BLOOM OF CACTUS
By ROBERT AMES BENNET
Frontispiece by RALPH PALLEN COLEMAN
Garden City New York DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1920
Copyright, 1919, by Doubleday, Page & Company All Rights Reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
I. Ambushed 3 II. Off Trail 13 III. The Gila Monster 24 IV. Pards in Peril 35 V. Dead Hole 47 VI. Her Folks 55 VII. Craft and Cruelty 62 VIII. Cactus Carmena 75 IX. The Man Who Was 85 X. The Setter of Traps 95 XI. Cross Currents 107 XII. A Bargain 117 XIII. The Blossoming 127 XIV. The Prowler 136 XV. Crooked Ways 145 XVI. The Drop 156 XVII. Death Play 168 XVIII. The Attack 180 XIX. Out of the Frying Pan— 192 XX. Into the Fire 201 XXI. Treachery 211 XXII. The Sacrifice 222 XXIII. Out of the Past 234 XXIV. His Daughter's Father 245
BLOOM OF CACTUS
As Lennon drove his heavily packed burro over the round of the ridge above the camp spring, all the desolate Arizona waste around him was transformed by the splendour of dawn. Up out of mysterious velvety blue-black valleys loomed the massive purple-walled fortresses and cities of the mountain giants, guarded by titanic skyward towering pyramids and turrets of exquisite rose pink.
The burro was not interested in scenery or light effects. He topped the ridge and plodded slowly down the steep trail on the far side. Lennon lingered to enjoy the glorious illusion of the view.
All too soon, as the glaring sun cleared the high plateau on the eastern horizon, the ethereal colours of daybreak faded. The magic towers and pyramids lowered and shrank in bulk until they became only bald rugged peaks and buttes.
No less remorselessly the flood of hot white sunrays burned away the shadow tapestry of the valleys. In place of the cool mysterious vales there were left only scorched gulleys and dry washes sparsely set with greasewood and sagebrush and cactus.
Yet the interest in Lennon's alert gray eyes increased rather than lessened as he swung away down slope after his burro. The trail he was following was very old. Above almost every arable valley bottom the heights were crested with the stone ruins of ancient pueblos. Not improbably, Coronado or others of the early Spanish explorers had ridden this trail, west and north around the great bend, into the territory of the Moquis and Navahos.
Within the memory of settlers not yet white-haired, more than one war-party of renegade Apaches had sneaked along the ancient way in search of victims. Every few yards of the bad lands offered perfect lurking places for liers-in-wait along the trail.
Lennon glanced at the butt of his rifle in its sheath on the burro's pack. He recalled the tales of the old prospector whose copper mine he was seeking to rediscover. But his glance was only momentary. He knew that twenty-seven years had passed since the last murderous Indian outbreak in this land of desolation.
In those days a lone prospector would never have thought of tramping this trail without his rifle ready in hand, and the hammer at half cock. Lennon began to whistle a dance tune as he sauntered unconcernedly at the heels of his slow-moving burro up a rise and along a badly broken rocky slope.
They came down into a sandy wash that curved out of the mass of jagged ridges on the north. When midway across the bottom of the arroyo Lennon heard a sharp ping close above his ear—his sombrero whirled from his head. Before the hat struck the sand the rocky sides of the wash reverberated with the report of a rifle shot.
Lennon had never before been under fire, yet his reaction to the shot was almost instantaneous. One jump brought him alongside the burro. He crouched below the level of the pack and clutched the butt of his sheathed rifle. Again the gulley walls reverberated. The burro dropped dead, with a bullet through his head.
As the beast fell, Lennon hit the sand almost at the same moment, his rifle gripped in his right hand. Flattened out behind the inert body of the burro, he peered around the end of the pack. A bullet thwacked in the sand close at his right. He thought he could see a haze of semi-smokeless powder vapour above a jagged crag up-slope where the wash twisted in a sharp bend. He fired four shots in quick succession at promising notches in the crag.
Immediately after his fourth shot an arm and rifle were thrust up above the rock in a convulsive gesture, then suddenly disappeared. No more bullets came pinging down the arroyo.
Lennon gathered himself together and bounded on across the bottom of the wash to where the trail ran up a small side gully. From the gully he started to creep with cautious slowness up the left bank of the arroyo, under cover of the rocks and jutting points.
Now crawling, now springing from rock to rock, he worked his way half up to the crag, yet failed to catch a single glimpse of the lier-in-wait or to draw another shot. His conviction that he had killed the lurker became so firm that he stood erect to cover the remaining distance at a rush.
From down across the arroyo came a sharp clatter of hoofs. He whirled, with his rifle at his shoulder. Over the barrel he saw a scraggy pony loping down into the wash along the trail of the burro. The pony's rider was armed with a rifle. Lennon took quick aim—only to drop the muzzle of his weapon. The rider had flung up a gauntleted hand, palm outward. A musical feminine hail rang aslant the arroyo:
"Wa-hoo! Friend! Don't shoot!"
Lennon had already perceived that the rider was a woman. He jumped clear of the bank and sprinted down the rocky, sandy bed of the wash.
"Get off!" he shouted. "Hide behind your horse—quick! Danger."
The rider brought her pony to an abrupt halt below the dead burro and dropped out of her saddle on the far side. Only her old cowboy sombrero, the bottom of her khaki divided-skirt and her high laced boots were visible to Lennon.
With a startled snort, the ewe-necked pony plunged and backed around, clear of his motionless mistress. Lennon's first glance showed him that she was young and more than pretty. He was already leaping over the dead burro and brought up close before the girl to shield her with his body.
"Down!" he cried. "Down, before he fires!"
The dark eyes of the girl met his anxious look with a cool, level gaze. Her cheeks were ruddy with rich colour under their deep coat of tan. The corners of her rather large, but shapely mouth quirked in an amused half smile.
"Don't tell me you're not a tenderfoot," she rallied, in a softly vibrant, contralto voice. "I heard shots, so came a-running. Your attacker must have vamosed, else you'd have collected lead on the jump."
"That's so," agreed Lennon. "Only I really think I nailed the beggar. Yet you must take no chances. Get under cover while I make sure."
"You've already done that—standing here ten seconds without drawing a shot. When a mountain lion misses his game first crack, he sometimes is so shamed he clears out. Same way with a broncho Apache."
"Apache? But I thought all Indians were now on reservations."
The girl dropped the reins of her skittish, snorting pony and picked up Lennon's new sombrero. Through the middle of the high peak was a neatly drilled bullet hole.
"Poor shot—for an Apache," she said. "Good, though, for ventilation."
The dry humour of this brought a twinkle into the Easterner's gray eyes. He took the hat from her outstretched gloved hand, but paused with it half raised to his close-cropped head.
"If you'll permit me ... my name is Lennon—Jack Lennon—mining engineer."
"Engineer is all right, but can you shoot?" queried the girl.
"I have had pretty good luck with running deer. This is my first man."
"All right, Mr. Lennon. I'm going up to look for signs. Come along if you want to."
"No, you must stay here. I insist——"
But the girl was already swinging away up the bed of the arroyo, her spurs jingling on the stones. Lennon started to block the way but changed his mind when he perceived her amused smile. Instead of trying to stop her, he attempted to take the lead. The girl quickened her pace.
He had lowered more than one record in his college track meets; but the girl was accustomed to rough ground, and he was not. She was still side by side with him when he dashed up around the bend in the arroyo.
Both held their rifles ready to fire as they rushed the rear ledges of the jagged crag. From the upper side the slopes around were all open to view. Lennon came to a panting halt and stared about in frank surprise. He had fully expected to see the limp form of a dead Apache lying on the rocks.
The girl sprang past him into a niche of the crag and bent to pick up a cartridge shell.
"A thirty-two," she said. "Same calibre as my rifle.... And look at this track—Apache-made moccasin. Easy to tell the print from that of a Pima or Moqui."
To Lennon the track was only a small narrow blur.
"I was right," added the girl. "No trace of blood. You scored a clean miss and the bird has flown. All safe around here now, but may be dangerous on the trail ahead. Happens I know that a bunch of bronchos are loose over this way. They're looking for trouble."
"Bronchos? You mean wild horses—mustangs?"
"No—Apaches. Renegades are called bronchos. What do you figure on doing now, with your burro dead? Out prospecting, I noticed by your outfit. What were you heading up this way for, anyhow? The agents don't want prospectors on the Moqui or Navaho reservations."
"But I didn't intend to cross the boundary," explained Lennon. "About seventy miles on around this trail bend, I was to strike in eastward to a three-towered mountain. Old friend of mine discovered a big copper vein there in the early 'Nineties. A party of Indians ran him out of the country and so maimed him that he never could return."
"Why, that must be Cripple Sim and his——" The girl checked herself and tightened her lips. "Well, what you going to do about it? Hike back to the railroad?"
"Certainly—to get another burro. We might return together for mutual protection, unless you'd rather trust to your pony's heels."
The girl looked him up and down with sharp appraisal.
There was no hint of timidity in his smile.
"Don't figure there's any joke about a bunch of bronchos," she said. "They like to kill just for pure devilment, and when they can make it without risk, their choice of game is a white man."
"Or woman," put in Lennon, no longer smiling.
"Choicer still. But a man will do. How about that hole in your hat? Hadn't you better catch the first train East, and keep going?"
Lennon flushed, rallied himself, and smiled.
"I didn't come to Arizona for my health. I might say it was on business, but I've no objection to a bit of sport on the side."
The dark eyes of the girl flashed with a look of almost fierce intensity.
"I'll call your bluff," she challenged. "We'll see if you're four-flushing. Dead Hole—Dad's ranch—is only a few miles southeast of Triple Butte, the mountain you're headed for. I know the short cut across the Basin. Want to come along?"
"The Indians," protested Lennon. "No, do not misunderstand me, please. It is all right for a man to take chances. But a girl like you——"
"Like me? Well, the kind of girl I am is this—I'm going home. I've no mind to back up. Good-bye, Mr. Jack Lennon."
He was beside her again before she had reached the bed of the arroyo.
"I have a compass," he said. "Perhaps I'll get to your ranch even if your pony outruns me. Only trouble, I can't lug both tools and food."
The girl stopped short to draw off her glove and offer him her strong white hand.
"I'm Carmena Farley. I don't like rattlers, coyotes, or quitters."
"I may prove to be a quitter, Miss Farley, but I'd like at least to be entered for the game."
The dark-eyed daughter of Arizona looked at him searchingly.
"You will be risking the highest of all stakes—your life," she warned.
Lennon smiled. "Oh, no; not the highest. There are other things more precious."
"Maybe," she assented. "But not everybody would agree with you."
By the time the two reached the dead burro again the somber mood of the girl had lightened.
"First thing is to sort over your pack," she said. "We'll cull out what's not needed."
The girths of the packsaddle were cut loose, and the animal was dragged clear of the pack. When Lennon's very creditable diamond-hitch had been thrown off, the girl overhauled the pack and made quick decisions.
"We'll leave most of the flour. You can stock up at the ranch with cornmeal. Same with your cooking outfit. Throw out all but one drill and all the giant powder—no, keep half a dozen sticks."
"But, Miss Farley, I can't begin to lug a quarter of——"
"Don't forget my pony," cut in Carmena.
"He can't carry you and all this truck of mine," remonstrated Lennon. "I'll not permit you to walk. You must have hurt your foot. I saw you limp."
"I'm not asking your permission, thanks."
As she unbuckled her spurs Lennon noticed that the girl's boots were not built with the usual cowboy high heels. They would be suitable for walking.
The pony had wandered some distance down the wash, cunningly twitching his trailing reins to one side, clear of his hoofs. While Lennon started to cache his packsaddle and the other discarded articles of his outfit, Carmena went after her would-be stray, limping and gingerly picking her steps when she saw that the young man's back was turned. After catching her pony she crouched down behind a corner of rock to unlace her boots. They came off with difficulty.
Inside the boots, she had been wearing a pair of curious high-top boot-moccasins with thick back-doubled toes. In a twinkling she stripped off the moccasins and thrust them down into the bottom of one of the saddlebags. With her feet uncramped and easy in her relaced boots, she sprang into the saddle and loped back up the trail.
Lennon's cache was a cavity under an overhanging ledge. Before he had blocked the opening to his satisfaction with fragments of rock the rest of his outfit had been securely packed upon the pony by Carmena. Nothing was left out except rifles, cartridge-belts and two half-gallon canteens of water.
"Keep your gun loaded and never put all your water on your horse." The girl gave her companion the two first maxims of desert travel. "Come along. No use trying to hide your cache or your trail from Apaches. Only another Apache can do that. It's high time we hit out, anyhow."
To the surprise of Lennon, she started up the arroyo. When he joined her, the pony, whose reins had been tied to the pack, snorted and shied. But at a call from Carmena, the skittish beast followed his mistress up the arroyo like a dog.
"How about the chance of running into that murderous savage if we go this way?" Lennon inquired.
"You might be safer if you hurried back to the railroad," replied Carmena, and she swung the steepening side of the arroyo.
Lennon's lips tightened. He did not again question his guide's choice of route. But, like her, he held his rifle ready as they came up over the round of a stony ridge. Though neither could see the slightest sign of lurking Indians, Carmena hastened to lead her pony across the ridge crest and down the other side.
When safe below the skyline the girl broke into a dog trot. She held to the pace, on a long slant along the ridge side, until they came up into the mouth of a small canon. Between the bald ledges of the dry channel were bars of sand and gravel. Lennon pointed to the hoofprints of a horse that had come down the canon at a gallop.
"This must be the trail of our renegade," he said.
Carmena paused to fix him with a somber gaze.
"The whole bunch of bronchos may be up here, but it's the only way into the Basin; and, once in, they may get behind us. Now's your chance to quit—your last chance."
This time Lennon was ready for her.
"Lead on, Miss Macduff, and—perhaps you know the rest of the quotation."
"Yes," gloomily retorted the girl. "Don't blame me if we meet up with those broncs. The joke will be on you."
"How about your safety? Wouldn't you have a better chance if mounted?"
"Want to back out, do you?"
"By no means. My idea is to dump the pack from your pony. Then, if we are attacked, I may be able to hold the renegades while you gallop off."
The girl's rich colour deepened into a flush. The thick fringe of her lashes swept down to hide the glow in her eyes. Without a word she swung ahead, on up the canon. Though not a little puzzled over her abruptness, Lennon felt certain that she had been far from displeased by his matter-of-fact suggestion.
He had no chance to urge the desirability of his plan. At his first rather loud-spoken remonstrance Carmena flung back at him a curt gesture for silence and led on at a quickened pace. Her swift ascent slackened only at the twists of the narrowing canon; at these she would swing in close to the inner side of the bends and creep around, with her rifle half raised.
By mid-morning the bed of the canon had become much rougher and steeper. The pony, for all his goat-like agility and sure-footedness, found difficulty in scrambling up some of the ledges.
Neither the rapid pace nor the climbing bothered Lennon. But between the burning heat and his very natural excitement over Carmena's stealthy bearing at the turns, he became keyed to rather a high pitch.
After a last sharp turn, the canon broadened and flared out in a trough-like valley at the top of a high, cedar-clad, ridge-rimmed mesa.
"Wait!" Lennon exclaimed. "Look ahead, Miss Farley—all bare and open! Not a bit of shelter until we cross to the trees!"
The girl faced about, her red lips twisted in a smile of contempt, but her eyes clouded with disappointment.
"I told you, down at the lower end, it was your last chance to quit."
"Quite true. I've burnt my bridges. The question now is one of advance, not retreat. What if there are Indian watchers on those ridges? Would it not be best for me to hold their attention by going straight up the open valley, while you take the horse around through the cedars?"
Carmena met his proposal with a chuckle that brought a flush into Lennon's lean face. But her troubled eyes had cleared and there was a note of relief underlying her mirth.
"What's the matter with you, too, keeping under cover?" she rallied. "Besides, we don't go to the head of the valley. We slant up to the left through that notch in the ridge."
This banter, coupled with the assurance that the girl knew exactly what she was about, cooled Lennon's excitement. His high strung nerves relaxed.
"No need to remind you I'm a tenderfoot," he jibed at himself. "Coming up the canon I've been shooting Apaches at every bend."
The mirth left Carmena's face. Her lips straightened in hard lines and her eyes flashed.
"It's no joke," she said. "I'm right glad you're steadying down. If we meet that bunch of bronchos, there's just one thing to do—shoot first. It'll be time enough to ask questions afterward. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly, Miss Farley. I have you to consider, and I presume no peaceful Indians come into these bad lands."
"Pimas and Moquis cut their hair square across the forehead. If you see any others, shoot—to kill!"
"I will," said Lennon, certain that he understood the cause of the girl's almost fierce insistence. He knew that the treatment of captured women by renegade Indians is a far worse fate than death.
Carmena took note of his set jaw, drew in a deep breath, and swung around to angle up the slope at the side of the canon head. Half an hour of winding advance through the midst of the scraggly low-growing trees brought them to the notch in the rim-ridge. Below this break the mesa side pitched steeply into a great basin that was blotched with white alkali flats, wave-marked with sand dunes, and broken with jagged hills and skeleton-like ridges.
The air was so dry and clear that even far out in the Basin, many miles away, Lennon could distinguish patches of green. Nearer at hand appeared blurs of a grayish vegetation. But at his pleased exclamation Carmena told him that he was looking at no oasis. What he saw was only the green of mesquite and palo verde, the fluted columns of the giant sahuaro, and the gray of sagebrush. In all that wide waste of desolation no trickling rill or even the smallest of pools glinted under the fierce rays of the mid-day sun.
Over beyond the north side of the Basin, above the lesser peaks and buttes, appeared a higher mountain. The top, dwarfed by distance but as clear cut in outline as a cameo, was divided into three thick tower-like masses.
"There's your Triple Butte," said Carmena.
"What! So near as that? We can make it by mid-afternoon."
The girl smiled. "You might, if you hurried enough. It's only forty miles away on a beeline."
Lennon stared, openly incredulous: "Forty miles?"
"Near fifty-five by way of the water-holes—forty to the ranch. We'll strike for the nearest tank. I've noticed your canteen has been empty some time. Here's mine."
Though Lennon's throat was parched, he sought to refuse the offered canteen, which was still half full. Carmena dropped it at his feet and began to zigzag down the mesa side.
Noon had passed before they gained the foot of the steep slope. Carmena followed out along a ridge of bare rock, past scattered growths of thornscrub and cactus, to where windblown sand lay in sterile drifts alongside the ledges. Here she turned up a narrow cleft of the ridge and entered the mouth of a small cave.
She knelt to dip her hat down a hole in the bottom of the cave. The hat came up brimful of water. She drank deeply, refilled the hat, and backed out past Lennon to water the eager pony.
"I'll thank you to fill the canteens and give the bronc as much more as he can drink," she directed. "There's firewood on around that point of rocks. Keep your gun handy."
Lennon was already drinking from a refilled canteen. He found the cliff-shaded water of the spring pure and deliciously cool. The watering of the pony took no little time and patience. Though the beast was too thirsty to show any of his former skittishness, Lennon's sombrero was leaky from the bullet holes.
When at last he drove the pony on along Carmena's trail, he noticed tiny cloudlets of dark smoke, like the puffs of a giant's pipe, rising straight up in the still air from behind the point of rocks. By the time he rounded the corner the smoke had thinned and lightened to an almost invisible haze.
A bright little fire of dry sticks was blazing in a sandy hollow. Carmena knelt beside it, leaning on the muzzle of her rifle. Her dark eyes were gazing off across the desert basin in a look that betrayed both eagerness and dread.
"Hello. Ready for the frying pan?" sang out Lennon. Then he perceived the tenseness of the girl's attitude and hastened to swing up his rifle. "What is it? Sighted another Apache?"
"No. But I put greasewood on the fire. You saw the smoke?"
"A few puffs—yes."
The girl rose and eyed him somberly.
"Few puffs, you say.... If that bunch of bronchos is anywhere within fifteen miles—with a clear view this way—we can expect a visit."
"Should we not cut and run?"
"Why? We couldn't hide our tracks. Even if the devils aren't mounted, they'd soon overtake us. An Indian can lope along all day, like a coyote."
Lennon looked deliberately around at the ridge and sat down to clean and reload his rifle. Carmena's eyes flashed.
"You've got the idea," she said. "We'll eat and back up to the spring. The cave is an easy place to hold. You said you can shoot?"
"Rather well. Very long range rifle, too. I've knocked over a caribou with it at nearly a mile, up on Hudson Bay."
Carmena glanced at the high-power weapon and then raised her flashing eyes to gaze over the bent head of its owner. Midway out across the desolate Basin, from the top of a craggy hill to the right of the line of Triple Butte, puffs of smoke were rising into the cloudless steel-blue sky.
The girl hastened to loosen her pony's pack and take from her saddlebags a frying pan, several slices of bacon, and a big chunk of corn pone.
THE GILA MONSTER
The bacon was ready almost as soon as Lennon's rifle. Carmena rose from beside the embers of the fire with the pan and corn bread.
"Fetch the canteens," she directed. "We'll eat over here under that overhanging rock."
But at the edge of the shade, below the outjutting cliff ledge, she stopped short with her gaze fixed upon an object close to the sand-sculptured wall of rock.
"Ever see a Gila monster?" she queried.
"No. You don't mean to say—really——"
Lennon had sprung forward beside her. His curious eyes at once perceived the hideous, thickset lizard that lay flattened upon the shadowed sand as if in a torpor. The reptile's dirty orange-mottled black body was as loathsome as its venomous blunt-nosed head.
"Big specimen—almost two feet long," remarked Carmena. "Hold on. Don't shoot. That sure would tell the bronchos where we are."
"But if we are to eat here?" questioned Lennon. "I don't fancy the company of this sweet wiggler—not that I believe the wild yarns about them. All lizards are non-poisonous. No poison glands have ever been found in the mouth of these so-called monsters."
"Just look and see," rejoined the girl. "But look in the lower jaw. Trouble is, you science sharps expected to find hollow fangs and the sacs above, like a rattler's. Do you know why a Gila monster flops on his back when he bites? It's to let the loose poison in his lower jaw drain into the hollow teeth."
The girl faced him with a challenging look.
"If they turn over, it's as bad as being struck by a six-foot diamond-back. They lock their jaws, and the poison—— But I've seen a man snap the head off one of those big snakes. Let's see if you have the nerve to toss this little lizard outside."
Lennon's smile faded as he perceived that the girl was in sober earnest. Very naturally he hesitated. He was not given to bravado, and even without her assertion that the reptile was deadly poisonous, he would have loathed to touch so repulsive a creature.
But there is no spur so galling as the derisive smile of a comely young woman. Lennon dropped his rifle, walked in beside the Gila monster, and suddenly clutching the lizard in mid-body, flung it several yards out upon the sun-scorched sand. The girl's scorn gave place to a look of grave approval.
"You'll do," she said. "Fact is, they're so sluggish in the shade you didn't run the slightest risk. You couldn't know that, though. Yes, you'll do. Only don't try playing with the fellow out there in the sun. The light livens them up."
The advice was needless. Lennon felt quite ready to sit down beside the girl and start eating, though he first rubbed his hands thoroughly in the sand. Neither had much to say. They were alike intent upon satisfying their keen hunger and keeping a sharp lookout against the chance of an attack.
After a time Lennon noticed that the Gila monster had crawled up on a little sand ridge in the full glare of the mid-day sun. It was viciously snapping its jaws and twitching its thick head from side to side. Carmena gave no heed to the angered reptile. She was gazing off toward the jagged hill from which had risen the distant smoke puffs.
As the girl finished her share of the hearty food she leaned sideways, with her ungloved hand on the sand at the edge of the cliff shadow. Like the hand, her wrist was white and well rounded. She drew off her old sombrero.
Lennon's gaze lifted to the wealth of dark hair that lay coiled about her shapely head. The girl was neither pretty nor beautiful, yet there was a certain handsomeness about her strong features.
Out of the tail of his eye Lennon caught a glimpse of a black and orange blur streaking toward them over the hot sand. He had seen many darting lizards that day. But none had moved more swiftly than the clumsily built Gila monster now darted at the disturbers of his torpor. There was no time for thought. Lennon sensed that the reptile aimed to strike at Carmena's bared wrist.
"Jump!" he cried, and flung himself forward to block the attack with his out-thrust right hand.
An instant later the Gila monster snapped its gaping jaws together on the fleshy edge of Lennon's palm. It whirled over upon its back. Caught outstretched and almost prone upon the ground, Lennon sought to wrench his hand free and draw away. The heavy lizard was dragged along with its crooked legs futilely clawing the air. But its powerful jaws remained clenched on the hand with bulldog tenacity.
A voice shrilled in Lennon's ear: "Hold still! Hold still!"
Carmena stooped over the writhing monster to thrust the muzzle of a small revolver against the side of its lower jaw. The bullet shattered the jaw and blew it half off. A vigorous kick hurled the now harmless reptile aside.
Lennon had started to raise himself to a sitting position. Carmena flung herself upon her knees and caught up his torn hand to her red lips. She sucked hard at the wounds——
With the suddenness of a dropped veil, the hot, white glare of the desert noon went black before Lennon's eyes. He sank down upon the sand, unconscious.
When the light of returning life glimmered back into his brain, he first was dimly aware of a pale Madonna face that appeared to hover close above him. His clearing gaze gradually made out the girl's features. There was no colour even in her lips. Her eyes were wide with grief and dread.
She saw the dawning consciousness in his eyes.
"Jack!" she whispered—"Jack!—You haven't left me—you won't leave me!"
"Who—what's the matter?—— Oh, that——"
He sought to raise his right arm. It was strangely numb and heavy. The girl lifted it from her lap, where it had been lying. He saw that her silk handkerchief had been knotted around his bared forearm and twisted very tight with the barrel of the little revolver. From the tourniquet down, the arm and wrist and hand were black, and beginning to swell. The lacerations torn in the side of the palm by the Gila monster's fangs appeared to be clotted with purple blood.
"I rubbed in snake medicine—permanganate of potash crystals," quavered the girl. "That'll kill the poison and not hurt you a bit. You're all right now—only we'll have to ease off a little on your arm. Take some good deep breaths."
Though sick and giddy and still faint, Lennon forced himself to obey. He rallied sufficiently to sit up. Carmena loosened the tourniquet and briskly rubbed his swollen hand and arm. The tingling pain of returning circulation roused him like a stimulant. But the poison had not all been sucked from the wounds or counteracted in the veins by the permanganate. Before the girl could again twist tight the tourniquet he sank down for the second time, unconscious.
Out of the utter blankness of oblivion he first dreamed that he was alternately swimming through a rough sea and rocking in a wave-tossed boat—— A gush of water dashed into his face—then the sea appeared to solidify into dry sand. He became conscious that Carmena was violently rolling him from side to side and slapping his face. She paused in this punishment to pump his arms above his head, forcing the air in and out of his lungs.
He struggled feebly to free himself. The girl jerked him to a sitting position and, with a desperate output of lithe strength, grasped his body from behind to heave him upright. He gained his feet, but was far too giddy to stand alone. The girl clasped his left arm about her neck and rushed him out beside the pony.
"Brace up!" she breathlessly implored him. "Grip hold of his mane with your good hand. We'll have to hit out. The broncs are coming."
She ran back to snatch up Lennon's sombrero, the rifles and one of the canteens. The other had been emptied into Lennon's face. Out again she darted to clap the sombrero on his drenched head and steady him with a hand on the tourniquet. A guttural command started the pony off at a walk. The direction chosen by his mistress was northwest, aslant the Basin, almost at right angles to the jagged hill where she had seen the smoke puffs.
For a while Lennon tottered and reeled like a drunken man. Time and again he stumbled and would have sunk down upon the hot sand but for the convulsive clutch of his left hand on the pony's mane and the strong support of Carmena at his other side. He was giddy and nauseated and leaden-footed. Every step required an agonized effort of will power.
Yet the exertion of walking proved the best of treatment for him. Before half a mile had been covered, his head had cleared and his strength was fast returning. To offset this benefit, his arm was now blacker than ever and rapidly swelling. Carmena gave him a copious drink from the canteen, hesitated, glanced toward the smoke hill, and came to a desperate decision.
"We can't let that arm go," she said. "The tie must come off. Get ready for a rush."
At her command, the pony quickened his pace to a jog trot. As they ran along beside him Carmena untwisted her revolver from the tourniquet. This time Lennon did not lose consciousness. Either the remaining poison had been almost destroyed by the permanganate or else his previous reactions to the venom had rendered him partly immune.
Though the nausea and giddiness again threatened to overcome him, the support of Carmena and her pony kept him steadied. Very soon the run under the hot sun had him panting for breath. His highly oxygenized blood gushed through his arteries in a veritable stream of life. His face glistened with a profuse sweat.
Carmena held to the pace until he fell down, gasping for water and completely exhausted. The wonder was that he had been able to do so much after the terrible shock of the Gila monster poison. They had come into the midst of scattered mesquite trees, which offered a degree of cover. Carmena first tied up the pony, then opened the half gallon canteen for Lennon.
While he sought to quench his fierce thirst, she hastily threw off the pony's loosened pack. Silk tent, blankets, prospector's tools, packsacks, bacon, flour—all were discarded. From her saddlebags she dumped half of her own bacon and all but a pint of cornmeal. Into its place she slipped the half dozen sticks of dynamite, with their fuses and caps.
One of Lennon's full gallon canteens was slung to the saddlehorn, opposite the horsehair rope. From its mate the girl refilled the smaller canteen, which Lennon had already more than half emptied. She took a deep drink and then carefully closed both canteens.
"Sorry, but we must cut it close on water," she said. "The bronchos have us headed off from the other tanks. With your hand useless, we can't fight. We'll have to swing around through the dry side of the Basin. No time to lose! They'll be on our trail before long."
Lennon sprang to his feet.
"Mount your horse and ride as fast as you can," he ordered. "I'll trot along after you. Don't bother about me. I can shoot well enough left-handed to hold off the beggars until dark."
Carmena suddenly came close to him, her eyes aglow with soft radiance. She caught up his injured hand. It was still swollen and bleeding, but the purple-black discoloration had lightened to red; her deft fingers tore a strip from her handkerchief and bound up the ragged wounds.
"There. Now you'll get on and ride," she said. "You don't suppose I'll leave you to those devils, after you saved my life!"
"But it is you who have saved mine, Miss Farley."
"To say that—when you jammed your hand into the monster's mouth! If he had bit me I'd have had no show at all. You didn't know how to treat the poison. No. Either the bronchos will get us both, or we're going to win through to the ranch together."
"But, Miss Farley——"
The heat-flush in the girl's tanned cheeks deepened to rose.
"I never before knew a man like you, Jack. Won't you call me Carmena?"
The candid directness of this rather took Lennon's breath. But the girl was of the desert—efficient, resolute, crude in dress, yet rich coloured as the bloom of the red-flowered cactus. She had saved him from the horrible death of the Gila monster's poison and was now intent upon saving him from even worse fate at the hands of the murderous Apaches.
He caught up her willing hand in an eager clasp.
"Carmena!—To have a girl like you for pal—it's simply ripping!"
"Pal?" she repeated the word after him, as if not quite certain of its meaning. "Oh, you mean pard. Yes, we're partners now—for this deal at least—whether it means life or death."
PARDS IN PERIL
As Lennon's clasp relaxed, the girl's tightened. She drew him toward the pony.
"You've got to ride," she said. "You can't stand the pace. That poison is no joke. Don't want to hold me back, do you?"
The question overcame Lennon's reluctance. The girl had refused to leave him, and she was right about the poison. He could endure the severe pain of his wounded hand, but he was still weak and badly shaken from the effects of the venom. Unless he rode he would be a drag upon her.
"Very well," he agreed, and he permitted her to help him clamber up into the saddle.
No time was lost over lengthening the stirrup leathers. Carmena handed him his rifle and the half-emptied gallon canteen, caught up the small one and her own rifle, and started off in lead of the pony. Her easy swinging stride, though seemingly unhurried, covered the ground faster than the pony could walk. Every little while the animal had to break into a jog to catch up with her.
At the far end of the scattered mesquite growth Carmena edged off to the left, down a shallow wash that brought them around to the west side of a ridge. Under cover of the gaunt earth-rib of worn rock she headed north, straight for the distant towers of Triple Butte.
The deceptive green of occasional palo-verde bushes now gave place to the columns of the giant sahuaro. The fluted, leafless stems of these high-towering cactus candelabras bristled with fierce thorns, yet each was crowned with the glory of a gorgeous foot-wide blossom.
Over the loose hot sand, amidst this shadeless mockery of a forest, Carmena swung steadily along at her graceful stride. Her movements seemed as lacking in effort as the lope of a coyote or the bound of a cat. Lennon would not have realized how greatly she was exerting herself had he not seen how frequently she drank from her canteen.
No one of white blood, however thoroughly inured to thirst, can walk fast under the blistering sun, in the bone-dry air of the desert, without need of much water. Lennon, though riding, was no less parched than the girl. He was fresh from a moist climate, and the Gila monster poison had put him into a feverish condition. Hard as he tried, he could not resist drinking. His canteen was emptied even sooner than Carmena's.
This was little past mid-afternoon. They had left the sahuaros behind and were coming down among widely scattered salt bushes to the border of an utterly barren alkali flat. For the first time since the stop in the mesquite, Carmena halted her quick advance. But it was not to rest. The feverish crimson of Lennon's face sobered her reassuring smile. She peered searchingly back along the trail, glanced at the sun, and hastily transferred to their empty canteens all but a quart from the full canteen on the saddlehorn.
"We've got to make it last till sundown, Jack," she warned. "Then, if only we can hold our lead, we'll be able to keep going all night."
Lennon drew out two half dollars. "How about trying these in our mouths?"
"They'll help," she replied, and she took one. "Be ready to tie your neckerchief over your nose, soon as we strike the alkali."
The wisdom of this advice was evident when they started out across the snow-white flat. Every step stirred up clouds of alkali dust that hung about the fugitives like thick smoke. The impalpable powder penetrated their clothes, smarted in their eyes, and all but choked them, even behind the veiling neckerchiefs.
Before they had half crossed the fearful dust flat Carmena was walking as slowly as the pony. At the far side she sank down beside a thick-stemmed cactus. Lennon, half delirious from fever, sought to spring off, with the vague idea of forcing her to ride. He succeeded only in tumbling upon the sand. The startled pony shied clear. With a smothered cry, Carmena leaped up to grasp his bridle.
"Close call!" she gasped at Lennon. "If he'd made off—no show for us at all."
Lennon was too far gone for speech. His canteen was already half empty. Carmena gave him a sip from her own and dragged him around until his head lay in the small blot of shade made by a cactus stem. Half an hour passed before he was able to get back into the saddle. But the rest appeared to have fully restored the girl's strength. She set off at a pace that again forced the pony into an occasional jog.
After a time the sheltering ridge ran down into the sandy level of the desert. Yet Carmena continued to find a route protected by inequalities of the ground or by growths of cactus and thorn scrub from any eyes that might be peering across the Basin. As the sun sank nearer to the western rim of buttes and mesas she kept an ever closer watch to the rear. Her own and Lennon's canteens were again empty and her seemingly tireless stride was at last beginning to flag.
By the time the lower edge of the sun touched the rim of the Basin the fugitives had come opposite a long range of broken hills. Carmena dragged herself wearily up over an out-thrust spur ridge. Lennon was swaying in the saddle, and his tongue, like hers, had begun to swell. But the girl did not offer to open the canteen on the saddlehorn.
At the top of the ridge she hurried the pony down below the skyline and crept back to peer over a ledge. Far to the rear, across the shadow-streaked waste, her anxious eyes sighted a group of moving dots. She ran to seize the pony's bridle and urge him into a jog.
"Must hurry!" she rasped in a thirst-harshened voice. "They're trailing us—on the lope!"
The alarm shocked Lennon out of his semi-delirium. His relaxing grip on the rifle tightened. He straightened in the saddle. Carmena did not look back at him. She was turning into the mouth of a wash that appeared to head over toward the far side of the hills. Half a mile up the wash the gravelly bottom changed to loose stones. Carmena smashed the smaller canteen and tossed it off to one side.
Some distance farther along the footing became all rock. Carmena stopped on a flat ledge and flung the big canteen she was carrying as far as she could up the arroyo. She then changed from her boots to the long-legged moccasins that she had hidden in one of the saddlebags. No less hastily she cut strips from the Navaho saddleblanket to tie over the pony's lightly shod hoofs.
The sun had now been down for several minutes, and the clear desert twilight was beginning to fade. Carmena turned the pony and carefully led him at an easy angle up a flight of solid step ledges on the side of the arroyo. Half circling a hill, she descended another arroyo that ran northwest, back down into the level desert.
By the time the edge of the broken ground had been reached dusk was deepening into night. Carmena halted and eased Lennon down out of the saddle. Water, trickled a few drops at a time between his cracked lips, gradually soothed his swollen tongue and parched throat. His fever was already subsiding in the coolness of nightfall.
Carmena gave him almost half of the remaining quart of water. A half pint more she used to rinse her own mouth and moisten the nostrils of the pony. The few sips left were held in reserve.
Scant as was the water ration, it enabled both the girl and Lennon to suck at lumps of raw bacon. They lay silently mouthing and chewing the greasy fat, their rifles ready and their ears alert for the slightest thud of approaching hoofs. But no sound broke the deathlike stillness of the desert night.
"Looks like we fooled 'em," whispered Carmena. "They must have found the canteens—figured we'd gone desperate with thirst and headed on across for the nearest water hole. Can you mount again?"
Lennon dragged himself to his feet.
"You're wonderful!" he murmured. "If you'd leave me here—I'm only a drag. You could ride at a gallop——"
She grasped his arm and pushed him around beside the horse.
"Don't be looney. We can go all night without a drop. Count on me to out-travel the pony till sun-up. Get on. You don't suppose I'm going back on my pard, do you?"
There was no room for argument. Lennon's condition was still so serious that she had to help him into the saddle. With the pony in lead, she set out straight toward the North Star.
Before many miles Lennon caught himself lapsing into a doze. He had almost dropped his rifle. To make certain against its loss, he thrust it into his cartridge belt like a pistol. After this he drowsed off again into a half torpor of sleep and exhaustion. Some automatic functioning of his subconscious mind kept him balanced in the saddle.
When at last he roused from the stupor it was to a miserable realization of pain and weariness and cold. A bleak gray light was filtering over the eastern rim of mesas down into the blackness of the Basin. Dry as was this land of desolation, it was not so utterly arid as the sea-level deserts of the lower Colorado.
Lennon shivered and forced open his heavy eyelids. He first made out the bowed figure of Carmena plodding along, with one backward-dragged hand noosed in the reins of the weary pony. The gray light gradually brightened. He saw that the girl was swaying, almost staggering. He forced out a hoarse cry:
The call broke the hypnotic spell of motion that alone had enabled the girl to keep placing one leaden foot before the other. She tottered and sank down and lay still. Lennon dropped out of the saddle to bend over her. Like the knees of the pony, the girl's moccasins were torn with the thorns of cacti and desert bushes, against which they had struck in the dark.
She had not fainted. Her dark eyes gazed up at Lennon, wide with an anguish of self-reproach.
"Used up—can't make it," she whispered. "No chance for both—after sun-up. Ride hard toward Triple Butte."
Lennon's reply was to open the canteen and hold it to her lips. Only a few drops were left when she managed to thrust it away. He put his uninjured arm about her slender waist and lifted her to her feet.
"Ride—your turn," he commanded. "I walk. Never say die!"
Her sunken eyes lighted with a faint glow. A last flicker of strength enabled her, with his help, to pull herself into the saddle. Lennon caught up her rifle and started off toward Triple Butte in desperate haste.
An hour after sunrise found him still staggering forward almost at a dog trot. The northern border mesas of the Basin were now only a short distance ahead. But already his swollen tongue was beginning to blacken in his mouth. When at last he came to the foot of the lower mesa he could barely totter.
Carmena rode up alongside. She huskily whispered for him to hand over her rifle and grasp the stirrup leather. He had not dragged along beside the pony more than a hundred paces when a jerk on the reins headed the weary beast around into the mouth of a broad canon. Carmena uttered a sharp cry and pointed ahead. Near the base of the canon wall a dark patch on the ledges was shimmering in the sunrays.
Hope flared high in the hearts of the perishing fugitives—only to flicker and die out again in utter despair. The black patch was water—a tiny spring that seeped from a horizontal crevice between the stratas of rock—but its trickle was spread out in a paper-thin sheet down the sloping lower ledges. At their foot it vanished in the dry sand of the canon bed.
They could cool their swollen tongues and so obtain temporary relief from their suffering. But they could not suck up enough water to quench their terrible thirst. Nor could they collect in the canteen even a gill of water to take with them.
Lennon, however, was an engineer. Even while hope fled from him, his eyes were peering around with the scrutiny of a trained observer and thinker.
His roving gaze fixed upon a bank a little way out from the canon mouth. He staggered down to it and came back with a handful of dry clay. This he spread out upon the least tilted of the wet ledges. By patting and scraping he soon had a little ball that kneaded like putty in his eager fingers.
Carmena already had perceived his purpose and was hurrying to fetch a heaping hatful of the dry clay. Before many minutes they had built a little concave dam, in which the down-seeping water slowly but steadily collected.
When at last they had quenched their thirst Lennon took his rifle and went to sit under a shady ledge where he could look out into the Basin. Carmena lingered at the spring to water the pony and fill the canteen. She then gave all the cornmeal to the beast and brought slices of raw bacon to share with Lennon.
He clasped the hand in which she held out his first slice.
"So we made it, after all. Good work?"
"Yes, we made it, Jack!" she exulted. "Close shave—but worth the risk. I know now for sure you're a man, a real man!"
Her glowing eyes brought a deeper red into Lennon's sunburnt face.
"I'm still pretty much of a tenderfoot," he protested. "And there's this game arm. I'd rather run than fight."
The girl smiled.
"That's all right till you get back the use of your hand. But it won't hurt to show those bronchos the range of your rifle. They're coming a bit too fast to suit us."
Lennon stared out across the open plain. Rather more than a mile away a dozen or more riders were loping along the trail of the fugitives.
The sights slid up on Lennon's rifle. He put the butt to his left shoulder and rested the barrel across a rock. The first bullet raised a puff of dust a little to the left of the Indians. The second must have shrieked close over their heads. They wheeled their ponies and scattered out in fanlike formation.
Lennon's fourth shot caught one of the ponies broadside. The beast tumbled over and lay motionless. Its rider dashed behind a cactus. The rest of the Apaches wrenched their ponies about and raced to get back beyond range. They had not bargained on a rifle that could shoot so far. A renegade prefers to kill without risk to himself.
"That's enough," chuckled Carmena. "There's no cover for 'em unless they crawl up afoot. Some will ride around and climb the mesa. Time we were moving. Come on. We'll beat 'em into the Hole."
Lennon elevated his rifle and sent a parting shot over the heads of the fleeing riders. When he came running back into the canon mouth Carmena had the canteen swung to the saddlehorn and was lacing on her boots, in place of the torn moccasins.
After a last deep drink from the pool and another sombreroful for the pony, the little dam was carefully scraped off the ledge and the clay covered with a loose boulder. The Apaches would be able to lap the wet stone but not to drink. They were not engineers or dam builders.
The race up the canon was far different from the terrible flight of the previous day and the misery of the night. The cool spring water had been very refreshing, lofty cliffs shadowed the canon bed from the hot morning sunrays, and the pain of Lennon's lacerated hand had eased to a dull ache. He took turn about with Carmena, riding and running.
The canon bottom was fairly smooth. For more than an hour the fugitives raced up the great cleft between the towering precipices and past narrow side canons. At last they came to a break in the sheer walls. The cliff on the right leaned back in a series of terraces that formed a broken giant stairway to the top of the mesa.
Carmena led the pony up a sloping shelf ledge. The line of ascent picked out by her practised eye proved unexpectedly easy. As they climbed in steep zigzags from terrace to terrace Lennon trailed behind. Carmena noticed his frequent glances down into the canon bottom.
"Don't worry," she said. "They didn't rush the canon mouth—they crawled. If any circled and climbed the mesa, the side canons cut 'em off from us. We'll beat 'em to the Hole."
"The Hole—we'll find help there?" queried Lennon.
"Slade is away. But I figure we'll be safe enough, once we get in. There's Dad and—my sister."
"If they are at all like you, Carmena!"
The girl paused on a ledge to gaze down at him with a somber, clouded look that brightened into a tender smile.
"Elsie is as much like me as a lily is like a cactus. No thorns about her. She's cuddlier than a kitten. Eyes bluer than forget-me-nots, Jack; hair yellow as corn silk. She's only eighteen and sweet as honey."
"I'm picturing an angel," bantered Lennon. "Your father must be a fine man to have two such daughters."
The flush in the girl's tanned cheeks deepened. But the soft glow of her eyes faded and left them dull and haggard.
"Dad's been unlucky all 'round," she murmured. "Not his fault, either. He came West for his health—almost died—one lung gone."
"Hard lines," sympathized Lennon. "Ranch work can't be easy for a sick man."
The girl climbed to another terrace before she replied:
"That's not the worst of it. Slade came six years ago—when we were starving. Dad got in with him. He can't break loose. If only we could get away, Dad would be all right."
"Yes?" said Lennon.
Carmena remained silent until he came panting up after her to the top of the steepest ascent. While he paused to catch his breath she opened the canteen. They were by now badly in need of a drink. Before starting on up the ledges she met Lennon's smiling gaze with a look of tremulous appeal.
"Dad used to be a lawyer," she faltered. "If only you'll try to like him and—and help."
"Of course!" exclaimed Lennon. "Aren't we pals? You're pulling me through this scrape. Perhaps I can pull him out of his hole. You called it Dead Hole, didn't you?"
"Yes," murmured the girl. "That's the name and—it fits."
"You've stood by me. I'll stand by you," Lennon pledged himself. "We'll look for that copper mine together. I'm working for a big copper syndicate. If I relocate the mine I am to receive twenty thousand in cash and ten per cent. of the stock. Your half of the cash should pull your dad out of his hole."
The girl's eyes dilated.
"Don't—don't tell Dad!" she gasped. "It's not the money I want. You don't sabe. Promise you won't say a word to Dad about the money—or the mine?"
"Why, if you do not wish me——"
"Not a word—not the barest hint! Promise!"
"Very well. Only——"
"You'll learn all too soon!" she murmured, and she started quickly up the last ascent.
When they rounded the brink, twelve hundred feet above the canon bed, the girl did not linger to talk. She dropped the pony's reins and started off at a jog across the hot, level, cedar-dotted top of the mesa.
Lennon galloped ahead of her, tied the pony, and ran on afoot. Carmena copied the maneuver. In this manner, taking turn about, they covered the ground almost as fast as if both had been mounted. As each drank from the canteen at every stop and Carmena twice wet the nostrils of the pony, none was yet exhausted when, at the end of five or six miles, the girl headed down into a quickly narrowing valley.
The funnel-shaped trough pinched to a steep chute between precipices that leaned closer together overhead the deeper the fugitives descended. The bed of the narrow mountain crack became even more steep. In places the pony had to jump like a goat down five and six-foot ledges. Time and again he slid on his haunches. At the worst place of all the beast was saved from certain destruction only by snubbing his horsehair picket rope around a corner of rock and so easing his descent to better footing.
But, as Carmena remarked, the steeper the grade the sooner it was ended. They came down into the bottom of the lower canon, bruised and exhausted but with no bones broken.
"Almost there," panted Carmena, and she reeled ahead along the boulder-strewn bed of the chasm.
At the second turn the cliff ended in a vertical slit-glare of sunlight. The pony whinnied. Carmena led the way out into an oval cliff-walled valley, two or three miles long and half as broad.
First to strike Lennon's desert-starved eyes was the vivid grateful verdure of irrigated cornfields. Beyond, in browning hay meadows, grazed a herd of cattle and twenty or thirty head of horses. Three quarters of a mile to the left, in a cavity forty feet up the rock wall and well under an overhang of the towering precipices, nestled a group of stone ruins.
Lennon pointed toward the ancient buildings.
"Cliff dwellings, I take it."
"Yes—I told Elsie to be ready with the ladder. We'll make it in time for the call of Cochise."
Before Lennon could inquire the meaning of this, she sprang upon the pony and loped along the cliff foot toward the cliff ruins. As Lennon jogged after her he saw a rope ladder slide down the under cliff, followed by a rope reeved through a crane that thrust out from another opening in the facade of the cliff building.
Carmena's saddle and bags, saddle blanket and rifle, and the canteen—all were fast to the hoisting rope when Lennon came staggering and panting up beside the girl. She pointed toward the head of the valley and caught the rifle from him to tie it on the load.
"A miss is as good as a mile," she said. "We'll just have time to get up. Cochise and Pete must have ridden over around and come down Hell Canon. Ours was Devil's Chute."
Lennon frowned at the pair of riders who were racing swiftly down aslant from the head of the valley.
"We'll be ready to pick them off," he said. "There's no cover under here."
"Too late for that," sighed Carmena. "Dad won't let us. Besides—Pete——"
"But when the murderers have tried to kill you!—And they'll steal all his cattle."
The girl winced and looked down.
"No. You see Dad—he is friends with all the—Indians hereabouts. I'll be safe enough now, soon as Cochise cools off. It's only a question of you."
"I see!" exclaimed Lennon. "You know the renegades. You would have been safe at the first. You have risked your own life just to save mine. I'll never forget that, Carmena."
"If only—if only you'll remember—when you know!" she whispered, and she turned to start up the rope ladder.
As Lennon stepped forward after her he noticed that the saddle load had already been hoisted above his reach and was rapidly going higher.
A rope ladder draped upon the face of a smooth rock wall and unfastened below is at best not easy to climb. Lennon had to crook his right elbow through the rungs to get any use of his injured arm. But the riders racing swiftly across the head of the valley would soon be within short rifle range. Lennon's left hand was only a few rungs below Carmena's boot heels all the way up the ladder.
At the top the girl pulled herself in over the worn stone sill of a massive-walled doorway. As Lennon scrambled up and through the deep entrance after her he glimpsed a thin gray face, with bleary red eyes and loose lips, leering at him out of the darkness of an inner room.
To the right, a little way back from the next opening, a small fair-haired girl was rapidly winding in on a miner's windlass. She stopped to tug at a rope. The crane swung around into the entrance with the saddle and rifles.
Carmena had already faced about to haul the ladder up the cliff. Lennon caught hold with his left hand to help her. They had gathered in less than ten yards when a bullet whizzed between their heads and splattered on the stone wall at the rear of the room. Carmena hooked the ladder over a peg at the side of the doorway and forcibly dragged Lennon out of the opening.
Two more bullets whizzed in, one of them angling up close over the sill. Had it come a moment sooner Lennon must have been struck. Carmena's hand shook and her voice quavered, though she sought to speak in an unconcerned tone:
"That's warmer than I expected at this stage of the game. Guess Cochise is feeling pretty bad in his heart. We'll have to let him cool down awhile."
"Why not return his compliments?" suggested Lennon. "We can easily pick off both of the devils without exposing ourselves."
"And get the rest of the bunch down on us! No, Jack, they've got us holed up. We might slip away before the others came but they'd make a clean sweep of the stock and everything else. Come and meet Elsie. Cochise will soon tire of wasting cartridges."
The fair-haired girl was cowering behind the massive front wall of the cliff house. At every shot from the rifles of the infuriated Apaches she crouched lower. Carmena held out reassuring arms to her.
"There, there, Blossom," she soothed. "You've no need to be scared."
The trembler sprang to clasp the neck of the older girl.
"Oh, Mena, Mena!" she sobbed. "I'm so glad you're back! It's been awful! Dad had one of his spells; and now, with Cochise angry——"
"We'll manage him—never fear. He's stopped shooting already. Quit your shaking. I don't want Jack to think you a silly little rabbit."
For the first time the panic-stricken girl appeared to realize that Lennon was a stranger. She lifted her head from Carmena's bosom to stare at him with innocent childish wonderment. Her piquant little face was flowerlike in its delicate contours and apricot tinting; her big blue eyes were the pure intense blue of alpine forget-me-nots. No line of her pretty face bore the slightest resemblance to Carmena's comely but strong features.
"O-o-oh!" she voiced her amazement. "He's new—and he's white!"
"Yes, but he and I are pards," Carmena reassured her. "Shake hands. He has come to help us."
"To help us?" The young girl held out a timid hand. "You—you won't side with Cochise? You won't let him take me?"
"'Course he won't," put in Carmena. "Didn't I tell you we're pards? His name is Jack Lennon, and he's a real man."
Lennon was pressing the soft little hand of the younger girl.
"So you are Sister Elsie," he said. "Carmena is right. I will not side with Cochise—if that's our hot friend down below."
The girl's rosebud lips parted in a smile of wondering delight.
"You called me sister! Then you'll be my brother—my Brother Jack!"
Lennon was astonished that any girl more than fourteen could be so naive. Yet the effect was more than charming.
"I'll be only too happy, if Carmena has no objection."
He glanced up into the face of the older girl and surprised a look not meant for him to see. As the down-drooping lashes veiled her dark eyes a deep blush glowed under the tan of her dust-grimed, haggard face. The realization of the meaning of that blush and glance sobered Lennon.
The girl had known him a scant seven-and-twenty hours. But in that full day had been packed more intense peril and emotion than many couples share in a lifetime. He had saved her and she him. Together they had suffered agonies of thirst and exhaustion, and together they had cheated the murderous Apaches. Even now, down beneath them at the foot of this ancient cliff refuge, the leader of the renegades was futilely cursing.
Lennon was a white man, and he had proved himself not a quitter. The girl had been overwrought by their terrible flight. That she should fancy herself beginning to fall in love with him was quite understandable. The discovery of the fact set his jaded nerves to tingling with a pleasant thrill even as he realized the awkwardness of the situation.
By way of diversion, he stepped around to take his rifle from the saddle. As he straightened up with it the muzzle of a double-barreled shotgun thrust out at him from a small slit window in the end wall of the room. Behind the gun, framed deep by the thick stone of the window casing, he saw the leering gray face that he had first caught a glimpse of in another opening at the opposite end of the room.
A thin dry voice that was shrill with fear snarled at him:
"Hands up! Drop that gun!"
Carmena flung herself between Lennon and the threatening muzzle.
"Don't shoot, Dad! He's a friend!" she cried.
Over her shoulder Lennon saw the reddened eyes blink and the muscles of the gray face twitch. The muzzle of the shotgun wavered.
"Put your gun down, Dad," Carmena ordered. "Mr. Lennon and I are partners. Come out here and meet him."
Both face and gun disappeared. After several moments a smallish gray-haired man shuffled out through the doorway on the right of the window and scurried across the opening into which the crane had swung its load. As he unbent his emaciated body to face the visitor his breath was heavy with the fumes of whiskey.
Lennon knew without looking that Carmena's eyes were fixed upon him in mute appeal. He had given her his promise to help her father. There was no betrayal of repugnance in the friendly offer of his hand.
"My name is Lennon, Mr. Farley. Your daughter tells me you were a lawyer. I'm a professional man myself—engineer."
Farley stiffened to a show of dignity.
"I am still a lawyer," he rasped. "I must stipulate that you are received here with reservations. Your presence is a trespass. This ranch is private property and——"
"All right, Dad. That lets you out with Slade and Cochise," interrupted Carmena. "We'll all bear witness. Come in now. We're both half dead for want of food and sleep. Those devils ran us clear across the Basin."
Lennon glanced at his rifle.
"How about the two below?"
"We might send down a pie to them," suggested the timid Elsie. "That would make Cochise feel better."
To the vast surprise of Lennon Carmena took this preposterous proposal seriously.
"All right, Blossom. But not a drop of tizwin, mind. This way, Jack."
The doorway opened into a large living-room, homelike with bright-hued Navaho rugs, a quantity of cliff-dweller pottery, and a sufficiency of heavy, comfortable furniture hewn out of cedar. The chairs were seated and backed with tightly stretched rawhide. Several artistic pictures from periodicals were pasted on the stone walls. In one corner a pot was boiling over a charcoal brazier.
As the fair-haired Elsie thrust a big pie into a loop-handled basket and hurried out, Carmena fetched two large bowls brimming with soup. While her back was turned Farley winked leeringly at the visitor and offered him a half-emptied whiskey flask. Carmena was in time to see Lennon refuse the drink. Her fatigue-bent shoulders straightened to a deep-drawn breath, and her sunken eyes glowed softly.
Cool water from a sweating jar and rich meat broth thickened with beans and corn were, at last, equal to the task of satisfying even so ravenous a hunger and thirst as Lennon's. Elsie had come back with her basket empty. She set to waiting upon Carmena and "Brother Jack" with shy delight.
The other visitors, down below, evidently had not been displeased by the gift of the pie. There was no resumption of the firing. Lennon felt that he understood the reason, when the girl divided another pie between him and Carmena. It was made of dewberries, sweetened with honey.
Lennon found his eyelids beginning to droop. At a word from Carmena, Farley led him to a cool dark inner room. He curtly pointed out a rude bed-frame across which had been stretched a rawhide. Lennon fell asleep the moment he lay down upon the elastic bed.
CRAFT AND CRUELTY
When Lennon wakened he was at first so stiff and sore that he could hardly turn over. Yet his strength had in good part returned to him, and he was aware of a grateful feeling of refreshment and well-being.
Someone had covered him over with a finely woven old Navaho rug. In pushing it off he noticed a fresh bandage on his wounded hand and the arm above. Under the cloth was an aromatic resinous salve. He next discovered that his boots and socks had been taken off and his badly blistered feet washed and treated with a healing powder.
He sat up on the side of the bedstead. Before him stood a chair draped with a towel and a change of coarse, but clean clothes. On the clean-swept floor were a pair of soft moccasins, a dishpan, a bar of soap, and a large jar of water.
When he limped out of his bedroom he had "tubbed" himself as thoroughly as an Englishman and felt as ravenous as a wolf. Elsie was alone in the living room, deftly handling pots and pans on the charcoal brazier.
"Good morning," he hailed. "Glad I'm just in time for breakfast."
The girl upturned her wide blue eyes to him in a look of shy delight.
"I heard you splashing about and I hustled," she replied. "But it's not breakfast—it's dinner."
"So early as this?"
"So late! You've slept all the rest of yesterday and all night and all morning. I thought you'd never wake. Sit down."
"How about the others?"
"Oh, Dad just nibbles when he has his tizwin spells, and Mena ate hers mid-morning."
The table top had been scrubbed. Lennon sat down at the nearest corner and fell to on the omelette and fried chicken, cream cheese, salad, cornbread and honey that she set before him. The food was all served in bowls and jugs of quaintly beautiful ancient cliff-dweller pottery.
"There's no cream for your coffee," the girl apologized. "The milk soured. Mena was asleep, and I dassn't go down to the goats alone. Cochise has come back with all the bunch. Dad was cross not to get cream. He's cranky over his food."
"You say those red devils are all down there?"
The girl cringed.
"Don't—don't speak so loud. Cochise might hear you. He's stopped swearing. I lowered a whole basketful of pies to them. Carmena is getting ready to give him a big talking to. She—she won't let them get us."
"That's good news," rallied Lennon.
For the first time he was able to look away from his food long enough to notice that Elsie was wearing a fresh pretty frock of blue-dotted calico. He smiled at her amusedly.
"Didn't you promise to be a sister to me—or something like that? Why not sit down with me and celebrate our escape?"
The girl clasped her hands together in childlike delight.
"Oh, do you want me to be, really and truly? Only I don't know how to act to a brother. Sisters are different. They kiss each other—sometimes. If you don't mind, I'll just sit and watch. I had mine with Mena."
With unconscious grace, she perched on the edge of the table.
"You eat ever so much nicer than Cochise."
"I should hope so—a wild Indian!"
"But he isn't. He's educated—he went to the Reservation school. He knows a whole lot. That's why he's never been sent up. They caught him only once. But Dad got him off. Dad's a lawyer, you know. He didn't want to go out and leave us, but he's so scarey he does everything Slade tells him."
Lennon recalled Carmena's plea for him to help her father and sister. He thought he understood the situation.
"So this Slade and the Indians are keeping all of you prisoners, here in the Hole, are they? Yet Carmena got out. Why hasn't she taken you and your Dad?"
Elsie's big blue eyes rounded.
"But they won't let us out—only one at a time, and I'm 'fraid to go alone, 'cause of Cochise. Besides, the Hole is Dad's ranch. He won't give it up and Slade keeps promising him his share of the profits, and it's a mighty flourishing business."
"What, farming in a place like this?"
"Course not. That's just for fodder. We're stockholders, Dad says. We con—conduct a stock exchange. Slade sells what the bunch maverick and brand-blot."
The terms brought no enlightenment to Lennon. He was from the Atlantic coast.
"You mean they deal in cattle?" he inquired.
"Cattle and horses—and tizwin," added Elsie, screwing up her luscious little mouth over the last word as if it had a bad taste.
Lennon caught a half glimmer of the truth. But the girl's thoughts had flitted butterfly-fashion——
"I hope your feet don't hurt. Mena's were even rawer—awful bad. She just couldn't help crying when I sopped them with the tizwin. She says that's all it's good for. I never knew her to cry before. But you were too dead asleep to feel the smart. I'll have your boots oiled and your clothes cleaned before you need 'em."
Quite naturally, Lennon inferred from this chatter that Elsie had first made Carmena comfortable and then, with innocent concern for him, had ventured into his room alone to treat his injured hand and feet.
He laid down his fork to clasp one of her plump, capable little hands with grateful warmth.
"It was most kind of you, Elsie, to care for my injuries."
The grown-up child beamed at him radiantly.
"I think you awful nice, Jack! I just knew I'd like you, the minute I set eyes on you."
"My word!—when I looked like a dying tramp," teased Lennon.
Carmena had not exaggerated. Elsie was sweet as honey and cuddlier than a kitten. He felt tempted to put a finger under her dainty up-tilted chin.
"Now that I look more like a matinee idol, just how much more do you like me?" he bantered.
"Oh, heaps more than I liked the first pard Mena brought in. He was a cowman, and after they made him pay a whole lot to get loose, Mena set Cochise on him 'cause he wanted me to go away to live with him—like Slade. They filled him up with tizwin and left him out in the middle of the Basin, with only tizwin in his canteen. Mena said it served him right and dead men tell no tales."
"You can't mean to say your father and sister were parties to such an outrage—that they helped to rob a man and then abandon him to die of thirst?"
"Why not?" demanded Elsie, with unexpected spirit. "He wasn't what Mena thought him. He was a bad cowman. He wanted to bring his bunch and shoot up the Hole and kill us all and make me go with him. You see how it was, don't you?"
"Yes," agreed Lennon, certain that he understood.
His surmise was that Carmena had sought help from a neighbouring rancher, and the man had proved himself a scoundrel. Elsie had not mentioned any proposal of marriage. Whatever the lawlessness of Farley's Indian associates, they had apparently put the guilty man to ransom and then turned him loose to die in the desert, merely by way of vengeance for his attempted wrong against the girl.
Yet both of the girls had given out that the partnership with the Apaches and the unknown Slade was by no means satisfactory. Farley feared his associates, and they would permit him and Carmena to leave the Hole only one at a time.
On the other hand, when he first met Carmena, she had been alone on the trail, only a few miles from the railway. Why had she not galloped to the nearest station and led a sheriff's posse to free her father and sister? She knew that Cochise and his fellows were "bronchos."
Across the train of Lennon's thoughts fell a black shadow of suspicion. Was it possible that the girl had acted as a decoy to lure him into this ill-omened Dead Hole? She had previously brought in another man, who had in effect been murdered, after paying ransom.
In his own case, the girl had herself suffered far too much during their flight from the Apaches for the pursuit to have been a sham. But she may very well have had an arrangement with the renegades to lure a victim into the Basin; and then, untrustful of their bloodthirsty instincts, had fled with her prize to the Hole, so that he might be put to ransom.
The more Lennon pondered the situation, the more everything related to it appeared in a worse and worse light—everything and everybody, except the open-eyed innocent little Elsie. The Apaches admittedly were renegades. The absent Slade had been mentioned by no means favourably. Farley was far from prepossessing either in appearance or words or actions. As for Carmen, even the tender glances that he had surprised might be explained by the coquetry of a Delilah.
Lennon rose from his chair with an appearance Of calm deliberation.
"Would you be so kind as to bring me my rifle, Elsie?" he asked. "With smokeless powder a gun needs frequent cleaning and oiling."
"Yes. Carmena always keeps hers clean as a whistle. But Dad put yours away. He said he apprehended that you might become per—perturbed and commit an assault with a deadly weapon. He and Mena are talking things over now—— No, they're coming out. Want to hear Mena give it to Cochise?"
The girl darted through the largest doorway. Lennon, still affecting cool indifference, stepped out after her into the long, bare anteroom whose rear wall Cochise and his mate had so angrily splashed with bullets.
Farley was crouched at the far side of the rope-ladder doorway. Carmena had bent her head to pass under the massive lintel. Lennon followed Elsie to the side of the doorway opposite Farley. The lawyer-ranchman appeared to cringe, yet he held to his position and even attempted an ingratiating smile as he rasped out a half-whispered, "G'day."
Lennon gave him a curt nod and bent down to peer into the deep entrance. Carmena did not glance around. If she heard him, she gave no heed. She had seated herself upon a Navaho rug and was leaning forward to look over the cliff, with her hands on the sillstone at the brink. Down below Lennon could see only a single swarthy face, bound about the forehead with a wide cloth band. The other Indians were in nearer the base of the cliff.
Instead of crouching in tense readiness to dodge back out of danger, Carmena gazed over at her late pursuers with serene fearlessness. Her rich contralto voice, no longer harsh from thirst, rang mockingly down the cliff:
"Howdy, boys. Glad you've begun to cool off. Quite a warm run, wasn't it?"
From below came an explosion of thick gutturals and hissings. Carmena flung out a hand in a gesture of refusal.
"No, I won't, Cochise. I'll talk American, and so will you—— And you'll speak decently, or we chop off. Sabe?"
There followed a silence of several moments. Carmena's patience soon reached its snapping point. She frowned and started to draw back. The voice below called up, still thick and guttural, but speaking clear-cut English:
"You lied. You said you catch another sucker."
"I said I would fetch another man to the Hole, and I have done it. Any lie about that?" countered the girl.
"Dam' plenty," came back an angry shout. "You knew what we want him for."
"How about Slade? What'll he want him for? Haven't you any sense any more, Cochise? Have you forgotten how Dad had to get you loose? Don't you see you've got to keep on playing the game our way? Yours is out of date. Even in the days of your Uncle Cochise and Geronimo it didn't work."
"They got a heap of fun."
"Well, let me tell you one thing—the new man is my game, not yours. You had your chance and missed it. He stood up full of Gila monster poison and got away from you—threw you off his trail—tricked a bunch of Apache trailers—out-ran and out-thirsted you. Want me to tell that to Slade?"
The taunt was followed by another prolonged silence. Carmena smiled and tossed down first a bare corn cob and then a full ear.
"Which will you have?" she asked. "Your way, you'll get the cob. My way, we'll all have a share of corn. A man who could fool and out-game you wouldn't make a poor partner to take into our business. We'll wait for Slade to decide."
"You give me my woman, I wait," bargained the unseen Cochise.
Carmena fairly blazed with anger. She hurled down another bare corncob.
"She's not your woman. You sha'n't have her! We'll see what Slade says about that and about your running me across the Basin. You know you can't scare me. Now, is it fight, or do you back up?"
The reply was a jabber of hissings and gutturals. Carmena jerked her hand about in swift signs and cried back in uncouth thick-tongued Apache words. The dispute at last ended in a sullen mutter from below and a sudden thudding of hoofs. The Apaches dashed out from under the cliff, loping their horses toward a corral over across to the left of the cornfields.
Carmena drew back out of the deep doorway, with a look of profound relief. At sight of Lennon she smiled and caught up his wounded hand.
"I've made Cochise back up," she said. "We're safe from the bunch till Slade returns—only none of us can leave the Hole. How's your arm feeling?"
The dark eyes were very clear and straightforward in their gaze. Lennon flushed with shame over his black suspicions. These renegade Apaches, and Slade as well, probably were bad men. Farley no doubt was in with them. But he appeared to be an unwilling associate, barred from escape by sickness, drink, and fear. Carmena had begged for help to get him and Elsie out of the Hole.
Lennon permitted his hand to linger in her gentle clasp.
"It seems to be much better," he replied to her question.
"That's good. Let's hope it will be all right before Slade gets back. You heard me bluff off Cochise with the partnership talk?"
Farley was backing across the room, gray-faced and trembling like a very old man.
"Slade will be angered," he quavered. "I'll lose all—all!"
"Leave him to me. I'll handle him," promised Carmena. "Remember what you agreed. Jack is to be a full partner."
Lennon felt a sudden rekindling of suspicion.
"May I ask you to explain all this about a partnership?" he queried.
"Why, of course," replied the girl. She drew close to him and lowered her voice.
"Dad refuses to give up everything and leave the Hole. So I've allowed him to think you'll come in with the bunch. My idea is to bring about a split between Slade and Cochise. We'll then have a fighting chance. All we can do now is take things easy and get your hand in shape."
"My rifle was taken by your father. I would rather like to——"
"Dad, hand over Jack's rifle," called the girl.
Elsie glided across to the dark doorway through which Farley was disappearing. Within a few moments the missing rifle was thrust out to her. She brought it to Carmena, who handed it over to Lennon. A seemingly casual examination showed him that it had not been tampered with.
His last flicker of suspicion died away.
Immediately after the armistice Carmena and Elsie went down to attend the goats and chickens that were penned in small enclosures a short distance up-valley from the cliff house. The girls also gathered a supply of fresh vegetables from a nearby kitchen garden. At dusk the rope ladder was hauled up.
In the morning Carmena took Lennon to see the valley. She had roped a pair of ponies near the garden enclosure. Though the rifles were carried, no occasion arose that called for use of the weapons. The Apaches in charge of the stock merely grunted in response to Carmena's friendly greeting and stared stolidly as she and Lennon rode by.