Chapter XXXIV. Jim Lane Keeps His Promise.
 

Sammy, on her tired pony, approached the Lookout on the shoulder of Dewey. As they drew near a figure rose quickly from its place on the rock, and, running swiftly along the ledge, concealed itself in the clump of cedars above the trail on the southern side of the mountain. A moment later the almost exhausted horse and his rider passed, and the figure, slipping from the ledge, followed them unobserved down the mountain.

Nearing the house Sammy began to wonder what she should do next. With all her heart the girl believed in her father's innocence. She did not know why those men were at her home. But she did know that the money that helped her father over the drought had come through the shepherd; the Matthews family, too, had been helped the same way. Surely Dad Howitt was incapable of any crime. It was all some terrible mistake; some trap from which her father must be saved. But Sammy knew, too, that Wash Gibbs and his companions were bad men, who might easily be guilty of the robbery. To help them escape the officers was quite a different matter.

Leaving the trembling Brownie in a clump of bushes a little way from the clearing, the girl went forward on foot, and behind her still crept the figure that had followed from the Lookout. Once the figure paused as if undecided which course to pursue. Close by, two saddle horses that had carried their riders on many a long ride were tied to a tree a few feet from the corner of the barn. Sammy would have recognized these, but in her excitement she had failed to notice them.

At first the girl saw no light. Could it be that the officers were wrong? that there was no one at the cabin after all? Then a little penciled gleam set her heart throbbing wildly. Blankets were fastened over the windows.

Sammy remembered that a few days before a bit of chinking had fallen from between the logs in the rear of the cabin. She had spoken to her father about it, but it was not likely that he had remembered to fix it. Cautiously she passed around the house, and, creeping up to the building, through the crevice between the logs, gained a clear view of the interior.

Seated or lounging on chairs and on the floor about the room were eleven men; one, the man who had been with Wash Gibbs at the mill, carried his arm in a sling. The girl outside could hear distinctly every word that was spoken. Wash, himself, was speaking. "Well, boys, we're all here. Let's get through and get away. Bring out the stuff, Jim."

Mr. Lane went to one corner of the cabin, and, pulling up a loose board of the flooring, drew out two heavy sacks. As he placed the bags on the table, the men all rose to their feet. "There it is just as you give it to me," said Jim. "But before you go any farther, men, I've got something to say."

The company stirred uneasily, and all eyes turned from Jim to their big leader, while Sammy noticed for the first time that the table had been moved from its usual place, and that her father had taken such a position that the corner of the cabin was directly behind him, with the table in front. For her life the girl could not have moved.

Slowly Jim swept the group of scowling, wondering faces on the other side of the table. Then, in his slow drawling speech, he said, "Most of you here was in the old organization. Tom and Ed and me knows how it started away back, for we was in it at the beginnin'. Wash, here, was the last man to join, 'fore we was busted, and he was the youngest member, too; bein' only a boy, but big for his age. You remember how he was taken in on account of his daddy's bein' killed by the gov'ment.

"Didn't ary one of us fellers that started it ever think the Bald Knobber's would get to be what they did. We began it as a kind of protection, times bein' wild then. But first we knowed some was a usin' the order to protect themselves in all kinds of devilment, and things went on that way, 'cause nobody didn't dare say anything; for if they did they was tried as traitors, and sentenced to the death.

"I ain't a sayin', boys, that I was any better than lots of others, for I reckon I done my share. But when my girl's mother died, away down there in Texas, I promised her that I'd be a good daddy to my little one, and since then I done the best I know.

"After things quieted down, and I come back with my girl, Wash here got the old crowd, what was left of us, together, and wanted to reorganize again. I told you then that I'd go in with you and stand by the old oath, so long as it was necessary to protect ourselves from them that might be tryin' to get even for what had been done, but that I wouldn't go no farther. I don't mind tellin' you now, boys--though I reckon you know it--that I went in because I knowed what you'd do for me if I didn't. And I didn't dare risk leaving my girl all alone then. I've 'tended every meetin', and done everything I agreed, and there ain't a man here can say I ain't."

Some of the men nodded, and "That's so," and "You're right, Jim" came from two or three.

Jim went on, "You know that I voted against it, and tried to stop you when you hung old man Lewis. I thought then, and I think yet, that it was spite work and not protection; and you know how I was against goin' for the shepherd, and you went when I didn't know it. As for this here bank business, I didn't even know of it, 'till you give me this stuff here for me to keep for you. I had to take it 'count of the oath.

"It's got to be just like it was before. We come together first to keep each other posted, and save ourselves if there was any call to, and little by little you've been led into first one thing and then another, 'till you're every bit and grain as bad as the old crowd was, only there ain't so many of you, and you've kept me in it 'cause I didn't dare leave my girl." Jim paused. There was an ominous silence in the room.

With his eyes covering every scowling face in the company, Jim spoke again, "But things has changed for me right smart, since our last meetin', when you give me this stuff to hold. You boys all know how I've kept Wash Gibbs away from my girl, and there ain't one of you that don't know I'm right, knowin' him as we do. More'n two weeks ago, when I wasn't around, he insulted her, and would have done worse, if Young Matt hadn't been there to take care of her. I called you here to-night, because I knowed that after what happened at the mill, Wash and Bill would be havin' a meetin' as soon as they could get around, and votin' you all to go against Young Matt and his people. But I'm goin' to have my say first."

Wash Gibbs reached stealthily for his weapon, but hesitated when he saw that the dark faced man noted his movement.

Jim continued, in his drawling tones, but his voice rang cold and clear, "I ain't never been mealy mouthed with no man, and I'm too old to begin now. I know the law of the order, and I reckon Gibbs there will try to have you keep it. You boys have got to say whether you'll stand by him or me. It looks like you was goin' to go with him alright. But whether you do or don't, I don't aim to stay with nobody that stands by such as Wash Gibbs. I'm goin' to side with decent folks, who have stood by my girl, and you can do your damnedest. You take this stuff away from here. And as for you, Wash Gibbs, if you ever set foot on my place again, if you ever cross my path after to-night I'll kill you like the measly yeller hound you are." As he finished, Jim stood with his back to the corner of the room, his hand inside of the hickory shirt where the button was missing.

While her father was speaking, Sammy forgot everything, in the wild joy and pride of her heart. He was her Daddy, her Daddy Jim; that man standing so calmly there before the wild company of men. Whatever the past had been, he had wiped it clean to-night. He belonged to her now, all to her. She looked toward Wash Gibbs. Then she remembered the posse, the officers of the law. They could not know what she knew. If her father was taken with the others and with the stolen gold, he would be compelled to suffer with the rest. Yet if she called out to save him, she would save Wash Gibbs and his companions also, and they would menace her father's life day and night.

The girl drew back from the window. She must think. What should she do? Even as she hesitated, a score of dark forms crept swiftly, silently toward the cabin. At the same moment a figure left the side of the house near the girl, and, crouching low, ran to the two horses that were tied near the barn.

Sammy was so dazed that for a moment she did not grasp the meaning of those swiftly moving forms. Then a figure riding one horse and leading another dashed away from the barn and across a corner of the clearing. The silence was broken by a pistol shot in the cabin. Like an echo came a shot from the yard, and a voice rang out sharply, "halt!" The figure reeled in the saddle, as if to fall, but recovered, and disappeared in the timber. The same instant there was a rush toward the house--a loud call to surrender--a woman's scream--and then, came to Sammy, blessed, kindly darkness.