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CHAPTER VIII

BILL'S BARGAIN

IT took less than five minutes for the deputy sheriff to mount his men; he himself had the pick of the corral, a dusty roan, and, as he drew the cinch taut, he turned to find Charles Merchant at his side.

"Bill," said the young fellow, "what sort of a man is this Lanning?"

"He's been a covered card, partner," said Bill Dozier. Not since Charles Merchant went away to school had he been able to remember the first name of Dozier, and Bill Dozier's lips were twitching behind his faded mustache. "He's been a covered card that seemed pretty good. Now he's in the game, and he looks like the rest of the Lannings—a good lump of daring and defiance. Why d'you ask?"

"Are you keen to get him, Bill?" continued Charlie Merchant eagerly.

"I could stand it. Again, why?"

"You'd like a little gun play with that fellow?"

"I wouldn't complain none."

"Ah? One more thing. Could you use a bit of ready cash?"

"I ain't pressed," said Bill Dozier, working away behind the eyes of the younger man with his own, ferret glance. "On the other hand, I ain't of a savin' nature."

Then he added: "Get it out, Charlie. I think I follow your drift. And you can go as far as you like." He put out his jaw in an ugly way as he said it.

"It would be worth a lot to me to have this cur done for, Bill. You understand?"

"My time's short. Talk terms, Charlie."

"A thousand."

"The price of a fair hoss."

"Two thousand, old man."

"Hoss and trimmin's."

"Three thousand."

"Charlie, you seem to forget that we're talkin' about a man and a gun."

"Bill, it's worth five thousand to me."

"That's turkey. Let me have your hand."

They shook hands.

"And if you kill the horses," said Charles Merchant, "you won't hurt my feelings. But get him!"

"I've got nothing much on him," said Bill Dozier, "but some fools resist arrest."

He smiled in a manner that made the other shudder. And a moment later the deputy led his men out on the trail.

They were a weary lot by this time, but they had beneath the belt several shots of the Merchant whisky which Charles had distributed. And they had that still greater stimulus—fresh horses running smooth and strong beneath them. Another thing had changed. They saw their leader, Bill Dozier, working at his revolver and his rifle as he rode, looking to the charges, trying the pressure of the triggers, getting the balance of the weapons with a peculiar anxiety, and they knew, without a word being spoken, that there was small chance of that trail ending at anything short of a red mark in the dust.

It made some of them shrug their shoulders, but here again it was proved that Bill Dozier knew the men of Martindale, and had picked his posse well. They were the common, hard-working variety of cow-puncher, and presently the word went among them from the man riding nearest to Bill that if young Lanning were taken it would be worth a hundred dollars to each of them. Two months' pay for two days' work. That was fair enough. They also began to look to their guns. It was not that a single one of them could have been bought for a man-killing at that or any other price, perhaps, but this was simply a bonus to carry them along toward what they considered an honest duty.

Nevertheless, it was a different crew that rode over the hills away from the Merchant place. There was even something different in their riding. They had begun for the sake of the excitement. Now they were working carefully, riding with less abandon, jockeying their horses, for each man was laboring to be in on the kill.

They had against them a good horse and a stanch horseman. Never had the pinto dodged his share of honest running, and this day was no exception. He gave himself whole-heartedly to his task, and he stretched the legs of the ponies behind him. Yet he had a great handicap. He was tough, but the ranch horses of John Merchant were of the Morgan breed, vicious, a good many of them, but solid and wiry and fast enough for any purpose—such as clinging to a long trail over hill and valley.

Above all, they came out from a night of rest. Their lungs were clean of dust. Their legs were full of running. And the pinto, for all his courage, could not meet that handicap and beat it. That truth slowly sank in upon the mind of the fugitive as he put the game little cattle pony into his best stride. He tried pinto in the level going. He tried him in the rough. And in both conditions the posse gained slowly and steadily, until it became apparent to Andrew Lanning that the deputy held him in the hollow of his hand, and in half an hour of stiff galloping could run his quarry into the ground whenever he chose.

Andy turned in the saddle and grinned back at the followers. He could distinguish Bill Dozier most distinctly. The broad brim of Bill's hat was blown up stiffly. And the sun glinted now and again on those melancholy mustaches of his. Andy was puzzled. Bill had horses which could outrun the fugitive, and why did he not use them

Almost at once Andy received his answer.

The deputy sheriff sent his horse into a hard run, and then brought him suddenly to a standstill. Looking back, Andy saw a rifle pitch to the shoulder of the deputy. It was a flashing line of light which focused suddenly in a single, glinting dot. That instant something hummed evilly beside the ear of Andy. A moment later the report came barking and echoing in his ear with the little metallic ring in it which tells of the shiver of a gun barrel.

That was the beginning of a running fusillade. Technically these were shots fired to warn the fugitive that he was wanted by the law, and to tell him that if he did not halt he would be shot at to be killed. But the deputy did not waste warnings. He began to shoot to kill. And so did the rest of the posse. They saw the deputy's plan at once, and then grinned at it. If they rode down in a mob the boy would no doubt surrender. But if they goaded him in this manner from a distance he would probably attempt to return the fire. And if he fired one shot in reply, unwritten law and strong public opinion would be on the side of Bill Dozier in killing this criminal without quarter. In a word, the whisky and the little promise of money were each taking effect on the posse.

They spurted ahead in pairs, halted, and delivered their fire; then the next pair spurted ahead and fired. Every moment or so two bullets winged through the air near and nearer Andy. It was really a wonder that he was not cleanly drilled by a bullet long before that fusillade had continued for ten minutes. But it is no easy thing to hit a man on a galloping horse when one sits on the back of another horse, and that horse heaving from a hard run. Moreover, Andy watched, and when the pairs halted he made the pinto weave.

At the first bullet he felt his heart come into his throat. At the second he merely raised his head. At the next he smiled, and thereafter he greeted each volley with a yell and with a wave of his hat. It was like dancing, but greater fun. The cold, still terror was in his heart every moment, but yet he felt like laughing, and when the posse heard him their own hearts went cold.

It disturbed their aim. They began to snarl at each other, and they also pressed their horses close and closer before they even attempted to fire.

And the result was that Andy, waving his hat, felt it twitched sharply in his hand, and then he saw a neat little hole clipped out of the very edge of the brim. It was a pretty trick to see, until Andy remembered that the thing which had nicked that hole would also cut its way through him, body and bone. He leaned over the saddle and spurred the pinto into his racing gait.

"I nicked him!" yelled the deputy. "Come on, boys! Close in!"

But within five minutes of racing, Andy drew pinto to a sudden halt and raised his rifle. The posse laughed. They had been shooting for some time, and always for a distance even less than Andy's; yet not one of their bullets had gone home. So they waved their hats recklessly and continued to ride to be in at the death. And every one knew that the end of the trail was not far off when the fugitive had once begun to turn at bay.

Andy knew it as well as the rest, and his hand shook like a nervous girl's, while the rifle barrel tilted up and up, the blue barrel shimmering wickedly. In a frenzy of eagerness he tried to line up the sights. It was vain. The circle through which he squinted wabbled crazily. He saw two of the pursuers spurt ahead, take their posts, raise their rifles for a fire which would at least disturb his. For the first time they had a stationary target.

And then, by chance, the circle of Andy's sight embraced the body of a horseman. Instantly the left arm, stretching out to support his rifle, became a rock; the forefinger of his right hand was as steady as the trigger it pressed. It was like shooting at a target. He found himself breathing easily.

It was very strange. Find a man with his sights? He could follow his target as though a magnetic power attracted his rifle. The weapon seemed to have a volition of its own. It drifted along with the canter of Bill Dozier. With incredible precision the little finger of iron inside the circle dwelt in turn on the hat of Bill Dozier, on his sandy mustaches, on his fluttering shirt. And Andy knew that he had the life of a man under the command of his forefinger.

And why not? He had killed one. Why not a hundred?

The punishment would be no greater. And to tempt him there was this new mystery, this knowledge that he could not miss. It had been vaguely present in his mind when he faced the crowd at Martindale, he remembered now. And the same merciless coldness had been in his hand when he pressed his gun into the throat of Charles Merchant.

He turned his eyes and looked down the guns of the two men who had halted. Then, hardly looking at his target, he snapped his rifle back to his shoulder and fired. He saw Bill Dozier throw up his hands, saw his head rock stupidly back and forth, and then the long figure toppled to one side. One of the posse rushed alongside to catch his leader, but he missed, and Bill, slumping to the ground, was trampled underfoot.