A Texas Ranger
By William MacLeod Raine, 1910
FOREWORD TO YE GENTLE READER.
Within the memory of those of us still on the sunny side of forty the more remote West has passed from rollicking boyhood to its responsible majority. The frontier has gone to join the good Indian. In place of the ranger who patrolled the border for "bad men" has come the forest ranger, type of the forward lapping tide of civilization. The place where I write this— Tucson, Arizona— is now essentially more civilized than New York. Only at the moving picture shows can the old West, melodramatically overpainted, be shown to the manicured sons and daughters of those, still living, who brought law and order to the mesquite.
As Arthur Chapman, the Western poet, has written:
No loopholes now are framing Lean faces, grim and brown; No more keen eyes are aiming To bring the redskin down. The plough team's trappings jingle Across the furrowed field, And sounds domestic mingle Where valor hung its shield. But every wind careering Seems here to breathe a song— A song of brave frontiering— A saga of the strong.
(In Which Steve Plays Second Fiddle)
THE MAN FROM THE PANHANDLE
A DESERT MEETING
As she lay crouched in the bear-grass there came to the girl clearly the crunch of wheels over disintegrated granite. The trap had dipped into a draw, but she knew that presently it would reappear on the winding road. The knowledge smote her like a blast of winter, sent chills racing down her spine, and shook her as with an ague. Only the desperation of her plight spurred her flagging courage.
Round the bend came a pair of bays hitched to a single-seated open rig. They were driven by a young man, and as he reached the summit he drew up opposite her and looked down into the valley.
It lay in a golden glow at their feet, a basin of pure light and silence stretching mile on mile to the distant edge of jagged mountain-line which formed its lip. Sunlight strong as wine flooded a clean world, an amber Eden slumbering in an unbroken, hazy dream primeval.
At the summons the driver swung his head sharply to a picture he will never forget. A young woman was standing on the bank at the edge of the road covering him with a revolver, having apparently just stepped from behind the trunk of the cottonwood beside her. The color had fled her cheeks even to the edge of the dull red-copper waves of hair, but he could detect in her slim young suppleness no doubt or uncertainty. On the contrary, despite her girlish freshness, she looked very much like business. She was like some young wild creature of the forest cornered and brought to bay, but the very terror in her soul rendered her more dangerous. Of the heart beating like a trip-hammer the gray unwinking eyes that looked into hers read nothing. She had schooled her taut nerves to obedience, and they answered her resolute will steadily despite fluttering pulses.
"Don't move!" she said again.
"What do you want?" he asked harshly.
"I want your team," she panted.
"Never mind. I want it."
The rigor of his gaze slowly softened to a smile compound both of humor and grimness. He was a man to appreciate a piquant situation, none the less because it was at his expense. The spark that gleamed in his bold eye held some spice of the devil.
"All right. This is your hold-up, ma'am. I'll not move," he said, almost genially.
She was uneasily aware that his surrender had been too tame. Strength lay in that close-gripped salient jaw, in every line of the reckless sardonic face, in the set of the lean muscular shoulders. She had nerved herself to meet resistance, and instead he was yielding with complacent good nature.
"Get out!" she commanded.
He stepped from the rig and offered her the reins. As she reached for them his right hand shot out and caught the wrist that held the weapon, his left encircled her waist and drew her to him. She gave a little cry of fear and strained from him, fighting with all her lissom strength to free herself.
For all the impression she made the girdle round her waist might have been of steel. Without moving, he held her as she struggled, his brown muscular fingers slowly tightening round her wrist. Her stifled cry was of pain this time, and before it had died the revolver fell to the ground from her paralyzed grip.
But her exclamation had been involuntary and born of the soft tender flesh. The wild eyes that flamed into his asked for no quarter and received none. He drew her slowly down toward him, inch by inch, till she lay crushed and panting against him, but still unconquered. Though he held the stiff resistant figure motionless she still flashed battle at him.
He looked into the storm and fury of her face, hiding he knew not what of terror, and laughed in insolent delight. Then, very deliberately, he kissed her lips.
"You— coward!" came instantly her choking defiance.
"Another for that," he laughed, kissing her again.
Her little fist beat against his face and he captured it, but as he looked at her something that had come into the girl's face moved his not very accessible heart. The salt of the adventure was gone, his victory worse than a barren one. For stark fear stared at him, naked and unconcealed, and back of that he glimpsed a subtle something that he dimly recognized for the outraged maidenly modesty he had so ruthlessly trampled upon. His hands fell to his side reluctantly.
She stumbled back against the tree trunk, watching him with fascinated eyes that searched him anxiously. They found their answer, and with a long ragged breath the girl turned and burst into hysterical tears.
The man was amazed. A moment since the fury of a tigress had possessed her. Now she was all weak womanish despair. She leaned against the cottonwood and buried her face in her arm, the while uneven sobs shook her slender body. He frowned resentfully at this change of front, and because his calloused conscience was disturbed he began to justify himself. Why didn't she play it out instead of coming the baby act on him? She had undertaken to hold him up and he had made her pay forfeit. He didn't see that she had any kick coming. If she was this kind of a boarding-school kid she ought not to have monkeyed with the buzz-saw. She was lucky he didn't take her to El Paso with him and have her jailed.
"I reckon we'll listen to explanations now," he said grimly after a minute of silence interrupted only by her sobs.
The little fist that had struck at his face now bruised itself in unconscious blows at the bark of the tree. He waited till the staccato breaths had subsided, then took her by the shoulders and swung her round.
"You have the floor, ma'am. What does this gun-play business mean?"
Through the tears her angry eyes flashed starlike.
"I sha'n't tell you," she flamed. "You had no right to— How dared you insult me as you have?"
"Did I insult you?" he asked, with suave gentleness. "Then if you feel insulted I expect you lay claim to being a lady. But I reckon that don't fit in with holding up strangers at the end of a gun. If I've insulted you I'll ce'tainly apologize, but you'll have to show me I have. We're in Texas, which is next door but one to Missouri, ma'am."
"I don't want your apologies. I detest and hate you," she cried,
"That's your privilege, ma'am, and it's mine to know whyfor I'm held up with a gun when I'm traveling peaceably along the road," he answered evenly.
"I'll not tell you."
He spoke softly as if to himself. "That's too bad. I kinder hate to take her to jail, but I reckon I must."
She shrank back, aghast and white.
"No, no! You don't understand. I didn't mean to— I only wanted— Why, I meant to pay you for the team."
"I'll understand when you tell me," he said placidly.
"I've told you. I needed the team. I was going to let you have one of our horses and seventy-five dollars. It's all I have with me."
"One of your horses, you say? With seventy-five dollars to boot? And you was intending to arrange the trade from behind that gun. I expect you needed a team right bad."
His steady eyes rested on her, searched her, appraised her, while he meditated aloud in a low easy drawl.
"Yes, you ce'tainly must need the team. Now I wonder why? Well, I'd hate to refuse a lady anything she wants as bad as you do that." He swiftly swooped down and caught up her revolver from the ground, tossed it into the air so as to shift his hold from butt to barrel, and handed it to her with a bow. "Allow me to return the pop-gun you dropped, ma'am,"
She snatched it from him and leveled it at him so that it almost touched his forehead. He looked at her and laughed in delighted mockery.
"All serene, ma'am. You've got me dead to rights again."
His very nonchalance disarmed her. What could she do while his low laughter mocked her?
"When you've gone through me complete I think I'll take a little pasear over the hill and have a look at your hawss. Mebbe we might still do business."
As he had anticipated, his suggestion filled her with alarm. She flew to bar the way.
"You can't go. It isn't necessary."
"Sho! Of course it's necessary. Think I'm going to buy a hawss I've never seen?" he asked, with deep innocence.
"I'll bring it here."
"In Texas, ma'am, we wait on the ladies. Still, it's your say-so when you're behind that big gun."
He said it laughing, and she threw the weapon angrily into the seat of the rig.
"Thank you, ma'am. I'll amble down and see what's behind the hill."
By the flinch in her eyes he tested his center shot and knew it true. Her breast was rising and falling tumultuously. A shiver ran through her.
"No— no. I'm not hiding— anything," she gasped.
"Then if you're not you can't object to my going there."
She caught her hands together in despair. There was about him something masterful that told her she could not prevent him from investigating; and it was impossible to guess how he would act after he knew. The men she had known had been bound by convention to respect a woman's wishes, but even her ignorance of his type made guess that this steel-eyed, close-knit young Westerner— or was he a Southerner?— would be impervious to appeals founded upon the rules of the society to which she had been accustomed. A glance at his stone-wall face, at the lazy confidence of his manner, made her dismally aware that the data gathered by her experience of the masculine gender were insufficient to cover this specimen.
"You can't go."
But her imperative refusal was an appeal. For though she hated him from the depths of her proud, untamed heart for the humiliation he had put upon her, yet for the sake of that ferocious hunted animal she had left lying under a cottonwood she must bend her spirit to win him.
"I'm going to sit in this game and see it out," he said, not unkindly.
Her sweet slenderness barred the way about as electively as a mother quail does the road to her young. He smiled, put his big hands on her elbows, and gently lifted her to one side. Then he strode forward lightly, with the long, easy, tireless stride of a beast of prey, striking direct for his quarry.
A bullet whizzed by his ear, and like a flash of light his weapon was unscabbarded and ready for action. He felt a flame of fire scorch his cheek and knew a second shot had grazed him.
"Hands up! Quick!" ordered the traveler.
Lying on the ground before him was a man with close-cropped hair and a villainous scarred face. A revolver in his hand showed the source of the bullets.
Eye to eye the men measured strength, fighting out to the last ditch the moral battle which was to determine the physical one. Sullenly, at the last, the one on the ground shifted his gaze and dropped his gun with a vile curse.
"Run to earth," he snarled, his lip lifting from the tobacco-stained upper teeth in an ugly fashion.
The girl ran toward the Westerner and caught at his arm. "Don't shoot," she implored
Without moving his eyes from the man on the ground he swept her back.
"This outfit is too prevalent with its hardware," he growled. "Chew out an explanation, my friend, or you're liable to get spoiled."
It was the girl that spoke, in a low voice and very evidently under a tense excitement.
"He is my brother and he has— hurt himself. He can't ride any farther and we have seventy miles still to travel. We didn't know what to do, and so—"
"You started out to be a road-agent and he took a pot-shot at the first person he saw. I'm surely obliged to you both for taking so much interest in me, or rather in my team. Robbery and murder are quite a family pastime, ain't they?"
The girl went white as snow, seemed to shrink before his sneer as from a deadly weapon; and like a flash of light some divination of the truth pierced the Westerner's brain. They were fugitives from justice, making for the Mexican line. That the man was wounded a single glance had told him. It was plain to be seen that the wear and tear of keeping the saddle had been too much for him.
"I acted on an impulse," the girl explained in the same low tone. "I saw you coming and I didn't know— hadn't money enough to buy the team— besides—"
He took the words out of her mouth when she broke down.
"Besides, I might have happened to be a sheriff. I might be, but then I'm not."
The traveler stepped forward and kicked the wounded man's revolver beyond his reach, then swiftly ran a hand over him to make sure he carried no other gun.
The fellow on the ground eyed him furtively. "What are you going to do with me?" he growled.
The other addressed himself to the girl, ignoring him utterly.
"What has this man done?"
"He has— broken out from— from prison."
"Damn you, you're snitching," interrupted the criminal in a scream that was both wheedling and threatening.
The young man put his foot on the burly neck and calmly ground it into the dust. Otherwise he paid no attention to him, but held the burning eyes of the girl that stared at him from a bloodless face.
"What was he in for?"
"For holding up a train."
She had answered in spite of herself, by reason of something compelling in him that drew the truth from her.
"How long has he been in the penitentiary?"
"Seven years." Then, miserably, she added: "He was weak and fell into bad company. They led him into it."
"When did he escape?"
"Two days ago. Last night he knocked at my window— at the window of the room where I lodge in Fort Lincoln. I had not heard of his escape, but I took him in. There were horses in the barn. One of them was mine. I saddled, and after I had dressed his wound we started. He couldn't get any farther than this."
"Do you live in Fort Lincoln?"
"I came there to teach school. My home was in Wisconsin before."
"You came out here to be near him?"
"Yes. That is, near as I could get a school. I was to have got in the Tucson schools next year. That's much nearer."
"You visited him at the penitentiary?"
"No. I was going to during the Thanksgiving vacation. Until last night I had not seen him since he left home. I was a child of seven then."
The Texan looked down at the ruffian under his feet.
"Do you know the road to Mexico by the Arivaca cut-off?"
"Then climb into my rig and hit the trail hard— burn it up till you've crossed the line."
The fellow began to whine thanks, but the man above would have none of them, "I'm giving you this chance for your sister's sake. You won't make anything of it. You're born for meanness and deviltry. I know your kind from El Paso to Dawson. But she's game and she's white clear through, even if she is your sister and a plumb little fool. Can you walk to the road?" he ended abruptly.
"I think so. It's in my ankle. Some hell-hound gave it me while we were getting over the wall," the fellow growled.
"Don't blame him. His intentions were good. He meant to blow out your brains."
The convict cursed vilely, but in the midst of his impotent rage the other stopped and dragged him to his feet.
"That's enough. You padlock that ugly mouth and light a shuck."
The girl came forward and the man leaned heavily on her as he limped to the road. The Texan followed with the buckskin she had been riding and tied it to the back of the road-wagon.
"Give me my purse," the girl said to the convict after they were seated.
She emptied it and handed the roll of bills it contained to the owner of the team. He looked at it and at her, then shook his head.
"You'll need it likely. I reckon I can trust you. Schoolmarms are mostly reliable."
"I had rather pay now," she answered tartly.
"What's the rush?"
"I prefer to settle with you now."
"All right, but I'm in no sweat for my money. My team and the wagon are worth two hundred and fifty dollars. Put this plug at forty and it would be high." He jerked his head toward the brush where the other saddle-horse was. "That leaves me a balance of about two hundred and ten. Is that fair?"
She bit her lip in vexation. "I expect so, but I haven't that much with me. Can't I pay this seventy on account?"
"No, ma'am, you can't. All or none." There was a gleam of humor in his hard eyes. "I reckon you better let me come and collect after you get back to Fort Lincoln."
She took out a note-book and pencil. "If you will give me your name and address please."
He smiled hardily at her. "I've clean forgotten them."
There was a warning flash in her disdainful eye.
"Just as you like. My name is Margaret Kinney. I will leave the money for you at the First National Bank."
She gathered up the rains deftly.
"One moment." He laid a hand on the lines. "I reckon you think I owe you an apology for what happened when we first met."
A flood of spreading color dyed her cheeks. "I don't think anything about it."
"Oh, yes, you do," he contradicted. "And you're going to think a heap more about it. You're going to lay awake nights going over it."
Out of eyes like live coals she gave him one look. "Will you take your hands from these reins please?"
"Presently. Just now I'm talking and you're listening."
"I don't care to hear any apologies, sir," she said stiffly.
"I'm not offering any," he laughed, yet stung by her words.
"You're merely insulting me again, I presume?"
"Some young women need punishing. I expect you're one."
She handed him the horsewhip, a sudden pulse of passion beating fiercely in her throat. "Very well. Make an end of it and let me see the last of you," she challenged.
He cracked the lash expertly so that the horses quivered and would have started if his strong hand had not tightened on the lines.
The Westerner laughed again. "You're game anyhow."
"When you are quite through with me," she suggested, very quietly.
But he noticed the fury of her deep-pupiled eyes, the turbulent rise and fall of her bosom.
"I'll not punish you that way this time." And he gave back the whip.
"If you won't use it I will."
The lash flashed up and down, twined itself savagely round his wrist, and left behind a bracelet of crimson. Startled, the horses leaped forward. The reins slipped free from his numbed fingers. Miss Kinney had made her good-by and was descending swiftly into the valley.
The man watched the rig sweep along that branch of the road which led to the south. Then he looked at his wrist and laughed.
"The plucky little devil! She's a thoroughbred for fair. You bet I'll make her pay for this. But ain't she got sand in her craw? She's surely hating me proper." He laughed again in remembrance of the whole episode, finding in it something that stirred his blood immensely.
After the trap had swept round a curve out of sight he disappeared in the mesquite and bear-grass, presently returning with the roan that had been ridden by the escaped convict.
"Whoever would suppose she was the sister of that scurvy scalawag with jailbird branded all over his hulking hide? He ain't fit to wipe her little feet on. She's as fine as silk. Think of her going through what she is to save that coyote, and him as crooked as a dog's hind leg. There ain't any limit to what a good woman will do for a man when she thinks he's got a claim on her, more especially if he's a ruffian."
With this bit of philosophic observation he rolled a cigarette and lit it.
"Him fall into bad company and be led away?" he added in disgust. "There ain't any worse than him. But he'll work her to the limit before she finds it out."
Leisurely he swung to the saddle and rode down into the valley of the San Xavier, which rolled away from his feet in numberless tawny waves of unfeatured foot-hills and mesas and washes. Almost as far as the eye could see there stretched a sea of hilltops bathed in sun. Only on the west were they bounded, by the irregular saw-toothed edge of the Frenchman Hills, silhouetted against an incomparable blue. For a stretch of many miles the side of the range was painted scarlet by millions of poppies splashed broadcast.
"Nature's gone to flower-gardening for fair on the mountains," murmured the rider. "What with one thing and another I've got a notion I'm going to take a liking to this country."
The man was plainly very tired with rapid travel, and about the middle of the afternoon the young man unsaddled and picketed the animal near a water-hole. He lay down in the shadow of a cottonwood, flat on his back, face upturned to the deep cobalt sky. Presently the drowse of the afternoon crept over him. The slumberous valley grew hazy to his nodding eyes. The reluctant lids ceased to open and he was fast asleep.
LIEUTENANT FRASER INTERFERES.
The sun had declined almost to a saddle in the Cuesta del Burro when the sleeper reopened his eyes. Even before he had shaken himself free of sleep he was uneasily aware of something wrong. Hazily the sound of voices drifted to him across an immense space. Blurred figures crossed before his unfocused gaze.
The first thing he saw clearly was the roan, still grazing in the circle of its picket-rope. Beside the bronco were two men looking the animal over critically.
"Been going some," he heard one remark, pointing at the same time to the sweat-stains that streaked the shoulders and flanks.
"If he had me on his back he'd still be burning the wind, me being in his boots," returned the second, with a grating laugh, jerking his head toward the sleeper. "Whatever led the durned fool to stop this side of the line beats me."
"If he was hiking for Chihuahua he's been hitting a mighty crooked trail. I don't savvy it, him knowing the country as well as they say he does," the first speaker made answer.
The traveler's circling eye now discovered two more men, each of them covering him with a rifle. A voice from the rear assured him there was also a fifth member to the party.
"Look out! He's awake," it warned.
The young man's hand inadvertently moved toward his revolver-butt. This drew a sharp imperative order from one of the men in front.
"Throw up your hands, and damn quick!"
"You seem to have the call, gentlemen," he smiled. "Would you mind telling me what it's all about?"
"You know what it's all about as well as we do. Collect his gun, Tom."
"This hold-up business seems to be a habit in this section. Second time to-day I've been the victim of it," said the victim easily.
"It will be the last," retorted one of the men grimly.
"If you're after the mazuma you've struck a poor bank."
"You've got your nerve," cried one of the men in a rage; and another demanded: "Where did you get that hawss?"
"Why, I got it—" The young man stopped in the middle of his sentence. His jaw clamped and his eyes grew hard. "I expect you better explain what right you got to ask that question."
The man laughed without cordiality. "Seeing as I have owned it three years I allow I have some right."
"What's the use of talking? He's the man we want, broke in another impatiently.
"Who is the man you want?" asked their prisoner.
"You're the man we want, Jim Kinney."
"Wrong guess. My name is Larry Neill. I'm from the Panhandle and I've never been in this part of the country till two days ago."
"You may have a dozen names. We don't care what you call yourself. Of course you would deny being the man we're after. But that don't go with us."
"All right. Take me back to Fort Lincoln, or take me to the prison officials. They will tell you whether I am the man."
The leader of the party pounced on his slip. "Who mentioned prison? Who told you we wanted an escaped prisoner?"
"He's give himself away," triumphed the one edged Tom. "I guess that clinches it. He's riding Maloney's hawss. He's wounded; so's the man we want. He answers the description— gray eyes, tall, slim, muscular. Same gun— automatic Colt. Tell you there's nothin' to it, Duffield."
"If you're not Kinney, how come you with this hawss? He stole it from a barn in Fort Lincoln last night. That's known," said the leader, Duffield.
The imperilled man thought of the girl bing toward the border with her brother and the remembrance padlocked his tongue.
"Take me to the proper authorities and I'll answer questions. But, I'll not talk here. What's the use? You don't believe a word I say."
"You spoke the truth that time," said one.
"If you ever want to do any explaining now's the hour," added another.
"I'll do mine later, gentlemen."
They looked at each other and one of them spoke.
"It will be too late to explain then."
Some inkling of the man's hideous meaning seared him and ran like an ice-blast through him.
"You've done all the meanness you'll ever do in this world. Poor Dave Long is the last man you'll ever kill. We're going to do justice right now."
"Dave Long! I never heard of him," the prisoner repeated mechanically. "Good God, do you think I'm a murderer?"
One of the men thrust himself forward. "We know it. Y'u and that hellish partner of yours shot him while he was locking the gate. But y'u made a mistake when y'u come to Fort Lincoln. He lived there before he went to be a guard at the Arizona penitentiary. I'm his brother. These gentlemen are his neighbors. Y'u're not going back to prison. Y'u're going to stay right here under this cottonwood."
If the extraordinary menace of the man appalled Neill he gave no sign of it. His gray eye passed from one to another of them quietly without giving any sign of the impotent tempest raging within him.
"You're going to lynch me then?"
"Y'u've called the turn."
"Without giving me a chance to prove my innocence?"
"Without giving y'u a chance to escape or sneak back to the penitentiary."
The thing was horribly unthinkable. The warm mellow afternoon sunshine wrapped them about. The horses grazed with quiet unconcern. One of these hard-faced frontiersmen was chewing tobacco with machine-like regularity. Another was rolling a cigarette. There was nothing of dramatic effect. Not a man had raised his voice. But Neill knew there was no appeal. He had come to the end of the passage through a horrible mistake. He raged in bitter resentment against his fate, against these men who stood so quietly about him ready to execute it, most of all against the girl who had let him sacrifice himself by concealing the vital fact that her brother had murdered a guard to effect his escape. Fool that he had been, he had stumbled into a trap, and she had let him do it without a word of warning. Wild, chaotic thoughts crowded his brain furiously.
But the voice with which he addressed them was singularly even and colorless.
"I am a stranger to this country. I was born in Tennessee, brought up in the Panhandle. I'm an irrigation engineer by profession. This is my vacation. I'm headed now for the Mal Pais mines. Friends of mine are interested in a property there with me and I have been sent to look the ground over and make a report. I never heard of Kinney till to-day. You've got the wrong man, gentlemen."
"We'll risk it," laughed one brutally. "Bring that riata, Tom."
Neill did not struggle or cry out frantically. He stood motionless while they adjusted the rope round his bronzed throat. They had judged him for a villain; they should at least know him a man. So he stood there straight and lithe, wide-shouldered and lean-flanked, a man in a thousand. Not a twitch of the well-packed muscles, not a quiver of the eyelash nor a swelling of the throat betrayed any fear. His cool eyes were quiet and steady.
"If you want to leave any message for anybody I'll see it's delivered," promised Duffield.
"I'll not trouble you with any."
"Just as you like."
"He didn't give poor Dave any time for messages," cried Tom Long bitterly.
"That's right," assented another with a curse.
It was plain to the victim they were spurring their nerves to hardihood.
"Who's that?" cried one of the men, pointing to a rider galloping toward them.
The newcomer approached rapidly, covered by their weapons, and flung himself from his pony as he dragged it to a halt beside the group.
"Steve Fraser," cried Duffield in surprise, and added, "He's an officer in the rangers."
"Right, gentlemen. Come to claim my prisoner," said the ranger promptly.
"Y'u can't have him, Steve. We took him and he's got to hang."
The lieutenant of rangers shook his dark curly head.
"Won't do, Duffield. Won't do at all," he said decisively. "You'd ought to know law's on top in Texas these days."
Tom Long shouldered his way to the front. "Law! Where was the law when this ruffian Kinney shot down my poor brother Dave? I guess a rope and a cottonwood's good enough law for him. Anyhow, that's what he gits."
Fraser, hard-packed, lithe, and graceful, laid a friendly hand on the other's shoulder and smiled sunnily at him.
"I know how you feel, Tom. We all thought a heap of Dave and you're his brother. But Dave died for the law. Both you boys have always stood for order. He'd be troubled if he knew you were turned enemy to it on his account."
"I'm for justice, Steve. This skunk deserves death and I'm going to see he gits it."
"I say yes. Y'u ain't sitting in this game, Steve."
"I reckon I'll have to take a hand then."
The ranger's voice was soft and drawling, but his eyes were indomitably steady. Throughout the Southwest his reputation for fearlessness was established even among a population singularly courageous. The audacity of his daredevil recklessness was become a proverb.
"We got a full table. Better ride away and forget it," said another.
"That ain't what I'm paid for, Jack," returned Fraser good-naturedly. "Better turn him over to me peaceable, boys. He'll get what's coming to him all right."
"He'll get it now, Steve, without any help of yours. We don't aim to allow any butting in."
There was a flash of steel as the ranger dived forward. Next instant he and the prisoner stood with their backs to the cottonwood, a revolver having somehow leaped from its scabbard to his hand. His hunting-knife had sheared at a stroke the riata round the engineer's neck.
"Take it easy, boys," urged Fraser, still in his gentle drawl, to the astonished vigilantes whom his sudden sally had robbed of their victim. "Think about it twice. We'll all be a long time dead. No use in hurrying the funerals."
Nevertheless he recognized battle as inevitable. Friends of his though they were, he knew these sturdy plainsmen would never submit to be foiled in their purpose by one man. In the momentary silence before the clash the quiet voice of the prisoner made itself heard.
"Just a moment, gentlemen. I don't want you spilling lead over me. I'm the wrong man, and I can prove it if you'll give me time. Here's the key to my room at the hotel in San Antonio. In my suit-case you'll find letters that prove—"
"We don't need them. I've got proof right here," cut in Fraser, remembering.
He slipped a hand into his coat pocket and drew out two photographs. "Boys, here are the pictures and descriptions of the two men that escaped from Yuma the other day. I hadn't had time to see this gentleman before he spoke, being some busy explaining the situation to you, but a blind jackass could see he don't favor either Kinney or Struve, You're sure barking up the wrong tree."
The self-appointed committee for the execution of justice and the man from the Panhandle looked the prison photographs over blankly. Between the hard, clean-cut face of their prisoner and those that looked at them from the photographs it was impossible to find any resemblance. Duffield handed the prints back with puzzled chagrin.
"I guess you're right, Steve. But I'd like this gentleman to explain how come he to be riding the horse one of these miscreants stole from Maloney's barn last night."
Steve looked at the prisoner. "It's your spiel, friend," he said.
"All right. I'll tell you some facts. Just as I was coming down from the Roskruge range this mo'ning I was held up for my team. One of these fellows— the one called Kinney— had started from Fort Lincoln on this roan here, but he was wounded and broke down. There was some gun-play, and he gave me this scratch on the cheek. The end of it was that he took my team and left me with his worn-out bronc. I plugged on all day with the hawss till about three mebbe, then seeing it was all in I unsaddled and picketed. I lay down and dropped asleep. Next I knew the necktie-party was in session."
"What time was it y'u met this fellow Kinney?" asked Long sharply.
"Must have been about nine or nine-thirty I judge."
"And it's five now. That's eight hours' start, and four more before we can cut his trail on Roskruge. By God, we've lost him!"
"Looks like," agreed another ruefully.
"Make straight for the Arivaca cut-off and you ought to stand a show," suggested Fraser.
"That's right. If we ride all night, might beat him to it" Each of the five contributed a word of agreement.
Five minutes later the Texan and the ranger watched a dust-cloud drifting to the south. In it was hidden the posse disappearing over the hilltop.
Steve grinned. "I hate to disappoint the boys. They're so plumb anxious. But I reckon I'll strike the telephone line and send word to Moreno for one of the rangers to cut out after Kinney. Going my way, seh?"
"If you're going mine."
"I reckon I am. And just to pass the time you might tell me the real story of that hold-up while we ride."
"The real story?"
"Well, I don't aim to doubt your word, but I reckon you forgot to tell some of it." He turned on the other his gay smile. "For instance, seh, you ain't asking me to believe that you handed over your rig to Kinney so peaceful and that he went away and clean forgot to unload from you that gun you pack."
The eyes of the two met and looked into each other's as clear and straight as Texas sunshine. Slowly Neill's relaxed into a smile.
"No, I won't ask you to believe that. I owe you something because you saved my life—"
"Forget it," commanded the lieutenant crisply.
"And I can't do less than tell you the whole story."
He told it, yet not the whole of it either; for there was one detail he omitted completely. It had to do with the cause for existence of the little black-and-blue bruise under his right eye and the purple ridge that seamed his wrist. Nor with all his acuteness could Stephen Fraser guess that the one swelling had been made by a gold ring on the clenched fist of an angry girl held tight in Larry Neill's arms, the other by the lash of a horsewhip wielded by the same young woman.
The roan, having been much refreshed by a few hours on grass, proved to be a good traveller. The two men took a road-gait and held it steadily till they reached a telephone-line which stretched across the desert and joined two outposts of civilization. Steve strapped on his climbing spurs and went up a post lightly with his test outfit. In a few minutes he had Moreno on the wire and was in touch with one of his rangers.
"Hello! This you, Ferguson? This is Fraser. No, Fraser— Lieutenant Fraser. Yes. How many of the boys can you get in touch with right away? Two? Good. I want you to cover the Arivaca cut-off. Kinney is headed that way in a rig. His sister is with him. She is not to be injured under any circumstances. Understand? Wire me at the Mal Pais mines to-morrow your news. By the way, Tom Long and some of the boys are headed down that way with notions of lynching Kinney. Dodge them if you can and rush your man up to the Mal Pais. Good-bye."
"Suppose they can't dodge them?" ventured Neill after Steve had rejoined him.
"I reckon they can. If not— well, my rangers are good boys; I expect they won't give up a prisoner."
"I'm right glad to find you are going to the Mal Pais mines with me, lieutenant. I wasn't expecting company on the way."
"I'll bet a dollar Mex against two plunks gold that you're wondering whyfor I'm going."
Larry laughed. "You're right. I was wondering."
"Well, then, it's this way. What with all these boys on Kinney's trail he's as good as rounded up. Fact is, Kinney's only a weak sister anyhow. He turned State's witness at the trial, and it was his testimony that convicted Struve. I know something about this because I happened to be the man that caught Struve. I had just joined the rangers. It was my first assignment. The other three got away. Two of them escaped and the third was not tried for lack of sufficient evidence. Now, then: Kinney rides the rods from Yuma to Marfa and is now or had ought to be somewhere in this valley between Posa Buena and Taylor's ranch. But where is Struve, the hardier ruffian of the two? He ain't been seen since they broke out. He sure never reached Ft. Lincoln. My notion is that he dropped off the train in the darkness about Casa Grande, then rolled his tail for the Mal Pais country. Your eyes are asking whys mighty loud, my friend; and my answer is that there's a man up there mebbe who has got to hide Struve if he shows up. That's only a guess, but it looks good to me. This man was the brains of the whole outfit, and folks say that he's got cached the whole haul the gang made from that S. P. hold-up. What's more, he scattered gold so liberal that his name wasn't even mentioned at the trial. He's a big man now, a millionaire copper king and into gold-mines up to the hocks. In the Southwest those things happen. It doesn't always do to look too closely at a man's past.
"We'll say Struve drops in on him and threatens to squeak. Mebbe he has got evidence; mebbe he hasn't. Anyhow, our big duck wants to forget the time he was wearing a mask and bending a six-gun for a living. Also and moreover, he's right anxious to have other folks get a chance to forget. From what I can hear he's clean mashed on some girl at Amarillo, or maybe it's Fort Lincoln. See what a twist Strove's got on him if he can slip into the Mal Pais country on the q. t."
"And you're going up there to look out for him?"
"I'm going in to take a casual look around. There's no telling what a man might happen onto accidentally if he travels with his ear to the ground."
The other nodded. He could now understand easily why Fraser was going into the Mal Pais country, but he could not make out why the ranger, naturally a man who lived under his own hat and kept his own counsel, had told him so much as he had. The officer shortly relieved his mind on this point.
"I may need help while I'm there. May I call on you if I do, seh?"
Neill felt his heart warm toward this hard-faced, genial frontiersman, who knew how to judge so well the timbre of a casual acquaintance.
"You sure may, lieutenant."
"Good. I'll count on you then."
So, in these few words, the compact of friendship and alliance was sealed between them. Each of them was strangely taken with the other, but it is not the way of the Anglo-Saxon fighting man to voice his sentiment. Though each of them admired the stark courage and the flawless fortitude he knew to dwell in the other, impassivity sat on their faces like an ice-mask. For this is the hall-mark of the Southwest, that a man must love and hate with the same unchanging face of iron, save only when a woman is in consideration.
They were to camp that night by Cottonwood Spring, and darkness caught them still some miles from their camp. They were on no road, but were travelling across country through washes and over countless hills. The ranger led the way, true as an arrow, even after velvet night had enveloped them.
"It must be right over this mesa among the cottonwoods you see rising from that arroyo," he announced at last.
He had scarcely spoken before they struck a trail that led them direct to the spring. But as they were descending this in a circle Fraser's horse shied.
"Hyer you, Pinto! What's the matter with—"
The ranger cut his sentence in two and slid from the saddle. When his companion reached him and drew rein the ranger was bending over a dark mass stretched across the trail. He looked up quietly.
"Man's body," he said briefly.
Neill dismounted and came forward. The moon-crescent was up by now and had lit the country with a chill radiance. The figure was dressed in the coarse striped suit of a convict.
"I don't savvy this play," Fraser confessed softly to himself.
"Do you know him?"
"Suppose you look at him and see if you know him."
Neill looked into the white face and shook his head.
"No, I don't know him, but I suppose it is Struve."
From his pocket the ranger produced a photograph and handed it to him.
"Hyer, I'll strike a match and you'll see better."
The match flared up in the slight breeze and presently went out, but not before Neill had seen that it was the face of the man who lay before them.
"Did you see the name under the picture, seh?"
Another match flared and the man from the Panhandle read a name, but it was not the one he had expected to see. The words printed there were "James Kinney."
"I don't understand. This ain't Kinney. He is a heavy-set man with a villainous face. There's some mistake."
"There ce'tainly is, but not at this end of the line. This is Kinney all right. I've seen him at Yuma. He was heading for the Mal Pais country and he died on the way. See hyer. Look at these soaked bandages. He's been wounded— shot mebbe— and the wound broke out on him again so that he bled to death."
"It's all a daze to me. Who is the other man if he isn't Kinney?"
"We're coming to that. I'm beginning to see daylight," said Steve, gently. "Let's run over this thing the way it might be. You've got to keep in mind that this man was weak, one of those spineless fellows that stronger folks lead around by the nose. Well, they make their getaway at Yuma after Struve has killed a guard. That killing of Dave Long shakes Kinney up a lot, he being no desperado but only a poor lost-dog kind of a guy. Struve notices it and remembers that this fellow weakened before. He makes up his mind to take no chances. From that moment he watches for a chance to make an end of his pardner. At Casa Grande they drop off the train they're riding and cut across country toward the Mal Pais. Mebbe they quarrel or mebbe Struve gets his chance and takes it. But after he has shot his man he sees he has made a mistake. Perhaps they were seen travelling in that direction. Anyhow, he is afraid the body will be found since he can't bury it right. He changes his plan and takes a big chance; cuts back to the track, boards a freight, and reaches Fort Lincoln."
"My God!" cried the other, startled for once out of his calm.
The officer nodded. "You're on the trail right enough. I wish we were both wrong, but we ain't."
"But surely she would have known he wasn't her brother, surely—"
The ranger shook his head. "She hadn't seen the black sheep since she was a kid of about seven. How would she know what he looked like? And Struve was primed with all the facts he had heard Kinney blat out time and again. She wasn't suspecting any imposition and he worked her to a fare-you-well."
Larry Neill set his teeth on a wave of icy despair.
"And she's in that devil's power. She would be as safe in a den of rattlers. To think that I had my foot on his neck this mo'ning and didn't break it."
"She's safe so long as she is necessary to him. She's in deadly peril as soon as he finds her one witness too many. If he walks into my boys' trap at the Arivaca cut-off, all right. If not, God help her! I've shut the door to Mexico and safety in his face. He'll strike back for the Mal Pais country. It's his one chance, and he'll want to travel light and fast."
"If he starts back Tom Long's party may get him."
"That's one more chance for her, but it's a slim one. He'll cut straight across country; they're following the trail. No, seh, our best bet is my rangers. They'd ought to land him, too."
"Oh, ought to," derided the other impatiently. "Point is, if they don't. How are we going to save her? You know this country. I don't."
"Don't tear your shirt, amigo," smiled the ranger. "We'll arrive faster if we don't go off half-cocked. Let's picket the broncs, amble down to the spring, and smoke a cigaret. We've got to ride twenty miles for fresh hawsses and these have got to have a little rest."
They unsaddled and picketed, then strolled to the spring.
"I've been thinking that maybe we have made a mistake. Isn't it possible the man with Miss Kinney is not Struve?" asked Neill.
"That's easy proved. You saw him this mo'ning." The lieutenant went down into his pocket once more for a photograph. "Does this favor the man with Miss Kinney?"
Under the blaze of another match, shielded by the ranger s hands, Larry looked into the scowling, villainous face he had seen earlier in the day. There could be no mistaking those leering, cruel eyes nor the ratlike, shifty look of the face, not to mention the long scar across it. His heart sank.
"It's the man."
"Don't you blame yourself for not putting his lights out. How could you tell who he was?"
"I knew he was a ruffian, hide and hair."
"But you thought he was her brother and that's a whole lot different. What do you say to grubbing here? We've got to go to the Halle ranch for hawsses and it's a long jog."
They lit a fire and over their coffee discussed plans. In the midst of these the Southerner picked up idly a piece of wrapping-paper. Upon it was pencilled a wavering scrawl:
Bleeding has broke out again. Can't stop it. Struve shot me and left me for dead ten miles back. I didn't kill the guard or know he meant to. J. KINNEY.
Neill handed the paper to the ranger, who read it through, folded it, and gave it back to the other.
"Keep that paper. We may need it." His grave eyes went up the trail to where the dark figure lay motionless in the cold moonlight. "Well, he's come to the end of the trail— the only end he could have reached. He wasn't strong enough to survive as a bad man. Poor devil!"
They buried him in a clump of cottonwoods and left a little pile of rocks to mark the spot.
After her precipitate leave-taking of the man whose team she had bought or borrowed, Margaret Kinney nursed the fires of her indignation in silence, banking them for future use against the time when she should meet him again in the event that should ever happen. She brought her whip-lash snapping above the backs of the horses, and there was that in the supple motion of the small strong wrist which suggested that nothing would have pleased her more than having this audacious Texan there in place of the innocent animals. For whatever of inherited savagery lay latent in her blood had been flogged to the surface by the circumstances into which she had been thrust. Never in all her placid life had she known the tug of passion any closer than from across the footlights of a theatre.
She had had, to be sure, one stinging shame, but it had been buried in far-away Arizona, quite beyond the ken of the convention-bound people of the little Wisconsin town where she dwelt. But within the past twelve hours Fate had taken hold of her with both hands and thrust her into Life. She sensed for the first time its roughness, its nakedness, its tragedy. She had known the sensations of a hunted wild beast, the flush of shame for her kinship to this coarse ruffian by her side, and the shock of outraged maiden modesty at kisses ravished from her by force. The teacher hardly knew herself for the same young woman who but yesterday was engrossed in multiplication tables and third readers.
A sinister laugh from the man beside her brought the girl back to the present.
She looked at him and then looked quickly away again. There was something absolutely repulsive in the creature— in the big ears that stood out from the close-cropped head, in the fishy eyes that saw everything without ever looking directly at anything, in the crooked mouth with its irregular rows of stained teeth from which several were missing. She had often wondered about her brother, but never at the worst had she imagined anything so bad as this. The memory would be enough to give one the shudders for years.
"Guess I ain't next to all that happened there in the mesquite," he sneered, with a lift of the ugly lip.
She did not look at him. She did not speak. There seethed in her a loathing and a disgust beyond expression.
"Guess you forgot that a fellow can sometimes hear even when he can't see. Since I'm chaperooning you I'll make out to be there next time you meet a good-looking lady-killer. Funny, the difference it makes, being your brother. You ain't seen me since you was a kid, but you plumb forgot to kiss me."
There was a note in his voice she had not heard before, some hint of leering ribaldry in the thick laugh that for the first time stirred unease in her heart. She did not know that the desperate, wild-animal fear in him, so overpowering that everything else had been pushed to the background, had obscured certain phases of him that made her presence here such a danger as she could not yet conceive. That fear was now lifting, and the peril loomed imminent.
He put his arm along the back of the seat and grinned at her from his loose-lipped mouth.
"But o' course it ain't too late to begin now, my dearie."
Her fearless level eyes met squarely his shifty ones and read there something she could dread without understanding, something that was an undefined sacrilege of her sweet purity. For woman-like her instinct leaped beyond reason.
"Take down your arm," she ordered.
"Oh, I don't know, sis. I reckon your brother—"
"You're no brother of mine," she broke in. "At most it is an accident of birth I disown. I'll have no relationship with you of any sort."
"Is that why you're driving with me to Mexico?" he jeered.
"I made a mistake in trying to save you. If it were to do over again I should not lift a hand."
"You wouldn't, eh?"
There was something almost wolfish in the facial malignity that distorted him.
"Not a finger."
"Perhaps you'd give me up now if you had a chance?"
"I would if I did what was right."
"And you'd sure want to do what was right," he snarled.
"Take down your arm," she ordered again, a dangerous glitter in her eyes.
He thrust his evil face close to hers and showed his teeth in a blind rage that forgot everything else.
"Listen here, you little locoed baby. I got something to tell you that'll make your hair curl. You're right, I ain't your brother. I'm Nick Struve— Wolf Struve if you like that better. I lied you into believing me your brother, who ain't ever been anything but a skim-milk quitter. He's dead back there in the cactus somewhere, and I killed him!"
Terror flooded her eyes. Her very breathing hung suspended. She gazed at him in a frozen fascination of horror.
"Killed him because he gave me away seven years ago and was gittin' ready to round on me again. Folks don't live long that play Wolf Struve for a lamb. A wolf! That's what I am, a born wolf, and don't you forget it."
The fact itself did not need his words for emphasis. He fairly reeked the beast of prey. She had to nerve herself against faintness. She must not swoon. She dared not.
"Think you can threaten to give me up, do you? 'Fore I'm through with you you'll wish you had never been born. You'll crawl on your knees and beg me to kill you."
Such a devil of wickedness she had never seen in human eyes before. The ruthlessness left no room for appeal. Unless the courage to tame him lay in her she was lost utterly.
He continued his exultant bragging, blatantly, ferociously.
"I didn't tell you about my escape; how a guard tried to stop me and I put the son of a gun out of business. There's a price on my head. D'ye think I'm the man to give you a chance to squeal on me? D'ye think I'll let a pink-and-white chit send me back to be strangled?" he screamed.
The stark courage in her rose to the crisis. Not an hour before she had seen the Texan cow him. He was of the kind would take the whip whiningly could she but wield it. Her scornful eyes fastened on him contemptuously, chiseled into the cur heart of him.
"What will you do?" she demanded, fronting the issue that must sooner or later rise.
The raucous jangle of his laugh failed to disturb the steadiness of her gaze. To reassure himself of his mastery he began to bluster, to threaten, turning loose such a storm of vile abuse as she had never heard. He was plainly working his nerve up to the necessary pitch.
In her first terror she had dropped the reins. Her hands had slipped unconsciously under the lap-robe. Now one of them touched something chilly on the seat beside her. She almost gasped her relief. It was the selfsame revolver with which she had tried to hold up the Texan.
In the midst of Struve's flood of invective the girl's hand leaped quickly from the lap-robe. A cold muzzle pressed against his cheek brought the convict's outburst to an abrupt close.
"If you move I'll fire," she said quietly.
For a long moment their gazes gripped, the deadly clear eyes of the young woman and the furtive ones of the miscreant. Underneath the robe she felt a stealthy movement, and cried out quickly: "Hands up!"
With a curse he threw his arms into the air.
"Jump out! Don't lower your hands!"
"My ankle," he whined.
His leap cleared the wheel and threw him to the ground. She caught up the whip and slashed wildly at the horses. They sprang forward in a panic, flying wildly across the open plain. Margaret heard a revolver bark twice. After that she was so busy trying to regain control of the team that she could think of nothing else. The horses were young and full of spirit, so that she had all she could do to keep the trap from being upset. It wound in and out among the hills, taking perilous places safely to her surprise, and was at last brought to a stop only by the narrowing of a draw into which the animals had bolted.
They were quiet now beyond any chance of farther runaway, even had it been possible. Margaret dropped the lines on the dashboard and began to sob, at first in slow deep breaths and then in quicker uneven ones. Plucky as she was, the girl had had about all her nerves could stand for one day. The strain of her preparation for flight, the long night drive, and the excitement of the last two hours were telling on her in a hysterical reaction.
She wept herself out, dried her eyes with dabs of her little kerchief, and came back to a calm consideration of her situation. She must get back to Fort Lincoln as soon as possible, and she must do it without encountering the convict. For in the course of the runaway the revolver had been jolted from the trap.
Not quite sure in which direction lay the road, she got out from the trap, topped the hill to her right, and looked around. She saw in all directions nothing but rolling hilltops, merging into each other even to the horizon's edge. In her wild flight among these hills she had lost count of direction. She had not yet learned how to know north from south by the sun, and if she had it would have helped but little since she knew only vaguely the general line of their travel.
She felt sure that from the top of the next rise she could locate the road, but once there she was as uncertain as before. Before giving up she breasted a third hill to the summit. Still no signs of the road. Reluctantly she retraced her steps, and at the foot of the hill was uncertain whether she should turn to right or left. Choosing the left, from the next height she could see nothing of the team. She was not yet alarmed. It was ridiculous to suppose that she was lost. How could she be when she was within three or four hundred yards of the rig? She would cut across the shoulder into the wash and climb the hillock beyond. For behind it the team must certainly be.
But at her journey's end her eyes were gladdened by no sight of the horses. Every draw was like its neighbor, every rolling rise a replica of the next. The truth came home to a sinking heart. She was lost in one of the great deserts of Texas. She would wander for days as others had, and she would die in the end of starvation and thirst. Nobody would know where to look for her, since she had told none where she was going. Only yesterday at her boarding-house she had heard a young man tell how a tenderfoot had been found dead after he had wandered round and round in intersecting circles. She sank down and gave herself up to despair.
But not for long. She was too full of grit to give up without a long fight. How many hours she wandered Margaret Kinney did not know. The sun was high in the heavens when she began. It had given place to flooding moonlight long before her worn feet and aching heart gave up the search for some human landmark. Once at least she must have slept, for she stared up from a spot where she had sunk down to look up into a starry sky that was new to her.
The moon had sailed across the vault and grown chill and faint with dawn before she gave up, completely exhausted, and when her eyes opened again it was upon a young day fresh and sweet. She knew by this time hunger and an acute thirst. As the day increased, this last she knew must be a torment of swollen tongue and lime-kiln throat. Yesterday she had cried for help till her voice had failed. A dumb despair had now driven away her terror.
And then into the awful silence leaped a sound like a messenger of hope. It was a shot, so close that she could see the smoke rise from an arroyo near. She ran forward till she could look down into it and caught sight of a man with a dead bird in his hand. He had his back toward her and was stooping over a fire. Slithering down over the short dry grass, she was upon him almost before she could stop.
"I've been lost all night and all yesterday," she sobbed.
He snatched at the revolver lying beside him and whirled like a flash as if to meet an attack. The girl's pumping heart seemed to stand still. The man snarling at her was the convict Struve.
LARRY NEILL TO THE RESCUE
The snarl gave way slowly to a grim more malign than his open hostility.
"So you've been lost! And now you're found— come safe back to your loving brother. Ain't that luck for you? Hunted all over Texas till you found him, eh? And it's a powerful big State, too."
She caught sight of something that made her forget all else.
"Have you got water in that canteen?" she asked, her parched eyes staring at it.
"Give it me."
He squatted tailor-fashion on the ground, put the canteen between his knees, and shoved his teeth in a crooked grin.
"I'm dying for a drink"
"You look like a right lively corpse."
"Give it to me."
"Will you take it now or wait till you get it?"
"My throat's baked. I want water," she said hoarsely.
"Most folks want a lot they never get."
She walked toward him with her hand outstretched.
"I tell you I've got to have it."
He laughed evilly. "Water's at a premium right now. Likely there ain't enough here to get us both out of this infernal hole alive. Yes, it's sure at a premium."
He let his eye drift insolently over her and take stock of his prey, in the same feline way of a cat with a mouse, gloating over her distress and the details of her young good looks. His tainted gaze got the faint pure touch of color in her face, the reddish tinge of her wavy brown hair, the desirable sweetness of her rounded maidenhood. If her step dragged, if dusky hollows shadowed her lids, if the native courage had been washed from the hopeless eyes, there was no spring of manliness hid deep within him that rose to refresh her exhaustion. No pity or compunction stirred at her sweet helplessness.
"Do you want my money?" she asked wearily.
"I'll take that to begin with."
She tossed him her purse. "There should be seventy dollars there. May I have a drink now?"
"Not yet, my dear. First you got to come up to me and put your arms round—"
He broke off with a curse, for she was flying toward the little circle of cottonwoods some forty yards away. She had caught a glimpse of the water-hole and was speeding for it.
"Come back here," he called, and in a rage let fly a bullet after her.
She paid no heed, did not stop till she reached the spring and threw herself down full length to drink, to lave her burnt face, to drink again of the alkali brackish water that trickled down her throat like nectar incomparably delicious.
She was just rising to her feet when Struve hobbled up.
"Don't you think you can play with me, missie. When I give the word you stop in your tracks, and when I say 'Jump!' step lively."
She did not answer. Her head was lifted in a listening attitude, as if to catch some sound that came faintly to her from a distance.
"You're mine, my beauty, to do with as I please, and don't you forget it."
She did not hear him. Her ears were attuned to voices floating to her across the desert. Of course she was beginning to wander in her mind. She knew that. There could be no other human beings in this sea of loneliness. They were alone; just they two, the degenerate ruffian and his victim. Still, it was strange. She certainly had imagined the murmur of people talking. It must be the beginning of delirium.
"Do you hear me?" screamed Struve, striking her on the cheek with his fist. "I'm your master and you're my squaw."
She did not cringe as he had expected, nor did she show fight. Indeed the knowledge of the blow seemed scarcely to have penetrated her mental penumbra. She still had that strange waiting aspect, but her eyes were beginning to light with new-born hope. Something in her manner shook the man's confidence; a dawning fear swept away his bluster. He, too, was now listening intently.
Again the low murmur, beyond a possibility of doubt. Both of them caught it. The girl opened her throat in a loud cry for help. An answering shout came back clear and strong. Struve wheeled and started up the arroyo, bending in and out among the cactus till he disappeared over the brow.
Two horsemen burst into sight, galloping down the steep trail at breakneck speed, flinging down a small avalanche of shale with them. One of them caught sight of the girl, drew up so short that his horse slid to its haunches, and leaped from the saddle in a cloud of dust.
He ran toward her, and she to him, hands out to meet her rescuer.
"Why didn't you come sooner? I've waited so long," she cried pathetically, as his arms went about her.
"You poor lamb! Thank God we're in time!" was all he could say.
Then for the first time in her life she fainted.
The other rider lounged forward, a hat in his hand that he had just picked up close to the fire.
"We seem to have stampeded part of this camping party. I'll just take a run up this hill and see if I can't find the missing section and persuade it to stay a while. I don't reckon you need me hyer, do you?" he grinned, with a glance at Neill and his burden.
"All right. You'll find me here when you get back, Fraser," the other answered.
Larry carried the girl to the water-hole and set her down beside it. He sprinkled her face with water, and presently her lids trembled and fluttered open. She lay there with her head on his arm and looked at him quite without surprise.
"How did you find me?"
"Mainly luck. We followed your trail to where we found the rig. After that it was guessing where the needle was in the haystack It just happened we were cutting across country to water when we heard a shot."
"That must have been when he fired at me," she said.
"My God! Did he shoot at you?"
"Yes. Where is he now?" She shuddered.
"Cutting over the hills with Steve after him."
"My friend, Lieutenant Fraser. He is an officer in the ranger force."
"Oh!" She relapsed into a momentary silence before she said: "He isn't my brother at all. He is a murderer." She gave a sudden little moan of pain as memory pierced her of what he had said. "He bragged to me that he had killed my brother. He meant to kill me, I think."
"Sho! It doesn't matter what the coyote meant. It's all over now. You're with friends."
A warm smile lit his steel-blue eyes, softened the lines of his lean, hard face. Never had shipwrecked mariner come to safer harbor than she. She knew that this slim, sun-bronzed Westerner was a man's man, that strength and nerve inhabited his sinewy frame. He would fight for her because she was a woman as long as he could stand and see.
A touch of color washed back into her cheeks, a glow of courage into her heart. "Yes, it's all over. The weary, weary hours— and the fear— and the pain— and the dreadful thirst— and worst of all, him!"
She began to cry softly, hiding her face in his coat-sleeve.
"I'm crying because— it's all over. I'm a little fool, just as— as you said I was."
"I didn't know you then," he smiled. "I'm right likely to make snap-shot judgments that are 'way off."
"You knew me well enough to—" She broke off in the middle, bathed in a flush of remembrance that brought her coppery head up from his arm instantly.
"Be careful. You're dizzy yet."
"I'm all right now, thank you," she answered, her embarrassed profile haughtily in the air. "But I'm ravenous for something to eat. It's been twenty-four hours since I've had a bite. That's why I'm weepy and faint. I should think you might make a snap-shot judgment that breakfast wouldn't hurt me."
He jumped up contritely. "That's right. What a goat I am!"
His long, clean stride carried him over the distance that separated him from his bronco. Out of the saddle-bags he drew some sandwiches wrapped in a newspaper.
"Here, Miss Margaret! You begin on these. I'll have coffee ready in two shakes of a cow's tail. And what do you say to bacon?"
He understood her to remark from the depths of a sandwich that she said "Amen!" to it, and that she would take everything he had and as soon as he could get it ready. She was as good as her word. He found no cause to complain of her appetite. Bacon and sandwiches and coffee were all consumed in quantities reasonable for a famished girl who had been tramping actively for a day and a night, and, since she was a child of impulse, she turned more friendly eyes on him who had appeased her appetite.
"I suppose you are a cowboy like everybody else in this country?" she ventured amiably after her hunger had become less sharp.
"No, I belong to the government reclamation service."
"Oh!" She had a vague idea she had heard of it before. "Who is it you reclaim? Indians, I suppose."
"We reclaim young ladies when we find them wandering about the desert," he smiled.
"Is that what the government pays you for?"
"Not entirely. Part of the time I examine irrigation projects and report on their feasibility. I have been known to build dams and bore tunnels,"
"And what of the young ladies you reclaim? Do you bore them?" she asked saucily.
"I understand they have hitherto always found me very entertaining," he claimed boldly, his smiling eyes on her.
"But young ladies are peculiar. Sometimes we think we're entertaining them when we ain't."
"I'm sure you are right."
"And other times they're interested when they pretend they're not."
"It must be comforting to your vanity to think that," she said coldly. For his words had recalled similar ones spoken by him twenty-four hours earlier, which in turn had recalled his unpardonable sin.
The lieutenant of rangers appeared over the hill and descended into the draw. Miss Kinney went to meet him.
"He got away?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am. I lost him in some of these hollows, or rather I never found him. I'm going to take my hawss and swing round in a circle."
"What are you going to do with me?" she smiled.
"I been thinking that the best thing would be for you to go to the Mal Pais mines with Mr. Neill."
"Who is Mr. Neill?"
"The gentleman over there by the fire."
"Must I go with him? I should feel safer in your company, lieutenant."
"You'll be safe enough in his, Miss Kinney."
"You know me then?" she asked.
"I've seen you at Fort Lincoln. You were pointed out to me once as a new teacher."
"But I don't want to go to the Mal Pais mines. I want to go to Fort Lincoln. As to this gentleman, I have no claims on him and shall not trouble him to burden himself with me."
Steve laughed. "I don't reckon he would think, it a terrible burden, ma'am. And about the Mal Pais— this is how it is. Fort Lincoln is all of sixty miles from here as the crow flies. The mines are about seventeen. My notion was you could get there and take the stage to-morrow to your town."
"What shall I do for a horse?"
"I expect Mr. Neill will let you ride his. He can walk beside the hawss."
"That won't do at all. Why should I put him to that inconvenience? I'll walk myself."
The ranger flashed his friendly smile at her. He had an instinct that served him with women. "Any way that suits you and him suits me. I'm right sorry that I've got to leave you and take out after that hound Struve, but you may take my word for it that this gentleman will look after you all right and bring you safe to the Mal Pais."
"He is a stranger to me. I've only met him once and on that occasion not pleasantly. I don't like to put myself under an obligation to him. But of course if I must I must."
"That's the right sensible way to look at it. In this little old world we got to do a heap we don't want to do. For instance, I'd rather see you to the Mal Pais than hike over the hills after this fellow," he concluded gallantly.
Neill, who had been packing the coffee-pot and the frying-pan, now sauntered forward with his horse.
"Well, what's the program?" he wanted to know.
"It's you and Miss Kinney for the Mal Pais, me for the trail. I ain't very likely to find Mr. Struve, but you can't always sometimes tell. Anyhow, I'm going to take a shot at it," the ranger answered.
"And at him?" his friend suggested.
"Oh, I reckon not. He may be a sure-enough wolf, but I expect this ain't his day to howl."
Steve whistled to his pony, swung to the saddle when it trotted up, and waved his hat in farewell.
His "Adios!" drifted back to them from the crown of the hill just before he disappeared over its edge.
SOMEBODY'S ACTING MIGHTY FOOLISH.
Larry Neill watched him vanish and then turned smiling to Miss Kinney.
"All aboard for the Mal Pais," he sang out cheerfully.
Too cheerfully perhaps. His assurance that all was well between them chilled her manner. He might forgive himself easily if he was that sort of man; she would at least show him she was no party, to it. He had treated her outrageously, had manhandled her with deliberate intent to insult. She would show him no one alive could treat her so and calmly assume to her that it was all right.
Her cool eyes examined the horse, and him.
"I don't quite see how you expect to arrange it, Mr. Neill. That is your name, isn't it?" she added indifferently.
"That's my name— Larry Neill. Easiest thing in the world to arrange. We ride pillion if it suits you; if not, I'll walk."
"Neither plan suits me," she announced curtly, her gaze on the far-away hills.
He glanced at her in quick surprise, then made the mistake of letting himself smile at her frosty aloofness instead of being crestfallen by it. She happened to look round and catch that smile before he could extinguish it. Her petulance hardened instantly to a resolution.
"I don't quite know what we're going to do about it— unless you walk," he proposed, amused at the absurdity of his suggestion.
"That's just what I'm going to do," she retorted promptly.
"What!" He wheeled on her with an astonished smile on his face.
This served merely to irritate her.
"I said I was going to walk."
"Walk seventeen miles?"
"Seventy if I choose."
"Nonsense! Of course you won't."
Her eyebrows lifted in ironic demurrer. "I think you must let me be the judge of that," she said gently.
"Walk!" he reiterated. "Why, you're walked out. You couldn't go a mile. What do you take me for? Think I'm going to let you come that on me."
"I don't quite see how you can help it, Mr. Neill," she answered.
"Help it! Why, it ain't reasonable. Of course you'll ride."
"Of course I won't."
She set off briskly, almost jauntily, despite her tired feet and aching limbs.
"Well, if that don't beat—" He broke off to laugh at the situation. After she had gone twenty steps he called after her in a voice that did not suppress its chuckle: "You ain't going the right direction, Miss Kinney."
She whirled round on him in anger. How dared he laugh at her?
"Which is the right way?" she choked.
"North by west is about it."
She was almost reduced to stamping her foot.
Without condescending to ask more definite instructions she struck off at haphazard, and by chance guessed right. There was nothing for it but to pursue. Wherefore the man pursued. The horse at his heels hampered his stride, but he caught up with her soon.
"Somebody's acting mighty foolish," he said.
She said nothing very eloquently.
"If I need punishing, ma'am, don't punish yourself, but me. You ain't able to walk and that's a fact."
She gave her silent attention strictly to the business of making progress through the cactus and the sand.
"Say I'm all you think I am. You can trample on me proper after we get to the Mal Pais. Don't have to know me at all if you don't want to. Won't you ride, ma'am? Please!"
His distress filled her with a fierce delight. She stumbled defiantly forward.
He pondered a while before he asked quietly:
"Ain't you going to ride, Miss Kinney?"
"No, I'm not. Better go on. Pray don't let me detain you."
"All right. See that peak with the spur to it? Well, you keep that directly in line and make straight for it. I'll say good-by now, ma'am. I got to hurry to be in time for dinner. I'll send some one out from the camp to meet you that ain't such a villain as I am."
He swung to the saddle, put spurs to his pony, and cantered away. She could scarce believe it, even when he rode straight over the hill without a backward glance. He would never leave her. Surely he would not do that. She could never reach the camp, and he knew it. To be left alone in the desert again; the horror of it broke her down, but not immediately. She went proudly forward with her head in the air at first. He might look round. Perhaps he was peeping at her from behind some cholla. She would not gratify him by showing any interest in his whereabouts. But presently she began to lag, to scan draws and mesas anxiously for him, even to call aloud in an ineffective little voice which the empty hills echoed faintly. But from him there came no answer.
She sat down and wept in self-pity. Of course she had told him to go, but he knew well enough she did not mean it. A magnanimous man would have taken a better revenge on an exhausted girl than to leave her alone in such a spot, and after she had endured such a terrible experience as she had. She had read about the chivalry of Western men. Yet these two had ridden away on their horses and left her to live or die as chance willed it.
"Now, don't you feel so bad, Miss Margaret. I wasn't aiming really to leave you, of course," a voice interrupted her sobs to say.
She looked through the laced fingers that covered her face, mightily relieved, but not yet willing to confess it. The engineer had made a circuit and stolen up quietly behind.
"Oh! I thought you had gone," she said as carelessly as she could with a voice not clear of tears.
"Were you crying because you were afraid I hadn't?" he asked.
"I ran a cactus into my foot. And I didn't say anything about crying."
"Then if your foot is hurt you will want to ride. That seventeen miles might be too long a stroll before you get through with it."
"I don't know what I'll do yet," she answered shortly.
"I know what you'll do."
"You'll quit your foolishness and get on this hawss."
She flushed angrily. "I won't!"
He stooped down, gathered her up in his arms, and lifted her to the saddle.
"That's what you're going to do whether you like it or not," he informed her.
"How are you going to make me stay here, now you have put me here?"
"I'm going to get on behind and hold you if it's necessary."
He was sensible enough of the folly of it all, but he did not see what else he could do. She had chosen to punish him through herself in a way that was impossible. It was a childish thing to do, born of some touch of hysteria her experience had induced, and he could only treat her as a child till she was safely back in civilization.
Their wills met in their eyes, and the man's, masculine and dominant, won the battle. The long fringe of hers fell to the soft cheeks.
"It won't be at all necessary," she promised.
"Are you sure?"
"That's the way to talk."
"If you care to know," she boiled over, "I think you the most hateful man I ever met."
"That's all right," he grinned ruefully. "You're the most contrairy woman I ever bumped into, so I reckon honors are easy."
He strode along beside the horse, mile after mile, in a silence which neither of them cared to break. The sap of youth flowed free in him, was in his elastic tread, in the set of his broad shoulders, in the carriage of his small, well-shaped head. He was as lean-loined and lithe as a panther, and his stride ate up the miles as easily.
They nooned at a spring in the dry wash of Bronco Creek. After he had unsaddled and picketed he condescended to explain to her.
"We'll stay here three hours or mebbe four through the heat of the day."
"Is it far now?" she asked wearily.
"Not more than seven miles I should judge. Are you about all in?"
"Oh, no! I'm all right, thank you," she said, with forced sprightliness.
His shrewd, hard gaze went over her and knew better.
"You lie down under those live-oaks and I'll get some grub ready."
"I'll cook lunch while you lie down. You must be tired walking so far through the sun," said Miss Kinney.
"Have I got to pick you up again and carry you there?"
"No, you haven't. You keep your hands off me," she flashed.
But nevertheless she betook herself to the shade of the live-oaks and lay down. When he went to call her for lunch he found her fast asleep with her head pillowed on her arm. She looked so haggard that he had not the heart to rouse her.
"Let her sleep. It will be the making of her. She's fair done. But ain't she plucky? And that spirited! Ready to fight so long as she can drag a foot. And her so sorter slim and delicate. Funny how she hangs onto her grudge against me. Sho! I hadn't ought to have kissed her, but I'll never tell her so."
He went back to his coffee and bacon, dined, and lay down for a siesta beneath a cottonwood some distance removed from the live-oaks where Miss Kinney reposed. For two or three hours he slept soundly, having been in the saddle all night. It was mid-afternoon when he awoke, and the sun was sliding down the blue vault toward the sawtoothed range to the west. He found the girl still lost to the world in deep slumber.
The man from the Panhandle looked across the desert that palpitated with heat, and saw through the marvelous atmosphere the smoke of the ore-mills curling upward. He was no tenderfoot, to suppose that ten minutes' brisk walking would take him to them. He guessed the distance at about two and a half hour's travel.
"This is ce'tainly a hot evening. I expect we better wait till sundown before moving," he said aloud.
Having made up his mind, it was characteristic of him that he was asleep again in five minutes. This time she wakened before him, to look into a wonderful sea of gold that filled the crotches of the hills between the purple teeth. No sun was to be seen— it had sunk behind the peaks— but the trail of its declension was marked by that great pool of glory into which she gazed.
Margaret crossed the wash to the cottonwood under which her escort was lying. He was fast asleep on his back, his gray shirt open at the bronzed, sinewy neck. The supple, graceful lines of him were relaxed, but even her inexperience appreciated the splendid shoulders and the long rippling muscles. The maidenly instinct in her would allow but one glance at him, and she was turning away when his eyes opened.
Her face, judging from its tint, might have absorbed some of the sun-glow into which she had been gazing.
"I came to see if you were awake," she explained.
"Yes, ma'am, I am," he smiled.
"I was thinking that we ought to be going. It will be dark before we reach Mal Pais."
He leaped to his feet and faced her.
"Are you hungry?"
He relit the fire and put on the coffee-pot before he saddled the horse. She ate and drank hurriedly, soon announcing herself ready for the start.
She mounted from his hand; then without asking any questions he swung to a place behind her.
"We'll both ride," he said.
The stars were out before they reached the outskirts of the mining-camp. At the first house of the rambling suburbs Neill slipped to the ground and walked beside her toward the old adobe plaza of the Mexican town
People passed them on the run, paying no attention to them, and others dribbled singly or in small groups from the houses and saloons. All of them were converging excitedly to the plaza.
"Must be something doing here," said her guide. "Now I wonder what!"
Round the next turn he found his answer. There must have been present two or three hundred men, mostly miners, and their gazes all focussed on two figures which stood against a door at the top of five or six steps. One of the forms was crouched on its knees, abject, cringing terror stamped on the white villainous face upturned to the electric light above. But the other was on its feet, a revolver in each hand, a smile of reckless daring on the boyish countenance that just now stood for law and order in Mal Pais.
The man beside the girl read the situation at a glance. The handcuffed figure groveling on the steps belonged to the murderer Struve, and over him stood lightly the young ranger Steve Fraser. He was standing off a mob that had gathered to lynch his prisoner, and one glance at him was enough to explain how he had won his reputation as the most dashing and fearless member of a singularly efficient force. For plain to be read as the danger that confronted him was the fact that peril was as the breath of life to his nostrils.
ENTER MR. DUNKE
"He's my prisoner and you can't have him," the girl heard the ranger say.
The answer came in a roar of rage. "By God, we'll show you!"
"If you want him, take him. But don't come unless you are ready to pay the price!" warned the officer.
He was bareheaded and his dark-brown curly hair crisped round his forehead engagingly. Round his right hand was tied a blood-stained handkerchief. A boy he looked, but his record was a man's, and so the mob that swayed uncertainly below him knew. His gray eyes were steady as steel despite the fire that glowed in them. He stood at ease, with nerve unshaken, the curious lifted look of a great moment about the poise of his graceful figure.
"It is Lieutenant Fraser," cried Margaret, but as she looked down she missed her escort.
An instant, and she saw him. He was circling the outskirts of the crowd at a run. For just a heart-beat she wondered what he was about, but her brain told her before her eye. He swung in toward the steps, shoulders down, and bored a way through the stragglers straight to the heart of the turmoil. Taking the steps in two jumps, he stood beside the ranger.
"Hello, Tennessee," grinned that young man. "Come to be a pall-bearer?"
"Hello, Texas! Can't say, I'm sure. Just dropped in to see what's doing."
Steve's admiring gaze approved him a man from the ground up. But the ranger only laughed and said: "The band's going to play a right lively tune, looks like."
The man from the Panhandle had his revolvers out already. "Yes, there will be a hot time in the old town to-night, I shouldn't wonder."
But for the moment the attackers were inclined to parley. Their leader stepped out and held up a hand for a suspension of hostilities. He was a large man, heavily built, and powerful as a bear. There was about him an air of authority, as of one used to being obeyed. He was dressed roughly enough in corduroy and miner's half-leg boots, but these were of the most expensive material and cut. His cold gray eye and thin lips denied the manner of superficial heartiness he habitually carried. If one scratched the veneer of good nature it was to find a hard selfishness that went to his core.
"It's Mr. Dunke!" the young school-teacher cried aloud in surprise.
"I've got something to say to you, Mr. Lieutenant Ranger," he announced, with importance.
"Uncork it," was Fraser's advice.
"We don't want to have any trouble with you, but we're here for business. This man is a cold-blooded murderer and we mean to do justice on him."
Steve laughed insolently. "If all them that hollers for justice the loudest got it done to them, Mr. Dunke, there'd be a right smart shrinkage in the census returns."
Dunke's eye gleamed with anger. "We're not here to listen to any smart guys, sir. Will you give up Struve to us or will you not?"
"That's easy. I will not."
The mob leader turned to the Tennessean. "Young man, I don't know who you are, but if you mean to butt into a quarrel that ain't yours all I've got to say is that you're hunting an early grave."
"We'll know about that later, seh."
"You stand pat, do you?"
"Well, seh, I draw to a pair that opens the pot anyhow," answered Larry, with a slight motion of his weapons.
Dunke fell back into the mob, a shot rang out into the night, and the crowd swayed forward. But at that instant the door behind Fraser swung open. A frightened voice sounded in his ear.
The ranger slewed his head, gave an exclamation of surprise, and hurriedly threw his prisoner into the open passage.
"Back, Larry! Lively, my boy!" he ordered.
Neill leaped back in a spatter of bullets that rained round him. Next moment the door was swung shut again.
"You all right, Nell?" asked Fraser quickly of the young woman who had opened the door, and upon her affirmative reply he added: "Everybody alive and kicking? Nobody get a pill?"
"I'm all right for one," returned Larry. "But we had better get out of this passage. I notice our friends the enemy are sending their cards through the door after us right anxious."
As he spoke a bullet tore a jagged splinter from a panel and buried itself in the ceiling. A second and a third followed.
"That's c'rect. We'd better be 'Not at home' when they call. Eh, Nell?"
Steve put an arm affectionately round the waist of the young woman who had come in such timely fashion to their aid and ran through the passage with her to the room beyond, Neill following with the prisoner.
"You're wounded, Steve," the young woman cried.
He shrugged. "Scratch in the hand. Got it when I arrested him. Had to shoot his trigger finger off."
"But I must see to it."
"Not now; wait till we're out of the woods." He turned to his friend: "Nell, let me introduce to you Mr. Neill, from the Panhandle. Mr. Neill, this is my sister. I don't know how come she to drop down behind us like an angel from heaven, but that's a story will wait. The thing we got to do right now is to light a shuck out of here."
His friend nodded, listening to the sound of blows battering the outer door. "They'll have it down in another minute. We've got to burn the wind seven ways for Sunday."
"What I'd like to know is whether there are two entrances to this rat-trap. Do you happen to know, Nell?" asked Fraser of his sister.
"Three," she answered promptly. "There's a back door into the court and a trap-door to the roof. That's the way I came."
"And it's the way we'll go. I might a-known you'd know all about it give you a quarter of a chance," her brother said admiringly. "We'll duck through the roof and let Mr. Dunke hold the sack. Lead the way, sis."
She guided them along another passageway and up some stairs to the second story. The trap-door that opened to the flat roof was above the bed about six feet. Neill caught the edges of the narrow opening, drew himself up, and wriggled through. Fraser lifted his sister by the waist high enough for Larry to catch her hands and draw her up.
"Hurry, Steve," she urged. "They've broken in. Hurry, dear."
The ranger unlocked his prisoner's handcuffs and tossed them up to the Tennessean.
"Get a move on you, Mr. Struve, unless you want to figure in a necktie party," he advised.
But the convict's flabby muscles were unequal to the task of getting him through the opening. Besides which, his wounded hand, tied up with a blood-soaked rag, impeded him. He had to be pulled from above and boosted from behind. Fraser, fit to handle his weight in wildcats, as an admirer had once put it, found no trouble in following. Steps were already heard on the stairs below when Larry slipped the cover to its place and put upon it a large flat stone which he found on the roof for that purpose. The fugitives crawled along the roof on their hands and knees so as to escape the observation of the howling mob outside the house. Presently they came into the shadows, and Nell rose, ran forward to a little ladder which led to a higher roof, and swiftly ascended. Neill, who was at her heels, could not fail to note the light supple grace with which she moved. He thought he had never seen a more charming woman in appearance. She still somehow retained the slim figure and taking ways of a girl, in conjunction with the soft rounded curves of a present-day Madonna.
Two more roofs were crossed before they came to another open trap-door. A lamp in the room below showed it to be a bedroom with two cots in it. Two children, one of them a baby, were asleep in these. A sweet-faced woman past middle age looked anxiously up with hands clasped together as in prayer.
"Is it you, Nellie?" she asked.
"Yes, mother, and Steve, and his friend. We're all right."
Fraser dropped through, and his sister let herself down into his arms. Struve followed, and was immediately handcuffed. Larry put back the trap and fastened it from within before he dropped down.
"We shall have to leave at once, mother, without waiting to dress the children," explained Fraser. "Wrap them in blankets and take some clothes along. I'll drop you at the hotel and slip my prisoner into the jail the back way if I can; that is, if another plan I have doesn't work."
The oldest child awoke and caught sight of Fraser. He reached out his hands in excitement and began to call: "Uncle Steve! Uncle Steve back again."
Fraser picked up the youngster. "Yes, Uncle Steve is back. But we're going to play a game that Indians are after us. Webb must be good and keep very, very still. He mustn't say a word till uncle tells him he may."
The little fellow clapped his hands. "Goody, goody! Shall we begin now?"
"Right this minute, son. Better take your money with you, mother. Is father here?"
"No, he is at the ranch. He went down in the stage to-day."
"All right, friends. We'll take the back way. Tennessee, will you look out for Mr. Struve? Sis will want to carry the baby."
They passed quietly down-stairs and out the back door. The starry night enveloped them coldly, and the moon looked down through rifted clouds. Nature was peaceful as her own silent hills, but the raucous jangle of cursing voices from a distance made discord of the harmony. They slipped along through the shadows, meeting none except occasional figures hurrying to the plaza. At the hotel door the two men separated from the rest of the party, and took with them their prisoner.
"I'm going to put him for safe-keeping down the shaft of a mine my father and I own," explained Steve. "He wouldn't be safe in the jail, because Dunke, for private reasons, has made up his mind to put out his lights."
"Private reasons?" echoed the engineer.
"Mighty good ones, too. Ain't that right?" demanded the ranger of Struve.
The convict cursed, though his teeth still chattered with fright from the narrow escape he had had, but through his prison jargon ran a hint of some power he had over the man Dunke. It was plain he thought the latter had incited the lynching in order to shut the convict's mouth forever.
"Where is this shaft?" asked Neill.
"Up a gulch about half a mile from here."
Fraser's eyes fixed themselves on a young man who passed on the run. He suddenly put his fingers to his lips and gave a low whistle. The running man stopped instantly, his head alert to catch the direction from which the sound had come. Steve whistled again and the stranger turned toward them.
"It's Brown, one of my rangers," explained the lieutenant.
Brown, it appeared, had just reached town and stabled his horse when word came to him that there was trouble on the plaza. He had been making for it when his officer's whistle stopped him.
"It's all over except getting this man to safety. I'm going to put him down an abandoned shaft of the Jackrabbit. He'll be safe there, and nobody will think to look for him in any such place," said Fraser.
The man from the Panhandle drew his friend to one side. "Do you need me any longer? I left Miss Kinney right on the edge of that mob, and I expect I better look around and see where she is now."
"All right. No, we don't need you. Take care you don't let any of these miners recognize you. They might make you trouble while they're still hot. Well, so-long. See you to-morrow at the hotel."
The Tennessean looked to his guns to make sure they hung loose in the scabbards, then stepped briskly back toward the plaza.
WOULD YOU WORRY ABOUT ME?
Margaret Kinney's heart ceased beating in that breathless instant after the two dauntless friends had flung defiance to two hundred. There was a sudden tightening of her throat, a fixing of dilated eyes on what would have been a thrilling spectacle had it not meant so much more to her. For as she leaned forward in the saddle with parted lips she knew a passionate surge of fear for one of the apparently doomed men that went through her like swift poison, that left her dizzy with the shock of it.
The thought of action came to her too late. As Dunke stepped back to give the signal for attack she cried out his name, but her voice was drowned in the yell of rage that filled the street. She tried to spur her horse into the crowd, to force a way to the men standing with such splendid fearlessness above this thirsty pack of wolves. But the denseness of the throng held her fixed even while revolvers flashed.
And then the miracle happened. She saw the door open and limned in a penumbra of darkness the white comely face of a woman. She saw the beleaguered men sway back and the door close in the faces of the horde. She saw bullets go crashing into the door, heard screams of baffled fury, and presently the crash of axes into the panels of the barrier that held them back. It seemed to fade away before her gaze, and instead of it she saw a doorway full of furious crowding miners.
Then presently her heart stood still again. From her higher place in the saddle, well back in the outskirts of the throng, in the dim light she made out a figure crouching on the roof; then another, and another, and a fourth. She suffered an agony of fear in the few heart-beats before they began to slip away. Her eyes swept the faces near her. One and all they were turned upon the struggling mass of humanity at the entrance to the passage. When she dared look again to the roof the fugitives were gone. She thought she perceived them swarming up a ladder to the higher roof, but in the surrounding grayness she could not be sure of this.
The stamping of feet inside the house continued. Once there was the sound of an exploding revolver. After a long time a heavy figure struggled into view through the roof-trap. It was Dunke himself. He caught sight of the ladder, gave a shout of triumph, and was off in pursuit of his flying prey. As others appeared on the roof they, too, took up the chase, a long line of indistinct running figures.
There were other women on the street now, most of them Mexicans, so that Margaret attracted little attention. She moved up opposite the house that had become the scene of action, expecting every moment to hear the shots that would determine the fate of the victims.
But no shots came. Lights flashed from room to room, and presently one light began to fill a room so brilliantly that she knew a lamp must have been overturned and set the house on fire. Dunke burst from the front door, scarce a dozen paces from her. There was a kind of lurid fury in his eyes. He was as ravenously fierce as a wolf balked of its kill. She chose that moment to call him.