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A Dastard's Blow








From: Hidden Gold

At about the time when Rexhill was freeing Moran from his bonds, Wade
and Santry, with rifles slung across their backs were tramping the banks
of Piah Creek. In the rocky canyon, which they finally reached, the
placid little stream narrowed into a roaring torrent, which rushed
between the steep banks and the huge, water-worn bowlders, with fury
uncontrolled.

Neither of the cattlemen greatly feared the coming of a second posse, at
least immediately, but for the sake of prudence, they went armed and
kept a careful watch. Wade mounted guard while Santry, who in his
younger days had prospected in California, squatted over a sandy,
rock-rimmed pool and deftly "washed out" a pan of gravel. One glance at
the fine, yellow residue in the bottom of the pan decided him. With a
triumphant yell that echoed and reechoed through the gorge, he sprang to
his feet.

"Whoop-e-e-e! I've struck it!" he shouted excitedly, as Wade ran up to
him. "Look there!" The old man held out a small handful of the yellow
dust.

Wade drew a long breath.

"Gold! It's true, then!"

"You betcher, and it's the richest pay-dirt I ever met up with. No
wonder Moran has been willin' to do murder to get a-holt of this land.
You're a rich man, boy; a millionaire, I reckon."

"You mean that we are rich, Bill." The younger man spoke slowly and
emphatically. "Whatever comes out of here"--he waved his hand toward the
creek--"is one-half yours. I decided on that long ago. Never mind asking
me why." He clapped Santry on the back. "It's because we're partners in
fact, if not in name. Because you've stuck with me through all the lean
years. That's reason enough."

The old plainsman carefully emptied the dust back into the pan before he
said anything.

"Have you gone clean crazy?" he finally demanded. "Givin' away a fortune
like it was the makin's of a cigareet? If you have, I ain't. This
stuff's yourn. I'm not sayin' that I won't take a ounce or two, maybe,
of this here dust, for old times' sake, if you offer it to me, but
that's all." His wrinkled face twisted into a grin. "You'll be needin'
it all one o' these days to pay for your honeymoonin', if I read the
signs right. Ain't that so, son?" He laughed softly as Wade flushed.
"Shake, boy! Put 'er there! I wish you all the luck that's comin' to any
white man, by the great horned toad, I do!"

During the whole of the morning they examined the creek bed and they
found signs of the yellow metal almost everywhere. At one point, Wade
broke a knob of rock from the face of the cliff, the under surface of
which was seamed and streaked with golden veins. Santry could scarcely
restrain himself; usually taciturn, he was for once as light-hearted and
joyous as a boy. But on the way back to the ranch-house he became
serious.

"Say, ain't the bulk of that lode on that forty-acre tract that you took
up as a timber claim?" he asked.

"Yes," Wade answered. "That is, I think so. We can run over the lines
this afternoon and make sure."

"I reckon we'd better make sure, and if it is, you'll have to lay low
until you get your deed. Your homestead rights might be hard to claim
now that there's mineral in the ground. Moran'll most likely keep his
mouth shut for reasons of his own, and he may not know about your not
havin' proved up yet, but some other jasper might get wise."

"I don't think any one around here would contest my right to the land,
Bill," Wade replied thoughtfully. "Still, as you say, we'd better be
careful. The gold will keep. We haven't heard the last of Moran and his
crowd yet, not by a jugful." He chuckled grimly. "I wonder if anybody's
cut him loose yet."

"I reckon they have, boy. He'll keep monkeyin' around this territory
until he meets up with some feller like me, with a bad temper and a
quick gun hand, who'll make him good the same way we useter make good
Injuns. Hullo, steady!"

Although they were now in sight of the house and the men hanging about
it for the noon-day meal, Santry had not relaxed his caution and his
eyes had picked out two moving dots in the distance, which presently
developed into galloping horses. He smiled instantly.

"Can't be nobody lookin' for trouble," he observed, and presently his
eyes twinkled. "Take a good look, boy. I reckon you know one of 'em,
anyhow."

The horses came on rapidly, until upon the foremost of them Wade could
see the fluttering skirt of a woman, while the other he recognized as
belonging to Lem Trowbridge even before he could clearly make out the
rider.

"Tell the cook we'll have company to dinner," Wade called to Santry as
he untied a horse from the hitching rack near the barn and rode off to
meet the newcomers.

With fine prescience, Trowbridge, when he saw him ride toward them, drew
his horse down to a walk, and so was discreetly in the rear when Dorothy
and Wade met.

"Mighty glad to see you," he greeted her, "but that goes without
saying."

"Thanks," she responded, hoping that he would attribute the heightened
color of her cheeks to the exertion of the ride. "We thought we'd ride
out to see how you were getting along."

Despite her blush, that had come at the recollection of his kiss the
night before, she still looked him straight in the eyes, but with a
sweet humility, an attitude of surrender, which he understood and which
touched him. There was nothing bold about her look, but an engaging
womanliness, which would have appealed to any decent man, even while it
stirred his pulse. She wore a wide felt hat, from beneath the brim of
which her hair floated, shaken out of its moorings by the jolting of
her gallop. A flannel blouse, which was most becoming, and a divided
skirt completed a sensible costume, which seemed to Wade more attractive
than any he had ever seen in the East. She rode with the straight
stirrups of the cattle country, and sat her mount with the grace of a
born horsewoman.

"What's happened to Moran?" he asked, waving his hat to Trowbridge, as
the latter rode toward them.

"He's out and around again. I saw him this morning. He was an awful
sight. You must keep your eyes open, Gordon, really you must. He'll be
more dangerous than ever now."

"Oh, I guess we've clipped his claws for a while," he said lightly,
unwilling that she should be anxious for his safety, sweet though he
found her sympathy to be. "Hello, Lem!"

"Hello, yourself!" They shook hands, the firm handclasp of strong men,
and then all three rode on together to the house.

After dinner, the plainness of which meant nothing to such appetites as
their out-door living had aroused, they sat on the porch, the men over
their cigarettes and Dorothy quite content in the contemplation of the
sweetness which her heart had found.

"How are things going on your place, Lem?" asked Wade.

"Badly, Gordon. That's one reason I rode over to see you. Have you heard
about the fight on my range? You haven't?"

"I didn't have time last night to tell him," Dorothy interposed.

"A number of my boys got into a shooting affray with some herders,"
Trowbridge explained. "Two of the boys were hurt and one of the herders,
I understand, was badly shot."

"Too bad," Wade commented. "Confound it, Lem, what are these fellows
thinking of? They must know that our patience won't last always, and
when it breaks we're ten to their one."

"Well,"--Trowbridge deftly flecked his cigarette stub over the porch
railing,--"I'm through now, Gordon. I've given my men orders to stand
for no more nonsense. I've told them to shoot at the drop of the hat,
and I'll stand behind 'em, law or no law. The next time there's trouble,
and it's likely to come any hour, I'm going to lead my outfit into a
fight that'll be some fight, believe me. And I'm not going to quit until
every sheep man in the county is headed East on the run."

"We'll be with you," Wade said heartily. "Tip us the word and we'll be
right after you."

Trowbridge nodded.

"I'll take you up on that, Gordon. Not that we need help, you
understand, but because it'll be best for us to present a united front
in this business. United, we stand; divided, we fall; that's the word,
eh?"

Dorothy leaned forward, with an anxious look.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I hope neither one of you will get shot."

Trowbridge made her a bow from his chair.

"We'll try not to," he said mockingly, and she was obliged to join in
the general laugh.

"If you feel that you ought to do it, of course you will--fight, I
mean," she said, helplessly. "But I think it's dreadful, all the same."

"What has Thomas done about me?" Wade asked. "I understand that he's
holding quite a bunch of warrants up his sleeve?"

"I don't think he's done anything, and I don't believe he's anxious to,"
Trowbridge answered. "He's shown some courage, that fellow, in the past,
but I always thought he had a yellow streak in him somewhere. I don't
think you need fear him much."

"Well, I'm glad to know that, not that I've been very uneasy, but we've
had to keep a pretty close look-out here, and it's doubled us up
uncomfortably. I want to go out to my timber claim this afternoon, and
but for what you've said, I know Bill would insist on going along. Now I
can leave him here to attend to his work."

Dorothy was opposed to the idea and she said so, but her opinion was
overridden by the two men. Trowbridge declared that there was absolutely
nothing to fear from Sheriff Thomas, at least immediately.

"I'm positive of that," he summed up. "If there was any new move on
foot, I'd have heard of it."

"That may be," Dorothy argued, "but you know Senator Rexhill is behind
him to urge him on."

"That's another man we ought to run out of this neighborhood,"
Trowbridge declared. "The only trouble is that the old fox has laid so
low that we haven't anything definite on him. We can suspect all we
like; but when it comes right down to facts, he has us guessing. We
can't prove a thing against him, and he's too big game to flush without
powder. Well, we'd better be off."

"Stay a while," Wade urged. "It's early yet. I didn't mean to hurry you
when I spoke of going out to the claim. I've got plenty of time."

"I haven't told him about the gold," Dorothy whispered, as he helped her
into her saddle. "I thought you might want to keep it quiet for the
present."

"Sure, we'll tell him," he said, pressing her hand. "We're all on the
same side in this business."

He explained his good fortune to Trowbridge, who was delighted and
enthusiastic over the prospect of the vein impinging upon his own range.

"Well, that is some luck, eh?" Trowbridge skillfully managed his
horse, which was high-spirited enough to still be sportive in spite of
the long ride of the morning. "Every cloud's got a silver lining, as the
poet says. And another thing, it shows Rexhill's real motive, don't
forget that. Oh, we'll get 'em by and by. Sure thing, we will. Well, so
long."

"So long, Lem! Call on us when you want us."

"Good-by!" Dorothy waved to him as the horses sped away in the direction
of Crawling Water.

Wade watched them out of sight, and then entered the house to tell
Santry that he would not be needed on the afternoon trip to the timber
claim. The old man growled a little at the idea of Wade going alone,
but he finally gave in.

"I'll take my gun and keep my eye peeled," his employer promised. "If I
can't stand off trouble until I get home, or you can get to me, I'll
lose my bet. You've got your work to do, Bill. If you're going to nurse
me all the time, I'll have to get another foreman to run the crew."

He rode away, then, toward the foothills, confident of his ability to
look after himself in case of trouble. There was nothing in the peaceful
aspect of the range to suggest an enemy, but he kept his rifle ready and
his ears and eyes open. Once he paused abruptly when a rabbit jumped out
of a clump of quaking-aspens, a hundred yards ahead, only to chuckle at
his own overcaution.

The sun, which was still high, was shining as only a Wyoming sun can
shine, from out of a blue-vaulted canopy, flecked with fleecy clouds.
Swinging from the tops of the sagebrush, or an occasional cottonwood,
yellow-breasted meadowlarks were singing sweetly. At intervals a flock
of curlews circled above the rider, uttering their sharp, plaintive
cries; then they would drop to the ground and run rapidly to and fro on
their frail, stilt-like legs, their long ungainly bills darting from
side to side in search of food.

Over the plains, from which Wade now turned, hundreds of red and white
cattle, their hides as sleek as velvet, were grazing, singly and in
scattered groups, as far as the eye could see. Toward its mouth, the
valley was spotted with many fenced alfalfa fields, and traversed by
irrigation ditches; while to the right, in the direction in which Wade
now rode, rose the timber belt. A fresh, soft breeze, fragrant with the
odor of clean, damp earth, rustled the leaves of the cottonwoods, some
of which were of enormous size, as the horseman pushed his way farther
into the shadow of the mountains.

After a careful scrutiny, which satisfied him that the vicinity harbored
no enemies, he dismounted, but still actuated by caution, kept the
bridle reins looped over his wrist, as he searched for further evidence
of gold. Unlike Santry, the ranchman was not trained in the ways of
prospecting, and he began to regret that he had not allowed the foreman
to accompany him. He followed what he thought were promising signs
deeper into the silence of the tall timber, and finally dropped on his
knees to make sure of some outcroppings of quartz near the base of a
huge bowlder. He was so crouched when a sudden movement of his horse
warned him of danger; but he had not time to arise before a crushing
blow on the head, delivered from behind, shook him to the very marrow of
his spine. With a low groan, he toppled over onto his face, senseless.

"Have you got him?" Moran peered around the side of the bowlder, and
smiled exultantly when he saw Wade's still figure. "Throw him across
your saddle," he commanded, "and follow me."





Next: The First Clew

Previous: Into The Depths



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