THE NIGHT wore on, its silence broken once by the hoot of an owl and again by the distant yapping of a coyote, and Olaf Gunderstrom slept.
Toward midnight subdued sounds floated up from the twin trails that wound in from the highway—the mellowed creaking of old leather, mingled with the breathing of horses—and then darker shadows moved beneath the moonless sky, slowly taking form and shape until they became distinguishable as five horsemen.
In silence they rode to the shack and dismounted where a long tie rail paralleled the front of the building. They moved very softly, making no noise in dismounting, nor speaking any words. They tied their horses to the tie rail and approached the door of the cabin. To the mystery of their silent approach there was added a sinister note by the handkerchiefs tied across their faces just below their eyes. Men come not thus at night in friendliness or well meaning.
Gently the leader pushed open the door, which was as innocent of bar and lock as are most cabin doors behind which no woman dwells.
Silently the five entered the single room of the cabin. The leader approached the wooden cot, roughly built against one of the cabin walls, where Gunderstrom lay asleep. It was dark within the cabin, but not so dark but that one familiar with the interior could locate the cot and the form of the sleeper. In the hand of the man crossing the room so stealthily was a long-barreled Colt.
The silent intruder could see the cot and the outlines of the blur that was the sleeper upon it; but he did not see one of Gunderstrom’s boots that lay directly in his path, and he stepped partially upon it and half stumbled and as he did so, Gunderstrom awoke and sat up. “Buck Mason!” he exclaimed. “What do you want here?” and at the same time he reached for the gun that lay always beside him.
There was a flash in the dark, the silence was split by the report of a pistol and Olaf Gunderstrom slumped back upon his blanket, a bullet in his brain.
For a few moments the killer stood above his prey, seeking perhaps to assure himself that his work has been well done. He did not move, nor did his companions, nor did the dead man upon the cot. Presently the killer leaned low and placed his ear upon the breast of Gunderstrom. When he straightened up he turned back toward the doorway.
“We’d better be on our way,” he said, and as the five men filed out of the cabin and mounted their horses, no other words were spoken. As silently as they had come they disappeared along the twin trails that led down to the highway.
It was nine o’clock in the morning. The sheriff of Comanche County sat in his office. He had read his mail and was now immersed in a newspaper.
An old man, leaning in the doorway, spit dexterously across the wooden porch into the dust of the road and shifted his quid. He, too, was reading a newspaper.
“Seems mighty strange to me,” he said, “that nobody aint caught these fellers yet.”
“There don’t nobody know who they be,” said the sheriff.
“I see by the papers,” said the old man, “that they think they got a line on ’em.”
“They aint got nuthin’ on ’em,” snapped the sheriff. “They don’t even know that it’s the same gang.”
“No, that’s right,” assented the old man, “but it sure does look suspicious. Robbin’ and murderin’ and rustlin’ breakin’ out all of a sudden in towns here where we aint had none o’ it for years. Why say, in the last year there’s been more Hell goin’ on around in this neck of the woods and over into Arizony than I’ve saw all put together for ten year before.”
At this juncture the telephone bell rang and the sheriff rose and walked to the instrument, where it hung against the wall.
“Hello,” he said as he put the receiver to his ear, and then, “The hell you say!” He listened for a moment longer. “Don’t touch nuthin’ leave everything as it is. I’ll notify the Coroner and then I’ll be out as soon as I can.”
He hung up the receiver and as he turned away from the instrument Buck Mason entered the office. “Mornin’, sheriff!” he said.
“Good morning, Buck!” returned the sheriff.
“Who’s killed now?” demanded old man Cage, who, having heard half the conversation and scenting excitement, had abandoned his post in the doorway and entered the room.
Buck Mason looked inquiringly at the sheriff. “Somebody killed?” he asked.
The sheriff nodded. “Tom Kidder just called me up from the Circle G home ranch. He says they found old man Gunderstrom shot to death in his shack over on Spring Creek.”
“Gunderstrom?” he exclaimed. “Why I see —,” he hesitated. “Do they know who done it?” The sheriff shook his head. “Perhaps I better get right over there,” continued Mason.
“I wish you would, Buck,” said the sheriff. “Got your horse?”
“I got to pick up Doc Bellows; and you can be there, if you cut across the hills, long before I can shag Lizzie around by the roads.”
“I’ll be gettin’ along then,” said Mason, and as he left the office and mounted his horse the sheriff strapped on his gun and prepared to go after the coroner.
“Looks to me like that hit Buck pretty hard,” said old man Cage. “Warnt he kinda soft on that Gunderstrom heifer?”
Bull’s Eye carried his master at an easy lope across the flat toward the hills, where there was a stiff and rocky climb to the summit and an equally precipitous drop into Spring Valley, where Gunderstrom’s shack lay a scant five miles from town by trail.
Uncle Billy Cage had resumed his position in the doorway of the office as the sheriff departed to look for the coroner. Half way to his car, the officer stopped and turned back. “If you aint got nuthin’ else to do, sorta hang around the office until I get back, Uncle Billy. Will you?” he asked.
“I’ll stay here as long as I can, sheriff,” replied the old man. “May be I better go and fetch my bed.”
“Shucks. I won’t be gone long,” the sheriff assured him.
“I don’t know about that,” replied Cage. “It’s twenty mile of rough road from here to Gunderstrom’s shack, and Lizzie aint what she used to be.”
“Shucks. I could take her over the horse trail, Uncle Billy, if I wasn’t afraid of scaring Doc Bellows,” replied the sheriff with a grin.
As Buck Mason rode up to the Gunderstrom shack he was greeted by Tom Kidder, foreman of the Circle G outfit, and two of the cowhands. The three men were squatting on their heels in the shade of a tree near the shack; and as Mason approached, Kidder rose. “Hello, Buck!” he said.
“Hello, Tom!” replied Mason. “How’s everything?”
“Oh, so so,” replied the foreman. “I reckon the sheriff told you.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m here. You fellers aint been messin’ around here none, have you?”
“No,” replied Kidder. “When the old man didn’t show up at the home ranch this morning, I rode over. I went in the shack, and when I seen there wasn’t nuthin’ to be done for him I rode back to the ranch and called up the sheriff. There aint been nobody in the shack since.”
“Got any idea who done it?” asked Mason.
“No,” replied the foreman. “There’s been horses in and out from the highway recently. You could see that plain in the dirt; and there were horses tied up to his hitchin’ rail last night, but I didn’t mess around here any after what the sheriff told me. So everything’s about like it was after the old man croaked.”
“I’ll take a look around,” said Mason, who had dismounted.
Dropping his reins to the ground, he approached the shack. He moved slowly and deliberately, his keen eyes searching for any sign that the soft earth might give back to him. For several minutes he scrutinized the ground about the hitching rail, and then he entered the shack.
Inside he disturbed nothing, but examined everything minutely. For a brief moment he paused at the side of the cot, looking down into the upturned face of the dead man, the ghastliness of which was accentuated by the wound in the center of the pallid forehead.
Whatever thoughts the sight engendered in the mind of Buck Mason were not reflected in his calm, inscrutable gaze.
At Mason’s feet lay the boot upon which the murderer had stepped and stumbled; and to it the eyes of the deputy dropped, casually at first and then with aroused interest. He stooped down then and examined it closely, but he did not touch it. After a moment he straightened up and left the shack, pausing again to make another examination of the ground about the hitching rail.
As he joined the men beneath the tree they looked at him inquiringly. “Well,” asked Kidder, “what do you make of it?”
Mason squatted down upon his heels, his eyes upon the ground. “Well,” he said, “there were five of them. At least there were five horses tied to the hitching rail last night, and that’s about all we have to go on.”
“About all? What do you mean?”
“There aint much more except that it don’t look like a case of robbery. As far as I can see there wasn’t nuthin’ touched in the shack.”
“A lot of folks thought the old man kept money hidden here,” said Kidder.
“Yes, I know that,” replied Mason, “and I expected to find the shack all torn to pieces where they searched for it.”
“Mebbe he give it to ’em,” suggested one of the cowhands.
“I reckon you didn’t know old man Gunderstrom very well then,” said the foreman. “In the first place he never kept no money here, and in the second place he wouldn’t have told them where it was if he had.”
“I think he had started to reach for his gun,” said Mason.
“Mebbe that’s why they bored him,” suggested the cowhand.
“Maybe,” assented Mason.
“This’ll be tough on the girl,” said Kidder.
Mason made no comment. His eyes were searching the ground all about the three men, though they did not know it.
“I reckon she’ll live through it,” said the cowhand, “especially after she gets a slant at her bank balance. She’ll be the richest gal in a dozen counties.”
“There’ll be plenty hombres campin’ on her trail now,” said the foreman, shooting a quick, shrewd glance at Mason.
“Did the old man have any squabbles with anybody lately?” asked the deputy sheriff.
“He was a hard man to do business with,” replied Kidder; “and there’s lots of folks around here that didn’t have much use for him, but there aint no one that I know of that had any call to kill him.”
“Did he have any new business deals on with anyone that you know of?”
“I didn’t know nuthin’ about his business,” replied Kidder; “he kept that to himself. But I’ve seen signs around the shack before that there’d been fellers up here at night. I don’t know who they was or what they come for, and I never seen ’em. I just seen horse tracks around once in a while; and I knew fellers had been here, but it was none of my business, and I kept my mouth shut.”
“Here comes a car,” said the cowhand.
“That’ll be the sheriff and the coroner,” said Mason.
“Lizzie made pretty good time,” said Kidder. “They must have packed her on their shoulders and run.”
“She’s hittin’ on two and a half,” said the cowhand; “which is better than I ever seen her do before.”
As the car wheezed to a stop, the fat and jovial Doc Bellows lowered himself ponderously to the ground; and after the brief greetings of the cow country he asked a few questions.
“When you go in the shack,” said Mason, “I wish you’d both notice that boot of Ole’s that’s lying in front of the cot. You seen it, didn’t you, Kidder?” The foreman nodded. “Well,” continued Mason, “guess all of you’ll remember where you seen it; and then, sheriff, I wish you’d take care of it and not let nobody touch it.”
“Is that a clue?” demanded the sheriff.
“I don’t know that it amounts to nuthin’” replied Mason, “but I’d like to have the chance to follow it up.”
“Sure,” said the sheriff.
“All right then, I’ll be gettin’ along,” replied the deputy. “There aint nuthin’ more I can do here,” and as the other men entered the shack he mounted and turned Bull’s Eye’s nose down the road toward the main highway.
It was late when the sheriff returned to his office, but Uncle Billy Cage was still there.
“There weren’t no call for you to stay all night, Uncle Billy,” said the sheriff.
“I wanted to see you,” said the old man. “I got some important news for you, but by gum I don’t believe it.”
“What is it?” demanded the sheriff.
“About an hour after you left the telephone rung and some feller at the other end that talked like he had a harelip said, ‘Is this the sheriff’s office?’ and I said, ‘Yes’; and he said, ‘Do you want to know who killed Gunderstrom?’ and I said, ‘Sure’; and he said, ‘Well, it was Buck Mason,’ and then he hung up.”
“I don’t believe it,” said the sheriff.
“Neither do I,” said Uncle Billy Cage.