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The Tables Turned







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

From the local eastbound a man swung to the station platform at Mesa. He
was a dark, slim, little man, wiry and supple, with restless black eyes
which pierced one like bullets.

The depot loungers made him a focus of inquiring looks. But, in spite of
his careless ease, a shrewd observer would have read anxiety in his
bearing. It was as if behind the veil of his indifference there rested a
perpetual vigilance. The wariness of a beast of prey lay close to the
surface.

"Mornin', gentlemen," he drawled, sweeping the group with his eyes.

"Mornin'," responded one of the loafers.

"I presume some of you gentlemen can direct me to the house of Mayor
Lee."

"The mayor ain't to home," volunteered a lank, unshaven native in
butternut jeans and boots.

"I think it was his house I inquired for," suggested the stranger.

"Fust house off the square on the yon side of the postoffice--a big
two-story brick, with a gallery and po'ches all round it."

Having thanked his informant, the stranger passed down the street. The
curious saw him pass in at the mayor's gate and knock at the door. It
opened presently, and disclosed a flash of white, which they knew to be
the skirt of a girl.

"I reckon that's Miss 'Lissie," the others were informed by the unshaven
one. "She's let him in and shet the door."

Inevitably there followed speculation as to who the arrival might be. That
his coming had something to do with the affair of the West kidnapping, all
were disposed to agree; but just what it might have to do with it, none of
them could do more than guess. If they could have heard what passed
between Melissy and the stranger, their curiosity would have been
gratified.

"Good mornin', miss. Is Mayor Lee at home?"

"No--he isn't. He hasn't got back yet. Is there anything I can do for
you?"

Two rows of even white teeth flashed in a smile. "I thought maybe there
was something I could do for you. You are Miss Lee, I take it?"

"Yes. But I don't quite understand--unless you have news."

"I have no news--yet."

"You mean----" Her eager glance swept over him. The brown eyes, which had
been full of questioning, flashed to understanding. "You are not
Lieutenant O'Connor?"

"Am I not?" he smiled.

"I mean--are you?"

"At your service, Miss Lee."

She had heard for years of this lieutenant of rangers, who was the terror
of all Arizona "bad men." Her father, Jack Flatray, the range riders whom
she knew--game men all--hailed Bucky O'Connor as a wonder. For coolness
under fire, for acumen, for sheer, unflawed nerve, and for his skill in
that deadly game he played of hunting down desperadoes, they called him
chief ungrudgingly. He was a daredevil, who had taken his life in his
hands a hundred times. Yet always he came through smiling, and brought
back with him the man he went after. The whisper ran that he bore a
charmed life, so many had been his hairbreadth escapes.

"Come in," the girl invited. "Father said, if you came, I was to keep you
here until he got back or sent a messenger for you. He's hunting for the
criminals in the Roaring Fork country. Of course, he didn't know when you
would get here. At the time he left we hadn't been able to catch you on
the wire. I signed Mr. Flatray's name at his suggestion, because he was in
correspondence with you once about the Roaring Fork outlaws. He is out in
the hills, too. He started half an hour after the kidnappers. But he isn't
armed. I'm troubled about him."

Again the young man's white-toothed smile flashed. "You'd better be.
Anybody that goes hunting Black MacQueen unarmed ought to be right well
insured."

She nodded, a shadow in her eyes. "Yes--but he would go. He doesn't mean
them to see him, if he can help it."

"Black sees a heap he isn't expected to see. He has got eyes all over the
hills, and they see by night as well as by day."

"Yes--I know he has spies everywhere; and he has the hill people
terrorized, they say. You think this is his work?"

"It's a big thing--the kind of job he likes to tackle. Who else would dare
do such a thing?"

"That's what father thinks. If he had stolen the President of the United
States, it wouldn't have stirred up a bigger fuss. Newspaper men and
detectives are hurrying here from all directions. They are sure to catch
him."

"Are they?"

She noticed a curious, derisive contempt in the man's voice, and laid it
to his vanity. "I don't mean that they are. I mean that you are sure
to get him," she hastened to add. "Father thinks you are wonderful."

"I'm much obliged to him," said the man, with almost a sneer.

He seemed to have so good an opinion of himself that he was above praise
even. Melissy was coming to the decision that she did not like him--which
was disappointing, since she had expected to like him immensely.

"I didn't look for you till night. You wired you would be on number
seven," she said. "I understood that was the earliest you could get
here."

His explanation of the change was brief, and invited no further
discussion. "I found I could make an earlier train."

"I'm glad you could. Father says it is always well to start on the trail
while it is fresh."

"Have you ever seen this MacQueen, Miss Lee?" he asked.

"Not unless he was there when Mr. West was kidnapped."

"Did you know any of the men?"

She hesitated. "I thought one was Duncan Boone."

"What made you think so?"

"He was the leader, I think, moved the way he does." Her anger flashed for
an instant. "And acted like him--detestably."

"Was he violent to West? Injure him?"

"No--he didn't do him any physical injury that I saw. I wasn't thinking
about Mr. West."

"Surely he didn't lay hands on you!"

She looked up, in time to see the flicker of amusement sponged from his
face. It stirred vague anger in her. "He was insolent and ungentlemanly."

"As how?"

"It doesn't matter how." Her manner specifically declined to
particularize.

"Would you recognize him again if you met him? Describe him, if you can."

"Yes. I used to know him well--before he became known as an outlaw," she
added after a perceptible hesitation. "There's something ravenous about
him."

"You mean that he is fierce and bloodthirsty?"

"No--I don't mean that; though, for that matter, I don't think he would
stick at anything. What I mean is that he is pantherine in his
movements--more lithe and supple than most men are."

"Is he a big man?"

"No--medium size, and dark."

"There were four of them, you say?"

"Yes. Jack saw them, too, but at a distance."

"He reached you after they were out of sight?"

"They had been gone about five minutes when I saw him--five or ten. I
couldn't be sure."

"Boone offered no personal indignity to you?"

"Why are you so sure?" she flashed.

"The story is that he is quite the ladies' man."

Melissy laughed scornfully.

At his request, she went over again the story of the abduction, telling
everything save the matter of the ravished kisses. This she kept to
herself. She did not quite know why, except that there was something she
did not like about this Bucky O'Connor. He had a trick of narrowing his
eyes and gloating over her, as a cat gloats over its expected kill.

However, his confidence impressed her. Cocksure he was, and before long
she knew him boastful; but competence sat on him, none the less. She
thought she could see why he was held to be the most deadly bloodhound on
a trail that even Arizona could produce. That he was fearless she did not
need to be told, any more than she needed a certificate that on occasion
he could be merciless. On the other hand, he fitted very badly with the
character of the young lieutenant of rangers, as Jack Flatray had sketched
it for her. Her friend's description of his hero had been enthusiastic.
She decided that the young cattleman was a bad judge of men--though, of
course, he had never actually met O'Connor.

"I reckon I'll not wait for your father's report, Miss Lee. I work
independent of other men. That is how I get the wonderful results I do."

His conceit nettled her; also, it stung her filial loyalty. "My father was
the best sheriff this county ever had," she said stiffly.

He smiled satirically. "Still, I reckon I'll handle this my own
way--unless your father's daughter wants to go partners with me in it."

She gave him a look intended to crush his impudence. "No, thank you."

He ate a breakfast which she had the cook prepare hurriedly for him, and
departed on the horse for which she had telephoned to the nearest livery
stable. Melissy was a singularly fearless girl; yet she watched him go
with a decided relief, for which she could not account. He rode, she
observed, like a centaur--flat-backed, firm in the saddle with the easy
negligence of a plainsman. He turned as he started, and waved a hand
debonairly at her.

"If I have any luck, I'll bring back one of the Roaring Fork bunch with
me--a present for a good girl, Miss Melissy."

She turned on her heel and went inside. Anger pulsed fiercely through her.
He laughed at her, made fun of her, and yet called her by her first name.
How dared he treat her so! Worst of all, she read admiration bold and
unveiled in the eyes that mocked her.

Half an hour later Flatray, riding toward town with his prisoner in front
of him, heard a sudden sharp summons to throw up his hands. A man had
risen from behind a boulder, and held him covered steadily.

Jack looked at the fellow without complying. He needed no second glance to
tell him that this man was not one to be trifled with. "Who are you?" he
demanded quietly.

"Never mind who I am. Reach for the sky."

The captured outlaw had given a little whoop, and was now loosening the
rope from his neck. "You're the goods, Cap! I knew the boys would pull it
off for me, but I didn't reckon on it so durn soon."

"Shut up!" ordered the man behind the gun, without moving his eyes from
Flatray.

"I'm a clam," retorted the other.

"I'm waiting for those hands to go up; but I'll not wait long, seh."

Jack's hands went up reluctantly. "You've got the call," he admitted.

They led him a couple of hundred yards from the trail and tied him hand
and foot. Before they left him the outlaw whom he had captured evened his
score. Three times he struck Flatray on the head with the butt of his
revolver. He was lying on the ground bleeding and senseless when they rode
away toward the hills.

Jack came to himself with a blinding headache. It was some time before he
realized what had happened. As soon as he did he set about freeing
himself. This was a matter of a few minutes. With the handkerchief that
was around his neck he tied up his wounds. Fortunately his hair was very
thick and this had saved him from a fractured skull. Dizzily he got to his
feet, found his horse, and started toward Mesa.

Not many people were on the streets when the sheriff passed through the
suburbs of the little town, for it was about the breakfast hour. One stout
old negro mammy stopped to stare in surprise at his bloody head.

"Laws a mussy, Mistah Flatray, what they done be'n a-doin' to you-all?"
she asked.

The sheriff hardly saw her. He was chewing the bitter cud of defeat and
was absorbed in his thoughts. He was still young enough to have counted on
the effect upon Melissy of his return to town with one of the abductors as
his prisoner.

It happened that she was on the porch watering her flower boxes when he
passed the house.

"Jack!" she cried, and on the heels of her exclamation: "What's the matter
with you? Been hurt?"

A gray pallor had pushed through the tan of her cheeks. She knew her heart
was beating fast.

"Bumped into a piece of bad luck," he grinned, and told her briefly what
had occurred.

She took him into the house and washed his head for him. After she saw how
serious the cuts were she insisted on sending for a doctor. When his
wounds were dressed she fed him and made him lie down and sleep on her
father's bed.

The sun was sliding down the heavens to a crotch in the hills before he
joined her again. She was in front of the house clipping her roses.

"Is the invalid better?" she asked him.

"He's a false alarm. But he did have a mighty thumping headache that has
gone now."

"I've been wondering why you didn't meet Lieutenant O'Connor. He must have
taken the road you came in on."

The young man's eyes lit. "Is Bucky here already?"

"He was. He's gone. I was greatly disappointed in him. He's not half the
man you think he is."

"Oh, but he is. Everybody says so."

"I never saw a more conceited man, or a more hateful one. There's
something about him--oh, I don't know. But he isn't good. I'm sure of
that."

"His reputation isn't of that kind. They say he's devoted to his wife and
kids."

"His wife and children." Melissy recalled the smoldering admiration in his
bold eyes. She laughed shortly. "That finishes him with me. He's married,
is he? Well, I know the kind of husband he is."

Jack flashed a quick look at her. He guessed what she meant. But this did
not square at all with what his friends had told him of O'Connor.

"Did he ask for me?"

"No. He said he preferred to play a lone hand. His manner was unpleasant
all the time. He knows it all. I could see that."

"Anyhow, he's a crackerjack in his line. Have you heard from your father
since he set out?"

"Not yet."

"Well, I'm going to start to-night with a posse for the Cache. If O'Connor
comes back, tell him I'll follow the Roaring Fork."

"You'll not go this time without a gun, Jack," she said with a ghost of a
smile.

"No. I want to make good this trip."

"You did splendidly before. Not one man in a hundred would have done so
well."

"I'm a wonder," he admitted with a grin.

"But you will take care of yourself--not be foolish."

"I don't aim to take up residence in Boot Hill cemetery if I can help
it."

"Boone and his men are dangerous characters. They are playing for high
stakes. They would snuff your life out as quick as they would wink. Don't
forget that."

"You don't want me to lie down before Dunc Boone, do you?"

"No-o. Only don't be reckless. I told father the same."

Her dear concern for him went to Jack's head, but he steadied himself
before he answered. "I've got one real good reason for not being reckless.
I'll tell you what it is some day."

Her shy, alarmed eyes fled his at once. She began an account of how her
father had gathered his posse and where she thought he must have gone.

After dinner Jack went downtown. Melissy did some household tasks and
presently moved out to the cool porch. She was just thinking about going
back in when a barefoot boy ran past and whistled. From the next house a
second youngster emerged.

"That you, Jimmie?"

"Betcherlife. Say, 've you heard about the sheriff?"

"Who? Jack Flatray! Course I have. The Roaring Fork outfit ambushed him,
beat him up, and made him hit the trail for town."

"Aw! That ain't news. He's started back after them again. Left jes' a
little while ago. I saw him go--him 'n' Farnum 'n' Charley Hymer 'n' Hal
Yarnell 'n' Mr. Bellamy."

"Bet they git 'em."

"Bet they don't."

"Aw, course they'll git 'em, Tom."

The other youngster assumed an air of mystery. He swelled his chest and
strutted a step or two nearer. Urbane condescension oozed from him.

"Say, Jimmie. C'n you keep a secret?"

"Sure. Course I can."

"Won't ever snitch?"

"Cross my heart."

"Well, then--I'm Black MacQueen, the captain of the Roaring Fork bad
men."

"You!" Incredulity stared from Jimmie's bulging eyes.

"You betcher. I'm him, here in disguise as a kid."

The magnificent boldness of this claim stole Jimmie's breath for an
instant. He was two years younger than his friend, but he did not quite
know whether to applaud or to jeer. Before he could make up his mind a
light laugh rippled to them from behind the vines on the Lee porch.

The disguised outlaw and his friend were startled. Both fled swiftly, with
all the pretense of desperate necessity young conspirators love to
assume.

Melissy went into the house and the laughter died from her lips. She knew
that either her father's posse or that of Jack Flatray would come into
touch with the outlaws eventually. When the clash came there would be a
desperate battle. Men would be killed. She prayed it might not be one of
those for whom she cared most.





Next: The Real Bucky And The False

Previous: A Capture



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