OLGA GUNDERSTROM had fully regained consciousness before Buck and the sheriffs ascended the veranda steps. The reaction to the nervous ordeal through which she had passed had left her silent and exhausted, and she sat now staring with wide eyes at the man who had been her childhood playmate and who she now believed to be the slayer of her father. She saw the slender, blond-haired girl in blue overalls come forward and take Buck Mason’s hand. “I’m so glad they did not kill you,” she heard her say.
“After you came to the corral and told me, there couldn’t anybody have killed me,” he said in a whisper that not even Olga Gunderstrom could hear.
“Who’s this girl?” demanded the sheriff of Porico County.
“She is my daughter,” replied John White.
“The girl that was kidnaped?” demanded the sheriff.
“And hobnobbin’ with the man that kidnaped her?” demanded the sheriff.
“Don’t be foolish,” said Kay. “This man did not kidnap me. Two men named Mart and Eddie took me away from Cory Blaine, but I have learned since that the whole thing was arranged by Blaine. This man risked his life many times to ride after me and save me from them. Even Eddie will testify to that. Where is he, father?”
Olga Gunderstrom shrank fearfully into her chair; but almost immediately she regained something of her self assurance, since she was confident that Eddie had made good his escape.
“Why there comes Eddie now,” exclaimed John White. “How did he get out of the office?”
“That must have been Eddie we picked up on our way in,” said the deputy sheriff of Porico County. “He sure was hot footin’ it for parts unknown. Bring him up here, boys,” he called to the men escorting Eddie. “We want to talk to that young feller.”
When Eddie came onto the porch, Buck Mason turned toward him. “Remember what I told you, Eddie,” he said.
“Shut up,” snapped the sheriff of Porico County. “Don’t you try to influence no witness around here.”
“I was just remindin’ Eddie to tell the truth,” said Mason. “Sometimes it aint so easy for him to remember that.”
“Eddie,” asked Kay, “who persuaded you to help to kidnap me?”
Eddie looked about as though searching for someone. His eyes finally came to rest on Mason’s face. “He didn’t get the drop on you; so he must be dead,” he said.
“Yes, he is dead,” replied Mason.
“Go on, answer the young lady’s question,” urged the sheriff of Porico County. “Who persuaded you to kidnap her?”
“Cory Blaine,” replied Eddie.
“Didn’t this feller, Buck Mason, have a hand in it?” demanded the sheriff.
“Naw,” said Eddie. “He come after us. Hi Bryam tried to kill him and Hi is dead. Then Mart tried to beat him to the draw and Mart’s dead. The only kidnapin’ he done was when he kidnaped her away from us.”
“Well, maybe he didn’t kidnap the gal,” said the sheriff of Porico County. “Leastways, we don’t seem to have much of a case agin him now; but he killed old man Gunderstrom, and I want you folks here to bear witness that I took him single-handed and that I’m entitled to all the reward.”
“Before you spend any of it, I want you to listen to me for a minute,” said Mason. “I got to tell my story in court anyway, and maybe it seems a waste of time to tell it now; but there’s reasons why I want some of these people here to know the truth.” He turned to the sheriff of Comanche County. “May I tell it, boss?” he asked.
“Sure, Buck, hop to it,” replied the older man.
“In the first place,” said Mason, “for the benefit of those of you who don’t know it, I am deputy sheriff of Comanche County in New Mexico.”
“That’s right,” said the sheriff. “He’s my chief deputy.”
“The afternoon of the night Gunderstrom was killed I rode up to his shack to talk about a line fence that’s been a matter of dispute between our families for twenty years. I couldn’t get any satisfaction out of the old man, but we did not quarrel. There wasn’t enough at stake there anyway to furnish a reasonable cause for me to kill him, and there was another good reason why I couldn’t have killed Gunderstrom.” He glanced at Olga. “Me and his daughter was playmates ever since we were kids. I liked her better than anybody else I knew. I couldn’t have killed her paw.
“When the murder was reported and the boss sent me over to investigate, I seen three things that interested me. There were signs at the tie rail that five horses had been tied there the night before. There were foot prints of five men; two of ’em easy to identify again. One fellow had a heart shaped piece of metal set in the bottom of each heel of his boots, and that heart left a plain imprint in the soft ground. Another one of ’em had the biggest feet I ever seen on a man.
“Then I went into the house. The first thing I seen was one of Ole’s boots lyin’ in front of the cot, like it had been kicked around. I examined it very carefully and I seen the imprint of that metal heart on it where the murderer had stepped real heavy on the boot, like he stumbled on it first and then, in trying to catch himself, had stamped down real heavy on it. Did you save that boot, boss, as I asked you to?”
“Yes, I saved it; and we seen that heart shaped mark on it,” replied the sheriff.
“Of course the coroner saved the bullet that killed Gunderstrom, too, didn’t he?”
“What caliber was it?”
“And you know, boss, that I’ve always packed my old man’s forty-fours ever since he died, don’t you?”
“Yes, I told them that,” replied the sheriff of Comanche County. “They don’t nobody think you done it down there, Buck, except Olga Gunderstrom.”
“There was another thing I forgot to tell you,” continued Mason. “The hoof prints of the horses showed that one of ’em had a big piece broken out of the inside of the off hind hoof, which made it mighty easy to track.
“They rode awful fast and I never did get within sight of ’em, but I could follow ’em easy by that broken hoof; and whenever they dismounted, I seen the heart shaped imprint of that feller’s heel, and I noticed that it was always beside the horse with the broken hoof; so I figured that that was his horse; and then old big foot always showed up too whenever they dismounted.
“I trailed ’em right down to the town on the railroad here; and then I got to makin’ inquiries there and I heard about this feller Cory Blaine and his dude ranch, and somebody told me that he just come in from his mine the day before. This feller that told me said that Blaine sure was a hard rider, that his horse was about used up when he come through town.
“Still I didn’t think I had enough to go on, and I wanted to be sure; so I cached my saddle and bridle, hopped the train to Denver and telegraphed this feller Blaine for accommodations on his dude ranch. As soon as I got word from him that he could take care of me I shaved off my mustache, buys a lot of funny clothes that I had seen pictures of in magazines, and comes down here to the TF, expectin’ to clean up everything in a couple of days; but it wasn’t so easy. There wasn’t nobody with a heart shaped piece of metal in the heel of his boot. There wasn’t nobody with the biggest feet in the world, and there wasn’t no horse with a broken hoof.
“The first clue I got, and it was a darn slim one at that, was when Dora Crowell and Blaine were discussin’ the news that had just come to the ranch that I had been accused of Gunderstrom’s murder. Do you remember, Dora, that you said I must be a terrible man because I shot Mr. Gunderstrom right through the heart while he was lyin’ asleep on his bed?”
Dora nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I remember.”
“And then Blaine spoke up and says, ‘Between the eyes;’ and you said, ‘It didn’t say that in the paper.’
“That gave me my first hunch that Cory Blaine knew too much about the murder, and so I made up my mind that I’d have to hang around and get to the bottom of it. The next day we goes on a lion hunt; and still there wasn’t any boots with hearts on ’em, or big feet, or broken hoofs; but when we got up to Hi Bryam’s shack and I seen Hi Bryam and his feet and seen how chummy he and Blaine and Butts were, I commenced to have hopes again.
“Bryam wasn’t very chummy with me; but I finally managed to sit down beside him on the step of his cabin one evenin’ and put my foot down alongside of his, and there was just the same difference that I’d measured between the length of my foot and the length of the big print around Gunderstrom’s cabin, about an inch and a half I should say.
“Then the last night we was up to Bryam’s I overheard a conversation between Blaine and Bryam and Butts that gave me an idea that the three of ’em were workin’ together on some crooked deal.”
He turned to Mr. White. “It was a good thing I overheard that conversation, Mr. White, because, while I didn’t know it at the time, it was the outline of a part of the scheme to kidnap Kay. It give me just the clue I needed to follow them.
“I was gettin’ closer now, but I didn’t have anything to pin on Blaine, although I was dead sure he was the murderer. I knew that the boss here would save the bullet that killed Gunderstrom. As you all know, the rifling in the barrel of any weapon makes a distinguishing mark upon the bullet that aint like the marks that the rifling in any other weapon makes on its bullet; so I was particularly anxious to get hold of a bullet that had been fired from Blaine’s gun. I done that one night by asking him to let me shoot at a target and then, being a tenderfoot,” he grinned, “I accidentally fired the gun into my bedroll. I got the bullet here now for comparison when you get back home, boss.”
“Good,” said the sheriff.
“About this time somebody dropped a remark about Blaine’s horse droppin’ dead from exhaustion after he come in from his last trip; and, of course, that made me want to see that particular horse pretty bad; so I started talkin’ about horse’s teeth.” He looked at Dora Crowell and grinned again.
“I got to figuring that you weren’t as crazy as you, tried to make out,” said the girl, “but you had me fooled for a while.”
“If Cory Blaine had been as bright as you, Dora, I never would have caught him.
“What I wanted particular though was a heel print with a heart in it. Blaine never wore but one pair of boots, and they was just ordinary boots with nuthin’ fancy about ’em. I made up my mind that he’d just have to change his boots, and so the night before we got back from the lion hunt I threw one of his boots into the campfire while he was asleep and made believe I’d thrown it at a coyote who had probably ran off with it.”
He looked almost shyly at Kay White. “Some folks thought it was a mean thing to do,” he continued, “but they didn’t know why I done it. Well, the next day after we gets back to the TF Ranch Blaine comes out with an old pair of boots on. They’d been a awful fancy pair of boots in their day, with different colored patent leather trimmin’ and sure enough brass hearts set right in the bottom of the heels. It was right then I beat it for town and sent that letter to you, boss.
“I had two of ’em now; and I was pretty sure of Butts, because he was an ornery sort of a cuss anyway, and him and Blaine was mighty thick. Then some time about this time comes a letter tellin’ about this feller with a harelip callin’ up on the telephone and sayin’ that it was Buck Mason that killed Ole Gunderstrom. There wasn’t nobody around with a harelip; so I just sort of forgot that for awhile; but I still wanted to see that horse that Blaine rode to death, and so I got Bud to take me to it the day the rest of you folks rode over to Crater Mountain and sure enough there was a piece broken out of the inside of the off rear hoof. I was sure right then that I had Blaine tied up, and I was only waitin’ for the sheriff to come when this here kidnapin’ blew everything to pieces.
“But in a way it helped, too, for it give me a line on the other two guys, Mart and Eddie. I spotted Eddie the same day Bud took me huntin’ horses’ teeth. I seen Core Blaine ridin’ over the hills to the west; and after I was able to shake Bud, I followed him and seen him talkin’ to two fellers down in the dry gulch on the other side of the hills.
“I wanted a closer view of those two fellers, and so I beat it around to the mouth of the canyon when they started down and met ’em there.” He turned to Eddie. “Do you remember, Eddie?” he asked.
The prisoner nodded sullenly. “Yes, I remember,” he said.
“I pretended I was a dude and that I was lost, and when this guy Eddie speaks to me I was pretty sure that I had number four and that probably the other feller was number five, for Eddie sure talked like he has a harelip. He just got about half his tongue shot away once. He told me about it in camp yesterday.
“In fact Eddie told me a lot of things. Some of ’em I’d rather not tell to all of you; but the five of ’em, Blaine, Butts, Bryam, Mart, and Eddie was the gang that’s been raisin’ all this hell around here for the past year. They were with Blaine when he went up to kill Ole Gunderstrom. They had no part in the actual killing, though they were in the cabin when Blaine went in and shot Ole.”
Olga Gunderstrom rose from her chair and came up to Eddie. She stood directly in front of him and seized him by the shoulders, her eyes blazing into his. “Is that the truth?” she demanded through clenched teeth, shaking him viciously.
“Leave me go,” he cried. “I didn’t do it.”
“Is Buck Mason telling the truth?” she demanded. “That’s what I asked you.”
“Yes, he’s tellin’ the truth,” said Eddie sullenly.
“I don’t believe you,” she cried. “It was Buck Mason that killed my father. Why should this man Blaine have wanted to kill him? He didn’t even know him.”
“Because your old man was trying to double-cross him,” said Eddie. “He handled the stock that we rustled, and we used to cache a lot of the money at one of his ranches here in Arizona. He double-crossed us and wouldn’t never give us our share of what he got on the horses and cattle we rustled; and then, just before Blaine croaked him, he comes to this ranch that I’m tellin’ you about here in Arizona and swipes most of the money we got hid there; and that’s why Cory Blaine killed him, if you want to know.”
Olga Gunderstrom swayed slightly and Mason stepped to her side to support her. “Don’t touch me,” she said. Then she steadied herself and walking slowly from among them, entered the house.
“I’m sorry that happened,” said Mason. “That is what I did not want to tell.
“I guess that’s about all,” said Mason in conclusion. “Some of you folks have been mighty nice to me, and I wanted you to know the truth. You see I really felt worse about them funny pants and the boot garters than I did about being accused of killin’ a man; for I knew that I could clear myself from the latter in court, but I might never live down the other.”
The sheriff of Porico County cleared his throat. “I reckon we’ll be goin’, sheriff,” he said. “I guess you can take care of the prisoners all right, can’t you?”
“You take this Eddie with you, and I’ll take care of Buck. I reckon that indictment against him will be quashed at the preliminary hearing.”
“I reckon so,” said the sheriff of Porico County, “but he’ll have to appear here at the coroner’s inquest on the shootin’ of these four hombres. I’ll see that he aint delayed none, though. Good-bye.”
“Thanks, Sheriff,” said Mason.
“What do you want to do now, Buck?” asked the sheriff of Comanche County. “Start for town now or wait till the cool of the evening?”
“I want to go to bed,” said Mason. “I aint slept for two nights.”
“Just a moment, Mason,” said John White; “I’d like a word with you.”
Mason turned and faced him. “Sure, sir,” he said; “what do you want?”
“I want to apologize.”
“That aint necessary,” Mason assured him.
“I think it is.”
Mason shook his head. “Blaine was pretty slick,” he said. “Most anybody might have believed that story of his. I don’t blame you none for not believin’ me. That was about the slickest alibi and frame-up I ever heard. There was just one thing wrong with it.”
“What was that?” asked White.
“His aim,” said Mason.
White smiled in understanding.
“You seem to have handled this whole thing in an extremely clever manner, Mason,” said White.
“It’s the slickest piece of detective work I ever seen,” said the Sheriff of Comanche County, “but he comes by it natural. His old man was the best sheriff Comanche or any other county ever had.”
“He’s done a fine piece of work for law, order, and justice,” said White; “and while the size of the reward may not be commensurate with the obligation society and I owe him, it will not be inconsiderable.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mason.
“The reward I promised for the safe return of Kay,” replied ‘’White.
Mason’s eyes hardened. “I aint aimin’ to collect no reward, mister.” This was the fighting deputy of Comanche County speaking.
White flushed, but he held out his hand. “I understand,” he said, “but in fairness to me you should let me do something—anything you ask.”
“I’ll be askin’ something later, I hope,” replied Mason, his eyes softening.
White smiled. “I hope so, too, my boy,” he said; “and now go on to bed.”
Before he turned in, Buck Mason cut a new notch on each of his father’s forty-fours.
He was up early the next morning, for it does not take youth long to recuperate; and, furthermore, he was ravenously hungry. As he stepped out onto the veranda in the cool, fresh air of the morning, he saw a girl walking toward the river, a girl that he might not have recognized except for the blond head; for the lithe body was clothed in smart sport togs, which reminded him of illustrations he had seen in Vogue; but too often had he watched the sunlight playing in that blond hair to fail to recognize it, whatever the apparel of its owner. So he, too, hastened down toward the river.
Cottonwoods grow along the river, hiding much of the view from the veranda; but they do not hide everything; and when, a few minutes later, Dora Crowell stepped out of the TF Ranch house to fill her lungs with the early morning air, she caught a glimpse of a figure standing among the cottonwoods by the river; and when she looked more closely and saw that the one figure was really two, she smiled and turned her eyes in another direction.