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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 20. Starr Discovers Things
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 20. Starr Discovers Things Post by :Allnewe Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3200

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 20. Starr Discovers Things


Starr was sitting on the side of his bed with one boot off and dangling in his hand, and with his thoughts gone journeying out over the mesa and the desert and the granite ridge beyond, to a squatty, two-room adobe shack at the head of Sunlight Basin. During the days he had been too fully occupied with the work he had to do to dwell much on the miserable fact of Helen May's duplicity, her guilt of the crime of treason against her native country. But at night the thought of her haunted him like the fevered ache of a wound too deep to heal quickly.

He swore an abrupt oath as a concrete expression of his mood, and dropped the boot with a thump to the floor. The word and the action served to swing his thoughts into another channel not much more pleasant, but a great deal more impersonal.

"He's shore foxy--that hombre!" he said, thinking of Elfigo Apodaca.

As matters stood that evening, Starr felt that Elfigo had the right to laugh at him and the whole Secret Service. Elfigo was in jail, yes. Only that day he had been given his preliminary hearing on the charge of murdering Estan Medina, and he had been remanded without bail to await trial.

On the face of it, that looked as though Starr had gained a point. In reality he felt that he had in some manner played into Elfigo's hands. Certainly he had not gained anything in the way of producing any buzzing of the Alliance leaders. Not a Mexican had shown his face at the hearing, save Luis Medina and his mother, who had been called as witnesses.

Luis had been badly scared but stubborn, insisting that he had heard Elfigo call Estan from the house just before the shot was fired. The mother also had been badly frightened, but not at all stubborn. Indeed, she was not even certain of anything beyond the drear fact that her son was dead, and that he had fallen with the lamp in his hand, unarmed and unsuspecting. She was frightened at the unknown, terrible Law that had brought her there before the judge, and not at anything tangible.

But Luis knew exactly what it was he feared. Starr read that in his eyes whenever they turned toward the calm, inscrutably smiling Elfigo. Hate was in the eyes of Luis, but the hate was almost submerged by the terror that filled him. He shook when he stood up to take the oath. His voice trembled in spite of him when he spoke; but he spoke boldly for all that--falsely, too. He had lied when he told of the quarrel over the old water right. It was not a water right which the two had discussed, and Starr knew it.

But it was Elfigo that puzzled Starr most. Elfigo had smiled, as though the whole thing amused him even though it annoyed him to be under arrest. He denied, of course, that he had known anything at all about the murder until it was common news about town. He had been somewhere else at the time Estan was shot, and he could and would prove, when the time came, that it would have been physically impossible for him to have shot Estan Medina. He preferred not to produce any witnesses now, however. Let it go to a jury trial, and then he would clear himself of the charge. All through his lawyer, of course, while Elfigo sat back with his hands in his pockets and his feet thrust out before him, whimsically contemplating his tan shoes.

He had seemed confident that bail would be accepted, and he was unmistakably crestfallen when the judge, who acted under certain instructions from those above him, refused to accept bail. But Elfigo had scored, nevertheless; he had not permitted any of his friends to become identified in any manner whatsoever with his movements, and he had withheld his side of the case altogether.

So Starr was left in the dark where he had expected to find the light he needed to direct him. He had also permitted Luis to mark himself for another murder in the Medina family. Well, Luis was a conspirator, for that matter; but he was a boy, and his judgment had not ripened. It seemed a shame that a youngster like that should be drawn into such a mess. Starr, determined to do what he could to protect Luis, had seen to it that Luis was locked up, for the purely technical reason that he was an important witness and they wanted to be sure of him; but really to protect him from the wrath of Elfigo.

"And now," Starr's thoughts ran on, "I stand just where I stood before, except that I know a whole heap more than I wish I knew. And if the thing breaks loose before the trial, Elfigo will be in jail where he's got a cast-iron alibi. The rest of the bunch must be strong enough to go on without him, but I shore did hope they'd be stirred up some over this shooting. They'll likely get together right away, hold a meeting and make arrangements to do without Elfigo. If I knew where..."

He lifted the other foot to remove its boot, hesitated, and set it down again. Surely the Alliance would have to adjust itself to the loss of Elfigo. They would get together, and what buzzing they did would be behind barred doors, since they had been too cunning to show themselves at the hearing; that night, probably, since they knew now that Elfigo had been bound over to the grand jury, and that he was held without bail. Where would they meet? That was what Starr wished he knew.

He sat there rumpling his hair and studying the question. He could not fix upon any particular place, unless it was the Sommers ranch; and that was too far from town for any urgent business, and travelers to and from the place would be taking too great a risk. For he was sure there would be a dozen or more who would make up the Junta, and for so many men to be traveling in one direction would excite curiosity from any one who saw them leave town or return.

There was another possible meeting place--the office of _Las Nuevas_. Starr thought of that rather hopelessly. Just as a common precaution, they would guard the doors if the Junta met there, or they would have men stationed on the stairs; that he would not be able to get up without giving the alarm he knew as well as though he had tried and failed.

His thoughts went to that hidden, inner office where he had found the pamphlets and the writing that pointed to Helen May as one of the band. There, where there were no outside windows to betray a midnight conference by any showing of light within; where eavesdropping was absolutely impossible; where the men who met there might gain the yard by various means, since it faced on three streets, and be practically safe from observation, he became convinced would be the logical meeting place.

To be sure, he was only guessing. He had no evidence whatever save his own reason that there would be a meeting, much less that it would be held in the secret office room of _Las Nuevas_. But he put on the boot he had taken off and reached for his coat. A half hour or so ought to prove him right or wrong in his deductions, and Starr would not have grudged a full night to satisfy himself on that point.

It was late, nearly midnight, to be exact, when he slipped out to the shed, and watched from its shadow until he was sure that no one had seen him, before he let himself down through the hole in the manger to the arroyo bottom. He went hurriedly, but he was very careful not to show himself without first making sure that the way was clear.

For that reason he escaped being seen by a tall young Mexican whom he caught sight of lounging at the corner opposite the building that held _Las Nuevas_. Ostensibly the fellow had merely stopped to light a cigarette, but while Starr watched him he struck three matches in succession, and immediately afterwards a shadow glided from the shelter of a plumber's shop opposite, slipped down to the gate that was always barred, and disappeared.

Starr circled warily to the rear of the yard to see what chance there might be of getting over the wall unseen. He did not know what good it would do him to get into the yard, but he hoped that he might be lucky enough to see any one who entered the back door, which would be the logical means of ingress.

He was standing back of the garage where he had found the cord tires, when the quiet of the night was split with the shrill, nerve-racking shriek of the fire whistle, four or five blocks away. In spite of himself, he was startled with its suddenness, and he stood tensed and waiting for the dismal hoots that would tell what ward the fire was in. One--two--three, croaked the siren like a giant hoot-owl calling in the night.

"Third ward--down around the depot, probably," he heard a voice say guardedly on the other side of the fence. Another voice, more guarded even than the first, muttered a reply which Starr could not catch. Neither voice was recognizable, and the sentence he heard was so obvious a remark as to be practically meaningless; probably a hundred persons in town had said "Third ward," when the siren had tooted the number.

At any rate some one was there in the yard of _Las Nuevas_, and it would not be wise for Starr to attempt getting over the wall. He waited therefore until he heard careful footsteps moving away; whereupon he himself stole quietly to the corner, thence down the side wall to the front of the building, so that he could look across the street to where the Mexican had revealed himself for a moment in the light of a distant street lamp.

If the Mexican had been on watch there, he had left his post. In a minute Starr saw him hurrying down the unused side street, toward the angry glow that told where the fire had started. Too much temptation, Starr interpreted the fellow's desertion of his post; or else no more men were expected at _Las Nuevas_, and the outpost was no longer needed. Taking it for granted that a meeting had been called here, Starr reasoned from that assumption.

He waited another minute or two, watching and listening. There was nothing at the front to break the quiet or spoil the air of desertion that surrounds an empty office building at midnight. He went cautiously to the rear corner and turned there to look back at the building, watchful for any stray beam of light or any movement.

The upper story was dark as the rest of the yard and building, and Starr could almost believe that he was on the wrong track entirely, and that nothing was going on here. But he continued to stand there, loath to give up and go home with nothing accomplished.

Close beside the building and back perhaps twenty feet from the front corner, a telephone and electric light pole stood with outstretched arms, holding aloft its faintly humming wires. Starr stood looking that way for some time before it occurred to him that there was no street light near enough to send that warm, yellow glow across the second bar from the bottom. The rest of the pole was vague and shadowy, like everything else in the immediate neighborhood. The bottom of the pole he could not see at all from where he stood, it was so dark alongside the building. But that second cross-arm was lighted as from a near-by window. Yet there was no lighted window anywhere in the place.

Starr was puzzled. Being puzzled, he went slowly toward the pole, his face turned upward. The nearest street lamp was a full block away, and it would have lighted up the whole top of the pole evenly, if at all. At the foot of the pole Starr stood for a minute, still staring upward. Then he reached up, gripped the metal steps and began carefully to climb.

Before he had reached the lighted cross-arm he knew that the glow must come from a skylight; and that the skylight must be the one that had saved that hidden little office room from being dark. He was no lineman, but he knew enough to be careful about the wires, so it took him several minutes to work his way to where he could straddle a crosstree that had few wires.

Just below him and no more than twelve or fifteen feet distant was the skylight he had suspected, but before he gave that much attention, he looked across to where the fire was sending up a column of crimson smoke and bright, eddying sparks, four blocks or so away. The man left on guard would find it difficult to tear himself away from all that excitement, Starr thought satisfiedly; though if he came back he could scarcely help seeing Starr on that lighted perch, and he would undoubtedly take a shot at him if he were any man at all and had a spark of loyalty to his fellows. For Starr's business up there could not be mistaken by the stupidest greaser in the town.

With the fire to help his cause, Starr craned toward the building and looked down through the skylight. It had been partly raised for ventilation, which was needed in that little, inside room, especially since twelve men were foregathered there, and since every man in the lot was burning tobacco in some form.

Sommers was there, seated at the end of a table that had been moved into the center of the room, which brought it directly under the skylight. He sat facing Starr, and he was reading something to himself while the others waited in silence until he had finished. His strong, dark face was grave, his high forehead creased with the wrinkles of deep thinking. He had a cigar in one corner of his mouth, and he was absentmindedly chewing it rather than smoking. He looked the leader, though his clothes were inclined to shabbiness and he sat slouched forward in his chair. He looked the leader, and their leader those others proclaimed him by their very silence, and by the way their faces turned toward him while they waited.

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