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In the cold, gray dawn of the morning after, Mysterious Pete straddled down the main street of Los Portales with a dark-brown taste in his mouth. He was feeling ugly. For he had imbibed a large quantity of liquor. He had gambled and lost. He had boasted of what he intended to do to one James Clanton, now generally known as "Go-Get-'Em Jim,"
This last in particular was a mistake. Moreover, it was quite out of accord with the usual custom of Mr. Champa. When he made up his mind to increase by one the number of permanent residents upon Boot Hill he bided his time, waited till the suspicions of his victim were lulled, and shot down his man without warning. The one fixed rule of his life was never to take an unnecessary chance. Now he was taking one.
Every chain has its weakest link. Mr. Champa drunk was a rock upon which Mr. Champa sober had more than once come to shipwreck. No doubt some busybody, seeking to curry favor with him, had run to this Clanton with the tale of how Mysterious Pete had sworn to kill him on sight.
The bad man was sour on the world this morning. He prided himself on being always a dead shot, but such a night as he had spent would not help his chances. There could be no doubt that his nerves were jumpy. What he needed was a few hours' sleep.
He would have taken a back street if he had dared, but to do so would have been a confession of doubt. The killer can afford to let nobody guess that he is afraid. When such a suspicion becomes current he might as well order his coffin. The men whom he holds in the subjection of fear will all be taking a chance with him.
So Mysterious Pete, bad man and murderer, coward at heart to the marrow, strutted toward his rooming-house with a heart full of hate to everybody. The pleasant morning sunshine was an offense to him. A care-free laugh on the breeze made him grit his teeth irritably. Particularly he hated Dave Roush. For Roush had led him into this cunningly by bribery and flattery. He had fed the jealousy of Pete, who could not brook the thought of a rival bad man in his own territory. He had hinted that perhaps Champa had better steer clear of this youth, whose reputation as a killer had grown so amazingly. Ever since Clanton had killed Warren the bad man had intended to "get him." But he had meant to do it without taking any risk. His idea was to pretend to be his friend, push a gun into his stomach, and down him before he could move. Now by his folly he had to take a fighting chance. Dave Roush, to save his own skin, had pushed him into danger. All this was quite clear to him now, and he raged at the knowledge.
Champa, too, was at another disadvantage. He was not sure that he would know Clanton when he saw him. He had set eyes on the young fellow once, on that occasion when he had gone with Warren to demand an inspection of the Flying V Y herd. But he had seen him only as one of a group of cowpunchers and not as an individual enemy, whereas it was quite certain that Go-Get-'Em Jim would recognize him.
From out of a doorway stepped a young fellow with his hand on his hip. Pete's six-gun flashed upward in a quarter curve even as the bullet crashed on its way. The youth staggered against the wall and sank together into a heap. Champa, every sense alert, fired again, then waited warily to make sure this was not a ruse of his victim.
Some one--a woman--darted from a building opposite, flew across the street, and dropped beside the crumpled figure. Her white skirt covered the body like a protecting flag.
The dark eyes in the white face lifted toward Champa were full of horror, "You murderer! You've killed little Bud Proctor!" cried the young woman.
He took an uncertain step or two toward her. Mysterious Pete knew that if this were true, his race was run.
"Goddlemighty, Miss Snaith! I swear I thought it was Clanton. He was drawing a gun on me."
Lee drew the boy to her bosom so that her body was between the killer and his victim. A swift, up-blazing, maternal fury seemed to leap from her face.
"Don't come any nearer! Don't you dare!" she cried.
The man's covert glance swept round. Already men were peering out of doors and windows to see what the shooting was about. Soon the street would be full of them, all full of deadly fury at him. He backed away, snarling, cut across a vacant lot, and ran to his room. The bolt in his door was no sooner closed than he knew it could not protect him. There comes a time in the career of a large percentage of bad men when some other hard citizen on behalf of the public puts a period to it. He is wiped out, not for what he has done only, but for fear also of what he may do. The only safety for him now was to get out of the country as fast as a house could carry him. Instinctively Mysterious Pete recognized this now and cursed his folly for not going straight to a corral.
If he hurried he might still make his get-away, He reloaded his revolver, opened the door of his room, and listened. Cautiously he stole downstairs and out the back door of the building. A little girl was playing at keeping house in a corner of the yard. Scarcely more than a baby herself, she was vigorously spanking a doll.
"Be dood. You better had be dood," she admonished.
A crafty idea came into the cunning brain of the outlaw. She would serve as a protection against the bullets of his enemies. He caught her up and carried her, kicking and screaming, while he ran to the Elephant Corral.
"Saddle me a horse. Jump!" ordered the fugitive, his revolver out.
The trembling wrangler obeyed. He did not know the cause of Mysterious Pete's urgency fact was enough. He knew that this man with the bad record was flying in fear of his life. Tiny sweat beads stood out on his forehead. The fellow was in a blue funk and would shoot at the least pretext.
The saddle that the wrangler flung on the horse he had roped was a Texas one with double cinches. In desperate haste to be gone, Champa released the child a moment to tighten one of the bands.
A voice called to her. "Run, Kittie."
To the casual eye the child was all knobby legs and hair ribbons. She scudded for the stable, sobbing as she ran.
At sound of that voice Mysterious Pete leaped to the saddle and whirled his horse. He was too late. The man who had called to Kittie slammed shut the gate of the corral and laughed tauntingly.
"Better 'light, Mr. Champa. That caballo you're on happens to be mine."
Pete needed no introduction. This slight, devil-may-care young fellow at the gate was Clanton. He was here to fight. The only road of escape was over his body.
The gunman slid from the saddle. His instinct for safety still served him, for he came to the ground with the horse as a shield between him and his foe. The nine-inch barrel of his revolver rested on the back of the bronco as he blazed away. A chip flew from the cross-bar of the corral gate.
Clanton took no chances. The first shot from his forty-four dropped the cowpony. Pete backed away, firing as he moved. He flung bullet after bullet at the figure behind the gate. In his panic he began to think that his enemy bore a charmed life. Three times his lead struck the woodwork of the gate.
The retreating man whirled and dropped, his weapon falling to the dust. Clanton fired once more to make sure that his work was done, then moved slowly forward, his eyes focused on the body. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the revolver lying close to the still hand.
Mysterious Pete had died with his boots on after the manner of his kind.
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