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An Escape And A Capture







Part of: DEAD MAN'S CACHE
From: Brand Blotters

Far up in the mountains, in that section where head the Roaring Fork, One
Horse Creek, and the Del Oro, is a vast tract of wild, untraveled country
known vaguely as the Bad Lands. Somewhere among the thousand and one
canyons which cleft the huddled hills lay hidden Dead Man's Cache. Here
Black MacQueen retreated on those rare occasions when the pursuit grew hot
on his tracks. So the current report ran.

Whether the abductors of Simon West were to be found in the Cache or at
some other nest in the almost inaccessible ridges Jack Flatray had no
means of knowing. His plan was to follow the Roaring Fork almost to its
headquarters, and there establish a base for his hunt. It might take him a
week to flush his game. It might take a month. He clamped his bulldog jaw
to see the thing out to a finish.

Jack did not make the mistake of underestimating his job. He had followed
the trail of bad men often enough to know that, in a frontier country, no
hunt is so desperate as the man-hunt. Such men are never easily taken,
even if they do not have all the advantage in the deadly game of hide and
seek that is played in the timber and the pockets of the hills.

And here the odds all lay with the hunted. They knew every ravine and
gulch. Day by day their scout looked down from mountain ledges to watch
the progress of the posse.

Moreover, Flatray could never tell at what moment his covey might be
startled from its run. The greatest vigilance was necessary to make sure
his own party would not be ambushed. Yet slowly he combed the arroyos and
the ridges, drawing always closer to that net of gulches in which he knew
Dead Man's Cache must be located.

During the day the sheriff split his party into couples. Bellamy and Alan
McKinstra, Farnum and Charlie Hymer, young Yarnell and the sheriff. So
Jack had divided his posse, thus leaving at the head of each detail one
old and wise head. Each night the parties met at the rendezvous appointed
for the wranglers with the pack horses. From sunrise to sunset often no
face was seen other than those of their own outfit. Sometimes a solitary
sheep herder was discovered at his post. Always the work was hard,
discouraging, and apparently futile. But the young sheriff never thought
of quitting.

The provisions gave out. Jack sent back Hal Yarnell and Hegler, the
wrangler, to bring in a fresh supply. Meanwhile the young sheriff took a
big chance and scouted alone. He parted from the young Arkansan at the
head of a gulch which twisted snakelike into the mountains; Yarnell and
the pack outfit to ride to Mammoth, Flatray to dive still deeper into the
mesh of hills. He had the instinct of the scout to stick to the high
places as much as he could. Whenever it was possible he followed ridges,
so that no spy could look down upon him as he traveled. Sometimes the
contour of the country drove him into the open or down into hollows. But
in such places he advanced with the swift stealth of an Indian.

It was on one of these occasions, when he had been driven into a dark and
narrow canyon, that he came to a sudden halt. He was looking at an empty
tomato can. Swinging down from his saddle, he picked it up without
dismounting. A little juice dripped from the can to the ground.

Flatray needed no explanation. In Arizona men on the range often carry a
can of tomatoes instead of a water canteen. Nothing alleviates thirst like
the juice of this acid fruit. Some one had opened this can within two
hours. Otherwise the sun would have dried the moisture.

Jack took his rifle from its place beneath his legs and set it across the
saddle in front of him. Very carefully he continued on his way, watching
every rock and bush ahead of him. Here and there in the sand were printed
the signs of a horse going in the same direction as his.

Up and down, in and out of a maze of crooked paths, working by ever so
devious a way higher into the chain of mountains, Jack followed his
leader. Now he would lose the hoofmarks; now he would pick them up again.
And, at the last, they brought him to the rim of a basin, a bowl of wooded
ravines, of twisted ridges, of bleak spurs jutting into late pastures
almost green. It was now past sunset. Dusk was filtering down from the
blue peaks. As he looked a star peeped out low on the horizon.

But was it a star? He glimpsed it between trees. The conviction grew on
him that what he saw was the light of a lamp. A tangle of rough country
lay between him and that beacon, but there before him lay his destination.
At last he had found his way into Dead Man's Cache.

The sheriff lost no time, for he knew that if he should get lost in the
darkness on one of these forest slopes he might wander all night. A rough
trail led him down into the basin. Now he would lose sight of the light.
Half an hour later, pushing to the summit of a hill, he might find it.
After a time there twinkled a second beside the first. He was getting
close to a settlement of some kind.

Below him in the darkness lay a stretch of open meadow rising to the
wooded foothills. Behind these a wall of rugged mountains encircled the
valley like a gigantic crooked arm. Already he could make out faintly the
outlines of the huddled buildings.

Slipping from his horse, Jack went forward cautiously on foot. He was
still a hundred yards from the nearest hut when dogs bayed warning of his
approach. He waited, rifle in hand. No sign of human life showed except
the two lights shining from as many windows. Flatray counted four other
cabins as dark as Egypt.

Very slowly he crept forward, always with one eye to his retreat. Why did
nobody answer the barking of the dogs? Was he being watched all the time?
But how could he be, since he was completely cloaked in darkness?

So at last he came to the nearest cabin, crept to the window, and looked
in. A man lay on a bed. His hands and feet were securely tied and a second
rope wound round so as to bind him to the bunk.

Flatray tapped softly on a pane. Instantly the head of the bound man
slewed round.

"Friend?"

The prisoner asked it ever so gently, but the sheriff heard.

"Yes."

"The top part of the window is open. You can crawl over, I reckon."

Jack climbed on the sill and from it through the window. Almost before he
reached the floor his knife was out and he was slashing at the ropes.

"Better put the light out, pardner," suggested the man he was freeing,
and the officer noticed that there was no tremor in the cool, steady
voice.

"That's right. We'd make a fine mark through the window."

And the light went out.

"I'm Bucky O'Connor. Who are you?"

"Jack Flatray."

They spoke together in whispers. Though both were keyed to the highest
pitch of excitement they were as steady as eight-day clocks. O'Connor
stretched his limbs, flexing them this way and that, so that he might have
perfect control of them. He worked especially over the forearm and fingers
of his right arm.

Flatray handed him a revolver.

"Whenever you're ready, Lieutenant."

"All right. It's the cabin next to this."

They climbed out of the window noiselessly and crept to the next hut. The
door was locked, the window closed.

"We've got to smash the window. Nothing else for it," Flatray whispered.

"Looks like it. That means we'll have to shoot our way out."

With the butt of his rifle the sheriff shattered the woodwork of the
window, driving the whole frame into the room.

"What is it?" a frightened voice demanded.

"Friends, Mr. West. Just a minute."

It took them scarce longer than that to free him and to get him into the
open. A Mexican woman came screaming out of an adjoining cabin.

The young men caught each an arm of the capitalist and hurried him
forward.

"Hell'll be popping in a minute," Flatray explained.

But they reached the shelter of the underbrush without a shot having been
fired. Nor had a single man appeared to dispute their escape.

"Looks like most of the family is away from home to-night," Bucky
hazarded.

"Maybe so, but they're liable to drop in any minute. We'll keep covering
ground."

They circled round toward the sheriff's horse. As soon as they reached it
West, still stiff from want of circulation in his cramped limbs, was
boosted into the saddle.

"It's going to be a good deal of a guess to find our way out of the
Cache," Jack explained. "Even in the daytime it would take a 'Pache, but
at night--well, here's hoping the luck's good."

They found it not so good as they had hoped. For hours they wandered in
mesquit, dragged themselves through cactus, crossed washes, and climbed
hills.

"This will never do. We'd better give it up till daylight. We're not
getting anywhere," the sheriff suggested.

They did as he advised. As soon as a faint gray sifted into the sky they
were on the move again. But whichever way they climbed it was always to
come up against steep cliffs too precipitous to be scaled.

The ranger officer pointed to a notch beyond a cowbacked hill. "I wouldn't
be sure, but it looks like that was the way they brought me into the
Cache. I could tell if I were up there. What's the matter with my going
ahead and settling the thing? If I'm right I'll come back and let you
know."

Jack looked at West. The railroad man was tired and drawn. He was not used
to galloping over the hills all night.

"All right. We'll be here when you come back," Flatray said, and flung
himself on the ground.

West followed his example.

It must have been half an hour later that Flatray heard a twig snap under
an approaching foot. He had been scanning the valley with his glasses,
having given West instructions to keep a lookout in the rear. He swung his
head round sharply, and with it his rifle.

"You're covered, you fool," cried the man who was strutting toward them.

"Stop there. Not another step," Flatray called sharply.

The man stopped, his rifle half raised. "We've got you on every side,
man." He lifted his voice. "Jeff--Hank--Steve! Let him know you're
alive."

Three guns cracked and kicked up the dust close to the sheriff.

"What do you want with us?" Flatray asked, sparring for time.

"Drop your gun. If you don't we'll riddle you both."

West spoke to Jack promptly. "Do as he says. It's MacQueen."

Flatray hesitated. He could kill MacQueen probably, but almost certainly
he and West would pay the penalty. He reluctantly put his rifle down. "All
right. It's your call."

"Where's O'Connor?"

The sheriff looked straight at him. "Haven't you enough of us for one
gather?"

The outlaws were closing in on them cautiously.

"Not without that smart man hunter. Where is he?"

"I don't know."

"The devil you don't."

"We separated early this morning--thought it would give us a better chance
for a getaway." Jack gave a sudden exclamation of surprise. "So it was
Black MacQueen himself who posed as O'Connor down at Mesa."

"Guessed it right, my friend. And I'll tell you one thing: you've made the
mistake of your life butting into Dead Man's Cache. Your missing friend
O'Connor was due to hand in his checks to-day. Since you've taken his
place it will be you that crosses the divide, Mr. Sheriff. You'd better
tell where he is, for if we don't get Mr. Bucky it will be God help J.
Flatray."

The dapper little villain exuded a smug, complacent cruelty. It was no use
for the sheriff to remind himself that such things weren't done nowadays,
that the times of Geronimo and the Apache Kid were past forever. Black
MacQueen would go the limit in deviltry if he set his mind to it.

Yet Flatray answered easily, without any perceptible hesitation: "I reckon
I'll play my hand and let Bucky play his."

"Suits me if it does you. Jeff, collect that hardware. Now, while you boys
beat up the hills for O'Connor, I'll trail back to camp with these two
all-night picnickers."





Next: A Bargain

Previous: Trapped!



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