I held back, and permitted them to work, merely leading my own horse slightly to one side, and keeping in his shadow. I doubt if Kirby even glanced toward me, although if he did he saw only an ill-defined figure, with no glimpse of my face. But the chances were that I was nothing to him at that moment—a mere floating bum whom Rale had picked up to do this job; and just then his whole attention was concentrated upon the half-conscious girl, and his desire to get her safely out of that neighborhood. My presence meant nothing of special interest. Gaskins brutally jerked the shrinking mulatto forward, and forced her to mount one of the horses. She made some faint protest, the nature of which I failed to catch clearly, but the fellow only laughed in reply, and ordered her to keep quiet. Eloise uttered no word, emitted no sound, made no struggle, as the two other men lifted her bodily into the saddle, where Kirby held her, swaying helplessly against him, while Rale strapped her securely into place.
The entire proceedings were so brutally cruel that it required all my strength of will to restrain myself from action. My fingers closed upon the pistol in my pocket, and every impulse urged me to hurl myself on the fellows, trusting everything to swift, bitter fight. I fairly trembled in eagerness to grapple with Kirby, hand to hand, and crush him helpless to the earth. I heard his voice, hateful and snarling, as he cursed Rale for his slowness, and the hot blood boiled in my veins, when he jerked the girl upright in the saddle.
“Thar,” said the saloon keeper, at last, testing his strap. “I reckon she can’t fall off nohow, even if she don’t sit up worth a damn. Go ahead now, Moffett.”
Both the men stepped aside, and I led my horse forward. The movement brought me more into the open, and face to face with Kirby. By some trick of fate, at that very instant a star-gleam, piercing through the screen of leaves overhead, struck full into my eyes. With an oath he thrust my hat back and stared straight at me.
I could not see the mingled hate and horror glaring in the man’s eyes, but there could be no doubt of his recognition. The acknowledgment found expression in a startled exclamation.
“By God!—you, here!”
That was all the time I gave him. With every pound of strength, with every ounce of dislike, I drove a clenched fist into that surprised face, and the fellow went down as though smitten by an axe. Even as he reeled, Rale leaped on me, cursing, failing to understand the cause, yet instinctively realizing the presence of an enemy. He caught me from behind, the very weight of his heavy body throwing me from balance, although I caught one of his arms, as he attempted to strike, and locked with him in desperate struggle. He was a much heavier and stronger man than I, accustomed to barroom fighting,