Chapter X
Dave Takes a Ride

DAVE DINGWELL had sauntered carelessly out of the Legal Tender on the night of his disappearance. He was apparently at perfect ease with a friendly world. But if any one had happened to follow him out of the saloon, he would have seen an odd change in the ranchman. He slid swiftly along the wall of the building until he had melted into the shadows of darkness. His eyes searched the neighborhood for lurking figures while he crouched behind the trunk of a cottonwood. Every nerve of the man was alert, every muscle ready for action. One brown hand lingered affectionately close to the butt of his revolver.

He had come out of the front door of the gambling-house because he knew the Rutherfords would expect him, in the exercise of ordinary common sense, to leave by the rear exit. That he would be watched was certain. Therefore, he had done the unexpected and walked boldly out through the swinging doors.

As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he made out a horse in the clump of trees about twenty yards to the left. Whether it was Teddy he could not be sure, but there was no time to lose. Already a signal whistle had shrilled out from the other side of the street. Dave knew this was to warn the guards at the rear of the Legal Tender that their prey was in the open.

He made a dash for the tree clump, but almost as he reached it, he swung to the left and circled the small grove so as to enter it from the other side. As he expected, a man whirled to meet him. The unforeseen tactics of Dingwell had interfered with the ambush.

Dave catapulted into him head first and the two went down together. Before Dingwell could grip the throat of the man beneath him, a second body hurled itself through space at the cattleman. The attacked man flattened under the weight crushing him, but his right arm swept around and embraced the neck of his second assailant. He flexed his powerful forearm so as to crush as in a vice the throat of his foe between it and the hard biceps. The breath of the first man had for the moment been knocked out of him and he was temporarily not in the fight. The ranchman gave his full attention to the other.

The fellow struggled savagely. He had a gun in his right hand, but the fingers of Dave's left had closed upon the wrist above. Stertorous breathing gave testimony that the gunman was in trouble. In spite of his efforts to break the hold that kept his head in chancery, the muscles of the arm tightened round his neck like steel ropes drawn taut. He groaned, sighed in a ragged expulsion of breath, and suddenly collapsed.

Before he relaxed his muscles, Dingwell made sure that the surrender was a genuine one. His left hand slid down and removed the revolver from the nerveless fingers. The barrel of it was jammed against the head of the man above him while the rancher freed himself from the weight of the body. Slowly the cattleman got to his feet.

Vaguely he had been aware already that men were running toward the tree clump. Now he heard the padding of their feet close at hand. He ran to the horse and flung himself into the saddle, but before the animal had moved two steps some one had it by the bridle. Another man caught Dingwell by the arm and dragged him from the saddle. Before Dave could scramble to his feet again, something heavy fell upon his head and shook him to the heels. A thousand lights flashed in zigzags before his eyes. He sank back into unconsciousness.

The cowman returned to a world of darkness out of which voices came as from a distance hazily. A groan prefaced his arrival.

"Dave's waking up," one of the far voices said.

"Sure. When you tap his haid with a six-gun, you 're liable to need repairs on the gun," a second answered.

The next words came to Dingwell more distinctly. He recognized the speaker as Hal Rutherford of the horse ranch.

"Too bad the boy had to hand you that crack, Dave. You 're such a bear for fighting a man can't take any chances. Glad he did n't bust your haid wide open."

"Sure he did n't?" asked the injured man. "I feel like I got to hold it on tight so as to keep the blamed thing from flying into fifty pieces."

"Sorry. We 'll take you to a doc and have it fixed up. Then we 'll all go have a drunk. That 'll fix you."

"Business first," cut in Buck Rutherford.

"That's right, Dave," agreed the owner of the horse ranch. "How about that gunnysack? Where did you hide it?"

Dingwell played for time. He had not the least intention of telling, but if he held the enemy in parley some of his friends might pass that way.

"What gunnysack, Hal? Jee-rusalem, how my head aches!" He held his hands to his temples and groaned again.

"Your head will mend—if we don't have to give it another crack," Buck told him grimly. "Get busy, Dave. We want that gold—pronto. Where did you put it?"

"Where did I put it? That willing lad of yours has plumb knocked the answer out of my noodle. Maybe you 're thinking of some one else, Buck." Dingwell looked up at him with an innocent, bland smile.

"Come through," ordered Buck with an oath.

The cattleman treated them to another dismal groan. "Gee! I feel like the day after Christmas. Was it a cannon the kid hit me with?"

Meldrum pushed his ugly phiz to the front. "Don't monkey away any time, boys. String him to one of these cottonwoods till he spits out what we want."

"Was it while you was visiting up at Santa Fé you learnt that habit of seeing yore neighbors hanged, Dan?" drawled Dingwell in a voice of gentle irony.

Furious at this cool reference to his penitentiary days, Meldrum kicked their captive in the ribs. Hal Rutherford, his eyes blazing, caught the former convict by the throat.

"Do that again and I 'll hang yore hide up to dry." He shook Meldrum as if he were a child, then flung the gasping man away. "I 'll show you who's boss of this rodeo, by gum!"

Meldrum had several notches on his gun. He was, too, a rough-and-tumble fighter with his hands. But Hal Rutherford was one man he knew better than to tackle. He fell back, growling threats in his throat.

Meanwhile Dave was making discoveries. One was that the first two men who had attacked him were the gamblers he had driven from the Legal Tender earlier in the evening. The next was that Buck Rutherford was sending the professional tinhorns about their business.

"Git!" ordered the big rancher. "And keep gitting till you 've crossed the border. Don't look back any. Jest burn the wind. Adios."

"They meant to gun you, Dave," guessed the owner of the horse ranch. "I reckon they dare n't shoot with me loafing there across the road. You kinder disarranged their plans some more by dropping in at their back door. Looks like you'd 'a' rumpled up their hair a few if you had n't been in such a hurry to make a get-away. Which brings us back to the previous question. The unanimous sense of the meeting is that you come through with some information, Dave. Where is that gunnysack?"

Dave, still sitting on the ground, leaned his back against a tree and grinned amiably at his questioner. "Sounds like you-all been to school to a parrot. You must 'a' quituated after you learned one sentence."

"We 're waiting for an answer, Dave."

The cool, steady eyes of Dingwell met the imperious ones of the other man in a long even gaze. "Nothing doing, Hal."

"Even split, Dave. Fifty-fifty."

The sitting man shook his head. "I 'll split the reward with you when I get it. The sack goes back to the express company."

"We 'll see about that." Rutherford turned to his son and gave brisk orders. "Bring up the horses. We 'll get out of here. You ride with me, Jeff. We 'll take care of Dingwell. The rest of you scatter. We're going back to the park."

The Rutherfords and their captive followed no main road, but cut across country in a direction where they would be less likely to meet travelers. It was a land of mesquite and prickly pear. The sting of the cactus bit home in the darkness as its claws clutched at the riders winding their slow way through the chaparral.

Gray day was dawning when they crossed the Creosote Flats and were seen by a sheep-herder at a distance. The sun was high in the heavens before they reached the defile which served as a gateway between the foothills and the range beyond. It had passed the meridian by the time they were among the summits where they could look back upon rounded hills numberless as the billows of a sea. Deeper and always deeper they plunged into the maze of cañons which gashed into the saddles between the peaks. Blue-tinted dusk was enveloping the hills as they dropped down through a wooded ravine into Huerfano Park.

"Home soon," Dave suggested cheerfully to his captors. "I sure am hungry enough to eat a government mailsack. A flank steak would make a big hit with me."

Jeff looked at him in the dour, black Rutherford way. "This is no picnic, you 'll find."

"Not to you, but it's a great vacation for me. I feel a hundred per cent better since I got up into all this ozone and scenery." Dingwell assured him hardily. "A man ought to take a trip like this every once in a while. It's great for what ails him."

Young Rutherford grunted sulkily. Their prisoner was the coolest customer he had ever met. The man was no fool. He must know he was in peril, but his debonair, smiling insouciance never left him for a moment. He was grit clear through.