The Long Chance by Peter B. Kyne
The once prosperous mining camp of Garlock is a name and a memory now. Were it not that the railroad has been built in from San Pasqual a hundred and fifty miles up country through the Mojave, Garlock would be a memory only. But some official of the road, imbued, perhaps, with a remnant of sentimental regret for the fast-vanishing glories of the past, has caused to be erected beside the track a white sign carrying the word Garlock in black letters; otherwise one would scarcely realize that once a thriving camp stood in the sands back of this sign-board of the past. Even in the days when the stage line operated between San Pasqual and Keeler, Garlock had run its race and the Argonauts had moved on, leaving the rusty wreck of an old stamp-mill, the decayed fragments of half a dozen pine shanties and a few adobe casas with the sod roofs fallen in.
There are a few deep uncovered wells in this deserted camp, filthy with the rotting carcasses of desert animals which have crawled down these wells for life--and remained for death. But no human being resides in Garlock. It is a sad and lonely place. The hills that rise back of the ruins are scarlet with oxide of iron; in the sheen of the westering sun they loom harsh and repellent, provocative of the thought that from the very inception of Garlock their crests have been the arena of murder-- spattered with the blood of the hardy men who made the camp and then deserted it.
Therefore, one would not be surprised at anything happening in Garlock --where it would seem a wanton waste of imagination to look forward to anything happening--yet at about noon of the day that Harley P. Hennage looked over the rail fence into the feed corral at San Pasqual and discovered that Bob McGraw's horse was gone, a man on a tired horse rode up from the south, turned in through the ruined doorway of one of the roofless tumble-down adobe houses, and concealed himself and his horse in the area formed by the four crumbling walls.
He dismounted, unsaddled and rubbed down his dripping horse with handfuls of the withered grasses that grew within the ruins. Next, the man hunted through Garlock until he found an old rusty kerosene can with a wire handle fitted through it, and to this he fastened a long horsehair hitching rope and drew water from one of the filthy wells. The horse drank greedily and nickered reproachfully when the man informed him that he must cool off before being allowed to drink his fill.
For an hour the man sat on his saddle and smoked; then, after drawing several cans of water for the horse, he spread the saddle-blanket on the ground and poured thereon a feed of oats from a meager supply cached on the saddle. From the saddle-bags he produced a small can of roast beef and some dry bread, which he "washed down" with water from his canteen while the horse munched at the oats.
Late in the afternoon the man stepped to the ruined doorway and looked south. Three miles away a splotch of dust hung high in the still atmosphere; beneath it a black object was crawling steadily toward Garlock. It was the up stage from San Pasqual for Keeler, and the stranger in Garlock had evidently been awaiting its arrival, for he dodged back into the enclosure, saddled his horse, gathered up his few belongings and seemed prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice. He peered out, as the old Concord coach lurched through the sand past the bones of Garlock, and observed the express messenger nodding a little wearily, his eyes half closed in protest against the glare of earth and sky.
Suddenly the express messenger started, and looked up. He had a haunting impression that somebody was watching him--and he was not mistaken. Over the crest of an adobe wall he saw the head and shoulders of a man. Also he saw one of the man's hands. It contained a long blue- barreled automatic pistol, which was pointed at him. From behind a mask fashioned from a blue bandanna handkerchief came the expected summons:
The driver pulled up his horses and jammed down the brake. The express messenger, surprised, hesitated a moment between an impulse to obey the stern command and a desire to argue the matter with his sawed-off shotgun. The man behind the wall, instantly realizing that he must be impressive at all cost, promptly fired and lifted the pipe out of the messenger's mouth. The latter swore, and his arms went over his head in a twinkling.
"Don't do that again" he growled. "I know when a man's got the drop on me."
"I was afraid your education had been neglected" the hold-up man retorted pleasantly. "Throw out the box! No, not you. The driver will throw it out. You keep your hands up."
The express box dropped into the greasewood beside the trail with a heavy metallic thud that augured a neat profit for the man behind the wall.
"The passengers will please alight on this side of the stage, turn their pockets inside out and deposit their coin on top of the box" continued the road agent. "My friend with the spike beard and the gold eye-glasses! You dropped something on the bed of the stage. Pick it up, if you're anxious to retain a whole hide. Thank you! That pocketbook looks fat. Now, one at a time and no crowding. Omit the jewelry. I want cash."
The highwayman continued to discourse affably with his victims while the little pile of coin and bills on top of the box grew steadily. When it was evident that the job was complete he ordered the passengers back into the stage and addressed the driver.
"Drive right along now and remember that it's a sure sign of bad luck to look back. I have a rifle with me and I'm considered a very fair shot up to five hundred yards. Remember that--you with the sawed-off shotgun!"
"Good-by" replied the messenger. "See you later, I hope."
The horses sprang to the crack of the driver's whip, and the stage rolled north on its journey. When it was a quarter of a mile away the man behind the wall came out into the road and shot the padlock off the express box, transferred the fruits of his industry to his saddle-bags, mounted and rode out of Garlock across the desert valley, headed northeast for Johannesburg.
As he rode out into the open a rifle cracked and a bullet whined over him. He glanced in the direction whence the sound of the shot came and observed a man on a white horse riding rapidly toward him. The bandit suddenly remembered that the off leader on the stage team was white.
"Old man, you're as clever as you are brave" muttered the bandit admiringly. "You unhook the off leader while I'm monkeying with the box, dig up a rifle and come for me riding bareback. Well, I'm not out to kill anybody if I can help it, and my horse has had a nice rest. I'll run for it."
He did. The rifle cracked again and the bandit's wide-brimmed hat rose from his head and sailed away into the sage. He looked back at it a trifle dubiously, but he knew better than to stop to recover that hat, in the face of such close snap-shooting. That express messenger was too deadly--and too game; so the bandit merely spurred his horse, lay low on his neck and swept across the desert. When he came to a little swale between some sandhills he dipped into it, pulled up, dismounted and waited. The sun was setting behind the gory hills now, and glinted on a rifle which the bandit drew from a gun-boot which a broad sweat leather half concealed. It was better shooting-light now; distances were not quite so deceptive.
Suddenly the man on the white horse appeared on the crest of a distant sand-hill. The outlaw, leaning his rifle across his horse's back, sighted carefully and fired; the white horse went to his knees and his rider leaped clear. Instantly the pursued man vaulted into his saddle and rode furiously away. A dozen shots whipped the sage around him; one of them notched the ear of his straining mount, but in the end the bullets dropped short, the sun set, and through the gathering gloom the outlaw jogged easily up the long sandy slope toward Johannesburg. It was quite dark when he rode around the town to the north, circled through the range back of Fremont's Peak and headed out across Miller's Dry Lake, bound for Barstow.
As for the express messenger, he removed the bridle from his dead horse and trudged back to the waiting coach. On the way he back-tracked the outlaw's trail until he came to the man's hat, which he appropriated.
Donna Corblay was at the eating-house when the first down stage from Keeler came into San Pasqual with the news of the hold-up at Garlock the day before. The town was abuzz with excitement for an hour, when the news became stale. After all, stage hold-ups were not infrequent in that country, and Donna paid no particular heed to the commonplace occurrence until the return to San Pasqual two days later of the stage which had been robbed.
The express messenger told her the story when he came to the counter to pay for his rib steak and coffee. He had with him at the time a broad- brimmed gray sombrero, pinched to a peak, with a ragged hole close to the apex of the peak.
"I wanted to show you this, Miss Corblay" he said, as he exhibited this battered relic of the fray. "You do a pretty good trade in hats, and it's just possible you might have handled this sombrero in the line o' business. Ever recollect sellin' a hat to this fellow--his name's-- lemme see--his name's Robert McGraw? It's written inside the sweat- band."
He drew the band back and displayed the name in indelible pencil.
"I lifted it off'n his head with my second shot" the messenger explained. "He was goin' like a streak an' it was snap-shootin', or he'd never 'a got away from me. As it was, I sent him on his way bareheaded, and a bareheaded man is easily traced in the desert. We sent word over to Johannesburg and Randsburg, an' somebody reported seein' a bareheaded man ridin' around the town after dark. We have him headed off at Barstow, and if he can't get through there, he'll have to head up into the Virginia Dale district--and he'll last about a day up there, unless he knows the waterholes. We'll get him, sooner or later, dead or alive. Remember sellin' anybody by that name a hat? It might help if you had an' could describe him. All I could see was his eyes. He was behind a wall when he stuck us up." "No" said Donna quietly, "I--" She paused. She could not articulate another word. Had the express messenger been watching her instead of the hat, he might have noticed her agitation. Her eyes were closed in sudden, violent pain, and she leaned forward heavily against the counter.
"Don't remember him, eh? Well, perhaps he wasn't from San Pasqual. But I thought I'd ask you, anyhow, because if he was from this town it was a good chance he bought this hat from you. Much obliged, just the same," and gathering up his change the express messenger departed to make room for Harley P. Hennage, who was standing next in line to pay his meal-check.
Donna opened her eyes and sighed--a little gasping sob, and turned her quivering face to the gambler. He smiled at her, striving pathetically to do it naturally. Instead, it was a grimace, and there was the look of a thousand devils In his baleful eyes. For an instant their glances met--and there were no secrets between them now. Donna moaned in her wretchedness; she placed her arm on the cash register and bowed her head on it, while the other little trembling hand stole across the counter, seeking for his and the comfort which the strong seem able to impart ito the weak by the mere sense of touch.
"Oh, Harley, Harley" she whispered brokenly, "the light's--gone out--of the world--and I can't--cry. I--I--I can't. I can--only--suffer."
Harley P.'s great freckled hand closed over hers and held it fast, while with his other hand he touched her beautiful head with paternal tenderness.
"Donnie" he said hoarsely. She did not look up. "I'm sorry you're not feelin' well, Donnie. You're all upset about somethin', an' you ought to go home an' take a good rest. You don't--you don't look well. I noticed it last night. You looked a mite peaked."
"Yes, yes" she whispered, clutching at this straw which he held out to her, "I'm ill. I want to go home--oh, Mr. Hennage, please--take me-- home."
Mr. Hennage turned and beckoned to one of the waitresses whose duty it was, on Donna's days off, to take her place at the cash counter. As the waitress started to obey his summons, the gambler turned and spoke to Donna.
"Buck up and beat it. I can't take you home, an' neither can anybody else. You've got to make it alone. When you get to the Hat Ranch, send Sam Singer up to me. Remember, Donnie. Send Sam Singer up."
He turned again to the waitress. "You'd better take charge here" he said. "Miss Corblay's been took sick an' the pain's somethin' terrible. I've been a-tellin' her she ought to have Doc Taylor in to look at her. If I had the pain that girl's a-sufferin' right now I'd be in bed, that's what I would. I'll bet a stack o' blues she got this here potomaine poisonin'. Better run right along, Miss Donnie, before the pain gets worse, an' I'll see Doc Taylor an' tell him to bring you down some medicine or somethin'."
Donna replied in monosyllables to the excited queries of the waitress, pinned on her hat and left the eating-house as quickly as she could. She was dry-eyed, white-lipped, sunk in an abyss of misery; for there are agonies of grief and terror so profound that their very intensity dams the fount of tears, and it was thus with Donna. Harley P. accompanied her to the door of the eating-house, but he would go no further. He realized that Donna wanted to talk with him; in a vague way he gathered that she looked to him for some words of comfort in her terrible predicament. Not for worlds, however, would he be seen walking with her in public, thereby laying the foundation for "talk"; and under the circumstances he realized the danger to her, should he even be seen conversing with her from now on. She pleaded with him with her eyes, but he shook his head resolutely. He had heard the news. Inadvertently he had stumbled upon her secret, and she knew this. But she knew also that never by word or sign or deed would Harley P. Hennage indicate that he had heard it. It was like him to ascribe her agitation to illness, and as she turned her heavy footsteps toward the Hat Ranch the memory of that loving lie brought the laggard tears at last, and she wept aloud. In her agony she was conscious of a feeling of gratitude to the Almighty for His perfect workmanship in fashioning a man who was not one of the presuming kind.
It seemed to Donna that she must have wandered long in the border-lands of hell before eventually she reached the shelter of the adobe walls of the Hat Ranch. Soft Wind heard her sobbing and fumbling with the recalcitrant lock on the iron gate, and hurried toward her.
"My little one! My nestling!" she said in the Cahuilla tongue, and forthwith Donna collapsed in the old squaw's arms. It was the first time she had ever fainted.
When she recovered consciousness she found that she was lying fully dressed, on her bed, at the foot of which Soft Wind and Sam Singer were standing, gazing at her owlishly. She commenced to sob immediately, and Sam Singer pussy-footed out of the room and fled up town to lay the matter before Harley P. Hennage. For the second time there was a crisis at the Hat Ranch, and Sam yielded to his first impulse, which was to seek help where something told him help would never be withheld.
In the meantime, Harley P. Hennage had fled to the seclusion of his room in the eating-house hotel. The disclosure of the identity of the stage-robber had overwhelmed the gambler with anguish, and he wanted to be alone to think the terrible affair over calmly. In the language of his profession, the buck was clearly up to Mr. Hennage.
Twice during his eventful career the gambler had sat in poker games where an opponent had held the dead man's hand and paid the penalty. He recalled now the quick look of terror that had flitted across the face of each of these men when it came to the show-down and the pot was lost in the smoke; he endeavored to compare it with the sudden despair and suffering that came into Donna's eyes when the express messenger drew back the sweat-band of the outlaw's hat and showed her Bob McGraw's private brand of ownership.
"No," moaned Mr. Hennage, "there ain't no comparison. Them two tin- horns was frightened o' death, but poor little Donnie is plumb fearful o' life, an' there ain't a soul in the world can help her but me. She's got hers, just like her mother did, an' there ain't never goin' to be no joy in them eyes no more, unless I act, an' act lively."
He sat down on his bed and bowed his bald head in his trembling hands, for once more Harley P. Hennage was face to face with a great issue. He, too, was experiencing some of the agony of a grief that could find no outlet in tears--a three-year-old grief that could have no ending until the end should come for Harley P.
Presently he roused and looked at his watch. He was horrified to discover that he had just forty minutes left in which to arrange his affairs and leave San Pasqual.
He went to the window, parted the curtains cautiously and looked out. At the door of the post-office, a half a block down on the other side of the street, the express messenger, with the hat still in his hand, stood conversing with Miss Molly Pickett.
"You--miserable--old--mischief-maker" he muttered slowly, and with hate and emphasis in every word. "You're tellin' him to see me for information concernin' Bob McGraw, ain't you? You're tellin' him this road agent's a friend o' mine, because I called for a registered letter for him once, ain't you? An' now you're takin' him inside to show him the written order Bob McGraw give me for that registered letter, ain't you? You're quite a nice little old maid detective, ain't you, Miss Molly? You're tellin' him that I knew the man that saved Donnie Corblay, an' that he was a friend o' mine, too, because I led his roan horse up into the feed corral an' guaranteed the feed bill. An' everybody knows, or if they don't they soon will, that the initials 'R. McG.' was on that fool boy's saddle. All right, Miss Pickett! Let 'er flicker. Only them Wells Fargo detectives don't get to ask me no questions regardin' that girl's husband. Not a dog-gone question! If I stay in this town they'll subpeeny me an' make me testify under oath, an' then I'll perjure myself an' get caught at it, an' I'm too old a gambler to get caught bluffin' on no pair. No, indeed, folks, I can't afford it, so I'm just a-goin' to fold my tent like the Arab an' silently fade away."
Thus reasoned Mr. Hennage. Both by nature and professional training he was more adept in the science of deduction than most men, and while he had never seen Donna's marriage license he firmly believed that she had been married. He had looked for the publication of the license in the Bakersfield papers. Not having seen it, Mr. Hennage was not disturbed. He understood that Donna, planning to keep on at the eating-house, desired her marriage to remain a secret for the present, and Bob had doubtless arranged to have the record of the issuance of the license "buried." The fact that Friar Tuck had disappeared from the feed corral on the very night of Donna's return to San Pasqual was to Mr. Hennage prima facie evidence that Bob McGraw had returned with her. Donna had gone to the Hat Ranch while Bob had saddled and ridden north. At least, since he had come from the north, Mr. Hennage deduced that to the north he would return. Garlock lay a hard thirty-five miles from San Pasqual, and it seemed reasonable to presume that Bob had stopped there for water, rested until the stage came along and then robbed it.
However, there was one weak link in this apparently powerful chain of evidence. The stage driver and the express messenger both reported the bandit to be mounted on a bay mustang. At close quarters the horse had been, concealed behind the wall with the upper half of his face showing. Well, Bob McGraw's horse was a light roan--a very light roan, with almost bay ears and head, and at a distance, and in certain lights and in the excitement of the hold-up, he might very easily have been mistaken for a bay. Many a bay horse, when covered with alkali dust and dried sweat, has been mistaken for a roan.
In addition there was the evidence of the automatic pistol! Few men in that country carried automatics, for an automatic was a weapon too new in those days to be popular, and the residents of the Mojave still clung to tradition and a Colt's.45. The bandit had shown himself peculiarly expert in the use of his weapon, having shot the pipe out of the messenger's mouth, merely to impress that unimpressionable functionary. It would have been like Bob McGraw, who carried an automatic and was a dead shot, to show off a little!
However, an alibi might very easily discount all this circumstantial evidence, were it not for the fact that there could be no alibi for Bob McGraw, for beyond doubt he must have been in the neighborhood of Garlock that very day. Then there was the hat, with his name in it; also the report that one of the passengers who knew him had recognized the bandit as Bob McGraw.
"Alibi or no alibi, he'll get twenty years in San Quentin on that evidence" mourned Harley P. "Oh, Bob, you infernal young rip, if you was as hard up as all that, why didn't you come to me? Why didn't you trust old Harley P. Hennage with your worries! I'd 'a seen you through. But you wouldn't trust me--just went to work an' married that good girl, an' then pulled off a job o' road work to support her. Oh, Bob, you dog, you've broke her heart an' she'll go like her mother went."
He clenched his big fists and punched the air viciously, in unconscious exemplification of the chastisement he would mete to Bob McGraw when he met him again.
"It ain't often I make a mistake judgin' a man" he muttered piteously, "but I've sure been taken in on this feller. I thought he'd stand the acid--by God! I thought he'd stand it. An' at that there's heaps o' good in the boy! He must 'a been just desperate for money, an' the notion to rob the stage come on him all in a heap an' downed him before he knew. Great Grief! That misfortunate girl! He'll never come back, an' if they trace him to her she'll die o' shame. Whiskered bob- cats, I never thought o' that. She'll have to get out too!"
The gambler had a sudden thought. Donna could do two things. She could leave San Pasqual, or she could stand pat! If she said nothing, not a soul could befoul her by linking her name to that of a stage-robber, She must stand pat! There was but one channel through which the news that Bob McGraw had been harbored at the Hat Ranch could possibly filter. People might think what they pleased, but they could never prove, provided Doc Taylor remained discreet. Therefore it behooved Mr. Hennage to see Doc Taylor immediately. That possible leak must be plugged at once.
Three minutes later the gambler strolled into the drugstore.
"How" he saluted.
"Nothing much. What do you think about that hold-up at Garlock?"
"Pretty bold piece o' work, Doc. Do they know who did it?"
"Fellow named McGraw. And as near as I can make out, Hennage, it's the same fellow I attended that time down at the Hat Ranch."
"It is" Mr. Hennage agreed quietly. "At least, I believe it is. That's what I called to see you about, Doc. Have you said anything to anybody?"
"No--not yet. I wasn't quite certain, and I figured on talking it over with you before I gave Wells Fargo & Company the quiet tip to watch the Hat Ranch for their man."
"Good enough! But they'll be around asking you questions, Doc. Don't worry about that. They won't wait for you to come to them. Ah' when they come to you, Doc, you don't know nothin'. Comprende?"
"But McGraw robbed the stage--"
"He didn't kill nobody, Doc. He wasn't blood-thirsty. He shot the horse when he might have shot the messenger. Now, let's be sensible, Doc. Sometimes a feller can accomplish more in this world by keepin' his mouth shut than he can by tellin' every durned thing he knows. Now, as near as I can learn, this outlaw gets away with about four thousand dollars. If the passengers an' the express company get their money back, they'll be glad to let it go at that, an' I'll buy 'em a new padlock for the express box. This is the young feller's first job, Doc --I'm certain o' that. He ain't bad--an' besides, I've got a special interest in him. Now, listen here, Doc; I've got a pretty good idea where he's gone to hole up until the noise dies down, an' I'm goin' after him myself. I'll make him give up the swag an' send it back; then I'll get him out of the country an' let him start life all over again somewhere else. He's a young feller, Doc, an' it ain't right to kick him when he's down. He oughter be lifted up an' given a chance to make good."
Doc Taylor shook his head dubiously. He realized that Harley P.'s plan was best, and in his innermost soul he commended it as a proper Christian course. But he also remembered to have heard somewhere that godless men like Harley P. Hennage and the outlaw McGraw had a habit of being friendly and faithful to each other in just such emergencies--a sort of "honor among thieves" arrangement, and despite Mr. Hennage's kindly words, Doc Taylor doubted their sincerity. In fact, the whole thing was irregular, for even after the return of the stolen money the bandit would still owe a debt to society--and moreover, the worthy doctor was the joint possessor, with Harley P. Hennage, of an astounding secret, the disclosure of which would make him the hero of San Pasqual for a day at least.
"I can't agree to that, Hennage" he began soberly.
"It doesn't look right to me to let a stage-robber go scot-free--"
"Well, I tell you, Doc," drawled Mr. Hennage serenely, "it'd better look right to you, an' damned quick at that. You seem to think I'm here a-askin' a favor o' you. Not much. I never ask favors o' no man. I'm just as independent as a hog on ice; if I don't stand up I can set down. I run a square game myself an' I want a square game from the other fellow. Now, Doc, you just so much as say 'Boo' about this thing, an' by the Nine Gods o' War I'll kill you. D'ye understand, Doc? I'll kill you like I would a tarantula. An' when they come to ask you the name o' the man you 'tended at the Hat Ranch you tell 'em his name is-- lemme see, now--yes, his name is Roland McGuire. That's a nice name, an' it corresponds to the initials on the saddle."
Doc Taylor looked into the gambler's hard face, which was thrust close to his. The mouth of the worst man in San Pasqual was drawn back in a half snarl that was almost coyote-like; his small deep-set eyes bespoke only too truly the firmness of purpose that lay behind their blazing menace. For fully thirty seconds those terrible eyes flamed, unblinking, on Doc Taylor; then Mr. Hennage spoke.
"Now, what is his name goin' to be, Doc?"
"Roland McGuire" said Doc Taylor, and swallowed his Adam's apple twice.
"Bright boy. Go to the head o' the class an' don't forget to remember to stick there."