Billy The Clerk





If Sheriff Pete Glass had been the typical hard-riding, sure-shooting

officer of the law as it is seen in the mountain-desert, his work would

have died with his death, but Glass had a mind as active as his hands, and

therefore, for at least a little while, his work went on after him. He had

gathered fifteen practiced fighters who represented, it might be said, the

brute body of the law, and when they, with most of Rickett at their heels,

burst down the door of the Sheriff's office and found his body, they had

only one thought, which was to swing into the saddle and ride on the trail

of the killer, who was even now in a diminishing cloud of dust down the

street. He was riding almost due east, and the cry went up: "He's streakin'

it for the Morgan Hills. Git after him, boys!" So into the saddle they went

with a rush, fifteen tried men on fifteen chosen horses, and went down the

street with a roar of hoof-beats. That was the body and muscle of the

sheriff's work going out to avenge him, but the mind of the law remained

behind.



It was old Billy, the clerk. No one paid particular attention to Billy, and

they never had. He was useless on a horse and ridiculous with a gun, and

the only place where he seemed formidable was behind a typewriter. Now he

sat looking, down into the dead face of Pete Glass, trying to grasp the

meaning of it all. From the first he had been with Pete, from the first the

invincibility of the little dusty man had been the chief article of Billy's

creed, and now his dull eyes, bleared with thirty years of clerical labor,

wandered around on the galaxy of dead men who looked down at him from the

wall. He leaned over and took the hand of the sheriff as one would lean to

help up a fallen man, but the fingers were already growing cold, and then

Billy realized for the first time that this was death. Pete Glass had been;

Pete Glass was not.



Next he knew that something had to be done, but what it was he could not

tell, for he sat in the sheriff's office and in that room he was accustomed

to stop thinking and receive orders. He went back to his own little

cubby-hole, and sat down behind the typewriter; at once his mind cleared,

thoughts came, and linked themselves into ideas, pictures, plans.



The murderer must be taken, dead or alive, and those fifteen men had ridden

out to do the necessary thing. They had seemed irresistible, as they

departed; indeed, no living thing they met could withstand them, human or

otherwise, as Billy very well knew. Yet he recalled a saying of the

sheriff, a thing he had insisted upon: "No man on no hoss will ever ride

down Whistlin' Dan Barry. It's been tried before and it's never worked.

I've looked up his history and it can't be done. If he's goin' to be ran

down it's got to be done with relays, like you was runnin' down a wild

hoss." Billy rubbed his bald head and thought and thought.



With that orderliness which had become his habit of mind, from work with

reports and papers, sorting and filing away, Billy went back to the

beginning. Dan Barry was fleeing. He started from Rickett, and nine chances

out of ten he was heading, eventually, towards those practically

impenetrable mountain ranges where the sheriff before had lost the trail

after the escape from the cabin and the killing of Mat Henshaw. Towards

this same region, again, he had retreated after the notorious Killing at

Alder. There was no doubt, then, humanly speaking, that he would make for

the same safe refuge.



At first glance this seemed quite improbable, to be sure, for the Morgan

Hills lay due east, or very nearly east, while the place from which Barry

must have sallied forth and to which be would return was somewhere well

north of west, and a good forty miles away. It seemed strange that he

should strike off in the opposite direction, so Billy closed his eyes,

leaned back in his chair, and summoned up a picture of the country.



Five miles to the east the Morgan Hills rolled, sharply broken ups and

downs of country--bad lands rather than real hills, and a difficult region

to keep game in view. That very idea gave Billy his clue. Barry knew that

he would be followed hard and fast, and he headed straight for the Morgan's

to throw the posse off the final direction he intended to take in his

flight. In spite of the matchless speed of that black stallion of which the

sheriff had learned so much, he would probably let the posse keep within

easy view of him until he was deep within the bad-lands. Then he would

double, sharply around and strike out in the true direction of his flight.



Having reached this point in his deductions, Billy smote his hands

together. He was trembling with excitement so that he filled his pipe with

difficulty. By the time it was drawing well he was back examining his

mental picture of the country.



West of Rickett about the same distance as Morgan Hills, ran the Wago

Mountains, low, rolling ranges which would hardly form an impediment for a

horseman. Across these Barry might cut at a good speed on his western

course, but some fifteen or twenty miles from Rickett he was bound to reach

a most difficult barrier. It was the Asper river, at this season of the

year swollen high and swift with snow-water--a rare feat indeed if a man

could swim his horse across such a stream. There were only two places in

which it could be forded.



About fifty miles north and a little east of the line from Rickett the

Asper spread out into a broad, shallow bed, its streams dispersed for

several miles into a number of channels which united again, farther down

the course, and made the same strong river. Towards this ford, therefore,

it was possible that Dan Barry would head, in the region of Caswell City.



There was, however, another way of crossing the stream. Almost due west of

Rickett, a distance of fifteen miles, Tucker Creek joined the Asper. Above

the point of junction both the creek and the river were readily fordable,

and Barry could cross them and head straight for his goal.



It was true that to make Tucker Creek he would have to double out of the

Morgan Hills and brush back perilously close to Rickett, but Billy was

convinced that this was the outlaw's plan; for though the Caswell City

fords would be his safest route it would take him a day's ride, on an

ordinary horse, out of his way. Besides, the sheriff had always said:

"Barry will play the chance!"



Billy would have ventured his life that the fugitive would strike straight

for the Creek as soon as he doubled out of Morgan Hills.



Doors began to bang; a hundred pairs of boots thudded and jingled towards

Billy; the noise of voices rolled through the outer hall, poured through

the door, burst upon his ears. He looked up in mild surprise; the first

wave of Rickett's men had swept out of the courthouse to take the trail of

the fugitive or to watch the pursuit; in this second wave came the

remnants, the old men, the women; great-eyed children. In spite of their

noise of foot and voice they appeared to be trying to walk stealthily, talk

so softly. They leaned about his desk and questioned him with

gesticulations, but he only stared. They were all dim as dream people to

Billy the clerk, whose mind was far away struggling with his problem.



"Pore old Billy is kind of dazed," suggested a woman. "Don't bother him,

Bud. Look here!"



The tide of noise and faces broke on either side of the desk and swayed off

towards the inner office and vaguely Billy felt that they should not be

there--the sheriff's privacy--the thought almost drew him back to complete

consciousness, but he was borne off from them, again, on a wave of study,

pictures. Off there to the east went the fifteen best men of the mountain-

desert on the trail of the slender fellow with the black hair and the soft

brown eyes. How he had seemed to shrink with aloofness, timidity, when he

stood there at the door, giving his name. It was not modesty. Billy knew

now; it was something akin to the beasts of prey, who shrink from the eyes

of men until they are mad with hunger, and in the slender man Billy

remembered the same shrinking, the same hunger. When he struck, no wonder

that even the sheriff went down; no wonder if even the fifteen men were

baffled on that trail; and therefore, it was sufficiently insane for him,

Billy the clerk, to sit in his office and dream with his ineffectual hands

of stopping that resistless flight. Yet he pulled himself back to his

problem.



Considering his problem in general, the thing was perfectly simple: Barry

was sure to head west, and to the west there were only two gates--fording

the creek and the river above the junction in the first place, or in the

second place cutting across the Asper far north at Caswell City.



If he could be turned from the direction of Tucker Creek he would head for

the second possible crossing, and when he drew near Caswell City if he were

turned by force of numbers again he would unquestionably skirt the Asper,

hoping against hope that he might find a fordable place as he galloped

south. But, going south, he might be fenced again from Tucker Creek, and

then his case would be hopeless and his horse worn down.



It was a very clever plan, quite simple after it was once conceived, but in

order to execute it properly it was necessary that the outlaw be pressed

hard every inch of the way and never once allowed to get out of sight. He

must be chased with relays. In ordinary stretches of the mountain-desert

that would have been impossible, but the country around Rickett was not

ordinary.



Between the Morgan Hills and Wago there were considerable stretches of

excellent farm land in the center of which little towns had grown up.

Running north from the country seat, they were St. Vincent, Wago, and

Caswell City. Coming south again along the Asper River there were Ganton

and Wilsonville, and just above the junction of the river with Tucker Creek

lay the village of Bly Falls. There was no other spot in the

mountain-desert, perhaps, which could show so many communities. Also it was

possible to get in touch with the towns from Rickett, for in a wild spirit

of enterprise telephones had been strung to connect each village of the

group.



His hand went out mechanically and pushed in an open drawer of his filing

cabinet as if he were closing up the affair, putting away the details of

the plan. Each point was now clear, orderly assembled. It meant simply

chasing Barry along a course which covered close to a hundred miles and

which lay in a loosely shaped U. St. Vincent's was the tip of the eastern

side of that U. The men of St. Vincent's were to be called out to turn the

outlaw out of his course towards Tucker Creek, and then, as he struck

northeast towards Caswell City, they were to furnish the posse with fifteen

fresh horses, the best they could gather on such short notice. Swinging

north along that side of the U, Wago would next be warned to get its

contribution of fifteen horses ready, and this fresh relay would send Barry

thundering along towards Caswell City at full speed. Then Caswell City

would send out its contingent of men and horses, and turn the fugitive back

from the fords. By this time, unless his horse were better winded than any

that Billy had ever dreamed of, it would be staggering at every stride, and

the fresh horses from Caswell City would probably ride him down before he

had gone five miles. Even in case they failed in this, there was the little

town of Ganton, which would be ready with its men and mounts. Perhaps they

could hem in the desperado from the front and shoot him down there, as he

skirted along the river. At the worst they would furnish the fresh horses

and the fifteen hardy riders would spur at full speed south along the

river. If again, by some miracle, the black stallion lasted out this run,

Wilsonville lay due ahead, and that place would again give new horses to

the chase.



Last of all, the men of Bly Falls could be warned. Bly Falls was a town of

size and it could turn out enough men to block a dozen Dan Barrys, no

matter how desperate. If he reached that point, he must turn back. The

following posse would catch him from the rear, and between two fires he

must die ingloriously. Taking the plan as a whole it meant running Barry

close to a hundred miles with six sets of horses.



It all hinged, however, on the first step: Could the men of St. Vincent

turn him out of his western course and send him north towards Caswell City?

If they could, he was no better than a dead man. All things favored Billy.

In the first place it was still morning, and eight hours of broad daylight

would keep the fugitive in view every inch of the way. In the second place,

much of the distance was cut up by the barb-wire fences of the farm-lands,

and he must either jump these or else stop to cut them.



A crackle of laughter cut in on Billy the clerk. They were laughing in that

inner office, where the sheriff lay dead. Blood swept across his eyes, set

his brain whirling, and he rushed to the door.



"You yelpin' coyotes!" shouted Billy the clerk. "Get out. I got to be

alone! Get out, or by God--"



It was not so much his words, or the fear of his threats, but the very fact

that Billy the clerk, harmless, smiling old Billy, had burst into noisy

wrath, scared them as if an earthquake had gripped the building. They went

out sidling, and left the rooms in quiet. Then Billy took up the phone.



"Pete Glass is dead," he was saying a moment later to the owner of the

general merchandise store at St. Vincent. "Barry came in this morning and

shot him. The boys have run him east to the Morgan Hills. Johnny, listen

hard and shut up. You got half an hour to turn out every man in your town.

Ride south till you get in the hills on a bee-line east of where Tucker

Creek runs into the old Asper. D'ye hear? Then keep your eyes peeled to

the east, and watch for a man on a black hoss ridin' hard, because Barry is

sure as hell goin' to double back out of the Morgan Hills and come west

like a scairt coyote. The posse will be behind him, but they most like be a

hell of a ways to the bad. Johnny, everything hangs on your turnin' Barry

back. And have fifteen fresh hosses, the best St. Vincent has, so that the

boys in the posse can climb on 'em and ride hell-bent for Wago. Johnny, if

we get him started north he's dead--and if you turn him like I say I'll

see that you come in on the reward. D'ye hear?"



But there was only an inarticulate whoop from the other end of the

wire.



Billy hung up. A little later he was talking to Wago.





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