BEHIND HIM, several hours now, rode the posse, headed by the deputy sheriff of Porico County; and behind the posse carne Cory Blaine. He would have been glad to have passed them so that he might reach Bryam’s shack first; but there seemed little likelihood that he would be able to do so; for they were maintaining a good gait and riding steadily, while a detour from the trail that would permit him to pass them unseen would necessitate negotiating rough terrain which could not but retard his own speed.
He cursed the luck that had brought John White to the ranch one day too soon and thus upset all his well laid plans, for he believed that if White had not been there Butts would have been able to have delayed the formation of a searching party until the following day at least.
And then, at last, in his darkest hour, fortune smiled upon him, for the posse halted to rest the horses.
Blaine did not know this until, unexpectedly, he saw a tiny fire glowing ahead of him, perhaps a half mile away. He watched it grow as he drew nearer until at last its leaping flame revealed the figures of men gathered about it.
“That,” he said, “is what I call luck.”
He reined his horse to the left, out of the trail, with the intention of passing around the posse, coming into the main trail again ahead of them.
Low hills, cut with washes, came close to Mill Creek at this point; and it was necessary for Blaine’s horse to pick his way carefully through the darkness. Perhaps a better horseman, or a more considerate man, would have dismounted and led the animal; but Blaine, like many of his kind, was only a rider and no horseman; nor was he instinctively considerate of anything other than his own interests. He was tired, and so it pleased him to ride; and his horse, willing and obedient, did its best, though twice it nearly fell.
The two had covered half the distance of the detour and were opposite the camp of the posse when suddenly the bank of a dry wash gave way, precipitating horse and rider to the bottom. Fortunately for Blaine, he fell clear of the animal.
Scrambling to his feet, Cory approached his mount. Seizing the reins, he urged it up and it tried to respond to his command, but only fell back upon its side with a groan; then he cursed it beneath his breath and kicked it, and once again the creature struggled to arise. It almost succeeded this time and before it sank to earth again, the pale starlight had revealed to the man the hopelessness of its condition—a leg was broken.
For a moment Blaine stood in dumb, futile rage beside the beast; then, to his credit, he did the one merciful thing that he could do. Drawing his revolver, he shot the animal through the brain—a shot that brought every member of the posse to alert attention.
Far away, along the trail, the shot sounded faintly in the ears of a solitary horseman. He reined in and sat motionless for a full minute, listening; then he rode on, puzzled but not diverted from his course.
“Now what the hell was that?” exclaimed the deputy sheriff, who, with the other members of his posse, stepped quickly away from the fire at the sound of the shot.
“Hey, some of you fellers!” came a voice out of the darkness. “Come up here and give me a lift.”
“Who are you?” demanded the deputy.
“Cory Blaine,” came the reply.
The entire posse moved in the direction of Blaine. “What’s the matter?” demanded one of them, after they had located the man in the bottom of the dry wash.
“I had to shoot my horse,” replied Blaine. “He busted a leg. I tried to get my saddle off him, but the cinch ring caught somewhere underneath him. I need someone to give me a hand.”
“What you doin’ up here anyway?” demanded the deputy sheriff.
“I was followin’ you fellers, and I guess I got off the trail,” replied Blaine. “It was sure dumb.” They helped him with his saddle, and he walked back to camp with it and his bridle.
“Will one of you fellers let me have a horse?” asked Blaine. The question apparently aroused no enthusiasm. “I got to get on,” he said. “You see I feel more or less responsible for that girl.”
“I don’t reckon none of the boys want to hoof it back to town,” said the deputy sheriff.
“I’ll pay him a good price for his horse, if he will,” insisted Blaine, “and he can pick up a fresh one at the ranch.”
“I reckon,” said the deputy sheriff, after another long silence, “that you better ride along double with one of us. Come mornin’ we’ll like as not run on to some range horses.”
“I’ll allow that’s about the best we can do,” said another; and so it was that when the posse took up the march again, following a considerable rest, Cory Blaine rode behind one of the men, while another packed his saddle, and a third carried his bridle.
Shortly after dawn, true to the deputy’s prophecy, they sighted a bunch of range horses. Three of the men rode out from the posse and drove them in and shortly thereafter one of them had been roped and saddled; and once again, to his relief, Blaine had a mount.
To leave them and ride ahead now was impossible, for they were pushing their horses to the utmost; and though the animal he rode was fresh and could have outdistanced the others, perhaps, the deputy sheriff would not permit him to ride ahead of the posse, though his reasons therefore, prompted perhaps more by egotism than necessity, were vague.
Though he chafed beneath the authority of the officer, Blaine might still console himself with the knowledge that the trail up Mill Creek Canyon was often in plain sight from Bryam’s shack, thus giving him the hope, that amounted almost to assurance, that the party there would see the posse in ample time to permit them to make good their escape.
Far up toward the head of Mill Creek Canyon, Hi Bryam sat in the doorway of his shack smoking his pipe. Far below him he saw the canyon spread out into a valley, through which Mill Creek wound, its tortuous course marked by the green of the verdure along its banks, standing out in bold relief against the purple and brown of the surrounding landscape. Little specks moved here and there upon the face of the valley. Grazing cattle and horses they were, and to the man they were just a part of the landscape, attracting no particular attention. But presently another speck appeared; and though to an unpracticed eye it might have appeared no different from the others, it brought Bryam to immediate and alert attention.
“That would be Blaine,” he soliloquized. “I sorta got an idear he bit off more’n he can chaw this time. Somehow I wish I hadn’t had nuthin’ to do with it. Folks is funny that way. You can steal somebody’s money and nobody seems to get terribly excited about it, except the feller whose money it was. But steal a woman or a kid and by God it’s everybody’s business, and they all want to kill you.”
He sat for a long time watching the approaching horseman; and then he arose and went inside the cabin and returned with his rifle, an old Springfield thirty-thirty.
He sat down again with the weapon lying loosely across his knees, his eyes steadily upon the man and the horse drawing constantly nearer.
After awhile he arose again. “That don’t look like Cory,” he muttered. “I reckon I’d better hide out ’till I see who it is.” He walked slowly toward a clump of trees, growing part way up on the side of the canyon, perhaps two hundred feet from the shack. His four hounds, lazing about near him, rose to follow. “Go on back, you,” he said, and, obediently, they did as they were bid.
Bruce Marvel rode openly up to Bryam’s shack, for he knew that it was useless to attempt to approach unseen. If anyone were there, eyes, he knew, had been watching him for many minutes; and he knew, too, that the best way to disarm suspicion was to avoid suspicious action. To ride up boldly would disarm them. He thought that Kay White was there; but he did not expect to see her, nor did he expect to take her away single-handed from three men. He did not believe that she was in any immediate danger, even though he still thought that Cory Blaine was with her; for he believed that Blaine’s prime object was to collect a ransom and that he would not harm her as long as there was any hope of that.
On the way up he had made his plans very carefully. He had decided that he would tell whoever was there that Kay was lost and that he was looking for her. Bryam, or whoever else was there, would tell him, of course, that they knew nothing about it, that they had not seen her. Then he would ride on; but instead of following directly on the trail to Sonora, he would ride up to the ridge on the east, leading them to believe that he was hopelessly off the trail.
This ridge, he knew, joined the other at the point where Dora Crowell had shot the lion and from that point he foresaw little difficulty in finding the One Mile Creek Trail, where he purposed lying in wait for Kay and her abductors, for, long before, he had connected up the conversation that he had overheard in Bryam’s shack the last night of the lion hunt, which fitted in so perfectly with all that had since transpired that he was now confident that it had related to the plan for Kay’s abduction.
As Marvel drew up before the shack he called aloud to attract attention. The dogs had already come to meet him, but outside of this there were no signs of life about the place.
“I reckon they seen me and they all lit out,” thought Marvel.
He dismounted; and as the dogs came to nose him, he petted the nearer of them, but all the while his eyes were on the ground; and from the trees on the hillside Bryam watched him, his vision interfered with by the foliage through which he looked.
“There’s somethin’ familiar about that son-of-a-gun,” mused the watcher, “but I’ll be danged if I can place him.” Yet he hesitated to come out of hiding, and stood in silence while Bruce remounted and rode on up the canyon.
In the trampled earth in front of the cabin he had read a story that told him much. He had seen the fresh prints of horses hoofs and of the boots of men and among them the imprint of a small, high-heeled boot; and he knew that he was upon the right trail.
Just above the cabin, along the fresh trail of three horses, he came to a point where the spoor suddenly vanished. To one side lay a leafy branch freshly torn from a tree. The leaves at its lower end were frayed and dust covered; a shadow of a smile touched Marvel’s lips.
“Punk work,” he thought, as he rode on up the trail from which Bryam had brushed the signs of the passing of the three horsemen.
For a hundred feet the trail had been brushed clean of hoof prints and then they commenced again, as Marvel had known that they would. He rode on for another hundred yards until his eyes were attracted by something lying in the trail. Reining Baldy in, he leaned from his saddle and picked the thing up—a dainty handkerchief tied about a greasy playing card. For an instant he gazed at the tiny bit of linen; then, almost reverently, he tucked it inside his shirt. “Poor little kid,” he murmured. “I wonder if you thought of me when you dropped this,” and then he shook his head; “but, of course, you didn’t for you don’t know how much I love you.”
At the point where the handkerchief and the card had been dropped, Marvel saw that the horsemen had turned abruptly to the right; and following their trail he came presently upon half of a torn playing card. “Paper chasin’ has its advantages,” he soliloquized. “It learns people tricks they might not have thought of.” But here he did not need the evidence of the card.
The spoor lay plain before him, leading diagonally up the side of the ridge, back in the direction of the cabin.
With knitted brows, Bryam watched the rider, and now for the first time he took particular note of the horse. “Hell!” he muttered under his breath. “That’s that Baldy horse that the dude rode.”
The horse and rider were now in plain sight upon the flank of the ridge; and something in the way the man sat his horse, in the way he carried his shoulders seemed familiar to Bryam; and then, at last, he recognized him. “I’m a son-of-a-gun,” he ejaculated, “if it aint that nosey dude.”
Bryam was worried. He was no intellectual giant, but he had brains enough to see that Marvel was upon the trail of the girl and her abductors and to realize that the man knew that he was on the right trail. Here was disaster. Here was the end of his dream of affluence, to his share of the ransom money; and here, too, was a man who might definitely link him to the crime.
Bryam stepped from behind the trees that had concealed him, and as he did so he cocked his rifle. Throwing it to his shoulder, he took deliberate aim, while Marvel, guiding Baldy along the steep hillside, was concentrating his attention upon the spoor that he was following.
Bryam squeezed the trigger. A spurt of dust rose on the hillside on a level with Marvel’s head; and with the simultaneous crack of the rifle, the man was electrified into instant action.
Almost as though he had been actuated by the same mechanism that released the hammer on Bryam’s rifle, Marvel wheeled in his saddle, a forty-four ready in his hand.
Bryam was an excellent shot and so sure of himself that he could not have conceived that he might miss such an easy target; and so he had lowered his rifle after the first shot, certain of the result. Perhaps the clean miss disconcerted him, for he hesitated just an instant before he threw his rifle to his shoulder again for a second shot—a second shot that was never fired; for before he could align his sights, Marvel’s old forty-four had spoken and Bryam, clutching at his breast, pitched forward upon his face.
For a moment Marvel sat watching his man to make sure that he was harmless; and then he reined on up the side of the ridge, turning constantly in the saddle to watch Bryam.
“He aint dead,” he muttered, “but he sure is too sick to do any shootin’.”
It was a hard pull to the summit, and he rested Baldy twice; but at last he rode into the more level trail along the top of the ridge and here another fragment of a playing card marked the way. At intervals he continued to find them; and always they brought a strange lump into his throat—these inarticulate appeals for help that the girl had left behind her.
“She’s game,” he murmured. “She sure is game, and she aint lost her head either.”
He tried to figure how far ahead of him his quarry was, and from the signs along the trail he judged that it could not be more than five hours. His greatest fear and his greatest hope lay in Baldy. Their horses must have rested at Bryam’s for several hours, but Baldy had had but two or three brief rests since the previous evening; yet he showed only the slightest indications of fatigue.
“I thought Bull’s Eye was some horse, old boy,” murmured Marvel, “but I guess you’ve got him faded, though,” he added meditatively, “of course Bull’s Eye never had nuthin’ so important as this to travel for.”