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A Touch Of The Third Degree







Part of: LUCK
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Cullison was not the man to acknowledge himself beaten so long as there
was a stone unturned. In the matter of the Del Oro homestead claim he
moved at once. All of the county commissioners were personal friends of
his, and he went to them with a plan for a new road to run across the Del
Oro at the point where the canyon walls opened to a valley.

"What in Mexico is the good of a county road there, Luck? Can't run a
wagon over them mountains and down to the river. Looks to me like it would
be a road from nowhere to nowhere," Alec Flandrau protested, puzzled at
his friend's request.

"I done guessed it," Yesler announced with a grin. "Run a county road
through, and Cass Fendrick can't fence the river off from Luck's cows.
Luck ain't aiming to run any wagon over that road."

The Map of Texas man got up and stamped with delight. "I get you. We'll
learn Cass to take a joke, by gum. Luck sure gets a county road for his
cows to amble over down to the water. Cass can have his darned old
homestead now."

When Fendrick heard that the commissioners had condemned a right of way
for a road through his homestead he unloaded on the desert air a rich
vocabulary. For here would have been a simple way out of his trouble if he
had only thought of it. Instead of which he had melodramatically kidnapped
his enemy and put himself within reach of the law and of Cullison's
vengeance.

Nor did Luck confine his efforts to self-defense. He knew that to convict
Fendrick of the robbery he must first lay hands upon Blackwell.

It was, however, Bucky that caught the convict. The two men met at the top
of a mountain pass. Blackwell, headed south, was slipping down toward
Stone's horse ranch when they came face to face. Before the bad man had
his revolver out, he found himself looking down the barrel of the ranger's
leveled rifle.

"I wouldn't," Bucky murmured genially.

"What you want me for?" Blackwell demanded sulkily.

"For the W. & S. robbery."

"I'm not the man you want. My name's Johnson."

"I'll put up with you till I find the man I do want, Mr. Johnson," Bucky
told him cheerfully. "Climb down from that horse. No, I wouldn't try that.
Keep your hands up."

With his prisoner in front of him, O'Connor turned townward. They jogged
down out of the hills through dark gulches and cactus-clad arroyos. The
sharp catclaw caught at their legs. Tangled mesquite and ironwood made
progress slow. They reached in time Apache Desert, and here Bucky camped.
He hobbled his prisoner's feet and put around his neck a rope, the other
end of which was tied to his own waist. Then he built a small fire of
greasewood and made coffee for them both. The prisoner slept, but his
captor did not. For he could take no chances of an escape.

The outlines of the mountain ranges loomed shadowy and dim on both sides.
The moonlight played strange tricks with the mesquit and the giant cactus,
a grove of which gave to the place an awesome aspect of some ghostly
burial ground of a long vanished tribe.

Next day they reached Saguache. Bucky took his prisoner straight to the
ranger's office and telephoned to Cullison.

"Don't I get anything to eat?" growled the convict while they waited.

"When I'm ready."

Bucky believed in fair play. The man had not eaten since last night. But
then neither had he. It happened that Bucky was tough as whipcord, as
supple and untiring as a hickory sapling. Well, Blackwell was a pretty
hard nut to crack, too. The lieutenant did not know anything about book
psychology, but he had observed that hunger and weariness try out the
stuff that is in a man. Under the sag of them many a will snaps that would
have held fast if sustained by a good dinner and a sound night's sleep.
This is why so many "bad men," gun fighters with a reputation for
gameness, wilt on occasion like whipped curs. In the old days this came to
nearly every terror of the border. Some day when he had a jumping
toothache, or when his nerves were frayed from a debauch, a silent
stranger walked into his presence, looked long and steadily into his eyes,
and ended forever his reign of lawlessness. Sometimes the two-gun man was
"planted," sometimes he subsided into innocuous peace henceforth.

The ranger had a shrewd instinct that the hour had come to batter down
this fellow's dogged resistance. Therefore he sent for Cullison, the man
whom the convict most feared.

The very look of the cattleman, with that grim, hard, capable aspect,
shook Blackwell's nerve.

"So you've got him, Bucky."

Luck looked the man over as he sat handcuffed beside the table and read in
his face both terror and a sly, dogged cunning. Once before the fellow had
been put through the third degree. Something of the sort he fearfully
expected now. Villainy is usually not consistent. This hulking bully
should have been a hardy ruffian. Instead, he shrank like a schoolgirl
from the thought of physical pain.

"Stand up," ordered Cullison quietly.

Blackwell got to his feet at once. He could not help it, even though the
fear in his eyes showed that he cowered before the anticipated attack.

"Don't hit me," he whined.

Luck knew the man sweated under the punishment his imagination called up,
and he understood human nature too well to end the suspense by making real
the vision. For then the worst would be past, since the actual is never
equal to what is expected.

"Well?" Luck watched him with the look of tempered steel in his hard
eyes.

The convict flinched, moistened his lips with his tongue, and spoke at
last.

"I--I--Mr. Cullison, I want to explain. Every man is liable to make a
mistake--go off half cocked. I didn't do right. That's a fac'. I can
explain all that, but I'm sick now--awful sick."

Cullison laughed harshly. "You'll be sicker soon."

"You promised you wouldn't do anything if we turned you loose," the man
plucked up courage to remind him.

"I promised the law wouldn't do anything. You'll understand the
distinction presently."

"Mr. Cullison, please---- I admit I done wrong. I hadn't ought to have
gone in with Cass Fendrick. He wanted me to kill you, but I wouldn't."

With that unwinking gaze the ranchman beat down his lies, while fear
dripped in perspiration from the pallid face of the prisoner.

Bucky had let Cullison take the center of the stage. He had observed a
growing distress mount and ride the victim. Now he stepped in to save the
man with an alternative at which Blackwell might be expected not to snatch
eagerly perhaps, but at least to be driven toward.

"This man is my prisoner, Mr. Cullison. From what I can make out you ought
to strip his hide off and hang it up to dry. But I've got first call on
him. If he comes through with the truth about the W. & S. Express robbery,
I've got to protect him."

Luck understood the ranger. They were both working toward the same end.
The immediate punishment of this criminal was not the important issue. It
was merely a club with which to beat him into submission, and at that a
moral rather than a physical one. But the owner of the Circle C knew
better than to yield to Bucky too easily. He fought the point out with him
at length, and finally yielded reluctantly, in such a way as to aggravate
rather than relieve the anxiety of the convict.

"All right. You take him first," he finally conceded harshly.

Bucky kept up the comedy. "I'll take him, Mr. Cullison. But if he tells me
the truth--and if I find out it's the whole truth--there'll be nothing
doing on your part. He's my prisoner. Understand that."

Metaphorically, Blackwell licked the hand of his protector. He was still
standing, but his attitude gave the effect of crouching.

"I aim to do what's right, Captain O'Connor. Whatever's right. You ask me
any questions."

"I want to know all about the W. & S. robbery, everything, from start to
finish."

"Honest, I wish I could tell you. But I don't know a thing about it. Cross
my heart, I don't."

"No use, Blackwell. If I'm going to stand by you against Mr. Cullison,
you'll have to tell the truth. Why, man, I've even got the mask you wore
and the cloth you cut it from."

"I reckon it must a-been some one else, Major. Wisht I could help you, but
I can't."

Bucky rose. "All right. If you can't help me, I can't help you."
Apparently he dismissed the matter from his mind, for he looked at his
watch and turned to the cattleman. "Mr. Cullison, I reckon I'll run out
and have some supper. Do you mind staying here with this man till I get
back?"

"No. That's all right, Bucky. Don't hurry, I'll keep him entertained."
Perhaps it was not by chance that his eye wandered to a blacksnake whip
hanging on the wall.

O'Connor sauntered to the door. The frightened gaze of the prisoner clung
to him as if for safety.

"Major--Colonel--you ain't a-going," he pleaded.

"Only for an hour or two. I'll be back. I wouldn't think of saying
good-by--not till we reach Yuma."

With that the door closed behind him. Blackwell cried out, hurriedly,
eagerly. "Mister O'Connor!"

Bucky's head reappeared. "What! Have you reduced me to the ranks already?
I was looking to be a general by the time I got back," he complained
whimsically.

"I--I'll tell you everything--every last thing. Mr. Cullison--he's aiming
to kill me soon as you've gone."

"I've got no time to fool away, Blackwell. I'm hungry. If you mean
business get to it. But remember that whatever you say will be used
against you."

"I'll tell you any dog-goned thing you want to know. You've got me beat.
I'm plumb wore out--sick. A man can't stand everything."

O'Connor came in and closed the door. "Let's have it, then--the whole
story. I want it all: how you came to know about this shipment of money,
how you pulled it off, what you have done with it, all the facts from
beginning to the end."

"Lemme sit down, Captain. I'm awful done up. I reckon while I was in the
hills I've been underfed."

"Sit down. There's a good dinner waiting for you at Clune's when you get
through."

Even then, though he must have known that lies could not avail, the man
sprinkled his story with them. The residuum of truth that remained after
these had been sifted out was something like this.

He had found on the street a letter that had inadvertently been dropped.
It was to Jordan of the Cattlemen's National Bank, and it notified him
that $20,000 was to be shipped to him by the W. & S. Express Company on
the night of the robbery. Blackwell resolved to have a try for it. He hung
around the office until the manager and the guard arrived from the train,
made his raid upon them, locked the door, and threw away his mask. He
dived with the satchel into the nearest alley, and came face to face with
the stranger whom he later learned to be Fendrick. The whole story of the
horse had been a myth later invented by the sheepman to scatter the
pursuit by making it appear that the robber had come from a distance. As
the street had been quite deserted at the time this detail could be
plausibly introduced with no chance of a denial.

Fendrick, who had heard the shouting of the men locked in the express
office, stopped the robber, but Blackwell broke away and ran down the
alley. The sheepman followed and caught him. After another scuffle the
convict again hammered himself free, but left behind the hand satchel
containing the spoils. Fendrick (so he later explained to Blackwell) tied
a cord to the handle of the bag and dropped it down the chute of a laundry
in such a way that it could later be drawn up. Then he hurried back to the
express office and released the prisoners. After the excitement had
subsided, he had returned for the money and hid it. The original robber
did not know where.

Blackwell's second meeting with the sheepman had been almost as startling
as the first. Cass had run into the Jack of Hearts in time to save the
life of his enemy. The two men recognized each other and entered into a
compact to abduct Cullison, for his share in which the older man was paid
one thousand dollars. The Mexican Dominguez had later appeared on the
scene, had helped guard the owner of the Circle C, and had assisted in
taking him to the hut in the Rincons where he had been secreted.

Both men asked the same question as soon as he had finished.

"Where is the money you got from the raid on the W. & S. office?"

"Don't know. I've been at Fendrick ever since to tell me. He's got it
salted somewhere. You're fixing to put me behind the bars, and he's the
man that really stole it."

From this they could not shake him. He stuck to it vindictively, for
plainly his malice against the sheepman was great. The latter had spoiled
his coup, robbed him of its fruits, and now was letting him go to prison.

"I reckon we'd better have a talk with Cass," Bucky suggested in a low
voice to the former sheriff.

Luck laughed significantly. "When we find him."

For the sheepman had got out on bail the morning after his arrest.

"We'll find him easily enough. And I rather think he'll have a good
explanation, even if this fellow's story is true."

"Oh, he'll be loaded with explanations. I don't doubt that for a minute.
But it will take a hell of a lot of talk to get away from the facts. I've
got him where I want him now, and by God! I'll make him squeal before the
finish."

"Oh, well, you're prejudiced," Bucky told him with an amiable smile.

"Course I am; prejudiced as old Wall-eyed Rogers was against the
vigilantes for hanging him on account of horse stealing. But I'll back my
prejudices all the same. We'll see I'm right, Bucky."





Next: Bob Takes A Hand

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