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THE DEATH DUST

First episode taken from The Skipper No. 182 - February 24th 1934.

Wild West yarn of a weird and terrible weapon.

The dust that strangles men and beasts.

 

THE RED CLOUD

Eight hard faced men stood on a bluff overlooking the Santa Cruz River in Southern Arizona. All were dressed in cowboy clothes, but only two seemed to look the part. There was a cold cruelty about the others which branded them as gangsters from the East. The leader of the group was Gat Ralston. He was small, but tough as whipcord, and his thin lips and cold grey eyes showed that he was utterly ruthless. Ralston had once been a cowboy, but it was in the ganglands of the big cities that his deadliness with a gun had earned him his nickname, Gat. Down below them in the Santa Cruz valley a large herd of steers was grazing, with cowboys strung along the outskirts. Gat Ralston chuckled grimly as he pointed to the cattle. “There they are, boys,” he said. “A choice bunch of Triple Spot cattle, and the wind’s blowing right down on them. They are just set for their first taste of the Death Dust!” The last two words were spoken in a snarl, as Gat Ralston turned and strode up the bluff. “Two of you stand by with the dust,” he ordered. “Kurt and Jacobs help me with the Death Spray. And all of you remember your masks and goggles.” The last command was unnecessary, for already the men were slipping goggles over their heads, and clipping respirators over their noses and mouths. Back from the bluff, hidden in a hollow, were the gang’s horses and a light touring car. Ralston pulled a tarpaulin from the back of the roadster, revealing a shining object. Grunting, the cowboy gangster heaved it out, and helped by one of his men, carried it to the head of the bluff. The Death Spray looked like a machine-gun, but was bigger. A long wide barrel protruded from a big container, which was mounted on a strong tripod. The legs of the tripod were pointed so that they could dig into the ground. On the top of the container was a funnel through which the Death Spray was loaded with its terrible ammunition—the Death Dust. Grunting with their exertions, Gat Ralston and his helpers planted the Death Spray at the head of the bluff. The main part of the machine swiveled on the tripod and Ralston adjusted it until it was trained on the herd of cattle down in the valley, but with the barrel pointing into the air. “The Dust!” he growled, his voice muffled by the respirator. Two men dragged a heavy sack from the car. The lid of the funnel in the Death Spray was opened, the sack was slit and the mysterious Death Dust was revealed. In its present form the Death Dust was compressed into hard, six inch bricks. Several of these were dropped into the container. From his pocket Ralston took a small phial and poured its contents over the Dust bricks.

The gang leader gripped the two handles at one end of the container. His finger pressed a button and there was a whirr of machinery from inside the container. Then from the muzzle of the barrel shot a stream of fine dust. It hung for a moment then was caught by the wind and went drifting down towards the valley where the Triple Spot herd was peacefully grazing. The Death Dust was composed of tiny particles that shone with a curious red tinge. It looked harmless, but it was significant that protected by masks as they were, the men were careful to keep to windward. What was the deadly power of the Death Dust? Steadily the dust poured from the Death Spray, until at last Gat Ralston left the machine and joined his men, crouching at the head of the bluff to watch the effect of the Death Dust. A huge reddish cloud was drifting down the valley towards the unsuspecting cowherds and their charges. Gat Ralston’s face had taken on a gloating look. “Another half minute and they’ll get it,” he muttered. “Look!” Down in the valley one of the cowboys suddenly clutched his throat. He had noticed the fine red dust, but in the dry season dust was a thing that the cowboys ate and breathed. But now the puncher’s throat was on fire. He felt as if burning fingers were strangling him. Coughing and gasping for breath he doubled up over his saddle horn. The Death Dust had claimed its first victim. Now the cattle began to be affected. Dozens of them were on the ground, kicking and heaving as though in convulsions. Their bellows were terrible to hear, and mingled with these were croaking noises and wheezing moans as though they were fighting for breath. The restlessness spread through the herd. Some instinct of danger seemed to warn the beasts and in a moment the whole herd broke into a mad stampede. Gat Ralston stretched himself from his tense position. The Death Dust had done its murderous work. Ralston cheerfully clapped one of his men, older than the others, on the back. This man was the inventor of the Death Dust, a scientist who had chosen the wrong way to make use of his clever brain. He it was who had the supplies of Death Dust bricks for Ralston’s gang, and he was a very necessary member of the party, for only he knew the secret formula of the dust, without which the gang would only have been a bunch of ordinary gun-rats. “The first lesson of the Death Dust!” Gat grinned. “And it won’t need many more to clear out that Triple Spot bunch of waddies. Come on, boys.”

THE CATTLE MASSACRE

“Now what in tarnation’s come over them cattle? Whoohoo—oo! Get back there!” The lone rider went galloping down the side of the valley in a cloud of dust, for the prairie was dry and grass sparse out there in Southern Arizona at that time of the year. His sweating horse had just topped the rise overlooking the Santa Cruz River when he had seen the extraordinary behaviour of the mob of cattle who were watering there. They were in a mad panic over something, rushing wildly downwind along the bank, stampeding as though a pack of wolves was after them. In all, five hundred cattle must have been involved in this sudden panic, some of the choicest of the two-year-olds from the Triple Spot Ranch herds. As the long legged ranch manager lashed his horse to greater speed he saw that some of the cattle were failing. They were going down in dozens, kicking and heaving as though in convulsions. Their bellows were awful to hear, and sounded as though they were choking to death. “What in heck’s happened?” thought Durk M’Finn. “What’s happened to the boys? Have they gone crazy, too?” Half a dozen cowboys were riding swiftly towards him. Three of them were clinging to their horses’ necks as though in dire straits, and one of the others was coughing his heart out as he strove to take the lead. It was he who stood in his stirrups and bawled—“Get back, Durk! Don’t go down into the valley or you’ll choke. Get back!” Durk M’Finn reined in his horse. His face was almost as brown as his hair, but his eyes were remarkably blue beneath the tilted brim of his sombrero. A tall, lean man, with slightly bowed legs, there was an air of calm efficiency about him which had so impressed the Phoenix Cattle Corporation that they had made him the manager of the Triple-Spot outfit, where six thousand cattle roamed. “What is this, Jed?” he demanded, as the newcomer pulled up. “What’s the matter with you all? What started the cattle off?” Jed exploded in another fit of coughing, and nearly choked. One of the remaining five had fallen off his horse, and without waiting for a reply the manger rode forward to pick him up. It was as he slid down to the ground to hoist the man to his shoulder that he got a whiff of the strange something which was causing all the trouble. It seemed to seize the breath in his throat and choke him. He wanted to cough and could not; he wanted to tear at the inside of his throat to alleviate that awful itching; he felt as though the life was being choked out of him by unseen hands. At the same time his eyes watered as though some grit or dust had gone into them. This must have been from the pounding hoofs of the horses; there was a good deal of dust about. Savagely he cleared his throat, and staggered up the slope with his burden. “Water!” gasped the sufferer. “I’m choking. It’s that dust.” Durk gave them water, and they coughed and spluttered to an exhausted silence. Their eyes were red and their faces dead white. They seemed to care nothing for the eighty or ninety cattle which lay squirming down there beside the river, or for the rest which were stampeding out into the scrub. “I’m waiting!” croaked M’Finn. “I want to hear what’s happened.” Jed, the senior cowboy, spat loudly. “I tell you it was the dust. The mob was takin’ their water quietly enough. Suddenly a cloud of dust came whirling up the bank, one of them miniature dust storms you get every now an’ again. As soon as it reached us we all set coughin’ an’ splutterin’. The cattle started the same, an’ then bolted. Thos poor beasts down there are nigh choked to death, I reckon.” Dust!

Durk M’Finn looked around the sun-baked landscape. There was always plenty of dust in Arizona in the dry season. They lived in it, breathed it, and even ate it in their food. There was white alkali dust and red dust, yellow dust, and brown dust; it was everywhere. But he had never yet come across a dust which choked men and cattle almost to death. One of the fallen beasts was no more than a hundred feet away from where they stood. M’Finn started down towards it, holding his breath as best he could. It was only in the lower levels that the choking dust seemed to have collected. On the breezier uplands the air was pure. He reached the groaning bullock, and found it choking in its own saliva. It was moaning pitifully as it fought for breath. It looked like the victim of a poison-gas attack. Its eyes were rolling as though with entreaty. Durk M’Finn drew his revolver and shot it through the brain to put it out of its misery. He would have liked to have gone round and done the same to all the others, but one whiff of the dust laden air had again given him that strangling sensation. He had to run for the top of the ridge in order to get air, and by that time his throat was sore and tight. “You’re right about the dust!” he growled. “It must have come upwind. We can’t do a thing for the cattle until the dust settle. Come on!” He mounted and rode along the top of the ridge upwind. The five who were least injured by the dust followed behind him, but one man remained upon the ground, coughing and gasping. He had not the strength even to mount. Over the next ridge thundered Durk, his all black Tug making the prairie ring with the beat of his great hoofs. Past the bend of the river there was a dense forest of cactus, and as they came out on the skyline M’Finn pointed. “Who’s that down there?” They shaded their eyes. The party was on the further side of the river, but in the bend of it. There were eight or nine in all. “Two of ‘em are from Hammermann’s usual bunch,” growled Jed. “The others I don’t know. Strangers of some kind. Look, they’re off. What are they putting over their saddles?” Durk M’Finn gave a snort. “Look like empty sacks to me. The sort of sacks they pack flour in. What’ve they been doin’ down their with sacks?” Nobody could answer his question, but all stared suspiciously after the departing riders. There was no love lost between the staff of the Triple-Spot ranch and that of Louis Hammermann. Hammermann was almost a millionaire, and the owner of the biggest ranch in the neighbourhood. He owned the land on three sides of the Triple-Spot, and twice he had made offers to buy out the intervening ranch. The Phoenix Corporation had always refused, and the last time he had used vague threats. He had even tried Range war tactics but Durk and his boys had been equal to it! Durk was thinking of that as he sat his big horse. Could it be possible that those horsemen had anything to do with the arrival of the Death Dust? It seemed incredible yet what were six total strangers doing down by the river with empty sacks? Eighty of his best beasts were dead or dying in agony, and several hundred others were stampeding wildly over the prairie. It was a bad evening’s work for the Triple-Spot. In all his time in Arizona the manager of the Triple-Spot had never known such a thing happen.

He turned in the saddle. “Lawrence, ride back to the ranch house and fetch a dozen of the boys to help in the round-up. Better take Smith with you he looks about all in. Jed can take the others and keep on the trail of the runaways. Try and get them down to water by the ring fence crossing. “What about you, Durk?” asked the senior cowboy. “I’m going to cross the river as soon as it gets dark and find out just what that bunch were up to. I don’t trust Hammermann any further than I could throw him, and as he weighs about twenty stones that wouldn’t be far. S’long!” He rode down towards the cactus forest, and vanished from their sight.

THE MAN WITHOUT A GUN

The Vera Cruz was low at that time of the year, and it was easy for Durk M’Finn to swim his horse across after dusk. He reached the spot on the further side of the river where he had seen the party of riders turning back. The air was clear, and showed no sign of bearing any suffocating dust, but he noticed from the direction of the wind that it would have carried anything from here right up to the opposite bank where the cattle had been watering when the stampede had begun. He hardly knew what he expected to find. Durk rode warily up the trail which led to the Hammermann ranch house some twelve miles distant. If he was discovered over there he would have to invent some excuse. It would not be easy, and he might be roughly handled. Hammermann hated him because he had managed the Triple-Spot so efficiently, and put it on a paying basis. Here and there over the countryside artificial pools had been dug, and Hammermann with his wealth had been able to pipe waters from the hills to fill them. His cattle rarely wanted for water. Around each of these pools a miniature camp had sprung up, and when he had been riding about an hour M’Finn noticed the light of the campfires at one of these. He rode forward more warily. It was not possible from a distance to detect anything more than the murmur and shuffle of hundreds of cattle, but he knew cowboys were down there, and possibly the other stranger he had glimpsed by the boundary river. “You’ll have to bide here awhile, Tug>” he told his horse, and tethered it loosely to a sage bush. He went forward on foot, keeping to cover and careful not to make a sound. He did not want to be shot for a prowling coyote nor yet a cattle thief. Hammermann’s men would welcome such a chance and could always swear it was an accident. The last fifty yards he crawled over the ground, and saw about a dozen men sitting about the fires, smoking and yarning. A certain piebald horse which he had noted by the river told him the strangers were there as well. He was thinking of wriggling even nearer, with the intention of hearing what they were talking about, when a bell rang sharply. It was an innovation of Hammermann’s to have the telephone run all over his vast ranch. In this way a great deal of time was saved. “A call from the boss fer Ralston,” said someone, and a short, dapper little man with a vast white sombrero almost as wide as his shoulders, rose from the fireside and went to the three-sided shelter where the phone was placed. M’Finn scrambled round until he was at the rear of this and only a few feet distant. “Huh, sure!” the man called Ralston was saying. “Sure it worked Boss. Just as I told yeh—Eh, what? How many? I’d say about eighty or ninety of ‘em fell an’ didn’t get up again, but it sure stampeded the rest. You should’ve seen ‘em run. You bet that’s only the beginnin’. What’s that?”

The person at the other end did some talking, and then Ralston spoke very slowly and deliberately. “You bet we’ll put it over! We’ll earn our pay right enough. We won’t try to collect from you until the Triple-Spot goes right out of business. Yeh, they’ll either have to shift their stock or lose ‘em. Nothin’ can stop us. Wherever the wind goes the Death Dust can go. Sure!” He hung up with a chuckle, lit himself a cigarette under cover of the phone cabin, then stepped out into the darkness with the idea of joining the others by the fire. The next second his cigarette dropped to the ground as something hard and round was jabbed against his ribs. “One word out of you and it’s your last, Ralston!” snarled a voice in his ears. “Turn round an’ walk in the opposite direction away from the fires. Walk!” It had not taken Durk long to decide what to do after he had heard the conversation on the phone. His suspicions were more than justified. Some sinister plot was afoot, engineered by Hammermann, and being carried out by this Ralston and his cronies. The plot was against the adjoining ranch. Durk was going to get to the bottom of it, or make someone sit up! His eyes gleamed like blue icicles as he prodded his victim into the scrub. On the way he deftly reached forward and felt the other for a gun, but the man carried none. Maybe he had left it by the fire. He knew he had to be quick. Once Ralston was missed from the fireside circle a hue and cry would be raised. He must get that information out of him quickly. At last he was far enough from the camp for his purpose. He backed the man up against a tree, and turned him about. “Now, you rat, open up!” Two beady little eyes peered at him from a dead-white face. “I don’t get you. Guess you’re making a mistake, unless it’s a hold-up. I’ve not got much on me—Ouch!” The gunpoint had poked his stomach. “Don’t try and bluff me. It’s no hold-up. You and your friends are up to some dirty work for Hammermann, and it’s connected with my ranch. What’s happening? What’s it all about?” A thin smile appeared on the other’s lips. “You’re crazy! My name’s Jeff Ralston, and I’m here on a job for Louis Hammermann, but not that kind of job. Maybe I’d better explain. Mind if I smoke?” “Go ahead!” barked the cattleman. “But no tricks!” His finger was still on the trigger, and as the other was not armed he could not see that he could do much damage. He did not know Gat Ralston! The man reached for his shirt pocket, drew out his hand, and shook something towards his captor. It looked like a small paper bag; from it came a cloud of fine dust. “Ouch, you—” A fit of violent coughing preventing Durk from shooting. His breath was strangled in his throat, his eyes ran with water. Red pepper could not have had such a devastating effect. His windpipe seemed to close up, and he dropped his gun to claw at his neck. “Try a sample fer yehself!” came the mocking voice of Gat Ralston. “Mighty clever, Mr Cattleman, aren’t you. Now you know what the Death Dust can do.” Coughing, wheezing, struggling for breath, Durk frantically tried to get at his tormentor. The man laughed as he dodged round the tree, and the blinded, strangled cattleman blundered into it and then fell headlong. He could not breathe. He could not draw a single breath! He was choking, dying. Everything went black, and with a final despairing gasp, Durk M’Finn lost consciousness.

Gat Ralston came over and examined him, went through his pockets, and discovered a letter addressed to him by name. “M’Finn, eh? That’s the name of the manager over yonder. Guess I’d better leave him here while I run and tell someone. Maybe he’s not the only prowler round the camp this night.” During his inspection of his victim he had held a small moist pad over the lower part of his face. It was a respirator of some kind, and the fluid in which it was dipped gave off a strange sickly odour. Only in this way could the gang who handled the Death Dust prevent injury to themselves. Without a backward glance at his victim the man hurried towards the camp. Two gleaming eyes followed him from a nearby clump of bushes. A tall, powerfully built Redskin glided into the open, approached Durk, swung him on to his back, and vanished in the opposite direction. M’Finn had not been the only visitor to the cattle-camp that night!

It was grey dawn, and none too warm, when Durk sat up and took notice of his surroundings. He was in a small hollow, and his horse stood beside him. There was a strange taste in his mouth, and he had a headache. Apart from these facts he would have wondered whether the overnight experiences had been a bad dream. But there was someone else present, a squatting Redskin of the Santa Fe tribe, a calm, inscrutable looking man a little older than Durk. “Well, I’m—Who are you?” demanded the cattleman. “I Big Elk,” was the curt reply. “Where—How did I get here?” “I bring you here. You been sick.” Big Elk turned towards a small cooking fire and lifted off M’Finn’s own billy can, which he had evidently unhitched from the horse. It was full of tea. “Drink this.” M’Finn drank, but his head was in a whirl all the time. “But what made you do this? How did you do it? That—Someone outed me with some dust in my face. I was choking. My throat was closing up. Now I feel O k. Did you do that as well?” Big Elk nodded solemnly. He was a big man, beautifully muscled, and there was a proud swing to his shoulders. Durk almost choked. He was boiling with anger and curiosity, anger against the man who had made that dastardly attack on him during the interview amongst the trees, and curiosity about the Redskin. It did not add to his understanding of things to realise he was back on his own side of the river. Big Elk must have brought him over. “Look here, Big Elk, why did you do this for me? I don’t know you.” The Indian rose and glared across the river. “I don’t know you, but I know them. Big Elk wanted job. He went to that camp yesterday for work. They laughed at him because he was Indian, and set the dogs on him. Big Elk waited in the bushes to kill someone for revenge, and then you came along. Big Elk saved you from the Death Dust.”

 

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd

Vic Whittle 2007