"Ride In, Killer!" (1951) - a golden-age Western story by A. E. van Vogt

(actualisé le ) by A. E. van Vogt

This dramatic tale of a struggle in a remote valley between a group of cowherds and a professional killer bent on stealing their cattle – and killing them all in the process – was only ever previously published in the February 1951 issue of the “pulp-western” magazine Famous Western.

It was A. E. van Vogt’s only foray into the vastly popular (at the time) world of the western, and a very successful one at that. Told from the “other’s” (the bad guy’s) point of view, a van Vogt technique used to great effect in many of his earliest (and finest) stories [1] and equally compelling here, this tale was written at the very end of his peak “golden-age” [2] period of writing creativity, before taking off a dozen or so years to devote himself basically full-time to other activities [3].

With the numerous original Famous Western illustrations by an unnamed artist.



e-book versions of this story are available for downloading below.


RIDE IN, KILLER!



THE GORGE twisted up, up ahead of his horse; a writhing, barren, untrod trail, grim and gray-brown and incalculably hostile in the primeval unevenness of its surface.
Somewhere in this world of gray slag and piling rock and tortured gravel hills must be the valley that old Birrton had described to him. In that valley would be the outfit that he must destroy to the last man. And they would be in the very midst of rounding up the cattle he had come to steal.
Jargg felt the great black animal he rode sag before the cruel uneven­ness of the upward path. His slate eyes narrowed. His voice snarled harsh and defiant on the chilling fall air. "Get on, damn you!"
The gray-brown walls, towering so sheer above him flung back his half-hysterical up-thrown voice in a shrilly mocking echo. That calmed him, a shuddering calm; he looked around him, wearily. For three days he had pushed through this immense hell-hole of badlands; he was beginning to doubt his direction. The desolation was oppressive.
Before him, the path leveled off. There was a brief straggle of raw gravel and a scatter of rock. And then—grass
The grass sloped down gently into a grand sweep of valley, still green under the leaden morning skies of that early October day. It wound un­evenly eastward, yet remained visi­ble clear to the horizon. In that di­rection would be the ranch-house, and, beyond it, other ranches, the nearest cow-town.
Westward, the valley twisted for little more than a mile, and then it bent abruptly to the north. There must be more valley beyond. But not much. Ragged hills towered there, a rough, shapeless horizon, gray and lifeless in its promise of jagged lone­ly miles of badlands—worse than the south way he had come. Old Birr­ton had told him that the northern and western country was utterly im­passable.
Jargg shrugged; his steely gaze swept down to where wagons, horses, cattle and men were scattered over the wide, level, grass-grown plain that was the floor of the valley.
The round-up was in progress. There wouldn’t be more than half a dozen men, who’d never suspect his murderous intentions, and wouldn’t credit one man as dangerous to many until it was too late. By tomorrow night he should be heading back to­wards the railway junction with the cattle . . . easy now that he knew the way.
A cold smile wreathed his lean, hard face. He rowelled the jet-black horse with a jerky, vicious kick. The animal reared up, squealing, twisted its head, rolled its eyes and bared long, yellow teeth.
Jargg’s smile changed to a sneer. "That’s all right, big fellow! You’ll have your chance to do that clever trick of yours. But first we’ll do a little sneak to the right, eat a little, drink a little, and rest until noon. Get!"
He felt the tensed muscles of the horse yield. It edged gingerly down into an arroyo that hid the men and animals below from his view. It broke into a ragged trot that jerked his head up and down, up and down, rhythmically.
He ate and he slept. And then as the sun took up its noon position, rode down among the wagons. The timing was perfect. The round-up crew was at the chuck wagon.

AS HE REINED in his horse, a man as big as Jargg heaved himself up from the ground, put down his cup of coffee, and walked a few steps towards Jargg, a deliberate movement that somehow marked him as a leader in this group. "I’m Ledvers," he said,
Some of the other men were grouping themselves beside him and behind him. Jargg felt their apprais­ing, collective gaze; there were so many of them that a spear of flame, a tingling uncertainty, darted through him. One, two, three . . . seven men on the rise watching him. And he could see three more down in the shallow by the wagons. Ten men! That was bad; maybe he’d better keep moving—fast!
The speculation swept on in one section of his brain, while his gray gaze narrowed on the big man who stood, feet slightly apart, a little ahead of the others. He said: "My name’s Art Jargg. I’m from down the border way—just had one hell of a ride. I didn’t believe the country would be as bad as I was told it was. Say, that grub of yours sure smells good to a hungry man."
Ledvers stared steadily up at him. He said, "Funny thing to me any man would come over that no-man’s-land unless he had to. What do you think, Larry?"
"Don’t look good to me." The rangy man slouching well to the rear spoke briefly. Jargg flashed the new speaker a sharp glance. Ledvers must have caught the look.
"That’s my foreman," he explained.
The high, excitable voice of a small, wiry man burst out, "Since we’re passin’ introductions, my name’s Jim Laurie. Guess we can let him have a meal, eh, boss?"
Ledvers frowned. "Stranger," he said coldly, "I can’t quite fit into my mind why anybody would take three days of hell-ridin’ across that devil’s country to the south. It looks like maybe you took a run-out powder from the law. I can’t refuse grub to a hungry man, but right after you’ve eaten you’d better move on. You ain’t welcome here."
Jargg’s eyes gleamed with sudden, suppressed anger. "That’s tough talk to give a man who’s broke and hungry," he said. "I was figurin’ on askin’ you for a couple of days’ work, so’s I’d have a few bucks when I hit town." He saw that he had struck a sore spot. It wasn’t done, what Ledvers was doing. In this grim country you didn’t refuse a stranger help. And yet—Ledver’s antagonism was un­mistakable. It was the old story, Jargg realised. Something about him jarred on other, less predatory men.
"That’s an easy thing to ask, Jargg," Ledvers said deliberately, "but it’s odd how one man sometimes doesn’t like another. That’s the way it is: I don’t like your face; I don’t like your guns; I don’t like your tough manner. I think you’re a crook and . . ."

JARGG gave him no time to finish. He had a technique of minimum movement. He himself was always aware of his muscles, of crouching for the spring. But other men didn’t see him do it.
To Ledvers the action must have been bafflingly swift. One instant he was standing there, looking up at the horseman; the next a body like a piece of solid timber struck him on the chest. He was flung back, stunned and dizzy, but somehow still on his feet. And then a fist launched at his jaw, a fist so big and so hard that the very bones that received the blow seemed to dissolve before the steel-hardness of it. His body struck the ground then, and he lay there, still conscious, aware of the stranger towering above him.
It was an old experience for Jargg to stand above men he had over­whelmed by sheer swiftness of move­ment. He rasped, "You can turn me away without food; you can refuse me a job; you can have your gang beat me up; but nobody can call me a crook."
Ledvers climbed to his feet. That brief minute of lying on the ground had apparently been all he needed to recover from the hardest blow he had ever felt in his life. Jargg rec­ognized the expression on his face. The man ached for the struggle that would blot out the terrible humilia­tion of having been knocked down in the sight of his men. but there would be no fight, Jargg knew. Hon­est men reacted in a curiously sim­ilar fashion. The very depth of the honesty in Ledvers would make him swallow his pride, eat his words and leave that one smashing blow unpaid.
A long moment went by, while the two men stared at each other. At last Ledvers spoke in a thick voice. "Stranger," he said, "you win; I spoke out of turn. You’re welcome to the food, and you can work here a couple of days if you’re still mind­ed."
Jargg nodded. "No hard feelings, boss. I guess none of us can help our faces. The deadliest gunman in the west today has a baby face with innocent blue eyes and the most dan­gerous man is a gambler who looks like a sky pilot.”
His mind was made up. This initial success was proof that his luck was still with him, his luck and abnormal skill. Ten men was a little out of the ordinary, but here in this isolat­ed corner of valley, in the very deeps of the badlands, murder would be easy.

WO DAYS, and the men should be taken care of. Their bodies would be sprawling in little, hard-to-find nooks and under piles of brush, with a good chance that the first snow of winter would bury them till spring. The cattle would be delivered to Birrton.
He began to think of the affair, suddenly, as one more incident in his long, dangerous, successful ca­reer.
Behind him, he heard the big man say, "Stake your horse out with the others, Jargg. Then come in and eat."
"I’ll do just that, Mr. Ledvers," Jargg flung over his shoulder. He led the black horse over the grass. His fingers shook as he removed the saddle. He clenched them angrily, then attached the hobblers to the horse’s front legs. Reaching up, he tweaked the horse’s right ear with a swift, vicious tug. Then hurried clear.
The horse tossed its head, showed wicked teeth, and took quick steps after him. Jargg, walking rapidly away, knew that deep in its brain a sequence of events had been jogged into action by that painful twisting of its ear.
There was a pleasurable glow in Jargg as he paused on the rise to look down on the wagons and the men. A chill wind blew into his face, and he drew a deep breath while his gaze wandered along the green valley, dotted with brown and black steer, mostly hardy brown.
Into the edge of his vision flicked a gray cliff. His face creased into a frown. He didn’t like the picture that glimpse evoked—of a pitted and unfriendly land that he would soon have to cross with a drove of cattle. There were hard days ahead.
He walked briskly down into the nook. Some of the men were rolling smokes, taking last gulps of steaming coffee. A short, thick-set man with a friendly face started up past Jargg. Jargg stopped him. "Be careful of my horse," he warned. "He’s always a little jumpy after he’s been away from strangers for a while. Give him plenty of room."
"Sure, thanks," said the man, and walked past him. Jargg took the coffee that was proffered him, a wave of glee flooding along his nerves. Just such warnings as that, cowmen never really took seriously; yet everyone had heard him give it.
His impulse was to turn and watch the fellow. He checked himself, kept his eyes on the plate of food that was being dished out for him by the cook, a long, gangling, loose-jawed man with deft hands that belied his simpleton appearance.
Ledvers said, "You might as well meet the boys, Jargg. Men, this is Art Jargg, blew in from the south, and he’ll be with us two days—that’s right, isn’t it?"
"Yep," said Jargg, "two days."
His flinty eyes glittered at the hostility behind Ledvers insistence on that time limit—two days! Well, two days would be enough, damn him! And in just about two minutes . . .

HE HEARD the blur of Ledvers going on, naming the men: Sky Bennett, Larry Grayson, Piker Todd, Jim Laurie . . . but the names didn’t connect in his mind with faces until the big man said, ". . . and that fel­low who went up for his horse was Ben Procter, Laurie’s side kick from way back. He . . .”
Again the voice blurred. Now! Jargg thought. Queerly, he was aware of his mouth chewing at some kind of meat, probably beef, though it seemed to have no taste. He took a sip of scalding coffee, and noticed admiringly that his hand was steady as a rock—but what was the matter with that horse?
A shriek stabbed through the air, a man’s high, shrill and terrible cry of ultimate agony. There was a sound of stamping hooves, a deep, defiant neigh from a harsh-throat­ed horse; and then a pandemonium of frightened, excited horses, neigh­ing, running, stumbling "Good Gawd !" somebody gasped in an unnatural voice. Jargg dropped his cup. He watched the coffee spray brownly over the grass. Then he jerked into a run that brought him level with the huge Ledvers. Satis­faction flooded his being. One man dead; that left nine to go. It shouldn’t be long now! Out of the corner of his eyes, Jargg watched Ledvers’s face as the other stared down at the smashed, bloody thing that had been a man. It was a moment pregnant with ac­tion. The air that blew against his face seemed distinctly colder; and, somehow, the pressing, gray clouds above appeared closer, more threatening, gloomier. The grand sweep of the autumn valley, the whole world of cattle and men and horses was verily remote. Jargg waited, his left hand like an iron clamp, holding the head of his quivering jet black horse. At last Ledvers spoke. "That horse ­ought—to be killed!" he said heavily.
Jargg said, "I can’t understand it. He’s always been a little wild, es­pecially around strangers. I’ll put the beast out of the way as soon as I can afford it. There’s nothing more I can say."
"No." Ledvers spoke dully. His tone accepted the fact that there was no one to blame. He said again, "No, you’re right; there’s nothing more to be said."
From one side, Jargg heard the hoarse, heavy breathing of a man ; and then a harsh, unrecognizable voice said, "What do you mean, there’s nothing more to be said?"

JARGG turned, and recognized Jim Laurie as the man who had spoken in that strained, shrill voice. But it was a changed Laurie. The muscles stood out on his gray-white face like taut cords. His eyes were bloodshot and staring. The man clenched and unclenched his hands spasmodically. He swayed drunkenly. He said thickly, "This here stranger comes among us; his horse kills my pal, and you say there’s nothing more to be said. By the Lord, he ought to be strung up. If you don’t do something, so help me, I’ll put a bullet in him if it’s the last thing I ever do."
Jargg flashed a swift look around the circle of faces. The men were strained and pale with the shock of events, but calm and basically unex­cited. He waited, for this was not up to him.
Ledvers said, "Now, see here, Laurie, I can sympathize with you in your loss. But it’s part of the game. Procter knew that; you know it. It’s maddening to think by what wild chance death can strike, but nothing—nothing, I tell you—can be done about it. Next time, it may be you or me—or anyone of us. Death comes queerly, almost without reason at time, and it’s plain hell to take, even from Gawd! But we’ve got to take it, and all the chances that go with staying on living. Now, let’s bury poor Procter, and get to work."
He turned away, and started to walk off. Jargg stayed where he was. He recognized what Ledvers hadn’t, that the words were not enough. Laurie was beside himself with grief, and he needed to be protected from himself. His own thought ended. Laurie was talking at him in a strangely low-pitched voice. Jargg didn’t listen to the words. He watched the man with a sharp under­standing of what was about to happen. And seconds before the final words came through, he was ready in his tremendous fashion. Laurie shouted: "And by heaven, stranger, go for your gun because I’m going for mine—now!"

AT THE LAST instant, Ledvers must have become aware of the situation. He whirled. "No, Jim!" he yelled.
His voice blended with the snarl of two gunshots, the beat of them so close together they sounded like one drawn-out ba-a-ng! Having fired, Jargg briefly watched Laurie. The wiry little man stood with an as­tonished expression on his face that dissolved queerly into an awareness of blinding pain. The gun, barely out of its holster, dropped from his straightening fingers. He crumpled forward with a little sigh. His legs kicked once. Then he lay still.
Jargg flicked his gaze over the other men. Without exception, they looked so stunned that he felt it safe to concentrate on Ledvers. He was pretty sure that no one had yet realized that he had fired both shots.
Jargg lowered the black gun back into its holster, and took a tighter grip on his trembling horse. He had to fight to keep the cold sneer in his mind from wreathing into his face. His eyes shone with a steely light. The fool! Daring to draw on a man who had never yet met his match.
As he waited for reactions, a wind sighed past his ears, gently brushing his face with its dryness, touching his nostrils with the not unpleasant yet rancid odor of cattle.
Finally, then, he broke the silence. "You all saw I had to do it. I didn’t have time to argue, or think, or aim. I just shot as fast as I could to save my life—that’s every man’s right!"
Ledvers nodded vaguely, but he said nothing. It was Sky Bennett who answered Jargg.
"Look, stranger," he said with de­liberate slowness, "we’re friends of Laurie, and friends kind of stick together, right or wrong. You come barging in here; and two of our men get killed, two fellows we’ve all known for a long time. I’m not say­ing it’s your fault. But I do say I’ve met men before who bring bad luck. Maybe you’d better not stick around here two days. Maybe you’d better leave tomorrow morning!"
The tall, lean-built cowman glanced around at the weatherbeaten faces of the other men. His face was slightly flushed, his eyes wide with blunt question. "Do I speak for the bunch?" he asked.
Their response was unanimous and without hesitation. There was a chorus of "Yaah!" "You damn right!" "Why wait for morning, make him clear out right now!"

BEFORE that hostility, Jargg’s eyes narrowed to thin slits. This was a dangerous moment, but his vast experience told him it was not half so dangerous as it seemed. Friends, the man had said. Bunk! Men in this wild West were never real friends. It was all surface stuff. Else why did a man, after months of association with an outfit, sud­denly pack his kit and drift off into the blur of prairie beyond the blue haze of horizons, never to return, or see again the "friends" of the camp­fire?
Friends! They felt they were, now, this minute, when the dead men were lying at their feet. But only because they were uneasy. There was no friendship in these tameless men who, like himself, followed the dis­tant horizons. Unlike himself, they were not conscious of their alien­ness to that other life coming to the West, the ones who were taking root, marrying, growing into the land. Like Ledvers!
Friends, hell! With a violent ef­fort he mastered his mounting im­patience. "I can’t understand you men!" he snapped. "I’ve done noth­ing that any one of you wouldn’t have done in my place. And I still got to have those few bucks I can earn in two days. You don’t have to like me; you don’t even have to speak to me; but I’ve been promised two days, and I don’t think I’ve done anything that should do me out of them. I’m sorry about your pals; I didn’t have a thing against either of them. Good Lord, how could I have anything against any of you? I ain’t never laid eyes on a single one of you in my life. Anyway, I’ll just mind my business as much as I can —but I’m staying unless I’m fired."
His gray, metal-colored eyes swung questioningly upon Ledvers, who looked back, cool now, and de­cisive.
Ledvers said, "Let’s have no more nonsense, boys. And that stuff about hoodoos who bring bad luck is non­sense. I’ve already given my opinion of Jargg and eaten some of my words because I had no business say­ing them.
"The whole thing comes down to this: a stranger floats out of nowhere among ten men. Two of them get killed, one by a wild accident, the other because he was an emotional fool. There are no more fools left here. We know that Jargg is a man who can take care of himself. Well, so can we. If he’s a trouble­maker, he better get it clear into his mind that we’re as hard-bitten an outfit as any on the range; and we’re eight to one. But as far as I’m con­cerned, Jargg stays here the two days I promised him."
He twisted on his heel, faced the slouching form of the silent Larry Grayson. "You, Larry," he said crisp­ly, "and you Piker, take Jargg with you to help round up those steer at the west-end. The rest of us’ll stay here to bury these two men; and then we’ll get to work. We ought to get this round-up cleared before the snow comes, even with two men short for most of the time. Stran­ger, it’s your move !"
"I’ve got a job," said Jargg, and there was an easy swing in his voice.
He turned and began to saddle his horse.

T WAS hard, waiting to kill. The murder lust flared in little burning flashes in­side him, passionate while they lasted, but forced into ember-like existence by the immense caution in his make-up.
They rode west, the three of them, then north as the valley bent in that direction. There was nearly two miles here of green, narrowing grasslands, then a splitting into smaller valleys, with splinters of greenish brown running into the gray-brown deadness of the jagged horizon of badlands beyond.
Jargg’s searching eyes made out trees; and, here and there, cattle grazing. He grew aware that one of the men had ridden up beside him. As he turned, the man cried. "The cattle will be spotted all through those trees and valleys, wherever there’s grazing. It’s our job to get ’em out, and herd ’em down to the others."
Jargg nodded, his eyes appraising the man closely for the first time. This was Larry something or other, a well-built man in his late thirties. The fellow had a rough­hewn, wind-worn countenance, heavy­set, handsome in an awkward sort of a way. He had big hands, long arms; he rode with a slouching ease that brought a thin frown to Jargg’s lips.
Staring straight at him, Larry said in a harsh voice: "You might as well get this straight, stranger. In spite of that clever stuff you pulled—may­be because of it—you’re not trusted around here. I ain’t been sayin’ much, but I’d like to see the ordinary wild horse that could kill Ben Procter. And if your nag is so touchy, how is it you could handle him without trouble for comin’ on this trip? I’ve seen trick horses before, but I guess this is the first time I’ve seen a trick killer horse, maybe."
Jargg shifted in his saddle. He could feel his face change color. Never in all his years of murder had anyone penetrated so close to the truth at this stage. Abruptly, he didn’t like his position, out in front here, with the man called Piker able to plug him from behind. He jerked out hoarsely : "You’re crazy. I don’t like what’s happened any more than you do. If I want to kill somebody to roll him for his money, I’d choose a dark night and a guy that had some bonanza on him, not a poor cowhand whose money I couldn’t get anyhow because of so many of his pals being around."
"All right, all right," Larry said. "Maybe I was just talkie’ to hear myself. It all sounds straight, but I’m not like Ledvers. When I get a hunch, it takes more’n clever words to get me to back down
"But get this: I don’t usually go out on this job. Ledvers sent me along because, next to himself, I’m the best man on this outfit. I don’t know what your game is, but I’m ready for anything. Now, let’s get busy and round up these steer. You take that long center valley there. Piker can go up the first valley to your right. I’ll take the nearest left. Let’s go!"
"I’ll make a bet," said Jargg in a thick voice. "I’ll bet I’ve got my cattle clear of the center valley be­fore either of you turn up. Because I’m the best damned cowhand this outfit’s ever had."

A COLD, UNHURRIED part of his brain was thinking: The idiot will try to prove I’m not; and he’s just sure enough of himself to give me a perfect alibi; he’ll be dead by dark, blast his rotten soul!
His slate-hard gaze swung around on the man, Piker, one sweeping glance of appraisal, taking in the stocky build, chubby face, and mild blue eyes. One glance, that was all. Then he spurred his horse viciously, and rode off in a swirl of dust.
The valley was a winding, rough affair, with alternating spasms of grass, trees and barren gravel. Stray steer looked up at him in mild as­tonishment; but his gaze was flung beyond them now, to the right where the abraded, mounting hill showed spotty green-brown grass amidst great slashes of raw earth. Then he saw the first stretch of rock, piling up the side of the hill.
He leaped off his horse, tied the animal in an alcove of a small bunch of trees. And then, snatching his rope, ran at top speed for the rock strewn hillside.
Up, up, he ran, careless of the wild waste of his strength. His breathing became a great, labored gasping, a very fire in his throat and lungs. Foam retched into his mouth; and the faint froth of it formed a skim on his lips, salty, stingingly un­pleasant. Abruptly, his vision went black from the enormousness of his effort. And then he was on the top of the wide, rough hill that separated his stretch of valley from that of the man called Piker.
He collapsed on the ground, lay gasping while his eyes flickered and watered, alternately engulfed by black and a blurred white. Then he could see clearly again, and, with caution strong in him, he slid along the jerky spread of hill-top like a stalking cat. Once, he crouched be­hind a wide, low, rock ridge, then he was slithering along behind a bank of shrubs.
He saw where he must go: a clump of trees almost directly below him, with a bare spread of hillside in between himself and it. Almost si­multaneously, he saw his victim, farther down the rough, winding val­ley. Trees hid the approaching rider and, his opportunity having come, Jargg dived down the hillside. There was the wild, sick unbalance of run­ning at top speed downward; and then, with a last, desperate burst of effort, he dived into the shelter of the trees.
He struck the ground with the full, unprotected length of his body, a shock that tore the final ounce of breath from his lungs. He was aware of rolling over and over. Then he struck brush; and his mad fall ended

JARGG LAY there, dizzy and sluggish. But, after a moment, a high flood of life began to stream back into his muscles. He forced himself to his feet, pressed cautious­ly to the edge of the trees, and peered forth.
The flow of life through his veins leaped more richly. He couldn’t have got a better position if he had planned the affair with detailed maps. Almost directly below him was a gulch, wide and worn smooth by the passage of spring waters. On either side, the valley sprawled, a rough, shapeless thing, with barriers of scrub brush making an incredibly hard passage for horse or man.
The rider appeared to have dis­covered the easy way, for he was coming along the gulch, past the trees that had hidden him, less than two hundred yards distant. Jargg waited an instant, then the thin spiral of rope, perfectly flung, coiled out, and settled over the head and shoulders of the man. With frenzied speed, Jargg snapped the rope around the nearest two inch tree trunk, and jerked with the full of his strength and weight. The rider seemed to float from the saddle. But there was no lightness in the way he struck the ground. Distinctly, Jargg heard the thump as the body landed with a stunning crash.
"Whoa!" Jargg yelled at the horse, piercingly.
The animal gave a start, and then ran a hundred feet along to where the trail and the valley bent north­westward. Cursing, the killer leaped down to the man. With swift fin­gers, he removed the lasso from the twitching form, struck his victim one crushing blow on the temple with his gun; and then edged down the trail after the horse.
It watched him with visible ner­vousness, backing a little, turning, twisting, and once, while the man stood stark still, suffused with a sweaty fear, it ran several feet along the trail which, he could suddenly see, stretched off raggedly into the distance.
It stopped; and Jargg said softly, "That’s right, come here; be a good fellow!"
Just like that, it was over. The horse trotted forward gingerly; an unerring noose darted out; and the animal did not even pull against it.
Jargg led it back to where the man lay like a slumped bundle of clothes. He drew his gun and made sure that the man was dead. Bones broke to the sound of crunching blows, blood, spewed the ground; and then, satis­fied, he lifted the dead man toward the horse, inserted one foot securely into the stirrup, and dealt the animal a violent blow.
The horse reared, then dashed back along the way it had come, dragging the dead man. It would slow down, of course, puzzled by that tug of body, but eventually it would emerge into the larger valley.
Meanwhile, he would return to his own valley, round up his cattle—and let them figure out what had hap­pened. And if they wanted to start anything, well—his eyes smoldered with the gray-dead color of the bad­lands! They’d find out what kind of a man they were up against.

EDVERS said in a cold, calm v o i c e, "Jargg, it looks like once again somebody’s dead, and it can’t be pinned on you. Larry says you were out with your cattle two minutes after him. The time factor saves your neck, but don’t think you can stick around here another minute. Get on your horse, damn you, and get out of here!"
There were too many of them, Jargg knew. This was the point where, if there had been only six men to deal with, there would be three left. Three ordinary, hard-fisted Westerners, against whom his two irresistible guns could smash one explosive burst of bullets, no matter what their collective alertness or their strength.
He frowned. There was a stubborn quality in him that hated to give up. To leave here now, with so much already done, so much straining, such an incredible total of sheer physical power given to this task; and yet—a whirl of caution whipped along his nerves. There were seven roused men here, two of them more dangerous individuals than all the rest com­bined. Ledvers was a great, powerful man, the only rooted person among this crew. In him was the strength of the settler, the man who wanted to create a home, and his strength lay not only in his physical power but in some curious inner strength, a blind tenacity of purpose that would live even if he died.
As for Larry Grayson, the drifter, the unrooted—there was something about the quiet menace of the man, so akin to himself in spirit, in spite of an over-riding honesty, that chilled him. The fellow was basically harder, more ruthless, than Ledvers.
"Jim Laurie was right; we ought to string him up!" Larry spoke with harsh curtness. "Three dead men is no accident. He killed them and he’s out to kill the rest of us."
Jargg snarled at him, "What kind of junk are you talkin’? I know what’s happened. Somebody here’s got a grudge against the outfit, and he chose the comin’ of a stranger as a good time to do something about it. You’re one of these here silent guys, deep and full of secret thoughts. It could be you because, by all the gods, it isn’t me. What reason would I have?"
"Damn all reason!" bellowed Larry. He was not slouching now. He stood, his body a tensed, corded thing of straining muscles, his face gray with rage. "Ledvers, this guy’s not gettin’ out of here, proof or no proof! Every word he speaks has a cunning that brands him for what he is—the bloodiest murderer this side of hell!"
Ledvers said, cold as ice, "Larry, we’re not hanging a man without evi­dence—get that!"

THE TWO men glared at each other, like animals of prey, brown eyes flaming into chill blue. Then Larry said acridly, "There must be some evidence around. You’re always raving about logic. Why not start usin’ some now?"
"Very well!" Ledvers replied with equal curtness. His lips were thin lines over his teeth. "We’ll settle this fair." He faced Jargg. "From this moment, until we’ve gone over poor Piker’s backtrail, you’re a prisoner. Hand over your guns! You’ll be treated . . ."
It must have been the look in Jargg’s eyes that stopped him. Jargg gazed at him with a somber intensity, fascinated by the deadli­ness of the situation. Then he spoke: "You get my guns when I’m dead. If you think I’ll put my life into the hands of your bunch—well, get this! The first man that goes for his gun dies. And the second! And the third! And then maybe I’ll get mine. But I’ll take a bullet any day to a rope."
Jargg was forcing issues, he knew; and it was not what he wanted, at all. It was one thing to force a man to withdraw ungenerous words, and another, oh, quite another, to force him to back down when his men had been killed. It meant that he himself had to show all the strength and power of his body, and bring his tremendous vitality into the open and so by sheer domination of personality control the situation. If by so doing, the passion and lust of his nature was also revealed, then he was lost.
Ledvers said, "Keep your guns. Jargg. But you’re coming with us along Piker’s trail. This thing is go­ing through now, one way or the other. And we’ll spread out, so shoot­ing in the back by anybody will be hard."
For a moment, Jargg didn’t re­alize what had happened. And then, as his gaze flicked along the line of grim faces confronting him, he knew that, in some indescribable way, the situation was changed. And the game was up.
In the very forcing of Ledvers to back down, the man had in some queer manner gained strength and purpose to force the issue. There re­mained only flight—or death!

FOUR HOURS till dark! Jargg watched the thin net of horsemen that spread out on either side of him. They were herding him ahead, straight into the valley where Piker had died. No chance to break back to the south, where he had come from a few short hours ago. And in front, to the north and the west—Old Birrton had called the badlands there impassable.
How impassable? His great, browned hands tightened on the reins until it seemed as if his muscles would split from the agonizing tensity of that grip. His vision darkened; the world of lowering Oc­tober skies and gray-dead horizons seemed to close in upon him, pressing almost physically into him.
How impassable? Could he manage somehow to keep on going for four hours, till darkness brought him the chance he needed; the chance to double back and knife them while they slept, surprising them by his very boldness—and who, in all these spreading miles, was bolder, harder, more dangerous, more capable of carrying out such a bloody plan than himself?
His lowered hopes soared; the dimmed life forces in him, depressed by the abrupt, almost overwhelming threat of death, expanded like a bloating, filling balloon. By the gods, this crisis would find him unflinch­ing, these men would learn what it meant to monkey with Art Jargg. Everything—their death, all this built-up wealth of cattle—could yet be won!
He laughed, a short, harsh explo­sion of sound. Wave after wave of confidence surged up inside him. His eyes flicked with unerring alertness from side to side; and, as the line of horsemen entered the smaller val­ley, it was he who took the easy way of the little gulch, along which the doomed Piker had ridden such a short time before.
Somebody fell in a few feet behind him. But bold now with his purpose, dead sure that Ledvers would allow no one to shoot him in the back, Jargg rode on without so much as turning his head, without so much as a sideways glance. The damn fool would find out what was what in good time . . .
He stiffened. His fiery thought disintegrated. There, a scant two hundred feet ahead was the clump of trees from which he had made that first, smashing assault on Piker. And a hundred feet beyond was the bend where the valley twisted westward. If he could reach that bend ahead of the bullets . . .
His body grew tauter, tauter, muscles harder, nerves sharper, steadier. And then came the voice, high and excited, for which he had been waiting though hoping some­how that it wouldn’t come:
"Boss!" the cowboy cried, "here’s a man’s tracks! And blood! Who­ever done it must have run along the trail here after something ’cause—"

HISS OF curse es­caped Jargg’s lips. That damned horse of Piker’s running off down the trail, forcing him to follow recklessly. If it hadn’t, this whole crew might have ridden past the murder spot, hopelessly blotting out all tracks.
The thought scattered, like useless chaff before wind, as he spurred his horse forward. Like a striking jaguar, he drew his fastest gun, and lashed a full fusillade of lead at the three men who mattered.
Thirty feet to his right, he saw Ledvers reel in his saddle; beyond the leader, the horse of Larry Gray­son reared with a shrill scream, began fighting madly. And the man di­rectly behind Jargg, the only one who could follow him fast, dived for cover. Brush swayed where he disappeared. His riderless horse, rear­ing in terror, provided a perfect pro­tection.
And then, Jargg saw no more. His own horse, fleeing like a thing pos­sessed, whipped around the bend where the valley turned westward. It stretched ahead of him into the re­mote distance, a tortuous trail, twisting, writhing, jagged, offering, he could see, mile on mile of obsta­cle between himself and the vengeful bullets of pursuers.
But the grim rider noticed all that with but a fraction of his mind. The rest of him was conscious of an ap­palled, sinking feeling, a dribbling away of confidence, a very fire of incredulousness.
Not one man had died in that sweeping burst of lead; not one! Ledvers was nicked; Larry Gray­son untouched, although his horse was wounded; the third man was ut­terly unscathed.
It seemed unbelievable. In the past, his high, wonderful luck would have accounted for at least two, if not all three.
And now—none! A chilling sense of impending doom closed upon his spirit like the night that was so many weary miles away.
For the third time in half an hour, he pulled to a sliding stop and just sat, enormously intent, waiting for the pounding of his heart to slow, bracing his whole body against the faint, disturbing rustles in his ears, and then straining out, out, with all the strength of his hearing.
And there it was: the beat of hoofs on gravel, immeasurably faint in terms of sound, but so near, so deadly, dangerously near, in that the sound could be heard at all. They were coming fast—and why shouldn’t they? It was the clearest, freshest trail that human bloodhounds could hope for.

FOUR HOURS to go! No, three and a half, if time had really passed. Three and a half hours on a horse that was already staggering. He looked up at the ball of sun, seemingly moveless in the mid-after­noon sky, and so far, so very far, from night. His spirit sagged with a strange, sick fear.
He rode on and on, on and on. This mad and monstrous land! His slate-gray eyes, hard as metal points. glittered with the flame of the hatred that burned in him. It was that hatred that kept his strength pitched high and unyielding during the hour that dragged by, kept him going while his trembling, sweating horse bore him over terrain so cruel that his muscles became like taut­ened wires from the strain of staying in the saddle.
The world was a blur, the distorted shape of the land, rearing up crazily, then down into some abysmal depth, insanely futile in its disarrangement, fighting him harder than he could fight back, with a blinder, more deadly endurance than he could ever hope to muster.
For the dozenth time, he stopped to listen; and still those relentless riders sounded behind him, faint, faraway, yet forcing him onward, ever on.
They were driving him too hard; he had no time to think or plan; and he was basically more tired than they, he and his horse, with that deadly three day trip through the badlands from the south weighing them down now when the crisis was here.
Funny, he had never actually planned for a real assault on him­self. Everything had come so easy always, his marvelous luck and matchless muscles combining with his ruthless mind to bludgeon the resistance of unsuspecting men before the first dismaying sense of unlimited danger could put them on their guard . . . Perhaps he had grown careless; and that’s what bad luck really was: carelessness.
His brain pounded on; and there were two worlds around him now, the one in his mind and the real and deadly physical thing that stretched into the farthest distance on every side.
His horse staggered over a rock, and almost fell. Jargg slid out of the saddle, and walked on, tugging at its drooping head.
It was strangely hard to distinguish the real from the mental. But always it was the land that dominated, the incredible horizon of hills swooping into gravel abysses, and a trailless, writhing passageway that wound now in a blasted gulch, now on a narrow, appallingly dangerous ledge three, four, five hundred feet above the eager rock below; and then down inexorably until towering cliffs on either side hid the sun, made a world of darkness where he pushed on and on, grim and terrible in his strength, and in the body-destroying endurance that kept him going ahead where the reaching cliffs pressed closer and closer to him and to each other until suddenly—they were together!
He stared blurrily up at a cliff that reared five hundred straight feet. He shook his head wonderingly . . . and from somewhere came the last burning sting of his abnormal vitality . . . got to climb it . . . dead end . . . got to climb it. . . forty minutes to climb it.

FORTY minutes! Jargg nodded owlishly. Forty minutes to escape; and they’d be here in twenty minutes. That gave him a clear twenty minutes. . . no, that wasn’t right. Or was it? He shook his head, puzzled. Twenty minutes for them, or for him. Funny, he couldn’t figure that out. He’d have to think some more about it. Meanwhile, he’d better climb.
He clawed his way up the first thirty feet; and then, just like that, slid back to the bottom. And it was while he was lying dazedly, his face pressed into the gravel that the answer occurred to him.
Twenty minutes! It took twenty minutes to choke to death dangling at the end of a rope.
In a sweat of terror, he crowded up the cliff, a wild strength beating through his nerves into his muscles, yet somehow never reaching his brain. A blackness hovered there, coming nearer.
His hand reaching up with desperate will behind it caught a ledge. As he put his weight to it, the rock broke, and simultaneously his other hand slipped. It caught at the wrist in a crack in the rock. The cruel pain of it took his breath away, and curiously when he reached up frantically for another hold, the move­ment lacked power.
He fumbled blindly with his feet for a hold that would take that awful pain away from his wrist. But his toes dragged uselessly against the rock.
Jargg gazed blurrily up to the rim of that cliff, less than fifteen feet away. Far below him, he heard the shouts of men, and he wondered if they would try to shoot him. Vague­ly, he hoped so. Quick and merciful, he thought. That was the way he’d always wanted to go.
His wrist was numb now, and he was able to look down. Odd, two riders were high-tailing it back the way they’d come. The others remained below.
Jargg puzzled about the two riders for some minutes. The answer when it came was like a blow. Why, of course. They knew a way to get above him. And they’d have a rope.
Galvanized, he grasped with his free hand at the rock that held his wrist. He groaned with the effort he made then, but that was all it was —an effort. He began to sag. If he could get to the top, he’d have two guns against two men—enough, he thought with a brief spurt of ferocity, to handle the situation.
A pebble bounced down from above and struck him in the face. He looked up, chilled—and knew his doom. The sinking sun was shining on the rock above him.
Against the rock, through a red glare of light, he could see the shadow of a rope coming down . . .


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