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A Crossed Trail

From: Brand Blotters

The tenderfoot rose from the ledge upon which he had been lying and
stretched himself stiffly. The chill of the long night had set him
shivering. His bones ached from the pressure of his body upon the rock
where he had slept and waked and dozed again with troubled dreams. The
sharpness of his hunger made him light-headed. Thirst tortured him. His
throat was a lime-kiln, his tongue swollen till it filled his mouth.

If the night had been bad, he knew the day would be a hundred times worse.
Already a gray light was sifting into the hollow of the sky. The vague
misty outlines of the mountains were growing sharper. Soon from a crotch
of them would rise a red hot cannon ball to pour its heat into the parched

He was headed for the Sonora line, for the hills where he had heard a man
might drop out of sight of the civilization that had once known him. There
were reasons why he had started in a hurry, without a horse or food or a
canteen, and these same reasons held good why he could not follow beaten
tracks. All yesterday he had traveled without sighting a ranch or meeting
a human being. But he knew he must get to water soon--if he were to reach
it at all.

A light breeze was stirring, and on it there was borne to him a faint
rumble as of thunder. Instantly the man came to a rigid alertness. Thunder
might mean rain, and rain would be salvation. But the sound did not die
away. Instead, it deepened to a steady roar, growing every instant louder.
His startled glance swept the canyon that drove like a sword cleft into the
hills. Pouring down it, with the rush of a tidal wave, came a wall of
cattle, a thousand backs tossing up and down as the swell of a troubled
sea. Though he had never seen one before, the man on the lip of the gulch
knew that he was watching a cattle stampede. Under the impact of the
galloping hoofs the ground upon which he stood quaked.

A cry diverted his attention. From the bed of the sandy wash a man had
started up and was running for his life toward the canyon walls. Before he
had taken half a dozen steps the avalanche was upon him, had cut him down,
swept over him.

The thud of the hoofs died away. Into the open desert the stampede had
passed. A huddled mass lay motionless on the sand in the track of the

A long ragged breath whistled through the closed lips of the tenderfoot.
He ran along the edge of the rock wall till he found a descent less sharp,
lowered himself by means of jutting quartz and mesquit cropping out from
the crevices, and so came through a little draw to the canyon.

He dropped on a knee beside the sprawling, huddled figure. No second
glance was needed to see that the man was dead. Life had been trampled out
of him almost instantly and his features battered beyond any possible
recognition. Unused to scenes of violence, the stranger stooping over him
felt suddenly sick. It made him shudder to remember that if he could have
found a way down in the darkness he, too, would have slept in the warm
sand of the dry wash. If he had, the fate of this man would have been

Under the doubled body was a canteen. The trembling fingers of the
tenderfoot unscrewed the cork. Tipping the vessel, he drank avidly. One
swallow, a second, then a few trickling drops. The canteen had been almost

Uncovering, he stood bareheaded before the inert body and spoke gently in
the low, soft voice one instinctively uses in the presence of the dead.

"Friend, I couldn't save your life, but your water has saved mine, I
reckon. Anyhow, it gives me another chance to fight for it. I wish I could
do something for you ... carry a message to your folks and tell them how
it happened."

He dropped down again beside the dead man and rifled the pockets. In them
he found two letters addressed in an illiterate hand to James Diller,
Cananea, Sonora, Mexico. An idea flashed into his brain and for a moment
held him motionless while he worked it out. Why not? This man was about
his size, dressed much like him, and so mutilated that identification was

From his own pocket he took a leather bill book and a monogrammed
cigarcase. With a sharp stone he scarred the former. The metal case he
crushed out of shape beneath the heel of his boot. Having first taken one
twenty dollar yellowback from the well-padded book, he slipped it and the
cigarcase into the inner coat pocket of the dead man. Irregularly in a
dozen places he gashed with his knife the derby hat he was wearing, ripped
the band half loose, dragged it in the dust, and jumped on it till the hat
was flat as a pancake. Finally he kicked it into the sand a dozen yards

"The cattle would get it tangled in their hoofs and drag it that far with
them," he surmised.

The soft gray hat of the dead man he himself appropriated. Again he spoke
to the lifeless body, lowering his voice to a murmur.

"I reckon you wouldn't grudge me this if you knew. I'm up against it. If I
get out of these hills alive I'll be lucky. But if I do--well, it won't do
you any harm to be mistaken for me, and it will accommodate me mightily. I
hate to leave you here alone, but it's what I've got to do to save

He turned away and plodded up the dry creek bed.

* * * * *

The sun was at the meridian when three heavily armed riders drew up at the
mouth of the canyon. They fell into the restful, negligent postures of
horsemen accustomed to take their ease in the saddle.

"Do you figure maybe he's working up to the headwaters of Dry Sandy?" one

A squat, bandy-legged man with a face of tanned leather presently
answered. "No, Tim, I expect not. The way I size him up Mr. Richard
Bellamy wouldn't know Dry Sandy from an irrigation ditch. Mr. R. B. hopes
he's hittin' the high spots for Sonora, but he ain't anyways sure. Right
about now he's ridin' the grub line, unless he's made a strike

The third member of the party, a lean, wide-shouldered, sinewy youth, blue
silk kerchief knotted loosely around his neck, broke in with a gesture
that swept the sky. "Funny about all them buzzards. What are they doing
here, sheriff?"

The squat man opened his mouth to answer, but Tim took the word out of his

"Look!" His arm had shot straight out toward the canyon. A coyote was
disappearing on the lope. "Something lying there in the wash at the bend,

Sheriff Burke slid his rifle from its scabbard. "We'll not take any
chances, boys. Spread out far as you can. Tim, ride close to the left
wall. You keep along the right one, Flatray. Me, I'll take the center.
That's right."

They rode forward cautiously. Once Flatray spoke.

"By the tracks there has been a lot of cattle down here on the jump

"That's what," Tim agreed.

Flatray swung from his saddle and stooped over the body lying at the bend
of the wash.

"Crushed to death in a cattle stampede, looks like," he called to the

"Search him, Jack," the sheriff ordered.

The young man gave an exclamation of surprise. He was standing with a
cigarcase in one hand and a billbook in the other. "It's the man we're
after--it's Bellamy."

Burke left his horse and came forward. "How do you know?"

"Initials on the cigarcase, R. B. Same monogram on the billbook."

The sheriff had stooped to pick up a battered hat as he moved toward the
deputy. Now he showed the initials stamped on the sweat band. "R. B. here,

"Suit of gray clothes, derby hat, size and weight about medium. We'll
never know about the scar on the eyebrow, but I guess Mr. Bellamy is
identified without that."

"Must have camped here last night and while he was asleep the cattle
stampeded down the canyon," Tim hazarded.

"That guess is as good as any. They ce'tainly stomped the life out of him
thorough. Anyhow, Bellamy has met up with his punishment. We'll have to
pack the body back to town, boys," the sheriff told them.

Half an hour later the party filed out to the creosote flats and struck
across country toward Mesa. Flatray was riding pillion behind Tim. His own
horse was being used as a pack saddle.

Next: Brand Blotting

Previous: Blizzard's Charge

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