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Authors: Al Cody

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BOOK: Star Toter
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"I'll hurry," Locke agreed, and repeated what he had said before. "You really are an angel."

Ginny laughed, but without looking at him. Color was high in her cheeks. "I lack more than wings, I'm afraid. Run along, now."

He let himself out of the house, looking back to make sure that no light showed. The wagon wheels sounded loud in the silent street as he drove away, but this time not even a dog barked. He took the back road again, driving fast as soon as he was out of town. It was a relief to see the dark bulk of the buildings of the Three Sevens, sprawled peacefully.

There was no doubt that Steele would have returned. Locke could picture his rage and disappointment at finding Ray gone. Apparently it had not occurred to him that Ray might be moved again; had he suspected the possibility, he would not have delayed obtaining a search warrant.

There was the possibility, even the likelihood, that Steele might have left someone to keep an eye on the place. Locke drove carefully, stopping some distance away, then scouted on foot. No light showed, but he kept away from the house, making a feint of crossing open ground toward it ,then doubling back and circling in the shadows.

He waited and saw a phantom figure moving away from the barn toward the house. There was only one. Locke followed.

There was something vaguely familiar about the figure; it was one of Steele's men that he had seen in town. The cold snout of a six-gun was against the other's back before he suspected danger.

"Grab yourself a handful of stars," Locke commanded, and emphasized the command with a prod of the gun barrel. With his other hand he helped himself to a holstered gun. "Where are the rest of your gang?"

"There ain't no others," his captive assured him, through teeth which he could not quite control. "I—there's just me."

Locke believed him. He knocked at the door, and called softly when steps sounded inside.

"It's me—Locke."

Reta, fully dressed, opened the door. She clutched a revolver, which she lowered as she made sure that it actually was Locke. Relief came into her eyes, but there was also trouble in them, traces of tears on her face. He signaled quickly for silence.

"Where's Toby?" he asked. "This fellow was hanging around—waiting for me, I figure."

"I'll get him," Reta promised. She returned presently. Toby's hair was disarrayed from sleep, while he hastily buttoned his shirt. Locke guessed that the two crew men were sleeping in the big house at Reta's request.

"Come along, you danged buzzard," Toby adjured the captive. "I know just the place for you—and I'll sure enjoy puttin' you there!"

Mose appeared to bring up the wagon, putting it where it usually stood. Locke explained to Reta what he had done.

"Ray is at Ginny Landers' place. It was the only place I could think of. If you'll hurry, I can get you there before daylight, to help look after him."

"Ginny Landers?" Reta repeated thoughtfully. Then, "I'll hurry," she agreed. "That was probably the best thing to do."

"Fine. I'll saddle a couple of horses."

Locke explained as much as he thought necessary to Toby; then, as Reta came out, they rode off together, again taking the back road.

"What happened when Steele came back?" he asked.

"He seemed to feel mighty important, hiding behind that badge," Reta said. "He had a search warrant, so of course we let them search. They were surprised, and he was furious, not to find a sign of Ray. They went through the barn and all the other buildings a couple of times, as well as the house. Then he wanted to know where Ray was."

Momentarily her expression lightened, a smile touching the corners of her mouth.

"I acted as innocent as an old cat just bringing home a litter of kittens, asking him what made him think that Ray had been there any of the time. He said I admitted that Ray was there when they were out before. But of course I hadn't admitted any such thing. All I'd said then was that to try and move him would probably kill him. But I certainly hadn't said that he was there."

She laughed at the recollection, but sobered quickly.

"It would be funny if it hadn't been so serious. After they had searched, there was nothing they could do but go away again. It was clever of you to catch that spy he left. I was afraid you might be trapped."

It seemed to Locke that something else was troubling her; it was probably her apprehension for Ray. He strove to reassure her on that point. Daylight was beginning to gray the west as they approached the town, but darkness still held. Leaving the horses in an alley, Locke led the way. At his knock and identification, Ginny promptly opened the door.

The two women looked at each other a moment; Reta's face was suddenly white. Locke suspected that there was an old antagonism here. Reta Cable had lived for years on the ranch which Ginny had had every reason to believe was her own. After a moment, Ginny held her arms outstretched.

"You poor dear," she murmured. "You love Ray, don't you, and you've been going through purgatory!"

Reta hesitated a moment; then her reserve melted and she allowed herself to be gathered into that comforting embrace.

"Everything's going to be all right," Ginny assured her. "Orin's on the job, and Ray is resting quietly."

 

17

Ginny had breakfast ready for them, having known that Locke could not stay long, but certain that he would need food. "We're all hungry," she said, "so it's sensible to eat when there's an opportunity. What are you going to do now, Orin?"

"I aim to put a crimp in Steele's plans." Locke smiled. "We'll see what turns up." He gave no details, but he was relieved at what had been accomplished. Ray was doing as well as he had dared to hope, with Reta to look after him.

He slipped from the house and back to the horses. It was still night, but daylight would come in a matter of minutes. By the time he was out of town, objects were taking on shape and substance.

He was bone weary again. It had been another long, hard day, lasting through the night. He left the horses deep in the bottom of a brushy coulee, then moved away to a grassy spot, also surrounded by brush, where the sun was just striking. For three hours he slept, then, as he had planned, awoke refreshed.

His plan was simple: to return to Queasy Creek and recover the gold. Afterward he would take it to its rightful owners and tell his story. That would repudiate the tales which Steele had spread concerning him. Steele would find himself on the defensive.

From there on, Locke had no illusions. It would be the same old story, with variations, that he had encountered in other towns with other men. Now it had reached the West's final, last tribunal. Judge Colt would decide the case.

Here the cloudburst had spilled most heavily. The ground, a lake when Locke had last seen it, was still a morass of mud. He found where the road had been, where the horse had been killed near the edge of the storm's playground. Magpies gave him a clue, rising protestingly from the dead animal, which was nearly covered by silt. Wolves and coyotes had feasted on it.

Here the full mass of water which had been dumped into Queasy Creek up above had surged in a rush to escape, moving like a live creature. The monster had left its track for miles. Piles of sticks, stones and uprooted trees, interlined with mud and sand, were everywhere along the banks. Gullies had been sliced where none had been before. So altered was the landscape that, except for horse and the magpies, he could never have located the place where the stage had been stopped.

This far, Locke had ridden casually but cautiously. As far as he could tell, he was alone in the vast muddy waste. Leaving his belt and guns at the bank, he waded out; the water was as deep and swift as he remembered. Reaching the barrier, he groped blindly in the swirl below, the current sucking hungrily from either side. The box had been heavy with its burden of gold, well-anchored against normal hazards, but he had not counted on the flood. That might have caught the box and rolled it like a pebble, smashing the boards as it went along. If the gold was gone, then his hopes had vanished with it.

Puddling in icy water, forced to duck below the surface to search, was a rough task. His hands found no sharp corners, nothing resembling a box. He was almost ready to concede defeat when his fingers scraped along a board buried in fresh sand. He clawed the sand away; the box was there. It was not too difficult to lift it, with the current assisting, but at the surface the burden became unwieldy. Clutching the box, Locke staggered to the shore.

In its present shape the shipment was too heavy and clumsy to carry on a horse. Locke pried loose a board. Inside, the heavy canvas soaked but still strong, was sack after sack filled with dust and nuggets. The various containers were tied and marked with the names of the owners.

Transferred to a pair of saddle-bags, the gold could be managed on horseback. He was just fitting the last sack into his saddle-bags when a voice rapped at him, coming from the fringing trees.

"You can have your choice, Locke; after findin' that gold again, I guess you've earned it! Put up your hands or stop a bullet! It don't make no difference to me which you pick, and I don't reckon it does to the rest of the boys either, eh, King?"

Locke stood tense, warned as much by the roundabout flow of words as by their content. Their indirection was an invitation for him to make a try for his own guns and furnish an excuse to kill him. He had seen no one, and the noise of the brawling creek covered most sounds. Off by the dead horse, the magpies had returned, flapping and bickering, giving no alarm.

Steele answered on a sardonic note: "I'd sooner he'd try for one of those guns!" Locke released his breath in a slow sigh, letting go of the gold sack at the same time. Carefully he lifted both hands as he stepped back. Apparently Steele had kept a watcher at some high point, on the theory that Locke had cached the gold and would return for it. There had been time to signal others and gather as he worked to recover it.

They came in sight, no longer bothering with masks. It was Big Mule who had given the warning. Beside Steele and the Mule, there were three others. Mule took his guns.

Steele was jovial. A lot of things had gone wrong, but this stroke of luck made up for all the rest.

"I had a hunch you must have done something of the sort, Locke," he said. "You had to make a try for it sooner or later."

Locke had no illusions. This was defeat, and Steele was not one to take any chances. Once this job was finished, Orin would be finished with it. There was a bitter taste in his mouth.

Not many days before, such a prospect would not have disturbed him unduly. More than once, during the last few years, Locke had gone to meet danger with the knowledge that he might be killed, and had gone eagerly. Death would settle some things finally and decisively and perhaps for the best.

Now he was dismayed at the imminence of that solution. What would happen to Ginny, to Ray and Reta, if he did not return? The answer was only too certain. For the first time in years, he had something to live for, a promise rich as the rainbow showing on the horizon.

Steele eyed him sardonically, as if reading his thoughts. "You know, Locke, you're quite a guy," he commented, his tone not unfriendly. "If you only had a little of the right sort of sense, we could get along. In fact, there's no need for you to start pushing up the cactus and skunk cabbage. I can get along without your help, but I'll admit it could be useful. Give the right answer, and you can ride out."

Such a promise might mean something if everything were going Steele's way; but the price of existence had grown high for both of them. While one lived the other could never feel sure, and that meant that Steele's word was no better than he chose to make it.

"All I want to know is where you took that brother of yours," Steele went on. "I'll find him sooner or later. You know how he's treated you, and how he'd answer such a proposition if it was put to him. So don't be a fool."

Locke regarded him wearily, folding his arms across his chest. "I'm afraid I've been a fool too long to change now, Steele," he said.

"Well, it's up to you." Steele shrugged. "But I'm not so bloodthirsty as you seem to think. I'd much rather do business on a sensible basis." He seated himself on a flat boulder which had dried in the sun; there was a coating of dirt where mud had caked. "I might even throw in a couple of those pokes of nuggets, so that you wouldn't be leaving empty-handed."

Such desperate eagerness meant that he was not half so sure of himself as he sought to convey. Here was a weakness, if it could be exploited.

"Don't you think that you're going at this thing backward?" Locke asked. Talk consumed time, and as long as a man kept alive, there was always the possibility that something might turn up.

"Backward? How do you mean?" Steele demanded.

"You've wanted three things." Locke ticked them off on the fingers of one hand. "Power. You figure you have it. Gold. You're in a good position to control most of the gold in the camp now. But you also want Reta Cable, and gold won't buy her, nor will guns make her love you. You have a notion that you can force her to marry you by allowing the man she loves to live, under the threat that he will die if she refuses. It might work, Steele—up to a point. But have you ever husked an ear of corn, only to find nothing under the husk? That's all that you'd be getting: husk. The methods you're using just make her hate you."

Steele's face flushed, then was as if stricken by early frost. He started to rise to his feet, then sank back. Big Mule guffawed, but was swiftly silent as Steele's eyes swung at him. Hate churned like smoky pools in the depths of his eyes.

"My methods," Steele retorted coldly, "have the virtue of working. So long as they do, other things don't matter." He was whistling in the dark, his face stricken at Locke's blunt summation. "But we're wasting time," he added venomously. "I'll give you one more chance. Better take it. Watch!"

A magpie flapped lazily into the air. It was a long revolver shot, but Steele's hand dropped to his side, lifted in a flash of sunlight along gunmetal, and the gun spat angrily. The magpie collapsed in mid-flight, tumbling in a heap of feathers. It was shooting which Locke could not have bettered.

BOOK: Star Toter
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