Crossfire Trail

In the dank, odorous fo'c'sle a big man with wide shoulders sat at a scarred mess table, his feet spread to brace himself against the roll of the ship. A brass hurricane lantern, its light turned low, swung from a beam overhead, and in the vague light the big man studied a worn and sweat-stained chart.

There was not sound in the fo'c'sle but the distant rustle of the bow wash about the hull, the lazy creak of the square rigger's timbers, a few snores from sleeping men, and the hoarse, rasping breath of a man who was dying in the lower bunk.

The big man who bent over the chart wore a slip-over jersey with alternate red and white stripes, a broad leather belt with a brass buckle, and coarse jeans. On his feet were woven leather sandals of soft, much-oiled leather. His hair was shaggy and uncut, but he was cleanshaven except for a mustache and burnsides.

The chart he studied showed the coast of northern California. He marked a point on it with the tip of his knife, then checked the time with a heavy gold watch. After a swift calculation, he folded the chart and replaced it in an oilskin packet with other papers and tucked the packet under his jersey, above his belt.

Rising, he stood for an instant, canting to the roll of the ship, staring down at the white-haired man in the lower bunk. There was something about the big man that would make him stand out in any crowd. He was a man born to command, not only because of his splendid physique and the strength of this character, but because of his personality.

He knelt beside the bunk and touched the dying man's wrist. The pulse was feeble, Rafe Caradee crouched there, waiting, watching, thinking.

In a few hours at most, possibly even in a few minutes, this man would die. In the long year at sea his health had broken down under forced labor and constant beatings, and this last one had broken him up internally. When Charles Rodney was dead he, Rafe Caradec, would do what he must.

The ship rolled slightly, and the older man sighed and his lids opened suddenly. For a moment he stared upward into the ill-smelling darkness, then his head turned. He saw the big man crouched beside him and he smiled. His hand fumbled for Rafe's.

"You--you've got the papers? You won't forget?"

"I won't forget."

"You must be careful."

"I know."

"See my wife, Carol. Explain to her that I didn't run away, that I wasn't afraid. Tell her I had the money, and was comin' back. I'm worried about the mortgage I paid. I don't trust Barkow."

The man lay silent, breathing deeply hoarsely. For the first time in three days he was conscious and aware.

"Take care of `em, Rafe," he said. "I've got to trust you! You're the only chance I have! Dyin' ain't bad except for them. And to think--a whole year has gone by. Anything may have happened!"

"You'd better rest," Rafe said gently.

"It's late, for that. He's done me in this time. Why did this happen to me, Rafe? To us?"

Caradec shrugged his powerful shoulders. "I don't know. No reason, I guess. We were just there at the wrong time. We took a drink we shouldn't have taken."

The old man's voice lowered. "You're goin' to try--tonight?"

Rafe smiled then. "Try? Tonight we're going' ashore Rodney. This is our only chance. I'm goin' to see the captain first."

Rodney smiled and lay back, his face a shade whiter, his breathing more gentle.

A year they had been together, a brutal, ugly, awful year of labor, blood, and bitterness. It had begun, that year, one night in San Francisco in Hongkong Bohl's place on the Barbary Coast. Rafe Caradec was just back from Central America with a pocket full of money.

The months past had been jungle months, dripping jungle, fever-ridden and stifling with heat and humidity. It had been a period of raids and battles, but finally it was over, and Rafe had taken his payment in cash and moved on. He had been on the town, making up for lost time.

Somewhere along the route that night he had met Charles Rodney, a sun-browned cattleman who had come to Frisco to raise money for his ranch in Wyoming. They had had a couple of drinks and dropped in at Hongkong Bohl's dive. They'd had a drink there, too, and when they awakened it had been to the slow, long roll of the sea, and the brutal voice of Bully Borger, skipper of the Mary S.

Rafe had cursed himself for a tenderfoot and a fool. To have been shanghaied like any drunken farmer! Rodney had been wild. He had rushed to the captain and demanded to be put ashore, and Bully Borger had knocked him down and booted him senseless while the mate stood by with a pistol. That happened twice more until Rodney returned to work almost a cripple, and frantic with worry over his wife and daughter.

When the ship returned to Frisco after a year Rodney had demanded to be put ashore, and Borger had laughed at him. Then Charles Rodney had tackled the big man again, and that time the beating had been final. With Rodney dying, the Mary S had finished her loading and slipped out of port so he could be conveniently "lost at sea."

The cattleman's breathing had grown gentler, and Rafe leaned his head on the edge of the bunk, dozing.

Rodney had given him a deed to the ranch, a deed that gave him a half share, the other half belonging to Rodney's wife and daughter. Caradec had promised to save the ranch if he possibly could. Rodney had also given him Barkow's signed receipt for the money.

Rafe's head came up with a jerk. How long had he slept he did not know, yet--he stiffened as he glanced at Charles Rodney. The hoarse, rasping breath was gone, the even, gentle breath was no more. Rodney was dead.

For an instant, Rafe held the old man's wrist, then drew the blanket over Rodney's face. Abruptly then, he got up. A quick glance at his watch told him they had only a few minutes until they would sight Cape Mendocino. Grabbing a small bag of things off the upper bunk, he turned quickly to the companionway.

Two big feet and two hairy ankles were visible on the top step. They moved, and step by step a man came down the ladder. He was a big man, bigger than Rafe, and his small, cruel eyes stared at him, then at Rodney's bunk.



The big man rubbed a fist along his unshaven jowl. He grinned at Rafe.

"I heard him speak aboot the ranch. It could be a nice thing, that. I heerd aboot them ranches. Money in `em." His eyes brightened with cupidity and cunning. "We share an' share alike, eh?"

"No." Caradec's voice was flat. "The deed is made out to his daughter and me. His wife is to share, also. I aim to keep nothin' for myself."

The big man chuckled hoarsely. "I can see that!" he said. "Josh Briggs is no fool, Caradec! You're intendin' to get it all for yourself. I want mine!" He leaned on the hand rail of the ladder. "We can have a nice thing, Caradec. They said there was trouble over there? Huh! I guess we can handle any trouble an' make some ourselves."

The Rodney's get it all," Rafe said. "Stand aside. I'm in a hurry."

Briggs' face was ugly. "Don't get high an' mighty with me!" he said roughly. "Unless you split even with me, you don't get away. I know about the boat you've got ready. I can stop you there, or here."

Rafe Caradec knew the futility of words. There are some natures to whom only violence is an argument. His left hand shot up suddenly, his stiffened fingers and thumb making a V that caught Briggs where his jawbone joined his throat.

The blow was short, vicious, unexpected. Briggs' head jerked back and Rafe hooked short and hard with his right, then followed through with a smashing elbow that flattened Briggs' nose and showered him with blood. Josh Briggs hit the foot of the ladder in a heap, rolled over and lay still, his head partly under the table. Rafe picked up his bag and went up the ladder without so much as a backward glance.

On the dark deck Rafe Caradec moved aft along the starb'rd side. A shadow moved out from the mainm'st.

"You ready?"

"Ready, Rock."

Two more men got up from the darkness near the foot of the mast and all four hauled the boat from its place and got it to the side.

"This the right place?" Penn asked.

"Almost." Caradec straightened. "Get her ready. I'm going to call on the Old Man."

In the darkness he could feel their eyes on him. "You think that's wise?"

"No, but he killed Rodney. I've got to see him."

"You goin' to kill Borger?"

"No, just a good beatin'. He's had it comin' for a long time."

Mullaney spat. He was a stocky, muscular man. "You cussed right he has! I'd like to help."

"No, there'll be no help for either of us. Stand by and watch for the mate."

Penn chuckled. "He's tied up aft, by the wheel."

Rafe Caradec turned and walked forward. His soft leather sandals made no noise on the hardwood deck, nor on the companionway as he descended. He moved like a shadow along the bulkhead, and saw the door of the captain's cabin standing open. He was inside and had taken two steps before the captain looked up.

Bully Borger was big, almost a giant. He had a red beard around his jaw bone under his chin. He squinted from cold, gray eyes at Rafe.

"What's wrong?" he demanded. "Trouble on deck?"

"No Captain," Rafe said shortly, "there's no trouble here. I've come to beat you within an inch of your life, Captain. Charles Rodney is dead. You ruined his life, Captain, and then you killed him."

Borger was on his feet, catlike. He lunged at the drawer for his brass knuckles. Rafe had been waiting for that, poised on the balls of his feet. His left hand dropped to the captain's wrist and his right hand sank to the wrist in the captain's middle. It stopped Borger, that punch did. Stopped him flatfooted for only an instant, but that instant was enough. Rafe's head darted forward, butting the bigger man in the face, and Rafe felt the bones crunch under his hard skull.

Bully Borger, the dirtiest fighter on many a waterfront, staggered back, moaning in pain. Rafe Cardadec stepped in and threw punches with both hands, driving, wicked punches that had the power of those broad shoulders behind them, and timed with the rolling of the ship. Left, right, left, right, blows that cut and chopped like meat cleavers. Borger tottered and fell back across the settee.

Rafe wheeled to see Penn's blond head in the doorway. Roy Penn stared at the bloody hulk, then at Rafe.

"Better come on. The Cape's showing off the starb'rd bow."

When they had the boat in the water they slid down the rope one after the other, then Rafe slashed it with his belt knife, and the boat dropped back. The black bulk of the ship swept by them. Her stern lifted, then sank and Rafe, at the tiller, turned the bow of the boat toward the monstrous blackness of the Cape.

Mullaney and Penn got the sail up when the mast was stepped, then Penn looked around at Rafe.

"That was mutiny, you know."

"It was," Rafe said calmly. "I didn't ask to go aboard, and knockout drops in a Barbary Coast dive ain't my way of askin' for a year's job!"

The mountainous headland loomed black against the gray-turning sky of the hours before daybreak. The seaward face of the Cape was rocky and waterworn along the shoreline. Rafe, studying the currents and the rocks, brought the boat neatly in among them and headed for a boulder-strewn gray beach.

Rafe Caradec led them inland, working along the shoulder of the mountain. When they had several miles behind them, Rafe drew to a halt. Penn opened his sack he was carrying and got out some bread, figs, coffee and a pot.

"Stole'em out of the captain's stores," he said. "Figured we might as well eat."

"You'll do to ride the river with," Tex said, squatting on his heels. He glanced at Rafe. "What come now?"

"Wyomin' for me." Rafe broke some sticks and put them into the fire Rock was kindling. "I made my promise to Rodney and I'll keep it."

"Ever run any cattle?" Tex wanted to know.

"Not since I was a kid. Rodney tried to tell me all he could."

"I been over the trail to Dodge twice," Tex said, "and to Wyomin' once. I'll be needin' a job."

"You're hired," Rafe said, "if I ever get the money to pay you."

"I'll chance it," Tex Brisco agreed. "I like the way you do things."

"Me for the gold fields in Nevady," Rock said.

"That's good for me," Penn said. "if me and Rock don't strike it rich we may come huntin' a feed."