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The Real Bucky And The False







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

Number seven was churning its way furiously through brown Arizona. The day
had been hot, with a palpitating heat which shimmered over the desert
waste. Defiantly the sun had gone down beyond the horizon, a great ball of
fire, leaving behind a brilliant splash of bold colors. Now this, too, had
disappeared. Velvet night had transformed the land. Over the distant
mountains had settled a smoke-blue film, which left them vague and
indefinite.

Only three passengers rode in the Pullman car. One was a commercial
traveler, busy making up his weekly statement to the firm. Another was a
Boston lady, in gold-rimmed glasses and a costume that helped the general
effect of frigidity. The third looked out of the open window at the
distant hills. He was a slender young fellow, tanned almost to a coffee
brown, with eyes of Irish blue which sometimes bubbled with fun and
sometimes were hard as chisel steel. Wide-shouldered and lean-flanked he
was, with well-packed muscles, which rippled like those of a tiger.

At Chiquita the train stopped, but took up again almost instantly its
chant of the rail. Meanwhile, a man had swung himself to the platform of
the smoker. He passed through that car, the two day coaches, and on to the
sleeper; his keen, restless eyes inspected every passenger in the course
of his transit. Opposite the young man in the Pullman he stopped.

"May I ask if you are Lieutenant O'Connor?"

"My name, seh."

The young man in the seat had slewed his head around sharply, and made
answer with a crisp, businesslike directness.

The new-comer smiled. "I'll have to introduce myself, lieutenant. My name
is Flatray. I've come to meet you."

"Glad to meet you, Mr. Flatray. I hope that together we can work this
thing out right. MacQueen has gathered a bunch that ought to be cleaned
out, and I reckon now's the time to do it. I've been reading about him for
a year. I've got a notion he's about the ablest thing in bad men this
Territory has seen for a good many years."

Flatray sat down on the seat opposite O'Connor. A smile flicked across his
face, and vanished. "I'm of that opinion myself, lieutenant."

"Tell me all about this affair of the West kidnapping," the ranger
suggested.

The other man told the story while O'Connor listened, alert to catch every
point of the narrative.

The face of the lieutenant of rangers was a boyish one--eager, genial, and
frank; yet, none the less, strength lay in the close-gripped jaw and in
the steady, watchful eye. His lithe, tense body was like a coiled spring;
and that, too, though he seemed to be very much at ease.

With every sentence that the other spoke, O'Connor was judging Flatray,
appraising him for a fine specimen of a hard-bitten breed--a vigilant
frontiersman, competent to the finger tips. Yet he was conscious that, in
spite of the man's graceful ease and friendly smile, he did not like
Flatray. He would not ask for a better man beside him in a tight pinch;
but he could not deny that something sinister which breathed from his
sardonic, devil-may-care face.

"So that's how the land lies," the sheriff concluded. "My deputies have
got the pass to the south blocked; Lee is closing in through Elkhorn; and
Fox, with a strong posse, is combing the hills beyond Dead Man's Cache.
There's only one way out for him, and that is over Powderhorn Pass. Word
has just reached us that MacQueen is moving in that direction. He is
evidently figuring to slip out over the hills during the night. I've
arranged for us to be met at Barker's Tank by a couple of the boys, with
horses. We'll drop off the train quietly when it slows up to water, so
that none of his spies can get word of our movements to him. By hard
riding we'd ought to reach Powderhorn in time to head him off."

The ranger asked incisive questions, had the topography of the country
explained to him with much detail, and decided at last that Flatray was
right. If MacQueen were trying to slip out, they might trap him at the
pass; if not, by closing it they would put the cork in the bottle that
held him.

"We'll try it, seh. Y'u know this country better than I do, and I'll give
y'u a free hand. Unless there's a slip up in your calculations, you'd
ought to be right."

"Good enough, lieutenant. I'm betting on those plans myself," the other
answered promptly, and added, as he looked out into the night: "By that
notch in the hills, we'd ought to be close to the tank now. She's slowing
up. I reckon we can slip out to the vestibule, and get off at the far side
of the track without being noticed much."

This they found easy enough. Five minutes later number seven was steaming
away into the distant desert. Flatray gave a sharp, shrill whistle; and
from behind some sand dunes emerged two men and four horses.

"Anything new?" asked the sheriff as they came nearer.

"Not a thing, cap," answered one of them.

"Boys, shake hands with the famous Lieutenant O'Connor," said Flatray,
with a sneer hid by the darkness. "Lieutenant, let me make you acquainted
with Jeff Jackson and Buck Lane."

"Much obliged to meet you," grinned Buck as he shook hands.

They mounted and rode toward the notch in the hills that had been pointed
out to the ranger. The moon was up; and a cold, silvery light flooded the
plain. Seen in this setting, the great, painted desert held more of
mystery, of beauty, and less of the dead monotony that glared endlessly
from arid, barren reaches. The sky of stars stretched infinitely far, and
added to the effect of magnitude.

The miles slipped behind them as they moved forward, hour after hour,
their horses holding to the running walk that is the peculiar gait of the
cow country. They rode in silence, with the loose seat and straight back
of the vaquero. Except the ranger, all were dressed for riding--Flatray in
corduroys and half-knee laced boots; his men in overalls, chaps, flannel
shirts, and the broad-brimmed sombrero of the Southwest. All four were
young men; but there was an odd difference in the expressions of their
faces.

Jackson and Lane had the hard-lined faces, with something grim and stony
in them, of men who ride far and hard with their lives in their hands. The
others were of a higher type. Flatray's dark eyes were keen, bold, and
restless. One might have guessed him a man of temperament, capable of any
extremes of conduct--often the victim of his own ungovernable whims and
passions. Just as he looked a picture of all the passions of youth run to
seed, so the ranger seemed to show them in flower. There was something
fine and strong and gallant in his debonair manner. His warm smile went
out to a world that pleased him mightily.

They rode steadily, untired and untiring. The light of dawn began to
flicker from one notched summit to another. Out of the sandy waste they
came to a water hole, paused for a drink, and passed on. For the delay of
half an hour might mean the escape of their prey.

They came into the country of crumbling mesas and painted cliffs, of
hillsides where greasewood and giant cactus struggled from the parched
earth. This they traversed until they came to plateaus, terminating in
foothills, crevassed by gorges deep and narrow. The canyons grew steeper,
rock ridges more frequent. Gradually the going became more difficult.

Trails they seldom followed. Washes, with sides like walls, confronted
them. The ponies dropped down and clambered up again like mountain goats.
Gradually they were ascending into the upper country, which led to the
wild stretches where the outlaws lurked. In these watersheds were heavy
pine forests, rising from the gulches along the shoulders of the peaks.

A maze of canyons, hopelessly lost in the hill tangle into which they had
plunged, led deviously to a twisting pass, through which they defiled, to
drop into a vista of rolling waves of forest-clad hills. Among these wound
countless hidden gulches, known only to those who rode from out them on
nefarious night errands.

The ranger noted every landmark, and catalogued in his mind's map every
gorge and peak; from what he saw, he guessed much of which he could not be
sure. It would be hard to say when his suspicions first became aroused.
But as they rode, without stopping, through what he knew must be
Powderhorn Pass, as the men about him quietly grouped themselves so as to
cut off any escape he might attempt, as they dropped farther and farther
into the meshes of that forest-crowned net which he knew to be the Roaring
Fork country, he did not need to be told he was in the power of MacQueen's
gang.

Yet he gave no sign of what he knew. As daylight came, so that they could
see each other distinctly, his face showed no shadow of doubt. It was his
cue to be a simple victim of credulity, and he played it to the finish.

Without warning, through a narrow gulch which might have been sought in
vain for ten years by a stranger, they passed into the rim of a
bowl-shaped valley. Timber covered it from edge to edge, but over to the
left a keen eye could see a thinning of the foliage. Toward this they
went, following the sidehill and gradually dipping down through heavy
underbrush. Before him the officer of rangers saw daylight, and presently
a corral, low roofs, and grazing horses.

"Looks like some one lives here," he remarked amiably.

They were already riding into the open. In front of one of the log cabins
the man who had called himself Flatray swung from his saddle.

"Better 'light, lieutenant," he suggested carelessly. "We'll eat breakfast
here."

"Don't care if we do. I could eat a leather mail sack, I'm that hungry,"
the ranger answered, as he, too, descended.

His guide was looking at him with an expression of open, malevolent
triumph. He could scarce keep it back long enough to get the effect he
wanted.

"Yes, we'll eat breakfast here--and dinner, and supper, and breakfast
to-morrow, and then about two more breakfasts."

"I reckon we'll be too busy to sit around here," laughed his prisoner.

The other ignored his comment. "And after that, it ain't likely you'll do
much more eating."

"I don't quite get the point of that joke."

"You'll get it soon enough! You'd savez it now, if you weren't a
muttonhead. As it is, I'll have to explain it. Do you remember capturing
Tony Chaves two years ago, lieutenant?"

The ranger nodded, with surprise in his round, innocent eyes.

"What happened to him?" demanded the other. A child could have seen that
he was ridden by a leering, savage triumph.

"Killed trying to escape four days later."

"Who killed him?"

"I did. It was necessary. I regretted it."

A sudden spasm of cruelty swept over the face of the man confronting him.
"Tony was my partner."

"Your partner?"

"That's right. I've been wanting to say 'How d'ye do?' ever since,
Lieutenant O'Connor. I'm right glad to meet you."

"But--I don't understand." He did, however.

"It'll soak through, by and by. Chew on this: You've got just ninety-six
hours to live--exactly as long as Tony lived after you caught him! You'll
be killed trying to escape. It will be necessary, just as you say it was
with him; but I reckon I'll not do any regretting to speak of."

"You would murder me?"

"Well, I ain't particular about the word I use." MacQueen leaned against
the side of his horse, his arm thrown across its neck, and laughed in slow
maliciousness. "Execute is the word I use, though--if you want to know."

He had made no motion toward his weapon, nor had O'Connor; but the latter
knew without looking that he was covered vigilantly by both of the other
men.

"And who are you?" the ranger asked, though he was quite sure of the
answer.

"Men call me Black MacQueen," drawled the other.

"MacQueen! But you said----"

"That I was Flatray. Yep--I lied."

O'Connor appeared to grope with this in amazement.

"One has to stretch the truth sometimes in my profession," went on the
outlaw smoothly. "It may interest you to know that yesterday I passed as
Lieutenant O'Connor. When I was O'Connor I arrested Flatray; and now that
I am Flatray I have arrested O'Connor. Turn about is fair play, you
know."

"Interesting, if true," O'Connor retorted easily.

"You can bank on its truth, my friend."

"And you're actually going to kill me in cold blood."

The black eyes narrowed. "Just as I would a dog," said the outlaw, with
savage emphasis.

"I don't believe it. I've done you no harm."

MacQueen glanced at him contemptuously. The famous Bucky O'Connor looked
about as competent as a boy in the pimply age.

"I thought you had better sense. Do you think I would have brought you to
Dead Man's Cache if I had intended you to go away alive? I'm afraid,
Lieutenant Bucky O'Connor, that you're a much overrated man. Your
reputation sure would have blown up, if you had lived. You ought to thank
me for preserving it."

"Preserving it--how?"

"By bumping you off before you've lost it."

"Sho! You wouldn't do that," the ranger murmured ineffectively.

"We'll see. Jeff, I put him in your charge. Search him, and take him to
Hank's cabin. I hold you responsible for him. Bring me any papers you find
on him. When I find time, I'll drop around and see that you're keeping him
safe."

Bucky was searched, and his weapons and papers removed. After being
handcuffed, he was chained to a heavy staple, which had been driven into
one of the log walls. He was left alone, and the door was locked; but he
could hear Jeff moving about outside.

With the closing of the door the vacuous look slipped from his face like a
mask. The loose-lipped, lost-dog expression was gone. He looked once more
alert, competent, fit for the emergency. It had been his cue to let his
adversary underestimate him. During the long night ride he had had chances
to escape, had he desired to do so. But this had been the last thing he
wanted.

The outlaws had chosen to take him to their fastness in the hills. He
would back himself to use the knowledge they were thrusting upon him, to
bring about their undoing. Only one factor in the case had come upon him
as a surprise. He had not reckoned that they would have a personal grudge
against him. And this was a factor that might upset all his calculations.

It meant that he was playing against time, with the chances of the game
all against him. He had forty-eight hours in which to escape--and he was
handcuffed, chained, locked up, and guarded. Truly, the outlook was not
radiant.





Next: A Photograph

Previous: The Tables Turned



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