THE BLACK BOX
’NEATH IRON WHEELS
Side by side they leaned over the rail of the steamer and gazed shorewards at the slowly unfolding scene before them. For some time they had all preserved an almost ecstatic silence.
“Oh, but it’s good to see home again!” Laura sighed at last.
“I’m with you,” Quest agreed emphatically. “It’s the wrong side of the continent, perhaps, but I’m aching to set my foot on American soil again.”
“This the wrong side of the continent! I should say not!” Laura exclaimed, pointing to where in the distance the buildings of the Exposition gleamed almost snow-white in the dazzling sunshine. “Why, I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life.”
The Professor intervened amiably. His face, too, shone with pleasure as he gazed landwards.
“I agree with the young lady,” he declared. “The blood and sinews of life may seem to throb more ponderously in New York, but there is a big life here on this western side, a great, wide-flung, pulsating life. There is room here, room to breathe.”
“And it is so beautiful,” Lenora murmured.
Quest glanced a little way along the deck to where a pale-faced man stood leaning upon his folded arms, gazing upon the same scene. There was no smile on Craig’s face, no light of anticipation in his eyes.
“I guess there’s one of us here,” Quest observed, “who is none too pleased to see America again.”
Lenora shivered a little. They were all grave.
“We must, I think, admit,” the Professor said, “that Craig’s deportment during the voyage has been everything that could be desired. He has even voluntarily carried out certain small attentions to my person which I must confess that I had greatly missed.”
“That’s all right,” Quest agreed. “At the same time I am afraid the moment has come now to remind him that the end is drawing near.”
Quest moved slowly down the deck towards Craig’s side, and touched him on the arm.
“Give me your left wrist, Craig,” he said quietly.
The man slunk away. There was a sudden look of horror in his white face. He started back but Quest was too quick for him. In a moment there was the click of a handcuff, the mate of which was concealed under the criminologist’s cuff.
“You’d better take things quietly,” the latter advised. “It will only hurt you to struggle. Step this way a little. Put your hand in your pocket, so, and no one will notice.”
Craig obeyed silently. They stepped along the deck towards the rest of the party. Lenora handed her glasses to Quest.
“Do look, Mr. Quest,” she begged. “There is Inspector French standing in the front row on the dock, with two enormous bunches of flowers—carnations for me, I expect, and poinsettias for Laura. They’re the larger bunch.”
Quest took the glasses and nodded.
“That’s French, right enough,” he assented. “Look at him standing straightening his tie in front of that advertisement mirror! Flowers, too! Say, he’s got his eye on one of you girls. Not you, by any chance, is it, Lenora?”
Lenora laughed across at Laura, who had turned a little pink.
“I guess French has got sense enough to know I’m not that sort,” the latter replied. “The double-harness stuff doesn’t appeal to me, and he knows it!”
Lenora made a little grimace as she turned away.
“Well,” she said, “it’s brave talk.”
“Almost,” the Professor pointed out, “Amazonian. Yet in the ancient days even the Amazons were sometimes tamed.”
“Oh, nonsense!” Laura exclaimed, turning away. “I don’t see why the man wants to make himself look like a walking conservatory, though,” she added under her breath.
“And I think it’s sweet of him,” Lenora insisted. “If there’s anything I’m longing for, it’s a breath of perfume from those flowers.”
Slowly the great steamer drifted nearer and nearer to the dock, hats were waved from the little line of spectators, ropes were drawn taut. The Inspector was standing at the bottom of the gangway as they all passed down. He shook hands with every one vigorously. Then he presented Lenora with her carnations and Laura with the poinsettias. Lenora was enthusiastic. Even Laura murmured a few words of thanks.
“Some flowers, those poinsettias,” the Inspector agreed.
Quest gripped him by the arm.
“French,” he said, “I tell you I shall make your hair curl when you hear all that we’ve been through. Do you feel like having me start in right away, on our way to the cars?”
French withdrew his arm.
“Nothing doing,” he replied. “I want to talk to Miss Laura. You can stow that criminal stuff. It’ll wait all right. You’ve got the fellow—that’s what matters.”
Quest exchanged an amused glance with Lenora. The Inspector and Laura fell a little behind. The former took off his hat for a moment and fanned himself.
“Say, Miss Laura,” he began, “I’m a plain man, and a poor hand at speeches. I’ve been saying a few nice things over to myself on the dock here for the last hour, but everything’s gone right out of my head. Look here, it sums up like this. How do you feel about quitting this bunch right away and coming back to New York with me?”
“What do I want to go to New York for?” Laura demanded.
“Oh, come on, Miss Laura, you know what I mean,” French replied. “We’ll slip off and get married here and then take this man Craig to New York. Once get him safely in the Tombs and we’ll go off on a honeymoon anywhere you say.”
Laura was on the point of laughing at him. Then the unwonted seriousness of his expression appealed suddenly to her sympathy. She patted him kindly on the shoulder.
“You’re a good sort, Inspector, but you’ve picked the wrong girl. I’ve run along on my own hook ever since I was born, I guess, and I can’t switch my ideas over to this married stuff. You’d better get a move on and get Craig back to New York before he slips us again. I’m going to stay here with the others.”
The Inspector sighed. His face had grown long, and the buoyancy had passed from his manner.
“This is some disappointment, believe me, Miss Laura,” he confessed.
“Cheer up,” she laughed. “You’ll get over it all right.”
They found the others waiting for them at the end of the great wooden shed. Quest turned to French.
“Look here, French,” he said, “you know I don’t want to hurry you off, but I don’t know what we’re going to do with this fellow about in San Francisco. We don’t want to lodge two charges, and we should have to put him in jail to-night. Why don’t you take him on right away? There’s a Limited goes by the southern route in an hour’s time.”
French assented gloomily.
“That suits me,” he agreed. “You’ll be glad to get rid of the fellow, too,” he added.
They drove straight to the depot, found two vacant seats in the train, and Quest with a little sigh of relief handed over his charge. Craig, who, though still dumb, had shown signs of intense nervousness since the landing, sank back in his corner seat, covering the upper part of his head with his hands. Suddenly Lenora, who had been chatting with French through the window, happened to glance towards Craig. She gave a little cry and stepped back.
“Look!” she exclaimed. “The eyes! Those are the eyes that haunted me all through those terrible days!”
She was suddenly white. Quest passed his arm through hers and glanced through the carriage window. In the shaded light, Craig’s eyes seemed indeed to have suddenly grown in power and intensity. They shone fiercely from underneath the hands which clasped his forehead.
“Well, that’s the last you’ll see of them,” Quest reminded her soothingly. “Come, you’re not going to break down now, Lenora. We’ve been through it all and there he is, safe and sound in French’s keeping. There is nothing more left in the world to frighten you.”
Lenora pulled herself together with an effort.
“It was silly,” she confessed, “yet even now—”
“Don’t you worry, Miss Lenora,” French cried from out of the window. “You can take my word for it the job’s finished this time. Good-bye, all of you! Good-bye, Miss Laura!”
Laura waved her hand gaily. They all stood and watched the train depart. Then they turned away from the depot.
“Now for a little holiday,” Quest declared, passing Lenora’s arm through his. “We’ll just have a look round the city and then get down to San Diego and take a look at the Exposition there. No responsibilities, no one to look after, nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.”
“Capital!” the Professor agreed, beaming upon them all. “There is a collection of fossilised remains in the museum here, the study of which will afford me the greatest pleasure and interest.”
The girls laughed heartily.
“I think you and I,” Quest suggested, turning to them, “will part company with the Professor!”
Quest and Lenora turned away from the window of the hotel, out of which they had been gazing for the last quarter of an hour. Stretched out before them were the lights of the Exposition, a blur of twinkling diamonds against the black garb of night. Beyond, the flashing of a light-house and a faint background of dark sea.
“It’s too beautiful,” Lenora sighed.
Quest stood for a moment shaking his head. The Professor with a pile of newspapers stretched out before him, was completely engrossed in their perusal. Laura, who had been sitting in an armchair at the further end of the apartment, was apparently deep in thought. The newspaper which she had been reading had slipped unnoticed from her fingers.
“Say, you two are no sort of people for a holiday,” Quest declared. “As for you, Laura, I can’t think what’s come over you. You never opened your mouth at dinner-time, and you sit there now looking like nothing on earth.”
“I am beginning to suspect her,” Lenora chimed in. “Too bad he had to hurry away, dear!”
Laura’s indignation was not altogether convincing. Quest and Lenora exchanged amused glances. The former picked up the newspaper from the floor and calmly turned out the Professor’s lamp.
“Look here,” he explained, “this is the first night of our holiday. I’m going to run the party and I’m going to make the rules. No more newspapers to-night or for a fortnight. You understand? No reading, nothing but frivolity. And no love-sickness, Miss Laura.”
“Love-sickness, indeed!” she repeated scornfully.
“Having arranged those minor details,” Quest concluded, “on with your hats, everybody. I am going to take you out to a café where they play the best music in the city. We are going to have supper, drink one another’s health, and try and forget the last few months altogether.”
Lenora clapped her hands and Laura rose at once to her feet. The Professor obediently crossed the room for his hat.
“I am convinced,” he said, “that our friend Quest’s advice is good. We will at any rate embark upon this particular frivolity which he suggests.”
Quest took the dispatch which the hotel clerk handed to him one afternoon a fortnight later, and read it through without change of expression. Lenora, however, who was by his side, knew at once that it contained something startling.
“What is it?” she asked.
He passed his arm through hers and led her down the hall to where the Professor and Laura were just waiting for the lift. He beckoned them to follow him to a corner of the lounge.
“There’s one thing I quite forgot, a fortnight ago,” he said, slowly, “when I suggested that we should none of us look at a newspaper all the time we were in California. Have you kept to our bargain, Professor?”
“And you, girls?”
“I’ve never even seen one,” Lenora declared.
“Nor I,” Laura echoed.
“I made a mistake,” Quest confessed. “Something has happened which we ought to have known about. You had better read this message—or, wait, I’ll read it aloud:—
“When can we start?” Laura exclaimed excitedly.
Lenora clutched at Quest’s arm.
“I knew it,” she declared simply. “I felt perfectly certain, when they left San Francisco, that something would happen. We haven’t seen the end of Craig yet.”
Quest, who had been studying a time-table, glanced once more at the dispatch.
“Look here,” he said, “Allguez isn’t so far out of the way if we take the southern route to New York. Let’s get a move on to-night.”
Laura led the way to the lift. She was in a state of rare discomposure.
“To think that all the time we’ve been giddying round,” she muttered, “that poor man has been lying in hospital! Makes one feel like a brute.”
“He’s been unconscious all the time,” Quest reminded her.
“Might have expected to find us there when he came-to, any way,” Laura insisted.
Lenora smiled faintly as she caught a glance from Quest.
“Laura’s got a heart somewhere,” she murmured, “only it takes an awful lot of getting at!”…
They found French, already convalescent, comfortably installed in the private ward of a small hospital in the picturesque New Mexican town. Laura almost at once established herself by his side.
“You’re going to lose your job here, nurse,” Quest told her, smiling.
The nurse glanced at French.
“The change seems to be doing him good, any way,” she remarked. “I haven’t seen him look so bright yet.”
“Can you remember anything about the wreck, French?” Quest enquired.
The Inspector passed his hand wearily over his forehead.
“It seems more like a dream—or rather a nightmare—than anything,” he admitted. “I was sitting opposite Craig when the crash came. I was unconscious for a time. When I came to, I was simply pinned down by the side of the car. I could see a man working hard to release me, tugging and straining with all his might. Every now and then I got a glimpse of his face. It seemed queer, but I could have sworn it was Craig. Then other people passed by. I heard the shriek of a locomotive. I could see a doctor bending over some bodies. Then it all faded away and came back again. The second time I was nearly free. The man who had been working so hard was just smashing the last bit of timber away, and again I saw his face and that time I was sure that it was Craig. Anyway, he finished the job. I suddenly felt I could move my limbs. The man stood up as though exhausted, looked at me, called to the doctor, and then he seemed to fade away. It might have been because I was unconscious myself, for I don’t remember anything else until I found myself in bed.”
“It would indeed,” the Professor remarked, “be an interesting circumstance—an interesting psychological circumstance, if I might put it that way—if Craig, the arch-criminal, the man who has seemed to us so utterly devoid of all human feeling, should really have toiled in this manner to set free his captor.”
“Interesting or not,” Quest observed, “I’d like to know whether it was Craig or not. I understand there were about a dozen unrecognisable bodies found.”
The nurse, who had left the room for a few minutes, returned with a small package in her hand, which she handed to French. He looked at it in a puzzled manner.
“What can that be?” he muttered, turning it over. “Addressed to me all right, but there isn’t a soul knows I’m here except you people. Will you open it, Miss Laura?”
She took it from him and untied the strings. A little breathless cry escaped from her lips as she tore open the paper. A small black box was disclosed. She opened the lid with trembling fingers and drew out a scrap of paper. They all leaned over and read together:—
Lenora was perhaps the calmest. She simply nodded with the melancholy air of satisfaction of one who finds her preconceived ideas confirmed.
“I knew it!” she exclaimed softly. “I knew it at the depot. Craig’s time has not come yet. He may be somewhere near us, even now.”
She glanced uneasily around the ward. Quest, who had been examining the post-mark on the package, threw the papers down.
“The post-mark’s all blurred out,” he remarked. “There’s no doubt about it, that fellow Craig has the devil’s own luck, but we’ll get him—we’ll get him yet. I’ll just take a stroll up to police head-quarters and make a few inquiries. You might come with me, Lenora, and Laura can get busy with her amateur nursing.”
“I shall make inquiries,” the Professor announced briskly, “concerning the local museum. There should be interesting relics hereabouts of the prehistoric Indians.”
A man sat on the steps of the range cook wagon, crouching as far back as possible to take advantage of its slight shelter from the burning sun. He held before him a newspaper, a certain paragraph of which he was eagerly devouring. In the distance the mail boy was already disappearing in a cloud of dust.
The man read the paragraph twice. Then he set down the paper and looked steadily across the rolling prairie land. There was a queer, bitter little smile upon his lips.
“So it begins again!” he muttered.
There was a cloud of dust in the distance. The man rose to his feet, shaded his eyes with his hand and shambled round to the back of the wagon, where a long table was set out with knives and forks, hunches of bread and tin cups. He walked a little further away to the fire, and slowly stirred a pot of stew. The little party of cowboys came thundering up. There was a chorus of shouts and exclamations, whistlings and good-natured chaff, as they threw themselves from their horses. Long Jim stood slowly cracking his whip and looking down the table.
“Say, boys, I think he’s fixed things up all right,” he remarked. “Come on with the grub, cookie.”
Silently the man filled each dish with the stew and laid it in its place. Then he retired to the background and the cowboys commenced their meal. Long Jim winked at the others as he picked up a biscuit.
“Cookie, you’re no good,” he called out. “The stew’s rotten. Here, take this!”
He flicked the biscuit, which caught the cook on the side of the head. For a moment the man started. With his hand upon his temple he flashed a look of hatred towards his assailant. Long Jim laughed carelessly.
“Say, cookie,” the latter went on, “where did you get them eyes? Guess we’ll have to tame you a bit.”
The meal was soon over, and Jim strolled across to where the others were saddling up. He passed his left arm through the reins of his horse and turned once more to look at Craig.
“Say, you mind you do better to-night, young fellow. Eh!”
He stopped short with a cry of pain. The horse had suddenly started, wrenching at the reins. Jim’s arm hung helplessly down from the shoulder.
“Gee, boys, he’s broken it!” he groaned. “Say, this is hell!”
He swore in agony. They all crowded around him.
“What’s wrong, Jim?”
“It’s broken, sure!”
“Wrong, you helpless sons of loons!” Jim yelled. “Can’t any of you do something?”
The cook suddenly pushed his way through the little crowd. He took Jim’s shoulder firmly in one hand and his arm in the other. The cowboy howled with pain.
“Let go my arm!” he shouted. “Kill him, boys! My God, I’ll make holes in you for this!”
He snatched at his gun with his other hand and the cowboys scattered a little. The cook stepped back, the gun flashed out, only to be suddenly lowered. Jim looked incredulously towards his left arm, which hung no longer helplessly by his side. He swung it backwards and forwards, and a broad grin slowly lit up his lean, brown face. He thrust the gun in his holster and held out his hand.
“Cookie, you’re all right!” he exclaimed. “You’ve done the trick this time. Say, you’re a miracle!”
The cook smiled.
“Your arm was just out of joint,” he remarked. “It was rather a hard pull but it’s all right now.”
Jim looked around at the others.
“And to think that I might have killed him!” he exclaimed. “Cookie, you’re a white boy. You’ll do. We’re going to like you here.”
Craig watched them ride off. The bitterness had passed from his face. Slowly he began to clean up. Then he crept underneath the wagon and rested….
Evening came and with it a repetition of his labours. When everything was ready to serve, he stepped from behind the wagon and looked across the rolling stretch of open country. There was no one in sight. Softly, almost stealthily, he crept up to the wagon, fetched out from its wooden case a small violin, made his way to the further side of the wagon, sat down with his back to the wheel and began to play. His eyes were closed. Sometimes the movements of his fingers were so slow that the melody seemed to die away. Then unexpectedly he picked it up, carrying the same strain through quick, convulsive passages, lost it again, wandered as though in search of it, extemporising all the time, yet playing always with the air of a man who feels and sees the hidden things. Suddenly the bow rested motionless. A look of fear came into his face. He sprang up. The cowboys were all stealing from the other side of the wagon. They had arrived and dismounted without his hearing them. He sprang to his feet and began to stammer apologies. Long Jim’s hand was laid firmly upon his shoulders.
“Say, cookie, you don’t need to look so scared. You ain’t done nothing wrong. Me and the boys, we like your music. Sing us another tune on that fiddle!”
“I haven’t neglected anything,” Craig faltered. “It’s all ready to serve.”
“The grub can wait,” Jim replied. “Pull the bow, partner, pull the bow.”
The cook looked at him for a moment incredulously. Then he realised that the cowboy was in earnest. He picked up the bow and commenced to play again. They sat around him, wondering, absolutely absorbed. No one even made a move towards the food. It was Craig who led them there at last himself, still playing. Long Jim threw his arm almost caressingly around his shoulder.
“Say, Cookie,” he began, “there ain’t never no questions asked concerning the past history of the men who find their way out here, just so long as they don’t play the game yellow. Maybe you’ve fitted up a nice little hell for yourself somewhere, but we ain’t none of us hankering to know the address. You’re white and you’re one of us and any time any guy wants to charge you rent for that little hell where you got the furniture of your conscience stored, why, you just let us settle with him, that’s all. Now, one more tune, Cookie.”
Craig shook his head. He had turned away to where the kettle was hissing on the range fire.
“It is time you had your food,” he said.
Long Jim took up the violin and drew the bow across it. There was a chorus of execrations. Craig snatched it from him. He suddenly turned his back upon them all. He had played before as though to amuse himself. He played now with the complete, almost passionate absorption of the artist. His head was uplifted, his eyes half closed. He was no longer the menial, the fugitive from justice. He was playing himself into another world, playing amidst a silence which, considering his audience, was amazing. They crouched across the table and watched him. Long Jim stood like a figure of stone. The interruption which came was from outside.
“More of these damned tourists,” Long Jim muttered. “Women, too!”
Craig had stopped playing. He turned his head slowly. Quest was in the act of dismounting from his horse. By his side was the Professor; just behind, Lenora and Laura. Long Jim greeted them with rough cordiality.
“Say, what are you folks looking for?” he demanded.
Quest pointed to Craig.
“We want that man,” he announced. “This is Inspector French from New York. I am Sanford Quest.”
There was a tense silence. Craig covered his face with his hands, then suddenly looked up.
“I won’t come,” he cried fiercely. “You’ve hounded me all round the world. I am innocent. I won’t come.”
Quest shrugged his shoulders. He took a step forward, but Long Jim, as though by accident, sauntered in the way.
“Got a warrant?” he asked tersely.
“We don’t need it,” Quest replied. “He’s our man, right enough.”
“Right this minute he’s our cook,” drawled Long Jim, “and we ain’t exactly particular about going hungry to please a bunch of strangers. Cut it short, Mister. If you ain’t got a warrant, you ain’t got this man. Maybe we don’t sport finger-bowls and silk socks, but we’re civilised enough not to let no slim dude walk off with one of our boys without proper authority. So you can just meander along back where you come from. Ain’t that right, boys?”
There was a sullen murmur of assent. Quest turned back and whispered for a moment to the Inspector. Then he turned to Long Jim.
“All right,” he agreed. “The Inspector here and I will soon see to that. We’ll ride back to the township. With your permission, the ladies and our elderly friend will remain for a rest.”
“You’re welcome to anything we’ve got except our cook,” Jim replied, turning away….
Darkness came early and the little company grew closer and closer to the camp fire, where Craig had once more taken up the violin. The Professor had wandered off somewhere into the darkness and the girls were seated a little apart. They had been treated hospitably but coldly.
“Don’t seem to cotton to us, these boys,” Laura remarked.
“They don’t like us,” Lenora replied, “because they think we are after Craig. I wonder what Long Jim has been whispering to him, and what that paper is he has been showing Craig. Do you know how far we are from the Mexican border?”
“Not more than five or six miles, I believe,” Laura replied.
Lenora rose softly to her feet and strolled to the back of the range wagon. In a few moments she reappeared, carrying a piece of paper in her hand. She stooped down.
“Craig’s saddling up,” she whispered. “Look what he dropped.”
She held out the paper, on which was traced a roughly drawn map.
“That line’s the river that marks the Mexican border,” she explained. “You see where Long Jim’s put the cross? That’s where the bridge is. That other cross is the camp.”
She pointed away southwards.
“That’s the line,” she continued. “Laura, where’s the Professor?”
“I don’t know,” Laura replied. “He rode off some time ago, said he was going to meet Mr. Quest.”
“If only he were here!” Lenora muttered. “I feel sure Craig means to escape. There he goes.”
They saw him ride off into the darkness. Lenora ran to where her horse was tethered.
“I’m going after him,” she announced. “Listen, Laura. If they arrive soon, send them after me. That’s the line, as near as I can tell you,” she added, pointing.
“Wait; I’m coming too!” Laura exclaimed.
Lenora shook her head.
“You must stay here and tell them about it,” she insisted. “I shall be all right.”
She galloped off while Laura was still undecided. Almost at that moment she heard from behind the welcome sound of horses’ feet in the opposite direction and Quest alone galloped up. Laura laid her hand upon his rein.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
“French and two deputies from the township are about a mile behind,” Quest replied. “They’ve had trouble with their horses.”
“Don’t get off,” Laura continued quickly. “Craig has escaped, riding towards the Mexican frontier. Lenora is following him. He’s gone in that direction,” she added, pointing. “When you come to the river you’ll have to hunt for the bridge.”
Quest frowned as he gathered up his reins.
“I was afraid they’d try something of the sort,” he muttered. “Tell the others where I’ve gone, Laura.”
He galloped off into the darkness. Behind, there were some growls from the little group of cowboys, none of whom, however, attempted to interfere with him. Long Jim stood up and gazed sullenly southwards.
“Cookie’ll make the bridge all right,” he remarked. “If the girl catches him, she can’t do anything. And that last guy’ll never make it. Whoop! Here come the rest of them.”
The Inspector, with two deputies, rode suddenly into the camp. The Inspector paused to speak to Laura. Long Jim’s eyes sparkled as he saw them approach.
“It’s old Harris and fat Andy,” he whispered. “We’ll have some fun with them.”
The older of the two deputies approached them frowning.
“Been at your games again, Long Jim?” he began. “I hear you declined to hand over a criminal who’s been sheltering on your ranch? You’ll get into trouble before you’ve finished.”
“Got the warrant?” Jim asked.
The deputy produced it. Long Jim looked at it curiously and handed it back.
“Guess the only other thing you want, then, is the man.”
“Better produce him quickly,” the deputy advised.
Jim turned away.
“Can’t do it. He’s beat it.”
“You mean that you’ve let him go?”
“Let him go?” Jim repeated. “I ain’t got no right to keep him. He took the job on at a moment’s notice and he left at a moment’s notice. There’s some of your party after him, all right.”
The deputies whispered to one another. The elder of the two turned around.
“Look here,” he said to the cowboys, glancing around for Long Jim, who had disappeared, “we’ve had about enough of your goings-on. I reckon we’ll take one of you back and see what seven days’ bread and water will do towards civilising you.”
There was a little mutter. The deputies stood side by side. With an almost simultaneous movement they had drawn their guns.
“Where’s Long Jim?” the older one asked.
There was a sudden whirring about their heads. A lariat, thrown with unerring accuracy, had gathered them both in its coil. With a jerk they were drawn close together, their hands pinned to their side. Two cowboys quickly disarmed them. Long Jim came sauntering round from the other side of the range wagon, tightening the rope as he walked.
“Say, you’ve got a hell of a nerve, butting into a peaceable camp like this. We ain’t broke no laws. So you’re a’going to civilise us, eh? Well, Mister Harris, we can play that civilising game, too. Hey boys, all together, tie ’em up against that wagon.”
A dozen willing hands secured them. The two men spluttered wildly, half in anger, half in fear of their tormentors, but in a few seconds they were secured firmly against the canvas-topped wagon.
“Now sit easy, gentlemen, sit easy. Nothing’s going to hurt you.” Long Jim shoved fresh cartridges into his forty-five. “That is, unless you’re unlucky. Line up there, boys, one at a time now. Bud, you and Tim and Dough-head give them guys a singe, their hair’s getting too long. The rest of you boys just content yourselves doing a fancy decoration on the canvas all around ’em. I’ll deevote my entire attenshun to trimming them lugshuriant whiskers, Mister Harris is a-sporting. All ready now,—one, two, three, let ’em whistle!”
The two deputies gave a simultaneous yell as several bullets sung by their ears.
“Whoa, old horses,” drawled Long Jim. “Flies bothering you some, eh? Sit easy, sit easy. Too dangerous hopping around that way. You might stick yourselves right in the way of one of them spitballs. Some nerve tonic this! A.X.X. Ranch brand, ready to serve at all hours, cheap at half the price. Ah ha, pretty near shaved your upper lip that time, didn’t I, Mister Harris. My hand’s a bit unsteady, what with all the excitement hereabouts. Say, put a stem on that chrysanthemum you’re doing, Cotton-top.”
The two men, racked with fury and terror, ridiculous in their trussed-up state, motionless and strained, crouched in terror while the bullets passed all around them. Inspector French tapped Long Jim on the shoulder.
“Look here,” he remonstrated, “you’re looking for trouble. You can’t treat the representatives of the law like this.”
Long Jim turned slowly around. His politeness was ominous.
“Say, you got me scared,” he replied. “Am I going to be hung?”
“The law must be respected,” French said firmly. “Untie those men.”
Long Jim scratched his head for a moment.
“Say, Mr. Inspector,” he remarked, “you’re a fine man in your way but you weigh too much—that’s what’s the matter with you. Boys,” he added, turning around, “what’s the best exercise for reducing flesh?”
“Dancing,” they shouted.
Long Jim grinned. He fell a little back. Suddenly he lowered his gun and shot into the ground, barely an inch from French’s feet. The Inspector leaped into the air.
“Once more, boys,” the cowboy went on. “Keep it up, Inspector. Jump a little higher next time. You barely cleared that one.”
The bullets buried themselves in the dust around the Inspector’s feet. Fuming with anger, French found himself continually forced to jump. The two deputies, forgotten for the moment, watched with something that was almost like a grin upon their faces. Laura, protesting loudly, was obliged more than once to look away to hide a smile. Jim at last slipped his gun into his holster.
“No more ammunition to waste, boys,” he declared. “Untie the guys with the warrant and bring out the bottle of rye. Say,” he went on, addressing the deputies as they struggled to their feet, “and you, Mr. New-Yorker, is it to be friends and a drink, or do you want a quarrel?”
The deputies were very thirsty. The perspiration was streaming down French’s forehead. They all looked at one another. Laura whispered in French’s ear and he nodded.
“We’ll call it a drink,” he decided.
The hunted man turned around with a little gasp. Before him was the rude mountain bridge, and on the other side—freedom. Scarcely a dozen lengths away was Lenora, and close behind her came Quest. He slackened speed as he walked his horse cautiously on to the planked bridge. Suddenly he gave a little cry. The frail structure, unexpectedly insecure, seemed to sway beneath his weight. Lenora, who had been riding fast, was unable to stop herself. She came on to the bridge at a half canter. Craig, who had reached the other side in safety, threw up his hands.
“Look out!” he cried. “My God!”
The bridge suddenly collapsed as though it had been made of paper. Lenora, grasping her horse, was thrown into the stream. Quest, galloping up, was only able to check himself just in time. He flung himself from his horse, and plunged into the stream. It was several moments before he was able to reach Lenora. From the opposite bank Craig watched them, glancing once or twice at the bridge. One of the wooden pillars had been sawn completely through.
“Are you hurt, dear?” Quest gasped, as he drew Lenora to the bank.
She shook her head.
“Just my side. Did Craig get away?”
Quest looked gloomily across the stream.
“Craig’s in Mexico, right enough,” he answered savagely, “but I am beginning to feel that I could fetch him back out of hell!”