HotFreeBooks.com
Bloom of Cactus
by Robert Ames Bennet
Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

All the other Indians seemed to have left the valley. But Carmena said that guards were always posted in the two main exits. Escape up Devil's Chute with a horse was impossible.

Beyond the narrow mouth of the Chute canon the two skirted along the edge of the flourishing cornfields and the hay pastures of the lower valley. All the way they followed an irrigation canal of the ancient cliff dwellers that had been restored to use. It curved and twisted along the higher ground under the towering cliff walls.

At the foot of the Hole the valley narrowed, funnel-like, into a rather wide box canon. The canon bed offered a broad level runway down which a horse could have sprinted at top speed.

Carmena caught the glance of pleased surprise that Lennon fixed upon a heavy farm wagon that stood inside the mouth of the canon.

"It's not so easy as you think," she said. "There's a thirty-foot cliff about a mile down. Nothing has ever come in or gone out that way except by rope, and the windlass is always guarded. Hell Canon is no easier. It forks, and the forks both fork twice, and there's only one branch you can get out through. We might be able to make it, either route. But there's Dad and Elsie."

"You spoke of bringing about a difference between Cochise and Slade," said Lennon. "What is your plan?"

"It all depends. I have several ideas. One is to offer Slade a share in your copper-mine deal. But we'll hold that back. He knows that matters must soon come to a show-down with the bunch. Cochise has been getting harder to hold for the past three years. You know, he claims that Elsie belongs to him."

Lennon stared in amazement.

"What! your sister—that little pink and white blossom?"

"But she's not really my sister. That's the pinch. Cochise brought her with him when he first came to the Hole, two years before Slade. He claimed he had found her over beyond Triple Butte. She was crazed from thirst—never has been able to remember what had happened or anything about her life before she came here."

"My word! Has no inquiry ever been made for her? Did you not advertise? What were her clothes like?"

"Rags and tatters. No one came. Nobody outside knows there is such a place as Dead Hole, except by vague report. Dad and I just happened to stumble into it. About advertising Elsie, we tried that some. There was no answer. We think she belonged to a stray family, out prospecting. The others must have died of thirst."

"Or were murdered by Cochise," put in Lennon.

Carmena's eyes narrowed.

"Maybe—maybe not. It was just after he jumped the Reservation. But he was only a sulky schoolboy then, playing hookey. Besides, he had not harmed the child. He worked for Dad and was right decent, till he got in with Slade and the—business started."

Lennon was not to be diverted to another subject. The mystery of Elsie's parentage intrigued him. With the realization that the two girls were not of blood kin, Lennon found himself dwelling upon the differences between them. Elsie, cleared of any kinship to Farley, at once became in his thoughts a being of finer nature than her foster-sister.

In contrast, Carmena now seemed to show distinctly the taint of Farley's blood. Her frank manner took on the tinge of boldness. Her vigour and strength now seemed mannish, if not coarse.

Might not what he had taken for high spirit and courage be no more than callous hardihood? Was there not a certain garishness about her rich colouring? And was all the brown of her skin on the outside? Both her hair and eyes were dark, and there was her Spanish name—Carmena. Was she not, in part, of Mexican blood?

Some hint of Lennon's thoughts may have shown in his expression. Otherwise the girl's next remark was pure coincidence:

"Ever since Slade added tizwin to the business, I've had to be pretty much the man of the family. He persuaded us that Dad would die without a lot of stimulant. That's how he got hold of Dad. Once the habit was fixed, I couldn't break Dad of it. With you here, I'm hoping he may remember his old grit and pride, and brace up."

"But about your—foster-sister," said Lennon.

"Isn't she just too sweet for anything!" broke in Carmena. "I've tried to be the cactus fence to guard her against the trampling beasts."

"Such as this Cochise. You say he claims her?"

"For the last three years. Indian girls marry young. He'd have kicked a way through the cactus fence before this, if it hadn't been for Slade. You know, Slade has his own bunch of Navaho punchers. So, you see, Cochise has to——"

Carmena stopped to point across the upper end of the valley.

"Talk of the devil——" she exclaimed.

Over below the cliff house Lennon saw a small group of mounted men waiting for the basket that was being lowered to them on the hoist rope.

"If it's only Elsie's pies; if only they haven't bluffed Dad into sending down a jug of tizwin!" murmured Carmena.

"We've been outplayed. We can't get back," said Lennon. "Shall I drive them off again with my rifle?"

"No. Cochise agreed to wait for Slade. I'm going to make him stick to it. We'll ride on around. Maybe they'll not wait."

The two had loped along under the precipices on the northwest side of the valley and were already near Hell Canon, at the upper end. The mouth of the canon belied its name. The bed, though rocky, was neither steep nor broken. Along the ledges of the cliff foot a canal had been chiseled in the solid rock by the cliff-dwellers. A small stream was flowing through it, down around the left corner of the canon mouth.

Carmena noticed the look of professional interest that Lennon fixed upon the ancient water way.

"You're an engineer," she said. "Pretty good piece of irrigation work for those old mummies, isn't it? All we had to do was rebuild the intake dam and clean out the ditch. Here's the tank."

The ponies slowed to a walk up the side of an enormous natural pothole, which the ancient builders had converted into a storage reservoir by means of an earthen dam.

Carmena jumped her pony across the intake canal and loped ahead toward the cliff house. Lennon was too intent upon overtaking her to more than glance at the stand of rough-made beehives, the kitchen garden, and the goat and chicken sheds, past which his pony galloped.

Carmena reined in to jerk her thumb at a tumbledown brush hut.

"Our home, till Slade got up the cliff."

"How?"

"Piecing ladders together, one a-top the other. There are our callers; and it's pie, thank goodness. Keep your gun down. Shake hands, if they offer; but let me do the talking."

"If you wish."

"I do. The one all in white man's clothes is Cochise. Next him, with the Mex sombrero, is Pete. He's one of Slade's Navahos. He stands in with Cochise, and I stand in with him. Sabe?"

"You mean he's your man—tips you off—all that?"

"Yes. I think we'll be able to count on him later, when it comes to the show-down. Don't forget now: That run 'cross the Basin never happened. We're all heap good friends and pards."

Lennon nodded. He did not fancy the situation, but he was willing for the time being to trust to his companion's lead. Side by side they rode up and stopped before the seven Indians. Lennon looked them over with the cool direct gaze of the dominant white man.

Five of them were replicas of the herdsmen down the valley. Pete the Navaho—he of the Mexican sombrero—also wore Mexican leg-buttoned breeches and a red cotton shirt, the tails of which hung outside. He looked to be the youngest of the group. He and Cochise were the only ones who did not avoid Lennon's eye.

Cochise the Apache leader proved a surprise to Lennon. He was as young as the white man and far from ugly. Though his head, under his old cowboy hat, was as square and massive as the cloth-bound heads of the other Apaches, and his shoulders were still broader, his face might have belonged to a Sicilian or Andalusian aristocrat—swarthy, bold-featured, and handsome.

Carmena raised her voice in cheerful greeting: "How, boys!—Bueno amigo, Pete. Howdy, Cochise. Fine day. Hope the pie was good. Shake with Jack, our new partner."

The Apache leader wiped the pie juice from his short, small hands upon his leather chaps, and replied with a show of geniality:

"Howdy. Fine day. Glad to meet new pard. Shake."

Lennon offered his left hand. His bridle reins and rifle were loosely held in his bandaged right. Carmena was thrusting her rifle into its saddle-sheath. Instead of clasping hands, palm to palm, Cochise clutched Lennon's wrist in a grip that almost crushed the bones. His other hand closed on the hilt of a knife.

"Sit still, Jack," murmured Carmena.

The warning was needless. Lennon had not stirred in his saddle or made the slightest attempt to struggle.

"Who's the liar now, Cochise?" reproached Carmena. "You said you'd wait till Slade came."

"I catch your pard. I keep him till Slade come. Then I have my fun. You swap my woman for him, I let him go now."

The girl smiled.

"Maybe you'll let him go anyway, amigo. I've got you covered, and I figure the first bullet will go through that pie you just ate."

The glittering black eyes of the Apache shot a sidelong glance down toward the girl's right hand. It had slipped into a pocket in the fold of her divided skirt. Her smile widened.

"Think it over," she advised. "What happens to us won't be any fun to you after you've got yours."

The steel-sinewed fingers that were clutched about Lennon's wrist opened.

"All dam' good joke—arm handshake," the Apache sought to explain away his treacherous attempt. "Make sure you got nerve. Sabe? Guess I got to go. Good-bye."

"Oh, do stay and visit a bit longer," Carmena smilingly urged him. "We can talk a while with you and Pete. But the others may as well be starting, don't you think?"

Something in her pocket thrust up the fold of her skirt. Cochise muttered a word or two that sent the other Apaches loping off down the valley. When they were some distance away, Carmena nodded almost gaily:

"Well, boys, I suppose the pie is all gone. So, if you feel you have to go, too.... Good-bye, Pete. Maybe you know, Cochise, it's sometimes a sign of bad luck to look back or drop off your horse."

The two Indians wheeled their ponies and loped after the others.

Cochise did not look back.



CHAPTER IX

THE MAN WHO WAS

Lennon sprang from his pony and steadied his rifle across the saddle. Carmena drew in a deep breath.

"That's right," she approved. "Keep him covered. Shoot if he turns—but not Pete."

The Navaho had drawn rein to tail in behind the pony of his leader. He thrust a hand overhead in a swift sign gesture.

"You see, Jack. I knew we could count on Pete. The boy thinks a good deal of me. He was ready to shoot Cochise in the back."

"But you!" exclaimed Lennon. "That was ripping the way you—what d'you say?—got the drop on Cochise. My right hand is still too weak for a knockout blow."

Carmena gravely drew a sheath knife from the pocket of her skirt.

"He knows I usually carry my revolver," she said.

Lennon stared.

"Your revolver wasn't in your pocket? Yet you sheathed your rifle!"

"Didn't you notice his men had their guns pointed at us across their laps? Sheathing mine was what gave me the chance to bluff him. It's all right now. He won't try any more tricks this time."

She sent a clear call ringing up the cliff. At once the hoist rope began to reeve down through the pulley of the crane. The rope ladder soon lowered from the other opening. Both saddles were fastened to the hoist hook. But Lennon thrust his rifle through the back of his cartridge belt.

They found Farley in the doorway, nervously peering down the valley after the Indians.

"Cochise was hiding in Devil's Chute until you rode out of sight," he quavered. "He demanded tizwin. I convinced him that Slade took away every drop. He then threatened to seize you for his woman and torture Mr. Lennon, if I did not send down Elsie. I postponed the decision until your return."

"All right, Dad. We persuaded him to let us come up. But now we're here, I think we'll take no more rides till Slade comes."

Lennon freed his rifle from the belt and stepped in through the doorway after the father and daughter. His first glance inside the cliff house showed him Elsie labouring at the windlass. He hastened to take the crank out of her plump little hands. His one-armed winding soon hoisted the saddles to the crane. The moment the load was safe, Elsie tremblingly lifted his hand to look at the blackening bruises left by Cochise's steel grip.

"Does it—does it hurt much, Jack?" she whispered. "Once I saw him snap a dog's leg."

Lennon smilingly denied the sharp pain of the strained ligaments. But inwardly his anger against Cochise hardened into enmity as he looked into the girl's innocent eyes and recalled that the brutal Apache considered her his woman.

His reassurance brought instant relief to her volatile mind. She began to chatter gaily about how she and Carmena would entertain him during the wait for Slade. In this the older girl joined with cordial heartiness. Elsie displayed a high stack of women's magazines, for which Carmena was a regular subscriber. Every three or four months they were brought in from the nearest post office by Slade.

Elsie fairly showered Lennon with naive questions about the faraway land of cities and green trees and vast stretches of water. Aside from the magazines and what had been told her by Farley and Carmena, she had no knowledge of the world outside the Hole.

Beneath Carmena's quiet manner Lennon discovered an interest as keen as that of her foster-sister and very much more intelligent. She had childhood memories of Ohio. Much to his distaste, she persuaded Farley to remain most of the day with them in the living room.

But as the wreck that once had been a man listened to Lennon's talk, his bent shoulders began to straighten and his drink-bleared eyes cleared. By evening he was talking as one man of culture to another. He even showed occasional flashes of a once brilliant mind.

Carmena took care to keep her father stimulated with frequent cups of coffee. The whiskey flask appeared to be quite forgotten. After supper, at his suggestion, Elsie brought out an old dog-eared set of Shakespeare. In the flaring light of a homemade tallow candle he read parts of "King Lear" and "Hamlet," with his rapt eyes frequently off the page for a dozen lines or more.

Lennon's aversion to the broken old drunkard had by now mellowed to tolerance and a degree of pity. He realized what the man had been before sickness had pulled him down and drink degraded him. At times Farley's whiskey-shattered mind tended to wander. But Lennon good-humouredly helped Carmena to bridge the gaps. When her father's face became gray and drawn, the girl said he was sleepy and took him off to bed.

She returned, to find Elsie perched on the arm of Lennon's chair. They were both peering at a magazine illustration, with their heads so close together that Elsie's yellow curls brushed Lennon's cheek.

The warm glow in Carmena's eyes faded; her smiling lips tightened. Her voice vibrated with a touch of sharpness:

"Sleep time, Blossom."

Elsie sprang to her light feet with docile obedience. But she lingered to eye Lennon wistfully as he stood up to meet Carmena's level glance.

"Aren't you going to say good night, Jack?" she coaxed. "Don't—don't brothers ever kiss their sisters good night?"

Lennon cast a half-doubtful glance at the girl's unsmiling foster-sister, hesitated, caught Elsie's golden head between his hands and bent to kiss her forehead. She drew back, overcome with sudden shyness.

Carmena held out a firm hand to Lennon.

"Good night, Jack—and thank you for—Dad. It's two years since he has been anything like to-day."

"The pleasure was mine," replied Lennon.

His tone was not uncordial, but his eyes had turned to watch Elsie dance across to one of the inner doorways that led into a short passage. Carmena swung around after her foster-sister, with her head well up and her boot heels briskly clicking on the stone floor.

The discovery at his bedside of his own clothes thoroughly cleaned and his boots well oiled added a touch of gratitude to his tender, compassionate, delightful thoughts of Elsie. He lay awake for an hour or more, dwelling upon her dainty beauty and fascinating innocence.

But the bleak gray light of dawn brought sober reflections. What interest could he have in the young girl other than to help her escape from the savage Cochise? She was a waif, of unknown parentage. Mentally she was little more than a child, and all her conscious experience had been confined to the environment of this crude desert valley.

Lennon came out to breakfast with scant appetite. But his moodiness had company. Elsie sat at table tearful-eyed and drooping. Carmena's eyes were somber and her expression was hard. In reply to Lennon's polite inquiry for Farley she coldly replied that her father was not hungry.

Through one of the outer slit windows of the living room Lennon saw a thin column of smoke down the valley toward the corral. Carmena answered his unspoken question:

"They're brand-blotting the last bunch of cattle brought into the Hole."

"Brand-blotting?"

"Yes. You wouldn't care to see it—especially when Cochise takes part."

Elsie uttered a smothered little gasp that quickened again all of Lennon's repressed tenderness and compassion. He looked around, trying to think of some means to divert her. His glance fell upon one of the bowls of ancient pottery.

"May I ask you to show me the rest of this cliff house? Or are the other rooms in ruins?"

Elsie instantly brightened.

"Oh, no, course not. Only some of the top ones have tumbled in. Dad won't mind if we show Jack the mummies, will he, Mena?"

"Fetch candles," directed Carmena, clearly as relieved as the others at the thought of diversion.

They started to ramble through the interior of the cliff house, taking with them a light ladder to climb to the upper stories. In the lower rooms at the near end were stored quantities of corn on the cob, dried fruit, and vegetables, honey, dried beef, bacon, and other foods. The family was sufficiently stocked to withstand a half year's siege.

The upper rooms were for the most part empty. Others showed only fragments of broken pottery. Some had been broken in through their side walls or were open above and littered with the debris of their roofs. Lennon surmised the existence of several sealed lower chambers, at the back.

Carmena led the way down again and zigzagged through connected rooms toward the far end of the great community house. To the rear of the front row of rooms was a large chamber heaped with cliff-dweller mummies.

"Slade had them all dumped in here," explained Carmena. "Like the Indians, Elsie is still scared of them. But they have been dead a long time, poor things. They'll not hurt anybody. They'd protect you, Blossom, if Cochise should get up the cliff and you hid in that corner. He thinks them bad medicine. Slade laughs at Indian spirits. He says that corn spirits are the only ones that can put a spell on a man."

"They—they're an awful hold on Dad," quavered Elsie. "He didn't ever used to speak cross to me."

In the flickering candle light Carmena's eyes glinted with a look that Lennon thought to be fierce resentment. She thrust past him to the doorway.

"Wait. I'll be back," she called.

Elsie was tremblingly eager to follow, but Lennon lacked her fear of the desiccated builders of the cliff house. At one end of the room he had come upon what to him was a very interesting heap of their no less ancient possessions. Most of the beautiful old pottery had been smashed, but among the fragments Lennon found several ceremonial stones and tablets, a bone awl, many obsidian arrowheads, and a few broken turquoise ornaments.

His search was cut short by the return of Carmena. She carried a modern Indian basket-vase that would have been very convenient for holding Lennon's collection. But she gave him no chance to ask for it. She stared in at him and Elsie from the doorway, her dark eyes glittering strangely in the candle light. Her lips were hardset in a bitter smile.

"He's—asleep. Come," she said.

Lennon followed the eager Elsie, who was vastly relieved to leave the mummy vault. Yet she was no less mystified than Lennon by her foster-sister's manner. She shrank back behind him when, after passing through two corn-stacked rooms near the far end of the cliff house, Carmena stopped before an entrance that had been closed with a door of heavy planks. The thick iron hasp was secured with a big padlock.

Carmena handed her candle to Lennon and took a key from her basket.

"Oh, Mena!" whispered Elsie. "Oh, you can't be going to—to—— You know how angry Dad—and Slade——"

For answer, Carmena thrust the key into the padlock.



CHAPTER X

THE SETTER OF TRAPS

The unlocked door squeaked shrilly on its hinges as it swung in before the heave of Carmena's shoulder. Elsie peeped fearfully back past Lennon. Carmena pushed on into the secret room.

Lennon had expected to see some kind of treasure chamber. He stared blankly at the big object in the centre of the room—a complex object that somehow reminded him of his laboratory experiments in college. A step nearer, with his own and Carmena's candles upraised, gave him a clear view of the bulging copper boiler, the tubes and worm and fermenting vats. The air of the room was pervaded with a sour smell.

At his exclamation Carmena gave him a sombre glance.

"You see now?"

"A still," he said. "This tizwin you've been talking about—it's moonshine whiskey. Your father——"

"No—Slade!" broke in the girl with passionate emphasis. "He brought the thing into the Hole and forced Dad to run it. He's the one to blame—not Dad. He bootlegs it to the Indians."

"Indians? That's a Federal penitentiary offense!"

"What could we do? If he's convicted, he'll swear that Dad is just as guilty. You see why I couldn't go for the sheriff?"

"Yes," said Lennon; but he looked at Elsie.

Carmena's face whitened.

"If it hadn't been for Dad, there's no telling what Cochise would have done with her. Anyhow, he's my father."

To this Lennon could make no answer. He turned again to stare at the big still. Fuel had been placed in the firebox, ready for lighting. Carmena knelt down before it and dipped her hand into the Indian basket. One after the other, she laid out the six sticks of dynamite and the caps and fuses that she had saved from Lennon's prospecting outfit.

She looked up at him, gravely expectant.

"You said you'd help us, Jack. I want this whole thing fixed so it will never make another drop of poison."

"At once?"

"No. They'd be sure we did it, and I figure—— Can you fix it so it will go off a quarter minute after the fire is lighted?"

"Oh-h, Mena!" cried Elsie. "What you going to do? You know Dad always lights the fire."

"Never fear, Blossom. I'll take good care of Dad. If Jack does what I want, there'll be no more of the nasty tizwin to make Dad cross and sick."

Lennon found himself regarding the girl with rekindled admiration for her ingenuity and daring.

"So this is why you saved the dynamite?" he remarked. "Will it not be dangerous—I mean, to anger that man Slade, you know?"

"Anything to save Dad—— If you're afraid, just tell me how to fix it. I'll do the work and take all blame—if it fails. You can go back with Elsie and be able to swear you didn't have a hand in it."

The girl's tone was as contemptuous as when, at their first meeting on the trail, she had jeered him into cutting across the desert with her. He looked the still over with a professional eye.

The chimney stones were laid in mud plaster. But the stones of the firebox, or furnace, were loose. On one side they extended out in a rough platform that held the water-cooled vat of the condensation worm. From the two-foot space between the furnace hole and the vat Lennon began to pull out the stones. He was able to make a hole down to the solid stone floor.

A crack gave opening enough to thrust the stiff fuse from the firebox into the hole. To make certain of results, Lennon used three pieces of fuse, which were attached with caps to the sticks of dynamite, in the bottom of the hole. He then put the stones back in their places. The ends of the fuses were hidden by the tinder of the fuel in the firebox.

When Lennon stood up and dusted off his hands, no slightest sign was left to betray that the charge of dynamite had been planted.

"There you are," he said. "The fuses are cut for fifteen seconds, and they will start burning as soon as the tinder is fired."

"You're sure the boiler will be blown up?" queried Carmena. "Your dynamite is out from under it, and there's all the rock in the way."

Lennon smiled at her ignorance of explosives.

"The stones will double the destruction. After that charge detonates, there will be a hole in the floor, a good deal of shattered stone, and some splinters and shreds of metal. Everything in the room will be smashed. Is that satisfactory?"

Carmena shuddered as if seized with a fever chill, but pulled herself together. "All right. We'll go now."

She picked up her basket and backed out after the others, scrutinizing the floor to make certain they had left nothing to tell of their visit.

"It's a secret, Blossom," she cautioned. "Promise you'll never tell any one?"

"But—you'll have to tell Dad, Mena. He always goes in with Slade and Cochise to measure the mash—And you know he sometimes goes in first to start the cooking."

"Didn't I say I'd take care of Dad?" reassured Carmena.

Lennon stepped before her, his gray eyes wide with dread.

"Wait," he demanded. "What is it you plan to do? Elsie says your father's partners—— But I have told you the dynamite will destroy everything in the room. If you scheme to get those men in there, give me that key. I shall not permit such a trap to remain."

"Why not? You promised to help."

"Not this way. It would be cold-blooded murder."

"You say that when they——?"

Carmena checked her indignant protest and gazed down at her foster-sister.

"Well, then, how if I use that blast to blow Slade and Cochise apart?" she inquired. "Suppose I make each think the other put the giant power in the furnace?"

"Too great a risk. We will explode the charge at once, or draw it."

Carmena's eyes flashed.

"No. They shall not make another drop of poison in that devilpot. But if we blew it up now, Slade will put the blame on us—— Tell you what—I'll just misplace the key. That will give us time to act after Slade comes."

"Have I your promise you will not try to get him into that death trap?"

"Yes."

Back in the living room they became aware that the day was almost gone. Carmena asked Lennon to cover her from above with his rifle while she went down to milk the goats. He offered to change places with her, but had to confess that he did not know how to milk.

The ladder had been drawn up. To save time, the girl directed Lennon to lower her by means of the hoist rope. Though there was no sign of an Indian nearer than the corral and she smiled at the suggestion of danger, he saw her slip her small revolver into the bosom of her dress.

The moment the slackening of the hoist rope told him she had reached the ground he hurried with his rifle to an embrazured window in the living room. He looked down and saw her calmly walking away toward the goat pens. The goats flocked to nibble the salt that she had brought for them. She knelt down and started milking.

Elsie had already busied herself at the charcoal brazier. After a time, when her pots were simmering, she came to cuddle up in the window beside Lennon.

"My goodness, but hasn't it been an awful nice day, Jack," she sighed in heartfelt contentment. "Mena is—is the best sister in all the whole world. But it's doubly nice to have a brother like you. Isn't it, just?"

She snuggled her head against Lennon's right shoulder. He reached across and stroked her silky hair without looking away from the valley.

"I am glad you like me, Blossom. You know, Carmena brought me to help her get you away from this place."

"Me—and Dad, Jack. Don't forget Dad. Mena never does. And Dad won't ever give up the Hole, 'cause he said so. That's why Mena shot your burro to make you fight Cochise."

Lennon chuckled.

"Carmena came along after the Apache shot my burro."

"Oh, but that's the joke," tittered the girl, in her turn. "Mena was the 'Pache. She shot your hat off and your burro to see how you'd behave, and when you didn't scare, she rode 'round to make you come with her."

The enlarged version struck Lennon as just so much the more preposterous.

"To be sure," he made mock agreement. "Only, by the way, what was the point of the joke?"

"You mean, why did she do it?"

"Yes. Why ruin a twelve-dollar sombrero and a ten-dollar burro?"

"So's you'd get mad and fight Cochise, of course. She was desp'rit, so she told him she'd get another man into the Basin to be caught and made to pay. But she planned, when she signalled them, to warn you and slip away while you fought them."

"Ripping!" praised Lennon. "Wonderful flight of fancy. And after the fight?"

"Oh, that depends. You'd prob'ly been dead. But if you'd killed all that part of the bunch, Mena would have brought you into the Hole to shoot up the rest and make Slade quit."

"I see. Quite in keeping with the burro. But why, then, did she help me run away?"

Elsie's playful tone sobered.

"Why, 'cause you couldn't fight, of course. After she signalled Cochise you went and got bit by the Gila monster and saved her life. Course she had to save you then."

"Saved!" bantered Lennon. "A fact—a solid fact at last, in this sea of fiction. What a slip! I was beginning to fancy you quite a consistent fairy-tale tinker, Blossom. Take that last touch about her signalling Cochise. She sent a message by wireless, I presume."

"Wireless? Is that what you call smoke signalling?"

"Smoke?"—Before Lennon's mental vision flashed a vivid picture of the puffs of smoke rising into the noontime desert sky from the ridge near the waterhole—"Smoke signalling!"

What a dupe he had been! Even now, when the truth had been spread out before his eyes, he had taken it for pure fiction. Yet every seeming absurdity in Elsie's account became credible the moment he considered the facts he knew, in the light of understanding.

Though Carmena had made much of probable danger from the "bronchos," she had sent up those telltale puffs of smoke. During the flight across the Basin she had changed from boots to moccasins, which he now knew to be of Apache style, if not of Apache make. They would account for the moccasin print behind the crag from which his hat had been shot off and his burro killed. For her to cut down to her pony, pull on her boots, and ride around to the wash along the trail had been easy.

The purpose of her strange attack clearly had been to break up his prospecting trip by the death of the burro and to test whether he could and would fight. No less clear, now, was the subtle manner in which she had both spurred his daring with her derision and appealed to his chivalry for protection against the murderous bronchos. All the time Cochise and his band were over in the Basin, waiting for her to lure a victim within their power.

On this point was it not probable that Elsie was mistaken? Had not Carmena's intention been to have her savage accomplices capture him and hold him for ransom? The game might well have included a pretended capture of herself, so that chivalry would lead him to pay a larger ransom.

No—Elsie's explanation was the more probable. And he could trust her truthfulness. Whatever he might think of Carmena, this child-minded girl at least was absolutely innocent of any scheming. Her dread of Cochise could not possibly have been feigned.

Even Carmena must be given her due. She had been driven desperate by the threats of Cochise to take Elsie as his squaw; and the partnership of her father in the illicit making and bootlegging of moonshine whiskey had prevented her from appealing to the law for protection. But, on the other hand, she had deliberately taken the risk of killing the first chance stranger that came along the Moqui trail——

Lennon frowned as he pictured the hole through the crown of his sombrero. That had been an uncomfortably close shot. Why had not the girl met him face to face on the trail and frankly asked for his aid? Instead of that straightforward, above-board procedure, she had risked shooting him, had deceived him, had led him into a trap where he would have had to kill all the bronchos or be killed. In the first case, according to Elsie, she would have had him help her attack the rest of the Apaches in the Hole. But if he had been killed she undoubtedly had planned to put all the blame on him.

He was no coward. As he mulled over the situation his eyes sparkled at the thought of how, with his long-range rifle, he might have out-fought Cochise and his followers. But that was not the rub. Carmena had treated him as a blind dupe—had thrown dust in his eyes and beguiled him into the double snare that she had set for him and Cochise.

He would have been only too glad to take the venture with her if she had told him beforehand. But she had not trusted him. The accident of the Gila monster's bite alone had blocked her scheme to make him chance the sacrifice of his life in complete ignorance of her real purpose.

With his hand disabled, he of course had become valueless at the time as a tool to rid her of Cochise. Yet there was the chance that he could be used in the Hole. That would account for the seeming devotion and self-sacrifice by which she had saved him from the Gila monster poison, from death by thirst, and from Apache torture.

The prejudice that had been first implanted in Lennon's mind by the repulsiveness of the girl's drunken father now prevented him from making any allowances for her difficult position. Had it not been for her relationship to that weak-faced besotted moonshiner, Lennon might have stopped to consider how love for her foster-sister had driven her desperate, and how desperation might have kept her from telling the truth of the situation to the stranger on the trail.

The average stranger would have referred her to the sheriff—and she loved her father. But Lennon could see only her lack of trust in him and her deceit.



CHAPTER XI

CROSS CURRENTS

Elsie's childlike eyes had been watching the evening shadow of the cliffs creep along the valley after the retreating sunlight. Drawn at last by Lennon's tense silence, she looked up and saw his frown.

"Oh! oh, Jack!" she cried. "What is it? You look so cross! Is it—is it 'cause what I told about Mena? Oh, it is! I know it is, the way you look! Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I'm 'fraid! It's a secret, and I promised not to tell. Mena was 'splaining all about you to Dad, and I heard—and now she'll be so cross at me if she knows I told! Please, please Jack, promise you won't tell her I told you!"

Lennon put a comforting arm about the shoulders of the panic-stricken girl.

"You dear little frightened bird! Don't be afraid, I will not tell. And remember, I am to be a real brother to you. No matter what any one says, you are to trust in my care and protection."

One of Elsie's arms timidly stole up about his neck. From across the room sounded a hiccough that ended in a dry hacking cough. Lennon jerked his head around. The besotted face of Farley, ghastly white and blear-eyed, was leering at them through a hole in the rear wall.

Before Lennon could free himself from the soft clasp of the girl's arm and dash across the room, the eavesdropper had disappeared. Elsie darted after Lennon to clutch his half-raised rifle.

"Don't shoot—don't shoot!" she begged. "It's only Dad. He's having one of his spells. But he won't hurt you—not if you keep by me."

Lennon peered through the hole in the wall. He made out the flaccid form of Farley, outstretched upon the stone floor in a drunken stupor. The man evidently had been on the verge of unconsciousness when he leered through the hole. The chance was slight that he would ever remember anything of what he had seen or heard.

With a feeling of disgust that was not unmingled with relief, Lennon started back to the outer window. An odour of scorched food sent Elsie flying to her neglected pots. As half in the deep window embrazure, Lennon paused to watch her, the overhanging cliff ledges reverberated with an impatient call. He reluctantly turned his gaze away from the graceful little cook to look down below the window. Carmena stood waiting, with the end of the hoist rope looped about her.

Lennon's steady winding at the windlass soon brought up the living load to the crane. Elsie darted out to swing her foster-sister around into the opening and take from her the brimming pail of goat's milk. Carmena looked down at Lennon's bandaged hand, which was gripped upon the crank of the windlass.

"You ought to be careful," she gravely warned him. "Working won't help your hurt."

"On the contrary, the wounds are fast healing, and use of the hand tends to bring back its strength. It is already much improved."

"Good."

"I shall leave off the bandages after to-night."

Carmena's eyes narrowed.

"No. You're to keep them on, and don't let any one else—even Dad—see your hand. The more helpless Slade and Cochise think you are, the better."

To this Lennon readily agreed. His knowledge of the completeness with which the girl had duped him only added to his realization of her ability. But he promised himself that any advantage gained by his pretense of helplessness should be used only with a view to Elsie's benefit.

Such pity as he had felt for Farley before the discovery of the illicit whiskey-still was now smothered in disgust. He would fight for Elsie, but he would not lift a finger to help rid Dead Hole of Farley's boot-leg confederates.

Carmena had turned about to peer down the half-shadowed valley.

"I thought sure Slade would get here to-night," she said. "He's overdue already. Well, we can count on him for to-morrow. Maybe you had better let me hide your rifle."

"Is that necessary?"

Lennon's tone was more curt than he had intended. The girl entered the living room and went on through into a rear room.

She did not come out again that evening, but sent word by Elsie that Farley was sick and needed nursing. Lennon was only too pleased to sup and visit alone with the younger girl. Elsie's piquant daintiness was more than ever fascinating to him. He spent a delightful evening, though at times his enjoyment was dampened by remembrance of the danger that threatened her.

Carmena came to the breakfast table pale and weary-eyed. From her laconic remarks to Elsie, Lennon gathered that she had spent the night waiting upon her father. After forcing herself to eat a hasty meal, she came around the table and laid an old short-barreled revolver beside Lennon's bowl-plate.

"It's Dad's," she said. "He's too sick to use it, anyhow. Put it in your pocket out of sight and have Elsie hide your rifle where either of you can readily get it. I saw the signal. Slade is coming."

Elsie almost dropped the pot of fresh coffee that she was settling. Carmena took it and a kettle of hot water and went out without looking at Lennon.

In the extreme corner of the room was a dutch-oven built of stone slabs. Elsie started a fire in it, placed large kettles of food on her brazier, and began to mix white flour dough.

"Slade likes pies as much as Cochise—and white biscuits. That's why he brings us flour. He says he's going to make me his cook. It always gets Cochise awful mad."

The bare suggestion that the doubtful partners of Farley were accustomed to imply ownership in the innocent, helpless girl brought an angry flush into Lennon's lean face. He unloaded the short-barreled revolver, made careful test of its action, and as carefully reloaded the old style cylinder. The weapon was well suited for hip-pocket wear. At the suggestion of Elsie, he hung his rifle under his bed.

Carmena half carried her father into the living-room and seated him in one of the big chairs. He was very white and shaky but rational. He had been bathed and dressed, and his eyes showed proof of soothing treatment. Though the sight and odour of the cooking nauseated him, he was braced by a drink made from some bitter desert herb known to the girls for its tonic effect.

"Now, Dad, remember you're sick. Just sit here quietly and leave all the business to me," said Carmena. "Jack will keep you company."

She looked at Lennon, cool-eyed and self-possessed.

"Watch your bad arm, Mr. Lennon," she advised. "You don't want to go around with it loose like that. Elsie will fetch you a sling. I'm going to lower the ladder. Slade doesn't enjoy being made to wait."

Elsie brought one of her floursack dish-towels, which Lennon, with mock seriousness, permitted her to knot over his shoulder in a sling. The loop of cloth extended along his arm from elbow to finger tips without hiding the bandages.

Farley glowed at the sling with sour suspicion.

"You climbed the ladder with that arm when you first came," he snapped. "There has been all this time for it to improve."

"Do such poison wounds always improve?" parried Lennon. "I was willing to risk using the arm. But you heard what your daughter said."

He went across the room to look from an outer window. A large band of horsemen was racing full tilt up the valley. They were already near. At their head rode Cochise and a big red-faced white man. As Lennon looked out at them Carmena swung down the rope ladder.

The tall rangy American horse of the white man forged ahead of the Indian ponies and brought his rider under the cliff as Carmena reached the foot of the ladder. She called out to him in a tone of joyful greeting and hastened forward to offer her hand. The man ignored her welcome and jerked a thumb up at the window from which Lennon was looking.

Cochise came galloping to the cliff foot with his band of Apaches and four or five Navahos. All reined their ponies to one side except Cochise. He sprang off to confront Carmena, with denunciatory words and gestures. The white man leisurely swung out of his saddle and took the attitude of a judge between the girl and Cochise. After no little disputing, he silenced the young Apache with a curt gesture and entered into a low-voiced conference with Carmena. Now and then Cochise broke in with guttural objections.

At last the three seemed to reach some kind of an agreement. They started up the ladder, Carmena waiting until the last. The white man, who undoubtedly was the partner called Slade, led Cochise. The crisis over Lennon's presence in Dead Hole had come to a head. He felt certain that the period of waiting was about to end in some definite action either against himself or against the Apache leader.

The meeting was by no means unpleasant. After a short pause Carmena led the visitors in from the big anteroom. Cochise cast a covert glance at Elsie, and with an air of stolid indifference to the others sat down at the table. Slade was neither silent nor stolid. He stared hard about the living room and bellowed over to Elsie, who was raking her pies out of the dutch oven:

"Ho, howdy, Cookie Gal! 'Most ready to feed me, huh? Won't have to herd me to it. Lord, but I'm sick of Injun grub! Guess this trip I'll sure have to rope and brand you for my home corral!"

Carmena broke in on this coarsely jovial banter with smiling deference:

"You see it's as I told you, Mr. Slade—Dad is almost used up. But I'll act for him and——"

Slade's ham-like hand came down upon Farley's stooped shoulder in a thwack that doubled the invalid over and set him to coughing.

"Brace up, Dad," the trader-cowman rallied him in his bull voice. "You're not dead yet. Good thing for us your bark's worse'n your bite. Huh, Cochise?"

His massive body shook with a roar of laughter at the joke.

"This is Mr. Lennon—our guest," Carmena again interposed.

The big trader swung around to stare down upon the guest. Lennon stood a good six feet in his boots, but Slade over-topped him by two or three inches and was no less thickset than tall. He looked Lennon straight in the eyes, crushed his left hand in a hearty grip, and greeted him in a tone of bluff cordiality.

"So you're Carmena's new pard. Glad to see you in Dead Hole. She says you want to dicker with us."

"I said he might want to," murmured the girl.

Slade grinned genially at the guest's bandaged arm.

"No might about it, Carmena. Your dad came into Dead Hole for his health. But I figger Lennon here knows it ain't no general health resort."

"Miss Farley will tell you, I was in urgent need of a change from the Basin," drawled Lennon, as he languidly sank back into his chair. "Deuce take it! The results of a Gila monster's bite are more serious than I would have anticipated."

"Sure—apt to be mighty serious, son, if you don't look out what you do," agreed Slade. "Guess, though, Carmena got you started off right. We'll see about it soon's I've fed. Here's my Cookie Gal dishing up."

He thumped down at the table and voraciously fell to upon the food that Elsie hastened to serve him and Cochise. While he plied knife and spoon he chaffed the blushing girl with a familiarity that made Lennon's blood boil. Elsie's forced smile and murmured responses did not conceal the painfulness of her embarrassment.

Yet Lennon's hot impulse to interpose was checked and cooled when he thought to look at Carmena. Like her father, she was smiling at Slade and at the same time covertly watching Cochise. The handsome face of the young Apache seemed utterly blank of all expression except gluttonish enjoyment of the food he was wolfing. But under the edge of the table Lennon saw his hand steal down and fondle the hilt of his sheath knife.

The game was now evident. If the rivals were permitted to attack each other, one or both would almost certainly be killed. A murderous feud between their men would as certainly follow. Lennon's anger against the unpleasant pair was intense enough for him to consider the scheme justified, though its suggestion of treachery deepened his prejudice against Carmena.



CHAPTER XII

A BARGAIN

During the meal prepared by Elsie a solemn avowal by Slade that the cook must go home with him brought the knife of Cochise half out of its sheath.

Slade either did not see the movement, or, if he did, he contemptuously disregarded its menace. He had turned to Farley, his big red face and pale blue eyes suddenly sober.

"Well, Dad," he boomed, "guess we'd better hold a seance and git Brother Cochise back into a proper spiritual frame of mind. I got some converting work for him to go out and do."

Cochise shot a side glance at Elsie.

"You leave my woman—I go. Sabe?"

The trader burst into his hoarse laugh.

"Go to hell! Can't you take a joke? We're pards, ain't we? Can't I josh the gal without you gitting rattlesnakey? Don't suppose I meant it, do you? Come on, Dad. Git a hustle on you. We got to hold that seance."

He looked at Lennon with a hard smile.

"We run a lodge here—— Spirits Order Secret Scotch Rites. We'll go into a seance and find out whether to initiate you."

"Dad is too sick," interposed Carmena. "He can't help any. I'll take his place."

"No. He's going to come, and you'll stick here," ordered Slade.

Farley rose and tottered out into the anteroom with him and Cochise. Lennon sprang up beside the coolly smiling girl.

"You've permitted them to go—knowing what will happen!"

"Nothing will happen. I changed keys on Dad. He'll come back. Then I will go in his place."

"You shall not," forbade Lennon. "I told you it would be murder."

"How about Blossom?" queried the girl. "Slade isn't joking and you know now what he is like."

Lennon looked at the prospective victim, hesitated, and tightened his jaw.

"I must hold you to your promise. Set them upon each other, if you wish—— But it shall not be that other way."

"If you hold me to my promise," said Carmena, her eyes hot with scorn.

She started to help Elsie clear the food-splattered table.

Before many minutes Farley reeled in, speechless from terror. He collapsed into the first chair and held out a key in his wavering hand. Carmena looked at it, nodded understandingly, and hastened out, with a significant glance for Lennon.

He was not altogether reassured. After a few moments he followed her along the front row of the cliff house rooms. He was close enough to hear the talk that followed when she joined Cochise and Slade at the padlocked door. The trader gruffly accepted her excuses for her father, but swore violently when the two keys that she had brought failed to open the lock.

She explained how she had changed her father's clothes, and took upon herself all the blame with regard to the misplacing of the key. After much soothing talk, she at last quieted Slade by promising to have a given quantity of whiskey distilled before his next visit.

"That'll do," he conceded. "Look out you don't forgit it, though, or I'll take it out of Dad's hide. Now, Cochise, you hit the high places for them hosses. Don't do no shooting this time. Just natchelly have 'em drift off. Git a move on you."

Had not Lennon been wearing moccasins, he must have been caught. As it was, he glided back through the many rooms, undetected.

Farley had crept into his own room. His absence gave Lennon opportunity to calm Elsie's fears and comfort her with the promise that he would save her from both Slade and Cochise. The tread of heavy boots sent her scurrying out of the living room.

Slade strode in after Carmena and jerked a chair around to where he could look close into Lennon's face.

"Now, young man, what's this bunk about you and Carmena being pards?" he demanded. "What business you got in Dead Hole, anyhow? Cochise says you shot a hoss of hisn."

"I told you how that started," interposed Carmena. "It wasn't our fault that Cochise flew off the handle. Jack had to shoot to save me as well as himself."

Slade stared hard at the girl and then at Lennon.

"Well, supposing the young devil did break loose. What of it? How about this pard bunk? That's what I want to know."

"I fear that Miss Farley has found me rather a disappointment," put in Lennon, and he looked at his trussed arm.

"Not at all—just the other way 'round," Carmena glowingly asserted. "Figure it out for yourself, Mr. Slade. A man who could follow up a Gila monster bite by outrunning Cochise and his bunch across the Basin, and then make them back up. Can you wonder I think he's a man for us to tie to?"

"If we needed a new pard," qualified Slade. "Fact is, we don't, and you know it. We got enough a'ready to do the work and split up our profits."

Carmena cast a significant glance toward Elsie, who had ventured back to renew the fire in her oven.

"How about Cochise getting out of hand? All the time it's harder to hold him. He's beginning to bristle up even to you."

Slade's tobacco-stained teeth showed in a grin of contemptuous indifference.

"Bah. I'll pull his head off if he gits sassy, and he knows it."

"Of course. He'd have no show—unless a pot-shot or a knife in your back—— If only he was white!"

"Surely you do not mean to say, Miss Farley, that Cochise would attack his own partner," Lennon backed up the girl's play. "I saw him pull out that long knife of his under the table, but imagined it was merely the Indian way of easing his feelings against Mr. Slade."

"Pulled his knife on me, did he?" bellowed the trader, in a sudden burst of anger.

"And just because you dared speak kindly to Elsie," sympathized Carmena.

Strange enough, the barbed sting appeared to quiet rather than enrage Slade. He laughed.

"No four-flushing, Mena. Needn't try to pull the wool over my eyes. I can't run my business without Cochise, and you know it. You got to show me a deal with more in it, before you talk about a shift of pards. I'm running this shebang. There ain't no place for Lennon 'round Dead Hole. He best hit out back the way he come."

Carmena's look told Lennon that he must make the next play. He thought quickly. If the girl was not mistaken, Slade would take Elsie away with him and chance the revenge of Cochise. The Apache might be appeased by permission to follow his intended victim back into the Basin.

Had Lennon considered only himself he would have been willing to chance a fight with the renegade. But the mere thought of abandoning Elsie to either the Apache or this brutal trader was altogether unbearable.

"Indeed, yes—to be sure, Mr. Slade," he blandly made reply. "If you do not desire me as a partner, I have no wish to remain here. Doubtless I shall not require your aid to find the mine for which I am looking."

"Mine?" queried Slade, his pale eyes narrowing. "What mine?"

"It's the lost lode," cut in Carmena, her rich voice quivering with eagerness. "I couldn't say anything until Jack spoke. He was headed for the mine when his burro was shot and we had to leave his outfit—thanks to Cochise. But he knows where to find the lost lode. Got it from Cripple Sim—back East. It's somewhere over near Triple Butte. You see now why I thought you'd be glad to have me bring Jack in as a partner?"

The red face of the trader fairly glowed with geniality. He held out his beefy hand to Lennon.

"Shake, pard. Why didn't you speak up sooner? I might have knowed you was O.K. But Carmena is only a gal, and we got to be careful of strangers in these parts. Bad place for hoss thieves and brand-blotters. That's why I put up with a mean Injun like Cochise. He and his bunch see to it we don't lose no stock."

"Yes, they're great on rounding up, and so far they have never committed any murders—that can be proved against them," put in Carmena, with an ironical smile. "Just the same, it wasn't their fault they didn't get Jack. Do you wonder he won't have them in on this lost-lode deal? Either he plays a lone hand, or we run Cochise out of the country."

"My offer is ten thousand in cash," said Lennon. "The copper company pays me twice that and——"

"Copper, huh? What's a copper company got to do with a gold lode?" demanded Slade.

"But Jack says the lost lode is copper, not gold," said Carmena. "Maybe we've been mistaken all these years. Sim told Jack it was a copper mine, and Sim ought to know."

Lennon caught the significant glance that the girl covertly gave to Slade. He was seized with black doubt whether her scheming was against Slade or with Slade against himself. Yet he continued to play to her lead——

"Yes, the discoverer of the mine should know whether it was gold or copper."

After some argument, Slade finally admitted that the old rumour about Cripple Sim's fabulously rich lost gold mine might be an "exaggeration." With much hemming and hawing, he then agreed that if the lost mine were rediscovered he would accept ten thousand dollars and rid Dead Hole of Cochise.

"We might git up a company our own selves, Lennon, but we couldn't bring in any railroad to develop a copper mine," he repeated what Carmena had already remarked. "Take what you can git and be thankful, is my motto. Soon's we find that mine, you can count on me to run Cochise clean out of the country."

Carmena drew in a deep quavering breath.

"That's such a relief, Mr. Slade! I've been so afraid for Elsie. I know that Cochise figures on making off with her at the first chance."

"He does, does he?" growled the trader. "Well, then, you're going to stick here and see he don't git no chance, while I go with our new pard. How's that, Lennon?"

"Good enough," agreed Lennon.

"Elsie and I will hunt up some tools," said Carmena and she hurried her foster-sister out into the store-rooms before Slade could voice an objection.

He at once began to give Lennon a pessimistic account of the small profits and many risks and hardships of a trader's life in this arid land of mesas and canons. As for the cattle business, there was more work than money in it, what with mountain lions, wolves, and brand-blotters.

Lennon checked himself on the point of asking the meaning of the strange term. He recalled that Elsie had said something about mavericking and brand-blotting by the Apaches. Unless Farley and the girls were conniving with Cochise, the Indian could not be carrying on any work in the Hole unknown to Slade, and he had just intimated that brand-blotting was some kind of harmful or criminal action.



CHAPTER XIII

THE BLOSSOMING

At the supper table Slade returned to his jovial praises of Elsie as a cook. Under his bold admiring gaze the girl blushed much and ate little. Lennon kept his head with difficulty. To sit quiet and feign indifference required all his self-control.

Farley had been brought in by Carmena. Toward the end of the meal Slade began to browbeat the abject, liquor-poisoned man. Lennon had no pity to spare for his broken-spirited host, but his compassion for Elsie and his growing anger against Slade soon received fresh stimulation.

The trader made blunt demand that Farley should agree to give Elsie to him in marriage—Indian marriage. After considerable bullyragging, Farley weakly gave way. Carmena continued strongly to protest, but her plea was only for a legal marriage.

Slade contended that one kind of marriage was as good as another. But he finally said he would wait and take Elsie out to where they could get a license and a minister. This would be immediately after the relocation of the mine and the driving off of Cochise.

Lennon was more than satisfied over the final agreement. Once rid of Cochise and out of the Hole with Slade and Elsie, he felt certain of his ability to save the girl from a forced marriage. In keeping with his assumed indifference to the affair he changed the subject by inquiring when the start for Triple Butte would be made.

"Daybreak," muttered Slade, and he fixed an intent gaze upon Elsie. "I'll be ready by then. I'll bunk with you to-night, Dad. Come in and we'll check up on business accounts."

The moment the two older men left the living room Elsie burst into tears and began piteously imploring Lennon and Carmena to save her. Carmena clapped a hand over the quivering lips of the terrified girl and rushed her out of hearing of Slade.

At the same time Lennon stepped out after the trader to keep him from turning back. The massive bulk of Slade shadowed the light of the candle that Farley was carrying into a second of the inner rooms.

The trader looked back, but failed to see Lennon, who had stepped to one side of the living-room doorway. The bull voice rumbled in what was evidently intended for a murmur:

"Well, Dad, I guess Carmena ain't such a fool as you might expect from her being your gal. She sure got that tenderfoot roped mighty slick. Just wait and watch me hogtie the cripple. All I got to do is let him lead me to that there gold mine. Then I figger he's apt to git lost. Mebbe he believes that bunk about the lode being copper, and mebbe he don't. The point is, I git the mine, and he——"

The rest of the prediction was lost to Lennon. He went back into the living room and pulled his arm out of the sling to test his grip on Farley's short-barrelled revolver. His wounded hand had almost regained its full strength. As he replaced the arm in the sling Elsie peeped timidly into the room. She saw that he was alone and darted out to clasp his arm.

"Oh, Jack, dear Jack!" she panted. "You—you won't let Slade take me either, will you? You promised about Cochise. But Carmena—she says Slade—that maybe I'll have to marry him—unless you have heaps of grit. He's no better than Cochise. But at least he's not an Indian, Mena says."

Lennon patted the yellow locks of the girl's back-flung head.

"Never fear, Blossom. We will take care of you. Where is Carmena?"

"She's still looking for Dad's old pick for you. We found the pan and spade. Mena says Dad stumbled into Dead Hole 'cause he was looking for that lost gold mine of Cripple Sim's you're after. Then he went into stock."

"Was he—did he—er—brand-blot before Slade came?"

"Oh, no. Slade and Cochise started the business. Cochise rounds up the hosses and cattle when Slade tells him of a good chance, and the 'Paches rustle 'em and bring 'em into the Hole and make the brands over, and then they run 'em out Hell Canon, and Slade sells 'em under his other name. Dad's share is for the feed and the use of the Hole."

For the first time Lennon's suspicions of the Dead Hole partners were clarified and confirmed. The gang were not only moonshiners but horse and cattle thieves. Slade was the ringleader and brains of the gang, while Cochise and his followers were the crafty and probably murderous rustlers and brand-blotters.

Farley was a more or less willing accomplice. He may have been forced into the criminal partnership, but now refused to attempt an escape. Rather than give up his share of the loot, he chose to risk the great danger to his little foster-daughter.

The realization that Slade was even more of a criminal than the moonshining and bootlegging had indicated, quickened Lennon's compassion for the girl. She was so artless and clinging and helpless——

He put his free arm about her quivering shoulders. In a twinkling her hands were clasped about his neck and she was smiling up into his face in naive delight.

"Dear, dear Jack!" she whispered. "You're just awful nice to me. I believe, really and truly, I love you even more than Mena."

The girl was too childlike in mind to realize the meaning of her sweet emotion. Lennon made allowance for her innocence, but her allusion to Carmena startled him, though the words were ambiguous. Elsie may only have meant that she loved him more than she loved Carmena—not that she loved him more than Carmena loved him.

The girl's upturned piquant face was more than tempting. Its flowerlike delicacy and prettiness and the glow in her wide blue eyes were more than he could withstand. He bent down and pressed a kiss upon her half-parted lips.

"You darling!" he said. "You adorable little Blossom!"

She sought shyly to draw away from him. He held her fast. The kiss had put an end to his last doubt.

"Wait, dear, do not try to get away from me," he commanded. "I am going to keep you—always. Until I get you out of here—safe from Slade and Cochise—I shall be just your Brother Jack. But I love you, dear, and when we reach a town we shall be married."

"O-o-oh! Then I'll belong to you—I'll be your woman?"

"You will be my darling little wife. I will be good to you and take care of you—always."

"Oh, you dear, nice Jack! And Mena—she'll go along too and help take care of me and love us? Won't she? You know I couldn't ever bear to go away and leave Mena."

Along with his amusement over the child's naive suggestion Lennon was conscious of an odd thrill. He remembered the look in Carmena's dark eyes when she saved him from the poison of the Gila monster and at the end of their desperate flight across the Basin. They had risked death together—and she was not a child.

But close upon these pleasantly disquieting remembrances of the older girl came the harsh afterthought of his suspicions against her. He bent to kiss Elsie with almost aggressive fervour.

From the doorway behind him came a stifled cry that might have been a sob. He held fast to Elsie and glanced over his shoulder. Carmena was standing in the doorway, with her head bent. As Lennon looked, she straightened and came toward him, cold-eyed and determined.

"What are you doing, Jack Lennon?" she demanded. "I trusted you. I believed that you were not the kind to take advantage of Blossom. I thought you——"

Elsie struggled free from Lennon to fling her arms about her foster-sister.

"Oh, Mena, please, please don't be cross with Jack! I love him so, and—and he loves me back!"

Lennon met Carmena's hard stare with a gaze no less cool and resolute.

"Elsie is to be my wife," he declared. "I shall marry her as soon as possible."

"Your wife? Marry her? You mean that?"

"Yes."

Carmena's fixed gaze wavered and sank. But almost immediately she looked up again, her eyes lustrous with soft radiance.

"She is very precious to me, Jack. She deserves to be safe and happy all the rest of her life."

Before Lennon could reply, the girl gently freed herself from Elsie and turned to go.

"Pardon me—one moment, Miss Farley," appealed Lennon. "There is something I must tell you. I happened to overhear Slade speak to your father. He insists that the lost mine is a gold lode and proposes to take possession when I have led him to it."

The girl smiled a bit mockingly.

"What else could you expect?" she asked. "If he hadn't believed it a gold lode he wouldn't have made the deal with you. When you show him the copper, it will be up to you to hold him to his bargain. We have no chance unless he splits with Cochise."

"Why not persuade your father to slip out of the Hole with us—start immediately? The Apaches have gone off. I'll engage to tie up Slade. We would have an all-night lead."

"No," refused Carmena. "The Hole belongs to Dad. He will not leave it. Besides, there are at least three Apaches on watch in Hell Canon."

Lennon realized the uselessness of arguing with the girl. If, as he still half suspected, she was scheming with Slade, the less said about her father's share in the stock stealing the better.

"Very well," he acquiesced. "I shall try to manage Slade. If he is unreasonable, I will do as I think best."

"So will I," replied Carmena, her eyes sombre.

"Come on, Blossom. Slade said he would leave at daybreak."

She abruptly turned away, and made no remonstrance when Elsie offered her lips to Lennon for a good-night kiss.

Left alone, he sat down in one of the big chairs and fell to planning how, after the relocation of the copper lode, he would make his escape. He would bring a sheriff's posse to arrest Slade and his fellow criminals. Elsie would then be freed from all danger, and the mine could be developed.



CHAPTER XIV

THE PROWLER

From his plans for the breaking up of the criminal gang Lennon's thoughts drifted into pleasant reveries about his adorable little wife-to-be. Drowsiness crept upon him. When the lone candle on the table burned down, flickered, and went out, he was too sound asleep to waken. But his sleep was troubled with uneasy dreams.

In the midst of a nightmare that lived over his flight from the bronchos across the desert, he was roused with a start to alert wakefulness. Some heavy-breathing creature was stealthily shuffling about in the black night of the unlighted room. A thump, followed by a muttered curse, betrayed the identity of the prowler. With utmost caution Lennon slipped his arm from the sling, drew Farley's revolver, and barricaded himself behind the chair. Slade shuffled nearer—so near that his whiskey-poisoned breath struck in Lennon's face. Again came a thud and a curse. The prowler had stubbed his stockinged toe against a chair leg.

Lennon aimed the revolver toward the sound, in expectation of an upflaring match. Discovery would mean instant attack by the huge-framed scoundrel. Of that he had no doubt. Slade would not be groping about in the dark in this stealthy manner unless intent upon an evil purpose.

But no match flamed. The shuffling feet moved past Lennon to the wall and along the wall toward the doorway that opened upon the short passage to the girl's room. No door barred the passage at either end. The purpose of the prowler was now unmistakable.

For the second time Lennon had cause to be thankful that he had not changed to his boots. His moccasined feet noiselessly felt their way after the heavy-footed shuffler. Slade was already through the doorway into the passage. Lennon followed. The finger-tips of his outgroping left hand touched the back of the prowler.

A startled grunt warned Lennon to dodge back a step and crouch. A heavier grunt told him of a violent out-clutch or blow, which, meeting only empty air, had wrenched the breath from the big body of the striker.

Again Lennon pointed his revolver—and again the expected match failed to crackle and flare. Slade stood silent for several seconds, holding his breath. But Lennon was no less still. The tense listener expelled his pent-up breath in a grunt of disgust.

"Huh! Must 'a' been the tizwin. Fools a man."

Lennon straightened up and again groped with his hand as he heard Slade shuffle on along the passage. There was need of utmost caution. He did not wish to shoot. But he knew that the grip of Slade's thick arms would be as dangerous as the hug of a grizzly.

This time the outstretched finger-tips barely grazed the prowler's shirt. Lennon took a quick step forward, clutched the back of Slade's neck as a guide for his blow, and struck him with the butt of the revolver under the right ear. The massive body of the trader slumped down as if hit by a sledge.

The weight of the falling man dragged Lennon after. But the utter limpness of the body under him stayed his hand from a second blow. He thrust the revolver back into his pocket and grasped Slade under the armpits. The body remained flaccid even when dragged out of the passage.

Lennon struck a match and bent low over the ghastly face of the man he had felled. The scoundrel was only stunned. Lennon's look of anxiety gave place to a stern smile. Though certain of the man's guilty intentions, he could not put an end to him.

He again grasped the unconscious man and dragged him across the living room and out beside the crane of the hoist. A loop of the rope-end about the clumsy ankles, and two or three turns of the windlass lifted the inert body so that it dangled head downward.

To swing the crane out through the opening and lower away on the rope was the easiest part of the undertaking. Lennon reversed the crank of the windlass, around and around, with purposeful deliberation. He hoped that Slade would recover consciousness while still swinging in mid-air. There was grim pleasure in the thought of how the scoundrel would first become aware of the dim starlit precipice beside him and then would rouse to the shame and danger of his hanging.

When the rope was rather less than half unwound from the windlass Lennon paused to shift his grip on the crank. At the same moment a candle that had been masked by a blanket glowed out at him from the doorway of the living room. The muzzle of a small revolver thrust forward above the candle.

"Hands up—quick—or I'll shoot," threatened a vibrant, low-pitched voice.

The menace was very real. Most men would have obeyed the command and let Slade drop to a head-foremost smash on the cliff foot. Lennon cried back at the threatener without releasing his hold on the windlass:

"Pardon me, Miss Farley—I——"

"You!" Holding up the candle, Carmena stepped in to peer about the big anteroom. "Way you were stooped over I mistook you for—— Almost fired. What you doing?"

The query was charged with suspicion. Lennon thrust in the crank peg, folded his arms, and leaned against the windlass.

"I met your father's partner wandering about, and thought he needed an airing."

The girl stared from the windlass out along the taut rope.

"You don't mean——"

"Yes, dangling head down."

"Dead?"

"Merely knocked out—worse luck! But one way of restoring consciousness is to raise the feet above the head. He may wake up any moment and appreciate the situation."

"Any moment?" cried Carmena. She half dropped her candlestick on the stone floor and sprang to the windlass. "Quick! We must haul him up before he comes to."

Lennon did not budge.

"No, Miss Farley. That beast shall not again set foot in this place until Elsie is safe away."

The girl's eyes widened. Her hand clutched and drew close across her rounded bosom the folds of the blanket that she had flung about her shoulders to cover her night gown. Her face paled and as quickly flushed scarlet.

"I thought I heard sounds in the passage, but the rug curtain muffled them," she murmured. "Was he trying to—to——"

"Had been drinking," replied Lennon. "My regret now is that the blow did not kill him."

"And leave us no chance against Cochise? He's the only living creature that Cochise fears. Can't you see we must make believe—must keep up with him until we are rid of the Apaches? Bad as he is, he's a white man. Cochise is a—devil! When he tired of Blossom, he'd give her to his men."

Convinced against his will, Lennon began to wind in on the windlass. Carmena went to the edge of the cliff. When the body of Slade came spinning and swinging up out of the gloom she held down the light and peered anxiously at the knot that held the rope about his thick ankles. It showed no signs of slipping. His down-hung head wobbled up into the flickering light of the candle. The face was purple; the bloodshot eyes were glazed.

Carmena swung in the crane and freed the rope the moment Lennon eased off. Slade was wheezing as if almost suffocated. At Carmena's urging, Lennon helped her drag the stupefied man back into the living room. The girl ran to fetch a bowl of water.

"Loosen your clothes," she whispered in Lennon's ear. "Hide your moccasins—look as if you'd just jumped out of bed—get your arm back in the sling. That's it. Now lift his head and shoulders up against this chair."

As Lennon raised the flaccid upper body, Carmena began to dash water into the purple face. The blotched skin gradually lightened to its natural red. The pale eyes lost their fishy glaze. They stared dazedly up into the deeply concerned face of Carmena. She flung the last cupful of water from the bowl. Slade roused enough to mumble virulent curses.

"Oh!" exclaimed Carmena, in a tone of sympathetic relief. "He's not dead—he's coming to. Oh, Mr. Slade, what happened? Did you fall against the table? Or was it a fit? You looked terribly black in the face, as if you'd had a fit. That's why I used the water. Jack held you up to drain the blood out of your head."

Slade scowled at his helpers. Lennon frowned back at him but followed up the girl's lead.

"Once saw a man taken with apoplexy—stroke of paralysis, you know. Not paralyzed are you? Try lifting your arms and legs?"

Slade glowered morosely, but caught the look of concern in Carmena's face and stiffened with sudden alarm. She watched with an intent scrutiny as he gingerly lifted one limb after another.

"Bunk!" he growled. "I ain't paralyzed. Needn't think you can con me."

"Wait—your face!" warned the girl. "It looked queer. Try smiling."

"No, it's all right now," said Lennon. "Sometimes these first strokes of apoplexy paralyze only for a few moments."

Carmena changed her look of sympathy to one of sharp reproof.

"I don't think it's that at all. You've just been working on our sympathies, Mr. Slade. Own up now. You took too much tizwin to know what you were about. You came in here for a drink of water and fell against the table corner."

The glaring eyes of the trader narrowed in a look of crafty calculation. Lennon followed the man's thoughts by his expression. The effects of the moonshine whiskey, of the blow under his ear, and of the suffocation had not yet passed. They had left him lax and shaken and rather muddled. He had been given his fill for one night. Carmena's reproaches disarmed his suspicion that she and Lennon knew what he had been about. His guilty anger at the two subsided into derision of their blindness.

"Well, what if I did git tanked up?" he growled. "It's my tizwin as much as Dad's, ain't it? I'm going back to bed to sleep it off."

Lennon took the candle from Carmena.

"Permit me to carry the light for you, Slade. Your hand is too unsteady. I'm not so sure about Miss Farley's explanation of your mishap. I still believe you had a stroke—not as heavy a stroke as it might have been—not fatal, you know, but heavy enough to put you down and out."

Slade was staggering to his feet. Lennon followed him to the room where Farley lay sprawled in drunken slumber beside an empty whiskey jug. As soon as Slade had dropped upon the bed Lennon took the candle back to the living room. Carmena had gone.

He gathered up an armful of Navaho rugs and moved one of the heavy chairs around to the doorway of the passage into the girl's room.



CHAPTER XV

CROOKED WAYS

At gray dawn Elsie started to go out into the living room. Midway of the dusky passage her foot struck against a roundish object. She bent down to look. A dim form was lying in the passage, with feet against the chair that blocked the outer doorway.

The girl's half shriek brought Lennon up at a bound, his revolver out.

"Who's there?" he demanded.

"Oh—oh, Jack!" the girl sobbed her relief.

He clasped her to him protectingly.

"All right, sweetheart—all right," he said, soothingly. "You see I have been here on watch. Slade—— But that is past. I see light outside. He will soon be leaving with me."

Elsie clutched him, in renewed panic.

"But I'm afraid! I don't want you to leave me, Jack. You'll never, never come back! I want to go along, too. If you leave me, I'm awful afraid Cochise'll catch me!"

"You dear little frightened Blossom! But I cannot take you now. You must stay with Carmena. She will keep you up here, safe from Cochise. I will come back—never fear. I will come back and take you away."

"Take me—away from Dead Hole? Oh, how wonderful! Mena says I came from outside, where are all the book things and people—like you. I can't remember, but I'll just love to go out and see the wide world with you—and Mena—and Dad. Only Dad doesn't want to leave the Hole at all."

"You shall go with me out of this place," replied Lennon. "I will bring the sheriff and have him arrest every member of this band of outlaws."

The rug curtains of the inner room flung apart. Carmena sprang out into the passage. She drew her foster-sister away from Lennon with a grasp as resolute as it was gentle.

"Go and start breakfast, Blossom," she directed. "The sooner they leave the better."

Elsie darted to the doorway and disappeared. Lennon started after her. He was checked by a low-spoken command from Carmena:

"Stop. I want a show-down from you, Jack Lennon. I heard what you said about the sheriff. Good thing Slade wasn't in earshot. You'd have a bullet in you by now. You may yet. What are you aiming to do?"

"You say you heard me," said Lennon. "I spoke clearly."

"Do you count Dad in the gang?"

"Don't you?"

In the brightening light of red dawn Lennon saw the girl's eyes cloud with anguish. At sight of her grief and suffering a wave of compassion surged up within him. The flood overwhelmed and submerged all his prejudice against her.

He started to express his pity and sympathy—only to be checked before the words could leave his lips. The girl's eyes were ablaze. Her mouth straightened in resolute lines.

"All right, Mr. Lennon," she said. "You've shown your hand. Here's mine: You'll give your pledge to leave the sheriff out of this deal, or you'll never reach the trail."

"Very kind of you, indeed, to warn me, Miss Farley. I presume you will tell Slade and Cochise to be ready if I attempt to escape."

Though the girl's lips remained firm, her eyes again dilated with anguish. She turned about and groped her way into the inner room. Lennon felt an odd mingling of shame and regret, of anger and an emotion that went far beyond sympathy.

Elsie soon came with a bowl of coffee, which Carmena had sent for Lennon to give to Slade. There was no need of words to make clear her wish to be rid of the visitors. Lennon found Slade lying as torpid as Farley. But the hot coffee roused him to morose alertness.

Breakfast was served by Carmena, though her excuse for the absence of Elsie failed to satisfy the surly-tempered trader. The younger girl did not appear until Slade dropped the rope ladder and went scrambling down the cliff face. Carmena was already lowering Lennon's outfit to the trader's Navaho followers, who had come at dawn.

With a last word to Elsie to be brave but careful until his return, Lennon gently freed himself from her clinging embrace, put his arm back in the sling, and stepped into the loop of the hoist rope. The girls lowered him to the cliff foot.

The Navahos, who were dressed as Mexicans, already had the prospecting outfit lashed on a pack horse. At Lennon's request, Slade derisively ordered one of them to hold the tenderfoot's pony. Lennon nursed his arm and climbed into his saddle with a show of difficulty. The more awkward and disabled he could make himself appear to his travelling companions the better would be his chances later.

Slade put spurs to his big horse and galloped off down the valley, leaving Lennon to trail behind with the Navahos. The pace did not slacken until the party raced down into the lower canon and around a double turn to the drop in the bed.

On the brink of the cliff was set a crane similar in design to the one at the cliff house but much larger. Hauled back, it was hidden from below by a corner of rock. Swung out, its block and tackle, operated by a one-pony windlass, could hoist or lower a two-pony load in the light basket cage woven of wire and withes. One of the three Apache guards hitched his pony to the windlass.

Slade went down first, with his horse and Lennon and one of the Apaches. Before the horse was led through the cage door out upon the smooth ledges at the foot of the cliff the Apache fastened thick pads of rawhide upon his hoofs. This was also done for the ponies as they swung down, two by two, in the cage.

Lennon had noted the arrangement and working of the crane and hoist with the eye of an engineer. When he turned his attention to the hoof pads, Slade gratuitously explained that the rawhide was needed to keep the horses from slipping on the ledges of the cliff. Lennon took this with a careless nod.

He had already inferred the true reason for the practice. The ledges were neither slippery nor steep. But scratches made by ironshod hoofs on the rocks might have led expert trackers to suspect the hoisting of stolen stock up the cliff.

Down where the bed was of loose stones and gravel a rough trail from the lower canon twisted up a side gorge. Pursuers trailing a bunch of stolen cattle or horses would of course turn up the gorge. A glance or two at the sheer thirty-foot wall of the upstep in the bed of the main canon would convince the most astute of cowboys that not even a puma could go up that way.

At the edge of the trail the Apache took off the hoof-pads and returned to the cage. He was being hoisted up the cliff when Lennon loped after Slade down-trail around a sharp bend in the canon.

A hard ride down the canon for five miles or more, then up a steep break and across cedar-dotted mesas, brought the party out to the Moqui trail shortly after mid-morning. Lennon frowned at the clear-marked trail.

His plans as first made had been to cut and run for the railway the moment he should reach the main trail. But he had discovered that his pony was the slowest of the mounts and that the four Navahos always kept behind him. He could neither drop to the rear nor race ahead of Slade's big American thoroughbred.

Slade turned to the right, away from the railway, and pushed the pace for another hour. The trail led through a rather wide valley. Near the head they came to a well-watered oasis of corn and bean fields. Across from the trail stood an abandoned Moqui pueblo.

The ruins had been sufficiently restored to house Slade's trading establishment and the score or more families of his Navaho cowpunchers. The small storeroom was crowded with bales and boxes, but Lennon noticed that behind the front piles many of the boxes were empty. This legitimate business was more or less of a sham to cover the whiskey running.

Slade's quarters in a half-detached group of stone rooms were somewhat incongruously furnished. A rather handsome but sad-eyed young Indian woman in a dirty blue wrapper covertly "dished up" a noon meal for her master and Lennon on the fly-covered table.

The greasy warmed-over chile con carne, the half-cooked tortillas and the muddy coffee accounted for Slade's praises of Elsie as a cook. The Indian girl slunk and cowered under his curses. Whenever she passed him she cringed as if expectant of a blow. Lennon was doubly relieved when Slade's impatience to be off on the search for the lost lode hurried him out into the clean open air.

The horses had been fed and watered and were waiting near the spring, beside a young peach tree. Slade paused to bellow guttural commands at a Navaho sheepherder who was driving a small flock down the valley.

Lennon hastened ahead toward the spring, eager to seize his opportunity. He had only to secure his rifle, leap on Slade's big thoroughbred, and race away down the back trail. The American horse could easily outrun the Indian ponies. Once beyond rifle range of the pueblo his escape would be certain.

The horses were soon only a few steps away. Lennon nerved himself for the dash. From behind a scraggly bunch of scrub that appeared too thin to screen even a coyote rose all four of Slade's personal retainers. Though they were as stolid and silent as wooden Indians, each had his rifle in hand. Lennon thought he caught a glitter of suspicion in their covert glances.

Bitter as was his disappointment, he was quick to make the best of the situation. A sharp command and jerk of his thumb toward Slade led them to believe he had come for them at the order of their master.

Slade hailed the tenderfoot with bluff cordiality when the mounted party loped up the slope to him.

"Gitting het up, huh? You act like an old-timer on a gold stampede. Never before knew a prospector to go loco over copper."

"You should bear in mind I am an engineer, not a prospector," replied Lennon. "If I am successful over this copper project and it proves to be as large as I have been led to expect, I shall have won a place well up in my profession."

Slade grunted contemptuously and spurred his horse into a gallop. Within a mile he turned off trail to cut across country. Beyond the first mesas, which were a part of the trader-cowman's cattle range, came a jumbled waste of crags and broken ridges.

On the edge of this devil's dooryard of bare rocks and no less dry and sterile ravines Slade gave over the lead to the oldest of his Navahos. A white man could have found his way only by blind chance through the maze of twisted clefts that seamed the unscalable cliffs and crags.

Lennon soon lost all sense of direction. He realized that he could not hope to find his way out of these worst of bad lands without a guide. He must put off his plans to escape until the return to the trail. He began to surmise that Cripple Sim's inability to relocate the lost lode may not have been due altogether to his maiming by Apache arrows.

But this jagged waste that had kept the secret of the mine hidden for a generation would offer an impassable barrier to any railway. Unless an easier route could be found, the entire project was already proved hopeless. Even a vein of solid copper could not be worked at a profit if the metal had to be packed out on burros.

Yet there remained the chance of another route to the lode; and Lennon was not minded to confide his disappointment to Slade. He spurred his pony to keep pace with the others. The sooner the mine was relocated and the party back at the trail, the sooner he could make his attempt to escape. After Elsie had been freed from her dangerous prison in Dead Hole he could take time to search for a feasible route to the mine.

Toward sundown the old Navaho led the party clear of the shattered rock maze and up the side of a small mesa. From the table top Lennon saw the mighty towers of Triple Butte startlingly close ahead. Slade reined in to stare hard-eyed at the engineer.

"There's your butte," he rumbled. "Which side do we head?"

"North," replied Lennon, without a moment's hesitation.

Though he had been lost since leaving the trail, he clearly remembered all the directions given by the old prospector as to the position of the lode in relation to Triple Butte. From the top of the mesa practical railway routes appeared to offer to the east and north of the great butte.

Lennon studied the landscape until he noticed that the Navaho leader had headed south of east instead of north. Certain that his reply to Slade had been misunderstood, he spurred forward to explain that they were veering away from the lost lode.

Slade rode on without a word of acknowledgment. The presence of the Navahos made his contemptuous silence doubly galling. Lennon took it as a foretaste of what was to come and masked his chagrin. For Elsie's sake, he could not afford to quarrel with Slade at this stage of the dangerous game that must be played.



CHAPTER XVI

THE DROP

At sunset the reason for the guide's choice of route disclosed itself. The party came to a group of small springs.

Lennon's throat had been parched for the last two hours. He spurred his jaded pony forward to the mesquite bushes where the Navahos were unsaddling, and slipped off to dip his empty canteen in the largest spring.

The guide muttered gutturally to Slade who was staring up narrow-eyed at the broken shoulder of Triple Butte. He wrenched himself about to scowl at Lennon. The engineer had straightened and was raising the half-filled canteen to drink.

"Hey, you!" bellowed Slade. "Drop that!"

The bullying command was more than Lennon could endure. He waved the canteen ironically at the trader, turned half away, and put the opening to his mouth. Slade whipped out his revolver and fired. The canteen flew out of Lennon's hand and thumped down upon the stone beside the spring.

For a moment Lennon was so astonished that he stood motionless, staring down at the canteen. The water gushed and gurgled through the holes pierced through the middle of the vessel by the heavy bullet.

The first coherent thought of the engineer was that Slade had intended to murder him. He put his hand to the pocket that held Farley's revolver and turned to face Slade. The trader's weapon was already back in its holster. His stained teeth showed in a wide grin.

"May I ask what you mean by shooting at me?" demanded Lennon.

Slade's mirth burst out in a roar of laughter.

"Shooting at you—shooting now?" he jibed when he could speak. "You must figger I'm plumb loco. Any fool ought to know anybody would hold off till you located the mine. Even supposing I was going to plant you, I'd wait, wouldn't I, huh?"

Lennon saw the point even clearer than the trader intended. He was supposed to take the piece of grim humour as a reassurance. The derisive banter was an unintentional notification that he could expect to be murdered immediately after the finding of the lost lode. But until then he must continue to play the dupe.

"I must confess I do not fancy your Western jokes," he said. "You have spoiled a perfectly good canteen."

"Happens you're worth more to me than it; and you was dead set on filling up with that poison water," rejoined Slade.

"Poison?"

The old Navaho was drinking from the second spring, less than two paces away from the first. Lennon pointed at him.

"Sure," said Slade. "It's not the only case I know of finding good water 'longside arsenic, in a copper district."

The actions of the Indians bore out the truth of their master's assertion, or at least proved that they believed the first spring poisonous. The horses were picketed well away from it and from the joint rill of the two springs, which trickled down slope a few yards before seeping away among the stones.

The camp supper of bacon and flapjacks was soon followed by the spreading of blankets on the nearest stretches of sand. The Navahos went off to one side. Slade ordered Lennon to keep near him and carefully encircled their bedding-down place with the coils of a horsehair lariat.

The purpose of the lariat became apparent to Lennon when he was roused by the chill of dawn. He saw one of the Navahos rake out of the embers of the evening's fire a torpid tarantula as big as his hand.

Lennon thought of Elsie's daintiness and soft ways. The girl was utterly out of keeping with this fierce land of desolation and thirst, of thorns and poison springs, of venomous reptiles and insects, of ferocious beasts and men. She did not belong and never would. She was a garden flower.

Carmena was different. Her rich bloom was more like the flowers of the desert growths—the thorn-guarded yucca and needled cactus. There was nothing soft and cuddly about her.

At the realization of where his thoughts were drifting, Lennon wrenched his mental focus back to Elsie. What concern could the fate of Carmena be to him? She belonged with her drunken, criminal father in Dead Hole. All thought and effort must be centred on the rescue of Elsie.

After a hasty meal of flapjacks, bacon, and coffee, the party started out to work north around Triple Butte. The country was now unknown ground even to the old Navaho guide. But he showed great craft in puzzling out the directions given to him.

An inner pocket hid the map that Lennon had brought from the East. He took care that Slade and the Navahos thought he was going by memory. Had he told of the map at any time after reaching Dead Hole he now felt certain that he never would have lived to get this near the mine. Slade would have taken the map and killed him out of hand. So at least Lennon believed.

Once the party rounded upon the northern slopes of Triple Butte, the points described on the map became easily recognizable. All that remained to do was to ride around a spur ridge and slant into the valley that headed up between the western and central towers of the great butte. Here the searchers came upon trees and grass and running water. Farther up stood a small cabin, near a spring that had been blasted out and rimmed with rock to form a convenient basin.

Lennon spurred forward beside Slade.

"Promising. What?" he remarked.

"Not what, but where?" growled the trader. "Hold on—that looks like an old burro trail."

"Yes. Up first ravine toward left edge of middle butte, half a mile to lode," Lennon quoted the last directions that he had read on the map.

Slade signed for the Navahos to wait at the spring. A brutal jab of the spurs sent his horse bounding off at top speed. Lennon's pony was left behind until the leader wheeled into the first ravine and came up against a steep slide of loose rock. To force even the nimblest of mounts to attempt such an ascent would have meant risking a bad fall.

As Lennon loped his pony into the ravine the trader swore blasphemously and swung out of his saddle to scramble up the slide. Great as was his strength, it was offset by the fact that his weight tended to bring the loose stones sliding down at every step. Lennon was not only lighter and more agile but had the advantage of better wind.

He was but a few steps below when Slade reached the head of the slide. Close above them the ascent was barred by high ledges that dropped off from the upper part of the ravine. Slade stared savagely at the dull reddish-brown face of the ledges. The metallic surface plainly showed the use of pick and dynamite. He uttered a furious oath as he turned upon Lennon.

"You lying skunk!" he bellowed. "This ain't no gold mine!"

All the way up the slide Lennon had perceived the copper in the float rock. He was prepared for the trader's outburst. Farley's revolver lay ready in his grasp, behind the sling on his right arm.

"Have you—what do you call it?—gone loco?" he asked. "I told you distinctly my search was for a copper mine. The gold lode was your own fancy. You will now apologize for that term you used."

Had one of his Navahos made the demand, Slade could not have been more amazed. He gaped, dumbfounded. Then his rage burst out again with redoubled fury. But the sight of Lennon's revolver muzzle put an abrupt end to his violent curses.

"Good enough," said Lennon. "Now my apology, if you please."

The cool politeness of the request emphasized its deadly earnestness. Lennon was keen for an excuse to shoot the big scoundrel. The look in his eye was unmistakable.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse