"How far is it?" asked Mrs. Conrad.
"Oh, twenty miles, maybe. It cuts off a good deal."
"You shan't walk twenty miles on a rough trail, my dear man, if I can prevent it," said Clara, firmly. "You and Polly must ride, and I'll stay here with Henry. Now, please! I'm at home in this country and I'm not afraid." There was a pause, then Scott said:
"I guess she's right, Hard. They don't either of 'em ride well enough to tackle a strange trail alone, and if I walk it will delay sending back for you. One of us had better ride the trail with Polly, while the other stays at Soria's with Mrs. Conrad."
After a little more discussion it was decided that Scott and Polly should go, while the other two returned, after Hard had rested a bit, to the Soria place. Scott moved the suitcases which Clara had brought over to the little nook made by the cottonwoods, where they could be left until someone came with the Athens wagon, and helped Hard to hobble over there. Then, feeling rather as though they had deserted their friends, and yet not knowing what else to do, Scott and Polly rode away.
In after years, Scott was wont to say that he distrusted the trail recommended by Gomez from the moment his horse started to travel it.
"It was one of those trails that didn't look right—from the first," he would say with a reminiscent inflection. As a matter of fact, however, the trail looked innocent enough at the first glance, and Scott's pessimism may be laid partly to the circumstances under which the trip was attempted and partly to the fact that Scott almost always hated to change his mind.
"How long will it be, do you suppose, before you can send back for the others?" queried Polly, as they rode away.
"Well, we ought to make Athens to-night," replied Scott, thoughtfully. "Tom could start back with our wagon early in the morning. Cochise and this fellow I'm riding, Jasper, could make it."
"They'll have to stay at the Sorias' all night. They'll be very uncomfortable."
"Oh, I don't know. They're neither of them tenderfeet. They'll get along."
"It'll be very romantic, of course, and very exciting," sighed Polly.
"Well, people have a way of making love to widows," said Polly, wistfully. "And anybody with half an eye can see that he likes her."
"Shucks! Hard's a gentleman; he won't think he has to be rude to a woman just because he's left alone with her overnight."
"It isn't being rude to ask a woman to marry you if you happen to like her, is it?" demanded Polly, with spirit.
"It is, under some circumstances," replied Scott, shortly. "You're pretty romantic, aren't you, for a grown-up girl?"
"I? Not at all." Polly flushed, indignantly. "But I'm interested when I see two people that I like falling nicely in love with each other."
"She's not in love with him or she'd have married him when she had the chance," said Scott, authoritatively. "She's an ambitious woman; what does she want of a man buried in a coal mine?"
"She may have changed. That was a long time ago," ventured the girl. "And if she cares for him, she might forget her ambition. Women do, sometimes."
"Yes, in books they do," replied Scott, moodily. "But I never saw a woman in her class give up anything she really wanted just to marry a poor man. If she did, she'd probably make him miserable afterward, when she was sorry she'd done it."
They rode a while in silence. Polly was hurt and angry. It occurred to her that Scott's objection to her romantic imaginings was based on something deeper than just his usual argumentativeness. Perhaps her imagination had misled her in regard to what had been in his eyes the night before. Or rather, not her imagination, but her vanity. It was a disagreeable thought for one who had promised herself to have done forever with that unpleasant trait. Also, down underneath, there was a hurt that had nothing to do with vanity.
Scott rode silently, occupied with his thoughts. He glanced now and then, however, at the slender figure of the girl who rode beside him. She was very pleasing to look upon, with her curly, reddish hair, big dark eyes, delicate features, and smooth tanned skin. Her white hat was pulled down to shade her eyes; her brown coat, trousers and boots wore a jaunty appearance; but it was not altogether of appearances that Scott was thinking.
It is possible with some of us to view the outward and the inward at the same time and to render quite unrelated verdicts. Scott had been conscious of doing this before with Polly Street, but of late somehow the verdicts had begun to agree. He was finding the inward Polly quite as attractive as the outward. Had she changed or had he learned to look deeper, he wondered? He had thought her spoiled and superficial, yet possessing undoubtedly worth-while qualities, such as pluck and honesty—things you cannot be deceived in.
Now he was finding another side to the girl; a something very sweet and lovable. Was he being led away by the eye of man which is troubled by many things, or was the better side of the girl coming to the surface under different conditions? Was she beginning to care a little for him or was she playing with him as she probably had done with the Henderson boy? Scott set his teeth grimly.
There are after all two great classes into which humanity may be divided; those who are living purposefully, in the higher sense of the word, and those who are drifting. The purposeful people may and often do go wrong, but they have at least something to come back to when they right themselves. The drifters, on the other hand, are not only without help for themselves, but have a dreadful way of clutching at the purposeful ones and submerging them as well. The average man or woman who belongs to the former class has rather a horror of the drifter and likes to give him a wide berth. Something of this nature had passed through Scott's head more than once when he had been attracted by a woman whose outer and inner trappings did not correspond.
It was so easy, however, to like this auburn-headed youngster, who seemed to have gotten over her anger against him and to be beginning to like him. She had such a warm, quick smile; such a caressing look in those serious eyes. She was so natural and easy with him; turned to him so quickly for his approval of what she said or did and took his uncouth criticism so sweetly. It was flattering—yes, that was just the point. Was she sincere, or was she planning to add him to the list of her victims? She would not do that. He was no boy, to be petted and thrown aside.
About this time, they came upon the trail. The little river had followed the road for about a mile and a half, when across on its other bank Scott saw a deep rut leading out of it and continuing in a narrow line or trail so faint as to be easily overlooked. It wound along, lost itself in some chaparral and doubtless became clear again beyond. The chaparral being on a little rise, one could not see beyond it.
"There we are," he called to the girl, who had fallen a little behind. "Wait a bit till I find a place to get down the bank on this side."
Polly waited. Scott rode up and down the bank; finally he stopped.
"We'll have to cross here," he called. "It's steep but it's all right. Follow me," and both he and his horse disappeared in the river bed. Polly rode up and took a look at the descent.
"I won't go so far as to say that he picked a nasty one because he's out of temper, but it looks like it," she grumbled. "Go on, pony, if he can do it I suppose we can."
The pony put her two forefeet over the edge of the descent and clung to solidity and sanity with her hind two.
"I don't blame you. It's what I'd do if I had four legs and some fool tried to make me slide down a precipice. But we've got to go. That man's got a jaw like Napoleon and there's no use arguing with him."
She looked down. Scott had reached the bottom and was smiling back at her. One had to admit that he had the sort of smile which warmed up the atmosphere.
"Want me to come and lead her?" he offered.
"I do not." Polly gave her mount a little dig with her heel, the tension on the hind legs relaxed, a series of slides and jolts and the descent was made. She found herself in the river with Scott while the horses drank thirstily.
"It was the only place to come down," he said, penitently.
"Well, I wasn't scared, it was the horse," replied Polly, briefly. "You needn't think that every time we hang back it's my fault."
"I've known times when it was a sign of good sense to be scared," retorted Scott, as he turned his horse's nose toward the upward climb.
"That man can use up more good gray matter trying to dodge paying one a compliment than most men use in thinking up one," decided Polly.
The way through the chaparral was trying. The trail was very faint, the stiff brush hit one in the face and almost tore one's clothing. It was necessary for Scott to go first in order to keep the trail, while the girl fell considerably into the rear to escape the blows from the brush which flew back after he had disturbed it. On either side of them, above the brush, rose walls formed by foothills, growing higher as they went. They were evidently going directly into the mountains.
"Of course, we crossed two ranges when we came from Athens to Casa Grande," reasoned Polly, "and we've got to cross them again going back. But this doesn't look as though we were going through any gaps as we did on the other trail. We're evidently going straight up. It's going to be hard on the horses."
It was hard on the horses. It was getting on in the afternoon and the sun was still very hot. They had seen no water since leaving the little river. The trail had come out of the brush and become a narrow—a very narrow ledge on the side of the mountain, while on the other side one looked down into a ravine deep enough to make one's head swim if one looked too long. Scott ploughed along ahead, looking back whenever the trail showed a nasty place, ready to jump off and go to the girl's rescue if necessary.
"She's a plucky one all right," he said to himself. "This is no trail for a tenderfoot. I hope we don't run into anything worse before we get through. How are you coming?" he called back.
They had come to a turn in the trail. Huge boulders poised on the edge of the narrow ledge with that utter disregard for gravity displayed now and then by rocks which look big enough to know better. Scott had dismounted and stood looking into the ravine which had widened into a valley. In front of him, on the narrow turn, it seemed but a step to the tree-tops of the valley below. Further ahead, lay the next range of mountains, higher than the ones through which they were passing. Back of them, the winding trail seemed to flutter like a brown ribbon. Polly hopped down and joined him. Together they drank in the scene.
"It's too lovely. It hurts," said the girl, with wet eyes.
"Isn't it? I didn't know myself that there was anything around here like this."
"It's worth being raided for," replied Polly. "Let's stay here a while and keep on looking."
Scott smiled. "Will it spoil it for you if I eat a sandwich?" he said.
"Not if there's one for me, too," laughed the girl. "But I thought you left all the lunch with the others."
"Not all. I'm too good a woodsman to go on a strange trail with nothing to eat in my saddle-bag. Luckily I didn't have to leave them the canteen." They ate the sandwiches—saving a portion for dinner in case they were late reaching Athens—and washed them down with warm water from the canteen.
"Let's look around the corner before we mount again," suggested the girl. "I like to know what's ahead of me."
"Around the corner" was a slope down into the ravine, more gradual than before and green with stunted grass and mesquite. Here and there a cactus rose gauntly, some in the tall Spanish bayonet with its lovely bloom, and some in the low, dagger-like plant close to the ground. Above them, on the right side rose the rocky wall of the mountain, not altogether sheer in its ascent, but curving in and then out at the top, the upper ridge forming a shelf. Mesquite grew seemingly out of the solid rock.
"Oh, look," exclaimed the girl. "There's almost a little cave up there under that shelf! It could be a rustler's cave if there were any rustlers around."
"There are more rustlers than there are things to rustle," remarked her companion.
Standing on the narrow trail, they looked over and down into the valley. It was lonely to look at; not a house, not a living creature, and yet so very beautiful—with a warmth of color and sunshine. Polly did not speak. Her eyes were fixed on the scene below. She did not see the look on Scott's face as he stood beside her, gazing not at the valley but at the purity of her face so near his shoulder.
It was very still. Suddenly a bird flew from one of the bushes, flew across the rock in front of their faces. Polly, her thought broken, turned quickly and surprised the hungry look in Scott's eyes. Her face flushed and neither spoke. Then, impulsively, he took her in his arms and kissed her passionately, Polly, sobbing, clinging to him in a silence full of meaning. As suddenly Scott put her away from him, holding her and looking into her eyes.
"Do you mean it?" he demanded almost angrily. "You're not playing with me?"
Polly did not answer. She looked up into his eyes, her own still wet. He took her in his arms again.
"I don't see why!" he said, softly. "There's nothing about me for you to fall in love with. Are you sure?"
"Very sure," she lifted her head. "I was sure last night, when you nearly told me—before those Indians came. Why didn't you want to tell me?"
"Because I knew I'd no business to," replied Scott, roughly. "I've no business to, now, but I'm human and when you stood there with the sun on your hair, and that look on your face, I fell."
"I'll stand that way again," smiled Polly, "if you'll stop scowling and say nice things to me. It isn't a criminal offense, Marc Scott, for an unmarried man to fall in love with me. Don't feel so badly about it."
"It may not be criminal, but it's not square," replied Scott, obstinately. "With you a rich man's daughter, and——"
"But not an heiress, remember! That makes a difference," she said, coaxingly.
"Perhaps—anyhow, I'm glad you're not rich," said Scott, soberly. "I think I'd fight with a rich wife."
"My dear Marc, you and I would fight, no matter who had the money. We're the scrappy kind. But, on the other hand, we'll always make up again, and that's what counts. That's what Joyce Henderson and I couldn't do. We went for months and months without a quarrel, but when we once had one we couldn't get over it."
"You're sure you've forgotten about that chap?"
"Quite. He doesn't exist."
Again they were silent, the sun picking out radiant bits of Polly's hair to light upon as she stood leaning against Scott's arm, his rough coat rubbing her soft skin.
"It's a nice old world," she said, drawing a long breath.
"It's good enough for me," he answered as he leaned over and kissed her.
"Do you know, I've been wondering for a week whether it was me or Mrs. Van Zandt that you were in love with?" said Polly, with one of her sudden smiles.
"Me? Care for——" Scott's voice died away in surprise.
"You behaved as though you did. You are always so gentle and pleasant with her."
"I'm gentle and pleasant with everybody," declared Scott, stoutly. "I have that kind of disposition."
"I think you'd better go and get the horses," suggested Polly. "I'd rather not begin disagreeing with you just yet."
Scott, chuckling, went back after the horses. Polly, left alone, sat down on a stone and gave a little sigh of contentment.
"To think," she said, incredulously, "that once I thought I was in love with Joyce Henderson!"
"Polly!" Scott's voice was sharp. He came around the turn on a trot. "Those cussed horses have cleared out and left us high and dry. I've got to go after them."
"But—I thought horses always went home when they ran off!"
"I think they've gone down into the canyon—there may be water down there. Will you sit here while I go after them?"
"I suppose so," forlornly. "You won't stay long?"
"Be back in half an hour." Scott disappeared down the trail. Polly watched him a moment or two and then returned to her resting place. Something of the happiness was gone from her eyes. The accident was ill-timed. It brought a feeling of foreboding most disagreeable in its contrast with her former exaltation. She jumped to her feet determined to do something to take her mind off the ugly thought.
"I'll climb up and see if that really is a cave up there," she thought. Fired by this ambition, she started to work her way up the cliff; no easy task and ruinous to riding boots of soft leather. By the time she had discovered this last fact she had covered about one-third of the distance and was crouching beside a protruding rock to get her breath. "It's rather foolish to tear up a perfectly good pair of riding boots just at the psychological moment when leather is villainously high and I'm on the verge of marrying a poor man. I guess I'll give up the cave."
If the view had been remarkable from the trail, it was marvelous from the little eminence which she had reached. She looked and looked, her eyes full of wonder. Away in the distance, a tiny stream fluttered its way over the brown side of the mountain, which the sun seemed to polish until it shone; while on the shadowed side, the pines took on a dark, heavy green, both sombre and beautiful. Below her, on the trail—but what was that? Coming over the top of a hilly rise, a little way below, was a man on a horse—then a second and a third, and finally a line of riders, so long a line that it suggested a regiment!
Polly's mind worked quickly. There was but one explanation; Angel Gonzales was in the neighborhood, was on his way to rendezvous with Juan Pachuca, and without doubt this was Angel Gonzales, and these were his men. What should she do? They were coming very rapidly, and whatever was done would have to be done instantly. Her first thought was for Scott. He would be taken unaware. If she could only get to him—warn him—so that he could hide in the brush till the men had passed! Breathlessly, she began to climb down the cliff. She was badly frightened, her nerve was shaken and her strength seemed to be leaving her. She found herself slipping and sliding on the rock.
Another look at the riders showed them very near—so near that her courage failed her. In a panic she began to climb again. She must reach the little cave before they saw her. She could not fall into the hands of Angel Gonzales. She caught her breath in little sobs, her heart seemed about to burst, every foot gained meant a desperate effort. She clutched at the tufts of mesquite that grew out of the rock and thanked Providence that her brown suit was so nearly the color of the cliff. Gasping and sobbing, she finally sank behind the mesquite bush which covered the cave.
It was not really a cave, she discovered, but merely a crevice in the cliff, made into a little shelf by the rock which protruded above it, while the bush growing thickly in front of it gave it the look of a cave. It was, however, a shelter, and Polly crouched in it thankfully, breathing with difficulty and keeping one eye on the line of men filing along below her. They were a hard looking lot, clad in all sorts of clothes from uniforms to overalls. They seemed to her inexperienced eye innumerable; they were, perhaps, seventy-five or a hundred.
"And poor—like an army of tramps," she thought. "Very desperate tramps—oh, why didn't I keep on and try to warn Marc?"
She could not understand her panic, now that her own danger was over and the men had passed. Marc Scott had called her a brave girl, and she had saved her own skin and let him walk into the trap. She sobbed bitterly. If there was only anything that she could do! To sit there in that awful silence was more than she could bear. She could no longer see the riders, who had turned the curve and were out of sight and sound. Far off in the distance two buzzards circled about over something that was dead or dying. Perhaps it was a man—at the thought the girl rose unsteadily to her feet. She could not stay alone another moment in this horrible place; she would go and find Scott, if she had to brave Angel Gonzales to do it. With a recklessness born of desperation she slid and scuffled down the side of the cliff and ran blindly down the trail.
Scott, starting breezily down the trail after the recreant horses, whistled a tune as he went, for he was happy. He did not weigh reason against happiness—it was too soon for that. He would have given you, however, if pressed, a number of very good reasons why he and Polly Street were going to be happy together, in spite of their different upbringing, and his own not very lucid reasons for not having wanted to marry her.
Just at present he was occupied with the idea of the horses. He felt that they would not be apt to go back on the trail unless it was to look for water, and water they might find at the bottom of the ravine though the underbrush was too dense for him to see it. He could follow their trail very easily in the sandy path but he walked a quarter of a mile before he found the place where they had struck out of the trail for the bottom of the ravine.
Very cautiously he started down, for the going was decidedly bad and he had no wish to risk a fall. He trailed the prints, marveling at the sure-footedness of the animal which can follow so hazardous a path.
"I wouldn't dare put a horse down a trail like this," he mused with a grin, "and yet the rascals will go down by themselves as smooth as silk. Hullo, I guessed right! There is water down here. There's old Jasper filling up on it, and the mare, too. Well, I guess we don't walk home this trip." And just as Polly, some hundreds of feet above him was trying madly to reach the cave, Scott, quite oblivious of impending danger, started on his difficult climb, leading the two horses.
"Serve you darn well right, you fellows, if I was to make you haul me," he said, as Jasper's soft nose rubbed against his shoulder. "I would, too, if I didn't think you'd slide down and break my neck just when my girl needs me. Come on, you grafters, shake a leg, will you?"
It was a bad climb. The perspiration rolled off Scott's face and the veins stood out upon his forehead. Gasping for breath, he dug his toes into the soft earth and plugged ahead, pulling the reluctant animals after him. He had nearly gained the top, was within twenty feet, perhaps, of the end of the climb, when Jasper began to pull back. They were breaking through some brush, Scott being nearly through when Jasper began pulling. Scott gave the bridle an irritated jerk and spoke sharply to the horse. As he did so, he looked up and saw Angel Gonzales and his band coming down the trail. For a second, Scott lost his wits. He took a quick step forward, giving the bridle another jerk as he did so. Jasper, naturally aggrieved, pulled back again, and Scott, standing on a loose bit of rock, slipped, tried to right himself, slipped again, overbalanced, fell and rolled down—over boulders, through brush, falling ever faster as he tried to regain a foothold.
Both bridles had been wrenched from his hand as he fell and the horses, half scared, half inquisitive, followed him a few steps and then returned to the munching of grass, behind the clump of brush.
Angel Gonzales, a large, brutal-looking man, his face covered with a black beard, his clothes bearing the mark of many a scuffle, swung down the trail in the lead, his particular crony, one Porfirio Cortes, riding immediately after him. A little distance intervened between Cortes and the other members of the party. Even in bandit circles the line is drawn somewhere, and in Angel's band it was drawn immediately after Porfirio Cortes.
Angel rode, one leg thrown over his pommel, which enabled him to chat comfortably with Cortes. They were talking of Juan Pachuca.
"A slippery one, that," Cortes had remarked, keenly. "I don't believe he means to throw in his lot with us. When I see him do it, I will believe—not before."
"Why not? I have more men than he has. He needs men. All he has is this understanding that he brags of with the new government."
"Lies, amigo, lies! His record with Carranza is against him."
"Well, all men lie," replied Angel, tersely, and with probably no intention of plagiarism. "Anyhow, we can do some good fighting together. There will be some fine pickings when we get the old man out of Mexico City. Think of the money, the fine clothes, the women!"
"Yes, I think of them," replied Cortes, meditatively. "But I think also of Obregon. I hate that man. He hung a cousin of mine, once, for less than what you and I did to those Yaquis. Also, he has persecuted Villa."
"Well, so will I persecute Villa if I ever get a chance," replied Angel, cheerfully. "The fat thief! Think of the gold he has hidden in these mountains! Hold—what is that? Down in the canyon? Horses! Is it troops, do you think?"
"Troops—in a hole like that? It might be those Indians—an ambush!"
"It would be like the devils. I don't see them now."
"You saw Soria's burro, most likely. Your nerves are bad, as the gringos say." Both men grinned and rode on. Suddenly, they heard a crashing sound of scattering stones that rose even above the noise made by their horses. Angel threw up his head in alarm, very much as a horse does when he scents danger. "It is the Indians," he said to Porfirio. "We must not be attacked in this narrow place. Forward! Ride! The Yaquis are upon us!" he cried, driving the spurs into his horse. He was followed by Cortes, who in turn was followed by the others. The entire band gave a vivid moving picture of a reckless run down a narrow trail, by a hundred men, any one of whom would have considered it utter madness had he been alone.
Marc Scott, stopped by a mesquite bush near the bottom of the canyon, lay for a few moments where he had fallen, literally too shaken to move. When he realized what had happened to him, he crawled to his feet and listened. All was still. The sounds from above had ceased, and a cloud of dust hovering over the trail was the only evidence that he had not imagined the passing of a crowd of men.
"By golly, I believe they didn't hear me after all!" he gasped. Then the thought came to him of Polly—alone on the trail above him. A sickening fear shook him; how could she possibly have escaped those men? In a blind fury he started to climb the ravine. It had been hard going before—now, in spite of his body, stiff and shaken, he did not feel the effort. His face was purple with heat and exertion, his hands were bloody with the cactus he had clutched when falling, but his terror for the girl dwarfed all physical discomfort. Panting and choking, he forged ahead. If he could only reach Jasper he would follow that cloud of dust until he knew what had happened to the woman he loved.
Jasper and the mare, uninfluenced by motives either of fear or anger, still grazed by the clump of brush and allowed the almost exhausted Scott to lead them back to the trail. He mounted Jasper, and turned the mare loose. He started down the trail after the vanished band at a pace quite as reckless as their own.
"Marc! Marc Scott!" Polly's voice rose desperately as she saw him disappearing down the trail. "Come back here!"
Scott turned, bewildered, to see Polly running wildly toward him. She flung herself upon him and upon Jasper before he could dismount, pouring out the story of the men who had gone down the trail.
"And the worst of it was," she wept, stormily, "that I didn't even try to warn you. I just made for that cave and hid myself. That's the sort of a girl I am."
"Did you, honey? Do you know, that strikes me as mighty sensible? I don't hold much with girls saving men's lives outside the movies, where they're well paid for it. It strikes me life-saving is a man-sized job."
"But you're all scratched! What in the world——"
"I had to roll down the hill to dodge 'em," chuckled Scott, as he caught the mare and helped the girl to mount her. "I'll tell you about it after a while; just now I think we'd better be on our way."
They rode on in silence, back over the trail and around the curve past the imitation cave which had sheltered Polly. Scott eyed the horses with inward pessimism.
"They're never going to make it," he thought. "They're about all in now. Wish I knew whether to camp out and go on in the morning or to keep on pushing. If I was alone I'd bed down for the night but I hate to ask her to spend a night in the open unless I have to. Well, we'll go on a while."
They rode on, the tired horses going more and more slowly and responding less and less readily to urging. The trail did not go all the way down into the canyon, but met a rocky ledge which crossed it like a natural bridge. It was narrow and it was slippery with loose stones, but the girl took it silently. She was too tired and hungry to be afraid. The two sandwiches seemed things belonging to another life. She tried to smile when Scott looked back at her but it was hard work.
They came off the ledge onto the side of a hill which formed a part of the second range of mountains. The spot, green as a deer park, was directly on the side of the hill, about half-way up. Around it were trees—pines and live oaks. The trail seemed to have disappeared altogether. Scott had dismounted and was waiting for the girl to come up.
"What's the matter?" she demanded, anxiously.
He dropped his horse's bridle and came to her side. "I've a question for you, best girl," he said, his hand on the pommel of her saddle, "These horses are hardly fit to climb this next range. They might do it and make the rest of the trip to-day if we urged them but it ain't a square deal. Then, too, it would be dark before we got there.
"This is a place where we could stay. There's pasture for the horses and I think that little stream that I found down in the canyon starts from up here somewhere. If we go on we may make it and again we may get tangled up in the mountains after dark, which I don't fancy. I'm no forest ranger, you know. Shall we stay here till three or four o'clock in the morning or shall we plug ahead? It's up to you."
Polly turned an appalled face toward him. "But, Marc, you don't mean to stay here—in this place—all night?" she said, faintly.
"Well, it won't be exactly all night. It's nearly five o'clock now and we could start at daybreak."
"But—why, we haven't anything to stop with! No tent and no blankets and nothing to eat! It would be rather dreadful, wouldn't it?"
"Well, not dreadful, exactly. We've the blankets under our saddles, and you have your long cloak. I'll build you a fire. Of course there's nothing to eat except the rest of the sandwiches."
"Well, perhaps—it would be pretty bad to get lost up here after dark. There might be mountain lions or mad skunks. They do have mad skunks out here, don't they?"
Scott chuckled. "Search me, honey, all the skunks I ever met were mad. Come on down and we'll have a look at the country."
"Marc," Polly looked down at him, her eyes soft, "I'm wondering what I would have done if those bandits had gobbled you."
"I don't let bandits gobble me when I'm escorting ladies," replied Scott. Then meeting her eyes, the twinkle faded out of his. "You'd better say what would I have done if you hadn't hidden in that cave." His head rested for a moment against her knee.
"I don't know. Seems as though things were being managed for us, doesn't it?"
"I hope so."
He lifted her to her feet and she looked around her curiously.
"It's a pretty place," she pronounced. "I hope you're right about the water. I saw a little stream way up in the mountains when I climbed to the cave."
"I'm going to let Jasper find it for me," replied Scott. He had the saddles off the tired horses in a few seconds and they lay down and rolled happily, drying their sweaty backs in the dust. When they got to their feet again, he took the two long ropes from the saddles and fastened them around the horses' necks.
"Are you going to tie them up?" demanded the girl.
"Not now. Going to let them drag the ropes around. I can catch 'em easy that way. Guess they're too tired to go far."
The horses had smelled the water and made for it. It ran in a trickling little stream down the hillside about a dozen feet away, hidden by some brush. Once refreshed, they were easily led back and began to feed on the coarse grass. Scott shook out the blankets.
"They're a bit horsey," he admitted, "but they'll keep you warm. I put them under the saddles instead of the regular saddle blankets because I've been caught out this way before. A man learns things in this country." He handed Polly her long coat and she slipped into it. "This isn't exactly the time of year I'd pick for a camping trip," he added, "but we'll do, I reckon. Do you want to eat the sandwiches now, or do you prefer dinner at six?"
Polly eyed the two big sandwiches with a serious eye. "Let's look at them a while first," she said, hungrily. "Isn't there any way of getting anything else? Can't you shoot something?"
"I don't see anything but you and me and the horses. What's the matter?" For the girl had given a shriek of joy.
"In my coat pocket! A cake of chocolate that Mrs. Van put there—and the sugar. I always bring it for the horses. We'll keep the chocolate for breakfast, shall we?"
They ate the sandwiches and topped off with the sugar. "Which," said Polly, seriously, "is very strengthening. I've heard that they feed it to the Japanese army."
"Yes, I've heard that, too," assented Scott, "but I reckon that's not all they feed 'em."
"Well, it's not all you've been fed, either, so don't grumble," said the lady, practically.
"I think," said Scott, rising, "that before it grows dark I'll investigate this trail a bit. It looks sort of blind to me. If we have to start by moonlight it'll be just as well to have some notion of where to begin."
Polly leaned back against a tree and watched him lazily. He looked very strong and capable. She recalled Joyce Henderson's graceful proportions and smiled. She had had to come a long way to find the man she wanted but she was well content. It was odd, she reflected, that she and Joyce Henderson, who had known each other all their lives, were like strangers once they attempted the more intimate relation; while for this man whom she had known but a few weeks she felt a sense of familiarity, of belongingness, that she could scarcely believe. She was trusting him now in a way that she had never imagined herself trusting any man and yet she felt at ease.
Scott, returning, threw himself down beside her. "I've found the trail," he said, "but we've got some traveling ahead of us. Don't look to me as if anybody'd been over it since Gomez was."
"Didn't those men come this way?"
"No. They must have hit the trail lower down—from some place we've missed. I'll swear no crowd like that have been where I've just been."
The girl looked at him gravely. "Do you think we ought to go back?"
"Back? No, I don't. Those folks are waiting for us at Soria's and I want to get Tom started for them as soon as I can."
"I wonder if those men will make any trouble at Soria's?"
"I don't believe so. If it was Angel Gonzales, he's heading for your gentleman friend's place and he'll be in a hurry."
"Why do you go on calling him my gentleman friend?"
"Well, you think he's some kind of a guy, don't you?" demanded Scott, with a grin. "Pretty manners, soft voice, nice long eyelashes—all that kind of thing?"
"Yes, I do," replied Polly, stoutly. "I like Juan Pachuca and I believe he's been led away by bad company. I believe what he told me about that treasure, too. I only wish I'd made him tell me the name of the border town where it was."
"Women are queer," remarked Scott, with more truth than originality. "Well, Polly Street, I think I'll gather the wood for your fire."
Together they gathered the loose twigs and branches—they were not many, but eked out with pine cones would make a fire for a few hours, and Scott made Polly's bed close by it. He put his rubber poncho on the ground and made the girl wrap herself in both blankets.
"I've got a heavy sweater under my coat," he said, "and I'll have to keep moving a good deal to look after the horses and keep the fire going." And he refused to take a blanket, much to Polly's dismay. "Curl up and be comfortable, girlie, and relax. It don't matter if you don't sleep if you can relax."
Polly tried to comply, but she was too much interested in what was going on around her to give up either to sleep or to relaxation. The crackling of the fire and its wonderful odor, the little hushing noises of the birds going to rest, the gentle coming up of the moon and the myriads of stars, all were too fascinating to risk missing in sleep. Scott had gone after the horses and had tethered each by a long rope in a place where feeding could be attended to, and had come back to the fire and thrown on some more wood. He sat smoking with his feet nearly in the fire and his face lit by its glow.
"I suppose you've spent lots of glorious nights in the open?" asked Polly, wistfully.
"A good many. Some of them not so glorious, either. One night up in New Mexico——" he paused to light another cigarette.
"Go on," demanded the girl. "When you say 'one night up in New Mexico' I feel just as I used to when my father used to say 'once upon a time.'"
"Well, I don't know why I happened to think of this special night," grinned Scott, "except that on most of my out-of-door nights I've been by myself—out hunting and that kind of thing—and this one I had somebody with me. It was when I was mining in Colorado, and some fellows I knew had a big cattle ranch down in New Mexico. It was a real ranch—not a two for a cent one like Herrick's. I went down to visit them at round-up time. I'd never seen a round-up before so I was hanging around every chance I got.
"They had a lot of cattle—some of them pretty wild—and it wasn't easy to keep 'em together especially at night. Well, one day Jim Masters got a fall from his horse and a kick on the head from another when he was down, and he was in a pretty bad state—it looked to us like concussion of the brain but we didn't know. We carried him into a tent we'd put up about a quarter of a mile from where the cattle were, and one of the boys rode to town for a doctor.
"We were up on a mesa, like the one we crossed yesterday, remember? We had outlaw cattle in the bunch and it took all the boys to handle them. I, being a tenderfoot and not much use with the cattle, said I'd sit with Jim and sort of watch him till the doctor came. He was out of his head so 'twasn't any comfort to him but it made the boys feel better."
"I'll bet it was a comfort to him, Marc Scott! You are the sort of person it would be a comfort to have around if one was out of one's head," said Polly, emphatically.
"Thank you, honey; I'm afraid you're jollying me. Anyhow, I stayed with Jim and while he lay there groaning I sat in the doorway of the tent and smoked—wasn't anything I could do for the poor boy. Man, that was a night! The mesa just like a big green table spread under the sky—what is it that lunger poet said—'under the wide and starry sky'? Well, that's how she looked. Mountains all around, moon blazing away showing up the cattle at the other end of the mesa, not a sound except the river, one of those busy little rivers that keep it up night and day. If I'd known something of cattle I wouldn't have thought that stillness was so pretty, but I didn't. I hadn't even noticed that the cows had stopped bellowing—it seemed like a night that ought to be still.
"When, all of a sudden, I saw a movement in that bunch of cattle. It was a stampede. That's what they're cooking up, you know, when they're still like that. Before I'd realized what had happened they began to bolt—and in our direction. It was just exactly as if one of those old bulls had said to the crowd: 'There's a couple of stiffs in a tent down by the river, boys, let's rush 'em.'
"They came down that mesa like all heck let loose. The electricity in their hides had made a sort of blue haze—phosphorescent, they call it—and it gave 'em an awful look. Of course, the boys hadn't let them start a stampede without doing anything to stop 'em. They were riding round 'em, yelling and shooting into the air, but on they came.
"Well, it was no place for me and Jim. It began to look to me as if that doctor was going to have his trip for nothing, but what could I do? I couldn't go off and leave Jim, and when I tried to pick him up he fought me so I had to drop him. 'Twouldn't have done much good anyhow because there was no place to go. So I said to myself: 'Sit tight, old man, and if you can't die game, die as game as you can.'
"On they came like a lot of mad things. Then, all at once, when I'd about given up hope, the boys got 'em to milling. You know how they do that? Get 'em started to going round and round instead of straight ahead and the fools will go till they drop in their tracks. When I saw 'em doing that I knew that Jim and I weren't slated for Heaven that night so I sat still and enjoyed the sight.
"It was one wild sight. You can read about stampedes till your head aches but you've got to see one to know how she feels."
"What an interesting life you've had, Marc, and all I've done was to drive a Red Cross ambulance around Chicago and win a few golf trophies," murmured Polly, sleepily.
"Well, that depends. Perhaps it's been interesting, but it ain't been easy."
They sat in silence for a while and then Scott saw that the girl had fallen asleep. He smiled as he put more wood on the fire.
"Funny that she and I should find each other out of all the world," he meditated. "Just one nice girl and one no-account chap drawn toward each other. Some folks call it Fate. I didn't mean to do it and maybe I'm going to wish I hadn't—but just now I'm satisfied."
TOM DOES A MARATHON
That Jimmy Adams survived the operation of probing to which he was subjected by Li Yow was to Tom Johnson evidence of an almost miraculous skill on the part of the Chinese doctor. Tom knew very little of operations. His life had been a normal one and the grisly sight which he was called upon to witness would have altogether unmanned him had it not been for Mrs. Van's timely nip. As it was, he came out of the room extremely depressed.
Depression was a mood which in Tom Johnson usually led to action. In this case his first move was to visit Cochise. It did not brighten his outlook upon life. Cochise was in no state to travel, that was evident. He was tired and stiff and his back showed signs of soreness. Rest was undoubtedly what his case demanded.
"If you was a society dame, your doctor would send you to Miami for a month and say cut out all mental strain," soliloquized the engineer, bathing the back gently. "Being as you're a horse, the best we can do is to turn you out to pasture for a while. Well, I'm no fancy rider, God knows, but nobody can say I ever give a horse a sore back. That blanket was pretty nigh off your tail when he brought you in. Any white man would have stopped and fixed it."
He sauntered back to his cabin and sat down to think. Tom was tall, over six feet, and very thin. His skin was brown and his straight black hair which he wore rather long, not because he liked it, but because he disliked the Conejo barber, gave him rather an Indian look. His clothes hung loosely on him, lending very little to his personal charm, and when he sat he usually sat on his spine, a practice deplored by beauty doctors. When O'Grady came along a few minutes later, he was deep in thought.
"Say, what do you think of this here business over at Casa Grande?" demanded the latter persistently. "Think the Doc's lyin'?"
"Why should he? Besides, he was scared. He most put old Cochise out of commission. He saw something all right."
"Think it was Pachuca?"
"No. Why should Pachuca come back after he'd cleaned 'em out once?"
"Might be. And ag'in it might be the rebels."
"Who is the rebels now? Johnny's bunch?" asked O'Grady.
"Search me. I suppose this here state of Sonora is fighting the rest, but I don't see that they've got any call to burn an Englishman's property. This here Mrs. Conrad's English, too, ain't she?"
"No, she ain't English, she's good plain American, Came from Boston, same as Hard," said O'Grady.
"Well, don't an American woman lose her nationality when she marries a foreigner?" demanded Tom, wisely.
"She'd ought to if she marries an Englishman," replied O'Grady, belligerently. "But don't she get it back if he dies?"
"Hanged if I know! Woman's suffrage has come up since I left home," replied Johnson, placidly. "Anyhow, I'm going to walk to Conejo and see if I can't find out something about Casa Grande."
"Walk? Holy Moses! I'll go with you."
"No, you won't. Somebody's got to stay here and look after Mrs. Van and Jimmy. The Doc can't fight and Williams don't think of anything but the store. You and Miller have got to do the rest."
"Why don't you go to Casa Grande? It's nearer."
"What's the use? What could I do? If I go to Conejo, I can pick up Mendoza and his car and mebbe some fellers to go along and make a posse. Of course, if they're cleaned out—but I'm figurin' that they ain't."
"Sure. You got to do that," replied O'Grady. "When you goin' to start?"
"Soon as I can get Mrs. Van to put me up some chow."
"Well, good luck to you—and the rest of them. I'd sure hate to think of them folks of ours massacred by a bunch of greasers," and O'Grady strolled sadly away.
Mrs. Van Zandt was washing dishes when Johnson stopped in with his request He prefaced it with an inquiry about the invalid.
"Oh, he's doin' all right, I guess. Doc's give him something to make him sleep. I'll say this for the man—he's a good doctor. He means to be a doctor while he's here, too. Nothing doing on the cooking job."
"No, sir! I asked him something just kind of casual about pies and you'd have said he'd never heard of one. Distant as anything! I suppose I can stand it if he cures Jimmy. Where you going?"
"Going to walk to Conejo."
Tom repeated his plan. Mrs. Van wiped her eyes on the dish towel. "You're a good man," she said, simply. "I wish I could go with you."
"I ain't feeling as brisk as I'm letting on about this business, Mrs. Van," continued Tom. "What that Chink saw don't listen good to me."
"Nor to me. When I think of those girls—well, I ain't going to think of them. After all, Tom, there's more ways for folks to get out of trouble than there is for them to get in. I've always noticed that. When I was married, I had a husband who knew more about getting into trouble than any living man, and I used to notice that he always went about it in just the same kind of ways—drink, cards, and women; but when I had to get him out of it—why, Lord, there were a million different ways I had to manage. There are loads of ways for smart folks to dodge trouble and our folks are smart."
Johnson started for Conejo about noon. It was not the hour he would have selected for a long walk in a warm climate, but he had no choice. He did not try to make very rapid progress during the afternoon, his idea being to get in his best work at night; so he rested whenever he struck a shady spot. A stranger coming along and spying Tom stretched under a tree, with his sombrero covering his face, would not have associated him with reckless speed. He ate his supper slowly, thanking Heaven for the invention of the thermos bottle, and then started for the long pull.
It was cool and delightful now and he felt refreshed and invigorated. His bundle was light and he swung along at a good clip. In and out of arroyos, over little bridges, under fragrant branches of pine—the walk was pleasant and the engineer reflected that one sees a good deal from one's feet that one misses from the cab of an engine. Prairie dogs scuttled into their holes as he approached and chipmunks sat on branches and swore at him in sharp little voices. Now and then a far-away but penetrating odor reminded him of another night animal on the prowl.
His wisdom in following the railroad track instead of the road was evident. It was longer but it led through the mountains at the lowest places. Midnight found him nearly out of the mountains, standing, tired but not exhausted, on the edge of a decline, looking over miles of the semi-flat country to a dark spot where one or two lights twinkled faintly and which he knew was Conejo.
"Old Swartz is still on the job," he reflected, as he rolled himself in his blanket and settled down for a nap. He had built a small fire and lay with his feet almost in it. He stared ahead of him over the road which he must travel before he could reach his destination and though his trip was only half made he felt as though he were already there, so encouraging was the sight of Swartz' night light.
"It's a great country for them that can stand the pace," he murmured, sleepily. "I've a notion sometimes to go back to Omaha and get me a wife and settle down out here. Picking a woman these days is a risk, though. Get a young one, so's you can educate her, and ten to one you get an ambitious young brat that wants to spend all your money seein' life. Pick a settled one, a widow woman, say, and you get one that knows more'n you do and that don't make for happiness in married life. Mrs. Van Zandt's a likely woman but she's had one gold brick—'tain't likely she'd want to fall for another. Besides, I can enjoy her cooking and her company without bein' married to her, and there's times I like right well to get clear of her gab," and so he drifted into sleep, snoring comfortably before his fire went out.
It was the middle of the afternoon when Johnson, tall, gaunt and tired, stalked into Swartz' store at Conejo where he found a situation for which he was not prepared. Conejo was under martial law, and from every doorway he saw the interested faces of women and children who stared at the soldiers as they went by or stood talking in groups. The jail had a military guard while the office of the local jefe swarmed with uniforms. Outside stood a motor truck and two large automobiles, quite dwarfing Mendoza's Ford, which, having been requisitioned, also stood near by, its wrathful owner lurking in the distance keeping an eye on his treasure.
In Swartz' store the fat owner was still in his accustomed seat, while the usual loafers still persistently loafed, but there were soldiers everywhere.
"Whew, this is something new for Conejo!" whistled Tom. "I reckon I'd better have a word with Dutch before I horn in. Say, Swartz," he said, pushing a crowd of youngsters out of the way, "got anything to drink? I've just walked in from Athens."
"My Gott, are you mad?" inquired Swartz, pleasantly.
"Not yet, but I'm likely to be if I don't get something down my gullet. Got any beer?"
"Beer?" Swartz' contempt was sweeping. "Look at dem," pointing to the soldiers. "Doos that look like I haf any beer mit dem fellers around?"
"Who are they? Federals or Rebs?"
"De State troops. Don't you know dis here state has—what you call it—seceded?"
"Martial law, eh?"
"Did they grab your stuff or did they pay for it?"
"Oh, dey pays—in paper money," replied the German, sourly.
"Well, you're better off than we are. They took our stuff, shot two of the boys, knifed another, and blew up our track."
"Who done it?"
"Young Pachuca and his crowd. Say, who's the boss of this outfit?"
Swartz opined that Colonel d'Anguerra, who was lodged in the house of the local jefe, was in command.
"Good-natured kind of a guy, is he?" queried Tom, anxiously. "Or one of the kind that orders out the firing squad if his dinner don't set well on him?"
Swartz had seen better natured men than the Colonel, but on the other hand admitted that he had seen worse. "He iss a young man," he said, "and he ain't got so much sense that it bothers him, yet he tries to keep them devils quiet if he can."
"Well, give me a drink of water if you ain't got no beer. I guess I'll look this feller up."
"I got some lemon pop," offered Swartz, hospitably. "Them fellers don't like it; it ain't got poison enough in it for 'em."
Johnson, having drunk the pop, departed for the official residence. It took some time and a good deal of diplomacy to get an audience with the military chief, but it was accomplished at last. D'Anguerra was a youngish man, tall, thin and sallow. He spoke very little English, but his secretary spoke it very well and acted as interpreter, Tom's Spanish being several degrees worse than the Colonel's English. The conversation in two tongues proceeded through the secretary with dispatch and accuracy.
"I understand that you are from an American mining company located at Athens?" the Colonel began.
"I am," replied Tom, a little awed by the other's dignity and the threefold nature of the dialogue.
"You have been raided by bandits, eh?"
"Well, I suppose you'd call it that. Juan Pachuca helped himself to what he wanted and shot two of our boys."
"No, they ain't killed, but one of 'em's likely to lose a leg. He knifed one, but the knife was dull and he ain't hurt much. But that ain't what I come over here about." And Tom went on with Li Yow's story of the Casa Grande raid, the arrival of Scott, Hard and Polly, and the fire. "I dunno and he dunno who done the burnin' or what else has happened over there, but he says they heard Pachuca say somethin' about meeting Angel Gonzales, and I guess you know who he is. I thought mebbe you could let me have a car and a posse and I could go over and see what's been done."
The Colonel and his secretary conversed together for a few moments, Tom listening anxiously but quite unable to get the thread of the talk.
"You see, Colonel," he continued, anxiously, "I dunno if this little revolution of yours is going to turn out the real thing or not; but there's one thing you can be darn sure of if it does, and that is that one of the first letters your new president's going to get in his official mail is going to be a bill of damages from Washington and whatever's happened to our folks is going to be wrote down in it."
Colonel d'Anguerra smiled patiently. "I will tell you, senor, what I know about the affair at Casa Grande. According to this dispatch, a regiment of Sonora troops passed by the ranch on their way south. They saw flames and heard shots. A band of Yaquis who had been driven from their village by one Angel Gonzales were burning and looting. The troops' orders were for haste and they did not stop to find out the extent of the damage but called off the Yaquis. You perhaps know that those Indians are excellent soldiers and that there are many of them in our army."
"You mean to say they didn't go over to see if anything had happened to the women folks?" demanded Tom, aghast.
"Their orders were positive. They could not take the time. To-day we have news that some of our troops have crossed the Sinaloa border. These men who passed Casa Grande were on their way to Hermosillo to guard the capital."
"Well, it does look like you were pulling it off, don't it?" Tom's voice was admiring in spite of himself. "What beats me, senor, is how you manage to pump enough enthusiasm into these fellers to keep them fighting. You've been at it nearly ten years now. In my country we'd either have put it through by that time or given it up as a bad job and pretended we'd never wanted it anyhow."
The Mexican laughed. "My friend," he said, seriously, "people will fight for more than ten years with the hope of liberty and a good government ahead of them. This time we hope to get both."
"Well, I hope you do. It's too good a country to go to the dogs. But about this Juan Pachuca——"
"He is no business of mine," replied the Colonel, briefly. "He was out of favor with the Carranza government and evidently hopes to get into the saddle again through the revolution. Personally, I do not believe he will. General Obregon is not fond of his type. Angel Gonzales is what you call in your country a regular bad lot. I have orders in this dispatch to look into his case. As to the automobile. I can give you an order for the car which you saw outside—the small one. I can't spare any men."
"Mendoza's Ford?" groaned Tom. "I knew I'd draw that. Well, never mind, senor. I'm obliged to you just the same."
The order written, Mendoza was induced to start. "What the devil are those for?" demanded Johnson, as he saw the old Mexican putting three large cans in the car.
"Water," replied Mendoza, tersely. "Las' time I drive him ze radiator he leak. I mend him, but quien sabe? We play safe, eh?"
"My God, yes," murmured Tom. "Come on, amigo, it's near six and this here's no country to be rattlin' round in a damaged Ford after dark."
The little car justified its owner's faith in it, however, for it went along at a good clip. The road from Conejo was fairly good and they made good time. The sun was down and the evening had set when they reached the place where Scott and Polly had taken the trail. Mendoza stopped the car.
"Lots of men been by here," he said. "Soldiers or bandits—mebbe bot'."
"What d'ye mean?" demanded Tom, waking up. "How can you tell?"
"Don' have to be Injun to know dat. See tracks," grunted Mendoza. "Mebbe hundred men come here from trail, amigo."
Tom looked. The banks of the river were broken and trodden by the feet of many horses. Even in the dim light he could see that, though he would never have noticed it for himself. He admitted when Mendoza persisted that it did look as though a large party of horsemen had crossed the river.
"Well, they've passed anyhow, so we should worry. Got a gun?"
"Si," grinned Mendoza, cheerfully, "I always got a gun."
"Hold on, what's this?" They had come around the corner and saw, by the edge of the road, the wrecked wagon. "That's Herrick's wagon," said Tom, excitedly. "In the ditch!" He got down and went to investigate.
"Wheel's busted. Horses must have got scared and bolted round the curve," said the engineer, meditatively. "Nothin' in the wagon. Looks bad to me; don't it to you, Mendoza?"
"Si," responded Mendoza. "We go by Soria's place. He know mebbe what happen."
"All right," assented Tom, sadly. "If they'd got away on the horses seems to me we'd have seen or heard somethin' of them on the road. Unless they went by the trail—in that case them fellers on horseback would have met 'em. Well, step on your gas, Mendoza, and let's get to Soria's."
Soria's place was empty. Not a child, nor a dog, nor a burro. Not a sign of life on the place anywhere. This was a blow and intensified Tom's gloomy fears. He did not speak as they drove on to Casa Grande. The moon was coming up and they saw the badly burned ruins of the barn as they turned in.
"Ze house is lef'," said Mendoza, consolingly.
"Yes, it is," said Tom. "But look at them windows! Riddled with bullets. The boys must have put up a good fight with them Indians, anyhow. Tell you what, Mendoza, I'd give a good deal to see old Scotty's ugly mug in one of 'em! Come on, we may as well go in," and he stepped apprehensively out of the car.
Hard and Mrs. Conrad stared at each other in whimsical dismay as the other couple rode away. Then they looked at the suitcases carefully tucked away in the brush.
"Not much of a hiding place," observed Hard, "but it's better than leaving them in the wagon."
"And decidedly better than carrying them all the way to Soria's," replied Clara. "Safe enough, too. It isn't once in a coon's age that anybody travels around these places. Funny, isn't it, when you think of all the crowded spots there are in the world?"
"It reminds me," said Hard, with a reminiscent chuckle, "of a yarn. I was in New Mexico on a hunting trip with Joe McArthur—you remember the Boston McArthurs who had a ranch near one of the Apache reservations? Well, we rode up to the agency store to ask old Slade, the trader, about an Indian guide.
"We got him and started out the next day. We were riding up among the pines—great tall fellows, a regular park of them; not a living thing in sight except the birds, not a sound except the river. McArthur and I were riding behind Charley, the guide. We'd been arguing rather aimlessly as to whether an Indian had a sense of humor or not; Joe thought they hadn't, while I contended that they had.
"The quiet of the place rather got us. McArthur took a silver dollar from his pocket and said: 'Hard, I believe I could lay this dollar on that stump over there and come back here in a year and find it there.' Old Charley turned around, his wrinkled face twisted into a grin. 'No,' he said, 'no find him nex' year. Mr. Slade he get him nex' morning.'
"Well, Charley got the dollar and McArthur admitted that I had the right of the argument."
"That sounds to me just like a McArthur of Boston," said Clara, severely. "An Indian without a sense of humor! Just because they don't see fit to howl over the fool things a white man howls over, I suppose." She did not speak again for some time, then she burst out tempestuously:
"Henry, why did you begin talking about Boston? Do you know, I've been more lonesome for the dear old place in the last twenty-four hours than ever before? I wonder if seeing you has made me homesick?"
"I hope so," said Hard. "It's time for you to go back to Boston, Clara."
"Perhaps; but I shall come back here. Once this country gets on its feet I can sell for a decent price. There's going to be a rush to Mexico some day when people find that they can come without risking their lives and their money."
"Do you think that time is coming soon?"
"I hope it is. This last move looks hopeful. If Obregon can establish a good government, he will. Of course, our people will have to be patient. At any rate, I'm going to risk it."
"Yes," smiled Hard, "you would feel that way, of course."
"Money getting isn't such an ugly business, Henry, when you risk something. It puts a bit of romance into the thing. I think I rather despise people who make money just by sitting in an office and guessing right."
"Clara, how old are you? Sixteen?"
"I don't mind telling you that I'm older than I look, and it's a wonder to me after the hard knocks I've had. Well, do you think you can hobble back to Soria's?"
"Let's wait a little longer. I could wish it a little cooler."
"If you'd wear a sombrero instead of that white thing——"
"Can't. I'm not built for a sombrero. Makes me look like the villain in a show."
Clara burst into laughter.
"Henry," she said, "what an absurd world this is once a human being cuts loose from his original moorings!"
"Yes? It's an almighty hot world when he cuts loose from a roof and an ice-water tank, I've noticed."
"I'm not thinking of ordinary things—I'm thinking of you and me and Boston," pursued Clara, firmly.
"Clara, I can stand a good deal, especially from you, but if you insist upon talking about Boston I'm likely to do something that we'll both regret."
"I was just thinking that if you and I had stayed in Boston, in our own little niches, as our kind of people usually do, what would we be doing?" went on Clara, meditatively.
"I would be having a gin fizz at the club," said Hard, pensively, "to be followed possibly by a game of bridge and a dinner—a real, human dinner, not just food—at my brother John's."
"If I had stayed where I belonged, or where everybody said I belonged when my father died and the family income disappeared," said Clara, persistently, "I would be teaching music in a girls' school, and planning a trip to Italy with a lot of other middle-aged spinsters. Instead of that, I put all that I had into a two years' study in London and Paris and fell in with a wandering Englishman, married him, and here I am."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't stay where you belonged, Clara, for quite apart from the pleasure of your company, which under sane conditions I find very delightful, I don't seem to see you in the role of a middle-aged spinster. Still, you might easily have been one. I know some charming girls in Boston who have gone that path."
"So do I," soberly. "Some of them so much more charming than some of my married friends that I don't quite get the idea. Some of Nature's blunders, I suppose. Well, shall we start?"
"We'd better. I think it's going to be some walk."
They plodded along in silence. This time Hard broke it.
"Clara, do you think that youngster is good enough for Marc Scott? You're clever enough to judge people even on a short acquaintance."
"Heavens, Henry, what a question!"
"I admit it's crude. Theoretically, any nice girl confers a tremendous favor on the man she marries merely by so doing; man being inherently vile. But, Clara, honestly, man to man, how many nice girls one knows who would be the deuce to live with!"
Clara's eyes twinkled. "Henry," she said, "you're perfectly right, of course, but man to man, do you think you've any right to assume that the ones who aren't nice are any pleasanter—taken as a steady diet?"
"Well, no, if you put it like that. But, I mean—well—this Polly youngster, of whom by the way I am very fond, I don't know why, she's as spoiled as the deuce, has had very little education——"
"She graduated from Wellesley, so she tells me."
"Truly? How well they cover it up these days! In my youth, you knew when a woman was well educated."
"And avoided her. That's why they learned to cover it up."
"Don't be trivial. What I mean is this. Scott is an unusual fellow. He's brought himself up from nothing, with only a boost here and there from someone who recognized his worth. He's rough and he's odd, but he has a mind. He will always be a man of importance in his community."
"I admit all that; but it doesn't imply that he's too good for Polly."
"No, but after all, what does a spoiled society girl of twenty-four know about a worth-while man, anyhow?"
"Oh, my dear Henry, wake up! You aren't living in the Victorian period. She knows a lot more about everything than you think, and well for her that she does. Girls of to-day may be daring, they may be over confident, they may be hard, but at least they know something of the world outside their own environment. After all, life's a tricky job for a woman—don't begrudge her a little folly before she undertakes it."
"I don't. I like frivolous girls—in a way; but I don't like to see a man with a brain marrying a kitten."
"Polly Street isn't a kitten. She's never had to consider anything more serious than a golf course, but she'll make good when the time comes. She's shown that since she's been here. But, Henry, why this sudden interest in match-making? Has he, by any chance, asked your valuable advice?"
"Good Heavens, no!"
"Match-making, you know, belongs to middle age. Young people are too self-centred to bother with it. I wonder if we're nearly there? I'm dead."
"Well, my aching feet tell me we are, Clara, but my manly intelligence suggests that if we've covered one-third of the distance we're mighty lucky."
"That's about what I thought," groaned Clara. "How's your knee?"
"Peevish but possible. Shall we take a rest?"
"Oh dear, yes, and a bite."
They topped the next rise. It was decidedly a rise and commanded a wide view of the flat part of the country. At a little distance rose a live oak whose low branches offered a slight shelter from the sun. A cooling breeze played about them, kicking up spirals of sand, and a prairie-dog village manifested eager interest in their presence. They ate their sandwiches and Hard returned to the subject of Scott and Polly.
"Do you think—you being a woman and acute in such matters—that he's asked her yet?" he said.
"No, I don't; they both look too edgy. He's going to, however, and she's going to take him, I think. I'm not sure. She may be flirting."
"If she flirts with Scott, I'll have her punished," declared Hard, indignantly.
"Well, maybe she won't. She's a bit of a minx, though, and while she's young she's no infant. Some girls have to do the world's flirting, Henry, because the others won't—or can't. It wouldn't do to have things made too easy for you."
"They are not," said Hard, with meaning.
"Well, this isn't getting to Soria's." Clara rose hastily. She looked back over the road. "It looks like people back there—dust flying. Do you suppose it's more troops?"
Hard stared. "No," he said, finally, "it's only the wind."
"Yes, I guess it is," assented Clara. "Let's be moving."
It was slow going—a lame man and a tired woman—both unused to walking even under favorable circumstances. It seemed to Clara Conrad as she looked ahead at the wearisome stretch of road, as though they made no more progress than a couple of ants crawling up a mountainside.
"Do you think we'll ever make it?" she said, stopping for a long breath at the top of a small rise.
"We've got to," said Hard, simply, "What else is there to do?"
Clara did not answer but looked longingly back toward the spot in the cottonwoods.
"Don't play Lot's wife, Clara; keep on looking forward. It's our only hope."
"Lot's wife always appealed to my sympathies," said Clara, pensively. "I think she was probably a settled sort of a woman, married to one of these men who like change. It must have irritated her awfully to have to pack up and move when she was so comfortable. Oh, Henry, that's not wind blowing the dust! It's men—horsemen!"
"It does look like it."
"They're coming this way. I don't like it."
"Neither do I." Hard's voice was anxious. "If we had a bit of shelter——"
They looked anxiously about, but the flatness of the country offered no opportunity for anything larger than a gopher to hide. Trees and bushes, alike too small for shelter, and little rises of land, hard enough to climb but easily visible to anyone on horseback, were all that offered themselves. In the distance an arroyo looked promising, but it was far and the line of riders very near.
"We've got to make a break for it, anyhow," said Hard, at last. "It's off the road. It's our only chance; that, and the possibility that they may be troops and in too much of a hurry to stop for the likes of us. Come on."
Clara sighed and quickened her pace. They left the road and struck across country toward the arroyo.
"I don't believe they're troops," she said. "There aren't enough of them. Oh, Henry, suppose it's Angel Gonzales and his men!"
Hard shrugged his shoulders. "They may very well be," he said. "But we'll hope they're not. Let's be optimistic as long as we have a straw to clutch."
Clara did not answer. She took another look at the rapidly advancing line and felt, not unreasonably, that the straw was a weak one even for the clutch of an optimist. They dug in, weary as they were, making small progress, but with hopeful eyes bent upon the distant arroyo. At least they were going in a different direction from the riders. Hard limped painfully. His face was set in lines of determination—or was it pain? Clara wondered. She stopped suddenly.
"Henry," she said, firmly, "this is folly. Those men must have seen us. They're able to overtake us if they want to, and if they want to do anything to us, they will. We can't help ourselves. I'm not going another step. I'm going to sit down here and see what happens." As she spoke, she sat down on a tree stump. Hard laughed ruefully.
"Well, I suppose you're right," he said. "They've got us, if they want us. We'll hope they don't." He sat down on the ground beside her, feeling very much as though he would never get up again.
So far the horsemen had given no indication of having seen the fugitives. They were fox-trotting along, in twos and threes, for the road was fairly wide. There was no air of discipline about the party, nothing to indicate that it was of a military character. As they came opposite the fugitives, who had struck off the road at a right angle, they stopped, in obedience to a signal from one of the two riding ahead.
"They've seen us!" breathed Clara.
"And are wondering whether we're worth while," supplemented Hard. "Ah, here they come!"
The result of the conference reached, the two leaders of the party followed by half a dozen men struck off toward Clara and Hard. The others waited in the road. They came at a good gait, their badly fed horses responding to the ugly spur with a nervous speed which covered the hilly space in seconds where Hard and Clara had taken minutes to crawl.
"I'm afraid they're not troops," observed Hard. "They wouldn't take all that trouble for a pair of strangers. It's Angel, or someone of his sort. Well?"
"Well?" Clara smiled bravely. "There's nothing to do but wait. Better let me talk to them; I have the language better in hand, I think. If it's money they want we may as well give them what we have to buy our freedom."
"By all means." Hard grinned. "I've got ten dollars. It won't buy much—even of freedom, I'm afraid."
"Most of mine is in express checks, tucked away in a sheltered spot," said Clara, frowning. "I don't believe they'd want them—Pachuca didn't. However, I have a little to offer." She handed him her handbag.
Angel Gonzales, closely followed by Porfirio Cortes, drew up beside the odd-looking couple sitting by the wayside. The other men lingered within hearing. Angel opened the conversation in his native tongue.
"Who are you and where are you going?" he demanded, his shifty black eyes gleaming from his weather-beaten face.
"And why?" growled Cortes. "When the country is upset, the place for foreigners is at home."
"Yes, we know it is," said Clara, placatingly. "But your country, you know, is almost always upset. This gentleman, Senor Hard, is connected with the mining company at Athens. I am from the South, and on my way to the border."
"Where are your horses?" said Angel, suspiciously.
"A young man named Juan Pachuca raided the ranch where we were visiting and took all the livestock," replied Clara, eyeing the swarthy fellow quietly.
There was a hurried colloquy between the two Mexicans and a laugh from Gonzales.
"You are not going toward Athens," he observed, drily.
"No, we're not," replied Hard. "We're heading for the Soria place just at present with the idea of borrowing their burro to ride and tie." He had risen and was leaning heavily on his well leg.
"Humph! It is a long walk to the Soria place," grunted Angel. "You're lame?"
"Humph!" Angel turned to his men. "Here, two of you double up and give these people horses," he commanded curtly. Apparently, he was one of those leaders whose word is law, for two of the men rolled their horses and led them toward the two Americans who stared at them in astonishment.
"We go by Soria's," said Angel, gruffly. "We will take you that far."
"Thank you, but I think——" Clara began weakly, but stopped as she felt herself being seized by one of the men and lifted roughly to the saddle of a wiry little gray horse which was dancing around in a most disconcerting manner. It was a time for self-preservation and not for protest. She grasped the pommel desperately with one hand and the reins with the other, while her feet were being thrust into the straps of the stirrups—the stirrups themselves being too long.
She was badly scared, for the horse gave every indication of being unmanageable; and very miserable, for her skirt pulled in a most uncomfortable and unsightly fashion. There was nothing to do, however, but to make the best of it; for having helped her mount, the man who did so climbed up back of one of his fellows and abandoned her to her fate. Hard, in the meantime, had mounted another rough-looking but more conventionally disposed beast, and the procession started back to the road, the two Americans side by side, surrounded by the Mexicans; Angel Gonzales leading, and Porfirio Cortes bringing up the rear.
"It may be a friendly lift, but it looks more like a case of abduction," said Hard, wrathfully. "Can you hold that brute, Clara?"
"I hope so," she said, her lips a bit white. "I think the poor thing is as scared as I am; probably never saw skirts before in his life."
"Don't try to hold him too tight. He's probably got a tender mouth, judging from the way he fidgets."
"Well, I suppose he has, but if I don't hold him, he's going to land me over somewhere in those foothills," said Clara, faintly. "He's got the most awful little rack I ever rode. Henry, do you suppose that fellow is Angel Gonzales?"
"Can't say. He's an ugly-looking ruffian whoever he is."
"Hush, here he comes! He may understand English," shivered Clara.
Angel grinned as he came back to them. "The senorita does not ride very well," he said, mockingly. Clara did not reply.
"I suppose," she reflected, with a gleam of humor, "that I ought to be grateful to be taken for a 'senorita,' but how can I be grateful for anything when I'm being rattled to pieces?"
Angel joined himself to them and they rode three abreast. He began to ask questions; questions which plainly were designed to inform him as to the financial standing of his guests or his prisoners whichever he chose to make them.
"He's as persistent as a society reporter," growled Hard, under his breath, as Angel relinquished his place to one of his men and fell back to ride with Cortes. "It's a case of ransom, all right."
"Shall we make a break for it?" whispered Clara. "If I let this thing go he'll be over in the foothills before you can whistle."
"No, they'd shoot. Better not risk it."
"But, Henry, I can't stand it! And I look so! I never was so altogether wretched in all my life," groaned Clara.
"Be patient, that's a good girl, until we see what they're going to do."
"If that devil's face is any index to his character, he's going to do something awful."
Angel Gonzales, in fact, was justifying Clara's opinion of him.
"The woman has money and property, and so, I think, has he," he said to Cortes. "If they have money, they have friends, and friends will pay, eh?"
"Sometimes," admitted Cortes. "But we are in a hurry, amigo. If Pachuca has come this far, he means business. We had better be on our way to meet him."
"Yes, that's so. Our horses are not strong enough to carry double, either. We'll leave the Americanos with Manuel Soria and pay him to keep them for a few days until we know what we want to do with them, eh?"
"Not bad," agreed Cortes. "Manuel is a good deal of a fool but his woman is smart. Give her a gun and she will know how to use it. She will do it for me because I make love to her now and then," he added, with something which in a civilized being would pass for a simper.
"Humph, she'd do it for me because I'll pay her some good money and promise her more," said the unsympathetic Gonzales.
By this time they had reached the Soria cabin, much to Clara's relief, and the party dismounted. The cabin door was closed, and Angel, who evidently wasted no time on the little courtesies of life, raised his pistol and fired into it. Clara caught her breath in horror.
"Those babies!" she gasped, clutching Hard.
"I don't believe they're in there," he whispered. "I don't see a sign of life—not even the burro."
"Henry, they've gone to town to spend the money that Mr. Scott gave them this morning!"
"That's it. They've taken the burro along to bring home the supplies. Don't say anything; let them find it out. It's not our funeral."
It was soon apparent that the Soria family had gone—root and branch. There was no response either to Angel's rude salutation or to the search which followed.
"They're in a hole," chuckled Hard, shrewdly. "I'll bet you a dollar that they meant to leave us here and pay the Sorias to hold us. Now, they've either got to take us along or leave a guard for us, which is what they'll probably do."
"You don't think there's any chance of his letting us go?"
"Does he look like a chap who lets anything get away from him? Well, I'm glad he's worried, anyhow."
Angel Gonzales was worried, no mistake about that. The Sorias had upset his plans exceedingly. He did not want to burden himself with prisoners; his horses, fed only on the scant growth of the land, were in no condition to carry double. He did not want to leave any of his men behind, because he expected to need every one of them in his proposed campaign. On the other hand, he hated to give up the dazzling prospect of a ransom. He had never played the ransom game, but he knew the ropes and he longed to try.
"Who's that coming up the road?" demanded Cortes, breaking off a dialogue with his chief.
A man—or, as it developed at closer range—a boy, a very ragged boy, riding a sweating horse, was tearing madly in their direction. Boylike, he pulled his poor beast to its haunches and gave what was intended for a military salute as he saw the redoubtable Gonzales.
"Well, what's the matter? Who are you?" demanded that gentleman, unencouragingly.
"Senor Juan Pachuca——" gasped the panting messenger, "he sends me to say to Captain Gonzales to make speed. He waits—at his rancho. He has news of the revolution," finished the boy, proudly.
"News! Humph, is that all he's got?" demanded Angel, promptly.
"Men, and horses and plunder—oh, much plunder!" The boy's eyes shone.
"So? That's better, eh, Cortes? Shall we go, or——"
"Senor Pachuca says to make speed. Much speed," reiterated the messenger. "The troops went South only last night."
"We had better go," said Cortes, eagerly. "We can make the rancho with hard riding by morning. That is, unless you burden yourself with those!" he gestured scornfully toward the two Americans.
Angel hesitated. Like Scott, he hated changing his mind. Also, the ransom loomed large; and he liked the woman's looks—liked her manner of talk. With her dark hair and eyes, and her soft voice, she was like one of his own people——only much more charming, he reflected, with a gleam of the eye.
"Senor Pachuca says——"
"The devil with Senor Pachuca!" exploded Angel, menacingly. "Go back and tell him——" But the messenger had already gone. His horse's feet were pattering down the side of the hill at a rate which argued panic in its rider. A laugh rose from the men, and Angel, guffawing himself, sent a parting bullet over the boy's head.
"Cheerful man, isn't he?" muttered Hard. "Never mind, Clara, he didn't hit the boy. It's evidently only his little joke."
"Monster!" Clara's black eyes snapped.
Apparently the little joke had cleared Angel's mental atmosphere, for without further explanation, he turned and with a rough: "Get on your horses—we'll go!" swung onto his mount. Cortes, with a grin of relief, passed the word on:
"To horse!" And in a second the party was mounted. Hard and Clara stood watching, ignorant of what part they were to play in this new move. No attempt was made to mount them, which was in itself encouraging, nor did there seem to have been anyone detailed to stay and guard them. There was another confab between Gonzales and Cortes, which resulted in the latter's coming toward the two Americans and saying, gruffly:
"Captain Gonzales regrets that he cannot escort you further but he is called suddenly to the front." There was a pause, then, with an impudent grin, he continued, "Of course you know that in time of war, all alien property is confiscate? You will give me what money you have."
"Oh, yes, give it to him, Henry, please!" Clara's voice was eager. She pressed her little handbag into Cortes' willing hand. Hard shrugged his shoulders.
"All right, old man, it's not much, and if I thought you'd buy a good feed for those horses of yours, I'd hand it over with my blessing. As it is—I hand it over."
Cortes took the money very much as a conductor collects his fares——with no comment but a ready hand. He also took a diamond ring which Clara had thoughtlessly put in the bag for safe keeping and the watch which Hard carried. Then without further words, he swung his horse around and at a command from Gonzales, the whole crowd swept furiously down the hill.
"Henry, they've gone! Actually gone—and taken that vile gray horse with them!" gasped Clara, faintly.
"It looks like it," responded Hard. "But unless I'm a lot mistaken, they didn't mean to go until that boy came with his message."
"Well, blessings on the head of Juan Pachuca who sent him!" murmured Clara, wearily, as she started for the cabin.
"Do you want to stay outside or go in?" asked Hard, pulling a chair forward on the veranda.
"Outside, please, as long as we can stand it," said Clara, with a little shiver. "I don't believe I'd care for Grandmother Soria's housekeeping." She peeped into the family olla hanging on the side of the house. It was full. "Oh, well, Henry, things might have been worse," she smiled as she sank into the chair.
"You can bet your dear life they might," replied Henry, with a glance in the direction taken by Angel Gonzales.
"See if they've left anything to eat—anything that looks fairly clean."
Hard emerged a few moments later empty-handed.
"Not a thing," he said. "We evidently arrived at the psychological moment for this little family. That ten dollars Scott gave them will tide them over till Carlotta finds another beau."
"But wasn't there anything to eat?"
"Not a bone. Mother Hubbard's cupboard was a cafeteria compared to Grandmother Soria's. Draw in your belt and forget it."
"Why did we eat so much this afternoon? They left us the biggest part of the luncheon. Henry, we are pigs," moaned Clara, wanly.
"I know. We're not the sort to be cast on a desert isle, I'm afraid. If the Sorias get back to-night——"
"They won't. They'll stay and make a night of it."
"Perhaps the hungry feeling will wear off after a while," said Hard, hopefully.
"I wonder? I've often thought I'd like to try a fast. One hears of people doing it and having such odd and fascinating sensations," said Clara, thoughtfully.
"My sensations are odd," replied Hard, "but they are distinctly not fascinating."
They sat quietly for a while, watching the clouds hovering over the mountains, sometimes over the peaks, sometimes nestling in fleecy patches half-way up.
"The trail they took crosses about where that gap in the mountains is," said Clara. "Under that first cloud, so Mr. Scott said."
"Yes, they'll have to do some climbing." Clara sighed softly. Hard felt an unreasonable desire, almost an angry desire to take her in his arms. It was a feeling unlike him, usually so moderate in his emotions.
"Clara," he said, softly, "were you thinking of him when you sighed?"
Clara started. "Him!" she echoed, helplessly.
"Yes, Dick Conrad."
"Not exactly, Henry. I was thinking of that terrible trip we took through the mountains—yes, I was in a way thinking of Dick."
"You were very happy together, weren't you? You were awfully in love with him, I mean. I'm not being impertinent, am I, Clara? You know I don't intend to be."
"No, Henry, I understand. I don't believe I'm the kind of woman who falls in love—at least, in the way most people mean. There's nothing very violent about me except once in a while when I get to singing something which takes hold of me pretty hard.
"Richard and I had a rather exciting little love affair, then after a while we both began to realize that we weren't very romantic—in regard to people. He was passionately devoted to adventure of every kind, and I had a way of putting my best into music. I didn't feel heart-broken when I found out that we really weren't anything more than good friends and neither did he.
"I'd cheerfully give all I've got to bring Dick back; I get lonesome for him—awfully. And yet, that isn't exactly the sort of thing that the average person means by 'love,' is it?"
"It would have made me very happy once to know that you cared that much for me," answered Hard, bitterly.
"I did. I always did, Henry. Only we were—so near, so much a part of each other—like cousins. I called it friendship instead of love," cried Clara, warmly.
"What difference does it make what you call it? Two people like to be together, seem to fit into one another's lives, isn't that love?"
Clara smiled. "It's not the kind of love that Polly Street will give the man she marries," she said. "You know that as well as I. And it's not a matter of years, it's temperament. An actress told me once that when it came to a question of comparison between her married life and her stage life, she could say instantly that it was her stage life that had meant the most to her. She was happily married, too. I'm a bit like her. I can get more downright exaltation over my music when it goes right than I ever got out of any love affair. I think my talent is for friendship rather than for love."
"Clara," Hard's voice shook, "I tell you, you wrong yourself. Neither you nor that woman were happily married if—oh, I don't want to be maudlin——"
"Bless your heart, Henry, you couldn't be, any more than I could. Perhaps it's the New England conscience——"
"I haven't a New England conscience," replied Hard. "My conscience is as elastic and pleasantly disposed as an Irishman's. Bunker Hill casts no blight upon me."
"Henry, this is all very nice; but I'm dying of hunger."
"Will you be afraid to stay here if I go back to Casa Grande and fetch you something?"
"Wild horses couldn't hold me in this God-forsaken spot without you, Henry! Don't think of it. I—I'll go with you, though."
"You can't walk it."
"Then I'll die on the road. But how about your knee?" She stopped in discouragement.
"What's a knee or two when you're starving to death?" demanded Hard, with decision. "Come on, let's start before I get any stiffer."
They started out again, through the half darkness; walking slowly, for Hard limped painfully. He had helped himself to a stout staff which he found on the Soria veranda and which gave him some assistance. They were very silent; Hard, because his mind was still running on Clara's words, Clara, because she was honestly puzzled over the situation, and her own feelings.
She watched the tall, thin figure, limping along by her side, and again the old memories came back, as they had the night before in the darkness; memories of the days when he and she had played at love.
"I wasn't in love with him, and yet, seeing him again, after all these years, it seems as though I must have been," she thought, gently. "It's friendship, and yet it's more than friendship. It's going to hurt dreadfully to go away again."
"Clara, one more word before we drop the subject; because I will drop it if it troubles you." Hard's voice came quietly through the darkness. "Don't let us mistake each other again. I've tortured myself for fifteen years, wondering whether I should have let you go as I did, or have tried to hold you. Do you think, with fifteen years behind us, that we made a mistake?"
Clara's voice trembled as she answered: "No, Henry, I don't. We were too young to understand each other. We needed experience—at least, I did. I don't know," she added, with a shadow of a laugh, "whether it's the romantic situation, my enfeebled condition, or your noble heroism, but I never felt more like being in love with you than I do this minute."
"Honestly, Henry. If you give out on the road I shall try to emulate that husky woman in history who carried her husband on her back, do you remember?" Then, suddenly, her eyes filled with tears. "Henry, you've been awfully patient with me. If you really want to embark on the seas of matrimony with such a shaky thing as I am——"
"Clara, I never thought it would come about like this or I would have smashed this cussed knee ages ago! My dearest girl, my face is dirty and yours is dirtier, but I'm going to kiss you, and then we'll take another whack at hobbling to Casa Grande."
The ranch-house stood dark and uninviting except for the dim light of the fire which shone through the broken windows of the living-room, but the sound of the piano came to their ears as they neared it.
"He's composing," said Clara, softly.
"Yes, he would be," said Hard, unsympathetically. "They always do work it off that way, don't they?"
"Work what off?" demanded Clara, instantly.
"Anything that happens to them," said Hard, cheerfully. "You artistic fellows are queer, you know, Clara. Don't try to wriggle out of it."
"I shan't," replied Clara, promptly. "But let me warn you, my lad, you haven't made me want to give up my music yet. I'm still going back to have a try at it."
"Bully for you! Of course you are. And I'm going with you, either to help you do it, or to make you fall in love with me so deeply that you'll want to give it up."
Clara laughed softly and laid her hand on his arm. "Henry, if you can do that, I'll be the happiest woman in the world. Please try!"
BACK TO ATHENS
Mendoza and Tom walked toward the Casa Grande ranch-house with fearful hearts.
"Dark as a pocket," commented Tom. "You set down here, Mendoza, while I go around in back." From the side, a faint light was visible from the dining-room of the house. "Hullo, what have we here?" ejaculated the engineer. At the same time, he saw a man's figure coming toward him; a very familiar figure. "Hard!" he gasped, darting forward and knocking the load of firewood from Hard's arms with the fervency of his greeting.
"Hullo, Tom!" Hard returned the handshake quite as heartily. "Glad to see you. We were beginning to think we were marooned on this place."
"We?" Tom's face lit up. "You're all right? All of you? Didn't none of you get killed by them Yaquis?"
"Why, didn't Scott tell you?" demanded Hard, with sudden anxiety.
"I ain't seen Scott sence you all went off together," said Tom, puzzled.
"Hold on! Do you mean to say that they haven't shown up yet? Scott and the girl?"
"Well, I left Athens yestiddy morning. You see, I walked to Conejo and picked up Mendoza and his car."
"You walked to Conejo!" Hard's voice was awed.
"'Twa'n't much. I took my time. You see, the Chink brought us word that there was something going on over here. He seen the barn burning when he was up on the mesa, and he didn't know what was up. He pretty nigh killed Cochise, so I had to walk. I knew there was no use coming here with no horses, so I went to Conejo. They've got martial law there. The Colonel's a nice young feller, if he is a greaser, and he loaned me Mendoza and the Ford. Now what happened here, anyhow?"
Hard gave a brief outline of their adventures.
"Mrs. Conrad," he said, "is an old friend of Herrick's and mine, who's had to leave her plantation in the South, and is on her way home. She is going East with Miss Street. She and I tried camping out at Soria's last night after Gonzales left us, but we got starved out and we tramped it back here, waiting for someone to come after us. I'm lame as I can be."
Clara's face lit up when she saw the three men enter, and she shook hands cordially with Johnson and the old Mexican. Then an anxious look came into her eyes. Hard, seeing it, spoke quickly.
"Johnson left Athens yesterday before Scott and Polly got there," he said, reassuringly. "He walked to Conejo."
"Walked to Conejo!"
"You see, Tom, Mrs. Conrad and I walked here from Soria's and we've both been crippled ever since. A walk to Conejo fills us with excited admiration."