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With Bare Hands At Last








From: Hidden Gold

In after years, when Wade tried to recall that mad ride, he found it
only a vague blur upon his memory. He was conscious only of the fact
that he had traveled at a speed which, in saner moments, he would have
considered suicidal. Urging the big black over the rougher ground of the
higher levels, he rode like a maniac, without regard for his own life
and without mercy for the magnificent horse beneath him. Time and again
the gelding stumbled on the rocky footing and almost fell, only to be
urged to further efforts by his rider.

Five miles out of Crawling Water, the cattleman thought of a short-cut,
through a little used timber-trail, which would save him several miles;
but it was crossed by a ravine cut by a winter avalanche like the slash
of a gigantic knife. To descend into this ravine and ascend on the
farther side would be a tortuous process, which would take more time
than to continue by the longer route. But if the gelding could jump the
narrow cleft in the trail, the distance saved might decide the issue
with Moran. On the other hand, if the leap of the horse was short,
practically certain death must befall both animal and rider.

Wade decided, in his reckless mood, that the chance was worth taking and
he rode the black to the edge of the cleft, where trembling with
nervousness, the animal refused the leap. Cursing furiously, Wade drove
him at it again, and again the gelding balked. But at the third try he
rose to the prick of the spurs and took the jump. The horse's forelegs
caught in perilous footing and the struggling, slipping animal snorted
in terror, but the ranchman had allowed the impulse of the leap to carry
him clear of his saddle. Quickly twisting the bridle reins around one
wrist, he seized the horse's mane with his free hand, and helped by the
violent efforts the animal made, succeeded in pulling him up to a firmer
footing. For some minutes afterward he had to soothe the splendid brute,
patting him and rubbing his trembling legs; then, with a grim expression
of triumph on his face, he resumed his journey. The chance had won!

There was less likelihood now that he would be too late, although the
thought that he might be so still made him urge the horse to the limit
of his speed. He kept his eyes fastened on a notch in the hills, which
marked the location of the ranch. He rode out on the clearing which held
the house just in time to hear Dorothy's second scream, and plunged out
of his saddle, pulling his rifle from the scabbard beneath his right leg
as he did so. From the kitchen chimney a faint wisp of smoke curled
upward through the still air; a rooster crowed loudly behind the barn
and a colt nickered in the corral. Everywhere was the atmosphere of
peace, save for that scream followed now by another choking cry, and a
barking collie, which danced about before the closed door of the house
in the stiff-legged manner of his breed, when excited.

Wade burst into the house like a madman and on into the back room, where
Moran, his face horribly distorted by passion, was forcing the girl
slowly to the floor. But for the protection which her supple body
afforded him, the ranchman would have shot him in his tracks.

"Gordon!" The overwhelming relief in her face, burned into Wade's soul
like a branding-iron. "Don't shoot! Oh, thank God!" She fell back
against the wall, as Moran released her, and began to cry softly and
brokenly.

Snarling with baffled rage and desire, Moran whirled to meet the
cattleman. His hand darted, with the swift drop of the practised gun
man, toward his hip pocket; but too late, for he was already covered by
the short-barreled rifle in Wade's hands. More menacing even than the
yawning muzzle was the expression of terrible fury in the ranchman's
face. For a space of almost a minute, broken only by the tense breathing
of the two men and a strangled sob from Dorothy, Moran's fate hung on
the movement of an eyelash. Then Wade slowly relaxed the tension of his
trigger finger. Shooting would be too quick to satisfy him!

Moran breathed more freely at this sign, for he knew that he had been
nearer death than ever before in all his adventurous life, and the sway
of his passion had weakened his nervous control. Courage came back to
him rapidly, for with all his faults he was, physically at least, no
coward. He took hope from his belief that Wade would not now shoot him
down.

"Well, why don't you pull that trigger?" His tone was almost as cool as
though he had asked a commonplace question.

"I've heard," said Wade slowly, "that you call yourself a good
rough-and-tumble fighter; that you've never met your match. I want to
get my--hands--on you!"

Moran's features relaxed into a grin; it seemed strange to him that any
man could be such a fool. It was true that he had never met his match in
rough fighting, and he did not expect to meet it now.

"You're a bigger man than I am," the cattleman went on. "I'll take a
chance on you being a better one. I believe that I can break you with
my--hands--like the rotten thing you are." He paid no heed to Dorothy's
tearful protests. "Will you meet me in a fair fight?" Wade's face
suddenly contorted with fury. "If you won't...." His grip on the rifle
tightened significantly.

"No, Gordon, no! Oh, please, not that!" the girl pleaded.

"Sure, I'll fight," Moran answered, a gleam of joy in his eyes. He
gloried in the tremendous strength of a body which had brought him
victory in half a hundred barroom combats. He felt that no one lived,
outside the prize-ring, who could beat him on an even footing.

"Take his gun away from him," Wade told Dorothy. "It's the second time
you've disarmed him, but it'll be the last. He'll never carry a gun
again. Take it!" he repeated, commandingly, and when she obeyed, added:
"Toss it on the bed." He stood his rifle in a corner near the door.

"You're a fool, Wade," Moran taunted as they came together. "I'm going
to kill you first and then I'll take my will of her." But nothing he
could say could add to Wade's fury, already at its coldest, most deadly
point.

He answered by a jab at the big man's mouth, which Moran cleverly
ducked; for so heavy a man, he was wonderfully quick on his feet. He
ducked and parried three other such vicious leads, when, by a clever
feint, Wade drew an opening and succeeded in landing his right fist,
hard as a bag of stones, full in the pit of his adversary's stomach. It
was an awful blow, one that would have killed a smaller man; but Moran
merely grunted and broke ground for an instant. Then he landed a
swinging left on the side of Wade's head which opened a cut over his ear
and nearly floored him.

Back and forth across the little room they fought, with little advantage
either way, while Dorothy watched them breathlessly. Like gladiators
they circled each other, coming together at intervals with the shock of
two enraged bulls. Both were soon bleeding from small cuts on the head
and face, but neither was aware of the fact. Occasionally they collided
with articles of furniture, which were overturned and swept aside
almost unnoticed; while Dorothy was forced to step quickly from one
point to another to keep clear of them. Several times Wade told her to
leave the room, but she would not go.

Finally the ranchman's superior condition began to tell in his favor. At
the end of ten minutes' fighting, the agent's breathing became labored
and his movements slower. Wade, still darting about quickly and lightly,
had no longer much difficulty in punishing the brutal, leering face
before him. Time after time he drove his fists mercilessly into Moran's
features until they lost the appearance of anything human and began to
resemble raw meat.

But suddenly, in attempting to sidestep one of his opponent's bull-like
rushes, the cattleman slipped in a puddle of blood and half fell, and
before he could regain his footing Moran had seized him. Then Wade
learned how the big man's reputation for tremendous strength had been
won. Cruelly, implacably, those great, ape-like arms entwined about the
ranchman's body until the very breath was crushed out of it. Resorting
to every trick he knew, he strove desperately to free himself, but all
the strength in his own muscular body was powerless to break the other's
hold. With a crash that shook the house to its foundation, they fell to
the floor, and by a lucky twist Wade managed to fall on top.

The force of the fall had shaken Moran somewhat, and the cattleman, by
calling on the whole of his strength, succeeded in tearing his arms
free. Plunging his fingers into the thick, mottled throat, he squeezed
steadily until Moran's struggles grew weaker and weaker. Finally they
ceased entirely and the huge, heavy body lay still.

Wade stumbled to his feet and staggered across the room.

"It's all right," he said thickly, and added at sight of Dorothy's wide,
terror-stricken eyes: "Frightened you, didn't we? Guess I should have
shot him and made a clean job of it; but I couldn't, somehow."

"Oh, he's hurt you terribly!" the girl cried, bursting into fresh tears.

Wade laughed and tenderly put his arms around her, for weak though he
was and with nerves twitching like those of a recently sobered drunkard,
he was not too weak or sick to enjoy the privilege of soothing her. The
feel of her in his arms was wonderful happiness to him and her tears for
him seemed far more precious than all the gold on his land. He had just
lifted her up on the sill of the open window, thinking that the fresh
air might steady her, when she looked over his shoulder and saw Moran,
who had regained consciousness, in the act of reaching for his revolver,
which lay on the bed where she had tossed it.

"Oh, see what he's doing! Look out!"

Her cry of warning came just too late. There was a flash and roar, and a
hot flame seemed to pass through Wade's body. Half turning about, he
clutched at the air, and then pitched forward to the floor, where he lay
still. Flourishing the gun, Moran got unsteadily to his feet and turned
a ghastly, dappled visage to the girl, who, stunned and helpless, was
gazing at him in wide-eyed horror. But she had nothing more to fear
from him, for now that he believed Wade dead, the agent was too
overshadowed by his crime to think of perpetrating another and worse
one. He had already wasted too much valuable time. He must get away.

"I got him," he croaked, in a terrible voice. "I got him like I said I
would, damn him!" With a blood-curdling attempt at a laugh, he staggered
out of the house into the sunshine.

For a moment Dorothy stared woodenly through the empty doorway; then,
with a choking sob, she bent over the man at her feet. She shook him
gently and begged him to speak to her, but she could get no response and
under her exploring fingers his heart apparently had ceased to beat. For
a few seconds she stared at the widening patch of red on his torn shirt;
then her gaze shifted and focused on the rifle in the corner by the
door. As she looked at the weapon her wide, fear-struck eyes narrowed
and hardened with a sudden resolve. Seizing the gun, she cocked it and
stepped into the doorway.

Moran was walking unsteadily toward the place where he had tied his
horse. He was tacking from side to side like a drunken man, waving his
arms about and talking to himself. Bringing the rifle to her shoulder,
Dorothy steadied herself against the door-frame and took long, careful
aim. As she sighted the weapon her usually pretty face, now scratched
and streaked with blood from her struggles with the agent, wore the
expression of one who has seen all that is dear in life slip away from
her. At the sharp crack of the rifle Moran stopped short and a
convulsive shudder racked his big body from head to foot. After a single
step forward he crumpled up on the ground. For several moments his arms
and legs twitched spasmodically; then he lay still.

Horrified by what she had done, now that it was accomplished Dorothy
stepped backward into the house and stood the rifle in its former
position near the door, when a low moan from behind made her turn
hurriedly. Wade was not dead then! She hastily tore his shirt from over
the wound, her lips twisted in a low cry of pity as she did so. To her
tender gaze, the hurt seemed a frightful one. Dreading lest he should
regain consciousness and find himself alone, she decided to remain with
him, instead of going for the help she craved; most likely she would be
unable to find her mother and Barker, anyway. She stopped the flow of
blood as best she could and put a pillow under the ranchman's head,
kissing him afterward. Then for an interval she sat still. She never
knew for how long.

Santry reached the house just as Mrs. Purnell and Barker returned with
their berries, and the three found the girl bathing the wounded man's
face, and crying over him.

"Boy, boy!" Santry sobbed, dropping on his knees before the unconscious
figure. "Who done this to you?"

Dorothy weepingly explained, and when she told of her own part in
shooting Moran the old fellow patted her approvingly on the back. "Good
girl," he said hoarsely. "But I wish that job had been left for me."

"Merciful Heavens!" cried Mrs. Purnell. "I shall never get over this."
With trembling hands she took the basin and towel from her daughter and
set them one side, then she gently urged the girl to her feet.

"You!" said Santry, so ferociously to Barker that the man winced in
spite of himself. "Help me to lay him on the bed, so's to do it
gentle-like."

Dorothy, who felt certain that Wade was mortally hurt, struggled
desperately against the feeling of faintness which was creeping over
her. She caught at a chair for support, and her mother caught her in her
arms.

"My poor dear, you're worn out. Go lie down. Oh, when I think...!"

"Don't talk to me, mother!" Dorothy waved her back, for the presence
close to her of another person could only mean her collapse. "I'm all
right. I'm of no consequence now. He needs a doctor," she added, turning
to Santry, who stood near the bed bowed with grief. He, too, thought
that Wade would never be himself again.

"I'll go," said Barker, eager to do something to atone for his absence
at the critical moment, but Santry rounded upon him in a rage.

"You--you skunk!" he snarled, and gestured fiercely toward the bed. "He
left you here to look after things and you--you went berry pickin'!"
Barker seemed so crushed by the scorn in the old man's words that
Dorothy's sympathy was stirred.

"It wasn't Barker's fault," she said quickly. "There seemed to be no
danger. Gordon said so himself. But one of you go, immediately, for the
doctor."

"I'll go," Santry responded and hurried from the room, followed by
Barker, thoroughly wretched.

Dorothy went to the bedside and looked down into Wade's white face; then
she knelt there on the floor and said a little prayer to the God of all
men to be merciful to hers.

"Maybe if I made you a cup of tea?" Mrs. Purnell anxiously suggested,
but the girl shook her head listlessly. Tea was the elder woman's
panacea for all ills.

"Don't bother me, mother, please. I--I've just been through a good deal.
I can't talk--really, I can't."

Mrs. Purnell, subsiding at last, thereafter held her peace, and Dorothy
sat down by the bed to be instantly ready to do anything that could be
done. She had sat thus, almost without stirring, for nearly an hour,
when Wade moved slightly and opened his eyes.

"What is it?" She bent over him instantly, forgetting everything except
that he was awake and that he seemed to know her.

"Is it you, Dorothy?" He groped weakly for her fingers.

"Yes, dear," she answered, gulping back the sob in her throat. "Is there
anything you want? What can I do for you?"

He smiled feebly and shook his head.

"It's all right, if it's you," he said faintly, after a moment. "You're
all right--always!"





Next: Church-going Clothes

Previous: The Storm Bursts



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