The Bad Man
THE eyes of Beaudry, held in dreadful fascination, clung to the lupine face behind the revolver. To save his life he could have looked nowhere else except into those cold, narrow pupils where he read death. Little beads of sweat stood on his forehead. The tongue in his mouth was dry. His brain seemed paralyzed. Again he seemed to be lifted from his feet by a wave of deadly terror.
Meldrum had been drinking heavily, but he was not drunk. He drew from his pocket a watch and laid it on the arm of the chair. Roy noticed that the rim of the revolver did not waver. It was pointed directly between his eyes.
"Git down on yore knees and beg, damn you. In less 'n a minute hell pops for you."
The savage, exultant voice of the former convict beat upon Roy like the blows of a hammer. He would have begged for his life,—begged abjectly, cravenly,—but his teeth chattered and his parched tongue was palsied. He would have sunk to his knees, but terror had robbed his muscles of the strength to move. He was tied to his chair by ropes stronger than chains of steel.
The watch ticked away the seconds. From the face of Meldrum the grin was snuffed out by a swift surge of wolfish anger.
"Are you deef and dumb?" he snarled. "It's Dan Meldrum talking—the man yore dad sent to the penitentiary. I'm going to kill you. Then I 'll cut another notch on my gun. Understand?"
The brain of the young lawyer would not function. His will was paralyzed. Yet every sense was amazingly alert. He did not miss a tick of the watch. Every beat of his heart registered.
"You butted in and tried to spy like yore dad, did you?" the raucous voice continued. "Thought you could sell us out and git away with it. Here's where you learn different. Jack Beaudry was a man, anyhow, and we got him. You 're nothing but a pink-ear, a whey-faced baby without guts to stand the gaff. Well, you 've come to the end of yore trail. Beg, you skunk!"
From the mind of Beaudry the fog lifted. In the savage, malignant eyes glaring at him he read that he was lost. The clutch of fear so overwhelmed him that suspense was unbearable. He wanted to shriek aloud, to call on this man-killer to end the agony. It was the same impulse, magnified a hundred times, that leads a man to bite on an ulcerated tooth in a weak impotence of pain.
The tick-tick-tick of the watch mocked him to frenzied action. He gripped the arms of the chair with both hands and thrust forward his face against the cold rim of the revolver barrel.
"Shoot!" he cried hoarsely, drunk with terror. "Shoot, and be damned!"
Before the words were out of his mouth a shot echoed. For the second time in his life Roy lost consciousness. Not many seconds could have passed before he opened his eyes again. But what he saw puzzled him.
Meldrum was writhing on the ground and cursing. His left hand nursed the right, which moved up and down frantically as if to escape from pain. Toward the house walked Dingwell and by his side Beulah Rutherford. Dave was ejecting a shell from the rifle he carried. Slowly it came to the young man that he had not been shot. The convict must have been hit instead by a bullet from the gun of the cattleman. He was presently to learn that the forty-four had been struck and knocked from the hand of its owner.
"Every little thing all right, son?" asked the cowman cheerily. "We sure did run this rescue business fine. Another minute and— But what's the use of worrying? Miss Beulah and I were Johnny-on-the-spot all right."
Roy said nothing. He could not speak. His lips and cheeks were still bloodless. By the narrowest margin in the world he had escaped.
Disgustedly the cattleman looked down at Meldrum, who was trying to curse and weep from pain at the same time.
"Stung you up some, did I? Hm! You ought to be singing hymns because I did n't let you have it in the haid, which I'd most certainly have done if you had harmed my friend. Get up, you bully, and stop cursing. There's a lady here, and you ain't damaged, anyhow."
The eyes of Beaudry met those of Beulah. It seemed to him that her lip curled contemptuously. She had been witness of his degradation, had seen him show the white feather. A pulse of shame beat in his throat.
"W-w-what are you doing here?" he asked wretchedly.
Dave answered for her. "Is n't she always on the job when she's needed? Yore fairy godmother—that's what Miss Beulah Rutherford is. Rode hell-for-leather down here to haid off that coyote there—and done it, too. Bumped into me at the water-hole and I hopped on that Blacky hawss behind her. He brought us in on the jump and Sharp's old reliable upset Meldrum's apple cart."
Still nursing the tips of his tingling fingers, the ex-convict scowled venomously at Beulah. "I 'll remember that, missie. That's twice you 've interfered with me. I sure will learn you to mind yore own business."
Dingwell looked steadily at him. "We 've heard about enough from you. Beat it! Hit the trail! Pull yore freight! Light out! Vamos! Git!"
The man-killer glared at him. For a moment he hesitated. He would have liked to try conclusions with the cattleman to a fighting finish, but though he had held his own in many a rough-and-tumble fray, he lacked the unflawed nerve to face this man with the cold gray eye and the chilled-steel jaw. His fury broke in an impotent curse as he slouched away.
"I don't understand yet," pursued Roy. "How did Miss Rutherford know that Meldrum was coming here?"
"Friend Hart rode up to tell Tighe we were here. He met Meldrum close to the school-house. The kids were playing hide-and-go-seek. One of them was lying right back of a big rock beside the road. He heard Dan swear he was coming down to stop yore clock, son. The kid went straight to teacher soon as the men had ridden off. He told what Meldrum had said. So, of course, Miss Beulah she sent the children home and rode down to the hawss ranch to get her father or one of her brothers. None of them were at home and she hit the trail alone to warn us."
"I knew my people would be blamed for what this man did, so I blocked him," explained the girl with her habitual effect of hostile pride.
"You said you would let Tighe have his way next time, but you don't need to apologize for breaking yore word, Miss Beulah," responded Dingwell with his friendly smile. "All we 've got to say is that you 've got chalked up against us an account we 'll never be able to pay."
The color beat into her cheeks. She was both embarrassed and annoyed. With a gesture of impatience she turned away and walked to Blacky. Lithely she swung to the saddle.
Mrs. Hart had come to the porch. In her harassed countenance still lingered the remains of good looks. The droop at the corners of her mouth suggested a faint resentment against a fate which had stolen her youth without leaving the compensations of middle life.
"Won't you light off'n yore bronc and stay to supper, Miss Rutherford?" she invited.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hart. I can't. Must get home."
With a little nod to the woman she swung her horse around and was gone.
Hart did not show up for supper nor for breakfast. It was an easy guess that he lacked the hardihood to face them after his attempted betrayal. At all events, they saw nothing of him before they left in the morning. If they had penetrated his wife's tight-lipped reserve, they might have shared her opinion, that he had gone off on a long drinking-bout with Dan Meldrum.
Leisurely Beaudry and his friend rode down through the chaparral to Battle Butte.
On the outskirts of the town they met Ned Rutherford. After they had passed him, he turned and followed in their tracks.
Dingwell grinned across at Roy. "Some thorough our friends are. A bulldog has got nothing on them. They 're hanging around to help me dig up that gunnysack when I get ready."
The two men rode straight to the office of the sheriff and had a talk with him. From there they went to the hotel where Dave usually put up when he was in town. Over their dinner the cattleman renewed an offer he had been urging upon Roy all the way down from Hart's place. He needed a reliable man to help him manage the different holdings he had been accumulating. His proposition was to take Beaudry in as a junior partner, the purchase price to be paid in installments to be earned out of the profits of the business.
"Course I don't want to take you away from the law if you 're set on that profession, but if you don't really care—" Dave lifted an eyebrow in a question.
"I think I'd like the law, but I know I would like better an active outdoor life. That's not the point, Mr. Dingwell. I can't take something for nothing. You can get a hundred men who know far more about cattle than I do. Why do you pick me?"
"I 've got reasons a-plenty. Right off the bat here are some of them. I'm under obligations to Jack Beaudry and I'd like to pay my debt to his son. I 've got no near kin of my own. I need a partner, but it is n't one man out of a dozen I can get along with. Most old cowmen are rutted in their ways. You don't know a thing about the business. But you can learn. You 're teachable. You are not one of these wise guys. Then, too, I like you, son. I don't want a partner that rubs me the wrong way. Hell, my why-fors all simmer down to one. You 're the partner I want, Roy."
"If you find I don't suit you, will you let me know?"
"Sure. But there is no chance of that." Dave shook hands with him joyously. "It's a deal, boy."
"It's a deal," agreed Beaudry.