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Authors: Al Cody

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BOOK: Star Toter
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He studied it thoughtfully, while the embers grayed and the light faded. It was an elk's tooth with a gold mounting, made to snap onto a watch chain. The catch had broken.

Locke slipped the tooth into his pocket and returned to where Bannon waited. He held it out. "Ever see this?" he asked.

Bannon studied it curiously but shook his head.

"Seems as though I may have," he conceded. "But I don't just remember when or where. Sometimes," he added apologetically, "my mind gets a little fuzzy."

They returned to town. It was late, so late that even the usual roisterers of a gold camp had given up and gone home. Bannon paused as they stabled their horses.

"I'll ride out tomorrow for another look at Ray," he promised. "I'd say he's got a pretty good chance, thanks to the job you did."

 

 

 

Tired as he was, Locke could not sleep. Too much had happened. He tossed until the light grayed the window, then shaved and went to a restaurant. Few were astir at so early an hour—only an occasional swamper sweeping out a saloon, a mongrel dog prowling the garbage piles. The glitter of early sun reflected back from one of these. Locke went on a few steps, then swung abruptly and crossed for a look.

Contrary to custom, this garbage had been placed in a box; it was unusual in other respects. An object of considerable value seemed to have been tossed from a window above into the box. It was another elk's tooth, and it was easy to see that it was the mate to the one he had found on the Wagon Wheel. Apparently they had been joined until the fastening had broken.

Chance had led Locke to this other half, here at the rear of the Wild Buttes Saloon, King Steele's saloon.

 

10

There was just one other customer ahead of him as Locke slid onto a stool in the Chuck House. The man was seated at a table, sheltered behind a newspaper which he read with avid interest. Since the date line was a month old, its news could be fresh only in Highpoint.

Locke was turning back to his order when the paper was lowered. Both stared in surprise. Then Locke was off the stool, the other man shoving back so suddenly as to overturn his chair. A bristling red beard of several day's growth was thrust forward as eagerly as a horny hand.

"Orin Locke." He grinned. "Why, you durned old ranny, looks like you beat me here!"

"Where you been keepin' yourself, Ted?" Locke demanded. "Is all the news you get as old as the news in that paper? I've been back two-three days. I thought you'd have come and gone long since."

"I was sort of delayed. Right now I'm drivin' stage," Ted Foley explained. "Been earnin' my livin' riding around and admirin' the scenery. They pay you for enjoyin' life."

They talked, recalling their last meeting, which had been three years before and a thousand miles away.

"Remember, I was all for heading into this country, and for you coming with me?" Foley recalled. "Only you wouldn't come. Said you might make it later. I was plannin' to head up across Nebraska, see what the country was like, and be back in a month."

"Well, you got here," Locke commented.

"Sure, I made it. Took me ten months, though. I kind of bogged down in Nebraska. I'll tell you about that, first chance I get. Right now, I got to go tend to some things."

It was heartening to run into an old friend, and Locke was momentarily lifted out of his somber thoughts. They returned as he went back to the street, then were pleasantly disturbed as a voice hailed him. He turned to see Ginny.

"Isn't this a glorious morning?" she called, then broke off at sight of his face. "Why, what's happened, Orin?"

She listened sympathetically as he gave her a resume of the night's events.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she breathed. "That's dreadful. If there's anything that I can do to help at any time, you must let me."

"I'll remember," he promised, and was comforted by her concern. After a stop at his office he rode out to the Three Sevens and was surprised to find Bannon already there.

"When you aren't hindered by a superfluity of patients, there is no excuse for neglecting those you have." Bannon shrugged. "Ray must have given quite an account of himself in that fight, before the six got the decision. There are contusions and bruises all over him."

There had been no particular change in Ray's condition, but Bannon took a cheerful view.

"He isn't so much unconscious as resting," he explained. "A man may be unconscious, yet restless and in torment of body and mind. And a restless patient can do himself a great deal of harm. I remember one time when I had to hypnotize one particularly bad case, in a lucid moment, to give nature a chance."

"Did that work?"

"Perfectly. Not feeling pain, he lay quietly, and recovery was rapid. Before that, he kept tearing open his wounds. You see, there was no one to nurse him, and something had to be done. Had there been anyone, they would probably have mobbed me for such treatment. But the patient recovered."

Grant Cable, assured that Ray was in good hands, had ridden off with his crew to take part in the roundup. Locke guessed that he would be glad of a good excuse to be away for a few days. That might help postpone a decision which would lead to a showdown.

Back in town, Locke observed activity on a side street. A lumber wagon was just pulling out, a canvas tarp thrown careless over the box, the horses trotting easily, as though with no great load. Outwardly there was nothing to distinguish this from most other wagons, nothing to excite interest.

But several men on horseback were picking this particular time to leave town, some riding far ahead of the wagon, as though intent on business of their own. Others followed, keeping well back.

No one had bothered to tell him what was going on, but Locke had heard enough of conditions to hazard a guess. This was a shipment of gold, and the riders were vigilantes set to guard it. With such an escort, it should be safe.

Safe, providing everything worked as planned. Locke was too old a hand at this sort of game to have confidence in any plans which Steele and perhaps Cable had taken a hand in formulating. A gold shipment was like a load of overripe meat; vultures could smell or sight it a long way off.

The stage was preparing to leave town. Ted Foley was on the box, handling the reins for six horses with expert ease. Two men came out from the office, carrying a wooden box which seemed to be a burden and heaving it to the boot with some difficulty. There was nothing about that to attract attention, but one fact was noteworthy. No passengers were boarding the stage.

Foley waved a hand, settling himself, kicking off the brake and allowing his horses to run. The six yanked the lightly laden vehicle along as though it, too, were no more than a part of the scenery. Locke turned down a side street, swung and rode out of town. He took a short cut, and was alongside the road when Foley came in sight, two miles beyond.

At his wave, Ted pulled to an easy trot, and Locke swung alongside. "I think I'll ride with you, Ted," he suggested. "It strikes me that might be a good idea."

"Sure." Foley's grin was pleased. "Whoa, there!" He pulled to a stop as Locke dismounted. "Hop right up with me, Orin. I do'no what you got on your mind, but I'll sure be glad to chew the fat."

"I think I'll ride inside," Locke decided. "I'd rather be up with you. But, if anything happens, it might work better to be inside."

"What you figure's likely to happen? This is a dummy express box I'm carryin' today. You know the real load's gone on ahead, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know," Locke agreed dryly. "And from the signs, everybody else in the Wild Butte knows all about it, too."

Foley spat thoughtfully, holding the restive horses with practised ease. "You figure there's some shenanigan somewhere? If I'm stopped, I'm supposed to let 'em have the box without no trouble."

"You do that," Locke agreed. "Your job is to drive." He settled himself comfortably inside and closed the door. "Since they didn't provide you with a gun guard, you'll be doing all that's expected of you."

"Dang it, Orin, you're getting me as nervous as an old maid peerin' under the bed," Foley protested. "I'm halfway believin' mebby there'll be something there, even when I'm danged sure there can't be. You got a hunch?"

"Maybe we better just say I got time on my hands."

"And a pair of hog-legs at your hips," Foley grunted. "Well, if something should develop, there's nobody I'd rather have to side me than you, Orin. I'm going to be kind of regretful about leaving this country, now that you're back."

"How do you mean?"

"This is my last trip driving stage," Foley explained. "Then I'm going back to Nebraska. Got me a girl at Scott's Bluff. That's what took me so long when I come through that way. Ever see that big bluff, risin' up there like a fool hen that don't know enough to duck?"

"I've never been that way."

"Some bluff. Wide an' solid, like a bull between the horns. I'm going to admire it more'n usual when I see it again. My gal's pa runs a blacksmith shop, and I'll be working with him. That's the way she wants it. There's no hills to speak of, nor dug roads twistin' a mile above nothin' but scenery, but I'm a pretty fair hand at fittin' a shoe to a filly's foot. Only, like I say, I mislike pullin' out from here just as you get back. We used to have us some times together."

He relapsed into silence, for a man tooling a stage along those roads needed to be watchful as well as skillful.

And these were the real Wild Buttes, from which the country had taken its name. The few comparatively level stretches of country, which led off to the ranches lying to the west, were behind them. Queasy Creak had wandered off there and then swung guiltily back, and, as though it had some secret to conceal, was trying to lose itself in the hills, while the road climbed and twisted far above.

The breath of pine came from below as well as above, and a waterfall, fed jointly by a spring and melting glaciers, took off at the side in a wild leap. It plunged and broke before gathering itself to hurry to a breathless junction with the creek. Highpoint was miles behind, and save for the road, there was no other sign that man had ever penetrated that wilderness.

It was only a few more miles to a mountain meadow and a long log station, where a fresh team would be hooked into the traces. The dull rumble of Queasy came up from a gorge, where it fought its way along a course studded by boulders. Then racing into the sun, it rioted across a deep meadow.

A deer watched from a point above the road. In the still air at the side a hawk floated, high above the valley floor, but below them.

"Sure going to miss this," Foley called. "I plumb hate drivin' a road like this, but it gets in your blood. Oh, well, sometimes I can climb the bluff and call it a hill."

They were among the trees; lodge-pole pines grew close on either side of the road. The dizzy depths were shut away as they rounded a turn. Ted Foley kicked on the brake and swung his weight on the reins.

It was not a matter of choice. A log was across the road, felled deliberately, as fresh ax strokes indicated. One end was elevated into the crotch of another half-fallen tree, forming a solid barrier.

The treetops united to shut away most of the light. There was scant undergrowth. Wide reaches of forest aisles were carpeted with brown needles, and Locke knew that the other wagon had not come that way. Probably it had taken a side road.

But men had raised the barrier, watching in confidence for the coming of the stage, and now they were ready for it. A pair stepped from behind trees as the stage stopped with squealing brakes. One raised a rifle to cover the man on the box. That was a normal precaution.

But he did not stop with that. Even as the gun came up and the black muzzle centered, it seemed to split in a roll of lancing flame. The splitting was an illusion, caused by the shadows under the trees, but the thunder and the hurtling lead were no fancy.

A look of hurt, followed by incredulity and unbelief, spread across the face of Ted Foley. With both hands on the reins, he had been too busy, stopping and controlling the team, to do anything else, even had he been so inclined. There had been no false move, but that had made no difference.

A red gash started at his chin and spread upward, like the slash of an axe, almost splitting his face. Foley pitched drunkenly, his fingers losing their clasp on the reins. He struck the rump of the left wheeler and bounced, while the horses, started nervously. Then he hit the ground and rolled, to come up in a sprawling heap against the trees by the road.

 

11

Silence descended as the echoes of the gun rolled and muttered among the canyons and on to oblivion across the ridges. Locke crouched, shocked by the brutality of that unnecessary killing, the bitter abruptness of it. One thought crowded through his mind.

It's your last trip, all right, Ted—but you'll never leave the hills for the bluffs of Nebraska!

"What'd you want to go kill him for?" the second outlaw demanded, his voice shocked and angry. Both outlaws had halted. Each wore a mask and a bandana draped below his hat, with slits cut for eyeholes. Smoke twisted from the muzzle of the rifle. The six horses stood trembling, stomping uneasily.

"A dead dog don't yap!" was the gruff response, and to Locke there seemed to be something familiar about the voice. "Now we won't be bothered. What the—"

Apparently he saw something, or thought he did. Or perhaps it was the finely drawn perception of tightly drawn nerves which sent some warning along the ganglia. He started to swing around, bringing the muzzle of the rifle ahead, centering it on the door of the stage, his finger tightening to send a blasting hail inside. Locke had to shoot.

Even as he squeezed the trigger, Locke's suspicion that more than two would be doing the job was confirmed. Off at the side was movement not made by waiting horses. A glint of light flashed along a gun barrel.

Now they knew that he was there; and with one man dead on each side, it would be a fight to the finish.

Locke's hunch had been right. The gold was there, in the supposed dummy shipment. The orders for the attack as well as the shipment, including the elaborate farce of the escorted wagon, would have originated in the office at the rear of the Wild Buttes Saloon.

BOOK: Star Toter
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