VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of www.fictionstories.ca Informational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


The Black-bearded Man








From: 'drag' Harlan

It was Strom Rogers who indicated to the outlaws at the Star that
henceforth Harlan was to exercise authority of a kind that had formerly
been vested in Haydon and Deveny.

The corral was packed to suffocation with cattle, threatening the health
of the animals; Deveny had sent no word from the Cache regarding the
disposal of the stock, and Haydon's whereabouts were unknown.

Rogers had moved stock on his own initiative in former days--for he had
been an able assistant to both leaders. And Rogers could have moved the
stock out of the corral and to the point far south where the outlaws had
always sold them.

But there was malice in Rogers' heart toward the two outlaw leaders, and
a perverse devil lurked in him. For many months he had worshiped Barbara
Morgan from a distance, vaguely aware that his passion for her could
never be realized. But there was a spark of honesty and justice in Rogers
despite his profession, and a sincere admiration for the girl that
admitted of no thought of evil toward her.

He had almost betrayed his resentment to Deveny when in Lamo, on the day
of the coming of Harlan, Deveny had boldly announced his intentions
toward the girl; and it had been a dread of clashing with Deveny that had
kept him from interfering. The will to protect the girl had been in
Rogers' mind, but he lacked the physical courage to risk his life for
her.

This man who had boldly entered the outlaw camp, after first defying
Deveny in Lamo, had made a stirring appeal to the good in Rogers; and he
foresaw that trouble, in which Harlan had a chance to emerge victorious,
was certain. And he had decided to align himself with the Pardo gunman.

Therefore, on this morning, when it was certain that the cattle in the
corral must be moved, he deliberately refused to exercise his
prerogative. Instead, he waited until after breakfast--when the men were
congregated outside the bunkhouse door--when he was certain they would
all hear him.

Harlan had come out, too. He had not visited the Rancho Seco for more
than a week, fearing that his absence might jeopardize the advantage he
had gained over the men through the killing of Latimer.

With the attention of all the men centered upon him, Rogers walked close
to Harlan, speaking loudly:

"Them cattle ought to hit the trail, Harlan. It's up to you--you're the
boss. Do we move 'em--an' where?"

A comprehensive light gleamed in Harlan's eyes.

"They move," he said shortly. "Drive them where you've been drivin'
them."

As though he had been giving orders to the outlaws all his life, he
briskly mentioned the names of the men who were to form the trail herd.

Not a man dissented. Those whose names were called quickly detached
themselves from the group, and sought the horse corral; where they roped
their horses and began to make preparations to obey Harlan's order. And
later, when the cattle were driven out of the corral, and the trail herd
crew straggled behind them over the level that led southward, the men
were grinning.

For Harlan had told them that their share of the spoils resulting from
the sale of the cattle was to be materially increased. He had likewise
told them that they might spend an extra day in "town" before their
return.

Only one man besides Harlan remained at the Star after the herd vanished
into the southern distance. That man was the black-bearded fellow who had
escorted Harlan to the ranchhouse on the occasion of his first
visit--Lafe Woodward.

This man's admiration for Harlan had never been concealed. He had stayed
as close to Harlan as possible; and from his manner Harlan had divined
that the man was eager to ingratiate himself.

Woodward stood near Harlan as the herd and the men vanished. He had
grinned widely when, just before the outfit had departed, he had heard
Rogers whisper to Harlan:

"You've made yourself solid with the bunch, for sure, by offerin' 'em a
bigger divvy. They've been grumblin' about it for a long time. They're
all sore at Haydon an' Deveny for bein' greedy. But you're sure cookin'
up a heap of trouble with Haydon an' Deveny!"

Harlan grinned with grim mirthlessness. It had been his first opportunity
to stir up dissension and strife in the outlaw camp, and he had taken
instant advantage of it. He had created factional feeling, and he was
prepared to accept the consequences.

And, later in the day, when he saw Haydon ride in, dismount and cast a
surprised glance at the empty corral, he knew that the moment for which
he had planned, had come.

Woodward was nowhere in sight; and Harlan, who had been in the
blacksmith-shop, made himself visible to Haydon by stepping outside.

Haydon called to him, sharply; and Harlan walked slowly to where the
outlaw chief stood, a saturnine grin on his face, his eyes alight with a
cold humor that might have been illuminating to Haydon had he taken the
trouble to look into them.

Haydon was laboring under some strong passion. He was suppressing it with
an effort, but it showed in his tensed muscles and in his flushed face.

"Where are the cattle?" he demanded, his voice a trifle hoarse.

"They're headed for Willow Wells--where you've been sellin' them."

"By whose orders?" Haydon's voice was choked with passion.

"Mine," drawled Harlan. Harlan might have explained that the stock had
been suffering in the crowded enclosure, thus assuaging Haydon's wrath.
But he gave no explanation--that would have been a revelation of
eagerness to escape blame and the possible consequences of his act.
Instead of explaining he looked steadily into Haydon's eyes, his own cold
and unblinking.

He saw Haydon's wrath flare up--it was in the heightened color that
spread upward above the collar of his shirt; he saw the man's terrific
effort at self-control; and his look grew bitter with insolence.

"What's botherin' you?" he said.

"The cattle--damn it!" shouted Haydon. "What in hell do you mean by
sending them away without orders?"

"I'm havin' my say, Haydon. We agreed to split everything three ways.
Authority to give orders goes with that. That was the agreement. A man's
got to be either a captain or a private, an' I've never played second to
any man. I ain't beginnin' now."

"Why, damn you!" gasped Haydon. His eyes were aglare with a terrible rage
and hate; he stepped backward a little, bending his right arm, spreading
the fingers.

Harlan had made no move, but the light in his eyes betrayed his complete
readiness for the trouble that Haydon plainly meditated.

"Yes," he said, slowly, drawling his words, a little! "It's come to that,
I reckon. You've got to flash your gun now, or take it back. No man
cusses me an' gets away with it. Get goin'!"

Haydon stood, swaying from side to side, in the grip of a mighty
indecision. The fingers of his right hand spread wider; the hand
descended to a point nearer to his pistol holster.

There it poised, the fingers hooked, like the talons of some giant bird
about to clutch a victim.

Had Haydon faced a man with less courage; had Harlan's iron control
lacked that quality which permitted him to give an enemy that small
chance for life which he always gave them, death might have reigned at
the Star again. Haydon owed his life to that hesitation which had made
Harlan famous.

And as the strained, tense seconds passed with both men holding the
positions they had assumed, it seemed Haydon was slowly beginning to
realize that Harlan was reluctant, was deliberately giving him a chance.

A change came over Haydon. The clawlike fingers began to straighten;
imperceptibly at first, and then with a spasmodic motion that flexed the
muscles in little jerks. The hand became limp; it dropped slowly to his
side--down beyond the pistol holster. Then it came up, and the man swept
it over his eyes, as though to brush away a vision that frightened him.

His face grew pale, he shuddered; and at last he stood, swaying a little,
his mouth open with wonder for the phenomenal thing that had happened to
him.

Harlan's voice, cold and expressionless, startled him:

"You wasn't meanin' to cuss me?"

"No!" The denial was blurted forth. Haydon grinned, faintly, with hideous
embarrassment; the knowledge that he had been beaten, and that he owed
his life to Harlan, was plain in his eyes.

He laughed, uncertainly, as he made an effort to stiffen his lagging
muscles.

"I was a bit flustered, Harlan; I talked rather recklessly, I admit. You
see, I've been used to giving orders myself. I was riled for a minute."

"That goes!" said Harlan, shortly. His voice had changed. The slow drawl
had gone, and a snapping, authoritative sharpness had replaced it.

Haydon gazed at him with a new wonder. He sensed in Harlan's manner the
consciousness of power, the determination to command. At a stroke, it
seemed, Harlan had wrenched from him the right to rule. He felt himself
being relegated to a subordinate position; he felt at this minute the
ruthless force of the man who stood before him; he felt oddly impotent
and helpless, and he listened to Harlan with a queer feeling of wonder
for the absence of the rage that should have gripped him.

"I'm runnin' things from now on," Harlan said. "I ain't interferin' with
the Star. But I'm runnin' things for the boys. I told Rogers to drive the
cattle to Willow's Wells--an' to sell them. I've promised the boys a
bigger divvy. They get it. I've told them to take a day off, in town,
after they turn the cattle over.

"There's got to be a new deal. The boys are fussed up--claimin' they
ain't gettin' their share. I'm seein' that they do. You can't run a camp
like this an' not treat the boys right."

The wonder that had been aroused in Haydon grew as Harlan talked; it
increased in intensity until, when Harlan's voice died away, it developed
into suspicion.

That was what Harlan had come to the Star for! He wanted to run the camp,
to direct the activities of the outlaws in the valley. Power! Authority!
Those were the things Harlan craved for.

Haydon saw it all, now. He saw that Harlan wanted to dominate--everything.
He wanted to rule the outlaw camp; he wanted to run the Rancho Seco; he
intended to get possession of the gold that Morgan had left, and he wanted
Barbara Morgan.

The rage that had held Haydon in its clutch when he had called Harlan to
him was reviving. Haydon's face was still white, but the fury in his
eyes--slowly growing--was not to be mistaken.

Harlan saw it, and his lips straightened. He had expected Haydon would
rage over what he had determined to tell him; and he was not surprised.
He had deliberately goaded the man into his present fury. He had
determined to kill him, and he had been disappointed when he had seen
Haydon lose his courage when the crisis arrived. And now his deliberate
and premeditated plan was to bear fruit.

Harlan was reluctant to kill, but there seemed to be no other way. Haydon
was a murderer. He had killed Lane Morgan; he was an outlaw whose rule
had oppressed the valley for many months. If Harlan could have devised
some plan that would make it possible for him to attain his end without
killing anybody, he would have eagerly adopted it.

But in this country force must be fought with force. It was a grim game,
and the rules were inflexible--kill or be killed.

His own life would be safe in this section so long as he guarded it.
Eternal vigilance and the will to take life when his own was threatened
was a principle which custom had established. If he expected to save the
girl at the Rancho Seco he could not temper his actions with mercy. And
he knew that if he was to succeed in his design to disrupt the outlaw
gang he would have to remove the man who stood before him, working
himself into a new frenzy. There seemed to be no other way.

But Haydon seemed to have control of himself, now, despite the frenzied
glare of his eyes. He was outwardly cool; his movements were
deliberate--he had conquered his fear of Harlan, it seemed.

He laughed, harshly.

"Harlan," he said; "you had me going--talking that way. By Heaven! you
almost convinced me that I'd let you run things here. I was beginning
to believe I'd lost my nerve. But see here!"

He held out his right hand toward Harlan--it was steady, rigid, not a
nerve in it quivered.

"You're fast with your guns, but you can't run any whizzer in on me--you
can't intimidate me. You killed Latimer the other day; and you've got the
boys with you. But you can't run things here. Have all the boys gone?"

"Woodward's here."

Harlan spoke lowly; his eyes were keenly watchful. This flare-up on
Haydon's part was merely a phase of his confused mental condition. He saw
that Haydon did not mean to use his gun--that he intended to ignore it,
no doubt planning to regain his authority when the men of the outfit
returned--when he might enlist the support of some of them.

"Woodward's here--eh?" laughed Haydon. He raised his voice, shouting for
the man. And Harlan saw Woodward come from behind an outbuilding, look
toward the ranchhouse, and then walk slowly toward them.

Woodward halted when within several paces of the two, and looked from one
to the other curiously, his eyes narrowed with speculation.

"Woodward," directed Haydon; "hit the breeze after the outfit and tell
them to drive those cattle back here!"

Harlan grinned. "Woodward," he said, gently; "you climb on your cayuse
an' do as Haydon tells you. Haydon is figurin' on cashin' in when you
do."

Haydon blustered. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that if Woodward goes after the boys I'm goin' to blow you apart.
I'm givin' the orders around here!"

Watching Haydon, Harlan saw that he was not exhibiting rage, but intense
interest. He was not looking at Harlan, but at Woodward. And, turning
swiftly, his guns both leaping into his hands with the movement--for he
had a swift suspicion that Woodward might be standing with Haydon against
him--he saw that Woodward had fallen into a crouch; that the man's right
hand was hovering over his pistol holster, and that his eyes were
gleaming with a light that could mean only the one thing--murder.

Backing slowly away from both Haydon and Woodward, Harlan watched them,
his guns ready for instant action should he catch any sign that would
indicate trickery toward himself.

He saw no such signs. It became plain to him that Woodward had no eyes
for anyone but Haydon, and that Haydon's attention was fixed upon
Woodward with an intentness that meant he had divined that Woodward's
peculiar manner had a definite, personal meaning.

Woodward continued to advance on Haydon. He was waving his left hand as
though giving Harlan a silent order to get out of his way, while his gaze
was centered upon Haydon with an unspoken promise of violence,
fascinating to behold.

It seemed to have fascinated Haydon. Harlan saw him shrink back, the
bluster gone out of him, his face the color of ashes. He kept stepping
back, until he brought up against the rear wall of the ranchhouse; and
there he stood, watching Woodward, his eyes bulging with dread wonder.

Harlan saw his lips move; heard his voice, hoarse and throaty:

"It's a frame-up--a frame-up. Both of you are out to get me!"

"Frame-up!"

This was Woodward. He was a sinister figure, with his black beard seeming
to bristle with passion, his eyes flaming with it; all his muscles tensed
and quivering, and his right hand, with clawlike fingers, poised above
the butt of his pistol.

"Frame-up!" he repeated, laughing hoarsely between his teeth. "Hell's
fire! Do you think it takes two men to 'get' you--you miserable whelp?

"I've been waitin' for this day--waitin' for it, waitin' to get you
alone--waitin' for the boys to go so's I could tell you somethin'.

"You know what it is. You ain't guessin', eh? Listen while I tell you
somethin'. The day 'Drag' Harlan got in Lamo he brought news that Lane
Morgan had been killed out in the desert. I heard the boys sayin' you had
a hand in it. But I thought that was just talk. I didn't believe you was
that kind of a skunk. I waited.

"Then you sent me over to the edge of the level, near the Rancho
Seco--where Harlan found that flattened grass when he rode over here. You
told me to watch Harlan and Barbara Morgan. You said you thought Harlan
would try some sneak game with her.

"You can gamble I watched. I saw Harlan standin' guard over her; I saw
him follow that sneak Lawson. I heard the shot that killed Lawson, an' I
saw Harlan tote him downstairs, an' then set on the door-sill all night,
guardin' Barbara Morgan.

"The sneakin' game was played by you, Haydon. When I saw Harlan headin'
toward the valley the day he come here, I lit out ahead of him. And when
he got to the timber over there I brought him in.

"An' I heard you talk that day. I heard him sayin' that you killed Lane
Morgan. He said my dad told him you fired the shot that killed him."

Harlan started and leaned forward, amazed. But Haydon swayed, and then
steadied himself with an effort, and stared at Woodward with bulging,
incredulous eyes.

"Your dad?" he almost shrieked; "Lane Morgan was your father?"

Woodward's grin was wolfish. He took two or three steps toward
Haydon--panther-like steps that betrayed the lust that was upon him.

"I'm Billy Morgan," he said, his teeth showing in a merciless grin;
"Barbara's brother. Flash your gun, Haydon; I'm goin' to kill you!"

Haydon clawed for his pistol, missing the butt in his eagerness, and
striving wildly to draw it. It snagged on a rawhide thong that supported
the holster and his fingers were loosening in the partial grip when Billy
Morgan shot him.

He flattened against the wall of the ranchhouse for an instant, staring
wildly around him; then his head sagged forward and he slid down the wall
of the ranchhouse into the deep dust that was mounded near it.





Next: A Dead Man Walks

Previous: Left-handed



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 628