Authors: Joe Millard
"As I always say," Dandy murmured modestly, "it's the greatest show on earth."
"Without exaggeration," Markert agreed. He turned to the bounty hunter with a small
. "And you, sir—your wizardry with guns left me dazed and breathless. I wanted to see it all again at Burning Rock but business would not permit. Now all my hope of seeing a performance today has been dashed."
"Can't you arrange it somehow, Mr. Markert?" Dandy asked, then added with rare impulsiveness, "as my guest."
Davis Markert stared at him as if he were some strange kind of bug on a pin.
"Haven't you heard the news, Mr. Deever? No, I suppose you wouldn't have out here. I am very much afraid there won't
a circus performance today."
"I knew it," Dandy wailed. "We're going to be rained out, just as I said."
"I'm afraid this is something infinitely worse, sir. The dreaded bandit, Apachito, is on his way to Hangville with his entire gang, boasting that they were coming on a two-fold mission. One is to rob my bank while that boarded-over opening in the wall leaves us completely vulnerable to a direct attack. The other is to capture or kill someone here who has incurred the personal wrath of that savage."
Shadrach and The Man With No Name exchanged significant glances. Dandy whistled softly.
"So that's why you were tearing over that rough ground as if the fiends were after you. They are." A sudden thought made his eyes widen. "And I'll bet any odds that box in the wagon is full of bank money you were hoping to rush to some safe place."
Markert hesitated, then nodded grimly.
"There's a U.S. Cavalry post about twenty miles west we were trying for. And the box contains a half-million dollars in new bills we just received from the Bank of El Paso where we keep our gold reserves."
Dandy gasped. The hunter looked at his rival. Shadrach's narrowed eyes were glittering with avarice and triumph.
It was a piece of coincidence almost too fantastic to be believed. A rancher by the name of Purss, whose spread lay south of Hangville, had been out since dawn hunting a mountain lion that had killed two of his calves.
Toward noon he was following a stream in the foothills of the Misfortunes. He was traveling on foot, having left his horse tied in a grassy glen a short distance back. Searching the high walls on either side, he spied what appeared to be the dark mouth of a cave a short distance above the stream. Clambering up to a narrow ledge, he cautiously approached the opening with his rifle cocked and ready.
It was a shallow cave which appeared to be empty, though a strong smell indicated it was or recently had been the den of a big cat. He crouched low and squirmed through the narrow opening. By the flickering light of a match flame he could make out what appeared to be fairly fresh lion tracks in the dust of the cave floor. Apparently it was still in use but the occupant was probably out hunting.
Purss lowered the hammer of his rifle and was squirming his way out when he heard voices and the stomping and snorting of horses from below the ledge. Innate caution made him ease himself out and peer cautiously over the rim. The sight down below gave him a jolt.
A large group of horsemen were bunched up, lounging in their saddles while they let their horses drink from the stream. Purss recognized the squat, dark figure of Apachito instantly, from having had a close-up look during a previous outlaw raid on Hangville. The bandit chief had apparently recruited several replacements, for the rancher swore there were at least twenty heavily armed riders with him.
Unaware of an eavesdropper just over his head, Apachito was giving detailed instructions for the assault on the bank and the subsequent capture or murder of someone he referred to as
. Purss readily translated the Spanish as Mr. Nobody but the name was meaningless to him.
The talk turned to whether they should push on and eat a cold meal in the saddle or give their lathered horses a needed breather and stop long enough to build a fire and make coffee. The coffee won and the entire force moved upstream toward an open glade where the horses could graze.
The moment their backs were turned, Purss was scuttling in the opposite direction. He reached his horse undetected and set out for Hangville at a dead run. Bursting into the bank, he panted out the news to Markert and his employees.
"They won't dawdle long," he concluded. "I'd say you can figure to get hit within an hour at the most."
A number of bank customers had gathered around to listen. At the rancher's prediction, there was a wild rush for the door. The story spread through town like wildfire, and so did the panic it engendered. Scars from the previous occasion when the town played unwilling host to Apachito and his gang were still fresh in memory.
From one end of town to the other there was a wild stampede as frightened people snatched up whatever valuables they could carry and saddled horses or hitched wagons for flight. In a matter of minutes they were streaming out of town, heading mainly north or east toward Burning Rock or Bijou, the nearest towns that might offer refuge.
At the bank, President Markert was faced with some hard and split-second decisions. In the first moments of wild confusion three clerks slipped away and vanished. A few minutes later it was discovered that the outside bank guards had fled. Neither was too unexpected since Apachito and his men rated the shooting of bank employees as merely good, clean sport.
There was little question that the number one priority was the matter of saving the half-million dollars in brand-new currency. It had arrived only the previous day and had not yet been unpacked. The packets of bills were still in the padlocked metal case in waterproofed bundles. The case was roughly five feet long by two feet wide and slightly under that in height
If worst came to worst, its contents would practically guarantee the survival of the bank as an operating institution. It had, therefore, to be saved at all costs.
Hobe Bealy, the bank's man-of-all-work was dispatched to hitch up and bring the buckboard wagon on the double. With a head start, they stood a good chance of reaching the cavalry post where the troopers would give the case adequate protection.
The thousands of dollars in coins and bills used in day-today operations were a different matter. Stopping to hunt up adequate containers and pack the money would take far too long for the margin of safety. It had to be left behind as a sacrifice for the safety of the larger horde. Time was getting dangerously short. The remaining clerks, tellers and cashiers, were already scuttling around with one eye on the grandfather clock and an ear cocked for the first muted thunder of distant hoofbeats.
"Grab all the cash you can carry at one time," he ordered, "and ram it into the big safe, then clear out. Don't go back for more and don't stop to pick up any you drop. If this box is half as strong as the salesman claimed, it might even resist dynamite."
He heard the buckboard rattle to a stop in front as he slammed and locked the door of the massive safe. He and Hobe wrestled the heavy chest out and into the wagon, then force of habit made him turn back to lock the bank's door. Even as he turned the key he realized the uselessness of the precaution.
As they raced out the north end of the almost-deserted town, past the Hanging Tree, Markert twisted in his saddle to look back. A rapidly moving cloud of dust marked the approach of the outlaws from the south. His timing had already been cut much too fine. He could only hope that trying to break into the huge safe would delay them long enough to give the buckboard a longer lead.
Markert noticed the three canvas-topped wagons parked at the rim of the gully, the horses picketed beside them and the little knot of men close by, but he was too distraught and too intent on flight to recognize them. He saw the low, sharp spine of rock outcropping a split second too late to shout a warning to Hobe. With a splintering crash, the wagon wheel collapsed, and with it collapsed all hope of reaching the safety of the cavalry outpost.
The outlaws jogged along the dusty street close-bunched, cocked rifles cradled in their arms, wary eyes searching both sides of the street for a sign of trouble. Apachito rode in the lead with Lupo, his second in command, beside him. Lupo was a big man, built
n the general lines of a grizzly bear, with a tangle of greasy red beard on a knife-scarred face.
He generally gave an impression of being slow and ponderous, a delusion that had cost more than one adversary his life. In action, Lupo could move like greased lightning. Few gunmen could match the speed or accuracy of his draw, although in his huge paw the big Frontiersman model of the Colt .45 looked like a child's toy.
He scowled at the silent buildings and the empty street and muttered, "I don't like this, Apachito. It is too quiet, much too quiet
The town even
"You worry too much,
," the bandit chief said, leaning over to pat his lieutenant's knee. "You know no one comes out to stare when the terrible Apachito rides past with his men. No, no, my friend. They bar their doors and slam their shutters and cower in terror underneath their beds."
"That," Lupo said dryly, "should be a sight to see. Because all their horses must be cowering under the beds with them." He waved a huge hand toward the empty hitchrails. "Do you see a horse anywhere along the street? There is the livery stable, wide-open and empty, with not a buggy or wagon in the yard? I say again, I don't like it."
"Worry, worry, worry," Apachito said, but the first faint shadow of doubt had begun to cloud his eyes. "They have probably hidden all the horses so we cannot steal them. It is the natural thing they would do."
," Lupo said grimly, "they knew ahead of time we were coming. But how could anyone have known that?"
"By God!" Apachito cried in a choked voice. He slammed a fist onto the horn of his saddle. "By God, you're right, Lupo!" He twisted around to glower back at his small army of cutthroats. "If one of those bastards has sold us out..."
"How could they, Apachito? No one can get in or out of our camp unless the gate is opened, and we both know it has not been opened once since you returned from that unfortunate affair at Burning Rock until we rode out this morning."
"We'll soon know if they were warned of our coming," Apachito said grimly. "Here is the bank."
The outlaws swung out of their saddles and moved to their places with military precision, following a blueprinted plan. Ten of the outlaws took positions at the front and side of the structure, facing outward, rifles ready to repel any attack. Two men carrying crowbars ran to take positions each side of the boarded-up opening. The remainder faced the bank's barred windows with rifles ready to return any fire from within.
Lupo, with Apachito at his heels, marched to the massive oak front door, sheathed inside and out with iron. Both men had their pistols drawn and cocked. Lupo cautiously tried the door latch, shook the unyielding mass, then turned to his chief.
"Locked! That proves they were warned. Why else would the bank be closed in the middle of the day?"
Together they ran around to the side.
"Tear it down," Apachito shouted.
The bandits with crowbars attacked the planking, prying it away. In a matter of moments the ragged opening through the adobe wall was exposed. Lupo was the first one through. He stood just inside, looking around, then called,
"It's clear. There's nobody here, now."
Apachito followed him inside. The two who had torn down the barrier dropped their crowbars and followed. They ran behind the cashiers' cages and uttered whoops of excitement.
"Money," one yelled. "Money all over the floor."
Apachito and his lieutenant ran around the counter, A trail of scattered coins and bills led from the change drawers in the cages to the locked safe at the rear. The two bandits were gleefully snatching up the money and cramming it into their pockets.
"They were warned all right," Apachito said, "but only a little while ago. They had time to lock most of their change in the safe, but not time enough to pick up what they spilled in their rush." He studied the massive safe, shaking his head. "I don't know, Lupo. This is something new. We have never tackled a safe this strong before, but I'll get the dynamite and fuse and we'll try."
He went out to his horse and opened one of the saddlebags. He got out a bundle of dynamite sticks, already capped, and a coil of fuse. As he turned, one of the bandits called.
"Hey, chief! This fellow says he has information to sell you."
His rifle was covering a scrawny man in dirty, ragged clothing. The scrawny man had a narrow, dirty, weasel face and one cockeye that rolled wildly skyward while its companion was staring straight ahead. His arms were held up over his head.
"I ain't got no gun, chief," he whined, as Apachito came over. "I'm a poor man—too poor to buy a gun and too much of a coward to steal one. But I got important information that'll be worth plenty of money to you."
"Spit it out," Apachito ordered.
"You ain't said you'll pay," Weasel-Face said craftily, "nor how much."