THE END OF THE TRAIL

It was not necessary for any one to arouse Roy Osborne the next
morning. Just as the distant peaks of the Blue Mountains were growing
pink, the boy sprang out of bed. It was yet dark without and the stars
were shining. Roy was surprised to find Mr. Cook already arisen and
the Jap busy in the kitchen. As day began to break, they had coffee
and bacon. Then Mr. Cook wrote a note which he left in charge of the
house boy and with a small parcel of food, he and Roy proceeded to the
Company office and the corral.

“You mustn’t do that while we are in the air,” said Roy laughing, as
Mr. Cook lit his usual after breakfast cigar.

The manager looked at him in some surprise.

“Can’t smoke?” he replied.

“Better not,” answered Roy. “Rather risky. We’re right beside the
gasoline, you know. There are certain chances we _have_ to take, and
this isn’t one of them.”

Mr. Cook grunted.

“All right,” he exclaimed with a pretended growl, “but it kind o’ takes
away the pleasure o’ the excursion.”

Roy had to smile. “Pleasure of the excursion,” he thought. “Racing over
the desert after a cold-blooded murderer and thief who’ll probably
shoot us full of holes at the first chance.”

“Rule number one,” he went on, his smile broadening. “And number two
is: ‘It takes only one person to operate an aeroplane.’ I’ll be that
person. Never interfere. It’s worse than a woman grabbin’ the reins
when you’re drivin’.”

“Anything else?” asked Mr. Cook, with assumed soberness.

“Yes,” added Roy. “The car balances itself. It may turn over, but it’ll
come up again. If anything happens, hold fast and wait. _Don’t jump._”

“You know what I told your boss?” asked Mr. Cook suddenly. “I told him
I’d done about everything that was risky, but that I wouldn’t go up in
one o’ them things. I hadn’t seen one o’ them then. I’m agoin’ now even
if I have to cut out smokin’. I’ve got the fever.”

It was now early dawn. The corral watchman was the only person to
greet the early visitors and he gave what assistance was needed. Roy
determined to use the starting wheels and within a few minutes he had
attached them; the passenger seat which had not been put in place was
also attached. The watchman was sent to fill the water bottle–the one
Roy had purchased with such satisfaction–and it and the packet of food
were made fast in the little baggage hammock.

Then Roy debated as to whether he had better make a short trial trip.
He left the matter to Mr. Cook.

“I’m game from the start,” answered the westerner. “It looks good to
me.”

Roy pointed to the passenger seat.

“One minute!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.

He hurried to the rear door of the office building, unlocked it and in
a few moments reappeared buckling on a six-shooter.

“I don’t usually wear such things,” he exclaimed, with a smile. “But
I see you have one and I thought I’d be in style. And say,” he added,
“talkin’ about rules, I’ve got a suggestion. If by any chance we should
happen to strike Mike’s trail, an’ you have any choice about it, you
can fly just as high as you like till I tell you to come down.”

Roy understood. Mr. Cook climbed into the fragile framework and
gingerly took his seat. Having made a last close examination of the
car, Roy did the same. He dropped his hat string into place, turned
his loose cuffs back to be sure they were out of the way, adjusted his
feet, tested the flexing wires, rudder guides and lever, and then said:

“Hold on and sit steady.”

A moment later the engine exploded into action. The boy with a quick
motion threw the chain gear into play, and as the two propellers began
to turn, he sprang back and grasped the forward rudder lever.

The car trembled, seemed to heave like a boat rising on the water
and then, for a second, settled back into place. The next instant it
lunged forward on its wheels, hesitated, sprang forward again and then,
touching the corral yard in a series of little jumps started toward the
wide space in the mesquite fence. Roy knew the proper moment. Just as
the trembling framework seemed settling into its stride, there was a
quick movement of the rudder lever.

The swiftly moving car responded like an arrow. With a parting bound,
it left the ground and, its big propellers tearing through the air, the
aeroplane shot upward. Mr. Cook sat like a professional. Roy’s eyes saw
nothing but the engine, the chain gear and the flying propellers. Two
hundred feet above the ground, he brought down the rudder, felt the
car settle on a level course, and knew from the rushing air that the
machine was flying under control and safely.

The start had been parallel with the river and east toward Colorado.
Without speaking, the young aviator followed this course a few moments
and then, with a long turn, headed for the river. As the deep canyon of
this shadowed itself beneath him, he relaxed.

“She’s all right, Mr. Cook. How do you feel?”

“Wouldn’t have missed it for all Mike took. Say,” he added with almost
boyish enthusiasm, “why couldn’t I do this? Looks easy.”

“Every one’ll do it in a few years,” answered Roy. “I guess I won’t
have my job very long.”

“You can have it as long as you like,” came the answer–punctuated with
little gasps, for Roy was now making a sharper turn down the river,
“maybe you’ll have more time to work it than I will.”

“What’s the program?” exclaimed Roy, interrupting him, for the
aeroplane was now on a course down the river on the south bank, the
town was already behind them, and the sun was fully above the horizon.

“Ain’t but one thing to do,” answered the passenger. “If you can,
get right down over the river canyon. It’s gettin’ light now. Follow
the river. You watch the machine, an’ I’ll look out below. If I see
anything, I’ll whistle.”

Roy dropped the machine lower and laid a course immediately over the
dark strip marking the depths of the San Juan. It was almost impossible
to see the rushing water at the bottom of the rocky chasm, but the
boy could hear it, and, as he steadied the swiftly flying machine, he
recalled how Sink Weston had swept down this same stream years before.

Glancing at the country on each side of the river now and then, the
boy saw, when the town of Bluff had disappeared from sight, nothing
but sand and rock, distant pink-tipped mountain ranges and a turquoise
sky, cloudless and dry. As Weston had described to him, very often the
plains or deserts, which seemed to rise upward like the rim of a bowl
toward the horizon, were cut with plateaus crowned with crumbled rock.
But there were no trees, no animal life and only patches of grass here
and there near the canyon brink.

As it grew lighter, the gray stream within the precipitous river
walls began to turn into a yellow swirl of grease, foam-crested and
spray-crowned, where the rushing current impinged on abutting rocks.
They were sailing almost due west. To the north as the rose faded from
the low-lying mountain spurs, the intervening stretches turned into the
blare of the alkali desert of Utah. South of the river, the more rugged
heights of the Arizona Mountains told of the unexplored wilderness of
the Navajo Indian land.

“I’d hate,” thought Roy to himself, “to take a chance on either side
for five thousand dollars.”

On the cross arm supporting the propellers was fastened the anemometer
or speed recording device. As it was a breezeless morning, Roy knew
the instrument was recording truly. They were traveling at the rate
of thirty-two miles an hour. A little calculation showed that the
aeroplane was then about eighteen and one-half miles from Bluff.

Roy had had time to do some thinking. For the first time, it began to
strike him as strange that Mr. Cook should form the theory, on which
they were working, out of such improbable conjectures.

“It’s like one of these detective stories,” he at last suggested.

“No,” answered Mr. Cook, “just the reverse. Your all-wise detective
would tell you just where to go and find your man. We’re just taking
one chance in a hundred. The chances are much against us. If he
hasn’t come this way, Wooley’s men’ll get him. We’ve gained just
that much–but we are on the right track,” exclaimed the manager
suddenly–“turn south!”

Roy’s heart thumped. He tried to follow instructions and discover what
Mr. Cook had seen at the same time. The result was that, on the sharp
turn, the aeroplane almost “turned turtle.” As it righted and darted
away over the desert toward the Navajo Mountains, Mr. Cook spoke:

“Close shave that. First time I felt chilly.”

“What’d you see?” asked Roy embarrassed, but not the less curious.

“Three Company pine logs on a point o’ rocks,” answered Mr. Cook.

“How’d you know Hassell used them? Maybe they just floated down the
river.”

“We ain’t as careless as that with our timber,” explained the
westerner, twisting in his seat. “They wouldn’t be here if some one had
cut ’em loose. They’re ours because the ends are red. And Mike has been
on ’em because they’re roped together.”

“Then Hassell is up here somewhere?” suggested Roy excitedly.

“On this side,” said Mr. Cook, as if his mind were on something else.

Roy was now beginning to get busy on Mr. Cook’s theory.

“How fast is that stream running?” he asked–he knew that his companion
was searching the plains.

“’Bout seven miles an hour.”

“How far is this point from Montezuma Creek?”

“Nearly forty miles.”

“When do you reckon he’d leave the creek on his raft?”

“He’d hide in the rocks till night–long as he didn’t see any one
coming after him–and start ’bout dark, say eight o’clock.”

“Then he’d be here in less than six hours. Might have landed down there
early as two o’clock this morning. That’s nearly six hours ago. He may
be fifteen miles back in the hills now.”

“Likely,” agreed Mr. Cook, slowly, “if he got out right away. But it’s
more likely that he waited for daybreak to climb the canyon walls. It
was dark down there an hour and a half ago.”

“Perhaps he’s down there yet,” suggested Roy. “Maybe he’s drowned.”

“Didn’t you see his tracks?” asked Mr. Cook, in surprise.

Roy flushed with embarrassment. He had neither seen them nor thought
of looking for them, although the aeroplane had turned and passed low
along the abrupt river just above the stranded raft.

“You’re going all right,” added Roy’s passenger, “but head up a little
and keep your eye on the machine. I’ll tell you when to change your
course.”

For several minutes neither spoke. Despite Mr. Cook’s admonition, Roy
took occasional looks at the land over which they were flying. For
about three miles back from the river, the sandy plain extended almost
free of rocks. Then a ridge of sand buttes began, interspersed with
fragments dislodged from a secondary and higher ridge or plateau of
rock. These in turn broke into canyons or higher elevations, all at
last losing themselves in the mountains about twenty miles from the
river. When they had reached the first ridge and were well over it, Mr.
Cook exclaimed:

“East. Nothing here.”

The aeroplane whirled and sped away over the rocky table land. Three
or four miles of this were covered. Then Mr. Cook ordered Roy to head
north again as far as the edge of the ridge and follow this back to
the west. Mr. Cook explained what he was doing. When the aeroplane
was elevated he at once lost the trail. But, seeing that the supposed
fugitive was heading for the plateau, he had hurried forward hoping to
get sight of the flying Hassell.

There was no sign of the man where he would naturally have entered
the rocks. Nor was there indication of him to the east within the
distance he could probably cover, on foot. Mr. Cook was now about to
make a similar search to the west. Three or four miles the whirring
airship cleaved the breezeless, tonic air to the west. It was after
eight o’clock and the strain was beginning to tell on Roy. The car was
working perfectly, but an aviator’s nerves never relax. Four or five
hours in an aeroplane frequently leave the controller utterly exhausted.

At this point, the fringe of plateaus or buttes ended abruptly in a
wide, basin-like valley of sand and alkali. As the aeroplane shot out
over this, there was a sharp whistle from Mr. Cook and the instant
command: “South again!” Roy altered the swing of his ship, and then
made the discovery that had startled his companion. South of the
plateaus the strip of desert opened out like a fan, with the wide
portion leading to the distant mountain cliffs.

Perhaps a mile ahead, only a black spot on the half white sands of the
vacant desert, a moving object could be seen.

“Right over him,” said Mr. Cook quickly.

Roy’s brain was whirling with excitement. Within two minutes, the black
object had become a man hastening across the sands toward the high
ground. He had heard the engines and propellers and had come to a
halt. Although the aeroplane was, perhaps, six hundred feet in the air,
it was plain that Mr. Cook’s theory was right. It was Mike Hassell who
stood, motionless and as calm, apparently, as if behind Joe’s bar.

“Come down,” was Mr. Cook’s sharp order.

The boy’s heart throbbed. What was about to happen? Neither man had
spoken. Would the thief surrender? Or, would it be a tragedy? As the
aeroplane touched the sand with a jolt and bumped ahead on its light
wheels, Roy felt Mr. Cook drop from the car. When the trembling car at
last came to a stop, 300 yards beyond Hassell, the young operator also
sprang to the ground. As he turned and caught sight of the two men,
he felt cold all over. Something in their attitude told him that the
voiceless men facing each other would not speak in words.

Hassell made no attempt to retreat. The white heavy desert stretched
about him like a floor. A black hat was pulled low over his eyes. His
arms hung limply at his sides. There was not even a revolver in sight.
Approaching the murderer-thief was Roy’s employer. His hat was pushed
back from his forehead, and, as he strode forward with a slow pace,
his arms also hung loosely by his sides.

Roy nervously thought of his new untried revolver and laid his hand
upon it. These men were both armed. The boy could see the holster of
each hanging at his side. The men were now about a hundred yards from
each other. Roy could no longer restrain himself. As Mr. Cook advanced
toward the motionless Hassell the boy also began to move forward.
Finally, Mr. Cook stopped suddenly. Roy continued to advance until
he heard the imperative words: “Go back!” They were from Mr. Cook.
But, while he spoke, the man neither moved nor took his eyes from the
equally statue-like Hassell. He had heard the boy following.

As Roy came to a halt, the cold perspiration broke out on him. Directly
in front of Mr. Cook, a thick rattlesnake was crawling slowly across
his path. “Why don’t he shoot it?” was Roy’s only thought. But the
Company manager seemed not to notice the reptile. As the boy stepped
back, he could see Mr. Cook standing with his eyes, not on the snake,
but on Mike Hassell.

Then, as the venomous thing slid away in the sand, the man who had
come to find Hassell began to advance once more.

Fifty yards, then thirty. Then, as one, two pistol shots sounded in the
hollow of the desert. Roy, trembling and aghast, clenched his hands.
What had happened? Who had shot? The boy had seen neither man draw a
revolver; not a word had been said. But, in the two balls of white
smoke, Roy saw Mike Hassell crumble to his knees; saw his revolver sink
to the sand, and the black hatted fugitive was flat on his face.

Just before him, Roy also saw Mr. Cook slowly returning his revolver to
its holster. His aim had been true. Hassell had missed.