The Trap





"Yuh out last night?" brusquely inquired Gabby, as they were dressing next

morning.



A direct question from the eccentric individual was so novel that Buck

paused in buckling on his cartridge-belt, and stared at him in frank

surprise.



"Why, no," he returned promptly. "Were you, Bud?"



"I sure wasn't. I didn't budge after my head hit the mattress. What gave

yuh the notion, old-timer?"



"Door unlatched," growled Gabby, continuing his preparations for

breakfast.



"Is that all?" shrugged Bud. "Likely nobody thought to close it tight."



Gabby made no answer, but his expression, as he went silently about his

work, failed to show conviction.



"Ain't he a scream?" inquired Bud an hour later, when they had saddled up

and were on their way. "I don't wonder Tenny can't get nobody to stay in

camp with him. It would be about as cheerful as a morgue."



"Must have got soured in his youth," remarked Stratton. "I had to put up a

regular fight to get him to look after the pack-horse till somebody can

take it back to the ranch-house. Where do we hit this trail you were

telling me about?"



"About a mile and a half further on. It ain't much to boast of, but

chances are we won't meet up with a soul till we run into the main road a

mile or so this side of Perilla."



Bud's prediction proved accurate. They encountered no one throughout the

entire length of the twisting, narrow, little-used trail, and even when

they reached the main road early in the afternoon there was very little

passing.





"Reckon they're all taking their siesta," commented. Bud. "Perilla's a

great place for greasers, yuh know, bein' so near the border. There's a

heap sight more of 'em than whites."



Presently they began to pass small, detached adobe huts, some of them the

merest hovels. A few dark-faced children were in sight here and there, but

the older persons were all evidently comfortably indoors, slumbering

through the noonday heat.



Further on the houses were closer together, and at length Bud announced

that they were nearing the main street, one end of which crossed the road

they were on at right angles.



"That rickety old shack there is just on the corner," he explained. "It's

a Mexican eating-house, as I remember. Most of the stores an' decent

places are up further."



"Wonder where Hardenberg hangs out?" remarked Stratton.



"Yuh got me. I never had no professional use for him before. Reckon most

anybody can tell us, though. That looks like a cow-man over there. Let's

ask him."



A moment or two later they stopped before the dingy, weather-beaten

building on the corner. Two horses fretted at the hitching-rack, and on

the steps lounged a man in regulation cow-boy garb. A cigarette dangled

from one corner of his mouth, and as the two halted he glanced up from the

newspaper he was reading.



"Hardenberg?" he repeated in answer to the question. "Yuh mean the

sheriff? Why, he's inside there."



Bud looked surprised and somewhat incredulous. "What the devil's he doin'

in that greaser eatin'-house?"



The stranger squinted one eye as the cigarette smoke curled up into his

face. "Oh, he ain't patronizin' the joint," he explained with a touch of

dry amusement. "He's after old Jose Maria for sellin' licker, I reckon.

Him an' one of his deputies rode up about five minutes ago."



After a momentary hesitation Stratton and Jessup dismounted and tied their

horses to the rack. Buck realized that the sheriff might not care to be

interrupted while on business of this sort, but their own case was so

urgent that he decided to take a chance. At least he could find out when

Hardenberg would be at leisure.



Pushing through the swinging door, they found themselves in a single, long

room, excessively dingy and rather dark, the only light coming from two

unshuttered windows on the north side. To Buck's surprise at least a score

of Mexicans were seated around five or six bare wooden tables eating and

drinking. Certainly if a raid was on they were taking it very calmly. The

next moment he was struck by two things; the sudden hush which greeted

their appearance, and the absence of any one who could possibly be the man

they sought.



"Looks like that fellow must have given us the wrong tip," he said,

glancing at Jessup. "I don't see any one here who--"



He paused as a wizened, middle-aged Mexican got up from the other end of

the room and came toward them.



"Yo' wish zee table, senors?" he inquired. "P'raps like zee chile con

carne, or zee--"



"We don't want anything to eat," interrupted Stratton. "I understand

Sheriff Hardenberg is here. Could I see him a minute?"



"Oh, zee shereef!" shrugged the Mexican, with a characteristic gesture of

his hands. "He in zee back room with Jose Maria. Yo' please come zis

way."



He turned and walked toward a door at the further end of the long room,

the two men following him between the tables. But Buck had not taken more

than half a dozen steps before he stopped abruptly. That curious silence

seemed to him too long continued to be natural; there was a hint of

tension, of suspense in it. And something about the attitude of the seated

Mexicans--a vague sense of watchful, stealthy scrutiny, of tense,

quivering muscles--confirmed his sudden suspicion.



"Hold up, Bud!" he warned impulsively. "There's something wrong here."



As if the words were a signal, the crowd about them surged up suddenly,

with the harsh scrape of many chair-legs and an odd, sibilant sound,

caused by a multitude of quick-drawn breaths. Like a flash Buck pulled his

gun and leveled it on the nearest greaser.



"Get out of the way," he ordered, taking a step toward the outer door.



The fellow shrank back instinctively, but to Buck's surprise--the average

Mexican is not noted for daredevil bravery--several others behind pushed

themselves forward. Suddenly Jessup's voice rose in shrill warning.



"Look out, Buck! Behind yuh--quick! That guy's got a knife."



Stratton whirled swiftly to catch a flashing vision of a tall Mexican

creeping toward him, a long, slim knife glittering in his upraised hand.

The fellow was so close that another step would bring him within striking

distance, and without hesitation Buck's finger pressed the trigger.



The hammer fell with an ominous, metallic click. Amazed, Buck hastily

pulled the trigger twice again without results. As he realized that in

some mysterious manner the weapon had been tampered with, his teeth

grated, but with no perceptible pause in the swiftness of his action he

drew back his arm and hurled the pistol straight into the greaser's face.



His aim was deadly. The heavy Colt struck the fellow square on the mouth,

and with a smothered cry he dropped the knife and staggered back, flinging

up both hands to his face. But others leaped forward to take his place, a

dozen knives flashing in as many hands. The ring closed swiftly, and from

behind him Stratton heard Bud cry out with an oath that his gun was

useless.



There was no time for conscious planning. It was instinct alone--that

primitive instinct of every man sore pressed to get his back against

something solid--that made Buck lunge forward suddenly, seize a Mexican

around the waist, and hurl him bodily at one side of the closing circle.



This parted abruptly and two men went sprawling. One of them Buck kicked

out of the way, feeling a savage satisfaction at the impact of his boot

against soft flesh and at the yell of pain that followed. Catching Jessup

by an arm he swept him toward one of the tables, snatched up a chair, and

with his back against the heavy piece of furniture he faced the mob. His

hat was gone, and as he stood there, big body braced, mouth set, and hair

crested above his smoldering eyes, he made a splendid picture of force and

strength which seemed for an instant to awe the Mexicans into inactivity.



But the pause was momentary. Urged on by a voice in the rear, they surged

forward again, two of the foremost hurling their knives with deadly aim.

One Stratton avoided by a swift duck of his head; the other he caught

dexterously on the chair-bottom. Then, over the heads of the crowd,

another chair came hurtling with unexpected force and precision. It struck

Buck's crude weapon squarely, splintering the legs and leaving him only

the back and precariously wobbling seat.



He flung this at one of the advancing men and floored him. But another,

slipping agilely in from the side, rushed at him with upraised knife. He

was the same greaser who, weeks before, had played that trick about the

letter; and Buck's lips twitched grimly as he recognized him.



As the knife flashed downward, Stratton squirmed his body sidewise so that

the blade merely grazed one shoulder. Grasping the slim wrist, he twisted

it with brutal force, and the weapon clattered to the floor. An instant

later he had gripped the fellow about the body and, exerting all his

strength, hurled him across the table and straight through the near-by

window.



The sound of a shrill scream and the crash of shattered glass came

simultaneously. In the momentary, dead silence that followed, one could

have almost heard a pin drop.





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