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Title: The keeper of Red Horse Pass

Author: W. C. Tuttle

Release date: April 7, 2023 [eBook #70488]

Language: English

Original publication: Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937

Credits: Roger Frank and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at


The Keeper of Red Horse Pass

Tumbling River Range
Hashknife of Stormy River
The Santa Dolores Stage
Thicker than Water
The Morgan Trail
The Redhead from Sun Dog
The Valley of Twisted Trails
Mystery at the JHC Ranch
The Silver Bar Mystery
Rifled Gold
Henry the Sheriff
Hashknife of the Double Bar 8
Bluffer’s Luck
The Keeper of Red Horse Pass

The Keeper of Red Horse Pass
W. C. Tuttle



Blaze Nolan, otherwise James Blair Nolan, came slowly up the driveway from the big wrought-iron gates, where the moonlight filtered through the flowering eucalyptus trees. The air was redolent of many flowers spread over the spacious sloping lawns of this beautiful Beverly Hills estate.

Ahead of him loomed the huge pile of steel and masonry, which constituted the home of Kendall H. Marsh, capitalist, sheep king, “Take-a-Chance” Kendall, as he had been dubbed. Some said that Kendall didn’t take chances; that he played a cinch game. None would deny that he was cold-blooded in his dealings.

Nolan came up the broad steps and rang the bell, which was answered in a few moments by a dignified butler, who flooded the porch with light before opening the door.

“I’m here to see Marsh,” said Nolan shortly.

“Yes, sir,” nodded the butler. “The name, please?”

“Tell him it’s the man who—the man from Painted Valley. He’ll know who you mean.”

“Yes, sir. This way.”

He led Nolan through the big reception hall and into a wide room, where the dim lights picked out the magnificence of its appointments. He offered Nolan a chair and disappeared through a huge, carved oak door, which opened noiselessly. He was gone but a moment.

“This way, sir,” he said. “Mr. Marsh is at liberty to see you.”

This room was better lighted, except for the rear where huge portieres indicated French doors leading to another room or to a balcony. Marsh was seated at a big, polished desk, littered with papers and books; a tall, slender man, immaculately dressed, gray-haired, and with a face seemingly hewn from granite.

His eyes were level and as hard as agate; he had a slightly arched nose, wide, thin-lipped mouth and a square chin. His jaws bulged just enough at the hinges to give the impression that he spent much of his time with clenched teeth.

Blaze Nolan stopped against the desk, and they looked at each other in silence. Nolan was six feet tall, straight as an arrow, well muscled. It was easy to see where he got his nickname. Even with his close-clipped black hair, the V-shaped notch of snow-white hair in the centre of his forehead shoved plainly, a notch which later on would be a white lock. His eyes were gray, the gray of tempered steel, showing a blue glint in the light. His nose was straight and firm above a tight-lipped mouth.

The lines of his face were deeply graved, lines which might easily change from bulldog tenacity to grin-wrinkles in a moment. Marsh was fifty, Nolan less than thirty, but Marsh seemed the younger.

“It took you quite a while to get here, Nolan,” said Marsh, and his voice had a hard, metallic ring.

Nolan nodded shortly, his eyes still on Marsh’s face.

“It was a long ways,” he said in a soft drawl.

“I sent you fifty dollars, Nolan; you didn’t have to walk.”

The deep, grim lines turned to a slight grin of amusement.

“I got in a poker game,” he said slowly. “I reckon my ability has kinda gone to seed. But I’m here now, Marsh.”

“Sit down, Nolan.”

Nolan sank down in a leather-covered chair and relaxed easily. Marsh shoved a humidor of cigars over to him, but Blaze shook his head and began rolling a cigarette.

“You knew I got you out, didn’t you, Nolan?”

Blaze looked up quickly.

“I wasn’t sure.” He licked the edge of the cigarette paper and fashioned the smoke. “I thought so,” he added. “Needed somebody with a political pull, and I knowed you had one, Marsh. Thank yuh kindly.”

“I had a reason, Nolan.”

Blaze nodded over the match, inhaling.

“Oh, shore, I knew that, Marsh.”

“How did you know it?”

“You have a reason for everythin’ yuh do, Marsh.”

“I don’t know whether that’s a compliment or not, Nolan.”

“No; just a statement. I told myself that Take-a-Chance Marsh pulled the wires to get me out, and that I’d have to probably pay for the job, because Marsh never does anythin’ free.”

Marsh flushed slightly and bit savagely at the end of a fresh cigar.

“You are on parole, you know.”

“Shore. Every thirty days I’ve got to report to an Arizona sheriff and tell him my sins. Ain’t supposed to leave the state. Still, I’m here in California.”

“I arranged that, too, Nolan. I hope you appreciate it.”

Nolan blew a long thin streamer of smoke towards the ceiling, his eyes tightly shut.

“I’ll appreciate it a lot more after I find out what I’ve got to do to pay for the job,” he said reflectively.

Marsh sank back in his chair, one elbow braced against the broad arm, the other hand on his knee. There was silence for several moments and then, “You were sent up for ten years for second degree murder, Nolan. The jury found you guilty of killing Ben Kelton, but with enough extenuating circumstances to modify the original charge. You found out how many friends you had in Painted Valley.”

Nolan shifted uneasily, his eyes on the desk top.

“I didn’t have many,” he said softly.

“They threw you down, you mean! The only one who stuck to you was Jules Mendoza.”

“Good old Injun Mendoza.”

Nolan’s eyes were soft now, a half smile on his lips.

“But the rest threw you down—even Jim Kelton, the father of the girl you were to marry.”

Nolan’s eyes hardened quickly.

“We won’t talk about that, Marsh.”

“I beg your pardon,” Marsh said quickly. He reached for a button on the desk. “What do you want to drink, Nolan?”

“Nothin’; I’m not drinkin’.”

“Taught you temperance in the penitentiary, eh?”

“They don’t have to teach it, Marsh.”

Marsh laughed shortly, but continued, “I don’t suppose you’ve got any loyalty left for the folks of Painted Valley, have you?”

“Loyalty? I don’t know, Marsh. Does it mean that you’ve got to stick to folks, even after they’ve turned yuh down?”

“That would be the loyalty of a fool.”

“Is friendship one-sided, Marsh?”

“What do you mean?”

“Somethin’ about forgivin’ those who trespass against us.”

“All damned rot! Those people turned you down like a white chip in a no-limit game. They’d run you out of that valley, if you went back, and you know it. Don’t be a fool, Nolan. You acted like a human being, and they turned against you. Never in all my life did I see people so narrow. Suppose you and Ben Kelton did quarrel over Della, that dance-hall girl? Why⸺”

“That’s about all of that subject, Marsh.”

“I beg your pardon, Nolan.”

“I just don’t care to hear about it. God knows, I had plenty of it at that trial. That part hurt worse than any other.”

“I know.” Marsh leaned forward on the desk. “Nolan, I’ll tell you why I got you out, why I had you come here. In the last six months I’ve bought the Medicine Tree Bank, and bought the Triangle X ranch. I tried to buy out the JK and the rest of the damned valley, but they wouldn’t sell.”

“You goin’ into the cow business, Marsh?”

“You know I’m not. I’m going in the sheep business on a bigger scale. I’m the biggest raiser in the West.”

Blaze Nolan took a deep breath, his eyes narrowing. “Marsh, are you thinkin’ of puttin’ sheep in Painted Valley?”

“You hit it square in the eye, Nolan. Every ranch in that valley is mortgaged with that bank; and I own the bank. I can wait. Old Jim Kelton’s mortgage is due this month, and I’ll not renew it. He’s got enough stock in the hills to pay off that mortgage, but it will leave him broke. I want that ranch.”

“Jim Kelton, the keeper of the Red Horse Pass!” muttered Nolan.

“That’s what they call him, Nolan. But just remember that I own the Triangle X and I’ve got my own men on it. Did you ever hear of ‘Butch’ Van Deen? No? He’s from South Texas. The rest of my gang on the Triangle X are from down there, and they follow orders. Butch is foreman.”

Nolan rolled another cigarette, and Marsh waited until he had lighted it.

“I’m going to put sheep in Painted Valley,” he said firmly.

“What’s my job, Marsh?”

Marsh puffed slowly for several moments, his keen eyes scanning Nolan’s face.

“You know the Lost Trail out of Painted Valley,” he said.

Nolan’s face was as expressionless as a wooden Indian’s.

“You found it just before you—your trouble,” said Marsh.


“You’re going to Painted Valley, Nolan. You stay at the Triangle X, and the gang will be under your orders. The people there have a hunch what I’m going to do, and they’ll fight it tooth and nail. I’m going to break that bunch, Nolan. They’ve got nothing but cattle to fight with, and it’s your job to remove the cattle. You get ’em out of the valley, and I’ll attend to the rest.”

“You mean,” said Nolan slowly, “that I’m to rustle their cattle and send ’em over the Lost Trail.”

“That’s exactly what I mean. I’m paying you ten dollars apiece for every head you send over that trail, and you don’t have to split with anybody. Keep under cover all the time. The gang will put the cattle where and when you want ’em. I’ll handle ’em on the other side.”

Nolan laughed harshly.

“That’s how I pay you for gettin’ me out of prison, eh?”

“You’re the only man in the world who knows where that trail starts. The old Apaches knew, but they’re all dead and the trail is forgotten. They made two raids over the trail. I’ve heard that it was made by the cliff dwellers.”

“I dunno,” said Nolan absently. “You’ll have to have the JK outfit, if you ever get sheep over Red Horse Pass. Six men could hold off an army in the south of the pass. The last mile of it is uphill, Marsh, and not over fifty feet wide.”

“Oh, I know all about that. But when I get through with that outfit in there, where will they find six men to hold the Pass? I tell you, Nolan,” Marsh struck the desk-top with a clenched fist, standing up and leaning across toward Nolan, “I’m going to loot that valley, and then I’m going to⸺”

But his sentence was never finished. From behind Nolan, back behind those heavy portieres, came the thudding report of a revolver. Marsh threw up one hand, as though to ward off a blow from his head and pitched forward across his desk, the crimson spreading across the white papers.

Blaze Nolan sprang to his feet, staring at Marsh. Then he turned and went swiftly back to the portieres, jerking them aside. There was sort of a sun parlour behind them, a huge bank of ferns in one end, where a fountain trickled softly. The air was redolent of powder smoke. One of the big glass windows was open.

Blaze ran over quickly. Outside was a small balcony, only a few feet from the ground, with heavy shrubbery almost against the wall of the house. A sound caused him to whirl quickly, and he found himself face to face with a tall, slender girl, whose face was white in the dim light.

“You!” he said hoarsely. “What are you doin’ here?”

She shook her head, as though afraid to speak. His foot struck something, and he picked it up. It was a pearl-handled Colt revolver of a rather small calibre. He handed it to her.

“You dropped yore gun,” he said softly.

She took it without a word. He turned and looked past the portieres. The butler had come in, and gave a sharp cry of alarm when he saw Marsh. Blaze saw him run back toward the door, and he knew the alarm would be given quickly.

He pointed out at the balcony.

“Get goin’,” he whispered, and she went out ahead of him. She did not hesitate to drop to the ground, and he followed her. She seemed to know the way out through the garden, and in a few moments they were on a back street.

Without a word they hurried on. It seemed miles to a street car track, but they did not meet any one. The downtown car was still several blocks distant when they stopped, breathing heavily.

“The police will be there by this time,” said Blaze as they waited. “Yo’re safe enough, unless the butler knowed you was there. He didn’t see you come in, did he?”

“No,” she panted. “I—I came in the same way.”

“Good. I’m the man they’re after. Go home, Jane, and forget it all. I don’t blame yuh.”

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“I think so, but I didn’t take time to examine him. Here’s yore car. Good-bye and good luck, Jane.”

He turned and walked swiftly away before the car arrived, but he saw her board it and ride away. Blaze Nolan knew that he was in a dangerous position. He realised that Marsh had no doubt told the butler who he was; and if Marsh was dead, the law would give short shrift to an ex-convict, who was merely out on parole.

But even with the tragedy so close behind him, and the danger of arrest ahead of him, he stopped to roll a cigarette and smile grimly at the irony of fate. The girl was Jane Kelton of Painted Valley, the girl who was to have married Blaze Nolan, and for whose brother’s death he had been sentenced to hard labour for ten years.

“I reckon I better start walkin’,” he told himself. “They’ll watch every exit out of this town, that’s a cinch. I’ll head for San Berdoo, and if nothin’ goes wrong, I can grab a boxcar down to Yuma. I’m in a sweet position for a parolled convict. If I don’t report, they’ll send me back, and if I do report, I’ll get arrested for shootin’ Marsh. But I’ll take a chance and go back to Painted Valley, if they don’t stop me.”

As he started across the street he heard the wailing of a siren. Stepping back in the shadow of a tree, he watched a police automobile, red lighted, sounding its weird warning, careening along toward the Marsh estate.

“Well, there’s one nice thing about them policemen,” he said. “They shore don’t sneak up on yuh. Me for the sagebrush and mesquite.”

But Kendall H. Marsh was not dead. The bullet had struck him over the right temple and cut a furrow around the side of his head about five inches long, and he was still unconscious when the ambulance arrived.

The very discreet butler knew nothing. As far as the police were able to learn from him, Marsh was alone and had been alone all the evening. The butler had heard the shot fired, found Marsh sprawled across the desk, but no one else in the room.

The police found cigarette butts in an ash tray, the ends still moist.

“Did your boss roll his own cigarettes?” asked the sergeant.

“Possibly,” replied the butler. “Mr. Marsh has spent many years on the ranges, where men most invariably roll their own cigarettes.”

“There was two or three other persons in this room to-night,” declared a detective, who had been investigating beneath the balcony and had climbed in through the open window. “There’s three sets of tracks in the wet ground down there; a woman’s, one man who wore high heel shoes or boots, and another who wore ordinary shoes.”

“You’ve been with Mr. Marsh a long time, haven’t you?”

The sergeant directed his question at the butler.

“Six years, sir.”

“And in that length of time you have learned to keep your mouth shut, eh?”

“Quite likely, sir.”

“I thought so. That’s all. Marsh may be able to throw a little light on the subject, when he recovers.”

“Any orders, sir?” asked the butler stiffly.

The sergeant looked steadily at him for a few moments.

“I guess not. By the way, I noticed that Mr. Marsh was wearing a gun in a shoulder holster.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Was that merely a precaution for this evening, or⸺”

“Mr. Marsh spends much of his time on the range, and⸺”

“I see. Where men roll their own cigarettes and carry guns, eh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all,” said the sergeant dryly.


The origin of Medicine Tree was rather clouded. It was there when the oldest inhabitant arrived, according to local history, a half-adobe, half-frame town, with no structure over two stories high, narrow streets, picturesque, in a way. If there ever had been a Medicine Tree, not even the roots remained.

Thirty miles south was the town of Broad Arrow, the county seat, on the main line of a railroad, from which a branch road served Painted Valley; a branch thirty miles long, running an intermittent mixed-train service—one combination parlour car, smoker and baggage car, the rest cattle cars. The rolling stock of this branch, except for the cattle cars, was nothing to brag about, but it was better than bumping over a rutty road on a four-horse stage for thirty miles.

But Painted Valley didn’t appreciate the railroad. The old cowmen swore that the “enjine scared the cows and set brush fires,” which it probably did. Painted Valley was a tight corporation. Not counting the Lost Trail, which Marsh had talked about to Blaze Nolan, there were just two ways to get in and out of the valley.

Red Horse Pass was the northern route, which led northwest to the sheep country, where the town of Marshville, named after Kendall H. Marsh, was the sheepmen’s headquarters. To the southward the valley opened to the wide sweeps of the desert. The sheep were no menace from that direction; the lack of water and feed precluded any chance of invasion from that end.

Broad Arrow, the county seat, an incorporated city, was in the hands of reformers, who had closed gambling houses and the red light district, thereby causing Medicine Tree to expand in that respect, causing increased passenger traffic over the branch line railroad.

At the western end of Red Horse Pass was the JK ranch, the ranch buildings set back almost against the cliffs. For years Jim Kelton had been known as the Keeper of the Pass, with his huddle of adobe ranch buildings, primitive in architecture, the adobe walls coloured by nature almost to blend in with the vermilion and cobalt of the background. The flagged patios, bullet-scarred walls, half-covered with a profusion of climbing roses, gnarled old oaks, shading the deep well in the main patio, the jingle of spurs as a chap-clad cowboy led his horse to the deep trough beside the well, or the tinkling of a guitar, as little Jose puzzled over the intricate notes of a fandango, it was all part of the JK ranch.

Here Jim Kelton had raised his flock of three, Ben, Harry and Jane. Ben was twenty-eight years of age a few days before he was killed in the War Dance Saloon at Medicine Tree. Harry was twenty-six; Jane twenty-one. Their mother had died when Jane was ten. Jane had been sent to school at Phoenix, after several terms at the little Medicine Tree school, but Ben and Harry did not want this advantage.

For several years the going had been tough for the cattlemen of Painted Valley. Drought, low prices for beef and high prices for transportation had conspired to drag them down. Money was scarce, but with the innate optimism of cattlemen they carried on without complaint.

Jim Kelton was growing old. Rheumatism had crippled him, sapped his vitality, and the killing of Ben had added years to his age. He spent much of his time on the cool upper verandah of the ranch-house, smoking his pipe and looking out over the blue haze of Painted Valley, his gray beard sunk on his chest.

No one knew, except Jim Kelton, that he was struggling against hate, which burned deep in his soul—a hate against Take-a-Chance Marsh and Blaze Nolan. He knew that Marsh’s plans were deep laid to flood Painted Valley with sheep. He could sit there and see the gray flood sweeping down through Red Horse Pass, spreading out over the valley he had loved so long.

The cattle would be gone then. There would be no rollicking cowboys, with their gaudy shirts, singing their songs to the moon. Painted Valley would be a dust heap, its walls echoing to the bleating of sheep, the streams and springs trampled—and Jim Kelton would be broke. He was already heavily mortgaged with the bank. He could sell off every head of stock he owned and just about satisfy the mortgage, but if he could hold off for better prices, he might still pull out ahead of the game. So much for Kendall H. Marsh.

Jim Kelton had known Blaze Nolan for years, and when Blaze had asked him for Jane he had patted Blaze on the shoulder and told him he was pleased. Blaze was foreman of the Triangle X, hard-bitted, forceful, capable, making good with the owners and saving money for his own herd.

Marsh’s own son, Alden, worked for the Triangle X, learning the business. At least he was supposed to be learning the cattle game, while in reality he was spending a great part of his time around the War Dance Saloon with a tough gang who appreciated Alden’s money, his monthly allowance from his father exceeding the pay-roll of the Triangle X.

Ben Kelton was also of a wild disposition, but limited as to funds. Alden Marsh, barely twenty-one, plunged heavily, while Ben played piker bets. There was no friendship between them.

Kendall Marsh was in Medicine Tree when the big smash suddenly came. A splatter of revolver shots in an alley adjoining the War Dance Saloon one night, Blaze Nolan found kneeling down beside the body of Ben Kelton, two empty shells in the revolver the sheriff took from his hand; a half-drunk Alden Marsh babbling about a quarrel between Nolan and Kelton over a dance-hall girl.

Kendall Marsh led his son away, while the sheriff took Blaze to jail. Ben’s gun had been fired once, which was the one thing that saved Blaze from the rope. Ben had been shot twice. The evidence showed that Ben was very drunk, while Nolan was cold sober. So the jury decided that Blaze Nolan might have taken an unfair advantage, and they made it second degree murder instead of self-defence. Perhaps the jury was influenced by the fact that Blaze fought over a dance-hall girl while he was engaged to marry Jane Kelton. But the dance-hall girl did not testify, because they were never able to locate her. She had faded out of the picture.


It was about two weeks after the shooting of Kendall Marsh, when Blaze Nolan rode into Medicine Tree, astride one of Jules Mendoza’s pinto horses, riding the saddle he had given to Mendoza. Blaze had managed to get out of Southern California without being apprehended, but up to the present time he did not know whether Kendall Marsh was alive or dead. He had managed to accumulate some cowboy clothes, and looked considerably like the Blaze Nolan of Painted Valley before his arrest.

He tied his pinto in front of the War Dance Saloon, but did not go in. A lean, lanky cowboy, with a long, sad face was standing on the opposite side of the street, watching him, and after hitching his horse Blaze went across. The lanky, sad-faced one, was “Bad News” Burke, deputy sheriff to Buck Gillis of Broad Arrow.

Bad News shoved his sombrero back on his head and shut one eye. Then he shut the other eye, as though taking a careful aim at Blaze Nolan, who stopped a few feet away.

“Nossir,” said Bad News. “I tried it out with both eyes at the same time, and then I used each eye separately, but they all showed the same thing. Either I’m cock-eyed, or yo’re Blaze Nolan.”

“I’m Blaze Nolan, Bad News.”

“Well, sir, that’s fine. I ain’t never had no eye trouble, but yuh never can tell when it might come sneakin’ in on yuh. When I seen yuh ridin’ up there, I says to m’self, ‘Bad News, yore eyes are terrible. That’s prob’ly Sam Hawker on a bay horse!’ You know Sam weighs over two hundred and he ain’t much over five feet high. But I kept on seein’ that pinto, and I kept on seein’ you, Blaze, and I says to myself, ‘Bad News, use one eye at a time. Git that pinto idea out of yore haid.’ How are yuh, Blaze?”

Bad News quit mumbling and shoved out a long, lean, powerful hand.

“I ain’t askin’ nothin’, Blaze,” he said as they shook hands.

“It’s all right,” smiled Blaze. “I’m out on parole.”

“Yea-a-ah? Parole, eh?”

“You know what that means, don’t yuh?”

“Got an idea what it is, Blaze. How are yuh?”

“All right. What’s new since I left?”

“Country’s gone to hell,” seriously. “Fact. Reformers got their hooks set in Broad Arrow. Ruined the place. Me and Buck opened an office up here, and I run it. Gotta foller crime, says Buck. Ain’t no crime in Broad Arrow no more.”

“Any crime up here?” asked Blaze.

“Plenty, accordin’ to Broad Arrow. C’mon down to my office, Blaze.”

As they sauntered down the street, two men came from a store just ahead of them. One was Alden Marsh, half drunk, and the other was Butch Van Deen, the new foreman of the Triangle X. Young Alden Marsh was good-looking, in a dissipated way, rather tall, slender, slightly over-dressed.

Butch Van Deen was a man of about thirty-five, a couple of inches less than six feet tall, heavily built, square-faced, with high cheekbones, round blue eyes and stringy blond hair. The eyes were slightly too close together, and his mouth sagged a little at the corners above a belligerent jaw.

Alden Marsh stared at Blaze Nolan. It was evident that Marsh didn’t know Blaze was out of prison. He shifted his eyes toward the deputy, as though seeking an explanation, which was not forthcoming; so he shifted back to Blaze and shoved out his right hand rather uncertainly.

“Huh-hellow, Nolan,” he said rather thickly. “I didn’t know you was back.”

Blaze ignored the extended hand and Marsh flushed angrily. It was rather embarrassing to have an ex-convict refuse to shake hands with the son of Kendall Marsh. Butch Van Deen noticed it, and the corners of his mouth twisted slightly as he eyed Blaze closely.

“Damn you!” said Marsh pettishly. “You don’t have to shake hands with me, if you don’t want to, Nolan!”

“I’m glad yuh recognise my rights,” drawled Blaze easily.

“Your⸺” Marsh tried to assume a superior air, but failed. He had imbibed too many drinks.

“C’mon, kid,” said Van Deen. “Don’t be a damn fool.”

“Oh, all right, Butch. But for you⸺” He turned and glared at Blaze.

“Just what for me?” asked Blaze coldly.

“Drop it, Marsh!” snapped Butch. “Let’s go and get a drink.”

“All right,” and Marsh followed Butch across the street, where they entered the War Dance Saloon.

“Somebody’s goin’ to knock his horns off some day,” declared Bad News. “Gits worse every day. I dunno what his old man thinks about, lettin’ him run wild around here. I heard that he had to git him out of the city. Stays out at the Triangle X, along with Butch Van Deen and his gang, which won’t help his morals much.”

“That was Van Deen with him, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, shore. Bad man from South Texas. Blaze, that Triangle X gang are shore salty. There’s Hank North, Mac Rawls, Terry Ione and Butch, along with Alden Marsh and a Chink they call Chihuahua. Prob’ly smuggled him across the line from Mexico to do their cookin’; I’ve heard that Kendall Marsh bought the Triangle X. Ain’t it hell? When a sheepman buys into a cow country? And I’ll tell you another thing,” said Bad News, lowering his voice, “I heard that Kendall Marsh owns the bank.”

“What if he does?” queried Blaze.

“Don’tcha understand, Blaze? Why, half of this danged valley is mortgaged to the bank, and Kendall Marsh will close ’em out just as sure as fate.”

Blaze nodded slowly. He had already heard this from Marsh’s own lips; so it was not news to him.

“How do the folks feel about it?”

“What can they do?” countered Bad News. “Jim Kelton says he’ll stick until they’re cuttin’ ice in Death Valley; but that’s bluff. Old Jim has had plenty hard luck. Right now, if he sold every danged head of stock he owns, he’d jist about pay his mortgage. But he says he’ll do it, rather than to let Kendall Marsh get control of the Red Horse Pass.”

“He’s a fighter,” said Blaze thoughtfully.

“Shore he is. But it takes money to fight money, Blaze. I seen Jane and Harry the other day in Broad Arrow. They came in on the train from the west, but I dunno where they’ve been. The old man ain’t very well. Rheumatism, I reckon. Old Joe Brown and his gang at the Bar Anchor are all fine. I seen Sam Hawker the other day. He said the O Bar B was as good as even a horse doctor could expect. I reckon that’s all the news, except Jules Mendoza, and I see yo’re ridin’ one of his painted hawses.”

“I’m stayin’ out at his place,” smiled Blaze. “He’s my friend.”

“He’s all right,” nodded Bad News. “White Injun, Blaze. Lotsa folk don’t like him, but he’s no quitter on a friend. How’s Tony Gibbs and Mex Skinner?”

“Same as ever.”

“Uh-huh. Say! Buck Gillis will be glad to see yuh, Blaze. He speaks about yuh real often. Says you was the best prisoner he ever had.”

“And he still owes me six-bits,” grinned Blaze. “I won that last game of pitch we played in jail, and set him twice. How is old Buck these days anyway?”

“Sorrowful. Election is next fall, and he’s scared that the reform element will beat him. I understand they’re groomin’ a Baptist preacher for sheriff. Oh, I tell yuh, Broad Arrow shore is lily-white. Buck’s supposed to make every puncher leave his gun at the office, but he ain’t enforcin’ it. He jist asks ’em to hang the gun where it won’t show.”

“The reform never hit Medicine Tree, did it?” asked Blaze.

“Nossir, it ain’t yet; but it will. I hope I meet a bad man who is quicker on the draw than I am, before that happens. Oncet, I was arrested in Los Angeles for spittin’ on the sidewalk, and since then I’ve been agin’ reform.”

Blaze laughed with Bad News and got to his feet.

“I reckon I’ll be driftin’ back, as soon as I stock up on some tobacco. If yuh see Buck Gillis⸺”

“Here come Buck now,” said Bad News, as they walked to the door.

The sheriff was dismounting at the doorway, a short, pudgy individual, wide of beam, with a moon-like countenance. He cocked his head on one side and studied Blaze critically. Finally he came over to the doorway and looked Blaze over at closer range.

“Yessir, it’s you,” he said in a high-pitched voice. “I dunno how you done it, pardner, but yuh did. Shake hands with me?”

“I’d shore like to, Buck.”

“Grab a-holt, feller!”

They shook hands solemnly. Buck shut one eye and considered Bad News.

“I don’t reckon there’s anythin’ left to tell yuh about Painted Valley, Blaze,” he said slowly. “Bad News looks all talked out.”

“We’ve conversed,” nodded Bad News seriously.

“I’ll betcha. Well, set down, Blaze.”

“I was just leavin’,” grinned Blaze. “Me and the gang out at the Circle M were all out of smokin’ tobacco. They’re probably cussin’ me now for takin’ so long. Was yuh surprised to see me, Buck?”

“Nope. Oh, I was surprised, shore. But I’d been prepared for it.”

He reached down in his chaps pocket and pulled out a yellow telegram, which was handed to Blaze. It was directed to Buck Gillis, at Broad Arrow, and read:

“If Blaze Nolan is in that country tell him to communicate with me at once.

“Kendall H. Marsh.”

“Did he know you was out of the pen?” asked Bad News.

“Looks as though he did,” grunted Buck. “My Gawd, you do ask the craziest questions, Bad News.”

Blaze folded up the telegram and gave it back to the sheriff.

“I’m out on parole, Buck,” he said.

“I thought yuh was. But how in the devil didja get out?”

“And what does Kendall Marsh want of yuh?” added Bad News.

“I’ll answer the telegram, Buck,” ignoring the questions. “See yuh later, I hope.”

“What’s it all about?” queried the sheriff, after Blaze had gone up the street. “What did he say, Bad News?”

“He didn’t say.”

“You prob’ly never gave him a chance to say anythin’. What do you reckon Marsh wants of him? Did Marsh git him out?”

“He never mentioned Marsh. But why would Marsh get him out. My Gosh, Marsh was against him at the trial. It’s a cinch Blaze ain’t no friend to young Marsh. Me and Blaze met Marsh and Van Deen on the street, and Blaze refused to shake hands with Marsh. I thought there was going to be trouble. What do you make of it, Buck?”

“Nothin’,” wearily. “I wish Broad Arrow had more horse thieves and fewer Ladies’ Aid Societies. I guess mebby I’ll move up here and let you run the office down there.”

“If yuh do, I’ll quit yuh, Buck.”

“I suppose. Well, I’ll stay as long as I can, and then shoot myself loose. Let’s go over and git a shot of hooch. I hate tea.”


Old Jim Kelton, familiarly known as “Uncle Jimmy” by every one in Painted Valley, sat in the cool shade of the upper verandah of the JK ranch-house. He was sagged forward, an elbow on the arm of his chair, his chin resting in the palm of his hand, his eyes half closed. In his other hand he held a sheet of writing paper, which had been folded to fit an envelope.

A closer inspection would have revealed a letter, which read:

Dear Uncle Jimmy:

“Just to let you know that Kendall Marsh has pulled enough wires to get Blaze Nolan out on parole, and Nolan is to report at once to Marsh in Los Angeles. You are welcome to this information, if it is of any value. Best regards to you and all the family.

“Sincerely your old friend,

The letter was dated the preceding month. Lew Miller was an old friend of the Kelton family, employed as assistant warden at the state penitentiary. Uncle Jimmy had received the letter about a week previous to the time Nolan had kept his appointment with Kendall Marsh.

Jane Kelton leaned against one of the arches of the veranda, dressed in a cool, white garment, looking off across the valley, where the heat waves danced in the afternoon sun.

“Harry tells me that Nolan is stayin’ out at the Circle M,” said the old ranchman.

Jane nodded, but did not look at her father.

“I’m goin’ to call a meetin’ of the Painted Valley folks,” said her father slowly. “They got to know what you heard Marsh tell Nolan that night in Marsh’s home, Jane. They’ve got to know that Blaze Nolan knows where the Lost Trail leaves this valley. We know now that Marsh aims to loot the valley, and that Nolan is his man.”

Jane shook her head quickly.

“We don’t know that, Dad,” she said. “We know what Marsh intends to do, but we don’t know what Blaze Nolan will do.”

“We know that Nolan will do as Marsh directs. Marsh got him out of the penitentiary, the damned murderer!”

Jane winced visibly.

“He could have held me for the police,” she said. “He thought Kendall Marsh was dead.”

“Scared of his own skin, Jane. The police don’t believe the word of a parolled murderer. I’ll send out word for the meeting, and we’ll decide what to do. And I believe,” the old man’s eyes hardened, “that when Painted Valley knows the truth about Blaze Nolan bein’ out on parole—it won’t be healthy for Mr. Nolan.”

“But, daddy,” she turned appealingly to him, “we don’t know that Blaze Nolan accepted Marsh’s proposition. Marsh did all the talking. Do you imagine that Kendall Marsh or anybody else could drive Blaze Nolan into doing a thing he didn’t want to do?”

“Would you protect Blaze Nolan, Jane?” harshly.

“If he is innocent, yes, daddy.”

“He killed your brother.”

“That is what the jury decided. The law was satisfied with the penalty.”

“I’m not! That man shot my son. For what he did to you personally, I don’t see how you can even speak a word for him, Jane. He don’t deserve any consideration. Marsh, the dirty sneak, pulled his wires and got Nolan free to help him break all of us. Satisfied! My God, I don’t understand you. You don’t mean to say that you still care for Blaze Nolan!”

“It isn’t that, daddy. The past is buried deep, as far as Blaze and myself are concerned. But I don’t believe Blaze would ever carry out Kendall Marsh’s orders, not even to keep out of prison. He knew I had heard everything that was said that night between him and Marsh. He knew that in a short time everybody in Painted Valley would know it. And still he came back here.”

“Brazen nerve, I tell yuh, Jane.”

“Yes, he has nerve, daddy.”

“He shore has. But Painted Valley will deal with him. And we’ll deal with Kendall Marsh, too. Wait until Painted Valley finds out that Marsh intends to rustle our cattle. By God, we’ll hang ’em all on the same rope! So he intends to steal my cattle and force me to the wall on that mortgage, eh?”

“Why not sell your cattle now, daddy?”

“It’ll break me, Jane. The price is so low that I might, if I was lucky, get enough to take up that mortgage. But we’d be broke. No, I’ll take a chance; wait for a higher price. I’m not fighting in the dark now. Marsh has showed his cards. Nolan was his ace-in-the-hole, but we know what he’s got now. Tell Harry to come up here as soon as he comes, Jane; I want to see him; we’ve waited long enough.”

Jane went down the stairs and out to the patio, where she sat down on the well curb, wondering if she did care for Blaze Nolan any more. It was difficult for her to believe that Blaze ever cared for a dance-hall girl. He was intensely human, but she did not believe this of him. She believed that he had killed her brother. Ben was a wild, hard-drinking young man, altogether too prone to use a gun, and the killing had not surprised her, except that Blaze Nolan had done it. Ben had been riding for a fall for a long time.

Kendall Marsh had shown a decided interest in the trial, and as far as Jane had been able to learn, had favoured the prosecution. Alden Marsh had been the chief witness for the prosecution. Just why Marsh had done all in his power to convict Blaze she did not know, but she realised that Blaze’s knowledge of the Lost Trail would prove of extreme value to Marsh’s interests; so it was not difficult to see why Marsh had used his political influence to get Blaze out on parole.

Jane was still sitting on the old well curb when Harry rode in. He had the same fine features as his sister, but there was a hardness about his eyes and mouth which she did not have. He was of medium height and looked as wiry as a manzanita stalk. He dropped off his horse and let the animal bury its nose in the watering trough.

“I seen Blaze Nolan to-day,” he told her. “Came past the Circle M, and dropped in. Blaze was there alone, and I tried to pump him about what happened at Marsh’s place that night, but he was as tight as a clam.”

“Dad wants to see you, Harry,” she told him.

“What does he want?”

“He didn’t tell me what he wanted, Harry.”

“No? Huh! What are you moonin’ about out here? Look as though you’d lost yore last friend. I’m hungry. Was goin’ to stop at the restaurant in Medicine Tree, but I seen Alden Marsh and Butch Van Deen in there; so I came on home. Marsh is drinkin’ a lot lately, and he’s usually lookin’ for a fight. Some day I’ll give him what he’s lookin’ for.”

“Did Blaze have much to say, Harry?” she asked.

“Not much. Oh, he was pleasant enough, as far as that goes. He always was that way. But he was a fool to come back to this country, after what he knows you heard that night at Marsh’s place.”

“Let’s not talk about that, Harry.”

“Oh, all right. I’ll go up and talk to dad as soon as I put up my horse.”

Harry led his horse back through a wide archway in the patio wall, where the climbing roses almost hid the contour of the arch. He stabled his horse and came outside. A lone rider had just appeared out of the mouth of Red Horse Pass, and was coming slowly down to the big gate, which was always kept securely locked. It was the only way out. There was one more locked gate between that and the JK stable.

Few riders ever came through the Red Horse Pass; and none without the consent of the Kelton family. Harry walked back to the first gate, unlocked it, and went on to the gate where the strange rider waited.

He was rather an odd-looking person, this stranger. About six feet three inches in height, with a long, thin face, high cheekbones, a long nose, not entirely straight, a wide gash of a mouth. His once-blue shirt seemed moulded to his torso, the wrinkles of long duration, and around his neck, which was long and thin, was a well-worn scarlet muffler. His bat-wing chaps were scored from many a mesquite encounter, and the wide cartridge belt and handmade holster from which protruded the butt of a heavy Colt gun had been patched many times. Atop his head perched a wide Stetson, almost shapeless now.

“How do-o-o-o,” he drawled lazily as Harry came up to the gate, and a smile sent a hundred wrinkles dancing across his lean face.

Harry looked at him critically.

“Where’d you come from?” he asked, rather unethically for that country.

“That would prob’ly take a long time in the tellin’,” smiled the stranger. “All my life I’ve been comin’ from some place and goin’ to another. Ain’t this Painted Valley?”

“Yeah, this is Painted Valley.”

The stranger turned in his saddle and looked back at the Pass.

“She’s a long ways through that place,” he said. “Some of them sheepherders are awful liars when it comes to distance. But then yuh can’t expect too much intelligence, I s’pose. If they knew a mile from a rod they wouldn’t be herdin’ sheep. The last meal I had was in Marshville. My name’s Collins.”

“My name’s Kelton,” said Harry as he unlocked the gate. “And we might scare yuh up a little food down at the house.”

The tall man dismounted and led his roan mare through the gateway. She was a small animal, hardly a fit mount for a man the size of her rider.

“I thought I saw a town, ’way down there,” he said, pointing a lean forefinger towards Medicine Tree.

Harry nodded as he unlocked the gate.

“That’s Medicine Tree,” he said.

“Well, shucks, I’ll jist ride down there and nourish m’self.”

“You’ll stop at the ranch,” said Harry. He wanted more information about this man who rode from Marshville.

“Well, that’s nice of yuh, Kelton; if it ain’t too much trouble.”

They walked down to the stable, where Harry gave the roan a feed of oats before they walked on into the patio, where Collins took off his spurs and unbuckled his chaps. Then he slipped off his cartridge belt and hung it across the railing along with his chaps.

“Can I wash out here at the well?” he asked.


Little José, the Mexican house-boy, was in the doorway.

“Bring the gentleman a towel, José,” ordered Harry. “Toalla, pronto.

Si, si.

Collins grinned widely and walked to the well, while Harry went up to see his father on the upper verandah.

“Who came from the Pass?” asked Jim Kelton. “José saw him from the roof.”

“Said his name was Collins, dad. You better come down and talk with him. Came from Marshville, and if he ain’t a character, I’ve never seen one.”

“Marshville, eh? Probably a spy for Kendall Marsh. Yes. I’ll talk with him. Harry, I’ve got a job for yuh, after this man is gone. I’m goin’ to hold a meetin’ here soon. The men of this valley must know what we know about Marsh and Nolan. Help me down the stairs.”

They found Collins in the patio. He shook hands with Jim Kelton, who sat down on the wide curb of the well.

“The curse of rheumatism,” he said to Collins.


“Harry tells me that you came from Marshville.”

“Well, that’s the last town I was in. I’m not from Marshville.”

“Been in the sheep business very long, Collins?”

“That,” said Collins smiling, “is a trick question. I’m supposed to understand that you know I’m in that business. Well, my friend, yo’re a long way off the mark. I eat lamb chops once in a while, and when I hit some cold weather, yuh might discover some woollen clothes on my back; but that’s about as near as I get to the sheep business. I shore seen a lot of sheep around Marshville. In fact, I was offered a job over there.”

“Herdin’ sheep?” asked Harry.

“I imagine that was it.”

“Do you know Kendall Marsh?” asked Uncle Jimmy.

“No, I never met the gent, but I heard his name mentioned. I reckon he’s the big man over in that country, ain’t he? Heard ’em sayin’ that he was shot a while ago, but his head was so hard that the bullet couldn’t get in.”

“I didn’t hear about that,” said Uncle Jimmy quickly. “Who shot him, Collins?”

“I didn’t hear any of the details, but I did happen to hear the date,” and Collins gave them the exact date, which was about three weeks before. Uncle Jimmy looked keenly at Harry, who evidently was not interested in the exact date.

“Is Marsh well known around here?” asked Collins.

“Well enough,” grunted Harry, “to get him a short stay, if he ever shows up again—him or any of his damn sheep spies.”

“We won’t discuss that, Harry,” said his father. “If Mr. Collins is ready to eat⸺”

“Y’betcha, I’m ready,” smiled Collins. Uncle Jimmy walked to the dining-room with him, and after they had gone in, Jane came out.

“Who is the stranger?” she asked as Harry joined her.

“Says his name is Collins. Dad thinks, and so do I, that he’s one of Marsh’s men. He told dad about Kendall Marsh gettin’ shot. Said he heard it in Marshville. And he gave dad the exact date.”

“And we gave dad the date⸺” Jane faltered. Harry laughed shortly.

“We don’t know anythin’ about it,” he told her. “Marsh don’t know who shot him. Mebby he thinks Blaze Nolan did it. Anyway, that ’Frisco paper said that he didn’t know who shot him. Blaze Nolan is the only one who knows anythin’ about it, Jane; and if he tried any funny work, I’ll stop him pretty quick.”

Jane’s face was a trifle white and her lips were unsteady, as she said:

“We won’t talk about it, Harry. And Blaze Nolan isn’t the kind of a man to start what you call ‘funny work.’”

Harry looked closely at her, but she turned away.

“Listen, Jane,” he said, “you—no, you’ve got more sense than to care for Blaze Nolan. He’s just a dirty killer, with plenty of money and political pull behind him. Forget him.”

Jane walked into the house, without answering him, and he pursed his lips in a soundless whistle, as he walked back to the well and began filling the watering trough with fresh water.


In the spacious dining-room, at the long, hand-hewn table, Collins ate a meal prepared by a Mexican woman, mother of little José, while Uncle Jimmy sat across from Collins. He was not satisfied that Collins wasn’t connected with the sheep interests.

“I’m lookin’ for a tall, gray geldin’,” declared Collins. “He’s my horse. Branded with an N on the right shoulder. Yuh see, I was with the border patrol one night when we tried to pick up a contraband cargo. There was plenty shootin’ and one man got hit hard, and after it was all over, I lost a horse. The man who got him was headin’ north; so I took that runt I’m ridin’ and follered. I’ve been pretty much all around, but I ain’t found my horse.”

“You must think a lot of that horse,” smiled Uncle Jimmy.

“Yea-a-ah, I reckon I do. That horse is pretty well known down in my country. The man who got him is a good rider, ’cause Amigo is kinda particular.”

“I don’t remember seein’ a horse of that description, Collins.”

“No, I don’t suppose yuh have. Well,” he shoved his chair back, with a sigh of satisfaction. “I shore thank yuh for a good meal, Mr. Kelton.”

“Yo’re welcome. Are you goin’ to be around here long?”

“Long enough to look over the horses in this valley.”

“Well, come up and see us again, Mr. Collins.”

“Thank yuh. Folks who know me always call me Cultus. Got that name when I was up north, where the Injuns still talk Chinook. It means ‘bad.’ Cultus Collins, that’s me; jist wanderin’ around, hunting for a gray horse.”

A broad smile suffused his lean face, and a hound dog, stretched on the back porch, came in to sniff at his knees, and then reared up, inviting a pat on the head. Uncle Jimmy squinted at the hound and gave Cultus a sharp glance.

“Chongo don’t usually take up with a stranger,” he said.

“Recognises a kindred spirit,” grinned Cultus. “Both of us are lean, long and not so very pretty.”

He rubbed the hound’s ears and the animal whined with delight.

“Yuh better tie him up,” said Collins gravely. “I shore don’t want to get shot for stealin’ a dog.”

They went out in the patio, where Cultus drew on his chaps, put his cartridge belt around his waist and buckled on his spurs, while the dog fawned around him. Jane was standing in the doorway, and her father introduced them.

She thought he was the homeliest man she had ever seen, but his smile changed her opinion at once.

“Chongo acts as though he had known you before,” she said.

“Dogs,” said Cultus with a smile, “take folks at their face value. Luckily for me they don’t look for beauty standards.”

His smile was so infectious that Jane smiled with him.

“Beauty is only skin deep, you know,” she said.

“I must ’a’ got skinned early in life, ma’am,” he laughed. “Anyway, I’m pleased to have met all of you folks, and I thank yuh for a mighty good meal. Mebby I’ll see yuh again before I leave the valley.”

They watched him ride off down the road toward Medicine Tree, bobbing along on the little roan. Jim Kelton shook his head.

“I don’t quite make him out,” he said, “If he’s one of Marsh’s spies, I congratulate Marsh. This man is no fool, and that smile of his⸺”

“I wouldn’t bank too much on a grin,” advised Harry.

“Oh, I’m not. I’m suspicious of everythin’ that comes out of Red Horse Pass.”

“Chongo liked him,” said Jane.

“Smelled sheep on his boots,” grunted Harry. “We’ll keep an eye on this homely gent.”

His father told him what Cultus had said about seeking a stolen horse. Harry laughed shortly.

“That’s a good alibi to get in here, but I’ll make you a bet that Collins packs a message to the Triangle X. Stolen horse! Probably stole plenty himself, if the truth were known. If you’ll explain more about that message you spoke of, dad, we’ll get started on your idea of holdin’ a meetin’.”

“Let’s go back to the balcony, Harry; my leg hurts pretty bad again.”

Harry helped his father up the stairs and to his easy chair, where the old man sank down with a sigh of relief. He filled his pipe, and when it was drawing well he turned to Harry.

“Who shot Kendall Marsh, Harry?”

Harry blinked over his cigarette, but did not look at his father.

“Nobody seems to know,” he said, trying to appear indifferent.

“He was shot the night Blaze Nolan came to see him.”

“I saw it in a ’Frisco paper,” said Harry. “They didn’t know who shot him.”

“Why didn’t you show me the paper, Harry? You never mentioned it to me. Didn’t you think I’d be interested?”

“Well, I dunno—I didn’t think, I guess.”

“Did you shoot him, Harry?”

Harry turned and walked the length of the verandah. Finally he came back to his father.

“Yes, I shot him,” he said truthfully.

The old man stared at him until Harry turned away.

“You tried to murder him, Harry? My God, you didn’t do that!”

“Blaze Nolan was there,” said Harry huskily. “Oh, it was a fool thing to do, dad. I admit being a fool, and there was murder in my heart. I could see you goin’ broke, sheep all over Painted Valley. I didn’t know Jane was in there.”

Harry walked away, but came back to stand beside the old man’s chair.

“You don’t know what we went through—waitin’ for Blaze Nolan to show up at Marsh’s place. We figured he’d come at night; so I spent half of the nights in the shrubbery near the big house. I felt like a cheap burglar all the time. That letter you got from Lew Miller at the penitentiary didn’t give us any idea how long he would take to get to Marsh’s place, if he came at all.

“Jane stayed at the hotel, when she wasn’t at the depot in Los Angeles, watching for Blaze to arrive, and we were about to give up the job. She went with me this last night, when Blaze came in. I had this balcony all spotted. In fact, I’d been in there before, where I could see Kendall Marsh at his desk. Jane was to stay outside the window, while I listened to what they might plan, but she came in and I didn’t know it.

“I listened to their schemes against the people of Painted Valley, and when Kendall Marsh told Blaze that he was to rustle all your cattle and run them through Lost Trail, I reckon I kinda saw red. Anyway, I showed my gun through them velvet curtains and cut loose. And that’s the true story, dad.”

The lines on the old man’s face were deeper now, as he shook his head sorrowfully.

“The worst of it was,” said Harry slowly, “Blaze Nolan found Jane in there, after I ducked out, and he thinks she fired that shot.”

“Blaze Nolan caught her?” choked his father.

“Yeah, he found her. I lost my gun. I guess it caught on somethin’ and jerked out of my hand. But he found it and gave it to her, and then he took her out to a street car. I saw them come off that low balcony, and I followed ’em to the car.”

“Blaze Nolan thinks she tried to murder Kendall Marsh?”

“What else could he think, dad?”

“My God! Harry, this is a terrible mix-up.”

“I know it, dad.”

“But why did you try to murder Kendall Marsh? There are others to carry on his work, his plans. Didn’t you realise what it would mean?”

“I reckon I didn’t think of anythin’, except you and Painted Valley, dad. I wanted to lose the Lost Trail again.”

“Lose the Lost Trail again? What do you mean, Harry?”

“Don’t you understand? I didn’t shoot at Kendall Marsh—I shot at Blaze Nolan.”

The old man stared at his son for a full minute, but Harry turned away, his jaw set tightly.

“He killed my brother,” he said finally. “He didn’t play square with Jane—and he was goin’ to break my father. I—I guess I was all wrong, dad; but I wasn’t responsible just then. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” sadly. “It was a cowardly thing to do, Harry. But I can understand, I reckon. I’m glad it didn’t kill Kendall Marsh. He’s as crooked as a snake trail in a cactus patch, but I don’t want him murdered.”

He shook his head sadly, rubbing the palm of his right hand on an aching knee.

“Does Jane know you tried to kill Blaze Nolan, son?”

“I never told her, dad.”

“Well, let’s forget the whole affair. Are you sure Marsh didn’t know who fired the shot?”

“How could he, dad? He didn’t know anybody was behind them curtains, or he’s never said the things he did. No, that part is safe enough, unless Blaze Nolan tells him that Jane fired the shot.”

“Is Jane worried about it?” anxiously.

Harry shook his head quickly.

“Jane still—well, she⸺” Harry stopped.

“I know,” nodded his father. “Women are queer cattle, son. Now, about that meeting.”


Cultus Collins jogged on to Medicine Tree, studying the country as he went along, rather amused at being mistaken for a sheepman, but not blaming them. He had learned enough to know that Painted Valley feared the sheep, and he didn’t blame them for that. Cultus Collins was heart and soul for the cattle interests. He stabled his roan, secured a room at the little adobe hotel, where he performed his weekly shaving duties before sallying forth to see the little town. The bathing facilities at the Medicine Tree hotel were nil.

Cultus naturally gravitated to the War Dance Saloon. Business was not very brisk at this time in the afternoon. A couple of girls were practising a dance step on the little platform, while a third pounded a few notes from the out-of-tune piano. Alden Marsh sprawled in a chair, mouthing a frayed cigar and trying to tell them that they knew nothing of dancing.

Butch Van Deen stood at the bar, one elbow resting on the top, watching four men playing black jack at a nearby table, when Cultus came in. He shut one eye and looked Cultus over deliberately, when Cultus came slowly along in front of the bar, indifferent to the one-eyed stare and halted near the end of the bar.

One of the girls noticed Cultus and called her companion’s attention, thereby also attracting the attention of Alden Marsh, who got up from his chair and came slowly back to the bar, a half-grin on his lips. He looked sharply at Cultus as he went past and stopped beside Van Deen. One of the girls giggled, and Cultus turned his head to see them looking at him.

“I don’t blame ’em,” said Alden with drunken gravity. “’S enough to make yuh laugh, eh, Butch?”

Butch grinned but did not reply. He wasn’t as drunk as Marsh.

“If I was a stranger with a face like that, I’d stay home,” said Marsh, laughing at his own wit. The blackjack players looked up. But not a line of Cultus’s face changed. As far as Marsh’s gibes were concerned, Cultus might have been stone deaf.

Marsh grimaced sourly. His comedy was falling flat, as far as his object was concerned; so he came around in front of Van Deen and moved in closer to Cultus, who paid him no heed.

“Hellow, cowboy,” he said, speaking almost in Cultus’s ear. Cultus turned his head slowly and looked at Marsh.

“Speakin’ to me?” he asked softly.

“Well, can yuh imagine that?” Marsh challenged the whole room.

“Well, I wasn’t sure,” said Cultus drawlingly. “When a kid gets too much liquor inside his skin yuh never can tell about him.”

Alden Marsh flushed hotly.

“Is that so? Lemme tell yuh somethin’, Funny Face; I’ll⸺”

But his sentence was not finished. Cultus whirled quickly, caught the fingers of his left hand in Marsh’s muffler, whirled him around facing the bar, and almost with the same movement he plucked Marsh’s gun from his holster with his right hand, and tossed it over the bar.

Alden Marsh was in an undignified position, half-choked, helpless.

“If somebody will loan me a slipper or a barrel-stave,” said Cultus evenly, “we’ll finish the job.”

“You can have one of my slippers!” cried one of the girls, and sent it whirling across the room. It struck near the blackjack game, and one of the players picked it up.

Alden Marsh was swearing and choking at the same time. Van Deen surged away from the bar and stepped over to Cultus.

“That’s about all,” he growled. “Let him go.”

“Are you dry-nursin’ this?” asked Cultus curiously.

“Never mind what I’m doin’,” replied Van Deen harshly. “When I tell yuh to let him loose, I mean what I say.”

“There’s a funny thing about me,” said Cultus in a conversational tone, “I hardly ever pay any attention to what I’m told.”

“Well, this is once yuh will,” declared Van Deen, his eyes hardening.

Cultus started to raise his open hand, as though to spank the luckless Marsh, and Van Deen made a grab at his wrist. But Van Deen’s clutching hand missed, the open hand snapped shut, described a short arc and landed square on Van Deen’s chin.

It was a downward punch, not travelling over twelve inches, but it knocked Van Deen flat on his face. Cultus whirled Alden Marsh around, started him towards the doorway on the run, and sent him sprawling out in the street in the dust. Van Deen was getting to his feet when Cultus came back in, his eyes still blank from the punch, his mouth sagging a little. Cultus watched him closely. He knew Van Deen was a dangerous man; it was written all over him.

Slowly the blank expression faded and a look of understanding came to his eyes. He looked keenly at Cultus as he masticated carefully, testing his jaw. The room was very quiet. Then, “All right,” he said huskily. “You win this time. I wasn’t lookin’ for anythin’ like that. That’s a good one, stranger—and I’ll remember it.”

He walked past Cultus and went outside, where he found Alden Marsh sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, crying bitterly. Whisky and humiliation had him down.

“C’mon, you damned baby!” snorted Van Deen. “We’re goin’ home.”

“I’m goin’ back and kill that homely—uh⸺” Alden searched his vocabulary for the proper words.

“Yeah, you are, like hell! C’mon, before he spanks yuh. Next time you want to make fun of anythin’, pick somethin’ easy. C’mon, before I spank yuh myself.”

“Yo’re afraid of him,” accused Alden hotly.

“Listen to me,” said Van Deen. “You may be Kendall Marsh’s son, and you may be drunk, but you shut yore trap before I forget all that hogwash and tie yuh in a knot.”

“Oh, all right, Butch. We’re good friends. C’mon, I’ll go with yuh.”

“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said in a week,” as they walked out to their horses.

“Who was that feller, Butch?”

“That feller?” Butch examined his latigo critically. “That’s the feller who can hit hard in a short space than anybody I ever met.”

“But what’s his name?”

“I don’t know what it is, but it’ll be Methuselah before he ever gets me in reach of that right fist again. I thought the roof fell in on me.”

Cultus Collins did not seem greatly concerned. He massaged the knuckles of his right hand for a few moments, permitting himself a slow, lazy grin, and looked around the room. The blackjack players looked at each other, wondering just a little who this man might be, and resumed their game.

“Mind havin’ a little drink on the house?” asked the bartender.

“If you’ve got a little cool water,” said Cultus seriously. “I’m kinda dry.”

The bartender filled a tall glass and watched Cultus drain it.

“That was Butch Van Deen you hit,” offered the bartender. “The other feller was Kendall Marsh’s son.”

“Butch Van Deen, eh? Is he a native around here?”

“No, he ain’t been here long. I heard that he’s from south Texas, or down around there. Most of the Triangle X outfit are from down thataway, and there ain’t none of ’em been here long. Kendall Marsh bought out the Triangle X, yuh know. I suppose that’s how his kid is in with the gang. He wants to be a reg’lar heller.”

“That’s quite an ambition for a kid,” seriously. “His pa ought to spank him.”

“That’s right. Do yuh know I’ve been lookin’ at yuh ever since yuh came in. I’ve seen yuh somewhere, but I can’t quite figure out where it was.”

“My name’s Collins.”

“Well, holee-e-e gosh! Say! I used to tend bar in Yuma. Ain’t you Cultus Collins?”

“That’s what they call me.”

“Well, well! My name’s Oscar Link. They used to call me ‘Missin’,’ down in Yuma. I tended bar in the Quien Sabe place for a year. I’ve seen you in there lotsa times. Ain’t it a small world?”

“Ain’t very big,” smiled Cultus. “I reckon I remember you, Oscar.”

“Well, I remember you. I’ve been here almost a year, and I’m sure glad to see yuh.”

They shook hands across the bar. The girl who had thrown the slipper recovered it from the blackjack table, and came over to the bar. She was a tall girl, with olive skin and jet black hair, rather pretty in a dissipated way.

“I didn’t throw that slipper very straight,” she said to Cultus, “but my intentions were good. I’d like to have seen Marsh spanked.”

“I’m much obliged, even if the throw was a little wild,” smiled Cultus.

“Oh, you’re welcome. I thought there was going to be trouble for a minute. Better look out for Van Deen.”

“Is he a bad actor?” asked Cultus.

“They say he is; I don’t know him very well.”

“Della here just came back yesterday,” explained the bartender. “She was away for—how long was it, Dell?”

“Oh, seven or eight months. Seven months, I guess. I worked here quite a while.”

“This man’s name is Collins,” explained the bartender. “Me and him was old friends down in Yuma, Dell; and he drinks plain water.”

“I don’t blame him,” she smiled. “Well, I’ve got to practise a while.” She walked back to the platform and joined the other girls.

“Pretty good kid,” observed the bartender. “A couple of fellers got stuck on her and shot it out one night. One got killed and the other was sent up for second degree murder; but he’s out again. Feller by the name of Blaze Nolan. He killed Ben Kelton.”

“One of the Kelton family over at the mouth of the Pass?”

“A son. He was a wild devil. This Blaze Nolan was engaged to his sister.”

Cultus squinted thoughtfully. A man engaged to Jane Kelton, and fighting over this dance-hall girl.

“Dell pulled her freight ahead of the trial,” said the bartender. “They wanted her for a witness, but they didn’t find her. Now she’s back here and so is Blaze Nolan, but I don’t reckon they’ve met. Blaze is livin’ down at the Circle M. I knowed Blaze pretty well, and he’s all right. Jist made one of them well-known mistakes, I reckon.”

“It does happen,” said Cultus slowly. “I’ve met the Kelton family.”

“Nice folks. Harry is a little wild. I ain’t never met the girl, but I’ve seen her. Good lookin’, y’betcha. Yo’re goin’ to be around here a while, ain’t yuh, Cultus?”

“I don’t know, Oscar. Mebby a few days.”

“Well, look out for Van Deen. As far as that’s concerned, look out for Alden Marsh, if yuh don’t want to get bit from behind.”


Cultus walked back down to the livery stable, where he questioned the stable keeper regarding the saddle horses in the Medicine Tree range, but the man was positive that none of the cowboys rode a tall, gray horse.

“They don’t all stable their broncs,” he said. “They’d rather save that four-bits.”

“I guess I’m on the wrong trail,” observed Cultus, as he walked back to the hotel and stretched out on his bed for a few hours of much needed rest.


It was little Jules Mendoza who told Blaze Nolan that Della was back at the War Dance Saloon.

“I ver’ sure,” declared Jules. “She come back. Somebody make her go way, Blaze; it ees cinch. Somebody don’ want her talk at trial, but now she come back.”

“I reckon she got scared, Jules.”

“No! W’y scare? She do nothing. Somebody else scare.”

“Mebby yo’re right, Jules. But it don’t matter.”

“Mm-m-m,” grunted Jules. He had his own ideas on the matter.

Blaze trusted the little half-breed Mexican and Apache more than he trusted any other man. Jules had a queer sense of right and wrong, but it worked about the same as any other. They were seated in the shade of Mendoza’s adobe ranch-house when Blaze told him how he got out of the penitentiary and the reasons for Kendall Marsh securing his release. He did not mention the shooting in any way.

“He get you loose to help him, eh?” grunted Mendoza. “Bueno esta. Now you owe him mucho. Too damn bad, Blaze.”

“Do you think I ought to go ahead and do the job, Jules?”

“He get you loose.”

“But these were my people, Jules. Should I help to break ’em?”

“W’at you mean by mortgage, Blaze?”

Blaze explained it in detail, and Jules grasped it at once.

“Theese bank keep paper, eh? Borrow money on ranch and have to pay so much money every year. That is right. You say theese paper is also wrote on book in courthouse at Broad Arrow?”

“That’s the record of it, Jules.”

“And w’en man can’t pay no more, the bank take ranch, eh? By God, I’m like to own bank! Kendall Marsh he soon own many ranch. Mucho malo. Breeng sheeps, eh? Damn sheeps! Bimeby grass all gone. Jules lose hees rancheria too. Well, I’m sorry for you, Blaze. You make damn bad deal, I’m t’ink.”

“If I carry out my end of it, Jules.”

“Well, w’at the hell can you do?”

“I didn’t ask him to get me out, Jules.”

“You are not glad for get out?”

Quien Sabe? Anyway, I didn’t promise him, Jules.”

“Mm-m-m-m. He own bank. Bimeby he say no more money. Nobody can pay. Dios, he take much! Well? Blaze, I hear funny t’ing in town. Strange cowboy come yesterday. He’s have tro’ble with Van Deen and yo’ng Marsh. He’s knock hell out from Van Deen and he’s keek Marsh from de saloon. Madre de Dios, I’m soree to miss it!”

“That sounds interestin’,” grinned Blaze. “Know who he is, Jules?”

“No. But I’m hear one more t’ing. Two cowboy talk and one says ‘I see you at meeting to-night at JK ranch.’”

“A meetin’ at the JK, eh? I wonder what for, Jules.”

“I’m hear no more. Maybe jus’ party; maybe cowman go talk. I’m not invite. Damn Injun no good for talk, anyway.”

“Talk ain’t everythin’, Jules. If the whole bunch was as square as you are⸺”

“I’m not civilise, Blaze; jus’ damn Injun. Well, I’m go doctor seek horse now.”

Blaze rode to Medicine Tree that night after supper. Jules had aroused his curiosity in speaking about a meeting, and Blaze wanted to see what he could find out about it. He dismounted at a hitchrack across the street from the livery stable, and was about to walk away from his horse when he heard some one ride from the stable. He stopped short, as the horse and rider came out in the street, and as they passed the lighted window across from him, he saw that the rider was a woman.

She swung to the left on a short side street, and he knew that she must be heading toward the Kelton ranch. Was it Jane Kelton, he wondered? Something seemed to tell him that it wasn’t Jane; that she wouldn’t be taking that ride home in the dark alone.

He stepped back, untied his horse and swung into the saddle. The moon was just coming up, silvering the tops of the hills, as he swung out on the JK road. He rode at a stiff gallop until he caught sight of the rider ahead, and then slowed down. It was a little over two miles from town to the JK.

He saw the rider swing wide of the ranch-house and dismount behind a mesquite thicket. The windows of the ranch-house were lighted, and Blaze thought he could see the dark bulk of horses tied to the long railing at the front of the house.

He dismounted and dropped his reins, when he saw the rider going toward the house. She disappeared in the shadow and Blaze went swiftly in pursuit. There were a number of horses tied in the patio when Blaze stopped just inside the arched entrance. The moon threw deep shadows across the patio from the high walls, picking out a high-light here and there, but throwing the rear of the ranch-house in high relief.

For several moments Blaze halted against the inside of the patio, wondering who the woman might be and why she had left her horse concealed away from the house. Suddenly he heard the approach of more horses, and he sidled along the wall to the angle of the house, where he could stand in the deep shadow.

The two horsemen rode in and dismounted. Blaze recognised them as Tod Myers, of the Bar Anchor, and Tommy Simpson, of the O Bar B. They knocked at the door and some one let them in. Blaze could hear the murmur of voices in the house, as the two men were made welcome. He moved over closer to the doorway. Above him was the rear balcony, half-covered with vines, which hung down over the lower porch.

A few feet away from him was an old ladder, leaning against the upper balcony, and suddenly he saw the woman step out of the shadow and reach this ladder. She seemed to hesitate for a few moments, looking up at the balcony, and then tested the ladder cautiously. Her face was in the shadow, and as she started to climb the ladder, Blaze sprang forward, threw his left around her and blocked her progress.

She gave a low cry of alarm and tried to struggle free, but he tore her grip from the ladder, and they staggered together against the porch steps. She struck several times at his face, half-blinding him, but he managed to block her arms and swung her around, facing the moon, just as the door was flung open and Jane stepped out on the porch, the bright lamplight illuminating the scene.

The woman—it was the dance-hall girl, Della, of the War Dance Saloon—jerked her head around quickly and stared at Jane, who had stopped short just outside the doorway. She had no knowledge of what had happened previous to this tableau, and all she saw was Blaze Nolan with this woman held tightly in his arms and the woman smiled at Jane.

Not a word was spoken. Jane stepped back and softly closed the door. Blaze released the woman, except for a grip on her right arm.

“We’ll be goin’ now,” he said softly.

The woman laughed throatily and went along with him. They halted at her horse, which Blaze untied and handed her the reins.

“Mendoza said yuh was back,” he told her. “I don’t know what you intended to do out here to-night.”

“That’s none of your business,” she said.

“No, I don’t reckon it is,” wearily, “but you wasn’t out here for no good.”

“How did you happen to be here, Nolan?”

“I followed you.”

“Oh, you did?” She laughed heartily. “Well, it didn’t help you much, I guess. Rather a surprise for the young lady to find you hugging me on that porch. But then your goose was cooked with her a long time ago, Nolan; so it don’t matter. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll ride back to Medicine Tree. Or would you like to ride back with me?”

“No, I don’t think I’ll ride with yuh.”

“Oh, it suits me just as well.”

She mounted and turned her horse away from the mesquite.

“She’s quite pretty, Nolan. That was the first time I ever got a good look at her. And if I’m not mistaken, after that meeting is over, Painted Valley will be unhealthy for you.”

“Was that why you tried to spy on them?” he asked.

“You fought and killed a man over me, didn’t you, Nolan? At least, I might show my appreciation in some way.”

Her mocking laughter came back to him, as she galloped her horse back to the main road. Blaze strode back to his horse and swung into the saddle.

Up to the time when Blaze thus parted from Della of the War Dance Saloon, the meeting inside the JK ranch-house had consisted mostly of general conversation. An even dozen men were gathered in the living-room of the JK, representing all the ranches in that end of the valley, except the Triangle X and the Circle M. The Triangle X was owned by Kendall Marsh, which, of course, was barred from the meeting; and the Circle M, owned by Jules Mendoza, who didn’t figure in the scheme of things; because of his friendship for Blaze Nolan.

Uncle Jimmy Kelton called the meeting to order, and told them of the evidence against Kendall Marsh and Blaze Nolan. This was the first real evidence they had ever had that Marsh really intended sheeping out Painted Valley. They had all suspected his motives in establishing a crew of gunmen at the Triangle X, and buying out the bank in order to control the mortgages, but their evidence had all been circumstantial.

Uncle Jimmy told them of the conversation between Marsh and Blaze Nolan regarding the Lost Trail, explaining why Marsh had secured Nolan’s release from the penitentiary and just what part Nolan was to play in Marsh’s schemes.

“And did Blaze Nolan agree to do this?” asked Sam Hawker, owner of the O Bar B ranch.

“He’s here in the Valley,” replied Uncle Jimmy. “What else would he come here for?”

“I knowed Blaze Nolan a long time,” said Joe Brown, the grizzled little old man, who owned the Bar Anchor, “and it don’t seem that Blaze would do a thing like that. Yuh never can tell about folks, I suppose.”

“He’s pretty cold-blooded,” said Tod Myers. “After the things he’s done—and he probably ain’t got no love for any of us.”

“Well, what’s to be done?” demanded Hawker. “We can shore make this valley too hot for Blaze Nolan, if yuh all say the word.”

“Let’s clean out the Triangle X,” suggested Archie Lee.

“Easier said than done,” grunted Sig Heffner, of the Bar Anchor. “That’s a tough layout, Archie.”

“And they haven’t done anythin’ wrong—yet,” added Joe Brown.

“Neither has Blaze Nolan,” said Hawker. “I think we better wait until somethin’ breaks. We’ve been warned, and it’s up to us to keep an eye peeled. I wouldn’t say a word to Blaze. Damn it, boys, we can’t afford to drive him out of here. We can watch him here, but if he was over around Marshville we don’t know what he’s doin’. And if he knows where the Lost Trail is—he ain’t dumb, is he? He can tell where it is. I’d vote to let him go ahead—over here where we can sort of watch him.”

“That’s horse-sense,” said Joe Brown. “I don’t believe there ever was a Lost Trail. I think it’s all talk. Stands to reason that some of the boys would have found it long ago, if it existed.”

“Blaze Nolan found it,” said Harry Kelton.

“Did he admit it to Marsh?”

“Well, he didn’t deny it.”

They argued the case from every angle before the meeting broke up, but they finally decided to take Hawker’s advice in the matter. It seemed the sensible thing to do. The men rode away in the moonlight, and Uncle Jimmy went painfully up the stairs. He wanted to sit in his easy chair under the stars and have a good-night smoke.

He found Jane on the veranda, leaning against an arch, looking off across the moonlit valley.

“Huh!” he grunted, sinking down in his chair. “I didn’t expect you to be out here, Jane.”

He hammered the bowl of his pipe against the arm of his chair.

“The meetin’ is over,” he said. “I reckon we’ll wait and let Blaze Nolan make his first move, the boys will watch him. He’ll find that Painted Valley don’t trust him no more than they would a lobo wolf.”

“I wonder if he knows there was a meeting?” she said softly.

“I doubt it.”

A period of silence, while he lighted his pipe. Then, “Dad, did you ever see that girl—that dance-hall girl—the one they called Della?”

“I dunno, Jane. She disappeared ahead of the trial, yuh know.”

“Do you know what she looked like, dad?”

“Kinda Spanish, they said. Tall girl, dark skinned and black hair. What do yuh want to know for?”

“Nothing; I was just wondering,” and she walked back to the stairway. The old man puffed for several moments, sighed deeply and shook his head.

“Women are queer critters,” he said. “Awful queer.”


Cultus Collins might have spent weeks in Painted Valley and never learned much of the local gossip, but when Bad News Buker found out about Cultus knocking Butch Van Deen down and throwing Alden Marsh out of the War Dance Saloon, he immediately made it a point to seek out Cultus.

A stranger was meat and drink to Bad News. It meant an open and fertile field for Bad News to operate on, and he proceeded to regale Cultus with everything that had happened in Painted Valley during the past year. Time permitting, he would go back far beyond that. Cultus was a good listener, and the shady side of the sheriff’s office was a comfortable place to sit and listen to the local historian.

At times Buck Gillis would come from the office and look around the corner, grunt wearily and go back. When Bad News was wound up, he could tick news, scandal and dire prophecy for a week. Bad News’s story of the killing of Ben Kelton, the arrest and conviction of Blaze Nolan, his subsequent release on parole, and the fear of sheep invasion were interesting to Cultus, although he had no interest in the Valley.

For a number of years Cultus had been a freelance of the border, where his name was anathema to those who ran contraband from the land of mañana. Foe of smuggler and hi-jacker alike, his life was forfeit at any time; but still he kept going, a tall man on a gray horse, always unexpected and always unwelcome where men try to evade the law.

The border Mexicans hated and admired him; admired him because of his cold nerve, but hated him because he had an uncanny habit of cutting off their revenues, jailing the men who made it possible for them to make big money, and evading their traps set for his extermination.

But just now Cultus was not thinking of the contrabandista—he wanted that tall gray horse, which had been his closest companion for over two years; the ghost horse who could run like the wind or be as immovable as a statue.

“And this here girl is back,” explained Bad News. “She shore faded out quick, when Blaze was arrested.”

“Maybe she came back, because Nolan is back,” suggested Cultus.


“Was he pretty sweet on her?”

“Nolan? Hell, we never seen ’em together. Young Kelton was kinda foolish about her. Him and young Marsh kinda herded together. It was young Marsh who knowed about Blaze bein’ stuck on that girl. He blabbed the whole works, and his father took him down to Los Angeles after the trial, but he came right back. He ain’t no earthly good, Alden Marsh ain’t.”

“What kind of a defence did Blaze Nolan make at the trial?”

“Not much. He jist acted kinda dumb. Oh, we had the deadwood on him right; but they should have given him self-defence. It wasn’t a square deal, accordin’ to my lights on the matter. I tell yuh, it was because he got mixed up with this dance-hall girl, when he was engaged to marry Jane Kelton. That made the jury mad. Old man Kelton wanted to hang him. Funny how folks will change; old man Kelton was Blaze’s best friend before the shootin’.”

“I can understand how Kelton felt,” nodded Cultus.

“Oh, shore. They had a meetin’ out there last night—out at Kelton’s place. I didn’t get much information on it, though. I reckon it had somethin’ to do with Kendall Marsh. You said yuh didn’t know him, didn’t yuh, Collins?”

“No, I never met him. I was over at Marshville before I came here. Marsh is a big man in that country.”

“Yeah, I reckon he is. They call him Take-a-Chance Marsh. Well, he’s takin’ a chance every time he comes over here. He’s had his eye on this valley for a long time. The Marshville range is about sheeped out, and they’ll have to move pretty soon. The law says that the sheep have an equal right with the cattle. At least, that’s how she reads; but if he tries to pour his damned woollies over into Painted Valley, he’s goin’ to find at least one officer who can’t read a danged word. I’ll buy yuh a drink.”

“I’ll take a little water,” said Cultus.

“Well,” sighed Bad News, “you know yourself better than I do, but I’d sure rust away in a few months, if I drank water like you do.”

They went over to the War Dance Saloon and had their drink. The bartender made no objection to serving Cultus with water, and when Cultus drifted back to watch a roulette game, the bartender said:

“That’s the gittenest son-of-a-gun you ever seen, Bad News. He’s mucho malo hombre down on the border. I’ve seen smugglers coil right up and bite themselves when his name’s mentioned.”

“Thasso?” Bad News considered Cultus with interest. “Well, he shore seems pleasant enough.”

“Aw, he ain’t got nothin’ again’ yuh, Bad News. I’ve seen him in action, and he’s shore fast. The way he fixed Butch Van Deen and young Marsh was good for sore eyes. That man’s got a rep.”

Bad News drifted back to his little office, and Cultus spent a few dollars on the roulette. Finally he wandered outside again and was standing in front of the saloon, when a rider came up the street.

Cultus rubbed his eyes and stared wonderingly as the man rode to the War Dance hitchrack and tied his horse. It was Blaze Nolan, riding a tall, gray horse, which limped rather heavily on one front foot. He was uncurried, his mane and tail full of burs. Cultus took a deep breath and leaned against a porch-post, as Blaze came up to him.

“That’s shore a tall horse yo’re ridin’, pardner,” said Cultus.

Blaze gave Cultus a keen glance, turned his head and looked back at the horse.

“Yeah, he is a tall one. Went lame on me a while ago. Don’t know what’s the matter with his leg. I brought him in with a bunch of Circle M horses this mornin’, and he seemed such a friendly cuss that I rode him to town.”

Blaze grinned as he slapped the dust off his hat.

“Mebby I mistook his friendly attitude. Anyway, he shore gave me the worst churnin’ I’ve had in a long time. That bronc knows how to buck. I reckon that’s how he hurt his leg.”

“Tall horses buck kinda hard,” nodded Cultus.

“This one shore did,” replied Blaze, and walked into the saloon.

Cultus rolled a cigarette, his eyes thoughtfully serious. He knew that this man was Blaze Nolan. Bad News had explained how Nolan had received his nickname, and the lock of snow-white hair was plainly evident. After he lighted the cigarette, Cultus strolled out to the hitchrack. At the edge of the sidewalk he whistled a soft note, and the tall gray threw up his head quickly.

“Hello, Amigo,” he said softly. “Know me, eh?”

The gray knew him; there was no doubt of that. Cultus walked around to the right side and studied the brand on the right shoulder. The N had been changed to an M, and the circle burned around it. It was not a neat job, and Cultus decided that it had been done with a running-iron instead of a branding-iron, which usually made a clear-cut mark. And the hot iron had only been run on the animal about two weeks ago.

“Circle M, eh?” muttered Cultus. “That would be the half-breed’s place. The question is this: where did he get the horse? I want the man who brought him here, and if I take the horse now, I’ll never find out. Amigo, I’m goin’ to disown yuh for a while, but when I leave Painted Valley, you’ll be under me, old timer.”

The tall gray nickered softly, as Cultus turned and walked across the street.


And then Kendall Marsh came to Painted Valley; came in the night and went straight out to the Triangle X. He still wore a few strips of adhesive plaster where the bullet had torn his scalp, but otherwise he was in good shape. Marsh had no idea of who had fired that shot. He was positive that Blaze did not do it.

And he appreciated Blaze’s motive in making his getaway from the house, rather than to stay and be found by the police. Marsh was correct in his surmise that Blaze did not stop to investigate the potency of that bullet, took a chance that it was fatal, and had faded from sight. The sheriff had not answered Marsh’s query regarding the whereabouts of Blaze Nolan, nor had Blaze told him he was in Painted Valley; so Marsh came to see for himself.

“Well, he’s here,” said Butch Van Deen, as they sat in the kitchen of the Triangle X that night, while Chihuahua, the Chinese cook, prepared a meal for Marsh.

“He’s stayin’ with that half-breed at the Circle M. I ain’t seen much of him. The boys heard a hint that the cattlemen had a meetin’ to-night at the JK ranch, but it was too late for any of us to sneak out and see what it was all about.

“That gang is all suspicious of us, Marsh. Everybody in this valley kinda look sideways at us.”

“Was Blaze Nolan at that meeting, Butch?”

“I dunno who was there. I don’t believe he was though. He ain’t so well liked around here. They all know you bought that bank, and that their mortgages are hogtied.”

“I’m buying the War Dance Saloon, Butch.”

“Yeah? That’s fine. And while yo’re here, I wish you’d step on yore kid. He won’t take orders from anybody, and if somethin’ ain’t done, you’ll have a first-class funeral in yore family. I’ve herded him as close as I could. He started trouble with a lean, homely mug of a puncher down at the War Dance, and got throwed out on his ear. I tried to interfere and got knocked cold.”

“That’s a pretty honest statement, ain’t it, Butch?”

“I know when I’m whipped, Marsh; but that kid don’t. I can take care of myself, and when I get whipped, I’ll admit it. I don’t say he could ever do it again, but I won’t bet he couldn’t. Anyway, I’m not squawkin’ for myself.”

“I’ll speak to Alden in the morning, Butch.”

“Speak, hell! Take a neck-yoke.”

Marsh smiled grimly. “I’m not in the habit of using a neck-yoke, Butch. The boy is just a little wild, that’s all.”

“Yeah, and he drinks too much, talks too much, and he’s too previous with a gun. He thinks he’s a little tin god. Don’t take my word for it, Marsh; ask the rest of the gang. I’ve got as forked a bunch as ever bunked together, and they’ll tell you that yore kid is a bad man and a damned fool, all wrapped in one package.”

“He will outgrow it, Butch.”

“Jist like a cow outgrows her horns. Hey, Chihuahua, you slant-eyed jughead! Food. Nutrimiento pronto; sabe?

“Can do,” grinned the Chinaman.

“You look as though you’d been in a wreck,” observed Butch to Marsh.

“Somebody took a shot at me,” growled Marsh, and then he told Butch what happened that night. Butch listened closely to the narrative.

“And you don’t know who shot yuh, eh?”

“I wish I did.”

“Somebody heard what you told Blaze Nolan, eh? Suppose it was somebody from here?”

“That’s hardly possible, Butch. I suppose I’ve enemies outside of Painted Valley.”

“Prob’ly,” dryly. “But didja ever stop to think that Blaze Nolan might have tipped somebody off; so they could listen to yuh talk? Yuh say he faded out, too. I’ll make yuh a bet that Nolan handed you a double-cross.”

“No, I don’t believe that, Butch. Blaze ducked out because he had an idea that I was killed. Yuh know what chance he’d have had with the police. They’d have⸺”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Butch. “Harry Kelton and his sister were away from here about ten days. It corresponds with the time you got shot. Mebby Blaze Nolan sent them word.”

Marsh shoved back from the table, staring at Butch. Then he laughed harshly, resting his elbows on the table.

“That’s damn funny,” he said. “I’ll bet you hit it, Butch. The police found the tracks of two men and one woman in the soil beneath the little balcony where they got into my house. One set of tracks was made by Blaze Nolan.”

“And the other by Harry Kelton, eh?”

“And his sister. Butch, I’ll bet they heard what I said to Blaze Nolan that night.”

“Yeah, and I’ll bet Blaze Nolan knowed they was there. That’s why that meetin’ was held at the JK. Well, that’s a hell of a note, Marsh. You better eat yore meal and use yore brains.”

“Who could have told them that Blaze Nolan was to be at my house, except Blaze Nolan?” wondered Marsh aloud. “By God, that’s why he was late in getting there. He gave them a chance to get there ahead of him. That’s it! I’m a fool, Butch. He said he lost his money in a poker game.”

“And another thing,” said Butch ominously. “You better not be too promiscuous around Medicine Tree, Marsh. If what we think is true, you’ll hang up on the hot end of a bullet—and not a jury in Arizona would convict the man who shot yuh.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Well,” drawled Butch, “I guess the kid inherited it.”

“Inherited what?”

“Nerve or ignorance, and yuh can take yore pick.”

The next day Hank North and Terry Ione came in from the Triangle X. Marsh wanted all the information he could get regarding that meeting, and he thought Hank and Terry might get more than Butch Van Deen. Hank was a hard-faced, leather-skinned gent, with a crooked nose and a lopsided mouth. If Hank had any conscience he kept it out of sight. Terry was a small, wiry, dark-skinned individual, with a small black moustache, white teeth. His nose had been flattened in his early youth and refused to build a new bridge. His eyes were narrow and of no great depth, and his lips seemed habitually to draw away from his teeth in a mirthless grin. Two toughs, indeed, were Terry and Hank. Terry had been born in Alberta, while Hank first saw the light in a dugout on the Rio Grande. They were usually about three jumps ahead of a sheriff.

But their efforts to find out anything about the meeting were without result. No one seemed to know anything about it. Terry and Hank had a number of drinks with the bartender, Oscar Link, and the conversation came around to the trouble that Butch and young Marsh had with Cultus Collins.

“I jist looked for that to happen,” lied Oscar. “The minute I see Marsh gettin’ tough with Collins, I says to myself, ‘Oscar, you watch the fun, because this Collins is goin’ to make Marsh swaller his own heels.’”

“You knowed Collins, eh?” queried Hank.

“Me and him are old friends, from Yuma. Knowed each other for years. He said, Oscar, I’m shore glad to see yuh up here,’ and then we went ahead and talked over old times. And lemme tell yuh somethin’, gents; don’t fool with that hombre. He’s jist like a paralytic stroke to anybody foolin’ around.”

“Well, that’s fine!” grunted Terry, reaching for the bottle. “Bad man from Yuma, eh? Hey! What the hell are yuh reachin’ for that bottle for? I’m payin’ for this drink.”

“What’s the business of this here paralysis producin’ person?” asked Hank interestedly.

“That’s Cultus Collin’s own business. You’ve been down around the border, ain’t yuh? And you ain’t heard of Cultus Collins? Well, I dunno what he’s doin’ here, except Harry Kelton said he was lookin’ for a horse that some misguided gent rode north by mistake. It seems that there was a scrap between the border officers and a bunch of smugglers, one officer gettin’ killed in the fracas, and somebody headed north on Collins’s horse. I shore feel sorry for that gent, if Collins finds him.”

“Well, here’s regards,” said Terry, downing his drink. “This is a long ways to come huntin’ a lost horse.”

“There’s the matter of a dead officer,” said Oscar.

“Plenty more officers,” grinned Hank, “but good horses is scarce.”

“That’s the stuff!” snorted Terry. “There’s too many officers for the good of the country. If I had my way, there wouldn’t be any officers. Prob’ly be a lot better off, at that.”

“Ain’t I ever seen you down around Yuma?” asked Oscar. “Yore face is familiar.”

“You never seen me down around Yuma,” declared Terry.

“You ain’t got no brothers down there, have yuh?”

“Ain’t got no brothers nowhere, feller. And yuh don’t need to get so damn’ personal.”

“Oh, thatsall right,” said the bartender quickly, “I wasn’t tryin’ to be smart.”

“They only made one like Terry,” grinned Hank. “They seen it was a hell of a bum mould; so they took it out and busted it over the back fence. And yuh don’t need to snap at me, feller. I know yuh pretty well, and I ain’t scared of yore bark. Yore folks was shore absentminded to ever let yuh grow up. Pa strangled three that was better than you were, before he ever let one grow up to a sheep dog.”

Terry glanced toward the door, where Cultus Collins was coming in, and a laugh froze on his lips. Cultus merely glanced at the two men in front of the bar, and sat down against the wall, behind a poker table, and began reading a newspaper.

Terry took a deep breath and faced the bar, while Hank looked keenly at him, wondering what had happened to take all the joy out of Terry.

“Little drink,” said Terry softly. “One more, and then we’ll head for the ranch.”

They drank silently and turned toward the door.

“Yo’re quite a ways away from home, ain’t yuh?” asked Cultus.

Terry jerked around quickly, staring hard at Cultus.

“I guess yo’re mistaken, ain’t yuh?” he asked.

“How did you know I was speakin’ to you?”

“Well?” queried Terry coldly.

“Oh, nothin’ particular,” said Cultus easily. “I wasn’t tryin’ to scrape an acquaintance with you; and you are quite a ways from Mesquite City, yuh know.”

Cultus shifted his eyes back to his paper, hunched down in the chair and ignored Terry entirely. For several moments the Triangle X cowboy studied Cultus Collins, his lips drawn back in a sneering grin. He started to say something more, but Hank touched him on the arm, and they went out together. The bartender sighed with relief.

“I shore thought there was goin’ to be trouble,” he said. Cultus glanced at him and shook his head.

“A coyote never bites yuh when yo’re lookin’ at him, unless yuh got him cornered; and that one had room to run.”

“That’s right. Say! I’ll betcha I’ve seen Terry Ione in Yuma.”

“You prob’ly have, Oscar.”

“I’ll betcha I have. I reckon this place is goin’ to change hands pretty quick, and I’ll probably be back in Yuma, lookin’ for a job. I understand that Kendall Marsh made Charley Long a proposition by mail, and Charley’s goin’ to accept. The first thing yuh know, Marsh will own everythin’ around here. He’ll probably fire me. Oh, well, there’s lotsa jobs.”

“A good man can always get along, Oscar.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll be all right.”

Cultus soon left the saloon and went to the livery stable, where he got his little horse. It was about four miles to the Circle M ranch, and Cultus had never been there, but he decided to ride out and see what he could find out about that stolen gray horse. The road led southeast for a couple of miles, where it forked; the south road leading to the Circle M, the east one to the Bar Anchor.


The Circle M was typical of its owner, Jules Mendoza. The main ranch-house was of poles and adobe, much in the Hopi style, one-story, threatening at any time to fall down. The stables and corrals were on a par with the house. But it was picturesque and it suited Jules Mendoza, whose wants were few.

Mexico Skinner and Tony Gibbs were Mendoza’s two helpers. Mexico was half-white, half-Mexican, while Tony was Italian and Mexican, with a dash of Irish and a bit of Indian. The name “Gibbs” was easier to say than Tony’s real name, which was something like Aponopolini. Mexico’s right name was Peletero, which is the equivalent of Skinner in Spanish.

The Circle M raised more horses than cattle, although there was little market for horses. Many Circle M horses ranged far back in the hills, half-wild things, some entirely wild. In fact, Mendoza had no idea how many horses he owned, as there was never any round-up of horses for him to make a count of his herd. But he was satisfied.

Cultus found Blaze Nolan and Jules at the ranch. Jules eyed him with a certain suspicion, until he realised that this was the strange cowboy who had pitched Alden Marsh out of the saloon.

“I’m soree I’m not see it,” he told Cultus.

“Was it somethin’ you’d like to have seen?” smiled Cultus.

“Oh, ver’ mooch.”

“Come in and set down,” invited Blaze.

The interior of the ranch-house was on a par with the exterior. The floor was hard-packed adobe, the walls whitewashed. In one corner was a big fireplace, where the smoke had blackened the walls. Several old Navajo rugs were spread on the floor, and one wall was decorated with a huge Mexican serape.

Cultus sprawled in an old chair and rolled a cigarette.

“This place shore seems homelike,” he said. He sniffed the air and grinned over his cigarette.

Frijoles, eh?”

“Beeg pot,” laughed Mendoza. “Plenty beans. Pretty soon we eat.”

“Sounds fine to me, pardner.”


Mendoza went out to the kitchen to stoke the stove.

“He’s salt of the earth,” said Blaze softly. “Mex and Apache, with the worst of both left out.”

Cultus nodded with understanding, although the condition was a rare one.

“I’ve heard so much about you since I came here,” said Cultus, “that I rode out to look yuh over, Nolan.”

“I reckon yuh didn’t hear anythin’ good.”

“Some of it wasn’t so bad. The deputy sheriff told me quite a lot about yore troubles.”

“He would,” smiled Blaze. “Bad News would choke to death if he couldn’t talk. But his opinion doesn’t bear much weight in Painted Valley.”

“Probably because he favours you, Nolan.”

“That’s probably the reason.”

“Do you know any of the men at the Triangle X?”

Blaze shook his head.

“Only what I’ve seen of ’em since I came back. Marsh bought that outfit after I left, and put his own men in charge. I’ve only seen Butch Van Deen, but the names of the rest are strange to me.”

“I suppose Marsh has a reason for hirin’ gunmen.”

“That might be a fact, Collins.”

“I’d like to ask you a personal question.”

“Go ahead.”

“Did you come here straight from the penitentiary?”

Blaze looked narrowly at Cultus. The question was rather peculiar, and he wondered what was behind it.

“No,” he said thoughtfully. “I didn’t. I went to Los Angeles first.”

“And did yuh come by rail from there, Nolan?”

“From San Berdoo. I caught a ride from Los to San Berdoo.”


“Thanks for what?”

“Elimination. Have Mendoza’s two men been away from Painted Valley lately?”

“Not for six years; maybe more.”


“Not for longer than that. Jules never travels. But what’s the idea of all this, Collins?”

“Curiosity, I suppose. A few weeks ago, down on the border, I was helpin’ some border officers grab a bunch of contraband. It was at night, and by all rights we should have captured ’em all, but there was a slip, an officer was killed and my horse stolen. I’ve been on that horse-stealin’ killer’s trail since then. And the tall gray horse you was ridin’ is the horse which was stolen from me, and he’s wearin’ a Circle M on his right shoulder, instead of the plain N he was originally branded with.”

Blaze frowned heavily, hardly understanding what Cultus meant.

“Are yuh sure about that?” he asked.

“I can prove it by the horse.”

Blaze sat down and began rolling a cigarette.

“It’s shore nice of yuh to take it this way,” he said. “That tall gray was in a bunch of Circle M horses, and I kinda picked him out to ride. But I can assure yuh that nobody on this ranch ever stole him—and Mendoza never brands a branded horse without puttin’ his registered vent over that brand.”

“I’m not accusin’ anybody,” said Cultus.

“I know it. That horse is down in the corral now. He picked up a sharp stone between here and town, and I’ve been doctorin’ it. Let’s go and look at him.”

They walked outside and Cultus halted at the corner of the house.

“You turn him loose, and I’ll prove ownership, Nolan.”

Blaze walked down to the corral and opened the gate. Mendoza was standing in the kitchen door, skillet in hand, wondering what it was all about. He saw the tall, gray horse come from the corral, and he heard Cultus whistle a shrill note, like the call of a bird.

The gray lifted his head quickly, ears pricked, scanning the country. Again came the shrill call and the gray saw Cultus. With a low nicker, the animal came across the yard at a swinging walk and went straight up to Cultus, nosing at him. Blaze came quickly from the corral, and Mendoza left the kitchen to join them.

“I reckon that’s plenty proof,” said Blaze. He turned quickly to Mendoza and explained about the animal. The little man blinked foolishly, walked around and examined the brand. For quite a while he studied the animal.

“That’s ver’ damn funny,” he said. “I’m don’ remember theese horse, but he’s got my brand. Ver’ new brand, eh, Blaze? Looks like running-iron.”

“Yuh don’t reckon Tony or Mexico know anythin’, do yuh, Jules?”

“I’m not pay Tony and Mejico to steal horse for me, Blaze.”

“No, that’s right.”

Cultus shook his head, as he rubbed the nose of the horse.

“No, I’ve got to look further than this, boys. Don’t say a word about it to anybody. Keep the horse here at the ranch, until I want him, because I want the man who stole him.”

Bueno! I keep,” said Jules. “Frijoles ready jus’ when the biscuit ees cook.”

They were eating when Tony and Mexico came, but nothing was said to them about the stolen horse. They retired to the bunkhouse as soon as they finished their meal.

“Tony say they come pas’ Triangle X,” said Jules. “He say they see old man Marsh.”

“Is he sure of that?” queried Blaze quickly.

“Tony know him damn well.”

“I reckon he does, Jules; thanks.”

“Marsh is takin’ a chance, comin’ here, ain’t he?” asked Cultus.

Blaze seemed very thoughtful, as he replied, “Mebby he don’t know it, but he is, Collins; takin’ a big chance. But that’s what they call him—Take-a-Chance. There’s two men in Painted Valley who ain’t wanted. Somebody could kill the both of ’em, and no Painted Valley jury would ever convict them. I’m the other one of the two.”

“For two different reasons,” said Cultus.

“I’m not so sure about that either,” bitterly. “I reckon I was a fool to ever come back here. The world is wide, but these were my people, and I thought it might be different than it is. I’ve always had a hunch that somethin’ would turn up to disprove some of the things I’m supposed to have done; but yuh can’t prove anythin’ in a place where yo’re hated the way I’m hated here.”

“You mean to disprove that you shot Ben Kelton?”

Blaze shook his head sadly.

“No, I reckon I shot him. I never could prove I didn’t, except to myself. I counted four shots besides my two. Ben Kelton only shot once.”

Cultus threw his cigarette in the fireplace and dusted the tobacco crumbs off his shirt-front.

“Bad News never told me about that,” he said, as he sat down.

“Probably Bad News don’t know it. I never told it in court. What was the use. But there were six shots fired, and I thought they were all fired at me. Anyway, one of ’em brushed my ear, and I heard it hit a building across the street.”

“Wasn’t Ben hit twice?”

“Yeah. Both bullets went through him. I couldn’t see who it was, and they found me, lightin’ matches, tryin’ to see who I’d shot. They asked me if I shot him, and I admitted it. Mebby I did.”

“Didja ever have any quarrel with him?”

“No. His father was my best friend.”

“I’ve heard that part of it, Nolan. They fed me out at their place the day I rode in. I heard to-day that Marsh had bought out the War Dance Saloon.”

Blaze laughed shortly.

“He’s goin’ to own the Valley, if he keeps on.”

“And turn Medicine Tree into a sheep camp. Oh, I heard a lot of talk in Marshville. I reckon the feed is played out on them hills over there. They shore look it.”

“Turn Medicine Tree into a sheep camp,” mused Blaze. “Sometimes I don’t care—and then I do care. Funny, ain’t it. Sometimes I want to go away from here and let things go hang. Don’t the Bible say somethin’ about an eye for an eye? And then it says to love those who hate yuh.

“But what’s the difference? They see things from their angle, and I see ’em from mine. It’s all past and done, but I’d like to know who fired them other three shots besides my two and Kelton’s one.”

“Wasn’t it young Marsh who testified that you and Ben fought over a dance-hall girl?”

Blaze’s jaws snapped shut and his eyes hardened.

“Dirty little liar! He was drunk. He said that Ben told him we quarrelled over that girl before, and that I might get him. I don’t know what Ben told him, but it was a lie about that girl. I never even spoke to her. She could have proved that much, but she got scared and pulled out. That shore blocked me from any alibi in that direction, and they soaked me plenty. It wasn’t a just decision, and they knew it, but they got away with it. You knew Kendall Marsh got me out on parole, didn’t yuh?”

“No, I didn’t know it. What was his interest?”

Blaze shook his head.

“I can’t tell you what it was. In fact, I dunno why I’m tellin’ you all this stuff, Collins—unless it’s because you acted damn decent about that stolen horse. If you had been as brainless as some cowboys I know, you’d have shot or jailed me before this. I don’t know what I’d have done under the circumstances.”

“Well,” grinned Cultus, “I didn’t suspect you, and I felt sure that the brand had been made with a runnin’-iron. I figured that Mendoza could have lapped his regular iron over that N and made a good job of it, instead of the way it was made.”

“You wanted to find out if I rode a horse into the Valley,” smiled Nolan.

“Sure. Somebody did, and I thought you might know. Well, I guess I better head back for Medicine Tree. I wonder if Marsh knows how they feel about him here.”

Quien sabe? He’s no fool; but if he don’t, I’ll tell him. Me and him are due to meet pretty quick.”

Cultus shook hands with Mendoza and thanked him for the meal.

“You come some more,” urged Mendoza. “Plenty frijoles, plenty beef.”

Cultus assured him that he would come again, shook hands with Blaze, and rode away. He felt sure that Blaze was not guilty. Perhaps he did kill Ben Kelton, but there must have been a third party present, and this third party would know the truth.


As far as the stolen gray horse was concerned, Cultus was decidedly at a loss to know where to find the thief. It was evident that somebody had tried to throw the guilt on the Circle M, in case the owner of the horse ever discovered it.

After leaving the Circle M, the road wound along the side of a hill, turned sharply to the left and went over the top of the mesa. On an air line, the top of the mesa at that point would not be over two hundred yards from the ranch-house. It was rather a stiff climb, and at the top Cultus drew rein for a breathing spell.

Here the yellow dust was rather deep in the road, which was masked from the ranch-house by a clump of mesquite. As Cultus sat there he noticed a number of horse tracks in the dust. It appeared as though two horses had milled around there considerable, and among the horse tracks was the boot print of a man.

Cultus studied them rather impersonally for a while, but finally swung out of his saddle and examined them more closely. The man had dismounted and taken three steps towards the mesquite clump. At the edge of the road Cultus discovered another track. Finally he walked over to the mesquite to a point where he could look through at the ranch-house below the mesa, and here he found the butts of a number of cigarettes, evidently only recently smoked. The ground was also scored from bootheels, where two men had sat.

It was clear as print that some one had been watching the Circle M ranch-house, and, judging from the number of cigarette butts, they had been there quite a while. He went back along the road and found where they had ridden back toward Medicine Tree.

Whether they were spying on him or on some one else at the Circle M was a question, but Cultus had the feeling that they were watching him. He rode slowly back to the forks, where he lost the tracks. They either went toward the Bar Anchor or headed across country, he was not able to determine which, as the road to the Bar Anchor was too hard to show a track, and he did not feel that it was worth his time to follow it to softer ground. He rode back to Medicine Tree and stabled his horse.

It was about thirty minutes after Cultus left the Circle M, when Mac Rawls rode in from the Triangle X. Rawls was a lean, bony-faced cowboy, with a shifty eye and a mop of roan-coloured hair, which hung low over his eyes. In any country he would be labelled a dangerous person, from his appearance alone.

Blaze had never seen Rawls, but he was sure Rawls was from the Triangle X. Blaze went out to him when Rawls drew up in front of the ranch-house.

“Marsh wants yuh to come to the Triangle X to-night,” said Rawls. “Said it was important.”

“Wants me to come, eh?”

“Yo’re Blaze Nolan, ain’tcha?”


“Well, I’ve told yuh what to do. And Marsh says we ain’t to come together; sabe?”

“I guess so. You tell him I’ll be there.”

Rawls nodded, turned his horse and rode away, while Blaze went down to the stable. Jules found him saddling his horse, but did not ask where he was going.

“Which one of Marsh’s gang was that, Jules?” asked Blaze.

“Rawls. Pretty damn’ bad hombre, Blaze.”

“Marsh seems to specialise in that kind. I’ll probably be late in gettin’ back, Jules.”


In the meantime Jane and Harry Kelton came to Medicine Tree, and Cultus met Jane in a store. She nodded and smiled at him, and he stopped to talk with her.

“Did you find your horse?” she asked.

“Well, I ain’t exactly found him yet, but I’ve still got hopes. How’s yore father?”

“Not very well. Dad is having a lot of trouble with rheumatism, and he don’t get around very well. He worries an awful lot.”

“About the sheep?”

“Oh, I suppose; and other things.”

“Uh-huh. I was out at the Circle M to-day, Miss Kelton.”

Her eyes clouded quickly and she turned back to the counter.

“I had a long talk with Blaze Nolan,” he continued, “and I’m of the opinion that he’s been handed a tough deal in Painted Valley.”

Jane turned quickly.

“Did Blaze Nolan ask you to say this to me?”

“No, ma’am! Blaze Nolan ain’t that kind. He don’t ask odds of anybody; it was merely my opinion.”

“Then I guess your opinion is all wrong, Mr. Collins; and we won’t discuss it any further.”

A clerk came to take her order and she ignored Cultus, who went outside. He sat down on a bench and rolled a cigarette. The two horses from the JK ranch were tied in front of the store, but Cultus surmised that Harry was across the street at the War Dance Saloon.

The streets of Medicine Tree were not lighted, except what little illumination they received from lighted windows. A few minutes later Jane came out. She did not see Cultus, as she halted at the edge of the sidewalk, as though waiting for Harry to join her.

Finally she stepped out to her horse and tied her few packages to the saddle. Cultus saw a rider pass the lights of a window farther down the street, and as this rider came within the illumination from the War Dance Saloon Cultus saw that it was Blaze Nolan. Jane had seen him too. Blaze rode on past them, into the lights of the hotel, where he turned sharply to the right, taking the road which led to the Triangle X. There could be no mistake about his destination, as that road did not lead to any other place.

For several moments after his disappearance Jane still stood there beside her horse. Then she quickly untied the animal, swung into the saddle and followed Blaze Nolan. Cultus got quickly to his feet. He had never been to the Triangle X, but he had seen the men who worked there, and he did not think it a safe place for any lady at night. After a moment of indecision he hurried across the street and down to the livery stable, where he quickly saddled his horse and took the road to the Triangle X.

It was less than two miles from Medicine Tree to the Triangle X ranch. Blaze did not hurry. He had no idea that any one was following him, nor did he have any fear of trouble with Marsh or his men. He knew that Kendall Marsh was cold-blooded in all his dealings, but he did not fear Marsh. But Blaze didn’t know what to do; so he decided to let things go according to fate.

Butch Van Deen met him at the doorway of the ranch-house. It was their first meeting since Blaze had refused to shake hands with Alden Marsh.

“Lookin’ for yuh,” said Butch shortly, and stepped aside to let Blaze walk in.

Kendall Marsh was seated on an old couch, smoking a cigar, while near the fireplace sat Della, the dance-hall girl from the War Dance Saloon. Blaze looked sharply at both of them as Marsh motioned him to a chair midway between them. Butch stopped near the door, while Mac Rawls squatted on his heels beside the door which led to the dining-room.

“Well, I’m glad to see you again, Nolan,” said Kendall Marsh.

“I wonder how much truth is in that statement?” smiled Blaze.

“We won’t argue about that. I had to come out here to find where you were. I guess the sheriff didn’t think it was worth while to answer my telegram.”

“It wasn’t his fault, Marsh; I offered to notify yuh. But I didn’t.”

“You left my house rather suddenly that night, Nolan.”

“Yeah, I shore did. Why not? I thought mebbe you was dead, and I’d have stood a lot of chance with the police.”

“That’s how I guessed it,” smiled Marsh. “No, I don’t blame you, not for that. But you know who fired that shot, and you’re going to tell me who it was.”

Blaze shut his jaw tightly.

“Oh, yes, you are,” said Marsh slowly. “You’ll tell me who shot me, or I’ll send you back to the penitentiary.”

You’ll send me back?”

“I’ll swear that you shot me, Nolan.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I’ve always heard that you was crooked, Marsh; but I never knew you’d stoop to bein’ a cheap liar. You know damn’ well I didn’t shoot you.”

“Well, I know damn’ well you know who shot me.”

Blaze shook his head slowly.

“No, yo’re bluffin’, Marsh; you don’t know. I got out of there as quick as I could, and I didn’t stop to try and find out who did shoot yuh. In fact, I wasn’t a lot interested in the shootin’.”

“Glad I got shot, eh?”

“Not glad, Marsh; just indifferent.”

Marsh smiled grimly. He was not used to dealing with a man who spoke honestly. “You knew it was some one from Painted Valley,” he stated.

“No, I didn’t know that either. I felt that you had made enemies in other places. I don’t know who shot yuh, Marsh; and if I did, I wouldn’t tell yuh.”

“Still backing up Painted Valley, eh? And after the deal they’ve handed you! Blaze Nolan, you’re a fool.”

“Yeah, I suppose I am.”

“Harry Kelton or his sister shot me.”

Blaze started slightly, and Marsh laughed.

“I’m no fool,” said Marsh easily. “I have ways of finding out things. And you’ll find that out pretty damn’ quick, if you try to double-cross me. Either Harry Kelton or his sister heard what we discussed that night at my home, and you know it, because you was the one who told them you were out of the penitentiary and had a meeting with me. Nolan, you had them hide in my house and listen to my plans.”

Blaze laughed at Kendall Marsh, and Marsh’s eyes blazed with anger.

“Don’t deny it,” warned Marsh. “You delayed meeting me until you were sure they had plenty of time to reach Los Angeles. Harry and Jane Kelton left here mysteriously a week or more before you came to my place, and they got back here a few days afterwards. Under that balcony the police found three sets of tracks—two men’s and a woman’s, and one set was yours, Nolan. Oh, there’s plenty of evidence.”

“Why didn’t yuh have ’em arrested?” smiled Blaze.

“Lack of legal evidence at the time.”

“Don’t bluff, Marsh. You built that all up after yuh came here.”

Blaze turned and looked at Della.

“So yo’re one of Marsh’s spies, are yuh? That’s how yuh happened to be at the meetin’ at the JK. I wondered what you was doin’ there.”

“Yes, and you stopped her from gettin’ important information for me,” rasped Kendall Marsh angrily.

“Kinda low down ain’t it, hirin’ women to do yore dirty work? I suppose you was the one who paid her to get out of town ahead of my trial, and you’ve probably paid her a salary ever since.”

Kendall Marsh got to his feet, his fists clenched. Blaze saw Butch Van Deen shift his feet a little and his right hand dropped near his holstered revolver. The woman merely laughed harshly.

“I’m giving you one chance, Nolan,” said Marsh coldly. “You’ll tell us where to find that Lost Trail, and you’ll tell us right now, or you’ll never leave this room alive. I’m tired of you. I saved you from a stretch in the penitentiary, and I gave you a chance to make some easy money, but you’ve double-crossed me in every way. Now, you’ll talk; and, damn you, you’ll talk fast.”

Blaze knew that Marsh meant every word. One more killing would not bother him. But Blaze was not afraid. From where he sat he could see Butch Van Deen and Mac Rawls. He did not think that either of them could draw quicker than he. Marsh might have a gun, of course.

“So yuh aim to put me out of the way, eh?” drawled Blare. “If I don’t tell yuh where that Lost Trail is, you’ll kill me; and if I do tell yuh, I’ll never get out alive. I can see yore game, Marsh. Three to one, and not countin’ the lady. All right; you say the word. Yuh may get me, but some of yuh go along with Blaze Nolan!”

Marsh laughed hollowly.

“You are not considering the two loads of buckshot just behind you.”

Blaze did not turn quickly. But it came to him in a flash that they would not kill him until they were sure he would not tell them where to find the Lost Trail. Then he turned his head. Just behind him was an open window, and over the sill protruded the two barrels of a shotgun, pointed square at him.


Cultus approached the Triangle X cautiously. He could see the light through one window, but he did not know the lay of the land; so he dismounted and came on toward the house, circling away from the open window.

He went around the house, searching for a window where he might overhear what was going on in there. He moved in close to the house, sidling along in the dark, and almost ran into Jane Kelton, who was leaning against the wall near another half-open window. There was enough illumination for Cultus to recognise her clothes.

He backed slowly away to the kitchen door, which was barred. Then he went back around the house to the window where he had first seen the light. It was very dark out there, and always a danger of making a noise in that unfamiliar terrain. But he went cautiously to the corner of an angle in the wall.

Ten feet beyond him and around the corner was the window, and as Cultus leaned out for a glimpse, he saw the dark bulk of a man, leaning in fairly close to the window, with the lamplight shining on the breech of a double-barrel shotgun, which the man had slid across the window sill.

He could hear Marsh talking to Blaze about the Lost Trail, but he could only hear an occasional word. Cultus slid his gun loose slowly. He had an instinctive hatred for any man with a sawed-off shotgun. The man’s back was turned toward Cultus, and he seemed intent on what was going on in the house.

Then he heard Blaze’s drawling voice:

“Three to one, and not countin’ the lady. All right; you say the word. Yuh may get me, but some of yuh go along with Blaze Nolan!”

Cultus took two cautious steps forward, as Marsh’s voice rang triumphantly: “You are not considering the two loads of buckshot just behind you.”

And then Cultus Collins took another step toward the window.

“You didn’t think we were fools enough to make it anywhere near an even break, did you?” asked Marsh. “I’ve had a man out there on the job ever since you came here to the house. It’s all in a day’s work with him. Now, you go ahead and talk! If you want a pencil and paper to draw a map, we’ll get ’em.

“I want full directions for finding that Lost Trail, Nolan. Your life don’t mean anything to me. When Kendall Marsh wants anything, he gets it. Think fast. I’ll give you thirty seconds to talk. And thirty seconds isn’t much. Ten of ’em are gone now; ten more are on their way. Ready to talk?”

Blaze’s face was white in the yellow lamplight, his muscles tensed.

“Twenty seconds gone.”

The woman covered her face with her hands, and Butch Van Deen laughed harshly.

“Five seconds more.”

Blunk! It was a queer sound. The two barrels of the shotgun jerked upward, came a terrific concussion—darkness.

Both barrels of the heavy shotgun had sent their loads of shot into the big lamp, which illuminated the room, and the whole house shook from the concussion.

Blaze threw himself full length out of the chair, landing on his hands and knees. The woman screamed and fell over Blaze. Some one else stumbled into him, and he struck them with the barrel of his gun. A revolver lashed out a streak of fire, but it was not pointed in his direction.

The door flew open, and Blaze went out, like a quarterback going through a hole in the line for a touchdown.

Bullets were flying promiscuously, but Blaze headed for his horse. He saw Della swing on to her saddle, but the horse whirled wildly and flung her to the ground. Blaze didn’t know why he ran to her. She was one of Marsh’s gang, and in no danger, except for an accidental shot, but he ran to her in the dark, swung her up in his arms and ran to his horse.

He swung her up to the saddle, mounted quickly, twisting her around in his arms, and rode wildly away down the road toward Medicine Tree. He was half a mile from the ranch before he slackened speed.

“I dunno why I picked you up,” he told her. “I reckon it was because you’re a woman. Now yuh can see how I stand with Kendall Marsh. He’d have murdered me, if somethin’ hadn’t happened to ruin his scheme. I reckon it’s war now; and if yo’re wise, you’ll keep out of it. You’ve done me all the dirt yuh can, anyway; so yuh may as well let up.

“I reckon I hit it when I told Marsh that his money sent yuh out of town ahead of my trial, and it was his money that kept yuh away from here. I never thought about that. But you won’t be any good to Kendall Marsh from now on; and you better watch yore own skin. God knows, I’ve no cause to worry about you—you paid liar; but yo’re a woman. I’ll drop yuh just outside Medicine Tree and you can walk in. And you can tell Marsh what I said.”

The woman did not say a word, and Blaze wondered if she had been hurt when the horse flung her in the dust. Anyway, it was no concern of his, he decided. Two hundred yards away from the end of the main street, he let her slide to the ground, and without another word he rode swiftly down the main street of the town, and out the way that led to the Circle M.

Harry Kelton saw him ride through, and recognised him. But Harry wasn’t interested in Blaze—he wanted to find Jane. He was sure she had not started for home alone, but he mentally kicked himself for staying so long at the War Dance. He had searched all over the town for her, and was about to leave for the ranch, when he saw Blaze Nolan ride through.

He stood on the edge of the sidewalk for several moments, debating what to do, when he saw a woman coming down the sidewalk toward him. She was limping a little and walking slowly, and as she came into the lights from the store window, he saw it was Jane. She was dusty, and one sleeve was almost torn from her dress.

“For God’s sake, what happened to you and where have you been?” he demanded. “Jane, yo’re a mess! Look at yore clothes. And where’s yore horse. Talk, can’tcha?”

“Give me a chance,” she said weakly. “I don’t know where my horse is, but he’s probably still out at the Triangle X. He threw me off out there, and Blaze Nolan mistook me for another woman. He brought me back to town on his horse, without knowing the difference, Harry.”

“Blaze Nolan—the Triangle X? What do yuh mean, Jane? Are yuh crazy?”

“Maybe I am, a little.”

“But what on earth were you doin’ out there? I’ve hunted all over for you.”

“Can’t we both ride your horse? I can’t go back after mine. There was a lot of shooting out there at the Triangle X, and I—I want to talk with dad. Who is this coming?”

It was Cultus Collins. He rode up to the front of the store and dismounted, whistling softly. He saw Jane and smiled at her as he removed his big hat, and they saw a smear of blood across the back of his left hand.

“Still shoppin’?” he asked pleasantly, and then he saw the dusty and torn condition of her clothes.

“It shore is dusty in this country,” he smiled. “I picked up a brown mare, wearin’ a saddle. I think she’s got a JK brand. I wasn’t sure who she belonged to; so I tied her at a hitchrack at the far end of town. I didn’t want to get arrested for stealin’ horses, yuh know.”

“Where did yuh find her?” demanded Harry quickly.

“Oh, jist around somewhere. Good night.”

He went out to his horse and led it down the street to the stable.

“Was Collins out there?” Harry asked his sister.

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll bet he was; he’s one of Marsh’s spies.”

“I guess we better go home,” said Jane wearily.

“I guess so. But what were you doin’ out at the Triangle X, and what was the shootin’ about? Is it a secret? And what woman did Blaze Nolan mistake you for?”

“For that woman he was supposed to have fought Ben over.”

“Oh, she was out there, eh? More mystery!”

“I suppose so. My, I skinned my arm when I got thrown!”

“Are yuh sure Blaze didn’t recognise yuh?”

“No. Let’s go home, Harry.”

“Don’t feel very good, eh?”

“I feel great. If I didn’t still have sand in my throat, I’d sing.”

And while they rode back to the JK, things were not so pleasant at the Triangle X. Terry Ione was laid out on the couch, with a cold water compress on his head along with a lump the size of a goose-egg, where Cultus Collins’s six-shooter barrel had landed with sufficient force to cause Terry to lose all interest in things.

Mac Rawls had a red streak across one cheek, where a bullet had narrowly missed ruining his face, and Kendall Marsh had a bullet scrape across his right elbow, which caused him considerable pain.

Della was still there, unhurt, but willing to go back to Medicine Tree as soon as possible. The room smelled strongly of kerosene from the smashed lamp, and bits of glass were scattered around the floor.

“This was a hell of a failure,” stated Kendall Marsh glumly. It was about the tenth time he made such a statement.

“Yeah, that’s a cinch,” agreed Van Deen. “We had him all ready to talk, too. Now, it’s too late—he’ll never talk. But who hit Terry?”

Terry didn’t know. He saw a lot of stars, and that was all the information he could offer. He didn’t even hear the shotgun go off, but he had a skinned chin, probably caused by the kick of the weapon when his fingers convulsively jerked at the two triggers.

“Could it have been that damn’ Injun?” wondered Marsh.

“Jules Mendoza?” asked Van Deen. “That’s about who it was.”

“I hope it was. If it was any other Painted Valleyite, they probably heard more than I’d care to have ’em hear. One of you better escort this woman back to town. She’s been scared out of ten years’ growth.”

“I’m all right,” said Della. “I fell over somebody in the dark.”

“So did I,” complained Mac Rawls. “I reckon it was Nolan, because whoever it was they almost busted my right shin with somethin’.”

“Well, what’s to be done?” asked Marsh. “What can be done?”

“You’ve lost yore chance to twist any information out of Nolan,” declared Van Deen. “He’ll be wild as a hawk now. Probably throw in with Painted Valley.”

“They don’t trust him, Butch. He’s in a tough spot himself. The best thing he can do is to leave the Valley.”

“The same to you and many of ’em,” said Mac Rawls painfully. “You’re settin’ on dynamite yourself, Marsh. If I was in yore place⸺”

“That’s about all out of you, Rawls; I’m runnin’ my business.”

“Runnin’ is jist the right word—runnin’ it to hell and gone.”

Van Deen stepped in quickly and told Rawls to drop the subject. He left the room, and Marsh snorted with disgust and anger.

“Don’t blame Mac,” said Van Deen. “He’s lookin’ out for himself. The men are willin’ to take orders from you, but they won’t run their necks into a rope for what you’re payin’ ’em. This shore is a ticklish business right now, and if Painted Valley ever breaks loose, we’ll all go over the hill.

“You was foolish to try and put somethin’ over with Nolan. He’s no fool; and right now he’s dangerous. If it was the Injun who hit Terry over the head, there’s nothin’ to worry about, because that Injun ain’t very well liked around here; but if it was somebody else, and they heard what was said⸺”

“This is a fine time to accuse me of foolishness,” complained Marsh. “You thought the idea was a good one.”

“After you was so damn’ sure that Nolan would cave in and tell what he knew.”

“Most anybody would, with a shotgun against their back. It wasn’t my fault that somebody hit Terry over the head. Nolan would have told.”

They argued a while longer, and Marsh decided to go to bed.

“Well, I’m going back to town,” said Della.

“Want me to go with yuh?” asked Van Deen.

“Just get my horse for me, Butch.”

“I guess you better leave the country,” said Marsh angrily.

“Yes?” Della lifted her pencilled eyebrows. “And where will I go, and who pays the freight?”

“I’m about through paying the freight.”

“You are, eh?” Della laughed shortly. “That’s fine. But just remember that you haven’t started yet, Marsh. I don’t know where the Lost Trail is located, but I know other things.”

And Marsh swore viciously as Della and Van Deen went out to their horses.

“If you see Alden in town, bring him back with you, Butch,” he called, but Butch did not answer. He muttered something about dry-nursing a wolf pup, and Della laughed.

“I didn’t know you were going to ride with me, Butch.”

“I’d rather ride to town than to set there and quarrel with him,” he replied.

“Well, I won’t quarrel with him,” she said coldly. “If he thinks I’m a fool, he’s crazy.”

Blaze Nolan rode through Medicine Tree, intending to go back to the Circle M ranch, but when he was half-way there, he swung his horse around and rode back. The more he thought over how close they came to murdering him, the more angry he became. He wanted to meet some of them on even terms, and he had a feeling that some of them would come to Medicine Tree that night. Just now Blaze Nolan was a potential killer.

He tied his horse to the War Dance hitchrack and went into the saloon. Alden Marsh was in a poker game, half drunk as usual, and Hank North was bucking a roulette wheel. There was no sign of Della, and Blaze decided that she would not appear that evening. He went over to the roulette wheel, and Hank moved aside to give him room.

Hank merely glanced sideways at Blaze and went on playing. Blaze felt sure that Hank did not know what had happened at the Triangle X that night, or he wouldn’t appear so unconcerned about it. After losing a few dollars, Blaze went over to the bar, and a few minutes later Cultus came in and joined him.

“Well, what do yuh know?” asked Cultus pleasantly.

“Not much,” seriously. “How are you, Collins?”

“Pretty good. In fact, if I was any better, I’d have to be tied.”

They talked for a few minutes, and Blaze had about decided to go on to the ranch when Della and Butch Van Deen entered the saloon from the rear door. Blaze stared at Della, but she paid no attention to him. Her clothes were clean and there was nothing about her to indicate that she had been thrown in the dirt.

Butch did not look towards Blaze and Cultus. He talked with Della for a few minutes before she went upstairs, and then went to the roulette game where he spoke to Hank North. Hank shrugged his shoulders, glanced towards the poker table, where Alden Marsh was playing, and turned back to Butch.

It was evident that Hank was telling Butch how small the chances were to get Alden out of the poker game, and Butch evidently agreed with him. Without looking toward Blaze, Butch turned and walked from the rear of the saloon.

Blaze frowned thoughtfully, told Cultus good night and walked from the saloon. He crossed the street and hurried down to a point across from the livery stable, where he stood and watched Butch ride in, leading a saddle horse, which he turned over to the keeper, and then rode back toward the Triangle X.

“I guess I’m gettin’ kinda loco myself,” mused Blaze, as he went up to his horse. “I bring her to town on my horse, and a few minutes later she rides her own horse in, and nothin’ to show she ever got dumped in the dirt. And I distinctly felt a big tear in one of her sleeves. This kinda hocus-pocus shore makes me paw my head.”

He climbed on his horse and headed for the Circle M.


For quite a number of years John Freeman had been cashier of the Medicine Tree Bank. Painted Valley had seen his hair turn from brown to gray during the years he had served them, and they knew him for an honest man. He lived simply and alone, never having been married. From one end of the valley to the other, he was known as “Uncle John,” as much a fixture of the bank as the faded gold-leaf letters on the window.

Just now John Freeman sat at his old desk, facing Jim Kelton, one of his oldest friends. It had been difficult for Jim Kelton to come to Medicine Tree, but he knew the cause was urgent.

“I know what you want, Jim,” said Freeman. He seemed to have aged greatly in a few months, and the blue-veined hands, which toyed with a pencil, were not steady.

“You know what I want, John?” queried Kelton.

“Yes, I know; you want to renew your mortgage.”


Freeman shook his head sadly, his fine old eyes turned away from his friend’s face.

“I can’t do it, Jim. I’ve had my orders. The bank has decided that Painted Valley ranch property is too big a risk; so we are not to renew any mortgages. I’m sorry. It isn’t like the old Medicine Bank to do a thing like that. We’ve always carried the folks along, taking the lean with the fat. But it’s different now.”

“Since Kendall Marsh got control, eh?”

Freeman sighed deeply, but did not deny it.

“If I only had the money, Jim; but I haven’t. The bank never did pay me a very big salary. It isn’t big enough to pay much. But it has been my job and my pleasure—until now. Now it’s just a job.”

“I’ve got about thirty days,” said Kelton slowly.

“Just about. Don’t you suppose you could place it with the bank in Broad Arrow?”

“No, John; not a chance. I owe this bank twenty thousand dollars, which I might pay, if I sold every head of stock I own. But I’d be flat broke and nothin’ to start on. Beef ain’t worth anythin’ now.”

“Sam Hawker was in yesterday.”

“Tryin’ to renew?”

“Yes. I had to tell him the same thing. Jim, it’s like slapping an old friend in the face; but what can I do? I’d give any of you the last shirt I owned. But shirts won’t save ranches.”

Jim Kelton hobbled out of the place, downhearted, although he knew what would happen. He had had plenty of warning. Jane met him down at the post office. She still limped a little and the back of her right hand was scratched. It was the second day after the trouble at the Triangle X, but she still felt the effects of that fall.

Her father shook his head at her, indicating that he had failed.

“I’m goin’ into the post office,” he told her.

“All right, dad. I’ve got a few things more to buy, and I’ll meet you at the buckboard.”

“Sure; that’s fine.”

Jane walked down to the general merchandise store and started to go in, when she met Blaze Nolan face to face. They both stopped short, looking at each other. Then Blaze stepped aside to allow her to enter the store, but she did not go in.

“So you really came back to Painted Valley, did you?” she said softly.

“Kinda foolish of me, Jane, wasn’t it? The last time I seen you, I wasn’t sure where I would go.”

“The last time?” She was looking closely in his face.

“Yeah; that last time. Wasn’t that the last time? I saw you in that street car, and I wondered if I’d ever see you again.”

“That wasn’t the last time, Blaze.”

“It wasn’t? I don’t remember any other time since.”

“The last time you saw me, you called me a paid liar and said I had done you all the dirt I could.”

Then she turned and walked into the store, leaving Blaze, his jaw sagging, looking after her. He leaned against the doorway, a perplexed expression in his eyes.

“Called her a paid liar,” he muttered. “Who’s crazy around here, anyway? Said she had done me⸺ My God!” His eyes snapped open wide and he stared into space. That was what he had told Della. And Della had come back with Butch Van Deen that night.

Jane had been at the Triangle X that night. He had mistaken her for the lady from the War Dance Saloon. He had held her in his arms all the way from the Triangle X, and had called her a paid liar. He tried to laugh, but it was only a grimace, as he reviewed the things he had told her on the ride.

But what was she doing out there, he wondered? Was she looking for another chance to take a shot at Kendall Marsh? Was it Jane who had hit Terry Ione over the head? He wanted to ask her all these questions, but was afraid to go back to the store; so he sat down on the sidewalk and watched her join her father and ride out of town on the buckboard.

After they had left town he sauntered up past the bank, where he found John Freeman standing in the doorway. The old man looked at him curiously.

“Hello, Uncle John,” said Blaze.

“Hello, Blaze.”

There was an awkward pause; awkward for both of them, because they had been friends. Then, “I heard you were back, Blaze.”

“Yeah, I’ve been back quite a while, Uncle John. How is everythin’?”

“Just going along.”

“Yeah? But not so well. I saw Jim Kelton come from here to-day.”

“Oh, yes; he come in to see me once in a while.”

“But you didn’t renew his mortgage.”

The old cashier stared at Blaze wonderingly.

“What do you know of these things?” he asked.

“I know that Kendall Marsh owns control of this bank, and that Painted Valley mortgages are not to be renewed.”

The old man nodded sadly.

“I guess your information is correct, Blaze; but I didn’t know it was public knowledge, yet. You seem to know considerable about the private affairs of Kendall Marsh.”

Blaze grinned knowingly.

“Yeah, that’s right. Me and Marsh are very familiar. In fact, we take shots at each other once in a while. It’s my turn next.”

He sauntered on up the street, leaving Freeman to stare after him and wonder what Blaze meant.

“Well, bless my soul!” exploded Freeman. “Taking shots at each other? This is rather a peculiar state of affairs, it seems to me.”

Cultus Collins was seated near the front of a restaurant, when Blaze came in, and Blaze sat down across the little table from him. Blaze was in rather a jovial mood, and Cultus wondered what had happened to him.

“Feelin’ pretty good to-day, eh?” he remarked.

“Better than I have for quite a while, Collins.”

“Shotgun medicine, eh?”

Blaze looked at him quizzically, wondering what Cultus meant.

“I don’t quite understand,” he said slowly.

“There ain’t two Blaze Nolans in this valley, is there?”

“No-o-o,” drawled Blaze. “One is plenty.”

“And if that last five seconds had ever been ticked off, there wouldn’t even be one.”

Blaze jerked forward, studying the homely face of Cultus Collins, who was smiling lazily back at him.

“Where were you?” whispered Blaze.

“I was behind the man who was behind the gun.”

“It was you, Collins? You hit him?”

“He had to be hit.”

Blaze took a deep breath and settled back in his chair, but his eyes still searched Cultus’s face.

“Collins,” he said slowly, “I don’t understand why or how you happened to be there, but God knows I’m grateful. You saved my life. In another second or two, that shotgun would have made mincemeat out of me. For once in his life, Kendall Marsh wasn’t bluffin’.”

“That shotgun didn’t sound like a bluff. Gosh, I shore was scared that it had killed somebody, but the light was out and I had a hunch that the loads had gone into the ceiling.”

Blaze gave his order to the waiter, who shuffled away.

“How did you happen to be there, Collins?” he asked.

“I saw you go through town, and I saw a lady follow yuh; so I followed her.”

“That lady was Jane Kelton?”

“Oh, you knew she was there, eh?”

“I found it out a few minutes ago, Collins.”

Cultus laughed softly and leaned across the table.

“I seen you pick her up, Nolan. I was close to yuh. I thought you knew who she was; so I brought her horse to town.”

“I thought she was that woman from the War Dance.”

“That shore was funny. Did she tell yuh what she was doin’ out there?”

“No; but I imagine she wanted to know just how damn’ low I had sunk.”

“Women are funny thataway.”


And Jim Kelton was thinking the same thing as he sat on the shady veranda at the JK that day and mulled over what Jane had told him. His daughter had heard much which had been said to Blaze Nolan at the Triangle X, and he felt his hatred of Blaze oozing away to a certain extent. Either Blaze was still loyal to the cattlemen of Painted Valley, or he didn’t know where the Lost Trail was located.

Harry came up to see him, still dusty from a long ride.

“I saw Tommy Simpson to-day, dad. Sam Hawker went out to the Triangle X to have a talk with Kendall Marsh, but Marsh has left the valley. The bank refused to renew Sam’s mortgage, and I guess Sam went out there to argue it out with Marsh. Tommy said that the gang out there acted kinda meek and mild, and Terry Ione is goin’ around with his head all bandaged up.”

“What do you think of Jane’s story?” asked his father.

“It looks as though Blaze Nolan wasn’t so strong with Marsh. Jane was a little fool to go out there, and I feel like kickin’ myself for givin’ her the chance; but you know Jane. Dad, I think she’s fightin’ for a chance to help Blaze Nolan.”

“Women are queer critters, son. But I can’t believe that Nolan carried her all the way from the Triangle X to Medicine Tree, without knowin’ who she was. And if this other woman has lied about him and done all them things against him, why did he pick her up and take her to town?”

“Jane spoke about that. She said Nolan told her it was because she was a woman.”

The old man nodded slowly.

“Some men are queer critters, too.”

“Tommy says Hawker is goin’ to round up his stock and see if he can’t save a little out of the wreck. It’ll break old Sam, and he knows it, but he swears that Kendall Marsh will never get the O Bar B ranch as long as he lives. Marsh owns the bank, the War Dance Saloon and the Triangle X, and he’s got the rest of us under his thumb.”

“And he’s pulled out of the valley, eh?”

“That’s what Tommy says. But that don’t mean anythin’, as far as our condition is concerned. Marsh can work from one place as well as another.”

“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. If Blaze Nolan won’t tell Kendall Marsh where the Lost Trail is located, we’re safe, as far as rustlin’ our stock is concerned, and if it come to a showdown, I’ll go broke before I’ll give up keepin’ cases on the Pass.”

That night Bad News Buker got drunk. Inaction palled upon him, and he looked upon the flowing bowl for inspiration. A bad example as an officer of the law, it is true; but Bad News was human, in spite of his job.

Then came Tommy Simpson from the O Bar B, and “Ole” Olsen, from the Bar Anchor. Ole was a huge, blond, open-faced sort of person, while Tommy was of medium height, with copper-coloured hair and a wide mouth. Ole’s laugh was thunderous in its capacity, and after a few drinks he was as gentle as a grizzly bear.

Bad News welcomed them to his one-ring circus, which made it a three-ring attraction, and they started out to put on a regular show.

“Thish is the time fer all good men to come to the aid of their party,” declared Bad News, after they had become sufficiently organised to appreciate their own worth.

“Motion made an’ carried,” stated Tommy. “We shall now procheed to shave the country. Ole, will you lead us in our openin’ shong?”

“Hold everythin’,” begged Oscar, the barkeep. “Don’t let Ole sing. My gosh, he shakes all the glasses loose from the back bar.”

“Ole,” said Bad News seriously, “has what I conshider a good voice.”

“It’s durable,” agreed Oscar, “but not musical.”

“That’s all accordin’ to yore ears,” said Tommy owlishly. “Fer my part, I don’t want it too damn’ musical. And who has a better right to shing. I’d crave to know? Wasn’t it one of Ole’s anchestors who dis-dischovered this wonnerful land?”

“What’s the joke?” asked Oscar.

“Th’t a fact,” agreed Ole. “He shore discovered America.”

“Hey!” snorted Oscar. “You ain’t no Eyetalian, Ole. Columbus was an Eyetalian, you big Swede.”

“Shore was; but he never discovered thish country. It was my grandfather, I tell yuh; old man Erickson.”

“Yore grandfather?”

“Sure as hell. My mother’s name was Erickson, and she married a Olsen.”

“Which makes you a Swedish cowpuncher in spite of anythin’,” said Tommy seriously. “But how about a shong?”

“With all that behind me, I could have been anythin’ I wanted to be,” declared Ole, his chest swelling visibly.

Tommy, as he reached for the bottle and helped himself to a drink, sang in a quivering tenor:

“Oh, man wants little here belo-o-ow,
But he never gets that much.”

“If Columbus didn’t discover this country, what did he discover?” asked Oscar, making a mental note that Tommy owed the house two-bits.

“He discovered how to make an egg stand on end,” said Tommy seriously. “It was a great boon to humanity.”

“Stand an egg on end?” Oscar was interested.

“Shore. Didn’t yuh ever see it done?”

“Aw, yuh can’t stand no egg on end.”

“All of which shows that you came from Yuma, Oscar. All it takes is practice.”

Oscar took a couple of eggs from beneath the bar and proceeded to try and stand one on end on the back-bar. Needless to say, he was unsuccessful. Alden Marsh came in and stopped between the bar and a poker table, possibly wondering what Oscar was tryin to do with the egg.

Alden was wearing a pair of robin’s-egg blue trousers, which were palpably new, as the creases were still sharply visible, although a trifle tight in spots. The newness of the trousers did not correspond with the rest of his raiment, which was far from new.

“Aw, there can’t nobody stand an egg on end,” declared Oscar, turning back to the bar.

“Can if yuh know how,” said Tommy. “Gimme the aig.”

Oscar passed one of them to Tommy, who drew up his sleeves in imitation of a magician. He placed the egg on end, holding it with the forefinger of his left hand.

“Now, you’ve gotta watch it close, Oscar. This is just a trick of balancin’, and it don’t stay on end very long.”

The fact of the matter was, Tommy was almost too drunk to even keep his own balance. Oscar hunched down behind the bar in close proximity to the egg, his eyes intent on the egg itself. And with a swift motion of his right palm, Tommy came down upon the egg with crushing force, and the contents of the egg just squirted out into the face of the interested Oscar.

He staggered against the back bar, one hand clawing at the mess on his face. It wasn’t an overly fresh egg. Then he drew back his right hand and flung the other egg at Tommy’s head, but his aim was poor, possibly due to his eyes being full of egg at the time, and the egg hit Alden Marsh square in the belt-buckle and sagged down in a yellowish mass over his robin’s-egg blue pants.

For several moments Alden Marsh looked down at his pants, a queer expression in his eyes. Then he sniffed audibly. The egg was probably older than the one Oscar was digging out of his eyes. Alden Marsh was just a little drunk, but not drunk enough to brook any such an insult. He reached for his gun, but too late; Tommy Simpson had jerked him sideways, throwing him off his balance, taken the gun and headed for the front door, while behind him went Bad News and Ole Olsen, whose grandfather had discovered America.

Alden Marsh was mad. In fact, he was so mad that he stood in the middle of the saloon and told the wide world all about Tommy Simpson, not considering that Oscar, the barkeep, had thrown the egg. Possibly he blamed Tommy for not getting hit with the ancient bit of hen-fruit. While the cursing didn’t hurt Tommy, who had faded from the scene, it served as sort of a blow-off for Alden. He bought himself a drink and considered the future.

The pants didn’t belong to him; they belonged to Terry Ione, and Terry wasn’t there when Alden took them. A nail in the corral fence had ruined Alden’s overalls, and there wasn’t another pair around the ranch; so he took Terry’s new pants. Robin’s-egg blue didn’t look well with that glazing of egg-yolk; it looked like a weak sunset in a midday sky. Alden sighed and decided to kill Tommy Simpson.

He tried to borrow a gun from the bartender, who didn’t own one, and then decided to try and find Tommy and get his own gun back. He thought Tommy might be a trusting soul. And while Alden went in search of Tommy Simpson, Terry Ione rode in to Medicine Tree. He wore the coat and vest of that Robin’s-egg blue suit.

Alden went to two other small saloons, looking for Tommy, and in each saloon he drank deeply; too deeply, perhaps. But he managed to forget the eggs so entirely that less than an hour later, when he met Terry in front of the War Dance Saloon, he had forgotten the incident entirely.

“H’lo, par’ner,” he greeted Terry jovially. “Whash on yore mind?”

Terry looked him over gravely. They were a queer looking pair. One with a robin’s-egg blue coat and vest, with overalls; the other with robin’s-egg blue trousers, slightly soiled, and an old, stringy vest and no coat.

“I’ve got a secret,” said Terry seriously. “C’mon where nobody can hear it, and I’ll let yuh in on it.”

“That’s great,” said Alden owlishly. “I hope it’s good.”

“If it ain’t, it’s my fault, feller.”

Alden travelled across the street like a boat in a heavy gale, but he reached the sidewalk in front of the Medicine Tree Bank. Terry led the way down an alley past the bank, while to his ears came the sound of doubtful harmony, rendered by Tommy Simpson, Bad News Buker and Ole Olsen, who were singing in Bad New’s little office just down the street:

“Old Man Lute was a gol darned brute,
And he couldn’t git his cattle up the gol darned chute;
With a hi and a yi and a hi-yi laddy o-aye.”

“I can hear shingin’,” declared Alden.

“Yea-a-ah; and that ain’t a marker to what yo’re goin’ to see, feller.”

Bam! And Alden Marsh thought somebody had thrown a lighted match in a car-load of fireworks. Terry could pistol-whip a man nicely, when he put his mind to it.


That same evening Blaze Nolan had made up his mind to ride out to the JK and tell Kelton the whole story of his alleged connection with Kendall Marsh. He intended explaining everything; but lost his nerve before he reached the ranch, and turned back to town. He heard the three men singing in Bad News’s little office, and guessed rightly that they were full of the cup that cheers.

He tied his horse in front of the post office and had just stepped up on the sidewalk, when there came a thudding jar which seemed to shake the buildings. It was not unlike a small earthquake. His horse swung nervously around, jerking back on the tie-rope.

The jar must have been considerable, because the singers had stopped in the midst of a cowtown song which had fifty verses and twice as many choruses. Wondering what had happened, Blaze went slowly up the street, starting past the front of the bank, when his bootheels crushed down on broken glass.

He thought he heard a muffled voice in the alley, and stepped back. It was pitch dark in that alley, but Blaze was so sure he had heard a voice that he started down there blindly. It was not a wide alley and was not over sixty feet long to where it opened out at the rear of the Medicine Tree Bank.

It was lighter there, and Blaze saw a man. At least it looked like a man, wearing white pants, and staggering around. Blaze went toward him, and was just opposite the rear door of the bank, when another man seemed to hurtle through the doorway, crashed into Blaze, who went to his knees, grasping blindly at the other. Came a thudding blow on the head, and Blaze went sprawling on his face, his two hands clutching some object, which he fastened on to in the crash.

The heavy jar had knocked the chimney off the lamp in Bad News’s little office, and had shaken them enough so that they realised something was wrong.

“Earthquake,” declared Bad News. “I’ve felt ’em lotsa times.”

“Nothin’ like it,” objected Ole. “That was dinnymite, I tell yuh.”

They went outside and looked around. Several men were out on the sidewalk in front of the War Dance, talking loudly over what it might have been. A man left the post office and started up the street, but stopped in front of the bank. After a few moments he came back down the street to where the three men were grouped in front of Bad News’s office. He was the blacksmith.

“One of the bank winders is busted,” he said. “Glass all over the sidewalk up there.”

He spoke loud enough for the men in front of the War Dance to hear it, and they strung out across the street, heading for the bank. This information seemed to sober Bad News immediately.

“C’mon!” he snapped, and started running up the street.

Cultus Collins had felt the jar in the hotel, and he came down to the street in time to join the crowd at the front of the bank. Speculations were rife, when he reached the crowd. Bad News tested the front door and found it locked.

“Let’s try the back door,” suggested some one, and the crowd filed through the dark alley.

The rear door of the bank was open, and a few feet away from it they found Blaze Nolan, lying flat on his face. He had been hit over the head, but was regaining consciousness. Clutched in his hands was an old gunnysack, which Bad News took away from him, by the light of matches, and they found it heavy with a mixture of gold, silver and currency.

No one made any comments. Dangling the bag of money on one hand, Bad News led the way into the dark bank. Some one found a lamp and lighted it. The vault of the Medicine Tree Bank was merely a big safe, and now its formidable front door hung drunkenly open from a heavy charge of explosive.

“Don’t touch anythin’,” advised Cultus. “Send somebody for the bank officials.”

“That’s right,” agreed Bad News. “Somebody go after John Freeman.”

A man ran out through the rear.

“F’r Gawd’s sake, look what we’ve got here!” exploded Tommy Simpson.

It was Alden Marsh, a smear of blood down one side of his face, sitting limply in a chair. He was minus his pants and one boot. His eyes stared blankly at the lamp, which was held in front of him.

“Can yuh beat that?” wondered Ole. “The robber wasn’t satisfied with a gunnysack of money, so he took Marsh’s pants and one boot.”

“What were you doin’ in here?” asked Bad News.

Alden mumbled something unintelligible and licked his lips.

“Where’s yore pants?” asked Tommy.

“It was a secret,” whispered Alden foolishly.

“He’s been popped over the head,” said one of the men. “Look at the knot on his cranium.”

Bad News went outside again, where Blaze was sitting up, and helped him to his feet. Blaze seemed a little hazy and paid no attention to Bad News’s questions. He staggered a little as he came in with Bad News, and sat down in a chair beside Alden Marsh.

John Freeman came a few minutes later and surveyed the wreck. The safe had been looted completely; not even a scrap of paper remained. He got up from his examination and looked around the room.

“Here’s the sack of money, John,” said Bad News.

“I guess we better count it right now,” said the old man.

Some one held the lamp, while he dumped the contents out on a table and made the count. Much of it was packages of currency, and, with the rolls of coin, it did not require long to check it all over.

The total was a few dollars over sixteen thousand. They dumped it back on the gunnysack.

“I think that is about what was in the safe,” said the old man.

“Then he didn’t get away with anythin’, eh?” grunted Bad News.

“Nothin’—except the stocks, bonds, mortgages and all the rest of the papers in the safe.”

The men looked curiously at each other, but nothing was said. “What do you know about this, Blaze?” asked Freeman.

“I know I got hit,” said Blaze painfully. “I felt the shock of the explosion, and I walked on glass in front of the bank. Then I thought I heard somebody down the alley; so I went down to see who it was. I saw a man with white pants, and about that time I got hit.”

“Did the man with the white pants hit you?” asked Bad News.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then where in hell did yuh git the gunnysack with all that money?”

Blaze stared foolishly at him.

“You had a gunnysack, which contained sixteen thousand, Blaze.”

“I did? Where did I get it?”

“How did I get here?” asked Alden Marsh.

“I suppose somebody swatted you, too, eh?” said Tommy Simpson.

Alden looked down at himself curiously.

“I’ve lost m’ pants!” he grunted.

“At least yo’re sober, for once in yore life,” said Bad News.

“You better send to Broad Arrow for the sheriff,” Freeman advised Bad News.

“Yeah, that’s true. I guess I better go after him myself. Will you take charge of the money, John?”


Judging from appearances, the door of the bank had been opened with the delicate aid of an axe and a crowbar. The lock and one panel of the door had been ruined.

“No use trying to repair it to-night,” said Freeman. “There’s nothing in the bank to attract another robber.”

No one suggested holding Blaze or Alden Marsh. Bad News was only too glad to head for Broad Arrow and notify the sheriff. Cultus went with Blaze to the hitchrack, but neither of them discussed what had just happened.

“Come out and see us, will yuh?” asked Blaze.

“Sure thing, Nolan; so long.”

Cultus went across the street to the War Dance Saloon, where everybody was trying to decide on just who had robbed the bank. Alden Marsh had gone home, minus his pants, and still a little hazy over it all. But he was sober now.

Cultus tried to find out how Marsh lost his pants, but no one seemed to know. But Cultus did find out that the impression was becoming general that Blaze Nolan had robbed the bank. Not that he had done it alone, because of the missing papers, but that he had either been injured in the explosion and had fallen unconscious outside the door, or that his accomplice had knocked him down and failed to take the sack of money.

“Blaze will be in jail inside of an hour after Buck Gillis gits here,” declared a cowboy. “Unless Blaze is wise enough to hit for the tall hills.”

“And him out on probation,” said another cowboy. “The way they’ll soak him will be plenty.”

Cultus went back to his room, inclined to believe that the cowboy had been right. But Cultus couldn’t shake the feeling that Alden Marsh was mixed up in the deal in some way; either Marsh or the man who had taken Marsh’s pants. And Cultus felt sure that Blaze would not be mixed up in any deal with Alden Marsh. And while Cultus debated the thing in his own mind, Terry Ione, clad in a full suit of robin’s-egg blue, bought drinks for a girl in the War Dance Saloon and wondered what he could use to take egg stain off his pants.

Instead of going after the sheriff, Bad News availed himself of the telegraph, and within less than an hour after the robbery, Buck Gillis received a wire, telling him some of the details and urging him to come at once.

Buck Gillis knew that Kendall Marsh was at the hotel; so he immediately told Kendall Marsh that his Medicine Tree Bank had been robbed. Together they caught a freight train out of there at midnight, and when they got to Medicine Tree they talked with Bad News, after which Marsh swore out a warrant for Blaze Nolan, hired a rig at the livery stable and drove out to the Triangle X.

Bad News was able to recite a fairly good running story of what had happened. He told them of finding Alden Marsh, minus his pants, in the bank, and how they had found Blaze Nolan and the sack of money just outside the door.

“Looks like Blaze had made another mistake, eh?” observed Marsh.

“I’d hate to think so,” replied Buck. “Mebbe he can explain.”

“Let him explain in jail,” said Marsh. “I’ll send him back to the pen so quick it would make your hair curl. Have him here to-morrow morning at ten o’clock, Gillis.”

“You ain’t runnin’ my office, Marsh. If I think the evidence is strong enough, I’ll bring him in. If it ain’t, I won’t. If you swear out a warrant, I’ll have to serve it, of course. And while yo’re talkin’ out loud about it, you better ask yore kid where he lost his pants.”

“You don’t think he’d rob his father, do you, Gillis?”

“I’m not sayin’ what I think. But I’m goin’ out to talk with Blaze in the mornin’.”

“Yes, and you bring him in, if I can get a warrant to-night.”

He managed to arouse a justice of the peace, who grumblingly wrote out a warrant for Blaze Nolan, gave it to the sheriff, and went back to bed. Buck cursed witheringly, berated Bad News, for want of somebody else to berate, and slept the rest of the night on a single cot with Bad News.

Cultus saw the sheriff leave town the next morning, but did not know his mission until he met Bad News, who told him about the coming of Kendall Marsh and the writing of the warrant.

“Do you think Blaze had anythin’ to do with that robbery?” asked Bad News. “It shore looked all twisted up to me. I can’t see head nor tail to it.”

Neither could Cultus. A little later on he talked with Oscar, the bartender, and Oscar told him about the eggs.

“What kind of pants did young Marsh have on?” asked Cultus.

“Kinda pale blue, I reckon. What do yuh reckon he done with ’em?”

Cultus didn’t know, but he wished he did.

“Sa-a-ay!” blurted Oscar. “I seen Terry Ione wearin’ the identical colour suit. By golly, he shore was. Pale blue.”

“Did Marsh’s coat and vest match his pants?”

“He didn’t have no coat. No, by golly, he didn’t have anythin’ on to match them pants. They was brand new. I ’member them creases down the front. Ain’t it funny how yuh remember things like that? Huh? That egg shore made a mess of ’em. You say there’s a warrant out for Blaze Nolan? Kendall Marsh, eh? Hope they don’t git him.”

The bank was closed, as far as business was concerned, of course, but John Freeman entertained the curious who went in to look at the smashed safe. Cultus went in and looked it over. It was not the work of a professional safe blower, although the job had been thoroughly done.

Cultus walked around the rear of the bank and through the alley, but if there had been any evidence, the crowd had obliterated it thoroughly. Freeman had made a fairly close check of the books, and stated that little, if any money, had been taken, and that the papers were only valuable to the bank itself.

The forenoon passed without any sign of the sheriff or Blaze Nolan, and Bad News opined that Blaze had taken to the hills, with the sheriff after him. It was a little after the noon hour, when Ole Olsen rode in from the Bar Anchor, and found Cultus and Bad News eating dinner at the Chinese restaurant.

Ole was almost incoherent. He gulped down a glass of water and rested his two big hands on the table in front of Bad News.

“I—I found Buck Gillis down the road,” he panted. “He’s dead as a monkey-wrench—shot!”

“You ain’t drunk, are yuh, Ole?” asked Bad News.

“No; you danged fool! I tell yuh, I found him—got a handcuff on one wrist. I tell yuh he’s dead, Bad News! I didn’t touch him.”

“Are yuh shore it’s Buck?”

“Got Buck’s clothes on and his star, and it looks like Buck. I didn’t ask him if he was Buck, you damn’ fool!”

“Must be old Buck,” said Bad News shakily. “I’ll get the doctor.” He started to walk, but broke into a run, while Ole sat down and reached for another glass of water.

“I never found a dead man before,” he said foolishly.

“Where was he shot?” asked Cultus.

“Down the road about a mile and a half.”

“I mean, where did the bullet hit him?”

“I didn’t look. Good gosh, I got off my horse and yelled at him, but he didn’t move. I seen the handcuff on his left hand⸺”

“Where’s his horse?” interrupted Cultus.

“Along the road between here and town. I didn’t bother with it.”

Cultus left his unfinished meal and hurried down to the livery stable, where he quickly saddled his horse. Ole carried the news to the War Dance, and there was quite a parade down the road to where they found Buck Gillis.

The doctor’s examination was brief. Buck had been shot twice, and either bullet would have killed him. The doctor was rather annoyed when Cultus insisted on helping him with the examination. On the sheriff’s left wrist dangled the handcuff, the other cuff being open and still containing the key. Cultus examined the wounds closely, but said nothing.

After they loaded the body in the doctor’s buggy, Bad News asked Cultus to ride with him to the Circle M ranch.

“Blaze got him cold,” said Bad News drearily, “and he’s prob’ly headin’ a long ways from here, but we’ll see what that danged half-breed has to say about it.”

They found Jules Mendoza and his two men at the ranch, but they either didn’t know anything about it or didn’t want to know. Jules said he didn’t know the sheriff arrested Blaze.

“Me and Tony Gibbs and Mex Skinner go ’way this mornin’,” he said. “Blaze stay here. We come back, Blaze gone. What happen?”

“The sheriff came here to arrest Blaze for robbin’ the Medicine Tree Bank last night, and Blaze killed him on the way to town.”

Jules thought it over for several moments. Then: “Too damn’ bad, eh?”

“And they’ll hang Blaze for this.”

Bad News turned imploringly to Cultus.

“Can yuh imagine that, Collins? I guess we might as well go back to town. Mendoza don’t know anythin’. Wait here while I talk to his two hired centipedes.”

Bad News went down to the corral, where he questioned Tony and Mexico. Jules shoved his hands inside his waistband, squinted thoughtfully at Cultus, and said: “You friend of Blaze Nolan?”

“No,” replied Cultus. “I didn’t know him well enough for that. You have to know a man a long time to find out if you are his friend, Jules.”

“I know Blaze long time. He’s my friend. You think Blaze rob bank?”

Quien sabe?

“He get much money?”

Cultus explained about Blaze being knocked unconscious, with the money in his hands, and by that time Bad News came back.

“Tony and Mexico don’t know anythin’,” he grunted. “I reckon they’re not lyin’; they wasn’t here. Let’s go back.”

As Cultus and Bad News mounted their horses Jules said to Cultus, “Come see me sometime, compadre.”

“Shore,” smiled Cultus. “We’ll habla Español, eh?”

Bueno esta. Adios.

Hasta luego.


Bad News was in a bitter frame of mind, as they rode back to town. He had been very fond of Buck Gillis. They had ridden the range together long before Buck had been elected sheriff.

“Yo’re the sheriff now,” Cultus told him.

“Yeah, I know it; but I’d rather have Buck. He was a square shooter, Buck was; and if I ever notch a sight on Blaze Nolan⸺”

Bad News didn’t need to finish his statement. They rode back to town, past the place where they had found Buck, but Bad News didn’t look at it. The town seemed greatly aroused over the murder, and Bad News was being advised on every hand just what to do; and he did just what everybody knew he should do—take a posse and do a lot of foolish riding over the hills.

He took Ole Olsen, Butch Van Deen, Hank North and Archie Lee. They rode back to where Buck had been killed and tried to pick up some kind of a trail, but without avail; so they trusted to luck and went east. Cultus would have advised going west, because of the fact that Blaze would probably head for the Lost Trail, in order to get safely out of the valley, and the Lost Trail must lie to the westward. But Cultus had not been considered in the matter.

Cultus loafed around the town that day. The blacksmith, by way of explaining ancient history, showed him where the killing for which Blaze had been sent to the penitentiary had happened—the place where Ben Kelton had been shot in an alley beside the War Dance Saloon. And Cultus figured out the area across the street where a bullet fired from the alley could possibly strike the side of a building.

It required considerable search before he found the bullet hole. It was in front of a store, the bullet barely buried out of sight in the weathered pine, and he removed it with the point of a heavy knife. Strangely enough the bullet was not badly battered, and to his experienced eye the calibre was evident. He put the bullet in his pocket and went to the general merchandise store, where he leaned on the counter and considered their stock of revolver ammunition.

“Do yuh have much call for .41 calibre stuff?” he asked the clerk, who was also the proprietor. The man looked over the shelf of cartridges and shook his head.

“Ain’t had no call for ’em for a long time,” he said, “and I don’t see any shells on the shelf. Yuh might git some down at Henderson’s place. He carries shells.”

“It ain’t a very popular gun,” admitted Cultus.

“Not around here.” He scratched his nose thoughtfully. “I don’t jist remember who had one of them .41’s; it’s been so long ago that I sold any.”

Cultus went down to Henderson’s store and inquired about them.

“Ain’t had none for months,” he was told by the clerk. “Didja try the Medicine Tree Mercantile?”

“They sent me down here.”

“Uh-huh,” thoughtfully. “Well, we ain’t got none. If I remember rightly, somebody out at the Circle M had a .41. Mebbe it was Mex Skinner. Anyway, it was one of ’em, and I’m sure it wasn’t Mendoza, ’cause he always buys .45’s. Yuh might borrow some shells out there, or I could order yuh some from Broad Arrow. They’d probably have some.”

“No, don’t bother, and thank yuh very much.”

“Yo’re welcome. Come in again.”

Cultus pondered deeply over this information. There did not seem to be any way in the world to connect Mendoza or either of his two men with the killing of Ben Kelton. The bullet was unmistakably a .41. Cultus had owned several of them, and the ammunition was familiar.

He went down and talked with the doctor, who was also the coroner, about the murder of Ben Kelton. The doctor was busy with the remains of Buck Gillis, but he stopped long enough to inform Cultus that Ben Kelton had been killed by two bullets, which had gone entirely through him, and that there was no way to determine the calibre.

“Yes, I remember seeing Kelton’s gun and also the one the sheriff took from Nolan,” he told Cultus. “Both of them were .45’s.”

Cultus thanked him and went away, no wiser than he had been before. Blaze Nolan had told him that he was sure he had heard one of the bullets strike the building across the street, and Cultus had been able to find only one bullet hole in the wall—made by a .41. One thing seemed pretty probable. Three .45 shots had been fired during the Kelton killing, therefore were not the other three shots fired all .41’s?

The posse came in about eight o’clock that night. Cultus went down to Bad News’s office, but the deputy was in bad humour.

“Rode the hoofs off our broncs for nothin’,” he said savagely.

“Didn’t yuh ever stop to think that if Blaze knows where that Lost Trail is located that he’d head for there. It would take him out of the valley.”

Bad News rubbed his dusty nose angrily.

“That’s right! Well, why didn’t yuh mention it before, Collins?”

“Well,” smiled Cultus, “I didn’t think a sheriff needed any advice from me.”

“Yuh didn’t? Well, yo’re all wrong. But it’s too late now, dang the luck!”

“Will they perform an autopsy on Buck Gillis?”

“A what?”

“An autopsy. Find out what killed him.”

“I don’t reckon there’s any doubt what killed him. You didn’t think he passed away from old age, didja?”

“I’d like to see them bullets, Bad News.”

“O-o-oh, yea-a-ah! Shore; I’ll have the Doc cut ’em out for yuh. Well, I’m goin’ to eat. Yuh ain’t et yet, have yuh? Yeah? Well, I’ll see yuh later, Collins. Goin’ to have the inquest to-morrow mornin’. Hell of a lotta good it’ll do. See yuh later.”

Cultus was in the War Dance Saloon, watching a stiff poker game at midnight. None of the posse were there; they were tired enough to go to bed early. A freight brakeman came in to get a glass of beer, and Cultus heard him talking with the night bartender.

“They shore had one big fire in Broad Arrow this evenin’,” the brakeman said. “Burned down one side of a street for three blocks, but they managed to control it. Courthouse, couple saloons, feed store and some vacant buildings. Pretty hot, while it lasted.”

“Burned the old courthouse, eh?” asked the bartender.

“Nothin’ left of it. Nobody hurt.”

“What started it, do you suppose?”

“Nobody seems to know. Them old buildings get pretty dry.”

Cultus smiled thinly. With the papers stolen from the Medicine Tree Bank, and the county courthouse a mass of ruins, there was left no evidences of any cow-ranch mortgages in Painted Valley!

Nearly every one in Painted Valley came to the inquest. Buck Gillis had been known by everybody in the county, and they wanted his murderer punished. Jim Kelton brought Jane to town. He didn’t realise what the burning of the courthouse meant, until he talked with Joe Brown and Sam Harker, who were in the same fix as Kelton. Harker had talked with a lawyer, who assured him that there was not a scrap of paper left to show that the Medicine Tree Bank had ever held a mortgage on the O Bar B.

Jim Kelton didn’t know whether to be glad or not. He was too honest to take advantage of the situation, and talked with John Freeman about it. Freeman was unable to tell him what to do, except that the bank could not hold him for anything, unless the stolen mortgages were recovered.

Kendall Marsh came to Medicine Tree that morning, boiling mad. He knew what it would mean to him, and he fairly stamped the bank floor while he argued with John Freeman over who had done this.

“Don’t try to tell me that the cattlemen didn’t do it,” he raved. “It wouldn’t benefit anybody else, would it? Steal the mortgages from the bank and then burn the records! I tell you, Freeman, the cattlemen of Painted Valley did it. The guilt lies between three men. Perhaps all three of them had a hand in it. One man helped Blaze Nolan rob this bank. Perhaps the same man set fire to the courthouse.

“My God, I’ll have all of them in jail before I get through with them. I’ll start a court action that will make this valley sit up and know who I am. I’ll sue every one of them. Somebody will go to the penitentiary for this.”

“It’s a very regrettable thing,” said Freeman mildly.

“Oh, it is, eh?” sarcastically. “It don’t seem to worry you any. I guess you’re through with this bank, Freeman. You’ve been among these cow-lovers so long that you’re as bad as they are. Draw what you’ve got coming and I’ll lock up the place. No use keeping open, even if the safe wasn’t smashed. These folks wouldn’t do business with my bank, anyway. All I wanted it for was to control those mortgages.”

John Freeman sighed, but did not raise his voice in objections. He felt that it was coming.

“I wouldn’t advise you to stay in town, Mr. Marsh,” he said quietly. “There is quite a feeling about you, and it wouldn’t⸺”

“I go when I please, Freeman,” coldly. “I could buy this damn’ town and still have plenty of money to build a dozen more.”

“To build a dozen more—perhaps. But the price of this one might be rather steep.”

“I’ll own it before I get through.”

Marsh locked the bank, climbed in his buggy and drove back toward the Triangle X. He didn’t need to consult an attorney to know that he could never collect on those mortgages, unless the ranchers were honest enough to pay, regardless of the mortgages. And Kendall Marsh was wise enough to realise that he had never done anything to cause these three ranchers to stretch their honesty to the breaking point.

Cultus listened to the inquest and heard the jury bring in a verdict charging Blaze Nolan with murdering an officer while in the discharge of his duty. The evidence was purely circumstantial, but who would ask for more? The sheriff served a warrant on Nolan for robbery; the sheriff is found dead beside the road, the warrant in his pocket, and the prisoner flown. The doctor testified as to the nature of the wounds, Ole Olsen testifies to finding the body, the justice who made out the warrant for Kendall Marsh, charging Nolan with robbery, testified to his part in the matter. It was all very simple.

When the inquest was over, all the male spectators and principals adjourned to the War Dance for refreshments, while the women and children went shopping or piled into their respective rigs to await the pleasure of their lords and masters.

Jane didn’t go to the inquest, and Cultus found her sitting in the JK buckboard, waiting for her father. She seemed very downcast; so he stopped to talk with her. Her eyes clouded when she heard the verdict of the coroner’s jury, and Cultus had the feeling that she still cared for Blaze Nolan more than any one thought.

“Do you believe he did these things, Mr. Collins?” she asked.

Cultus smiled grimly.

“He sure left plenty evidence, ma’am.”

Jane shook her head, her lips compressed tightly. Then: “He came here to work for Kendall Marsh. His interests were with Kendall Marsh; so why would he rob his employer? Not to benefit the cattlemen, surely. He would have no cause to do that.”

“It don’t look quite right, that’s a fact,” admitted Cultus. “I’ve got pretty well acquainted with Nolan, and he don’t strike me as a bad sort of a person. I’ve never heard him say a word against anybody around here—and I don’t think he cared much for Kendall Marsh, if what we heard that night out there was true, and I reckon it was.”

“Then you were out there?” quickly.

“I was the one who popped the shotgun man over the head.”

“Oh, I thought you were, but I wasn’t sure. But how did you know I was there?”

“I followed yuh, ma’am.”

Jane took a deep breath.

“Oh, I’m glad you did, Mr. Collins!”

“It worked out pretty good. And then Blaze Nolan brought you to town.”

“But he didn’t know it,” said Jane, colouring quickly.

“He does know it now. At that time he thought you was that woman they call Della.”

“I know it. She is the woman that Blaze fought my brother over.”

“The woman they say caused the killin’, ma’am.”

“Don’t you believe it?”

“Do you?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Ma’am”—Cultus leaned on the wheel and looked at her closely—“what would you give to have Blaze Nolan exonerated of all these charges?”

She stared at him wonderingly.

“Exonerated? Oh, that would be impossible. But I’d give”—she stared blankly at Cultus—“I’d give ’most anything. But there’s too many things against him—too many things to explain away.”

“There’s quite a lot,” he admitted slowly.

“And he ran away, you know.”

“Yeah—he’s gone.”

Jim Kelton was coming down the sidewalk, hobbling along with the aid of his cane. He smiled at Cultus, who offered to untie the team for him.

“You were there when they found Blaze Nolan at the back of the bank, weren’t you, Collins?” asked Kelton.

“Yeah, I was there,” smiled Cultus.

“What was yore impression of it? Do yuh suppose somebody knew that Blaze was goin’ to rob the bank, laid for him, knocked him down, but missed findin’ the money, when Blaze fell across it?”

“That’s a plumb new theory,” smiled Cultus. “Got the papers, but missed the money, eh? Worth thinkin’ about.”

“And what about Marsh’s son bein’ in the bank, minus his pants?”

Cultus laughed softly, but shook his head.

“I’d like to know, myself. But here’s another little theory. Suppose Blaze Nolan knew that somebody else was goin’ to rob the bank, tries to stop it, but gets knocked out, after he took the money away from him?”

Jim Kelton shook his head quickly.

“If Blaze Nolan wasn’t guilty, why did he shoot Buck Gillis?”

“Button, button, who’s got the button?” smiled Cultus. “Theories are of no value, Mr. Kelton. Friends will always find one to fit their particular views, while enemies will always find one to fit their views.”

“Are you Blaze Nolan’s friend?”

“Not yet; I haven’t known him long enough.”

“Huh!” snorted Jim Kelton, gathering up his lines. Jane shot Cultus a grateful glance, as they drove away, leaving him with a smile on his lean face. Finally he turned and walked down to Bad News’s office, where he found the lanky, sad-faced deputy seated at a table, making meaningless marks on a sheet of paper with a stubby pencil.

“I wish I knowed where Blaze Nolan is,” he said mournfully. “I’ve sent telegrams to every darned sheriff in the world, I reckon. Somebody ort to pick him up. I hope he resists. It’s a hangin’ job, and I don’t want no chore like that. The county is going to offer a thousand dollars reward for him, dead or alive. The bank is closed and Freeman has been fired. Kendall Marsh was here a while ago, and I reckon he was awful mad. I reckon his plans have kinda gone haywire lately.”

“I guess they have,” smiled Cultus. “In more ways than one. What will be yore first move in locating Blaze Nolan?”

“Gosh, I dunno! None, I reckon. What can I do? This is a hell of a big country to look for one man in. Nossir, I’m jist goin’ to set here and wait until somebody else sees him. I may be a fool, but I’m not goin’ to be a tired fool. I’ll tell yuh that. Some folks seem to think that the burnin’ of the courthouse at Broad Arrow had some connection with the bank robbery here.”

“They’re not blamin’ that on Nolan, are they?”

“I s’pose. Why, they’d blame him for a change in the weather. And,” sighed Bad News, “he’d prob’ly be to blame. The part that hurts the worst is the fact that before Blaze had any trouble around here, him and Buck Gillis was the best of friends. And then for Blaze to up and kill Buck! Well, yuh never can tell which way a dill pickle will squirt. I suppose he was willin’ to do anythin’ to keep from goin’ back to the pen again. Buck didn’t want to serve that warrant. He was mad about it. But he couldn’t help doin’ it, after Marsh swore it out. Gosh, I’m sorry I didn’t go with Buck. I wanted to, but Buck said he didn’t need me. And I didn’t think he did. Well, that’s the way it goes, Collins.”

“Didja ask the coroner to find them two bullets that killed Buck?”

“Shore. He said he would.”

“Who shoots a .41 sixgun around here, Bad News?”

“Nobody that I know about. Why?”

“I was just wonderin’.”

“Uh-huh,” thoughtfully. “Didja think Buck was shot with one?”

“No, I didn’t suppose he was, but I was a little curious.”

“Let’s go down and see the doctor; he might have ’em by now.”

They walked down to the office, and the doctor produced both bullets from an old china cup he had on a shelf. Bad News handled them gingerly. One was rather badly battered, but the other was almost perfect in shape.

“Forty-five,” said Bad News.

Cultus didn’t deny it, but asked the doctor if he had a pair of pliers, which were quickly produced. After considerable difficulty, Cultus managed to draw a bullet from one of his own cartridges, while the other two men watched him curiously. Then he inserted the bullet which had been removed from the body. It fit loosely.

“By golly, that’s a .44!” exclaimed Bad News. “I thought Blaze wore a .45.”

“I guess he shot a .44 this time,” said Cultus, as he handed the bullets to Bad News. “Lock these up, will yuh? We might need ’em.”

“What is your theory?” asked the doctor curiously.

“Of no value at all,” replied Cultus softly. “Yuh see, I liked him.”

“That’s the worst of bein’ a sheriff,” complained Bad News. “Yuh always find folks who are friendly to the criminal.”

“I thought you liked Blaze Nolan,” said Cultus.

“I do. That’s the hell of it.”

Later on that afternoon Cultus found Jules Mendoza and Tony Gibbs in Henderson’s store, but neither of them had much to say. They were purchasing a small bill of goods, and Cultus noted that Mendoza bought several boxes of .44 revolver cartridges. He wanted to ask Mendoza if any of his outfit used a .41, but decided not to, as there were several other men in the store.

It was about ten o’clock when Cultus decided to go to bed, and as he came in the little lobby of the hotel the proprietor handed him a sealed envelope, which was grimy from handling. On it was pencilled the name Collins.

“I dunno where it came from,” explained the man. “The first I seen of it, it was here on my desk. There ain’t no other Collins in this town; so it must be for you.”

Cultus thanked him and took it to his room. The enclosed sheet of paper was rather interesting. It read:

Collins,—Come to the mouth of Padre Canyon to-morrow. Can’t trust anybody else. Can tell you something you might like to know. Destroy this note at once, and come alone.


Cultus lighted a cigarette over the chimney of his lamp and studied the pencilled note, wondering what it was all about. The writing was clean-cut, no words misspelt.

“If that note is from Blaze Nolan, it shore ruins some of my pet theories,” he told himself. “It could have been left on the desk by Jules or Tony. And where is Padre Canyon, I wonder? I reckon I’ll find out if that’s Blaze Nolan’s handwritin’, before I poke my nose into any traps.”

He folded the note, shoved it deep in his pocket, kicked off his boots and blew out the lamp before he opened the window. Across the street was the War Dance Saloon, going at full blast, the strains of a fiddle and a jangling piano playing a rag-time; two cowboys trying to harmonise “Sweet Adeline” on the sidewalk below his window; blue moonlight and the deep shadows where a group of horses dozed at a hitchrack, and far to the west, where the stars seemed to be tumbling down, was Red Horse Pass etched clearly against the sky.

“The moonlight does knock off the rough edges,” muttered Cultus. “Sometimes I wonder why folks live in a place like this.”

And, as though in answer, came the voices of the two cowboys singing an old Southwest refrain:

“Just dust and heat,
One crooked street;
The houses ain’t very tall.
It’s grim and hard,
But I tell yuh, pard;
It’s home, sweet home, thasall.”

“I reckon that’s the answer,” said Cultus softly to himself.


It was noontime at the JK ranch when Cultus rode into the patio. Harry Kelton was drawing water at the well, and Jane was sitting in the shade of the porch, listlessly perusing an old magazine. Harry greeted Cultus cordially.

“Get down and rest your feet,” he invited. “Dinner must be almost ready. What’s the news from town?”

Cultus dismounted and let his horse drink at the trough.

“No news,” he replied.

“No trace of Nolan, eh?”

“I guess not. I saw Bad News sittin’ on the sidewalk in front of his office, whittlin’,” smiled Cultus.

“Might as well be, as far as any good he could do. I’ll stable yore horse for yuh.”

Cultus handed him the reins and walked over to Jane, who had put aside the magazine and smiled at him. He removed his sombrero and leaned against the porch, speaking softly.

“Miss Kelton, have you got a sample of Nolan’s writin’?”

She shook her head slowly, thoughtfully.

“No, I haven’t. Why did you want a sample of his writing?”

“I can’t tell yuh right now. Would yuh recognise it, if yuh saw it?”

“I don’t believe I would.”

“Uh-huh. Hot, ain’t it?”

He drew a huge coloured handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his lean face. And with the handkerchief came a folded bit of paper, which dropped beside the porch, unseen by Cultus. Harry Kelton was coming across the patio and happened to see the piece of paper. Jane turned toward the doorway, and Cultus stepped over to a washbench. Harry leaned against the porch, until Cultus finished, and then took his place at the washbench.

And as soon as Cultus went in through the doorway to the dining-room, Harry stepped off the porch and picked up the folded paper. It only required a moment for him to read it. His eyes narrowed as he put the paper in his pocket and followed Cultus in to the dining-room.

Jim Kelton welcomed Cultus warmly and asked for news of Nolan, but Cultus was unable to furnish him with any new information. They talked of cattle and of the Painted Valley. Harry was curious to know if Cultus had any trace of his stolen horse, but Cultus evaded the question. Cultus steered the conversation away from Blaze Nolan as much as possible, because he felt that Jane did not care to discuss him.

Cultus had found out the exact location of Padre Canyon before he left Medicine Tree. It was situated about two miles north of Red Horse Pass, but his information regarding its length and breadth was rather meagre. His informant, the hotel keeper, said there were quite a number of old cliff dwellings in Padre Canyon, especially on the south side, but that they were inaccessible and had never been investigated.

He rode away from the JK ranch shortly after dinner, and, as soon as he reached the first turn in the road, he swung sharply to the north, heading for the mouth of Padre Canyon.

And Cultus was barely out of sight when Harry Kelton handed his father the note which Cultus had lost. It was the note from Blaze Nolan. Jane didn’t see the note, but she heard her father read it aloud.

“Well, what’s to be done?” asked Harry. “It looks like a chance to catch Blaze Nolan, dad.”

“But you can’t do it alone. Collins is evidently a trusted friend of Nolan. You better ride to town as quick as yuh can, show this to the sheriff and let him take a posse. If Blaze is in Padre Canyon, they’ll need several men to get him.”

“All right. I’ll get down there as quick as I can, don’t worry about that.”

Harry ran out to the stable, threw a saddle on his fastest horse, and went racing down the dusty road toward Medicine Tree. Jane went out on the rear porch, where she watched Harry ride away. Ever since the day before she had wondered over Cultus Collins’s question: “What would you give to have Blaze Nolan exonerated of all these charges?”

Why would he ask her such a question unless there was a possibility of such a thing, she wondered. Did Cultus Collins have information which might exonerate Blaze? Were they working together on this information? Did Blaze have some information for Collins?

All these questions raced through her mind now. And if the posse caught Blaze now⸺

She turned back to her room, where she quickly donned a pair of overalls, boots, flannel shirt and a wide hat. There was no one to question her coming or going. Her father was on the upper verandah, watching the road to Medicine Tree.

She ran out to the stable, saddled Glory, the little brown mare, and headed due north. At a short distance she looked like a slim young cowboy riding a very swift little horse and going somewhere in a great hurry.

But Cultus didn’t hurry. He was taking plenty of time, because he was still a bit dubious about that note being genuine, and because he was going into an unfamiliar country. The travelling was very uneven, and at places the mesquite forced him to detour widely, but he finally reached the mouth of Padre Canyon, with its steep walls of coloured sandstone. The mouth of the canyon was about two hundred yards wide, with towering spires on either side.

The canyon was quite brushy, but nothing grew on those grim walls, which broke back like the turrets on a queer jumble of castles. Cultus halted at the entrance long enough to smoke a cigarette. The note had asked him to come to the mouth of the canyon, and here he was.

But the only sign of life was a circling buzzard, whose shadow passed and repassed over those broken walls. There was no chance for Cultus to have been mistaken in the canyon. He rode in farther and halted again. From here he could look up at the south wall, where overhanging cliffs threw shadows over what Cultus decided were the old cliff dwellings.

But still there was nothing except the circling buzzard; not even the call of a bird to break the silence. Then he heard a sound behind him. He swung his horse around quickly. It was Jane Kelton on her brown mare, following the tracks of Cultus’s mount.

He waited for her to come up to him, not knowing who she was until she was only a short distance away.

“You haven’t seen him?” she asked quickly. Cultus shook his head, wondering how she knew where he was and what he was looking for.

“You lost that letter and Harry found it,” she explained. “He’s gone to town to get the sheriff and a posse.”

Cultus felt in his pocket for the letter, but it was missing.

“I—I didn’t want the sheriff to find you,” she said wearily.

“Well, that was shore thoughtful of yuh,” he said, “but I ain’t found him—Nolan. You know what the note said?”

“I heard dad read it. Was that why you wanted a sample of Blaze’s writing?”

He nodded slowly, scanning the cliffs.

“Yeah; I wasn’t sure that he wrote it.”

“Who else would write it?”

And as if in answer to her question, came the thud of a blow, and Cultus’s horse buckled at the knees and went headlong, throwing Cultus to his hands and knees, where he sprawled foolishly, while the canyon walls echoed back the spang of a high-powered rifle.

Jane’s mare whirled wildly, almost unseating her, when a second bullet whined off a rock near her front feet and went skee-e-ing across the canyon. She swung the horse back, spurring viciously. Jane knew they were in a trap, but she was game. Cultus was on his feet now.

“Get on behind me!” she yelled. “Glory will take us out.”

Cultus came running, but before he could get up behind her the brown mare’s left hind leg buckled under her and she went to her haunches, pawing wildly. Jane threw herself free as the mare went over backward, but the fall dazed her for a few minutes.

She heard the crash of Cultus’s revolver. He was on his knees beside her, the smoking gun in his hand, his lips a trifle white.

“I had to do it,” he said tensely. “Her leg was busted.”

“Glory?” whispered Jane.

“Yeah. They got my horse cold. Don’t move. That last shot came from the east. We’re under cover now, but there’s two men, at least, and they’ve got us trapped.”

Another bullet smashed through the mesquite, showering them with splinters of wood and leaves. Cultus shook his head dubiously.

“That’s too close. I’m a fool not to have packed a rifle. Might have known it was a trap.”

“Who is it?” asked Jane nervously.

“I dunno. Golly, I don’t see why you didn’t stay home. Wasn’t any use of you gettin’ hurt.”

“But I had to come, don’t you see. If Blaze was here⸺”

“You wanted to warn him of the sheriff?”

“Yes. You spoke about something that might exonerate him, and I knew he’d never have a chance if the sheriff caught him.”

He looked at her curiously.

“You still think quite a lot of him, don’tcha?”

She nodded slowly and winced when another bullet whined over their heads.

“We’ve got to git out of here,” said Cultus. “They’re crossfirin’ this bunch of brush, and sooner or later they’ll kill both of us. If yuh ain’t afraid of a few stickers, we’ll do a little crawlin’.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said simply.

“Sneak in on my left side and keep down low. Mebbe we can fool ’em for a little while. Nose in the dirt, sister. Don’t try to look up, and crawl on yore elbows. Drag yore legs. That’s the stuff. C’mon.”

It was a slow process and painful. There were plenty of small cactus, and Jane discovered that nearly everything she crawled over had a sticker of some kind. Foot by foot they slid away through the sand. No bullets searched through the mesquite now.

“They know we’ve moved,” Cultus told her, “and they’re movin’ to a place where they can see us again.”

They made a hundred feet and flattened out behind some low bushes, while Cultus lifted his head in a vain endeavour to see the shooters.

He didn’t see them, but his effort was rewarded with a bullet, which threw sand in their ears.

“I reckon we better move on,” he grunted. “Keep lower than a snake.”

Two more bullets from the east, which scattered sand where they had been, assured Cultus that at least one of their assailants was not yet aware of their change of position. They were nearing the sheer sandstone side of the canyon now, and Cultus was looking for a place where they might make a permanent stand.

A hundred feet ahead was a break in the wall. It didn’t look exactly promising, but it might be better than out in the open. A shallow, angling washout gave them a little advantage, but one shooter had located them again. His first shot was three feet high, and bored a hole in the sandstone wall above them.

“Long range stuff,” panted Cultus. “If this washout continues, we might have a chance.”

They dragged their way along to the mouth of the fissure, where a little patch of brush gave them a few minutes of security.

“Gee, I never felt so big in my life,” panted Jane, as she stretched out flat on her back, rubbing her elbows, where the sand had cut the tender skin.

Another bullet struck near them, and she ceased rubbing. Cultus had been studying the fissure which seemed to run back for quite a ways, but seemingly without any angles behind which they might hide. As near as he could see, it was open to the top of the cliffs.

A bullet from the east settled the question.

“We’ll try that fissure,” he told her. “It might be a death-trap for us, but we’ve got to take that chance. Anyway, they’ve got to face us, and there’ll be no crossfire. When we start for the openin’, we’ve got to crawl real fast for a few feet. There’s some broken sandstone in there, but not enough to stop many bullets. C’mon.”

They went across that open bit of country like a couple of lizards, and into that fissure, while a bullet showered them with sand from a projection above their heads. Cultus saw where the bullet had scored the sandstone. He patted Jane on the shoulder.

“We’re all set until they get located again. That bullet came from the north, and it came on an angle that proves he’s got to change his position in order to shoot straight into this fissure. But if he ever does get the right position on them opposite cliffs, he can rake us at his own sweet will. And if they both get up there—good mornin’, Saint Peter.”

Cultus got boldly to his feet now and began moving back through the narrow fissure, which was barely wide enough for him to pass through. Jane came close behind him to a wider spot, where he drew her past him. The fissure extended about seventy feet to where it narrowed to not over twelve inches across.

Jane squeezed through for about six feet, where an unseen fissure broke in from the west. It was not over six feet in length. Her shout of gladness caused Cultus to twist his way through, thankful that he was thin enough to make it.

“By golly, this is great!” he exclaimed. “We’re safe for a while.”

“For all the while, you mean.”

Cultus shook his head slowly.

“We’re bottled up, thasall.”

“But the sheriff and his posse will find us.”

“Not a chance. We won’t know when they come, and they don’t know we are here. Them two bushwhackers will take it easy until after the posse has gone, and then they’ll cork our bottle.”

“Maybe we can get out after dark,” hopefully.

“Mebbe. Lotta mebbes about this deal. We don’t dare go back. Them fellers has got their seats for the big show right now, and we’d shore get punctured quick if we went back to the main fissure. It’s a case of⸺”

Cultus’s eyes had been exploring the fissure above them, and now he craned his neck for a better view. He squinted up that narrow fissure, looking up at the tiny streak of blue sky above them.

“Jane Kelton,” he said seriously, “there’s a way out of here, if you’ve got the nerve to tackle it. See them old niches in the wall? They’re on both sides. This fissure was the old cave dweller’s getaway. Are yuh game to go up the old timer’s stairway?”

Jane studied the precarious ladder, where a misstep would be certain death. High above was the jagged streak of blue, which marked the exit. It seemed a mile away, and the fissure no wider than her hand.

“It’s a chance,” he told her.

She was trembling a little, and her face was white.

“I—I don’t believe I could make it,” she faltered.

“I’d be right under yuh,” he said. “Yuh can lean forward against the end of the fissure. We can take off our boots, and it’s just a case of takin’ it easy and bracin’ against the walls. Them niches ain’t far apart. It’s our best bet, and I’d rather chance it than bullets. If you say so, we’ll stick right here and fight it out; but I’d shore like to have a chance to help Blaze Nolan.”

That settled it. Jane leaned against the wall and began taking off her boots, while Cultus whistled unmusically between his teeth and rolled a cigarette.


“Yuh say Cultus Collins lost this here note at yore ranch?”

Bad News Buker studied it thoughtfully, while Harry Kelton sat on his horse against the edge of the sidewalk in front of Bad News’s office.

“Padre Canyon, eh?” mused Bad News. “Blaze has information for him, eh? Wonder what in hell Blaze wants to tell him?”

Bad News lifted his eyes from the note and looked at Harry. “Might be a chance to grab Blaze, eh?”

“That’s what I thought, when I brought it to yuh.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“And Collins will be away from there before you ever get a chance to catch Blaze, if yuh don’t hurry.”

“That’s right. Wait’ll I get my horse, and you can go with me.”

“Why not swear in a posse?”

“Nope. If I can’t get him alone, I’ll never get him. All a damn’ posse is good for is to offer advice and kick about things.”

Harry was willing to ride with him, and they left town as soon as Bad News could saddle his horse.

“Collins must be in cahoots with Blaze,” offered Harry as they pounded along the road.

“I ain’t offerin’ any thoughts on the matter, Harry. Mostly always I’m wrong. I don’t sabe Collins no more than you do. Said he was here to find a stolen horse, but he ain’t looked for no horse; not that I’ve seen. I figure he’s just a lazy buckaroo with some money, and he’ll stick here as long as his money lasts. But don’t never git yore mind in such a condition that yuh might think for a minute that he ain’t forked. Pass all such thoughts, pardner, because that lean, hungry-lookin’ waddy is much man.”

“I ain’t choosin’ him for trouble,” grinned Harry. “What he done to Alden Marsh and Butch Van Deen was plenty warnin’ to me. I reckon they’ve laid off him since then. Seems to me that Alden Marsh is kinda layin’ off the booze lately.”

“Well, he ain’t such a familiar sight as he was for a while. Mebbe the old man has kinda blocked his parade. We better turn off here and head north, I reckon. Better travellin’ than it is farther on this way.”

“All right,” and they swung off the road. Then, “Who do yuh think helped Blaze rob the bank that night?”

“Pardner,” grimly, “if thinkin’ got me anywhere I’d be right where I started from. I reckon Buck Gillis hired me for a deputy because he felt sorry for the cows around here; and now I’ve got hoodled into the sheriff’s boots, which fit me jist like a sixteen collar would fit a rattler. I can crawl right through my job and never touch sides, bottom or top. Some of these damn’ fools around here seem to think that all you’ve got to do is pin a star on yore vest, and yuh immediate becomes wise as hell. Yeah, I’m wise, y’betcho; wise to the fact that I don’t know anythin’ about my job.”

“If yuh catch Blaze Nolan, you’ll have a reputation, Bad News.”

“Sure, I will. Then they’ll hang Blaze, won’t they? Uh-huh. And all my life I’ll think about it—think how damn’ easy I could have kept from catching him. Legal murder.”

“That’s queer talk from a sheriff.”

“Yo’re just like the rest of ’em, Harry. I may wear a star and have folks call me sheriff; but I’m jist Bad News Hennery Buker, the same as I was.”

“Then what are yuh goin’ out here for?”

“Keepin’ up appearances, I s’pose.”

“Meanin’ that yuh wouldn’t arrest Blaze Nolan?”

“You take that out and bury it, will yuh? Of course I’ll arrest him—if I catch him.”

“Buck Gillis wouldn’t hesitate to arrest him.”

“So I noticed. There’s Padre Canyon ahead. That note said for Collins to meet him at the mouth of the canyon, eh? Mebbe we better go kinda easy from now on.”

They angled their way silently along for the last quarter of a mile to the entrance of the canyon. Very little stock ever ranged in Padre Canyon, and it just happened that they struck the spot where both Cultus and Jane had ridden in. Bad News pointed at the marks in the sand.

“Tracks of two horses,” he said. “Look kinda fresh, too; and they’re both headin’ the same way. You keep an eye on the tracks, while I keep my chin up, ’cause this ain’t no place to get caught.”

They trailed in slowly, following the tracks. There was not a sign of life, not even the circling buzzards. The sun had passed the head of the canyon now, and the pinnacles threw their long, purple shadows across the depths.

“This damn’ place is like a tomb,” growled Bad News. “It always makes me feel how small I am. I’d like to take some of the big men I’ve heard about, and set ’em down in the middle of this place. I reckon God A’mighty made places like these jist to show yuh how danged insignificant yuh really are.”

“Whoo!” snorted Harry.

He was out of his saddle quickly, and Bad News was not far behind him. Almost blocking their trail was the body of Jane’s brown mare, and fifty feet away, piled on its head, was Cultus Collins’s horse.

Harry dropped on his knees beside the brown mare, while Bad News hunched down on his heels, scanning the surroundings.

“This is Jane’s horse and saddle,” said Harry in a hoarse whisper. “Been shot twice, Bad News. Broken hind leg and a bullet through its head. My God, what happened around here, anyway?”

“That’s Collins’s horse,” replied Bad News, pointing a lean finger at the animal beyond. “Neck busted square off. I reckon we got here too late for the party.”

“But what would Jane be doing here? She was at the ranch when I left there.”

Bad News wiped a sleeve across his sweaty face.

“Did she read that note?” he asked.

“No. Dad read it aloud, and she might have heard it. But what difference would that make?”

“Not bein’ a woman, and never havin’ been engaged, I’d hate to try for an answer on that one.”

“Do you think she came to see Blaze Nolan?”

“You know what I think about my own thinkin’, Harry. Let’s see what we can find around here.”

But the signs were not plain to either of them, because the ground was too hard to retain a footprint. They circled the horses, trying to pick up tracks, but the ground told them nothing; so they came back to their horses, where they stood and scanned the cliffs on both sides.

“Shore beats me,” said Bad News wearily. “I reckon we better hightail back to yore ranch and see if yore father knows anythin’ about it. If he don’t, we’ll get a gang of men and search the canyon. There’s somethin’ queer about this. Blaze Nolan ain’t the kind to invite a man to see him, and then bushwhack him.”

Harry took one last circle of the place, but was unable to pick up any tracks; so he came back to his horse and they rode out of the canyon. Bad News looked at his watch and back at the portals of the canyon, as he said, “We’re shore stuck for time. By the time I can get back to Medicine Tree and organise a searchin’ party and get back here, it’ll be dark. We’d look well, searchin’ Padre Canyon with a lantern.”

“We’ll see what dad knows, before we make it look too bad. C’mon!”


Cultus was a little dubious himself about that climb up the fissure in the canyon wall, but he realised it was their one best bet. He watched Jane prepare for the climb and was silent in his admiration for this young woman, whose face was white with fear of those dizzy heights, but who was willing to go ahead.

“I’m sure we can make it,” she said evenly.

“That puts us over half-way up right now,” he smiled as he tied their boots to the back of his belt. “There’s just one thing to remember; don’t look up nor down. Keep yore eyes on the wall in front of yuh, and remember that I’m right under yuh. I won’t let yuh fall.”

“All right.”

Cultus smiled grimly at her faith in his ability to save her in case of a slip. Those shallow niches in the walls of the fissure merely afforded a toe-hold and in case she fell, the odds were sadly against him being able to sustain her weight and his balance at the same time. It was sort of as though they were climbing up a chimney, less than three feet across; they could easily touch the wall in front of them, but there was nothing but empty space in back of them.

But they went up and up, staring at the blank sandstone wall before their eyes, feeling for the niches, testing each one carefully. At time the sand broke away at the edges, and they could hear it trickling to the bottom far below them. Sweat poured down their faces, but as they climbed higher a draught seemed to whirl past them from below.

They didn’t dare look down, and to look up would throw them off their balance.

“Rest,” ordered Cultus. “We’re half-way to the top, Jane.”

“Only half-way?” she whispered weakly.

“I think that’s pretty danged good, if yuh ask me.”

He could see her knees trembling under the strain.

“Yo’re the gamest woman I ever met, Jane Kelton. And when we clear Blaze Nolan, I’m goin’ to bring him up to this place and show him the kind of a woman he’s got.”

The knees stiffened a little.

“Up,” said Cultus softly. “Don’t try to hurry, and remember I’m right below yuh.”

“Thank you, Cultus Collins.”

“Yo’re welcome, Miss Cliff Dweller.”

Cultus watched her feet and tried to keep as close to her as possible. His legs ached from the strain of gripping, gripping all the time, his body tensed to take the shock, in case she slipped. He stole a look down the shaft and was appalled at the distance they had already climbed.

The niches were not over eighteen inches apart on each side. Some of them were six inches deep, which afforded a good footing, while others were barely deep enough for their toes to take a grip.

Lift and brace, lift and brace, feet lifting cautiously from one niche, groping, groping for the next niche; sand drifting down, elbows bleeding from scraping along the rough sandstone walls. Would the top never come? Her knees were trembling, toes bleeding through her worn stockings.

Then Jane stopped.

“Tired?” whispered Cultus.

“It’s the top,” she breathed. “The top, Cultus Collins.”

“Keep yore nerve,” he warned her, trying to look up. “There’s more niches in the wall. Don’t quit now. Keep goin’ as long as they last.”

Three more niches. She spurred her aching feet to grope for them. Cultus could see the end now.

“Grip yore right foot tight and hook yore right elbow over the edge. Put yore left foot on my shoulder. Don’t be afraid to brace yourself. Take it easy now. Can yuh lean over the edge? Fine! Lay out flat and wriggle.”

Cultus braced himself and waited until the pressure of her left foot was released from his back. His knees were weak as he cautiously clawed his way up to the top. He hooked his right foot, swayed to the right and sprawled beside Jane, who was still crumpled up on her face, crying softly.

Cultus relaxed for a while before he sat up to consider their surroundings. A shelf of sandstone blocked their view of the canyon. To the left was a series of natural sandstone steps, leading to another crevice through the rocks.

He unhooked their boots and put his on. There was little left of his socks, and the ends of his toes were raw and bleeding. Finally Jane sat up cautiously, her hands still gripping at the rocks. Her face was dirty from a mixture of tears and dust, and her eyes looked as though she had just awakened from a terrible nightmare.

“That shore was a climb,” Cultus said wearily. “Want to take a peek and see where we come up?”

She shut her eyes quickly.

“I don’t want to ever see it again. I don’t even want to ever climb a ladder again. I—I thought I’d never make it. Can’t I just stay here a while?”


“I don’t know. I’m just shaking inside, but the rest of me is just numb.”

“Well, let’s take it easy. I feel the same way.”

He rolled a cigarette, stretched out and relaxed.

“How are we ever going to get down?” she asked suddenly.

“I’ve been wonderin’ the same thing. We might have to go down the same way we came up.”

“Not me!” Jane looked at him wildly. “I’d starve first.”

“We won’t worry about that part of it. There must be other ways to get down.”

After an hour of relaxation, in which the sun had dropped below the western peaks, Jane managed to put on her boots, and they got to their feet. Her feet were swollen and very sore, but she hobbled bravely after Cultus, who was as badly off in that respect as she.

They went up the sandstone steps and through the crevice, where they came out on sort of a ledge, overshadowed by a projecting ledge, like the eaves of a huge dwelling. Under this ledge was the well preserved home of an ancient cliff dweller. Cultus had seen them before, but possibly not in such good state of preservation.

Fine dust was a foot deep on the hard-packed floor, where no moisture had ever reached it. But they were not interested in prehistoric dwellings just now; so they followed the sandstone trail to the west, where it forked, and then they followed the left-hand trail, which led up over a stretch of broken sandstone to another higher tier of dwellings.

Up here the dwellings were not as well preserved, owing to the fact that no ledge projected over their tops. They could not see the canyon, except by climbing to the tops of the dwellings, and neither of them felt like climbing any more that day.

They worked back to the east, following the old pathways, which were almost obliterated, but wondering where they led. It was getting late now, and they were both growing hungry. Jane was so stiff she could hardly walk, and when they came to the last of the dwellings she decided that her feet were too sore to carry her farther that day.

“I was shore hopin’ that there might be a way down from this end,” said Cultus, “but there don’t seem to be. Anyway, it’s too late to look any further. We’ll just have to make a dry camp, tighten our belts and wait till mornin’.”

“I’m just ready to drop,” confessed Jane, sitting down on a boulder of sandstone. “I’m hungry and thirsty, but I’m tired the most.”

Cultus nodded seriously. He was tired too.

“I reckon this place is as good as any other,” he said. “There ain’t a darn thing to bed down on, Jane. Use the ground for a mattress and the sky for a blanket. We’ll get in beside that sandstone wall, where the wind can’t hit us, and we’ll be all right.”

They talked of many things as the Arizona night closed down upon them, and the stars seemed to dangle against the tops of the higher cliffs. And then the moon came up to flood the world with a blue light. As far as warmth was concerned they were comfortable, but sandstone makes a poor bed, and they were hungry.

Finally Jane fell asleep. Cultus rolled another cigarette and walked out along the sandstone parapet. The world seemed unreal up there in the moonlight, which made the place almost as bright as daylight. Cultus was at a loss to know who had attacked them. He had been suspicious of that note, and now he swore at himself for being fool enough ever to have entered the canyon. The losing of the note was an accident.

His big problem now was to get down. He felt sure that Jane would never be able to negotiate a descent where they came up. Cultus was doubtful of his own ability to go safely down that funnel. At least, he was assured that nobody could or would follow them up that ladder, and that they had given up trying to find them by this time.

Cultus was sitting on the edge of that sandstone parapet, finishing his cigarette, when he saw something move below him; something which threw a heavy shadow against the blue-white of the broken rocks. That it might be a lion flashed through his mind, and he wondered how the lion ever got down for his hunting.

Then the thing came out in plain view—a man. It was quite a shock to see a man up there, and Cultus wondered if it was one of the men who had fired the shots at him and Jane. It was possibly a hundred feet from where Cultus sat to where the man stood, and between them was a yawning abyss.

Cultus sat perfectly still and watched the man. It was impossible to determine whether it was a big man or a small one. Finally the man started westward, disappearing behind the broken sandstone. Cultus slid back to the trail and went cautiously back, trying to see the man again.

After a while he again saw him. From his actions he was either looking for something or examining something. Cultus and Jane had not been along where this man was; so it was evident he was not tracking them. Finally he turned and went back the way he came. Cultus paralleled him back to where he had first seen him, and then the man disappeared, still going east.

Cultus went back to Jane and shook her by the shoulder. He had some difficulty in arousing her and making her realise where she was. Then he told her about the man.

“Is he looking for us?” she asked anxiously.

“Mebby he is, Jane; but no matter what he’s doin’, there’s a way off these cliffs, and we’re goin’ to follow him right now. We’ve got to go back quite a ways to get down to the level where I saw him. Can yuh walk that far?”

She got to her feet, every muscle protesting.

“If we don’t go too fast,” she said painfully.

Cultus led the way back to a place where they might climb down to a lower trail. They both walked like people with wooden feet. The twisting way seemed endless, and they tried to go cautiously. Finally they came to the spot where Cultus had first seen the man, but there was no sign of him now. Still that broken old trail continued, twisting around spires of broken sandstone, and always going down.

Cultus went first, six-shooter in hand, eyes strained to see any movement on the trail ahead, which began to be more steep, angling back and forth down the sides of the cliffs, but always masked from the canyon. They did not talk now. Every foot downward seemed to bring them nearer to the level of Painted Valley.

Jane did not complain; she was content to hobble along behind Cultus.

Suddenly he stopped and sniffed at the air. An acrid smell, something he had smelt before, but could not place now. Jane sniffed at the tainted air.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“I dunno. Smells familiar, somehow.”

They went on along the trail, which doubled back below the place where they had smelt the queer odour, and then continued well to the westward again.

Suddenly the whole world behind them seemed to erupt in one great explosion, which rocked the very cliffs. Cultus was knocked to his knees, but turned quickly and grasped Jane, who had been knocked against him. The air was full of sand and dust, and in a dazed sort of a way, they could hear the rocks falling down the canyon walls. Neither of them spoke for several moments. Jane trembled violently. Cultus sneezed rackingly.

“I know that smell now,” he told her. “It was a fuse burnin’; dynamite fuse.”

“But why the explosion?” breathed Jane. “What was it, Cultus? What does it all mean? Were they trying to kill us again?”

The sounds had died away now and the air seemed very still.

“I dunno,” he replied. “Let’s keep on goin’.”

They went on again, following the trail, down and down, until there seemed no end to it. And then it ended abruptly against a thick screen of mesquite. Cultus lighted a match and made an examination. Some one had gone around the right-hand side of the thicket. The marks of his boots on the soft ground told this much.

They followed him as well as they could. The moonlight did not strike down there. Then they came out suddenly on flat ground, the level of Padre Canyon. They could see the moonlight on the peaks and spires as they stood there hand in hand, looking foolishly at each other. Cultus looked back at the spot, wondering where their trail had been, but only the tangle of mesquite and sheer walls stared back at them.

But who had caused the explosion, and why, he wondered? Who would be dynamiting those cliffs at night? Who could be the man who⸺ Suddenly it struck him.

“Jane, do you know what we’ve done? We’ve come down over the Lost Trail! Just as sure as fate.”

“The Lost Trail? You mean, we’ve found it? But who⸺” She hesitated for a moment, and then whispered, as though afraid some one else might hear, “Blaze Nolan knew. Maybe he told Kendall Marsh where it was, and, for fear they might not give him a chance to tell us he dynamited it to-night, Cultus. Don’t you understand? Blaze Nolan has fixed the Lost Trail so that no man can use it again.”

“Well, that’s a good theory,” whimsically.

“Maybe he knew we were up there, and he waited until we got past the spot before he blew it up.”

“Yeah, he might have done that, Jane.”

But Cultus knew better. The man who had set off that blast had used enough slow-burning fuse to allow himself plenty of time to get off the cliffs, and the gods of luck had allowed them to get past the danger point before it exploded.

“Do yuh think yuh can stand it to walk to yore ranch, or will yuh wait here until I can get there and bring a horse?” he asked.

“I’ll walk. I can spend the rest of my life resting. But I’ll never close my eyes without seeing that cliff man’s ladder. I get weak all over when I think about it. That last ten feet was a nightmare.”

“It shore twisted my nerves,” laughed Cultus, “and I hope I’ll never have to do a thing like that again. Can yuh imagine the nerve of the man who cut them niches? Climb two and cut two, all the way to the top.”

They started toward the entrance to the canyon, limping along, avoiding the heavier brush. Suddenly Cultus halted and grasped Jane by the arm. Just in front of them, not fifty feet away, a man was mounting a horse; a tall, gray, ghost-like animal in the moonlight. It reared with him, as he managed to scramble on its back, and whirled wildly.

It was then that Cultus whistled a shrill note; the same note he had whistled at the Circle M the day he wanted to prove ownership of the tall gray animal.

The gray lunged wickedly, and the rider went sprawling in some low bush. Again came the shrill note, and the tall gray threw up its head, circling nervously. The rider gained his feet, and it must have been that he saw Cultus and Jane, because he scuttled down through the brush like a frightened rabbit.

“Amigo!” called Cultus sharply, and the gray horse came toward them, treading cautiously.

“Hello, compadre,” said Cultus, and the horse came willingly now. He came up close to Cultus, muzzling at him.

“Your horse?” queried Jane wonderingly. “The horse you had stolen from you?”

“This is Amigo, Jane; the horse of horses.”

“You recognised him in the moonlight?”

“Shore. I knew he was in the valley.”

“That’s wonderful, Cultus. The man was riding him bareback, too.”

“Playin’ safe. Yuh can identify a saddle, yuh know. C’mere and I’ll help yuh get on.”

“Will he ride double?”

“Amigo will carry all I put on him.”

The horse stood patiently until they were on, and then moved away slowly while Cultus kept a close watch. Once clear of the canyon, the horse swung into an easy lope down across the moonlit hills.


Cultus and Jane found an anxious group at the JK ranch. Bad News had brought Tommy Simpson, Ole Oleson, Sam Hawker, Archie Lee, Hank Norsh and Ed Brown to assist him in the search, and they were all sitting around the living-room, trying to figure out where to begin the search, when Cultus and Jane came in.

Cultus had asked Jane not to mention finding the horse, and they had tied Amigo behind the stable.

Bad News fairly exploded with relief when they came in. Jane went to her father, and he took her in his arms thankfully, while the crowd hurled questions at Cultus. But he didn’t need to tell it, because Jane was breathlessly explaining everything while the cowboys stood around, open-mouthed.

“Do you mean to tell me that you found the Lost Trail?” asked her father.

“I reckon it is,” grinned Cultus. “But I’ll bet it’ll never be any good to anybody now. That dynamite must have ruined a lot of it, and that trail won’t stand much ruinin’.”

“Look at my elbows,” said Jane. “My toes are all worn off, too.”

Bad News came around beside Cultus, his eyes serious.

“What do yuh know about that note Blaze Nolan sent yuh?”

“Do you think he sent me that note, Bad News?”

“That’s what I’d like to know.”

“Do you know of any reason why Blaze Nolan would try to kill me and Miss Kelton? And Blaze Nolan ain’t twins. Yuh must remember that two men were shootin’ at us.”

“That’s right. We’ll investigate Padre Canyon to-morrow.”

“That’ll be fine. I expect they’ll wait for yuh to show up.”

“Who do yuh reckon set off the dynamite?” asked Hank North. “We heard that blast plumb down in Medicine Tree.”

“I heard it here,” said Jim Kelton. “It was like thunder.”

“I should think they might have heard it in Europe,” laughed Jane, hugging her father again, before she went to her room to doctor her feet.

“Mr. Collins will stay here to-night, dad,” she said. “He needs some patching, too.”

“He sure does and will,” said her father.

The men accepted the food that the cook had been preparing, laughed over their coffee which had been prepared to cheer them on their search of Padre Canyon, and headed for town in far better spirits than they had when they came to the ranch.

“What is yore verdict, Collins?” asked Jim Kelton, when they sat alone in the living-room.

“Somebody has decided to put me out of the way,” smiled Cultus. “They almost made good to-day. They knew I liked Blaze Nolan, so they used him as the bait for their trap. We got out mighty lucky. In fact, we’re luckier than you can imagine. The stage was all set for a killin’, but somethin’ went wrong.”

“Why put you out of the way, Collins?”

“The man I came here after is a horse-thief and a murderer. I’m not sure who he is, yet. But he knows I’m after him. Kelton, the man who dynamited that trail, to-night, rode my stolen gray horse. He rode without a saddle, and the horse bucked him off when I whistled a certain signal. Yore daughter and me rode the horse from Padre Canyon to here, and he’s tied out behind yore stable right now.”

“Well, that’s a remarkable thing! Where did the man go?”

“Off in the brush.”

“Do you suppose he was one of the men who tried to kill you?”

Quien sabe?

“Well, that’s sure queer. Collins, where do you suppose Blaze Nolan has gone? He is undoubtedly in the employ of Kendall Marsh, and I’m wondering if he didn’t go over the range on that Lost Trail. He could hide somewhere around Marshville indefinitely.”

“I don’t think Blaze Nolan has ever left this valley.”

“That’s a queer statement, Collins. Why should he stay here?”

“He might not be able to get away.”

“You mean he’s afraid to show himself?”

“I can’t tell yuh just what I do mean. No, I’m not in cahoots with Blaze Nolan. I just figure he’s got the worst end of a deal, and I’d like to see him come out of it—clean.”

“How could he come out of it clean?”

Cultus eased back on the comfortable couch, squinting one eye as he looked at the ceiling.

“Suppose,” he said slowly, “that Blaze Nolan never killed yore son?”

The old man’s anger blazed up quickly.

“That’s foolish, Collins.”

“Sounds foolish to you,” corrected Cultus.

“Sounds foolish to anybody who was here at that time. If you had been here and heard that trial and heard all that was said, and⸺”

“The queer part was the disappearance of that girl,” interrupted Cultus. “Did you ever stop to consider that it was queer she wasn’t here to testify? Was there anybody to prove conclusively that yore son and Blaze Nolan fought over her?”

“Alden Marsh testified to it.”

“A drunken kid.”

“The jury and the judge accepted his testimony.”

“Did Blaze Nolan ever strike you as a man who would be engaged to a decent girl and then fight a gun battle with another man over a dance-hall girl?”

“Damn it—no! But facts are facts.”

“The testimony of a drunken kid is not always true facts, Kelton.”

“Oh, pshaw! Wasn’t Nolan found leaning over my son, a smoking gun in his hand? Don’t try to tell me that he was innocent. He had no defence.”

“I’ve heard all about that. After he was arrested, did you or any of his old friends go down to the jail and tell him yuh wanted to see him exonerate himself? Yuh did not. You glared at him through the trial, and said you’d like to hang him. Every damn one of yuh turned him down, pronounced him a murderer, even before his trial. You swore he was the worst wretch unhung. Kelton, you ruined his faith, and he didn’t want to fight back. That woman was gone, and she was the only person on earth who could prove that she was nothin’ to Blaze Nolan; that he didn’t even know her name.”

The old man shifted his gaze from Cultus and stared at the rug, his eyes half-closed. Somehow he had never looked at things in that light. He realised now that all of them had taken Alden Marsh’s word for everything. It couldn’t be undone now.

“It might interest yuh to know that the dance-hall girl is in the pay of Kendall Marsh, as a spy,” continued Cultus.

“Blaze Nolan is also in the pay of Kendall Marsh.”

“I happen to know that that ain’t true. Didn’t yore daughter tell you what happened that night at the Triangle X?”

“She told me what she heard. It was little enough. I don’t believe Marsh intended killin’ Blaze Nolan.”

“Prob’ly not. He just meant to have a man shoot him in the back with both barrels of a shotgun at ten feet. The trouble with some of you folks is the fact that when yuh make up yore minds, yuh stick to it. You made up yore minds that Blaze Nolan was guilty. I hope I don’t hurt yore feelin’s, but I’m goin’ to try and bust up yore perfectly good ideas. Now, I’ll go out and stable my horse.”

He walked stiffly from the room, and the old man’s eyes followed him curiously. Somehow, even with all his prejudices, he hoped Cultus might be able to accomplish it, but the possibility seemed so very remote that he felt sorry for Cultus.

Cultus’s feet were so sore that he could hardly hobble across the patio. He went out through the rear arch and made his way around behind the stable, where he stopped and leaned against the corner. Then he came back, went through the stable and came out. The tall, gray horse was gone again.


The next day they buried Buck Gillis in the little cemetery on the slope of a hill, where the sand-scoured old head-boards, each standing at a different angle, marked the last resting places of those who had gone down the long trail. As one cowboy plaintively remarked, “Even an Arizonan ort to be entitled to a little shade after he’s dead, ’cause he shore don’t git much while he’s alive.”

A preacher from Broad Arrow conducted the ceremony, an old friend of Buck Gillis. Buck had no relatives, but there were plenty of mourners among the women, who felt it their privilege and duty to cry a little over the funeral oration, even if they didn’t know Buck very well.

Cultus went to the funeral with Bad News. Mendoza and Tony Gibbs were there, and after the funeral Cultus asked Mendoza if he still had the gray horse at the Circle M.

“You not take heem away?” asked Mendoza.

“I did not.”

“Ver’ funny. I keep horse in corral, but bimeby, he’s gone. I’m t’ought you take away.”

Bad News wanted to know what horse Cultus was talking about, but Cultus didn’t enlighten him. Bad News stuck rather closely to Cultus, because he wanted to find out more things, and he had a feeling that Cultus knew who had done the shooting in Padre Canyon.

They found Butch Van Deen in charge of the War Dance Saloon. He told them that Marsh had taken it over, and that he was to run the place until Marsh could get the man he wanted.

Butch seemed civil enough, but Cultus didn’t trust him. Evidently Hank North had told Butch about the trouble in Padre Canyon, because Butch wanted to know more about it. Alden Marsh was there, drinking rather heavily and inviting others to drink with him.

“This place will go broke, furnishin’ free liquor to young Marsh,” said Bad News.

Butch shrugged his shoulders.

“That ain’t my lookout. The old man lets the kid do as he pleases.”

Cultus noticed that Della was rather prominent about the place, but seemed rather serious. He saw her refuse to drink with Alden, who sneered at her openly, but continued drinking.

Finally she sat down alone at a table, and Cultus worked his way around to her. She looked him over cynically, as he sat down beside her.

“How soon do yuh figure on leavin’ here?” he asked softly.

She looked at him queerly, wondering what he meant.

“Marsh is almost through with yuh,” he continued. “You ain’t been much of a success as a spy, yuh know.”

She blinked quickly, but her eyes hardened.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, yes, yuh do. And this is just between friends. Marsh is goin’ to double-cross you.”

“Ye-es?” More interest and less suspicion now.

“Yuh know. Marsh never plays a losin’ game. You think you can hold him up for more money, but yo’re all wrong. You’ve got the idea that you’ve got information he’ll pay yuh to keep to yourself. He will not. With his organisation, there’s plenty ways to stop your mouth.”

Della licked her dry lips and began fumbling with her bracelets.

“Just how much do you know?” she asked softly.

“I know plenty.”

“Are you working for Marsh?”

“Would you answer that question?”

“I guess not. But what’s your game, anyway?”

“That’s entirely my business.”

“Oh, I see. I suppose Marsh told you to scare me, eh? Does he think I’m going to beat it out of here without any money? You’re crazy and so is Marsh, if either of you think so. This is the first time I ever had a chance to pick up some real money, and I’ll get it or squawk.”

“Don’t ever let Marsh think for a minute that yuh might squawk.”

“I don’t care if he knows it. I get my ten thousand dollars, and then I’ll pull out. Not before.”

Cultus grinned to himself. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money, he thought. And just what did this dance-hall girl know that might be worth ten thousand to Kendall Marsh, he wondered? Then aloud, “He’ll never pay it.”

“Won’t he?” Her eyes flashed. “Oh, yes, he will; and be getting off pretty damn cheap at that. Oh, you can tell him. And you might tell him that I want the money right away. The ante jumps a thousand every day from now on. I’m no cheap sport, no matter what kind of a piker he is. Tell him what I said, and see where it hits him.”

Della got up from the table and walked away, leaving Cultus to look after her, a grin on his thin lips. She thought he was one of Marsh’s men, and he chuckled to himself. It was better than he had hoped, but he knew that the case required quick action. If Marsh did pay her the money, she would leave Painted Valley; and if he decided not to pay her, something might happen to Della.

Cultus soon left the War Dance, saddled his horse and rode out to the Circle M. Mendoza was friendly enough. He seemed as anxious as anybody to get news of Blaze Nolan. And he commented on the missing gray horse.

“Yuh don’t suppose Blaze got the gray, do yuh?” queried Cultus.

“Blaze Nolan never steal horse.”

“No, I don’t reckon he would. Yo’re a good friend to Blaze Nolan, eh?”

“Blaze Nolan my friend.”

Which was sufficient answer. He strolled up to the house and sat down in the shade of the adobe wall. Tony Gibbs came out and sat with them, while Mexico Skinner clattered pans in the kitchen. The Circle M didn’t hire a regular cook, but the men took turns in preparing their simple meals.

Cultus steered the conversation around to firearms, and they discussed the merits of different revolvers. Tony appeared well posted on such matters. He had tested the penetration of different calibres, and talked intelligently about them.

“Didja ever use a forty-one?” asked Cultus.

“Not very much good,” said Tony. “Not as good as forty-four and forty-five. The bullet hits hard, but don’t go so deep. Mebby it’s ’cause they make the bullet so blunt on the nose. I have one quite a while.”

“You got it yet?” asked Cultus.

Tony shook his head and grinned widely.

“Had pearl handles. Pretty gun, that one was, but it didn’t shoot good; so I traded it to Hank North, out at the Triangle X, for a good forty-five.”

Cultus grinned to himself. The trail was getting warmer now.

“Hank North likes a pretty gun, eh?” he asked.

“He said it would make a good tradin’ gun.”

“How long ago did yuh make the trade, Tony?”

“That gun? Oh, six, seven months ago. I don’t remember how long.”

“Have you known Terry Ione very long?”

Tony shook his head quickly.

“He ain’t been there long, and I never know him.”

“How long has he been there?”

“Three, four weeks. Hank North tells me he’s old friend of Butch Van Deen. I see him once in a while, but I don’t know him.”

Cultus did not stay much longer. He rode back to Medicine Tree, pondering over two things he didn’t know before; that Tony Gibbs had traded a forty-one revolver to Hank North of the Triangle X crowd, and that Terry Ione was a fairly new arrival in Painted Valley.

There was only one drawback to the forty-one bullet as evidence; it might be said that it might have been fired previous to the killing of Ben Kelton, or since, as far as that was concerned, by some over-enthusiastic cowboy, and the bullet lodged in the wall of the store. But Blaze had said that he distinctly heard the bullet strike the building, and that was the only bullet hole Cultus was able to find over there.

As for the shooting of Buck Gillis, the bullets which killed him were of .44 calibre, and Cultus was certain that Blaze carried a forty-five. This seemed to clear Blaze of the killing of Buck Gillis, anyway.

Cultus rode back to town, determined to find the present owner of that forty-one, and if possible to find out more about Terry Ione.

After Cultus left the War Dance, Della accepted several drinks. She seldom drank anything, and these few drinks of liquor made her reckless.

“What did that homely puncher talk to you about?” asked Butch. He had noticed that Della left him abruptly, after a conversation which looked very much like an argument.

“Somebody else trying to tell me my business,” she replied.

“Don’t let ’em,” he grinned.

She had started to walk away from him, but she came back.

“How long has this Collins person been working for Marsh?”

“Yo’re crazy; he never worked for Marsh.”

“I don’t think I’m crazy. You better ask Marsh. If Collins isn’t working for him, he knows a whole lot about things.”

“About what things, Dell?”

“I’m not mentioning anything, Butch; but he knows. Advised me to pull out.”

“Advised you to pull out?” blankly.

“Yes, me! Said Marsh wouldn’t pay me a cent, and that something might happen to me, if I didn’t get out. Don’t tell me that Marsh didn’t send him to scare me. But I don’t scare. Marsh will pay me what I ask, or⸺”

“Or what?”

“That’s for me to know.”

Della walked away from Butch, who leaned against the bar, trying to figure out what it all meant. He was sure that Cultus did not work for Marsh. There was something wrong somewhere, but Butch wasn’t sure just where it was. But he did decide on one thing—to get in touch with Kendall Marsh as quickly as possible. He was saddling his horse at the livery stable, when Cultus came in to put up his horse.

Butch started to say something, but changed his mind, and decided to see Kendall before doing anything else.

A little later in the afternoon Harry Kelton rode in, bringing Cultus’s saddle.

“I went out and got both of the saddles,” he told Cultus. “Tried to find where you folks came down that trail, but I didn’t find it.”

“Well, I’m shore glad to get my saddle,” grinned Cultus. “I’ve been ridin’ a hull that belongs to the stableman, and it shore didn’t fit me none to speak about. How’s yore sister to-day?”

“Still a little lame, and she get white around the gills, when she talks about the climb you folks took. Dad said to bring yuh out to have supper with us.”

“I’d like to do that.”

“That’s fine. You’ve kinda got the old man thinkin’ about things. Yuh know, he’s always been bitter as the devil toward Blaze Nolan, since that shootin’ scrape. I reckon we all have, as far as that’s concerned. Ben was dad’s favourite, and it almost killed him. But I reckon he’s thinkin’ about what you said out at the house, and we wants to talk more with yuh. Bein’ crippled the way he is, he’s got lots of time to frame up a hate against anybody, and he thinks you’ve got lots of sense. And Jane said she’d be glad if you’d come out, too.”

“That settles it,” grinned Cultus. “I’ll shore come now. If I was handsome and ten years younger, yore dad would have to sit on the front porch with a shotgun to keep me away. I think yore sister is the gamest girl I ever met.”

“Jane is a nice girl, Collins.”

“That don’t half cover it. Kelton, all I’ve got to do is look at her and I know dang well Blaze Nolan never done the things they accused him of doin’.”

“You don’t think he’s guilty? Man, yo’re crazy.”

“I reckon we’ve all got a bug of some kind, and that’s mine.”

“Well, yo’re all wrong. I suppose you’ll say he never killed Buck Gillis and escaped.”

“Want to bet he did?”

Harry laughed shortly. “Yeah, I’ll bet yuh any odds yuh want.”

“All right. I’ll bet yuh my dead horse in Padre Canyon against any live one in yore remuda.”

“That’s a bet, Collins. Let’s go and have a drink on it. This will be the first dead horse I ever won.”

“And the first live one I ever won,” laughed Cultus. “Most any one yuh select will be better than the one I’ve had to rent from the livery stable.

“Oh, I’ll lend yuh a good bronc. I’ve got a dozen out at the ranch, if yuh don’t mind forkin’ one that might do a little buckin’.”

“I’ll take him to-night, Kelton; and a little buckin’ is good for yore digestion. If he’s real good I’ll accept him as my end of the bet.”

“You ain’t serious, are yuh?” asked Harry.

“Never was more serious in my life.”

Harry shook his head as they went to the War Dance Saloon.

“I don’t sabe yuh,” he declared.

“Don’t let that get yuh down,” laughed Cultus. “Nobody else ever did, as far as that’s concerned.”

They found Alden Marsh still at the bar. He glared at Cultus, but said nothing. That one experience had cured him of taking chances with Cultus. But he stuck to his post at the bar, while they had a drink together. Oscar Link was still tending bar to help out Butch Van Deen, and when he offered to set up the drinks, Cultus declined.

“One drink is plenty,” he said. “I’m goin’ out to the JK for supper, and I want to be in a condition to enjoy all of it. This Chinese restaurant food has almost weaned me.”

Alden looked him over owlishly, his elbows hooked over the top of the bar. Finally he lurched away from the bar and walked unsteadily out of the saloon and Oscar snorted disgustedly.

“Fine specimen! ’F I had a son like him, I’d strangle the danged fool. Not a brain in his head. Guzzles whisky all day, tries to get smart with the girls, and give me to understand that his pa owns this whole shebang. Do yuh know, it would save money for the taxpayers, if he’d fall off his horse and break his fool neck? It would, for a fact.”

“How do yuh figure that?” asked Harry.

“Well it costs the county money to try somebody for murder, don’t it?”

“Then you think he’s due to go out on the hot end of a bullet, eh?” laughed Cultus.

“Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. Didja notice that Butch Van Deen is in charge here? Butch Van Deen knows as much about runnin’ this place as I do of runnin’ a church. He knows how to open the front door, and I know how to ring the bell.”

A few minutes later Cultus and Harry got their horses and headed for the ranch. Both Jane and her father greeted him warmly. Jane’s elbows were still in bandages, and he noticed that she was wearing a pair of old slippers, several sizes too large for her.

“I haven’t worn a boot since you were here last,” she laughed. “My toes are still raw.”

“You’ll have something to tell yo’re grandchildren about,” said Cultus. “They won’t believe it, but you can prove it by me.”

“That will be fine,” said Jane, blushing a little. “I only hope I can point you out to them.”

“Oh, I’ll still be wanderin’ around,” he laughed. Harry was as good as his word. He caught up a hammer-headed sorrel gelding, almost as tall as Cultus’s missing gray, and tied him to the corral.

“I won’t guarantee him not to buck,” said Harry. “He’s been ridden a little, and he’s bridle-wise, but if I remember rightly, he’s plumb sudden about swoppin’ ends on yuh.”

“As long as he sabes a bit, I’ll take a chance; and thanks.”

“I’ll accept the thanks now, and not wait until he piles yuh off in the brush.”

Cultus enjoyed his supper, and told them some of his experiences down along the border. He and Jane talked over their experiences in Padre Canyon, wondering if they could find the beginning of the Lost Trail, and speculating on who it was that dynamited the cliffs behind them. Blaze Nolan’s name was not mentioned during supper.

It was after they had gone to the living-room that Harry told them of the bet he had made with Cultus. Jane watched Cultus anxiously when he insisted that he had all the best of the bet. He seemed so serious over it that Jim Kelton studied him over the smoke from his old pipe.

“I can’t believe that,” said Jim Kelton. “No, it’s not because of any prejudice that I say you’ll never clear Blaze Nolan. The evidence was too strong against him. And more has piled up since he came back.”

Cultus smiled back at the old man, as the cigarette smoke lazily curled from his nostrils.

“Evidence is a queer thing, Kelton,” he said slowly. “I never did believe in circumstantial evidence. I don’t believe the courts should accept it. Lotsa things I don’t believe in. I don’t believe the law has a right to kill a man. They have no right to take away a life. ‘Thou shaft not kill’ applies as much to the law as it does to an individual. The Bible probably means that there will be a punishment for a murderer in the hereafter.

“When twelve men sift the evidence, evidence as it is presented to them by schemin’ lawyers who are able to fill their minds with just what they want to fill ’em with, what chance has an innocent man? It all depends on the lawyer. He can twist the biggest lie into gospel truth, and never lay a hair. That’s what he’s for. A prosecutor don’t care whether yo’re innocent or guilty. Yo’re his trophy. If he can send yuh to prison or to the gallows, he counts coup on yore scalp and ties it to his belt. Personally he may be the finest man on earth, but the minute he starts pilin’ evidence against yuh, he’s worse than any damned Apache that ever roamed this country. He out for yore blood.

“The evidence built up by yore prosecutor sent Blaze Nolan to prison. He took the word of a drunken kid and made gospel truth out of it. The court appointed a lawyer for Blaze, and that lawyer was a close friend of the prosecutin’ attorney. Blaze never had a chance. A good criminal lawyer would have torn Alden Marsh’s testimony to shreds.

“But I’m not goin’ on any of the testimony of that case; I’m goin’ on what I have learned since I came here. Blaze Nolan is nothin’ to me. Whether he’s workin’ for Kendall Marsh or not is nothin to me. I’m no detective. But”—and Cultus smiled widely—“I’m goin’ to win me a horse.”

“I haven’t a bit of faith in you, as far as clearin’ Nolan is concerned,” said Jim Kelton seriously “but if you can clear him of all these charges and fix the blame where it belongs, I’ll give you the best horse on the JK ranch.”

“If I keep on, I’ll have me a remuda,” laughed Cultus.

They spend the rest of the evening talking about other things, and it was ten o’clock when Cultus decided to go back to town. The old patio was flooded with moonlight when they went out to the corral. Jane wanted Cultus to select a gentle horse for his ride back to town, but Cultus had taken a liking to the tall sorrel, and insisted on riding him to Medicine Tree.

The animal punched nervously under the pull of the cinch, but Cultus used a heavy bandanna handkerchief for a blindfold, and the sorrel stood quietly after Cultus turned him around, facing the road to town.

“Get him pointed down the road,” laughed Cultus, as he shook hands with all of them. “Give me enough open country and I’ll make a horse out of him.”

He swung carefully into the saddle, settled himself in the stirrups and whipped off the blindfold. For a few moments the tall sorrel stood there, all muscles tensed, quivering.

Then he shot forward into the air, came down in a twisting buck, with his head between his knees, throwing a shower of sand against the patio wall. For several moments there was just a blur of horse and rider in the moonlight, as they bucked out past the ranch-house, and then the sorrel, discouraged in his initial attempt to dislodge this long-legged rider, went racing wildly down the road, while Cultus stood in his stirrups, hat in hand, his mouth open in a soundless cowboy yell.

Not since he had lost Amigo had he felt such a horse between his knees. He swung his hat down across the animal’s rump with a resounding smack, but there was no buck left, only speed. He sank his rowels up along the shoulder, but the animal merely snorted and increased its speed.

“Good boy!” grunted Cultus. “Runnin’ hawse from Painted Valley! Easy, tall feller!”

There was a sharp curve ahead, a mile from the JK. Cultus drew sharply on the reins, but the horse was what is commonly known as “cold-jawed,” and the pull meant nothing. Cultus swung himself far over to the inside of the curve, fairly lifting the animal around the curve, which was hedged on both sides by mesquite thickets, and as they came around in a lurching sweep, Cultus got a flash of two riders almost blocking the road.

He was into them so quickly that there was no time for him to straighten up or try to swerve the animal. A gun seemed to explode almost against his face, a jarring crash when the rump of his horse struck the shoulder of another horse. Came the flash of another gun, as Cultus’s horse went to his knees, sending a shower of sand and dust, turning almost around in the slide. But Cultus stayed with the horse, which came back to its feet so quickly that Cultus was thrown along its neck, almost losing his balance.

He was up in a moment, shooting swiftly at the indistinct shapes. A horse had been knocked down, and Cultus wasn’t sure where the rider was. The horse got to its feet and went galloping up the road, while the other rider spurred his horse in pursuit. Cultus had fired four shots, but with his horse rearing and plunging he was unable to shoot with any degree of accuracy.

Still breathless, dazed at the unexpected encounter, he swung the sorrel around and headed for Medicine Tree. Neither himself nor the horse had been injured, as far as he could determine.

“The gods of luck were with me that time,” he told himself. “Somebody knew I’d come along that road to-night, but they didn’t know I was ridin’ the tail of a rocket. That’s what saved me. And I was wonderin’ why on earth I was fool enough to fork a bad bronc in the moonlight. A hunch to do it! That’s the second time they tried and failed. Now it’s my turn. C’mon, tall feller; and a lot of thanks to the mare that foaled a runnin’ fool like you.”

The tall sorrel swung into a mile-eating gallop, and Cultus laughed at the moon. Death had struck at him again and missed.

“Some day I’ll take up book-keepin’, and drown in the ink,” he told himself whimsically. “Fate is fate, and yuh can’t dodge it.”

“You’ve got a reg’lar bronc, ain’t yuh?” grinned the stable-keeper, as Cultus dismounted. “Can he run?”

“He shore can, pardner.”

“Say! His knees are skinned a little. Did he fall with yuh?”

“No,” smiled Cultus. “He was kneelin’ to the gods of luck. But yuh might fix ’em up a little if yuh will. I’ll make it right with yuh.”

“Oh, I’d do that anyway; thanks just the same, Collins. They ain’t so bad. I’ve got some great salve for that kinda thing.”

“That’s great. Buenas noches.


“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Butch.”

Kendall Marsh had been drinking rather heavily, but now he shoved the bottle aside and looked quizzically at Butch Van Deen. There was only one lamp lighted in the Triangle X ranch-house. Hank North humped in an old rocker, while Mac Rawls sprawled on the old horsehair sofa, smoking a cigarette. Butch Van Deen leaned against the side of the fireplace, his thumbs hooked over his cartridge belt.

“Yuh don’t know what I’m talkin’ about, eh?” he queried. “You heard what I said, didn’t yuh?”

“You asked me if Cultus Collins is working for me. I don’t even know him; so that’s your answer. Now, what’s the idea of the question?”

“That’s kinda funny, Marsh. This afternoon Collins had a talk with Della in the saloon. I kinda kept cases in the way she acted, and I could see that she was sore about somethin’. They didn’t talk long before she left him; but she said somethin’ to him, and then went away for good, and I saw him kinda grin.

“A little later I got hold of Della and I asked her what Collins had to say. She wanted to know how long Collins had been workin’ for you, and I said she was crazy; that Collins never did work for you. And she jist the same as said I was crazy myself. She said that Collins knew too much not to be workin’ for you. And here’s another thing, Marsh; Collins told her that you would never pay her a cent, and warned her to pull out before somethin’ happened to her.”

Kendall Marsh stared at Butch for several moments. Then, “You’re not making up any of this, are you, Butch?”

“Makin’ it up? Hell, no! I’m tellin’ you what she told me. That’s why I came out here.”

Marsh poured out a drink for each man in the room, and they came to the table to get it.

“Well, here’s luck,” grunted Hank.

“Luck! We-e-ell, I guess I deserve some luck. I’ve had a lot of it lately, and it’s all bad. They’ve checkmated me in this damn’ valley; so I guess I’ll get out while the getting is good. I paid a fine price for that bank, and it’s a junk heap. I’ll have to pay off the depositors, and that leaves me holding the sack.

“The War Dance will pay dividends, I suppose, and this ranch isn’t a bad investment, but outside of that, I might as well have thrown my money in the ocean. Now, about this Collins person. What else do you know about him, Butch? Where is he from, and what’s he doing here?”

Butch rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He could still feel the weight of Cultus’s right fist, and he wondered if he would ever have a chance to even the score.

“He’s from down on the border,” replied Butch. “The bartender knew him in Yuma. He says he came here to find a stolen horse.”

Kendall Marsh laughed doubtingly.

“All I know is what I’ve heard,” said Butch defensively.

“So he knows too much, eh? How does he know anything? Who has talked?”

“None of the gang,” said Butch quickly. “We’re not the talkin’ kind. If anybody has talked, it’s yore own son. He drinks too much.”

“I don’t think he talked,” coldly. “He’s no fool.”

Butch shrugged his shoulders. He had ideas of his own regarding Alden Marsh.

“Do you think Collins was merely pumping Della?”

“I dunno. But I’ll bet he knows somethin’. Mebbe he was the one who slugged Terry over the head the night we had Blaze Nolan here. If he was, he might have heard somethin’. If he saw Della here, he’d know she was workin’ for you. If yuh ask me, I’d say it was a sucker trick to ever let her come back to Medicine Tree.”

“It wasn’t any sucker trick!” snapped Marsh hotly. “She came back of her own free will, damn her!”

“Tryin’ to nick yuh for some dinero, eh?” laughed Hank. “These wimmin shore do make life hard for yuh, Marsh.”

“Yeah, and she’ll nick yuh for it,” said Butch.

“I’ll be damned if she will!”

Butch shrugged his shoulders again. “Pick yore own spot to throw a fit,” he grinned. “I’ve warned yuh. Della is salty enough to stick for a good pot; and if she don’t git it⸺”

“What’ll she do?” quickly. “Go ahead—what she do?”

“Yuh couldn’t hardly expect her to tell me what she’d do, Marsh; but I’d pay her, if I was in yore shoes.”

“You would, eh?” Marsh poured himself a drink, downed it at one gulp and grimaced shudderingly. “And how much does she want?”

Butch grinned widely.

“Ten thousand dollars.”

“Don’t be a damn’ fool!”

“Go and ask her yourself, if yuh don’t believe it.”

“Does she think I’m crazy enough to—oh, that’s ridiculous! She didn’t tell you that.”

“Gospel truth. One thing yuh can say about her—she ain’t cheap.”

“Cheap! She’s crazy. I’ll change her tune pretty quick. You tell her to come out here to-morrow and I’ll talk business with her. If I ever get her out here, she’ll take what I give her. You might bring her out in the afternoon. And don’t let everybody in the town see you start, because it might be necessary for her to leave the valley from here.”

Butch hitched up his belt and rolled a cigarette.

“She’ll be disappointed at not gettin’ the ten thousand,” he said meaningly, and Kendall Marsh laughed.

“I guess you know what I mean, Butch. Let’s all have another big drink. And keep an eye on Alden, will you? I don’t think the kid would ever talk; but he’s drinking too much. I’ll leave it to you to handle him. What’s our alleged sheriff doing toward catching Blaze Nolan?”

Butch drank his liquor with a grin.

“He’s settin’ in his little office, waitin’ for Blaze to walk in and give himself up.”

“Don’t be too damn’ sure,” warned Hank. “Bad News and this Collins are pretty thick, and if Collins is hornin’ in on our business, we better watch both of ’em. Collins is no fool. When him and that Kelton girl rode in from the Padre Canyon the other night at the JK, and told what happened to them, I jist decided that Collins wasn’t anybody’s fool.”

“We’ll make him sick, if he fools with us,” said Marsh warmly.

“Oh, yea-a-ah!” sarcastically. “You’ve got to change yore luck, if yuh do. Leave it to Butch. He shortened Butch’s chin two inches with one punch. Where’s Alden and Terry to-night?”

“Medicine Tree,” growled Marsh. “Alden came out here drunk as a fool, and I bawled him out for it. I guess he got mad. Anyway, he and Terry pulled out for town, and they’re probably both drunk by this time.”

“I’ll send the kid home, if he’s sober enough to travel,” said Butch. “And to-morrow I’ll bring Della out.”

“Right!” snapped Marsh. “To-morrow afternoon.”

Butch Van Deen was not a brainy animal, but he did considerable thinking on the way back to Medicine Tree. He had lost a little of his faith in Kendall Marsh. Perhaps it was because Marsh had been drinking too much during the past few days. Marsh had always seemed so keen, deliberate, dominating; a man from a world which Butch Van Deen knew nothing about.

Butch had looked up to him, accepted his orders without question, admired his genius, his success in piling up money. But just now the South Texas gunman was wavering. Perhaps some of it was due to the laxity of Kendall Marsh with his son. Butch detested Alden, and in a way he blamed Kendall Marsh for the actions of the boy.

But this last interview with Kendall Marsh threw grave doubts into Butch Van Deen’s mind about the superiority of Kendall Marsh. Instead of the dominating personality, keen quick judgment, there was only a common drunken individual, arrogant instead of forceful, and foolishly boastful.

“Drinkin’ our necks into a rope,” Butch told himself. “Fill him with whisky, and he ain’t no better than anybody else, the damn’ fool! Drinkin’ himself under the table, when right now we need some sober brains in the outfit.”

Butch stabled his horse and went to the War Dance. He asked for Alden, but no one knew where he was. He went to the restaurant and ate his supper alone. Butch was as hard-boiled as any man who ever came in from the southwest borders, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was all wrong; something dangerous. Perhaps he still retained some primal instinct.

He went back to the saloon and retired to the little private room at the rear. There was little gambling going on, and but few people in the place. He was moodily smoking a cigarette, when Della came in. She had not made up for the evening, and looked sallow and drawn.

She was not pretty now; only pathetic and tired. She closed the door, but did not sit down.

“You saw Kendall Marsh?” she asked.

Butch studied her through half-closed eyes for several moments.

“Yeah, I seen him a while ago.”

“You told him?”

Butch grinned sourly. “Yeah, I told him. I told yuh yuh was crazy if yuh thought Collins worked for Marsh, and I was right; he don’t.”

“Then⸺” Della hesitated, staring at Butch, who shook his head.

“I told Marsh what yuh said, Dell.”

“About the money?”


“I suppose he thinks I’m crazy, eh?”

“Yuh didn’t expect him to give three cheers, didja?”

“What did he say about Collins?”

Butch grunted disgustedly.

“Jist between me and you, Marsh was drunk. He thinks he’s a tin god, Marsh does. I don’t think the fool realises his danger.”

“You think there’s something going wrong, Butch?”

“Don’t you?”

Della shrugged her shoulders wearily.

“I don’t know, and I’m getting so I don’t care. All I want is that money. When I get it, you watch, my dust. If anybody ever gets me into an Arizona desert again, they’ll have to use chloroform on me. I don’t care what happens to Kendall Marsh, after I get the money.”

Butch laughed shortly.

“Why the horse-laugh?” she asked quickly. “Does that mean he ain’t going to come through?”

“I never said he wasn’t, did I? He sent word to you to-night, Dell. He wants me to bring you to the ranch to-morrow afternoon; so that him and you can talk things over.”

Della studied this for a while. She was no fool.

“Out to the ranch, eh? And to talk things over. That’s great. But why talk it over? He knows my price.”

“I’m only tellin’ yuh what he said to tell yuh.”

“And what else did he say, which he didn’t ask you to tell me?”

Butch rolled and lighted a cigarette.

“I’m beginnin’ to think that Marsh is a fool,” he said slowly. “I used to think he was wise, but he’s over-played his hand. This whole deal was worked wrong, the way I look at it. No one man can whip a whole valley, unless he’s got his scheme worked out to where it can’t slip. Blaze Nolan was his ace-in-the-hole, and he turned out to be a deuce—for Marsh.

“That’s where Marsh slipped. And he’s been gettin’ tangled worse all the time. Somebody from this valley heard what Marsh told Nolan that night in Los Angeles. That’s what ruined the whole works. Since then, Marsh has stacked one mistake on top of another.”

“Are you gettin’ scared, Butch?” asked Della.

“Jist to-night. I’ve got a hunch that somethin’ is breakin’ bad. I don’t know where it is, sister; but my hunch tells me⸺”

“And I’m supposed to talk prices with him to-morrow, eh?” interrupted Della.

“That’s yore business, not mine.”

“Would you, if you were in my place?”

Butch inhaled deeply, his lips and eyes shut tightly, as the smoke drifted lazily from his nostrils. Then he opened his eyes slowly and looked at her steadily.

“If I was in yore place, I’d grab the first train out of town, and I’d keep goin’.”

“You would?” She studied Butch curiously. “And lose the money?”

“Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money,” he said slowly. “It would shore be great to have that much money—and be alive to enjoy it. But it wouldn’t do yuh a bit of good to have it comin’ to yuh, unless yuh was alive to enjoy it.”

Della knew what Butch meant. He was still loyal enough to Marsh to not make a definite statement, but she understood that he was warning her to keep away from the Triangle X ranch.

“Thank yuh, Butch,” she said simply. “I guess I’ll play your hunch.”

“There’s a train through here at midnight.”

“I’m not interested in trains,” she said, and left the room.

But she came back in a moment and closed the door behind her.

“You might tell Kendall Marsh that I’m through with him,” she said evenly. “And you might tell him that unless he hands me the money by two o’clock to-morrow afternoon, I’ll talk to somebody who might enjoy listening to what I know.”

Butch was out of his chair in a flash and grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, crushing her back against the door.

“None of that!” he rasped. “You keep yore tongue to yourself, if you know what’s best for yore skin. If I thought you meant that, I’d wring yore neck right now. I don’t care how hard yuh nick Kendall Marsh, but don’tcha ever hint towards tellin’ what yuh know.”

Della was frightened. She knew that Butch Van Deen would kill her like he would a snake. She wet her dry lips and tried to smile in his twisted face.

“I—I just meant for you to tell Kendall Marsh that, Butch. I’m not serious. Don’t! You’re hurting me. I just wanted to scare him.”

Butch released her and stepped back.

“That kinda foolin’ will put yuh in a grave,” he said angrily. “I’m lookin’ out for my own skin. I’ll tell yuh that, sister; yuh don’t mean anythin’ to me.”

Della rubbed her aching arms. Butch had a grip like a vice and she was duly impressed.

“I just meant to scare Kendall Marsh.”

“All right—scare him. But don’t try to scare me.”

She left the room and he watched her cross the gambling hall. She entered the stairway, which led to the upstairs rooms, and he went to the bar.

In the meantime, Kendall Marsh thought things over, and in spite of the fact that he had consumed much liquor, his mind was still clear, and he was worried over the demands of the dance-hall girl.

He sent Chihuahua down to the bunkhouse for Mac Rawls, and told Mac to carry a message to Butch Van Deen.

“Tell him,” said Marsh, “to bring that girl out here to-night. This deal must be settled at once. You get a rig at the livery stable to bring her in, Mac.”

“And have somebody wonder what in hell I’m doin’ with a livery outfit, eh?” said Mac. “I’ll take the buckboard from here.”

“That’s right. And you see that he brings the girl. Tell her I’ve got the money, and that I’ve got to see her to-night, because I’m leaving in the morning.”

“Shore thing. Anythin’ else?”

“That’s plenty for one job.”

“This’ll be a cinch. But suppose she refused to come?”

“You tell Butch that I’ll be waiting up to see her.”

“Oh, all right.”


Cultus Collins left the livery stable, after his almost fatal ride from the JK, and was crossing a side-street, when Mac Rawls drove in from the Triangle X. He tied his horse at a little-used hitchrack, instead of at the War Dance, and walked past where Cultus stood in the unlighted doorway of a store building.

Cultus was a little curious as to why Rawls had left the team on the side-street, and followed him over to the War Dance, where he looked through a window. Rawls was near the bar, talking with Butch Van Deen, and after a few moments of conversation Butch left him and went toward the entrance to the stairway. Rawls leaned on the bar and accepted a drink from the bartender.

Cultus kept watch for several minutes, after which Butch came back and joined Rawls at the bar. It was all innocent enough, it seemed, but Cultus couldn’t understand why Rawls had tied the team on a side-street.

He didn’t know that Butch had delivered Marsh’s message to Della through a closed door and had told her that Rawls was waiting to take her to the ranch. Della had already had time to do considerable worrying about what might happen to her, and this looked worse than ever. Something told her that the risk was too great; that it would be better if she got away from Painted Valley and carried on her negotiations with Kendall Marsh by mail. She still had a little money.

But she didn’t want to go down through the saloon. There would not be a train out of Medicine Tree before early morning, but she could at least hire a horse and ride to Broad Arrow. Beneath her window was the long sloping roof of a shed, which ended only about five feet off the ground.

It did not require her long to prepare her getaway. Stuffing a few things in a suitcase, she opened the window, stepped off on the shed roof and went cautiously down to the eaves.

Cultus grew tired of watching through the window and walked down past the alley, when he heard a decided thump and a smothered feminine exclamation of pain. He whirled around and went swiftly down the alley in the dark, almost falling over Della, who was clad in a black suit. Swiftly he lighted a match and looked down into her white face. She was doubled up, one elbow on the suitcase, her other hand clutching her left ankle.

“Hurt yourself?” asked Cultus.

“My ankle,” she whispered. “I think it’s broken.”

“What did yuh do, jump off the roof?”

“Yes. And I’ve got to get away from here,” she whispered. “Help me up, Collins.”

On her feet she essayed a step, but the ankle would not bear her weight. She leaned heavily on him, almost crying from the pain.

“Where can I take yuh?” he asked. “Back in the saloon?”

“No, not in there! I can’t go back. They want to take me out to the Triangle X to-night, and I was—was getting away.”

“Uh-huh,” grunted Cultus. He knew now why Rawls had left the team at an obscure hitchrack.

He picked her up in his arms and circled the back of the buildings to a corner of the livery stable corral, where he set her down on a pile of old lumber. It was so dark that no one could see them there, and they were far enough away from everybody to talk above a whisper.

“Hurts pretty bad, eh?” he asked.

“It—it’s awful. What in the world can I do, anyway?”

“How about a room at the hotel?”

“No; I’ve got to get out of here. You don’t understand, of course, but I must go, and there isn’t a train until morning.”

Cultus grinned to himself at the whims of fate. He couldn’t let her leave Medicine Tree. It would ruin all his plans. And but for the twisted ankle she would have simply disappeared. And he didn’t intend to let her get away.

“You set right here,” he told her. “I’m goin’ to get a rig at the stable and take you where you’ll be safe.”

Della was suffering too much to question her destination. She wanted to get out of Medicine Tree; to get to almost any place, except the Triangle X, and she felt sure that Cultus was not going to take her out there.

It seemed hours before Cultus drove the team around to the corner of the corral and lifted her into the buggy, and she was too weak from the pain to question him. As they drove past the lighted window of Henderson’s store, Oscar Link, the bartender, saw them and waved his hand at Cultus.

He went across the street to the War Dance, where he found Butch and Mac still at the bar. Oscar was amused.

“Wimmin must be scarce around here,” he laughed. “I jist seen Cultus Collins takin’ Della for a buggy ride.”

Butch stared at him foolishly.

“Say that again, will yuh?”

Oscar repeated his statement.

“Are yuh sure it was Dell, Oscar?”

“Sure it was. I know her well enough, don’t I?”

Butch sauntered away from the bar and headed for the stairway.

“What’s the matter with Butch?” asked Oscar. “He ain’t stuck on Della, is he?”

“Search me,” growled Mac Rawls, and Oscar went away grinning.

Butch went straight to Della’s room and knocked on the door. There was no response; so he crashed a shoulder against the flimsy door, smashing the lock. A few things were scattered around the room, the window was wide open, but Della was not there.

Butch went back down the stairs and looked around for Oscar, but he had left the place. Mac Rawls was still at the bar, and Butch went to him.

“Go back and tell Marsh what happened,” he ordered. “She went through her window and jumped off that old shed out there.”

“All right,” grunted Rawls. “See yuh later.”

While Butch wondered where Cultus was taking her, Della was wondering the same. The pain had eased up a little now, and with the going of the pain came curiosity.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked.

“Where you’ll be safe—the JK ranch.”

“Kelton’s ranch?”


“I’ll not go, I tell you!”

“Well, I’m goin’ out there, and if I’m any judge of ankles, you ain’t in no shape to get out and walk.”

“But, my God, I don’t want to go out there, Collins! Don’t you realise anything?”

“They won’t bite yuh.”

“Bite me! You fool, don’t you realise that I—why, that’s the last place I ever want to go.”

“Mebbe I better take yuh out to the Triangle X.”

“Well, at least I could face them. Go ahead and take me to the Triangle X.”

“And get both of us killed off, eh? Nope, we’re goin’ to the Kelton ranch—me and you. That’s the last place Kendall Marsh would ever expect to find yuh.”

“What’s your interest in this, Collins?”

“Mebbe you’ll find out, if I’m lucky.”

Della had nothing more to say, as they drove along under the stars, but both of them were doing a lot of thinking. Cultus drove carefully over the rutty road, because he knew that every lurch was agony to this woman.

The JK ranch-house was dark, when they drove up to the patio, but Harry had heard the approach of the buggy and answered Cultus’s hail from a window.

“Wait’ll I get on some clothes,” said Harry.

Jane had heard the talking and came out on the back porch. She had been reading before going to bed. Cultus saw her and came over to the porch.

“This is Collins, Jane.”

“I recognised your voice. What has happened?”

“Well, here’s the whole thing,” said Cultus softly. “I’ve got a crippled lady out here, and she’s got to have a place to sleep to-night.”

“A crippled lady?”

“Ankle twisted.”

“But I don’t understand. Who is she and how did she get hurt?”

“Jumped off the roof. Sounds funny, eh? Mebbe it is. Anyway, her name is Della, and she’s a dance-hall girl from the War Dance Saloon.”

“That woman?”

“Yea-a-ah; that woman, Jane. She’s in trouble, and I brought her here where she’d be safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“Kendall Marsh and his gang. Oh, I know how yuh feel, Jane. It’s another case of where the wolves turn on each other, I reckon. But I brought her here to you, because I know yuh. She didn’t want to come, but she was afraid to stay, and she was sufferin’ awful. Mebbe her ankle is busted and I’ll have to get the doctor.”

Harry came out through the door, slipping into his coat, and in a few words Cultus told him what had happened. Harry said nothing, except, “Jane, you heard all this?”

“He told me about it,” she replied. “I guess it’s up to us to take her.”

“We’ll bring her in,” said Cultus.

Della said nothing, when they carried her in and placed her on a couch in the living-room. Her face was white and drawn from suffering and she almost fainted when they placed her on the couch.

Jane stood in the centre of the room, looking at her, but Della kept her eyes averted, as though ashamed to look at Jane. Cultus took off her shoe and examined the ankle.

“Looks like a bad sprain,” he said. “We’ll soak it good in hot water and liniment, and then bandage it tight. Can you get the water, Jane?”

“I’ll find the liniment,” offered Harry.

Della looked at Cultus, after the others had left the room, and he smiled at her.

“Don’t you think I have any conscience?” she fairly hissed at him. “Bringing me out here! Friendly torture, eh? Making me face that girl, after what I’ve⸺Oh, well.”

“I’m not tryin’ to torture yuh. We’ve all got to face our sins.”

Della sank back against the pillows.

“It isn’t my sins; it’s the eyes of that girl. She looked at me as though she was sorry for me.”

“‘And the greatest of these is charity,’” quoted Cultus softly.

“I don’t want her charity, and I’m not used to having anybody sorry for me. There’s enough real things in the world to be sorry for without being sorry for me and my sins.”

“Mebbe yo’re sorry for her.”

“Sorry for her?” Della looked curiously at Cultus. “That’s a new idea. I never thought of that.”

Jane came in with the hot water, and Cultus walked out in the kitchen, while Della removed her stocking. She didn’t want to look at Jane.

“Just put the pan where I can reach it,” she said. “I can do the rest.”

“I’ll do it,” softly. “You look all worn out, and I know it must hurt badly. I sprained my wrist one day, and I know how that hurt.”

She knelt down in front of Della, put the injured foot in the hot water and began bathing it while Della stared down at Jane’s bowed head, her lips compressed tightly. Cultus came and stood in the doorway, watching the operation. Della didn’t look at him; she was looking down at Jane, tears running down her cheeks, her lips twisted with a misery which was not caused by her injured ankle.

Harry came in through the kitchen, carrying the liniment bottle, which he had had difficulty in finding. Cultus stopped him from entering the living-room, and together they rolled smokes in the kitchen.

Jane happened to glance up at Della.

“Does it hurt so badly?” she asked, her voice full of sympathy.

“Hurt?” hoarsely. “Good God, it hurts worse than anything I ever had happen to me.”

“This water will ease it, I think. Harry should be here with the liniment. You can move your foot; so I don’t think it’s a break.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the foot,” she said painfully. “It’s you—bathing my hurts. That’s what hurts me.”

“Why, that’s all right. Isn’t your name Della.?”

“Yes—just Della. The rest of the name was forgotten years ago.”

“Maybe some day you’ll remember it again.”

“I guess you’ll never forget it—my name, I mean.”

“Let’s not talk about that, Della. I’ll get the liniment and the bandages.”

She completed the job, and then the two men helped Della to a spare room, where Jane helped her to undress.

“This was Ben’s room,” said Jane innocently.

“Your brother’s room.”

“We use it for a spare room, since he went away. Now, you have a good sleep, and I’ll see that you have breakfast in bed. If it gets to hurting too much, I’ll send Harry to town for the doctor.”

Della thanked her brokenly, and Jane went back to join Cultus and Harry. Cultus put both hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes.

“Jane,” he said seriously, “when you climbed that devil’s chimney in Padre Canyon, I said you was the gamest girl in the world—but what you’ve done to-night shows that along with yore nerve, you’ve got a heart of gold. You deserve all the happiness in the world, and I hope yuh get it.”

“That’s sweet of you, Cultus Collins.”

“I’m not tryin’ to be sweet—just honest. Hasta luego.

He waved his hand at Harry, and went back to the buggy.


Bad News awoke with a start. He slept on a cot in his office, and he was not in the habit of arising until the sun was peeping through a dirty window on the east side of his office. He tried to see what time it was by his watch, but the light was too weak.

Then came the hammering on the door again. He slid off the bunk, picked up his six-shooter and approached the door.

“Who’s there?” he asked hoarsely.


“What the hell do yuh think yuh are—an owl?”

Cultus laughed softly. “It’s five o clock, Bad News.”

Bad News unlocked the door and let Cultus in.

“Climb into yore clothes; we’re goin’ for a ride.”

“A ride?” Bad News rubbed his sleepy eyes. “Where to, Cultus?”

“I’ve got a hunch.”

“Yea-a-a-ah? A ridin’ hunch at five o’clock in the mornin’? I don’t quite sabe yore idea, pardner.”

“Get dressed, Bad News. We want to get away from here before daylight.”

Bad News grunted dismally and began drawing on his pants.

“Goin’ to sneak up on somebody in the dark, eh?”

“Somebody tried to ’bush me this side of the JK last night.”

“Ag’in? Well, I’ll be danged! Where’s m’ shirt? Light that lamp, will yuh? Now, where in hell is that shirt?”

“Yo’re settin’ on it.”

“Oh, yeah; no wonder I couldn’t see it. You’ve got me excited. There’s m’ left boot, but where’s the right one? Funny how yuh can misplace a thing as big as a boot.”

“You’ve got both of ’em on.”

“That’s right! I work from memory, and I didn’t remember puttin’ that one on. ’Bushed yuh, eh? You do have the dangedest times in this country. Two men? I reckon they’re tryin’ to kill yuh, don’tcha think? Looks thataway. Lemme see. Boots, pants, shirt, vest, coat and hat. Oh, yeah, my belt and gun. Now, what?”

“Saddle up and get out.”

The stableman didn’t wake up when they rode their horses out of the livery stable, and they headed out the Triangle X road.

“I’d like to know where we’re goin’,” said Bad News. “Bein’ the sheriff, I’d like to know somethin’.”

Cultus laughed and swung sideways in his saddle.

“I’m playin’ a hunch that most of the Triangle X outfit will come to town rather early to-day. Mebbe they won’t, but I’m playin’ like they will. Me and you are goin’ to set on the side of a hill and see if they do. This is Saturday, and ’most everybody comes to town on Saturday, anyway.

“And if most of that outfit go to town, me and you are goin’ down to the ranch and see what we can see. Can that Triangle X Chinaman talk English?”

“Not very much. He can talk Spanish.”

“That’s fine.”

“But what’ll yuh find out from him, Cultus?”

Quien sabe?

“Why not ride right up there and ask yore questions?”

Cultus laughed and shook his head.

“You don’t know the answers to the questions I might ask, and if yuh did, you’d realise that we’d never get a truthful answer from that gang. I wonder if Kendall Marsh is there?”

“Prob’ly is. You didn’t want to see him, didja?”

“Not right now.”

It was daylight before they reached the spot which Bad News selected as their vantage point. They tied their horses behind a mesquite thicket and worked their way down to another thicket near the road, where they could get a good view of the Triangle X ranch-house. Smoke was coming from the chimney, and Cultus decided that they were eating breakfast early.

“We ort to go down there and ask for breakfast,” said the sheriff. “I’m allus kinda thin at this time in the mornin’.”

“You never was very fat any time,” grinned Cultus. “I’ll betcha an olive would show on yuh. A feller like you ought to masticate his food well, so he won’t look lumpy after a meal. Have a smoke and forget food. Like honey on yore hot cakes?”

“Go to hell, will yuh? Maple syrup.”

They smoked and joked for an hour, but there was no sign of life around the ranch-house. Another hour passed, before any one showed up. Then it was Hank North. He went from the ranch-house to the stable, and in a few minutes Terry Ione followed him.

“They’re rollin’ the buckboard out from under the shed,” observed Bad News. “That means Kendall Marsh is goin’ to town.”

The two men hitched up the team and tied it to the corral fence.

Then another man left the ranch-house, wearing a gray suit. It wasn’t Kendall Marsh.

“That’s Alden,” said Bad News. “I know his walk. He’s packin’ a valise, ain’t he. I wonder if he’s goin’ away? Mebbe the old man’s takin’ him to Los Angeles. Be a good thing for the valley, and it might be a good thing for the kid.”

Cultus said nothing. They saw Terry and Hank bring out two saddled horses, and then Mac Rawls and Kendall Marsh walked together down to the buckboard. They all stood around and talked for several minutes, and then Kendall Marsh and his son got in the buckboard. North and Ione mounted the horses, riding toward the gate, with the buckboard trailing. Mac Rawls waved at them and walked back to the house.

Cultus and Bad News stretched out behind the brush and watched them go past. It was the first time either of them had ever seen Alden Marsh dressed in anything except cowboy garb. He was driving the team and was in earnest conversation with his father. Hank North and Terry Ione were not talking, when they rode past. Cultus and Bad News watched them disappear around a far curve before they left their place of concealment.

Cultus yawned as he led the way back to the horses.

“That’s what happens when yuh get up in the middle of the night,” said Bad News chuckling. “Yuh get all frayed out.”

“It was a hard night,” agreed Cultus as they mounted.

“Where didja ever get that long-legged sorrel?”

“Won him from Harry Kelton. That is, he’s Harry’s end of the bet, and I think I’ve won him. My end of the bet is coyote bait back in Padre Canyon.”

“Yuh mean yuh bet a dead horse against a live one?”


“Well, that’s a good bit if yuh lose. Now, where do we go?”

Instead of answering Cultus took the lead and they headed for the ranch-house. No one saw them coming. They dismounted at the front porch. The door was open and they could hear Rawls talking to the Chinaman in the kitchen; so they walked around the house and stepped into the kitchen without any warning.

Rawls was seated at a table, smoking a cigarette, while Chihuahua was washing dishes, and Rawls’s small eyes blinked open suddenly. His right elbow jerked back off the table, but stayed crooked, because he was looking down the muzzle of Cultus’s six-shooter.

Slowly he got to his feet, staring at Cultus.

“Watch the Chink,” warned Cultus. “Keep yore hands where they are, Rawls, and step around that table.”

Rawls obeyed slowly.

“Turn round.”

Cultus plucked Rawls’s revolver from its holster and stepped back. The Chinaman stood there, dish-towel in one hand, a dripping dish in the other.

“Whatcha tryin’ to pull off around here?” rasped Rawls. “What’s the idea of sneakin’ in and stickin’ guns in a feller’s face?”

“Wasn’t expectin’ us, was yuh?” grinned Cultus.

“Who would? What’s it all about, sheriff?”

Bad News didn’t know, so he kept still. Cultus handed him Rawls’s gun.

“Bring the cook; we’re goin’ in the livin’-room.”

Chihuahua herded willingly. He seemed about as dumb as any Chinaman could possibly be. Rawls stopped beside a table, where a bright coloured serape had been carelessly thrown. He rested his right hand on the table and looked belligerently at Cultus.

“Now, damn yuh, what’s the idea of this hold-up?” he growled.

“The idea is,” said Cultus slowly, “that we’re goin’ to search this ranch-house, Rawls.”

Rawls’s eyes twitched, but his face registered no change.

“Yeah?” he said evenly. “What the hell do you expect to find?”

Cultus laughed softly, confidently.

“Yo’re scared of what we’ll find, Rawls. They left you here to watch the place. One of yuh had to stay, yuh know. You couldn’t trust the Chinaman to do the job.”

“Oh, I don’t know what yo’re talkin’ about. Sheriff, what’s the matter with this man? Is he crazy?”

Bad News stared blankly, unable truthfully to answer the question.

“We’ll go upstairs first,” said Cultus evenly.

“Suit yourself,” rasped the cowboy.

He stepped along the table as though to lead the way upstairs, but his right hand swept aside the crumpled serape and he whirled with a Colt six-shooter in his right hand, whirled and jerked back against the table from the shock of Cultus’s bullet, while the windows of the house jangled from the concussion of the big gun.

The gun dropped from Rawls’s hand, as he went to his knees, pitching forward on his face.

Whap! Cultus whirled in time to see Chihuahua falling like a limp bundle of clothes, preceded by the thump of a revolver, on the floor beside him, Bad News had swayed forward, his gun clutched in his right hand.

“That danged Chink had a gun under his apron!” exploded the sheriff. “He’s almost got it goin’, too. For gosh sake, what a mess! Didja kill him Cultus?”

“Got him pretty hard, I reckon. He had a gun under that serape.”

Bad News coughed from the powder fumes, and his expression was grim.

“I reckon they didn’t want us upstairs, Cultus.”

“Shore looks thataway; c’mon.”

They went swiftly up the stairs, where there were three bedrooms. The first two netted them nothing. The doors were wide open and the rooms were in disorder, but the rear room was locked and the key still in the lock on the outside.

Quickly they unlocked it and stepped inside. The room was about twelve by fourteen feet in size, apparently used as a storeroom, but on a cot, tied hand and foot, was Blaze Nolan. His face was pale and his eyes lacked lustre, but he recognised them.

“Well, for God’s sake!” blurted Bad News. “Blaze Nolan!”

Cultus quickly cut the bonds, but Blaze seemed unable to manipulate his arms and legs.

“He’s been hurt,” said Bad News. “Don’t he look kinda funny to you?”

Cultus turned and stepped over to a box, over which was draped a soiled towel, and disclosed several small bottles and a hypodermic syringe. Quickly he turned and went back to the bed, where he stripped back the shirt from Blaze’s arms.

“Yuh can see what makes him funny, can’tcha?” he asked. “They’ve been shootin’ him full of dope.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Blaze weakly.

“Do yuh know us?” asked Cultus.

“Yeah, I know yuh, Collins. Where’s Marsh and his gang? I dreamed I heard somebody shootin’, but I’m so weak I can’t hardly move. What is the matter with me, anyway?”

“Do yuh feel sick?” asked Bad News.

“No—just funny.”

“How long have yuh been here, Blaze?”

“Since yesterday, I think. They wanted me to tell where the Lost Trail is, but I didn’t tell.”

Suddenly he raised himself up on one elbow staring at Cultus.

“They killed Buck Gillis yesterday. I don’t know which ones shot him—they wore masks. And they brought me here.”

He sank back on the cot, breathing heavily.

“Buck arrested me for robbin’ the bank, yuh know.”

“Yeah, we know about that, Blaze,” replied Cultus. “But you never robbed any bank.”

“No,” breathed Blaze. “I never robbed anybody.”

“Fine. We’ll see if we can find some kind of a rig to take him to town, sheriff; he ain’t able to ride.”

“You stay here with him, and I’ll find the rig.”

Bad News ran down the stairs. He didn’t notice that Mac Rawls had changed his position and was lying with his face pillowed on one arm, and that his snake-like eyes watched the sheriff step over the unconscious Chinaman.

Bad News found an old single buggy under the shed and ran it out in the open. The harness was hanging just inside the stable door, and he threw it on the most likely looking horse, which was evidently the one used for that purpose.

He had hitched the horse to the buggy, when he looked toward the house. A man was mounting his horse at the front porch. For a moment he thought it must be Cultus, but as the man climbed drunkenly into the saddle, the sheriff realised that it was Mac Rawls, who to all intents and purposes should be a case for the coroner.

Rawls caught his right stirrup, swaying low over the saddle-horn, and spurred away toward the road to Medicine Tree. For several moments Bad News stood there gaping at Rawls, expecting at any moment to see the wounded cowboy fall off the horse. But Mac Rawls didn’t fall. He was going faster all the time.

Then Bad News drew his six-shooter and fired six shots deliberately. They were all misses. Bad News knew they would be under those conditions and at that distance. Cultus was coming out through the kitchen doorway, half carrying Blaze.

Bad News galloped across the yard, yelling at Cultus, pointing with his gun at the disappearing Rawls.

“The son-of-a-gun got away?” he yelped. “Took my horse!”

“Help me put Blaze in the buggy,” said Cultus calmly. “Rawls probably won’t make it to town, anyway.”

They put Blaze in the buggy, where he leaned heavily against the seat.

“Could you drive that horse to town?” asked Cultus.

“Sure,” said Blaze weakly. “I’ll be all right now; give me the lines.”

“Take yore time,” advised Cultus. “C’mon, sheriff; we’ll ride that sorrel double, and give Mac Rawls the race of his life.”

The sorrel objected strenuously, but the double burden was too much for a sustained bucking match; so he suddenly decided to run—and they let him.

At the JK ranch Della awoke early that morning and stared around the room, trying to remember where she was. A twinge through her ankle brought back the memory of what had happened the night before. Outside her open window a mocking-bird danced along the branch of a sycamore, scolding softly. She could hear voices down in the patio, but could not distinguish the words.

For a long time she stared wide-eyed at the ceiling, wondering what to do, thinking of the way Jane had treated her. The ankle was still sore, but did not pain her at all. She looked at it, and found that the swelling had subsided greatly.

Some one knocked gently on her door. It was Jane, with a smile on her face.

“I wondered if you were awake,” she said. “How is the ankle?”

“Very much better, thanks to you, Miss Kelton.”

“That’s fine; but everybody calls me Jane.”

Della sighed deeply and looked out of the window.

“You are a very wonderful girl, Jane.”

“I’ll bring some breakfast up to you,” Jane smiled. “Dad and Harry are going to Medicine Tree this morning, and I wondered if you wanted them to bring you anything.”

Della shook her head quickly.

“All right,” said Jane. “I’ll have that breakfast up right away, and if your ankle feels all right, I’ll have dad and Harry move you out on the porch in an easy chair.”

Della shrank from that. She didn’t want to face Jim Kelton. But Jane was running down the stairs before Della could voice any objection. She could hear Jane and her father talking down in the living-room. Her clothes were within reach, and by the time Jane brought her breakfast up to the room, Della was fully dressed, except for one shoe.

“Oh, why didn’t you wait until I could help you?” asked Jane.

“You’ve helped me enough, Jane; it’s my turn now.”

“What do you mean?” asked Jane. “You are in no condition⸺”

Della laughed shortly, her voice harsh, as she replied, “My dear, I’m not going to offer to do your walking, if that’s what you mean?”

They could hear her father coming slowly up the stairs, and Jane went to the doorway. Harry was close behind him, and they came in together. The old man stopped and looked steadily at Della, who quickly averted her eyes.

“I didn’t know what to think this mornin’ when Jane told me you were here,” he said slowly. “You are the last person I ever expected to have in my house.”

“And this is the last place I ever expected to be,” she said, without lifting her eyes.

“But yo’re here—and it’s all right. Nobody has ever been turned away from this ranch. As long as yo’re here, no matter what you’ve done, it won’t be discussed. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Della lifted her face and looked at the old man through her tears.

“I didn’t know there were such people,” she said brokenly.

“Don’t cry, Della.”

Jane patted her on the shoulder. “Wouldn’t you rather be moved out on the porch and have breakfast out there?”

“I don’t think I want any breakfast, Jane; I’m going to Medicine Tree, if you’ll let me ride with you.”

“There’s room,” said her father. “Harry was going to ride his horse, anyway, and you can go in the buckboard.”

“You’ll go, won’t you, Jane?” Della asked.

“Why, I—I didn’t intend to.”

“You better. I want you along with me.”

“Well, I guess three of us can ride in the buckboard. But I don’t see why you want me to go along, Della.”

“Don’t you?” Della laughed harshly. “I want to show you how it looks to see somebody throw away ten thousand dollars.”

Jim Kelton and his son exchanged quick glances, and there was a mutual understanding that the woman had lost her mind.

“Who is going to throw away that much money, Della?” asked Jane.

“I can’t tell you the name; it’s been forgotten long ago.”

That settled her sanity, as far as the men were concerned, and they were glad she was leaving. Jane and Harry helped her down to the buckboard, while Jim Kelton hobbled along behind them.


Saturday was always the biggest day in Medicine Tree. It was the day when everybody came to town to do his shopping, to discuss the affairs of Painted Valley, until they had imbibed sufficient liquor, when they took in more territory. At times they went so far as to arrange the affairs of Europe.

There were quite a few people in evidence when the men came in from the Triangle X. Kendall Marsh and his son drove around to the rear of the War Dance to tie their team, while Hank North and Terry Ione rode their horses to the hitchrack on the main street. Jules Mendoza and his two men were already in town.

Kendall Marsh and his son went in through the rear door of the War Dance and immediately entered the little private room at the rear, where Butch Van Deen joined them. Kendall Marsh was visibly nervous.

“Well, what do you know?” he asked Butch.

“She didn’t come back, Marsh. I got hold of Oscar, and he said that they seemed to be headin’ toward the JK ranch.”

“She’d have a lot of business out there!”

“I guess he was mistaken.”

“Have you seen Collins this morning?”

Butch shook his head.

“I asked the stableman, and he said that Collins and Bad News must have left early this mornin’. Their horses were gone, but he said he didn’t hear ’em leave.”

“Where the hell do yuh suppose they’ve gone?” asked Alden Marsh.

“I dunno. What are you all duded up for?”

“We’re going away on the noon freight,” said his father.

“Back to Los Angeles, eh?”

Marsh nodded.

“You’ll prob’ly get a bill from Della,” grinned Butch.

Marsh’s jaw tightened quickly.

“I’ll take care of her case.”

Butch’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Then, “Yo’re kinda leavin’ us holdin’ the sack, ain’tcha?”

“I don’t think so. But there’s no use discussing it here. I’ve told Hank North just what I want done and he’ll tell you. But before you do much of anything, I want to know more about that trail. If that story was true about the dynamiting, the trail may be wiped out. But if Blaze Nolan was the only one who knew it, who dynamited it? I’m inclined to think that Cultus and the girl lied.”

“Mebbe they did. Who stayed at the ranch?”

“Mac Rawls. Oh, that end of it is all right.”

“When do we drink?” asked Alden.

“You’re going to quit drinking so much, young man.”

“That’s so? I guess I’ll take one right now, before I forget about it.”

He stepped out of the room and went down to the bar, where Hank and Terry were having a drink. Oscar, the bartender, looked Alden over with open amusement.

“Gentlemen of the jury!” he blurted. “Look what sneaked in on us!”

“Dry yore tears, you cock-eyed scorpion!” snorted Alden. “Gimme a glass, will yuh? Got any decent brandy? Gimme a scoop. The old man says I’m drinkin’ too much, and I want plenty jolt in a few.”

“That stuff would knock the ornyments off a Christmas tree,” declared Hank North. “I got a shot of it by mistake one day, and my Adam’s apple has been wilted ever since. If I had to drink that as a reg’lar thing, I’d shore cut a fire-break across m’ neck just above m’ collar-bone. As a beverage, I’d jist as soon swaller a hot horseshoe.”

“She’s a man’s drink,” whispered Alden hoarsely.

“Take another,” invited Terry. “I’d like to see yuh lose yore voice entirely.”

But Alden had enough for the moment. Jules Mendoza and Tony Gibbs came in. They started to come to the bar, but changed their minds when they saw who was here.

“Hello, Injun,” greeted Hank. “Whatcha know?”

“Not know much,” grinned Jules, showing a flash of white teeth.

“Got any tradin’ guns these days?”

“No more.”

“I made money on that .41.”

Jules grinned and went on. Butch came out past the bar and went to the door. The buckboard from the JK was just pulling in at the store across the street, and Butch recognised Della. He whirled around and went back to Kendall Marsh.

“That girl jist came in with the Kelton family, Marsh! They’re over in front of the store now.”

“That sounds damn’ funny! What’s it all about? See if yuh can’t get her over here.”

Butch hurried back to the doorway in time to see them all going in the store. Harry was assisting Della, and in a moment, he came back and went down to the sheriff’s little office. The place was locked, and Harry came back to the store. Butch was nervous. He went back to Marsh and told him what had happened.

“You don’t suppose that damned girl has told something, do you?” asked Marsh nervously.

“She wants money too bad.”

Kendall Marsh looked at his watch. It would be quite a while before he and Alden could board that freight, and Kendall Marsh wanted to get out of Medicine Tree.

“I’ve a notion to drive to Broad Arrow,” he said.

“Gettin’ scared, eh?” growled Butch.

“I’m not scared. But it might complicate matters if I stayed here.”

“Well, go ahead, if yuh feel that way about it.”

“I think I will, Butch. Send Alden in here, will yuh?”

Butch went out past the door again, without saying anything to Alden, who was drinking more brandy. There did not seem to be any activity across the street. Butch leaned out and looked up at the north end of the street.

A rider was coming down the road as fast as his horse could run, a dust cloud eddying along behind him like the smoke screen of a destroyer at sea. The horse whirled in at the hitchrack and lurched to a stop, while the rider tried to dismount, got half-way off and then fell flat on his back in the dust. The horse whirled around and moved a few feet away, its flanks heaving from the long run.

Butch stepped from the saloon and ran to the hitchrack. It was Mac Rawls, his shirt gobby with gore from his wound, trying to get up, gasping for breath in the dust cloud.

“For God’s sake, what happened to you?” asked Butch. “Talk, can’tcha?”

Rawls tried to say something, but slumped back in the dirt. Swiftly Butch picked him up in his arms and went running to the saloon, with Rawls’s heels bumping along the rough planks of the sidewalk. Their entrance caused consternation in the War Dance, and questions were hurled at Butch from every angle.

“He fell off his horse at the hitchrack; that’s all I know.”

Kendall Marsh heard the uproar and came out from the office, just as Butch was crossing the room toward him. Butch shoved past him with his burden and laid him down on the floor in the little office.

“Shut the door!” snapped Butch. “Keep everybody out, Hank. Alden, you come in here.”

Terry Ione came running and shoved his way in before they could close the door.

“He was ridin’ the sheriff’s horse!” exploded Terry. “What’s happened?”

Nobody knew. They looked blankly at each other and down at the unconscious man on the floor.

“I’m going,” said Kendall Marsh huskily. “Something has gone wrong.”

They all realised that something had gone decidedly wrong. Mac Rawls would know, but Mac Rawls was unconscious.

There was another dust cloud coming down the road. Mendoza and Tony Gibbs saw it coming; a tall sorrel horse, running heavily from a double burden. At two hundred feet from the hitchrack, the sorrel jerked to a stop, and Cultus Collins dropped to the street. He ran around toward the rear of the saloon, while Bad News, hatless, his face grimy with dust and perspiration, spurred up to the hitchrack, where he dismounted quickly, not stopping to tie the horse, and came slowly toward the doorway of the saloon, shifting his holster across his thigh.

He looked keenly at Mendoza and Gibbs, as he came up to them.

“Eenside,” said Mendoza quietly, and Bad News nodded as he stepped past them and into the War Dance.

“I’m going,” repeated Kendall Marsh. “Come on, Alden.”

No one tried to stop them. Marsh stumbled on the little step, as they went out, and his hand shook when he closed the door softly. Then they almost ran to the buckboard.

“You ain’t goin’ no place,” said a voice, and they whirled to see Cultus Collins. He was standing within twenty feet of them, his legs braced apart, his right thumb hooked over his belt above the holster.

“What do you mean?” asked Marsh huskily.

“You know what I mean, Marsh.”

Alden had sagged back against the left rear wheel of the buckboard, but now he whipped away his coat and drew a six-shooter from inside the waistband of his trousers. With what seemed a single motion, Cultus drew and fired. Alden fired too, but his bullet sang over the top of the War Dance, when his arm crumpled at the elbow.

At the sound of the shot, Butch Van Deen sprang outside. He had already drawn his gun, but before he could understand just what had taken place out there, Cultus fired twice in rapid succession, and Butch fell backward through the open doorway.

Alden had dropped to his knees, his face twisted with pain, but Kendall Marsh, everything forgotten, except self-preservation, sprang into the buckboard and tried to get away, without untying the team.

He slashed at Cultus with the whip, but Cultus dragged him from the buckboard and crashed an uppercut to his chin which caused Marsh to lose all interest in the further proceedings of the moment.

At the sound of the first shot, Terry Ione, instead of following Butch Van Deen, whirled and flung open the door to the saloon. Hank North was standing in the middle of the room, his hands above his head in token of surrender, while Bad News Buker was walking towards him, covering Hank with his six-shooter.

Terry ripped out a curse along with his gun, and fired at the sheriff. Terry fired too quickly, and it was a complete miss, as far as the sheriff was concerned, but little Jules Mendoza, back there near the doorway, choked and sank down on the floor.

Came the crash of another gun, and Terry jerked back. Again and again that same gun sent its hot lead the length of that room. It was Tony Gibbs, shooting as he came. Terry Ione was sprawled on his face when the hammer of Tony’s gun clicked on an empty shell.

In that cloud of powder smoke, Tony Gibbs turned his white face and said, “He shot my friend, but I fixed him.”

Cultus was coming through the back doorway, dragging Kendall Marsh, who was beginning to show signs of life again. The shooting was over now. Alden Marsh came in, sagging drunkenly. He realised that there was no use in trying to escape.

North was the only man in the Triangle X gang who had sense enough to surrender. Bad News handcuffed him quickly and made him sit down in a chair. Men were crowding into the place, coughing from the powder smoke, asking questions. Some one had gone to get the doctor. It seemed as though all of Painted Valley wanted to know everything about it.

Cultus dumped Kendall Marsh into a chair, where he gaped vacantly around, while Bad News seated Alden near his father. Some men were working over Mendoza, trying to give him a drink of liquor, when the doctor came. His examination of Mendoza was superficial. That one bullet had been a dead centre shot, although Mendoza was still alive.

Terry Ione was beyond help, as was Butch Van Deen.

“I’ll fix your arm,” the doctor said to Alden.

“I never done nothin’,” wailed Alden. “He shot me, and I never done nothin’, Doc. I can prove I never done nothin’, I tell yuh.”

“You liar!”

It was a feminine voice, and they turned to see Della. Harry had hold of one of her arms, and she braced the other hand against Oscar, the bartender, whose face was a sickly white.

“You liar,” she repeated, and Alden slumped in his chair.

“You killed Ben Kelton,” she said evenly. “You threw the blame on Blaze Nolan, and your father paid me to keep away from here. Blaze Nolan never knew me well enough to speak to me, and”—her lips curled sarcastically—“when a man in a place as small as this don’t know dance-hall girls well enough to speak to them, he sure keeps away from them.

“No, you never done anything, eh? You and Terry Ione tried to kill Collins and the Kelton girl in Padre Canyon. I suppose that isn’t anything, eh? I suppose you didn’t have any hand in killing the sheriff.”

“I didn’t,” whined Alden. “That was Mac Rawls and Terry.”

“I guess that’s all,” said Della wearily. “I didn’t know for sure who killed Buck Gillis, but now we know.”

Cultus stepped around in front of Kendall Marsh, who seemed dazed over the whole thing. He looked up at Cultus foolishly.

“What have you got to say, Marsh?” asked Cultus. “You realise that the game broke against yuh; so yuh might as well talk.”

“What good to talk?” he asked huskily. “I tried to protect my son.”

“And you tried to drive all these cattlemen to the wall; to force them to turn Painted Valley over to you and your sheep.”

“Well? I wanted this valley.”

“You sent yore men to Padre Canyon to kill me.”

Marsh shook his head wearily.

“No, you’re wrong, Collins; I had nothing to do with that.”

“You ordered your men to kill Buck Gillis and kidnap Blaze Nolan.”

Kendall Marsh licked his dry lips, but refused to talk further.

“He wanted to leave us holdin’ the sack,” laughed Hank North. “I’m as bad as the rest of ’em, but I never killed anybody. Not that I wouldn’t; but it never broke right for me to do it. Terry and that drunken kid tried to kill yuh, Collins. Terry was afraid of yuh. He stole yore gray horse down at the Mexican border, and then him and young Marsh burned on the Circle M. They thought it would be funny to start trouble for Mendoza, if you showed up. I dunno if Terry killed that officer down at the border, but I think he did.”

“You talk too damn much!” snapped Marsh.

“Mebby they’ll hang me with a soft rope,” grinned Hank.

“If I had a gun—” gritted Alden painfully.

“You never will have,” said Hank rather gravely. “You’ll have to swear off shootin’ and drinkin’ from now on, hombre.”

Tony Gibbs went to Mendoza and knelt down beside him.

“They cleared Blaze, Jules. Can you hear me? Blaze is free.”

Bueno esta,” softly. “Where is he?”

Cultus looked toward the doorway. There was Jim Kelton and Jane. They had heard what Della said. Cultus shoved his way to them and stepped outside.

A rickety buggy was coming down the road, and in it was Blaze Nolan, slumped back against the worn upholstering. He drove up to the front of the saloon and stopped the horse. He looked old and tired, but his eyes lighted up at sight of Jane, and he smiled.

“It’s all over,” Cultus told him. “Yo’re cleared, Blaze, and we’ve got the whole gang.”

“That’s wonderful,” he whispered. “I don’t understand it, but it’s wonderful, anyway.”

“Can yuh get out?” asked Harry. “A man wants to speak with yuh. It’s Mendoza, Blaze; he got hit accidentally.”

Cultus helped Blaze out of the buggy and they went in the saloon. Mendoza smiled up at Blaze, who knelt down beside him.

Buenas dias compadre,” he whispered. “I’m glad you come. I mus’ tell you biffore too late. You tell me ’bout dem mortgage paper; so I rob bank. I guess you almost catch me, eh, compadre. I’m not know eet be you, until after. I burn papers, and den I set fire to courthouse in Broad Arrow.”

“You—Jules?” whispered Blaze. “You did this? Why?”

“You ’ave give word to Marsh to ’elp heem; so I fix it thiz way. No mortgage paper—no help. Madre de Dios, w’at a fire! I’m scare. Then you tell me eff anything ’appen to you, I’m ruin de Los’ Trail. We find heem together—I spoil heem alone. Beeg boom! Trail all gone. I’m feenish now, Blaze; everyt’ing is all right. Buenas noches, comp—compadre.

Blaze got slowly to his feet, staring down at the little half-breed, who had willingly committed robbery and arson for him.

“Well,” he said weakly, staring around, “there goes a man.”

Jane was staring at Blaze through her tears, and he went to her.

Cultus walked out through the rear of the saloon and circled around to the restaurant. He wanted to be alone for a few minutes. The Chinamen were so excited that they could hardly take his order. Cultus leaned wearily on the table, just a little weak over what had transpired, now that it was all over, and he was still waiting for his order when Bad News came in and sat down with him.

“Gawd,” said Bad News piously, “what a mess!”

“I plumb forgot to find out who stole my gray horse,” said Cultus, as though coming out of a dream. “I reckon it was Terry Ione again. He was the newcomer at the Triangle X. And those drugs they used to keep Blaze Nolan down look suspiciously like the packages they smuggled across the border. He probably had a lot of it with him, when he took my horse, and it came in handy to dope Blaze. It was Terry and young Marsh who tried to bush me last night. They tried it at Padre Canyon, accordin’ to Della, and I suppose they were makin’ another try last night.”

“But I don’t understand how yuh ever suspicioned that Blaze was at the Triangle X. Why, I was sure Blaze killed the sheriff.”

“It shore looked thataway—except for one thing. Those fools tried to improve on the evidence against Blaze.”

“What was that?”

“The handcuff on Buck Gillis’s wrist. Would any sheriff lock himself to a prisoner, with both of them on horseback?”

Bad News blinked rapidly for several moments.

“That’s right! Why, he wouldn’t, would he? I never thought of it. Why, that would be a crazy thing to do!”

“Yeah, and, anyway, there was enough to point one to the Triangle X as a likely place to look for the answer to almost any criminal goings on. I was sure that forty-one bullets killed Ben Kelton, and at the time of Kelton’s death the only forty-one gun round here was at the Triangle X ranch, according to Jules Mendoza, so I was pretty satisfied that it had been a Triangle X ranny who killed Kelton—Hank North must have sold that forty-one gun to Alden, and I figure that the place that held the killer of Kelton would be a fairly likely place to look for some news of Blaze Nolan’s disappearance and Buck Gillis’s death.”

They finished their meal and went outside. There was still a big crowd around the War Dance, but Cultus evaded them and went over to the store. He didn’t know that the Kelton family were there with Blaze. The effects of the drug had worn off, and he realised how long he had been a captive at the Triangle X.

Jane came straight to Cultus, holding out her two hands. She didn’t say anything, and he smiled down at her. They were still looking at each other, when they heard the long-drawn whistle of an engine. The freight was ready to pull out for Broad Arrow.

“There goes Della,” said Jane softly.

“On that train?”

“She thought it was better that way, Cultus; but this time she will come back willingly as a witness, if they need her.”

Cultus nodded and looked at Harry.

“I won a horse,” he said.

“You earned a horse, yuh mean, Collins.”

“And the best animal on the JK belongs to you,” said Jim Kelton warmly. “And I won’t kick if you take a dozen.”

Cultus grinned and shook his head.

“No, thank yuh, Mr. Kelton. The sorrel I got from Harry is a wonderful animal, but I’ll turn him back to yuh, as soon as I go out to the Triangle X and catch my own horse grazing around there somewhere.”

“You mean you won’t keep the sorrel?” asked Harry.

“No-o-o,” drawled Cultus. “One horse is enough for me; and Amigo is kinda jealous.”

“But can’t we do anythin’ for yuh, Collins?” asked Jim Kelton.

Cultus thought it over for several moments, and then looked at Jane, his eyes twinkling.

“Yes, there’s somethin’ yuh can do, Mr. Kelton. Make it the biggest weddin’ they ever had in Painted Valley, and send me an invite. I won’t be here, but I’d just like to know it happened. And”—he grinned at Jane—“when yore grandchildren set on yore lap and ask yuh to tell ’em some more lies about how yuh climbed that devil’s chimney in Padre Canyon, you send for me, and I’ll come down through Red Horse Pass in a wheelchair, and prove it to them.”

He turned abruptly and walked out, heading toward the hitchrack, where the tall sorrel waited for him.

“There goes another man,” said Blaze Nolan softly.