VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


First Principles








From: 'firebrand' Trevison

Judge Lindman shivered, though a merciless, blighting sun beat down on the
great stone ledge that spread in front of the opening, smothering him with
heat waves that eddied in and out, and though the interior of the
low-ceilinged chamber pulsed with the fetid heat sucked in from the plains
generations before. The adobe walls, gray-black in the subdued light, were
dry as powder and crumbling in spots, the stone floor was exposed in many
places; there was a strange, sickening odor, as though the naked,
perspiring bodies of inhabitants in ages past had soaked the walls and
floor with the man-scent, and intervening years of disuse had mingled
their musty breath with it. But for the presence of the serene-faced,
steady-eyed young man who leaned carelessly against the wall outside,
whose shoulder and profile he could see, the Judge might have yielded
completely to the overpowering conviction that he was dreaming, and that
his adventures of the past twelve hours were horrors of his imagination.
But he knew from the young man's presence at the door that his experience
had been real enough, and the knowledge kept his brain out of the
threatening chaos.

Some time during the night he had awakened on his cot in the rear room of
the courthouse to hear a cold, threatening voice warning him to silence.
He had recognized the voice, as he had recognized it once before, under
similar conditions. He had been gagged, his hands tied behind him. Then he
had been lifted, carried outside, placed on the back of a horse, in front
of his captor, and borne away in the darkness. They had ridden many miles
before the horse came to a halt and he was lifted down. Then he had been
forced to ascend a sharp slope; he could hear the horse clattering up
behind them. But he had not been able to see anything in the darkness,
though he felt he was walking along the edge of a cliff. The walk had
ended abruptly, when his captor had forced him into his present quarters
with a gruff admonition to sleep. Sleep had come hard, and he had done
little of it, napping merely, sitting on the stone floor, his back against
the wall, most of the time watching his captor. He had talked some, asking
questions which his captor ignored. Then a period of oblivion had come,
and he had awakened to the sunshine. For an hour he had sat where he was,
looking out at his captor and blinking at the brilliant sunshine. But he
had asked no questions since awakening, for he had become convinced of the
meaning of all this. But he was intensely curious, now.

"Where have you brought me?" he demanded of his jailor.

"You're awake, eh?" Trevison grinned as he wheeled and looked in at his
prisoner. "This," he waved a hand toward the ledge and its surroundings,
"is an Indian pueblo, long deserted. It makes an admirable prison, Judge.
It is also a sort of a fort. There is only one vulnerable point--the slope
we came up last night. I'll take you on a tour of examination, if you
like. And then you must return here, to stay until you disclose the
whereabouts of the original land record."

The Judge paled, partly from anger, partly from a fear that gripped him.

"This is an outrage, Trevison! This is America!"

"Is it?" The young man smiled imperturbably. "There have been times during
the past few weeks when I doubted it, very much. It is America, though,
but it is a part of America that the average American sees little of--that
he knows little of. As little, let us say, as he knows of the weird
application of its laws--as applied by some judges." He smiled as
Lindman winced. "I have given up hoping to secure justice in the regular
way, and so we are in the midst of a reversion to first principles--which
may lead us to our goal."

"What do you mean?"

"That I must have the original record, Judge, I mean to have it."

"I deny--"

"Yes--of course. Deny, if you like. We shan't argue. Do you want to
explore the place? There will be plenty of time for talk."

He stepped aside as the Judge came out, and grinned broadly as he caught
the Judge's shrinking look at a rifle he took up as he turned. It had been
propped against the wall at his side. He swung it to the hollow of his
left elbow. "Your knowledge of firearms convinces you that you can't run
as fast as a rifle bullet, doesn't it, Judge?"

The Judge's face indicated that he understood.

"Ever make the acquaintance of an Indian pueblo, Judge?"

"No. I came West only a year ago, and I have kept pretty close to my
work."

"Well, you'll feel pretty intimate with this one by the time you leave
it--if you're obstinate," laughed Trevison. He stood still and watched the
Judge. The latter was staring hard at his surroundings, perhaps with
something of the awed reverence that overtakes the tourist when for the
first time he views an ancient ruin.

The pueblo seemed to be nothing more than a jumble of adobe boxes piled in
an indiscriminate heap on a gigantic stone level surmounting the crest of
a hill. A sheer rock wall, perhaps a hundred feet in height, descended to
the surrounding slopes; the latter sweeping down to join the plains. A
dust, light, dry, and feathery lay thickly on the adobe boxes on the
surrounding ledge on the slopes, like a gray ash sprinkled from a giant
sifter. Cactus and yucca dotted the slopes, thorny, lancelike, repellent;
lava, dull, hinting of volcanic fire, filled crevices and depressions, and
huge blocks of stone, detached in the progress of disintegration, were
scattered about.

"It has taken ages for this to happen!" the Judge heard himself
murmuring.

Trevison laughed lowly. "So it has, Judge. Makes you think of your school
days, doesn't it? You hardly remember it, though. You have a hazy sort of
recollection of a print of a pueblo in a geography, or in a geological
textbook, but at the time you were more interested in Greek roots, the
Alps, Louis Quinze, the heroes of mythology, or something equally foreign,
and you forgot that your own country might hold something of interest for
you. But the history of these pueblo towns must be pretty interesting, if
one could get at it. All that I have heard of it are some pretty weird
legends. There can be no doubt, I suppose, that the people who inhabited
these communal houses had laws to govern them--and judges to apply the
laws. And I presume that then, as now, the judges were swayed by powerful
influences in--"

The Judge glared at his tormentor. The latter laughed.

"It is reasonable to presume, too," he went on, "that in some cases the
judges rendered some pretty raw decisions. And carrying the supposition
further, we may believe that then, as now, the poor downtrodden
proletariat got rather hot under the collar. There are always some
hot-tempered fools among all classes and races that do, you know. They
simply can't stand the feel of the iron heel of the oppressor. Can you
picture a hot-tempered fool of that tribe abducting a judge of the court
of his people and carrying him away to some uninhabited place, there to
let him starve until he decided to do the right thing?"

"Starve!" gasped the Judge.

"The chambers and tunnels connecting these communal houses--they look like
mud boxes, don't they, Judge? And there isn't a soul in any of them--nor a
bite to eat! As I was about to remark, the chambers and tunnels and the
passages connecting these places are pretty bare and cheerless--if we
except scorpions, horned toads, centipedes, tarantulas--and other equally
undesirable occupants. Not a pleasant place to sojourn in until--How long
can a man live without eating, Judge? You know, of course, that the
Indians selected an elevated and isolated site, such as this, because of
its strategical advantages? This makes an ideal fort. Nobody can get into
it except by negotiating the slope we came up last night. And a rifle in
the hands of a man with a yearning to use it would make that approach
pretty unsafe, wouldn't it?"

"My God!" moaned the Judge; "you talk like a man bereft of his senses!"

"Or like a man who is determined not to be robbed of his rights," added
Trevison. "Well, come along. We won't dwell on such things if they depress
you."

He took the Judge's arm and escorted him. They circled the broad stone
ledge. It ran in wide, irregular sweeps in the general outline of a huge
circle, surrounded by the dust-covered slopes melting into the plains, so
vast that the eye ached in an effort to comprehend them. Miles away they
could see smoke befouling the blue of the sky. The Judge knew the smoke
came from Manti, and he wondered if Corrigan were wondering over his
disappearance. He mentioned that to Trevison, and the latter grinned
faintly at him.

"I forgot to mention that to you. It was all arranged last night. Clay
Levins went to Dry Bottom on a night train. He took with him a letter,
which he was to mail at Dry Bottom, explaining your absence to Corrigan.
Needless to say, your signature was forged. But I did so good a job that
Corrigan will not suspect. Corrigan will get the letter by tonight. It
says that you are going to take a long rest."

The Judge gasped and looked quickly at Trevison. The young man's face was
wreathed in a significant grin.

"In the first analysis, this looks like a rather strange proceeding," said
Trevison. "But if you get deeper into it you see its logic. You know where
the original record is. I want it. I mean to have it. One life--a dozen
lives--won't stop me. Oh, well, we won't talk about it if you're going to
shudder that way."

He led the Judge up a flimsy, rotted ladder to a flat roof, forcing him to
look into a chamber where vermin fled at their appearance. Then through
numerous passages, low, narrow, reeking with a musty odor that nauseated
the Judge; on narrow ledges where they had to hug the walls to keep from
falling, and then into an open court with a stone floor, stained dark, in
the center a huge oblong block of stone, surmounting a pyramid, appalling
in its somber suggestiveness.

"The sacrificial altar," said Trevison, grimly. "These stains here,
are--"

He stopped, for the Judge had turned his back.

Trevison led him away. He had to help him down the ladder each time they
descended, and when they reached the chamber from which they had started
the Judge was white and shaking.

Trevison pushed him inside and silently took a position at the door. The
Judge sank to the floor of the chamber, groaning.

The hours dragged slowly. Trevison changed his position twice. Once he
went away, but returned in a few minutes with a canteen, from which he
drank, deeply. The Judge had been without food or water since the night
before, and thirst tortured him. The gurgle of the water as it came out of
the canteen, maddened him.

"I'd like a drink, Trevison."

"Of course. Any man would."

"May I have one?"

"The minute you tell me where that record is."

The Judge subsided. A moment later Trevison's voice floated into the
chamber, cold and resonant:

"I don't think you're in this thing for money, Judge. Corrigan has some
sort of a hold on you. What is it?"

The Judge did not answer.

The sun climbed to the zenith. It grew intensely hot in the chamber. Twice
during the afternoon the Judge asked for water, and each time he received
the answer he had received before. He did not ask for food, for he felt it
would not be given him. At sundown his captor entered the chamber and gave
him a meager draught from the canteen. Then he withdrew and stood on the
ledge in front of the door, looking out into the darkening plains, and
watching him, a conviction of the futility of resisting him seized the
Judge. He stood framed in the opening of the chamber, the lines of his
bold, strong face prominent in the dusk, the rifle held loosely in the
crook of his left arm, the right hand caressing the stock, his shoulders
squared, his big, lithe, muscular figure suggesting magnificent physical
strength, as the light in his eyes, the set of his head and the firm lines
of his mouth, brought a conviction of rare courage and determination. The
sight of him thrilled the Judge; he made a picture that sent the Judge's
thoughts skittering back to things primitive and heroic. In an earlier day
the Judge had dreamed of being like him, and the knowledge that he had
fallen far short of realizing his ideal made him shiver with
self-aversion. He stifled a moan--or tried to and did not succeed, for it
reached Trevison's ears and he turned quickly.

"Did you call, Judge?"

"Yes, yes!" whispered the Judge, hoarsely. "I want--to tell you
everything! I have longed to tell you all along!"

An hour later they were sitting on the edge of the ledge, their feet
dangling, the abyss below them, the desert stars twinkling coldly above
them; around them the indescribable solitude of a desert night filled with
mystery, its vague, haunting, whispering voice burdened with its age-old
secrets. Trevison had an arm around the Judge's shoulder. Their voices
mingled--the Judge's low, quavering; Trevison's full, deep, sympathetic.

After a while a rider appeared out of the starlit haze of the plains below
them. The Judge started. Trevison laughed.

"It's Clay Levins, Judge. I've been watching him for half an hour. He'll
stay here with you while I go after the record. Under the bottom drawer,
eh?"

Levins hallooed to them. Trevison answered, and he and the Judge walked
forward to meet Levins at the crest of the slope.

"Slicker'n a whistle!" declared Levins, answering the question Trevison
put to him. "I mailed the damn letter an' come back on the train that
brought it to him!" He grinned felinely at the Judge. "I reckon you're a
heap dry an' hungry by this time?"

"The Judge has feasted," said Trevison. "I'm going after the record.
You're to stay here with the Judge until I return. Then the three of us
will ride to Las Vegas, where we will take a train to Santa Fe, to turn
the record over to the Circuit Court."

"Sounds good!" gloated Levins. "But it's too long around. I'm for
somethin' more direct. Why not take the Judge with you to Manti, get the
record, takin' a bunch of your boys with you--an' salivate that damned
Corrigan an' his deputies!"

Trevison laughed softly. "I don't want any violence if I can avoid it. My
land won't run away while we're in Santa Fe. And the Judge doesn't want to
meet Corrigan just now. I don't know that I blame him."

"Where's the record?"

Trevison told him, and Levins grumbled. "Corrigan'll have his deputies
guardin' the courthouse, most likely. If you run ag'in 'em, they'll bore
you, sure as hell!"

"I'll take care of myself--I promise you that!" he laughed, and the Judge
shuddered at the sound. He vanished into the darkness of the ledge,
returning presently with Nigger, led him down the slope, called a low
"So-long" to the two watchers on the ledge, and rode away into the haze of
the plains.

Trevison rode fast, filled with a grim elation. He pitied the Judge. An
error--a momentary weakening of moral courage--had plunged the jurist into
the clutches of Corrigan; he could hardly be held responsible for what had
transpired--he was a puppet in the hands of an unscrupulous schemer, with
a threat of exposure hanging over him. No wonder he feared Corrigan!
Trevison's thoughts grew bitter as they dwelt upon the big man; the old
longing to come into violent physical contact with the other seized him,
raged within him, brought a harsh laugh to his lips as he rode. But a
greater passion than he felt for the Judge or Corrigan tugged at him as he
urged the big black over the plains toward the twinkling lights of
Manti--a fierce exultation which centered around Rosalind Benham. She had
duped him, betrayed him to his enemy, had played with him--but she had
lost!

Yet the thought of his coming victory over her was poignantly
unsatisfying. He tried to picture her--did picture her--receiving the news
of Corrigan's defeat, and somehow it left him with a feeling of regret.
The vengeful delight that he should have felt was absent--he felt sorry
for her. He charged himself with being a fool for yielding to so strange a
sentiment, but it lingered persistently. It fed his rage against Corrigan,
however, doubled it, for upon him lay the blame.

It was late when he reached the outskirts of Manti. He halted Nigger in
the shadow of a shed a hundred yards or so down the track from the
courthouse, dismounted and made his way cautiously down the railroad
tracks. He was beyond the radius of the lights from various windows that
he passed, but he moved stealthily, not knowing whether Corrigan had
stationed guards about the courthouse, as Levins had warned. An instant
after reaching a point opposite the courthouse he congratulated himself on
his discretion, for he caught a glimmer of light at the edge of a window
shade in the courthouse, saw several indistinct figures congregated at the
side door, outside. He slipped behind a tool shed at the side of the
track, and crouching there, watched and listened. A mumbling of voices
reached him, but he could distinguish no word. But it was evident that the
men outside were awaiting the reappearance of one of their number who had
gone into the building.

Trevison watched, impatiently. Then presently the side door opened,
letting out a flood of light, which bathed the figures of the waiting men.
Trevison scowled, for he recognized them as Corrigan's deputies. But he
was not surprised, for he had half expected them to be hanging around the
building. Two figures stepped down from the door as he watched, and he
knew them for Corrigan and Gieger. Corrigan's voice reached him.

"The lock on this door is broken. I had to kick it in this morning. One of
you stay inside, here. The rest of you scatter and keep your eyes peeled.
There's trickery afoot. Judge Lindman didn't go to Dry Bottom--the agent
says he's sure of that because he saw every man that's got aboard a train
here within the last twenty-four hours--and Judge Lindman wasn't among
them! Levins was, though; he left on the one-thirty this morning and got
back on the six-o'clock, tonight." He vanished into the darkness beyond
the door, but called back: "I'll be within call. Don't be afraid to shoot
if you see anything suspicious!"

Trevison saw a man enter the building, and the light was blotted out by
the closing of the door. When his eyes were again accustomed to the
darkness he observed that the men were standing close together--they
seemed to be holding a conference. Then the group split up, three going
toward the front of the building; two remaining near the side door, and
two others walking around to the rear.

For an instant Trevison regretted that he had not taken Levins' advice
about forming a posse of his own men to take the courthouse by storm, and
he debated the thought of postponing action. But there was no telling what
might happen during an interval of delay. In his rage over the discovery
of the trick that had been played on him Corrigan might tear the interior
of the building to pieces. He would be sure to if he suspected the
presence of the original record. Trevison did not go for the help that
would have been very welcome. Instead, he spent some time twirling the
cylinder of his pistol.

He grew tired of crouching after a time and lay flat on his stomach in the
shadow of the tool shed, watching the men as they tramped back and forth,
around the building. He knew that sooner or later there would be a minute
or two of relaxation, and of this he had determined to take advantage. But
it was not until sound in the town had perceptibly decreased in volume
that there was any sign of the men relaxing their vigil. And then he noted
them congregating at the front of the building.

"Hell," he heard one of them say; "what's the use of hittin' that trail
all night! Bill's inside, an' we can see the door from here. I'm due for
a smoke an' a palaver!" Matches flared up; the sounds of their voices
reached Trevison.

Trevison disappointedly relaxed. Then, filled with a sudden decision, he
slipped around the back of the tool shed and stole toward the rear of the
courthouse. It projected beyond the rear of the bank building, adjoining
it, forming an L, into the shadow of which Trevison slipped. He stood
there for an instant, breathing rapidly, undecided. The darkness in the
shadow was intense, and he was forced to feel his way along the wall for
fear of stumbling. He was leaning heavily on his hands, trusting to them
rather than to his footing, when the wall seemed to give way under them
and he fell forward, striking on his hands and knees. Fortunately, he had
made no sound in falling, and he remained in the kneeling position until
he got an idea of what had happened. He had fallen across the threshold of
a doorway. The door had been unfastened and the pressure of his hands had
forced it inward. It was the rear door of the bank building. He looked
inward, wondering at Braman's carelessness--and stared fixedly straight
into a beam of light that shone through a wedge-shaped crevice between two
boards in the partition that separated the buildings.

He got up silently, stepped stealthily into the room, closing the door
behind him. He tried to fasten it and discovered that the lock was broken.
For some time he stood, wondering, and then, giving it up, he made his way
cautiously around the room, searching for Braman's cot. He found that,
too, empty, and he decided that some one had broken into the building
during Braman's absence. Moving away from the cot, he stumbled against
something soft and yielding, and his pistol flashed into his hand in
sinister preparation, for he knew from the feel of the soft object that it
was a body, and he suspected that it was Braman, stalking him. He thought
that until he remembered the broken lock, on the door, and then the
significance of it burst upon him. Whoever had broken the lock had fixed
Braman. He knelt swiftly and ran his hands over the prone form, drawing
back at last with the low ejaculation: "He's a goner!" He had no time or
inclination to speculate over the manner of Braman's death, and made
catlike progress toward the crevice in the partition. Reaching it, he
dropped on his hands and knees and peered through. A wooden box on the
other side of the partition intervened, but above it he could see the form
of the deputy. The man was stretched out in a chair, sideways to the
crevice in the wall, sleeping. A grin of huge satisfaction spread over
Trevison's face.

His movements were very deliberate and cautious. But in a quarter of an
hour he had pulled the board out until an opening was made in the
partition, and then propping the board back with a chair he reached
through and slowly shoved the box on the other side back far enough to
admit his body. Crawling through, he rose on the other side, crossed the
floor carefully, kneeled at the drawer where Judge Lindman had concealed
the record, pulled it out and stuck it in the waistband of his trousers,
in front, his eyes glittering with exultation. Then he began to back
toward the opening in the partition. At the instant he was preparing to
stoop to crawl back into the bank building, the deputy in the chair
yawned, stretched and opened his eyes, staring stupidly at him. There was
no mistaking the dancing glitter in Trevison's eyes, no possible
misinterpretation of his tense, throaty whisper: "One chirp and you're a
dead one!" And the deputy stiffened in the chair, dumb with astonishment
and terror.

The deputy had not seen the opening in the partition, for it was partly
hidden from his view by the box which Trevison had encountered in
entering, and before the man had an opportunity to look toward the place,
Trevison commanded him again, in a sharp, cold whisper:

"Get up and turn your back to me--quick! Any noise and I'll plug you!
Move!"

The deputy obeyed. Then he received an order to walk to the door without
looking back. He readied the door--halted.

"Now open it and get out!"

The man did as bidden; diving headlong out into the darkness, swinging the
door shut behind him. His yell to his companions mingled with the roar of
Trevison's pistol as he shattered the kerosene lamp. The bullet hit the
neck of the glass bowl, a trifle below the burner, the latter describing a
parabola in the air and falling into the ruin of the bowl. The chimney
crashed, the flame from the wick touched the oil and flared up
brilliantly.

Trevison was half way through the wall by the time the oil ignited, and he
grinned coldly at the sight. Haste was important now. He slipped through
the opening, pulled the chair from between the board and wall, letting the
board snap back, and placing the chair against it. He felt certain that
the deputies would think that in some manner he had run their barricade
and entered the building through the door.

He heard voices outside, a fusillade of shots, the tinkle of breaking
glass; against the pine boards at his side came the wicked thud of
bullets, the splintering of wood as they tore through the partition and
embedded themselves in the outside wall. He ducked low and ran to the rear
door, swinging it open. Braman's body bothered him; he could not leave it
there, knowing the building would soon be in flames. He dragged the body
outside, to a point several feet distant from the building, dropping it at
last and standing erect for the first time to fill his lungs and look
about him. Looking back as he ran down the tracks toward the shed where he
had left Nigger, he saw shadowy forms of men running around the
courthouse, which was now dully illuminated, the light from within dancing
fitfully through the window shades. Flaming streaks rent the night from
various points--thinking him still in the building the deputies were
shooting through the windows. Manti, rudely awakened, was pouring its
population through its doors in streams. Shouts, hoarse, inquisitive,
drifted to Trevison's ears. Lights blazed up, flickering from windows like
giant fireflies. Doors slammed, dogs were barking, men were running.
Trevison laughed vibrantly as he ran. But his lips closed tightly when he
saw two or three shadowy figures darting toward him, coming from various
directions--one from across the street; another coming straight down the
railroad track, still another advancing from his right. He bowed his head
and essayed to pass the first figure. It reached out a hand and grasped
his shoulder, arresting his flight.

"What's up?"

"Let go, you damned fool!"

The man still clung to him. Trevison wrenched himself free and struck,
viciously. The man dropped with a startled cry. Another figure was upon
Trevison. He wanted no more trouble at that minute.

"Hell to pay!" he panted as the second man loomed close to him in the
darkness; "Trevison's in the courthouse!"

He heard the other gasp; saw him lunge forward. He struck again, bitterly,
and the man went to his knees. He was up again instantly, as Trevison fled
into the darkness, crying resonantly:

"This way, boys--here he is!"

"Corrigan!" breathed Trevison. He ducked as a flame-spurt split the night;
reaching a corner of the shed where he had left his horse as a succession
of reports rattled behind him. Corrigan was firing at him. He dared not
use his own pistol, lest its flash reveal his whereabouts, and he knew he
would have no chance against the odds that were against him. Nor was he
intent on murder. He flung himself into the saddle, and for the first time
since he had come into Trevison's possession Nigger knew the bite of spurs
earnestly applied. He snorted, leaped, and plunged forward, the clatter of
his hoofs bringing lancelike streaks of fire out of the surrounding
blackness. Behind him Trevison heard Corrigan raging impotently,
profanely. There came another scattering volley. Trevison reeled, caught
himself, and then hung hard to the saddle-horn, as Nigger fled into the
night, running as a coyote runs from the daylight.





Next: Another Woman Lies

Previous: A Man Errs And Pays



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 444