BLAINE, mounted upon a comparatively fresh horse, made good time along the trail from Bryam’s shack toward the south. Before darkness had fallen the preceding day to obliterate all signs along the way, two features of the spoor had puzzled him. Fragments of torn playing cards appeared so often in the trail as to convince him that someone had been blazing it for a purpose and he could only assume, as had Marvel, that it was the girl. The other was not quite so plain, but he thought that it indicated that four horsemen instead of three had preceded him. His trailing ability, however, was not so great that he could be positive of this, nor did the signs tell him that three of the horsemen had preceded the fourth by several hours.
So sure was he, however, that Bryam had misdirected Marvel toward the east that he succeeded in almost convincing himself that he was in error in believing that four horses recently had passed along the trail.
With the coming of the new day he saw that the spoor had been dimmed and in some places obliterated by the footprints of nocturnal animals which, by night, follow man-made paths, the open, dusty parts of which are the plazas of the little folk where they come to stroll and to play.
But for such things Blaine had neither eyes nor thoughts as he strained the former far into the distance ahead in search of some tell-tale moving thing that might indicate the whereabouts of those whom he sought.
“If Marvel did follow ’em and caught up with ’em,” he soliloquized, “the boys sure must have bumped him off; but if he got the drop on ’em he would be coming back this way, and I ought to be meeting him pretty soon.” He loosened the gun in its holster and redoubled his alertness. “It aint that I’m afraid of the damn dude,” he apologized to himself, “but he might be lyin’ in wait for me behind some bush—him and his funny panties. If I ever get the chance I’m goin’ to shoot them panties full of holes, more especially if he’s in ’em.”
The trail dropped into a hollow and then rose again to higher ground, and as he topped this rise he saw something just ahead that brought him to a sudden stop and his gun from its holster—it was the figure of a man lying beside the ashes of a fire.
The instant that he saw it he knew that the man was dead. At first he thought it was Marvel because he hoped that it was; but as he rode closer, after convincing himself that there was no one around, he saw that if was Mart; and he cursed beneath his breath.
Dismounting beside the dead man he turned him over on his back. For a moment he stood looking at him. “Dead as a doornail,” he muttered. Then he stooped and ran his hand inside the dead man’s shirt. “He aint plumb cold yet,” he soliloquized. “That means whoever done this aint far off.”
Searching the ground he found the spoor of three horses leading away from the camp. At a short distance farther on, where Marvel had left his horse, he counted the tracks of four horses leading to the north. Nowhere ahead could he see any sign of horsemen.
“If it’s that damn dude,” he said, “he’s lost himself, which will give me a chance to get back to the TF ahead of him. Then it’ll be his word against mine.” For a few minutes he sat there puzzling out his problem, and then the light of a sudden inspiration was reflected in his eyes. “No,” he said, half aloud, “it will be better than my word against his. It’ll be mine and Bryam’s and Mart’s. The three of us together ought to be able to put a rope around that bozo’s neck.”
Blaine was a hard rider. He never gave any thought to his horse, nor to the future, but only to the present necessity for speed; and now he wheeled his mount and spurred back along the trail he had come, bent only on reaching the TF Ranch ahead of Marvel and praying as he rode that it was indeed Marvel who had overtaken his two confederates and presumably rescued Kay White. He knew that his horse would hold out at least as far as Bryam’s; and there he could change to Bryam’s horse, which he had seen hobbled and grazing in the vicinity of the cabin; so he had no doubts but that he could reach the ranch long in advance of Marvel, even though the other was not lost as he believed and was able to find his way back to the TF without delay.
Marvel, pushing along the dim trail, was acutely aware that their horses were commencing to weaken from fatigue and thirst under the heat of the burning sun. He no longer hummed his sad little tune, for he was genuinely worried, harassed as he was by the haunting fear that the spring where his father had camped years before might since have gone dry, or that he might miss it entirely.
Perhaps he had staked too much upon his ability to find that waterhole. If their horses gave out and they were left afoot in that arid waste, their situation might indeed be hopeless. He was not thinking of himself or of the other man, but only of the girl. He reproached himself for having taken this long chance, yet when he considered the fact that the girl must inevitably have had to face the dangers of a gun battle with Blaine had they returned by the other trail, he still thought that his decision had been a wise one, and once again his self confidence asserted itself and he became strong again in the conviction that they would find water soon.
His train of thought and the long silence were broken by Eddie. “This horse of mine aint goin’ much further,” he said. “He is about through.”
Marvel turned in his saddle. For some time he had had to drag the other horse along with a couple of turns of his rope about the horn of his saddle and now he saw that the beast was staggering and weak.
He reined in. “We’ll switch you over to this horse,” he said, “and I’ll ride Baldy. How’s your horse comin’, Kay?”
“He seems to be holding up pretty well,” she replied. “He hasn’t the weight to carry that the others have.”
“You better get back on the other trail to Bryam’s where we can get water,” growled Eddie. “There aint no water here.”
“Shut up,” admonished Marvel, “and speak when you’re spoken to.”
Dismounting, they rested their horses for several minutes. Marvel considered the advisability of abandoning Eddie’s horse, but finally decided to take him on as far as he could go, for he knew that if he could get him to water and rest there for a couple of hours the animal might recuperate sufficiently to prove useful to them before their long ride was over.
Shortly after they took up the march again, Baldy lifted his nose in the air and pricked up his ears and almost immediately the other horses did the same, the four of them pushing suddenly forward with accelerated speed. Marvel breathed a sigh of relief.
“What’s the matter with the horses?” called Kay from her position in the rear. “They act as though they saw something.”
“They smell water,” replied Marvel, “and it makes them feel good; but take it from me it don’t make them feel half as good as it does me.”
The horses moved forward eagerly now and with vitality renewed by anticipation of the opportunity of quenching their thirst in the near future. The change in the spirits of their mounts seemed also to revivify the riders; so that it was with much lighter hearts that the three rode on beneath the pitiless rays of an Arizona sun, Marvel giving Baldy his head in the knowledge that the animal’s instinct would lead it unerringly to the nearest water.
Ahead of them stretched what appeared to be an unbroken expanse of rolling brush land, lying arid and uninviting in the shimmering heat of the morning.
Presently there broke upon Marvel’s vision the scene for which he had been waiting, the picture of which he had been carrying in his memory since boyhood—a large, bowl-like depression, in the bottom of which green verdue proclaimed the presence of the element that might mean the difference between life and death to them.
As they dropped over the edge and rode down a steep trail leading toward the water, Eddie contemplated the back of the man riding just ahead of him. “Dude!” he murmured. “I wonder what long-eared, locoed son-of-a-gun hitched that monicker onto this bozo?”
“You speakin’ to me, young feller?” asked Marvel, for the mutterings of the man had come to his ears, although he had not been able to interpret the meaning.
“You and your old man trailed cattle this a-way when you were a kid?” asked Eddie.
“What made ’em think you were a dude?” demanded the man.
“Who said I was a dude?” asked Marvel.
“Butts—” Eddie stopped in confusion.
“So you know Butts, too, eh?” asked Marvel, casually.
Eddie hesitated. “I seen him once,” he said at last.
“Don’t worry, Eddie,” said Marvel. “You aint give nuthin’ away. As I told you once before I know all about you—all five of you.”
“You think you’re a smart guy,” said Eddie, “but you aint got nuthin’ on me. They aint no law against my knowin’ people.”
“It aint so good for your health to know some folks too well, though, Eddie,” replied Bruce. “I can think of three of ’em offhand right now—there used to be five, but two of ’em’s dead.”
Eddie looked up quickly from contemplation of his saddle horn. He thought a moment. “Who’s the other?” he asked.
“Bryam,” replied Marvel.
“Did you kill him?”
“I had to, Eddie. He was shootin’ at me with a thirty-thirty, and for a lion hunter I will say that he was a damn poor shot.” It went against Marvel’s grain to speak of this killing, much less to boast of it; but for reasons of his own he wished to break down the man’s morale—in the vernacular, to put the fear of God into him and he knew that if Eddie had Bryam to think of now as well as Mart, he would worry that much more over his own possible fate and break the easier under the strain when the time came.
The balance of the trail into the bottom of the depression they negotiated in silence. Marvel noted with relief that green grass grew over a considerable area around the spring. He had not even dared hope for such good fortune as this.
“They can’t be runnin’ many cattle in here this year,” he said to Eddie.
“They aint never run nuthin’ in here since I’ve been in this neck of the woods,” replied Eddie, “and I aint never even been in this valley before. They aint near as many cattle on the range as they used to be since the cattle business got bumped a few years ago, and there still bein’ some rustlin’ over the border, no one ranges in here no more.”
“The feed never was no good in this valley anyhow, I guess,” said Marvel. “They used to feed in the hills on both sides and water in this hole on the way across.”
They halted beside a spring of clear, cold water that ran a little stream for a hundred yards or so before it sank into the earth again. Below the main spring they watered their horses, permitting them only a little at a time. Marvel took a half hour to this, releasing Eddie’s hands that he might assist him, while Kay filled their canteens and each of them quenched his thirst. After the two men had hobbled their horses and turned them loose, Marvel secured Eddie’s wrists again; then the three threw themselves upon the ground to rest.
Bruce made Kay lie at full length and relax, and he wet his bandana and brought it and laid it across her forehead. Eddie needed no invitation to lie down, though he grumbled at the uncomfortable position his bound wrists necessitated. Marvel lay where he could watch the trail down which they had come into the depression and where, at the same time, he could watch the horses, for he knew that they might be the first to give warning of the approach of a pursuer. Occasionally the man turned his head and looked at the girl lying quietly a few yards away. How soft and small she looked; and always the sight induced a strange sensation in his breast- a sudden fullness. “By golly,” he soliloquized, “it’s just like I wanted to cry; but I don’t want to cry, I want to sing. There’s something about her that makes a fellow want to sing when he’s close to her.”
Presently he saw by the steady rising and falling of her breasts that she had fallen asleep. He half rose then and hitched himself over close to where Eddie lay. The man looked up at him. “I want to talk to you, young fellow,” he said; and then, in a low tone that might not awaken the girl, he talked steadily for several minutes, while the changing expressions upon the face of his listener denoted various reactions, the most marked of which were surprise, consternation, and fear.
“I aint askin’ you nuthin’,” he said in conclusion. “There aint nuthin’ to ask you, I just been tellin’ you. Now if you know what’s good for you, you’ll know how to act.” As he ceased speaking he drew a large pocket knife from his overalls and opened one of the blades. Then he drew one of his forty-fours, the wooden grip of which bore many notches, the edges of which were rounded and smooth and polished by the use of many years. As Eddie watched him, fascinated, Marvel cut two new notches below the older ones.
“Them’s Bryam and Mart?” asked the prisoner.
Marvel nodded. “And there’s room for some more yet, Eddie,” he said.
“You make all them?” asked Eddie.
“No,” replied Marvel. “These guns were my father’s.”
“He must have been a bad man from way back,” commented Eddie in frank admiration.
“He weren’t nuthin’ of the kind,” replied Bruce. “He was a sheriff‘.”
“Oh!” said Eddie.
For two hours they rested there; and while they rested, Cory Blaine drove his faltering mount ruthlessly along the back trail toward Bryam’s.
They had had several hours start of him, but their rest and the killing pace that he was travelling might easily permit him to overcome the handicap; so that now it was a race with, perhaps, much depending upon who reached the TF Ranch first, though only Cory Blaine realized that it was a race.
For two hours Marvel permitted the girl and the horses to rest and recuperate. Then he aroused Eddie, removed his bonds and the two men went out and fetched the horses back to the spring. Not until they were saddled and ready to ride did he arouse Kay.
“I hate to do it,” he said, as she opened her eyes to the pressure of his hand upon her shoulder, “but we got to get goin’. We can’t make the ranch tonight, but if the horses hold out we ought to pull in some time after breakfast in the mornin’.”