Chapter XVIII TWO BONE-HANDLED GUNS

Jack Van Ryder drawing of army post

THE Colonel looked up from his desk as the Captain stepped into the office and closed the door.

With a muttered "at ease," he motioned to the chair beside his desk, glancing again at the decoded  message in front of him as the junior officer seated himself. Shoving a pack of cigarettes toward the Captain, he said, "Well, here it is again-that damned draft-evading riffraff is being helped across the line in our area. What can we do about it!"

The Captain, staring down the two funnels of smoke he was expelling from his nostrils, shook his head. For the moment like the Colonel he had nothing to offer.

The two officers were of the Military Intelligence division of the corps area that spread over all of the United States Army posts along the Mexican border, including that wild and rugged territory known as the Big Bend. They were faced with a difficult problem.

An American well known in border circles was living at his Mexican ranch. His vaqueros, experienced in every type of smuggling, were now engaged in a new game under his direction, a game made possible by the entrance of the United States into the World War and the passage of the Selective Service Act. They were smuggling draft evaders across the international boundary at so much a head. The American was housing these evaders below the border for a certain additional charge per man.

With the directing brains of the plan in Mexico and the active operators mostly Mexicans the army men faced no easy task in breaking down the scheme.

The decoded message on the Colonel's desk contained definite orders that "action to halt this activity must be taken at once."

As the Captain read the message and laid it back on the desk the Colonel asked, "Have you any ideas?"

For a moment the Captain was silent, then with a sudden grim smile he said, "I think I'll call on Sergeant Devins."

Duke Devins, Staff Sergeant of Cavalry assigned for special duty to the Intelligence detail, was sitting as nearly as was possible on the back of his neck, with his feet propped against a filing cabinet and his gaze fastened on the ceiling of regimental headquarters. He was a dark, sharp-featured man tanned to a deep walnut. His trimly cut uniform set off his athletic figure. Service medals on his chest told of service in the Philippines and in Mexico and a tri-colored bar spoke of gallantry in action.

His day-dreaming was rudely interrupted by the arrival of an orderly: "The Old Man wants you, Sergeant," the latter said.

"What about?" asked Devins as he swung to his feet.

"Dunno," said the orderly, "but I know he said to step on it."

Devins nodded, pulled down his uniform coat and with his hat tilted over one eye started for the Colonel's office. There he was waved in by the orderly and stood at attention before the Colonel and the Captain.

"Sergeant Devins reporting, sir," he said.

"Sit down, Sergeant," commanded the Colonel. "The Captain wishes to talk to you."

"Devins, how much do you know about Dick Kirkland?" asked the Captain.

"Plenty," said Devins. "He's now in Mexico. Has a ranch down there with a bunch of salty riders working for him. Most of them Mex. They'll steal or smuggle anything but a red-hot stove. Right now he's running draft-evaders though he's not handling anything on this side of the line himself.  The Mexicans take care of that."

“Yes?" said the Captain. "Anything else!"

'Kirkland's a pretty tough hombre," said Devins.  "A hard man to put anything over on and fast with a gun. All the Mexicans along the line are afraid of him. Gotta right to be, I guess."

"Does Kirkland know you, Sergeant?"

"Not personally," grinned Devins, "but he's heard of me. I mussed up his major domo one night at Candelaria."

The Colonel smiled. Unofficially he had heard of that episode. "If Kirkland was out of the way would this draft evader business stop?" he wanted to know.

"I think so, sir. He's the big auger down there. Without him the outfit would blow up."

After a moment's thought the Colonel said, "Sergeant, in some way or another we have to stop Kirkland. Can you do it?"

"He doesn't cross the line, sir," said Devins.

"I know that but you may have to cross it. The idea is he must be stopped. I don't care how."

Devins nodded. "It doesn't matter how?” he asked.

The Colonel looked at him steadily. "It doesn't matter how," he repeated.

Devins arose, looked from one officer to the other and smiled wryly. "I always did want those bone handled guns Kirkland carries. Now maybe I'll get 'em."

He saluted, did an about-face and left the room.

The next day he was missing. Ten days later, still missing, he was listed as a deserter and pickup notices giving his description were sent to peace officers along the border.

Nearly fifty miles below the border Duke Devins, not the trimly clad soldier but a cowboy in worn overalls and a faded blue shirt, rode down a dusty narrow road with several Mexican vaqueros.  He chatted with the riders in Spanish as fluently colloquial as their own. They had helped him across the line, showing him trails that were not guarded, and were now taking him, as a deserter with money to pay his way, to the Kirkland ranch.

As the first sign of the ranch showed over a rise in the trail Devins let his right hand brush across his waistband where beneath his shirt a heavy pistol  snuggled under his belt. An empty buttonhole just at the waistline would have been significant to any one who knew his skill at the deadly cross-body draw and the accuracy with which he could use his pistol at close quarters.

"Mira, it is the rancho," said the leader of the vaqueros. "Soon we will have a drink and some food, eh?"

"Bueno," said Devins, getting his first look at the notorious base of the border underground.

After dinner a strange group of men gathered in the long adobe room that served as dining-hall and cantina. Some were playing cards; others were at the bar. In the latter group was Devins.

There were about twenty men in the room. Some had tanned faces that bespoke their life in the open. Others were plainly strangers to the country, for their skin was peeling from its first contact with the desert sun and their clothing, not cut for desert use, was oddly out of place. Most of the men were Americans. Behind the bar a Mexican poured drinks and listened to the desultory talk.

"Well, fella," said a man near Devins, raising his glass, "here's to ya! I suppose you're dodging the draft too?”

"Mebbe so. Is this a good place to dodge it?" asked Devins, his glance taking in the other's flushed young face and town garb.

"Not bad," replied the youth, "but it sure puts a kink in the bankroll. This Kirkland is a leech. I paid him a cool thousand to get me here from Los Angeles. I was told that all I'd need here would be living expenses but I'm being bled at every turn."

"What happens if you don't ante?" asked Devins.

"You're just out, that's all," said the youth, "but that's bad enough. A fellow can't get back to the States. If he takes to the brush he'll either starve or one of these Mexicans will slit his throat as he gets off the ranch. It's open season on any one who runs away from Kirkland. As long as you pay it's all right. I should worry though. The Old Man has plenty and he's playing Santa Claus. But he's sure going to squawk."

Devins nodded. It was all very clear-blackmail and extortion in addition to aiding draft evasion.  Quite a graft. "Where's Kirkland?” he inquired.

"He's been gone for a couple of days but he's expected back to-night," said the other. "He's bringing down some more suckers I guess. Hell, it would have been easier joining the army."

At a late hour the card-games ceased. Devins, shown to a room in which there were four bunks, turned in and slept soundly.

After breakfast in the cantina Devins stood in the doorway mapping in his mind the ranch and its surroundings. Beyond some storage sheds at the corrals he saw a group of Mexican cowboys listening to an American on horseback. Above their heads a squeaking windmill turned slowly in a light breeze. It was too far to hear the voices but from the attitude of the group it was plain that the man on the horse was the boss. Dick Kirkland was back.

A few minutes later, mounted on a deep-chested bay, Kirkland rode up to the door of the cantina. Dismounting he left the horse at the hitch-rail and walked toward the door. As he advanced with the short choppy gait of the man who spends most of his time in the saddle Devins had a chance to study him.

Kirkland was about thirty. His rider's outfit was of good quality. His broad-brimmed Stetson, pushed back on his head, disclosed a face that was not unhandsome. Dark, heavy eyebrows almost met over sharp gray eyes. A rather thin-lipped slash of a mouth was his only hard feature.

Swinging at his hips were the two bone-handled guns for which he was noted in the Big Bend country, on the Texas side of the line as well as below the border. Dick Kirkland was well equipped  to take care of himself.

Devins, lounging carelessly in the doorway, was himself under close observation as Kirkland walked toward him. As he neared the door the ranch-owner paused and said in a low sharp tone, "You're Devins." It was a statement', not a question.

"Yes, that's so," said Devins.

"I see you're wanted right smart up north a ways," said Kirkland, drawing a small folded paper from his shirt pocket and passing it to Devins.

It was the usual notice sent out by the military headquarters asking for the apprehension of a deserter and notifying peace officers of the usual fifty dollars reward. In it was Duke Devins's name and description.

"You're not interested in Texas just now, I take it!" remarked Kirkland.

"Not just now,” agreed Devins. "I thought mebbe I could make out here if you're not too crowded."

"I take only paying guests. I'm not taking on any riders. How are you fixed for money!"

"I guess I gotta 'nough for a time if I play 'em close," said Devins, "but mebbe you'll change your mind about needing a hand. I'm not bad hired help."

"No," said Kirkland.  "I'm particular who I hire down here."

"I'm not so particular who I work for," said Devins softly. "Otherwise I wouldn't have offered to set in on a blackmailing deal like this one."

Kirkland's face flushed, his body tensed and he leaned forward. "Just what do you mean!" he demanded in a cold voice.

"Just what I say," answered Devins, the fingers of his right hand toying with the buckle of his belt. "You're not fooling me. I'm no Los Angeles sucker. I'll pay as I go but it'll be fair pay -- not a handout. And don't sic any of your knife-slingin' slick-ears on me or you'll be buryin' them."

"Do you know who you're talking to?" asked Kirkland.

"Yes," said Devins. "I'm talking to a blackleg that was chased out of Texas and like the rest of us don't dare go back."

Kirkland's anger got the better of his judgment. The quarrel had been built up so swiftly that he had not looked to see where his helpers had gone. With his back to the ranch yard he could not know as Devins did that the vaqueros had ridden away from the corral and were no longer in sight. Aside from the men in the cantina Kirkland and Devins were alone and Kirkland's saddle horse was the only mount in the ranch yard.

"Devins, you've said your piece," said Kirkland, "and now you're pulling out. I think I'll just dump you across the line and let one of the boys make fifty bucks."

As he spoke Kirkland reached for one of the bone-handled guns, evidently planning to force Devins back into the cantina. But as his hand closed on the butt of the pistol Devins slipped his own hand swiftly into the opening in his shirt front and in one sliding motion started the cross-body draw. Kirkland, fast as he was, saw it was too late, and while his pistol was leaving its holster the heavy .45 in Devins's hand barked twice. As Kirkland fell Devins leaned over, grabbed the two bone-handled guns and ran.

Before the first man came from the cantina door Devins was headed south on Kirkland's bay.

Miles reeled under the steadily-moving horse. The mount selected by Kirkland was good and Devins smiled as he thought of what a different story it would have been had Kirkland ridden up on a tired and worn-out horse.

Trotting straight south, Devins, made a trail which even to keen-eyed Mexicans and Indians would indicate Santa Rosalia or Chihuahua City. It was long after moonrise that he turned sharply to the east and followed a rocky water-course where the hoofs of his horse left little if any sign.

A few hours' sleep in a hidden canyon and then on again to the east until late the next day when he stopped at a small running stream for water. He rested his horse, rubbed down the animal and resumed his ride. Now he was again swinging to the left and his course lay nearly north. Once more he was headed for the border.

Three days later, his horse streaked with sweat and his own clothing gray with dust, he rode into Camp Marfa. The guard glanced casually at the bearded face of the cowboy who waved as he passed the guard-house but they gave no sign of recognition.  The bay horse, his tired head hanging low, as he walked steadily on was pulled to a halt in front of the radio building. Stiffly his rider stepped down and walked through the door.

There with a nod to the operator he dragged a pad along the counter and wrote a short message. He shoved it to the operator saying, "Get this off to Colonel Norton at Corps right away. I'll be down at headquarters troop if there's an answer."

The door had slammed behind him as the operator picked up the message and read:

AM AT MARFA WITH TWO BONE-HANDLED GUNS. DEVINS.

Continue with Chapter XIX THE SCALP-HUNTERS