NOW, AT last, he was within a few yards of the glowing embers, which were temporarily hidden from him by a low bush that had offered him concealment as he crawled forward. Removing his hat, he raised his head slowly until he could look over the top of the bush. In front of him, and now visible in the growing light of the new day, he saw a man sitting by the fire half reclining against a pile of saddles; and on the ground, beyond the fire, two forms were stretched.
Marvel replaced his hat upon his head and rose slowly, a forty-four in each hand. He advanced softly toward the man sleeping against the saddles; and now he was close enough to recognize that one of the other figures was that of a woman, and he breathed an almost audible sigh of relief. Beyond the camp he saw three horses standing patiently.
All this he took in in a single, brief glance; then he spoke.
“Stick ’em up!” he snapped sharply. “It’s all over. I’ve got you covered.”
Instantly the three awoke. “Stick ’em up!” snapped Marvel again, and the hands of the man by the saddle went quickly above his head; but the other man leaped to his feet and reached for his gun.
It all happened very quickly, so quickly that Kay White, awakened from a sleep of utter physical and nervous exhaustion, scarcely realized that she had seen a man killed. Sharp words had awakened her, and as she opened her eyes she had seen a sudden streak of fire accompanied by the bellow of a forty-four; and then the man that she had heard called Mart had pitched forward upon his face and lain very still, his body almost touching her feet.
“Get up,” said the killer to the man against the saddles, “and keep ’em up. Face the other way.”
There was a note in the man’s voice that was familiar to the girl, but she knew at once that it was not Cory Blaine. Only once before had she heard Marvel speak with a tone of authority; and then his voice had not been hardened by long suppressed hate and anger; so she recognized only a strange familiarity, while his clothes meant nothing to her since she had never seen him dressed thus before, and it was not yet light enough to distinguish his features. She saw him slip one of his own guns into its holster and remove the weapon from Eddie’s holster. Then he turned to her.
“You all right, Kay?” he asked. “They aint hurt you none, have they?” And with the sudden change in his tone, she recognized him.
“Bruce!” she exclaimed. “I —” A sob choked other words in her throat.
“You’re all right now, Kay,” he said. “There can’t nuthin’ happen to you now. Your papa is at the ranch, and we’ll have you back there in no time. But tell me first, did either of these men harm you? If they did, I’m goin’ to kill this one now. I aint goin’ to take no chances with the law. It lets too many of them escape.”
“I never done nuthin’ to her,” said the man in a voice that was barely articulate, so muffled was it by some impediment of speech.
“No,” said Kay. “They treated me all right, especially Eddie. That is Eddie there,” she explained, indicating the man standing before Marvel.
“Yes,” said Marvel. “I know Eddie. I’ve been lookin’ for him for a long time.”
“Who the hell are you?” demanded Eddie. “I never seen you before.”
“And that wise guy, who thought he could beat me to the draw after I drawed, would be Mart, wouldn’t he?” demanded Marvel.
“Who are you anyway?” demanded Eddie.
“It wouldn’t do you no good to know now, son,” replied Marvel. “When you should have known who I was was a couple of days ago.” He stepped quickly over to Mart and, stooping, recovered the gun that had dropped from the man’s hand when he fell and also extricated the other from its holster. Then he laid all four weapons beside Kay. “Watch ’em,” he said. “That feller may not be dead. I aint got time to examine him now.” He turned to Eddie. “Take a tie rope off o’ one of them saddles,” he said, and when the man had done as he was bid, Marvel secured his wrists behind him.
Kay White sat in bewildered silence, partially overcome by the sudden turn in her fortune and partially by her surprise at seeing Marvel in this new role. Here was no man playing a part, and she realized that for the first time she was looking upon the real Bruce Marvel. She noted his clothes as the light increased and how much a part of him they seemed. She recalled the doubt that she had felt concerning him, and she wanted to say something to him. She wanted to explain and to ask his forgiveness, but she did not know how to say it; so she remained silent.
“Got any grub in camp, Eddie?” asked Marvel. “I aint eat for so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like.”
“There’s food in a couple of them bags,” said Eddie sullenly, pointing to the pile of saddles.
Marvel searched among the bags. In one he found a frying pan, a coffee pot and some tin cups, and in another bacon, potatoes and a can of coffee, in addition to which there were three canteens, one of which was full and another that had some water in it.
“I reckon this’ll do,” he said. “Hungry, Kay?”
“Not very,” she replied.
“Well, you better eat,” he said. “We got a long pull ahead of us yet and you’ve got to keep your strength.”
He busied himself preparing their frugal meal and when it was ready, he served Kay, after which he freed Eddie’s hands that he, too, might eat.
While he ate Marvel squatted on his heels directly in front of Eddie. “Where’s Blaine?” he demanded suddenly.
“He” Eddie hesitated. “How the hell do I know where he is?”
“Listen, Eddie, I know all about you,” said Marvel. “Come clean and it may go easier with you. I think you’re expectin’ Blaine. I want to know when you expect him and what trail he’s comin’ on. If you don’t answer me, or if you lie to me, and Blaine comes on us unexpected, I’m goin’ to shoot you first.”
“He’s comin’ the same trail we come on,” replied Eddie after considerable hesitation. “He didn’t aim on catchin’ up to us until after we reached —” He stopped.
“Until after you reached Kelly’s place in Sonora,” suggested Marvel.
“If you know so much what’s the use of askin’ me?” demanded Eddie.
“There aint none,” replied Marvel; “but we’re goin’ back to the TF by a different trail, and if we meet Blaine on that trail you can kiss yourself good-bye. I don’t want no unexpected or promiscuous shootin’ while I got Miss White with me.”
“There aint no other trail to the TF, least ways no shorter one.”
“Oh, yes, they is,” said Marvel. “When I was a kid I helped my old man trail some cattle up from the border this away; so I know there’s another trail and besides that, there’s water on it.”
Eddie contemplated Marvel for a moment. “You must be the guy that planted all the willows on the cricks in this part of the country,” he said; “but it’s funny I never seen you before.”
“I told you once that you have seen me before. You saw me day before yesterday.”
A sudden light of recognition dawned in Eddie’s eyes. “Why you’re that damn dude,” he said.
The shadow of a smile moved Marvel’s lips. “We’ll be movin’ now,” he said, and then he turned toward the girl. “It’s mighty hard on you, Kay, but I don’t see no way out of it. We couldn’t stay here in a dry camp nohow, and then particularly I don’t want no rumpus with Blaine while you are with us.”
“Don’t think of me,” she said. “Do whatever you believe the right thing to do. I’m tired, of course, but I’m very far from being exhausted.”
“You’re sure a wonder, Kay,” he said admiringly, as he busied himself with the rope with which he was again securing Eddie’s wrists. Then he removed Eddie’s cartridge belt from about the man’s hips and handed it to Kay. “Strap this on,” he said, “and take one of those forty-fives. I hope you won’t need it, but I’ll feel safer if you have it.”
As she followed his instructions, he walked out and brought in the three horses, which she held while he saddled and bridled them.
“Where is your horse?” she asked.
“I hid him over yonder,” he replied. “We’ll pick him up on our way out.”
“What are you going to do with him?” She nodded her head toward Mart’s body.
“I can’t do nuthin’ with him,” replied Marvel. “We aint got nuthin’ to dig a hole with and we aint got time if we had. I might pack him in on his horse, but we may need the horse. One of our’s might give out.”
“You are just going to leave him lying there?” she asked incredulously.
“There aint no other way, Kay,” he replied; “and even that is too good for him.” His tone was as hard as his words, for they reflected the contempt that he held for the dead man.
She said no more, but mounted Lightfoot and turned her back upon the body of the dead Mart. Marvel assisted Eddie into the saddle; and then he mounted Mart’s horse, and the three rode to where Baldy was tied.
“I reckon I’ll give you a rest, old man,” he said, and handing the lead rope to Kay, he remounted. “I’ll lead Eddie’s horse,” he said, “and you follow with Baldy. It’s been a long time since I’ve been over this trail, but if I remember right there’s water in the next ten or fifteen miles.”
Since the unexpected arrival of Marvel and the rapid and grim sequence of events that had followed, Kay White had scarcely spoken. Perhaps the shock to her nervous system, already weakened by fatigue, had left her dazed; but now as she rode along the trail in the rear of Marvel and Eddie she had time to review the happenings of the past hour. Uppermost in her mind, naturally, was the killing of Mart. Never before had she witnessed tragedy at such close range; and she was impressed more by the horror of the casualness of it, perhaps, than she was by the death itself. It seemed to her that a man who might have been forced to shoot a dog would have evidenced more feeling in the matter than Marvel had.
She almost shrank from the thought of being near him; and then she realized that this was but a natural reaction, resulting from emotional complexes rather than from studied and rational consideration of the events leading up to the deed. Then came the realization that what he had done had been for her and she was filled with remorse for the unjust thoughts she had harbored.
Eddie rode in sullen silence, his weak and stupid face a study of hopeless dejection. He knew nothing of the legal penalty for kidnaping; but he was conversant with the rough and ready justice of his fellow men, which raised within his mind the vision of a lonely figure suspended from a tree. He did not like the picture. It gave him a most uncomfortable sensation about the neck, and so his mind groped muddily for a plan to escape.
Marvel, constantly alert, rode in the lead. Occasionally he turned in his saddle and scanned the country for signs of pursuit. He was very happy; and by way of expression he hummed snatches of a little song that was more notable for its doleful lugubriousness than for any intrinsic value it possessed as a work of art; and thus, each occupied with his own thoughts, the three followed the dim trail toward the north.