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Squire Latimer Takes A Hand







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

"You're to make ready for a trip to town, senorita."

"When?"

"At once," Rosario answered. "By orders of Senor MacQueen."

"Then he is back?" the girl flashed.

"Just back."

"Tell him I want to see him--immediately."

"I am to take you to him as soon as you are ready to ride."

"Oh, very well."

In a very few minutes the young woman was ready. Rosario led her to the
cabin in front of which she had seen the old Indian squaw. In it were
seated Simon West and Black MacQueen. Both of them rose at her entrance.

"Please take a chair, Miss Lee. We have some business to talk over," the
outlaw suggested.

Melissy looked straight at him, her lips shut tight. "What have you done
with Jack Flatray?" she presently demanded.

"Left him to find his way back to his friends."

"You didn't hurt him ... any more?"

"No."

"And you left him alone, wounded as he was."

"We fixed up his wound," lied MacQueen.

"Was it very bad?"

"A scratch. I had to do it."

"You needn't apologize to me."

"I'm not apologizing, you little wild-cat."

"What do you want with me? Why did you send for me?"

"We're going to Mesa to see a parson. But before we start there's some
business to fix up. Mr. West and I will need your help to fix up the
negotiations for his release."

"My help!" She looked at him in surprise. "How can I help?"

"I've laid my demands before his friends. They'll come through with the
money, sure. But I want them to understand the conditions right plainly,
so there won't be any mistake. What they have got to get soaked into their
heads is that, if they do make any mistakes, they will not see Simon West
again alive. You put that up to them strong."

"I'm not going to be your agent in robbing people of their money!" she
told him swiftly.

"You don't understand. Mr. West wants you to do it. He wants you to
explain the facts to his friends, so they won't act rash and get off wrong
foot first."

"Oh! If Mr. West wishes it," she conceded.

"I do wish it," the great man added.

Though his face and hands were still stained with the dye that had been
used on them, the railroad builder was now dressed in his own clothes. The
girl thought that he looked haggard and anxious, and she was sure that her
presence brought him relief. In his own way he was an indomitable fighter,
but his experience had not included anything of this nature.

Jack Flatray could look at death level-eyed, and with an even pulse,
because for him it was all in the day's work; but the prospect of it shook
West's high-strung nerves. Nevertheless, he took command of the
explanations, because it had been his custom for years to lead.

MacQueen, his sardonic smile in play, sat back and let West do most of the
talking. Both men were working for the same end--to get the ransom paid as
soon as possible--and the multimillionaire released; and the outlaw
realized that Melissy would cooeperate the more heartily if she felt she
were working for West and not for himself.

"This is Tuesday, Miss Lee. You will reach Mesa some time to-night. My
friends ought to be on the ground already. I want you and your father to
get in touch with them right away, and arrange the details along the line
laid down by Mr. MacQueen. In case they agree to everything and understand
fully, have the Stars and Stripes flying from your house all day
to-morrow as a signal. Don't on any account omit this--because, if you do,
my captors will have to hold me longer, pending further negotiations. I
have written a letter to Mr. Lucas, exonerating you completely, Miss Lee;
and I have ordered him to comply with all these demands without parley."

"Our proposition seems to Mr. West very reasonable and fair," grinned
MacQueen impishly, paring his finger nails.

"At any rate, I think that my life is worth to this country a good deal
more than three hundred thousand dollars," West corrected.

"Besides being worth something to Simon West," the outlaw added
carelessly.

West plunged into the details of delivering the money. Once or twice the
other man corrected him or amplified some statement. In order that there
could be no mistake, a map of Sweetwater canyon was handed to Melissy to be
used by the man who would bring the money to the rendezvous at the Devil's
Causeway.

When it came to saying good-bye, the old man could scarce make up his mind
to release the girl's hand. It seemed to him that she was the visible sign
of his safety, and that with her departure went a safeguard from these
desperate men. He could not forget that she had saved the life of the
sheriff, even though he did not know what sacrifice she had made so to do.

"I know you'll do your best for me," he said, with tears in his eyes.
"Make Lucas see this thing right. Don't let any fool detectives bunco him
into refusing to pay the ransom. Put it to him as strongly as you can,
that it will be either my life or the money. I have ordered him to pay it,
and I want it paid."

Melissy nodded. "I'll tell him how it is, Mr. West. I know it will be all
right. By Thursday afternoon we shall have you with us to dinner again.
Trust us."

"I do." He lowered his voice and glanced at MacQueen, who had been called
aside to speak to one of his men. "And I'm glad you're going away from
here. This is no place for you."

"It isn't quite the place for you, either," she answered, with a faint,
joyless smile.

They started an hour before midday. Rosario had packed a lunch for both of
them in MacQueen's saddlebags, for it was the intention of the latter to
avoid ranches and traveled trails on the way down. He believed that the
girl would go through with what she had pledged herself to do, but he did
not mean to take chances of a rescue.

In the middle of the afternoon they stopped for lunch at Round-up
Spring--a water hole which had not dried up in a dozen years. It was a
somber meal. Melissy's spirits had been sinking lower and lower with every
mile that brought her nearer the destiny into which this man was forcing
her. Food choked her, and she ate but little. Occasionally, with staring
eyes, she would fall into a reverie, from which his least word would
startle her to a shiver of apprehension. This she always controlled after
the first instinctive shudder.

"What's the matter with you, girl? I'm not going to hurt you any. I never
hit a woman in my life," the man said once roughly.

"Perhaps you may, after you're married. It's usually one's wife one beats.
Don't be discouraged. You'll have the experience yet," she retorted, but
without much spirit.

"To hear you tell it, I'm a devil through and through! It's that kind of
talk that drives a man to drink," he flung out angrily.

"And to wife beating. Of course, I'm not your chattel yet, because the
ceremony hasn't been read; but if you would like to anticipate a few hours
and beat me, I don't suppose there is any reason you shouldn't."

"Gad! How you hate me!"

Her inveteracy discouraged him. His good looks, his debonair manner, the
magnetic charm he knew how to exert--these, which had availed him with
other women, did not seem to reach her at all. She really gave him no
chance to prove himself. He was ready to be grave or gay--to be a
light-hearted boy or a blase man of the world--to adopt any role that
would suit her. But how could one play up effectively to a chill silence
which took no note of him, to a depression of the soul which would not
let itself be lifted? He felt that she was living up to the barest letter
of the law in fulfilling their contract, and because of it he steeled
himself against her sufferings.

There was one moment of their ride when she stood on the tiptoe of
expectation and showed again the sparkle of eager life. MacQueen had
resaddled after their luncheon, and they were climbing a long sidehill
that looked over a dry valley. With a gesture, the outlaw checked her
horse.

"Look!"

Some quarter of a mile from them two men were riding up a wash that ran
through the valley. The mesquite and the cactus were thick, and it was for
only an occasional moment that they could be seen. Black and the girl were
screened from view by a live oak in front of them, so that there was no
danger of being observed. The outlaw got out his field glasses and watched
the men intently.

Melissy could not contain the question that trembled on her lips: "Do you
know them?"

"I reckon not."

"Perhaps----"

"Well!"

"May I look--please?"

He handed her the glasses. She had to wait for the riders to reappear, but
when they did she gave a little cry.

"It's Mr. Bellamy!"

"Oh, is it?"

He looked at her steadily, ready to crush in her throat any call she might
utter for help. But he soon saw that she had no intention of making her
presence known. Her eyes were glued to the glasses. As long as the men
were in sight she focused her gaze on them ravenously. At last a bend in
the dry river bed hid them from view. She lowered the binoculars with a
sigh.

"Lucky they didn't see us," he said, with his easy, sinister laugh. "Lucky
for them."

She noticed for the first time that he had uncased his rifle and was
holding it across the saddle-tree.

Night slipped silently down from the hills--the soft, cool, velvet night
of the Arizona uplands. The girl drooped in the saddle from sheer
exhaustion. The past few days had been hard ones, and last night she had
lost most of her sleep. She had ridden far on rough trails, had been
subjected to a stress of emotion to which her placid maiden life had been
unused. But she made no complaint. It was part of the creed she had
unconsciously learned from her father to game out whatever had to be
endured.

The outlaw, though he saw her fatigue, would not heed it. She had chosen
to set herself apart from him. Let her ask him to stop and rest, if she
wanted to. It would do her pride good to be humbled. Yet in his heart he
admired her the more, because she asked no favors of him and forbore the
womanish appeal of tears.

His watch showed eleven o'clock by the moon when the lights of Mesa
glimmered in the valley below.

"We'll be in now in half an hour," he said.

She had no comment to make, and silence fell between them again until they
reached the outskirts of the town.

"We'll get off here and walk in," he ordered; and, after she had
dismounted, he picketed the horses close to the road. "You can send for
yours in the mornin'. Mine will be in the livery barn by that time."

The streets were practically deserted in the residential part of the town.
Only one man they saw, and at his approach MacQueen drew Melissy behind a
large lilac bush.

As the man drew near the outlaw's hand tightened on the shoulder of the
girl. For the man was her father--dusty, hollow-eyed, and haggard. The two
crouching behind the lilacs knew that this iron man was broken by his
fears for his only child, the girl who was the apple of his eye.

Not until he was out of hearing did Melissy open her lips to the stifled
cry she had suppressed. Her arms went out to him, and the tears rolled
down her cheeks. For herself she had not let herself break down, but for
her father's grief her heart was like water.

"All right. Don't break down now. You'll be with him inside of half an
hour," the outlaw told her gruffly.

They stopped at a house not much farther down the street, and he rang the
bell. It took a second ring to bring a head out of the open window
upstairs.

"Well?" a sleepy voice demanded.

"Is this Squire Latimer?"

"Yes."

"Come down. We want to get married."

"Then why can't you come at a reasonable hour?--consarn it!"

"Never mind that. There's a good fee in it. Hurry up!"

Presently the door opened. "Come in. You can wait in the hall till I get a
light."

"No--I don't want a light. We'll step into this room, and be married at
once," MacQueen told him crisply.

"I don't know about that. I'm not marrying folks that can't be looked
at."

"You'll marry us, and at once. I'm Black MacQueen!"

It was ludicrous to see how the justice of the peace fell back in terror
before the redoubtable bad man of the hills.

"Well, I don't know as a light is a legal necessity; but we got to have
witnesses."

"Have you any in the house?"

"My daughter and a girl friend of hers are sleeping upstairs. I'll call
them, Mr. Black--er--I mean Mr. MacQueen."

The outlaw went with the squire to the foot of the stairs, whence Latimer
wakened the girls and told them to dress at once, as quickly as possible.
A few minutes later they came down--towsled, eyes heavy with sleep,
giggling at each other in girlish fashion. But when they knew whose
marriage they were witnessing, giggles and sleep fled together.

They were due for another surprise later. MacQueen and his bride were
standing in the heavy shadows, so that both bulked vaguely in mere
outline. Hitherto, Melissy had not spoken a word. The time came when it
was necessary for the justice to know the name of the girl whom he was
marrying. Her answer came at once, in a low, scarcely audible voice:

"Melissy Lee."

An electric shock could scarce have startled them more. Of all the girls
in Mesa none was so proud as Melissy Lee, none had been so far above
criticism, such a queen in the frontier town. She had spent a year in
school at Denver; she had always been a social leader. While she had
always been friendly to the other girls, they had looked upon her with a
touch of awe. She had all the things they craved, from beauty to money.
And now she was marrying at midnight, in the dark, the most notorious bad
man of Arizona!

Here was a wonder of wonders to tell the other girls to-morrow. The only
pity was that they could not see her face--and his. They had heard that he
was handsome. No doubt that accounted for it. And what could be more
romantic than a love match with such a fascinating villain? Probably he
had stormed her heart irresistibly.

The service proceeded. The responses of the man came clearly and
triumphantly, those of the girl low but distinctly. It was the custom of
the justice to join the hands of the parties he was marrying; but when he
moved to do so this girl put both of hers quickly behind her. It was his
custom also to kiss the bride after pronouncing them man and wife; but he
omitted this, too, on the present occasion. Nor did the groom kiss her.

The voice of the justice died away. They stood before him man and wife.
The witnesses craned forward to see the outlaw embrace his bride. Instead,
he reached into his pocket and handed Latimer a bill. The denomination of
it was one hundred dollars, but the justice did not discover that until
later.

"I reckon that squares us," the bad man said unsentimentally. "Now, all of
you back to bed."

MacQueen and his bride passed out into the night. The girls noticed that
she did not take his arm; that she even drew back, as if to avoid touching
him as they crossed the threshold.

Not until they reached the gate of her father's house did MacQueen speak.

"I'm not all coyote, girl. I'll give you the three days I promised you.
After that you'll join me wherever I say."

"Yes," she answered without spirit.

"You'll stand pat to our agreement. When they try to talk you out of it
you won't give in?"

"No."

She was deadly weary, could scarce hold up her head.

"If you lie to me I'll take it out on your folks. Don't forget that Jack
Flatray will have to pay if you double-cross me."

"No."

"He'll have to pay in full."

"You mean you'll capture him again."

"I mean we won't have to do that. We haven't turned him loose yet."

"Then you lied to me?" She stared at him with wide open eyes of horror.

"I had to keep him to make sure of you."

Her groan touched his vanity, or was it perhaps his pity?

"I'm not going to hurt him--if you play fair. I tell you I'm no cur. Help
me, girl, and I'll quit this hell raising and live decent."

She laughed without joy, bitterly.

"Oh, I know what you think," he continued. "I can't blame you. But what do
you know about my life? What do you know about what I've had to fight
against? All my life there has been some devil in me, strangling all the
good. There has been nobody to give me a helping hand--none to hold me
back. I was a dog with a bad name--good enough for hanging, and nothing
else."

He was holding the gate, and perforce she had to hear him out.

"What do I care about that?" she cried, in a fierce gust of passion. "I
see you are cur and coward! You lied to me. You didn't keep faith and free
Jack Flatray. That is enough."

She was the one person in the world who had power to wound him. Nor did it
hurt the less that it was the truth. He drew back as if the lash of a whip
had swept across his face.

"No man alive can say that to me and live!" he told her. "Cur I may be;
but you're my wife, 'Lissie MacQueen. Don't forget that."

"Go! Go!" she choked. "I hope to God I'll never see your face again!"

She flew along the grass-bordered walk, whipped open the front door, and
disappeared within. She turned the key in the lock, and stood trembling in
the darkness. She half expected him to follow, to attempt to regain
possession of her.

But the creak of his quick step on the porch did not come. Only her
hammering heart stirred in the black silence. She drew a long breath of
relief, and sank down on the stairs. It was over at last, the horrible
nightmare through which she had been living.

Gradually she fought down her fears and took hold of herself. She must
find her father and relieve his anxiety. Quietly she opened the door of
the hall into the living room.

A man sat at the table, with his back to her, in an attitude of utter
dejection. He was leaning forward, with his head buried in his arms. It
was her father. She stepped forward, and put her hands on his bowed
shoulders.

"Daddy," she said softly.

At her touch the haggard, hopeless, unshaven face was lifted toward her.
For a moment Lee looked at her as if she had been a wraith. Then, with a
hoarse cry, he arose and caught her in his arms.

Neither of them could speak for emotion. He tried it twice before he could
get out:

"Baby! Honey!"

He choked back the sobs in his throat. "Where did you come from? I thought
sure MacQueen had you."

"He had. He took me to Dead Man's Cache with him."

"And you escaped. Praise the Lord, honey!"

"No--he brought me back."

"MacQueen did! Goddlemighty--he knows what's best for him!"

"He brought me back to--to----" She broke down, and buried her head in his
shoulder.

Long, dry sobs racked her. The father divined with alarm that he did not
know the worst.

"Tell me--tell me, 'Lissie! Brought you back to do what, honey?" He held
her back from him, his hands on her shoulders.

"To marry me."

"What!"

"To marry me. And he did--fifteen minutes ago, I am Black MacQueen's
wife."

"Black MacQueen's wife! My God, girl!" Big Beauchamp Lee stared at her in
a horror of incredulity.

She told him the whole story, from beginning to end.





Next: The Taking Of The Cache

Previous: The Price



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