Trapped





When Wade first opened his eyes, after he had been stricken senseless,

he was first conscious of his throbbing head, and on seeking the reason

of the pain, was amazed to find his fingers stained with the blood which

matted his hair. With an exclamation he struggled to his feet, still too

dazed to think clearly, but sufficiently aroused to be startled by the

predicament in which he found himself.



He was at the bottom of a rock-walled fissure, about six feet wide by

twenty feet in length. There was no way to climb out of this natural

prison, for its granite sides, fifteen feet in height, were without

crack, projection, or other foothold; indeed, in the light of the

afternoon sun, one facade shone smooth as glass. If he should be left

there without sustenance, he told himself, he might as well be entombed;

then, to his delight, he caught the sound of splashing water. At least,

he would not perish of thirst, for at one end of the rocky chamber a

tiny stream fell down the face of the cliff, to disappear afterward

through a narrow cleft. A draught of the cool water refreshed him

somewhat, and when he had bathed his head as well as he could, he sat

down on the warm sand to think over the situation.



Now that his brain was clearing he felt sure that his capture was the

work of Moran, doubtless planned as a revenge for the events of their

last meeting, although what shape this revenge was to take the cattleman

could not guess. He feared that he would either be shot or left to

starve in this cul-de-sac in the hills. The thought of all that he and

his friends had suffered through Moran lashed the ranchman temporarily

to fury; but that he soon controlled as well as he could, for he found

its only result was to increase the pain in his head, without aiding to

solve the problem of escape. The prospect of getting out of his prison

seemed remote, for one glance at its precipitate walls had shown him

that not even a mountain goat could scale them. Help, if it came at all,

must come through Santry, who could be counted on to arouse the

countryside. The thought of the state the old man must be in worried

Wade; and he was too familiar with the vast number of small canyons and

hidden pockets in the mountains to believe that his friends would soon

find him. Before help could reach him, undoubtedly Moran would show his

hand, in which for the present were all the trumps.



It was characteristic of the cattleman that, with the full realization

of his danger, should come a great calm. He had too lively an

imagination to be called a man of iron nerve, for that quality of

courage is not so often a virtue as a lack of sensitiveness. He who is

courageous because he knows no fear is not so brave by half as he who

gauges the extent of his peril and rises superior to it. Wade's courage

was of the latter sort, an ascendancy of the mind over the flesh.

Whenever danger threatened him, his nerves responded to his need with

the precision of the taut strings of a perfectly tuned fiddle under a

master hand. He had been more nervous, many a time, over the thought of

some one of his men riding a dangerous horse or turning a stampede, than

he was now that his own life seemed threatened.



Shrugging his broad shoulders, he rolled and smoked a cigarette. The

slight exhilaration of the smoke, acting on his weakened condition,

together with the slight dizziness still remaining from the blow on his

head, was far from conducing to clear thinking, but he forced himself to

careful thought. He was less concerned about himself than he was about

Santry and Dorothy; particularly Dorothy, for he had now come to

appreciate how closely she had come into his life. Her sympathy had been

very sweet to him, but he told himself that he would be sorry to have

her worry about him now, when there was so little chance of their seeing

each other again. He had no great hope of rescue. He expected to die,

either by violence or by the slower process of starvation, but in either

case he meant to meet his fate like a man.



Of Helen Rexhill, he thought now with a sense of distaste. It was

altogether unlikely that she had been privy to her father's

depredations, but certainly she countenanced them by her presence in

Crawling Water, and she had shown up so poorly in contrast with Dorothy

Purnell that Wade could not recall his former tenderness for his early

sweetheart. Even if great good fortune should enable him to escape from

his prison, the interests of the Rexhill family were too far removed

from his own to be ever again bridged by the tie of love, or even of

good-feeling. He could not blame the daughter for the misdeeds of her

parent, but the old sentiment could never be revived. It was not for

Helen that the instinct of self-preservation stirred within him, nor was

it in her eyes that he would look for the light of joy over his rescue,

if rescue should come.



He smoked several cigarettes, until the waning of his supply of tobacco

warned him to economize against future cravings. Realizing that even if

his friends were within a stone's throw of him they would not be likely

to find him unless he gave some sign of his presence, he got to his feet

and, making a trumpet out of his hands, shouted loudly. He repeated this

a dozen times, or more, and was about to sink back upon the sand when he

heard footsteps approaching on the ground overhead. He had little idea

that a friend was responding to his call, but being unarmed he could do

no more than crouch against the wall of the cliff while he scanned the

opening above him.



Presently there appeared in the opening the head of a Texan, Goat Neale,

whom Wade recognized as a member of Moran's crew and a man of some note

as a gunfighter.



"How," drawled the Texan, by way of greeting. "Feelin' pretty good?"

When the ranchman did not reply, his inquisitor seemed amused. "A funny

thing like this here always makes me laff," he remarked. "It sure does

me a heap of good to see you all corraled like a fly in a bottle. Mebbe

you'd take satisfaction in knowin' that it was me brung you down out

yonder in the timber. I was sure mighty glad to take a wallop at you,

after the way you all done us up that night at the ranch."



"So I'm indebted to you for this, eh?" Wade spoke casually, as though

the matter were a trifling thing. He was wondering if he could bribe

Neale to set him free. Unfortunately he had no cash about him, and he

concluded that the Texan would not think promises worth while under the

circumstances.



"Sure. I reckon you'd like to see the boss? Well, he's comin' right on

over. Just now he's eatin' a mess o' bacon and beans and cawfee, over to

the camp. My Gawd, that's good cawfee, too. Like to have some, eh?" But

Wade refused to play Tantalus to the lure of this temptation and kept

silent. "Here he comes now."



"Is he all right?" Wade heard Moran ask, as Neale backed away from the

rim of the hole.



"Yep," the Texan answered.



The ranchman instinctively braced himself to meet whatever might befall.

It was quite possible, he knew, that Moran had spared him in the

timber-belt to torture him here; he did not know whether to expect a

bullet or a tongue lashing, but he was resolved to meet his fate

courageously and, as far as was humanly possible, stoically. To his

surprise, the agent's tone did not reveal a great amount of venom.



"Hello, Wade!" he greeted, as he looked down on his prisoner. "Find your

quarters pretty comfortable, eh? It's been a bit of a shock to you, no

doubt, but then shocks seem to be in order in Crawling Water Valley just

now."



"Moran, I've lived in this country a good many years." Wade spoke with a

suavity which would have indicated deadly peril to the other had the two

been on anything like equal terms. "I've seen a good many blackguards

come and go in that time, but the worst of them was redeemed by more of

the spark of manhood than there seems to be in you."



"Is that so?" Moran's face darkened in swift anger, but he restrained

himself. "Well, we'll pass up the pleasantries until after our business

is done. You and I've got a few old scores to settle and you won't find

me backward when the times comes, my boy. It isn't time yet, although

maybe the time isn't so very far away. Now, see here." He leaned over

the edge of the cliff to display a folded paper and a fountain-pen. "I

have here a quit-claim deed to your ranch, fully made out and legally

witnessed, needing only your signature to make it valid. Will you sign

it?"



Wade started in spite of himself. This idea was so preposterous that it

had never occurred to him as the real motive for his capture. He could

scarcely believe that so good a lawyer as Senator Rexhill could be blind

to the fact that such a paper, secured under duress, would have no

validity under the law. He looked up at the agent in amazement.



"I know what you're thinking, of course," Moran went on, with an evil

smile. "We're no fools. I've got here, besides the deed, a check made

out to you for ten thousand dollars." He held it up. "You'll remember

that we made you that offer once before. You turned it down then, but

maybe you'll change your mind now. After you indorse the check I'll

deposit it to your credit in the local bank."



The cattleman's face fell as he caught the drift of this complication.

That ten thousand dollars represented only a small part of the value of

his property was true, but many another man had sold property for less

than it was worth. If a perfectly good check for ten thousand dollars,

bearing his indorsement, were deposited to the credit of his banking

account, the fact would go far to offset any charge of duress that he

might later bring. To suppose that he had undervalued his holdings would

be no more unreasonable than to suppose that a man of Senator Rexhill's

prominence would stoop to physical coercion of an adversary. The

question would merely be one of personal probity, with the presumption

on the Senator's side.



"Once we get a title to the land, a handle to fight with, we sha'n't

care what you try to do," Moran explained further. "We can afford to

laugh at you." That seemed to Wade to be true. "If you accept my offer

now, I will set you free as soon as this check is in the bank, and the

settlement of our personal scores can go over to another time. I assure

you that I am just as anxious to get at you as you are to get at me, but

I've always made it a rule never to mix pleasure and business. You'll

have a fair start to get away. On the other hand, if you refuse, you'll

be left here without food. Once each day I'll visit you; at other times

you'll be left alone, except when Goat may care to entertain himself by

baiting you. You'll be perfectly safe here, guard or no guard, believe

me."



Moran chuckled ominously, his thoughts divided between professional

pride, excited by the thought of successfully completing the work he had

come to Crawling Water to do, and exultation at the prospect that his

sufferings while gagged the previous night might be atoned for a

thousand times if Wade should refuse to sign the quit-claim.



"In plain speech," said Wade, pale but calm, "you propose to starve me

to death."



"Exactly," was the cheerful assurance. "If I were you, I'd think a bit

before answering."



Because the cattleman was in the fullest flush of physical vigor, the

lust of life was strong in him. Never doubting that Moran meant what he

said, Wade was on the point of compliance, thinking to assume the burden

later on, of a struggle with Rexhill to regain his ranch. His manhood

rebelled at the idea of coercion, but, dead, he could certainly not

defend himself; it seemed to him better that he should live to carry on

the fight. He would most likely have yielded but for the taunt of

cowardice which had already been noised about Crawling Water. True, the

charge had sprung from those who liked him least, but it had stung him.

He was no coward, and he would not feed such a report now by yielding to

Moran. Whatever the outcome of a later fight might be, the fact that he

had knuckled under to the agent could never be lived down. Such success

as he had won had been achieved by playing a man's part in man's world.



"I'll tell you what I'll do, Moran," he said, finally. "Give me a hand

out of this hole, or come down here yourself. Throw aside your gun, but



keep your knife. I'll allow you that advantage. Meet me face to face!

Damn you, be a man! Anything that you can gain by my signature, you can

gain by my death. Get the best of me, if you can, in a man's fight.

Pah!" He spat contemptuously. "You're a coward, Moran, a white-livered

coward! You don't dare fight with me on anything like equal terms. I'll

get out of here somehow, and when I do--by Heaven, I'll corner you, and

I'll make you fight."



"Get out? How?" Moran laughed the idea to scorn. "Your friends can look

for you from now till snowfall. They'll never find even your bones. Rot

there, if you choose. Why should I take a chance on you when I've got

you where I want you? You ought to die. You know too much."



"Yes," Wade retorted grimly. "I know too much. I know enough to hang

you, you murderer. Who killed Oscar Jensen? Answer that! You did it, or

you had it done, and then you tried to put it on Santry and me, and I'm

not the only one who knows it. This country's too small to hold you,

Moran. Your fate is settled already, whatever may happen to me."



"Still, I seem to be holding four aces now," Moran grinned back at him.

"And the cards are stacked."



Left alone, Wade rolled himself a cigarette from his scant hoard of

tobacco. Already he was hungry, for deep shadows in his prison marked

the approach of night, and he had the appetite of a healthy man. The

knowledge that he was to be denied food made him feel the hungrier,

until he resolutely put the thought of eating out of his mind. The

water, trickling down the face of the rock, was a God-send, though, and

he drank frequently from the little stream.



By habit a heavy smoker, he viewed with dismay the inroads which he had

already made on his store of tobacco for that deprivation he felt would

be the most real of any that he could suffer. He tried to take shorter

puffs upon his cigarette, and between them shielded the fire with his

hand, so that the air-draughts in the fissure might not cheat him of any

of the smoke. He figured that he had scarcely enough tobacco left for a

dozen cigarettes, which was less than his usual daily allowance.



On searching his pockets, in the hope of finding a second sack of

Durham, he chanced upon his clasp-knife, and viewed the find with joy.

The thought of using it as a weapon did not impress him, for his captors

would keep out of reach of such a toy, but he concluded that he might

possibly use it to carve some sort of foothold in the rock. The idea of

cutting the granite was out of the question, but there might be strata

of softer stone which he could dig into. It was a forlorn hope, in a

forlorn cause, and it proved futile. At his first effort the knife's

single blade snapped off short, and he threw the useless handle away.



Darkness fell some time before the cool night air penetrated the

fissure; when it did so the cold seemed likely to be added to his other

physical discomforts. In the higher altitudes the nights were distinctly

chilly even in mid-summer, and he had on only a light outing shirt,

above his waist. As the hour grew late, the cold increased in severity

until Wade was forced to walk up and down his narrow prison in the

effort to keep warm. He had just turned to retrace his steps, on one

such occasion, when his ears caught the soft pat-pat of a footfall on

the ground above. He instantly became motionless and tensely alert,

wondering which of his enemies was so stealthily returning, and for what

reason.



He thought it not unlikely that Moran had altered his purpose and come

back to shoot him while he slept. Brave though he was, the idea of being

shot down in such a manner made his flesh crawl. Stooping, he picked up

a fragment of rock; although he realized the futility of the weapon, it

was all he had. Certainly, whoever approached was moving with the utmost

stealth, which argued an attack of some kind. Drawing back the hand that

held the stone, the cattleman shrank into a corner of the fissure and

waited. Against the starlit sky, he had an excellent view of the opening

above him, and possibly by a lucky throw the stone would serve against

one assailant, at least.



The pat-pat-pat drew nearer and stopped, at last, on the extreme edge

of the hole. A low, long-drawn sniff showed that this was no human

enemy. If the sound had been louder, Wade would have guessed that it was

made by a bear; but as it was he guessed the prowler to be a

mountain-lion. He had little fear of such a beast; most of them were

notorious cowards unless cornered, and when presently a pair of glowing

eyes peered down into the fissure, he hurled the stone at them with all

his might. His aim was evidently true, for with a snarl of pain the

animal drew back.



But just as amongst the most pacific human races there are some brave

spirits, so amongst the American lions there are a few which possess all

the courage of their jungle brothers. Actuated by overweening curiosity,

or else by a thirst for blood, the big cat returned again and again to

the edge of the hole. After his first throw Wade was unable to hit the

beast with a stone, although his efforts had the temporary effect of

frightening it. Gradually, however, it grew bolder, and was restrained

from springing upon him only, as it seemed, by some sixth sense which

warned it of the impossibility of getting out of the fissure after once

getting in. Baffled and furious, the lion sniffed and prowled about the

rim of the hole until the ranchman began to think it would surely leap

upon him.



He picked up his broken pocket-knife and waited for this to happen. The

shattered blade would be of little use, but it might prove better than

his bare hands if he had to defend himself against the brute's teeth and

claws.





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