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The Ultimate Treachery








From: 'drag' Harlan

When Barbara regained consciousness she was lying in some long, dusty
grass beside the trail where she seemed to have been thrown, or where she
had fallen. For she was lying on her right side, her right arm doubled
under her, and she felt a pain in her shoulder which must have been where
she had struck when she had fallen.

She twisted around and sat up, bewildered, almost succumbing to the
hideous terror which instantly gripped her when she remembered what had
happened.

Deveny's horse stood near her, nipping the tips of the grass that grew at
her feet. Beyond the animal--a little to her right, and perhaps fifty
feet from her--were other horses, with riders.

As she staggered to her feet she recognized the men who had been with
Deveny. They were on their horses--all facing away from her. Facing
Deveny's men were all the T Down boys--she recognized them instantly.
Pistols glittered in their hands; they seemed to be in the grip of some
strong passion, which wreathed their faces into grim, bitter lines.

Near the T Down men--flanking them--were other men. Among them she saw
faces she knew--Colver, Strom Rogers, and others.

There must have been twenty-five or thirty men, altogether, and they were
all on a little level beside the trail. It seemed to Barbara that they
all appeared to have forgotten her; seemed not to know that she was in
the vicinity.

She saw Deveny standing on the little level. His profile was toward her;
there was a wild, savage glare in his eyes.

Not more than a dozen feet from him was Harlan.

She saw Harlan's face from the side also. There was a grin on his
lips--bitter, mirthless, terrible.

She stood for what seemed to her a long time, watching all of them; her
heart throbbing with a dread heaviness that threatened to choke her; her
body in a state of icy paralysis.

She thought she knew what had happened, for it seemed to her that
everything in the world--all the passions and the desires of
men--centered upon her. She felt that there were two factions--one headed
by Deveny, and the other by Harlan, representing Haydon--and that they
were about to fight for her. The T Down men seemed to be standing with
Harlan--as, of course, they would, since he had sent for them to come to
the Rancho Seco.

Oddly, though, they apparently seemed to pay no attention to her; not one
of them looked at her.

If they were to fight it made no difference to her which faction won, for
her fate would be the same, if she stayed.

She did not know what put the thought into her mind, but as she stood
there watching the men she repeated mentally over and over the words: "If
I stay."

Why should she stay? She answered the question by stealing toward
Deveny's horse. When she reached the animal she paused, glancing
apprehensively at the men, her breathing suspended--hoping, dreading, her
nerves and muscles taut. It seemed they must see her.

Not a man moved as she climbed upon the back of the horse; it seemed to
her as she urged the animal gently and slowly away from the men that they
heard nothing and saw nothing but Harlan and Deveny, and that Harlan and
Deveny saw nothing but each other.

She sent the horse away, walking him for a dozen yards or more, until he
crossed the little level and sank into a shallow depression in the trail.
Still looking back, she saw that none of the men had changed
position--that they seemed to be more intent upon Harlan and Deveny. And
she could hear Harlan's voice, now, low, husky.

She urged the horse into a lope; and when she had ridden perhaps a
hundred yards, the conviction that she would escape grew strong in her.
Once out of the valley she would ride straight to Lamo, to ask Sheriff
Gage to protect her.

She rode faster as she widened the distance that separated her from the
men; and soon the horse was covering the trail rapidly; and she leaned
forward in the saddle, praying that the men might not see her.

She had gone several miles when she noticed a dark object beside the
trail ahead of her. She drew the horse down and approached the spot
cautiously. And when she saw that the object was a man, her thoughts flew
to the shot she had heard, and to Deveny's words:

"Make sure of it."

It was Linton, she saw, as she halted the horse near the object she had
seen. He was lying on his right side, resting his weight on an elbow, as
though trying to rise.

In an instant she was out of the saddle and at his side, raising his
head.

He looked at her, smiled, and said weakly:

"You got away, eh? I reckon they met Harlan. I was hopin' they would. Did
they?"

"Yes," she answered quickly. She had seen that Linton was badly wounded,
and she knew that she must give up hope of getting to Lamo in order to
give him the care he needed.

So without speaking further, though with an effort that required the last
ounce of her strength, she lifted Linton, he helping a little, and led
him toward her horse. Somehow, with Linton doing all he could, she got
him into the saddle, climbed up behind him, and sent the horse toward the
Rancho Seco.

Back at the little level where the men were grouped there was a tension
that seemed to charge the atmosphere with tragedy. Deveny's men sat
silent in their saddles, watching their leader and Harlan with sullen,
savage eyes. The T Down men, facing them, were equally sullen. Guns in
hand, they alertly watched the men who were with Deveny, plainly
determined that there should be no interference from them in the tragedy
that seemed imminent.

Rogers and his men, and the riders who had come with Colver, were also
watching the Deveny group. All of these held weapons, too; and Rogers,
who had dismounted, was standing beside his horse, a rifle resting on the
saddle seat, his cheek snuggling the stock, the muzzle trained on Deveny.

Harlan, Rogers, and the others, racing down the valley, had met Deveny
and his men coming up. And when Deveny had recognized Harlan and the
others he had quickly dismounted, bearing his unconscious burden. Because
he felt that trouble would result from the meeting, Deveny had thrown
Barbara from him.

He had instantly forgotten the girl. For when Harlan came up Deveny saw a
gleam in his eyes that sent his brain to throbbing with those
unmistakable impulses of fear which had seized him the day, in Lamo, when
Harlan had faced him.

There had been a moment of silence when the two groups met; a stiffening
of muscles and the heavy, strained breathing that, in men, tells of
mental preparation for violence, swift and deadly.

It had been Harlan who had prevented concerted action--action that would
have brought about a battle in which all would have figured. His guns
came out before the thought of trouble could definitely form in the
brains of the Deveny men; and he had held them--the men in the saddles,
Deveny standing--until the T Down men, whom he had seen from a distance,
coming toward him, could arrive.

Then, still menacing the Deveny men with weapons, he had dismounted to
face Deveny--where he had been when Barbara Morgan had recovered
consciousness.

And while the girl had been stealing away he had been talking to Deveny,
though loud enough for all of them to hear.

There was about Harlan as this moment a threat that brought awe into the
hearts of Deveny's men--a cold, savage alertness that told them,
unmistakably, that the man's rage was at a pitch where the slightest
movement by any of them would precipitate that action for which, plainly,
Harlan longed.

"So you got Barbara Morgan?" he said as he stood close to Deveny. There
was a taunt in his voice, and an irony that made Deveny squirm with fury.

And yet Deveny fought hard for composure. He could see in Harlan's manner
something akin to what he had seen that day, in Lamo, when Harlan had
baited him. His manner was the same, yet somehow it was not the same.
There was this difference:

In Lamo, Harlan had betrayed the threat of violence that Deveny had felt.
But he had seemed to be composed, saturnine--willing to wait. It had
seemed, then, that he wanted trouble, but he would not force it.

Now, he plainly intended to bring a clash quickly. The determination was
in his eyes, in the set of his head, and in his straight, stiff lips.

He seemed to have forgotten the other men; his gaze was on Deveny with a
boring intensity that sent a chill of stealthy dread over the outlaw.

Deveny had faced many men in whose hearts lurked the lust to kill; he had
shot down men who had faced him with that lust in their eyes--and he knew
the passion when he saw it.

He saw it now, in Harlan's eyes--they were wanton--in them was
concentrated all the hate and contempt that Harlan felt for him. But back
of it all was that iron self-control that Deveny had seen in the man when
he had faced him in Lamo.

Deveny had avoided Harlan since that day. He had known why--and he knew
at this minute. It was because he was afraid of Harlan--he feared him as
a coward fears the death that confronts him. The sensation was
premonitory. Nor was it that. It had been premonitory--it was now a
conviction. In the time, in Lamo, when he had faced Harlan some
prescience had warned him that before him was the man whom the fates had
selected to bring death to him.

He had felt it during all the days of Harlan's presence in the section;
he had felt it, and he had avoided the man. He felt it now, and his
breathing grew fast and difficult--his chest laboring as he shrilled
breath into his lungs.

He knew what was coming; he knew that presently Harlan's passion would
reach the point where action would be imperative; that presently would
come that slow, halting movement of Harlan's hands toward his gun--which
gun? He would witness, with himself as one of the chief actors, the
hesitating movement which had brought fame of a dread kind to the man who
stood before him.

Could he beat Harlan to the "draw?" Could he? That question was dinned
into his ears and into his consciousness by his brain and his heart. He
heard nothing of what was going on around him; he did not hear Harlan's
voice, though he saw the man's lips moving. He did not see any of the men
who stood near, nor did he see his men, sitting in their saddles,
watching him.

He saw nothing but Harlan; felt nothing except the blood that throbbed in
his temples; was conscious of nothing but the question that filled his
heart, his brain, and his soul--could he beat Harlan to the "draw?"

Presently, when he saw, with astonishment, that Harlan was slowly backing
away from him, crouching a little, he divined vaguely that the moment had
come. And now, curiously, he heard Harlan's voice--low, distinct, even.
What an iceberg the man was!

"Haydon's dead," he heard Harlan saying--and he stared at Harlan, finding
it difficult to comprehend. "Lafe Woodward killed him," Harlan went on
"killed him at the Cache. Now get this straight--all of you." It seemed
strange to Deveny that Harlan seemed to be speaking to the men, while
watching him, only.

"Woodward was killed, too. His real name was Bill Morgan. He was Lane
Morgan's son. Bill Morgan was sent here by the governor, to get evidence
against Haydon. He got it. I took it from his pockets when I planted
him--an' it's goin' straight to the governor.

"You guys are through here--" again he seemed to speak to all the men.
"Morgan told me he had some men with the Cache gang. They're to ride out
an' join my boys--the T Down outfit."

Deveny was conscious that several men detached themselves from the group
of riders he had brought with him, and rode to where the T Down men were
standing. Then Harlan spoke again:

"Now, she shapes up like this. If there's any of the Star gang wantin' to
go straight, they can throw in with the T Down boys, too. If there's some
that figure on pullin' their freight out of the valley--an' stayin'
out--they can hit the breeze right now--drivin' that Star herd to
Willow's Wells, sellin' them, an' dividin' the money. Whoever is takin'
up that proposition is startin' right now!"

About half the Star men began to move; heading up the valley. There was a
momentary pause, and then those that were left of Deveny's men moved
uneasily.

"Does that go for us guys too?"

"It's wide open," announced Harlan, cold humor seeming to creep into his
voice. "It's your chance to get out of this deal without gettin' what's
comin' to you."

There was a rush and clatter as Deveny's men joined the men of the Star,
who were already on the move. And then there followed a long silence,
during which Deveny glanced up the valley and saw the men riding away.

He turned again, to face Harlan, with the consciousness that he stood
alone. The T Down men, half of the Star men, and a large proportion of
the Cache men were standing with Harlan. Deveny saw Colver and Rogers
among those who had aligned themselves with Harlan.

No invitation to withdraw had been extended to Deveny. The knowledge
strengthened his conviction that Harlan intended to kill him. And yet,
now, facing Harlan, he knew that he would never take up the slender
thread of chance that was offered him--to draw his gun, kill Harlan and
resume his authority over the men who were left.

The possibility, dangling at the other end of the slender thread of
chance, did not allure him. For he knew he could not draw the pistol at
his hip with Harlan's gaze upon him--that would be suicide.

"Deveny!"

Harlan's voice, snapping with menace roused him, straightened him,
brought an ashen pallor to his face.

"It's your turn, Deveny. You stay here. Flash your gun!"

Here it was--the dreaded moment. Deveny saw the men around him stiffen
rigidly; he heard their slow-drawn breaths. The thought to draw his gun
was strong in him, and he fought hard to force his recreant muscles to do
the will of his mind. For an instant he stood, his right hand poised
above the holster of his pistol, the elbow crooked, ready to straighten.

And then, with the steady, coldly flaming eyes of Harlan upon him,
Harlan's right hand extended slightly, the fingers spread a little as
though he was about to offer his hand to the other. Deveny became aware
that he was doing an astonishing thing. He was raising his right hand!

Already it was at his shoulder. And as he marveled, it went higher,
finally coming to a level with his head, where it stopped. He had
publicly advertised his refusal to settle his differences with Harlan
with the pistol.

"Yellow!"

It was Harlan's voice. "You won't fight an' you won't run. Well, we'll
keep you, savin' you for the governor. I reckon he'll be glad to see
you."

Harlan turned, sheathing his pistol, and began to walk toward his horse,
his back toward Deveny.

Then Deveny acted. His eyes flaming hate, he drew his pistol with a
flashing movement, his face hideous with malignant passion.

He sent one bullet into Harlan's back and two more as Harlan tumbled
forward, sinking to his knees from the shock. But Deveny's two last
bullets went wild, tearing up the grass of the level as the gun loosened
in his hand.

For Rogers' rifle was spitting fire and smoke with venomous rapidity, and
Deveny was sinking, his knees doubling under him, his body shuddering
with the impact of each bullet.





Next: Peace And A Sunset

Previous: World's End



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