on which he had built.
When he found it, he had been a poor exile, hungry for his home country, and kept from it by the mortal dread of terrible Pete Burnside. With that bit of armor he had dared the most famous gun fighters time and again since his battle with Pete, and he had always been victorious. His fame had spread. There was no man in his band who dared to raise hand or voice against him. He was considered on all sides a hero of the first water!
But in the meantime he had outgrown that breastplate. It had saved his life to be sure, but it was by no means all that it should be. Fine steel it was, or it would never have turned the slug from a Colt pistol fired at close range. But it was by no means the sort of steel which had been invented later on to turn the cutting noses of armor-piercing bullets. And the outlaw, determined that he must make a change for the better. So he had sent away to have a new piece of body armor forged for him. Far away in Philadelphia he had a friend who executed the commission and saw that the corselet was made. And it was far more safe than the original plate. That slab of steel had insured him against the slug of a revolver fired at any closeness; but the new corselet, made of the very finest quality of armor steel, with a diamond-hard surface, weighed hardly any more than the breastplate, but it was so much larger that it fitted over his entire breast and abdomen and then curved under his arms. There was another very clever contrivance, also: a steel lining for his sombrero, which was strung enough to turn the slug from a Colt revolver. So equipped, he felt that he was the only man who had ever lived with so many enemies, and with so much surety of triumphing over them all!
With three of his men he sat this night in the crazy little shanty, playing poker and sipping throat-scorching moonshine from time to time, and listening to the singing of a rising storm through the boards of the shack. The old cast-iron stove, so sadly cracked that it spouted smoke and filled the cabin with a blue-white vapor twisted in wisps about the card players, they packed with wood until it roared with a crowding mass of flames. It shivered and shook with the rushing of the draft, and it managed to keep the windy hut warm enough for comfort, assisted by the moonshine whisky.
Not much of that whisky, however, was passing the lips of Joe Daly. To be sure, his glass was often in his hand, and he pretended to drink to every man who made a winning. But in reality few drops of the liquor found their way down his throat. Daly needed a clear head for his business.
In reality the poker games in his camp were the most important source of his revenue. Out of them he drew the many thousands which went to recruit his bank accounts. His scheme was admirable. He gave his men a very large portion of the proceeds of the crimes which he planned and organized. He was not one of those who took a third or a half of the profits as a return for the brain work which he expended upon them. Instead he merely took two shares, and out of his own shares he paid for the food, the guns, and the ammunition of the entire party.
What could have been more generous? It was plain that such an open-handed leader was working as much for the happiness of his men as for his own fame and profit. At least so thought the followers of the bandit. The other side of the picture was never exposed to their eyes. But had they kept track they might have found that what they made in their raids they quickly paid back into the pockets of the leader at the poker games. For Joe Daly was no common manipulator of the cards. He did not know many tricks, but he had his own system of marking the cards with his finger nails, a method ancient as the very hills and a million times discovered, but it was never discovered by Joe's gang. It never occurred to the worst of them that any one could be so base as to cheat the very men with whom he had been adventuring that same day, perhaps. But Joe was not bothered by the scruples of an active conscience. And, indeed, as the time went on, and his bank accounts swelled, and he saw himself becoming a rich man, he decided that it was as good to have an armor-clad conscience as it was to have an armor-clad body.
Daly had just won five hundred, and seeing his left-hand neighbor take down a wretched little bet of thirty dollars on the next hand, he poured generous doses of the moonshine into each of the tin cups.
"Here's to Harry, boys," he said. "Old Harry sure ain't had his luck to-night. Here's where his luck changes!"
Immediately the cups flashed up to do the proper honor to Harry. Before they went down, there was a clamor of voices on the outside of the cabin.
"Nobody's got a right—you must be crazy to bring him up here where—"
"Shut up! He's an old friend of the chief. Don't you suppose that I'd be sure of that before I went this far?"
And on the heels of this outburst of noise, in came the guard on a rush.
"Here's 'Bud' come back," he began.
"Bud got loose from 'em!" shouted the gamblers, springing up in joyous forgetfulness of their game.
"And he's brought up a stranger."
Bud himself here pushed into the cabin.
"Come on, Pete," he said. "Step up and meet the chief and see if he ain't glad to see you."
"Hello, Joe!" called Pete Burnside, pausing at the door of the cabin.
At his voice there was a gasp from Joe Daly. The rustler leaped away from the table until his shoulders crashed against the wall. And at the same time the other members of the gang crowded back so as to make a passage which would be clear from one of them to the other.
"By guns." breathed Daly, "it's you—Pete!"
The men of the gang turned in utter bewilderment to their chief. They found that their hero had turned the gray of ashes and was staring at the square-jawed man in the doorway, as though the latter were a ghost.
"I come up to pay you a call, Joe," said Burnside.
"Pete—" began the other.
"I got something to say to you."
"I ain't come up here just to talk."
"You dunno what you're saying, partner. All I want is to try to explain to you—"
The rustlers gaped at one another. It could not be that they were hearing aright; it could not be that their dauntless commander was knuckling down to this stranger. And Bud, with the picture of Red Stanton and the Peters house, was the most astonished of them all.
"Joe," said the other, "I got something to say that the rest of 'em might as well hear. Boys, my name's Pete Burnside!"
It sent a shock through two of them, who had heard of that not obscure name.
"I was the gent that run Joe out of the mountains last year. He went away because he was afraid to face me. Then he come back all at once and sent out the word that he was just waiting for me. And when I went to meet him I got my gun first; I sent in the first shot—I could have swore that I seen him stagger—but he sure enough didn't drop. Like a sneaking hound he was wearing this right over his heart!"
Pete tossed onto the floor of the cabin the breastplate. It landed softly on its quilted back, and the rustlers stared down at it. Every one of them knew about the strange method which their chief used to make himself invulnerable. They only wondered how he could endure dressing in iron during the furious heat of the summer, or the biting cold of the winter. Yet it had not seemed to them that there was anything particularly dishonorable in his proceedings.
"Boys," said Pete Burnside, "when he'd stopped two of my bullets with this here plate of steel, he got his own gun on me at last and sent me down for the count. And when I got well I was a no-good hound. Bud, here, will tell you what I was. I didn't put no trust in myself. I'd seen my bullets go right into the mark and miss! It took all my nerve. I wasn't no more good than a hound dog!"
He paused, his face white, breathing hard.
"Then all at once I found out what had happened. It hadn't been my fault. I'd shot straight, but that hound was wearing armor when he sent to ask me to fight! And when I heard that, I got my nerve back. I come up here with Bud, letting him think that what I wanted was to join the gang. But what I really wanted was to get a crack at Joe Daly. Understand, boys, I ain't up here to spy on you. I don't have no care what you do in rustling cows. I want to rustle Joe Daly. Joe, are you ready?"
The face of Joe Daly was a study. The certainty of death was before him. But in another moment his courage returned. Like a traitor Bud had told that his chief at one time had worn the breastplate; but he could not have told about the new armor, for the simple reason that Bud did not know of it. Pete had come to strike down a man whose unfair advantage was removed; he could not know that a still greater advantage was still on the side of the chief of the rustlers. And, as the surety returned to Joe, he laughed aloud.
"Pete," he said, "I'm ready when you are—get your gun!"
As he spoke he went for his own with all the speed at his command. But slow, slow was his fastest motion compared with the sudden flash which brought the Colt into the hand of Pete Burnside. And the breast was not the target at which Pete fired. The muzzle of his revolver twitched higher than that, and the bullet drove squarely between the eyes of Joe. He spun around and dropped on his face. Then Pete leaped aside and backed through the door.
They followed him at once. In vain he shouted to them that he would do them no harm if they would let him alone. They rushed out through the door. The bright shaft of the lamplight illumined each one as he came. And the revolver spoke—and spoke again and again, where Pete Burnside had dropped upon one knee in the dark and emptied his six-shooter.
"IF I have to see him again in our house," said Miriam, "I won't answer for what I'll say to him!"
Her father smiled at her.
"I mean it!" she declared.
"But," said Doc Peters, "you sure got to admit that Red Stanton has plenty of nerve."
"He has courage—of a sort. He knows that he's stronger than other men, and of course that makes him confident. But that brute sort of bravery doesn't mean a great deal."
"You don't mean that, Miriam."
"But I do! And it sickens me to see his great red face and watch his insolent rolling eyes, as he stares at me. He acts as though he were paying his suit to me!"
"That's nonsense, honey!"
"I tell you, it's in his stupid head. He thinks that he's saving us, and therefore he can make any demand he wants to make."
"Well, Miriam, he is saving us!"
"I tell you, Joe Daly will smash him and all his gang! What have they done? They've captured one poor rascal who got away again, and—"
"He didn't get away. He was turned loose by that pleasant friend of yours."
"Dad, you're simply trying to be aggravating!"
"I'm talking facts."
"I haven't spoken a dozen words to that poor fellow Pete."
"Poor sneak thief!"
"Is it right to say that?"
"I'm staying with the facts still."
"You call him a thief because he turned the rustler loose."
"What would you call a thing like that?"
"I know why he did it."
"Tell me if you can."
"Pete had been used to torture. I know that. He had been broken with pain; he has been crushed by it. And that was why his heart bled for the poor rustler. I pitied him, myself—and I think of that unspeakable beast of a Stanton branding the man with a hot iron—oh, it sickens me when I think of it!"
"He was trying to tear the truth out of the rascal, and cow-punchers don't figure rustlers to be real men; they're just sort of snakes in the eyes of a puncher, Miriam. You'd ought to know that!"
"Oh, he wasn't trying to tear the truth from him. Little he cared about the truth. He was torturing that man to make him break down. He wanted to hear the rustler shriek for mercy; he wanted to make the rustler crawl the way poor Pete crawls. Oh, I can't even talk of it!"
"I know," nodded her father.
"And if Red comes into this house again, I'm not going to be here."
"Honey," said her father slowly, "I know how you feel. Red Stanton ain't a pretty thing to look at. He's got the manners of a hog and the nature of a wild cat. But I can stand bad manners, and so can you. There's only one thing that counts in all that you've been saying about him—if he really has been making a fool of himself in the way he's been looking at you, I'll fill him full of lead, or else just kick him off the place."
"But don't you see, dad, that's the horrible part of it? If he finds out what we think of him, he'll go mad with spite and hatred. He'd burn the house over our heads and never think about it twice. What are we to do, dad? Can't you ask him to go into the bunk house with the other men after supper?"
"He thinks it's his right to be here. Remember, Miriam, that he hired a dozen men to do work for us. And we couldn't have gone out by ourselves and hired two! You can go to town until this job is finished."
"I'll never leave you here alone with such a man!"
Doc Peters shrugged his shoulders and smiled, and his rather tired old eyes lifted and looked past the bright head of his daughter and into the stormy past. He had seen his share of trouble. He had taken his part in battles enough. Now he smiled at this touch of solicitude on the part of his girl.
That night the crowd of cow-punchers and Red Stanton's wild group of hired men crowded into the dining room and filled the place with uproar. And when they had finally stamped their way out again, Red, as usual, tilted back in his chair and drank extra cups of coffee. And all the while he was keeping his eyes fixed upon Miriam.
Peters had been wondering how it was that such a worm of a man as Pete had managed to find the courage to defy them all and set the prisoner free.
"But you don't know that man!" said Miriam. "I'll wager that there's still courage in him. I'll wager that he was once brave."
"Brave?" echoed Red Stanton, eagerly seizing upon this chance to win the favorable attention of the girl. "Say, lady, maybe you dunno what his whole name is?"
"What is it?" she asked, on fire with eagerness.
"Pete Burnside!" he answered pompously.
Here Doc Peters jumped up and ran across the room, though he was a man who was rarely much moved.
"You mean to say that's Pete Burnside?"
"I mean that."
"Miriam!" cried the rancher, turning on his daughter. "Think of that?"
"I don't think I've heard about him," she said wretchedly.
"Never heard? That comes of taking all that time to go to a fool school in the East," exploded her father. "But you remember about the train robbery four years back, when the robbers blew up the guards in the mail coach simply because there was nothing worth taking in the safe? Five men done that trick!"
"I remember that horrible story," said the girl.
"Well, Pete Burnside was him that went on the trail of that five. The posses couldn't get 'em. The five was too strong for a few men and too fast for a whole mob of hossmen to follow 'em. They'd have got clean away and melted off into the mountains somewheres, if Pete hadn't got onto their trail. Then it was a yarn that would make your hair stand right up on end. Dog-goned if Burnside didn't keep on their heels until he dropped one of 'em. Then the other four found out there was only one man behind 'em, and they turned back and cornered him. They got around him, and then they rushed the pile of boulders where he was lying."
Doc Peters paused and lighted his cigarette.
"Hurry, dad!" cried the girl. "I can't breathe, I'm so excited."
He threw away the match.
"Well, when the smoke cleared away, two of 'em was dead, and two of 'em wished that they was dead. But Pete stayed up there and nursed 'em back till they was strong enough to travel. About six weeks later he come down with his two prisoners—yes, sir, he'd stayed up there a whole six weeks with them man-killing hounds!"
"Oh," cried the girl, "how perfectly wonderful, dad!"
"Ain't it?" said Peters. "I tell you, there ain't another man in the mountains that's done the things that Pete Burnside has done. And when he come down with those two gents he'd got so fond of 'em that he went all the way to the governor and come in and sits down, and he tells the governor that these two gents ain't really as bad as the newspapers makes them out, and that, if they get a year in prison and then get pardoned, that he'll go bond that they don't never turn wild again. And will you believe me that old Governor Parks listened to Pete and took his suggestion? Yes, sir. It sure spoke well for Pete, and it spoke well for the governor, too. One year them two was in prison, and then they was turned loose. And ever since then they've just settled down and lived like white folks and ain't give no trouble to nobody!"
"Why, dad," cried the girl, "he's not a man hunter, then. He was a maker of men!"
"Maybe you might call it that," nodded her father. "But, anyway you put it, I'm sure glad to hear that that's Pete Burnside. And I don't care what sort of a man he's turned out to be lately, he's been man enough in the past to suit me. And if he ever comes back to this here ranch he's going to be treated like a king!"
"Yes, yes!" cried the girl. "Oh, dad, he surely deserves everything that good men can do for him!"
Here big Red Stanton, who had listened to the story about Pete Burnside with a restless indifference, now rolled himself about in his chair until it squeaked and groaned in every joint.
"Look here," he said, "I ain't going to have you spoiling him for me!"
The rancher and his daughter looked at the giant, with disgust and some surprise. And in the little silence which spread through the room, they could hear far away a resonant baritone raised in a song which carried far across the night. Perhaps one of the new men in the bunk house was entertaining himself and his companions.
"I ain't going to have you spoil him," continued Red Stanton. "He's no end useful to me. Does all my darning and patching and saddles my hoss for me—and does so many things that I dunno how I'd get along without him! Why, if you started treating him like he was a man, pretty soon he'd think that he was a man. And there ain't no sense to that at all! What he's cut out for is to keep me comfortable. And the more comfortabler that I'm kept the quicker I'll get at Joe Daly and his crew. Ain't that good sense and plain sense, Peters?"
The rancher looked upon his guest with a strange eye.
"Maybe you're right," he said, "but there ain't much to worry about yet. There ain't much likelihood that he'll come back."
Red Stanton threw back his head and laughed.
"You dunno him," he declared. "You dunno him, but I do! Oh, he'll come back!"
The two stared at him, utterly fascinated.
"But what makes you think so?" asked the girl. "What could make him come back when he knows—"
"When he knows that he'll get a beating from me so soon as he shows up?"
The lip of Miriam curled with horror and scorn, but she could not answer directly.
"I'll tell you why he'll come back," went on Red, as the singing grew a little louder and a little nearer. "First off, when he gets off by himself with the rustler, he'll begin to think that it's a pretty good thing to be free. But as soon as he runs into somebody that talks loud and has a handy pair of fists, hell begin to wish that he was back under cover. I dunno how brave he used to be, but I know that I never heard tell of a gent that was half as yaller as he is now. He'll be wishing that he was back where he didn't have nobody to cuss him but some one that he knowed. He'd begin shaking and trembling the way I've seen him do when strangers come around. That's him!"
He laughed again. Miriam dropped her face into her hands.
"What's the matter?" growled Red. "I tell you that he will come back, and partly because he'll figure out that if he comes back quick he won't get as bad a licking as he will if he stays away a long time!"
"Let it drop at that," said Peters. "We'll talk some more about him some other time. Who's that, Miriam? You expecting somebody?"
"Yes; Nell Hotchkiss said she might come over for the night—"
She ran to the door and threw it open. Then she fell back with a shrill, faint cry. As she retreated Pete Burnside stepped forward into the room.
BUT what a different man was this! Pete Burnside seemed a full two inches taller. The sullen droop of his mouth at the corners was gone, and a faint smile played there. His square jaw was thrust out a little more than usual, and the very color of his eyes seemed changed, now that he stood so erect, and no shadow fell from the brows across his pupils. And the bearing of his body, at once erect and easy, made him seem ten years younger and three fold stronger.
Indeed, with all the story which attached itself to his name, and with his hardy appearance, he might have passed for thirty-five years of age; but those who knew declared that he had managed to cram all the events of his life into less than thirty years. He now closed the door carefully behind him and looked about upon those who were in the room. In his left hand he carried a saddlebag which seemed very heavy, and which clinked when it struck against his knee.
"I'm sure sorry that I give you a start," said he to the girl.
"I'll be the one that'll change your manners, son!" roared big Red Stanton. He pushed the cuffs of his coat away from his hairy wrists. "And I'll be having a lot to say to you, you gutter rat, you soft-headed fool, turning loose the men that I capture!"
The right hand of Pete Burnside raised, and the forefinger indicated Red Stanton, like the snap and drop of a revolver upon its target.
"You, over yonder," he said, "be quiet. I'll attend to you a little later on."
If he had struck Red over the head with a club and stunned him, he could not have changed the expression on the other's face more completely. With sagging jaw and with mouth agape, the giant leaned forward and stared at him with dull eyes of wonder. Surprise had utterly unnerved Stanton.
"But I've come to give you my report first," said Pete, turning to the rancher and to Miriam.
Doc Peters was combing his mustache with furious speed, first to one side and then to the other side. Now he seized the hand of Pete and gripped it hard.
"I didn't know you before," he said. "I'd seen pictures of you, too, but I was a fool and didn't recognize you. While you were gone, we heard that you're Pete Burnside."
Pete lifted his head and looked across the room at Red Stanton, and the giant blinked stupidly back at him.
"That's my name," he admitted modestly. "And I—I come up here to try to work this here case—"
"That's a lie!" roared Red Stanton. "I had to drag him up here. He sure enough begged me not to take him up into these mountains, where there was so much trouble and—"
"Be quiet!" snapped the rancher, turning suddenly upon Red. And that sudden reproof shocked the giant into another silence.
"I turned that rustler loose," said Pete in his quiet way, "because of me figuring that maybe he'd show me the way to get at Joe Daly. And I was right. He took me all the way up to Joe's camp."
"You don't mean to say—" began the girl.
"What I mean to say," said Pete soberly, "is that there won't be any more trouble from Joe and his crowd."
He turned the saddlebag upside down.
"There's their guns—six guns. There's their wallets—six wallets, I guess. You might take that as a sign that they ain't going to bother you nor nobody else for a while!" And he could not help smiling his triumph into the face of the girl.
"Burnside," said the rancher, "it sort of staggers me. Say it over again. Tell me the straight of it. You mean to say that you got all six of 'em?"
"They pile out the door at me—they stood in the light of the lamp, and as they come out one by one—"
"All lies—all lies!" thundered Red Stanton. He had risen and strode toward them.
"You," called Pete Burnside, "get out and stay gone. You hear me, Red?"
As he spoke he slipped his revolver from its holster and fired. The Colt was jerked from the hip of Red by the tearing impact of the bullet, sent to its mark with an uncanny accuracy. Red's big gun dropped heavily to the floor.
Red, disarmed by miracle, so it seemed, stood wavering an instant. He staggered, his arms stretched out, as though on the verge of lunging either forward or back. And then, clutching at the place where his revolver had been, with a sudden yell of terror he plunged through the door and raced into the night.
Pete Burnside, from the open door, fired into the dirt behind the fugitive. There was a hoarse shriek of fear, and the other bounded out of the lamplight. And so he disappeared swiftly into the blackness, like a nightmare disappearing from a sane mind, it seemed to Pete. The rancher was laughing uproariously, and Miriam was clinging to his arm and looking out through the door at the renegade; but Pete Burnside did not so much as smile. Indeed, he had lost the habit of smiling forever.