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   Chapter 37 ON A HOT TRAIL

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 10138

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Roberts picked up from the fort a Mescalero Apache famous as a trailer. He reckoned to be rather expert in that line himself, but few white men could boast of such skill as old Guadaloupe had.

Jumbo Wilkins was one of the posse Jack had hastily gathered. "I'm good an' glad I was in town an' not out herdin' vacas, Tex. A fellow kinda needs a little excitement oncet in a while. I got a hunch we're goin' to git these birds this time."

"You're the greatest little optimist I ever did see, Jumbo," answered the Ranger with a smile. "We're goin' to strike a cold trail of men who know every inch of this country an' are ridin' hell-for-leather to make a get-away. We're liable to ride our broncs to shadows an' never see hair or hide of the fellows we want. I'd like to know what license you've got for yore hunch."

"You're such a lucky guy, Tex. If you was lookin' for a needle in a haystack you'd find it in yore mouth when you picked up a straw to chew on."

"Lucky, nothin'. A man makes his own luck, I always did tell you, an' I haven't bumped into any yet. You don't see any big bunch of fat cows with my brand on 'em, do you? I'm pluggin' along for a dollar a day with a promise from Cap Ellison that I'll probably cash in soon with my boots on. Old Man Luck always hides behind the door when I pass, if there's any such Santa Claus in the business."

"All the way you look at it. Didn't Clint Wadley offer you the job of bossin' the best cow-ranch in the Panhandle?"

"An' didn't I have to turn down his offer an' hang on to a dollar-a-day job?"

"Then you saved Miss 'Mona from that bull an' made a friend of her."

"Yes, an' then I butted in an' kept the Kiowas from mussin' up Art Ridley, who is liable to ask me to stand up with him when he marries Miss Ramona," added the Ranger.

"Shucks! She'll never marry Ridley so long as you're runnin' around unbranded, son."

"A lot you know about girls, Jumbo," said Roberts with a rueful grin. "I don't know sic' 'em about the things they like. I'm one chaparral-raised roughneck. That little lady never wasted two thoughts on me. But Art-he knows a lot about books an' style an' New York's four hundred. He's good to look at, clean, knows how to talk, an' makes a sure-enough hit with the girls."

"He's a sissy boy beside you. No Texas girl would look twice-"

"Nothin' a-tall to that. Didn't he save Clint Wadley's life? Didn't he stay by Dinsmore when the Kiowas had 'em holed? He fought good enough to get shot up this mo'nin', didn't he? No, sir. You'll find he's got me backed off the map so far as Miss Ramona goes. I know it, old-timer."

"Where do you get that notion you're a roughneck, Tex?" asked Jumbo. "You've read more books than any man on the range. You don't hell around like most of the boys. You don't drink. Mebbe you ain't exactly pretty, but yore face doesn't scare critters when they see it onexpected. An' when the band begins to play-Gentlemen, watch Tex."

"If the girls would only let you do the pickin' for 'em, Jumbo," suggested Roberts with his sardonic smile.

Through rabbit weed and curly mesquite, among the catclaw and the prickly pear, they followed the faint ribbon trail left by the outlaws in their retreat from the scene of the hold-up.

When it was too late to cut sign any longer, the Ranger gave orders to throw in to a small draw where the grass was good. At daybreak they were on the trail again and came within the hour to the body of Overstreet. They dug a grave in a buffalo run with their knives and buried the body as well as they could before they picked up again the tracks of two horses now traveling much faster.

"They're headin' for Palo Duro, looks like,'" commented Roberts.

"Looks like," agreed his friend.

Early in the afternoon the posse reached the little creek where the outlaws had breakfasted. Old Guadaloupe crisscrossed the ground like a bloodhound as he read what was written there. But before he made any report Roberts himself knew that a third person had joined the fugitives and that this recruit was a woman. The Ranger followed the Apache upstream, guessed by some feathers and some drops of blood that one of the outlaws had shot a prairie-hen, and read some hint of the story of the meeting between the woman and the bandit.

Was this woman some one who had been living in Palo Duro Ca?on with the outlaws? Or was this meeting an accidental one? The odd thing about it was that there was no sign of her horse. She had come on foot, in a country where nobody ever travels that way.

Roberts told Guadaloupe to find out where the party had gone from the camp. He himself followed into the desert the footsteps of the woman who had come across it toward the creek. He was puzzled and a little disturbed in mind. She had not come from the ca?on. What was a woman doing alone and on foot in this desert empty of human life for fifty miles or more?

He found no answer to his questions and reluctantly returned to the camp-fire. Guadaloupe was ready with his report. One man had started out on

foot along the edge of the ca?on. The other man and the woman had struck on horseback across the plain.

"We'll follow those on horseback," decided the Ranger at once. He could not have told why the urgent impulse was on him to do this, nor why he did not split his party and send part of his men in pursuit of the foot traveler. Later he laid it to what Jumbo would have called a hunch.

He was puzzled by the direction the two riders were taking. It led neither to the A T O nor to Tascosa, and was making no account of the streams where the travelers would have to find water. They seemed to be plunging ignorantly into the desert, but since Gurley or Dinsmore was one of the two this could not be. Either of these men could have traveled the Panhandle blindfolded.

They followed the tracks for hours. The line of travel was so direct that it told of purpose. Dinsmore-if the man were Dinsmore-evidently knew just what he was doing. Then, abruptly, the tracks pointed to the right, straight for the A T O.

But not for long. At the summit of a little rise the riders had plainly stopped for a few moments, then had turned and galloped fast for the southwest. The lengthening tracks, the sharpness of them, the carelessness with which the riders took the rougher ground to follow a straight line, all suggested an urgent and imperative reason.

That reason became plain to Roberts in another minute. A great number of tracks swept in from the left and blotted out those of the two flying riders.

"Chiricahua Apaches," grunted Guadaloupe. The scout had a feud with that branch of the tribe and was at war with them.

"How many?" questioned Jack.

The Indian held up the fingers of both hands, closed them, opened them, and a third time shut and lifted the fingers.

"Thirty?" asked the Ranger.

The Apache nodded.

"Dinsmore 's makin' for Palo Duro," remarked Wilkins as they followed at a canter the plain trail marked for them. "I'll bet he don't throw down on himself none on that race either. He's sure hell-bent on gettin' there."

One of the riders called to the Rangers. "Look over to the left, Tex. We got company."

A little group of riders-three, four, five of them-emerged from behind a clump of Spanish bayonet and signaled with a bandana handkerchief. As they rode closer the heart of the Ranger died under his ribs. His stomach muscles tightened, and he felt a prickling of the skin run down his back. For Clint Wadley rode at the head of these men, and like a flash of lightning the truth had seared across the brain of Jack Roberts. His daughter was the woman riding to escape from the savages.

The face of Wadley confirmed the guess of the Ranger. On the unshaven face of the cattleman dust was caked. His eyes were red and inflamed from the alkali and the tears he had fought back fifty times. The expression of the man was that of one passing through the torments of hell.

In five broken sentences he told his story. Quint Sullivan, escaping from his pursuers after a thirty-mile run, had reached the ranch in the middle of the night. Clint had gathered together such men as were at hand and started at once. At Crane Lake he had found no trace of her. He could not escape the conviction that the Apaches had captured Ramona and taken her with them.

On this last point the Ranger offered him comfort, though it was sorry comfort at that. Five hours ago she was still safe, but in terrible danger.

"Dinsmore's a man-none gamer in Texas, Mr. Wadley. He won't desert her," said Jumbo. "You couldn't 'a' picked a better man to look out for her."

"How do you know it's Dinsmore? Perhaps it's that yellow wolf Gurley," answered the father out of his tortured heart.

Jack was riding on the other side of Wadley. He, too, carried with him a private hell of fear in his heart, but he knew that the big cattleman was nearly insane with anxiety.

"Because the man with Miss Ramona was takin' her back to the ranch when they bumped into the 'Paches. You know Steve Gurley would never have taken her home in the world," replied the Ranger.

"What can one man do against thirty? He'll do what Quint here did-run to save his own hide."

Young Sullivan winced. It was the truth. He had run and left the girl to the mercy of these devils. But his one chance of helping her had been to run. He tried to say as much.

"I know that, Quint. I'm not blamin' you," broke out the father in his agony. "But my little lamb-in the hands of 'Paches-God!" Wadley covered his eyes with his hand and tried to press back from his brain the horrible visions he kept seeing.

Jumbo stuck to his one valid point. "Bite yore teeth into this, Clint. She's got ridin' beside her as game a man as ever threw his leg over leather. He knows this country like you do yore ranch. He'll hole up in Palo Duro where the 'Paches won't find 'em, an' if the devils do he'll sure stand 'em off till we blow in."

His friend on the other side of the cattleman backed him up strongly, but the heart of the Ranger was heavy with dread.

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