`KEEP yore han's mighty still an' explain yoreself.'
The curt command was delivered in a tone which was, in itself, a menace, and the appearance of the speaker did little to lessen it. A big fellow, seemingly in the mid-thirties, with enormous shoulders and a gross body to match. From beneath the brim of his slouched hat black eyes gleamed fiercely, and his thick lips, unhidden by a straggling moustache, were pursed in a savage pout.
The man to whom the order was given seemed in no hurry to reply. He, too, was big, but less heavily built, and perhaps eight years younger than the other. His clean-shaven face was hard and reckless. Sitting their horses, some dozen paces apart, on opposite sides of a tiny break in the woods through which a faint trail led, they eyed one another steadily. At length the younger man spoke : `What right you got to hold me up thisaway?'
The ghost of a grin passed over the other's lips. `No right, on'y a left,' he replied, raising that hand enough to reveal a leveled revolver. `This is my country.'
The threatened man merely shrugged his shoulders. `I ain't passed any fences,' he pointed out.
`You wouldn't--my name's better'n barb' wire,' came the boast. `Bardoe--Bull Bardoe. Mebbe that wises you up some?'
`Not one damn bit,' was the drawled reply. `Never heard tell o' you.'
Bardoe did not detect the lie, but he was very sensible of the sneering tone, and it deepened his scowl of aggression.
`You must shorely be a pilgrim,' he gibed in turn. `What might yore name be?'
`It might be Judas Iscariot, but it ain't,' the stranger retorted. He appeared to be deliberately trying to incense the other. `You'll have heard o' Old Nick? Well, I'm Young Nick. I was called after the Devil, an' have been on the way to him ever since.'
`Cease foolin' or I'll shorten yore journey,' Bardoe snarled, and then a surprised look of comprehension widened his eyes. `Tellin' me yo're Nicholas Drait, o' Shadow Valley? And you never heard o' me?'
`Brother, that was a slip,' Drait returned mildly, but his narrowed eyes watched warily. `What I meant to say was that I never heard any good o' you. Rustler, road-agent, train hold-up, murd...' He saw the movement he was waiting for, and his own weapon--long held in readiness--came up. The reports merged into one, shattering the silence and causing a frightened fluttering in the greenery overhead. The younger man felt the burn of a bullet on his cheek, and then saw Bardoe lean forward and pitch ,sideways to the ground.
`Hell!' he cried.
The exclamation was one of amazement; where he had looked for an empty saddle he saw a girl astride the stricken man's horse; Bardoe's bulky body had effectually concealed her from his view. She was young--not much over twenty, he judged, and was dressed in a worn calico gown, clumsy shoes, and an old sun-bonnet which had slipped back to reveal an untidy mop of golden-brown hair. She seemed pitifully small on the back of the big beast she bestrode. Drait got down, dropped the reins over his pony's head, and stepped towards her. As though frozen with horror, she remained bent and motionless, her gaze glued to the sprawling form of the shot man.
`Who the deuce are you?' Drait asked roughly.
Getting no answer, not even a look, he muttered an impatient oath and turned to his victim. With cold, callous eyes the victor surveyed his work, stooped to lift the wide-flung left hand, let it fall limply back to the ground, and began to search the body. In a vest pocket he found a slip of paper, and on it, scrawled in pencil: `One hundred three-year-olds at 10 a head-1,000 bucks.'
`C'rect,' he commented grimly, and thrusting it into his own pocket, bent to his task again.
Around Bardoe's middle, concealed by the slack of his shirt, he discovered a money-belt--a heavy one. He began to buckle it about his own waist, but on second thoughts, rolled it up and placed it in one of the saddle- pockets of the owner's horse. This brought his attention back to the girl, and he stood considering her with a sombre puzzled expression. At length he appeared to have reached a decision. She was looking at him now, her large eyes full of fear.
`Climb into the saddle,' he said. `We've a long way to go.'
She scrambled over the cantle, while he shortened the stirrup leathers so that her feet could reach. Then, handing her the reins, he mounted his own beast and rode out of the glade. Sitting slackly, head down-bent, she followed. They moved slowly, for the nature of the country, rough and broken, made speed only an invitation to accident. Several times he spoke to her but received no reply, and with a lift of his shoulders, he relinquished the attempt to make her talk, and gave his attention to the tricky trail they were traversing. But from time to time, when it was possible for them to ride abreast, he found himself studying her. The sun-bonnet had been pulled on, hiding the face, but he noted the youngness of her, and the smallness of the toil-worn hands which gripped the reins.
`Bull Bardoe's woman,' he told himself. `Well, if that's the best he could give her in the way o' clothes, I guess she won't lose on the exchange.'
When the dropping sun set the western sky ablaze, warning that the day was about to die, Drait halted on the bank of a small creek and turned off the trail, following the water, to stop finally on a little grassy level shut in by undergrowth.
`We'll camp here,' he said. `Get down an' rest--you look tuckered out.'
She obeyed in silence, seating herself on a slight mound, whence she watched listlessly while he unsaddled and led off the horses to picket them some fifty yards away where the grass was more luxuriant. Returning with an armful of dry wood, he built a fire, and while it was burning up, opened his blanket roll to unearth a battered coffee-pot, a frying-pan, and a tin mug. He surveyed the latter with a half-grin.
`On'y got one,' he remarked. `We're a mite short o' grub, too. You see, I warn't expectin' comp'ny.' If the girl heard, she gave no sign, and he went on, `Mebbe Bull can help us out.'
A search of Bardoe's blanket revealed another mug, coffeepot, part of a loaf, a slab of cooked deer-meat, and a tin which Drait took to be salt, out on tasting, found to be sugar.
The coffee-pot, filled from the creek, was set on the glowing embers. When it boiled, he cut two slices of bread, put a layer of meat between them, and poured steaming liquid into one of the mugs.
`Cawfee should be hot as hell, black as a nigger's soul, an' sweet as sin,' he grinned. `Come an' get it.'
`I'm not hungry,' the girl said.
It was the first time he had heard her voice, and he was struck by the low, vibrant tone--clear-sounding, like the note of a harp. The effect was curious--it made him angry.
`Allasame, you'll eat, drink, an' like it--I don't want a sick woman on my hands,' he grated, and when she still made no movement, `Do I have to take my quirt to you?'
This brought her to the fire, where she ate and drank in sullen silence. Drait took no futher notice, devoting himself to the meal, and the fact that it had been mainly provided by the man he had shot did not appear to have affected his appetite. When they had finished, she looked up and said abruptly: `Why did you kill him?'
Drait laughed harshly. `To save myself. His gun was out first; he meant to get me--a stranger he'd never set eyes on.'
This silenced her; she had seen Bardoe furtively draw his weapon the moment they had met. Moodily she looked on while he replenished the fire and spread the blankets, one on each side, with the saddles for pillows.
`There's yore bed,' he said. `Better turn in--we'll be makin' an early start.'
He set the example, rolling himself in the blanket, and in a few moments, regular breathing told that he was asleep. The girl lay down, but only to stare, wide-eyed, at the dark dome above, in which points of light were now beginning to peep. The one thought in her mind was to get away, somehow, somewhere. Presently she raised herself, making a little noise, and gazed at the recumbent form across the fire. It remained motionless, and satisfied that her captor slept, she stood up and stole in the direction of the horses.
No sooner had she melted into the shadow than the sleeper flung aside his blanket, a heavy scowl on his brow. Cat-footed, he followed, reaching her as she stooped to pull the picket-pin of Bardoe's mount.