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The Dregs








From: 'firebrand' Trevison

When the Benham private car came to a stop on the switch, Rosalind swung
up the steps and upon the platform just as J. C., ruddy, smiling and
bland, opened the door. She was in his arms in an instant, murmuring her
joy. He stroked her hair, then held her off for a good look at her, and
inquired, unctuously:

"What are you doing in town so early, my dear?"

"Oh!" She hid her face on his shoulder, reluctant to tell him. But she
knew he must be told, and so she steeled herself, stepping back and
looking at him, her heart pounding madly.

"Father; these people have discovered that Corrigan has been trying to
cheat them!"

She would have gone on, but the sickly, ghastly pallor of his face
frightened her. She swayed and leaned against the railing of the platform,
a sinking, deadly apprehension gnawing at her, for it seemed from the
expression of J. C.'s face that he had some knowledge of Corrigan's
intentions. But J. C. had been through too many crises to surrender at the
first shot in this one. Still he got a good grip on himself before he
attempted to answer, and then his voice was low and intoned with casual
surprise:

"Trying to cheat them? How, my dear?"

"By trying to take their land from them. You had no knowledge of it,
Father?"

"Who has been saying that?" he demanded, with a fairly good pretense of
righteous anger.

"Nobody. But I thought--I--Oh, thank God!"

"Well, well," he bluffed with faint reproach; "things are coming to a
pretty pass when one's own daughter is the first to suspect him of
wrong-doing."

"I didn't, Father. I was merely--I don't know what I did think! There
has been so much excitement! Everything is so upset! They have blown up
the mining machinery, burned the bank and the courthouse; Judge Lindman
was abducted and found; Braman was killed--choked to death; the Vigilantes
are--"

"Good God!" Benham interrupted her, staggering back against the rear of
the coach. "Who has been at the bottom of all this lawlessness?"

"Trevison."

He gasped, in spite of the fact that he had suspected what her answer
would be.

"Where is Corrigan? Where's Trevison?" He demanded, his hands shaking.
"Answer me! Where are they?"

"I don't know," the girl returned, dully. "They say Trevison is hiding in
a pueblo not far from the Bar B. And that Corrigan left here early this
morning, with a number of deputies, to try to capture him. And those
men--" She indicated the horsemen gathered in front of the Belmont, whom
he had not seen, "are organizing to go to Trevison's rescue. They have
discovered that Corrigan murdered Braman, though Corrigan accused
Trevison."

J. C. flattened himself against the rear wall of the coach and looked with
horror upon the armed riders. There were forty or fifty of them now, and
others were joining the group. "Where's Judge Lindman?" he faltered.
"Can't this lawlessness be stopped?"

"It is only a few minutes ago that Judge Lindman was dragged from a shed
into which he had been forced by Corrigan--after being beaten by him. He
made a public confession of his part in the attempted fraud, and charged
Corrigan with coercing him. Those men are aroused, Father. I don't know
what the end will be, but I am afraid--I'm afraid they'll--"

"I shall give the engineer orders to pull my car out of here!" J. C.'s
face was chalky white.

"No, no!" cried the girl, sharply. "That would make them think you
were--Don't run, Father!" she begged, omitting the word which she
dreaded to think might become attached to him should he go away, now that
some of them had seen him. "We'll stand our ground, Father. If Corrigan
has done those things he deserves to be punished!" Her lips, white and
stiff, closed firmly.

"Yes, yes," he said; "that's right--we won't run." But he drew her inside,
despite her objections, and from a window they watched the members of the
Vigilantes gathering, bristling with weapons, a sinister and ominous arm
of that law which is the dread and horror of the evil-doer.

There came a movement, concerted, accompanied by a low rumble as of waves
breaking on a rocky shore. It brought the girl out of her chair, through
the door and upon the car platform, where she stood, her hands clasped
over her breast, her breath coming gaspingly. His knees knocking together,
his face the ashen gray of death, Benham stumbled after her. He did not
want to go; did not care to see this thing--what might happen--what his
terror told him would happen; but he was forced out upon the platform by
the sheer urge of a morbid curiosity that there was no denying; it had
laid hold of his soul, and though he cringed and shivered and tottered, he
went out, standing close to the iron rail, gripping it with hands that
grew blueish-white around the knuckles; watching with eyes that bulged,
his lips twitching over soundless words. For he could not hold himself
guiltless in this thing; it could not have happened had he tempered his
smug complacence with thoughts of justice. He groaned, gibbering, for he
stood on the brink at this minute, looking down at the lashing sea of
retribution.

The girl paid no attention to him. She was watching the men down the
street. The concerted movement had come from them. Nearly a hundred riders
were on the move. Lefingwell, huge, grim, led them down the street toward
the private car. For an instant the girl felt a throb of terror, thinking
that they might have designs on the man who stood at the railing near her,
unable to move--for he had the same thought. She murmured thankfully when
they wheeled, and without looking in her direction loped their horses
toward a wide, vacant space between some buildings, which led out into the
plains, and through which she had ridden often when entering Manti.
Watching the men, shuddering at the ominous aspect they presented, she saw
a tremor run through them--as though they all formed one body. They came
to a sudden stop. She heard a ripple of sound arise from them, amazement
and anticipation. And then, as though with preconcerted design, though she
had heard no word spoken, the group divided, splitting asunder with a
precision that deepened the conviction of preconcertedness, ranging
themselves on each side of the open space, leaving it gaping barrenly,
unobstructed--a stretch of windrowed alkali dust, deep, light and
feathery.

Silence, like a stroke, fell over the town. The girl saw people running
toward the open space, but they seemed to make no noise--they might have
been dream people. And then, noting that they all stared in one direction,
she looked over their heads. Not more than four or five hundred feet from
the open space, and heading directly toward it, thundered a rider on a
tall, strong, rangy horse. The beast's chest was foam-flecked, the white
lather that billowed around its muzzle was stained darkly. But it came on
with heart-breaking effort, giving its rider its all. Behind the first
rider came a second, not more than fifty feet distant from the other, on a
black horse which ran with no effort, seemingly, sliding along with great,
smooth undulations, his mighty muscles flowing like living things under
his glossy, somber coat.

The girl saw the man on his back leaning forward, a snarling, terrible
grin on his face. She saw the first rider wheel when he reached the edge
of the open space near the waiting Vigilantes, bring his horse to a
sliding halt and face toward his pursuer. He clawed at a hip pocket,
drawing a pistol that flashed in the first rays of the morning sun--it
belched fire and smoke in a continuous stream, seemingly straight at the
rider of the black horse. One--two--three--four--five--six times! The girl
counted. But the first man's hand wabbled, and the rider of the black
horse came on like a demon astride a black bolt, a laugh of bitter
derision on his lips. The black did not swerve. Straight and true in his
headlong flight he struck the other horse. They went down in a smother of
dust, the two horses grunting, scrambling and kicking. The girl had seen
the rider of the black horse lunge forward at the instant of impact; he
had thrown himself at the other man as she had seen football players
launch themselves at players of the opposition, and they had both reeled
out of their saddles to disappear in the smother of dust.

Men left the fringe of the living wall flanking the open space and seized
the two horses, leading them away. The smother drifted, and the girl
screamed at sight of the two raging things that rolled and burrowed in the
deep dust of the street.

* * * * *

They got up as she watched them, springing apart hesitating for an awful
instant to sob breath into their lungs; then they rushed together,
striking bitter, sledge-hammer blows that sounded like the smashing of
flat rocks, falling from a great height, on the surface of water. She
shrieked once, wildly, beseeching someone to stop them, but no man paid
any attention to her cry. They sat on their horses, silent, tense, grim,
and she settled into a coma of terror, an icy paralysis gripping her. She
heard her father muttering incoherently at her side, droning and puling
something over and over in a wailing monotone--she caught it after a
while; he was calling upon his God--in an hour that could not have been
were it not for his own moral flaccidness.

The dust under the feet of the fighting men leveled under their shifting,
dragging feet; it bore the print of their bodies where they had lain and
rolled in it; erupting volcanoes belched it heavily upward; it caught and
gripped their legs to the ankles, making their movements slow and sodden.
This condition favored the larger man. He lashed out a heavy fist that
caught Trevison full and fair on the jaw, and the latter's face turned
ashy white as he sank to his knees. Corrigan stopped to catch his breath
before he hurled himself forward, and this respite, brief as it was,
helped the other to shake off the deadening effect of the blow. He moved
his head slightly as Corrigan swung at it, and the blow missed, its force
pulling the big man off his feet, so that he tumbled headlong over his
adversary. He was up again in a flash though, for he was fresher than his
enemy. They clinched, and stood straining, matching strength against
strength, sheer, without trickery, for the madness of murder was in the
heart of one and the desperation of fear in the soul of the other, and
they thought of nothing but to crush and batter and pound.

Corrigan's strength was slightly the greater, but it was offset by the
other's fury. In the clinch the big man's right hand came up, the heel of
the palm shoved with malignant ferocity against Trevison's chin.
Corrigan's left arm was around Trevison's waist, squeezing it like a vise,
and the whole strength of Corrigan's right arm was exerted to force the
other's head back. Trevison tried to slip his head sideways to escape the
hold, but the effort was fruitless. Changing his tactics, his breath
lagging in his throat from the terrible pressure on it, Trevison worked
his right hand into the other's stomach with the force and regularity of a
piston rod. The big man writhed under the punishment, dropping his hand
from Trevison's chin to his waist, swung him from his feet and threw him
from him as a man throws a bag of meal.

He was after him before he landed, but the other writhed and wriggled in
the air like a cat, and when the big man reached for him, trying again to
clinch, he evaded the arm and landed a crushing blow on the other's chin
that snapped his head back as though it were swung from a hinge, and sent
him reeling, to his knees in the dust.

The watching girl saw the ring of men around the fighters contract; she
saw Trevison dive headlong at the kneeling man; with fingers working in a
fury of impotence she swayed at the iron rail, leaning far over it, her
eyes strained, her breath bated, constricting her lungs as though a steel
band were around them. For she seemed to feel that the end was near.

She saw them, locked in each other's embrace, stagger to their feet.
Corrigan's head was wabbling. He was trying to hold the other to him that
he might escape the lashing blows that were driven at his head. The girl
saw his hold broken, and as he reeled, catching another blow in the mouth,
he swung toward her and she saw that his lips were smashed, the blood from
them trickling down over his chin. There was a gleam of wild, despairing
terror in his eyes--revealing the dawning consciousness of approaching
defeat, complete and terrible. She saw Trevison start another blow,
swinging his fist upward from his knee. It landed with a sodden squish on
the big man's jaw. His eyes snapped shut, and he dropped soundlessly, face
down in the dust.

For a space Trevison stood, swaying drunkenly, looking down at his beaten
enemy. Then he drew himself erect with a mighty effort and swept the crowd
with a glance, the fires of passion still leaping and smoldering in his
eyes. He seemed for the first time to see the Vigilantes, to realize the
significance of their presence, and as he wheeled slowly his lips parted
in a grin of bitter satisfaction. He staggered around the form of his
fallen enemy, his legs bending at the knees, his feet dragging in the
dust. It seemed to the girl that he was waiting for Corrigan to get up
that he might resume the fight, and she cried out protestingly. He wheeled
at the sound of her voice and faced her, rocking back and forth on his
heels and toes, and the glow of dull astonishment in his eyes told her
that he was now for the first time aware of her presence. He bowed to her,
gravely, losing his balance in the effort, reeling weakly to recover it.

And then a crush of men blotted him out--the ring of Vigilantes had closed
around him. She saw Barkwell lunging through the press to gain Trevison's
side; she got a glimpse of him a minute later, near Trevison. The street
had become a sea of jostling, shoving men and prancing horses. She wanted
to get away--somewhere--to shut this sight from her eyes. For though one
horror was over, another impended. She knew it, but could not move. A
voice boomed hoarsely, commandingly, above the buzz of many others--it was
Lefingwell's, and she cringed at the sound of it. There was a concerted
movement; the Vigilantes were shoving the crowd back, clearing a space in
the center. In the cleared space two men were lifting Corrigan to his
feet. He was reeling in their grasp, his chin on his chest, his face
dust-covered, disfigured, streaked with blood. He was conquered, his
spirit broken, and her heart ached with pity for him despite her horror
for his black deeds. The loop of a rope swung out as she watched; it fell
with a horrible swish over Corrigan's head and was drawn taut, swiftly,
and a hoarse roar of approval drowned her shriek.

She heard Trevison's voice, muttering in protest, but his words, like her
shriek, were lost in the confusion of sound. She saw him fling his arms
wide, sending Barkwell and another man reeling from him; he reached for
the pistol at his side and leveled it at the crowd. Those nearest him
shrank, their faces blank with fear and astonishment. But the man with the
rope stood firm, as did Lefingwell, grim, his face darkening with wrath.

"This is the law actin' here, 'Firebrand,'" he said, his voice level.
"You've done your bit, an' you're due to step back an' let justice take a
hand. This here skunk has outraged every damned rule of decency an' honor.
He's tried to steal all our land; he's corrupted our court, nearly guzzled
Judge Lindman to death, killed Braman--an' Barkwell says the bunch of
pluguglies he hired to pose as deputies, has killed Clay Levins an' four
or five of the Diamond K men. That's plenty. We'd admire to give in to
you. We'll do anything else you say. But this has got to be done."

While Lefingwell had been talking two of the Vigilantes had slipped to the
rear of Trevison. As Lefingwell concluded they leaped. The arms of one man
went around Trevison's neck; the other man lunged low and pinned his arms
to his sides, one hand grasping the pistol and wrenching it from his hand.
The crowd closed again. The girl saw Corrigan lifted to the back of a
horse, and she shut her eyes and hung dizzily to the railing, while tumult
and confusion raged around her.

She opened her eyes a little later, to see Barkwell and another man
leading Trevison into the front door of the Castle. The street around
the car was deserted, save for two or three men who were watching her
curiously. She felt her father's arms around her, and she was led into the
car, her knees shaking, her soul sick with the horror of it all.

Half an hour later, as she sat at one of the windows, staring stonily out
in the shimmering sunlight of the street, she saw some of the Vigilantes
returning. She shrank back from the window, shuddering.





Next: The Calm

Previous: The Fight



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