Out of a pale blue sky unflecked by the tiniest cloud, the sun, a disk of polished brass, blazed down, and perhaps for the fiftieth time the red-faced, grizzled driver of the stage-coach cursed it.
'If hell's any hotter'n this, damn me if I don't go an' get religion,' he said to the express messenger who sat on the box beside him.
They were descending a narrow, winding defile, the weather-scarred, rock walls of which were bare save for scattered clumps of brush and cactus clinging precariously where an earth-filled crevice afforded root-hold, and the four wicked-eyed mules comprising the team required careful handling if the lumbering vehicle were to reach the end of the decline as a whole. None knew this better than Bill Eames, the driver; and though he talked, hands and eyes were concentrated on his job. Lurching, swaying, jolting over a rough road originally scoured out by torrents and enlivened by chunks of debris from the ridges on either side the coach went on, and presently, sweeping round a bend, the finish of the gully came in view. Eames eased his drag on the reins a little and gave a grunt of relief.
'Allus glad when I'm through Devil's Dip,' he remarked. 'Dunno why, but I got a feelin' that if anythin' does happen, it'll be here.'
'Dandy place for a hold-up,' said the messenger, who was making the trip for the first time.
'Yu said it,' agreed the driver. 'But we ain't never--'
'Stick 'em up, pronto,' came the curt command.
With a curse, Eames flung all his weight on the lines, pulled his scared team to a standstill by main force and jammed his foot on the heavy brake. With a screech and a bump the coach stopped, and its driver, still holding the reins, promptly elevated his hands; he was not paid to fight. The express messenger was, and when his hands went up they gripped the gun which had lain across his thighs; it was loaded with buckshot, which would scatter, and was a deadly weapon at short range.
'Drop that, yu fool!'
The harsh voice appeared to come from a cluster of shrubs some ten yards away. It seemed to be the only cover near, and the guard, realizing that this was his sole chance against an unseen foe, fired plump into it. The roar of the report was instantly followed by the lesser detonation of a pistol-shot and the messenger slumped forward in his seat to sprawl across the footboard, his weapon hitting a wheel of the coach and bouncing into the roadway.
The driver, no stranger to scenes of violence, looked at the stricken man, saw the puncture in the forehead, with its tiny trickle of blood, and swore through his clenched teeth; and he did a good job, for when it comes to comprehensive and highly ornamental vituperation, your Western mule-skinner is gifted above his fellows. At the same time, risking a like fate, he dropped his arms and strove to subdue his mules, which, driven out of their senses by the shooting, were doing their level best to overturn the vehicle.
He was still busy with the task when a horseman emerged from the bushes. His face was masked by a common bandana handkerchief slitted for the eyes, further concealment being afforded by the pulled-down brim of a Stetson. In his right hand hung a revolver from the muzzle of which a wisp of blue smoke curled. He was mounted on a big black, with a white blaze between the eyes and a white stocking on the near foreleg.
'Don't try no tricks, driver,' the unknown said, and though his voice had a hard, metallic ring, the mask muffled and disguised it 'I'm sudden by nature as well as name.' He paused for a moment as if to let the remark sink in, and then, 'Tie yore lines. Whyfor did that fool fixe? I gave him his chance.'
Eames, having got his team into subjection, looped the reins round the hook at his side and hoisted his hands again without delay. Even had he meditated making a dash for it, the avowed identity of the marauder would have negatived the notion. So this was Sudden, the man whose wizard-like gun-play and daredevil exploits had made his name a terror in the South-west. He did not doubt it; the ruthless slaying of the guard and the holding-up of the stage single-handed were in keeping with the outlaw's reputation. The rider paced leisurely up to the coach.
'Heave the box over,' he ordered.
Eames reached down and from under the seat lately occupied by the murdered messenger drew out a small, iron-clamped chest which thudded deeply into the dust of the trail. The stranger nodded approvingly.
'Sounds good,' he said, and then, 'Go on prayin'.'
He dismounted, and keeping a wary eye on the driver, raised the box and methodically tied it to the cantle of his saddle. Then he turned to the body of the coach.
'Yu can come out, keepin' yore paws up,' he called.
Three passengers crept out from the dark interior and stood blinking in the glare of the sun. They were a sorry-looking trio. They had heard the shooting, the clatter of the messenger's gun as it fell, the curses of the driver, and had guessed the rest. Their trembling hands, thrust stiffly upwards, betrayed their fear. The outlaw surveyed them sardonically. Two were obviously drummers from the East, while the third, a man of middle age, dressed in shabby black with a soiled white collar, might have passed for a minister of some denomination, though his coarse, bloated face was hardly in keeping. It was to him the outlaw addressed himself.
'Parson, huh?' he asked.
'I am a poor servant of the Lord, brother,' the man in black replied unctuously.
'An' a mighty poor one at that, I'm bettin',' was the sneering comment. 'Well, yu oughta know how to take up a collection anyways--first thing yu fellas learn--so go through 'em, an' don't yu miss anythin' or yore flock'll be shy a shepherd.'
He gestured with his pistol, and aware that protest would be futile, the man proceeded to despoil his fellow- passengers. The result was meagre enough; a small amount of currency and a little flash jewellery. Their grips, which the collector had to fetch from the coach and open, contained only clothing and samples. The road-agent shrugged his shoulders.
'Chicken-feed,' he said, and pointed to several flat boxes in one of the grips. 'What's them?'
The question awoke the business instinct in the quaking breast of the owner of the boxes. Possibly he hoped to placate this grim devil who might at any moment take it into his head to shoot them down.
'Say, sport,' he quavered, 'dat's de finest smokin' proposition ever offered in de West for two bits a t'row. Try one an' tell me if I'm a liar.'
The outlaw took out one of the cigars, smelt it, broke it in two and flung it away.
'Yu shore are,' he said, and kicked the pile of samples broadcast. Turning to the other commercial, he growled, 'What's yore line?'
'I sell soap,' was the reply.
'Nobody'd never suspect yu of it,' the outlaw said with heavy sarcasm, and faced round on the man in black. 'Cough up,' he ordered.
'I have no worldly wealth, friend,' that worthy replied.
'Yu got a friend here?' asked the other acidly.
His fierce eyes studied the self-styled minister keenly for a moment. Then, with a swift motion he holstered his pistol, seized the lapels of the black frock-coat, jerked them up, and down over the wearer's shoulders, thus pinioning his arms. The victim smothered an unclerical expression, and the road-agent laughed.
'I'm a good guesser,' he rasped.
From under the left armpit of the 'minister' peeped the butt of a double-barrelled Derringer, hung in a shoulder holster. The stranger drew it out.
'What's a man o' peace doin' with this?' he asked.
'I go into wild places an' carry it for my protection,' replied the owner evenly.
The outlaw stuck the weapon in his own belt and began to pass his hands lightly over the other's clothing. A