The Killer by Stewart Edward White
I had not thought of the English groom as a man of resource, but his action in this emergency proved him. He cast a fleeting glance over his shoulder. Artie Brower was huddled down in his armchair practically out of sight; Miss Emory and I had reseated ourselves in the only other two chairs in the room, so that we were in the same relative positions as when we had been bound and left. Only the confusion of the papers on the floor and the open safe would have struck an observant eye.
"It is well that you come," said Tim to Cortinez in Spanish. "The senor sent me to conduct these two to the East Room and I like not the job alone. Enter."
He held the door with one hand and fairly dragged Cortinez through with the other. Instantly he closed the door and cast himself on Cortinez's back. I had already launched myself at the Mexican's throat.
The struggle was violent but brief. Fortunately I had not missed my spring at our enemy's windpipe, so he had been unable to shout. The noise of our scuffle sounded loud enough within the walls of the room; but those walls were two feet thick, and the door and windows closed.
"Get something to gag him with, and the cords," panted Tim to the girl.
Brower opened his eyes again.
"I can beat that," he announced.
He produced his hypodermic and proceeded to mix a gunful of the dope.
"This'll fix him," he observed, turning back the Mexican's sleeve. "You can lay him outside and if anybody comes along they'll think he's asleep--as usual."
This we did when the dope had worked.
It was now high time to think of our next move. For weapons we had the gun and knife taken from Cortinez and the miserable little automatic belonging to Brower. That was all. It was perfectly evident that we could not get out through the regular doorways, as, by Tim's statement, they were all closed and guarded. On my representation it was decided to try the roof.
We therefore knotted together the cord that had bound me and two sheets from the bed, and sneaked cautiously out on the verandah, around the corner to the water barrel, and so to the vantage point of the roof.
The chill of the night was come, and the stars hung cold in the sky. It seemed that the air would snap and crackle were some little resolving element to be dropped into its suspended hush. Not a sound was to be heard except a slow drip of water from somewhere in the courtyard.
It was agreed that I, as the heaviest, should descend first. I landed easily enough and steadied the rope for Miss Emory who came next. While I was waiting I distinctly heard, from the direction of the willows, the hooting of an owl. Furthermore, it was a great horned owl, and he seemed to have a lot to say. You remember what I told you about setting your mind so that only one sort of noise will arouse it, but that one instantly? I knew perfectly well that Old Man Hooper's mind was set to all these smaller harmless noises that most people never notice at all, waking or sleeping--frogs, crickets, owls. And therefore I was convinced that sooner or later that old man and his foolish ideas and his shotgun would come projecting right across our well-planned getaway. Which was just what happened, and almost at once. Probably that great horned owl had been hooting for some time, but we had been too busy to notice. I heard the wicket door turning on its hinges, and ventured a warning hiss to Brower and Tim Westmore, who had not yet descended. An instant later I could make out shadowy forms stealing toward the willows. Evidently those who served Old Man Hooper were accustomed to broken rest.
We kept very quiet, straining our eyes at the willows. After an interval a long stab of light pierced the dusk and the round detonation of old-fashioned black powder shook the silence. There came to us the babbling of voices released. At the same instant the newly risen moon plastered us against that whitewashed wall like insects pinned in a cork-lined case. The moonlight must have been visibly creeping down to us for some few minutes, but so absorbed had I been in the doings of the party in the willows, and so chuckleheaded were the two on the roof, that actually none of us had noticed!
I dropped flat and dragged the girl down with me. But there remained that ridiculous, plainly visible rope; and anyway a shout relieved me of any doubt as to whether we had been seen. Brower came tumbling down on us, and with one accord we three doubled to the right around the walls of the ranch. A revolver shot sang by us, but we were not immediately pursued. Our antagonists were too few and too uncertain of our numbers and arms.
It was up to us to utilize the few minutes before the ranch should be aroused. We doubled back through the willows and across the mesquite flat toward the lone Joshua-tree where I had left my horse. I held the girl's hand to help her when she stumbled, while Brower scuttled along with surprising endurance for a dope wreck. Nobody said anything, but saved their wind.
"Where's Tim?" I asked at a check when we had to scramble across a barranca.
"He went back into the ranch the way we came," replied Artie with some bitterness.
It was, nevertheless, the wisest thing he could have done. He had not been identified with this outfit except by Cortinez, and Cortinez was safe for twelve hours.
We found the Joshua-tree without difficulty.
"Now," said I, "here is the plan. You are to take these papers to Senor Buck Johnson, at the Box Springs ranch. That's the next ranch on the fork of the road. Do you remember it?"
"Yes," said Brower, who had waked up and seemed quite sober and responsible. "I can get to it."
"Wake him up. Show him these papers. Make him read them. Tell him that Miss Emory and I are in the Bat-eye Tunnel. Remember that?"
"The Bat-eye Tunnel," repeated Artie.
"Why don't you go?" inquired the girl, anxiously.
"I ride too heavy; and I know where the tunnel is," I replied. "If anybody else was to go, it would be you. But Artie rides light and sure, and he'll have to ride like hell. Here, put these papers inside your shirt. Be off!"
Lights were flickering at the ranch as men ran to and fro with lanterns. It would not take these skilled vaqueros long to catch their horses and saddle up. At any moment I expected to see the massive doors swing open to let loose the wolf pack.
Brower ran to my horse--a fool proceeding, especially for an experienced horseman--and jerked loose the tie rope. Badger is a good reliable cow horse, but he's not a million years old, and he's got some natural equine suspicions. I kind of lay a good deal of it to that fool hard-boiled hat. At any rate, he snorted and sagged back on the rope, hit a yucca point, whirled and made off. Artie was game. He hung on until he was drug into a bunch of chollas, and then he had to let go. Badger departed into the distance, tail up and snorting.
"Well, you've done it now!" I observed to Brower, who, crying with nervous rage and chagrin, and undoubtedly considerably stuck up with cholla spines, was crawling to his feet.
"Can't we catch him? Won't he stop?" asked Miss Emory. "If he gets to the ranch, won't they look for you?"
"He's one of my range ponies: he won't stop short of the Gila."
I cast over the chances in my mind, weighing my knowledge of the country against the probabilities of search. The proportion was small. Most of my riding experience had been farther north and to the west. Such obvious hole-ups as the one I had suggested--the Bat-eye Tunnel--were of course familiar to our pursuers. My indecision must have seemed long, for the girl broke in anxiously on my meditations.
"Oughtn't we to be moving?"
"As well here as anywhere," I replied. "We are under good cover; and afoot we could not much better ourselves as against mounted men. We must hide."
"But they may find the trampled ground where your horse has been tied."
"I hope they do."
"You hope they do!"
"Sure. They'll figure that we must sure have moved away. They'll never guess we'd hide near at hand. At least that's what I hope."
"How about tracks?"
"Not at night. By daylight maybe."
"But then to-morrow morning they can----"
"To-morrow morning is a long way off."
"Look!" cried Brower.
The big gates of the ranch had been thrown open. The glare of a light--probably a locomotive headlight--poured out. Mounted figures galloped forth and swerved to right or left, spreading in a circle about the enclosure. The horsemen reined to a trot and began methodically to quarter the ground, weaving back and forth. Four detached themselves and rode off at a swift gallop to the points of the compass. The mounted men were working fast for fear, I suppose, that we may have possessed horses. Another contingent, afoot and with lanterns, followed more slowly, going over the ground for indications. I could not but admire the skill and thoroughness of the plan.
"Our only chance is in the shadow from the moon," I told my companions. "If we can slip through the riders, and get in their rear, we may be able to follow the barranca down. Any of those big rocks will do. Lay low, and after a rider has gone over a spot, try to get to that spot without being seen."
We were not to be kept long in suspense. Out of all the three hundred and sixty degrees of the circle one of the swift outriders selected precisely our direction! Straight as an arrow he came for us, at full gallop. I could see the toss of his horse's mane against the light from the opened door. There was no time to move. All we could do was to cower beneath our rock, muscles tense, and hope to be able to glide around the shadow as he passed.
But he did not pass. Down into the shallow barranca he slid with a tinkle of shale, and drew rein within ten feet of our lurking place.
We could hear the soft snorting of his mount above the thumping of our hearts. I managed to get into a position to steal a glimpse. It was difficult, but at length I made out the statuesque lines of the horse, and the rider himself, standing in his stirrups and leaning slightly forward, peering intently about him. The figures were in silhouette against the sky, but nobody ever fooled me as to a horse. It was the Morgan stallion, and the rider was Tim Westmore. Just as the realization came to me, Tim uttered a low, impatient whistle.
It's always a good idea to take a chance. I arose into view--but I kept my gun handy.
"Thank God!" cried Tim, fervently, under his breath. "I remembered you'd left your horse by this Joshua: it's the only landmark in the dark. Saints!" he ejaculated in dismay as he saw us all. "Where's your horse?"
"We can't all ride this stallion----"
"Listen," I cut in, and I gave him the same directions I had previously given Brower. He heard me attentively.
"I can beat that," he cut me off. He dismounted. "Get on here, Artie. Ride down the barranca two hundred yards and you'll come to an alkali flat. Get out on that flat and ride like hell for Box Springs."
"Why don't you do it?"
"I'm going back and tell 'em how I was slugged and robbed of my horse."
"They'll kill you if they suspect; dare you go back?"
"I've been back once," he pointed out. He was helping Brower aboard.
"Where did you get that bag?" he asked.
"Found it by the rock where we were hiding: it's mine," replied Brower.
Westmore tried to get him to leave it, but the little jockey was obstinate. He kicked his horse and, bending low, rode away.
"You're right: I beg your pardon," I answered Westmore's remark to me. "You don't look slugged."
"That's easy fixed," said Tim, calmly. He removed his hat and hit his forehead a very solid blow against a projection of the conglomerate boulder. The girl screamed slightly.
"Hush!" warned Tim in a fierce whisper. He raised his hand toward the approaching horsemen, who were now very near. Without attention to the blood streaming from his brow he bent his head to listen to the faint clinking of steel against rock that marked the stallion's progress toward the alkali flat. The searchers were by now dangerously close, and Tim uttered a smothered oath of impatience. But at last we distinctly heard the faint, soft thud of galloping hoofs.
The searchers heard it, too, and reined up to listen. Tim thrust into my hand the 30-30 Winchester he was carrying together with a box of cartridges. Then with a leap like a tiger he gained the rim of the barranca. Once there, however, his forces seemed to desert him. He staggered forward calling in a weak voice. I could hear the volley of rapid questions shot at him by the men who immediately surrounded him; and his replies. Then somebody fired a revolver thrice in rapid succession and the whole cavalcade swept away with a mighty crackling of brush. Immediately after Tim rejoined us. I had not expected this.
Relieved for the moment we hurried Miss Emory rapidly up the bed of the shallow wash. The tunnel mentioned was part of an old mine operation, undertaken at some remote period before the cattle days. It entered the base of one of those isolated conical hills, lying like islands in the plain, so common in Arizona. From where we had hidden it lay about three miles to the northeast. It was a natural and obvious hide out, and I had no expectation of remaining unmolested. My hope lay in rescue.
We picked our way under cover of the ravine as long as we could, then struck boldly across the plain. Nobody seemed to be following us. A wild hope entered my heart that perhaps they might believe we had all made our escape to Box Springs.
As we proceeded the conviction was borne in on me that the stratagem had at least saved us from immediate capture. Like most men who ride I had very sketchy ideas of what three miles afoot is like--at night--in high heels. The latter affliction was common to both Miss Emory and myself. She had on a sort of bedroom slipper, and I wore the usual cowboy boots. We began to go footsore about the same time, and the little rolling volcanic rocks among the bunches of sacatone did not help us a bit. Tim made good time, curse him. Or rather, bless him; for as I just said, if he had not tolled away our mounted pursuit we would have been caught as sure as God made little green apples. He seemed as lively as a cricket, in spite of the dried blood across his face.
The moon was now sailing well above the horizon, throwing the world into silver and black velvet. When we moved in the open we showed up like a train of cars; but, on the other hand, the shadow was a cloak. It was by now nearly one o'clock in the morning.
Miss Emory's nerve did not belie the clear, steadfast look of her eye; but she was about all in when we reached the foot of Bat-eye Butte. Tim and I had discussed the procedure as we walked. I was for lying in wait outside; but Tim pointed out that the tunnel entrance was well down in the boulders, that even the sharpest outlook could not be sure of detecting an approach through the shadows, and that from the shelter of the roof props and against the light we should be able to hold off a large force almost indefinitely. In any case, we would have to gamble on Brewer's winning through, and having sense enough in his opium-saturated mind to make a convincing yarn of it. So after a drink at the tenaja below the mine we entered the black square of the tunnel.
The work was old, but it had been well done. They must have dragged the timbers down from the White Mountains. Indeed a number of unused beams, both trunks of trees and squared, still lay around outside. From time to time, since the original operations, some locoed prospector comes projecting along and does a little work in hopes he may find something the other fellow had missed. So the passage was crazy with props and supports, new and old, placed to brace the ageing overhead timbers. Going in they were a confounded nuisance against the bumped head; but looking back toward the square of light they made fine protections behind which to crouch. In this part of the country any tunnel would be dry. It ran straight for about a hundred and fifty feet.
We groped our way about seventy-five feet, which was as far as we could make out the opening distinctly, and sat down to wait. I still had the rest of the tailor-made cigarettes, which I shared with Tim. We did not talk, for we wished to listen for sounds outside. To judge by her breathing, I think Miss Emory dozed, or even went to sleep.
About an hour later I thought to hear a single tinkle of shale. Tim heard it, too, for he nudged me. Our straining ears caught nothing further, however; and I, for one, had relaxed from my tension when the square of light was darkened by a figure. I was nearest, so I raised Cortinez's gun and fired. The girl uttered a scream, and the figure disappeared. I don't know yet whether I hit him or not; we never found any blood.
We made Miss Emory lie down behind a little slide of rock, and disposed ourselves under shelter.
"We can take them as fast as they come," exulted Tim.
"I don't believe there are more than two or three of them," I observed. "It would be only a scouting party. They will go for help."
As there was no longer reason for concealment, we talked aloud and freely.
Now ensued a long waiting interim. We could hear various sounds outside as of moving to and fro. The enemy had likewise no reason for further concealment.
"Look!" suddenly cried Tim. "Something crawling."
He raised the 30-30 and fired. Before the flash and the fumes had blinded me I, too, had seen indistinctly something low and prone gliding around the corner of the entrance. That was all we could make out of it, for as you can imagine the light was almost non-existent. The thing glided steadily, untouched or unmindful of the shots we threw at it. When it came to the first of the crazy uprights supporting the roof timbers it seemed to hesitate gropingly. Then it drew slowly back a foot or so, and darted forward. The ensuing thud enlightened us. The thing was one of the long, squared timbers we had noted outside; and it was being used as a battering ram.
"They'll bring the whole mountain down on us!" cried Tim, springing forward.
But even as he spoke, and before he had moved two feet, that catastrophe seemed at least to have begun. The prop gave way: the light at the entrance was at once blotted out; the air was filled with terrifying roaring echoes. There followed a succession of crashes, the rolling of rocks over each other, the grinding slide of avalanches great and small. We could scarcely breathe for the dust. Our danger was that now the thing was started it would not stop: that the antique and inadequate supports would all give way, one bringing down the other in succession until we were buried. Would the forces of equilibrium establish themselves through the successive slight resistances of these rotted, worm-eaten old timbers before the constricted space in which we crouched should be entirely eaten away?
After the first great crash there ensued a moment's hesitation. Then a second span succumbed. There followed a series of minor chutes with short intervening silences. At last so long an interval of calm ensued that we plucked up courage to believe it all over. A single stone rolled a few feet and hit the rock floor with a bang. Then, immediately after, the first-deafening thunder was repeated as evidently another span gave way. It sounded as though the whole mountain had moved. I was almost afraid to stretch out my hand for fear it would encounter the wall of debris. The roar ceased as abruptly as it had begun. Followed then a long silence. Then a little cascading tinkle of shale. And another dead silence.
"I believe it's over," ventured Miss Emory, after a long time.
"I'm going to find out how bad it is," I asserted.
I moved forward cautiously, my arms extended before me, feeling my way with my feet. Foot after foot I went, encountering nothing but the props. Expecting as I did to meet an obstruction within a few paces at most, I soon lost my sense of distance; after a few moments it seemed to me that I must have gone much farther than the original length of the tunnel. At last I stumbled over a fragment, and so found my fingers against a rough mass of debris.
"Why, this is fine!" I cried to the others, "I don't believe more than a span or so has gone!"
I struck one of my few remaining matches to make sure. While of course I had no very accurate mental image of the original state of things, still it seemed to me there was an awful lot of tunnel left. As the whole significance of our situation came to me, I laughed aloud.
"Well," said I, cheerfully, "they couldn't have done us a better favour! It's a half hour's job to dig us out, and in the meantime we are safe as a covered bridge. We don't even have to keep watch."
"Provided Brower gets through," the girl reminded us.
"He'll get through," assented Tim, positively. "There's nothing on four legs can catch that Morgan stallion."
I opened my watch crystal and felt of the hands. Half-past two.
"Four or five hours before they can get here," I announced.
"We'd better go to sleep, I think," said Miss Emory.
"Good idea," I approved. "Just pick your rocks and go to it."
I sat down and leaned against one of the uprights, expecting fully to wait with what patience I might the march of events. Sleep was the farthest thing from my thoughts. When I came to I found myself doubled on my side with a short piece of ore sticking in my ribs and eighteen or twenty assorted cramp-pains in various parts of me. This was all my consciousness had room to attend to for a few moments. Then I became dully aware of faint tinkling sounds and muffled shoutings from the outer end of the tunnel. I shouted in return and made my way as rapidly as possible toward the late entrance.
A half hour later we crawled cautiously through a precarious opening and stood blinking at the sunlight.