The Sheriff's Son
THROUGH the mesquite a horse moved deviously, following the crooked trail of least resistance. A man was in the saddle and in front of him a little boy nodding with sleep. The arm of the rider cradled the youngster against the lurches of the pony's gait.
The owner of the arm looked down at the tired little bundle it was supporting. A wistful tenderness was in the leathery face. To the rest of the world he was a man of iron. To this wee bit of humanity he was a nurse, a playmate, a slave.
"We 're 'most to the creek now, son. Onc't we get there, we 'll throw off and camp. You can eat a snack and tumble right off to bye-low land," he promised.
The five-year-old smiled faintly and snuggled closer. His long lashes drooped again to the soft cheeks. With the innocent selfishness of a child he accepted the love that sheltered him from all troubles.
A valley opened below the mesa, the trail falling abruptly almost from the hoofs of the horse. Beaudry drew up and looked down. From rim to rim the meadow was perhaps half a mile across. Seen from above, the bed of it was like an emerald lake through which wound a ribbon of silver. This ribbon was Big Creek. To the right it emerged from a draw in the foothills where green reaches of forest rose tier after tier toward the purple mountains. Far up among these peaks Big Creek had its source in Lost Lake, which lay at the foot of a glacier near the top of the world.
The saw-toothed range lifted its crest into a sky of violet haze. Half an hour since the sun had set in a blaze of splendor behind a crotch of the hills, but dusk had softened the vivid tints of orange and crimson and scarlet to a faint pink glow. Already the mountain silhouette had lost its sharp edge and the outlines were blurring. Soon night would sift down over the roof of the continent.
The eyes of the man searched warily the valley below. They rested closely on the willows by the ford, the cottonwood grove to the left, and the big rocks beyond the creek. From its case beneath his leg he took the sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot. It rested on the pommel of the saddle while his long and careful scrutiny swept the panorama. The spot was an ideal one for an ambush.
His unease communicated itself to the boy, who began to whimper softly. Beaudry, distressed, tried to comfort him.
"Now, don't you, son—don't you. Dad ain't going to let anything hurt you-all."
Presently he touched the flank of his roan with a spur and the animal began to pick its way down the steep trail among the loose rubble. Not for an instant did the rider relax his vigilance as he descended. At the ford he examined the ground carefully to make sure that nobody had crossed since the shower of the afternoon. Swinging to the saddle again, he put his horse to the water and splashed through to the opposite shore. Once more he dismounted and studied the approach to the creek. No tracks had written their story on the sand in the past few hours. Yet with every sense alert he led the way to the cottonwood grove where he intended to camp. Not till he had made a tour of the big rocks and a clump of prickly pears adjoining was his mind easy.
He came back to find the boy crying. "What's the matter, big son?" he called cheerily. "Nothing a-tall to be afraid of. This nice camping-ground fits us like a coat of paint. You-all take forty winks while dad fixes up some supper."
He spread his slicker and rolled his coat for a pillow, fitting it snugly to the child's head. While he lit a fire he beguiled the time with animated talk. One might have guessed that he was trying to make the little fellow forget the alarm that had been stirred in his mind.
"Sing the li'l' ole hawss," commanded the boy, reducing his sobs.
Beaudry followed orders in a tuneless voice that hopped gayly up and down. He had invented words and music years ago as a lullaby and the song was in frequent demand.
"Li'l' ole hawss an' li'l' ole cow,
Amblin' along by the ole haymow,
Li'l' ole hawss took a bite an' a chew,
'Durned if I don't,' says the ole cow, too."
Seventeen stanzas detailed the adventures of this amazing horse and predatory cow. Somewhere near the middle of the epic little Royal Beaudry usually dropped asleep. The rhythmic tale always comforted him. These nameless animals were very real friends of his. They had been companions of his tenderest years. He loved them with a devotion from which no fairy tale could wean him.
Before he had quite surrendered to the lullaby, his father aroused him to share the bacon and the flapjacks he had cooked.
"Come and get it, big son," Beaudry called with an imitation of manly roughness.
The boy ate drowsily before the fire, nodding between bites.
Presently the father wrapped the lad up snugly in his blankets and prompted him while he said his prayers. No woman's hands could have been tenderer than the calloused ones of this frontiersman. The boy was his life. For the girl-bride of John Beaudry had died to give this son birth.
Beaudry sat by the dying fire and smoked. The hills had faded to black, shadowy outlines beneath a night of a million stars. During the day the mountains were companions, heaven was the home of warm friendly sunshine that poured down lance-straight upon the traveler. But now the black, jagged peaks were guards that shut him into a vast prison of loneliness. He was alone with God, an atom of no consequence. Many a time, when he had looked up into the sky vault from the saddle that was his pillow, he had known that sense of insignificance.
To-night the thoughts of John Beaudry were somber. He looked over his past with a strange feeling that he had lived his life and come to the end of it. He was not yet forty, a well-set, bow-legged man of medium height, in perfect health, sound as to every organ. From an old war wound he had got while raiding with Morgan he limped a little. Two more recent bullet scars marked his body. But none of these interfered with his activity. He was in the virile prime of life; yet a bell rang in his heart the warning that he was soon to die. That was why he was taking his little son out of the country to safety.
He took all the precautions that one could, but he knew that in the end these would fail him. The Rutherfords would get him. Of that he had no doubt. They would probably have killed him, anyhow, but he had made his sentence sure when he had shot Anse Rutherford and wounded Eli Schaick ten days ago. That it had been done by him in self-defense made no difference.
Out of the Civil War John Beaudry had come looking only for peace. He had moved West and been flung into the wild, turbulent life of the frontier. In the Big Creek country there was no peace for strong men in the seventies. It was a time and place for rustlers and horse-thieves to flourish at the expense of honest settlers. They elected their friends to office and laughed at the law.
But the tide of civilization laps forward. A cattlemen's association had been formed. Beaudry, active as an organizer, had been chosen its first president. With all his energy he had fought the rustlers. When the time came to make a stand the association nominated Beaudry for sheriff and elected him. He had prosecuted the thieves remorselessly in spite of threats and shots in the dark. Two of them had been put by him behind bars. Others were awaiting trial. The climax had come when he met Anse Rutherford and his companion at Battle Butte, had defeated them both single-handed, and had left one dead on the field and the other badly wounded.
Men said that John Beaudry was one of the great sheriffs of the West. Perhaps he was, but he would have to pay the price that such a reputation exacts. The Rutherford gang had sworn his death and he knew they would keep the oath.
The man sat with one hand resting on the slim body of the sleeping boy. His heart was troubled. What was to become of little Royal without either father or mother? After the manner of men who live much alone in the open he spoke his thoughts aloud.
"Son, one of these here days they 're sure a-goin' to get yore dad. Maybe he 'll ride out of town and after a while the hawss will come galloping back with an empty saddle. A man can be mighty unpopular and die of old age, but not if he keeps bustin' up the plans of rampageous two-gun men, not if he shoots them up when they 're full of the devil and bad whiskey. It ain't on the cyards for me to beat them to the draw every time, let alone that they 'll see to it all the breaks are with them. No, sir. I reckon one of these days you 're goin' to be an orphan, little son."
He stooped over the child and wrapped the blankets closer. The muscles of his tanned face twitched. Long he held the warm, slender body of the boy as close to him as he dared for fear of wakening him.
The man lay tense and rigid, his set face staring up into the starry night. It was his hour of trial. A rising tide was sweeping him away. He had to clutch at every straw to hold his footing. But something in the man—his lifetime habit of facing the duty that he saw—held him steady.
"You got to stand the gaff, Jack Beaudry. Can't run away from your job, can you? Got to go through, have n't you? Well, then!"
Peace came at last to the tormented man. He fell asleep. Hours later he opened his eyes upon a world bathed in light. It was such a brave warm world that the fears which had gripped him in the chill night seemed sinister dreams. In this clear, limpid atmosphere only a sick soul could believe in a blind alley from which there was no escape.
But facts are facts. He might hope for escape, but even now he could not delude himself with the thought that he might win through without a fight.
While they ate breakfast he told the boy about the mother whom he had never seen. John Beaudry had always intended to tell Royal the story of his love for the slender, sweet-lipped girl whose grace and beauty had flooded his soul. But the reticence of shyness had sealed his lips. He had cared for her with a reverence too deep for words.
She was the daughter of well-to-do people visiting in the West. The young cattleman and she had fallen in love almost at sight and had remained lovers till the day of her death. After one year of happiness tragedy had stalked their lives. Beaudry, even then the object of the rustlers' rage, had been intercepted on the way from Battle Butte to his ranch. His wife, riding to meet him, heard shots and galloped forward. From the mesa she looked down into a draw and saw her husband fighting for his life. He was at bay in a bed of boulders, so well covered by the big rocks that the rustlers could not easily get at him. His enemies, scattered fanshape across the entrance to the arroyo, were gradually edging nearer. In a panic of fear she rode wildly to the nearest ranch, gasped out her appeal for help, and collapsed in a woeful little huddle. His friends arrived in time to save Beaudry, damaged only to the extent of a flesh wound in the shoulder, but the next week the young wife gave premature birth to her child and died four days later.
In mental and physical equipment the baby was heir to the fears which had beset the last days of the mother. He was a frail little fellow and he whimpered at trifles. But the clutch of the tiny pink fingers held John Beaudry more firmly than a grip of steel. With unflagging patience he fended bogies from the youngster.
But the day was at hand when he could do this no longer. That was why he was telling Royal about the mother he had never known. From his neck he drew a light gold chain, at the end of which was a small square folding case. In it was a daguerreotype of a golden-haired, smiling girl who looked out at her son with an effect of shy eagerness.
"Give Roy pretty lady," demanded the boy.
Beaudry shook his head slowly. "I reckon that's 'most the only thing you can ask your dad for that he won't give you." He continued unsteadily, looking at the picture in the palm of his hand. "Lady-Bird I called her, son. She used to fill the house with music right out of her heart. … Fine as silk and true as gold. Don't you ever forget that your mother was a thoroughbred." His voice broke. "But I had n't ought to have let her stay out here. She belonged where folks are good and kind, where they love books and music. Yet she would n't leave me because … because … Maybe you 'll know why she would n't some day, little son."
He drew a long, ragged breath and slipped the case back under his shirt.
Quickly Beaudry rose and began to bustle about with suspicious cheerfulness. He whistled while he packed and saddled. In the fresh cool morning air they rode across the valley and climbed to the mesa beyond. The sun mounted higher and the heat shimmered on the trail in front of them. The surface of the earth was cracked in dry, sun-baked tiles curving upward at the edges. Cat's-claw clutched at the legs of the travelers. Occasionally a swift darted from rock to rock. The faint, low voices of the desert were inaudible when the horse moved. The riders came out of the silence and moved into the silence.
It was noon when Beaudry drew into the suburbs of Battle Butte. He took an inconspicuous way by alleys and side streets to the corral. His enemies might or might not be in town. He wanted to take no chances. All he asked was to postpone the crisis until Royal was safe aboard a train. Crossing San Miguel Street, the riders came face to face with a man Beaudry knew to be a spy of the Rutherfords. He was a sleek, sly little man named Chet Fox.
"Evenin', sheriff. Looks some like we-all might have rain," Fox said, rasping his unshaven chin with the palm of a hand.
"Looks like," agreed Beaudry with a curt nod and rode on.
Fox disappeared around a corner, hurried forward for half a block, and turned in at the Silver Dollar Saloon. A broad-shouldered, hawk-nosed man of thirty was talking to three of his friends. Toward this group Fox hurried. In a low voice he spoke six words that condemned John Beaudry to death.
"Beaudry just now rode into town."
Hal Rutherford forgot the story he was telling. He gave crisp, short orders. The men about him left by the back door of the saloon and scattered.
Meanwhile the sheriff rode into the Elephant Corral and unsaddled his horse. He led the animal to the trough in the yard and pumped water for it. His son trotted back beside him to the stable and played with a puppy while the roan was being fed.
Jake Sharp, owner of the corral, stood in the doorway and chatted with the sheriff for a minute. Was it true that a new schoolhouse was going to be built on Bonito? And had the sheriff heard whether McCarty was to be boss of Big Creek roundup?
Beaudry answered his questions and turned away. Royal clung to one hand as they walked. The other held the muley gun.
It was no sound that warned the sheriff. The approach of his enemies had been noiseless. But the sixth sense that comes to some fighting men made him look up quickly. Five riders were moving down the street toward the stable, Hal Rutherford in the lead. The alert glance of the imperiled man swept the pasture back of the corral. The glint of the sun heliographed danger from the rifle barrels of two men just topping the brow of the hill. Two more were stealing up through a draw to the right. A bullet whistled past the head of the officer.
The father spoke quietly to his little boy. "Run, son, to the stable."
The little chap began to sob. Bullets were already kicking up the dust behind them. Roy clung in terror to the leg of his father.
Beaudry caught up the child and made a dash for the stable. He reached it, just as Sharp and his horse-wrangler were disappearing into the loft. There was no time to climb the ladder with Royal. John flung open the top of the feed-bin, dropped the boy inside, and slammed down the lid.
The story of the fight that followed is still an epic in the Southwest. There was no question of fair play. The enemies of the sheriff intended to murder him.
The men in his rear were already clambering over the corral fence. One of them had a scarlet handkerchief around his neck. Beaudry fired from his hip and the vivid kerchief lurched forward into the dust. Almost at the same moment a sharp sting in the fleshy part of his leg told the officer that he was wounded.
From front and rear the attackers surged into the stable. The sheriff emptied the second barrel of buckshot into the huddle and retreated into an empty horse-stall. The smoke of many guns filled the air so that the heads thrust at him seemed oddly detached from bodies. A red-hot flame burned its way through his chest. He knew he was mortally wounded.
Hal Rutherford plunged at him, screaming an oath. "We 've got him, boys."
Beaudry stumbled back against the manger, the arms of his foe clinging to him like ropes of steel. Twice he brought down the butt of his sawed-off gun on the black head of Rutherford. The grip of the big hillman grew lax, and as the man collapsed, his fingers slid slackly down the thighs of the officer.
John dropped the empty weapon and dragged out a Colt's forty-four. He fired low and fast, not stopping to take aim. Another flame seared its way through his body. The time left him now could be counted in seconds.
But it was not in the man to give up. The old rebel yell of Morgan's raiders quavered from his throat. They rushed him. With no room even for six-gun work he turned his revolver into a club. His arm rose and fell in the mêlée as the drive of the rustlers swept him to and fro.
So savage was the defense of their victim against the hillmen's onslaught that he beat them off. A sudden panic seized them, and those that could still travel fled in terror.
They left behind them four dead and two badly wounded. One would be a cripple to the day of his death. Of those who escaped there was not one that did not carry scars for months as a memento of the battle.
The sheriff was lying in the stall when Sharp found him. From out of the feed-bin the owner of the corral brought his boy to the father whose life was ebbing. The child was trembling like an aspen leaf.
"Picture," gasped Beaudry, his hand moving feebly toward the chain.
A bullet had struck the edge of the daguerreo-type case.
"She … tried … to save me … again," murmured the dying man with a faint smile.
He looked at the face of his sweetheart. It smiled an eager invitation to him. A strange radiance lit his eyes.
Then his head fell back. He had gone to join his Lady-Bird.