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The Storm Bursts








From: Hidden Gold

The vigilantes had entered Crawling Water at about ten o'clock, when the
saloons and gambling joints were in full swing. Ribald songs and oaths
from the players, drinkers, and hangers-on floated into the street, with
now and then the bark of a six-shooter telling of drunken sport or
bravado. Few people were abroad; good citizens had retired to their
homes, and the other half was amusing itself.

So it was, at first, that few noticed the troop of horsemen which swung
in at one end of the town, to ride slowly and silently down the main
street. Each of the hundred men in the troop carried a rifle balanced
across his saddle pommel; each was dressed in the garb of the
range-rider; and the face of each, glimpsed by the light from some
window or doorway, was grimly stern. The sight was one calculated to
make Fear clutch like an ice-cold hand at the hearts of those with
guilty consciences; a spectacle which induced such respectable men as
saw it to arm themselves and fall in behind the advancing line. These
knew without being told what this noiseless band of stern-eyed riders
portended, and ever since the coming of Moran into Crawling Water
Valley, they had been waiting for just this climax.

Before the first of the dives, the troop halted as Wade raised his right
arm high in the air. Twenty of the men dismounted to enter the
glittering doorway, while the remainder of the vigilantes waited on
their horses. A few seconds after the twenty had disappeared, the music
of the piano within abruptly ceased. The shrill scream of a frightened
woman preceded a couple of pistol shots and the sounds of a scuffle;
then, profound silence. Presently the twenty reappeared guarding a
handful of prisoners, who were disarmed and hustled across the street to
an empty barn, where they were placed under a guard of citizen
volunteers.

So they proceeded, stopping now and then to gather in more prisoners,
who were in turn escorted to the temporary jail, while the column
continued its relentless march. The system in their attack seemed to
paralyze the activities of the Moran faction and its sycophants; there
was something almost awe-inspiring in the simple majesty of the thing.
By now the whole town was aware of what was taking place; men were
scurrying hither and thither, like rats on a sinking ship. Occasionally
one, when cornered and in desperation, put up a fight; but for the most
part, the "bad men" were being captured without bloodshed. Few bad men
are so "bad" that they would not rather live, even in captivity, than
come to their full reward in the kingdom of Satan. Frightened and
disorganized, the enemy seemed incapable of any concentrated resistance.
As Santry succinctly put it: "They've sure lost their goat."

Not until the troop reached Monte Joe's place, which was the most
imposing of them all, was real opposition encountered. Here a number of
the choicer spirits from the Moran crowd had assembled and barricaded
the building, spurred on by the knowledge that a rope with a running
noose on one end of it would probably be their reward if captured alive.
Monte Joe, a vicious, brutal ruffian, was himself in command and spoke
through the slats of a blind, when the vigilantes stopped before the
darkened building.

"What d'you want?" he hoarsely demanded.

"You, and those with you," Wade curtly answered.

The gambler peered down into the street, his little blood-shot eyes
blinking like a pig's. "What for?" he growled.

"We'll show you soon enough," came in a rising answer from the crowd.
"Open up!"

Monte Joe withdrew from the window, feeling that he was doomed to death,
but resolved to sell his life dearly. "Go to hell!" he shouted.

Wade gave a few tersely worded orders. Half a dozen of his men ran to a
nearby blacksmith shop for sledge hammers, with which to beat in the
door of the gambling house, while the rest poured a hail of bullets into
the windows of the structure. Under the onslaught of the heavy hammers,
swung by powerful arms, the door soon crashed inward, and the besiegers
poured through the opening. The fight which ensued was short and fierce.
Outnumbered though the defenders were, they put up a desperate battle,
but they were quickly beaten down and disarmed.

Shoved, dragged, carried, some of them cruelly wounded and a few dead
but all who lived swearing horribly, the prisoners were hustled to the
street. Last of all came Monte Joe, securely held by two brawny
cow-punchers. At sight of his mottled, blood-besmeared visage, the crowd
went wild.

"Hang him! Lynch the dirty brute! Get a rope!" The cry was taken up by
fifty voices.

Hastily running the gambler beneath a convenient tree, they proceeded to
adjust a noose about his neck. In another instant Monte Joe's soul would
have departed to the Great Beyond but for a series of interruptions.
Wade created the first of these by forcing his big, black horse through
the throng.

"Listen, men!" he roared. "You must stop this! This man--all of
them--must have a fair trial."

"Trial be damned!" shouted a bearded rancher. "We've had enough law in
this valley. Now we're after justice."

Cheering him the crowd roared approbation of the sentiment, for even the
law-abiding seemed suddenly to have gone mad with blood-lust. Wade, his
face flushed with anger, was about to reply to them when Santry forced
his way to the front. Ever since Wade had released the old man from
jail, he had been impressed with the thought that, no matter what his
own views, gratitude demanded that he should instantly back up his
employer.

"Justice!" snapped the old man, pushing his way into the circle that had
formed around the prisoner, a pistol in each hand. "Who's talkin' o'
justice? Ain't me an' Wade been handed more dirt by this bunch o'
crooks than all the rest o' you combined? Joe's a pizenous varmint, but
he's goin' to get something he never gave--a square deal. You hear me?
Any man that thinks different can settle the p'int with me!"

He glared at the mob, his sparse, grizzled mustache seeming actually to
bristle. By the dim light of a lantern held near him his aspect was
terrifying. A gash on his forehead had streaked one side of his face
with blood, while his eyes, beneath their shaggy thatch of brows,
appeared to blaze like live coals. Involuntarily, those nearest him
shrank back a pace but only for a moment for such a mob was not to be
daunted by threats. A low murmur of disapproval was rapidly swelling
into a growl of anger, when Sheriff Thomas appeared.

"Gentlemen!" he shouted, springing upon a convenient box. "The law must
be respected, and as its representative in this community...."

"Beat it, you old turkey buzzard!" cried an irate puncher, wildly
brandishing a brace of Colts before the officer. "To hell with the law
and you, too. You ain't rep'sentative of nothin' in this community!"

"Men!" Wade began again.

"String the Sheriff up, too," somebody yelled.

"By right of this star...." Thomas tapped the badge on his vest. "I
am...."

"Pull on the rope!" cried the bearded rancher, and his order would have
been executed but for Wade's detaining hand.

"I'm Sheriff here." Thomas was still trying to make himself heard,
never noticing three men, who were rolling in behind him a barrel, which
they had taken from a nearby store. "I demand that the law be respected,
and that I be permitted to--to...." He stopped to sneeze and sputter,
for having knocked in the top of the barrel, which contained flour, the
three men had emptied its contents over the officer's head.

His appearance as he tried to shake himself free of the sticky stuff,
which coated him from head to foot, was so ludicrous that a roar of
laughter went up from the mob. It was the salvation of Monte Joe, for
Wade, laughing himself, took advantage of the general merriment to urge
his plea again in the gambler's behalf. This time the mob listened to
him.

"All right, Wade," a man cried. "Do as you like with the cuss. This is
mostly your funeral, anyhow."

"Yes, let the ---- go," called out a dozen voices.

By this time the close formation of the vigilantes was broken. From time
to time, men had left the ranks in pursuit of skulkers, and finding the
way back blocked by the crowd, had taken their own initiative
thereafter. Wade and Santry could not be everywhere at once, and so it
happened that Lem Trowbridge was the only one of the leaders to be
present when Tug Bailey was taken out of the jail. Trowbridge had not
Wade's quiet air of authority, and besides, he had allowed his own blood
to be fired by the "clean up." He might have attempted to save the
murderer had time offered, but when the confession was wrung from him,
the mob, cheated of one lynching, opened fire upon him as by a common
impulse. In the batting of an eyelash, Bailey fell in a crumpled heap,
his body riddled by bullets.

Meanwhile, Wade and Santry were searching for the chief cause of all
their trouble, Race Moran. They were not surprised to find his office
vacant, but as the night wore on and the saffron hues of dawn appeared
in the sky, and still he was not found, they became anxious. Half of the
gratification of their efforts would be gone, unless the agent was made
to pay the penalty of his crimes. Wade inquired of the men he met, and
they too had seen nothing of the wily agent. The search carried them to
the further end of the town without result, when Wade turned to Santry.

"Hunt up Lem and see if he knows anything," he said. "I'll meet you in
front of the hotel. I'm going to ride out and see if I can dig up any
news on the edge of town. Moran may have made a get-away."

With a nod, Santry whirled his horse and dashed away, and Wade rode
forward toward an approaching resident, evidently of faint heart, who
meant, so it seemed, to be in for the "cakes" even though he had missed
the "roast." A little contemptuously, the ranchman put his question.

"Yes, I seen him; leastwise, I think so," the man answered. "He went
past my house when the shootin' first started. How are the boys makin'
out?"

"Which way did he go?" the cattleman demanded, ignoring the other's
question. The resident pointed in the direction taken by Moran. "Are you
sure?"

"If it was him, I am, and I think it was."

Wade rode slowly forward in the indicated direction, puzzled somewhat,
for it led away from Sheridan, which should have been the agent's
logical objective point. But a few moments' consideration of the
situation made him think that the route was probably chosen for
strategic reasons. Very likely Moran had found his escape at the other
end of the town blocked, and he meant to work to some distant point
along the railroad. Wade drew rein, with the idea of bringing his
friends also to the pursuit, but from what his informant had told him
Moran already had a long start and there was no time to waste in
summoning assistance. Besides, if it were still possible to overtake the
quarry, the ranchman preferred to settle his difference with him, face
to face, and alone.

He urged his horse into a lope, and a little beyond the town dismounted
to pick up the trail of the fugitive, if it could be found. Thanks to a
recent shower, the ground was still soft, and the cattleman soon picked
up the trail of a shod horse, leading away from the road and out upon
the turf. By the growing light, he was able to follow this at a fairly
rapid pace, and as he pressed on the reflection came to him that if the
agent continued as he was now headed, he could hope to come out
eventually upon the Burlington Railroad, a full seventy miles from
Sheridan. The pursuit was likely to be a long one, in this event, and
Wade was regretting that he had not left some word to explain his
absence, when he suddenly became aware of the fact that he had lost the
trail.

With an exclamation of annoyance, he rode back a hundred yards or so,
until he picked up the tracks again, when he found that they turned
sharply to the right, altogether away from the railroad. Puzzled again,
he followed it for half a mile, until convinced that Moran had
deliberately circled Crawling Water. But why? What reason could the man
have which, in a moment of desperate danger to himself, would lead him
to delay his escape? What further deviltry could he have on foot? There
was nothing to lead him in the direction he was now traveling,
unless...! Wade's heart suddenly skipped a beat and beads of cold sweat
bedewed his forehead, for Dorothy Purnell and her mother had come into
his mind. There was nothing ahead of Moran but the Double Arrow ranch!
If that were the agent's objective point, there would be nothing between
him and the women save Barker, and the "drop" of a gun might settle
that!

Never had the big black horse been spurred as cruelly as he was then,
when Wade plunged his heels into his flanks. With a snort the horse
bolted and then settled into his stride until the gentle breeze in the
rider's face became a rushing gale. But the pain which the animal had
felt was nothing to the fear which tugged at the ranchman's
heartstrings, as he reproached himself bitterly for having left only one
man at the ranch, although at the time the thought of peril to the women
had never occurred to him. With the start that Moran had, Wade reasoned
that he stood small chance of arriving in time to do any good. He could
only count upon the watchfulness and skill of Barker to protect them.

Failing that, there was but one hope, that the rider who had gone on
ahead might not be Moran after all. But presently all doubt of the man's
identity was removed from the ranchman's mind, for on the soggy turf
ahead his quick eyes caught the glitter of something bright. Sweeping
down from his saddle, he picked it up without stopping, and found that
it was a half emptied whiskey flask. Turning it over in his hand, he
read the inscription: "To Race Moran from his friends of the Murray Hill
Club."





Next: With Bare Hands At Last

Previous: Baffled But Still Dangerous



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