THE night passed, and the day, and another night, dragging their weary length above Morongo Valley. After the car that bore Piute, Willyum, and the sheriff had vanished over the desert horizon, that horizon had remained unbroken. No one had come.
Murray slept the clock around, and wakened hungry but very weak. All strength seemed to have fled out of him. The rare sunstroke of the desert had smitten fiercely. When he heard Claire's narrative of what had happened during the preceding night, his first thought was to get back to the aid of Bill Hobbs; but when the girl inspected the car, she pronounced the task hopeless.
"The front axle's all crooked, and the left wheel is half twisted off," she reported, her eyes resting upon him anxiously. "I must have done it getting up here——"
"No matter," said Murray, losing all energy. The least movement appeared to drain his strength. The slightest touch of that blinding sunlight sent his brain whirling and reeling.
"I give up," he went on. "I'm good for nothing. Take a look around for rattlers; you have to watch out for them this season, for they give no warning but strike blindly—and they're bad medicine. Lord, but I'm helpless!"
As he lay there, he reviewed the girl's story of the attempted arrest, and believed that he understood it very plainly, although he did not attempt to explain matters to Claire. She had enough to worry her, he decided.
He remembered that Scudder had been talking with the contractor when Hennesy left to get the sheriff. He knew already that Scudder had opium, for the use of Tom Lee. It would have been no hard matter for Scudder to have planted some of the drug among his own effects, he reflected.
"I'll settle with you, Scudder!" he vowed to himself.
Toward sunset they searched the horizon, but vainly. What was happening beyond that horizon, over the rim of the world? Murray worried, more about his friends than himself, for he was little concerned over Scudder's enmity and attempts to disprove him in the eyes of Tom Lee.
But Sandy Mackintavers was in the toils, and as for Bill Hobbs—Murray groaned at the thought. He knew that Willyum had only recently come out of "stir" when he had picked up the ex-burglar. Now that Bill Hobbs had deliberately sacrificed himself in order to save Murray and Claire Lee, it meant a setback that would put him in the criminal ranks again for good. And at this moment, when both his friends needed him so sorely, Murray was stretched out here in the desert, helpless and impotent—himself under the menace of a cloud!
During that day, Murray and the girl lived long, came to know each other deeply; not with the superficial words and phrases and acts of civilized life, but in primitive ways and fashions. When the night closed down again like a mantle above the desert, it drew them yet closer together.
"Your father will be here tomorrow at latest," said Murray reflectively.
"He should have come long ago." Claire's eyes were filled with somber shadows. "I'm afraid that—that Doctor Scudder has been keeping him under the influence of opium. How I detest and fear that man! I wish that Father could be made to see him as I see him, that he would break with the man!"
"I think he will, eventually," said Murray, and smiled grimly to himself at thought of the reckoning he would have with Scudder.
The night passed. Once, Murray wakened; it seemed to him that he caught, in the desert silence and cold stillness, the throbbing motor of an automobile. Yet he could see no lights, and Claire had not wakened. He lay for a space, watching vainly, and at last fell asleep again.
With the morning, Murray opened his eyes to find Claire already up and breakfast nearly ready. He tried to rise, and managed to leave his blankets, but he was giddy and too weak to walk. With a muttered curse at his own feebleness, he sank down again upon the sand.
If no one shows up here by afternoon," he declared resolutely, while they breakfasted and discussed the situation, "I think we'd better make an effort to get back with the car. She may run; when it comes to flivvers, the days of miracles are by no means over——"
At this instant, Claire sprang to her feet with a cry of joy.
"Look—look! A car!"
Murray twisted around, and saw a moving object upon the desert face. From where they were upon the hillside, it was possible to see only the stretch of the cañon floor immediately below them; a twist in the cañon walls hid the remainder of the road from their sight, until it came out again upon the desert basin half a mile away. It was out there, crawling in from the low horizon, that the moving automobile appeared.
"It's Father!" cried the girl, watching the car intently as it rapidly drew closer to them. "It's our car! I know it because we had to put the license plate on the right fender—oh, I'm so glad. Now everything's all right!"
Silence fell upon them both. They watched without further speech as the car came in toward them, and finally vanished from sight. Five minutes later, it appeared down below in the little valley, its cheerful thrum reverberating upon the morning silence, echoing back from the cañon walls. But, as Claire watched, uneasiness grew in her eyes.
There was but one man in the car, the driver. The flivver was halted down by the shack, and its driver alighted. Murray glanced at the girl, and read a swift flutter of fear in her eyes.
"It's not Father at all—it's Doctor Scudder!" she breathed.
"Don't worry," said Murray coolly. "I expect your father sent him here. Ah, he's coming up! That's good."
His calm manner exerted a quieting effect upon Claire. Toward them from the cañon climbed Doctor Scudder. As he came closer, his cheery "Good morning!" floated to them, and both Murray and Claire made answer. Scudder completed the climb, panting a little, and removed his hat to wipe his brow.
"Where's Father?" exclaimed Claire eagerly.
"I'm sorry to say, Miss Lee, that he's not well," returned Scudder, his eyes taking in each detail of the scene. "Hobbs came into town yesterday in custody of the sheriff, and told us of the situation here. Your father hoped to be able to come himself, but early this morning he was taken rather ill. So I came in his place."
"Did you give him more opium?" cried the girl accusingly. Scudder's brows lifted.
"No, I mean that he was really ill, Miss Lee. For the past two days he has not touched the drug, and his system is not yet inured to the deprivation. What's this, Murray—sunstroke? I hope you'll let me do anything in my power——"
"Thanks," said Murray quietly. Instinct told him that the words of Scudder were a tissue of lies, yet he knew that he was in need of the man's skill. "I'd like to have a talk with you all alone. Miss Lee, would you have any objection to leaving me and Doctor Scudder in private for a few moments?"
"Ah!" said Scudder suavely. "I was about to make the same request!" He smiled thinly. "And I have a very good excuse, Miss Lee. The contractor arrived yesterday to come out here with your father; but as their trip has been temporarily delayed, your father asked if you would take some pictures of the ground just back and above the place he had selected as a building site. It has something to do, I believe, with the building of a tank or a reservoir for water from the spring. You'll find the camera in the rear of the car."
"Very well," said Claire, with a nod-of her head.
She departed down the hillside, and Scudder gazed reflectively after her, watching her lift the camera from his car, and then start toward the wall of manzanita that cloaked the upper end of the valley. Murray's voice caused him to turn.
"Well, Scudder, we'd better have a showdown," said Murray calmly, gazing up at the man. "The sheriff was out here, as you know, and told about finding dope in my belongings. What made you plant the dope there? That was a silly way to try and discredit me in the eyes of Tom Lee."
Scudder looked down at him and smiled. There was nothing mirthful in the smile, however. It was a cold, hard, deadly smile, like the fixed and drawn-back lips of a snake waiting to strike.
"You guessed right, Murray," he said unexpectedly. "It was a rather futile thing, and I've found a much better way. I don't mind telling you that I gave Tom Lee enough opium last night to keep him doped for a week, so there'll be no interference."
Murray swore. "You damned whelp!" he said, trying to raise himself, but vainly. "If——"
Scudder leaned forward and shoved him back in his place, with a chuckle.
"No more fisticuffs, eh?" he sneered. "Not in condition just now, are you? Well, I'll have you fixed up in no time! Morphia victim, weren't you? Well, I'll pump morphia into you for about three weeks—and turn you loose. That'll take care of you, I guess."
From his pocket, Scudder took a hypodermic case, and a bottle of tablets. He filled the tiny thimble-cup with water from the spring, dropped a tablet into it, unfolded the inch-square metal stand, and set the cup in place. Then he put the stand down, struck a match, and held it beneath the cup.
"Handy affair, this!" he observed.
Murray watched him in horror which changed from incredulity to realization that the man intended his words literally. Knowing that Murray had been a morphia victim, he was now deliberately taking advantage of his helplessness to inject the drug again—and with Murray in his charge, he could put him hopelessly under the spell of the drug once more!
"Good God, man!" cried Murray, getting up on one elbow. "You can't mean——"
Scudder put out a foot and shoved him back again.
"Lie put, will you?" he chuckled. "Wait till I get this syringe filled, and by the time Claire comes back, you'll be past speech! And you won't speak to her again until I'm ready to let you."
While he spoke, Scudder filled the syringe, and adjusted a needle. Then, the syringe in his hand, he came and stood over Murray.
"Struggling won't do you any good," he said, and bent down.
Murray struck at him—struck weakly and vainly. Scudder seized his right wrist and drew it down—put it under his foot and held it there. Then he seized Murray's left arm, gripped the wrist, and drew it up to meet the syringe.
"Now for happyland!" he said. "One slight prick——"
He paused suddenly—paused and jerked himself upright, a flood of color sweeping into his pale features as his head came up. From the clumps of manzanita twenty feet away, had come a voice.
"Hold on, Scudder!"
And from that covert of twisting, grotesque, blood-red manzanita trees, stepped Tom Lee. Murray felt something of the fright that had seized upon Scudder, for the presence of Tom Lee seemed nothing short of an apparition.
"I waited for this, Scudder!" rang out the voice of the yellow man, his eyes fastened upon the horrified gaze of Scudder. "When you gave me all that dope last night, I guessed that you were coming here; I discovered that you had planted the stuff in Doctor Murray's suitcase, I had begun to penetrate your wiles and deviltry! Now it's ended."
Tom Lee came forward. Before him, Scudder shrank. The syringe dropped from his nerveless fingers; he stepped back from the figure of Murray, retreated from the advancing form of Tom Lee in visible terror and consternation.
"You devil!" cried the oriental, a deep and surging passion filling his voice. "I came here last night in Hennesy's car—I've been waiting for you! I heard all your lies, heard all your plotted deviltry. You thought you'd dispose of Murray and have Claire in your power, didn't you?"
There was reason for the sheer terror that filled Scudder. The face of the advancing man had changed into a frightful mask; it had changed and altered into the face of the great stone Buddha that watches over the Yungmen caves—it had become a purely Asian face, filled with terrible and deadly things, unguessed menaces.
Murray painfully got to one elbow again and watched. The others were oblivious of him; all their attention was fastened upon each other. Still Scudder retreated, and still Tom Lee advanced upon him, weaponless, yet in his advance a potent and fearful threat. Before that threat, Scudder still retreated, his face ghastly.
"Damn you!" he cried, his voice shrill. "What d'ye mean by all this——?"
"You can't get away from me," said Tom Lee impassively. "I'm going to have a reckoning with you."
"No, but I can stop your game!" retorted Scudder with an oath. The mask was gone now, and he cursed luridly. "You can't run any damned Chinese bluff on me——"
With the words, he plucked a revolver from his pocket and fired.
The shot echoed and reëchoed in the cañon. Tom Lee did not move. Scudder glared up at him and made as if to lift the weapon again, then he hurled it from him with another curse, and kicked at something on the sand at his feet. A shrill scream broke from him. Something fell away from his kick—an incoherent, feeble object that slipped to the sand and blended there, shapeless and invisible; a stark-blind thing, a living volute of death and venom—a rattler, that had struck blind, but that had struck home!
With that scream still on his lips, Scudder whirled about and began to run. He fled, as though after him pursued some invisible and awful thing. He ran blindly down the valley as though in search of something, desperate in his extremity; he passed the automobile in which he had come, running, stumbling through the soft sand. And so out of sight around the twist in the cañon.
"Let him go! It is finished."
The words came from Tom Lee. He turned to Murray, smiling, and the smile seemed fastened in his face. He lifted his arm, and looked at the hand, curiously. A cry broke from Murray, for the hand was streaming with a scarlet fluid.
Abruptly, Tom Lee pitched forward and lay in a heap, just as Claire, called by the shot, appeared.