The Fifth Ace
by Douglas Grant
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E-text prepared by Al Haines




Frontispiece by George W. Gage

[Frontispiece: "Peach of a town," he repeated with added conviction]

Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York

Copyright, 1918, by W. J. Watt & Company







Kearn Thode mounted his pinto and rode out of the courtyard of the Baggott Hotel and down the Calle Rivera under a seething tropic sun. Limasito's principal street was well-nigh deserted in the lethargy of the noon-day siesta, but the flower-market was a riotous blaze of color in the glistening white plaza, from which radiated broad vistas of fantastically painted adobe and soberer concrete, ending in a soft green blur.

The young petroleum engineer had pictured a ten-year-old boom town in the Mexican oil belt as a wilderness of rough shacks and board sidewalks, with possibly a dancehall or two and an open-air movie as the only attractions, and the thriving little city had proved a welcome surprise.

"Limasito," he mused. "That means 'Little Lemon.' Wonder who tacked that name to this burg? Peach of a town, I call it."

A long, low adobe house, tinted a screaming blue which rivaled the skies, faced the southern end of the plaza, covering nearly an entire block. As Thode jogged past, a door in the side wall opened, and a girl appeared. She was tall with a lithe slenderness that betokened well-poised strength rather than fragility. Masses of sloe-black hair waved beneath the broad brim of her sombrero, but her skin was unbelievably fair and the eyes she lifted to his in frank scrutiny were the deep blue of a wood violet.

The young man caught his breath as she turned and started across the plaza, walking with long, free, swinging strides.

"Peach of a town," he repeated, with added conviction. "All to the good!"

The Calle Rivera dwindled into a dusty, white, winding road, straggling, flower-choked gardens replaced the city blocks and gave way in turn to haciendas whose flat fertile acres teemed with the luscious harvest. The pinto covered the ground at an easy lope which ate up the miles, and Thode sat his high Mexican saddle, as easy as a rocking-chair, scanning each turn of the road for landmarks.

The sun was well upon its western course when he reined in at a low stout gateway. A peon, lazily hoeing in the ditch, straightened his bent back and eyed the stranger in mild curiosity.

"This Hallock's ranch?" Thode asked, laconically.

The peon nodded and waved a brown hand toward the house half hidden among the trees.

"Senor Hallo', si, Senor."

The engineer wheeled and cantered up the winding driveway, with the serried rows of grapefruit trees spreading out endlessly on either side of the little rising where the square white ranch-house squatted, its broad wings outstretched like those of a brooding hen.

In the shade of a mahogany tree, an excessively fat, excessively bald person sprawled in a low chair by a rustic table, alternately sipping from the tall glass at his elbow and mopping his ruddy glabrous brow with a vivid bandanna.

He rose to his short legs as Thode swung himself from the saddle and advanced.

"Mr. Hallock?"

"That's me, Stranger. Howdy!" He held out a pudgy hand, and noting the fresh coat of sunburn on his visitor, he added: "Just come over the border?"

"Further than that, Sir; from New York. I'm Kearn Thode. Perhaps Mr. Larkin mentioned me to you; Perry Larkin, of the Mexamer Oil Company."

"To be sho'! I'm right glad to see you, Thode."

Benjamin Hallock pumped his hand vigorously. "Been kinder expectin' you down in these parts. We'll set a spell out here, it's hotter'n blazes inside. Hey, Luis! Juan!"

Two mozos scurried from the veranda in response to the bull-throated roar, and Thode found himself seated opposite his host with another tall glass before him and a slender black cigar between his fingers.

"Great country for you folks, down here," Hallock remarked. "We've got the largest producing oil wells in the world right in this leetle strip of land along the Gulf and, at that, the undeveloped resources are a damn' sight greater'n you can judge from what's been brought to light. Yes, Sir, I shouldn't be surprised any day to strike a gusher right here on my ranch! Rufe Terwilliger, twelve miles yonder at the Dos Zapotes, spudded in only six months ago on a hunch, and now with the valve-gate only part-way open, he's bringing in a thousand barrels a day!"

"I know that the development which has taken place here is, speaking relatively to the possibilities, only a beginning," Thode assured the heated enthusiast. "I'm down here to look after Mr. Larkin's interests, and those of the Mexamer Company with a view to extending their holdings if I can pick up anything promising. By the way, Mr. Hallock, that was a curious yarn you told Mr. Larkin, about some mysterious lost pool in a swamp with surface oil indications. He happened to mention it one day. The Pool of the Lost Souls, wasn't it?"

Hallock nodded, grinning expansively.

"You've got it right," he chuckled. "So Larkin bit, did he? It's nothing but pure bunk, one of those old Mex' legends that run back to the beginning of time. We pass it on to every green operator from over the border, but I reckoned Larkin was too wise a bird to take any stock in it."

"He didn't," Thode returned carelessly. "Up in Oklahoma where I've been locating some sections for the company there are any amount of Indian myths and queer old traditions handed down from the first settlers, and I made a collection of them. It's rather a hobby of mine. I was discussing them with Mr. Larkin when he recalled this odd tale. He had forgotten the particulars, but he said you would be able to supply them. The pool was supposed to be located somewhere around here, wasn't it?"

"Anywhere within a radius of two hundred miles." His host drained his glass and settled back comfortably. "I judge it about that, for I've been pretty much over this whole country and it's only around these parts that you hear of the Lost Souls' Pool. I got the tale from a hunchbacked half-breed and he got it from his grandmother.

"It seems that away back in the times when the Spaniards were scrapping with the Indians for a foothold, an old grandee named Del Reyes had staked out a claim hereabout. Mighty poor judgment he showed, too, for he wouldn't have known what to do with oil if he'd found it in those days and by all accounts the land couldn't have been much good for anything else; swampy and low-lying, without even timber. He had a beautiful daughter, Dolores, of course. Funny how that gal Dolores manages to get herself mixed up in every yarn below the border, ain't it? There was a kid brother, Jose, too, but he don't figure much.

"Dolores must have been some Jane for all the male population, what there was of it, went plumb loco about her, among 'em a young Spanish explorer and the son of the chief of the tribe, whose claims Del Reyes and the rest had jumped. Dolores favored the explorer, but the young chief had seen her first, and being a simple-hearted child of nature, he decided that the way to get what he wanted was to go right out after it.

"Accordingly, he showed up unexpected at the Del Reyes hacienda with his outfit one moonlight night and laid hands on the gal. Dolores was packing a knife, though, and she let him have it, full to the hilt. His outfit vamoosed, taking the corpse with them, and the settlement got ready for trouble.

"Nothing happened, howsomever, until the night of the fiesta for Dolores' marriage to the explorer. Then the old chief dropped in, informal like, and wiped out the whole wedding party. He macheted all but the bride, throwing the bodies into a shallow pool on the claim. Her he roped up, tied heavy weights to and stood up in the pool; the water came about to her shoulders. Then he held the knife before her eyes, the knife she'd stuck his son with, and waited for the weights to drag her down. I reckon he waited some time, for Dolores must have been a right-strong young woman, but she went under finally. The only one that escaped the pool was the kid brother, Jose, and him the old chief carried off.

"According to the yarn, Dolores still breathes in the pool, the bubbles rise to the surface and there's a murmuring from the other souls that went down unshriven. What's more, the water is never ruffled but smooth and glassy, with streaks that gleam in the moonlight. Of course, that's oil, all right, or would be if the pool ever existed, but nobody's found it yet."

"It's got the punch to it, as a story." Thode paused to relight his cigar. "Did your hunchbacked friend give you any further description of the pool itself or its location?"

"Nothing to work on, Son. This flat part of the country don't run much to scenery. He did say something about a mahogany tree close by, that grew up with two outstretched branches like a cross and then turned to stone, but I'm not letting my peons loaf on the job while I go moseying around looking for it."

"It's a great little ranch you have here." Thode turned in his chair to survey the close-packed avenues of low-hanging trees. "Any oil on your land, Mr. Hallock?"

"Not here. Got two gushers over near Tuxpam, next to some property that I reckon you'll want to look into for the Mexamer people. Larkin told me himself that he thought of taking it over."

The talk drifted into a discussion of relative values and prospects, and when Thode cantered down the driveway an hour or so later he had secured a good working knowledge of the surrounding country with which to commence his labors. He had parted with some little difficulty from his host, who insisted on sending in to Limasito for the young engineer's baggage and wholeheartedly desired that he make the Hacienda de Rosa his headquarters.

Kearn Thode, however, had other intentions. He must be free to go and come as he pleased on his mission and he determined to make the town itself the center of his activities. Moreover, Hallock's hacienda was a bachelor establishment and in Limasito there were girls; girls with blue eyes and black hair and incredibly white skin, who looked a man straight in the eyes and made him feel as if maybe he'd found a friend.

That blue adobe house on the southern end of the square began to loom large in the architecture of Limasito. Thode had caught a glimpse of the patio as he swung past; it had looked cool and green and inviting, with a fountain playing and little tables scattered about. What was it, anyway, and how could one meet a girl who lived there?

The curious old tale of the Lost Souls' Pool was temporarily forgotten in speculations of a more warmly personal nature. Was she an Americano? She seemed of too fair a type for a native daughter, in spite of her dark hair, and that, together with her violet-blue eyes, gave more than a hint of Irish ancestry. What could bring a girl of her sort to a boom town below the border?

So absorbed was the young engineer in his cogitations that he had reached the outskirts of Limasito before he awoke from his reverie. The swiftly falling curtain of twilight had wrapped the spreading orchards and haciendas in fragrant gloom and a myriad of mysterious chirpings and rustlings forecasted the coming night, when the harsh, grating screech of a horn blared upon their monotone and a low roadster appeared suddenly around a turn in the road, careening sharply on two wheels, and bore down recklessly upon the lone rider.

Thode's pony was quicker than he and leaped aside barely in time to avoid disaster as the car shot past and hurtled on into the dusk. He turned in his saddle and watched its unlighted shape swerve drunkenly from side to side of the road, until a further turn hid it from view. With a muttered imprecation, he gave the sure-footed pinto its head, and as it floundered out of the ditch the white, jeering face of the man at the wheel, as he had seen it in that flashing glimpse, rose again before his consciousness. It seemed for a startling instant to be grimly, portentously familiar, then the fancy faded before the fact of its obvious absurdity, and he laughed contemptuously. The danger of the moment had played tricks with his nerves.

A long-drawn, tremulous moan from the roadside broke in upon his thoughts and he halted the pinto abruptly. A small crumpled figure lay face downward in the ditch, twisting and quivering like a shot rabbit, and, bending over it, Thode saw a slender feminine form which made his pulse miss a beat or two and then race on with unaccountable acceleration. He flung himself from the saddle and reached the edge of the ditch, hat in hand, just as a pair of soft violet eyes were raised to his. It was the girl of the adobe house on the plaza.

"There has been an accident?" he stammered.

She nodded briefly.

"Put on your hat and help me tote him. He lives in that shack just over yonder."

Her voice was low and musically clear, but it bore a ring of authority as well as of impatience at the obviousness of his question, and Thode meekly obeyed.

The prostrate figure was that of a boy, dark-skinned and thin to the point of emaciation. He was clad only in a ragged shirt and trousers, with a battered straw hat lying torn and crushed beside him.

"Stand aside, please. I can carry him," Thode directed, and as he slung the inert form gently over his shoulder he saw that the boy's shoulders were pathetically humped.

In spite of his assertion, he found it no easy matter to struggle up from the steep ditch, cumbered by his helpless burden, but the girl steadied it with a capable hand and leaped lightly up beside him.

"Put him across your galapago, I'll walk on the other side and hold him up. It's only to that shack there, where the light is."

Again Thode obeyed, but he could not forbear a further query.

"You are not hurt yourself, are you? It was that maniac in the car who ran him down?"

"I came on him just now, lying that-a-way in the ditch. Poor little Jose! I know who did it, though; he passed me a minute before, going like hell. It was Wiley."

Thode started as the forceful comparison fell artlessly from her lips, but at the final word a hot wave as of rage swept through his veins and receded, leaving him tense and cold. So his vision had not tricked him, after all. The man in the car had been no stranger.

"I know. He almost ran me down, too." Thode set his jaw firmly. "Is this where we turn off?"

"This" was a narrow rutted lane, half-obliterated in the encroaching underbrush, at the end of which a weather-beaten shack squatted in a clump of zapote trees. As they drew up in the little cleared space before it the door opened and a shriveled, white-haired woman peered out, a light held high in her trembling hand.

"Madre de Dios!" she cried. "Jose!"

The girl turned to her with a rapid flow of soft liquid Spanish and the old crone, weeping and muttering, stood aside to let them enter. Thode was forced to stoop under the low, sagging doorway and he stumbled as he made his way to a rickety bed in the corner and laid his burden down.

The girl took the light from the old shaking hands and together they bent above the injured lad.

"I don't think there are any bones broken," Thode announced at last. "But he's had a pretty bad shaking up for a cripple and that is rather a nasty cut on his head. Can you find anything clean to tie it up with?"

Without reply the girl stooped, turned back her short khaki skirt and tore a wide strip from a snowy petticoat. Then with a basin of water dipped from the bucket upon a bench beside them she bathed and bandaged the wound deftly. The old crone had lighted a flaring oil lamp and by its leaping glow Thode saw to his surprise that the shack although old and ramshackle was scrupulously, incredibly clean, and its chatelaine bore herself not without a certain dignity, despite her agitation.

She was tall and stiffly angular with piercing black eyes deep-set in her wrinkled face, and there was a peculiar wild grace in the rapid gestures of her withered claw-like hands. She hovered anxiously about as between them Thode and the girl ministered to the stricken lad, and dropped to her knees as his eyes opened at length.

For a moment his startled gaze roved over them and then settled upon the face of the girl.

"Senorita!" His voice was a mere convulsive whisper. "Senorita! It was the Americano, Senor Wiley! He cursed me and laughed! I heard him when he struck me!"

"Never mind, Jose. You must rest and get well quickly and then we will attend to Senor Wiley. I will come to you to-morrow. Tia Juana—" she laid her hand gently on the old woman's bowed shoulder—"I will send Margarita—"

The rest was lost in a rapid patter of Spanish, but its purport was unmistakable, for the woman seized her hand and kissed it, and even the boy flashed a worshiping smile.

As they turned to the door, Thode jingled some coins in his pocket tentatively, but the girl stopped him with a decisive gesture, and when the door closed behind them and they stood out in the starlit darkness, she gave a little, soft, low gurgle of laughter.

"Reckon you're new to these parts!" she exclaimed. "Let her see one wink o' gold, and you'd have been knifed good and proper. Tia Juana's no beggar, to be insulted with alms. She's proud; some of the half-breeds are, when the strain is strong enough."

"I didn't know," Thode responded humbly. "I'd like to do something for the kid. Shall I send a doctor out, if I can find one?"

The girl shook her head.

"He'll do, all right. It was a wicked thing to run him down like that, but Wiley hasn't got the decency of a coyote, and he had it in for Jose." She broke off suddenly, and held her hand out to the young engineer. "Adios, stranger, and thanks for your help."

"But won't you let me take you home, or wherever you are going?" Thode asked.

"No, thanks. I left my basket down in the ditch—"

"I'll get it for you," he urged. "It isn't safe for a girl like you to go about alone after nightfall in a place like this."

The girl's eyes sought his wonderingly in the darkness.

"Me?" she ejaculated. "Stranger, I came to this town when it was nothing but four shacks and a gusher, and I know everyone in it, white, yellow and Mex. Not safe? Why every dog knows Gentleman Geoff's Billie!"

"You?" he stammered.

"That's me. My Dad is Gentleman Geoff," she explained proudly. "He owns the Blue Chip, and it's the squarest gambling-house from Chihuahua to Campeche. It's kind of you to offer to go with me, but I don't need any protection. I sort of belong to Limasito, I reckon. Adios!"



Kearn Thode rode back to his hotel with his brain in a whirl. That girl with the sweet, steady eyes and naive, fearless manner, the product of a gambling-house and associate of its habitues? The thought filled him with repugnance akin to horror. He was in no sense a prig, but although this was his first venture below the Rio Grande, he had spent three years in the roughest corners of the West and he knew the type of women who infested the dance-halls and gambling-joints; unclean camp-followers of the army of Chance.

How had she grown to budding womanhood without contamination in such an atmosphere? Self-reliant she had shown herself to be, but tender in her pitying care of the injured boy and innocently free from coquetry or cynical suspicion in her frank acceptance of the stranger. There had been open amusement in her tone at his suggestion of danger to her from any in Limasito, and genuine love and pride when she spoke of her father and his calling. How was it possible that the mire of her surroundings had left her untouched?

The huge, squat adobe house was ablaze with light as he urged his jaded pony into a gallop to pass it quickly. Lights gleamed also in the patio and Chinese servants flitted here and there among the crowded tables. He felt a hot surge of resentment as the subdued murmur of masculine voices and jarring laughter floated after him. What an environment for such a girl!

After a hasty wash-up and a meal he sought further enlightenment from his landlord. It was promptly and enthusiastically forthcoming.

"The Blue Chip?" Jim Baggott tilted his chair back restfully against the wall. "Finest place in the country; square as a die and the sky's the limit to a regular hombre. Gentleman Geoff's just about one hundred per cent. man, and don't you forget it. Everything's on the level at his place."

"Got a daughter, hasn't he?" Thode asked, proffering a cigar.

"You're on. Fine gal, too. Ain't afraid of nothing, Billie ain't. When the Yellow Jack hit us, two years ago, and not another woman in town—and damn' few o' the men, fur that matter—but cleared out, Billie went right in under the flag with the old Doc, and stayed till the fever was stamped out. Thin as a wisp o' cotton she was, when it was all over; face no wider'n this——" he measured with a burly thumb and forefinger—"and eyes clean gone into the back of her head, but she only grinned and said it had been fun while it lasted, to fight the thing. First day she was out o' quarantine, she rode thirty miles to Dan Willoughby's 'cienda 'cause she heard he was on a tear and mistreating his kids and she brought him to terms, too. There ain't an hombre in town that don't worship her and even the women like her."

"I saw her to-day," remarked Thode. "She's a remarkably pretty girl."

Jim bit the end off his cigar and spat it forth with emphasis.

"Wal, we 'uns that've watched her grow up from a rangy, long-legged, stringy-haired leetle colt think more o' what she is than what she looks like, but now that you mention it, I'll lay there ain't a Jane this side o' the border and mighty few above it that can give her odds on looks. And there ain't a man in these parts but has his trigger set for the guy that'd look cross-eyed at her."

There was a friendly but unmistakable hint in the concluding words and the young engineer went to bed in a curious reversal of sentiment. Gentleman Geoff had evidently earned his title; and from the tawdry, fevered atmosphere of the Blue Chip his daughter, miraculously enough, seemed to have drawn only strength and a warm-hearted abiding faith in human nature.

The still heat of mid-afternoon lay like a stifling veil upon the little weather-beaten shack among the zapote trees, when Gentleman Geoff's Billie lifted the latch next day. The single room was empty save for the boy who tossed restlessly upon his pallet, but the movement ceased and the sunken eyes glowed in the thin brown face, as she bent over him.

"The pain is better, comment?" she asked gently. "See, Jose! I have brought you broth and wine."

He stammered his gratitude with weak but fervent voice, then the elfin face darkened.

"The Senor Wiley!" he muttered. "It was because I would not tell him of the Pool! He is great and strong and he would crush me for that I keep silencioso, but when I am cured of this hurt——"

"We will pay back the score to the Senor Wiley." The girl spoke quietly, but a swift ominous light gleamed for a fleeting moment in her eyes, turning their blue to steel. "We'll teach him what fair play means in Limasito! But where is thy grandmother, Jose?"

The lad shivered in spite of the heat.

"She stirs her cauldron," he whispered. "She crept in at the dawn and since she has muttered of strange things. There must have been a warning, Senorita."

With a stifled exclamation, Billie straightened and crossed to the door. A thin spiral of smoke rose like a gray wisp above the zapote trees and a low-crooned, rhythmic chant was borne to her on the stirless air. Without hesitation she followed the narrow, scarcely discernible path toward the opening in the clump of trees.

A battered pot was slung above a blaze of dried wood and before it Tia Juana sat upon her heels, swaying from side to side with half-closed eyes and outstretched tremulous hands.

For a moment the girl paused, and then stepped forward.

"What is it, Tia Juana?" she asked softly in Spanish. "Would you brew a cure for Jose or a curse for the evil which has befallen him?"

The swaying ceased and the arms dropped as the old woman turned swiftly.

"Neither, Senorita, but I would learn the truth," she responded solemnly. "Last night I beheld a thing which passed my understanding, but of it only evil can come, and I would know it now."

"What did you see?" asked Billie, seating herself on a moss-grown log. "What was this evil thing, Tia Juana?"

"I went to the hacienda of the Senor Wiley." The old woman announced simply. "He had harmed my Jose, child of my blood, and I would have taken revenge upon him."

"Tia Juana, that was wrong!" Billie cried. "I have told my father and he will see that justice is done. You—you found him?"

Tia Juana nodded and her thin lips compressed.

"Behind the casito where the carro is stored I came upon him in the shadow. Beside him was a figure I could not see, to whom he talked low and quickly, with many gestures. Me he did not see, and I waited. Then in a moment, Senorita, the figure moved so that the moonlight fell upon him. It was that messenger of the Evil One, De Soria."

"John Sawyer?" the girl repeated in a hushed tone.

"So you know him, Senorita." The old woman's lip curled. "Before your coming, or ever a rooftree was raised in Limasito, he was Juan De Soria, son of thieves and black of heart as his master's skin."

The girl shivered.

"El Negrito!" she whispered. "You think he came from Alvarez? But what dealings does the Americano Wiley have with El Negrito?"

The old woman muttered and her withered, clenched hand struck her breast.

"It is that which I would see in the cauldron," she hissed. "Before El Negrito, comes always his creature, De Soria, and with him come fire and looting and death! The Senor Wiley turns all things to his purpose and if he has sold himself to the Evil One and traffics with El Negrito, I would be warned. I have seen one of his raids, Senorita; it was as if the sky rained destruction and slaughter!"

Her head sank on her breast and a brief, tense silence ensued.

"I do not believe such evil of the Senor Wiley," Billie remarked at last. "Cruel he is and like a madman in his anger, but between him and El Negrito there could be no covenant. It may be that he came upon Sawyer skulking about and was warning him off the hacienda. Sawyer has been in Limasito for many days, and he plays high at my father's casa."

"With what gold?" the old woman retorted. "He who has been beggar and thief since the hour of his birth. Much gold he could not steal for he has not the wit. For what evil compact has he been paid in riches?"

The girl shrugged.

"Luck turns," she said laconically. "Once a man came to the Blue Chip with pesos ciento and broke the faro bank. Fortune—buena suerte—has smiled on as worthless ones as Sawyer. But you, Tia Juana; what did you do last night when you saw?"

"I crept away, silently, so that none knew of my presence and returned to Jose." Tia Juana chuckled mirthlessly. "My vengeance can wait. The Senor Wiley is a fool, and the son of fools! It was not to the boy he should have gone for knowledge of the Pool; Jose knows no more than the idle words he repeated one evil day to the Senor Hallock, for which I beat him soundly! It is I who have seen the Pool of the Lost Souls, only I who knows where Dolores and her lover sleep."

Her voice died in an unintelligible murmur, and the rhythmic swaying recommenced. The legend of the Lost Souls' Pool was no new one to Billie; she had heard it often from the lips of the old crone, who could never be persuaded to divulge its supposed location and the myth had become an old settlers' joke around Limasito.

She stole away presently, leaving Tia Juana to her incantations, and returned to the shack, but Jose had fallen into uneasy slumber, and after moistening the bandage about his head, she started for home.

The old woman's account of her nocturnal adventure would not be exorcised from Billie's thoughts. The Senor Wiley was a young Eastern capitalist, who held vast oil and fruit-growing properties in the surrounding countryside. It was incredible that he could hold any communication with the rebel bandit and murderer, Alvarez, the "Little Negro," whose name was enough to strike terror to native hearts.

El Negrito had pillaged and burned, raped and killed unhindered until he was glutted with blood and loot, but that was in the old days, only a few years ago before the newest government was in power and the white men came in force. Of late he had retired to the hills, the memory of his atrocities had faded and only when news came of a burning village far away, or the murder of a lone prospector was the sporadic attempt to capture him renewed, and then in a half-hearted manner.

It was rumored that the nomadic, down-at-heel half-breed, John Sawyer, was an agent of the killer, but no proof could be brought to bear upon him and he was allowed to go his cringing way unmolested. Billie wondered now, with a cold, unaccustomed sense of dread, if rumor spoke truly. What if Sawyer were indeed the forerunner of a visitation from the bandit of the hills?

The girl had turned mechanically into a side road, shadier than the highway and leading by a short cut to the plaza and the heart of the town. She was still in the open country, with orchards stretching out interminably on either side and not even a peon within hailing distance, when the chug and snort of a motor reached her reluctant ears. Billie knew that irregular rattling hum, and insensibly quickened her pace.

Then as the car drew close behind her she slowed, a peculiar light glinting in her eyes.

"Buenas tardes, Senorita Billie!" A merry, mocking voice called, and she wheeled about.

A sallow, sandy-haired young man, with pale protruding blue eyes and thin curling lips, sprawled low behind the wheel of his roadster, leering familiarly at her.

"Good-afternoon," she responded formally. "You must be in a hurry, Mr. Wiley, to have taken this short cut instead of keeping to the highway. It was good of you not to run me down, but the way is clear now."

She stepped aside into a mass of flowering low-grown bushes, but with a light laugh the young man sprang from the car, hat in hand.

"I am never in a hurry to go when you are about, Billie! But you always run away; you never will play with me. Why aren't you kind?"

Involuntarily she stepped back still farther as he advanced upon her.

"Are you in need of kindness?" she asked.

"I should think I was." He paused before her, still laughing, but his pale eyes glittered. "You're the only girl in this God-forsaken town that I want to be friends with, and you won't play. Be a good sport and come for a little ride now; I'll show you some speed."

"Thanks," she drawled, her hand moving to rest lightly on her hip. "Have you a few more old scores to settle to-day, with that tin Juggernaut of yours?"

A shadow had fallen across the dazzling white of the road, but neither noted it. The girl stood straight as a sapling, smiling up fearlessly into the twisted, sardonic face thrust close to hers.

"You mean that yellow dog I ran over yesterday?" The semblance of mirth was gone from his voice. "The fool wouldn't move quick enough, and if anyone stands in my way I get them, sooner or later. You're a little queen, Billie, and you've been lording it over the roughnecks around here so long that you think you can set your heel on the neck of the universe. A little cave-man stuff would be good for you, my dear."

"You being the cave-man?" Her clear laughter rang out scornfully. "You aren't very well acquainted with us around here, Mr. Wiley, or you'd realize that it isn't right healthy to appoint yourself to office in these parts. The road is still clear, but you might find it barred with something you couldn't run down if you don't move quick."

"You little she-cat!" He sprang forward and seized the wrist which swung at her side. "You'll take a ride with me, do you hear? And you'll come now, or I'll pick you up and carry——"

He got no farther. Something caught him sidewise and whirled him headlong into the bushes, and a very calm, very resolute voice sounded in almost forgotten tones.

"You'll pick yourself up first, Starr Wiley, and come back for more if you want it. You know what's coming to you!"

Billie started in sheer amazement. There before her, sprung from nowhere, was her companion of yesterday, the smug young man who had wanted to play the chaperon, and who had seemed surprised and shocked when she revealed her identity. Her eyes blazed.

"How come you to butt in on this little argument?" There was an ominous note in her slow drawl. "No one asked you to sit in, Senor Duenna, I'm playing my own hand. You durn fool, don't you see I had the coyote covered all the time?"

Her hand moved from the hip pocket of her khaki skirt and he saw the glint of the sun upon a small but business-like, blunt-nosed revolver.

Kearn Thode stepped back, his face crimson at the name she had dubbed him as well as at the unexpectedness of her attack, and at that moment Starr Wiley leaped, snarling, from the undergrowth.

The girl stood fascinated. She had seen many rough-and-tumble fights in the history of Limasito, but the clean-cut scientific way the two lean, lithe, well-matched figures sprang to combat thrilled her.

Wiley was the heavier of the two, but indolence and dissipation had softened him and Thode was in the pink of condition. After the first blind onslaught he steadied himself and parried, waiting for the opening his opponent's uncontrolled rage would give him. It was soon forthcoming; a side-stepped lunge left Wiley's pallid face exposed and Thode caught him fairly on the point of the jaw. He shot across the road, crumpled into the ditch and lay quivering and still, as his victim of the day before.

Panting, Thode turned to the girl.

"I am sorry," he said stiffly. "I didn't mean to butt in on your game, but, having started, I had to finish."

She seemed not to have heard. Her eyes were shining and a little spot of clear rose showed in her cheeks as she held out her hand.

"A good, clean knock-out!" she cried. "I wish Dad could have seen it. You're some fighter, Mr.——?"

"Duenna," he supplied grimly. "Do you wish me to leave you here with him now, or shall I wait until he comes to, and see if he wants a fresh deal?"

She laughed merrily.

"Wiley won't be looking for anything but home and a stiff drink of hooch when he gets back to the world," she remarked. "I reckon he's in for quite a siesta."

"We can't very well leave him there." Thode spoke reflectively. "Last time, he had a buckboard and I dumped him back into it. The team took him home, all right, but you can't very well expect that of a motor."

Billie eyed him curiously.

"But you've only just come, and he hasn't driven any team around here."

"We've met before." Thode's face had darkened and his tone was terse. "His car's drawn well up on the side of the road. I'll just put him in it and he can find his way when he wakes."

The girl watched as he hauled the limp body out of the ditch and thrust it unceremoniously into the seat behind the wheel. Wiley stirred, grunted and then slumped forward, his head resting upon his arms.

"He'll do." Billie gave the unconscious figure a last contemptuous glance. "I like the way you play when you do get into a little game, and unless you want the whole town to be calling you 'Mr. Duenna' inside of three days, you'd better tell me your name."

He complied, and quite naturally they swung off down the road together.

Thode stole a glance at her in utter bewilderment. A girl who could watch a fight without timidity or squeamishness but in impartial, impersonal joy of the conflict was unique in his experience. She had been angry, contemptuous of them both; would she as heartily have congratulated his adversary, had the tables been turned?

"You are still angry with me for my interference, Miss——?" he began, but she stopped him with a gesture.

"I've been just 'Billie' to all Limasito since the first well was spudded in; you don't want the boys to think you're putting notions into my head, do you?" She smiled, frankly. "I hated you because I'd bragged to you that I could take care of myself and nobody would molest me in these parts, and then you had to come along just when it looked as though I was a maiden in distress. You see, I hadn't reckoned on Wiley showing yellow; we don't have many like him in Limasito; at least not long."

"If I thought you a maiden in distress, I proved to be a very superfluous knight-errant," he retorted. "You were well able to take care of yourself, so your boast was no idle one."

"Dad taught me that," she responded simply. "He runs the Blue Chip on the square, but there are times when an extra ace appears in the show-down, and then it isn't a question of who produced it, but which one is quickest on the draw. Five aces never grew in a straight deck, and I sometimes think I can see the fifth ace in an hombre's eye. I saw it in Senor Wiley's."

"I'm going to look in at the Blue Chip, if I may." Thode sheered the topic away from his late antagonist, and Billie followed his lead.

"Of course you must," she said cordially. "You'll find the whole works going; monte, Fairbank, stud and blackjack. There's roulette and craps, too, but it's mostly the women who go after them."

"And you—do you play?" He could not forebear the question.

"Dad says there never was a good bartender yet who drank." Billie grimaced. "He even stopped me being mascot; it always raised a riot. It isn't the winning hand or the stakes themselves that I care for, it's the fun of the game, but Dad says gambling is a poor game for women. They never count the odds they stack up against, and when they over-play, they're bad losers. You'll like Dad, Mr. Thode; he's the whitest hombre that ever crossed the Rio."

Secretly, Thode was beginning to think that he should. The girl was an anomaly and he was curious to see what manner of man her idol was and learn how he had kept her so singularly free from the dross of his world and managed to hold so unswervingly before her the real stakes of the game, truth and honor and a high heart.

When he left her at the side door of the Blue Chip, the young engineer held her hand for an appreciable moment longer than the occasion demanded.

"I'm coming to-night," he announced. "Will you—will I see you?"

"In the patio," she dimpled swiftly. "Buena suerte!"

"Good luck!" The phrase echoed in his brain, but oddly enough his thoughts did not go forward to the hot, crowded, smoke-hung card-room, or the girl waiting in the cool, fragrant darkness of the inner court, but instead there arose before his mental eyes the vision of a petrified wooden cross beside a glassy pool, and mingled incongruously with it, the face of Starr Wiley, distorted as he had last seen it, with the bruised lips twisted into a mocking leer. Would the lightly expressed wish of Gentleman Geoff's Billie prove a presage of victory in the great game they two were playing?



When he entered the Blue Chip that night, Thode found play already in full blast. The tables were crowded, smoke hung in low-banked clouds below the flaring oil lamps, and the glittering bar at the far end of the room was phalanxed three deep by a jostling, good-natured throng. Soft-footed, wooden-faced Chinese mozos glided about, and the whining monotone of the croupier came from a distant corner.

The scene was not an unfamiliar one to the young engineer, but he glanced about him with quickened interest. The walls of the huge room, like the exterior, were painted a garish blue, the floor bare but scrubbed clean, and the chairs and tables had been obviously selected with a view to utility and strength rather than ornamentation. No attempt had been made to render the place attractive and in this Gentleman Geoff's psychology was sound; Limasito wanted its play, like its liquor, without frills.

Leisurely, Thode approached the roulette-table and stood looking over the shoulder of a burly drill-shirted tool-dresser as the little ball spun in the whirling wheel and dropped into seventeen. The tool-dresser grunted with satisfaction and raked in the heap of silver pushed toward him by the croupier, but one or two of the watchers turned away. The play was evidently not yet high enough to hold their interest, and Thode was on the point of following when a hand clapped his arm.

Turning, he found a tall, lean figure beside him clad in immaculate white duck from top to toe, with a drooping gray mustache beneath a high, thin nose, keen, twinkling eyes and a mass of grizzled, waving hair. He might have been anywhere between forty-five and sixty, and in a flash his identity was disclosed to the young engineer.

"Howdy!" The hand which had rested on his arm clasped his in a hearty grip. "Glad to see you here, Sir. My daughter told me to expect you."

"You're Gentleman Geoff?" the younger man asked quickly, smiling in return. "My name is Thode. I met your daughter yesterday——"

"So she told me." The twinkle brightened in the genial eyes. "I'm glad of a chance to thank you for helping her with that poor little cuss, Jose. He's a special favorite of hers. Were you thinking of sitting in right now, Mr. Thode?"

"Not just yet. I was having a look around——"

"Then come out where it's cool, and have a man-sized drink."

His surprising host led the way to the patio where they found a little table close by the plashing fountain and a hovering mozo attended to their needs. When the servant had departed, Gentleman Geoff folded his arms on the table and leaned forward.

"You're a newcomer, Mr. Thode, and down here we don't ask a man where he came from or the nature of his business, as long as he attends to it strictly and doesn't interfere with others. There is no objection to his playing a tight game providing he is on the level, but when he makes a crooked move, it's time for the rest of us to take a hand. My Billie tells me you are an old acquaintance of this man Wiley and I am going to ask you one question straight, Sir. Do you know anything good of him?"

"Well," Thode temporized, "he's rated a millionaire in New York and his father was one of the pioneer Pennsylvania oil men. He is a partner of Harrington Chase, and together they hold some of the best leases in this part of the country, I understand."

"They do. But I was speaking of the man himself." Gentleman Geoff's eyes smiled a perfect understanding. "I was wondering if there could be some point in his favor that I'd overlooked."

"In that case, we've been mutually blind," said Thode, frankly. "I met him first out in Oklahoma two years ago, and I've run across him more than once since, and I don't mind telling you candidly that each meeting has given me less pleasure. I didn't expect to encounter him down here, and I guess Limasito is big enough to hold us both, but if he wants to see me after to-day he knows where to find me."

The older man nodded, slowly.

"I reckoned as much. He hasn't been any favorite since he blew in here, to draw it mild, but he's getting just a little bit too offensive for the good of the community. I know his breed, but I didn't think even he would snap at my Billie's heels. I would have looked you up at the hotel to-night to shake hands with you for what you did this afternoon, Mr. Thode, but Billie told me you intended to pay us a little visit."

"It was a pleasure," the other responded with sincerity. "It has been coming to Wiley for a long time. But your daughter had the situation well in hand. She is a remarkable young woman."

"She is an honest one, honest with herself and the world. There wasn't much else I could teach her and it hasn't been possible for her to have regular schooling and the influence of women. I've always reckoned fair play was about the biggest thing in life, and woman-like she's gone further than my teachings and worked out an eye-for-an-eye creed of justice for herself that would shame a vigilance committee, but she's wholesome and sound in mind and limb."

"I've learned a little of what they think of her in this town." Thode hesitated, and then went on earnestly. "I know the strict code of even the roughest mining camps up over the border, where good women are concerned, but I'll own that it gave me a jolt to see how freely and fearlessly she goes about down here. You may think, Sir, that I'm exhibiting a lot of nerve, and it may be that I have a distorted picture in my mind of the life in this part of the country for a young girl like your daughter, but is she safe with all these low-caste half-breeds about?"

"As safe as in a convent." Gentleman Geoff's eyes had narrowed. "I appreciate your interest, Mr. Thode, but let me remind you that it was a man from the States, a New York swell, who molested her this afternoon. There isn't a low-caste Mex' who would take a chance, for he'd know that every gun from here to the Sierra Madre would be cocked for him, and even the hills couldn't give him a hiding-place! But as to Wiley. I had a reason apart from his little attentions to Billie, for asking about him. Whatever lies between you two is your own game, but I know you better than you think, Mr. Thode. Your chief, Perry Larkin, told me he was sending you down, and what manner of hombre you were. If Larkin can trust you, I'm going to take a chance. I thought I had Wiley's number, but I learned something to-day, aside from that little fracas, that makes me doubt I've given him credit for his limit of crookedness. Mr. Thode, do you figure that Starr Wiley is enough of a man to be a very big rascal?"

Thode hesitated again.

"I think," he began at last, "that it would depend wholly on the size of the stakes. He's a coward when it comes to a show-down, but money and place and power are his gods. If it was a tremendous piece of villainy with a big incentive he mightn't have the courage to see it through himself, but he is quite capable of aiding and abetting it, or hiring others to do it for him."

Gentleman Geoff's fists clenched and he drew a deep breath.

"That's it!" he cried. "You've struck it, Mr. Thode! Unless I'm mistaken, he's dealing the biggest, crookedest hand of his life right now, but we'll get him, Sir. We'll show him what fair play is below the border—"

He broke off and for a minute the two men sat in silence, straining their ears.

Above the click of glasses and sound of many voices in the gambling-rooms had come the sharp, staccato clatter of a horse's hoofs upon the hard-packed road. It was not unusual in a land where hooch was cheap and stimulating and every drunken roysterer celebrated in the saddle, but there was an ominous, tragic suggestion in the irregularity of the hoof-beats as of an exhausted, failing beast urged on by grim and vital need.

The young engineer leaped to his feet as the clatter ceased in a harsh scraping thud, and with Gentleman Geoff beside him, he crossed the patio and re-entered the gambling-room. The voices had hushed as if by magic, and every motionless figure was turned toward the entrance door.

It was flung open and a man staggered blindly over the sill, reeling and clutching at his breast with both gnarled, sinewy hands.

"El Negrito!" his voice rose in a smothered sob. "He's hit the trail and coming fast. Look out for your——"

The stranger choked, caught at his throat and crumpled slowly to the floor, a thin scarlet stream pouring from his lips. The silence held for one tense moment and then pandemonium broke loose.

"A raid! A raid!"

Hoarse cries filled the room and a mad stampede ensued, but somehow through the rampant throng, Kearn Thode found himself before that fallen figure. Gentleman Geoff was still at his side, but another had been quicker than they. Soft hands raised the dying man's head and Billie knelt beside him, her pallor intensified but her eyes steady and calm.

"Sam! can you speak to me? Where are the babies, and Mamie?"

"Gone!" The breath whistled through the tortured lips. "Macheted—thank God, I saw them die. Tell Geoff—save you——"

The whisper died in a rattle and the head slumped inert against her knee.

"It's over, Billie. Get on down to the cellar, quick——" Gentleman Geoff's tones rang with command, but the girl shook her head.

"Where the liquor is stored?" she smiled. "Alvarez's men won't leave a cask unturned. No, Dad, I'd rather take a chance with you, here. If it comes to a showdown, they won't get me."

She made a significant gesture, and the lethargy of consternation fell from Thode as he saw for the second time that day the glint of her revolver.

"Good God!" he exclaimed. "Isn't there something to be done? We're only a handful! Are we going to wait here for that black devil to come and slaughter us?"

"No, Son," Gentleman Geoff drawled. "We're going to put up the stiffest fight we know how, but there's no help nearer than the barracks at the oil refinery ten miles north, and El Negrito is on the way."

As if in corroboration of his words a new sound broke all at once upon their ears, distant at first but drawing rapidly close, a fusillade of shots, and the pounding of a multitude of hoofs.

Gentleman Geoff drew one slim hand across his reeking forehead.

"It's come. Boys! Steady now, to the finish!"

"Look here, Sir! I'm going to try for it." Thode caught his host by the arm. "I can slip out before they have the house surrounded and find a horse somewhere. If they down me, one man more or less here won't make any difference, and it's a chance!"

"Look!" Gentleman Geoff waved the young engineer to a narrow window beside the entrance door.

Down the straight level expanse of the Calle Rivera clattered an unending stream of horsemen, their accoutrements jingling a sinister diapason as they poured helter-skelter across the plaza in the waning moonlight. Tatterdemalion as they were, the ragged army were well-organized as Thode saw at a glance; no haphazard, leaderless crew was this, for at their head rode a diminutive, jockey-like figure, his face glistening and ebony in the eerie radiance, his teeth flashing white as he turned in the saddle. The Little Nigger had come!

His company halted in an irregular line against the eastern end of the plaza, flung themselves from their horses and came on in a rushing, yelling horde. A weak scattered volley rattled from the dwellings about the square, but the raiders made unswervingly for what was obviously their main objective, the Blue Chip, where most of the male population, unlimited alcohol and a fabulous ransom in gold were theirs for the taking.

They had reached the center of the Calle, when Gentleman Geoff barked a brief command and a withering blast of shots rang forth from the besieged garrison. The advancing line crumpled, wavered, then at a cat-like yowl from its dusky leader, closed in and came forward with an answering roar.

Kearn Thode sprang from his point of vantage and faced the other man once more with undiminished determination in his eyes.

"I've got to get to the barracks—it means death to us all if I stay here! Isn't there a door on the other side of the house somewhere back of the patio?"

"Yes. It opens on a little alley that leads to the plaza." It was the girl's eager voice which replied.

"And the Carranzistas, the government troops, are ten miles away to the north. I'm going to ride for it, Sir, it's the only chance. I can slip out of that alley and around the edge of the plaza to where their horses are picketed. There'll be interference there, and I may have a running fight for it, but I'll take the odds."

"Come then. You're a brave man, Mr. Thode!" Gentleman Geoff led the way swiftly across the patio to a little door half hidden in the creeping vines. But even as he laid his hand upon the rusty bolts, there was a storm of feet in the alley and a rain of shot pattered against the outer wall.

Gentleman Geoff stepped back with a gesture of defeat, but Thode cried desperately:

"I can cut my way through them. I must, Man! Open the door!"

Instead, his companion shot the hasp of a small oblong look-out on a level with their eyes, and Thode beheld the alley choked with figures, their carbines bristling and maniacal, distorted faces pressed close.

"No use." Gentleman Geoff snapped the slide in place as a stray bullet whistled past their ears. "It's too late. Even had you gone when Sam first came, they would have cut you down in the plaza. You can only lend a hand here."

Wordlessly, Thode stumbled back beside him to the gambling-room. That which but a moment before had seemed like a wild, purposeless stampede had resolved itself into an unorganized but determined defensive. Few of the men had departed, those few who had ridden in from nearby haciendas where unwarned families waited in ignorance of the menace sweeping down upon them from the hills.

Thode worked with heaving chest and straining muscles, but his brain was singularly clear and his observation acute. Gentleman Geoff seemed to be everywhere at once, urging, exhorting, commanding. The mozos, their yellow faces gray, were huddled in a corner, clucking like dismayed fowl at the approach of a storm, but a word from Billie sent them scurrying for the store of guns and ammunition.

She, too, it was who opened the door of an inner room where a group of disheveled women, their faces ghastly beneath the cheap paint, cowered about a roulette-table, and ranged them behind the shelter of the stout mahogany bar, seeing to it that each was armed.

Her calm face in the tumult and smoke and dust seemed etherialized, glorified to the wondering eyes of the young engineer; the marvel of her strength and courage shone forth like a radiance, imbuing even the panic-stricken Celestials with a spirit of defense.

Thode's eyes were smarting, his veins on fire and in his nostrils the reek of powder mingled with a strange, new, sweetish odor. The table-top on which he stood was slippery where Rufe Terwilliger had doubled up beside him and rolled to the floor. Others were falling, too, stumbling and clutching vainly for support, but Billie's slim white figure still stood unwavering beside her father and Thode turned grimly to his task.

Twice more the bandits charged, and twice they were beaten back, leaving augmented blotches of huddled bodies in the road, but the toll had been heavy within. Groans and curses filled the air as men pitched headlong from their loophole posts to writhe upon the floor and once a woman's shrill scream rang out as a tawdrily clothed shape dropped across the bar.

Thode's shoulder burned and a warm stream raced down his arm; his forehead, too, was seared as if by a white-hot brand, but he dashed the blood impatiently from his eyes that he might see what this sudden lull in the hostilities portended. He was not long in doubt for a thin skirmish line leaped across the road, yelling like demons and firing as they ran, and close behind their protecting curtain of shot appeared a double row of half-crouched forms, bearing a huge battering-ram.

Heroically the little garrison sought to stem the tide of destruction, but as quickly as a gap appeared in the on-coming wave it was filled and the flood swept irresistibly on. More than one narrow window now was unmanned against the attack and as the bullets pattered like hail through the unobstructed apertures, Thode heard a sharp little cry which turned his heart to lead within him.

Wheeling, he saw through the murky reek that Gentleman Geoff was down at last, his head cradled in Billie's arms, a spreading stain upon the soft white silk of his shirt. Thrusting his rifle into the hands of a neighbor, Thode leaped from the table, and as he reached the girl's side a thunderous crash smote the heavy door.

"He isn't——?"

Billie shook her head and at the unfinished sentence Gentleman Geoff's eyelids lifted and he gazed full and understandingly into the face of the young engineer.

"Not yet, but I'm done for. See that—Billie—cashes in before——"

"Listen, Sir! Can you hear me? I'm going to make a break for it, do you understand?" Thode's voice rang out clear above the strife. "How long will that door hold?"

"An hour, maybe. It's as solid as a rock, and the bolts are steel, but nothing could withstand that ramming for long." Gentleman Geoff had rallied his waning strength to meet that new note of quickened impulse.

"It's the one chance left! They've found by this time that they couldn't batter down that iron door at the back, set as it is in the solid masonry, and it may be that they've concentrated all their efforts here on this side. At least I'll have to try my luck and cut through. We've got to have the troops! Ten level miles, and the dawn is coming; I ought to make it and back in an hour, before the door gives way."

Gentleman Geoff raised himself on one elbow and extended his hand.

"You're right! It's the last chance, and maybe your luck will hold. Go to it, Thode, I know you'll play—to win!"

The girl was staring at him with shining eyes, and he paused only long enough to lay his hand upon her arm.

"You have your revolver—if they break through before I get back——?"

"Don't be afraid for us." Her voice rang out steadily and clearly above the roar of conflict. "I'll take care of myself and Dad until you come! Hasta la vista!"

Thode drew a deep breath, and, turning, made for the door and across the patio, miraculously cool and calm beneath the dimming stars. The little door at the farther end of the house wall was guarded now by a dark-skinned youth whose teeth chattered in his head, and Thode, with a hasty explanation, shot the bolts and slipped through into the rubbish-heaped alley.

Not a living thing was in sight but a yellow cur crouching under a cask, and Thode reached the mouth of the narrow passage to see only the backs of the mob clustered about the corner.

The moonlight was gone, and slipping into the darker shadows of the wall, he sped off in the opposite direction around the square to where the moving bulk of the line of picketed horses showed at the end of an intersecting street.

Unnoted, he reached them and laid his hand upon the bridle of the nearest. The beast plunged nervously and a dark figure sprang up with a hoarse cry, which died in his throat as Thode brought his clubbed rifle down upon his head.

Other shouts arose above the distant crash of the battering-ram; other figures advanced, and in the patter of stray shots a horse screamed and fell kicking among his terrorized fellows, but Thode had twitched free the knot which haltered his mount and was off and away up the narrow street, in a thunder of hoof-beats which outran the fusillade and pounded steadily on into the silence of the coming dawn.



With the departure of Kearn Thode on his mission Gentleman Geoff sank into a stupor from which all Billie's efforts failed to arouse him. She glanced at the little watch on her wrist. Twenty minutes past four! One hour for the massive door to hold against those crashing blows which seemed beating upon her brain. One hour for the young engineer to ride ten miles on an already jaded horse, provided he had succeeded in making his perilous start, and bring the Carranzistas to the rescue!

The din of the volley which had greeted him from the pickets could not reach her ears above the roar of conflict surrounding her, much less the receding hoof-beats of his mount. From the moment of his passing into the darkness of the patio the girl could only wait, but her spirit was staunch and unflagging. He would win through! He would return in time!

At her order, two mozos had dragged a couch from an inner room and the insensible body of Gentleman Geoff was placed upon it. Billie bound the hideous gaping wound and forced a few drops of brandy between the set lips, but he only moaned faintly and drifted into a deeper oblivion.

Twenty-five minutes of five! Unless he were lying stark and still in the plaza, Thode must be well upon his way.

But Billie had no time to nurse her suspense; she could not even linger by her father's side, for there was grim and urgent work for her hands, and one by one the women crept out from behind the comparative safety of the bar and joined her. Barely a man of all those who had thronged the gambling-rooms remained unscathed, and the cries of the wounded rang in her ears with piteous insistence.

As she passed from one fallen man to another, heedless of her own exposure to stray bullets, administering brandy and water, improvising rude bandages and comforting as best she might, one thought echoed like a chant through her brain, solemn with its intensity. He would come. Her head seemed bursting with each reverberating crash of the battering-ram and her heart pulsed time to the slow march of the interminable hour, but the thought remained. He would come.

Ten minutes to five. Thode must have reached the barracks at the refinery by now, unless—— She set her small teeth firmly. Half of the hour had passed, but already the door was sagging with each renewed assault and the bolts were snapping beneath the strain. She dared not look again toward that last failing defense, dared not consult the little watch lest her self-control, her very reason give way. He would come, of course, but would he be in time?

All at once the hammering strokes ceased and the rattle of rifle fire died out in a desultory spatter as stray bullets impinged against the stout adobe wall.

Jim Baggott from his perch upon a heap of chairs before the window called out in amazement:

"They've drawn back clear across the road! Reckon they've given it up as a bad job at last! The dawn's almost here."

"Don't fool yourself!" A burly gang foreman rested his rifle against the wall and seized avidly upon the dipper of water held out to him by one of the women. "Thanks, ma'am.—Maybe they're just taking a breathing spell, but it's my opinion they're planning some new devilment. Alvarez knows that once that door's down——"

He glanced toward the woman and the sentence ended in a shrug.

"What's the matter with Geoff?" Baggott for the first time had noted the inert form stretched upon the couch.

"Dad's hit," Billie responded simply.

"Is he bad?" The foreman's tone was hushed.

"I'm afraid so. He's dreadfully cold; he's—he's bleeding internally, I think. Perhaps, if a surgeon comes in time——"

"A what?" Baggott exploded. "Gosh almighty, where's a surgeon coming from?"

"From the barracks," explained Billie, naively. "Mr. Thode's gone for the troops."

"When? How? What do you think of that young—— Hurrah!"

The eager questions from a dozen throats ended in a husky cheer, but it died as swiftly as it was born. From across the road a huge dark blur had detached itself and was moving forward stealthily to the attack. The fusillade of shots recommenced, but a groan had started and spread among the watchers at the windows.

"What is it?" Billie's tone was still steady, but a chill had crept into her veins.

"They've got a new battering-ram; looks like a telegraph pole! No door could hold against it," Baggott muttered. "It's all up with us now!"

The rifles popped valiantly, but a thunderous impact fairly rocked the house, and, fascinated, Billie watched the door bulge toward her, then spring back into place as the topmost bolt snapped like a knife-blade. One more onslaught, perhaps two——

Billie's hand closed on her revolver and she moved instinctively closer to her father's couch. Then all at once she threw up her head, and her voice rang out.

"Hark! What is that? Don't you hear it?"

None heeded as she stood with every muscle and nerve tense, straining her ears. The night was no longer dark and a faint rosy light seeping in at an easterly window reddened the glow of the swinging oil lamps and transfigured her drawn blanched face. What sound, distant and far away, had been borne to her on the wind of the dawn?

Again the giant battering-ram stove at the door and the middle bolt crashed. The flimsy impromptu barricade toppled, then swayed back into place and a shuddering sigh went up from the handful of white-faced men. One more drive, and the end would come.

The other women had huddled again behind the bar, but Billie still stood with uplifted face. And now she was smiling! Swift and sure the rhythmic echo of galloping hoofs reached her consciousness and even as the third shock came and the door crashed inward carrying the barricade with it, a ringing shout burst upon the air and the staccato rattle of a machine-gun sounded the final note in the symphony of battle.

The ragged, wild-eyed horde, sweeping in at the shattered doorway, brought up standing, then turned madly and scattered like chaff. In their stead, through the aperture leaped a tall, unrecognizable figure caked with dust and clotted blood which reeled to the couch and collapsed beside it, labored breath hissing from tortured lungs and blood-shot eyes filmed with exhaustion.

Outside, the tide of conflict raged up and down the street and swept out over the plaza, but neither the girl nor the man at her feet could hear it.

"You made it! Dad said you would play to win!" There was a new note of which she was herself unconscious in Billie's tones, and she added softly, "You were just bound and determined to take care of me right from the start! Weren't you, Mr. Duenna?"

The new day dawned and quiet was once more restored to Limasito. Those of the bandits who escaped swift justice had fled toward the distant hills with the troops in full pursuit and the plaza was a humming hive of survivors, augmented, as the tidings spread, by all the countryside.

The dismantled Blue Chip had been turned into a temporary hospital and the wounded lay in rows upon the tables and hastily improvised cots, but Gentleman Geoff was not among them.

He had been moved by his own wish out to a shady corner of the patio where he lay with a quiet, whimsical smile lifting the drooped ends of his mustache and his genial eyes, with a curious questioning look in their depths, stared straight before him.

Billie, huddled on the ground, her head pillowed against the side of his cot, slumbered deeply, and Gentleman Geoff's slim, delicate fingers touched her hair in a wistful caress. On a nearby bench Thode, bathed and freshly bandaged, slept also. Jim Baggott had tried in vain to drag him back to the hotel, for the young engineer had read a mute desire in the dying man's glance and refused to leave his side.

The army surgeon had done his best, but the end was near and only the superb vitality of the old gambler glowed still, like a living spark. Now and then the surgeon paused in his busy round within to glance speculatively from the doorway and each time Gentleman Geoff nodded reassuringly to him. Not yet!

The blaze of noon subsided, and as the shadows lengthened in the patio, Billie stirred, and Thode stretched and opened his eyes.

"Oh, Dad, I must have fallen asleep!" The girl's tones were filled with contrition. "Do you want anything? Is the pain very bad?"

It seemed to her that a shadow had crept into her father's eyes, but his faint voice was steady.

"No, Billie. No pain—just tired. Has young Thode gone home?"

"No, Sir, I'm here." He came eagerly forward. "Is there anything you want me to do?"

"Only shake hands with me. You rode well, last night. I reckoned Perry Larkin knew a man when he saw one, but he didn't know all that was in you. Billie, girl, go ask the Doc if I can have a drink or a little shot to pull me together." As the girl flew to do his bidding, Gentleman Geoff's thin fingers tightened their grip. "Thode, the boys will all stand by her and play square, but I'm leaving her alone. She isn't their kind; she doesn't know it, nobody does, but my little girl's of different blood. There's no one around here in her class, except you. Kind of—look out for her, will you?"

"I will, Sir." Thode's voice shook with the fervor of his vow. "You want her away from Limasito, from this environment? I have a sister up North——"

"That's what I mean." A spasm of pain contorted the pallid face and he went on hurriedly as if fearful of the inevitable interruption. "I couldn't take her myself and couldn't part from her, but the life hasn't been right for her, though I did all I could. She's a lady and she must go back to her own. I'd like to myself, for an hour, now. That's a Harvard seal on your cigarette-case, if I'm not mistaken, Mr. Thode."

Thode leaned forward, a sudden exclamation half halted on his lips.

Gentleman Geoff nodded slowly.

"Name Rendell," he said. "Class of '84. I haven't mentioned it this quarter of a century and I'm going to ask you to forget it now, but—you'll do what you can for my girl?"

"On my honor, Sir," Thode reaffirmed solemnly. "It is a sacred charge."

"Jim Baggott will sell out the Blue Chip and give her the proceeds. It ought to bring her a comfortable sum and the bank deposits are in her name already. I'm not afraid she will throw it away; she has a level head on her young shoulders, but I want to be sure she will have the best of everything; all that she has missed. You'll see to it?"

The reappearance of the doctor precluded other answer on Thode's part than a long hearty handclasp, but Gentleman Geoff understood.

Later his vigilant mind wandered and the watchers averted their faces.

"Best I could for her, Vi! Kept her like you—clean and true and God-Almighty sweet! Never knew—not my own. . . ."

Still later, when the sun like a glowing ball of fire had sunk beneath the wall of the patio, his lips moved again.

"Tell the boys I'm not cashing in—just passing this deal. I'm in on the next one. . . . Billie . . . square, always——"

"I'm here, Dad!" The girl's voice choked with sobs breathed close to his ear, but Gentleman Geoff did not hear. He had slipped into the silence.

In the days that followed, Kearn Thode pondered long and deeply upon his trust. The arrangement with his sister would be an easy matter to adjust, he knew, but the immediate task confronting him was more difficult of solution. The suggestion of a guardian thrust upon her would meet with scant complacency in the girl's independent spirit and secretly he quailed before the thought of her displeasure. Her comrades of a lifetime, the rough, staunch men of Limasito, might well resent the intrusion of a stranger, an alien, into what was evidently to them a family affair; still less would they be able to understand and appreciate the fact that Billie belonged to another world than theirs.

He decided at length to lay the matter before her frankly in detail, eliminating only the admission of Gentleman Geoff's identity. He respected the dead man's confidence, but it only precipitated him into a fresh quandary.

Billie's naive surprise when the question of her surname arose brought the matter to a crisis in his mind.

"Why, I'm just 'Billie,' I suppose," she had stammered. "I—I never heard any other name. Do I have to have one?"

Jim Baggott settled the matter, for the moment at least.

"You do not!" he announced, with emphasis. "Not around here, anyway. You were Gentleman Geoff's Billie and that's name enough for us. When you do need a handle to it, I reckon there ain't any law 'gainst you pickin' out one to suit yourself."

Baggott was the chief executor of the late gambler and mightily puffed up with the pride and dignity of his office. Gentleman Geoff's private papers were few and carefully indited, their instructions unmistakably clear. Under them, Baggott sold the Blue Chip scrupulously to the highest bidder, although it broke his heart to see Limasito's proudest institution pass into the hands of a Tampico syndicate. He placed the two hundred thousand, American, which the establishment brought, unreservedly to Billie's account.

"If you ain't of age, nobody knows the difference," he announced. "Gentleman Geoff left word it was to go 'to my daughter, known as Billie,' and there you are. The money's your'n, and it's up to you to do what you like with it."

Bewildered and numb in her first contact with poignant grief, the girl had taken up her temporary abode at Henry Bailey's fruit ranch, a mile or two out on the Calle Rivera, where his buxom wife, Sallie, mothered her to her heart's content.

Thode rode out each day to see her, but a new inexplicable shyness in Billie's attitude toward him made his task still more difficult and he deferred the question of her future in sheer funk. The magnitude of her fortune, too, was a stumbling-block. The girl knew nothing of him save what intuition had taught her. What if she assumed that his object were to gain control of her estate? The thought maddened him into action at length and one day as they cantered slowly back from a visit to the little Jose, he forced the issue.

"Billie, have you thought of the future, of what you will do?" he asked.

"Oh, yes." The reply was prompt and decisive. "I can't tell you, Mr. Thode, or anyone, but I've got something to do, something big, and I've made up my mind to see it through. It's just as much an inheritance from Dad as the money and I mean to let nothing stand in my way."

There was a grim earnestness in her tone which made him glance curiously at her.

"You are sure you can't tell me, and let me help, whatever it is?" he asked gently.

Billie shook her head.

"It's my job. I'll have my work cut out for me, I expect, but nobody else can share it. I've got to play a lone hand, but when it's over, I—I don't know. I haven't made any plans beyond that."

"But surely you don't intend to remain here in Limasito all your life?"

"Why not?" She shot a swift glance at him. "It was good enough for Dad."

"But not for you. That's the point. I—I had a talk with your father just before he died, and he wants you to go away; to travel and study and mingle with people of your own kind."

"Aren't these my kind?" Hot loyalty blazed in her tone. "They're all the friends I have in the world, the folks right here in Limasito, and all I want! What would I do among a lot of city people; stuck-up snobs who don't know I'm alive? I wouldn't even know how to talk to them, or what fork to eat with, and what's more, I wouldn't care. Why, I haven't even got a second name! 'Gentleman Geoff's Billie' would look well in the society papers, wouldn't it? No, thanks! I'll stick to the folks I know and—and care for!"

"But they're not all snobs, Billie, just because some of their ways are different from yours. I have a sister who can play a stiff game of poker and ride as well as you. Edna spends most of her time out in the open, and nothing feazes her. You would get on beautifully with her and I thought perhaps you would let me take you to her, sometime."

Billie was silent. She was staring straight ahead of her, into the vista above her pinto's ears, and had Thode looked at her he would have seen a quick flush mantle her face, but he was occupied by his own problem.

"You are different, you know, from the people about here; or anywhere else for that matter, Billie. I—I've never met a girl like you, so brave and true and wonderful! I want to take you away from all this and show you how different the world can be. What does it matter about your name? You are you, and that's all that counts. Everyone will love you, they couldn't help it!——" He rushed on heedlessly, oblivious to any ulterior construction which might be put upon his words, intent only on assuring her of her welcome in the place which her father had said was her rightful one, and in convincing her of his disinterested friendship.

"I told your father that if you were willing I would gladly take you to my sister, and we would all do our best to make you happy." He reddened, in his turn. "Please, don't misunderstand; no one will ever attempt to advise or suggest anything concerning the disposal of your fortune, it is only that you must have, as your father said, the best of everything; all that you have missed."

"Oh, don't talk of the money, please!" She stopped him with a swift gesture. "I do understand, but I—I don't want to say anything now. Maybe you'll change your mind. You were shocked, you remember, when I told you Dad ran the Blue Chip, and you might be sorry you—you tried to make your sister friends with a gambler's daughter, without a family name. Besides, I've got a trust to perform, don't forget that. When it's finished, perhaps—but let's wait until then."

He was well content to acquiesce, relieved that she had taken his suggestion in good faith without impugning his motive. Had he dreamed of the meaning she had read into his offer, his awakening would have been illuminating.

On the following day Billie put her newly acquired wealth to its first use. She cantered away from the Casa de Limas on her pinto without taking the Baileys into her confidence, and at sundown careened in at the gate in a battered touring car, the bewildered pony following on a rope behind.

"Land alive!" Sallie ran out in the yard with Chevalita, the criada, at her heels. "I didn't know you could run an automobile, Billie!"

"I couldn't this morning," Billie responded through set lips as she grazed the hitching-post and came to a stop with a grinding jerk which all but precipitated her through the cracked wind shield. "I've got to get the hang of this in a couple of days or die trying. I'm going on a little trip."

"Where to?" Sallie circled slowly around the dilapidated vehicle. "Don't look as if this would carry you very far. Where on earth did you get it?"

"It was poor Rufe Terwilliger's." The girl answered the last question first. "I bought it from Mrs. Terwilliger for three hundred dollars. Ben Hallock has got some tires to fit it that he'll let me have and if the engine will only last for about four hundred miles I don't care what happens to it after that."

"'Four hundred miles!'" repeated Sallie. "What have you taken into your head now? There's nothing within four hundred miles o' Limasito!"

Billie regarded her with an enigmatic smile.

"There's a dream to bring true!" she said slowly. "That is Tia Juana's; she's going with me. And there's a start to be made on something I've set out to do, and this journey is the first step of the way. No one must go with me but Tia Juana, no one must even know where I have gone. Someone owes me a debt, Sallie, and they're going to pay!"

There was a grim note in her quiet tones which boded ill for the debtor, and Sallie hastily changed the subject.

"And Mr. Thode? What'll I tell him? Does he know?"

"Not where I'm going, but you can say that I've made the first move in the game I'm playing; I've started on what I've got to do. He'll know what I mean. I can't tell you or anyone, Sallie, because I want to see it through alone."

When next Thode rode up to the Casa de Limas, Sallie met him with strange news.

"She's gone. Went off this morning in a car she bought from Rufe Terwilliger's widow, and she bundled old Tia Juana along with her. She said to tell you she'd made a start on what she had to do, and you would understand."

But Kearn Thode didn't. What was this trust, this unknown inheritance from Gentleman Geoff? There had been an ominous note in her voice when she spoke of it, and he remembered what the gambler had told him of her eye-for-an-eye creed of retributive justice. In her splendid, reckless courage could she have pitted herself against El Negrito, the bandit of the hills?



"Whether you're here for health, pleasure, or business there ain't a more up-and-comin' town this side o' the Rio than Limasito," Jim Baggott remarked with the air of publicity-promoter as he "set 'em up" for a plump, white-mustached stranger, who had drawn up to the hotel an hour before in an impressive car, and whose equally impressive array of luggage was even then distributed about the best suite the establishment afforded.

"I'm here on business, Mr. Baggott," the stranger replied promptly to his host's tactfully implied question. "Did you ever hear of a gambler known as 'Gentleman Geoff'? I understand he located somewhere about here ten years ago."

"Hear of him?" Jim repeated gruffly, and turned his head away. "He was one of our most prom'nent citizens; ran the Blue Chip over yonder."

"Indeed?" The stranger tasted his liquor and replaced the glass with a fastidious shudder upon the bar. "He is not here now?"

Baggott shook his head.

"You may have heard that Alvarez—El Negrito, they call him—paid us a little visit a few days ago." He added a profane and heartfelt abjuration of the bandit. "Most of us were corraled in the Blue Chip, and Geoff, he was shot down along with a lot of others."

"Dead! How unfortunate! Can you tell me if he left any family; a daughter, for instance?"

"Sa-ay!" Jim folded his arms on the bar and gazed levelly at his guest. "What's it to you if he did? I happen to be Geoff's executor——"

"Ah, that simplifies matters." The stranger drew a card-case from his pocket. "I am Mason North, of the firm of North, Manning and Gilchrist, attorneys. We are looking for a young woman known as the daughter of this Gentleman Geoff, to notify her of something to her advantage. Can you tell me where she may be found?"

"Known as his daughter?" Jim stammered. "Billie is his daughter, damn it! There ain't no other young woman——"

"'Billie'?" repeated North sharply. "A derivative, no doubt. That is significant. I should like very much to see this Miss 'Billie'——"

"Then you've only got to turn your head!" A clear young voice sounded from the doorway, and the attorney wheeled to confront the object of his quest.

"Lord, Billie, where'd you vamoose to? The whole town's been askin' for you for the last three days!" Jim remembered his manners. "This is Mr. North. He's a lawyer and he says he's got some news for you."

Billie shook hands gravely.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. North."

"And I to meet you, my dear young lady. I have had a long search for you."

"Do you mean——" her eyes were wide—"that you've come all the way down here just to see me?"

He smiled.

"I have been searching for you for more than two years. There are some questions I must ask you. Can we talk here privately without interruption, Mr. Baggott?—No, don't go!" as Jim started for the door. "As the chief executor of—ah, Gentleman Geoff, you are presumably this young lady's de-facto guardian and your presence is imperative."

Considerably impressed, Jim turned a chair around and seated himself astride it, folding his arms across the back.

"Fire away. I'm listening," he said briefly.

"Has this news anything to do with Dad?" asked Billie.

"Partly, my dear. It concerns you, principally; you, and your antecedents." North took a sheaf of papers from his pocket, and produced a fountain pen. "Did you ever hear of a place called Topaz Gulch?"

"Yes. Dad and I were there when I was a little girl. There was a big fire; I can just remember seeing it. We left soon after, I think."

"And then where did you go?" The lawyer made rapid notes as he quizzed her, and Billie stared in growing wonder.

"Oh, we just traveled. I can recall a lot of places, but not their names; mining camps, and cattle towns and farming centers. Then we came here, when the boom first started, and Dad built the Blue Chip——"

The lawyer nodded as she faltered.

"That will do, I think. We can go into the details more exhaustively later, but I am convinced that you are indeed the young woman in the case. But first, can you tell me anything of your mother?"

"Dad said she died a long time ago." Billie's voice was very low. "I don't remember her at all, unless——"

"Unless what?" North urged her, not unkindly. "Think, please."

"It seems to me there was someone, when I was very little, who sang always. There was one song; I should know it again if I heard it, but it won't come to me now."

"Aha!" The lawyer cleared his throat. "That confirms it. I am going to tell you, and your good friend here, a story. It goes rather far back, but I shall ask you to be patient for it concerns you vitally. Some twenty years ago there lived in New York City a noted financier, Giles Murdaugh. You do not recall having heard the name?"

Billie shook her head mutely and North went on:

"Giles Murdaugh was a very wealthy man, a power in the world of finance. He was a widower and his only living relatives were his son, Ralph, and a niece. At the time I mention, Ralph was a young man, just out of college. He fell in love with a—a young person who was not his equal socially; in fact, she earned her living by singing and dancing upon the stage of a music-hall. She was a most respectable, most exemplary young woman," he added hastily, "but Giles Murdaugh was violently opposed to the union. Her name was Violet Ashton."

He paused, but the girl before him made no sign.

"Young Ralph Murdaugh married her, and his father disowned him. The boy had no income of his own, no profession, and his father's influence prevented his obtaining any remunerative position. He was very bitter, and hoped to starve his son into submission and force an annulment of what he considered a disgraceful marriage, but Ralph was as determined as his father.

"The young couple left New York finally and went out West to make their way, but it was a most disheartening experience. Giles Murdaugh's influence was far-reaching and all doors were closed to them. They changed their name and went on, but Ralph had been a student rather than an athlete; he was not strong enough to attempt the rough work which was all that presented itself, and their resources were gone.

"They drifted at last into Topaz Gulch, Nevada, where Ralph obtained a position as time-keeper at the Yellow Streak gold mine, and where a little daughter was born to them, whom they named 'Willa'."

Billie started, and her lips opened, but no words came. Jim Baggott, too, was silent, his jaw agape and honest eyes almost popping from their sockets.

"When the baby was two years old, Ralph Murdaugh died, after a long illness which ate up the little they had been able to save. His wife, destitute and unable to support the child in any other fashion, turned to her old profession; she became what was known as a song-and-dance artiste at a hall named for its owner, 'Jake's'.

"Two years later, the dance-hall burned and Violet Ashton, as she called herself once more, was lost in the holocaust. As a thoroughly good woman, she had always been held in the utmost esteem by the community, rough as it was, and the child, Willa, had become a great favorite, but on her mother's death the problem of caring for her arose. There were no women in the town of the proper character to be trusted with her future, and the camp was in a quandary.

"Among what might be called the shifting population, was a peripatetic—ah, gambler, who traveled under the sobriquet of 'Gentleman Geoff'. He had set up a shack where he operated a roulette-wheel and faro-bank, and was very much attached to the child. Can you not surmise the rest? He adopted her, without legal form, and took her with him on his wanderings."

"Then I—I——" Billie stammered, aghast. "I am not——"

"You are Willa Murdaugh."

"Holy Christopher!" Jim Baggott passed his hand across his dazed forehead, and then all three were silent for a space.

The girl sat as if in a dream, her face flushed, her eyes vacant and fixed, and North forebore to intrude upon her reverie. At length she roused herself and turned to him with quick decision.

"If I am what you say, you must know my age. How old am I?"

"Nineteen. You will be twenty on the sixth of January, next."

"And now," she drew a deep breath, "will you tell me, please, why you have taken the trouble to find me?"

"I was about to explain. Your grandfather, Giles Murdaugh, nursed his resentment for a long time, but at last, finding himself in failing health and alone, remorse came to him, and the desire for a reconciliation with his son and daughter-in-law. This change in his sentiments took place about five years ago. We had been Mr. Murdaugh's attorneys for ten years or more and he instructed us to institute the search.

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