Guardian Angels Are Riding Point





They plunged into darkness again, rode at a half trot over smooth, hard

sand, Bud trusting himself wholly to Marian and to the sagacity of the

two horses who could see, he hoped, much better than he himself could.

His keen hearing had caught a faint sound from behind them--far back in

the crevice-like gorge they had just quitted, he believed. For Marian's

sake he stared anxiously ahead, eager for the first faint suggestion of

starlight before them. It came, and he breathed freer and felt of his

gun in its holster, pulling it forward an inch or two.



"This way, Bud," Marian murmured, and swung Boise to the left, against

the mountain under and through which they seemed to have passed. She led

him into another small gorge whose extent he could not see, and stopped

him with a hand pressed against Sunfish's shoulder.



"We'd better get down and hold our horses quiet," she cautioned. "Boise

may try to whinny, and he mustn't."



They stood side by side at their horses' heads, holding the animals

close. For a time there were no sounds at all save the breathing of the

horses and once a repressed sigh from Marian. Bud remembered suddenly

how tired she must be. At six o'clock that morning she had fed twelve

men a substantial breakfast. At noon there had been dinner for several

more than twelve, and supper again at six--and here she was, risking

her life when she should be in bed. He felt for her free hand, found it

hanging listlessly by her side and took it in his own and held it there,

just as one holds the hand of a timid child. Yet Marian was not timid.



A subdued mutter of voices, the click of hoofs striking against stone,

and the pursuers passed within thirty feet of them. Boise had lifted

his head to nicker a salute, but Marian's jerk on the reins stopped him.

They stood very still, not daring so much as a whisper until the sounds

had receded and silence came again.



"They took the side-hill trail," whispered Marian, pushing Boise

backward to turn him in the narrow defile. "You'll have to get down

the hill into the creek-bed and follow that until you come to the stage

road. There may be others coming that way, but they will be two or three

miles behind you. This tunnel trail cuts off at least five miles but we

had to go slower, you see.



"Right here you can lead Sunfish down the bluff to the creek. It's all

dry, and around the first bend you will see where the road crosses. Turn

to the left on that and ride! This horse of yours will have to show the

stuff that's in him. Get to Crater ahead of these men that took the hill

trail. They'll not ride fast--they never dreamed you had come through

here, but they came to cut off the distance and to head you off. With

others behind, you must beat them all in or you'll be trapped between."



She had left Boise tied hastily to a bush and was walking ahead of Bud

down the steep, rocky hillside to show him the easiest way amongst the

boulders Halfway down, Bud caught her shoulder and stopped her.



"I'm not a kid," he said firmly. "I can make it from here alone. Not

another step, young lady. If you can get back home You'll be doing

enough. Take this--it's money, but I don't know how much. And watch your

chance and go down to mother with that message. Birnie, of the Tomahawk

outfit--you'll find out in Laramie where to go. And tell mother I'm all

right, and she'll see me some day--when I've made my stake. God bless

you, little woman. You're the truest, sweetest little woman in the

world. There's just one more like you--that's mother. Now go back--and

for God's sake he careful!"



He pressed money into her two hands, held them tightly together, kissed

them both hurriedly and plunged down the hill with Sunfish slipping and

sliding after him. For her safety, if not for his own, he meant to get

away from there as quickly as possible.



In the creek bed he mounted and rode away at a sharp gallop, glad that

Sunfish, thoroughbred though he was, had not been raised tenderly in

stall and corral, but had run free with the range horses and had learned

to keep his feet under him in rough country or smooth. When he reached

the crossing of the stage road he turned to the left as Marian had

commanded and put Sunfish to a pace that slid the miles behind him.



With his thoughts clinging to Marian, to the harshness which life had

shown her who was all goodness and sweetness and courage, Bud forgot to

keep careful watch behind him, or to look for the place where the hill

trail joined the road, as it probably did some distance from Crater.

It would be a blind trail, of course--since only the Catrock gang and

Marian knew of it.



They came into the road not far behind him, out of rock-strewn, brushy

wilderness that sloped up steeply to the rugged sides of Gold Gap

mountains. Sunfish discovered them first, and gave Bud warning just

before they identified him and began to shoot.



Bud laid himself along the shoulder of his horse with a handful of mane

to steady him while he watched his chance and fired back at them. There

were four, just the number he had guessed from the sounds as they came

out of the tunnel. A horse ran staggering toward him with the others,

faltered and fell. Bud was sorry for that. It had been no part of his

plan to shoot down the horses.



The three came on, leaving the fourth to his own devices--and that, too,

was quite in keeping with the type of human vultures they were. They

kept firing at Bud, and once he felt Sunfish wince and leap forward as

if a spur had raked him. Bud shot again, and thought he saw one horseman

lurch backward. But he could not be sure--they were going at a terrific

pace now, and Sunfish was leaving them farther and farther behind. They

were outclassed, hopelessly out of pistol range, and they must have

known it, for although they held to the chase they fired no more shots.



Then a dog barked, and Bud knew that he was passing a ranch. He could

smell the fresh hay in the stacks, and a moment later he descried the

black hulk of ranch buildings. Sunfish was running easily, his breath

unlabored. Bud stood in the stirrups and looked back. They were still

coming, for he could hear the pound of hoofs.



The ranch was behind him. Clear starlight was all around, and the bulk

of near mountains. The road seemed sandy, yielding beneath the pound

of Sunfish's hoofs. Bud leaned forward again in the saddle, and planned

what he would do when he reached Crater; found time, also, to hope that

Marian had gone back, and had not heard the shooting.



Another dog barked, this time on the right. Bud saw that they were

passing a picket fence. The barking of this dog started another farther

ahead and to the left. Houses so close together could only mean that

he was approaching Crater. Bud began to pull Sunfish down to a more

conventional pace. He did not particularly want to see heads thrust

from windows, and questions shouted to him. The Catrock gang might have

friends up this way. It would be strange, Bud thought, if they hadn't.



He loped along the road grown broader now and smoother. Many houses he

passed, and the mouths of obscure lanes. Dogs ran out at him. Bud slowed

to a walk and turned in the saddle, listening. Away back, where he had

first met the signs of civilization, the dog he had aroused was barking

again, his deep baying blurred by the distance. Bud grinned to himself

and rode on at a walk, speaking now and then to an inquiring dog and

calling him Purp in a tone that soothed.



Crater, he discovered in a cursory patrol of the place, was no more than

an overgrown village. The court-house and jail stood on the main street,

and just beyond was the bank. Bud rode here and there, examining closely

the fronts of various buildings before he concluded that there was only

the one bank in Crater. When he was quite sure of that he chose place

near by the rear of the bank, where one horse and a cow occupied a

comfortable corral together with hay. He unsaddled Sunfish and turned

him there, himself returning to the bank before those other night-riders

had more than reached the first straggling suburbs of the town.



On the porch of the court-house, behind a jutting corner pillar that

seemed especially designed for the concealment of a man in Bud's

situation, he rolled cigarette which he meant to smoke later on when the

way was clear, and waited for the horsemen to appear.



Presently they came, rode to a point opposite the court-house and bank

with no more than a careless glance that way, and halted in front of an

uninviting hotel across the street. Two remained on their horses while

the third pounded on the door and shook it by the knob and finally

raised the landlord from his sleep. There was a conference which Bud

witnessed with much interest. A lamp had been lighted in the bare

office, and against the yellow glow Bud distinctly saw the landlord nod

his head twice--which plainly betokened some sort of understanding.



He was glad that he had not stopped at the hotel. He felt much more

comfortable on the court-house porch. "Mother's guardian angels must be

riding 'point' to-night," he mused.



The horsemen rode back to a livery stable which Bud had observed but had

not entered. There they also sought for news of him, it would appear.

You will recall, however, that Bud had ridden slowly into the business

district of Crater, and his passing had been unmarked except by the

barking of dogs that spent their nights in yammering at every sound

and so were never taken seriously. The three horsemen were plainly

nonplussed and conferred together in low tones before they rode on. It

was evident that they meant to find Bud if they could. What they meant

to do with him Bud did not attempt to conjecture. He did not intend to

be found.



After a while the horsemen rode back to the hotel, got the landlord out

with less difficulty than before and had another talk with him.



"He stole a horse from Dave Truman," Bud heard one of the three say

distinctly. "That there running horse Dave had."



The landlord tucked in his shirt and exclaimed at the news, and Bud

heard him mention the sheriff. But nothing came of that evidently. They

talked further and reined their horses to ride back whence they came.



"He likely's give us the slip outside of town, some place," one man

concluded. "We'll ride back and see. If he shows up, he'll likely want

to eat... And send Dick out to the Stivers place. We'll come a-running."

He had lowered his voice so that Bud could not hear what was to happen

before the landlord sent Dick, but he decided he would not pry into the

matter and try to fill that gap in the conversation.



He sat where he was until the three had ridden back down the sandy road

which served as a street. Then he slipped behind the court-house and

smoked his cigarette, and went and borrowed hay from the cow and the

horse in the corral and made himself some sort of bed with his saddle

blanket to help out, and slept until morning.





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