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In Dead Man's Cache







Part of: DEAD MAN'S CACHE
From: Brand Blotters

Not since the start of their journey had Melissy broken silence, save to
answer, in few words as possible, the questions put to her by the outlaw.
Yet her silence had not been sullenness. It had been the barrier which she
had set up between them--one which he could not break down short of actual
roughness.

Of this she could not accuse him. Indeed, he had been thoughtful of her
comfort. At sunset they had stopped by a spring, and he had shared with
her such food as he had. Moreover, he had insisted that she should rest
for a while before they took up the last stretch of the way.

It was midnight now, and they had been traveling for many hours over rough
mountain trails. There was more strength than one would look for in so
slender a figure, yet Melissy was drooping with fatigue.

"It's not far now. We'll be there in a few minutes," MacQueen promised
her.

They were ascending a narrow trail which ran along the sidehill through
the timber. Presently they topped the summit, and the ground fell away
from their feet to a bowl-shaped valley, over which the silvery moonshine
played so that the basin seemed to swim in a magic sea of light.

"Welcome to the Cache," he said to her.

She was surprised out of her silence. "Dead Man's Cache?"

"It has been called that."

"Why?"

She knew, but she wanted to see if he would tell a story which showed so
plainly his own ruthlessness.

He hesitated, but only for a moment.

"There was a man named Havens. He had a reputation as a bad man, and I
reckon he deserved it--if brand blotting, mail rustling, and shooting
citizens are the credentials to win that title. Hard pressed on account of
some deviltry, he drifted into this country, and was made welcome by those
living here. The best we had was his. He was fed, outfitted, and kept safe
from the law that was looking for him.

"You would figure he was under big obligations to the men that did this
for him--wouldn't you? But he was born skunk. When his chance came he
offered to betray these men to the law, in exchange for a pardon for his
own sneaking hide. The letter was found, and it was proved he wrote it.
What ought those men to have done to him, Miss 'Lissie?"

"I don't know." She shuddered.

"There's got to be law, even in a place like this. We make our own laws,
and the men that stay here have got to abide by them. Our law said this
man must die. He died."

She did not ask him how. The story went that the outlaws whom the wretched
man had tried to sell let him escape on purpose--that, just as he thought
he was free of them, their mocking laughter came to him from the rocks all
around. He was completely surrounded. They had merely let him run into a
trap. He escaped again, wandered without food for days, and again
discovered that they had been watching him all the time. Turn whichever
way he would, their rifles warned him back. He stumbled on, growing weaker
and weaker. They would neither capture him nor let him go.

For nearly a week the cruel game went on. Frequently he heard their voices
in the hills about him. Sometimes he would call out to them pitifully to
put him out of his misery. Only their horrible laughter answered. When he
had reached the limit of endurance he lay down and died.

And the man who had engineered that heartless revenge was riding beside
her. He had been ready to tell her the whole story, if she had asked for
it, and equally ready to justify it. Nothing could have shown her more
plainly the character of the villain into whose hands she had fallen.

They descended into the valley, winding in and out until they came
suddenly upon ranch houses and a corral in a cleared space.

A man came out of the shadows into the moonlight to meet them. Instantly
Melissy recognized his walk. It was Boone.

"Oh, it's you," MacQueen said coldly. "Any of the rest of the boys up?"

"No."

Not a dozen words had passed between them, but the girl sensed hostility.
She was not surprised. Dunc Boone was not the man to take second place in
any company of riff-raff, nor was MacQueen one likely to yield the
supremacy he had fought to gain.

The latter swung from the saddle and lifted Melissy from hers. As her feet
struck the ground her face for the first time came full into the
moonlight.

Boone stifled a startled oath.

"Melissy Lee!" Like a swiftly reined horse he swung around upon his chief.
"What devil's work is this?"

"My business, Dunc!" the other retorted in suave insult.

"By God, no! I make it mine. This young lady's a friend of mine--or used
to be. Sabe?"

"I sabe you'd better not try to sit in at this game, my friend."

Boone swung abruptly upon Melissy. "How come you here, girl? Tell me!"

And in three sentences she explained.

"What's your play? Whyfor did you bring her?" the Arkansan demanded of
MacQueen.

The latter stood balanced on his heels with his feet wide apart. There was
a scornful grin on his face, but his eyes were fixed warily on the other
man.

"What was I to do with her, Mr. Buttinski? She found out who I was. Could
I send her home? If I did how was I to fix it so I could go to Mesa when
it's necessary till we get this ransom business arranged?"

"All right. But you understand she's a friend of mine. I'll not have her
hurt."

"Oh, go to the devil! I'm not in the habit of hurting young ladies."

MacQueen swung on his heel insolently and knocked on the door of a cabin
near.

"Don't forget that I'm here when you need me," Boone told Melissy in a low
voice.

"I'll not forget," the girl made answer in a murmur.

The wrinkled face of a Mexican woman appeared presently at a window.
MacQueen jabbered a sentence or two in her language. She looked at Melissy
and answered.

The girl had not lived in Southern Arizona for twenty years without having
a working knowledge of Spanish. Wherefore, she knew that her captor had
ordered his own room prepared for her.

While they waited for this to be made ready MacQueen hummed a snatch of a
popular song. It happened to be a love ditty. Boone ground his teeth and
glared at him, which appeared to amuse the other ruffian immensely.

"Don't stay up on our account," MacQueen suggested presently with a
malicious laugh. "We're not needing a chaperone any to speak of."

The Mexican woman announced that the bedroom was ready and MacQueen
escorted Melissy to the door of the room. He stood aside with mock
gallantry to let her pass.

"Have to lock you in," he apologized airily. "Not that it would do you any
good to escape. We'd have you again inside of twenty-four hours. This bit
of the hills takes a heap of knowing. But we don't want you running away.
You're too tired. So I lock the door and lie down on the porch under your
window. Adios, senorita."

Melissy heard the key turn in the lock, and was grateful for the respite
given her by the night. She was glad, too, that Boone was here. She knew
him for a villain, but she hoped he would stand between her and MacQueen
if the latter proved unruly in his attentions. Her guess was that Boone
was jealous of the other--of his authority with the gang to which they
both belonged, and now of his relationship to her. Out of this division
might come hope for her.

So tired was she that, in spite of her alarms, sleep took her almost as
soon as her head touched the pillow. When she awakened the sun was shining
in at her window above the curtain strung across its lower half.

Some one was knocking at the door. When she asked who was there, in a
voice which could not conceal its tremors, the answer came in feminine
tones:

"'Tis I--Rosario Chaves."

The Mexican woman was not communicative, nor did she appear to be
sympathetic. The plight of this girl might have moved even an unresponsive
heart, but Rosario showed a stolid face to her distress. What had to be
said, she said. For the rest, she declined conversation absolutely.

Breakfast was served Melissy in her room, after which Rosario led her
outdoors. The woman gave her to understand that she might walk about the
cleared space, but must not pass into the woods beyond. To point the need
of obedience, Rosario seated herself on the porch, and began doing some
drawn work upon which she was engaged.

Melissy walked toward the corral, but did not reach it. An old hag was
seated in a chair beside one of the log cabins. From the color of her skin
the girl judged her to be an Indian squaw. She wore moccasins, a dirty and
shapeless one-piece dress, and a big sunbonnet, in which her head was
buried.

Sitting on the floor of the porch, about fifteen feet from her, was a
hard-faced customer, with stony eyes like those of a snake. He was sewing
on a bridle that had given way. Melissy noticed that from the pocket of
his chaps the butt of a revolver peeped. She judged it to be the custom in
Dead Man's Cache to go garnished with weapons.

Her curiosity led her to deflect toward the old woman. But she had not
taken three steps toward the cabin before the man with the jade eyes
stopped her.

"That'll be near enough, ma'am," he said, civilly enough. "This old crone
has a crazy spell whenever a stranger comes nigh. She's nutty. It ain't
safe to come nearer--is it, old Sit-in-the-Sun?"

The squaw grunted. Simultaneously, she looked up, and Miss Lee thought
that she had never seen more piercing eyes.

"Is Sit-in-the-Sun her name?" asked the girl curiously.

"That's the English of it. The Navajo word is a jawbreaker."

"Doesn't she understand English?"

"No more'n you do Choctaw, miss."

A quick step crunched the gravel behind Melissy. She did not need to look
around to know that here was Black MacQueen.

"What's this--what's this, Hank?" he demanded sharply.

"The young lady started to come up and speak to old Sit-in-the-Sun. I was
just explaining to her how crazy the old squaw is," Jeff answered with a
grin.

"Oh! Is that all?" MacQueen turned to Melissy.

"She's plumb loony--dangerous, too. I don't want you to go near her."

The girl's eyes flashed. "Very considerate of you. But if you want to
protect me from the really dangerous people here, you had better send me
home."

"I tell you they do as I say, every man jack of them. I'd flay one alive
if he insulted you."

"It's a privilege you don't sublet then," she retorted swiftly.

Admiration gleamed through his amusement. "Gad, you've got a sharp tongue.
I'd pity the man you marry--unless he drove with a tight rein."

"That's not what we're discussing, Mr. MacQueen. Are you going to send me
home?"

"Not till you've made us a nice long visit, my dear. You're quite safe
here. My men are plumb gentle. They'll eat out of your hand. They don't
insult ladies. I've taught 'em----"

"Pity you couldn't teach their leader, too."

He acknowledged the hit. "Come again, dearie. But what's your complaint?
Haven't I treated you white so far?"

"No. You insulted me grossly when you brought me here by force."

"Did I lay a hand on you?"

"If it had been necessary you would have."

"You're right, I would," he nodded. "I've taken a fancy to you. You're a
good-looking and a plucky little devil. I've a notion to fall in love with
you."

"Don't!"

"Why not? Say I'm a villain and a bad lot. Wouldn't it be a good thing for
me to tie up with a fine, straight-up young lady like you? Me, I like the
way your eyes flash. You've got a devil of a temper, haven't you?"

They had been walking toward a pile of rocks some little way from the
cluster of cabins. Now he sat down and smiled impudently across at her.

"That's my business," she flung back stormily.

Genially he nodded. "So it is. Mine, too, when we trot in double
harness."

Her scornful eyes swept up and down him. "I wouldn't marry you if you were
the last man on earth."

"No. Well, I'm not partial to that game myself. I didn't mention
matrimony, did I?"

The meaning she read in his mocking, half-closed eyes startled the girl.
Seeing this, he added with a shrug:

"Just as you say about that. We'll make you Mrs. MacQueen on the level if
you like."

The passion in her surged up. "I'd rather lie dead at your feet--I'd
rather starve in these hills--I'd rather put a knife in my heart!"

He clapped his hands. "Fine! Fine! That Bernhardt woman hasn't got a
thing on you when it comes to acting, my dear. You put that across bully.
Never saw it done better."

"You--coward!" Her voice broke and she turned to leave him.

"Stop!" The ring of the word brought her feet to a halt. MacQueen padded
across till he faced her. "Don't make any mistake, girl. You're mine. I
don't care how. If it suits you to have a priest mumble words over us,
good enough. But I'm the man you've got to get ready to love."

"I hate you."

"That's a good start, you little catamount."

"I'd rather die--a thousand times rather."

"Not you, my dear. You think you would right now, but inside of a week
you'll be hunting for pet names to give me."

She ran blindly toward the house where her room was. On the way she passed
at a little distance Dunc Boone and did not see him. His hungry eyes
followed her--a slender creature of white and russet and gold, vivid as a
hillside poppy, compact of life and fire and grace. He, too, was a
miscreant and a villain, lost to honor and truth, but just now she held
his heart in the hollow of her tightly clenched little fist. Good men and
bad, at bottom we are all made of the same stuff, once we are down to the
primal emotions that go deeper than civilization's veneer.





Next: Trapped!

Previous: A Photograph



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