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Jim Thursday knew that his sole chance of success lay in reaching the fork of the canons before the Indians. So far he had been lucky. Three Apaches had gone to their happy hunting ground, and though both he and Billie were wounded, his hurt at least did not interfere with accurate rifle-fire. But it was not reasonable to expect such good fortune to hold. In the party he was pursuing were four men, all of them used to warfare in the open. Unless he could take them at a disadvantage he could not by any possibility defeat them and rescue their captive.
His cinnamon pony took the rising ground at a steady gallop. Its stride did not falter, though its breathing was labored. Occasionally the rider touched its flank with the sharp rowel of a spur. The boy was a lover of horses. He had ridden too many dry desert stretches, had too often kept night watch over a sleeping herd, not to care for the faithful and efficient animal that served him and was a companion to his loneliness. Like many plainsmen he made of his mount a friend.
But he dared not spare his pony now. He must ride the heart out of the gallant brute for the sake of that life he had come to save. And while he urged it on, his hand patted the sweat-stained neck and his low voice sympathized.
"You've got to go to it, old fellow, if it kills you," he said aloud. "We got to save that girl for Billie, ain't we? We can't let those red devils take her away, can we?"
It was a rough cattle trail he followed, strewn here with boulders and there tilted down at breakneck angle of slippery shale. Sometimes it fell abruptly into washes and more than once rose so sharply that a heather cat could scarce have clambered up. But Thursday flung his horse recklessly at the path, taking chances of a fall that might end the mad race. He could not wait to pick a way. His one hope lay in speed, in reaching the fork before the enemy. He sacrificed everything to that.
From the top of a sharp pitch he looked down into the twin canon of Escondido. A sharp bend cut off the view to the left, so that he could see for only seventy-five or a hundred yards. But his glance followed the gulch up for half a mile and found no sign of life. He was in time.
Swiftly he made his preparations. First he led the exhausted horse back to a clump of young cottonwoods and tied it safely. From its place beside the saddle he took the muley gun and with the rifle in his other hand he limped swiftly back to the trail. Every step was torture, but he could not stop to think of that now. His quick eye picked a perfect spot for an ambush where a great rock leaned against another at the edge of the bluff. Between the two was a narrow opening through which he could command the bend in the trail below. To enlarge this he scooped out the dirt with his fingers then reloaded the rifle and thrust it into the crevice. The sawed-off shotgun lay close to his hand.
Till now he had found no time to get nervous, but as the minutes passed he began to tremble violently and to whimper. In spite of his experience he was only a boy and until to-day had never killed a man.
"Doggone it, if I ain't done gone an' got buck fever," he reproached himself. "I reckon it's because Billie Prince ain't here that I'm so scairt. I wisht I had a drink, so as I'd be right when the old muley gun gits to barkin'."
A faint sound, almost indistinguishable, echoed up the gulch to him. Miraculously his nervousness vanished. Every nerve was keyed up, every muscle tense, but he was cool as water in a mountain stream.
The sound repeated itself, a faint tinkle of gravel rolling from a trail beneath the hoof of a horse. At the last moment Thursday changed his mind and substituted the shotgun for the rifle.
"Old muley she spatters all over the State of Texas. I might git two at once," he muttered.
The light, distant murmur of voices reached him. His trained ear told him just how far away the speakers were.
An Apache rounded the bend, a tall, slender young brave wearing only a low-cut breech-cloth and a pair of moccasins. Around his waist was strapped a belt full of cartridges and from it projected the handle of a long Mexican knife. The brown body of the youth was lithe and graceful as that of a panther. He was smiling over his shoulder at the next rider in line, a heavy-set, squat figure on a round-bellied pinto. That smile was to go out presently like the flame of a blown candle. A third Mescalero followed. Like that of the others, his coarse, black hair fell to the shoulders, free except for a band that encircled the forehead.
Still the boy did not fire. He waited till the last of the party appeared, a man in fringed buckskin breeches and hickory shirt riding pillion behind a young woman. Both of these were white.
The sawed-off gun of Thursday covered the second rider carefully. Before the sound of the shot boomed down the gorge the Apache was lifted from the bare back of the pony. The heavy charge of buckshot had riddled him through and through.
Instantly the slim, young brave in the lead dug his heels into the flank of his pony, swung low to the far side so that only a leg was visible, and flew arrow-straight up the canon for safety. Thursday let him go.
Twice his rifle rang out. At that distance it was impossible for a good shot to miss. One bullet passed through the head of the third Mescalero. The other brought down the pony upon which the whites were riding.
The fall of the horse flung the girl free, but the foot of her captor was caught between the saddle and the ground. Thursday drew a bead on him while he lay there helpless, but some impulse of mercy held his hand. The man was that creature accursed in the border land, a renegade who has turned his face against his own race and must to prove his sincerity to the tribe out-Apache an Apache at cruelty. Still, he was white after all--and Jim Thursday was only eighteen.
Rifle in hand the boy clambered down the jagged rock wall to the dry river-bed below. The foot of his high-heeled boot was soggy with blood, but for the present he had to ignore the pain messages that throbbed to his brain. The business on hand would not wait.
While Thursday was still slipping down from one outcropping ledge of rock to another, a plunge of the wounded horse freed the renegade. The man scrambled to his feet and ran shakily for the shelter of a boulder. In his hurry to reach cover he did not stop to get the rifle that had been flung a few yards from him when he fell.
The boy caught one glimpse of that evil, fear-racked face. The blood flushed his veins with a surge of triumph. He was filled with the savage, primitive exultation of the head-hunter. For four years he had slept on the trail of this man and had at last found him. The scout had fought the Apaches impersonally, without rancor, because a call had come to him that he could not ignore. But now the lust of blood was on him. He had become that cold, implacable thing known throughout the West as a "killer."
The merciless caution that dictates the methods of a killer animated his movements now. Across the gulch, nearly one hundred and fifty yards from him, the renegade lay crouched. A hunched shoulder was just visible.
Thursday edged carefully along the ledge. He felt for holds with his hand and feet, for not once did his gaze lift from that patch of hickory shirt. The eyes of the boy had narrowed to slits of deadly light. He was wary as a hungry wolf and as dangerous. That the girl had disappeared around the bend he did not know. His brain functioned for just one purpose--to get the enemy with whom he had come at last to grips.
As the boy crept along the rock face for a better view of his victim, the minutes fled. Five of them--ten--a quarter of an hour passed. The renegade lay motionless. Perhaps he hoped that his location was unknown.
The man-hunter on the ledge flung a bullet against the protecting boulder. His laugh of cruel derision drifted across the canon.
"Run to earth at last, Ranse Roush!" he shouted, "I swore I'd camp on your trail till I got you--you an' the rest of yore poison tribe."
From the trapped wretch quavered back a protest.
"Goddlemighty, I ain't done nothin' to you-all. Lemme explain."
"Before you do any explainin' mebbe you'd better guess who it is that's goin' to send yore cowardly soul to hell inside of five minutes."
"If you're some kin to that gal on the hawss with me, why, I'll tell you the honest-to-God truth. I was aimin' to save her from the 'Paches when I got a chanct. Come on down an' let's we-uns talk it over reasonable."
The boy laughed again, but there was something very far from mirth in the sound of that chill laughter. "If you won't guess I'll have to tell you Ever hear of the Clantons, Ranse Roush? I'm one of 'em. Now you know what chance you got to talk yoreself out of this thing."
"I--I'm glad to meet up with you-all. I got to admit that the Roush clan is dirt mean. Tha's why I broke away from 'em. Tha's why I come out here. You Clantons is all right. I never did go in for this bushwhackin' with Dave an' Hugh. I never--"
"You're a born liar like the rest of yore wolf tribe. You come out here because the country got too hot to hold you after what you did to 'Lindy Clanton. I might 'a' knowed I'd find you with the 'Paches. You allus was low-mixed Injun." The boy had fallen into the hill vernacular to which he had been born. He was once more a tribal feudist of the border land.
"I swear I hadn't a thing to do with that," the man cried eagerly. "You shore done got that wrong. Dave an' Hugh done that. They're a bad lot. When I found out about 'Lindy Clanton I quarreled with 'em an' we-all split up company. Tha's the way of it."
"You're ce'tainly in bad luck then," the boy shouted back tauntingly. "For I aim to stomp you out like I would a copperhead." Very distinctly he added his explanation. "I'm 'Lindy Clanton's brother."
Roush begged for his life. He groveled in the dust. He promised to reform, to leave the country, to do anything that was asked of him.
"Go ahead. It's meat an' drink to me to hear a Roush whine. I got all day to this job, but I aim to do it thorough," jeered Clanton.
A bullet flattened itself against the rock wall ten feet below the boy. In despair the man was shooting wildly with his revolver. He knew there was no use in pleading, that his day of judgment had come.
Young Clanton laughed in mockery. "Try again, Roush. You ain't quite got the range."
The man made a bolt for the bend in the canon a hundred yards away. Instantly the rifle leaped to the shoulder of the boy.
"Right in front of you, Roush," he prophesied.
The bullet kicked up the dust at the feet of the running man. The nerve of Roush failed him and he took cover again behind a scrub live-oak. A memory had flashed to him of the day when he had seen a thirteen-year-old boy named Jim Clanton win a turkey shoot against the best marksmen of the hill country.
The army Colt spit out once more at the boy on the ledge. Before the echo had died away the boom of an explosion filled the canon. Roush pitched forward on his face.
Jim Clanton lowered his rifle with an exclamation. His face was a picture of amazement. Some one had stolen his vengeance from him by a hair's breadth.
Two men came round the bend on horseback. Behind them rode a girl. She was mounted on the barebacked pinto of the Indian Clanton had killed with the shotgun.
The boy clambered down to the bed of the gulch and limped toward them. The color had ebbed from his lips. At every step a pain shot through his leg. But in spite of his growing weakness anger blazed in the light-blue eyes.
"I waited four years to git him. I kept the trail hot from Tucson to Vegas an' back to Santone. An' now, doggone it, when my finger was on the trigger an' the coyote as good as dead, you cut in an' shoot the daylights out of him. By gum, it ain't fair!"
The older man looked at him in astonishment. "But he is only a child, Polly! Cela me passe!"
"Mebbe I am only a kid," the boy retorted resentfully. "But I reckon I'm man enough to handle any Roush that ever lived. I wasn't askin' for help from you-uns that I heerd tell of."
The younger man laughed. He was six or seven years older than the girl, who could not have been more than seventeen. Both of them bore a marked likeness to the middle-aged man who had spoken. Jim guessed that this was the Roubideau family of whom Billie Prince had told him.
"Just out of the cradle, by Christmas, and he's killed four 'Paches inside of an hour an' treed a renegade to boot," said young Roubideau. "I'd call it a day's work, kid, for it sure beats all records ever I knew hung up by one man."
The admiration of the young rancher was patent. He could not take his eyes from the youthful phenomenon.
"He's wounded, father," the girl said in a low voice.
The boy looked at her and his anger died away. "Billie sent me up the gulch when he was shot. He 'lowed it was up to me to git you back from those devils, seein' as he couldn't go himself."
Polly nodded. She seemed to be the kind of girl that understands without being told in detail.
Before Thursday could protect himself, Roubideau, senior, had seized him in his arms, embraced him, and kissed first one cheek and then the other. "Eh bien! But you are the brave boy! I count it honor to know you. My little Polly, have you not save her? Ah! But I forget the introductions. Myself, I am Pierre Roubideau, a tout propos at your service. My son Jean. Pauline--what you call our babie."
"My real name is Jim Clanton," answered the boy. "I've been passin' by that of 'Thursday' so that none of the Roush outfit would know I was in the country till I met up face to face with 'em."
"Clanton! It is a name we shall remember in our prayers, n'est-ce pas, Polly?" Pierre choked up and wrung fervently the hand of the youngster.
Clanton was both embarrassed and wary. He did not know at what moment Roubideau would disgrace him by attempting another embrace. There was something in the Frenchman's eye that told of an emotion not yet expended fully.
"Oh, shucks; you make a heap of fuss about nothin'," he grumbled. "Didn't I tell you it was Billie Prince sent me? An' say, I got a pill in my foot. Kindness of one of them dad-gummed Mescaleros. I hate to walk on that laig. I wish yore boy would go up on the bluff an' look after my horse. I 'most rode it to death, I reckon, comin' up the canon. An' there's a sawed-off shotgun. He'll find it..."
For a few moments the ground had been going up and down in waves before the eyes of the boy. Now he clutched at a stirrup leather for support, but his fingers could not seem to find it. Before he could steady himself the bed of the dry creek rose up and hit him in the head.
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