Dave Caches a Gunnysack
FOX rode about ten yards behind his prisoner, who plodded without spirit up the creek trail that led from the basin.
"You're certainly an accommodating fellow, Dave," he jeered. "I've seen them as would have grumbled a heap at digging up that sack, and then loaning me their horse to carry it whilst they walked. But you're that cheerful. My own brother would n't have been so kind."
Dingwell grunted sulkily. He may have felt cheerful, but he did not look it. The pudgy round body of Fox shook with silent laughter.
"Kind is the word, Dave. Honest, I hate to put myself under obligations to you like this. If I had n't seen with my own eyes how you was feeling the need of them health exercises, I could n't let you force your bronc on me. But this little walk will do you a lot of good. It ain't far. My horse is up there in the pines."
"What are you going to do with me?" growled the defeated man over his shoulder.
"Do with you?" The voice of Fox registered amiable surprise. "Why, I am going to ask you to go up to the horse ranch with me so that the boys can thank you proper for digging up the gold."
Directly in front of them a spur of the range jutted out to meet the brown foothills. Back of this, forty miles as the crow flies, nestled a mountain park surrounded by peaks. In it was the Rutherford horse ranch. Few men traveled to it, and these by little-used trails. Of those who frequented them, some were night riders. They carried a price on their heads, fugitives from localities where the arm of the law reached more surely.
Through the dry brittle grass the man on horseback followed Dingwell to the scant pines where his cowpony was tethered. Fox dismounted and stood over his captive while the latter transferred the gunnysack and its contents to the other saddle. Never for an instant did the little spy let the other man close enough to pounce upon him. Even though Dingwell was cowed, Chet proposed to play it safe. Not till he was in the saddle himself did he let his prisoner mount.
Instantly Dave's cowpony went into the air.
"Whoa, you Teddy! What's the matter with you?" cried the owner of the horse angrily. "Quit your two-stepping, can't you?"
The animal had been gentle enough all day, but now a devil of unrest seemed to have entered it. The sound of trampling hoofs thudded on the hard, sun-baked earth as the bronco came down like a pile-driver, camel-backed, with legs stiff and unjointed. Skyward it flung itself again, whirled in the air, and jarred down at an angle. Wildly flapped the arms of the cattleman. The quirt, wrong end to, danced up and down clutched in his flying fist. Each moment it looked as if Mr. Dingwell would take the dust.
The fat stomach of Fox shook with mirth. "Go it, you buckaroo," he shouted. "You got him pulling leather. Sunfish, you pie-faced cayuse."
The horse in its lunges pounded closer. Fox backed away, momentarily alarmed. "Here —— you, hold your brute off. It 'll be on top of me in a minute," he screamed.Apparently Dingwell had lost all control of the bucker. Somehow he still stuck to the saddle, by luck rather than skill it appeared. His arms, working like windmills, went up as Teddy shot into the air again. The hump
The quirt, wrong end to, danced up and down clutched in his flying fist
The body of Fox relaxed and the rifle slid from his nerveless fingers. Teddy stopped bucking as if a spring had been touched. Dingwell was on his own feet before the other knew what had happened. His long arm plucked the little man from the saddle as if he had been a child.
Still jarred by the blow, Fox looked up with a ludicrous expression on his fat face. His mind was not yet adjusted to what had taken place.
"I told you to keep the brute away," he complained querulously. "Now, see what you 've done."
Dave grinned. "Looks like I spilled your apple cart. No, don't bother about that gun. I 'll take care of it for you. Much obliged."
Chet's face registered complex emotion. Incredulity struggled with resentment. "You made that horse buck on purpose," he charged.
"You 're certainly a wiz, Chet," drawled the cattleman.
"And that business of being sore at yourself and ashamed was all a bluff. You were laying back to trick me," went on Fox venomously.
"How did you guess it? Well, don't you care. We 're born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for man, his days are as grass. He diggeth a pit and falleth into it his own self. Likewise he digs a hole and buries gold, but beholds another guy finds it. See, Second Ananias, fourteen, twelve."
"That's how you show your gratitude, is it? I might 'a' shot you safe and comfortable from the mesquite and saved a lot of trouble."
"I don't wonder you 're disgusted, Chet. But be an optimist. I might 'a' busted you high and wide with that quirt instead of giving you a nice little easy tap that just did the business. There's no manner of use being regretful over past mistakes," Dave told him cheerfully.
"It's easy enough for you to say that," groaned Fox, his hand to an aching head. "But I did n't lambaste you one on the nut. Anyhow, you 've won out."
"I had won out all the time, only I had n't pulled it off yet," Dingwell explained with a grin. "You did n't think I was going up to the horse ranch with you meek and humble, did you? But we can talk while we ride. I got to hustle back to Battle Butte and turn in this sack to the sheriff so as I can claim the reward. Hate to trouble you, Chet, but I 'll have to ask you to transfer that gunnysack back to Teddy. He's through bucking for to-day, I should n't wonder."
Sourly Fox did as he was told. Then, still under orders, he mounted his own horse and rode back with his former prisoner to the park. Dingwell gathered up the rifle and revolver that had been left at the edge of the aspen grove and headed the horses for Battle Butte.
"We 'll move lively, Chet," he said. "It will be night first thing we know."
Chet Fox was no fool. He could see how carefully Dingwell had built up the situation for his coup, and he began at once laying the groundwork for his own escape. There was in his mind no intention of trying to recover the gold himself, but if he could get away in time to let the Rutherfords know the situation, he knew that Dave would have an uneasy life of it.
"’Course I was joking about shooting you up from the mesquite, Dave," he explained as the horses climbed the trail from the park. "I ain't got a thing against you—nothing a-tall. Besides, I'm a law-abiding citizen. I don't hold with this here gunman business. I never was a killer, and I don't aim to begin now."
"Sure, I know how tender-hearted you are, Chet. I'm that way, too. I'm awful sorry for myself when I get in trouble. That's why I tapped you on the cocoanut with the end of my quirt. That's why I'd let you have about three bullets from old Tried and True here right in the back if you tried to make your getaway. But, as you say, I have n't a thing against you. I 'll promise you one of the nicest funerals Washington County ever had."
The little man laughed feebly. "You will have your joke, Dave, but I know mighty well you would n't shoot me. You got no legal right to detain me."
"I'd have to wrastle that out with the coroner afterward, I expect," replied Dingwell casually. "Not thinking of leaving me, are you?"
"Oh, no! No. Not at all. I was just kinder talking."
It was seven miles from Lonesome Park to Battle Butte. Fox kept up a kind of ingratiating whine whenever the road was so rough that the horses had to fall into a walk. He was not sure whether when it came to the pinch he could summon nerve to try a bolt, but he laid himself out to establish friendly relations. Dingwell, reading him like a primer, cocked a merry eye at the man and grinned.
About a mile from Battle Butte they caught up with another rider, a young woman of perhaps twenty. The dark, handsome face that turned to see who was coming would have been a very attractive one except for its look of sulky rebellion. From the mop of black hair tendrils had escaped and brushed the wet cheeks flushed by the sting of the rain. The girl rode splendidly. Even the slicker that she wore could not disguise the flat back and the erect carriage of the slender body.
Dingwell lifted his hat. "Good-evenin', Miss Rutherford."
She nodded curtly. Her intelligent eyes passed from his to those of Fox. A question and an answer, neither of them in words, flashed forth and back between Beulah Rutherford and the little man.
Dave took a hand in the line-up as they fell into place beside each other. "Hold on, Fox. You keep to the left of the road. I 'll ride next you with Miss Rutherford on my right." He explained to the girl with genial mockery his reason. "Chet and I are such tillicums we hate to let any one get between us."
Bluntly the girl spoke out, "What's the matter?"
The cattleman lifted his eyebrows in amused surprise. "Why, nothing at all, I reckon. There's nothing the matter, is there, Chet?"
"I 've got an engagement to meet your father and he won't let me go," blurted out Fox.
"When did you make that hurry-up appointment, Chet?" laughed Dingwell. "You did n't seem in no manner of hurry when you was lying in the mesquite back there at Lonesome Park."
"You 've got no business to keep him here. He can go if he wants to," flashed the young woman.
"You hear that, Chet. You can go if you want to," murmured Dave with good-natured irony.
"Said he'd shoot me in the back if I hit the trail any faster," Fox snorted to the girl.
"He would n't dare," flamed Beulah Rutherford.
Her sultry eyes attacked Dingwell.
He smiled, not a whit disturbed. "You see how it is, Chet. Maybe I will; maybe I won't. Be a sport and you 'll find out."
For a minute the three rode in silence except for the sound of the horses moving. Beulah did not fully understand the situation, but it was clear to her that somehow Dingwell was interfering with a plan of her people. Her untamed youth resented the high-handed way in which he seemed to be doing it. What right had he to hold Chet Fox a prisoner at the point of a rifle?
She asked a question flatly. "Have you got a warrant for Chet's arrest?"
"Only old Tried and True here." Dave patted the barrel of his weapon.
"You 're not a deputy sheriff?"
"No-o. Not officially."
"What has Chet done?"
Dingwell regarded the other man humorously. "What have you done, Chet? You must 'a' broke some ordinance in that long career of disrespectability of yours. I reckon we 'll put it that you obstructed traffic at Lonesome Park."
Miss Rutherford said no more. The rain had given way to a gentle mist. Presently she took off her slicker and held it on the left side of the saddle to fold. The cattleman leaned toward her to lend a hand.
"Lemme roll it up," he said.
"No, I can."
With the same motion the girl had learned in roping cattle she flung the slicker over his head. Her weight on the left stirrup, she threw her arms about him and drew the oil coat tight.
"Run, Chet!" she cried.
Fox was off like a flash.
Hampered by his rifle, Dave could use only one hand to free himself. The Rutherford girl clung as if her arms had been ropes of steel. Before he had shaken her off, the runaway was a hundred yards down the road galloping for dear life.
Dave raised his gun. Beulah struck the barrel down with her quirt. He lowered the rifle, turned to her, and smiled. His grin was rueful but friendly.
"You 're a right enterprising young lady for a schoolmarm, but I would n't have shot Chet, anyhow. The circumstances don't warrant it."
She swung from the saddle and picked her coat out of the mud where it had fallen. Her lithe young figure was supple as that of a boy.
"You 've spoiled my coat," she charged resentfully.
The injustice of this tickled him. "I 'll buy you a new one when we get to town," he told her promptly.
Her angry dignity gave her another inch of height. "I'll attend to that, Mr. Dingwell. Suppose you ride on and leave me alone. I won't detain you."
"Meaning that she does n't like your company, Dave," he mused aloud, eyes twinkling. "She seemed kinder fond of you, too, a minute ago."
Almost she stamped her foot. "Will you go? Or shall I?"
"Oh, I'm going, Miss Rutherford. If I was n't such an aged, decrepit wreck I'd come up and be one of your scholars. Anyhow, I'm real glad to have met you. No, I can't stay longer. So sorry. Good-bye."
He cantered down the road in the same direction Fox had taken. It happened that he, too, wanted to be alone, for he had a problem to solve that would not wait. Fox had galloped in to warn the Rutherford gang that he had the gold. How long it would take him to round up two or three of them would depend on chance. Dave knew that they might be waiting for him before he reached town. He had to get rid of the treasure between that spot and town, or else he had to turn on his tired horse and try to escape to the hills. Into his mind popped a possible solution of the difficulty. It would depend on whether luck was for or against him. To dismount and hide the sack was impossible, both because Beulah Rutherford was on his heels and because the muddy road would show tracks where he had stopped. His plan was to hide it without leaving the saddle.
He did. At the outskirts of Battle Butte he crossed the bridge over Big Creek and deflected to the left. He swung up one street and down another beside which ran a small field of alfalfa on one side. A hundred yards beyond it he met another rider, a man called Slim Sanders, who worked for Buck Rutherford as a cow-puncher.
The two men exchanged nods without stopping. Apparently the news that Fox had brought was unknown to the cowboy. But Dingwell knew he was on his way to the Legal Tender Saloon, which was the hang-out of the Rutherford followers. In a few minutes Sanders would get his orders.
Dave rode to the house of Sheriff Sweeney. He learned there that the sheriff was downtown. Dingwell turned toward the business section of the town and rode down the main street. From a passer-by he learned that Sweeney had gone into the Legal Tender a few minutes before. In front of that saloon he dismounted.
Fifty yards down the street three men were walking toward him. He recognized them as Buck Rutherford, Sanders, and Chet Fox. The little man walked between the other two and told his story excitedly. Dingwell did not wait for them. He had something he wanted to tell Sweeney and he passed at once into the saloon.