Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


Baffled But Still Dangerous








From: Hidden Gold

When Trowbridge left Dorothy Purnell, promising to find his friend for
her sake, he had assumed a confidence that he was far from feeling. No
man knew the country thereabout any better than he did, and he realized
that there was, at best, only a meager chance of trailing the miscreant
who had succeeded in trapping his victim somewhere in the mountains. A
weaker man would have paused in dismay at the hopelessness of the task
he had undertaken, but Lem Trowbridge was neither weak nor capable of
feeling dismay, or of acknowledging hopelessness. Time enough for all
that after he should have failed. In the meantime it was up to him to
follow Moran. He had learned from Santry of the place where Wade was
stricken down, but how far from there, or in what direction he had been
taken, was a matter of conjecture only, and the only way to learn was to
trail the party that had undoubtedly carried the helpless man away
perhaps to his death, but possibly, and more probably, to hold him
captive.

Desperate as he knew Moran to be, he did not believe that the immediate
murder of Gordon Wade was planned. That would be poor strategy and Moran
was too shrewd to strike in that fashion.

It seemed clear enough that parley of some sort was intended but knowing
both Wade and Moran as he did, Trowbridge realized that in order to be
of any assistance, he must be on the spot without delay. He had planned
rapidly and he now acted rapidly.

One of his men was stationed at the big pine, as he had told Dorothy,
but all the others in his employ rode with him as swiftly as the best
horses on his ranch could carry them, to the spot Santry had told him
of. There they found unmistakable traces of half a dozen or more horses,
besides the footprints of Wade's mount, and a brief examination was
enough to show which way the party had gone. Undoubtedly they had taken
Wade with them, so the pursuing party followed.

It was one thing to follow, however, and another thing to overtake.
Moran was better versed in the intricacies of big cities than in those
of the wilderness, but he was shrewd enough to realize that Wade's
friends would start an instant search, as soon as they should miss the
ranchman, and it was no part of his plans to be taken by surprise.

Therefore, as soon as he had had his victim thrown into the prison from
which escape seemed impossible, Moran selected a camp site nearby, from
which he had a view of the surrounding country for miles around in every
direction, and scanning the horizon carefully after his vain attempt to
intimidate Wade, he saw Trowbridge's party approaching, while they were
still half a dozen miles away.

His first thought was to stay where he was and give battle. In this he
would have had a good chance of victory, for, by opening fire on
Trowbridge and his followers as they came up, he could undoubtedly have
picked off three or four of them before they reached him, and so secured
odds in his own favor, if it should come to an immediate encounter.

Second thought, however, showed him the folly of such a course. There
was too much remaining for him to do, and the temporary advantage he
might gain would not compensate him for the havoc it would make in his
ultimate designs. He therefore called Goat Neale aside and said:
"There's a party of Wade's friends coming up from the East, looking for
him, and I've got to lead them away. You stay here, but keep in hiding
and take care that nobody learns where Wade is. He'll live for a few
days without grub and I'll come back and tend to his case after I've got
this party going round in circles.

"You stay, and the rest of us will all ride off to the north, and
they'll think we have Wade with us, so they'll follow us, but we'll lose
them somewhere on the way. Sabe?"

Neale demurred at first to the plan, but consented willingly enough when
Moran promised him extra pay; so he stayed, and we already know the
result. Moran, however, followed out his plans successfully enough, and
before night he reached Crawling Water in safety, while Trowbridge,
getting word through one of his scouts of Wade's rescue, abandoned the
pursuit. He had been prepared to shoot Moran down at sight, but he was
ready enough to leave that work to the man who had a better claim to
the privilege than he had.

Accordingly Moran had ridden into town, exhausted by the exertions of
his trip, and had slept for twelve hours before thinking of anything
else. When he learned on awakening of all that had happened during his
absence, he was furious with rage. Tug Bailey had been arrested and was
on his way to Crawling Water in custody. Senator Rexhill and Helen had
taken an Eastward-bound train without leaving any word for him, and to
crown it all, he presently learned that Neale had been shot and Wade had
been found, and that the whole countryside was aflame with indignation.

It was characteristic of the man that even in this emergency he had no
thought of following his cowardly accomplice in flight. It might be
hopeless to stay and fight, but he was a fighting man, and he really
exulted in the thought of the inevitable struggle that was coming.

Sitting alone in his office studying the situation, he felt the need of
liquor even more strongly than usual, though the habit had grown on him
of late, and accordingly he drank again and again, increasing his rage
thereby, but getting little help towards a solution of his difficulties.

He was enraged most of all at Wade's escape from Coyote Springs and was
still puzzled to think how this had happened, for Senator Rexhill in
leaving had kept his own counsel on that point, and Moran did not dream
of his having betrayed the secret.

Not only had the ranchman been able to turn another trick in the game
by escaping, but he had also evaded Moran's intended vengeance, for the
latter had had no thought of letting his prisoner go alive. He had meant
first to secure Wade's signature, and then to make away with him so
cleverly as to escape conviction for the act.

He realized now, when it was too late, that he had acted too
deliberately in that matter, and he was sorry for it. He considered the
departure of the Rexhills a cowardly defection. He was furious to think
that Helen had refused to listen to him while she stayed, or to say
good-by to him before leaving. The sting of these various reflections
led him to take further pull at a silver flask which he kept in his
pocket, and which bore the inscription, "To Race Moran from his friends
of the Murray Hill Club."

"So," he muttered, chewing his mustache, "that's what I get for sticking
to Rexhill." Leaning back in his swivel chair, he put his feet up on the
desk and hooked his fingers in the arm-holes of his vest. "Well, I ain't
ready to run yet, not by a jugful."

In his decision to remain, however, he was actuated by a desire to close
with Wade, and not by any enthusiasm for the cause of the hired rascals
who were so loudly singing his praise. They were not cowards, nor was
he, but he had had too much experience with such people to be deluded
into believing that, when the showdown came, they would think of
anything but their own precious skins. He had heard rumors of the
activity of the cattlemen but he discounted such rumors because of many
false alarms in the past. He would not be frightened off; he determined
to remain until there was an actual clash of arms, in the hope that
events would so work out as to allow him a chance to get back, and
severely, at Wade.

He got to his feet and rolled about the room, like a boozy sailor,
puffing out volumes of smoke and muttering beneath his breath. When he
had worked off some of his agitation, the big fellow seated himself
again, shrugged his massive shoulders, and lapsed into an alcoholic
reverie. He was applying his inflamed brain to the problem of vengeance,
when hurried footsteps on the stairs aroused him. Going to the door, he
flung it open and peered out into the dimly lighted hallway.

"Hello, Jed!" he exclaimed, upon finding that the newcomer was one of
his "heelers." "What d'you want? Hic!" He straightened up with a
ludicrous assumption of gravity.

"The night riders! They've...." The man was breathless and visibly
panic-stricken.

"Riders? Hic! What riders?" Moran growled. "Out with it, you
jelly-fish!"

"The ranchers--the cattlemen--they've entered the town: they're on the
warpath. Already a lot of our fellows have been shot up."

"The hell they have! How long ago? Where?"

"Other end of town. Must be two hundred or more. I hustled down here to
put you wise to the play."

"Thanks!" said Moran laconically. "You're headed in the right direction,
keep going!"

But the man lingered, while Moran, as lightly as a cat, despite his
great bulk and the liquor he carried, sprang to the nearest window. Far
up the street, he could distinguish a huddled mass, pierced by flashes
of fire, which he took to be horsemen; as he watched, he heard scattered
shots and a faint sound of yelling. The one hasty glance told him all
that he needed to know; he had not thought this move would come so soon,
but luck seemed to be against him all around. Something of a fatalist,
in the final analysis, he no longer wasted time in anger or regrets. He
was not particularly alarmed, and would not have been so could he have
known the truth, that the yelling he had heard marked the passing of Tug
Bailey, who had confessed but had made his confession too late to please
the crowd, which had him in its power. Nevertheless, Moran realized that
there was no time now to form his men into anything like organized
resistance. The enemy had caught him napping, and the jig was up. He had
seen the vigilantes work before, and he knew that if he intended to save
his own skin he must act quickly. When he turned from the window, short
though the interval had been, he had formed a plan of escape.

"They've brought every man they could rake up," Jed added. "I reckon
they've combed every ranch in the county to start this thing."

Moran looked up quickly, struck by the significance of the remark. If it
were true, and it probably was, then Wade's ranch also would be
deserted. He half opened his mouth, as though to confide in his
companion, when he evidently concluded to keep his own counsel.

"All right," he said simply. "I guess there's still plenty of time. I've
got a good horse at the lower end of the street. Take care of yourself.
So long!"

The man clattered down the stairs, and Moran turned to his desk, from
which he took some papers and a roll of money, which he stuffed into his
pockets. In the hallway he paused for a moment to examine a wicked
looking revolver, which he took from his hip pocket; for, contrary to
the custom of the country, he did not wear his gun openly in a holster.
Convinced that the weapon was in good working order, he walked calmly
down to the street, sobered completely by this sudden call on his
reserve powers.

His horse, a large, rawboned gray, was where he had left it, and shaking
his fist in the direction of the vigilantes, he mounted and rode off. He
meant to make a wide detour and then work back again to the Double Arrow
range. If the ranch were really deserted, he meant to fire the
buildings, before attempting his escape. Such a revenge would be a
trifle compared to that which he had planned, but it would be better
than nothing, while one more offense would not lengthen his term in jail
any, if he were caught afterward. He felt in his pocket for the whiskey
flask, and swore when he found it missing. He wanted the liquor, but he
wanted the flask more, for its associations; he drew rein and thought of
returning to search for it, but realizing the folly of this, he pressed
on again.

The round-about way he took was necessarily a long one and the ride
entirely sobered him, except for a crawling sensation in his brain, as
though ants were swarming there, which always harassed him after a
debauch. At such times he was more dangerous than when under the first
influence of whiskey. It was close upon noon, and the silvery sagebrush
was shimmering beneath the direct rays of the sun, when he rode his
lathered horse out of a cottonwood grove to gaze, from the edge of a
deep draw, at Wade's ranch buildings. That very morning a gaunt, gray
timber-wolf had peered forth at almost the same point; and despite
Moran's bulk, there was a hint of a weird likeness between man and beast
in the furtive suspicious survey they made of the premises. The wolf had
finally turned back toward the mountains, but Moran advanced. Although
he was reasonably certain that the place was deserted, a degree of
caution, acquired overnight, led him first to assure himself of the
fact. He tied his horse to a fence post and stealthily approached the
house to enter by the back door.

Dorothy was alone in the building, for her mother had gone with the
overly confident Barker to pick blackberries, and the Chinese cook was
temporarily absent. The girl was making a bed, when the door swung open,
and she turned with a bright greeting, thinking that her mother had
returned. When she saw Moran leering at her, the color fled from her
cheeks, in a panic of fright which left her unable to speak or move. She
was looking very pretty and dainty in a cool, fresh gown, which fitted
her neatly, and her sleeves were rolled up over her shapely forearms,
for the task of housekeeping which she had assumed. In her innocent way,
she would have stirred the sentiment in any man, and to the inflamed
brute before her she seemed all the more delectable because helpless.
Here was a revenge beyond Moran's wildest dreams. To her he appeared the
incarnation of evil, disheveled, mud-splashed and sweaty, as his puffed
and blood-shot eyes feasted on her attractiveness.

"Good morning!" He came into the room and closed the door. "I didn't
expect to find you, but since you're here, I'll stop long enough to
return your visit of the other night. That's courteous, ain't it?"

Dorothy gulped down the lump in her throat, but made no reply. Realizing
the importance of a show of bravery, she was fighting to conquer her
panic.

"You're sure a good-looking kid," he went on, trying to approach her;
but she put the width of the bed between him and herself. "Each time I
see you, you're better looking than you were the last time. Say, that
last time, we were talking some about a kiss, weren't we, when we were
interrupted?"

"Mr. Wade may come in at any moment," Dorothy lied desperately, having
found her tongue at last. "You'd better not let him find you here."

"I shouldn't mind," Moran said nonchalantly. "Fact is, on my way out of
the country, I thought I'd pay a farewell call on my good friend, Wade.
I'm real sorry he ain't here--and then again I'm not. I'll--I'll leave
my visiting card for him, anyhow." He chuckled, a nasty, throaty,
mirthless chuckle that sent chills up and down the girl's spine. "Say,
what's the matter with giving me that kiss now? There's nobody around to
interrupt us this time."

Dorothy shuddered, for already she had divined what was in his mind. The
avid gleam in his eyes had warned her that he would not restrain himself
for long, and summoning all her strength and courage, she prepared to
meet the fearful crisis she must face.

"Will you please go?"

"No!" Moran chuckled again, and stepped toward her. "Will you come to me
now, or shall I go after you?"

"You brute! You coward!" she cried, when she found herself, after a
desperate struggle, held firmly in his grasp.

She screamed, then, at the top of her lung power until his hand fell
firmly across her mouth, and she could only struggle with the mad
strength of desperation. Her muscles could offer him no effective
resistance, although for a moment the sudden fury of her attack drove
him back, big though he was; but it was only for a moment. It gave her a
chance to scream once more; then, closing in upon her, he seized her
again in his ape-like embrace. She fought like a cornered wild-cat, but
slowly and surely he was bending her to his will. Her nails were leaving
raw marks upon him, until the blood ran down his face, and presently
catching between her teeth one of the fingers of the hand which gagged
her, she bit it so fiercely that he cried out in pain.

"Curse you, you little she-devil," he grunted savagely. "I'll make you
pay twice for that!"

"Gordon! Oh, come to me! Quick! Quick!"

Quivering all over, she sank on her knees before the brute who
confronted her, a figure of distress that must have appealed to the
heart of any man above the level of a beast. But in the heat of passion
and rage, Moran had lost kinship with even the beasts themselves. Lust
burned in his eyes and twisted his features horribly as he seized her
again, exhausted by the brave struggle she had made, and all but
helpless in his grasp.

"Gordon! Mother! Barker! Save me! Oh, my God!"





Next: The Storm Bursts

Previous: A Rescue And A Vigilance Committee



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 453