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Forging A Letter

From: 'drag' Harlan

The impulse which had moved Harlan to send Red Linton to the T Down ranch
to enlist the services of some of his old friends had resulted from a
conviction that he could not depend upon those men of the Rancho Seco
outfit who had seemed to him, to be unfriendly to Stroud, the straw-boss.
He knew nothing about them, and their loyalty to Barbara Morgan might be
of a quality that would not endure through the sort of trouble that
seemed to be imminent.

The T Down men--those who would come--would stand with him no matter what
happened--they would do his will without question.

There was no doubt in Harlan's mind that John Haydon was the mysterious
"Chief"--the man who had sent into Lane Morgan's breast the bullet that
had ultimately killed him; and there was no doubt that some powerful,
secret force was at work in the country, and that the force was directing
its attention to the Rancho Seco and the defenseless girl who was at the
nominal head of it. For some reason the secret force had killed her
father, had isolated the ranch, had encompassed it with enemies, and was
working slowly and surely to enmesh the girl herself.

Harlan was convinced that one of the motives behind the subtle
aggressions of the men was a yearning for the gold that Morgan had
left--in fact the presence of Dolver and Laskar at Sentinel Rock--and
Morgan's word to him about the gold--provided sufficient evidence on that

They had watched Morgan; they suspected he was taking gold to Pardo to
have it assayed, and they had killed him in the hope of finding something
on his person which would reveal to them where he had hidden the rest of

One other motive was that of the eternal, ages-old passion of a man for
woman. Evidence of that passion had been revealed to Harlan at Lamo, by
the attack on Barbara by Deveny's hireling--Higgins; by the subtle
advances of John Haydon. It seemed to Harlan that all of these men had
been--and were--equally determined to possess the girl.

And yet back of it all--behind that which had been rendered visible by
the actions of the man and by Harlan's own deductions--was something
else--something stealthy and hidden; a secret threat of dire things to
come--a lingering promise of trickery.

Standing at one of the gates of the corral upon the third morning
following Linton's departure, Harlan considered this phase of the
situation. He felt the hidden threat of something sinister that lurked in
the atmosphere.

It was all around him. It seemed to lie secreted in the yawning space
that engulfed the Rancho Seco--south, north, and east. From the haze that
stretched into the unending distance westward it seemed to come, bearing
its whispered promise. The solemn hills that flanked the wide stretches
of Sunset Valley seemed to hint of it--somberly.

Mystery was in the serene calm that seemed to encompass the big basin;
from the far reaches westward, in the misty veil that seemed to hang from
the far-flung shafts of sunlight that penetrated the fleecy clouds, came
the sinister threat--the whole section seemed to pulse with it.

And yet Harlan knew there could be no mystery except the mysteries of
men. Nature was the same here as in any other section of the world, and
her secrets were not more profound than usual.

He grinned mirthlessly at the wonderful basin, noting that the Rancho
Seco buildings seemed to lie on a direct line with its center; that the
faint trail that ran through the basin--the trail men traveled--came on
in its undulating way straight toward the Rancho Seco ranchhouse, seemed
to bring the mystery of the big basin with it; seemed to be a link that
connected the Rancho Seco with the promise of trouble.

That impression might have engaged the serious thoughts of some men. It
widened the smile on Harlan's face. For he knew there was no threat in
the beauty of the valley; that it did not hide its secrets from the
prying eyes of men. Whatever secret the valley held was in the minds of
men--the minds of Deveny and the mysterious "Chief," and their followers.

Harlan had not absented himself from the ranchhouse since the departure
of Linton. He had lounged in the vicinity of the buildings during the
day--and Barbara had seen him many times from the windows; and he had
spent his nights watching the ranchhouse, half expecting another attack
on Barbara.

The girl had seen him at night, too; and she had smiled at the picture he
made with the moonlight shining upon him--or standing in some
shadow--somber, motionless, undoubtedly guarding her.

She saw him this morning, too, as he stood beside the corral gate, and
there was a glow in her eyes that, had he seen it, might have thrilled
him with its gratitude.

She came out of a rear door after a while, and Harlan was still standing
at the gate.

He watched her as she came toward him--it was the first time she had
ventured in that direction since the return from Lamo with him--noting
that she seemed to be in better spirits--that she was smiling.

"You looked lonesome," she said, as she halted near him. "Did Linton join
the outfit?"

"It's likely; he went three days ago."

"I knew he had gone; I saw you several times, and you were always alone.
And," she added, looking keenly at him; "I saw you several times, at
night. Don't you ever sleep?"

"I reckon I'm a sort of restless cuss."

Her face took on serious lines.

"Look here, Harlan," she said, reprovingly, "you are keeping something
back. You have been watching the ranchhouse at night--and during the day.
You are guarding me. Why is it? Do you think I am going to run away?"

"From me?" he queried; "I was hopin' you wouldn't."

She stiffened with exasperation, for she felt the insincerity in his
manner--caught the humorous note in his voice.

"You are treating me as you would treat a child," she declared; "and I
won't have it. Are you watching me because you fear there might be

"There might be."

"Nonsense! There isn't another man in the section would dare what Lawson

"Gentlemen--eh?" he said, tauntingly. "Well, I've nosed around quite
considerable, an' I don't remember to have ever run into a place where
there was fewer men than in this neck of the woods."

"There are plenty of gentlemen. Do you think John Haydon----"

Harlan grinned faintly. "He's been fannin' it right along for half an
hour," he said, with seeming irrelevance.

"Who?" she asked, with a swift, uncomprehending glance at him.

"Your gentleman," he said slowly.

She followed the direction of his gaze, and saw, on the trail that led
downward from a little table-land to the level that stretched toward the
ranchhouse, a horseman, coming rapidly toward them.

"It's Mr. Haydon!" she ejaculated, her voice leaping.

"So it is," said Harlan, dryly. He looked keenly at her, noting the flush
on her face, the brightness of her eyes. "You ain't forgettin' to give
him that piece of chain."

"Why," she said, drawing the glittering links from a pocket of her skirt;
"I have it here. You may return it to him."

"Me an' Haydon ain't on speakin' terms," he smiled. "He wouldn't
appreciate it none, if I give it to him."

"Why--" she began, only to pause and look at him with a sudden
comprehension in her eyes. For into Harlan's face had come an expression
that, she thought, she could analyze. It was jealousy. That was why he
was reluctant to return the chain to Haydon.

The situation was so positively puerile, she thought, that she almost
felt like laughing. She would have laughed had it not been that she knew
of Harlan's unfailing vigilance--and that she felt differently toward him
now than she had felt during the first days of their acquaintance. His
steadfast vigilance, she decided, must have been responsible for the
change, together with the steady consideration he revealed for her.

At any rate, something about him had affected her. She felt more gentle
toward him; more inclined to believe in him; and there had been times
during the past few days when she had been astonished at the subtle, warm
sensation that had stolen over her whenever she saw him or whenever she
thought of him.

Something of that warmth toward him was in her eyes now as she watched
him and she decided that she should humor his whim; that she should
perform the action that he was reluctant to perform.

She smiled, with the wisdom of a woman to whom a secret had been
unwittingly revealed.

"You don't like Haydon?"

"Him an' me ain't goin' to be bosom friends."

"Why don't you like him?" she asked banteringly.

She thought his grin was brazen. "Why don't you like me?"

"I don't know," she said coldly. But her face reddened a little.

"Well," he laughed; "that's why I don't like Haydon."

Haydon had crossed the big level, and was close to the ranchhouse.

The girl had determined to remain where she was, to return the piece of
chain to Haydon in the presence of Harlan--in order to learn what she
could of the depth of Harlan's dislike for Haydon when in the presence of
the latter. And so a silence came between them as they watched Haydon
ride toward them.

When Haydon rode close to them he halted his horse and sat in the saddle,
an expression of cold inquiry on his face. His smile at Miss Barbara was
a trifle forced; his glance at Harlan had a fair measure of frank dislike
and suspicion in it.

Harlan deliberately turned his back toward Barbara and Haydon when the
latter dismounted; walked a little distance, and pretended to be
interested in a snubbing post in the corral.

Yet he cast furtive glances toward the two, and when he saw the girl
reaching into a pocket for the section of chain he had given her, he
slowly sauntered forward, and was within hearing distance when Barbara
spoke to Haydon.

"I was to give you this," she said--and she extended a hand toward
Haydon, the chain dangling from her fingers.

Harlan saw Haydon's muscles leap and become tense. He saw the man's color
go, saw his cheeks whiten; observed that his eyes widened and gleamed
with mingled astonishment and alarm.

He regained control of himself instantly, however, but Harlan had seen
enough to strengthen his convictions, and he grinned as Haydon flashed a
sharp glance at him.

Barbara, too, had noted the strange light in Haydon's eyes; she had seen
that Haydon had seemed about to shrink from the chain when she held it
out to him. She looked from Haydon to Harlan inquiringly and when her
glance again returned to Haydon he was smiling.

However, he had not taken the chain from her hand.

"Is it yours?" she asked.

"Yes--mine," he answered, hesitatingly. "Where did you find it?"

"Mr. Harlan found it." Barbara noted Haydon's quick start, the searching
glance he gave Harlan--who was now leaning on a rail of the corral fence,
seemingly uninterested.

Haydon laughed, a little hoarsely, it seemed to Barbara, and more loudly
than the occasion seemed to demand. She thought, though, that the laugh
might have been a jeer for Harlan's action in turning the chain over to
her instead of returning it directly to the owner.

She did not catch the searching inquiry of Haydon's glance at Harlan, nor
did she see Harlan's odd smile at Haydon, and the slow wink that
accompanied it.

But the wink and the smile conveyed to Haydon the intelligence that
Harlan knew the story connected with the loss of the chain, and that he
had not communicated it to the girl. They also expressed to Haydon the
message that Harlan and Haydon were kindred souls--the smile and the wink
told Haydon that this man who knew his secret was secretly applauding
him, even while inwardly laughing at him for his fear that the secret
would be betrayed.

Harlan's voice broke a short silence.

"Found it right about here--the other day. It must have laid there a long
time, for it took a heap of polishin' to brighten it up." Again he closed
an eye at Haydon, and the latter grinned broadly.

Barbara silently endured a pang of disappointment. She had caught
Harlan's wink. The man had betrayed jealousy only a few minutes ago, and
he had refused personally to return the chain to Haydon. And yet he stood
there now, smiling and winking at the other, evidently with the desire to
ingratiate himself. Sycophant, weakling, or fool--which was he? She
shuddered with disgust, deliberately turned her back to Harlan, and began
to walk toward the ranchhouse, Haydon following.

And Harlan, standing at the fence, leaned an elbow on one of the rails
and watched the two, an enigmatic smile on his face.

For he had succeeded in opening a gate which disclosed a trail that would
lead him straight to the mystery, a breath of which had been borne to him
that morning upon the slight breeze that had swept down to him from the
mighty valley out of which Haydon had ridden.

Between him and Haydon a bond had been established, fashioned from the
links of the section of chain.

Next: Harlan Rides Alone

Previous: Deep Water

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