Part Five
Chapter XXXIV
 

Ware was an expert gun-man who had survived the early days of Arizona, New Mexico, and the later ruffianism of the border on Old Mexico. His habit was at all times alert. Now, in especial, behind his casual conversation, he had been straining his finer senses for the first intimations of danger. For perhaps six seconds before Amy cried out he had been aware of an unusual faint sound heard beneath rather than above the cheerful and accustomed noises of the forest. It baffled him. If he had imposed silence on his companion, and had set himself to listening, he might have been able to identify and localize it, but it really presented nothing alarming enough. It might have been a squirrel playfully spasmodic, or the leisurely step forward of some hidden and distant cow browsing among the bushes. Ware lent an attentive ear to the quiet sounds of the woodland, but continued to stand at ease and unalarmed.

The scream, however, released instantly the springs of his action. With the heel of his left palm he dealt Bob so violent a shoving blow that the young man was thrown forward off his feet. As part of the same motion his right hand snatched his weapon from its holster, threw the muzzle over his left shoulder, and discharged the revolver twice in the direction from which Ware all at once realized the sound had proceeded. So quickly did the man's brain act, so instantly did his muscles follow his brain, that the scream, the blow, and the two shots seemed to go off together as though fired by one fuse.

Bob bounded to his feet. Ware had whirled in his tracks, had crouched, and was glaring fixedly across the openings at the forks. The revolver smoked in his hand.

"Oh, are you hurt? Are you hurt?" Amy was crying over and over, as, regardless of the stiff manzanita and the spiny deer brush, she tore her way down the hill.

"All right! All right!" Bob found his breath to assure her.

She stopped short, clenched her hands at her sides, and drew a deep, sobbing breath. Then, quite collectedly, she began to disentangle herself from the difficulties into which her haste had precipitated her.

"It's all right," she called to Ware. "He's gone. He's run."

Still tense, Ware rose to his full height. He let down the hammer of his six-shooter, and dropped the weapon back in its holster.

"What was it, Amy?" he asked, as the girl rejoined them.

"Saleratus Bill," she panted. "He had his gun in his hand."

Bob was looking about him a trifle bewildered.

"I thought for a minute I was hit," said he.

"I knocked you down to get you down," explained Ware. "If there's shooting going on, it's best to get low."

"Thought I was shot," confessed Bob. "I heard two shots."

"I fired twice," said Ware. "Thought sure I must have hit, or he'd have fired back. Otherwise I'd a' kept shooting. You say he run?"

"Immediately. Didn't you see him?"

"I just cut loose at the noise he made. Why do you suppose he didn't shoot?"

"Maybe he wasn't gunning for us after all," suggested Bob.

"Maybe you've got another think coming," said Ware.

During this short exchange they were all three moving down the wagon trail. Ware's keen old eyes were glancing to right, left and ahead, and his ears fairly twitched. In spite of his conversation and speculations, he was fully alive to the possibilities of further danger.

"He maybe's laying for us yet," said Bob, as the thought finally occurred to him. "Better have your gun handy."

"My gun's always handy," said Ware.

"You're bearing too far south," interposed the girl. "He was more up this way."

"Don't think it," said Ware.

"Yes," she insisted. "I marked that young fir near where I first saw him; and he ran low around that clump of manzanita."

Still skeptical, Ware joined her.

"That's right," he admitted, after a moment. "Here's his trail. I'd have swore he was farther south. That's where I fired. I only missed him by about a hundred yards," he grinned. "He sure made a mighty tall sneak. I'm still figuring why he didn't open fire."

"Waiting for a better chance, maybe," suggested Amy.

"Must be. But what better chance does he want, unless he aims to get Bob here, with a club?"

They followed the tracks left by Saleratus Bill until it was evident beyond doubt that the gun-man had in reality departed. Then they started to retrace their steps.

"Why not cut across?" asked Bob.

"I want to see whereabouts I was shooting," said Ware.

"We'll cut across and wait for you on the road."

"All right," Ware agreed.

They made their short-cut, and waited. After a minute or so Ware shouted to them.

"Hullo!" Bob answered.

"Come here!"

They returned down the dusty mill road. Just beyond the forks Ware was standing, looking down at some object. As they approached he raised his face to them. Even under its tan, it was pale.

"Guess this is another case of innocent bystander," said he gravely.

Flat on his back, arms outstretched in the dust, lay Oldham, with a bullet hole accurately in the middle of his forehead.