AS they mounted and rode away, Cory Blaine was looking down upon Bryam’s shack from the summit of the ridge near the head of Mill Creek Canyon. His horse, blowing and trembling, faltered at the edge of the steep trail pitching down into the canyon. As Blaine urged him forward, the animal took a few faltering steps, then he swayed and dropped in his tracks.
“Hell!” muttered Blaine. “Now I got to hoof it to the bottom and pack my saddle to boot.”
Trudging down the steep trail beneath the weight of his heavy saddle, he caught occasional glimpses of Bryam’s body lying where he had left it. Above, on ragged wings, great black birds swung in easy, majestic circles. Occasionally one of them would swoop lower; but four bristling, growling hounds kept them at bay.
In the shade of a tree near the shack, Bryam’s hobbled horse stood patiently, switching his tail in perpetual battle with the flies, while he rested in the shade during the heat of the day before going out to graze again on the meadowland below the shack.
Two of the hounds came menacingly toward Blaine as he approached; but he circled them; and when they saw that he was not coming nearer to their dead master, they stopped and stood watching him as he saddled and bridled the horse, removed its hobbles and rode away down the valley.
The guests of the TF Ranch were at breakfast when Cory Blaine rode into the corral and unsaddled. No one had seen him arrive, and he went directly to the bunkhouse. When he entered he saw Butts just pulling on his boots, the other men having already gone to their breakfast.
The two men eyed one another. “Did you get the girl?” demanded Butts.
“Hell, no,” replied Blaine.
“Where is she?”
“That damn dude beat me to it,” replied Blaine. “He got her.”
“You don’t mean that Marvel feller?” demanded Butts.
“You seen him and didn’t plug him?”
“I didn’t see him.”
“Then how do you know he got the girl?” asked Butts.
“He killed Bryam.”
“The hell you say.”
“Yes. And Hi lived long enough just to tell who killed him. Then I followed the dude’s trail to where he come up with Eddie and Mart and the girl.”
“He took her away from them?” asked Butts.
“He plugged Mart; and I reckon he got the drop on Eddie, for I seen where the three of ’em rode off; but they took the wrong trail, and I reckon they’re lost somewhere in the hills.”
Butts looked worried. “They may be lost,” he said, “and they may not; but they’ll get here sometime, and when they do here’s one bozo’s goin’ to be missin’, and you better come with me.”
“Don’t be a fool, Butts,” replied Blaine. “When they hear my story they won’t never hang it on us. I got it all figured out; and, believe me, that fellow Marvel is goin’ to swing for the murder of Bryam and Mart, to say nuthin’ of what he’ll get for abductin’ the girl.”
“You sure you can do it, Cory?” asked Butts.
“I know I can. You come along with me now. I’m goin’ up to the house and give ’em some facts that’ll make their eyes pop out. I aint killed one horse and damn near killed another to get here ahead of Marvel for nuthin’.”
“All right,” said Butts, “but I’d feel a whole lot safer if I was headin’ for somewhere’s else.”
“That’ll be just like tellin’ ’em you was guilty,” said Blaine.
The two men approached the veranda of the big house just as the guests were coming out from breakfast.
“There’s Cory!” exclaimed Dora Crowell.
John White stepped forward as the two men came up the steps. “Have you any news, Blaine?” he asked.
“A lot of it, sir,” replied Cory. The other guests clustered about, eager and attentive.
“Tell me what you know,” said White.
“I trailed the abductors as far as Bryam’s cabin. They was three of ’em. I guess Hi must have tried to interfere with ’em, because Marvel shot him.”
“Marvel!” exclaimed two or three of them simultaneously.
“Yes, Marvel,” replied Blaine. “I was always afraid of that fellow. That’s why I kicked him out. I knew right along that he was after Kay.”
“How do you know it was Marvel?” demanded Dora Crowell.
“Hi told me just before he died. The deputy sheriff and the posse were there at the same time. They heard him. Then the posse rode one way and I rode the other, lookin’ for trails; and I found their trail leadin’ down toward Sonora. I rode all night, and in the mornin’ I came on their camp. They weren’t no one there except one feller who was shot through the chest. He was still livin’, and he told me how it happened.
“He said his name was Mart and that he and another guy had been hired by Marvel to work for him, but he hadn’t let ’em in on what he was goin’ to do till the last minute. When they got to this camp this feller Mart said he wouldn’t have nuthin’ more to do with it. He told Marvel he was goin’ to quit and go back, and the other feller wanted to quit, too; and then Marvel shot this feller Mart.
“He said he was unconscious for a long time and didn’t know what happened after he was shot. He didn’t know whether Marvel killed the other feller, too, or made a prisoner of him, or finally persuaded him to come along with him; but before the shootin’ Marvel said he was goin’ right back and claim the reward. He even got Kay to promise not to accuse him by threatening to kill her and her father if she did. I tell you he’s a bad one, and he’s comin’ in here with a story of how he rescued Kay. I tell you it was a lucky thing I come on that Mart when I did.”
“What happened to him?” asked Dora. “Where is he?”
“He died right after he told his story to me,” replied Cory.
“One would have thought that such a desperado would have made sure that both his victims were dead before he left them,” said Dora.
“I reckon he thought they was dead,” said Blaine.
“What do you suppose has become of the posse?” asked White. “Could it be possible that they may have overhauled Marvel?”
“No,” replied Blaine. “They went in a different direction. Aint they back yet?”
“No. I wish that some of them might be here when Marvel came in, so that they could make the arrest, but the sheriff is back from his trip and I’ll telephone him at once.”
“I reckon you better do that,” said Blaine.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Birdie Talbot as White stepped into the house to telephone. “Bruce was such a nice young man.”
“It just doesn’t seem possible,” said Miss Pruell. “It doesn’t seem possible at all.”
“I aint surprised,” said Butts. “I always said there was somethin’ phoney about that bozo, but I don’t see how he ever killed anyone with a gun. He must have snuck up on ’em while they was asleep, or maybe when they seen his panties they committed suicide.”
“I don’t know nuthin’ about that,” said Blaine, “but he sure is one bad hombre.”
“I don’t believe a word of it,” said Dora Crowell, looking Blaine steadily in the eye.
The man flushed. “It’s a good thing for you you’re not a man,” said Blaine.
“Perhaps it’s a better thing for you that I am not, Cory,” she replied.
Blaine turned away. “I aint goin’ to stay here jawin’ with no fool woman,” he said. “I aint had no sleep for two nights; and I’m goin’ to turn in,” and with Butts at his side he walked back toward the bunkhouse.
After the two men had left them, the guests fell into a discussion of Blaine’s charges against Marvel. Some agreed with Dora, while others took sides with Blaine. Miss Pruell reiterated that she just couldn’t believe such a thing about Mr. Marvel.
“I guess he must be guilty,” said Birdie Talbot, “after all that Cory has told us. We have known Cory much longer than we have Marvel, and there is no reason why we should not believe him. You know I always did suspect something funny about Marvel. I suspicioned him right away when he kept refusing to play bridge.”
Benson Talbot, running true to form, took sides against his wife.
“It looks pretty bad for Marvel,” said Bert Adams, “and perhaps it seems worse to some of us because we know that he was not what he pretended to be. But there was something else about him that the rest of you don’t seem to recall that comes pretty nearly convincing me that he is guilty of all that Blaine accuses him of.”
“What’s that?” demanded Benson Talbot.
“His eyes,” replied Adams.
“Why I think he has nice eyes,” said Miss Pruell.
“He has the eyes of a killer,” stated Adams confidently.
“Slush!” exclaimed Dora Crowell.
Olga Gunderstrom had not entered into the discussion because she knew nothing of either Marvel or Blaine. In fact, the whole matter seemed to bore her and now she turned away. “I am going to my room, Dora,” she said. “I think I shall lie down for a few moments.” And then, one by one, the guests drifted into the house to read or write letters or to rest, so that the veranda was deserted when Bruce and Kay and Eddie rode into the ranch yard.
Marvel led them to the foot of the veranda steps, and when they had dismounted he told Kay that she had better go to her room immediately and get some rest. “I reckon the reason there’s nobody about is that they are all out lookin’ for you,” he said, but even as he spoke John White stepped out onto the veranda. As father and daughter saw one another they rushed into each other’s arms. There were tears in the man’s eyes, while Kay sobbed openly.
“You are all right, darling?” he asked.
“All right, dad,” she replied through her sobs, “and we have no one to thank for that but Bruce—Mr. Marvel.”
The older man’s face hardened, but the girl did not see it for hers was buried upon his shoulder. “I know all about that, dear,” he said. “Now you go to your room and get some rest and I will talk with Mr. Marvel.”
She turned and smiled through her tears at Bruce. “I haven’t thanked you yet,” she said, “but sometime I am going to try.”
“Never you mind the thanks,” he said; “you get to bed.”
When she had gone, White descended the veranda steps and faced Marvel. “Blaine is back,” he said.
“I reckoned as much,” said Marvel. “Where is he?”
“He told the whole story,” said White. “I ought to kill you, Marvel; but you brought her back unharmed, and I owe you something for that. I am going to give you a chance to get away. The sheriff is on his way here now. You get on yours and I’ll tell him that I do not intend to prosecute.”
Marvel looked at the older man for a moment. “I sure would have known that Blaine was back,” he said, “even if you hadn’t told me. I aint goin’ to try to tell you nuthin’, Mr. White, except that you are all wrong. I thank you for what you think you’re tryin’ to do for me, but I’m not goin’ away. Kay knows the truth, and you will know it after you have listened to her. I had nuthin’ to do with her abduction.”
“It’s no use, Marvel,” replied White. “Blaine’s story was too circumstantial.”
Olga Gunderstrom came onto the veranda as Marvel shook his head and was about to turn away. As their eyes met the girl stopped and hers went wide. “Buck Mason!” she exclaimed.
“Olga!” cried the man, and started up the steps toward her.
“Don’t come near me, you murderer,” she cried.
“I had to shoot ’em both in self defense, Olga,” he said. “Bryam was shootin’ at me with a thirty-thirty and the other feller tried to draw after I had him covered.”
“I don’t mean those two,” she said. “You know who I mean.”
“Olga!” he cried. “I couldn’t guess that you’d believe that about me. I heard that story, too; but I knew that you would know that I never done it.”
She shuddered. “I know your kind,” she said icily; “no refinement, no instincts of decency, just a common brute, who can think of nothing else but to kill.”
He looked at her in bitter silence for a long moment. Pain, disillusionment, sorrow made a raging chaos of his brain; but at last the only outward expression of what was passing within was the reflection of the sorrow that lay deep in his eyes. Then he turned away, hesitated and turned back toward John White.
“I’ll turn this feller over to you, sir,” he said, indicating Eddie with a gesture. “Hold him until the sheriff comes.”
“I told you I was not going to prosecute,” said White.
“But I am,” said Mason. “I am a deputy sheriff and I deputize you to take custody of this prisoner;” and then he turned and walked away, leading the four horses toward the corral.
“Don’t let him get away, Mr. White,” cried Olga. “Do something. Don’t let him getaway.”
“What can I do?” asked White with a shrug. “He is a known killer; and he’s carrying two guns, while I am unarmed.”
In her room Kay White was troubled. There had been something in the way that her father had listened to her praise of Marvel that had seemed cold and austere. Perhaps it was a woman’s intuition that all was not right that brought her out onto the veranda while Olga was pleading with her father.
“I tell you something must be done,” cried Olga. “He must not be permitted to escape.”
“I have telephoned the sheriff,” replied White. “He is on his way here now.”
“That will be too late,” replied the girl. “He may get away, and then we may never be able to catch him again.”
“Who?” demanded Kay. “Who may get away?”
“Buck Mason, the murderer of my father,” replied Olga.
“Buck Mason!” exclaimed Kay. “Who is he?”
White pointed toward Marvel who was leading the horses into the corral. “He is Buck Mason,” he replied.