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Prince and his posse were camped in a little park near the headquarters of Saco de Oro Creek when a trapper brought word to Billie of the death of Webb. The heart of the young sheriff sank at the news. It was not only that he had always liked and admired the bluff cattleman. What shocked him more was that Jim Clanton had killed him. Webb was one of the most popular ranchmen on the river. There would be an instant, widespread demand for the arrest and conviction of his slayer. Billie had taken an oath to uphold the law. His clear duty was to go out and capture Jim alive or dead.
Not for a moment did Billie doubt what he would do. He had pledged himself to blot out the "bad man," and he would go through no matter what the cost to his personal feelings.
A slow anger at Clanton burned in him. Why had he done this wanton and lawless thing? The boy he had known three years ago would never have shot down from cover a man like Webb. That he could have done it now marked the progress of the deterioration of his moral fiber. What right had he to ask those who remained loyal to him to sacrifice so often their sense of right in his favor?
The old intimacy between Billie and Jim had long since waned. They were traveling different roads these days. But though they were no longer chums their friendship endured. When they met, a warm affection lit the eyes of both. It had survived the tug of diverse interests, the intervention of long separations, the conflict born of the love of women. Would it stand without breaking this new test of its strength?
With a little nod to Goodheart the sheriff retired from the camp-fire. His deputy joined him presently on a hillside overlooking the creek.
"I'm goin' back to Live-Oaks to-night, Jack," announced Prince. "You'd better stay here a few days an' hunt through these gulches. Since that rain yesterday there's not one chance in fifty of runnin' down the rustlers, but you might happen to stumble on the place where they've got the cattle cached."
"You're goin' down about this Webb murder?"
"Yes. I'm goin' to work out some plans. It will take some strategy to land Clanton. He's lived out in the hills for years and he knows every foot of cover in the country."
Goodheart assented. To go blindly out into the mesquite after the young outlaw would have been as futile as to reach a hand toward the stars with the hope of plucking a gold-piece from the air.
"Watch the men he trains with. Keep an eye on the Elephant Corral an' check up on him when he rides in to Los Portales. Spot the tendejon at Point o' Rocks where he has a hang-out. Unless he has left the country he'll show up one of these days."
"That's what I think, Jack, an' I'm confident he hasn't gone. He has a reason for stayin' here."
Goodheart could have put a name to the reason. It was a fair enough reason to have held either him or the sheriff under the same circumstances.
"How about a reward? He trains with a crowd I'd hate to trust farther than I could throw a bull by the tail. Some of 'em would sell their own mothers for gold."
"I'll get in touch with Webb's family an' see if they won't offer a big reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer."
Within the week every crossroads store in the county had tacked to it a placard offering a reward of five thousand dollars for the man who had killed Homer Webb.
No applications for it came in at first.
"Wait," said Goodheart, smiling. "More than one yellow dog has licked its jaws hungrily before that poster. Some dark night the yellowest one will sneak in here to see you."
On the main street of Los Portales one evening Billie met Pauline Roubideau. She came at him with a direct frontal attack.
"I've had a letter from Jim Clanton."
The sheriff did not ask her where it was post-marked. He did not want any information from Polly as to the whereabouts of her friend.
"You're one ahead of me then. I haven't," answered Prince.
"He says he didn't do it."
"Shoot Mr. Webb. And I know he didn't if he says he didn't."
The grave eyes of the young man met hers. "But Dad Wrayburn was there. He saw the whole affair."
Pauline brushed this aside with superb faith. "I don't care. Jim never lied to me in his life. I know he didn't do it--and it makes me so glad."
The young man envied her the faith that could reject evidence as though it did not exist. The Jim Clanton she had once known would not have lied to her. Therefore the Jim Clanton she knew now was worthy of perfect trust. If there was any flaw in that logic the sweet and gallant heart of the girl did not find it.
But Billie had talked with Dad Wrayburn. He had ridden out and gone over the ground with a fine-tooth comb. Webb had been killed by a bullet from a forty-four. Of his own knowledge Prince knew that Clanton was carrying a weapon of this caliber only three hours before the killing. There was no escape from the conviction of the guilt of his friend.
The sheriff walked back to the hotel where he was staying. On the way his mind was full of the young woman he had just left. He had never liked her better, never admired her more. But, somehow--and for the first time he realized it--there was no longer any sting in the thought of her. He did not have to fight against any unworthy jealousy because of her interest in Clanton. Of late he had been very busy. It struck him now that his mind had been much less preoccupied with the thought of her than it used to be. He supposed there was such a thing as falling out of love. Perhaps he was in process of doing that now.
Bud Proctor, a tall young stripling, met Prince on the porch of the hotel.
"Buck Sanders was here to see you, sheriff," the boy said.
Since the days when he had been segundo of the Snaith-McRobert outfit Sanders had declined in the world. Like many of his kind he had taken to drink, become bitten with the desire to get rich without working, and operated inconspicuously in the chaparral with a branding iron. Much water had poured down the bed of the Pecos in the past three years. The disagreement between him and Clanton had long since been patched up and they had lately been together a great deal.
Prince went up to his room, threw off his coat, and began to prepare some papers he had to send to the Governor. He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
Sanders opened at the sheriff's invitation, shoved in his head, looked around the room warily, and sidled in furtively. He closed the door.
"Mind if I lock it?" he asked.
The sheriff nodded. His eyes fixed themselves intently on the man. "Go as far as you like."
The visitor hung his hat over the keyhole and moved forward to the table. His close-set eyes gripped those of the sheriff.
"What about this reward stuff?" he asked harshly.
An instant resentment surged up in Billie's heart. He knew now why this fellow had come to see him secretly. It was his duty to get all the information he could about Clanton. He had to deal with this man who wanted to sell his comrade, but he did not relish the business.
"You can read, can't you, Sanders?" he asked ungraciously.
"Where's the money?" snarled his guest.
"It's in the bank."
From his pocket-book Billie took a bank deposit slip. He put it on the table where the other man could look it over.
"Would a man have to wait for the reward until Clanton was convicted?" the traitor asked roughly.
"A thousand would be paid as soon as the arrest was made, the rest when he was convicted," said Prince coldly.
"Will you put that in writin', Mr. Sheriff?"
The chill eyes of the officer drilled into those of the rustler. He drew a pad toward him and wrote a few lines, then shoved the tablet of paper toward Sanders. The latter tore off the sheet and put it in his pocket.
Sanders spoke again, abruptly. "Understand one thing, Prince. I don't have to take part in the arrest. I only tell you where to find him."
"And take me to the spot," added the sheriff, "I'll do the arrestin'."
"Whyfor must I take you there if I tell you where to go?"
"You want a good deal for your white alley, Sanders," returned the other contemptuously. "I'm to take all the chances an' you are to drag down the reward. That listens good. Nothin' to it. You'll ride right beside me; then if anything goes wrong, you'll be where I can ask you questions."
"Do you think I'm double-crossin' you? Is that it?" flushed the ex-foreman of the Lazy S M.
"I don't know. It might be Clanton you're double-crossin', or it might be me," said the sheriff with cynical insolence. "But if I'm the bird you've made a poor choice. In case we're ambushed, you'll be in nice, easy reach of my gun."
"Do I look like a fool?" snapped Sanders. "I'm out for the dough. I'm takin' you to Clanton because I need the money."
"Mebbeso. You won't need it long if you throw me down." Then abruptly, the sheriff dropped into the manner of dry business. "Get down to tacks, man. Where is Clanton's hang-out?"
Buck sat down and drew a sketch roughly on the tablet. "Cross the river at Blazer's Ford, cut over the hills to Ojo Caliente, an' swing to the east. He's about four miles from Round Top in an old dugout. Maybe you've heard of Saguaro Canon. Well, he's holed up in a little gulch runnin' into it."
By daybreak next morning the sheriff's posse was in the saddle. In addition to Sanders, who rode beside Billie unarmed, Goodheart and two special deputies made up the party.
The sun was riding high when they reached Ojo Caliente. The party bore eastward, following a maze of washes, arroyos, and gorges. It was well into the afternoon when the informer ventured a suggestion.
"We're close enough. Better light here an' sneak forward on foot," the man said gruffly.
As he swung from the horse Billie smiled grimly. He had a plan of his own which he meant to try. Buck Sanders might not like it, but he was not in a position to make any serious objection.
They crept forward to a rim rock above a heavily wooded slope. A tongue-shaped grove ran down close to the edge of a narrow gulch.
Prince explained what he meant to do. "We'll all snake down closer. When I give the word you'll go forward alone, Sanders, an' call Jim out. Ask him to come forward an' look at yore bronco's hoof. That's all you'll have to do."
Sanders voiced a profane and vigorous protest. "Have you forgot who this guy is you're arrestin'? Go-Get-'Em Jim is no tenderfoot kid. He's chain lightnin' on the shoot. If he suspects me one steenth part of a second, that will be long enough for him to gun me good."
"He'll not have a chance. We'll have him covered all the time."
"Say, we agreed you was goin' to make this arrest, not me."
"I'll make it. All you've got to do is to call him out."
"All!" shrieked Sanders. "You know damned well I'm takin' the big risk."
"That's the way I intended it to be," the sheriff assured him coolly. "You're to get the reward, aren't you?"
The rustler balked. He polluted the air with low, vicious curses, but in the end he had to come to time.
They slipped through the grove till they could see on the edge of the ravine a dug-out. Prince flashed a handkerchief as a signal and Sanders rode down in the open skirting the timber. He swung from the saddle and shouted a "Hello, in the house!"
No answer came. Buck called a second and a third time. He waited, irresolute. He could not consult with Prince. At last he moved toward the house and entered. Presently he returned to the door and waved to the sheriff to come forward.
Very cautiously the posse accepted the invitation, but every foot of the way Billie kept the man covered.
Sanders ripped out a furious oath. "He's done made his get-away. Some one must 'a' warned him."
He held out to Prince a note scrawled on a piece of wrapping-paper. It was in Clanton's pell-mell, huddled chirography:--
Sorry I can't stay to entertain you, Billie. Make yourself at home. Bacon and other grub in a lard can by the creek. Help yourself.
Crack Sanders one on the bean with your six-gun on account for me.
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