HotFreeBooks.com
Brand Blotters
by William MacLeod Raine
1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

BRAND BLOTTERS

By

WILLIAM MacLEOD RAINE

Author Of

Wyoming, Bucky O'Connor, Mavericks, A Texas Ranger, Ridgway Of Montana, Etc.

Illustrations By

CLARENCE ROWE

Grosset & Dunlap

Publishers New York

Made in the United States of America



Copyright, 1909, by J. B. Lippincott Co.

Copyright, 1911, by Street & Smith

Copyright, 1912, by G. W. DILLINGHAM COMPANY

Brand Blotters



TO FRANK N. SPINDLER

In Memory of Certain Sunday Afternoon Tramps Long Ago, During Which We Solved the Problems of the Nation



CONTENTS

PART I

MELISSY OF THE BAR DOUBLE G

CHAPTER PAGE I A Crossed Trail 11 II Brand Blotting 18 III An Accusation 35 IV The Man with the Chihuahua Hat 49 V The Tenderfoot Takes up a Claim 61 VI "Hands Up" 75 VII Watering Sheep 98 VIII The Boone-Bellamy Feud is Renewed 109 IX The Danger Line 121 X Jack Goes to the Head of the Class 141 XI A Conversation 156 XII The Tenderfoot Makes a Proposition 163 XIII Old Acquaintances 182 XIV Concerning the Boone-Bellamy-Yarnell Feud 191

PART II

DEAD MAN'S CACHE

CHAPTER PAGE I Kidnapped 199 II A Capture 209 III The Tables Turned 217 IV The Real Bucky and the False 231 V A Photograph 243 VI In Dead Man's Cache 255 VII "Trapped!" 266 VIII An Escape and a Capture 276 IX A Bargain 286 X The Price 301 XI Squire Latimer Takes a Hand 306 XII The Taking of the Cache 322 XIII Melissy Entertains 334 XIV Black MacQueen Cashes his Checks 340



PART I

MELISSY OF THE BAR DOUBLE G



CHAPTER I

A CROSSED TRAIL

The tenderfoot rose from the ledge upon which he had been lying and stretched himself stiffly. The chill of the long night had set him shivering. His bones ached from the pressure of his body upon the rock where he had slept and waked and dozed again with troubled dreams. The sharpness of his hunger made him light-headed. Thirst tortured him. His throat was a lime-kiln, his tongue swollen till it filled his mouth.

If the night had been bad, he knew the day would be a hundred times worse. Already a gray light was sifting into the hollow of the sky. The vague misty outlines of the mountains were growing sharper. Soon from a crotch of them would rise a red hot cannon ball to pour its heat into the parched desert.

He was headed for the Sonora line, for the hills where he had heard a man might drop out of sight of the civilization that had once known him. There were reasons why he had started in a hurry, without a horse or food or a canteen, and these same reasons held good why he could not follow beaten tracks. All yesterday he had traveled without sighting a ranch or meeting a human being. But he knew he must get to water soon—if he were to reach it at all.

A light breeze was stirring, and on it there was borne to him a faint rumble as of thunder. Instantly the man came to a rigid alertness. Thunder might mean rain, and rain would be salvation. But the sound did not die away. Instead, it deepened to a steady roar, growing every instant louder. His startled glance swept the canyon that drove like a sword cleft into the hills. Pouring down it, with the rush of a tidal wave, came a wall of cattle, a thousand backs tossing up and down as the swell of a troubled sea. Though he had never seen one before, the man on the lip of the gulch knew that he was watching a cattle stampede. Under the impact of the galloping hoofs the ground upon which he stood quaked.

A cry diverted his attention. From the bed of the sandy wash a man had started up and was running for his life toward the canyon walls. Before he had taken half a dozen steps the avalanche was upon him, had cut him down, swept over him.

The thud of the hoofs died away. Into the open desert the stampede had passed. A huddled mass lay motionless on the sand in the track of the avalanche.

A long ragged breath whistled through the closed lips of the tenderfoot. He ran along the edge of the rock wall till he found a descent less sharp, lowered himself by means of jutting quartz and mesquit cropping out from the crevices, and so came through a little draw to the canyon.

He dropped on a knee beside the sprawling, huddled figure. No second glance was needed to see that the man was dead. Life had been trampled out of him almost instantly and his features battered beyond any possible recognition. Unused to scenes of violence, the stranger stooping over him felt suddenly sick. It made him shudder to remember that if he could have found a way down in the darkness he, too, would have slept in the warm sand of the dry wash. If he had, the fate of this man would have been his.

Under the doubled body was a canteen. The trembling fingers of the tenderfoot unscrewed the cork. Tipping the vessel, he drank avidly. One swallow, a second, then a few trickling drops. The canteen had been almost empty.

Uncovering, he stood bareheaded before the inert body and spoke gently in the low, soft voice one instinctively uses in the presence of the dead.

"Friend, I couldn't save your life, but your water has saved mine, I reckon. Anyhow, it gives me another chance to fight for it. I wish I could do something for you ... carry a message to your folks and tell them how it happened."

He dropped down again beside the dead man and rifled the pockets. In them he found two letters addressed in an illiterate hand to James Diller, Cananea, Sonora, Mexico. An idea flashed into his brain and for a moment held him motionless while he worked it out. Why not? This man was about his size, dressed much like him, and so mutilated that identification was impossible.

From his own pocket he took a leather bill book and a monogrammed cigarcase. With a sharp stone he scarred the former. The metal case he crushed out of shape beneath the heel of his boot. Having first taken one twenty dollar yellowback from the well-padded book, he slipped it and the cigarcase into the inner coat pocket of the dead man. Irregularly in a dozen places he gashed with his knife the derby hat he was wearing, ripped the band half loose, dragged it in the dust, and jumped on it till the hat was flat as a pancake. Finally he kicked it into the sand a dozen yards away.

"The cattle would get it tangled in their hoofs and drag it that far with them," he surmised.

The soft gray hat of the dead man he himself appropriated. Again he spoke to the lifeless body, lowering his voice to a murmur.

"I reckon you wouldn't grudge me this if you knew. I'm up against it. If I get out of these hills alive I'll be lucky. But if I do—well, it won't do you any harm to be mistaken for me, and it will accommodate me mightily. I hate to leave you here alone, but it's what I've got to do to save myself."

He turned away and plodded up the dry creek bed.

* * * * *

The sun was at the meridian when three heavily armed riders drew up at the mouth of the canyon. They fell into the restful, negligent postures of horsemen accustomed to take their ease in the saddle.

"Do you figure maybe he's working up to the headwaters of Dry Sandy?" one suggested.

A squat, bandy-legged man with a face of tanned leather presently answered. "No, Tim, I expect not. The way I size him up Mr. Richard Bellamy wouldn't know Dry Sandy from an irrigation ditch. Mr. R. B. hopes he's hittin' the high spots for Sonora, but he ain't anyways sure. Right about now he's ridin' the grub line, unless he's made a strike somewhere."

The third member of the party, a lean, wide-shouldered, sinewy youth, blue silk kerchief knotted loosely around his neck, broke in with a gesture that swept the sky. "Funny about all them buzzards. What are they doing here, sheriff?"

The squat man opened his mouth to answer, but Tim took the word out of his mouth.

"Look!" His arm had shot straight out toward the canyon. A coyote was disappearing on the lope. "Something lying there in the wash at the bend, Burke."

Sheriff Burke slid his rifle from its scabbard. "We'll not take any chances, boys. Spread out far as you can. Tim, ride close to the left wall. You keep along the right one, Flatray. Me, I'll take the center. That's right."

They rode forward cautiously. Once Flatray spoke.

"By the tracks there has been a lot of cattle down here on the jump recently."

"That's what," Tim agreed.

Flatray swung from his saddle and stooped over the body lying at the bend of the wash.

"Crushed to death in a cattle stampede, looks like," he called to the sheriff.

"Search him, Jack," the sheriff ordered.

The young man gave an exclamation of surprise. He was standing with a cigarcase in one hand and a billbook in the other. "It's the man we're after—it's Bellamy."

Burke left his horse and came forward. "How do you know?"

"Initials on the cigarcase, R. B. Same monogram on the billbook."

The sheriff had stooped to pick up a battered hat as he moved toward the deputy. Now he showed the initials stamped on the sweat band. "R. B. here, too."

"Suit of gray clothes, derby hat, size and weight about medium. We'll never know about the scar on the eyebrow, but I guess Mr. Bellamy is identified without that."

"Must have camped here last night and while he was asleep the cattle stampeded down the canyon," Tim hazarded.

"That guess is as good as any. They ce'tainly stomped the life out of him thorough. Anyhow, Bellamy has met up with his punishment. We'll have to pack the body back to town, boys," the sheriff told them.

Half an hour later the party filed out to the creosote flats and struck across country toward Mesa. Flatray was riding pillion behind Tim. His own horse was being used as a pack saddle.



CHAPTER II

BRAND BLOTTING

The tenderfoot, slithering down a hillside of shale, caught at a greasewood bush and waited. The sound of a rifle shot had drifted across the ridge to him. Friend or foe, it made no difference to him now. He had reached the end of his tether, must get to water soon or give up the fight.

No second shot broke the stillness. A swift zigzagged across the cattle trail he was following. Out of a blue sky the Arizona sun still beat down upon a land parched by aeons of drought, a land still making its brave show of greenness against a dun background.

Arrow straight the man made for the hill crest. Weak as a starved puppy, his knees bent under him as he climbed. Down and up again a dozen times, he pushed feverishly forward. All day he had been seeing things. Cool lakes had danced on the horizon line before his tortured vision. Strange fancies had passed in and out of his mind. He wondered if this, too, were a delusion. How long that stiff ascent took him he never knew, but at last he reached the summit and crept over its cactus-covered shoulder.

He looked into a valley dressed in its young spring garb. Of all deserts this is the loveliest when the early rains have given rebirth to the hope that stirs within its bosom once a year. But the tenderfoot saw nothing of its pathetic promise, of its fragile beauty so soon to be blasted. His sunken eyes swept the scene and found at first only a desert waste in which lay death.

"I lose," he said to himself out loud.

With the words he gave up the long struggle and sank to the ground. For hours he had been exhausted to the limit of endurance, but the will to live had kept him going. Now the driving force within had run down. He would die where he lay.

Another instant, and he was on his feet again eager, palpitant, tremulous. For plainly there had come to him the bleating of a calf.

Moving to the left, he saw rising above the hill brow a thin curl of smoke. A dozen staggering steps brought him to the edge of a draw. There in the hollow below, almost within a stone's throw, was a young woman bending over a fire. He tried to call, but his swollen tongue and dry throat refused the service. Instead, he began to run toward her.

Beyond the wash was a dead cow. Not far from it lay a calf on its side, all four feet tied together. From the fire the young woman took a red-hot running iron and moved toward the little bleater.

The crackling of a twig brought her around as a sudden tight rein does a high-strung horse. The man had emerged from the prickly pears and was close upon her. His steps dragged. The sag of his shoulders indicated extreme fatigue. The dark hollows beneath the eyes told of days of torment.

The girl stood before him slender and straight. She was pale to the lips. Her breath came fast and ragged as if she had been running.

Abruptly she shot her challenge at him. "Who are you?"

"Water," he gasped.

One swift, searching look the girl gave him, then "Wait!" she ordered, and was off into the mesquit on the run. Three minutes later the tenderfoot heard her galloping through the brush. With a quick, tight rein she drew up, swung from the saddle expertly as a vaquero, and began to untie a canteen held by buckskin thongs to the side of the saddle.

He drank long, draining the vessel to the last drop.

From her saddle bags she brought two sandwiches wrapped in oiled paper.

"You're hungry, too, I expect," she said, her eyes shining with tender pity.

She observed that he did not wolf his food, voracious though he was. While he ate she returned to the fire with the running iron and heaped live coals around the end of it.

"You've had a pretty tough time of it," she called across to him gently.

"It hasn't been exactly a picnic, but I'm all right now."

The girl liked the way he said it. Whatever else he was—and already faint doubts were beginning to stir in her—he was not a quitter.

"You were about all in," she said, watching him.

"Just about one little kick left in me," he smiled.

"That's what I thought."

She busied herself over the fire inspecting the iron. The man watched her curiously. What could it mean? A cow killed wantonly, a calf bawling with pain and fear, and this girl responsible for it. The tenderfoot could not down the suspicion stirring in his mind. He knew little of the cattle country. But he had read books and had spent a week in Mesa not entirely in vain. The dead cow with the little stain of red down its nose pointed surely to one thing. He was near enough to see a hole in the forehead just above the eyes. Instinctively his gaze passed to the rifle lying in the sand close to his hand. Her back was still turned to him. He leaned over, drew the gun to him, and threw out an empty shell from the barrel.

At the click of the lever the girl swung around upon him.

"What are you doing?" she demanded.

He put the rifle down hurriedly. "Just seeing what make it is."

"And what make is it?" she flashed.

He was trapped. "I hadn't found out yet," he stammered.

"No, but you found out there was an empty shell in it," she retorted quickly.

Their eyes fastened. She was gray as ashes, but she did not flinch. By chance he had stumbled upon the crime of crimes in Cattleland, had caught a rustler redhanded at work. Looking into the fine face, nostrils delicately fashioned, eyes clear and deep, the thing was scarce credible of her. Why, she could not be a day more than twenty, and in every line of her was the look of pride, of good blood.

"Yes, I happened to throw it out," he apologized.

But she would have no evasion, would not let his doubts sleep. There was superb courage in the scornful ferocity with which she retorted.

"Happened! And I suppose you happened to notice that the brand on the cow is a Bar Double G, while that on the calf is different."

"No, I haven't noticed that."

"Plenty of time to see it yet." Then, with a swift blaze of feeling, "What's the use of pretending? I know what you think."

"Then you know more than I do. My thoughts don't go any farther than this, that you have saved my life and I'm grateful for it."

"I know better. You think I'm a rustler. But don't say it. Don't you dare say it."

Brought up in an atmosphere of semi-barbaric traditions, silken-strong, with instincts unwarped by social pressure, she was what the sun and wind and freedom of Arizona had made her, a poetic creation far from commonplace. So he judged her, and in spite of the dastardly thing she had done he sensed an innate refinement strangely at variance with the circumstances.

"All right. I won't," he answered, with a faint smile.

"Now you've got to pay for your sandwiches by making yourself useful. I'm going to finish this job." She said it with an edge of self-scorn. He guessed her furious with self-contempt.

Under her directions he knelt on the calf so as to hold it steady while she plied the hot iron. The odor of burnt hair and flesh was already acrid in his nostrils. Upon the red flank F was written in raw, seared flesh. He judged that the brand she wanted was not yet complete. Probably the iron had got too cold to finish the work, and she had been forced to reheat it.

The little hand that held the running iron was trembling. Looking up, the tenderfoot saw that she was white enough to faint.

"I can't do it. You'll have to let me hold him while you blur the brand," she told him.

They changed places. She set her teeth to it and held the calf steady, but the brander noticed that she had to look away when the red-hot iron came near the flesh of the victim.

"Blur the brand right out. Do it quick, please," she urged.

A sizzle of burning skin, a piteous wail from the tortured animal, an acrid pungent odor, and the thing was done. The girl got to her feet, quivering like an aspen.

"Have you a knife?" she asked faintly.

"Yes."

"Cut the rope."

The calf staggered to all fours, shook itself together, and went bawling to the dead mother.

The girl drew a deep breath. "They say it does not hurt except while it is being done."

His bleak eyes met hers stonily. "And of course it will soon get used to doing without its mother. That is a mere detail."

A shudder went through her.

The whole thing was incomprehensible to him. Why under heaven had she done it? How could one so sensitive have done a wanton cruel thing like this? Her reason he could not fathom. The facts that confronted him were that she had done it, and had meant to carry the crime through. Only detection had changed her purpose.

She turned upon him, plainly sick of the whole business. "Let's get away from here. Where's your horse?"

"I haven't any. I started on foot and got lost."

"From where?"

"From Mammoth."

Sharply her keen eyes fixed him. How could a man have got lost near Mammoth and wandered here? He would have had to cross the range, and even a child would have known enough to turn back into the valley where the town lay.

"How long ago?"

"Day before yesterday." He added after a moment: "I was looking for a job."

She took in the soft hands and the unweathered skin of the dark face. "What sort of a job?"

"Anything I can do."

"But what can you do?"

"I can ride."

She must take him home with her, of course, and feed and rest him. That went without saying. But what after that? He knew too much to be turned adrift with the story of what he had seen. If she could get a hold on him—whether of fear or of gratitude—so as to insure his silence, the truth might yet be kept quiet. At least she could try.

"Did you ever ride the range?"

"No."

"What sort of work have you done?"

After a scarcely noticeable pause, "Clerical work," he answered.

"You're from the East?" she suggested, her eyes narrowing.

"Yes."

"My name is Melissy Lee," she told him, watching him very steadily.

Once more the least of pauses. "Mine is Diller—James Diller."

"That's funny. I know another man of that name. At least, I know him by sight."

The man who had called himself Diller grew wary. "It's a common enough name."

"Yes. If I find you work at my father's ranch would you be too particular about what it is?"

"Try me."

"And your memory—is it inconveniently good?" Her glance swept as by chance over the scene of her recent operations.

"I've got a right good forgettery, too," he assured her.

"You're not in the habit of talking much about the things you see." She put it in the form of a statement, but the rising inflection indicated the interrogative.

His black eyes met hers steadily. "I can padlock my mouth when it is necessary," he answered, the suggestion of a Southern drawl in his intonation.

She wanted an assurance more direct. "When you think it necessary, I suppose."

"That is what I meant to say."

"Come. One good turn deserves another. What about this?" She nodded toward the dead cow.

"I have not seen a thing I ought not to have seen."

"Didn't you see me blot a brand on that calf?"

He shook his head. "Can't recall it at all, Miss Lee."

Swiftly her keen glance raked him again. Judged by his clothes, he was one of the world's ineffectives, flotsam tossed into the desert by the wash of fate; but there was that in the steadiness of his eye, in the set of his shoulders, in the carriage of his lean-loined, slim body that spoke of breeding. He was no booze-fighting grubliner. Disguised though he was in cheap slops, she judged him a man of parts. He would do to trust, especially since she could not help herself.

"We'll be going. You take my horse," she ordered.

"And let you walk?"

"How long since you have eaten?" she asked brusquely.

"About seven minutes," he smiled.

"But before that?"

"Two days."

"Well, then. Anybody can see you're as weak as a kitten. Do as I say."

"Why can't we both ride?"

"We can as soon as we get across the pass. Until then I'll walk."

Erect as a willow sapling, she took the hills with an elastic ease that showed her deep-bosomed in spite of her slenderness. The short corduroy riding skirt and high-laced boots were made for use, not grace, but the man in the saddle found even in her manner of walking the charm of her direct, young courage. Free of limb, as yet unconscious of sex, she had the look of a splendid boy. The descending sun was in her sparkling hair, on the lank, undulating grace of her changing lines.

Active as a cat though it was, the cowpony found the steep pass with its loose rubble hard going. Melissy took the climb much easier. In the way she sped through the mesquit, evading the clutch of the cholla by supple dips to right and left, there was a kind of pantherine litheness.

At the summit she waited for the horse to clamber up the shale after her.

"Get down in your collar, you Buckskin," she urged, and when the pony was again beside her petted the animal with little love pats on the nose.

Carelessly she flung at Diller a question. "From what part of the East did you say?"

He was on the spot promptly this time. "From Keokuk."

"Keokuk, Indiana?"

"Iowa," he smiled.

"Oh, is it Iowa?" He had sidestepped her little trap, but she did not give up. "Just arrived?"

"I've been herding sheep for a month."

"Oh, sheep-herding!" Her disdain implied that if he were fit for nothing better than sheep-herding, the West could find precious little use for him.

"It was all I could get to do."

"Where did you say you wrangled Mary's little lamb?"

"In the Catalinas."

"Whose outfit?"

Question and answer were tossed back and forth lightly, but both were watching warily.

"Outfit?" he repeated, puzzled.

"Yes. Who were you working for?"

"Don't remember his name. He was a Mexican."

"Must have been one of the camps of Antonio Valdez."

"Yes, that's it. That's the name."

"Only he runs his sheep in the Galiuros," she demurred.

"Is it the Galiuros? Those Spanish names! I can't keep them apart in my mind."

She laughed with hard, young cruelty. "It is hard to remember what you never heard, isn't it?"

The man was on the rack. Tiny beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. But he got a lip smile into working order.

"Just what do you mean, Miss Lee?"

"You had better get your story more pat. I've punched a dozen holes in it already. First you tell me you are from the East, and even while you were telling me I knew you were a Southerner from the drawl. No man ever got lost from Mammoth. You gave a false name. You said you had been herding sheep, but you didn't know what an outfit is. You wobbled between the Galiuros and the Catalinas."

"I'm not a native. I told you I couldn't remember Spanish names."

"It wasn't necessary to tell me," she countered quickly. "A man that can't recall even the name of his boss!"

"I'm not in the witness box, Miss Lee," he told her stiffly.

"Not yet, but you're liable to be soon, I reckon."

"In a cattle rustling case, I suppose you mean."

"No, I don't." She went on with her indictment of his story, though his thrust had brought the color to her cheek. "When I offered you Antonio Valdez for an employer you jumped at him. If you want to know, he happens to be our herder. He doesn't own a sheep and never will."

"You know all about it," he said with obvious sarcasm.

"I know you're not who you say you are."

"Perhaps you know who I am then."

"I don't know or care. It's none of my business. But others may think it is theirs. You can't be so reckless with the truth without folks having notions. If I were you I'd get a story that will hang together."

"You're such a good detective. Maybe I could get you to invent one for me," he suggested maliciously.

Her indignation flashed. "I'm no such thing. But I'm not quite a fool. A babe in arms wouldn't swallow that fairy tale."

Awkward as her knowledge might prove, he could not help admiring the resource and shrewdness of the girl. She had virtually served notice that if she had a secret that needed keeping so had he.

They looked down over a desert green with bajadas, prickly pears, and mesquit. To the right, close to a spur of the hills, were the dwarfed houses of a ranch. The fans of a windmill caught the sun and flashed it back to the travelers.

"The Bar Double G. My father owns it," Miss Lee explained.

"Oh! Your father owns it." He reflected a moment while he studied her. "Let's understand each other, Miss Lee. I'm not what I claim to be, you say. We'll put it that you have guessed right. What do you intend to do about it? I'm willing to be made welcome at the Bar Double G, but I don't want to be too welcome."

"I'm not going to do anything."

"So long as I remember not to remember what I've seen."

The blood burned in her cheeks beneath their Arizona tan. She did not look at him. "If you like to put it that way."

He counted it to her credit that she was ashamed of the bargain in every honest fiber of her.

"No matter what they say I've done. You'll keep faith?"

"I don't care what you've done," she flung back bitterly. "It's none of my affair. I told you that before. Men come out here for all sorts of reasons. We don't ask for a bill of particulars."

"Then I'll be right glad to go down to the Bar Double G with you, and say thanks for the chance."

He had dismounted when they first reached the pass. Now she swung to the saddle and he climbed behind her. They reached presently one of the nomadic trails of the cattle country which wander leisurely around hills and over gulches along the line of least resistance. This brought them to a main traveled road leading to the ranch.

They rode in silence until the pasture fence was passed.

"What am I to tell them your name is?" she asked stiffly.

He took his time to answer. "Tom Morse is a good name, don't you think? How would T. L. Morse do?"

She offered no comment, but sat in front of him, unresponsive as the sphinx. The rigor of her flat back told him that, though she might have to keep his shameful secret for the sake of her own, he could not presume upon it the least in the world.

Melissy turned the horse over to a little Mexican boy and they were just mounting the steps of the porch when a young man cantered up to the house. Lean and muscular and sunbaked, he looked out of cool, gray eyes upon a man's world that had often put him through the acid test. The plain, cactus-torn chaps, flannel shirt open at the sinewy throat, dusty, wide-brimmed hat, revolver peeping from its leather pocket on the thigh: every detail contributed to the impression of efficiency he created. Even the one touch of swagger about him, the blue silk kerchief knotted loosely around his neck, lent color to his virile competency.

He dragged his horse to a standstill and leaped off at the same instant. "Evenin', 'Lissie."

She was busy lacing her shoe and did not look up. He guessed that he was being snubbed and into his eyes came a gleam of fun. A day later than he had promised, Jack Flatray was of opinion that he was being punished for tardiness.

Casually he explained. "Couldn't make it any sooner. Burke had a hurry-up job that took us into the hills. Fellow by the name of Bellamy, wanted for murder at Nemo, Arkansas, had been tracked to Mesa. A message came over the wires to arrest him. When Burke sent me to his room he had lit out, taken a swift hike into the hills. Must a-had some warning, for he didn't even wait for a horse."

The dilated eyes of the girl went past the deputy to the man she had rescued. He was leaning against one of the porch posts, tense and rigid, on his face the look of the hunted brought to bay.

"And did you find him?" she asked mechanically of the deputy.

"We found him. He had been trampled to death by a cattle stampede."

Her mind groped blindly for an explanation. Her woman's instinct told her that the man panting on the porch within six feet of the officer was the criminal wanted. There must be a mistake somewhere.

"Did you identify him?"

"I guess there is no doubt about it. His papers and belongings all showed he was our man."

"Oh!" The excitement of his news had for a moment thawed her, but a dignified aloofness showed again in her manner. "If you want to see father you'll find him in the corral, Mr. Flatray."

"Well, I don't know as I'm looking for him awful hard," the blue kerchiefed youth smiled genially. "Anyway, I can wait a few minutes if I have to."

"Yes." She turned away indifferently. "I'll show you your room, Mr. Morse."

The deputy watched them disappear into the house with astonishment printed on his face. He had ridden twenty-seven miles to see Melissy Lee and he had not quite expected this sort of a greeting.

"If that don't beat the Dutch. Looks like I'll do my callin' on the old man after all, maybe," he murmured with a grin.



CHAPTER III

AN ACCUSATION

The rescued man ate, drank, and from sheer fatigue fell asleep within five minutes of the time he was shown his bedroom.

Since he was not of the easily discouraged kind, the deputy stayed to supper on invitation of Lee. He sat opposite the daughter of his host, and that young woman treated him with the most frigid politeness. The owner of the Bar Double G was quite unaware of any change of temperature. Jack and his little girl had always been the best of friends. So now he discoursed on the price of cows, the good rains, the outrages of the rustlers, and kindred topics without suspecting that the attention of the young man was on more personal matters.

Though born in Arizona, Melissy was of the South. Due westward rolls the tide of settlement, and Beauchamp Lee had migrated from Tennessee after the war, following the line of least resistance to the sunburned territory. Later he had married a woman a good deal younger than himself. She had borne him two children, the elder of whom was now a young man. Melissy was the younger, and while she was still a babe in arms the mother had died of typhoid and left her baby girl to grow up as best she might in a land where women were few and far. This tiny pledge of her mother's love Champ Lee had treasured as a gift from Heaven. He had tended her and nursed her through the ailments of childhood with a devotion the most pure of his reckless life. Given to heady gusts of passion, there had never been a moment when his voice had been other than gentle and tender to her.

Inevitably Melissy had become the product of her inheritance and her environment. If she was the heiress of Beauchamp Lee's courage and generosity, his quick indignation against wrong and injustice, so, too, she was of his passionate lawlessness.

After supper Melissy disappeared. She wanted very much to be alone and have a good cry. Wherefore she slipped out of the back door and ran up the Lone Tree trail in the darkness. Jack thought he saw a white skirt fly a traitorous signal, and at leisure he pursued.

But Melissy was not aware of that. She reached Lone Tree rock and slipped down from boulder to boulder until she came to the pine which gave the place its name. For hours she had been forced to repress her emotions, to make necessary small talk, to arrange for breakfast and other household details. Now she was alone, and the floods of her bitterness were unloosed. She broke down and wept passionately, for she was facing her first great disillusionment. She had lost a friend, one in whom she had put great faith.

The first gust of the storm was past when Melissy heard a step on the rocks above. She knew intuitively that Jack Flatray had come in search of her, and he was the last man on earth she wanted to meet just now.

"'Lissie!" she heard him call softly; and again, "'Lissie!"

Noiselessly she got to her feet, waiting to see what he would do. She knew he must be standing on the edge of the great rock, so directly above her that if he had kicked a pebble it would have landed beside her. Presently he began to clamber down.

She tiptoed along the ledge and slipped into the trough at the farther end that led to the top. It was a climb she had taken several times, but never in the dark. The ascent was almost perpendicular, and it had to be made by clinging to projecting rocks and vegetation. Moreover, if she were to escape undetected it had to be done in silence.

She was a daughter of the hills, as surefooted as a mountain goat. Handily she went up, making the most of the footholds that offered. In spite of the best she could do the rustling of bushes betrayed her.

Jack came to the foot of the trough and looked up.

"So you're there, are you?" he asked.

Her foot loosened a stone and sent it rolling down.

"If I were you I wouldn't try that at night, 'Liss," he advised.

She made sure of the steadiness of her voice before she answered. "You don't need to try it."

"I said if I were you, girl."

"But you are not. Don't let me detain you here, Mr. Flatray," she told him in a manner of icy precision.

The deputy began the climb too. "What's the use of being so hostile, little girl?" he drawled. "Me, I came as soon as I could, burning the wind, too."

She set her teeth, determined to reach the top in time to get away before he could join her. In her eagerness she took a chance that proved her undoing. A rock gave beneath her foot and clattered down. Clinging by one hand and foot, she felt her body swing around. From her throat a little cry leaped. She knew herself slipping.

"Jack!"

In time, and just in time, he reached her, braced himself, and gave her his knee for a foot rest.

"All right?" he asked, and "All right!" she answered promptly.

"We'll go back," he told her.

She made no protest. Indeed, she displayed a caution in lowering herself that surprised him. Every foothold she tested carefully with her weight. Once she asked him to place her shoe in the crevice for her. He had never seen her take so much time in making sure or be so fussy about her personal safety.

Safely on the ledge again, she attempted a second time to dismiss him. "Thank you, Mr. Flatray. I won't take any more of your time."

He looked at her steadily before he spoke. "You're mighty high-heeled, 'Lissie. You know my name ain't Mr. Flatray to you. What's it all about? I've told you twice I couldn't get here any sooner."

She flamed out at him in an upblaze of feminine ferocity. "And I tell you, that I don't care if you had never come. I don't want to see you or have anything to do with you."

"Why not?" He asked it quietly, though he began to know that her charge against him was a serious one.

"Because I know what you are now, because you have made us believe in you while all the time you were living a lie."

"Meaning what?"

"I was gathering poppies on the other side of Antelope Pass this afternoon."

"What has that got to do with me being a liar and a scoundrel," he wanted to know.

"Oh, you pretend," she scoffed. "But you know as well as I do."

"I'm afraid I don't. Let's have the indictment."

"If everybody in Papago County had told me I wouldn't have believed it," she cried. "I had to see it with my own eyes before I could have been convinced."

"Yes, well what is it you saw with your eyes?"

"You needn't keep it up. I tell you I saw it all from the time you fired the shot."

He laughed easily, but without mirth. "Kept tab on me, did you?"

She wheeled from him, gave a catch of her breath, and caught at the rock wall to save herself from falling.

He spoke sharply. "You hurt yourself in the trough."

"I sprained my ankle a little, but it doesn't matter."

He understood now why she had made so slow a descent and he suspected that the wrench was more than she admitted. The moon had come out from under a cloud and showed him a pale, tear-stained face, with a row of even, little teeth set firm against the lower lip. She was in pain and her pride was keeping it from him.

"Let me look at your ankle."

"No."

"I say yes. You've hurt it seriously."

"That is my business, I think," she told him with cold finality.

"I'm going to make it mine. Think I don't know you, proud as Lucifer when you get set. You'll lame yourself for life if you're not careful."

"I don't care to discuss it."

"Fiddlesticks! If you've got anything against me we'll hear what it is afterward. Right now we'll give first aid to the injured. Sit down here."

She had not meant to give way, but she did. Perhaps it was because of the faintness that stole over her, or because the pain was sharper than she could well endure. She found herself seated on the rock shelf, letting him cut the lace out of her shoe and slip it off. Ever so gently he worked, but he could tell by the catches of her breath that it was not pleasant to endure. From his neck he untied the silk kerchief and wrapped it tightly around the ankle.

"That will have to do till I get you home."

"I'll not trouble you, sir. If you'll stop and tell my father that is all I'll ask."

"Different here," he retorted cheerfully. "Just so as to avoid any argument, I'll announce right now that Jack Flatray is going to see you home. It's his say-so."

She rose. None knew better than she that he was a dominating man when he chose to be. She herself carried in her slim body a spirit capable of passion and of obstinacy, but to-night she had not the will to force the fighting.

Setting her teeth, she took a step or two forward, her hand against the rock wall to help bear the weight. With narrowed eyes, he watched her closely, noting the catches of pain that shot through her breathing. Half way up the boulder bed he interposed brusquely.

"This is plumb foolishness, girl. You've got no business putting your weight on that foot, and you're not going to do it."

He slipped his arm around her waist in such a way as to support her all he could. With a quick turn of the body she tried to escape.

"No use. I'm going through with this, 'Lissie. Someone has been lying to you about me, and just now you hate the ground I walk on. Good enough. That's got nothing to do with this. You're a woman that needs help, and any old time J. F. meets up with such a one he's on the job. You don't owe me 'Thank you,' but you've got to stand for me till you reach the house."

"You're taking advantage of me because I can't help myself. Why don't you go and bring father," she flung out.

"I'm younger than your father and abler to help. That's why?"

They reached the top of the bluff and he made her sit down to rest. A pale moon suffused the country, and in that stage set to lowered lights her pallor was accented. From the colorless face shadowy, troubled eyes spoke the misery through which she was passing. The man divined that her pain was more than physical, and the knowledge went to him poignantly by the heart route.

"What is it, 'Lissie? What have I done?" he asked gently.

"You know. I don't want to talk about it."

"But I don't know."

"What's the use of keeping it up? I caught you this afternoon."

"Caught me doing what?"

"Caught you rustling, caught you branding a calf just after you had shot the cow."

For an instant her charge struck him dumb. He stared at her as if he thought she had gone suddenly mad.

"What's that? Say it again," he got out at last.

"And the cow had the Bar Double G brand, belonged to my father, your best friend," she added passionately.

He spoke very gently, but there was an edge to his voice that was new to her. "Suppose you tell me all about it."

She threw out a hand in a gesture of despair. "What's the use? Nothing could have made me believe it but my own eyes. You needn't keep up a pretense. I saw you."

"Yes, so you said before. Now begin at the start and tell your story."

She had the odd feeling of being put on the defensive and it angered her. How dared he look at her with those cool, gray eyes that still appeared to bore a hole through treachery? Why did her heart convict her of having deserted a friend, when she knew that the desertion was his?

"While I was gathering poppies I heard a shot. It was so close I walked to the edge of the draw and looked over. There I saw you."

"What was I doing?"

"You were hogtying a calf."

"And then?"

"I didn't understand at first. I thought to slip down and surprise you for fun. But as I got lower I saw the dead cow. Just then you began to brand the calf and I cried out to you."

"What did I do?"

"You know what you did," she answered wearily. "You broke for the brush where your horse was and galloped away."

"Got a right good look at me, did you?"

"Not at your face. But I knew. You were wearing this blue silk handkerchief." Her finger indicated the one bound around her ankle.

"So on that evidence you decide I'm a rustler, and you've only known me thirteen years. You're a good friend, 'Lissie."

Her eyes blazed on him like live coals. "Have you forgotten the calf you left with your brand on it?"

She had startled him at last. "With my brand on it?" he repeated, his voice dangerously low and soft.

"You know as well as I do. You had got the F just about finished when I called. You dropped the running iron and ran."

"Dropped it and ran, did I? And what did you do?"

"I reheated the iron and blurred the brand so that nobody could tell what it had been."

He laughed harshly without mirth. "I see. I'm a waddy and a thief, but you're going to protect me for old times' sake. That's the play, is it? I ought to be much obliged to you and promise to reform, I reckon."

His bitterness stung. She felt a tightening of the throat. "All I ask is that you go away and never come back to me," she cried with a sob.

"Don't worry about that. I ain't likely to come back to a girl that thinks I'm the lowest thing that walks. You're not through with me a bit more than I am with you," he answered harshly.

Her little hand beat upon the rock in her distress. "I never would have believed it. Nobody could have made me believe it. I—I—why, I trusted you like my own father," she lamented. "To think that you would take that way to stock your ranch—and with the cattle of my father, too."

His face was hard as chiseled granite. "Distrust all your friends. That's the best way."

"You haven't even denied it—not that it would do any good," she said miserably.

There was a sound of hard, grim laughter in his throat. "No, and I ain't going to deny it. Are you ready to go yet?"

His repulse of her little tentative advance was like a blow on the face to her.

She made a movement to rise. While she was still on her knees he stooped, put his arms around her, and took her into them. Before she could utter her protest he had started down the trail toward the house.

"How dare you? Let me go," she ordered.

"You're not able to walk, and you'll go the way I say," he told her shortly in a flinty voice.

Her anger was none the less because she realized her helplessness to get what she wanted. Her teeth set fast to keep back useless words. Into his stony eyes her angry ones burned. The quick, irregular rise and fall of her bosom against his heart told him how she was struggling with her passion.

Once he spoke. "Tell me where it was you saw this rustler—the exact place near as you can locate it."

She answered only by a look.

The deputy strode into the living room of the ranch with her in his arms. Lee was reading a newspaper Jack had brought with him from Mesa. At sight of them he started up hurriedly.

"Goddlemighty, what's the matter, Jack?"

"Only a ricked ankle, Champ. Slipped on a stone," Flatray explained as he put Melissy down on the lounge.

In two minutes the whole house was upset. Hop Ling was heating water to bathe the sprain. A rider from the bunkhouse was saddling to go for the doctor. Another was off in the opposite direction to buy some liniment at Mammoth.

In the confusion Flatray ran up his horse from the pasture, slapped on the saddle, and melted into the night.

An hour later Melissy asked her father what had become of him.

"Doggone that boy, I don't know where he went. Reckon he thought he'd be in the way. Mighty funny he didn't give us a chanct to tell him to stay."

"Probably he had business in Mesa," Melissy answered, turning her face to the wall.

"Business nothing," retorted the exasperated rancher. "He figured we couldn't eat and sleep him without extra trouble. Ain't that a fine reputation for him to be giving the Bar Double G? I'll curl his hair for him onct I meet up with him again."

"If you would put out the light, I think I could sleep, dad," she told him in the least of voices.

"Sure, honey. Has the throbbing gone out of the ankle?" he asked anxiously.

"Not entirely, but it's a good deal better. Good-night, dad."

"If Doc comes I'll bring him in," Lee said after he had kissed her.

"Do, please."

But after she was left alone Melissy did not prepare herself for sleep. Her wide open eyes stared into the darkness, while her mind stormily reviewed the day. The man who for years had been her best friend was a scoundrel. She had proved him unworthy of her trust, and on top of that he had insulted her. Hot tears stung her eyes—tears of shame, of wounded self-love, of mortification, and of something more worthy than any of these.

She grieved passionately for that which had gone out of her life, for the comradeship that had been so precious to her. If this man were a waddy, who of all her friends could she trust? She could have forgiven him had he done wrong in the heat of anger. But this premeditated evil was beyond forgiveness. To make it worse, he had come direct from the doing of it to meet her, with a brazen smile on his lips and a lie in his heart. She would never speak to him again—never so long as she lived.



CHAPTER IV

THE MAN WITH THE CHIHUAHUA HAT

A little dust cloud was traveling up the trail toward the Bar Double G, the center of which presently defined itself as a rider moving at a road gait. He wore a Chihuahua hat and with it the picturesque trappings the Southwest borrows on occasion from across the border. Vanity disclosed itself in the gold-laced hat, in the silver conchos of the fringed chaps, in the fine workmanship of the saddle and bit. The man's finery was overdone, carried with it the suggestion of being on exhibition. But one look at the man himself, sleek and graceful, black-haired and white-toothed, exuding an effect of cold wariness in spite of the masked smiling face, would have been enough to give the lie to any charge of weakness. His fopperies could not conceal the silken strength of him. One meeting with the chill, deep-set eyes was certificate enough for most people.

Melissy, sitting on the porch with her foot resting on a second chair, knew a slight quickening of the blood as she watched him approach.

"Good evenin', Miss M'lissy," he cried, sweeping his sombrero as low as the stirrup.

"Buenos tardes, Senor Norris," she flung back gayly.

Sitting at ease in the saddle, he leisurely looked her over with eyes that smoldered behind half-shuttered lids. To most of her world she was in spirit still more boy than woman, but before his bold, possessive gaze her long lashes wavered to the cheeks into which the warm blood was beating. Her long, free lines were still slender with the immaturity of youth, her soul still hesitating reluctantly to cross the border to womanhood toward which Nature was pushing her so relentlessly. From a fund of experience Philip Norris read her shrewdly, knew how to evoke the latent impulses which brought her eagerly to the sex duel.

"Playing off for sick," he scoffed.

"I'm not," she protested. "Never get sick. It's just a sprained ankle."

"Sho! I guess you're Miss Make Believe; just harrowing the feelings of your beaux."

"The way you talk! I haven't got any beaux. The boys are just my friends."

"Oh, just friends! And no beaux. My, my! Not a single sweetheart in all this wide open country. Shall I go rope you one and bring him in, compadre?"

"No!" she exploded. "I don't want any. I'm not old enough yet." Her dancing eyes belied the words.

"Now I wouldn't have guessed it. You look to me most ready to be picked." He rested his weight on the farther stirrup and let his lazy smile mock her. "My estimate would be sixteen. I'll bet you're every day of that."

"I only lack three months of being eighteen," she came back indignantly.

"You don't say! You'll ce'tainly have to be advertising for a husband soon, Miss Three-Quarters-Past-Seventeen. Maybe an ad in the Mesa paper would help. You ain't so awful bad looking."

"I'll let you write it. What would you say?" she demanded, a patch of pink standing out near the curve of the cheek bone.

He swung from the saddle and flung the reins to the ground. With jingling spurs he came up the steps and sat on the top one, his back against a pillar. Boldly his admiring eyes swept her.

"Nina, I couldn't do the subject justice. Honest, I haven't got the vocabulary."

"Oh, you!" Laughter was in the eyes that studied him with a side tilt of the chin. "That's a fine way to get out of it when your bluff is called."

He leaned back against the post comfortably and absorbed the beauty of the western horizon. The sun had just set behind a saddle of the Galiuros in a splash of splendor. All the colors of the rainbow fought for supremacy in a brilliant-tinted sky that blazed above the fire-girt peaks. Soon dusk would slip down over the land and tone the hues to a softer harmony. A purple sea would flow over the hills, to be in turn displaced by a deep, soft violet. Then night, that night of mystery and romance which transforms the desert to a thing of incredible wonder!

"Did your father buy this sunset with the ranch? And has he got a guarantee that it will perform every night?" he asked.

"Did you ever see anything like it?" she cried. "I have looked at them all my life and I never get tired."

He laughed softly, his indolent, sleepy look on her. "Some things I would never get tired of looking at either."

Without speaking she nodded, still absorbing the sunset.

"But it wouldn't be that kind of scenery," he added. "How tall are you, muchacha?"

Her glance came around in surprise. "I don't know. About five foot five, I think. Why?"

"I'm working on that ad. How would this do? 'Miss Three-Quarters-Past-Seventeen wants to meet up with gentleman between eighteen and forty-eight. Object, matrimony. Description of lady: Slim, medium height, brunette, mop of blue-black hair, the prettiest dimple you ever saw——'"

"Now I know you're making fun of me. I'm mad." And the dimple flashed into being.

"'—mostly says the opposite of what she means, has a——'"

"I don't. I don't"

"'—has a spice of the devil in her, which——'"

"Now, I am mad," she interrupted, laughing.

"'—which is excusable, since she has the reddest lips for kissing in Arizona.'"

He had gone too far. Her innocence was in arms. Norris knew it by the swiftness with which the smile vanished from her face, by the flash of anger in the eyes.

"I prefer to talk about something else, Mr. Norris," she said with all the prim stiffness of a schoolgirl.

Her father relieved the tension by striding across from the stable. With him came a bowlegged young fellow in plain leathers. The youngster was Charley Hymer, one of the riders for the Bar Double G.

"You're here at the right time, Norris," Lee said grimly. "Charley has just come down from Antelope Pass. He found one of my cows dead, with a bullet hole through the forehead. The ashes of a fire were there, and in the brush not far away a running iron."

The eyes of Norris narrowed to slits. He was the cattle detective of the association and for a year now the rustlers had outgeneraled him. "I'll have you take me to the spot, Charley. Get a move on you and we'll get there soon as the moon is up."

Melissy gripped the arms of her chair tightly with both hands. She was looking at Norris with a new expression, a kind of breathless fear. She knew him for a man who could not be swerved from the thing he wanted. For all his easy cynicism, he had the reputation of being a bloodhound on the trail. Moreover, she knew that he was no friend to Jack Flatray. Why had she left that running iron as evidence to convict its owner? What folly not to have removed it from the immediate scene of the crime!

The cattle detective and her father had moved a few steps away and were talking in low tones. Melissy became aware of a footfall. The man who called himself Morse came around the corner of the house and stopped at the porch steps.

"May I speak to you a moment, Miss Lee?" he said in a low voice.

"Of course."

The voice of Norris rose to an irritated snarl. "Tell you I've got evidence, Lee. Mebbe it's not enough to convict, but it satisfies me a-plenty that Jack Flatray's the man."

Melissy was frozen to a tense attention. Her whole mind was on what passed between the detective and her father. Otherwise she would have noticed the swift change that transformed the tenderfoot.

The rancher answered with impatient annoyance. "You're 'way off, Norris. I don't care anything about your evidence. The idea is plumb ridiculous. Twenty odd years I've known him. He's the best they make, a pure through and through. Not a crooked hair in his head. I've eat out of the same frying pan too often with that boy not to know what he is. You go bury those suspicions of yours immediate. There's nothing to them."

Norris grumbled objections as they moved toward the stable. Melissy drew a long breath and brought herself back to the tenderfoot.

He stood like a coiled spring, head thrust far forward from the shoulders. The look in his black eyes was something new to her experience. For hate, passion, caution were all mirrored there.

"You know Mr. Norris," she said quickly.

He started. "What did you say his name was?" he asked with an assumption of carelessness.

"Norris—Philip Norris. He is a cattle detective."

"Never heard of Mr. Norris before in my life," he answered, but it was observable that he still breathed deep.

She did not believe him. Some tie in their buried past bound these two men together. They must have known each other in the South years ago, and one of them at least was an enemy of the other. There might come a day when she could use this knowledge to save Jack Flatray from the punishment dogging his heels. Melissy filed it away in her memory for future reference.

"You wanted to speak to me," she suggested.

"I'm going away."

"What for?"

"Because I'm not a hound. I can't blackmail a woman."

"How do you mean?"

"I mean that you've found work here for me because I saw what you did over by Antelope Pass. We made a bargain. Oh, not in words, but a bargain just the same! You were to keep my secret because I knew yours. I release you from your part of it. Give me up if you think it is your duty. I'll not tell what I know."

"That wasn't how you talked the other day."

"No. It's how I talk now. I'm a hunted man, wanted for murder. I make you a present of the information."

"You make me a present of what I already know, Mr. Diller, alias Morse, alias Bellamy."

"You guessed it the first day?"

"Yes."

"And meant to keep quiet about it?"

"Yes, I meant to shelter you from the punishment you deserve." She added with a touch of bitter self-scorn: "I was doing what I had to do."

"You don't have to do it any longer." He looked straight at her with his head up. "And how do you know what I deserve? Who made you a judge about these facts? Grant for the sake of argument I killed him. Do you know I wasn't justified?"

His fierce boldness put her on the defense. "A man sure of his cause does not run away. The paper said this Shep Boone was shot from ambush. Nothing could justify such a thing. When you did that——"

"I didn't. Don't believe it, Miss Lee."

"He was shot from behind, the paper said."

"Do I look like a man who would kill from ambush?"

She admitted to herself that this clear-eyed Southerner did not look like an assassin. Life in the open had made her a judge of such men as she had been accustomed to meet, but for days she had been telling herself she could no longer trust her judgment. Her best friend was a rustler. By a woman's logic it followed that since Jack Flatray was a thief this man might have committed all the crimes in the calendar.

"I don't know." Then, impulsively, "No, you don't, but you may be for all that."

"I'm not asking anything for myself. You may do as you please after I've gone. Send for Mr. Flatray and tell him if you like."

A horse cantered across the plaza toward the store. Bellamy turned quickly to go.

"I'm not going to tell anyone," the girl called after him in a low voice.

Norris swung from the saddle. "Who's our hurried friend?" he asked carelessly.

"Oh, a new rider of ours. Name of Morse." She changed the subject. "Are you—do you think you know who the rustler is?"

His cold, black eyes rested in hers. She read in them something cruel and sinister. It was as if he were walking over the grave of an enemy.

"I'm gathering evidence, a little at a time."

"Do I know him?"

"Maybe you do."

"Tell me."

He shook his head. "Wait till I've got him cinched."

"You told father," she accused.

He laughed in a hard, mirthless fashion. "That cured me. The Lee family is from Missouri. When I talk next time I'll have the goods to show."

"I know who you mean. You're making a mistake." Her voice seemed to plead with him.

"Not on your life, I ain't. But we'll talk about that when the subject is riper. There will be a showdown some day, and don't you forget it. Well, Charley is calling me. So long, Miss Three-Quarters-Past-Seventeen." He went jingling down the steps and swung to the saddle. "I'll not forget the ad, and when I find the right man I'll ce'tainly rope and bring him to you."

"The rustler?" she asked innocently.

"No, not the rustler, the gent between eighteen and forty-eight, object matrimony."

"I don't want to trouble you," she flung at him with her gay smile.

"No trouble at all. Fact is, I've got him in mind already," he assured her promptly.

"Oh!" A pulse of excitement was beating in her throat.

"You don't ask me who he is," suggested Norris boldly, crouched in the saddle with his weight on the far stirrup.

She had brought it upon herself, but now she dodged the issue. "'Most anyone will do, and me going on eighteen."

"You're wrong, girl. Only one out of a thousand will do for your master."

"Master, indeed! If he comes to the Bar Double G he'll find he is at the wrong address. None wanted, thank you."

"Most folks don't want what's best for them, I allow. But if they have luck it sometimes comes to them."

"Luck!" she echoed, her chin in the air.

"You heard me right. What you need is a man that ain't afraid of you, one to ride close herd on you so as to head off them stampede notions of yours. Now this lad is the very one. He is a black-haired guy, and when he says a thing——"

Involuntarily she glanced at his sleek black head. Melissy felt a sudden clamor of the blood, a pounding of the pulses.

"—he most generally means it. I've wrangled around a heap with him and there's no manner of doubt he's up to specifications. In appearance he looks like me. Point of fact, he's a dead ringer for me."

She saw her chance and flashed out. "Now you're flattering him. There can't be two as—as fascinating as Senor Norris," she mocked.

His smoldering eyes had the possessive insolence she resented and yet found so stimulating.

"Did I say there were two?" he drawled.

It was his parting shot. With a touch of the spur he was off, leaving her no time for an adequate answer.

There were no elusions and inferences about Philip Norris when he wanted to be direct. He had fairly taken her breath away. Melissy's instinct told her there was something humiliating about such a wooing. But picturesque and unconventional conduct excuse themselves in a picturesque personality. And this man had that if nothing else.

She told herself she was angry at him, that he took liberties far beyond those of any of the other young men. Yet, somehow, she went into the house smiling. A color born of excitement burned beneath her sparkling eyes. She had entered into her heritage of womanhood and the call of sex was summoning her to the adventure that is old as the garden where Eve met Adam.



CHAPTER V

THE TENDERFOOT TAKES UP A CLAIM

Mr. Diller, alias Morse, alias Bellamy, did not long remain at the Bar Double G as a rider. It developed that he had money, and, tenderfoot though he was, the man showed a shrewd judgment in his investments. He bought sheep and put them on the government forest reserve, much to the annoyance of the cattlemen of the district.

Morse, as he now called himself, was not the first man who had brought sheep into the border country. Far up in the hills were several camps of them. But hitherto these had been there on sufferance, and it had been understood that they were to be kept far from the cattle range. The extension of the government reserves changed the equation. A good slice of the range was cut off and thrown open to sheep. When Morse leased this and put five thousand bleaters upon the feeding ground the sentiment against him grew very bitter.

Lee had been spokesman of a committee appointed to remonstrate with him. Morse had met them pleasantly but firmly. This part of the reserve had been set aside for sheep. If it were not leased by him it would be by somebody else. Therefore, he declined to withdraw his flocks. Champ lost his temper and swore that he for one would never submit to yield the range. Sharp bitter words were passed. Next week masked men drove a small flock belonging to Morse over a precipice.

The tenderfoot retaliated by jumping a mining claim staked out by Lee upon which the assessment work had not been kept up. The cattleman contested this in the courts, lost the decision, and promptly appealed. Meanwhile, he countered by leasing from the forest supervisor part of the run previously held by his opponent and putting sheep of his own upon it.

"I reckon I'll play Mr. Morse's own game and see how he likes it," the angry cattleman told his friends.

But the luck was all with Morse. Before he had been working his new claim a month the Monte Cristo (he had changed the name from its original one of Melissy) proved a bonanza. His men ran into a rich streak of dirt that started a stampede for the vicinity.

Champ indulged in choice profanity. From his point of view he had been robbed, and he announced the fact freely to such acquaintances as dropped into the Bar Double G store.

"Dad gum it, I was aimin' to do that assessment work and couldn't jest lay my hands on the time. I'd been a millionaire three years and didn't know it. Then this damned Morse butts in and euchres me out of the claim. Some day him and me'll have a settlement. If the law don't right me, I reckon I'm most man enough to 'tend to Mr. Morse."

It was his daughter who had hitherto succeeded in keeping the peace. When the news of the relocation had reached Lee he had at once started to settle the matter with a Winchester, but Melissy, getting news of his intention, had caught up a horse and ridden bareback after him in time to avert by her entreaties a tragedy. For six months after this the men had not chanced to meet.

Why the tenderfoot had first come West—to hide what wounds in the great baked desert—no man knew or asked. Melissy had guessed, but she did not breathe to a soul her knowledge. It was a first article of Arizona's creed that a man's past belonged to him alone, was a blotted book if he chose to have it so. No doubt many had private reasons for their untrumpeted migration to that kindly Southwest which buries identity, but no wise citizen busied himself with questions about antecedents. The present served to sift one, and by the way a man met it his neighbors judged him.

And T. L. Morse met it competently. In every emergency with which he had to cope the man "stood the acid." Arizona approved him a man, without according him any popularity. He was too dogmatic to win liking, but he had a genius for success. Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Bar Double G lies half way between Mammoth and Mesa. Its position makes it a central point for ranchers within a radius of fifteen miles. Out of the logical need for it was born the store which Beauchamp Lee ran to supply his neighbors with canned goods, coffee, tobacco, and other indispensables; also the eating house for stage passengers passing to and from the towns. Young as she was, Melissy was the competent manager of both of these.

It was one afternoon during the hour the stage stopped to let the passengers dine that Melissy's wandering eye fell upon Morse seated at one of the tables. Anger mounted within her at the cool impudence of the man. She had half a mind to order him out, but saw he was nearly through dinner and did not want to make a scene. Unfortunately Beauchamp Lee happened to come into the store just as his enemy strolled out from the dining-room.

The ranchman stiffened. "What you been doing in there, seh?" he demanded sharply.

"I've been eating a very good dinner in a public cafe. Any objections?"

"Plenty of 'em, seh. I don't aim to keep open house for Mr. Morse."

"I understand this is a business proposition. I expect to pay seventy-five cents for my meal."

The eyes of the older man gleamed wrathfully. "As for yo' six bits, if you offer it to me I'll take it as an insult. At the Bar Double G we're not doing friendly business with claim jumpers. Don't you evah set yo' legs under my table again, seh."

Morse shrugged, turned away to the public desk, and addressed an envelope, the while Lee glared at him from under his heavy beetling brows. Melissy saw that her father was still of half a mind to throw out the intruder and she called him to her.

"Dad, Jose wants you to look at the hoof of one of his wheelers. He asked if you would come as soon as you could."

Beauchamp still frowned at Morse, rasping his unshaven chin with his hand. "Ce'tainly, honey. Glad to look at it."

"Dad! Please."

The ranchman went out, grumbling. Five minutes later Morse took his seat on the stage beside the driver, having first left seventy-five cents on the counter.

The stage had scarce gone when the girl looked up from her bookkeeping to see the man with the Chihuahua hat.

"Buenos tardes, senorita," he gave her with a flash of white teeth.

"Buenos," she nodded coolly.

But the dancing eyes of her could not deny their pleasure at sight of him. They had rested upon men as handsome, but upon none who stirred her blood so much.

He was in the leather chaps of a cowpuncher, gray-shirted, and a polka dot kerchief circled the brown throat. Life rippled gloriously from every motion of him. Hermes himself might have envied the perfect grace of the man.

She supplied his wants while they chatted.

"Jogged off your range quite a bit, haven't you?" she suggested.

"Some. I'll take two bits' worth of that smokin', nina."

She shook her head. "I'm no little girl. Don't you know I'm now half past eighteen?"

"My—my. That ad didn't do a mite of good, did it?"

"Not a bit."

"And you growing older every day."

"Does my age show?" she wanted to know anxiously.

The scarce veiled admiration of his smoldering eyes drew the blood to her dusky cheeks. Something vigilant lay crouched panther-like behind the laughter of his surface badinage.

"You're standing it well, honey."

The color beat into her face, less at the word than at the purring caress in his voice. A year ago she had been a child. But in the Southland flowers ripen fast. Adolescence steals hard upon the heels of infancy, and, though the girl had never wakened to love, Nature was pushing her relentlessly toward a womanhood for which her unschooled impulses but scantily safeguarded her.

She turned toward the shelves. "How many air-tights did you say?"

"I didn't say." He leaned forward across the counter. "What's the hurry, little girl?"

"My name is Melissy Lee," she told him over her shoulder.

"Mine is Phil Norris. Glad to give it to you, Melissy Lee," the man retorted glibly.

"Can't use it, thank you," came her swift saucy answer.

"Or to lend it to you—say, for a week or two."

She flashed a look at him and passed quickly from behind the counter. Her father was just coming into the store.

"Will you wait on Mr. Norris, dad? Hop wants to see me in the kitchen."

Norris swore softly under his breath. The last thing he had wanted was to drive her away. It had been nearly a year since he had seen her last, but the picture of her had been in the coals of many a night camp fire.

The cattle detective stayed to dinner and to supper. He and her father had their heads together for hours, their voices pitched to a murmur. Melissy wondered what business could have brought him, whether it could have anything to do with the renewed rustling that had of late annoyed the neighborhood. This brought her thoughts to Jack Flatray. He, too, had almost dropped from her world, though she heard of him now and again. Not once had he been to see her since the night she had sprained her ankle.

Later, when Melissy was watering the roses beside the porch, she heard the name of Morse mentioned by the stock detective. He seemed to be urging upon her father some course of action at which the latter demurred. The girl knew a vague unrest. Lee did not need his anger against Morse incensed. For months she had been trying to allay rather than increase this. If Philip Norris had come to stir up smoldering fires, she would give him a piece of her mind.

The men were still together when Melissy told her father good-night. If she had known that a whisky bottle passed back and forth a good many times in the course of the evening, the fears of the girl would not have been lightened. She knew that in the somber moods following a drinking bout the lawlessness of Beauchamp Lee was most likely to crop out.

As for the girl, now night had fallen—that wondrous velvet night of Arizona, which blots out garish day with a cloak of violet, purple-edged where the hills rise vaguely in the distance, and softens magically all harsh details beneath the starry vault—she slipped out to the summit of the ridge in the big pasture, climbing lightly, with the springy ease born of the vigor her nineteen outdoor years had stored in the strong young body. She wanted to be alone, to puzzle out what the coming of this man meant to her. Had he intended anything by that last drawling remark of his in the store? Why was it that his careless, half insulting familiarity set the blood leaping through her like wine? He lured her to the sex duel, then trampled down her reserves roughshod. His bold assurance stung her to anger, but there was a something deeper than anger that left her flushed and tingling.

Both men slept late, but Norris was down first. He found Melissy superintending a drive of sheep which old Antonio, the herder, was about to make to the trading-post at Three Pines. She was on her pony near the entrance to the corral, her slender, lithe figure sitting in a boy's saddle with a businesslike air he could not help but admire. The gate bars had been lifted and the dog was winding its way among the bleating gray mass, which began to stir uncertainly at its presence. The sheep dribbled from the corral by ones and twos until the procession swelled to a swollen stream that poured forth in a torrent. Behind them came Antonio in his sombrero and blanket, who smiled at his mistress, shouted an "Adios, senorita," and disappeared into the yellow dust cloud which the herd left in its wake.

"How does Champ like being in the sheep business," Norris said to the girl.

Melissy did not remove her eyes from the vanishing herd, but a slight frown puckered her forehead. She chose to take this as a criticism of her father and to resent it.

"Why shouldn't he be?" she said quietly, answering the spirit of his remark.

"I didn't mean it that way," he protested, with his frank laugh.

"Then if you didn't mean it so, I shan't take it that way;" and her smile met his.

"Here's how I look at this sheep business. Some ranges are better adapted for sheep than cattle, and you can't keep Mary's little lamb away from those places. No use for a man to buck against the thing that's bound to be. Better get into the band-wagon and ride."

"That's what father thought," the girl confessed. "He never would have been the man to bring sheep in, but after they got into the country he saw it was a question of whether he was going to get the government reserve range for his sheep, or another man, some new-comer like Mr. Morse, for his. It was going to be sheep anyhow."

"Well, I'm glad your father took the chance he saw." He added reminiscently: "We got to be right good friends again last night before we parted."

She took the opening directly. "If you're so good a friend of his, you must not excite him about Mr. Morse. You know he's a Southerner, and he is likely to do something rash—something we shall all be sorry for afterward."

"I reckon that will be all right," he said evasively.

Her eyes swept to his. "You won't get father into trouble will you?"

The warm, affectionate smile came back to his face, so that as he looked at her he seemed a sun-god. But again there was something in his gaze that was not the frankness of a comrade, some smoldering fire that strangely stirred her blood and yet left her uneasy.

"I'm not liable to bring trouble to those you love, girl. I stand by my friends."

Her pony began to move toward the house, and he strode beside, as debonair and gallant a figure as ever filled the eye and the heart of a woman. The morning sun glow irradiated him, found its sparkling reflection in the dark curls of his bare head, in the bloom of his tanned cheeks, made a fit setting for the graceful picture of lingering youth his slim, muscular figure and springy stride personified. Small wonder the untaught girl beside him found the merely physical charm of him fascinating. If her instinct sometimes warned her to beware, her generous heart was eager to pay small heed to the monition except so far as concerned her father.

After breakfast he came into the office to see her before he left.

"Good-by for a day or two," he said, offering his hand.

"You're coming back again, are you?" she asked quietly, but not without a deeper dye in her cheeks.

"Yes, I'm coming back. Will you be glad to see me?"

"Why should I be glad? I hardly know you these days."

"You'll know me better before we're through with each other."

She would acknowledge no interest in him, the less because she knew it was there. "I may do that without liking you better."

And suddenly his swift, winning smile flashed upon her. "But you've got to like me. I want you to."

"Do you get everything you want?" she smiled back.

"If I want it enough, I usually do."

"Then since you get so much, you'll be better able to do without my liking."

"I'm going to have it too."

"Don't be too sure." She had a feeling that things were moving too fast, and she hailed the appearance of her father with relief. "Good morning, dad. Did you sleep well? Mr. Norris is just leaving."

"Wait till I git a bite o' breakfast and I'll go with you, Phil," promised Lee. "I got to ride over to Mesa anyhow some time this week."

The girl watched them ride away, taking the road gait so characteristic of the Southwest. As long as they were in sight her gaze followed them, and when she could see nothing but a wide cloud of dust travelling across the mesa she went up to her room and sat down to think it out. Something new had come into her life. What, she did not yet know, but she tried to face the fact with the elemental frankness that still made her more like a boy than a woman. Sitting there before the looking-glass, she played absently with the thick braid of heavy, blue-black hair which hung across her shoulder to the waist. It came to her for the first time to wonder if she was pretty, whether she was going to be one of the women that men desire. Without the least vanity she studied herself, appraised the soft brown cheeks framed with ebon hair, the steady, dark eyes so quick to passion and to gaiety, the bronzed throat full and rounded, the supple, flowing grace of the unrestrained body.

Gradually a wave of color crept into her cheeks as she sat there with her chin on her little doubled hand. It was the charm of this Apollo of the plains that had set free such strange thoughts in her head. Why should she think of him? What did it matter whether she was good-looking? She shook herself resolutely together and went down to the business of the day.

It was not long after midnight the next day that Champ Lee reached the ranch. His daughter came out from her room in her night-dress to meet him.

"What kept you, Daddy?" she asked.

But before he could answer she knew. She read the signs too clearly to doubt that he had been drinking.



CHAPTER VI

"HANDS UP"

Melissy had been up the Can del Oro for wild poppies in her runabout and had just reached the ranch. She was disposing of her flowers in ollas when Jim Budd, waiter, chambermaid, and odd jobs man at the Bar Double G, appeared in the hall with a frightened, mysterious face.

"What's the matter, Jim? You and Hop Ling been quarrelling again?" she asked carelessly.

"No'm, that ain't it. It's wusser'n that. I got to tell you-all su'thin' I hearn yore paw say."

The girl looked up quickly at him. "What do you mean, Jim?"

"That Mistah Norris he come back whilst you wus away, and him and yore paw wus in that back room a-talkin' mighty confidential."

"Yes, and you listened. Well?"

Jim swelled with offended dignity. "No'm, I didn't listen neither. I des natcherally hearn, 'count of that hole fer the stovepipe what comes through the floor of my room."

"But what was it you heard?" she interrupted impatiently.

"I wus a-comin' to that. Plum proverdenshul, I draps into my room des as yore paw wus sayin', 'Twenty thousand dollars goin' down to the Fort on the stage to-day?' 'Cose I pricks up my ears then and tuk it all in. This yere Norris had foun' out that Mistah Morse was shippin' gold from his mine to-day on the Fort Allison stage, and he gits yore paw to go in with him an' hold it up. Yore paw cussed and said as how 't wus his gold anyhow by rights."

The girl went white and gave a little broken cry. "Oh, Jim! Are you sure?"

"Yas'm, 'cose I'm suah. Them's his ve'y words. Hope to die if they ain't. They wus drinkin', and when 't wus all fixed up that 't wus to be at the mouth of the Box canyon they done tore an old black shirt you got for a dust-rag and made masks out of it and then rode away."

"Which way did they go?"

"Tow'ds the Box canyon Miss M'lissy."

A slender, pallid figure of despair, she leaned against the wall to support the faintness that had so suddenly stolen the strength from her limbs, trying desperately to think of some way to save her father from this madness. She was sure he would bungle it and be caught eventually, and she was equally sure he would never let himself be taken alive. Her helplessness groped for some way out. There must be some road of escape from this horrible situation, and as she sought blindly for it the path opened before her.

"Where is Hop?" she asked quickly.

"A-sleepin' in his room, ma'am."

"Go to the store and tend it till I come back, Jim. I may be an hour, or mebbe two, but don't you move out of it for a moment. And don't ever speak of any of this, not a word, Jim."

"No'm, 'cose I won't."

His loyalty she did not doubt an instant, though she knew his simple wits might easily be led to indiscretion. But she did not stay to say more now, but flew upstairs to the room that had been her brother's before he left home. Scarce five minutes elapsed before she reappeared transformed. It was a slim youth garbed as a cowpuncher that now slipped along the passage to the rear, softly opened the door of the cook's room, noiselessly abstracted the key, closed the door again as gently, and locked it from the outside. She ran into her own room, strapped on her revolver belt, and took her empty rifle from its case. As she ran through the room below the one Jim occupied, she caught sight of a black rag thrown carelessly into the fireplace and stuffed it into her pocket.

"That's just like Dad to leave evidence lying around," she said to herself, for even in the anxiety that was flooding her she kept her quiet commonsense.

After searching the horizon carefully to see that nobody was in sight, she got into the rig and drove round the corral to the irrigating ditch. This was a wide lateral of the main canal, used to supply the whole lower valley with water, and just now it was empty. Melissy drove down into its sandy bed and followed its course as rapidly as she could. If she were only in time! If the stage had not yet passed! That was her only fear, the dread of being too late. Not once did the risk of the thing she intended occur to her. Physical fear had never been part of her. She had done the things her brother Dick had done. She was a reckless rider, a good shot, could tramp the hills or follow the round-up all day without knowing fatigue. If her flesh still held its girlish curves and softness, the muscles underneath were firm and compact. Often for her own amusement and that of her father she had donned her brother's chaps, his spurs, sombrero, and other paraphernalia, to masquerade about the house in them. She had learned to imitate the long roll of the vaquero's stride, the mannerisms common to his class, and even the heavy voice of a man. More than once she had passed muster as a young man in the shapeless garments she was now wearing. She felt confident that the very audacity of the thing would carry it off. There would be a guard for the treasure box, of course, but if all worked well he could be taken by surprise. Her rifle was not loaded, but the chances were a hundred to one that she would not need to use it.

For the first time in his life the roan got the whip from his mistress.

"Git up, Bob. We've got to hurry. It's for dad," she cried, as they raced through the sand and sent it flying from the wheels.

The Fort Allison stage passed within three miles of the Lee ranch on its way to Mesa. Where the road met in intersection with the ditch she had chosen as the point for stopping it, and no veteran at the business could have selected more wisely, for a reason which will hereafter appear. Some fifty yards below this point of intersection the ditch ran through a grove of cottonwoods fringing the bank. Here the banks sloped down more gradually, and Melissy was able to drive up one side, turn her rig so that the horse faced the other way, and draw down into the ditch again in order that the runabout could not be seen from the road. Swiftly and skilfully she obliterated the track she had made in the sandy bank.

She was just finishing this when the sound of wheels came to her. Rifle in hand, she ran back along the ditch, stooping to pass under the bridge, and waited at the farther side in a fringe of bushes for the coming of the stage.

Even now fear had no place in the excitement which burned high in her. The girl's wits were fully alert, and just in time she remembered the need of a mask. Her searching fingers found the torn black shirt in a pocket and a knife in another. Hastily she ripped the linen in half, cut out eyeholes, and tied the mask about her head. With perfectly steady hands she picked up the rifle from the ground and pushed the muzzle of it through the bushes.

Leisurely the stage rolled up-grade toward the crossing. The Mexican driver was half asleep and the "shotgun messenger" was indolently rolling a cigarette, his sawed-off gun between his knees. Alan McKinstra was the name of this last young gentleman. Only yesterday he had gone to work for Morse, and this was the first job that had been given him. The stage never had been held up since the "Monte Cristo" had struck its pay-streak, and there was no reason to suppose it would be. Nevertheless, Morse proposed to err on the side of caution.

"I reckon the man that holds down this job don't earn his salt, Jose. It's what they call a sinecure," Alan was saying at the very instant the summons came.

"Throw up your hands!"

Sharp and crisp it fell on Alan's ears. He sat for a moment stunned, the half-rolled cigarette still between his fingers. The driver drew up his four horses with a jerk and brought them to a huddled halt.

"Hands up!" came again the stinging imperative.

Now, for the first time, it reached Alan's consciousness that the stage was actually being held up. He saw the sun shining on the barrel of a rifle and through the bushes the masked face of a hidden cowpuncher. His first swift instinct was to give battle, and he reached for the shotgun between his knees. Simultaneously the driver's foot gave it a push and sent the weapon clattering to the ground. Jose at least knew better than to let him draw the road agent's fire while he sat within a foot of the driver. His hands went into the air, and after his Alan's and those of the two passengers.

"Throw down that box."

Alan lowered his hands and did as directed.

"Now reach for the stars again."

McKinstra's arms went skyward. Without his weapon, he was helpless to do otherwise. The young man had an odd sense of unreality about the affair, a feeling that it was not in earnest. The timbre of the fresh young voice that came from the bushes struck a chord in his memory, though for the life of him he could not place its owner.

"Drive on, Jose. Burn the wind and keep a-rollin' south."

The Mexican's whip coiled over the head of the leaders and the broncos sprang forward with a jump. It was the summit of a long hill, on the edge of which wound the road. Until the stage reached the foot of it there would be no opportunity to turn back. Round a bend of the road it swung at a gallop, and the instant it disappeared Melissy leaped from the bushes, lifted the heavy box, and carried it to the edge of the ditch. She flew down the sandy bottom to the place where the rig stood, drove swiftly back again, and, though it took the last ounce of strength in her, managed to tumble the box into the trap.

Back to the road she went, and from the place where the box had fallen made long strides back to the bushes where she had been standing at the moment of the hold-up. These tracks she purposely made deep and large, returning in her first ones to the same point, but from the marks where the falling treasure box had struck into the road she carefully obliterated with her hand the foot-marks leading to the irrigation ditch, sifting the sand in carefully so as to leave no impression. This took scarcely a minute. She was soon back in her runabout, driving homeward fast as whip and voice could urge the horse.

She thought she could reason out what McKinstra and the stage-driver would do. Mesa was twenty-five miles distant, the "Monte Cristo" mine seventeen. Nearer than these points there was no telephone station except the one at the Lee ranch. Their first thought would be to communicate with Morse, with the officers at Mammoth, and with the sheriff of Mesa County. To do this as soon as possible they would turn aside and drive to the ranch after they reached the bottom of the hill and could make the turn. It was a long, steep hill, and Melissy estimated that this would give her a start of nearly twenty minutes. She would save about half a mile by following the ditch instead of the road, but at best she knew she was drawing it very fine.

She never afterward liked to think of that drive home. It seemed to her that Bob crawled and that the heavy sand was interminable. Feverishly she plied the whip, and when at length she drew out of the ditch she sent her horse furiously round the big corral. Though she had planned everything to the last detail, she knew that any one of a hundred contingencies might spoil her plan. A cowpuncher lounging about the place would have ruined everything, or at best interfered greatly. But the windmill clicked over sunlit silence, empty of life. No stir or movement showed the presence of any human being.

Melissy drove round to the side door, dumped out the treasure-box, ran into the house, and quickly returned with a hammer and some tacks, then fell swiftly to ripping the oilcloth that covered the box which stood against the wall to serve as a handy wash-stand for use by dusty travellers before dining. The two boxes were of the same size and shape, and she draped the treasure chest with the cloth, tacked it in place, restored to the top of it the tin basin, and tossed the former wash-stand among a pile of old boxes from the store, that were to be used for kindling. After this she ran upstairs, scudded softly along the corridor, and silently unlocked the cook's door, dropping the key on the floor to make it appear as if something had shaken it from the keyhole. Presently she was in her brother's room, doffing his clothes and dressing herself in her own.

A glance out of the window sapped the color from her cheek, for she saw the stage breasting the hill scarce two hundred yards from the house. She hurried downstairs, pinning her belt as she ran, and flashed into the store, where Jim sat munching peanuts.

"The stage is coming, Jim. Remember, you're not to know anything about it at all. If they ask for Dad, say he's out cutting trail of a bunch of hill cows. Tell them I started after the wild flowers about fifteen minutes ago. Don't talk much about it, though. I'll be back inside of an hour."

With that she was gone, back to her trap, which she swung along a trail back of the house till it met the road a quarter of a mile above. Her actions must have surprised steady old Bob, for he certainly never before had seen his mistress in such a desperate hurry as she had been this day and still was. Nearly a mile above, a less well defined track deflected from the main road. Into this she turned, following it until she came to the head-gates of the lateral which ran through their place. The main canal was full of water, and after some effort she succeeded in opening the head-gates so as to let the water go pouring through.

1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse