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THE IRON MASK 13

First episode taken from The Skipper No. 246 – May 18th 1935.

They make laws with a gun.

THE IRON MEN

Thirteen horsemen waited silently on the Arizona hillside. There was something grim and tense about them, for each man was watching keenly the valley below. Down there a large herd was milling, and vague forms of riders could be made out, moving at one side of the cattle. Suddenly one of the mysterious watchers stirred. “The cattle are moving,” he growled. “It’s time we were, too, if we’re to stop these rustling rats from getting across the border. Ride! We’ll get this bunch red-handed.  The band of thirteen rode off along the hillside and not down into the valley, for the leader’s aim was to get in front of the stolen herd, prevent it from being taken into Mexico, and at the same time catch the rustlers actually on the job. And if these rustlers had known who was on their trail they would have forgotten the cattle and ridden to save their own skins. For the mystery watchers were the dreaded Iron Mask 13. But the rustlers were unaware yet of their fate. The rustling job had been carried out with neatness and despatch, for the riders were well versed in their job. “Don’t think we missed a single calf,” murmured a voice. “Better keep ‘em going now.” Slowly at first the cattle had filed out of the valley. Soon they were progressing at a steady trot. A few of the rustlers raced alongside them keeping them in the required direction. They were heading South, for their objective was the Mexican border. One of the rustlers chuckled. “This job is getting too easy,” he said. “There ain’t no risk rustling cattle these days.” The man riding alongside him twisted in his saddle. “Say, what’s that?” he growled. Both men eased their horses to a walk and the sound came to them distinctly then. Faintly on the wind came the sound of galloping horses. There was something relentless about that rhythmic beat. A large body of horsemen was on the move. “Sheriff’s posse maybe,” gasped the rustler who had first heard the sound. “They must have got wise to this drive of ours. We’ve got to beat it now.” Rising in his stirrups he yelled a warning. Within the next few moments the orderly drive became a regular stampede. The cattle fairly tore into the night and the frantic rustlers kept them going at top speed. The two riders who acted as a rear guard slackened their pace every now and then in order to listen. That rhythmic beat of hooves was steadily increasing in volume. The posse was getting nearer and nearer. “They’re coming up to the left of us,” said one of them. “They’ll cut us off before we get to the border.” “Not if I know it,” snapped his companion. “We’ll beat them yet. Tell Carlo to head the cattle for Borderville.” His companion stared at him aghast. “Head for Borderville?” he gasped. “You thinking of running us all into jail?” The other glared at him. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “Doesn’t Borderville get its name because the Mexican border passes right through the town? It’s the nearest part of the borderline to us. Once the cattle cross the main street we’ll be on Mexican soil. No American sheriff would dare to take a posse over the line.” “I get you,” said the other. “It’s a great idea. I’ll tell Carlo.” And so the stampeding herd veered round a little until they were headed direct for Borderville. It had been a cunning move on the part of the chief rustler—one which the leader of the Iron Masks hadn’t reckoned on. For Borderville was a town with a very unusual situation. One half of it was American and the other half was Mexican.

The border between the two countries actually ran down the middle of its main street. Down the centre of the street a wide white line had been drawn. Because of this situation, Borderville simply attracted trouble. In charge of the American part of the town was a sheriff. On the other side of the chalk line the town was under the direction of a Mexican police captain. Both the sheriff and the police captain were jealous of their privileges and jealous of each other. It was possible to shoot up a man on the American side of the line, jump across it and be safe, both from arrest and from pursuit. The same of course, could be said for any untoward happenings on the other side of the line. No wonder that bad men and crooks of all descriptions were attracted to Borderville. In Borderville safe hiding was always to be found. No wonder either, that the small ranchers who tried to rear cattle about the town were faced with a continuous fight against bands of rustlers. Lately, rustling had become a real menace to the district. Somebody with brains was behind it all, and the rustling was being organised on a scale never before attempted. Already one or two ranchers had been ruined—many others were also faced with failure. But to-night something must have gone wrong with the rustlers’ plans. The sheriff, somehow, must have become wise to their activities. How else could a large posse he now riding at their heels? In Borderville only a few lights were burning. These lights were chiefly in saloons. Most of the inhabitants were already in bed. These latter suddenly started from their beds in terror. It seemed to them that the town was being shaken by an earthquake. It was an earthquake accompanied by thunderous noise. The citizens jumped to the windows and peered out. They were amazed to see a huge herd of cattle going stampeding through the town. The realised the explanation when they saw the riders behind the cattle. One or two of the townsmen jumped for their guns but by the time they got their hands on them, both cattle and riders had gone thudding out of sight. As the rustlers crossed the chalk line they chuckled aloud. They were on Mexican soil now—the U.S. sheriff’s posse would trouble them no more. Once clear of the Mexican part of the town they tried to slow the stampede down. There was no further need for such terrific haste. And then—the leader of the rustlers suddenly stood in his stirrups again, a look of amazement in his eyes. That insistent clop-clop of horses was still behind them. It seemed nearer than ever. Then the posse had not stopped at the border line—they had crossed it into Mexico. What sort of posse was this?

The pursuing horsemen were nearer, too—much nearer. At that moment for a fitful second the moon appeared from behind a bank of clouds. The face of the chief rustler suddenly became dead white. “It’s not the sheriff’s posse at all,” he yelled. “It’s the Iron Masks. Look!” The rustlers swung in their saddles. They caught a glimpse of a fast moving body of horsemen. Even at that distance there was something weird and frightening about them. Their heads appeared to be of enormous size and not one of them wore a hat. The moon glinted on the top of their heads in queer fashion. No wonder! For each of the riders following the rustlers was wearing a steel helmet which fitted right over his head and which was padlocked around his neck. “The Iron Masks!” yelled the chief rustler. “It’s neck or nothing now. Keep the cattle moving—keep them moving!”

TRAPPED

Nobody knew who the mysterious Iron Masks were. At first, rumours had talked about a strange gang of bandits who had appeared in the district. It was said that their heads were completely encased by heavy iron masks. These were securely padlocked underneath the chin. Soon people were declaring that they weren’t bandits at all. It seemed that the Iron Masks had appeared on the scene when one or two particularly dirty pieces of work were being carried out, and the men responsible had suffered severely at their hands. The result was that opinion concerning them was very divided. Nobody was quite sure whether they had banded together for good or evil. There was something terrifying about them now as they urged their horses through the darkness. Riding ahead of them was a figure of a big, strongly-built man. The Iron Masks were all alike except that a different number was painted on the forehead of each mask. The big man who rode in front had the number “13,” which evidently marked him out as the leader. When the moon disappeared behind the clouds again he eased up his horse a little so that he fell back with the riders behind him. He snapped out an order, but nobody would have recognised his voice. For the iron mask distorted it in strange fashion and gave it a queer, echoing quality. “Our horses are tired,” boomed his voice. “We won’t close up with the skunks for another hour yet.” “What do we do now, boss?” demanded another booming voice. The leader stood in his stirrups for a moment. “They’re heading for the ford over the river,” he growled. “I aim to get them there. If a few of us cross the Murejus Ravine we can get ahead of them and ambush them at the ford.” Twelve helmeted heads turned towards him in surprise. “Cross the ravine?” echoed a voice. “Sure,” said the leader. “You all know there’s a natural bridge across it. I know it’s only a few feet wide in places, but I guess our nerves are strong enough to take the horses safely. Number 3, 5, 7, and 8 will travel with me. Get going.”

He veered his horse away to the right. Four of the horsemen immediately followed him. The rest went plugging on after the rustlers. The leader of the Iron Masks came to the natural archway that spanned the ravine. In broad daylight the coolest of horseman might have been forgiven had he refused to cross such a bridge. In the darkness it seemed nothing less than suicide. But the leader of the Iron Masks never hesitated at all. He went on to the frail looking bridge of rock at a trot. The four men behind him approached it more carefully. The leader’s horse skidded once on the slippery surface. In a flash he pulled the horse back on its feet again. Then he was across. He nodded his satisfaction as his four companions also crossed safely. “We can strike straight across country to the ford now,” he said. “We’ve only half the distance of the rustlers to travel.” Meantime, the rustled cattle were still running hard. The rustlers had forced them into such a stampede now that they had much ado to keep up with them themselves. They realised that the clop-clop of the pursuing Iron Masks wasn’t so hard now. They were drawing ahead of their pursuers. Once they were across the ford they would be almost safe. They could scatter the cattle and then hide up. The Iron Mask would be unable to round up many of the cattle during the last few hours of daylight. In the morning there would be any number of Mexicans to give the rustlers a hand. If the Iron Masks stayed on Mexican soil after dawn it would go very hard with them indeed. The leader of the herd splashed into the ford. The rest of the cattle splashed after him. The water was only inches deep so it scarcely impeded the cattle at all. Behind the cattle came the rustlers.

Their horses splashed into the water then—Crack! Crack! Crack! Another line of fire broke out behind them. They were trapped—caught between two fires. A booming voice which filled them with terror came echoing over the ford. “Reach for the sky!” it cried. “Jump to it, every one of you—unless any fool guy wants blown out of his saddle.” There was nothing else for it. They knew that standing in the water as they did they made perfect targets. Instantly the Iron Masks rode into the water and surrounded them. The rustlers’ guns were taken away and tossed into the river. Iron Mask gave sharp orders. Eight of his men went galloping after the still fast travelling herd. “While they’re rounding them up,” said the Iron Mask chief, “we’ll deal with you. There’s only one punishment for a cattle thief, and that’s death. Tie their hands behind their backs.” This was done. “Now,” said the leader, “take them up to the line of trees above the ford.”

THE RUSTLERS’ REWARD

Under the line of trees the rustlers’ horses were brought to a halt. “Now,” growled Iron Mask, “take their mufflers off.” He stared intently at every man as his face was uncovered. Five of the rustlers were men well known in Borderville. The other four were Mexicans. “This job won’t take long,” said the leader calmly. “Put the ropes around their necks.” Some of the rustlers changed colour. Then the Iron masks meant business. They were to be lynched out of hand. The ropes were quickly adjusted, then two of the other Iron Masks came riding up. “Everything’s O K, boss,” one of them said. “We’ve got the cattle rounded up.” “Good,” said the leader. “My boys are kinda keen on lynchin’ so we’re going to string you up one by one,” he said. “We’ll probably leave you hanging as a warning to all Mexican cattle thieves.” He stared at the man who was obviously the leader of the rustlers. “I’ve been suspicious of you for a long time, Seth Logan,” he said. “You’re a skunk an’ a polecat an’ a few other things. You’re a good cowman but you’re not the brains behind this rustling outfit. You’re being employed by somebody who’s doing the thinking for you. Perhaps you’d like to tell me his name.” Seth Logan spat. “You’ll get nothing out of me,” he said sullenly. Iron Mask shrugged his shoulders. “Please yourself,” he said. “It don’t mean a cuss to me whether you live or die. But as I’m mighty anxious to discover the brains behind your outfit I’ll give freedom to the man who spills the beans. If any one of you wants to live he’d better shoot his mouth quick.” One of the rustlers spoke at once. “I’ll tell, boss,” he gasped. “I can give you the whole lowdown.” Iron Mask walked to him. “Well?” he said. The other ran a tongue over dry lips. “You swear you’ll give me my life if I tell?” he demanded. “You’ll get your life,” said Iron Mask curtly. The other gasped. “The man responsible for the rustling, boss,” he said, “is Don Silva, the Mexican cattle owner. We’ve all been in his pay for years. If you hadn’t followed us we would have run that herd direct to his hacienda.

I swear I’m telling you the truth boss—Don Silva is the leader. I reck’n you’ll find a letter from him in Seth Logan’s pocket. It’s the letter that gave Seth the lowdown for tonight’s job.” Iron Mask crossed to Seth Logan. He pulled the letter out of his pocket. “Proof enough,” he said softly. “We’ve found our man.” He looked at the scowling rustlers. “Now that I know the name of your chief,” he said, “I’m not so anxious to string you all up. It’d spoil the landscape. But you’re going to be punished. And let me tell you this. I’m letting you off tonight. If you’re wise men you’ll get out of the district straight away and you’ll never come within two hundred miles of Borderville again. Remember, I’ve seen your faces and I never forget a face. If ever I find that you’ve ventured within two hundred miles of Borderville, the Iron Masks will hunt you down. You’ll get no let-off next time. Come near Borderville again and you sign your death warrant. He turned to the Iron masks behind him and uttered a few quick orders. The ropes were taken from around the rustlers’ necks. Then the captives were twisted round in their saddles so that they faced their horses’ tails. They were pulled backwards and their arms were tied under the horses’ neck. “You’re going to get the most uncomfortable ride of your lives,” said Iron Mask. “You’ll have to stick on those horses until somebody cuts you loose. There’s a chance that some of you may be dead before you’re cut loose, but that’s your picnic. I know you’d prefer to take the chance than be lynched out of hand right now.” He turned to the Iron Masks. “All ready?” he demanded. “All right, get them going.” The Iron Masks slapped the horses on the flanks and fired shots into the air. Instantly the animals stampeded. They headed in different directions and inside a few seconds had completely disappeared in the darkness. The leader of the Iron Masks collected his band around him. “Three of you,” he said, “will drive the herd back to the Cross Bar Ranch. The rest of you will remain with me.” “What’s the job now, boss?” demanded a voice. The leader chuckled. “Tonight,” he said, “we’re going to show a big-shot rustler that he isn’t so hot. We’re riding for Don Silva’s hacienda straight away, an’ before dawn comes Mex is going to be mighty sorry he ever sent his men across the border to steal American cattle.” They leapt into their saddles. The grotesque riders, still heading south, disappeared into the darkness. A little later the herd of cattle came back over the ford. Behind them rode the three Iron Masks who had been detailed off for the job. The cattle were being driven back to the ranch from which they had been stolen.

THE HACIENDA FALLS.

The leader of the Iron Masks several times looked up at the sky as he rode on. They were on Mexican soil. It was necessary that they should do the job they had set out to do and get back to the border by daylight if possible. If they were captured on Mexican soil and their identities discovered the fat would be in the fire. No Mexican Capitano would hesitate for a moment about putting them up against a wall and shooting them. The leader chuckled. “If ever they do capture us,” he said, “they’re going to have a mighty job on their hands. They’ll find that it’s no easy task to get our iron masks off. Still, the nearer we are to the border when dawn comes the better.” Don Silva’s hacienda was almost a small fortress. In this particular district the caballero was all powerful. His word was law and he had taken the power of life and death into his own hand. The authorities were afraid of him, and left him severely alone. And now, out of the darkness a small handful of men were riding to make Don Silva pay for his sins. “Steady now,” warned the leader. “We’re getting very close.” The hacienda was surrounded by a huge wall. It was almost a stockade. The Iron Masks reined up alongside it. “We’ll do the rest of the job on foot,” said the leader. “We can easily climb the wall by standing on our saddles.” As he spoke he reached inside his saddlebag. The Iron Masks did not know, however, that immediately behind the huge doors in the stockade stood a watchman’s hut. In this a peon slept every night. A light sleeper, he had heard the arrival of the Iron Masks. Going to the gate, he slid back a small shutter. At the sight of the Iron Masks his eyes nearly started from his head. He crossed himself, then, trembling in every limb, he raced for the hacienda. Unaware that their approach had been seen, the Iron Masks leapt down inside the wall. “Straight for the main entrance,” said the leader. “Once we’re inside the house we’ll take them by surprise and have them at our mercy. Come on.” They were half way across the open space when the first revolver rang out. Crack! Crack! Crack! A line of fire appeared along the front of the hacienda. “Down on you faces,” ordered the leader. “Quickly!” The Iron Masks dropped. “Hold your fire,” came the leader’s order. Crack! Crack! Crack! Came the rifles and revolvers from the windows of the hacienda.

The men inside could see nothing of the weird Iron Masks—they were simply blazing away powder into the night. Coolly the Iron Masks’ leader gave his order. “They’re firing from the windows on each side of the door,” he said. “When I give the order I want you to concentrate on those windows. Pump as much lead as you can into them so that they won’t have the nerve to look out. I’m going to run for the door. I’ve got a way of dealing with it. When this explosive goes off we’ll be through in no time. Are you ready? All right—blaze away.” The night became hideous with sound. Bullet after bullet smashed through the windows of the hacienda. The men behind them were forced to keep their heads below the level of the windowsills. As his men began to fire, Iron Mask leapt to his feet and raced forward. He went right up to the door. One or two guns barked at him, but the shooting was wild. Coolly reaching down the Iron Mask jammed something underneath the great heavy door. Taking a box of matches from his pocket he lit one of them and applied it to a fuse. Then Iron Mask turned and ran. He only went a little distance and dropped flat. The people inside the hacienda had no inkling of what had happened. They were unable to peer out of the windows for the Iron Masks were still steadily firing. The fuse burnt fiercely. Crash! There was a terrific explosion. There was a flash of fire and pieces of wood went hurtling through the air. As the smoke and dust cleared away all that was left of the door was seen hanging drunkenly on its hinges. A small stick of dynamite had been responsible for the damage. From inside the hacienda came cries of terror. It seemed to the occupants that the whole building was about to collapse on top of them. As the sound of the explosion died away, Iron Mask came leaping to his feet. “Into the house!” he yelled. “We’ve got them now.” Into the house went the Iron Masks.

THE FINISH OF SILVA

Don Silva himself, crouching at a window, had the shock of his life when the door was opened behind him. “Good evening, Don Silva,” said a voice. The Mexican cattle king whirled round. At sight of the strange, helmeted figure standing inside the door he started. For a second his gaze fixed itself upon the number 13. “Yours, senor,” he said coolly, “is surely a most unusual disguise.” The leader of the Iron Masks laughed. “It is a good disguise, Don Silva,” he said. “Stick your hands in the air. Drop your gun first.” The cattle king dropped his gun. Slowly his hands went up. “Senor Iron Face,” he said, “allow me to lower my hands a little. It is a strain keeping them so high. If I might keep them shoulder high—” Iron Mask nodded. Don Silva slowly dropped his hands. As he did so, his fingers appeared to scrape against the side of his neck. It all happened with lightning-like rapidity. One moment Don Silva was lowering his hands—the next a keen bladed knife was in his fingers. He flung it at once—and its point was aimed at the heart of Iron mask. But even as the knife left Don Silva’s fingers so did Iron Mask’s gun spit fire. Came a flash of light between the two men, and then the knife fell to the floor. The blade had fallen apart from the shaft. Don Silva recovered his composure. “A wonderful shot, my friend,” he said, “or else a wonderfully lucky shot. Never have I seen a knife stopped in mid-air before. I congratulate you.” The door burst open behind the leader and three more Iron Masks appeared. “Who fired that shot, boss?” cried by one of them. They saw their leader’s smoking gun then. Iron Mask jerked his finger at Don Silva. “Hog-tie him,” snapped the leader, “and bring him downstairs.” This was soon done, and in the main room of the hacienda all the prisoners were collected. The leader of the Iron Masks pointed to a rafter above his head. “Tie Don Silva to that,” he directed. “Tie him up by the wrists and remove his boots.” Swiftly the Iron Masks obeyed. Don Silva said nothing. “Close to the hacienda,” went on Iron Mask, “you keep your private herd. Very soon I’m going to round that herd up and drive it away. But there’s another little matter, Don Silva. I have heard that in this hacienda you keep a very large fortune. And it’s an ambition of mine, Don, to take it away with me.” Don Silva scowled. “You waste your breath,” he snarled. “Have it your own way,” said the leader, booming out a few orders. Soon a huge pile of imflammable rubbish of every description was piled high beneath the hanging Don Silva’s feet. “The Don has a car,” came the steely tones of Iron mask. “Bring a couple of tins of petrol from the garage.”

One of the Iron Mask brought in the cans. Unscrewing the caps, the leader of the Iron Masks poured the petrol all over the large pile of rubbish. Then he made for himself a torch, and set fire to this. “Reckon I have no conscience where you’re concerned,” he said to the Mexican. “If yeh want to frizzle keep silent. If yeh want to live, tell me where the cash is.” He reached forward, and slowly the blazing torch sank towards the pile of petrol-soaked rubbish. The sight broke Don Silva’s nerve. “Stop!” he shrieked. “Stop! I will tell you anything. Take that torch away.” The leader of the Iron masks lifted the torch. “Talk,” he said. Don Silva talked. His money was contained in an iron chest which was hidden under the floor of his bedroom. “See if he’s lying,” growled Iron Mask. Two of the band departed. They were away about ten minutes. When they returned, they carried large money bags. “Good,” said the leader of the Iron masks. “Cut down Silva and take him outside the hacienda. Take all his servants, too.” When the hacienda had been cleared, Iron mask tossed his now smouldering torch into the heap of rubbish. Instantly a terrific flame licked the ceiling. The leader of the Iron Masks raced out into the open. Don Silva and his servants were seated just outside the stockade wall. “I’ve made you a bonfire to keep you amused until dawn,” said Iron mask. “The light will be seen for miles. It will attract plenty of people who no doubt will be kind enough to untie you. But I warn you, Don Silva, that as a cattle thief you’re finished. If ever you come north of the border again we shall make another bonfire, but if we do, we shall see to it that you stand in the very centre of it. You have had your chance—and the Iron Masks don’t say that twice.”

A CATTLE SALE

Next morning all the ranchers around Borderville received notices telling them to present themselves in Bottle Neck Gully at three o’clock that afternoon. The notice explained that a large quantity of cattle were to be sold. That notice interested every one of its recipients. Long before three o’clock they began to arrive at Bottle Neck Gully. Their eyes nearly started from their heads when they saw two Iron Masks on duty at the entrance. The cattlemen were forced to hand over their guns before entering the gully. Once inside the entrance, the gully opened out into a wide valley. Entering it, the cattlemen blinked. For they found themselves gazing upon the most magnificent herd of cattle they had seen for many a long day. At three o’clock the leader of the Iron Masks addressed the crowd of ranchers. “Men.” He boomed, “last night the Iron Masks broke up the rustling gang that has been cleaning out this district for so many months. The man behind it all was Don Silva, the Mexican cattle king.” There were cries of anger at this. “Last night,” went on the Iron Mask, “we burned his hacienda down to the ground. We collected his private fortune and we also collected his pet herd of cattle. As you know, that herd is famous all over Mexico, and it is the herd you now see before you.” They stared at the herd with more interest than ever. “And now,” went on the leader of the Iron Masks. “I know that all you men have suffered at the hands of Don Silva. Most of you have been brought to the verge of bankruptcy—some of you are bankrupt. I am going to sell these cattle to you at a price you can afford to buy. They will be split up amongst you according to the amount of rangeland you control. He paused. “My price,” he went on, “is one dollar per head.” They gaped at him—they thought he was pulling their legs. “That is the price,” said Iron Mask. “One dollar per head.” At one dollar per head it remained. The ranchers came forward one by one and explained the acreage of their ranches. To each one a certain number of cattle were allocated. These were cut out for each rancher by the Iron masks. As the cattle were cut out each rancher drove them away at once. Finally the last man drove his cattle out of the valley and the Iron Masks were left alone. Mounting their horses, they rode in the opposite direction to that taken by the cattlemen. They rounded the far corner and promptly seemed to disappear into thin air. But a few days later quite a number of ranchers received a registered letter containing a sum of money. The accompanying letter was signed “The Iron Mask 13.” The letter was brief and to the point. “The enclosed is your share of the money we took from Don Silva.”

 

The Iron Mask 13 18 episodes appeared in The Skipper issues 246 - 263 (1935)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd

Vic Whittle 2007