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   Chapter 6 A STERN CHASE

The Delafield Affair By Florence Finch Kelly Characters: 12996

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

As the shout which greeted Conrad's entrance died away the Sheriff called out, "Now, gentlemen, you must all have one with me," and every one lined up at the bar. A rollicking din of chaff and laughter filled the room, and no one except Little Jack Wilder noticed the entrance of a Mexican at the street door. He heard the step, turned quickly, and recognized the man who had told Tillinghurst that he was not Liberato Herrara. Glancing along the line of backs at the bar, the Mexican singled out Conrad and touched his arm.

"I beg your pardon, se?or, but did you send some one to ride your mare?"

"To ride my mare? No; what do you mean?"

Before he could answer Wilder sprang forward demanding, "Is she gone?" and Conrad started for the door.

"A man has just ridden her away on the run," the Mexican said excitedly, and every one in the room rushed for the street.

"She's gone!" shouted Conrad.

"Did you see him? What was he like?" demanded the Sheriff.

"A pock-marked greaser with a bad eye?" yelled Wilder, towering threateningly above the bearer of the news.

Gonzalez threw back his head, folded his arms across his breast, and answered deliberately, "He was a Mexican, se?or, he was pock-marked, and he was blind in one eye."

"Melgares! He's done it at last! Hooray!" shouted Wilder.

Far down the street, beyond the last cottonwood, against the gray, sun-flooded road, they could see a dark object, distorted by the heat haze, but still showing the form of a man on a galloping horse.

Tillinghurst's smile became an eager grin as he started up the street on a run. "Everybody come that wants to," he called over his shoulder. Wilder and Conrad were already half a block ahead of him, and several others quickly followed.

When they presently came pelting back, their horses at top speed, a crowd of men still stood on the sidewalk, where the Blue Front made a splash of brilliant color against the sombre grays and browns of the surrounding adobes. Wilder's tall, thin figure was in the lead, bending forward in the saddle like a sapling in a gale, the wide, limp brim of his sombrero flapping in the wind. Conrad and Tillinghurst were pressing him close, and half a dozen others were pounding along behind these three, while a stout man, who rode awkwardly, trailed along in the rear.

The crowd at the Blue Front shouted encouragingly as they clattered past, and made bets on the chances of catching the fugitive. The Mexican, Gonzalez, watched Conrad closely as he sped by, and said carelessly to the man beside him, "Se?or Conrad is a good rider, the best of them all. I hope he will get back his fine mare."

The horsemen swept down the street past the last straggling houses, and out into the open plain. Fleeing down the road, perhaps two miles ahead of them, galloped the Mexican. Tillinghurst measured the distance with a careful eye, and said to Conrad, "He's our meat. We can get him easy." He glanced backward, chuckled, then turned in his saddle, and called loudly, "Come along there, Pendy! Don't get discouraged!"

Another of the party turned his head and yelled, "You're all right, Pendy! You'll get there before Dan does!"

The stout man who brought up the rear had made sure of his gray slouch hat by tying it on with a red bandanna handkerchief. He was gripping his bridle with both hands and bouncing in his saddle like a bag of meal. "Don't you worry about me!" he yelled back good-naturedly; "you can't lose me if you try."

"Who is he?" asked Curtis.

"Pendy? Oh, he's a tenderfoot. Blew in from the East two or three weeks ago. Somethin' wrong with his bellows-or likely to be, though you-all wouldn't think it, considerin' his fat. He's grit clear through, though! Just look at the way he rides!"

Conrad glanced back, laughed, and replied, "Oh, it'll be good for his liver!" Then he went on seriously, "Dan, do you think there's any truth in the story that this man Melgares began horse-stealing because Dell Baxter did him out of his ranch?"

"Oh, I don't know! Baxter got his ranch all right, but the greaser didn't have to go to stealin' horses on that account. Chickens are safer; and chilis don't even squawk. I reckon likely he steals horses because he'd ruther."

"Well, anyway, Dan, all I want out of this is to get Brown Betty back. I shall not make any complaint against him. So, if he gives up the mare, I'd rather you let him go."

"Huh," grunted the Sheriff, with an apprehensive glance at Wilder, a full length ahead. "For God's sake, Curt, don't let Jack hear you say that! He'd be so disgusted he'd turn tail and go straight back to Golden!"

The fugitive kept his distance well; it seemed to Conrad's eye that he even gained a little. Now and again they could see him look back, and with spur and quirt urge the mare to a fresh burst of speed.

"Brown Betty's a stayer," said Curtis, bringing his horse beside Tillinghurst's again, "and she's fast. I don't believe we'll catch him unless something happens to her."

The Sheriff turned a smiling face and said confidently, "If we get a little nearer I reckon somethin's likely to happen to him. Hello, Pendleton!" he exclaimed as the stout man came up on the other side. "That noble steed of yours is sure gettin' a gait on him, ain't he? If you-all don't wait for the rest of us there'll be trouble, I'm tellin' you!"

"Say, Sheriff," called Pendleton between his gasps and grunts as he bounced up and down, "are you going to keep up this pace all day?"

Tillinghurst eyed him benignly. "As long as he does," he said, nodding toward the fleeing spot of black down the road. "Say, Pendy," he went on in a kindly tone, "it's a pretty stiff gait for you-all, and unless you're anxious to take your meals standin' for the next month you'd better drop out and go back. It's likely to be an all-day job."

"Not much! You can't lose me till the fun's over!"

"Hooray for Pendy! He's all right!" yelled a man behind, giving Pendleton's horse a sharp cut across the flank with his whip. The beast jumped, and its rider lurched to one side, fell forward, and saved himself by grabbing the mane with both hands. The men shouted with merriment as Pendleton righted himself, turned a laughing face and shook his fist at the man who had played the joke on him. "Just wait till I get you where I want you, Jack Gaines," he called, "and you'll be sorry you ever played tricks on a tenderfoot."

The gulch spread out into a wide, shallow valley-a

draw, they called it-and the waters of the stream disappeared, sucked up by the thirsty earth. The valley curved to the east, the road climbing over its rim and holding straight toward the south. The figure of Melgares, mounted on Brown Betty as on a pedestal, stood out boldly for a moment against the turquoise sky as he crossed the summit, then sank out of sight beyond the hill. The party galloped on, and as they crossed the ridge and saw him on the top of a smaller hill beyond, Conrad's eye swept the distance lying between and he exclaimed, "We've gained on him!"

At the same moment Little Jack Wilder, who had been watching the road intently, shouted joyously, the first words he had spoken since leaving the town, "She's cast a shoe! Now it's a cinch!"

Tillinghurst turned his head and shouted, "Get your gun ready, Pendy! your chance is comin'."

Jack Gaines, riding neck and neck with the Sheriff, looked back and yelled, "Come a-runnin', Pendy! The greaser can't wait for you all day!"

They were gaining rapidly on Melgares and, as they swept over the top of a little hill and saw him cross the next low rise, Conrad exclaimed, "She's limping, damn him! If he hurts Brown Betty-"

"You won't mind so much if we hurt him," quietly put in the Sheriff, who was riding on his lee. Curtis spurred his horse to Wilder's stirrup.

"Jack," he said, "I don't want the fellow hurt. If he'll give up my mare I'm willing to let him go."

Little Jack grunted contemptuously without replying.

"I want you to understand," Conrad went on, "that if you take him I shall make no complaint against him, provided I get Betty unhurt."

"You don't have to make no complaint," Jack growled; "I'll do that myself."

They gained steadily on the fugitive, and presently Curtis curved his hands about his mouth and called, "Betty! Betty B!" They could see the mare check her speed, and the faint sound of her whinny reached their ears. Conrad called again; and the mare wheeled in her tracks. The Mexican jerked her back, lashed her furiously, and set her forward again at a gallop. Curtis called again and again, and every time they could see Melgares using whip and spur to force her on. But presently the mare dropped tail and head, arched her back, and, stiff-legged, began to jump up and down.

Conrad laughed joyously and slapped his thigh. "Bully for Betty B! I never knew her to buck before."

They urged on their horses and pounded down the hill toward the small circus Brown Betty was making of herself. She cavorted, shook herself, humped her back, jumped up and down, stood on her front feet and almost sat on her tail, and did everything that equine intelligence could devise to rid herself of the masterful hand on her bridle. But the Mexican kept his seat and his grip upon the rein. With spur and quirt and compelling voice he finally forced her into submission. As she quieted down they were facing the pursuing posse and Melgares had just turned the mare's head in another desperate attempt at escape when Conrad's voice rang out once more, and Brown Betty refused to move. She tossed her head, laid back her ears, and whinnied, but would not lift a hoof. The Mexican drew his revolver and shouted, "Stop!"

The horsemen, not more than a hundred yards distant, drew rein at the word-all except Pendleton, who came pounding and bouncing to the front, his horse still on the gallop. Gaines, just behind Tillinghurst and Wilder, called out laughingly, "Hooray for Pendy! Go on and get him, Pendy!"

Pendleton had been too much occupied with keeping his seat to try to stop his horse, and as it went on half a length in advance of the rest Gaines leaned forward and gave it a cut across the flank with his quirt. It leaped forward smartly and Pendleton, taken unawares again, bobbed down on its neck and grabbed for its mane. Melgares saw the horse start forward and instantly his revolver flashed. The bullet left a singed streak across the back of Pendleton's coat, whistled on, and found refuge in Gaines's side.

Wilder's gun was out and cocked. He saw Pendleton lying on his horse's neck, and heard Gaines cry out, "I'm hit!" as he fell forward across his pommel. "Stop that!" he called. "Fire again and you're a dead man!"

Melgares leaped from the mare's back and ran at full speed down the valley, away from the road. Brown Betty came trotting to Conrad's side, whinnying joyfully. Pendleton sat upright, calling out, "Say, fellows, is there any blood on my back?" They told him no and as he climbed down from his saddle clumsily he grinned and said:

"Well, I can still die of consumption, then!"

Tillinghurst, Wilder, and several of the others were galloping after Melgares, who was running for his life down the valley toward a clump of cactus and juniper.

"Wing him, Jack!" called the Sheriff. "There's a crack in the ground down there where he can hide and pick us off as he pleases."

Little Jack brought his horse to a sudden stop, aimed low, and the Mexican reeled and fell, the blood gushing from a wound in the calf of his leg. He scrambled to his feet, and fired his second shot. The bullet nicked the brim of the Sheriff's hat. There was another flash, and Wilder heard the bullet sing past his ear.

"Stop it, you damned greaser!" he yelled, "or I'll let daylight through your head." In quick succession he put two holes through the Mexican's sombrero. "The next one is for your other eye!" he called, and Melgares dropped his weapon.

Wilder leaped to the ground and ran toward him. He glanced at the group of horsemen, each with revolver drawn, and at Wilder coming with his gun at cock, then threw back his head with his own pistol at his temple. Little Jack grabbed his arm, but Melgares fought desperately. The others came running to Wilder's assistance, and it was not until they had taken his revolver, put handcuffs upon him, and taken from his clothing another pistol, a knife, and a belt full of cartridges, that he gave up his struggles.

They put him on the horse that Conrad had ridden, with his feet tied under its belly. Tillinghurst and Wilder, revolvers in hand, rode on either side of him. Conrad, mounted on his own mare, and another were side by side with Jack Gaines laid across their laps. Two more went on at a gallop to bring out a doctor and a carriage for the wounded man. The rest rode slowly back through the hot sunlight and the high wind, guarding their captive and carrying his victim.

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