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The Old Trail








From: Hidden Gold

For another mile Wade followed the main road and then diverged sharply
to the left into what was known as the old, or upper, trail. This had
formerly been the valley road until made dangerous by a wash-out a year
or two previous. In the following spring the wash-out had been partially
repaired, but the going was still so rough that the new road was
widened, and had been used by preference ever since. The old trail,
however, was nearly four miles the shorter of the two, and was still
traveled in cases of emergency, although to do so at speed and in the
dark was hazardous.

Wade's promise to Dorothy to take good care of himself had been made
with mental reservation, for, obsessed by his anxiety over Santry, the
young ranchman was in no mood to spare either himself or his horse. His
going was marked by a constant shower of stones, sometimes behind him,
as the wiry cayuse climbed like a mountain goat; but as often in front,
as horse and rider coasted perilously down some declivity. The horse
sweated and trembled with nervousness, as a frightened child might, but
never refused to attempt what its master demanded of it. One might
almost say that there existed a human understanding between man and
beast as to the importance of their errand; a common impulse, which
urged them onward.

When Wade reflected that Dorothy, too, had come over that trail by night
in his interest, he thought her more than ever a wonderful girl. Even to
one born and raised in the cattle country, the trip would have been
difficult; but then he realized that Dorothy seemed much like a
ranch-bred girl in her courage and frank womanliness, nor was she any
less charming on that account. After all, he thought, women paid too
highly for little accomplishments, if to gain them they had to sacrifice
the vital points of character. He could not help but contrast Helen's
insistence that she should be escorted back to the hotel with Dorothy's
brave ride alone, and while he was too loyal to Helen Rexhill to blame
her in this respect, the thing made a deep impression upon him.

The way was long, and he had time for many thoughts. It was natural, in
the still night, with Dorothy only a little while gone, that he should
think tenderly of her, for this cost Santry nothing. For Santry, Wade
was reserving not thought but action. He was making up his mind that if
Moran had taken the foreman into custody on a trumped up charge of
murder, the agent should feel the power of a greater tribunal than any
court in the locality--the law of the Strong Arm! Behind him in this,
the ranchman knew, was the whole of the cattle faction, and since war
had been thrust upon them he would not stop until the end came, whatever
it might be. His conscience was clean, for he had exerted himself
manfully in the cause of peace, even to the point where his own
character had suffered, and now the hour of reprisal was at hand.

He rode, at last, over the top of the Divide and into the little draw
that led up to the ranch buildings, in the windows of which lights
gleamed. With an imprecation at sight of them, he tied his horse to a
post, and, revolver in hand, crept toward the house as quietly as a
Sioux.

Except for the light, there was no sign of life about the place, and
Wade craftily advanced into the deeper shadows close to the wall of the
house. Taking off his hat, so that the crown might not betray him, he
peeped through a window. What he saw made him clinch his fingers and
grit his teeth in rage.

Inside were half a dozen men, besides three of his own ranch hands who
lay trussed up like turkeys in one corner of the room; doubtless they
had been surprised by the posse before they had opportunity to run or
put up a fight. Moran was there, stretched comfortably on Wade's own
cot, smoking a cigar. Once, he looked directly toward the window at
which the watcher had placed himself, but the latter did not move.
Instead, he fingered his gun and waited; he was not sure that he really
wanted to avoid detection; if it came, Moran would pay, and the rest, at
the moment, did not seem to matter. He had forgotten Dorothy entirely.

But Santry was not there and this fact puzzled Wade. The Sheriff was not
there either, and presently it occurred to the cattleman that a part of
the posse, with Santry, might have returned to Crawling Water over the
main trail. Probably Moran, with the rest, was waiting for him. The
mere thought of Santry already on his way to jail filled Wade with a
baffling sense of rage, and creeping from the house, he examined the
surrounding turf by the faint rays of the moon. It was badly cut up by
the feet of many horses, and several minutes passed before Wade was
really sure that a number of mounted men had taken the trail back to
town. Satisfied of this at length, he untied his horse and swung into
the saddle.

Before riding away he considered the advisability of driving off the
horses belonging to Moran's party, but there would still be others in
the corral, and besides their absence, when discovered, would give
warning of the impending attack. On second thought, however, he quietly
made his way to the corral and caught a fresh horse of his own. When he
had saddled it he set out over the old trail for the big pine.

When he reached the rendezvous his men were not there; but knowing that
he must meet them if he followed the road from there on he did not stop.
He came upon them in a few minutes, riding toward him at full speed,
with Tim Sullivan in the van, too drunk to stand erect, but able to
balance himself on a horse's back, drunk or sober.

"We come acrost Santry and the Sheriff a while back," explained Big Bob
Lawson, one of Wade's own punchers. "They must be in town by now. We was
aimin' to light into 'em, but Santry wouldn't hear of it. Course, we
took our orders from him same as usual. He said to tell you that you
wanted him to keep quiet, an' that's what he aimed to do."

"He said we wasn't to tell you that he didn't shoot them Swedes," put in
another of the men.

"What?" Wade demanded sharply.

"He said--hic!" broke in Tim Sullivan, with drunken gravity. "He
said--hic!--that if you didn't know that without--hic!--bein' told, you
wasn't no friend of his'n, an'--hic!--you could go to hell."

"Shut up, you drunken fool!" Lawson snapped out.

"Jensen and his herder were shot in the back, they say. That clears
Santry," Wade declared, and sat for some moments in deep thought, while
the men waited as patiently as they could. "Lawson," he said, at last.
"You're in charge for the present. Take the boys to the big pine and
camp there quietly until I come back. I'm going into town."

"Hadn't you better take us with you, boss? We'll stick. We're for you
an' Bill Santry an' ag'in' these--sheepherders, whenever you say the
word."

"That's--hic--what we are!" Sullivan hiccoughed.

Wade shook his head.

"No. You wait for me at the pine. You'll have to rustle your grub the
best way you can. I may not get back until to-morrow--until this
evening--it's morning now. But wait until I come. There will be plenty
for you to do later on and there is no use of you going back to town
with me. It might get you into worse trouble than you're headed for
already, and what I've got to do, I can do alone."

Wheeling his horse, he rode off toward Crawling Water.

That he could take his men with him, storm the jail and release Santry,
Wade did not doubt, but to do so would be to bring each of the men into
open conflict with the law, a responsibility which he was resolved to
bear alone. Then, too, because his long ride had cooled him somewhat, he
intended to make one more appeal to the Senator. Possibly, Moran had
exceeded his instructions, and if this were so, it was no more than just
that Rexhill, who had seemed to evince a willingness to be helpful,
should have the opportunity to disown the act of his agent. Besides, if
Santry could be peaceably released, he would be freed of the charge
hanging over him, which would not be the case if he were taken from the
jail by strategy or violence.

* * * * *

With haggard countenance and inflamed eyes, Wade bore little resemblance
to his normal self when he again appeared before the Senator, who
received him in his dressing-gown, being just out of bed. Rexhill
listened with a show of sympathy to the cattleman's story, but evidently
he was in a different mood from the day before.

"My boy, your friendship for your foreman is leading you astray. Your
faith in him, which is natural and does you credit, is blinding you to
an impartial view of the case. Why not let the law take its course? If
Santry is innocent his trial will prove it. At any rate, what can I do?"

"Senator--" Wade spoke with intense weariness. "Only yesterday you
offered to help us. The situation, as I explained it then, is unchanged
now, except for the worse. Bill Santry is free of any complicity in
Jensen's death. I am positive of it. He sent me word that he had not
left the ranch, and he would not lie to save himself from hanging.
Besides, the men were shot in the back, and that is absolute proof that
Santry didn't do it."

"Mere sentiment, Gordon; mere sentiment. Proof? Pooh!"

Rexhill's slightly contemptuous tone worked upon Wade in his exhausted,
overwrought condition, and stung him. A strange look of cunning appeared
in his eyes, as he leaned across the table which separated them.

"Senator, Moran made me an offer the other day for my land. If--I accept
that offer, will you exert your influence in Santry's behalf?"

Coming so swiftly upon his planning, the prospect of such signal success
was so gratifying to Rexhill that only in halting speech could he
maintain a show of decorous restraint. His countenance expressed
exultant relief, as well it might, since he seemed to see himself
snatched out of the jaws of ruin.

"Why, Gordon, I--Of course, my boy, if you were to show such a generous
spirit as that, I--er--should feel bound...." The sense of his remarks
was lost in the crash of Wade's fist upon the table.

"Damn you!" The cattleman was beyond himself with fatigue, rage, and a
rankling sense of injustice. "They told me that was your game. I
believed it of Moran, but I thought you were square. So you're that
sort, too, eh? Well, may you rot in hell before you get my land, you
robber! Now listen to me." He waved his hand in the direction of the
street. "Out there's a hundred men--real men--who're waiting the word to
run you out of this country, you and Moran, too, and by God we'll do
it--we'll do it--and we'll begin right away!" Again his heavy fist
crashed down on the table "Never mind Bill Santry"--the instinct of
discretion was gaining in Wade.--"He can stay where he is for the
present. First, we'll attend to you pirates--then we'll see."

He stopped suddenly at sight of Helen, who attracted by the noise, had
entered the room, and stood before him in a filmy negligee.

"What is the matter, Gordon?" she demanded anxiously.

"I beg your pardon." Wade spoke awkwardly, unashamed of himself, except
for her. "I'm worn out and I--I lost my temper."

"Will you--er--leave this room!" The Senator was beginning to pull
himself together. It was the first time he had ever been ragged in such
a way, and his composure had suffered; he spoke now with more than his
usual pomposity.

"I will," Wade answered curtly, as he turned on his heel and departed.

The Senator, puffing slightly, fiddled with his glasses.

"Your young friend has seen fit to accuse me of--of--" For the life of
him, he could not at once say of just what he had been accused, unless
he allowed self-accusation to prompt his words. "Some sheepherders have
been murdered, I believe," he went on, "and Wade seems to think that
Moran and I are implicated."

"You!" his daughter exclaimed; evidently her amazement did not extend to
Moran.

"Preposterous nonsense!"

"Yes, of course." Helen walked to the window and stood looking down into
the street. "I'm afraid Gordon hasn't improved since we saw him last,"
she added, finally. "He seems quite a different person from the man I
used to know. What are you going to do about it?"

"Crush him!" The Senator's lips set in a thin, white line, as his hand
descended on the table on the spot where Wade's fist had fallen. "This,
apparently, is his gratitude to me for my interest in him. Now I intend
to show him the other side of me."

"Certainly, no one could blame you for punishing him. Oh, everything
between him and me is quite over," said the girl, with a peculiar smile.
"He's a perfect bear."

"I'm glad you feel that way about it, Helen." Her father's set lips
relaxed into a responsive smile. "You couldn't be my daughter and not
have some sense."

"Have I any?" Helen naively asked.

She was gazing out of the window again, and to her mind's eye the dusty,
squalid street became a broad highway, with jewelers' shops on either
side, and modistes, and other such charming things, just as they are
found in New York, or--Paris!





Next: Higher Than Statute Law

Previous: Murder



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