Rods of the Law
Rods of the Law
FIVE riders in the dark came to the fork where the road from Kay Ess home ranch serpentines down through the bad lands to join the main-traveled thoroughfare. Two horsemen waited at the fork—rigid silhouettes in the starlight. Upon the approach of the five from the north these two moved their horses out to the middle of the road, but remained silent, awaiting a hail.
"Kay Ess reps?" came the query.
"One of you Ole Man Plummer?" He who was spokesman for the five pressed his pony close to the Kay Ess representatives to peer under their shadowing hat-brims; they hastily backed away from too close scrutiny.
"No call for to get too much acquainted," protested one. "Ole Joe Plummer, he's taken his ante out o' this jackpot, so we come independent."
"Hell's blazes! What's ole Joe backed up for?" The voice in the dark was suddenly roughened. "You, Pete; loft your rope over that telephone-wire and drag it down."
A horseman detached himself from the group and moved over to the side of the road, where a crooked twelve-foot pole supported an invisible wire. The Kay Ess recruit protested:
"You're not scared of ole Joe's blabbing? What you want to cut him off from town for?"
"Shut up! Bring down that wire." A thin filament of shadow shot up against the star carpet, then dropped. The figure beneath gathered the double strands of his rope, gave them a turn about his saddle-horn, and spurred his horse. Down came the wire.
"Now," commanded the leader, "you two Kay-Esses fall in behind if you're so cooney 'bout being known. A good hour of hard riding and we're there."
Seven riders turned off the main road to the unfenced east. They put their tough cow-ponies to that long, velvety gallop which the saddle beast of the West knows how to sustain over an unbelievable number of miles. Smash through the night! No road, no sign-post nor landmark except that distant black line where stars stopped and the heavier black began—the crest of the Little Medicine range. The night was vacant as ocean; not a tree to stand alone against the stars; scrub sage-brush so low that it as formless. Under hoofs the invisible land billowed and rolled interminably.
Not more than a dozen words to a mile passed between the riders. Seven men galloping through the night, with rifles slung to their saddles, do not talk. Not in this High Country, where the law lags so slowly to adjudicate bitter conflicts of interests, and where the bullet travels so swiftly.
Finally they topped a rise and, far away, two red sparks burned dimly, a distance apart. The divide upon which the horsemen reined in was the westward wall of the valley of the Poison Spider—a broad gouge through the High Country which follows the contour of the mountains down and away to Frenchman's Pass, where the Poison Spider breaks through a low barrier and goes out to lose itself in the desert. By the law of the cattlemen all the range lying west of the Poison Spider is theirs; that narrow strip of up-tilted country between the river and the crest of the Little Medicine range is sheep country—a rough terrain of foothill, gorge, and piny woods. Not that this arbitrary fixing of a dead-line against the sheep had come about through the complaisance of the sheep-owners. Many had been the bloody incursions and brutal reprisals before the sheepmen yielded to numbers and the prejudice of the High Country and drove their bands eastward across the Poison Spider, admitting this the dead-line.
The two red sparks visible this night from the Poison Spider divide lay on the westward bank of the dividing river—in the cattle country. They marked violation of the stock domain, defiance of the cattlemen's law.
"That upper fire is Joe Duboise's home camp," the leader of the night-riders explained to the others clustered around him. "Him and his pardner, Frenchy Pierre, hang out there. Two miles below is the second camp, with only two herders—one a kid—and one outfit wagon. After we get down into the valley you two reps from Kay Ess cut across and lie low near that lower wagon. Don't start nothing till you hear the circus begin up to the home camp. Then go to it. Some of us 'll ride down and help out just so soon 's we've finished our business with Duboise and Frenchy."
Down into the velvet black of the valley rode the seven, there to separate—five bearing straight ahead, and two wheeling to the south. The vagrant night winds from the mountains brought to their nostrils a faint odor of massed life—acrid, disgusting. Now and again a stronger puff carried a thin, murmurous plaint.
A gray streak appeared over the far rim of the mountains, widened, climbed up to snuff the nearest stars. Dawn brooded somewhere behind that long rampart. In the gray light the high canvas sides of a sheep-wagon loomed ghostly—miniature house of drill set flush with the sides of a broad wagon-bed; short flight of steps before, and out of the rear wall an elbowed smoke-pipe. Before the wagon a camp-fire crumbled into ash.
A challenging bark from between the wagon-wheels as the shadowy forms of five horsemen emerged from the near edge of the dark. Again the dog barked. A horseman lowered his rifle and fired. A yelp, a shuddering wail, and the passing of the dog was drowned in rifle shots.
They fired through the canvas sides of the sheep-wagon, a few feet above the wagon-bed and where the bunks should be. One clattering volley; then the door above the short rank of steps opened, and the figure of a man was faintly outlined there. He made some gesture with his hands known the world over as a hail for aid in extremity.
"This is a hell of a time of night for you to come out with your hands above your head," bawled one of the killers; and he drove a bullet at close range through Joe Duboise's skull. The sheepman fell back into the black tomb of the wagon. Frenchy Pierre, his partner, was shot where he lay in his bunk; he never showed himself. When the murders were accomplished the leader of the slayers signaled three to lay hold with him on the wagon-tongue, and they dragged the wheeled house over the embers of the camp-fire. Then from a near-by pile of chopped sage-wood they took fuel. Soon a great red smear stained the white sky of dawn. By its light the night-riders turned from slaughtering men to the slaughter of sheep. They rode into the bedded band, shooting right and left. Over the bounding backs of the stampeded creatures rifle flashes whipped like livid cords. The sheep fell, were piled up in a hodge-podge of carnage.
Off to the south a second flare bleared the eye of morning. The two representatives from Kay Ess were doing their work there.
Two horsemen, detached from the larger body to ride down and see that the work of destruction done at the lower camp was complete, met the Kay Ess riders, with two figures afoot and trussed by lariats trotting between their horses.
"Ah, m'sieurs—m'sieurs—pitié!" came the wail from one of them.
"What's the idea, trotting in these mavericks on the hoof?" a scout from the destroyed home camp demanded of the Kay Ess men. The taller of the two sheep-herders hurried to the side of the speaker's horse, whimpering, moaning, trying to kiss the rider's hand.
"We didn't reckon to go the limit," one of the Kay Ess men grumbled, defensively. "We come over here to move sheep, not to kill off herders."
"Take your ropes off'n them two," was the command. The Kay Ess horsemen leaned from their saddles to loosen the bonds.
"Now, you two French mutton-eaters, let's see how you can run."
"Name of God, m'sieur!"
"Run, damn you!"
They ran, the old man and the boy—ran waveringly and in horrid anticipation of the end cruelly delayed. Perhaps they had covered fifteen yards, and their figures were blending with shadows, when a sharp click sounded behind them.
"The devil! Chamber's empty! Here, give me your gun." The speaker snatched a rifle from the hands of one of the Kay Ess riders, swung it to his shoulder and fired—once, twice. Both dim figures pitched into the sage.
Dawn flushed stronger. Gray light changed to white. Day came to the wilderness of the High Country. In that wilderness not a stir, not the movement of the least inconsiderable thing. Only two columns of smoke mounting straight up like thin, gray arrows set on end.
Original Bill, sheriff of Broken Horn, sat in the deserted smoker of Number Four, thundering westward through the night. His chin was on his chest to invite a snatch of sleep, which refused to come. Under the shadow of his broad hat-brim his face showed a deep tan burned into the skin by the sun and frost of years on the range. A face to look at twice was Original Bill's—broad between rounded cheek-bones; jaw a bit salient and heavy about the cleft chin; a drooping black mustache like a brand against the saddle brown; and eyes—well, Original Bill's eyes were peculiar. Most times they were sleepy-slow in glance, and had a way of resting on you as if you were of no more account than a white-faced steer in a hundred-mile landscape. Slow to kindle but deadly quick in anger; men knew this about the eyes of Sheriff Bill.
Sleep would not come to them this night because of that telegram which had leaped over the mountains to Lodge Grass to summon him back to duty—the report of Prosecutor Johnson of Broken Horn, his co-official, upon the murders on Poison Spider. More lay behind those blue lines of type on a yellow form than just a summons back to duty—more for Original Bill Blunt, born to the cattle clan and chevalier in that order of frontier feudalism which once divided an untracked empire into the fiefs and shires of range-grounds. Free gift of the cattlemen, his fellows, had been his elevation to the shrievalty of Broken Horn, when by legislative enactment of a year before these last hundreds of square miles in No-man's Land had been made a county, with its law machinery come to supplant the uncoded law of the range. These friends of the old Plummer Trail, round-up, and beef drive—men who had grown saddle-wise with him, slept with him at the tail of many an outfit-wagon, whooped through town with him on a rollicking holiday; these friends had elected him the law's defender. Then, the first time he had left the county—when his back was turned—they had done murder—with deliberation and in cold blood. Original venerated Law as he venerated Omnipotence. Service to the Law he construed as service to Deity; it was his best, his loftiest endeavor.
The white eye of the big locomotive picked out of the wide dark a spindling water-tank and section-house crouching at its foot. A single hoot of the whistle, and the long string of battened lights that was the west-bound train slowed to the shrilling of brakes. From the steps of the smoker leaped Original, saddle under arm. Then a lantern waved and the express plowed on into the wilderness. One hundred and sixty miles away in the vague north two black smudges soiled the face of the High Country—monuments of violence which that High Country approved as fitting mementos of cattlemen's justice.
Original's plan was perfected. He had selected Lost Soldiers' tank for his detraining instead of riding on to Felix, the stage point, because he wished no tattling wire to herald his coming; moreover, Peter Tisdale was running a string of horses handy to Lost Soldiers', and Original counted on securing a mount for the first jump into the back country. He was not disappointed. One of Tisdale's remuda, willingly loaned, was under saddle in less than an hour after the train rumbled to a vanishing-point. Off went the rider into the wide oblivion beyond the two threads of steel. The north star, kept steadily over the tip of his pony's left ear, was Original's guide; he needed no other, even had others not been lacking.
He had been ten hours in the saddle and had ridden his fifth horse to exhaustion when the wide country road swooped down a little alkali hill to become Mammoth's Main Street. Just a long façade of false fronts stretching from the First Chance, alkali thirst-cutter, nearly half a mile up to the new court-house and jail dominating all from the top of a little rise. Its population might be twelve hundred—retired cattlemen, storekeepers, gamblers, and, lowest in the social scale, vagrant sheep-herders and dry-farmers grubbing on the town's charity. Life in Mammoth was ebullient, fraught with interesting surprises and unpremeditated climaxes.
There was nothing evasive about the sheriff's coming to Mammoth. He pulled his fagged pony to a walk where the stores began to rank themselves; his saddle seat was easy to a shade of slovenliness; he rolled and lit a cigarette. One would have said he'd just run down to Clear Creek to look at a burnt brand. Up went his hand in a lazy wave to answer greetings from the wooden side-walk to right and left; his slow smile was everybody's to possess. But idlers jumping quickly out through saloon doors at the shrilled word of report, storekeepers bustling to the curb on flimsy pretext, riders turning in their saddles to stare behind them—none of these was deceived by the sheriff's studied nonchalance.
Original Bill was back in Mammoth! Original Bill had ridden like hell to get back! Was he—? Did that mean—? Mammoth was dry-mouthed with the question it burned to ask.
Bear George asked it bluntly, without palaver. He faced his horse directly in Original's path, and the sidewalk crowd paused in its shuffling to give attentive ear.
"Com esta, Original?" the whiskered lips bellowed for all to hear. "You been burning the ground to get back to Mammoth, heh?"
"Been pushing along—just pushing along," the sheriff answered, with his warming smile.
"What's the big idea? Going to look into a little matter of moving sheep?" Bear George, the loud-mouthed, put into words the whole town's challenge. His eyes shrewdly wrinkled as he waited the answer.
"I'm sort of figgering on doing that," Original replied in a drawl.
"Cor'ner's jury says 'at the hands of persons unknown'; that verdick is mighty satisfying to Mammoth." Bear George launched this with a grin that was not altogether humorous. He waited for comment from the sheriff.
"All the boys hereabouts reckon this verdick's going to be popular with you, too, Original. How 'bout it? Yes or no? Spit it out an' clear the atmosphere."
The sidewalk loafers and men on horseback had frankly thrown aside pretense of polite eavesdropping and were now crowded close about the two. Original let his eye wander over eager, upturned faces of men he knew; he read in those faces all that lay behind Bear George's rough-shod interrogation.
"I heard tell once, George," he began, in a silky voice, "of a horse-fly what rode to the top of a hill on a bull's horn, and then thanked him for the ride. But I don't undertake to say any bull of my acquaintance is going to the top of the hill to-day."
Original nosed his horse through the crowd and continued on up Main Street to the new court-house.
Quintus K. Johnson, county prosecutor, bounded from his chair when Original entered his office, and pumped his hand effusively.
"Good Lord, Sheriff, back already! Devil of a mess! Glad to see you—good Lord, yes! Have a seat—have a seat. Must be tuckered out! Yes, yes; merry hell to pay!" The prosecutor was crackling like a string of squibs. Such was his nature. He was a little fox-terrier of a man, nervous, snappy, given to barking up every tree and eager to cover with much noise a secret lack of self-assurance.
"How's things stand?" Original queried in a flat voice.
"Couldn't be worse. Whole country's looking for a lay-down on our part; ready, by the Lord, to fight us if we make a move. No evidence. Usual coroner's jury verdict. Only possible to prove corpus delicti by bodies of the old man and kid found between upper and lower camps—others burned."
"How about cartridge-shells—any picked up around the scene of the shooting?"
"Any? Why, man, the coroner and I gathered up a bushel-basket full at both camps and two near where the old man and kid were shot. But what—?"
"Let's see them," Original suggested.
Johnson scurried to a closet and brought out a chip basket, brimming to the edge with rifle-shells, more than a hundred of them. Two, bound together with a string, lay on top of the heap. Original seated himself at Johnson's desk and began a painstaking examination of one after another of the smoke-smudged brass tubes. As he lifted each from the basket he turned it butt-up to look at the indented cap, rolled it over in his hand to bring its dull yellow cylinder under his gaze, then set it precisely in a row on the desk before him. The prosecutor, fidgeting behind the sheriff's shoulder, noted that the cartridges were being arranged in ranks according to caliber, also that the two bound together with string—the two which had dealt death to the old sheep-herder and the youth—were stood aside. Now another, after the closest inspection, was ranged alongside the two so distinguished; after a long time a third took its place in this separate group.
The prosecutor, irked by Original's concentration on this child's play, a little resentful that he should not be taken into confidence on its purpose, left his office. When Johnson returned at seven o'clock, he found it untenanted. The ranks of upstanding brass tubes still bristled across his desk—all but the two that had been bound together with string and those nine others that had been set apart with them. They were gone.
The third dawn to burn the crest of the Little Medicine range since the murders on Poison Spider limned the figure of a man on horseback, alone in the waste which was fouled by the ashes of the sheep-wagons. There was a halt in the bronco's trot; the rider's head was sagging forward under the weight of great exhaustion. Original Bill—for it was he—had ridden the thirty-five miles from Mammoth to this sage-brush desert in the night. With purpose he had refrained from asking the prosecutor details of the shooting, preferring to gain his knowledge at first hand from witnesses more reliable than Quintus K. Johnson. He awaited the daylight to take their testimony.
When the sun rose to mark each ant-track in the alkali patches. Original began. First he rode through the festering windrows of slain sheep to inspect the two black mounds of cinders and wagon-tires; one had been pawed over by the coroner in his discharge of loathsome duty. But this was perfunctory; their story was told already. The real taking of testimony commenced when he dismounted at the blackened circles and began to follow on foot the faint prints of hoofs leading from one scene of slaughter to the other. There were many of them, to be sure; had not the coroner and his jury blundered back and forth over the ground, blotting precious records? And the winds of two days had done their share of erasures. But enough remained—enough to carry a tale to an understanding eye. The silent witnesses yielded their testimony. Here was the place where the old Frenchman and the boy had dropped; the ants were still busy there. Now was the gatherer of evidence down on his knees, shading with his hat-brim something in the sand while he studied—studied. Now he was in the saddle again, and making a wide circle through the scrub. He picked up a trail, followed it for a mile until it joined another trail—the trail of five added to by the trail of two. Here, at the point of union. Original again dropped to his knees and bent his head close to the ground.
It was noon when the trail of seven brought him back to the highway, where the road from Kay Ess home ranch serpentines down through the bad lands to join the main-traveled thoroughfare flinging south from Mammoth. Noon, and the testimony of the sage-brush desert was all in.
Kay Ess home ranch, old Joe Plummer's place, squatted in a low valley of soft winds and watered grasses, with a rampart of bald hills on three sides shutting it away from the immensity of the High Country round about. Long, low ranch-house, sod-roofed and 'dobe-walled; spreading corral of poplar poles; lean-to sheds cut out of the overhanging bank of a coulee; the place had the casual air of having been thrown together in a night. Yet from Kay Ess home ranch three outfit-wagons, with their crews of punchers, went out to the unfenced range stretching over many quarter-sections of wilderness, and the spring and fall round-ups proved old Joe Plummer's station among the barons of Broken Horn. He was of the passing order—one still able to disdain the fetters of wire fence and haycocks.
When Original rode up to an empty door-yard he heard melodeon music and the voice of a girl, singing; the song was "Juanita," tremulously sentimental. It was sweet and a little disconcerting, coming thus from a house seemingly deserted. He dismounted, walked to the open door, and there listened, hesitant. When a verse was finished, he knocked. An organ chord was broken, there was a light step within, and the singer appeared in the shaft of sunlight between door-posts. Of the substance of sunlight was she—golden and vivid. Gold the tints of her hair playing free from her brows and gathered in a loose braid that fell over a shoulder; the silk waist, open a little at the throat, was the mellow color of wheat stalks, and the reflection it cast upon smooth chin and cheek was warm as sunshine. Russet khaki below a rattlesnake belt gave still another variant of the sun-glow tone. Her eyes were brown almost to blackness under heavy brows of a matching color; these and the broad mouth, a little boyish, made the element of contrast which lifted the girl's features above the plane of nerveless beauty that is often blond.
Original was startled. This must be Kittie Plummer—little Kit, "the Tumbleweed," as everybody used to call her.
"No, I don't bite, Mr. Blunt," she mocked, making him an exaggerated bow. "Not Dad's old pals, at least. And if you don't stop staring that way at me I'll think I'm turned citified for fair, which would not be nice. Won't you let me rustle together something for you to eat? You look sort of tuckered."
"I—I heard you were back from that Spearfish school," Original stumbled. "But of course I didn't know five years—would—"
"Which shows you don't know girls, Bill Blunt," she shot back at him with a boldness easily forgetting the years that had transformed a tumbleweed into Miss Kittie Plummer. Then, in afterthought: "Dad's over at Dry Creek with the boys, digging out a water-hole for the fattening herd he's ranging there; probably won't be back until some time around sundown. Just lope your horse down to the corral-shed and you'll find a feed of oats there. And do you like doughnuts? Good! I learned to make them at Spearfish—English composition, china-painting, and doughnuts."
The sheriff of Broken Horn was far from being at his ease when he sat down to cold beef, cheese, and academy-pattern doughnuts. Pleasure he had not anticipated—far from it; indeed, the testimony of the plain where murder lay cold had drawn him unwilling and in growing fear to this home of old Joe Plummer—old Joe, once his range boss and the man whose loan of five hundred dollars had been the beginning of his own fortunes as an independent owner of cattle. Now that he found Plummer away and none here but this surprising girl just back from boarding-school, Original felt a poignant sense of the gravity of his mission. Also it seemed to him that he was somehow a sneak, sitting here and listening to the sprightly patter of Kit Plummer, when he must do that which called to be done. Yet he could not resist the spell of her unstudied sorcery. His mind leaped back to an afternoon—he was twenty-five then and she a hoiden of fourteen—when he had ridden over that same road, and little Kit Plummer, with a broken ankle, was huddled in his arms. She had whispered then that he, Bill Blunt, was her sweetest sweetheart, and some day, if he would wait, she would marry him because he was so good to her. Her sweetest sweetheart Kit babbled on delightfully. No hint of his mission to Kay Ess was guessed. She accepted Original's coming as of the old time, when he'd cover thirty miles just to smoke tobacco with her father, and talk cattle. While she chattered, Original's eyes secretly roved the long room. They fell upon three rifles standing in a corner under pegged cartridge-belts. Thereafter these three octagon tubes of dull steel fascinated him; he could not keep his eyes long off them; his answers to Kit's questions became monosyllabic. At any time now Plummet and his men might return; then to do what he must would be harder. Original dragged his mind for some reasonable stratagem, but none suggested itself. It was Kit herself who prompted opportunity.
"Here I'm sitting gabbling," she interrupted herself, suddenly, "and forgetting all about Timberline's hot biscuits. Timberline, he's the cook for Number Three wagon, you know; he's cooking for the ranch now, and if he don't have a hot fire for his biscuits when he gets back, why—" She left the penalty of dereliction to be guessed as she scurried through a door into the lean-to cook-house to bang stove-lids about. The instant she was gone Original had stepped to the corner where the rifles stood. He gathered all three in his hands and hurried to the open door. A swift thrust of the ejector in each opened the shell chamber and showed him a glint of brass there. All were loaded. He raised a rifle to his shoulder and fired out against the wide horizon. Quick as his hands could move to transfer he discharged the second and the third piece.
"Bill!" The girl's sharp exclamation at his elbow was almost a scream. "What—?"
"Just a coyote," he mumbled, averting his eyes. "A coyote over beyond the corral." He pumped back the ejector of the rifle in his hands and deftly caught the empty cartridge as it shot out of the chamber. He set the weapon down and reached for the second.
"A coyote? But—but why bang at him with all three guns when—"
"Just trying them out for sure sights." He strove to put a ring of verity into his answer, but his voice was flat. Again he swung back a lever; a third time, and his hand slipped three exploded cartridges into a coat pocket. The rifle he was still holding was snatched from his grasp. All at once he found himself looking down into eyes that flickered wrath and nascent suspicion.
"Original"—she never had called him by his range name, deeming it somehow failing in dignity; now the word came with a sting—"Original, why are you saving those cartridges? Quick—answer me!
All pretense of dissembling dropped away from the man under the scorching of her eyes. Resentment, as at the meddling of a child in men's affairs, seized him.
"That's my business, Kit," he said, shortly, and he reached for the other two rifles to restore them to their place beneath the cartridge-belts.
"Drop them!" Her command was sharp as the crack of a shingle in frost. He looked up, startled, to see her face all drained of color, her lips drawn back from even teeth in a spasm of excitement. There was a click, and he was conscious that one of her hands had moved to whip a loaded cartridge from magazine to chamber. Out of the tail of his eye he saw a black rifle-barrel rising to cover him. All this in a bewildering second of time.
"I forgot you were the sheriff, Mr. Blunt." Her voice came cold and edged as broken ice film. "Forgot you'd be likely to come sneaking into the home of an old friend to sniff around like a bear dog on a trail. Oh, don't try to explain! I know about the sheep moving; who hasn't heard it? What I don't know is why you want those three cartridge-shells. For no good; that much I guess. So you sha'n't have them. Hand them over."
"Look a' here. Kit, you don't know what you're talking about!" Original stood with hands stretched in awkward appeal. "This is no little girl's business; this—"
"Hand them over!" The octagon snout was now raised to the level of his chest; it was not two feet from the buttons on his jacket. A cheek laid itself along the rifle's stock. Full lips were tightened to an ominous red line. Original saw a finger crook itself over the trigger.
Hoofbeats sounded in the yard beyond the open door. The girl's eyes wavered, her head turned ever so slightly. That instant Original leaped. The rifle-barrel, knocked upward, jetted fire past his ear. Through the smoke-filled doorway plunged old Joe Plummer, arms outstretched. Horsemen behind him flung themselves from their saddles and crowded in after.
Plummer found his daughter in his arms, sobbing convulsively in reaction from the instant's strain. Beyond her, Original, in his hands a rifle whose muzzle still vented thin haze. Plummer's eyes widened; his mouth moved to question, though his voice was lost.
"Kit, here, was just a leetle bit careless," Original explained, evenly, and he was smiling. "She sort of hit the trigger and—and—"
"Don't le-let him get away!" the girl gasped. "He—he's got something—"
The five cow-punchers who had crowded through the door behind Plummer eddied toward Original, scowling. He shook his head, still smiling, and gave a significant hitch to the rifle-barrel.
"Joe," he called over the scuffling of their boots, "might I have your ear private like? It's some important, you might say, and I reckon you and me can straighten it out better alone."
Plummer looked down doubtfully at the golden head against his coat, saw it shake a negation. But the smile on the face of the sheriff was not to be denied. Moreover, in a quick flash of intuition he guessed something of what might lie behind this remarkable circumstance of the three shots, which had brought him and his men, homeward bound, racing breakneck over the last quarter-mile, and that fourth almost in his face.
"Just step a piece over to the horse-corral with me, Original," he acquiesced, gently disengaging Kit's arms from about his neck; and to her: "Smooth yourself down, little girl. Everything's all right."
They went out into the red sunset together, the gray old range-badger and the younger man, for whom he had felt affection almost paternal during many years of comradeship in the great wilderness. They stood by the bars of the corral and talked for long. Once during the colloquy Original led over from the door-yard one of the saddle brutes left there, bridle to ground, lifted his left hind leg and pointed out to the elder an unshod hoof worn down almost to the quick. Plummer bent over to examine what a pointing finger touched. Original permitted the horse to lower his foot to the dust, then lifted it again and indicated the hoofprint. It was unevenly indented, and almost in the center of the arc a faint scraping of the dirt showed where the frog of the hoof had left its mark.
"That did it, Joe," the sheriff tersely commented. "That mark, with the skelped inside, was all round where the old Frenchman and the kid were shot—and I followed it up here to Kay Ess. Sorry, Joe. You know I'm sorry." Plummer turned his face away from the wine light in the west. His lips trembled and his eyes were suddenly dimmed.
"Well, Original," he whispered after a long moment, "what are you reckoning on doing?"
The question was a little staggering. Whatever intent the younger man may have had those tense moments of action in the ranch-house had blurred; and now, from old Joe Plummer, foster-father in those days when the waif of the range called Original had so needed a father, this question implied much. His hand stole along the corral rail to find and close over a gnarled hand resting there. His voice was blotted and wavering.
"God knows, Joe—" he began. "God knows I—"
"No call for any excuses. Original. Don't I know what kind of man you are—what you think of duty and the law and such?" The gray head bent lower.
"I can't charge you with nothing, Joe!" Original broke out in revolt against blind force of duty which had pushed him to this strait. "No, not if I saw you do it! But, Joe, you'll have to tell the grand jury—you and all your men here at Kay Ess." Plummer slowly shook his head. "But it's your duty, Joe Plummer," the other urged.
"I can't go for to hang any of my friends out of my mouth," the old man denied. "It's just not in me to do it, Original."
"Joe, don't you see where you're crowding me?" The sheriff shook the other's arm in a gust of pleading. "If you won't go on the witness-stand before the grand jury and be sworn, why—"
"Boy, if you get me under oath I simply got to tell. I can't lie to the A'mighty! But, boy, ain't there some other way? Don't make me—" His voice trailed off in a sigh. For a minute the two stood in the darkling twilight, their souls yearning for mutual support across the chasm of Law. Then Original spoke:
"I'll just rely on you, Joe, to hold all your boys here at Kay Ess and bring them into town when the grand jury sits. I don't want to arrest nobody. All I ask is to let me take your three rifles back with me to-night. I think one of them will figure in evidence. You agree?"
Plummer slowly nodded.
"Then I reckon I'll be going," Original finished.
He walked over to the shed where his horse was stabled, saddled him, and was slipping on the bridle when a step sounded behind him. He turned and saw Kit in the half-light—just the blur of a white face, faintly haloed by pallid gold.
"I'm sorry," she breathed—"sorry I cut up like I did. But you're not going to make any trouble for Dad—not going to mix him up with—with—"
"Kit," he began, coming close to her, "there's lots of things you don't understand, and one of them's the workings of the law."
"Then you are?" She launched the accusation like the swish of a quirt. "You are going to accuse Dad of murder!"
"No. He's just going to help the law find out who's responsible," Original replied. "Your father says he'll—"
"You lie!" the girl whispered between teeth that clicked. "Bill Blunt, you're planning to saddle this murder on Dad. No—no; not a word! I know. You, the boy Dad picked up on the range—the spindlin' outcast kid whom nobody claimed. Joe Plummer shared his blanket and his grub with you. Joe Plummer taught you fear of God, made a man of you, gave you your first stake of fifty head of steers. And now what do you do? Sneak and crawl up here to Kay Ess to put a rope round his neck. Oh, a coyote 'd have more decency!" She finished in a choked gasp.
Original answered nothing. He flung himself into the saddle and tried to edge his horse past the angry girl. She threw up a hand and seized the bridle.
"Just remember this, Bill Blunt," she warned; "you're getting away from Kay Ess scot free to-night. But just begin to weave that rope round Dad's neck and you'll get yourself killed. Yes, if I've got to do it myself. Now you can go!"
The sheriff of Broken Horn rode under the tapestry of stars and through the velvet dark of illimitable space. His saddle-mate was the spirit of Law, exacting, inexorable task-master; and it called to his dead heart the iron philosophy of an eye for an eye.
It was the day of the grand jury's sitting in Mammoth. The town was aflame with excitement. The sheriff had something up his sleeve; four nights there had been no light in his room, his horse had been missing from the Fashion stables. Mammoth had not seen him since that day he came riding in from Lost Soldiers' tank. What did he know? Whom did he suspect? Would Prosecutor Johnson dare to whip the grand jury into finding indictments even if the sheriff produced hanging evidence before that body? These were questions that buzzed from saloon-bar to eating-house.
Overnight Mammoth had filled up with clansmen from the ranges. Out of the High Country over a radius of fifty miles they came—cattle-owners, range foremen, and cow-punchers. They rallied instinctively to the center of threatened attack against their power; to await the law's nomination of victims to pay the price of murder, and then to comfort and give succor to such by their presence. Also, if might be, to intimidate the law. This frank resolve was patent on every cowman's hip, in the light of reckless bravado in his eye. Bear George was their king.
Nine o'clock, and up Main Street from the south rode a small cavalcade which instantly became the focus of fevered interest. Old Joe Plummer was in the lead; his daughter Kit, head high and eyes challenging, rode her pony close beside his. Behind trotted the five cow-punchers from Kay Ess home ranch, carelessly lolling in their saddles, conscious of their place in the town's eye. And bringing up the rear was the sheriff—the sheriff whose mysterious night sallies had kept Mammoth guessing. The significance of his appearance thus at the end of the string of Kay Ess riders was instantly apparent to the clansmen thronging the sidewalks. He was riding herd on grand-jury witnesses. The Kay Ess outfit was suspected!
There was silence in the grand-jury-room while Prosecutor Johnson arranged a strange paraphernalia of exhibits. On a table before the eyes of the jurymen he laid first three rifles—two of like caliber and one slightly smaller; then beside them two boxes of loaded cartridges, covers off, so that the round lead noses were seen all ranked in squares. Next he turned to the sheriff, sitting near him, and took from his hands a newspaper bundle, unwrapped it, spilled nine empty shells on the table and two bound together by string. These he stood on their butts a little apart.
"Mr. Sheriff, open one of those windows opposite the jury-box," Johnson commanded, as he carefully loaded each of the three rifles from the filled boxes.
Original threw up a window looking onto the sage-brush waste behind town.
"Now, Mr. Foreman of the Jury, I'll ask you to step over here and fire each of these rifles out of that window."
Keen expectancy was written on every face in the jury-box as a lanky man in squeaky boots stumped to the table and lifted one of the rifles. He aimed at nothingness and fired. A second and a third report shattered the silence in the morguelike chamber. The prosecutor then directed the foreman to eject the cartridges from the respective chambers. He marked each with a knife-blade, then passed the three warm tubes of brass to the nearest juryman.
"Now, gentlemen, examine each of these three cartridges very carefully and see if you can find anything unusual about any one of them—any distinguishing mark." Johnson parted his coat-tails and sat down. He conferred with Original in whispers while the jurymen pawed over the three cartridges, passed them from hand to hand. Finally, from the foreman:
"There's a sort of birth-mark on this one, Mr. Johnson—a swelled place down here by the butt where the brass has bulged out just a little."
"Ah," purred Johnson. "Now, gentlemen, if you'll throw the other two cartridges on the floor and keep that one with the 'birth-mark,' I'll ask you to compare it with these eleven I have here on the table, two of them tied together." He scooped up the empty cartridges ranged before him and passed them across the rail. Again buzzing and whispering from heads together in the jury-box. Shortly the foreman looked quizzically at the prosecutor.
"What have you got to say, Mr. Foreman?"
"Same birth-mark on all of 'em," he reported, excitedly.
Johnson harrowed his hair with a dramatic hand as he lifted one of the rifles from the table. "Those eleven cartridges you've just examined, gentlemen, were all picked up by the coroner at the scene of the murders; the two bound with string were found about twenty yards from the place where the bodies of the old herder and the boy lay. No other cartridges were near that place; the other nine were found among the dead sheep at the lower camp. This rifle your foreman has just fired is the one from which came the shell with the same 'birth-marks' as those two which killed the herder and the boy, and those nine others, which we can neglect as unimportant. If you could look into the shell-bed of this rifle you would find rust had eaten a small scar in it. When a cartridge is fired the brass swells to fill that scar, causing the curious mark you have picked out on all these.
"Gentlemen of the grand jury, Sheriff Blunt found this rifle I hold here in the home of Joe Plummer of Kay Ess. Plummer and the five men of his home ranch who were living there on the night of the murder are here to-day as witnesses. One of these six witnesses fired the shots that killed the old herder and the boy, or was present when the fatal shots were fired. After I have examined them you may hold them all on suspicion or, if the evidence warrants it, find indictments for murder in the first degree against one or more."
The crowd that jammed the street before the court-house fed itself with rumors from hour to hour. So avid not to miss report or incident were the men from the ranges that they dared not linger in the saloons; a flask trade was the rule with the barkeeps. From man to man spread sinister hints in half-finished sentences, the flicker of an eye, pat of a hand against holster. Talk was of the strength of jail doors and the deadly sureness of Original Bill's shooting. Then at five o'clock the men of the grand jury filed out, solemn-faced, magnificent in their importance as mute guardians of the law's secrets. Behind them came Old Joe Plummet and the other witnesses. No, not all of them. Windy Smith and Timberline Terry were not among them. They were, in fact, lodged in cells in the jail behind the court-house.
Winds of the High Country speed no swifter than did the report of this circumstance. Windy Smith and Timberline Terry held on suspicion to await further action by the grand jury, and Old Man Plummer to go on the stand first thing in the morning. Yes, and it was Original Bill who'd trapped the two Kay Ess boys—rigged up some flimflam about a birth-mark on a ca'tridge. Not Johnson—he was all right, and he had to go through the motions; but that sheep-herdin' traitor Bill Blunt, he was the skunk who did it!
Plummer, with one arm about Kit's waist, passed down the street from the court-house and into the Bald Eagle Hotel. As they went, men stepped aside and uncovered with the grave chivalry of a salute to a hero condemned to execution. The girl tried to smile into familiar faces, but secretly fought back tears. The appalling dominion of Law was beginning to fetter her imagination.
Original and six deputies, impressed most unwillingly from among neutral storekeepers, mounted guard over the jail after sundown. Knowing the temper of the clansmen, the sheriff prepared to resist with rifles any attempt to free the twain held by the grand jury. At eleven o'clock, from his vantage-place behind the grated door, he saw two figures approach hesitatingly and come to a halt some fifty feet beyond the steps. The taller waved an arm. Original, rifle in hand, let himself out onto the steps and waited their approach. It was Kit Plummer who ran to him impulsively, Bear George lumbering behind.
"Where have you hidden Dad?" she choked. "Tell me! Where have you smuggled him? You and your law! You'll lie for it—cheat for it! You're not a man any more; you're a—a—" When her tears came, Bear George laid a great paw on her shoulder and clucked as he would to a mule. But she mastered herself almost instantly, and her voice quavered piteously as she renewed her plea: "Bill—oh, Bill, can't you see how terribly alone I am? Here with all this black law business hanging over me. You must give Dad back to me! I'll promise he won't run away from the grand jury if only you won't be so cruel. Please—"
"Kit," he said, a depth of tenderness in his voice, "I swear I don't know where your dad is. If he's gone it worries me much as you."
"Naw, you don't come any of that soft stuff!" Kit's mastiff protector bellowed. "We want Ole Man Plummer."
"George, if you'll promise to hold the boys off from raiding the jail," Original offered, "I'll go out myself and help look for Joe."
The big range boss pondered the possibilities of trickery, violently rubbing his whiskered jaw. But Kit made the decision for him.
"Maybe Sheriff Blunt is human, after all," she said, with a return to hostile scorn. "Promise, George."
The big head slowly nodded. They both disappeared in the darkness.
No sleep came to Mammoth that night. The search for the old man was on. Riders of Bear George's crew went north and south to knock dry-farmers out of bed and ask report of a solitary horseman after one of the cowmen discovered that his horse was missing from the feed-lot. The sheriff searched alone, desperately, and with a sinking heart, for he could not be sure but that the disappearance of the morrow's witness was connived at if not arranged by the cattle clansmen. Moreover, the partial admissions made in the grand-jury-room by Timberline and Windy Smith indicated that Joe Plummer knew much more about the men involved in the sheep raid than they did. The law must have Plummer's testimony or it would be thwarted.
Near nine next morning a voice came over the single rural telephone-line north of town to the coroner, at the Belle Mode furniture store and funeral parlors:
"This is Cyrus Thomas.... Yes, Cyrus Thomas; what has the farm at Fifteen Mile. They's a tall, pindlin' ole man shot hisself out alongside my haycock some time last night.... Ye-ah, shot hisself.... Dead? Sure! An' he's left 'longside him a long letter to Sheriff Blunt. Good-by."
The coroner leaped out to the sidewalk, too near bursting with news to bottle it. He blabbed to Bear George before he took it on the run for the court-house to report to the sheriff and prosecutor. Johnson he found, but not Original. The prosecutor was quick to grasp the significance of the news. It could be none but Joe Plummer, the missing witness, this "pindlin' ole man" who had put himself out of reach of law alone and in the night. And the long letter to Sheriff Blunt would certainly have a bearing on the murder case—perhaps a confession. He conjured the coroner to find Blunt while he ran down to the Fashion stables and ordered a team.
Original, riding slowly down Main Street on his way to the court-house after hours of gray dawn spent in fruitless search, saw Bear George's vivid team of blacks—the only trotters north of Cheyenne and the pride of their owner—scamper down the runway from the Fashion and swing north. In the light democrat wagon he recognized the pinched, white face of Kit Plummer wedged between the gross shape of Bear George, at the reins, and a lieutenant of George's named Spracklin. The latter nursed a rifle between his knees. Down Main Street and off to the north country rattled the wagon. Several punchers leaped to their saddles and followed. The street buzzed with excitement.
Johnson dashed out of the stable and beckoned Original to him. In a dozen words he'd told the story of the telephone message. "Bear George's got the bulge on us," he panted. "Nothing wearing horseshoes can catch his team."
"How 'bout Betsy?" Original caught him up.
"She's in the blacksmith-shop—two blow-outs and a bum spark-plug."
"Come on! She's got to do it—just got to."
Original set the pace to the smithy back of the hardware store. There, coats off and sweating, the two conjured back to the decrepit Betsy dreams of a past day of competency. "Johnson's Folly," Mammoth called this shy nineteenth-century ancestor of the modern twin-six. Her spirit, first broken by the sage hummocks and sandy wastes between the railroad and Mammoth, had never revived. But this day she responded to treatment with a spirit worthy the cause. She was hiccupping merrily—regular two-lung snorts—when Original hurried back from the general store with a two-gallon demijohn of gasolene. Bear George and his blacks were not twenty minutes gone when Betsy, with Johnson at the wheel and the sheriff beside him, trailed a cloud of blue smoke through Main Street and out onto the road to the north.
The road was not for automobiles. It was rutted and it was choked with sage stumps; sand traps lurked in the washes; the uptakes from coulées were steep as a church steeple. But while Original worked the hand-pump on the grades and clung to a lamp-bracket on the flying downward plunges, Johnson tooled her—tooled her most motheringly, and put her to her topmost speed. Now they topped a divide and saw far ahead on the crooked white strip of road dots that moved. Now they wallowed in sand, with every guttered gasp from the engine promising to be the last. But they moved much faster than those dots ahead.
It was on a level stretch that they drew up on Bear George and his guard of three horsemen. Nor was their approach unperceived. Now the auto was plunging and yawing at top speed, snorting viciously. The three horsemen cast glances over their shoulders and spread themselves the width of the road to block its passing. Beyond them the democrat wagon kept squarely to midcenter. Original caught the sly movement of one of the mounted cowmen's hands; instantly he had his long-barreled revolver out and across his knees. But he sensed how great the odds if it came to shooting. Those ahead knew he would not answer fire when the girl, Kit, was among them.
"Bla-a-a-awp!" challenged Betsy's horn. Horsemen nor wagon gave an inch of road.
"Hold on!" Johnson yelled over the engine's bluster. "We'll take the ditch."
Take it they did with a leap, a staggering bound, and a shrilling of gears. As they chugged past, Original whirled in his seat, drew himself to his knees, and crouched, left hand over the back of the seat and right ready to menace with the six-shooter. He heard an oath from Bear George as the blacks veered in panic, saw swift fear play over the face of the girl, and the machine was back in the road again. Fifty—a hundred yards ahead of the team it drew, then, "Duck!" Original yelled, for Bear George had brought the blacks to a halt and was raising a rifle to his shoulder. Johnson flattened over the wheel and gave her more gas. A jet of dust leaped from the road not three feet behind the wheels. Again the rifle-crack. An answering report beneath the car. The tonneau sagged suddenly on one side, the car veered crazily, steadied itself, and pounded on.
"They got the off back tire," Original announced.
"We'll make it on the rim, then," Johnson muttered, and advanced his spark.
So they came, limping and bellowing on the last half-inch of gasolene, to the place of the dry-farmer on Fifteen Mile Creek where the telephone-line led. And by him they were taken to a meadow-lot where a haycock sheltered the pitiful refugee from the arm of the law. Old Man Plummet, gnarled and range-tanned chevalier of the cattle clan, had found his last bed there. Original knelt by him, laid his hand on the cold hand of his dead friend, with a touch reverential, and his lips moved tremulously.
"Here's the letter he writ and I found 'longside him," Thomas, the dry-farmer, put in importantly. Johnson took the scrawl and read, while Original stood by, unseeing:
Original Bill Blunt, sherif of Broken horn—
Dear sir,—No I couldnt do it. Original boy. i couldnt take no oath before my Redeemer & tell what i Know about that sheep moving. And then live to See my friends hung on my say-so. So Im doing my dooty the only way.
Jim lacey he organised the sheep moving, first I says i'll go in then i Says i reckon I wont because i never beliefed in murder. But Jim he was into it & his two boys Little jim and Henry. Also Patch Hart & slim sam Porter. Lacey give me these names the day after, my Two Kay Ess boys Windy and timberline they sliped away and got into it thout my knowin. But Windy he swears it was Slim sam porter who grabs the rifle away from him & shoots the old one & the kid. my Boys shot nothin but woolys.
so god have Mercy on me & you be good to my little kit. Tell her the law done it, not me nor you nor Any man. the Laws bigger than us all.
Original heard the letter through, then went out to the road to await the coming of Bear George's team, that he might ward from one beloved the first crude stab of grief.
It was two months after that dash out to the dry-farmer's haycock. The sheriff of Broken Horn rode alone through the gray-green wilderness of the sage, all drenched in the sun-wash of the High Country. Behind him was Mammoth and the jail wherein seven awaited the flexure of a great hand already about them—the hand of Law. Ahead lay Kay Ess. This was his second trip thither since the day of tragedy; his excuse was that he had been named executor under the will of Joe Plummer. Kit Plummer, living at the home ranch with an aunt up from Denver, needed his advice.
The girl, on horseback, met him by the fork of the road. Was it brusque winds from the Little Medicine range over yonder in blue distance that had brought back to her cheeks hint of the old color? Certainly they played the rowdy with her hair, whipping a gold spindrift from it into her eyes. She gave him her hand, and they rode together. For many minutes they breasted the lusty wind without speech. Then, very simply from Kit:
"You promised when you were last here you'd read me the end of—of his letter. I do not think now so hard—do not feel quite so—it will be sweet to hear and not a hurt. Please—"
A flush mounted Original's neck. He stirred restlessly in the saddle. "Kit, I hadn't ought to do that," he began, clumsily. "You might take it I was trying to back up my own case in your eyes—sort of quoting authority from Over There." He lifted his eyes to the blue immensity of the sky to point locality.
"Let me think what I please," she urged, humbly. "I've been wrong so much I ought to think right now."
Reluctantly he brought out a flat wallet from his coat pocket, and withdrew from it a sheet closely scrawled over. He creased it near the end to bring only the final paragraph of script to her eye, and passed it to her.
so god have Mercy on me & you be good to my little kit. Tell her the law done it, not me nor you nor Any man. the Laws bigger than us all.
Original, looking straight ahead to the far blue line of the horizon, not daring to intrude with his eyes, heard a stifled sob. Still he kept his gaze before him.
"The L-Law's bigger—than us all," came the sigh, hardly breathed. His chin went down on his chest, and his eyes narrowed in pain.
"I—I knew that, Bill. All along I knew it, even when I was—wickedest toward you. And—"
"There—there, little Kit!" he hushed, looking straight ahead.
"'Not me—nor you,' Dad says, and he knew. I only was wrong—"
"There now, Kit!"
They rode again in silence, he with his eyes on the horizon.
"Yes, Kit, I'm listening."
"Bill"—a hand touched his sleeve, groped wistfully up until the soft ends of fingers just tipped his cheek, and there stayed—"Bill—he said, 'Be—be good to my—little Kit.' Well—well, be."
Then did Original Bill, sheriff of Broken Horn, turn his eyes from the far prospect of a horizon to a nearer and more wondrous thing.