THE stage rumbled along the trail toward El Paso, stirring up a cloud of heavy white dust which settled in a thick coat over the horses, equipment and passengers. The driver, an old-timer known as Sacaton, held his lines loosely and chatted in a desultory fashion with the sho-gun guard on the seat beside him. Inside the coach were three people -- a woman of middle age, tired from her ride and trying to doze, a man with the appearance of a salesman, and a small, sunburned fellow whose hair was beginning to show a tinge of gray. His eyes, still a deep clear blue, squinted slightly at the corners as he gazed quietly out on the passing scene, little sun wrinkles telling of many days staring at the bright sands of the Texas desert.
It was shortly after noon and the high sun was hot. Fort Hancock, the last stop, was eight miles back on the trail and El Paso was more than fifty miles ahead. None of the three passengers spoke. The salesman, who had been talkative in the morning, was all talked out; the gray-haired man had not talked at all; the woman was too tired even to listen.
The two men on the driver's seat took a new nip from a chunk of Navy plug and settled back for the long pull as the team dropped to a walk at the beginning of a sharp grade. Trace chains jangled and the stage rumbled as the climb began.
"You know, Thompson," said the driver, "this trip is getting plumb quiet nowadays since we don't carry payrolls no more. Seems like all a fellow has to do is just start driving and nothing happens till you get there. It didn't used to be that way -- at least not often."
"Well," said Thompson, "if it don't get too darn quiet. If it does they'll figure they don't need me any more and then you'll have to ride alone and won't have anybody to lie to."
"Now listen, Tomp," replied the driver, "don't you realize that if it wasn't for me lying a little now and then you wouldn't have a job? You ain't been nothing but extra weight on this coach for three months."
"Yes? Well that's all you know about it," said the guard, as he jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the rear of the stage. "There's a mess of money in the box this trip and that's why old Shadow Walker's got a seat inside."
"So that's why he's riding the cushions? I was wondering about that. It's the first time I ever saw the old boy on anything but a horse since he's been sheriff. Well, maybe things will pick up after all."
"Let's hope you're crazy," grumbled Thompson as he squirmed into an easier position on the jouncing seat and pulled his hat lower over his eyes to kill the glare.
The horses, pulling steadily, were nearing the top of the grade.
Just as the lead team swung around the shoulder of the hill at the top a sharp voice called:
"Hold everything, Sacaton, and raise 'em high."
Old in the lore of the trail Sacaton and Thompson made no effort to reach for their guns but raised their hands above their heads as quickly as they could, Sacaton still holding the lines as he jammed a foot on the break to halt the coach.
Once more the voice spoke. It ordered:
"Those inside step down -- and easy. We don't want to hurt anybody."
The door of the coach opened and the salesman stepped out, his heat-reddened face glistening with sweat, his hands high above his head. Next came the woman, frightened but without a word, while last came Shadow Walker, sheriff and manhunter, known throughout the West Texas country. He joined his fellow-passengers without comment as he looked sharply toward the brush whence the voice had come.
"Toss down that box, Thompson, and be careful," the unseen bandit ordered. Then as Walker shifted his position the voice added: "Sheriff, don't make no funny moves. I'm watching you."
"Seems as though this buzzard knows everybody," mused the driver as he held his horses steady while Thompson lowered the express box over the wheel and dropped it to the ground. "He called us all by name except the peddler and the lady."
"That's all folks," said the bandit. "Shake 'em out, Sacaton, and remember this rifle reaches pretty far. Don't look back too soon. Vaya con Dios."
Its passengers again inside, and with Sacaton and Thompson looking fixedly to the front, the stage rolled on toward El Paso.
Thompson, renewing his chew of tobacco, looked sidewise at the driver and snorted, "And so you wanted something to happen, did you? And you had to lie to keep my job? Well what kind of a lie do you think I'll have to tell now to keep it? Stuck up like a tenderfoot tourist without a chance to even argue about it!"
Before Sacaton could answer a sullen boom came from back down the trail. While it still echoed in the hills the voice of the sheriff could be heard calling to the driver to pull up. Sacaton did. Unheedful of the wordy advice of the salesman, who was all for hurrying on, Shadow Walker stepped from the coach and with the aid of Thompson began pulling a gunnysack from the baggage lashed on top.
"I'll have to borrow one of your lead team, Sacaton," he said as he shook a saddle, blanket and bridle out of the sack. "It looks like I'll be leaving you for a while. I'll leave the horse for you at Ysleta sometime tomorrow or the next day."
"Take the horse on the off side," said the driver. "He rides a bit better and he's got more bottom. I'll make it in with these wheelers all right."
With few words the change was made. The remaining leader was tied behind the coach and the officer prepared to leave. He filled a saddle canteen from the big one on the stage, then with a wave of his hand turned back up the trail toward the scene of the hold-up. Sacaton kicked loose the brake and the stage rolled on its way.
Shadow Walker rode slowly back to the tracks which marked the hold-up. Seemingly unafraid of any interference, he looked about, then stepped down from his horse and walked a short way into the brush.
The ruins of the strong box lay before him. Dynamite had opened it quickly and efficiently. Boot tracks in the sand and dust showed where the bandit had gathered up his loot after the blast and the officer trailed these tracks to where the bandit's horse had been standing. From there the trail led back toward Fort Hancock. The sheriff gazed long at the boot-tracks, then suddenly seemed to grow older.
Without further ado he returned to his horse and rode down the trail toward Fort Hancock, paying no attention to the tracks made by the bandit's mount which had turned aside into the foot-hills.
It was almost dusk and the little desert station would soon be alight when Shadow Walker turned sharply to the left into a little cattle trail leading off into the desert. A half-hour's ride brought him to a small Mexican jacal on the side of a little stream which wandered down toward the Rio Grande. He dismounted and hitching his belt so that the heavy holster at his right side swung forward, he stepped off silently toward the hut.
As he moved out of the scrub into the clearing a horse standing near the but snorted and stepped aside. At the sound a man appeared in the doorway.
The officer called sharply, "Don't try it ! You're covered." As he spoke he reached for the gun that hung at his side.
Two shots crashed out and the man in the doorway fell forward. Shadow Walker staggered slightly, recovered himself, unmindful of his wounded right arm, and walked toward the doorway repeating over and over, "I didn't want to, Bud, but you made me do it."
Late the next day he rode into Clint just south of Ysleta. The story of the hold-up had preceded him and as he rode down the street, leading a packed horse behind him, a group of men gathered to await his coming. With tired, drawn face he rode toward them, pulled up his horse and stepped down.
Then, with the aid of those near by, he unlashed the body of a man from the horse he had led behind him. As he carried the body to the porch of the stage station a gasp went up from the crowd. The dead man was Bud Walker, the sheriff's son. An hour later they buried him.
In El Paso Shadow Walker turned in the money taken from the stage. He also turned in his report that the bandit was dead. Hardened men of the stagelines looked at the small, gray-haired sheriff, then turned aside unable to speak.
Only Sacaton, the veteran driver, dared to say a word.
"Good God, Shadow !" he exclaimed. "It's a shame you didn't know who you was tanglin' with. No man alive would've expected you to bring in your own boy."
Tears dimmed the blue eyes as Shadow Walker looked at the old driver.
"No, it wasn't that way, Sacaton," he said, "I thought I knew the voice. When I saw the boot-tracks I was sure. Hell, Sacaton, I patched those boots myself."