Read CHAPTER XXII - THE PURSUIT OF RED MASK of The Night Riders A Romance of Early Montana , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

A mile start; it would seem an impossible advantage.  Even with a far better horse in pursuit, how many miles must be covered before that distance could be made up?  Could the lost ground be regained in eight miles?  It looked to be out of the question even to Tresler, hopeful of his mare as he was, and knowing her remarkable turn of speed.  Yet such proved to be the case.  Eight miles saw him so close on the heels of the raider that there was nothing left for the fugitive but to keep on.

He felt no surprise that they were traversing the river trail.  He even thought he knew how he could head his man off by a short cut.  But this would not serve his purpose.  He wanted to get him red-handed, and to leave him now would be to give him a chance that he was confident would be taken advantage of at once.  The river trail led to the ranch.  And the only branches anywhere along its route were those running north and south at the ford.

Steadily he closed up, foot by foot, yard by yard.  Sometimes he saw his quarry, sometimes he was only guided by the beat of the speeding hoofs.  Now that he was urging her, the Lady Jezebel had relinquished the bit, not only willing, but bursting to do better than her best.  No rider could resist such an appeal.  And as they went Tresler found himself talking to her with an affection that would have sounded ridiculous to any but a horseman.  It made him smile to see her ears laid back, not in the manner of a horse putting forth its last efforts, but with that vicious air she always had, as though she were running open-mouthed at Jacob Smith, as he had seen her do in the corral on his introduction to her.

When they came to the river ford he was a bare hundred yards in the wake of his man.  Here the road turned off for the ranch, and the trees met overhead and shut out the light of the moon.  It was pitch black, and he was only guided by the sound of the other horse in front.  Abreast of the ford he became aware that this sound had abruptly died out, and at the bend of the trail he pulled up and listened acutely.  They stood thus, the mare’s great body heaving under him, until her rider caught the faint sound of breaking bush somewhere directly ahead of them.

Instantly recollection came to his help, and he laughed as he turned the mare off the trail and plunged into the scrub.  It was the spot where, once before, he had taken, unwillingly, to the bush.  There was no hesitation, no uncertainty.  They raced through the tangle, and threaded their way on to the disused trail they had both traveled before.

The fugitive had gained considerably now, and Tresler, for the first time since the race had begun, asked his mare for more pace.  She simply shook her head, snorted, and swished her tail, as though protesting that the blow was unnecessary.  She could not do the impossible, and that he was asking of her.  But his forcible request was the nervous result of his knowledge that the last lap of the race had been entered upon and the home stretch was not far off.  It must be now or never.

He soon realized that the remaining distance was all too short.  As he came to the place where the forest abruptly terminated, he saw that day had broken.  The gray light showed him to be still thirty yards or so behind.

They had reached the broken lands he remembered so well.  Before him stretched the plateau leading to the convergence of the river and the cliff.  It was the sight of this which gave him an inspiration.  He remembered the branching trail to the bridge, also the wide sweep it took, as compared with the way he had first come.  To leap the river would gain him fifty yards.  But in that light it was a risk a grave risk.  He hesitated.  Annoyed at his own indecision, he determined to risk everything on one throw.  The other horse was distinctly lagging.  He reached down and patted his mare’s neck.  And that simple action restored his confidence; he felt that she was still on top of her work.  The river would have no terrors for her.

He saw the masked man turn off for the bridge, but he held straight on.  He gave another anxious look at the sky.  The dull gray was still unbroken by any flush of sunrise, but it was lighter, certainly.  The mask of clouds was breaking, though it still contrived to keep daylight in abeyance.  He had no option but to settle himself in the saddle for the great effort.  Light or no light, he could not turn back now.

And for the while he forgot the fugitive.  His mind centred on the river ahead, and the moment when his hand must lend the mare that aid, without which he could not hope, after her great journey, to win the far bank.  His nerve was steady, and his eyes never more alert.  Everything was distinct enough about him.  The bushes flying by were clearly outlined now, and he fancied he could already see the river’s line of demarkation.  On they raced, he leaning well forward, she with her ears pricked, attentive to the murmurs of the water already so near.  Unconsciously his knees gripped the leggaderos of his saddle with all the power he could put into the pressure, and his body was bent crouching, as though he were about to make the spring himself.

And the moment came.  He spurred and lifted; and the game beast shot forward like a rocket.  A moment, and she landed.  But the half lights must have deceived her.  She had jumped further than before, and, crashing into a boulder with her two fore feet, she turned a complete somersault, and fell headlong to the ground, hurling her rider yards out of the saddle into the soft loose sand of the trail beyond.

Quite unhurt, Tresler was on his feet in an instant.  But the mare lay still where she had fallen.  A hopeless feeling of regret swept over the man as he turned and beheld her.  He saw the masked rider dash at the hillside on his weary horse, not twenty yards from him, but he gave him no heed.

It needed no look into the mare’s glazing eyes to tell him what he had done.  He had killed her.  The first really honest act of her life had led to the unfortunate creature’s own undoing.  Her lean ewe neck was broken, as were both her forelegs.

The moment he had ascertained the truth he left her, and, looking up at the hill, saw that it was high time.  The rider had vanished, but his jaded horse was standing half-way up the hillside in the mire of loose sand.  It was either too frightened or too weary to move, and stood there knee-deep, a picture of dejection.

The task of mounting to the ledge was no light one, but Tresler faced it without a second thought.  The other had only something less than a minute’s start of him, and as there was only one other exit to the place and that, he remembered, of a very unpromising nature he had few fears of the man’s ultimate escape.  No, there was no escape for him; and besides a smile lit up the hard set of his features at the thought daylight had really come.  The clouds had at last given way before the rosy herald of sunrise.

The last of the ascent was accomplished, and, breathing hard, Tresler stepped on to the gravel-strewn plateau, gun in hand.  He felt glad of his five-chambered companion.  Those rough friends of his on the ranch were right.  There was nothing so compelling, nothing so arbitrary, nor so reassuring to the possessor and confounding to his enemies, as a gun well handled.

The ledge was empty.  He looked at the towering cliff, but there was no sign of his man in that direction.  He moved toward the hut, but at the first step the door of the dugout was flung wide, and Julian Marbolt, gun in hand, dashed out.

He came with a rush, without hesitation, confidently; but as the door was thrown open, and the flood of daylight shone down upon him, he fell back with a bitter cry of despair, and Tresler knew that he had not reckoned on the change from comparative darkness to daylight.  He needed no further proof of what he had come to suspect.  The rancher was only blind in the presence of strong light!

For a second only he stood cowering back, then, feeling his way, he darted with miraculous rapidity round the side of the building, and scrambled toward the dizzy staircase in the rock.

Tresler challenged him at once, but he paid no heed.  He had reached the foot of the stairway, and was climbing for life and liberty.  The other knew that he ought to have opened fire on him, but the old desire to trust to his hands and bodily strength overcame his better judgment, and he ran at him.  His impulse was humane but futile, for the man was ascending with marvelous rapidity, and by the time he had reached the foot of the ladder, was beyond his reach.

There was nothing left now but to use his gun or to follow.  One look at the terrific ascent, however, left him no choice.

“Go on, and I’ll drop you, Julian Marbolt!” he shouted.  “I’ve five chambers loaded in each gun.”

For response, the blind man increased his exertions.  On he went, up, up, till it made the man below dizzy to watch him.  Tresler raised his gun and fired wide, letting the bullet strike the rock close to the man’s right hand to convince him of his intentions.  He saw the limestone splinter as the bullet hit it, while the clutching, groping hand slid higher for a fresh hold; but it had no other effect.

He was at a loss.  If the man reached the top, he knew that somewhere over the brink lay a road to safety.  And he was nearing it; nearing it foot by foot with his crawling, clinging clutch upon the face of rock.  He shuddered as he watched, fascinated even against himself.  Deprived of sight, the man’s whole body seemed alert with an instinct that served him in its stead.  His movements were like those of some cuttlefish, reaching out blindly with its long feelers and drawing itself up by the power of its tentacles.

He shouted a last warning.  “Your last chance!” he cried; and now his aim was true, and his purpose inflexible.

The only answer was a hurried movement on the part of the climbing man.

Tresler’s finger was on the trigger, while his eyes were fixed on his mark.  But the hammer did not fall; the final compression of the hand was stayed, while horror leapt into the eyes so keenly looking over the sight.  Something had happened up there on the face of the cliff.  The man had slipped!  One foot shot out helplessly, as the frantic climber struggled for those last few steps before the shot came.  He wildly sought to recover himself, but the fatal jolt carried the weight of his body with it, and wrenched the other foot from its hold.  For the fraction of a second the man below became aware of the clinging hands, as they desperately held to the rock, and then he dropped his gun and clapped his hands over his ears as a piercing shriek rang out.  He could not witness any more.  He only heard, in spite of his stopped ears, the lumping of a soft body falling; he saw, though his eyes were closed almost on the instant, a huddled figure pitch dully upon the edge of the plateau and disappear below.  It all passed in a flash.

Then silence reigned.  And when he opened his eyes there was no horrible sight, nothing seemed to have been disturbed.  It had gone; no trace was left, not a tatter of cloth, not a spot of blood, nothing.

He knew.  His imaginary vision of the old-time trapper had been enacted before his very eyes.  All that remained of Julian Marbolt was lying down there.

Fyles and Tresler were standing in the valley below.  They were gazing on the mangled remains of the rancher.  Fyles had removed the piece of red blanket from the dead man’s face, and held it up for inspection.

“Um!” he grunted.  “The game’s played out.”

“There’s more of that up there in the hut,” said Tresler.

“Breed blanket,” commented Fyles, folding it up and carefully bestowing it in his pocket.  Then he turned and gazed down the yawning valley.  It was a wonderful place, a mighty rift extending for miles into the heart of the mountains.  “A nice game, too,” he went on presently.  “Ever seen this place before?”

“Once,” Tresler replied.  Then he told the officer of his runaway ride.

Fyles listened with interest.  At the conclusion he said, “Pity you didn’t tell me of this before.  However, you missed the chief interest.  Look away down there in the shelter of the cliff.  See about a mile down.  Corrals enough to shepherd ten thousand head.  And they are cunningly disposed.”

Tresler now became aware of a scattered array of corrals, stretching away out into the distance, but so arranged at the foot of the towering walls of the valley that they needed looking for closely.

Then he looked up at the ledge which had been the scene of the disaster, and the ladder of hewn steps above, and he pointed at them.

“I wonder what’s on the other side?”

“That’s an easy one,” replied his companion promptly.  “Half-breeds.”

“A settlement?”

“That’s about it.  You remember the Breeds cleared away from their old settlement lately.  We’ve never found them.  Once they take to the hills, it’s like a needle in a haystack.  Maybe friend Anton is in hiding there.”

“I doubt it.  ‘Tough’ McCulloch didn’t belong to them, as I told you.  He comes from over the border.  No; he’s getting away as fast as his horse can carry him.  And Arizona isn’t far off his trail, if I’m any judge.”

Fyles’s great round face was turned contemplatively on his companion.

“Well, that’s for the future, anyhow,” he observed, and moved to a bush some yards away.  “Let’s take it easy.  Money, one of my deputies, has gone in for a wagon.  I don’t expect him for a couple of hours or so.  We must keep it company,” he added, nodding his head in the direction of the dead man.

They sat down and silently lit their pipes.  Fyles was the first to speak.

“Guess I’ve got to thank you,” he said, as though that sort of thing was quite out of his province.

Tresler shook his head.  “Not me,” he said.  “Thank my poor mare.”  Then he added, with a bitter laugh, “Why, but for the accident of his fall, I’m not sure he wouldn’t have escaped.  I’m pretty weak-kneed when it comes to dropping a man in cold blood.”

The other shook his head.

“No; he wouldn’t have escaped.  You underestimate yourself.  But even if you had missed I had him covered with my carbine.  I was watching the whole thing down here.  You see, Money and I came on behind.  I don’t suppose we were more than a few minutes after you.  That mare you were riding was a dandy.  I see she’s done.”

“Yes,” Tresler said sorrowfully.  “And I’m not ashamed to say it’s hit me hard.  She did us a good turn.”

“And she owed it to us.”

“You mean when she upset everything during the fight?”

“Yes.”

“Well, she’s more than made amends.  In spite of her temper, that mare of mine was the finest thing on the ranch.”

“Yours?” Fyles raised his eyebrows.

“Well Marbolt’s.”

But the officer shook his head.  “Nor Marbolt’s.  She belonged to me.  Three years ago I turned her out to graze at Whitewater with a bunch of others, as an incorrigible rogue and vagabond.  The whole lot were stolen and one of the guard shot.  Her name was ’Strike ’em.’”

“Strike ’em?”

“Yes.  Ever have her come at you with both front feet, and her mouth open?”

Tresler nodded.

“That’s it.  ’Strike ’em.’  Fine mare half blood.”

“But Marbolt told Jake he bought her from a half-breed outfit.”

“Dare say he did.”

Fyles relit his pipe for about the twentieth time, which caused Tresler to hand him his pouch.

“Try tobacco,” he said, with a smile.

The sheriff accepted the invitation with unruffled composure.  The gentle sarcasm passed quite unheeded.  Probably the man was too intent on the business of the moment, for he went on as though no interruption had occurred.

“After seeing you on that mare I found the ranch interesting.  But the man’s blindness fooled me right along.  I had no trouble in ascertaining that Jake had nothing to do with things.  Also I was assured that none of the ‘hands’ were playing the game.  Anton was the man for me.  But soon I discovered that he was not the actual leader.  So far, good.  There was only Marbolt left; but he was blind.  Last night, when you came for me, and told me what had happened at the ranch, and about the lighted lamp, I tumbled.  But even so I still failed to understand all.  The man was blind in daylight, and could see in darkness or half-light.  Now, what the deuce sort of blind disease is that?  And he seems to have kept the secret, acting the blind man at all times.  It was clever devilish clever.”

Tresler nodded.  “Yes; he fooled us all, even his daughter.”

The other shot a quick glance from out of the corners of his eyes.

“I suppose so,” he observed, and waited.

They smoked in silence.

“What are you going to do next?” asked Tresler, as the other showed no disposition to speak.

The man shrugged.  “Take possession of the ranch.  Just keep the hands to run it.  The lady had better go into Forks if she has any friends there.  You might see to that.  I understand that you are gossip, you know.”

“Yes.”

“There’ll be inquiries and formalities.  The property I don’t know about.  That will be settled by the government.”

Tresler became thoughtful.  Suddenly he turned to his companion.

“Sheriff,” he said earnestly, “I hope you’ll spare Miss Marbolt all you can.  She has lived a terribly unhappy life with him.  I can assure you she has known nothing of this nothing of the strange blindness.  I would swear it with my last breath.”

“I don’t doubt you, my boy,” the other said heartily.  “We owe you too much to doubt you.  She shall not be bothered more than can be helped.  But she had some knowledge of that blindness, or she would not have acted as she did with that lamp.  I tell you candidly she will have to make a statement.”

“Have no doubt; she will explain.”

“Sure ah!  I think I hear the wheels of the wagon.”  Fyles looked round.  Then he settled himself down again.  “Jake,” he went on, “was smartest of us all.  I can’t believe he was ever told of his patron’s curious blindness.  He must have discovered it.  He was playing a big game.  And all for a woman!  Well, well.”

“No doubt he thought she was worth it,” said Tresler, with some asperity.

The officer smiled at the tone.  “No doubt, no doubt.  Still, he wasn’t young.  He fooled you when he concurred with your suspicions of Anton that is, he knew you were off the true scent, and meant keeping you off it.  I can understand, too, why you were sent to Willow Bluff.  You knew too much, you were too inquiring.  Besides, from your own showing to Jake which he carried on to the blind man for his own ends you wanted too much.  You had to be got rid of, as others have been got rid of before.  Yes, it was all very clever.  And he never spared his own stock.  Robbed himself by transferring a bunch of steers to these corrals, and, later on, I suppose, letting them drift back to his own pastures.  I only wonder why, with a ranch like his, he ran the risk.”

“Perhaps it was old-time associations.  He was a slave-trader once, and no doubt he stocked his ranch originally by raiding the Indians’ cattle.  Then, when white people came around, and the Indians disappeared, he continued his depredations on less open lines.”

“Ah! slave-trader, was he?  Who said?”

“Miss Marbolt innocently told me he once traded in the Indies in ‘black ivory.’  She did not understand.”

“Just so ah, here is the wagon.”

Fyles rose leisurely to his feet.  And Money drove up.

“The best of news, sheriff,” the latter cried at once.  “Captured the lot.  Some of the boys are badly damaged, but we’ve got ’em all.”

“Well, we’ll get back with this,” the officer replied quietly.

The dead man was lifted into the wagon, and, in a few minutes, the little party was on its way back to the ranch.