Chapter XVI
Roy is Invited to Take a Drink

DINGWELL gave a fishing-party next day. His invited guests were Sheriff Sweeney, Royal Beaudry, Pat Ryan, and Superintendent Elder, of the Western Express Company. Among those present, though at a respectable distance, were Ned Rutherford and Brad Charlton.

The fishermen took with them neither rods nor bait. Their flybooks were left at home. Beaudry brought to the meeting-place a quarter-inch rope and a grappling-iron with three hooks. Sweeney and Ryan carried rifles and the rest of the party revolvers.

Dave himself did the actual fishing. After the grappling-hook had been attached to the rope, he dropped it into Big Creek from a large rock under the bridge that leads to town from Lonesome Park. He hooked his big fish at the fourth cast and worked it carefully into the shallow water. Roy waded into the stream and dragged the catch ashore. It proved to be a gunnysack worth twenty thousand dollars.

Elder counted the sacks inside. "Everything is all right. How did you come to drop the money here?"

"I'm mentioning no names, Mr. Elder. But I was so fixed that I could n't turn back. If I left the road, my tracks would show. There were reasons why I did n't want to continue on into town with the loot. So, as I was crossing the bridge, without leaving the saddle or even stopping, I deposited the gold in the Big Creek safety deposit vault," Dingwell answered with a grin.

"But supposing the Rutherfords had found it?" The superintendent put his question blandly.

The face of the cattleman was as expressive as a stone wall. "Did I mention the Rutherfords?" he asked, looking straight into the eye of the Western Express man. "I reckon you did n't hear me quite right."

Elder laughed a little. He was a Westerner himself. "Oh, I heard you, Mr. Dingwell. But I have n't heard a lot of things I'd like to know."

The cattleman pushed the sack with his toe. "Money talks, folks say."

"Maybe so. But it has n't told me why you could n't go back along the road you came, why you could n't leave the road, and why you did n't want to go right up to Sweeney's office with the sack. It has n't given me any information about where you have been the past two weeks, or how—"

"My gracious! He bubbles whyfors and howfors like he had just come uncorked," murmured Dave, in his slow drawl. "Just kinder effervesces them out of the mouth."

"I know you 're not going to tell me anything you don't want me to know, still—"

"You done guessed it first, crack. Move on up to the haid of the class."

"Still, you can't keep me from thinking. You can call the turn on the fellows that robbed the Western Express Company whenever you feel like it. Right now you could name the men that did it."

Dave's most friendly, impudent smile beamed upon the superintendent. "I thank you for the compliment, Mr. Elder. Honest, I did n't know how smart a haid I had in my hat till you told me."

"It's good ye 've got an air-tight alibi yoursilf, Dave," grinned Pat Ryan.

"I've looked up his alibi. It will hold water," admitted Elder genially. "Well, Dingwell, if you won't talk, you won't. We 'll move on up to the bank and deposit our find. Then the drinks will be on me."

The little procession moved uptown. A hundred yards behind it came young Rutherford and Charlton as a rear guard. When the contents of the sack had been put in a vault for safe-keeping, Elder invited the party into the Last Chance. Dave and Roy ordered buttermilk.

Dingwell gave his partner a nudge. "See who is here."

The young man nodded gloomily. He had recognized already the two men drinking at a table in the rear.

"Meldrum and Hart make a sweet pair to draw to when they 're tanking up. They 're about the two worst bad men in this part of the country. My advice is to take the other side of the street when you see them coming," Ryan contributed.

The rustlers glowered at Elder's party, but offered no comment other than some sneering laughter and ribald whispering. Yet Beaudry breathed freer when he was out in the open again lengthening the distance between him and them at every stride.

Ryan walked as far as the hotel with Dave and his partner.

"Come in and have dinner with us, Pat," invited the cattleman.

The Irishman shook his head. "Can't, Dave. Got to go round to the Elephant Corral and look at my horse. A nail wint into its foot last night."

After they had dined, Dingwell looked at his watch. "I want you to look over the ranch today, son. We 'll ride out and I 'll show you the place. But first I 've got to register a kick with the station agent about the charges for freight on a wagon I had shipped in from Denver. Will you stop at Salmon's and order this bill of groceries sent up to the corral? I 'll meet you here at 2.30."

Roy walked up Mission Street as far as Salmon's New York Grocery and turned in the order his friend had given him. After he had seen it filled, he strolled along the sunny street toward the plaza. It was one of those warm, somnolent New Mexico days as peaceful as old age. Burros blinked sleepily on three legs and a hoof-tip. Cowponies switched their tails indolently to brush away flies. An occasional half-garbed Mexican lounged against a door jamb or squatted in the shade of a wall. A squaw from the reservation crouched on the curb beside her display of pottery. Not a sound disturbed the siesta of Battle Butte.

Into this peace broke an irruption of riot. A group of men poured through the swinging doors of a saloon into the open arcade in front. Their noisy disputation shattered the sunny stillness like a fusillade in the desert. Plainly they were much the worse for liquor.

Roy felt again the familiar clutch at his throat, the ice drench at his heart, and the faint slackness of his leg muscles. For in the crowd just vomited from the Silver Dollar were Meldrum, Fox, Hart, Charlton, and Ned Rutherford.

Charlton it was that caught sight of the passing man. With an exultant whoop he leaped out, seized Beaudry, and swung him into the circle of hillmen.

"Tickled to death to meet up with you, Mr. Royal-Cherokee-Beaudry-Street. How is every little thing a-coming? Fine as silk, eh? You'd ought to be laying by quite a bit of the mazuma, what with rewards and spy money together," taunted Charlton.

To the center of the circle Meldrum elbowed his drunken way. "Lemme get at the pink-ear. Lemme bust him one," he demanded.

Ned Rutherford held him back. "Don't break yore breeching, Dan. Brad has done spoke for him," the young man drawled.

Into the white face of his victim Charlton puffed the smoke of his cigar. "If you ain't too busy going fishing maybe you could sell me a windmill to-day. How about that, Mr. Cornell-I-Yell?"

"Where's yore dry nurse Dingwell?" broke in the ex-convict bitterly. "Thought he tagged you everywhere. Tell the son-of-a-gun for me that next time we meet I 'll curl his hair right."

Roy said nothing. He looked wildly around for a way of escape and found none. A half ring of jeering faces walled him from the street.

"Lemme get at him. Lemme crack him one on the bean," insisted Meldrum as he made a wild pass at Beaudry.

"No hurry a-tall," soothed Ned. "We got all evening before us. Take yore time, Dan."

"Looks to me like it's certainly up to Mr. Cherokee-What's-his-name-Beaudry to treat the crowd," suggested Chet Fox.

The young man clutched at the straw. "Sure. Of course, I will. Glad to treat, even though I don't drink myself," he said with a weak, forced heartiness.

"You don't drink. The hell you don't!" cut in Meldrum above the Babel of voices.

"He drinks—hic—buttermilk," contributed Hart.

"He 'll drink whiskey when I give the word, by Gad!" Meldrum shook himself free of Rutherford and pressed forward. He dragged a bottle from his pocket, drew out the cork, and thrust the liquor at Roy. "Drink, you yellow-streaked coyote—and drink a-plenty."

Roy shook his head. "No!—no," he protested. "I—I—never touch it." His lips were ashen. The color had fled from his cheeks.

The desperado pushed his cruel, vice-scarred face close to that of the man he hated.

"Sa-ay. Listen to me, young fellow. I'm going to bump you off one o' these days sure. Me, I don't like yore name nor the color of yore hair nor the map you wear for a face. I'm a killer. Me, Dan Meldrum. And I serve notice on you right now." With an effort he brought his mind back to the issue on hand. "But that ain't the point. When I ask a man to drink he drinks. See? You ain't deef, are you? Then drink, you rabbit!"

Beaudry, his heart beating like a triphammer, told himself that he was not going to drink that they could not make him—that he would die first. But before he knew it the flask was in his trembling fingers. Apparently, without the consent of his flaccid will, the muscles had responded to the impulse of obedience to the spur of fear. Even while his brain drummed the refrain, "I won't drink—I won't—I won't," the bottle was rising to his lips.

He turned a ghastly grin on his tormentors. It was meant to propitiate them, to save the last scrap of his self-respect by the assumption that they were all good fellows together. Feebly it suggested that after all a joke is a joke.

From the uptilted flask the whiskey poured into his mouth. He swallowed, and the fiery liquid scorched his throat. Before he could hand the liquor back to its owner, the ex-convict broke into a curse.

"Drink, you pink-ear. Don't play 'possum with me," he roared. Roy drank. Swallow after swallow of the stuff burned its way into his stomach. He stopped at last, sputtering and coughing.

"M—much obliged. I 'll be going now," he stammered.

"Not quite yet, Mr. R. C. Street-Beaudry," demurred Charlton suavely. "Stay and play with us awhile, now you 're here. No telling when we 'll meet again." He climbed on the shoe-shining chair that stood in the entry. "I reckon I 'll have my boots shined up. Go to it, Mr. Beaudry-Street."

With a whoop of malice the rest of them fell in with the suggestion. To make this young fellow black their boots in turn was the most humiliating thing they could think of at the moment. They pushed Roy toward the stand and put a brush into his hand. He stood still, hesitating.

"Git down on yore knees and hop to it," ordered Charlton. "Give him room, boys."

Again Beaudry swore to himself that he would not do it. He had an impulse to smash that sneering, cruel face, but it was physically impossible for him to lift a hand to strike. Though he was trembling violently, he had no intention of yielding. Yet the hinges of his knees bent automatically. He found himself reaching for the blacking just as if his will were paralyzed.

Perhaps it was the liquor rushing to his head when he stooped. Perhaps it was the madness of a terror-stricken rat driven into a corner. His fear broke bounds, leaped into action. Beaudry saw red. With both hands he caught Charlton's foot, twisted it savagely, and flung the man head over heels out of the chair. He snatched up the bootblack's stool by one leg and brought it crashing down on the head of Meldrum. The ex-convict went down as if he had been pole-axed.

There was no time to draw guns, no time to prepare a defense. His brain on fire from the liquor he had drunk and his overpowering terror, Beaudry was a berserk gone mad with the lust of battle. He ran amuck like a maniac, using the stool as a weapon to hammer down the heads of his foes. It crashed first upon one, now on another.

Charlton rushed him and was struck down beside Meldrum. Hart, flung back into the cigar-case, smashed the glass into a thousand splinters. Young Rutherford was sent spinning into the street.

His assailants gave way before Beaudry, at first slowly, then in a panic of haste to escape. He drove them to the sidewalk, flailing away at those within reach. Chet Fox hurdled in his flight a burro loaded with wood.

Then, suddenly as it had swept over Roy, the brain-storm passed. The mists cleared from his eyes. He looked down at the leg of the stool in his hand, which was all that remained of it. He looked up—and saw Beulah Rutherford in the street astride a horse.

She spoke to her brother, who had drawn a revolver from his pocket. "You don't need that now, Ned. He's through."

Her contemptuous voice stung Roy. "Why did n't they leave me alone, then?" he said sullenly in justification.

The girl did not answer him. She slipped from the horse and ran into the arcade with the light grace that came of perfect health and the freedom of the hills. The eyes of the young man followed this slim, long-limbed Diana as she knelt beside Charlton and lifted his bloody head into her arms. He noticed that her eyes burned and that her virginal bosom rose and fell in agitation.

None the less she gave first aid with a business-like economy of motion. "Bring water, Ned,—and a doctor," she snapped crisply, her handkerchief pressed against the wound.

To see what havoc he had wrought amazed Roy. The arcade looked as if a cyclone had swept through it. The cigar-stand was shattered beyond repair, its broken glass strewn everywhere. The chair of the bootblack had been splintered into kindling wood. Among the débris sat Meldrum groaning, both hands pressing a head that furiously ached. Brad Charlton was just beginning to wake up to his surroundings.

A crowd had miraculously gathered from nowhere. The fat marshal of Battle Butte was puffing up the street a block away. Beaudry judged it time to be gone. He dropped the leg of the stool and strode toward the hotel.

Already his fears were active again. What would the hillmen do to him when they had recovered from the panic into which his madness had thrown them? Would they start for him at once? Or would they mark one more score against him and wait? He could scarcely keep his feet from breaking into a run to get more quickly from the vicinity of the Silver Dollar. He longed mightily to reach the protection of Dave Dingwell's experience and debonair sang froid.

The cattleman had not yet reached the hotel. Roy went up to their room at once and locked himself in. He sat on the bed with a revolver in his hand. Now that it was all over, he was trembling like an aspen leaf. For the hundredth time in the past week he flung at himself his own contemptuous scorn. Why was the son of John Beaudry such an arrant coward? He knew that his sudden madness and its consequences had been born of panic. What was there about the quality of his nerves that differed from those of other men? Even now he was shivering from the dread that his enemies might come and break down the door to get at him.

He heard the jocund whistle of Dingwell as the cattleman came along the corridor. Swiftly he pocketed the revolver and unlocked the door. When Dave entered, Roy was lying on the bed pretending to read a newspaper.

If the older man noticed that the paper shook, he ignored it.

"What's this I hear, son, about you falling off the water-wagon and filling the hospital?" His gay grin challenged affectionately the boy on the bed. "Don't you know you 're liable to give the new firm, Dingwell & Beaudry, a bad name if you pull off insurrections like that? The city dads are talking some of building a new wing to the accident ward to accommodate your victims. Taxes will go up and—"

Roy smiled wanly. "You 've heard about it, then?"

"Heard about it! Say, son, I 've heard nothing else for the last twenty minutes. You 're the talk of the town. I did n't know you was such a bad actor." Dave stopped to break into a chuckle. "Wow! You certainly hit the high spots. Friend Meldrum and Charlton and our kind host Hart—all laid out at one clatter. I never was lucky. Here I would n't 'a' missed seeing you pull off this Samson encore for three cows on the hoof, and I get in too late for the show."

"They 're not hurt badly, are they?" asked Beaudry, a little timidly.

Dave looked at him with a curious little smile. "You don't want to go back and do the job more thorough, do you? No need, son. Meldrum and Charlton are being patched up in the hospital and Hart is at Doc White's having the glass picked out of his geography. I 've talked with some of the also rans, and they tell me unanimous that it was the most thorough clean-up they have participated in recently."

"What will they do—after they get over it?"

Dingwell grinned. "Search me! But I 'll tell you what they won't do. They 'll not invite you to take another drink right away. I 'll bet a hat on that. … Come on, son. We got to hit the trail for home."