Tote Brown could afford to wait. A man with a Winchester at two hundred yards has all the advantage over a man armed only with a pistol, and Tote intended to give his man plenty of time to get away from his horse and the rifle in its scabbard.
The horse was tied to a willow bush within fifty yards of Tote's concealment, and the rider was working his way farther and farther from the horse. To get his rifle he would have to run toward Tote and right into the muzzle of his Winchester.
Why the man was to be killed Tote neither knew nor cared. But he did not know who had employed him for the job, and that he did not like. He only knew that he had been directed to a secret hiding place where he had found two hundred and fifty dollars and a message made of words cut from a book. The same amount was to come later, if he killed his man.
Tote wiped the tobacco juice from his mouth and settled himself more comfortably into the grass. This was better than the old days when he had been hired to kill rustlers and nesters by the Atley outfit; they had always paid him in the same way, but hat had been far from here. The fact that somebody nearby knew him from those days was obvious, but in the past he had received only one hundred dollars per man. Five hundred was more like it.
On the present case he knew nothing. He had been told the man would be here, near this place, at approximately this time, and if he refused the job he would be letting himself in for trouble. The message from the hollow tree had been very explicit. The words were simple but expressive. Deal McCarty is still alive.
One of Tote's last killings had been a McCarty, and Deal was the wily, gunfighting farther of the dead man, a very forthright individual who, if he knew where Tote was, would waste no time in killing him. The implication of the note was obvious, and Tote chose to obey orders and take the money.
He rolled his quid in his jaws and spat. The man below was not more than twenty-five, sandy-haired and well dressed for a cowhand. He wore a gun like he knew how to use it, but what he was doing in this lonely valley of the Picket Fork, Tote had no idea.
Obviously the man was searching for something. He had taken a sight on a hill, then walked across to a grove. Now he was studying the valley again, and his puzzled attitude was plain to the watcher. Tote sighted his rifle again, but as yet the stranger was not in the right spot. Moving as he now was, the fellow would soon be crossing a clearing near a lightening-wrecked cottonwood that was somewhat less than two hundred yards away and in the open. If Tote missed, the following shots would be easy, for there would be no cover. Tote Brown did not intend to miss.
Twice the young man knelt and examined the ground. He pulled grass and looked at the roots. Curious, Tote watched with interest. Finally the fellow approached a huge old tree and examined it and the ground around it. Then he paced off an area and looked around again.
What was he looking for? This was not gold country, although it might be buried gold. Again and again the man returned to one particular tree. Through his glasses Tote could see the young man muttering to himself could see his puzzled, worried expression. Suddenly the sandy-haired man pulled his hat down and stared right across the clearing toward Tote!
The Winchester lifted and Brown moved his left elbow forward, settling it firmly in the earth under the rifle barrel. He looked along the barrel at the man striding toward him. It was going to be easy, mighty easy. As the man advanced, the sights moved up his body. When it reached in his heart, Tote Brown would fire. As he cuddled his cheek lovingly against the rifle stock, his finger moved to the trigger.
Suddenly fire lashed along his ribs. Involuntarily he jerked aside and his rifle leaped in his hands, fired by the tightening of his grip, a spasmodic, unplanned move that sent the bullet splintering off through the high branches of the cottonwoods, the two reports, his own and that from the mysterious shot fired at him, blending into one.
Lunging to his feet, Tote plunged into the brush, shocked into blind panic and knowing only that he wanted to be somewhere else. He hit his saddle on the run, and the frightened horse took off at breakneck speed with Tote fighting for the off stirrup. Within a mile he had recovered his sense, but his heart still pounded. Hastily he rode into the Picket Fork and began to double and weave like a dizzy rattler to lose any pursuers there might be.
Slowing down, he opened his shirt and stared at the ugly wound. It was wicked in appearance, but the shot had only ripped open the skin along his ribs on the right side.
Tote Brown glanced back over his shoulder. He did not believe he had been recognized, but it worried him that he did not know who had fired that shot, or who the sandy-haired stranger might be. He would investigate both questions, and when he knew, he would take care of the man who fired that shot. He'd show him! Viciously he jabbed the spurs into the cayuse and started to gallop. He'd show him!
Rig Taylor stared after the man in astonishment. He could not make up his mind whether he had heard one shot or two, but whoever had been lying there in the grass had sure snapped out of it. Walking forward, he looked around. Obviously, from the crushed grass, the man had been lying here for some time, evidently watching his every move. But why?
The sound of a walking horse turned him swiftly, his hand poised above his gun. A tall, well-built man in a rumpled duster sat astride a magnificent white horse facing him. The man's hair showed silver under the brim of his dark hat and his blue eyes were friendly. "Your friend lit out in a hurry," he said. "What was he gunning for you for?"
"I've no idea why anybody would be gunning for me," Rig Taylor said. "I'm not even known around here, and where I came from I've no enemies that matter much."
"Stranger, are you?" The silver-haired man smiled. "Well, so am I. I rode down to look up an old friend of mine. We punched cows together down in Texas."
"Reckon you saved my neck," Taylor admitted. "I'm Rig Taylor, from Kansas. I came out here with my boss to ramrod a ranch for her, but now we can't find the ranch."
"That's something to lose." Hopalong Cassidy shoved his hat back on his head and looked around. "Is that what you were hunting?"
"Look," Taylor said. "this here's the valley of the Picket Fork. The river lies right over yonder. The description Pete Melford sent my boss would put the ranch right where we stand, and the house should set right there where that big old tree stands, but there's no sign of any ranch or sign there ever was one. I reckon the old coot was crazy."
"Maybe I can help look," Cassidy suggested. "My name's Cameron. Tell me about it."
Rig Taylor dug out the makings and rolled a smoke. While he built the cigarette he filled in what there was to tell. His boss was Cindy Blair, and she was Pete Melford's niece. Pete had written to tell her he was leaving his ranch to her, and all the stock that went with it. He wanted her to come out and join him, but the ranch was hers in any event.
Cindy owned a ranch in Kansas, but the range was growing smaller as farmers moved and began to break the land to plow. Pete Melford had unexpectedly died, and after a while Cindy sold out her few remaining possessions and with her foreman she headed west to take over the ranch Melford had left to her.
"We reached Kachina a couple of days ago and started inquirin', but nobody had ever heard of the ranch nor of Melford himself. There was supposed to be a four-room cabin on the place, a barn, corrals and a good well. But there's no sign or anything of the kind!"
"How long ago was his letter written?"
"About three years ago. He was in `Frisco, starting for the ranch, he said. But later she got another letter from someone who claimed to be a friend saying that Pete had died. According to them he was thrown from his horse and rolled down a canyon, somewhere near Columbia, California."
Hopalong Cassidy's expression remained the same, but he was doing some fast thinking. Back in the Bar-20 days, he had seen Pete Melford break some bad horses, and he was not a man to be thrown from any horse he would be riding on a long trip. Pete, old as he was, had been a superlative rider, and he made a practice of avoiding horses he did not know. Yet Cassidy's own presence here was also due to a letter from Melford, one that showed a premonition of trouble to come.
The letter had been long delayed in delivery owing to Hopalong's drifting and, after many months, had finally found its way into the hands of Buck Peters, who forwarded it to Cassidy at the 3TL Ranch in Nevada. It seemed to have been mailed shortly after the one Cindy Blair had received, for he had mentioned he was leaving the ranch to her.
What had worried Pete Melford? Why had the writer of the letter to Cindy lied? He had said that Pete had not arrived home but had been killed en route. But Hopalong's letter had been posted from a place called Sipapu after Pete had returned to the ranch.
"Do you know where a place called Sipapu is?" Hopalong asked Taylor.
"Never heard of it."
"We'll ask in Kachina. Let's look around."
Despite a careful search, no sign of a ranch could be found. No fence posts remained, no ash heaps, no ruined walls, no marks of a foundation. Where the log cabin was said to have stood was a tree all of three feet in diameter.
"The old boy must have been crazy," Taylor said reluctantly. "Too bad. Cindy needs the place. She's about broke."
"She sold her other place?"
"Yeah, but there were debts to pay and she gave each of the old hands a bonus. That left her mighty short."
Hopalong moved Topper into the shade of the big tree. If Pete Melford had a cabin, this would have been the site, but this tree was at least forty years old, and there was no indication that anything had ever been built in the vicinity. A well had been mentioned in the letter, but there was no sign of one, nor of the corrals, or sheds.
"Look!" Taylor said suddenly. "We've got visitors!"
Four riders were trotting their horses toward them. All were armed. Drawing up, the nearest of them, a lean-bodied man with an angular, hungry face, looked quickly from Rig Taylor to Hopalong. "Howdy! Huntin' for somethin'?"
"We're looking for the PM outfit," Taylor said. "It was supposed to lay about here."
"PM?" The rider shook his head, his small eyes growing wary. "Never heard of it. No such brand around here or I'd know."
"You never heard of Pete Melford?"
"Can't say I have. Now that's settled, you hombres better slope. We've been missin' cattle an' folks hereabouts don't take kindly to strangers ridin' their range."
"Can't say that I blame you," Hopalong said, brushing a large fly from Topper's neck. "You own this land?"
The man's face hardened. "That's right! We run it, an' while we ain't huntin' trouble, we can handle any that comes our way, so start movin'!"
Rig Taylor stepped his horse forward. He was facing squarely toward the four, one hand holding the bridle reins, the other resting on his thigh. He looked alert and ready, and Hopalong shot a quick, interested glance toward the sandy-haired young rider. Whatever else Taylor might prove to be, he had nerve. "Maybe," Taylor suggested, "You hombres don't want trouble. Well, neither do we, but we've been shot at and we don't care for it none. We're lookin' for a ranch that's supposed to be right around here, and we expect to keep looking until we find it."
"Not on this land you don't!" The lantern-jawed man kneed his mount forward a step, his hand relaxed and ready. "This is Box T range. Five miles in three directions and twenty miles north she is all Box T, so get off an' stay off!"
"Oh yeah? Well, I have a letter that describes--"
"Taylor . . ." Hopalong cut in. "Give me a chance to ask this gent a couple of questions before we go half-cocked."
For a moment Taylor looked surprised, then he backed off. "Go on, ask away."
"You're ramroddin' the Box T?" Hopalong asked mildly.
"That ain't neither here nor there! Bill Saxx ramrods the T, but I'm, segundo. I'm Vin Carter!"
"Who owns the Box T?"
"Colonel Justin Tredway."
"Thanks," Cassidy said dryly. "I'd say that for an outfit that don't want trouble, you're somewhat on the prod. Now, where would a man find this Tredway? On the Box T?"
"When he's not there, you'll find him at the Mansion House in Kachina," Carter said disagreeably, "but you'd do better not to try to run any blazers on him. He's plumb salty!"
Rig Taylor fell in unwilllingly beside Hopalong. They rode that way, their backs to the watchers. Taylor was angry and his eyes blazed with resentment. "Don't know's I can blame you," he said, "but I figured you'd back my play."
"Why?" Hopalong turned and smiled at him. "Why walk blind into a shooting match that would get you nowhere? Dead or wounded, you would be of no use to Miss Blair. Didn't it seem obvious enough that it was what they wanted? To me they seemed just a little too much on the prod for honest ranch hands. Where I've been riding, hands swap yarns and tobacco when they meet on the open range, but these hombres had chips on their shoulders."
That was what he had been thinking, and Hopalong's suspicions were aroused by the too-easy irritability of these men. If Pete Melford had said the PM was here, Pete was not wandering in his mind. He had always been a meticulous man when it came to directions, and if his range had been appropriated by the Box T, which seemed possible, then these men were wary of anyone examining the range.
Obviously something had warned Pete of impending trouble, and fearing his niece would be left with nothing, he had written to Hopalong for help. But the letter had come too late to help Pete, and there was a big question if it had not come too late to help Cindy Blair. But it might be worth a try.
What evidence did he have that anything was wrong? Pete was the best warranty of that, for Pete had been a practical, unimaginative man. If he said he had a ranch, then he had one.
The facts were, however, that Hopalong knew very well that Pete had survived his return to the ranch. His own letter proved that. It also proved that the author of the letter to Cindy was a liar or else did not know what he was talking about.
"Look," Hopalong suggested, "you go to the Mansion House. Stand around the bar and keep your ears open for any gossip. Listen to anything you hear, for any of it may be important. In the meantime, spot this Colonel Tredway if you can. Don't talk to him, just locate him and see who his friends are. He seems to be the one who has possession of the land; that's as good a place to start as any.
"Meanwhile, I'll do some checking. I've an idea or two that will bear looking into."
Leaving Topper at the livery stable, Hopalong stepped outside and paused there, breathing the cool air of evening and studying the town.