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A Prison








From: 'drag' Harlan

Barbara Morgan had not been able to sleep except by fits and starts. A
dozen times during the night she had caught herself on the verge of
sinking into deep slumber, and each time she had got up and washed her
eyes with some water from a pitcher on the bureau, determined that she
would not take any chances of permitting Deveny to surprise her.

When the dawn came she was haggard and tired; and she got up listlessly,
combed her hair, and washed her face, and dragged away the pieces of
furniture that had formed the barricade at the door.

She felt more secure with the dawn, and when the sunlight began to stream
into the east windows she opened the door of the room, descended the
stairs, and took a short walk to the edge of town.

Returning, she saw a man arrayed in overalls, boots, a blue woolen shirt,
and broad felt hat, standing in the doorway of the stable that, she felt,
belonged to the Eating-House. Sight of the stable brought to her thoughts
of her horse--Billy--and she decided to determine if the man who had
taken charge of him had put him into the stable.

She paused before the door, directly in front of the man, who did not
move aside to permit her to enter.

She thought at first that he was not aware of her desire--until she
observed an amused light in his eyes; and then she knew that he was
purposely barring her way.

"This is the Eating-House stable, I suppose?" she inquired quietly.

"You're supposin' is a heap correct, ma'am," grinned the man.

"Well," she said, "if you will kindly step aside I shall see if my horse
is all right."

"Your horse is all right, ma'am," returned the man. "I've just fed him."

Irritated by his attitude, she spoke sharply:

"Step aside, please; I am going into the stable!"

The man grinned widely. "It's ag'in' orders, ma'am; you'll have to stay
out."

"Whose orders?"

"Deveny's. You ain't to go into the stable."

She hesitated, afflicted with a queer sensation of weakness and
indecision.

It was her fear of Deveny, she supposed, that made her feel that way,
together with the conviction that Deveny must have known that she had
been in the room next to the one he had taken, even before he had
ascended the stairs. It seemed to her that this deliberate interference
with her must be inspired by evil intentions, and for an instant panic
overtook her.

Then, yielding to the flash of anger that surged over her, she drew the
small revolver she always carried with her on her rides, and presented
it. She stepped back a little, so that the man might not strike the
weapon from her hand, and spoke shortly, commandingly to him.

"Get away from that door!"

"Shootin', ma'am?" he drawled. "Oh, don't!"

He grinned at her and calmly began to roll a cigarette, at which action
she gulped with dismay, wheeled swiftly, and walked to the stairs. She
went up proudly enough, her head held high, for she divined that the man
would be watching her. But when she entered her room her pride forsook
her, and she sank into a chair by the east window, dismayed and
frightened.

While she sat there the slatternly woman slowly opened the door and stuck
her head in. She grinned widely at Barbara.

"Goin' ridin' this mawnin', deary?"

Barbara looked at her, saw the mockery in the jealous eyes, and turned
her head again, making no reply.

"Too stuck up to talk, eh?" jibed the slattern. "Well, before you get out
of here you'll be tickled enough to shoot off your gab. Bah! You an' your
airs! If you want any grub this mawnin' you'll come down an' grab it
yourself, I'm tellin' you that."

She slammed the door, her jeering laugh penetrating the partition with
hideous resonance.

After the woman had gone Barbara got up, her lips set in resolute lines.

Once in the hall she started to walk toward the stairs, when she saw the
cowboy of the stable lounging against the rail on the platform. He saw
her at the instant she looked at him, and he grinned hugely.

"I reckon you've noticed I've sort of shifted," he said. "I keep goin'
up--gettin' higher in the world."

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"Just loafin', I reckon," grinned the other. "An' obeyin' orders," he
added instantly. "Much as I hate to disconvenience a lady, I ain't takin'
no chances on rilin' Deveny."

"Do you mean that Deveny placed you here to watch me?"

"He didn't issue no particular orders as to where I was to do my
standin'. But he was sure earnest about sayin' that you wasn't to leave
your room."

"I left it once this morning."

"My fault," he grinned. "I was sneakin' a drink in the Antler, an' you
slipped me. I'm bettin' it don't happen ag'in!"

Overcome with a cold terror that suddenly seized her, Barbara wheeled and
re-entered her room, standing for an instant at the door as she locked
it, and then walking to the chair and sinking nervelessly into it.

Somehow, she sensed the futility of further effort at escape. She was
aware of Deveny's power in the country; she knew that he ruled Lamo as he
ruled every foot of land in the section; and she was convinced that it
would be wasted effort to call for help. Even her own sex--represented by
the slattern, and most of the women in Lamo were of that type, in
character--seemed to be antagonistic toward her. It seemed to her that
they would mock her as the slattern had mocked her, should she appeal to
them.

And as for the men of Lamo, they were not to be considered. She was
certain she could not induce one of them to act contrary to Deveny's
wishes. For her father had told her about Lamo's men--how they were
slaves to the will of the man whose deeds of outlawry had made him feared
wherever men congregated; and she knew Lamo itself was a sink-hole of
iniquity where women were swallowed by the evil passions of men.

She might have appealed to Gage, the sheriff, and she thought of Gage
while she sat at the window. But Gage, her father had told her, with
disgust in his eyes, was a man of colorless personality and of little
courage--a negligible character upon whom the good people of the section,
who were pitifully few, could not depend. Her father had told her that it
was his opinion that Gage, too, was a slave to Deveny's will.

She wished now that she had not yielded to the impulse which had brought
her to Lamo; but her lips grew firm and her eyes defiant as she at last
got up and walked to one of the front windows.

Now, more vividly than ever, could she understand the significance of
Deveny's glances at her in the past; the light in his eyes had been an
expression of premeditated evil, awaiting an opportunity.

She was pale, and her hands were trembling as she placed them on the sill
of the front window and glanced down into the street, hoping that she
might see a friendly face; praying that one of the Rancho Seco men might
have come to town during the night.

But she saw no one she knew. Indeed, except for a pony standing in front
of a saloon down the street a little distance, and several others hitched
to a rail across the street, in front of the First Chance saloon, Lamo
seemed to be deserted. And a silence, deep and portentous of evil, seemed
to have settled over the town.

But as she leaned upon the sill a sound floated to her through the open
window--a man's voice, so close to her that it made her start and
stiffen. It was Deveny's voice, and it seemed to come from a point in the
street directly beneath the window.

"Did you find Gage?" it said.

Barbara leaned forward a little and looked downward. Below her, on the
narrow board-walk that ran in front of the Eating-House, were four men.
She recognized three of them--Deveny, Strom Rogers, and Meeder Lawson,
the Rancho Seco foreman.

The other man was a stranger. Evidently it was the stranger to whom
Deveny had spoken, for it was the stranger who answered.

"He's in his office now."

Deveny turned to Lawson and Rogers. "You two wait here, Laskar and myself
will do the talking to Gage." He started away with the man who had
answered him; then called back over his shoulder: "Hang around; if
there's trouble, you'll want to get in on it."

Deveny and Laskar walked down the street; the girl saw them enter the
building occupied by the sheriff.

Wondering, intensely curious--for that word "trouble" meant shooting in
the vocabulary of men of the Deveny type--Barbara drew back until she was
certain the men in the street could not see her.

When Deveny and Laskar disappeared, Strom Rogers laughed sneeringly:

"Deveny's scared of 'Drag' Harlan, I reckon. It's a cheap frame-up."

"Aw, hell," jibed the other; "you're jealous, that's all. You'd like to
see Harlan plug Deveny, eh; so's you'd have a chance with Barbara Morgan.
I'd be a heap careful, if I was you, Rogers. Deveny knows you took a
shine to Barbara Morgan. I seen him lookin' hostile at you when you was
quizzin' him in Balleau's. He's next."

"This is a free country," returned Rogers. The girl caught the malignant
note in his voice, and she leaned outward a little, trying to see his
face, while she shivered with dread.

"Yes," laughed Lawson; "a man can cash in without any excuse, usual; all
he's got to do is to cross Deveny. You're a damned fool, Strom, to go to
takin' a shine to Barbara Morgan, when Deveny wants her. He's been
waitin' for her, an' meanin' to have her, all along. He's only been
waitin' until ol' Morgan cashed in, so's he'd have a chance to take her.
Now that Morgan's dead his chance has come."

Silently, her face dead white, her eyes closed, Barbara slipped backward
and crumpled into a heap on the dirty carpet of the room.

When she again opened her eyes it was to look wildly at the open window
through which the terrible news had come. Then she dragged herself to it,
and making no sound leaned her arms on the sill and listened again, her
heart seeming to be in the clutch of icy fingers, her brain atrophied,
reeling in a chaos of incoherent, agonized impulses.

She did not know how long she had been unconscious. She saw that Rogers
and Lawson were still below, and still talking. So keen was her sense of
hearing--every nerve straining in the effort to learn more--that the
voices of the men came in through the window with a resonance that, she
felt, must be audible to every person in Lamo.

"It ain't my style, that's all. I'd meet Harlan on the level, man to man,
if he was lookin' for me. It's likely he ain't at that. I've heard, bad
as he is, that he plays square. An' if I was runnin' things I'd take a
look at him before chargin' him with killin' Lane Morgan, when the
killin' had been done by the Chief, an' Dolver, an' Laskar."

It was Strom Rogers' voice. It bore conviction with it, even though there
was passionate feeling behind it, mingled strangely with personal hatred
and jealousy.

Dumbly, Barbara clutched the window-sill. One dry, agonized sob racked
her; and then she sat on the floor, to stare vacantly at the dingy walls
of the room.

Once more she heard Rogers' voice; this time there was a note of savage
glee in it:

"There's Harlan now, just slippin' off his cayuse in front of Gage's
place. 'Drag,' eh? Well, there don't seem to be nothin' impedin' his
actions anywhere."

Prompted by the urge of a curiosity that she could not resist, Barbara
reeled to her feet, and with her hands resting on the window-sill leaned
out and looked up the street.

In front of the sheriff's office, not more than thirty or forty feet
distant, she saw a tall, well-built man standing beside the hitching rail
that fringed the board sidewalk. He had evidently just dismounted, and he
was standing at the head of a big, coal-black horse. He was in the act of
hitching the animal, and his back was toward her.

She watched breathlessly until he turned. And then she stared hard at
him, noting the steady, cold, alert eyes; the firm lips; the bigness of
him, the atmosphere of capableness that seemed to surround him; the
low-swung guns at his hips, with no flaps on the holster-tops, and the
bottoms of the holsters tied to his leather chaps with rawhide thongs.

Never had she seen a man like him. For some reason, as yet inexplicable
to her, he brought into her troubled consciousness a feeling of cold
calm, a refreshing influence that might be compared to the sweep of a
cool and unexpected breeze in the middle of a hot day.

He dominated the group of men that instantly surrounded him; and the
dominance was not of attire, for he was arrayed like the others. She saw
Deveny standing near him, and the man Laskar behind Deveny and Sheriff
Gage and several other men. And she saw Rogers and Lawson as they walked
slowly toward him.

And then a realization of her loss, of the tragedy that had descended
upon her, again assailed her; and a fury of intolerance against inaction
seized her. She could not stay in this room and suffer the hideous
uncertainty; she could not take Rogers' word that her father had been
killed. There must be some mistake. Perhaps Rogers knew she was at the
window, listening, and he had said that just to spite her. For she had
discouraged Rogers' advances as she had discouraged Deveny's.

Breathing fast, she unlocked the door and went out into the hall.

The man whom Deveny had placed to guard her was still lounging on the
stair platform, and he grinned when he saw her.

"Comin' to try ag'in?" he grinned.

She smiled--a disarming smile that brought a fatuous gleam into the man's
eyes, so that he permitted her to come close to him.

"Deveny's got damn' good judgment," he said as she halted near him. "He
knows a thoroughbred when he sees--Hell!"

The ejaculation came from his lips as Barbara leaped swiftly past him. He
threw out a futile arm, and stood for an instant, shocked into inaction
as Barbara ran down the stairs toward the street. Then the man leaped
after her, cursing. She could hear him saying: "Damn your hide! Damn your
hide!" as he came after her, his spurs jangling on the steps.





Next: Chain-lightning

Previous: His Shadow Before



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