A MANHUNT CHILLER
THE FINGER OF DOOM!
by Gardner F. Fox
Originally written for MANHUNT #7 (1948) and published by Magazine Enterprises
THE HUNT was up. From the outlying ranches, the cowhands were gathering, their guns and rifles oiled and cleaned. One of the hands from the K-bar-J spread was coiling a lariat whose dangling end was formed into an ominous noose. Another was snapping loose the cylinder of his Colt revolver, checking its full load of six brass jacketed cartridges. A man with a star badge on his cowhide vest came out of the town's general store, scowling.
The sheriff said, "He's out in the butte country, riding like the wind. Got a red mare that's fast."
Ox Marlin of the Sleepy-Face ranch grinned, "He won't do much runnin' in the buttes. Too rocky. Maybe we got the thievin' coyote at last. Teach him to rustle steers!”
Saddle leather creaked as men swung up by stirrups. The sheriff waved an arm. He yelled, "Let's go! We'll get him by nightfall, and string him to the nearest tree! Let's ride!”
The posse swept in behind the lawman's racing roan. A cloud of dust rose up into the blue Arizona sky. Someone yelled like a Comanche on the warpath.
Jag Holmer reined in his winded mare. He looked behind him, at the vast waste of cactus-dotted plains that lead in a sweeping rise up into the buttes. There was no sign yet of pursuit, but he knew they were coming. The Sleepy-Face hands had caught him and his boys in the arroyo with three straight irons and a few head of Sleepy-Face cattle, altering brands.
Jag remembered the bitterness of that fight. He had been stooped over, the smell of scorching flesh and hair in his nostrils, the heat of the red-hot tip of the straight iron close to his face, when a bullet had ploughed sand a foot from his spur-pointed boot. Another bullet caught the branding iron and ripped it from his hand.
Jag whirled, his men yelling and scattering for cover as they sighted the cowhands coming down at them over the rise of the leche guilla-dotted hill. Jag went for his Colts, lifting them clear of the leather holsters.
The guns bucked and flamed in his hands. A cowhand slid limply backward over the cantle of his saddle. A roan mare whinnied, went plunging forward.
Then Jag was running, calling to his men. His mare tossed her head, sidled toward him. A cowhand was racing toward the mare, firing as he came. Jag triggered his guns, saw the man veer off, cursing hotly, a thin streak of blood staining the sleeve of his shirt.
But the cowmen were shooting straight and true. One of the outlaws fell forward into the fire, lying there still and unmoving as the flames caught at his shirt. There was a round bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.
Another rustler was hit as he was putting a foot into a box stirrup. He tried to run with his frightened horse, but the animal went too fast. The wound in his chest made the rustler loose his grip on the reins, made him stumble two, three times before he went forward to gasp out his life in the blood-soaked sands.
Jag saw his men shot down all around him. He fired again and again, clearing a small space for his mare to run in. Then he was going up, a booted toe in the stirrup, swinging up into the saddle as the mare hit her stride. Jag bent forward over her neck, letting her run,
There wasn't a horse on this range that could catch the fleet little horse. Jag only hoped that a bullet wouldn't catch her before they reached shelter. He zigzagged her, keeping the big saguaro cactus between himself and his pursuers, using rocky humps and sandy hillocks to hide him. Eventually they got away....
The ranchers would have outposts, waiting to make sure of him. He'd had to hole up two days—two precious days!-because he didn't dare cross the ranges in broad daylight. And he hadn't been familiar enough with this part of the country to risk moving at night.
“But I'm all right now," he told the mare, stroking her long, red mane. "We're in the buttes, and we can play hide-an'-seek here for a long time. Let 'em come!"
He talked to the horse, swayed easily in the big Cheyenne saddle as the mare picked her way among the rocky slopes. Holmer reached down and loosened the Winchester .44-.40 in the saddle sheath.
The spent wheeeeeenn of a bullet made him duck instinctively. He whirled, stared with incredulous eyes down below where a file of hard-riding horsemen were charging up the slope, waving rifles and shouting.
"How'd they come so close without me seein' 'em?" Holmer asked himself, digging roweled spurs into his mare's flanks. "I looked to make sure"
The explanation dawned on him as his eye caught the red sandstone mesa to the left that lifted its bulk up from the sandy floor of the plain. "Sure! They must've snuck up behind that, usin' it to hide 'em until they were almost on top of me. Well, they're goin' to have a run for themselves!"
He gave the fleet mare her head, bent low to make as small a target as he could on her back. The mare was rested. Those two days and nights holed up had filled her with energy. Her hooves twinkled going up the slope. She drew away easily, almost contemptuously, from the hallooing posse.
They flashed under the overhang of a black gneiss rock, turned right and fled into the narrow passage of a draw. Jag was grinning now. He would get away, all right. No need to worry. In this labyrinth of canyons and ravines, one man could hole up for days without detection. He slapped his big canteen, heard the water slosh in it. He had food, too, cans of beans and pork that he could eat cold if he had to, in his saddlebag.
The mare went deeper into the buttes. Jag began to recognize landmarks. This was the way he had lead his men down into the open range. He could find his way out of here and be well on his way before that posse could pick up his trail and follow it. He pulled back on the reins and sat listening.
The only sound that came to his ears was the faint whisper of a breeze that swayed the golden blossoms of the prickly-pear cactus. Jag chuckled, “Let 'em hunt. I'll hide the mare an' myself in a little draw, rest up, then be on my way by night. They'll never find me then!”
* * *
The sheriff took off his hat and wiped at his forehead with a dusty sleeve. He slumped dejectedly in his saddle, looked around at the sweat—and dust-stained men with him.
"He hightailed it away from us. We could hunt a week in these buttes without findin' him. It's worse'n findin' a needle in the proverbial haystack!"
A K-bar-J cowhand said, "Reckon yuh're right. Only thing is, it galls me like a saddle sore to admit he licked us!"
The sheriff nodded. He said, “We'll seout around, wait until dark. If we don't find him by dawn, he'll have got clean away."
* * *
Jag Holmer hunkered down, wrapping the loose bits of an old shirt around the mare's hooves. The moon was rising, filling the draws and canyons with bright silver light. Jag took off his guns, looped them over the pommel of the Cheyenne, covered them with a cloth so they wouldn't reflect moonlight. He draped his boots on the other side of the saddle.
In stockinged feet, he led the mare from the draw. They made no sound. Jag examined the mare and his own person for shiny articles and found none. He nodded, grinning.
"No noise, no light. I reckon we'll get through."
He led the mare, walking close to the base of the big cliff-side that was bathed in silver moonlight. He avoided the loose shale and rock in the middle of the canyon.
For hours, Jag Holmer walked the mare, slowly and surely, turning and twisting with the turns and twists of the buttes. He knew that by dawn he would be on the far side, would be free to ride off without fear of pursuit.
He was bending to take the pads off the mare's hooves when he first caught the faint jingle of ring-bits and the clatter of horses' hooves on the rocky shale that lined the canyon floor.
Jag lifted his head, listened in growing alarm. He whispered, “They couldn't have trailed me. Not at night! Not through all these loops and twists!"
He hurried, but he was too late. The posse burst around a bend, guns up and leveled at him. He was caught, trapped! His six-guns and rifles still hung on his saddle. Slowly, Jag began to raise his hands ...
As one of the hands slipped the noose around his neck, he blurted, "Yuh—yuh couldn't have caught me. I made sure of everything!"
The sheriff said, "Sure. Yuh made sure of everything, except one thing. Yuh walked close to the base of the cliff where the moonlight was bright. The cliff acted like a huge mirror. It reflected yuh on the opposite wall ... elongated yuh until yuh were twenty feet high! Our lookouts were posted, saw yuh that way, an' we came runnin'.”
Jag followed the sheriff's indicative finger to the canyon wall. His shadow, gigantic and enlarged, was black on the whitish wall, like a pointing finger ... a finger of doom!