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Exit The King








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

They bedded that night under the great vault-roof where twinkle a
million stars.

There were three of the outlaw's men with him, and both Mcwilliams and
his friend noticed that they slept a little apart from their chief.
There were other indications among the rustlers of a camp divided
against itself. Bannister's orders to them he contrived to make an
insult, and their obedience was as surly as possible compatible with
safety. For all of the men knew that he would not hesitate to shoot them
down in one of his violent rages should they anger him sufficiently.

Throughout the night there was no time that at least two men were not
awake in the camp. The foreman and the sheepman took turns keeping
vigil; and on the other side of the fire sat one of the rustlers in
silent watchfulness. To the man opposite him each of the sentinels were
outposts of the enemy, but they fraternized after the manner of army
sentries, exchanging tobacco and occasional casual conversation.

The foreman took the first turn, and opposite him sat a one-eyed old
scoundrel who had rustle calves from big outfits ever since Wyoming was
a territory and long before. Chalkeye Dave, he was called, and sometimes
merely Chalkeye. What his real name was no man knew. Nor was his past a
subject for conversation in his presence. It was known that he had been
in the Nevada penitentiary, and that he had killed a man in Arizona, but
these details of an active life were rarely resurrected. For Chalkeye
was deadly on the shoot, and was ready for it at the drop of the
hat, though he had his good points too. One of these was a remarkable
fondness for another member of the party, a mere lad, called by his
companions Hughie. Generally surly and morose, to such a degree that
even his chief was careful to humor him as a rule, when with Hughie all
the softer elements of his character came to the surface. In his rough
way he was ever humorous and genial.

Jim McWilliams found him neither, however. He declined to engage in
conversation, accepted a proffer of tobacco with a silent, hostile grunt
and relapsed into a long silence that lasted till his shift was ended.

"Hate to have y'u leave, old man. Y'u're so darned good company I'll
ce'tainly pine for you," the foreman suggested, with sarcasm, when
the old man rolled up in his blankets preparatory to falling asleep
immediately.

Chalkeye's successor was a blatant youth much impressed with his own
importance. He was both foul-mouthed and foul-minded, so that Jim
was constrained to interrupt his evil boastings by pretending to fall
asleep.

It was nearly two o'clock when the foreman aroused his friend to take
his turn. Shortly after this the lad Hughie relieved the bragging,
would-be bad man.

Hughie was a flaxen-haired, rather good-looking boy of nineteen. In his
small, wistful face was not a line of wickedness, though it was plain
that he was weak. He seemed so unfit for the life he was leading that
the sheepman's interest was aroused. For on the frontier it takes a
strong, competent miscreant to be a bad man and survive. Ineffectives
and weaklings are quickly weeded out to their graves or the
penitentiaries.

The boy was manifestly under great fear of his chief, but the curly
haired young Hermes who kept watch with him had a very winning smile and
a charming manner when he cared to exert it. Almost in spite of himself
the youngster was led to talk. It seemed that he had but lately joined
the Teton-Shoshones outfit of desperadoes, and between the lines
Bannister easily read that his cousin's masterful compulsion had coerced
the young fellow. All he wanted was an opportunity to withdraw in
safety, but he knew he could never do this so long as the "King" was
alive and at liberty.

Under the star-roof in the chill, breaking day Ned Bannister talked to
him long and gently. It was easy to bring the boy to tears, but it was
harder thing to stiffen a will that was of putty and to hearten a soul
in mortal fear. But he set himself with all the power in him to combat
the influence of his cousin over this boy; and before the camp stirred
to life again he knew that he had measurably succeeded.

They ate breakfast in the gray dawn under the stars, and after they had
finished their coffee and bacon horses were saddled and the trail
taken up again. It led in and out among the foot-hills slopping
upward gradually toward the first long blue line of the Shoshones that
stretched before them in the distance. Their nooning was at running
stream called Smith's Creek, and by nightfall the party was well up in
the higher foot hills.

In the course of the day and the second night both the sheepman and
his friend made attempt to establish a more cordial relationship with
Chalkeye, but so far as any apparent results went their efforts were
vain. He refused grimly to meet their overtures half way, even though it
was plain from his manner that a break between him and his chief could
not long be avoided.

All day by crooked trails they pushed forward, and as the party advanced
into the mountains the gloom of the mournful pines and frowning peaks
invaded its spirits. Suspicion and distrust went with it, camped at
night by the rushing mountain stream, lay down to sleep in the shadows
at every man's shoulder. For each man looked with an ominous eye on his
neighbor, watchful of every sudden move, of every careless word that
might convey a sudden meaning.

Along a narrow rock-rim trail far above a steep canon, whose walls shot
precipitously down, they were riding in single file, when the outlaw
chief pushed his horse forward between the road wall and his cousin's
bronco. The sheepman immediately fell back.

"I reckon this trail isn't wide enough for two--unless y'u take the
outside," he explained quietly.

The outlaw, who had been drinking steadily ever since leaving the Lazy
D, laughed his low, sinister cackle. "Afraid of me, are y'u? Afraid I'll
push y'u off?"

"Not when I'm inside and you don't have chance."

"'Twas a place about like this I drove for thousand of your sheep over
last week. With sheep worth what they are I'm afraid it must have
cost y'u quite a bit. Not that y'u'll miss it where you are going," he
hastened to add.

"It was very like you to revenge yourself on dumb animals."

"Think so?" The "King's" black gaze rested on him. "Y'u'll sing a
different song soon Mr. Bannister. It's humans I'll drive next time and
don't y'u forget it."

"If you get the chance," amended his cousin gently.

"I'll get the chance. I'm not worrying about that. And about those
sheep--any man that hasn't got more sense than to run sheep in a cow
country ought to lose them for his pig-headedness.

"Those sheep were on the right side of the dead-line. You had to cross
it to reach them." Their owner's steady eyes challenged a denial.

"Is that so? Now how do y'u know that? We didn't leave the herder alive
to explain that to y'u, did we?"

"You admit murdering him?"

"To y'u, dear cousin. Y'u see, I have a hunch that maybe y'u'll go join
your herder right soon. Y'u'll not do much talking."

The sheepman fell back. "I think I'll ride alone."

Rage flared in the other's eye. "Too good for me, are y'u, my
mealy-mouthed cousin? Y'u always thought yourself better than me. When
y'u were a boy you used to go sneaking to that old hypocrite, your
grandfather--"

"You have said enough," interrupted the other sternly. "I'll not hear
another word. Keep your foul tongue off him."

Their eyes silently measured strength.

"Y'u'll not hear a word!" sneered the chief of the rustlers. "What will
y'u do, dear cousin?

"Stand up and fight like a man and settle this thing once for all."

Still their steely eyes crossed as with the thrust of rapiers. The
challenged man crouched tensely with a mighty longing for the test,
but he had planned a more elaborate revenge and a surer one than this.
Reluctantly he shook his head.

"Why should I? Y'u're mine. We're four to two, and soon we'll be a dozen
to two. I'd like a heap to oblige y'u, but I reckon I can't afford to
just now. Y'u will have to wait a little for that bumping off that's
coming to y'u."

"In that event I'll trouble you not to inflict your society on me any
more than is necessary."

"That's all right, too. If y'u think I enjoy your conversation y'u have
got another guess coming."

So by mutual consent the sheepman fell in behind the blatant youth who
had wearied McWilliams so and rode in silence.

It was again getting close to nightfall. The slant sun was throwing its
rays on less and less of the trail. They could see the shadows grow and
the coolness of night sift into the air. They were pushing on to pass
the rim of a great valley basin that lay like a saucer in the mountains
in order that they might camp in the valley by a stream all of them
knew. Dusk was beginning to fall when they at last reached the saucer
edge and only the opposite peaks were still tipped with the sun rays.
This, too, disappeared before they had descended far, and the gloom of
the great mountains that girt the valley was on all their spirits, even
McWilliams being affected by it.

They were tired with travel, and the long night watches did not improve
tempers already overstrained with the expectation of a crisis too long
dragged out. Rain fell during the night, and continued gently in a misty
drizzle after day broke. It was a situation and an atmosphere ripe for
tragedy, and it fell on them like a clap of thunder out of a sodden sky.

Hughie was cook for the day, and he came chill and stiff-fingered to his
task. Summer as it was, there lay a thin coating of ice round the edges
of the stream, for they had camped in an altitude of about nine thousand
feet. The "King" had wakened in a vile humor. He had a splitting
headache, as was natural under the circumstances and he had not left in
his bottle a single drink to tide him over it. He came cursing to the
struggling fire, which was making only fitful headway against the rain
which beat down upon it.

"Why didn't y'u build your fire on the side of the tree?" he growled at
Hughie.

Now, Hughie was a tenderfoot, and in his knowledge of outdoor life he
was still an infant. "I didn't know--" he was beginning, when his master
cut him short with a furious tongue lashing out of all proportion to the
offense.

The lad's face blanched with fear, and his terror was so manifest that
the bully, who was threatening him with all manner of evils, began to
enjoy himself. Chalkeye, returning from watering the horses, got back
in time to hear the intemperate fag-end of the scolding. He glanced at
Hughie, whose hands were trembling in spite of him, and then darkly at
the brute who was attacking him. But he said not a word.

The meal proceeded in silence except for jeers and taunts of the "King."
For nobody cared to venture conversation which might prove a match to
a powder magazine. Whatever thoughts might be each man kept them to
himself.

"Coffee," snapped the single talker, toward end of breakfast.

Hughie jumped up, filled the cup that was handed him and set the coffee
pot back on fire. As he handed the tin cup with the coffee to the outlaw
the lad's foot slipped on a piece wet wood, and the hot liquid splashed
over his chief's leg. The man jumped to his feet in a rage and struck
the boy across the face with his whip once, and then again.

"By God, that'll do for you!" cried Chalkeye from the other side of the
fire, springing revolver in hand. "Draw, you coyote! I come a-shooting."

The "King" wheeled, finding his weapon he turned. Two shots rang out
almost simultaneously, and Chalkeye pitched forward. The outlaw chief
sank to his knees, and, with one hand resting on the ground to steady
himself fired two more shots into the twitching body on the other side
of the fire. Then he, too, lurched forward and rolled over.

It had come to climax so swiftly that not one of them had moved except
the combatants. Bannister rose and walked over to the place where the
body of his cousin lay. He knelt down and examined him. When he rose it
was with a very grave face.

"He is dead," he said quietly.

McWilliams, who had been bending over Chalkeye, looked up. "Here, too.
Any one of the shots would have finished him."

Bannister nodded. "Yes. That first exchange killed them both." He looked
down at the limp body of his cousin, but a minute before so full of
supple, virile life. "But his hate had to reach out and make sure, even
though he was as good as dead himself. He was game." Then sharply to the
young braggart, who had risen and was edging away with a face of
chalk: "Sit down, y'u! What do y'u take us for? Think this is to be a
massacre?"

The man came back with palpable hesitancy. "I was aiming to go and get
the boys to bury them. My God, did you ever see anything so quick? They
drilled through each other like lightning."

Mac looked him over with dry contempt. "My friend, y'u're too tender for
a genuwine A1 bad man. If I was handing y'u a bunch of advice it would
be to get back to the prosaic paths of peace right prompt. And while
we're on the subject I'll borrow your guns. Y'u're scared stiff and it
might get into your fool coconut to plug one of us and light out. I'd
hate to see y'u commit suicide right before us, so I'll just natcherally
unload y'u."

He was talking to lift the strain, and it was for the same purpose that
Bannister moved over to Hughie, who sat with his face in his hands,
trying to shut out the horror of what he had seen.

The sheepman dropped a hand on his shoulder gently. "Brace up, boy!
Don't you see that the very best thing that could have happened is this.
It's best for y'u, best for the rest of the gang and best for the whole
cattle country. We'll have peace here at last. Now he's gone, honest men
are going to breathe easy. I'll take y'u in hand and set y'u at work on
one of my stations, if y'u like. Anyhow, you'll have a chance to begin
life again in a better way."

"That's right," agreed the blatant youth. "I'm sick of rustling the
mails and other folks' calves. I'm glad he got what was coming to him,"
he concluded vindictively, with a glance at his dead chief and a sudden
raucous oath.

McWilliams's cold blue eye transfixed him "Hadn't you better be a little
careful how your mouth goes off? For one thing, he's daid now; and for
another, he happens to be Mr. Bannister's cousin."

"But--weren't they enemies?"

"That's how I understand it. But this man's passed over the range. A MAN
doesn't unload his hatred on dead folks--and I expect if y'u'll study
him, even y'u will be able to figure out that my friend measures up to
the size of a real man."

"I don't see why if--"

"No, I don't suppose y'u do," interrupted the foreman, turning on his
heel. Then to Bannister, who was looking down at his cousin with a stony
face: "I reckon, Bann, we better make arrangements to have the bodies
buried right here in the valley," he said gently.

Bannister was thinking of early days, of the time when this miscreant,
whose light had just been put out so instantaneously, had played with
him day in and day out. They had attended their first school together,
had played marbles and prisoners' base a hundred times against each
other. He could remember how they used to get up early in the morning to
go fishing with each other. And later, when each began, unconsciously,
to choose the path he would follow in already beginning to settle into
an established fact. He could see now, by looking back on trifles of
their childhood, that his cousin had been badly handicapped in his
fight with himself against the evil in him. He had inherited depraved
instincts and tastes, and with them somewhere in him a strand of
weakness that prevented him from slaying the giants he had to oppose in
the making of a good character. From bad to worse he had gone, and here
he lay with the drizzling rain on his white face, a warning and a lesson
to wayward youths just setting their feet in the wrong direction. Surely
it was kismet.

Ned Bannister untied the handkerchief from his neck and laid it across
the face of his kinsman. A moment longer he looked down, then passed
his hands across his eyes and seemed to brush away the memories that
thronged him. He stepped forward to the fire and warmed his hands.

"We'll go on, Mac, to the rendezvous he had appointed with his outfit.
We ought to reach there by noon, and the boys can send a wagon back to
get the bodies."





Next: The Trip In The Erminie

Previous: The Signal Lights



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