Chapter XXI. The Plotters
 

After Curly had been dumped unceremoniously beyond the Golden Crest, and sternly ordered never to return, he had sped hurriedly forward. He was careless whither his steps led, so long as he was away from Glen West and that frowning mountain ridge. Fear still possessed his soul, and he believed that he had escaped death as if by a miracle. He was so frightened that he did not realise how tired and hungry he was until he had done a considerable distance, stumbling at every step, and at times falling prone upon the ground. His bruises he hardly felt until he had almost reached the foot of the long slope down which he was speeding. Then a great weakness came upon him, and his body trembled. Then he knew that he was very hungry and a long way from Big Draw. What should he do? How could he drag his tired body any farther through the night, with no trail to guide him? In fact, he did not know where he was. Then the terrible truth flashed upon his mind that he was lost. This brought him to his senses, and his terror vanished. In its stead, a burning rage swept upon him, filled his heart, and made him once more a brute thirsting for revenge. Before his distorted vision rose the mocking face of Jim Weston, and a deep growling curse spued from his lips. Then he saw Glen standing with Reynolds by the side of the street, and turning swiftly around he faced the Golden Crest, and lifting his dirty bleeding right hand, he shook his clenched fist, and hurled forth a stream of terrible imprecations. But every word sent forth came back with a startling clearness from the mysterious depths of the brooding forest. Nature could not contain such language within her unsullied bosom, but returned it immediately to the vile source from whence it came.

When Curly's rage had somewhat spent itself, he began to meditate upon swift and dire revenge. But first of all he needed food, and assistance from someone as base as himself. Big Draw could supply him with the former, but he had no idea where he could find the latter. He thought of Slim Fales, his recent companion. Him, however, he soon dismissed from his mind as unsuitable. Slim had not suffered as he had, and would not enter heartily into any proposal he might make. And, besides, Slim had fled and left him to his fate. No, he must find someone as desperate as himself upon whom he could thoroughly depend.

This feeling of revenge gave Curly new strength. He must reach Big Draw, obtain food, and make whatever plans would be necessary. Once more he headed for the valley, lying dark and sullen below. By following this, he expected to reach the big creek on which the mining camp was situated.

Arriving ere long at the bottom of the hill, he moved as fast as possible down the creek. There was no trail to guide him, and it was with much difficulty that he made his way through the forest, which was here thick and scrubby. So painful did this at last become, that he was forced to follow the little brook which flowed down the valley. This, too, was rough, and at times he was compelled to walk in the water. But there were no trees to bother him, so he accordingly made better progress.

He had thus gone some distance when, rounding a bend in the creek, he was surprised to see directly before him the light of a camp fire. Hope at first leaped into his heart. Then he became cautious, for he could not tell whether it was the stopping place of friend or foe. Carefully now he advanced, and when near enough to recognize the face of a man sitting before the blaze, he emitted a whoop, and rushed forward.

At this startling sound from the grimness of the forest, the lone camper started, seized his rifle, and leaped to his feet.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "Stop, or I'll shoot."

"It's only me," Curly hastened to reply, as he stepped forth, into the circle of light. "Ye wouldn't shoot a friend, would ye, Dan?"

The latter lowered his rifle, and stared with undisguised surprise upon his visitor.

"Well, fer the love of heaven!" he exclaimed, scanning closely the wretched creature who had so unexpectedly appeared. "Where did you drop from? and what has happened?"

"Give me something to eat," Curly gasped, "an' then I'll tell ye. I'm almost dead."

Laying aside his rifle, the other opened a bag nearby and produced several hard-tack biscuits. Like a ravenous beast Curly seized and devoured them.

"More, more," he begged.

"I'm short myself," Dan informed him, as he again thrust his hand into the bag. "There, take them," and he tossed over two more biscuits.

When Curly had eaten the last crumb, he searched into a hole in his jacket and brought forth an old blackened pipe.

"Got any tobacco, Dan? Mine's all gone."

Without a word the latter passed him part of a plug.

"A match," was the next request.

"What d'ye think I am?" was the curt reply; "a store? Get a light fer yourself," and Dan motioned to the fire. "I can't spare any matches."

Curly did as he was ordered, lighted his pipe with a small burning stick, and then stretched himself out before the fire. He was a sorry looking spectacle, and Dan watched him curiously.

"What's the matter, Curly?" he asked. "Where have you been?"

"Where d'ye think I've been?" was the surly reply. "Where do I look as if I'd been? To a Garden Party?"

"Well, no, judging by your appearance. Haven't been mauled by a grizzly, have you?"

"No, worse than a grizzly. I've been in the hands of devils, that's where I've been. And his Satanic majesty was there, too."

"H'm, it's rather early, isn't it, Curly?" and Dan grinned.

"Early! What d'ye mean?"

"Nothing, except that ye didn't expect to meet the devil an' his bunch until ye cashed in, did ye?"

"Oh, I see. But we'll be pardners, then, Dan, never fear. But if the devil an' his gang are any worse than the ones at Glen West, then the outlook isn't very bright for either of us."

"So you've been in Jim Weston's hands, eh?" Dan queried, while his eyes closed to a narrow squint.

"Should say I have, an' just barely escaped. It was terrible!" Curly's hands trembled, and into his eyes came a look of fear as he glanced apprehensively around. "Ye don't suppose they've followed me, do you?"

"Don't be a fool," Dan chided. "D'ye want me to tell ye something?"

"Sure. Go ahead."

"Jim Weston and his Indian gang were only bluffing."

"Bluffing!"

"That's what I said. Look here, Curly, they did the same thing to me, and scared me nearly to death when I was prowling around Glen West. I thought fer certain that I had escaped just by the skin of me teeth. But since I've talked with several others who were treated in the same way, I know that the whole thing is a bluff, an' nothin' more."

Curly's eyes were big with amazement, and slowly he comprehended the meaning of it all.

"An' ye think they wouldn't burn a man alive?" he gasped.

"No. Take my word fer it, they have never done such a thing yet, an' never will. Jim Weston wants to keep all white men away from Glen West, an' so he puts up that bluff. It's on account of his daughter. He knows that more than you an' me have their eyes on her. That's what took you there, wasn't it?"

"Sure. D'ye think it'd be anything else than a woman that would put me into such a scrape?"

"An' didn't get her after all. That's too bad."

"But I will get her," Curly declared with an oath. "That slick gentleman sucker isn't going to have her."

"Who d'ye mean?"

"Oh, you know, don't ye? It's that guy who knocked off the bottles. He's at Glen West now, an' very chummy with Jim Weston's daughter."

"How in h---- did he get there?"

"Search me. But he's there, all right, an' from all appearance he's going to stay, for a while at least, until I show me hand."

"What can you do? It seems to me that you've had enough of that place already."

"So I have, but not of the girl. My, she's worth riskin' one's neck for. But, say, Dan, what are you doing out here?"

"Prospectin', of course. What else would I be doin'?"

"Strike anything?"

"Not yet, though I've good prospects in sight, 'specially since you've arrived."

Seeing the look of surprise in Curly's eyes, Dan laughed.

"Yes," he continued, "I'm prospectin' in the same way that you are. I'm after Jim Weston's gal."

"You are!" Curly's face brightened. "How long have you been at it?"

"Oh, fer about a week. Ye see, I got into the same scrape that you did, an' was pitched this side of Golden Crest, with strict orders to head fer Big Draw at once."

"An' did ye?"

"Sure. I did as I was told. But I returned, built a shack in the hills, an' have been prowlin' around ever since waitin' me chance. Jim Weston's daughter sometimes rides alone on this side of the Crest, but so far I've missed meetin' her. But I'll get her one of these days, an' then her devil of a father will know that Dan Hivers has some of the Old Nick in him as well as he has. It's a mighty poor game, to my way of thinkin', at which two can't play."

"Yes, and more than two," Curly eagerly replied. "You're just the man I need. Let's work together, Dan, an' we'll be company fer each other. Have you any grub?"

"Lots of it in me shack. I brought a good supply from Big Draw, an' fresh meat is plentiful in the hills. I've an extra rifle, too, if ye need it."

"What's your plan?" Curly asked. "You know this region better'n I do."

Dan did not at once reply, but sat looking thoughtfully into the fire.

"An' ye say that guy's got the cinch on the gal?" he at length queried.

"Seems so. He was with her when I was led past, an' they seemed mighty happy together."

"Is that so? An' I suppose he'll be with her wherever she goes."

"Most likely. But we can fix him, can't we?"

"We'll have to find some way, but the question is, how?"

"The gun-route might be the best," and Curly motioned significantly toward the rifle. "Accidents sometimes happen, ye know."

"But what about the old man? He might make trouble."

"Then, settle him, too. He goes alone into the hills, doesn't he?"

"Why, yes. I never thought of that. He's got a cabin over yonder. I know where it is. He often spends days alone there, with not a soul around, prospectin', so I understand."

"Something might happen there, too, eh?" and Curly grinned. "Then the girl will be ours."

"But what about the Police?" Dan warned. "They'd be on our trail like greased-lightning."

"But it will be an accident like the other, won't it?"

"But suppose the accidents don't happen?"

"The devil do I care. Let me get the girl, an' I'll look out fer myself after that. I've been in such scrapes before, an' I guess you have, too, Dan."

For some time the two villains sat that night before the fire, and discussed in detail their nefarious plans. They were men in whose bosoms no feeling of pity or sympathy dwelt. To them a pure noble girl was merely an object of their vile passions. Others had been victimized by these brutes, and they had now sunk so low that they were willing to sacrifice innocent lives in order to gratify their base desires.

Next morning found the two plotters moving steadily on their way up toward the Golden Crest where it curved in to the lake. They kept away as far as possible from the pass for fear of watchful Indians. But farther north where the land was more rugged, they would be safe. From this vantage ground they could look down upon the village and observe much that was taking place there. Curly was feeling the effects of his experiences the previous day and was surly and ugly. Dan had fed him and supplied him with a buck-skin jacket which made him more presentable. But Curly's temper was bad, and he vented his spleen upon Reynolds and Jim Weston in no mild language.

The high ridge of the Golden Crest was not reached until about the middle of the morning, and here from a concealed position the two men looked down upon Glen West lying snugly by the water's side. They could see the big house quite plainly, and they eagerly watched Glen as she paddled alone upon the creek. She was beyond their reach, however, so they were helpless. But when the girl was at length joined by Reynolds, and the canoe was headed upstream, Curly's eyes glowed with the fire of hatred and jealousy, while his hands gripped hard the rifle he was holding. He was lying flat upon the ground, peering over the edge of a big boulder with Dan close by his side. As the canoe came nearer, Curly thrust his rifle impetuously forward and fired. With a curse, Dan reached out and laid a firm hand upon the weapon.

"What in h---- d'ye mean?" he demanded. "Ye've spoiled everything."

"I wanted to get that cur down there," was the snarling reply. "I missed him that time, but I'll get him yet."

"No, ye don't," Dan declared, as Curly tried to free the rifle from his companion's grasp. "If ye shoot again, we'll have a pack of Indians after us. There, look now!" and he pointed to the canoe which was heading down the creek. "That's what you've done. You've scared our game and sent them back to give the alarm. Most likely they intended to land somewhere up the creek, an' do some private spoonin'. We could have crept down, knocked out the guy, an' carried off the gal. But now--bah! ye've spoiled the whole show!"

Curly made no reply, but lay there watching the canoe until it had reached Sconda's landing. His heart was bitter with rage as he recalled his expulsion from Glen West, while his opponent was in full possession of the girl he was seeking. Several times during the morning he voiced his sentiments to his companion.

"Just wait, Curly," Dan comforted. "Our turn will come, never fear, providin' ye don't lose yer head as ye did this mornin'. I know something about lovers. They generally like to get off somewhere by themselves to do their spoonin'. They'll be wanderin' up along that trail between here an' the water some time this afternoon, an' that'll be our chance."

But this time Dan was mistaken. The young lovers did not come up the trail, neither did they see them again during the remainder of the day, although they stayed there until the sun had gone down. They accordingly went back to Dan's cabin a sulky and ugly pair. Lustful, and filled with the spirit of revenge, they became all the more determined and desperate the more they were baffled in their plans.

Early the next morning they again took up their position on the high crest. They did not have long to wait now, for in less than an hour they beheld something upon the trail below them which gladdened their devilish hearts. At once they vanished from the summit, and like panthers stole cautiously through the forest, and cautiously began to stalk their unconscious prey.