BOB LEATHERWOOD, his hat pulled down over his forehead to keep the glare of the sun from his eyes, leaned back in his tilted chair against the wall of the livery-stable as he espied his friend Charley Shibell, sheriff of Pima County, walking toward him from the courthouse a short distance away.
The usually happy countenance of the officer was dark and gloomy. With hands thrust deep in his pockets and an unlighted cigar protruding from under his heavy mustache Shibell strode down the street toward the stables.
"Buenos dias, Charley," hailed Leatherwood. "What's bothering ya? D'ya miss your breakfast?"
"Hello, Bob," snapped Shibell. "It's this darned stage business that's got me stumped. There's been about four different robberies here lately and it seems like we just don't have any luck catching up with whoever it is that's doing it. Plenty of sign but it don't appear to get us anywhere. I'm wondering what I could do next."
"Yeah," assented Leatherwood. "I've read some of that sign myself and it don't make sense. But these jiggers can't always be lucky. Come on, Charley, the sun's getting up a bit. I'll buy a beer."
On the road into Tucson, near the Steampump Ranch, the stagecoach rumbled along its way. The cactus-studded desert marked one side of the trail, the high rampart of the Catalina Mountains the other. Twenty miles yet to go. The driver clucked encouragingly to his team and swung the long lash at the off-leader. As he drew away from the flat and edged in closer to the mountains he, too, was thinking of recent holdups.
Old Látigo Larsen was an old hand on the stage lines. From personal observation he knew the lay of the land, beloved by the gentlemen of the road, and he did not like this piece of trail along the foothills where the Cañada del Oro loomed above him. It was made to order for a holdup, he thought, as the lurching coach swung into the pass. A man couldn't see ahead.
Almost as though conjured up by his thinking came the sharp command, "Put 'em up easy, Driver, and hold still!"
With a bitter curse Látigo hauled in on his reins and stepped on the brake, the quick jolting of the stage bringing cries and questions from its passengers.
"Watch yourself, everybody," called the unseen bandit. "If you start anything these scatter guns will sure make a mess of you."
The several passengers lined up alongside of the stage saw the muzzles of two shotguns protruding from the thick brush along the trail and decided that it was no time to debate the niceties of ownership. The owner of the voice stepped out, pistol in hand, taking good care to keep the passengers between himself and the shotguns, and collected the mailbag and an express package or two from the stage. Then without molesting the passengers he stepped back into the brush and gave the order to "get going and don't look back."
Látigo kicked loose the brake, spoke to his team, and the stage rumbled on toward Tucson.
Sheriff Shibell listened closely to Látigo's tale when, after pulling into the stables at Tucson, the old driver gave a crisp and accurate account of what had happened.
"Hell, Charley," Látigo said, "this terrapin didn't take no chances at all. He has a couple of helpers cached in the brush with ten-gauge Greeners lined up on the outfit while he comes out and collects. Fine chance you'd have of pulling anything on that bunch. You'd be so full of holes after the first wiggle that you couldn't hold liquor. There wasn't nothing to do but sit still."
Shibell, who had heard the same story from the several passengers while Látigo was putting up his team, turned to a deputy and said:
"I just saw Pete Kitchen go by in his buckboard. You'll probably find him down at the Palace. See if you can get him to come over here and bring those Papagos of his along."
Pete Kitchen of Calabasas! In that noted borderman and his Papago trailers Shibell thought he saw the answer to the puzzling question.
Shibell, Leatherwood and Látigo waited at the stables. The deputy had departed in search of Kitchen when a man on a sweat-marked horse rode into the corral at the rear of the barns, stripped the saddle from his mount and strode out to join the group.
"Hello, Jim," said the sheriff as the rider came up.
"Howdy, Sheriff," answered Jim Brazleton, an employee of Leatherwood's, turning to the liveryman to report on the errand from which he had come.
"That fellow out to Vail wasn't home," he said, "but a Mexican that works for him says he'll be back in a day or two and they'll be in town then. He'll be in to see you." Turning to the driver, he asked pleasantly: "Hi, Látigo, how's business?"
"Rotten," said Látigo. "I'm getting damn tired of being a target for every road agent between here and the Gila River. You'd think they'd try some other route for a change."
"You held up again?" asked Brazleton. "How much did they get this time, and who did it?"
"There was about twenty-five hundred in the poke," said Látigo, "but how in blazes do I know who did it? They weren't telling names when I left 'em."
Just then the deputy returned with Kitchen and the questioning ended.
Pete Kitchen, short, stocky and ruddy-faced, was already a legendary figure in the valley of the Santa Cruz.
Sturdy frontiersman and trailer, he held his Protrero Ranch against Apache and rustler alike, dealing out frontier justice with a high and impartial hand, acting as arbiter in many disputes where because of his accuracy with a Colt and his tendency to use it his word was law.
"Pete, I'm having a tough time," he said. "This bunch of road agents is making it hard to live around here and I don't seem to be able to corral them. Will you turn these Indians of yours loose on their trail for me? Maybe we can get something."
"Glad to," said Pete Kitchen.
Soon the outfit was ready. Shibell, Leatherwood, Brazleton and Látigo accompanied Kitchen and his Papagos as they rode toward the Steampump Ranch.
At the scene of the holdup the Papagos took to the brush. The white men sat on their horses and waited. Back and forth the red men circled the area, eyes to the ground. Heavy bronzed men, the stolid-looking Papagos were anything but stolid as they cut for sign through the thicket. They were less like human beings than like hounds on a hot scent and they missed nothing.
Soon after a parley in their own tongue one of them addressed Kitchen in Spanish. "There was but one man," he said.
"You're crazy!" burst out Látigo. "I know better than that. I saw the others; er -- that is, I saw their shotguns."
"Si, señor," said the Indian. "But the guns were only guns. No men were there, for there was but one man. He came down to the road then went back to his horse, picked up the shotguns and rode away."
"Well, I'll be -- " began Látigo, leaving the expletive unfinished as dazedly he walked over to where the Indian pointed out proofs of his word.
Pete Kitchen grinned as he turned to the sheriff who like Látigo could only shake a mystified head. At a sign from Kitchen the Papagoes took the trail.
The tracks led the party south of Tucson, twisting and winding through the cattle trails around the edge of the little desert town, then were lost below the Vail road.
Leatherwood and Brazleton, themselves good trailers, admitted that the Indians had found signs which both of them had missed and that if the Papagos could not go on it was of no use to go farther. The sheriff agreed with them and the party returned to Tucson.
It was several days later when an Easterner, a health-seeker locally called the Professor, rode into the sheriff's office.
"There's a bandit at my place," he said. "If I don't help him he's going to kill me. He made me come in after food and ammunition and I'm afraid to go back."
Shibell calmed the man and arranged that he take the supplies and return to the point just south of Tucson where he was to meet the bandit. Quickly calling a deputy, the sheriff went to Leatherwood's stable and there prepared for the trip.
"Sure, Charley, I'll go along," said Leatherwood. "I wish Jim Brazleton was here to go too, but he's out getting some horses for me. Three of us will be enough though. There's only one bandit."
The ride to the Professor's camp was quickly made and the ambush prepared. That evening at a time he had planned with the health-seeker the bandit reappeared, but to meet a surprise. As he rode into the clearing near the camp Shibell called out, "Halt where you are! You're under arrest."
The answer was an oath and a shot and the fight was on. It was short and decisive. The bandit fell from his horse, shot in many places. Leatherwood and Shibell did not miss.
A lantern from the Professor's camp lighted their way into the brush to where the stricken bandit lay beside his frightened horse. Shibell went first bearing the light and as he reached the man's side he leaned down and turned him over.
"Hell, Bob, look!" he exclaimed, stepping back in surprise. "Here's your bandit; it's Jim Brazleton!"
In the saddlebags on the horse was found part of the loot from the last holdup. The stagecoach robbery was no longer a mystery.
Látigo Larsen climbed to the box of the stage ready for his trip out. He bit a chunk from his Navy plug. Then as he gathered up his reins he remarked to no one in particular:
"There was only one of them and him a guy I could outshoot if I'd only known it. Still those scatter guns looked damned important at the time. Get up, Spike! Let's get out of here."