SUNDOWN was near. Already the shadows of the rugged Huachuca peaks were lengthening across the valley. The heat of the July day was broken and the cool of the mountain evening could be sensed in the quickened activity of the bird life in the manzanita and mountain oak.
Lon Parker, U. S. border patrolman, leaned his chair back against the wall of the little adobe line shack where he was camped and was content. A soft, tuneless whistle hissed through his lips as he rolled a Durham quirly and listened to the intermittent stamp of his horses' feet in the little pole corral near by. Lean and muscular, his face tanned to a saddle brown, Parker was not lonesome in the isolated spot. For since childhood these rugged hills had meant home to him.
The brown paper cigarette lit, he thought of his partner on detail down the San Rafael Valley on the opposite side of the Canillo hills.
"I'd kinda like to be with old Joe," he mused. "They'll prob'ly have some fun before that fracas is over. But about time I started down there they'd call me into Tucson as a witness. Oh well, it's part of the chore, I guess, but I don't care for this witness business. I don't like the way those lawyers rawhide a fellow. At least not much."
His quick ear caught the sound of horses' hoofs on the trail below. Parker did not move but he listened, every sense alert, for the sound to be repeated. Once more he heard the click of hoofs against the rock, then the steady beat of two horses at a fast-climbing walk. It could not be his partner -- it was too early for that -- but whoever was coming was making no effort at concealment, Parker relaxed and waited for the horsemen to appear.
The riders, an old-time ranchman and his son, mountain cowmen well known to the patrolman, came around a turn in the trail.
"Howdy, Lon," called the rancher. "Is that all that you fellows who work for the government have to do?"
"Sometimes she's that way; sometimes it gets worse," Lon grinned as he arose from his chair and instinctively hitched up his gun belt. "Step down and rest those horses, or are you going some place?"
"Nope, just came to see you," said the rancher as he and his son swung from their saddles and squatted cowboy fashion on their heels. "We got a little tip that we thought you might like to know about. We just been up along the tops and down in Leslie Canyon we saw some friends of yours."
"What do you mean friends of mine?"
"Well, these boys were chasing a couple of pack-mules along the old Smuggler Trail and I thought you might want to see them. You'd better wait till Joe shows up, Lon, because they're all packing rifles. There's three of them in the bunch and they look pretty salty."
"Joe's down in the San Rafael and he won't be back for a spell," said Lon Parker. "Guess I'll go see 'em myself. Step inside and toss yourself some chuck if you're hungry. I'll have to be drifting along before they get too far away. Thanks for the tip."
Parker went quickly to the corral, saddled his horse and in a moment was riding up the trail. Once more the little tuneless whistle hissed through his lips as he urged his sturdy bay pony along. This was better. He'd sure have the laugh on Joe, jingling off to the San Rafael when Old Lady Luck was ready to lay the play right in their own front yard.
The patrolman was well down the opposite slope before he slackened his pony's pace. In the heavy shadow cast by a scrubby mountain oak, he pulled to a halt and listened. For a time no sound broke the stillness of the early summer evening. Then his trained ear picked up the tread and rattle of the approaching pack-train. His timing had been perfect and he grinned as he pulled his horse back into the trail and moved slowly forward toward the sound.
"Some one's going to be plumb surprised in about a minute," he muttered as with quick eyes he searched the slope for the best place to meet the oncoming train.
Down the trail the pack-train was winding its way along the slope. In front rode Domitilio Espinosa, his soft hat pulled down over his forehead as he pointed the way for the train. Smuggler, bootlegger and something of a gunman according to the border grape-vine, Domitilio looked the part.
Behind him rode a companion known as Negrecito, or Blackie. In the rear behind the mules Ortilio Espinosa, brother and partner of Domitilio, hazed the pack-animals loaded with mescal along the trail. The train, headed for the edge of Fort Huachuca, was nearing its destination.
Suddenly Domitilio threw up his hand. "Alto," he called in a low tone and the mules stopped. The smuggler rode forward a little way, glanced down through the brush and trees then waved for Blackie to join him.
He pointed at a break in the cover along the trail well below them. As they watched the wide brim of the patrolman's hat bobbed into view for a moment and then was gone. But that moment was enough. Domitilio knew his mountains and his dangerous business.
"It is the federale Parker," he said as his brother joined them from behind the train. "Ortilio, you come along slow. We will slip ahead fast. When he comes up to you-poof! That will be all, eh?”
Domitilio laughed as with a quick move of his hand and a shrug he pictured what would happen to the officer. When he laughed a flash of gold teeth showed in his mouth. Domitilio was proud of those teeth; they gave him standing in the cantinas below the border.
But Ortilio did not smile.
"Be careful," he warned. "Parker is muy bravo hombre."
Domitilio nodded and, followed by Blackie, moved silently on into the thicker underbrush at the edge of a small ridge.
Lon Parker rode unsuspectingly into the trap. As he sighted the pack-train in the trail ahead of him Ortilio was the only smuggler in view. His hand on his pistol the patrolman called, "Alto!"
The unfinished command was drowned by the crash of a rifle and the patrolman fell forward on his horse's neck, shot between the shoulder-blades. Stunned and shaken by the shock of the deadly soft-nosed bullet, Parker swayed in his saddle. The hidden bushwhacker had held true and the patrolman was mortally hit.
Wounded he was but not out of action. His hand clasped the butt of the heavy .45 and the pistol swept up to cover Ortilio, who was clawing madly for his gun to finish what his brother had started. He never dragged it clear of the leather.
The crash of the officer's Colt sounded and Ortilio dropped from his saddle, shot in the forehead. The Colt cracked again and one of the pack-mules bearing the contraband reared and fell. Then, clinging to his frightened horse, the officer turned to seek his assailants. But they had fled. Two men, both armed, had ridden away, leaving the field in the possession of a dying man!
While the silence that followed the firing hung like a blanket over the mountain-side Parker started his horse back down the trail. Swaying in his saddle, bleeding from the wound high in his back, he headed for the Wills' ranch.
"Come on horse, we got to get out of here," he said, urging the still nervous animal down the trail. "I gotta make it. I gotta leave word for Joe. Hell, I'm weak. Must be pretty hard hit. Take it easy you darned goat."
It was an hour later, it seemed years later to the wounded man, when his horse stopped at a barbed-wire fence. Through the half-light of the early night he could see the outline of a ranch-house.
He slid from the horse and then, unable to stand, crawled under the wire and toward the house. Each foot took its toll from the weakened patrolman; each breath brought new pain to his tortured body and bloody froth to his tensed lips. But he kept on, bit by bit, foot by foot, until half the distance lay behind him. Then, his vision momentarily clear, he realized that the ranch-house was deserted!
"Now ain't that a hell of a note? I wonder --"
And so Lon Parker died.
It was a short time later that the rancher found the riderless horse at his gate. It shied away as he tried to catch it. He looked around for the missing rider. Inside the fence near a pile of firewood he found the body of the patrolman sprawled in the drizzling rain.
The cowman carried the word to Elgin, the nearest telephone, and from there called the Tucson office of the patrol seventy-five miles away.
It was midnight when the patrolmen arrived and with darting flash-lights picked up the rain-washed trail of Parker's horse. Step by step, cursing the rain that slowed their progress, they followed the tracks back up the mountain.
There where he had fallen they found Ortilio and the slain pack-mule. Not far away part of another pack-load of mescal. Parker, hard hit as he had been, had left his report written in the code the desert men could read. The dead Espinosa, the contraband, the hoof prints dimmed by the rain told them all that they needed to know.
"Well, boys," said the leader, "there's nothing more we can do here. Joe, you arrange to see that Lon is taken home. The rest of you clean up this mess. Then we'll get after the bird that used that rifle."
As he spoke he held a brass .30-.30 shell in his hand. It had been found at the site of the ambush. Then as the light of the flash fell again on the body of the slain smuggler one of the inspectors said: "Right between the eyes! Old Lon could shoot even in the dark."
A couple of months passed.
Ivan Williams, Assistant Chief Patrol Inspector, sat at his desk in Tucson talking to a reporter. Once again as he spoke he held an empty .30-.30 cartridge in his hand.
"Yes, maybe I can give you a little yarn," he said. "We found the body of another unidentified Mexican up Leslie Canyon in the Huachucas yesterday afternoon. He was lying in the trail about three hundred yards from where Lon Parker was killed. You remember Lon, don't you?"
The reporter nodded.
"I don't know who this Mexican was," the assistant chief inspector went on. "He was kind of heavy set, dark and he had a whole bunch of gold teeth right in the front of his mouth where they would show a lot when he smiled. But he wasn't smiling yesterday. He was shot right between the eyes."