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A Bluff Is Called








From: Bucky O'connor

Torpid lay Aravaipa in a coma of sunheat. Its adobe-lined streets basked
in the white glare of an Arizona spring at midday. One or two Papago
Indians, with their pottery wares, squatted in the shade of the
buildings, but otherwise the plaza was deserted. Not even a moving dog
or a lounging peon lent life to the drowsy square. Silence profound and
peace eternal seemed to brood over the land.

Such was the impression borne in upon the young man riding townward on
a wiry buckskin that had just topped the rise which commanded the valley
below. The rider presented a striking enough appearance to take and
hold the roving eye of any young woman in search of romance. He was a
slender, lithe young Adonis of medium height. His hair and eyebrows
left one doubtful whether to pronounce them black or brown, but the eyes
called for an immediate verdict of Irish blue. Every inch of him spoke
of competency--promised mastership of any situation likely to arise.
But when the last word is said it was the eyes that dominated the
personality. They could run the whole gamut of emotions, or they could
be impervious as a stone wall. Now they were deep and innocent as a
girl's, now they rollicked with the buoyant youth in them. Comrades
might see them bubbling with fun, and the next moment enemies find
them opague as a leaden sky. Not the least wonder of them was that they
looked out from under long lashes, soft enough for any maiden, at a
world they appraised with the shrewdness of a veteran.

The young man drew rein above the valley, sitting his horse in the easy,
negligent fashion of one that lives in the saddle. A thumb was hitched
carelessly in the front pocket of his chaps, which pocket served also as
a holster for the .45 that protruded.

Even in the moment that he sat there a change came over Aravaipa. As a
summer shower sweeps across a lake so something had ruffled the town to
sudden life. From stores and saloons men dribbled, converging toward a
common centre hurriedly.

"I reckon, Bucky, the band has begun to play," the rider told himself
aloud. "Mebbe we better move on down in time for the music."

But no half-expected revolver shots shattered the stillness, even though
interest did not abate.

"There's ce'tainly something doing at the Silver Dollar this glad
mo'ning. Chinks, greasers, and several other kinds of citizens driftin'
that way, not to mention white men. I expect there will be room for you,
Bucky, if you hurry before the seats are all sold out."

He cantered down the plaza, swung from the saddle, threw the rein over
the pony's head to the ground, and jingled across the sidewalk into the
gambling house. It was filled with a motley crowd of miners, vaqueros,
tourists, cattlemen, Mexicans, Chinese, and a sample of the rest of the
heterogeneous population of the Southwest. Behind this assemblage
the newcomer tiptoed in vain to catch a glimpse of the cause of the
excitement. Wherefore, he calmly removed an almond-eyed Oriental from a
chair on which he was standing, tipped the ex-Cantonese a half dollar,
and appropriated the point of vantage himself.

There was a cleared space in the corner by the roulette table, and here,
his chair tipped back against the wall and a glass of whisky in front
of him, sat a sufficiently strange specimen of humanity. He was a man
of about fifty years, large boned and gaunt. Dressed in fringed buckskin
trousers and a silver-laced Mexican sombrero, he affected the long hair,
the sweeping mustache, and the ferocious aspect that are the custom
of the pseudo-Westerners who do business in the East with fake medical
remedies. Around his waist was a belt garnished with knives by the
dozen. These were long and pointed, sharpened to a razor edge. One of
them was in his hand poised for a throw at the instant Bucky mounted the
chair and looked over the densely packed mass of heads in front of him.

The ranger's keen glance swept to the wall and took in the target. A
slim lad of about fifteen stood against it with his arms outstretched.
Above and below each hand and on either side of the swelling throat
knives quivered in the frame wall. There was a flash of steel, and the
seventh knife sank into the wood so close to the crisp curls that a lock
hung by a hair, almost completely severed by the blade. The boy choked
back a scream, his big brown eyes dilating with terror.

The bully sipped at his highball and deliberately selected another
knife. To Bucky's swift inspection it was plain he had drunk too much
and that a very little slip might make an end of the boy. The fascinated
horror in the lad's gaze showed that he realized his danger.

"Now, f'ler cit'zens, I will continue for your 'musement by puttin' next
two knives on right and lef' sides of his cheek. Observe, pleash, that
these will land less than an inch from hish eyes. As the champion knife
thrower in the universe I claim--"

What he claimed his audience had to guess, for at this instant another
person took a part in the act. Bucky had stepped lightly across the
intervening space on the shoulders of the tightly packed crowd and had
dropped as lightly to the ground in front of the astonished champion of
the universe.

"I reckon you've about wore out that target. What's the matter with
trying a brand new one," drawled the ranger, his quiet, unwavering eye
fixed on the bloated, mottled face of the imitation "bad man."

The bully, half seas over, leaned forward and gripped his knife. He was
sober enough to catch the jeer running through the other's words without
being sufficiently master of himself to appreciate the menace that
underlay them.

"Wha's that? Say that again!" he burst out, purple to the collar line.
He was not used to having beardless boys with long, soft eyelashes
interfering with his amusements, and a blind rage flooded his heart.

"I allowed that a change of targets would vary the entertainment, if you
haven't any objections, seh," the blue-eyed stranger explained mildly.

"Who is this kid?" demanded the bully, with a sweep of his arm toward
the intruder.

Nobody seemed to know, wherefore the ranger himself gave the information
mildly:

"Bucky O'Connor they call me."

A faint murmur of surprise soughed through the crowd, for Bucky O'Connor
of the Arizona Rangers was by way of being a public hero just now on
account of his capture of Fernendez, the stage robber. But the knife
thrower had but lately arrived in the country. The youth carried with
him none of the earmarks of his trade, unless it might be that quiet,
steady gaze that seemed to search the soul. His voice was soft and
drawling, his manner almost apologetic. In the smile that came and went
was something sweet and sunny, in his bearing a gay charm that did
not advertise the recklessness that bubbled from his daredevil spirit.
Surely here was an easy victim upon whom to vent his spleen, thought the
other in his growing passion.

"You want to be my target, do you?" he demanded, tugging ferociously at
his long mustache.

"If you please, seh."

The fellow swore a vile oath. "Just as you say. Line up beside the other
kid."

With three strides Bucky reached the wall, and turned.

"Let 'er go," his gentle voice murmured.

He was leaning back easily against the wall, his thumb hitched
carelessly in the revolver pocket of his worn leather chaps. He looked
at ease, every jaunty inch of him, but a big bronzed cattleman who had
just pushed his way in noticed that the frosty blue eyes never released
for an instant those of the enemy.

The bully at the table passed an uncertain hand over his face to clear
his blurred vision, poised the cruel blade in his hand, and sent it
flashing forward with incredible swiftness. The steel buried itself two
inches deep in the soft pine beside Bucky's head. So close had it shaved
him that a drop of blood gathered and dropped from his ear to the floor.

"Good shot," commented the ranger quietly, and on the instant his
revolver seemed to leap from its holster to his hand. Without raising or
moving his arm in the least, Bucky fired.

Again a murmur eddied through the crowd. The bullet had neatly bored
the bully's ear. He raised his hand in dazed fashion and brought it
away covered with blood. With staring eyes he looked at his moist red
fingers, then at his latest victim, who was proving such an unexpected
surprise.

The big cattleman, who by this time had pushed a way with his broad
shoulders to the front, observed the two men attentively with a derisive
smile on his frank face. He was seeing a bluff called, and he enjoyed
it.

"You'll be able to wear earrings, Mr. Champion of the Universe, after I
have ventilated the other," suggested the ranger affably. "Come again,
seh."

But his opponent had had enough, and more than enough. It was one thing
to browbeat a harmless boy, quite another to measure courage with a
young gamecock like this. He had all the advantage of the first move.
He was an expert and could drive his first throw into the youth's
heart. But at bottom he was a coward and lacked the nerve, if not the
inclination, to kill. If he took up that devil-may-care challenge he
must fight it out alone. Moreover, as his furtive glance went round the
ring of faces, he doubted whether a rope and the nearest telegraph pole
might not be his fate if he went the limit. Sourly he accepted defeat,
raging in his craven spirit at the necessity.

"Hell! I don't fight with boys," he snarled,

"So?"

Bucky moved forward with the curious lightness of a man spring-footed.
His gaze held the other's shifting eyes as he plucked the knife from his
opponent's hand.

"Unbuckle that belt," he ordered.

All said, the eye is a prince of weapons. It is a moral force more
potent than the physical, and by it men may measure strength to a
certainty. So now these two clinched and battled with it till the best
man won. The showman's look gave way before the stark courage of
the other. His was no match for the inscrutable, unwavering eye that
commanded him. His fingers began to twitch, edged slowly toward his
waist. For an instant they fumbled at the buckle of the belt, which
presently fell with a rattle to the floor.

"Now, roll yore trail to the wall. Face this way! Arms out! That's good!
You rest there comfortable while I take these pins down and let the kid
out."

He removed the knives that hemmed in the boy and supported the
half-fainting figure to a chair beside the roulette table. But always he
remained in such a position as to keep the big bully he was baiting
in view. The boy dropped into the chair and covered his face with his
hands, sobbing with deep, broken breaths. The ranger touched caressingly
the crisp, fair hair that covered the head in short curls.

"Don't you worry, bub. Now, don't you. It's all over with now. That
coyote won't pester you any more. Will you, Mr. False Alarm Bad Man?"

At the last words he wheeled suddenly to the showman. "You're right
sorry already you got so gay, ain't you? Come! Speak yore little piece,
please."

He waited for an answer, and his gaze held fast to the bloated face that
cringed before his attack.

"What's your name?"

"Jay Hardman," quavered the now thoroughly sobered bad man.

"Dead easy jay, I reckon you mean. Now, chirp, up and tell the boy how
sorry you are you got fresh with your hardware."

"He's my boy. I guess I can do what I like with him," the man burst out
angrily. "I wasn't hurting him any, either. That's part of our show,
to--"

Bucky fondled suggestively the revolver in his hand. A metallic click
came to his victim.

"Don't you shoot at me again," the man broke off to scream.

The Colt clipped the sentence and the man's other ear.

"You can put in your order now for them earrings we were mentionin', Mr.
Deadeasy. You see, I had to puncture this one so folks would know they
were mates."

"I'll put you in the pen for this," the fellow whined, in terror.

"Funny how you will get off the subject. We were discussin' an apology
when you got to wandering in yore haid."

The mottled face showed white in patches. Beads of perspiration stood
out on the forehead of Hardman. "I didn't aim to hurt him any. I'll be
right glad to explain to you--"

A bullet plowed a path through the long hair that fell to the showman's
shoulders and snipped a lock from it.

"You don't need to explain a thing to me, seh. I'm sure resting easy
in my mind. But as you were about to re-mark you're fair honin' for a
chance to ask the kid's pardon. Now, ain't I a mind reader, seh?"

A trembling voice stammered huskily an apology.

"Better late than too late. Now, I've a good mind to take a vote whether
I'd better unload the rest of the pills in this old reliable medicine
box at you. Mebbe I ought to pump one into that coyote heart of yours."

The fellow went livid. "My God, you wouldn't kill an unarmed man, would
you?"

For answer the ranger tossed the weapon on the table with a scornful
laugh and strode up to the other. The would-be bad man towered six
inches above him, and weighed half as much again. But O'Connor whirled
him round, propelled him forward to the door, and kicked him into the
street.

"I'd hate to waste a funeral on him," he said, as he sauntered back to
the boy at the table.

The lad was beginning to recover, though his breath still came with
a catch. His rag of a handkerchief was dabbing tears out of his eyes.
O'Connor noticed how soft his hands and how delicate his features.

"This kid ain't got any more business than a rabbit going around in
the show line with that big scoundrel. He's one of these gentle,
rock-me-to-sleep-mother kids that ought to stay in the home nest and
not go buttin' into this hard world. I'll bet a doughnut he's an orphan,
though."

Bucky had been brought up in the school of experience, where every
student keeps his own head or goes to the wall. All his short life he
had played a lone hand, as he would have phrased it. He had campaigned
in Cuba as a mere boy. He had ridden the range and held his own on the
hurricane deck of a bucking broncho. From cowpunching he had graduated
into the tough little body of territorial rangers at the head of which
was "Hurry Up" Millikan. This had brought him a large and turbulent
experience in the knack of taking care of himself under all
circumstances. Naturally, a man of this type, born and bred to the code
of the outdoors West, could not fail of a certain contempt for a boy
that broke down and cried when the game was going against him.

But Bucky's contempt was tolerant, after all. He could not deny his
sympathy to a youngster in trouble. Again he touched gently the lad's
crisp curls of burnished gold.

"Brace up, bub. The worst is yet to come," he laughed awkwardly. "I
reckon there's no use spillin' any more emotion over it. He ain't your
dad, is he?"

The lad's big brown eyes looked up into the serene blue ones and found
comfort in their strength. "No, he's my uncle--and my master."

"This is a free country, son. We don't have masters if we're good
Americans, though we all have to take orders from our superior officers.
You don't need to serve this fellow unless you want to. That's a cinch."

The boy's troubled eyes were filmed with reminiscent terror. "You don't
know him. He is terrible when he is angry," he murmured.

"I don't think it," returned Bucky contemptuously. "He's the worst
blowhard ever. Say the word and I'll run the piker out of town for you."

The boy whipped up the sleeve of the fancy Mexican jacket he wore and
showed a long scar on his arm. "He did that one day when he was angry at
me. He pretended to others that it was an accident, but I knew better.
This morning I begged him to let me leave him. He beat me, but he was
still mad; and when he took to drinking I was afraid he would work
himself up to stick me again with one of his knives."

Bucky looked at the scar in the soft, rounded arm and swept the boy with
a sudden puzzled glance that was not suspicion but wonder.

"How long have you been with him, kid?"

"Oh, for years. Ever since I was a little fellow. He took me after my
father and mother died of yellow fever in New Orleans. His wife hates me
too, but they have to have me in the show."

"Then I guess you had better quit their company. What's your name?"

"Frank Hardman. On the show bills I have all sorts of names."

"Well, Frank, how would you like to go to live on a ranch?"

"Where he wouldn't know I was?" whispered the boy eagerly.

"If you like. I know a ranch where you'd be right welcome."

"I would work. I would do anything I could. Really, I would try to pay
my way, and I don't eat much," Frank cried, his eyes as appealing as a
homeless puppy's.

Bucky smiled. "I expect they can stand all you eat without going to the
poorhouse. It's a bargain then. I'll take you out there to-morrow."

"You're so good to me. I never had anybody be so good before." Tears
stood in the big eyes and splashed over.

"Cut out the water works, kid. You want to take a brace and act like a
man," advised his new friend brusquely.

"I know. I know. If you knew what I have done maybe you wouldn't ask
me to go with you. I--I can't tell you anything more than that," the
youngster sobbed.

"Oh, well. What's the diff? You're making a new start to-day. Ain't that
right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Call me Bucky."

"Yes, sir. Bucky, I mean."

A hand fell on the ranger's shoulder and a voice in his ear. "Young man,
I want you."

The lieutenant whirled like a streak of lightning, finger on trigger
already. "I'll trouble you for yore warrant, seh," he retorted.

The man confronting him was the big cattleman who had entered the Silver
Dollar in time to see O'Connor's victory over the showman. Now he stood
serenely under Bucky's gun and laughed.

"Put up your .45, my friend. It's a peaceable conference I want with
you."

The level eyes of the young man fastened on those of the cattleman, and,
before he spoke again, were satisfied. For both of these men belonged to
the old West whose word is as good as its bond, that West which will go
the limit for a cause once under taken without any thought of retreat,
regardless of the odds or the letter of the law. Though they had never
met before, each knew at a glance the manner of man the other was.

"All right, seh. If you want me I reckon I'm here large as life," the
ranger said,

"We'll adjourn to the poker room upstairs then, Mr. O'Connor."

Bucky laid a hand on the shoulder of the boy. "This kid goes with me.
I'm keeping an eye on him for the present."

"My business is private, but I expect that can be arranged. We'll take
the inner room and let him have the outer."

"Good enough. Break trail, seh. Come along, Frank."

Having reached the poker room upstairs, that same private room which had
seen many a big game in its day between the big cattle kings and
mining men of the Southwest, Bucky's host ordered refreshments and then
unfolded his business.

"You don't know me, lieutenant, do you?"

"I haven't that pleasure, seh."

"I am Major Mackenzie's brother."

"Webb Mackenzie, who came from Texas last year and bought the Rocking
Chair Ranch?"

"The same."

"I'm right glad to meet you, seh."

"And I can say the same."

Webb Mackenzie was so distinctively a product of the West that no other
segment of the globe could have produced him. Big, raw-boned, tanned
to a leathery brick-brown, he was as much of the frontier as the ten
thousand cows he owned that ran the range on half as many hills and
draws. He stood six feet two and tipped the beam at two hundred twelve
pounds, not an ounce of which was superfluous flesh. Temperamentally,
he was frank, imperious, free-hearted, what men call a prince. He wore
a loose tailor-made suit of brown stuff and a broad-brimmed light-gray
Stetson. For the rest, you may see a hundred like him at the yearly
stock convention held in Denver, but you will never meet a man even
among them with a sounder heart or better disposition.

"I've got a story to tell you, Lieutenant O'Connor," he began. "I've
been meaning to see you and tell it ever since you made good in that
Fernendez matter. It wasn't your gameness. Anybody can be game. But it
looked to me like you were using the brains in the top of your head, and
that happens so seldom among law officers I wanted to have a talk with
you. Since yesterday I've been more anxious. For why? I got a letter
from my brother telling me Sheriff Collins showed him a locket he found
at the place of the T. P. Limited hold-up. That locket has in it a
photograph of my wife and little girl. For fifteen years I haven't seen
that picture. When I saw it last 'twas round my little baby's neck.
What's more, I haven't seen her in that time, either."

Mackenzie stopped, swallowed hard, and took a drink of water.

"You haven't seen your little girl in fifteen years," exclaimed Bucky.

"Haven't seen or heard of her. So far as I know she may not be alive
now. This locket is the first hint I have had since she was taken away,
the very first news of her that has reached me, and I don't know what
to make of that. One of the robbers must have been wearing it, the way I
figure it out. Where did he get it? That's what I want to know."

"Suppose you tell me the story, seh," suggested the ranger gently.

The cattleman offered O'Connor a cigar and lit one himself. For a minute
he puffed slowly at his Havana, leaning far back in his chair with eyes
reminiscent and half shut. Then he shook himself back into the present
and began his tale.

"I don't reckon you ever heard tell of Dave Henderson. It was back in
Texas I knew him, and he's been missing sixteen years come the eleventh
of next August. For fifteen years I haven't mentioned his name, because
Dave did me the dirtiest wrong that one man ever did another. Back in
the old days he and I used to trail together. We was awful thick, and
mostly hunted in couples. We began riding the same season back on
the old Kittredge Ranch, and we went in together for all the kinds of
spreeing that young fellows who are footloose are likely to do. Fact is,
we suited each other from the ground up. We frolicked round a-plenty,
like young colts will, and there was nothing on this green earth Dave
could have asked from me that I wouldn't have done for him. Nothing
except one, I reckon, and Dave never asked that of me."

Mackenzie puffed at his cigar a silent moment before resuming. "It
happened we both fell in love with the same girl, little Frances Clark,
of the Double T Ranch. Dave was a better looker than me and a more
taking fellow, but somehow Frances favored me from the start. Dave
stayed till the finish, and when he seen he had lost he stood up with
me at the wedding. We had agreed, you see, that whoever won it wasn't to
break up our friendship.

"Well, Frankie and I were married, and in course of time we had two
children. My boy, Tom, is the older. The other was a little girl, named
after her mother." The cattleman waited a moment to steady his voice,
and spoke through teeth set deep in his Havana. "I haven't seen her, as
I said, since she was two years and ten months old--not since the night
Dave disappeared."

Bucky looked up quickly with a question on his lips, but he did not need
to word it.

Mackenzie nodded. "Yes, Dave took her with him when he lit out across
the line for Mexico."

But I'll have to go back to something that happened earlier. About three
months before this time Dave and me were riding through a cut in the
Sierra Diablo Mountains, when we came on a Mexican who had been wounded
by the Apaches. I reckon we had come along just in time to scare them
off before they finished him. We did our best for him, but he died in
about two hours. Before dying, he made us a present of a map we found
in his breast pocket. It showed the location of a very rich mine he had
found, and as he had no near kin he turned it over to us to do with as
we pleased.

"Just then the round-up came on, and we were too busy to pay much
attention to the mine. Each of us would have trusted the other with his
life, or so I thought. But we cut the paper in half, each of us keeping
one part, in order that nobody else could steal the secret from the one
that held the paper. The last time I had been in El Paso I had bought my
little girl a gold chain with two lockets pendent. These lockets opened
by a secret spring, and in one of them I put my half of the map. It
seemed as safe a place as I could devise, for the chain never left the
child's neck, and nobody except her mother, Dave, and I knew that it was
placed there. Dave hid his half under a rock that was known to both of
us. The strange thing about the story is that my false friend, in the
hurry of his flight, forgot to take his section of the map with him. I
found it under the rock next day, so that his vile treachery availed him
nothing from a mercenary point of view."

"Didn't take his half of the map with him. That's right funny," Bucky
mused aloud.

"We never could understand why he didn't."

"Mebbe if you understood that a heap of things might be clear that are
dark now."

"Mebbe. Knowing Dave Henderson as I did, or, rather, as I thought I
did, such treachery as his was almost unbelievable. He was the sweetest,
sunniest soul I ever knew, and no two brothers could have been as fond
of each other as we seemed to be. But there was no chance of mistake. He
had gone, and taken our child with him, likely in accordance with a plan
of revenge long cherished by him. We never heard of him or the child
again. They disappeared as completely as if the earth had swallowed them
up. Our cook, too, left with him that evil night."

"Your cook?" It was the second comment Bucky had ventured, and it came
incisively. "What manner of man was he?"

"A huge, lumbering braggart. I could never understand why Dave took the
man with him."

"If he did."

"But I tell you he did. They disappeared the same night, and the trail
showed they went the same road. We followed them for about an hour next
day, but a heavy rain came up and blotted out the tracks."

"What was the cook's name?"

"Jeff Anderson."

"Have you a picture of him, or one of your friend?"

"Back at the ranch I had pictures of Dave, but I burned them after he
left. Yes, I reckon we have one of Anderson, standing in front of the
chuck wagon."

"Send it to me, please."

"All right."

The ranger asked a few questions that made clearer the situation on
the day of the kidnapping, and some more concerning Anderson, then fell
again into the role of a listener while Mackenzie concluded his story.

"All these years I have kept my eyes open, confident that at last I
would discover something that would help me to discover the whereabouts
of my child, or, at least, give me a chance to punish the scoundrel who
betrayed my confidence. Yesterday my brother's letter gave the first
clue we have had. I want that lead worked. Ferret this thing out to the
bottom, lieutenant. Get me something definite to go on. That's what I
want you to do. Run the thing to earth, get at the facts, and find
my child for me. I'll give you carte blanche up to a hundred thousand
dollars. All I ask of you is to make good. Find the little girl, or else
bring me face to face with that villain Henderson. Can you do it?"

O'Connor was strangely interested in this story of treachery and
mystery. He rose with shining eyes and held out his hand. "I don't know,
seh, but I'll try damned hard to do three things: find out what has
become of the little girl, of Dave Henderson, and of the scoundrel who
stole your baby because he thought the map was in the pocket."

"You mean that you don't think Dave--"

"That is exactly what I mean. Your cook, Anderson, kidnapped the child,
looks like to me. I saw that locket Collins found. My guess was that the
marks on the end of the chain were deep teeth marks. The man that stole
your baby tried first to cut the chain with his teeth so as to steal the
chain. You see, he could not find the clasp in the dark. Then the child
wakened and began to cry. He clapped a hand over its mouth and carried
the little girl out of the room. Then he heard somebody moving about,
lost his nerve, and jumped on the horse that was waiting, saddled, at
the door. He took the child along simply because he had to in order to
get the chain and the secret he thought it held."

"Perhaps; but that does not prove it was not Dave."

"It's contributory evidence, seh. Your friend could have slipped the
chain from her neck any day, or he could have opened the locket and
taken the map. No need for him to steal in at night. Do you happen to
remember whether your little girl had any particular aversion to the
cook?"

The cattleman's forehead frowned in thought. "I do remember, now, that
she was afraid of him. She always ran screaming to her mother when he
tried to be friendly with her. He was a sour sort of fellow."

"That helps out the case a heap, for it shows that he wanted to make
friends with her and she refused. He was thus forced to take the chain
when she was asleep instead of playing with her till he had discovered
the spring and could simply take the map."

"But he didn't know anything about the map. He was not in our
confidence."

"You and your friend talked it over evenings when he was at the ranch,
and other places, too, I expect."

"Yes, our talk kind of gravitated that way whenever we got together."

"Well, this fellow overheard you. That's probable, at least."

"But you're ignoring the important fact. Dave disappeared too that
night, with my little girl."

Bucky cut in sharply with a question. "Did he? How do you know he
disappeared WITH her? Why not AFTER? That's the theory my mind is
groping on just now."

"That's a blind trail to me. Why AFTER? And what difference does it
make?"

"All the difference in the world. If he left after the cook, you have
been doing him an injustice for fifteen years, seh."

Mackenzie leaned forward, excitement burning in his eyes. "Prove that,
young man, and I'll thank you to the last day of my life. It's for my
wife's sake more than my own I want my little girl back. She jes' pines
for her every day of her life. But for my friend--if you can give me
back the clean memory of Dave you'll have done a big thing for me, Mr.
O'Connor."

"It's only a working theory, but this is what I'm getting at. You and
Henderson had arranged to take an early start on a two days' deer hunt
next mo'ning. That's what you told me, isn't it?"

"We were to start about four. Yes, sir."

"Well, let's suppose a case. Along comes Dave before daybreak, when the
first hooters were beginning to call. Just as he reaches your ranch
he notices a horse slipping away in the darkness. Perhaps he hears
the little girl cry out. Anyhow, instead of turning in at the gate, he
decides to follow. Probably he isn't sure there's anything wrong, but
when he finds out how the horse he's after is burning the wind his
suspicions grow stronger. He settles down to a long chase. In the
darkness, we'll say, he loses his man, but when it gets lighter he picks
up the trail again. The tracks lead south, across the line into Mexico.
Still he keeps plodding on. The man in front sees him behind and gets
scared because he can't shake him off. Very likely he thinks it is you
on his track. Anyhow, while the child is asleep he waits in ambush, and
when Henderson rides up he shoots him down. Then he pushes on deeper
into Chihuahua, and proceeds to lose himself there by changing his
name."

"You think he murdered Dave?" The cattleman got up and began to pace up
and down the floor.

"I think it possible."

Webb Mackenzie's face was pallid, but there was a new light of hope
in it. "I believe you're right. God knows I hope so. That may sound a
horrible thing to say of my best friend, but if it has got to be one or
the other--if it is certain that my old bunkie came to his death
foully in Chihuahua while trying to save my baby, or is alive to-day,
a skulking coward and villain--with all my heart I hope he is dead." He
spoke with a passionate intensity which showed how much he had cared for
his early friend, and how much the latter's apparent treachery had cut
him. "I hope you'll never have a friend go back on you, Mr. O'Connor,
the one friend you would have banked on to a finish. Why, Dave Henderson
saved my life from a bunch of Apaches once when it was dollars to
doughnuts he would lose his own if he tried it. We were prospecting in
the Galiuros together, and one mo'ning when he went down to the creek
to water the hawsses he sighted three of the red devils edging up toward
the cabin. There might have been fifty of them there for all he knew,
and he had a clear run to the plains if he wanted to back one of the
ponies and take it. Most any man would have saved his own skin, but not
Dave. He hoofed it back to the cabin, under fire every foot of the
way, and together we made it so hot for them that they finally gave up
getting us. We were in the Texas Rangers together, and pulled each other
through a lot of close places. And then at the end--Why, it hurt me more
than it did losing my own little girl."

Bucky nodded. Since he was a man and not a father, he could understand
how the hurt would rankle year after year at the defalcation of his
comrade.

"That's another kink we have got to unravel in this tangle. First off,
there's your little girl, to find if she is still alive. Second, we must
locate Dave Henderson or his grave. Third, there's something due the
scoundrel who is responsible for this. Fourthly, brethren, there's that
map section to find. And lastly, we've got to find just how this story
you've told me got mixed with the story of the holdup of the Limited.
For it ce'tainly looks as if the two hang together. I take it that the
thing to do is to run down the gang that held up the Limited. Once we
do that, we ought to find the key to the mystery of your little girl's
disappearance. Or, at least, there is a chance we shall. And it's
chances we've got to gamble on in this thing."

"Good enough. I like the way you go at this. Already I feel a heap
better than I did."

"If the cards fall our way you're going to get this thing settled once
for all. I can't promise my news will be good news when I get it, but
anything will be better than the uncertainty you've been in, I take it,"
said Bucky, rising from his chair.

"You're right there. But, wait a moment. Let's drink to your success."

"I'm not much of a sport," Bucky smiled. "Fact is, I never drink, seh."

"Of course. I remember, now. You're the good bad man of the West,"
Mackenzie answered amiably. "Well, I drink to you. Here's good hunting,
lieutenant."

"Thank you."

"I suppose you'll get right at this thing?"

"I've got to take that kid in the next room out to my ranch first. I
won't stand for that knife thrower making a slave of him."

"What's the matter with me taking the boy out to the Rocking Chair with
me? My wife and I will see he's looked after till you return."

"That would be the best plan, if it won't trouble you too much. We'd
better keep his whereabouts quiet till this fellow Hardman is out of the
country."

"Yes, though I hardly think he'd be fool enough to show up at the
Rocking Chair. If my vaqueros met up with him prowling around they might
show him as warm a welcome as you did half an hour ago."

"A chapping would sure do him a heap of good," grinned Bucky, and so
dismissed the Champion of the World from his mind.





Next: Bucky Entertains

Previous: The Sheriff Introduces Himself



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