MARVEL WAS far on the trail toward the south when the deputy sheriff and his posse rode up to Bryam’s shack. The deputy was in the lead and the first thing that attracted his attention was four hounds that rose bristling and growling from about the body of a man a short distance up the side of the canyon to the left of the shack.
Riding quickly over to the prostrate man the deputy dismounted, while the hounds withdrew a short distance watching him suspiciously. He turned Bryam over on his back and saw that he still lived, though his shirt and the ground beneath him were soaked with blood.
The wounded man opened his eyes and looked up into the face of the deputy. Feebly he raised his hand and tried to point toward the east. “They,” he gasped—“they headed for Deming over the east ridge.”
Cory Blaine, who had been riding at the rear of the posse, rode up now and dismounted.
“Who shot you?” demanded the deputy.
With an effort that seemed to require all his remaining strength, Bryam answered, “That damned dude, Marvel.” Then he saw Cory and beckoned to him to lean closer. “Send ’em away,” he said. “I want to speak to you alone.”
The deputy sheriff heard, but he hesitated.
“Let him speak to me alone,” said Blaine. “I don’t know what he wants, but I reckon it’s about his family.”
Withdrawing, the deputy motioned the other men away; and Cory knelt close and bent his ear close to Bryam’s lips. “What is it, Hi?” he asked.
Bryam struggled and gasped. “He—,” blood rushed from between his lips. He coughed and there was a rattling in his throat as he tried to speak again; then he sagged limply to the ground.
For a moment, squatting on his heels, Blaine looked at him; then he rose and turned toward the deputy. “He’s done,” he said.
“What did he tell you?” asked the officer, coming forward.
“He never got a chance to tell me nuthin’,” said Cory. “He just died.”
“Who’s this guy Marvel he was tellin’ about?” asked the deputy.
“He’s the feller who rustled the girl,” said Blaine.
“What makes you think that?” asked the officer.
“He was a guest up at my place and he got stuck on her. It got so bad that I kicked him out yesterday; but he must have had everything arranged, for he held me and the girl up and took her away from me. He knows her old man is rich and he’s lookin’ for the ransom. He can’t be very far ahead of us because Bryam aint been shot long. The trail’s hot now and you ought to pick him up before dark.”
“Hell!” ejaculated the deputy. “There aint no trail over this here east ridge to Deming. That’s the worst damn country anywhere about.”
“So much the easier to get ’em,” replied Blaine. “There’s three of ’em; and they aint goin’ to travel very fast—the girl can’t stand it. If you start right now you ought to overhaul ’em before dark.”
“There aint much use,” said the deputy, “but we’ll try it.”
“I’ll stay here and bury Hi,” said Blaine, “and then I’ll follow along and catch up with you.”
“Come on, boys,” called the deputy. “Water your horses and we’ll get goin’.”
As Cory Blaine watched the posse zig-zagging up the steep trail toward the summit of the east ridge, he was unquestionably worried. Uppermost in his mind was the question as to what Bruce Marvel had been doing here at Bryam’s camp on the trail of Eddie and Mart. Who was the man? How had he got a start on all of them and what had led up to the gunfight between him and Bryam? As he tried to visualize all that had happened and the tragedy that had been enacted here at the head of Mill Creek Canyon, he reached the conclusion, from what Bryam had told the deputy sheriff, that his confederate had been successful in misdirecting Marvel onto the east trail; and by sending the sheriff and the posse after him, Bryam had given Eddie and Mart ample time in which to make good their escape into Sonora.
“Things aint turnin’ out so bad after all,” soliloquized Blaine. “This is just the break that I’ve been lookin’ for.”
He watched the riders picking their way up toward the summit of the ridge, but he did not move until the last of them had disappeared beyond the crest; then he swung quickly into his saddle and spurred up the trail toward the summit of the west ridge, leaving Hi Bryam lying where he died.
The sun was sinking in the west as Bruce Marvel started the descent upon the south side of the range. Below him lay a broad, desolate valley, and in the distance another range of mountains beyond which lay Mexico.
Level as a billiard table appeared the wide expanse of sage-dotted plain below him, but he well knew that it was a rough and rugged terrain cut by many washes. The trail that he was following descended along the summit of a hogback toward the distant valley. He paused for an instant upon this lofty shoulder of the range, his eyes searching far ahead in the hope that they might find a trace of the three riders who had preceded him. In the distance the outlines of another range of mountains lay purple against the sky, a low saddle marking the pass through which he knew the trail led onward into Sonora.
Far away he thought he discerned an indication of dust along the trail that the quarry would be following, and as he moved forward again his eyes dropped to a scrap of pasteboard lying on the ground ahead of him. It was half of a queen of hearts. Leaning from the saddle, he picked it up and tucked it in a pocket of his shirt. “Almost like gettin’ a message from her,” he soliloquized. “The queen of hearts—that would be a love letter. Shucks l I’m gettin’ foolish in the head.”
He rode on down an easy declivity, and twice again he thought he saw dust across the valley. Occasionally a fragment of a playing card appeared in the trail and it seemed to the lonely rider almost like talking to the girl who had dropped them.
Night was falling as he wound down the trail along the lower slopes of the mountains. His greatest immediate concern now was for Baldy. He had watered the horse in Mill Creek just above Bryam’s cabin, but he had seen no signs of water out across the desolate, barren valley that he was entering; and Baldy had been traveling now for almost twenty hours with only a few brief rests. There was still a little grain left in the gunny sack at the cantle of his saddle, and once again he halted to rest and feed his mount and turn his blanket.
As yet the man himself felt neither hunger nor fatigue; and he knew that were it not for the shortage of water, both he and the horse could go on for many hours longer.
In the mountains across the valley there was water; and he determined to push on all night, if necessary, to reach it before the heat of a new day beat down upon them, taking its toll of moisture from their bodies.
While Baldy, ate, Marvel examined the animal’s feet and rubbed his legs; then he lay down upon his back for a few minutes, seeking the refreshing rest of absolute relaxation.
“Everything was working out so pretty, Baldy. It’s too bad this had to happen,” he said. “Another day or two at the most and it never could have happened; but me and you will straighten it out yet, old man.” Baldy looked up from his oats and gazed reflectively at the man. “I used to think Bull’s Eye was the best horse in the world,” said Marvel, “but I reckon he’ll have to take his hat off to you after this trip. Of course, he never had no such chance as you. You got the break, Baldy. I guess no other horse in the world ever had such a break. You’re goin’ to be a regular hero, Baldy—packin’ me all them miles to save the sweetest thing the sun ever shone on.”
It never occurred to Marvel that he might fail, so sure was he of his horse and himself. It was not egotism, but absolute self-confidence, coupled with the knowledge that he must not fail, which gave him this assurance.
“Well,” he said presently, rising to his feet, “I reckon we’d better be hittin’ the trail. We’ve loafed long enough.”
He laid the blanket upon the horse’s back, carefully smoothing out the wrinkles in the cloth; and then he lifted the heavy saddle from the ground. “Here’s where one o’ them postage stamps would come in handy,” he remarked. “There really aint no sense in a horse packin’ all this weight, which aint no use in a case like this.”
Baldy appeared not even mildly interested in the relative merits of stock and English saddles. He grunted to the tightening of the forward cinch, and when he felt the rear cinch touch his belly he flattened his ears and reached back in that peculiar gesture of viciousness with which most horses indicate their disapproval of cinches in general and rear cinches in particular.
The trail lay dimly visible before him as Marvel turned Baldy’s nose again toward the south; and presently it dropped into the mouth of a wide canyon, which it followed downward for a couple of miles. Crossing the canyon, which here turned toward the right, it rose abruptly again to higher ground.
Before the rider there lay once more the wide expanse of valley that now was but a black void, rimmed upon the south by the black outlines of the mountains, with the low saddle in the distance the only landmark to point the way.
“It’s just like a great big black curtain turned upside down,” mused Marvel. “It hides everything and makes a fellow wonder what’s behind it. She’s out there in it somewhere—I wish I knew just where. She don’t guess that I’m here; and I reckon it wouldn’t make any more difference to her if she did than as if it was Bud or some other fellow; but it means a lot to me—it means everything. I “
His soliloquy came to an abrupt stop, as far away in the distance a point of light shone unexpectedly and mysteriously against the black pall.
“That sure was an answer all right,” he said, “jumpin’ up like that right when I was wishin’ I knew where she was. They sure must be crazy to light a fire now, unless they think they got such a start that no one can catch up to ’em anyway.”
He was moving on again now and at the same time endeavoring to restrain himself from urging Baldy to a faster gait; but his better judgment prevailed, and he saved his horse at the expense of his own nerves, which chafed at the slow progress toward the goal which seemed now in sight.
For a great deal of the time the light was hidden when the trail dropped down onto lower ground and always then he feared that he might not see it again; but at intervals his view of it recurred and always it grew larger as he approached it until at last, just before the first streak of dawn had lighted the eastern sky, he topped a little rise of ground to see the fire in plain sight a few hundred yards away. It was burning low now—mostly a mass of glowing embers—and he could distinguish nothing in its vicinity.
He reined in his horse and dismounted quietly, praying that if this were indeed the camp he sought, the horses that he knew must be staked or hobbled nearby would not discover Baldy’s presence and nicker a revealing welcome.
He led Baldy back along the trail to lower ground where the horse would be out of sight of the occupants of the camp, and tying him to a low bush, Marvel returned in the direction of the campfire. As he approached the higher ground from which it was visible, he dropped to his hands and knees and taking advantage of the bushes which dotted the ground, he crawled slowly forward. The stars had faded from the eastern sky, and the growing light of a new dawn was showing above the horizon.
Carefully the man crept forward. He could not afford to take the chance of premature discovery, for he was not sure just how many men he would have to face. He did not believe that Cory Blaine had been with the party at Bryam’s shack, for he had seen the man ride out of camp that morning on a horse called Pudding Foot, which was remarkable for the roundness and size of his hoofs. The prints of Pudding Foot’s feet he would have recognized, and he had seen no sign of them anywhere along the trail, but he did believe it possible that Blaine might have joined them later by another trail. So it was possible that he might have three desperate men to contend with instead of two; and then again there was the possibility that he would find no one about the campfire, at which they may have cooked some food and ridden on. With that thought came the first intimation of the nervous tension under which he had been laboring, for he broke into a cold sweat as he contemplated the possibility that, after all, he might not find Kay White here.