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On Guard








From: 'drag' Harlan

The man whose soul held no love of the poetic sat for two or three hours
on the threshold of the bunkhouse door, his gaze on the ranchhouse. He
was considering his "reputation," and he had reached the conclusion that
Barbara Morgan had reason to fear him--if rumor's tongues had related to
her all of the crimes that had been attributed to him. And he knew she
must have heard a great many tales about him, for rumor is a tireless
worker.

And for the first time in his life Harlan regretted that he had permitted
rumor to weave her fabric of lies. For not one of the stories that
luridly portrayed him in the role of a ruthless killer and outlaw was
true.

It was easy enough for him to understand how he had gained that
reputation. He grinned mirthlessly now, as he mentally reviewed a past
which had been rather like the record of a professional man-killer. And
yet, reviewing his past--from the day about five years ago, when he had
shot a Taos bully who had drawn a gun on him with murderous intent, until
today, when he had sent Laskar to his death--he could not remember one
shooting affray for which he could be blamed. As a matter of fact, he
had--by the courts in some instances, and by witnesses in others, where
there were no courts--been held blameless.

There had been men who had seen Harlan draw his weapons with deadly
intent--men who insisted that the man's purpose was plain, to goad an
enemy to draw a weapon, permitting him partially to draw it, and then to
depend upon his superior swiftness and unerring aim. And this theory of
Harlan's character had gone abroad.

And because the theory had been accepted, Harlan's name became associated
with certain crimes which are inseparable from the type of character
which the popular imagination had given him. Strangers--criminals--in
certain towns in the Territory and out of it must have heard with
considerable satisfaction that their depredations had been charged to
Harlan. Only once had Harlan been able to refute the charge of rumor.
That was when, having passed a night in the company of Dave Hallowell,
the marshal of Pardo, word was brought by a stage-driver that "Drag"
Harlan had killed a man in Dry Bottom--a town two hundred miles
north--and that Harlan had escaped, though a posse had been on his trail.

Even when the driver was confronted by Harlan in the flesh he was
doubtful, surrendering grudgingly, as though half convinced that Harlan
had been able to transport himself over the distance from Dry Bottom to
Pardo by some magic not mentioned.

So it had gone. But the terrible record of evil deeds attributed to
Harlan had not affected him greatly. In the beginning--when he had killed
the Taos bully--he had been reluctant to take life; and he had avoided,
as much as possible, company in which he would be forced to kill to
protect himself.

And through it all he had been able to maintain his poise, his
self-control. The reputation he had achieved would have ruined some
men--would have filled them with an ambition to fulfil the specifications
of the mythical terror men thought him. There was a danger there; Harlan
had felt it. There was a certain satisfaction in being pointed out as a
man with whom other men dared not trifle; respect of a fearsome equality
was granted him--he had seen it in the eyes of men, as he had seen an
awed adulation in the eyes of women.

He had felt them all--all the emotions that a real desperado could feel.
He had experienced the impulse to swagger, to pose--really to live the
part that his ill-fame had given him.

But he had resisted those impulses; and the glow in his eyes when in the
presence of men who feared him was not the passion to kill, but a
humorous contempt of all men who abased themselves before him.

On the night he had been with Dave Hallowell, the marshal of Pardo, he
had listened with steady interest to a story told him by the latter. It
concerned the Lamo region and the great basin at which he and Barbara
Morgan had been looking when the girl had accused him of a lack of poetic
feeling.

"I've heard reports about Sunset Valley," Hallowell had said, squinting
his eyes at Harlan. "I've met Sheriff Gage two or three times, an' he's
had somethin' to say about it. Accordin' to Gage, everything ain't on the
surface over there; there's somethin' behind all that robbin' an'
stealin' that's goin' on. There's somethin' big, but it's hid--an' no man
ain't ever been able to find out what it is. But it's somethin'.

"In the first place, Deveny's gang ain't never been heard of as pullin'
off anything anywheres else but in Sunset Valley. As for that, there's
plenty of room in the valley for them without gettin' out of it. But it
seems they'd get out once in a while. They don't--they stay right in the
valley, or close around it. Seems to me they've got a grudge ag'in' them
Sunset Valley ranchers, an' are workin' it off.

"Why? That question has got Gage guessin'. It's got everybody guessin'.
Stock is bein' run off in big bunches; men is bein' murdered without no
cause; no man is able to get any money in or out of the valley--an'
they're doin' other things that is makin' the cattlemen feel nervous an'
flighty.

"They've scared one man out--a Pole named Launski--from the far end. He
pulled stakes an' hit the breeze runnin' sellin' out for a song to a guy
named Haydon. I seen Launski when he clumb on the Lamo stage, headin'
this way, an' he sure was a heap relieved to get out with a whole skin."

Hallowell talked long, and the mystery that seemed to surround Sunset
Valley appealed to Harlan's imagination. Yet he did not reveal his
interest to Hallowell until the latter mentioned Barbara Morgan. Then his
eyes glowed, and he leaned closer to the marshal.

And when Hallowell remarked that Lane Morgan, of the Rancho Seco had
declared he would give half his ranch to a trustworthy man who could be
depended upon to "work his guns" in the interest of the Morgan family,
the slow tensing of Harlan's muscles might have betrayed the man's
emotions--for Hallowell grinned faintly.

Hallowell had said more. But he did not say that word had come to him
from Sheriff Gage--an appeal, rather--to the effect that Morgan had sent
to him for such a man, and that Gage had transmitted the appeal to
Hallowell. Hallowell thought he knew Harlan, and he was convinced that if
he told Harlan flatly that Morgan wanted to employ him for that definite
purpose, Harlan would refuse.

And so Hallowell had gone about his work obliquely. He knew Harlan more
intimately than he knew any other man in the country; and he was aware
that the chivalric impulse was stronger in Harlan than in any man he
knew.

And he was aware, too, that Harlan was scrupulously honest and square,
despite the evil structure which had been built around him by rumor. He
had watched Harlan for years, and knew him for exactly what he was--an
imaginative, reckless, impulsive spirit who faced danger with the steady,
unwavering eye of complete unconcern.

As Hallowell had talked of the Rancho Seco he had seen Harlan's eyes
gleam; seen his lips curve with a faint smile in which there was a hint
of waywardness. And so Hallowell knew he had scattered his words on
fertile mental soil.

And yet Harlan would not have taken the trail that led to the Rancho Seco
had not the killing of his friend, Davey Langan, followed closely upon
the story related to him by the marshal.

Harlan had ridden eastward, to Lazette--a matter of two hundred
miles--trailing a herd of cattle from the T Down--the ranch where he and
Langan were employed.

When he returned he heard the story of the killing of his friend by
Dolver and another man, not identified, but who rode a horse branded with
the L Bar M--which was the Rancho Seco brand.

It was Hallowell who broke the news of the murder to Harlan, together
with the story of his pursuit of Dolver and the other man, and of his
failure to capture them.

There was no thought of romance in Harlan's mind when he mounted
Purgatory to take up Dolver's trail; and when he came upon Dolver at
Sentinel Rock--and later, until he had talked with Lane Morgan--he had no
thought of offering himself to Morgan, to become that trustworthy man who
would "work his guns" for the Rancho Seco owner.

But after he had questioned Laskar--and had felt that Laskar was not the
accomplice of Dolver in the murder of Langan--he had determined to go to
the ranch, and had told Morgan of his determination.

Now, sitting on the threshold of the Rancho Seco bunkhouse, he realized
that his talk with Morgan had brought him here in a different role than
he had anticipated.

From where he sat he had a good view of all the buildings--low,
flat-roofed adobe structures, scattered on the big level with no regard
for system, apparently--erected as the needs of a growing ranch required.
Yet all were well kept and substantial, indicating that Lane Morgan had
been a man who believed in neatness and permanency.

The ranchhouse was the largest of the buildings. It was two stories high
on the side fronting the slope that led to the river, and another
section--in what appeared to be the rear, facing the bunkhouse, also had
a second story--a narrow, boxlike, frowning section which had the
appearance of a blockhouse on the parapet wall of a fort.

And that, Harlan divined, was just what it had been built for--for
defensive purposes. For the entire structure bore the appearance of age,
and the style of its architecture was an imitation of the Spanish type.
It was evident that Lane Morgan had considered the warlike instincts of
wandering bands of Apache Indians when he had built his house.

The walls connecting the fortlike section in the rear with the two-story
front were about ten feet in height, with few windows; and the entire
structure was built in a huge square, with an inner court, or patio,
reached by an entrance that penetrated the lower center of the two-story
section in front.

Harlan's interest centered heavily upon the ranchhouse, for it was there
that Barbara Morgan had hidden herself, fearing him.

She had entered a door that opened in the wall directly beneath the
fortlike second story, and it was upon this door that Harlan's gaze was
fixed. He smiled wryly, for sight of the door brought Barbara into his
thoughts--though he was not sure she had been out of them since the first
instant of his meeting with her in Lamo.

"They've been tellin' her them damn stories about me bein' a
hell-raiser--an' she believes 'em," he mused. And then his smile faded.
"An she ain't none reassured by my mug."

But it was upon the incident of his meeting with Barbara, and the odd
coincidence of his coming upon her father at Sentinel Rock, that his
thoughts dwelt longest.

It was odd--that meeting at Sentinel Rock. And yet not so odd, either,
considering everything.

For he had been coming to the Rancho Seco. Before he had reached Sentinel
Rock he had been determined to begin his campaign against the outlaws at
the Rancho Seco. It was his plan to ask Morgan for a job, and to spend as
much of his time as possible in getting information about Deveny and his
men, in the hope of learning the identity of the man who had assisted in
the murder of Langan.

What was odd about the incident was that Morgan should attempt to cross
to Pardo to have his gold assayed at just about the time Harlan had
decided to begin his trip to the Rancho Seco.

Harlan smiled as his gaze rested on the ranchhouse. He was glad he had
met Lane Morgan; he was glad he had headed straight for Lamo after
leaving Morgan. For by going straight to Lamo he had been able to balk
Deveny's evil intentions toward the girl who, in the house now, was so
terribly afraid of him.

He had told Morgan why he was headed toward the Rancho Seco section, but
he had communicated to Morgan that information only because he had wanted
to cheer the man in his last moments. That was what had made Morgan's
face light up as his life had ebbed away. And Harlan's eyes glowed now
with the recollection.

"The damned cuss--how he did brighten up!" he mused. "He sure was a heap
tickled to know that the deck wasn't all filled with dirty deuces."

And then Harlan's thoughts went again to Lamo, and to the picture Barbara
had made running toward him. It seemed to him that he could still feel
her in his arms, and a great regret that she distrusted him assailed him.

He had sat for a long time on the threshold of the bunkhouse door, and
after a time he noted that the moon was swimming high, almost overhead.
He got up, unhurriedly, and again walked to the stable door, looking in
at Purgatory. For Harlan did not intend to sleep tonight; he had
resolved, since the Rancho Seco seemed to be deserted except for his and
Barbara's presence, to guard the ranchhouse.

For he knew that the passions of Deveny for the girl were thoroughly
aroused. He had seen in Deveny's eyes there in Lamo a flame--when Deveny
looked at Barbara--that told him more about the man's passions than
Deveny himself suspected. He grinned coldly as he leaned easily against
the stable door; for men of the Deveny type always aroused him--their
personality had always seemed to strike discord into his soul; had always
fanned into flame the smoldering hatred he had of such men; had always
brought into his heart those savage impulses which he had sometimes felt
when he was on the verge of yielding to the urge to become what men had
thought him--and what they still thought him--a conscienceless killer.

His smile now was bitter with the hatred that was in his heart for
Deveny--for Deveny had cast longing, lustful eyes upon Barbara
Morgan--and the smile grew into a sneer as he drew out paper and tobacco
and began to roll a cigarette.

But as he rolled the cigarette his fingers stiffened; the paper and the
tobacco in it dropped into the dust at his feet; and he stiffened, his
lips straightening, his eyes flaming with rage, his muscles tensing.

For a horseman had appeared from out of the moonlit haze beyond the
river. Rigid in the doorway--standing back a little so that he might not
be seen--Harlan watched the man.

The latter brought his horse to a halt when he reached the far corner of
the ranchhouse, dismounted, and stole stealthily along the wall of the
building.

Harlan was not more than a hundred feet distant, and the glare of the
moonlight shining full on the man as he paused before the door into which
Barbara Morgan had gone, revealed him plainly to Harlan.

The man was Meeder Lawson. Harlan's lips wreathed into a grin of cold
contempt. He stepped quickly to Purgatory, drew his rifle from its saddle
sheath and returned to the doorway. And there, standing in the shadows,
he watched Lawson as the latter tried the door and, failing to open it,
left it and crept along the wall of the building, going toward a window.

The window also was fastened, it seemed, for Lawson stole away from it
after a time and continued along the wall of the house until he reached
the southeast corner. Around that, after a fleeting glance about him,
Lawson vanished.

Still grinning--though there was now a quality in the grin that might
have warned Lawson, had he seen it--Harlan stepped down from the doorway,
slipped into the shadow of the corral fence, and made his way toward the
corner where Lawson had disappeared.





Next: The Intruder

Previous: An Unwelcome Guest



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