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The Price







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

MacQueen lost no time in announcing his new program.

"Boys, the hanging's off. I've decided to accept West's offer for
Flatray's life. It's too good to turn down."

"That's what I told you all the time," growled Buck.

"Well, I'm telling you now. The money will be divided equally among you,
except that Rosario will get my share as well as hers."

Rosario Chaves broke into fierce protests. Finding these unheeded, she
cursed the outlaws furiously and threatened vengeance upon them. She did
not want money; she wanted this man's life. The men accepted this as a
matter of course, and paid little attention to the ravings of the old
woman.

At the first news of his reprieve, Jack saw things through a haze for a
moment. But he neither broke down nor showed undue exultation.

His first thought was of relief, of profound comfort; his next of wonder
and suspicion. How under heaven had Melissy won his life for him? He
looked quickly at her, but the eyes of the girl did not meet his.

"Melissy." Flatray spoke very gently, but something in the way he spoke
compelled the young woman to meet his eyes.

Almost instantly the long lashes went down to her pale cheeks again.

MacQueen cut in suavely: "I reckon this is the time for announcements.
Boys, Miss Lee has promised to marry me."

Before the stir which this produced had died away, Flatray flashed a
question: "In exchange for my life?"

The chief of the outlaws looked at him with insolence smoldering in his
black eyes. "Now, I wonder when you ever will learn to mind your own
business, sheriff! Nobody invited you to sit into this game."

"This is my business. I make it mine. Give me a straight answer,
Melissy. Am I right? Is it for my life?"

"Yes." Her voice was so low he could hardly hear it.

"Then I won't have it! The thing is infamous. I can't hide behind the
skirts of a girl, least of all you. I can die, but, by God, I'll keep my
self-respect."

"It's all arranged," Melissy answered in a whisper.

Flatray laughed harshly. "I guess not. You can't pay my debts by giving
yourself to life-long misery."

"You're right pessimistic, sheriff," sneered MacQueen.

"What do you take me for? I won't have it. I won't have it." The sheriff's
voice was rough and hoarse. "I'd rather die fifty times."

"It's not up to you to choose, as it happens," the leader of the outlaws
suggested suavely.

"You villain! You damned white-livered coward!" The look of the young
sheriff scorched.

"Speaks right out in meeting, don't he?" grinned Lane.

"I know what he is, Jack," Melissy cried. "And he knows I think he's the
lowest thing that crawls. But I've got to save you. Don't you see, I've
got to do it?"

"No, I don't see it," Flatray answered hotly. "I can take what's coming to
me, can't I? But if you save my life that way you make me as low a thing
as he is. I say I'll not have it."

Melissy could stand it no longer. She began to sob. "I--I--Oh, Jack, I've
got to do it. Don't you see? Don't you see? It won't make any difference
with me if I don't. No difference--except that you'll be--dead."

She was in his embrace, her arms around his neck, whispering the horrible
truth in his ear brokenly. And as he felt her dear young fragrance of
hair in his nostrils, the warm, soft litheness of her body against his,
the rage and terror in him flooded his veins. Could such things be? Was it
possible a man like that could live? Not if he could help it.

Gently he unfastened her arms from his neck. MacQueen was standing a dozen
feet away, his hands behind his back and his legs wide apart. As Flatray
swung around the outlaw read a warning in the blazing eyes. Just as Jack
tore loose from his guards MacQueen reached for his revolver.

The gun flashed. A red hot blaze scorched through Jack's arm. Next instant
MacQueen lay flat on his back, the sheriff's fingers tight around his
throat. If he could have had five seconds more the man's neck would have
been broken. But they dragged him away, fighting like a wild cat. They
flung him down and tied his hands behind him.

Melissy caught a glimpse of his bleeding arm, his torn and dusty face, the
appalling ferocity of the men who were hammering him into the ground. She
took a step forward blindly. The mountains in front of her tilted into the
sky. She moved forward another step, then stumbled and went down. She had
fainted.

"Just as well," MacQueen nodded. "Here, Rosario, look after the young
lady. Lift Flatray to a horse, boys, after you've blindfolded him. Good
enough. Oh, and one thing more, Flatray. You're covered by a rifle. If you
lift a hand to slip that handkerchief from your eyes, you're giving the
signal for Jeff to turn loose at you. We're going to take you away, but we
don't aim to let you out of the Cache for a few days yet."

"What do you mean?"

MacQueen jeered at his prisoner openly. "I mean, Mr. Sheriff, that you'll
stay with us till the girl does as she has promised. Understand?"

"I think so, you hellhound. You're going to hold me against her so that
she can't change her mind."

"Exactly. So that she can't rue back. You've guessed it."

They rode for hours, but in what direction it was impossible for Flatray
to guess. He could tell when they were ascending, when dropping down hill,
but in a country so rugged this meant nothing.

When at last he dismounted and the kerchief was taken from his eyes he
found himself in a little pocket of the hills in front of an old log
cabin. Jeff stayed with him. The others rode away. But not till they had
him safely tied to a heavy table leg within the hut.





Next: Squire Latimer Takes A Hand

Previous: A Bargain



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