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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFlowing Gold - Chapter 6
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Flowing Gold - Chapter 6 Post by :joyous Category :Long Stories Author :Rex Beach Date :May 2012 Read :710

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Flowing Gold - Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

"Well, did you land them hicks?" It was Gray's driver speaking. Through the gloom of early evening he was guiding his car back toward Ranger. The road was the same they had come, but darkness had invested it with unfamiliar perils, or so it seemed, for the headlights threw every rock and ridge into bold relief and left the holes filled with mysterious shadows; the vehicle strained, its motor raced, its gears clashed noisily as it rocked along like a dory in a boisterous tide rip. Only now and then did a few rods of smooth going permit the chauffeur to take his attention from the streak of illumination ahead long enough to light another cigarette, a swift maneuver, the dexterity of which bespoke long practice.

"Yes. And I made a good sale," the passenger declared. With pride he announced the size of the Briskow check.

"J'ever see a dame the size of that gal?" A short laugh issued from the driver. "She'd clean up in vaudeville, wouldn't she? Why, she could lift a ton, in harness. And hoein' the garden, with their coin! It's like a woman I heard of: they got a big well on their farm and she came to town to do some shoppin'; somebody told her she'd ought to buy a present for her old man, so she got him a new handle for the ax. _Gawd!_"

A few miles farther on the fellow confessed: "I wasn't crazy about comin' for you to-night. Not after I got a flash at what's in that valise."

"No?"

"You're takin' a chance, stranger."

"Nothing new about that." Gray remained unperturbed. His left arm was behind the driver; with it he clung rigidly to the back of the seat as the car plunged and rolled. "Frequently we are in danger when we least suspect it. Now you, for instance."

"Me?" The man at the wheel shot a quick glance at his fare.

"You probably take more chances than you dream of."

"How so?"

"Um-m! These roads are a menace to life and limb; the country is infested with robbers--"

"Oh, sure! That's what I had in mind. Joy-ridin' at night with a hatful of diamonds is my idea of a sucker's amusement. Of course, we won't 'get it'--"

"Of course! One never does."

"Sure! But if we should, there's just one thing to do."

"Indeed?" Gray was pleasantly inquisitive, but it was plain that he suffered no apprehensions. "And that is--?"

"Sit tight and take your medicine."

"I never take medicine."

The chauffeur shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I do, when it's put down my throat. I _been stuck up."

"Really!"

"Twice. Tame as a house cat, me--both times. I s'pose I'll get nicked again sometime."

"And you won't offer any resistance?"

"Not a one, cull."

"I'm relieved to be assured of that."

For a second time the driver flashed a glance at his companion. It was a peculiar remark and voiced in a queer tone. "Yes? Why?"

"Because--" Gray slightly shifted his position, there was a movement of his right hand--the one farthest away from the man at the wheel--and simultaneously his left arm slipped from the back of the seat and tightly encircled the latter's waist. He finished in a wholly unfamiliar voice, "Because, my good man, you are now held up for the third time, and it would distress me to have to kill you."

The driver uttered a loud grunt, for something sharp and hard had been thrust deeply into that soft, sensitive region overlying his liver, and now it was held there. It was unnecessary for Gray to order the car stopped; its brakes squealed, it ceased its progress as abruptly as if its front wheels had fetched up against a stone wall.

"Hey! What the--?"

"Don't try to 'heel' me with your elbow," Gray warned, sharply. "Now, up with 'em--you know. That's nice."

The faces of the men were close together. Gray's was blazing, the driver's was stiff with amazement and stamped with an incredulous grimace. Paralyzed for the moment with astonishment, he made no resistance, not even when he felt that long muscular left arm relax and the hand at the end of it go searching over his pockets.

Gray was grim, mocking; some vibrant, evil quality to his voice suggested extreme malignity at full cock, like that unseen weapon the muzzle of which was buried beneath the driver's short ribs. "Ah! You go armed, I see. A shoulder holster, as I suspected. I knew you had nothing on this side." Seizing his victim's upstretched right hand with his own left, he gave it a sudden fierce wrench that all but snapped the wrist, and at the same instant he reached across and snatched the concealed weapon from its resting place. He flung the chauffeur's body away from him; there was a sharp click as he swiftly jammed the barrel of the automatic back and let it fly into place.

The entire maneuver had been deftly executed, even yet the object of the assault was speechless.

"Now then"--the passenger faced about in his seat and showed his teeth in a smile--"it is customary to permit the condemned to enjoy the last word. What have you to say for yourself?"

"I--got this to say. It's a hell of a joke--" the man exploded.

"Do I act as if I were joking?"

"If you think it's funny to jab a gun in a man's belly when he ain't lookin'--" "A gun? My simple friend, you have--or had--the only gun in this party, and you may thank whatever gods you worship that you didn't try to use it, for--I would have been rough with you. Oh, very rough! I might even have made you eat it. Now, inasmuch as you may be tempted to embellish this story with some highly imaginary details, I prefer that you know the truth. This is the 'gun' I used to stick you up." With a rigidly outthrust thumb Gray prodded the driver in the side. "Simple, isn't it? And no chance for accidents." The speaker's shoulders were shaking.

"Well, I'll be damned!"

"Not a doubt of it!" chuckled the other. "Especially if you follow in the course you have chosen. And a similar fate will overtake your pal, Mallow. By the way, is that his right name?... Never mind, I know him as Mallow. A shallow, trusting man, and, I hope, a better judge of diamonds than of character. As for me, I look deeper than the surface and am seldom deceived in people--witness your case, for example. I knew you at once for a crook. It might save you several miles of bad walking to tell me where Mallow is waiting to high-jack me.... No?"

"I dunno what you're ravin' about," growled the unhappy owner of the automobile. "But, believe me, I'll have you pinched for this."

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth is ingratitude! And what bad taste to prattle of prosecution. I sha'n't steal your car, it needs too much overhauling. And I abominate cheap machines. It is true that I'm one pistol to the good, but in view of the law against carrying lethal weapons, surely you won't prefer charges against me for removing it from your person. Oh, not that! It seems to me that I'm treating you handsomely, for I shall even pay you the agreed price for this trip, provided only you tell me where you expect to meet Mr. Mallow."

"Go to hell!" "Very well. Oblige me now by getting out.... And make it snappy!"

The driver did as directed. Gray pocketed the automatic, slipped in behind the steering wheel, and drove away into the night, followed by loud and earnest objurgations.

He was still smiling cheerfully when, a mile farther on, he brought the car to a stop and clambered out. Passing forward into the illumination of the headlights, he busied himself there for several moments before resuming his journey.

For the first time in a long while Calvin Gray was thoroughly enjoying himself. Here was an enterprise with all the possibilities of a first-class adventure, and of the sort, moreover, that he was peculiarly qualified to cope with. It possessed enough hazard to lend it the requisite zest, it was sufficiently unusual to awaken his keenest interest; he experienced an agreeable exaltation of spirit, but no misgivings whatever as to the outcome, for he held the commanding cards. Little remained, it seemed to him, except to play them carefully and to take the tricks as they fell. He had not the slightest notion of permitting Mallow to lay hands upon that case of jewels.

There was no mistaking the road, but Gray did not bother to stick to the main-traveled course when detours or short cuts promised better going, for he knew full well that Mallow would be waiting, if at all, in some place he was bound to pass. It was an ideal country for a holdup; lonely and lawless. Derrick lights twinkled over the mesquite tops, and occasionally the flaming red mouth of some boiler gaped at him, or the foliage was illuminated by the glare of gas flambeaux--vertical iron pipes at the ends of which the surplus from neighboring wells was consumed in what seemed a reckless wastage. Occasionally, too, a belated truck thundered past, but the traffic was pretty thin.

At last, however, he beheld some distance ahead the white glare of two stationary lights. The road was narrow and sandy here, and shut in by banks of underbrush; as he drew nearer a figure stepped out and stood in silhouette until his own lights picked it up. The figure waved its arms, and called attention to the car behind--evidently broken down. Here, then, the drama was to be played.

Gray brought his machine on at such a pace and so close to the man in the road that the latter was forced to step aside, then he swung it far to the right, brought it back with a quick twist of the steering wheel, and killed his motor. He was now in the ditch and outside the blinding glare of the opposing headlights; the stalled machine was in the full illumination of his own lamps.

Contrary to Gray's expectations, the car in the road was empty and the man who had hailed him was a stranger. As the latter approached, he inquired:

"What's wrong?"

"Out of gas, I guess. Anyhow--I--" The speaker noted that there was but one new arrival, where he had expected two, and the discovery appeared to nonplus him momentarily. He stammered, involuntarily he turned his head.

Gray looked in the same direction, but without changing his position, and out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a new figure emerging from the shadows behind him. Very clever! But, at least, his unexpected maneuver with his own car had made it necessary for both men to approach him from the same side.

While the first stranger continued to mumble, Gray sat motionless, keenly conscious, meanwhile, of that other presence closing in upon him from the rear. He simulated a violent start when a second voice cried:

"Don't move. I've got you covered."

"My God!" Gray twisted about in his seat and exposed a startled countenance. A masked man was standing close to the left running board, and he held a revolver near Gray's head; the apparition appeared to paralyze the unhappy traveler, for he still tightly clutched the steering wheel with both hands.

"Just sit still." The cloth of the mask blew outward as the words issued; through the slits two malevolent eyes gleamed. "Act pretty, and you won't get hurt."

"Why! It's--it's Mr. _Mallow_!" Gray hitched himself farther around in his seat and leaned forward in justifiable amazement. "As I live it's you, Mallow!" Both highwaymen were in front of him, now, and shoulder to shoulder; he made sure there were no others behind them.

"Shut up!" Mallow snapped. "Frisk him, Tony, and--"

The command was cut short by a startled, throaty cry--a hoarse sound of astonishment and rage--and simultaneously a strange, a phenomenal thing occurred. An unseen hand appeared to strike down both Mallow and his accomplice where they stood, and it smote them, moreover, with appalling force and terrifying effect. One moment they were in complete mastery of the situation, the next they were groveling in the road, coughing, sneezing, barking, retching, blaspheming poisonously. Baffled fury followed their first surprise. Mallow tore the mask from his face and groped blindly for the weapon he had dropped, but before he could recover it, pain mastered him and he fell back, clawing at himself, rubbing at his eyes that had been stricken sightless. He yelled. Tony yelled. Then upon the startled night there burst a duet of squeals and curses, a hideous medley of mingled pain and fright, at once terrifying and unnatural. Both bandits appeared to be in paroxysms of agony; from Tony issued sounds that might have issued from the throat of a woman in deadly fear and excruciating torment; Mallow's face had been partially protected, hence he was the lesser sufferer; nevertheless, his eyes were boiling in their sockets, his lungs were ablaze, ungovernable convulsions ran over him.

The men understood vaguely what had afflicted them, for they had seen Gray lift one hand from the wheel, and out of that hand they had seen a stream of liquid, or a jet of aqueous vapor, leap. It was too close to dodge. It had sprung directly into their faces, vaporizing as it came, and at its touch, at the first scent of its fumes, their legs had collapsed, their eyes had tightly closed, and every cell in their outraged bodies had rebelled. It was as if acid had been dashed upon them, destroying in one blinding instant all power for evil. With every breath, now, a new misery smote them. But worse than this torture was the monstrous nature of their afflictions. It was mysterious, horrible; they believed themselves to be dying and screamed in abysmal terror of the unknown.

Gray squeezed again the rubber bulb that he had carried in his hand these last several miles, ejecting from it the last few drops of its contents, then he opened the car door, stepped out of it and stood over his strangling victims. He kicked Mallow's revolver off the road, and, holding his breath, relieved the other high- jacker of his weapon. This he flung after the first, then he withdrew himself a few paces and lighted a cigarette, for a raw, pungent odor offended his nostrils. Both of the bawling bandits reeked of it, but their plight left him indifferent. They reminded him of a pair of horses he had seen disemboweled by a bursting shell, but he felt much less pity for them.

His lack of concern made itself felt finally. Mallow, who was the first to show signs of recovery, struggled to his feet and clawed blindly toward the automobile. He clung to it, sick and shaking; profanely he appealed for aid.

"So! It _is Mr. Mallow," Gray said. "Fancy meeting you here!"

A stream of incoherencies issued from the wretched object of this mockery. Tony, the other man, stifled his groans, rose to his knees, and, with his hands clasped over his eyes, shuffled slowly away, as if to escape the sound of Gray's voice.

"Better quiet down and let me do something at once, if you wish to save your sight," the latter suggested. "Otherwise I won't answer for the result. And you needn't tell me how it hurts. I know." This proffer of aid appeared to throw the sufferers into new depths of dismay. They called to him in the name of God. They were harmless, now, and anyhow they had intended to do him no bodily harm. They implored him to lend succor or to put them out of their distress.

Gray fell to work promptly. The bottle of cream he had begged from Ma Briskow he now put to use. With this soothing liquid he first washed out their eyes, the membranes of which were raw and spongy, and excruciatingly sensitive to light, then he bandaged them as best he could with compresses, wet in it.

"You'll breathe easier as time goes on," he announced. "You'll cough a good deal for a few days, but where you are going that won't disturb anybody. Your eyes will get well, too, if you take care of them as I direct. But, meanwhile, let me warn you against lifting those bandages. Advise me as they dry out and I'll wet them again."

A blessed relief stole over the unfortunate pair; they were still sick and weak, but in a short time the acuteness of their suffering had diminished sufficiently for Gray to help them into the back seat of his car and resume his journey.

Sarcastically he referred to the sample case on the tonneau floor. "If those diamonds are in your way, I'll take them in front with me. If not, I'll ask you to keep an eye on them--or, let us say, keep a foot on them. If you should be foolish enough to heave them overboard or try to renew your assault upon me, I would be tempted to break this milk bottle. In that event, my dear Mallow, you'd go through life with a tin cup in your hand and a dog on a string."

Tony groaned in abject misery of body and soul. Mallow cursed feebly.

"What--is that devilish stuff?" the latter queried. It was plain from his voice that he meditated no treachery. "Oh! I was going to tell you. It is a product of German ingenuity, designed, I believe, for the purpose of quelling riotous and insurrectionary prisoners. It was efficacious, also, in taking pill boxes and clearing out dug-outs and the like. With some care one is safe in using it in an ordinary ammonia gun--the sort policemen use on mad dogs. Forgive me, if I say that you have demonstrated its utility in peace as well as in war. If there were more high-jackers in the world the device might be commercialized at some profit; but, alas, my good Mallow, your profession is not a common one."

"Cut out the kidding," Mallow growled, then he fell into a new convulsion of coughing. The car proceeded for some time to the tune of smothered complaints from the miserable figures bouncing upon the rear seat before Gray said: "I fear you are a selfish pair of rascals. Have you no concern regarding the fate of the third member of your treasure-hunting trio?" Evidently they had none. "Too bad! It's a good story."

Whatever their indifference to the welfare of the chauffeur, they still had some curiosity as to their own, for Mallow asked:

"What are you going to do with us?"

"What would you do, if you were in my place?"

"I'd--listen to reason."

"Meaning--?"

"Hell! You know what he means," Tony cried, feebly.

"So! You do me the honor to offer a bribe." Gray laughed. "Pardon my amusement. It sounds callous, I know, but, frankly, your unhappy condition fails to distress me. Well, how much do you offer?"

"All we got. A coupla thousand."

"A temptation, truly."

Mallow addressed his companion irritably. "Have a little sense. He don't need money."

Calvin Gray had never been more pleased with himself than now, for matters had worked out almost exactly according to plan, a compliment indeed to his foresight and to his executive ability. He loved excitement, he lived upon it, and much of his life had been devoted to the stage-management of sensational exploits like this one. As a boy plays with a toy, so did Gray amuse himself with adventure, and now he was determined to exact from this one the last particle of enjoyment and whatever profit it afforded.

Within a few minutes of his arrival at Ranger, the town was noisy with the story, for he drove down the brightly lighted main street and stopped in front of the most populous cafe. There he called loudly for a policeman, and when the latter elbowed his way through the crowd, Gray told him, in plain hearing of all, enough of his experience to electrify everybody. He told the story well; he even made known the value of his diamond stock; mercilessly he pilloried the two blindfolded bandits. When he drove to the jail the running boards of his car were jammed with inquisitive citizens, and those who could not find footing thereon followed at a run, laughing, shouting, acclaiming him and jeering at his prisoners.

Having surrendered custody of the latter, he dressed their eyes once more and explained the sort of care they required, then he made an appeal from the front steps of the jail, adjuring the mob to disperse quietly and permit the law to take its course.

Nothing like this had occurred during the brief, busy life of the town. It was a dramatic incident, but the manner in which this capable stranger had handled it and the discomfiture he had brought upon his assailants appealed more to the risibilities than to the anger of Ranger. Admiration for him displaced indignation at the high-jackers; cries for vengeance upon them were drowned in noisy appreciation of their captor. Gray became a popular character; men clamored to shake his hand, and complimented him upon his nerve. The editor of the local newspaper dragged him, protesting, to the office and there interviewed him. Gray was covered with confusion. Reluctantly he made known his identity, and retold the whole story of his trip, this time beginning at his meeting with Coverly in Dallas. He displayed the bewildering contents of his sample case, now guarded by a uniformed arm of the law, and explained how he had volunteered his services out of pure love of adventure, then how he had played into Mallow's hands while aware of his malign purpose at all times.

This was more than a local story; it was big enough for the wire. Gray sat at the editor's elbow while that enthusiastic gentleman called Dallas and gave it to the papers there.

He was escorted to the railroad station by an admiring crowd; he was cheered as he passed, smiling, into his Pullman car.

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CHAPTER VFor perhaps half an hour the women tried on one piece of jewelry after another, exclaiming, admiring, arguing, then the mother realized with a start that meal time was near and that the menfolks would soon be home. Leaving Allie to entertain their guest, she hurried out, and the sound of splitting kindling, the clatter of stove lids, the rattle of utensils came from the kitchen. Gray retired to the patent rocker, Miss Briskow settled herself upon a straight-backed chair and folded her capable hands in her lap; an oppressive silence fell upon the room. Evidently the duties of hostess
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