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Hickory Sam needed but one quality to be perfect. He should have been an arrant coward. He was a blustering braggart, always boasting of the men he had slain, and the odds he had contended against; filled with stories of his own valour, but alas! he shot straight, and rarely missed his mark, unless he was drunker than usual. It would have been delightful to tell how this unmitigated ruffian had been "held up" by some innocent tenderfoot from the East, and made to dance at the muzzle of a quite new and daintily ornamented revolver, for the loud-mouthed blowhard seemed just the man to flinch when real danger confronted him; but, sad to say, there was nothing of the white feather about Hickory Sam, for he feared neither man, nor gun, nor any combination of them. He was as ready to fight a dozen as one, and once had actually "held up" the United States army at Fort Concho, beating a masterly retreat backwards with his face to the foe, holding a troop in check with his two seven-shooters that seemed to point in every direction at once, making every man in the company feel, with a shiver up his back, that he individually was "covered," and would be the first to drop if firing actually began.
Hickory Sam appeared suddenly in Salt Lick, and speedily made good his claim to be the bad man of the district. Some old-timers disputed Sam's arrogant contention, but they did not live long enough to maintain their own well-earned reputations as objectionable citizens. Thus Hickory Sam reigned supreme in Salt Lick, and every one in the place was willing and eager to stand treat to Sam, or to drink with him when invited.
Sam's chief place of resort in Salt Lick was the Hades Saloon, kept by Mike Davlin. Mike had not originally intended this to be the title of his bar, having at first named it after a little liquor cellar he kept in his early days in Philadelphia, called "The Shades," but some cowboy humourist, particular about the external fitness of things, had scraped out the letter "S," and so the sign over the door had been allowed to remain. Mike did not grumble. He had taken a keen interest in politics in Philadelphia, but an unexpected spasm of civic virtue having overtaken the city some years before, Davlin had been made a victim, and he was forced to leave suddenly for the West, where there was no politics, and where a man handy at mixing drinks was looked upon as a boon by the rest of the community. Mike did not grumble when even the name "Hades" failed to satisfy the boys in their thirst for appropriate nomenclature, and when they took to calling the place by a shorter and terser synonym beginning with the same letter, he made no objections.
Mike was an adaptive man, who mixed drinks, but did not mix in rows. He protected himself by not keeping a revolver, and by admitting that he could not hit his own saloon at twenty yards distance. A residence in the quiet city of Philadelphia is not conducive to the nimbling of the trigger finger. When the boys in the exuberance of their spirits began to shoot, Mike promptly ducked under his counter and waited till the clouds of smoke rolled by. He sent in a bill for broken glass, bottles, and the damage generally, when his guests were sober again, and his accounts were always paid. Mike was a deservedly popular citizen in Salt Lick, and might easily have been elected to the United States Congress, if he had dared to go east again. But, as he himself said, he was out of politics.
It was the pleasant custom of the cowboys at Buller's ranch to come into Salt Lick on pay-days and close up the town. These periodical visits did little harm to any one, and seemed to be productive of much amusement for the boys. They rode at full gallop through the one street of the place like a troop of cavalry, yelling at the top of their voices and brandishing their weapons.
The first raid through Salt Lick was merely a warning, and all peaceably inclined inhabitants took it as such, retiring forthwith to the seclusion of their houses. On their return trip the boys winged or lamed, with unerring aim, any one found in the street. They seldom killed a wayfarer; if a fatality ensued it was usually the result of accident, and much to the regret of the boys, who always apologised handsomely to the surviving relatives, which expression of regret was generally received in the amicable spirit with which it was tendered. There was none of the rancour of the vendetta in these little encounters; if a man happened to be blotted out, it was his ill luck, that was all, and there was rarely any thought of reprisal.
This perhaps was largely due to the fact that the community was a shifting one, and few had any near relatives about them, for, although the victim might have friends, they seldom held him in such esteem as to be willing to take up his quarrel when there was a bullet hole through him. Relatives, however, are often more difficult to deal with than are friends, in cases of sudden death, and this fact was recognised by Hickory Sam, who, when he was compelled to shoot the younger Holt brother in Mike's saloon, promptly went, at some personal inconvenience, and assassinated the elder, before John Holt heard the news. As Sam explained to Mike when he returned, he had no quarrel with John Holt, but merely killed him in the interests of peace, for he would have been certain to draw and probably shoot several citizens when he heard of his brother's death, because, for some unexplained reason, the brothers were fond of each other.
When Hickory Sam was comparatively new to Salt Lick he allowed the Buller's ranch gang to close up the town without opposition. It was their custom, when the capital of Coyote county had been closed up to their satisfaction, to adjourn to Hades and there "blow in" their hard- earned gains on the liquor Mike furnished. They also added to the decorations of the saloon ceiling. Several cowboys had a gift of twirling their Winchester repeating rifles around the fore finger and firing it as the flying muzzle momentarily pointed upwards. The man who could put the most bullets within the smallest space in the roof was the expert of the occasion, and didn't have to pay for his drinks.
This exhibition might have made many a man quail, but it had no effect on Hickory Sam, who leant against the bar and sneered at the show as child's play.
"Perhaps you think you can do it," cried the champion. "I bet you the drinks you can't."
"I don't have to," said Hickory Sam, with the calm dignity of a dead shot. "I don't have to, but I'll tell you what I can do. I can nip the heart of a man with this here gun" showing his seven-shooter, "me a- standing in Hades here and he a-coming out of the bank." For Salt Lick, being a progressive town, had the Coyote County Bank some distance down the street on the opposite side from the saloon.
"You're a liar," roared the champion, whereupon all the boys grasped their guns and were on the look out for trouble.
Hickory Sam merely laughed, strode to the door, threw it open, and walked out to the middle of the deserted thoroughfare.
"I'm a bad man from Way Back," he yelled at the top of his voice. "I'm the toughest cuss in Coyote county, and no darned greasers from Buller's can close up this town when I'm in it. You hear me! Salt Lick's wide open, and I'm standing in the street to prove it."
It was bad enough to have the town declared open when fifteen of them in a body had proclaimed it closed, but in addition to this to be called "greasers" was an insult not to be borne. A cowboy despises a Mexican almost as much as he does an Indian. With a soul-terrifying yell the fifteen were out of the saloon and on their horses like a cyclone. They went down the street with tornado speed, wheeling about, some distance below the temporarily closed bank, and, charging up again at full gallop, fired repeatedly in the direction of Hickory Sam, who was crouching behind an empty whiskey barrel in front of the saloon with a "gun" in either hand.
Sam made good his contention by nipping the heart of the champion when opposite the bank, who plunged forward on his face and threw the cavalcade into confusion. Then Sam stood up, and regardless of the scattering shots, fired with both revolvers, killing the foremost man of the troop and slaughtering three horses, which instantly changed the charge into a rout. He then retired to Hades and barricaded the door. Mike was nowhere to be seen.
But the boys knew when they had enough. They made no attack on the saloon, but picked up their dead, and, thoroughly sobered, made their way, much more slowly than they came, back to Buller's ranch.
When it was evident that they had gone, Mike cautiously emerged from his place of retirement, as Sam was vigorously pounding on the bar, threatening that if a drink were not forthcoming he would go round behind the bar and help himself.
"I'm a law and order man," he explained to Davlin, "and I won't have no toughs from Buller's ranch close up this town and interfere with commerce. Every man has got to respect the Constitution of the United States as long as my gun can bark, you bet your life!"
Mike hurriedly admitted that he was perfectly right, and asked him what he would have, forgetting in his agitation that Sam took one thing only, and that one thing straight.
Next day old Buller himself came in from his ranch to see if anything could be done about this latest affray. It was bad enough to lose two of his best herdsmen in a foolish contest of this kind, but to have three trained horses killed as well, was disgusting. Buller had been one of the boys himself in his young days, but now, having grown wealthy in the cattle business, he was anxious to see civilisation move westward with strides a little more rapid than it was taking. He made the mistake of appealing to the Sheriff, as if that worthy man could be expected, for the small salary he received, to attempt the arrest of so dead a shot as Hickory Sam.
Besides, as the Sheriff quite correctly pointed out, the boys themselves had been the aggressors in the first place, and if fifteen of them could not take care of one man behind an empty whiskey barrel, they had better remain peaceably at home in the future, and do their pistol practice in the quiet, innocuous retirement of a shooting gallery. They surely could not expect the strong arm of the law, in the person of a peaceably-minded Sheriff, to reach out and pull their chestnuts from the fire when several of them had already burned their fingers, and when the chestnuts shot and drank as straight as Hickory Sam.
Buller, finding the executive portion of the law slow and reluctant to move, sought advice from his own lawyer, the one disciple of Coke-upon- Littleton in the place. The lawyer doubted if there was any legal remedy in the then condition of society around Salt Lick. The safest plan perhaps would be--mind, he did not advise, but merely suggested-- to surround Hickory Sam and wipe him off the face of the earth. This might not be strictly according to law, but it would be effective, if carried out without an error.
The particulars of Buller's interview with the Sheriff spread rapidly in Salt Lick, and caused great indignation among the residents thereof, especially those who frequented Hades. It was a reproach to the place that the law should be invoked, all on account of a trivial incident like that of the day before. Sam, who had been celebrating his victory at Mike's, heard the news with bitter, if somewhat silent resentment, for he had advanced so far in his cups that he was all but speechless. Being a magnanimous man, he would have been quite content to let bygones be bygones, but this unjustifiable action of Buller's required prompt and effectual chastisement. He would send the wealthy ranchman to keep company with his slaughtered herdsmen.
Thus it was that when Buller mounted his horse after his futile visit to the lawyer, he found Hickory Sam holding the street with his guns. The fusillade that followed was without result, which disappointing termination is accounted for by the fact that Sam was exceedingly drunk at the time, and the ranchman was out of practice. Seldom had Salt Lick seen so much powder burnt with no damage except to the window-glass in the vicinity. Buller went back to the lawyer's office, and afterwards had an interview with the bank manager. Then he got quietly out of town unmolested, for Sam, weeping on Mike's shoulder over the inaccuracy of his aim, gradually sank to sleep in a corner of the saloon.
Next morning, when Sam woke to temporary sobriety, he sent word to the ranch that he would shoot old Buller on sight, and, at the same time, he apologised for the previous eccentricities of his fire, promising that such an annoying exhibition should not occur again. He signed himself "The Terror of Salt Lick, and the Champion of Law and Order."
It was rumoured that old Buller, when he returned to the lawyer's office, had made his will, and that the bank manager had witnessed it. This supposed action of Buller was taken as a most delicate compliment to Hickory Sam's determination and marksmanship, and he was justly proud of the work he had thrown into the lawyer's hands.
A week passed before old Buller came to Salt Lick, but when he came, Hickory Sam was waiting for him, and this time the desperado was not drunk, that is to say, he had not had more than half a dozen glasses of forty rod that morning.
When the rumour came to Hades that old Buller was approaching the town on horseback and alone, Sam at once bet the drinks that he would fire but one shot, and so, in a measure, atone for the ineffectual racket he had made on the occasion of the previous encounter. The crowd stood by, in safe places, to see the result of the duel.
Sam, a cocked revolver in his right hand, stood squarely in the centre of the street, with the sturdy bearing of one who has his quarrel just, and who besides can pierce the ace spot on a card ten yards further away than any other man in the county.
Old Buller came riding up the street as calmly as if he were on his own ranch. When almost within range of Sam's pistol, the old man raised both hands above his head, letting the reins fall on the horse's neck. In this extraordinary attitude he rode forward, to the amazement of the crowd and the evident embarrassment of Sam.
"I am not armed," the old man shouted. "I have come to talk this thing over and settle it."
"It's too late for talk," yelled Sam, infuriated at the prospect of missing his victim after all; "pull your gun, old man, and shoot."
"I haven't got a gun on me," said Buller, still advancing, and still holding up his hands.
"That trick's played out," shouted Sam, flinging up his right hand and firing.
The old man, with hands above his head, leant slowly forward like a falling tower, then pitched head foremost from his horse to the ground, where he lay without a struggle, face down and arms spread out.
Great as was the fear of the desperado, an involuntary cry of horror went up from the crowd. Killing is all right and proper in its way, but the shooting of an unarmed man who voluntarily held up his hands and kept them up, was murder, even on the plains.
Sam looked savagely round him, glaring at the crowd that shrank away from him, the smoking pistol hanging muzzle downward from his hand.
"It's all a trick. He had a shooting-iron in his boot. I see the butt of it sticking out. That's why I fired."
"I'm not saying nothing," said Mike, as the fierce glance of Hickory rested on him, "'tain't any affair of mine."
"Yes, it is," cried Hickory.
"Why, I didn't have nothin' to do with it," protested the saloon keeper.
"No. But you've got somethin' to do with it now. What did we elect you coroner fur, I'd like to know? You've got to hustle around and panel your jury an' bring in a verdict of accidental death or something of that sort. Bring any sort or kind of verdict that'll save trouble in future. I believe in law and order, I do, an' I like to see things done regular."
"But we didn't have no jury for them cowboys," said Mike.
"Well, cowboys is different. It didn't so much matter about them. Still, it oughter been done, even with cowboys, if we were more'n half civilised. Nothin' like havin' things down on the record straight and shipshape. Now some o' you fellows help me in with the body, and Mike'll panel his jury in three shakes."
There is nothing like an energetic public-spirited man for reducing chaos to order. Things began to assume their normal attitude, and the crowd began to look to Sam for instruction. He seemed to understand the etiquette of these occasions, and those present felt that they were ignorant and inexperienced compared with him.
The body was laid out on a bench in the room at the back of the saloon, while the jury and the spectators were accommodated with such seats as the place afforded, Hickory Sam himself taking an elevated position on the top of a barrel, where he could, as it were, preside over the arrangements. It was vaguely felt by those present that Sam bore no malice towards the deceased, and this was put down rather to his credit.
"I think," said the coroner, looking hesitatingly up at Sam, with an expression which showed he was quite prepared to withdraw his proposal if it should prove inappropriate, "I think we might have the lawyer over here. He knows how these things should be done, and he's the only man in Salt Lick that's got a Bible to swear the jury on. I think they ought to be sworn."
"That's a good idea," concurred Sam. "One of you run across for him, and tell him to bring the book. Nothing like havin' these things regular and proper and accordin' to law."
The lawyer had heard of the catastrophe, and he came promptly over to the saloon, bringing the book with him and some papers in his hand. There was now no doubt about Sam's knowledge of the proper thing to do, when it was found that the lawyer quite agreed with him that an inquest, under the circumstances, was justifiable and according to precedent. The jury found that the late Mr. Buller had "died through misadventure," which phrase, sarcastically suggested by the lawyer when he found that the verdict was going to be "accidental death," pleased the jury, who at once adopted it.
When the proceedings were so pleasantly terminated by a verdict acceptable to all parties, the lawyer cleared his throat and said that his late client, having perhaps a premonition of his fate, had recently made his will, and he had desired the lawyer to make the will public as soon as possible after his death. As the occasion seemed in every way suitable, the lawyer proposed, with the permission of the coroner, to read that portion which Mr. Buller hoped would receive the widest possible publicity.
Mike glanced with indecision at the lawyer and at Sam sitting high above the crowd on the barrel.
"Certainly," said Hickory. "We'd all like to hear the will, although I suppose it's none of our business."
The lawyer made no comment on this remark, but bowing to the assemblage, unfolded a paper and read it.
Mr. Buller left all his property to his nephew in the East with the exception of fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks, then deposited in the Coyote County Bank at Salt Lick. The testator had reason to suspect that a desperado named Hickory Sam (real name or designation unknown) had designs on the testator's life. In case these designs were successful, the whole of this money was to go to the person or persons who succeeded in removing this scoundrel from the face of the earth. In case the Sheriff arrested the said Hickory Sam and he was tried and executed, the money was to be divided between the Sheriff and those who assisted in the capture. If any man on his own responsibility shot and killed the said Hickory Sam, the fifty thousand dollars became his sole property, and would be handed over to him by the bank manager, in whom Mr. Buller expressed every confidence, as soon as the slayer of Hickory Sam proved the deed to the satisfaction of the manager. In every case the bank manager had full control of the disposal of the fund, and could pay it in bulk, or divide it among those who had succeeded in eliminating from a contentious world one of its most contentious members.
The amazed silence which followed the reading of this document was broken by a loud jeering and defiant laugh from the man on the barrel. He laughed long, but no one joined him, and, as he noticed this, his hilarity died down, being in a measure forced and mechanical. The lawyer methodically folded up his papers. As some of the jury glanced down at the face of the dead man who had originated this financial scheme of post mortem vengeance, they almost fancied they saw a malicious leer about the half-open eyes and lips. An awed whisper ran round the assemblage. Each man said to the other under his breath: "Fif--ty--thous--and--dollars," as if the dwelling on each syllable made the total seem larger. The same thought was in every man's mind; a clean, cool little fortune merely for the crooking of a forefinger and the correct levelling of a pistol barrel.
The lawyer had silently taken his departure. Sam, soberer than he had been for many days, slid down from the barrel, and, with his hand on the butt of his gun, sidled, his back against the wall, towards the door. No one raised a finger to stop him; all sat there watching him as if they were hypnotised. He was no longer a man in their eyes, but the embodiment of a sum to be earned in a moment, for which thousands worked hard all their lives, often in vain, to accumulate.
Sam's brain on a problem was not so quick as his finger on a trigger, but it began to filter slowly into his mind that he was now face to face with a danger against which his pistol was powerless. Heretofore, roughly speaking, nearly everybody had been his friend; now the hand of the world was against him, with a most powerful motive for being against him; a motive which he himself could understand. For a mere fraction of fifty thousand dollars he would kill anybody, so long as the deed could be done with reasonable safety to himself. Why then should any man stay his hand against him with such a reward hanging over his head? As Sam retreated backwards from among his former friends they saw in his eyes what they had never seen there before, something that was not exactly fear, but a look of furtive suspicion against the whole human race.
Out in the open air once again Sam breathed more freely. He must get away from Salt Lick, and that quickly. Once on the prairie he could make up his mind what the next move was to be. He kept his revolver in his hand, not daring to put it into its holster. Every sound made him jump, and he was afraid to stand in the open, yet he could not remain constantly with his back to the wall. Poor Buller's horse, fully accoutred, cropped the grass by the side of the road. To be a horse- thief was, of course, worse than to be a murderer, but there was no help for it; without the horse escape was impossible. He secured the animal with but little trouble and sprang upon its back.
As he mounted, a shot rang out from the saloon. Sam whirled around in the saddle, but no one was to be seen; nothing but a thin film of pistol smoke melting in the air above the open door. The rider fired twice into the empty doorway, then, with a threat, turned towards the open country and galloped away, and Salt Lick was far behind him when night fell. He tethered his horse and threw himself down on the grass, but dared not sleep. For all he knew, his pursuers might be within a few rods of where he lay, for he was certain they would be on his trail as soon as they knew he had left Salt Lick. The prize was too great for no effort to be made to secure it.
There is an enemy before whom the strongest and bravest man must succumb; that enemy is sleeplessness. When daylight found the desperado, he had not closed an eye all night. His nerve was gone, and, perhaps for the first time in his life, he felt a thrill of fear. The emptiness of the prairie, which should have encouraged him, struck a chill of loneliness into him, and he longed for the sight of a man, even though he might have to fight him when he approached. He must have a comrade, he said to himself, if he could find any human being in straits as terrible as his own, some one who would keep watch and watch with him through the night; but the comrade must either be ignorant of the weight of money that hung over the desperado's head, or there must be a price on his own. An innocent man would not see the use of keeping such strict watch; a guilty man, on learning the circumstances of the case, would sell Sam's life to purchase his own freedom. Fifty thousand dollars, in the desperado's mind, would do anything, and yet he himself, of all the sixty million people in the land, was the only one who could not earn it! A comrade, then, innocent or guilty, was impossible, and yet was absolutely necessary if the wanderer was to have sleep.
The horse was in distress through lack of water, and Sam himself was both hungry and thirsty. His next halting-place must be near a stream, yet perhaps his safety during the first night was due to the fact that his pursuers would naturally have looked for him near some watercourse, and not on the open prairie.
Ten days later, Mike Davlin was awakened at three in the morning, to find standing by his bed a gaunt, haggard living skeleton, holding a candle in one hand, and pointing a cocked revolver at Mike's head with the other.
"Get up," said the apparition hoarsely, "and get me something to eat and drink. Drink first, and be quick about it. Make no noise. Is there anybody else in the house?"
"No," said Mike, shivering. "You wait here, Sam, and I'll bring you something. I thought you were among the Indians, or in Mexico, or in the Bad Lands long ago."
"I'm in bad lands enough here. I'll go with you. I'm not going to let you out of my sight, and no tricks, mind, or you know what will happen."
"Surely you trust me, Sam," whined Mike, getting up.
"I don't trust any living man. Who fired that shot at me when I was leaving?"
"So help me," protested Mike, "I dunno. I wasn't in the bar at the time. I can prove I wasn't. Yer not looking well, Sam."
"Blister you for a slow dawdler, you'd not look well either, if you had no sleep for a week and was starved into the bargain. Get a move on you."
Sam ate like a wild beast what was set before him, and although he took a stiff glass of whiskey and water at the beginning, he now drank sparingly. He laid the revolver on the table at his elbow, and made Mike sit opposite him. When the ravenous meal was finished, he pushed the plate from him and looked across at Davlin.
"When I said I didn't trust you, Mike, I was a liar. I do, an' I'll prove it. When it's your interest to befriend a man, you'll do it every time."
"I will that," said Mike, not quite comprehending what the other had said.
"Now listen to me, Mike, and be sure you do exactly as I tell you. Go to where the bank manager lives and rouse him up as I roused you. He'll not be afraid when he sees it's you. Tell him you've got me over in the saloon, and that I've come to rob the bank of that fifty thousand dollars. Say that I'm desperate and can't be taken short of a dozen lives, and there is no lie in that, as you know. Tell him you've fallen in with my plans, and that we'll go over there and hold him up. Tell him the only chance of catching me is by a trick. He's to open the door of the place where the money is, and you're to shove me in and lock me up. But when he opens the door I'll send a bullet through him, and you and me will divide the money. Nobody will suspect you, for nobody'll know you were there but the bank man, and he'll be dead. But if you make one move except as I tell you the first bullet goes through you. See?"
Mike's eyes opened wider and wider as the scheme was disclosed. "Lord, what a head you have, Sam!" he said. "Why didn't you think of that before? The bank manager is in Austin."
"What the blazes is he doing there?"
"He took the money with him to put it in the Austin Bank. He left the day after you did, for he said the only chance you had, was to get that money. You might have done this the night you left, but not since."
"That's straight, is it?" said Sam suspiciously.
"It's God's truth I'm speaking," asserted Mike earnestly. "You can find that out for yourself in the morning. Nobody'll molest ye. Yer jus' dead beat for want o' sleep, I can see that. Go upstairs and go to bed. I'll keep watch, and not a soul'll know you're here."
Hickory Sam's shoulders sank when he heard the money was gone, and a look of despair came into his half closed eyes. He sat thus for a few moments unheeding the other's advice, then with an effort shook off his lethargy.
"No," he said at last, "I won't go to bed. I'd like to enrich you, Mike, but that would be too easy. Cut me off some slices of this cold meat and put them between chunks of bread. I want a three days' supply, and a bottle of whiskey."
Mike did as requested, and at Sam's orders attended to his horse. It was still dark, but there was a suggestion of the coming day in the eastern sky. Buller's horse was as jaded and as fagged out as its rider. As Sam, stooping like an old man, rode away, Mike hurried to his bedroom, noiselessly opened the window, and pointed at the back of the dim retreating man a shot-gun, loaded with slugs. He could hardly have missed killing both horse and man if he had had the courage to fire, but his hand trembled, and the drops of perspiration stood on his brow. He knew that if he missed this time, there would be no question in Sam's mind about who fired the shot. Resting the gun on the ledge and keeping his eye along the barrel, he had not the nerve to pull the trigger. At last the retreating figure disappeared, and with it Mike's chance of a fortune. He drew in the gun, and softly closed the window, with a long quivering sigh of regret.
Sidney Buller went west from Detroit when he received the telegram that announced his uncle's death and told him he was heir to the ranch. He was thirty years younger than his uncle had been at the time of his tragic death, and he bore a remarkable likeness to the old man; that is, a likeness more than striking, when it was remembered that one had lived all his life in a city, while the other had spent most of his days on the plains. The young man had seen the Sheriff on his arrival, expecting to find that active steps had been taken towards the arrest of the murderer. The Sheriff assured him that nothing more effective could be done than what had been done by the dead man himself in leaving fifty thousand dollars to the killer of Hickory Sam. The Sheriff had made no move himself, for he had been confidently expecting every day to hear that Sam was shot.
Meanwhile, nothing had been heard or seen of the desperado since he left Salt Lick on the back of the murdered man's horse. Sidney thought this was rather a slipshod way of administering justice, but he said nothing, and went back to his ranch. But if the Sheriff had been indifferent, his own cowboys had been embarrassingly active. They had deserted the ranch in a body, and were scouring the plains searching for the murderer, making the mistake of going too far afield. They, like Mike, had expected Sam would strike for the Bad Lands, and they rode far and fast to intercept him. Whether they were actuated by a desire to share the money, a liking for their old "boss," or hatred of Hickory Sam himself, they themselves would have found it difficult to tell. Anyhow, it was a man-chase, and their hunting instincts were keen.
In the early morning Sidney Buller walked forth from the buildings of the ranch and struck for the open prairie. The sun was up, but the morning was still cool. Before he had gone far he saw, approaching the ranch, a single riderless horse. As the animal came nearer and nearer it whinnied on seeing him, and finally changed its course and came directly toward him. Then he saw that there was a man on its back; a man either dead or asleep. His hand hung down nerveless by the horse's shoulder, and swung helplessly to and fro as the animal walked on; the man's head rested on the horse's mane. The horse came up to Sidney, thrusting its nose out to him, whinnying gently, as if it knew him.
"Hello?" cried Sidney, shaking the man by the shoulder, "what's the matter? Are you hurt?"
Instantly the desperado was wide awake, sitting bolt upright, and staring at Sidney with terrified recognition in his eyes. He raised his right hand, but the pistol had evidently dropped from it when he, overcome by fatigue, and drowsy after his enormous meal, had fallen asleep. He flung himself off, keeping the animal between himself and his supposed enemy, pulled the other revolver and fired at Sidney across the plunging horse. Before he could fire again, Sidney, who was an athlete, brought down the loaded head of his cane on the pistol wrist of the ruffian, crying--
"Don't fire, you fool, I'm not going to hurt you!"
As the revolver fell to the ground Sam sprang savagely at the throat of the young man, who, stepping back, struck his assailant a much heavier blow than he intended. The leaden knob of the stick fell on Sam's temple, and he dropped as if shot. Alarmed at the effect of his blow, Sidney tore open the unconscious man's shirt, and tried to get him to swallow some whiskey from the bottle he found in his pocket. Appalled to find all his efforts unavailing, he sprang on the horse and rode to the stables for help.
The foreman coming out, cried: "Good heavens, Mr. Buller, that's the old man's horse. Where did you get him? Well, Jerry, old fellow," he continued, patting the horse, who whinnied affectionately, "they've been using you badly, and you've come home to be taken care of. Where did you find him, Mr. Buller?"
"Out on the prairie, and I'm afraid I've killed the man who was riding him. God knows, I didn't intend to, but he fired at me, and I hit harder than I thought."
Sidney and the foreman ran out together to where Jerry's late rider lay on the grass.
"He's done for," said the foreman, bending over the prostrate figure, but taking the precaution to have a revolver in his hand. "He's got his dose, thank God. This is the man who murdered your uncle. Think of him being knocked over with a city cane, and think of the old man's revenge money coming back to the family again!"
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
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