Gordon laughed at the discomfiture of his sleuths. "I dare say they may have been talking to the very men they wanted. But everybody hangs together in this valley. I'm going out with them myself to-morrow after the gentlemen the law requires."
"No, I wouldn't do that, Dick. With every greaser in the valley simmering against you, it won't do for you to go trapsing right down among them," Davis explained.
"That's where I'm going, anyhow—to-morrow morning. The deputies are staying up at Morrow's. I'm going to phone 'em to-night that I'll ride with them to-morrow. Bet you a new hat we flush our birds."
"What's the sense of you going into the police business, Dick? I'll tell you what's ailing you. You're just honing to see Miss Valdes again. You want to go grand-standing around making her mad at you some more."
"You're a wiz, Steve," admitted his friend dryly. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I do want to see her again. Why shouldn't I?"
"What good does it do you when you quarrel all the time you're together? She's declared herself already on this proposition—told the deputies flat-footed that she wouldn't tell them anything and would help her boys to escape in any way she could. You're just like a kid showing off his muscle before a little girl in the first grade."
"All right, Steve. You don't hear me denying it."
"Denying it," snapped the old miner. "Hmp! Lot of good that would do. You're fair itching to get a chance to go down to the ranch and swagger around in plain sight of her lads. You'd be tickled to death if you could cut out the two you want and land them here in spite of her and Don Manuel and the whole pack of them. Don't I know you? Nothing but vanity—that's all there's to it."
"He's off," murmured Dick with a grin to the scenery.
"You make me tired. Why don't you try a little horse sense for a change? Honest, if you was a few years younger I'd put you acrost my knee and spank you."
Gordon lit a cigarette, but did not otherwise contribute to the conversation.
"Ain't she wearing another man's ring?" continued Davis severely. "What's bitin' you, anyhow? How many happy families you want to break up? First off, there's Pablo and Juanita. You fill up her little noodle with the notion that——"
Dick interrupted amiably. "Go to grass, you old granny. I've been putting in my spare time since I came back letting Juanita understand the facts. If she had any wrong notions she ain't got them any longer. She's all ready to kiss and make up with Pablo first chance she gets."
"Then there's Miss Valdes and this Pesky fellow, who's the whitest brown man I ever did see. Didn't he run his fool laigs off getting you free so you could go back and make love to his girl?"
"He's the salt of the earth. I'm for Don Manuel strong. But I don't reckon Miss Valdes would work well in harness with him," explained Dick.
Steve Davis snorted. "No, you reckon Dick Gordon would, though. Don't you see she's of his people—same customs, same ways, same——"
"She's no more of his people than she is of mine. Her mother was an American girl. She was educated in Washington. New Mexico is in America, not in Spain. Don't forget that, you old croaker."
"Well, she's engaged, ain't she? And to a good man. It ain't your put in."
"A good one, but the wrong one. It's a woman's privilege to change her mind. I'm here to help her change it," announced the young man calmly. "Say, look at Jimmie Corbett hitting the high spots this way."
Jimmie, not yet recovered from a severe fright, stopped to explain the adventure that had befallen him while he had been night fishing.
"I seen spooks, Mr. Gordon—hundreds of 'em—coming down the river bank on horseback—honest to goodness, I did."
"Jimmie, if I had your imagination——"
But Davis cut into Dick's smiling incredulity:
"Did you say on horseback, Jimmie?"
"Yes, sir, on horseback. Hope to die if they weren't—'bout fifty of them."
"You better run along home before they catch you, Jimmie," advised the old miner gravely.
The boy went like a streak of light. Davis turned quietly to his partner.
"I reckon it's come, Dick."
"You believe the boy did see some men on horseback? It might have been only shadows."
"No, sir. His imagination wouldn't have put spooks on horseback. We got no time to argue. You going to hold the fort here or take to the hills?"
"You think they mean to attack us in the open?"
"They're hoping to surprise us, I reckon. That's why they're coming along the creek instead of the road. Hadn't 'a' been for Jimmie, they would have picked us off from the porch before we could say 'Jack Robinson.'"
Both men had at once stepped within the log cabin, and, as they talked, were strapping on ammunition belts and looking to their rifles and revolvers.
"There are too many doors and windows to this cabin. We can't hold it against them. We'll take the trail from the back door that leads up to the old spring. From up there we'll keep an eye on them," said Dick.
"I see 'em coming," cried the older man softly from the front window. "They ain't on the trail, but slipping up through the rocks. One—two—three—four—Lord, there's no end to the beggars! They're on foot now. Left their hawsses, I expect, down by the river."
Quietly the two men stepped from the back door of the cabin and swiftly ascended the little trail that rose at a sharp acclivity to the spring. At some height above the cabin, they crouched behind boulders and watched the cautious approach of the enemy.
"Not taking any chances, are they?" murmured Gordon.
Steve laughed softly.
"Heard about that chicken-killing affair, mebbe, and none of them anxious to add a goose to the exhibit."
"It would be right easy to give that surprise party a first-class surprise," chuckled Dick. "Shall I drop a pill or two down among them, just to let them know we're on the premises?"
"Now, don't you, Dick. We'll have to put half of 'em out of biz, and get shot up by the rest, if you do."
"All right. I'll be good, Steve. I was only joking, anyhow. But it ce'tainly is right funny to sit up here and watch them snake up to the empty cabin. See that fellow with the Mexican hat? I believe it's my jealous friend Pablo. He's ce'tainly anxious to get one Gringo's scalp. I could drop a stone down on him so he'd jump about 'steen feet."
"There's one reached the window. He's looking in mighty careful, you bet. Now he's beckoning the other fellows. I got a notion he's made a discovery."
"Got on to the fact that the nest's empty. They're pouring in like bees. Can you make out how many there are? I count nine," said Dick.
"They're having a powwow now. All talking with their hands, the way greasers do. Go to it, boys. A regular debating society, ain't you?"
"Hello! What's that mean?" broke in Gordon.
One of the Mexicans had left the rest, and was running toward the Corbett house.
"Gone to find whether we're on the porch with the family, up there," continued the young man, answering his own question.
"What's the matter with beating it while we've got a chanct?"
"I'm going to stay right here. You can go if you like, Steve?"
"Oh, well. I just suggested it." Davis helped himself to a chew of tobacco placidly.
"Fellow coming back from the house already," he presently added.
"Got the wrong address again. They'll be happening on the right one pretty soon."
"Soon as they're amply satisfied we ain't under the beds, or hid between the covers of some of them magazines. Blamed if they ain't lit a lamp."
Gordon gave a sudden exclamation of dismay. A Mexican had appeared at the back door of the cottage with a tin box in his hand.
"I'm the blamedest idiot out of an asylum," he cried bitterly. "All the proofs of my claim are in that box. You know I brought it back from Santa Fe with me."
"Ain't that too bad?"
Gordon rose, the lines of his mouth set fast and hard.
"I'm going down after it. If I lose those papers, the whole game's spoilt for me. I've got to have them, and I'm going to."
"Don't be a goat. How can you take it from a whole company of them?"
"I'll watch my chance. It may be the fellow will hide it somewhere till he wants it again."
"I'm going, too, then."
"See here, Steve. Be sensible. If we both go down, it's a sure thing they will stumble on us."
"Too late, anyhow. They're coming up after us."
"So much the better. We'll cut across to the left, slip down, and take them in the rear. Likely as not we'll find it there."
"All right. Whatever you say, Dick."
They slipped away into the semi-darkness, taking advantage of every bit of cover they could find. Not until they were a long stone's throw from the trail did the young miner begin the descent.
Occasionally they could hear voices over to the right as they silently slipped down. It was no easy thing to negotiate that stiff mountainside in the darkness, where a slip would have sent one of them rolling down into the sharp rock-slide beneath. Presently they came to a rockrim, a sheer descent of twenty-five feet down the perpendicular face of a cliff.
They followed the ledge to the left, hoping to find a trough through which they might discover a way down. But in this they were disappointed.
"We'll have to go back. There's a place we passed where perhaps it may be done. We've got to try it, anyhow," said Gordon, in desperation.
Retracing their steps, they came to the point Dick had meant. It looked bad enough, in all conscience, but from the rocks there jutted halfway down a dwarf oak that had found rooting in a narrow cleft.
The young man worked his body over the edge, secured a foothold in some tiny scarp that broke the smoothness of the face, and groped, with one hand and then the other, for some hold that would do to brace his weight. He found one, lowered himself gingerly, and tested another foothold in a little bunch of dry moss.
"All right. My rifle, Steve."
It was handed down. At that precise moment there came to them the sound of approaching voices.
"Your gun, Steve! Quick. Now, then, over you come. That's right—no, the other hand—your foot goes there—easy, now."
They stood together on a three-inch ledge, their heels projecting over space. Nor had they reached this precarious safety any too soon, for already their pursuers were passing along the rim above.
One of them stopped on the edge, scarce eight feet above them.
"They must have come this way," he said to a companion. "But I expect they're hitting the trail about a mile from here."
"Si, Pablo. Can you feed me a cigareet?" the other asked.
The men below, scarce daring to breathe, waited, while the matches glimmered and the cigarettes puffed to a glow. Every instant they anticipated discovery; and they were in such a position that, if it came, neither of them could use his weapons. For they were cramped against the wall with their rifles by their sides, so bound by the situation that to have lifted them to aim would have been impossible.
"The American—he has escaped us this time," one of them said as they moved off.
"Maldito, the devil has given him wings to fly away," replied Pablo.
After the sound of their footsteps had died, Gordon resumed his descent. He reached the stunted oak in safety, and was again joined by his friend.
"Looks like we're caught here, Steve. There ain't a sign of a foothold below," the younger man whispered.
"Mebbe the branches of that tree will bend over."
"We'll have to try it, anyhow. If it breaks with me, I'll get to the bottom, just the same. Here goes."
Catching hold of the branches, he swung down and groped with his feet for a resting-place.
"Nothing doing, Steve."
"What blamed luck!"
"Hold on! Here's a cleft, away over to the right. Let me get a hold on that gun to steady me. That's all right. The rest's easy. I'll give you a hand across—that's right. Now we're there."
At the very foot of the cliff an unexplainable accident occurred. Dick's rifle went off with noise enough to wake the seven sleepers.
"Come on, Steve. We got to get out of here," he called to his partner, and began to run down the hill toward their cabin.
He covered ground so fast that the other could not keep up with him. From above there came the crack of a rifle, then another and another, as the men on the ridge sighted their prey. A spatter of bullets threw up the dirt around them. Dick felt a red-hot flame sting his leg, but, though he had been hit, to his surprise he was not checked.
Topping the brow of a little rise, he caught sight of the cabin, and, to his consternation, saw that smoke was pouring from the door and that within it was alight with flames.
"The beggars have set fire to it," he cried aloud.
So far as he could see, four men had been left below. They did not at first catch sight of him as he dodged forward in the shadows of the alders at the foot of the hill. Nor did they see him even when he stopped among the rocks at the rear, for their eyes were on Davis and their attention focused upon him.
He had come puffing to the brow of the hillock Gordon had already passed, when a shout from the ridge apprised those below of his presence. Cut off above and below, there was nothing left for Steve but a retreat down the road. He could not possibly advance in the face of four rifles, and he knew, too, that the best aid he could offer his friend was to deflect the attention of the watchers from him.
He fell back promptly, running from boulder to boulder in his retreat, pursued cautiously by the enemy. His ruse would have succeeded admirably, so far as Dick was concerned, except for that young man himself. He could not sit quiet and see his friend the focus of the fire.
Wherefore, it happened that the attackers of Davis were halted momentarily by a disconcerting fusillade from the rear. The "American devil" had come out into the open, and was dropping lead among them.
At this juncture a rider galloped into view from the river gorge along which wound the road. He pulled his jaded horse to a halt beside the old miner and leaped to the ground.
Without waiting an instant for their fire to cease, he ran straight forward toward the pursuing Mexicans.
As he came into the moonlight, Dick saw with surprise that the newcomer was Don Manuel Pesquiera. He was hatless, apparently too unarmed. But not for a second did this stop him as he sprinted forward.
Straight for the spitting rifles Don Manuel ran, face ablaze with anger. He had covered half the distance before the weapons wavered groundward.
"Don Manuel!" cried Sebastian, perturbed by this apparition flying through the night toward them.
Dick waited only long enough to make sure that hostilities had for the moment ceased against his friend before beginning his search for the tin box.
He quartered back and forth over the ground behind the burning house without result, circled it rapidly, his eyes alert to catch the shine of the box in the moonbeams, and examined the space among the rocks at the base of the hill. Nowhere did he see what he wanted.
"I'll have to take a whirl at the house. Some of them may have carried it back inside," he told himself.
As he stepped toward the door, Don Manuel came round the corner. At his heels were Steve and the four Mexicans who had but a few minutes before been trying industriously to exterminate the miner.
Don Manuel bowed punctiliously to Gordon.
"I beg to express my very great regrettance at this untimely attack," he said.
"Don't mention it, don. This business of chasing over the hills in the moonlight is first-class for the circulation of the blood, I expect. Most of us got quite a bit of exercise, first and last."
Dick spoke with light irony; but one distraught half of his attention was upon the burning house.
"Nevertheless, you will permeet me to regret, senor," returned the young Spaniard stiffly.
"Ce'tainly. You're naturally sore that you didn't get first crack at me. Don't blame you a bit," agreed Dick cheerfully but absently. "Funny thing is that one of your friends happened to send his message to my address, all right. Got me in the left laig, just before you butted in and spoiled their picnic so inconsiderate."
"You are then wounded, sir?"
"Not worth mentioning, don. Just a little accident. Wouldn't happen again in a thousand years. Never did see such poor shots as your valley lads. Say, will you excuse me just a minute? I got some awful important business to attend to."
"Most entirely, Senor Gordon."
"Thanks. Won't be a minute."
To Pesquiera's amazement, he dived through the door, from which smoke poured in clouds, and was at once lost to sight within.
"He is a madman," the Spaniard murmured.
"Or devil," added Sebastian significantly. "You will see, senor, he will come out safe and unharmed."
But he did not come out at all, though the minutes dragged themselves away one after another.
"I'm going after him," cried Davis, starting forward.
But Don Manuel flung strong arms about him, and threw the miner back into the hands of the Mexicans.
"Hold him," he cried in Spanish.
"Let me go. Let me go, I say!" cried the miner, struggling with those who detained him.
But Pesquiera had already gone to the rescue. He, too, plunged through the smoke. Blinded unable to breathe, he groped his way across the door lintel into the blazing hut.
The heat was intense. Red tongues of flame licked out from all sides toward him. But he would not give up, though he was gasping for breath and could not see through the dense smoke.
A sweep of wind brushed the smoke aside for an instant, and he saw the body of his enemy lying on the floor before him. He stooped, tried to pick it up, but was already too far gone himself.
Almost overcome, he sank to his knees beside Gordon. Close to the floor the air was still breathable. He filled his lungs, staggered to his feet, and tried to drag the unconscious man across the threshold with him.
A hundred fiery dragons sprang unleashed at him. The heat, the stifling smoke were more than flesh and blood could endure. He stumbled over a fallen chair, got up and plowed forward again, still with that dead weight in his arms; collapsed again, and yet once more pulled himself to his feet by the sheer strength of the dogged will in him.
So, at last, like a drunken man, he reeled into safety, the very hair and clothes of the man on fire from the inferno he had just left.
A score of eager hands were ready to relieve him of his burden, to support his lurching footsteps. Two of them were the strong brown hands of the woman he loved more than any other on earth, the woman who had galloped into sight just in time to see him come staggering from that furnace with the body of the man who was his hated rival. It was her soft hands that smothered the fire in his hair, that dragged the burning coat from his back.
He smiled wanly, murmured "Valencia," and fainted in her arms.
Gordon clutched in his stiffened fingers a tin box blistered by the heat.
THE TIN BOX
Dick Gordon lay on a bed in a sunny south room at the Corbett place.
He was swathed in bandages, and had something the appearance of a relic of the Fourth of July, as our comic weeklies depict Young America the day after that glorious occasion. But, except for one thing which he had on his mind, the Coloradoan was as imperturbably gay as ever.
He had really been a good deal less injured than his rescuer; for, though a falling rafter had struck him down as he turned to leave the hut, this very accident had given him the benefit of such air as there had been in the cabin. Here and there he had been slightly burned, but he had not been forced to inhale smoke.
Wound in leg and all, the doctor had considered him out of danger long before he felt sure of Don Manuel.
The young Spaniard lay several days with his life despaired of. The most unremitting nursing on the part of his cousin alone pulled him through.
She would not give up; would not let his life slip away. And, in the end, she had won her hard fight. Don Manuel, too, was on the road to recovery.
While her cousin had been at the worst, Valencia Valdes saw the wounded Coloradoan only for a minute of two each day; but, with Pesquiera's recovery, she began to divide her time more equitably.
"I've been wishing I was the bad case," Dick told her whimsically when she came in to see him. "I'll bet I have a relapse so the head nurse won't always be in the other sick room."
"Manuel is my cousin, and he has been very, very ill," she answered in her low, sweet voice, the color in her olive cheeks renewed at his words.
The eyes of the Anglo-Saxon grew grave.
"How is Don Manuel to-night?"
"Better. Thank Heaven."
"That's what the doctor told me."
Dick propped himself on an elbow and looked directly at her, that affectionate smile of his on his face.
"Miss Valdes, do you know, ever since I've been well enough, I've been hoping that if one of us had to cross the Great Divide it would be me?"
Her troubled eyes studied him.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because it would seem more right that way. I came here and made all this trouble in the valley. I insulted him. I had in mind another hurt to him that we won't discuss just now. Then, when it comes to a showdown, he just naturally waltzes into Hades and saves my life for me at the risk of his own. No, ma'am, I sure couldn't have stood it if he had died."
"I'm glad you feel that way," she answered softly, her eyes dim.
"How else could I feel, and be a white man? I tell you, it makes me feel mean to think about that day I threw him in the water. Just because I'm a great big husky, about the size of two of him, I abused my strength and——"
"Just a moment," the girl smiled. "You are forgetting he struck you first."
"Oh, well! I reckon I could have stood that."
"Will you be willing to tell him how you feel about it?"
"Will I? Well, I guess yes."
The young woman's eyes were of starry radiance. "I'm so glad—so happy. I'm sure everything will come right, now."
He nodded, smiling.
"That's just the way I feel, Miss Valencia. They couldn't go wrong, after this—that is, they couldn't go clear wrong."
"I'm quite certain of that."
"I want to go on record as saying that Manuel Pesquiera is the gamest man I know. That isn't all. He's a thoroughbred on top of it. If I live to be a hundred I'll never be as fine a fellow. My hat's off to him."
There was a mist in her soft eyes as she poured a glass of ice water for him. "I'm so glad to hear you say that. He is such a splendid fellow."
He observed she was no longer wearing the solitaire and thought it might be to spare his feelings. So he took the subject as a hunter does a fence.
"I wish you all the joy in the world, Miss Valdes. I know you're going to be very happy. I've got my wedding present all picked out for you," he said audaciously.
She was busy tidying up his dresser, but he could see the color flame into her cheeks.
"You have a very vivid imagination, Mr. Gordon."
"Not necessary in this case," he assured her.
"You're quite sure of that, I suppose," she suggested with a touch of ironic mockery.
"I haven't read any announcement in the paper," he admitted.
"It is always safe to wait for that."
"Which is another way of saying that it is none of my business. But then you see it is." He offered no explanation of this statement, nor did he give her time to protest. "Now about that wedding present, Miss Valdes. It's in a tin box I had in the cabin before the fire. Can you tell me whether it was saved? My recollection is that I had it at the time the rafter put me to sleep. But of course I don't remember anything more till I found myself in bed here."
"A tin box? Yes; you had it in your hands when Manuel brought you out. They could hardly pry your fingers from it."
"Would you mind having that box brought to me, Miss Valdes? I want to be sure the present hasn't been injured by fire."
"Of course not. I don't just know where it is, but it must be somewhere about the place."
She was stepping toward the door, with that fine reaching grace of a fawn that distinguished her, when his voice stopped her. She stopped, delicate head poised and half turned, apparently waiting for further directions.
"Not just this minute, please. I've been lying here all day, with nobody but Steve. Finally he got so restless I had to turn him out to pasture. It wouldn't be right hospitable to send you away so soon. That box can wait till you have had all of me you can stand. What I need is good nursing, and I need it awful bad," he explained plaintively.
"Has Mrs. Corbett been neglecting you?"
"Mrs. Corbett—no!" he shouted with a spirit indomitable, but a voice still weak. "She's on earth merely to cook me chicken broth and custard. It's you that's been neglecting me."
The gleam of a strange fire was in her dark, bright eyes; in her cheeks the soft glow of beating color.
"And my business on earth is to fight you, is it not? But I can't do that till you are on your feet again, sir."
He gave her back her debonair smile.
"I'm not so sure of that. Women fight with the weapons of their sex—and often win, I'm told."
"You mean, perhaps, tears and appeals for pity. They are weapons I cannot use, sir. I had liefer lose."
"I dare say there are other weapons in your arsenal. I know you're too game to use those you've named."
"What others?" she asked quietly.
He let his eyes rest on her, sweep over her, and come back to the meeting with hers. But he did not name them. Instead, he came to another angle of the subject.
"You never know when you are licked, do you? Why don't you ask me to compromise this land grant business?"
"What sort of a compromise have you to offer, sir?" she said after a pause.
"Have your lawyers told you yet that you have no chance?"
"Would it be wise for me to admit I have none, before I go to discuss the terms of the treaty?" she asked, and put it so innocently that he acknowledged the hit with a grin.
"I thought that, if you knew you were going to lose, you might be easier to deal with. I'm such a fellow to want the whole thing in my bargains."
"If that's how you feel, I don't think I'll compromise."
"Well, I didn't really expect you would. I just mentioned it."
"It was very good of you. Now I think I'll go back to my cousin."
"If you must I'm coming over to his room as soon as the doc will let me, and as soon as he'll see me."
She gave him a sudden flash of happy eyes. "I hope you will. There must be no more trouble between him and you. There couldn't be after this, could there?"
He shook his head.
"Not if it takes two to make a quarrel. He can say what he wants to, make a door-mat out of me, go gunning after me till the cows come home, and I won't do a thing but be a delegate to a peace conference. No, ma'am. I'm through."
"You don't know how glad I am to hear it."
"Are you as anxious I should make up my quarrel with you as the ones with your friends?" he asked boldly.
The effrontery of this lean, stalwart young American—if effrontery it was, and no other name seemed to define it—surprised another dash of roses into the olive.
"The way to make up your quarrel with me is to make up those with my friends," she answered.
"All right. Suits me. I'll call those deputies off and send them home. Pablo and Sebastian will never go to the pen on my evidence. They're in the clear so far as I'm concerned."
She gave him both her hands. "Thank you. Thank you. I'm so glad."
The tears rose to her eyes. She bit her lip, turned and left the room.
He called after her:
"Please don't forget my tin box."
"I'll remember your precious box," she called back with a pretense of scorn.
He laughed to himself softly. There was sunshine in his eyes.
She had resolved to leave him to Mrs. Corbett in future, but within the hour she was back.
"I came about your tin box. Nobody seems to know where it is. Everybody remembers having seen it in your hands. I suppose we left it on the ground when we brought you to the house, but I can't find anybody that removed it. Perhaps some of my people have seen it. I'll send and ask them."
He smiled disconsolately.
"I may as well say good-bye to it."
"If you mean that my boys are thieves," she retorted hotly.
"I didn't say that, ma'am; but mebbe I did imply they wouldn't return that particular box, when they found what was in it. I shouldn't blame them if they didn't."
"I should. Very much. This merely shows you don't understand us at all, Mr. Gordon."
"I wish I had that box. It ce'tainly disarranges my plans to have it gone," he said irritably.
"I assure you I didn't take it."
"I don't lay it to you, though it would ce'tainly be to your advantage to take it," he laughed, already mollified.
"Will you please explain that?"
"All my claims of title to this land grant are in that box, Miss Valdes," he remarked placidly, as if it were a matter of no consequence.
She went white at his words.
"And it is lost—probably in the hands of my people. We must get it back."
"But you're on the other side of the fence," he reminded her gaily.
With dignity she turned on him.
"Do you think I want to beat you that way? Do you think I am a highwayman, or that I shall let my people be?"
"You make them draw the line between murder and robbery," he suggested pleasantly.
"I couldn't stop them from attacking you, but I can see they don't keep your papers—all the more, that it is to their interest and mine to keep them."
She said it with such fine girlish pride, her head thrown a little back, her eyes gleaming, scorn of his implied distrust in her very carriage. For long he joyfully carried the memory of it.
Surely, she was the rarest creature it had ever been his fortune to meet. Small wonder the gallant Spaniard Don Manuel loved her. Small wonder her people fed on her laughter, and were despondent at her frowns.
Dick Gordon was awake a good deal that night, for the pain and the fever were still with him; but the hours were short to him, full of joy and also of gloom. Shifting pictures of her filled the darkness. His imagination saw her in many moods, in many manners. And when from time to time he dropped into light sleep, it was to carry her into his dreams.
DICK GORDON APOLOGIZES
Don Manuel was at first too spent a man even to wish to get well. As his cousin's nursing dragged him farther and farther back into this world from which he had so nearly slipped, he was content to lie still and take the goods the gods provided.
She was with him for the present. That sufficed. Whether he lived or died he did not care a hand's turn; but the while Fate flipped a coin to determine whether it should be life or death for him, he had Valencia's love as he feared he would never have it in case he recovered.
For these days she lived for him alone. Her every thought and desire had been for him. On this his soul fed, since he felt that, as they slipped back into the ordinary tide of life, she would withdraw herself gently but surely from him.
He had fought against the conviction that she loved his rival, the Colorado claimant to the valley. He had tried to persuade himself that her interest in the miner was natural under the circumstances and entirely independent of sentiment. But in the bottom of his heart such assurances did not convince.
"You will be able to sit up in a few days. It's wonderful how you have improved," she told him one day as she finished changing his pillow.
"Yes, I shall be well soon. You will be relieved of me," he said with a kind of gentle sadness.
"As if I wanted to be," she reproved softly, her hand smoothing down his hair.
"No. You're very good to me. You don't want to be rid of me. But it's best you should be. I have had all of you that's good for me, my cousin, unless I could have more than I dare hope."
She looked through the window at the sunlit warmth of the land, and, after a long time, said:
"Must we talk of that, Manuel?"
"No, nina—not if I am once sure. I have guessed; but I must be certain beyond the possibility of mistake. Is my guess right? That it can never be."
She turned dim eyes on him and nodded. A lump had risen to her throat that forbade speech.
"I can still say, dearest, that I am glad to have loved you," he answered cheerfully, after an instant's silence. "And I can promise that I shall trouble you no more. Shall we talk of something else?"
"There is one thing I should like to tell you first," she said with pretty timidity. "How proud I am that such a man could have loved me. You are the finest man I know. I must be a foolish girl not to—care for you—that way."
"No. A woman's heart goes where it must. If a man loses, he loses."
She choked over her words. "It doesn't seem fair. I promised. I wore your ring. I said that if you saved ... him ... I would marry you. Manuel, I ... I'll keep faith if you'll take me and be content to wait for ... that kind of love to grow."
"No, my cousin. I have wooed and lost. Why should you be bound by a pledge made at such a time? As your heart tells you to do, so you must do." He added after a pause: "It is this American, is it not?"
Again she nodded twice, not looking at him lest she see the pain in his eyes.
"I wish you joy, Valencia—a world full of it, so long as life lasts."
He took her fingers in his, and kissed them before he passed lightly to another subject:
"Have you heard anything yet of the tin box of Mr. Gordon's?"
She accepted the transition gratefully, for she was so moved she was afraid lest she break down.
"Not yet. It is strange, too, where it has gone. I have had inquiries made every where."
"For me, I hope it is never found. Why should you feel responsibility to search for these papers that will ruin you and your tenants?"
"If my men had not attacked and tried to murder him he would still have his evidence. I seek only to put him in the position he was in before we injured him."
"You must judge for yourself, Valencia. But, if you don't mind, I shall continue to wish you failure in your search," he replied.
It was now that Jimmie Corbett came into the room to say that Mr. Gordon would like to call on Don Manuel, if the latter felt able to receive him.
Pesquiera did not glance at his cousin. He answered the boy at once.
"Tell Mr. Gordon I shall be very glad to see him," he said quietly.
Nor did he look at her after the boy had left the room, lest his gaze embarrass her, but gave his attention wholly to propping himself up on his elbow.
Dick stood a moment filling the doorway before he came limping into the room. From that point he bowed to Miss Valdes, then moved forward to the bed.
He did not offer to shake hands, but stood looking down at his rival, with an odd look of envy on his face. But it was the envy of a brave and generous man, who acknowledged victory to his foe.
"I give you best, Don Manuel," he finally said. "You've got me beat at every turn of the road. You saved my life again, and mighty near paid with your own. There ain't anything to say that will cover that, I reckon."
The Spaniard's eyes met his steadily, but Pesquiera did not say a word. He was waiting to see what the other meant.
"You're a gamer man than I am, and a better one. All I can say is that I'm sorry and ashamed of myself for the way I treated you. If you still want to fight me, I'll stand up and give you a chance to pepper me. Anything you think right."
"If you put it so, sir, I have no choice but to join you in regrets and hopes of future amity."
"I can understand that you'd like to spill me over a ten-acre lot, and that you don't listen to my apologies with any joy," said the Coloradoan, smiling whimsically down at his former foe.
"I do not forget that the first offense was mine, Senor Gordon," the Spaniard answered.
Then came Jimmie Corbett again with a message for Miss Valdes.
"Pablo wants to see you, ma'am. Just rode over from the ranch. Says it's important."
The hands of the two men met in a strong grip as Valencia left the room, and so, too, did their steady gazes. Each of them knew that the other was his rival for the heart of the girl. Oddly enough, each thought the other was the successful suitor. But there was in each some quality of manliness that drew them together in spite of themselves.
Valencia found Pablo sitting on the porch. A rifle lay across his knees ready for emergencies. The deputies had ridden away to the other end of the valley that morning, but Menendez did not intend to be caught napping in case of their unexpected return.
Miss Valdes smiled. "You needn't be so careful, Pablo. I bring you good news—better than you deserve. Mr. Gordon has promised to drop the cases against you and Sebastian. Even if the officers arrest you, nothing can come of it except a trip to Santa Fe for a few days. If I were you I would give myself up. The rewards have been withdrawn, so it is not likely your friends will betray you."
"But, Dona, are you sure? Will this Americano keep his word? Is it certain they will not hold me in prison?"
"I tell you it is sure. Is that not enough? Did you find Mr. Gordon so ready to give you his word and break it when he was your prisoner?"
"True, Dona. He laughed at us and told us to kill him. He is a brave man."
"And brave men do not lie."
Pablo turned to his horse and took down from the horn of the saddle a gunny sack tied to it. This he opened. From it he drew a tin box that had been badly blistered with heat.
"It is Senor Gordon's tin box. After you carried him to the house here the other night I found it under a cottonwood. So I took it home with me. They are papers. Important—— Is it not so?"
"Yes. I have been looking everywhere for them. You did right to bring them back to me."
"Perhaps they may help you win the land. Eh, Dona?"
"Perhaps. You know I offered a reward of twenty-five dollars for the box. It is yours. Buy some furniture with it when you and Juanita go to housekeeping."
"That is all past, alas, Senorita. Juanita looks down her nose when I am near. She does not speak to me."
"Foolish boy! That is a sign she thinks much of you. Tell her you did wrong to accuse her. Beg her to forgive you. Do not sulk, but love her and she will smile on you."
"But—this Senor Gordon?"
"All nonsense, Pablo. I have talked with Juanita. It is you she loves. Go to her and be good to her. She is back there in the milkhouse churning. But remember she is only a girl—so young, and motherless, too. It is the part of a man to be kind and generous and forbearing to a woman. He must be gentle—always gentle, if he would hold her love. Can you do that, Pablo? Or are you only a hot-headed, selfish, foolish boy?"
"I will try, Dona," he answered humbly. "For always have I love' her since she was such a little muchacha."
"Then go. Don't tell her I sent you. She must feel you have come because you could no longer stay away."
Pablo flashed his teeth in a smile of understanding and took the path that led round the house. He followed it to the sunken cellar that had been built for a milkhouse. Noiselessly he tiptoed down the steps and into the dark room. The plop-plop of a churn dasher told him Juanita was here even before his eyes could make her out in the darkness.
Presently he saw more clearly the slender figure bent a little wearily over the churn. Softly he trod forward. His hand went out and closed on the handle above hers. In startled surprise she turned.
"You—Pablo!" she cried faintly.
"I have so longed to see you—to come to you and tell you I was wrong, nina—— Oh, you don't know how I have wanted to come. But my pride—my hard, foolish pride—it held me back. But no longer, heart of my heart, can I wait. Tell me that you forgive—that you will love me again—in spite of what I said and have done. I cannot get along without my little Juanita," he cried in the soft Spanish that was native to them both.
She was in his arms, crying softly, nestling close to him so that his love might enfold her more warmly. Always Juanita had been a soft, clinging child, happy only in an atmosphere of affection. She responded to caresses as a rose does to the sunlight. Pablo had been her first lover, the most constant of them all. She had relied upon him as a child does upon its mother. When he had left her in anger and not returned she had been miserably unhappy. Now all was well again, since Pablo had come back to her.
THE PRINCE CONSORT
Valencia returned to Don Manuel's room carrying a gunny sack. She found Dick Gordon sitting beside his rival's bed amiably discussing with him the respective values of the Silver Doctor and the Jock Scott for night fishing. Dick rose at her entrance to offer a chair.
She was all fire and animation. Her eyes sparkled, reflecting light as little wavelets of a sun-kissed lake.
"Supreme Court decision just come down in your favor?" asked the other claimant to the valley with genial irony.
"No, but—guess what I've got here."
"A new hat," hazarded Gordon, furrowing his brow in deep thought.
"Treason!" protested Manuel. "Does the lady live who would put her new hat in a gunny sack?"
"You may have three guesses, each of you," replied Miss Valdes, dimpling.
The miner guessed two guinea pigs, a million dollars, and a pair of tango slippers. Pesquiera went straight to the mark.
"A tin box," he said.
"Right, Manuel. Pablo brought it. He had just heard I was looking for the box—says he found it the night of the fire and took it home with him. His idea was that we might use the papers to help our fight."
"Good idea," agreed the Cripple Creek man, with twinkling eyes. "What are you going to do with the papers now you have them, Miss Valdes?"
"Going to give them to their owner," she replied, and swung the sack into his lap.
He took out a bunch of keys from his pocket, fitted one to the lock of the box, and threw up the lid. Carefully he looked the papers over.
"They are all here—every last one. I'm still lord of the Rio Chama Valley—unless my lawyers are fooling me mighty bad."
"It's a difference of opinion that makes horse races, Senor," retorted Manuel gaily from his pillows.
"I'll bet one of Mrs. Corbett's cookies there's no difference of opinion between my lawyers and those of Miss Valdes. What do you honestly think yourself about the legal end, ma'am?"
"I think that law and justice were divorced a good many years ago," she answered promptly.
"Which is another way of saying that you expect me to win out."
"By advice of counsel we decline to make any admissions, sir."
"You don't have to say a word. The facts do all the talking that is necessary." Gordon glanced in a business-like fashion over several papers. "This would be a fine time for friend Pablo to attack me again. Here are several of the original papers—deed of the grant, map of it with the first survey made, letters showing that old Moreno lived several years in the valley after your people were driven out at the time of the change in government. By the way, here's a rather interesting document. Like to look at it, Miss Valdes?"
He handed to her a paper done up in a blue cover after the fashion of modern legal pleadings. Valencia glanced it over. Her eye caught at a phrase which interested her and ran rapidly down the page.
"But—I don't understand what this means—unless——"
She looked up quickly at Gordon, an eager question in her face.
"It means what it says, though it's all wrapped up in dictionary words the way all law papers are."
Valencia passed the document to Pesquiera. "Read that, and tell me what you think it means, Manuel." Her face was flushed with excitement, and in her voice there was a suggestion of tremulousness.
The Spaniard read, and as he read his eyes, too, glowed.
"It means, my cousin, that you have to do with a very knightly foe. By this paper he relinquishes all claim, title and interest in the Moreno grant to Valencia Valdes, who he states to be in equity the rightful owner of same. Valencia, I congratulate you. But most of all I congratulate Mr. Gordon. Few men have the courage to make a gift of a half million acres of land merely because they have no moral title to it."
"Sho! I never did want the land, anyhow. I got interested in the scrap. That's all." The miner looked as embarrassed as if he had been caught stealing a box of cigars.
The young woman had gone from pink to white. The voice in which she spoke was low and unsteady.
"It's a splendid thing to do—the gift of a king. I don't know—that I can accept it—even for the sake of my people. I know now you would be fair to them. You wouldn't throw them out. You would give new deeds to those who have bought land, wouldn't you?"
"How are you going to keep from accepting it, Miss Valdes? That paper is a perfectly legal document."
She smiled faintly. "I could light a cigarette, Mr. Gordon, as you once did."
"Not a bit of use. I wired to Santa Fe by Steve to have that paper—the original of it—put on record this afternoon. By this time I expect you're the princess of the Rio Chama all right."
She still hesitated, the tide of feeling running full in her heart. It was all very well for this casual youth to make her a present of a half million acres of land in this debonair way, but she could not persuade herself to accept so munificent a gift.
"I don't know—I'll have to think—if you are the legal owner——"
"You're welching," he told her amiably. "I make a legal deed of conveyance because we are all agreed that my title isn't morally good. We're not a bunch of pettifoggers. All of us are aiming to get at what's right in settling this thing. You know what is right. So do I. So does Mr. Pesquiera. Enough said. All we have to do then is to act according to the best we know. Looks simple to me."
"Maybe it wouldn't look so simple if you were at the other end of the bargain, Mr. Gordon. To give is more blessed than to receive, you know."
"Sure. I understand that. I get the glory and do all the grand-standing. But you'll have to stand for it, I reckon."
"I'm going to think it over. Then I'll let you know what I can do." She looked at him sharply, a new angle of the situation coming home to her. "You meant to do this from the first, Mr. Gordon."
"Not quite from the first. After you had taken me to your ranch and I had seen how things stood between you and the folks in the valley I did. You've smoked me, ma'am. I'm a born grand-stander." He laughed in amusement at himself. "I wanted to be it, the hero of the piece, the white-haired boy. But that wasn't the way it panned out. I was elected villain most unanimous, and came mighty near being put out of business a few times before I could make the public sabe I was only play acting. Funny how things work out. Right at the last when I've got the spotlight all trained for me to star and the music playing soft and low, Don Manuel here jumps in and takes the stage from me by rescuing the villain from a fiery furnace. I don't get any show," he complained whimsically.
Valencia smiled. "The action of the play has all revolved around you, anyhow. That ought to satisfy you. Without you there wouldn't have been any entertainment at all."
"I've had plenty of fun for my money. I'm not making any complaint at all. When a pretender invades a country to put the reigning queen out of business he has a license to expect a real warm welcome. Well, I got it."
Once again Jimmie Corbett appeared in the doorway, this time with a yellow envelope which he handed to Gordon.
Dick read the enclosed telegram and passed it to Pesquiera.
The Spaniard waved his hand and made a feeble attempt at a cheer.
"Am I to hear the good news?" Valencia asked.
"Read it, Mr. Pesquiera."
"Relinquishment of claim to Moreno grant in favor of Valencia Valdes filed ten minutes ago. Have you taken my advice in regard to consolidation?
"What does she mean about a consolidation?" asked Miss Valdes.
Dick flushed. "Oh, that was just something we were talking over—some foolishness or other, I reckon. Nothing to it. The important point is that the legal fight is over. You're now the owner of both the Valdes and the Moreno claims."
"Le roi est mort! Vive la reine!" cried Manuel gaily.
"I can't be said to have had a very peaceful reign. Wish you better luck, ma'am." He let his eyes rest drolly on the invalid for a moment. "And I hope when you take a prince consort to share the throne he'll meet all expectations—which I'm sure he will."
Dick shook hands with the bright-eyed flushing girl.
She laughed in the midst of her blushes. "Gracias, senor! I'll save your good wishes till they are needed."
"Adios, Don Manuel. See you to-morrow if you're up to it. I expect you've had enough excitement for one day."
"I'll let you know then whether I can accept your gift, Mr. Gordon," Valencia told him.
"That's all settled," he assured her as he left.
* * * * *
It was in the evening that he saw her again. Dick had stopped in the hall on the way to his room to examine a .303 Savage carbine he found propped against the wall. He had picked the weapon up when a voice above hailed him. He looked up. Valencia was leaning across the balustrade of the stairway.
"I want to talk with you, Mr. Gordon."
"Same here," he answered promptly. "I mean I want to talk with you. Let's take a walk."
"No. You're not up to a walk. We'll drive. My rig is outside."
Ten minutes later they were flying over the hard roads packed with rubble from decomposed sandstone. Neither of them spoke for some time. He was busy with the reins, and she was content to lean back and watch him. To her there was something very attractive about the set of his well-modeled head upon the broad shoulders. He had just been shaved, and the scent of the soap wafted to her a pleasant sense of intimacy with his masculinity. She could see the line above which the tiny white hairs grew thick on the bronzed cheeks. A strange delight stirred in her maiden heart, a joy in his physical well-being that longed for closer contact.
None of this reached the surface when she spoke at last.
"I can't let things go the way you have arranged them, Mr. Gordon. It isn't fair. After the way I and my people have treated you I can't be the object of such unlimited generosity at your hands."
"Justice," he suggested by way of substitution.
"No, generosity," she insisted. "Why should you be forced to give way to me? What have I done any more than you to earn all this?"
"Now you know we've all agreed——"
"Agreed!" she interrupted sharply. "We've taken it for granted that I had some sort of divine right. When I look into it I see that's silly. We're living in America, not in Spain of the seventeenth century. I've no right except what the law gives me."
"Well, the law's clear now. I'm tired of being shot at and starved and imprisoned and burned to make a Mexican holiday. I'm fed up with the excitement your friends have offered me. Honest, I'm glad to quit. I don't want the grant, anyhow. I'm a miner. We've just made a good strike in the Last Dollar. I'm going back to look after it."
"You can't make me believe anything of the kind, Mr. Gordon. I know you've made a strike, but you had made it before you ever came to the valley. Mr. Davis told me so. We simply couldn't drive you out. That's all humbug. You want me to have it—and I'm not going to take it. That's all there is to it, sir."
He smiled down upon her. "I never did see anyone so obstinate and so changeable. As long as I wanted the land you were going to have it; now I don't want it you won't take it. Isn't that just like a woman?"
"You know why I won't take it. From the very first you've played the better part. We've mistreated you in every way we could. Now you want to drown me in a lake of kindness. I just can't accept it. If you want to compromise on a fair business basis I'll do that."
"You've got a first-rate chance to be generous, too, Miss Valdes. I'm like a kid. I want to put this thing over my way so that I'll look big. Be a nice girl and let me have my own way. You know I said my wedding present was in that tin box. Don't spoil everything. Show me that you do think we're friends at last."
"We're friends—if you're sure you forgive me," she said shyly.
"Nothing in the world to forgive," he retorted cheerfully. "I've had the time of my life. Now I must go home and get to work."
"Yes," she agreed quietly, looking straight in front of her.
He drove in silence for a mile or two before he resumed the conversation.
"Of course I'll want to come back for the wedding if you send me an invitation. I think a good deal of the prince consort, you know. He's one man from the ground up."
"He's the only man I know that's good enough for you. The more I see of him the better I like him. He's sure the gamest ever, a straight-up man if ever there was one."
"I'm glad of that." She flashed a little sidelong look at him and laughed tremulously. "It's good of you to pick me a husband you can endorse so heartily. Would you mind telling me his name—if it isn't a secret?"
"You know mighty well, but I reckon all girls play the game of making believe it isn't so for a while. All right. You don't have to admit it till the right time. But you'll send me a card, won't you?"
Her eyes, shyly daring, derided him. "That's no fair, Mr. Gordon. You go out of your way to pick a prince consort for me—a perfect paragon I'm given to understand—and then you expect me to say 'Thank you kindly, sir,' without even being told his name."
He smiled. "Oh, well, you can laugh at me all you like."
"But I'm not laughing at you," she corrected, her eyes dancing. "I'm trying to find out who this Admirable Crichton is. Surely I'm within my rights. This isn't Turkey, you know. Perhaps I mayn't like him. Or, more important still, he may not like me."
"Go right ahead with your fun. Don't mind me."
"I don't believe you've got a prince consort for me at all. If you had you wouldn't dodge around like this."
At that instant he caught sight by chance of her ungloved left hand. Again he observed that the solitaire was missing. His eyes flashed to hers. A sudden hope was born in his heart. He drew the horse to a halt.
"Are you telling me that——? What about Don Manuel?" he demanded.
Now that the crisis was upon her, she would have evaded it if she could. Her long lashes fluttered to the hot cheeks.
"He is my cousin and my friend—the best friend I have," she answered in a low voice.
"No more than that?"
"No more." She lifted her eyes and tried to meet his boldly. "And now I really think you've been impudent enough, don't you?"
He imprisoned her hands in his. "If it isn't Don Manuel who is it?"
She knew her eyes had failed her, that they had told him too much. An agony of shyness drenched her from head to foot, but there was no escape from his masterful insistence.
"Will you let me go ... please?"
"No—not till you tell me that you love me, Valencia, not till you've made me the happiest man alive."
He plunged forward, an insurgent hope shaking his imperturbability.
"Is it yes, dear? Don't keep me waiting. Do I win or lose, Valencia?"
Bravely her eyes lifted to his. "I love you with all my heart and soul. I always have from the first. I always shall as long as life lasts," she murmured.
Swept away by the abandon of her adorable confession, he caught her in his arms and drew her to him. Close as breathing he held her, her heart beating against his like a fluttering bird. A delicious faintness overcame her. She lay in his embrace, wonderfully content.
The dewy eyes lifted again to his. Of their own volition almost their lips met for the first kiss.