Chapter 3. The Sheriff Introduces Himself
 

Bear-trap Collins, presuming on the new intimacy born of an exciting experience shared in common, stepped across the aisle, flung aside Miss Wainwright's impedimenta, and calmly seated himself beside her. She was a young woman capable of a hauteur chillier than ice to undue familiarity, but she did not choose at this moment to resent his assumption of a footing that had not existed an hour ago. Picturesque and unconventional conduct excuses itself when it is garbed in picturesque and engaging manners. She had, besides, other reasons for wanting to meet him, and they had to do with a sudden suspicion that flamed like tow in her brain. She had something for which to thank him--much more than he would be likely to guess, she thought--and she was wondering, with a surge of triumph, whether the irony of fate had not made his pretended consideration for her the means of his undoing.

"I am sorry you lost so much, Miss Wainwright," he told her.

"But, after all, I did not lose so much as you. Her dark, deep-pupiled eyes, long-lashed as Diana's, swept round to meet his coolly.

"That's a true word. My reputation has gone glimmering for fair, I guess." He laughed ruefully. "I shouldn't wonder, ma'am, when election time comes round, if the boys ain't likely to elect to private life the sheriff that lay down before a bunch of miscreants."

"Why did you do it?"

His humorous glance roamed round the car. "Now, I couldn't think it proper for me to shoot up this sumptuous palace on wheels. And wouldn't some casual passenger be likely to get his lights put out when the band began to play? Would you want that Boston church to be shy a preacher, ma'am?"

Her lips parted slightly in a curve of scorn. "I suppose you had your reasons for not interfering."

"Surely, ma'am. I hated to have them make a sieve of me."

"Were you afraid?"

"Most men are when Wolf Leroy's gang is on the war path."

"Wolf Leroy?"

"That was Wolf who came in to see they were doing the job right. He's the worst desperado on the border--a sure enough bad proposition, I reckon. They say he's part Spanish and part Indian, but all pisen. Others say he's a college man of good family. I don't know about that, for nobody knows who he really is. But the name is a byword in the country. People lower their voices when they speak of him and his night-riders."

"I see. And you were afraid of him?"

"Very much."

Her narrowed eyes looked over the strong lines of his lean face and were unconvinced. "I expect you found a better reason than that for not opposing them."

He turned to her with frank curiosity. "I'd like real well to have you put a name to it."

But he was instantly aware that her interest had been side tracked. Major Mackenzie had entered the car and was coming down the aisle. Plainer than words his eyes asked a question, and hers answered it.

The sheriff stopped him with a smiling query: "Hit hard, major?"

Mackenzie frowned. "The scoundrels took thirty thousand from the express car, I understand. Twenty thousand of it belonged to our company. I was expecting to pay off the men next Tuesday."

"Hope we'll be able to run them down for you," returned Collins cheerfully. "I suppose you lay it to Wolf Leroy's gang?"

"Of course. The work was too well done to leave any doubt of that." The major resumed his seat behind Miss Wainwright.

To that young woman the sheriff repeated his unanswered question in the form of a statement. "I'm waiting to learn that better reason, ma'am."

She was possessed of that spice of effrontery more to be desired than beauty. "Shall we say that you had no wish to injure your friends?"

"My friends?"

Her untender eyes mocked his astonishment. "Do I choose the wrong word?" she asked, with an audacity of a courage that delighted him. "Perhaps they are not your friends--these train robbers? Perhaps they are mere casual acquaintances?"

His bold eyes studied with a new interest her superb, confident youth--the rolling waves of splendid Titian hair, the lovely, subtle eyes with the depths of shadowy pools in them, the alluring lines of long and supple loveliness. Certainly here was no sweet, ingenuous youth all prone to blushes, but the complex heir of that world-old wisdom the weaker sex has shaped to serve as a weapon against the strength that must be met with the wit of Mother Eve.

"You ce'tainly have a right vivid imagination, ma'am," he said dryly.

"You are quite sure you have never seen them before?" her velvet voice asked.

He laughed. "Well, no--I can't say I am."

"Aren't you quite sure you have seen them?'

Her eyes rested on him very steadily.

"You're smart as a whip, Miss Wainwright. I take off my hat to a young lady so clever. I guess you're right. About the identity of one of those masked gentlemen I'm pretty well satisfied."

She drew a long breath. "I thought so."

"Yes," he went on evenly, "I once earmarked him so that I'd know him again in case we met."

"I beg pardon. You--what?"

"Earmarked him. Figure of speech, ma'am. You may not have observed that the curly-headed person behind the guns was shy the forefinger of his right hand. We had a little difficulty once when he was resisting arrest, and it just happened that my gun fanned away his trigger finger." He added reminiscently:

"A good boy, too, Neil was once. We used to punch together on the Hashknife. A straight-up rider, the kind a fellow wants when Old Man Trouble comes knocking at the door. Well, I reckon he's a miscreant now, all right."

"They knew you--at least two of them did."

"I've been pirootin' around this country, boy and man, for fifteen years. I ain't responsible for every yellow dog that knows me," he drawled.

"And I noticed that when you told them not to rob the children and not to touch me they did as you said."

"Hypnotism," he suggested, with a smile.

"So, not being a child, I put two and two together and draw an inference."

He seemed to be struggling with his mirth. "I see you do. Well, ma'am, I've been most everything since I hit the West, but this is the first time I've been taken for a train robber."

"I didn't say that," she cried quickly.

"I think you mentioned an inference." The low laugh welled out of him and broke in his face. "I've been busy on one, too. It's a heap nearer the truth than yours, Miss Mackenzie."

Her startled eyes and the swift movement of her hand toward her heart showed him how nearly he had struck home, how certainly he had shattered her cool indifference of manner.

He leaned forward, so close that even in the roar of the train his low whisper reached her. "Shall I tell you why the hold-ups didn't find more money on your father or in the express car, Miss Mackenzie?"

She was shaken, so much so that her agitation trembled on her lips.

"Shall I tell you why your hand went to your breast when I first mentioned that the train was going to be held up, and again when your father's eyes were firing a mighty pointed question at you?"

"I don't know what you mean," she retorted, again mistress of herself.

Her gallant bearing compelled his admiration. The scornful eyes, the satirical lift of the nostrils, the erect, graceful figure, all flung a challenge at him. He called himself hard names for putting her on the rack, but the necessity to make her believe in him was strong within him.

"I noticed you went right chalky when I announced the hold-up, and I thought it was because you were scared. That was where I did you an injustice, ma'am, and you can call this an apology. You've got sand. If it hadn't been for what you carry in the chamois skin hanging on the chain round your neck you would have enjoyed every minute of the little entertainment. You're as game as they make them."

"May I ask how you arrived at this melodramatic conclusion?" she asked, her disdainful lip curling.

"By using my eyes and my ears, ma'am. I shouldn't have noticed your likeness to Major Mackenzie, perhaps, if I hadn't observed that there was a secret understanding between you. Now, whyfor should you be passing as strangers? I could guess one reason, and only one. There have twice been attempted hold-ups of the paymaster of the Yuba reservoir. It was to avoid any more of these that Major Mackenzie took charge personally of paying the men. He has made good up till now. But there have been rumors for months that he would be held up either before leaving the train or while he was crossing the desert. He didn't want to be seen taking the boodle from the express company at Tucson. He would rather have the impression get out that this was just a casual visit. It occurred to him to bring along some unsuspected party to help him out. The robbers would never expect to find the money on a woman. That's why the major brought his daughter with him. Doesn't it make you some uneasy to be carrying fifty thousand in small bills sewed in your clothes and hung round your neck?"

She broke into musical laughter, natural and easy. "I don't happen to have fifty thousand with me."

"Oh, well, say forty thousand. I'm no wizard to guess the exact figure."

Her swift glance at him was almost timid.

"Nor forty thousand," she murmured.

"I should think, ma'am, you'd crinkle more than a silk-lined lady sailing down a church aisle on Sunday."

A picture in the magazine she was toying with seemed to interest her.

"I expect that's the signal for 'Exit Collins.' I'll say good-by till next time, Miss Mackenzie."

"Oh, is there going to be a next time?" she asked, with elaborate carelessness.

"Several of them."

"Indeed!"

He took a notebook from his pocket and wrote.

"I ain't the son of a prophet, but I'm venturing a prediction," he explained.

She had nothing to say, and she said it competently.

"Concerning an investment in futurities I'm making," he continued.

Her magazine article seemed to be beginning, well.

"It's a little guess about how this train robbery is coming out. If you don't mind, I'll leave it with you." He tore the page out, put it in an empty envelope, sealed the flap, and handed it to her.

"Open it in a month, and see whether my guess is a good one."

The dusky lashes swept round indolently. "Suppose I were to open it to-night."

"I'll risk it," smiled the blue eyes.

"On honor, am I?"

"That's it." He held out a big, brown hand.

"You're going to try to capture the robbers, are you?"

"I've been thinking that way--with the help of Lieutenant Bucky O'Connor, I mean."

"And I suppose you've promised yourself success."

"It's on the knees of chance, ma'am. We may get them. They may get us."

"But this prediction of yours?" She held up the sealed envelope.

"That's about another matter."

"But I don't understand. You said--" She gave him a chance to explain.

"It ain't meant you should. You'll understand plenty at the proper time."

He offered her his hand again. "We're slowing down for Apache. Good-by--till next time."

The suede glove came forward, and was buried in his handshake.

He understood it to be an unvoiced apology of its owner for her suspicions, and his instinct was correct. For how could her doubts hold their ground when he had showed himself a sharer in her secret and a guardian of it? And how could anything sinister lie behind those frank, unwavering eyes or consist with that long, clean stride that was carrying him so forcefully to the vestibule?

At Apache no telegrams were found waiting for those who had been expecting them. Communication with the division superintendent at Tucson uncovered the fact that no message of the hold-up had yet reached him. It was an easy guess for Collins to find the reason.

"We're in the infant class, major," he told Mackenzie, with a sardonic laugh. "Leroy must have galloped down the line direct to the station after the hold-up. Likely enough he went into the depot just as we went out. That gives him the other hour or two he needs to make his getaway with the loot. Well, it can't be helped now. If I can only reach Bucky there's one chance in fifty he can head them off from crossing into Sonora. Soon as I can get together a posse I'll take up the trail from the point of the hold-up. But they'll have a whole night's start on me. That's a big handicap."

From Apache Collins sent three dispatches. One was to his deputy, Dillon, at Tucson. It read:

"Get together at once posse of four and outfit same for four days."

Another went to Sabin, the division superintendent:

"Order special to carry posse with horses from Tucson to Big Gap. Must leave by midnight. Have track clear."

The third was a notification to Lieutenant O'Connor, of the Arizona Rangers, of the hold-up, specifying time and place of the occurrence. The sheriff knew it was not necessary to add that the bandits were probably heading south to get into Sonora. Bucky would take that for granted and do his best to cover the likely spots of the frontier.

It was nearly eleven when the Limited drew in to Tucson. Sabin was on the platform anxiously awaiting their arrival. Collins reached him even before the conductor.

"Ordered the special, Mr. Sabin?" he asked, in a low voice.

The railroad man was chewing nervously on an unlit cigar. "Yes, sheriff. You want only an engine and one car, I suppose."

"That will be enough. I've got to go uptown now and meet Dillon. Midnight sharp, please."

"Do you know how much they got?" Sabin whispered.

"Thirty thousand, I hear, besides what they took from the passengers. The conductor will tell you all about it. I've got to jump to be ready."

A disappointment awaited him in the telegrapher's room at the depot. He found a wire, but not from the person he expected. The ranger in charge at Douglas said that Lieutenant O'Connor was at Flag staff, but pending that officer's return he would put himself under the orders of Sheriff Collins and wait for instructions.

The sheriff whistled softly to himself and scratched his head. Bucky would not have waited for instructions. By this time that live wire would have finished telephoning all over Southern Arizona and would himself have been in the saddle. But Bucky in Flagstaff, nearly three hundred miles from the battlefield, so far as the present emergency went, might just as well be in Calcutta. Collins wired instructions to the ranger and sent a third message to the lieutenant.

"I expect I'll hear this time he's skipped over to Winslow," he told himself, with a rueful grin.

The special with the posse on board drew out at midnight sharp. It reached the scene of the holdup before daybreak. The loading board was lowered and the horses led from the car and picketed. Meanwhile two of the men lit a fire and made breakfast while the others unloaded the outfit and packed for the trail. The first faint streaks of gray dawn were beginning to fleck the sky when Collins and Dillon, with a lantern, moved along the railroad bed to the little clump of cottonwoods where the outlaws had probably lain while they waited for the express. They scanned this ground inch by inch. The coals where their camp-fire had been were still alive. Broken bits of food lay scattered about. Half-trampled into the ground the sheriff picked up a narrow gold chain and locket. This last he opened, and found it to contain a tiny photograph of a young mother and babe, both laughing happily. A close search failed to disclose anything else of interest.

They returned to their companions, ate breakfast, and saddled. It was by this time light enough to be moving. The trail was easy as a printed map, for the object of the outlaws had been haste rather than secrecy. The posse covered it swiftly and without hesitation.

"Now, I wonder why this trail don't run straight south instead of bearing to the left into the hills. Looks like they're going to cache their stolen gold up in the mountains before they risk crossing into Sonora. They figure Bucky'll be on the lookout for them," the sheriff said to his deputy.

"I believe you've guessed it, Val. Stands to reason they'll want to get rid of the loot soon as they can. Oh, hell!"

Dillon's disgust proved justifiable, for the trail had lost itself in a mountain stream, up or down which the outlaws must have filed. A month later and the creek would have been dry. But it was still spring. The mountain rains had not ceased feeding the brook, and of this the outlaws had taken advantage to wipe out their trail.

The sheriff looked anxiously at the sky. "It's fixin' to rain, Jim. Don't that beat the Dutch? If it does, that lets us out plenty."

The men they were after might have gone either upstream or down. It was impossible to know definitely which, nor was there time to follow both. Already big drops of rain were splashing down.

"We'll take a chance, and go up. They're probably up in the hills somewhere right now," said Collins, with characteristic decision.

He had guessed right. A mile farther upstream horses had clambered to the bank and struck deeper into the hills. But already rain was falling in a brisk shower. The posse had not gone another quarter of a mile before the trail was washed out. They were now in a rough and rocky country getting every minute steeper.

"It's going to be like lookin' for a needle in a haystack, Val," Dillon growled.

Collins nodded. "We ain't got one chance in a hundred, Jim, but I reckon we'll take that chance."

For three days they blundered around in the hills before they gave it up. The first night, about dusk, the pursuers were without knowing it so warm that one of the bandits lay with his rifle on a rock rim not a stone's throw above them as they wound through a little ravine. But Collins got no glimpse of the robbers. At last he reluctantly gave the word to turn back. Probably the men he wanted had already slipped down to the plains and across to Mexico. If not, they might play hide and seek with him a month in the recesses of these unknown mountains.

Next morning the sheriff struck a telephone wire, tapped it, got Sabin on the line, told him of his failure and that he was returning to Tucson. About the middle of the afternoon the dispirited posse reached its sidetracked special.

A young man lay stretched full length on the loading board, with a broad-brimmed felt hat over his eyes. He wore a gray flannel shirt and corduroy trousers thrust into half-leg laced boots. At the sound of voices he turned lazily on his side and watched the members of the posse swing wearily from their saddles. An amiable smile, not wholly free of friendly derision, lit his good-looking face.

"Oh, you sheriff," he drawled.

Collins swung round, as if he had been pricked with a knife point. He stared an instant before he let out a shout of welcome and fell upon the youth.

"Bucky, by thunder!"

The latter got up nimbly in time to be hospitably thumped and punched. He was a lithe, slender young fellow, of medium height, and he carried himself lightly with that manner of sunburned competency given only by the rough-and-tumble life of the outdoors West.

While the men reloaded the car he and the sheriff stood apart and talked in low tones. Collins told what he knew, both what he had seen and inferred, and Bucky heard him to the end.

"Yes, it ce'tainly looks like one of Wolf Leroy's jobs," he agreed. "Nobody else but Leroy would have had the nerve to follow you right up to the depot and put the kibosh on sending those wires. He's surely game from the toes up. Think of him sittin' there reading the newspaper half an hour after he held up the Limited!"

"Did he do that, Bucky?" The sheriff's tone conceded admiration.

"He did. He's the only train robber ever in the business that could have done it. Oh, the Wolf's tracks are all over this job."

"No doubt about that. I told you I recognized York Neil by him being shy that trigger finger I fanned off down at Tombstone. Well, they say he's one of the Wolf's standbys."

"Yes. I warned him two months ago that if he didn't break away he'd die sudden. Somehow I couldn't persuade him he was an awful sick man right then. You saw four of these hold-ups in all, didn't you, Val?"

"Four's right. First off Neil, then the fellow I took to be the Wolf. After he went out a bowlegged fellow came in, and last a slim little kid that was a sure enough amateur, the way his gun shook."

"Any notion how many more there were?"

"I figured out two more. A big gazabo in a red wig held up Frost, the engineer. He knew it was a wig because he saw long black hair peeping out around his neck. Then there must 'a' been another in charge of blowing up the express car, a Mexican, from the description the messenger gives of him."

Bucky nodded. "Looks like you got it figured about right, Val. The Mexican is easy to account for. The Wolf spends about half his time down in Chihuahua and trains with some high-class greasers down there. Well, we'll see what we'll see. I'll set my rangers at rounding up the border towns a bit, and if I don't start anything there I'll hike down into Mexico and see what's doing. I'll count on you to run the Arizona end of it while I'm away, Val. The Wolf's outfit is a pretty wild one, and it won't be long till something begins to howl. We'll keep an eye on the gambling halls and see who is burning up money. Oh, they'll leave plenty of smoke behind them," the ranger concluded cheerfully.

"There will be plenty of smoke if we ever do round 'em up, not to mention a heap of good lead that will be spilled," the sheriff agreed placidly. "Well, all I got to say is the sooner the quicker. The bunch borrowed a mighty good .45 of mine I need in my biz. I kinder hanker to get it back muy pronto."

"Here's hoping," Bucky nodded gayly. "I bet there will be a right lively wolf hunt. Hello! The car's loaded. All aboard for Tucson."

The special drew out from the side track and gathered speed. Soon the rhythmic chant of the rails sounded monotonously, and the plains on either side of the track swam swiftly to the rear.