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The Mimbres Pass narrows toward the southern exit where Point o' Rocks juts into the caņon and commands it like a sentinel. Toward this column of piled boulders slowly moved a cloud of white dust, at the base of which crept a band of hard-driven cattle. Swollen tongues were out, heads stretched forward in a bellow for water taken up by one as another dropped it. The day was still hot, though the sun had slipped down over the range, and the drove had been worked forward remorselessly. Every inch that could be sweated out of them had been gained.
For those that pushed them along were in desperate hurry. Now and again a rider would twist round in his saddle to sweep back a haggard glance. Dust enshrouded them, lay heavy on every exposed inch; but through it seams of anxiety crevassed their leathern faces. Iron men they were, with one exception. Fight they could and would to the last ditch. But behind the jaded, stony eyes lay a haunting fear, the never-ending dread of a pursuit that might burst upon them at any moment. Driven to the wall, they would have faced the enemy like tigers, with a fierce, exultant hate. It was the never-ending possibility of disaster that lay heavily upon them.
Just as they entered the pass, a man came spurring up the steep trail behind them. The drag drivers shouted a warning to those in front and waited alertly with weapons ready. The man trying to overtake them waved a sombrero as a flag of truce.
"Keep an eye on him, Tom. If he makes a move that don't look good to you, plug him!" ordered the keen-eyed man beside one of the drag drivers.
"I'm bridle wise, boss." But though he spoke with bravado Dixon shook like an aspen in a breeze.
The man he had called boss looked every inch a leader. He rode with the loose seat and the straight back of the Westerner to the saddle born. Just now he was looking back with impassive, reddened eyes at the approaching figure.
"Hold on, Tom! Don't shoot! It's Brad," he decided. "And I wonder what in Mexico he is doing here."
The leader of the outlaws was soon to learn. Irwin told the story of the strategy that had changed him from jailer to prisoner and of the way he had later freed himself from the rope that bound him.
Healy unloaded his sentiments with an emphasis that did the subject justice. Nevertheless he could not see that their plans were seriously affected.
"It's a leetle premature, but his getaway doesn't cut any ice. What we want to do is to nail him, clamp the evidence home, and put him out of business before his friends can say Jack Robinson. The story now is that he was caught driving a little bunch of cows to met the big bunch his pals were rustling, and that we left him in charge of Brad while we tried to run down the other waddies. Understand, boys?"
They did, and admired the more the versatility of a leader who could make plans on the spur of the moment to meet any emergency.
"We'll push right on, boys. Once we get through the pass it will trouble anybody to find us. Before mo'ning you'll be across the line."
"And you, Brill?"
"I'm going back to settle accounts for good and all with Mr. Keller," answered Healy grimly between set teeth. "I've got a notion about him. I believe he's a spy."
Just before Point o' Rocks a defile runs into the Mimbres Pass at right angles. The leaders of the cattle, pushed forward by the pressure from behind, stopped for a moment, and stood bawling at the junction. A rider spurred forward to keep them from attempting the gulch. Suddenly he dragged his pony to its haunches, so quickly did he stop it. For a clear voice had called down a warning as if from the heavens:
"You can't go this way! The Pass is closed!"
The rider looked up in amazement, and beheld a man standing on the ledge above with a rifle resting easily across his forearm.
"By Heaven, it's Keller!" the rustler muttered.
He wheeled as on a half dollar, pushed his way back along the edge of the wall past the cattle, and shouted to his chief:
"We're trapped, Brill!"
None of the outlaws needed that notification. Five pair of eyes had lifted to the ledge upon which Keller stood. The shock of the surprise paralyzed them for an instant. For it occurred to none of the five that this man would be standing there so quietly unless he were backed by a posse sufficient to overpower them. He had not the manner of a man taking a desperate chance. The situation was as dramatic as life and death, but the voice that had come down to them had been as matter-of-fact as if it had asked some one to pass him a cup of coffee at the breakfast table.
The temper of the outlaws' metal showed instantly. Dixon dropped his rifle, threw up his hands, and ran bleating to the cover of some large rocks, imploring the imagined posse not to shoot. Others found silently what shelter they could. Healy alone took reckless counsel of his hate.
Flinging his rifle to his shoulder, he blazed away at the figure on the ledge--once, twice, three times. When the smoke cleared the ranger was no longer to be seen. He was lying flat on his rock like a lizard, where he had dropped just as his enemy whipped up his weapon to fire. Cold as chilled steel, in spite of the fire of passion that blazed within him, Healy slid to the ground on the far side of his horse and, without exposing himself, slowly worked to the loose boulders bordering the edge of the canon bed.
The bawling of the cattle and the faint whimpering of Dixon alone disturbed the silence. Healy and his confederates were waiting for the other side to show its hand. Meanwhile the leader of the outlaws was thinking out the situation.
"I believe there's only two of them, Bart," he confided in a low voice to the big fellow lying near. "Keller must have heard us when we talked it over at the shack. I reckon he and Phil hit the trail for here immediate. They hadn't time to go back and rustle help and still get here before us.
"We'll make Mr. Keller table his cards. I'm going to try to rush the cattle through. We'll see at once what's doing. If they are too many for us to do that we'll break for the gulch and fight our way out--that is, if we find we're hemmed in behind, too."
He called to the rest of the bandits and gave crisp instructions. At sound of his sharp whistle four men leaped into sight, each making for his horse. Dixon alone did not answer to the call. He lay white and trembling behind the rock that sheltered him, physically unable to rise and face the bullets that would rain down upon him.
Keller, watching alertly from above, guessed what they would be at. His rifle cracked twice, and two of the horses staggered, one of them collapsing slowly. He had to show himself, and for three heartbeats stood exposed to the fire of four rifles. One bullet fanned his cheek, a second plunged through his coat sleeve, a third struck the rock at his feet. While the echoes were still crashing, he was flat on his rock again, peering over the edge to see their next move.
"He's alone," cried Healy jubilantly. "Must have sent the kid back for help. Bart, get Dixon's gun, steal up the ravine, and take him in the rear. I'd go myself, but I can't leave the boys now."
Slowly the cattle felt the impetus from behind, and began to move forward. The voice above shouted a second warning. Healy answered with a derisive yell. Keller again stood exposed on the ledge.
This time the cattle detective was firing at men and not at horses, and they in turn were pumping at him fast as they could work the levers. One man went down, torn through and through by a rifle slug in his vitals. Healy's horse twitched and staggered, but the rider was unhurt. The officer on the ledge, a perfect target, was the heart of a very hail of lead, but when he sank again to cover he was by some miracle still unhurt.
"They'll try a flank attack next time," Keller told himself.
Up to date the honors were easily his. He had put three horses out of commission and disabled one of the outlaws so badly that he would prove negligible in the attack. Peering down, he could see Healy, with superb contempt for the marksman above, slowly and carefully carry his wounded comrade to shelter. The other men were already driven back to cover. The cattle, excited by the firing, were milling round and round uneasily.
Healy laid the wounded man down, knelt beside him, and gave him water from his flask. The man was plainly hard hit, though he was not bleeding much.
"Where is it, Duke? Can I do anything for you, old fellow?"
The dying man shook his head and whispered hoarsely: "I've got mine, Brill. Shot to pieces. I'm dying right now. Get out while you can. Don't mind me."
His chief swore softly. "We'll get him right, Duke. Brad's after him now. Buck up, old pard. You'll worry through yet."
"Not this time, Brill. I've played rustler once too often."
Keller, far up on the precipice, became aware of approaching riders long before the outlaws below could see them. He counted eight--nine--ten men, still black dots in a cloud of dust. This he knew must be Phil's posse.
If he could hold the rustlers for ten minutes more they would be caught like rats in a trap. Once or twice he glanced behind him as a precaution against some one of the enemy climbing Point o' Rocks from the defile, but he gave this little consideration. He had not seen Brad when he disappeared into the mesquite, and he supposed all of the rustlers were still in the Pass five hundred feet below him.
What he had expected was that they would force their way up the defile for a quarter of a mile and strike the easy trail that ran from the rear to the top of the Point. He wondered that this had not occurred to Healy.
In point of fact it had, but the outlaw leader knew that as they picked their way among the broken boulders of the gulch bottom the enemy would have them in the open for more than a hundred yards of slow going. He had chosen the alternative of sending Brad quietly up the rough face of the cliff. The other plan would do as a last resource if this failed.
Healy believed that his enemy had been delivered into his hands. After Keller had been killed they would toss his body down into the Pass, and while his companions continued the drive to Mexico, Healy would return to get help for Duke and spread the story he wanted to get out. The main features of that tale would be that he and Duke had cut their trail by accident, suspected rustling, and followed as far as the Mimbres Pass, where Keller had shot Duke and been in turn shot by Healy.
It was a neat plan, and one that would have been fairly sure of success but for one unforeseen contingency--the approach of Yeager's posse a half hour too soon. Healy heard them coming, knew he was trapped, and attempted to force an escape through the narrows in front of Point o' Rocks.
The milling cattle had jammed the gateway. Keller, shooting down one or two of them, blocked the exit still more. Healy and his confederates could not get through, and turned to try the defile just as the first of the posse came flying down the Pass.
Young Sanderson was in the van, a hundred yards in front of Yeager, dashing over the uneven ground in a reckless haste that Jim's slower horse could not match. Loose shale was flying from his pony's hoofs as it pounded forward. The outlaws just beat him to the mouth of the intersecting gulch. Dragging his broncho to a slithering halt, he fired twice at the retreating men. He had taken no time to aim, and his bullets went wild.
Brill laughed in mockery, covered him deliberately with his rifle, and just as deliberately raised the barrel and fired into the air. The distance was scarce a hundred yards. Phil could not doubt that his former friend had purposely spared his life. The boy's rifle dropped from his shoulder.
"Brill wouldn't shoot at me! I couldn't kill him!" he shouted to Weaver, as the latter rode up.
Buck nodded. "Let me have him!" And he plunged into the gorge after the men that had disappeared.
Twice Keller's rifle spat at Healy and his companion as they plowed forward across the boulder bed, but the difficulty of shooting from far above at moving figures almost directly below saved the rustlers. They reached a thick growth of aspens and disappeared. Healy parted company with his ally at the place where the trail to the summit of Point o' Rocks led up.
"Break south when you get out of the gulch, Sam. In half an hour it will be night, and you'll be safe. So-long."
"Where you going, Brill?"
"I'm going to settle accounts with that dashed spy!" answered Healy, with an epithet. "Inside of half an hour either Keller or I will be down and out!"
The outlaw took the stiff incline leisurely, for he knew Keller could come down only this way, and he had no mind to let himself get so breathed as to disturb the sureness of his aim. The aspen grove ran like a forked tongue up the ridge for a couple of hundred yards. As Healy emerged from it he saw a rider just disappearing over the shoulder of the hill in front of him. For an instant he had an amazed impression that the figure was that of a woman, but he dismissed this as absurd. He went the more cautiously, for he now knew that there would be two for him to deal with on the Point instead of one--unless Brad reached the scene in time to assist him.
The sound of a shot drifted down to him, followed presently by a far, faint cry of terror. What had happened was this:
Keller, turning away from the overhanging ledge from which he had seen the outlaws vanish into the grove, looked down the long slope preliminary to descending. He was surprised to see a horse and rider halfway between him and the aspen tongue. To him, too, there came a swift impression that it was a woman, and almost at once something in the poise of the gallant figure told him what woman. His heart leaped to meet her. He waved a hand, and broke into a run.
But only for two strides. For there had come to him a warning. He swung on his heel and waited. Again he heard the light rumble of shale, and before that had died away a sinister click. Alert in every fiber, his gaze swept the bluff--and stopped when it met a pair of beady eyes peering at him over the edge of the precipice.
The two pair of eyes fastened for what seemed like an eternity, but could have been no longer than four ticks of a clock. Neither of the men spoke. The outlaw fired first--wildly, for the arm which held the rifle was cramped for space. Keller's revolver flashed an answer which tore through Irwin's teeth and went out beneath his ear. With a furious oath the man dropped his weapon and flung himself upward and forward, landing in a heap almost at the feet of the detective.
"Don't move!" ordered the latter.
Brad writhed forward awkwardly, knew the shock of another heavy bullet in his shoulder, and catching his foe by the legs dragged him from his feet. Keller's revolver was jerked over the edge of the precipice as he let go of it to close with the burly ruffian.
Both of them were unarmed save for the weapons nature had given them. The detailed purpose of the struggle defined itself at once. Irwin meant by main strength to fling the detective into the gulf that descended sheer for five hundred feet. The other fought desperately to save himself by dragging his infuriated antagonist back from the edge.
They grappled in silence, save for the heavy panting that evidenced the tension of their efforts. Each tried to bear the other to the ground, to establish a grip against which his foe would be helpless. Now they were on their knees, now on their sides. Over and over they rolled, first one and then the other on top, shifting so fast that neither could clinch any temporary advantage.
Yet Keller, with a flying glance at the cliff, knew that he was being forced nearer the gulf by sheer strength of muscle. Irwin, his jaw shattered and his shoulder torn, was not fighting to win, but to kill. He cared not whether he himself also went to death. He was obsessed by the old primeval lust to crush the life out of this lusty antagonist, and his whole gigantic force was concentrated to that end. He scarce knew that he was wounded, and he cared not at all. Backward and forward though the battle went, on the whole it moved jerkily toward the chasm.
The end came with a suddenness of which Larrabie had but an instant's warning in the swift flare of joy that lit the madman's face. His foot, searching for a brace as he was borne back, found only empty space. Plunged downward, the nester clung viselike to the man above, dragged him after, and by the very fury of Irwin's assault flung him far out into the gulf head-first.
It was Phyl Sanderson's cry of horror that Healy heard. She had put her horse up the steep at a headlong gallop, had seen the whole furious struggle and the tragic end of it that witnessed two men hurled over the precipice into space. She slipped from the saddle, and sank dizzily to the ground, not daring to look over the cliff at what she would see far below. Waves of anguish shot through her and shook her very being.
A man bent over her, and gave a startled cry.
"My heaven, it's Phyl!" he cried.
"Yes." She spoke in a flat, lifeless voice he could not have recognized as hers.
"Where is he? What's become of him?" Healy demanded.
She told him with a gesture, then flung herself on the turf, and broke down helplessly. The outlaw went to the edge and looked over. The gulf of air told no story except the obvious one. No wingless living creature could make that descent without forfeiture of life. He stepped back to the girl and touched her on the shoulder.
She looked up, shuddering, and asked, "Where?"
"With you? It was you that drove him to his death, and I loved him!"
"Never mind that now. Come."
"I hate you! I should kill you when I got a chance! Why should I go with you?" she asked evenly.
He did not know why. He had no definite plan. All he knew was that his old world lay in ruins at his feet, that he must fly through the night like a hunted wolf, and that the girl he loved was beside him, forever free from the rival who lay crushed and lifeless at the foot of the cliff. He could not give her up now. He would not.
The old savage instinct of ownership rose strong in him. She was his. He had won her by the fortune of war. He would keep her against all comers so long as he had life to fight. Night was falling softly over the hills. They would go forth into it together to a new heaven and a new earth.
He lifted her to her feet and brought up her horse. She looked at him in a silence that stripped him of his dreams.
"Come!" he said again, between clenched teeth.
"Not with you. I don't know you. Leave me alone. You killed him! You're a murderer!"
He stretched hands toward her, but she shrank from him, still in the dull stupor of horror that was on her spirit.
"Go away! Don't touch me! You and your miscreants killed him!" And with that she flung herself down again, and buried her face from the sight of him.
He waited doggedly, helpless against her grief and her hatred of him, but none the less determined to take her with him. Across the border he would not be a hunted man with a price on his head. They could be married by a padre in Sonora, and perhaps some day he would make her love him and forget this man that had come between them. At all events, he would be her master and would tie her life inextricably to his. He stooped and caught her shoulder. She had fainted.
A footfall set rolling a pebble. He looked up quickly, and almost of its own volition, as it seemed, the rifle leaped to both of his hands. A man stood looking at him across the plateau of the summit. He, too, held a rifle ready for instant action.
"So it's you!" Healy cried with an oath.
"Have you killed him?"
The outlaw lied, with swift, unblazing passion: "Yes, Buck Weaver, and tossed his body to the buzzards. Your turn now!"
"Then who is that with you there?"
"The woman you love, the woman that turned you and him down for me," taunted his rival. "After I've killed you we're going off to be married."
"Only a coyote would stand behind a woman's skirts and lie. I can't kill you there, and you know it."
Healy asked nothing better than an even break. He might have killed with impunity from where he stood. Yet pantherlike, he swiftly padded six paces to the left, never lifting his eyes from his antagonist.
Buck waited, motionless. "Are you ready?"
The outlaw's weapon flashed to the level and cracked. Almost simultaneously the other answered. Weaver felt a bullet fan his cheek, but he knew that his own had crashed home.
The shock of it swung Healy half round. The man hung in silhouette against the sky line, then the body plunged to the turf at full length. Buck moved forward cautiously, fearing a trick, his eyes fastened on the other. But as he drew nearer he knew it was no ruse. The body lay supine and inert, as lifeless as the clay upon which it rested.
Once sure of this Buck turned immediately to Phyllis. A faint crackling of bushes stopped him. He waited, his eyes fixed on the edge of the precipice from which the sound had come. Next there came to him the slipping of displaced rubble. He was all eyes and ears, tense and alert in every pulse.
From out of the gulf a hand appeared and groped for a hold. Weaver stepped noiselessly to the edge and looked down. A torn and bleeding face looked up into his.
"Good heavens, Keller!"
Buck was on his knees instantly. He caught the ranger's hand with both of his and dragged him up. The rescued man sank breathless on the ground and told his story in gasped fragments.
"--caught on a ledge--hung to some bushes growing there--climbed up--lay still when Healy looked over--a near thing--makes me sick still!"
"It was a millionth chance that saved you--if it was a chance."
Weaver pointed to the body. "We fought it out. The luck was with me."
A faint, glad, terrified little cry startled them both. Phyllis was staring with dilated eyes at the man restored to her from the dead. He got up and walked across to her with outstretched hands.
"My little girl."
"Oh, Larry! I don't understand. I thought----"
He nodded. "I reckon God was good to us, sweetheart."
Her arms crept up and round his neck. "Oh, boy--boy--boy. I thought you were--I thought you were----"
She broke down, but he understood. "Well, I'm not," he laughed happily. Catching sight of Buck's grim, set face, Larrabie explained what scarce needed an explanation. "You'll have to excuse us, I reckon. It's my day for congratulations."
Phyllis freed herself and walked across to her other lover. "My friend, I know the answer now," she told him.
"I see you do."
"Don't--please don't be hurt," she begged. "I have to care for him."
The hard, leathery face softened. "I lose, girl. But who told you I was a bad loser? The best man wins. I've got no kick to register."
"Not the best man," Keller corrected, shaking hands with his rival.
Phyllis summed it up in woman fashion: "My man, whether he is the best or not. It's just that a girl goes where her heart goes."
Weaver nodded. "Good enough. Well, I'll be going. I expect you'll not miss me."
He turned and went down the hill alone. At the foot of it he met Jim Yeager.
"What about Brill?" the younger man asked quickly.
"He'll never rustle another cow," Buck answered gravely. "I killed him on the top of Point o' Rocks after an even break."
"Duke has cashed in. Game to the last. Wouldn't say a word to implicate his pals. But Tom has confessed everything. The boys slipped a noose over his head, and he came through right away.
"Says he and Duke and Irwin helped Healy rob the Noches Bank and do a lot of other deviltry. It was just like Keller figured. The automobile was waiting for the bunch with the showfer, and took them out the old Fort Lincoln Road. Dixon knows where the gold is hidden, and is going to show the boys."
"That clears up everything, then. I judge we've made a pretty thorough gather."
Jim looked up and indistinctly saw the lovers coming slowly down through the grove. Dusk had fallen and soon the cloak of night would be over the mountains.
"Who is that?"
Buck did not look round. "I reckon it's Keller and his sweetheart. She followed us here."
"I told her not to come."
"I expect she takes her telling from Mr. Keller." He changed the subject abruptly. "We'll go on down to the boys and see what's doing. They'll be some glad, I shouldn't wonder, at making a gather that cleans out the worst bunch of cutthroats and rustlers in the Malpais. Don't you reckon?"
"I reckon," answered Yeager briefly.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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