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Guardian Angels Are Riding Point

From: Cow-country

They plunged into darkness again, rode at a half trot over smooth, hard
sand, Bud trusting himself wholly to Marian and to the sagacity of the
two horses who could see, he hoped, much better than he himself could.
His keen hearing had caught a faint sound from behind them--far back in
the crevice-like gorge they had just quitted, he believed. For Marian's
sake he stared anxiously ahead, eager for the first faint suggestion of
starlight before them. It came, and he breathed freer and felt of his
gun in its holster, pulling it forward an inch or two.

"This way, Bud," Marian murmured, and swung Boise to the left, against
the mountain under and through which they seemed to have passed. She led
him into another small gorge whose extent he could not see, and stopped
him with a hand pressed against Sunfish's shoulder.

"We'd better get down and hold our horses quiet," she cautioned. "Boise
may try to whinny, and he mustn't."

They stood side by side at their horses' heads, holding the animals
close. For a time there were no sounds at all save the breathing of the
horses and once a repressed sigh from Marian. Bud remembered suddenly
how tired she must be. At six o'clock that morning she had fed twelve
men a substantial breakfast. At noon there had been dinner for several
more than twelve, and supper again at six--and here she was, risking
her life when she should be in bed. He felt for her free hand, found it
hanging listlessly by her side and took it in his own and held it there,
just as one holds the hand of a timid child. Yet Marian was not timid.

A subdued mutter of voices, the click of hoofs striking against stone,
and the pursuers passed within thirty feet of them. Boise had lifted
his head to nicker a salute, but Marian's jerk on the reins stopped him.
They stood very still, not daring so much as a whisper until the sounds
had receded and silence came again.

"They took the side-hill trail," whispered Marian, pushing Boise
backward to turn him in the narrow defile. "You'll have to get down
the hill into the creek-bed and follow that until you come to the stage
road. There may be others coming that way, but they will be two or three
miles behind you. This tunnel trail cuts off at least five miles but we
had to go slower, you see.

"Right here you can lead Sunfish down the bluff to the creek. It's all
dry, and around the first bend you will see where the road crosses. Turn
to the left on that and ride! This horse of yours will have to show the
stuff that's in him. Get to Crater ahead of these men that took the hill
trail. They'll not ride fast--they never dreamed you had come through
here, but they came to cut off the distance and to head you off. With
others behind, you must beat them all in or you'll be trapped between."

She had left Boise tied hastily to a bush and was walking ahead of Bud
down the steep, rocky hillside to show him the easiest way amongst the
boulders Halfway down, Bud caught her shoulder and stopped her.

"I'm not a kid," he said firmly. "I can make it from here alone. Not
another step, young lady. If you can get back home You'll be doing
enough. Take this--it's money, but I don't know how much. And watch your
chance and go down to mother with that message. Birnie, of the Tomahawk
outfit--you'll find out in Laramie where to go. And tell mother I'm all
right, and she'll see me some day--when I've made my stake. God bless
you, little woman. You're the truest, sweetest little woman in the
world. There's just one more like you--that's mother. Now go back--and
for God's sake he careful!"

He pressed money into her two hands, held them tightly together, kissed
them both hurriedly and plunged down the hill with Sunfish slipping and
sliding after him. For her safety, if not for his own, he meant to get
away from there as quickly as possible.

In the creek bed he mounted and rode away at a sharp gallop, glad that
Sunfish, thoroughbred though he was, had not been raised tenderly in
stall and corral, but had run free with the range horses and had learned
to keep his feet under him in rough country or smooth. When he reached
the crossing of the stage road he turned to the left as Marian had
commanded and put Sunfish to a pace that slid the miles behind him.

With his thoughts clinging to Marian, to the harshness which life had
shown her who was all goodness and sweetness and courage, Bud forgot to
keep careful watch behind him, or to look for the place where the hill
trail joined the road, as it probably did some distance from Crater.
It would be a blind trail, of course--since only the Catrock gang and
Marian knew of it.

They came into the road not far behind him, out of rock-strewn, brushy
wilderness that sloped up steeply to the rugged sides of Gold Gap
mountains. Sunfish discovered them first, and gave Bud warning just
before they identified him and began to shoot.

Bud laid himself along the shoulder of his horse with a handful of mane
to steady him while he watched his chance and fired back at them. There
were four, just the number he had guessed from the sounds as they came
out of the tunnel. A horse ran staggering toward him with the others,
faltered and fell. Bud was sorry for that. It had been no part of his
plan to shoot down the horses.

The three came on, leaving the fourth to his own devices--and that, too,
was quite in keeping with the type of human vultures they were. They
kept firing at Bud, and once he felt Sunfish wince and leap forward as
if a spur had raked him. Bud shot again, and thought he saw one horseman
lurch backward. But he could not be sure--they were going at a terrific
pace now, and Sunfish was leaving them farther and farther behind. They
were outclassed, hopelessly out of pistol range, and they must have
known it, for although they held to the chase they fired no more shots.

Then a dog barked, and Bud knew that he was passing a ranch. He could
smell the fresh hay in the stacks, and a moment later he descried the
black hulk of ranch buildings. Sunfish was running easily, his breath
unlabored. Bud stood in the stirrups and looked back. They were still
coming, for he could hear the pound of hoofs.

The ranch was behind him. Clear starlight was all around, and the bulk
of near mountains. The road seemed sandy, yielding beneath the pound
of Sunfish's hoofs. Bud leaned forward again in the saddle, and planned
what he would do when he reached Crater; found time, also, to hope that
Marian had gone back, and had not heard the shooting.

Another dog barked, this time on the right. Bud saw that they were
passing a picket fence. The barking of this dog started another farther
ahead and to the left. Houses so close together could only mean that
he was approaching Crater. Bud began to pull Sunfish down to a more
conventional pace. He did not particularly want to see heads thrust
from windows, and questions shouted to him. The Catrock gang might have
friends up this way. It would be strange, Bud thought, if they hadn't.

He loped along the road grown broader now and smoother. Many houses he
passed, and the mouths of obscure lanes. Dogs ran out at him. Bud slowed
to a walk and turned in the saddle, listening. Away back, where he had
first met the signs of civilization, the dog he had aroused was barking
again, his deep baying blurred by the distance. Bud grinned to himself
and rode on at a walk, speaking now and then to an inquiring dog and
calling him Purp in a tone that soothed.

Crater, he discovered in a cursory patrol of the place, was no more than
an overgrown village. The court-house and jail stood on the main street,
and just beyond was the bank. Bud rode here and there, examining closely
the fronts of various buildings before he concluded that there was only
the one bank in Crater. When he was quite sure of that he chose place
near by the rear of the bank, where one horse and a cow occupied a
comfortable corral together with hay. He unsaddled Sunfish and turned
him there, himself returning to the bank before those other night-riders
had more than reached the first straggling suburbs of the town.

On the porch of the court-house, behind a jutting corner pillar that
seemed especially designed for the concealment of a man in Bud's
situation, he rolled cigarette which he meant to smoke later on when the
way was clear, and waited for the horsemen to appear.

Presently they came, rode to a point opposite the court-house and bank
with no more than a careless glance that way, and halted in front of an
uninviting hotel across the street. Two remained on their horses while
the third pounded on the door and shook it by the knob and finally
raised the landlord from his sleep. There was a conference which Bud
witnessed with much interest. A lamp had been lighted in the bare
office, and against the yellow glow Bud distinctly saw the landlord nod
his head twice--which plainly betokened some sort of understanding.

He was glad that he had not stopped at the hotel. He felt much more
comfortable on the court-house porch. "Mother's guardian angels must be
riding 'point' to-night," he mused.

The horsemen rode back to a livery stable which Bud had observed but had
not entered. There they also sought for news of him, it would appear.
You will recall, however, that Bud had ridden slowly into the business
district of Crater, and his passing had been unmarked except by the
barking of dogs that spent their nights in yammering at every sound
and so were never taken seriously. The three horsemen were plainly
nonplussed and conferred together in low tones before they rode on. It
was evident that they meant to find Bud if they could. What they meant
to do with him Bud did not attempt to conjecture. He did not intend to
be found.

After a while the horsemen rode back to the hotel, got the landlord out
with less difficulty than before and had another talk with him.

"He stole a horse from Dave Truman," Bud heard one of the three say
distinctly. "That there running horse Dave had."

The landlord tucked in his shirt and exclaimed at the news, and Bud
heard him mention the sheriff. But nothing came of that evidently. They
talked further and reined their horses to ride back whence they came.

"He likely's give us the slip outside of town, some place," one man
concluded. "We'll ride back and see. If he shows up, he'll likely want
to eat... And send Dick out to the Stivers place. We'll come a-running."
He had lowered his voice so that Bud could not hear what was to happen
before the landlord sent Dick, but he decided he would not pry into the
matter and try to fill that gap in the conversation.

He sat where he was until the three had ridden back down the sandy road
which served as a street. Then he slipped behind the court-house and
smoked his cigarette, and went and borrowed hay from the cow and the
horse in the corral and made himself some sort of bed with his saddle
blanket to help out, and slept until morning.

Next: The Catrock Gang

Previous: While The Going's Good

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