A C0MPLETE NOVELETTE by W. C. TUTTLE
AN OBSERVER might have said that it was cruelty to animals to drive a team at high speed over such roads. Perhaps the two men, sitting on the seat of the swaying lumber-wagon, might have replied that it was cruelty to human beings for a team to act in that hurried manner. There was no question but what the team of pinto horses had taken the matter into their own hands—or rather feet—and the two men had nothing to say about it.
The equipage swept around the curving grade, skidding and bouncing, while the two men clung to the sides of the seat, staring straight ahead.
Suddenly they whirled around another curve, the wheels of the lumber-wagon spinning dangerously near to the outer end of the grade, and just ahead of them, blocking the road, stood a stage-coach and four horses, headed in the same direction as the runaway. The sharpness of the curve and a strong wind blowing down the canon had effectively masked the approach of the runaway, and there was no time for either man to jump nor for any of the people at the stage to get out of the road.
At the side of the coach stood a woman. Just beyond her stood a masked man, rifle in hand. The driver was humped on his seat, lines held between his knees, while another masked man stood on the hub of a front wheel tugging at a heavy iron box which was partly wedged under the seat. The two men saw all this in a flash, and then the runaway team crashed into the rear of the stage.
The force of the impact drove the tongue of the wagon into the flimsy body of the stage, whirling it half-around and turning it off the grade; the four horses rearing and plunging as they whirled off the road and went down the sharp embankment.
The pinto team was flung sidewise, jack-knifing with the stage; the wagon, going sidewise, caught in the deep rut and turned completely over, following the wrecked stage off the grade.
The two men were thrown from the wagon-seat; one of them turning a complete somersault and landing on his hands and knees against the upper bank, while the other sprawled in the road, turned over several times and finally stopped in a sitting position with his legs dangling over the edge of the grade.
The one at the side of the bank blinked his eyes several times and then ran his hand through his mop of brick-red hair. Then he got painfully to his feet, walked to the edge of the grade and looked around.
The other, a giant of a man at least six feet six inches tall, with a long, crooked nose and a wide, humorous mouth, retained his position, except that he took a red-silk handkerchief from his hip pocket and blew his nose violently. Then he said—
"Brick, old Lafe is goin' to be real put out about them there pintos and that wagon, y'betcha."
The red-head nodded sadly. Then he turned and spat out some sand.
There was nothing heroic-looking about "Brick" Davidson. His hair was the color of new-baked bricks, and his thin, sensitive nose was plentifully besprinkled with freckles. His eyes were very blue and very ready to search out the humorous things in life. He looked below medium size, comparing him to the bulk of "Silent" Slade, but Brick was not a small man. He spat out some more sand and looked at Silent.
"Whatcha drop them lines for?"
"You argued with me, didn't yuh?"
The big man's tone was querulous.
"Yuh always argue with me, Brick Davidson, and you know danged well I've gotta gesture."
Brick Davidson spat again contemptuously.
"Gotta, eh? Why didn't yuh go to a school where they teaches yuh to talk with your mouth? Write me a note next time, Silent. Floppin' your arms like a he-buzzard gittin' ready to fly don't convey no thoughts to my mind."
Silent Slade got slowly to his feet and peered down the hill. The stage had stopped in a clump of jack-pines, and the four stage horses, almost stripped of harness, had tangled with the limbs of a fallen pine.
One of the pintos stood near the wrecked wagon, front feet tangled in lines and neck-yoke, kicking viciously at a dangling tug. The other pinto was unfortunately past kicking at tugs, unless ghost horses wear harness.
"Brick!" exclaimed Silent. "Brick, I didn't see much before the ca-tas-trophy, but somehow I gets the fool idea that there was a woman beside the stage."
"Whatcha tryin' to do-o-o! Whatcha tryin' to do-o-o!"
A long, lean face—a face that was scratched and dirty, with a long lock of grizzled hair sticking straight up like an interrogation point, suddenly appeared from behind a mesquite-bush at the edge of the grade as its owner scrambled slowly back to the road level.
He stared at Brick and Silent, and his jaws worked spasmodically as if trying to loosen something distasteful to his palate.
"It was thisaway, Limpy," began Silent.
"I'd rather hear Davidson tell it," interrupted Limpy Squires, the stage-driver. "You kinda alibi yourself before yuh tell anythin'."
"There was a woman—" began Silent.
Limpy turned and looked down toward the wrecked stage; then back at Silent and Brick, masticating furiously. Brick's toe described a circle in the dust as he averted his glance from the old stage-driver.
Limpy looked back down the hill and Brick stooped swiftly and picked something off the ground. His sudden motion caused the others to turn, but they only saw Brick's hand coming away from his hip pocket, dangling a package of smoking-tobacco.
"Yuh ain't mentioned the hold-up," remarked Brick. "Have yuh forgot it, Limpy?"
Limpy scratched his tousled head, while his tongue explored the interior of his mouth. Then he nodded.
"You fellers sure busted up a regular party. I wonder——"
Limpy slid down the bank toward the stage, and Brick and Silent followed him.
Limpy led the way into the thicket and climbed up on one of the front wheels. He peered under the seat, then got down and limped around to the other side, where an iron box was lying upside down.
"They never got it," grinned Limpy, patting the box with his toe.
"What's in it?"
Brick knelt down and looked at it closely.
"I dunno. Sent out by the Whippoorwill mine. Danged thing must weigh about a hundred pounds."
"Who was the woman?" asked Brick.
Limpy rubbed his hands on his hips and squinted at Brick.
"I ain't in the habit of asking passengers for their names. She didn't do no talkin', and she wore a veil."
"Reckon them there robbers kidnaped her?"
This from Silent.
"Kidnaped ——!" grunted Limpy. "She wasn't no kid. We'll have to take this here box——"
"Yuh needn't worry about the box," said a voice behind them; and they turned to look into the muzzle of a rifle, backed up by a masked man.
THE mask was of black material with two eye-holes, and it covered him from the crown of his hat to below his shoulders.
The three instinctively put up their hands, and just then the bushes parted and out stepped another masked man and a masked woman. The woman's dress was badly torn, and there was a smear of blood across her wrist. In her right hand she carried a heavy pistol, while the man carried a rifle. At a nod from the first man the woman took the rifle and leveled it at the group, while one of the men appropriated the pistols from Brick, Silent and Limpy.
Then the two men picked up the iron box and carried it down the hill out of sight, while the woman still covered the three men. She made no motion to follow her companions. Brick shifted his weight to his right leg and grinned at her.
"Yuh don't need to point that at me, sister. It wasn't my little iron box."
"Nor mine," added Limpy. "Under the circumstances, I don't even know what box yuh refers to."
But the woman refused to speak.
"Never knowed it could be possible," drawled Silent. "It ain't noways reasonable to suppose that a woman can keep from talkin' that away. No offense, ma'am; but are yuh married?"
The woman seemed to be laughing under her mask, but did not reply.
" 'Cause," Silent pointed out, " 'cause if yuh ain't— No, I want to see your face before I goes further in these here ne-go-ti-a-tions. Your disposition suits me to a gnat's eyelash, but I'm kinda finicky about faces."
From down in the timber came a shrill whistle, and the woman turned and started away, turning her back on the three men. She disappeared into the brush.
"Well," said Brick, "you fellers might as well take your hands down."
Silent grinned and lowered his hands. Limpy rubbed his hands together and masticated viciously, staring at the others. Silent started for the spot where the woman had entered the brush, but a bullet flupped past his head and thudded into the body of the coach. From down in the ravine came the whang of a rifle.
"No." Silent shook his head. "No, I reckon I won't try to make a mash on her while she's got a chapey-rone like that."
"Held up by a woman," chuckled Brick. "Sufferin' sunfish! Next thing yuh know they'll be drivin' stages and——"
"Go ahead and laugh!" rasped Limpy. "Your hands went as high as mine did."
"Higher," admitted Brick. "I'm taller than you, Limpy. Let's each take a horse and go to Marlin City. Mebbe tbe sheriff would like to hear about it."
"Whatsa use?" argued Silent. " 'Bunty' Blair'd never catch any road-agents."
"He's a elegant sheriff," nodded Limpy. "Swell-elegant."
"You helped elect him," accused Silent.
"I didn't!" snapped Limpy. "I voted for Brick."
Brick stopped half-way up the sloping side of the grade and laughed.
"If yuh did, Limpy, there was crooked work at the polls. I only got seven votes. Silent, 'Baldy' McPherson, Sam Clayton, Bill See, Lafe Freeman, 'Happy' Sinclair and me. Them six was campaignin' for me, and I know I voted for myself."
Limpy masticated violently. The evidence seemed against him.
"I kinda thought yuh had a good chance, Brick," he stated, ignoring Brick's implication. "Happy told me that yuh had three hundred votes pledged."
"I did. Election showed me one thing, Limpy."
"That there's three hundred —— liars in Sun-Dog County."
Limpy scratched his nose reflectively and nodded.
"More'n that, Brick—seven more; only you wasn't in no position to discover the other seven."
Brick laughed. Brick was always ready to laugh, even if the joke was on him, and the recent election had surely been a joke—as far as Brick was concerned.
It was the first time that there had been a split in the Democrat and Republican vote in Sun-Dog. Bunty Blair, the fortunate candidate, had won over Zell Mohr by six votes.
There was no question but that the Nine Bar Nine outfit and supporters could have swung the election to Mohr, but there was little choice between Blair and Mohr. Bunty owned a small horse outfit a few miles from Marlin City, while Mohr owned a big saloon in Silverton, sixteen miles west.
Mohr was a burly, silent man, swarthy as a Mexican, but his nerve had never been questioned. Bunty, on the other hand, was slight of physique, prone to alibi himself out of all trouble—and to keep out. Limpy's expression, "swell-elegant," covered Bunty better than any description.
Men agreed that Brick Davidson might make a good sheriff—but Lafe Freeman, owner of the Nine Bar Nine, announced openly in the Dollar Down Saloon the night before election:
"No, Brick won't git elected, and I'll tell yuh why. He knows too much for the size of the jail. He'd have to build a bull-pen to hold the overflow. With Bunty Blair or Zell Mohr on the job we could tear down the jail and they wouldn't miss it durin' their term."
Zell Mohr heard this statement but made no reply. Lafe Freeman knew that Mohr was there, and Mohr knew that Lafe said it for his benefit Lafe had notches in his old single-action Colt, and Marlin City knew how he got them. Therefore, Zell Mohr feigned not to have heard the statement.
THE sheriff's office interior proved that Bunty Blair was "swell-elegant." The ages-old reward posters had been torn from the walls and in their place hung works of art. The subjects of these framed ornaments were not at all decorous, but they pleased the eyes of Bunty and his deputy, "Three Star" Hennessey, who affected red vests and perfume.
Three Star was ornamental, but very unpractical. His classic features were marred by an old knife-scar which circled one if his cheeks, and his nose had come in contact with a heavy object at some past date which had moved it out of a straight line; but Three Star had decorative ideas as to raiment, which seemed to satisfy Bunty Blair's conception of what a deputy sheriff should wear.
Easy-chairs had replaced the old whittled relics, and there was little left to suggest a sheriff's office except the weather-beaten sign over the door. The county paid the sheriff the munificent sum of a hundred dollars per month, which was far too small a sum considering the danger connected with wearing a star in Sun-Dog County. Sun-Dog was fortunate in being able to dispose of the office.
The voters seemed willing to follow the lines of least resistance, and to elect a sheriff that would do likewise.
Just now Bunty and Three Star were sitting in the office. Bunty lolled back in a chair, his feet on the table, half-asleep, while Three Star's long nose delved deep into the pages of an ancient magazine.
Sitting in the doorway, back against one side and feet braced against the other, was "Harp" Harris, one of Bunty's hired men. Harp was of peculiar physique. His shoulders were narrow—so narrow, in fact, that when he stood upright one noticed that it was a straight line from the point of his shoulder to hip, and thence down his long leg to a pair of big feet. A pair of bat-ears extended well out from his head, completing the straight line from head to heels. His face was habitually sad; caused, no doubt, by the mental effort of trying to remember certain tunes. Just now Harp's two big hands were cupped around his mouth, from which came the doleful twanging of a jew's-harp. While other cow-punchers soothed their nerves with cigarets, Harp relaxed over the vibrating little instrument.
Suddenly he wiped his lips with the back of his hand and stared up the street.
"Somethin'," stated Harp, turning to Three Star, "somethin' has come to pass."
Up to the hitch-rack came Brick, Silent and Limpy, all mounted on harnessed horses and leading two more. They tied the horses to the rack and then came over to the office door. Bunty and Three Star came to the door. Limpy masticated violently, scratched his nose and looked up at Bunty.
Bunty craned his neck for a look at the horses.
"Did they steal your stage?" asked Harp.
Limpy ignored this pleasantry
"Get anything?" asked Bunty.
"Somethin'," nodded Limpy.
"One man?" inquired Three Star.
"Oh!" grunted Bunty.
"Was yuh expectin' more?" asked Brick.
"Where?" Bunty ignored Brick.
"Whisperin' Crick grade. Know where them two curves is? It was the one this side. There's a lot of brush——"
"I know the place. Where's the stage?"
"There was a female—" began Limpy, but caught a look from Brick and stopped.
"Was she hurt?"
"Not so awful danged bad," said Brick.
"I'll ask Limpy to do the talking," stated Bunty. "Where is the woman?"
"I dunno," grunted Limpy.
Bunty stared at Limpy and then at Silent and Brick, who were grinning.
"This is the ——est conversation I ever heard!" snapped Bunty, and then turned to Harp. "Go hitch up my horse."
"Ain'tcha goin' to take a posse?" asked Silent. "Yuh sure ain't goin' huntin' road-agents with a top-buggy."
"Since when did you start running my office, Slade?"
Harp went around behind the building, and Bunty and Three Star went back into the office, leaving Silent, Brick and Limpy looking at one another.
"This country is goin' to the dogs," declared Limpy.
"Mark an X in front of their name instead of tyin' a can on their tail—what do yuh expect?" demanded Brick.
Limpy turned back to the horses, unhooked the mail-sack from over a name and limped up the street toward the post-office. Brick and Silent grinned and crossed the street.
"What did yuh find down there in the road. Brick?"
Brick looked sharply at Silent, but Silent's expression showed that he was not merely guessing that Brick had picked up something at the scene of the hold-up. They were at the door of the Dollar Down, and Brick shook his head warningly and they went inside.
It was too early in the day for much animation in King Cleeve's place. Several men were lolling around the place. A gambler sat at a table, idly turning cards from a dealing-box. Over at the piano a dance-hall girl was trying to pick out a tune with one finger, and grimacing with the effort of picking out the right key.
The bartender slid a bottle down the bar and reached for glasses.
"Where's Cleeve?" asked Brick.
The bartender grinned as if it were a joke.
"Coyotes. Zell Mohr brought his three greyhounds from Silverton, and him and King went huntin'. Reckon the're goin' to run 'em down. They've been talking about it for quite a while."
"Sun-Dog County sure is gittin' civilized," nodded Brick. "Women holdin' up stages, sheriff huntin' outlaws in a top-buggy and gamblers ridin' to hounds."
"Which all happens when?"
The bartender was interested.
"Today. The stage was held up a while ago."
"Women do it?"
"Woman," corrected Brick.
The bartender turned away to serve a customer.
" 'S —— funny that nobody gits excited," complained Silent, and then whispered, "What did yuh find, Brick?"
Brick drank and turned away from the bar. Silent shook his head and followed Brick outside. Harp Harris was leaning against a post in front of the Boston Café, twanging dolefully on his jew's-harp, while from Le Blanc's blacksmith shop came the not unmusical clanging of steel against steel.
"This here place," declared Silent; "this here place needs a Sunday-school to wake her up. Let's go and eat."
They crossed the street and stopped at the edge of the sidewalk, where Brick pointed his nose toward the sky and gave a soft imitation of a coyote howl. Harp grinned and wiped the back of his long hand across bis lips.
"Bunty and Three Star went buggy-ridin'," he stated.
"Did they go armed?"
Harp grinned and shrugged his narrow shoulders.
"I'd hate to tell for fear it might leak out."
"Sure," grinned Brick. "Bein' as you're Bunty's hired——"
"Period," grunted Harp. "I ain't with him no more."
"When did yuh quit?"
"Thank yuh, Brick, but I didn't quit."
"What did he fire yuh for, Harp?"
"Well—" Harp licked his lips thoughtfully—"well, I told him to be sure and lock up the jail 'cause somebody might steal the hinges off the cell doors."
"Want to work for the Nine Bar Nine?"
"Gotta work," observed Harp.
"You're hired. Come and eat with us, hired man."
Harp asked nothing about the robbery, and they ate silently.
Their meal over, they sauntered outside just as a roan team, hauling a buckboard, was driven up in front of the restaurant by Lafe Freeman.
"Brick, what happened to the team and wagon?" he rasped.
"Ran away. Silent accident'ly dropped the lines."
Freeman glared at Silent.
"Accidental, eh? Pinto dead and that Schuttler wagon all busted to ——!"
Lafe shifted his eyes to Brick.
"You're fired. Do yuh hear that? Both of yuh fired."
Brick nodded sadly and turned to Harp, who was starting to put the jew's-harp between his lips.
"I've gotta cancel that job, Harp."
"Thanks," grunted Harp, "I'd hate to work for a man who was that mean."
Lafe Freeman started to kick off the brake, but changed his mind.
"Met the sheriff and his ornyment down there," motioning down the road. "Said there was a hold-up."
"Yeah," nodded Brick. "Yeah, there was, Lafe."
Freeman held the lines between his knees while he filled his old pipe. He smiled down at the pipe and turned to Brick.
"Whatcha say, Brick?"
"I didn't say," drawled Brick, "but I was jist thinkin' about hittin' yuh for a job."
"Say yuh was?"
Lafe's tone was indignantly sarcastic.
"Huh! Yuh was, was yuh?"
He shifted his eyes to Silent and Harp and back to Brick.
"S'pose yuh want a job as foreman, eh? Yuh do? Then you'll go and hire Silent Slade and that danged harp-twanger over there. My gosh, don'tcha know wagons cost money? Don'tcha know that there pinto horse was worth——"
"Sure, sure," nodded Brick, "I knowed we'd git fired. Silent says to me—
" 'Brick, my heart bleeds for Lafe, but——' "
"Don't lie!" snapped Lafe. "You've done enough without that. C'mere and tell me about that hold-up, will yuh?"
"A female!" gasped Lafe, as Brick described the hold-up. "Female? I tell yuh it's gittin' so we can't trust our weak sex.
"Held a Winchester right on the three of yuh. Whatcha know about that? Petticoats and perfumed sheriffs. Next thing yuh know we'll have to do the crowshayin'."
"Here comes Limpy," stated Silent. "Been down to the telegraph office."
Limpy was hurrying as fast as his game leg would permit and working his jaws overtime. He shuffled to a stop beside the buckboard and spat copiously.
"Sent a message to Teton," he volunteered. "They'll send it to the Whippoorwill."
"What do yuh reckon was in that box, Limpy?" asked Brick.
"We-e-ell—" Limpy squinted up the street—"well, the Whippoorwill's a free-gold producer, and they ain't shipped in a long time. That box weighed about a hundred pounds, and folks don't generally ship junk, do they?"
"Hundred pounds of gold!" gasped Lafe. "Thirty thousand dollars or thereabouts! —— fools ought to lose it when they send it without protection. Thought they was smart, didn't they? Nobody expects a unguarded stage to haul money. Don't believe in it myself, y'betcha. Goin' to the ranch, Brick?"
"Not now. Me and Silent can borry a couple of broncs from Wesson. You've got a outfit, ain't yuh, Harp? Harp's workin' for us now, Lafe."
"Work ——!" Lafe exploded. "Never had a puncher yet that would work. All right, all right. Come out and visit us, Harp. Forty a month for visitin' punchers. I'm goin' to fasten that heatin'-stove on the back of this buckboard. Ought to 'a' done that instead of sendin' a couple of danged fools and a pinto team after it. Giddap."
Limpy turned and went down the street. Harp yawned and opined that he would buck the wheel for a while, being as he had a new job and didn't have any use for the last money that Bunty would ever pay him.
Brick and Silent sat down in the shade of a building. Silent watched Brick roll and shape a cigaret, and then he said:
"Yuh might tell me what it was. I say, yuh might, but the —— only knows if yuh will or not."
Brick lighted his cigaret and pinched out the lighted match before grinding it under his heel. Then he reached into his hip pocket and took out a soiled envelope, which he held in his cupped hands. There was just a name on it:
It had been opened. Brick slowly drew out the slip of paper, and he and Silent read the penciled note.
Tuesday, I think. J will be on stage and will signal at first curve. If no signal, let go. If there, J will go to Martin, unless trouble. Can take care of sdf. This is big. Meet you in same place.
Brick and Silent looked at each other for a moment and then down at the note. Brick folded it up and replaced it in his pocket.
"Know who Scott Martin is?" asked Silent.
Brick nodded and puffed on his cigaret.
"Bought out the old Weepin' Tree ranch. Tall, freckled hombre, about fifty years old. Ties his gun down."
"Rides a blaze-faced bay," added Silent. "I've seen him. Kinda puts the deadwood on him, Brick. Gee cripes, a man's a sucker to take chances on losin' that kind of a note."
"Fools ain't all dead," grinned Brick. "In fact, I reckon, they're right in their prime."
"Whatcha goin' to do about it?"
Silent was getting anxious.
"Wait for the reward."
"Here comes Sun-Dog's swell-elegant sheriff. Brick."
Brick and Silent strolled down and watched Bunty and his deputy get out of their buggy.
"Well, I see yuh got back safe, "observed Brick.
Three Star grunted, but Bunty ignored them.
"Did yuh find any tracks in the dust?" inquired Brick, insinuating that the officers did not get far from their buggy.
"I'd hate to have 'em follerin' me in the snow," stated Silent. "Betcha they'd make me go some. Did yuh find the woman?"
"You're loco," declared Three Star. "Women don't hold up stages."
"Silent, me and you can't lie a-tall—not and get away with it."
Brick grew very despondent.
"Other fellers can lie and make anybody believe——"
"Wait a minute!" snapped the exasperated sheriff. "You two talk too much and say nothin'."
"What can yuh expect?" wailed Silent. "They took our guns and we've got all excited. Nobody can talk sense when they're excited."
"Can you describe the robbers?" asked Bunty.
Brick stepped in close to Bunty and grew very accurate in his description.
"Medium size; mebbe a little taller. Both wore overalls, shirts and boots and had masks on."
"One chawed spittin'-weed," added Silent. "Yuh ought to be able to find him easy. Yeah, he sure did. And another thing—they all had guns."
"You think you're —— smart!" snapped Bunty. "What about the woman? You've told several different stories."
Brick grew serious.
"Silent, we've made a awful mistake thataway. Anyway—" Brick grinned at Bunty—"anyway, I can't remember just what he did tell; so we'll stick to all of 'em."
Bunty grunted with disgust over this ridiculous statement and went into the office, followed by Three Star, equally disgusted, while Brick and Silent grinned joyfully and went back up the street to the Dollar Down, where they found Harp leaning against the bar, twanging dolefully.
"Git him away," wailed a half-drunk cowboy from the Bar S, pointing at Harp. "His kinda music makes me cry, and when I cry I get mean," and then he added meaningly, "I've been cryin' quite a while now."
Harp grinned. Just then came an interruption in the shape of three rangy-looking greyhounds, which came frisking into the front door. They trotted a circle around the room and then headed for Brick. Dogs always came to Brick.
He leaned down and was immediately the center of three plunging beasts, all seeking to get the bulk of caresses.
Brick managed to back away from them, and just then King Cleeve and Zell Mohr came in. Mohr was carrying several fresh coyote pelts, which were tied together. The inhabitants of the place surrounded them and Cleeve set up the drinks.
King Cleeve was of the cool, calculating type of gambler. There was nothing flashy about him, except that he wore an enormous yellow sapphire ring on his left hand, and the mate to it flashed from his necktie. He was of medium height, graceful in his movements, with the long, tapering hands of a man who drew a living without hard labor. His face was not unpleasant, although his eyes were shallow and his teeth too short and even to make his smile friendly.
Just now he was wearing a flannel shirt and a pair of well-worn chaps.
"It's the real sport," stated Cleeve; but there was little exultation in his voice. "Think I'll get me some dogs."
"Dogs run 'em down, eh?" wondered Brick. "That's goin' some."
"Run 'em down all right," assured Mohr. "Them dogs are runners."
"Caught four of 'em, eh?" asked Brick, examining the bundle of pelts. "Betcha them dogs had to go some. Had to shoot 'em, didn't yuh?"
"After the dogs caught 'em," nodded Mohr. "No use letting the dogs get chawed up."
"That's right," grinned Brick, fondling the lean head of a fawn-colored hound, and immediately becoming the center of the three dogs again.
Just then Lafe Freeman drove up in front of the saloon. Tied to the back of the buckboard was a heating-stove, which threatened to cave in the rear of the flimsy vehicle. Lafe came in. He nodded to several of the men.
"Hear about the robbery, Cleeve?"
"Yes. We met the sheriff down the street. He didn't seem to know much about it."
"He wouldn't," said Lafe. "Yuh can't expect him to. I think Limpy is goin' after 'em himself. As I came past his shack he was packin' a horse and he had a riding-horse saddled."
Mohr turned from the bar and spoke to his dogs.
"Yuh got some nice dogs there," remarked Brick.
Mohr nodded and turned to King Cleeve.
"Reckon I'll be goin', Cleeve. You keep them hides. As soon as I can get them pups I'll let yuh know."
The crowd at the bar broke up. Brick and Silent watched Lafe swing out of town, team on the run as usual.
"We'll borrow a couple of horses from Wesson," said Brick as the three of them crossed the street.
"I'd kinda like to chase coyotes," observed Silent.
"Go ahead," said Brick. "Don't let me stop yuh. At that you'd likely catch as many as them hounds did."
"Whatcha mean?" asked Silent quickly, but Brick did not say.
Cale Wesson let them have the pick of his stable, and as they started down the street Limpy rode from behind the blacksmith shop, leading a packed horse.
"Goin' huntin' outlaws, Limpy?" asked Brick.
Limpy squinted at Brick, glanced back up the street, where a number of men were standing in front of the Dollar Down, and then back at Brick.
"I dunno—yet. If this danged pack-animal will git animated a little I'll ride as far as the forks with yuh."
Brick swung in behind the pack-horse, and that worthy animal, knowing the meaning of such actions, broke into a lope.
Three miles from town, at the forks of Whisperin' Creek, Brick, Silent and Harp waved good-by to Limpy Squires, and then swung into the low hills of the Nine Bar Nine range.
"She-e-e was a shrinkin' vi'let
And I loved her ten-n-n-der-lee-e-e.
I called her-r-r mine, my I-i-iodine,
But she nev-v-v-er came back to me-e-e."
Silent's face gradually came back to normal as he wailed the last line. Harp Harris gave an extra doleful twang to his jew's-harp and nodded in appreciation.
"Yuh might like to know that Iodine ain't a girl's name," remarked Brick from Sun- Dog Trails where he sat on the edge of a bunk, massaging his toes, which were encased in an all-too-tight boot.
"This one was named that," retorted Silent.
"Iodine is a medicine."
"So was she—good medicine, Brick."
Silent watched Brick rubbing his toes.
"What yuh ought to do is this, Brick; massage your feet with a meat-grinder and then pour the results into a sausage-skin. What in —— a feller wants to pinch——"
"Them is my feet," stated the ungrammatical Brick.
"That there was my song," reminded Silent, "but you took exceptions to it."
"Some folks takes exceptions to my music," observed Harp.
Brick shook his head seriously.
"I like it, Harp. Sounds like a dyin' Injun with his head in a barrel—and I hate Injuns."
"A feller can wear a hat that's too small, and all she does is fall off," stated Silent, "but when he bunches his toes inside a boot what is three sizes too small— Of course, if I was a tin-horn gambler or was in love——"
Brick glared at Silent for a moment, but the pain in his foot drew his attention away. He hooked the heel of the offending boot over the end of the bunk and pulled his foot out, with a sigh of relief. He picked up the boot and looked it over.
"Takes a lot of argument, but sometimes yuh show sense," remarked Silent. "I knowed a feller down in Wyoming who was a heap like you, Brick. He was herdin' sheep for a while, but he didn't have sense enough to herd sheep, so he——"
Silent ducked just in time to escape the thrown boot, but as he ducked his head hit the table-top a resounding whack. He staggered back, clutching at his forehead, dazed. He started for Brick, who was convulsed with laughter and unable to defend himself.
"If yuh kill him I'll never play for yuh again," declared Harp, stepping in front of Silent.
"O-o-o-oh, mama mine!" choked Brick. "If it hadn't been for that table he'd 'a' dropped his head on the floor!"
"By cripes, yuh must think that's funny!" howled Silent. "If yuh do you've got another think comin'."
"Nobody told yuh to hammer the table with your head."
Silent groaned and massaged his forehead. Finally he grinned and said:
"Well, are we goin' to town, Brick? Thousand dollars ain't much, but it helps a lot in these stingy times."
"Funny that the Whippoorwill don't raise that ante," remarked Brick, pulling on his old boots. "The county never lost nothin', but still they offers a thousand."
IT WAS three days after the robbery, but no one had found the slightest trace of the bandits. Conjectures were rife as to the contents of the iron box. The superintendent of the Whippoorwill mine refused to issue any statement of the amount, and beyond the probable value, based on Limpy's estimate of the weight, there was nothing to show the extent of the haul.
And Limpy had disappeared. Whether on the track of the bandits or on personal business, no one knew. Limpy had been very brief in his statements, and outside of his first words to the sheriff, had not mentioned the woman. No one except Silent, Lafe, Brick and Limpy actually knew what happened at the hold-up.
Brick and Silent had not been to Marlin since the day of the robbery, but Harp had made the trip each day, gathering the latest gossip. Harp had no idea of why they wanted first news of the reward, but it was easier to ride to Marlin and loaf around than it was to work on the ranch. If the Nine Bar Nine wanted to pay him for loafing in town, fine. And besides it gave him a chance to learn a lot of new tunes on his harp.
Brick and Silent had deliberated on letting Harp in on the proposition. Harp was a square-shooter. He was fast with a gun and a top rider. They finally decided to let Harp in on their secret.
As they rode away from the ranch Brick told Harp and let him read the note.
"Well, ——!" drawled Harp delightedly. "She's a dead open and shut. Let's go and arrest him."
"Him!" snorted Brick. "We seen three, and from this note it looks like four. One of them initials, I reckon it's J, stands for the female. We'll kinda investigate this here Martin, but for gosh sake use a little sense, will yuh? We ain't got a danged thing except this letter."
At the scene of the hold-up they swung off the grade and rode down to the pine thicket. The stage was still there, but Freeman had hired Joe Le Blanc to haul the wagon to his shop at Marlin City.
Brick dismounted and walked down from the stage until he reached a point where the top of the stage was barely visible. Then he searched the ground. Suddenly he grunted and picked up an empty .45-70 cartridge-shell. Silent and Harp looked at it.
"World is full of .45-70's," stated Silent.
Brick nodded and examined the cartridge. To all appearances it was an ordinary cartridge-shell. No one except a gun crank would give it a second glance. Brick turned it around in his fingers, feeling of it carefully.
To all appearances the cartridge was old. It was spotted with verdigris and scratched as if it had been handled considerably.
Brick noted this. In a country where there was much use for rifle-shooting it seemed strange that any man would have an old cartridge in his possession. A hold-up man would rarely take a chance of using an old cartridge in a repeating rifle—or in any gun for that matter.
Brick examined the butt of this shell, and noted that it was slightly swollen. The firing-pin of the rifle had dented the primer near the top, fairly cutting into the brass rim of the cartridge. Brick glanced at the others.
"Likely the one they shot past my head," grinned Silent. "Reckon I'm lucky to be able to look calmly upon that ca'tridge-shell."
Brick dropped the shell into his pocket and got back on his horse.
"He's thinkin'," observed Silent. "That shell means a lot to him, Harp. Shouldn't be afraid to bet that he knows them bandits' ancestors by their first name by now."
"Sure," nodded Harp. "Betcha he even knows it was fired in a .45-70."
Brick turned in his saddle and grinned at Harp.
"I might fool yuh on the way I'd bet."
"And," observed Silent, "they send 'em to the loco lodge for thinkin' they're somethin' that they ain't."
Brick led them straight through the main street of Marlin City. Bunty Blair was standing in front of the Dollar Down, and when he saw them he sauntered over toward the hitch-rack as if to meet them when they rode up; but they never even looked at him as they rode past.
"That's high-tonin' the law," grinned Silent, watching Bunty from the corner of his eye. "Mister Blair likely was wishful to ask questions. Believe me, cowboys, we'll hookum cow on this deal. When we turn our prisoners over to the law we'll take receipt."
"Yuh can't figure on chicken stew by lookin' at a nest full of aigs," reminded Brick. "We're goin' to be danged lucky to find out who done it, and then we'll likely earn a lot more than a thousand dollars landin' 'em. We know there was two men and a woman, which makes it equal to about five men."
"How do yuh figure thataway?" asked Harp.
"That's right, Harp—you never seen that woman."
THE Weeping Tree ranch was what might be termed a derelict. The ranch had changed hands numberless times, and it appeared that each new owner had added a room or two to the rambling ranch-house until it had grown to be almost a complete rectangle, in the center of which grew a gnarled weeping-willow tree.
The old tumble-down barn also had many angles, and from the number of pole corrals it appeared that each owner had had a pet idea of corral construction. The ranch-house had no protection from the elements, and it appeared that each addition had shrunk away from its neighbor until it was almost possible to look between all the additions to the original ranch-house.
Smoke was drifting from the stove-pipe, or rather one of the stove-pipes, when the three cowboys rode into the rectangle and dismounted.
"Whatcha goin' to say to him?" asked Silent.
"Party call," grinned Brick.
"Independent party," chuckled Harp, remembering the recent election.
They started away from their horses, but stopped. A woman was singing:
"Oh! Ye'll tak' the high-road and I'll tak' the low-road,
And I'll be in Scotland a-fore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond."
The words ceased, but the rich throaty contralto hummed the chorus of the old Scotch song once more. Brick Davidson's mother had been Scotch—and she had sung this same song to him. It had been years since Brick had heard it, and it brought back a rush of memories—memories of a sweet-faced woman who used to cuddle him in her arms and call him "laddie o' mine."
Brick was not sentimental, but just now he found himself, hat in hand, staring down at the ground. He glanced at his companions. Harp was staring at the open door, mouth open. Silent had stepped back against his horse and was standing with his arms folded and eyes closed.
Brick's eyes switched back to the door just as the owner of the voice appeared. For a moment she did not see them—her eyes seemingly looking far away. Then she gave a start of surprize.
She was not beautiful. Her face was tanned, her hair a tumbled brown mass, and a smudge of black discolored one of her cheeks. The faded blue-calico dress, the dejected attitude, might have made her a pathetic figure; but she was too tall, too visibly healthy to be pathetic.
"Ma'am," said Brick softly, "yuh got a beauty-spot."
Her hand went slowly to her cheek and a smile flashed across her face.
"I've been trying to fix that darned stove-pipe. When I get it level the stove won't stand up, and when I get the stove level the pipe won't fit. Know anything about stoves?"
"I'm a expert on 'em," stated Silent.
"Not saggin' ones," corrected Brick. "I'm the sag expert."
There was a three-cornered rush for the doorway, but Brick was the first one inside.
Some time, in the dim and distant past, this stove might have had four legs; but now it rested its four corners on a stone, two bricks, an old kettle and a block of wood. The rusty pipe, of odd lengths, made several angles before entering the tin-protected hole in the roof.
The three cowboys surrounded the stove and examined it carefully. The section of pipe which connected to the top of the stove had been freshly cut, but Silent did not note this trifling detail.
"The —— fool that cut this must 'a' been cross-eyed," he declared. "No wonder it won't fit when the stove's level."
"I'm not much of a mechanic," admitted the girl soberly.
"Aw-w-w," choked Silent, coloring to the roots of his hair. "Aw, I can see where yuh made the mistake, ma'am; one of the corners was saggin'. Anybody'd make the same mistake."
Brick removed the offending section of pipe and proceeded to ruin his pet pocket-knife in cutting the pipe square across, while Silent and Harp shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
"She's a small world, ma'am," declared Silent, "but I ain't never met yuh before. I'm Melville Slade. Folks calls me Silent 'cause I never have much to say. This one here is Harp Harris. The pipe-cutter over there is named Brick Davidson."
"Harp ain't my right name, ma'am."
Harp said that much and then took a deep breath, like a man who had been under water a long time—or was getting ready to go under. Then he finished breathlessly—
"I was christened Cadwallader Jones Harris, ma'am."
Harp beamed with joy over his disclosure.
"I'd stick to Harp if I was you," grunted Brick. "Sayin' your full name sounds like fallin' over a door-step and hitting your head on a chair."
"Were you christened Brick?" asked the girl.
"His name's Donald Campbell Davidson," chanted Harp. "I know, 'cause I seen it on a letter."
Brick grinned at her.
"I am Jean Martin," said the girl simply.
Brick almost dropped the pipe.
"How do yuh spell it—with a G?"
"No, with a J. J-e-a-n."
Brick came back to the stove and fitted the pipe, while Silent and Harp watched him. It fitted. Brick wiped his hands on his chaps and smiled at her.
"I reckon she'll work now, ma'am."
"Thank you so very much. I never could have fixed it, because I am such a poor mechanic."
She looked at Silent as she finished; but Silent was looking at a Winchester hanging on a pair of deer-horns on the wall.
"You and your dad goin' to run the ranch?" asked Brick.
"We—we hope to, Mr. Davidson."
"Kinda hard for one man to run a place," observed Harp.
"There will be three of us. Jack Oliver has been with us a long time, but he isn't here yet because he stopped to pick up some stock."
"Well," said Brick slowly, "I reckon we'll drift along, ma'am. Just stopped to say howdy."
Jean shook hands with them and stood in the doorway, waving a farewell as they rode away.
NONE of the three men spoke for a while, and then Harp remarked—
"She ought to have a new stove."
Neither of the others disputed his assertion. Silent spurred up beside Brick.
"Lemme look at that letter again, Brick."
He read it through and handed it back to Brick.
"Kinda fits," he muttered. "J and O. Watcha know about that, Brick?"
"All we've gotta do—" began Harp, but Brick whirled in his saddle.
"Do what?" he snapped.
"We-e-ll, whatcha think, Brick?"
"Lemme think, will yuh?"
"Let me think," grinned Silent. "Betcha forty dollars, Harp, that he's thinkin' right around one thing—she sure can sing."
"Like an angel," said Harp seriously. "Honest to grandma, I ain't never heard no song like that in my life. Wonder if she'd sing if a feller asked her?"
"What caliber was that Winchester carbine hangin' on the wall?" asked Brick.
"Forty-five-seventy," said Harp. "I gotta good look at it. Model 1886, open sights."
"You're danged right I'm sure, but that don't spell nothin', Brick. This here country is full of .45-70's."
"I'm glad it was a .45-70."
Silent turned in his saddle and stared at Brick.
"Yuh are, are yuh?" he exploded. "Well, now lemme tell yuh somethin', cowboy; don't yuh try to hang deadwood on that lady."
"A thousand dollars is a lot of money," mused Brick.
"I ain't so danged miserly as all that," grunted Harp. "Forty a month and feed ain't so much, but yuh can live on it."
"That would mean three hundred and thirty-three dollars apiece," stated Brick seriously. "Take a long time to save up that much, if yuh don't, drink much and don't gamble."
"What's time?" snorted Silent. "That ain't nothin'; is it, Harp?"
"Not in my life, Silent. Whatcha laughin' at, Brick?"
"Thinkin' what a lot of danged fools the lady has made of us three."
They rode into Marlin and left their horses at the tie-rack near the sheriff's office. A group of men were standing in front of the general store—a group that seemed strangely interested in the three cowboys.
Bunty Blair was one of the group, and now he left it and came down toward his office to meet the three.
Bunty stopped as if undecided. Then he pointed toward the door of his office and said—
"Let's go inside and have a little talk."
"What's the main idea?" asked Brick wonderingly, glancing from Bunty to the crowd in front of the store.
"Come inside and I'll tell yuh—all three of yuh."
The three cowboys glanced at each other and then followed Bunty into the office. He shut the door and faced them.
"Limpy Squires was murdered."
Brick squinted at Bunty.
"The day of the hold-up. Shot in the back."
The cowboys exchanged glances. Limpy had never been popular with them, but who would shoot the inoffensive old crippled stage-driver? Limpy had an acrid tongue, but no one ever took exceptions to his talk—rather they were amused at his flow of profanity. Bunty straightened some papers on his desk and continued:
"He left here with you fellers. 'Topaz' Tyler was coming here from Silverton when he found him. Limpy had been dead all this time, lyin' just off the road near the forks." Topaz brought the word back, and we went out after him. We found both horses, but the pack had come loose."
Brick listened grimly to Bunty's statement; and then—
"Who do yuh reckon shot him, Bunty?"
The sheriff did not reply—did not meet Brick's intense gaze, but fumbled with the papers on his desk.
"Bringin' us in here thisaway," muttered Silent, " 'pears like yuh was tryin' to keep it a secret."
"You fellers rode out of town with Limpy," stated Bunty slowly. "I'd kinda like to know where you left him."
"At the forks," replied Harp.
Bunty's grin was crooked and his voice was mildly sarcastic.
"Looks kinda queer."
"Wait a minute," snapped Brick. "You insinuating that we had anything to do with shootin' Limpy Squires?"
"No, I ain't, Davidson; but there's a few things that——"
"Why should we harm Limpy?" demanded Silent.
"There's a lot of things that need explaining. That hold-up, for instance. You two and Limpy come here with a cock-and-bull story about female road-agents, and then you admit you're lyin' about the woman. You laugh like it was a good joke.
"Davidson, you and Slade stay out at the ranch and send Harp in to town to see what he can find out. Looks kinda queer to me, if anybody asks yuh."
"Yeah?" drawled Brick innocently.
"It does," stated Bunty, who seemed to grow bolder when he found that the fiery Brick remained indifferent to the half-accusation.
"I'm waiting for you to talk."
"Oh!" grunted Brick, recovering from his abstraction.
"Whatcha say, Bunty?"
"I said I was waiting for an explanation."
"Well, now that's sure thoughtful of yuh," nodded Brick. "If yuh only wait long enough, Sun-Dog County will grow to be a State and you might be elected governor. Ever'thin' comes to them who waits, Bunty."
"I want that explanation right now! Sabe!"
"Who's Topaz Tyler?" asked Brick suddenly. "He's a new one on me."
"I know'm," grunted Harp. "He punched cows for the Diamond H outfit in Idaho till they caught him cheatin' in a poker game. Tall, skinny tin-horn with educated fingers. Wears a six and three-quarter hat and a number five boot."
"You used to be in Idaho too, didn't yuh, Bunty?" asked Brick.
"That ain't answering my questions!" snapped the sheriff. "I want you to explain about that hold-up—the truth of it; sabe?"
"Yo're takin' a lot upon yourself," smiled Brick. "When in —— did you get the right to ask questions, Bunty? 'Pears to me like you're gettin' personal."
"I'm the sheriff, ain't I?"
"Well," drawled Brick, "you keep right on bein' the sheriff and nobody's goin' to molest yuh, Bunty. Speakin' of Idaho, 'pears like that State's well represented around here. Bunty comes from there, and Silent used to live in that country, and now comes Topaz Tyler. Mebbe we can have a reunion."
"Feller what bought the Weepin' Tree outfit is from Idaho," volunteered Harp. "Leastwise I seen a box out there with his name on it and it also had the words 'Cottonwood, Ida.' I-d-a means Idaho, don't it?"
"And," added Silent, "if I ain't so danged badly mistaken King Cleeve's from Idaho. Mebbe not lately, yuh understand, but——"
Silent broke off and stared at the opposite wall.
Then his face broke into a smile of wonderment.
"What's a joke?" asked Brick, grinning an accompaniment.
"Nothin', Brick; I was just thinkin'."
"What's all this about?" demanded the sheriff testily. "I asks for an explanation and I gets a lot of fool talk. I want that explanation—now!"
"And if we refuse to talk—what then?" asked Brick.
"Well, I'll have to present such facts as I have to the county attorney."
Brick grinned at Bunty and shook his head.
"You ain't got no facts, Bunty, but do the best with what yuh have. A top-buggy ain't nothin' to hunt outlaws in, and if the county attorney ain't got no more sense than you have, the two of yuh ought to be able to hang some half-witted sheepherder for killin' Limpy. Do yuh want to arrest any of us?"
"No—not now—not yet."
"Stutterin' loosens your teeth," stated Brick. "Come on."
The three of them filed out, leaving Bunty Blair glaring down at the top of his desk, his nerve almost gone. He reflected that it was a good thing that Brick Davidson had taken it as a joke. Bunty had been forced, against his will, to demand an explanation from the three cowboys. They had refused.
The bunch of men were no longer in front of the store. As Brick and his two companions went up the narrow sidewalk a tall cowboy came across from the Dollar Down, heading for the store.
"That's Topaz Tyler," said Harp.
"Walks like he had club feet."
"That's how Brick's goin' to walk if he don't wear proper boots," declared Silent seriously; but Brick was studying Topaz Tyler and did not resent Silent's implication. There was no question but what Topaz was wearing tight boots—not only tight, but also expensive. In fact, his whole make-up bespoke the dandy. Light-blue silk shirt, lavender muffler, trousers with a diagonal stripe and the finest of black calf-skin boots, with the softest of tops. His hat was of the "five-gallon" Southwest type, surmounted with a snakeskin band. In his hand he carried a pair of gray gauntlet gloves, beaded and fringed. He merely glanced at the three cowboys as he passed and went into the store.
"Smokin' one of them Turk cigarets!" grunted Silent, wrinkling his long nose. "Jockey Club per-fume and burnin' camel-hair. Waugh! I'd kiss him if he didn't smoke."
"Where'd he get the nickname, Harp?" asked Brick.
"Wears 'em," grinned Harp. "Look at his vest-buttons, Brick. All topazes. Wears a big one on a rosette to hold his muffler, and he's got two or three on his fingers. Kinda nutty, I reckon. Feller told me that Tyler found a smoky topaz as big as a goose-egg and had a jeweler cut it up for him."
Brick nodded and turned into the store. Silent and Harp followed on his heels. There were several men in the store. Le Blanc the blacksmith, Cale Wesson the storekeeper, King Cleeve, Lynn Barnhardt of the Lazy H, Lowdermilk, who bought stock for the Eastern markets, and Topaz Tyler.
Topaz turned from purchasing a package of tobacco and glanced at Brick and his companions. He glanced at Harp Harris, but turned and began to roll a cigaret. None of the men said a word, although it was evident that there had been earnest conversation prior to the coming of the three cowboys.
"Gimme a pack of smokin', Cale," said Brick, moving up to the counter.
"When did yuh leave Smoky Creek, Topaz?" asked Harp.
Topaz turned and stared at Harp, the tobacco trickling from the crimped paper in his hand.
"Smoky Creek?" he parroted. "I reckon yuh got the best of me, pardner."
"If I did it's the first time anybody has—when yuh was lookin'," returned Harp seriously.
Topaz let the paper slip out of his hand, but kept his hands above his waist-line. It looked too much like a challenge for him to drop his hands.
"Just what do yuh mean?" he asked.
"I used to work for the Diamond H."
"Sa-a-ay, you're the feller who used to play the jew's-harp. Still twangin' along?"
"Yeah," grinned Harp. "Kinda."
"Smoky Creek," said Brick thoughtfully, turning. "Name's familiar somehow. Didn't a feller by name of Martin used to live around there?"
Topaz shifted his eyes to Brick's face and their eyes met. Topaz turned back to Harp, but neither of them answered Brick's question.
"Snubbed!" grunted Brick, licking the edge of a cigaret paper. "A fool and his questions never gits answered," and then added reflectively: "She's kinda funny about so many Idaho folks movin' over here, ain't it? Anybody'd think they quit runnin' cows over there."
King Cleeve gave Brick a searching glance, but Brick's face told him nothing. Silent was laughing silently, his homely face wreathed in deep lines. He looked at King Cleeve, and it seemed to convulse him, but no sound came from his wide mouth.
King Cleeve's eyes narrowed. Silent's laugh was almost an insult—that kind of laugh; and he was looking directly at King Cleeve.
Suddenly the door opened and a man came in. He was about fifty years of age, sandy-haired, his thin face plentifully sprinkled with freckles. His arms were long, his shoulders sloping; but he carried himself with a wiry ease, and the sleeves of his faded shirt seemed to stretch under the relaxed arm muscles. His gun was tied down to a rosette on his chaps, the butt swung out at an angle which hinted at fast work.
His glance quickly took in the inhabitants of the store. For a moment his eyes shifted from one to another, and then he moved in close to the counter. Wesson walked up and leaned across the counter. Without taking his eyes off the group, the newcomer gave his order and leaned easily against the counter while Wesson tied up the purchases. Then he paid, half-turned, opened the door and stepped out, still half-facing the interior. He carried his purchases in his left hand.
No one spoke for several moments after the door closed, and then Le Blanc said:
"She's got wan strong look, dees Martin, eh? Bah gosh, she's tip ovair cow with hands, I'm bet."
"Where'd he come from, Cale?" asked Barnhardt.
Wesson shook his head.
"I dunno, Lynn. You know, Cleeve?"
King Cleeve shook his head.
"Idaho, I think," said Brick. "Near Cottonwood or Smoky Creek."
Silent laughed again, but this time it was not silently. Every man in the place looked at him, but Silent gave them no heed. Finally he turned on his heel and walked outside.
"Slade acts like he was loco," observed King Cleeve.
"Acts like a —— fool, if you ask me," stated Topaz.
"If anybody asks yuh," agreed Brick, and added, "but nobody asked yuh."
"What do you mean?
Topaz glared at Brick angrily.
"Want a diagram?" grinned Brick. "If yuh don't, I'll just say yo're pretty new to be passin' opinions."
"Now, now, quit jawin'," interrupted Wesson, who knew Brick very, very well indeed. "Sayin' this 'n' that back and forth is apt to make enemies; don't yuh know it?" and then added meaningly, "There's been one killin' this week and gosh knows that's a plenty in these quiet times."
Topaz, without a reply, walked outside and crossed to the Dollar Down. Brick grinned.
"Friend of yours; ain't he, Cleeve?"
King Cleeve was astonished.
"Not that anybody knows of."
"Oh! Not that anybody—knows—of."
King Cleeve slid from his seat on the counter and straightened the creases in his trousers. He feigned not to have noticed Brick's tone of voice, and when he straightened up his face was blandly innocent.
"Me, I'm thinkin' she's goin' to rain."
Le Blanc stood up and yawned widely.
"Where?" asked Harp. "It ain't goin' to rain here, Frenchy."
"She's goin' t' be long dry spell if she don'," grinned Le Blanc, and headed for the door.
"That cinches the drink on you, Harp," grinned Brick. "C'mon."
OUTSIDE they found Silent sitting on the sidewalk, contemplating a faded and torn two-year-old circus poster which adorned the building just across the street. He looked soberly up at Brick and moved aside to let him sit down.
"What did yuh laugh for, Silent?"
Brick's tone was mildly reproving.
"I had to," grinned Brick. "Lemme tell yuh something, which yuh likely won't believe; I was in jail once."
"I don't believe it," declared Brick. "You was in jail more'n once."
"I can remember this one. It was a little town in Idaho I got into a argument with a feller. I reckon I was drinkin' a little too much. Anyway I licked him. Then two fellers hopped on me and helped him put me in jail. He was the sheriff. There was only one cell—a big one. I didn't mind, 'cause there was a good bed in there.
"I don't know what time it was—night, I reckon—when I hears two men come inside. They unlocks the door, and one of 'em shoves the other feller inside and locks up again. After he's gone I lights a match and looks at this feller. He's been handled considerable and ain't payin' much attention to things. I went back to sleep, and pretty soon I'm woke up.
"The place is full of men. They smashes in the cell door, falls upon me in a mess and yanks me plumb outside with a rope around my neck. I can't holler nor nothin'. I gets yanked and hauled for quite some ways, and then they stops. I hear somebody sayin', '——, that ain't no way to tie a proper knot,' and then somebody else says, 'Ain't yuh goin' to let him say anythin'?'
"Then somebody lights a match and takes a look at my face. I seen his face in the light of that match. It was all bloody and white. Then he said:
" '——! This ain't him, boys!'
"They crowds around me and gets a look.
" 'Git back to the jail!' orders the feller who looked at me first, and they left me on my back out there under a tree.
"I found my bronc and I sure rattled his hocks out of there."
Silent rubbed his neck thoughtfully and grinned widely.
"Yeah," admitted Brick; "it sure was funny, Silent. What else?"
"Yuh can laugh now," replied Silent. "The man they throwed into my own little cell was—King Cleeve."
Brick grunted his unbelief.
"I'm sure as ——!" declared Silent. "Always I've wondered where I seen his face, and when he was talkin' about Idaho——"
"When do we laugh?" asked Harp.
"When I tell yuh that this here jigger that bought the Weepin' Tree outfit was the person who lit that match and saved my neck."
"Martin!" exclaimed Brick.
"Silent, is this straight goods, or are yuh romancin'?" asked Brick seriously.
"——'s truth! I carries them faces photygraphed on my brain, y'betcha. 'Course Martin was all bloody-like, but I know that face. I was kinda bothered about Cleeve, bein' as he was beat up a lot, and not of much consequence to me—not like Martin was."
"Which makes a different color horse," sighed Brick. "Things are almost as clear as mud."
"Cleeve must 'a' been gone when they went back to the jail," observed Harp. "They busted the door and he just walked out; don't yuh see? After they takes you away he jist naturally went——"
"As a detective you plays real sweetly on the jew's-harp," remarked Brick. "Let's go home before Harp explains the whole mystery."
"Well—" Harp was very serious—"well, of course there's a chance that——"
"Chances are you're right, Harp," admitted Brick. "I hope the stove-pipe draws well. Must take a pasear out there again real soon."
"We must," agreed Silent; and Harp nodded, but added:
"After observin' her paw, I'd say we better go one at a time—we'll last longer. Let's have another li'l shot before we go."
THE Whippoorwill men seemed to make little effort to apprehend the robbers. Limpy was dead; therefore unable to tell of the actual occurrence. Silent and Brick refused to talk about it.
Bunty Blair hinted at evidence—nothing absolute, but something that might incriminate a couple of unintelligent cowboys. He did not designate them by name, but every one knew whom he meant.
Brick, Silent and Harp were stumped. Silent and Harp were sure that Scott Martin, Jean and Jack Oliver were the guilty parties, but they were equally sure that they—Silent and Harp—did not want the reward, and they were also sure that they were going to act as a stumbling-block to any one else that tried to collect.
Brick spent a lot of time alone, thinking, and his actions were looked upon darkly by Silent and Harp. None of them had been out to the Weeping Tree ranch since that one day.
Just now Silent and Harp had come in from repairing a corral at Silver Spring. Brick was not at the ranch. Sing Moy, the god of the kitchen, was the only inhabitant. They asked him where Brick was.
"You go—he go," stated Sing. "Mebby-so go town."
"Jist like that!" exploded Silent. "Send us out to fix a darned old corral that nobody ever uses, and then he goes to town. Let's me and you go to town. He-e-e-y, Harp! Quit mournin' on that groan-organ. Let's go to town."
Harp shoved himself away from the side of the house and wiped the back of his hand across his lips, after which he carefully wrapped the offending instrument before putting it in his pocket.
The fact that he had sent Silent and Harp to repair a perfectly good corral, giving him a chance to go alone to Marlin City, was not stinging Brick Davidson's conscience. In fact, Brick was very, very busy, trying to capture a glass of liquor which seemed to elude his every effort. Brick stepped back from the bar, looking cross-eyed at the glass, and then cautiously stalked it with his hands.
There is no denying the fact that Brick was beautifully drunk—if such an adjective may be used to describe his present condition. He was also very joyful. He loved all the world, and made it publicly known that his soul was fairly reeking with milk and honey.
He insisted that Topaz Tyler was as near perfect as any human being could be—and still live. He dilated on the virtues of Topaz. Then he eulogized King Cleeve, whom he pronounced a "pup-pup-prince." Brick did not stammer over any other words but King Cleeve didn't mind.
Brick was staggering drunk when he entered the Dollar Down and cast his bleared eyes around the place. Bunty Blair was there, but Bunty did not linger. Brick was not yet drunk enough to disturb the peace, and Bunty knew that when Brick got drunk enough to be safely handled he would be too drunk to disturb any one.
But Brick was not mean. Oh, far from it. He even said, "Thank you," when King Cleeve said, "Well, here's regards."
Brick grew confidential with King Cleeve. Did Cleeve have any idea who held up the stage? King Cleeve did not. Brick hinted darkly that he did. In fact, he had a document that would clear up the mystery.
"What do you mean?" asked Cleeve.
"I never shed," grinned Brick drunkenly, patting a pocket of his vest, "I got shome evidence; y' understand?"
King Cleeve patted Brick on the back and wished him luck. He told Brick that there was nobody he would sooner see win the thousand dollars.
Then came Topaz Tyler, and King invited him to join them. For a man who was already drunk Brick stood an amazing lot of liquor. Topaz and Cleeve mourned over the fact that they could not drink liquor as Brick could. It was a gift. They boasted over his ability, and Brick's chest swelled. Brick admitted that he was a wonder.
But finally a glass of liquor eluded him. Then he stalked it, cautiously. King Cleeve's foot was elevated on the bar-rail, his leg encased in a very expensive, pearl-colored trouser. Brick threw caution to the winds and scooped the glass off the bar, and its contents splashed on Cleeve's immaculate knee.
Brick chuckled with glee and sat down heavily on the floor, while King Cleeve swore at the ruination of his new trousers. A swamper volunteered to remove Brick, but Cleeve and Topaz declined his assistance. Wasn't Brick their friend?
They lifted him to his unstable feet and piloted him out of the back door, where they propped him up on some empty kegs, afterward removing the folded note from his inside vest pocket. Then they staggered up to Cleeve's room over the saloon and sat down on the bed. It had been a mighty job to anesthetize Brick Davidson with whisky, but they were sure, judging from their own condition, that the job had been thoroughly done.
King Cleeve read the note with both eyes, and then read it with one eye shut. Topaz nodded over it and stared at King Cleeve. Then they both went to sleep.
SILENT and Harp tied their horses to the saloon rack and came inside. Silent approached the bar and asked the bartender if he had seen Brick Davidson lately. The bartender grinned.
"Went out the back door a while ago, but I don't reckon he went far."
"Drunk?" asked Silent.
"Well—" the bartender did not want to reflect any discredit on Brick's ability—"well, I— I hope so."
"Why hope so?" inquired Harp.
"I'll tell yuh; Davidson was seven-eighths drunk when he came here, and he drank enough here to float a canoe."
"Son of a gun!" breathed Silent, and headed for the back door with Harp on his heels.
Yes, Brick was there. His head jerked sidewise as they came out of the door, and he looked up at them with streaming, agonized eyes. Tears coursed down his cheeks and dripped off his chin.
"May I herd sheep if he ain't bawlin'!" gasped Silent. "What's the matter, cowboy?"
Brick shook his head and handed the little bottle which he held in his hand to Silent.
"Sm-smell it," he choked.
Silent put the bottle to his nose and sniffed. Like a flash his head jerked back and he dropped the bottle.
Silent's choking wheeze was very emphatic. Brick sobbed with joy.
"What in—— is that?"
Silent's eyes were full of tears and his nose twitched violently.
"Oil of mustard," grinned Brick. "Ain't she a humdinger? Doc Lindsay gave it to me."
"What's it for?" asked Harp.
"Soberin' up. Kicks the booze out of your head, muy pronto."
"Spend your good money for liquor and then blow your head off to get rid of it!"
Silent wiped the tears off his cheeks and glared down at Brick.
"You're a disgrace to Sun-Dog County, Brick Davidson."
Brick got up and yawned. His legs wobbled a little as he walked around the rear of the saloon and over to the hitch-rack, where he stopped and apologized to Silent and Harp for acting so disgracefully. Silent and Harp looked with distrust upon this apology. Brick was very meek.
"Yessir," nodded Silent as if to an invisible person. "Yessir, when I come to think about it, I do. Crazy, yuh say? Well, yuh know how it is—a feller kinda hates to say, but now that yuh mentioned it—yeah, I reckon you're right. No, I won't mention any certain thing, y'understand, but jist take mostly anythin' he's ever done—you're welcome, I'm sure."
Silent nodded and turned back to Brick and Harp. Brick laughed, but it was not a drunken laugh. Heroic measures had driven the alcohol from his head, leaving him a trifle unsteady on his feet, but otherwise cold sober.
Brick's laugh nettled Silent.
"You hoodled us away so yuh could come to town alone and git drunk, didn't yuh? Yes, yuh did, Brick. Ain'tcha got no feelins?"
Brick was busy searching his pockets and ignored Silent's question. Brick swore softly.
"Gone," he muttered.
"What—your feelin's?" grunted Silent.
"I had a note in my pocket—" began Brick.
"Aw-w-w-w, gosh!" groaned Silent. "You went and lost that note? Yuh didn't, did yuh, Brick?"
Brick nodded and searched his pockets again.
"Where did yuh lose it?" inquired Harp.
"Where did he?"
Silent glared at Harp, and then hammered on the hitch-rack.
"Where did he lose it? Harp, some day you're goin' to ask a question and I'm goin' to kill yuh dead—right when yuh finish askin'. If he knowed where he lost it he'd know where he was when he lost it, wouldn't he?"
Silent snorted his disgust.
"He'd know," nodded Harp. "He'd know where he was when he lost it if he was sober enough to know where he was when he lost it; but if he——"
Silent clenched his hands and rubbed his shoulder into Harp's chest, shoving him slowly backward.
"Please don't speak, Harp," he begged. "Don't speak."
"Don't speak to him, Harp," grinned Brick.
"I won't," promised Harp. "I ain't got nothin' to say to the —— fool. Where do yuh think yuh lost it, Brick?"
"Think!" Silent snorted. "What would he think with?"
Harp looked mildly at the exasperated Silent and then turned his back. Silent snorted again and went across toward the store, walking stiff-legged like an angry bear.
"He's angry with me and you," grinned Brick. "Mebbe he'll be mad quite a while."
"Let's me and you go into the saloon," suggested Harp. "Betcha forty dollars he brings a peace-pipe, 'cause he's thirsty."
The bartender was idly wiping a glass as they came in, and the glass fell from his fingers, making a dull plop! in the rinsing-tub under the bar. He stared at Brick, who walked up to the bar, talking to Harp. There was nothing about Brick's actions that would indicate he had ever had a drink.
"Hooch," said Harp.
"The best yuh got," added Brick. "I'm dry."
The bartender's hand shook as he placed the required articles before them. He wondered if Brick was one of twins, or if any man could handle that much— Well, if he wasn't one of twins, it was a sinful waste of liquor.
Bunty Blair came in and sat down at an unused card-table before he saw that Brick was still there. Bunty had expected that Brick had been laid away long before this; and Bunty watched, fascinated, as Brick rolled a cigaret with one hand and never spilled the tobacco. Then Bunty stared at the table-top. It was beyond him.
Silent came in and leaned against the bar.
"Normal again?" asked Brick.
Silent cleared his throat dryly, and Brick nodded to the bartender. Then Brick looked at Bunty, who turned away.
Brick nudged Harp, who grinned at Bunty. Then Brick turned to Silent.
"How long since you was in Idaho, Silent?"
"Nine or ten years, I reckon."
"Did sheriffs use top-buggies to chase outlaws with?"
A man at a poker-table laughed, and several men turned and looked at Bunty. Brick had plenty of respect for the law, and in spite of his wild escapades stayed within it, but he detested Bunty Blair.
Bunty got up from the table and faced Brick. Bunty hated ridicule worse than anything else, and his soul seethed with a desire to obliterate this red-headed nuisance. He did not speak for a moment, evidently trying to control his voice, but there was a decided catch in it when he said—
"There are times when a sheriff can't even use a top-buggy to follow outlaws."
Brick leaned back, elbows on top of the bar, and grinned widely.
"When is them times, Bunty?"
"They don't make saloon doors wide enough."
Brick laughed, loudly, joyously. Bunty's hand was at the butt of his holstered Colt and he had stepped away from the table far enough to give him room to draw. Brick knew that Bunty was fast enough with a gun; knew that Bunty would likely take a chance when he had all the advantage.
BRICK was in no position to reach for his gun. In fact, he gave no sign that he might reach for a gun. He laughed.
Every eye in the place was on Brick. Then Brick's eyes shifted from Bunty's face to a point behind Bunty. Like a flash the laugh died from Brick's lips and a look of horror came. He started to speak.
Bunty whirled, falling for an old trick; and before he could recover Brick had flung himself away from the bar, wrapping his arms around Bunty, and the two of them went over a chair and crashed to the floor. Brick staggered to his feet, still holding his grip. He removed Bunty's pistol and tossed it away.
Bunty cursed wildly and kicked Brick on the leg; whereupon Brick whirled Bunty to the doorway and flung him bodily into the street. Bunty staggered to his feet and limped straight toward his office without a backward glance. Silent and Harp were backed against the bar, guns in their hands, watching the crowd for a hostile move.
Brick looked at the crowd.
"I reckon you gents will pardon the confusion, won't yuh?"
No one objected. Silent and Harp walked over to Brick, and the three of them went outside and headed for the hitch-rack. "Now yuh went and done it," complained Silent, looking back as they rode out of town. "Yuh antagonized the sheriff a lot, Brick. He won't forget that, y'betcha. Yuh went and got drunk and lost that letter and——"
"But with all my faults yuh love me still," added Brick.
"Well—" Silent shook his head slowly—"well, yuh do the dangedest things, Brick. I ain't kickin' about yuh huggin' Bunty Blair. She makes me no never mind how he feels, but that note was important. Suppose somebody finds it? Tell yuh one thing, though, Brick; I'm goin' to——"
"Where did yuh leave that letter?" interrupted Harp.
Brick turned in his saddle and stared at Harp.
"We're all in on this, ain't we?"
Harp was very serious.
"All right. Yuh can go ahead and tell us why yuh went and got drunk, Brick. Yuh didn't get drunk for fun, that's a cinch. Now, where is that letter?"
Brick grinned in appreciation of Harp's deductions.
"What makes yuh think I didn't lose it, Harp?"
" 'Cause yuh never worried about it. I know danged well you'd be r'arin' around to beat —— if yuh lost it."
"It's hid in the bunk-house."
Silent's disgust was very pronounced.
"Yuh never lost no note, yuh danged red-headed——"
"Yeah, I lost a note, Silent."
"Whatcha mean, Brick?"
Brick laughed and looked back down the dusty road.
"I went into the Dollar Down, actin' as drunk as a shepherd on a vacation. Mamma mine, I sure was drunk as a boiled owl. I invited Cleeve to participate, and then Topaz Tyler joined us.
"I drank all I could handle and then I sets down on the floor, after I dumped a glass of hooch over Cleeve's ice-cream pants. Cleeve and Topaz led me out behind the place and swiped the note. They sure was lit up plentiful."
"But about this here note," said .
"I hinted that I had a note; sabe? I said I had evidence in my pocket. They picked it out of my inside pocket and all it said was—
"Since when did Nature start muzzlin' coyotes?"
Silent and Harp stared at Brick.
"You're awful crazy," declared Silent. "Awful crazy. What good did it do to let 'em steal that from you?"
"I dunno," admitted Brick, "but I'm just kinda peckin' around, like a woodpecker on a tree. There's a worm-hole some'ers, and I'm goin' to be the early bird."
"I think you're crazy," said Silent, and then to Harp, "You agree with me, don't yuh?"
"Think ——! I know he is, Silent."
"I'm just as happy as though I had good sense," grinned Brick.
"YOU fellers just about raised —— and put a chunk under it."
Lafe Freeman leaned against the bunk-house door and contemplated the three bunks, wherein three blanketed figures reposed in deep slumber. A protruding leg, bare to the knee, was all that would absolutely identify any of the three humps as being human.
One of the humps choked over a healthy snore and sat up, blinking at Lafe.
Lafe Freeman squinted at Silent's yawning face and repeated his statement.
Silent reached down, picked up a boot and hit the nearest figure a resounding whack.
"Daylight in the swamp!" he yelled. "Up and at 'em, Brick!"
Brick uncoiled from his blanket, swung his feet around and sprang for Silent, but Silent was looking for just such a move. His legs shot out, catching Brick in the chest, and the luckless Brick sprawled to the floor.
"Take him off!" yelled Silent, as if Brick were beating him. "Take him off!"
Then he threw the other boot, which hit Harp as he lifted up to see what the commotion was all about.
"Aw-w-w-w!" wailed Silent. "Brick's to blame, Harp. Honest to grandma, he is. I meant to hit him and he ducked."
Harp rubbed his shoulder and stared at Lafe. Brick got to his feet and sat down on his bunk.
"The sheriff," stated Lafe ominously, "the sheriff says that Marlin City ain't big enough to hold you fellers."
Brick seemed surprized. Then he grinned.
"Goin' to build her bigger, eh?"
"Says he's got enough evidence to hold yuh all in jail."
"He needs stren'th more than evidence," yawned Harp.
"Well, he can make a lot of trouble for yuh, that's one cinch. He's got warrants all made out, so Le Blanc told me, and he's goin' to serve 'em the first time yuh show up down there."
Brick was properly indignant.
"I suppose we staged that runaway and grabbed the strong-box! Rats! The fellers that done it are the same ones that killed poor old Limpy."
"That's what they're talkin' about," nodded Lafe. "They say he rode away with you fellers, and that's the last time anybody seen him alive. There's talk that this robbery was all framed, and that Limpy was killed for his share because they was afraid he might get caught and squeal."
Brick stared at the floor, deep in thought.
"Mebbe they're right at that, Lafe."
"Betcha forty dollars they are," agreed Silent.
"Know anythin' about that new feller that bought the old Weepin' Tree ranch?"
The three cowboys looked at Lafe, but none of them admitted that they did, so Lafe continued:
"His daughter—I reckon it's his daughter—was in Marlin last night. Came in after grub, I reckon. After she went away I heard Cleeve talkin' to Bunty about her. Cleeve opines that they're kinda mysterious, and then he asks Bunty what he thinks about your story about the female bandit. Bunty said it was a —— of a thing for a feller to imagine, and wondered if you fellers lied.
"Cale Wesson said it was a shame for a nice-lookin' girl to not have any females to wau-wau with, and he said he was goin' to have Mrs. Wesson go out and visit her."
"My ——!" gasped Brick. "Mrs. Wesson would talk the ear off a mule. What else did they say—Bunty and Cleeve?"
"Nothin' much. I hears Cleeve asked Bunty why he didn't go out to the Nine Bar Nine and serve them warrants instead of waitin' for you to come to town, and Bunty said there wasn't no —— of a big hurry about it."
"Bunty ain't goin' to strain himself and get his muscles all sore," observed Silent. "I ain't huntin' for trouble, but Marlin City is big enough to suit me."
"All right, all right!"
Lafe Freeman shook his head violently.
"Go ahead! Git in jail and see if I care; but before yuh get shot or hung I want you and Harp to go over to the Triangle Dot and bring back them twelve white-faced yearlin's. Sam Slayton said he'd have 'em in the corral;" and then added as an afterthought, "They're wilder than white-tail deer, but that ain't no reason for runnin' 'em all the way home."
Silent and Harp grumbled, which is a usual thing in a case of this kind, especially as they were afraid that Brick wouldn't sit down and wait for them to return. After breakfast they rode away, still grumbling.
Brick watched them disappear over the hills and then threw the saddle on his top horse, Glory, a hammer-headed gray. He tilled half of his pistol-belt with rifle-cartridges and shoved a Winchester carbine into a saddle scabbard.
Lafe Freeman watched Brick's preparations, but made no comment. If Brick wanted to go to Marlin City and call the sheriff's bluff it was Brick's own business. Lafe knew that Brick could take care of himself, in spite of the fact that he was prone to get reckless. Lafe's soul yearned to follow Brick, but he put away his desires.
But Brick was not thinking about going to Marlin City to call Bunty Blair's bluff. Brick had an idea; an idea that was not at all clear just yet. Something seemed to tell him that the answer was written in the cañon where the hold-up had been pulled off. He was piecing together some of the things that had happened; but there were many, many things that he needed to make it complete.
As he swung away from the ranch, with the Winchester under his right knee, he wondered where the trail would end, and why he was so interested. It was not because Bunty Blair had hinted that he—Brick—was mixed up in it.
Brick's thoughts went to the Weeping Tree ranch. Was the answer there? He knew that Jean was not guilty. What did Scott Martin know? Would any man carry a note like that to the scene of the hold-up and take a chance on losing it? Brick shook his head.
Why was Limpy killed? Did Limpy know who held him up? Where was Limpy going when he was killed? Was he afraid that his knowledge of the bandits— Again Brick shook his head, but would not admit to himself that he was baffled. He would work on the theory that Limpy knew who held him up.
King Cleeve had incurred the displeasure of a mob, according to Silent's story. Martin led that mob. Why hadn't Martin recognized Cleeve? Did Cleeve know Martin? Brick scowled over these perplexing questions.
He went slowly down to the county road, and drifted along until he came to the second curve of the Whisperin' Creek grade, where he stopped. The wrecked stage had been taken away, and there was nothing left to mark the spot except the deep ruts where the wheels had cut into the soft hillside.
Brick visualized as much as he could of the robbery, but there was nothing to give him any clue. He decided that the woman, and possibly one of the men, had jumped or been knocked off the grade into the brush out of sight. The other had stayed with the stage until it reached the pine thicket. But their manner of escape from the crash had nothing to do with their apprehension.
Brick swung his horse off the edge of the grade and rode down to where the bank broke sharp to Whisperin' Creek, where he dismounted.
Brick felt sure that the bandits would not carry that heavy box very far. The reasonable thing, he thought, would be to open it, divide the contents and then go on. There was little water in the creek-bed, which was piled high with boulders.
Brick slid down to the creek-bed and began casting around. About fifty feet from where he struck the creek he found footprints of three people—two men and a woman. The half-wet sand had caught and held the prints perfectly.
"Men wearin' about number nines," muttered Brick.
Half the men in the country wore about that size boot. The woman wore what Brick would designate as a fair average size.
The tracks led across a sandy spot, all three prints well defined, especially those of the woman, whose heels made small circles. The tracks all led to a rock, which jutted up in the center of the sand-plot. The marks showed that the three had stopped for consultation or to wait for some one.
Brick studied the jumble of prints as he started to light a cigaret. Suddenly he stared at the tracks, while the match burned up and scorched his thumb. He dropped the match, circled the tracks and sprang to the top of the rock, where he perched like a buzzard, staring down at the sand.
The woman had walked to the rock, but had never walked away! Her footprints came up to the rock, but none went away. A jumble of men's tracks led to the opposite side of the ravine, but there was no sign of a woman's tracks.
Brick lighted his cigaret and pondered over this.
"My ——!" he exclaimed to himself. "She must 'a' just e-vaporated."
He studied it from every angle, but shook his head. Then he walked over to a big boulder, which he climbed, and looked around. He happened to glance down the far side of the big boulder, and there he saw the iron treasure-box, half-covered with brush.
Brick lost no time in getting down to it. The padlocks had been forced; one of them still dangled from the staple. Brick lifted the lid and stared down at a jumble of black cloth, which resolved itself into three black masks. Brick shook them out and then looked down at the untouched contents of the box—untouched except for examination.
Brick dropped on his knees beside it and lifted one of the heavy bars, weighing it in his hands. Then Brick closed the box carefully and examined the masks.
They were made of cheap material—sack-like affairs, with rough circles cut for eye-holes. An examination proved to Brick that they were not all made by the same person, as the sewing was crude, each one a different stitch and with different-colored thread.
He started to put them back into the box, but changed his mind and placed them, folded, inside his shirt. Then he piled more brush on the box, climbed back across the ravine and went back to his horse.
"Glory," he confided to the gray, "I've found out more in ten minutes than all the rest have since the hold-up, and—and I don't know a danged thing, yet. That's the —— of bein' a detective."
Brick did not stop in Marlin City; neither did he hurry through. The main street was not over three blocks long, and Brick walked his horse the full length of town, looking neither to the right nor left but seeing everything. Several cowboys in front of the Dollar Down looked expectantly at Brick, and voiced their disappointment when he passed the hitch-rack.
Three Star Hennessey saw Brick ride through town. Three Star was strong for self-preservation, so kept right on reading a year-old magazine. Bunty had boasted that he was going to arrest Brick as soon as he came into town, but that was all right with Three Star. He had made no boasts.
Le Blanc was fitting a hot shoe on a mule when Brick rode past, but the Frenchman forgot business long enough to go outside. The shoe was cold when Le Blanc came back in, and he swore fluently at the mule.
"Ba gar—" Le Blanc got confidential with the mule as soon as his disappointment was past—"ba gar, dis Breek she's ain't afraid for scare, an' I'm wonder why she don't stop. I'm mak' you little bet dat pretty soon dere be gut for de bear to chew. She's ride wit' Winchester under her leg. Somet'ing be do pretty soon, you bet me."
Topaz Tyler saw Brick, too. Bunty Blair was sleeping after a hard night at poker, but it did not take him long to wake up when Topaz sent a swamper from the saloon to tell him about Brick Davidson. Bunty conferred with Three Star. They went over to the saloon, where Brick Davidson was the topic of conversation. King Cleeve grinned at Bunty, and Bunty grew explosive.
"He walked his horse through town," King informed Topaz.
Bunty wondered aloud where Brick could have been going alone. King Cleeve settled that wonder by saying—
"Isn't there a lady out at the Weeping Tree ranch?"
Bunty nodded, and exulted to himself. If there was a woman mixed up in this hold-up, why couldn't it be—? Bunty smiled. At least it meant that Brick was alone.
Of course, Brick alone was enough to make trouble, but Brick alone was not as formidable as Brick and Silent and Harp. Bunty announced that he would attend to Mr. Davidson at once.
Three Star was inclined to be pessimistic.
"Packin' a Winchester. I seen him shoot the tin can off a dog's tail oncet, and that dog was fannin' the breeze."
"Accident," said Topaz.
Three Star was unconvinced.
"Mebbe she was a accident, but that didn't save the can, and yuh can't never make me believe that accidents are all through happenin'."
"This time," stated Bunty, "there won't be no accidents."
"Gee cripes!" grunted Three Star. "I didn't say it was a accident, did I? I hope there won't be no intentionals either."
BRICK knew that his ride through Marlin City had caused comment, but nothing more. Bunty and Three Star were the least of his troubles, and the fact of the warrants did not disturb him, as he felt that he could clear himself before any jury in Sun-Dog County.
He rode straight to the Weeping Tree ranch-house and swung off his horse near the doorway. As he started for the open door Scott Martin confronted him, and Brick stopped.
Martin had stopped with his weight resting on his right leg, his body swung a trifle forward and his right hand hanging loosely at his side. Brick recognized the pose; knew that Scott Martin was one of the old school of gun-fighters, and that right now he was in position for fast work.
There was nothing friendly-looking about Scott Martin. His face was set in stern lines, his eves coldly blue, and his lower jaw seemed molded to a fighting angle. Brick wondered if this man ever smiled. Scott Martin gave one the impression of implacable power—power of purpose and physique. He did not speak, but his eyes seemed to challenge Brick.
"You're wrong, pardner. You don't know me, but I bring a pipe."
Martin's tone was colorless.
"Y'betcha. White belts, pardner."
Martin relaxed easily, but before he could replv Jean came to the door and saw Brick.
"Hello there!" she called, and her voice was friendly.
"Howdv, ma'am," grinned Brick. "Nice day."
Martin glanced from Brick to Jean. "Dad, shake hands with Mr. Davidson. He's the man who fixed that pipe for me."
Martin smiled and shook hands with Brick, who withdrew his hand as quickly as possible. Brick's hands were muscular and tough, but Martin's grip was like that of a steel vise.
"Pardner, I hope yuh never take hold of me for anythin' but a handshake."
Brick flexed his fingers painfully as they went into the house.
Jean had done wonders with the living-room of the old ranch-house. Dainty curtains hung at the windows, a canary sang from a home-made cage against the wall, and the whole room glowed with cleanliness and cheer. An oblong piece of bright-colored rag carpet covered the center of the floor. On a little table was a jumble of colored cloth, on top of which was a fancy sewing-basket.
Brick examined the curtains, paying close attention to the sewing.
"Did yuh make all these things?" he asked.
"Yes. Are you interested in sewing?"
Jean's eyes danced.
"Kinda," admitted Brick, smiling at her. "I—I kinda wanted to see how yuh sewed."
"Going to turn seamstress?"
Brick colored and shook his head.
"What's the idea?"
There was a trace of suspicion in Martin's voice.
Brick walked over to Martin.
"Pardner, I don't exactly sabe the idea myself. Yuh don't have to answer no questions, y' understand, and I don't want yuh to get sore at my conversation. I want yuh both to look at this thing like I do. Spread your cards if yuh want to, or keep 'em face down. I'm spreadin' mine.
"There's a warrant out for me and Silent Slade for robbin' the stage of a box of gold on July 15th. There was a woman mixed up in it."
Brick had watched Martin's face, but it never changed a line. Jean looked only mildly curious. Brick continued:
"They're talkin' about you folks down in Marlin. I found this in the dust where the stage was robbed."
Brick handed the note to Scott Martin. Martin glanced at his own name on the dirty envelope and looked searchingly at Brick's face. He slowly took out the note and looked down at it.
Brick could see Martin's face lose its ruddy hue and grow blue—like taking hot steel from a forge and plunging it into cold water. Martin handed the note to Jean and the two men watched her read.
"What—where did you——"
Martin put his hand on her arm.
"Let him do the talkin', girl."
"There's three of us that have seen the note—me and Silent and Harp, ma'am. It looked kinda bad. Of course we didn't know your initial was J, and we didn't know yuh had a man by the name of Oliver workin' for yuh."
"Jack isn't here yet," said Jean. "He stopped——"
"What do you think?"
Martin's tone was very cool.
"I've been doin' a lot of thinkin'," grinned Brick, "but it ain't got me much. There's somethin' crooked, pardner. The evidence against yuh is—too—danged—good. If yuh know anythin'——"
Brick reached inside his bosom and drew out the three masks.
"I found these today. They— Look at the sewin', will yuh, ma'am? It sure don't resemble your work a-tall."
Jean picked up one of the masks, while Martin held the other two in his hands, watching her.
Came a sound at the door, and they turned to look into muzzles of two rifles, held in the hands of Bunty Blair and Three Star Hennessey. For a moment there was silence, and then Bunty Blair laughed aloud.
"Don't move your hands," he cautioned; and then his eyes caught the significance of the black cloths.
IT WAS a very inopportune time for the three people, each holding an incriminating mask. Circumstantial evidence, it is true, but evidence that no jury would overlook. Brick realized their danger, and his mind worked fast.
Bunty chuckled and Three Star grinned.
"Caught with the goods," said Bunty, relishing his own words. "Gettin' all ready for another job, eh? Kinda lucky, I am."
There was not a ghost of a chance for anything except surrender. Scott Martin looked at Brick, and the friendliness had all left his eyes. His look was an accusation. Brick glanced at Jean, but she was looking down at the table-top, looking at one of the masks. Her face was white and her lips tightly compressed. None of them had put up their hands.
Bunty gloated. It was his moment and he was going to enjoy it.
"Unbuckle your belts," he ordered. "Careful with your hands. Now, hand 'em to me."
Bunty stepped inside, holding his cocked rifle at his hip, while Three Star covered them from just outside the door. Brick slowly unbuckled his belt.
Scott Martin was holding out his belt, but Bunty was watching Brick, and did not take it. Bunty was afraid of a trick.
Brick held out his belt and gun, but before Bunty could take it he let it fall to the rag carpet. Bunty stepped forward as if to pick it up, but changed his mind.
"No, yuh don't, Davidson."
Bunty was determined to take no chances.
"Pick it up yourself. You can't fox me this time."
Brick grinned at Bunty as if in appreciation of Bunty's caution; but he was in reality grinning at his own cleverness. Bunty had been foxed, but did not know it. It was a desperate chance, but Brick delighted in taking chances.
He half-knelt to pick up the belt and gun, but his hands grasped the rag carpet instead; and with a sudden backward heave he yanked the carpet from under Bunty's feet, throwing him upside down.
As Bunty fell Brick threw himself forward and into Bunty, and they rolled almost into the startled Three Star, who was unable to shoot for fear of hitting Bunty.
With a twist of his body Brick crashed Bunty against the side of the door, where he plucked Bunty's pistol from its holster and sent a bullet so close to Three Star's ear that Three Star lowered his rifle and felt to see whether he had lost an ear or not.
Scott Martin had snatched his own pistol from its holster and was covering Three Star, who capitulated audibly. Bunty's head had hit the wall so hard that he had little interest in present conditions.
"I told him," wailed Three Star. "I told him."
"What did yuh tell him?" asked Brick.
"I told him to wire the governor to send out a troop of cavalry. I ain't got a danged thing against yuh, Davidson."
"Workin' under protest?"
"Yeah. Soon as he wakes up I'm goin' to resign. I'll take my forty a month and punch cows."
Bunty took plenty of time to wake up, but awoke audibly. His feelings were hurt, and he felt it entirely within his rights to give vent to his feelings in profanity; but Brick promptly gagged him with a handkerchief, much to Bunty's indignation and disgust. The handkerchief was none too clean.
It had all happened in less time than it takes to tell about it. Martin had buckled his belt on again, and now he handed Brick's gun and belt to him.
"That was what a Frenchman would call a 'fox pass,' " grinned Brick. "Them darned masks made things look kinda bad for us; eh?"
Bunty gargled something, but Brick gave him a withering look and his eyes dropped to sullen contemplation of his toes. Three Star shifted his feet nervously.
"I—I don't understand."
Jean shook her head.
"Neither do I," admitted Brick, "but I'm havin' a lot of fun in my ignorance."
"You knowed Bunty had a warrant for yuh, didn't yuh?" asked Three Star.
Brick nodded. He turned to Martin.
"Do yuh know King Cleeve?"
Martin shook his head.
"No, only by sight."
Brick wrinkled his brow and wondered if Silent had been mistaken.
"You used to live in Idaho?"
"Yes; we came here from Idaho."
Brick stepped against the building, where he could keep an eye on Three Star and Bunty. Then he said to Martin:
"About eight or ten years ago you almost lynched the wrong man. Do yuh remember it, Martin?"
Martin's eyes grew wider and wider until they were almost complete circles; then they snapped back to mere slits, venomous as the eyes of a rattlesnake. The lines of his face stiffened into a mask and his body seemed to lengthen until the shoulder seams of his shirt threatened to snap under the strain. His lips did not seem to move as he breathed:
"Davidson, who are you? For ——'s sake, say something!"
Brick glanced at Jean. She was leaning forward, looking at Martin, her hand raised as if to reach for his arm. Brick snapped a glance at Three Star and Bunty.
"Can't yuh talk?" gritted Martin.
Brick stooped and picked up a coiled rope beside the door-step, and turned to Martin.
"We'll tie up our visitors, pardner; then talk."
Martin relaxed and stepped forward.
"You'll pay for this!" snarled Bunty as the gag slipped from his mouth. "You can't tie up the sheriff——"
"Mebbe not," replied Brick, "but we'll do our little best. There's worse places for a rope than around your hands and feet. You don't mind, do yuh, Three Star?"
"Nawsir. Help yourself, Brick."
Martin opened the door and they put the trussed officers into the next room, which was unused. Bunty made many rash promises, but no one seemed interested.
Back in the living-room Martin faced Brick, and Brick noticed that Martin had aged years in the last few minutes. His eyes had lost their glare, and his hand trembled as he drew it across his eyes.
"Davidson, if you know—anything—let me—give me a chance, will yuh?"
Martin's voice was pleading, and Brick wondered at the change.
"Pardner, I ain't goin' to cheat yuh out of anythin'. I don't know much—yet. Will yuh tell me a few things? Mebbe what I know will fit in with yours."
"I'll tell all I can, Davidson."
"Who did juh buy this ranch from?"
"A man by the name of Mohr."
"Whatcha know about that?"
Brick frowned down at the floor.
He had not known that Zell Mohr had owned the Weeping Tree.
"Suppose yuh tell me about that night in Idaho," Brick suggested.
Martin looked at Jean and then walked over by the open door, where he leaned against the side and looked off across the hills. Jean stepped in closer to Brick, but neither of them spoke. Finally Martin turned and came back.
"Davidson, I reckon you're a square-shooter. I thought—when the sheriff showed up—us havin' those masks——"
"Did look bad," smiled Brick; "but mebbe we can spoil the looks of it. Go ahead."
"Davidson, I used to be an outlaw."
If Martin expected Brick to show surprize he was disappointed.
"Did yuh ever hear of the Sandy Creek gang?"
BRICK nodded. The fame, or rather infamy, of the Sandy Creek gang had never died out, although they had seemingly disbanded eight or ten years before. None of them had ever been brought to justice.
"I was the leader of that gang," said Martin slowly. "For two years I rode at the head of that outlaw clan, and then I met the woman I married.
"Jean is not my daughter. Her mother was a widow, and Jean was ten years old when I met her. Men said that Mary Magone was beautiful. Women were scarce in that country—good women; and God never made a better one, Davidson.
"I rode into Cottonwood one day and met her. Two weeks later we were married and I left the old gang. Mary never knew I was an outlaw. She wasn't the kind you could tell things like that to—and the Sandy Creek gang had been accused of a lot of devilish things they never did. I knew she could never understand, so I did not tell.
"Our game was to take the clean-ups of the mines. We had information on every ounce of gold, and very little of it ever got past us.
"I had a little saved up. I told Mary I had sold my cattle. We moved away from there. I was a gambler, Davidson, and my money did not last. I had to get a job, and of all the jobs on earth for me to take—I went to drivin' the stage between Sweetgrass and the Ophir mines.
"Davidson, I was happy. I had a little home, the sweetest wife on earth, and little Jean. The past kinda faded out, and it seemed like I had always been straight. There was a reward of five thousand dollars for the leader of the Sandy Creek gang.
"I heard a feller say once that there's only the thickness of a cigaret paper between heaven and hell. He was right. I walked out of heaven one day when I met 'Black' Ames and Pete Rawls, members of the old gang.
"They laughed at me when I told 'em I was livin' straight. Rawls said they were going to get their share of the gold from the Ophir mines and were willin' to split it three ways with me.
"I refused to listen to them. They laughed and went away.
"Two days later they came to me again. I refused to help them. They laughed at me. Wasn't there a fat reward for the leader of the old gang? Wouldn't folks like to know who was driving the Ophir stage?
"Then Ames sprung his hole-card by telling me that my wife would be glad to find me out.
"Davidson, I should have killed them both right there. It would have caused trouble, but would have been better. That night I heard two men, standing in the dark, talking. One of them was Ames, and he was saying:
" 'That's the idea. We'll put a note in his pocket to show who he is. Did yuh ever see his wife?'
"The other one said—
" 'You're danged right I have, and I'm thinkin' I'll see a lot more of her pretty soon.'
"I knew they were talking about me. After they were gone I had figured out what they meant. They were going to kill me at the hold-up. Somebody was going to find my body with the note on it and claim the reward. Somebody else was going to try to get my wife, Davidson.
"I think that Rawls and Ames were the ones who pulled off the dirty deals that were credited to the Sandy Creek gang. It was impossible to prove it at the time. They demanded that I tip 'em off to the next big shipment of gold.
"I didn't know what to do, Davidson. I finally decided to lie about a shipment and fight it out with them at the hold-up. I thought there might be a third man in the deal, on account of the conversation I had overheard, but I took a chance. I knew they were going to try and kill me, but they didn't know that I knew this, which made it safer for me.
"I expected to have three men hold me up, but there were five of 'em. Ames and Rawls were not masked, but the other three were. They did not look for trouble from me, but when my hands came up I gave Ames and Rawls each a dozen buckshot from my shotgun. They never moved. They were going to double-cross me, but I beat 'em to it. Then a bullet struck me in the head, and when I fell I must 'a' kicked loose the brake and the team ran away.
"When I woke up I was in a saloon at Sweetgrass and the doctor was sewing up the gash in my head. A man had come to the door of the saloon and yelled that the stage had been smashed up and the driver killed. Then he rode away. They had brought me to town. It was dark. I went home. Yes, it was only a scalp wound, but I was bruised up pretty bad.
"I found the note in my pocket—the note that would tell folks who I had been. I destroyed it and went in the house. No one had told Mary, but she was worried because I was so late. I was tryin' to explain that I was all right, when the door opened and a masked man came in. Mary and I stood there together and looked at him. He said:
" 'We thought you was dead, Martin, but it don't matter. You double-crossed us to-day and you're goin' to pay.'
"All this time he's got a gun pointed at us. He whistled, and two more men came in.
" 'What do you want?' asked Mary, and the first man laughed.
" 'You,' he said. 'Pretty women are too scarce to waste on a dog like you've got.'
"I did not have a gun—nothing but my bare hands, but I sprang for him. I felt his bullet burn my cheek, and then there came a scream."
Martin's face was agonized and his hands clutched at the table-cover. Then he looked up at Brick, and his face was bloodless.
"Yes, that bullet killed her, Davidson—the bullet that was meant for me. Another shot at me as I caught my foot in the rug and fell. I guess they thought I was done for, so they left. The shots were heard and people came.
"Little Jean had come out from her bed and saw it all. I guess that saved me, because folks thought I had done it. I think I went crazy then.
"I got a gun and went hunting for the man who shot my wife. I think I just wanted to kill somebody. I had lost all that made life worth while, and I wanted to find something or somebody that would fight me.
"I knew that Ames and Rawls were dead, and I had no idea of who these three men could be. I didn't know but what it was my neighbor—anybody. I don't know how I expected to find 'em, but I went into the main street, looking.
"A horse had fallen in the street and hurt the rider. I met the sheriff, who was taking the injured man away. The sheriff looked like he had been fighting.
"I went to the saloon, where men shrank away from me. I don't blame them. I—I wanted to kill somebody.
"A man was telling about the horse falling. He said that there were two men. They raced into the street and one of the horses fell. I asked him who they were. He did not know.
"Then I knew it was one of the men who killed my wife. I told them. We went to the jail and took him out. I wanted them to let me have him, but they wanted to hang him. I think I tied the knot. For some reason or other I lit a match and looked at him.
"It was the wrong man. This man was over six feet tall and had no marks of injury. I think he was half-drunk. We left him and went back, but our man was gone. We found the sheriff at his shack, but he knew nothing.
"Since then we've kinda moved around, Jean and I. Something seems to tell me that some day I'll find that man. Something will tell me who he is when we meet."
Martin finished his tale and put his arms around Jean.
"What was the sheriff's name, Martin?"
"Zell Mohr. He always was sorry for me, and tried to make me give up the idea of hunting for that man. I reckon he felt sorry for Jean, 'cause I kinda was unsatisfied in any one place, and when he got this old ranch he wrote me to come out here."
Brick stared at the floor. If Zell Mohr had been the sheriff, why hadn't Silent recognized him?
"Does Zell Mohr look the same as he did then?"
"Well, mebbe a little older, but——"
"He doesn't wear a beard any more, daddy," said Jean.
"That's right, girl. He did used to wear whiskers."
Brick rolled a cigaret slowly, and then looked up with a smile.
"Martin, did yuh ever see a hound catch a coyote?"
Martin frowned over the seemingly irrelevant question.
"Why, I—uh—yes, I have."
"Could three greyhounds catch a coyote and not get cut up a bit?"
Martin smiled and shook his head.
"No, I don't reckon they could, but they might."
"Could three greyhounds catch four coyotes on the same day and not show a mark?"
Martin's reply was very decisive.
"The coyote would cut some of them, that's a cinch."
"What have hounds and coyotes to do with it?" asked Jean.
"I dunno," admitted Brick; "but somethin', I think. Did yuh ever know a crippled feller by the name of Limpy Squires?"
Martin stared at Brick.
"Limpy Squires? Where is he?"
"He's dead. He was drivin' the stage that got held up, and later on he starts out with a ridin'-horse and pack-animal, and somebody plugged him in the back."
Martin stared down at the floor and his lips twitched.
"The fellers that robbed that stage likely killed him," said Brick.
Martin looked up.
"Limpy Squires was my best friend, Davidson, but I did not know he was in this country. He was one of the old gang, and got his limp when he stepped between me and a bullet from one of our own gang. He had to quit the gang on account of that injury. But why did anybody kill him?"
"Mebbe," suggested Brick, "mebbe somebody was afraid you two might meet."
Martin leaned closer to Brick and his voice was tense.
"Do you think that some of the gang—somebody wanted to get me? Did they plant that note—and they killed Limpy?"
"Looks kinda like it," nodded Brick; and then he told Martin of what happened at the hold-up, the finding of the note, and of the baffling footprints.
"What I want to know is this; where did that woman go? She didn't jist evaporate."
Martin shook his head and glanced at the connecting door between the living-room and the empty room where the prisoners had been placed.
"Can they hear, do yuh think?" asked Brick.
Jean walked across the room and opened the door. She glanced inside and turned quickly.
"They're gone!" she exclaimed.
Brick sprang across to the door and looked inside. On the floor were Three Star's hat and several pieces of cut rope.
"Kinda complicates things, pardner," observed Brick soberly. "Wonder how much they heard?"
"Too much, if anything," replied Martin.
"What will we do now?"
"Meet 'em half-way," grinned Brick, going to the door.
At the corner was Bunty's horse and buggy, and coming around that was another horse and buggy. On the seat was a tall, raw-boned woman, handling the lines like a veteran. She jumped out and tied her horse and came toward the door.
"Howdy, Mrs. Wesson," greeted Brick.
"Well, well, if it ain't ol' man Davidson's prodigal son!"
Mrs. Wesson threw back her head and laughed.
"Well, Brickie, ain't yuh goin' to introduce me? Where's your manners?"
Brick managed to introduce her to Jean and Martin. Mrs. Wesson beamed upon Jean and patted her shoulder.
"Honey, I jist found out that there was a girl at the old Weepin' Tree. Cale Wesson has knowed it several days, but he ain't never told me. I gave him —— for it, too, and you know what he said? He said I'd talk the limb off a yucca-tree, and he was sparin' yuh. Ha, ha, ha! I told him I had the closest tongue in the world, and he said, 'Yes—closes' to words.'
"Ain't men the dangdest things? Look at Brick Davidson, will yuh? Wild-ridin', good-for-nothin' cowpuncher, but some day some girl will up and marry him. Fact. Oh, I've seen girls make some awful mistakes.
"Brick's handsome—I'll say that much for him; but, honey, them handsome men don't always provide hot cakes for your breakfast. But Brick won't cuss a woman. I hate a man who cusses at women. I'm goin' to bend a gun over Bunty Blair's head some of these bright afternoons, y'betcha.
"Met him and Three Star Hennessey about half-way between here and town. Walkin'. Fact. I stops and says—
" 'If you're just exercisin' I'll give yuh a lift up the road a piece and let yuh get a fresh start.'
"Know what Bunty said? He told me to go somewhere. I told him that the chairs was all reserved for sheriffs, and I'll be danged if I'd stand up. Ha, ha, ha! Three Star ain't so bad, but he's in bad company. Talkin' about standin' up reminds me of— Honey, let's go in out of the sun."
Jean led Mrs. Wesson inside, where she immediately began another discourse, breaking off to eulogize Jean's taste in room decoration.
"Get your bronc," said Brick. "Let her entertain Jean. I think that me and you have got a job ahead of us."
Martin nodded and listened to Mrs. Wesson talking.
"She's the goods, Davidson. Rough as a file, but I'll bet she's got a solid-gold heart. Put overalls and boots on her and she'd look just like a man."
Brick looked at Martin and then stared at his horse. He visualized Mrs. Wesson in male garb, and a smile crossed his face. He started to put his foot in the stirrup, but stopped. Then he turned to Martin, who was putting a saddle on a tall star-faced bay.
"Say, pardner, that woman didn't neither fly nor evaporate."
"Where did she go, Davidson?"
"Walked away with the men."
"I thought yuh said she never left the rock."
"I was loco."
"How did she leave?"
Brick swung into his saddle and adjusted himself before replying—
"Walked away on her two feet."
Martin tied off his cinch and swung into his saddle.
"Reckon we ought to take the sheriff's rig back to town with us?"
Brick shook his head, and they circled the ranch-house, headed for Marlin City.
IT WAS a long, hot walk for Bunty and Three Star. Bunty had managed to work one hand loose and secure his knife, and the rest had been easy.
They would have had to pass the open door of the living-room to reach their rig, and if they circled the house to reach the other side they might be seen or heard. Three Star advised extreme caution, and Bunty was willing to accept the advice.
Bunty was sore, but Three Star was indifferent. Bunty swore he was going to get a posse and go right back. Three Star wished him the best of luck, and his well wishes nettled Bunty.
"Quittin', are yuh?" snarled Bunty.
"Not quittin'—quit," corrected Three Star.
"You ain't got no guts," declared Bunty. "Let 'em treat yuh thataway and then quit."
"I didn't 'let' 'em," said Three Star, "and yuh can take it from me, they ain't going to get another chance. Next time they'll likely take your little knife and make yuh swaller it. As far as Brick Davidson is concerned—I pass."
The spectacle of the sheriff and deputy walking into town excited amusement and interest. Several cowboys were in front of the Dollar Down, and they lost no time in making an audible demonstration.
Sitting in front of Wesson's store were Silent and Harp, the latter dealing out mournful music, while Silent sang softly and very much off the key.
"Looky!" grunted Harp, pointing up the street. "Bunty and Three Star hammerin' their own hocks."
"Whatcha know?" wondered Silent.
"Mebbe they know where Brick is—the danged red-headed son of a gun."
Bunty and Three Star went straight for the saloon. Silent and Harp went across the street, arriving there just in time to hear Bunty say—
"How many of you fellers want to get in on a reward?"
Cowboys as a rule are skeptical of such an invitation.
Zell Mohr came out of the saloon and walked up to the crowd. Bunty glanced around expectantly, but none of the cowboys seemed to consider his invitation.
"I reckon I've got to deputize some of yuh," stated Bunty.
"Did yuh lose your horse and buggy?" asked Silent.
"How much reward for gettin' it back?" asked Bill See, a Triangle Dot puncher.
Bunty glared at Silent, but did not speak.
"What's the trouble, Bunty?" asked Mohr.
King Cleeve, attracted by the crowd outside, had left his game and come out. Bunty saw Cleeve and turned to him.
"I've found the road-agents," stated Bunty. "Discovered 'em with the masks in their possession."
"Discovered is right," grinned Three Star. "Bunty talked so much that they had to muzzle him."
Three Star laughed and looked at Zell Mohr.
"Friends of yours, Mohr. At least, they spoke about you."
"Who yuh talkin' about?" growled Mohr.
"Brick Davidson and that Martin person," replied Bunty. "Them two and the woman are the ones what robbed the stage."
Silent elbowed his way to Bunty's side.
"Don't let your cinch slip too much, Bunty."
Bunty looked around at the circle of faces, but there was only curiosity.
"I've got a dead immortal cinch on them," stated Bunty. "They got the drop on me and Three Star, but we got away. Now I want help to go and get 'em."
"Me and Harp will help yuh," said Silent.
Topaz Tyler added his gaudy presence to the assemblage, stepping easily that he might not soil his polished boots.
"Take Topaz," grinned Silent. "He'll dazzle 'em and then yuh can hit 'em from behind."
Bunty glared at Silent.
"Kinda lookin' for trouble, ain't yuh, Slade?"
"Well," grinned Silent, "I ain't packin' no extra spokes for fear I might get a wheel smashed."
Bunty whirled as the crowd laughed, and went straight for his office. The sheriff of Sun-Dog was disgusted and tired. Three Star started to follow him, but stopped.
"Forgot I resigned."
Three Star removed the badge of office from the lapel of his vest and sent it spinning across the street.
King Cleve watched Three Star shed his authority, and as the crowd drifted back into the saloon he stepped in close to Three Star and said—
"What happened out there?"
"Just what I expected," said Three Star. "Brick Davidson made a pair of monkeys out of me and Bunty. They tied us up, but Bunty got his knife and cut us loose."
"What did they talk about?"
Three Star shook his head seriously.
"I didn't sabe much they said, but I'm bettin' that between them two—Brick and Martin—there's goin' to be —— turned loose in somebody's wickiup."
"Nawsir. I heard yours and Mohr's name mentioned."
Three Star started to go inside, but Cleeve took hold of his sleeve.
"I'll make it worth your while to remember what they said."
Three Star scratched his chin and then shook his head.
"Nope. I'm all through buttih' into Brick Davidson's business; and besides I'm gettin' so I like the —— fool."
Mohr was standing beside the door, and he gave Three Star a searching glance as he passed. Cleeve went slowly in behind Three Star, and he and Mohr exchanged glances, but neither of them spoke. Mohr started as if to go to the hitch-rack, but changed his mind and went inside the saloon.
Bunty Blair was mad at the world in general and Brick Davidson and Scott Martin in particular. Here was a chance for him to land two men, whom he believed guilty of robbery, and to satisfy his revengeful nature at the same time.
Bunty was merely incapable as a peace officer. Bunty knew this—knew it too well for his own conscience. He knew that Brick Davidson thought him a joke, and it cut deep into Bunty's tender feelings. Perhaps other men thought the same as Brick, but they concealed their feelings.
Bunty slapped his hat on the table. He lifted it up and slapped it down again. At least neither the table nor the hat would fight back, and Bunty needed a safety-valve.
He glowered down at the hat as if it were no inanimate mass of battered felt, and then walked over to the door. To go after Brick and Martin single-handed was suicide; to ignore their actions meant ridicule from the whole county.
Bunty glanced up the street, and his body stiffened. Coming into the upper end of town was Brick Davidson on his hammer-headed gray, and beside him was Scott Martin, on a tall bay.
Bunty gasped. Of all the unadulterated nerve! Coming right into Marlin Cityi Suddenly Bunty laughed aloud; but his laugh contained little mirth. Brick and Martin must have thought that he and Three Star were still safely roped in that room.
Bunty watched them ride up to the hitch-rack, and then he sat down in a chair to think. His first thought was a glad one—glad that he was not in the saloon.
BRICK and Scott Martin had ridden the whole distance from the ranch-house in silence. Martin did not know what Brick was going to do in Marlin City, and Brick did not enlighten him.
Martin studied Brick's set features and wondered what was to come next.
"Ridin' into a noose?" he mused to himself. "If the officers reached town and told their story, why hasn't a posse been organized? What has this red-headed spit-fire in his mind?"
But the red-head was silent until Marlin City was before them, and then he said:
"Pardner, there's goin' to be trouble, I reckon; but you let me start it, will yuh? Mebbe yuh won't sabe my talk, but don't let that worry yuh none. I'm goin' to force a showdown, and some folks are goin' to have some bad cards."
Martin nodded. He was pinning his faith to Brick Davidson.
They entered the saloon and walked up to the bar. Topaz Tyler was standing at the bar, talking with another man. King Cleeve, in shirt sleeves and eye-shade, was sitting in a lookout chair at the stud game, facing the bar. Beside him sat Zell Mohr, hat pulled low over his eyes, a substantial pile of blue chips in front of him.
Over at the roulette layout a half-drunken cowboy was trying to shake the attentions of a dance-hall girl long enough to see if his number won, while a couple of other cowboys urged the girl to get a rope and hogtie the spendthrift.
The room hummed with voices, the rattle of chips, the clink of glassware, and above it all sounded the tin-panny rattle of a piano.
Brick and Scott Martin stopped mid-way of the bar and turned facing the center of the room. Their entrance had attracted no attention, and for a space of twenty seconds nobody noticed them.
Suddenly Zell Mohr glanced from under the low-pulled brim of his hat, straight at the two men. Mohr's eyes were shaded so it was impossible to see any change of expression, but his lips never moved.
"First king bets," intoned the dealer; but Zell Mohr made no move to bet.
"Passin', Zell?" asked one of the players; but still Mohr made no move to play.
King Cleeve looked down at Mohr, and then glanced over at the bar. Brick Davidson was looking straight at him. King Cleeve blinked perceptibly.
The dealer sensed the tension of Mohr and Cleeve, and looked over at the bar For perhaps ten seconds there was no change in the hum and rattle of the room, and then the noise died down—down—down, like the slowing of a big piece of machinery. The bulk of the noise stopped; but here and there an extra word, the rattle of a dropped poker-chip, the last flip notes from the piano, as if played with nervous fingers.
Topaz Tyler had half-lifted a glass of liquor to his lips, but his eyes shifted suddenly and the glass slipped from his fingers, rolled in a noisy circle on the bar and then fell to the floor.
Every eye in the place focused on Brick and Scott Martin.
Brick's eyes shifted to Topaz, who was half-turned away from the bar, and his voice was mildly humorous.
"Losin' your grip already, Topaz?"
Topaz did not reply. His hand started toward his face as if to wipe his lips, but halted short of his chin. He stopped in the attitude of either deep thought or total abstraction.
Brick's eyes flashed back to King Cleeve, but the humor had all gone from his eyes. Brick was deadly cool. His hands hung loosely at his sides, but his elbows were half-bent, and his feet were planted far apart as if to withstand a shock.
The bartender pussyfooted the length of the bar, getting out of line with Brick and the crowd. Brick's eyes flashed sidewise, and then a grin overspread his face. He appreciated the bartender's views on the matter.
The half-drunken cowboy started to say something, but another cowboy jerked his sleeve and clapped a hand over the inebriated one's mouth. Brick's eyes flashed from face to face, and then he looked directly at Zell Mohr, while his hand brushed easily back and forth past the butt of his holstered gun.
"What kind of a rifle do you use, Mohr?"
Mohr stared at Brick for a moment.
"I shoot a .45-90, it it's any of your business, Davidson."
"Did yuh run out of shells the day of the hold-up?"
Mohr continued to gaze at Brick. Then he looked up at King Cleeve as if seeking an answer to a foolish question. Then he shook his head slowly.
"Then why did yuh use a .45-70 ca'tridge when yuh shot at Silent Slade, down there at the wrecked stage?"
Mohr leaned forward; a natural enough movement, but it gave him a chance to move his hands.
"Keep vour elbows on the table!" snapped Brick.
Silent and Harp moved slowly away from the crowd, and were now standing nearer the door. Brick's eyes flashed toward them and then back at Mohr. Topaz Tyler still stood in the same position, but now his eyes were upon Cleeve and Mohr as if waiting their next move. Scott Martin was standing half-facing Topaz, wondering what was to come next.
"Yuh might answer my last question," said Brick easily.
"Who in —— do you think you are—the judge?" growled Mohr.
Brick leaned forward and snapped his next words:
"I ain't no lawyer, Zell Mohr, but I'm goin' to pass on your case right here and now! Set still!"
Brick's eyes shifted to Cleeve's set features, and then seemed to consider his next question.
"Cleeve, you're a man of intelligence, ain't yuh? No, yuh don't need to answer that. You and Zell Mohr was huntin' coyotes on the day the stage was robbed, wasn't yuh?"
Cleeve nodded and started to speak, but Brick continued:
"Zell Mohr's three greyhounds caught four coyotes for yuh that day. After the hounds caught them coyotes yuh had to shoot the coyotes, didn't yuh?"
"Yuh shot them coyotes with a .45-90, didn't yuh? Uh-huh. After them nice slick greyhounds caught the coyotes—you shot 'em."
"What are you—" began Cleeve; but Brick continued—
"As I said before, you're a man of intelligence, Cleeve; so I don't see why in —— yuh wanted to lie about them coyotes."
Cleeve leaned forward, and his long, tapering fingers seemed to clutch at the knees of his trousers.
Mohr leaned back and shifted his feet.
"Set still!" snapped Brick. "You ain't started to get tired yet."
"What's all this coyote talk about?" snarled Cleeve. "Nobody lied. The hounds caught the coyotes——"
Brick's tone was very sarcastic.
"Yuh say they did? Well, now, I'm wonderin', Cleeve. Them hounds were as fresh as the mornin' dew, and not one of 'em had a single scratch. Did yuh pull the coyotes' teeth before yuh sent the dogs after 'em?"
"What are you drivin' at?" asked Mohr.
"Drivin' at the fact that them coyotes was never caught by hounds."
"Suppose you want us to prove it to you," sneered Cleeve, relaxing and trying to force a smile.
Brick smiled back at him, but only with his lips. The crowd shifted uneasily. Topaz Tyler glanced at Brick and then back at Mohr and Cleeve.
"Cleeve," observed Brick, "yuh might like to know that I was cold sober to begin with on the day that you and Topaz Tyler got me drunk and stole that note out of my pocket. You thought I had the note you planted at the robbery, and I wanted to be sure that you wanted it bad enough to steal."
King Cleeve's eyes flashed to Topaz and then back at Brick. Scott Martin seemed to slide one foot forward as if getting set for a quick move.
"I don't know what you mean," breathed Cleeve.
"It's all rot!" snarled Mohr; but his face was green.
"Y'betcha it's rot!" exploded Brick. "As rotten a thing as I ever heard. Set still, Mohr!"
Silent and Harp had slowly moved closer. Three Star was standing at the edge of the crowd, but nearer the door, resting both hands on the back of an empty chair.
"I'm goin' back quite a ways," began Brick as if telling a matter-of-fact story—"back to the time when Zell Mohr was a sheriff in Idaho. Remember it, don't yuh, Mohr? You ought to.
"Durin' that time an ex-outlaw was drivin' a stage. He had reformed and was goin' straight. Two of his old pals got in with three other men, and they framed this stage-driver. The scheme was to force him to tell them when a big shipment of gold was to be made. This was all they asked of him; but he overheard their plan to kill him. One of these polecats wanted this stage-driver's wife.
"The stage-driver didn't know there was more than these two men goin' to hold him up, y'understand. He was livin' straight, and he wanted to keep on livin' straight, but they wouldn't let him. He told 'em of a shipment comin' through—a shipment that existed only in his own mind. They held him up. He was lookin' for 'em, and he killed the two men who framed him. Remember it, Mohr?"
Mohr's lips did not move. Cleeve's hands had moved off his knees and were slightly twitching back along his thighs.
"Hands nervous, Cleeve?" asked Brick. "Have a little patience. These other three men shot this stage-driver and thought he was dead. There was no gold on the stage. But the driver wasn't dead, Mohr. Some folks went out and got him. He was hurt kinda bad, but managed to get home to his wife and little girl.
"These three men went to his house at night to take this man's wife, and they found him there—the man they thought they had killed. They told him they were going to take his wife, Mohr. Yes, they were goin' to take her, but he put up a fight. He didn't have no gun. One of 'em shot at him, and the bullet killed the woman."
Brick stopped talking. Scott Martin was leaning forward, his eyes searching the faces before him, while his powerful hands opened and shut as if hungering for something to crush. Cleeve's face had gone a shade paler, and his head seemed to droop lower between his hunched shoulders.
"I'm goin' to tell more," said Brick softly. "They shot at the stage-driver again and thought they had killed him, but were mistaken again.
"Then they pulled out—fast; that is, two of 'em did. A horse fell with one of 'em—fell in the street.
"Remember that, Mohr? You was the sheriff at that time. Do yuh remember takin' this man whose horse fell and puttin' him in jail? He was hurt, but you didn't take him to a doctor. No; you was afraid a doctor might ask questions, or somebody might."
Mohr licked his lips.
"I—I don't see——"
"Remember havin' a fight with a big, tall cowboy that day, Mohr? He licked yuh, but yuh got help and put him in jail. You only had one cell in that jail, and yuh had to put this injured man in with the big feller. You thought that the big feller was too drunk to pay any attention, didn't yuh?
"Remember the mob that went down there to lynch this feller whose horse fell with him? They knew he was one of the men who killed the woman. They got the wrong man, but they found it out before they lynched him, and when they came back the—murderer—was—gone. He never was tried, because you went there after the mob left—and—took—him—away."
THE crowd had hung upon every word, and now all eyes were turned toward Zell Mohr to see how he was going to take Brick's accusation. They knew that Zell Mohr was a gun-fighter.
Mohr licked his lips and tried to smile at Scott Martin. Then he looked at Brick.
"Why—uh—you're wrong, Davidson. Martin knows—why, I—I've been his friend——"
Mohr's voice was pitched very low, and men leaned forward to hear his words.
"I—I felt sorry for him."
"Did yuh?" grated Brick. "Yuh did—felt sorry for him, like a buzzard feels sorry for a sick calf."
"What does all this talk mean?" asked Topaz Tyler slowly.
Brick's eyes shifted, and Topaz glanced down at his feet, seemingly sorry that he spoke. Brick glanced down at Topaz' feet.
"Yuh got small feet, Topaz," he observed, keeping his eyes on Mohr and Cleeve but watching Topaz out of the corner of one eye. "Small feet and small hands. A skirt and a veil is about all yuh need to make you a perfect lady."
Topaz lifted his head and looked directly at Cleeve; but Cleeve seemed to evade his eyes.
"Speakin' of shoes," said Brick, "you changed yours in a bad place, Topaz. Why didn't yuh keep on them high-heels until yuh got out of the sand?"
Topaz seemed to stiffen at the question.
"That cut yuh got on your forearm when the stage was upset never did heal good; did it, Topaz?"
Like a flash Topaz lifted his arm and glanced down at it.
Brick's sudden question had taken Topaz off his guard, and he had trapped himself. Topaz realized it, and his eyes shifted like the eyes of a trapped animal, but he was afraid of the consequences of any sudden break.
Brick smiled and began:
"Cleeve, you and Mohr and Tyler waited a long time to get even with Scott Martin for that day he busted up your party and didn't have that big shipment of gold. You framed that note to implicate Scott Martin, Jack Oliver and Martin's daughter. Yes, yuh did."
"Now, looky here," growled Cleeve, sliding off his chair, "you've accused——"
"Stand still!" snapped Brick. "Hands where they are, Cleeve! I'll tell yuh when to move. The prosecution ain't through yet. You three framed that robbery with Limpy Squires, and yuh killed him for double-crossin' yuh. You wanted to kill him just like yuh wanted to kill Scott Martin that time. I'm bettin' that Limpy knew you was the ones what pulled off that Idaho job, and he was Scott Martin's friend, and when yuh opened that treasure-box——"
Brick stopped. Not a man moved. It might have been a painting or a group of lay figures for all the movement. Every man in the room was tensed—nerves taut as fiddle-strings; waiting for the inevitable crash.
Then Silent Slade's voice snapped like a whip—
"King Cleeve was the man they wanted to lynch!"
King Cleeve threw himself sidewise, clawing at his gun; but he never reached it. Scott Martin had sprung—sprung like a panther, clear of the floor, circling King Cleeve with those long, muscular arms, and they crashed out of sight behind the roulette outfit.
The crowd broke for the front and rear door—anywhere to get out of line. Mohr's gun came out like a flash; but Brick's gun spouted lead before Mohr's gun left its holster, and Mohr fell sidewise out of his chair, shot through the shoulder.
As Brick whirled around, the powder from Topaz Tyler's gun burned his cheek, but the bullet went into the bar-mirror. Silent and Harp fired at the same time that Brick did, and Topaz Tyler spun on his heel and went down.
From the doorway came the whang of a shot, and Brick felt the sharp sting of a bullet as it burned across his shoulder. Brick whirled to meet this new menace just in time to see Three Star Hennessey hurl a heavy chair through the doorway, crashing it into Bunty Blair's head and shoulders.
Bunty went backward off the sidewalk, and Three Star, following the thrown chair, landed all in a heap on the stunned sheriff. Zell Mohr, recovering from the shock of Brick's bullet, managed to get his pistol into his left hand.
From under the card-table came the report of a pistol, and the bullet passed through the high crown of Brick's hat, lifting it off his head. Harp Harris sprang across the room, jumped high and came down upon the card-table, crashing it down upon Zell Mohr, pinning him to the floor.
Brick glanced out of the door, where Three Star was shaking Bunty back to life and talking fast. Three Star was telling Bunty in a few words what a foolish sheriff he was.
Out from the tangle of broken furniture came Scott Martin. His gun still hung in its holster. He looked very tired as he passed his hand wearily across his forehead and looked at Brick.
An outflung hand and a protruding foot were all that showed from the wreckage, but the incoming crowd did not seem to think it worth while to inquire about King Cleeve.
Scott Martin held out his hand to Brick and their hands met.
"Thank yuh, Davidson," said Martin softly. "I've waited a long time for this."
"You're plumb welcome," smiled Brick. "Had quite a party while it lasted; didn't we?"
The crowd stood around Brick and Martin, but no one seemed to have anything to say. Silent and Harp lifted the table off Zell Mohr. The former Idaho sheriff would need considerable patching up before he could face a judge and jury, but he was still able to curse.
Then came Bunty Blair, elbowing his way through the crowd. The chair had spoiled his physical beauty, but reverses seemed to have brought out a latent quality heretofore unknown to Marlin City. He reached down and snapped a pair of handcuffs on Zell Mohr. He glanced in the direction of King Cleeve and then over at Topaz Tyler. His head turned and he looked at Brick.
"Davidson," he said, "I begs your pardon. I—I almost made a big mistake."
Bunty held out his hand.
"I'm asking yuh to shake hands with me, Davidson; but I won't blame yuh if yuh don't."
Brick grasped his hand.
"I—I need a good deputy," said Bunty. "If I could get a good one I—I'd resign and let him have my job."
Brick grinned, but shook his head.
"I ain't worth a —— as a sheriff," said Bunty bitterly.
BRICK put his hand on Bunty's shoulder and looked at Bunty's face. Brick swallowed hard. He had antagonized Bunty—detested him—and now he had suddenly discovered that Bunty was rather human after all.
"Think it over, will yuh, Brick?" begged Bunty.
"I know where I throwed my star," said Three Star. "I can get it—easy."
Brick slapped Bunty on the back and walked out of the saloon, with Scott Martin beside him and Silent and Harp trailing. They walked to the hitch-rack.
"Jean will be anxious to know," said Martin. "Mebbe she'd like to have you——"
Brick smiled and shook his head.
"No, pardner; I reckon it's your place to tell her about it."
"Well—" Scott Martin turned to his horse and then looked at Brick—"you're comin' out soon, ain't yuh?"
Brick felt tenderly of his sore shoulder.
"Yeah, I'm comin' out—soon, but you better tell her all about it. You know it as well as I do, pardner. You tell her all there is to tell and get it over with, 'cause—" Brick stepped in close and lowered his voice—" 'cause when I come out there I'm goin' to talk about somethin' besides fightin'."
Martin vaulted to his saddle and rode away with a smile on his face. The three cowboys mounted their horses and rode the other way toward the Nine Bar Nine.
"He ain't," stated Silent to no one in particular, "he ain't goin' to talk about fightin' nor nothin'."
"He don't know for sure," said Harp, " 'cause he ain't never been married nor nothin'."
Brick grinned back at them.
"Yeah, he kinda made a clean-up," said Silent; "but he sure did overlook one big thing, Harp. He landed the road-agents, but he never got that box of gold back."
"There wasn't any money stolen," said Brick.
"There wasn't any— Aw-w-w, whatcha talkin' about?"
Harp spurred in close to Brick.
"Brickie, did you get hit hard enough to make yuh talk thataway?"
"I think that Limpy knew they was framin' Scott Martin," said Brick. "I ain't sure of this, but I'm danged sure that they had the goods on Limpy and threatened to expose him as a member of that old Sandy Creek gang if he didn't tip 'em off to a big shipment of gold from the Whippoorwill mine.
"Topaz Tyler watched things from the mine end. Limpy was afraid to jump out of the country, or was hard-boiled enough to take a chance. He double-crossed 'em, and when they finds it out they killed him when he was leavin' the country.
"When Scott Martin told me his story it looked so much like this same layout that I figured thisaway; Cleeve was the man Martin wanted to lynch. Mohr was the sheriff that saved him. It was a cinch that they worked together.
"That note implicated a woman. If Bunty had found that note it would 'a' been hard to save Scott Martin and Jean. I sure needed a woman.
"Them tracks in the sand bothered me a lot. Scott Martin remarks that Mrs. Wesson only needs overalls and boots to look like a man, and right there it strikes me that Topaz Tyler is my woman. He sets on that rock and changes back to his own boots; that's why them female tracks never left the rock.
"Them greyhounds not bein' scratched after catchin' four coyotes showed that all was not right. Mohr had a 45-90 Winchester, if yuh remember. That bullet which barely missed Silent was fired from a 45-70 shell, which was a good alibi for that 45-90 rifle, but the shell was swollen at the butt, which showed it wasn't chambered right in the rifle, and the firin'-pin hit the primer too high."
Silent and Harp grinned at Brick's snappy explanation.
"I had 'em cinched," smiled Brick. "They didn't have a single chance in the world except to shoot themselves clear."
"But what about that box of gold?" asked Silent.
"Full of bars of lead. Nothin' but ordinary lead, Silent."
"Well, for gosh sake!" grunted Silent. "Whatcha know about that? Lead bars!"
"Two L's," said Harp musingly. "Two things that has caused a lot of joy and a lot of trouble in this old West. One L started it and another L finished it."
"Lead?" asked Silent.
"Uh-huh," nodded Harp. "Lead and love."
Silent grinned and slapped Brick on the shoulder.
"I'll back Brick in either one. The old boy sure does sabe things; don't he, Harp?"
Brick smiled straight ahead; smiled at a day's work well done; while from behind them came the thrumming of a jew's-harp; a jew's-harp doing its little best to play a wedding march as the three broncos shuffled across the hills and the setting sun cast long shadows across the Sun-Dog trails.