J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson's Twin Cylinder Racer





CHAPTER XIV
The Outlaw Plot

Slowly, carefully, hardly venturing to breathe, he backed away from the cabin. He got outside the zone of light and felt for his motorcycle. With the utmost caution not to touch the horn or siren, he guided it in a wide semicircle down the slope. One of the horses whinnied as he passed and an outlaw appeared at the door. After listening for a moment, while Bert stood like a stone image in his track, the man, evidently satisfied, turned and went inside.

Then Bert moved on again by inches until he reached the edge of the woods. From there he knew that the faint click made by the valves in starting could not possibly be heard from above. He drew a long breath and for the first time turned his gaze toward the sky. He was rejoiced to find that the clouds had vanished and that the deep blue was sown with stars. He needed no compass now. There was the gleaming Polar Star by which he had often guided his course as unerringly as by the sun. He paused a moment to get a direction due west. Then he leaped into the saddle and was off.

Not until he was sure that he was beyond the sight of any possible watcher from the cabin, did he dismount and light his lamp. Then with the confidence that came from the light streaming far ahead of him, he threw in the clutch and let his machine out to the limit.

He had ridden perhaps twenty miles, looking anxiously about for the lights of a town, when at some distance he saw the flames from a campfire in the lee of a bluff far away to his right. He could see a group of men, some moving about, others stretched out near the fire apparently asleep. Mindful of his previous experience, he put out his light and glided toward them like a shrouded ghost.

Stopping outside the circle of light, where he could study the scene at his leisure, he counted a dozen men. They were strapping fellows, rough in dress and appearance, but with honest, fearless faces. One of them wore a badge that stamped him as an official of some kind, and he was evidently in command of the party. Bert hesitated no longer, but, mounting, rode slowly into the firelight.

There was a gasp of wonder at his appearance, and the men who were still awake sprang to their feet with their hands on their pistol butts. A second glance, however, as Bert waved his hand in friendly fashion, disarmed them and they came hastily forward.

Well, stranger, said the man with the badge, you came in on us rather sudden like and we was plumb surprised for a minute. You seem to be all right though, and that machine of yours is certainly some beaut. Were more used to riding four-legged things, though. We dont ask anything about a mans business out here unless we happen to have some particular business with him, and he touched his star. So you can tell us nothing or as much as you like. As to me I aint got any secrets as to whom I am. Im the sheriff of Wentworth County and this here is my posse.

Just the man Id rather see at this minute than any one else in the world, exclaimed Bert, delightedly.

And then, in words that tumbled over one another in their haste, he told them who he was, how he had been lost on the prairie and of his adventure near the cabin of Billy the Kid.

At the mention of that notorious name the sheriff fairly jumped. What! he shouted. Billy the Kid and his gang? Theyre the fellows were out for now. Here, boys, he yelled, get busy. Were on a fresh trail and well bag the hull bunch before daylight.

Instantly the camp was alive with excitement. Horses were untethered and saddled, and within five minutes the posse was ready to start. Bert had given hurriedly the details of the plot and the sheriffs campaign was quickly planned. He knew every foot of the surrounding country and he headed his troop straight as the crow flies for Dorsey, the little town, beyond which lay the tank where the Limited would slow down to take water. His line of march was shorter than that of the outlaws, and besides, they had not planned to leave the cabin before midnight. He could count on getting there first and having time to make his dispositions for the round-up of the gang.

Well, son, he said, with a warm grip of the hand, when they were ready to start, I sure owe you a lot for this tip. This countrys going to sleep a heap sight better when they know these fellows have dangled from the end of a rope. But how about you, now? Ill send one of my men along with you to Lonsdale, if you like. Thats fifteen mile west of here and on the line of road youre traveling.

No, thanks, replied Bert promptly, Im going with you, if youll have me.

Going with us, echoed the sheriff in surprise. Of course, Im glad to have you. But that gang is bad medicine and theres goin to be some shooting. You aint got no call to mix in, cept of your own free will.

Sure, I know, said Bert. Im going along.

Son, exclaimed the sheriff, extending his hand, put her thar. Im proud to know you. Youre the real stuff, all wool and a yard wide. Come along.

A word of command and they clattered off, Bert keeping alongside of the leader. He was thrilling with excitement. The primitive emotions had him in their grip. A little while before, he had been in the conventional world of law and order and civilization. Now, he was seeing life in the raw. A battle was imminent, and here he was riding to the battlefield over the prairies at midnight under the silent stars. The blood coursed violently through his veins and his heart beat high with passion for the fight. That he himself was running the risk of wounding and death was only an added stimulus. For the moment he was a cave man, like his ancestors in the morning of the world, stealing forth from their lair for a raid against their enemies. Later on, when cooler, he would analyze and wonder at these emotions. But now, he yielded to them, and the time seemed long before the little cavalcade swept through the sleeping town of Dorsey, and then, at a more slow and careful pace, made their way to the water tank below the station.

As they came nearer, they dismounted and led their horses to a clump of trees on the eastern side of the tank and a half a mile away. Two men were left in charge, with orders to strap the horses jaws together, so that they could not neigh and thus betray their masters. It was figured that the outlaws would approach from the west, and the members of the posse disposed themselves in a wide semicircle, so that, at a given signal, they could surround and overpower the robbers. If possible, they were to capture them alive so that they could answer to justice for their crimes. But, alive or dead, they were to get them. And as Bert looked on the stern, determined faces of his companions, he had no doubt of the outcome of the struggle.

After they had taken their places, lying flat on the ground with such shelter as a bush or cactus plant afforded, there was a considerable wait that was more trying to the nerves than actual fighting. Bert and the sheriff were close together, but, except for an occasional whisper, neither spoke. They were busy with their thoughts and intent on the approaching fray.

Perhaps an hour had elapsed before they heard the distant tramp of horses. Soon they could see half a dozen men approaching, their figures dimly outlined in the starlight. The grip of the watchers tightened on their pistol butts as they strained their eyes to get a better view of their quarry.

Then silence fell again. A half hour went by. Suddenly a faint whistle was heard in the distance, the ground began to tremble and a great headlight swung into view, far up the track. It was the roads crack train, the Overland Limited. The moment was at hand.

With a terrific rumbling and clanking and ringing of bells, the ponderous train slowed down at the tank. The fireman was already on the tender, ready to slew over the pipe that would bring a cataract of water down into the reservoir. Just as he reached for it, there was a fusillade of shots. Two masked men covered the startled engineer and fireman with their revolvers and ordered them to hold up their hands. Another hammered at the door of the express car and commanded the messenger to open, on pain of instant death. Farther down the train other shots rang out and windows were shattered by bullets to warn passengers to stay inside.

But just then came a diversion. With a yell and a rush the sheriff and his men swept down upon the astonished outlaws, firing as they came. The bandits were caught like rats in a trap. They were the center of a ring of flame, but they fought back savagely. There were cries and curses, as men emptied their revolvers and then clinched in deadly struggle. The bandit leader, leaving the express car, plunged headlong into the fight, battling like a fiend. When his revolver was empty he flung it into the sheriffs face and made a break for his horse. But Bert was too quick for him, and tackled him, just as he had put one foot in the stirrup and was swinging the other over his mount. With a mighty wrench he dragged him from the saddle. The Kid uttered a fearful oath and reached for his knife. Berts hands closed around his throat and they went to the ground rolling over and over like two panthers.

At gun or knife play the outlaw would have been the victor. But in this hand-to-hand struggle, Bert was easily his master. His tremendous strength, reinforced by clean living and athletic training, soon triumphed over the rum-soaked body of the Kid. But the latters ferocity was appalling, and Bert had to choke him almost into unconsciousness, before his muscles relaxed and he lay there limp and gasping.

As Bert rose, breathless but victorious, he saw that the fight was over. Two of the outlaws were dead and another fatally wounded. The other two were in the hands of their captors, and the sheriff coming up, snapped handcuffs on the Kid and jerked him to his feet.

Passengers and trainmen came pouring from the cars, and there was a Babel of excited questionings. The conductor, full of relief and gratitude at his trains escape from looting, offered to carry the party to the next town on the line. But the sheriff elected to take his prisoners across country to the county seat, and after another exchange of congratulations, the train moved on.

Then the triumphant posse, with one of its members severely, another slightly wounded, took up their homeward trip. They had made one of the most important captures in the history of the State, and the next day the country would be ringing with their praises. They were naturally jubilant, and the sheriff urged Bert earnestly to come with them as the real hero of the roundup. But he stoutly refused and the only favor he would accept was the loan of a guide to take him over to Lonsdale.

Well, said the sheriff at last reluctantly, I suppose you know your own business best, but I shore am sorry to say good-bye. Youve made an awful hit with me, son. That was a lovely scrap you put up with the Kid, and Ive never seen a prettier bit of rough housing. I hope you win your race and I believe you will. Anybody that can put one over on Billy the Kid can pretty near get anything he goes after. If ever youre looking for work, he joked, come out to Wentworth County and Ill make you assistant sheriff. Perhaps, though, youd better not, and his eyes twinkled, cause it wouldnt be long before youd have my job.

CHAPTER XV
A Murderous Grip

Bert was having his first glimpse of the sea since he started on his trip. He was weary of the land which he had traversed so swiftly and steadily for two weeks past. The impression stamped upon his brain was that of an endless ribbon of road, between whose edges his motorcycle had sped along, until he seemed like a living embodiment of perpetual motion. That ribbon had commenced to unwind at the eastern end of the continent, and there were still a good many miles to be reeled off before the race was ended. But now, as he sat on the veranda of the beach hotel facing the sea whose surf broke on the sands a hundred feet away, he could feel his weariness dropping away like a cast-off garment. The tang of the ocean was a tonic that filled him with new life, and his nostrils dilated as they drew in great draughts of the salt air.

Ponce de Leon was wrong when he looked for the elixir of life in a fountain, he thought to himself. He should have sought for it in the sea.

Before him stretched the mighty Pacific, its crested waves glittering in the sun. Fishing vessels and coasting craft flashed their white sails near the shore, while, far out on the horizon, he could see the trail of smoke that followed in the wake of a liner. Great billows burst into spray on the beach, and the diapason of the surf reverberated in his ears like rich organ music. He drank it all in thirstily, as though storing up inspiration for the completion of his task.

A man sitting near by looked at him with a quizzical smile, frankly interested by Berts absorption in the scene before him. With easy good-fellowship, he remarked:

You seem to be getting a lot of pleasure out of the view.

I am, replied Bert promptly; I cant get enough of it.

There are plenty of people who have got enough of it, he observed drily, your humble servant among the number.

Bert scented a story, but repressed any sign of curiosity.

Its the infinite variety that appeals to me, he said. The sea is full of wonders.

And tragedies, supplemented the other.

He settled back in his chair and lighted a fresh cigar. As he struck the match, Bert noticed that his right hand was horribly scarred and disfigured. It looked as though it had been drawn through a harrow whose teeth had bitten deep. Great livid weals crossed each other on the back, and two of the fingers were gone. And Bert noted that, although his face and frame indicated that he was not more than thirty years old, his hair was snowy white.

Of course, thats true, said Bert, reverting to the strangers last remark; storms and shipwrecks and typhoons and tidal waves are things that have to be reckoned with.

Yes, was the reply, but I wasnt thinking especially of these. Theyre common enough and terrible enough. What I had in mind was the individual tragedies that are happening all the time, and of which not one in a hundred ever hears.

Do you see this hair of mine? he asked, removing his hat. One day at noon it was as dark as yours. At three oclock on that same day it was like this.

He paused a moment, as though battling with some fearful recollection.

I dont know how familiar you may be with the Pacific, he resumed, but on this coast there is every variety of monster that you can find in any other ocean, and usually of a fiercer and larger type. Nowhere do you find such man-eating sharks or such malignant devil-fish. The sharks dont come near enough to the shore to bother us much. But its safe to say that within half a mile from here, there are gigantic squids, with tentacles from twelve to twenty feet long. More than one luckless swimmer, venturing out too far, has been dragged down by them, and there are instances where they have picked a man out of a fishing boat. If those tentacles ever get you in their murderous grip, its all over with you.

Then, too, we have what is called the smotherer, something like a monstrous ray, that spreads itself out over its prey and forces it down in the mud at the bottom, until it is smothered to death. Its a terror to divers, and they fear it more than they do the shark.

But these perils are well known and can be guarded against. If Id got into any trouble with them, it would probably have been largely my own fault. But it is the unexpected that happens, and the thing that marked me for life was something not much bigger than my fist.

Have you ever seen an abalone? No? Well, its a kind of shellfish thats common on this coast. It has one shell and that a very beautiful one, so that it is in considerable demand. The inside of it is like mother of pearl and there are little swellings on it called blisters, that gleam with all the colors of the rainbow. Its a favorite sport here to get up abalone parties, just as you fellows in the East go crabbing. Only, instead of getting after them with a net, we use a crowbar. Queer kind of fishing, isnt it?

I should say it was, smiled Bert.

Well, you see, its this way. The body of the abalone is a mass of muscle that has tremendous strength. It is so powerful, that the natives of the South Sea Islands use the abalones to catch sharks with. Fact. They fasten a chain to the abalone, and it swims out and attaches itself to the under side of a shark. Then they pull it in, and no matter how hard the shark struggles and threshes about, it has to come. The abalone would be torn to pieces before it would let go. Its the bulldog of the shellfish tribe, and a harpoon wouldnt hold the shark more securely.

On the coast, here, they fasten themselves to the rocks, and as these are usually covered at high tide, you have to hunt them when the tide is low. You wade out among the rocks until you catch sight of an abalone. Then you insert the crowbar between the shell and the rock. Only the enormous leverage this gives enables you to pry it off. The strongest man on earth couldnt pull it away with his bare hands.

Usually, we went in parties, and there was a good deal of rivalry as to who would get the largest and finest shells. I forgot to say that, besides the shells themselves, once in a while you can find a pearl of considerable value and great beauty. This occurs so seldom, however, that it is always a red-letter day when you have such a bit of luck.

One day, a friend had arranged to go abalone hunting with me, but just as we were getting ready to start out, a telegram called him away from town, on important business. It would have been the luckiest thing that ever happened to me if I had got a telegram too. We were both much disappointed, as on that day we were going to try a new place, where we had a hunch that we would make a good haul.

The weather was so fine and I had my mind so set upon the trip, that I determined to go it alone. The tide that day would be at low water mark at about twelve oclock. I threw a lunch together, got out my bag and crowbar and started.

A tramp of a couple of miles down the beach brought me to the place we had in mind. It was a desolate stretch of shore, with no houses in sight except an occasional fishermans shack, and the crowds that frequented the other beaches had left this severely alone. It was this, added to the fact that an unusual number of rocks was visible at low tide, that had made us fix on it as a promising location.

The day was bright and clear and the sea had never appeared so beautiful. Looked to me, I imagine, a good deal as it did to you just now. It has never seemed beautiful to me since.

The tide was on the ebb, but had not yet run out fully, and I had to wait perhaps half an hour before the rocks were uncovered enough to permit me to see the abalones in their hiding places. I spent the time lying lazily on the sand with half shut eyelids, and basking in the inexpressible charm of sea and sky. I never dreamed of the horror the scene would inspire in me a little later on. There was a long swell but little surf that day, and there was nothing cruel in the way the waves danced in the sunlight and came gliding up, with an air that was almost caressing, to where I lay stretched out at perfect peace with myself and the world.

Soon the ebb had reached its limit and there was that momentary hesitation before the tide, as though it had forgotten something and were coming back for it, began to flow in. Now was the time, if I wanted to fill the sack that I had brought along with me to hold my spoil. I remember chuckling to myself, as I looked around and saw that there was not a soul in sight. If this should prove the rich hunting ground I believed it to be, I would have first choice of the finest specimens.

I slung the bag over my shoulder and holding the crowbar in my left hand, began to make my way out to the rocks. I had stripped off my outer clothing, and was in the swimming suit that I wore underneath. The water was deliciously refreshing, after the sun bath I had been enjoying, and I went leisurely along until I came to where the rocks were thickest. The slope was very gradual, and, by the time I got among them, I was some distance from the shore. Then I became alert and alive, and buckled down to my work.

My friend and I had made no mistake. The rocks were full of abalones and my bag was soon filling rapidly. I exulted in the thought of the virgin field that we too would exploit together.

But, although the shells were numerous and unusually fine in their markings, I could not find any that contained a pearl. That was the one thing necessary to make my day a perfect success. I began to hustle now, as the tide was beginning to come in strongly, and before long the rising waters would cover the rocks.





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