Crossroads (Serapis Classics) - Max Brand - ebook

Crossroads (Serapis Classics) ebook

Max Brand

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When he accidentally commits murder and is stalked by a dangerous assassin called El Tigre, Dix teams up with the dangerous and beautiful Jacqueline "Jack" Boone, who is rumored to have bested one of the most notorious gunmen in decades.

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Published 2017

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. — DESTINATION: THE WORLD

II. — DOUBLE BEND

III. — THE STORY OF THE CROSS

IV. — THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE

V. — A FIGHT AGAINST LUCK

VI. — THE CAMP FIRE

VII. — THE ICONOCLAST

VIII. — PLAIN TRAIL

IX. — OÑATE TALKS INFORMALLY

X. — THE SPECIALIST IN PAIN

XI. — EL TIGRE

XII. — DOLORES

XIII. — THE TRAIL

XIV. — THE TRAP

XV. — PARTNERS

XVI. — BLOOD MONEY

XVII. — THE GIFTS OF OÑATE

XVIII. — A STUDY IN ACCENT

XIX. — CHIVALRY

XX. — THE GOVERNOR MEETS A LADY

XXI. — THE BOSS

XXII. — THE SHADOW OF THE BARS

XXIII.— A MAN OF DESTINY

XXIV. — BILL LAWTON IS HARD HIT

XXV. — THE DOVE

XXVI. — THE WHIP

XXVII. — FEAR

XXVIII. GARCÍA—FRIEND

XXIX. — STUD POKER

XXX. — DOLORES FINDS A MAN

XXXI. EL TIGRE COVERS HIS HEAD

XXXII. SPORTING CHANCE

XXXIII. — SUSPENSE

XXXIV. — EL TIGRE PAYS ALL HIS DEBTS

XXXV. — THE COMING OF JACK

XXXVI. — OÑATE'S INSPIRATION

XXXVII. — THE WHITE HORSE

XXXVIII. — TEARS FOR EL TIGRE

XXXIX. — THE HUNTING

XL. THE MAN WHO BEAT McGURK

XLI. — THE WAITING

XLII. — JAQUELINE

XLIII. — THE SONG OF THE HEART

XLIV. — OÑATE SMILES

XLV.— THE PEACE OF OÑATE

I. — DESTINATION: THE WORLD

"HOW much hell can this fellow raise?" inquired a stranger in Guadalupe, after being regaled at some length by a tale of the manifold exploits of Dix Van Dyck.

And the answer was: "Partner, how much hell is there?"

Yet many held that there was nothing malicious about Dix Van Dyck. It was simply the spirit of what had been mischief in his boyhood. Now that he had passed the period of fisticuffs and entered that of six-guns, his pranks had serious consequences quite frequently, but his heart had not changed a whit.

Formerly, a fist fight satisfied all the yearnings of his hungry soul, but now that he stood something over six feet and weighed in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds of hard, fighting, lean-drawn muscle, an encounter with the brown fists of Dix Van Dyck was hardly preferable to a gun fight.

In another environment Dix unquestionably might have led a harmless and, in time, useful existence, but unfortunately he was born in the land of little rain and lived in a state where some eighty percent of the population is Mexican, where the laws of the legislature were printed in Spanish first and afterward in English, and where a Mexican considered himself of a strata a few degrees above that of any Anglo-American. It goes without argument that in such an environment Dix Van Dyck found a plenteous field for mischief, and he harvested his crop of deviltry with the most painful husbandry. Yet he escaped unpunished for many years. The reason was that there was in Dix Van Dyck an appealing element suggestive of the big boy run wild, and men found it hard to judge him sternly. Also it was known to all men that Dix was not the sort to hunt his six-gun by preference. He was perfectly contented to rely upon those bone-hard fists of his until the other fellow—probably from a strategic position behind a chair or from a corner of the floor—drew his gun. Then it was all over except the coroner's verdict. That verdict was usually "suicide."

Afterward there followed a period of anguish for Dix Van Dyck. For he did not like killings, and he swore off on gun play as religiously as a confirmed drunkard. But always the excitement of a prospective fight was too much for him, and the undertaker received another order. This would make it appear that Dix was a public nuisance. Yet men liked him. A man who fights squarely is judged most leniently in the Southwest. Moreover, the boyishly eager, almost wistful smile of Dix would have disarmed a heart of steel.

If he had confined his attentions to men of ill repute, all would have been well, but in an evil moment Dix crossed the path of a certain politician, one Señor Don Porfirio Maria Oñate. In the newspapers he was known as Mr. Oñate, but in private life everyone used the title he preferred. The worthy Señor Oñate was running for the office of sheriff of Chaparna County and approached Dix Van Dyck in a public place with a request for his vote. This was a rash step and would never have been undertaken by the noble don if he had not been too warmly inspired by tequila, that is apt to make the courage greater than the judgment.

The reply of Dix Van Dyck was of Homeric temper and volume. He stated his opinion of Señor Don Porfirio Maria Oñate in full and completed his survey of the don's public career with some terse remarks about his ancestors. Any other man in the Southwest might have been tempted to fight, but even tequila was not as potent in the soul of Mr. Oñate as the fear of Dix Van Dyck. He stroked his mustache and smiled and hated Dix Van Dyck with his little, bright eyes, but he said nothing.

Afterward he sent his brother, accompanied by two accomplished cut-throats, to settle the long account with Dix Van Dyck. They came upon him from the rear when he was unarmed, and there followed a battle that still lives in the memory of the inhabitants of Chaparna County. Dix Van Dyck tore a shelf from the wall and with it brained two of his assailants. Then he strangled the third with his bare hands. Afterward he called upon Señor Oñate, but that gentleman was not at home, another proof of wisdom.

Three days later Señor Oñate was elected sheriff of Chaparna County, and Dix Van Dyck kissed his mother good bye, hugged his little brother, and departed for regions unknown to the north.

This might seem strange to some, for the last crime of Dix had been most manifest self-defense, but the dwellers in Chaparna County understood. It would have been impossible to get a jury that was not under the thumb of the new sheriff. It would have been a mockery, not a trial. So Dix Van Dyck mounted on a great horse, strong enough to bear even his weight on a day's ride, and disappeared into the hills.

He was not ill pleased by the thought of leaving Chaparna County, even under compulsion. Like the young Alexander, he was anxious for new worlds to conquer, and, once started along the outward path, he wondered why he had not made the move before. His mind was at peace; self-content warmed his blood. In the long holster his Winchester jostled softly. At either hip was the comfortable weight of a six-gun. The sweat of the tall horse was like incense in his nostrils, and the creaking of the saddle leather was sweeter than music to his ears. Behind his saddle a blanket was rolled in the slicker, and in the saddlebags he carried enough provisions for many a day.

The Arab seizes a handful of dates and another of barley and is ready for the desert. The Southwesterner travels almost as light. For guide Dix Van Dyck carried an instinct sure as that of a hunting coyote or a migratory bird. His destination was—the world.

II. — DOUBLE BEND

HE did not leave Guadalupe an hour too soon, for the new sheriff was hardly in office before a warrant for Dix Van Dyck appeared. A posse strove to serve it and rode hard to the north, only to find that their bird had flown into distant regions. They returned with the ill news, and Sheriff Oñate sat down to bide his time, for he had in fact what the elephant is endowed with in fancy—a memory that never dies.

As for Dix Van Dyck, he cared not a whit what was happening behind him. He had no sooner turned his shoulder upon yesterday than it was lost and abandoned with the shades of distant years. His heart went galloping into the future. So it was in the early evening that he swung into sight of Double Bend, a group of adobe huts and frame shacks huddling away into the purples that swung down from the shadowy mountains beyond.

Double Bend took its name from the windings of Coyote Creek, which flowed through its center. The main street followed the windings of that treacherous little stream, and men held that the inhabitants of Double Bend were as snake-like as the street they walked. All of this was unknown to Dix Van Dyck, for he had long since left far behind him the regions that he knew and where he was known. All that he saw in Double Bend as he passed down its sinuous main street looked very good to him. It gave the impression of a town that has been much lived in.

The window panes, for instance, were usually shattered. The wooden Indian that the proprietor of a general merchandise store had erected before his place of business was minus one arm and his legs had almost been shot away. From a saloon of capacious proportions strains of music and the roll of voices proclaimed that "a good time was being had by all."

So Dix Van Dyck hurriedly put up his horse in the stables, ate in the restaurant a great platter of ham and eggs with an enormous side dish of French-fried potatoes, and then bore toward the saloon and dance hall. The gasoline lamp flaring over its entrance was like the vortex of a whirl pool toward which all living things from many miles around gravitated with irresistible force. Buckboards littered one side of the street and horses the other, and under the glare of the lamp a continual stream of men passed toward the dance hall. None came out. It was like the yawning maw of some great monster drawing in an endless current of human food. At the door Dix Van Dyck paused and surveyed the interior.

His eyes kindled. He was a devotee of neither whiskey nor dancing, but here was life—life in plenty, action, confusion, clamor. In such places and in such moments the tang of the world came most sharply home to him. Moreover, there was a natural caution impelling the pause at the doorway. Inside might be a dozen foes, and a foe to Dix Van Dyck would not wait to give a warning. He would either flee or else start shooting from the hip.

Big Dix slipped into the shadow on one side and turned his leonine, ugly head from side to side in a slow survey. His trained eyes photographed a hundred faces—not one was known to him. The smile that had gone out while he made this preliminary survey now returned. He canted his head to one side and drank in the confusion of sounds that swept from dancing floor, bar, and gaming tables—all in one room.

"Rolls five for his point... Come, Phoebe, talk to me, little black eyes! Rolls five... Raise that ten... Line up, gents, line up and name your poison... Hey, Bill... I seen a gent over to Tuskogee... My dance, Blondie... Red seven! Show that card! By God, I say you will... Say, boys, I'm some dry, where's the water hole, lead me to it, I can't see!"

Dix Van Dyck sauntered to the bar. On his lips the mischievous, boyish smile that all Guadalupe knew and feared was growing. In his quiet moments that eagle nose, straight, thin mouth, and forbidding eyes made him seem a man to be avoided and given ground, but his smile gave an expression of deluding gentleness to his features. Strangers, seeing him smile, were apt to invite him to a drink or ask him for a five-spot with equal readiness. But those who knew understood that smile meant a deep desire for action. It was like the grin of the pugilist who stands in his corner, rubbing his shoes in the rosin and waiting confidently for the bell.

First he examined the dancing floor, chiefly because the men were in movement there. But the monotonous whine of the violin and the regular movements of the dancers through the mist of smoke disgusted him. One of the dance-hall girls saw his smile and stopped before him expectantly. His face sobered long enough to return her glance, and she went on hastily, her query answered. Then he looked down the bar.

Whiskey itself had no charms for him, but he sometimes drank merely for excitement—a token, in Guadalupe, for men to vacate the barroom in which this grizzly happened to be quenching his thirst. The bar tonight, however, had no attraction for him. A drunken man staggered past him. He followed the uncertain progress with contempt. Next he looked to the gaming tables. They were operating under full blast, the gamesters stimulated by the dance music on one hand and the high-power whiskey on the other. Crap tables, roulette, chuck-a-luck, faro-poker—every table had a full house, and Dix Van Dyck waited for an opening.

It was during this delay that he saw her enter and turned full toward her to look again. Obviously she was not one of the hired dancing girls. Neither had she come to buy whiskey—a common occurrence. She loitered in the door carelessly, as he had done the moment before, apparently looking for a place in which she could amuse herself.

Booted, spurred, and with a regulation Forty-Five belted around her waist, her appearance was not much out of keeping with that of the average ranch girl. What distinguished her was, in the first place, an exquisitely slender, olive-skinned, dark-eyed beauty and, in the second place, an air of truly masculine detachment.

On account of her beauty Dix Van Dyck expected to see a dozen men jump up and accost her. But instead they merely turned their heads, stared at her, and then resumed their occupations. He was thoroughly puzzled. Apparently she was known. Apparently she was good. But if so, what was she doing in this hellhole?

Now it must be understood that in the Southwest there are only two classes of women. There are the bad and the good. The bad are what bad women are everywhere—very, very bad. On the other hand, the good are exceedingly good. They can travel alone anywhere, day or night, and they are perfectly safe. In a country where the need for men is great and where the place for women is small, their value is proportionately high. In that country men do not gossip about a woman, for slander meets the reply of bullets. In that country a woman can take liberties with a man that would damn her forever in the eyes of Eastern society, but in the Southwest nothing is taken for granted about the weaker sex.

Chivalry wears no plumes, and knighthood bears no title, but there gallantry is a reality and not a name. To the Southwesterner a good woman is daughter or sister or mother. She can eat his food, ride his horse, draw his revolver, and even share his bunk. Yet she will not draw a whisper of suspicion until by her own act she confesses that she is not of the elect. Such an act is the entry of a place like this one of Jerry Conklin's in the Double Bend.

All this must be understood in order to read the confusion of mind with which Dix Van Dyck stared at the feminine intruder. He read in the glances of the men that deference that is accorded to only one type of woman in the Southwest. She was known, and she was respected. Then what was she doing here? He leaned back against the bar and scowled steadily at her. Something told him that he was on the trail of excitement.

As for the girl, she swept the great room with a calm eye, almost like the glance of an ennuied man looking for excitement. At last she approached a crap table. It was surrounded by a dense circle, two deep, every man intent on his game. But at her coming one of the men glanced up, recognized her, raised his hat, and stepped back to surrender his place.

The wonder of Dix Van Dyck made his face redden furiously. As for the other men at the gaming table, they turned toward the girl with broad grins, such as those who proclaim that the luck is running against the house. Dix Van Dyck caught the man on the stick—he who handles the dice for the house—in a keen scrutiny. The fellow was scowling blackly. The girl took the dice.

Her hand dipped in a pocket of her short riding skirt and came out with the glint of yellow. She made a few casts and lost. A low groan came from the gamesters. Evidently they had wagered heavily on her luck. The girl stamped in vexation, which made Dix Van Dyck smile. At least, he thought, she was like other women in being a bad loser. She drew out another gold coin and tossed it on the table.

III. — THE STORY OF THE CROSS

AFTER that, her luck apparently held consistently good. The others at the table were still wagering on her and with her, and the payer at that table did little besides constantly shovel out the coin of the house. However, the other men in the house paid little attention to the scene. In his part of the country Dix knew that such sensational winning would have drawn everyone about in a great circle to watch the big coin roll in. He gained a sudden and deep respect for a community where such prodigious luck passed with hardly a notice. It was like a crowd in a new mining town, where gold almost loses significance except when it comes raw from the earth.

At length, the girl left the table, and the payer wiped his sweaty forehead and turned a venomous glance after her retreating figure. She went straight to the roulette wheel, a small group following. Dix Van Dyck drew a little closer and saw that she had taken the most extreme chance that the game affords—she had placed a whole handful of gold on a single number.

The wheel whirled, the man behind it watching with anxious eyes. It slowed, purred, and clicked softly to a stop—and on her number. Stack after stack of coin was counted out and shoved to her—thirty-six for one. The payer watched her with a wistful eye. She placed her entire winnings again—and still on that most dubious of all gambling chances—a single number. Again the wheel whirled, purred to a stop, and again the girl won. The payer shook his head in gloomy doubt, and counted out the money slowly, stack by stack. Plainly it would not take much more to break the bank.

But, before he had half finished the count, the girl, as if impatient, picked up a handful of gold—less than her original wager—dropped it into her pocket, and said carelessly: "Keep the rest of it, Bill. I ride light. Keep the rest of it, and the next time a gent drops in here broke... and thirsty... buy him a drink and stake him."

The payer ceased in his count and stared after her with blinking, uncomprehending eyes while she strolled away to another table. Here, she lingered only a moment and then passed on to the dancing floor.

Dix Van Dyck waited for someone to follow her, someone to take the chair next to hers, but no one moved. She sat at a table alone. Men passed with smiles but without any close approach. If she had been a leper, she could not have been more sedulously avoided. Dix thought of many things: of some terrible, contagious disease, of insanity, or perhaps she was the sweetheart of some noted gunman.

Yes, that would explain it. Dix Van Dyck hitched his belt a little higher and laughed softly, unpleasantly, to himself. Most of his jests were of a nature that he alone could appreciate. He turned to a bearded, unshaven man next to him.

"Stranger," he said, "will you drink?"

"Don't mind," said the other.

"Red-eye?"

"Yep."

"Partner," continued Dix Van Dyck amiably, while the bartender was spinning the tall bottle toward them, "I been watching a little play that looks sort of queer to me. I'm a stranger in these parts, and maybe you could put me wise."

"Maybe."

"I been watching that girl over there to the table by the dancing floor."

"Jack?"

"Is that her name?"

"Yep."

"None of the boys don't seem much friendly with her. Can't she dance? Can't she talk? Or is she owned private by a gunman?"

The other grinned. "She can dance, she can talk, and there ain't any man in these parts fool enough to want to own her."

With this enigmatic reply he rested content, as if there were nothing more to be said. Dix Van Dyck blinked and drew in his breath. His very heart was eaten up with curiosity.

"Bad actor?" he asked.

"Ain't you really heard nothing about Jack?" asked the other with naïve wonder.

"Never."

"Follow me."

He led the way to the door of the saloon and squinted to right and left down the long line of tethered horses. One shape stood out through the half-broken gloom of the early night, a tall white horse, glimmering through the darkness. Even by that faint light the practiced eye of Dix Van Dyck made out an unusually beautiful piece of horse flesh.

"If you don't know the girl," said the stranger, "maybe you recognize the hoss? That white one down the line."

"Ain't nothing I can recognize him by," asserted Dix.

"Hmm," said the other, and scratched his head in the effort to find some clue that the other might be able to follow. "Ever hear of McGurk?"

"Sure," said Dix Van Dyck. "I've lived some way off from these parts, but I know McGurk is about the fastest gunman that ever fanned a hammer."

"McGurk was," answered the stranger.

"Dead?"

"Worse'n dead. Done for."

"Well?"

The other persisted in his irritating, roundabout way of telling what he knew, as if he wished to draw out the relish of a rare morsel. "Ever hear of Boone's gang?"

"Seems like I have," murmured Dix Van Dyck, "seems like I heard they was all cleaned up by McGurk."

"You heard wrong... a pile wrong," said the other. "That girl is Boone's daughter."

"The devil she is!"

"The devil she ain't. And mostly devil she is, at that. That white hoss there in the dark is McGurk's hoss."

"Is he here?"

"Nope, the girl rides the hoss."

The iron hand of Dix Van Dyck gripped the shoulder of his companion and his voice rolled, low and muttering, like approaching thunder. "Partner, I been asking you straight questions, one man to the other. Maybe I been asking too much, but in my part of the country nobody don't josh me when I feel serious. I'm a pile serious right now. Out with it. D'ye mean to tell me that girl in here finished McGurk... McGurk, who killed...?"

"I know... McGurk who killed a hundred gunfighters. But all we know is that McGurk started on the trail of Boone's gang and that he finished 'em all except one young feller who beat it East and got married and this girl. We know McGurk started on that trail with a white horse. We know the girl come down from the mountains, riding that same white horse. Partner, them are the cards, and you can put 'em together any way you want."

Dix Van Dyck swallowed hard and then set his teeth. It was almost more than he could understand. He had a faint suspicion that the other was amusing himself with generous lies. If so, there would be an unhappy ending to the tale. He decided to draw out the man further. "Is that what scares 'em away from that girl in there?"

The other looked up with a scowl that changed almost at once into friendliness.

"Look here, pal," he explained, "you're all due for a cold trail. I'll tell you straight. When Jack Boone come down from the hills, there was another with her. He was one of the last of Boone's old gang... the best of the bad lot. All we know is what he told us. He said the girl had got a hold of a little cross... this sounds funny, I know... and that the cross give her good luck, but give bad luck to everyone near her... her friends, particular. He says that cross was what made her able to beat McGurk, and, as long as she had it on, there wasn't any man could handle her."

"That sounds all pretty damned fishy to me," grumbled Dix Van Dyck.

"Don't it?" agreed the other. "It sounded fishy to the lot of us. But the first thing we noticed was that this feller wanted nothing more than to get free of Jack Boone. He blew north and ain't been heard of since. Then Bud Ganton, a dirty half-breed with a record it took half an hour to read, made up his mind that he was going to get the loot that the girl was said to have. He started out from town for her cabin where she was living up in the hills. The next day the girl come riding in to tell the deputy marshal that there was a dead man out to her house. The marshal went out and found Ganton pumped full of lead and both his own guns out with a bullet fired out of each. Now there was only one thing Ganton was any good for, and that was a gun play. With his sixes he was a world-beater. I've seen him make a play, and he could make his gun talk French, I'm here to state. Nobody knows what happened exactly out there to the girl's cabin. But it was sure plain that Ganton had time to get out his guns and make a play before he dropped. The girl was too fast for him and drilled him clean. Now, if the girl didn't have something like that cross to help her out, how'd she ever have got away with Ganton?"

"If she was Boone's daughter, he sure taught her how to fan a six," answered Dix Van Dyck.

"Sure, but that ain't all the reason we got for thinking that little cross of hers makes her safe and raises hell for her friends. There was Luther Carey. He was knocked off'n his feet by Jack's pretty face... which she's some looker... and he said bad luck could go to the devil. He started on the trail for Jack. She warned him fair and square that it was a plumb cold trail and that he'd get bad luck if he stuck around. But Luther stayed. About a week later he was bucked off a little tame cayuse that a boy could've rid. He was bucked off and busted his neck when he hit the sand. I'm asking you, was that nacheral? No, I'll tell a man it wasn't.

"Then Hopkins, that Eastern dude that was a mining engineer. He come along and seen Jack and went crazy about her. We warned him fair and square, and she warned him, too, they say. But he kept going out to see her. One day he dropped down a shaft in the Buckhorn mine, and they had to go down with a broom and a shovel and sweep up what was left of him.

"There's two things we blame to the cross Jack wears. There's plenty of others. I could sit here all night and tell 'em to you. Take her luck with cards, for instance. You never see her lose more'n one out of every three passes. If she wanted to, she could break every game in the state. But money don't seem to mean nothing to her. Hang around her? Dance with her? Partner, I'd a pile rather jump off'n Eagle Bluff. It'd be an easier way of dying, but no surer."

IV. — THE IMP OF THE PERVERSE

SO saying, the stranger turned and walked back into the bar. Even the telling of the narrative seemed to make him need a drink.

Now, it was well known in Guadalupe that, if you wanted Dix Van Dyck to do a thing, the best way was to urge him toward the opposite. If there were two roads, one safe and one dangerous, it was thoroughly understood that one could always make Dix take the safe road by urging him to choose the dangerous. If the stranger at Double Bend had been inspired by an angel from heaven, he could not have spoken more effectively to make Dix Van Dyck seek out the girl, Jack. In fact, as he stepped back into the dance hall, his mind was already made up. He only waited for a convenient moment before approaching her. But, although his nature was strangely perverse, there was little that was wholly rash about Dix Van Dyck. In the first place, he believed with his entire soul every word that the stranger had told him about Jack and her mysterious cross. He had seen the effect of that cross in her gambling. Moreover, there is a deep element of superstition in those who live among Mexicans and prospectors. Luck becomes an almost personal god.

Because Dix Van Dyck believed thoroughly that this girl held good luck for herself and bad luck for all who came near her, he was afraid—deeply afraid. He felt a prickling chill run up his back as he looked at her. But it was the sort of fear that a man feels when he looks at a grim antagonist with whom he knows that he is about to fight. It was the sort of fear that mingles with one's desire to leap from a high place to destruction. It was the imp of perverse that lives in the soul of every man, but above all was present in Dix Van Dyck.

He was afraid. He would rather have faced a dozen guns in the hands of desperadoes than sit for a single second at the side of this girl. For this very reason he would not have missed the opportunity for all the gold in the world placed at his feet. He was shaken to his very soul with fear in advancing toward a danger against which there was no known method of fighting. And because of that nothing could stop him. He hesitated only long enough to survey the girl sharply, thoroughly, weigh her strength, estimate her character.

He could see only her profile, for she leaned forward with one elbow resting on the table, and her chin in the palm of her hand; the other arm lay across the back of the chair. An attitude of awkward repose in most people, but in this girl Dix Van Dyck felt a capacity for instant action. In the fraction of a second a sleeping dog can uncurl from the most clumsy position and leap a dozen feet away from danger. He felt the same possibility in this girl—a cat-like activity—a unconscious guard that remained alert even when mind and body slept. It even occurred to him that she might be perfectly aware of his scrutiny.

Once more his flesh prickled and grew cold. So he strode boldly up and took a chair near her. Her eyes swung around to him slowly, slowly as if a careful force regulated the movement. He found himself staring into pitchy black depths, wide, unconcerned, meaningless. He felt as if the eyes were looking through him and past him at some object in the infinite distance. For a man squints to see an object near at hand but stares with open eye at something far away. Judging by her eyes, he might have been a speck of white on the far horizon, an indefinite particle, whether cloud or sail. It whipped all the fighting instinct into his brain.

"My name," he said doggedly, "is Dix Van Dyck."

Her voice, in answer, was neither frivolous nor impertinent, but rather that of one who is wearied by the necessity of speech. "My name don't concern you, stranger. If you want to know it, ask one of the men. He'll tell you, along with a lot of reasons why you shouldn't be sitting here."

"Lady," answered Dix Van Dyck, "I've heard all those reasons. To put it straight, that's why I'm here."

The first spark of interest burned up in the dark eyes, and something like the ghost of a smile softened her mouth at the corners, as if in faint recognition of a kindred spirit.

"I've heard about good luck that follows you and bad luck that follows everyone around you."

"You don't believe it?" she asked, growing somewhat cold again.

"I believe it," said Dix Van Dyck calmly, "as if I read it in the Bible, but it ain't any real reason why you should sit here alone."

"Listen," said the girl, and she leaned gravely toward him, "I got an idea that I know what you are, and I like your kind. But you're on the wrong trail... a cold trail, partner. No matter what they told you, they didn't tell you enough, or you'd have been stopped. There's bad luck around me. That ain't all. There's hell!"

Her eyes widened, and she cast a glance over her shoulder—as if fate listened there, an impalpable presence, grinning invisibly at the warning she spoke to Dix Van Dyck. She had been beautiful even when she sat there impassively, but, now that a color was flushing the olive-tinted skin and life had come into her eyes, she was the most lovely woman Dix Van Dyck had ever seen. She thrilled him like a strain of music. She uplifted him like a passage of noble poetry. She lured him like the purple distances of the desert.

"Lady," he said, "speakin' in general, the only thing I want is action, and being near you promises a pile of it. If I bother you, I'll be on my way. If I don't, I'd sure like to hang around a while."

She considered this cavalier utterance with a frown and a thoughtful, sidewise glance that suddenly lifted to his face. "If I told you to go, would you?" she asked.

Dix Van Dyck flushed. "If you say the word, there ain't nothing I'd do quicker."

"Honest?"

The blood died away from his face and left it splotched with gray, tans, and purples. "Talkin' man to man," he said evenly, "it'd be some hard job to break away just now, but I'll go, if I have to."

"Then go," said the girl sharply.

The friendliness died from her eyes, and they became in an instant as black as they had been at the first. He pushed back his chair, setting his teeth in anger. But, even as he caught the edge of the table and put weight on it to rise, he knew that he could not go. It was like a desertion before the battle was fought. It was like cowardice under fire. He settled back in the chair, breathing hard, and glared at her.

"You're saying that to try me out?" he said.

"I never meant anything more in my life," said the girl.

"Yet," he persisted, "you was pretty friendly only a minute ago."

"Was I?" she queried with calm-eyed insolence. "Well, I'm tired of you now."

He felt a great desire to take that round, slender throat between thumbs and forefingers; he could almost tell how it would crunch under the pressure. Then he remembered with a cold rush of shame that she was a woman. A woman, and therefore a creature of infinite wiles. The thought held him. He studied her.

"Well?" she asked coldly. "Are you going?"

"D'you know," pondered Dix Van Dyck, his grim eyes boring into hers, "I got an idea that, if I get up and leave this table, you'll despise me. Am I right?"

The question had the effect of a sharp jerk on the reins. The girl straightened almost with a snap and her serious frown centered steadily on him.

Before she could answer he swept on: "Look at the way I'm fixed. All my life I've been hunting action. Most I could find was hounding a few yaller-hearted men. Now I get to you. Action just nacherally follers you around. I wouldn't have to hunt for it. I find you, and you start to give me the run. I ask you, man to man... is it fair? Is it square?"

There was a movement of her lips.

He raised his right hand suddenly and pointed. "Right now, you got a smile all ready to pop out, and you're fighting to keep it back. Am I right, lady?"

She could not help it. The smile came, and then a bubbling laugh. It ran on and on through musical variations like the sound of water trickling over rocks and plunging into tinkling shallows and chiming in deep pools. In all his life Dix Van Dyck had never heard a sound that so fascinated him. He could not tell whether she was laughing with him or at him. The laughter stopped. Sitting straight in her chair, she looked at him with marvelously bright eyes, the smile coming and going at the corners of her mouth.

V. — A FIGHT AGAINST LUCK

"DO I get you right, Dix Van Dyck?" she asked. "Am I sort of a bait that pulls trouble your way? Is that why you want to hang around with me?"

"Jack... can I call you that?"

"Sure."

"Jack, you guessed right the first time. That's why I want to hang around. Here I am, six feet two, hard as nails, handy with two guns, and nothing to do. Can you beat that?"

"Nope," said the girl, and broke into her musical chuckle again. "Nope, you beat the world, partner."

"Thanks," grinned Dix Van Dyck. "I'll just oil up my guns and get in fighting shape, and we'll make a team of it."

She grew serious again, shaking her head. "It won't do. I can't let you do it. Look here, Dix Van Dyck, I like you more 'n any man I've run into in a long time. That's telling you straight. I'm not going to let you go to hell because of a fool idea. If you want action, just shoot out these lights, and I'll guarantee you all the action you want."

"But you see," explained Dix Van Dyck sadly, "the trouble a man makes ain't half so pleasin' as the kind he just runs into sort of accidental. Understand?"

"Yep."

"How long," said Dix Van Dyck wistfully, "before things most generally starts."

"Mostly different a lot," said Jacqueline.

"In the meantime," he said, "there's considerable room on the floor. Do we dance?"

She hesitated, as if she still wished to argue the question with him, as if she fought the temptation to let him stay, but then her head nodded with the rhythm of the music—she started up, and in an instant they were gliding across the floor.

There is a strange and dangerous potency in the dance. There is no need of polished, gleaming floor, of bright lights, of a numerous and accomplished orchestra, or of a brilliant assembly of women and men. There is no need of all this. Granted an age a little under thirty, a rhythm supplied by a rusty, stringed piano, the floor of a barn or the stones of a street, and the result is the same—an intoxication, a forgetfulness of the world, two bodies moving in harmony with a thought, and that thought one of beauty. Faces tilt up—a light comes upon them—in their blood is the fragrance of spring and the richness of autumn—the pulse of life runs quicker, quicker, races—and the two strike closer to the heart of things.

So it was with Dix Van Dyck and Jacqueline. She danced rather clumsily at first, as though she had almost forgotten the steps, but, before he became conscious of disappointment, she changed and grew more warmly alive in his arms. There was a cat-like lightness in her step so that the sway of her body followed him almost as if she were poised in air and drawn hither and thither mysteriously—at his will.

As for Jack, she glimpsed the glances of envy and admiration that followed her and knew that she was dancing divinely—knew it and was grateful to the man who held her. The incense of flattery had long been absent, and now it swept up gloriously until her nostrils trembled to inhale it deeply. She had been a creature of action, of masculine and terrible action, and, as such, accepted by the men and the women among whom she moved. Now she became, in an instant, femininely appealing, beautiful. A new and mighty strength filled her.

With all her heart she hated the bearded man who tapped Dix Van Dyck on his shoulder in the middle of the dance. They had paused at the edge of the dance floor and the man said: "Stranger, be on your way. You've started your own little hell by dancing with Jack, but someone else is liable to put on the finishing touch. There was a Mexican in here a minute ago... a bad one by the look... asking after a man like you. The deputy marshal... Glasgow... was with him. I sent 'em down the street, but they'll be back. Take my advice, and don't wait."

With that, he turned on his heel, and Dix Van Dyck, a towering figure in the crowd, stiffened and stared after him. Truly the arm of Sheriff Oñate was long.

"The bad luck," he nodded and stared down at the face of the girl.

"The bad luck," she agreed. "It didn't wait." She said it half ruefully, half carelessly, like one familiar with danger. "Take the back door," she advised. "It's the easiest way out."

"The easiest way," said the big man calmly, "is to get back to our table and wait for what comes. This ain't the finish. It's only the beginning of a long trail."

She followed him back to the table. It was only because she wanted a chance to argue the point.

"But you see," she explained, as they slipped again into their chairs, Van Dyck facing the door, "that everything is against you. The deputy marshal can call on everyone in the house, if he wants 'em. Besides, do you know the country in case you make a getaway?"

"Not a mile of it. I come from the south."

"What've you done that started the law after you?"

"Nothing. We've got a badman for sheriff down in Chaparna County. He's after my scalp."

"And you're going to sit here and see this through?"

"Sure. What would you do?"

She avoided the question. "It's a crazy idea. Take my word, the best thing is to cut and run. It's bad to have a sheriff after you. It's a lot worse to have a marshal, and Glasgow sticks to a trail like glue to a dog's tail."

Apparently he barely heard her words but sat stiff and straight in his chair, his keen eyes plunging into the future. By deep and sympathetic intuition she knew all that was passing in his mind.

His reason told him in no uncertain terms to take the advice of the girl and leave the saloon. But the same perverse instinct that had first made the man hunt her out, now held him in his chair, waiting for the surely approaching danger.

She knew at once that it was useless to argue longer with him. But the suspense began to make her uncomfortable and sick inside—the qualm that comes to the soldier before the battle. What made it doubly deadly was the noise that continued unabated throughout the rest of the great room. From the gaming tables, from the bar, from the orchestra, from the dance floor and the tables around it, the same unbroken stream of chatter, cries, curses, laughter poured out at them. It was like a grim parody of the whole of life. Into this gay throng death was about to come with silent steps, stretch out his arm, and beckon his victim. Then would fall an instant of silence, a few cries of horror, but almost at once the noise would be recommenced. Conscience would be drowned in the clamor of self-conscious gaiety.

"There's going to be a gun play," said Dix Van Dyck, "and I don't want you in the danger zone. Go to another table."

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. He got the impression, somehow, that she valued her life less than anything in the world. He knew in fact that, when a woman turns daredevil, she passes beyond the limit of any man, but he was unprepared for this contemptuous indifference. He made no further effort to persuade her. His mind was too filled with conjecture. Was it indeed true that the girl was fatal to her friends? Or was the story half lie and half rumor? Against a common danger he was willing to take his chance, but to have his hands tied and the muzzle of his gun jolted by fate in the crisis of action was too much. It was superhuman—it was ghostly and paralyzing.