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   Chapter 15 No.15

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 13798

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Murder

The incident at the schoolhouse was not overlooked. Gail Thorpe was not the only one who heard and saw and understood; others connected the mention of drink with VB's sudden departure. The comment went around in whispers at the dance, to augment and amplify those other stories which had arisen back in the Anchor bunk house and which had been told by Rhues of the meeting in Ranger.

"Young VB is afraid to take a drink," declared a youth to a group about the fire where they discussed the incident.

He laughed lightly and Dick Worth looked sharply at the boy.

"Mebby he is," he commented, reprimand in his tone, "an' mebby it'd be a good thing for some o' you kids if you was afraid. Don't laugh at him! We know he's pretty much man-'cause he's done real things since comin' in here a rank greenhorn. Don't laugh! You ought to help, instead o' that."

And the young fellow, taking the rebuke, admitted: "I guess you're right. Maybe the booze has put a crimp in him."

So VB gave the community one more cause for watching him. Quick to perceive, ever taking into consideration his achievements which spoke of will and courage, Clear River gave him silent sympathy, and promptly put the matter out of open discussion. It was no business of theirs so long as VB kept it to himself. Yet they watched, knowing a fight was being waged and guessing at the outcome, the older and wiser ones hoping while they guessed.

When Bob Thorpe announced to his daughter that he was going to Jed Avery's ranch and would like to have her drive him over through the first feathery dusting of snow, a strain of unpleasant thinking which had endured for three days was broken for the girl. In fact, her relief was so evident that the cattleman stared hard at his daughter.

"You're mighty enthusiastic about that place, seems to me," he remarked.

"Why shouldn't I be?" she asked. "There's where they keep the finest horse in this country!"

"Is that all?" he asked, a bit grimly.

She looked at him and laughed. Then, coming close, she patted one of the weathered cheeks.

"He's awfully nice, daddy-and so mysterious!"

The giggle she forced somehow reassured him. He did not know it was forced.

They arrived at Jed's ranch as Kelly, the horse buyer, was preparing to depart after long weeks in the country. His bunch was in the lower pasture and two saddle horses waited at the gate.

Thorpe and his daughter found Jed, VB, and Kelly in the cabin. The horse buyer was just putting bills back into his money belt, and Jed still fingered the roll that he had taken for his horses.

"Aren't you afraid to pack all that around, Kelly?" Thorpe asked.

"No-nobody holds people up any more," he laughed. "There's only an even six hundred there, anyhow-and a fifty-dollar bill issued by the Confederate States of America, which I carry for luck. My father was a raider with Morgan," he explained, "and I was fifteen years old before I knew 'damn Yank' was two words!"

VB was preparing to go with the buyer, to ride the first two days at least to help him handle the bunch. They expected to make it well out of Ranger the second day, and after that Kelly would pick up another helper.

Gail followed VB when he went outside.

"I'm going away, too," she said.

"So?"

"Yes; mother and I will leave for California day after to-morrow, for the winter."

"That will be fine!"

"Will I be missed?"

He shrank from this personal talk. He remembered painfully their last meeting. He was acutely conscious of how it had ended, and knew that the incident of his abrupt departure must have set her wondering.

"Yes," he answered, meeting her answer truthfully, "I shall miss you. I like you."

Such a thing from him was indeed a jolt, and Gail stooped to pick up a wisp of hay to cover her confusion.

"But I'm sorry," he said, "I must be going."

She looked up in surprise. The horse buyer still talked and the discussion bade fair to go on for a long time.

"You're not starting?" she asked.

"Oh, no. Not for half an hour, anyhow. But you see, the Captain found a pup-hole yesterday and wrenched his leg a little. Not much, but I don't want him to work when anything's wrong. So I'm leaving him behind and I must look after him. Will you excuse me? Good-by!"

She was so slow in extending her hand that he was forced to reach down for it. It was limp within his, and she merely mumbled a response to his hasty farewell.

Gail watched him swing off toward the corral, saw him enter through the gate and put his face against the stallion's neck. She strolled toward the car, feet heavy.

"He wouldn't even ask me to go-go with him. He cares more about-that horse-than-"

She clenched her fists and whispered: "I hate you! I hate you!" Then mounting to the seat and tucking the robe about her ankles, she blew her nose, wiped her eyes, and in a voice strained high said: "No, I don't, either."

VB and Kelly took their bunch down the gulch at a spanking trot. Most of the stock was fairly gentle and they had little difficulty. They planned to stop at a deserted cabin a few miles north of Ranger where a passable remnant of fenced pasture still remained. They reached the place at dark and made a hasty meal, after which VB rolled in, but his companion roped a fresh horse and made on to Ranger for a few hours' diversion.

It was nearly dawn when Kelly returned with a droll account of the night's poker, and although VB was for going on early, wanting to be rid of the task, the other insisted on sleeping.

"I don't want to get too far, anyhow," he said. "Those waddies like to rimmed me last night. Got all I had except what's in old Betsy, the belt. I'm goin' back to-night and get their scalp!"

It was noon before they reached Ranger and swung to the east.

"Oh, I'll be back to-night and get you fellows!" Kelly called to a man who waved to him from the saloon.

VB held his gaze in the opposite direction. He knew that even the sight of the place might raise the devil in him again.

A man emerged from one of the three isolated shacks down on the river bank. It was Rhues. The two rode slowly, for the buyer was in no mood for fast travel, and for a long time Rhues stood there following them with his eyes.

At dusk the horsemen turned the bunch into a corral and prepared to spend the night with beds spread in the ruin of a cabin near the inclosure. Before the bed-horses had been relieved of their burdens a cowboy rode along who was known to Kelly, and arrangements were made for him to take VB's place on the morrow.

"Well, then, all you want me to do is to stay here to-night to see that things don't go wrong. Is that it?" VB asked.

"Yep- Oh, I don't know," with a yawn. "I guess I won't sit in that game to-night. I'll get some sleep. Mebby if I did go back I'd only have to dig up part of my bank here." He patt

ed his waist. "You can go on home if you want to."

VB was glad to be released, for he could easily reach the ranch that night. He left Kelly talking with the cowboy, making their plans for the next day, and struck across the country for Jed's ranch.

Left alone, the horse buyer munched a cold meal. Then, shivering, he crept into his thick bed and slept. An hour passed-two-three.

A horse dropped slowly off a point near the corral. A moment later two more followed. One rider dismounted and walked away after a low, hoarse whisper; another pushed his horse into the highway and stood still, listening; the third held the pony that had been left riderless.

A figure, worming its way close to the ground, crawled up on the sleeping horse buyer. It moved silently, a yard at a time; then stopped, raised its head as though to listen; on again, ominously, so much a part of the earth it covered that it might have been just the ridge raised by a giant mole burrowing along under the surface. It approached to within three yards of the sleeping man; to within six feet; three; two.

Then it rose to its knees slowly, cautiously, silently, and put out a hand gently, lightly feeling the outlines of the blankets. A shoot of orange scorched the darkness-and another, so close together that the flame was almost continuous. The blankets heaved, trembled, settled.

The man on his knees hovered a long moment, revolver ready, listening intently. Not a sound-even the horses seemed to be straining their ears for another break in the night.

The man reached out a hand and drew the blankets away from the figure beneath, thrusting his face close. The starlight filtered in and he drew a long, quivering breath-not in hate or horror, but in surprise. He got to his feet and listened again. Then he moved into the open, over the way he had come. After a dozen quick, stealthy paces he stopped and turned back. He unbuttoned the jumper about the figure under the blankets, unbuttoned the shirt, felt quickly about the waist, fumbled a moment, and jerked out a long, limp object. Again he strode catlike into the open, and as he went he tucked the money belt into his shirt-front.

VB rode straight to the ranch. He made a quick ride and arrived before ten.

"Mighty glad Kelly got that man," he told Jed. "I'm like a fish out of water away from the Captain."

At dusk the next day a horseman rode up the gulch to Jed's outfit. The old man stood in the doorway, watching him approach.

"Hello, Dick!" he called, recognizing the deputy from Sand Creek.

"How's things, Jed?"

"Better'n fine."

Worth left his horse and entered the cabin.

"VB around?" he asked.

"Uh-huh; out in th' corral foolin' with th' Captain."

Dick dropped to a chair and pushed his hat back. He looked on the other a moment, then asked: "What time did VB get home last night?"

Jed showed evident surprise, but answered: "Between half-past nine an' ten."

"Notice his horse?"

"Saw him this mornin'. Why?"

"Was it a hard ride th' boy made?"

"No-sure not. I rode th' pony down to th' lower pasture myself this afternoon."

Worth drew a deep breath and smiled as though relieved.

"Bein' 'n officer is mighty onpleasant sometimes," he confessed. "I knew it wasn't no use to ask them questions, but I had to do it-'cause I'm a deputy." With mouth set, Jed waited for the explanation he knew must come.

"Kelly was killed while he slept last night."

Horror was the first natural impulse for a man to experience on the knowledge of such a tragedy, but horror did not come to Jed Avery then or for many minutes. He put out a hand slowly and felt for the table as though dizzy.

Then, in a half tone, "You don't mean you suspected VB? Dick-Dick!"

The sheriff's face became troubled.

"Jed, didn't I tell you I knew it wasn't no use to ask them questions?" he said reassuringly. "I'd 'a' gambled my outfit on th' boy, 'cause I know what he is. When you tell me he got here by ten an' it wasn't a hard ride, I know they's no use even thinkin' about it. But th' fact is-

"You see, Jed, everybody in th' country has got to know what's up with VB. They know he's fightin' back th' booze! That gang o' skunks down at Ranger-Rhues an' his outfit-started out to rub it into VB, but everybody knew they was tellin' lies. An' everybody's thought lots of him fer th' fight he's made."

He got to his feet and walked slowly about the room.

"But th' truth is, Jed-an' you know it-when a man's been hittin' th' booze, an' we ain't sure he's beat it out, we're always lookin' fer him to slip. Nobody down at Ranger has thought one word about VB in this, only that mebby he could tell who'd been round there.

"But, bein' 'n officer, I had th' sneakin', dirty idee I ought to ask them questions about VB. That's all there is to it, Jed. That's all! I'm deputy; VB's been a boozer.

"But I tell you, Jed Avery, it sure's a relief to know it's all right."

The warmth of sincerity was in his tone and his assurances had been of the best, but Jed slumped limply into a chair and rested his head on his hands.

"It's a rotten world, Dick-a rotten, rotten world!" he said. "I know you're all right; I know you mean what you say; but ain't it a shame that when a man's down our first thought is to kick him? Always expect him to fall again once he gets up! Ain't it rotten?"

And his love for Young VB, stirred anew by this sense of the injustice of things, welled into his throat, driving back more words.

Dick Worth was a man of golden integrity; Jed knew well that no suspicion would be cast on VB. But the knowledge that serious-minded, clear-thinking men like the deputy would always remember, in a time like this, that those who had once run wild might fall into the old ways at any hour, stung him like a lash.

VB opened the door.

"Hello, Dick!" he greeted cheerily. "Want me?"

Worth laughed and Jed started.

"No; I come up to get a little help from you if I can, though."

"Help?"

"Kelly was shot dead in his bed last night."

For a moment VB stared at him.

"Who?"

"That's what we don't know. That's what I came up here for-to see if you could help us."

And Jed, face averted, drew a foot quickly across the boards of the floor.

"One of Hank Redden's boys was with him-th' one who took your place-until dark. Little after eight old Hank heard two shots, but didn't think nothin' of it. Kelly was shot twice. That must 'a' been th' time."

VB put down his hat, his eyes bright with excitement.

"He'd planned to go back to Ranger," he said. "But, after being up most of the night before, he was too tired. He told them at Ranger he'd be back. And if I'd been there they'd have got me," he ended.

"Unless they was lookin' for Kelly especial," said Dick. "They took his money belt."

"Mebby," muttered Jed,-"mebby they made a mistake."

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