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   Chapter 9 MURDER IN THE CHAPARRAL

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 6704

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


To Jack Roberts, engaged at the Delmonico restaurant in the serious business of demolishing a steak smothered in onions, came Pedro Menendez with a strange story of a man lying dead in the rim-rock, a bullet-hole in the back of his head.

The Mexican vaquero came to his news haltingly. He enveloped it in mystery. There was a dead man lying at the foot of Battle Butte, out in the rim-rock country, and there was this wound in the back of his head. That was all. Pedro became vague at once as to detail. He took refuge in shrugs and a poor memory when the Ranger pressed him in regard to the source of his information.

Roberts knew the ways of the Mexicans. They would tell what they wanted to tell and no more. He accepted the news given him and for the moment did not push his questions home.

For twenty-four hours the Ranger had been in the saddle, and he was expecting to turn in for a round-the-clock sleep. But Pedro's tale changed his mind. Captain Ellison was at Austin, Lieutenant Hawley at Tascosa. Regretfully Roberts gave up his overdue rest and ordered another cup of strong coffee. Soon he was in the saddle again with a fresh horse under him.

The Panhandle was at its best. Winter snows and spring rains had set it blooming. The cacti were a glory of white, yellow, purple, pink, and scarlet blossoms. The white, lilylike flowers of the Spanish bayonet flaunted themselves everywhere. Meadowlarks chirruped gayly and prairie-hens fluttered across the path in front of the rider.

Battle Butte had received its name from an old tradition of an Indian fight. Here a party of braves had made a last stand against an overwhelming force of an enemy tribe. It was a flat mesa rising sharply as a sort of bastion from the rim-rock. The erosions of centuries had given it an appearance very like a fort.

Jack skirted the base of the butte. At the edge of a clump of prickly pear he found the evidence of grim tragedy which the circling buzzards had already warned him to expect. He moved toward it very carefully, in order not to obliterate any footprints. The body lay face down in a huddled heap, one hand with outstretched finger reaching forth like a sign-post. A bullet-hole in the back of the head showed how the man had come to his death. He had been shot from behind.

The Ranger turned the body and recognized it as that of Rutherford Wadley. The face was crushed and one of the arms broken. It was an easy guess that the murder had been done on the butte above and the body flung down.

Jack, on all fours, began to quarter over the ground like a bloodhound seeking a trail. Every sense in him seemed to quicken to the hunt. His alert eyes narrowed in concentration. His fingertips, as he crept forward, touched the sand soft as velvet. His body was tense as a coiled spring. No cougar stalking its prey could have been more lithely wary.

For the Ranger had found a faint boot-track, and with amazing pains he was following this delible record of guilt. Some one had come here and looked at the dead body. Why? To make sure that the victim was quite dead? To identify the victim? Roberts did not know why, but he meant to find out.

The footprint was alone. Apparently none led to it or led from it. On that one impressionable spot alone had been written the signature of a man's presence.

But "Tex" Robert

s was not an old plainsman for nothing. He knew that if he were patient enough he would find other marks of betrayal.

He found a second track-a third, and from them determined a course to follow. It brought him to a stretch of soft ground at the edge of a wash. The footprints here were sharp and distinct. They led up an arroyo to the bluff above.

The Ranger knelt dose to the most distinct print and studied it for a long time. All its details and peculiarities were recorded in his mind. The broken sole, the worn heel, the beveled edge of the toe-cap-all these fastened themselves in his memory. With a tape-line he measured minutely the length of the whole foot, of the sole and of the heel. These he jotted down in his notebook, together with cross-sections of width. He duplicated this process with the best print he could find of the left foot.

His investigation led him next to the summit of the bluff. A little stain of blood on a rock showed him where Wadley had probably been standing when he was shot. The murder might have been done by treachery on the part of one of his companions. If so, probably the bullet had been fired from a revolver. In that case the man who did it would have made sure by standing close behind his victim. This would have left powder-marks, and there had been none around the wound. The chances were that the shooting had been done from ambush, and if this was a true guess, it was a fair deduction that the assassin had hidden behind the point of rocks just back of the bluff. For he could reach that point by following the rim-rock without being seen by his victim.

Roberts next studied the ground just back of the point of rocks. The soil here was of disintegrated granite, so that there were no footprints to betray anybody who might have been hidden there. But Jack picked up something that was in its way as decisive as what he had been seeking. It was a cartridge that had been ejected from a '73[1] rifle. The harmless bit of metal in his hand was the receptacle from which death had flashed across the open toward Ford Wadley.

At the foot of the rim-rock the Ranger found signs where horses had been left. He could not at first make sure whether there were three or four. From that spot he back-tracked for miles along the edge of the rim-rock till he came to the night-camp where Wadley had met the outlaws. This, too, he studied for a long time.

He had learned a good deal, but he did not know why Ford Wadley had been shot. The young fellow had not been in Texas more than six or eight months, and he could not have made many enemies. If he had nothing about him worth stealing-and in West Texas men were not in the habit of carrying valuables-the object could not have been robbery.

He rode back to Battle Butte and carried to town with him the body of the murdered man. There he heard two bits of news, either of which might serve as a cause for the murder: Young Wadley had quarreled with Tony Alviro at a dance and grossly insulted him; Arthur Ridley had been robbed of six thousand dollars by masked men while on his way to Tascosa.

Ranger Roberts decided that he would like to have a talk with Tony.

The '73 rifle was not a seventy-three-caliber weapon, but was named from the year it was got out. Its cartridges could be used for a forty-four revolver. [1]

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