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Single-handed








From: 'drag' Harlan

Noting the concerted movement toward him, Harlan grinned at Barbara,
gently disengaged himself from her grasp, and urged her toward the door
of the sheriff's office. She made no objection, for she felt that further
trouble impended, and she knew she must not impede any action her rescuer
planned.

Reaching the street a few minutes before, she had noted the preparations
for the swift tragedy that had followed; and despite her wild desire to
escape Deveny's man, she had halted, fascinated by the spectacle
presented by the two men, gambling with death.

She had halted at a little distance, crouching against the front of a
building. And while she had been crouching there, trembling with a new
apprehension, her pursuer had caught her.

She had hardly been aware of him, and his grasp on her arm she had not
resisted, so intense was her interest in what was transpiring. But the
sudden ending of the affair brought again into her consciousness the
recollection of her own peril, and when she saw Deveny cross the street
she broke from the man's restraining grasp and ran to Harlan, convinced
that he--because he seemed to be antagonistic toward the forces arrayed
against her--would protect her.

And now, shrinking into the open doorway of the sheriff's office, she
watched breathlessly, with straining senses, the moving figures in the
drama.

Harlan had backed a little way toward the doorway in which Barbara stood.
The movement was strategic, and had been accomplished with deliberation.
He was facing Lamo's population--at least that proportion of it which was
at home--with the comforting assurance that no part of it could get
behind him.

The gun he had drawn upon the approach of Barbara's pursuer was still in
his right hand. It menaced no one, and yet it seemed to menace everyone
within range of it.

For though the gun was held loosely in Harlan's hand, the muzzle
downward, there was a glow in the man's eyes that conveyed a warning.

The smile on his face, too, was pregnant with the promise of violence. It
was a surface smile, penetrating no deeper than his lips, and behind it,
partially masked by the smile, the men in the group in the street could
detect the destroying passion that ruled the man at this instant.

Deveny, who had approached to a point within a dozen feet of Harlan, came
to a slow, reluctant halt when he caught a glimpse of the strange glow in
Harlan's eyes. All the others, Sheriff Gage included, likewise
halted--most of them at a considerable distance, as their conceptions of
prudence suggested.

Harlan's grin grew ironic as he noted the pause--the concerted rigidity
of Lamo's population.

"Seems there's a heap of folks wantin' to palaver," he said lowly. "An'
no one is crowdin' me. That's polite an' proper. Seems you all sort of
guessed there's plenty of room, an' crowdin' ain't necessary. I'd thank
every specimen to hook his thumbs in the armholes of his vest--same as
though he's a member of the pussy-cafe outfit which I've seen in
Chicago, makin' moon-eyes at girls. If there's any of you ain't got on
vests, why, you can fasten your sky-hooks on your shoulders any way to
suit your idee of safety. Get them up!"

It seemed ludicrous to Barbara, despite the shadow of tragedy that lurked
over it all--the embarrassed manner in which Lamo's citizens complied
with the command, and the spectacle they presented afterward.

Deveny's hands were the last to go up. There was a coldly malignant glare
in his eyes as under Harlan's unwavering gaze he finally raised his hands
and held them, palms outward, as for inspection.

Rogers had complied instantly. There was a smile on his face, faint and
suggestive of grim amusement, for he had been mentally tortured over the
contemplation of Barbara's predicament, and had been unable to think of
any plan by which he might assist her.

Meeder Lawson's face was sullen and full of impotent rage, and he watched
Deveny with a gaze of bitter accusation when he saw that the big man
intended to obey Harlan's order. Barbara's pursuer, having felt Deveny's
angry gaze upon him, and being uncomfortably conscious that Harlan had
not forgotten him, was red of face and self-conscious. He started, and
the red in his face deepened, when Harlan, in the silence which followed
the concerted raising of hands, spoke sharply to him:

"What was you tryin' to corral that girl for? Talk fast or I'll bust you
wide open!"

The man grinned foolishly, shooting a furtive glance at Deveny.

"Why," he said, noting Deveny's scowl, "I reckon it was because I'd took
a shine to her. I was tryin' to cotton up to her on the landin' about the
Eatin'-House, an' she----"

"You lie!"

This was Barbara. Pale, her eyes flashing with indignation, she stepped
down into the street, standing near Harlan.

"That man," Barbara went on, pointing to the red-faced pursuer, "told me
early this morning that Luke Deveny had told him to watch me, that I was
not to leave my room until Deveny came for me. I was a prisoner. He
didn't try to make love to me. I should have killed him."

Speech had broken the tension under which Barbara had been laboring; the
flow of words through her lips stimulated her thoughts and sent them
skittering back to the salient incidents of her enforced confinement;
they brought into her consciousness a recollection of the conversation
she had heard between Meeder Lawson and Strom Rogers, regarding her
father. She forgot Harlan, Deveny, and the others, and ran to Sheriff
Gage.

Gage, a tall, slender man of forty, was pale and uncomfortable as he
looked down at the girl's white, upturned face. He shrank from the
frenzied appeal of her eyes, and he endured the pain of her tightly
gripping fingers on the flesh of his arms without flinching.

"Did--is father dead!"

She waited, frantically shaking Gage. And Gage did not answer until his
gaze had roamed the crowd.

Then he said slowly and reluctantly:

"I reckon he's dead. Deveny was tellin' me--he was chargin' this man,
Harlan, with killin' your father."

Barbara wheeled and faced Deveny. Rage, furious and passionate, had
overwhelmed the grief she felt over the death of her father. The shock
had been tremendous, but it had come while she had been leaning out of
the window listening to Rogers and Lawson--when she had lain for many
minutes unconscious on the floor of the room. Therefore the emotion she
experienced now was not entirely grief, it was rather a frantic yearning
to punish the men who had killed her father.

"You charged this man with murdering my father?" she demanded of Deveny
as she walked to him and stood, her hands clenched, her face dead white
and her eyes blazing hate. "You know better. I heard Strom Rogers tell
Meeder Lawson that it was Dolver and Laskar and somebody he called the
'Chief,' who did it. I want to know who those men are; I want to know
where I can find them! I want you to tell me!"

"You're unstrung, Barbara," said Deveny slowly, coolly, a faint smile on
his face. "I know nothing about it. I merely repeated to Gage the word
Laskar brought. Laskar said this man Harlan shot your father. It happened
about a day's ride out--near Sentinel Rock. If Laskar lied, he was paid
for his lying. For Harlan has----"

Deveny paused, the sentence unfinished, for the girl turned abruptly from
him and walked to Harlan.

"That was Laskar--the man you killed just now?"

"Laskar an' Dolver," relied Harlan. "There was three of them your father
said. One got away in the night, leavin' Dolver an' Laskar to finish the
job. I run plumb into them, crossin' here from Pardo. I bored Dolver, but
I let Laskar off, not havin' the heart to muss up the desert with scum
like him."

The girl's eyes gleamed for an instant with venomous satisfaction. Then
she said, tremulously:

"And father?"

"I buried him near the rock," returned Harlan, lowly.

Soundlessly, closing her eyes, Barbara sank into the dust of the street.

Harlan broke the force of her fall with his left hand, supporting her
partially until she collapsed; then, his eyes alight with a cold flame,
he called, sharply, his gaze still on the group of men:

"Get her, Gage! Take her into your place!"

He waited until Gage carried the slack form inside. Then, his shoulders
sagging, the heavy pistol in his right hand coming to a poise, the
fingers of the left hand brushing the butt of the weapon in the holster
at his left hip, the vacuous gleam in his eyes telling them all that his
senses were alert to catch the slightest movement, he spoke, to Deveny:

"I seen that desert deal. It wasn't on the level. I ain't no angel, but
when I down a man I do it fair an' square--givin' him his chance. I sent
that sneak Dolver out--an' that coyote Laskar. It was a dirty, rotten
deal, the way they framed up on Morgan. It's irritated me--I reckon you
can hear my rattles right now. I'm stayin' in Lamo, an' I'm stickin' by
this Barbara girl until you guys learn to walk straight up, like men!"

He paused, and a heavy silence descended. No man moved. A sneer began to
wreathe Harlan's lips--a twisting, mocking, sardonic sneer that expressed
his contempt for the men who faced him.

"Not havin' any thoughts, eh?" he jeered. "There's some guys that would
rather do their fightin' with women, an' their thoughts wouldn't sound
right if they put words around them. I ain't detainin' you no longer. Any
man who thinks it's time to call for a show-down can do his yappin' right
now. Them that's dead certain they're through can mosey along, takin'
care not to try any monkey business!"

He stood, watching, his wide gaze including them all, until, one after
another the men in the group silently moved away. They did not go far.
Some of them merely stepped into near-by doorways, others sauntered
slowly down the street and halted at a little distance to look back.

But no man made a hostile move, for they had seen the tragedy in which
Laskar had figured, and they had no desire to provoke Harlan to express
again the cold wrath that slumbered in his eyes.

Meeder Lawson was the first of Deveny's intimates to leave the group. His
face sullen, his eyes venomous, he walked across the street to the First
Chance, and stood in the doorway, beside Balleau, who had been an
interested onlooker.

Then Strom Rogers moved. He wheeled slowly, flashing an inquiring glance
at Deveny--who still stood motionless. Deveny had lowered his hands--they
were hanging at his sides, the right hand having the palm toward Harlan,
giving eloquent testimony of its owner's peaceable intentions.

Rogers' glance included the out-turned palm, and his lips curved in a
faint smile. The smile held as his glance went to Harlan's face, and for
an instant as the eyes of the two men met, appraisal was the emotion that
ruled in them. Harlan detected in Rogers' eyes a grim scorn of Deveny,
and a malignant satisfaction; Rogers saw in Harlan's eyes a thing that
not one of the men who had faced the man had seen--cold humor.

Then Rogers was walking away, leaving Deveny to face the man who had
disrupted his plans.

Deveny had not changed his position, and for an instant following the
departure of Rogers, there was no word spoken. Then for the first time
since he had dismounted from Purgatory, Harlan's eyes lost their wide,
inclusive vacuity. They met Deveny's fairly, with a steady, direct,
boring intensity; a light in them that resembled the yellow flame that
Deveny had once seen in the eyes of a Mexican jaguar some year before at
a camp on the Neuces.

Deveny knew what the light in Harlan's eyes meant. It meant the presence
of a wild, rending passion, of elemental impulses; it meant that the man
who faced him was eager to kill him, was awaiting his slightest hostile
movement. It meant more. The gleam in Harlan's eyes indicated that the
man possessed that strange and almost uncanny instinct of thought
reading, that he could detect in another's eyes a mental impulse before
the other's muscles could answer it. Also, it meant certain death to
Deveny should he obey the half-formed determination to draw and shoot,
that was in his mind at this instant.

He dropped his lids, attempting to veil the thought from Harlan. But when
he again looked up it was to see Harlan's lips twisting into a cold
smile--to see Harlan slowly sheathing the gun he had held in his right
hand.

And now Harlan was standing before him, both weapons in their holsters.
He and Deveny were facing each other upon a basis of equality. Harlan had
disdained taking advantage.

Apparently, if Deveny now elected to draw and shoot, his chances were as
good as Harlan's.

And yet Deveny knew they were not as good. For Harlan's action in
sheathing his gun convinced Deveny that the man had divined his thoughts
from the expression of his eyes before he had veiled them with the lids,
and he was convinced that Harlan had sensed the chill of dread that had
swept over him at that instant. He was sure of it when he heard Harlan's
voice, low and taunting:

"You waitin' for a show-down?"

Deveny smiled, pallidly. "I don't mind telling you that I did have a
notion that way a moment ago. But I was afraid I might be a little slow.
When you downed Laskar I watched you, trying to learn the secret of your
draw. I didn't learn it, because there is no secret--you're just a
natural gunslinger without a flaw. You're the fastest man with a gun I
ever saw--and I'm taking my hat off to you."

Harlan smiled faintly, but his eyes did not lose their alertness, nor did
the flame in them cool visibly. Only his lips betrayed whatever emotion
he felt. He distrusted Deveny, for he had seen the half-formed
determination in the man's eyes, and his muscles were tensed in
anticipation of a trick.

"You didn't stay here to tell me that. Get goin' with the real talk."

"That's right--I didn't," said Deveny. He was cool, now, and bland,
having recovered his poise.

"Higgins was watching Barbara Morgan at my orders. But I meant no harm
to the girl. I knew she was in town, and I heard there were a few of the
boys that were making plans about her. So I set Higgins to guard her.
Naturally, she thought I meant harm to her."

"Naturally," said Harlan.

Deveny said coolly: "I'll admit I have a bad reputation. But it doesn't
run to women. It's more in your line." He looked significantly at the
other.

"Meanin'?"

"Oh, hell--you know well enough what I mean. You're not such a
law-abiding citizen, yourself. I've heard of you--often. And I've admired
you. To get right down to the point--I could find a place where you'd fit
in just right. We're needing another man--a man of your general size and
character."

Harlan grinned. "I'm thankin' you. An' I sure appreciate what you've
said. You've been likin' me so much that you tried to frame up on me
about sendin' Lane Morgan out."

"That's business," laughed Deveny. "You were an unknown quantity, then."

"But not now--eh?" returned Harlan, his eyes gleaming with a cold humor.
"You've got me sized up right. The yappin' I done about stickin' to
Barbara Morgan wasn't the real goods, eh?"

"Certainly not!" laughed Deveny, "there must be some selfish motive
behind that."

"An' you sure didn't believe me?"

"Of course not," chuckled Deveny, for he thought he saw a gleam of
insincerity in Harlan's eyes.

"Then I've got to do my yappin' all over again," said Harlan. "Now get
this straight. I'm stickin' to Barbara Morgan. I'm runnin' the Rancho
Seco from now on. I'm runnin' it my way. Nobody is botherin' Barbara
Morgan except them guys she wants to have bother her. That lets you out.
You're a rank coyote, an' I don't have no truck with you except at the
business end of a gun. Now take your damned, sneakin' grin over an' wet
it down, or I'll blow you apart!"

Deveny's face changed color. It became bloated with a poisonous wrath,
his eyes gleamed evilly and his muscles tensed. He stood, straining
against the murder lust that had seized him, almost persuaded to take the
slender chance of beating Harlan to his weapon.

"You got notions, eh?" he heard Harlan say, jeeringly. "Well, don't spoil
'em. I'd admire to make you feel like you'd ought to have got started a
week ago."

Deveny smiled with hideous mirthlessness. But he again caught the flame
in Harlan's eyes. He wheeled, saying nothing more, and walked across the
street without looking back.

Smiles followed him; several men commented humorously, and almost
immediately, knowing that this last crisis had passed, Lamo's citizens
resumed their interrupted pleasures.

Harlan stood motionless until Deveny vanished into the First Chance, then
he turned quickly and entered the sheriff's office.





Next: Barbara Is Puzzled

Previous: Chain-lightning



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