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BY WAY OF A WINDOW
The trail of rice led down Mission Street, turned at Junipero, crossed into an alley, and trickled along a dusty road to the outskirts of the frontier town.
The responsibility Joyce had put upon him uplifted Dave. He had followed the horse-race gamblers to town on a purely selfish undertaking. But he had been caught in a cross-current of fate and was being swept into dangerous waters for the sake of another.
Doble and Miller were small fish in the swirl of this more desperate venture. He knew Brad Steelman by sight and by reputation. The man's coffee-brown, hatchet face, his restless, black eyes, the high, narrow shoulders, the slope of nose and chin, combined somehow to give him the look of a wily and predacious wolf. The boy had never met any one who so impressed him with a sense of ruthless rapacity. He was audacious and deadly in attack, but always he covered his tracks cunningly. Suspected of many crimes, he had been proved guilty of none. It was a safe bet that now he had a line of retreat worked out in case his plans went awry.
A soft, low whistle stayed his feet. From behind a greasewood bush Bob rose and beckoned him. Dave tiptoed to him. Both of them crouched behind cover while they whispered.
"The 'dobe house over to the right," said Bob. "I been up and tried to look in, but they got curtains drawn. I would've like to 've seen how many gents are present. Nothin' doin'. It's a strictly private party."
Dave told him what he had learned from the daughter of Emerson Crawford.
"Might make a gather of boys and raid the joint," suggested Hart.
"Bad medicine, Bob. Our work's got to be smoother than that. How do we know they got the old man a prisoner there? What excuse we got for attacktin' a peaceable house? A friend of mine's brother onct got shot up makin' a similar mistake. Maybe Crawford's there. Maybe he ain't. Say he is. All right. There's some gun-play back and forth like as not. A b'ilin' of men pour outa the place. We go in and find the old man with a bullet right spang through his forehead. Well, ain't that too bad! In the rookus his own punchers must 'a' gunned him accidental. How would that story listen in court?"
"It wouldn't listen good to me. Howcome Crawford to be a prisoner there, I'd want to know."
"Sure you would, and Steelman would have witnesses a-plenty to swear the old man had just drapped in to see if they couldn't talk things over and make a settlement of their troubles."
"All right. What's yore programme, then?" asked Bob.
"Darned if I know. Say we scout the ground over first."
They made a wide circuit and approached the house from the rear, worming their way through the Indian grass toward the back door. Dave crept forward and tried the door. It was locked. The window was latched and the blind lowered. He drew back and rejoined his companion.
"No chance there," he whispered.
"How about the roof?" asked Hart.
It was an eight-roomed house. From the roof two dormers jutted. No light issued from either of them.
Dave's eyes lit.
"What's the matter with takin' a whirl at it?" his partner continued. "You're tophand with a rope."
"Suits me fine."
The young puncher arranged the coils carefully and whirled the loop around his head to get the feel of the throw. It would not do to miss the first cast and let the rope fall dragging down the roof. Some one might hear and come out to investigate.
The rope snaked forward and up, settled gracefully over the chimney, and tightened round it close to the shingles.
"Good enough. Now me for the climb," murmured Hart.
"Don't pull yore picket-pin, Bob. Me first."
"All right. We ain't no time to debate. Shag up, old scout."
Dave slipped off his high-heeled boots and went up hand over hand, using his feet against the rough adobe walls to help in the ascent. When he came to the eaves he threw a leg up and clambered to the roof. In another moment he was huddled against the chimney waiting for his companion.
As soon as Hart had joined him he pulled up the rope and wound it round the chimney.
"You stay here while I see what's doin'," Dave proposed.
"I never did see such a fellow for hoggin' all the fun," objected Bob. "Ain't you goin' to leave me trail along?"
"Got to play a lone hand till we find out where we're at, Bob. Doubles the chances of being bumped into if we both go."
"Then you roost on the roof and lemme look the range over for the old man."
"Didn't Miss Joyce tell me to find her paw? What's eatin' you, pard?"
"You pore plugged nickel!" derided Hart. "Think she picked you special for this job, do you?"
"Be reasonable, Bob," pleaded Dave.
His friend gave way. "Cut yore stick, then. Holler for me when I'm wanted."
Dave moved down the roof to the nearest dormer. The house, he judged, had originally belonged to a well-to-do Mexican family and had later been rebuilt upon American ideas. The thick adobe walls had come down from the earlier owners, but the roof had been put on as a substitute for the flat one of its first incarnation.
The range-rider was wearing plain shiny leather chaps with a gun in an open holster tied at the bottom to facilitate quick action. He drew out the revolver, tested it noiselessly, and restored it carefully to its place. If he needed the six-shooter at all, he would need it badly and suddenly.
Gingerly he tested the window of the dormer, working at it from the side so that his body would not be visible to anybody who happened to be watching from within. Apparently it was latched. He crept across the roof to the other dormer.
It was a casement window, and at the touch of the hand it gave way. The heart of the cowpuncher beat fast with excitement. In the shadowy darkness of that room death might be lurking, its hand already outstretched toward him. He peered in, accustoming his eyes to the blackness. A prickling of the skin ran over him. The tiny cold feet of mice pattered up and down his spine. For he knew that, though he could not yet make out the objects inside the room, his face must be like a framed portrait to anybody there.
He made out presently that it was a bedroom with sloping ceiling. A bunk with blankets thrown back just as the sleeper had left them filled one side of the chamber. There were two chairs, a washstand, a six-inch by ten looking-glass, and a chromo or two on the wall. A sawed-off shotgun was standing in a corner. Here and there were scattered soiled clothing and stained boots. The door was ajar, but nobody was in the room.
Dave eased himself over the sill and waited for a moment while he listened, the revolver in his hand. It seemed to him that he could hear a faint murmur of voices, but he was not sure. He moved across the bare plank floor, slid through the door, and again stopped to take stock of his surroundings.
He was at the head of a stairway which ran down to the first floor and lost itself in the darkness of the hall. Leaning over the banister, he listened intently for any sign of life below. He was sure now that he heard the sound of low voices behind a closed door.
The cowpuncher hesitated. Should he stop to explore the upper story? Or should he go down at once and try to find out what those voices might tell him? It might be that time was of the essence of his contract to discover what had become of Emerson Crawford. He decided to look for his information on the first floor.
Never before had Dave noticed that stairs creaked and groaned so loudly beneath the pressure of a soft footstep. They seemed to shout his approach, though he took every step with elaborate precautions. A door slammed somewhere, and his heart jumped at the sound of it. He did not hide the truth from himself. If Steelman or his men found him here looking for Crawford he would never leave the house alive. His foot left the last tread and found the uncarpeted floor. He crept, hand outstretched, toward the door behind which he heard men talking. As he moved forward his stomach muscles tightened. At any moment some one might come out of the room and walk into him.
He put his eye to the keyhole, and through it saw a narrow segment of the room. Ad Miller was sitting a-straddle a chair, his elbows on the back. Another man, one not visible to the cowpuncher, was announcing a decision and giving an order.
"Hook up the horses, Shorty. He's got his neck bowed and he won't sign. All right. I'll get the durn fool up in the hills and show him whether he will or won't."
"I could 'a' told you he had sand in his craw." Shorty was speaking. He too was beyond the range of Dave's vision. "Em Crawford won't sign unless he's a mind to."
"Take my advice, Brad. Collect the kid, an' you'll sure have Em hogtied. He sets the world an' all by her. Y'betcha he'll talk turkey then," predicted Miller.
"Are we fightin' kids?" the squat puncher wanted to know.
"Did I ask your advice, Shorty?" inquired Steelman acidly.
The range-rider grumbled an indistinct answer. Dave did not make out the words, and his interest in the conversation abruptly ceased.
For from upstairs there came the sudden sounds of trampling feet, of bodies thrashing to and fro in conflict. A revolver shot barked its sinister menace.
Dave rose to go. At the same time the door in front of him was jerked open. He pushed his forty-five into Miller's fat ribs.
"What's yore hurry? Stick up yore hands--stick 'em up!"
The boy was backing along the passage as he spoke. He reached the newel post in that second while Miller was being flung aside by an eruption of men from the room. Like a frightened rabbit Dave leaped for the stairs, taking them three at a time. Halfway up he collided with a man flying down. They came together with the heavy impact of fast-moving bodies. The two collapsed and rolled down, one over the other.
Sanders rose like a rubber ball. The other man lay still. He had been put out cold. Dave's head had struck him in the solar plexus and knocked the breath out of him. The young cowpuncher found himself the active center of a cyclone. His own revolver was gone. He grappled with a man, seizing him by the wrist to prevent the use of a long-barreled Colt's. The trigger fell, a bullet flying through the ceiling.
Other men pressed about him, trying to reach him with their fists and to strike him with their weapons. Their high heels crushed cruelly the flesh of his stockinged feet. The darkness befriended Dave. In the massed mêlée they dared not shoot for fear of hitting the wrong mark. Nor could they always be sure which shifting figure was the enemy.
Dave clung close to the man he had seized, using him as a shield against the others. The pack swayed down the hall into the wedge of light thrown by the lamp in the room.
Across the head of the man next him Shorty reached and raised his arm. Dave saw the blue barrel of the revolver sweeping down, but could not free a hand to protect himself. A jagged pain shot through his head. The power went out of his legs. He sagged at the hinges of his knees. He stumbled and went down. Heavy boots kicked at him where he lay. It seemed to him that bolts of lightning were zigzagging through him.
The pain ceased and he floated away into a sea of space.
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