Chapter 8. First Blood!
 

Occasionally Alice Mackenzie met Collins on the streets of Tucson. Once she saw him at the hotel where she was staying, deep in a discussion with her father of ways and means of running down the robbers of the Limited. He did not, however, make the least attempt to push their train acquaintanceship beyond the give and take of casual greeting. Without showing himself unfriendly, he gave her no opportunity to determine how far they would go with each other. This rather piqued her, though she would probably have rebuffed him if he had presumed far. Of which probability Val Collins was very well aware.

They met one morning in front of a drug store downtown. She carried a parasol that was lilac-trimmed, which shade was also the outstanding note of her dress. She was looking her very best, and no doubt knew it. To Val her dainty freshness seemed to breathe the sweetness of spring violets.

"Good morning, Miss Mackenzie. Weather like this I'm awful glad I ain't a mummy," he told her. "The world's mighty full of beautiful things this glad day."

"Essay on the Appreciation of Nature, by Professor Collins," she smiled.

"To be continued in our next," he amended. "Won't you come in and have a sundae? You look as if you didn't know it, but the rest of us have discovered it's a right warm morning."

Looking across the little table at him over her sundae, she questioned him with innocent impudence. "I saw you and dad deep in plans Tuesday. I suppose by now you have all the train robbers safely tucked away in the penitentiary?"

"Not yet," he answered cheerfully.

"Not yet!" Her lifted eyebrows and the derisive flash beneath mocked politely his confidence. "By this time I should think they might be hunting big game in deepest Africa."

"They might be, but they're not."

"What about that investment in futurities you made on the train? The month is more than half up. Do you see any chance of realizing?"

"It looks now as if I might be a false prophet, but I feel way down deep that I won't. In this prophet's business confidence is half the stock in trade."

"Really. I'm very curious to know what it is you predicted. Was it something good?"

"Good for me," he nodded.

"Then I think you'll get it," she laughed. "I have noticed that it is the people that expect things--and then go out and take them--that inherit the earth these days. The meek have been dispossessed."

"I'm glad I have your good wishes."

"I didn't say you had, but you'll get along just as well without them,'' she answered with a cool little laugh as she rose.

"I'd like to discuss that proposition with you more at length. May I call on you some evening this week, Miss Mackenzie?"

There was a sparkle of hidden malice in her answer. "You're too late, Mr. Collins. We'll have to leave it undiscussed. I'm going to leave to-day for my uncle s ranch, the Rocking Chair."

He was distinctly disappointed, though he took care not to show it. Nevertheless, the town felt empty after her train had gone. He was glad when later in the day a message came calling him to Epitaph. It took him at least seventy-five miles nearer her.

Before he had been an hour at Epitaph the sheriff knew he had struck gold this time. Men were in town spending money lavishly, and at a rough description they answered to the ones he wanted. Into the Gold Nugget Saloon that evening dropped Val Collins, big, blond, and jaunty. He looked far less the vigorous sheriff out for business than the gregarious cowpuncher on a search for amusement.

Del Hawkes, an old-time friend of his staging days, pounced on him and dragged him to the bar, whence his glance fell genially on the roulette wheel and its devotees, wandered casually across the impassive poker and Mexican monte players, took in the enthroned musicians, who were industriously murdering "La Paloma," and came to rest for barely an instant at a distant faro table. In the curly-haired good-looking young fellow facing the dealer he saw one of the men he had come seeking. Nor did he need to look for the hand with the missing trigger finger to be sure it was York Neil--that same gay, merry-hearted York with whom he used to ride the range, changed now to a miscreant who had elected to take the short cut to wealth.

But the man beside Neil, the dark-haired, pallid fellow from whose presence something at once formidable and sinister and yet gallant seemed to breathe--the very sight of him set the mind of Collins at work busily upon a wild guess. Surely here was a worthy figure upon whom to set the name and reputation of the notorious Wolf Leroy.

Yet the sheriff's eyes rested scarce an instant before they went traveling again, for he wanted to show as yet no special interest in the object of his suspicions. The gathering was a motley one, picturesque in its diversity. For here had drifted not only the stranded derelicts of a frontier civilization, but selected types of all the turbid elements that go to make up its success. Mexican, millionaire, and miner brushed shoulders at the roulette-wheel. Chinaman and cow-puncher, Papago and plainsman, tourist and tailor, bucked the tiger side by side with a democracy found nowhere else in the world. The click of the wheel, the monotonous call of the croupier, the murmur of many voices in alien tongues, and the high-pitched jarring note of boisterous laughter, were all merged in a medley of confusion as picturesque as the scene itself.

"Business not anyways slack at the Nugget," ventured Collins, to the bartender.

"No, I don't know as 'tis. Nearly always somethin' doing in little old Epitaph," answered the public quencher of thirsts, polishing the glass top of the bar with a cloth.

"Playing with the lid off back there, ain't they?" The sheriff's nod indicated the distant faro-table.

"That's right, I guess. Only blue chips go."

"It's Wolf Leroy--that Mexican-looking fellow there," Hawkes explained in a whisper. "A bad man with the gun, they say, too. Well, him and York Neil and Scott Dailey blew in last night from their mine, up at Saguache. Gave it out he was going to break the bank, Leroy did. Backing that opinion usually comes high, but Leroy is about two thousand to the good, they say."

"Scott Dailey? Don't think I know him."

"That shorthorn in chaps and a yellow bandanna is the gentleman; him that's playing the wheel so constant. You don't miss no world-beater when you don't know Scott. He's Leroy's Man Friday. Understand they've struck it rich. Anyway, they're hitting high places while the mazuma lasts."

"I can't seem to locate their mine. What's its brand?"

"The Dalriada. Some other guy is in with them; fellow by the name of Hardman, if I recollect; just bought out a livery barn in town here."

"Queer thing, luck; strikes about as unexpected as lightning. Have another, Del?"

"Don't care if I do, Val. It always makes me thirsty to see people I like. Anything new up Tucson way?"

The band had fallen on "Manzanilla," and was rending it with variations when Collins circled round to the wheel and began playing the red. He took a place beside the bow-legged vaquero with the yellow bandanna knotted loosely round his throat. For five minutes the cow-puncher attended strictly to his bets. Then he cursed softly, and asked Collins to exchange places with him.

"This place is my hoodoo. I can't win--" The sentence died in the man's throat, became an inarticulate gurgle of dismay.

He had looked up and met the steady eyes of the sheriff, and the surprise of it had driven the blood from his heart. A revolver thrust into his face could not have shaken him more than that serene smile.

Collins took him by the arm with a jovial laugh meant to cover their retreat, and led him into one of the curtained alcove rooms. As they entered he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Leroy and Neil were still intent on their game. Not for a moment, not even while the barkeeper was answering their call for liquor, did the sheriff release Scott from the rigor of his eyes, and when the attendant drew the curtain behind him the officer let his smile take on a new meaning.

"What did I tell you, Scott?"

"Prove it," defied Scott. "Prove it--you can't prove it."

"What can't I prove?"

"Why, that I was in that " Scott stopped abruptly, and watched the smile broaden on the strong face opposite him. His dull brain had come to his rescue none too soon.

"Now, ain't it funny how people's thoughts get to running on the same thing? Last time I met up with you there you was collecting a hundred dollars and keep-the-change cents from me, and now here you are spending it. It's ce'tinly curious how both of us are remembering that little seance in the Pullman car."

Scott took refuge in a dogged silence. He was sweating fear.

"Yes, sir. It comes up right vivid before me. There was you a-trainin' your guns on me--"

"I wasn't," broke in Scott, falling into the trap.

"That's right. How come I to make such a mistake? Of cou'se you carried the sack and York Neil held the guns."

The man cursed quietly, and relapsed into silence.

"Always buy your clothes in pairs?"

The sheriff's voice showed only a pleasant interest, but the outlaw's frightened eyes were puzzled at this sudden turn.

"Wearing a bandanna same color and pattern as you did the night of our jamboree on the Limited, I see. That's mightily careless of you, ain't it?"

Instinctively a shaking hand clutched at the kerchief. "It don't cut any ice because a hold-up wears a mask made out of stuff like this "

"Did I say it was a mask he wore?" the gentle voice quizzed.

Scott, beads of perspiration on his forehead, collapsed as to his defense. He fell back sullenly to his first position: "You can't prove anything."

"Can't I?" The sheriff's smile went out like a snuffed candle. Eyes and mouth were cold and hard as chiseled marble. He leaned forward far across the table, a confident, dominating assurance painted on his face. "Can't I? Don't you bank on that. I can prove all I need to, and your friends will prove the rest. They'll be falling all over themselves to tell what they know--and Mr.Dailey will be holding the sack again, while Leroy and the rest are slipping out."

The outlaw sprang to his feet, white to the lips.

"It's a damned lie. Leroy would never--" He stopped, again just in time to bite back the confession hovering on his lips. But he had told what Collins wanted to know.

The curtain parted, and a figure darkened the doorway--a slender, lithe figure that moved on springs. Out of its sardonic, devil-may-care face gleamed malevolent eyes which rested for a moment on Dailey, before they came home to the sheriff.

"And what is it Leroy would never do?" a gibing voice demanded silkily.

Scott pulled himself together and tried to bluff, but at the look on his chief's face the words died in his throat.

Collins did not lift a finger or move an eyelash, but with the first word a wary alertness ran through him and starched his figure to rigidity. He gathered himself together for what might come.

"Well, I am waiting. What it is Leroy would never do?" The voice carried a scoff with it, the implication that his very presence had stricken conspirators dumb.

Collins offered the explanation.

"Mr. Dailey was beginning a testimonial of your virtues just as you right happily arrived in time to hear it. Perhaps he will now proceed."

But Dailey had never a word left. His blunders had been crying ones, and his chief's menacing look had warned him what to expect. The courage oozed out of his heart, for he counted himself already a dead man.

"And who are you, my friend, that make so free with Wolf Leroy's name?" It was odd how every word of the drawling sentence contrived to carry a taunt and a threat with it, strange what a deadly menace the glittering eyes shot forth.

"My name is Collins."

"Sheriff of Pica County?"

"Yes."

The eyes of the men met like rapiers, as steady and as searching as cold steel. Each of them was appraising the rare quality of his opponent in this duel to the death that was before him.

"What are you doing here? Ain't Pica County your range?"

"I've been discussing with your friend the late hold-up on the Transcontinental Pacific."

"Ah!" Leroy knew that the sheriff was serving notice on them of his purpose to run down the bandits. Swiftly his mind swept up the factors of the situation. Should he draw now and chance the result, or wait for a more certain ending? He decided to wait, moved by the consideration that even if he were victorious the lawyers were sure to draw out of the fat-brained Scott the cause of the quarrel.

"Well, that don't interest me any, though I suppose you have to explain a heap how come they to hold you up and take your gun. I'll leave you and your jelly-fish Scott to your gabfest. Then you better run back home to Tucson. We don't go much on visiting sheriffs here." He turned on his heel with an insolent laugh, and left the sheriff alone with Dailey.

The superb contempt of the man, his readiness to give the sheriff a chance to pump out of Dailey all he knew, served to warn Collins that his life was in imminent danger. On no hypothesis save one--that Leroy had already condemned them both to death in his mind--could he account for such rashness. And that the blow would fall soon, before he had time to confer with other officers, was a corollary to the first proposition.

"He'll surely kill me on sight," Scott burst out.

"Yes, he'll kill you," agreed the sheriff, "unless you move first."

"Move how?"

"Against him. Protect yourself by lining up with me. It's your only show on earth."

Dailey's eyes flashed. "Then, by thunder, I ain't taking it! I'm no coyote, to round on my pardners."

"I give it to you straight. He means murder."

Perspiration poured from the man's face. "I'll light out of the country."

The sheriff shook his head. "You'd never get away alive. Besides, I want you for holding up the Limited. The safest place for you is in jail, and that's where I'm going to put you. Drop that gun! Quick! That's right. Now, you and I are going out of this saloon by the back door. I'm going to walk beside you, and we're going to laugh and talk as if we were the best of friends, but my hand ain't straying any from the end of my gun. Get that, amigo? All right. Then we'll take a little pasear."

As Collins and his prisoner reappeared in the main lobby of the Gold Nugget, a Mexican slipped out of the back door of the gambling-house. The sheriff called Hawkes aside.

"I want you to call a hack for me, Del. Bring it round to the back door, and arrange with the driver to whip up for the depot as soon as we get in. We ought to catch that 12:20 up-train. When the hack gets here just show up in the door. If you see Leroy or Neil hanging around the door, put your hand up to your tie. If the coast is clear, just move off to the bar and order something."

"Sure," said Hawkes, and was off at once, though just a thought unsteady from his frequent libations.

Both hands of the big clock on the wall pointed to twelve when Hawkes appeared again in the doorway at the rear of the Gold Nugget. With a wink at Collins, he made straight for the cocktail he thought he needed.

"Now," said the sheriff, and immediately he and Dailey passed through the back door.

Instantly two shots rang out. Collins lurched forward to the ground, drawing his revolver as he fell. Scott, twisting from his grasp, ran in a crouch toward the alley along the shadow of the buildings. Shots spattered against the wall as his pursuers gave chase. When the Gold Nugget vomited from its rear door a rush of humanity eager to see the trouble, the noise of their footsteps was already dying in the distance.

Hawkes found his friend leaning against the back of the hack, his revolver smoking in his hand.

"For God's sake, Val!" screamed Hawkes. "Did they get you?"

"Punctured my leg. That's all. But I expect they'll get Dailey."

"How come you to go out when I signaled you to stay?"

"Signaled me to stay, why--"

Collins stopped, unwilling to blame his friend. He knew now that Hawkes, having mixed his drinks earlier in the evening, had mixed his signals later.

"Get me a horse, Del, and round up two or three of the boys. I've got to get after those fellows. They are the ones that held up the Limited last week. Find out for me what hotel they put up at here. I want their rooms searched. Send somebody round to the corrals, and let me know where they stabled their horses. If they left any papers or saddle-bags, get them for me."

Fifteen minutes later Collins was in the saddle ready for the chase, and only waiting for his volunteer posse to join him. They were just starting when a frightened Chinaman ran into the plaza with the news that there had been shooting just back of his laundry on the edge of town and that a man had been killed.

When the sheriff reached the spot, he lowered himself from the saddle and limped over to the black mass huddled against the wall in the bright moonlight. He turned the riddled body over and looked down into the face of the dead man. I was that of the outlaw, Scott Dailey. That the body had been thoroughly searched was evident, for all around him were scattered his belongings. Here an old letter and a sack of tobacco, its contents emptied on the ground; there his coat and vest, the linings of each of them ripped out and the pockets emptied. Even the boots and socks of the man had been removed, so thorough had been the search. Whatever the murderers had been looking for it was not money, since his purse, still fairly well lined with greenbacks, was found behind a cactus bush a few yards away.

"What in time were they after?" frowned Collins. "If it wasn't his money--and it sure wasn't--what was it? I ce'tainly would like to know what the Wolf wanted so blamed bad. Guess I'll not follow Mr. Leroy just now till my leg is in better shape. Maybe I had better investigate a little bit round town first."

The body was taken back to the Gold Nugget and placed on a table, pending the arrival of the undertaker. It chanced that Collins, looking absently over the crowd, glimpsed a gray felt hat that looked familiar by reason of a frayed silver band found it. Underneath the hat was a Mexican, and him the sheriff ordered to step forward.

"Where did you get that hat, Manuel?"

"My name is Jose--Jose Archuleta," corrected the olive-hued one.

"I ain't worrying about your name, son. What I want to know is where you found that hat."

"In the alley off the plaza, senor."

"All right. Chuck it up here."

"Muy bien, senor." And the dusty hat was passed from hand to hand till it reached the sheriff.

Collins ripped off the silver band and tore out the sweat-pad. It was an off chance--one in a thousand--but worth trying none the less. And a moment later he knew it was the chance that won. For sewed to the inside of the discolored sweat-pad was a little strip of silk. With his knife he carefully removed the strip, and found between it and the leather a folded fragment of paper closely covered with writing. He carried this to the light, and made it out to be a memorandum of direction of some sort. Slowly he spelled out the poorly written words:

From Y. N. took Unowhat. Went twenty yards strate for big rock. Eight feet direckly west. Fifty yards in direcksion of suthern Antelope Peke. Then eighteen to nerest cotonwood. J. H. begins hear.

Collins read the scrawl twice before an inkling of its meaning came home to him. Then in a flash his brain was lighted. It was a memorandum of the place where Dailey's share of the plunder was buried.

His confederates had known that he had it, and had risked capture to make a thorough search for the paper. That they had not found it was due only to the fact that the murdered man had lost his hat as he scurried down the streets before them.

The doctor, having arrived, examined the wound and suggested an anaesthetic. Collins laughed.

"I reckon not, doc. You round up that lead pill and I'll endure the grief without knockout drops."

While the doctor was probing for the bullet lodged in his leg, the sheriff studied the memorandum found in Dailey's hat. He found it blind, disappointing work, for there was no clearly indicated starting-point. Bit by bit he took it:

From Y. N. took Unowhat.

This was clear enough, so far as it went. It could only mean that from York Neil the writer had taken the plunder to hide. But--where did he take it? From what point? A starting-point must be found somewhere, or the memorandum was of no use. Probably only Neil could supply the needed information, now that Dailey was dead.

Went twenty yards strate for big rock. Eight feet direckly west. Fifty yards in direcksion of suthern Antelope Peke. Then eighteen to nerest cotonwood.

All this was plain enough, but the last sentence was the puzzler.

J. H. begins hear.

Was J. H. a person? If so, what did he begin. If Dailey had buried his plunder, what had J. H. left to do?

But had he buried it? Collins smiled. It was not likely he had handed it over to anybody else to hide for him. And yet--

He clapped his hand down on his knee. "By the jumping California frog, I've got it!" he told himself. "They hid the bulk of what they got from the Limited all together. Went out in a bunch to hide it. Blind-folded each other, and took turn about blinding up the trail. No one of them can go get the loot without the rest. When they want it, every one of these memoranda must be Johnny-on-the-spot before they can dig up the mazuma. No wonder Wolf Leroy searched so thorough for this bit of paper. I'll bet a stack of blue chips against Wolf's chance of heaven that he's the sorest train-robber right this moment that ever punctured a car-window."

Collins laughed softly, nor had the smile died out of his eyes when Hawkes came into the room with information to the point. He had made a round of the corrals, and discovered that the outlaws' horses had been put up at Jay Hardman's place, a tumble-down feed-station on the edge of town.

"Jay didn't take kindly to my questions," Hawkes explained, "but after a little rock-me-to-sleep-mother talk I soothed him down some, and cut the trail of Wolf Leroy and his partners. The old man give me several specimens of langwidge unwashed and uncombed when I told him Wolf and York was outlaws and train-robbers. Didn't believe a word of it, he said. 'Twas just like the fool officers to jump an innocent party. I told Jay to keep his shirt on--he could turn his wolf lose when they framed up that he was in it. Well, sir! I plumb thought for a moment he was going to draw on me when I said that. Say he must be the fellow that's in on that mine, with Leroy and York Neil. He's a big, long-haired guy."

Collins' eyes narrowed to slits, as they always did when he was thinking intensely. Were their suspicions of the showman about to be justified? Did Jay Hardman's interest in Leroy have its source merely in their being birds of a feather, or was there a more direct community of lawlessness between them? Was he a member of Wolf Leroy's murderous gang? Three men had joined in the chase of Dailey, but the tracks had told him that only two horses had galloped from the scene of the murder into the night. The inference left to draw was that a local accomplice had joined them in the chase of Scott, and had slipped back home after the deed had been finished.

What more likely than that Hardman had been this accomplice? Hawkes said he was a big long-haired fellow. So was the man that had held up the engineer of the Limited. He was--"J. H. begins hear." Like a flash the ill-written scrawl jumped to his sight. "J. H." was Jay Hardman. What luck!

The doctor finished his work, and Collins tested his leg gingerly. "Del, I'm going over to have a little talk with the old man. Want to go along?"

"You bet I do, Val"--from Del Hawkes.

"You mustn't walk on that leg for a week or two yet, Mr. Collins," the doctor explained, shaking his head.

"That so, doctor? And it nothing but a nice clean flesh-wound! Sho! I've a deal more confidence in you than that. Ready, Del?"

"It's at your risk then, Mr. Collins."

"Sure." The sheriff smiled. "I'm living at my own risk, doctor. But I'd a heap rather be alive than daid, and take all the risk that's coming, too. But since you make a point of it, I'll do most of my walking on a bronco's back."

They found Mr. Hardman just emerging from the stable with a saddle-pony when they rode into the corral. At a word from Collins, Hawkes took the precaution to close the corral gate.

The fellow held a wary position on the farther side of his horse, the while he ripped out a raucous string of invectives.

"Real fluent, ain't he?" murmured Hawkes, as he began to circle round to flank the enemy.

"Stay right there, Del Hawkes. Move, you redhaided son of a brand blotter, and I'll pump holes in you!" A rifle leveled across the saddle emphasized his sentiments.

"Plumb hospitable," grinned Hawkes, coming promptly to a halt.

Collins rode slowly forward, his hand on the butt of the revolver that still lay in its scabbard. The Winchester covered every step of his progress, but he neither hastened nor faltered, though he knew his life hung in the balance. If his steely blue eyes had released for one moment the wolfish ones of the villain, if he had hesitated or hurried, he would have been shot through the head.

But the eyes of a brave man are the king of weapons. Hardman's fingers itched at the trigger he had not the courage to pull. For such an unflawed nerve he knew himself no match.

"Keep back," he screamed. "Damn it, another step and I'll fire!"

But he did not fire, though Collins rode up to him, dismounted, and threw the end of the rifle carelessly from him.

"Don't be rash, Hardman. I've come here to put you under arrest for robbing the T. P. Limited, and I'm going to do it."

The indolent, contemptuous drawl, so free of even a suggestion of the strain the sheriff must have been under, completed his victory. The fellow lowered his rifle with a peevish oath.

"You're barkin' up the wrong tree, Mr. Collins."

"I guess not," retorted the sheriff easily. "Del, you better relieve Mr. Hardman of his ballast. He ain't really fit to be trusted with a weapon, and him so excitable. That Winchester came awful near going off, friend. You don't want to be so careless when you're playing with firearms. It's a habit that's liable to get you into trouble."

Collins had not shaved death so closely without feeling a reaction of boyish gaiety at his adventure. It bubbled up in his talk like effervescing soda.

"Now we'll go into a committee of the whole, gentlemen, adjourn to the stable, and have a little game of 'Button, button, who's got the button?' You first, Mr. Hardman. If you'll kindly shuck your coat and vest, we'll begin button-hunting."

They diligently searched the miscreant without hiding anything pertaining to "J. H. begins hear."

"He's bound to have it somewhere," asseverated Collins. "It don't stand to reason he was making his getaway without that paper. We got to be more thorough, Del."

Hawkes, under the direction of his friend, ripped up linings and tore away pockets from clothing. The saddle on the bronco and the saddle-blankets were also torn to pieces in vain.

Finally Hawkes scratched his poll and looked down on the wreckage. "I hate to admit it, Val, but the old fox has got us beat; it ain't on his person."

"Not unless he's got it under his skin," agreed Collins, with a grin.

"Maybe he ate it. Think we better operate and find out?"

An idea hit the sheriff. He walked up to Hardman and ordered him to open his mouth.

The jaws set like a vise.

Collins poked his revolver against the closed mouth. "Swear for us, old bird. Get a move on you."

The mouth opened, and Collins inserted two fingers. When he withdrew them they brought a set of false teeth. Under the plate was a tiny rubber bag that stuck to it. Inside the bag was a paper. And on it was written four lines in Spanish. Those lines told what he wanted to know. They, too, were part of a direction for finding hidden treasure.

The sheriff wired at once to Bucky, in Chihuahua. Translated into plain English, his cipher dispatch meant: "Come home at once. Trail getting red hot."

But Bucky did not come. As it happened, that young man had other fish to fry.