Chapter Seventeen: Guardian Angels are Riding Point
 

They plunged into darkness again, rode at a half trot over smooth, hard sand, Bud trusting himself wholly to Marian and to the sagacity of the two horses who could see, he hoped, much better than he himself could. His keen hearing had caught a faint sound from behind them--far back in the crevice-like gorge they had just quitted, he believed. For Marian's sake he stared anxiously ahead, eager for the first faint suggestion of starlight before them. It came, and he breathed freer and felt of his gun in its holster, pulling it forward an inch or two.

"This way, Bud," Marian murmured, and swung Boise to the left, against the mountain under and through which they seemed to have passed. She led him into another small gorge whose extent he could not see, and stopped him with a hand pressed against Sunfish's shoulder.

"We'd better get down and hold our horses quiet," she cautioned. "Boise may try to whinny, and he mustn't."

They stood side by side at their horses' heads, holding the animals close. For a time there were no sounds at all save the breathing of the horses and once a repressed sigh from Marian. Bud remembered suddenly how tired she must be. At six o'clock that morning she had fed twelve men a substantial breakfast. At noon there had been dinner for several more than twelve, and supper again at six--and here she was, risking her life when she should be in bed. He felt for her free hand, found it hanging listlessly by her side and took it in his own and held it there, just as one holds the hand of a timid child. Yet Marian was not timid.

A subdued mutter of voices, the click of hoofs striking against stone, and the pursuers passed within thirty feet of them. Boise had lifted his head to nicker a salute, but Marian's jerk on the reins stopped him. They stood very still, not daring so much as a whisper until the sounds had receded and silence came again.

"They took the side-hill trail," whispered Marian, pushing Boise backward to turn him in the narrow defile. "You'll have to get down the hill into the creek-bed and follow that until you come to the stage road. There may be others coming that way, but they will be two or three miles behind you. This tunnel trail cuts off at least five miles but we had to go slower, you see.

"Right here you can lead Sunfish down the bluff to the creek. It's all dry, and around the first bend you will see where the road crosses. Turn to the left on that and ride! This horse of yours will have to show the stuff that's in him. Get to Crater ahead of these men that took the hill trail. They'll not ride fast--they never dreamed you had come through here, but they came to cut off the distance and to head you off. With others behind, you must beat them all in or you'll be trapped between."

She had left Boise tied hastily to a bush and was walking ahead of Bud down the steep, rocky hillside to show him the easiest way amongst the boulders Halfway down, Bud caught her shoulder and stopped her.

"I'm not a kid," he said firmly. "I can make it from here alone. Not another step, young lady. If you can get back home You'll be doing enough. Take this--it's money, but I don't know how much. And watch your chance and go down to mother with that message. Birnie, of the Tomahawk outfit--you'll find out in Laramie where to go. And tell mother I'm all right, and she'll see me some day--when I've made my stake. God bless you, little woman. You're the truest, sweetest little woman in the world. There's just one more like you-- that's mother. Now go back--and for God's sake he careful!"

He pressed money into her two hands, held them tightly together, kissed them both hurriedly and plunged down the hill with Sunfish slipping and sliding after him. For her safety, if not for his own, he meant to get away from there as quickly as possible.

In the creek bed he mounted and rode away at a sharp gallop, glad that Sunfish, thoroughbred though he was, had not been raised tenderly in stall and corral, but had run free with the range horses and had learned to keep his feet under him in rough country or smooth. When he reached the crossing of the stage road he turned to the left as Marian had commanded and put Sunfish to a pace that slid the miles behind him.

With his thoughts clinging to Marian, to the harshness which life had shown her who was all goodness and sweetness and courage, Bud forgot to keep careful watch behind him, or to look for the place where the hill trail joined the road, as it probably did some distance from Crater. It would be a blind trail, of course--since only the Catrock gang and Marian knew of it.

They came into the road not far behind him, out of rock- strewn, brushy wilderness that sloped up steeply to the rugged sides of Gold Gap mountains. Sunfish discovered them first, and gave Bud warning just before they identified him and began to shoot.

Bud laid himself along the shoulder of his horse with a handful of mane to steady him while he watched his chance and fired back at them. There were four, just the number he had guessed from the sounds as they came out of the tunnel. A horse ran staggering toward him with the others, faltered and fell. Bud was sorry for that. It had been no part of his plan to shoot down the horses.

The three came on, leaving the fourth to his own devices--and that, too, was quite in keeping with the type of human vultures they were. They kept firing at Bud, and once he felt Sunfish wince and leap forward as if a spur had raked him. Bud shot again, and thought he saw one horseman lurch backward. But he could not be sure--they were going at a terrific pace now, and Sunfish was leaving them farther and farther behind. They were outclassed, hopelessly out of pistol range, and they must have known it, for although they held to the chase they fired no more shots.

Then a dog barked, and Bud knew that he was passing a ranch. He could smell the fresh hay in the stacks, and a moment later he descried the black hulk of ranch buildings. Sunfish was running easily, his breath unlabored. Bud stood in the stirrups and looked back. They were still coming, for he could hear the pound of hoofs.

The ranch was behind him. Clear starlight was all around, and the bulk of near mountains. The road seemed sandy, yielding beneath the pound of Sunfish's hoofs. Bud leaned forward again in the saddle, and planned what he would do when he reached Crater; found time, also, to hope that Marian had gone back, and had not heard the shooting.

Another dog barked, this time on the right. Bud saw that they were passing a picket fence. The barking of this dog started another farther ahead and to the left. Houses so close together could only mean that he was approaching Crater. Bud began to pull Sunfish down to a more conventional pace. He did not particularly want to see heads thrust from windows, and questions shouted to him. The Catrock gang might have friends up this way. It would be strange, Bud thought, if they hadn't.

He loped along the road grown broader now and smoother. Many houses he passed, and the mouths of obscure lanes. Dogs ran out at him. Bud slowed to a walk and turned in the saddle, listening. Away back, where he had first met the signs of civilization, the dog he had aroused was barking again, his deep baying blurred by the distance. Bud grinned to himself and rode on at a walk, speaking now and then to an inquiring dog and calling him Purp in a tone that soothed.

Crater, he discovered in a cursory patrol of the place, was no more than an overgrown village. The court-house and jail stood on the main street, and just beyond was the bank. Bud rode here and there, examining closely the fronts of various buildings before he concluded that there was only the one bank in Crater. When he was quite sure of that he chose place near by the rear of the bank, where one horse and a cow occupied a comfortable corral together with hay. He unsaddled Sunfish and turned him there, himself returning to the bank before those other night-riders had more than reached the first straggling suburbs of the town.

On the porch of the court-house, behind a jutting corner pillar that seemed especially designed for the concealment of a man in Bud's situation, he rolled cigarette which he meant to smoke later on when the way was clear, and waited for the horsemen to appear.

Presently they came, rode to a point opposite the court-house and bank with no more than a careless glance that way, and halted in front of an uninviting hotel across the street. Two remained on their horses while the third pounded on the door and shook it by the knob and finally raised the landlord from his sleep. There was a conference which Bud witnessed with much interest. A lamp had been lighted in the bare office, and against the yellow glow Bud distinctly saw the landlord nod his head twice--which plainly betokened some sort of understanding.

He was glad that he had not stopped at the hotel. He felt much more comfortable on the court-house porch. "Mother's guardian angels must be riding 'point' to-night," he mused.

The horsemen rode back to a livery stable which Bud had observed but had not entered. There they also sought for news of him, it would appear. You will recall, however, that Bud had ridden slowly into the business district of Crater, and his passing had been unmarked except by the barking of dogs that spent their nights in yammering at every sound and so were never taken seriously. The three horsemen were plainly nonplussed and conferred together in low tones before they rode on. It was evident that they meant to find Bud if they could. What they meant to do with him Bud did not attempt to conjecture. He did not intend to be found.

After a while the horsemen rode back to the hotel, got the landlord out with less difficulty than before and had another talk with him.

"He stole a horse from Dave Truman," Bud heard one of the three say distinctly. "That there running horse Dave had."

The landlord tucked in his shirt and exclaimed at the news, and Bud heard him mention the sheriff. But nothing came of that evidently. They talked further and reined their horses to ride back whence they came.

"He likely's give us the slip outside of town, some place," one man concluded. "We'll ride back and see. If he shows up, he'll likely want to eat. . . And send Dick out to the Stivers place. We'll come a-running." He had lowered his voice so that Bud could not hear what was to happen before the landlord sent Dick, but he decided he would not pry into the matter and try to fill that gap in the conversation.

He sat where he was until the three had ridden back down the sandy road which served as a street. Then he slipped behind the court-house and smoked his cigarette, and went and borrowed hay from the cow and the horse in the corral and made himself some sort of bed with his saddle blanket to help out, and slept until morning.