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Cutting Trail







Part of: LUCK
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Kate Cullison had disappeared, had gone out riding one morning and at
nightfall had not returned. As the hours passed, anxiety at the Circle C
became greater.

"Mebbe she got lost," Bob suggested.

Her father scouted this as absurd. "Lost nothing. You couldn't lose her
within forty miles of the ranch. She knows this country like a cow does
the range. And say she was lost--all she would have to do would be to give
that pinto his head and he'd hit a bee line for home. No, nor she ain't
had an accident either, unless it included the pony too."

"You don't reckon a cougar----," began Sweeney, and stopped.

Luck looked at his bandy-legged old rider with eyes in which little cold
devils sparkled. "A human cougar, I'll bet. This time I'll take his hide
off inch by inch while he's still living."

"You thinking of Fendrick?" asked Sam.

"You've said it."

Sweeney considered, rasping his stubbly chin. "I don't reckon Cass would
do Miss Kate a meanness. He's a white man, say the worst of him. But it
might be Blackwell. When last seen he was heading into the hills. If he
met her----"

A spasm of pain shot across Luck's face. "My God! That would be awful."

"By Gum, there he is now, Luck." Sweeney's finger pointed to an advancing
rider.

Cullison swung as on a pivot in time to see someone drop into the dip in
the road, just beyond the corral. "Who--Blackwell?"

"No. Cass."

Fendrick reappeared presently and turned in at the lane. Cullison,
standing on the porch at the head of the steps looked like a man who was
passing through the inferno. But he looked too a personified day of
judgment untempered by mercy. His eyes bored like steel gimlets into those
of his enemy.

The sheepman spoke, looking straight at his foe. "I've just heard the
news. I was down at Yesler's ranch when you 'phoned asking if they had
seen anything of Miss Cullison. I came up to ask you one question. When
was she seen last?"

"About ten o'clock this morning. Why?"

"I saw her about noon. She was on Mesa Verde, headed for Blue Canyon
looked like."

"Close enough to speak to her?" Sam asked.

"Yes. We passed the time of day."

"And then?" Luck cut back into the conversation with a voice like a file.

"She went on toward the gulch and I kept on to the ranch. The last I saw
of her she was going straight on."

"And you haven't seen her since?"

The manner of the questioner startled Fendrick. "God, man, you don't think
I'm in this, do you?"

"If you are you'd better blow your brains out before I learn it. And if
you're trying to lead me on a false scent----" Luck stopped. Words failed
him, but his iron jaw clamped like a vice.

Fendrick spoke quietly. "I'm willing. In the meantime we'd better travel
over toward Mesa Verde, so as to be ready to start at daybreak."

Cullison's gaze had never left him. It observed, weighed, appraised. "Good
enough. We'll start."

He left Sweeney to answer the telephone while he was away. All of his
other riders were already out combing the hills under supervision of
Curly. Luck had waited with Sam only to get some definite information
before starting. Now he had his lead. Fendrick was either telling the
truth or he was lying with some sinister purpose in view. The cattleman
meant to know which.

Morning breaks early in Arizona. By the time they had come to the spot
where the sheepman said he had met Kate gray streaks were already
lightening the sky. The party moved forward slowly toward the canyon,
spreading out so as to cover as much ground as possible. Before they
reached its mouth the darkness had lifted enough to show the track of a
horse in the sand.

They pushed up the gulch as rapidly as they could. The ashes of a camp
fire halted them a few minutes later. Scattered about lay the feathers and
dismembered bones of some birds.

Cass stooped and picked up some of the feathers. "Quails, I reckon. Miss
Cullison had three tied to her saddle horn when I met her."

"Why did she come up here to cook them?" Sam asked.

Luck was already off his horse, quartering over the ground to read what it
might tell him.

"She wasn't alone. There was a man with her. See these tracks."

It was Fendrick who made the next discovery. He had followed a draw for a
short distance and climbed to a little mesa above. Presently he called to
Cullison.

Father and son hurried toward him. The sheep-owner was standing at the
edge of a prospect hole pointing down with his finger.

"Someone has been in that pit recently, and he's been there several
days."

"Then how did he get out?" Sam asked.

Fendrick knelt on the edge of the pit and showed him where a rope had been
dragged so heavily that it had cut deeply into the clay.

"Someone pulled him out."

"What's it mean anyhow? Kate wasn't in that hole, was she?"

Cass shook his head. "This is my guess. Someone was coming along here in
the dark and fell in. Suppose Miss Cullison heard him calling as she came
up the gulch. What would she do?"

"Come up and help the fellow out."

"Sure she would. And if he was hungry--as he likely was--she would cook
her quail for him."

"And then? Why didn't she come home?"

Luck turned a gray agonized face on him. "Boy, don't you see? The man was
Blackwell."

"And if you'll put yourself in Blackwell's place you'll see that he
couldn't let her go home to tell where she had seen him," Fendrick
explained.

"Then where is she? What did he do with her?"

There came a moment's heavy silence. The pale face of the boy turned from
the sheepman to his father. "You don't think that--that----"

"No, I don't," Cass answered. "But let's look this thing squarely in the
face. There were three things he could do with her. First, he might leave
her in the pit. He didn't do that because he hadn't the nerve. She might
be found soon and set the hunters on his track. Or she might die in that
hole and he be captured later with her pinto. I know him. He always plays
a waiting game when he can. Takes no chances if he can help it."

"You think he took her with him then," Luck said.

"Yes. There's a third possibility. He may have shot her when he got a good
chance, but I don't think so. He would keep her for a hostage as long as
he could."

"That's the way I figure it," agreed Cullison. "He daren't hurt her, for
he would know Arizona would hunt him down like a wolf if he did."

"Then where's he taking her?" Sam asked.

"Somewhere into the hills. He knows every pocket of them. His idea will be
to slip down and cut across the line into Sonora. He's a rotten bad lot,
but he won't do her any harm unless he's pushed to the wall. The fear of
Luck Cullison is in his heart."

"That's about it," nodded Luck. "He's somewhere in these hills unless he's
broken through. Bolt 'phoned me that one of his posse came on the ashes of
a camp fire still warm. They're closing in on him. He's got to get food or
starve, unless he can break through."

"There's a chance he'll make for one of my sheep camps to lay in a supply.
Wouldn't it be a good idea to keep a man stationed at each one of them?"

"You're talking sense," Cullison approved. "Sam, ride back and get in
touch with Curly. Tell him to do that. And rouse the whole country over
the wire. We'll run him down and feed him to the coyotes."





Next: A Good Samaritan

Previous: The Prodigal Son



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