Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The pool in the creek was still cloudy when the ranger came to it. Someone had passed through within the last few minutes. The current was not very swift and the pool was slow in clearing. The bandit was only a little way ahead of him, if he was still on the bandit’s trail.
“Bud” Jones, corporal in Company F, Texas Rangers, checked his roan, Pepper, and allowed it to drink before he started to cross the creek. He sat upright and alert in the saddle, a soldierly looking figure in his ranger equipment.
There was no attempt at regular uniform, but all the troop wore similar sombreros and high-heeled boots with Mexican spurs. All of them wore double-belts of cartridges for six-gun and rifle, and every trooper balanced his revolver at his right hip with the bowie knife on his left. Bud Jones was the youngest member of the troop and its latest recruit, although he was a corporal, promoted for valor and efficiency.
Now he was trailing a man named Morrissey— “Black” Morrissey—leader of a gang of bandits who were on the rangers’ list but who had, so far, by frequent moves, dodged arrest. The ranger service was slowly but inevitably rounding up the western section of the State of Texas, ridding it of undesirables and rendering it fit for settlement by worthy citizens.
Some of the outlaws had been shot, others strung up and left swinging to sturdy oaks in the towns where they had been tried and found guilty. Some had been driven beyond the Rio Grande to seek refuge in Mexico.
But Morrissey and his outfit had remained at large. They were known to have a hideout somewhere, but the rangers had never been able to obtain any definite information as to its whereabouts in the mountain fastnesses.
Bud believed it was not far from Thunder Creek. He hoped that the man he was following— he was pretty sure that it was Morrissey himself— was heading back for this hiding place. It was very likely that there would be other members of the gang there, at any time.
But such odds stimulated Bud rather than checked him. If he had a fault it was what his captain termed his “excess of initiative.” Without doubt it often led Bud into difficult situations, but so far he had always extricated himself, though not always without honorable wounds, the scars of which both he and Pepper bore.
Morrissey’s last crime had been the daring holdup of a stage and the looting of the express box that held gold specie consigned to the bank at Cedarville. Besides the robbery, murder had been committed, wanton and unnecessary. The driver had held up his hands at Morrissey’s command, but the express messenger had made an attempt to get his weapon, checking it when he saw that Morrissey had himself and the driver, both on the front seat, covered.
From then on he had made no resistance but had obeyed the bandit’s orders to haul out the box. He had attempted no more than his duty, but his first action seemed to have enraged the outlaw.
After taking from the two passengers all that they had in jewelry and money, he put the gold coin in a gunny sack which, after tying it at the mouth with a leather string, he tied again so as to divide it into two compartments. He flung the heavy, jingling burden across his saddle bow, resting in front of him as he mounted, all the time covering the defenseless occupants of the stage, whom he had lined up on one side of the vehicle, hands above their heads, their weapons thrown into the heavy brush. At the last moment he had cursed the messenger for trying to protect the treasure and deliberately shot him between the eyes.
By the time word got to the rangers’ camp, Morrissey had a good start. Bud was detailed for the job by Captain Halstead. Pepper, like the horses of all the troop, superior to any other mounts in the vicinity, began to cut down that lead as soon as Bud had reached the scene of the crime and picked up the sign.
It was as clear to him as the printed words in a book. Morrissey had made no attempt to hide his trail in the beginning, but had evidently urged his horse to top speed. Long before the tracks brought Bud to the mountain road he knew that the outlaw’s horse was tiring rapidly.
Not only had it been pushed to its utmost effort through a rough country, but it was carrying extra weight, dead weight in the sack of looted gold. The messenger had not known the exact amount in the locked box. That could not be ascertained until the banking concerns were reached, and Bud had wasted no time in starting the pursuit.
Judging from previous shipments there might be anywhere between twenty and fifty thousand dollars in gold coin. The probability was that the bandit was carrying at least fifty pounds of the precious metal, a serious handicap.
There had been a good deal of travel on the mountain road, and much of it was recent. One set of tracks turned off to follow a trail down to where Bud now sat in his saddle while Pepper wisely slaked his thirst, drinking with caution, hot and blown from the fast and toilsome pursuit.
There had been nothing particularly distinguishing about the tracks. They were those of a shod horse, of a tired horse going with a shortened stride, but that was all. Other tracks on the mountain road looked much the same. The road led to a ford. The creek could also be crossed at this pool. Bud was acting on a hunch that was not without logical basis.
Morrissey would have seen, or known beforehand, that the mountain road was well traveled. In one way, through confusion of tracks, this would aid him; in another, through the possibility of his being met or otherwise recognized, it imperiled him. He had undoubtedly deliberately meant to mix up his sign, but Bud believed that he would take the first opportunity of a side trail.
His hunch told him that Morrissey had crossed the creek, warned him that even now the bandit murderer might be watching him from the thick cover of the woods, waiting to put a bullet into him from ambush.
Bud had imagination enough, but it did not handicap him. He figured out the moves the men he was after were likely to make, and the conclusion that they were likely to bushwhack him was usually inevitable.
Morrissey’s horse was nearly played out. Pepper was still fresh. If the hideout was close at hand the bandit might decide to make for it, where he could join or be joined by his companion outlaws and either put up a stubborn defense or trust to not being discovered.
Or he might elect first to get rid of his pursuer. There was no doubt but that he knew by now that justice was on his trail. If he had not glimpsed Bud before from the advantage of higher ground he had ample opportunity now to confirm the suspicion that the rangers were after him. It was the first time they had ever been directly in pursuit.
Morrissey would know well enough that one ranger meant the ultimate action of the entire troop if it became necessary. If he killed Bud others would take up the chase. He knew that his cause was desperate. But, all in all considered, Bud felt that he was safe at present from a bullet, and that Morrissey was hurrying on as best he could to his hideout.
One of the passengers had stated that the outlaw had a rifle in his saddle sheath. The other had contradicted this, and the driver had frankly acknowledged that he had been too occupied with the muzzle of the bandit’s six-gun to notice anything else.
In any event Bud could not change matters. He had his duty to perform, and that to him was paramount. He knew that he was targeted in the open, but every second that Pepper drank peacefully gave credence to his theory that Morrissey was still on the run. If it was Morrissey who had crossed the creek. That had to be determined promptly. If Bud’s hunch was wrong and the outlaw had continued along the road he would have regained much of his start, might even now be in his sanctuary. And that was not going to be an easy spot to find.
Bud crossed the creek. The trail on the other side was shelving as it led upward from the stream. Then it became rocky. It looked as if it had been deliberately chosen because of its inability to hold sign. It was wide enough so that a horseman would not disturb the brush on either side. The shaly ground showed nothing that could be determined, unless Bud dismounted and made a minute search.
He was loath to use the time for this. Someone had gone ahead, and he hoped that it was Morrissey, pushing on. Pepper was a long way from being played out, and made the steep trail nimbly. Bud desired above all things to make sure that he was not after the wrong man. To make certain of this he must catch a glimpse of him or overtake him.
The doubt that began to assail him, to offset his hunch, was persistently unpleasant. He could not afford to make a mistake, and yet, if he was on the wrong track he must turn back almost immediately or lose his man. He slid out of the saddle, not to look for sign so much as to listen. He was certain by now that the rider, be he Morrissey or not, had not turned off the trail into the woods.
The click of his roan’s hoofs on the rock interfered with hearing. Now he fancied that he caught, far up the trail, the click of steel shoes. That gave him no clew, and it was a long way ahead. The man, whoever he was, was pushing his horse to the limit. It suggested that the animal was not as tired as Bud had imagined Morrissey’s mount to be.
It increased the doubt in Bud’s mind, and he knew that he had to make a decision. It was in moments like this that Bud invariably fell back on his hunch. He resolved to go on, and, as he swung into the saddle he suddenly saw an object in the trail that arrested his attention.
The sun, shining dappled through the woods, flung bright markings on the path, like little pools of light. In the center of one of these was an object of dazzling brilliance, refracting the sunbeams with such fire as to render its outline vague, though Bud guessed at its character and how it happened to be there in his path. Here was his hunch justified, a break of luck with him at the very moment of his indecision. He had determined to go on, but now that plaguing doubt was dispelled.
Black Morrissey was ahead. There was no doubt as to that. The shining object was a double eagle, a twenty-dollar piece, new-minted gold coin.
Morrissey’s fast getaway, the urging of his horse up and down the steep mountain trails with the dead weight of gold in his money bags ever chafing against the saddle above his mount’s vigorously moving withers, had frayed the coarse sacking and one of the coins had worked out. The leak was evidently at the top of one of the divided piles, otherwise there would have been a steady shower of gold. The outlaw, fast though he was going, intent upon escape, would have noticed it. Before very long, as the weight of the metal widened the leak, he was bound to do so.
Bud picked up the evidence and pouched it, setting Pepper again to the steep grade, urging him with his voice. It was more effective than spurs, and the roan went up in strenuous cat leaps.
They reached the bench. Now the woods began to thin. What trees there were were of larger growth, growing in pockets of soil between the rock masses that everywhere thrust themselves from the side of the mountain. There was one more coin here, and Bud retrieved it by leaning from his saddle, getting it without dismounting.
His hunch had again assumed dominance. Now it whispered to him emphatically that somewhere amid these rocky ramparts Morrissey had taken refuge. It was hard to tell which way the trail ran, to left or right along the stony bench flanked by irregular walls of granite.
“Coin brought us luck once, hawss,” said Bud. “Let’s try again.”
He flipped the second coin into the air, where it spun flittering before it descended into his palm.
“Heads we go right, tails left,” he said.
It came heads and he swung to the right. A hundred yards and he came across a badly blown horse, practically foundered, evidently abandoned. Its trembling body, was covered with sweat. The saddle mark was dark upon it. Its flanks were cruelly raked with spurs, red from long, deep cuts. Foam, produced by a heavy bit, was on its sides. It had been stripped of blanket, bridle, and saddle.
Morrissey’s horse, beyond a doubt. He had ridden it to its destruction and left it to its fate. Bud’s expert glance told him that the horse was ruined. Its knees were badly cut and it would never breathe properly again. If it had not been for the alarm he would have put it out of its misery with a bullet. But Morrissey could not be far off. He was on foot and he was carrying the gold with him. He might have discovered the leak in the sack or he might not.
Bud, casting about for sign, hoped the latter. The way led over solid rock. The brush was scant enough to be easily avoided. There were no grass stems, bruised and bent, to indicate that anyone had gone that way. Here and there were fissures and crevices in the rocky walls, any one of which might lead to the hideout, and in none of them, in the swift but keen inspection that he gave them, did Bud see as much as a scrape or scratch. He could not spare the time for an extended search and he hurried on, hoping to find a better clew.
At last he discovered it. Morrissey was plainly unaware that fate was working against him, that the gold he had stolen and for which he had murdered was fate’s instrument. The jolting of his shoulders under his heavy but precious burden had worked out a third coin and it had fallen in the one place where no ring might betray it to the bandit. Some movement of his had caused it to be flung fairly into a patch of lichens that had deadened its fall.
The lichens, really a species of moss, carpeted the surface of an almost flat rock which had been detached by frost and gravitation from the top of the wall and lay, half blocking a narrow passage. A little farther in another fallen mass completely closed the way. A man might climb it, but his horse would have to be left behind.
Bud looked over every foot of the trail. There were signs where men had surmounted the obstacle. It was a cleverly chosen retreat. Back of that rock, one man might keep many at bay. But Morrissey, eager to cache his gold, had gone on, confident that he would not be run to earth.
If this corridor led to the hideout, it was plain to Bud that the horses of the gang were either left in some place outside and close to the entrance, or led up the rocks to the top. He could not risk having followers belonging to Morrissey’s outfit discover Pepper. He did not want to take the time to try to discover any trail. He wanted to follow Morrissey directly, to follow the Golden Trail.
But he had to dispose of the roan. At last he found a satisfactory place—a niche in the wall where he could be secreted. It was plainly not in use, and he left Pepper there, knowing that he would find him when he returned and that the welltrained roan would not disclose its whereabouts by any whicker. Then he went back to the entrance, surmounted the telltale rock and kept on up the narrow corridor.
Here and there he found unmistakable signs that the passage was in frequent use. Evidently the men who used it considered themselves safe from observation, from pursuit. Honest men would hardly choose such a route. There were ends of burned matches, stubs of cigarettes.
He came at length to an opening in the shape of an inverted V. It was dark, and he had to stoop to go in. It looked as if it might be the entrance to the den of a wild beast, and it rapidly opened out. He could tell that as he stood inside and slowly straightened up, able to feel nothing on either side of him. He was confident that he was standing in the lair of a brute, of many brutes. But these walked on two legs, though they were fiercer and more dangerous than any bear or puma.
Evidently the entrance angled. Little light came through it to the interior. All about him was pitchy darkness and utter silence. He stood there tense, listening, his six-gun in his hand. He did not breathe and he could hear no sound coming from the cavern.
At last he ventured to light a match, and set the flaring stick of it in a crevice, stepping instantly to one side, expectant of a shot. None came. In the brief flare he saw that he was in a cavern, roughly circular, approximately twenty feet in diameter. He made out a litter of what looked like bedding, evidently unoccupied.
The walls stretched up to a great height, and they showed no exit. But as the light went out he caught the glint of yet another coin. This had fallen upon the dirt floor of the cave, and by the light of a second match he found footprints, plainly recent, that led to the coin and there ended at a blank face of rock.
He was positive that Morrissey had come in here, equally positive that he had not gone out again. There were no returning footprints, save marks that had been scuffed and were old. He picked up the fourth gold piece.
He made a little torch from some paper he had in his pocket and examined the bedding, concluding that it was used by someone who played outer sentinel. There must be some exit to the hideout other than by the way he had entered. The paper charred down to his fingers and he had seen nothing but the rough walls, mounting upward into blackness, his light unable to reach the top.
Close to the bedding lay some rough sticks. He picked one of them up. It was a resinous pine knot. These were torches, and he used one of them more boldly, still on his guard, but convinced that the man he was hunting had somehow, somewhere, gone on to an inner chamber.
He burned two of the torches and remained baffled. Of necessity they flung shadows that might conceal some shelf. But if there was one, he could not determine it, though he held the torches high above his head. Nor could he find any means of ascent.
He had just dropped the end of the second torch when he caught the sound of voices. They were hardly to be heard, evidently outside the cave. Undoubtedly their owners were coming in. More of Morrissey’s men.
Bud, tense in the darkness, moved to action. He set his foot on the remnant of the torch and extinguished it. His sense of direction was accurate, and the next moment he had hidden himself under the pile of none-too-clean bedding. He was watchful, his gun ready.
He did not worry about his ability to take care of the newcomers. But he hoped that they would not examine the bedding, notice the burned ends of the torches, or otherwise discover him. It made no difference to him that their number increased the odds against him. He did not consider that. Only the fact that he was going to be able to take more of the outfit was in his mind, trusting that they would show him the secret of the cave.
They came in, two of them, bearded men of mountain type, but rascally of features, elated, evidently aware, as their conversation showed, of Morrissey’s escapade. One of them bore aloft a blazing pine bough. They were evidently in jovial mood, totally unsuspicious of the presence of the ranger or of any one unconnected with them.
“Blacky sure come kitin’ back,” said one of them. “Ruined a good hawss, but I’ll bet he’s got enough with him to pay fer a thousand hawsses. He’s a mighty slick one.”
“If he pulled it off,” said the other, “we’ll be lightin’ out. Give him the signal, Bill.”
Bill set his dirty fingers to his lips and whistled shrilly, two long notes and then a short one. There was no immediate response. It was dark where Bud crouched, and he slightly shifted his coverings to get a better view of the two ruffians.
“Don’t see why he don’t answer,” grumbled Bill. “He must be here. I’ll tell you one thing, Jim—I ain’t lightin’ out until the split’s made. I don’t trust Blacky none too much. He’d made off with all of it if he thought he could. He’s got his saddle with him an’ the gray is up there. I believe he’s beaten it.”
“Try him again,” said Jim.
The whistle sounded again, echoing in the vaulted chamber. They waited, and then a faint light began to glow some fifteen feet up, gradually increasing until a figure emerged on a shelf that, cast in dense shadow, was not to be otherwise discerned. The man held his torch so that it lighted up his villainous face, a hook nose projecting like a beak, fiercely glittering eyes, all framed in a tangle of black hair and whiskers.
“Put down the ladder, Morrissey,” said Jim.
Morrissey appeared to hesitate, and Bill, with an oath, whipped out a pistol.
“I’ve got you covered,” he said. “Don’t try and doublecross us. Shove down thet ladder an’ do it in a hurry, or you’ll be comin’ down yoreself.” It was evident that there was not much trust in the Morrissey gang.
“I’ll put it down,” said Morrissey in a deep voice. “You want to cut out thet sort of talk, Bill Slade. An’ you both want to git a move on you. Did you bring up the hawsses? You should hev come in thet way.”
“I’m no kangaroo,” said Bill. “You know well the takeoff is bad from the fur side. I ain’t riskin’ no jump across a crack like thet when I have to land higher than where I started from. What are you worryin’ erbout? You got the money, didn’t you?”
“I got it,” said Morrissey sullenly.
Bud came to the conclusion that he was none too pleased to see these two members of his gang, but that he had some use for them. His conclusion was proved in the next sentence.
“They’ve got the rangers out after us,” said Morrissey. “One of ‘em trailed me plumb to Thunder Crick, though I reckon I fooled him after thet, on the rock. My hawss near went down under me, but I made it. But we may hev to shoot our way out yet if we don’t hurry.”
“It’s you thet’s keepin’ us,” said Jim. “Put down thet ladder.”
Morrissey laid his flaring torch on the shelf and disappeared, going back into some recess that was not to be seen from the floor of the cave. Then the ends of the ladder projected and it was let down to the ground. The two men climbed it swiftly and it was at once drawn up after them.
Bud made no attempt to check them. He knew that he could follow them. He had seen outside, before he entered, a dead tree, evidently swept into the ravine by some storm of several seasons past. Its remaining boughs, most of them broken, would furnish him with scaling equipment.
He waited until the glow died away, then darted to where faint gray light proclaimed the entrance, and went out.
It seemed clear to him that there was some sort of tunnel leading from the shelf to the top of the cliff. Also that, barring the way to the horses, there was a crevice that could be jumped from the left side, but not so easily negotiated from the opposite. He hoped to catch up with them before they reached this place—at least, to get within shooting range.
He wanted to bring in his men alive if possible. It was the rule of the rangers, wherever possible, to secure prisoners who might serve as public examples. A bandit swinging from the bough of the trees generally used as gallows did more to discourage outlaws and weaken their prestige than the mere fact that one of them had been killed in a fight. Such procedure heartened citizens and settlers, and increased the sterling reputation of the rangers.
He got his tree, in which the sap had long since dried, and half hauled, half carried it to the mouth of the cave, thrusting it ahead of him. By the light of another pine knot he reared it against the shelf and rapidly clambered up, bearing the light, discovering what he had expected to see—a gap in the wall.
This he promptly entered. It twisted and turned considerably, for which he was thankful, as the winding served to screen his light from heralding his advance.
There were several things to his advantage. Morrissey believed that the hideout had not been discovered. Though he was anxious to get away, his two partners would insist on dividing the gold, and it was clear enough that Morrissey had not taken it across to where the horses were stationed or he would have known of their arrival. But it was risky work just the same.
From what he had heard, Bud decided that this robbery was to be the final coup of Morrissey’s outfit before they left the territory, rapidly getting too dangerous for men of their calling. They knew that the rangers would sooner or later round them up. They were desperate, and Bud knew that he would, in all likelihood, have to shoot it out with the three of them, unless he could succeed in creeping up on them unseen and covering them.
He saw daylight ahead of him, the outline of the side wall revealed at the end of the rift. He flung his torch away and went rapidly but cautiously on to where the end of the tunnel overlooked a tiny glen.
Grass and bushes grew here, with a few stunted trees. Water fell from the cliff into a little pool. It was about ten feet to the floor of the glen, but clefts and ridges made the descent simple enough if he could tackle it without being seen and shot at.
If he was discovered he would undoubtedly be riddled by the three men who were now squatting on the ground with their backs toward him. They were on the near side of a split that extended clear across the glen. It did not look like a particularly lengthy or impossible jump for active men, though Bud surmised, from Bill’s remark, that the chasm was deep enough for a slip to kill any man falling into it.
He could see no horses on the far side, but he made out a notch in the cliff which he imagined was a pass to some other basin where the horses would be grazing. He made a careful study of what might turn out to be a battle ground, squatting down in the mouth of the tunnel.
There was a cloth in front of the trio—the blanket from Morrissey’s foundered mount. His saddle and bridle lay to one side. He must have made two trips, Bud fancied, to have packed them in as well as the gold.
The latter was in shining evidence on the blanket, glittering heaps of valuable metal. It was impossible to guess at the amount, save that there were many hundreds of the coins, which were divided roughly into three piles, one of which was much larger than the others.
This division was evidently the cause of a discussion that bade fair to terminate in a violent quarrel.
Black Morrissey was claiming the lion’s share of the spoils he had collected. And the two others did not fancy their roles of jackals. Their voices came plainly to Bud. First the deep notes from Morrissey, mounting to a bellow.
“We’ll share as we allus hev,” he declared. “Them thet takes part in the job gits more than the rest. Those skunks thet got cold feet an’ cleared but last week when we got the tip the rangers hed us next on their list leaves all the more to you boys. You’re gittin’ twice as much now as you would ordinary. Close to five thousand apiece. An’ thet’s plenty, seein’ I turned the trick alone, took all the risk. I hed to shoot one man as it was, an’ thet might put my neck in a noose if they ketch me— which they won’t.”
“I’m not so sure of thet,” muttered Bud to himself beneath his breath, as he slipped off his boots and prepared to make a silent descent in his socks.
It had to be done swiftly and surely, and he calculated every step so that his six-gun would be clear for action. He knew that they would not be able to hear him unless they turned accidentally, which was not likely, intent as they were upon the loot. But if he was to be a target, he meant to be a moving one.
He was out of pistol range and he wanted to get in closer to them before he announced his presence or started any attack that might be necessary. Jim’s voice sounded in a snarl.
“Aw, to blazes with yore risks! This is the last job, an’ we’ll share even. We’re goin’ to separate after we git goin’, an’ we’ll split alike.”
“Thet’s right,” said Bill, starting to rise to his feet, his hand on the butt of his gun. “I’m either goin’ to git a third out of this or I’ll git half, Morrissey. Understand that.”
Morrissey did not move from his position, squatting on his haunches, his big hands on his knees. Bud caught the gleam of his teeth in something that Morrissey may have meant for a smile, for an attempt to suggest a willingness to concede to their demands—anything to blind them to his real purpose. He alone of the three wore two guns. Bud saw that the holsters were open, and his hunch prophesied to him with startling rapidity what was about, to happen.
Even as Bud descended, leaping lightly from a projection to the top of a boulder and then to the ground, the tragedy occurred—if the riddance of such rascals from the world could be so termed.
As he squatted, the open ends of Morrissey’s holsters touched the top of the grass stems. Bud himself, by dint of long practice and natural coordination, could draw and fire with such rapidity as to make it impossible for the eye to follow his movement.
But he had never seen such a lightning draw as that made by Morrissey. He did not shift from his crouch, save to turn slightly at the waist, as his two guns streaked out flame and smoke.
They were not the only ones that roared in that little glen. Bill had seen, or guessed, what his defiant statement would bring about. He had practically challenged Morrissey, hinted that he meant to kill him and share the loot with Jim.
Jim was evidently of the same mind, but slower of movement. His gun never got more than halfway from leather.
Bill was the first to fall, shot through the body from hip to hip, knocked down by the blow of the heavy slug. He sprawled backward on the grass, tearing up tufts of it in his death agony.
Bud saw Jim slowly turning, the action ending in his knees crumpling as he pitched forward. Black Morrissey had shot him through the heart.
Now Morrissey rose, his masking smile a grin of savage exultation. He caught sight of the ranger running toward him, and he fired one shot, even as Bud pulled the trigger.
The ranger saw Morrissey stagger and knew that he had hit the bandit, long though the range was for accuracy. At the same second he was spun about by the impact of a bullet that caught him high up in the left shoulder, breaking or splintering bone with a nerve shock that, despite all his will and courage, temporarily halted him, while his vision blurred.
He caught instinctively at the trunk of a stunted piñon to steady himself, still holding his gun. Through a haze, while he summoned all his powers of recovery, the blood coming fast from his wounded arm, he saw Morrissey stoop and swiftly gather together the corners of the blanket that held the gold.
With an effort the outlaw heaved the heavy bundle over his right shoulder and started for the crevice.
Now Bud saw that his shot had struck the bandit in his right thigh. He ran lamely but made good progress, though once his leg seemed to buckle under him and a dark stain was spreading on his clothing.
Bud got himself together and ran after him, firing a shot that he felt sure would be futile. For the outlaw was once more out of range. But Bud hoped it might halt the man in a surrender. Bud was playing that chance.
It did not, however. The shot and perhaps the whine of the bullet only spurred the bandit on. Bud was conscious of growing weakness from his wound. His knees were none too steady, threatening to give way as he ran, stumbling a little over rough spots hidden by the grass. He was unable to gain.
The outlaw paused on the brink of the crevice, the bag of gold still on his shoulder. He stooped a little as if to gauge a leap.
Then he sprang, with Bud closing in on him, holding his fire. Morrissey had killed three men now, though two of them deserved it, and Bud wanted more than ever to take him in alive, to get him before he reached the horses. Two of these might still be saddled, but mounting would take time, encumbered as the bandit was with the gold he evidently meant to risk everything to keep.
He risked too much. A slope led down toward the brink of the cavern, and now Bud could see the farther side of it, lower. He imagined the space to be some twelve feet. It was a long jump, but not impossible for athletic men. Bud did not mean to stop but to make the most of a running start.
He checked himself after all, digging his heels into the turf when he saw what was happening.
Morrissey’s greed was literally his downfall. The weight of the gold, plus the wound in his leg, which must have weakened the driving power of his muscles, was too much for him. Bud saw that he could never make it, that his feet would strike below the edge on the far side. He had overestimated his powers.
Morrissey saw it, too. He let go of the blanket, which fell like a plummet to the bottom of the chasm, the glittering coins showering down. Morrissey let out a roar as he saw that he was doomed. With one last, despairing, prodigious effort, he tried to hunch himself as he struck the rim too low. He strove to clutch at a bush and actually ruffled it with his fingers before he went hurtling down. With a sickening thud he landed, his back broken, his skull smashed on the rocks amid the double eagles.
For a moment Bud gazed down. Then he started to bind up his arm and stop the crimson flow as test he could before he went back through the cavern and the ravine to where Pepper was awaiting him.
The dead men and the gold could wait until he had reported at camp. The buzzards might arrive before the detail reached them, but such matters were a part and parcel of what fate preserves for men like Morrissey and his comrades.