EXIT MATT BRADY
TWO men were riding away from the town of Pahrump together. One was Miguel Cervantes, the other was Jack Robinson.
"You ran mighty close back there, Cervantes," said the younger man soberly. "That fellow was Pincher Brady—a killer. Only, he always kills in the back, savvy? He was going for you when I jumped up."
Cervantes nodded and flashed white teeth in a smile.
"I was not watching him," he confessed. "I was looking for someone, as I said. Every day I have come, but no luck."
"Maybe you drew a little luck to-day," and Robinson chuckled. "I don't suppose, by any chance, you were looking for Sam Fisher?"
Cervantes started. His dark eyes centered upon his companion.
"You know him?"
"Pretty well," said Robinson in an offhand way. "He was being watched and couldn't get away. So he deputized me to come along, as it were. You're the Lazy S foreman?"
"I used to be," said Cervantes bitterly.
They talked. Cervantes spoke quietly, changing swiftly between smiles and anger. Three years previously young Shumway had been railroaded to the penitentiary. Estella, his sister, had run the ranch since then—and it had gone to ruin. Not her fault or that of Cervantes, who was devotion personified.
"Cattle have vanished," Cervantes said in a hopeless tone. "We have gone steadily down—let the men go one by one to cut expenses. Last year what remained of the stock was sold off to pay the mortgage interest."
"I shouldn't think your friends would let things go that way," said Robinson.
"Friends? We have none. There is only old Jake Harper, who has the Circle Bar up beyond us. None of the others help us or know us. New people have come into the country; times have changed. Besides——"
"Templeton Buck?" suggested Robinson.
"Yes. They have tried often to get me," was the statement, simply given, "but for the sake of Miss Estella I have avoided offense. The Running Dog punchers make what use they like of our place; their foreman, Matt Brady, has even dared to fence in the springs adjoining the Buck ranch."
"Brady?" said Robinson suddenly, his eyes narrowing. "Matt Brady?"
"Yes." Cervantes gave him a questioning glance.
"Uh-huh—thought so! Pincher Brady's brother. That explains how they came to hire Pincher for their dirty work. But they wouldn't bring Pincher here simply to get you, would they? No. Quite a nice, nifty little scheme on foot, Miguel. By the way, I don't suppose this Jake Harper is a decrepit old party who was a scout for Reno during the Indian wars?"
"You know him, then?"
"Know of him, more or less." Robinson chuckled silently. "Think I'll go over to his place and have a chat. What's that crossroads ahead?"
"Straight on to the Running Dog and Harper's," responded Cervantes. "We turn off to the left You don't mean you're not going with me?"
"Cross my heart and hope to die—I'm not," and Robinson grinned. "But I'll be along in a day or two if I don't meet bad luck. By the way, who had anything to do with Frank's being sent to the pen?"
A black frown settled on the face of Cervantes.
"Nobody," he answered. "We don't know a thing against any one. Two detectives——"
"Oh, I see," said Robinson airily. "Well, I guess I'll be moving straight ahead, so don't sit up for me to-night. See you later."
They parted at the crossroads. Cervantes swung off to the left, plainly failing to comprehend this queer young man of strange impulses, and waved his hand in farewell. Jack Robinson jogged along reflectively, thinking of the man who had just left him.
"A faithful soul," he observed to his pinto. "Absolutely devoted boy, isn't he? Quick tempered, a wonder with his gun, and yet backing water all the time because he's afraid Estella would be left alone in the world if they wiped him out. Some man, Miguel! But none too bright. Give the devil his due, Johnny boy; a good man, only not quite good enough. He couldn't prevent the ranch going to the dogs, although he's ready to die with it. No, they wouldn't bring Pincher just to rub him out. Matt Brady could do that. And they wouldn't bring Pincher just to handle that mortgage affair. There's a nigger in the woodpile, and that nigger is——"
His meditations were interrupted by sight of a rolling train of dust in the road ahead. He eyed it sharply and made out the forms of two riders coming toward him.
They met, and drew rein with casual nods of greeting, searching looks, and frank curiosity. Robinson beheld two rangy punchers who rode with Winchesters booted. Their mounts bore the long sear of the Running Dog. One of them was a ratty individual with protruding teeth, the other was a large man, red-faced, of aggressive aspect.
"Must be a heap o' war in this country," opined Robinson with a friendly grin as he rolled a smoke. "More rifles'n I ever seen before at one stretch!"
"You must ha' come from quiet parts, then," said the big man. "That cayuse bears a brand strange hereabouts."
"That's true. Sure's my name's Jack Robinson, friend, that's true! Still the old SF has been supportin' me for two years or so—down in the south country."
"I'm Matt Brady, foreman; this here's 'Lias Knute," introduced Brady. "If you've come out lookin' for a job at the Runnin' Dawg, we'd be right glad to have you turn in, Robinson. Need a few extry hands right now."
Robinson blew a cloud of smoke and shook his head regretfully.
"Later, mebbe. Me, I got business over to Laredo."
"Laredo?" The foreman stared. "This ain't the Laredo road, ye numskull!"
"Ain't it, now?" said the other sweetly. "I never 'lowed it was, did I?"
Brady scowled. "Where ye headin' for?" he demanded bluntly.
"Did I say? Guess I forgot to mention it." Robinson's slow grin was irritating in the extreme. Ratty little Knute edged his cayuse a trifle to one side.
"Better remember it pronto." Brady's tone was significant. His eyes were stormy.
"Well," said Robinson gayly, "I done voted twice already, I ain't roped to any brand, and, far's I can see, my skin's white. This here ain't no private road, is it?"
Brady stared at him murderously. Knute edged a trifle farther to the side. Robinson appeared quite unruffled and innocent of offense.
"Stranger, are you jest plain fool, or ignerant?" demanded Brady.
"Both," Robinson said with a grin. "By the way, I s'pose you ain't related to Pincher Brady? He was havin' considerable excitement in town when I come through."
The big foreman settled into a deadly calm. "Yes? How come?"
"Bein' a stranger and peaceable, I didn't stop to ask," returned Robinson idly. "Seems like some feller named Buck sent him to get a gent. He got the wrong gent, and him and Buck were shootin' it out."
From the two men broke startled oaths. The ratty little Knute saw the twinkle in Robinson's eye, and cried out shrilly:
"He's stringin' us, Matt! Somethin' fishy about this guy——"
Robinson was in the center of the road, Brady before him, Knute off to his left. He appeared entirely careless and off guard, cigarette between his fingers.
"Tryin' to ride me, are ye?" Brady queried. "Want trouble, do ye?"
"I'd welcome it," said Robinson.
"Then take it——"
Brady's gun flashed up. The miracle happened; Robinson's six-shooter seemed to leap out of itself, jump into his hand, spit fire. The two guns spoke almost together. Brady swayed in the saddle, clutched at the pommel, and rolled down.
But it had been a murder trap. Robinson had no chance whatever. Even as he fired, he saw from the corner of his eye that Knute, to the left, was tugging at a gun. He saw the gun come up, and tried to swing himself around in time. Too late! The gun in the hand of ratty little Knute belched once.
Incredulously, bewildered, deeming himself already a dead man—Robinson found himself unharmed. Nor was he given any chance to shoot. The whole affair had passed in the fraction of a second; Matt Brady's vicious attack and death, the third shot echoing treacherously from the side, almost with the first two. As he turned to the assassin, Robinson was amazed to see Knute sink forward, the weapon falling from his hand.
Knute said no word, but followed his gun to the dirt. He lay motionless, one spur in the stirrup; a splotch of red grew upon his chest. He had been shot—how? Not by himself; nor by Robinson.
As the fraction of a second passed Robinson's head jerked up to a sound. He heard the crack of a rifle lifting to him—so swiftly had the whole affair passed! It was the shot which killed Knute; the rifle crack that followed the bullet.
Robinson stared around. The country appeared empty, the rolling hills desolate, the brown strip of road quite bare of any person. Whence had come that shot?
"Somebody quite a distance off had the pleasure of saving my life," said Robinson reflectively. "Well, if he doesn't want to show himself—I'm satisfied! I wasted a good lie on Matt Brady; too bad he didn't get to go to town and investigate his brother's trouble. Murder trap? Not the first these two gentlemen have laid, I'll bet! They sure caught me, all right. Would have had me, except for the unknown friend. Friend, I thank you!"
He swept off his black Stetson, waved it to the nearest hill, and rode on his way.
"Here's hoping the verdict will be that Knute and Brady killed each other," he thought. "Maybe it won't and maybe it will, depending on who the jury are and how well they can read tracks. Chances are that I won't be mentioned; this country seems to favor direct action rather than legal inquiry. Ho, hum! Matt came near to spoiling my nice new black hat by putting his bullet through it. That's what happens to a slow man. I'd sure hate to be slow around here, you bet! But I'd admire to know who handled that rifle In the brush. Couldn't even make out where It was, what direction. Interesting country, Pahrump! I certainly think the geological formations are fine."
Two men dead—well, it was a serious matter enough, and promised to grow darker with time. Matt Brady and Knute were evidently used to working together; their trap had been well prepared, well sprung. Only the presence of some unknown watcher had saved Robinson from that side bullet. Who was the person? Not Miguel Cervantes, for the native had carried no rifle.
Robinson jogged along, his mind busy with the situation of Estella Shumway. There were some things he did not understand, but comprehension would come in course of time. Templeton Buck seemed to be the big power in the county, to judge from that conversation in Galway Mike's place, and Buck apparently had it all fixed to take over the Shumway ranch in the near future—and Estella likewise.
Upon passing the turnout that led to the Running Dog, Robinson drew rein and studied the ground in some surprise. He had followed the back trail of Brady and Knute, but to his astonishment saw that they had not come from the Running Dog at all. They had come from some point beyond it—and the only point beyond it that Robinson knew of was Jake Harper's ranch. This looked queer.
Robinson passed on, wondering why these Running Dog men had come from the Circle Bar, particularly as Jake Harper and Templeton Buck were not friends. That would mean bad blood between the two outfits.
"Time will tell that, too, and the afternoon's drawing along," thought Robinson. "We'd better travel along, little doggies! Hit her up, Johnny boy, and we'll feast to-night with the Injun fighter and frontier guardian. Oh, shucks! Here's another guy coming with a rifle and looks like business in his eye, too!"
He drew up at sight of a horseman who had suddenly appeared in the road ahead, riding toward him. On closer sight, this man appeared to be a young fellow, whose right leg had been freshly bandaged above the knee; chaps and trousers were bundled behind him on the saddle, and from waist to boots his costume consisted of red flannel. He reined in before Robinson and nodded greeting, his eye running over the stranger critically.
"Howdy, pilgrim! Jest out from town?"
"C'rect the first shot, sure's my name's Jack Robinson!" was the cheerful response. "And I'd admire to know who's settin' the new range styles thisaway! I never did see such fine red color in all my days. I'll have to get me some underwear that same shade."
The young fellow chuckled. "My name's Arnold," he offered. "By that brand, you must ha' come up from the south, Robinson? Used to be down in Pecos County my ownself, last year; was ridin' for ol' man Zimmer."
"Then," drawled Robinson, "I reckon you done heard of Pete Hendricks?"
"Friend of yours?" queried Arnold.
"Shake." Arnold suddenly beamed in a wide grin and extended his hand. The two shook vigorously. "Me and Pete was sure some bunkies. Say, I most forgot! Did you meet a couple of riders back a ways?"
Robinson inspected him quizzically.
"Friends of yours?" he retorted. Arnold flushed violently and pointed to his underwear.
"Does that look like it?"
Robinson began to roll a cigarette. "If I was you, cowboy, I'd waste no more time lookin' farther for them two gents. No, sir, it'd be an awful waste of time, and, accordin' to looks, you got no time to waste."
"Meaning what, pardner?" Arnold inspected him, narrow-eyed, cautious.
"Just this." Robinson finished his cigarette and tucked it between his lips. "Feller named Buck was in Pahrump to-day, meetin' a friend on the stage. Friend called himself Murphy, but his real handle was Pincher Brady, savvy? Them two gents was due to leave town shortly behind me, riding thisaway. Now, when they get to where I got, back apiece, they're going to meet up with them same two gents you made mention of—same being Matt Brady and a little rat name o' Knute. Do you foller?"
"Right behind," said Arnold, thin-lipped, watchful. "Elucidate!"
"Why, that's about all of it, I reckon!" Robinson touched a match to his cigarette. "Only, when the first two meet up with the last two, there's going to be a heap of grief spilled. I don't guess Pincher Brady has much fraternal affection to spoil; same time, it's bound to be a shock, meetin' his brother like that."
"Oh!" said Arnold. "By gosh, d'you mean to say——"
"I ain't sayin' at all," and Robinson smiled whimsically. "Only I darned near got this new hat ruined. Somebody's goin' to get blamed for what happened. Maybe it'll be me, and maybe you, accordin' to which one Buck sees first. By the way, ain't that a Circle Bar brand on your hoss?"
"So taken and accepted." Arnold was staring at him hard now. "S'pose you and me ride back a ways, Robinson—same way you was heading."
"How come?" Robinson surveyed him with lifted brows.
"I got orders to keep with you, that's all." Arnold did not appear hostile—quite the contrary, in fact—but his attitude was determined. "You ain't been using your eyes real good, have you?"
"Seems not." Robinson frowned. "Orders to meet me? How in thunder did you get 'em?"
Arnold grinned. "Smoke signal. Do you agree? I'd sure hate to have any trouble with a red-headed gent that had knowed Pete Hendricks, but at the same time I aims to obey orders——"
"No apologies necessary." Robinson laughed softly. "Arnold, I guess you and I will hitch without any trouble. So Jake is using Injun smoke signals, is he? Same old boy as ever. Where is he?"
"Comin' behind you, I reckon," said Arnold dryly.
Robinson uttered a low whistle. "The darned old fox! So that's who it was! Let's ride, cowboy; let's ride."
Arnold turned his horse, and they rode stirrup to stirrup.