The Mysterious Rider by Zane Grey
Gore Peak was the highest point of the black range that extended for miles westward from Buffalo Park. It was a rounded dome, covered with timber and visible as a landmark from the surrounding country. All along the eastern slope of that range an unbroken forest of spruce and pine spread down to the edge of the valley. This valley narrowed toward its source, which was Buffalo Park. A few well-beaten trails crossed that country, one following Red Brook down to Kremmling; another crossing from the Park to White Slides; and another going over the divide down to Elgeria. The only well-known trail leading to Gore Peak was a branch-off from the valley, and it went round to the south and more accessible side of the mountain.
All that immense slope of timbered ridges, benches, ravines, and swales west of Buffalo Park was exceedingly wild and rough country. Here the buffalo took to cover from hunters, and were safe until they ventured forth into the parks again. Elk and deer and bear made this forest their home.
Bent Wade, hunter now for bigger game than wild beasts of the range, left his horse at Lewis's cabin and penetrated the dense forest alone, like a deer-stalker or an Indian in his movements. Lewis had acted as scout for Wade, and had ridden furiously down to Sage Valley with news of the rustlers. Wade had accompanied him back to Buffalo Park that night, riding in the dark. There were urgent reasons for speed. Jack Belllounds had ridden to Kremmling, and the hunter did not believe he would return by the road he had taken.
Fox, Wade's favorite dog, much to his disgust, was left behind with Lewis. The bloodhound, Kane, accompanied Wade. Kane had been ill-treated and then beaten by Jack Belllounds, and he had left White Slides to take up his home at Moore's cabin. And at last he had seemed to reconcile himself to the hunter, not with love, but without distrust. Kane never forgave; but he recognized his friend and master. Wade carried his rifle and a buckskin pouch containing meat and bread. His belt, heavily studded with shells, contained two guns, both now worn in plain sight, with the one on the right side hanging low. Wade's character seemed to have undergone some remarkable change, yet what he represented then was not unfamiliar.
He headed for the concealed cabin on the edge of the high valley, under the black brow of Gore Peak. It was early morning of a July day, with summer fresh and new to the forest. Along the park edges the birds and squirrels were holding carnival. The grass was crisp and bediamonded with sparkling frost. Tracks of game showed sharp in the white patches. Wade paused once, listening. Ah! That most beautiful of forest melodies for him--the bugle of an elk. Clear, resonant, penetrating, with these qualities held and blended by a note of wildness, it rang thrillingly through all Wade's being. The hound listened, but was not interested. He kept close beside the hunter or at his heels, a stealthily stepping, warily glancing hound, not scenting the four-footed denizens of the forest. He expected his master to put him on the trail of men.
The distance from the Park to Gore Peak, as a crow would have flown, was not great. But Wade progressed slowly; he kept to the dense parts of the forest; he avoided the open aisles, the swales, the glades, the high ridges, the rocky ground. When he came to the Elgeria trail he was not disappointed to find it smooth, untrodden by any recent travel. Half a mile farther on through the forest, however, he encountered tracks of three horses, made early the day before. Still farther on he found cattle and horse tracks, now growing old and dim. These tracks, pointed toward Elgeria, were like words of a printed page to Wade.
About noon he climbed a rocky eminence that jutted out from a slow-descending ridge, and from this vantage-point he saw down the wavering black and green bosom of the mountain slope. A narrow valley, almost hidden, gleamed yellow in the sunlight. At the edge of this valley a faint column of blue smoke curled upward.
"Ahuh!" muttered the hunter, as he looked. The hound whined and pushed a cool nose into Wade's hand.
Then Wade resumed his noiseless and stealthy course through the woods. He began a descent, leading off somewhat to the right of the point where the smoke had arisen. The presence of the rustlers in the cabin was of importance, yet not so paramount as another possibility. He expected Jack Belllounds to be with them or meet them there, and that was the thing he wanted to ascertain. When he got down below the little valley he swung around to the left to cross the trail that came up from the main valley, some miles still farther down. He found it, and was not surprised to see fresh horse tracks, made that morning. He recognized those tracks. Jack Belllounds was with the rustlers, come, no doubt, to receive his pay.
Then the change in Wade, and the actions of a trailer of men, became more singularly manifest. He reverted to some former habit of mind and body. He was as slow as a shadow, absolutely silent, and the gaze that roved ahead and all around must have taken note of every living thing, of every moving leaf or fern or bough. The hound, with hair curling up stiff on his back, stayed close to Wade, watching, listening, and stepping with him. Certainly Wade expected the rustlers to have some one of their number doing duty as an outlook. So he kept uphill, above the cabin, and made his careful way through the thicket coverts, which at that place were dense and matted clumps of jack-pine and spruce. At last he could see the cabin and the narrow, grassy valley just beyond. To his relief the horses were unsaddled and grazing. No man was in sight. But there might be a dog. The hunter, in his slow advance, used keen and unrelaxing vigilance, and at length he decided that if there had been a dog he would have been tied outside to give an alarm.
Wade had now reached his objective point. He was some eighty paces from the cabin, in line with an open aisle down which he could see into the cleared space before the door. On his left were thick, small spruces, with low-spreading branches, and they extended all the way to the cabin on that side, and in fact screened two walls of it. Wade knew exactly what he was going to do. No longer did he hesitate. Laying down his rifle, he tied the hound to a little spruce, patting him and whispering for him to stay there and be still.
Then Wade's action in looking to his belt-guns was that of a man who expected to have recourse to them speedily and by whom the necessity was neither regretted nor feared. Stooping low, he entered the thicket of spruces. The soft, spruce-matted ground, devoid of brush or twig, did not give forth the slightest sound of step, nor did the brushing of the branches against his body. In some cases he had to bend the boughs. Thus, swiftly and silently, with the gliding steps of an Indian, he approached the cabin till the brown-barked logs loomed before him, shutting off the clearer light.
He smelled a mingling of wood and tobacco smoke; he heard low, deep voices of men; the shuffling and patting of cards; the musical click of gold. Resting on his knees a moment the hunter deliberated. All was exactly as he had expected. Luck favored him. These gamblers would be absorbed in their game. The door of the cabin was just around the corner, and he could glide noiselessly to it or gain it in a few leaps. Either method would serve. But which he must try depended upon the position of the men inside and that of their weapons.
Rising silently, Wade stepped up to the wall and peeped through a chink between the logs. The sunshine streamed through windows and door. Jack Belllounds sat on the ground, full in its light, back to the wall. He was in his shirt-sleeves. The gambling fever and the grievous soreness of a loser shone upon his pale face. Smith sat with back to Wade, opposite Belllounds. The other men completed the square. All were close enough together to reach comfortably for the cards and gold before them. Wade's keen eyes took this in at a single glance, and then steadied searchingly for smaller features of the scene. Belllounds had no weapon. Smith's belt and gun lay in the sunlight on the hard, clay floor, out of reach except by violent effort. The other two rustlers both wore their weapons. Wade gave a long scrutiny to the faces of these comrades of Smith, and evidently satisfied himself as to what he had to expect from them.
Wade hesitated; then stooping low, he softly swept aside the intervening boughs of spruce, glided out of the thicket into the open. Two noiseless bounds! Another, and he was inside the door!
"Howdy, rustlers! Don't move!" he called.
The surprise of his appearance, or his voice, or both, stunned the four men. Belllounds dropped his cards, and his jaw dropped at the same instant. These were absolutely the only visible movements.
"I'm in talkin' humor, an' the longer you listen the longer you'll have to live," said Wade. "But don't move!"
"We ain't movin'," burst out Smith. "Who're you, an' what d'ye want?"
It was singular that the rustler leader had not had a look at Wade, whose movements had been swift and who now stood directly behind him. Also it was obvious that Smith was sitting very stiff-necked and straight. Not improbably he had encountered such situations before.
"Who're you?" he shouted, hoarsely.
"You ought to know me." The voice was Wade's, gentle, cold, with depth and ring in it.
"I've heerd your voice somewhars--I'll gamble on thet."
"Sure. You ought to recognize my voice, Cap," returned Wade.
The rustler gave a violent start--a start that he controlled instantly.
"Cap! You callin' me thet?"
"Sure. We're old friends--Cap Folsom!"
In the silence, then, the rustler's hard breathing could be heard; his neck bulged red; only the eyes of his two comrades moved; Belllounds began to recover somewhat from his consternation. Fear had clamped him also, but not fear of personal harm or peril. His mind had not yet awakened to that.
"You've got me pat! But who're you?" said Folsom, huskily.
Wade kept silent.
"Who'n hell is thet man?" yelled the rustler It was not a query to his comrades any more than to the four winds. It was a furious questioning of a memory that stirred and haunted, and as well a passionate and fearful denial.
"His name's Wade," put in Belllounds, harshly. "He's the friend of Wils Moore. He's the hunter I told you about--worked for my father last winter."
"Wade?... What? Wade! You never told me his name. It ain't--it ain't--"
"Yes, it is, Cap," interrupted Wade. "It's the old boy that spoiled your handsome mug--long ago."
"Hell-Bent Wade!" gasped Folsom, in terrible accents. He shook all over. An ashen paleness crept into his face. Instinctively his right hand jerked toward his gun; then, as in his former motion, froze in the very act.
"Careful, Cap!" warned Wade. "It'd be a shame not to hear me talk a little.... Turn around now an' greet an old pard of the Gunnison days."
Folsom turned as if a resistless, heavy force was revolving his head.
"By Gawd!... Wade!" he ejaculated. The tone of his voice, the light in his eyes, must have been a spiritual acceptance of a dreadful and irrefutable fact--perhaps the proximity of death. But he was no coward. Despite the hunter's order, given as he stood there, gun drawn and ready, Folsom wheeled back again, savagely to throw the deck of cards in Belllounds's face. He cursed horribly.... "You spoiled brat of a rich rancher! Why'n hell didn't you tell me thet varmint-hunter was Wade."
"I did tell you," shouted Belllounds, flaming of face.
"You're a liar! You never said Wade--W-a-d-e, right out, so I'd hear it. An' I'd never passed by Hell-Bent Wade."
"Aw, that name made me tired," replied Belllounds, contemptuously.
"Haw! Haw! Haw!" bawled the rustler. "Made you tired, hey? Think you're funny? Wal, if you knowed how many men thet name's made tired--an' tired fer keeps--you'd not think it so damn funny."
"Say, what're you giving me? That Sheriff Burley tried to tell me and dad a lot of rot about this Wade. Why, he's only a little, bow-legged, big-nosed meddler--a man with a woman's voice--a sneaking cook and camp-doctor and cow-milker, and God only knows what else."
"Boy, you're correct. God only knows what else!... It's the else you've got to learn. An' I'll gamble you'll learn it.... Wade, have you changed or grown old thet you let a pup like this yap such talk?"
"Well, Cap, he's very amusin' just now, an' I want you-all to enjoy him. Because, if you don't force my hand I'm goin' to tell you some interestin' stuff about this Buster Jack.... Now, will you be quiet an' listen--an' answer for your pards?"
"Wade, I answer fer no man. But, so far as I've noticed, my pards ain't hankerin' to make any loud noise," Folsom replied, indicating his comrades, with sarcasm.
The red-bearded one, a man of large frame and gaunt face, wicked and wild-looking, spoke out, "Say, Smith, or whatever the hell's yore right handle--is this hyar a game we're playin'?"
"I reckon. An' if you turn a trick you'll be damn lucky," growled Folsom.
The other rustler did not speak. He was small, swarthy-faced, with sloe-black eyes and matted hair, evidently a white man with Mexican blood. Keen, strung, furtive, he kept motionless, awaiting events.
"Buster Jack, these new pards of yours are low-down rustlers, an' one of them's worse, as I could prove," said Wade, "but compared with you they're all gentlemen."
Belllounds leered. But he was losing his bravado. Something began to dawn upon his obtuse consciousness.
"What do I care for you or your gabby talk?" he flashed, sullenly.
"You'll care when I tell these rustlers how you double-crossed them."
Belllounds made a spring, like that of a wolf in a trap; but when half-way up he slipped. The rustler on his right kicked him, and he sprawled down again, back to the wall.
"Buster, look into this!" called Wade, and he leveled the gun that quivered momentarily, like a compass needle, and then crashed fire and smoke. The bullet spat into a log. But it had cut the lobe of Belllounds's ear, bringing blood. His face turned a ghastly, livid hue. All in a second terror possessed him--shuddering, primitive terror of death.
Folsom haw-hawed derisively and in crude delight. "Say, Buster Jack, don't get any idee thet my ole pard Wade was shootin' at your head. Aw, no!"
The other rustlers understood then, if Belllounds had not, that the situation was in control of a man not in any sense ordinary.
"Cap, did you know Buster Jack accused my friend, Wils Moore, of stealin' these cattle you're sellin'?" asked Wade, deliberately.
"What cattle did you say?" asked the rustler, as if he had not heard aright.
"The cattle Buster Jack stole from his father an' sold to you."
"Wal, now! Bent Wade at his old tricks! I might have knowed it, once I seen you.... Naw, I'd no idee Belllounds blamed thet stealin' on to any one."
"Ahuh! Wal, who's this Wils Moore?"
"He's a cowboy, as fine a youngster as ever straddled a horse. Buster Jack hates him. He licked Jack a couple of times an' won the love of a girl that Jack wants."
"Ho! Ho! Quite romantic, I declare.... Say, thar's some damn queer notions I'm gettin' about you, Buster Jack."
Belllounds lay propped against the wall, sagging there, laboring of chest, sweating of face. The boldness of brow held, because it was fixed, but that of his eyes had gone; and his mouth and chin showed craven weakness. He stared in dread suspense at Wade.
"Listen. An' all of you sit tight," went on Wade, swiftly. "Jack stole the cattle from his father. He's a thief at heart. But he had a double motive. He left a trail--he left tracks behind. He made a crooked horseshoe, like that Wils Moore's horse wears, an' he put that on his own horse. An' he made a contraption--a little iron ring with a dot in it, an' he left the crooked shoe tracks, an' he left the little ring tracks--"
"By Gawd! I seen them funny tracks!" ejaculated Folsom. "At the water-hole an' right hyar in front of the cabin. I seen them. I knowed Jack made them, somehow, but I didn't think. His white hoss has a crooked left front shoe."
"Yes, he has, when Jack takes off the regular shoe an' nails on the crooked one.... Men, I followed those tracks They lead up here to your cabin. Belllounds made them with a purpose.... An' he went to Kremmlin' to get Sheriff Burley. An' he put him wise to the rustlin' of cattle to Elgeria. An' he fetched him up to White Slides to accuse Wils Moore. An' he trailed his own tracks up here, showin' Burley the crooked horse track an' the little circle--that was supposed to be made by the end of Moore's crutch--an' he led Burley with his men right to this cabin an' to the trail where you drove the cattle over the divide.... An' then he had Burley dig out some cakes of mud holdin' these tracks, an' they fetched them down to White Slides. Buster Jack blamed the stealin' on to Moore. An' Burley arrested Moore. The trial comes off next week at Kremmlin'."
"Damn me!" exclaimed Folsom, wonderingly. "A man's never too old to learn! I knowed this pup was stealin' from his own father, but I reckoned he was jest a natural-born, honest rustler, with a hunch fer drink an' cards."
"Well, he's double-crossed you, Cap. An' if I hadn't rounded you up your chances would have been good for swingin'."
"Ahuh! Wade, I'd sure preferred them chances of swingin' to your over-kind interferin' in my bizness. Allus interferin', Wade, thet's your weakness!... But gimmie a gun!"
"I reckon not, Cap."
"Gimme a gun!" roared the rustler. "Lemme sit hyar an' shoot the eyes outen this--lyin' pup of a Belllounds!... Wade, put a gun in my hand--a gun with two shells--or only one. You can stand with your gun at my head.... Let me kill this skunk!"
For all Belllounds could tell, death was indeed close. No trace of a Belllounds was apparent about him then, and his face was a horrid spectacle for a man to be forced to see. A froth foamed over his hanging lower lip.
"Cap, I ain't trustin' you with a gun just this particular minute," said Wade.
Folsom then bawled his curses to his comrades.
"----! Kill him! Throw your guns an' bore him--right in them bulgin' eyes!... I'm tellin' you--we've gotta fight, anyhow. We're agoin' to cash right hyar. But kill him first!"
Neither of Folsom's lieutenants yielded to the fierce exhortation of their leader or to their own evilly expressed passions. It was Wade who dominated them. Then ensued a silence fraught with suspense, growing more charged every long instant. The balance here seemed about to be struck.
"Wade, I've been a gambler all my life, an' a damn smart one, if I do say it myself," declared the rustler leader, his voice inharmonious with the facetiousness of his words. "An' I'll make a last bet."
"Go ahead, Cap. What'll you bet?" answered the cold voice, still gentle, but different now in its inflection.
"By Gawd! I'll bet all the gold hyar that Hell-Bent Wade wouldn't shoot any man in the back!"
Slowly and stiffly the rustler rose to his feet. When he reached his height he deliberately swung his leg to kick Belllounds in the face.
"Thar! I'd like to have a reckonin' with you, Buster Jack," he said. "I ain't dealin' the cards hyar. But somethin' tells me thet, shaky as I am in my boots, I'd liefer be in mine than yours."
With that, and expelling a heavy breath, he wrestled around to confront the hunter.
"Wade. I've no hunch to your game, but it's slower'n I recollect you."
"Why, Cap, I was in a talkin' humor," replied Wade.
"Hell! You're up to some dodge. What'd you care fer my learnin' thet pup had double-crossed me? You won't let me kill him."
"I reckon I wanted him to learn what real men thought of him."
"Ahuh! Wal, an' now I've onlightened him, what's the next deal?"
"You'll all go to Kremmlin' with me an' I'll turn you over to Sheriff Burley."
That was the gauntlet thrown down by Wade. It was not unexpected, and acceptance seemed a relief. Folsom's eyeballs became living fire with the desperate gleam of the reckless chances of life. Cutthroat he might have been, but he was brave, and he proved the significance of Wade's attitude.
"Pards, hyar's to luck!" he rang out, hoarsely, and with pantherish quickness he leaped for his gun.
A tense, surcharged instant--then all four men, as if released by some galvanized current of rapidity, flashed into action. Guns boomed in unison. Spurts of red, clouds of smoke, ringing reports, and hoarse cries filled the cabin. Wade had fired as he leaped. There was a thudding patter of lead upon the walls. The hunter flung himself prostrate behind the bough framework that had served as bedstead. It was made of spruce boughs, thick and substantial. Wade had not calculated falsely in estimating it as a bulwark of defense. Pulling his second gun, he peeped from behind the covert.
Smoke was lifting, and drifting out of door and windows. The atmosphere cleared. Belllounds sagged against the wall, pallid, with protruding eyes of horror on the scene before him. The dark-skinned little man lay writhing. All at once a tremor stilled his convulsions. His body relaxed limply. As if by magic his hand loosened on the smoking gun. Folsom was on his knees, reeling and swaying, waving his gun, peering like a drunken man for some lost object. His temple appeared half shot away, a bloody and horrible sight.
"Pards, I got him!" he said, in strange, half-strangled whisper. "I got him!... Hell-Bent Wade! My respects! I'll meet you--thar!"
His reeling motion brought his gaze in line with Belllounds. The violence of his start sent drops of blood flying from his gory temple.
"Ahuh! The cards run--my way. Belllounds, hyar's to your--lyin' eyes!"
The gun wavered and trembled and circled. Folsom strained in last terrible effort of will to aim it straight. He fired. The bullet tore hair from Belllounds's head, but missed him. Again the rustler aimed, and the gun wavered and shook. He pulled trigger. The hammer clicked upon an empty chamber. With low and gurgling cry of baffled rage Folsom dropped the gun and sank face forward, slowly stretching out.
The red-bearded rustler had leaped behind the stone chimney that all but hid his body. The position made it difficult for him to shoot because his gun-hand was on the inside, and he had to press his body tight to squeeze it behind the corner of ragged stone. Wade had the advantage. He was lying prone with his right hand round the corner of the framework. An overhang of the bough-ends above protected his head when he peeped out. While he watched for a chance to shoot he loaded his empty gun with his left hand. The rustler strained and writhed his body, twisting his neck, and suddenly darting out his head and arm, he shot. His bullet tore the overhang of boughs above Wade's face. And Wade's answering shot, just a second too late, chipped the stone corner where the rustler's face had flashed out. The bullet, glancing, hummed out of the window. It was a close shave. The rustler let out a hissing, inarticulate cry. He was trapped. In his effort to press in closer he projected his left elbow beyond the corner of the chimney. Wade's quick shot shattered his arm.
There was no asking or offering of quarter here. This was the old feud of the West--of the vicious and the righteous in strife--both reared in the same stern school. The rustler gave his body such contortion that he was twisted almost clear around, with his right hand over his left shoulder. He punched the muzzle of his gun into a crack between two stones, and he pried to open them. The dry clay cement crumbled, the crack widened. Sighting along the barrel he aimed it with the narrow strip of Wades shoulder that was visible above the framework. Then he shot and hit. Wade shrank flatter and closer, hiding himself to better advantage. The rustler made his great blunder then, for in that moment he might have rushed out and killed his adversary. But, instead, he shot again--another time--a third. And his heavy bullets tore and splintered the boughs dangerously close to the hunter's head. Then came an awkward, almost hopeless task for the rustler, in maintaining his position while reloading his gun. He did it, and his panting attested to the labor and pain it cost him.
So much, in fact, that he let his knee protrude. Wade fired, breaking that knee. The rustler sagged in his tracks, his hip stuck out to afford a target for the remorseless Wade. Still the doomed man did not cry out, though it was evident that he could not now keep his body from sagging into sight of the hunter. Then with a desperate courage worthy of a better cause, and with a spirit great in its defeat, the rustler plunged out from his hiding-place, gun extended. His red beard, his gaunt face, fierce and baleful, his wabbling plunge that was really a fall, made a sight which was terrible. He hopped out of that fall. His gun began to blaze. But it only matched the blazes of Wade's. And the rustler pitched headlong over the framework, falling heavily against the wall beyond.
Then there was silence for a long moment. Wade stirred, as if to look around. Belllounds also stirred, and gulped, as if to breathe. The three prostrate rustlers lay inert, their positions singularly tragic and settled. The smoke again began to lift, to float out of the door and windows. In another moment the big room seemed less hazy.
Wade rose, not without effort, and he had a gun in each hand. Those hands were bloody; there was blood on his face, and his left shoulder was red. He approached Belllounds.
Wade was terrible then--terrible with a ruthlessness that was no pretense. To Belllounds it must have represented death--a bloody death which he was not prepared to meet.
"Come out of your trance, you pup rustler!" yelled Wade.
"For God's sake, don't kill me!" implored Belllounds, stricken with terror.
"Why not? Look around! My busy day, Buster!... An' for that Cap Folsom it's been ten years comin'.... I'm goin' to shoot you in the belly an' watch you get sick to your stomach!"
Belllounds, with whisper, and hands, and face, begged for his life in an abjectness of sheer panic.
"What!" roared the hunter. "Didn't you know I come to kill you?"
"Yes--yes! I've seen--that. It's awful!... I never harmed you.... Don't kill me! Let me live, Wade. I swear to God I'll--I'll never do it again.... For dad's sake--for Collie's sake--don't kill me!"
"I'm Hell-Bent Wade!... You wouldn't listen to them--when they wanted to tell you who I am!"
Every word of Wade's drove home to this boy the primal meaning of sudden death. It inspired him with an unutterable fear. That was what clamped his brow in a sweaty band and upreared his hair and rolled his eyeballs. His magnified intelligence, almost ghastly, grasped a hope in Wade's apparent vacillation and in the utterance of the name of Columbine. Intuition, a subtle sense, inspired him to beg in that name.
"Swear you'll give up Collie!" demanded Wade, brandishing his guns with bloody hands.
"Yes--yes! My God, I'll do anything!" moaned Belllounds.
"Swear you'll tell your father you'd had a change of heart. You'll give Collie up!... Let Moore have her!"
"I swear!... But if you tell dad--I stole his cattle--he'll do for me!"
"We won't squeal that. I'll save you if you give up the girl. Once more, Buster Jack--try an' make me believe you'll square the deal."
Belllounds had lost his voice. But his mute, fluttering lips were infinite proof of the vow he could not speak. The boyishness, the stunted moral force, replaced the manhood in him then. He was only a factor in the lives of others, protected even from this Nemesis by the greatness of his father's love.
"Get up, an' take my scarf," said Wade, "an' bandage these bullet-holes I got."