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THE INVISIBLE ARCHER

First episode, taken from The Wizard issue: 1686 June 7th 1958.

Meet the marksman of deadly menace.

Ramrod Rolt wears three guns—and nobody can draw ‘em but Ramrod.

A man rode cautiously along the bank of a dry creek in the Crooked River country of Texas. He took an occasional glance back—not that he thought he was being followed, but to make sure the hoofs of his horse were not kicking up a lot of dust.

He came at last to a coulee—a hollow dotted with boulders and bushes—and there he swung out of the saddle and put a hobble on the mare. His next action was to open his saddlebag. From it he fetched out a pair of Indian moccasins. He sat on a slab of rock and took off his spurs and boots, replacing them with the Redskin footwear. He took off his hat, made a roll of it and pushed it into the saddlebag. He put on a grey, closely-fitting hood that covered his face and head. In a sheath on the broad belt round his waist was a knife. When he gave himself a shake, some coins and keys jingled in the pockets of his tight-fitting buckskin pants. With a slight gesture of annoyance at forgetting them until then, he fetched them out and slid them into his saddle-pouch. He gave himself another shake and nothing clinked. He slung a cloak in camouflage colours from his broad shoulders. The horse, a dun-coloured animal with no white blaze, sock, or any conspicuous feature, was cropping at the herbage as the Archer moved out of the coulee. He was faced by a long slope rising to a ridge. As he started the ascent he took care to avoid the dusty patches. He did not leave a trace of his movements. The man in the grey hood had been there previously, and his first objective was a rock rising out of a tangle of thorn about halfway up the slope. He had left something there to be collected, and edged towards it. As the hooded man got to the rock and the bushes, he reached in among the bushes and pulled out a bow. It stood as high as the hooded man’s shoulder, and was made of lancewood, as thick as his thumb. The ends were tipped with horn. The man fetched a bowstring from a pouch. It was a long strand of wire. He fitted it carefully but quickly to the stave. When he plucked the wire with a finger, the wire hummed. Head tilted, the Archer listened to the note. He tightened the string a fraction and plucked at it again. That time the humming satisfied him. He stooped and drew one arrow out of its hiding-place. It was a very long, slim shaft, also made from lancewood. The point was needle sharp. Grey feathers formed the flight. The man tested the arrow for balance by placing it across the edge of his hand. He gave a satisfied nod and resumed his trek up the slope. When the Archer was near the top he lay down and crawled. To his ears came the distant lowing of cattle. He kept moving slowly and purposefully until he lay in the shadows of a rock. On the flatlands on either side of the shallow Crooked River, where there was sufficient rough grazing to last fro a day or two, a vast herd of steers had been assembled. The hooded man could see cowpunchers dotted about on the flanks of the herd. Over to his right the galvanized iron roofs of Crooked River glinted in the sunlight. The herd was soon to start on a journey of four hundred and thirty miles to the railhead at Abilene, Texas. There were reports that a new trail was to be followed that would cut the time down from approximately sixty days to forty. It was reported that Clem Baldwin, the Trail Boss in charge of the herd, was to receive a bonus of fifty cents per steer if he took the herd through inside forty-one days. With ten thousand cattle in the herd, that meant a bonus of five thousand dollars for the Trail Boss and his men. The Archer lay motionless in the shadow of the boulder. His hard eyes behind the hood slits took in every movement that occurred below. The Archer’s head ceased to turn when a man on a piebald horse rode out of the town towards the herd. The Arched watched the rider, and his hand moved to his pouch. He fetched out gloves that he pulled on to his hands. He bent his knees and stood at the side of the rock, nocking the shaft on the string. The muscles in the Archer’s forearms stood out as he bent the bow. The rider reined up to speak to one of the punchers and from a range of at least five hundred yards the Archer took a sight along the shaft and released the string. The bowstring hummed, and the shaft vanished with a sinister whine. With merciless eyes the Archer looked down the slope. Moments passed, and then the man astride the piebald shot out his arms in a convulsive movement, twisted in the saddle and plunged to the ground. The sound of a harsh chuckle came from beneath the grey hood, and, as stealthily as he had come, the Archer stole away.

RAMROD ROLT

A stranger to the Crooked River country rode over the foothills towards the town. The stranger carried three guns. The butts of a pair of .44’s protruded from the holsters he wore low on his thighs. The holsters were tied down by leather thongs to prevent them from flopping about when the man walked. The third gun a .38 was in a shoulder holster.

The stranger’s face was stern and iron-hard. There were leathery wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, which possessed a flinty hardness. His shoulders were broad, but not chunky, and when he moved in the saddle he looked as supple as a puma. He carried the usual gear of a cowpuncher, with rolled-up cattle-whip tied to his saddle. His arrival attracted attention as he entered the town and rode down the wide, dusty street. Outside the wooden Lone Star Hotel a group of men had assembled. With a look of worry on his grizzled face, George Parry stood on the porch. He was a rancher, one of the seven or eight cattlemen to whom the herd belonged, and who would get their money when the herd arrived at Abilene. Those around him, some of whom were mounted, were punchers. The stranger reined up. “Where do I find Clem Baldwin?” he asked. “Friend of yours?” inquired Parry. “I rode with him from Austin last year an’ figured to go with him again,” was the answer. “Baldwin’s dead,” Parry said harshly. “We’ve just come away from burying him.” “What killed him?” the newcomer snapped. “Was he thrown?” “I’ll show you what killed him,” said Parry. He stepped into the hotel, to reappear in a few moments holding the arrow. “Um,” grunted the stranger. “It seems that the Invisible Archer has been up to his murdering tricks again.” “Do you know him?” Parry blurted out. “No, but I know of him,” said the stranger curtly. He paused and then said, “You’ll be wanting a Trail Boss now. I can do it!” “Eh? We don’t even know you!” spluttered Parry. “Texas is a big place, and you can’t know everybody, so I won’t hold that against you,” was the answer. “I’m Ramrod Rolt, my home town’s Laredo. I was foreman on the King Ranch till I got itchy feet an’ moved out.” These were good credentials. Anyone who was picked to be a foreman on the vast King Ranch needed no more recommendation. “Maybe you’d fit in,” said Parry. “But Baldwin was going to run this beef into Abilene inside forty-one days along a new trail.” “That’s O.K. I know the trail,” replied Ramrod. “I was with Baldwin when he rode over it. That’s why I’m here. He asked me along.” “The job’s yours,” said Parry. “Come on inside and we’ll go through the papers. Ramrod dismounted and led his horse towards the hitch-rail. He was walking towards the hotel when Sheriff Cleghorn, his star shining, and Gil Clinton, a deputy came out. The sheriff, who had an officious look on his whiskered face, had a six-shooter in his fist. The gun was levelled at Ramrod. “Don’t start anything that you’ll regret,” the sheriff snapped. “If you go for your guns I’ll drop you.” “What’s come over you?” Ramrod asked. “Yes, what have you got on him?” Parry exclaimed in astonishment. “I reckon he’s Baldwin’s killer,” the sheriff said briskly. “Frisk him, Gil!” Clinton, a big, rawboned man with a bushy moustache, stepped up to Ramrod and reached for the guns in Ramrod’s thigh holsters. He shut his hands over the butts and pulled. He failed to pull the guns out. He tried again. They did not budge. For a split second the sheriff’s gaze dropped as he watched Clinton struggling to remove the guns. Ramrod’s hands shot out like loco buffers, and his hand shove sent Clinton staggering against the sheriff. Bang! Ramrod’s guns came out for him! They seemed to leap out of the holsters into his hands and simultaneously he fired. Cleghorn uttered a howl as the slug ripped across the back of his gun hand and his six-shooter thudded into the dust. Ramrod returned his guns to the holsters and picked up the sheriff’s gun. He tossed the gun away, and there was a splash as it dropped into the horse trough. Blood oozed from the sheriff’s seared hand. “What put it into his head that I was the Archer?” Ramrod demanded of Clinton. “I guess he’s suspicious by nature,” spluttered Clinton. “He worked it out that you killed Baldwin in order to get his job.” “Your reasoning is sure powerful,” Ramrod said scornfully to the sheriff. “Guess your ability is wasted here. You should join Pinkerton’s detective agency.

CHANGE THE BRAND!

It was about half an hour afterwards, with the paperwork finished, that Ramrod rode out with Parry to inspect the herd. “You’ll find them a first class lot,” Parry remarked. “We had rain at the right time for the grass, and they came on fast. We reckon to make twenty-two dollars a beast.” Ramrod nodded, but he was not looking at Parry as they conversed. He had an air of constant vigilance. His gaze kept sweeping the rimrock that commanded the flatlands. There was a smell of cooking in the air. It came from the open-air range by the chuck waggon, where “Gravy” Baker, the cook and his Chinese helper were getting the meal ready for about thirty punchers. Three supply waggons stood nearby, and beyond them was the remuda, the group of spare horses. “Who’s the horse boss?” asked Ramrod. Parry pointed to a lanky young fellow who, with his hat stuck so far on the back of his head it was surprising it did not fall off, was sitting on the gate with his rope dangling from his hand. “Steve Roff, there is the horse wrangler,” Parry replied, “and he’s helped by his young brother, Alec, a real young rip.” A movement started in the enclosure. By whooping and waving his hat, Alec Roff, a freckle-faced lad of thirteen, drove the horses round the remuda at a trot. Steve Roff slid down off the gate. He sent his rope spinning and the noose looped round the neck of a piebald pinto that had a slight back-hoof limp. The wrangler shortened the rope and pulled the plunging pony towards him so that he could find out what was wrong. Ramrod made no comment. He looked up at the escarpment again, and his gaze rested for some moments on a tangle of bushes. On the flank of the herd two men sat in their saddles, watching the animals. One of them was the top hand, Ed Moody, and the other, who had a big stomach, was Fats Olsen. “Ed, this is Ramrod Rolt,” said Parry. “He’s taking Baldwin’s place.” Moody whose jaws were working on a chew of tobacco, stopped chewing for a moment. He regarded Ramrod, and his eyes were cold. “Hope we get on,” Ramrod said. “Uh-huh,” grunted Moody. Ramrod looked at the cattle. His air was approving. They were fine, big steers. On each animal there was the road brand. It was burned in, but was put on with black paint or tar. The idea was to distinguish the cattle from the others that might be encountered on the trail. In the event of any of them straying, the tar brands would make for easier rounding up. The road brand was just a black line or bar on the hindquarters of each steer. Ramrod drew his horse round. “I don’t care for the road brand,” he said to Moody. “Get the hands busy. Make a cross of it.” Moody gaped. “You’re askin’ us to alter the brand on ten thousand cows?” he gasped. “I’m not asking,” said Ramrod, “I’m telling you! Get on with it! He did not stop to argue, but rode on. Parry caught up with him and made a protest. “You’re giving the men a lot of work!” he exclaimed. “They get paid don’t they?” replied Ramrod. “Sure, but you’ll lose a day!” expostulated Parry. “I’m not in the habit of giving reasons for my decisions, but this once I’ll tell you,” snapped Ramrod. “A bar is easy to alter. A gang of rustlers with a tin of paint could change it into almost any shape—Bar T, Half Diamond—what you will. A cross ain’t so easy to muss up.” “By jiggers, you’re right!” exclaimed Parry. “You don’t have to tell me that,” said Ramrod curtly. “Now show me where Baldwin was killed.”

By the dim light of the new moon, the Archer moved stealthily up the long slope towards the ridge. He had his bow and a quiver that contained six arrows. There were no bright patches of moonlight, but, even so, he took advantage of every dark patch of shadow, and his progress was completely silent. He approached a boulder half embedded in the ground. From here he could see the flatlands. He laid his bow and quiver on the ground and crouched in the deep shadow of the boulder. Sparks whirled up from a big fire over towards the waggons. The Archer directed his stare that way. His first target that night would be the cook, if he could pick him out. A good cook made all the difference between eating well and scratching along on a cattle drive. Gravy Baker was famous on all the trails. Gravy was not going out on the new trail if the Archer could see him. He believed he had spotted the cook. A figure came over from the chuck waggon and stood just in the firelight. The Invisible Archer gave a sinister chuckle and went to pick up his bow. He was puzzled. It felt sticky. He held his hand out into the moonlight and was just able to discern that it was smeared with black. There was a faint reek of tar. The Archer whipped his head round. The slightest of scuffles alarmed him. Bang! Bang! Bang! Guns flamed in the gloom. He heard a bullet smack against the rock. A distant figure was springing towards him. Muttering furiously, the Archer went to dodge behind the boulder. As he did so, a sun-cracked slab of earth gave way, crumbling under his feet. He shot down over the edge and vanished from his attacker’s view. With smoking guns the attacker ran towards the boulder. It was Ramrod. He heard thuds below. He heard the cracking of twigs. “He’s sure fallen a long way, but if he hadn’t fallen I would have got him,” Ramrod muttered. As he moved, his foot caught something. He picked it up and found himself in possession of the quiver. Not knowing where the Invisible Archer would come, if he did come. Ramrod had spread tar round several rocks. His intention was to try to get some knowledge of the Archer if he were unsuccessful in plugging him. There was a great deal to be learned from marks. He would look in the morning. Half an hour later, Moody, Fats, Steve, Alec and two or three other punchers were still sprawling round the fire. The big grumble was the rebranding of the steers. There was a lull in the conversation at the approach of footsteps. Ramrod appeared in the firelight. Startled exclamations were uttered when he slung down the quiver. “The Archer’s a careless guy, he leaves his ammunition lying about,” he said.

BUCKET CREEK

Parry rode out from the town next morning. As he rode round the herd to where he could see Ramrod, he noticed that the job of rebranding the cattle was going on. The steers had been divided into bunches. Then as each animal passed through a gateway it was swiped on the hindquarters with a tar brush.

“I spoke to Gravy when he came into the town,” Parry said. “He says you had a brush with the Archer.” “Ay, I hoped he’d broken his neck, but he got away,” said Ramrod. “I know a bit more about him. He creeps about in moccasins.” “Ah, I thought maybe he was a bad Indian!” replied Parry. “He’s no Indian,” snapped Ramrod. “He doesn’t stand like a Redskin. He moves with his toes turned out.” It was a fact that Indians always moved with their toes turned in. “I’ve a bit of information for you,” stated Parry. “I had a telegram from Abilene this morning. It was wired to Sweetwater and then brought on by messenger. There’s been a corner in beef. The Messiter Cattle Company have established a ring, and are asking an average of twenty-four dollars fifty cents for beef on the hoof.” “The sky’s the limit, eh?” murmured Ramrod. “They have a motive for trying to stop us getting through. When we get to Abilene we shall bust their market. I wondered who was paying the Archer.” “When are you going to start?” asked Parry. “Break of day,” said Ramrod. By ten o’clock next morning Ramrod, who had ridden on ahead of the herd, turned his horse up a long, open slope and reined up. It was a vantage point that gave him a wide view. He could see the bunch of horses well in advance of the cattle, and after them came the waggons. There was a gap before a small, manageable bunch of lead cows came along. The main herd followed the leaders, which were in Moody’s charge. For over two miles a great cloud of dust marked where the mass of steers was. The new, shorter trail was far from easy, but offered definite advantages. Though there were two high passes to be negotiated, there was more grazing. The water supplies were, on the whole, better than on the former route. The first few miles of a drive were always tricky. It was a hard job getting the cattle away from their home grounds into strange country. Ramrod pulled his horse round and rode on along the ridge. Ramrod reached the end of the ridge without any incident. The ground sloped down to a place called Bucket Creek. It was not much more than a hamlet, but there was stabling for the horses kept there for the stagecoach that passed through twice weekly on the way to the large town of Sweetwater. Rolt saw that horses were grazing on the grass between the stables and the creek. Ramrod gave the reins a shake and cantered down to the hamlet. A negro youth, a helper at the stables, was whitewashing the fence. On the arrival of Ramrod he stopped work altogether. Just as Ramrod swung out of the saddle, Pete Meadows, the hostler, walked out of the yard, his thumbs hooked in his belt. Ramrod had met him on his way to Crooked River. “We’re on the move,” Ramrod remarked. “Mebbe you’d like to round up your horses and get them out of the way.” “Ay, I expected to see you today,” replied Meadows gruffly. He told the negro to collect the horses. Ramrod put a question to the hostler. “Have you seen any strangers around?” he asked. “Now you come to speak of it, some fella did ride by,” answered Meadows. “He was on the other side of the creek. Didn’t come over here.” Ramrod gave a nod. He let go the reins, and his horse moved over to the horse trough. He sauntered along till he was standing in front of the whitewashed section of the fence. Then he stopped and raised a hand to his mouth as if he were yawning. “One, two,” he counted, “three, four—five!” Then he ducked low quickly, and an instant later, with a faint whistle, an arrow streaked over his head and thudded into the fence, where it stuck, quivering. Meadows looked at the arrow with staring eyes. “Where did it come from?” he squawked. “It was shot from across the creek,” snapped Ramrod. “I put myself in a position to be an easy target, and knew that if the Archer was about he would try to get me. Look—there he goes!” They did not see the Archer, but dust kicked by hoofs rose above a tangle of brushwood. Ramrod drew a gun, spun it on a finger and then returned it to the holster. It was a significant gesture, and conveyed his thoughts. He was being paid to get the herd to Abilene in forty-one days, and it would take more than the Invisible Archer to stop him!

 

THE INVISIBLE ARCHER 12 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues 1686 – 1697 (1958)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007