Chapter XXII
 

The sun was nearly three hours high above the western hilltops in the mountain district of Arkansas, as a solitary horseman stopped in the shadow of the timber that fringed the edge of a deep ravine. It was evident from the man's dress, that he was not a native of that region; and from the puzzled expression on his face, as he looked anxiously about, it was clear that he had lost his way. Standing in the stirrups he turned and glanced back over the bridle path along which he had come, and then peered carefully through the trees to the right and left; then with an impatient oath, he dropped to the saddle and sat staring straight ahead at a lone pine upon the top of a high hill a few miles away.

"There's the hill with the signal tree beyond Simpson's all right," he said, "but how in thunder am I to get there; this path don't go any farther, that's sure," and from the distant mountain he turned his gaze to the deep gulch that lay at his feet.

Suddenly he leaned forward with another exclamation. He had caught sight of a log cabin in the bottom of the ravine, half hidden by the bushes and low trees that grew upon the steep banks. Turning his horse, he rode slowly up and down for some distance, searching for an easy place to descend, coming back at last to the spot where he had first halted. "It's no go, Salem," he said; "we've got to slide for it," and dismounting, he took the bridle rein in his hand and began to pick his way as best he could, down the steep incline, while his four-footed companion reluctantly followed. After some twenty minutes of stumbling and swearing on the part of the man, and slipping and groaning on the part of the horse, they stood panting at the bottom. After a short rest, the man clambered into the saddle again, and fording a little mountain brook that laughed and sang and roared among the boulders, rode up to the clearing in which the cabin stood.

"Hello!" he shouted.

There was no answer, and but for the thread of smoke that curled lazily from the mud and stick chimney, the place seemed deserted.

"Hello!" he called again.

A gaunt hound came rushing from the underbrush beyond the house, and with hair bristling in anger, howled his defiance and threats.

Again the horseman shouted, and this time the cabin door opened cautiously and a dirty-faced urchin thrust forth a tousled head.

"Where's your father?"

The head was withdrawn, and a moment later put forth again. "He's done gone ter th' corners."

"Well, can you tell me the way to Simpson's? I don't know how to get out of this infernal hole."

Again the head disappeared for a few seconds, and then the door was thrown wide open and a slovenly woman, with a snuff stick in one corner of her mouth, came out, followed by four children. The youngest three clung to her skirts and stared, with fearful eyes, at the man on the horse, while he of the tousled head threw stones at the dog and commanded him, in a shrill voice, to "shet up, dad burn ye Kinney, shet up. He's all right."

"Wanter go ter Simpson's at the corners, do ye?" said the woman. "Wal, yer right smart offen yer road."

"I know that," replied the stranger, impatiently; "I've been hunting turkeys and lost my way. But can't I get to the corners from here?"

"Sure ye kin. Jes' foller on down the branch 'bout three mile till ye come out on the big road; hit'll take ye straight ter th' ford below ol' Ball whar' the lone tree is. Simpson's is 'bout half a quarter on yon side the creek."

The man thanked her gruffly, and turning his horse, started away.

"Be you'ns the feller what's stoppin' at Sim's ter hunt?" she called after him.

"Yes, I'm the man," he answered, "Good-evening." And he rode into the bushes.

Catching the oldest urchin by the arm, the woman gave him a vigorous cuff on the side of the head and then whispered a few words in his attentive ear. The lad started off down the opposite side of the ravine at a run, bending low and dodging here and there, unseen by the stranger.

The hunter pushed on his way down the narrow valley as fast as he could go, for he had no time to spare if he would reach his stopping-place before night, and he knew that there was small chance of finding the way back after dark; but his course was so rough and obstructed by heavy undergrowth, fallen trees and boulders, that his progress was slow and the shadow of the mountain was over the trail while he was still a mile from the road at the end of the ravine. As he looked anxiously ahead, hoping every moment to see the broader valley where the road lay, he caught a glimpse of two men coming toward him, one behind the other, winding in and out through the low timber. While still some distance away, they turned sharply to the left, and as it seemed to him, rode straight into the side of the mountain and were lost to sight.

Checking his horse, he watched for them to come into view again, and while he waited, wondering at their strange disappearance, the men urged their mules up a narrow gulley that was so hidden by the undergrowth and fallen timber as to escape an eye untrained to the woods and hills. After riding a short distance, they dismounted, and leaving the animals, quickly scaled the steep sides of the little cut and came out in an open space about two hundred yards above the trail along which the solitary horseman must pass. Dropping behind the trunk of a big tree that lay on the mountain side, uprooted by some gale and blackened by forest fires, they searched the valley below with the keen glance of those whose eyes are never dimmed by printed page or city lights. Dressed in the rude garb of those to whom clothes are a necessity, not a means of display, tall and lean with hard muscles, tough sinews and cruel stony faces, they seemed a part of the wild life about them; and yet withal, there was a touch of the mountain grandeur in their manner, and in the unconscious air of freedom and self-reliance, as there always is about everything that remains untouched by the conventionality of the weaker world of men.

"'Bout time he showed up, aint it, Jake?" said one as he carefully rested his rifle against the log and bit off a big piece of long green twist tobacco.

"Hit's a right smart piece ter ol' Josh's shack an' th' kid done come in a whoop," returned the other, following his companion's example. "He can't make much time down that branch on hoss back an' with them fine clothes of his, but he orten ter be fur off."

"D'ye reckon he's a durned revenoo sure, Jake?"

"Dunno, best be safe," with an ugly scowl. "Simpson 'lows he's jes' layin' low hisself, but ye can't tell."

"What'd Sim say his name war?"

"Jim Whitley," returned the other, taking a long careful look up the valley.

"An' whar' from?"

"Sim say St. Louie, or some place like that. Sh--thar' he comes."

They half rose and crouching behind the log, pushed the cocked rifles through the leaves of a little bush, covering the horseman below.

"If he's a revenoo he'll sure see th' path ter th' still," whispered the one called Jake; "an' if he turns ter foller hit into th' cut drap him. If he goes on down th' branch, all right."

All unconscious of the rifles that wanted only the touch of an outlaw's finger to speak his death, the stranger pushed on his way past the unseen danger point toward the end of the valley where lay the road.

The lean mountaineers looked at each other. "Never seed hit," said one, showing his yellow teeth in a mirthless grin; "an' I done tole Cap las' night, hit was es plain es er main traveled road an' orter be kivered."

"Mebbe so," replied the other; "an' then agin he mighter ketched on an' 'lows ter fool us."

The other sprang up with an oath. "We uns aint got no call ter take chances," he growled; "best make sure." And with his rifle half raised, he looked anxiously along the trail, but the stranger had passed from view.

A few minutes longer they waited and watched, discussing the situation; then returning to the mules, they rode out of the little gully and on down the branch in the direction the object of their suspicion had taken.

Just across the road from the mouth of the ravine down which the hunter had come, was a little log cabin, and in the low doorway an old woman sat smoking a cob pipe. "Howdy Liz," said one of the men, "Seed anythin'?"

"Yep," returned the woman. "He done ast th' way ter Simpson's. 'Low'd he'd been huntin' turkey an' lost hisself. I done tole him he orter git someone ter tromp 'roun' with him er he might git killed."

She laughed shrilly and the two men joined in with low guffaws. "Reckon yer right, Liz," said one. "Jake, why don't ye hire out ter him."

Jake slapped his leg. "By gum," he exclaimed, "that thar's a good ide'. I shor' do hit. An' I'll see that he don't find nothin' bigger'n turkey too; less'n he's too durned inquisitive; then I'll be--." He finished with an evil grin. "You all tell Cap I've done gone ter hunt with Mistah Whitley ef I don't show up." And beating his mule's ribs vigorously with his heels, he jogged away down the road, while his companion turned and rode back up the little valley.

Jim Whitley, enraged at Frank's failure to rescue the papers held by Dick, and alarmed by the latter's letter telling him of young Goodrich's confession, had come into the wild backwoods district to await developments. He was more determined now than ever, to gain possession of the evidence of his crime, and in his heart was a fast-growing desire to silence, once for all, the man whose steady purpose and integrity was such an obstacle in his life. But he could see no way to accomplish his purpose without great danger to himself; and with the memory of the gray eyes that had looked so calmly along the shining revolvers that night in the printing office, was a wholesome respect for the determined character of the man who had coolly proposed to die with him if he did not grant his demands. He feared that should Dick find Amy and learn the truth, he would risk his own life rather than permit him to go unpunished, and so he resolved to bury himself in the mountains until chance should reveal a safe way out of the difficulty, or time change the situation.

The afternoon of the day following his adventure in the little valley, Whitley sat on the porch of the post office and store kept by his host, telling his experience to a group of loafers, when the long mountaineer called Jake, rode up to the blacksmith shop across the street. Leaving his mule to be shod, the native joined the circle just in time to hear the latter part of Whitley's story.

"Lookin' fer turkey, war ye Mister?" asked Jake, with a wink at the bystanders.

"Yes, have you seen any?" replied Jim.

"Sure, the bresh's full of 'em ef ye know whar' ter hunt."

The company grinned and he continued: "I seed signs this mo'nin' in th' holler on yon side ol' Ball, when I war' huntin' my mule. An' thar's a big roost down by th' spring back of my place in th' bottoms."

Whitley was interested. "Will you show me where they are?" he asked.

"Might ef I could spar' th' time," replied Jake slowly; "but I've got my craps ter tend."

Another grin went the rounds. "Jake's sure pushed with his craps," remarked one; "Raises mo' corn, 'n 'ary three men in Arkansaw," remarked another, and with this they all fired a volley of tobacco juice at a tumble bug rolling his ball in the dust near by.

Needless to say, the conversation resulted in Whitley's engaging the moonshiner for seventy-five cents a day, to hunt with him; and for the next two weeks they were always together.

All day long the native led the way over the hills and through the deep ravines and valleys, taking a different course each day, but always the chase led them away from the little ravine that opened on the big road. When Whitley suggested that they try the country where he had lost his way, his guide only laughed contemptuously, "Ain't ye killin' turkey every trip. Ye jist foller me an' I'll sure find 'em fer ye. Ain't nothin' over in that holler. I done tromped all over thar' huntin' that dad burned ol' mule o'mine, an' didn't see nary sign. Thay's usen' 'round th' south side th' ridge. Ye jist lemme take ye 'round." And Jim was forced to admit that he was having good luck and no cause to complain of lack of sport. But he was growing tired of the hills and impatient to return to the city, while his hatred of the man whom he feared, grew hourly.

Jake, seeing that his employer was fast growing tired of the hunt, and guessing shrewdly, from his preoccupied manner, that hunting was not the real object of his stay in the mountains, became more and more suspicious. His careless, good-natured ways and talk changed to a sullen silence and he watched Whitley constantly.

One morning, just at daybreak, as they were walking briskly along the big road on their way to a place where the guide said the game was to be found, Take stopped suddenly, and motioning Jim to be silent, stood in a listening attitude.

Whitley followed his companion's example, but for a minute could hear nothing but the faint rustle of the dead leaves as a gray lizard darted to his hiding place, and the shrill scream of a blue-jay calling his sleepy mates to breakfast. Then the faint thud, thud, thud, of a galloping horse came louder and louder through the morning mist. Evidently someone was riding rapidly toward them.

"Whitley was about to speak, when the other, with a fierce oath and a threatening gesture, stopped him.

"Git inter th' bresh thar' quick an' do's I tell ye. Don't stop t' plaver. Git! An' gimme yer gun."

Too astonished to do anything else, Jim obeyed, and hastily thrusting the rifle under a pile of leaves by a log near by, the moonshiner forced his companion before him through the underbrush to a big rock some distance from the road. The sound of the galloping horse came louder and louder.

"Stand thar' behin' that rock 'n if ye stir I'll kill ye," whispered Jake; and taking a position behind a tree where he could watch Jim as well as the road, he waited with rifle cocked and murder written in every line of his hard face.

Nearer and nearer came the galloping horse. Whitley was fascinated and moved slightly so that he could peep over the rock. A low hiss from Jake fell upon his ear like the warning hiss of a serpent, and half turning, he saw the rifle pointing full at him. He nodded his head, and placing his finger upon his lips to indicate that he understood, turned his face toward the road again, just as the horse and his rider came into view.

The animal, though going freely, was covered with dust and dripping with sweat, which showed a creamy lather on his flanks, and where the bridle reins touched his neck. The rider wore a blue flannel shirt, open at the throat, corduroy trousers, tucked in long boots, and a black slouch hat, with the brim turned up in front. At his belt hung two heavy revolvers, and across the saddle he held a Winchester ready for instant use. He sat his horse easily as one accustomed to much riding, but like the animal, he showed the strain of a hard race.

Whitley was so wrought up that all these details impressed themselves upon his mind in an instant, and it seemed hours from the moment the horseman appeared until he was opposite the rock, though it could have been but a few seconds.

The watcher caught one glimpse of the rider's face, square jawed, keen eyed, determined, alert, stained by wind and weather.

"Crack!" went the rifle behind Whitley.

Like a flash the weapon of the rider flew to his shoulder. "Crack!" and the bark flew from the tree within an inch of Jake's face.

Whitley saw the spurs strike and the rider lean forward in his saddle to meet the spring of his horse. "Crack!" Jake's rifle spoke again. A mocking laugh came back from the road as the flying horseman passed from sight. Then, "I'll see you later," came in ringing tones, and the thud, thud, thud, of the galloping horse died away in the distance.

The mountaineer delivered himself of a volley of oaths, while Whitley stood quietly looking at him, his mind filled with strange thoughts. The man who could deliberately fire from ambush with intent to kill was the man for his purpose.

"Who is he?" Jim asked at last, when the other stopped swearing long enough to fill his mouth with fresh tobacco.

"A revenoo, an' I done missed him clean." He began to curse again.

"He came near getting you though," said the other, pointing to the mark of the horseman's bullet.

"Yas, hit war' Bill Davis. Aint nary other man in the hull dad burned outfit could er done hit." He looked with admiration at the fresh scar on the tree.

"But what is he doing?" asked Whitley.

Jake looked at him with that ugly, mirthless grin. "Mebbe he's huntin' turkey too."

Whitley laughed, "I guess he was goin' too fast for that," he said; but his companion's reply changed his laughter to fear.

"Thar's them that better be a follerin' of him mighty sudden."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean you, Mister. The boys has had ther' eye on ye fer sometime. We know yer huntin's all a blind, an' now Bill Davis he's come in. I aint right shor' myself er I'd a kep' mum an' he'pped 'em take ye."

Whitley turned pale. "Do you mean that the people here think I'm a revenue agent looking for moonshiners?"

"That's about hit, Mister, an' they'll be fer takin' ye out ter night shor'."

The fellow's meaning was too clear to be mistaken, and for some time Whitley remained silent. He was thinking hard. At last he said: "Jake, I'll tell you something. The boys are mistaken. I'm not here to get anybody into trouble, but because I'm in a hole myself."

"As how?" asked Jake, moving nearer and speaking in a lower tone.

"I won't tell you how unless you'll help me; and if you will, I'll pay you more money than you can make in this business in a thousand years."

The moonshiner's eyes gleamed. "Bill Davis is sure after us an' that thar' means trouble every time," he said slowly. "Ye heard him say as how he'd see me agin, an' I never knowed him ter miss befo'." He looked at the bullet mark on the tree again. "Tell ye what, Mister Whitley, I'll chance her; but we ain't got no time ter talk now. We gotter git away from here, fer some er the boys 'll be along purty quick. We'll just mosey 'round fer a spell an' then go back ter th' corners. I'll send th' boys off on er hot chase en' fix Sim so's ye kin git erway t'-night, an' ye come ter my shack; hit's on th' river below that hill with the lone tree on top, jes' seven mile from th' corners. Ye can't miss hit. I'll be thar an' have things fixed so's we kin light out befo' th' boys git back."

They reached Simpson's in time for dinner and Jake held a long whispered conversation with that worthy, while Jim sat on the porch after the meal.

As Jake passed him on his way to the mule that stood hitched in front of the blacksmith shop as usual, he said, in the hearing of those near: "Hit's all right fer to-morrow, is hit, Mister Whitley? An' we'll go over tother side Sandy Ridge?"

The words "all right" were accompanied by a wink that Whitley understood.

"Yes," he answered carelessly, "I'll be ready. I want to rest this afternoon and get a good sleep tonight. I'll be with you in the morning."

Jake rode off, and all the rest of the day Whitley felt that he was the mark for many scowling glances, while many whispered words were passed between the gaunt natives as they slouched in and out of the post office. Later, when the loafers had seemingly disappeared, Simpson came, and leaning carelessly against the door post within a few feet of Whitley, said, in a low voice: "They's a watchin' ye from th' shop yonder; be keerful an' don't let on. Yer hoss is tied in th' bresh down th' road a piece. Ride easy fer th' first mile."

Jim rose slowly to his feet, and stretching his arms above his head, yawned noisily. "Guess I'll turn in," he said. And then as he passed Simpson, he put a roll of bills into his hand. The landlord stepped out on the porch and took the chair Whitley had just left, while that gentleman slipped quietly out by the back door and crept away to his horse.

An hour later, Whitley knocked at the door of the cabin on the river bank and was admitted by Jake.

"Did ye make hit all right?" the mountaineer asked, as Jim entered.

The other nodded. "Simpson is sitting on the front porch and I'm supposed to be in bed."

Jake chuckled. "Cap an' th' boys air way up th' holler after Bill Davis, an' I'm in the bresh er watchin' you. Now let's git down ter biz right sharp."

Whitley soon told enough of his story, omitting names and places, to let his companion understand the situation.

When he had finished, Jake took a long pull from a bottle, and then said slowly: "An' ye want me ter put that feller what holds th' papers out o' yer' way?"

Whitley nodded. "It'll pay you a lot better than shooting government agents, and not half the risk."

"What'll ye give me?"

"You can name your own price?"

The outlaw's face glittered and he answered in a hoarse whisper, "I'll do hit. What's his name, an' whar'll I find him?"

"Richard Falkner. He lives in Boyd City--"

Slowly the man who had just agreed to commit a murder for money rose to his feet and stepped backward until half the width of the room was between them.

The other, alarmed at the expression in his companion's face, rose also, and for several minutes the silence was only broken by the crackling of the burning wood in the fireplace, the shrill chirp of a cricket and the plaintive call of a whip-poor-will from without. Then with a look of superstitious awe and terror upon his thin face, the moonshiner gasped, in a choking voice, "Boyd City--Richard Falkner--Mister, aint yo' mistaken? Say, ar' ye right shor'?"

Whitley replied, with an oath, "What's the matter with you? You look as though you had seen a ghost."

The ignorant villain started and glanced over his shoulder to the dark corner of the cabin; "Thar' might be a ha'nt here, shor' 'nough," he whispered hoarsely. "Do yo' know whar' ye air, Mister?"

Then as Whitley remained silent, he continued: "This here's th' house whar' Dickie Falkner war' borned; an' whar' his mammy died; an'--an' I'm Jake Tompkins; me 'n his daddy war' pards."

Whitley was dazed. He looked around the room as though in a dream; then slowly he realized his situation and a desperate resolve crept into his heart. Carefully his hand moved beneath his coat until he felt the handle of a long knife, while he edged closer to his companion.

The other seemed not to notice, and continued, as though talking to himself: "Little Dickie Falkner. Him what fed me when I war' starvin', an' gimme his last nickel when he war' hungry hisself; an' yo' want me ter kill him."--He drew a long shuddering breath. "Mister, yo' shor' made 'er bad mistake this time."

"I'll fix it though," cried Whitley; and with an awful oath he leaped forward, the knife uplifted.

But the keen eye of the man used to danger, had seen his stealthy preparation, and his wrist was caught in a grasp of iron.

The city-bred villain was no match for his mountain-trained companion and the struggle was short.

Keeping his hold upon Whitley's wrist, Jake threw his long right arm around his antagonist and drew him close, in a crushing embrace. Then, while he looked straight into his victim's fear-lighted eyes, he slowly forced the uplifted hand down and back.

Whitley struggled desperately, but his left arm was pinned to his side and he was held as in a circle of steel. In vain he writhed and twisted; he was helpless in the powerful grasp of the mountaineer. Slowly the hand that held the knife was forced behind him. He screamed in pain. The glittering eyes that looked into his never wavered. Jake's right hand behind his back, touched the knife, and Whitley saw that evil, mirthless grin come on the cruel face, so close to his own. The grip on his wrist tightened. Slowly his arm was twisted until his fingers loosened the hold of the weapon, and the handle of the knife was transferred to the grasp of the man who held him. Then there were two quick, strong thrusts, a shuddering, choking cry, and the arms were loosed as the stricken man fell in a heap on the cabin floor, on the very spot where years before, the dying mother had prayed: "Oh Lord, take ker' o' Dick."

"You--have--killed--me--"

"I reckon that's about hit, Mister."

"Tell--Falkner--I--lied--Amy--is--pure--and tell--"

But the sentence was never finished.