BRUCE MARVEL conserved the energies of his horse, for he knew that he might have a gruelling grind ahead of him. His, he realized, was an endurance race in which speed might readily prove a liability rather than an asset; for were he to reach his goal with an exhausted mount, failure must be his only reward.
He believed that he was pitted against a hard and desperate gang and that even should he be so successful as to wrest Kay White from them, his ability to return her in safety to the TF Ranch might still depend solely upon what of stamina’ and speed were left in Baldy.
He rode steadily until shortly after midnight when he dismounted and removing the horse’s saddle and bridle permitted him to roll.
A short time previously he had watered him in Mill Creek; and now when he had stretched his muscles in a good roll and both of them had rested for five or ten minutes, Bruce gave the animal a small feed of oats; and after he had cleaned them up they were soon on the trail again.
All night he rode; and just before dawn he halted again for a brief rest, during which he removed the saddle and bridle from Baldy, rubbed down his back, turned the blanket and re-saddled immediately.
As he mounted he glanced back down the valley, his eyes immediately attracted by a twinkling light ten or a dozen miles away.
“That must be the sheriff and his posse,” he thought, “for there wasn’t nobody there when I came past.”
And far up, toward the head of Mill Creek Canyon, other eyes saw the light-the eyes of a watcher posted on the hillside above Hi Bryam’s cabin. “Not so good,” muttered the watcher, and, descending, he awakened two men who were sleeping outside the shack.
“What’s wrong, Mart?” demanded one of them.
“They’s a campfire this side of Mill Creek camp,” replied the man. “I think we better be movin’. There shouldn’t be nobody comin’ this way that would build a campfire.”
“Cory told us to rest here for one day.”
“I don’t care what he told us. I’m lookin’ after my own neck, and I aint goin’ to wait around here for no man.”
“Me neither,” said Bryam. “He sure give us credit for sense enough to get out of here if you fellows were followed, and it looks like you was, all right.”
“It’s all the same to me,” said the third. “I aint hankerin’ to have no one see me with this girl here, whether they’re followin’ us or not.”
“He was just figurin’ on givin’ the girl a rest, thinkin’ she couldn’t stand so much ridin’,” said the first speaker.
“She’s had five hours rest now,” said Bryam, “and that’s all she’s goin’ to get for awhile. You and Mart get saddled up, while I rustle some grub. We got plenty time to eat and get a good start, even if they start now, which like as not they won’t.”
“Probably they’ll be waitin’ till mornin’,” said Eddie, “thinkin’ they could pick up our trail better then.”
“That’s sure a long way off,” said Mart. “I don’t see how you seen it in the first place, Eddie;” and, in truth, the distant campfire was little more than a glowing speck in the far distance. Only the keenest eyes could have detected it at all and even to such it did not burn steadily, but twinkled like a distant star of lesser magnitude.
“Well, you fellers get busy,” said Bryam. “I’ll wake the girl and get the grub.”
“Better let her sleep as long as we can,” said Eddie..
“The hell with her,” said Bryam. “She aint no better than we are.”
“She’s a girl,” said Eddie, “and we ought to treat her as decent as we can.”
“Don’t be so soft,” snapped Bryam.
“I aint soft,” said Eddie, “but I aint stuck on this business. Kidnapin’ women aint never been my particular line of business.”
“Quit beefin’,” said Mart, “and come on;” and Eddie followed off into the darkness in search of the hobbled horses.
Bryam went to the cabin door and opened it. “Say, you!” he called. “Wake up. We’re leavin’.”
Wake up! Kay White had been sitting wide eyed through the long hours since they had brought her to Bryam’s shack. She could scarcely have forced herself to lie down upon the filthy thing that Bryam called a bed, but she knew that even had she done so, she could not have slept. She felt physical fatigue; but her mind was too awake, too active to entertain any thoughts of sleep.
“Dya hear me?” demanded Bryam.
“I heard you,” replied the girl. “I am ready.”
“I’m fixin’ some grub,” said Bryam. “When it’s ready, I’ll call you.”
The girl, sitting in the rickety chair before the rough table, made no reply, as her thoughts, bridging the interruption, attacked once more the tangled skein they sought to unravel. She had been able only to guess at the motive for her abduction, since her captors would tell her nothing; but the logical surmise was that she would be held for ransom.
In the first instant of her capture she had sensed intuitively that Cory Blaine had deliberately led her into the trap; but when she had seen how roughly they had treated him and how heartlessly they had left him bound and gagged in the desolate gulch, that theory had been somewhat shaken. Then, again and again, the idea had forced itself upon her that perhaps in some way Bruce Marvel was responsible. There had been something mysterious about him. Both she and Dora Crowell had sensed that. He certainly was not what he had tried to lead them to believe he was, and this fact furnished a substantial groundwork for her suspicion.
Yet always she put the thought aside, refusing to accept it; and when the two men had brought her to Hi Bryam’s cabin, her suspicion settled once more upon Cory Blaine; yet why had Marvel chosen to leave the ranch at this particular time? That question troubled her, for she knew that he had been planning to remain longer. Could it be that the paper chase had given him the opportunity for which he had been waiting. She remembered his refusal to accompany the party to Crater Mountain and that this refusal had followed the announcement that the paper chase would take place the following day and what a silly excuse he had given for remaining at the ranch-hunting horse’s teeth indeed! Added to all this was the fact that he had quickly given up his search for teeth and had absented himself alone from the ranch for hours; but further than that she could never pursue this line of thought, since it invariably stopped before the blank wall of unreasoning belief in the integrity of the man.
“He could not have done it,” she murmured. She sprang to her feet almost defiantly and raised her eyes to the black shadows among the rafters. “He did not do it,” she said aloud.
“What’s that?” asked Bryam from beyond the doorway.
She walked out to where the man stood beside the fire. “Cory Blaine did this,” she said, “and you may tell him for me that there are two men in the world, one of whom will kill him for it, the one who catches him first.”
“Blaine had nothing to do with it,” snapped Bryam. “Here’s the grub and you better eat. You got a long ride ahead of you.”
In silence she ate the rough fare, for she knew that she must maintain her strength; and the three men with her ate, too, in silence, while the hounds nosed among them, whining for scraps.
“What you goin’ to do with the pooches, Hi?” asked Mart, after he had finished eating.
“Leave ’em here,” replied Bryam. “They can rustle plenty grub in the hills.”
“Won’t they follow us?” asked Eddie.
“Not if I tell ’em to stay here,” replied Bryam.
“I’ve been thinkin’,” said Mart suddenly.
“That aint one of the things that nobody aint expectin’ of you,” said Bryam.
“You listen,” said the other.
“That campfire down there has upset all our plans. Everybody knows you’re batchin’ up here, huntin’ lion. If they find you gone and your dogs here, that’ll look funny to ’em.”
“Well, what’s to be done about it?”
“You ought to stay here,” continued Mart. “It will be a whole lot safer for you and for us, too.”
“How do you make that out?” demanded Bryam.
“If they find you here they aint goin’ to suspicion you, are they?”
“No. That’s right, too.”
“And if you’re here when they come, you can send them off on a wrong trail after us.”
“That’s where your head aint no good,” said Bryam. “If you come here with the girl, then I must have known somethin’ about it; and if you didn’t come here, how could I tell ’em what trail you went on?”
“You don’t have to tell ’em the girl was here. Tell ’em two fellers you never seen before rid in over the ridge from the east, bummed some grub and asked the trail to Deming; then say that they rid back up over the ridge to the east.”
“That would be a hell of a trail to Deming,” said Bryam.
“Sure it would,” agreed Mart; “but don’t you see that fellers stealin’ the girl would just naturally beat it for the roughest country they could find?”
“That aint such a bad scheme,” said Eddie.
“It’s a durn good one,” admitted Bryam.
“We’ll ride up the canyon a bit, then cut across to the west ridge and follow that to the One Mile Creek Trail. You can easy brush out our trail above camp for a ways, then ride your horse up the east trail to the summit, come down somewhere else and ride him up again, pickin’ another new place to come down into camp. That’ll give a fresh horse trail to the east summit, and they aint goin’ to stop to try and figure out whether there were two horses or three went up, even if they could tell, which probably they couldn’t.”
“You aint such a fool as you look,” admitted Bryam grudgingly.
“Well, let’s get started,” said Eddie. “Come on, Miss, here’s your horse.”
“May I go back into the cabin a moment?” asked Kay. “I left my handkerchief there I think.”
“Well hurry up,” said Bryam.
She ran quickly into the cabin, but she did not search for any handkerchief. Instead she gathered up a deck of greasy playing cards that had been lying on the table and slipped them into the pocket of her leather coat. A moment later she was outside again and had mounted.
Mart led the way up the canyon, his horse following the trail in the darkness. Directly behind him rode Kay, and following her was Eddie. They had temporarily, at least, discarded their original plan of leading Kay’s horse, for it was obvious that this would have been most difficult upon the steep, rough trail, zig-zagging up the canyonside to the summit of the western ridge. They had warned her against the danger of attempting to escape, since a single misstep from the trail might result in injury or death to her; and she knew that they were right.
In the darkness Kay took one of the playing cards from her pocket and tied her handkerchief tightly about it. When she saw Mart turn abruptly from the trail toward the ridge at their right, she dropped the handkerchief and the card to the ground, knowing there was no likelihood that he would perceive what she had done. Then she took another card from her pocket and tore it in two, dropping the halves at intervals; and so she marked their way until they entered the main trail leading up the hillside.
Perhaps no one would come that way to see. Perhaps, if they did, they might not interpret the significance of the signs that she had left; but if someone did chance to see and guess the truth, she knew that she had plainly blazed for such the trail of her abductors onward from Bryam’s shack.
The trail, bad enough in the daytime, seemed infinitely worse at night, yet they reached the summit of the ridge in safety and were moving southward on more level ground.
With dogged determination, Bruce Marvel followed the trail upward into Mill Creek Canyon. Baldy had responded nobly to the call upon him; but as the man had done all that he could to conserve his horse’s strength, the animal had not, as yet, shown indications of fatigue.
“Baldy, I’m banking on you,” said the man in low tones. “You saved her once and you’re going to again. If we find her at Bryam’s, it won’t be long now; but if they’ve left and hit the trail for Kelly’s in Sonora, you and I got some ride cut out for us; but I reckon we can catch ’em, Baldy. I seen their horses yesterday, and they aint one-two with you. No, sir, old man, beside you they is just plain scrubs.”
Once again he lapsed into his usual state of silence, but his mind was active with plans and memories.
He recalled, as he often did, Kay’s tone of disgust when she had reproached him for having thrown Blaine’s boot into the fire. She had never spoken of it again, but he knew that she had not forgotten it and that by that much he had lowered himself in her estimation. He admired her for not reverting to it again—another might have reminded him of it. Yes, she was a brick all right.