Chapter XV
 

They had no tender feelings about me, however. Nobody cared whether I ever ate or not. I was led into the little ranch office and catechized to a fare-ye-well. They sat and roosted and squatted about, emitting solemn puffs of smoke and speaking never a word; and the sun went down in shafts of light through the murk, and the old shadows of former days crept from the corners. When I had finished my story it was dusk.

And on the heels of my recital came the sound of hoofs in a hurry; and presently loomed in the doorway the gigantic figure of Tom Thorne, the sheriff. He peered, seeing nothing through the smoke and the twilight; and the old timers sat tight and smoked.

"Buck Johnson here?" asked Thorne in his big voice.

"Here," replied the senor.

"I am told," said Thorne, directly, "that there is here an assembly for unlawful purposes. If so, I call on you in the name of the law to keep the peace."

"Tom," rejoined Buck Johnson, "I want you to make me your deputy."

"For what purpose?"

"There is a dispossession notice to be served hereabouts; a trespasser who must be put off from property that is not his."

"You men are after Hooper, and I know it. Now you can't run your neighbours' quarrels with a gun, not anymore. This is a country of law now."

"Tom," repeated Buck in a reasoning tone, "come in. Strike a light if you want to: and take a look around. There's a lot of your friends here. There's Jim Carson over in the corner, and Donald Macomber, and Marcus Malley, and Dan Watkins."

At this slow telling of the most prominent names in the southwest cattle industry Tom Thorne took a step into the room and lighted a match. The little flame, held high above his head, burned down to his fingers while he stared at the impassive faces surrounding him. Probably he had thought to interfere dutifully in a local affair of considerable seriousness; and there is no doubt that Tom Thorne was never afraid of his duty. But here was Arizona itself gathered for purposes of its own. He hardly noticed when the flame scorched his fingers.

"Tom," said Buck Johnson after a moment, "I heerd tell of a desperate criminal headed for Grant's Pass, and I figure you can just about catch up with him if you start right now and keep on riding. Only you'd better make me your deputy first. It'll sort of leave things in good legal responsible hands, as you can always easy point out if asked."

Tom gulped.

"Raise your right hand," he commanded, curtly, and administered the oath. "Now I leave it in your hands to preserve the peace," he concluded. "I call you all to witness."

"That's all right, Tom," said Buck, still in his crooning tones, taking the big sheriff by the elbow and gently propelling him toward the door, "now as to this yere criminal over toward Grant's Pass, he was a little bit of a runt about six foot three tall; heavy set, weight about a hundred and ten; light complected with black hair and eyes. You can't help but find him. Tom's a good sort," he observed, coming back, "but he's young. He don't realize yet that when things get real serious this sheriff foolishness just nat'rally bogs down. Now I reckon we'd better talk to the girl."

I made a beeline for the cook house while they did that and filled up for three. By the time I had finished, the conference was raised, and men were catching and saddling their mounts. I did not intend to get left out, you may be sure, so I rustled around and borrowed me a saddle and a horse, and was ready to start with the rest.

We jogged up the road in a rough sort of column, the old timers riding ahead in a group of their own. No injunction had been laid as to keeping quiet; nevertheless, conversation was sparse and low voiced. The men mostly rode in silence smoking their cigarettes. About half way the leaders summoned me, and I trotted up to join them.

They wanted to know about the situation of the ranch as I had observed it. I could not encourage them much. My recollection made of the place a thoroughly protected walled fortress, capable of resisting a considerable assault.

"Of course with this gang we could sail right over them," observed Buck, thoughtfully, "but we'd lose a considerable of men doing it."

"Ain't no chance of sneaking somebody inside?" suggested Watkins.

"Got to give Old Man Hooper credit for some sense," replied the senor, shortly.

"We can starve 'em out," suggested somebody.

"Unless I miss the old man a mile he's already got a messenger headed for the troops at Fort Huachuca," interposed Macomber. "He ain't fool enough to take chances on a local sheriff."

"You're tooting he ain't," approved Buck Johnson. "It's got to be quick work."

"Burn him out," said Watkins.

"It's the young lady's property," hesitated my boss. "I kind of hate to destroy it unless we have to."

At this moment the Morgan stallion, which I had not noticed before, was reined back to join our little group. Atop him rode the diminutive form of Artie Brower whom I had thought down and out. He had evidently had his evening's dose of hop and under the excitation of the first effect had joined the party. His derby hat was flattened down to his ears. Somehow it exasperated me.

"For heaven's sake why don't you get you a decent hat!" I muttered, but to myself. He was carrying that precious black bag.

"Blow a hole in his old walls!" he suggested, cheerfully. "That old fort was built against Injins. A man could sneak up in the shadow and set her off. It wouldn't take but a dash of soup to stick a hole you could ride through a-horseback."

"Soup?" echoed Buck.

"Nitroglycerine," explained Watkins, who had once been a miner.

"Oh, sure!" agreed Buck, sarcastically. "And where'd we get it?"

"I always carry a little with me just for emergencies," asserted Brower, calmly, and patted his black bag.

There was a sudden and unanimous edging away.

"For the love of Pete!" I cried. "Was there some of that stuff in there all the time I've been carrying it around?"

"It's packed good: it can't go off," Artie reassured us. "I know my biz."

"What in God's name do you want such stuff for!" cried Judson.

"Oh, just emergencies," answered Brower, vaguely, but I remembered his uncanny skill in opening the combination of the safe. Possibly that contract between Emory and Hooper had come into his hands through professional activities. However, that did not matter.

"I can make a drop of soup go farther than other men a pint," boasted Artie. "I'll show you: and I'll show that old----"

"You'll probably get shot," observed Buck, watching him closely.

"W'at t'hell," observed Artie with an airy gesture.

"It's the dope he takes," I told Johnson aside. "It only lasts about so long. Get him going before it dies on him."

"I see. Trot right along," Buck commanded.

Taking this as permission Brower clapped heels to the stallion and shot away like an arrow.

"Hold on! Stop! Oh, damn!" ejaculated the senor. "He'll gum the whole game!" He spurred forward in pursuit, realized the hopelessness of trying to catch the Morgan, and reined down again to a brisk travelling canter. We surmounted the long, slow rise this side of Hooper's in time to see a man stand out in the brush, evidently for the purpose of challenging the horseman. Artie paid him not the slightest attention, but swept by magnificently, the great stallion leaping high in his restrained vitality. The outpost promptly levelled his rifle. We saw the vivid flash in the half light. Brower reeled in his saddle, half fell, caught himself by the stallion's mane and clung, swinging to and fro. The horse, freed of control, tossed his head, laid back his ears, and ran straight as an arrow for the great doors of the ranch.

We uttered a simultaneous groan of dismay. Then with one accord we struck spurs and charged at full speed, grimly and silently. Against the gathering hush of evening rose only the drum-roll of our horses' hoofs and the dust cloud of their going. Except that Buck Johnson, rising in his stirrups, let off three shots in the air; and at the signal from all points around the beleagured ranch men arose from the brush and mounted concealed horses, and rode out into the open with rifles poised.

The stallion thundered on; and the little jockey managed to cling to the saddle, though how he did it none of us could tell. In the bottomland near the ranch he ran out of the deeper dusk into a band of the strange, luminous after-glow that follows erratically sunset in wide spaces. Then we could see that he was not only holding his seat, but was trying to do something, just what we could not make out. The reins were flying free, so there was no question of regaining control.

A shot flashed at him from the ranch; then a second; after which, as though at command, the firing ceased. Probably the condition of affairs had been recognized.

All this we saw from a distance. The immensity of the Arizona country, especially at dusk when the mountains withdraw behind their veils and mystery flows into the bottomlands, has always a panoramic quality that throws small any human-sized activities. The ranch houses and their attendant trees look like toys; the bands of cattle and the men working them are as though viewed through the reverse lenses of a glass; and the very details of mesquite or sacatone flats, of alkali shallow or of oak grove are blended into broad washes of tone. But now the distant, galloping horse with its swaying mannikin charging on the ranch seemed to fill our world. The great forces of portent that hover aloof in the dusk of the desert stooped as with a rush of wings. The peaceful, wide spaces and the veiled hills and the brooding skies were swept clear. Crisis filled our souls: crisis laid her hand on every living moving thing in the world, stopping it in its tracks so that the very infinities for a brief, weird period seemed poised over the running horse and the swaying, fumbling man.

At least that is the way it affected me; and subsequent talk leads me to believe that that it is how it affected every man jack of us. We all had different ways of expressing it. Windy Bill subsequently remarked: "I felt like some old Injun He-God had just told me to crawl in my hole and give them that knew how a chanct."

But I know we all stopped short, frozen in our tracks, and stared, and I don't believe man, or horse, drew a deep breath.

Nearer and nearer the stallion drew to the ranch. Now he was within a few yards. In another moment he would crash head on, at tremendous speed, into the closed massive doors. The rider seemed to have regained somewhat of his strength. He was sitting straight in the saddle, was no longer clinging. But apparently he was making no effort to regain control. His head was bent and he was still fumbling at something. The distance was too great for us to make out what, but that much we could see.

On flew the stallion at undiminished speed. He was running blind; and seemingly nothing could save him from a crash. But at almost the last moment the great doors swung back. Those within had indeed realized the situation and were meeting it. At the same instant Brower rose in his stirrups and brought his arm forward in a wide, free swing. A blinding glare flashed across the world. We felt the thud and heave of a tremendous explosion. Dust obliterated everything.

"Charge, you coyotes! Charge!" shrieked Buck Johnson.

And at full speed, shrieking like fiends, we swept across flats.