The Bandit of Hell’s Bend

Chapter XV

“Now, Go!”

Edgar Rice Burroughs

IT WAS Wednesday again. Four horses, sweat streaked, toiled laboriously to drag the heavy coach up the north side of Hell’s Bend Pass. It was a tough pull even with a light load—one that really demanded six horses and would have had six in the old days—and today the load was light. There was but a single passenger. She sat on the driver’s box with Bill Gatlin with whom she was in earnest discussion.

“I tell you I don’t believe he did it,” she was saying. “I’ll never believe that he did it, and I’m mighty glad that he got away.”

Gatlin shook his head. “There ain’t no one got a better right to say that than you has, Miss,” he said, “fer ’twas your gold as was stole, an’ your messenger as was shot up; but nevertheless an’ howsumever I got my own private opinion what I’m keepin’ to myself thet it was Bull all right as done it.”

“I’d just like to see this Black Coyote once,” said the girl. “I’d know if it was Bull or not.”

“They ain’t no chanct today, Miss,” Gatlin told her. “They ain’t no gold shipment today, unless I’m mighty mistook.”

“Don’t he ever make a mistake?” asked the girl.

“Never hain’t yet, Miss.”

Diana relapsed into silence, her thoughts reverting to her interview with the Kansas City attorney. He had not held out very roseate hopes. By means of litigation—long and expensive—she might, after a number of years, get a small portion of her father’s share of the business. She had better take a cash settlement, if she could get one, he thought. A hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars in the hand would be much better, in his opinion, than a long drawn-out suit that could be nothing better than an expensive gamble with the odds against her.

“But I won’t! I won’t! I won’t be robbed,” she ejaculated beneath her breath.

“How’s that, Miss?” inquired Bill Gatlin. “Was you speakin’ to me?”

“I must have been thinking aloud,” she said, smiling. “What a long pull this is, Bill!”

“We’re nigh to the summit,” he replied, pulling in his team to breathe them for a moment.

On the shoulder of Wagon Mountain overlooking the south stretch of Hell’s Bend Pass road two men sat their horses amidst a clump of chaparral that effectually hid them from the road, though they could see nearly its entire length from the summit to the gap at the bottom. Presently one of them spoke.

“Here it comes,” he said. He was a swarthy, powerfully built Mexican, somewhere in his thirties, Gregorio, the bandit.

His companion was adjusting a black silk handkerchief across his face in such a way as to entirely hide his features. There were two small holes cut in the handkerchief opposite its wearer’s eyes which, through them, were fixed upon the stage as it topped the pass and started downward upon its rapid and careening descent toward the gap and Hendersville.

“Come,” said Gregorio, and wheeled his horse about.

His companion’s mount moved suddenly before the handkerchief was finally adjusted and as the man reached for his reins the thing fell away from his face, revealing it. It was Bull.

A second attempt was more successful and then the men rode down the sheer mountain-side, keeping just below the crest upon the south side and hidden from the view of the driver and the passenger upon the stage. Their horses moved with extreme care and without haste, for the way was precarious, occasionally requiring that the horses sit upon their haunches and slide for short distances until they found footing again further down. The riders seemed unperturbed either by the dangers of the descent or fear of being late at their rendezvous, suggesting habitude with the work in hand. In a dense growth of scrub just above the gap they tied their horses, continuing on foot.

The stage lumbered downward, rocking from side to side. Diana held tight and said nothing. She had ridden with Bill Gatlin before, many times. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.

“This ain’t nothin’,” he said, as though in answer to a remonstrance on her part. Diana knew what was coming. She had heard it many times. “No, siree,” continued Bill, “this ain’t nothin’. Why, you’d orter ben with me one night when I was on the Denver run in the ol’ days, afore the railroads spoiled the country. The trail crossed plumb over the top of a mountain.

“’Twarn’t no road. ’Twarn’t nothin’ but a trail. I hed the of stage plumb full an’ passengers a-hangin’ onto the boot. It was pitch dark—the doggonest, darkest night I ever see. Couldn’t see airy wheel-horse. Only ways I knowed I hed any horses was when their shoes struck fire on the stony parts o’ the road. Jest afore we struck the top o’ the mountain they was the worst cloud-bust I ever did see. Them horses had to swim the last hundred rods to the top o’ thet mountain, an’ the of stage was bobbin’ aroun’ so on the waves thet eight of the passengers got sea-sick.

“But thet wa’n’t nothin’. When we come to the top I found the road’d ben all washed away. They wa’n’t no more road ’n a jack-rabbit; but I was a-carryin’ the mail, jest like I be now an’ I hed to git through. It was a high mountain an’ tolably steep, but not no trees, so I see there wa’n’t only one thing to do an’ thet was to go down road or no road, so right there on the top o’ thet mountain I threw the leather into ’em an’ headed ’em fer Denver an’ down we goes faster’n ever I rid afore or since, the wheelers a jumpin’ to keep out o’ the way o’ the stage an’ the leaders a jumpin’ to keep out o’ the way o’ the wheelers.

“Well, sir, we was a-goin’ so fast thet the fust thing I knowed the friction hed melted the nut offen the nigh front wheel an’ away went thet wheel hell-bent-fer-election down the mountain, but it couldn’t keep up with the stage an’ purty soon it was left behind, but the stage was a-goin’ so fast thet it never missed thet wheel at all. An’ purty soon off came the off rear wheel, an’ thet wheel couldn’t keep up, though I could see it was doin’ its best outen the corner o’ my eye.

“Well, sir, ’twa’n’t long afore tother hind wheel came off, but we was goin’ about twict as fast now as when the fust wheel came off an’ that of stage jest skimmed along on one wheel a dinged sight smoother an’ it ever done on four. When we were about to the bottom off come the last wheel an’ then thinks I fer sure we gotta quit an’ we ain’t to Denver yit, but we’d got so much mo-mentum by this time thet the last wheel didn’t make no more difference then the others.

“Them horses jest drug thet stage out behind them like a comet does its tail an’ on we went streakin’ down thet mountain an’ five mile out onto the flat afore the stage hit the ground an’ then, o’ course, we hed to stop. It was too bad. I tell you I felt plumb sore. I hadn’t never ben off schedule sence I took the run.

“Then, all of a suddint, says one o’ the passengers, ‘Look back yonder, Bill,’ says he. ‘Look what’s comin’!’ An’ I looked an’ there come them four wheels a-tearin’ across the flat straight fer us. Well, to make a long story short, they peters out right beside the stage an’ with the help o’ the passengers an’ some extra nuts we got ’em back on where they belonged an’ pulled into Denver two hours ahead o’ time. But I tell you, Miss, thet was some ride. I’d hate to hev to take it again. Why—”

“Hands up! Put ’em up!”

The stage had slowed down for the rough road through the gap, when two men with muffled faces stepped before the leaders, covering the driver and his lone passenger with wicked-looking six-guns.

Diana Henders sat as one turned to stone, her eyes fixed upon the tall, fine figure of the leading high wayman. A little gust of wind moved the handkerchief that covered his face so that she saw, or she thought she saw, a scar upon the square chin. She was not afraid. It was not fear—physical fear that held her motionless—it was worse than that. It was the paralyzing terror of the heart and soul. Was it Bull? Could it be Bull?

But, dear God, could she be mistaken in the familiar lines of that figure—every movement, every gesture proclaimed the numbing truth? He had not spoken. She was glad of that, for she wanted something upon which to hang a doubt. The second man had given the brief commands. That he was Gregorio she had no doubt.

“Throw down the mail pouch,” he commanded, and Bill Gatlin threw it down.

The taller man took it and went to the rear of the stage, out of sight. Five minutes later Gregorio commanded them to drive on. That was all. The thing had not consumed six minutes, but in that brief time the structure of Diana’s life had been shaken to its foundations. A new, a terrible truth had engulfed her—a truth that should have up-borne her upon a wave of exaltation and happiness now dragged her down into the vortex of a whirlpool of self-loathing and misery.

They rode on in silence for a few minutes, Bill Gatlin cracking his long whip-above the ears of the leaders, galloping smoothly over a comparatively level road.

“Doggone!” he said presently. “It’s gettin’ too almighty reg’lar to suit me, though I reckon as how I mought git lonesome if I wasn’t held up oncet in a while; but you hed your wish, Miss—you got to see The Black Coyote, all right, and now what do you think? Is it or isn’t it Bull?”

Diana Henders bit her lip. “Of course it was not Bull,” she said.

“Looked powerful like him to me,” said Gatlin.

As they drew up in front of The Donovan House the usual idlers came forth to learn what new element this, their sole link to civilization, had infused into their midst. They greeted Diana none the less cordially because she was the only passenger and the stage had brought no new interest to Hendersville.

“Held up agin,” announced Bill. “Some on you better go an’ tell Gum—he might want to deputize someone.”

Immediately the crowd was interested. They asked many questions.

“They wa’n’t much to it,” said Bill Gatlin. “Bein’ as how they wa’n’t no gold he took the mail. I reckon if you was lookin’ fer any letters you won’t git them.”

A man from the Bar Y spoke up. “Thet New York feller up to the ranch was lookin’ fer a important piece o’ mail,” he said. “He sent me down special to git it.”

“Hey, what’s this?” demanded another, peering into the interior of the coach. “Here’s yer mail bag, Bill, a-lyin’ right in here.” He dragged it out and exhibited to the others.

“They’s somethin’ wrong with it—it’s ben cut open,” said another, pointing to a slit in the leather. Then the postmaster came up and rescued the sack. The crowd followed him to the general store in which the post-office was conducted. Here the postmaster, assisted by the crowd, went through the contents of the sack.

“Course I cain’t tell what’s missin’,” he said, “’only they ain’t no registered letter fer Mr. Corson.”

Diana Henders had gone immediately into The Donovan House as quickly as she could clamber from the stage after it had come to a stop, and Mary Donovan had taken her into the privacy of her sitting room for the cup “o’ tay” that Diana had been looking forward to for the past couple of hours. Here she told the motherly Irish woman the details of her trip to Kansas City and the quandary she was in as to what procedure to follow in her future dealings with Corson.

“If I had anything to fight with, I’d fight,” she exclaimed; “but I’m all alone—even the law seems to be on their side, against justice.”

“Shure, an’ it’s not all alone ye are,” Mary Donovan assured her. “What wid all the friends ye have that would fight fer ye at the drop o’ the hat. Faith, they’d run thim tin-horns out o’ the country, an’ ye give the word.”

“I know,” assented the girl, “and I appreciate what the boys would do for me, but it can’t be done that way. Dad always stood for law and order and it wouldn’t do for me to sponsor illegal methods.”

“Ye’ve got to fight the divil wid fire,” said Mary.

Diana made no reply. She sat sipping her tea, her expression one of troubled sadness, but she was not thinking of those who would take her property from her nor of their unfair methods. Mary Donovan was moving about the room tidying up.

Diana set her empty cup upon the rickety center table which supported an oil lamp, a bible, a red plush photograph album and a gilded conch shell, and sighed. Mrs. Donovan glanced at her out of the corner of her eye and guessed shrewdly that there was something more than New Yorkers troubling her. Presently she came and stood in front of the girl.

“What is it, mavourneen?” she asked. “Be after tellin’ Mary Donovan.”

Diana rose, half turned her head away and bit her lower lip in an effort to hide or suppress a short, quick intaking of the breath that was almost a gasp.

“The stage was held up again today,” she said, mastering herself and turning, wide-eyed, toward the older woman. “I saw them—I saw them both.”

“Yis!” said Mary Donovan.

“But it wasn’t—it wasn’t he! It wasn’t, Mary Donovan!” and Diana, throwing herself upon the broad, motherly bosom, burst into tears, through which she gasped an occasional, “It wasn’t! It wasn’t!”

“Shure, now, it wasn’t,” soothed Mary, “an’ the first wan that’ll be after sayin’ it was’ll wish he’d nivir bin born, an’ even if it was, Diana Henders, there’s many a good man’s gone wrong an’ come right again.

“Why look at that ould fool Wildcat Bob! They do be sayin’ he was a road agent his-self thirty year ago an’ he’s killed so many men he’s lost count o’ ’em, he has; but now look at him! A quiet an’ paceable ould man, an’ a good citizen whin he ain’t full o’ barbwire, which ain’t often.”

Diana dried her tears through a smile. “You’re very fond of Bob, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Run along wid ye, now!” exclaimed Mary Donovan, smiling coyly.

“I think Bob would make you a good husband,” continued Diana, “and you really need a man around here. Why don’t you marry him? I know he’s anxious enough.”

“Marry him, indade!” sniffed Mary. “The ould fool’s stricken dumb ivery time he’s alone wid me. If iver he’s married it is, it’s the girl that’ll be havin’ to pop the question.”

They were interrupted by a rap on the sitting room door. It. was the vaquero from the Bar Y who had come down for the mail.

“Bill Gatlin told me you was here, Miss,” he said. “Do you want me to tell Colby to send the buckboard down for yore?”

“I left Captain here, thanks,” replied Diana, “and as soon as I change my clothes I’ll ride back to the ranch.”

“Shall I wait fer you?” he inquired.

“No, thanks. I don’t know how long I’ll be,” she told him; “but if Pete is there you might ask him to ride out and meet me.”

A half-hour later Diana rode out of Hendersville on Captain along the winding, dusty road bordered by interminable sage and grease-wood that stretched off in undulating billows of rolling land to the near mountains on the north and away to the south as far as the eye could reach where the softened outlines of other mountains rose, mysterious, through the haze. The low sun cast long shadows toward the east, those of herself and her mount transformed into a weird creature of Brobdingnagian proportions mincing along upon preposterous legs.

The inhabitants of a prairie-dog village watched her approach with growing suspicions, scampering at last to the safety of their catacombian retreat—all but a single patriarch and two owls, who watched her from the safe proximity of burrow mouths until she had passed.

Drear and desolate the aspect of the scene, perhaps, but to Diana it was home, and a tear came tip her eye as she thought that in a day or a week shy; might be leaving it forever. Her home! And they were driving her away from it—stealing it from her—her home that her father had built for her mother—that he had planned that Diana should have after he had gone. The wickedness of it! The injustice! That was what rankled—the injustice! She dashed away the tear with an angry gesture. She would not be dispossessed! She would fight! Mary Donovan was right. It was no sin to light the devil with fire.

It was at this moment that she saw a horseman approaching her from the direction of the ranch. Her eyes, long accustomed to keen observation and to vast expanses, recognized the man minutes before his features were discernible, and a little cloud crossed her brow. It was not Texas Pete, as she had hoped, but Hal Colby. Perhaps it was for the best. She would have to see him sometime, and tell him. As he approached her she saw that there was no welcoming smile on his face, which wore a troubled expression. But his greeting was cordial.

“Hello, Di!” he cried. “Why didn’t you let me know that you was comin’ today?’

“There was no way to let you know, of course,” she replied. “You might have guessed that I would be back as soon as I could.”

“Tom jest got in from town an’ told me you was comin’. I hurried out to head you off. You don’t want to come to the ranch now, it wouldn’t be no ways pleasant for you.”

“Why?” she demanded.

“The Wainrights is there for one thing,” he said, drawing rein in front of her.

She set her firm little jaw and rode around him. “I am going home,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be foolish, Di,” he insisted. “It’ll only make more trouble. They as good as got the place now. We can’t fight ’em. It wouldn’t get us nowheres.

“Lemme see what I kin get ’em to do fer you. They’re willin’ to give you enough to live decent on if you’re reasonable, an’ I’ll git the most I kin fer you; but if you go to fightin’ ’em they won’t give you nothin’.”

“They’ll never give me anything,” she cried. “I’d never accept anything from them, but I’ll take and keep what’s mine, and my friends will help me.”

“You’ll only git yourself an’ your friends in a peck o’ trouble,” he told her.

“Listen, Hal—” she hesitated, stumbling a little over the speech she had been rehearsing. “There is something I want to say to you. You asked me to marry you. I told you that if you would wait a little while I thought that I could say yes. I can’t say yes, Hal, ever, for I don’t love you. I’m sorry, but the only fair thing to do was tell you.”

He looked a bit crestfallen and disconcerted, for, though he had realized that it would be poor policy to press his suit now that she was penniless, it injured his pride to be told that he could not have won her in any event, and suddenly came the realization that, money or no money, he wanted her very much. His infatuation for Lillian Manill was revealed in all its sordidness—it was not love. All the money in the world, all the clothes in New York, would not make Lillian Manill as desirable as Diana Henders.

Colby was a crude, uneducated man, yet he discerned in Diana Henders a certain quality, far beyond his powers of analysis, that placed her in a sphere to which Lillian Manill and her kind might never hope to aspire. He knew now that he wanted Diana Henders for herself and Lillian Manill for her money and for that coarse, feminine attraction that certain types of women have for coarse men.

He lived in a more or less lawless country and a more or less lawless age, so it was not strange that there should have crept into his mind the thought that he might possess them both. Naturally it would be only the part of good business to possess lawfully the one with the money. It was only the flash of a thought, though, and he quickly put it aside.

“I’m plumb sorry, Dl,” he said; “but of course you know your own business.”

That was all he said, but he did a great deal of thinking and the more he thought the more he realized how much he wanted her now that she seemed least accessible. His face wore an expression such as Diana Henders had never seen upon it before—he was not the laughing, good-natured Hal that she had liked very much and almost loved. There was something almost sinister about him, and she wondered if being disappointed in love had this effect upon men.

“How is everything at the ranch since I’ve been away?” she asked presently.

“So-so,” he replied. “Some o’ the hands want to quit. They’re waitin’ ’til you come, to git their checks.”

“Who are they?”

“Pete, Shorty an’ Idaho,” he replied. “They’d a-ben the fust to be let out after the change come, anyhow, so it don’t make no difference.”

“You planned to stay on as foreman?” she asked.

“Shore! Why not? I got to work for someone, don’t I?”

She made no reply and they rode on in silence toward the ranch. He had given up trying to dissuade her. Let them do their own dirty work, he thought. As they neared the ranch a horseman emerged from the yard and came toward them at a run amidst a cloud of dust that obscured the ranch and ail else behind him. It was Texas Pete. He brought his horse to its haunches beside her and wheeled the animal about on its hind feet.

“I jest got in, Miss,” he said, “an’ Tom told me that you had sent word in that I was to meet you. I’m plumb sorry I was late.”

Each man ignored the other as completely as though he had not existed.

“I understand you want to quit, Pete,” said the girl; “you and Shorty and Idaho.”

Pete looked down, shamefacedly. “We was a-aimin’ to,” he said.

“I wish you’d come up to the office and bring Shorty and Idaho with you when we get home,” she said. “I want to talk with you.”

“All right, Miss.”

The three finished the ride in silence. Diana dismounted with them at the corral and leaving her horse for Pete to unsaddle walked toward the office. As she approached the doorway she saw that there were several people ire the room and when she crossed the threshold found herself face to face with Corson, Lillian Manill and the two Wainrights. Corson nodded and he and the younger Wainright rose.

“Good evening, Miss Henders,” said Corson; “back safely, I see.”

She ignored his greeting and stood for a moment silently eying them through narrowed lids. Her wide-brimmed sombrero sat straight and level above slightly contracted brows. A tendril of hair waved softly over one temple where it had escaped the stiff confinement of the heavy hat, but it did not tend to soften the light in those cold, steady eyes, reflecting the bitterness of her resentment toward these four.

About her hips a cartridge-filled belt supported a heavy gun—no toy such as women sometimes effect, but a .45, grim and suggestive. Its grip was shiny with usage and the blue was worn from the steel in places.

“I know little about law, Mr. Corson,” she said, without prelude. “I have lived almost all my life a long way beyond either the protection or the menace of law. We do not bother much about it out here; but we understand moral rights perfectly. We know what justice is and we have our own ways of enforcing it. We have similar ways of protecting our just rights, as well.

“These means I intend to invoke against you, all of you, who have come here with the intention of robbing me of what is rightly mine. Though I owe you no consideration it is my duty to warn you that our methods in such matters are usually sudden and always unpleasant.

“I shall give you, Mr. Corson and Miss Manill, an hour to leave the premises—the buckboard will be ready then. Mr. Wainright and his son have five minutes, as they have no excuse whatsoever for being here. Now, go!”

The Bandit of Hell’s Bend - Contents    |     Chapter XVI - Common Criminals

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