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Dumont had been on the grill for three hours. He had taken refuge in dogged silence. He had been badgered into lies. He had broken down at last and told the truth. Sheriff Billie Prince, keen as a hound on the scent, persistent as a bulldog, peppered the man's defense with a machine-gun fire of questions. Back of these loomed the shadow of a long term in the penitentiary.
For Dumont had been caught with his iron hot. The acrid smell of burnt flesh was still in the air when an angry cattleman and two of his riders came on the man and the rustled calf. Fortunately for the thief the sheriff happened to be in the neighborhood. He had rescued the captured waddy from the hands of the incensed ranchers and brought him straight to Live-Oaks.
The rustler was frightened. There had been a bad quarter of an hour when it looked as though he might be the central figure in a lynching. Even after this danger had been weathered, the outlook was full of gloom. He had to choose between a long prison sentence and the betrayal of his comrades. Dumont had no iron in his blood. He dodged and evaded and bluffed--and at last threw up his hands. If the sheriff would protect him from the vengeance of the gang, he would give any information wanted or do anything he was told to do.
The arrival of Reb and his prisoner interrupted the quiz. Prince had Dumont returned to his cell and took up the new business of Roush and his story. The sheriff knew he would be blamed for the escape of Clanton and he thought it wise to have the whole matter opened up before witnesses. Wallace Snaith and Dad Wrayburn both happened to be in town and Billie sent the boss mule-skinner to bring them. To these men he turned over the examination of Roush.
They wrung from him, a scrap at a time, the story Yankie had told his confederates at the camp-fire. A statement of the facts was drawn up and signed by Roush under protest. It was witnessed by the four men present.
Devil Dave was locked up and Dumont brought back to the office of the sheriff. Taken by surprise at the new form of the questionnaire, already broken in spirit and therefore eager to conciliate these powerful citizens, the rustler at once corroborated the story of Roush. He, too, signed a statement drawn up by Prince.
"Just shows, doggone it, how a man can be too blamed sure," commented Wrayburn. "I'd 'a' bet my life Go-Get-'Em Jim killed Webb. But he didn't. It's plain enough now. After his rookus with the old man, Yankie must have got a seventy-three an' waited in the chaparral. It just happened he was lyin' hid close to where we met Clanton. It beats the Dutch."
"An' if Jim hadn't escaped he'd have been hanged for killin' Webb."
"That's right, sheriff. On my testimony, too. Say, let me go to the Governor with these papers an' git the pardon. I'd like to give it to the boy myself, jest to show him there's no hard feelin's," urged Wrayburn.
"That's all right, Dad. I'm goin' to be right busy this next week, I shouldn't wonder. I've got business up in the hills."
"If you're goin' on a round-up, I hope you make a good gather, Prince," said Snaith, smiling.
Not in the history of Washington County had there been another such a round-up as this one of which Sheriff Prince was the boss. He made his plans swiftly and thoroughly. His posses were to sweep the country between Saco de Oro Creek and Caballero Canon. Every gap was to be stopped, every exit guarded. Dumont, much against his will, rode beside the sheriff as guide. Goodheart had charge of the first party that went out. His duty was to swing round and close the gulches to the north. Here he would wait until the hunted men were driven into the trap he had set. Old Reb, with a second posse, started next morning for the head-waters of Seven-Mile Creek. An hour later the sheriff himself took the road. He left town sooner than he had intended because Roush had escaped during the night and was probably on his way into the hills to warn the rustlers.
Get them in a talkative mood and old-timers who took part in it will still tell the story of that man-drive in the mountains. Riders combed the draws and the buttes, eyes and ears alert for those who might lie hidden on the rim rocks or in the cactus. It was grim business. Driven out of their holes, the rustlers fought savagely. One, trapped in a hill pocket, stood off a posse till he was shot to death. A second was wounded, captured, and sent back with two other suspects to Live-Oaks. At the end of a week Prince had the remnant of the band surrounded in a mountain park close to Caballero Canon.
The country into which the outlaws had been driven was an ideal terrain for defense. The brush was thick and tall. Two wooded arroyos gashed the rim of the valley and ran down into the basin. An attack against determined men here was bound to prove costly.
Billie knew that three men lay in the chaparral and he believed that one of them at least was wounded. Old Reb had jumped them up from a fireless camp, and in their hurry to escape the outlaws had left all their provisions and two of their horses. They left, too, one of the posse with a bullet hole in his forehead. The sheriff's plan was to tighten the lines gradually and starve out the rustlers.
But though Prince would not let his men advance to a general assault, he made up his mind to find out more as to the condition of the men he had surrounded. He wanted to make sure they had not slipped past his guards into Caballero Canon. In the back of his head, too, was the feeling that if he could get into touch with them, perhaps he might arrange for a surrender.
He called Goodheart to one side. "As soon as it's dark I'm goin' in to find out what's doin'. We haven't heard a murmur from these birds for hours. Perhaps they've flown. Anyhow, I'm goin' to find out."
"How many of us are goin'?"
"Just one of us--Billie Prince."
"If two of us went--"
"It would double the chances of discovery. No, I'm goin' alone. Maybe I can have a talk with Albeen or Yankie. I don't want to take 'em dead, but alive."
"They'll probably get you while you're in there, Prince."
"I don't think it. But if I'm not back by mornin' you are in charge of this hunt. Use yore judgment."
The deputy ventured one more protest, but his chief vetoed it. Billie had decided what to do and argument did not touch him.
He did not take a rifle. In the thick brush it would be hard to handle noiselessly and the snapping of a twig might mean the difference between life and death. The sheriff slipped into the tangle of cat-claw, prickly pear, and mesquite, vanishing into the gloom from the sight of Goodheart.
On the back of an envelope Dumont had drawn for him a rough map of the valley. It showed that the wooded arroyos ran together like the spokes of a wheel. The judgment of Prince was that he must look for the men he wanted close to the angle of intersection. Up one or the other of these draws it was likely they would make their dash for freedom, since otherwise they would have to emerge into the open. Therefore, they would hold the base of the V in order not to be cut off from the chance of getting out of the trap.
The sheriff snaked forward, most of the time on his stomach or on hands and knees, for what seemed an interminable period. Each least movement had to be planned and executed with precision. He dared not risk the cracking of a dead branch or the rustle of dry foliage. As silently as an Apache he wriggled through the grass.
Billie became aware of a sound to the left. He listened. It presently defined itself as a wheezing rattle halfway between a cough and a groan.
Toward it Prince deflected. He knew himself to be now in the acute danger zone, and he increased if possible his precautions. The moaning continued intermittently. Billie wondered why, if this were the camp of the outlaws, no other sound broke the stillness. Closer, inch by inch, making the most of every bunch of yucca and cholla, the officer slowly crept.
The figure of a man lay in the sand, the head resting on a folded slicker. From time to time it moved slightly, and always the restlessness was accompanied by the little throat rattle that had first attracted the attention of the sheriff. The face, lying full in the moonlight, was of a ghastly pallor.
Prince lay crouched behind a pinon till he was sure the man was alone. It was possible that his confederates might return at any moment, but Billie could not let him suffer without aid. He stepped forward, revolver in hand, every sense ready for instant response.
The wounded man was Joe Yankie. The experienced eyes of Prince told him that the rustler had not long to live. He was already in that twilight region which is the border land between the known and the unknown. Billie spoke his name, and for a moment the eyes of the man cleared.
"Yore boys got me when they jumped our camp," he explained feebly.
"Sorry, Joe. You were firin' when they hit you."
The wounded man nodded. "'S all right. Streak o' bad luck. Gimme water. I'm on fire," The officer unbuckled his canteen, lifted the head of the dying man, and let the water trickle down his throat. Gently he lowered the head again to the pillow.
Then he asked a question. "Where are Albeen and--Roush?"
The last name was a shot in the dark, but it hit the bull's eye.
Yankie closed his eyes wearily, but by sheer strength of will Prince recalled him from the doze into which he was slipping.
"Did you kill Homer Webb?"
"Had Clanton anything to do with it?"
A film gathered over the eyes of the dying man. The lids closed. Billie adjusted the pillow a little more comfortably and rose. He could do no more for him at present and he must set about his work. For though the net of the round-up had gathered hundreds of stolen cattle and most of those engaged in the business of brand-blotting, Prince knew his job would not be finished if Roush and Albeen escaped.
He quartered over the ground foot by foot. The camp of the rustlers had been here and the footsteps showed there had been three. Yankie was accounted for. That left Roush and Albeen. The sheriff discovered the place where they had been sleeping.
His eyes lit with the eagerness of the hunter who has come on the spoor. He had found two sets of tracks leading from the bed-ground. One of these showed no heel marks and the deep impress of toes in the soft sand. The other presented a more sharply defined print with a greater distance between the steps. They told Billie a story of a man tiptoeing away in breathless silence, and of another man, wakened by some sound or by some premonition, pursuing him in reckless haste.
The imagination of the trailer built up a web of cause and effect. Two men, with only one horse, were caught in a trap from which both were in a desperate hurry to escape. Each, no doubt, was filled with suspicion of the other while they waited for darkness to fall that they might try to slip through the cordon of watchers. One of the at least, was unknown. If he could make a get-away, and leave no witness behind, there would be no proof positive that he was one of the rustlers. The situation was ripe for tragedy.
In the back of the sheriff's mind rose thoughts of something sinister that had happened in the early hours of darkness. A chill ran down his spine. He expected presently to stumble across something cold and chill that only a little while ago had been warm with life.
Prince recognized a weakness in his theory. If Roush was the man who had tiptoed toward the horse in the pines, why had he not made sure first by shooting Albeen while he slept? There was no absolute answer to that. But it might be that the one-armed man had been dozing lightly and that Roush had not the nerve to take a chance. For if his first shot failed to kill, the betrayed man could still drop him.
The trailer had no doubt in his mind that Roush was the man who had tried to slip away to the horse. Albeen was a gun-fighter, quick on the shoot, hasty of temper, but with the reputation of being both game and stanch. It would not be in character for him to leave a companion in the lurch.
In the scrub pines at the foot of the arroyo Prince found the place where a horse had been tied. The footprints had diverged sharply toward a duster of big boulders that rose in the grove. Billie did not at once follow them. He wanted to make sure of another point first.
Every sense alert against a possible surprise, he studied the ground around the spot where the bronco had been fastened. One set of tracks came straight from the big rocks to the hitching tree. Here all tracks ended, except those of a galloping horse and the ones made by the man who had originally left the animal here.
One man had gone up the arroyo to slip through or to fight his way out of the trap. The other man had stayed here. The officer knew what he would find lying among the big rocks.
The body lay face down, a revolver close to the still hand. Three chambers of it had been fired. Prince turned over the heavy torso and looked into the contorted face of Dave Roush.
The man had fallen a victim to his own treachery.
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