Chapter 21. The Wolf Pack
 

"Good evening, gentlemen. Hope I don't intrude on the festivities."

Leroy smiled down ironically on the four flushed, startled faces that looked up at him. Suspicion was alive in every rustle of the men's clothes. It breathed from the lowering countenances. It itched at the fingers longing for the trigger. The unending terror of a bandit's life is that no man trusts his fellow. Hence one betrays another for fear of betrayal, or stabs him in the back to avoid it.

The outlaw chief had slipped into the room so silently that the first inkling they had of his presence was that gentle, insulting voice. Now, as he lounged easily before them, leg thrown over the back of a chair and thumbs sagging from his trouser pockets, they looked the picture of schoolboys caught by their master in a conspiracy. How long had he been there? How much had he heard? Full of suspicion and bad whisky as they were, his confident contempt still cowed the very men who were planning his destruction. A minute before they had been full of loud threats and boastings; now they could only search each other's faces sullenly for a cue.

"Celebrating Chaves' return from manana land, I reckon. That's the proper ticket. I wonder if we couldn't afford to kill another of Collins' fatted calves."

Mr. Hardman, not enjoying the derisive raillery, took a hand in the game. "I expect the boys hadn't better touch the sheriff's calves, now you and him are so thick."

"We're thick, are we?" Leroy's indolent eyes narrowed slightly as they rested on him.

"Ain't you? It sure seemed that way to me when I looked out of that mesquit wash just above Eldorado Springs and seen you and him eating together like brothers and laughing to beat the band. You was so clost to him I couldn't draw a bead on him without risking its hitting you."

"Spying, eh?"

"If that's the word you want to use, cap. And you were enjoying yourselves proper."

"Laughing, were we? That must have been when he told me how funny you looked in the 'altogether' shedding false teeth and information about hidden treasure."

"Told you that, did he?" Mr. Hardman incontinently dropped repartee as a weapon too subtle, and fell back on profanity.

"That's right pat to the minute, cap, what you say about the information he leaks," put in Neil. "How about that information? I'll be plumb tickled to death to know you're carrying it in you vest pocket."

"And if I'm not?"

"Then ye are a bigger fool than I had expected sorr, to come back here at all," said the Irishman truculently.

"I begin to think so myself, Mr. Reilly. Why keep faith with a set of swine like you?"

"Are you giving it to us that you haven't got those papers?"

Leroy nodded, watching them with steady, alert eyes. He knew he stood on the edge of a volcano that might explode at any moment.

"What did I tell yez?" Reilly turned savagely to the other disaffected members of the gang. "Didn't I tell yez he was selling us out?"

Somehow Leroy's revolver seemed to jump to his hand without a motion on his part. It lay loosely in his limp fingers, unaimed and undirected.

"Say that again, please."

Beneath the velvet of Leroy's voice ran a note more deadly than any threat could have been. It rang a bell for a silence in which the clock of death seemed to tick. But as the seconds fled Reilly's courage oozed away. He dared not accept the invitation to reach for his weapon and try conclusions with this debonair young daredevil. He mumbled a retraction, and flung, with a curse, out of the room.

Leroy slipped the revolver back in his holster and quoted, with a laugh:

"To every coward safety, 
And afterward his evil hour."

"What's that?" demanded Neil. "I ain't no coward, even if Jay is. I don't knuckle under to any man. You got a right to ante up with some information. I want to know why you ain't got them papers you promised to bring back with you."

"And I, too, senor. I desire to know what it means," added Chaves, his eyes glittering.

"That's the way to chirp, gentlemen. I haven't got them because Forbes blundered on us, and I had to take a pasear awful sudden. But I made an appointment to meet Collins to-morrow."

"And you think he'll keep it?" scoffed Neil.

"I know he will."

"You seem to know a heap about him," was the significant retort.

"Take care, York."

"I'm not Hardman, cap. I say what I think.

"And you think?" suggested Leroy gently.

"I don't know what to think yet. You're either a fool or a traitor. I ain't quite made up my mind. When I find out you'll ce'tainly hear from me straight. Come on, boys." And Neil vanished through the door.

An hour later there came a knock at Leroy's door. Neil answered his permission to enter, followed by the other trio of flushed beauties. To the outlaw chief it was at once apparent with what Dutch courage they had been fortifying themselves to some resolve. It was characteristic of him, though he knew on how precarious a thread his life was hanging, that disgust at the foul breaths with which they were polluting the atmosphere was his first dominant emotion.

"I wish, Lieutenant Chaves, next time you emigrate you'd bring another brand of poison out to the boys. I can't go this stuff. Just remember that, will you?"

The outlaw chief's hard eye ran over the rebels and read them like a primer They had come to depose him certainly, to kill him perhaps. Though this last he doubted. It wouldn't be like Neil to plan his murder, and it wouldn't be like the others to give him warning and meet him in the open. Warily he stood behind the table, watching their awkward embarrassment with easy assurance. Carefully he placed face downward on the table the Villon he had been reading, but he did it without lifting his eyes from them.

"You have business with me, I presume."

"That's what we have," cried Reilly valiantly, from the rear.

"Then suppose we come to it and get the room aired as soon as possible," Leroy said tartly.

"You're such a slap-up dude you'd ought to be a hotel clerk, cap. You're sure wasted out here.

So we boys got together and held a little election. Consequence is, we--fact is, we--"

Neil stuck, but Reilly came to his rescue.

"We elected York captain of this outfit."

"To fill the vacancy created by my resignation. Poor York! You're the sacrifice, are you? On the whole, I think you fellows have made a wise choice. York's game, and he won't squeal on you, which is more than I could say of Reilly, or the play actor, or the gentlemen from Chihuahua. But you want to watch out for a knife in the dark, York. 'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,' you know."

"We didn't come here to listen to a speech, cap, but to notify you we was dissatisfied, and wouldn't have you run the outfit any longer," explained Neil.

"In that event, having heard the report of the committee, if there's no further new business, I declare this meeting adjourned sine die. Kindly remove the perfume tubs, Captain Neil, at your earliest convenience."

The quartette retreated ignominiously. They had come prepared to gloat over Leroy's discomfiture, and he had mocked them with that insolent ease of his that set their teeth in helpless rage.

But the deposed chief knew they had not struck their last blow. Throughout the night he could hear the low-voiced murmur of their plottings, and he knew that if the liquor held out long enough there would be sudden death at Hidden Valley before twenty-four hours were up. He looked carefully to his rifle and his revolvers, testing several shells to make sure they had not been tampered with in his absence. After he had made all necessary preparations, he drew the blinds of his window and moved his easy-chair from its customary place beside the fire. Also he was careful not to sit where an shadow would betray his position. Then back he went to his Villon, a revolver lying on the table within reach.

But the night passed without mishap, and with morning he ventured forth to his meeting with the sheriff. He might have slipped out from the back door of his cabin and gained the canyon, by circling unobserved, up the draw and over the hogback, but he would not show by these precautions any fear of the cutthroats with whom he had to deal. As was his scrupulous custom, he shaved and took his morning bath before appearing outdoors. In all Arizona no trimmer, more graceful figure of jaunty recklessness could be seen than this one stepping lightly forth to knock at the bunk-house door behind which he suspected were at least two men determined on his death by treachery.

Neil came to the door in answer to his knock and within he could see the villainous faces at bloodshot eyes of two of the others peering at him.

"Good mo'ning, Captain Neil. I'm on my way to keep that appointment I mentioned last night I'd ce'tainly be glad to have you go along. Nothing like being on the spot to prevent double-crossing."

"I'm with you in the fling of a cow's tail. Come on, boys."

"I think not. You and I will go alone."

"Just as you say. Reilly, I guess you better saddle Two-step and the Lazy B roan."

"I ain't saddling ponies for Mr. Leroy," returned Reilly, with thick defiance.

Neil was across the room in two strides. "When I tell you to do a thing, jump! Get a move on and saddle those broncs."

"I don't know as--"

"Vamos!"

Reilly sullenly slouched out.

"I see you made them jump," commented the former captain audibly, seating himself comfortably on a rock. "It's the only way you'll get along with them. See that they come to time or pump lead into them. You'll find there's no middle way."

Neil and Leroy had hardly passed beyond the rock-slide before the others, suspicion awake in their sodden brains, dodged after them on foot. For three miles they followed the broncos as the latter picked their way up the steep trail that led to the Dalriada Mine.

"If Mr. Collins is here, he's lying almighty low," exclaimed Neil, as he swung from his pony at the foot of the bluff from the brow of which the gray dump of the mine straggled down like a Titan's beard.

"Right you are, Mr. Neil."

York whirled, revolver in hand, but the man who had risen from behind the big boulder beside the trail was resting both hands on the rock before him.

"You're alone, are you?" demanded York.

"I am."

Neil's revolver slid back into its holster. "Mornin', Val. What's new down at Tucson?" he said amiably.

"I understood I was to meet you alone, Mr. Leroy," said the sheriff quickly, his blue-gray eyes on the former chief.

"That was the agreement, Mr. Collins, but it seems the boys are on the anxious seat about these little socials of ours. They've embraced the notion that I'm selling them. I hated to have them harassed with doubts, so I invited the new majordomo of the ranch to come with me. Of cou'se, if you object--"

"I don't object in the least, but I want him to understand the agreement. I've got a posse waiting at Eldorado Springs, and as soon as I get back there we take the trail after you. Bucky O'Connor is at the head of the posse."

York grinned. "We'll be in Sonora then, Val. Think I'm going to wait and let you shoot off my other fingers?"

Collins fished from his vest pocket the papers he had taken from Scott hat and from Webster. "I think I'll be jogging along back to the springs. I reckon these are what you want."

Leroy took them from him and handed them to Neil. "Don't let us detain you any longer, Mr. Collins. I know you're awful busy these days."

The sheriff nodded a good day, cut down the hill on the slant, and disappeared in a mesquit thicket, from the other side of which he presently emerged astride a bay horse.

The two outlaws retraced their way to the foot of the hill and remounted their broncos.

"I want to say, cap, that I'm eating humble-pie in big chunks right this minute," said Neil shamefacedly, scratching his curly poll and looking apologetically at his former chief. "I might 'a' knowed you was straight as a string, all I've seen of you these last two years. If those coyotes say another word, cap--"

An exploding echo seemed to shake the mountain, and then another. Leroy swayed in the saddle, clutching at his side. He pitched forward, his arms round the horse's neck, and slid slowly to the ground.

Neil was off his horse in an instant, kneeling beside him. He lifted him in his arms and carried him behind a great outcropping boulder.

"It's that hound Collins," he muttered, as he propped the wounded man's head on his arm. "By God, I didn't think it of Val."

Leroy opened his eyes and smiled faintly. "Guess again, York."

"You don't mean "

He nodded. "Right this time--Hardman and Chaves and Reilly. They shot to get us both. With us out of the way they could divide the treasure between them."

Neil choked. "You ain't bad hurt, old man. Say you ain't bad hurt, Phil."

"More than I can carry, York; shot through and through. I've been doubtful of Reilly for a long time;"

"By the Lord, if I don't get the rattlesnake for this!" swore Neil between his teeth. "Ain't there nothin' I can do for you, old pardner?"

In sharp succession four shots rang out. Neil grasped his rifle, leaning forward and crouching for cover. He turned a puzzled face toward Leroy. "I don't savvy. They ain't shooting at us."

"The sheriff," explained Leroy. "They forgot him, and he doubled back on them."

"I'll bet Val got one of them," cried Neil, his face lighting.

"He's got one--or he's quit living. That's a sure thing. Why don't you circle up on them from behind, York?"

"I hate to leave you, cap--and you so bad. Can't I do a thing for you?"

Leroy smiled faintly. "Not a thing. I'll be right here when you get back, York."

The curly-headed young puncher took Leroy's hand in his, gulping down a boyish sob. "I ain't been square with you, cap. I reckon after this-- when you git well--I'll not be such a coyote any more."

The dying man's eyes were lit with a beautiful tenderness. "There's one thing you can do for me, York. . . . I'm out of the game, but I want you to make a new start. . . . I got you into this life, boy. Quit it, and live straight. There's nothing to it, York."

The cowboy-bandit choked. "Don't you worry about me, cap. I'm all right. I'd just as lief quit this deviltry, anyhow."

"I want you to promise, boy." A whimsical, half-cynical smile touched Leroy's eyes. "You see, after living like a devil for thirty years, I want to die like a Christian. Now, go, York."

After Neil had left him, Leroy's eyes closed. Faintly he heard two more shots echoing down the valley, but the meaning of them was already lost to his wandering mind.

Neil dodged rapidly round the foot of the mountain with intent to cut off the bandits as they retreated. He found the sheriff crouching behind a rock scarce two hundred yards from the scene of the murder. At the same moment another shot echoed from well over to the left.

"Who can that be?" Neil asked, very much puzzled.

"That's what's worrying me, York," the sheriff returned.

Together they zigzagged up the side of the mountain. Twice from above there came sounds of rifle shots. Neil was the first to strike the trail to the mine. None too soon for as he stepped upon it, breathing heavily from his climb, Reilly swung round a curve and whipped his weapon to his shoulder. The man fired before York could interfere and stood watching tensely the result of his shot. He was silhouetted against the skyline, a beautiful mark, but Neil did not cover him. Instead, he spoke quietly to the other.

"Was it you that killed Phil, Reilly?"

The man whirled and saw Neil for the first time. His answer was instant. Flinging up his rifle, he pumped a shot at York.

Neil's retort came in a flash. Reilly clutched at his heart and toppled backward from the precipice upon which he stood. Collins joined the cowpuncher and together they stepped forward to the point from which Reilly had plunged down two hundred feet to the jagged rocks below.

At the curve they came face to face with Bucky O'Connor. Three weapons went up quicker than the beating of an eyelash. More slowly each went down again

"What are you doing here, Bucky?" the sheriff asked.

"Just pirootin' around, Val. It occurred to me Leroy might not mean to play fair with you, so I kinder invited myself to the party. When I heard shooting I thought it was you they had bushwhacked, so I sat in to the game "

"You guessed wrong, Bucky. Reilly and the others rounded on Leroy. While they were at it they figured to make a clean job and bump off York, too. From what York says Leroy has got his.

The ranger turned a jade eye on the outlaw. Has Mr. Neil turned honest man, Val? Taken him into your posse, have you?" he asked, with an edge of irony in his voice.

The sheriff laid a hand on the shoulder of the man who had been his friend before he turned miscreant.

"Don't you worry about Neil, Bucky," he advised gently. "It was York shot Reilly, after York had cut loose at him, and I shouldn't wonder if that didn't save your life. Neil has got to stand the gaff for what he's done, but I'll pull wires to get his punishment made light."

"Killed Reilly, did he?" repeated O'Connor. "I got Anderson back there."

"That makes only one left to account for. I wonder who he is?" Collins turned absent-mindedly to Neil. The latter looked at him out of an expressionless face. Even though his confederate had proved traitor he would not betray him.

"I wonder," he said.

Bucky laughed. "Made a mistake that time, Val."

"I plumb forgot the situation for a moment," the sheriff grinned. "Anyhow, we better be hittin' his trail."

"How about Phil?" Neil suggested.

"That's right. One of us has ce'tainly got to go back and attend to him."

"You and Neil go back. I'll follow up this gentleman who is escaping," the ranger said.

And so it was arranged. The two men returned from their grim work of justice to the place where the outlaw chief had been left. His eyes lit feebly at sight of them.

"What news, York?" he asked.

"Reilly and Hardman are killed. How are you feelin', cap?" The cow-puncher knelt beside the dying outlaw and put an arm under his head.

"Shot all to pieces, boy. No, I got no time to have you play doctor with me." He turned to Collins with a gleam of his unconquerable spirit. "You came pretty near making a clean round-up, sheriff. I'm the fourth to be put out of business. You'd ought to be content with that. Let York here go."

"I can't do that, but I'll do my best to see he gets off light."

"I got him into this, sheriff. He was all right before he knew me. I want him to get a chance now. "

"I wish I could give him a pardon, but I can't do it. I'll see the governor for him though."

The wounded man spoke to Collins alone for a few minutes, then began to wander in his mind He babbled feebly of childhood days back in his Kentucky home. The word most often on his lips was "Mother." So, with his head resting on Neil's arm and his hand in that of his friend, he slipped away to the Great Beyond.