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The girl refused to take food proffered her by Riggs, but she ate and drank a little that Wilson brought her, then she disappeared in the spruce lean-to.
Whatever loquacity and companionship had previously existed in Snake Anson's gang were not manifest in this camp. Each man seemed preoccupied, as if pondering the dawn in his mind of an ill omen not clear to him yet and not yet dreamed of by his fellows. They all smoked. Then Moze and Shady played cards awhile by the light of the fire, but it was a dull game, in which either seldom spoke. Riggs sought his blanket first, and the fact was significant that he lay down some distance from the spruce shelter which contained Bo Rayner. Presently young Burt went off grumbling to his bed. And not long afterward the card-players did likewise.
Snake Anson and Jim Wilson were left brooding in silence beside the dying camp-fire.
The night was dark, with only a few stars showing. A fitful wind moaned unearthly through the spruce. An occasional thump of hoof sounded from the dark woods. No cry of wolf or coyote or cat gave reality to the wildness of forest-land.
By and by those men who had rolled in their blankets were breathing deep and slow in heavy slumber.
"Jim, I take it this hyar Riggs has queered our deal," said Snake Anson, in low voice.
"I reckon," replied Wilson.
"An' I'm feared he's queered this hyar White Mountain country fer us."
"Shore I 'ain't got so far as thet. What d' ye mean, Snake?"
"Damme if I savvy," was the gloomy reply. "I only know what was bad looks growin' wuss. Last fall -- an' winter -- an' now it's near April. We've got no outfit to make a long stand in the woods. . . . Jim, jest how strong is thet Beasley down in the settlements?"
"I've a hunch he ain't half as strong as he bluffs."
"Me, too. I got thet idee yesterday. He was scared of the kid -- when she fired up an' sent thet hot-shot about her cowboy sweetheart killin' him. He'll do it, Jim. I seen that Carmichael at Magdalena some years ago. Then he was only a youngster. But, whew! Mebbe he wasn't bad after toyin' with a little red liquor."
"Shore. He was from Texas, she said."
"Jim, I savvied your feelin's was hurt -- by thet talk about Texas -- an' when she up an' asked you."
Wilson had no rejoinder for this remark.
"Wal, Lord knows, I ain't wonderin'. You wasn't a hunted outlaw all your life. An' neither was I. . . . Wilson, I never was keen on this girl deal -- now, was I?"
"I reckon it's honest to say no to thet," replied Wilson. But it's done. Beasley 'll get plugged sooner or later. Thet won't help us any. Chasin' sheep-herders out of the country an' stealin' sheep -- thet ain't stealin' gurls by a long sight. Beasley 'll blame that on us, an' be greaser enough to send some of his men out to hunt us. For Pine an' Show Down won't stand thet long. There's them Mormons. They'll be hell when they wake up. Suppose Carmichael got thet hunter Dale an' them hawk-eyed Beemans on our trail?"
"Wal, we'd cash in -- quick," replied Anson, gruffly.
"Then why didn't you let me take the gurl back home?"
"Wal, come to think of thet, Jim, I'm sore, an' I need money -- an' I knowed you'd never take a dollar from her sister. An' I've made up my mind to git somethin' out of her."
"Snake, you're no fool. How 'll you do thet same an' do it quick?"
"'Ain't reckoned it out yet."
"Wal, you got aboot to-morrer an' thet's all," returned Wilson, gloomily.
"Jim, what's ailin' you?"
"I'll let you figger thet out."
"Wal, somethin' ails the whole gang," declared Anson, savagely. "With them it's nothin' to eat -- no whisky -- no money to bet with -- no tobacco!. . . But thet's not what's ailin' you, Jim Wilson, nor me!"
"Wal, what is, then?" queried Wilson.
"With me it's a strange feelin' thet my day's over on these ranges. I can't explain, but it jest feels so. Somethin' in the air. I don't like them dark shadows out there under the spruces. Savvy? . . . An' as fer you, Jim -- wal, you allus was half decent, an' my gang's got too lowdown fer you."
"Snake, did I ever fail you?"
"No, you never did. You're the best pard I ever knowed. In the years we've rustled together we never had a contrary word till I let Beasley fill my ears with his promises. Thet's my fault. But, Jim, it's too late."
"It mightn't have been too late yesterday."
"Mebbe not. But it is now, an' I'll hang on to the girl or git her worth in gold," declared the outlaw, grimly.
"Snake, I've seen stronger gangs than yours come an' go. Them Big Bend gangs in my country -- them rustlers -- they were all bad men. You have no likes of them gangs out heah. If they didn't get wiped out by Rangers or cowboys, why they jest naturally wiped out themselves. Thet's a law I recognize in relation to gangs like them. An' as for yours -- why, Anson, it wouldn't hold water against one real gun-slinger."
"A-huh' Then if we ran up ag'in' Carmichael or some such fellar -- would you be suckin' your finger like a baby?"
"Wal, I wasn't takin' count of myself. I was takin' generalities."
"Aw, what 'n hell are them?" asked Anson, disgustedly. Jim, I know as well as you thet this hyar gang is hard put. We're goin' to be trailed an' chased. We've got to hide -- be on the go all the time -- here an' there -- all over, in the roughest woods. An' wait our chance to work south."
"Shore. But, Snake, you ain't takin' no count of the feelin's of the men -- an' of mine an' yours. . . . I'll bet you my hoss thet in a day or so this gang will go to pieces."
"I'm feared you spoke what's been crowdin' to git in my mind," replied Anson. Then he threw up his hands in a strange gesture of resignation. The outlaw was brave, but all men of the wilds recognized a force stronger than themselves. He sat there resembling a brooding snake with basilisk eyes upon the fire. At length he arose, and without another word to his comrade he walked wearily to where lay the dark, quiet forms of the sleepers.
Jim Wilson remained beside the flickering fire. He was reading something in the red embers, perhaps the past. Shadows were on his face, not all from the fading flames or the towering spruces. Ever and anon he raised his head to listen, not apparently that he expected any unusual sound, but as if involuntarily. Indeed, as Anson had said, there was something nameless in the air. The black forest breathed heavily, in fitful moans of wind. It had its secrets. The glances Wilson threw on all sides betrayed that any hunted man did not love the dark night, though it hid him. Wilson seemed fascinated by the life inclosed there by the black circle of spruce. He might have been reflecting on the strange reaction happening to every man in that group, since a girl had been brought among them. Nothing was clear, however; the forest kept its secret, as did the melancholy wind; the outlaws were sleeping like tired beasts, with their dark secrets locked in their hearts.
After a while Wilson put some sticks on the red embers, then pulled the end of a log over them. A blaze sputtered up, changing the dark circle and showing the sleepers with their set, shadowed faces upturned. Wilson gazed on all of them, a sardonic smile on his lips, and then his look fixed upon the sleeper apart from the others -- Riggs. It might have been the false light of flame and shadow that created Wilson's expression of dark and terrible hate. Or it might have been the truth, expressed in that lonely, unguarded hour, from the depths of a man born in the South -- a man who by his inheritance of race had reverence for all womanhood -- by whose strange, wild, outlawed bloody life of a gun-fighter he must hate with the deadliest hate this type that aped and mocked his fame.
It was a long gaze Wilson rested upon Riggs -- as strange and secretive as the forest wind moaning down the great aisles -- and when that dark gaze was withdrawn Wilson stalked away to make his bed with the stride of one ill whom spirit had liberated force.
He laid his saddle in front of the spruce shelter where the girl had entered, and his tarpaulin and blankets likewise and then wearily stretched his long length to rest.
The camp-fire blazed up, showing the exquisite green. and brown-flecked festooning of the spruce branches, symmetrical and perfect, yet so irregular, and then it burned out and died down, leaving all in the dim gray starlight. The horses were not moving around; the moan of night wind had grown fainter; the low hum of insects, was dying away; even the tinkle of the brook had diminished. And that growth toward absolute silence continued, yet absolute silence was never attained. Life abided in the forest; only it had changed its form for the dark hours.
Anson's gang did not bestir themselves at the usual early sunrise hour common to all woodsmen, hunters, or outlaws, to whom the break of day was welcome. These companions -- Anson and Riggs included -- might have hated to see the dawn come. It meant only another meager meal, then the weary packing and the long, long ride to nowhere in particular, and another meager meal -- all toiled for without even the necessities of satisfactory living, and assuredly without the thrilling hopes that made their life significant, and certainly with a growing sense of approaching calamity.
The outlaw leader rose surly and cross-grained. He had to boot Burt to drive him out for the horses. Riggs followed him. Shady Jones did nothing except grumble. Wilson, by common consent, always made the sour-dough bread, and he was slow about it this morning. Anson and Moze did the rest of the work, without alacrity. The girl did not appear.
"Is she dead?" growled Anson.
"No, she ain't," replied Wilson, looking up. "She's sleepin'. Let her sleep. She'd shore be a sight better off if she was daid."
"A-huh! So would all of this hyar outfit," was Anson's response.
"Wal, Sna-ake, I shore reckon we'll all be thet there soon," drawled Wilson, in his familiar cool and irritating tone that said so much more than the content of the words.
Anson did not address the Texas member of his party again.
Burt rode bareback into camp, driving half the number of the horses; Riggs followed shortly with several more. But three were missed, one of them being Anson's favorite. He would not have budged without that horse. During breakfast he growled about his lazy men, and after the meal tried to urge them off. Riggs went unwillingly. Burt refused to go at all.
"Nix. I footed them hills all I'm a-goin' to," he said. "An' from now on I rustle my own hoss."
The leader glared his reception of this opposition. Perhaps his sense of fairness actuated him once more, for he ordered Shady and Moze out to do their share.
"Jim, you're the best tracker in this outfit. Suppose you go," suggested Anson. "You allus used to be the first one off."
"Times has changed, Snake," was the imperturbable reply.
"Wal, won't you go?" demanded the leader, impatiently.
"I shore won't."
Wilson did not look or intimate in any way that he would not leave the girl in camp with one or any or all of Anson's gang, but the truth was as significant as if he had shouted it. The slow-thinking Moze gave Wilson a sinister look.
"Boss, ain't it funny how a pretty wench --?" began Shady Jones, sarcastically.
"Shut up, you fool!" broke in Anson. "Come on, I'll help rustle them hosses."
After they had gone Burt took his rifle and strolled off into the forest. Then the girl appeared. Her hair was down, her face pale, with dark shadows. She asked for water to wash her face. Wilson pointed to the brook, and as she walked slowly toward it he took a comb and a clean scarf from his pack and carried them to her.
Upon her return to the camp-fire she looked very different with her hair arranged and the red stains in her cheeks.
"Miss, air you hungry?" asked Wilson.
"Yes, I am," she replied.
He helped her to portions of bread, venison and gravy, and a cup of coffee. Evidently she relished the meat, but she had to force down the rest.
"Where are they all?" she asked.
"Rustlin' the hosses."
Probably she divined that he did not want to talk, for the fleeting glance she gave him attested to a thought that his voice or demeanor had changed. Presently she sought a seat under the aspen-tree, out of the sun, and the smoke continually blowing in her face; and there she stayed, a forlorn little figure, for all the resolute lips and defiant eyes.
The Texan paced to and fro beside the camp-fire with bent head, and hands locked behind him. But for the swinging gun he would have resembled a lanky farmer, coatless and hatless, with his brown vest open, his trousers stuck in the top of the high boots.
And neither he nor the girl changed their positions relatively for a long time. At length, however, after peering into the woods, and listening, he remarked to the girl that he would be back in a moment, and then walked off around the spruces.
No sooner had he disappeared -- in fact, so quickly after-ward that it presupposed design instead of accident -- than Riggs came running from the opposite side of the glade. He ran straight to the girl, who sprang to her feet.
"I hid -- two of the -- horses," he panted, husky with excitement. "I'll take -- two saddles. You grab some grub. We'll run for it."
"No," she cried, stepping back.
"But it's not safe -- for us -- here," he said, hurriedly, glancing all around. "I'll take you -- home. I swear. . . . Not safe -- I tell you -- this gang's after me. Hurry!"
He laid hold of two saddles, one with each hand. The moment had reddened his face, brightened his eyes, made his action strong.
"I'm safer -- here with this outlaw gang," she replied.
"You won't come!" His color began to lighten then, and his face to distort. He dropped his hold on the saddles.
"Harve Riggs, I'd rather become a toy and a rag for these ruffians than spend an hour alone with you," she flashed at him, in unquenchable hate.
"I'll drag you!"
He seized her, but could not hold her. Breaking away, she screamed.
That whitened his face, drove him to frenzy. Leaping forward, he struck her a hard blow across the mouth. It staggered her, and, tripping on a saddle, she fell. His hands flew to her throat, ready to choke her. But she lay still and held her tongue. Then he dragged her to her feet.
"Hurry now -- grab that pack -- an' follow me." Again Riggs laid hold of the two saddles. A desperate gleam, baleful and vainglorious, flashed over his face. He was living his one great adventure.
The girl's eyes dilated. They looked beyond him. Her lips opened.
"Scream again an' I'll kill you!" he cried, hoarsely and swiftly. The very opening of her lips had terrified Riggs.
"Reckon one scream was enough," spoke a voice, slow, but without the drawl, easy and cool, yet incalculable in some terrible sense.
Riggs wheeled with inarticulate cry. Wilson stood a few paces off, with his gun half leveled, low down. His face seemed as usual, only his eyes held a quivering, light intensity, like boiling molten silver.
"Girl, what made thet blood on your mouth?"
"Riggs hit me!" she whispered. Then at something she feared or saw or divined she shrank back, dropped on her knees, and crawled into the spruce shelter.
"Wal, Riggs, I'd invite you to draw if thet 'd be any use," said Wilson. This speech was reflective, yet it hurried a little.
Riggs could not draw nor move nor speak. He seemed turned to stone, except his jaw, which slowly fell.
"Harve Riggs, gunman from down Missouri way," continued the voice of incalculable intent, "reckon you've looked into a heap of gun-barrels in your day. Shore! Wal, look in this heah one!"
Wilson deliberately leveled the gun on a line with Riggs's starting eyes.
"Wasn't you heard to brag in Turner's saloon -- thet you could see lead comin' -- an' dodge it? Shore you must be swift! . . . Dodge this heah bullet!"
The gun spouted flame and boomed. One of Riggs's starting, popping eyes -- the right one -- went out, like a lamp. The other rolled horribly, then set in blank dead fixedness. Riggs swayed in slow motion until a lost balance felled him heavily, an inert mass.
Wilson bent over the prostrate form. Strange, violent contrast to the cool scorn of the preceding moment! Hissing, spitting, as if poisoned by passion, he burst with the hate that his character had forbidden him to express on a living counterfeit. Wilson was shaken, as if by a palsy. He choked over passionate, incoherent invective. It was class hate first, then the hate of real manhood for a craven, then the hate of disgrace for a murder. No man so fair as a gun-fighter in the Western creed of an "even break"!
Wilson's terrible cataclysm of passion passed. Straightening up, he sheathed his weapon and began a slow pace before the fire. Not many moments afterward he jerked his head high and listened. Horses were softly thudding through the forest. Soon Anson rode into sight with his men and one of the strayed horses. It chanced, too, that young Burt appeared on the other side of the glade. He walked quickly, as one who anticipated news.
Snake Anson as he dismounted espied the dead man.
"Jim -- I thought I heard a shot."
The others exclaimed and leaped off their horses to view the prostrate form with that curiosity and strange fear common to all men confronted by sight of sudden death.
That emotion was only momentary.
"Shot his lamp out!" ejaculated Moze.
"Wonder how Gunman Riggs liked thet plumb center peg!" exclaimed Shady Jones, with a hard laugh.
"Back of his head all gone!" gasped young Burt. Not improbably he had not seen a great many bullet-marked men.
"Jim! -- the long-haired fool didn't try to draw on you!" exclaimed Snake Anson, astounded.
Wilson neither spoke nor ceased his pacing.
"What was it over?" added Anson, curiously.
"He hit the gurl," replied Wilson.
Then there were long-drawn exclamations all around, and glance met glance.
"Jim, you saved me the job," continued the outlaw leader. "An' I'm much obliged. . . . Fellars, search Riggs an' we'll divvy. . . . Thet all right, Jim?"
"Shore, an' you can have my share."
They found bank-notes in the man's pocket and considerable gold worn in a money-belt around his waist. Shady Jones appropriated his boots, and Moze his gun. Then they left him as he had fallen.
"Jim, you'll have to track them lost hosses. Two still missin' an' one of them's mine," called Anson as Wilson paced to the end of his beat.
The girl heard Anson, for she put her head out of the spruce shelter and called: "Riggs said he'd hid two of the horses. They must be close. He came that way."
"Howdy, kid! Thet's good news," replied Anson. His spirits were rising. "He must hev wanted you to slope with him?"
"Yes. I wouldn't go."
"An' then he hit you?"
"Wal, recallin' your talk of yestiddy, I can't see as Mister Riggs lasted much longer hyar than he'd hev lasted in Texas. We've some of thet great country right in our outfit."
The girl withdrew her white face.
"It's break camp, boys," was the leader's order. "A couple of you look up them hosses. They'll be hid in some thick spruces. The rest of us 'll pack."
Soon the gang was on the move, heading toward the height of land, and swerving from it only to find soft and grassy ground that would not leave any tracks.
They did not travel more than a dozen miles during the afternoon, but they climbed bench after bench until they reached the timbered plateau that stretched in sheer black slope up to the peaks. Here rose the great and gloomy forest of firs and pines, with the spruce overshadowed and thinned out. The last hour of travel was tedious and toilsome, a zigzag, winding, breaking, climbing hunt for the kind of camp-site suited to Anson's fancy. He seemed to be growing strangely irrational about selecting places to camp. At last, for no reason that could have been manifest to a good woodsman, he chose a gloomy bowl in the center of the densest forest that had been traversed. The opening, if such it could have been called, was not a park or even a glade. A dark cliff, with strange holes, rose to one side, but not so high as the lofty pines that brushed it. Along its base babbled a brook, running over such formation of rock that from different points near at hand it gave forth different sounds, some singing, others melodious, and one at least of a hollow, weird, deep sound, not loud, but strangely penetrating.
"Sure spooky I say," observed Shady, sentiently.
The little uplift of mood, coincident with the rifling of Riggs's person, had not worn over to this evening camp. What talk the outlaws indulged in was necessary and conducted in low tones. The place enjoined silence.
Wilson performed for the girl very much the same service as he had the night before. Only he advised her not to starve herself; she must eat to keep up her strength. She complied at the expense of considerable effort.
As it had been a back-breaking day, in which all of them, except the girl, had climbed miles on foot, they did not linger awake long enough after supper to learn what a wild, weird, and pitch-black spot the outlaw leader had chosen. The little spaces of open ground between the huge-trunked pine-trees had no counterpart up in the lofty spreading foliage. Not a star could blink a wan ray of light into that Stygian pit. The wind, cutting down over abrupt heights farther up, sang in the pine-needles as if they were strings vibrant with chords. Dismal creaks were audible. They were the forest sounds of branch or tree rubbing one another, but which needed the corrective medium of daylight to convince any human that they were other than ghostly. Then, despite the wind and despite the changing murmur of the brook, there seemed to be a silence insulating them, as deep and impenetrable as the darkness.
But the outlaws, who were fugitives now, slept the sleep of the weary, and heard nothing. They awoke with the sun, when the forest seemed smoky in a golden gloom, when light and bird and squirrel proclaimed the day.
The horses had not strayed out of this basin during the night, a circumstance that Anson was not slow to appreciate.
"It ain't no cheerful camp, but I never seen a safer place to hole up in," he remarked to Wilson.
"Wal, yes -- if any place is safe," replied that ally, dubiously.
"We can watch our back tracks. There ain't any other way to git in hyar thet I see."
"Snake, we was tolerable fair sheep-rustlers, but we're no good woodsmen."
Anson grumbled his disdain of this comrade who had once been his mainstay. Then he sent Burt out to hunt fresh meat and engaged his other men at cards. As they now had the means to gamble, they at once became absorbed. Wilson smoked and divided his thoughtful gaze between the gamblers and the drooping figure of the girl. The morning air was keen, and she, evidently not caring to be near her captors beside the camp-fire, had sought the only sunny spot in this gloomy dell. A couple of hours passed; the sun climbed high; the air grew warmer. Once the outlaw leader raised his head to scan the heavy-timbered slopes that inclosed the camp.
"Jim, them hosses are strayin' off ," he observed.
Wilson leisurely rose and stalked off across the small, open patches, in the direction of the horses. They had grazed around from the right toward the outlet of the brook. Here headed a ravine, dense and green. Two of the horses had gone down. Wilson evidently heard them, though they were not in sight, and he circled somewhat so as to get ahead of them and drive them back. The invisible brook ran down over the rocks with murmur and babble. He halted with instinctive action. He listened. Forest sounds, soft, lulling, came on the warm, pine-scented breeze. It would have taken no keen ear to hear soft and rapid padded footfalls. He moved on cautiously and turned into a little open, mossy spot, brown-matted and odorous, full of ferns and bluebells. In the middle of this, deep in the moss, he espied a huge round track of a cougar. He bent over it. Suddenly he stiffened, then straightened guardedly. At that instant he received a hard prod in the back. Throwing up his hands, he stood still, then slowly turned. A tall hunter in gray buckskin, gray-eyed and square-jawed, had him covered with a cocked rifle. And beside this hunter stood a monster cougar, snarling and blinking.
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